"Sll-fslup!” Miyako slurped up her noodles as Yuno watched on in a sort of reluctant fascination. Her own small, measured bites of the banbanji that she had ordered felt somehow overly fastidious in comparison. She felt that the dish of chilled vegetables and chicken was perfectly cool and light for the ongoing summer weather, but Miyako had chosen a more substantial yakisoba dish for herself. They sat in the open air section of a small diner not too far from where they lived, and Yuno was happy to note that their prices were, on the whole, quite reasonable. Even if they hadn't been, though, Yuno didn't mind footing her friend's bill once in a while. The obvious pleasure and zeal with which the starved blonde attacked her food were enough for Yuno. It wasn't that she felt sorry for Miyako because of her financial woes, you somehow couldn't feel sorry for somebody who couldn't feel sorry for themselves, and Miyako's usual countenance was about as far from "sorry” as it was possible to get.
Miyako glanced up while trying to free a few stubborn noodles from the discussions they were having with their fellows in the bottom of the bowl, and noticed Yuno looking rather comical: mouth half-open and chopsticks half-moved to it, eyes fixated on her friend. Miyako smiled inside, and with one last heroic slurp freed the noodles for their final journey. She turned her slurping pucker into a kiss and blew it over to Yuno. Yuno blinked.
"Did you want some?” Miyako invited, "I knew that a growing girl wouldn't be able to settle for just a little salad-thing,” she finished her statement with a knowledgeable air, picking up a small amount and twirling the noodles carefully on her chopsticks before reaching over to Yuno. Yuno had been about to say that that wasn't it, but she didn't quite know what was it, so that would have been a difficult explanation to finish. So instead she took the offered yakisoba.
"I think it's pretty good,” Miyako said, retracting her hand, "How about you?” Yuno chewed and had to admit it was really tasty, there was a moderately talented cook in the back. She looked back to Miyako to tell her the same, but stopped, watching as her friend continued eating, bringing the chopsticks up to her lips and... Yuno blushed, memories of countless uses of that cliché in the shoujo manga she read coming to her. The indirect kiss. Miyako looked curiously at her.
"You don't think it's spicy, do you?'
Yuno answered with a nervous little laugh and shook her head, not about to tell Miyako what went through her mind. Unfortunately for her, Miyako chose that moment to display her occasional uncanny knack for accidentally stumbling right to the heart of a matter. With a wicked little smile she closed the chopsticks together and brought her lips to them in an exaggerated kiss.
"Indirect kiss!” She crowed, "I guess Yuno's pretty cute, so I don't mind at all,” Miyako smiled her most cheerfully unapologetic smile, causing Yuno to blush deeper. Miyako usually didn't actually mean the things she said to tease her friends, and everybody knew this, but somehow they remained just as effective in embarrassing them.
"Miya-chan!” Was all that managed to emerge from her flaming face, and she bent down to continue eating her own meal accompanied by Miyako's peal of laughter.
"So what do you think could be going on with Sae-san and Hiro-san?” Miyako started with no warning. Yuno looked back up quickly, and saw that Miyako had cleaned her plate already, with all the attention Yuno had not been giving to her own. To think for a moment longer, she took a bite and chewed slowly.
"I don't know. I don't think I've ever seen either of them really upset before... and I can't think of anything that would make them that way.”
"I think it was mostly Hiro-san that was mad, Sae just looked troubled by her. You think Sae-san hurt her feelings somehow by accident?” Miyako was at her rarest now, not even a hit of a smile decorating her mouth, "Doesn't seem like something she would do though...” Miyako pondered quietly, lip twisted in thought.
"Sae-san did tell us not to worry, though. Maybe I'm just thinking about it too much,” Yuno sighed and leaned back in her chair, appetite lost and plate sitting ignored and half-full in front of her.
"Friends are there to worry about their friends,” Miya answered firmly, though there hadn't been a question, "Hey, Yuno-chi, this banbanji is pretty good too. If we come here again I might get this instead,” it was a good thing Yuno had lost her appetite, she wouldn't have had much left to fulfill it, not with a hungry Miyako still at the table with an unguarded plate.
Yuno shook her head ruefully and pushed herself back. She paid their bill and they went back to the apartments, Yuno's apprehension growing all the way. She didn't want to just ignore her two other friends, but neither did she relish the opportunity to speak with them if they were still as, er, excited as earlier. As they rounded the street corner and came into view, they noticed an unexpected visitor rapping on Hiro's door.
"What's the landlady doing here?” Yuno wondered aloud. They veered over.
"Yo,” she greeted them with an inclination of her head, cigarette dangling from one side of her mouth.
"Good afternoon, Landlady.”
Then the door opened and Hiro stepped out. Her eyes appeared red around the rims, and her face was slightly drawn and tired, but she worked up a smile that was a good deal more natural and genuine than she had tried to put on earlier. When here eyes caught the pair standing past the landlady, she flashed them an apology with her eyes, then turned back to Landlady.
"Hello. What can I do for you today?”
"Can I come in?” Came the casual question of a reply. Landlady pulled on her cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the air. Then she flicked it on the ground, grinding it beneath one heel. Hiro looked relieved that the smoke wouldn't be following her into the room, and nodded, opening the door wide.
"Come right in. You're welcome, too, Yuno-san, Miya-chan.” Hiro invited them.
"Sorry it's not too homey right now, but I've been doing some packing,” Hiro smiled apologetically, and all three guests looked around astonished, though Landlady to a lesser degree, at the sealed boxes stacked against the walls.
"So you were serious when you said you wouldn't be staying here this year,” Landlady observed. Yuno and Miyako gasped, and whipped around to Hiro, who was biting her lip.
"Yes, I'm afraid I won't be able to stay. Yuno, Miya-chan, I'm not going to school this year either,” they echoed their own gasps.
"Hiro-san!” They both began explosively, but the landlady cleared her throat loudly and all three turned their attention over to her.
"Just so you know, there's no hurry to be out soon, take your time.”
"But Landlady, don't my things have to be out before the start of the month? That's tomorrow.”
"Yeah, if you haven't paid your rent. But you've got your first and last months rent, and security deposit, covered.”
"I got a call an hour ago from Sae,” she jerked her head to the wall adjoining Sae's apartment, "She took care of it. She asked me to let you know for some reason. I didn't want to, but she really didn't want to have to tell you. I normally wouldn't; I just came down to see what's up,” she crossed her arms and looked at Hiro expectantly. Hiro, though, didn't seem to notice the penetrating stare she was receiving, her eyes were flashing and she looked furious.
"No,” she said stonily.
"No, I'm not accepting this. You take back that money, and I'll be out of here before tomorrow.”
"Sorry, no can do, Hiro-san. You're here, and you're paid up for this month and the last month. You'd be breaking your lease with me, you'd have to pay a penalty, and your friend wouldn't get her seventy-five hundred yen back. Could you deal with either of those?” Hiro went stark white, and shook her head mutely.
"Mind telling me why the girl who paid your rent had to make me let you know about it?” Hiro flushed, eyes darting over to Yuno and Miyako, who had been silent in the background for most of that exchange, and even more confused than they had been at the start. Landlady followed her gaze, and rolled her eyes.
"Can't talk with these two in the room, is that it? Beats me as to why, I got the feeling you four were really close. Fine then,” she turned to face the two with a look that told them, far more effectively than any vocal directive could have, that they should probably excuse themselves now. Outside, Yuno fretted and Miyako trying to think of how to make her stop fretting.
"Miya-chan, what's going on? Hiro looked so angry, and she said wasn't going to live here, and Landlady said Sae-san paid her rent, and without her knowing? Why is all this happening and why is everybody so angry and sad? I just wanted us to all be together and have fun again!” Miyako was a little alarmed at Yuno's sudden rush of words, and the tears that sparkled in the corner of her eyes.
"Oh Miya-chan!” Yuno cried in a half-sob, and threw herself into her friend. Miyako stood stiff for a moment, then awkwardly put her arms around Yuno's shoulders in a tight hug. She didn't say anything, no "there there”s or anything of that nature. Yuno didn't really cry so much as she just let herself be embraced, burying her cheek against Miyako's chest and letting out a long sound of discontent. This wasn't how her first day back at Hidamari was supposed to be...
Yuno didn't look to be going anywhere anytime soon, so Miyako gave her a reassuring squeeze and laid her head down on her friend's. Yuno quieted soon, but she didn't move, and Miyako didn't at all mind the warm body pressed against her, or the soft hair under her cheek. Yuno felt peeved with herself for having fallen apart like that, but she hadn't realized how much she took for granted her two older friends being so implacably... themselves. Always together; kind and soft-spoken Hiro-san, with her abundant generosity and patience, then cool and confident Sae-san, insightful and always ready with some little gem of wisdom to pass to her juniors. To have those two at odds with one another was somehow unbearable. At least Miya-chan was still Miya-chan. Yuno kept her arms around Miyako, feeling warm and protected from the damage reality had done to her idealistic expectations. In that suspended moment of unwillingness to see or hear or think about her current situation, she suddenly was struck by everything she was taking in with her every breath. She could smell the faint, slightly harsh scent of what was, knowing Miyako, a laundry detergent on the cheaper side of the spectrum, offset only slightly by the sweetly fragrant overlay of a fabric softener. She was close enough to catch the scent of a lock of Miyako's hair, flowery and sweet. And there was something else, a little under and a little over and a little in between everything was... it was like the smell of bright sunlight, and a brisk wind, and stream of sparkling clear water. If those things had a smell, it would be what Yuno breathed in from Miyako. It even seemed to have something of her friend's blithe, natural enthusiasm for life in it, because Yuno caught herself feeling very content, and even happy, standing here with her friend. With an odd reluctance, though, she made herself pull away, becoming conscious of the fact that they couldn't stand here like that in front of Hiro's door all day.
Miyako loosened her arms slowly, and nuzzled her cheek against Yuno's hair one last time before they parted, just because she felt so much like she needed to. Yuno looked up at her, and Miyako noticed some moisture sitting in the corners and bottoms of her eyes. Somehow knowing just what to do, she placed her hands to the sides of Yuno's face and wiped it away with her thumbs. They held one another's eyes for a few moments longer, then the odd spell was broken.
"Er, sorry, Miya-chan. I'm okay now. I'm just worried about...”
"I know, Yuno-chi.” Miya replied, softly smiling, "So, I know just what we need to do then.” Miyako said, tapping one thumbnail against her lips.
"What is it?”
"I think we have some questions that need to be answered, and Sae-san probably knows what's up. Isn't that right, Chocoyama-kun?” Yuno smiled brightly, though a little sadly. It was usually Sae who played the part of fashionable detective Lovely Chocolate. She recognized though that Miyako was, once again, trying to cheer her up, so gave the requisite response.
"You're right, Miss Chocolat! We need to go see Sae-san right away and ask her a few questions.” Behind their little play, however, Yuno could feel their shared determination to get to the bottom of this. It wasn't entirely fair for their friends to go about acting the way they were without giving an explanation. The walked across one room and knocked. After a minute, they heard curiously slow footfalls approaching, and Sae's irritable face filled the gap between the wall and door.
"Ah, Miss Sae-san, is it?” Miyako started, affecting a light cough, "Would it be okay if we troubled you for just a few minutes. We won't be long, we just have a few questions we need you to answer,” Sae looked hard at Miyako for a few seconds, then sighed and turned to Yuno.
"I give up, what's with her? Is she mad at me now too?”
"No, Sae-san, she's just in character,” Yuno explained a little vaguely, Could we come in and talk to you for a little bit?”
"Eh, sure, why not. I can't promise I'll be any more talkative than earlier, though,” she opened the door for them and they entered. Miyako's eyes seemed to be working overtime, darting to every nook and cranny they could find, and she often stopped them with no particular focus for a loud "Hmm... I see.” Sae looked at her with raised eyebrow on every such occasion, one could really only find so many interesting things to say, "Hmm... I see,” at in the four or five meters between the door and the main room, and she was pretty sure Miyako had passed that limit. Yuno just smiled, and this seemed to calm Sae's nerves a little. Yuno and Miyako sat down at the low square table in the center of the room, while Sae took her seat once more at her desk chair, this time sitting in it backwards to face the middle of the room and look at her friends.
"So what's up with you two?”
Miyako cleared her throat loudly, "So, Miss Sae-san, if I may ask, where were you and what were you doing on the afternoon of...!” She paused, and turned to Yuno, "What's today's date again, Yuno-chi?” She whispered out of the corner of her mouth. Yuno shook her head.
"Miya-chan... I'll just ask her. Sae-san, we were just coming back to the apartments and met the landlady outside of Hiro-san's apartment. We all went inside, and Hiro-san looked like she was packing to leave. Landlady told her that she didn't have to go because you had paid for her, and Hiro-san looked really mad, and Landlady said something about you asking her to tell Hiro-san so you didn't have to. We were about to hear why, but Hiro-san didn't want to say in front of us and they made us leave. So, Sae-san, please tell us: what's going on?” Sae's eyes had widened and stayed that way from shortly into the explanation. By the end, she laughed ruefully.
"Looks like you don't need detective skills like Lovely Chocolat with Miyako's blind luck. Now you two know all of that, and you found out mostly by accident,” Sae said it almost accusingly.
"I don't think that there's any reason we shouldn't know, Sae-san. We're all friends, and it makes me sad that you don't think you can talk to us about what's troubling you.”
"Well, it's kind of a big deal, Yuno, and a little private. Even friends are entitled to a little bit of privacy. I guess I can tell you some of it, though, if you already know this much. Hiro wasn't going to be able to go to school or be here this year, because her family wasn't going to be able to pa-- no, wasn't going to pay for her rent and tuition this year. She had a fight with her family and that's what they decided to do.”
"Oh, that's awful!” Yuno yelped, and Miyako nodded a fervent agreement.
"Yeah, they had no right... there was no good reason...” Sae compressed her lips into a thin, pale line, and Yuno didn't think she'd ever seen her friend this angry before, "But I don't think I should be telling you about that. The point is, they weren't going to pay. Now, this whole thing is kinda... sort of my fault too, in a way, so I thought I would surprise her. I went ahead and paid for her rent, and the first half of her tuition--”
"Sae-san! How could you ask your family to pay that much more!” Yuno interrupted again, but Sae just looked perplexed, then started laughing.
"Who said anything about my family, Yuno-san? But that's besides the point, let me go ahead and finish this for now. I paid that for her, and then I invited her over to talk about it. I asked her, 'How would you feel if I said I was able to pay your way this year?' but she reacted very badly. She was furious with me, even though she thought it was just an idea of mine. I think it's just because she felt like she would be taking advantage, but it's not like I can think of anything I'd rather do with that money than make sure she can be with m--” Sae blushed a deep red, "That is, I think she's being foolish about the whole thing. She got so upset that I didn't dare tell her that I had already gone through with it, so after you all left I called Landlady to tell her for me. It took quite a bit of asking, but I think she likes me. I still haven't found a good way to tell her about the tuition...”
"So that's why she was so upset,” Yuno mused, then Miyako spoke up, all traces of the fashionable detective gone.
"But where did you get the money to pay for all that, Sae-san?”
"Oh, right. Well, you two know that I write novels...” She flushed a little more, and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, "I had a little savings stored up from all my sales, about six-hundred thousand yen,” she paused to hear the two gasps and observe the two awed expressions, "Hey, that did take me the better part of three years to save up, and I haven't been touching it. But the thing is, it looks like... well, my latest volume was really popular, I guess- don't know why, I didn't think it was so great- and that jumped up to about one million, eight-hundred thousand yen during the last few months.” She paused again to regard dropped jaws, "That's still not quite enough to cover all of Hiro-san's rent and tuition, not to mention living expenses, but they'll keep selling, right? It's enough for until next semester, anyway.” There was a pregnant pause.
"Hey, I was able to say all of that with a pretty straight face, do you think you could put your jaws back in place now?” Sae said peevishly, blushing again.
"Wow, Sae-san, I had no idea you were that popular! I guess some people have tastes like that,” Miyako mused, eliciting an outraged yelp from Sae.
"What's that supposed to mean?”
"She didn't mean anything!” Yuno hastily reassured her, "It's just a little bit of a shock. We had no idea you were making so much off of your work!”
"Well... I mean, it's not that much, it did take me four years to make it all. I wouldn't have been able to live off of my writing at all.”
"Yeah, I guess... but that clears a few things up. Now we know why you were so sad and Hiro was so upset--”
"I don't think she's thinking completely clearly, either, Yuno. The fight with her parents hurt her more than she's admitting, I think,” Sae interrupted her, "I hope that if I give her some time, she won't mind so much and we'll be able to talk about it,” Sae appeared thoughtful, "It's already done, you know. She might be able to get most of the tuition back for me, but I would refuse to take it back, and the lease already stops her there. It's not very nice, I know, but she doesn't need to give up her life just because her mom and dad....” Sae trailed off, and they saw that angry tightening around her eyes again.
"I'm sure she will, Sae-san,” Yuno said encouragingly, "That was really nice of you to do for her, I can still hardly believe you didn't spend all that money on anything else!” Sae looked embarrassed at Yuno's praise. Then they all heard a loud banging on the door. Before Sae could call out to the person, however, the door opened and she let herself in. Locks of her bubblegum pink hair had gone astray from her ties and lashed about like a living thing, and her eyes flashed venomously. She stalked into the room, and Sae drew back almost unconsciously from her.
"You!” Hiro yelled, pointing one accusatory finger to the dismayed girl leaning into her desk. She strode quickly forward, "You...”