In the Bleak Midwinter

A/N: Well, that was a fast turn-around!

Now, after reading this, what is the one thing Ritsuko has in Tea for Two that she doesn’t have here?

This one’s for you, too, raphfail.

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

When she’d tried on the uniform for Mizobe High School, it had been with the door to her room shut, the curtains pulled, too. She’d admired it in the mirror, the crisp blazer, her new shoes. It was a welcome relief from the sailor uniform she’d worn for three years, an outfit which she couldn’t help but feel made her look younger than she was. She wasn’t an adult yet, but this was something that brought her closer, this blazer, this white shirt, this tie. It was clearly a school uniform, but the component parts made it clear that she’d moved past the silliness and the thoughtlessness of junior high. She was deciding what she wanted to do now, where she wanted to go when she became an adult.

Of course, she’d been thinking about that a lot already, and she wasn’t quite to high school yet. But the uniform seemed to project this reality better than she could’ve tripping around in the blue skirt and the bow of her junior high uniform.

Even so, when her mother had knocked on her door, and then started to turn the knob, she’d flung herself against its flat surface, yelling at her to not dare come in. She couldn’t see her yet; she’d get to when Ritsuko started high school in the spring, and she’d probably take a million photos, too! Wasn’t that enough?

Her poor mother had relented, and she felt a bit guilty as she’d heard her voice drift off as she walked away. However, she still sat quietly, waiting, and only after she heard the car leave, was sure that her mother had gone to work, did she cautiously open the bedroom door and slip out into the hall.

Her younger sister wasn’t home, surely running around outside somewhere, screeching happily with her friends as they rolled around in the snow. She wasn’t old enough to realize the significance of the day yet. Although, when she thought on it, it didn’t seem that her mother had either.

But Ritsuko had also been very surreptitious herself about the entire thing, carefully cleaning up the kitchen utensils when she was done, cracking the window open to let the scents of cooking curl off into the cold air. She’d made some cookies earlier in the day and given them to Midori, told her to go share them with friends. And with the house thus cleared, she had begun the more important of her work.

Now she was standing midway up the temple steps, feeling self-conscious, pulling at the hem of her coat to try to cover up her new uniform. Even with a scarf wrapped ’round her neck and face, with wool mittens on her hands, she felt frozen. Cradled in her left arm was a small bag with chocolate in it, decorated with a bit of ribbon. Nothing too fancy, though; it wouldn’t really have fit with the intended recipient, after all. And she didn’t want anything to be so obvious.

Taking a deep breath, she began climbing again, the frosty air almost painful in her lungs. At the top she could see one of the temple workers working to remove snow from the recent fall, but she tried to step silently, having no desire to face any delays. She didn’t want anyone else to see her in the new uniform, either; Sotoba was a small town. She felt guilty enough about not showing her mother first – she certainly didn’t need for her to actually know about it.

She knocked on the front door, but opened it before anyone came to answer it, knowing that it was unlikely that anyone would hear a simple tapping. She knocked the remnants of snow and slush from her shoes, and called out, “Hello? Mrs. Muroi? It’s Ritsuko.”

Her shoes were off, her stockinged feet on the cool wooden floor when Mrs. Muroi replied, her own footfall coming softly into the entryway, “Ah, Ritsu-chan, it’s so nice of you to visit.”

She followed her into the living room automatically, the curtains on the windows fully roped back to let in the glaring light from outside. It was pleasantly warm with the sunlight gushing in, and Ritsuko immediately felt hot in her winter coat and gear.

“I’ll have to go make some more tea, I’m afraid that I’ve let it get lukewarm.”

“Oh, no, please, it’s fine! I don’t really want any anyway.” She fidgeted, still standing, even as Mrs. Muroi gestured for her to sit down, “No, no, I wouldn’t mind having some more myself… why don’t you take your coat off and sit down? You must be frozen.”

“Um, of course. It’s just…” She bit her lip, a hand drifting to the buttons, her arm still protecting the chocolate.

“These are for you!”

She thrust the bag out in front of her suddenly, her heart racing, ears reddening beneath her carefully combed hair.

The older woman blinked, and reached for the package, taking it, and sat down to open it. Undoing the ribbon, she looked inside, and smiled, “Oh, Ritsu-chan, thank you so much.”

“Well, I hope you like it… I thought maybe you’d like some chocolate, since I didn’t know if you got any, I mean, since your son is away in Tokyo, so he wouldn’t give any to you, well, or I don’t know if he still did? My sister and I give my mother chocolate, but, well, we’re girls, so maybe it’s different? I don’t have any brothers, so…”

She clamped her mouth shut, mortified over her babbling, but Mrs. Muroi didn’t seem to have noticed the stream of stupidity she felt like she’d just let forth. Instead, she was looking at the chocolate itself, before taking a bite of one of the pieces.

“Ah, this is delicious. And they look so nice, too.”

“Oh, no, they’re nothing special…” She shifted uneasily, the sunshine at her back, “I’m just glad that they didn’t come out burnt…”

“No, they’re really good, Ritsu-chan. Thank you for them, that was really nice of you.” She paused, eyeing Ritsuko’s attire, “Are you in a rush to get somewhere else? I hope I’m not keeping you from anything.”

“No!” She said it a bit too forcefully, and fumbled with the buttons, “It’s just that…” She was undoing them now, and then pulling back the edges of the coat, “I wanted to show you my new uniform…”

She dropped the coat on the floor, unthinking, smoothing her skirt, feeling awkward.

Mrs. Muroi stood up, and came to her. She straightened the tie slightly, and left her hand on Ritsuko’s shoulder, looking over the uniform, “You’ll have to excuse me; I always take care of my husband’s robes when he dresses in the morning, so… It really suits you. Your mother must be proud of you.”

“It’s not that big of a deal…” Another internal twist of guilt.

“Don’t be silly; of course it is! You worked hard to study for those exams, and now you’ll be starting high school. It’s a big accomplishment.”

“Thank you…”

“Now let me get that tea, alright?”

“Alright…” She agreed, meekly, going to sit down.

In the room alone, she picked nervously at the seam of her skirt, forced herself to stop so it wouldn’t be messed up before she even got to wear it to school. She glanced over at the chocolate, and then found herself smiling. A uniform and chocolate. She’d been able to do exactly what she’d wanted for the holiday. And she’d even managed to avoid Ayumi’s badgering about her plans, too.

Outside, she could see Sotoba sparkling slightly in the snow. She smiled again, more broadly. A good day in the bleak midwinter.

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