A rewrite of the ongoing story "Falter". It has what I consider various improvements, but you can be the judge of that yourself.
And I have notes on the chapter at my site ( tinyurl. com/ 3o3obw8 ). I will post a corresponding blog post for each and every chapter as usual. Please do take a look if you're interested.
I also strongly encourage the practice of leaving reviews on my site if you want me to reply to your review. Naturally, this extends only to reviews and criticisms with any substance that I can reply to. One-liners and blind praise aren't exactly helpful or particularly conversationally stimulating.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of lunch period, Mihoko leisurely unclasped her schoolbag and set it flat on her desk. She tugged out her lunch by its neatly tied drawstrings, absently smoothed the cloth pouch with one hand, and stalled for a few extra seconds. The first students to leave the room were always those who had to buy their lunches at the cafeteria, closely followed by girls who were meeting friends from other classrooms, or perhaps by those who wanted to get in a quick game or two before the grounds teemed with other students.
When the time was right, she replaced her schoolbag back onto the hook at the side of her desk, and stood to leave. Her mind was assailed by the tiniest bit of pensiveness when her gaze set upon the girls around her, with their desks clustered closely into groups, giggling and talking animatedly with one another. With obentou in hand, she disregarded the feeling and started to leave, nodding courteously in greeting to those who offered the same in return.
And with a small exhale, Mihoko left the room quietly and set off at a purposeful pace up a flight of stairs and then down the hall. It was relatively empty despite the hour, mostly because few who left the classroom during lunch had business on the same floor. The mahjong clubroom was located at the end of the hall along with the other cultural clubs, but they were the only one that held such frequent meetings, let alone lengthy sessions even during lunch. It was her wish that the club members could enjoy playing optional and unofficial games at these times without the pressure of affecting their ranking, so much unlike the sanctioned games held afterschool.
For this to work, Mihoko had asked Yoshitome-san and the others for a favour — to purposely skip coming every once in a while to reinforce the idea that lunchtime meetings were entirely optional. Otherwise, she was sure the younger members would feel some reservation toward missing meetings themselves.
As such, she was pleased that the turnout on an average day was relatively small, about a fourth or a fifth of the afterschool meets. It also made it possible to arrange more games between regulars and the diligent.
Speaking of diligence, the image of Kana appeared in her mind almost instantly, and Mihoko smiled. Despite her request to the contrary, Kana continued to come to the clubroom every lunch period without fail. But she had to wonder why — unlike herself, Kana was such a cheerful and energetic girl that it was hard to imagine she wouldn't want to have lunch with her own friends every now and then.
Not that she didn't appreciate the company. She looked forward to spending time with Kana, particularly the one-on-one they could only afford during idle time in lunch period. It had even become a bit of a habit for her to make Kana lunch once a week every Monday —
Mihoko paused mid-thought when she saw Kubo-coach exit the clubroom. The coach strode out quickly as she put on her beige jacket, tugging to straigthen her collar and lapel in one swift motion. Mihoko called out in greeting as she neared.
"Good afternoon, Coach."
"Fukuji," Kubo nodded in reply. She said and gestured briskly, "I have some business to attend to. I'll see you today after school."
"I understand," Mihoko said.
The coach broke eye contact dismissively and pulled out her cell phone, flipping it open in one motion. As she strode down the hallway again, she added as an afterthought, "Oh, and Fukuji? A letter came today for you. It's on my desk — grab it yourself."
Mihoko inclined her head slightly in lieu of a verbal reply. With the coach's footfalls echoing sharply along the corridor, Mihoko watched her turn around the corner before letting herself into the room.
As most girls preferred to eat first before coming to the clubroom, it left maybe a handful of members who would occasionally come before she did. Today, two such people were in the room. They were two second-years from the same class, and close friends by the look of it. Mihoko extended her usual greeting to them, and they replied in unison with a cheery "Captain!" before resuming their conversation.
Mihoko walked over to the other side of the room and pulled two chairs over to her and Kana's usual spot. She removed her lunchbox from its pouch to place one of its two tiers and a pair of chopsticks opposite her, and smiled again. She hoped Kana would like today's lunch; she'd prepared one of the girl's favourites for a hot summery day — a Chinese-styled harusame noodle salad — along with a piece of lightly-seasoned chicken and two egg-wrapped mini onigiri.
She kept her own chopsticks inside the cloth bag for the moment and left the table, intent on distracting herself from further thoughts of food until Kana arrived. She had skipped breakfast, having spent the time instead on thawing out an additional piece of chicken to replace the one her brother used for a midnight snack. Her stomach rumbled quietly again, and she took a look out the clubroom door. Rather than simply stand and wait, it would be better to create a productive distraction for herself. Her mind immediately turned to the club's unfinished paperwork.
For one, the travel expenses incurred from their trip to the qualifiers last month weren't completely tallied yet — while transportation expenses, food and drink, and hotel booking receipts were already taken care of, she had yet to add the extra expenses from staying an additional night at the coach's discretion.
The coach kept all club activity receipts in her desk organiser, so if she had the relevant receipts in her possession, they would likely be there. Mihoko took the ledger from her own desk and entered the coach's office, a rather modest room compared to the spaciousness of the clubroom. The spartanly clean desk and old file cabinet took up most of the space.
She placed the ledger down, and looked through receipts that crinkled merrily as she flipped through them. Pulling out the relevant ones, Mihoko reached for a pen when her gaze fell upon the letter on the desk. She put her things down and took it in her hand — it was indeed addressed to her as Kubo-coach mentioned, but who had sent it? The handwriting looked unfamiliar. Mihoko flipped the envelope over to check the sender's name.
And her eyes widened.
Kiyosumi High School, Mahjong Club
Her heart pounded, perhaps a bit more loudly and a bit more furiously than it should.
Was it really from Ueno-san?
A bewildering sense of sadness and melancholy welled up in her chest as she gazed at the letter in her hand.
… Didn't she shut everything away, precisely because she would never see Ueno-san again?
They didn't have a chance to speak with one another after the individuals ended, occupied with answering reporters' questions or receiving well-wishers' congratulations over their respective achievements. And even after the initial excitement died down, they still hadn't talked. But then, they didn't really know each other that well — or even at all, if she wanted to be brutally honest. There was also the awkwardness of speaking with Ueno-san when she herself had placed first in the individuals.
If she were to put it nicely, she and Ueno-san were 'acquaintances' at best. But she had wondered, on several occasions, whether they were really nothing more than strangers who happened to cross paths just once more, destined to never meet again.
The idea had left her too disconcerted to consider any further.
But, now… was it okay to hope, to wish, to yearn for more?
She held the letter gingerly in her hands.
Was it, Ueno-san?
The question echoed hollowly as she reached for the letter opener — and with a remarkable calm she didn't know she possessed, she slit the letter open, tugged the paper out from the tight envelope, unfolded it, and began to read its contents:
Dear Kazekoshi's mahjong captain Fukuji Mihoko,
Having had the pleasure of making your acquaintance in the middle school nationals and high school prefectural qualifiers, I would, on behalf of the Kiyosumi mahjong club, like to extend an invitation to you and four other senior members from Kazekoshi to partake in an interschool mahjong training camp. I have extended the same invitation to Ryuumonbuchi High School and Tsuruga Academy as well, and the camp will be held at a resort bordering Gifu Prefecture, from July 15th to 18th for the duration of four days and three nights.
Please do not hesitate to contact me regarding any questions or concerns that you may have about the trip; my contact information follows on the next page along with the particulars of the proposed training camp.
I look forward to your reply.
Mihoko held the letter close to her chest as a single thought reverberated through her mind: With this, she would be able to see Ueno-san again. In that moment, everything else seemed to melt together in a mass of inconsequent nothingness. It didn't matter if their encounters didn't mean nearly as much to Ueno-san as it did to her. It didn't matter if no one knew or understood the kind of feelings she held toward Ueno-san.
It really didn't…
Then she was deluged with the memory of Ueno-san — clear, crisp, and sharp in her mind, undulled by the passage of time. The way Ueno-san had held her gaze with a small, knowing smile. The shame, the self-reproach, the foreboding she felt coursing through her at the mention of her eye — then those words, spoken so gently and casually, that had moved her so deeply, and so intensely.
An echo of that intensity now welled up in her, and she leaned against the edge of Kubo-coach's desk heavily. She held still and silent, lost in her own feelings. Her thoughts. Her affections.
And with a complicated and wistful smile, Mihoko pressed her eyes closed.
After a long moment, she opened her eye, and carefully folded the letter up before she slipped it back into its envelope. If only things were that simple.
She picked up the receipts from the desk and into her hand. Flipping open the ledger, she mutely wrote down the relevant information for travel expenses in neat and precise writing. She slipped the top receipt to the bottom of the pile and started on the next. She was nearly finished with the third receipt when she heard the familiar and excited pitter-patter of footsteps down the hallway, and she faltered.
How could she face Kana now? As the captain, both her duty and allegiance lay with Kana, with the regulars, and with the club. With everyone. It was her responsibility and it was what she believed in. But it was hard, when all she wanted at this moment was to see Ueno-san once more, and she hated herself for it.
Asking the regulars to participate in the camp would only serve as a bitter reminder for everyone — that they had failed to qualify for the nationals in the team tournament for the second year in a row. It was all the more painful for Kana, who was there both years and who bore the brunt of it, forever holding onto the belief that it was her fault they never made it, having personally lost both times to Amae Koromo.
She understood their pain and felt it as they did. Even though she placed first in the individuals, the glory was never meant to be her own to bask in; the only reason she had gotten so far was because of everyone's belief in her, their encouragement, and their unwavering support.
And now it was beginning to feel like she was letting everyone down and betraying their hopes.
Kana's voice jolted her out of her thoughts, and with a start, she slipped the letter and the several receipts together inside the ledger. She paused to straighten herself up, and left the coach's office with ledger in hand, trying to affect a normalcy that she did not entirely feel.
She held the ledger closely, only too aware of what was between its pages.
"Kana," Mihoko greeted.
"Captain, I'm sorry I made you wait," she said in a rush, "but I got held up bringing printouts to the teachers' office when I tried to leave as soon as the bell rang so I only got here just now…!"
"Kana, slow down and catch your breath first." Mihoko set the ledger down on her desk. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah! I —" Kana took in quick breath. "I just didn't want to make you wait longer than I absolutely had to especially since you made lunch for me today."
"I understand," Mihoko acknowledged as she put a hand on Kana's shoulder, "but you should try to be more careful in the hallways." It was all too evident that Kana had run all the way up to the clubroom as quickly as she could. "One or two more minutes won't make too much of a difference, right?"
Kana opened her mouth to answer, but closed it and nodded instead.
Mihoko gave a small smile and added lightly, "And besides, there's no telling if lunch will be worth the mad dash you made all the way up here."
"There's no way it wouldn't," Kana protested. "You're really kind, great at cooking, and always looking after everyone else!"
The familiarity of Kana's sincere, but odd reasoning held a strange, calming appeal in that very moment, and it stilled some part of her inside. She was thankful that someone like Kana was by her side. Gently and wordlessly, she brushed Kana's unkempt dark bangs behind an ear with affection.
How could she wilfully bring sadness to such a devoted and earnestly cheerful girl, who always gave her utmost effort in everything she tried?
How could she even think of asking Kana to go to the camp for her sake, not even as much-needed practice before the nationals, but as the chance to meet someone she liked much more than she should?
Mihoko smiled sadly to herself and moved away, toward their table.
"Come here, Kana. See what I made for you today."
They sat down at their table by the window-side in their respective chairs, and Mihoko watched Kana as she carefully lifted the plastic lid to reveal the contents of her lunch.
Kana's face flushed and beamed delightedly. "Harusame salad?" Her eyes sparkled with joy.
Mihoko returned Kana's smile with a small one of her own, and gave a little nod.
Being able to evoke that type of expression and feeling in Kana with her cooking made the girl one of her favourite people to cook for. But today, the discrepancy between Kana's enjoyment and her own mood and preoccupations left her feeling a bit hollow.
Mihoko reached for her chopsticks case inside the cloth pouch.
She would have to mention the training camp invitation to everyone regardless of her personal dilemma, that much was certain. It wasn't as though pretending she'd never received the invitation would do anything to benefit anyone. Her regulars would be notified… and then what? She could easily imagine everyone going along with it to give her the chance to play against diverse and evenly matched opponents before the nationals in August. All just for her sake.
It would be so easy to say 'yes', so easy to accept their kindness. And she would play to the best of her ability, in addition to treasuring the time she would gain with Ueno-san.
But she couldn't do it. She realised she couldn't.
She would have to tell them about the invitation and come up with a plausible reason for declining it. Surely that would be enough.
Mihoko focussed her gaze back onto Kana, whose attention was thankfully, still on the obentou. She swallowed the lump in her throat, and said, "Let's eat, shall we?"
"Let's!" Kana said cheerfully.
Their eyes met, and Mihoko tried to give Kana a genuine smile. The guileless grin Kana returned helped her strengthen her resolve just a bit further.
She slid open her chopsticks case and took her chopsticks out.
She looked down at her own lunch, and told herself she would be okay. What did it mean to meet Ueno-san again anyway? It wasn't as though Ueno-san would magically fall in love with her if they met again. There was no happily ever after. There was nothing she'd be giving up on by making this choice.
Nothing at all.