It was every bit as good as the ones his parents made. No, I doubt even many adults could have made such a pretty garland. It was that beautiful.
—Compared to that, I...
Even making allowances for the garland in my hands being incomplete, it could never compare with his. The marks of my forceful bending were visible all over it, and the flowers stuck out at odd angles. There were more than a few places in which the flowers had gone limp, as if the moisture had leaked from their stems. That a portion of it was well done only made the whole appear all the more misshapen by comparison.
—...Why was there such a difference...?
His parents had taught us both at the same time, during pauses in their work, but he had improved steadily, while I had not improved at all. People said that he was good with his hands, but that didn't change my lack of progress. I had begun to suspect that I was clumsy.
—...But... to be unable to make even a single garland properly...
He softly placed the garland in his own hands on my head, which I had lowered in shame. When I raised my head in surprise at that, my eyes met those in his sincere, smiling face. What in the world was that somehow triumphant smile for? While I pondered that, his lips began to move.
"Yup. I was right; you look like a princess when you wear something like this, Mary. It's really cute."
His words, and my pet name, had the effect of a surprise attack. Reflexively, my chest throbbed and a heat kindled in my face. He, however, went back to plucking the Dutch clover around him without noticing my reaction at all. I felt relieved by that, and also a tiny bit jealous. I was thankful that he wasn't staring at my face, which had become bright red, but... couldn't he have paid a little more attention to me? I mean... this was certainly a pretty flower garden, but... he'd gone to the trouble of inviting me, and...—
—...Still... I was glad he'd called me cute...
Just the thought of that was enough to blow away my faint jealousy, and cause my cheeks to slacken. Of course, having been taken along by my father, as I had been and having had contact with the outside world, I had had the word "cute" directed at me any number of times. Most of those, however, had been empty compliments, or flattery meant for my father. There was hardly anyone who had genuinely thought me cute from the heart and put that feeling into words, as he had.
—But... even if someone other than him had said it...
There was practically nothing that could have made me happier than hearing that from him. His parents were the same in praising me without flattery, but they did not make my chest throb and my face redden so much as he did. Of course, gladness was gladness, but the feeling inside me now was a little different.
—...Could he be a genius at making my heart flutter...?
Right now, even just being next to him was enough to make my heart go pitter-patter. It wasn't enough to show on my face, but it had occasionally happened that I had failed, and been unable to maintain my composure in front of him. Each and every time, however, he would follow up my failure, and turn his usual smiling face to me.
—Even just now... yes...
He had brought me to his secret place—this flower garden—and on the way I had come close to falling down more times than I could count. My attempt to dress stylishly, in heels, of all things—although of course they were only small ones for children—in response to his invitation was probably the cause. Still, although when I really came to think about it, he should never have brought me to such a romantic spot, he had supported me in my heels time and time again, and taken my hand so that my clothes would not become dirty.
—...Then, too... my heart had been pounding a lot...
I felt an exaltation just like I did after putting my all into a game of tag. And yet, it certainly wasn't an unpleasant feeling. That was... because I trusted that, as long as I was with him, everything would be alright, or else...—
His voice abruptly called out to me, and when I raised my head in response, his worried-looking face entered my view. Why in the world would he make such an expression? After thinking for a few moments, I realized that my hands had been motionless for some time.
"Are you alright? Your hands aren't moving, but..."
"Oh... Y, yeah. I'm fine. I was just thinking about something."
—...I'd gone and done it again...
I replied in order to make him feel at ease, but as I did so I felt my heart slump just a little. It wasn't only once or twice that I had become lost in thought at his side like this. Perhaps just his nearness was enough to make me unconsciously let down my guard, but I didn't know how many times I had repeated this same sort of thing.
"...Sorry. You said you wanted to practice making garlands, Mary, so I thought this would be a good place, but..."
"N, no! I, I'm really enjoying myself!"
He must have thought that I was lost in thought because I was bored of the flower garden. His shoulders quietly slumped as he apologized. But it was a complete misunderstanding. I wasn't particularly bored, and neither did I dislike the flower garden. On the contrary, just knowing that he'd remembered my trivial confidences filled me with joy.
—Besides... as long as I was with him, I was sure that I'd enjoy myself... no matter where I was...
"Really? Well, that's alright then, but..."
"I, I'm fine! I was just worrying because... I'm no good at making garlands, and..."
—That shouldn't be a lie.
I had started out worrying about my failure to improve and my clumsiness in comparison to him. It was true that the topic had turned from there, and gone on to him himself, but that had been the original cause. Even I was unsure whether or not I was lying, but in order to keep him from feeling down, I would make my own clumsiness out to be the villain.
"Hmm... You're putting too much force into your shoulder, Mary."
"...I, I know that, but..."
Because I was clumsy, I put force into it whether I tried to or not. Clumsy me failed over and over by putting force into it, and then ended up putting force into it again anyway. I knew that I was trapped in that vicious cycle. Actually, the first stems I had braided were well done as they were. But the more I put together, the more my feelings of pressure and unease grew, and now it was growing difficult for me even to make a loop properly.
—In the moment that my shoulders slumped, his hands quietly stretched out to me...—
"Let me touch for a minute."
At those hands covering my palms from above, my cheeks reddened. My heart also beat faster, and my whole body seemed to be growing hotter. And yet he, concentrating on my fingers, refused to notice. I suppose he was using my fingers to demonstrate, and trying to let me build up experience. And yet, I was hardly looking at my own fingertips.
—...Ah... His eyelashes are longer than I thought...
As he stared at my hands, his face and mine were quickly growing closer than they had been until now. Then we were so close that, if I could have summoned a little courage, I could have kissed him. When the distance between us was so little that a sigh from either of us could have crossed it, my breast beat so fast it seemed it might burst. I was turned towards his serious-gazed expression, and focusing so as not to miss even its faintest movements.
"There. That does it."
"Huh? ...Huh...? Oh..."
—Called back to reality by his words, I found a small garland of flowers completed in my hands. It must have been because he had begun helping me partway through making it. The garland, about the size of a finger ring, was the most prettily shaped I had ever made. In the moment I spent admiring his skill in being able to make this pretty a garland moving not his own, but another's fingers, he quietly withdrew from before me.
—Ah... He's going...
His quietly retreating figure was so lonely that my hand made to reach out to him of its own accord. But the tiny garland in my hands stopped it. It was only natural that that garland, our first collaboration and so well made as to be unique—at least in my personal experience—should be my treasure. I wanted to avoid losing or injuring it if I possibly could.
—Besides... he would never leave me.
Just as I had anticipated, he sat down softly beside me. He went on swiftly weaving the Dutch clovers he had picked just as he had been before. I admired the fluid movements of his fingers, which I could not bring myself to believe were made of the same stuff as my own, a "certain thought" suddenly popped into my mind.
"Hey... won't you make a ring for me?"
"Hm...? Sure, but... why?"
"It's a secret. If you make it for me, I might tell you."
"Huh...? What's that supposed to mean?"
—Although he sounded dissatisfied, his fingers moved skillfully.
He was so kind. I was sure he would make a ring for me as I had requested. As proof of that, the movements of his fingers, which until then had been trying to make something large, changed. As I watched the small, firm knitting movements produce a finger ring in the blink of an eye, I felt a smile come to my face.
"Here. It's finished."
"Eh heh heh... thanks."
As he turned to me and proffered the finished ring, his face quietly reddened. Even he, insensitive as he was, must have understood what it meant to give a girl a ring. At his embarrassed appearance, my chest began to throb again.
—...Was his heart fluttering too?
It would make me happy if it were so. No, a feeling of wanting it to be so reflexively gushed forth from within my breast. I didn't quite understand what that meant. And yet, I felt certain it wasn't such a bad thing.
—While I encouraged myself in this way, I held my "treasure" out to him in offering.
"Then, take this in return, okay?"
With a dumbfounded expression, he directed his gaze at the "treasure" in my hand—the ring we had just made together. Judging by his totally uncomprehending expression, it seemed that he did not yet understand what an exchange of rings meant. Then... I was in luck. I would get my way before any strange preconceptions got a hold of him.
"When someone gives you a ring, you have to give them one back."
"Is that... so?"
"Yes, it is."
—...Yeah. That shouldn't be a lie.
I had only deliberately concealed the information that "this only applies to wedding and engagement rings." Besides, I felt confident that, dull-witted as he was, he would probably never realize. I didn't even understand why I was doing such a thing myself, but I felt certain that it was not mistaken. I couldn't explain why, but I was convinced of that.
"Well, in that case..."
—So saying, he took the ring from my hand, and gently placed it on his finger.
Wearing it on the middle finger of his left hand, he quietly turned his palm to the sun. The ring that the two of us had made together took in the warm spring sunlight, and seemed to sparkle. Feeling somehow triumphant, I put his ring gently on my finger in imitation.
—Of course, it was the index finger of my right hand.
For some reason... Yes. For some reason, that ring fit perfectly on my index finger, as if it had always belonged there. Sensing a touch of destiny in that, I felt my cheeks break into a smile. As I, smiling in spite of myself, stuck out my hand, palm facing the sun, just as he was, my lips quietly parted.
"...Thank you so much, El."
"I don't know why you're thanking me, but... you're welcome."
He—Elt... no, El—flashed an embarrassed smile at my words. And the moment I felt strangely glad at his expression, which looked as if he was happy too, and I felt my chest grow warm—
—Fade to black.