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People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Mon Apr 24, 2017 9:54 pm
This is a fic I've been working at for a while now on FF.net; after talking to a few people I decided I feel comfortable moving it away from home
I've just recently lost my beta-reader to a concussion (bless her) so I'm currently without an editor... but that may be subject to change.
I'm gonna start just by posting chapters and catching up this fic to where it is on FF before I get back to regular updates, starting by posting the first chapter in the next post here.
I don't really post or hang out here much but this forum seems to be a lot more active, and clearly there's already a lot of pseudo-routes for many of KS's background characters. I know Naomi has been done before, and probably been done better than I could write her, but hopefully I can make something interesting to add that's worth reading.
Being a pseudo-route, I've tried to structure this fic more or less around the KS formula and am breaking it up into four acts, the first being bits and pieces that take place chronologically during the game's general first act.
Table of Contents
Act 1 - Life Expectancy:
1. A Completely Chance Encounter
2. In the Newsroom
3. Social Circles
4. It Takes All Kinds
Act 2 - Observation:
3. Comedy of Errors
5. Two Kids Alone in a Tiny Room
6. Play Date
I appreciate any and all feedback, as always.
Thanks for reading, all! Cheers!
Act 1 - A Completely Chance Encounter
Posted: Mon Apr 24, 2017 9:58 pm
So as I mentioned, this story starts off in Act 1- in particular on the day that Hisao finds himself in the middle of Lilly and Shizune's spat. This chapter is an encounter that takes place as Hisao returns to his dorm after class, rather than running into Rin working on her mural as he normally would then.
Act 1: Life Expectancy
I wonder if it's easy to blend in.
Right now, standing by myself on the school grounds amidst the crowd of students, I feel uncomfortably aware of the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb.
It feels almost unreasonable to say it after such a short time here, but I'm overwhelmed by the people here. I don't want to think of myself as antisocial, but I can't remember the last time I felt so tense just having to interact with strangers. I could chalk it up to my four months locked away in the hospital, but I know that would be dishonest (although that certainly hasn't helped make me any less lethargic).
What's really overwhelming is the elephant in the room: the one I feel more acutely aware of than anyone else here, it seems. I've been cast into the jungle, where almost everyone has to worry about a disability of their own, and every time I start to feel like I understand how to act about it, something new happens and makes me realize I've been doing it all wrong. One day, I do my best to avoid even looking at Hanako's scars, and I scare her off regardless. The next, though I say nothing to initiate it, Rin asks me what's wrong with me outright. It's hard to say which situation is more awkward, but nevertheless both made me realize exactly how out of my element I am here. Am I supposed to think about my problems- and everyone else's? Am I supposed to pretend things aren't the way they are? It's hard for me to believe that everyone can have a different way to approach this and still manage to coexist without any issues.
And yet, it doesn't seem to be a problem for anyone but me, undoubtedly because I haven't been here long enough to learn the rules. Just watching the students on the grounds is a little disorienting simply because of how normal the scene looks.
Every third student has some kind of glaring physical disability- a cane, or a wheelchair, or something- and they simply make themselves part of a crowd like normal. Everyone seems to be able to blend in, and I suppose that's just a matter of time, but it feels like a farce to me. It's strange to say, and it makes me feel a little guilty, but every time I see someone that looks healthy on the outside, the first thing I think is, 'what's wrong with them?' It seems impossible not to- I wonder if everyone does that with each other here.
I wonder if that's what people do when they look at me.
"What are you looking at?" asks a voice from somewhere behind me.
It's loud- low-pitched and harsh, but distinctly feminine. By all accounts, it should have gotten my attention immediately, which just goes to show how truly lost in thought I was.
I turn barely to the side, wondering absentmindedly where the noise came from without even considering that it was directed at me, and am immediately jolted out of my daydream by a girl's face, positioned barely two inches from my own.
She laughs boldly, taking my own surprise in stride, and takes a few steps back, throwing her arms out to the side as though daring me to ask her to repeat herself.
…What was the question again?
"Nothing," I respond quietly, rubbing the back of my head with some embarrassment. "That's some way to introduce yourself."
"Introduce myself? I have to introduce myself?"
"Well, that's what people usually do when they meet someone else for the first time."
She squints at me harshly for a moment or two in a way that reminds me of Shizune, as though I've broken some unspoken rule of hers. "I'm going to chalk it up to context, because you should already know who I am. I'm in your class."
With one hand, she throws her hair out to the side, making a bizarre theatrical gesture to grab my attention as though it should help me to remember her name better.
She has one of the few heads of blonde hair that I've seen so far at Yamaku, and it immediately reminds me of Lilly. Unlike Lilly, though, whose aesthetic comes off as effortless and natural, this girl's hair looks like an art project, as though she spent a considerable amount of time in front of a mirror trying to get it to look that way. Not that it looks bad- actually, it's kind of cute- but I can't help but wonder if she walks around hoping she'll overhear people talking about it.
Actually, that's the impression she gives me altogether, considering her theatrical mannerisms and tone of voice. I guess first impressions are important to her? But apparently this isn't supposed to be my first time meeting her.
I've been staring at her for an awkwardly long time now, and I realize that I am not anywhere closer to remembering her name, or in fact recognizing her at all, than I was when we started this conversation.
Her disappointed pout tells me (with no subtlety whatsoever) that she is clued into this. "Naomi Inoue," she says pointedly, placing her hands on her hips. "I sit in the back, next to Hanako- who, incidentally, I have seen you staring at in class on multiple occasions over the past few days. So how I could be such a mystery to you, I have no idea."
That does sound right, come to think of it, but I am immediately distracted from that by her comment about Hanako. Have I been staring? Is it that obvious? That seems like a fairly serious transgression. Nobody has mentioned it to me in class, not even Hanako herself- but then, would I really expect her to, if she noticed? That kinda stings, as it's something I've been really conscious of after our encounter in the library.
"Oh," I say sheepishly.
Any illusion of wit I may have been giving off has immediately dissolved, along with my self-confidence. Naomi still seems to have it in spades, and it makes it hard to keep up with her.
I feel like I'm being tested, as though Naomi is deliberately trying to get under my skin to see what I'm willing to challenge her on. I don't know why she expected me to know her name, considering we haven't spoken a single time since I got here. But then, if her goal is simply to bother me, it's possible she has been bluffing entirely. For a single, fleeting moment of pride, I am tempted to call her on it, and then…
"…You are Hisao Nakai, if that's what you were waiting for," Naomi says curtly, reading my expression with uncanny accuracy. "I know everyone in our class. Almost everyone in the school, in fact. And you're an easy one in particular."
"Everyone knows you're the new kid because you have been wearing it all over your face for the past week. You look half-asleep and lost pretty much all the time."
I feel myself touching my face almost unconsciously. It's not something I'd thought about before, but it would certainly make it harder to blend in…
"Can I help you with something, Naomi?" I ask after a moment, now feeling a tad defensive.
She nods briefly, glancing to my side as though to confirm we aren't being watched- the kind of thing Kenji seems to do every time I talk to him. Then, much to my confusion, she purses her lips and avoids the question entirely. "Do you write poetry? Like, in a journal?"
She looks completely earnest for the first time.
I'm at a loss. "What?"
"You do, don't you?"
"Why would you ask me that?"
"Because I'm pretty sure I'm right."
"Well, you're not."
"You don't write poetry?"
"Damn." Apparently that was the wrong answer. With pursed lips, Naomi wanders a few steps away from me as though abandoning me, then stops herself and flips around again. "Not even a little?"
"No. And what does it matter to you?"
"I just thought I had you pegged. But I guess not."
I almost don't want to ask, just out of defiance, but my curiosity gets the better of me. "But why poetry?"
"Well, you're quiet, and you spend a lot of time staring off into space like you're deep in thought. Which is what you were doing before we started having this conversation."
Wait, how long has she been watching me? I don't think I've ever felt so self-conscious talking to someone I just met before. "That doesn't mean I-"
"-But you seem kind of mouthy, and you're not afraid to talk to girls, so I don't think you're just some kind of impassive weirdo or shut-in or something. Aside from that, you've been letting Shizune drag you around by the ear, so I figured you were probably the kind of person who bottles up your complaints and resentments in order to avoid conflict, and so that led me to poetry. It's the kind of hobby for a person that stares out into space a lot, as you do, so it adds up." She taps on her chin, running through her spiel in her head again as though checking her math, then nods and looks me in the eye. "Does that answer your question?"
"Uh. I guess so. It doesn't really make it seem any less strange, though."
"There's nothing strange about paying attention, Hisao. I know you've been doing it, too; you're just more selective about it. Besides, it's my job."
"You ask too many questions."
"You keep saying things that don't make sense." I hesitate for a moment, but it feels unnecessary to try and hold back in order to be formal. "…And, as a matter of fact, I get the feeling you're doing it because you want me to ask you questions."
Naomi immediately grins from ear to ear at that… so, apparently that was the right answer. "See, like I said. That's called paying attention. People aren't so hard to figure out, if you put the effort in."
"You don't seem to have me figured out at all," I reply with a small shrug.
"You're right about that, and I have to admit, it is intriguing…" she says thoughtfully. "But you haven't been here long, so I will allow myself some time."
I briefly glance over my shoulder. The dormitories are so close, and yet at this rate I may never reach them…
"This is kind of an awkward place to be having this conversation, don't you think?" I ask quietly, hoping Naomi will take a hint.
"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing," she sighs, gesturing away from me. "You going to the dorms? We'll go together."
"Oh. Sure." Great, great. That was exactly what I meant.
Resigned, I take off along the path toward the dormitories, and Naomi is only too comfortable throwing up her hands and walking alongside me. She seems like the kind of person who wants to be friends with everyone, and I guess she has presumed that of the two of us already, but even still I can't help but feel like there is some special reason I am being targeted right now.
"So, if not poetry, what do you write?" she asks presumptuously, briefly glancing over at me again.
At this point, I simply assume my answer will not satisfy her. "I don't write anything."
"You're kidding me."
"Nope. I read a lot, but I don't write."
"Well," Naomi replies, after a moment of thought, "isn't reading basically half of writing?"
"I don't think so. They don't exactly require the same thing out of you."
"Have you ever tried it?"
"I haven't written anything, outside of schoolwork, in as long as I can remember."
I shrug hopelessly, but she seems completely undeterred. Any line of questioning is enough to make me suspicious, but something about this in particular…
"Naomi, where are you going with this?" I stop short as we make our way to the break in the path between the two sets of dormitories.
Naomi, apparently hoping to quash my suspicions, throws up her hands in guilt, smiling shadily. "Are you going to join the Student Council?"
And, suddenly, it all comes together. I have to admit, I would have expected something more subtle and tactical, but I suppose their time is running short before the festival.
I narrow my eyes accusingly. "Shizune!"
Naomi seems genuinely surprised for a moment. "What about her?"
"She put you up to this!"
Naomi, though clearly amused, puts on her best mock-offended face. "She most certainly did not!"
I'm not buying it. "You can tell her that I have put in enough work for them to at least be allowed more time to think about it."
"I'm not here to nag you for the Student Council, believe it or not. Quite the opposite, in fact." She grins confidently, obviously doing her best to build up the suspense. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't finished dragging your feet with Shizune and Misha. I was only hedging my bets because you don't seem to like making commitments."
"In that case…"
"The newspaper club!" Suddenly invigorated, she reaches one arm behind her and slings her small backpack in front of her in order to dig through it. "If you're looking for a club- and I know you are- it could be a really good fit for you!"
The newspaper club? I've looked at a lot of different activities at Yamaku so far, but that's one that never even occurred to me. At my old school, I was only barely aware that we even had a newspaper, let alone what they were publishing in it. But then again, that was before I started reading as much as I do now…
Even still, I wouldn't even know the first place to start with a club like that.
"I said I don't write, Naomi," I say patiently, taking a step toward the male dorm. "I haven't even looked at the school newspaper since I got here. Sorry."
Before I even get the chance to turn my head, Naomi leaps forward and thrusts a loose bundle of papers into my arms, which I am only barely able to keep from falling apart and spreading over the ground. Evidently it's an issue of the newspaper, but it must have come apart in Naomi's rush to pull it from her backpack.
"If you haven't made up your mind yet, don't you think you ought to at least consider all your options? The great thing about the newspaper is that people with all different kinds of skills can work on it! That's what makes us a good team! And that's what makes it fun!" Naomi declares, crossing her arms as I straighten out the papers in my arms.
Briefly glancing at the cover, I have to admit that it looks a lot more professional than I would have expected. If Naomi is any indication, I assume that the members of the club here are a lot more passionate about the work than whoever was responsible for the newspaper at my old school.
"It looks good," I say passively.
She perks up immediately. "Thanks! So you'll think about it?"
"Huh? I didn't say that!"
"Damn, I thought that might work on you. You are a tough one."
She raps her fingers together, still hanging around for me. I can tell that there's no way I'm getting out of this without finding some way to explain myself.
"Why do you want me in particular, though?" I ask. "You could ask anyone from our class about this."
"Alright, do you want the formal answer, or the real one?" Naomi asks with a shrug. "'Cause the formal answer is, there aren't many upperclassmen that are looking to join a club at this point in the year. But seeing as you're a transfer student…"
"So what's the real answer?"
"The real answer is, it's because Shizune wants you."
She narrows her eyes mischievously, waiting for me to ask, but I absolutely don't intend to. After Lilly and Shizune's argument earlier today, I think I have had more than enough of being caught in the middle of Shizune's feuds.
Naomi doesn't wait up for me. "This is the value of paying attention, Hisao. Shizune likes to single people out, and it's important to know who those people are. Because she is good at finding the potential in people like nobody else."
I know when I'm being pandered to, of course, but that said… it's a nice compliment.
"So you're out to snatch me away from Shizune and Misha, then."
"Only because it is in the best interests of our club!" Naomi adds defensively. "And admittedly, we are a little bit understaffed at the moment…"
"You sure chose an odd time to do it, with the festival coming up."
"Is that really what you're worried about? Ugh, fine. Let me make you an offer, then." With no warning, Naomi storms up to me to put us face-to-face and looks me straight in the eye, prodding a single finger onto the newspaper in my arms without breaking eye contact. "Read. You have all day for this."
Surprised, I take a step backwards, trying not to look too embarrassed by her forwardness. "That's more of a demand than an offer."
"Everyone is meeting tomorrow afternoon, after class," she continues, ignoring me. "If you're interested, come with me. You can meet everyone at once and see what the work is like. It's pretty busy, since we have to do an entire issue just centered around the festival."
"Well, what if I'm not interested?"
"Then, by all means, feel free to do chores for Student Council instead. I can only imagine how busy they must be."
I'm quiet for a moment. Naomi raises an eyebrow at me.
"…That sounds fair enough," I respond, finally.
"I know it does." She takes a step back, putting an arm through one of the loops on her backpack. "Tomorrow, then."
"Sure. I'll see you in class."
She looks me over one more time, finally satisfied with the results of our conversation, and then shoos me with one hand. Almost instinctively, I turn to leave. Naomi gives off an air of authority, so much so that it's almost intimidating.
I hear her laugh from behind me as I walk away. I don't turn to respond, but she calls after me anyway.
"Read, Hisao!" Naomi says loudly, taking one step towards the girls' dorm, but still looking after me. "That paper has my name written all over it, so you've got no excuse not to know it now!"
I slip into my own dorm shortly after, happy to have a moment just to breathe. That was certainly a lot to take in at once.
Naomi Inoue. As though there is any chance I could forget her name now, after that.
I straighten out the newspaper in my hands, which I crumpled a little by accident. It's nice to have a new prospect, even if I'm not optimistic that it will work out. But my mind is somewhere else entirely right now, almost to the point of being overwhelmed.
Just who in the world was that? Normal, and yet… anything but.
I can't help but wonder what's wrong with her.
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Mon Apr 24, 2017 10:45 pm
That's certainly a different take on Naomi. I do like it though. It's very vibrant.
I can see how she'd could easily get on Hisao's nerves a bit if she pushes it too much, especially at his current state of just trying to figure out what's what. I'm also quite curious to see Kenji's thoughts on somebody like that.
The only problem I have though if you used an author's note at the beginning to tell us when the story takes place instead of having it organically appear in the story.
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Mon Apr 24, 2017 10:50 pm
I like the way you present Naomi's very distinct personality. What you've shown so far flows well, engaged me with a different take on Hisao that is still recognisably KS Hisao. Fascinating.
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Tue Apr 25, 2017 12:18 am
Have been reading youon ff.net and glad you decided to post on the forum!
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Tue Apr 25, 2017 1:05 pm
I agree with Oddball: This is certainly a fresh take on Naomi - and we don't have that
many stories featuring her. (also that the author's note was not necessary)
Both your characterization of Naomi and your way of writing the passages of Hisao's introspection make me quite optimistic for this story.
Two small nitpicks:
First it's strange that Hisao would be surprised that Naomi would know him. He did introduce himself (or was introduced) to the class just two days prior.
Second - it's only his third day, so this:
I have seen you staring at in class on multiple occasions over the past few days...
...you have been wearing it all over your face for the past week.
...seems a bit strange considering.
Finally, if you're looking for a replacement proofreader, just drop me a PM. All the stories I proofread at the moment are apparently on hiatus
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Tue Apr 25, 2017 6:38 pm
So glad you're moving this one to here. Only reason why I bothered checking the KS FF.net was just for this.
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Wed Apr 26, 2017 2:40 am
Thanks for the responses everyone! Flattered that some people from here followed me on FF. Will try to get/keep this fic caught up, asap.
I hadn't really given it any thought but yeah, I suppose the author's note really was pretty unnecessary. But don't worry, that definitely won't be a regular thing
And thanks very much for the offer, Mirage! I very well may hit you up with a PM sometime soon.
Will get up the next 2 chapters very soon.
Act 1 - In the Newsroom
Posted: Wed Apr 26, 2017 2:44 am
Over the course of two days, I've managed to set everyone's expectations unreasonably high for me, and then proceed to immediately fail to meet them all. After the mess I made of myself on the track this morning, it looks like I am going to end up either as the unmotivated whipping boy of the Student Council, or Emi's pathetic running pseudo-partner. It's not that I would have any problems spending more time with Shizune and Misha, or with Emi, but the strings attached are absolutely headache-inducing.
This is normally the point where I would just hide in the library and read to take my mind off things, but of course that would mean running the risk of running into Hanako again. And though I'm sure she would be delighted to run into me, my discomfort with the prospect is just enough to deter me from returning to the library today.
So perhaps that is why I find myself, on a Friday afternoon, during my first free moment all day, actively seeking out Naomi.
She seemed convinced yesterday that reading the newspaper would make me want to join the club, but while I did spend a long time flipping through it in my dorm, I ultimately found it more boring than enticing. Maybe I'm just not a flexible reader, but I find it hard to sit down and read an article about local events or academia when I have a perfectly good story I could be reading instead. Reading is supposed to be a form of escapism, right? If I wanted to know all the intricacies of preparing for the school's festival, I could just talk to Shizune.
Naomi is one of the very first people to head for the door at the end of class, and my rush to catch her on the way out of the classroom prompts a scornful glare from Shizune.
"Hi, Naomi," I say passively, to get her attention.
She glances briefly over her shoulder and smiles at me, not stopping to chat. "Oh, hi, Hisao."
"Uh, are… you…?"
"Ah!" With a dramatic fist-pump, Naomi skids to a stop along the wall just outside 3-3 and turns toward me with an inordinate amount of enthusiasm. "You want to come to the club meeting after all!"
She's not asking, but I don't know whether she's right or not. It's not really the club I'm here for, after all, not that I had any other particular reason to stop her on the way out of the classroom. I know it would probably be prudent to let her know right away that I'm not interested so as not to get her hopes up, but she seems so excited to see me that I don't have the heart for it.
"What made you think I didn't?" I ask defensively, leaning against the wall next to her to get out of the way of foot traffic.
"Well, yesterday I thought you may have just been trying to get rid of me. And then you never mentioned it to me in class this morning, and you seemed like you were in kind of a shitty mood, so I decided not to say anything about it." She hesitates for just a second. "Uh, no offense or anything."
Mostly just because I'm not eager to get into a conversation about how my morning went. It actually is kind of a rude thing to say, but, to be fair, I probably would have avoided me today, too.
"So, you've got me here. Want to come meet the gang?" She flashes me a friendly smile for a moment, then steps away from the wall and straightens out her skirt.
"That's why I came, isn't it?"
"I don't know, is it? You could have just come here to tell me you aren't interested. Or are you the kind of person that would rather keep someone waiting than reject them outright?"
I snicker at that, and Naomi raises an eyebrow at me in response. I guess she was genuinely asking, though it struck me more as an accusation. "No, I don't think I would do that," I say with a shrug.
"I didn't think so." She puts a finger to her chin and sighs, like she forgot what she was talking about. "Alright, come with me. No use in standing around."
Without waiting for a response, she takes off down the hallway, forcing me to hurry to keep up with her before losing her to the crowd. She never even bothered to tell me where we are going, and yet she still asserts this confidence like she expects me to unquestioningly fall in line with her. I think she gets a thrill out of keeping me in the dark.
"The newspaper club is one of the smaller ones, and we don't do a lot of advertising like they do for baseball and the book club and all that, so there aren't a whole lot of us. But that means everyone in the club knows each other, and gets along… for the most part." Naomi descends the staircase to the lobby, glancing briefly behind her only to make sure I'm following behind. "I like to think of us as more of a team than a club, y'know? Everyone does the work that suits them best, based on what they're good at. We're like a real newspaper!"
She gesticulates frantically in front of her, even though she's facing away from me. It seems like she could talk about this for hours without any input from anyone else. I'm actually kind of impressed to see someone so invested in their club activities, which is yet another thing that reminds me of Shizune. Come to think of it, I'm surprised they aren't haranguing her to be in Student Council.
We reach the lobby, where the crowds in the halls are finally beginning to spread out as people head in different directions. Naomi hesitates for just a moment, then spins around and points behind my head, directing me down a narrow hallway I'd never even noticed before. Before I can even take one step, she brushes ahead of me and waves her hand for me to follow.
"You sure are setting my expectations high for this," I say with a smirk, though it's lost on her.
"Don't sound so skeptical."
We reach the end of the hall, and Naomi turns to the door on the right at the far end, just before the supply closet. None of these rooms look like standard classrooms, and it's so out of the way that I'm surprised anyone even goes back here.
She places one hand on the door handle, takes a second for a dramatic pause, and then thrusts the door open, causing a loud clatter as the door smacks against the wall on the other side.
The room, which is much more spacious than I expected considering the hall that led to it, is a pretty standard computer lab. Four rows of tables to the left of the entrance are lined with computers much like the ones I've noticed in the library, and centered next to it is a long wooden conference table. Seems a little over-the-top to me, but I suppose if they use the room for club work it makes sense to have.
Naomi steps in before me and throws up her hands victoriously. "I got one!"
…I hadn't realized she was going to put me on display, and I feel myself blush momentarily, even for as mundane as my entrance is. It only lasts for a moment, though, as it quickly occurs to me that there are only four other people in the room, and none with Naomi's level of enthusiasm. I suspect that I was probably right to be skeptical of her.
Everyone looks about as normal and nondescript as the majority of the student body- not one of them has any obvious physical disabilities, so I guess I should probably fit in pretty well with them. There's another girl from my class here, a brunette girl with glasses who sits next to Naomi in the back of the room, but other than that, I don't recognize any of the faces. There's also a teacher sitting at the end of the long table, though he looks barely awake. It's nowhere near as grand or exciting as Naomi would have had me believe.
The room barely responds to Naomi's declaration of victory, outside of a few brief glances upward. I wave my hand awkwardly and get nothing in response.
"We need someone to do formatting. Can he do formatting on the front page?" asks a black-haired boy on a computer in the furthest row, not even bothering to look at me.
"Today, he is just observing," Naomi replies curtly, wandering over to a seat at the conference table and leaving me alone at the entrance. "You just had to ask, huh? Where's Takashi? He was supposed to be doing that."
"Where do you think?" the boy responds with irritation. "Somewhere else. Other obligations, I suppose. This isn't the only club he's in."
"But he said he would be here! Everyone was supposed to show up today!"
“You should have known that wasn’t going to happen.”
Takashi… that name sounds familiar, and I rap my fingers on the desk as I try to picture the faces of my classmates.
“Takashi? Isn’t that the guy with the… thing… on his ear…?” I trail off, embarrassed that his disability is the first way I thought of to describe him.
“Huh?” Naomi seems confused for a moment, and touches her ear to mimic me. “Oh! Maeda? From class? No, no, that guy’s in the art club… much too creative for our Takashi.”
Feeling a little out of the loop, I briefly glance around the room again and take a seat at the table next to Naomi, hoping to have more of an introduction.
“So, uh, is this… everyone? Besides your Takashi, I mean?” I ask quietly.
"Oh!" Naomi spins around in her chair, like she just remembered I was here. "Yeah, everyone else is here! This is Hokuto Watanabe. He's got the second most seniority in the club, behind me."
Hokuto still doesn't look up at me, so I'm not sure how to address him.
"Does our observer have a name, Inoue?" asks the teacher at the end of the desk.
Naomi and I exchange a glance, and she raises an eyebrow at me.
Great. Apparently she has chosen this specific moment to stop speaking for people.
I turn awkwardly in my chair to look at everyone, though nobody looks at me besides Naomi and the teacher. "Hey, guys, I'm, uh, Hisao Nakai. Naomi invited me to check things out today to see if I might be interested in the club."
…Crickets, as expected.
The silence in the room is only broken up by quiet whispering and tapping on a keyboard, just to accentuate how out of place I feel.
After the short pause, Hokuto speaks up again, still not looking away from his computer. "Don't expect an easy ride, Nakai. Things move fast around here, and people who can't keep up get left behind. We're on a schedule at all times, so you need to be focused and dedicated."
I clear my throat. Hokuto doesn't respond, and Naomi shoots him a dirty look.
"Don't worry about Watanabe. He takes this more seriously than most," the teacher says, making eye contact with me, which I appreciate more than I probably should.
"Yes; that's exactly right." Naomi adds, tapping me on the arm like I wasn't already paying attention. "So says the honorable instructor Kawate." She bows her head towards him with mock formality, which seems like a strikingly casual and presumptuous way to address a teacher. He doesn't seem bothered by it, though, thankfully.
"I'm the club's faculty advisor," Kawate explains to me with a grin, amused with himself for some reason. "Really, I'm only here to make sure you don't put anything in the newspaper that wouldn't be appropriate to publish. You can just pretend I'm not here; I know you kids like to pretend you are responsible enough to handle things like this by yourselves."
Naomi nods approvingly at this statement. Kawate seems to be telling the truth, too, since as far as I can tell, Naomi is clearly the one in charge of this operation.
"Right, right, so, Hokuto, Kawate… you know Natsume from class, right? Natsume Ooe?" Naomi gestures behind me to the brunette girl from class, who smiles politely at me from her own seat at a computer.
"Yeah, sure," I say, playing my bad memory off casually. "Hi, Natsume."
I am beyond thankful that Naomi decided against putting me on the hot seat and asking me for her name.
Natsume waves pleasantly, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose with her free hand. "Hello, Hisao. Naomi said you were considering the club. It's good to have you."
I'd never looked at her more than just in passing before, but now that I am, it's kind of hard to look away. Her eyes are two different colors… is it a vision problem? I thought the vision-impaired students were in 3-2, like Lilly… so maybe it's something else? I really don't know the rules of this place at all.
Natsume almost immediately notices me staring at her, but rather than say something, she just blushes a bit and turns away from me, whispering something into the ear of the boy sitting next to her, which is a relief. I suppose I'd rather she think I was staring at her rather than her discolored eyes, not that it's not embarrassing either way.
The boy, who is a head shorter than Natsume and has a face young enough to pass for a ten-year-old, seems somehow intimidated by my presence. I probably owe Naomi for the disruption, but it still makes me feel awkward. Obviously I am intruding on everyone by being here.
"The boy next to her is Hiro Nagata," Naomi explains directly into my ear. "He's the only first-year in the club. He doesn't talk much, and he mostly hangs around with Natsume, but he's super nice."
Hiro murmurs something to Natsume and says nothing to me. I've got no idea what to make of that.
Natsume squints for a moment and looks directly at me. "Note: editorial column for next week, somewhere in the back. Something for Hisao, maybe?"
It takes me a moment to realize that she's not talking to me. As she speaks, Hiro scribbles all her words down into a notebook, as though he is Natsume's personal secretary. I get the feeling he doesn't do much speaking to anyone here besides her.
I find it irritating that I am being volunteered for work already. This isn't feeling like much of an alternative to Student Council, after all.
"I don't even know if I'm joining, to be honest. I'm just exploring my options right now," I say uselessly.
Natsume smiles at this, as though she knew I would say that. "It's just an idea. It's good to shop around to find something that interests you, but you shouldn't rule anything out. And clubs are a good way to make friends."
Something about the way she says that is a bit more inviting. More honest, maybe? I could use some friends, and I don't know if anyone I've met here really qualifies, save maybe for Emi.
It's true that I don't want to rule anything out. I also don't want to end up without anything to do, and I've embarrassed myself in front of almost everyone I've met so far. Naomi has been very nice to me thus far, but I've gotten the impression she's just been trying to goad me into joining the club. Maybe I haven't given her enough credit.
"Thanks for the advice," I say to Natsume with a shrug.
"Of course. Pay close attention now, and you will probably be ready to come to a decision soon."
…Then again, maybe Natsume is just trying to manipulate me, too.
The room goes silent again. Natsume whispers things to Hiro, and Hokuto taps away by himself on his computer. For what Naomi described as a 'team', there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of teamwork at play here, though for what it's worth, everyone at least seems focused on doing whatever work it is that they're doing.
Eventually Naomi does get up and wanders over to Natsume, and they start a conversation about something that breaks up the quiet of the room. With my introductions out of the way, I have nothing else to do, and I feel awkward about trying to look over anyone's shoulder, so instead I just fold my hands on the desk and look around for a while.
Considering the size of the computer lab, it feels exceptionally sparse with so few people in it. I suppose it's not just reserved for the newspaper club, but even still I doubt that there are often many more students than this here at once.
"It must be a lot of work, doing the entire newspaper with this few people," I say to the air.
"I told you it wouldn't be easy," Hokuto responds immediately, gruff with some unfounded irritation.
"I know. I'm just… kind of impressed, I guess."
"Well, it's better than the Student Council, isn't it?" Naomi chides, now looking over Natsume's shoulder. "If you joined them, it would just be you, Shizune and Misha. And they've got an even heavier workload than we do."
"-Allegedly," adds Hokuto.
A Student Council of only two people? I guess that would explain why nobody else showed up to play Risk with us the other day. It's just all the more reason to be cautious about what I sign up for.
I wander over to Natsume's computer station, and Hiro shrinks a little away from her.
"How do you divvy up the work, then?" I ask, putting my hands in my pockets.
Naomi smiles brightly again, pleased to see me taking an interest, and immediately grabs hold of my arm to pull me towards her. She points toward the computer Hiro was typing on with one finger, as though I wouldn't understand what he was doing otherwise.
"Well, everyone writes stories except Takashi. Basically we just find whatever is interesting or important and take turns doing articles about the stuff that we find most interesting, and the boring stuff like sports and school policies and stuff." Naomi looks me dead in the eye for a moment, analyzing my totally blank face. "Takashi, on the other hand, is here to make everything pretty, so he doesn't really do any writing. But we could really use more people to do the computery stuff, so if you're interested in-"
"-I don't know if I'm interested in anything yet, Naomi," I interrupt.
"-Okay, but if you decide you're interested in the technical stuff, that would be a huge help for us. Plus, if you're not sure about writing for the paper, that could be a good place to start." She winks, trying to look cute.
Actually, that does sound like something I could do.
…Actually, that sounds like something literally anyone with fingers could do. Maybe even toes. Rin seems pretty dexterous, after all.
It surprises me that this is the first time Naomi mentioned this to me, as this seems to be a serious concern for her. I get the impression she is more interested in having me write something for the paper.
I can't imagine how I give the impression that I have much to say. Maybe that's what she meant when she said Shizune was good at finding the potential in people. In this case, though, Shizune was probably wrong.
Even if it's not what Naomi was looking for, though, at least this might give me the opportunity not to embarrass myself. That actually sounds pretty promising to me.
I shrug. "Yeah. Maybe I could do that. If I decide to join."
Naomi beams for a few moments before Natsume pulls her attention away to ask her something.
I notice the sun starting to go out through the far window, which probably means they won't be working for too much longer. I suppose I am at least managing not to intrude well enough to stay and watch them go for a while, even if it is mostly for Naomi's benefit.
The afternoon drags into the evening as I hang around the computer lab. As it turns out, Hokuto is the only one who is actually writing anything- a short article about where the class budgets are going this weekend. Since everyone is waiting for the festival, they have to wait until next week in order to write about all the interesting events. As such, the 'preparation' the newspaper club actually needs to do for the festival is slim at best, and Natsume, Naomi and I end up spending the time making ordinary conversation under the masquerade of them planning what to write about. Hiro takes very detailed notes regardless, though.
It's a pretty relaxed way to spend the afternoon, and it feels good to make friends with more people from my class. Friends? Acquaintances, at least.
Kawate is long gone by the time we all leave the computer lab, and Hokuto stays behind for what seems like no reason in particular.
I bid Naomi and Natsume good night when we break off at the entrance of the dorms, and I am about to head inside for the night when I glance over at Rin's mural out of curiosity.
To my surprise, Rin is sitting there, hunched over it and painting with the most emotional expression I have ever seen from her. I almost don't say anything, but my curiosity gets the better of me.
"Hey, Rin," I say quietly, trying not to sneak up on her.
Rin ignores me completely and continues to paint.
"Uh. Hey, Rin," I repeat.
"Who is it?" She tilts her head back and looks very briefly at me before returning to her mural. "Oh. You."
"Yeah. Me. Isn't it a little late to be out working?"
She shrugs a little, clearly distracted. "Yes."
"So, uh… why are you out here?"
"Finish painting. Not enough time."
"You're going to finish the whole thing tonight?"
"It needs to be done by Sunday. I'm going to finish it by Sunday. That's what needs to happen. I can't have any distractions."
She hasn't even looked up from her painting since she figured out who I am, and I'm not exactly sure how to proceed with her. She seems panicked, unhealthily so, but as far as I can tell Rin doesn't really express herself in the same way as most people, so I could be totally wrong.
Either way, she clearly doesn't want me to be here, and for some reason I'm a little hurt by that. Maybe I thought we were at least close enough for my presence not to bother her. Then again, I probably haven't been here long enough to get 'close' with anyone at all, let alone Rin.
"Alright, I'll leave you alone, then. Have a good night, Rin."
"Let us hope," says Rin.
I trail away, a little put-off. Curiosity killed the cat, I guess. Maybe I'll get more out of her on Sunday during the festival.
Having some actual friends to talk to is starting to seem like a pretty nice prospect all of a sudden. Heading off to my dorm, I can't help but think about how much more promising the newspaper club seems than it did yesterday. Then again, it's more the people than the club itself.
Try as I might, though, I can't seem to find anything wrong with that.
Act 1 - Social Circles
Posted: Wed Apr 26, 2017 2:44 am
"Before you all leave, I expect the answers for those problems by Monday."
That's no doubt every student's least favorite ending to a day of class, especially considering the frantic last-minute festival preparations everyone is bound to be doing today.
Mutou is obviously aware of this, but shows no sign of sympathy as the entire class sighs in response. I suspect he is trying to teach us a lesson about slacking off. One that I would do well to learn as well, at that, considering that I need to finish the work the same as everyone else.
Almost everyone in the class piles out through the door almost immediately, evidently prioritizing festival preparation over their classwork, to Mutou's dismay. With no festival work of my own to do, I hang behind to finish the problems in the classroom.
The room becomes several degrees quieter as it empties out, and within moments there is nobody left but me, Naomi, Natsume, and Hanako. Naomi and Natsume chatter quietly to each other, and Hanako- seated right next to them, unfortunately- shifts around uncomfortably at the disruption.
I don't mention it, of course, and do my best to focus on getting my work done. Still, I can't help but notice that Hanako isn't even working on the problems from the board, and she quickly pulls out a book to distract herself from the two girls beside her. She must be waiting for Lilly, which still seems to me like a strange thing to do.
A couple of minutes pass as I start on my work, but just before I am able to knuckle down and get into a rhythm, a hand appears over my paper to interrupt me.
"You got any plans?" Naomi asks loudly, now looming over me.
I glare up at her with some irritation, as it should have been obvious that I was trying to work.
That said, I don't have any plans, and I don't want to reject the possibility of having something to do this afternoon, so I let it slide.
"None," I reply with a shrug, setting my pencil down. "Why?"
"Because we're going to get something to eat, and you should tag along."
Naomi jabs a thumb in the direction of Natsume, who straightens her glasses and shrugs at me. "I assume Naomi is getting tired of my company, now that she's on good terms with a boy from our class."
Natsume seems proud of herself for that, though Naomi doesn't even seem to notice that it's a joke at her expense.
"Don't you guys have club work to do or something?" I ask, glancing between the two of them.
"You were there yesterday afternoon," Naomi says impatiently. "You already know the answer to that."
"Yeah, I guess I do. But I wanted to get these problems done so I didn't have to worry about them later."
"Oh, come on, Hisao. You would seriously rather sit in silence by yourself than hang out with us?"
Once again, I notice that this comment, oddly, comes off less like a taunt and more like a genuine inquiry into my personality. Always the analyst, this one…
I almost point out that I wouldn't be here by myself, since Hanako is still here, but I decide against drawing attention to her. I glance toward the back of the room again- I think Hanako is actively hiding behind her book. No doubt Lilly won't be here for at least a little while longer, and I'm not eager to hang around her in awkward silence.
With a reluctant sigh, I push my chair back and stuff my papers into my bag. "Fine. Where are we going?"
"A teahouse called the Shanghai, in town. Have you been?" Natsume asks, looking intrigued for some reason.
"No… actually, I haven't gone into town at all since I got here. I guess I haven't had time…"
"Well, it's probably better that you have guides going in, then. Naomi and I haven't got anything to do today anyway."
Natsume flashes a friendly smile, prompting a loud, over-the-top scoff from Naomi, who throws up her hands and leans back against the empty desk next to me. "Hey, don't volunteer me for an entire afternoon! I just said we were getting food."
"I'm not volunteering you; I'm only volunteering myself. I just know that you are not one to be left out."
Naomi narrows her eyes as though she objects to this characterization, but she can't seem to come up with an adequate retort and so gives up. "Yeah… fair enough. There's really not a lot to see, though."
It seems like they are about to start arguing for no reason, but I can't gauge whether or not it's playful. Natsume has a very calm and measured way of speaking, such that any of her humor would come off as completely deadpan. It's hard for me to tell when she's being serious.
"I appreciate the offer. I was probably just going to wind up wandering around by myself otherwise," I cut in, finally standing from my desk in order to get us out of the classroom.
Naomi immediately takes the hint and heads for the door, and Natsume follows suit shortly after. Hanako looks relieved to see us go, from as far as I can tell. I feel a twinge of guilt for taking as long as we did to leave, though I realize I probably shouldn't.
The halls are densely packed with students even despite it being the end of the school day, and a number of classrooms are regardless filled with students doing last-minute festival preparations. Though it feels odd not to be involved in such a large activity for the school, I have to admit that it is nice not to have any obligations while everyone else frets about getting their work done in time.
Naomi takes the lead as we head out through the lobby of the academic building, and I immediately notice shouting echoing from the track a ways away- presumably, it's packed with athletes from the sports clubs. The noise quickly fades once we pass through the gate and begin to head down the road, just going to show how condensed the students are on campus. I imagine most people have work to do due to the festival, but that aside, it makes me wonder how often people actually bother taking walks off of the school's grounds.
Having lived in the city for my entire childhood, it strikes me as a waste to have such a quaint and relaxed locale and not bother to take advantage of it.
Naomi isn't wrong, as it turns out- there really isn't very much to see in town. It's small, quiet, and underpopulated, particularly for a Saturday afternoon. There are some little houses up on a hilltop, a park and a few storefronts that seem interesting, but overall nothing that really catches my eye. In a way, I prefer it that way, though. Nothing flashy. I like the quiet atmosphere here.
The three of us end up spending much longer than I would have expected just wandering around in town, and though Naomi doesn't seem to have much patience for it, a scolding glare from Natsume is enough to keep her from complaining.
Before long, it occurs to me that this has been more prolonged exertion than I've had in some time, and the walk starts to seriously take its toll on me. I'm irritated with myself for getting tired from something as mundane as a stroll through town… even considering my heart, I should be in better shape than this. Worse still, Naomi and Natsume don't pay it much notice even as I am forced to slow down my pace to take longer breaths. For some reason, the idea of having to bring up my condition even in passing to them really bothers me.
My irritation with myself morphs into derision as I come up with an excuse to sit down. "So, are you ever going to show me this teahouse, or are we just going to spend the whole afternoon getting lost?"
Naomi skids to a stop just to glower at me. "Wow, this coming from the guy who we were kind enough to do the favor of escorting in the first place?"
"I thought you only wanted to do this to get food, anyway."
"I did. But you didn't."
She raises an eyebrow at me. I should probably be more careful about framing my words as criticism toward her.
"If you two are finished with… whatever this is, we are only a block from the Shanghai," says Natsume, unimpressed. "We made almost a full circuit through town."
"Oh." Naomi looks up and down the street, a little surprised. "So we did. I guess your timing is pretty good, then, Hisao."
I look over her shoulder to the far corner of the road. Sure enough, there is a small café that looks comfortable enough. I'm surprised I didn't notice it before; it is a welcome sight indeed.
Naomi and Natsume walk through the entrance together, giving off the air of regulars. I get the impression this is their go-to destination in town, odd as it may seem considering how tiny and easy-to-miss it is.
A bell over the door rings three times as we enter, signaling our arrival to what seems to be nobody, as the entire place is apparently deserted. Naomi murmurs something to Natsume that I don't hear as I take a look at the café's strange interior. It's some odd amalgam of traditional Chinese architecture and modern furnishing… I guess it's supposed to be trendy? I've never been to a place like this before.
After a few awkward moments of the three of us bumbling around in the entrance, a door opens somewhere behind the counter, and, defying all my expectations, Yuuko of all people appears in an employee's uniform.
"Hey, Yuuko!" Naomi calls out, cheerfully raising a hand in greeting as Yuuko approaches us from behind the counter.
"Oh, it's you both… hi, girls," Yuuko says timidly, eyes darting around self-consciously. After a second, she lays her eyes on me and becomes unreasonably startled. "Oh, and, um, you as well; I didn't mean…"
"Uh." I tilt my head a little, not sure if she recognizes me. "Hi, Yuuko. I didn't know you worked here."
"Mhm, yes, well… anyway-!" She slows to a stop, eyes settling on Naomi and Natsume again, and then flings herself forward into a dramatic bow. "Welcome to the Shanghai! May I take your order?"
"Coffee, black," Natsume responds curtly. "And… something sweet. Pie? Lemon meringue pie."
"Yes, yes, absolutely… and you?"
Yuuko turns to Naomi, who raps her fingers along the counter thoughtfully. "Mm… is it too late to get lunch…? If I order a sandwich, is that, like, a whole sandwich or just a half?"
Yuuko freezes for a moment, intimidated by the question. "That would be a whole sandwich- cut into halves, that is- but they aren't very large, so it may not be enough for a full lunch portion on its own…"
"So, in that case, if I were to order two, do you think that would be too much food?"
"Oh! Well… of course, however much you want is fine… but… the sandwich itself is not a lot of food, but then, the thing is, that would come with soup… so if you were to order two sandwiches, that would also come with two soups, so… all of that food might be too much for one person… but… on the other hand, if you were to only get one- no, I'm sorry, I'm just making this more confusing; that's my fault…"
"Alright, calm down a little, Yuuko," Naomi interrupts, laughing patiently. "Your suggestion was very helpful. Thank you."
Yuuko seems beyond relieved just by this small reassurance, and takes her first breath since she began her whole rant. "Oh… good… you're welcome!"
"Just one sandwich. Turkey. With the soup, that should be enough food." Naomi gives Yuuko a minute to take it in before proceeding. "And a coffee for me, too, with lots of cream."
So the newspaper girls are coffee drinkers, just like me. That seems to fit their aesthetic somehow, like dedicated workers that run on caffeine. Funny how we're eating at a teahouse, and yet none of us is ordering tea.
Processing Naomi's small order, Yuuko nods frantically and bows twice, still wound up.
I speak up after a moment, at the risk of scaring her. "Just a coffee for me too, please."
Naomi laughs out loud, resting one arm on the counter. "Oh, so you complain about wanting to come here right away, and then you don't even order food?"
Honestly, getting tired from the walk basically killed my appetite, but I'm not eager to bring that up. I just shrug.
"I think he's just trying to torment us for a laugh, Natsume," Naomi says loudly. Natsume shakes her head dismissively, like a disapproving parent.
Relieved to have our orders taken care of, Yuuko scurries off through the door again. Naomi and Natsume take a seat at the first empty table, which is not hard to find considering just about every table is empty.
They sit on opposite sides from one another, and without thinking I slip into the booth next to Natsume. Naomi pouts- I think jokingly- at the fact that nobody sat next to her.
"I'm glad you mentioned you hadn't been into town before, Hisao," says Natsume, sliding a little over in the booth to look at me. "It was nice to have the opportunity to go for a walk on a day like today, while the weather is nice."
Naomi rests her elbows on the table, flagrantly yawning without covering her mouth. "And it's uncrowded. It's smart to take advantage of being the lucky few who don't need to stress about the festival."
"-Yet," Natsume corrects seriously. "We'll have our fair share of stress come Monday."
"Don't remind me. You're going to start sounding like Hokuto."
"Yes, well, you may not like to hear it, but honestly he makes a good point about our own preparations. We don't even have a complete itinerary for tomorrow yet, and we were supposed to have been finished with it before we met yesterday."
Naomi lets out a loud groan. "Having a whole itinerary planned out isn't a big deal. As long as Takashi doesn't blow us off, we can basically just split up and everyone will be able to see everything no problem."
"But that's assuming Takashi doesn't blow us off."
It's the first time I've seen Naomi unenthusiastic about something newspaper-related. I imagine it must be annoying to turn something that's supposed to be fun, like the festival, into a homework assignment.
At the first pause in conversation, Yuuko appears and cautiously sets down everyone's food and coffee. Before I even get a chance to say thank you, though, she has already bowed and dashed back into the kitchen at lightning speed.
I take a sip of my coffee. It's the right temperature, but a little strong, so I reach over to grab a couple packets of sugar only to be preempted by Naomi, who grabs a fistful of them for herself.
"What's on your itinerary?" I ask as I stir my coffee.
"We're supposed to cover the festival as thoroughly as possible, so basically everything important," Naomi explains, emptying her fifth sugar into her murky drink. "All the different booths, the mural, performing arts stuff, food…"
"That sounds like fun, not work."
"Then you should join the club!" Naomi shoots me a look, genuinely waiting for a response, but I have none.
"Fun or not, my point is that it's something that needs to be planned," says Natsume, after a pause.
Naomi rolls her eyes and half-empties her cup in one swig. It must taste more like candy than coffee at this point.
I find myself regretting a little that I didn't order anything to eat, since I know I'm going to end up twiddling my thumbs while the two of them finish up. I'm left looking around absentmindedly while they dig in.
Now left with a pile of empty sugar packets, Naomi absentmindedly rolls one of her fingers around in one while she eats with her free hand. It's just ordinary fidgeting, but it makes her seem kind of erratic, like a dog that loses its focus every time it spots a squirrel. I'm not even totally sure why I'm paying attention to that… I guess Naomi just has a lot of mannerisms that draw your attention. I wonder if that's intentional.
…At any rate, she is a lot more expressive than Natsume, who remains comparatively still as she tends to her own food.
Eventually Naomi works her way through her sandwich and turns to her soup, lowering her head to test its temperature out of her spoon. When she does, I spot a patch of blonde from somewhere over one of the table dividers… I guess I hadn't noticed it before, even though it is a shade brighter than Naomi's own bleached-blonde hair. I can only think of one person that it could belong to.
Without saying anything, I lean out of the booth to get a better look- but as soon as I do, I nearly smack my head into someone just as they turn the corner. A quick glance up reveals an androgynous-looking woman in a suit, with the same blonde hair that I spotted across the room.
The woman laughs and gives me a quick apology before brushing past, leaving me to my embarrassment. Naomi doesn't even bother pretending not to laugh at me.
After scowling at her, I slip out of the booth just enough to glance across the room. Sure enough, there's Lilly, sitting alone with a cup of tea and looking forlorn about something. I probably wouldn't be tempted to invite her over without asking the others, but she looks so lonely sitting there by herself that I can't help myself.
"Hey, Lilly!" I call out from the middle of the room.
She seems startled for a moment, but collects herself quickly. "Hm? Oh, is that… Hisao?"
I meander towards her table just to get within speaking distance. "Yeah. Good to see you."
'Good to see you'… oops. Damn. Thankfully, she doesn't seem to notice.
"I heard another group come in a while ago, but I hadn't realized you were a part of it. I'm glad you came to say hello," Lilly says earnestly.
"You're here by yourself?"
"Now I am, I suppose." She cups her hands around her teacup, frowning. "I was having tea with my sister, who just left."
"Oh, I think I saw her… the woman in a suit? I almost smacked into her getting out of my seat."
"Yes, that's her. She can be a bit… brusque… at times, but I promise she is well-meaning."
Lilly lets out a quiet but obvious sigh. She seems much less bright than she did the last time I talked to her.
"Do you want to come sit with us?" I ask, glancing over my shoulder at my table. "It's just me and two girls from my class, Naomi Inoue and Natsume Ooe."
"Oh? Thank you, Hisao. I would appreciate the company."
"I probably owe you one for the tea from the other day."
With an appreciative smile, Lilly grasps her teacup in one hand and gets out of her seat. I hesitate for a moment, unsure exactly how to guide her to the other table, but before I get the chance, she pulls her retractable cane from the bench and walks over on her own. Apparently it was easy enough to tell where to go from the noise we were making.
Trying to navigate around her blindness makes me tense, particularly because she never seems to talk about it.
"I hope I'm not intruding," Lilly says politely, standing in front of our table to make introductions.
Natsume shoots me a tired look as I take my seat. I probably should have asked them before bringing a guest over, but I don't feel guilty about it.
Naomi, on the other hand, seems enthusiastic to greet her, and quickly begins speaking for the table. "Of course not. Do you want to take a seat?"
"Yes; thank you." Lilly folds up her cane and sits in the booth next to Naomi, who immediately slides over to the end to make room. "You're all in 3-3, yes? I don't know if we've really been properly acquainted. I am Lilly Satou. Naomi and Natsume, is it?"
"Oh, I think we've spoken a couple of times," Naomi replies with a shrug. "I can't speak for Natsume, though."
"No, you can't," Natsume says with a small sigh. "But it's nice to meet you, Lilly."
"Likewise," Lilly says calmly, raising her cup to her lips. "Forgive my lack of memory, Naomi."
"It's fine. I think it's been a while. I just keep track of people pretty well," Naomi dismisses. "So you and Hisao are friends, huh?"
Glancing between Lilly and I, Naomi shoots me a very shady look, one that I don't even want to know the meaning of. More than that, I feel very uncomfortable taking advantage of Lilly's blindness to communicate through body language, so I do my best to ignore her.
"I would be flattered if Hisao considered me a friend, but we only met several days ago. Then again, that must be true of everyone, given that you are a transfer student." Lilly directs that statement at me- or in my general direction, at least.
"Basically. But… yeah, we're friends, I guess," I say uncertainly. I do like Lilly, to be sure, but I'm not sure if it would be worse to risk being rude or to risk being presumptuous.
Naomi raises an eyebrow at that, and I suddenly become very eager to change the subject.
"Er, did you talk to Hanako at all today, Lilly?" I ask hurriedly, to follow up.
"Hanako?" Lilly seems intrigued by the question. "Yes, just briefly. Why?"
"She stayed behind in the classroom today, along with the three of us. I had assumed she was waiting for you, so I was kind of surprised to see…"
I trail off, in response to a bizarre, anxious glare from Naomi. I really wish she would stop making faces at me so I could stop feeling like I'm tiptoeing around Lilly.
"I came by the classroom, but she was the only one there. You all must have left before then. I had already made plans with my sister, as I mentioned, so I believe she went off to the library. You needn't worry, Hisao."
Lilly smiles at me and returns to her tea. She can clearly sense that I'm still feeling uncomfortable about Hanako, so I'm glad to have her patience.
Not so for Naomi, however, who seems displeased with me for bringing up the subject of Hanako. Considering the two of them sit right next to each other in class, I would be willing to bet that Naomi has had about as much luck with her as I have. Hanako is probably not very receptive to being questioned about her interests and personality, after all.
Naomi thumps her hand on the table, all of a sudden filled with some newfound enthusiasm. "So, what will the big-shot class rep be doing for the festival?"
Lilly, taken by surprise, chuckles at the phrasing of that. "I take it you are referring to me."
"Unless there's another class rep at the table."
"I will be spending tomorrow waitressing. Please come by the stall; everyone has put in a lot of work to make sure everything will be running smoothly tomorrow." Lilly says that with some exhaustion, and I am immediately reminded of how Shizune was hounding her about it a couple days ago.
"Spending the whole day working? Man, you just can't catch a break, huh?"
"I have to admit, sometimes it really feels that way."
"You and your cousin both. You guys are like two peas in a pod with this festival stuff."
Huh? Whose cousin-?
"Funny you should say that, as I have been feeling quite the opposite lately. I'm surprised you even knew we were related."
"Like I said, I keep track of people well."
Naomi shrugs again, which seems odd considering Lilly obviously doesn't know she's doing it. I glance over at Natsume, who seems to barely even be paying attention. I suppose she is less interested in Lilly than either Naomi or I am.
"Sorry, who is your cousin…?" I ask tentatively, at the risk of embarrassing myself.
Naomi looks at me with disbelief. "…You're kidding, Hisao."
Lilly seems a little surprised. "Shizune Hakamichi. Your class representative. I could have sworn you mentioned that you knew her."
…Well, that certainly adds some layers to their rivalry. I am clearly wearing my surprise on my face, as Naomi seems eager to make fun of me for it.
"Yeah, he knows Shizune, Lilly," Naomi says, not taking her eyes off me. "Hisao, Hisao… friends with both Shizune and Lilly and you didn't know they were related? You sure do keep interesting company."
Lilly smirks gently, trying to hide her amusement at that.
I throw up my hands. "Hey, nobody told me. I'm still new, you know. It's not like I would think to ask."
"It's fine, Hisao. It shouldn't make any difference to you," Lilly remarks.
"No. I, uh… I guess it doesn't."
Lilly raises her cup to her lips again only to find it empty. A little pensive, she lowers it and turns her head away from the table somewhat. "It is probably beginning to get late, isn't it? I have been here for a while now."
Everyone else immediately looks out the window. Sure enough, it's already sundown. We must have spent more time wandering around in town than I realized.
"The sun is starting to set," says Natsume quietly.
"Yes, I thought as much. Then I think I should head back to Yamaku about now," Lilly says definitively, getting out of her seat and rifling through her bag.
"That's probably not a bad idea," I add, earning another suspicious glance from Naomi.
"I'm going to have another coffee. Let's go back after," she says with pursed lips.
"That works, too."
"Then we'll meet again later. As I said, please take the time to come by my stall. I would appreciate the break." Lilly sets down the money for her tea on the table, giving a polite wave. "Thank you for the company, you three. Have a good night."
Everyone chants 'good night' in unison as Lilly departs the Shanghai. That leaves Naomi, Natsume and me as the only three people in the building, besides Yuuko.
"That was interesting," Naomi hums, rapping her fingers along her empty coffee cup. "Thanks for introducing us, Hisao. You sure seem to like her."
"Yeah, she's nice. Sorry if I imposed a little bit." I shrug, as I'm not really all that sorry.
"Liked her enough to want to leave with her, anyway."
Natsume cracks up a little but says nothing. I guess I missed something somewhere along the line.
All of a sudden I find myself blushing. "What are you getting at?"
"Nothing, nothing. Just a little intrigued by your interest in her." Naomi throws up her hands innocently. "Like I said, you keep interesting company. You're an interesting person."
"I don't have interest in her, alright? She's a friend. I've only known her for, like, two days. Not everything needs to be a big scandal."
"You can't tell me you don't think she's pretty."
"I didn't say that- I- that doesn't make any difference! What are you on about?"
If I wasn't blushing before, I definitely am now. All of a sudden I'm on the witness stand, and Naomi is particularly harsh on the cross-examination.
By all accounts, I do not know Naomi well enough to be getting questioned like this… but then, she definitely seems much more forward than most. That doesn't pair well with her curiosity, it seems.
"So you do think she's pretty," Naomi replies, leaning into her hands.
"Sure. So what? You read too much into everything."
"You sure seem eager to deny it."
She grins, reveling in sadistic pleasure.
I have had more than enough of this, and take the only out I can think of. "…Aren't we only still here because you wanted another coffee?"
"Oh, yeah." She sits up suddenly, having apparently genuinely forgotten about it. "But Yuuko hasn't come out in a while."
"I think she waits for the bell on the front door to come out and greet customers," says Natsume. "She should really be more attentive, considering we're the only customers here."
"Don't let her hear you say that. You'll give her a panic attack." With a sigh, Naomi climbs out of her seat and wanders away from the table, towards the counter. "Hey, Yuuko!"
There is a distant crash from somewhere through the doorway.
A moment later, Yuuko appears, looking disheveled as ever, and rushes to take Naomi's order at the counter.
I take a deep breath, enjoying my one free moment from the controlled uproar that seems to follow Naomi around like a cloud of dust.
Natsume leans into the table, watching Naomi carefully. We make brief eye contact, which I break to avoid staring at her discolored eye.
"…So you like blondes, huh, Hisao?" Natsume asks with a quiet chuckle.
For the love of-
"Oh, nobody asked for your opinion."
Natsume relaxes back into the bench without another word, straightening her glasses. Thankfully, she doesn't seem as intent on interrogation as Naomi, but even still… today is not my day.
I don't even have plans yet, but it's hard for me to imagine that the festival could possibly be as exhausting as this.
Act 1 - It Takes All Kinds
Posted: Fri Apr 28, 2017 2:16 pm
"…Yeah, you should check the festival out."
It seems like a harmless suggestion to me, but even still I'm not surprised to see Kenji overreact to it, groaning and throwing his face into his hands.
"Agh, no, no! I can't do it. They'll eat me alive out there, I know it."
He remains hidden behind his door frame as though concerned someone might see that he's in the building. Given that it's his room, and I'm clearly talking to him, this seems like an unrealistic concern to me, but unrealistic concerns are his specialty.
Kenji shakes his head once and collects himself, looking to me hopefully. "What are you going to do? We should hang out in here; you can help me build my fort. We might still make it if we work together."
Huh. To be honest, despite how much everyone has been talking about the festival, I hadn't really given my own plans much thought until now.
"I don't know. I'm pretty hungry, so I thought I'd get some food first and then check out the attractions." I shrug, speaking off the top of my head. "The people in the newspaper club made it seem like there's a lot to see. I'd like to get the chance to do as much as possible."
Kenji hesitates for a moment before continuing his rant. Apparently what I said caught him off guard. "You read the newspaper?"
"Not really. I've just been hanging out with the people who run it."
"What? Are you serious? That's, like, a hundred times worse!"
Kenji clenches his sweaty fists, glaring at me with paranoia from behind his glasses. I probably should have expected this.
"Worse? Worse than what?"
"Those are probably the worst people you could hang around with! Infiltrating the media is the number one priority for any conspiracy. Everyone knows that. They'll poison your mind if you aren't careful." He shakes his head slowly, trying to pass on his sage-like wisdom. "Isn't it already run by a bunch of loudmouthed girls?"
"Uh… not really? There's five people in the club, and only two of them are girls. And that's not counting me; I'm not even in the club."
"Oh… really?" Kenji tugs on his scarf, settling down a little. "Well, even still, that's a risky move you're taking, dude. Taking the fight undercover is dangerous. You can only wear a mask for so long before it starts wearing you, you know what I mean?"
"Uh… I guess so?"
"If you're going to commit to this, you shouldn't start today. Today is one of the most dangerous days of the year. Let it blow over in safety, like me. Find shelter."
"I'll keep that in mind."
He glances briefly over his shoulder, breathing heavily, then nods at me. "Take care of yourself. Don't go to the festival."
The door slowly closes in front of me as Kenji slides back into his shadowy room. I'm jarred, but not altogether surprised. At least Kenji is predictable, if nothing else.
Now having some idea of what to do with my afternoon, I am pleasantly surprised by my own enthusiasm to go out today.
The campus is surprisingly crowded, considering the fact that the festival has not even officially started yet. The number of stalls surrounding the school surely outnumbers the number of classes they belong to. It's pretty clear that everyone's hard work went into making this as big and over-the-top of an event as possible. Even after all I've heard about it, it still blows my expectations out of the water. I spend a long time just taking it in as I wander around.
With no better place to go, and an empty stomach that wears on me more and more the longer I walk around outside, I end up buying a plate of takoyaki and sitting by myself on a bench away from most of the commotion. Before long, the carillon bells ring out in the distance, and the principal announces the official beginning of the very much already-underway festival.
I feel kind of invisible in the midst of everything. It's kind of relaxing and kind of uncomfortable at the same time. This is what you'd call "blending in", I guess. It gives me the chance to get a good look at all the other people here.
Most of the festival-goers seem to be non-students, to my surprise. Most people here seem to be from the town surrounding Yamaku. Lots of little kids dragging their mothers around by the hand, and especially a lot of elderly people. There are plenty of school uniforms mixed into the crowd too, to be sure, but I think most of the students out here are either setting up stalls for their class, or already working at them. I feel a little guilty that I don't have any work of my own to do.
I'm determined not to sit around and waste my time, especially since the summer heat makes it difficult to sit in one place comfortably. As soon as I'm finished eating, I dump my plate and slip back into the crowd of people…
…And then, a moment later, I step out of it again. Come to think of it, now that I'm here, I don't have the first idea of where to start. My plan of "wander around and find something to do" sounded a lot better in my head.
I wish I didn't have to find my way around by myself. Maybe I could go check on Lilly's stall- she asked us to yesterday, after all. Then again, she said she was waitressing, and I did just eat…
With no better ideas, I meander back around to the school building. All up and down the pathway, people lean out of their stalls to try and harass people into spending money on something, but I don't see Lilly anywhere. I'm really starting to regret that I don't have any friends to guide me around here.
"Hey, you listening? Don't you wanna know your future?"
Something hits lightly on the arm, and I instinctively turn. It was a wad of paper, thrown by a girl at the counter of the stall nearest to my left. First-years get bolder every year, it seems.
"Huh?" I hear myself ask, still not really paying attention.
"Wow, you are really out of it, huh?" She leans on the counter with a bored expression, not even bothering to hide it.
"I was just a little distracted. Sorry."
"Are you looking for something?"
"Uh… not really. The stall for class 3-2, I guess?"
"Oh. Yeah. Sure."
She sighs loudly, leaning over her counter to point further up the lane. It's hard to tell exactly where she's pointing, considering the crowd, but I think I get the gist of it. As far as I can tell, Lilly's stall seems to be the biggest among of any of the surrounding ones. I'm surprised it didn't draw my attention sooner.
"Up there," says the girl, sliding back behind the counter.
She sighs again, voicing her displeasure with… something I did, I suppose. I'm not sure what that is.
"Do you need something?" I ask, a bit more rudely than I intended.
"No, no, by all means, if you're in a rush, go ahead."
I turn away again-
"Unless you're not in a rush, of course!"
-and turn back.
"Alright, what is it, then?"
"I asked you before if you wanted to get your palm read. Weren't you listening?"
"No, not really. I told you I was distracted."
"Oh, yeah." She pouts for just a moment, then summons up some fake enthusiasm and jumps to her feet. "Do you want to get your palm read?"
"Er. Not really."
Her eyes glint with frustration. "…You sure? It's fun! If you're not in a rush…!"
Well, I guess I did want to do as much as possible.
"Great! 600 yen."
She flashes me a look. "Oh, come on, dude."
"Alright… maybe later. I'll swing back around."
"Where's your sense of fun?"
"Sorry, I'm just… not really superstitious."
Nor am I keen to dump 600 yen on a fortune, but I don't want to come off as cheap. This stall must not be getting very much attention, considering how hard this girl is fighting just for one customer… I kinda feel bad now.
"This is no place for cynicism, Hisao."
That's Natsume's voice- I hadn't even heard her approach in the middle of my conversation. The girl at the counter openly laughs at me as I turn around.
"Everyone's a critic," I groan, crossing my arms.
Natsume straightens her glasses and brushes a hand to her side, and Hiro, clutching a clipboard in his arms, tiptoes out from behind her like a frightened mouse.
"If you didn't want to spend money, you probably shouldn't have come to the festival in the first place," Natsume says matter-of-factly. "But more importantly, you shouldn't pass up an opportunity to learn about your future." She pats her hand down on the counter for emphasis. "Hiro and I already got our palms read. You have to admit, 600 yen is a pretty good deal in exchange for ancient mystic knowledge."
"She's right, you know," says the girl at the counter behind me.
I tilt my head to the side to look at Hiro, who meekly raises a hand to wave at me before glancing back to the papers on his clipboard. Presumably, Natsume is using him to keep notes again. I suppose these two are hard at work, going from stall to stall for the newspaper.
Mandatory fun. What a difficult job.
I look back to Natsume. "How do I know whether the fortune I'm given will actually come true or not?"
"It's a low-risk investment. Sometimes you just have to have a little faith with these things," Natsume explains. "Hiro is going to find love in a familiar place. I'm going to make a great impact on the world. Don't you want to know what is preordained for you?"
Personally, I suspect that kind of thing may be better left to chance. Not everyone can be destined for greatness, after all.
Then again, I don't see another way out of this. The members of the newspaper club are the masters of the hard sell.
"You sound like an advertisement," I mutter, getting out my wallet.
Natsume seems as pleased with herself as ever.
Turns out I will be a highly successful and influential person. That would probably be uplifting, but apparently I will also live a long and prosperous life and have a future in athletics… so I guess palmistry doesn't account for crippling health defects. If she'd checked my wrist, my pulse would have told her that much.
I probably should have saved my money- I didn't exactly need a professional to remind me what I'm doing here. It irritates me that such a little thing can get to me like that. I wish I could say it was just pessimism, but that's what I get for thinking about the future, like it or not.
Natsume and Hiro don't seem to notice my mood change, and Natsume chatters into my ear as we work our way all the way down the path along the side of the school building. Hiro barely says two words, though that's partly because Natsume keeps noticing things and dictating comments to him, leaving him furiously scribbling notes the whole time.
Eventually we stop at Lilly's stall, which seems to be in a state of chaos. A handful of students, Lilly included, are all crowded around the back of the stall sifting through a stack of boxes. We have to stand at the counter unassisted for a minute or so before someone finally takes notice of us and sends Lilly off to greet us.
"Sorry about that, we're having a few problems. What would you like?" Lilly asks with some exhaustion.
Natsume raises an eyebrow at that and nudges Hiro. "Oh, really? What happened?"
"Oh! Is that… Natsume? From yesterday?"
"That's right. Hisao is here, too. And another friend."
I speak up for the first time. "Hi, Lilly. Enjoying the festival?"
"Mm… I am doing my best," Lilly responds lamely. "Thank you all for stopping by. I'm sorry everything is so disorganized right now…"
"It's not of any concern to us," says Natsume. "What exactly happened?"
"There was some kind of mistake with our order. We don't have everything we need, and we don't have enough students from our class to help manage it…" Lilly touches her cheek, politely trying to mask what seems to me like pretty obvious frustration.
Natsume nudges Hiro forcefully to get him to start writing. "You aren't the only ones, either. There are a number of stalls serving food that had ordering mistakes. As I understand this is some kind of larger bureaucratic issue." She bites her lip, like she's hesitant to go on. "Probably something that would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Student Council, don't you think? Considering they are the ones that had to keep track of all those reports…"
"Hm. I… hadn't even thought of it."
I get the feeling she has thought about it at length, but I suppose her sense of tact prevents her from badmouthing Shizune in public.
Natsume raps her fingers along the counter with a thoughtful expression. I wonder if she is trying to rile Lilly up on purpose? Maybe she wants something scandalous to report on. I don't think her brand of journalism makes integrity a priority.
"I'm sorry, I got distracted for a moment," Lilly adds after a second, not giving Natsume the chance to continue. "What can I get for you?"
Oh, right. I'd almost forgotten that we're not the only people in line here.
I glance at the menu as a gut reaction. Without thinking, I order the first thing that comes to mind, even though I'm not hungry. "Oh, uh… how about miso soup?"
Almost immediately, Natsume cuts ahead of me, fishing through her own wallet for money. "Just make that one bowl for each of us, please."
"Oh, alright. Coming right up."
Natsume pays for the three of us, not even giving me the opportunity to protest. After taking a moment to count out the coins in her palm, Lilly calls out her order to the group behind her.
Before long, they pass forward our order, and Lilly delicately lays out three bowls of soup on the counter. Without another word, Natsume takes hers and takes off, indicating for us to follow. Hiro hugs his clipboard to his chest and attempts to balance his soup in one hand, which I only narrowly catch myself from laughing at. He hurriedly accepts when I offer to carry it for him.
"I was going to pay for this myself, Natsume," I call ahead, partially just to get her to slow down so I can catch up to her.
Natsume glances back very briefly, just long enough for us to get within speaking distance, then continues on. "I know. But I figured that I already pressured you into spending money on getting your palm read. I don't mind buying."
"Yeah… I'm willing to bet Hiro doesn't mind you buying, either."
"Well, he's taking notes for me. It's a give-and-take relationship."
"I'm happy to help," Hiro interjects suddenly.
I'm a little startled for a moment- I'm not sure I had even realized he was capable of speaking outside of a hushed whisper.
"I know, but you wouldn't tell me even if you weren't," Natsume replies with a shrug. Hiro smiles faintly at that.
We walk halfway across campus before finding a shaded spot that Natsume is satisfied sitting down at. The walk takes more out of me than I'd like to admit, and I'm happy to finally sit down and rest in the grass for a while. At least the soup is good.
"Where is everybody else?" I ask after we get settled in. "You guys are… reporting on the festival, or whatever, right?"
Natsume lowers her bowl from her lips, narrowing her eyes at the question. "We were together with Hokuto earlier, but he went off on his own to help cover our bases better. I have yet to hear from Naomi or Takashi."
Takashi not being here is not hard to believe, from what I've heard of him so far, but Naomi? I'm shocked that she hasn't shown up to help. It seems like she has talked about nothing but the festival for the past two days.
"Really? Naomi is missing? Didn't you call her or anything?"
Natsume shrugs. "Of course I did. Her absence is not making my life any easier."
And that's all anyone says about it. I feel a little strange about that for some reason.
We spend a while sitting in the grass as we finish our soup. Natsume ends up finishing while her bowl is still half-full, and she gives the rest to Hiro, who drinks it in nearly one gulp. For such a small person, he has an impressive appetite.
Now that I'm in the shade, I find myself really starting to relax for the first time today. I hadn't realized how much I needed a day off after only a week of class. You'd think all that time in the hospital would have been enough of a vacation, but it's been rough transitioning into class. It feels good to have someone I can call a friend- or close enough to one, at least- just so I don't have to feel like such an introvert.
I am the last one to finish eating, and Natsume snatches my bowl away as soon as I set it down. "Hisao, I have a request to make of you. And I know I am not really at liberty to make it, so please keep an open mind."
"I beg your pardon?"
She stands, stacking the three bowls together in one hand. "I know you aren't technically in the club… but could you give Hokuto a hand for a little while? I don't trust him on his own."
"Huh? Why not?"
"He's just very opinionated. I don't like the idea of him wandering around writing unnecessarily critical things about everyone's hard work."
"Oh," I say flatly.
I suppose I don't mind helping. And it probably wouldn't hurt to get to know Hokuto a little better. But maybe I'm just in a good mood.
I shrug. "Yeah, alright."
"Thanks a lot." Natsume briefly glances down at her cell phone, thoughtful. "Do you know the big mural by the dorms?"
"You mean Rin's mural? Yeah, I helped work on it a little bit."
"Oh, really?" She snaps her head up to look at me suddenly. "That's really helpful. Could you go meet Hokuto there? He's been dragging his feet on this."
"Great." She shoots a look at Hiro. "Note: art club piece. Front page. Left column."
He scribbles this down dutifully.
Is she visualizing the whole paper in her head? That's actually kind of impressive.
Natsume nods once to affirm what Hiro wrote, then looks back to me. "Hisao. Everyone from the club's going to meet up tonight, after dark, if they decide to show up. You should come along, too."
"Give me your phone."
"So I can put in my phone number, of course. You may as well be in contact with everyone in the club, at this point."
"Oh. I guess that makes sense."
I hand her my own phone without question, and she immediately jumps to my contacts list.
Something in the back of my mind celebrates the fact that I just inadvertently got the number of a cute girl from my class. I feel odd that that thought even crossed my mind, even if only for a second. After all, it's tempered by the fact that this is the first person period that I've gotten the phone number of at Yamaku.
She taps away at my phone for a few minutes before handing it back to me. It seems strange until I realize that it wasn't just her phone number that she put in, but the number of everyone in the newspaper club. Natsume seems pretty presumptuous about me joining their ranks.
Then again, is she really wrong to be? I like everyone well enough, and I've entertained the idea for some time. If I am going to join, it might be better to do it sooner rather than later.
"We'll see you later, then, Hisao?" Natsume asks, tugging on Hiro's arm, to his chagrin.
"Yeah. See ya."
Natsume and Hiro head back off the way we came, and they take all the bowls with them to return them to Lilly's stall. I guess that's that.
We're already pretty close to the dorms, as it turns out, so it's just a short walk to the mural at the bottom of the stairs. When I arrive, Hokuto is the only person looking at it- and that includes Rin herself, who is instead parked on the ground, leaning against the wall and staring off into the vague distance.
"Hisao," Hokuto says gruffly, nodding to acknowledge me. "They recruited you."
"Yeah. Just for the afternoon, anyway," I reply.
He thinks for a moment, then gestures forward. "I have no idea what to say about this."
I take my first real look at the finished mural since I arrived. It's both impressive and disturbing at the same time- an entire wall covered top-to-bottom in disfigured bodies and odd colors. It is much too abstract for me to form any kind of intellectual opinion about it, so I understand where Hokuto is coming from.
"Hey, Rin," I posit, turning to the artist herself.
She blinks drearily and cranes her head up toward me, looking half-asleep. "Oh, it's you again."
"You finished your mural, I see."
"Hm. I don't know. Maybe I did."
I glance back at the mural. It looks pretty damn finished to me- I don't think there's a single spot left to be filled anywhere on the wall.
"It looks good."
"I don't know."
That's kind of disappointing to hear. I really do think the mural looks nice, not that Rin seems to care what I think one way or the other.
Hokuto shoots me a glance and steps to my other side, putting his finger to his chin like a critic.
"What is it?" he asks, gesturing to Rin.
"It's a mural," she replies dully.
I can't help but laugh, which makes Hokuto grumble to himself.
"But what is the mural about?"
"I don't know."
Hokuto groans audibly, which Rin does not even seem to notice.
"How do you not know? You painted it!"
"So what were you trying to paint?"
"…A mural. And that is what I painted."
"What is being portrayed on it?"
"I don't know. It is portraying what a mural portrays."
"…So it's a mural about a mural."
"Yes!" Rin seems suddenly enthusiastic. "Yes, that is exactly what it is."
I'm starting to think I understand it even worse than I did before. I don't know how much help I can really be to Hokuto.
Hokuto looks back to me, and I shrug uselessly. With a scowl, he takes a few steps toward Rin, leaving me to stand awkwardly behind him.
"We're contributing to the school newspaper," he explains, collecting himself to sound more polite. "I would really appreciate it if I could quote you on what your thoughts were when you painted this."
"I don't know. I had a lot of different thoughts."
"Why don't you just take a picture?" I ask absentmindedly.
Hokuto flips back to me. "Takashi is supposed to be our photographer today."
Of course he is.
"Well, the mural will still be here tomorrow."
"We will get a photo of it. But if I'm going to write about it, I want a statement."
I'm not so sure there is anything to write about it. Maybe I'm not cut out for this after all.
With a flourish, Hokuto gets down on one knee to look at Rin, who hasn't moved from her spot against the wall the whole time.
"I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?"
"Rin Tezuka," says Rin.
"The art club seemed pretty interested in your work."
"You must have some kind of inspiration."
"That's what they said."
"So what is it that inspires your mural?"
Rin thinks for a long while. "Murals."
…It's going to be a long afternoon.
Hokuto's not so bad, once you get to know him. He can be curt, but I think he's just defensive of his work. We spend the rest of the afternoon going from place to place, and he drops his cold façade when I prove that I'm willing to help out. Even if that help is just making useless comments every once in a while.
Even as the sun sets, the crowd hardly dies down at all. If anything, it swells even larger around dinnertime, as people get their second wind to try everything. I barely even notice the time passing, personally.
The evening trails on past the sunset, until the campus is left lit only by moonlight and a few lights scattered around the stalls. Hokuto lets out a yawn and claims that he urgently needs caffeine, so naturally I am left fishing through my pockets for change to feed the vending machine. An entire day of festival games and food and the only thing either of us has to show for it is an empty wallet and one stuffed animal that he insists is for his sister.
I scrounge up enough for two canned coffees and toss Hokuto one. With another yawn, he leans against a nearby tree and tries to look cool as he sips from it. Before I get to mine, though, I notice my phone buzzing and am nearly startled enough to drop my coffee on the ground.
It's Natsume. Go figure.
"Hey, Hisao," says Natsume, her voice a little obscured by background noise. "You're with Hokuto, right?"
"Yeah, he's here."
Hokuto seems suddenly alarmed, and takes a step toward me. "Who is that? You're talking about me?"
"It's Natsume," I say with a wave of my hand. "Relax."
He narrows his eyes suspiciously.
"Do you want to come meet us in the gardens? We should probably convene together," says Natsume.
"Do you know your way around well enough to get there, or do you need me to navigate you?"
"I think I can find my way there."
"Find your way where, Hisao?" Hokuto demands.
I don't get a chance to finish before he snatches my phone out of hands. "Where are you? –No, we spent all day- ugh… yes, Natsume…"
He thrusts my phone back into my hands, looking defeated.
I raise an eyebrow. "Are you satisfied?"
"Just come on."
He storms off to meet up with the others. Thankfully he knows the way, because I suspect I would have been out of luck trying to find my way there on my own…
We find Natsume and Hiro tucked away into a quiet area away from the main event, gathered around a picnic table and a bench. They both look about as exhausted as I feel- no doubt they had a busy day of their own.
"What's the word on Takashi?" Hokuto asks, taking a seat at the bench next to Natsume.
"He never turned up," Natsume groans.
"Of course he didn't."
"But I have even better news." Natsume glances up at the sky for a moment, contemplating something, then looks back to her phone. "I do have word on Naomi. And she is not happy."
"Oh, really? What does she want?"
"She wants to look at the notes we took today. Have you got them with you?"
"Right here." Hokuto lifts his clipboard, which is completely covered in his illegible chicken scratch.
"Great. So now the big question. Who wants to be the messenger?"
They exchange a glance, visibly exhausted. I feel like I missed something.
"What? Where's Naomi?" I ask, turning everyone's attention to me.
"Why?" responds Natsume shadily. "You want to bring her the notes?"
"Sure, I don't mind. I don't get what the big deal is."
"She's in the nurse's office. Just stop in."
Hang on, what-?
In one move, Natsume swings her arm all the way around her and snatches both clipboards from the boys on either side of her.
I hold up a hand to stop her. "Wait, she's in the nurse's? Is something wrong?"
"No, don't worry. She's fine. Just… er… not in a good mood," Natsume explains tentatively.
She stands from the bench to dump a handful of papers into my arms. I'm starting to think this is more than I bargained for, but I suppose it's too late to go back now.
"Thank you, Hisao."
She sure is quick to delegate… all of them seem to be that way, in fact, aside from Hiro. They may not exactly be the flawless team that Naomi painted them to be, but it seems like the club is pretty tightly-knit. Like they all know each other really personally. It kind of reminds me of home…
I allow myself one more moment to take in the night air before heading off for the nurse's office. It seems a little late for a visit there, but I suppose they advertise 24/7 nursing for a reason here.
Still, what happened to Naomi? She is apparently bound to the damn place, and yet nobody even bothers to mention what happened? Is everyone's health really such a non-concern that people just don't care when something bad happens? Or is it such a regular occurrence that it's not worth making a big deal about?
I kind of hate that idea for some reason. Letting my health problems become normalized. I have struggled for months with the idea that this is something I'm just going to have to get used to.
It's a bit of a walk to get there, but I know the way to the auxiliary building already, so the trip isn't any longer than it has to be. All the lights are off in the halls, making the whole place kind of eerie. On the night of the festival, it seems like there's not a soul here. And it seems like there shouldn't be.
The head nurse's office is closed, as it turns out. I'm relieved that I won't have to risk an encounter with him, as I know that would entail a lecture about abandoning my runs with Emi.
It takes me a few more minutes to find an office with the lights on. I rap my fingers lightly against the door, and very quickly it swings open to reveal a cheery-looking woman in a white coat.
"Oh, I'm sorry, can I help you?" she asks politely.
I shrug, unsure of myself. "Yes, I'm sorry… I'm looking for Naomi Inoue?"
The nurse nods knowingly and peers back into the room for a moment. "You're from the newspaper club, right?"
"Come on in. She's been complaining about wanting to see you."
She steps aside to let me enter, not bothering to guide me any further into the office than her desk, where she promptly takes a seat again. I lead myself into the back room, where they keep beds and some emergency medical equipment.
Naomi sits up on a bed at the edge of the room, near the window. It makes me a little forlorn, for some reason.
"…Naomi," I murmur, holding up the papers I carried in.
She flips around immediately, surprised to hear my voice. "Hisao? Of all the people I expected to show up here, you were not one of them."
She smiles at me, though it looks kind of forced. I wander over to her bed to hand her the papers, which she takes greedily.
"Apparently nobody wanted to come see you."
"Yeah, I don't blame them," she sighs, absentmindedly peering over the pages in her hands. "I was cranky on the phone."
I'm quiet for a moment, not totally sure what the proper etiquette is here. Am I supposed to just leave? I wish I knew what was going on, at least.
I slump back onto the bed next to hers. "Is… I mean… are you… okay? What happened?"
"…Oh! Nobody told you?" Naomi frowns slightly, looking up from the papers. "Sorry, I didn't mean to keep anyone out of the loop. I had a pretty bad seizure in the girls' dorm this morning. It's my own fault; I slacked on my meds." She shrugs. "Oh yeah, I'm epileptic, in case you didn't know. Mutou goes out of his way to tell the whole class stuff like that if it's important, but I guess you're a transfer student so you wouldn't know. But yeah, it's not a big deal. I promise it's nothing to worry about."
She goes back to reading everyone's notes.
So, she's epileptic. That's what's wrong with her, I guess. A seizure she had this morning has kept her bedridden all day, and that's not a big deal?
I glance around the room once more. It's lit only by moonlight, but I suppose it's better than keeping on the ugly nurse's-office fluorescent lights. It sure is pretty outside, after all.
I guess this little room is the closest thing to a hospital room you'd find here. Maybe that's why it makes me feel forlorn.
"Is… that helpful?" I ask tentatively.
Naomi looks up again with a start, like she's surprised to see me still here. "Oh, yeah! Thanks a lot. Looks like everyone got things covered after all. I was worried about that." She looks out the window and puts a hand to her forehead. "It's so shitty that this had to happen today, though. I was really looking forward to this…"
"Hm. Thanks." She sighs quietly.
"I, uh… I mean, is it-?"
"I'm sorry, did I freak you out?" she interrupts suddenly, shaking her head. She sets down the stack of papers on the bedside table, swinging her legs over the side of the bed to face me. "You never asked me about any health stuff. I thought you weren't worried about it. But I know some people are kind of private about that stuff. I'm really sorry if that made you uncomfortable."
"No, no, it's fine, Naomi. Seriously."
"Alright, good. I assume I know people too well sometimes, and I tend to totally say the wrong thing." She shrugs. "I haven't exactly got you figured out yet, so."
She smiles gently, looking genuinely appreciative. I appreciate that Naomi is going out of her way to accommodate me… and I hate the fact that I feel awkward about it.
Neither of us says anything for a few moments, but our silence is cut off by a distant bang that takes me completely by surprise. Naomi gives a sad smile and turns back to look out the window again.
It's a fireworks display- quite a big one, at that, with a whole host of patterns. The view of it from this little room is amazing. Each blast paints the whole room in a different color, like we have front row seats to the whole event.
It's been a very long time since I got to do anything like this. The city back home never held any festivals of this size. This really feels like something to treasure about Yamaku.
"Well, that's the end of the festival, huh?" Naomi murmurs, a little sad. "So I missed the whole damn thing."
"That's a real shame," I say uselessly.
"It's alright. I've been sleeping all day. I'm just glad I'm awake for the fireworks." She brushes a little bit of hair out of her face. I can't help but notice that she is turned more toward me than the window.
"They're pretty spectacular."
"Yeah, even better than last year's."
Naomi is quiet for another minute or so. The white of her uniform keeps lighting up in colors along with the rest of the room, in time with each blast. She doesn't seem to notice.
"Did you have fun, at least?" she asks after a couple minutes, turning away again.
"Yeah, I did. It was a busy day, but it was fun getting to know everyone a little better." I think on it for another moment. "I guess there's no reason not to join your club, at this point."
"Oh yeah? You wanna make that official?"
"Yeah. I might as well, right?"
"Absolutely. Everyone will be really happy to have you on board." Naomi rests her hands on the back of the bed. "Cool. That's really cool, Hisao."
She smiles at me, then takes a deep breath and stares out the window again. She really did seem down about missing the festival, but apparently this has really improved her mood.
That alone kills any doubts I had.
Act 2 - Initiation
Posted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 3:02 pm
Act 2: Observation
Monday morning has always been the most trying time of the week, but I can't remember the last time I ever felt like this waking up. I could chalk it up to the fact that I haven't adapted to my class schedule yet, but really it's the festival's fault. If I only knew why I thought it was a good idea to drink coffee so late at night.
My alarm is quickly silenced by the snooze button, but the sunlight pouring in through my window is much less forgiving. As much as every muscle in my body wants to lie in bed for the rest of the morning, I know I will never be able to fall asleep again. It is with a great deal of bitterness that I finally drag myself out of bed and pull on my uniform.
I only barely have enough time to do the bare minimum to get ready for class, mostly because of the time I need to set aside to swallow my daily mound of pills. It has been ages since I've had a full uninterrupted night of sleep- insomnia is one of my medication's side effects. It certainly isn't making things any easier for me this morning.
The campus is quiet and empty as I walk to class. Virtually all of the stalls from yesterday are still up, making the grounds feel like a ghost town. It is usually quiet in the mornings, granted, but this is the first morning since I've arrived that I wasn't especially early getting to class. Evidently I am not the only one that had a rough night.
This only becomes more apparent upon my arrival at class 3-3. The students who have already shown up- and there are fewer of them than I expected- all look exhausted and cheerless. Unbelievably, Shizune and Misha have not even shown up yet, meaning that the whole classroom is almost completely silent. With such a busy week behind us, apparently not even the hardest workers among us are enthusiastic about getting back to our class schedule.
It takes me longer than I'd care to admit to notice as I approach my desk that it is already occupied. Not in the mood for a confrontation, I drop my bag at the foot of the desk and rest one hand on it, frowning tiredly.
"Naomi," I murmur.
"Good morning." She looks up at me with a smirk, resting her arms behind her head.
Her legs are kicked up on the desk in an attempt to look casual, and this has the unfortunate side effect of making her skirt hang low on her upper legs. It leaves a lot less to the imagination than I think she is intending, and I am forced to hide my instinctual blush.
"Good morning…" I sigh, turning to the side a bit out of embarrassment. "You're in my seat."
"Class hasn't started yet," she replies flippantly.
I rub sleep out of my eyes, and Naomi snickers at me.
I take another look around the room at the half-asleep faces of our classmates. "You look rested."
Naomi's bright smile really is striking in comparison.
"You don't," she says flatly.
"I had a long day yesterday."
"Yeah. I slept all day, so, you know." She glances briefly over her shoulder, toward her actual seat in the back of the room. All three desks in the corner are absent, leaving the boy with the cane as the only one in the row.
…I should really start learning my classmates' names.
"You should be proud of yourself for dragging yourself out of bed," Naomi adds with a sigh. "I think it's just going to be you and me today."
"I assume that you mean Natsume's not coming to class?"
"I knocked on her door this morning, and she threw something heavy at it."
"Hm. And is that the reason you're in my seat?"
"I'm in your seat because I wanted to talk to you before class started today. I figured I'd have a chance to, knowing Mutou."
"What does that-? Actually, never mind." I only have the energy to deal with so many concerns at once. "Is there something urgent to discuss?"
"Not super urgent, but you have work to do today. You joined the newspaper club, remember?"
Oh… right. I was feeling a lot less apathetic about that last night than I am now.
"And you have to give me work right now?"
"Before you get the chance to slip out at lunch. Which I know you would try to do." She shrugs unapologetically. "It's not a big deal. We just have to take a few photos, since Takashi was MIA yesterday."
"I don't have a-"
Naomi interrupts me by reaching into her backpack and setting down a camera on the desk.
"You still have the easiest job, Hisao," Naomi chides.
"I could have skipped class today, you know."
"Ah, but you didn't. And that's how I know Shizune was right about you." She taps her forehead once but keeps her hand there, absentmindedly twirling a lock of blonde hair around the end of her finger.
Obviously, there is not going to be any weaseling out of this one- and I don't have the energy to argue, at any rate.
"Fine," I mutter, defeated. "Now can you please get your feet off my desk and go back to your seat?"
"What's the matter? Are you sick of talking to me already?"
I glance behind my shoulder, at the door to the classroom. "Mutou is going to show up soon. I don't want to get yelled at. And besides, I can see up your skirt when you sit like that."
One of the girls in the row in front of us giggles quietly. There is a brief pause, and then Naomi's whole face turns bright red. With one awkward gesture, she turns to throw her legs off the desk and flattens her skirt across her lap, eyes bulging out of her skull.
…I said that out loud, didn't I?
I guess I'm more out of it than I thought.
"Just because you can look, doesn't mean you should, buddy," Naomi says firmly, hopelessly attempting to hide her embarrassment. I get a certain sense of schadenfreude about that, given that she just dumped Takashi's chores on me.
"I didn't say I was looking. I was just reminding you that you have a skirt on."
"Oh, I bet." She glowers at me menacingly, trying to goad me into an argument.
I should probably defend myself before she gets the wrong idea…
"It's not my fault you-"
…Nope, you know what, on second thought; I definitely should not say that.
"No, no. Go ahead. I am really curious as to what you were going to say there."
I should probably have just stopped talking a couple of minutes ago.
It is too damn early for this.
Naomi and I stare each other down for an intensely uncomfortable few seconds. Before I get the chance to dig myself any deeper, though, the door to the classroom slams open, and Misha explodes into the classroom with a cheerful shout. I have never been so thankful for anyone in my life.
Misha hangs awkwardly in the doorway for a moment, off-put by the dead stares of all the other students, before being unceremoniously shoved the rest of the way in by an irritated Shizune. The two of them briefly sign something to each other before marching to their desks, already making far more noise than anyone else in the room.
"Good morning, Hicchan~!"
"Hi, Misha. Shizune." I turn on my heel to face my rescuers, only to find Shizune giving me a glare similar to Naomi's, though I'm not sure what I did to deserve this one.
"Did you have fun at the festival?" Misha asks brightly.
"Sure. How about you?"
"Mhm, Shicchan and I got up extra early to make sure we would have a chance to visit all the stalls we built!" Shizune signs something, and Misha dampens her grin a little, though nowhere near enough to match Shizune's level of obvious disapproval. "Which is part of the work that you left us alone to do, you know! Your duties to your class are nothing to slack off on!"
"I wasn't slacking. I was doing other work. For the newspaper club." I gesture toward Naomi, who sighs quietly and relaxes her irritated glance.
"Yeah, he has been hard at work for us," Naomi explains coolly. "It's pretty hard to argue that the school newspaper doesn't count as a duty to the class or the school, isn't it?"
Misha, still grinning, signs this to Shizune, who seems genuinely taken aback (and perhaps slightly amused) by this direct challenge. "Even still, the Student Council really could have used Hicchan's help. He had obligations to us, first and foremost!"
"Mm, not so, Miss President. He's a member of the newspaper club. Therefore, that's where his obligations are, first and foremost. It's hardly his fault that you two couldn't find anyone else to do your manual labor for you."
Naomi smiles confidently as Shizune struggles to come up with a retort to that. It takes guts to stand up to Shizune like that, I think, although thankfully this debate seems much more good-natured than Shizune and Lilly's argument last week.
"Fair enough~!" Misha chirps, interpreting Shizune's words with undue enthusiasm. "But that does not explain your flagrant disregard for the rules right now, Miss Inoue!"
Shizune props both hands on her desk and leans into it, pursing her lips at Naomi, who laughs out loud.
Seems like an out. "I think she would like her desk back, Naomi," I add quickly.
"Funny, looks to me like you're the only one without a desk right now, Hisao," replies Naomi.
Shizune and Misha both turn to me suddenly, and I shrug at them. They both take their seats, leaving me standing tiredly in front of the three of them.
"That's just not fair," I groan.
"Well, you are welcome to take my seat at the back of the room, Hisao. It's plenty comfortable. Quieter, too."
Naomi waves a hand to gesture to her seat and quickly spots Hanako, who has settled there and opened a book. She's so quiet; I never even heard her come in the room.
Apparently Naomi didn't, either, as her expression completely shifts when she takes notice. "Eh… don't want to make a scene."
And with that, Naomi finally relinquishes my desk to me, pushing forward the camera she got for me to the edge for me to take. I'm a little jarred by the tone shift.
"I will be seeing you after class today," she declares, wagging a finger in my face as she passes by me. "Don't forget."
She takes her seat in the back of the room without another word, glancing once in the direction of Hanako before getting out her school supplies. The two of them don't even acknowledge each other.
With a sigh of relief, I sink into my own chair. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I was feeling a lot less tired when I woke up this morning.
"What are you doing with Inoue after class today, Hicchan~?" Misha asks quietly, leaning into her desk with a devious smile.
I roll my eyes. "Club work. And it will be keeping me very busy. Very, very busy. All afternoon."
"Haha, did you think I was going to ask you to do something for us?" Pouting slightly, Misha glances back to Shizune for a moment, who raises an eyebrow at her. "No, it's just that Shicchan has said in the past that Inoue is very difficult. I think it's interesting that you two are friends now!"
"Well, she can't be that bad if she is willing to defend me from you two."
Misha laughs loudly enough to shake the room, which only reminds me of how quiet everyone else is being. It seems like an eternity before Mutou finally arrives.
The entire day of classes passes me by almost completely without incident. The lectures are long and oppressively dull, as though even the teachers have lost the will to carry on with their lives today. I nearly miss the lunch period just absentmindedly filling out problems from my textbook, and by mid-afternoon Misha's gratuitous laughter is the only thing that keeps me from falling asleep.
I probably would have forgotten about my club obligations, too, if it weren't for the camera making a giant lump at the bottom of my backpack. It's a clunky thing, clearly old equipment that the club has been using for a while now. The newspaper probably doesn't get the same kind of attention from faculty as some of the more popular clubs.
A quiet sigh escapes me. I realize a beeline for the door would probably save me, but by the time that occurs to me Naomi has already positioned herself defensively by the exit. The look on her face tells me she knew I would try to escape even before I did.
"You sure look ready to go," Naomi remarks sarcastically as I approach. "Still tired, huh?"
"Yeah, a little." I pull out the camera from my backpack, examining it in my hands. "So what do you need me to do?"
"Nothing much, I promise. I just want to get a few pictures of the festival setup before they take everything down."
"That doesn't sound too bad."
"It's not. So c'mon."
Without waiting for me, Naomi takes off down the hallway, straight toward the stairwell. I follow her, impressed as always by her energy.
While there are still plenty of people wandering around on campus, everything feels much less crowded out now that the festival is over. The stalls from yesterday are now all abandoned, replete with loose-hanging posters and paper lanterns from the night before. It's an extremely stark difference compared to yesterday, where everything was so densely packed that I could barely tell where anything was.
It's hard to look around and follow Naomi at the same time. She glances around the same as me, but firmly and with purpose- I suppose she's looking for something she wants to photograph. She reminds me of a police dog, the way she keeps shooting her head back and forth like she's sniffing out a photo op. She seems strikingly passionate when she gets focused like this.
"Here, Hisao," Naomi finally declares, planting herself in front of an arbitrary stall at the corner of the auxiliary building. Making a square with her hands, she squints as though looking through the lens of an imaginary camera. "I wonder if we could do, like, a before-after thing with some of these stalls? That would be kind of neat."
"Uh… don't you need a 'before' picture for that?" I ask.
"Oh. Right." She shrugs, then scoots out of the way to get out of the shot. "Okay, shoot."
It seems like a pretty uninteresting shot for a picture to me, but I suppose there's a reason I'm not making the decisions about what to photograph.
I lift the camera to my face for a moment before it occurs to me that I have no idea how to operate it. I'm too prideful to ask for help, though; it should be simple enough. You just have to hit the- no… why are there so many damn buttons?
"Oh, give me that!" Naomi snaps impatiently, snatching it out of my hands before I get the chance to figure it out.
"I was doing it."
"No, you weren't." With a sneer, Naomi shoves me out of the way to take the picture in my stead. "Ugh. Men."
She snaps two photos, one with the flash on. Still, I totally could have done it if I had had another minute with the thing.
She slings the camera around her neck by the strap attached to the back and turns on her heel, hands on her hips. Something rather obvious occurs to me for the first time.
"If you're going to take the pictures yourself, then do you really need me to be here?"
"Of course not. But I had to make sure you were dedicated to our cause somehow!" Naomi laughs at my unimpressed frown. "Besides, you're still new. You could use a friend to hang out with you, right? Don't act like this is so bad."
As though my pride wasn't damaged enough already, it is a little humiliating to get called out for not having anyone else to hang out with. Naomi seems to take pride in that, like she considers it a personal victory to have figured something out about me.
Leading me around campus, Naomi finds over a dozen spots that she spontaneously decides would make good pictures for the newspaper, though in her own words we probably won't end up using more than one or two of them. Unfortunately, most of what remains from the festival has pretty obviously been used already, meaning that there isn't much that would actually make sense to put in the newspaper.
By the end, she even lets me figure out how to take the photos myself. But she takes special pains to let me know that she will not help me in any way, shape or form.
…I am beginning to suspect this whole outing was just an excuse for Naomi to waste my time.
Our small stroll around campus eventually leads us to the stairwell near the dorms, where Rin's mural remains proudly sprawled across the wall.
"Neat, huh? We definitely need a picture of this," Naomi says quietly, appraising the mural for herself.
The whole thing is too long to capture in one photo, so I take a few from different angles. The picture of Rin's mural is the one photo I know for certain will be used in the paper, so I am careful to make sure I can get a usable one.
Unfortunately, Naomi seems determined to prevent that from happening, as she decides now is the perfect moment to lean gingerly against the center of the wall and throw up her hands.
"Would you get out of the way?" I ask, making no effort to conceal my irritation.
"Work around me. This is good practice."
"Okay, now you're just being bothersome for no reason."
She laughs quietly, tilting her head down. "Yeah… I'm bored. I don't know why I let you have the camera. I'm better at it, anyway."
"This is the last one. You will have plenty of time to be bored when we're finished with this."
Defeated, she slinks off to the side and takes a seat on the bottom stair. "I wonder if the others skipped class like Natsume did."
"Wouldn't surprise me," I say with a shrug, finally raising the camera to finish up. "I'm the only one that slept in yesterday. So they were probably a lot more burnt out than I was."
"Oh, yeah. You got the chance to sleep in, since you didn't actually have to do any club work."
"But you do now!"
"Yeah." I lift the camera impatiently in one hand. "And I just did, so you can get off my case."
"I know. I'm just thinking, you're officially part of the gang now! I think that's kind of cool." She kicks up her feet and steps off of the staircase to approach me, taking the camera out of my hand. "Honestly, I didn't really expect my lame recruitment attempts to work."
Naomi takes a step back, leaning against the wall again, and points the camera straight at me. Taken by surprise, I instinctively throw up my hand to cover my face.
"Hey! What are you doing?" I ask indignantly.
She snickers. "What's it look like I'm doing? I'm taking your picture!"
"Because you're the only person in the club whose picture we don't have! I need a headshot of you to print alongside the stuff you write!"
I lower my hand. "But I haven't written anything!"
"No, not yet…" She pouts cutely, rapping her fingers alongside the side of the camera.
Then- after waiting a moment to lull me into a false sense of security, of course- she throws up the camera again and snaps a picture of my face. Not that it could possibly be usable, of course.
"That's not going to be a good photo," I say matter-of-factly.
"Of course it's not," Naomi replies with a raised eyebrow. "Which is why you should smile and give me a good one, so I don't have to use it."
I give my best fake smile. Naomi seems pleased by the victory, and takes my picture with a great deal of pride.
"Happy now?" I sigh, taking off toward the dorms.
She drops the camera straight into her bag and slings it over her shoulder, hurrying to catch up with me so she can get a better look at my face.
She hesitates for just a moment, smiling gently. "…You're kinda shy, huh?"
"Huh? I don't know."
I'm not sure what to make of that. She always seems unduly interested in me, in one way or another. It's not that it bothers me- I think she's rather interesting, too, after all- but I have to admit that it's disorienting. I don't think I've ever met someone quite like Naomi before.
We break apart at the dorms, though she seems almost reluctant to go off on her own.
"Thanks for your help today, Hisao. I promise, next time I hassle you, it'll be for something more important."
"It's alright. I didn't mind today."
"I didn't think you did. But I'm still glad to hear you say that." She looks me over once more, then turns toward the girls' dorm and throws up a hand to dismiss me. "I'll see you later, Hisao."
"See ya, Naomi."
With that, she wanders off, hands thrown up confidently behind her.
I watch her walk all the way to the door before taking off on my own, fascinated.
Act 2 - Deadlines
Posted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 3:03 pm
I've been staring at the ceiling for I don't know how long. That's something I used to do in the hospital, especially early on, before I got used to being there. It depresses me for no good reason.
It feels like the whole week has breezed right past me- my entire perception of time is distorted right now. Our summer break is already close, and I'm sure at this time last year I would have killed for time to pass quickly. Now, though, I wish it wouldn't. I am just starting to get acclimated to living here at Yamaku, and the idea of having to go back home again would just throw me off even more.
I was hoping to get more sleep than this today, but it just isn't happening. As long as the sun is starting to rise, my odds of falling to sleep again are close to none. Lying in bed is a waste of a perfectly good Sunday morning, but I don't have the motivation to do anything else. It's very nice out, which means it would probably be a great opportunity to take a walk or something. Theoretically.
I pull my covers over my head. Unable to sleep even though I'm barely rested. Hopeless.
Some time passes while I'm curled up like this. It's not really comfortable, but then that doesn't seem to be in the cards for me today…
Then, out of absolutely nowhere, a crash rings out from the other end of the room, and I shoot out of bed like a rocket, tossing my covers off the side of the bed and onto the floor.
I glance around, but there isn't anything there. I know I didn't imagine it; it sounded like something collided with the wall. Like a baseball. Or an elephant.
It's quiet again just long enough for me to relax again, then the crash rings out twice as loudly. My whole door shakes on the other side of the room. I guess that's someone's idea of knocking. Apparently nobody told them that you're supposed to use your fist for that, not a sledgehammer.
"Who is it?" I shout, not realizing how gravelly my own voice sounds.
"It's me!" the voice shouts back gruffly. Doesn't sound like Kenji, at least. So that's a plus.
Irritated, I climb out of bed and give myself a moment to stretch before getting the door. Whoever is there pounds on it again as I'm walking over.
"Would you calm down? I'm coming!" I swing open the door and am immediately forced to duck to the side of the door frame to dodge the fist that was about to hammer down on my door again.
A patch of black hair appears in the doorway, and I panic for a second before realizing it's much too clean and kempt to be Kenji's.
"Hokuto. What are you doing here?"
"I was looking for you. What were you doing in here?"
He steps through the door without asking, swinging the door shut behind him with an air of authority. I'm taken slightly aback and take a moment to straighten myself out.
"What the hell do you think I was doing? It's Sunday! I was sleeping!"
"Sleeping? Still? Do you have any idea how late it is?"
I glance once at the clock. "It's barely 9:00!"
"Exactly. I've been up for two hours already. You could have gotten a lot of work done in that time if you weren't slacking." He turns away from me. "It wasn't easy to find you. You don't talk much with the people on this floor, do you?"
Hokuto rubs his chin as he looks around my room, appraising it with a judgmental glare. I was not in a great mood as is, and it takes a certain amount of willpower not to punch him.
"Look, you found me. Now what do you want?" I ask shortly.
"Get dressed. You're needed." He turns back to me with crossed arms.
"Needed? Right now?"
"That's right, Hisao. Procrastination is a killer. We have deadlines to meet. I warned you about this."
"I didn't procrastinate on anything! What are you talking about?" I wander back over to my bed to pull my sheets off the floor. "Naomi is the only one that even gave me any work to do this week, and that was way back on Monday."
"Not you. The girls. And Takashi." Hokuto sighs roughly, crossing his arms. "Natsume spent all week giving out orders and doing virtually nothing. That woman will be the death of me. She thinks she is my mother. But she isn't." He stares me down harshly and repeats himself, to cement the point. "She isn't."
"Yeah. I figured." I rub sleep out of my eyes, not following. "If she's the one that procrastinated, then what do you need me for?"
"This is a group effort. We need to be finished by this afternoon. You are an extra set of hands. So you are obliged to use them."
"I never agreed to that!"
"Actually, you did." He shoots me a smug grin. "Welcome to the club, by the way."
"Damn it. Fine. Hang on."
He seems torn between laughing at me and scolding me, though I am in the mood for neither.
I wander over to my desk and dry-swallow one of my pills, which makes Hokuto raise an eyebrow.
I glower at him. "I need to get ready. Get out."
He throws up his hands guiltily. "Fine, no need to be rude."
Then he stalks out. I can't believe I agreed to put up with this.
I take my time getting my uniform on and going through my morning routine, just to make Hokuto wait. I even take the time to properly make my bed, which I haven't bothered to do in some time.
Hokuto looks on the verge of an aneurism when I finally step out of my room with my uniform on, but he says nothing about it, so I assume he is giving me the benefit of the doubt. Surprising, considering he does not seem like the type to pull punches.
"So what do you actually need me to do?" I ask as we make our way out of the dormitories.
"Formatting. You have the easiest job of any of us."
Now where have I heard that before?
"Why would you want me to do that? I haven't even seen what you guys are putting in the paper yet."
"Everyone else is busy. Talk to Natsume about it. She already knows how she wants everything to be laid out."
"Then why doesn't she just do the formatting herself…?"
"She prefers not to." He glances suspiciously at me from over his shoulder.
"I thought everybody preferred not to."
He scoffs loudly. "You're going to get torn to shreds working with us if you are this much of a contrarian all the time, Hisao."
"I just don't understand how you guys divvy up work. It seems really counterintuitive to me."
"That's because we have a system that works for us, and it is difficult for outsiders to get a grasp on it. I have always said this." He skids to a stop just before we reach the entrance to the academic building and turns toward me, crossing his arms expectantly. "Naomi has been insisting for ages that we needed more club members so we could get our work done, but she does not understand a thing about efficiency. We were better off before, when everyone was on the same page. Now I am stuck having to explain everything to you."
He frowns tiredly, as though it hasn't even occurred to him that what he's saying might be insulting. Somehow, it doesn't make me feel any less insulted.
"I've done everything you guys have asked of me so far. I'm doing the best I can. You don't have to attack me."
"I know that." He glares at me impatiently for a moment, then shrugs and gestures toward the entrance. "It's not your fault. I blame Naomi, not you. She and I have been butting heads about the operation of the club for an eternity. It's because there is not technically anyone in charge. I've suggested we put someone in charge before, of course, but you can imagine that Naomi would rather that position go to her than me, so…"
"I thought Kawate was supposed to be in charge."
He immediately cracks up. I think it's the first time I've ever made him laugh.
"Trust me, even you have more authority than Kawate does. He is only our advisor because his superiors asked him to do it."
"So it really is as chaotic among you as it looks, then."
"…It must be," he says with a grimace.
"Then the least you could do is answer my questions."
He is hesitant even to make that small concession, and ends up compromising by shrugging and taking off into the building. "This is what you need to know. Takashi is usually in charge of formatting and organizing the paper, because everyone else writes and he doesn't. Since he is so unreliable, though, one of the rest of us often ends up having to do that instead. For now, it will fall to you, since you don't have any other work you have to be doing instead. The only one that we never make do it is Natsume, and that's only because she's arthritic and typing makes her uncomfortable."
"Oh. Okay. That makes sense."
I can't think of a better response than that. I'm just glad my surprise didn't come through in my response. I genuinely had no idea that Natsume was arthritic. It never even would have occurred to me to ask something like that.
There are so many people that look normal, and the longer I'm here the more frustrated it makes me. I'm still constantly treading through a minefield, and I know eventually I'm going to say something to someone that I'm really going to regret.
Arthritis isn't a very big deal in the grand scheme of things- or at least, I don't think it is, from my admittedly limited understanding of it- but there are all kinds of really horrible, life-threatening diseases and disorders that you could never gauge just by looking at someone… like arrhythmia, for instance. I'd be willing to bet that most of the sickest people here look just like anybody else.
'Sick' is probably the wrong word to use. But then… healthy people don't need to take seventeen pills when they wake up in the morning.
I suppose there's a reason nobody talks about it.
Doing his best not to grumble to himself, Hokuto leads me through the first floor and into the writing lab where the newspaper club first convened. His entrance is much less dramatic than Naomi's was then, and he heads straight for a computer as soon as we both step inside. He doesn't even bother to say hello to Naomi, Natsume or Hiro, all three of whom are crowded around a computer at the table furthest from the door.
There is a beat while Naomi finishes typing something, but she rushes out of her seat as soon as she spots me. The other two converge on where she was sitting, and Hiro slumps into her chair with Natsume looming over him.
Naomi waves briefly to me and makes an over-the-top sigh. "Oh, my hero! We have an editor!"
"Morning," I reply curtly.
"Hello, Hisao," Natsume says politely, taking a step away from the computer as Hiro settles into the chair. "Congratulations on showing up. You already have a better attendance record than Takashi."
Naomi lets out a laugh that ends up being more of a snort, and she stops short out of embarrassment. It's a little cute, and I'm surprised by the fact that it gets me to smile despite my mood.
"I didn't really have a choice in the matter. Hokuto invaded my room," I say honestly.
"Well, it's about time. I told him to make himself useful," Natsume replies with a smirk, fixing her glasses confidently.
Hokuto grunts indifferently, apparently doing his best to tune her out.
"You drink coffee, right, Hisao?" Naomi asks out of nowhere, after a brief pause.
I turn my head to look at her, and a Styrofoam cup immediately hits me in the face, bouncing off harmlessly. I only barely react in time to catch it.
"Uh. Yeah," I say with a chuckle.
"Thought so." She jabs a thumb over her shoulder to point at the small coffee pot resting on a hot plate at the end of the conference table. "Help yourself. It's still fresh; we just made it."
The steam from the coffee pot billows out from my cup as I pour it, and I breathe it in with relief. I don't normally take my coffee completely black, but I am in a hurry to have something to help me wake up a little. Hot coffee in the morning is good for the soul.
Hiro murmurs absentmindedly as he types something, which draws Naomi's attention, and she sighs loudly when she sees him in her seat. After he fails to respond to her disapproving glare, she shoves into his chair with her hip to push him out of the way, bending over the computer to take over again. Hiro sighs deferentially.
"Check this out, Hisao! It's the crown jewel," she chirps. "What do you think?"
I walk over calmly, cupping my drink with both hands, and lean over Naomi to look at the computer screen, where she's written a small, dense blurb of text.
…our newspaper is completely student-run…
…make a meaningful contribution to the school…
…demonstrating collaboration and leadership skills…
…opportunity to meet interesting new people!
It's an ad for the club. I'm not sure why Naomi cares what I think about this; it's pretty inoffensive and boring. Or at least at first it is, until I finish the paragraph itself.
At the bottom is the picture and name of everyone who works for the newspaper. Takashi is a lot more muscular than I imagined him. I guess it's because I was picturing him as lethargic.
My picture looks unpleasant and awkward. The smile is obviously forced.
"You just had to find an excuse to use that horrible photo, didn't you?"
"Ugh, you don't like it? I think it's a cute photo! Yours and Hiro's both, actually. You look exactly like the sweet, camera-shy sort of guys that people expect to be writing on a newspaper!"
I glance at Hiro, who shifts his gaze waywardly to avoid making eye contact with me. I'm a little stupefied for a moment. "Naomi, what the hell are you talking about?"
"Advertising is like psychological warfare," Naomi explains, tapping a finger to the computer screen to gesture to the photos. "People are going to be a lot more inclined to join the club if they find the people enticing." She laughs and shoots me an earnest look. "It's a tradition to put an ad for the newspaper club in the back of the newspaper every year after the community festival, since we're advertising every other club in one way or another. Takashi joined last year because of that ad. But only because he had a crush on me."
"That isn't true," Natsume says impassively from behind us. "Naomi has been saying that all year, but he had a girlfriend when he joined."
"As if having a girlfriend stops you from having a crush on someone else," hums Naomi.
"Whatever helps protect your ego."
"Hey. Okay. Hold on." Naomi swivels around in her chair suddenly to look at Natsume. "Now, how long was he dating that girl before he joined the club?"
"Around half a year."
"And how long did it take him to break up with her after he joined?"
"A month and a half…"
"I rest my case." Naomi smirks and glances back to me. "Know your enemy, Hisao. Know your enemy."
I point to the screen again. "Doesn't that make people who want to join the club the 'enemy'…?"
"Hey, all's fair in love and war. Advertising is dirty business. Duped you into this, didn't I?"
I take a sip of my coffee. It's barely 9:30, on a Sunday morning, and here I am standing in the computer lab… I guess I did get kind of duped. Not sure exactly by what, though.
Naomi even manages to get a chuckle out of Hokuto with that one.
"So what do you want me to do with your advertisement?" I ask.
"Put it right on the back cover. Big and bold." Naomi makes a broad gesture with her hands in front of the computer screen. "'Looking for new club opportunities?' Add in two exclamation points after it."
"That seems a little over-the-top…"
Excited, Naomi smacks her hand down next to the keyboard, shaking the whole table.
"Naomi, get out of the way. Hiro has more to write," Natsume commands bluntly. Naomi rolls her eyes, but yields the chair anyway. I don't know how Natsume does that.
I finish off my small cup of coffee and immediately pour another one from the pot. I don't think there will be much left of it for long.
"Take a seat, Hisao," Natsume says after a minute, much less commandingly. "Have you used the school computers much?"
"Not at all." I shrug and step around Hiro's chair to slump into the seat next to him. "But if I'm gonna help, I have to start somewhere right?"
"It isn't complicated. We keep all the stories together in a folder while they are being edited, and add them to the document with the formatted paper once they're finished. All you need to do is move them from one to the other and make it look presentable."
"I can probably do that."
"Well, you're going to have to."
With a quiet hum, Natsume takes a step to the side and leans against the wall. She peers from behind her glasses like a suspicious teacher, making sure she can watch mine and Hiro's computer at the same time. It's a little funny.
I barely have a spare moment to turn the computer monitor on before someone taps on it from behind. With a glare, I look up to find Hokuto watching me intently from the other side of the table.
"You're going to have to work fast today, Hisao," he says briefly, after a moment of thought. "Kawate needs a preliminary copy of this to review early in the afternoon so that we can have it finalized and printed in bulk by tomorrow."
So no pressure, then.
I shrug helplessly at him. "Uh… I mean, I'll do my best, but-"
"Pfft. Don't worry about it, Hisao," Naomi says brightly. "There's a reason everyone got up so early today. We'll knock this out by lunch."
With a bored sigh, Naomi puffs out her cheeks and rests her hands on the back of my chair, rapping her fingers along the back of it. I don't think she likes not having anything to do.
"Uh… you are welcome to supervise, Naomi."
"Oh, Hisao... that's your first mistake. Everyone knows that's Natsume's job."
Hokuto stalks suspiciously back to his own computer, but even as he does I become suddenly aware of a creeping sense of claustrophobia.
"Well… if it's Natsume's job, you don't have to supervise, but you're kind of crowding me…"
"That's your second mistake, Hisao… assuming that she wouldn't do it anyway," Natsume says with a laugh from her spot on the wall. "You still have a lot to learn."
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 8:12 pm
Seeing Naomi's complete lack of impulse control bounce of Hisao's need to play things close to the chest and over think everything has been fun, but I just know there's going to be some major conflict caused by it eventually.
I also like Natsume's attitude. In a way it feels a bit like Hisao, except she's far more uses to Naomi''s nonsense and has kinda of a Shrug whatcha-gonna-do-about it attitude to it.
Takashi is a lot more muscular than I imagined him.
Wait. So this is not
art club Takashi who's in the same home room as Hisao and the girls? All this time that's who I thought you were talking about when you mentioned Takashi.
Re: People-Watching: A Naomi Inoue Pseudo-Route
Posted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 8:21 pm
Oddball wrote:Wait. So this is not art club Takashi who's in the same home room as Hisao and the girls? All this time that's who I thought you were talking about when you mentioned Takashi.
Oh damn no, haha, it's a completely different person. Sorry for the confusion. That's simply my mistake; when I originally wrote him I'd totally forgotten there was already a Takashi in 3-3 (I don't think he was ever named in the VN itself, was he?). I should probably add in a line or two in chapter 2 to make that distinction, thanks for pointing it out.