Talent, hard work and graduation from Tokyo University; everything one needs for a successful life. Yet as Youko discovers a decade after walking the hallways of Lillian, there is something lacking. Time goes on, memories fade and some things have to be abandoned, but some fragments of the past are simply too priceless to be discarded. When the road approaches a dead end, it is time to turn back, because not all bridges are burnt after all...
I have tried (and will try in future chapters) my best to capture the beauty of Marimite, the success is mixed and limited at best as my writing style is mostly quite different than what suits Marimite fics. I try to describe things more than I usually do, but it will remain to be seen whether I am able to translate the dreamy beauty of the series to this little story.
For those who will wonder, I admit that I may have made some very minor adjustments to the canon to suit my storytelling purposes.
1. "Save me..."
On the plane from Hokkaido back to Tokyo, Mizuno Youko cursed her work for the hundreth time that day. The flights were relatively short, but she could not help wondering whether it had really been worth making such a trip just to attend some formalities with no other purpose than shaking hands with the big players in the field, all the while she had twisted her facial muscles to keep a falsely sweet smile on her lips. On the top of that, everytime she had looked in the other direction, she had been able to feel those salarymen raising their eyebrows at her, an unmarried woman who had already turned thirty. She could guess what they were thinking.
When she finally arrived to the Tokyo airport, she had to stop by a cafeteria to grab something to eat. The queue was like a gigantic boa, it writhed and twisted but never seemed to get any shorter. Youko clutched her handbag tighter. Closing her eyes, she drew a few deep breaths to calm herself down. Even amidst her turmoil she was amused by the fact that she, who usually was so cool and composed, still could not handle overtly crowded places. When people surged around her, when the noises became so dense and incomphrehensible and when at every turn there was someone she almost bumped into she felt as if she were drowning.
Eventually she got her sandwich and a cup of coffee. There were hardly empty seats in the cafeteria, but she was able to squeeze herself into a vacant chair beside a corner table. The woman occupying the seat opposite to Youko's raised her eyes curiously as the latter one sat down with her tray.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" Youko asked politely, her voice stable.
"No, by all means", the woman replied, smiling crookedly.
Youko noted there was something familiar with the blonde woman with ashen grey eyes, but she was too tired to think where she could have met her. Hardly giving the woman a second look, she attacked her sandwich wolfishly. Concentrating on eating, she tried to avoid thinking about tomorrow. No rest for the wicked, and it was certainly true of her. Work, work, work... There was no shortage of it. She would go to work early at eight o'clock and get back home after eight in the evening, and as opposed to most men, she did not have a wife waiting for her at home with a warm meal.
When she rose up and started to leave, she was startled to hear her own name being called in a feminine, yet softly muffled voice.
It was only then that Youko realized that the voice was familiar, too.
She turned her gaze down on the woman in front of her. The woman had very un-Japanese blonde hair and indeed there was a western whiff in her looks, yet there was no foreign accent in her smooth speech. The woman was studying Youko intently with her large, grey eyes, and there was an almost coquettish grin on her lips.
"Have you become so important that you won't even recognize me anymore?"
There was a horrible feeling brewing inside Youko's stomach. Her heart had already realized, as opposed to her conscious mind, which was still clouded by confusion. So, for a moment she could do nothing but stand there, stunned.
Satou Sei. The one she so often dreamt about. The one who embodied a whole period in her life, the one who was the epitome of all the things she had been forced or had voluntarily left behind. It had been a long time since she had last reminisced about Sei, but all the same, seeing the former Rosa Gigantea so unexpectedly took her breath away.
The White Rose had not changed very much. She still had her flirtatious smile, her voice was still constantly tinged with amusement, her face was as charming as ever. However, small wrinkles decorated her eyes as she was smiling.
"Yeah, it's me. Surprised?" Sei said as if they had just met yesterday.
It had been over a decade.
Youko rushed over to the other side of the table with several very ungraceful moves just to find herself tightly in her former classmate's embrace. People around them were turning to watch them, but for once she didn't give a damn.
"Save me, Sei", Youko whispered. "Please."
"It's a dog's life, I tell you", Youko said. "You go to work early in the morning and get back home when some people are already sleeping. And then there are these occasions in which you have to entertain your clients or bosses until midnight."
They had booked a taxi together and it was heading towards Youko's apartment. Sei had promised to come over, and Youko had been overjoyed. She still couldn't fully register it, having Sei, the real, live Sei, beside her, Sei's scent filling her nostrils and filling her with so many bittersweet memories that she was afraid she would faint at any moment.
"I can't say I'm surprised", Sei replied, giving Youko a meaningful glance. "You once made Sachiko give herself a break, but it seems you need someone to make you do the same thing right now."
When Youko thought about Lillian, she was surprised that she could recall only bits and pieces. She remembered the important things, but time had robbed the memories the details, the story had become so simplified that it could hardly be claimed to represent the real thing, if indeed memories ever could. She remembered the ginkgo nuts scattered all over the ground as if some higher force had planted them, she remembered the lonesome sakura tree, she remembered walking the seventeen-year-old Sei home with the latter one's Oneesama during that fateful Christmas Day.
The taxi speeded on, and a silence fell between the two now adult women. Looking at Sei's face, Youko could barely believe that it had really been so long. It felt perfectly natural to be with Sei. Ten years might have passed and they might have gone through several painful cataclysms in their lives, but there wasn't a trace of awkwardness between them. Unconscious of what she was doing, Youko slipped her fingers among Sei's.
"Wait", Sei suddenly told the driver. "Turn left in that junction over there."
"Where are we going?" Youko asked.
"Can't you guess?" Sei responded enigmatically.
They soon entered a relatively peaceful suburb with small, attractive houses. The metallic grey metropolis was being left behind, and once again, there was something so very familiar. The red tile wall, the small diner with a broken neon-light sign, the candy shop with a somewhat perverted name she had never noticed back then...
"Nothing has changed in ten years or so, has it?" the dark haired woman stated quietly.
Sei shook her head softly, smiling.
She told the taxi driver to wait, and she and Youko stepped out of the car. A gentle gust of wind tousled with their hair, and some autumn leaves floated past them. The slowly setting sun painted the reddish wall even more crimson. The colour was so abnormally intense that for a brief moment Youko actually believed the walls were stained with blood, but Sei's touch on her shoulder reminded her that there was nothing to fear.
"Did you just see a ghost?" Sei asked, grinning as usual.
Youko shook her head.
"Shall we go in?" she prompted.
A part of her felt a bit shy about entering the high school grounds, but when Sei grabbed her wrist and started pulling her towards the portcullis, she hardly had any choice other than to follow.
Lillian Girl's High School. A garden for maidens, as they sometimes used to call it, and Sei had always considered that a bit corny. Then again, she had never been your average maiden.
It was not yet very late, so passing through the gardens were some students, who gave the two unknown women nonplussed glances. Youko smiled to them as she used to when she still had been the all-powerful Rosa Chinensis. She wondered did Sei give the students the same flirtatious looks as during the latter one's Rose years.
Indeed, Lillian had not witnessed much change. The garden was immaculately groomed as always, there was this unique air of serenity as if nothing in the world could disturb the daily routines of these adolescent girls. Those students who passed them had tidy sailor collars and the plaits in their skirts were hardly visible. The people might have changed, but to an outsider time might have not passed at all.
Youko had not thought about where they were heading, yet instinctively she had a hunch where Sei was leading them. Not surprisingly, they were soon walking on the cobblestone road they had treaded so many times before.
"I wonder if there is anyone inside", Sei mumbled wistfully as they finally stood in front of the Rose Mansion.
"Even if there were, I don't think we should go in", Youko replied quietly.
Sei turned her head towards Youko, and their eyes met for the first time since their encounter at the airport.
Everything came into a standstill. Afterwards Youko could only guess whether the time had really stopped flowing or had she just been able to capture that moment in such a detailed manner that it actually caused the time to slow down as she registered everything she could see and hear during that passing moment which could not have lasted more than a few seconds.
Sei's glimmering eyes, her beautiful features that were exceptionally impressive after all those years Youko had not seen them, Sei's coy and devilishly gorgeous smile... The breeze was caressing them almost lovingly. The sakura tree beside the Rose Mansion was naturally not in bloom, but it actually highlighted its haunting beauty. The most of the branches were pointing towards the ground like wilted flowers, but Youko knew it would burst into life once again in the spring with more vigour than ever before. From the main building came distant chatter and laughter, and Youko would not have been surprised had Yumi suddenly appeared behind a tree shouting "Rosa Chinensis" and "Rosa Gigantea" with her enthusiastic voice.
The small niche of time in which they were captured was so full of fond memories, so full of languid nostalgia that Youko felt totally overwhelmed. She wanted to lie down on the lawn and stare at the sky until she lost all sense of time and until she forgot who she was and started drifting towards the perfect realm forever lost.
"Wake up, darling.", Sei whispered.
Youko shuddered. Sei had snuck so very close to her without her noticing, and Sei was virtually speaking into her ear. Sei's arms had also been wrapped around Youko, and the former Rosa Chinensis was more than glad to be held by the White Rose.