Sometimes, I wonder why the world works in the ways that it does. It's truly mindboggling. If you'd told me seven years ago, for instance, that I would be waiting outside the apartment of my girlfriend's hated rival/cousin to walk with her to work, I would have called you insane, and probably tried to sic Shizune on you to boot.
Now, though? It's early o'clock on Monday morning, and I've just pushed the small button that sends a buzzing noise to Lilly Satou's apartment, letting her know that I'm here to walk with her to Yamaku.
A minute or so passes before she emerges from the door of the apartment building, dressed tastefully in a dark blue blazer and matching skirt that comes to an inch or two below her knees. Dress clothing suits her much better than it does me – I've heard that I'm being called “Mutoh, Jr.” behind my back, and not just because I teach science like he does, either.
“Good morning, Hisao,” she says. She waits for me to reply with a “hello” of my own before orienting herself and walking the (very) short distance over to me. I look at her in surprise as slender fingers take hold of the collar of my suit jacket. “Shall we be off, then?”
I nod – and only belatedly say “yes.” As we begin walking, I realize how much sense it makes – it means I won't accidentally wander away from her, or walk too fast. With her cane in her other hand, I briefly wonder how she can carry her things, until I see the backpack slung over her shoulders. A bit less formal than the rest of her attire, but it does the trick – and leaves both her hands free.
This does, however, put Lilly squarely in my personal space. I wonder if she can sense that as we walk. It doesn't seem to bother her in the least if she can. Not that it bothers me, exactly...it's just a little strange.
First world problems, Hisao, having a pretty teacher in your personal space.
“How was your weekend,” Lilly asks, startling me from my thoughts. I recognize it for what it is; an effort to make conversation. Otherwise, walking with me in utter silence would be fairly awkward.
“Okay, I guess. I got my work done. Otherwise, it was a little boring.” I can't tell her that my weekend consisted largely of grading papers, despairing at my breakup with Shizune, and spending a large part of Sunday at Yamaku talking to a student. I don't even really want to remember that was how it actually went, either.
“I could say the same thing,” she admits, a soft, out-of-place sigh falling from her mouth. “I don't exactly have much of a social life here.”
That surprises me, if only because it seemed like Lilly knew everyone and anyone in Yamaku back when we were in school together.
“Are you surprised,” she asks, after another moment of quiet. It's as if she can sense that my mouth was hanging open in shock, which is a bit unnerving.
“Well, yes,” I'm forced to admit. “You seemed fairly popular in school, so I'd assume you'd make friends easily.” It seems a reasonable assumption, so being wrong on it is disconcerting. Maybe I'm getting worse at reading people, which doesn't even seem possible.
“I have some friends here,” she admits, “but the vast majority of the teachers here, if you have noticed, are all ten years older than us, at least. We're the two youngest teachers at Yamaku by...quite a margin.”
I hadn't noticed. This might be largely because I haven't actually interacted with most of my fellow teachers yet, outside of brief hellos in the hallways or the faculty office. I should probably get on that, really.
“We are?” was the best I could do, and I cringed a bit as Lilly shook her head. I couldn't tell if she was surprised, disappointed, or a little bit of both.
“Yes,” she insists. “Most of them are married. Many have children. Other than teaching, I really don't have much in common with them. It makes friendships beyond a superficial level somewhat difficult.”
I'm about to ask about her university friends when I remember that they're in Scotland.
“I went to university in Scotland,” she continues, and I'm pleased that, for once, I'm ahead of the topic of discussion. It's a rare occurrence, so I should enjoy it while I can. “All of my friends are there. We speak on the phone every so often, but...”
It's not the same. I know that feeling. I still have some friends from university as well. We chat over email every so often, but they're strewn about Japan now, and it's not like I have the time to go see them.
“I get it,” I say, the scenery shifting from the homes and businesses of town to the open space and rolling hills of the road leading to Yamaku Academy. We've been walking about ten minutes, but it doesn't even feel like half of that. “I'm in the same boat, honestly.”
Lilly brightens at that. It's enough to be noticeable, a slight pep in her step and a small smile on her face. “I'm glad to hear that, Hisao,” she says, and then immediately panics. “Well, no, not exactly, but you know what I mean, right?”
It's terrible of me, but I enjoy seeing Lilly flustered. She's almost too composed, normally, which is intimidating in a way that I never really learned to deal with. Shizune wore her heart on her sleeve, as did Misha. Considering how much time I spent with those two over the years, I suppose it's little wonder I never learned how to deal with Lilly better at the reunions.
I wonder how she'd react if I told her so?
“I do,” I agree, nodding in spite of myself. “It's okay. It's kind of nice to see you a bit flustered, you know.”
She stops walking at that. I stop, too, so as not to end up potentially being choked by my own collar. Lilly turns to face me – unnecessary given her condition, but this, seemingly, is something she thinks is important. She's taller than I am right now, too, in her shoes, making her even more intimidating than she can be on her own.
“Why is that, Hisao,” she asks. There's something hurt in her voice. I can tell that immediately. I can't exactly take back what I said, either. There's only one thing for me to do – tell the truth and hope that she doesn't hate me for it.
“I didn't mean anything bad by it,” I say, knowing that if she doesn't like what I have to say, those words won't actually soften it must. “You just always seem so composed. So well put together. And I'm...well, not. I never have been, really, not even before everything happened and I ended up at Yamaku.”
All these years later, and I still can barely make myself talk about it in direct terms.
Lilly's lips start moving, but she's not speaking aloud. For all the world, it looks like she's practicing what she wants to say before she says it. My tall, blonde, well-dressed heaves a deep, slow sigh before she lets herself say anything.
“That...is not the first time I've heard similar sentiments.” It's an effort for her to admit it, too, and she's clearly unhappy at having to do so. This entire conversation is the most strained I've ever seen Lilly, but it's a familiar sort of strained to me – the internal battle of saying too little versus potentially saying too much.
“Lilly, I,” I start, in an effort to defuse the situation, but she waves a hand at me.
“No, Hisao,” she says, firmly. It's a little terrifying, actually. “Just...let me speak. This is hard for me, but I think this is something I have to say.”
She stands up straight, with perfect posture. Her entire person is radiating a sort of determination that's rather familiar to me, and makes me wonder if it runs in the family.
“I'm not as composed as you think I am – or anyone else thinks I am. That is my fault, not yours. Some people hide things better than others. I am - and always have been – quite good at hiding things.”
By her standards, it's practically an outburst. I understand almost instantly why it's happening, too. There's no one else for her to tell. She has no friends here. She's alone, just like I am. She's my mentor. I'm her mentee. Beyond that, though, we're friends and have shared experiences together.
I'm the only person she can tell.
“I'm good enough at hiding it,” Lilly says, quietly, “that I started attracting people that weren't good at hiding it. My flock, as some took to calling it. I could help everyone except myself. There was no one to confide in, except my sister, and her hours were best described as inhumane.”
I remember only then that her parents were in Scotland for a huge chunk of Lilly's life. Lilly and...Akira, I think? - lived together alone. I can't even imagine how difficult it must have been for her.
“It is amazing how convincing a smile can be,” she whispers, shaking her head even as the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile. It's heartbreaking to see, and it breaks something inside of me. I can't be silent now. Not anymore. I have to say something. Anything.
“You can confide in me, Lilly.” I'm astonished at just how convincing those words sound in my ears as I say them. No matter how true most of what I say is, I never like how it sounds. This? This sounds like gospel by comparison.
“Can I, Hisao,” she asks. “Can I, truly?” The look on her face can't be interpreted as anything other than skeptical. I'm going to have to convince her. That's okay, though. I'd probably have to convince myself, too, if I were in her shoes.
“Yes, you can,” I say, firmly. “Just because I have my own litany of problems doesn't mean that I can't listen to yours. Burdens are lighter when we share them.”
Where the Hell did that last little bit of sunshine come from? It was corny enough that I almost laughed at myself, no matter how true it was. Of course, I was somewhat of a hypocrite in that regard, but then, wasn't this what we'd promised one another? That we'd confide our darkest secrets in one another when we were ready?
“You're already confiding in me anyway,” I point out. “I don't know what happened between you and Hanako, but what you've told me today seems equally serious, and equally something that you wouldn't tell to just anyone.”
Lilly's shoulders slump forward as a wry smile curves her mouth. “I suppose you're right,” and I'm rewarded for being correct with a cute little pout and a sigh of acceptance. Just as quickly, though, she turns things right back around again, leaving my head spinning.
“That doesn't mean that you can't confide in me as well, Hisao,” she insists. “I know as much as anyone how difficult it is to be the one everyone confides in and not having anyone to confide in.”
It's a very...Shizune bit of aikido. Still, I can't do much about it. I'd be the biggest hypocrite on Earth if I tried to fight it now.
“Alright, alright,” I say, pretending to heave a dramatic sigh. “I understand. It's a two way street. I'm the one who advocated for this, anyway, so I can't really complain.”
The smile goes from wry to almost playful. “I'm glad you understand,” Lilly says. “It'll be a while before I'm ready to talk about Hanako, but there are a lot of other topics that I will accept your kind offer about. Hopefully you will not end up regretting your kindness, Hisao.”
I won't. I don't think there's anything she could tell me that would make me regret it. We're virtually alone here, two young teachers with no other friends, walking to school (and, at this rate, going to end up late if we don't pick up the pace) and confiding in one another.
It's nice to be wanted.
“Would you like me to tell you something that only a handful of people know,” I ask. In the grand scheme of things, the embarrassing thing I'm about to tell her doesn't really much matter anymore. If I want to be able to tell her about what happened with her cousin, though, I need to be able to trust her enough to say things like this, and this remains one of my more closely guarded secrets, even today.
“If I say yes,” she replies, sheepishly, “you won't think I'm a gossip, will you?”
“Of course not. I offered, right? Anyway...you know that I had a heart attack, and that's how the doctors found out I had arrhythmia, right?”
All these years later, and it's still a cold, cruel word that I don't want to be alone with. Thankfully, right now, I'm not alone.
Lilly nods, and I continue.
“Well, I...had just been confessed to when it happened, by a girl at my old school.”
My mentor's face contorts in strange and interesting ways. She's trying not to laugh. She won't permit herself to laugh, but she is struggling. In retrospect, it is funny, in a morbid sort of way.
“At least nothing happened when my cousin confessed to you,” she offers, a few moments later. I'm forced to shake my head.
“Actually, I confessed to her,” I point out. Again, Lilly seems surprised, and again, I don't blame her. It's easy to imagine Shizune as the aggressor in all things, including relationships, even if she could be remarkably traditional in certain ways. “Haven't been confessed to since, so if it ever happens again, here's hoping the medications hold out.”
“I'm sure they will, Hisao,” Lilly says. It's only then that I realize her hand hasn't left my collar this entire time. We've been scant feet apart this entire discussion. She looks almost shy for a moment, and then asks the last question I expected.
“May I feel your face, Hisao,” she asks. Perhaps realizing the request needs some explanation, she follows up immediately. “I would like to know what my current closest friend looks like, for lack of better phrasing.”
I nod dumbly for several seconds before realizing that I have to say “okay.”
The hand in my collar disengages finally as long, slender, elegant fingers make their way up the side of my neck. Her fingertips brush over my cheek, and then move sideways, over the contours of my nose and mouth. It is a strange feeling to be touched so intimately out of necessity, and when her fingers linger on my lips, it's all I can do to try not to blush.
Her hand finally settles in my hair, stroking through it briefly before her hand returns to my collar.
“Thank you, Hisao,” she says, and the smile that she gives me, an earnest smile, is more rewarding than I can imagine. Suddenly, though, the smile inverts. It doesn’t take me long to figure out what she’s worried about.
“We have been here quite a while. How long is it until we have to be at school?”
A quick reach into my pocket for my cell phone confirms my worst fears. “Fifteen minutes,” I groan. “If we walk fast, we'll be able to make it.”
“Can we walk fast,” she asks, “considering your--”
“Yes,” I say, cutting her off as delicately as I can manage. “I'm in much better condition than I was at Yamaku. Brisk walking is more normal for me now. I'll be fine, and we'll get there on time.”
As it turns out, we eventually arrive a minute or so late, but in the grand scheme of things, I will accept any reprimand Yamaku decides to give me. Some things, after all, are more important than timeliness.
Characters: Shizune > Lilly > Rin > Emi > Hanako
Routes: Lilly > Rin > Shizune > Hanako > Emi
Replaying now, so subject to flux. Except Shizune. Shizune is best.