The next morning we woke up in time for breakfast. Barely. It was simple but delicious fare, elegantly presented. Afterwards, we went out to explore town a little more. We visited the glass works I'd read about, and Shizune indulged my fascination with the glassblowing as we sat through an hour of demonstrations. I understood the science behind it all, but there was still an aspect of the magical in how the glowing orange molten glass was formed and cooled to a variety of shapes and colors.
After lunch, we passed by a small chocolate shop, then Shizune stopped and pulled me back. [Do your parents like chocolate?] she asked.
I shrugged. [Sure. Who doesn’t?]
[Good. I’ve been looking for a proper gift.] We went inside, and my mouth started watering from the smell, despite having just eaten lunch. The chocolates were on display in glass cases, and looked both beautiful and delicious. And expensive. I grimaced. [I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything
that cost that much per gram,] I said.
She gave me an incredulous look. [These aren’t even that expensive, for good chocolates. You’ve never had good quality chocolate?]
I blushed, for some reason embarrassed by her question. [Well, I guess not? I usually just buy it at the grocery store.]
She blinked at me, then a smile slowly spread across her face. [Okay. I’m buying chocolate for your parents and
for you. I can’t wait to see you eating a chocolate truffle for the first time.]
She bought two assortment boxes, one large, one small, and had the large one gift-wrapped. I was a little boggled by the price, but she seemed to think it was reasonable. She refused to let me munch on the chocolates as we walked. [These should be savored sitting down, appreciated. The chocolatier’s artistry must be respected.]
I thought that sounded a little pretentious, but I didn’t say so. I just waited until we got back to the minshuku.
Once we returned to our room, Shizune pulled out the small assortment box of chocolates and opened it. The smell was still wonderful, if fainter than in the store. She studied the box for a long moment, as if debating something, then she pulled out a small dusty looking sphere. Setting it on top of the box lid, she said, [Let’s start you with a simple dark chocolate truffle, covered in cocoa powder. Don’t need anything fancy at first.]
I nodded and picked up the chocolate. I was about to pop it into my mouth when Shizune said, “Wait!”
I blinked, startled, wondering what had provoked her into verbalizing.
She sighed and gave me a long-suffering look. [This isn’t a Crunky chocolate bar. You don’t just eat it all at once. Bite in half. Allow the filling to melt on your tongue. Savor it. Slowly.]
“Okay…” I said dubiously. I did as she instructed.
Despite the way she’d been building this up, I was unprepared for what I tasted. It wasn’t even just the taste. It was also the feeling, the texture, the way the truffle melted and spread out on my tongue, liquifying just by body heat alone. It was not like any chocolate I’d ever tasted before, rich and creamy and subtle. The faint bitterness of the plain cocoa powder on the outside contrasted with the only slightly sweeter inside. It was glorious, in a way I’d never known chocolate could be.
My expression must have been all that Shizune had hoped for, because she actually giggled out loud, sounding gleeful. “Wow,” I said, forgetting to sign. I let the chocolate linger on my tongue for a long moment, then swallowed, floored by what I’d experienced. “That’s…” I caught myself. [That’s amazing.]
Shizune was grinning, looking pleased and smug. [So, you like?]
I laughed. [Oh, yes.] I looked down at the other half of the chocolate in my fingers, then held it out to her. Her smile broadened, and she slowly sucked the chocolate hemisphere from my fingers, sending a small electric jolt through my body at the feeling of her tongue.
She closed her eyes and appreciated the chocolate for a moment herself, then opened her eyes and sighed happily. [Yes, that should do for a gift to your parents.]
[They’ll never know what hit them,] I said. [I don’t think they’ve ever had chocolate that good either. Or at least, if they did, they never shared it with me.]
She grinned. [Why would they, if you were happy with Pocky?]
We worked our way though another three chocolates, feeding them to each other, enjoying them slowly. After the last one, Shizune closed up the box and tucked it away. [We’ll enjoy more tomorrow,] she said.
When we wanted to cuddle and also have conversation, we usually sat facing each other with our legs intertwined, leaning back against pillows. It wasn’t as intimate as having her cuddled up in my lap, but it was necessitated by needing to be able to see each other’s hands. And at least I could run my hand along her lovely calf while listening to her.
[So, since I’m going to be meeting them tomorrow, tell me about your parents,] Shizune asked.
I gave her an unamused stare. [Like you told me about Jigoro in advance?]
She covered her mouth and giggled silently. [I wanted to see how you would cope.]
Hrmph. [Perhaps I’ll return the favor, and let you find out for yourself.]
Shizune smiled and shook her head. [No, you won’t.]
[No, because you’re a much nicer person than I am.]
Well, hell, how do you argue against that? I shrugged and gave her a rueful smile. [My parents…are boring, compared to your father. Stolid, respectable, almost stereotypically normal. They’re rarely at home, except to sleep. They work a lot.]
[Hard workers? They sound like my kind of people.]
I snorted, then thought about it for a moment. I shook my head slowly. [Not…exactly.] I tried to find a way to verbalize my objection to her observation. [You…are very driven. Goal oriented. A hard worker. But you work hard for others
. You try to make sure our fellow students are doing well. And you take time out to play now and then. My parents…] I trailed off, reluctant to speak ill of them, but I was realizing some things even as I spoke.
[My parents also work hard, but honestly, I am not totally sure why
. I don’t know what drives them. It seems like they feel they always need
to make more money. Like what they have is never enough. But we’ve always been fairly well off, since I was a kid. Solidly middle to upper-middle class. But they never take time out to enjoy the things their money could buy them. I can’t complain, their hard work made it possible to afford my attending Yamaku, and I know they’ve set aside enough money for my university, but…I would have gladly had a few less toys and DVDs growing up in exchange for spending more time with them.]
Shizune regarded me seriously, and I shook my hands out, stretching them. I didn’t often sign that much all at once.
[Do you resent their work?] she asked.
I started to shake my head no
, then thought a moment. “Maybe?” I frowned. [It feels churlish, ungrateful, to resent that which gave me a comfortable life growing up, but…]
[But you miss them.]
I gave her a sour smile. [I’m not sure I can miss something I never had. I attended after-school day care when I was young, then took care of myself at home as I got older. I ate a lot of frozen food, or junk from fast-food restaurants. Sometimes, they came home after I went to bed, and left before I woke up. Even when they didn’t work six days a week, what little time they were home on weekends was often spent catching up on their sleep.]
[That sounds lonely.]
[No, I hung out with my friends, spent probably too much time in arcades with them, or at their houses. I wasn’t alone
, I just…didn’t have much in the way of parents.]
Shizune leaned forward and stroked my cheek, looking sympathetic. I caught her hand and kissed it, and smiled at her. Releasing her hand, I added, [But I can tell you one thing for sure. I’m definitely
going to be a major part of my children’s lives.]
She blinked, looking startled by my talking about my future children, and I realized that I might be talking about our
children. Or not. Depending upon how our relationship worked out.
But the thought having risen in my mind, I found myself hoping that they would
be ours. I swallowed nervously, and asked, [Do you think…you would ever want to have children? Someday?]
Shizune stared at me, wordless, for a long moment, before nodding slowly, solemnly. [I would like children someday, yes. Although I sometimes fear I’m too selfish, too driven, to be a good mother. But you…you would definitely be a good father.]
I blinked back tears, my emotional reaction to that simple statement taking me by surprise. [I hope so.]
She smiled. [I know so.]
I slid closer to her and hugged her tight, cutting off communication for the moment. But she surprised me by saying, “Any child would be luggy to have you for a father.”
I drew a deep, shuddering breath in response, my reaction to that statement overwhelming me. I pulled back so she could see my face, and smiled at her. “I love you.”
She smiled back, and ran a thumb down my cheek, wiping away an errant tear. “I love you too.”
We just cuddled together for a while then, not saying anything. It was probably too soon to be talking about “our” children, but this felt like it came one step closer to that. I idly ran a hand up and down her back, enjoying the feel of having her close.
Eventually, we pulled back apart so we could continue our conversation. [I don’t want to give you the wrong impression of my parents. They aren’t bad people. They provide for me, they love me, and want me to do well. They’re just…]
I nodded. That was a good way to put it.
[Well, I shall attempt to reserve judgement until I meet them for myself. Although I think anyone who doesn’t want to spend time with you is foolish, and missing out.]
I laughed a little at that. [You’re too kind.]
It felt like the time was finally right to ask her about something I had wondered about for a while now, but had been too shy to bring up. [As long as we’re talking about parents…] I hesitated, then drew a deep breath for courage. [You’ve never said anything about your mother. I know nothing about her.]
Shizune had stiffened at the word “mother,” then she sighed and relaxed. She stared at the floor for a long moment, then looked back up at me. [My mother died when I was nine. Cancer. It was quick, less than three months between her diagnosis and death.]
[I’m sorry. I didn’t know.]
[Of course you didn’t. I never mention her.]
She closed her eyes for a few moments, brow furrowed. [Habit, I suppose. My father never wants to talk about her, or be reminded of her. So I’ve just stopped talking about her.] She looked sad. [Which isn’t fair. She deserves to be remembered. Cherished. I still miss her.]
[She must have been a saint, to put up with Jigoro.]
Shizune smiled. [She was good for him, yes. My father…] She grimaced. [He was not always as bombastic and overbearing as he is now. I think she tempered him, brought out his better qualities. He’s always been larger than life, flamboyant, but he was more caring and affectionate when Mother was alive. Less quick to judge.] She paused, staring off into the distance. [Akira once said she thought that something inside him broke when Mother died, and I think she’s right. He loved her with all his being, and when she died, she took part of him with her. Now, I think he’s so abrasive partly to make sure no one can ever get so close to him again. Can never hurt him like that again.]
[Unfortunately, that also seems to include you, and Hideaki,] I observed.
She nodded, looking sad.
I tried to turn the conversation to less a depressing track. [So, if your mother deserves to be remembered, tell me more about her. What are some of your favorite memories of her?]
Shizune smiled, her face softening in reminiscence. [I remember the first time I beat her at Gomoku. She was so proud of me for beating her. She bragged about me for days.]
[How old were you?]
[Seven.] I was impressed. [Once I graduated from simple children’s games, she never played other than to win.] She grinned. [Mind you, it was over a year before I beat her again, but that memory kept me going for a long time.]
[So, you don’t get all of your competitive nature from your father.]
Shizune shook her head. [Far from it. It was part of why they worked so well together. But she was the one who played games with me. Father took his competitive spirit to the workplace.]
[Did she introduce you to RISK?]
Shizune’s smile faltered, and she shook her head again. [I didn’t discover that game until middle school.] She looked wistful. [I would have loved to have played it with her, though. She would have given me a good fight.]
[Unlike me?] I teased, trying to lighten the mood. She grinned.
[Indeed. She would have eaten you alive. But…I also think she would have liked you.]
I cocked my head, curious. [Why?] Not that I was fishing for compliments or anything.
Shizune smiled fondly at me. [Because you’re good to me. And good for me.] She reached out with her functional hand and captured one of my hands before I could respond, and kissed it.
I kissed hers in return, then retrieved my hand and smiled at her. [So, tell me more about her…]
We arrived at my parents’ house shortly after lunch the next day. At my
house, I guess, although it no longer felt like such, after nearly a year away. I almost felt like an intruder, unlocking the door and letting myself in.
My old beat-up slippers were still in the shoe cubby by the door. I slipped them on, and looked around the living room. Nothing much had changed since I was last there. No new furniture, no new pictures on the walls. It was, however, a lot tidier than when I had lived there. In some ways, it reminded me of the Shirakawas’ place, it was so orderly, but here that tidiness just felt unlived-in, vacant, not an anal-retentive’s showpiece of a perfect room. I took a deep breath, and even the scent of the place had changed. I wondered if that was due to my absence, or something else.
“Nice,” said Shizune behind me, and I realized I’d just been standing there staring. I shook my head, and turned to face her.
[It feels odd being back here. I haven’t been here since before my heart attack.]
She looked surprised. [You went straight from the hospital to school?]
I nodded. [I think my parents wanted to keep me under constant medical supervision, which I wouldn’t have had if I came home.]
She cocked her head as if considering that notion, then shook her head. [Maybe. But that must have been hard on you.]
I shrugged, a little embarrassed. [Somewhat. But after four months in the hospital, mostly I was just happy to be anywhere
[No wonder you were depressed when you first arrived.]
I blushed, and decided to change the topic. [Shall I show you around?]
Shizune regarded me for a moment, then nodded with a small smile. [Sure.]
Although it was a nice house, it was nowhere near as large as Shizune’s, and our “tour” took less than ten minutes. I ended in my old room, where Shizune looked around at my cluttered shelves and walls with interest. [So you haven’t always
had such a boring room as your dorm room.]
[I prefer to think of my dorm room as uncluttered
, like a Zen garden,] I replied loftily.
Shizune laughed. [Maybe we should take some of these posters back to school for your room.]
I contemplated the various posters adorning my wall, from games I used to play, and soccer and pop stars, and astronomical photographs. [Maybe the ones of the nebula, and Saturn,] I said. [The rest…just don’t mean much to me anymore.]
I plopped down on my bed, automatically pulling my pillow up behind my back as I leaned against the wall. [My mother said they’d come home early tonight, which for them means around six o’clock. What would you like to do for the next four or five hours?]
She looked thoughtful for a moment, then she sat down next to me, turning to face me so we could talk. [Do you have something you wish to do? Someone you’d like to see? Meet up with your old friends?]
I shrugged uncomfortably. [I…didn’t exactly end on the best of terms with them when I left.] I’d told her of my hospital stay, and how Mai, Takumi, and Shin had drifted away, driven away by my bad moods.
[How long have you known them?] she asked.
The question surprised me. [Since early grade school.]
[So, seven to ten years?]
I nodded. [About that.]
[Do you think you should throw away that many years of friendship just because you were in a bad place after a life-altering accident?]
[Well…no, but…why would they want to see me?]
She gave me one of her flat stares. [Because you’re their friend?] she asked. [It might be nice to show them you’ve gotten better. That you haven’t just continued to sink into that pit of gloom and despair they last saw you in.]
I winced at the way she summed it up, but she wasn’t wrong. I sighed.[Yeah, but…] I trailed off, uncertain of what to say.
[But you’re embarrassed to contact them.]
Was I? I thought about it for a moment, then realized she was right. Again. Dammit. [Yeah, of course. I was a jerk to them. I didn’t appreciate what they tried to do for me.]
[So, start with an apology.]
I thought about that for a long moment. [How?]
Shizune looked exasperated. “Hey, I’m sorry I was so cloomy and rude last sprin. Would you lite to ket to’ether for tea?”
I snorted and shook my head. It wasn’t that easy.
Shizune regarded me. [You want to see them, don’t you?]
[Is apologizing really so hard?]
[It’s not just that.] She waited, regarding me with a patient expression. Finally, I admitted, [What if they won’t accept my apology?]
[Then they probably weren’t very good friends to begin with, so, no loss. Do you really think that’s likely?]
I shook my head. [Not really.]
She reached over and slid her good hand into my pants pocket, and for a moment I thought she was getting amorous, but she just pulled out my phone and held it out to me. “Gall them. Who should you gall first?”
I gave that some thought. I took my phone from Shizune so she’d have her hand free to speak again. I stared at it, considering, then I pulled up Shin’s number and, after a moment’s hesitation, hit call
. After a couple of rings, Shin picked up. “Yo. Hisao?”
I had to swallow before I could reply. “Yeah, hey, Shin, it’s me.”
He laughed. “Hey, wow, dude, I thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth. What’s the matter, you got no cell phone reception at that katawa school?”
I winced a little at the phrase. “No, there’s phone service there. It just…I needed some time to get my head out of my ass before I could talk to you again.”
He snorted. “Yeah, that sounds like something that could take some time.” There was a hint of bitterness under his joking tone.
I took a deep breath. “Yeah. It did. I know I was an ass last spring. I’m sorry for the way I treated you guys.”
Shin was silent for a long moment. Finally he said, “Huh. Whaddya know. Mai was right.”
“Mai? Right about what?”
“She said you’d come around eventually, get your shit together. Takumi and me, we figured…well, never mind.”
I wondered what it was that they’d thought, but I was probably happier not knowing. “Glad to know at least she
had some faith in me. It was more than I did, at times.”
“But now you’re calling me up to, do what, exactly?”
I sighed. “To apologize,” I reiterated. “And…I’m in town. For a couple of days, visiting my folks. I’d…kinda like to see you all. Again. Maybe apologize in person. See how everyone’s doing.”
“We’re doing fine, same old, same old.”
I glanced over at Shizune, and added, “Also, I’d like to introduce you to my girlfriend.”
He laughed. “Girlfriend?
Dude, I’ve already met your right hand.”
I snorted. That
sounded more like the Shin I knew. “And when will I get to meet your
girlfriend?” I challenged, knowing he’d never had a date.
His laughter trailed off. “Er. Uh. Well, actually…”
” I drawled. “Did you and Mai finally confess to each other?”
He choked. “What? Mai?
Dude, she’s like my freaking sister.
I couldn’t date her! Gross! Get your mind out of the gutter!”
I blinked, surprised. The two of them had been squabbling and teasing each other for so long, I had always assumed that they’d eventually end up together. I guess that’s the problem with getting your relationship advice from anime. “So…if not Mai…who’s the lucky girl? Anyone I know?”
“Uh…Oh, hell.” He groaned, then said, “Yeah, I’d say you know her. It’s, um, Iwanako.”
I froze, stunned. Iwanako? And Shin?
I tried to picture brash, loud Shin with the quiet and poised Iwanako, and failed.
I must have been silent for longer than I thought, because Shin said, “Hisao? You still there, dude? I didn’t give you another freaking heart attack, did I?”
At that, I had to laugh, breaking my paralysis. “No, I’m still alive. For now. Though if you hit me with too many more stunners like that I may not be for long.” I shook my head. “Iwanako? Seriously? And you? You’re not just jerking my chain?” It would be the kind of joke Shin would make.
“Nah, not about this. She’s…well, I don’t have to tell you, she’s really special.” His voice held a quiet, gentle note I’d never heard from Shin before. “I never thought I could get so lucky, y’know?”
Wow. I shook my head. “Uh, well, congratulations.”
“Really? You mean that? You’re not pissed at me for stealing your girl?”
I stopped and thought about that for a moment. “Yeah, I mean it. She was never actually my girl to steal in the first place. Not really.” I glanced at Shizune again, and smiled, relaxing. “And besides, I found someone even better.”
Shin laughed, sounding relieved. “Well, I’d have to disagree, but to each their own, dude.”
“Yeah. Congratulations,” I repeated.
“Thanks.” He cleared his throat. “So…you really want to get together with us?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, Mai and I were going to hit the arcades this afternoon. I could see if Takumi wanted to join us.”
He hesitated. “You want to see her again, too?”
“If she’s willing to see me, yeah,” I said, hoping I sounded more certain than I felt. “I figure I owe her an even bigger apology than I owe you guys. Though I could understand if she didn’t want to see me again.”
“I’ll ask her. Dunno what she’ll say. She was pretty pissed at you for a while.”
I winced. “Yeah, I’m sure. Well, do whatever feels best. I’d understand if she doesn’t want to see me in person, just let her know I’m sorry for how I treated her, okay?”
“So, where were you meeting Mai?”
“The arcade just off Ekimae-dori. Do you remember it?”
I snorted. We must have spent hundreds of hours there. “I had a heart attack, not amnesia.”
“Ass. We’re gonna meet around two. You wanna call Takumi, or should I?”
I wasn’t sure which would be better. “Which way is more likely to get him to come? Is he pissed at me too?”
“Eh…I’ll call him,” Shin said, not answering my question. “See you at two.”
I put down my phone, and looked over at Shizune. [Were you able to follow any of that?]
She shook her head. [You looked down, looking embarrassed, so I couldn’t read you. Actually, at some points you looked like you wanted to curl up into a little ball.]
I rolled my eyes. [Yeah, sorry about that.] I gave her a synopsis of the conversation.
Her eyebrows shot up partway through my recap, but she waited until I was done to ask a single-word question: [Iwanako?]
I sighed. [Yeah.]
I blinked, surprised. [Good?]
[Yes. You owe her the largest apology. And also…] Her smile acquired a razor-sharp edge. [I want to meet the woman who could give you a heart attack just by confessing to you.]
Shizune changed clothes, out of her traveling outfit into something sharper and sexier. Or at least as sharp and sexy as she could get, when a cast and a sling were unavoidable fashion accessories. I wasn’t sure if she did it to help me “show off” my new girlfriend, or if she was dressing to make sure she out-shone Iwanako, and I was afraid to ask.
We caught the bus downtown. I tried to point out to Shizune various landmarks as we went, places I remembered fondly, but I was a bit distracted. We garnered some curious glances on the bus as we talked, and I was reminded that not everywhere is like Yamaku, used to seeing signed conversations.
We walked the short distance from the bus stop to the arcade hand-in-hand. When we approached the arcade, Shizune asked, “Where do you meet?”
I turned to face her. [Usually by the token dispensers over there,] I pointed. We wandered over there, but none of my friends were there yet. It was more crowded than usual for a weekday, probably due to the holidays. I took the opportunity to buy some tokens. Shizune shot me an inquiring look, and I shrugged. [Habit. We usually play a bit before going for snacks and drinks.] She nodded.
After a few minutes of nervous waiting, with me continuously scanning the crowd, Shizune asked, [Are they usually late?]
[Takumi frequently is, but Mai and Shin are usually pretty on-time.]
[If they were all meeting up together before coming to meet you, they may be delayed by Takumi, then,] she observed.
Possible, I supposed, but why would they be meeting up together before hand? Deciding who gets to chew me out for which offense?
Shizune must have noticed my increasing unease, because she said, [Let’s play a game while we wait.]
I nodded, agreeable to the notion of a distraction. [What would you like to play?]
[We should stick to one of the games near here, so we can find each other.]
I nodded, and looked around for a game which could be played with one hand, or at least, with one hand and a simple button-push for the other hand; she could manage that much with her arm in a cast. Shizune tapped my arm and pointed to a console behind us.
It was a two-person shooter, with plastic light-guns. It wasn’t one I’d played a lot, but I recalled one of the nice features of this game was that the guns had recoil, they actually jerked in your hand when you shot. I nodded in agreement, and we stepped over to the console. [Have you ever played this one before?] I asked.
She shook her head. [I’ve played shooters, but not this one.]
I fed the machine its requisite number of tokens, while Shizune picked up her gun and hefted it. I selected the simplest, tutorial level, to give her a chance to get familiar with the game mechanics. I picked up my own weapon, and she gave me a grin and a nod. I hit the start
button and faced the console.
I knew she wouldn’t appreciate my going easy on her, so I played as best I could. I got in a few good shots early on, but she rapidly improved, picking up the system’s quirks and quickly copying my own tricks. I beat her, but not by as much as I’d expected.
She didn’t look at all disappointed at losing. She grinned at me, and asked, [Again?]
I looked around the arcade, but there was still no sign of my friends. I pushed down my nervousness at that, and nodded to Shizune. I again ponied up the tokens for our game. I started to select the tutorial level again, but Shizune said, “No. Do the nezt level.” I looked at her, and she nodded firmly, so I did as she asked. I thought she was jumping the gun (so to speak), but sometimes her competitive nature got the better of her.
It was a blood bath. I scored barely half as many points as she did.
“Well, at least you found someone who can properly kick your ass,” I heard Shin’s voice behind me as the game ended. I put down the gun and turned to see we had an audience. I touched Shizune’s arm to get her attention, and she turned too.
They’d all come, even Iwanako, who was hanging back a bit, behind Shin. I was surprised at the surge of relief I felt at seeing them all. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed them until now. Of course, that relief was tempered by the memory of how I’d treated them all when last I saw them. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but grin to see them. “Hey, guys,” I said, automatically signing for Shizune as I did. “It’s great to see you.” My three old friends looked puzzled by my moving hands, but Iwanako, oddly enough, just looked intrigued.
As they all nodded and replied with variations on “Good to see you too,” I continued, “I’d like to introduce my girlfriend, Shizune Hakamichi. Shizune, this is Shin Obara, Iwanako Koyanagi, Takumi Sera, and Mai Yasui”
Shizune bowed, and said, “I am honored and delighted to finally meet you all.”
As they returned her bow with varying degrees of formality, Shin just barely nodding his head, I added, “I should mention, she’s deaf, so I’ll be translating for her. Though she can speechread, it’s not very reliable, especially in group situations.”
Iwanako startled me by stepping out from behind Shin and signing, [I am pleased meet you. I am Iwanako.] Her gestures were slow and stiff, but understandable.
I looked over at Shizune, who was smiling broadly in delighted surprise. I was glad to notice that I wasn’t the only one staring at Iwanako in amazement. Apparently no one else had known she could sign either.
[I am most pleased to meet you, too. Please, call me Shizune,] she signed in return, slowing her hands to a pace closer to Iwanako’s. Iwanako frowned in concentration as she stared at Shizune, working out the odd mix of single-handed signs and yubimoji that Shizune was forced to use, then she smiled as she figured out what Shizune was saying. [How is it you know sign?] Shizune asked.
Iwanako paused, as if trying to remember her words, a pause I was all too familiar with from my own stumbling signing. [My sister marriage a deaf man,] she said. [I want make him welcome. Sister teach me.]
I was reflexively translating Iwakano’s signs out loud for the others, which earned me a flustered look from Iwanako, as well as curious looks from the other three.
“Ah, sorry,” I said, blushing a little. “Habit. I translate for Shizune at school sometimes, so I often sign and speak both sides of a conversation so no one is left out.” Of course, my hands were signing as I spoke, and Iwanako smiled approvingly at me.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said, then she paused and signed the same thing. She frowned. [And not easy.]
“It takes practice,” I agreed and signed. “But I have a stern task-mistress to help keep me motivated. Ow!” I jumped as Shizune punched me in the arm at that last.
The others laughed, even Shizune, with her silent laugh.
“But she spoke to us just now,” said Takumi, sounding puzzled.
“I am deaf, not mute,” Shizune said. “Though behause I gan’t hear my own voice, I know I sound odd to hearin’ people.”
“Right. Well, did you want to play more games, or should we go grab a drink?” Shin asked, his words a little loud and slow. Shizune, Iwanako and I all grimaced at the way he spoke.
“She’s totally deaf, Shin,” I said. “Speaking louder won’t make her hear you any better. And if you speak slowly and exaggeratedly, it actually makes it harder
for her to speechread what you’re saying.”
“Just speak normally,” Iwanako added. “Or better yet, just let me do the talking.” Since she seemed to be trying to sign her own words as she spoke, I didn’t translate for her.
When she finished, Shizune grinned. “Indeed, the boys would be better off to let us always do all the talging,” she said to Iwanako. Iwanako giggled at that, and even Mai, who’d been silent up til now, snorted a little laugh.
“Hey!” Shin and I protested, which just garnered more amusement from the female half of our group. Though in reality, I was mostly relieved that Shizune and Iwanako seemed to be getting along instead of fighting.
Takumi just rolled his eyes and turned toward the exit. “Come on, let’s go get a snack.” We followed him out of the arcade, Shin falling in step beside him, followed by Shizune and Iwanako. That left me with Mai, who’d been almost totally silent this whole time.
“Hey, Mai,” I said, feeling a little nervous because of her stony-faced silence. “How’ve you been?”
“Fine,” she replied curtly.
“It’s good to see you,” I offered, but she just grunted in return.
I sighed. Shin had said Mai had expressed faith that I’d eventually pull out of my depression, but apparently that faith didn’t preclude her also being pissed off at me. “Listen, I’m sorry I was such a jerk last winter,” I began, but she snorted and shook her head. “What?” I asked.
She gave me a side-long glower. “Last winter? Really?”
I frowned, uncertain as to what she was getting at. “Um. Yeah? I feel like I owe you an apology for how I treated you when I was in the hospital.”
She shook her head again, a look of disbelief on her face. “Hey, ‘Nako,” she called ahead. “Do you know the sign for ‘oblivious idiot’? Ask Shizune if Hisao is still an oblivious idiot.”
I spluttered, as Iwanako laughed. The four of us stopped walking, and I watched as Iwanako slowly translated Mai’s question to Shizune.
Shizune arched an eyebrow in surprise at the question, but then she smirked and said, “He’s not totally oblivious. Not as lawn as I hit him with big enough glues.”
“Oh, now, that’s
just not fair,” I grumbled.
Shizune eyed Mai and me, then shook her head. “Be shentle with him, Mai. He’s cot a good heart under it all.” She paused, frowned, then added, “Metaphoritally speagin’, I mean.”
Iwanako and Mai laughed at that last. I rolled my eyes, and pointedly started walking towards the cafe. Thankfully, Iwanako and Shizune took the hint, and resumed walking too. The two of them seemed to be getting by with Iwanako signing slowly and Shizune speaking out loud in return.
Mai resumed walking beside me, her hand stuffed in her jacket pockets. She sighed. “It’s hard to be mad at you when you don’t even know what I’m mad at you for.”
“Um. I guess I really don’t. Know, I mean,” I said cautiously. I felt like I was having a flashback to my argument with Shizune of a couple nights ago. “I mean, I thought last winter…”
She looked up to the heavens for a moment, as if looking for strength, then said, “Last winter you’d just had a heart attack. Yeah, you were an ass, but it was understandable. Your whole world had been turned upside down. You’d become disabled overnight, at seventeen. No one could really blame you for getting depressed and mopey under those circumstances. Although I do
appreciate the apology.”
“Thanks—er, you’re welcome—I mean—” I stopped. “I don’t know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” We walked in silence for a few more steps. “But that was last winter. It’s been eight months
since then, you jerk, and you’ve never called or emailed or texted a single one of us. It was like you really had
died.” She scowled. “And then you just pop up and are like, hey, wanna go to the arcade and meet my new girlfriend?
like nothing ever happened.”
I could feel my face burning. “That goes two ways, you know. You
could have called me
any time in the last eight months.”
“Really? You made it pretty plain when we last saw you that you didn’t want us around, didn’t want us to talk to you. You never replied to the letter ‘Nako sent to you, which seemed like a pretty strong signal.” She sighed. “I dunno, maybe I should
have ignored your wishes,” she conceded. “But it felt like the ball was in your court. It was your move.”
We walked along in silence, arriving at the cafe. I could see Shin and Takumi already at a table inside, and Shizune and Iwanako were joining them. Mai and I paused outside, staring at each other. She was one of my oldest friends, and, like Shin had said, almost a sister to me. And I’d just ignored her for eight months. No wonder she was angry. Maybe she could have called me, too, but so could have I. In the end, where the blame lay didn’t really matter.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been a long and weird journey, getting my head together, dealing with this
,” I rubbed my chest. I snorted. “I’m still
learning how to cope with it, as Shizune could tell you. But…” I smiled hesitantly down at her. “I do know I don’t want to lose you. Or Shin or Takumi. So…forgive me? Please?”
Mai just stared back at me for a long moment, frowning. Then her frown slowly melted into a rueful smile. “Well, how can I refuse such a lovely request?” She leaned forward and gave me a hug, startling me. I could count on one hand the number of times she’d hugged me over the years. I gently hugged her back, enjoying the feeling of her in my arms, smelling the floral scent of her shampoo under my nose. She was shorter than Shizune, short enough to fit under my chin, and it was almost like hugging Emi.
“You’d better do a better job of keeping in touch, you jerk,” she said, as she pulled away from me.
“I will,” I promised. I wiped at my eyes, and gestured toward the cafe door. “Shall we go in?”
From there, I was amazed at how smoothly things went. I wasn’t sure if Mai had been the designated spokeswoman for my friends’ complaints about me, or if the other three were just less upset, but after a little while, it felt as if I’d never left. Even the addition of Iwanako and Shizune to the group felt natural. The two of them got along surprisingly well, much to my relief. They fell to talking together while I chatted with the other three, catching up on the last eight months.
Before I knew it, a couple of hours had passed. Shizune and Iwanako had started teaching the other three some basic signs, and we were all laughing at their fumbling attempts at communication.
“I’m afraid we’ve got to get going. My parents will be home soon,” I said regretfully.
parents? Before midnight?” asked Takumi with only slightly feigned incredulity.
“They probably miss good old what’s-his-name, their son,” said Shin drily.
“No, I think they must really want to meet the new girlfriend,” said Iwanako with a smile.
I suspected the last was closest to the truth, and, judging by the slightly nervous look that flashed across Shizune’s face, she must have agreed. But any visible doubt was quickly suppressed. “I luh forward to meetin’ them, too,” she said. “I am happy to have seen this window into Hisao’s past today. Than you all for makin’ me feel welgum.” She smiled at Iwanako. [Thank you,] she repeated.
Iwanako returned her smile warmly. [You’re welcome. I’m glad to see Hisao happy with you.]
[And I’m glad to see you happy with Shin. Remember what I said about keeping him in line,] Shizune replied. I decided that that last line didn’t need to be translated for the larger group.
We paid for our food and drinks and headed out to the bus stop. Shin, Mai and I were all on the same bus line, so we said our goodbyes to Iwanako and Takumi at the bus stop. I was charmed to see Shin, usually so bold and certain, looking awkwardly affectionate with Iwanako as they parted ways. He waved to her as she and Takumi boarded their bus.
[Do you mind if I sit with Shin?] I asked Shizune just before we boarded our bus.
She shook her head, and pulled out the pen and notebook she kept handy, presumably to allow her to converse with Mai.
“You’ve got a good thing going there with Iwanako,” I said to Shin after we sat down, with Mai and Shizune behind us.
He gave me a slightly nervous smile. “Yeah. I know. I just…”
After a moment of silence, I prompted, “You just what?”
He sighed. “I just hope I don’t mess it up, y’know?”
“How would you do that?”
He shook his head. “I…I’m not sure. But sometimes I just feel so damn lucky, and it seems like it’s too good to be true. Like I’ll wake up one day and it’ll all be a dream.”
I wasn’t sure what I could say to reassure him on that front, since I didn’t really know how they worked together. Which prompted me to ask, “So, how did
the two of you end up together, anyway?”
He grimaced. “After your heart attack…Iwanako got shunned at school.”
“People were calling her ‘heartbreaker’ and ‘killer.’ It was pretty ugly, for a while. Mai was the only girlfriend who stuck by her, and ‘Nako began to hang out with the three of us. Kinda taking your place in the group, in a weird sort of way.”
I frowned, thinking. “This…shunning…must have started pretty soon after my heart attack?”
“Yeah, once word got around about what happened, and why you weren’t coming back to school.”
“You mean the whole time she was visiting me in the hospital…getting the cold shoulder from me
“Ah, hell.” I buried my face in my hands for a moment, guilt rushing through me.
“Yeah, well, like I said, she was
pissed at you for a while after you left.”
I just grunted in response. That was hardly surprising. What was
surprising was that she’d even come out to see me at all today, and had been civil, let alone pleasant.
“She started spending more and more time with the three of us, and she and I…I dunno, I sometimes wonder why she didn’t hook up with Takumi, he’s more her style, but…we just sorta fell in together. Kept joking and bantering, and eventually Mai got fed up with us dancing around each other and shoved us out on a date together.” He gently nudged me in the ribs with his elbow. “And, unlike you, my heart was up to the task.”
I tugged on my lower eyelid and stuck out my tongue at him, but he just laughed. After a moment, I had to laugh too. “Well, I guess it’s true, that opposites attract.”
“Yeah. Y’know, she’s even got me studying more. My grades have come up this semester.”
I snorted, smiling. “Now there’s
a miracle for you.”
“Yeah. My parents love her.”
“What about you?”
“Do you love her?”
He was silent a long time, and I wondered if he was going to answer the question. “I dunno, man. I’m not sure what that really means, y’know? It’s kinda scary.”
“So I take it you haven’t told her you love her? Or vice versa?”
“No.” He shot me a curious glance. “Have you?”
“What, told Iwanako that I love her?” I teased.
“Ass. You know what I mean.”
I chuckled. “Yeah. I have. We have. Whatever.”
He glanced over his shoulder, as if making sure Shizune wasn’t listening to us. I didn’t bother pointing out that that was needless. “When did you first say it?”
“Ah…” I felt my face turning red.
“Or did she say it first?”
“Uh…in a manner of speaking, yeah, I guess she did. But I didn’t realize it at the time.”
“Huh? How can you not realize it?”
“It’s…I mean, she’s deaf, right? She talks with her hands, and her body.”
“Yeah, so? Did you not know the sign for ‘I love you’ or something?”
“No…it wasn’t that.” I coughed. “After I
said I love you to her for the first time, she told me that she never would have let me inside her if she didn’t love me. So she’d already said I love you to me, non-verbally, a few weeks before that. Sorta.”
“Let you in—oh!”
Shin gawked at me, and his face went as red as mine. “Oh. Uh. Wow. Congrats, dude.”
I grinned, still blushing, but also feeling a trifle smug. “There’s some
advantage to being at a boarding school. Like having your own rooms. And bored security guards.”
He laughed at that, and shook his head.
“So, have you and Iwanako…” I trailed of suggestively, curious.
His face reddened even more, and he shook his head. “Nah. I’ve got two little brothers for roommates. We barely ever get the privacy for a few kisses.” His expression softened. “Though those are pretty nice.”
“Yeah, they are,” I agreed.
As the bus came to a halt, Mai stood up and tapped Shin on the back of the head. “Come on, lover boy, this is our stop.” Shin glared at her as he stood too, and Shizune and I bade them farewell as they exited the bus.
Shizune moved up to sit next to me. [Did you have a good talk?] I asked her.
She smiled. [I was about to ask you the same. Yes, it was nice to get to know her a little. To hear about some of your youthful exploits.]
Oh, boy. I glanced at the pad of paper still clutched in her hand, presumably full of Mai’s stories about me. [Can I see what she said?] I asked.
Shizune smirked. [Maybe later.] She tucked the notepad back into her purse.
Things with my friends had gone so well, it boosted my confidence for introducing Shizune to my parents. I felt more relaxed on the bus ride back home than I had on the ride out.
I heard Shizune muttering under her breath, the first time I’d ever heard such a behavior from her. After a moment of listening, I realized she was practicing saying my name over and over, “Nah-kai, Nakai, Nagai, Nakai…” When speaking out loud, she had the greatest difficulty with the sounds produced at the back of the throat, like K, G
, and NG
. And of course, my family name had a K in the middle of it. I guessed she wanted to make a good impression on my parents, and not mis-pronounce our name. I touched her arm to get her attention, then smiled at her. [It’ll be fine, you’ll do great,] I said reassuringly.
She grimaced, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath, visibly relaxing herself. Opening her eyes, she replied, [I’ve never met a boyfriend’s parents before. You can’t blame me for being a little nervous.]
[Well, I survived meeting your
father. Surely meeting my parents can't be so terrifying?] She snorted, and shook her head. [I've never introduced a girlfriend to my parents either,] I added.
[What about Iwanako?]
[They met her over my unconscious body at the hospital, or so I’ve been told. At least this time I’ll be conscious, and with you.]
She gave me a mock scowl. [Yes, you'd better not pass out or have a heart attack before I meet them.]
[I’ll do my best,] I promised with a smile.
I pushed the button for our stop, and stood up as the bus came to a halt. After paying our fare and getting off, I said, [Well, that was my friends. Now on to my parents.] Shizune nodded, took my hand in hers, and we set off.
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