Shepherds Watching Over Us

Who watches the lambs when they vacation amongst wolves?

Ambivalent Meetings

Yumi's 2nd year, Early August
First Wednesday of Summer Vacation
(POV: Fukuzawa Yuuki)

This looks a bit…rustic for Sachiko-san. Did I get the right place?

Fukuzawa Yuuki walked briskly down the tree-lined lane toward a white house with red peaked roof in the distance. In his hand he was carrying a tightly sealed parasol his sister, Yumi, had left at home in her excitement to flee their house to spend the week with her Lillian oneesama, Ogasawara Sachiko.

I can't blame her for being in such a rush to leave. Mom and Dad were in a tizzy over this whole thing, pestering her about every detail. They're usually not terribly focused on status and stuff, but they've definitely lost their cool over Yumi having fallen in with the Ogasawaras. I guess it would be kinda cute if it wasn't so embarrassing to Yumi. I'm just glad I was able to hide that Kashiwagi-senpai is Sachiko-san's betrothed or else I'd probably be getting it too.

Since Yuuki was visiting nearby anyway, it seemed logical for him to just quietly drop by when he got into town a few days later rather than ask his Dad to rush him by car to the train station to drop the parasol off with Yumi before she left Tokyo…and in the process totally humiliate his sister.

It's us against them and I know who's side I'm on, Yuuki thought with amusement.

It was still late-morning and the birds hadn't quite given up making music to the cicadas yet as the temperature rose. The trip from the bullet train station to the bus stop nearest the address Yumi had left with their parents, and then the walk to the house, had actually been quite pleasant.

I can see why someone like Sachiko-san might like to escape here. No one to bug her. No worries. It seems a little slow paced for Yumi, though. I hope she's having fun and isn't too bored.

Yuuki stood before the house and reconsidered one last time before walking to the door and knocking. He waited patiently until an older woman with a kind smile opened the door enough to hold a polite conversation.

"May I help you?"

"Yes, my name is Fukuzawa Yuuki. I understand my sister Yumi may be staying here?" Yuuki chose to be circumspect with the details of who he was looking to see, just in case he did have the wrong place.

"Ah, I can definitely see a resemblance," the woman said with a broadening smile. She then opened the door completely, allowing Yuuki to see an older man standing nearby, slightly further into the house. "I should introduce ourselves, I suppose. My name is Sawamura Kiyo and this is my husband Gensuke. We are responsible for this house and for caring for visitors when they arrive."

"I'll go retrieve your sister, Fukuzawa-sama, if you'll wait just a moment," the older man, Gensuke, said with a nod and turned to go deeper into the house.

"Would you like to come in and sit down, Fukuzawa-sama?" Kiyo asked politely. "It looks like you walked here from the bus station, which is a bit of a journey even before the heat rises in the afternoon. I'd be happy to get you something to drink. I have iced tea ready."

"Oh no, Sawamura-san. That certainly isn't necessary. I had plenty to drink on the train. I also need to get back quickly, so I won't be here long at all. I just came by to drop off something Yumi forgot in her excitement to leave." Yuuki held up the parasol as evidence.

Kiyo smiled and nodded knowingly. "From what I have seen of your sister these past two days, I can easily imagine such a thing happening. You and your parents have much to be proud of with that one. She is a remarkable young woman. A very refreshing visitor. I had wished just yesterday that there were more like her, and it didn't take long for my wish to be fulfilled, did it?" With this the caretaker winked and excused herself as Yumi was making her way up the hall to the door. Kiyo bowed slightly to Yumi as the two passed, and then more deeply as Sachiko followed behind her petite soeur.

As Yumi came to the door, Yuuki held up the parasol again and said, "You forgot this, so I came to deliver it."

"Oh!" Yumi exclaimed, her wide-eyed face showing surprise. Yuuki could see Sachiko station herself behind and to the left of her the pig-tailed girl, standing in front of a case of stairs.

"You forgot it at home after you went to the trouble of buying it," Yuuki continued to explain, more in explanation to Sachiko than Yumi. Yumi was clearly embarrassed based on her expressions and noises, but Yuuki continued to dig, both because it was fun to tease Yumi and also to ensure Sachiko knew full well his reason for rudely interrupting her relaxing time away. "Your fun vacation won't begin without this, right?"

"Uhhh…You stu…Don't say such unnecessary things!" Yumi said indignantly as she rushed forward to grab the parasol from his hand.

"Yumi, you shouldn't behave that way after he brought it for you." Sachiko was out of Yumi's view as she said this, but her voice matched her chiding expression. Yuuki began to feel bad for his sister and regretted, just a little, having goaded her into reacting given the dejected look that now graced her face.

"Right…" Yumi replied, clearly chastened.

I'll have to find a way of apologizing to her later. I really did take it too far, but it's too late now.

"Yuuki-san, please come in. We'll be having lunch soon, so you should join us," Sachiko said in hopeful invitation.

If I wasn't so much in a rush to get back before Yamaguchi-kun and Alice-chan kill me, and if Yumi didn't clearly see me as an intruder based on that scary look on her face, it would be cool to take Sachiko up on the offer. I can't see doing that to Yumi now, though.

Yuuki raised his hands to help emphasize his next words, "Oh, no. I'm supposed to meet the members of the student council on Main Street. We only arrived just now, but everybody was already saying they wanted to go into town."

At his words, Yumi's body language and tone of voice did a 180 degree change. "What? You're going to Main Street?" Her excitement at the idea of getting away to explore a bit was palpable. Unlike Yumi, Yuuki could see over Yumi's shoulder at Sachiko's smile.

Okay, that settles it. She is at least a little bored. Well maybe I'll be able to make things up to Yumi sooner than later. It should also make Alice-chan happy given how insistent she was that I bring Yumi into town today with me. She's clearly in full 'girl-mode' this week and I guess she wants someone to go window shopping with her. There seemed more to it than that, though…

"You haven't been yet? You want to come with me?" Yuuki offered.

"Uh…" Yumi was clearly conflicted.

"Yumi, you should go," Sachiko suggested encouragingly, her smile widening and her concern for the pig-tailed girl evident. Yumi turned slightly in the direction of her oneesama, as if to listen that much more intently. "If you're with Yuuki-san, there'll be nothing to worry about."

Yumi clearly doesn't want to be separated from Sachiko-san. Makes sense. There's an easy solution to that, assuming we can coax Sachiko-san out of her comfortable, private hidey hole.

"You should come with us too, Sachiko-san," Yuuki suggested hopefully, trying to be as inviting as he could be. Yumi turned more so she could clearly see Sachiko's response.

"I've been there before," Sachiko said ambivalently. "And besides, I don't like crowds."

At this, Yumi turned to fully face her oneesama such that Yuuki could no longer see his sister's face.

"You needn't hesitate on my account," the older girl finished, smiling even more encouraging to Yumi.

"But…" Yumi said, still clearly conflicted.

It's clear you want to go, and everyone on both your end and my end who has stated a preference wants you to go. It's time I play the loving brother and take matters into my own hands. I still have a role in your life, dear sister, whether either of us wants to admit it to outsiders or not!

With a smile and wink at Sachiko, Yuuki reached out and grabbed Yumi's left hand with his right and spun her around as he firmly coaxed her out the door. The lack of concerted resistance from the girl was his clear indicator that she really did want to go but needed someone else to make the decision for her because she just couldn't bring herself to do so.

"Then I'll be borrowing my big sister for a while," Yuuki called out as he walked away from the house. "Yumi, come on, let's go."

"Waaa!" Yumi exclaimed in verbal protest, but still her actions belied the noises.

The two siblings continued walking back up the path in silence for a short while, long enough to reach the road and safely out of hearing distance, before Yuuki let go her hand and continued speaking his mind. "It's not good."

"What's not good?" Yumi said, clearly unsure what Yuuki was trying to say.

Yuuki turned to look at Yumi before continuing. "It was written all over your face that you actually wanted to go."

Yumi's hands rose to her cheeks and she blushed slightly. "My face? Was it really showing?"

"Yes. Not going because you're concerned about Sachiko-san is disrespectful to her," Yuuki explained.

"Oh…" Yumi said, her hands dropping and her face falling, her expression clearly defeated. "But…"

Any more words from Yumi were cut off by the sound of a car slowing to a stop behind him. The sound caused Yuuki to stiffen. I know the sound of that car, Yuuki groaned inwardly. He turned, already knowing what he'd see.

And he wasn't disappointed. Kashiwagi Suguru's sporty red car was stationed in the middle of the road, right in front of the drive into Sachiko's summer home. Yuuki's stomach fell as he watched Kashiwagi-san step out of the car. His expression was friendly, but…

I'd buy the helpful look a lot more if you were actually supposed to be here.

"Hey there, Yuukichi and Yumi," Suguru called out helpfully.

Yuuki was at a loss for words at the unexpected appearance of his former senpai. Why are you surprised, idiot? He hasn't passed up an opportunity yet to meddle since he graduated. Why start now?

Yumi was obviously just as surprised as her brother based on her voice as she exclaimed, "Kashiwagi-san…"

Yuuki just stood, blank eyed, not sure how to respond. I wonder if there's anyone on this Earth who actually still likes you and yet finds you as annoying as I do, Kashiwagi-senpai…


Two days earlier…

Yumi's 2nd year, Early August
First Monday of Summer Vacation
(POV: Kashiwagi Suguru)

"You're even more annoying today than usual, which for you is quite an accomplishment," Touko expressed to her cousin as she looked helplessly to her side out the window at the fading cityscape. She was in her usual seat to the left of Kashiwagi Suguru as they drove into the sparsely populated hills of northwestern Saitama Prefecture on this Monday morning. While the wooded hills looked inviting given the August heat, it wasn't at all the direction she had expected to be going.

The admittedly stylish and handsome but often vexing driver dressed in solid baby blue shirt with an open collar and white slacks simply smiled in response, eyes effectively hidden by sunglasses, saying nothing.

"I'm already in a foul mood with Sachiko oneesama's escalating foolishness and that painfully clueless girl she made her petite soeur last year. I really would rather not have to deal with your games too, Oniisama."

"It isn't a game, Touko-chan. And even if it were, I'd like to think we'd be on the same side. As I said, I simply have to pick someone else up. After that, I promise we'll proceed directly to the family summer home and Grandfather."

"Who are we picking up?" Touko asked, turning back to glare at the driver to emphasize her frustration at finding it necessary to ask the same question yet again.

"You'll see."

Touko growled at the repeated useless answer. "That goes without saying. I don't exactly have much of a choice." She snapped her gaze back out the window, her trademark wide light-brown curls twirling into her face briefly from the rapid movement. Although the dappled morning sunlight shining through the greenery should have been relaxing, her tenseness showed no signs of fading.

Suguru had departed the Kan-etsu Expressway about 10 minutes ago, a move he knew would come as a complete surprise to Touko given they had covered less than half the distance from the Matsudaira family estate to their summer home in the northern reaches of Gunma Prefecture. Her irritated response was completely expected; in fact he had cultivated her annoyance all morning...a fairly easy task given her overall crossness these past few months. I want her annoyed. She needs to be at her most skeptical and catty in order to get a real sense of whether this is going to work with her friends.

The two occupants of the car continued in silence for another 10 minutes as they wove along an increasingly wooded and rural road, stopping when Suguru turned off onto what appeared to be a private drive given the gate and fence extending to each direction from it. An address plaque on the gate seemed to contain a name as well, but the kanji was just barely too small to make out from the car as they drove past.

"Where are we now?" Touko asked, annoyance mixing with curiosity now.

"The family estate of the person we're here to pick up," Suguru answered simply. "It's best to wait until we get there to answer your questions."

Touko took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She held her tongue, however, knowing any further words would be useless at this point. Before long, the densely wooded path opened up into a very well manicured lawn dotted with several gardens of various types and occupied at the center by a very large house...or more accurately a respectable mansion.

Suguru stopped the car in the driveway that looped in front of the main entrance, encircling a fountain. "We're here," he said as he removed his seatbelt and got out of the car. He noted Touko's curiosity overriding her annoyance for the moment as she did likewise before he turned his attention to the house.

The house was western style, much more like Touko's own home in design and size than where Suguru lived. It was raised, with stairs leading up to the main entrance. A second story existed above the main level, and almost certainly one below as well. He had been inside this house several times in the past year, and houses like it were familiar to him given his upbringing as a Kashiwagi as well as the intended heir, along with his betrothed, to the Ogasawara fortune.

As he was regarding the house, an unusually tall woman in her mid-20's by her appearance with light brown hair dressed casually in a simple, sleeveless white top with a long, flowing brown patterned skirt and sandals exited the house followed by what appeared to be two of the house staff, a man and a woman, in more formal attire.

"I'd comment that you're late, Kashiwagi-san, but alas my dear younger sister is even more behind so the chiding would fall short," she spoke out loudly enough to be heard down the stairs. The woman smiled widely, both due to her apparent good humor as well as her line of sight toward Suguru being uncomfortably close to the sun so she had to squint a little. Suguru walked up to meet her so she could turn her gaze a little more away from the brightness and regard Suguru properly.

"I had a feeling that would be the case, hence my lack of urgency. It looks like you are doing well, Arisugawa-san." Suguru bowed slightly and smiled, before turning his head to look back toward Touko. The younger girl remained standing some 25 meters away down the stairs and beside the door of the car she had recently exited. One of the two servants, the woman, was addressing her at the moment, likely inquiring whether she would like a refreshment or needed lady's facilities.

"So this is the other girl who missed out on a trip abroad in order to participate in your big scheme?" The woman before him added in a quieter, more conversational and informal voice meant clearly for just the two of them.

Suguru removed his sunglasses before continuing, respectfully allowing his conversation partner to see his eyes as they spoke. "I've told you that Touko-chan made her own decision; I had nothing to do with it and I'm still unsure of her reasons or whether she'll be a help or hindrance," the young man admitted with an ambivalent shrug that clashed with his troubled expression. "As far as Alice-kun, I regret very much that he had to miss his trip for this. That said, you know once I explained to him the stakes for Yuukichi's sister, he agreed it was a necessary sacrifice as well. In any case, this is also the traditional time for the Hanadera Student Council retreat and he is the Council Secretary." This last was said as if that alone justified denying the long-awaited flight, and more importantly the associated visit with Alice's beloved oneesama.

The woman's face darkened at Suguru's words, and he immediately knew why and what to expect. "Suguru-kun, SHE does realize, and SHE also acknowledges HER responsibilities, but that still doesn't change the fact it broke her heart to cancel a trip to Italy. I doubt you will ever fully appreciate just how much the poor thing sacrificed for you. I'll also emphasize that you had better drill into your head that Alice is a girl or you will ruin your own Machiavellian plan before your star actress even have a chance to pull it off," she practically growled.

"My apologies, Yasuna-san," Suguru responded with a contrite grin. "You are right, of course. Just remember, I deal with Alice at Hanadera rather than at Lillian or home."

"I'd be more sympathetic if she hadn't played escort service for you so often this past year," the woman said with a scowl. She then sighed and her shoulders visibly relaxed. "Then again, I realize that was then and this is now. She's not exactly the Hanadera student you remember." The woman smiled now as she finished that statement, and then added enigmatically, "Just wait a few minutes and I doubt you'll have trouble with pronouns for the rest of the week."

Suguru opened his mouth to speak again, but stopped when Yasuna shook her head slightly and turned, apparently to face someone else. He turned as well to see Touko coming up the steps to meet them, her skirt fluttering in the slight morning breeze as she walked slightly ahead of the servant who had been speaking with her moments before. When Touko stopped to stand with Suguru and Yasuna, the servant continued on into the house.

"Touko-chan let me introduce you to the older sister of the person who will be joining us for the rest of the trip to the mountains." He looked to Touko who was herself looking expectantly at Suguru and Yasuna. "Matsudaira Touko, this is Arisugawa Yasuna."

"Welcome to our home, Matsudaira-san," Yasuna said properly with a formal greeting bow. "Please forgive my grandfather, but he has limited mobility and had to decline a chance to greet our guests. My mother is out of country right now, addressing business affairs in Europe. Hopefully my presence will be enough while we await the arrival of my tardy sister. Is there anything you need in order to be comfortable while you wait? Would you like to wait inside given the sun is already starting to get oppressive?"

"Moving inside would be appreciated, Arisugawa-san," Touko said in full polite socialite mode. "I'm sure I will be getting enough sun as it is without inviting more of it standing on a doorstep. As far as anything else, I believe your staff is getting some iced tea for us and that should be fine. Iced tea is a pleasant and appreciated antidote for another very hot day."

As the group moved inside Yasuna continued the conversation, her language slipping once again into a more casual form. "Hopefully it will be a bit cooler in the mountains. I wish I could come up and join everyone, but I have to represent Grandfather at several meetings this week. I'm the token family member who didn't get to run off and enjoy herself elsewhere during the heat of the summer. I can barely wait for my sister to grow up so I won't be the most junior anymore." Yasuna winked at Touko with this last, and Touko's smile seemed to warm just slightly at this admission. "Have you had a pleasant drive so far, Matsudaira-san?" Yasuna's smile turned a bit impish before she continued by saying, "I understand your cousin's driving can often leave passengers a bit anxious."

Touko allowed herself a chuckle at this, although her expression remained schooled as she glanced about to take in her new surroundings. "Yes, his driving can sometimes be…aggressive, but I've spent enough time in his care to have gotten used to it. Many forget how he values that skin of his rather highly," Touko said while looking askance with an arched eyebrow at the subject of her comment, "so I doubt he'd ever allow himself to be in an accident. I am certainly safer in his car than those unfortunate enough to be on the sidewalk near it. I'm just looking forward to meeting this second passenger I've heard so little about. My dear cousin has been vexingly cryptic, and I apologize if that makes me an ill-prepared guest."

"Not at all, Matsudaira-san," Yasuna said reassuringly. "You've been lovely, and I am very glad to get to know you."

Any further discussion was ended for the moment as the sound of ice clinking against glass met those standing inside the door and the same female servant came out with a tray carrying three tall glasses of iced tea. "Yasuna ojou-sama and honored guests, here is the iced tea Matsudaira-sama suggested would be desirable after her long drive. She couldn't suggest how Kashiwagi-sama would like his tea, and so I brought out options for him if he wishes it sweetened."

The three helped themselves to the tea and Yasuna was assured by the other two that it was to their liking before she permitted the servant to continue. "Alice ojou-sama is just collecting the few things that weren't sent up yesterday and should be joining you within moments. She wished me to convey her deep apologies for her rudeness in making Matsudaira-sama wait."

As the servant turned and went back into the house, Yasuna chuckled. "She apologizes to Matsudaira-san but not you, Kashiwagi-san. Certain things in the universe are indeed constant. It appears you'll be unable to buy a break from either of your lady travelling companions."

Despite her efforts at schooling her expression, Touko's eyes showed her amusement at this last remark. Suguru simply smiled silently and shook his head, apparently determining any response as the only man present would cost him more than it would gain.

"Hello everyone. Am I interrupting?" a hesitant new voice sounded from a hallway behind Kashiwagi and Touko. Yasuna motioned for the person to come join them and the two guests turned to greet the new addition.

"Not at all Alice…" Suguru's voice trailed off as he was turned and was confronted with a very different person than he had expected. The 'Alice' he knew was androgynous, barely pubescent with unruly brown hair and, when not at school, generally dressed in clothing that, like his body for the most part, didn't confirm gender either way. He had, of course, seen Alice dressed more formally as a girl, had even gone out to social events with Alice attached conveniently to his arm in "girl mode" many times, but always Suguru was able to quite happily cling to the albeit subtle but pleasantly enjoyable "boy flavor" of this remarkably ambiguous child. There was no such flavor in the young one before him, despite it clearly being the same person.

Like her older sister this new girl was dressed in a skirt and white top, but the similarities ended there. In this case, the blouse was ruffled along a line that came from the girl's covered shoulders and dipped down to curve along the top of the bodice. Barely translucent material covered the space between, ascending up to the neck where the blouse formed a collar. Around her neck, dangling from a thin chain under the translucent material but clearly visible through it, was a simple silver cross on a chain. The blouse cinched at the waist, hugging it for emphasis when compared to her hips. While she wasn't exactly curvy as high school girls of her age would often go, the sense that she was decidedly a "she" was pronounced by her lithe stature, her clear, delicate skin…and something else.

Although he academically knew to expect it given what he had been told, Suguru noted for the first time what should have been the disturbing signs, from his perspective at least, of breast development; still early development, yes, and apparently easily masked by a Hanadera uniform given the child's alter ego he had seen only two weeks before, but now obvious and unmistakably real given the nature of the blouse she was wearing. Complementing the top was a floral pattern skirt with pink, orange and white flowers which descended to above the knee. Finishing off the outfit, and the remarkable effect, were thin white tights reminiscent of the bodice material of the top and black shoes.

Enhancing the feminine effect even more than her body, however, was her face and hair. Like her body, her face exuded a woman-child aura, which was further emphasized by what was framing it; the most perplexing puzzle piece of all- her hair. Despite Suguru having seen him…her…whatever!…just a few weeks ago with at most shoulder length curls, now her brown hair was tinted with a hint of red and ran in gentle waves down to her mid-back. Adding to this amazing feature were feathers in soft autumn colors which complimented the skirt woven intricately along the hair's length on both sides of her face. The reds, browns, and oranges accentuated her natural coloration remarkably, and integrated seamlessly with her outfit. The 'maturing child' effect of the whole package left Suguru, said child's long-time mentor, stunned. Suguru knew Alice's true nature, yet looking at her now he found himself grasping for signs of familiar masculinity to cling to.

Suguru turned back briefly to look at Yasuna, who apparently had been regarding him with a highly amused expression. She simply winked once they made eye contact and then quickly turned back to her sister. "Nice of you to finally join us, Oneechan."

Alice's expression went from uncertain to what could only be described as playful as she watched the expressions progress on Suguru's face. She bounced into the room, quite literally given her movements were done in a way that caused her hair to flow with her movements...movements that exuded grace and no little amount of sensuousness despite her more childlike than mature frame. She smiled broadly as she came up to Suguru and attached herself to Suguru's left arm. "Welcome back, Suguru-sama. I'm sorry for keeping you waiting so long. I hope you won't be too upset at me." This last was said looking up past Suguru's shoulder into his eyes with a slightly pouty and clearly contrite look.

Yasuna was watching as Suguru blinked a few times and swallowed. Come on, Prince Charming. You said you wanted an attention-getting distraction, and she's giving you precocious Lolita in all her glory. Don't you dare ruin Alice's performance after all the work she put into it. Knowing she couldn't do anything to rescue Suguru from himself at this point, Yasuna turned her eyes to Touko to see how the test audience was doing. So much for her supposed much vaunted facial control, she thought with amusement. I think the poor child is going to pop a blood vessel. There's no doubt she's hooked. Come on Suguru, don't blow it!

To Suguru's credit, he recovered from the shock remarkably fast, his face slipping back from surprise to his usual cool expression. "Not at all, Alice-chan," Suguru answered with a warm smile, smoothly lifting a hand to gently coax back some errant hair that had strayed into Alice's face as she moved into the room. "You look marvelous today."

Alice giggled as she backed away from Suguru, ending up standing neat to Touko. "Why thank you, Suguru-sama," she replied with an adorable curtsy, turning then to face Touko and settling into a more formal stance, standing straight with her arms coming together in front of her. "Suguru-sama said he'd be bringing his cousin as well. I'm Arisugawa Arisu, 16 years old. The name comes from the English, so those who can pronounce it as Alice usually do so. I am deeply honored to meet Suguru-sama's relative and hope we can be friends." Alice then bowed to emphasize her words said in very formal, aristocratic Japanese.

Touko's face could only be described as well-controlled during Alice's introduction. She responded in kind once Alice had straightened from her bow. "Thank you for your gracious hospitality, Arisugawa-san. My name is Matsudaira Touko, 15 years old. It appears we'll have plenty of time in Suguru oniisama's car to get to know each other better," Touko replied noncommittally yet diplomatically, also bowing when she was done speaking.

"I'm looking forward to it very much, Matsudaira-san. You are very kind to someone you know so little about. I'm looking forward to sharing the drive up with you. I'm sure you have a lot of questions, and I'll do my best to answer them," Alice assured Touko with a renewed smile. "Now, if you will excuse me as I go retrieve the things I left at the base of the stairs, we can get on our way. I am sorry I delayed your progress more than was necessary." She then turned away from Touko and moved gracefully back down the hall and out of sight.

"I can certainly see why she was delayed," Touko commented absently in the direction the girl had gone. "The feather weaving in her hair must have taken hours. I've never seen it done so elegantly in my life, and I know a lot of image-conscious women."

"It's the first time she's ever done that, although she's wanted to do it for a while," Yasuna shared. "We've been working on it just about since sunrise."

"I can imagine," Touko mused, then shook her head as she turned her attention fully to Yasuna. "Did you braid them in? It's impressive work"

"Oh no," Yasuna waved her hands indicating denial. "I didn't do anything but watch, hold a few clips, and give my thoughts here or there. We brought in one of our estheticians who specializes in feather weaving and complex hair design to get her going. She'll have to maintain it, though, so it'll be interesting to see what it looks like by week's end."

"Your esthetician?"

"Ōkabamadara Entertainment Capital Group is part of our family's portfolio," Yasuna said with a shrug. "The performance division is our pride and joy, and we have a lot of resources to make sure our performers, whether it be stage or screen, look their best."

Touko nodded, seemingly filing away that piece of information. "Makes sense. You do have a lovely estate. Suguru-san was very tight lipped about this little detour, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this oasis appear when we came out of the trees."

"It's a sizable compound and much of it is wooded," Yasuna explained as her hand waved in the direction out the door, "although there are a few satellite houses in addition to the main one where live many of the staff as well as my uncle and his family. If we had more time, I would gladly give you a tour if you wished it, but I suspect right now you will want to be on your way as soon as my sister returns. Perhaps on your way back down?"

"Perhaps," Touko replied, again noncommittally. At that moment, Alice returned with a small bag in one hand and a violin case in the other; a small purse slung over her shoulder. Beside her was the male servant they had seen initially, now carrying an additional small bag.

"Alice-chan," Suguru offered after having hung back in silence while Yasuna and Touko spoke, "let me take you back out to the car and we'll load your bags. Touko-chan, if you would like to speak with Arisugawa-san a little more, feel free as it will take us a little time to rearrange things in the trunk." With that, Suguru, Alice, and the servant moved in the direction the door. As Alice made to exit the door, she turned briefly to smile at Touko, waving one hand slightly, before disappearing out of sight.


(POV: Matsudaira Touko)

Touko heard Yasuna chuckle as she said in regards to the servant's recent words, "She apologizes to Matsudaira-san but not you, Kashiwagi-san. Certain things in the universe are indeed constant. It appears you'll be unable to buy a break from either of your lady travelling companions."

As Touko watched Suguru's response to the words, she couldn't help but feel amused despite her tight control over her emotions and expressions. This Arisugawa Yasuna seems likable enough, but what of her little sister? And I still don't know what connection they have to Oniisama and why we're even here.

"Hello everyone. Am I interrupting?" Touko heard a voice say from behind her. She turned around to see the source of the voice and was presented with a young girl only a little larger than Touko, likely close to Touko's own age. She clearly had placed a lot of effort into her appearance today, although her initial uncertain smile didn't seem to convey vanity. Much the opposite in fact as her nervous brown eyes seemed to dart from Yasuna to Touko and then to Suguru.

Great, another girl who wears her emotions for all the world to see. Given her status, she's probably some unholy mix of Yumi-sama and Kikuyo-san.

"Not at all Alice…," Touko heard Suguru reply. He seemed ready to say more, but didn't. Touko looked over at her cousin and was perplexed to see a surprised look on his face.

"Nice of you to finally join us, Oneechan." This time it was Yasuna's voice that broke the odd silence. Although Touko wasn't watching her, it was clear from her inflection that something was greatly amusing the woman.

What happened next stunned Touko out of her usual tight control. Out of the corner of her eye, she sensed movement from the new girl and turned to track the girl's entrance into the room. Her movements were more childish than adult and her expression now playful and confident. Touko was then shocked as the brown-eyed girl attached herself to Suguru's arm and said while looking up into his eyes with what, for most outsiders, would seem an adorable look, "Welcome back, Suguru-sama. I'm sorry for keeping you waiting so long. I hope you won't be too upset at me."

Who does this girl think she is and where does she get off being this familiar with Oniisama?

As Touko worked to get her expressions back under control, she was further surprised to see Suguru's initial confused look shift into gentleness of all things! "Not at all, Alice-chan," Touko watched Suguru answer with a smile and a hand movement across the girl's face that Touko felt certain conveyed genuine affection. "You look marvelous today," he added, further confounding Touko's attempt to regain her center.

While Touko was still struggling, she watched as Alice giggled as she backed away from Suguru, ending up standing next to her. "Why thank you, Suguru-sama," The girl replied with a perfect curtsy, turning then to face Touko's direction.

Given she was now in the center of attention, Touko drew on reserves of strength that made her the actress she was, forcing her emotions to behave and her face to conform to her wishes. The new girl introduced herself in very proper fashion and Touko replied in kind. When the introductions were over and the girl glided back the way she had come, Touko had a few moments to process her initial thoughts behind her tight emotion mask as she made mindless conversation with the older sister.

This girl is well bred, of that I can't argue. She is very pretty, too, and despite her apparent vapidness seems nice enough. I suppose she could be a good match for Suguru given she's not exactly voluptuous…but she's still a girl and Suguru is gay! And if he's not, then he's betrothed to Sachiko oneesama! I know he cares for Sachiko-sama, so what is going on here? You bet I have questions!

Over the next few minutes she got a few more questions answered courtesy of the woman who had greeted them. Ōkabamadara Entertainment Capital Group certainly explains the money. They finance a lot of the talent in Japan as well as own the venues where they perform. If they trace back as a cadet branch of the historical imperial Arisugawa line, then their status is at least equal to ours. So again, what is the link they have with Oniisama?

With this thought, she watched as said cousin walked out the door with Alice and a servant. Well, I'm only going to be here another few minutes at most and the older sister seems pretty good natured. I may as well ask some questions. "So, Arisugawa-san. How is it that you came to meet Kashiwagi-san?"

Yasuna turned from looking at the now closed door to regard Touko with a wry smile and a slight shrug. "Unfortunately, I'm not much help explaining that. I know him through Alice."

"I see," Touko responded, smoothing her skirt to cover her nervousness at her next statement. "They seem close."

Yasuna chuckled. "You seem surprised."

Touko couldn't help but furrow her brow as she considered her next words. Her frustration emboldened her. "I'll be honest, I am very much so. Are you aware Suguru-san is betrothed?"

Yasuna's response to this was completely unexpected, and took Touko aback. She giggled, so much so that tears threatened to come out of her eyes. "I'm sorry, I'm just not the best one to be holding my own in this conversation. Please, I need to get you back out to those two. Let me just say that yes, I am quite aware Kashiwagi-san is betrothed. I also know it's to the only child of the Ogasawara direct line." Yasuna guided Touko to the door and opened it before Touko could say anything else. "I'll just finish by saying that I have come to know Suguru-kun pretty well over the past year and I can only hope that not even my little sister is that desperate." She then motioned Touko out the door, smiling with eyes twinkling yet also clearly indicating she had no more to say for now. Touko was left with her own highly perplexing thoughts for a while as everyone said their goodbyes, the travelers got back into the car, and Suguru departed the estate in the same manner they had come.

***Author's Notes***

For those who read my earlier MSGM story, Looking In, yes this is part of the same storyline. Like with Looking In, my goal is to tell my story while staying faithful to the MSGM canon as defined by the anime. Concepts from the light novels may enter into the story, but I only hold myself to the anime.

If I can tell this story and still leave Touko intact for the events of Season IV, I'll call myself successful. By far, Touko will be the primary character in point-of-view terms. Touko really IS this story. The other main character, although we specifically will never get inside her head this time around, is Arisugawa Alice. I challenged myself to write a MSGM story without having Alice narrate it. So far, so good! Other point of view characters will be Yumi, Yuuki, and Suguru.

Finally, I've been working on this story for months, since March in fact. I had intended to wait to publish it until all chapters were written (currently six are). Instead, with Celtic's lovely Foundation story and soon another writer about to take on this dear girl, I decided I wanted to be part of the 'Summer of Alice'. I'm glad to see her getting out so much these days. :-)