"It sounds like you couldn't really have had a better start here, I'm surprised you ended up like this," observes Natsume.
"Well, I found myself slipping back into my bad old habits after the festival. In hospital I was used to spending all but an hour or so a day on my own, and without the excitement of working to a common goal I started to find being around people all the time tiring and stressful. Plus we're all boarders so its not like I could go home, be on my own for a bit and recharge my batteries. I didn't even feel safe in my room with Emi banging on my door in the morning to go running and the Student Council banging on my door in the evening to do paperwork or play Risk. I hate
Naomi snorts, "yeah there's no-one left in the school who'll voluntarily play against Shizune except Misha, and she doesn't put up much of a fight."
"I ended up avoiding people, then I felt bad because I was avoiding them so I avoided them some more so I didn't have to explain why
I was avoiding them and doesn't that word sound strange when you repeat it so many times? It was a short step from there to getting angry with myself for being weak and I, well, I decided that I could prove to myself that I was strong by not taking my meds."
"What the hell?! What were you even thinking?" Naomi shouts.
"It seemed to be the most logical thing in the world at the time. If I could take control of that one little thing then it would all be fine, I wouldn't have to hate myself for being weak. Of course it just ended up with those trips to Nurse that you picked up on. Maybe I was trying to sabotage myself so I would get sent back to the hospital where I didn't have to worry about anything or anybody. Anyway that's the situation as of lunchtime today."
Natsume sighs, "well there's a lot I could say but I'll save it for now. Tell us about your heart problems."
"I have Long QT syndrome. There's a lot of very interesting biochemistry behind it but the upshot is that I can have episodes where my heart doesn't beat in a normal, predictable way. Most are short-lived, painful and scary but not threatening if kept under control. Severe ones could lead to a heart attack, which can kill me if I don't get treatment. Physical or emotional stress can cause an episode, as can knocks to the chest."
"I have everyday symptoms like Natsume does, combined with the possibility of sudden, serious events like Naomi gets. The best of both worlds if you like. I have to be ridiculously careful all the time. Don't over-exert myself, don't get upset, don't bump into anyone or anything, avoid jump-scares in movies or video games. And even if I do all that I could still just die randomly. One of the first documented deaths associated with this syndrome was a girl who dropped dead when a teacher yelled at her."
"I often say Mutou will be the death of me. But for you, he literally could!" Naomi says with a cheeky wink.
Natsume rolls her eyes at her friend. "So apart from being careful, what can you do to reduce the chance of having an episode?"
Hisao shuffles around on the couch, embarrassed.
"Let me guess: take your meds and strengthen your heart with exercise." Seeing Hisao bury his head in his hands in shame, Natsume makes a conscious effort to calm herself. "I would slap you so
hard right now if it wasn't for your damned heart! How would doing that alter the odds?"
"Reduces the chance of death from fifty percent in the fifteen year period after my heart attack with no treatment, to less than one percent in twenty years," Hisao whispers.
Naomi grabs Natsume as she's about to launch an attack at Hisao. "Calm down Nat, that's not going to help anyone. To be honest I don't know if what we're trying to do is enough. He's suicidal, we should talk to Nurse, get proper help."
"You can let go of me, I'm not going to hit him. For now. I need to think for a bit."
Hisao watches Natsume as she stands up and walks to the cupboards, deeply regretting how much he has upset her. Natsume uses the time it takes her to collect and set up a flipchart to decide what to do next. Nodding decisively she sits down next to Hisao and takes one of his hands in both of her's. Looking intently at his face for any hesitation or sign of a lie she asks, "is that what this is all about Hisao? You decided to take the easy way out?"
"No!" He thinks for a few seconds, "well, not consciously anyway. But it hurts all the time."
"Nurse can give you something for..."
Hisao shakes his head, "no I mean it hurts to be so fragile, to have to be so careful." He looks into Natsume's eyes, "to know that, whatever I do, I could leave behind people I care for at a moment's notice."
As Naomi covers her mouth with her hands to hide a knowing grin, Natsume abruptly walks to the flipchart, facing away from the others to hide her blush. She writes:
It is more necessary for the soul to be cured than the body; for it is better to die than to live badly. --Epictetus
"Ignore the dying part, we need to learn from Naomi how she stops her epilepsy dominating her life. While we're stressing about ending up a physical wreck or dropping down dead, she's living well, spreading cheer with that sunshine smile of hers."
"Aww that's a sweet thing to say Nat! Though what I'm
most interested in learning about right now is Hisao's love life," Naomi laughs.
Natsume joins in with the laughter as she sits down next to Naomi. "Yeah, your turn to embarrass yourself!"
"Well you'll have a lot to laugh at before I've finished," he says ruefully. "To use Naomi's euphemism, experimenting
in the hospital was a nightmare. Fairly early on, when I was still hooked up to the monitors, I attempted an experiment. I was still in the, um, preliminary stages when my heart rate went high enough to trigger an alarm. The nurse that came running almost caught me with my pants down and the best explanation I could come up with was that I'd been woken up by a nightmare."
Hisao welcomes the girls' laughter, pleased that the tension from earlier has started to ease. "It was a long time before I dared to conduct my next experiment."
"No hanky panky with Iwanako during those daily visits then?" Naomi asks with a wink.
"We never once talked about the confession or being in a relationship. It was more like being visited by an aunt than a girlfriend. No, my next attempt was when they finally let me take a shower on my own. I tell you, the reality of a blanket bath is very
far removed from the fantasy of a stocking-clad nurse armed with a sponge and a sexy smile!"
"So I can add 'wears stockings' to 'skinny' on your list of preferences then," Naomi teases.
Shaking his head, he continues, "you can imagine that once I got into the shower, warm water streaming down my body, smooth slippery soap on my skin, I was very keen to start a new experiment. This one went much better and I had almost got to the, umm, data collection
phase when my heart decided to pull the plug on it; that was the first heart flutter I experienced. It scared the hell out of me, it felt like my heart was racing then it'd suddenly pause, resume with an extra hard beat, then go back to racing. I ended up slumped over in the shower long enough for a nurse to come and find me. They thought it was the effort of standing that had caused the flutter and I wasn't going to tell them otherwise."
"So is that always going to happen? Are you going to turn into one of those angry incels?" Naomi asks sympathetically.
"I don't know. The shower experience put me off experimentation and to be honest I've been too scared to try again. Which was OK in the hospital but here... This school is packed with cute, friendly girls, it's too good to be true! The urge to experiment is very strong these days but I'm still worried that it'd cause a flutter, or worse."
"I bet that getting into shape and taking your pills would mean that you'd be OK, as long as you didn't go at it like a bull in a china shop," Natsume says pointedly.
"Sounds like you two should start up a programme of research into gentle experimentation," Naomi says slyly, narrowly dodging a slap from Natsume.
"Seriously Naomi? No more daiquiri for you! Hisao, do you think you've told us all we need to know about your situation?"
He thinks for a while. "Yeah, I just want to say that I know I'm in a rut and I know I've made bad decisions, but I'm at a loss to know what to do. It feels like I've gone through a series of irreversible reactions and my entropy is about to reach its maximum." Seeing their blank looks he clarifies, "a lot has happened that I don't know how to undo and I'm almost at the end of my tether."
"Should've just said that the first time. I'm gonna start calling you Mini-Mutou if you keep talking like that," Naomi mutters.
"I was thinking that we'd try and do some action-planning with you Hisao, if you're up for it. Maybe the three of us together can find a way forward." Seeing him nod, Natsume stands up. "I just need a couple of minutes before we start."
"Me too," Naomi choruses as they leave the clubroom.
Remembering the set he saw in the cupboard, Hisao decides to make tea while he waits for the girls. He tidies the coffee table and sets out cups while the kettle boils. As he walks back to the couches with the teapot, the girls return.
"We should keep him Nat, he's well trained!"
"What do you think Hisao, would the prospect of being our tea boy motivate you to stick around?" Natsume challenges him.
He smiles shyly and replies, "Looking after you is one of the best reasons I can think of for being here."
"Eugh! I'm going to see if there's any salty snacks left, need something to get this sweet taste out of my mouth," Naomi exclaims as she walks to the cupboard, doing her best to hide a pleased grin. "I was thinking about what you were saying earlier Hisao, when you mentioned taking control," she says over her shoulder. She comes back to the coffee table, puts down a packet of rice crackers she found in the cupboard and sits down next to Natsume.
"Just about everything in your life in the last few months has been out of your control; your heart attack, your time in the hospital. Coming here you fell in with Shizune and Emi, both of whom had you dancing to their tune. Any plan we come up with is going to have to let you take some control back."
"That's a really good point Naomi, it matches up nicely with an idea I had about Hisao needing to establish boundaries with his friends, like no more than three hours a week on Student Council work."
"And no Risk!" Hisao adds, making the girls laugh.
"We better start making notes before we forget what we're coming up with." Seeing Hisao reaching for the marker pen, Natsume snatches it up. "Not you Hisao! I never can read what you scrawl on the board when you do problems in class."
Hisao looks at the discarded flipchart sheets, drained teacups and empty snack wrappers, evidence of the night's discussions. "When did Naomi drop off?" he asks.
"Not sure, but I'm glad she did. Being overtired increases her risk of having a seizure. I'm surprised it took us all night to come up with that." She gestures towards the flipchart.
"Well we didn't exactly stay on task," Hisao says, thinking back to how they'd got sidetracked, sharing good and bad memories, laughing and commiserating with each other, cementing their friendship. He reminds himself of the final version of the plan:
1. Improve health and fitness by taking meds and exercising
2. Rebuild friendships, but...
3. Set boundaries
4. Be more open and honest
"It looks so simple and logical, boiled down to those four actions. I'm not really sure how to begin though."
"'A journey of a thousand li
starts beneath one's feet.' We both know there's something you can do that'll make a good start on the two most important points on that list."
"I hardly know what to say to her."
"You'll think of something."
Nodding, he grabs his 'phone and types: [Can you forgive me for ditching you? I want to make it up to you and that includes being your running partner again, if you'll have me.] Seeing Natsume's nod of approval he presses the send button. "I don't know if she runs on Sunday mornings, we might not hear from her..." He's interrupted by a notification and reads her reply. [Be @ trk by 7]
"I think she might be a bit angry but it's good to see that she's willing to meet you. How did it feel to do that?"
"Scary, but it feels good to have taken the initiative and have it work out OK." His face takes on a determined look as he decides to make another bold move. "So Natsume, I was um wondering if maybe, sometime you'd, err do me the honour of having tea with me at the Shanghai?"
"Hisao..." She holds a hand out to him, which he gratefully takes. "I admit that Naomi's helped me to understand that I do like you in that way." Seeing a relieved smile spread across his face she holds up her other hand. "But for my own sake I have to be careful, I can't
get closer to you when you're so careless with your life. If you could convince me that you're doing your best to stay around it would be different, but right now..." She shakes her head sadly.
"But it's not a definite no?"
"Let me be clear: show me that you're taking your health seriously and it's an enthusiastic yes."
... So, um, I'm not going to get that much fitter overnight..."
"I'm not saying you have to become the next Naoko Takahashi, just make progress on those actions," she gestures at the flipchart. "If you run with Emi in the mornings then we can meet up for breakfast after Naomi and I have finished swimming. We can take our meds together, it'll be so
Hisao laughs, "that's something you'd only ever hear at Yamaku! How long do you think it'll take to..." Seeing the beginnings of a frown on Natsume's face he adds hurriedly, "I'm not trying to rush you, I just want an idea of what I've got to do to convince you. You can't blame me for being a little impatient."
"Who knew I was such a catch!" Natsume giggles. "I don't mean to be a tease, but there isn't some sort of threshold, some feat of strength I'm looking for. Its a change in attitude I need to see. If your actions show me that you're committed to getting better then it won't be so very long." She looks into his eyes and says, "you're not the only one who's impatient."
Hisao grins like he's won the lottery. "You'll see." Looking at his watch he stands up. "I better go and get into my running kit, can't be late for Emi."
"Take your pills while I wake Naomi, we'll come down to the track with you for moral support."
"Think he'll make it?" asks Naomi as she watches Emi stifle a laugh at Hisao's attempts to stretch.
"Its up to him now." Natsume shakes her head, "I mean it was always up to him, but let's hope he wants to."
"Well from what I heard, you found a powerful way to motivate him..."
Natsume blushes a deep red. "I thought you were asleep!"
Naomi laughs, "my name's not Suzu. I hope it works out for you two, I've been thinking for a while that you need a special someone in your life. Something to counteract those gloomy spells you've been having."
"Nothing's certain, it depends on whether he can break out of the downward spiral he's been in."
"But we're not going to let him struggle on his own are we?"
"No, we'll support him but we can't do too much or he'll never learn to stand on his own two feet. I want to be his girlfriend, not his mother. He better
make it though!" she says, suddenly becoming fierce, "I don't want the pain I went through, exposing all my innermost secrets, to go to waste."
"It was rough alright." Naomi looks thoughtful. "But I feel better for sharing mine, somehow lighter..."
"Same here. I think he does too."
"I never knew you..."
"I didn't realise you..."
Naomi giggles as she stands up and offers a hand to her best friend. "Let's leave them to it."
"We'll meet you guys in the cafeteria for breakfast when you're finished!" Natsume calls to the tiny taskmistress and her new apprentice, who wave back. Emi's encouraging shouts ring in their ears as they walk back to the main building, enjoying the new strength and depth to their friendship resulting from yesterday's revelations.