Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume28 Chapter1
 Frame of Mind 1
"Ah, there she is. Lucky!"
Upon returning to the now clean classroom, Yumi found the photography club's Takeshima Tsutako-san amongst the few classmates of hers that remained. Usually Tsutako-san would head straight to the photography club's clubroom once school had finished.
To find her settled at her desk working on something was unusual, and Yumi commented on it as she walked past Tsutako-san's desk on her journey back from putting the rubbish bin in its usual spot in the corner of the room.
"What are you up to?"
There were numerous photographs spread across Tsutako-san's desk. There were also a number of paperback-sized envelopes stacked beside her, undoubtedly containing many more photographs. It was hard to tell if she'd been forced into this compromise due to the lack of space on her desk or if she was just going through the envelopes one at a time.
"I'm kinda doing some club work by myself."
Tsutako-san replied, without interrupting her work. Omitting any bothersome explanation.
"Oh? So why not do that in the club room?"
Yumi asked again. She was thinking that, obviously, the photography club's main activity was taking photos, and the individual members could do that wherever they wanted to, but the best place to perform this kind of clerical work was surely the clubroom, right?
"The third years are using it, so I was banned from going there."
Tsutako-san was distributing the photographs as though she were dealing a pack of cards. It was hard to tell what rules she was using from a brief inspection, but Tsutako-san was probably using some set of guidelines that were perfectly clear to her. From time to time she'd stop and move one or two photos into a different pile.
"Why were you banned?"
To minimize the interruption, Yumi waited until Tsutako-san had distributed all the photos she was holding on to her desk before asking the question. In response, Tsutako-san flicked her hair back as though drained of all energy.
"Ahh – in the end I guess I have to explain it anyway."
Still, Yumi was intensely curious.
"It's okay. I shouldn't have skipped it to begin with."
Tsutako-san looked up at Yumi and smiled. Her story went, basically, something like this:
With the graduation ceremony almost upon them, the third-years had challenged Tsutako-san to a photography showdown. They weren't looking to kick her out of the club, instead they wanted to show this prodigious second-year what her seniors were capable of. By and large, the third-year photography club members already knew what they were going to do next year, so they were getting all fired up about banding together and "Knocking out Takeshima Tsutako."
"They said we shouldn't show our cards until the actual event. And they've thrown in all kinds of restrictions. It's such a pain."
So the third-years had seized control of the clubroom and Tsutako-san was forced to use her classroom.
"Have they shut out all the first and second-years?"
"They're not being as strict on them as they are on me, so they're allowed in to get anything they may have left inside the clubroom. In contrast to that, they've been very friendly to our newest club member, Shouko-chan, beckoning her to join them. Then they started making jokes, saying, 'Look, she doesn't know the technical details so she has to spy on us.'"
The third-years toying with the first-years. It seemed the same thing happened everywhere.
"So when's this showdown happening?"
"At the third-year's farewell ceremony."
"Huh? … Ahh, that's right."
Yumi had been momentarily confused, but when she remembered she struck her left palm with her balled-up right hand.
'The Third Year's Send-off.' Like the name suggested, it was a farewell celebration that was held prior to the graduation ceremony. The clubs and various other groups were putting on displays and performances with the aim of entertaining their graduating seniors (which was why Yumi was a bit taken aback when she heard that it was going to be the location for the photography club's showdown).
Well, that's how it was last year. This year, due to overwhelming demand, they had decided to showcase the work of the graduating seniors. It's possible that this showdown was the brainchild of the third-year students from the newspaper club.
"Surely you'd have plenty of good photos, Tsutako-san."
Yumi patted Tsutako-san on the shoulder, as though to say, "Don't worry, it'll be a piece of cake." However, Tsutako-san herself looked depressed.
"But one of the rules is that the photos have to be unpublished."
Tsutako-san would have displayed her best photos during the school festival. Since she had to use unpublished photos, that left just those taken after the school festival. Either that or she had to choose something that, for one reason or another, she hadn't displayed at the school festival.
"It's hard enough to find a good photograph, let alone one that's unpublished. Despite that, it still leaves about five months of photos to sift through. The rest are hidden somewhere. Or maybe I should go out, concentrate, and take some new photos.
Tsutako-san grumbled, talking mainly to herself. It looks like the self-proclaimed ace of the photography club was determined to win the showdown. This was quite different to Yumi's way of thinking – Yumi considered it only natural that she should lose to her seniors.
"And that's why I'm doing photography club work by myself in the classroom."
Tsutako-san thumped the desk in frustration, and the vibration caused the pile of envelopes to spill to the floor.
"Ahh – "
Tsutako-san hastily jumped out of her chair, reaching for the envelopes. Yumi squatted beside her, helping to pick up the fallen envelopes. As she was handing them back to Tsutako-san, a thought popped into Yumi's head.
"Hey, Tsutako-san. Why don't you come to the Rose Mansion? The table we have on the second floor is much bigger than your desk. And there's no meeting today, so you're welcome to use it."
Tsutako-san was initially a bit surprised and politely refused, saying "Oh, I couldn't impose." But she seemed to be swayed when Yumi said, "If you stay here, there's bound to be someone else interrupting like I did." Eventually Tsutako-san agreed to go along and started packing up her belongings. She squeezed the envelopes into a paper bag, which she carried along with her school satchel and her coat. Having made the invitation, Yumi prepared to leave too and they exited the classroom together.
"Still, that was news to me. That there are third-years in the photography club."
As they walked down the corridor, Yumi said the first thing that came to her mind. Tsutako-san laughed incredulously.
"Did you think it was just me and Shouko-chan? It wouldn't be officially recognized as a club if there were only two members. We do have days set aside for club activities, but there's no meetings and everyone's free to come and go as they please, and to take photos wherever they want. Since it's a high-school club there's some pretty nice equipment in the clubroom, so the club has a fairly decent number of members. Although there's a lot who don't turn up for the club activities."
Yumi thought back to the school festival and remembered that the photography club's display did indeed feature works by photographers other than Tsutako-san. But she had no idea what the name of any of the other exhibitors were, so they hadn't really etched themselves into Yumi's memory. Or perhaps she had only paid attention to the works of her friend, Tsutako-san.
"So, for this showdown, how will the winner be decided?"
Would they have a ballot box, and the person with the most votes wins? That was the sort of thing Yumi was imagining, but it seems she was somewhat wide of the mark.
"Well, it's a bit complicated. It's not about accepting someone else's decision, in the end it's about what we think best. Well, rather than 'we' perhaps I should have said 'each of us, individually.' Each of us will come to our own conclusion, and that's good enough."
"Sorry, I don't really follow you."
Yumi said earnestly, to which Tsutako-san raised a finger and said, "It's like this."
"With art, there's no ranks or levels, right? So there's no final authority that says whether something is good or bad. Well, that's setting aside competitions, which do need a judge. But that's not necessary within our club. It's better if we each look at the various works and form our own opinion."
So while it was being labeled a showdown, it was more about proving to themselves that they were better. Apparently they were supposed to maintain a poker face, so they would know their decision, but no-one else would. The contest would be decided within each of them.
Was that it? The true battle was setting up the camera, pressing the shutter and then developing the photographs that sparkled brilliantly, which Tsutako-san had done time after time.
"Wh-at, is that trying a bit too hard?"
Tsutako-san started to jog ahead, looking a bit embarrassed. Yumi chased after her, then overtook her and spun around.
"No, it's really pretty cool. I was just a bit overawed."
Whereupon Tsutako-san raised the tiny camera she had produced from somewhere and said, "Thanks," as she took a photo of Yumi's face.
Even as she made a strange face due to the surprise attack and the dazzling flash, Yumi knew. That despite all this, Tsutako-san had taken a surprisingly good photo. This was based upon a great deal of prior experience.
Opening the front door of the Rose Mansion, the quiet atmosphere inside the room settled around them. It looked like no-one had been here for a couple of hours. The air had an undisturbed feel to it. That was to be expected, since they had confirmed at lunch that they wouldn't be having a meeting today.
They climbed the creaking staircase. They did have rooms on the first floor, but they had been partially converted into storerooms.
As expected, there was nobody on the second floor.
"I'm going to make some tea."
Yumi started by filling the kettle with tap water.
"Don't put yourself out on my account."
Tsutako-san dropped her satchel and coat on a chair, then immediately started removing the envelopes from the paper bag.
"Today I'm a boarder, not a guest."
"Okay. But I wanted to have some tea anyway, so I'll make enough for two."
Yumi checked that it was okay with Tsutako-san, then opened all the windows. She then prepared the cups and the teapot before closing the windows again. It was still cold outside, so once they had fresh air in the room the windows were better off closed.
As she poured the tea into the two teacups, Yumi was struck by a strange sensation. Until now, tea for two had been prepared on countless occasions.
For her onee-sama, Sachiko-sama, and herself.
For Yoshino-san and herself.
For Shimako-san and herself.
Add to that for two other people, when she wasn't there.
There were many different combinations that had existed.
But this was the first time that Yumi had prepared tea for Tsutako-san and herself.
Even though they'd been in the same class for two years now. Even though they chatted to each other quite frequently in the classroom. Perhaps they had changed the usual atmosphere by merely changing location to the Rose Mansion.
Yumi carried the teacups over to the table, upon which Tsutako-san had arranged her photographs as though she were playing concentration.
"I'll leave this here."
Yumi placed the teacup away from the photographs, so as not to interfere. Since Tsutako-san didn't seem to be hiding the photographs, Yumi took the opportunity to have a look at them.
Yumi instinctively cried out. Each of the photographs contained a pair of girls wearing Lillian's high school uniform. The envelope that the photos seemed to come from had "Soeurs – Other" written on it.
"It's okay, go ahead."
Tsutako-san said as she too looked over the photographs.
There were soeurs smiling at the camera, soeurs gazing at each other oblivious to the camera, the surprised faces of soeurs who had been ambushed, and photos of soeurs walking together holding hands.
In each of the photos there seemed to be some kind of intense personal drama taking place between the two girls featured.
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