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down the rabbithole

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It's been a week, and yet she can't get what happened that day off her mind. It spins in circles, round and round, and she finds it difficult to concentrate on anything. Why does it matter so much to her? She can't have meant anything by it. It was probably just a friendly gesture, or, something…? They do that in other countries, right? Kisses as greetings. Maybe she visited Europe at some point, or…

“Kiryu?”

“Yes?” she says, reflexively, realizing at once that Ms. Yutenji is looking at her. Right, her work in the committee. She'd almost forgotten, she was spacing out so much. The history teacher has a concerned press to her brow. Noriko adjusts her glasses. “I'm sorry. I'm a little distracted.”

She pulls out a chair and takes a seat near her, folding her hands on the table. “If you need to talk about it… As your teacher, I'm here to listen.” She smiles gently, and Noriko finds it amazing how starkly different the two sides of her personality are. There's a reason she's head of the disciplinary committee, after all.

Swallow. She has to pick her words carefully. It isn't about schoolwork, to begin with, so she isn't sure why she's about to talk about it in the first place, but it's too difficult to keep to herself. For this reason, and in deep thought, she blurts out, “Are there any students who went on trips to Europe recently?”

“...Huh?” Ms. Yutenji stares at her. This was not what she had expected to hear, and for that matter, it wasn't what she had intended to say either. She begins to sweat.

“Um… I mean, don't they kiss like that in other countries? As a greeting, you know.” Attempted save. Unfortunately, she might have ended up revealing more than she'd wanted to in the process. Noriko can feel her face heating up a bit. Please don't guess, please don't guess…

With a tilt of the head after her confusion, not quite understanding yet, she says, “Well yes, but… Why the sudden interest? Are you doing some sort of project?” Oh no. This is worse.

“Not exactly? It's more like...” She fumbles for words, desperate to grab hold of some excuse. Her fingers slip right through, and she's left with nothing. Ms. Yutenji is watching silently with some degree of surprise; she's really making a fool of herself now. “I'm just curious, that's all.”

With no further questions, she finally gives an answer: “Hmm… I know that Lemaire and Valkova are each from different places in Europe, but if you're asking about other students, I'm not sure. There hasn't been anyone absent for that amount of time recently, though.”

“Do you know if, Matsuri...” She shuts her mouth immediately. Stupid impulse!

“Kagami? Not that I know of.” The history teacher blinks. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She cries this out in her mind, unable to say it aloud. She's going to figure it out, and then she'll really be screwed. Though what “it” is exactly is another story.

But, if what happened that day hadn't been a greeting, then… She leaps out of her chair with a clatter. “Sorry, I have to get going!” she says, and she's off and out the door, not waiting for a response.

It's not the greatest exit, but she can't sit still. Not now, knowing what she does, or maybe it's what she doesn't know that propels her forward. All sorts of thoughts run through her head: she might have gone home already, she might be at practice, she might not even want to see her at all. The last one rings a bitter tone, but she ignores it. And it's a good thing she did, because a moment later Matsuri is in her field of vision, just down the hall.

She swallows. Her back is turned; she'll have to call out to her. Can she do that? It had seemed so easy that day, to offer her the umbrella, but her legs have stopped and won't seem to move. She's probably, no, definitely overthinking all this. She can't imagine that Matsuri is concerned about any of it. She can't imagine that she would be having these strange thoughts.

But she turns around.

It's a flash, a flurry of pastel pink, and she's looking right at her. First round eyes, then soft. They twinkle in tune with the smile now on her face. Noriko only stares in open-mouthed awe. The light of the setting, evening sun pours through the windows and glitters in her hair, dying everything its own color. Matsuri glows.

Turned fully around to face her, she folds her hands together in the press of her skirt. “Noriko…” she says sweetly, softly. Her heart can barely take it. “What are you doing here so late?”

Should she tell the truth? That might be dangerous, so she settles on a half-truth. “Committee work. We helped the student council earlier as well, so there was a lot to do.” It’s not wrong. She’s just...leaving out a certain detail: she couldn’t get anything done, at all.

Matsuri looks at her and she wonders if she’s seen through, somehow, that there’s more to what she’s saying than meets the ear, but it vanishes instantly as if it were never there to begin with. She can’t have her know how much that day effected her. It’d be one thing if it were a boy, though a boy probably wouldn’t do that. Girls are sort of touchy-feely by nature, aren’t they? But she wouldn’t really know much about that.

“Noriko?”

Her name, spoken once again, grabs her by the tie of her uniform and yanks her back into reality. “Huh, yes?”

Matsuri pouts, a bit, and it’s so adorable she doesn’t know what to do with herself. This girl will be the death of her. “I asked you if you wanted to walk home together again, but if you don’t want to...” Her eyes cast aside in shyness. This makes Noriko pause. Again, she says, but the first time was out of necessity. There was only one umbrella, after all, and she couldn’t let her get soaked. If they did it again, it would be for no reason at all, except for the obvious.

Do you want to, she said. Those were her words. Now feeling very odd, the taller girl says, “O-Of course I do. I’d wanted to ask you, actually, but...” Her words trail off into nothing, and she wonders why she said them at all, if she’s making herself out to be some kind of weird person in Matsuri’s eyes, but they reflect none of that, nothing but light.

From here they walk, down the halls and the stairs, talking over the day. Despite them being in the same class, they have entirely different stories to share. Matsuri’s voice is delicate as she talks about tennis practice, about ways of training and techniques and little Megumi, always chasing after her. She talks about her fondly, like a younger sister, and this or that thing said in conversation. She sounds like she’s enjoying it, but in a reserved way. She’s holding back; maybe it’s just her nature?

Outside, they’ve reached the usual intersection, and seeing as there aren’t any cars coming, she moves forward to walk across—

And then Matsuri grabs her hand.

She takes a glance, trying to ignore the cool touch of skin in her light grip, and the way her heart has inexplicably sped up, but the shorter girl is looking aside again, avoiding her eyes. It’s not a great angle, but unless it’s her imagination, she thinks she can see… Is that a blush? Huh? “Are you okay?” she asks, hesitantly, for lack of any better ideas.

This causes her to finally look back, and they meet eyes. The other girl’s expression is a conflicting mess of confused and embarrassed. It’s a good thing not many people are around, with how late it is, because she’s sure her own face could match. It’s definitely less cute, though. “I just thought,” she says, still holding tight, “that it might be nice to...you know.” Hold hands. That’s what she means, right? It can’t be anything else.

Noriko burns. “Th-That’s fine then,” she says, wishing she sounded cooler or more together, or even the slightest bit resembling her usual school persona. Trying with all her might to bury this awkwardness, this strange feeling lingering in her chest, she steps forward, and the two of them resume their walk. They cross that street, and continue down, past the rows of buildings, fences. All the while there’s a tension in the air she can’t describe or name, that hangs between them.

“Um, Matsuri...” The name feels unfamiliar on her tongue, spoken so rarely. She avoids eye contact. If she’s going to ask, if she’s really going to do this, there’s no way she can look straight at her.

“What is it?” comes her response. The other girl, and that’s the key, doesn’t suspect a thing. Her gut twists.

Now or never. “You know what you’re doing, right?” she says, quietly. She doesn’t mean it to be harsh, but the words still make her wince. Is there a kind way to say this, though? As far as she knows, it’s not the type of thing that goes well with sugar. She hopes it doesn’t hurt Matsuri, even if it makes her understand, or want to create distance. That much is obvious. Without a word, she tears her hand away, breaking the contact.

She can’t see what expression the girl beside her is making, but she feels immensely far away. “What do you mean?”

“I mean...” She inhales, deeply, trying in vain to calm her heart. Her eyes are fixated on every bump and crack in the sidewalk. “I can’t be friends with you, like this. I have these strange feelings. Friends don’t want to...kiss, or…” Noriko pauses, hesitates. She can’t stop now, much as she’d like to. There’s no way to take it back. “I know it’s too weird, I’m sorry.” There aren’t enough apologies in the world to fix this.

Except that she feels Matsuri’s hand take hold of hers again, tighter this time.

Why? She doesn’t understand. Her eyes instinctively dart toward her, searching for the inevitable reaction, the one she’d anticipated all along. But it isn't there. She hasn’t flinched, or moved away from her at all. “If you’re weird, then I am too,” she says, each syllable whispered on the evening breeze. Noriko’s breath catches in her throat, as the other girl looks back at her, a little shyly, but directly nonetheless. Her eyes twinkle in the fading sunlight.

Does this mean what she thinks it means? Is she allowed to hope? Or would that be against the rules? “I like you, Matsuri. In a way that means I want to date you, and...other things.” She knows her words are starting to fail her, that she’s burning and any words that leave her mouth now are of their own accord. She’s been thinking about this all week, or maybe longer. There just wasn’t any opportunity until now. It wasn’t like she had any chance before, but now… Maybe…?

The shorter girl tilts her head, posing a question with the slope of her brow. “What kinds of other things?”

“Um...” Damn, she hadn’t thought that far ahead! “Like, holding hands, or...”

“We’re doing that, though.”

This is a very dangerous direction for the conversation to go in. She has to make a save. “Right, um, kissing? I-I guess.”

Matsuri hums aloud, and says, “I did kiss you that day. Was that no good?” The words might be teasing, but her expression is anything but. She appears entirely concerned, and Noriko doesn’t know how to respond. She’s lost all understanding of the current situation, not that she had much of it in the first place.

“Ehh? W-Well, I meant more like...that kind of...” What the hell is she saying.

They’re both very red in the face now, at a complete loss for words. The silence is tangible and oppressively thick. A car passes by, she thinks, but it’s hard to say because it feels as if the two of them are in their own private world, dyed in gold and orange. Their slow footsteps echo in her ears as the only audible sound. Her glasses have slipped down her nose a bit, and she adjusts them with a hand all too used to the action that she hardly thinks about it. It’s a small comfort in this unfamiliar territory, set against a typical backdrop.

“You know, Noriko,” she breaks the silence at last. The taller girl whips her head up and to the side, finding her looking away, fingers fussing with the hem of her skirt again. “I wouldn’t mind doing those things if it’s with you, but...”

“But?” She can’t resist the urge to ask. Her heart is going a mile a minute and she can feel it climb into her throat.

“Never cheat on me, okay?”

Noriko gets up early because she likes to be punctual, and so that she follows the rules she enforces. Or so she says, but in reality it mostly has to do with Matsuri Kagami. She’s more than pretty, with her long pink hair, slightly wavy, her eyes in a deeper color but still glittering in the light. Even her petite figure, her small hands are impossibly charming. Anyone can see that, but she isn’t satisfied. She wants to know more, to follow this strange feeling wherever it leads. No matter where that is.