Shepherds Watching Over Us

Who watches the lambs when they vacation amongst wolves?

Blood in the Water

2nd year, Early August
First Tuesday of Summer Vacation

Remember, you're on your own tomorrow.

The words she had reiterated to Alice the previous night echoed in Touko's head as she stood, irritated, outside the only bathroom on the second floor of the Matsudaira summer home.

This must be what the other girls at Lillian are talking about when they complain about their sisters hogging the bathroom. I never appreciated just how annoying it can be.

"Arisugawa-san, how much longer are you going to be?" Touko finally allowed herself to say in her annoyance. It wasn't hard at all to maintain formalities given her mood at the moment.

Today's going to be bad enough without this to start it. The first day is always the worst…

"A while. You do realize how much work these feathers are to maintain, right?"

"And you do realize you're occupying the only bathroom with a shower on this floor or outside my grandfather's room downstairs, right?"

"It's not my fault there's no large mirror or grooming desk in the guest room. That said," Touko heard Alice pause and was surprised when the door to the bathroom opened, "I'm done with the shower, Matsudaira-san. You're more than free to use it. We're all girls here, right?" Alice stood in the open door for moment, clearly dressed only in bra and panties, and displaying a smug expression as she finished speaking. She then turned back to her work at the mirror as if nothing at all was amiss.

Touko knew she had allowed her shock to display briefly, but she schooled it quickly. Alice's state of (barely) dress was obvious to Touko without looking down, and she forced herself not to assuage her curiosity by doing so. She stood indecisively at the door for a few more moments.

"Keep in mind, Matsudaira-san, that I've spent years in a small apartment sharing a bathroom with my sister. This isn't anything unusual for me."

So who is it again that's on their own today?

Touko now felt challenged by this girl and determined not to back down. She strode into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. Despite there being only one bathroom on the second floor, it was spacious and two girls could share it easily without being crowded. Still, despite having spent time in dressing rooms and locker rooms her whole life, she couldn't help but feel a little self conscious at the moment. She stood for a moment watching Alice working on her hair, realizing the girl really was just continuing on as if nothing had happened.

I'm the one staring at her. Who's the voyeur?

That thought chastened her, and Touko realized it was either fish or cut bait.

Let's go fishing.

Touko finished her way to the shower. Turning her back to Alice just as she would in a locker room, she slipped out of her nightgown and underwear. As she removed her bra she realized with a start that Alice wasn't terribly far behind her in that department. Until that thought her vexation at Alice, first for her slowness and then for her boldness, had moderated Touko's embarrassment at the situation. Now she felt the telltale warmth of blushing and dove for the refuge of the shower to cover it. As she turned to look at Alice again through the fogged glass, she realized she needn't have worried. Alice was still clearly intent on her hair and face.

Vain little…

Touko shook her head both to berate herself for allowing Alice to get under her skin and to slip into the shower cap she grabbed from a hook on the wall near her. As she turned on the water and adjusted the temperature she consoled herself with the knowledge that at least this method of unbalancing Touko, whether it be a conscious effort or simply collateral to the peculiar circumstances, wouldn't be available later today. Alice had far more to lose by allowing her dual-nature to be known than did Touko, although Touko also realized it likely wouldn't make her life very easy for a while either were it to come out. In the end, Touko had to admit it was probably for the best that this happen now. If there had been doubt in Touko's mind about Alice's status as a girl before, any chance of a verbal slip-up, there wasn't anymore after seeing her like this.

Is this the same girl who was so insecure last night? She's like night and day.

"So, Matsudaira-san," Alice began again, apparently maintaining also the resumed formalities between them that they had both agreed would be wise today, regardless of whether they were with others or not. "Is there anything you'd be willing to share about your friends that I'll be meeting today? All I know from Suguru-sama is that they're like you, both in being wolves and in their likely distaste for the relationship between Ogasawara-sama and Yumi-sama and their desire to humiliate Yumi-sama."

Touko's brow furrowed a bit at that characterization as her hands lathered up a loofah. "I wouldn't exactly say that I want to humiliate Yumi-sama. I just don't think she's healthy for Sachiko-oneesama, or the other way around to be honest. It would be best for all concerned if Yumi-sama would just admit that, but she won't listen to reason. Trust me, I've tried."

"And how does Ogasawara-sama feel about all this?" Alice inquired.

Touko's memories of the previous month when Sachiko's grandmother died filled her mind. We all tried to console her, but Sachiko was completely unreachable. Unreachable to anyone but her, that is. Touko buried her hurt over those events before answering Alice. "Sachiko-oneesama is confused."

"Is she?"

Touko looked over and could see Alice's profile had turned to face the shower. Touko suddenly felt self-conscious on several levels and turned her back to the door to obfuscate her own frame through the fogged glass. "Arisugawa-san, I've known Sachiko-oneesama my entire life. I don't appreciate your questioning at all. I'm here to keep Sachiko-sama from getting hurt. Period. If because you're smitten with Suguru-oniisama or Yumi-sama's brother you want to protect Yumi-sama beyond that, that's fine. Just stay out of my way."

Touko allowed the water to flow against her left side for a good minute of silence before turning to look back out the fogged glass. Alice was again intent on the mirror.

"As far as today," Touko resumed speaking into the silence as she washed herself, "there are three others beside me I suspect you will be sharing the day with. Ayanokoji Kikuyo is my age, Kyogoku Kieko is your age as is Saionji Yukari. Saionji-san's family owns the house we'll be visiting for lunch." Touko paused before deciding how to continue. "Saionji-san is the leader. You mentioned attaching yourself to the alpha. That would be her. Don't get too close, though, or the other two will take exception to it, especially Kikuyo-san."

"I think I get that," Alice responded simply.

Touko finished rinsing out the loofah and placed it back on the wall hanger before beginning to rinse her body in earnest. "Do you have a plan, then?"

"You've said our best bet is to allow Ogasawara-sama and her petite soeur to just be left alone to do their own thing. I think for now I'll just be the young socialite and we'll see what we can do to either keep your friends from going over there, or to try and keep Yumi-sama from interacting too much with them. If Yumi-sama is anything like her brother, you may be surprised that she'll figure this out on her own."

"I'd feel a lot better trusting Yumi-sama's insight into things if she'd avoided the trap in the first place, Arisugawa-san. If she'd had the sense God gave a radish she'd still be safe in Tokyo, I'd be in Canada with my family, and you'd be in Florence with your Oneesama. We're both stuck here because she's a naïve fool."

"Put that way, I can see your point," Alice replied. Touko couldn't be sure through the running water, but she suspected it was accompanied by a sigh. "In any case, as you noted when you joined me in here, we're running late due mostly to me. I'm going to go get dressed and finish preparing in my room. I also need to coordinate something with Harou-san. I'll try not to slow us down any more."

"You're fine, Arisugawa-san. Lunch is informal. It's usually just between the four of us who are closest to Sachiko-oneesama. It wouldn't be the first time I've been fashionably late for lunch the first day."

If I could avoid it entirely, I would. I can just hope Alice distracts them from me, too. Is it too much to hope?

***PGBR***

"You sure you'll be fine, Alice-chan?"

It was late morning and Alice and Touko had just extracted themselves from Suguru's small sports car. Suguru remained in the car, but it was clear that now, when his plan was ready to be fully implemented, he was having second thoughts.

"Suguru-sama," Alice responded, clearly trying to be reassuring, "nothing's changed since you came to me with the idea. I'm the same girl you've attached to your arm for how many social functions? I know how to play the game and I'll be fine."

"And you, Touko-chan?" Suguru turned with an enquiring look to his cousin.

Inside, Touko lamented all the times she had tried to telegraph her hurt and fears to this man and had watched as her usually perceptive cousin blithely missed them all, caught up as he so often was with himself. When Touko had needed him most, Suguru had been caught up in his own coming of age struggles and insecurities despite what he let on to most others. There had been no room for her, and now it was water under the bridge; he could keep his concern. The damage had been done.

"You really are a fool if you're going to worry about me, Oniisama," Touko derided. "I'm on my home turf after all. As far as Alice-chan; as we've discussed, she's the daughter of a friend of Grandfather's who he invited to join us this weekend. It wasn't like I had much of a choice to have her tag along. Other than that, she's on her own. She has her interests, and I have mine." Touko didn't have to feign her scowl at all.

Suguru looked troubled, and Touko shook her head again. "Baka," she said simply and turned to walk off toward the ostentatious newly remodeled house they had stopped before. Touko felt a little sorry for Suguru and his confusion, but she didn't have the energy to worry about him too…not with Alice here. Touko had been cool to Alice all morning, even before Suguru's arrival, and the interaction had done Alice well. The new girl's initial uncertainty had mutated into a cool aloofness that was going to serve her well this week if she kept it up. In fact, Alice was doing such a good job now that Touko couldn't be sure Alice herself hadn't changed her feelings toward Touko. Touko buried the ironic worried turnabout that thought represented as she turned back to make clear her real impatience with the other two.

Touko watched as Alice leaned into the car and Suguru gave her a kiss on the cheek. I wonder who got a look at that? Touko had no way of knowing who was watching at that moment, but she was certain it would be common knowledge between her friends well before she would see them.

May you live in interesting times.

By now, Alice was bouncing up the lane toward Touko. She was dressed conservatively in a red floral skirt and pink blouse. Around her neck was a butterfly-shaped pendant and her ears sported small gold hoop earrings. Very simple; a bit more colorful but still similar to what Touko was wearing, yet the effect on Alice was different given the latter girl's current vivaciousness.

The colors suit her.

Alice's enthusiastic display of happiness after her affectionate departure from Suguru moderated once she caught up with Touko, moderation Touko appreciated. Her irritated concern regarding those two wasn't feigned. Touko wasn't sure if Alice had been aware of the effect it would have on her new friend as well as the new audience, but Touko had to admit it certainly helped Touko maintain her role. Right now, in the mood she was in, she really did want to slap Alice.

"This place exudes new money," Alice noted quietly, her words for Touko alone emphasizing 'new' were completely at odds with her wide-eyed expression intended for the audience.

Touko didn't respond externally, although inside she gave the girl credit for her perception. That was exactly what the Saionji family was for anyone who really paid attention. Touko's own family and Sachiko's family came up here to get away from all the trappings of their status. The Saionji's, coming to their greatly increased fortune after the war and wanting everyone to know their recent success, brought their trappings everywhere they went.

As the two approached the door, a male servant in formal black and white attire opened it. "Matsudaira-sama, the ladies are awaiting your arrival in back. May I escort you and your guest?" He bowed.

Touko nodded. "That would be nice." She and Alice then followed the man as he led them down a hall where they could see a large sitting room to the side. The hall then led through an even larger great room, clearly intended to entertain large gatherings.

She's showing off, Touko thought with grim amusement at the thinly veiled effort to remind Touko, and likely Kieko and Kikuyo as well, of the current size of the Saionji fortune. I wonder what she's going to do when she realizes the Arisugawa largesse dwarfs her own, and she has ancestral status as well. Maybe this distraction thing may work.

After the obligatory tour of the relatively opulent public areas of the new Saionji house, Touko and Alice were led out a wide glass door onto a brick-lined patio. At the distant end of the patio was a path leading to a gazebo centered within a flowered garden. It was clear by the three girls currently sitting under the gazebo that this was their destination. As the walkers approached, the servant announced them as 'Matsudaira-sama and guest', then bowed and turned back to the house.

"It's so nice to see you again, Touko-san," Saionji Yukari expressed as the two new arrivals came to stand next to the table. She then tilted her head in curiosity as she turned to gaze on Alice. "And I don't believe we've had the honor of meeting."

"This is Arisugawa Alice," Touko said by way of introduction. "She is the daughter of a friend of my grandfather and he invited her to join us for the week at his summer home."

Alice added to this while flashing a bright smile accompanied by a proper bow, "I am very pleased to meet you all. I hope my unexpected presence doesn't impose and that surprise at my arrival didn't interrupt your enjoyment of the day."

"Oh, not at all. I'm Saionji Yukari and this is my father's estate. I am very glad to have you as a guest. Please both of you have a seat and join us," Yukari gestured at the remaining chairs. Once Touko and Alice were settled, the two remaining girls at the table proceeded with their introductions.

"I'm Ayanokoji Kikuyo," the youngest of the three with short black hair and green eyes began. "I'm very glad to make your acquaintance and look forward to getting to know you better this week." She smiled at Alice, who responded in kind.

"And I am Kyogoku Kieko," the last of the girls began in friendly fashion. She had long brown hair held back with a clip and brown eyes that didn't seem to miss anything at all. "If you don't mind, I am fascinated by geneology. Do you by chance know where you separate from the ancestral imperial Arisugawa line?"

Alice smiled warmly at this, clearly prepared for the question. "Absolutely, Kyogoku-san. My grandfather is very proud of the fact he is a direct cadet male line, three removed, from Prince Arisugawa Tsunahito."

Oh wow, Touko thought as she absorbed this. Touko noted the eye twitch both Yukari and Kieko let slip before reasserting their control again. That's still much too far removed to be Imperial Line, of course, but close enough to count for a lot to these girls.

"Impressive. Your grandfather has much to be proud of," Yukari added. To Touko's experienced eye her smile seemed a little more forced than before, her eyes slightly wider than they had been before.

Alice shrugged, her smile unabated but her expression indicating graceful indifference. "I suppose. I don't worry myself too much over it; rather I let the men handle such things. I focus my energies on artistic things as I've been encouraged while my family seeks out an appropriate husband."

Touko struggled to keep her jaw from dropping. She's playing the pretty little aristocratic flower to the hilt. Happy to play beta. Practically screaming "Lead Me". I think my head would explode doing this if I weren't on a stage.

Touko's glance at the others indicated they were taking the bait regarding their expected prospects with the girl.

"Well Arisugawa-san," Yukari continued looking intently first at Alice and then at Touko, "it appears your presence this week will certainly be interesting, and I'm sure Touko-san will appreciate the company. I hope she isn't terribly troublesome for you. She's has had difficulties of late maintaining hold of those important to her. I can imagine she must be quite distressed." Touko started at the broadside which should have been expected, but which still managed to catch her off guard given the timing. She closed her eyes and schooled her expression again, but not before the smiles around her indicated that it was too late.

So much for Alice as a distraction helping me. Yukari's establishing with Alice that she's alpha bitch…as usual at my expense, Touko thought with familiar misery before opening her eyes to engage the familiar routine.

"Matsudaira-san has actually been a kind hostess, Saionji-san," Alice responded graciously, her smile unabated as she took a sip of her tea. "Not difficult at all. I wasn't aware she had been troubled. We only just met yesterday when Suguru-sama drove us up."

"You know Kashiwagi-sama well, Arisugawa-san?" This time it was Kieko who took up the question.

"As I mentioned earlier, my grandfather knows Matusdaira-sensei. I know Suguru-sama through family connections. I'm sure my knowledge of him doesn't hold a candle to that of his cousin." Alice smiled generously at Touko, who was maintaining her silence, watching as "on your own" took on a very different meaning from what had originally been envisioned.

"I suppose," Kieko said, turning to Touko. "We all know how close Touko-san is with her cousin. It would sadden us all, of course, to see anything come between them given her recent loss."

"Kieko-san," Touko responded now to all present, "my relationship with Suguru-oniisama is none of your concern. As far as any other loss, I'm not exactly sure what you're referring to." Touko steeled herself for the traditional humiliation, this time with added overtones of resentment at Alice despite the fact it had been Touko who had been so clear about "on your own". Time to get this over with.

"Oh?" Kieko responded with measured surprise. "Perhaps I heard wrong but I understood that Sachiko-sama has taken a Lillian little sister while you apparently weren't paying attention."

"I was paying perfect attention, Kieko-san, insofar as I could from middle school. Sachiko-oneesama's choice of soeur is her own affair and I saw no reason to get involved." Despite it being the truth, as expected the defense was ineffectual. The next volley, however, truly hit home…as it always did.

"Her own affair, you say? Or is it possible you felt sorry for someone of no rank. Kinship, perhaps?" Kikuyo fired the shot Touko couldn't respond to, as usual. Touko simply stayed silent to allow the girl the last word. Experience showed it was the best way to avoid further hurt. Of the three, Kikuyo was the one, had she been born a boy, Touko was certain would have reveled in tearing the legs off insects. Although they were all cruel, Kikuyo was the most direct of the three.

"Well, no matter," Yukari said, taking back ownership of the conversation once Touko had been allowed a few moments to stew in her own juices…and the pecking order had been clearly demonstrated for the new girl. "We're going to help you this week, Touko-san. Your dear relation and senpai is clearly responding irrationally to her grandmother's illness and death. She needs our help. We understand Sachiko-sama has providentially come up this week with her Lillian sister. It is our intention to show this rank skipping upstart her place and bring Ogasawara Sachiko back to us."

/*/

"Thank you, Saionji-san. Lunch was delicious."

Touko watched as Alice smiled graciously at her hostess, daintily placing her knife and fork on her now empty plate. Servants had arrived and were carefully maneuvering around the girls in order to remove the tableware.

Tensions had abated since the apparently obligatory drubbing of Touko over the current perceived setback with Sachiko. Lunch had arrived shortly after that, and conversation had slipped to less charged topics. The assembled girls now knew that Alice was tutored, was quite a musician, and had spent much of her life abroad. It was clear Touko's friends were feeling Alice out. When Alice would mention having been a place which one or more of the others had also visited, conversation lingered for a while as Alice was cheerfully pressed for details which proved she was as she said. London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Rome, Budapest, Moscow, New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Sydney were just some of the locales discussed...at least the ones anyone else could speak to. Touko knew Alice was well travelled as a younger child, but hearing the litany of cities she had visited left even her feeling slightly jealous. It was clear the others felt even more so.

"You are very welcome, Arisugawa-san. I'm glad you liked it."

"I did very much." Alice said assuredly, then brightened as she began speaking again, clearly addressing Yukari specifically. "Saionji-san, I'm hoping that perhaps this afternoon I can reciprocate somewhat."

Yukari, who had been splitting her attention between her guests and watching her staff perform, turned her head with a curious expression toward Alice. She cocked her head slightly to indicate she was listening.

"I'm not sure if there is interest, but I haven't ever been to a beach on the western side of Japan. Visiting beaches when I travel is always a high point for me, and yet I haven't taken the time to experience the Sea of Japan except from the air. My driver assures me that he has access to a vehicle which will seat all of us. I thought given how hot today will be that a drive in an air conditioned car to a nice beach might be a pleasant way to spend the day. It'll be my treat of course, for the whole trip." Alice smiled hopefully at the others although her focus was always on Yukari, to whom she had been clearly deferential since introductions. Not surprisingly, Yukari answered for all of them.

"That's very kind of you, Arisugawa-san," Yukari said, clearly considering the idea. "I had originally though we would go visit Sachiko-sama today, though."

"I certainly defer to your judgment, Saionji-san, and meeting Ogasawara-sama would be splendid of course, but unfortunately tomorrow I have personal business to attend to. If we're going to make the beach happen, it'll have to be today."

Yukari looked to each of the others and nodded. "Well, if that's the case we can always visit Sachiko-sama tomorrow. We'll need to let our families know, but I can't imagine there'll be any issues given Matusdaira-sensei's endorsement. When are you thinking of leaving?"

"Very soon if we're to have any time there. We can stop by each of your places on the way out for swimsuits and anything else that's readily accessible. Anything else, we can always get when we get there. Saionji-san, I can have my driver here in less than 30 minutes. Can you be ready?"

Yukari seemed surprised at how quickly things were now moving, but the new feeling of excitement among the girls was palpable. Yukari had to ride at the speed of the wave if she was to be seen as still being in charge. As Touko watched the oldest of the girls move quickly back to the house to get her things and inform her family of her plans, and the younger two pulled out cellular phones to make their own preparations, Touko had to marvel at how Alice had already managed to delay contact with Sachiko and Yumi for at least one day.

I suppose even with these girls there are few problems you can't solve by throwing money at it.

***PGBR***

Alice and Yukari have been nigh inseparable since we got in the car to drive out here, Touko thought with a scowl as she watched Yukari once again trying to correct Alice's posture on a surfboard. I swear Alice has passed the quarter-million yen mark trying to impress the others, and they've been eating it up. SUV and gas, exclusive gated beach recommended by Yukari, surfboard rentals suggested by Kikuyo, plans for dinner at a place favored by Kieko, and everything else we've gotten or arranged today. This isn't the simple yet peculiar girl I took a walk in the woods with yesterday. You can't trust people who display their emotions. Emotions exist just to manipulate others. Just like Kikuyu…and just like Yumi I'm sure.

"Gokigenyo, Matsudaira-san," a friendly female voice called to her.

"Goki…" Touko started saying reflexively, before shaking herself out of her reverie and looking up at the person who was unexpectedly offering her the traditional Lillian greeting. Touko was sitting in her one piece swimsuit on a large blanket laid out on the sunny beach. A large parasol had been set up by Harou-san, Alice's driver, to provide shade when the girls wanted to rest. Touko had been noting that rest seemed the furthest thing from the others' minds as they had been frolicking non-stop in the waves just about since they had arrived. Touko was currently sitting with her knees pulled up, her hands folded on them, and her chin resting on her hands…looking out at the water.

"Here," the brown-haired still young but mature woman said as she offered Touko a cup, smiling encouragingly. "It's strawberry. I thought it was the best bet for something you'd like."

Touko noted the woman held another cup in her hand which had the appearance of having been started already. "Harou-san, why just me? I thought you'd be more worried about Alice-san especially given the risks she looks to be taking out there in nothing but a one-piece swimsuit," Touko reasoned.

"And I thought you'd be out there playing with your friends. Alice-chan seems to be doing fine," Harou Akane, the wife of Alice's driver, responded in kind as she sat beside Touko and assumed a similar posture, beginning her own watch out to sea. "I learned a long time ago to have faith in her judgment during moments like these."

"You're acting strange for house staff. 'Alice-chan'?" Touko's emphasis made the quotation marks clear as she challenged the woman's familiarity with her charge.

Akane chuckled, although she kept her gaze fixed on the girls in the water. "That's because I'm not. At least I haven't been for some years. I just act the part when I'm with Gensuke and he's working. I'm a K through College Lillian girl. You look like you could use a senpai more than you could use a servant right now, anyway."

Touko turned her head back to look at the others swimming out again into the waves. The woman's forwardness surprised her, but not unpleasantly. Still, Touko wasn't exactly in a trusting mood and she was confident if push came to shove the woman would choose the bonds of a wife over those of an alumna.

The two women, student and alumna, sat together in silence as the minutes dragged on. The silence was comfortable, though, and continued for a while as both of them watched Alice wobble and fall yet again from her surfboard. It appeared Kikuyo and Yukari were actually fairly experienced at surfing, or at least maintaining their balance. Kieko was getting better under Kikuyo's tutelage, but it appeared Alice was hopeless despite Yukari's mentoring.

"She looks like an idiot out there," Touko noted quietly, more to herself than anything. She also IS an idiot, she noted as she watched Yukari once again holding Alice by the hips as she explained proper positioning. And reckless, despite what this woman maintains. It won't take much of a hand slip for Yukari to make an interesting discovery no matter the swimsuit and however tightly she tucked things away.

"She does, doesn't she?" Akane responded, agreeing with Touko's spoken assessment. "I've been part of her life since she was a toddler, and still have never figured out how someone so skilled with so many instruments can be so totally inept athletically. Still, I admire her humility in circumstances like this. Not many children of her station would be so at ease looking foolish."

"I thought you said you aren't house staff," Touko remarked. "You talk like you know her pretty well."

"I'm not staff now, but I was. That's how Gensuke and I met, actually. You know Alice-chan was home schooled until attending Hanadera, right?"

Touko gave a sound indicating yes.

"I was her tutor for eight years. I went wherever she went for that entire time. It was an amazing life, really. I got to travel the world, every continent except Antarctica, and eventually met the love of my life."

Touko thought this over for a while, continuing to watch as Alice tried once again to maintain her balance. She did seem to be improving…slowly.

"She's been treating you and your husband as rudely as the others have today," Touko noted, referring to Alice. "I would think you'd be offended given you're not bound to take it."

Akane chuckled again. "I'm not dumb, and neither is Gensuke. We can see what she's dealing with. She's trying to fit in, just like you are, in a group of relatively mean girls. She's a chameleon; she's always been good at fitting in. She has to be, given what she is. She knows we'll forgive her just about anything."

Once again, Touko had nothing to add to that and silence reigned between them for a long while.

"You really should go out there, Touko-san. Seriously, they look like they're having fun."

"Surfing isn't my thing," Touko expressed with a slight shake of her head. "It's bad enough watching Alice-san faun over the others from all the way back here. I don't think I'd be able to keep from being sick if I were up close. I know she's trying to fit in, but there's something creepy about it with her."

"You doubt her sincerity?"

"I don't know," Touko said thoughtfully. "This afternoon she seems to be staring at the others when they're not looking. I noticed it especially after we got into swimsuits. It strikes me more like a boy than a girl. So yes, it does make me question and leave me disturbed given the freedom she has with real girls who don't know. And on top of it, she seems particularly smitten with Yukari-san, leaving me doubts about both her sincerity and her taste."

Long moments of silence passed again, this time less comfortable as Touko suspected she'd offended the woman. No matter, it's not like I'm looking for a friend anymore anyway.

"Touko-san, I think you're misinterpreting Alice," Akane quietly suggested. "Do you know the Hans Christian Anderson fable of the Little Mermaid?"

Touko nodded, unsure whether the woman could see the motion but also curious where the reference could possibly be leading.

"Despite her lack of swimming ability, you can think of Alice as that Little Mermaid. Wanting to be a human girl with all her heart and soul, watching them from a distance, examining and fascinated with every motion they make, but never able to be one. At least not without an enormous sacrifice, and even then, her time as a mermaid, her lack of upbringing since birth as a human girl, will still set her apart."

Touko turned her head so that her ear was now resting on her hands, her face now toward Akane. "You're a romantic, you know," Touko accused, her mouth frowning.

Akane nodded, herself still looking out. "Guilty as charged. Then again, I know Alice better than anyone except perhaps her sister, Yasuna-chan. The Little Mermaid was Alice's favorite story. It was only years later that I came to understand why."

"Still. Yakari-san? Couldn't she find someone better to model herself after if that's what this is all about?"

"Saionji-san has similar hair and a similar frame," Akane pointed out. "Note they're even similarly vain, both having tied their hair up and covered it to keep out that salt water. Its clear Alice admires her in some ways. That said, she admires you the most. She's better at keeping her target unaware of her fascination than she is with third parties, so you likely didn't notice. After we got into our swimsuits and before they headed out to the water, her fascination was exclusively on you."

The two shared a glance.

"I hope that doesn't creep you out," Akane added, trying now to be reassuring. "If it's any consolation, I've caught her examining me, watching how my body moves."

"I really don't know how to feel about it," Touko admitted both to herself and the other woman.

"I'm sorry if I've caused you distress or placed a barrier between you. That wasn't my intent."

"Then what was your intent?" Touko challenged.

Akane considered Touko for several moments before continuing. "Alice's best friend moved to Italy recently. Ah, I see you know this. Okay, since then Alice has been withdrawing from other girls. I don't think it's good for her and I'm hoping perhaps you might be her friend."

"You're being remarkably trusting. You see the company I keep."

"Perhaps, but I also see how you carry yourself both when you're with them and when you're on your own. I also know from Gensuke the kind of man your grandfather it. Gensuke has known him less than a day and he's made it clear he'd work for the man. My husband is extremely choosy about who is worthy of loyalty, and I've never known him to say that on the spot. I have to imagine his granddaughter can't be too bad."

"I don't suppose you've met Kikuyo-san's grandparents, have you?"

Akane shook her head.

"They're the sweetest couple you will ever meet. Kikuyo-san's father, however, breaks companies up for sport and you've seen enough of Kikuyo-san to develop an opinion I'm sure."

Akane nodded.

"You really should be more cautious making assumptions….and both of you should be more careful being so trusting. I've formed a temporary alliance with Alice-san, but she's too naïve to allow any closer…not surprising with people like you and her sister around. She's going to get herself hurt through misplaced trust and I'm not interesting in being part of it."

Touko stood up and looked back at Akane who remained sitting as before, staring out to sea with a sad expression on her face. "I'm sorry to have left you with the impression I'm something I'm not, Harou-san. Thank you for the drink, it was very refreshing. Gokigenyo." Touko then bowed and set off to walk up the beach toward a distant trash receptacle, clearly indicating she wanted time alone.

***PGBR***

"Touko-chan, you should have told me you were Yukari-san's whipping boy," Alice said, face grim, as she turned to look over at the girl in question. The two of them were comfortably settled into the private volcanic spring bath, or onsen, that Suguru and Harou-san had coordinated for the evening after the girls had returned from the expedition west of Niiigata. The driver, Suguru, and Matsudaira-ojisan were in a similar pool in another room.

Although Touko and Alice were sharing the extremely spacious pool with Akane, the wife of Alice's driver, the woman was some distance away and appeared engrossed in a book. Touko knew that Alice, like most of those growing up in houses with servants, had little problem tuning the servants out even for sensitive conversations. Touko was never comfortable with the practice, and was even less so now given Akane's attempt to win Touko over earlier that day. Still, the way of servants was part of their shared reality and she decided to let it go.

Just one more reason why Yumi-sama doesn't belong up here. Even something as simple as this would be alien to her. Damn her! If it weren't for that fool of a senpai I'd have spent today walking along glacier-fed lakes with my parents. Why can't Sachiko-oneesama see that? Why can't Alice or Suguru-oniisama?

Unlike Alice, whose hair was again carefully bound up for protection and therefore couldn't submerge herself fully in the water, Touko was under no such restriction. She leaned back into the water and allowed her head except her face to be submerged for several moments. Part of her was tempted to stay that way given with her ears covered she no longer had to listen to her erstwhile companion.

It's a bit late for her to be lecturing me now about telling her things, and anyway she wasn't exactly reaching out to help me even though she could see what was happening. Damn her too.

"I'm not the boy here, Alice-chan," Touko said, knowing full well the connotation. They were words meant for one purpose- to hurt. She wanted Alice to hurt like she had been hurt today. Rather than feel better, however, as soon as the words were said she felt a pang of guilt.

Why can't I be like the others? Why can't I revel in the pain of others…to feel better about myself when others are taken down? Why do I have to care! "I don't want it!"

Touko sat up with a start as she realized that last had been uttered aloud. She then looked over toward Alice and glared at her as if it was her fault.

Alice simply looked back with concern on her face, her legs drawn up against her body with her arms hugging them. "It doesn't look like it helped," she said simply.

The position Alice was using looked suddenly comfortable, and so Touko mimicked it. The fetal position, Touko remembered her grandfather calling it. It's reassuring because we spend nine months curled up like this in our mother's womb. Mother…

Touko shook her head vigorously at the invasion of images…memories…discoveries…she absolutely couldn't deal with right now. Why am I thinking of my birth mother at a time like this?

"No, it didn't," Touko replied, her words matching her recent movement but she suspected Alice wouldn't buy that such vigorous head shaking was simply in answer to her question.

"It's no big deal. I've heard worse, from close family no less. Part of me wishes it had made you feel better simply because I hate to see you hurting. Most of me is glad it didn't because I'd hate even more to see you become like those three." Alice didn't need to clarify who 'those three' were.

"It would be so much easier, though, wouldn't it?" Touko said wistfully, trying to allow herself to relax back into the pool with the illusion life could be so easy. "To just not care. To revel in the pain of others." Touko was tired and her filters were shot. She realized she was musing aloud now and she really didn't care anymore.

"But they do care, Touko-chan. They care so much about what others have, and what they don't have, that they'll never be happy with what they themselves have. Is a life of bitterness what you really want?"

Something about that question was the last straw for Touko after a long day of load after load and blow after blow. She's pitying me, Touko realized with sudden anger. She turned to look derisively at Alice, finding herself allowing years of pent up pain to lash out at a suddenly convenient…and vulnerable…target. "Bitterness, you say? Life is generous when doling out bitterness, Alice. I could point out you're a pot calling a kettle black. I watched you as you watched us today in our swimsuits. Envy. Jealousy." Touko stood up without warning and faced Alice, water coming up to her thighs and dripping down from her hair and breasts. Touko saw again the resentment in her own heart reflected in the girl before her, the pain that comes from wanting something you could never…quite…have. "This is what you want, isn't it 'Alice'? Authenticity? A natural girl's body?" Touko ran her hands along her body as she said this and her words left clear the quotation marks around the name. "Well, guess what? You can't have it, no matter what pills you take or how you cut yourself up." Touko plopped back down in the pool, facing away from Alice. "Any more than I can have what I want no matter how hard I try, no matter how authentic I am, no matter how much I'm a good girl. Stop lecturing me about bitterness you damned hypocrite."

No more words were said after that, which suited Touko just fine. She pointedly avoided looking at either Alice or Akane, trying instead to melt into the hot water, trying to allow the currents to whisk her troubles away. What good is an onsen that leaves you more tense when you get out than when you get in?