Yoshino's Country Villa, Mansion Grounds
9:30 AM October 31, 2009
"Should we really be spying on them like this?" Uchida asked.
"Hush!" Yoshino ordered, waving her hand for silence.
The two first-year middle schoolers were perched on the edge a minor ridge near the main building, lying belly-down and relying on the topology to hide their presence. Yoshino was using a powerful pair of binoculars to peer into the distance, at her mother and Arisawa, taking a walk down one of the trails.
Uchida made an annoyed sound. She couldn't believe she had been woken up this early just so they could fulfill Yoshino's urges to stalk. And the grass they were lying in was itchy.
"I'm serious," she said. "It seems a little weird."
"Stop complaining," Yoshino said. "It's not like it matters."
Uchida opened her mouth to say more, but desisted, hearing approaching footsteps.
"Yoshino—" she began, shaking the girl's shoulder, but Yoshino was already sitting up and turning around, hiding the binoculars behind her back. It was still too late though—whoever it was must have certainly already spotted them.
Fortunately, the two new arrivals didn't care a whit what they had been doing.
"Yoshino—" Chiaki began shakily, and Yoshino could see immediately from her demeanor, clenched fists, and tone of voice that something was wrong. Even the girl's hair looked unkempt!
As it was, Haruka cut the girl off by grabbing her shoulder.
"Yoshino," she said. "We have a bit of a situation. Do you mind if we go inside?"
North Sitting Room
"So Fujioka is missing?" Yoshino asked, sipping her tea contemplatively as the four of them reclined in chairs around a small glass table.
"Yes!" Chiaki asserted, leaning forward. "I've looked for him everywhere, and I can't find him. And it's not like it even makes sense for him to be anywhere else, but I looked anyway."
Even though the girl in front of her was already thirteen, she looked dangerously close to crying over the stuffed bear.
"I don't have to explain how important is, as silly as it seems," Haruka says.
"No, of course not," Yoshino said.
Besides how important they all knew the stuffed bear was, Chiaki wasn't the type to lose things, especially not of importance.
"Have you searched Kana's room?" Uchida asked, mere seconds before Yoshino was about to ask the same thing.
"Yeah, I know, obvious, right?" Chiaki said, sounding angry at the world. "That's what Haruka said too, but it can't be there. I know it can't."
"How do you know that?" Yoshino asked.
"I was with her the whole time, and then when I got back it was gone!" Chiaki said, seriously looking like she was about to cry. "T—the bag was empty and I looked all around and—"
Yoshino held out her hand.
"Start from the beginning," she said. "And please calm down. I can't understand you."
Sniffling, the girl nodded.
"The last time I saw it," Chiaki said, "was just after I finished preparing myself in the morning."It was in my bag for toothpaste and stuff, next to my backpack, on the counter with everyone else's, where you told us to put it. Kana was with me. I zipped up the bag and left it there, and we went to breakfast. I was with her the whole rest of the time. Then, when we got back to our rooms, I checked my bag in my room and it wasn't there."
Yoshino had told them to go ahead and leave their stuff on the counter, and that a maid would come by to carry it all back later. The past couple of days, they had felt obliged to take it back themselves, but Yoshino had kicked up a rather large fuss about it the night before, at dinner. She rather regretted that now.
"You sure it's the right bag?" Yoshino asked, knowing the answer already.
"Yes!" Chiaki said. "It's obvious it's my bag! It has all my stuff and everything."
And of course, yours is the only one with the big picture of a cooking knife on the side, and 'Minami Chiaki' lovingly embroidered into the side.
"Obviously, there's no reason anyone would take it," Haruka said, looking at Yoshino. "But Fujioka was zipped up in the bag, and I don't know why anyone else would open it. Could it be some kind of mistake?"
"I stand by my servants," Yoshino said. "They would never open one of your bags. Still, I have no better explanation, and it doesn't hurt to ask…"
She pulled out her cell phone and pushed a button.
"I agree," Yoshino's mother said, leaning on Yoshino's chair. "None of them would ever touch your bags.
"It is a matter of honor," Arisawa added, standing stiffly.
"Even so, I can call the maid…" the woman mused.
"I swear I never opened a single one of those bags," the maid said, bowing and looking a little fearful at the attention, especially Chiaki's stark glare.
"It's alright, Eri-san," Yoshino said. "I'm not accusing you of anything. If you say you didn't, you didn't. But did you notice anything unusual? Something on the ground?"
"I wish I could say yes and explain everything," the woman said, glancing around, "but honestly I didn't. Everything was just as it should be."
"And you never left them unattended?" Yoshino asked.
"Well, of course I carried them over in multiple trips, since there were so many," the woman said. "I saw no reason to be worried about anything unusual. So yes, they were unattended multiple times."
"Not that it matters, since they were also unattended the entire time before you got there," Yoshino commented.
Yoshino lapsed into silence.
"You may go," Yoshino's mother said to the servant. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
"I apologize if I'm being too bold," Eri said, glancing at Yoshino. "But I actually have embroidery as a hobby. If no one here minds, I'd love to spend some time with Minami-san and help her learn, since I think she does it as well."
Haruka smiled politely and said she'd love to, and if she was offended that someone was offering to teach her something she was a master at, she hid it well.
"Maybe later, though," she said. "I want to spend some time with Chiaki right now."
Chiaki happened to be leaning back in her chair, looking strangely lifeless.
"No problem," the maid said, bowing and taking her leave.
"Well, this is pretty weird," Uchida commented. "What could have happened to it?"
"Someone could have taken it or done something to it at any point after Chiaki left, either on the counter or in her room," Yoshino said. "Though I can't possibly imagine why anyone would."
"It's alright," Haruka said. "I'm sure it will turn up eventually."
Chiaki shot her a betrayed look.
"I'll look for it," Yoshino said. "Why don't you take Chiaki for a nice walk through the grounds? It might help her take her mind off of it."
"I think I'll do that."
"I can canvass the servants to see if anyone saw it," Yoshino's mother suggested. "That might help. And I can have some go looking for it."
Yoshino nodded thoughtfully.
"Sorry, Haruka, before you leave, can I ask you if you saw anything that might be useful?"
Haruka shook her head, hair swirling slightly.
"Sorry, I spent the whole morning in the kitchen with your chef. He's pretty good, just like
Kana said. Well, we've all tasted his food, so I don't know what my doubt was."
"Well, this is interesting," Yoshino said. "Fujioka missing, and the prime suspect is cleared from suspicion."
"Might it really have been one of the servants, then?" Uchida asked, looking at Yoshino. "I know you don't want to accuse them of anything, but it's possible one of them dug through the bags and messed up putting things back."
"If one of my servants is digging through my guests' bags," Yoshino said, "then I have much bigger problems than Chiaki's unhappiness. And that'd be stupid. There are far more valuable things to steal just lying around this building."
"So I'll leave my servants out of this for now," Yoshino said. "I can address it later if we really can't find it. For now, let's ask around a little."
"What do you mean?" Uchida asked, pigtails shifting as she tilted her head.
"Well, if it's not any of the servants, it might be one of the guests," Yoshino said. "So we can go around interviewing people and gathering clues."
"It's not really mystery material," Uchida commented.
"It might be fun anyway! Like in the stories!"
"I guess," Uchida said, shrugging. "But it's really a lot more dynamic when someone has been stabbed or something. And no one has a secretive past or anything like that."
"Well, we can't kill someone just to keep you entertained," Yoshino said.
Main Dining Area
Look, Chiaki told you I was with her the whole time, right?" Kana asked, biting off part of a bun she had pilfered from the kitchen. She looked annoyed.
"Yes, but we were still wondering if you might have seen or noticed anything unusual as you two were leaving the bedroom area."
Kana appeared to think.
"No, I didn't see anything," she said, flicking one of her pigtails with her hand. "Any other question?"
"Actually," Yoshino said. "Do you guys usually spend mornings together? I don't recall you two being so close."
"Is there something wrong with wanting to play with my sister?" Kana said. "We don't really hate each other that much, you know."
"No, nothing," Yoshino said. "Just curious."
"Humph," Kana said, heading out the doorway.
"Well, she wasn't very cooperative," Uchida said as they pulled open the door.
"She's probably just annoyed everyone always accuses her first," Yoshino said.
"That's her own fault, obviously," Uchida said.
Yoshino didn't contest that.
"And what can I do for you, Yoshino-san?" the pudgy chef asked, stepping up and rubbing his hands, voice accented. He had made a special trip, along with many of the other servants, to join her here.
The kitchen assistants had turned to look as well.
"I'm sorry to bother you," Yoshino said. "But was Minami Haruka-san here this morning?"
"Ah, yes," the man said, turning to stir a pot of something. "She was here to watch me make breakfast, then came back afterward to see a little of the lunch preparation. She would have stayed, only her little sister showed up complaining about losing something. We had quite the time talking; she must be an excellent chef."
"I see," Yoshino said, thinking that, yes, Haruka had indeed stepped out of the kitchen for breakfast and later stepped back in, a fact she hadn't put much importance on at the time.
"You can't seriously be suspecting Haruka!" Uchida said incredulously.
"Just due diligence," she said.
"Is something going on?" the chef asked.
"You'll hear about it later," Yoshino demurred, motioning Uchida to leave.
North Rear Entrance (Hallway)
"Oh, wow, so Fujioka's missing, huh?"
The crop-haired girl stood back up, holding a pair of cleats in her hand. She shook her head slightly, to untangle the parts where her hair had stuck together in the front. She would need to cut it again soon.
"I wonder how she's taking it," Touma added. "She treasures that thing."
"Not too bad," Yoshino said, lying a little.
Touma looked around, a little confused about what to do with the shoes, until a maid appeared out of nowhere and grabbed it from her hands.
"Hmm," Touma mused. "Perhaps I should go talk to her."
"Well, first, do you mind if we ask you a few questions?"
Touma gave her a curious look.
"Okay, I guess. What do you want?"
"Just to be sure, you didn't take it because you were trying to surprise Chiaki or something, right? You weren't trying to attach a hat or something when the maid showed up at the wrong time? We're not overreacting to some sort of surprise gift?"
"What?" Touma asked. "No! Of course not. What are you talking about? A hat?"
"Nevermind," Yoshino said. "Just checking."
She cleared her throat dramatically, and Uchida obligingly handed her an open notebook and pen. It was empty, but Yoshino wanted it for the flair.
"Also, I heard you and Fujioka—the uh, human—had a bit of an incident two days ago?" she said.
"Why would you bring that up?" she asked. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I hear you're a little desperate to get back in his good graces?" Yoshino continued, relentless.
"How do you even know any of this?" Touma asked, looking at her, eyes accusing.
"I have my ways," Yoshino said, making sure to look mysterious saying it.
"No seriously, how do you know any of this?" Uchida asked.
"Hush," she said. "Anyway, so you're sure Fujioka didn't say anything bad about Chiaki's attachment to the bear? He didn't say anything about Kana wanting him to do something?"
"No!" Touma said, looking both angry and confused. "What the heck kind of questions are you asking?"
"Only two more," Yoshino said. "Where were you this morning after breakfast?"
She worded the question like that because she knew that Chiaki and Kana had been among the last two people up that morning, before only the true laggard, Uchida. By then, everyone else had already eaten breakfast and gone on to their activities. Dinner was the only meal Yoshino had insisted they eat together.
"I was playing soccer with Fujioka," Touma said. "For your information."
"Right," Yoshino said, writing the answer down even though she doubted she would ever look at it.
"I really hope this next question is normal," Touma said.
"Oh, it is," Yoshino said. "Do you know where Mako-chan is?"
"Oh," Touma said, actually looking surprised. "In her room, I think. But I would knock if I were you. Don't ask why."
Touma's Temporary Room
"Oh, so that's where you are, Mako-chan," Yoshino said.
Mako-chan turned to look, surprised.
She was chatting with one of the room-cleaning maids. She must have been following her around, explaining why she wasn't in her room.
That was one explanation.
"Yoshino," Mako-chan acknowledged, looking nervous. "What is it?"
"Excuse me," Yoshino said to the maid. "I'm going to drag her away from you."
"That's okay," the maid said. "Anyway, the Boss told me to look, but I haven't seen any stuffed animals yet."
"Keep up the good work," Yoshino said.
She grabbed the hand of the increasingly bothered looking Mako-chan, dragging her out of the room. Uchida grimaced for some reason.
Standing in the hallway, Mako-chan looked nervous and guilty, and even might have been shaking slightly. Then again, Mako-chan always looked nervous and guilty in Yoshino's presence, so that probably didn't mean much.
"Mako-chan," Yoshino said pleasantly, cracking open her notebook.
"What were you doing this morning after breakfast?"
"I—I—I was in the bathroom, changing, because Kana said—"
"That seems likely," Yoshino commented, focusing on her writing. "An alibi with nothing to back it up. What were you doing here then? You sure you didn't go outside and dig through Chiaki's bags?"
""Chiaki's bags? What? I—why—no—I would never do something like that. What are you—"
"Answer the question!"
"I—I came back to my room to leave—drop off my clothes, and I bumped into the maid cleaning my room, so I started talking with her, and—"
The girl had started to shake obviously, sweating profusely, face red. Yoshino was sure she was onto something.
"You're looking awfully guilty," she said, leaning forward and laying on the pressure. "What—"
"That's enough," Uchida said, voice stern, hand grasping Yoshino's shoulder.
"What?" Yoshino asked, confused. "What's enough?"
"Look," Uchida said, leaning forward and whispering in Yoshino's ear. "I can vouch for her. I was with her this morning. She had stomach cramps, so she locked herself in the bathroom. I saw her do it. I doubt she had the energy to be doing anything. Can't you tell when it's that time of month?"
"Time of—" Yoshino started to repeat absently.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, bowing in Mako-chan's direction. "I didn't realize you were afflicted."
"A-afflicted?" the girl asked. "With—with wh—"
Uchida lurched forward and grabbed the girl by the shoulders, surprising her into silence.
"Look, Mako-chan is a very shy girl," Uchida said. "And obviously she doesn't want to talk about it. Mako-chan, Fujioka is missing. You didn't have anything to do with that, right?"
"Fujioka is missing? What? No, I had nothing to do with that! I didn't even know!"
Yoshino nodded. That was right. Mako-chan didn't have any logical motives anyway. There were probably much better candidates.
"I'm sorry for all of this," she said. "You didn't hear any weird sounds from your bedroom, did you?"
"No...no I didn't."
"Alright," Yoshino said, snapping her notebook shut. "I think we're done here."
She turned to leave, motioning for Uchida. Behind her, she heard Mako-chan let out a breath.
"Well this is disappointing," Yoshino said, as they strode down the hallway. "Those three were the most likely culprits."
"It doesn't have to be the most likely people," Uchida said. "Honestly, I don't even know why you were suspecting Mako-chan, but we still have time for one more person before lunch."
"That's true," Yoshino said.
She thought briefly, then cleared her throat.
"Uh, well," she said awkwardly, eyes sidecast. "I was reminded. Have there been any signs for you recently that, uh—"
"Yes," Uchida said, not in a friendly tone.
"Well, uh, do you mind discussing—"
"Oh, hi, Fujioka!" Uchida interrupted loudly.
Yoshino immediately dropped the topic and looked forward again.
"Oh, hi," the tall boy said, short hair dripping with sweat. "Good to see you two."
He wiped his head with a towel he had been carrying.
"So you've been playing soccer with Touma since breakfast, right?" Yoshino asked.
"Yeah, that's right," Fujioka said. "It was Kana's idea, though. I have to say, it was a pretty good idea on her part. You have a lot of space on this manor."
"I saw Touma a while earlier," Yoshino said, pulling the notebook out again. "What were you doing just now?"
Fujioka tilted his head at the strange questioning.
"Well, actually, I was talking with Kana. She seems a little annoyed about something, and she took it out on me, as always."
The boy sighed, then nodded to himself and made a determined face.
Yoshino felt a slight pang of sympathy. Though actually, both Kana and Fujioka had seemed off the past couple of days. Maybe that was a clue.
"Has Kana said anything about Chiaki's stuffed bear recently?" Yoshino asked.
"Fujioka?" Fujioka asked. "No. Not recently."
"And what do you think about Chiaki liking it so much?"
Fujioka rubbed his head, looking even more confused at the direction this conversation was taking.
"Uh, well, she's a bit old to be playing around with so much," he said. "But there's nothing too wrong with it. Besides, it was my gift, so I can even feel a little proud."
"Yeah. It was for Christmas."
Yoshino felt a pet theory get utterly deflated. She closed the notebook. She hadn't even written anything this time. Maybe it wasn't worth it.
"Anyway," Fujioka said, "if you don't mind. I'll be taking a shower."
"Oh!" Mako-chan's voice rang out behind them. "So you found him!"
Fujioka gave the girl a confused look.
"Fujioka the bear, Mako-chan," Uchida sighed. "Chiaki's bear."
"Oh," Mako-chan said.
Then, a moment later:
"I still had nothing to do with it."
"Let's just go get lunch," Yoshino said, rubbing her forehead.
Hallway outside Main Dining Area
"Riko! Keiko!" Uchida yelled.
The two girls in question turned to face them, waiting for them to catch up.
"Oh, you two," Riko said, flicking her hair. "Good to see you. What's up?"
"This must be about the stuffed bear business," Keiko said.
She faced Yoshino.
"I was sorry to hear about that. I hope you find it soon."
"On that note," Yoshino said. "Has Kana done anything particularly aggravating to either of you recently?"
It's far-fetched, Yoshino has said to Uchida earlier, but it's possible one of them was trying to get Kana into trouble, and had the poor luck of Kana having a perfect alibi.
Uchida had shaken her head.
Her friends don't strike me as the type to do something as petty and weird as that just because they're mad, she had said. However, I guess Riko-chan might be getting desperate. You know what I'm saying.
Hmm. That could make sense.
"Not recently, no," Keiko said, pushing up her glasses. "Though she does go overboard sometimes. I'm not sure where you're going with this."
"Not to me," Riko said simply.
Yoshino nodded, then turned aside, elaborately giving Uchida the stage.
"Do you know if Fujioka has gotten anywhere with Kana recently, Riko-chan?" Uchida asked.
Keiko immediately twisted her head to look at Riko, who was masking a pained gesture, eye twitching, as if something inside her had snapped.
"Why—why would you ask that?" she asked, obviously trying to keep her expression serene. "Has something happened?"
"No, nothing I heard about," Uchida said, waving her hands. "We were just curious, since, uh Fujioka and Kana have been acting weird re—"
She stopped mid-sentence, watching Riko's apoplectic reaction.
Well, this was a mistake, Yoshino thought. Still, I don't think this reaction is consistent with her having planned something devious. She would be acting calm and aloof. Something like that.
"—that is to say, we were worried they might have gotten in a fight!" Uchida finished, salvaging the conversation with remarkable smoothness. "Yeah, they looked angry at each other."
It was an outright lie, but Riko seemed to buy it. Instantly, her face flooded with relief.
"Oh, is that all?" she said, wiping her forehead with a handkerchief. "No, no I didn't know of anything. But if that's really so, maybe I should go talk to Fujioka and smooth things over."
Take the opportunity to win him over, more like.
Riko started to move off.
Yoshino shifted over and began rather obviously elbowing Keiko. Catching the girl's eye, she made a gesture with her head at Riko. Keiko caught the message.
"I'm not sure that's a great idea, Riko," Keiko said. "If you show up, he'll probably be in a bad mood, and you'll just remind him of Kana. Best to wait and see what happens. Maybe talk to him later."
Riko stopped mid-step.
"Oh, that's—that's right. You're right, Keiko. I don't know what I was thinking."
Again, she wiped her forehead with a handkerchief.
Good thing she's so timid, Yoshino thought.
"Anyway, Keiko," Yoshino said. "I was wondering if you two might have seen anything in connection with Chiaki's bear. Where were you this morning?"
"Oh, we were out, uh—"
Looking chagrined, Keiko glanced over at Riko, who had lapsed into fantasy, hugging herself, and at Uchida, who was trying to snap her out of it.
"Well, we were over by the soccer field, watching Fujioka and Touma-kun play," Keiko said. "Riko heard about it from Kana, and I couldn't stop her. I'm sure you understood."
"Yeah, I do."
Exterior Path, near large Gazebo
"Natsuki-san?" Uchida asked incredulously. "Now you're just pushing it."
"Look, there's only three people left," Yoshino said. "I have to try. Stay here, okay?"
Uchida looked confused as to why she was being left behind, but Yoshino didn't want her here for this one.
They found Natsuki seated under the gazebo, watching Touma and Chiaki argue with each other from a distance. He wore an unreadable expression.
"Good afternoon, Minami-san," Yoshino said politely, sitting down on the chair across from him.
Blinking as if being woken from deep thought, he turned to look at her.
"Good afternoon," Natsuki said. "Uh, Yoshino-san. And thanks again for uh, for having us."
Yoshino could tell he was stretching his limits to try to be polite to his host. He wasn't the kind of person to which social graces came naturally.
"No problem," she said, not really caring.
He watched her.
"They're pretty close, aren't they?" Yoshino said, gesturing with her head.
Natsuki's eyes widened slightly, almost imperceptibly, and she knew she was on to something.
"Yes," he said, voice subtly less flat.
"It must be nice to have a friend like that," Yoshino said, shifting positions to look at the girls in question. "I'm sure you agree."
She was careful to avoid saying that could be construed as implying that any of Natsuki's beliefs were actually true.
"I guess," Natsuki said, expression guarded. "But it is a bit unusual."
"Perhaps," Yoshino said, keeping her expression blank. "But it would be strange to be overly concerned just because of a little unusualness."
"Are you trying to say something?" Natsuki asked, straight to the point as always.
Yoshino sighed. Well, she didn't really think Natsuki was one for subtle conversations.
She turned to face him.
"I'm just saying that, hypothetically, someone who is overly concerned might do some rash things, some things that aren't really a good idea, such as taking someone's prized possession and placing it in someone else's room."
Natsuki blinked at her in confusion, then looked downward, processing the comment.
"Are you trying to tell me that Haruka took something from Touma?" he asked, hand on chin. "That's definitely a step too far. But wait, does that mean she thinks the same thing? It has to!"
He looked at her, and his eyes widened still further.
"And does that mean you also—"
Okay, this was starting to get off-track.
"No, nothing like that," Yoshino interrupted, waving her hands. "On a different topic, I take it you spent the whole morning watching Touma?"
Natsuki blinked at the rapid change in subject.
"Yes, yes I did," Natsuki said, starting to look a little frustrated. "I was with, uh, those two friends of Kana-san's. Look, if you want to tell me something, just say—"
"No, I don't want to tell you anything!" Yoshino insisted. "Just don't worry too much about Touma, okay?"
"I—" Natsuki began.
"Anyway, it was nice to meet Touma's brother!" Yoshino said cheerily, and departed before he had any chance to argue.
"So nothing, huh?" Uchida asked when Yoshino met her again.
"Nothing," Yoshino said resignedly. "And now there's only two people left."
She gestured over at a row of trees, where the two people in question were sitting on a bench. They walked over.
"Oh, Yoshino-san, Uchida-san," the twenty-something-year-old Takeru greeted, turning to face her.
"Yoshino! Uchida!" Kumada-sensei said. "What a pleasure!"
Yoshino and Uchida returned the greetings amiably, remaining standing.
"We were wondering," Yoshino began. "Have you two had anything to worry about recently with regards to Chiaki?"
Their former school nurse and the Minami sisters' cousin gave each other a look.
"No, I don't think so," Takeru said.
"Her health was fine, the last time I checked," Kumada said. "Although she is growing a little slowly. Why, is something wrong?"
"No, nothing," Yoshino said. "So no concerns about, perhaps, keeping her stuffed bear a few years too long?"
"What stuffed bear?" Kumada asked.
"It's a toy she plays with," Takeru explained. "You wouldn't have seen it."
He scratched the back of his head.
"Well, I suppose," Takeru said. "But I don't think much of it. It's embarrassing, but frankly, I rely on Haruka. I'm sure she knows what she's doing. Certainly more than I do."
"Fair enough," Yoshino agreed, feeling her last, absurdly unlikely theory, fall apart. "And what were the two of you doing after breakfast?"
Yoshino hadn't meant to phrase an embarrassing question, but the two of them immediately gave each other a look, then looked at Yoshino sharply.
"Well honestly, Yoshino," Kumada said. "That's a little private. What's with all these weird questions, anyway?"
Yoshino didn't have to lie, not really, but figured it would be a good practice to keep the "suspects" in the dark to see if they accidentally revealed something.
"Someone dropped a rather confidential item," Yoshino said, lying through her teeth. "And a servant picked it up. We can't figure out whose it is. We don't want to embarrass anyone by talking about what it is, so I'm checking to see who was in the right area."
That certainly set them off. Kumada and Takeru gave each other a panicked look, and they started whispering to each.
Well, that's…not what I expected, Yoshino though.
"We were near your lily ponds," Takeru said. "At Kana's suggestion. They're excellent, by the way. But is that…"
"No, it wasn't found there," Yoshino said, wondering just what was going on.
They looked immensely relieved.
Yoshino turned to leave, but Uchida surprised her by tugging on her sleeve.
"Actually, do you mind if I stay here and talk with Kumada-sensei for a while?" Uchida asked.
"Uh, no," Yoshino said, confused. "Go ahead."
"Privately," Uchida said.
"No problem. I guess I'll be standing over there then."
She walked over to a different grove of trees and leaned on one, thinking.
She was out of candidates. Everyone who could possibly have taken the bear was out of the area at the time, with at least one other person to back their alibi.
Except Mako-chan. Even though Uchida had provided a reasonable story to cover her, she was the only reasonable candidate. She had been in the area, and the whole thing with the stomach cramping could have just been an elaborate story.
But why hang around in the area afterward, then? And why take the trouble to concoct a story that made sure both Touma and Uchida would know you were in the area of the crime?
And the girl had completely the wrong personality for this and, despite all the haranguing that Yoshino had done, Yoshino couldn't actually think of a motive.
She chewed on the problem, standing there. But it seemed insoluble. The only options left were to accuse Mako-chan, accuse her servants, or call Chiaki a liar. None of those seemed palatable.
"Bothered?" Uchida asked, walking up next to her.
"Yes," Yoshino said. "We have accomplished nothing with all this questioning."
"You can't win them all. Look, maybe a servant has found it by now. Maybe something weird just happened."
"Nobody except Mako-chan was in the area," Yoshino said, vocalizing her thoughts. "And I don't think it's her. Technically, I should go ask Riko and Keiko if Natsuki was there with them, but I have no doubt he was. So now what? Chiaki is lying? My servants are attempted thieves?"
"Maybe people were working together," Uchida said. "I mean, maybe, for example, Kumada and Takeru. They're each other's alibis, after all."
"They're really good actors, then," Yoshino said. "Does it really seem possible?"
Uchida shook her head no.
"Let's review one more time," Yoshino said. "Haruka was with the cook. Fujioka and Touma played a game of soccer outside, and of course Natsuki stalked Touma out there. Riko and Keiko went because Riko has a crush on Fujioka. Takeru…."
"What?" Uchida asked. "Takeru what?"
"Something is off," Yoshino said. "I can't quite place it."
"What are you thinking?" Uchida asked.
Yoshino waved her off, and Uchida grunted in annoyance.
"Oh, Yoshino," said a voice from behind them.
They turned, and saw Haruka walking up.
"Did you manage to find it?" Haruka asked.
Yoshino shook her head sadly.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"It's okay," Haruka said munificently, smiling. "I'm sure it'll turn up. Chiaki will be disappointed, though."
Yoshino shook her head to show her unhappiness, and went back to thinking about the problem. Yes, that was suspiciously unlikely, but what was the key? And how did the bear get moved? She was missing—
"How did the embroidery thing go?" Uchida asked.
"Not bad," Haruka said. "But, confidentially, Yoshino, your servant is a little too proud of her own skills. She thought I was terrible. I have no idea how she could think that, when she can't even stitch as well as I did on those bags!"
"Ah!" Yoshino said, eyes blinking rapidly.
"Is something wrong?" Haruka asked.
"No," Yoshino said decisively, looking her in the eye. "Nothing is wrong. I need to talk to Chiaki."
They followed her as she stamped off in Chiaki's direction, looking at each other.
"Chiaki," Yoshino said, ignoring the fact that she and Touma were wrestling each other on the grass. They froze in place.
"What is it?" Chiaki asked, perhaps a little bothered by Touma's palm pressing into her face.
"Where did you get that bag you put Fujioka in? Did you buy it?"
Chiaki thought for a moment, looking down.
"It was a gift," she said. "From Kana."
"Haruka," she said. "Get Kana and meet me in the entertainment area at two twenty. I'm going to go check a few things."
"In the end," Yoshino said. "It wasn't that long a deductive chain. It just required a flash of insight."
They were seated in a circle on plush chairs around a giant TV, Yoshino the only one standing. Present were Uchida, Haruka, Chiaki, Kana—who looked annoyed to be there—, and Eri, the maid.
"The essential point was to realize that everyone had an alibi," Yoshino said "And a fairly solid one at that, except Mako-chan."
"I'll get back to Mako-chan later, but that was really too big a coincidence. In the normal course of things, you'd expect at least some people to have gone back to their bedrooms after breakfast, or to have at least wandered about the area. Instead, every last person was somewhere else."
"Except Mako-chan," Kana pointed out.
"Yes," Yoshino said. "Except Mako-chan, who was in the bathroom with stomach cramps after breakfast, and only headed back to her bedroom a while later, by which time you and Chiaki were already eating breakfast. I know that because Mako-chan said the maid was already cleaning her room by then, and I looked up the cleaning schedule."
"What does that have to do with anything?" Kana asked. "It doesn't absolve her."
"No it doesn't," she said. "But it seems a little ridiculous to be accusing Mako-chan. It doesn't make any sense, motive-wise. And there is a much better explanation.
Yoshino smiled a terrible smile.
"So, neglecting my servants, everyone except Mako-chan was out of the area after your breakfast," Yoshino said. "And before that, everyone including Mako-chan was out of the area, which is even more suspicious."
She thought she saw Kana shift nervously, just a little.
Yoshino put her hand on her chin, posing seriously. She was enjoying this.
"Isn't it curious, then, how Haruka was watching the cook, because you suggested it?" Yoshino said. "And how Fujioka and Touma were playing soccer, because you suggested it? And Riko and Keiko were watching them, because you mentioned it to Riko? And Takeru and Kumada were touring the lily ponds, because you suggested it was a good idea? Of course, Natsuki didn't need any prodding, not with Touma already out there, as I'm sure you realized. Even Mako-chan mentioned you being involved somehow."
Everyone else present turned to look at Kana, who maintained an impressively unflustered demeanor.
"Your theory is great, but it's flawed," Kana said flippantly. "What does it matter if everyone was gone before we ate breakfast? Chiaki saw her bear in the bag just before we left, and then I was with her the whole rest of the time. It can't be me. I don't want to accuse Mako-chan, but even that is more reasonable."
Kana was acting casual, but it seemed to Yoshino that Kana was speaking a lot more carefully than she usually did. That, too, was a sign.
"Really?" Yoshino asked, eyes flashing. "Well, I'll be honest. I could have solved this hours earlier had I just thought to ask a simple question. But I didn't think to, because it seemed too obvious a point to be quibbled with."
She gestured with her hand.
"Eri-san," she said. "Could you describe the bag you took to Kana's room this morning?"
The maid looked at her, surprised at being addressed, then thought for a moment.
"Well, to be honest," the woman said. "I didn't look too carefully, but I think it was the one with a cooking knife decal on the front. I remember thinking it was cute—"
"You mixed up the bags?" Chiaki said accusingly. "That was it the whole time?"
"Calm down, Chiaki," Yoshino said. "Let her finish. Please, Eri-san, describe the embroidery on Kana's bag, if you will."
Kana started to sweat—or maybe that was just Yoshino's imagination.
The maid looked embarrassed and hesitant.
"You can be honest," Yoshino said, clasping her hands. "Trust me. By the end of this, it won't insult Haruka at all."
"Well, to be frank," Eri said, glancing warily at Haruka. "It was terrible. I could barely make out the symbols. But I'm always glad to see someone new picking up the hobby, so I wanted to give Haruka-san a little help."
"Terrible?" she repeated.
"In fact, Haruka is excellent at what she does," Yoshino said. "But I don't blame you for thinking otherwise. The bag did say 'Minami Kana' though?"
"Yes, definitely," the maid said.
Yoshino could see the look on everyone's faces as the response registered. Initially confused, one by one, including Chiaki, their faces resolved into narrow, suspicious looks, which they directed straight at Kana.
"That's very interesting," Yoshino said, for the maid's benefit. "Given that the only bag with a knife on the side should be embroidered 'Minami Chiaki'. Well, the only bag that we know about."
Kana looked trapped now, and began glancing at the door as if she wanted to leave, but Haruka's glare kept the girl pinned down.
"Chiaki," Yoshino addressed. "Let's be honest. You're not the most careful of girls. If you saw a bag that looked exactly like your own, in the exact spot you left it, would you pause to check the name on the backside before zipping it up? Or look too carefully at the contents?"
"No," Chiaki spat, giving Kana a harsh look. "And I don't think anyone being 'careful' would have, either."
"But that still doesn't make sense," Haruka said. "When would Kana ever get the time to tear off my embroidery and add her own? Not that I don't believe you. I spent hours on that bag! Someone's not getting dessert for a while."
Kana shrank from Haruka's dark look.
Yoshino shook her head.
"She didn't have to. This whole thing becomes easy if there are two bags. And the original bag was a gift from Kana, wasn't it?"
Yoshino smiled broadly, reveling in the moment.
"So this morning, as Chiaki is brushing her teeth, Kana casually strolls by the bags and switches Chiaki's bag with her facsimile, carefully stocked with just enough of Kana's own toiletries so as to look passable. She switches Fujioka into the fake bag, and walks Chiaki's own bag to Chiaki's room herself, knowing that Chiaki won't be coming back, not after the fuss I made about it."
"When Chiaki is done, she walks out, sees Fujioka in what she thinks is her bag, drops her toothbrush and such off, and zips it up. Afterward, when Eri-san drops by, she does Kana's work for her, taking the bag with Fujioka into Kana's room. She sees Chiaki's backpack with her hair brushes and assumes that's Chiaki's only bag, and takes it back too. After all, how would she know? Today was the first day you didn't take it back yourselves."
"That's right!" Chiaki said, looking at Kana. "On the way back, you rushed ahead of me to get to your room!"
"And Kana knew that Chiaki would be too distraught to notice a missing toothbrush and toothpaste, which she could easily sneak back into the room in the confusion."
"By the time the maid grabs the bags, there is no longer any need for everyone to be out of the area, but it wouldn't make sense for Kana to just go around recalling everyone, so the clue was still there, except that Mako-chan came back after breakfast, which, as you see, no longer has any relevance."
"That would take so much planning, though!" Uchida said, playing devil's advocate. "She had to have gotten the gift solely with something like this in mind, then spent the time to embroider it herself, then planned out how to trick everyone out of the area. That might have been months ago! How could she even foresee the names would become important?"
"Yeah, that's right! It's ridiculous." Kana said, finally breaking her silence. She didn't look confident anymore, however; in fact, she looked more nervous than Yoshino had ever seen her.
"Frankly, I'm not sure. This trip was only planned for a short while. However, I did tell you all that it would be best to label your bags, even if I personally suggested paper tags. Kana probably remembered where she bought the original, and went shopping. Then, she probably watched Haruka while Haruka was doing the embroidery. No doubt, she would have preferred Haruka simply use tags."
"She played us all quite well," Yoshino said. "Exploiting Touma and Fujioka's desire to reconcile to get them out of the way. Exploiting Riko to get her and Keiko out of the way—even though Kana supposedly doesn't know anything about that. I could go on, but what really annoys me is that she got me too. She predicted that I would be too stubborn to let my guests carry their own bags back all four days, especially not after I saw her complain about it to Haruka, which she just happened to do in my presence. And I thought she was just being lazy."
She gave Kana a rather fatal look.
"Of course, I could be wrong," Yoshino demurred, with false modesty. "But that's easily checked. Kana, would you consent to a search of your rooms? Really, we should have just done that from the start."
At that, everyone present, including the maid, turned to watch Kana, some angrily, others merely with curiosity.
Kana, for her part, was gritting her teeth, looking around like a trapped fox, still trying to think of a way out.
Finally she gave up.
"Alright, fine!" she said defiantly, raising her hand. "It's in my clothes bag, under my pants! And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling—"
With an inchoate yell, Chiaki dove onto Kana, inflicting torrid levels of her trademark violence. Haruka stood up, and for a moment, Yoshino thought Haruka would stop it, but instead she merely said:
"Have fun, Chiaki. Don't hurt her too much, okay?"
Then she turned to Yoshino.
"That was pretty amazing, actually," Haruka said. "Is there any way we can thank you?"
"Nah, I don't need anything," Yoshino said casually. "It was fun playing Holmes! Though Watson here could have been a little more helpful, I must say."
"Hey!" Uchida said, leaning forward. "That's unfair!"
That night, they lay awake a bit longer than usual.
"That was actually pretty impressive," Uchida said, looking over from the pillow next to her.
"I'm glad I still have the ability to impress you after all these years," Yoshino said, looking back.
"Stop making us sound married," she said, looking up. "The others have strange enough ideas about us as it is."
Nominally, Uchida had her own room, for appearance's sake. Fortunately, no one seemed to have noticed the fact that Uchida never quite left Yoshino's room during the nights there.
Yoshino was still feeling a little high from her accomplishment of the day, and, thus, was a little restless.
"So what exactly were you talking with Kumada-sensei about?" she asked, leaning forward to get into Uchida's face.
"None of your business," Uchida said, looking away.
"Oh, a secret, huh?" Yoshino said, grabbing Uchida's stomach with a spare hand and pinching. Uchida yelped, jerking into a sitting position.
"You bastard!" she protested. "Why do you always do that?"
Yoshino looked up at the other girl, framed by the autumn moonlight in Yoshino's rather palatial childhood room. There were memories here.
And at the moment, one disheveled looking girl, hair muddled, nightshirt enticingly slipping off one shoulder, having caught on Yoshino's hand on Uchida's way up. The girl looked down at her with that ever-so-cute annoyed face.
Yoshino sat up, breathing a little more heavily—and realized her mistake. The view up there was even better.
She gritted her teeth. No. Not today. Not here. Not here, of all—
"Yuka," she began.
"Yes?" Uchida asked, and her innocence hurt to look at.
"We'll be going home tomorrow."
"Yeah, of course," Uchida said.
Damn it, fix your shirt! Yoshino thought, but it would have been too late anyway.
She reached backwards, pulling open a drawer, and grabbed the bottle that lay therein.
Why did I even bring it? She lamented. It was only a four day trip! What was I thinking?
No, that was a lie. She knew exactly what she had been thinking. Despite all her hypocritical protests, all her supposed refusal to pollute her memories of this place, a part of her had thought: Wouldn't it be fun to choose somewhere different, this time?
It was a part of her she couldn't refuse. It had been months since the last time, after all, and she had held out, somehow, all summer.
She swallowed, and held the bottle of wine up to the light. She hoped dearly that the alcohol would drown the guilt, at least for tonight.
"I figured we could try something," she said.
Uchida's eyes widened.