A/N: This story is the second full-length entry in the "Ame no Murakumo ga Miteru" series, which can best be described as "Chikane and Himeko's life after Kannazuki no Shimai is a slice-of-life story." The first story is called "Red String," and if you haven't read it already I'd suggest that you check that one out first!
Similarly to that story, because these are Japanese characters in a Japanese setting, I'm doing my best with using honorifics (mind you, Alice and Arrow both will omit them on the slightest pretext) and similar forms of address (I even ran a reader poll while "Red String" first went up, and you folks voted that I continue it). Please feel free to point out the inevitable places where I screw up completely!
This story is dedicated to my friend Fuyu no Sora, without whom you probably wouldn't be reading this. I actually began it back in 2010, not long after finishing "Red String," set it aside for a while, and did more in 2011. I shared the parts of the story I had done with my friends, and Sora in particular offered considerable commentary and review of various aspects of the plot and characters and small details that had slipped my mind over time but not escaped her attention. You know you're getting an in-depth review when the word count of the review exceeds that of the actual chapter! So one of the reasons I've been motivated to return to this story and finish it was a desire to let Sora find out how it ends, especially given how she's been so much help in piecing things together. ^_^
~X X X~
Sometimes, Himemiya Chikane decided, selfishness wasn't a bad course of action. In this case, for example, selfishness would have been to sneak off with her girlfriend, Kurusugawa Himeko, to their secret spot in the rose garden and spend lunchtime together with her, just the two of them. Preferably spending most of the time kissing and leaving most of lunch uneaten. If she had done that, they'd be there now. Instead, rather than give in to selfish desire, they were going to eat lunch with their friends and because of that when Chikane had gone to get her lunch basket, Himeko had been cornered alone by three of her fellow classmates.
"This is simply unacceptable, Kurusugawa-san!" shrilly exclaimed the leader of the three girls, her blonde drill-curls bouncing with her emotion. "A nobody like you, a new transfer student, dragging Miya-sama down with your perversions?"
"Miya-sama is the shining idol of our school!" chimed in a second girl, who had a brown braid and glasses.
"Do you think we'll stand for it? Miya-sama may be too kind to tell you the truth, but even if she takes pity on you, there are others who won't," snapped the third girl, who had green hair.
That was more than enough, Chikane decided. She stepped out from around the rack of vending machines and rapidly strode towards the three girls. Himeko caught sight of her approach and gestured, trying to wave her off.
Don't worry, love, Chikane thought. I'm not going to do anything crazy.
"Are you ignoring us, Kurusugawa-san? We're having an important conversation here!"
"It's not that, Kisaragi-san," Himeko replied nervously. A casual bystander might have assumed that it was the bullies making her nervous, but Chikane knew better. Himeko was no doubt recalling incidents of their two previous lives, incidents when Chikane had expressed her opinion of those who would threaten Himeko.
The green-haired girl, Misaki, turned her head to see what Himeko was looking at and had the experience of coming face-to-face with Chikane.
"M-M-M-Miya-sama!" she yelped. Because she was startled? Because she knows what she's doing is wrong and was ashamed to be caught at it? Chikane strongly doubted that one. Or perhaps my expression is not so controlled as I would like it to be.
"Good day, Ozawa-san," she said to the girl with deceptive mildness, then as the others turned, added, "Kisaragi-san, Mifune-san. I am deeply gratified to hear that I can place my romantic future in the hands of such diligent and generous matchmakers. Why, I find myself positively overwhelmed by your kindness. To think that you would do this for me, all without ever being asked, or indeed without us exchanging more than a word in passing, that is selflessness indeed. And to think, that without your gracious intervention I might have been led astray by the intensity of my own emotions, by the deep love I feel for Himeko, and, of course, the trust I foolishly placed in my parents' judgment in approving of a suitable girlfriend."
Continuing to advance on them, she withdrew an embossed envelope bearing the Himemiya family seal from her basket and extended it to Himeko.
"Speaking of my parents, Himeko, Okaasama wanted me to pass on her invitation to your family to join us for an informal dinner this Sunday."
Himeko took the envelope.
"Th-thank you, Chikane-chan." She still looked a little nervous, probably because she'd noticed that Chikane hadn't stopped advancing on the girls. Misaki and Kyoko had stepped aside, but Chikane kept on towards Otoha, making the blonde back up step by step until her back met the wall.
"A piece of friendly advice, Kisaragi-san," she said softly, her face but inches from her fangirl's. She let the mask drop, then, her expression reflecting exactly what she was feeling. "I would be careful on stairs if I were you. My experience has been that pushy, aggressive busybodies tend to be reckless in rushing about where they're not wanted and often have...accidents."
"Th-thank you, Miya-sama," Otoha stammered, unconsciously echoing Himeko.
"Do remember it." She forced the smile back in place. "As student council president, I would hate to see something happen to a classmate because I was remiss in properly advising them." She turned and extended a hand to her girlfriend. "Shall we go to lunch, Himeko?"
They walked off, leaving the three fangirls staring after them, still a little unsure of what had just happened.
Himeko, on the other hand, was sure and wasn't happy about it.
"You went too far, Chikane-chan."
"And yet, I feel like I didn't go far enough. How dare they cause trouble for you?"
"If you'd just left off with what you told them at first, that would have been fine," she chided. "You did a very nice job of shaming them, and even I noticed how you brought in your parents' names to provide extra evidence of how far they'd gotten out of line. You didn't need to threaten Kisaragi-san, too."
"They were my honest feelings," Chikane protested. "I'm not going to let you be bullied or pushed around."
"You threatened to kill her! And you meant it!"
"Not really," Chikane protested.
"Do you know what the word 'yandere' means, Chikane-chan?"
"Well, you never were a manga reader," Himeko noted. "It means someone who goes violently insane for the sake of love. They attack or even murder threats or love rivals..."
"..become jealously possessive, wanting nothing more than a world where only the two of them exist..."
Chikane winced again.
"...and sometimes even go so far as to kidnap or sexually assault their love interest if things aren't moving fast enough for their tastes!"
Chikane smacked her forehead with her empty palm and groaned. Himeko burst into giggles.
"Strangely, I find myself attracted to that type," she said, then leaned up and kissed Chikane on the cheek. "Come on, let's go to lunch. Arrow-chan is probably half-finished already!"
~X X X~
"Now, for the next edition, I'd like if we could do something of local interest. We have ideas for stories about the people at the academy, but what about the academy itself?"
Kisaragi Otoha was barely paying attention to the editor of the school newspaper, the Newspaper Club president. That was extremely out of character for her, given that she'd joined the club in the first place because Nanase Saya was the editor. Tall, elegant, beautiful, Saya had a lot in common with Himemiya Chikane. Indeed, she was the daughter of Mahoroba's second-wealthiest family, although the Nanase family didn't have the history of the Himemiyas or Ohgamis. Otoha's admiration for her had always been nearly as great as what she felt for Miya-sama. Her elegance, her serenity of manner, her poise, the slight angularity of her face giving it just enough character to be really beautiful instead of having cookie-cutter prettiness, her sleek figure with enough of a curve at breast and hip to be unmistakably womanly without the overripeness of the gravure models the boys would drool over...
Ah! No, stop it! Otoha protested to herself when she recognized where her thoughts were going. That isn't right! I'm not like that Kurusugawa girl, I'm not! She'd seen the looks the strawberry blonde gave Miya-sama, all but undressing her with her eyes. Miya-sama was everyone's ideal. It wasn't right to think about her that way, about kissing her, touching her—
And yet, Otoha found herself forced to admit, it wasn't just that Kurusugawa thought that way about Miya-sama, but that Miya-sama felt that way back! That she liked that sort of thing! To touch another girl, to hold her and kiss her, and maybe even...
She choked off her traitorous thoughts before they went too far in that direction. If Miya-sama wanted to lower herself to the level of a commoner, entering into a wholly inappropriate relationship, then didn't that just prove that she wasn't worthy of Otoha's devotion? Wasn't that it, what had her upset—the scales dropping from her eyes?
That was it, wasn't it?
At least staying away from Kurusugawa would be easy enough. She never wanted to see either of them again, let alone talk to them! It would be...would be...
It at last penetrated the frenzy of her thoughts that Saya was calling her name.
"What do you think about the story idea?"
Her voice brushed across Otoha like silk, commanding her attention. Despite being in a crowded room, it was as if only the two of them were present, in a private connection.
Otoha bit her lip nervously.
"I'm sorry, Nanase-buchou, but I let my attention wander. Could you repeat the idea?"
"It was suggested that, as a lighthearted piece of school interest, that we do an article on the 'Seven Mysteries of Ototachibana Academy,' with research into which ones are real and which might be urban legends, designed to fill out the list at seven." She didn't snap or get angry with Otoha's inattention, but there was a wistful disappointment in her voice that made the blonde feel ashamed, like she had just crushed a flower underfoot or torn up a piece of artwork.
"That could be fun," Otoha said. "I like the aspect of researching the backgrounds. Every time you hear about the mysteries of a school or other place, it's always seven, so it'd be interesting if people started making them up to fill out the list."
"Are you sure you weren't listening, Kisaragi-san?" asked the assistant editor, a third-year boy named Takara. "'Cause that's pretty much exactly what I said when I suggested it."
Otoha flushed hotly and more than one of the other club members laughed, but Saya wasn't among them.
"Now, Takara-san, that wasn't nice," she chided. Saya apparently had the same kind of effect on him as she did on Otoha, because he at once looked sheepish and ran his hand through his short, light-brown hair.
"No, it was my fault, Takara-sempai; I should have been more attentive to the meeting."
Saya smiled at them both.
"Now, it was decided last week that we would be working with a member of the Photography Club on one of this issue's stories, and I believe this one would be good. Taking photographs of the sites of the 'seven mysteries' could allow opportunities for artistic composition suited to the kind of work a club member works on doing. If you would invite them in?"
One of the girls opened the door, and karma rose up to smack Otoha in the face.
"My name is Kurusugawa Himeko. I'm pleased to be working with your club."
~X X X~
"Oh, man, you went and assigned the queen fangirl to work on a story with Himeko?" Ohgami Shizuka laughed.
"I didn't know whom it was the Photography Club had sent!" Saya protested.
The two friends were walking down the long staircase that led from Ototachibana Academy to the base of the hill. Shizuka was a tomboy through and through: tall, broad-shouldered, with short, unruly dark hair and a face that was more handsome than pretty. She played against stereotypes in multiple ways: she was the daughter of the priest of the Ohgami Shrine, and her nickname was Arrow because unlike all of her closest friends she was as straight as one.
"I didn't even know that Kurusugawa-san was in the Photography Club. Isn't she on the kendo team?"
"Oh, yeah, that's right; you had that family thing last weekend, when she asked about it. She really likes photography, and the rules say a person can belong to two clubs if they get approval from both. Since Himemiya's the kendo team captain that was one approval there, and the Photography Club president agreed right off, too, on Monday morning."
"I just feel so embarrassed. And what's worse is that I'd had to chastise Kisaragi-san just moments before, for being inattentive in the meeting, so I'm afraid she thinks that I did it to punish her. Plus, what about Kurusugawa-san? She'll be so hurt."
"Ah, relax. Himemiya knows you didn't mean a thing by it, and she'll explain it to Himeko. No, what you need to worry about is if Alice laughs so hard her spleen comes out her nose when she hears this story."
"Hey, somebody taking my name in vain?"
Arms clamped around Saya from behind as a short girl with a startling red ponytail glomped onto her. Saya yelped and swayed; Arrow stuck out her arm suddenly in case they were in danger of falling, but the new arrival had her body weight under control so that she actually steadied herself and Saya in mid-pounce.
"Arisu-san!" Saya wrestled her way free. "Stop that!" Dropping her voice to just barely above a whisper she added she added, "What if somebody gets the wrong idea?"
"You're no fun," Alice Ishida pouted. Everybody knew the irrepressible girl was originally Canadian and that she'd been Chikane's best friend nearly ever since she moved to Japan when she was eight. What nobody other than Arrow, Chikane, and Himeko knew was that Alice and Saya were dating—and Saya wanted to keep it that way. "I glomp my friends all the time. I've glomped Miya so much it'll take Himeko a year to catch up on skinship."
"Well, don't," Saya snapped.
"Things are tough at home?" Alice asked, lowering her voice so that it wouldn't be overheard by the other students on the stairs.
"Yes; my parents did not take Himemiya-san's coming out well at all, and it was even worse because her parents are openly supportive of her. They argued for several hours, and revisited it more than once, over the question of whether they, and I, should drop the Himemiyas socially."
"Wait, they want you to cut Himemiya at school because she's gay?" Arrow boggled. "What a couple of jerkasses."
"Well, they finally settled on not doing that, because they were more concerned with not offending the Himemiya family than with enforcing their own beliefs."
"Yeah, I can see that," Alice decided. "Figured it was too risky to try the 'see, we really do stand for traditional values while the Himemiyas are just old' routine to make a grab for community leadership?"
"I believe so. It helped to settle their minds when the Ohgamis chose to carry on like nothing had happened."
"My dad's cool like that."
"Especially for a priest," Alice noted.
"Hey, now, just because there's a fair whack of jerks in religion doesn't mean religion itself is bad."
"Yeah, you're right. Sorry, Arrow."
"S'ok; we're good."
"They're really on edge about it, though," Saya continued. "What with Himemiya-san turning out to be a lesbian, and they're half convinced that Arrow-san is one, too—"
"Irony, gotta love it."
"—and given that Arisu-san is a very casual girl with her foreign ways, I'm afraid that my parents will seize on anything to claim that my friends aren't suitable companions for the daughter of the Nanase family."
"Yeah, after all, the family's got glorious history and tradition that reaches all the way back to last Tuesday," Arrow snorted. Alice didn't laugh, though, and Saya had no trouble figuring out why.
"I'm really sorry, Arisu-san. I wish there was something we could do, but if my parents ever found out..."
"I wish we could just tell my parents. I know they wouldn't mind; my mom actually cheered right there in the living room when I told them about Miya and Himeko."
"I can't risk it, Arisu-san. Don't you understand? All it would take would be one word out of place! I wish that you hadn't told Kurusugawa-san; she isn't very discreet."
"If you mean she can't lie to save her life, well, yeah, but I kind of had to. I mean, you don't want her finding out by accident and gasping 'Alice and Saya are dating!' at the top of her voice because she's so startled, do you? And she'd find out, too, because Miya tells her everything."
Saya exhaled heavily.
"I know. I know you're right; it's just that I get so nervous. I care so much that I can't let go and give them what they want, but then I worry about them finding out and what they'd do..."
"I...I understand, Saya. I know what you're going through. I just...Well, you know me. Secrets aren't my thing." She brightened then and said, "So hey, what is it I'm going to laugh about?"
"Oh, yeah! Get this, Alice; you won't believe who our editor-in-chief here paired up to do a story!"
Saya just groaned.
~X X X~
"I'm home!" Himeko called as she changed out of her shoes in the foyer of the house. She still wasn't used to her new home in terms of where all the doors led or that she didn't have to go to a public bathhouse if she wanted a soak instead of just a shower, but even so it definitely felt like "home" to her. Maybe it was because her whole family was there, or maybe because they were in Mahoroba, where the Solar Priestess had spent so many lifetimes. Either way, it was a warm, nostalgic feeling.
She followed the scent of sesame oil into the kitchen.
"Mmm, that smells great, Okaasan." Himeko caught sight of the noodles ready to be added into the stir-fry. "Soba? Isn't Otousan coming home for dinner?"
Kurusugawa Eiko shook her head.
"No, he called and said that he and several of his co-workers would be going to a sports bar in town for the game." She smiled at her daughter. "I immediately seized the chance to make soba!"
Himeko grinned back. Her parents shared many important opinions on life goals, ethics, values, and politics, but on soba noodles they found no common ground; Eiko's family ran a noodle restaurant, and her husband couldn't stand soba.
"Who's playing?" she asked.
"It's the Marines against the Buffaloes."
"Oh, so it's the newcomer from Chiba against the locals!" Himeko laughed, knowing how passionate her father was about sports generally and the Chiba Lotte Marines in specific. She could only imagine what it would be like at the bar.
"Exactly, so Hajime will have to cheer four times as hard to make up for it. But how did your day go?"
"Well, the Photography Club assigned me to take pictures to go with a story the Newspaper Club is doing on the Seven Mysteries of Ototachibana Academy." That should be pretty fun.
"The 'Seven Mysteries'? That's interesting; the kids always used to talk about the Seven Mysteries of the high school your father and I attended."
Himeko thought about that.
"That's interesting. You sometimes see it come up in manga, too, when there are seven mysteries at a school. I wonder if that means it's a kind of urban legend. Saya-san said something about finding if some of the stories are made up to fill out a list, so that's probably it, that there are supposed to be seven mysteries as part of the story." Belatedly, she remembered that in at least half of those stories, a horrible fate was supposed to overcome anyone who found out all seven mysteries, and wondered if that was part of Ototachibana's story as well.
I hope not; that's kind of scary! she thought. A moment later, she realized how silly it seemed that the Shrine Maiden of the Sun, who'd fought Yamata no Orochi, would be scared of ghosts. Not that it ever helps me on horror movie night, she thought ruefully. Wait—if there is a ghost, does that mean that as a priestess I'm supposed to exorcise it? This is more complicated than I thought!
"I think so. Well, it certainly sounds like fun, and you've always had a good eye for artistic composition. The Photography Club seems much more like you than the kendo team."
"Well, that was mostly Chikane-chan's idea. Arisu-chan says we have a chance at being nationally ranked this year! Nobody's scored a point off Chikane-chan since junior high, and Oomori-sempai and Hachibe-sempai are both really good as well. Oomori-sempai's been really nice about teaching me the rules; I'm just afraid I'll get so nervous in a match that I forget and commit a foul." She pouted and added, "I wish Otousan was a kendo fan instead of baseball and sumo; I have all the rules of those sports memorized just because he watches them on TV!"
Her mother couldn't help but laugh, though the smile quickly faded.
"Still...Himeko, are you sure that this is for you? Are you sure that girl isn't just keeping you around to cheer for her?"
"Oomori-sempai is ranked as a 4-dan, Okaasan, and I beat her nearly every time in our practice matches, except when I forget the rules." She said it sheepishly, because it sounded a little like bragging, especially as she did feel a sense of pride. It was, after all, the first time in her life—several lives, actually—she'd been praised for something physical or athletic, and that was exciting.
Eiko's eyes widened slightly. Himeko felt a little bit sorry for her mother: the move to Mahoroba had been a big enough change to confuse anyone, and it had been rapidly followed up by multiple revelations from her daughter. In retrospect, Himeko wished that she'd revealed her interest in girls earlier, so that it wouldn't have been so surprising when she started dating Chikane.
"Oh! That reminds me; Chikane-chan gave me something to deliver to you." She got out the envelope, which was all done up in fancy style. Chikane's mother, she had a feeling, had fun putting on a show and playing games with appearances. Of the four parents, she was the one who was openly supportive of the girls' romance, unlike the fathers (who didn't necessarily like the idea but accepted the facts and were determined to make the best of things as they were) or Eiko (who was still having trouble with the idea that this wasn't just a phase and was confused that the other adults assumed it could be more than that). "It's a dinner invitation from the Himemiyas."
"Dinner? Oh, my word; I don't have anything I can wear!"
"I don't think it's supposed to be a formal party, Okaasan," Himeko suggested.
"Yes, but what we call casual and they do can't be the same!"
"You may be right," Himeko agreed, then suddenly giggled at the thought of Chikane's father wrestling with a barbecue grill. No, Himemiya "casual" definitely wasn't the same as Kurusugawa "causal"!
"I can't think that encouraging the acquaintance is a good idea, and yet the Himemiyas seem to be interested in pursuing it." She paused to shake her head. "I just do not understand what they can be thinking."
They want to build a relationship with their future in-laws, Himeko thought, but was bright enough not to say it out loud. The idea of Himeko and Chikane's relationship being a permanent one, to say nothing of Chikane's family openly treating it that way, would just spark an argument. The mental image of Chikane in a bridal gown, though, put a happy smile on her face all the way through dinner.