Hindsight (5 Epilogues - Complete)

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Hindsight (5 Epilogues - Complete)

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:11 am

Hey folks!

I've never actually used this forum before; I come from way out in the boonies of fanfiction.net where I've written a couple things for Katawa Shoujo (I quite like the formatting there). It was recommended to me that I try posting a fic here and I like the opportunity to get more feedback... so, here I am! Hope I'm welcome.

This is a fic- or really more like 5- that I initially wrote as something of an experiment to test myself in writing the main characters. So my main focus was basically to write something that I thought was plausible for each, and to capture something of a voice for Hisao. There are a number of OC's but overall they don't have a lot of importance or focus and exist (I hope :P) to service the narrative and other characters.

It's a series of epilogues all centered around a ten-year reunion at Yamaku (thus taking place ten years after the end of KS, obviously), following the five good endings. While they are essentially separate and self-contained stories, they are also all connected and do follow a sort of chronological order (i.e. some things will probably be clarified between one to the next) because I initially wrote them as chapters and wanted them to have a sense of progression. Thus I really don't recommend reading them out of order or skipping any. Not that you can't, but I didn't write it intending that and so there will probably be at least a little bit of stuff that won't make sense if you do.

They're also all pretty long on their own and really goddamn long together (the sum total of all 5 is close to 100,000 words) and despite my own rereading I am sure at this point they are each still full of typos and small inconsistencies that I have repeatedly failed to pick up on. :P That also means I am going to have to figure out a way to break it up for the purposes of forum posts. I'm gonna start by posting this introduction and then trying to break each chapter up into digestible posts. Bear with me there please. (I'm out of my element here!)
...Okay, so I did that with the first chapter. I think it seems to have worked out fairly well but my italicized text did not survive the voyage so that's broken at the moment. It will take me a bit of time to correct that for each chapter though it isn't as much of a hassle as I originally thought.

The entire thing is complete from start to finish and as such I am probably not likely to make any huge changes to it. If you do feel I've mis-characterized someone or made some other big egregious kind of mistake in storytelling I would still really like to hear about it for future reference!... but that said, if such a thing happens I would probably just cut my losses here. :P

I really appreciate any and all feedback. Reviews back at home base are usually not super detailed or constructive (not that I don't appreciate those either of course) but I like getting the opportunity to have someone give their thoughts on my writing.

I guess I could post a link to where it is initially posted on FF and looks a little cleaner, but I suppose that would probably be frowned upon right?

Table of Contents
1. A Well-Oiled Machine (Shizune)
2. Date Night (Emi)
3. For Better or Worse (Hanako)
4. Delaying the Inevitable (Rin)
5. Trial by Fire (Lilly)

Thanks for reading!
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Fri Feb 24, 2017 1:48 pm, edited 16 times in total.

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A Well-Oiled Machine

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:17 am

Chapter 1: A Well-Oiled Machine

5:00.

"Damn!"

I notice it only too late, glancing waywardly at my wrist as I drive back from the dry cleaner's.

For a second, I curse not having my old digital watch. I got used to setting all my alarms on it, so I'm totally out of practice for setting them on my phone instead.

That said, the new one was a birthday present from Shizune- a very expensive one, at that- so it would probably be insensitive to wear anything else.

For the time being, panic is the only thing on my mind. I hit the gas and shoot off down the road without a second thought. A fiery death in a car crash is one concern, but it pales in comparison to the fear of Shizune being pissed at me for my lateness.

My rush only gets me so far, however, and by the time I pull up to the driveway to the house, it's nearly 5:20. Suit in hand, I stumble out of the car only to get the clothes' plastic covering caught in the door, nearly wrinkling the suit in the process.

One quick look at myself in the side mirror tells me I'm a mess right now. This is not going to end well.

I place the suit under my arm and spend a minute sorting through my keys before getting the front door open. The foyer is empty and very quiet- and for just a second, I allow myself to think I may be safe. Just before reaching the closet door, though, an earsplitting snap grabs my attention from behind and my hopes are immediately shattered.

I am greeted by the lovely and unbelievably venomous scowl of my darling wife, already donning her business clothes and clearly not willing to wait for me. I smile apologetically as I turn back to the closet door, but she doesn't even wait for me to open it to begin furiously signing.

[Where the hell were you? I spent-]

I fish through the closet for a coat hanger, doing my best to be quick about hanging up my jacket so as not to miss the gist of what she's saying.

I fail.

[-get here!]

I frown slightly, tucking my suit under my arm to allow me to sign with both hands. [You are going to have to repeat that.]

[You are really trying my patience right now.]

[Sorry.]

She rolls her eyes, taking a step backward and leaning against the wall. [I said that I spent ten minutes trying to find you before I figured out that you weren't in the house. They are supposed to have already arrived, so you should be changed and ready to go by now.]

[Wait, you mean they're coming here? To the house? I thought we were going to meet at the restaurant.]

She looks appalled at me. I really need to get better about keeping those kinds of errors to myself. [Our house is right on the way there. I can think of two separate occasions on which we discussed this.]

[I'm really sorry; I'm kind of disheveled right now. I lost more time than I meant to at the dry cleaner's.] I glance over her shoulder at the driveway through the window. [To be fair, you are the one who insisted I take the suit there before we went to this thing.]

[I'm feeling merciful today, so I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that.] She looks me over again with a contemplative frown, tapping her finger against her chin. [Go put your suit on. You look like you got caught in a hurricane.]

This doesn't exactly seem like the best time for an argument, playful or not, so I just nod dutifully and hurry across the main hallway to the bedroom.

I've never liked formal clothes, and this suit in particular is stuffy beyond words. Unfortunately, it matches Shizune's (above the waist at least) so I didn't have much chance of talking her out of making me wear it. It does look nice on me, admittedly, but that is to be expected considering the small fortune we spent getting it tailored.

I nearly choke on my tie when the doorbell rings, and, trying to look as put-together as possible, I run a comb through my hair and dash out of the room. By the time I make it back to the foyer, there is already a crowd waiting for me. Hideaki, Lilly, Akira, and… someone else? A thin, pale-looking woman with long hair that covers half of her face. She seems very vaguely familiar, but I'm at a complete loss for a name. Whoever she is, Shizune definitely did not mention her.

"Sorry, sorry, I'm here!" I blurt out, stumbling into the room with a magnificent lack of elegance. "I was just… cleaning up."

Shizune rolls her eyes as everyone's attention is immediately drawn to me. I am greeted by a quiet murmur of 'hello's from everyone else in the room.

"It's not a problem, Hisao," Akira says with a wave. "Good to see you again."

I nod awkwardly, glance shifting between the different faces in the room. "Likewise. Hideaki. Lilly…"

Lilly greets me with a polite smile, but it quickly shifts to alarm as she remembers the mystery guest standing behind her. "Oh, I'm sorry, I brought a friend… I hope it's not any trouble. This is Hanako Ikezawa; she was in yours and Shizune's class at Yamaku senior year. I'm sure you remember her."

"Of course," I lie, waving slightly in greeting. "It's no trouble at all. Welcome, Hanako."

Hanako smiles nervously at me, awkwardly positioning herself half-behind Lilly. "Hello…"

I'm not sure what to make of this, so I do my best to change the subject. "Er, don't let me hold anyone up with introductions. If we need to go-"

"It's fine, Hisao," Akira says with a shrug. "There's no rush."

Shizune squints at her with irritation. [Is that a joke? Of course there is a rush. We have a 6:00 reservation.]

"Is that a joke? Of course there is a rush. We have a reservation for 6:00." Hideaki interprets for her, catching me off-guard- it's virtually always my job.

I assume it's because he had to start doing it when I wasn't here to greet them at the door. Shizune is probably not very pleased with me for that.

"We won't have any problem as long as we leave relatively soon, will we?" Lilly asks quietly. "What time is it now?"

Akira checks her watch. "5:30."

"5:30? You're joking; that late?"

"I told you we were going to be late when we swung by Hideaki's."

"You didn't say it like it would be that much of a setback."

"It's not! We're fine."

"It is a thirty-five minute drive to the restaurant," Hideaki interrupts suddenly. "With light traffic. Right now there is heavy traffic. So we are not really fine."

Shizune makes a dramatic gesture. [Thank you!]

Hideaki interprets again, and I have to catch myself to avoid talking over him. "'Thank you.'" He blinks once. "…You're welcome."

I give Shizune my best disapproving look, not that it ever has any effect on her. "Being late is not a competition."

She rolls her eyes at me. [Naturally you would say that. You're the reason we're late, so that means you're losing.]

"Naturally you would say that, Hisao, since you're the reason we are late," says Hideaki. "…Shizune says."

I squint at her. "You're going to keep holding that over my head, aren't you?"

"Oh, Shizune, be fair, please." Lilly interjects. "Hisao isn't the reason we're late. We took much too long ourselves…"

"…Thanks to me, right?" Akira says with a grin, elbowing her playfully. "It's all right; I can take it."

Lilly frowns guiltily. "I didn't say that…"

"You implied it."

"You inferred it, that doesn't mean I implied it."

Shizune shakes her head and begins signing again. [It doesn't matter anyway, because if Hisao had been here to greet you all on time we could have left much sooner.]

"It doesn't matter anyway, because if Hisao had been here sooner we could have left sooner." Hideaki makes eye contact with me as he interprets this, giving me an unreadable expression.

"Shizune, please," Lilly sighs.

"It's fine; she's just kidding around," I say tiredly. "And besides, she's not wrong."

Shizune adjusts her glasses, smiling triumphantly. [Of course I'm not.]

Everyone gets the gist of that one before Hideaki even interprets it.

…Well, besides Lilly, anyway. I briefly wonder if it's a good thing that I've gotten out of the habit of correcting that kind of thing in my head around her.

Lilly sighs. "Still, if we hadn't gotten turned around on the way to Hideaki's-"

"-If Akira hadn't gotten turned around on the way to Hideaki's," Akira corrects.

Lilly puts a hand to her face with obvious exhaustion.

In the midst of all the commotion, a whisper creeps out from the back of the room. "M- Maybe, if we're worried about being late, we should just… l- leave…?"

Every head immediately turns toward Hanako, and she shrinks a little, clearly regretting having said anything.

Looking at her again, I realize that her hair is grown over her face to cover what looks like a pretty serious patch of facial scarring. That would probably explain why she's such a wallflower, come to think of it… in hindsight, I guess I do sort of remember her from high school.

Even still, it irritates me that Lilly would be presumptuous enough to bring someone so obviously socially inept to what was meant to be a relaxed family gathering. I can already tell that I'm going to be feeling awkward around Hanako for the rest of the evening.

"Hanako is right; we should get going," Lilly says quietly, surmising Hanako's anxiousness.

I take a step towards the door to hold it open for everyone else. "In that case, what is the driving situation?"

"Doesn't really matter right this minute," Akira says to me with a shrug, "but I was hoping you and Shizune would take Hanako and Lilly back after all your stuff is over?"

"You mean you're not coming up to the campus?"

"Well, hell, I didn't go to Yamaku."

"You're still allowed to come if you-"

"I know, I know; just teasing. I've got work shit to do. I just wanted to come up for dinner." She glances back over her shoulder as she steps through the doorway. "Besides, I doubt Hideaki would want to go off and get drunk with the graduates."

Hideaki nods mechanically. "I definitely do not want to do that."

"Well, sure, we can drive them back from the campus, then," I say with a shrug.

Shizune nods, taking a step past me. [Sure.]

"Shizune says that is okay," says Hideaki.

Everyone piles out onto the front steps, and I lock the front door behind us. Akira leads Lilly back to her car, and Hanako follows them very closely behind. That leaves me driving Shizune and Hideaki, which I'm thankful for. Shizune hates long car rides if nobody else can interpret for her- since she can't sign when she's driving and I can't watch her sign if I am, our car rides are usually pretty awkward and unengaging.

Shizune sits in the passenger seat next to me, but leans rather disruptively over the console between us in order to look at Hideaki, who sits opposite her in the back seat. I spend the majority of the car ride getting repeatedly elbowed, and I can't help but wonder if this is at least partly Shizune getting back at me for earlier. I can't tell just from looking at her, and she keeps shifting so I can't get a good enough look at her. That seems like a strategy to me, but who knows? I'll make note of this for later.

Hideaki and Shizune sign back and forth for a while as I drive in silence. Eventually this gets tiresome, so I decide to speak up to break into the conversation.

"It seems like your sign language has gotten a lot better since I last saw you, Hideaki. I was surprised to see you keeping up with everyone back at the house."

"I have been practicing on my own," he responds after a few moments. "But I do not think I did a very good job. I think I confused Shizune." After a moment, he adds, "Yes, I did."

"Crowds are hard to get used to. But this is good practice, at least."

"Shizune says she would prefer you interpreted for her at the restaurant."

"Of course. I was going to offer to do that anyway. To be honest, it's a little weird for me when someone else does it."

"It is better that way. You two are like a well-oiled machine together. Everyone is more relaxed if you are interpreting for her."

I think on that for a moment. "…That's good to hear. I think you're right."

"Do you not have to think about what you need to sign when you interpret for her?"

"No, I guess not. It's just kind of… what I do when we're in a crowd, like second nature. But that's what happens when you get fluent in any second language, I guess."

"That is my goal. For it to be second nature."

"That is really sweet, Hideaki. Shizune is touched, even if she won't tell you that."

He waits for a few seconds. "She made a face at you."

"I figured."

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:32 am, edited 2 times in total.

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A Well-Oiled Machine

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:17 am

---

Hideaki and Shizune get back to signing to each other, and I catch myself smiling. It really is a nice gesture for Hideaki to go out of his way to improve his sign language, especially since Shizune and I don't even see him very often. I wonder if we'll ever get her father to learn… despite what she might say, I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility.

The majority of the trip ends up being quiet, unfortunately, as speaking back and forth through Hideaki turns out to be fairly inconvenient (and a bit stressful for him, I suspect). I trail along behind Akira's car, and I can see its passengers laughing animatedly- presumably thanks to something Akira said. In hindsight, I'm surprised Hideaki didn't want to ride with her, considering how close the two of them are.

It's nearly 6:30 by the time we finally arrive at the restaurant. Shizune practically leaps out of the car, hiking up her skirt a little to rush inside and dragging me in alongside her. Akira, meanwhile, takes her time getting the others in, leaving me alone to have to speak to the waiter.

The interior of the place strikes me as unusually upscale- actually, 'expensive' is the first word that comes to mind, not that it's much of a concern. Either way, it drives up my expectations enough that I am legitimately surprised (and very relieved) when the waiter tells us our table is still reserved. Evidently the reservation was under a different name than I thought- they must have changed it when Hanako decided to come along.

Everyone else trails in through the entrance as the waiter pulls out our menus, and Shizune frowns with irritation at their nonchalance.

I nudge her on the shoulder to get her attention. [You see? We had nothing to worry about.]

[You got lucky.] She smiles competitively at me. [Don't start celebrating yet; you still have the whole rest of the night to get on my bad side.]

She struts off ahead of me to follow the waiter, prompting a laugh from Akira. Everyone else follows behind, and the waiter leads us to a broad circular table secluded in the back of the restaurant.

The place is shockingly empty, only populated by a few families and one young couple on a date. No wonder they had no trouble filling our reservation- I just hope that doesn't say anything about the quality of the restaurant.

Akira leads Lilly to a seat first, but Hanako rushes ahead to wedge herself into the chair between the two of them. I understand not wanting to sit near Shizune or me, on account of us being strangers, but I am still shocked and slightly offended by how transparent the gesture is.

Shizune takes the seat next to Lilly, and I sit beside her, leaving me next to Hideaki. Thankfully, the chairs are far enough apart that I don't have to crane my head much to see Shizune's signing.

The waiter takes everyone's drink orders, and I can't help but laugh when Lilly and Hanako order champagne. "Lilly, do you have any idea how much alcohol there is going to be at this reunion?"

"I doubt there will be anything nearly as nice as what they have here," she says confidently. "And besides, it's more tasteful to order something from the drink menu at a place like this."

"If you say so."

Hanako smiles gently at that and leans in to read the menu to her. Everyone takes a little bit of time to decide what to eat before starting any conversation.

"So, Hisao, you're in charge of organizing the reunion, right?" Akira asks after a few minutes.

"Not in charge," I say with a shrug. "I helped schedule some of the times and got the building open, but Oikawa did most of the organizational and logistical work. I was just backup, really."

Shizune adjusts her glasses and glares teasingly at me. [Such a lack of initiative!]

"Well, if you think you could do better, you can feel free to organize the next one yourself."

She grins. [Don't tempt me.]

Everyone chuckles as I interpret that. Akira leans back in her chair, swirling her drink around with one hand. "So that means it's okay if you're a little late, right? You don't have to be there right away?"

I nod. "It should be fine. There's nothing important planned to start. I think someone's giving a speech or something later on, but we should have plenty of time for that."

"A speech? Sounds pretty formal for a mostly class-organized thing."

"Yamaku's funny that way. Part of their whole philosophy is cultivating the future, you know? So now that the future is here, they take it pretty seriously."

Shizune makes an intriguing face. [Actually, I was the first person they asked to speak. I got an email about it last month.]

"Really? And you didn't accept?"

[They wanted me to go up and present, but I thought that was insulting. I asked why I couldn't just write a speech and have someone else read it, and they insisted that they wanted to send a message by having me do the whole thing in sign language. The message, of course, being how spectacular and helpful Yamaku is for the disabled.] She rolls her eyes.

Lilly perks up a little, intrigued. "So you think they just wanted you to give the speech because of your deafness?"

Shizune frowns drearily. [That was the impression I got.]

"Hm. That does sound insulting. How thoughtless."

For some reason that makes me a little defensive of my coworkers, and I try to dismiss it. "I wouldn't take it personally, Shizune. The faculty just wants to show how people have grown and succeeded since graduation, and they've heard me talk about you before, so… I think you were just a good example of that."

"That's a nice thought, at least," Lilly says quietly.

Shizune gives me a curious smile, one that I'm not sure what to make of. [Thank you.]

We exchange an odd glance, and I shrug. "You're welcome."

Hanako smiles subtly at us, but immediately covers her face with her menu when I try to make eye contact. I'm tempted to say something to Shizune about it, but since Hideaki would know what I was signing I figure that it may be dangerous, considering how blunt he tends to be. Akira seems to be getting a kick out of my awkwardness, at least, even if Hanako isn't.

Before long, the waiter comes back and I order for Shizune and myself. Lilly orders the most expensive thing on the menu, as is her style. I just hope she's not expecting us to pay for her side of the table. To my recollection, she offered to pay for everyone the last time we got together, so it seems like a possibility that she could ask us to pay this time.

I try not to be on edge about any of this, but it still ends up feeling difficult to make small talk. I regret that I don't have more details of Lilly's or Akira's lives to ask them about.

Thankfully, Shizune seems more willing to come up with something than I am. [So, I didn't realize this get-together was singles only.]

I follow her up as quickly as possible after interpreting. "Hey, that's a good point… what ever happened to that girl you were seeing, Hideaki? With the ponytail?"

"Oh, her." He prods his fingers together with an uncharacteristic amount of reservation. "I do not think that was very serious to begin with. I lost interest. It has been a few months since we last spoke."

"Oh, damn, really?" Akira pouts and leans into the table. "Man, that's too bad; she sure was cute. I wouldn't have minded keeping her around."

"She was not prepared for a serious relationship. She had no mind for the logistics of it," Hideaki says matter-of-factly. "…Also, she kept criticizing the way I dress."

"Man, you Hakamichis, I swear. What the hell are the logistics of a relationship?"

Shizune glares suspiciously at Akira. [If you have to ask that, you probably aren't prepared for a relationship yourself.]

I frown at her without interpreting. [Come on, you have to be more polite than that.]

[It's your job to pass my words on, not decide what I can and cannot say.]

[Well, it's your job to get along with your cousins without embarrassing us.]

She thinks on that for a second. [I'm just teasing.]

[That's kind of hard for me to convey.]

[…Okay, fair enough.]

I glance back over at Akira, who is watching us suspiciously. Before she gets the chance to ask, though, Hideaki jumps in to save us. "There is a lot to determine in a relationship. Who does what, who decides what, who gets to-"

"Oh, please, talk about cold and emotionless!" Akira interrupts loudly.

He flashes her a smug half-smile. "Well, I imagine there is not much left to discuss on that front when you are middle-aged and stranded in an old marriage."

"I am not middle-aged, you little shit!" Akira smacks him playfully on the back of the head, making enough noise to draw the attention of the patrons at another table. Upon noticing this, she grins with embarrassment and shrinks into her seat a little, quieting down. "I am in the prime of my life; this the best age to be a working woman… and my marriage is healthier than ever, thank you very much."

"If that is true, then why did your husband not come here with you?"

"Oh, give me a break. This is a business trip, not a vacation; he needed to take care of the kid. Or would you have me hire a babysitter for the entire week?"

"Like I said, it is a matter of logistics. If you spent more time planning these things, you could have just left Mami with family and made it a romantic getaway."

"Good one," she snorts. "They'll get her to themselves over my dead body. One week alone with 'em and she'd come out with a kilt and a business degree."

Shizune scoffs silently. [What's wrong with a business degree?]

"Oh, come on, you know what I meant."

Trying to avoid a conflict, I do my best to redirect the conversation. "Hey, why didn't you want to bring Mami down, too? I swear I haven't seen her since she was in diapers."

"It's like I said, it's just a business trip. She doesn't handle airplanes well, and she'd just have to spend the week in a hotel room." Akira hesitates for a minute, getting a bit more serious. "I want Japan to be special for her, you know? I'm already worried she's gonna feel distanced from it. If we're coming down, I want to make it a good memory."

"Wait, so you're staying in a hotel room? I assumed you and Lilly would be staying in that old summer house together."

"You mean the one up north? That's, like, a day-long train ride from here. I've got three conferences in the city; I have no time for that."

"But you aren't both staying together in a hotel room for a whole week, are you?"

"No, Hanako was gracious enough to let me stay with her," Lilly chimes in, tilting her head down. "…Which I greatly appreciate, by the way. I don't know if it would even have been feasible for me to come along otherwise."

"Mm, of course," Hanako says quietly.

There is a brief pause, and Akira raps her fingers along the table, apparently attempting to move the subject away from Hanako. "Hey, so if I can ask… how's my accent? Do you think it's gotten worse at all?"

"It's pretty subtle," I say with a shrug. "Barely noticeable."

"Agreed. It sounds fine to me," Hideaki adds. "It is much less pronounced than Lilly's, anyway."

Akira breathes a sigh of relief. "Great, I was kind of worried."

"Yes, and so was I!" Lilly says disappointedly. "What does that mean, Hideaki? Do you think my accent is severe?"

"It is definitely more pronounced than it was last year," Hideaki declares.

She sighs, turning in my direction. "Hisao?"

I am a bit startled by the confrontation. "Er. I mean, it's not exactly subtle…"

"Oh, I was afraid of that…" She puts a hand to her forehead, exhausted. "I think I tried to convince myself that it wasn't all that noticeable."

"Well, you still sound like you. Just, you know, a bit more… Scottish."

"I realize that. I'm just not totally comfortable with the idea."

"Well, if it's any consolation, you still speak better English than I do," Akira says with a shrug. "If you're worried about fitting in."

"Your English is perfect. You're just saying that."

"No, really. Between your skin and your accent, sometimes I forget you even are Japanese when you start speaking English."

Lilly frowns, resting her head on her hand. "Well, that's hardly what I'm going for."

Akira winces a little at having said the wrong thing, and there is a brief awkward silence. Hanako glances around uncomfortably.

I clear my throat. "…Is everything okay, Lilly?"

Suddenly a little self-conscious, Lilly sits up and arranges herself. "Yes, yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry to dampen the mood; I'm just being dramatic. Everything is fine." Still, she seems a bit down.

I cup my hands together and sit back, and end up locking eyes with Shizune, who raises an eyebrow and engages me privately. [Does she really sound that different?]

[Honestly, I don't think it's all that different from last time; it's been too long since we spoke to them last for me to gauge it accurately. But the accent is fairly strong.]

She purses her lips… I would almost say sympathetically, if I didn't know better.

Everyone at the table spends the next minute or two trying to come up with a way to start a new conversation, and our food arrives in the meantime. I poke at it absentmindedly as I try to come up with something to say, and Shizune gives me a disapproving look for my lack of manners.

"What about, uh… Roy, Lilly?" I ask after a while. "Didn't you say last year that he wanted to learn Japanese? I'll bet speaking more Japanese could be good for your accent."

"That's what he said, yes," Lilly replies. "I tried to teach him at the time, but he doesn't take to it well, and learning a language requires a lot of dedication as it is. It's hard to find the time…"

"A- are things going well with him?" Hanako asks out of the blue, taking me (and evidently Lilly as well) by surprise.

"Well enough," she says quietly. "Maybe moving a bit slower than I'd like, but… I think we're both focused on work right now."

"You need to focus on logistics," Akira hums, her mouth full. Everyone cracks up besides Hideaki, who just nods seriously without understanding the joke. Lilly seems to lighten up a bit after that.

Dinner drags on for an uncomfortably long time after that, and it gets dark while we are still in the restaurant. I notice Shizune neurotically checking the time, but surprisingly she never mentions us taking too long.

Her whole behavior all throughout the evening has taken me off-guard, though I admittedly may just have a low threshold for surprises when it comes to Shizune. Still, it's unusual for things to go so smoothly with Lilly and Akira, and even though I'm happy to see it, it makes me wonder if something is going on under the surface. It's been over a year since I last saw either of them, now, and I can't shake the feeling that they don't quite feel like family… as though the friendly air between us is just the impersonal kind of façade you put on around strangers.

That makes me feel guilty, but more than that it makes me concerned… she doesn't talk about it much, but I know Shizune's relationship to them is very important, even if only in principle. If she feels the same way that I do, it is possible this distance is making her more uncomfortable than she's letting on. And God knows she would never come to me to talk about that if she thought she could work it out on her own.

At the end of dinner, Lilly offers to cover the bill, and Shizune adamantly refuses, leading to an awkward little debate. In the end, they are both too stubborn to let up and we end up just splitting it halfway, with Lilly covering Hanako and Shizune covering Hideaki in retaliation. Only those two could make polite generosity into such a transparent competition. Nobody much dwells on the point, though.

We all gather around to split up in the parking lot of the restaurant. It's a full moon tonight, and the natural light is beautiful and atmospheric. It makes me thankful that I don't live in the city anymore, with all the light pollution. Shizune demanded distance from the city when house-hunting, and at the time I thought it was just her wealthy blood wanting a larger house. With time, though, I think I've come to appreciate the idea a little better. Shizune's little quirks like that usually turn out to be a lot more virtuous or at least good-natured than they look. It makes me really appreciate having her around- she gives me more perspective, I think.

Akira bids us goodbye and gives me a surprisingly strong bear hug. She promises us that next time she'll bring her family along so we can catch up, but I have my doubts. Hideaki, meanwhile, doesn't say much of a goodbye to Shizune or me at all, not that he's going anywhere far. He and Lilly just awkwardly acknowledge each other without hugging, and then he piles into the car with Akira. Lilly and Hideaki may just have the most confusing relationship of anyone in the bunch, come to think of it.

And that leaves me driving everyone else. The four of us get into the car without another word, and Shizune is left pouting in the passenger seat with nobody to talk to.

With Akira gone, the atmosphere is much quieter, and I am suddenly a lot more concerned about being able to make normal conversation. From the look of her, Hanako will have a nervous breakdown if I even breathe too loudly in her general direction, and Lilly seems to be dedicating most of her energy to making sure that doesn't happen.

As such, small talk seems pretty much impossible during the drive, so I dedicate my energy to navigating. Unfortunately, considering I drive to Yamaku every single morning, the route is basically automatic, and I can't stop my mind from wandering. Eventually I resign myself to eavesdropping on Lilly and Hanako's quiet chit-chat.

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Fri Feb 24, 2017 1:33 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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A Well-Oiled Machine

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:18 am

---

By the time we pull up to Yamaku's gate, I am immeasurably relieved to have the opportunity to be able to talk to Shizune again. The four of us stand side-by-side at the entrance, and, after I explain where we should be going, Shizune shoots off ahead of us, forcing the rest of us to hurry in order to keep up.

Despite the absolutely crammed parking lot, the grounds themselves seem deserted. A few signs plastered to the walls direct us to the cafeteria, where we are supposed to hear the much-anticipated speech. I had been under the impression the grounds would be open for us to walk around on, but judging from the fact that we're the only ones outside, I can only assume I misunderstood something.

It's eerily silent at first, but as we get nearer to the cafeteria the sound of commotion starts to become obvious. As it does, Lilly tightens her grip around Hanako with a look of genuine concern. The four of us, all standing in a row, throw open the doors with a bit of grandeur, and the cafeteria full of people bursts into full view. An ocean of faces I barely recognize stretches on from one end of the room to the other. It's a little intimidating, even to me. Shizune, on the other hand, looks completely enlivened by the crowd, and her eyes dart around the room without paying the three of us any mind.

Hanako lets go of Lilly, her expression uncomfortable and afraid. "I'm sorry… where… where is the bathroom…?"

I point back the way we came. "Through the double doors, down the hall and on the left."

"Th- thank you…" she says quickly, slipping out almost immediately.

Lilly takes a deep breath, throwing her head back.

I guess now is as good a time as any to bring it up. "Uh, Lilly, is… she going to be okay?"

"I hope so," Lilly sighs. "…I'm sorry; it wasn't too presumptuous to bring her to dinner, was it? It seemed rude not to invite her."

"No; I would have done the same thing."

She smiles apologetically. "Thank you for saying that, Hisao. She just… well, I really thought it was important for her to come here tonight. She's a close friend of mine… I realize that you may feel a bit uncomfortable around her, so I appreciate the accommodation."

"You'd do the same for us," I say with a useless shrug, the undue praise making me feel unusually chivalrous. "I hope you don't-"

A sudden tug on my sleeve pulls my attention back to Shizune, who narrows her eyes impatiently at me. [Come on. I want to get a drink; I need you to stand nearby and look pretty.]

[Just a second.] I turn back to Lilly to finish my thought. "-Er, as I was saying, I hope you don't mind if we split up for a while?"

"Of course not," Lilly says gently. "We'll meet up later?"

"Right. We'll be around here if you need us."

"Okay. Thank you."

I turn back to Shizune, and she takes off into the crowd towards the far end of the room. It's an odd feeling to see people from my class again; I would be tempted to try and make introductions if there were enough people I was confident I could remember the names of. Unfortunately, most people feel only distantly familiar at best. I hope that Shizune is feeling more social than I am.

We find the bar quickly enough, and to my surprise it is in fact an actual bar, complete with stools and a college-aged bartender. I'm surprised to see that the school was willing to shell out the money to pay for that, but it pales in comparison to my shock when I order a drink for Shizune and myself and find out that everything is on the house. It seems like there has to be a catch somewhere, but I don't have time to figure it out before I hear my name called out and my thoughts are scattered.

"Hisao, good to see you! I was wondering when you'd show up."

It's Akio Mutou, my former teacher and current boss. He slumps into the stool next to me, his lumbering frame blocking most of the room behind him.

I slide my stool backwards in order to look at him and Shizune at the same time. "Akio! Been hanging around the bar all evening?"

He runs a hand through his greying hair, clenching his glass with the other hand. "You know me too well. I'd love to walk around and fraternize, but God knows I couldn't remember every kid's name, and I'd rather not embarrass myself…"

"Well, I hope you remember Shizune, at least."

Shizune gives me a suspicious look. [So, you're on a first name basis with our teacher now?]

[Well, I do talk to him virtually every day. So, we're friends, in a sense.]

She puts a hand to her head. [This is going to be awkward.]

I hold up a hand between them to introduce the two of them, and Shizune smiles with some discomfort.

Akio chuckles awkwardly. "Of course I remember. Although, I'm used to Hakamichi. But I guess Shizune would be more appropriate now, huh?"

Shizune grits her teeth. [Yes, of course. It's good to meet you again… Akio.]

I try to convey as little of her discomfort as possible when I interpret that.

"Anyway, you look great," he says with a shrug. "Hisao's told me a lot about you. I can't say I'm surprised to hear that you've been successful in the business sphere."

She smiles proudly. [Is that so?]

"Oh, yeah. You were one of my brightest students back in the day. You can usually tell who's going to go far and who isn't pretty early on."

"I don't think you're supposed to be saying stuff like that," I laugh, taking a drink. "Favoritism, and all that."

Akio shrugs. "Well, little late for that now. I'll let you in on a trade secret, Shizune. All teachers pick favorites. It's just how the job is done."

Shizune glares at me expectantly. [Really? All teachers?]

I exchange a glance with Akio. "Well, essentially. Some students are good, and some are impossible. But having favorites doesn't mean we can't be impartial."

[It sounds like you have too much power for your own good.]

"You shouldn't complain if you were one of the favorites," Akio says light-heartedly.

[Do you really mean that? I was one of your favorite students? I never got that impression.]

"Are you kidding? You had a great work ethic; that was all I could ask for, really. I mean, Mikado was a different story, but that had nothing to do with…" he trails off. "…Hey, wait, she's not with you guys, is she? Mikado? Because… that would really make things awkward, come to think of it."

I'm stricken by my own lack of memory for a second. "Mikado?"

Shizune jabs me in the arm with incredulity. [Misha!]

"-Oh! Oh! No, no, I don't think Misha is anywhere near here right now. She moved ages ago."

"Oh? What's she doing now?" Akio asks with mild curiosity.

"Last I heard, she was living in California. She wanted to teach sign language."

"California? No kidding?"

Shizune looks slightly concerned. [Haven't the two of you been keeping any correspondence?]

"Well, not lately. I've had a lot going on."

[So have I, but we've been emailing back and forth for a long time.]

"Oh. That's good; tell her I'd like to get in touch."

All of a sudden, I feel severely guilty. Misha was one of my closest friends for a long time, but I completely gave up putting in the effort to maintain a relationship with her. If she's been keeping in touch with Shizune this whole time, does she think I have been ignoring her on purpose?

Shizune pauses dramatically before elaborating. [Anyway, right now, she's working at a supermarket. She's still looking for work as a teacher, but she's worried that her English isn't good enough. She has only recently learned American Sign Language, so she feels that she's not a desirable candidate.]

"Hm. Well, you have to respect the commitment," Akio says with a shrug, taking a sip of his drink. "It's good to hear she's working towards something; I never had high hopes for that one."

I hesitate to sign this to Shizune. When I do, her face contorts into a defensive scowl, and Akio scratches the back of his head nervously.

"Er, no offense," he adds quietly. Shizune seems unimpressed by this, but chooses not to engage. Thankfully.

Clearly feeling awkward now, he slumps back into his bar stool and wordlessly passes his half-empty cup across the counter to the bartender to get it filled. I wonder how much they're paying this poor kid to cater for such a small event.

Shizune crosses her legs and gingerly wraps her fingers around her cup, her eyes scanning the room for people she recognizes. She looks very formal and businesslike, but… in a hot way. Watching her, I suddenly feel very out of her league, considering my own stuffy-looking suit and unkempt hair. She catches me staring and blushes, but then looks away as if she didn't notice. I fidget with mild embarrassment.

Eventually I settle into my seat, and the booze starts to kick in enough for me to relax about my own social awkwardness. I wonder vaguely why Shizune hasn't felt the urge to go make introductions, considering how interested she seemed in the crowd, but I don't feel bothered to ask about it. Once I start to scan the room myself, though, the reason occurs to me- she's formulating a strategy, just like me. Running through names to try and avoid getting caught off-guard. It's like going to battle. Placing names and faces is a form of ammunition.

We spend about five minutes doing this, and in that time I am forced to confront the fact that there honestly aren't that many people I remember well. In hindsight, I guess I didn't have many close friends during my year at Yamaku, but it seems like a rather oppressive fact now that I'm actually thinking about it.

One woman immediately catches my attention, though more due to the short skirt, stockings and low-cut top than my actual familiarity with her. I try to focus on her face, however, and I've nearly arrived at a name when she starts off in my direction. Unfortunately, as soon as she does, I'm caught completely off-guard and lose my train of thought.

To my surprise, though, she breezes right past me and squeezes herself into the gap between myself and Akio, her small frame making this more graceful than I would have expected. She leans on the counter and sticks her tongue out a little, making the bartender tug on his collar uncomfortably.

"Hiya!" she chirps at him. "You got vodka?"

He frowns confusedly. "Uh… yeah."

"Gimme a screwdriver."

"Okay…"

"But, I want, like, 80% vodka and 20% juice. Like, a hard screwdriver. Can you do that for me?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess."

"Great! Thanks, babe."

She winks suggestively at him, and he smiles uncomfortably, obviously intimidated. She backs up a little and crosses her arms, then notices me and smiles. Akio scoots away from her rather overtly, but she doesn't seem to notice.

"…Hi!" she says with a small wave.

I smile awkwardly, turning to Shizune to start signing again. "Uh… hi, how are you?"

She blinks as she registers that I'm interpreting for Shizune, then shakes her head and smiles even more broadly. "Great!"

"Great."

She stands there for a few awkward moments, a smile plastered to her face as she glances back and forth between Shizune and myself.

"Er. It's Hisao. This is Shizune."

"Shizune. Hisao. …Hisao! Oh, thank God. I was gonna guess Haruto… oh, it's Emi, by the way!"

"Emi!" I declare with a snap of my fingers. "I knew it!"

"Oh? You, uh… you remember me?"

"Yeah, we spoke a few times senior year. You ran track, right?"

"That's right! Nice memory!" She pauses for a second, thinking. "Hisao, Hisao, Hisao… wait, Shizune? As in Shizune Hakamichi? The Student Council president?!"

"That's right."

"Wow! She- er, you… uh, you look great, Shizune!"

Shizune looks Emi up and down, smirking judgmentally at her outfit. [Likewise.]

I do my best not to convey the blatant sarcasm. Emi does not pick up on it.

"Were you friends back then?" I ask. "I don't remember you ever talking."

"Oh, well… eh, you know…" Emi says with an uncomfortable smile. "Everyone knew Shizune back then. She was kind of a figurehead!"

"A figurehead?"

"Like, you know… the big, loud, lady in charge. In a manner of speaking. You know?"

"Uh. Sort of?"

Shizune gives her a suspicious and slightly offended glare, which impressively Emi is able to ignore completely. There is an awkward silence for a few moments, which is interrupted when the bartender clears his throat and sets down Emi's drink on the counter.

With a slightly relieved smile, she grabs it, downs it in one go, and slams the glass down dramatically on the counter. "Ooh, very hard. I like it. One more for the road, hun? Eh, actually, two."

"Uh… sure…" the bartender says softly, taking the glass.

"Thanks!" She turns back to Shizune and me, making an odd face. "So, are you guys, like…?"

I squint at her. "Married."

"Oh! Great! You guys are cute together. I like your matching suits!" She giggles off-puttingly. "Wait, so that means you went to Yamaku together? Oh, that is so sweet!"

"Yeah, I guess."

Shizune adjusts her glasses with a smug grin. [You are unmarried, I take it?]

Emi frowns guiltily. "…Yep. That obvious, huh?"

[You seem very fond of the bartender.]

I interpret that as quietly as possible, glancing over the counter. The bartender seems to be taking his sweet time. I suspect he is procrastinating talking to Emi again.

"Well, you know, they say people are supposed to be all depressed and desperate at high school reunions. Y'know, and available."

[Well, I can't think of any better conditions to get a date than that.]

"Exactly!" Emi proclaims unironically. "When opportunity strikes, right?"

"But the kid's not even from our class. He looks like he's barely even graduated from high school at all."

"Hm, but it's the atmosphere of the thing that has that effect on people, isn't it?"

Shizune barely suppresses laughter. I narrow my eyes at her disapprovingly, but she doesn't seem to care in the slightest.

I do my best to look earnest. "Is that what the vodka is for?"

"Yeah, well, sorta. I guess I'm just trying to cut the stress right now. I've had a long night."

"That so?"

"It's a long story."

"Uh, ma'am?" the bartender whispers from behind us, sliding two glasses of murky orange beverage across the counter.

Emi drinks one immediately and takes the other in her hand. "Hey, I've gotta run, but it was really nice to catch up with you guys! Shizune…!"

Shizune nods, still smirking.

Emi turns to leave, then immediately skids to a stop and turns back to us again. "Oh, but before I go. Have either of you seen Rin Tezuka tonight?"

The name is immediately familiar to me. "The painter?"

"Yeah! Have you seen her?"

"No, but I knew her at school. I've seen her stuff in magazines."

"Mhm, she did some, like, commissioned stuff for a museum or something a while ago. So everyone's heard of her here. She's like a guest of honor."

Shizune squints with a degree of irritation. [But no, neither of us has seen her anywhere.]

Emi pouts a little. "Damn. Well, thanks anyway! Have a good night!"

She rushes off, clutching her drink. Akio gives me a confused look as he slides back towards me, and I shrug.

[Talk about desperate.] Shizune wrinkles her nose and grabs her drink off the counter.

I smirk at her. [Not a fan, huh?]

She holds up a finger as she finishes drinking, then sets the glass down on the counter. [Not a shred of dignity. Did you see that top?]

[It was pretty hard to miss.]

[Exactly.]

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:36 am, edited 2 times in total.

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A Well-Oiled Machine

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:18 am

---

"Uh oh, Hisao, here comes Sweater Vest," Akio cuts in suddenly, raising his glass to gesture to the front of the room.

Sure enough, the lights dim as attention shifts towards a portly man in a sweater vest opposite the entrance. Shizune straightens her glasses, glaring curiously. [Who is that?]

"That's Oikawa," I say with a shrug. "He's from a different department."

"History," Akio groans.

"…He's doesn't care for the History department."

"Nor should you, Hisao. That guy's unbearable to talk to. Such a weirdo. We men of science need to stick together."

Akio takes a drink and rests his arm on the counter, sighing dramatically. Shizune looks appalled at his bluntness, though probably just because it sounds out of character to her. After all, for her, he's still just Mutou. The thought makes me laugh.

A few awkwardly loud taps on a microphone silence us, along with everyone else in the room. The front of the room stays lit, putting Oikawa in the spotlight. He smiles uncomfortably, fidgeting with the mic in one hand. "Uh, hi- uh, hello everyone… good evening."

I turn towards Shizune, prepared to interpret for him, but she gestures towards the front in order to point out that they already have a sign language interpreter standing off to Oikawa's side. I guess it makes sense, considering that there is bound to be a number of deaf former-students at the reunion, but it hadn't occurred to me before now. With that taken care of, though, I relax into my stool to listen more attentively.

Oikawa takes an awkward pause, as though he is genuinely waiting for a response. Akio groans and taps on the counter to indicate for the bartender to top him off.

"…Er, so, thanks for coming out," he continues. "I didn't teach when you all went here ten years back, so… I know you all probably don't much care to hear from me, heh… heh heh…"

He wipes sweat off of his forehead and adjusts the microphone. I can almost feel people's stomachs turning at his poor public speaking skills.

"Uh, s-so, anyway, we just wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on things, uh, a little bit. I- uh, we got in contact with one of the graduates from your year, and I know he has a speech prepared; just a little something to, eh… to do that. So I don't want to hold that up any longer. Without further ado, um… Kenji Setou, everybody. I'm sure many of you remember him… so…"

Shizune suddenly turns to me in shock, but I am so shocked myself that I can barely even address her. Of all the people they could have gotten to speak instead of Shizune… I can only imagine how much of a train wreck this will be. I briefly consider slipping off to the bathroom to avoid listening to this.

A scrawny man in a bold white tuxedo slips into the foreground, and there is a brief, muffled exchange between him and Oikawa. I stare with disbelief for a few moments… whoever this Kenji is, he's nothing like anyone I recognize. His hair is slicked back like a movie star, and he is surprisingly handsome and put-together- moreso than me, I imagine, as embarrassing as the thought of that is.

"Thanks, thanks; alright, take a seat, buddy," Kenji laughs, patting Oikawa on the back as he takes center stage. "So, yeah, hi, everyone. I'm Kenji; you may remember me, you may not. Either way, welcome back to Yamaku. I'd say you all look well, but according to my optometrist I think that would probably just be a 50/50 guess."

His joke actually gets a good amount of laughter out of the audience. He adjusts his glasses coolly- they're thin and frameless, and surprisingly fashionable.

"I know what you're all thinking," Kenji declares with a dismissive hand wave. "What's with this asshole in the suit? Why are we trapped here listening to this? Nobody came here for a lecture, right? We graduated so we could be done with them." He shakes his head dramatically, chuckling to himself. "Well, this is only going to take a couple of minutes; I know we're all still catching up. I just want to make a little statement, maybe create a little perspective. Because this is about more than just catching up, isn't it? This isn't just some party. And God knows we don't need an excuse to get drunk with our friends."

He holds out his hand, and Oikawa passes him a bottle of water, which he takes a long drink from. "No, no, there's meaning behind this, right?! This represents something. Something more than, 'look, we're all still around.' We didn't just graduate from high school, we graduated from Yamaku. And that means something." He takes another drink. "Alright, alright, do me a favor. I want you to picture, just for a second, your first day at Yamaku. It's something I'm sure everyone can remember, right? Does an image strike you? There was- is- an atmosphere here, a distinct one. No matter what your background is, no matter how you ended up here, there is a reaction that I'm sure we can all share. Canes, and dark glasses, and bandages, and prosthetics. It's a strange feeling to become a part of a place like that. Even if you yourself are 'healthy', so to speak, you became enculturated. It's the structure of this place. It's how engrossed you felt in everyone's health, and in trying to pretend to be 'normal'. For some, it was new, and for some, I'm sure it had followed you your whole life. But it was there, right?"

He shrugs and takes another sip of water.

I cup my hands together, surprised by how eloquently he is speaking. When I knew Kenji at Yamaku, I would have doubted he was even capable of having such a long and yet still coherent train of thought, let alone giving it as a speech.

"Now think on your first week. Your first month. The people you met. People that you're probably surrounded by right now!" He does a broad gesture with his arms. "How long did you spend thinking about all that other nonsense before you had to start stressing out about a test, or getting to club meetings, or making friends? Think about how quickly it turned normal for you. You may have had to go to the nurse every day. You may have had to take three dozen pills before every meal. Who knows? But that's got nothing to do with your memories of this place, or of your education, does it? You did make those friends, you did take those tests, and at the end of the day, you got along fine. And here we are, ten years later, and, well, damn, there's canes and dark glasses and bandages and prosthetics here, too, but that's got nothing to do with it, does it? That's not why we all came tonight."

He shakes his head a little neurotically and hands the water back, gripping the microphone with both hands. "Okay, where am I going with this…? Listen. They called me up and asked me to give a full-fledged speech. They wanted me to talk about my organization and the charities it gives to. Rattle off names, do some gloating. They wanted me to talk about the kids I'm giving a second chance, because those charities are paying their tuition here. But I thought that would miss the point. 'Cause, shit, who am I giving a second chance? Who is Yamaku giving a second chance, for that matter? That's not what this reunion is about. Not second chances. It's not about making up for our 'problems'. Playing catch-up. It's about… adapting."

He sighs loudly into the microphone, leaning back on an unoccupied table. Dramatically removing his glasses, he makes a serious face as though to seem down-to-Earth. "I don't want people to look at my achievements and say, 'Wow, look at how Kenji overcame the odds. Look at how much a Yamaku kid was able to accomplish.' No, that's the wrong mindset altogether. Because, say what you will about what I've done with my life… the real accomplishment is one that everyone here has done. I adapted. I'm a part of the world. A regular guy. It's not because I got a second chance, and it's not because I played catch-up. It's just because… I adapted. And everyone here has done that. That's what we should be commemorating tonight. Commemorate all the little things in your life you have to be proud of. The normal things. Your husband or wife. Your kids. Your career. That's the point of this. Be glad that Yamaku gave you the space to do it, but don't give anyone credit for what you've done. Because you adapted, too. That is the point of this. And the only thing I want to do is make sure everyone here realizes that."

He puts his glasses back on and takes a dramatic pause, to rousing applause. He smiles charmingly, standing and waltzing back to the center of the room. Personally, I'm still a little too shocked at Kenji's demeanor to will myself to clap, even if the speech was fairly impressive. I crane my head towards Shizune, and she gives me an unusually fond smile, which takes me a little off-guard. I wonder what she'd have to say about all that business about refusing to talk about accomplishments.

"Okay, okay, that's my cue, right? Yeah, my fault for saying 'a couple minutes'," Kenji laughs. "Fine, fine, I'll just say this. It's a beautiful night out, so if you want to get some air, the grounds are completely open for the rest of the evening. High elevation here, so it's good for your lungs. And if you're worried about students… well, most of the kids are gone for the summer, but if you see one, just give 'em a dirty look and tell 'em it'll be their turn next decade." He raises an arm to gesture toward where I'm sitting. "Enjoy the open bar; that's totally on me. Be nice to the poor kid, he's been in that suit for four hours now. Aaaand… that's all. Have a good night, everybody!"

The lights flicker back on over the rest of the room as Oikawa takes the microphone back from Kenji, bookending the speech with another loud screech of mic feedback. After a few minutes of getting back to normal, everyone gathers up again and gets back to fraternizing, though I notice a handful of couples heading out the double doors, presumably at Kenji's recommendation to walk around the campus.

Shizune stands, raising her eyebrow at me expectantly. [You always made him seem much worse when you talked about him.]

I shrug. [He was a lot weirder in school. He must have mellowed out since then.]

All of a sudden, I become extremely curious as to whether he's married or not. Kenji seems to have disappeared by the time I look up again, though, which presents an entirely new set of questions.

Intrigued, I decide to stand to get a better look… but I barely manage to take one step away from the bench before Shizune slips in front of me to cut me off. [Are you bored?]

[What?]

[I'm bored.] She snaps her fingers commandingly. [This is embarrassing. We look like vagrants when we hang around the bar with Mutou and his awful brown trenchcoat.]

[He always wears that coat.]

[He also barely shaves and smells perpetually like alcohol. What's your point?]

I glance over at Akio, who raises his glass in acknowledgment. It occurs to me that I have yet to see his glass empty. After a moment of thought, I turn back to Shizune. [I guess I can't argue with that. I would have gone and worked my way into a crowd, but I feel like I don't remember anyone well enough.]

She straightens her glasses and makes a deliberately condescending (albeit cute) smile. [Feeling shy? How endearing.]

[I hardly see you acting like a social butterfly. I assumed you were conducting recon so that nobody would catch you off-guard. But then, you're probably too prideful to admit that you've forgotten anyone's name, aren't you?]

[Me? Prideful? Never.] She narrows her eyes, then steps forward and grabs my collar in order to pull me into a kiss. I instinctively blush with embarrassment, and after noticing this, she pulls away with a teasing push. Clearly this was just a maneuver to catch me off-guard and therefore gain the upper hand… but, unfortunately, it worked. [You think you understand every little thing about me, don't you?]

I fix my tie as quickly as possible. [Yes, I did, right up until about five seconds ago.]

[You shouldn't have let your guard down.]

[I just didn't think you'd want to draw so much unnecessary attention to yourself. You aren't usually so showy about it.]

[Showy? Don't be so dramatic; nobody even saw that.]

[That's what you-]

"-Hey, excuse me! I hope we're not interrupting…"

[-think.]

I jolt my head up to see a small crowd- two men and one woman. Lilly stands off to the side of them, Hanako suspiciously absent.

I point upwards to direct Shizune's attention. […Nobody, huh?]

She grimaces with sudden defeat and turns to face the crowd. As soon as she lays eyes on them, her expression shifts to something opaque and unreadable. Lilly fidgets with her cane, frowning apologetically.

"No, not interrupting," I say calmly. "You're friends of Lilly's, I take it?"

"Sure, but old friends of Shizune's, as well!" the man in front insists. "You're Hisao, right? It's Masaaki; good to meet you. This is Shunichi, and Yuho. We're all Yamaku graduates."

The other two both say 'hello' simultaneously, with a measured degree of awkwardness that Masaaki seems oblivious to.

I just smile and nod. "It's my pleasure."

"Pleasure's all ours." He turns to Shizune with a slick smile, which she returns halfheartedly. "Shizune. It's good to see you again! We were hoping to get the chance to talk to you. Everyone's been asking what Hakamichi is up to."

[Hello. It's been a long time.] Shizune signs more coldly and firmly than usual. I'm not sure what to do about it, so I just interpret as normal.

"It sure has," he says quietly.

"You're all friends of Shizune?" I ask, looking back and forth among the three of them.

"From Yamaku," Shunichi corrects. "It's like ancient history now, right?"

Shizune squints at that remark. [Ancient history.]

"I can't believe none of us have met, in that case!" I declare. "Shizune and I were really close during senior year."

"Is that when you met?" Masaaki asks with a shrug. "I guess that would explain-"

"Student Council," Lilly suddenly interrupts with uncharacteristic loudness. "We were all in Student Council together. Earlier on."

She clears her throat and tilts her head down, as though she can sense everyone's sudden glares.

Student Council, huh? I guess that would explain it. It really does seem like ancient history to me, but I know from experience that bridges burned in Student Council don't get mended easily.

[Too bad that didn't last.] Shizune purses her lips a little, clearly a bit defensive. The desire kicks in to prevent a conflict, but I also don't want to overcomplicate things if it's just a little leftover resentment from high school.

"Yeah." Masaaki glances back at his posse, and they shrug at each other. "But you really made it work! You and Mikado. It was cool how you guys transformed it."

[Hisao, Misha and me. We put in a lot of work to put the Student Council where it was that year.]

"Right." He looks me directly in the eye, flashing a pseudo-nostalgic grin. "Shizune was the hardest worker back then. Put us all to shame, heh."

"I would imagine," I mumble, trying to gauge him. Shizune hesitates to add anything to that.

He clears his throat and nods, triggering an awkward silence. Lilly sighs, as if to say to them, 'I told you this would happen'.

The woman in the back, whose name I've already forgotten, speaks for the first time in an attempt to be diplomatic. "So, uh, Lilly says you teach here, Hisao. How'd that end up happening?" Nobody seems too excited about this direction of conversation, but we're locked into it now.

I shrug. "Hm? Oh, I don't know. It was a personal sort of ambition, I guess. Yamaku meant a lot to me."

"It must take a lot of patience, to teach at a place like this."

"Patience? I don't know, I guess. I think it's rewarding."

"What are the students like?"

She seems to be genuinely curious, but I don't really know how to respond. "Uh, pretty normal. Lazy, but they ask a lot of questions. It's always been my experience with students here."

"Oh. That's, uh, nice."

She sighs, and the other two guys exchange a not-very-subtle glance. I wish I had more to talk about, but the question is pretty broad.

Lilly, evidently fed up with this, takes a breath and turns to leave, throwing her cane out in front of her. "…I'm sorry. It's been fun catching up, everyone, but I really think I should go find Hanako… she went out to get some air ages ago and still hasn't returned yet."

Masaaki suddenly looks alarmed. "Oh, that's- yeah, you said you were with her. Well, uh… good night, then, Lilly."

"Good night. I'm glad we got the opportunity to do this. I'd love to get lunch the next time I'm in Japan."

"Definitely," says Shunichi.

"It was good to meet you again, Lilly," says the woman.

Lilly pauses next to me before taking off for the door. "Look for me and Hanako outside when you're ready to leave, would you, Hisao?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Thank you."

Before long, she's slipped through the double doors.

"Good night again, Lill- I- yeah, she's out of earshot." Masaaki cups his hands together, frowning awkwardly.

I look Shizune in the eye, hoping for a reaction, but she simply continues to smile dully. I'm not exactly sure how to amend this situation, so I'm just thankful that everyone else seems to be as uncomfortable as me.

I open my mouth to make a second attempt at small talk, but am immediately preempted by a sudden surge of excuses.

"Uh, so-"

"Yeah, maybe we should-"

"I think I have to-"

"Right, may as well get moving."

"Ahem."

I blink once. Masaaki smiles at me. "Yeah, but it was great to meet you, Hisao."

"Definitely," says Shunichi.

"It was good to meet you again, Shizune," says the woman.

They wait just long enough for Shizune to sign, [Good night], before breezing past me in a single-file line. I don't even have time to interpret it before they are out of earshot.

Shizune and I are left standing in the middle of the room by ourselves, surrounded by a swarm of less socially-awkward peers.

I turn to Shizune. […Well, that was weird.]

She rolls her eyes. [I don't know what they expected.]

[What was that woman's name again?]

[Yuho.]

[Yuho! I forgot.]

[So did I, to be honest. Until they reintroduced themselves, that is.] She squints with frustration. […They hate me.]

[Come on. Don't say that.]

[No, it's fine. It doesn't bother me. I was a real taskmaster back then. We never really became that close as friends.]

[Well, that's no excuse.]

[I think it is. It was my fault we stopped speaking. I don't blame them.]

[Be reasonable. I'm sure it wasn't all you.]

[You're sweet. But…] She smiles at me, a little disheartened. […Well. Either way, that killed the mood, didn't it?]

[I guess it did.]

After a moment of pouting, she dramatically snaps her fingers, startling a few people near us. [Let's go for a walk. I could use some air.]

[Me, too. That sounds-]

Before I finish, Shizune turns and brushes past me. I allow myself one loud sigh, an indulgence I rarely take.

She leads me outside, barely even checking behind her to make sure I follow along. It's too dark out to navigate properly, and the campus has only a few scattered lights, making it hard to see our surroundings. I see a few people wandering around- mostly coming up and down the hill- but Lilly is nowhere to be seen. I'm briefly concerned for Hanako's sake, a feeling that surprises me.

Shizune allows me no time to dwell on it, though. Lost in thought, I walk forward for a solid minute or so before realizing that she has begun to trail far ahead me, taking severe, purposeful steps.

I roll my eyes and rush to catch up with her, briefly grabbing her shoulder in order to get her attention. She does turn around, but it seems to irritate her, and she straightens her glasses with a firm expression.

I return it. [Are you okay?]

[I'm okay.]

[What's your rush?]

[I'm not rushing. I was just thinking. It's not my fault you're slow.]

[You're doing that thing again.]

[What thing?]

[The thing where you're obviously upset about something but won't talk to me about it.]

[But I'm not upset about anything.]

[Really?]

[Really. I told you, I'm just thinking.]

[Okay. I'll play along.] I take a breath and briefly glance around, laying my eyes on a bench. With a beckon, I set off towards it, and she follows me with a pout. Leaning back on the arm of the bench, I begin to sign again. [What are you thinking about?]

She crosses her legs and shrugs. [I'm making you worried about me, aren't I?]

[A little.]

[Please don't worry about me. It makes me feel guilty.]

[I won't be worried if you just tell me what's on your mind.]

[Fine.] She puffs out her cheeks, thinking. [Do you think Lilly finds me irritating?]

[What? Of course not.]

[She used to.]

[Well, sure, in high school. You really think she's not over that?]

[I think we just agreed to drop it on behalf of being family, since she went away. But it gets worse every time we see her.]

[Come on, Shizune. She likes you fine.]

She pouts. [I wish she didn't just 'like me fine'. At least when we were fighting all the time our opinions were out in the open. Now it's like we aren't even close enough to be honest about it.]

[I guess I understand that. But I thought you said you weren't upset about anything?]

[It's not upsetting me. I'm just feeling a little contemplative, I think. That's the point of a reunion, right?]

[To be contemplative?]

[To think about the direction your life has gone in! You should be feeling that way more than anyone, since you still have this school in your life. That's a constant that most people don't get to keep, you know.]

[I don't know what you mean. Yamaku has barely changed at all since we went here, save for the students.]

[But your life has changed a lot, hasn't it?]

[Sure it has.]

[So, that's my point. You have a point of comparison.]

[I never thought about it like that.]

[Then it's a good thing you have me, isn't it?]

She rests her arm on the back of the bench and closes her eyes, nestling into her seat with a relaxed smile. She looks too comfortable for me to force her to talk to me, so I take the opportunity to look around.

The people wandering around look like lost students, especially from a distance. I wonder if they can even remember their way around, considering how long they've been away. The campus hasn't undergone any renovations that I can think of, so it really hasn't changed since then. But memory can be an unreliable thing.

I catch myself yawning, and rub some sleep out of my eyes. Despite it being late, I don't look forward to the end of the night. Even if the entire rest of the night has been awkward and unorthodox, I still feel kind of nostalgic about just hanging around on the campus with Shizune.

Lilly is still nowhere to be seen. Who knows how long those two are going to take?

I tap Shizune on the leg with my foot, and she opens her eyes suddenly, surprised. [I have an idea.]

She sits up a little. [What is it?]

[You should come check out the Student Council room.]

Shizune hesitates for a second, glancing towards the building across the courtyard. [The academic buildings are closed.]

[I have a key.]

[That sounds like a flagrant abuse of your authority.]

[Well, sure it is. But do you want to do it?]

I raise an eyebrow, and she smirks at me. [Of course I do.]

[Then come on.]

Shizune stands expectantly, and I laugh at her sudden eagerness. The two of us stalk across the courtyard as stealthily as possible, which is not very stealthily, admittedly, but nonetheless get to the door unseen. It takes me almost a full minute to find the right key, but aside from that, the break-in is basically flawless.

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:40 am, edited 2 times in total.

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A Well-Oiled Machine

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 5:20 am

---

The halls are illuminated only by moonlight, making the atmosphere relatively eerie, but I hesitate to turn on any of the hallway lights and attract too much attention. We both know the way to the Student Council room from muscle memory alone, but I cut her off from entering just to build up the suspense a little more.

I run my hand along the wall until I find the light switch, and the room flickers into view. It's actually mostly a mess, with posters and school supplies basically scattered across most of the desks, but I imagine it's more a sign that people have been busy than anything else. Shizune crosses her arms as she steps into the room, her eyes wide with mild astonishment.

Her hands run along some of the papers on a desk towards the back of the room, and she nearly laughs out loud as she reads one of the lists.

[How many kids are part of this?]

[Twenty-four.]

[Twenty-four? Are you serious?]

[Completely. Five different people ran for president last time around. They would have absolutely put our run in Student Council to shame.]

[Blasphemy.]

[Community outreach, Shizune. Community outreach.] I make my way towards her desk and fish through one of the stacks of paper to grab a flier for their newest event, shoving it into her arms. [Would you believe they wanted to organize a second community festival? One in the spring, near the end of the year.]

[That sounds like far too much work.] I raise an eyebrow at her, and she grins. […But I probably would have killed for it at the time.]

With an amused grin, I walk past her to towards back of the room, gesturing to a board near the corner. On it, ten generations of Yamaku's Student Council, starting with the ridiculous end-of-the-year photo of Misha, Shizune and me. Looking at the photos down the line, the growth is obvious: five members the second year, eight the third, eleven the fourth…

Shizune makes a sour face at the first photo. [You didn't.]

[I sure did. I hung it up myself a few years ago.]

[It's so embarrassing.]

[Blame yourself! It was your idea to pose like that when we took it.]

She tilts her head a little, smiling fondly at it, then turns back to me. [You're making me all nostalgic.]

I sit on my desk and kick my feet up onto the nearest chair. [Well, we did come here to bask in the past, right?]

[As I remember it, we were thinking about the directions our lives have gone in. And how I was feeling contemplative. And then you had the idea to come here.]

[Oh, don't you dare go where I think you're going.]

She grins, encouraged by my dissent. […So, as I see it, we're here so that you can force me to look at my glory days. To rub in my face that I've already peaked.]

[Please stop.]

[And thus to show me how much of a failure I really was at that time, in retrospect.]

[You are impossible.]

[Am I? It can't be a coincidence that we met the old members of the Student Council, and then you brought me here.]

[That's not fair.]

[Oh no?]

[You are really going to drag this out of me, aren't you?]

[I have no idea what you are talking about.]

I shrug, resigned. [Fine, then. You clearly did not peak in high school.]

[Well, that is an interesting thing to say. What about Masaaki and the others? They fled from me in horror.] She makes a dramatically sad face just to mock me.

[Nonsense. They were obviously intimidated by you.]

[And why is that?]

[Well. Because… you are the most intelligent, and capable, and accomplished woman here. And, frankly, it makes everyone else feel insecure.]

She purses her lips. […You forgot 'beautiful'.]

[I thought that might be chauvinistic.]

[Okay, fair enough.] She smiles coyly. [But it's true, right?]

[Well, obviously.]

With a childlike smile, she wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me, pulling me a little off the desk. I push myself off the rest of the way in order to accommodate her, running my hands up her back under her shirt. Before I get the chance to do anything else, though, she stops me and pulls away, giggling audibly in-between uneven breaths.

I take a deep breath and run a hand through my hair, leaning back on the desk again. [I can hear your voice. You're giggling; it's cute.]

[Shut up.] She collects herself for a moment, obviously embarrassed about that. [Where do you teach?]

[What? Why?]

[I want to see your classroom.]

[It looks basically the same as this room.]

[But it's your room, and I want to see it.] She snaps her fingers loudly, which instinctively makes me look back to make sure nobody heard it. […Also, I want to have sex on your desk.]

I'm taken aback for a second. [What? Is that a joke?]

[Do I look like I'm joking?]

[You are aware that you accuse me of being perverted, right?]

[It's on my bucket list.]

[Having sex on my desk is on your bucket list?]

[Sex on a teacher's desk.]

[That's weirdly specific.]

[Well, I'm married to a teacher, aren't I?] She pauses for a second. […I have a very realistic bucket list.]

[I don't know. I was in the mood a minute ago, and then you killed it by confusing me. Why would you want to have sex on a teacher's desk? It just sounds kind of uncomfortable.]

[It's scandalous. A classroom is a sacred place for education. Don't you think that's exciting?]

[I don't really get it. It's just… where I grade papers and that sort of thing.]

[Really, you don't get it at all? It's like a scene out of a movie.]

[I honestly don't think it would be as erotic as you're imagining it.]

[Stop trying to spoil my fun.] She adjusts her glasses, looking businesslike again. [Would you at least be able to brush everything dramatically off of your desk and then lay me on top of it?]

[That sounds messy.] She rolls her eyes, and I shrug at her. [I would have to unplug my computer and set that off to the side… and I would probably have to arrange my papers together and sort them, and then file those away… but I could probably arrange to sweep some pens off the desk. Maybe a paper clip or two. How does that sound?]

[Spoilsport.] She takes a breath, looking around the Student Council room a second time. [Let's go. I still want to see it.]

[Suit yourself.]

Shizune glares judgmentally at me as I rearrange the papers we sifted through and shut off the lights. I lock the door behind us, and deliberately don't wait for Shizune to begin hurrying off through the hallway to the stairwell.

The building is still completely empty, and the sound of our footsteps echoing off the walls makes me a little uneasy about getting caught. How fortunate that Shizune doesn't feel the same way. I think.

After a bit of walking we reach my classroom, situated somewhere in the middle of the second floor. Shizune runs her hand over the plate with my name on it, as though she has some kind of admiration for it or something. Her face looks totally genuine, but I can't help but wonder if she's mocking me.

Once I get the door open, I reach for the light switch, but Shizune stops me, so I shut the door without touching it.

She appraises the room with an air of self-importance, then turns to me. Thankfully the moonlight coming in through the windows illuminates her enough to make out her sign language. [You have a favorite student, right?]

[What makes you say that?]

[You said it yourself, when we were at the bar with Mutou.]

[I guess I did, didn't I?] I laugh self-consciously.

[So who is it?]

[Probably… Ishikuno. He's this sweet kid that had to move to the area to be closer to a hospital. He pretends not to know the answers to questions so he doesn't have to talk in class. I call on him all the time, though, so it's alright.]

[Of course you like the smart one.] She wanders over to my desk and picks up a pen, twirling it in one hand. [I've learned this horrible, grave truth about teachers. My whole life's work is being invalidated by favoritism.]

[I think you are attributing way too much significance to schoolteachers.]

I laugh, and she raises an eyebrow at me. [Maybe you just aren't attributing enough. Give yourself a little credit.]

I walk over towards her and snatch the pen out of her hand, placing it carefully back down on my desk, then make my way past it to the chalkboard. I lean back on it to look at her, and she approaches me.

[Well? Is my work space as titillating as you imagined?]

She places her hands on the chalkboard on either side of my head, then leans forward and kisses me. [I do like it in here. I like it when you talk about teaching.]

She presses herself against me and begins to work on undoing my belt, but I place my hands over hers to stop her. Unfortunately, we have to keep breaking apart and keeping distance in order to sign to each other, which cuts down significantly on the intimacy of the situation. For that reason, we usually don't talk so much, but she keeps piquing my interest.

I pull away from her again. [You know that that is a really weird thing to say, right?]

[Why? It's true.]

[You can't just make a statement like that without any explanation.]

[I do have an explanation.] She kisses me again, smiling eagerly. [When you talk about that kind of thing, it reminds me of what I like about you so much.]

[Well, I'm glad you find my mediocrity so arousing, then.]

I chuckle to myself at that, but she seems totally unamused. I shake my head to dismiss it, but she moves away from me when I approach, leaning on my desk.

She raises her hands to sign, but hesitates for a moment before following up. [Hisao, why did you say that?]

[I don't understand. Did I say something wrong?]

She bites her lip, then shakes her head. […I don't think you're mediocre.]

[Shizune…]

[You keep saying things that give me the impression that you think I feel that way.]

[I didn't mean to do that.]

She glances around the room, looking off-put. [Can I ask you to be honest with me about something?]

[Of course.]

[Do you feel like I'm supportive of you? Think about it.]

[I…] I make direct eye contact with her, and she frowns seriously at me. [What makes you think I don't?]

[I was thinking about it before. I don't say 'I love you' enough.]

[Please don't be dramatic.]

[I'm not being dramatic. It's true, I don't. I think I am a little afraid of intimacy sometimes.]

[You literally dragged me in here because you wanted to have sex on my desk.]

[Not like that, idiot. I mean… emotional intimacy. I'm always trying not to shut people out like that. And you're the reason for that. So it's really, really important to me that you don't feel like I'm not supportive of you.]

[I don't feel that way. Our relationship is just a little weird.]

She perks up, suddenly alarmed. [What do you mean by that?]

[No, no! Relax, please. I just mean that it's structured a little differently than most. I make peanuts compared to you. I might feel a little insecure about that sometimes, but it's because you are supportive of me, not because you aren't. I feel like I'm not doing enough sometimes. You make it easy to feel incompetent in comparison.] I flash her a light smile, and she thinks on it for a few seconds before reciprocating it. [But it's not a bad thing. It makes me strive to be better than I am.]

[You're so compassionate.]

[You don't have to flatter me.]

[Hisao, for God's sake, learn to take a compliment.]

[Okay, fine. Thank you, then.]

She nods approvingly. [The reason I get worried about these things in the first place is because you are so outrageously supportive of me, and my career. You're always worried about me and how I'm feeling, and whether I am comfortable with my life, and that sort of thing. You really are a very compassionate person. I really admire that about you.]

[Wow. That… that means a lot.]

[I really love you. And I want to be more like you, especially in that regard. I'm sorry if it doesn't come across all the time.]

[I love you, too, Shizune. And I feel the same way. We make each other better people.] She tilts her head with a slight smile. [Doesn't that just mean we have a really good relationship?]

[Absolutely.] She stares at my face for a few moments, smiling fondly. […I don't know why, but for some reason I was expecting that to go differently.]

[Did… we just… fix… our marriage?]

[I think… we did, yes.]

[Wow. We are the best.]

[It's nice to reaffirm that every once in a while.]

I take a step off of the chalkboard and wander over to the window. Yamaku's campus stretches out seemingly endlessly, and it's all beautiful under the moonlight. Somewhere down below, I spot a patch of blonde hair and realize that Lilly has apparently reunited with Hanako. Something in the back of my mind wonders if they are waiting for us by now, but I quickly sort out my priorities.

Shizune stands to my side and spots the two of them as well. We turn to each other with the same knowing look.

She pouts a little, looking disappointed. […We're never going to have sex on your desk, are we?]

I check my watch- for a second, it makes me wonder how many months' salary she spent on it. […We have time.]

---

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Last edited by QuietlySomething on Fri Feb 24, 2017 12:06 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Hindsight (5 Epilogues - Complete)

Post by HoneyBakedHam » Thu Feb 23, 2017 7:00 am

An excellent start here. I loved the heart-to-heart talk between them and can't pick between what I found funnier: Hisao's joking around about not wanting to clear off his desk for Shizune's little bucket list or how you ended this.

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Date Night

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 3:34 pm

Chapter 2: Date Night

5:00.

My watch buzzes loudly, and I allow it to for a few moments before shutting the alarm off. "Wow, would you look at the time?"

"What is it?" Hana asks, leaning her head on my shoulder.

"I don't know; you tell me."

I lower my arm to her, and she wraps her small hands around my wrist, pulling her face very close to the face of my watch.

She doesn't say anything for a few moments, so I point my finger to it direct her attention. "Do you know what number that is?"

"It's…"

"…Okay, I know you know it."

She stares blankly for another few seconds. "Five."

"Yes." I blink, genuinely surprised. "…Yes! Good job!"

Apparently satisfied with this, she pushes my arm away from her and pulls herself to the other end of the couch, propping herself up on her knees. "But you said we're leaving at five!"

"We were going to. But we have to wait for Mommy to finish getting ready first."

"Urrrrgh. Why is she not ready now?" She sinks into the seat cushions, both arms propped up on the arm of the couch.

"I don't know. Maybe she doesn't know what time it is?"

"Then she should get a watch, like you!"

"Oh, you're right. But she doesn't have one right now. Why don't you just tell her what time it is instead?"

She sits up, apparently excited by the opportunity. "Okay!"

"Okay, then you have to yell it real loud, so she can hear you all the way in the other room. Okay?"

"Okay, okay!" She pulls herself up onto her feet using my shoulder and faces the hallway. "Mommy! It's five o'clock!"

Hana's scream is loud enough to shake the room, causing me to clasp my hand to my ear. She grins at me innocently, and I just laugh at my own stupidity. "Alright, I guess I set myself up for that one."

The noise is met with a violent pounding on the wall from across the hall. "I'm coming! Calm down!"

Hana frowns fearfully, slumping away from me. "…I think I made her mad at me."

I wave her off. "She's not mad at you; she's just grumpy. She can't help it."

"Not grumpy! Not grumpy!" Emi shouts quite grumpily, stampeding into the living room with a towel in her hair. She glances between the two of us, putting her hands on her hips expectantly.

I lean over on the couch with a smug grin. "Hey… it's five o'clock."

"Yeah, I heard, along with everyone else in the building." She pouts, pulling the towel off of her head and shaking her hair out like a dog. "Since when are you so prickly about being late?"

"I'm not; I just like teasing you." I stand and pick up Hana, who kicks up her legs and wraps her arms around my neck to rest on my shoulder. "Hana, on the other hand… is very prickly."

"No, I'm not!" Hana shouts, directly into my ear.

"Yes, you are, liar. Whining and whining for an hour, 'When are we gooooing? I wanna gooooo…'"

"But that's not fair. Mommy was still getting ready when we were gonna leave, but I was ready a long time before then."

"Yeah, well, you're also four, honey," Emi says, leaning in and kissing her on the forehead. "Complain to me once you have to button up your own shirt, mkay?"

"…But your shirt has barely any buttons on it."

Emi pauses for a second to think of a retort, then gives up and wanders back into the middle of the room, at a loss. "Hisao, where's my hairbrush?"

"Your hairbrush?" I ask. "I dunno, in the bathroom?"

"No, I checked there already. Duh."

"Well, I don't know, then."

"You mean you didn't take it?"

"What would I need your hairbrush for?"

"I don't know, maybe you wanted to improve your hairstyle."

"I have my own brush. And there's nothing wrong with my hairstyle."

"Urgh." She flattens out the towel and folds it over her arm. "If you didn't take it, then where the heck is it?"

"Don't worry about it! Just use mine."

"No. Out of the question."

"What's wrong with that?"

"It's too small. It doesn't cooperate with my hair."

"Then just straighten your hair out and wear it like that. It looks best like that anyway."

"No, I already have a look in mind. Hang on."

She sighs and stalks back down the hallway into the bathroom. I set down Hana and slump back into the couch, resigned to waiting again.

Hana tugs on my pant leg, evidently even less patient than me. "Daddy, I'm hungry."

"You can eat when we get to Grandma's."

"But I'm hungry now."

"Well, that's just too bad, because you're going to have to wait until we get to Grandma's to eat."

"…That's not fair."

"Yeah, well, life's not fair, kid." I place a hand on her head, and she pushes it off, pouting at me. I raise an eyebrow. "…Hey, wait a second, Hana, did you take Mommy's hairbrush?"

Her eyes widen in surprise for a second, and she frowns guiltily at me. "…No!"

"You…! -Hey, Emi! Check the toy box!"

"The toy box?" Emi cries out from the other room. "Why would it be in there?"

"Just check it!"

Her footsteps echo down the hall as she stomps into another room. I glare expectantly at Hana, who stares guiltily at the floor the whole time.

"…Wh- yeah, here it is! Thanks!"

I narrow my eyes in mock surprise. "Well, that's funny. We certainly didn't put it there."

Hana cups her hands together, clearly about to crack under the pressure.

"…Did you take it, Hana?" I ask quietly.

"…Yeah," she mumbles.

"Yeah?"

"Sorry."

"…I told you not to take things without asking. That means out of the bathroom, too."

"I know…"

"Don't do it again. I mean it."

"Okay…"

She pouts, her lip quivering a little, and I am altogether too much of a pushover to let it go at that.

"…It's okay if you mess up sometimes, Hana. But please don't lie about it. That's just going to get you into more trouble. Okay?"

"Okay. I'm sorry."

"I forgive you."

And then, almost immediately, Hana is beaming again.

I dread the day she is old enough to figure out how easy I would be to manipulate.

…Or is she there already…? Damn, that's worrying.

"How do I look, Hisao?" Emi asks suddenly, reentering the room.

I stand without looking at her, walking towards the closet near the front door. "Do you want the truth, or do you want to feel good?"

"Hisao, seriously."

I glance over at her briefly, then return to the closet to put my coat on. "You look fine."

"Hisao! You barely even looked!"

"What's the big deal? Are you trying to get a date?"

"Well, God knows I can't count on you to have enough energy to last me all night."

I snicker quietly, sorting through the coats as slowly as possible.

"Hisao, turn around and tell me how pretty I am right this instant or I am going right back into the bedroom and picking out a new outfit from scratch."

"Noooo!" Hana screeches.

"Alright, alright, fine!"

Pulling my coat on around my back, I finally turn to face Emi. Satisfied, she throws out her arms dramatically to her sides, posing like a fashion model.

The outfit is, unsurprisingly, is very cute, if a little informal… though that's admittedly not saying much, coming from someone in trousers and a polo shirt. Long blue jeans and a white blouse, along with the usual long socks that cover up her prosthetic ankles. Most eye-catching is her hair, which is done up in twin tails the way she did them when we were in high school.

My first thought is 'punk Alice in Wonderland', but ultimately I try to settle on something less asinine. "Cute. Casual, but not lazy."

"Think so? I was going for something summery."

"It's very summery."

She squints at me suspiciously. "…Hey, you're just saying this to shut me up, aren't you?"

"I'd say it's fifty/fifty."

"…Eh, I can live with that."

I notice something pushing at my leg, and look down to see Hana fishing through the floor of the closet of her own volition. I'm impressed with her initiative for all of about two seconds, before she pulls out her yellow rain boots and drops them down in the center of the living room.

"Nuh-uh, Hana. Shoes, not boots."

"But I like the boots," Hana whines, placing them over her hands like gloves (though it is pretty adorable, admittedly).

"It's not raining. Wear the boots in the rain. Wear the shoes when it's not raining."

"What's wrong with the boots? They're cute," Emi says quietly, elbowing me as she throws the front door open.

"They look ridiculous!"

"She's a little kid! Everyone will just think it's funny and cute. Which it is!"

"They're pretty and yellow!" Hana exclaims, as though her opinion holds any weight in this discussion.

"I can't believe what I have to put up with," I sigh.

Emi snorts at me, leaning on the door frame. "And you call me the grumpy one… if she grows up to hate us, I blame you."

Hana marches up to the door, now confidently donning the boots on her feet. "Mommy likes the boots."

"Mommy likes a lot of things, sweetheart. She doesn't always know what she's talking about. It's not a democracy."

Hana stares dully at me for a few seconds, failing to understand what I'm talking about. I briefly consider explaining the concept of democracy to her, but due to time constraints I just give up and let her wear the rain boots instead. Emi seems quite pleased by this.

Apparently in a rush to avoid me changing my mind, Hana scurries past either of us, forcing Emi to catch up with her as I lock the door to our apartment.

We get out to the car without running into any of our neighbors, and Emi does her best to cram Hana into a booster seat while I adjust the mirrors in the front.

The drive is a bit confusing, mostly since I'm being forced to drive through the city, but regardless I do know the way to Emi's mom's fairly well. As usual, the hardest part of my navigation is trying to keep up with Emi's banter and still not get lost, a feat that gets easier with experience.

The funny thing is, I'm fairly sure that Hana does not even understand most of our humor, but even still… our general amiability keeps her laughing for the majority of the car ride. For just that short period, I feel especially close with both of them- it's something specifically rewarding about parenthood, I think. I almost regret it when I pull up to Meiko's house.

As soon as she is freed from the back seat, Hana attempts to hurry ahead of us, so Emi holds her hand to tether her to us. The three of us walk up the front porch together, and the door swings open almost immediately- before I even have time to ring the doorbell.

"Well, look who's late," Meiko declares, crossing her arms and grinning.

"Yeah, hello to you, too, Mom," says Emi with a vaguely irritated frown.

"Touchy, touchy."

"Yeah, take a wild guess who made us late," I say light-heartedly, stepping inside and kissing Meiko on the cheek. "…It's good to see you, Mom."

"Oh, aren't you sweet? I hope you're taking notes, Emi."

"Oh, the words we use for 'kissing up' these days…" Emi sighs, stepping inside and letting go of Hana's hand. "Take off your boots, hun."

Hana does so as quickly as possible, then scurries away to wrap her arms around Meiko's leg. "Grandma!"

Meiko grins, patting Hana on the head. "Hey there, shrimp. Did you miss me?"

"I missed you forever! I hate waiting!"

"Well, you only have to wait a little longer, okay? Once your parents are gone we can do whatever we want for the whole rest of the night. Sound good?"

"Yeah!"

"Okay, good." She looks up for a moment, gesturing to the hallway. "Go hang out in the other room. We'll be right in, okay?"

"Okay, okay!"

Hana scurries off with undue enthusiasm, and Meiko leans back on the wall, chuckling at her.

"Never going to get used to this 'Grandma' business," she says once Hana is out of earshot. "Geez, I feel old enough as it is."

"Well, sorry to break it to you, but you are her grandmother," Emi says matter-of-factly. "But if you'd rather, we could just pretend you're her kindly old aunt or something."

"You say that like it's a joke, but I could totally pass for your sister if I dressed like it."

"You so could not. Ya geezer."

"Geezer?!"

"I don't think you look a day over thirty, Mom," I interject with a small snicker.

Meiko gives me an appreciative look and then turns to Emi. "Hisao doesn't think I look a day over thirty."

"Hisao is a lying piece of crap, and we both know it." Emi smiles gently, stretching her arms out.

"You could at least let me have my delusions."

"Oh, you'll thank me when you're older."

"You know, somehow I just don't see that happening."

I check my watch again and tug on Emi's sleeve. "Hey, we should probably go see her off…"

"What? See Hana off, you mean?" Meiko frowns with sudden surprise, glancing back to the hallway. "Aren't you guys going to stay for dinner? I was just about to serve it."

Neither Emi or I is sure exactly how to respond to that.

"Oh, Mom…" Emi sighs, biting her lip.

Meiko shrugs. "You know, I have a gigantic pot of rice on the stove, and if someone with Emi's appetite is not around to eat it, I'm going to be eating it out of the fridge for at least the next two weeks."

Emi shoots me a glance, frowning apologetically. "No, it's fine… we can stay long enough for dinner, at least."

I just shrug at her. It's not exactly what we'd planned, but I can think of worse ways to spend dinner than a home cooked meal with family.

"Oh, well, no, don't let me intrude on your guys' plans, if you…"

"No, no, no, you don't get to do that, Mom. If you ask for a favor and someone accepts, you gotta accept it with dignity. You don't get to go back on it so that we have to feel guilty afterwards."

At that, Meiko just laughs and slips off into the hall, waving to get us to follow suit.

Emi takes a step forward, and I walk up behind her and place my hands on her forearms, leaning over her slightly. "So much for date night, huh?"

"I know, I know… but we owe her this one." Emi tilts her head to the side to kiss me, flashing a genuine smile. "I'll make it up to you. Promise."

I let go over her and set off for the kitchen. "I'll hold you to that."

"I know you will!" she calls out, stepping into the kitchen with a flourish. "It smells good, Mom…! What is that?"

"It's just salmon. Cheap stuff, too; they were selling it in bulk at the supermarket." Meiko sets down a stack of plates on the table, scooping rice straight out of the pot. "But sure, I'll take the compliment."

"That sounds good to me," I say with a shrug, taking a seat. "I'd kill to see them selling salmon in bulk."

"I'd kill to see them selling anything in bulk," Emi quips.

I laugh out loud, but stop as soon as I catch a glimpse of Meiko's face.

"…You know, when you make jokes like that, I think you're about to follow it up by asking me for money," she says dryly.

Emi, who has already set to work eating, just laughs again and waves a hand in the air. "No, no, this month we're asking Hisao's parents for money."

Hana picks at her food with her fingers, and Emi leans over to smack her hand away. I make awkward eye contact with Meiko in the meantime, who just raises an eyebrow at me.

"But, seriously… you guys aren't really having problems, are you? Because I'd-"

"No, seriously. We're fine," I say quietly, my discomfort pretty evident.

Emi seems to be actively tuning us out, and soon returns to eating without making any other comments.

"So. How's work, Hisao?" Meiko continues. "They aren't still calling you an intern, are they?"

She catches me before I get the chance to stuff food into my mouth, to my dismay. "…It's temporary."

"It's bullcrap, is what it is," says Emi suddenly. "There's so much favoritism, and nepotism, and all this stupid-"

"-Emi, please."

"Okay, okay, sorry. It just pisses me off." She turns to Meiko, half-smiling. "He's the smartest guy that works there. That's the thing. Like, us aside, they are totally missing out."

"But, it's fine. And we are doing fine. So. Everything is fine."

Emi puffs out her cheeks. "…Yeah. Let's just drop it."

"Fine, fine," Meiko sighs. "I was just making conversation."

I clear my throat and try to focus on eating. I notice Hana picking at a piece of skin on her plate, but for some reason I decide against scolding her- maybe just to preserve the awkward silence.

After a few minutes, Meiko speaks up again, apparently not even registering any tone shift. "So… have you guys thought about preschool at all?"

Hana immediately perks up, and Emi places a hand on her head to relax her.

I roll my eyes at Hana's reaction. "Oh, boy."

"'Oh, boy' what?" Meiko asks, taking a drink of water.

"It has just… been a popular question at home lately," Emi replies. Hana laughs loudly at that.

"And Hana, you want to go?"

Hana holds her cup with both hands, leaning back in an attempt to mimic Meiko's casual demeanor. "Duh. I want to a lot."

"But… we're not sure about it," says Emi.

Meiko narrows her eyes suspiciously. "Not sure? Why not?"

"A lot of reasons."

"We didn't even think about it when your father and I sent you. Seemed like the logical step."

"Well, yeah, and look how she turned out," I interject, earning a punch in the arm.

"Hisao and I just think differently," Emi says firmly, squinting at me disapprovingly.

"So you guys just want to wait to send her to public school?" She drums her fingers on the table for a moment, thinking. "…Is it the tuition?"

"Mom!"

"Yeah, alright," she replies quickly, wincing a little. "I just thought I'd throw it out there."

"It's a lot of things," I say conclusively. "It's a commitment. And it's something else to divvy up our time. We'd have to figure out a new schedule, and with work and everything…"

"It can't be that different from day care."

"…And it's more expensive than day care."

Emi throws up her hands dramatically. "I just don't really get what the point is in the first place. What do they teach you at a place for kids that young? Numbers? I mean, Hisao's already doing that."

"I think it's mostly about getting acclimated to a school environment. Like, getting used to being around other kids and such."

"Seems like a lot of fuss over nothing."

"I guess I understand that."

"Not fair," Hana grumbles, pushing her plate forward.

Emi nudges her with her leg. "C'mon, you've been good all day long. Don't ruin it by getting cranky now."

Groaning, Hana puts her head down on the table, wrapping her arms around herself.

Meiko smiles tiredly at her. "Sorry… maybe I shouldn't have brought it up with Hana around?"

"It's fine. She's already heard our opinion on this plenty of times."

"You worry about us too much," I say with a smile, pushing my nearly-cleaned plate forward on the table.

"Yeah, well, it's my job," Meiko says gently. "…Hisao, are you finished? You haven't said a word about the food. Should I be taking a hint here, or what?"

"No, c'mon; it's delicious, Mom. You can feel free saddle us with the leftovers; we'll take them on the way home tomorrow." I dab my face with a napkin. "I am just about finished, though."

"Me, too. I was thinking we should probably get going." Emi stands, letting out a loud yawn.

"You two," Meiko says accusingly. "Always in such a rush to get away from me."

"Only because you're so melodramatic about everything."

"You're leaving now?" Hana asks suddenly, getting out of her seat.

"Yeah, just about-"

"-Finally!"

"-but I- hey!"

Everyone laughs at the spontaneity of it, pleasing Hana immensely.

I pat her on the head as sweetly as possible, making my way over to the counter to set my plate down. "You're supposed to wait until we're out of the room to say that kind of thing, sweetheart."

She blows a raspberry at me, then slumps stubbornly to the ground.

"Do you want us to stick around and help clean up, Mom?" Emi chirps, meeting me at the counter.

"No, I got it. Thanks for offering, though."

"Okay." She steps off the counter, strolling over towards Hana. "Then… bedtime at 7:30. No TV after 7. No sweets after 6:30."

"Got it."

"So, if you wanna be the cool… uh, relative… make sure you don't listen to any of those."

"Got it," Meiko laughs.

"Okay. We're gonna skedaddle." She bends over to be face-to-face with Hana. "Gimme a kiss."

Hana does so, albeit somewhat grumpily.

I move towards the door, glancing back towards Meiko. "Thank you for dinner. And babysitting. And being, y'know, just generally wonderful."

"You're welcome, you're welcome, and… you're welcome, of course," Meiko says proudly, eyes closed.

"Good night, Hana! Love you!"

"Night, Daddy," Hana says mechanically, turning and waving.

I slip out into the entrance and open the front door, and behind me I hear Emi cry out, "Love you, Mom!" then scurry out into the hall. She's already slipped out through the front door before I even have a chance to, speedy as always.

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 3:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Date Night

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 3:34 pm

---

The heavy front door slams with an air of finality. With the kid now fully accounted for, I allow myself a deep breath of relief, which Emi giggles at.

"And now… the night is ours," I declare with a broad hand gesture.

"As soon as you get your slow ass into the car."

"Yeah, yeah…"

I stalk down the front walk, and Emi rushes ahead of me only to hang impatiently at the passenger seat door while she waits for me to unlock it. Naturally, I make my most theatrical effort to take as long as possible doing this.

"Do you know the way? Do you want me to pull it up on my phone?"

"That would be helpful, thanks."

She fiddles with her phone as I start the car, affixing it to the dashboard for me to look at. "Sooo…"

"So?"

"So. That went pretty well."

"I think so. Hana loves spending time with your mom."

"Yeah." She raps her fingers along her upper leg, thinking. "…Thanks, by the way."

"Hm? For what?"

"For how you've been acting with her. My mom. I think it's really sweet."

"I honestly don't know what you're talking about."

She takes a breath. "Well, for starters, you called her 'Mom'."

"Well, she is my mom."

"In-law. And you didn't even say 'Mother', or anything. You said 'Mom'." She snickers at me. "Don't even pretend like you don't know you were doing it, Hisao. You know it's important to me. You're not getting your good deeds past the radar that easily."

"Well, I'll have to stop doing them, then. Wouldn't want you catching on."

"You're an ass."

We're quiet for a minute or two. Emi adjusts the phone, watching the route trail along as we get closer and closer to Yamaku. She seems… almost a little forlorn about something.

"You looking forward to this?" she asks quietly.

"Hm… I'm less enthusiastic now that it's here, I guess."

"Ehh. I know what you mean."

"All we have to do is just show up, flash a smile, socialize for a couple hours and then get out, yeah?"

"Yeah, totally. No reason to drag it out."

"But your mom's got Hana for the whole night."

"Mhm. And?"

"Well, maybe we just skip out early. Get a bottle of wine. Curl up on the couch, pull up a movie…"

"Date night."

"No reason it has to be spoiled now."

"That sounds nice." She hesitates for a second. "Although. I don't wanna leave too early."

"Why not? Is there something you wanted to do…?"

I glance over at her, and she looks away, puffing out her cheeks a bit. "Okay, I'm gonna say something-"

"-What else is new-?"

"-and I need you to be mentally prepared for it."

"Mentally prepared?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, hold on. You can't just say something like that and expect me to go along with it. It's going to have to depend."

"Depend on what?"

"Well. Did you lose your job?"

"No-"

"Are you pregnant?"

"-no-"

"Cancer? You have two months to live?"

"-Hisao!"

"-Then… yes, I'm prepared. Say your piece."

"Fine." She takes a breath, puffing out her cheeks a little. "…It's about Rin."

"…Uh…"

"Yeah. I know."

"…Are you sure it's not cancer?"

"Hisao. Don't be a dick."

"Sorry, sorry… but… I mean, she's not actually going to this, is she?!"

"Yeah, actually, I'm pretty sure she is, as a matter of fact. And… I think she's in kind of a bad place right now."

"Rin's always in kind of a bad place."

"No, I mean, not, like, a Rin place. A bad place. For real."

"What makes you say that?"

"It's the impression I got the last time I talked to her. When she told me she was going to this."

"How long ago was that?"

"I dunno. A few months ago. She doesn't use her phone and doesn't even have a computer, so basically the only way to see what's going on with her is to meet in person. And she hates to do that."

"I don't get why."

"Neither do I. But that's not really the point."

"What's up with her?"

"Work stuff. It's these guys from an art studio she connected with after doing the commissions, or whatever. They're like, a bunch of pretentious artsy douchebags."

"Okay, but what about them? Rin just doesn't like them?"

"They're like, all over her for work."

"That sounds like a good thing to me."

"I know, I know, but you know how she is. She doesn't like the pressure or something." She shrugs, thinking on it. "They're also, like, really aggressive about making sure she stays in good condition. They've got people coming in and checking on her all the time, like she has a babysitter."

"Oh, that poor girl… she must be miserable."

"Exactly." She sighs guiltily. "Look, we don't have to spend the whole night with her. I just want to see if we can talk to her for a little bit; maybe make some headway. I wanna be a good friend. So I might want to… you know. Hang around for a while, if we need to."

"Yeah. Of course."

"I'll still make it up to you."

"I know."

She sighs loudly, relaxing into her seat. "Hey, Hisao."

"Yeah?"

"…Thanks for putting up with my bullshit."

"I'm used to it," I laugh.

"I know. That's why I'm thanking you, dummy."

Leaning over the console with half her body, Emi loops her arm around mine, dragging my hand down the steering wheel a little.

"Yeah, I don't think that's completely safe."

"Oh, would you shut up?"

I laugh at her goofiness, but don't have the heart to push her off of me. We end up spending the majority of the car ride like this, which is… well, not the worst thing in the world.

Yamaku is farther- and much more out of the way- than I remember. If not for the open navigation on Emi's phone, I almost certainly would have gotten lost on the way up. Driving in the city is a hassle enough, and since night falls midway through the drive, it only gets more complicated as it goes on. I can't even begin to imagine how the school's staff are able to make this drive every day.

It's past sundown when I pull up to the old gates, which still look exactly the way I remember them. There doesn't seem to be a soul outside, but the parking lot is crowded nonetheless, so we are at least reassured that we didn't get the date wrong.

We are at a loss for where to go at first, but Emi spots a couple of signs plastered on the wall that direct us towards the building that contains the cafeteria on the other side of campus. And as we're in no particular rush, we take our sweet time walking there.

I'm taken aback by how comfortable and clean the atmosphere is. I wonder if the campus was always as nice as it seems to me right now.

"Man, this place sure is pretty at night," I say absentmindedly.

"You said it. We were lucky kids."

"No kidding."

"And you only went here for one year."

Following the signs, I follow Emi into the building, the sounds of everyone's conversations growing the nearer we get to the cafeteria.

"Feeling sentimental already?" she asks teasingly.

"Maybe just a little- whoa, holy hell!" I force open the cafeteria doors and hesitate for a moment, taken aback by the sheer number of people packed inside. "I didn't even know there were this many people in our class!"

"Well, it's a big occasion here! I guess a lot of people felt the need to show up."

I smile awkwardly at the couple nearest the door that noticed us come in, then check my watch in an effort to look busy. "Okay, step one… find Rin?"

"Nah, Rin'll turn up. Step one… is getting some social lubricant."

"Like you need it."

"I don't need it. I want it. That's plenty reason enough."

"Fine, but don't go overboard. If you get drunk I'm going to have to spend the rest of the night babysitting you."

"Oh, relax, relax! I'll just have one drink." She pouts and trails slowly towards the bar, tugging on my arm to get my attention. "I'm just gonna run over real quick. Do you want something?"

"I'm driving."

"You can have one drink, Hisao. Geez."

"Cola, then."

"Pft. Wuss." She straightens up, trying to see over the crowd. "I'll be right back. Go see if you can find someone we know. I'll catch up with you!"

With a dismissive wave, she scurries off across the room towards the bar, leaving me stranded near the entrance of the room. I tug on my collar and scan the room, doing my best to recall people's names- with little success. Eventually I lock eyes with a shapely brown-haired woman across the room a ways… and am about to turn away when she does a double-take and calls out to me.

"No way! Hicchan?!"

"Hicch-? Oh, geez…"

She sticks her tongue out, then shuffles past some people to approach me, dragging the slightly stocky woman she had been chit-chatting with alongside her.

"Hicchan, that's you, isn't it?!" she nearly shouts, making me flinch.

I scratch the back of my head uncomfortably, frantically studying her face. "Er- Hisao, yeah… I…"

"You… you don't recognize me, do you?" She shuts her eyes and grins, crossing her arms. "That's okay; it's been a really long time, after all! Maybe if I dyed my hair pink you would have an easier time…?"

I blink, taking another look at her face.

…Oh, shit.

"Hang on- Misha?!"

"Wahaha! That's me! It's so good to see you again!"

"I'm really sorry; I just wasn't prepared for you to look so- er-"

"-It's fine, it's fine! Don't worry about it! We never even knew each other before I started wearing those pink hair drills, did we?" Smiling exuberantly, she elbows the woman standing next to her, whom I had barely taken notice of up until now. "Anyway, this is my girlfriend, Sayumi. Or… Sayumi-chan, you know, if you prefer!"

The shorter woman, exasperated, runs a hand through her own brown hair, which is styled almost exactly like Misha's. "Yeah… or just Sayumi. Just Sayumi would actually be completely fine."

Misha's girlfriend? Well… that's a new one.

Feeling a little bombarded by sudden revelations, I bow fractionally to Sayumi, trying not to look as disoriented as I feel. "O- oh! Er, of course! Uh. I- It's a pleasure to meet you. Sayumi."

"Same. Hisao." Sayumi flashes an amused grin, turning to Misha. "Look at him; he's so embarrassed! Like a lost puppy."

"Yeah… he's always kind of had that look, though!"

I shoot Misha a glare. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing! Don't worry about it!" Misha turns to Sayumi, speaking only marginally more quietly. "He definitely did, though!"

I'm not entirely sure how to respond to that, but regardless I don't have much time to deliberate on it before someone taps me on the shoulder and shoves a glass of soda into my arms.

"Hey, you made a friend!" Emi declares cheerfully, shoving her way into the group. "Hiya!"

"Hi, hi!" Misha leans on Sayumi, the same grin still plastered to her face. "You didn't tell us you brought a date, Hicchan!"

"We're married, actually," Emi says firmly, appraising the two of them. "And you are?"

"This is Misha and Sayumi," I say, pointing. "And yes, you guys, this is my wife, Emi. Funny, I would have thought you'd remember her from Yamaku, Misha."

Misha looks flustered for a fraction of a second, then shakes her head enthusiastically. "No, no, of course I do! She's the reason you wouldn't spend any time with the Student Council! She even looks just the same as she did back then!" She thrusts a finger in the air questioningly. "So, you guys ended up getting married, huh?"

She seems bizarrely excited by the prospect, which takes me completely off-guard.

"Straight outta uni!" Emi chirps, a little proud. "Well, almost."

"What's 'almost?'" Sayumi asks suspiciously, looking back and forth between Emi and me.

Emi (quite conveniently) decides to take a drink at this moment, so I speak up instead. "Well. The baby sped things up a little."

Misha nearly jumps with shock. "What? Baby?!"

"Er. Yeah."

"You mean to tell me there is a miniature Hicchan walking the Earth right this minute, and I didn't hear about it until just now?!"

"…Well, she's a girl, so she's not really a-"

"Disgraceful! Disgraceful, Hicchan!"

Sayumi presses a hand into her forehead, clearly embarrassed. "Shii-chan, please, do you have to make such a-?"

"-Pictures! Now!" Misha interrupts, putting her hands expectantly on her hips.

"Ooh, yes, ma'am! You shouldn't have given me an excuse!" Emi says excitedly, taking her drink in her left hand and pulling out her phone. "Trust me, Hisao is rolling his eyes internally right now."

Misha tilts her head, eyeing me suspiciously, and I shrug to avert suspicion… though Emi is completely right, of course. After a moment, Emi pulls up an album on her phone and the two of them start sifting through it, making chit-chat about Hana. Sayumi, on the other hand- not to anyone's surprise- does not seem to care about my daughter at all.

Feeling a little alienated, I stick my hands in my pockets, only to catch Sayumi doing the exact same thing. She smiles uncomfortably at me, clearly a little embarrassed by Misha's loudness. How you could come to date Misha and not develop a complete tolerance for that is beyond me.

"So… come here often?" I say jokingly, tilting my head towards the ceiling.

"First time, actually," Sayumi chuckles.

"Ah."

"Yeeeup." She shrugs, flashing a brief smile. "It's, uh, a really nice school."

"I agree."

"You and your wife both went here?"

"Uh huh."

"That's nice. So… you and Misha were friends back then?"

"Yeah, we were in the same class, so… you know."

"Yeah. I know."

"Er." I glance back at Emi and Misha, who are apparently completely absorbed in each other. "How'd you guys meet? You and Misha, I mean."

"Online," she says quietly. "It was a couple years ago. I was going back to school at the time. It's always kind of hard to get into a serious relationship when you've got to balance that, but, eh… I dunno. We clicked, I guess."

"That's nice. You two do seem… fairly different."

"In some ways, but- well, I don't know. I think I was going through kind of a hard time when we met, but she helped me out of it. We could all use a little more optimism, you know? And Misha's usually got it in spades, so…"

"Yeah, it's definitely important, when you… er…"

I glance upward momentarily to catch Misha glaring at the two of us from over Emi's phone. "You two were talking about me!"

"Uh, yeah. I'm sorry?" I say, nodding slowly.

She puts on a lousy mock-frustrated face, but cracks up almost immediately. "Haha, it's okay, Hicchan! As long as you weren't saying anything bad…!"

"We would never! …Not while you're in earshot, anyway."

Emi laughs out loud, but Misha just sticks her tongue out and steps away, taking another look around the room.

"Hana is adorable! You must be very proud, Hicchan!"

"Thanks."

"This is why reunions are so much fun! I love seeing what everyone's gotten up to. It's been so long…"

"Speaking of which, I was wondering…"

"Hm?"

"Where is Shizune? I'm surprised that you two aren't-"

"What, attached at the hip?" Misha interrupts, crossing her arms and pouting. "We're different people, you know, Hicchan!"

I'm slightly taken aback by her defensiveness, and take a few moments to figure out exactly what to say. "Well, yeah, I know, but I just would have expected you to be hanging out together, considering how good of friends you were back then."

Sayumi sighs, obviously a bit louder than she meant to, but Misha ignores it.

"Yes, well, things can change a lot in ten years, you know!" she proclaims, more quiet and serious than before. "Actually, Shizune and I have not really talked in a while…"

"Oh. Sorry to bring it up, then."

Judging from hers and Sayumi's expressions, I get the feeling this is a sensitive subject for some reason. I have no idea why, of course, but it definitely seems out of line to ask.

Misha, catching on to my own confusion, adjusts her expression back to a broad smile. "No, no, don't worry about it, Hicchan! I haven't seen her, but I am pretty sure Shizune is around here somewhere, if you wanted to say hello."

"Okay. Thanks. I'll keep an eye out, I guess."

"Hey, I have a question, too, if I can ask," Emi says suddenly, poking me not-so-subtly in the arm. "Do you guys know Rin Tezuka?"

Sayumi's expression goes blank, but Misha closes her eyes and nods her head knowingly.

"She's here!" Misha exclaims, unsurprised by the question. "Are you guys her friends, or her fans?"

Emi frowns and puts a finger to her chin. "Both, I guess?"

"Well, she and her posse have been camped out at a table over in the corner." Misha steps on her tiptoes and points over to the far end of the room. "If you want to say hi, you should make yourselves known! She's pretty popular…!"

"Ohhhh… kay," Emi sighs, heart sinking a little. "Thanks."

"No problem!" Misha says loudly, grinning again. "Does that mean you guys are still making the rounds, then?"

"Yeah," I admit with a shrug. "Actually, we got here almost immediately before meeting up with you guys."

"Well, don't let us stop you from having fun!"

"You're not." I finish my soda and clutch my glass in both hands, watching Emi uncertainly. "Trust me… you're not."

Emi snatches my glass out of my hands, growling jokingly. "That's enough out of you."

"Whatever."

Misha giggles loudly enough to draw strange looks from a few others, and Sayumi covers her face with embarrassment.

"Well, I guess this is good-bye," Misha says with a small pout. "Then… it was fun catching up, you guys!"

"Have a good night, Misha." I cock my head towards Sayumi, trying to look sympathetic. "Sayumi."

She smiles briefly, raising one hand. "Emi. Hisao."

"See ya!" Emi calls out, already setting off towards the opposite end of the room.

After a brief pause to collect myself, I catch up with her and snatch the two empty glasses from her hands. She sticks her tongue out at me and pushes onwards, so I rush to the bar to return them and follow her as quickly as possible.

The table Misha pointed out to us is surrounded by people whose dress gets more and more expensive the closer the crowd gets to the center. Emi wrenches herself into the crowd with little tact, and people part to make way for us only reluctantly.

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 3:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Date Night

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 3:35 pm

---

As soon as they do, I immediately spot Rin, sitting on the table right in the center of the action and sticking out like a sore thumb. She's dressed up in corduroy pants that are clearly too long for her and a pale green turtleneck with knotted sleeves, giving off a homeless vibe even when you ignore the man in the tuxedo talking into her ear, and the crowd of suits surrounding them. She spots me and Emi quickly, but strangely does not really react at all.

Dragging me behind her by the hand, Emi hurries up to the table where Rin is sitting, and the tuxedo-wearing man takes a step backward, affronted.

"Rin!" Emi nearly shouts.

Rin stares at her for a moment. "…Emi."

"Uh." Emi lets go of my hand, deflated. "Hi!"

"…Hi."

"…How are you?"

"…Good."

"Great! What are you up to?"

"This guy was talking to me." Rin cranes her neck towards the tuxedo-wearing man, who shrugs when everyone looks at him.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt…" Emi says, despite the fact that she obviously did.

"Not a problem. You're clearly old friends; who would I be to get in the way of that?" the man says coolly, adjusting his thin glasses. "My name's Kenji Setou. You?"

"Nakai. -Emi and Hisao."

She turns to me, and I blink, still trying to place the man in front of me as Kenji Setou… of all people. Emi elbows me rather forcefully in the gut, and I snap out of it.

"Kenji! Hi…!" I say slowly.

He straightens his glasses again and leans in to look more closely at me, though surprisingly still keeping a fairly appropriate distance. "Good to meet you, Hisao. …And Emi, too, of course."

"Kenji, c'mon. It's Hisao Nakai. From senior year. We lived right next to each other…?"

He rubs his hands together eerily, taking in this information with a great deal of thought. After a few seconds of deliberation, he smiles uncertainly. "Yeah! Yeah. Hisao. How could I forget?"

I watch him suspiciously, not completely sure whether or not he is serious. He says he remembers me, but judging from his expression, it's hard to believe that. I think he actually managed to completely forget who I am, despite the fact that I probably spoke to him more than any other student at Yamaku. For some reason, I'm a little hurt by that, though I'm not really sure why I care one way or the other.

Emi giggles madly. "Wow. What a touching reunion."

Kenji stares at me for a few more moments. The smell of his cologne is almost overpowering. I give him a strange look, but he doesn't seem to notice.

"What are you doing here?" Rin asks suddenly, in the middle of a shameless yawn.

Everyone directs their attention towards her, hesitant to respond. Emi taps her fingers together uncertainly. "Um, here, as in…?"

"Here." Rin gestures towards the floor with a curt shrug.

Emi frowns confusedly. "Hisao and I thought we'd see what you were up to."

"Oh." She blinks, her head creaking towards me. "How is your heart?"

I give her a look, taken completely off-guard. Sometimes I think she just says things to have that effect on people.

"Uh… I'm managing," I say slowly.

"Hm."

I exchange glances with Emi, who shrugs helplessly. This seems to be the extent of her plan as far as 'be good friends to Rin' is concerned.

Rin herself, meanwhile, seems disinterested in even having us here. I guess I don't know what I expected.

"So… Rin…" Emi says slowly. "…Did you come here with that guy you talked about?"

"I don't know. It depends on what guy I talked about." In one very unladylike gesture, she swings her leg in the air and points with her foot past Emi's head, forcing her to duck out of the way. "I came with that guy over there."

There are a few guys in the direction she's pointing, all facing away from us. As far as I can tell, Rin is talking about the somewhat old-looking, frizzy-haired man standing closest to us, though that's really just a guess.

"That's Mr. Noguchi. He works with her for an art studio," Kenji explains, clasping his hands together. "I've actually helped to sponsor that studio in the past. I'm a big fan of Miss Tezuka's work…"

Emi turns back to him with an awkward smile, obviously wishing he would go away. "Is that so?"

Kenji doesn't get the hint- or doesn't care. "Yeah, yeah, it's like I was just saying before you arrived. I actually have one of her-" –he turns to Rin suddenly- "-er, one of your original works hanging above my dresser. The Cityscape at Dawn."

Rin just stares blankly at him, much to his dismay. After a few moments without a response, he turns back to us, gesturing wildly with his hands. "It's a beautiful painting. A bleak sort of thing- a city stretching out on one side of a river, and a thatched-roof farmhouse on the other, with disfigured bodies in the river. At dawn… y'know, if you couldn't guess…"

He tugs on his collar, getting very little response from anyone.

Emi wrings her hands together, frowning sympathetically. "Sorry, but I don't think I've seen that one…"

"Yes, well." Kenji clears his throat, refusing to break his tangent. "It struck a chord with me. It was Mr. Noguchi that sold me on it, really. I see it as sort of a depiction of that contemporary divide between progressivism and traditionalism. The way our society is stuck in the middle of that pull in two directions, and the impossibility of that position. You know?"

Somehow, I think I am more bewildered by him now than I ever was in the past. I wonder how obvious that is. He doesn't seem to be picking up on it at all, thankfully.

He looks to us for some kind of reaction, so Emi smiles encouragingly, which he seems to consider a victory. "My company was really just coming into its own, economically speaking, when I first saw it, so that concept really struck me." Smiling deferentially, he turns back to Rin again. "Wouldn't you say that was your overall inspiration, when you painted it?"

Rin blinks absentmindedly, tuning him out. "…More or less."

"So glad to hear that. So glad." He clasps his hands together. "I think art is so important now, let me tell you. Print journalism is dead, we're synthesizing medicines like candy, our manual labor is all done by robots, but the one thing that will never be replaced is good, earnest, creative inspiration."

"Well, that's comforting," I say somewhat sarcastically, though he doesn't pick up on it.

"Yeah, well, I'd like to think so." He straightens his glasses, shaking his head slightly. "But… that's enough talking about me, yeah? How about you two? What's your favorite work of Miss Tezuka's?"

Rin watches Kenji talk with some irritation. Emi sucks in her breath, trying not to let it bother her. "Oh, we don't really… I mean, we don't collect art or anything."

"Oh." He pauses, his demeanor changed a little. "I just would have thought, considering the way you approached her…"

"Art is just… a little bit too rich of a hobby for our blood, I guess," I interject, earning a distraught glare from Emi.

"I see." He scratches his chin, staring at me somewhat judgmentally. "So… what do you do, exactly?"

"I, uh." I clear my throat quietly. "I'm a… consultant."

He nods slowly. "That's… nice. What do you consult on?"

"There's… well…"

"-It's this pharmaceutical startup," Emi interrupts quickly, rushing through the conversation. "They're focusing on, uh. Hisao-?"

"-Biotech stuff. It's basically just chemistry work, really. That's what I… consult on. For the most part."

He glances suspiciously between the two of us, clasping his hands together. "I- uh, I see. Sounds… complicated."

"I think you'd be surprised."

"Er. Alright then. Maybe I would."

He grimaces somewhat insultingly. I have no idea how to respond.

The four of us stand in relative silence for a few moments. Rin yawns again, hunched over as though she wants to lie down on the table.

…Actually, knowing Rin, that is probably exactly what she wants.

After a minute, Kenji jumps to attention, suddenly smiling again. "Ah, Mr. Noguchi! These are the Nakais, old friends of Miss Tezuka's."

"I'm so sorry," says a fairly high-pitched male voice. I turn to see that it is indeed the frizzy-haired man that Rin pointed out earlier, smiling apologetically. "I was just making some arrangements… you two know Rin?"

"Mhm," Emi says quietly, watching carefully as Noguchi wedges himself between us and Rin.

"I thought you 'didn't really know anyone' from Yamaku, Rin," he says expectantly.

Rin looks at the floor, frowning slightly. "Sorry. There are some people, I guess."

"Forgive me," Noguchi says with a wave of his hand, turning back to Emi and me. "This whole venture has been a little bit too formal, I think. I'm happy to meet friends of Rin's. My name is Takeo Noguchi. I'm Rin's associate."

"So we've heard," Emi says with exhaustion. "I'm Emi. This is Hisao."

I smile dully at him. "Hi."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Noguchi says, taking a step to the side to position himself next to Kenji. "Rin, I would have thought you would have been more enthusiastic to come out if you had friends waiting to meet up with you."

"Sorry," Rin says quietly.

"You don't- oh, you don't have to apologize, Rin…" he chuckles, tugging at the cuffs of his sleeves.

"Oh."

"Oh- hm."

Noguchi wipes sweat off the back of his neck, smiling off-puttingly at us. Emi moves a bit closer to me and takes my hand, visibly concerned. I'm not sure exactly what the proper etiquette would be in order to comfort her right now, so I just hold her hand tightly. It seems to work. I think.

"So what exactly do you mean when you say you're Rin's associate?" Emi asks, breaking the awkward silence.

"I work closely with distributors that are interested in publishing her art. So we work together in very close capacity. You know how these things go."

"And he helps me put on shirts and stuff," Rin adds drearily.

"Oh!" Emi scratches her head, smiling nervously. "Oh. That's, uh… hm."

"You understand the challenges of living with… Rin's kind of disability," Noguchi says cautiously. "It's so important to the artistic community that she is able to pursue her passions without being held back by such… paltry inconveniences."

"It's really cool, to have such a singular commitment to your craft. Just remarkable," Kenji says loudly, making a sweeping gesture with his hands.

"Absolutely." Noguchi holds his hand out to gesture towards Rin, who narrows her eyes at him. "Rin is a treasure to us. A beautiful mind is not something for our society to take lightly."

Rin's flagrant apathy towards this man is almost hilarious, but I restrain myself from laughing in the interest of politeness. They shower her with praise, and where anyone else would blush or protest she just squints like they're speaking another language.

Not long after Noguchi's declaration, another suit-and-tie clad man makes his way towards us and whispers something into Kenji's ear, prompting Kenji to nod ferociously and slick his hair back with his hand.

"Well, that's my cue," Kenji mutters quickly. "Wish me luck."

"On what?" I ask.

"Oh, you didn't hear? They asked me to give a small speech." He shrugs indifferently. "It'll be quick and painless, promise. Just a little bit of crowd-pandering. Nothing big."

He slips off into the crowd with the other man, and the lights start to dim, leaving me confused. "A speech?"

"Hm, I'm looking forward to it," Noguchi says, slumping into the chair nearest Rin, who watches him carefully.

"Well, I guess I'm interested to hear what he's got to say, at lea-"

I'm cut off by a loud screech of microphone feedback, making me cringe a little. Emi leans on me and points over my shoulder, turning me all the way around and directing my attention towards an oily-looking man in a sweater vest near the other end of the room. He fidgets with a microphone in his hands, looking very uncomfortable. "Uh, hi- uh, hello everyone… good evening."

He takes an awkward pause, as though he is genuinely waiting for a response. I can hear Emi groan quietly from behind me.

"…Er, so, thanks for coming out," he continues. "I didn't teach when you all went here ten years back, so… I know you all probably don't much care to hear from me, heh… heh heh…"

…Well, he's certainly not wrong. I try to glance over people's heads to find Kenji.

The sweater vest man wipes sweat off of his forehead and adjusts the microphone.

"Uh, s-so, anyway, we just wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on things, uh, a little bit. I- uh, we got in contact with one of the graduates from your year, and I know he has a speech prepared; just a little something to, eh… to do that. So I don't want to hold that up any longer. Without further ado, um… Kenji Setou, everybody. I'm sure many of you remember him… so…"

Out of nowhere, like an apparition, Kenji appears behind him, his white tuxedo standing out next to the larger man's ragged-looking clothes. Kenji grabs the microphone gracefully from him, giving a surprisingly charming smile.

"Thanks, thanks; alright, take a seat, buddy," Kenji laughs, patting the man on the back and moving further from the door. "So, yeah, hi, everyone. I'm Kenji; you may remember me, you may not. Either way, welcome back to Yamaku. I'd say you all look well, but according to my optometrist I think that would probably just be a 50/50 guess."

Most of the room chuckles at his joke. I'm kind of impressed.

"I know what you're all thinking," Kenji declares with a dismissive hand wave. "What's with this asshole in the suit? Why are we trapped here listening to this? Nobody came here for a lecture, right? We graduated so we could be done with them." He shakes his head dramatically, chuckling to himself. "Well, this is only going to take a couple of minutes; I know we're all still catching up. I just want to make a little statement, maybe create a little perspective. Because this is about more than just catching up, isn't it? This isn't just some party. And God knows we don't need an excuse to get drunk with our friends."

He holds out his hand, and the other man passes him a bottle of water, which he takes a long drink from. "No, no, there's meaning behind this, right?! This represents something. Something more than, 'look, we're all still around.' We didn't just graduate from high school, we graduated from Yamaku. And that means something." He takes another drink. "Alright, alright, do me a favor. I want you to picture, just for a second, your first day at Yamaku. It's something I'm sure everyone can remember, right? Does an image strike you? There was- is- an atmosphere here, a distinct one. No matter what your background is, no matter how you ended up here, there is a reaction that I'm sure we can all share. Canes, and dark glasses, and bandages, and prosthetics. It's a strange feeling to become a part of a place like that. Even if you yourself are 'healthy', so to speak, you became enculturated. It's the structure of this place. It's how engrossed you felt in everyone's health, and in trying to pretend to be 'normal'. For some, it was new, and for some, I'm sure it had followed you your whole life. But it was there, right?"

He shrugs and takes another sip of water.

"Seriously, this is the anti-feminist guy?!" Emi asks in a hushed whisper.

I turn to her and shrug. "Trust me; he's definitely not the same person he was back then."

"Weird."

I notice a few people glaring at us, so I elbow her and we both shut up.

"Now think on your first week," Kenji continues loudly. "Your first month. The people you met. People that you're probably surrounded by right now!" He does a broad gesture with his arms. "How long did you spend thinking about all that other nonsense before you had to start stressing out about a test, or getting to club meetings, or making friends? Think about how quickly it turned normal for you. You may have had to go to the nurse every day. You may have had to take three dozen pills before every meal. Who knows? But that's got nothing to do with your memories of this place, or of your education, does it? You did make those friends, you did take those tests, and at the end of the day, you got along fine. And here we are, ten years later, and, well, damn, there's canes and dark glasses and bandages and prosthetics here, too, but that's got nothing to do with it, does it? That's not why we all came tonight."

He shakes his head a little neurotically and hands the water back, gripping the microphone with both hands. "Okay, where am I going with this…? Listen. They called me up and asked me to give a full-fledged speech. They wanted me to talk about my organization and the charities it gives to. Rattle off names, do some gloating. They wanted me to talk about the kids I'm giving a second chance, because those charities are paying their tuition here. But I thought that would miss the point. 'Cause, shit, who am I giving a second chance? Who is Yamaku giving a second chance, for that matter? That's not what this reunion is about. Not second chances. It's not about making up for our 'problems'. Playing catch-up. It's about… adapting."

He sighs loudly into the microphone, leaning back on an unoccupied table. Dramatically removing his glasses, he makes a serious face as though to seem down-to-Earth. "I don't want people to look at my achievements and say, 'Wow, look at how Kenji overcame the odds. Look at how much a Yamaku kid was able to accomplish.' No, that's the wrong mindset altogether. Because, say what you will about what I've done with my life… the real accomplishment is one that everyone here has done. I adapted. I'm a part of the world. A regular guy. It's not because I got a second chance, and it's not because I played catch-up. It's just because… I adapted. And everyone here has done that. That's what we should be commemorating tonight. Commemorate all the little things in your life you have to be proud of. The normal things. Your husband or wife. Your kids. Your career. That's the point of this. Be glad that Yamaku gave you the space to do it, but don't give anyone credit for what you've done. Because you adapted, too. That is the point of this. And the only thing I want to do is make sure everyone here realizes that."

He puts his glasses back on and takes a dramatic pause, to rousing applause. He smiles charmingly, standing and waltzing back to the center of the room.

It really is a nice sentiment. I already know I have a lot to be proud of, but… it's nice to be reminded, I guess.

Emi presses herself against my back, sighing practically into my ear. Still facing away from her, I let my arm fall to my side to allow me to hold her hand. She seems a little disheartened- but I think it's because she's still concerned about Rin, which actually makes it kind of endearing.

Kenji throws up his hands guiltily at the applause, chuckling to himself. "Okay, okay, that's my cue, right? Yeah, my fault for saying 'a couple minutes'. Fine, fine, I'll just say this. It's a beautiful night out, so if you want to get some air, the grounds are completely open for the rest of the evening. High elevation here, so it's good for your lungs. And if you're worried about students… well, most of the kids are gone for the summer, but if you see one, just give 'em a dirty look and tell 'em it'll be their turn next decade." He raises an arm to gesture toward the bar. "Enjoy the open bar; that's totally on me. Be nice to the poor kid, he's been in that suit for four hours now. Aaaand… that's all. Have a good night, everybody!"

The lights flicker back on over the rest of the room as the sweater-vest-wearing man takes the microphone back from Kenji, tapping on the mic and letting it screech through the speakers again. After a few minutes of getting back to normal, everyone gathers up again and gets back to fraternizing, though I notice a handful of couples heading out the double doors, presumably at Kenji's recommendation to walk around the campus.

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 4:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Date Night

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 3:35 pm

---

"Hm. He's actually a competent speaker, that one," Noguchi says gruffly.

"No kidding. Where did that come from?" I ask, failing to filter myself. I get no response, so thankfully I think Noguchi was tuning me out anyway. I turn to face him, forcing Emi to shuffle out of the way, but something else immediately catches my eye.

He looks at me inquisitively… perhaps a little suspiciously.

"Hey. So. Uh." I point to the table. "Where's Rin?"

Noguchi laughs for a second as he turns his head to the side, but freezes as soon as he notices the empty table behind him. "Rin… oh, that girl is going to be the death of me…"

"She must have slipped out during the speech," Emi says quietly. "Rin, Rin, Rin… I guess we should probably go looking for her, then…"

"No, I'll go," Noguchi declares, hurriedly getting out of his seat. "She's my responsibility, I'll-"

"No, she's not," Emi says dismissively, turning away from him. "Don't worry about it. Hisao and I will go. You are already a part of this crowd; it would be more convenient this way, don't you think?"

His face hardens somewhat, but Emi has already taken off before he can respond. Trying not to lose track of her, I lift a hand apologetically for only a split second before chasing after her.

"Emi! Where are you going?" I call out, almost having to run to catch up with her.

Emi balls up her fists with minor irritation. "Outside. Not like she's still hanging out in here making small talk with people."

"How far do you think she went?"

"Dunno. I really just want to get away from that Noguchi guy. He totally wigs me out."

"Yeah, I… know what you mean."

Pushing past swathes of guests (whom I should probably be able to recognize better than I can), I follow Emi straight through the entrance and out onto the main grounds of the campus. At this point, it's so dark that I'm worried I will lose Emi too if I let her get too far away from me.

"Can you slow down? Where are you even going?"

She skids to a stop and lets out a dramatic sigh, turning to look at me. "I don't know. I was kind of hoping we would just find her wandering around all lost in the middle of the grounds."

"I guess that's not an unreasonable thing to expect."

After a second of glancing around to get her bearings, she starts off in another direction, albeit slowly enough for me to walk alongside her this time.

"She's really freaking me out," she says anxiously. "These guys are totally taking advantage of her."

"Try to relax, okay? There's only so much we can do."

She stretches her arms out behind her head, groaning. "I know. It's just frustrating. I feel like if she would just stop being so resigned and take some initiative, this wouldn't even be a problem…"

"Are you okay? This seems like it's really weighing on you."

"It's just a lot to think about." She bites her lip. "Let's just not talk about it anymore."

The clamoring from inside the cafeteria is extremely distant now, making it feel pretty isolated as we walk around together even despite the other scattered people walking around. Emi and I spend the better part of twenty minutes just wandering around the campus, taking in the night air. It actually might be kind of romantic if she wasn't so obviously stressed out the whole time.

Eventually, after seeing the same collection of benches and trees for the third time, I grab her arm to stop her. "Okay, I'm at a loss here."

"Me, too."

"Do you think she would have gone into town? Or maybe the trail in the woods?"

"I'll bet she was just in the bathroom the whole time, and this was all pointless," she says half-jokingly.

"Oh, I doubt that. I don't know if she could even put those pants back on by herself."

"Good point." Emi says slowly. After a moment of thought, she makes a disgusted face and then repeats herself. "…Huh… good point…"

"Oh, Emi, come on."

"You know what? Come to think of it, this is the first time in a while that I've seen her in something other than sweatpants."

"Please try not to overthink it."

Emi makes a face, putting a finger to her chin. I take one more glance around, hoping that somehow something will be different from last time.

"…Do you want to split up?" I suggest.

"Hell no. It's way too dark. I've already been using you as my seeing-eye dog."

"But… you've been walking in front of me most of the time."

She ponders this for a moment. "Well, I didn't say you were doing a good job."

"Touché. But if we're not gonna split up, then what do you want to do?"

"Either we go back inside and go back to Noguchi, or take off for one of the gates."

We stare at each other for just a moment, obviously having the same thought.

"The gate to the woods is closer than the main one."

"The woods, then."

We make our way to the far end of the wall, finding the old wrought-iron gate in exactly the same place as I remember. Honestly, it's dinged up and rusty enough that I would believe it if they hadn't refurbished it once in the ten years I was gone.

"Hey, here's a thought," I say, forcing the gate shut behind us as Emi starts off down the path. "It might be fun to come back here some time. Like, for our anniversary, or something."

"Oh, you shouldn't have brought it up, then!" she exclaims with a disapproving pout. "You could have made it a surprise."

"How could I possibly make it a surprise? It's kind of a long drive to get up here."

"I dunno. Blindfold? You shouldn't be spoiling your plans for our anniversary to me!"

"I haven't made any plans! It was just an idea, that's all!"

"What? You mean you haven't made plans for our anniversary yet?! But it's coming up soon!"

"I- I- well- hey, it's not coming up that soon!"

"I know." She fails to suppress a grin. "I haven't made any plans, either."

"Oh, screw you."

She pauses for a moment, then has a thought and winks coyly at me. "I just told you not to reveal your anniversary plans."

"…Okay, gross."

"So I'm gross now? Excuse you."

"Oh my God."

Unless the dark is fooling my eyes, Emi is smiling vibrantly. It's good to see her mood improving.

From a small gap between a few trees a bit further down, a shadow appears, accompanied by quiet footsteps. "You know, for a place people have been running off to in order to be alone, this path is certainly beginning to get crowded." It's a woman's voice- one with a pronounced foreign accent.

I feel my face flush with intense embarrassment as I realize that somebody overheard that. Looking past Emi, though, I realize I was wrong…

…It's actually three people. Even better.

"Oh? Who's there?" Emi asks loudly, apparently not nearly as embarrassed as I am.

"I'm sorry, did I scare you?" asks the woman in front. "I didn't mean to come out of the shadows."

The crowd moves a little uphill to meet us on the path, letting me see them better. Wouldn't you know it- the person in the back is Rin, looking dreary and lost.

The other two strike me as familiar as well- an attractive blonde with a cane, and a squirrely pale woman with long violet hair that covers half her face. It only takes me a second or two to recognize the blonde woman as Lilly Satou, the blind girl who had a rivalry with Shizune. I'm immediately thankful to see an old classmate that doesn't look completely different than she did ten years ago. The violet-haired woman's name is totally lost on me, however.

"There you are, Rin!" Emi exclaims, her face relieved and irritated at the same time. "Hisao and I were looking all over for you!"

"Oh, you're friends of Rin's?" Lilly asks, a little surprised. "Hanako and I found her while we were, er… out walking in the woods."

The violet-haired girl- Hanako - nods somewhat frantically and gives an unnerving smile.

Rin takes a step forward, unfazed. "I was just taking a walk."

"Rin, we need to talk," Emi says firmly. She crosses her arms, then turns towards Lilly. "Thanks for helping out, Lilly."

Lilly puts a hand to her mouth, surprised at being called by name. After concentrating for a few moments, she says, "Oh, is… is that… Emi Ibarazaki?"

Damn, and in one guess, too, from voice alone. I wish I was half as good.

"Ehh, close," Emi says after a second. "Ibarazaki is actually my maiden name now."

"Hm, I could have guessed as much. Then…"

"Nakai," I finish. "I'm her husband, Hisao. Emi and I dated at Yamaku; do you remember?"

"Oh, yes, yes… forgive me, it can be… difficult for me to place people, after such a long time." Lilly shakes her head, smiling politely. "But it's very nice to hear about relationships that stand the test of time like that."

"Yep, it's true love," I say with a laugh. "That or a lack of good alternatives. Take your pick."

"Oh, you just couldn't let me have that one, could you?" Emi says sorely, sticking her tongue out at me.

"Well, if it's any consolation, Emi," says Lilly, "I think it is pretty obvious which of those two choices it is, judging from the conversation I overheard…"

And now I'm blushing ten times harder than I ever was before. "So you did overhear that. Wow, that… that is really embarrassing."

"Please, please; there's nothing to be embarrassed about."

I laugh uncomfortably and glance at Emi, but she seems to be a little distracted by Rin. Come to think of it, this is probably not the best time to be catching up.

"I'm sorry, Lilly, I don't mean to be rude, but… would you mind maybe giving us a bit of time alone with Rin?"

"Oh! I'm sorry. Of course; we'll leave you three alone. We don't mean to intrude." She shakes her head, taking a step forward. "Hanako, would you like to accompany me back to campus? I'm sure Shizune is looking for us by now."

"O- okay," Hanako squeaks, rushing past us to get behind Lilly.

What a weird girl. I didn't think I was that scary… I hope she's alright. They both seem almost relieved by the excuse to leave us alone.

"Good night, Lilly! Thanks again!" Emi calls out.

"Night, Lilly," I say apologetically.

"Good night, all," Lilly says politely. "It was good to meet you again."

Hanako trailing just barely ahead, the two of them make their way back through the gate and out of sight.

With nobody to stand behind, Rin shifts to face us, frowning with irritation. "Are you going to yell at me?"

"No," says Emi, obviously trying to exercise some restraint. "We're just worried about you."

Rin blinks, her face blank. "Why?"

"It seems like- well… Rin…" Emi's expression changes a little as she loses track of what to say. "I mean… you haven't really been acting like yourself."

"Have I been acting like someone else?"

"No. I just mean you've been acting different."

"But if I am myself, then isn't whatever way I act 'acting like myself'?"

"Rin, can you stop being tricky for one second? We're trying to help."

"I'm not trying to be tricky."

They make eye contact with one another, both apparently equally confused. It's like they're staring through each other.

"The stuff with Noguchi is weird, Rin," I interject. "Really weird. Your relationship with him is really weird."

Emi and Rin both simultaneously turn to me, surprised to hear me speak up.

"I know," says Rin.

Emi sighs, balling her fists up. "The last time we talked, you told me you wished these guys would just leave you alone. Now, not even half a year later, and you're here with one of these guys who clearly dragged you along against your will, and he's doing exactly the thing you didn't want in the first place. And you don't get why that's worrying?"

"…I don't get why you're worried about it," Rin says genuinely.

"Are you okay with the way things are for you right now?"

"I don't know."

"Do you even like the guy?"

"No. I think I kind of hate him."

"Then why are you letting him involve himself in your life?!"

The question makes Rin grimace like she has a migraine. "I don't know. It's what I want, I think."

"Doesn't it make you feel weird?"

"I don't know; what do you mean by 'weird'?"

"I mean… the guy is in kind of an… intimate situation with you…!"

"No. Not weird." She reviews her answer in her head for a second. "Well, he did try to make out with me once. I guess that was kind of weird."

Emi is dumbstruck for a moment. "…What?"

"Well, mostly he just touched my leg a lot, and I think he tried to sit on my lap, which was the especially weird part. But he definitely was also trying to make out with me. I think."

"What did you do?!"

"Well, I didn't know what to do, 'cause, you know, I couldn't push him off of me. So I ended up kneeing him in the stomach. I gave him a bruise which lasted for a week."

"And even after that, you're still letting this guy come into your house and help dress you?"

"It's complicated."

"That doesn't sound very freaking complicated! Just tell him to leave you alone!"

"I can't."

I cross my arms uncomfortably, not sure whether or even how to interject. Rin has always kind of been more of Emi's friend than mine, to be completely honest, but I still have to admit that Rin is really starting to freak me out now.

"What the hell do you mean you can't?" Emi cries out.

"They're… my connections. I still need him to help me sell my art and stuff." Rin's frown feels almost defiant now.

"No, you don't! You can walk away from them and figure out-"

"Emi-"

"Rin, if you need help, I swear we-"

Rin closes her eyes, trembling a little bit. "Emi. Please stop talking now. Please."

I place my hand on Emi's shoulder, which she touches gently for a moment. Rin lightly closes her eyes and begins to take deep, calm breaths in the silence.

Then, out of nowhere, Emi clenches her fists and starts up again. "Rin, you are such an idiot!"

Rin opens her eyes again, looking distraught. Emi moves away from me, slowly becoming more animated as she continues.

"You are so, so, stupidly talented! You have every opportunity available to you! Any studio in the country would kill to work something out with you if you just freaking talked to them, so the only thing you have to do is just figure out what you wanna do and do it! It would be so easy for you to work this out if you would just freaking do it!"

"But I don't know what I want to do. I think about it all the time, but everything is just kind of the same. I don't know… I have been thinking for so long…"

"But you can figure it out! I understand what you're going through, Rin! But you have opportunities right now! There is nothing holding you back! What is your problem?!"

"You don't understand what I'm going through." Rin groans quietly, throwing her head back with some exhaustion. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because it hurts to see you doing this to yourself! You have everything laid out in front of you! It's so obvious! Don't you see that people would kill to be in your position?! Why won't you just stop dragging your feet and push yourself a little, so you can stop wasting everybody else's time?!"

"…Stop talking." Clearly angry, though in an understated sort of way, Rin closes her eyes to focus herself. "I came down here so I could just think by myself. Clearly nobody is going to let me do that, so… I am going to go back. By myself."

She pushes past us and moves towards the gate, though she clearly has trouble opening it. I am a little lost right now, but it definitely seems like the wrong move to try and help her with the gate, so instead I just let her fidget with it using her knee and forearm for a while before finally slipping through it.

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 4:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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QuietlySomething
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Date Night

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 3:37 pm

---

Emi just stands still, frozen in place.

I widen my eyes at her, waiting for a response. "…Whoa."

She takes one moment to herself, then sighs loudly, burying her face in her hands. "Oh, shit…"

"…Okay, I'll bite. Emi, what the hell was that?"

"…It was maybe a teensy bit harsh."

"Yeah. A teensy bit."

"She's just so difficult sometimes."

"…That sounded kind of personal, though."

"I dunno."

"Do you wanna tell me what's up with you or is this gonna turn into a fight sometime later, when I'm not expecting it?"

"There's nothing up with me."

"I've known you long enough to know when that's not true."

"We really don't have to do this right now."

"I would rather do it now than later."

She groans quietly, fidgeting with her hands. "Hisao…"

"Since when do we not tell each other what's going on?"

"I just don't want to make tonight more stressful than it needs to be."

"Well, I'm going to be more stressed if I know you're upset about something and it hangs over my head all night. Why don't you just tell me what's on your mind?"

"I don't…" she sighs, looking me in the eye for a moment. "…Yeah, okay, okay. You're right. I'm just… feeling a little frustrated, I guess."

"And Rin is…?"

"Rin doesn't know how good she has it."

"That's not fair. She's-"

"I know it's not fair. I know. I don't wanna take it out on her. And I didn't mean to," she says firmly. "Look, everything has just been kind of stressful for me lately. And it seems like I keep having to think about it. I dunno. It's annoying. It makes it annoying to see Rin squandering all the good opportunities she has."

"So this is about…"

"I'm sure you feel the same way. I'm just… getting kind of sick of being poor."

"Oh, God, Emi, come on…"

"Hey, hey-"

"Emi, we're not poor, seriously. Think about what you-"

"-hey, you asked me to tell you what was on my mind. Well, that's it. That's what was on my mind."

She watches me carefully, looking a little sad and a little frustrated. I feel like I need to tread carefully, but I still do my best to be reassuring. "…Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, you- I don't want you to do anything. There's a reason I didn't want to bring it up." Her face softens a little. "I'm sorry. It's not a big deal. I'll get over it, I promise."

"That's not very reassuring."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you. I'm just being crazy."

She smiles dismissively, whipping out the doe eyes. It requires a powerful immunity, built up over many years, to power through them.

"Wow, with a smile like that, how could anything possibly be wrong? I guess I'll just drop it."

Her face immediately hardens. "Come on. What do I have to do?"

"Just look at it this way. We get on with things now, and then not only do you need to talk to Rin, you need to apologize, too. And then you've still got me worrying about you. How much do you want to balance on your plate at once?"

She puts a hand to her forehead, her smile a little strained. "Alright…"

"Look, I… I'm trying as hard as I can. With work, and…"

"I know! God, I know it's not your fault!" She smiles lightly. "Geez, I wish it was! Then I could take it out on you. Make you sleep on the couch. At least then I'd get the covers to myself."

"…Wait, you don't really prefer it when I sleep on the couch, do you?"

"No." She glares incredulously at me. "Seriously? No!"

"Alright, alright, that was just a gut punch I wasn't expecting."

"Dumbass."

She shoves me playfully to the side, but I straighten out in order to look serious, which makes her shrink a little.

"Is it what your mom said at dinner? You worried about preschool?"

"Oh, Hisao…"

"…'Cause if you think it's important, then we'll do it, alright? It's not a problem. Trust me; I have my priorities in order. Hell, there are places in the city I could swing by on my way to work if you-"

"It's not just that. It's… everything."

I raise an eyebrow. "Everything, huh?"

"Not like that. Not in a big, crazy kind of way. I'm not trying to be dramatic, okay? I just panicked."

She tilts her head to the side and holds her arms down in front of her, her face now fixed in a shy pout. With the way her hair looks- if it weren't the dead of night at the moment- I would expect blue birds to land on her shoulders and kick off a musical number right about now.

I reach out and place my hands on her shoulders, running them down her arms until both of her hands are in mine. But she still doesn't turn her head.

"Alright," I say quietly. "Hey. Look at me."

"Hisao, you don't have to-"

"You're not looking."

"Fine, fine." She tilts her head slowly up to make eye contact with me, and cracks up as soon as she does. "You're being silly."

"No. I'm helping." I look her in the eyes as firmly as possible. "Emi. We. Are. Fine. Okay?"

Her gaze softens the longer she looks at me.

I do my best to keep a poker face. "You hear me?"

"I hear you," she says quietly.

"Good." I take a breath to buy myself a few more seconds to figure out what to say. "You get that I'm not just saying that, right? I mean, we are fine. We are going to be fine. Right now? Whatever we have? We're handling it. We don't have anything to worry about that we can't handle."

"I know, I know…"

"There's not- look, nothing is in danger at work. I have nowhere to go but up. I'm handling this. I swear by that." I squeeze her hand lightly, but never break eye contact. "Whatever crap comes up, we can deal with it, and we will deal with it. Because I know we're both working as hard as the hell we can. And because we're a team, and we're supporting each other. Right? And because…"

She raises an eyebrow. "…Because…?"

"And… because… Hana is a prodigy genius, and she's going to be a millionaire, and take over the world, and buy us an island to support us when we're in diapers."

"Duh." She giggles suddenly, pulling her hands away to cover her mouth.

"We're going to be fine. I promise." I try to let myself relax a little. "Count on me, okay?"

"I can do that."

She crosses her arms and looks up at me again, returning my smile. She opens her mouth to say something, but tears form in her eyes, and she stops herself.

"Hey, hey!" I rush towards her, though she seems even more surprised by the tears than I am. "Hey, I'm not that bad at pep talks, am I…? I'm doing the best I can, here."

"No, no, it's not that," she laughs, patting me on the chest to push me away. "It's just… tsch…"

"What?"

She snickers to herself, wiping her eyes with her hand. "It's, uh… you just… made me think of my dad for a second there."

We exchange a glance, and she grins, giving me an expectant look.

I run a hand through my hair, flustered. "O- oh! Uh…"

Without any warning, she throws her arms around me, pressing her head firmly into my chest. I return the hug as soon as I realize what's happening.

"Are you okay?" I ask quietly.

"I'm okay. Promise."

"Good."

"I'm really glad you stuck around." Emi takes a long breath, like a sigh of relief. "You know you're the best, right?"

"I know."

"Like, the best."

"Yeah. I know."

"I love you."

"I know."

"…You were supposed to say, 'I love you, too'."

"I know."

"Hey! Asshole!" Laughing, she pushes me off of her and collects herself a bit, starting off towards the gate. "I take it all back. You're the worst. I'm filing for divorce."

"Could have told me that half an hour ago. Then I wouldn't have had to go out in the cold."

"Oh, stop being such a damn baby."

The gate creaks open uneasily, and I follow Emi through it. I feel bad for the student that opens this thing one too many times and has it break on them.

Something strikes me. "Hey. I bet I know what would make Rin feel better."

"Oh yeah? What's that?"

"Getting the hell out of here."

"Pft. I thought you were going to have a helpful suggestion."

"I do. Let's get Rin and bail out for the night. Go out some place and buy her sushi or something."

"Sushi? We already had dinner."

"What are you, seventy? It would be fun. And nothing cheers people up like free food."

She turns back for a second to look at me over her shoulder. "What happened to date night?"

"…I'll make it up to you."

"I'll count on it."

Somehow, with Emi in the lead, we make it back to the cafeteria without getting lost. With the night starting to drag on, the place is a little less crowded than before- or at least more limited to the half of the room with the bar.

We spot Rin right away. Noguchi is talking into her ear, and she looks distinctly disinterested in whatever it is he's saying. Kenji is nowhere to be seen, for what it's worth.

Noguchi stops himself as we approach, leaning back into his chair with a small frown. "Ah. You two again. Rin found her way back, eventually."

"Satou," Rin says dryly.

"Er." He glances over at her with a degree of confusion. "Yes, er, Lilly Satou found her out in the woods. Rin loses track of herself sometimes, you understand. Her mind tends to wander."

"Rin," Emi says loudly, practically straight-up ignoring Noguchi. "Do you have a ride home?"

Rin stares at her for a long time, not quite annoyed… more like exhausted. To answer the question, she just cranes her head towards Noguchi.

"I'm sorry for snapping at you, Rin. It's not your fault if I get insecure around you. I never should have yelled."

Emi is making puppy-dog eyes again. I'd thought I was the only person immune to that, but then I don't think I've ever seen it used on Rin before. It's an interesting science experiment- like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

The end result is somewhere in the middle of what I expected. Rin softens a little but doesn't budge. Noguchi, on the other hand, looks very confused… maybe even distraught, for some reason.

"Hisao and I are going to get out of here," Emi continues after a few seconds. "Go do something else. Alone. Please come with us. We can drive you home."

Noguchi sits up suddenly. "Er… that's a nice gesture, ma'am, but Rin already has plans for the rest of the-"

"Oh, really? Did you ask Rin about these plans, or did you make them yourself?"

"I- well, Rin and I are together for the evening-"

"Says you! Why don't you just let Rin decide for herself?"

He seems a little dumbstruck, but turns to Rin anyway. "Rin, would you please-?"

"Stop. Stop talking." Rin shuts her eyes, still frowning. "I feel like my head is full of angry bees. Please just shut up for one second."

Everyone is quiet for a few moments, and Rin just sits there breathing unevenly. Even though the room is full of noise from everyone else here, it still feels like there is a very weighty silence. Noguchi cups his hands together uncomfortably, and I get the uneasy feeling he would somehow be handling this differently if we weren't in public.

Emi takes a gentle step forward. "Rin…"

"I forgive you," Rin says softly. She opens her eyes, looking vulnerable. If I didn't know better, I would expect her to start crying. "Can we please leave? Now?"

"Y- right now? Yeah, of course."

"Good."

Rin slides off the table and walks toward Emi, who touches her lightly on the shoulder. Noguchi gets out of his seat, frustrated.

"Hang on, Rin! We haven't even spoken to everyone!"

Rin turns fractionally. "I don't want to."

"But… ugh." He puts a hand to his head. "Look, I have my own car. Wherever it is you're going, I want to come along."

"Yeah? Do you?" Emi crosses her arms, now obviously pissed and with an expression I know only too well. "Well, guess what? You're not invited. So leave us the hell alone."

He goes red in the face, fixing his suit neurotically and getting in her face. "Who… do you think…?"

Emi stares him down fearsomely, and he ends up losing steam and trailing off. The two of them stand across from each other for a while, each waiting for the other to say something.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has nothing left to say, and Emi gives up.

"Creep," she says harshly before turning on her heel and heading straight out of the cafeteria. Rin and I trail behind her, both left a little speechless.

We quickly make it back onto the grounds together, and on instinct Emi takes a hard right around the building, even though it's probably the longest possible route to the parking lot.

"I thought you were gonna slap him," I say after a while.

She glances back at me. "So did I."

Rin looks back and forth between the two of us with an inquisitive look on her face, but doesn't say anything. She looks pretty depressed, moreso than before. I just wish I knew what to say to her.

Emi sees her face and frowns. "I'm sorry, Rin; I shouldn't even be getting involved."

"It's okay," Rin says quietly.

Hunched over a little, she wanders out and stands over the hill. Emi walks up next to her, leaning playfully on her shoulder. After a moment, I move to stand next to Emi from the other side.

As I get close, I see that the hill overlooks the field's bleachers from one side, and the track (which is lit by the lights around the field) a little further down. It certainly brings back memories, if nothing else. I'm surprised to see that nobody else has come down this way.

I take it in, tucking my hands into my pockets, but something else immediately steals my attention away. A funny rocking noise.

Emi is bouncing up and down on her plastic heels, rubbing her hands together. And I'd know that face anywhere.

"Wh- Emi, no. No."

"Yes," she says excitedly.

"No. Seriously?"

"Yes, seriously. Shut up, Hisao. This is a great idea."

"You say that every time you have a terrible idea."

In one move, she flips to her side and shoves her hand in my face, four fingers held up. "Four laps. That's all. I promise."

"You're really not supposed to run on those legs."

"It's advised against," she says slowly. "But it won't kill me, just this once."

"We're not dressed for it."

"We're not not dressed for it."

"It's been ages since we did this, anyway."

"Yeah, exactly." She pouts, putting her hands on her hips. "What, don't tell me you're so out of shape that you can't give me four measly laps."

"Well, I… not in these clothes."

"That… is a terrible excuse."

I glance back to Rin again, who is watching us with a great deal of intrigue. Huh.

Taking one step around Emi, I pull my coat off and toss it over Rin's shoulders. "…Fine. You're on. Four laps. I'll race you."

At that, Emi grins, then leaps forward and kisses me out of nowhere. Before I even have time to react, she pulls away and darts off down the hill, pulling her shoes and socks off and tossing them haphazardly onto the grass.

I look over at Rin. "She is really something."

"Yeah," Rin says thoughtfully, taking off down the hill without another word.

I stand there by myself for a moment, and Emi makes faces at me from the track. After a brief pause to stretch out my arms and yawn, I follow them down the hill and take my place off to the side of the track, taking off my own shoes.

"What are you doing?" Emi asks, walking up next to me.

"I'm not scuffing these shoes up."

"You can't run in your bare feet!"

"Why not? You are."

"Yeah, it's not the same thing, smartass."

"I'll be fine."

"You'll never catch me without your shoes on."

"Oh, I'll never catch you anyway."

"…Alright, fair enough."

She bounces impatiently as I pull my socks off, which entertains me immensely. Once I set my feet on the track, I bend over and start stretching out my legs, prompting a loud groan.

"Oh my God, Hisao, what are you doing now?"

"What do you mean, what am I doing? I'm stretching. It's very important. You should know that."

"You…" She slumps down onto the ground next to me in order to stretch out her body over her legs. "Alright, fine. If that's how you wanna play it."

I glance over to see Rin settling very comfortably into the bottommost row of the bleachers, kicking her feet up. It's nice to see her more relaxed, if nothing else.

She spends about five minutes watching us, not moving an inch. I actually think she's fallen asleep several times, before I notice her eyes still open.

Emi seems to be paying just as much attention to Rin as I am- probably more, actually.

Eventually Emi gets sick of my stalling and stands, nudging me with her leg. "Alright, no more. You're ready now."

"I was born ready."

"Yeah, alright, hotshot," she snickers.

She wanders over to the starting line and bends over, setting her hands down on the ground. I do the same in the lane next to her, as though this is actually going to be a race. Even if I can't win, though, I know she'd kill me if I didn't try.

"On three." She glances back to me with a brief wink, then digs her hands into the ground. "Three… twoonego-!"

The millisecond she gets the last word out, she's gone in a trail of dust, and I already know I have no hope of trying to catch up to her. Even still, I take off all the same, amazed at how fast she can run even in her blue jeans and without her running prosthetics. I'm really going to have to hold her to just four laps, or she'll probably break the ones she's wearing.

I focus on my breathing, just letting my legs carry me along. I at least manage to keep Emi as more than just a speck in front of me, which is victory enough as far as I'm concerned. My legs start burning, but my chest feels okay. It feels good to get my blood pumping, if anything. After all this time, I know that it's the hard-earned result of practice.

Over on the bleachers, unless it's my imagination, I see Rin smiling. Just a little.

Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I remember a time when it would probably have been dangerous for me to even think about pushing myself like this. Man, how times have changed.

It's nice to feel so alive.

---

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For Better or Worse

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:23 pm

Chapter 3: For Better or Worse

5:00.

The clock ticks quietly from across the room, chiming quietly as it hits the hour mark. It's too small and short to call a grandfather clock, but too large to call it anything else. An issue for another time, I suppose.

The chime startles the cat, who was sleeping on top of it. Instead of climbing off, as I expected, he just whips his head around and stares at me as though I was somehow responsible for waking him up. This goes on for nearly a full minute before I start to feel uncomfortable, and I return the stare with some determination, folding my book on my lap. He narrows his eyes at me with a distinct harshness. I can only imagine all the insults he is just dying to throw out.

"What? What are you looking at?" I ask.

Nothing. The death glare does not let up.

"…What?"

He licks his paw, not breaking his gaze.

"What?"

No reaction. I give up and sink into my chair.

I open my book again, but at this point I've completely lost interest. It's a lost cause.

"Who are you talking to?"

Hanako's voice startles me, and my face jolts upward to look at her. Somehow, I get even more surprised every time she manages to sneak up on me.

I shake my head and gesture past her, to the cat. "Walnut."

"…I don't think he can understand you."

"Well, I can understand him just fine."

"What is that supposed to mean…?"

"It means that he hates me."

She frowns incredulously, crossing her arms. "He does not-!"

"He does, too. Every time he notices me he gives me this malevolent glare, like he's plotting something."

I take another look at him, narrowing my eyes. Since Hanako walked in, his attention has been completely directed towards her. Suddenly, he looks much cuter and much less malicious.

"He's not plotting! He's a good kitty." Hanako turns on her heel and walks over to him, petting him with measured gentleness. "Aren't you…? Walnut…?"

"He stops making that face every time you come in the room. I swear he does it on purpose."

"That's not fair… he can't help it."

"I'm not convinced."

She studies me for a moment, frowning slightly, then turns and picks Walnut up off of the clock. At her touch, he immediately scrambles into her arms with anticipation, nuzzling his face into her neck. Figures.

My eyes fix on the clock for a moment. "Did you notice the time?"

"Mm." Hanako nods slowly, stroking the cat in her arms. "She's running very late…"

"Do you think we should call her or something?"

She ponders the suggestion, but ultimately shakes her head. "No, I'm sure she will be here soon. I don't want to make her feel rushed…"

"Well, I don't know. Maybe it's about time she started feeling rushed."

"I don't think that's necessary…"

"Should we wake Lilly, at least?"

"Oh, stop," Hanako scolds lightheartedly. "Just let her sleep… things will happen when they happen. She is already dressed and everything."

"You're too lenient, as usual."

I pull myself out of my chair, leaving my book on the side table. With a placid smile, I close the distance between Hanako and me and settle my arms underneath hers.

"Can I hold him?" I ask, albeit tentatively. The prideful part of me wants him to be rowdy just so I can prove my point.

"Oh…? If you want…"

She pulls her arms away from me, unsettling the cat enough for him to transition into mine. To my genuine surprise, he settles into my arms enough for me to prop him up on my shoulder. Considering his usual hostility, I can only assume that Hanako simply relaxed him too much for him to turn against me now.

"See? He's perfectly relaxed," Hanako says with a loving smile, pulling her hands into her chest. "He looks so comfortable like this."

"He likes you so much that he's forgotten to hate me."

"Hmm. Well, at least he's getting used to that feeling, then."

"Mhm."

Walnut purrs gently in my arms, and it's too difficult not to pet him even despite my resentment. Hanako watches with an approving smile, leaning back against the far windowsill. Her smile is so kind and genuine that it makes me forget everything I was thinking about.

We look at each other for a few moments before I say anything. "You look nice today."

"Oh… thank you…" Taken by surprise, she immediately blushes and tilts her head down, staring somewhere around my kneecaps. "You, too…"

"Hm, I imagine that must be a difficult thing to tell just by looking at my pants."

She snaps her gaze upwards to make eye contact with me, blushing harder than before. "You're embarrassing me!"

"I can't help it. It is a waste of an opportunity not to pay you a compliment if I notice something like that."

She gives a small laugh and closes her eyes, looking rather angelic in the sunlight. It's one of those serene moments that you have to take care to appreciate. Life experience has taught me that moments of real peace always tend to get interrupted as soon as you get comfortable with them.

And interrupted it is, with all the subtlety of a derailing freight train. The sudden sound of the doorbell startles Walnut enough for him to draw his claws and leap out of my arms onto the nearest piece of furniture. His unwarranted assault forces me to stumble backwards and shout profanity somewhere at the floor, which in turn apparently startles Hanako even more severely.

"Hisao! Are you okay?!" she asks hurriedly, grasping my arm with sudden concern.

I wave her off as calmly as possible. "Fine! I'm fine! Just surprised me, that's all. Freaking cat."

"Oh…"

"No, I'm sorry. It's fine- he's fine. Seriously."

She frowns guiltily, making me feel bad for even reacting. It's ironic how good she is at transferring her feelings of guilt onto me, considering how much she hates to do it.

The doorbell rings again, this time accompanied by a violent pounding on the front door. Hanako and I exchange a glance as we remember what caused any of this in the first place.

A loud, impatient female voice echoes through the hall into the living room. "Knock knock!"

Without any discussion, Hanako rushes off to the door, and I slowly shuffle on behind her. She gently opens the door, and as soon as she does, Akira stampedes into the room and forces Hanako to shuffle back.

"'Bout time!" Akira bellows, both hands held dramatically behind her back. "Hope I'm not interrupting something!"

"No, of course not… hello, Akira…" Hanako says quietly.

I step aside to allow Akira space to move past. "Hi."

"So." With a dramatic gesture, Akira throws her arms out in front of her, revealing an enormous bottle of malt whisky that has been tied with a bow at one end. "Happy birthday, Hanako! …Belated birthday. You know what I mean."

Hanako immediately blushes out of modesty, but Akira shoves the bottle into her arms to avoid allowing her any time to be embarrassed.

"I know it looks like a lazy gift," Akira continues, "but I promise you, authentic Scotch whisky is one of those things that are worth getting from someone who knows their shit, and can get it straight from the source. You'll thank me later."

Akira slides past us and makes her way into the living room, throwing her hands behind her head to make herself look even more dismissively casual than usual. Hanako turns half to the side, hugging the bottle against her chest like it's a teddy bear.

"No, it's not lazy at all…" Hanako protests. "Thank you so much, Akira."

I follow Akira into the living room, tugging gently on Hanako's arm to pull her alongside me. "And no matter the gift, it was really thoughtful of you to bring something."

"Yeah, well, couldn't let Lilly make me look bad again," Akira says with a small shrug.

Hanako slips straight through the living room to bring the whisky into the kitchen, leaving us briefly alone.

After a second of thought, Akira scratches her chin curiously. "Where is that girl, anyway? I thought she'd be sitting here waiting to scold me for getting here late."

I look past her, towards the guest bedroom at the end of the hall on the opposite side of the room. "I think she's sleeping."

"Sleeping? Are you kidding me? And you let me think I was setting us behind!"

"She's still a little bit jet-lagged," Hanako says passively, appearing in the doorway. "I can go wake her up. She shouldn't be long at all…"

"Jet-lagged! Pft, what a lightweight!" Akira says with an affectionate grin.

Hanako flashes a smile for a split-second before disappearing again, this time to fetch Lilly.

Akira sighs loudly, settling herself against the windowsill. "Her Highness Shizune is not going to be happy about our tardiness."

"That's not really saying much."

"Ha! Well put!"

"I don't know; it's just the truth. Shizune tends to be on a hair trigger." I smile uncomfortably. I know Akira doesn't mind my opinion, but it still seems rude to say. "Then again, who knows when the last time I saw her was? I probably shouldn't say things like that."

"You're not wrong. Trust me, that woman never changes. Stubbornness runs in our family." Akira laughs self-consciously, like she feels a little guilty for mentioning it. "There's a reason Lilly and she are still so dangerous around each other. It's high school drama, for God's sake, but it's still one hatchet that will never get buried."

"That's a shame."

"I think so, too. But that's family for you, right?"

She smiles commiseratively, though I can't exactly sympathize. After all, I have no siblings, no in-laws, and no children. My family is about as small and isolated as it gets. That sort of thing never stops Akira from speaking in broad terms, though.

Neither of us says anything for a minute, which seems to put off Akira much more than it does me. Listening closely, I can hear Hanako and Lilly chattering somewhere down the hall, but before I can make out what they're saying, Akira interrupts my thoughts.

"Damn, it's always so quiet around here," she says with a groan. "You live with a kid for long enough, and you forget what it even sounds like not to have the TV on."

"It must be a relief to be able to take these business trips, then."

"Sure, but I usually don't really mind it. It reminds you that someone's still alive in the house besides you, you know?"

She looks at me suspiciously, and I shrug, not knowing how to respond.

"I thought that was the reason you got a cat," she chuckles.

"Oh, that was Hanako's idea."

"Mm, is that a hint of resentment I hear?"

"I think you're reading too much into it."

"Sure I am." She takes a step off the windowsill, loudly clasping her hands together. "Sounds like trouble in paradise…"

I shoot her an irritated look, but it just encourages her. She opens her mouth to say something else, but before she gets the chance someone else cuts her off.

"Akira!" Lilly's voice takes us both by surprise, and we snap to attention at the entrance of the hall to see her standing firmly in front of Hanako. "Would you please stop harassing my friends? They're already being kind enough to tolerate me."

"Well, hey there, Sleeping Beauty," Akira says coolly. "You know we have somewhere to be, right?"

"Believe me, I know. Feel free to allow Shizune to scold me for it." Lilly closes her eyes and sighs quietly, looking predictably weary.

"I don't think she needs our permission."

Everyone laughs but Hanako, who shoots me a disapproving glare instead.

"I think it will be okay," Hanako says tentatively.

Lilly tilts her head toward the ground, frowning guiltily. "No, you're right, Hanako. Besides, it's not right to talk about her behind her back."

She wrings her hands uncomfortably. Hanako, clearly feeling a little awkward, scoots past her to stand next to me.

My thoughts return to Shizune- it's been years since I saw her last. If relations between her and Lilly are really that bad, the prospect of being stuck in the middle of it is worrying me more by the second.

"Wasn't this get-together your idea in the first place, Lilly?" I ask, though a little more accusingly than I intended.

"Well…" Lilly murmurs, "…it was my idea to come down with Akira so I could make it to the reunion. Dinner with the Hakamichis, well… I think that was just the right thing to do. They are our family down here, after all."

"It's a little late for cold feet now," Akira says with a raised eyebrow.

"I know! Please, Akira, give me a little credit." Lilly takes a step forward to move toward the door, and Hanako rushes to help guide her. "This is going to be very pleasant, I promise. I'm looking forward to reconnecting."

"See, now, that's the right attitude. I can't wait to see that twerp Hideaki again. If we're lucky, he brought that nurse girlfriend of his along with him."

Akira fixes her tie with a devilish grin, moving to follow Hanako and Lilly. I trail behind, staying an extra moment to shut the lights off.

"Hideaki has a girlfriend now?" I ask absentmindedly.

Picturing Hideaki in my head, it's hard to imagine him ending up with a woman- or anybody, really, for that matter. I suppose that's what I get for assuming things.

"Oh, does he ever! She's a total bombshell… funny, too. Fingers crossed that they get hitched."

"Huh. Good for him, then."

"Yeah, well, try not to sound so surprised about it in front of him." She says it like a joke, but it comes off as a little defensive. It's no secret that Akira has a soft spot for Hideaki.

The crowd slows to a halt in front of the house, and Akira parts from us to take her own car. Lilly breaks away from Hanako, who whimpers quietly in protest.

"We shouldn't leave you to travel in silence by yourself, Akira. It is a long trip," Lilly explains.

"I'm a big girl; I think I can handle it," snorts Akira. "I wouldn't want to break up the three Musketeers. Anyway, I know I'm just getting in the way."

"Oh, don't say that. You aren't getting in the way of anything."

"You wouldn't be saying that if you could see Hanako's face right now."

…Oh, boy.

Hanako jumps with surprise at being called out, blushing as though on cue. "Wh- what?! No, I-!"

Lilly turns suddenly, legitimately concerned. "I'm sorry, Hanako; I didn't mean to…"

"No, you didn't do anything-! Please, go. We'll… meet you at the restaurant…"

"Oh… well…"

"No prob," Akira interjects quickly. "We'll see you there." She shoots me an apologetic frown and tugs on Lilly's arm, directing her towards her car.

Now wildly embarrassed, Hanako slinks away, climbing into the passenger seat of our car without looking back. I suppose it's time to do some damage control. What a night this is shaping up to be so far.

Damn it, Akira. I love her, but sometimes she can be irritatingly careless. People who tease always seem to do so right up to the point of being ingratiating.

Akira's car blasts out of the driveway, and I pull out behind her, hoping to follow them rather than have to navigate myself. One glance at Hanako tells me she's already a little dispirited.

"Hey." I flash her a small smile, which she returns disingenuously. "It's going to be a long night. We've still got plenty of time to spend with Lilly."

"I know, I know, but most of it will be with a lot of people around… hm…" Hanako puts a hand to her face, pensive. "I don't know. I wish she could visit more often…"

"Me, too, but you know it's not very practical. She's a busy person."

"I know that. I'm… hm, honestly, I think it's a little strange that she still bothers with us…"

"Oh, Hanako. Please don't say things like that. She's our friend. That's all there is to it."

Silence. I let out a sigh, which I immediately regret.

"Maybe we should go see her in Scotland next time," Hanako says after a long while. "I would like to travel more…"

"We can't exactly plan a trip like that off-hand."

"We could start planning. We had a lot of fun when we went on our honeymoon."

"Well, we had wedding money on our honeymoon. I mean, Lilly practically paid for that trip singlehandedly…"

"I know, but…"

"…And I haven't really had a lot of time for that kind of thing lately."

"I understand all that… it was just an idea."

"I'm sorry. I just don't want you to get your hopes up."

"No, I- I understand…"

"I… don't want-"

"-No, no… it's alright…"

With a quiet sigh, Hanako leans into her seat, cupping her hands together. Both of us are silent for an uncomfortably long while.

In the car ahead of us, I can see Akira and Lilly chattering away. Wondering what they're talking about depresses me.

It's easy to understand what's upsetting Hanako- it feels like things have really changed between us and Lilly. Even despite our best efforts, it's impossible to keep a close friendship strong when there is this much distance involved for this long. I know how much Hanako values their friendship, which makes it difficult to watch it become strained like this.

There's this biting feeling I get in my gut sometimes around Lilly, like there's a strange disconnect between the three of us when she is around. It pulls me back to my memories of Yamaku, in the worst possible way. The rift Lilly created when she first moved just grew stronger and stronger as time went on and I got closer to Hanako, and now… even though we're all friends, I have to admit that it's extremely disconcerting when Hanako starts acting differently around her. It's like she doesn't really know how to act at all. Like she reverts a little bit.

I know it's something she wants to fix- desperately so, in fact. The first (and only) time I ever brought it up, it bothered Hanako nearly enough to bring her to tears. So now I keep it to myself. Maybe it's not the healthiest thing to do, but at least it's a manageable problem.

She can tell it's what I'm thinking about. Her expression is painfully easy to read. I just hope she understands that I want to help.

I rap my fingers along the steering wheel, deep in thought. "You could go without me."

"Hisao…" she murmurs, turning in her seat to face me.

"No, I mean it. That would be a lot more feasible. It would cost a lot less. You could bring your laptop and work over the internet, and then you wouldn't even have to take much vacation time. When's the last time you and Lilly did something, just the two of you?"

She hesitates for a moment. "It has been a long time…"

"I feel a 'but' coming on…"

"…but I'd still rather you came."

We exchange a brief glance.

"I think it would be a good experience for you, anyway," I say with a shrug.

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean… she is your best friend. If you're worried about your relationship, I think a trip would be good for it. It would be a bonding experience."

She sighs quietly, sinking into her seat. "She's your friend, too."

"Of course she is."

"But the way you talk about her…"

"It's just different between her and me than it is between you and her."

"…Why?"

She blinks innocently. It seems as unclear to her as it is obvious to me. I hate these little miscommunications we have sometimes.

"She's your best friend, Hanako."

"Isn't she yours?"

"Well… no… I don't know…"

"Then who is?"

…Huh.

I shrug. "Well. You, I suppose."

"No, that's not fair. You can't say that."

"Why not?"

"Because if I'm your best friend, you're my best friend, too."

It's gratifying to hear, admittedly, but she says it with such dire seriousness that I find myself too distracted to be affectionate.

"I'm just trying to say that you've known her longer."

"Not that much longer…"

"But you have more of a history. Come on; you can't tell me you don't know what I'm talking about."

"I do… but I don't think that's what I want our relationship to be about." She takes a long pause, contemplating how exactly to explain herself. "I don't want to cling to the way things were between us in high school. I am grateful that I don't have to rely on her the way I did then. I would be happier if we could just… see each other more as equals."

"You don't think you see each other that way already?"

"I don't know if she does, necessarily…" she says hesitantly. "Er… I think that maybe she doesn't quite understand how… things have changed, with time. Do you understand…? She still… mothers, a little bit."

"That sounds to me like all the more reason for you two to do something together."

"That's why I said we should visit her in Scotland. But it's not just me… I think she does it with you, too, if you haven't noticed."

"That's just the way she is."

"With us."

I rap my fingers over the steering wheel, not sure exactly what to think.

Hanako taps on my arm, remembering something. "Do you remember when she flew down for my birthday?"

"Of course I do. We had a great time, too. You talked about that karaoke place for ages afterwards. You can't possibly tell me that was-"

"-I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it. I'm saying that she went out of her way to do it. Do you know why she flew all the way down? It was because I hadn't mentioned my birthday to her at all, even though it was coming up. Because she was worried about me."

"But… it's not like she didn't have good reason to be worried about you around your birthday…"

I shoot her an apologetic glance, and she groans at me.

"That's my point… that's what she was worrying about, even though she had so much going on, separate from us. Sometimes I think we're an… obligation for her, or something…"

"So talk to her about it."

"What? No! I don't want to accuse her of something like that! It's like… criticizing her for being too good of a friend…"

"Aren't you essentially saying she's only still friends with us because she doesn't think we can take care of ourselves?"

She puts a hand to her face, a little disturbed. "Well… wow… when you put it like that…"

"Here's a crazy idea: maybe she's just our friend, and she cares about us because our friendship is important to her."

That makes her soften a little, which is rewarding in its own right. She quickly corrects her expression to a firm pout, though. "It's a little bit more complicated than that."

"It doesn't have to be."

There is another silence, and I glance over to see her staring gloomily out of the window. I can't help but find her stubbornness irritating.

"Okay, you'd rather spend time with her apart from the crowd tonight, right? Let's start with that." I bite my lip, making up my plan as I go along. "Do you think the Shanghai is still open?"

"The tea shop?"

"That's right. It's a short walk from the campus. And it's nice out."

"I don't know if they would even keep it open at night."

"They used to keep it open past dark all week. Do you remember the fireworks at the festival, around when we first met? We watched them from inside the Shanghai."

"Oh… we did, didn't we…?"

"So, unless you really want to spend a lot of time at the reunion-"

"-I really just wanted to see my friends from the newspaper club…"

"Then maybe we can get out early, and spend some time in town before it gets too late. Akira's not staying after dinner, and Shizune has Hideaki covered, so…"

"That sounds fun."

"It wouldn't really be a trip back to Yamaku without wasting our whole night sitting around a table drinking tea, right?"

She laughs gently, smiling earnestly for the first time since we got in the car. "Okay, let's ask her about that, then."

"We still have most of the week before their flight back, don't forget. And that gift Akira brought for you should at least be able to make one interesting night out of it."

"Maybe we should just worry about tea for now," she giggles.

"Fine, fine." I look her over, relieved to see her mood improving. "You know, I miss those pink pajamas you used to wear."

She buries her face in her hands, making an exaggerated sigh to scold me. "Oh, you just had to go and say something like that."

"If I never embarrassed you, I'd never be able to say anything nice about you at all." I shrug unashamedly. "Besides, I didn't really think it would be a revelation that I thought you looked cute in your nightgown."

She thinks for a moment, "It's not. That's… the reason I wore it so often."

"Really, that was deliberate? In high school? I used to wonder about that…"

"Mhm. Although, before Lilly left, I used to think it was kind of embarrassing, because she always had on that… those…"

"…She didn't cover up her legs very often."

"Yes, exactly…"

"Yeah. I- uh, I remember that."

I chuckle awkwardly, and she laughs at my expense. I guess it would probably be hypocritical to object to her embarrassing me, so instead, I just take pleasure in the fact that she's willing to enjoy it. With nothing left to say, for my fear of digging myself deeper, we are both quiet for a while. It's a relaxed sort of quiet, though… the kind I've gotten quite used to at home.

---
Last edited by QuietlySomething on Tue Feb 28, 2017 3:44 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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For Better or Worse

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:23 pm

---

Akira's car bumbles along in front of us at a snail's pace, eventually taking us out of the city and down a less populated area that I am fairly sure is near where Shizune lives. I keep following her, though… and following… and following… without bothering to check the route myself. Eventually 6:00 hits- the time our reservation was supposed to be scheduled for. I had thought Akira and Lilly were being a little hyperbolic during their conversation, but I guess we actually did end up making ourselves pretty late.

At some point Akira pulls into the parking lot of the restaurant, but my mind has been wandering so much by that point that I barely even register that we've arrived at first. Hanako rushes out of the car to meet up with Akira and Lilly, and I take a moment to collect myself and fix my eternally sloppy hair in the rear view mirror.

As I step out, Akira leans stylishly on the hood of my car, throwing her hands in front of her face and appraising the entrance of the restaurant. "Certain death in three… two…"

"Oh, hush," Lilly says sternly, wandering over to us with Hanako at her arm. "At this point she is absolutely right to be upset with us."

Akira shuts her eyes, smiling playfully. "Let's just get it over with, then."

And with that, she ejects herself from the hood of the car and marches straight into the restaurant, leaving the three of us to follow her in. I'm expecting to have to get led to our table by the server, but as soon as I step inside I'm surprised to find that we don't actually have one yet. Instead, we find Shizune and Hideaki standing guard in the lobby like a pair of bloodhounds. Or more accurately, like one bloodhound standing next to a… sleepy Chihuahua, or something? Hideaki is hard to pin down.

Shizune's eyes glint with frustration as soon as she spots us stepping through the entrance. In an overly dramatic gesture, she stands to attention and signs something forcefully to Hideaki, who translates mechanically without even introducing himself first. "Do I even have to say it?"

"It was me," Akira volunteers, not skipping a beat. "I showed up late to their place. Thought you kids could learn some patience. …So, you're welcome."

Shizune adjusts her glasses, frowning at Akira with disapproval. "Don't look so proud. We could have lost our reservation. They don't seat incomplete parties- it's that kind of place."

"Alright, alright! My bad!" Akira shrugs awkwardly, gesturing to the three of us. "No need to dwell on it. We're all together now, right?"

"Yes. Just be glad it's not a busy evening." Shizune purses her lips, making an unreadable kind of expression.

Lilly sighs, smiling tiredly. "Please, there's no need to be dismissive, Shizune. We should take the time to get properly reacquainted, especially since I brought friends along, whom I know you haven't-"

Shizune begins signing halfway through Lilly's speech, and Hideaki tactlessly begins translating without waiting for her to finish. "-Let's save the introductions for now and just get situated first."

Hideaki shrugs, and with the subject apparently dismissed Akira nods and begins a brief discussion with the waiter. Lilly puts a hand to her forehead, preemptively exhausted.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I miss having Misha around to translate for Shizune. While she may have failed to understand the odd sarcastic comment, at least she tried to accommodate Shizune's tone. When Hideaki does it, he barely inflects at all. Shizune may as well be using a text-to-speech translator. It's harder to tell what she's thinking now than it ever was before.

After a few words with Akira, the waiter gestures for us to follow him, which we do in a nearly single-file line. He leads us to a broad circular table secluded in the back of the restaurant, which seems rather pointless considering how remarkably empty the rest of the restaurant is. There are a few odd guests here and there, but in hindsight we probably didn't even need to have bothered getting a reservation. It sure seems like there was a lot of concern about this over nothing, but then if I know anything about Shizune, that was probably to be expected.

Shizune plants herself at the table first, and Hideaki instinctively sits next to her. With a playful jab at his side, Akira slips into the seat next to him, then Lilly, and we circle all the way around so that I end up between Hanako and Shizune. I'm not sure how to feel about that.

The waiter takes everyone's drink orders as Shizune scans the table with an alienating glare. A few awkward moments pass before anyone actually bothers to speak up, and Lilly is the only one to get anything besides water (champagne, of course).

"Well, are we allowed to say hello yet, or do you need another few minutes to lay into me first?" Akira asks teasingly, pouring herself a glass of water from the pitcher on the table.

Shizune pouts, thinking on this, before briefly signing something to Hideaki. "I don't see why we can't do both."

Hideaki blinks absentmindedly, as though registering for the first time that he exists as a separate entity from his sister. "So, hello, then, I think."

"Hideaki, kid- it's been ages!" Akira declares, leaning into the table. "Didja miss me?"

"I don't know. Not particularly," he replies bluntly. Akira just chuckles at the response, unoffended.

Shizune snaps her fingers loudly (causing Lilly to recoil) and signs something directly at me, as though I could somehow interpret it myself. Hideaki translates for her with a bored tone. "Hisao and Hanako. It has been a long time since I saw the two of you together."

"Yeah. Good to see you again, Shizune." I smile awkwardly and glance at Hanako, who doesn't miss a beat.

"I like your… um, suit," Hanako says quietly. "You look distinguished."

Shizune nods once, apparently approving of the compliment. "I was going to say the same thing to you. You've matured. You both look like proper adults now."

I shoot her a look. "That's an… odd thing to say, considering we're the same age."

"It's just a compliment. You look mature. That's all."

Hanako nods politely. "Thank you…"

I'm not sure how to follow that up, so I don't bother trying. Shizune contemplates this for a moment, but doesn't say anything else. Thankfully, before the silence has a chance to turn awkward, Lilly clears her throat to get everyone's attention.

"You seem to have gotten more comfortable translating, Hideaki," she says politely.

He nods fractionally and glances at Shizune, speaking carefully. "Our father has been very forceful about me needing to become fluent in sign language."

Shizune rolls her eyes at that and signs something, which he takes a moment to interpret. "-She says that our father has been forceful about that ever since Misha stopped hanging around her." He pauses, presumably to separate Shizune's words from his own. "Which is true, I suppose, but he has been especially harsh lately after the last time the three of us tried to meet up together."

"Who cares what he says?" Akira asks with a shrug. "Your dad is always being harsh about something. That's kind of his thing."

"It does not really matter either way. I wanted to improve my signing regardless of what he said."

"Well, that is probably for the best," Lilly says. "It certainly makes family gatherings easier, doesn't it? I'm sure Jigoro just had the same feeling."

Shizune frowns coldly, signing at Hideaki but looking directly at Lilly. "Whatever his reasons are, I am sure they are selfish and out of line." She squints curiously, making a sour face. "It must have been years since you last spoke with him, Lilly. I can't remember you two meeting any time recently."

Lilly frowns regretfully. "It has been a long time, to be sure. Just… to be perfectly blunt, Shizune, I really prefer not to interact with him. If I recall correctly, the last thing he said to me was that my work ethic was wasted teaching children, and that I need to grow a backbone and go into law like my mannish sister."

"Son of a bitch called me mannish," Akira grumbles.

"That sounds like him," Hideaki says, though I'm not sure if it was he or Shizune speaking. Judging from both of their expressions, though, they were probably both thinking the same thing anyway.

The subject fizzles out, with nobody interested in talking about Shizune's father. –Besides me, that is, but that is only because he sounds so intriguing from the stories I've heard about him. It's not exactly worth pushing the subject over.

With everyone essentially settled in, the waiter comes back and takes everyone's orders. Lilly is caught off-guard, as she forgot to review the menu in the midst of the conversation (everyone else just read over it as we talked). Hanako hurriedly reads most of it out to her while the waiter gets everyone else's order, instead. Apparently this embarrasses Lilly a lot, to the point of visible frustration, which is a little off-putting. The waiter is fairly gracious about it, though.

Once the waiter is out of earshot, Akira immediately fixes her attention on Hideaki, apparently no longer willing to wait to ask her burning question. "So where's your girlfriend, Hideaki? Don't tell me you didn't want to bring her out just because this is a family thing."

"I do not have a girlfriend," he responds monotonously. "Nor have I had one for some time."

"Huh?! Not the nurse? With the ponytail?"

"No."

"Oh, damn, really? Man, that's too bad; she sure was cute. I wouldn't have minded keeping her around." Disappointed, Akira leans back, watching Hideaki's face carefully. "What, did you just decide to see other people, or…?"

"I broke up with her. Eventually I just lost interest, I think."

"Lost interest? In a girl that looks like that? Damn, you set the bar high, kid."

"She was not prepared for a serious relationship. She had no mind for the logistics of it," Hideaki says matter-of-factly. "…Also, she kept criticizing the way I dress."

"Man, you Hakamichis, I swear. What the hell are the logistics of a relationship?"

At that, Shizune flashes a smug smile and quickly signs something to Hideaki. "If you have to ask that, you probably aren't prepared for a relationship yourself."

Lilly narrows her eyes with irritation, immediately clueing in to the fact that that was one of Shizune's comments. "I can't help but wonder what your frame of reference is on that, Shizune, considering your own relationship history."

"Well, I'm sorry, but not all of us have the spare time to waste on trivialities like that."

"Trivialities?! That is quite a declaration from someone who- oh…" Lilly trails off with a sigh, trying not to escalate things. "I'm sorry. That was rude."

Akira chuckles and leans back in her chair, not bothered by the conflict. "You two…"

Oblivious, Hideaki signs all of this to Shizune, who pouts slightly and takes a drink without saying anything. Hanako rests her elbows on the table and leans into it, trembling a little, the way she does when she's worrying about someone.

In the midst of Shizune and Lilly's spat, I know I'm the only person who's at all conscious of Hanako. It's not exactly an unfamiliar feeling, but it makes me tense regardless.

I slide my arm across the table and rest it on Hanako's forearm, and she smiles appreciatively. Interestingly, I notice Shizune smiling at the gesture as well, though only for a few moments.

Taking notice of this, Hanako perks up a little. "You… aren't interested in dating, Shizune?"

Shizune shakes her head as Hideaki translates. "It's not that I'm not interested. It's that I don't have time." She scratches her chin and thinks for a moment before continuing. "I work 80 hours a week. Working around someone else's needs just sounds like more effort than I am willing to put in."

"But you are interested, then?"

She hesitates for a moment. "It is not something I'm thinking about right now."

"Hideaki needs to get on top of it, then, or you Hakamichis will die out without any heirs. Imagine what Jigoro would say," Akira says sardonically.

"I agree. I approved of his last girlfriend. I would have liked to have had someone in the family going into medicine." Hideaki narrows his eyes wearily. Unfortunately for him, his sister can't even embarrass him without him having to say it all out loud.

Akira is clearly clued into this, which allows her to enjoy his reaction all the more. "Well, apparently she was not logistical enough for Hideaki's tastes."

His face sinks pleadingly, as Akira and Shizune are now officially bonding at his expense. I am beginning to suspect that this is Shizune's primary method of connecting to people.

"She was plenty logistical, and very intelligent, as far as I could tell. They say that men always marry their mothers, so I suppose I was hoping that she reflected our own… wherever she may be right now."

"Reflected on your mother?" Akira turns towards Hideaki with a small smirk. "Ah, see, now that could be an explanation for where you get all that wit and intellect from."

Shizune shrugs and signs one final time, which Hideaki translates hurriedly. "But they aren't getting married anyway, so it's a moot point." He wrings his hands together uncomfortably, a vague frown plastered to his face. "…Which means we do not need to discuss my ex-girlfriend anymore, I would hope."

Hanako and I exchange an amused glance, and Shizune's comments hang briefly in my mind- 'men always marry their mothers'. Of all the women at the table, Hanako is probably the one that reminds me the least of my mother. Aside from constantly worrying about me, the two have hardly anything in common. In hindsight, I think that one of the things that attracted me to Hanako in the first place was how different she is from other people, so I suppose it all makes sense if you think about it. Maybe I'm the exception and not the rule.

I suspect Hanako is having the same thought as me, for better or worse. She has never really gotten along with my parents, though not for lack of trying. The looks on their faces when I first introduced her to them is permanently burned into both our brains, and to this day the foundation of their relationship has been essentially them doting and being overly accommodating to try and make up for a bad first impression. They may have good intentions, but it doesn't make our family gatherings any less awkward.

…I feel strangely sympathetic for Shizune and Lilly, all of a sudden.

Our food arrives somewhere in the middle of this train of thought, but I'm too distracted to pay it any mind.

After quickly thanking the waiter, I immediately gesture towards Hideaki to get Shizune's attention. "Hey, Shizune, is Misha coming to the reunion?"

Hideaki shoots me a poisonous glare, as he has to pull himself away from his food to interpret. The strange thing, though, is that Shizune makes the exact same expression when she sees what I asked her. After a few seconds of deliberation, she decides on, "Probably."

"You should have invited her to dinner! That might have been fun," I say with a shrug.

"Yes, well, what you call 'fun', I call 'disastrous'."

"Disastrous? What makes you say that?"

Judging from everyone's expressions, I've clearly treaded into territory I shouldn't have, but I'm in too deep to change the subject now. At least Hanako seems as lost as I am.

"You have been out of the loop for a while, so I will spare you the bloody details, but Misha and I do not get along anymore."

"Oh… I'm sorry to hear that." I clear my throat uncomfortably. "Are… you worried about running into her at the reunion, then?"

Shizune rolls her eyes disapprovingly. "Don't stir up drama, Hisao. If I see her, I see her. We are both adults; I think we can handle a bit of awkwardness."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to stir up anything. It just sounded like something you may be concerned about."

"It isn't a big deal. I'll just keep my head down."

"Hisao and I had a thought while we were driving up…" Hanako says quietly, out of the blue. "Lilly, if you wanted… we thought you may want to go into town and see if the Shanghai is still open…"

Lilly smiles politely, not taking much time to think on it. "Oh! Well, that does sound like fun, once we've finished at the reunion."

Hanako leans slightly over the table to face Shizune, smiling sheepishly. "In that case, Shizune… if you wanted to avoid any… awkwardness, you and Hideaki could come with us…"

"Ha! They are just dragging you around by the ear tonight, eh, kid?" Akira blurts out with her mouth full, earning a surprised smile from Hideaki.

"I consider it a brotherly act of charity," he replies, adjusting his glasses in a distinctly Shizune-like fashion.

He allows himself a few seconds to look smug before remembering to sign Hanako's offer to Shizune, which she immediately waves off. "I appreciate the offer, but you should take the night to yourselves. There is still plenty I would like to do at the reunion."

"Oh… okay, then." Hanako's smile broadens immediately, her relief at Shizune's refusal a little too evident.

"You are still welcome if you change your mind, though, Shizune," Lilly says brightly, apparently thankful that Hanako made the offer before she did. "I do hope the Shanghai is still around. I can't think of a more fitting way to end a class reunion than that."

"The Shanghai is the weird Chinese tea shop you guys used to go to, right? I remember that place," Akira declares.

Shizune makes a broad, sweeping gesture with her hands as she signs to Hideaki. "It was extremely popular with the students in our year. Frankly, if it is still open, I would be surprised if some of the other returning graduates did not have the same idea."

Lilly gives a small shrug. "Well, it doesn't exactly have to be empty for us to enjoy a pot of tea, does it?"

"Of course not," Hanako says with a cute blush.

Akira and Shizune both widen their eyes at that response, but Lilly just smiles gently and returns to her food. Fortunately, Hanako doesn't seem conscious of anyone else's reaction, apparently because she is too distracted by the concern that someone might notice her blushing. To hide it, she keeps her face close down to the table while she eats, which is both hilarious and kind of endearing. I do my best not to make anything out of it, though, for fear of embarrassing her further.

Apparently to Hideaki's great relief, Shizune decides against prolonging the conversation to allow the both of them to finally finish eating. Even still, dinner overstays its welcome much too long as far as I'm concerned, and the sun goes down before we're finished. This is probably due to our lateness, of course, so I appreciate Shizune holding her tongue on the matter, so to speak.

When we are finally ready to leave, Lilly and Shizune immediately get locked in a silly argument about who will pay for dinner. I resolve it by simply paying for Hanako's and my check as coolly as possible, which apparently makes them feel pressured enough that they compromise and just pay for themselves. I wonder briefly whether or not an argument like that is good-natured- after all, it's not like either of them would have had any problem with actually paying. As an outsider, the nature of Lilly and Shizune's rivalry is hard to understand.

We all gather around to split up in the parking lot of the restaurant. It's a full moon tonight, and the natural light is beautiful and atmospheric. Something in the back of my mind tells me I should probably stop to acknowledge that kind of thing more often.

Shizune and Hideaki briefly say their goodbyes to Akira, though despite their rush, Hideaki is still unable to escape without being assaulted by a bear hug. Once they're gone, Akira refuses to say goodbye to us, insisting that we will meet up again some time later in the week. Considering her extremely busy schedule, I think that's touching.

And then it's just the three of us. Lilly can't drive, and I already drove Hanako up here, so I guess that makes me the designated chauffeur for the evening. No doubt there will be plenty of alcohol at the reunion, so I hope that the promise of tea- and the champagne that Lilly's already drunk- keeps Lilly and Hanako from drinking too much, as they… seem to enjoy doing in each other's company.

Before long we are well on the road to Yamaku, and with the sun now down I regret letting Shizune and Hideaki drive separately from us. The city is confusing and difficult to navigate, and I have to focus most of my attention on it while Lilly and Hanako make chit-chat. It's nice to give them the opportunity to catch up a little though, and I don't mind being left to my own thoughts for a while.

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Last edited by QuietlySomething on Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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For Better or Worse

Post by QuietlySomething » Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:24 pm

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Eventually we do find our way to the entrance of the school, and after a few minutes of searching for a parking space we make our way through the old gates and onto the main grounds. Hanako spots a sign directing us to the cafeteria, and Lilly takes her arm as the three of us set off down the path.

Yamaku's campus is breathtaking under the light of the full moon- at least, as far as I can tell, anyway. It's too dark to make out the details of anything. Even still, it's enough to make me regret all the time I spent shut indoors as a student here. Hanako catches me starting to trail behind and touches me gently on the arm to get my attention, smiling affectionately. In the moment, I nearly make a comment about how beautiful the moonlight is, but Lilly's appropriately blank expression sobers me. I know she doesn't want me to hold back my speech around her, but what she doesn't know won't hurt her.

We trail into the closest building and make our way to the cafeteria, the three of us in a row. Hanako and Lilly standing slightly behind me, I force open the double doors and am immediately taken aback by the sheer volume of people standing inside.

Hanako seems equally shocked. After a moment to collect herself, she lets go of Lilly and begins fixing the hair over the right half of her face to make sure her scars are adequately covered. I think it's more of a nervous tic than anything, considering her hair looked fine before, but then I probably would have thought that whether it actually did or not.

I wander over to stand next to her, my hands in my pockets. "Wow, a lot of people showed up."

"Hm, it sure seems like it. I can't say I'm surprised; I did get the impression that it was something of a big event," Lilly says, cupping her hands together. "Is there a bar? I believe the invitation said something about that."

"What, didn't you have enough to drink at dinner?" I ask suspiciously, glancing over people's heads to spot the bar installation on the other end of the room.

"I just had a glass of champagne. Is there really something wrong with me asking?" Lilly retorts, glowering defensively at the question.

"No, I just- I suppose not…"

"I- it's across the room, past the break in the tables…" Hanako speaks up for the first since we arrived, clearly distracted by the huge crowd.

I watch her for a few moments, though she is apparently too busy watching the floor to make eye contact with me.

I decide it would probably be best to give her a few minutes to adjust, so I say the first thing that comes to mind to buy her a little time. "I can go get us drinks if you want something."

"Would you? Oh, thank you, Hisao." Lilly brightens up immediately, clasping her hands together. "See if they have red wine. Or whatever they recommend, if not."

"I can do that. Hanako?"

Hanako looks up at me suddenly, frowning apologetically. "Same… thank you…"

"Okay. Don't move from this spot, then."

I break from the two of them and begin weaving my way through the rather tightly-packed crowd, almost shocked by the number of crutches and wheelchairs. It's been a lifetime since I graduated from this place, but all of a sudden it feels like I never even left.

The bar is shockingly nice, albeit a little out of place in a high school cafeteria. A few people are gathered around on the stools, ignoring the young bartender on his phone behind the counter.

I pat my hand gently on the counter to get his attention and raise a hand in greeting. "Hi, good evening. Do you have red wine?"

"Hm? Oh, hey man- uh, yeah." He blinks, tucking his phone into his pocket. "Just a second."

"Two glasses, please. …Well, three." He raises an eyebrow at me, and I shrug. "I'm with a party; I swear it's not just for me."

"Hey, sure thing. It's not my problem either way."

He ducks under the counter to pull out a fresh bottle, which from the looks of it is more expensive than anything I ever would have purchased for myself. It should probably suit Lilly's tastes nicely, at least.

"It looks like you have quite a selection here… have you been running up a tab?"

"Hm? Oh, no, it's not- I mean, this is all paid for already. Private donor. On the house."

"You're kidding. For this many people?"

"Well, on behalf of an organization or something, yeah. Someone who used to go here." He shrugs, pushing forward the three glasses on the counter. "I don't know what you were expecting, fancy private school like this."

"Well… it's not that fancy… besides, all sorts of kids get scholarships and stuff to pay for the tuition." I take a sip from the first glass, sizing the kid up. "Didn't you go here?"

"Me? No, man, I'm just taking the work I can get. Working off debt, y'know?"

"I know."

He lets out a depressed laugh, running a hand through his hair. "Hey, uh… do you… know her?"

"Know who?"

He points a finger past my head, and immediately someone taps me on the right shoulder… but there's no one there.

"Are you ever gonna not fall for that?" asks a voice from my left.

I flip my head over to see a dark-skinned, attractive woman with a broad grin… and a missing hand.

"Miki! Hey!" I turn in my seat, nearly spilling the wine in my hand. "I was wondering if you came to this! What have you been up to?"

She slumps into a bar stool two seats away from me and kicks her feet up, resting them on the seat in between us. "Oh, you know. Looking for work. Surfing the internet. Day drinking. Take your pick."

The bartender snickers at the two of us and goes back to messing around on his phone. I hope they're paying him well for this; he looks ridiculously overdressed to be indoors on a summer night.

"Who is this?" chirps a high-pitched voice from behind Miki. With no warning, this mysterious person pokes her head out from behind her shoulder, revealing a short, heavily made-up woman in a low-cut blouse.

"That is Hisao; he's one of my hot friends. But he's married, so don't get all thirsty over him," Miki responds dryly, still grinning.

"Oh, gimme a break," says the other woman, scooting over to the side to include herself in the group. "…Hi, Hisao! I don't know if we've-"

"Emi," I interrupt suddenly, proud of myself for immediately recognizing her considering her… unusual manner of dress. "Track star on prosthetic legs. I remember."

"Oh, you- oh. Good memory! I, uh- wow, that's kind of awkward…" Emi hums, pursing her lips and blushing slightly. Miki laughs to herself at the exchange.

"No, no, it's fine. I mostly just remember you because Miki talked about you all the time. Or, complained, rather, since you were faster than her on the track team."

"Wow! I feel like a celebrity." Emi beams with pride, taking a drink of something murky and orange.

Miki drums her fingers on the counter, thinking to herself. "Hey, Hisao, Hanako is with you, right? It's her class, too, after all."

"Huh? Oh, yeah, she's waiting for me near the entrance. She and Lilly Satou, if you…"

"Satou? I thought she moved to Europe or something."

"She did. She's just here for the week, visiting." I stand from my stool, nodding again at the bartender. "While we're talking about it, it's really kind of rude of me to delay here while they're still waiting…"

"Cool, cool. I'd rather not spend the whole night lurking at the bar anyway." Miki stands, apparently inviting herself along. "What about you, Emi?"

"Oh, sorry, I'm here with someone," Emi says with a wave of her hand. "I am sort of… um… in the middle of something right now. But… it was really, really good to meet you again, Miki! We should do something some time!"

Miki shrugs, her smile breaking the tiniest bit. "Sure. You have my phone number."

"Yeah, I guess I do." Emi smacks her lips and stands from the bar stool, leaning on the counter with one hand. "Man, one night totally isn't enough to catch up with everyone! Tell Hanako and Lilly I said hi, Hisao!"

"Will do," I say quietly, still trying to slip away. "Have a good night, Emi."

"See ya!"

I pause to adjust my things, balancing my other two glasses of wine in my left hand. I can only imagine what a sight I am to behold right now.

"So, Ibarazaki, huh? You two seem to get along well enough," I mention absentmindedly, glancing back at the bar as we push through the crowd.

Miki shrugs, stretching out her left arm and resting it behind her head as she walks. "Oh, I dunno; I guess? Emi is one of those people that it's hard to tell with."

"I don't want to put this the wrong way, but… she seems a little… girly for your social circle. The kind of person you wouldn't stay friends with."

"Tsch. Well, I don't know if we're really 'friends', per se. I wished her happy birthday on Facebook. That's about as deep as our relationship goes."

"Weird. I didn't get that impression from her."

"Eh, she's just a giggly drunk. I'm hoping she didn't drive here alone, because someone is going to need to call her a cab."

"I don't think she was drunk…"

"She was getting there." Miki shrugs. "Give her an hour."

"Isn't that kind of mean…?"

"Huh?" She puts a finger to her chin, mildly contemplative. "Well, I didn't mean it to be. Just seems like she's having a rough night, that's all. I mean, I like her perfectly fine."

"If you say so."

We find Hanako and Lilly in exactly the place I left them, although to my surprise (and relief), not waiting around impatiently for me. Instead, Hanako is in the middle of an enthusiastic conversation with a spritely blonde woman, whom I recognize after a moment as Naomi Inoue, one of Hanako's friends. Lilly stands awkwardly to the side of them, looking alienated.

"Hey, I'm back," I interject, trying to slide into Hanako's field of vision. "Naomi, it's been a while."

Naomi's face lights up when she sees me, and she immediately thrusts past Hanako to give me a hug. It's difficult for me to reciprocate it with my hands full, and, recognizing this, Hanako takes one of the glasses out of my hand to make it easier.

"Hisao!" Naomi cheerfully cries out. "Hanako has been keeping me up to date! How are you?"

"I'm fine. Things have been slow. I assume that's what Hanako has been telling you?"

"More or less." Naomi releases me and flashes a grin at Miki, who awkwardly raises her hand in acknowledgment.

I touch Lilly on the arm and hand her a glass, which she is apparently plenty eager to take. "Thank you, Hisao. Was there a line?"

"No, I was just catching up with a friend. Do you guys remember Miki Miura?"

"Long time, no see, guys," Miki says with a grin, which immediately disappears when she sets her eyes on Lilly. "…Er, sorry."

Predictably, this irritates Lilly, who shuts her eyes and sighs. "It's okay, Miki; please don't change your speech on my account." She opens her eyes and takes a sip of wine, apparently approving of its quality. "I didn't know the two of you were friends."

I shrug, not that it makes any difference. "I don't know; we didn't really get to know each other that well until after you moved."

"Oh. Of course, of course." She makes an opaque frown, cupping her glass with both hands.

"I was wondering, where exactly do you live, Lilly?" Miki asks. "Scotland or something, right? The countryside is supposed to be beautiful there."

Everyone cringes at once at that, actually earning a blush from the usually-unflappable Miki. Lilly isn't bothered about the faux-pas, though, which she makes very clear.

"Scotland is right. And it is beautiful, so I'm told, of course. Where I live, when the weather is nice, it is a good spot for taking walks. That may just be because it's further from the city and bustle than here, though."

"That's so cool. It's good to get some fresh air every once in a while."

"I couldn't agree more."

Miki smiles half-heartedly, embarrassed. Naomi looks noticeably more uncomfortable than she does, though, being one of those people that can't stand awkward silences. Hanako calls her 'social', but I've always used 'neurotic'. Two sides of a coin, I guess.

"Where's the rest of the newspaper gang?" I ask after a moment, looking over Hanako and Naomi as they stand in a pair. "It just doesn't look natural with just the two of you standing here."

"Beats me," Naomi says with a shrug. "We didn't coordinate. I'm not sure how many people came… although I do know that Natsume is on holiday somewhere."

Hanako makes a startled expression all of a sudden, remembering something. "Oh, Naomi, do you have her email? I… wanted to get in contact with her, but…"

"Huh? Yeah, sure! Gimme your phone; I'll write it down."

With a passive nod, Hanako passes her phone to Naomi, who begins furiously tapping Natsume's information into it.

Lilly touches a hand to her face, smiling warmly. "It's so nice that you're all still able to keep in touch. I feel like I have all these friends that just dropped from the face of the planet after graduation."

"Yeah, they dropped into the hell that is adulthood." Miki laughs loudly at her own joke- much more than Lilly does, at least. "Careers. Marriage. Kids." She fakes a shudder.

"Well… yes. That was sort of my point. People's commitments tend to get in the way."

"It's not always a bad thing," Hanako adds with a shrug, taking a small sip from her glass. "Lots of people are better off now than… they were back then."

"Eh, different strokes for different folks." Miki shrugs again, smiling unapologetically.

"Really? You haven't even thought about getting married?"

"Hell no. Not me."

Naomi smiles at Miki's enthusiasm, glancing between Hanako and me for a second. "No marriage. No children. No career. That's pretty untraditional."

"I'm not a traditional person." Miki bites her lip, catching herself. "Well, I don't know about 'career'- I mean, I certainly wouldn't object to a salary or anything- but getting tied down? No thank you."

"You're a free spirit," I laugh.

"Sure, whatever gets my parents off my back about it."

She sighs roughly, throwing her head back. She said it like a joke, but I get the impression this is something she is actually having difficulty with. Her parents are pretty normal, from what I remember of them… I wonder if Miki is struggling more than she's letting on. It's probably none of my business.

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Last edited by QuietlySomething on Tue Feb 28, 2017 3:45 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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