Tamao and Nagisa were making their way to the dining room, having finally finished dragging Tamao’s brass-bound trunk up their impressive front staircase. Although Tamao had initially intended to un-pack before the meal, Nagisa’s crestfallen look had caused a change in her plans. The red-haired girl was now happily bubbling next to her, having overheard a few of their classmates returning from dinner express delight over the strawberry shortcake that had been their dessert. Tamao simply smiled in return, satisfied merely with her companion’s presence…
And, well, Shizuma’s lack of presence; however, this was not something she was planning to mention to her friend. Nagisa was happy, and so Tamao could be happy. She told herself this calmly, coolly – and she had let no more daydreams blossom since she had pushed Nagisa to Shizuma in the middle of the Etoile ceremony. Her fists suddenly tightened on the folds of her skirt, knuckles whitened.
“Ne, ne, Tamao, do you think they’ll have enough strawberry shortcake for me to get seconds?”
“Well, with your cute face, I’m sure they will!”
Nagisa giggled slightly in response, visibly happy – if she took any special note of Tamao’s compliment, she did not show it. Nagisa was not a fool as many took her to be; she realized Tamao’s extra affection, even if she did not seem to. Yet, life seemed so much simpler when one ignored potential difficulties.
Tamao pushed open the glass doors of the dining room, and the two girls passed into the high-ceilinged room. Large windows stretched from floor to ceiling, and the early evening sun stained portions of the carpeting a dense red. From the corner a person looked up, and then waved, “Nagisa! Tamao! Over here!”
Tamao took Nagisa’s arm lightly, and guided her over, noticing the girl’s wandering attention upon sight of the desserts. She pulled out chairs for herself and Nagisa, and they sat down with greetings. Tamao looked around briefly before turning back to the table, “Where’s Hikari?”
“Ah…” Yaya looked slightly darker at this, “She’s with Amane… they had to eat with the student council presidents – it’s all part of the Etoile thing.”
“Oh! Of course!” Tamao smiled sheepishly, embarrassed for having brought it up.
“They didn’t eat with us yesterday, either.” Tsubomi pouted from her place beside Yaya.
“Ah, come now; don’t get upset, you know they’re busy.” Yaya said smilingly, patting the pink-haired girl on the head. Tsubomi turned away slightly, looking thoroughly irritated.
“Ta-maooo, what about our food?” Nagisa asked pleadingly, interrupting the conversation.
“Haha, okay, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten.” She turned to the girls across the table, “We’ll be right back.”
When they returned, they sat down once more, Nagisa happily humming over her shortcake. Tsubomi was picking at the remains of her salad, and Yaya had just finished off her pasta.
“So, when did you guys get here?”
“Oh, well, I got here yesterday afternoon.”
“I got here in the morning.”
“Ah, that’s right; Spica students have to move in earlier than we do…”
“Haha, yeah, I’d expect you guys in Miator to have to get here first… so when did both of you arrive?”
“Mm, I arrived in the afternoon, and Tamao got here right when I was about to come down to dinner.” Nagisa smiled, “I helped her get her trunk up the stairs! But she still has to unpack.”
“It looks like I won’t be having this much fun this evening.”
The question was naively inquisitive, and Yaya shifted slightly in her seat at it before responding, “We-ell, I haven’t seen all that much of her… she’s been very busy with Etoile things. But she said she had a fun break and that she’s glad to be back.”
“How about you, Nagisa?”
“I had a ton of fun!” She paused and blushed, “I got to go a lot of places with Shizuma, and she even helped me with my French homework.”
Another question was asked of Nagisa in regards to Shizuma, but Tamao didn’t hear it, her thoughts suddenly elsewhere. Hanazono Shizuma. Not her. She had seen Nagisa only once, about a week into the break, and only because she’d gone to see Nagisa. There had been many assurances that Nagisa would come stay with her for a while (her family owned a hotel, for crying out loud!), but it had not come to pass. Tamao had spent the break helping at the front desk on occasion, doing her homework, and running pointless errands around town. She had to admit she honestly didn’t have any friends outside of her classmates.
She found herself suddenly full, and began to absentmindedly push the remaining half-strawberries from her dessert around the plate with her fork. She had mostly eaten traditional food while at home, and initially the Western implements at her command had felt heavy and awkward in her hands. It was like riding a bicycle in that sense, and now, at the close of the meal, her hands expertly manipulated them, weaving her fork in a semi-steady pattern around the flat porcelain plate.
A chair moved back sharply, and she snapped back to the present reality, realizing everyone was finished. She pushed her own chair back, and stood, taking her plate with her. Someone said something and she smiled reflexively, unsure of what the words had been.
After depositing their emptied plated and dirty silverware on the revolving dish rack, they entered the hallway, chatting pleasantly.
“And then Chigusa’s bed just collapsed! I kept telling her last year it would happen eventually, but she never believed me!”
Tamao laughed at this, finally cognizant of the conversation – one joyfully bereft of Shizuma. Tsubomi and her room-mate seemed mismatched – Chigusa loved stretching the limits of rules and regulations, while Tsubomi herself enjoyed informing people of them. But the two got along amiably enough, even if they bickered frequently. The bed was itself only the latest piece of furniture Chigusa had done harm to – there had been an incident the trimester before involving a chair at the bottom of the swimming pool, and another incident involving a step-stool in the library the one before.
“So her mattress is on the floor now because they took away the bed to fix… the Sister was threatening to not return it at all, though, and then said she might take away her desk and chair also to protect them – Chigusa was whining about it all morning even though we know Sister would never do that.”
“Guess the rest of us are lucky, then.” Yaya smirked, “Hikari’s never broken furniture, and I’m sure Nagisa and Tamao never have, either.”
“I just wished she followed the rules a little more… I know for a fact that she does not wear white undergarments.”
The group burst into laughter, and Tsubomi looked momentarily confused, before assuming her usual look of annoyance, “She puts her clothes out the night before! And we’re supposed to only have white underwear!”
“And everyone thinks Miator has bizarre rules…” Yaya choked out between snorts of laughter.
The giggles began to subside, and they walked along in a comfortable silence. Tamao’s hand went unconsciously to her hair-ribbon, and she tugged on it slightly, tightening the knot. Yaya noticed the movement and looked over curiously. She blinked then in surprise, “Tamao, you cut your hair!”
Tamao self-consciously touched the ends of her loose hair, “Uh, yes, I just got it cut a little shorter… I don’t usually get to have it cut during the term, after all.”
Her hair, previously hanging as low as her belly-button, now curled slightly in the humidity at breast-level. Nagisa looked over, “Your hair was so long, Tamao…”
“Oh, it’s still plenty long, Nagisa!” Tamao rejoined with a smile. Nagisa had, apparently, not noticed the change on her own – Tamao had to admit she’d been hoping that perhaps the girl had noticed and was planning on mentioning it later. Didn’t manners sometimes require such? In case one was wrong, of course, one didn’t want to just bring it up in public…
But her thoughts were interrupted as they rounded the corner and almost ran right into Chiyo, who was rushing down the carpeted corridor. The young girl skidded to a halt, narrowly avoiding impact, as the group stopped suddenly, bumping into each other. She bowed rapidly, flustered, “I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have been running! I’m so sorry Nagisa-onee-sama! I didn’t mean to, I almost caused you so much trouble!”
“Ah, now, it’s okay!” Nagisa said, attempting to halt the girl’s rapid bowing movements.
“I just wanted to find you.” Chiyo looked up, sadness crossing onto her face, her eyes wobbling slightly with moisture.
“It’s okay, really – we should’ve looked for you earlier, anyway, so it’s only our own fault.”
Tamao stepped forward, speaking kindly, “Have you had dinner yet, Chiyo? If you haven’t, we can go back and stay with you while you eat.”
Chiyo shook her head, “Oh, no! I ate on the train, its okay!”
“Why were you in such a rush to find us?”
“Oh!” The girl looked sheepish, blushing slightly, “I had almost forgotten.” She turned back, peering down the hallway. The other girls followed her gaze, but as yet there was nothing visible in the short section of hallway before them. Chiyo frowned worriedly, “Um…”
And then, around the next corner a figure appeared, approaching at a relaxed pace. The girl was clad in a St. le Rim summer uniform, black stockings and ankle-boots at odds with the season. She stopped a few feet from the group, and Chiyo turned back to the group with a wide smile, “This is my cousin!”
The girl inclined her head slightly, “Yukizawa Fuyumi – pleased to make your acquaintance.”