Scarred Muse

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Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:05 pm

To answer the question that nobody has been asking, "What has Lap been up to the past year?", I present Scarred Muse. I hope y'all enjoy it.

Many many many thanks to Feurox, for valiant proofreading, going above and beyond, reading this behemoth. You're the best!

This work is also on Archive of Our Own, where you can also download it as a PDF or other e-document file for easy off-line reading. (Note that the version on AO3 is 9 chapters, as opposed to 11 here, but it's just because of character count limitations; the text is identical.)

And many MORE thanks to Feurox for gracing us with Mural Walking, a song he wrote inspired by this story.

Part 1 (scroll down)
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Epilogue

________________________



What am I doing here?

Hanako wasn’t quite sure how she came to be standing outdoors with Rin in front of a mural, meekly opening cans of paints for the armless artist. She could recall every step that led to her being there, but the why of how she ended up there got jumbled up in her mind.

Why had she agreed to help Emi carry supplies to Rin? Why had she agreed to help Rin with her work? Even as she sat and watched Rin work, she felt torn—on the one hand, she wanted to leave this awkward, somewhat rude young woman, and go get dinner. Yet at the same time, she felt compelled to stay. If no one stayed to help her, how would Rin manage?

“I need some sky blue.”

Hanako found a can of the requested color and brought it over to Rin. At first, it had seemed odd to Hanako to be painting something artistic using cans of house paint. Wasn’t art done with palettes and tubes of paint? But with such a large area to cover, small tubes of paint were impractical.

She knew Rin must be able to manage without assistance—she painted all the time, after all. But it seemed her assistance made things easier for Rin.

It’s like helping Lilly…but it doesn’t quite feel the same. She wondered why. She helped Lilly with things all the time. But Rin’s need seemed purer. Even when guiding Lilly around town, or helping her select things in a store, Hanako knew that Lilly could function fine without her if she needed to. Hanako just simplified things a little for her.

Rin was the same. She could paint without Hanako’s assistance. But whereas she sometimes felt that Lilly was humoring her, letting Hanako assist her just to make her feel better, feel useful, there was no such feeling with Rin.

Lilly…lets me help her. Rin…accepts my help. It was a subtle distinction, but real. Lilly was always solicitous of her time, and grateful for Hanako’s assistance. Rin’s attitude seemed to be one of unquestioning expectation—if Hanako was present, then of course she would help. Hanako was well aware that it wasn’t her, specifically, that Rin expected help from—anyone else who happened to be caught up in her orbit would have been expected to help too. Judging by comments Rin had dropped here and there, other members of the art club had been helping her on and off all week. But at the moment, right now, it was just her.

“Orange,” Rin said baldly. Hanako found the can labeled “Pumpkin” and brought it to her.

So, she stayed to help, to watch. The longer she watched, the more invested in Rin’s art she became. She didn't understand it at all, but it nonetheless drew her in. The grotesque figures with their disturbing proportions became less grotesque and more intriguing the longer she looked at them. She didn’t understand the mural any better, but she thought she better appreciated it.

Her continued assistance was somewhat puzzling, even to herself. She’d never before hesitated to flee from another person who was making her uncomfortable. But here, that desire to flee was muted, and her sense of obligation to help overrode it. Helping Rin, being useful and involved in an act of creation felt…nice.

It certainly helped that Rin didn’t seem to expect or even desire conversation. Rin didn’t stare at her scars. Rin didn’t care that she stuttered. All that mattered to Rin was the art. If Hanako could help with the art, then for that short time Hanako was important to Rin. It was like being comfortably ignored while at the same time being essential. Hanako found that she liked being needed in such a simple, straight-forward fashion.

“I need more scarlet,” Rin said.

Hanako looked among the cans spread around them. Scarlet, she’d learned, was a specific shade of red, bright but with a touch of orange to it. She spotted the can of paint, and pried the lid off of it. She peered into the can, then picked it up and tilted it to the side to judge how much paint remained. “It’s…p-practically empty,” she said.

Rin frowned briefly. “Practically empty isn’t very practical for me. I need more scarlet.” She lifted her left foot with a brush between her toes and dabbed it in the small puddle of paint left in the can. She seemed oblivious to the fact that inserting her foot that far into the can got smears of scarlet on her ankle. “This isn’t enough.”

Hanako set the can down beside Rin and searched among the other cans scattered up and down the length of the wall. She couldn’t find any labeled “Positive Red,” the paint company’s odd name for the color Rin deemed scarlet. “H-here’s some…poinsettia red,” Hanako offered weakly. She pried off the lid and offered the half-empty can to Rin.

Rin just stared at it for a disconcertingly long time, as if she were willing the darker red to turn scarlet. Finally, she sighed. “Pandas will eat sugar cane if no bamboo is available.”

“Um…” Hanako just stared at Rin, waiting for explication.

Rin turned back to the mural and resumed painting, using up the last of the scarlet. “Add a blob of white and a splash of yellow to that,” she directed absently.

Hanako had long since given up asking what constituted a “blob” or a “touch” or a “splash” in terms of quantity when mixing colors. She recognized that Rin wanted her to attempt to match the scarlet by modifying the poinsettia red, so she found cans with white and yellow, and began hesitantly blending them in with the red. She was glad the can was half empty, as it made it easier to stir the paint without slopping over the edges.

Once fully blended, she pulled the stirring stick out of the can and held it next to the lid from the can of scarlet. Still too dark, even she could see that. She repeated the process a couple of times before asking Rin, “How’s th-this color?”

Rin turned away from the mural, where she’d been working on a different section in blue. She blinked at the proffered can and then looked back over at the section she’d been painting scarlet. “It’s too orange. Perfect.”

“P-perfect?”

“Yes. I didn’t know it needed to be orangier until now. Thank you.”

“Er. Y-you’re welcome?”

“Move the ladder over here and put a bowl with some paint in it on a box next to it.”

“All right.” Hanako found it nerve-wracking to watch Rin working from atop a ladder, balanced on one foot while painting with the other. Sometimes she held the brush in her mouth in order to reach up, but for larger swaths, she seemed to prefer using her feet. Hanako hovered beside the ladder, waiting to somehow break her fall should she slip, but Rin’s sense of balance seemed preternatural. She seemed indifferent to the fact that she was standing on one foot almost two meters off the ground, waving her other foot around in broad strokes as she painted.

“I need the black paint and a two-centimeter brush.”

“Um. Okay.” Hanako searched among the supplies for the specified brush. It felt odd to hear Rin being so plain and direct. She hadn’t had much interaction with the artist over the years they’d been at Yamaku, but in what little she’d had, she’d learned that speech with Rin was usually oblique and confusing. But apparently, when she was painting, her needs, at least her physical needs, were simple enough that she could be direct.

She found an appropriately sized brush, rinsed the green paint out of it, and found a can of black. She brought them over to the ladder where Rin was still standing, working on the orangier-scarlet section. Rin set down her brush and took the proffered brush from Hanako. She dipped it in the black paint, then stood frozen for a moment, staring at the wall, leg raised. Hanako held her breath, watching Rin poised on one leg atop the ladder. She had to choke down a sudden urge to giggle as she thought, She looks like she’s in that movie, The Karate Kid.

But when Rin moved, it wasn’t to kick, but to paint. Her leg moved in a broad sweep, painting a black line down the wall. She then transferred the brush to her mouth, and leaned in to draw a few finer details, small circles and short arcs.

Hanako realized that the black strokes had transformed the formerly meaningless collection of orange colors into a naked female torso. She made an involuntary sound of surprise.

Rin glanced down at her. She didn’t say anything, but Hanako could feel the question in her gaze. “Ah…does N-nomiya know…you’re p-painting n-naked figures on…the wall?” she asked.

Rin shrugged, and turned back to her work. “He shed I could pain’ wha’ever I wan’ed,” she said around the brush. She painted a few more lines, starting the beginning of a face next to the torso.

“Okay…”

Rin grabbed the brush with her toes. “Which is silly, because what I want changes from moment to moment, but I don’t think he meant I should paint daifuku or Pocky just because I was hungry and wanted something to eat.” She froze in the act of dipping her brush back into the black paint, and frowned slightly. “But now I want daifuku.”

“M-maybe…have some dinner…before eating dessert?”

Rin shot her a glance, her lips twitching almost imperceptibly. “Now you sound like Emi.”

“I do?”

“No, her voice is higher and more perky. But she would say something like that.”

“Do you want to stop…and have dinner?”

Rin gazed at the length of the mural, and sighed. “No. But yes.” She drew one more line with the black paint, then dropped the brush into the paint bowl and came down the ladder. “Now I’m thinking of food, so I shouldn’t paint now. I shouldn’t think while I paint.” She stepped from the last rung of the ladder onto a paint can, then began walking down the length of the mural, stepping from the top of one paint can to the next. Hanako realized that there was a reason for what Rin was doing—she was sealing the lids tighter so that the paint wouldn’t dry out while she was gone.

“D-do you…just leave all this paint…here?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t worry about…anyone…stealing it?”

Rin frowned at her. “Are you planning to steal my paint?”

“No! I just m-meant…never mind,” Hanako trailed off. She took the brushes covered in black and orangier-scarlet paint and swirled them in a large bucket of water, where some other brushes rested. She saw a few other brushes on the ground or on top of cans along the length of the mural, and gathered them up too.

“Maybe that’s what happened to all the scarlet,” Rin mused. “Someone stole it.”

Hanako looked up at the mural, large swaths of which were covered in red and orange and scarlet. “Or…you just used it all up.”

Rin nodded solemnly. “That does seem more likely.”

“Yes. Do you…need any other help?”

Rin started walking toward the dorms. “Yes, but Emi usually helps me with changing my pads.”

“O…kay.” Hanako blinked at that casual comment. She walked along with Rin until the path split between the academic building and the dorms. “I’m going to go…get dinner, then.”

“All right.” Rin continued walking toward the dorm, presumably on a quest to find Emi.

Hanako headed to the cafeteria, where at least the dinner hopefully wouldn’t be quite so confusing.


________________________


Saturday afternoons were usually low-key for Hanako. After the half-day of classes, she had lunch, then saw her therapist, Dr. Tanaka, for an hour.

After they’d settled into their seats, he’d asked her his usual, “How has your week been?”

Hanako tried to sound casual as she answered, “Well, I…spent some t-time with…another person y-yesterday. Someone n-not Lilly, I mean.” She felt bashfully proud of that fact, and hoped that Dr. Tanaka might be proud of her too.

Dr. Tanaka smiled. “That’s good. Did you enjoy it?”

Hanako had to stop to give that some thought. She hadn’t actually considered her time spent with Rin in those terms. “I…think so? It was…interesting. P-peaceful. I think I…learned a little about art.” She nodded, then said more assuredly, “Yes. I enjoyed it.”

“Excellent. That’s the first time you’ve spent time with someone other than Lilly in a while, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“How did this come about?”

Hanako explained how Emi had flagged her down to help carry some cans of paint to Rin, where she was working on the mural. “But R-rin wasn’t at the mural when we arrived, so…Emi l-left. I d-did too, but as I was walking…back to the dorm, I ran into Rin.” Almost literally, as her focus had been on the pavement cracks, not looking at where she had been going. “I t-told her we’d brought her some p-paints, and she asked me to help her…open the cans.” She glanced up at Dr. Tanaka. “She doesn’t have any arms,” she explained.

Dr. Tanaka nodded. “I know of Miss Tezuka’s disability.”

Hanako shot her therapist a curious look. “Is she also a p-patient of yours?”

“You know I can neither confirm or deny whether another student is a patient of mine. Just as I would not tell another whether or not I see you.”

Hanako blushed. She knew that. “Y-yes, of…course.”

“I will say, our school is small enough that I have a passing familiarity with almost all of the students enrolled here. And I know of her as the artist behind that new mural that’s going up.”

“Oh.”

“So, did you assist her?”

“Yes. For…several hours.” She told him about her adventures in can opening and paint mixing. And how Rin didn’t seem to care about her stutter. Or her scars. “I think she d-doesn’t care about…anything. That isn’t her art,” she said, the realization occurring to her even as she spoke.

“She sounds very single-minded.”

“Yes…” Hanako was surprised to realize she envied that kind of passionate dedication.

“Do you think you’ll help her again?”

Hanako wilted a little and shook her head. “I doubt it. She’ll be…finished, soon. The Festival is t-tomorrow, after all.”

"But perhaps you could spend time with her in other contexts?”

Hanako tried to think of another situation where she might be useful to Rin. “I doubt it,” she repeated. “Still…it was nice. For a day.”

“Hmm.” Dr. Tanaka looked skeptical, but he didn’t push her.


________________________


Later that afternoon, Hanako sat at her desk, organizing her history notes and contemplating taking a break for a snack. She wondered if Lilly was available to join her, or if she was busy with preparations for tomorrow’s festival.

Her ruminations were interrupted by a series of thumps on her door, making her jump. She looked nervously at the door, wondering who it could be, and why they were thumping instead of knocking.

When the odd noise repeated, she reluctantly rose and went to her door. She cracked the door open a couple of centimeters and peered out. She was startled to see Rin standing there, staring at her door. She didn’t shift her gaze to meet Hanako’s, but continued staring straight ahead, as if fascinated by the woodgrain of the door.

After waiting a moment for Rin to say something, Hanako ventured, “R-rin?”

The brilliant green eyes slowly drifted toward Hanako’s face, and met the single eye that Hanako revealed through the barely opened door. “Hanako.” A frown flickered over her face, then she said, “That is your name, right?”

“Uh. Yes?”

“Good. Emi said names are important. When I told her the mystery toilet girl had helped me with the mural yesterday, she got upset with me.”

“M-mystery…” Hanako could feel her face going red. It was only one of the many rude nicknames she’d acquired over the years in grade school and middle school, but she hadn’t heard it since coming to Yamaku. She tried to close the door, but it didn’t budge. Rin’s sandaled foot was in the way. She shoved a little harder, hoping Rin would take the hint and move her foot out of the way, but she remained planted in place.

“Or would you prefer I call you Ikezawa? Emi said that would be more formal, but I don’t like being called Tezuka, so I thought maybe you wouldn’t want to be called Ikezawa. But I’m pretty sure you’re not me, so that might not be a valid assumption…” Rin frowned, and stared down at the floor, looking thoughtful. “I’m not sure what I should call you. Do you know?” She looked back up at Hanako.

Hanako stared at Rin, trying to follow her logic, before giving up. It dawned on her that Rin hadn’t meant that name as an insult, she’d just used it as an identifier. A label. Better to have Rin use her real name. Her shock at being called “mystery toilet girl” faded. Since it didn’t seem she was going to be able to dislodge Rin from her doorstep anytime soon, she replied, “Hanako…is fine.”

Rin nodded sharply, as if that decided something. “Hanako. Good. Names are important,” she repeated. “Emi also said I should have thanked you for helping me yesterday. So, thank you.”

Hanako smiled a little at that, pleased to be appreciated, even if it was a little after-the-fact and with prompting. “You’re…welcome. It was…fun.” For all its oddities, she had enjoyed the afternoon with Rin.

Rin nodded in return and continued staring at Hanako. They stared at each other for a long moment, then Hanako asked, “D-did you want…something?”

Rin nodded again. “I want lots of things.”

Hanako shook her head. “N-no, I mean…why are you here?”

“My mother said I was conceived because an incompetent gynecologist prescribed her a diaphragm for contraception, even though she has a retroverted uterus, which makes—”

No,” Hanako cut Rin off hurriedly, “I m-mean, why are you here, at my…door? D-did you want something…from me?”

Rin thought for a moment, then said, “I need to finish the mural.”

Hanako waited to see if anything else was forthcoming, then she asked, “D-did you want…my help?”

Rin nodded. “Help would be good. The festival is tomorrow. Speed is of the essence, but not Emi’s kind of speed, she just makes messes. You can open paint cans faster than I can, and you’re better than Hisao at mixing colors. You gave me the orangier scarlet when I didn’t even know I needed it.” She frowned. “But if it was orangier, then I shouldn’t call it scarlet anymore, should I? Names are important. What’s the name for a red that’s oranger than scarlet?” She looked at Hanako expectantly.

“Ah…orange-red?” Hanako offered weakly. Shouldn’t an artist know these things? she wondered.

Rin considered that for a moment, then shook her head. “Too obvious. I’ll just call it Hanako red.”

“Um…” Hanako felt herself blushing at the concept of a color named after her.

Rin finally pulled her foot out of the door and turned to walk away. “I’ll be at the mural,” she said, without looking back.

“But…” Rin didn't stay to hear her objections. She watched Rin disappear down the stairs, then she slowly closed her door. She stared at the door, much like Rin had been doing when she opened the door. What do I do now?

She wasn’t used to people other than Lilly asking her for help, which made her uncertain how to respond. Her initial reaction was to ignore Rin’s request, hide away from her, and stay in her room. Later on, she could venture out briefly for dinner, and maybe have tea with Lilly before bed. That would be a normal Saturday for her. But…

When she’d told Dr. Tanaka about working with Rin, he’d asked her if she’d enjoyed it, and if she might do it again. And she had enjoyed it, overall. It had been awkward and uncomfortable at times, but still, in its own odd way, enjoyable. He’d seemed pleased that she’d successfully spent time with someone other than Lilly, and she’d felt a tiny spark of pride at that.

I don’t have to spend hours with her…just help out a little bit more. She liked the idea of helping more. Of maybe feeling…a little bit useful. For a while. She’d told Dr. Tanaka that there wouldn’t be any more opportunities for her to help Rin, but it appeared she’d been wrong.

Before she could overthink it and change her mind, she pulled on her shoes and followed Rin out of the dorm. She caught up with the artist halfway to the mural and slowed down to match her more sedate pace. Rin glanced sideways at her as she did, and they walked side-by-side the last little distance to the mural.

“Emi said I need to thank people who help me,” she repeated. “In case I forget to say it later, thank you.”

Hanako smiled at that. “Emi…helps you a lot, d-doesn’t she?”

“Yes. She’s my best friend.” Then Rin stopped walking, and turned to Hanako, frowning. “She helps me. Should I thank her, too?”

Hanako considered the notion. “If she’s t-truly helpful…then, yes. You should. You d-don’t want to…take her for granted.”

Rin nodded, then looked back at the dorm, a small frown on her face. “But…I need to finish the mural.”

It took Hanako a moment to figure out what Rin was saying. “You c-can always thank her…later. It doesn’t have to be…right now.”

“But I might forget.” Rin shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t want to forget to thank her, but sometimes thoughts slip out of my head like a bird escaping its cage, and sometimes the bird comes back but other times it flies away forever and then Emi will think I don’t appreciate her when I actually do.” She gave Hanako a surprisingly earnest look. “I really do.”

Hanako smiled, touched by this awkward declaration of friendship. “If you w-want…I’ll help you remember…to thank her.”

“You would?”

Hanako nodded.

Rin’s posture relaxed, and she resumed walking toward the mural. “Thank you.”

“You’re…welcome.”

When they got to the mural, Hanako could see that Rin must have already been painting for most of the day—it was much further along than it had been when they’d left for dinner last night. Rin had mentioned something about the new boy, Hisao, mixing paints, so maybe he’d been helping her?

Rin stopped a few meters away from the mural, and looked at it for a long moment, her gaze traveling up and down its length. After a minute of silence, Hanako asked, “Where…do you want to start?”

Rin lifted a foot to point and said, “I’ll work on these figures on the right. You fill in that section between that torso and that face.”

“Me?” exclaimed Hanako, startled. “I’m n-not…an artist.”

Rin looked at her. “You’re not? But you mixed the color I didn’t know I needed yesterday.”

“Th-that was…an accident!” She’d been trying to match the scarlet as best she could.

Rin nodded, as if that were a perfectly acceptable response. “Good. Serendipity in art is a rare talent.” She walked over to the section she’d assigned to Hanako and gestured at it with an arm stump, “Just paint the top part medium blue and the bottom dark blue.”

“B-but…what if I ruin your painting?”

Rin looked puzzled. “How could you do that? No matter what you paint, it will still be a painting.”

“B-but it won’t be…your painting.”

Rin frowned. “This mural already is…isn’t…” She stared at the wall, a faint look of frustration visible on her face. “It’s my painting. Whatever it is. But it’s also... Other members of the art club have helped me paint parts of this. You can, too. It will be our painting. I don’t really understand this painting, so maybe you can help make its meaning clearer.”

“Oh…” Although the notion that she might somehow add meaning to Rin’s painting was disconcerting, Hanako nonetheless felt reassured to know that other students had painted parts of the mural. And she can always paint over what I do, if she wants, she told herself. “Well…what colors should I use?”

Rin bent over to peer at the paint cans around them. She gently kicked one, saying, “Use this for the top,” then she found another, and said, “And this for the bottom.”

“Should I j-just divide…the area evenly in half?” Hanako asked timidly.

Rin shook her head. “That’s boring. Do it some other way.”

“How?”

Rin shrugged and headed to the section she wanted to work on. “You’re the artist. You figure it out.”

I’m the artist? Hanako watched Rin for a moment, then bent to open the two cans of paint that she’d indicated. She pulled a pair of brushes from the bucket of water they were soaking in, and carefully dried them off, doing her best not to splash herself. I wish I had worn something else, she thought glumly. A white uniform blouse was not the best attire for painting in. She briefly considered returning to her room to change into some older t-shirt, but…

She shook her head. If I go back to my room, I might never come back, she admitted to herself. So she resolved to paint as carefully as possible.

She dipped one of the brushes into the lighter shade of blue, and hesitantly applied it to the empty area between the female torso and the torso with a face at the top. There must have still been some excess water in the brush, because the paint dribbled down the wall. She hurriedly dabbed at the drip with the brush, cutting it off before it could reach part of the painting Rin had already done. She stepped back, and looked at the result. Well…she said to divide it some other way, she thought dubiously. The drip had made the dividing line she’d been trying to paint much more erratic. And, she had to concede, a little more interesting thereby.

She looked over at Rin, to see if she had noticed, but she was fully absorbed in the section of wall in front of her. She…trusts me. To work on her mural. She took a deep breath, and dipped the brush back into the paint can. She can always paint over it if she wants, she reminded herself. Reassured, she began filling in her area with a little more confidence.

Her white blouse was a write-off within the first twenty minutes of painting, splashed and stained. Given that she’d received four new uniform blouses at the beginning of each school year for the past three years, she wasn’t too worried about its loss. She pulled off the black bow from around her neck to keep it clean, and untucked her blouse so it could cover and hopefully protect at least part of her skirt.

Hanako had originally planned to spend an hour or so with Rin, enough time that she could honestly tell Dr. Tanaka that she’d spent more time with her. But the painting proved to be fun. She didn’t deceive herself that she was an artist like Rin—she was just blocking in large areas of solid color for her, some of which Rin added details to, some of which stayed simple—but it felt…almost creative. Kind of like what she felt when she was writing her stories. She knew she wasn’t a real author, but it was fun to pretend. She let her mind drift a little as she painted a broad swash of “Hanako red” across part of the mural, trying to imagine what the whole thing would look like once Rin was done adding her distinctive touch to it all.

Rin was a person of few words, which suited Hanako well. She occasionally asked for help opening a can of paint, or mixing a color, or directed Hanako in what to paint next, but other than that they worked in silence. As time wore on, Hanako grew more comfortable working with her, feeling safe in the knowledge that she wasn’t going to have to converse at length. Wasn’t going to have to stutter and stammer her way through an awkward conversation.

Dinner time came, and Emi appeared to try and coax Rin into going to the cafeteria for a dinner break. Rin refused, and Emi disappeared, only to return fifteen minutes later with a boxed dinner. Two boxed dinners, Hanako was surprised to discover. “Gotta keep her assistants fed, too!” Emi said cheerily as she handed one to Hanako.

“Th-thank you,” Hanako said with a shy smile, touched that anyone other than Lilly might think to take care of her.

“No problem! I’m just glad Rin’s not out here all alone.”

“You…c-could help, too,” Hanako suggested. She knew Emi was Rin’s friend; it seemed a reasonable idea.

Rin snorted as she chewed on a piece of cutlet. Emi stuck out her tongue at her, then admitted, “I’m not patient enough for this kind of stuff. I’ll leave it to you artsy types. I need to move.” Even though she wasn’t wearing her racing blades, she still seemed a little bouncy on her feet, as if she were always on the verge of breaking into a run.

Rin only finished half her meal before drifting back to the mural, but Hanako finished her meal, and closed up Rin’s box, thinking she might want to finish it later. Emi departed soon thereafter with a cheery, “Gotta run! Don’t forget to sleep, Rin!” Rin ignored that directive, and Emi’s departure, as she worked.

Hanako was relieved when the outdoor path lights came on, brightening their canvas against the setting sun. She stepped back for a moment and stretched as she surveyed the mural as a whole. It was looking…almost finished? Given Rin’s abstract style, she wasn’t totally sure she could tell which areas were completed. But as she further studied the wall, she realized that that wasn’t quite true. Several areas, despite being fully covered with paint, felt incomplete, lacking in some detail or accent. Even as she watched, Rin finished working on one section and moved a few meters down to another area, one which Hanako had felt was unfinished. She was pleased that her perceptions were correct. Maybe she was beginning to understand this mural, and Rin, a little bit.

Several hours later, Hanako found herself staring at a stretch of wall, her eyes drifting shut. She shook her head, and set down her brush with a sigh. “Rin? I th-think…it’s time for bed.” She realized that her arms and shoulders were aching from their unaccustomed work.

Rin glanced over at her. She looked not at all sleepy, her eyes bright, looking almost feverish in the lamplight. “No. I just need to do a few more things and I’ll be done.”

I need to go to b-bed,” Hanako amended.

Rin frowned, as if the notion of needing sleep was a puzzling one, then she shrugged. “Okay.” She turned back to the mural, dipping a brush back into a paint can.

Hanako waited a moment, wondering if Rin would say more, but nothing seemed to be forthcoming. She put her brush in a bucket of water and put lids loosely onto the cans of paint she’d been using. With one last glance at Rin, painting away, she turned and trudged back to the dorm, the prospect of her soft bed drawing her on.


________________________


Hanako tried to sleep in on Sunday morning, but the clatter and chatter of the other girls in the hallway as they prepared for a day at the festival made that impossible. Sunday mornings were usually quiet, but not today. Everyone seemed to be excited about the day’s activities. She sat up in bed and stretched, wincing at the soreness in her arms. Apparently painting engaged muscles she wasn’t used to using.

Listening to the chatter in the hall, she decided to wait before venturing forth. She sat in bed and read for a while, then tried to write. She was working on a short fantasy story about a princess who rescued a dragon, but it kept getting tangled up in her head. After a half hour or so, she gave up on it and slipped out to the bathroom to wash and dress. She donned her school uniform out of habit, even though there were no classes to attend.

She looked out her window after getting dressed to see a steady trickle of students heading to the festival. Even though it was early, it already looked crowded. She shuddered at the notion of being in that horde of people. But there were almost no students heading toward the cafeteria, so it was probably a good time to eat.

The cafeteria was almost empty, and after eating she made her way up to the library. Yuuko wasn’t working today, so she walked past Miss Okimoto with a shy nod. Miss Okimoto looked surprised to see her; Hanako suspected she hadn’t expected to see anyone today. She knew Hanako well enough that she didn’t bother trying to talk with her, simply smiling and nodding back in turn.

Hanako made her way to her favorite beanbag chair and settled in with a satisfied sigh. A day almost totally alone in the library sounded like a perfect way to spend the day.

That perfect day lasted almost four hours before she heard the library doors open, followed by the tapping of Lilly’s cane. Then she heard Lilly speaking with Miss Okimoto. Hanako sighed. She loved Lilly, and was always happy to see her, but she suspected that Lilly would try to drag her out to see some of the festival.

Lilly appeared from around the end of a bookcase. “Hanako? Are you here?”

Hanako suppressed a second sigh, since Lilly would undoubtedly hear it. “Yes. I’m…here, Lilly,” she said, rising from the beanbag.

Lilly oriented toward the sound of her voice and smiled. “I thought I might find you here. Have you had lunch yet?”

“N–no.”

“Neither have I. Would you care to join me in sampling some of our classmates’ offerings?”

Hanako bit her lip. She really didn’t want to venture into the crowds of the festival. “M-maybe we could…get something at the c-cafeteria?” she countered.

Lilly made a little moue of disappointment. “But we can do that any day. We could try something different at the festival.”

“I know, b-but…” Hanako trailed off. Lilly knew perfectly well why she preferred the cafeteria. Why was she pushing her to do something she was so uncomfortable with?

“We could stop by and see Rin’s mural along the way,” Lilly offered. “Wouldn’t you like to see how it turned out?”

That notion gave Hanako pause. She was curious to see the mural fully finished, and in daylight. Maybe even see how other people were reacting to it. She hoped for Rin’s sake that people liked it.

“And you could describe it to me,” Lilly added.

Hanako giggled at that notion. She tried to imagine describing Rin’s abstract work in a manner comprehensible to Lilly. “I’m n-not sure…I could d-do it justice,” she said.

Lilly’s smile grew warmer in response to Hanako’s giggle. “Well, you could at least try.”

“I s-suppose,” Hanako conceded.

“And if the crowds are too large, we could bypass the festival and go to the Shanghai for lunch,” Lilly offered in compromise.

“All right,” Hanako said, giving in to Lilly’s coaxing. “J-just let me reshelve…this book.”

“But of course.”

As they walked toward the wall where Rin’s mural was, Lilly chatted lightly about her morning working at the festival. Several of her classmates hadn’t shown up for their shifts and had to be hunted down by their teacher. And somehow, the supplies delivered for preparing their food were less than what they’d ordered. “Of course, I’m sure Madame President will haughtily inform me that we got exactly what we ordered, no more, no less.” Lilly grimaced, a delicate little “V” forming between her eyebrows as she frowned.

“D-do you think…Shizune…deliberately messed up y-your orders?” Hanako asked hesitantly.

Lilly was silent for a long moment, then she sighed. “No. She is too invested in the festival going well to deliberately sabotage a part of it. Even to spite me.”

“Oh.” That made sense, from what she knew of Shizune.

As they got closer to the mural the crowds became thicker with the festivalgoers wandering the school grounds. Hanako felt herself growing more tense as they approached the other people, and she stared fixedly at the ground, trying to hide her face from view. Eventually, Lilly said, “Isn’t the mural somewhere around here?”

Hanako looked up and was unsurprised to find that Lilly’s spatial memory was correct; they were approaching the mural. She felt a moment of relief that no one was around, looking at the mural, then she felt ashamed of her response. Why weren’t people interested in Rin’s artwork? Was Rin upset that no one was looking at it?

Hanako took a moment to examine the now-completed mural in the light of day. Well…it’s certainly colorful, she thought. The colors were more strikingly vivid in the sunlight. The forms were still interesting, but she wasn’t sure if she understood it any better. She felt a little flash of proprietary pride when she looked at the areas she had helped paint, even though Rin had gone over most of those areas, adding more color and detail.

She spotted Rin sitting with her back against a tree, staring up at the sky through the leaves. Or maybe she was looking at the leaves? She guided Lilly over to Rin, and said, “Hello…Rin.”

Lilly took her cue from Hanako, and also said, “Hello, Rin. Are you enjoying the festival?”

Rin didn’t respond at first, and Hanako felt herself tensing up. She hoped that Rin wouldn’t offend Lilly with her odd behavior. Just as she was about to speak again, to try and evoke some response, Rin said, “Not really.”

“Oh, dear,” said Lilly, looking taken aback by this response.

“Are you…upset th-that no one is looking…at your mural?” Hanako asked.

Rin blinked, and looked around, as if just noticing the lack of art lovers. “No one? But you’re looking at it. Lilly isn’t, but she can’t, so I don’t hold that against her.”

“Um…I g-guess,” said Hanako, not certain if that was an offensive remark or not. She glanced nervously at Lilly, and was relieved that she looked more bemused than offended.

“People were looking at it earlier,” Rin continued. “Sensei brought some people to see it.”

“D-did they…like it?”

Rin shrugged, looking utterly uninterested. “I think so? I’m not sure. Emi and Hisao came by to see it, too.”

Hanako remembered her earlier promise. “D-did you…remember to…thank Emi?”

Rin’s expression lightened for a moment. “Yes. The bird came back.”

Hanako smiled. “Good.”

Lilly looked confused by this exchange. “Hanako? Perhaps you could describe the mural to me?”

Hanako nodded. “Of c-course, Lilly. Um…” She looked at the mural. It was a good ten meters or so wide. It still seemed to Hanako a minor miracle that Rin had managed to finish it before the start of the festival. “L-let’s start…at the left side.” She guided Lilly over to the left end, leaving Rin to resume watching the sky.

Image

Hanako looked at the images that made up the mural and wondered how she could describe it so that Lilly would understand it. Understanding might be an overly ambitious objective, but at least give her some sense of what it was like. She took a deep breath, and began, “It’s a long…mural, showing…lots of body parts.”

“Like…amputated limbs?” asked Lilly, looking uncomfortable.

“N-no, not…bloody, just…focusing on different parts. In different ways.”

“Ah.” Lilly looked vaguely reassured.

“It starts…with a giant ear, as large as m-my torso…resting on a pair of legs,” she began. “Next are the b-bottoms of two feet, side-by-side…almost as tall as you.”

Lilly nodded, and Hanako continued to work her way down the mural, describing the elements that made it up. Part of the problem with trying to describe the artwork was that she couldn’t describe the colors—color was a meaningless concept to Lilly. She couldn’t explain how the purple nose in the middle of a fish-headed face contrasted so sharply with the other colors.

They’d worked their way maybe a third of the way down the length of the mural before Lilly finally said, “I think I’ve absorbed as much as I can, for now.” She sounded somewhere between apologetic and befuddled. “Thank you for being my eyes, Hanako.”

“Of c-course.”

“That was interesting,” said Rin, making Hanako jump. She turned to find Rin standing behind them, looking slightly more engaged than her normal flat expression.

“W-what was?” asked Hanako, once she’d recovered.

“How you described the mural. I never would have described it that way.”

“Oh? How would you have described it?” asked Lilly curiously.

Rin paused, her gaze traveling up and down the length of the mural, as if to remind herself of what she’d painted. “It’s a mural…of a mural. It portrays itself. It looks like someone vomited a herd of butterflies onto the wall.” She frowned. “Do people like butterfly vomit?” she asked.

“Ah…” Hanako had no answer for that.

“I got the impression from Hanako that most of what you portrayed are human figures, or portions thereof?” asked Lilly, sounding confused.

Rin shrugged, either oblivious to or uncaring of the fact that Lilly couldn’t see her response. “If you’re looking at it literally, I guess so.” The interest in her eyes faded, leaving her with her normal flat expression. She stepped over to the mural, and turned to sit down with her back against the wall.

“We’re going…to get something to eat,” said Hanako. “Do you w-want…to join us?” She felt Lilly’s arm twitch slightly under her hand, and she immediately regretted the offer. She should have known Lilly wouldn’t want to spend more time with Rin.

Fortunately, Rin just shook her head and closed her eyes. “No. Thank you. I should stay here in case something happens.”

Hanako almost asked what Rin was expecting to happen, but then she decided that she should take the chance to slip away when offered. “Then…I’ll see you…later.”

Rin nodded, her eyes still closed. “Possibly. Who knows what the future holds?”

“Farewell, Rin,” said Lilly politely, and Hanako turned them down the hill, toward town. Much to Hanako’s relief, Lilly made no comment about the fact that Hanako was leading them towards the Shanghai, not the festival food stands.

After they were far enough away that Rin wouldn’t overhear them, Lilly ventured, “That was…unusual.”

“Yes…Rin’s art is…abstract. Complicated.”

“I didn’t solely mean the artwork. The artist herself is a…unique young woman.” Lilly sounded like she was trying to find a polite way to phrase her thoughts.

“Yes.” After a few moments of thought, Hanako added, “B-but…most Yamaku students…are unique. In one way. Or another.”

“True,” Lilly conceded. She sighed. “But I confess I have always had a fair bit of difficulty engaging in conversation with her.”

“Me too. But…it seems like…she…” She frowned, trying to put her intuition into words.

“Yes?”

“No m-matter how…odd sounding…she might be…she always…means something.” Hanako chewed on her lip for a moment. “Even if…I can’t understand her r-right away…there is meaning th-there.”

"Perhaps,” said Lilly, sounding dubious.

Hanako was pretty sure that Lilly didn’t agree with that notion, but Lilly hadn’t spent a couple of days working with Rin. Nor was she ever likely to, Hanako realized. There wasn’t much Lilly could do to assist Rin, with her visual art.

“Here’s…the Shanghai. Shall we…eat?”

“Of course.” Lilly smiled toward Hanako, and Hanako reflexively smiled back as she opened the door.

“Welcome to the Shanghai!”


_______________________________


In the days after the festival everyone settled back into their normal routines. Hanako felt a little disappointed that she didn’t have to help Rin with the mural anymore, but she’d known that that kind of thing was just a one-time occurrence.

Tuesday after classes were done, she was deep into the book she was reading, curled up in what she thought of as “her” beanbag chair in the library. It was an author she hadn’t read before, recommended to her by the new boy, Hisao. She didn’t normally read much science fiction, but she was pleasantly surprised by how engaging the story was. More focused on the characters than the space battles, although it had some of that, too. Her legs were starting to fall asleep from sitting in one position for so long, so she uncrossed her legs and stretched them out.

“Aww, you moved.”

Startled, she looked up to see Rin sitting on the floor not two meters away from her. She had a sketchpad on the floor in front of her, a pencil clenched in her dextrous toes. “W-what?” She was startled to realize she’d been so engrossed in the book that she’d missed Rin’s arrival.

“No one ever holds still long enough for me to do a complete drawing of them. But I almost got you,” Rin said. She slipped a foot under the sketchpad and angled it up so she could look at it, a thoughtful frown on her face. “You hold still better than anyone else.”

“You’re…d-drawing me?” Hanako asked, startled.

“Not any more.” Rin looked up from the sketch to Hanako. “Cross your legs again. I was almost done.”

“I…I don’t like having my p-picture taken. Or…sketched.” She frowned at Rin. The library was her sanctuary, her retreat from the world. She didn’t like the feeling that Rin could sneak up on her like that, without her noticing.

“I would have asked, but then you would have moved, and then I wouldn’t have been able to sketch you.”

“Why w-would you want to…sketch me anyway?”

Rin shrugged. “You were holding still. Also, your scars.”

What?” Hanako’s right hand flew up to cover the scarred side of her face.

“I like your scars. They’re interesting. They make you unique. More you.” Rin looked down at the sketch in front of her, and cocked her head. “You’re a rare beauty.”

Hanako stared at Rin, mouth open, unable to think of a thing to say in response to that unprecedented statement. Speechless, she didn’t even bother blurting out an excuse before leaping to her feet and dashing out of the library. Away from Rin.

“Hanako?” she heard Yuuko call after her as she left, but she didn’t turn back or reply. It was only after she got out the front door of the building that she realized she still had the unchecked-out library book in her hand, and she had left her book bag with all of her class notes behind, next to the beanbag. She paused, panting slightly, and leaned against the side of the building next to the front doors.

“Hanako? Are you all right?”

Hanako gave a small yip of surprise, and whirled to see Hisao coming out of the building behind her.

Hanako nodded jerkily. “I…I’m fine, th-thank you.”

“You almost ran me over on your way out of the building. Is the library on fire or something?” Then his eyes went wide and he paled a little. “Er. I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…I meant…uh…that is…sorry…” His pale face slowly turned bright red as he stumbled to a halt.

Hanako blushed. She hadn’t even noticed him in her flight. She rarely noticed anything or anyone when she fled like that. His embarrassment at his unfortunate word choice was…disturbingly cute, actually. She’d long since gotten over being offended by such accidental slips of the tongue. The intentionally nasty comments she’d received over the years put the innocent remarks into perspective.

“N-no…no fire.” She tried to smile reassuringly at him, but she was afraid it came out more like a grimace.

He noticed the book he’d recommended in her hand and gestured to it. “Hey, how’re you liking the book so far?” he asked with a smile, seeming relieved to be able to change the subject.

“What?” The topic shift to something so mundane was disconcerting. She didn’t know quite what to say. She wanted to talk to Hisao, she thought he was nice, but she couldn’t think of a single coherent thing to say in response to his question. “Ah…” She stared blankly at Hisao for a blushing moment, then looked at the ground.

“But…I guess you probably haven’t had a chance to read very much of it yet, so, um. Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck, looking awkward. “I’ll…see you in class tomorrow?”

Hanako nodded mutely.

“Bye,” said Hisao, and he headed off toward the dorms.

“Bye,” whispered Hanako, after he was too far away to hear her reply. She sighed and slumped back against the side of the building.

What an utterly embarrassing encounter. She’d managed to exchange a few words with Hisao in the library a couple of days ago, but now she supposed he’d never bother trying again.

She contemplated going back in to get her bag from the library, but she couldn’t bear the thought of possibly bumping into Rin. She felt a little guilty about leaving with the book not checked out, but she knew Yuuko would forgive her as long as she brought it back to be properly checked out tomorrow. She decided to drop by the library first thing in the morning to get her bag and check out the book.

She pushed herself off from the wall and headed toward the dorm. She was too tired to go back inside and face the crowds in the cafeteria. She’d have to pull something together from the few groceries she had in the dorm kitchen.

She tried to avoid thinking about her encounter with Rin, but the brief conversation kept bubbling up to the forefront of her mind. Rin thought her scars made her…unique? A “rare beauty?” She found that impossible to wrap her mind around. Were it anyone else, she would think they were lying, either trying to reassure her or mock her, but Rin had always been painfully blunt. Hanako wasn’t sure if Rin even knew how to lie, or when telling a lie might be socially appropriate. So, it must be true. At least to Rin. Hanako was aware that one person’s perception of reality wasn’t the same thing as consensual reality, especially when the person in question was Rin. But still…

She sighed. To distract herself from the troubling exchange, she tried to figure out what homework she could do without having her book bag and class notes. The answer was, not much, although she could at least read the next few chapters in the novel she was reading for her literature class. She slipped into the dorm as unobtrusively as she could and headed to her room.

The book held her attention for an hour or so, and then she turned her attention to the story she was trying to write. Without the distraction of unfinished homework waiting for her, she found she was able to write more successfully than usual. She sank into the story as the words flowed with unusual ease onto the page in front of her. She liked the fictional world of her own creation. It was simpler, and easier to deal with, than the real world. Things made sense, because she made them make sense.

A couple of hours later, she heard Lilly’s distinctive tap tap tap on her door. “Hanako? Are you in?” Lilly called through the door.

Hanako closed up her notebook and tucked it away. She got up and cracked the door open. “Hello, Lilly,” she said softly.

Lilly smiled toward her. “I’m told you weren’t in the cafeteria for dinner. Did you eat?”

Hanako briefly considered lying, but then her stomach spoke for her before she could say anything, giving a gurgling whine. Lilly covered her mouth against a giggle and said, “I’m guessing you didn’t.”

“N-no,” she admitted. “I…the crowds…” She trailed off, embarrassed by her shyness.

“Might this have something to do with your sudden departure from the library earlier?”

Hanako stared at Lilly, startled. “How d-did you…”

“Hisao was worried about you, and sought me out to ask about you.”

Hisao. That was nice of him. Hanako smiled, touched by his concern.

“I have a couple of eggs and some rice in the kitchen. Would you like me to make some omurice for you?” Lilly asked. “I don’t have any meat to add to the rice, but at least it would be food.”

“N-no, thank you, I c-can make something…for myself. I have g-groceries, too.”

“Would you like some company while you cook? Or do you want to be alone right now?”

Hanako considered the question. Lilly’s company came with the threat of questions about her fleeing the library. But she could dodge those, and it would be nice to have Lilly to talk with. To distract her from her thoughts about Rin’s comment. “C-company…would be nice,” she said. “If you’re n-not too busy.”

“Any excuse to avoid my math homework for a little longer would be appreciated,” said Lilly. “Just let me put my book bag in my room and we can go downstairs.”

“All right.”

The dinner she made was simple, but filling, and Lilly didn’t ask her about the library. But perhaps because Lilly didn’t ask her about it, Hanako found herself wanting to talk about it.

She felt much better for having eaten, and as she and Lilly returned to their rooms, Hanako said quietly, “C-can I ask you something?”

Lilly paused in the act of unlocking her door. “Of course. Would you like to come in?”

“P-please.” Hanako followed her into her room, and sat by her table in her usual spot, leaning against Lilly’s bed.

Lilly sat down opposite her. “What did you want to ask me?”

“I…” Hanako wasn’t quite sure how to ask what she wanted to know. Start at the beginning. “This afternoon, in the…library. I was r-reading, and Rin drew a picture of me.”

"Was it nice?”

“I d-don’t know. I didn’t…see it.”

“Ah.” Lilly didn’t seem to know quite what to say to that, so she just nodded and waited.

Hanako took a deep breath, and tried to remember the point she was making. Oh. Right. She blushed, and was grateful Lilly couldn’t see her do so. “It’s…the reason I…l-left the library. I asked her…why she was d-drawing me.” She paused for another breath, pleased that Lilly didn’t prompt her during the pause. “She said…because of…my…ssscars.”

Lilly looked surprised. “That seems an unusual reason, but…I suppose an artist would appreciate…variety?”

“B-but more than…that. She said…” Hanako swallowed, and whispered, “She said…my scars were…b-b-beautiful.” That wasn’t quite what Rin had said, but Hanako found she couldn’t give voice the notion that she was beautiful. You’re a rare beauty, Rin had said.

Lilly looked thoughtful. “Well, you are quite beautiful, Hanako—”

Don’t say that!” Hanako snapped, without thinking. Then she blushed, and stared at the floor, cringing. “S-s-sorry,” she muttered. After several moments of tense silence, she cautiously looked up at Lilly, afraid of the disapproval or anger she was sure she’d see on Lilly’s face.

Lilly was frozen, her expression startled. She seemed taken aback, and looked oddly unsure of herself.

“Sorry,” Hanako whispered again.

“Hanako…” Lilly said softly and slowly. “I…I don't want to upset you, but…you are—”

“Stop. P-please,” Hanako begged. “Please stop.”

Lilly opened her mouth as if to speak, then she closed it again. She nodded slowly. “Very well. We can drop this topic. For now.”

Hanako didn't much care for the implied promise of a future conversation on the topic, but as long as it would get her out of this conversation, right now, she’d take it.

“Th-thank you,” she said as she stood up. “I think…I think I should go…do my homework.” Not that she could do much, without her book bag, but Lilly didn't know that.

“Very well.” Lilly also rose to her feet. She made a small forward motion, as if to approach Hanako for a hug, then she paused, looking uncertain. “I should address those math problems, myself.”

“Yes. R-right. Good night, Lilly.” Hanako turned and left, closing Lilly's door gently behind her.

Back in the sanctuary of her own room, Hanako leaned against the inside of her door, holding it shut against any further threats to her emotional equilibrium. First Rin, then Lilly—what was going on with everybody today?

Rin doesn't seem to know how to lie, whispered a voice in the back of her head. And Lilly is my friend—she wouldn't lie to me.

It might not have been a lie, but it was probably just some stupid “true beauty comes from within” nonsense. She had heard that so many times from so many supposedly well-meaning adults over the years that the phrase made her want to scream. As if the hideous face that she presented to the world could be somehow made irrelevant by that trite platitude.

Lilly had no idea what Hanako’s scars were like. How hideous she really was. She’d once asked Hanako if she could feel her face, to know what she looked like, but Hanako had declined.

Rather than brood on these thoughts, she pulled out the novel she'd been reading and read some more, until her head was drooping with exhaustion. She was grateful that by then it was late enough that there was only one other person in the bathroom as she performed her nightly ablutions.

A rare beauty kept echoing, unbidden, through her mind. As she crawled into bed, it occurred to her again to wonder just what Rin’s sketch of her looked like.

That question kept her awake for another hour.
Last edited by Lap on Wed Mar 24, 2021 10:32 am, edited 14 times in total.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:05 pm

Hanako was nervous about going back to the library the next morning, but she convinced herself she was being foolish. Rin wouldn’t be lying in wait for her, and she needed to check out the library book she’d taken in her rush and get her book bag.

As she glumly flipped through the unfinished homework in her bag, she considered skipping her first few classes so she could at least get the afternoon’s homework done. But then she’d be even further behind on her morning classes…

With a sigh, she stuffed the papers back into her bag and headed up to her homeroom. She’d try to get things done during class as much as she could, and bear the consequences of handing in incomplete work. At least she was pretty sure she could get most of the afternoon’s work done during lunch.

Hanako was grateful that she didn’t have any classes with Rin, and she tried to put yesterday’s disturbing events behind her. At lunch time, Lilly came to the door of class 3-3 as usual, and they went to the tearoom for lunch. Hanako was a little worried that Lilly might want to continue their disquieting conversation from the night before, but, thankfully, she didn’t mention it, allowing Hanako to finish her homework in peace.

As the days went by without any other run-ins with Rin, Hanako relaxed. On the one hand, she was happy that the perturbing encounter was fully behind her, yet at the same time she missed the experience of helping Rin with her mural.

Perhaps appropriately, when she finally saw Rin again, it was in the library.

“Hi.”

Hanako flinched and looked up from her book. Rin was standing a meter away from her beanbag chair, looking down at her with that flat, impassive gaze she had. Hanako felt an urge to flee, but she decided to stay where she was. She was buried fairly deeply in the beanbag’s soft embrace, and wallowing upright would take her an embarrassingly long and awkward couple of moments. And I need to talk to her some time or other. So she just nodded jerkily to Rin, simultaneously afraid and yet at some level hoping that Rin might ask her for some sort of assistance.

Rin shifted her weight slightly from foot to foot, an uncharacteristically nervous gesture, although her face betrayed nothing of the sort. Eventually, Hanako realized that Rin was waiting for a verbal response, so she said, “Hello,” in return.

Rin looked around the library. “You sit here a lot.”

Hanako blinked. “Yes…?”

“If I ask you first, may I draw you?”

Hanako shrank back in her beanbag. “Wh-why…?”

“Because I want to draw you.”

Why?”

Rin looked around the library, her gaze jumping from place to place. Eventually, she replied, “People who are good at holding still are hard to find.”

“B-but…I don’t like…having my picture…drawn.”

Rin’s gaze returned to Hanako and she cocked her head. “How do you know?”

“P-pardon?”

“Has someone drawn you before?”

“Well…no…”

Rin shrugged her shoulder, dropping her book bag to the floor between them. “Would you like to see what I drew of you last week?” She opened the bag and pulled out her sketchpad.

Yes, Hanako thought immediately. “N-not…really.”

Rin looked surprised. “Really? Emi always wants to see what I’ve done when I draw her.”

That distracted Hanako for a moment. “Emi actually…holds still…long enough for you to d-draw her?”

One corner of Rin’s mouth twitched up in a faint smile. “Not often. When she’s studying. Or asleep. Though I only did that once, it really annoyed her for some reason.”

“D-did you ask…first?”

“No. I would have had to wake her up, which would have made her move.”

Hanako couldn’t help it, she giggled at the mental image of Emi waking up in the morning to find Rin sitting beside her bed, blithely sketching or painting away.

Rin’s small smile turned wistful. “I wish I could capture her at her Emi-est, while she runs. But those paintings I have to do from memory.” She stared off into the distance, as if picturing Emi running.

Hanako glanced at the sketchpad, still under Rin’s foot. She bit her lip. She’d wondered many times in the past few days just what Rin had drawn. Would she look like one of those grossly distorted figures on the mural? Maybe it wouldn’t look like her at all.

It couldn’t hurt to at least see it, right? Satisfy my curiosity? She took a deep breath. “M-may I…see it?” she asked, gesturing to the sketchpad.

Rin nodded, and sank into a cross-legged seat next to Hanako. She pushed the sketchpad toward Hanako. “It’s near the end.”

Hanako gingerly picked up the spiral-bound sketchpad and flipped to the back quarter of it. The first image she saw was surprisingly familiar—it was a rough sketch of a portion of the mural, a man’s head with a fish on top. The next few pages were similar studies, ideas and portions of that larger work. Some were unfamiliar, apparently not included in the final mural, but most were things she’d seen, and some she’d even helped paint.

Then she came to a surprisingly realistic image of Emi, sitting cross-legged on her bed as she frowned at a book on her lap. Hanako realized after a moment that the drawing wasn’t unfinished, it was just that Emi wasn’t wearing her prosthetics—her legs ended just below her knees.

“That’s…a different style…from the others,” she observed. Given how bold and brash the figures on the mural had been, she was surprised to see how delicate and refined the lines that made up Emi’s realistic-looking image were.

Rin shrugged. “Emi sometimes gets weird about abstract drawings of her. So I limit myself when drawing her.”

Hanako wondered if Rin had been similarly restrained while drawing her. She turned the page and saw a small sketch of what she assumed was Emi’s hand, holding a pencil. The next page was a rather detailed drawing of just one knee, with the stump of her other leg resting on top of it as she sat. Hanako was surprised at how Rin could make something so ordinary—well, as ordinary as a stump could be—look so fascinating. She would never have dared stare at another student’s disability so intently, but, well…Rin appeared to operate by her own set of rules. The scars and folds of skin where Emi’s leg ended prematurely were delicately delineated, tiny pinpricks of scars from stitches just barely visible.

There followed a few pages of more abstract human figures, a sketch that Hanako was reasonably sure was of a classmate sleeping in class, despite the flock of jellyfish floating above his head, and then—

Hanako wasn’t used to seeing images of herself in any shape or form, be they photographs or drawings, so it took her a moment to process what she was seeing on the page. Is that really supposed to be me? But the long-haired girl sitting reading in a beanbag could hardly be anyone else. Seeing herself on the page like that provoked a slightly out-of-body feeling.

She worked hard at blending into the background, despite her hideous appearance. She did her best to be invisible and not stick out. But here was a sketch of her, proof that someone—Rin—had noticed her, studied her, for a fairly long time. She had no real notion of how long it would take an artist like Rin to do a sketch like that, but she suspected that Rin had been sitting next to her, unnoticed by her, for at least an hour or so.

I didn’t notice her…but she noticed me… She shivered and examined the drawing more closely.

The first thing she focused on was the right side of her body. Rin had said she’d found her scars interesting, but Hanako had been sitting with her hair draped forward as usual, and not much of her scarred skin was actually visible. She could see where Rin had been forced to abandon the sketch when she’d moved; the lower part of her body was only roughed-in, just vague strokes approximately delineating her skirt and legs on the beanbag chair. She was reasonably sure her hands weren’t as slim and delicate as Rin portrayed them, holding her book, and her face—

Hanako stared at the sketch of her face. Mostly the left side of her face, framed by a graceful sweep of hair on the right. The drawn figure was staring intently at the book in her lap, and she looked…relaxed. At peace. If it had been a drawing of anyone else, Hanako might have even said she looked…pretty.

“Do you like it?” Rin asked.

Hanako tore her attention away from the drawing, her face flushing. “Wh-what?”

“You said you didn’t like having your portrait drawn. Do you still not like it?”

“I…” Hanako hesitated, confused and torn. The image was nothing like she’d imagined, nothing like she’d feared, but it was compelling. She bit her lip as she stared at it.

She wanted to tell Rin that she hated it, that she stood by her desire to not be drawn. She wanted to be firm. But…

How did she find beauty in…me? It was an unprecedented experience for her. She stared at the image for another long moment, both fascinated and frightened that something supposedly representing her could look so lovely.

She was, at heart, an honest person, and she found she couldn’t lie to Rin. “I don’t…dislike it,” she admitted softly as she closed the sketchbook with a decisive fwap of the pages, and held it out. Rin glanced down at the sketchbook, then back up at Hanako. Hanako blushed and shoved the sketchbook back into Rin’s book bag for her.

She felt like some response was called for. “Th-thank you…for showing me,” she said a little stiffly, just wanting this conversation to be over.

Rin cocked her head. “You don’t dislike it. A double negative. Meaning, you liked it?”

“I…” Hanako closed her eyes, and once again considered the logistics of getting up and running away. But Rin had always been, well…no more rude than she was to everyone else. Even that bit with referring to her as the “mystery toilet girl” hadn’t been malicious, just emotionally tone-deaf. She’d seemed unaware that the phrase might be offensive.

She opened her eyes, to find Rin regarding her levelly, patiently waiting on an answer. “I…suppose so.”

Rin nodded. “So, may I draw you again?”

“I…” She wanted to refuse. She knew she should refuse. Agreeing could only lead to more embarrassment, she was sure. She opened her mouth to refuse—

“Actually, I don’t want to draw you,” Rin said.

Hanako felt herself relax at those words, relieved that she wouldn’t have to say “No” to someone who’d been, if not exactly kind to her, at least tolerant of her. But she was surprised to realize that her sense of relief was tinged with a trace of regret. I guess I had wanted to help Rin with something else—

“I want to paint you.”

“What?” Hanako stared at Rin, utterly astonished.

“I prefer painting to sketching anyway, but Yuuko got upset when I tried to set up an easel in the library. Maybe you could come to the art room and be my model sometime.”

“M-m-m-model,” Hanako repeated blankly.

“Yes.” Rin cocked her head and gazed curiously at Hanako. Apparently misinterpreting Hanako’s boggled silence, she added, “That’s what you call a person who sits still to be painted.”

“I…know what a m-model…is,” Hanako managed to get out, her mind racing. Why would she want to paint me? Is this some sort of practical joke? But Rin was too straight-forward for practical jokes. Painfully blunt and direct. She knew Rin’s request must be in earnest. For whatever reason.

“Maybe you could mix another new color for me.” Rin gazed at her levelly, as if that were as reasonable an expectation as modeling. Hanako sat silent, unsure of what to say to either of those odd requests. “It would mean sitting still for much longer,” Rin added, as if that were the only negative that might be deterring Hanako.

Another horrifying thought occurred to Hanako, breaking her silence. “Ah…aren’t artists’ m-models…usually…n-naked?” she squeaked.

An expression of interest passed over Rin’s face. “I hadn’t thought of that. That would be nice. Almost all of my knowledge of anatomy comes from books and other paintings.”

“N-nice? But…not necessary?”

“I guess not.”

“M-maybe we could…start with c-clothes on?” suggested Hanako hopefully. Then she wondered at her own phrasing. Wait, did I just imply I would model for her?

“Okay.” Hanako was surprised to see Rin’s shoulders relax a little, as if she was relieved at Hanako’s response. Is this that important to her?

She thought back to the sketch she’d just seen. The weird beauty that Rin had somehow found, or perhaps imagined. Her face flushed as she tried to imagine that she actually looked that…nice.

Then she recalled helping Rin with the mural. Rin’s quiet acceptance of her, seemingly utterly unaware of her stuttering or her scars. Which brought to mind Dr. Tanaka asking her if there might be some way for her to spend more time with Rin. She had enjoyed her time with Rin, despite the occasional odd moments. And Rin had trusted her to paint parts of her mural. But still, to be stared at so intently…

Rin peered closer at her, looking faintly puzzled. “Are you…frightened?”

Hanako nodded jerkily.

“Why?”

Hanako realized that she didn’t have a concrete answer for Rin. What’s the worst that could happen? she wondered. Rin would produce a realistic painting of her, showing how hideous she looked, and…what? It wasn’t as if everyone at Yamaku didn’t already know what she looked like.

Yes, but art gets seen elsewhere. Rin was a talented artist; if she went on to become well known, even famous, a painting of her might be seen by many others.

“I…d-don’t want to be…seen…by others.”

“But I’ll be the only one looking at you.”

“Well…y-yes, but…eventually someone else w-will see your painting.”

Rin blinked. “But…it will just be a painting. Not you.”

“A p-painting of me.”

“Yes…” Rin was frowning, looking like she was struggling with the notion. “But the painting is of you, not actually you. Just canvas and paint. They wouldn’t be looking at you.”

Hanako stared at Rin, wondering why the notion seemed so hard for Rin to grasp. Did she consider the painting so completely disconnected from the subject of the painting as to make it meaningless to her? But if that were the case, then why did she need a model in the first place?

“I’m…embarrassed. About having others…sssssee me.”

“You shouldn’t be. You’re beautiful.”

Hanako flinched and decided to ignore that comment. It would only disturb her further to think about it. Rin’s puzzled expression wasn’t fading. She truly doesn’t understand why I don’t want people to see my image? Hanako felt slightly boggled by that notion.

She thought about the sketch Rin had done. Of how the Hanako portrayed on the paper had looked at peace. Would a painting show something like that, too? Much to her own surprise, her fear and trepidation were being overwhelmed by her curiosity. I’ll never know unless I try. And at least she wouldn’t expect me to talk much, she mused, trying to further convince herself. Rin had been largely silent and focused while painting the mural; Hanako couldn’t imagine that she’d be any more talkative in front of a canvas.

Hanako drew a deep breath. She felt as if she was watching herself from outside her own body as she said, “Y-y-yes. I’ll…model for you.” For a moment she wondered if she’d actually managed to speak out loud, or had just imagined doing so.

Rin’s puzzled expression was replaced by a small smile. “Thank you.”

They sat and stared at each other for a long moment. Hanako could feel her heart racing at her own daring, and she wondered if she would actually have the nerve to carry through on her commitment. I hope so, she thought, surprising herself.

Rin broke their odd tableau by lifting the strap of her book bag to her shoulder before unfolding her legs beneath her to rise. “I’m almost done with the painting I’m currently working on. Come to the art room after school Monday and we’ll start a new one.”

Hanako nodded at that bald directive. “O…okay,” she said quietly.

Rin didn’t appear to hear her, but she ambled out of the library in her usual slightly aimless way.

Hanako sank back in the beanbag chair and took a shuddering breath. Did I really just agree to do that? The feeling of unreality that she’d felt while saying “Yes” hadn’t fully faded, and she rubbed her face in her hands, trying to bring herself back to Earth.

Later that evening, as she was preparing for bed, she thought back over her conversation with Rin, and wondered if she’d heard Rin correctly. Did she say “we” would start a new painting? What did she mean by that?





_______________________





Hanako managed to shove the prospect of modeling to the back of her mind enough to allow her to have a mostly normal Sunday. She spent the day reading and doing homework, which occupied her enough to ignore the upcoming appointment with Rin.

By Monday, however, the prospect of modeling after school kept Hanako distracted all day long. To the point where classes were actually easier than usual for her. She wasn’t focused on other students or her teachers in classes, coasting through lessons feeling dissociated, slightly insulated from the rest of the world.

She was embarrassed to tell Lilly of her plans, afraid of how she’d react, so she didn’t mention them, and their lunch was a little more silent than usual. Hanako’s preoccupation kept her from fully engaging in conversation with her friend.

Eventually, the final bell rang for the end of the school day, bringing an end to her distraction and elevating her anxiety. Hanako slowly gathered her books together and was the last to leave the classroom. She paused just outside the art room door, wondering if there was anyone in there besides Rin. Would other people be working, and maybe want to paint or sketch her too? She shuddered. If that happens, I’ll just leave.

But Rin was the only person in the room when she walked in, and she breathed a small sigh of relief. The smell of turpentine and other scents she couldn’t identify filled her nose. Rin looked up as she entered. "You came.”

“Y-yes?”

“I’m glad.” She nodded to Hanako, then turned back to stare at the blank canvas set up in front of her.

Hanako approached her and set down her book bag on one of the many worktables in the room. Feeling daunted by Rin’s silence, she asked, “Um…what do you w-want me to do?”

Rin shifted her attention from the canvas to Hanako. She looked startled for a moment, as if surprised Hanako was still there. “Do?”

“How do you w-want me…to look?”

Rin frowned. “With your eyes? You’re not blind, are you?”

“No, I mean…how should I p-pose? What do you want to p-paint?”

Rin gave the matter thought for a moment, then said, “You should be comfortable. You’re going to be in one position for a long time.”

Hanako was surprised that Rin would show that kind of consideration and foresight. “C-can I take breaks…now and then?”

Rin shrugged. “If you need. I usually don’t. But I’m not the one holding still.”

“Okay…M-maybe I should be s-sitting down, then.”

Rin nodded. “That’s what we usually do when we sketch each other in art club.” She waved a stump at a battered old armchair resting on a slightly raised wooden platform. “Could you push the plinth a little more out into the light, by the window?”

Hanako assumed “plinth” meant the platform with the chair. She wondered if she could move it, but she gave the chair and platform a tentative shove. The plinth apparently had some sort of wheels underneath it, making it easier to move than she’d feared. She shoved it a couple of meters towards Rin, then gave her an enquiring look. Rin nodded.

Hanako sat down in the chair, feeling tense and rigid. She sank into the plush cushions, which were soft enough to make it difficult to maintain her erect posture. “What…do you want me to do?” she repeated.

Rin considered her for a moment, then said, “Relax.”

Hanako snorted, startled by that response. “Easier…said than d-done.”

Rin glanced at her blank canvas, as if seeking inspiration there, then said, “You were reading when I drew you before.”

“Yes?” Hanako stared at Rin for a moment, waiting for more, before she understood what she was implying. She got up and pulled a novel out of her book bag. Sitting back down, she tried to relax. The armchair, despite its age and battered condition, was surprisingly comfortable. The smell of dust and old fabric rose from the seat around her. She opened her book and tried to settle into a natural position. She found her place in the book, then glanced up at Rin with an enquiring look on her face.

Rin nodded. She walked in a semi-circle around Hanako, making her feel self-conscious, then she dragged her easel over a couple of meters to the right using her foot. She shoved the little table holding her paints over next, the table legs making a horrible screeching noise on the linoleum floor as she did so. She regarded Hanako again, then nodded. “Hold still,” she commanded.

Hanako nodded, then blushed at having moved in response to the command. She tilted her head a little downward, so she could read the book, and tried not to move. She stared at the page, but the words made no sense to her. Apprehension filled her, making focusing on the book next to impossible. She read the same sentence three times before getting thoroughly annoyed with herself.

Stop this, she scolded herself. Read. Ignore Rin. That was easier said than done. She was acutely aware of Rin looking at her, but she forced her attention back to her book, finally managing to follow a sentence. Then two. The story soothed and calmed her, and she tried to get lost in her reading. She couldn’t totally ignore Rin. She stole little glances at artist now and then. Most of the time she was focused on the canvas, but sometimes, she was staring at Hanako with unnerving intensity. Hanako glanced away more quickly those times, blushing slightly.

Read. Just…read, she repeated to herself. She had always been able to escape from her troubles into a good book, but this was proving more difficult than usual. But eventually, the story won her over, and she stopped looking over at Rin, leaving the art room for the intrigues of the Meiji-era court.

“Your left hand is in the wrong place.”

Hanako jumped slightly at Rin’s words, the first thing either of them had said in half an hour. “P-pardon?” she said, looking up from her book.

“You just scratched your nose, then put your hand down in your lap, not on the chair’s arm.”

"R-right.” Hanako tried to remember exactly where her hand had been as she put it back on the chair’s arm. She looked over at Rin. “There?”

Rin nodded. “But your fingers were curled in a loose fist, not spread out.”

“Okay.” Hanako adjusted her hand.

“Good. Now don’t move.”

Hanako blushed and gave a microscopic nod.

After forty-five minutes, Hanako was surprised at how uncomfortable she was getting. Holding still, even seated in a simple position, took more effort than she’d realized. “R-Rin?” she asked hesitantly.

Rin didn’t respond at first, but before Hanako could venture another query, she set down her paint brush and looked at Hanako. She didn’t say anything, she just stared.

“I…n-need to stretch.”

Rin nodded, but just as Hanako began to move, she said, “Wait!”

Hanako froze, her muscles jumping a little at the sudden stop.

“Let me mark where you are, so you can get back in the same position more easily.”

That seemed like a good idea, though Hanako had no idea how Rin would mark her.

Rin picked up a piece of charcoal with her toes, and came over to where Hanako sat. She drew an outline where Hanako’s feet rested on the wooden platform, the mark just marginally darker than many other similar marks already on the wood. Then she lifted her foot and transferred the charcoal to her mouth. She drew a line where Hanako’s left hand was resting on the arm of the chair, her tousled hair tickling Hanako a little as she did so. Rin stood up, dropped the charcoal to the floor, and said, “Now you can move.” She picked up the charcoal with her toes and put it back by her paints.

Hanako fought down a giggle at the black mark in the middle of Rin’a lips. “Y-you have…charcoal…” She gestured to her mouth.

Rin twisted her head to the side and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. The black smear blended into a blue streak, and Hanako wondered if Rin owned any shirts that were paint-free.

“C-can I see…what you’re painting?”

Rin frowned. “Only if you don’t say anything about it. It’s bad luck to comment on an artwork before it’s finished.”

Hanako remembered Rin making a similar admonition while they were working on the mural. She had never heard of that before, but she supposed it might be a superstition peculiar to artists. Or maybe just to Rin. She stood up and stretched her stiff limbs, then walked over to the other side of the canvas.

There wasn’t much to see, as of yet. There were quick, sketchy lines drawn with the skinny charcoal stick Rin had used to mark her position, and the basic blocks of color—the chair, her uniform, her hair, her skin—had been roughly filled in, but with no detail to speak of as yet. The strokes weren’t as large and bold as she’d used on the mural figures, but the colors were similarly vivid, not all realistic. Hanako was pleased to note that her hair seemed to be hiding most of her scars from the angle Rin was working at, and her right hand was supporting the book, mostly obscured. “Interesting,” she said.

“No comments,” scolded Rin with a tiny frown.

Hanako blushed. “S-sorry. I wasn’t commenting…on the painting. Just…the process. I’ve never seen a…the b-beginnings of a painting.” The mural had been closer to completion when she’d joined Rin on that project.

Rin considered that for a moment. “I guess that’s okay.”

“How l-long does it take to complete…a painting?” Hanako asked. She reflected that she probably should have asked that before starting. What had she committed herself to?

Rin shrugged. “Until it’s done.”

Hanako sighed. “How long…will I need to be here?”

“Until it’s done.”

Hanako squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then tried again. “I n-need to…do homework. And eat dinner. Will you be d-done by…dinner time?”

“No.”

“Okay…” Hanako suspected that if she didn’t set limits, Rin would happily paint all night. She looked up at the clock on the wall, then took a deep breath. She looked down at the floor, afraid to make eye contact. Asserting herself was never easy, but she felt like she really needed to. “I th-think I can m-model…until six. Then…I’ll need dinner. And…to d-do homework.” She continued to stare at the floor, worried about Rin’s reaction, hoping she wouldn’t be angry with her.

“Okay,” said Rin. “Emi is happier if I stop to eat dinner. And do homework.”

Hanako gave a nervous laugh of relief and looked up, glad Rin wasn’t mad at her. “Good.”

“Will you come back tomorrow so I can finish?” Rin asked.

Hanako thought about that. She hadn’t anticipated more than one day’s commitment when she’d agreed to do this for Rin. Again, she wished she’d asked more questions before saying yes. But still, she didn’t want to leave Rin hanging, with her painting unfinished. Having survived the process thus far, stopping with the painting incomplete seemed too half-hearted, even for her. “Yes.”

Rin’s shoulders dropped a little at that, and Hanako realized that Rin had been worried Hanako would say no.

“I’m going to go…to the bathroom. I’ll be…right back.”

Rin nodded, picked up a brush, and began to block in some colors in the background of the piece.

They continued in that fashion for the next few hours, taking a break every forty-five minutes or so, so that she could stretch. Around five, the art teacher startled her by coming out of his office. She hadn’t been aware that he was still at school.

“I’m leaving, Tezuka. Be sure to lock up when you go,” Nomiya said.

Rin nodded absently without pausing in her painting. Hanako winced. She would never dare treat a teacher so casually, but apparently Nomiya was used to it, because he didn’t react. He looked over Rin’s shoulder for a moment at her work, then nodded. Apparently, he knew of Rin’s feelings about comments on unfinished work, because he said nothing else before leaving for the day.

As the clock crept towards six o’clock, her stated end-time, she found herself watching the second hand of the clock on the wall, counting down the last few minutes. She never would have guessed that she could become so tired from doing so little.

At last, the clock hit six, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “Rin? It’s…six o’clock,” she warned Rin before moving. She closed her book and stretched. The scars on the right side of her body protested, reminding her that she hadn’t done her physical therapy stretching exercises for a few days. More like a week, she realized guiltily. She resolved to do them before going to bed.

Rin continued painting as Hanako stood up and tucked her book into her bag. “Rin? Are you g-going to…eat dinner?”

Rin continued painting, and said absently, “Not hungry.”

Hanako watched her painting, and bit her lip. “Can you p-paint…without me…here?” she asked. And if so, why do you need a model? she wondered again.

“I can work on the background.” Indeed, most of the area outside of Hanako’s figure had no detail, just broad strokes.

Hanako hesitated. Hadn’t she said that Emi would be happier if she stopped for dinner and homework? She shrugged. It was Rin’s choice. “All…right. I’ll see you…tomorrow after c-class?”

Rin didn’t respond as she kept painting.

Hanako felt a vague nagging sense of worry about Rin, hoping she’d take time to eat. Well, she’s been painting for years. She knows what she needs better than I do.

She slipped out of the art room and headed downstairs to the cafeteria.





_______________________





Having passed the initial hurdle of posing for Rin once, the second day was much easier on her nerves. Now that she knew what to expect, she felt calmer about the process. When she showed up in the art classroom after school she found Rin was already at her easel, adding more detail to the background of the image. From the looks of it she had spent at least a couple of hours painting since Hanako had left, either last night or while skipping classes today. Perhaps a little bit of both.

Rin didn’t say anything to her as she entered the room, only stopping in her work to examine Hanako after she’d sat down and repositioned herself according to the marks on the floor and chair. She nodded in apparent approval of Hanako’s pose, and went back to work.

I’m not fond of talking a lot…but she could at least say hello, Hanako thought. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that it occurred to her, I could have said hello too, when I came in. She grimaced at that, and resolved to at least attempt basic courtesies with Rin, even if they weren’t always returned.

After an hour, she said, “I n-need a b-break,” the first words either of them had spoken that afternoon. Rin nodded absently, and Hanako stood up and stretched. She was pleased that the stretch didn’t feel as uncomfortable as it had yesterday—she’d carried through with her resolution to do her physical therapy after dinner last night. She wandered over to look over Rin’s shoulder at the canvas. “Don’t you ever…need a b-break?” she asked.

Rin paused, brush in mid-air, and looked thoughtful for a moment, as if the idea had never occurred to her. “I…” She blinked, put down the brush, and shook out her foot. “Maybe.”

“I’m g-going to go get a drink…of water.”

Rin nodded. “That sounds good.”

Hanako led the way to the fountain down the hall, and took a short drink. She stepped aside to allow Rin to follow suit, drinking for an impressively long time.

“You were…thirsty,” Hanako observed as Rin finished and wiped her mouth on her sleeve.

Rin nodded, and wandered back to the art room.

Hanako had finished the novel she’d been working on the day before, so she returned the book to her bag and took out the anthology for her Japanese literature class. Unfortunately, the assigned reading for class wasn’t as engaging as the novel had been, and Hanako found herself getting distracted by Rin more often. She didn’t dare stare directly at her, but she kept flicking quick glances her way, fascinated by the artist’s intensity.

What must it be like, to have something you so whole-heartedly want to do? She considered her own creative outlet, her writing. She felt like her hobby was a dim candle beside Rin’s burning drive to paint. She was pretty sure Rin was unusual in that; most high school students didn’t yet know what their life’s work was. Lilly knew she wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t an obsession like Rin’s art was.

Of course, they’re the only two people I know at all well, she realized. Maybe everyone else did know what they wanted to do with their lives? Maybe she was the outlier. She grimaced at the thought.

She knew that Mutou would soon be handing out career choice survey forms to the class, and she still had no idea what to put down. “Novelist” seemed unduly ambitious for someone who had trouble finishing a short story. She wanted a career where she could hide away at home. She bleakly wondered if Mutou would accept “Hikikomori” as a valid career choice.

“You moved your head.”

Rin’s voice startled her out of her somber introspection. Hanako realized she was staring out the classroom window, instead of down at her book. “S-sorry,” she muttered, and looked back down. She stared unseeing at the page. After a few moments, she realized she wasn’t hearing the soft tsh-tsh-tsh of Rin’s brush against canvas. She flicked her eyes up to look at Rin, not moving her head. Rin was just staring at her, unmoving.

“Is s-something…wrong?” Hanako asked nervously.

Rin remained silent for a moment. “You look…unhappy? I think. I’m not good with expressions.”

Hanako blushed and ducked her head further, hiding behind the curtain of her long hair. “It’s n-nothing important,” she muttered.

Are you unhappy?”

Hanako thought for a moment, trying to put her feelings into words. “N-not…exactly. More like…worried.”

“About what?”

“The future.”

Rin nodded. “It’s never worth worrying about the future. You can’t predict what will happen.”

No, but I can be pretty sure that it won’t be much happier than it is right now, Hanako thought sadly. But she didn’t feel like putting that into words. “M-maybe,” she equivocated.

“There’s a cat. In a box. And it’s not alive and it’s not dead. And as long as you don’t look at it, it stays both not alive and not dead. It’s better not to look at it, since if you do it might become all dead. So it’s better for the cat if you don’t try to predict the future.”

Hanako lifted her head and stared at Rin, utterly bemused. “W-what?”

“I can’t remember why the cat is and isn’t dead, but I know that you shouldn’t look at it.”

What?” Hanako repeated. This sounded like another metaphor, like Rin’s birds of her thoughts flying away, but Hanako couldn’t make heads or tails of it. “So…d-don’t look at the c-c-cat?” she essayed tentatively.

Rin nodded, looking pleased. “Exactly.”

“R-right. Okay,” Hanako said dubiously. “Are you…going to p-paint some more?”

Rin looked at her canvas. “Yes.” She picked up a brush and resumed painting.

Hanako sighed and returned her gaze to her literature book. Well, at least she managed to confuse me out of some of my bad mood, she thought wryly. She shoved aside worries about future plans, and focused on her assigned reading.

By the time six o’clock rolled around, Hanako had finished the homework reading, and had read a few other stories besides. “R-rin? It’s…dinner time.” She set aside her book and stood up, stretching gently.

Rin continued to paint for another minute, then she sighed and set down her brush.

“Are you…d-done yet?”

“No, I still have many things to do.”

“Ah…is your painting d-done yet?”

“Oh. That.” Rin stared at the canvas, frowning. “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Something about the way she said it made Hanako think she was quoting someone else. “But I’m not ready to abandon this, yet.”

Hanako sighed. Apparently, her modeling job wasn’t completed yet. “All r-right. Then I’ll s-see you…tomorrow.”

Rin nodded, and began cleaning her brushes. Hanako hesitated a moment, thinking she might invite Rin to eat dinner with her, but she couldn’t force the words from her mouth. She shook her head at her own cowardice, and left to get her solitary dinner.





_______________________





Hanako slid into her seat in class, trying hard to ignore what felt like massed stares from her classmates because she was arriving early to class. After getting her book bag squared away, she nervously glanced up, and saw that in fact no one was paying her any attention at all. She relaxed, and pulled her notebook out. She’d had a thought about the story she was writing while showering that morning, and she wanted to write it down before she forgot it.

Natsume limped into the classroom, her cane thumping on the floor with more force than Lilly’s delicate taps. “Hey, Naomi.”

“Morning,” Naomi replied.

Natsume slid into her seat. “Did you hear about the mural?”

Hanako had been trying to ignore the two friends next to her talking with each other, but at that her attention was drawn to them more closely.

“What about it?” asked Naomi.

“Someone vandalized it last night.” Hanako’s stomach sank.

“Really? What’d they do?”

“Drew mustaches on some of the faces, and bras on the boobs.”

Naomi laughed. “It could only improve it.” Natsume giggled with her.

“Th-that’s not true! Rin worked…long and hard on that!”

The two girls looked at Hanako, both looking almost as shocked as she felt. Hanako couldn’t believe she’d actually spoken out like that, but the words had burst forth from her without thinking. Their words had sparked a deep sense of indignation and outrage on Rin’s behalf—both because someone would dare deface a work of art, and because Natsume and Naomi would laugh about it.

She blushed and quickly looked down at her notebook, wishing she could just disappear from the Earth. She waited for one of the girls to say something biting or sarcastic to her, then she pushed her notebook back into her book bag and started to rise. So much for arriving to class early…

“Hanako—wait.” Hanako was startled when Naomi grabbed her wrist, keeping her from running out of the room. She jerked a little against the other girl’s grasp, but not very hard; she didn’t have the nerve to do that. Stuck standing between their desks, she stared out the door, avoiding both of their gazes. Fortunately, it didn’t seem like anyone else in the class was paying any attention to this little drama.

“I’m sorry,” Naomi said, which surprised Hanako enough to make her look back at her. “I forgot that you helped Rin with the mural. And she’s your friend. Of course it’s not really funny that someone vandalized it.”

“And I’m sure it didn’t actually improve it,” Natsume added, sounding a little guilty.

Hanako was stunned. She so rarely received what felt like sincere apologies that she wasn’t quite sure how to respond to them. But…they did sound sincere, and looked a little abashed.

Wait…why do they think that Rin is my friend? That additional confusion kept her frozen in place, not fleeing, when Naomi let go of her wrist. It seemed like they were waiting for a response from her, so she finally stammered out, “Th-thank you?” That was the correct response to receiving an apology, right?

Naomi and Natsume exchanged an indecipherable glance, and Hanako felt herself tensing up again, wondering if this had just been a ploy to get her to make herself look even more foolish. “Hey, Hanako, you write, right?” Natsume asked.

What? What does that have to do with anything? She clutched her book bag, and the notebook inside it, to her chest.

“I mean, I see you writing all the time, and it isn’t always class notes,” Natsume added, her grin making it clear she wasn’t criticizing Hanako’s lack of scholarship. Hanako gave a jerky nod. Natsume perked up at that. “Great! What would you think of writing an article about the vandalism for the newspaper?”

“W-what?”

“Yeah, we need more writers, and you’re already familiar with the mural, and Rin. You could, uh, interview her more successfully than we could, I suspect.” Naomi rolled her eyes a little at the idea of interviewing Rin.

“And you could make sure that the tone of the piece was properly respectful, and not, uh, y’know, laughing at it.” Natsume smiled awkwardly, looking embarrassed at her earlier words.

“Please?” added Naomi. “We’re short-staffed, and it would be a big help to us.”

They want my help? Hanako was caught off-guard by the notion.

Well…why not? I helped Rin, after all. It wasn’t a totally alien idea. Helping Rin had felt good. Maybe…maybe this would feel good, too? And she’d be helping both the newspaper and Rin, if she wrote a good article about the vandalism. But…

“I’ve never…written a n-news article,” she said.

“No problem! You’ve written papers for class, right? Just imagine you have an assignment to tell the teacher about the vandalism. And maybe add something about how Rin feels about it,” Naomi said.

When she put it that way, it didn’t sound so difficult. Hanako took a deep breath and nodded. “All r-right. I’ll…give it a try.”

Natsume smiled, and Naomi gave a triumphant fist pump. “Yes! Another writer on our string!”

“St-string?”

“Editors’ term for their stable of writers,” Natsume explained.

Hanako gave her a tiny smile. “Stable? Are we…your horses?”

Natsume laughed, and Hanako was pleased she’d managed to make someone laugh on purpose. “Don’t worry, we won’t try to saddle you up.”

“At least, not for the first few assignments. Wouldn’t want to scare you off,” Naomi added.

Hanako ducked her head, hiding her smile. “N-no. Of course not.” She sat back down at her desk. Her fears bubbled to the surface, and she had a moment’s doubt about the other girls’ motivations. Maybe they’re just being nice to me to make up for laughing at Rin? Then she shook her head. She’d heard them complaining before about needing more writers for the paper. And even if it is just that, it will still be good to write an article that’s respectful of Rin’s work. The fact that they were offering her a concrete apology—the article—convinced her it wasn’t just a sop to make her feel good.

“The club meets Wednesdays and Thursdays after school,” Naomi said. “D’you think you could have a rough draft, or at least some ideas written up, by tomorrow afternoon?”

“Ah…” Well, she was going to be seeing Rin after school today anyway, so she could ask her about it then. “I c-could have…something, at least. I guess.”

“Great!” Natsume leaned forward to beam at her across Naomi’s desk. “And don’t be afraid to ask us for help if you get stuck, I know it’s your first article and all. We’re here to help!”

Hanako nodded.

Then Mutou walked in, just as the bell rang, and the class settled down to the day’s work.

She felt in unusually good spirits, and made it through all the morning’s classes without needing to slip away at any time. At lunch time, she met Lilly in the tearoom and asked, “Would you l-like to eat lunch…on the roof? It’s a lovely day.”

Lilly looked startled for a moment, then smiled. “That could be nice. But…don’t Emi and Rin often eat lunch up there?”

“They do?” She hadn’t known that. She realized that Lilly was looking out for her, trying to make sure she had some time away from people for the lunch break. But she was curious to find out Rin’s reaction to the vandalism of her mural. “I think…that’s okay.”

Lilly’s smile broadened, and she gathered up her lunch supplies. “Then by all means, let us enjoy the day.”

She led Lilly up the stairs, and out onto the roof. She was surprised to see three people already there, eating. Apparently Hisao had joined Emi and Rin for lunch too. She nervously informed Lilly of this, but managed to keep herself from retreating at this unexpected addition.

Emi spotted them coming out the door. “Hey guys! Come to join us for lunch?”

“Indeed,” said Lilly with a smile. “It seems too lovely a day to spend indoors.”

“Great,” said Hisao, also giving them a friendly smile. Rin just kept staring toward the edge of the roof, not acknowledging their presence. Hanako wondered if she was upset, or just being her usual quiet self.

Hanako led Lilly to the others, and they sat down. “Hi,” she said quietly, looking at Rin.

Rin finally looked over at Hanako and Lilly. "Hello. Did you come to see the butterflies too?”

“Butterflies?” Hanako asked, then she noticed a small swarm of butterflies fluttering around a treetop that was sticking up next to the edge of the roof. They were black and white, with a few vivid blue spots on the bottom edge of their wings. “How lovely,” she said. She felt a little sorry that Lilly couldn’t appreciate their delicate beauty.

Even as she thought that, a pair of butterflies fluttered towards them. One of them landed on the tip of Lilly’s hair-bow. It flexed its wings several times, as if showing off, then the other butterfly landed behind it.

“Lucky,” said Rin, staring intently.

“What’s lucky?” asked Lilly.

“A couple of butterflies just landed on your hair ribbon,” said Emi. “They’re really pretty!”

Lilly looked uncertain as to what to do about this. She started to raise a hand to her head, then stopped. She seemed to sense that she was now the center of everyone’s attention, or at least her hair ribbon was.

As Hanako watched, the two butterflies maneuvered around each other on the ribbon, then turned facing away from each other, bumping the ends of their abdomens together. It looked like…

Emi giggled. “I guess they each thought the other was pretty, too.” Hisao snorted, covering his smile with a hand.

“What do you mean?” asked Lilly.

“Er…” Hanako wasn’t sure how to politely phrase a response.

“They’re busy making more butterflies,” Emi said, which Hanako thought was a nice way of putting it.

“Butterflies are having sex on your hair ribbon,” said Rin, a slightly less delicate, if more accurate, way of putting it.

“Oh, my!” Lilly again reached up hesitantly, as if to dislodge them, but Emi grabbed her wrist.

“Hey, how’d you like it if someone interrupted you in the middle of, um, y’know?”

Lilly pursed her lips and frowned towards Emi. “I do not engage in such activities on top of someone else’s head,” she said primly, pulling her hand from Emi’s grasp.

“That could be interesting,” observed Rin.

Hisao lost the battle to stifle his laughter, which Emi joined, and Hanako couldn’t help but giggle too, even as she blushed at the mental image that Rin’s comment provoked. Lilly grimaced, turning slightly pink, and didn’t dignify Rin’s comment with a response. She gently ran her hand over her bow, dislodging the amorous insects.

“Aww. I hope they find each other again,” Emi said, watching them flutter back towards the tree. “What if you just broke up a moment of true love?”

“I do not think butterflies experience ‘love’ the way we do,” said Lilly drily.

“They won’t now,” Emi said.

Rin watched as the pair returned to the tree-top. “They just landed on a leaf together.”

“Oh, good,” said Emi. “Love triumphs after all!”

“I think you might be over-anthropomorphizing,” said Hisao.

“Over-what?” asked Emi.

“Attributing human characteristics to non-human animals. Or insects, in this case,” said Lilly. She finished setting out her lunch and began to eat.

Rin regarded Lilly curiously. “Why did you brush them away?”

Lilly paused for a moment before answering. “I…did not wish to have…insects copulating on my head.”

“Did it hurt?” asked Rin.

“No…” Lilly looked nonplussed by Rin’s question.

“I th-think…just the idea of it…was uncomfortable,” suggested Hanako. “Even if she c-couldn’t feel them.”

“Precisely.” Lilly flashed a grateful smile towards Hanako.

Rin looked wistful. “I’ve never had butterflies make love on my head. Maybe if I sat closer to them…” She made as if to rise, but Emi put a hand on her shoulder.

“Finish your lunch first. Otherwise you’ll be sitting there all day.”

“And besides, how would you know if they landed on your head?” Hisao asked. “They’re probably too light to feel.”

“True,” confirmed Lilly.

Rin considered that. “So, maybe they’ve already been on my head and I didn’t know it?”

“Maybe,” said Emi. “Maybe hundreds of times.”

“Huh.” Rin rolled her eyes up for a moment, as if trying to see the top of her head. She seemed appeased by this notion, and continued eating her lunch.

Hisao flashed a sardonic smile at Hanako and Lilly. “Welcome to our lunch time conversations. It’s never dull up here.”

“Except when you two talk about running,” put in Rin. “Or science.”

“In other words, whenever we talk about what we’re interested in, instead of what you’re interested in?” asked Emi sarcastically.

Rin considered that for a moment. “Yes.”

Emi sighed, and Hisao laughed. “At last you’re honest about it,” he said.

Rin nodded.

Silence fell as everyone continued eating. Feeling like the topic of butterflies had been exhausted, Hanako hesitantly asked Rin, “D-did you hear…about your…mural?”

Rin and Emi nodded, but Hisao and Lilly looked puzzled. “What about it?” asked Hisao.

Hanako glanced at Rin, wondering if she’d answer, then said, “Someone…vandalized it.”

“Oh, dear,” said Lilly, looking distressed. “You both spent a lot of time on that.”

“Especially…Rin,” Hanako said, not wanting to sound like she was claiming Rin’s work as her own.

“Who’d do something like that?” asked Hisao, looking disgusted.

“Nomiya said he thought it was some townie kids, not students, but who knows,” said Emi.

“Are you…upset about it?” Hanako asked Rin.

Rin shrugged, not looking up from her lunch. “I haven’t seen it yet. I don’t know.”

Hanako thought that was an unusual reaction, or lack thereof. “Are you g-going to…go look at it?”

Rin stopped eating and stared at her food. Hanako wondered if she was more upset than she was letting on. “I…suppose.”

“I offered to go with her to look at it before lunch, but she said she was hungry,” said Emi. “We’re going to go right after school before I head to practice.”

“M-may I join you? Naomi and…Natsume asked m-me to write an article about it…for the school paper.”

“Really?” Lilly looked startled and pleased by that news. “What a wonderful idea.”

Rin looked up at that and gave Hanako a curious look. “W-what?” asked Hanako.

Rin just stared at her for a moment longer, then she nodded her head and looked back down. “You can come.”

“Th-thank you.”

They finished lunch talking about more mundane topics, although Rin kept looking wistfully over at the butterflies around the tree.

As they all headed back downstairs to class, Emi asked, “Should we meet you at your classroom after class?”

Hanako nodded.





_______________________





At the end of the day, Emi stuck her head in the doorway of 3-3. “Hey! Ready to roll?”

Hanako nodded to her, picked up her book bag, and followed Emi. Rin had wandered part-way down the stairs while Emi was getting Hanako, but they caught up with her before they left the building.

“H-have you heard…anything else about…the v-vandalism?”

Emi shook her head. “Nah. Nomiya caught us before school started this morning and told us about it, but nobody’s said anything else since then.”

“Oh.” Hanako looked at Rin, who was looking around at the scenery as they walked, apparently uninterested in their destination. She wondered if Rin was truly that disinterested in seeing what had been done to her art, or if she was trying to pretend that she didn’t care. Maybe to herself, as much as to Hanako and Emi.

“Aw, man, that sucks,” Emi exclaimed as the mural came into view.

That wasn’t a phrase Hanako could imagine herself saying out loud, but she couldn’t help but agree with Emi—it did suck. The vandalism wasn’t as severe as Hanako had feared, but it was still fairly extensive. It looked like it had been done with a black can of spray paint, spraying drippy mustaches on some of the faces—even on the female ones—and crude triangles like bras or bikinis on the bare breasted female figures. Only the left half of the mural had been touched; the right side was untouched. Hanako wondered if the vandals had run out of paint, or if they had been interrupted part-way through. She looked to Rin, wondering how she felt about it. She noticed that Emi was watching Rin, too, a concerned look on her face.

Rin stared at the mural for a long time, her head slowly swiveling back and forth as she took it all in. From what Hanako could see of her face, she looked confused.

“Rin? Are you…all right?” she asked quietly.

Rin stared at the mural some more, before slowly answering, “I’m…not sure.” Hanako noticed that she seemed to be looking at the undamaged portion of the mural as much as the damaged portion.

“You look…confused?” Hanako hesitantly ventured.

After another pause, Rin asked, in a faintly plaintive voice, “Why would anyone do this?”

“I…don’t know.” Hanako had never felt the urge to graffiti, barring one time in fourth grade when she’d written “Ayumi is a poop head” in a bathroom stall at school. She’d felt guilty about it for weeks, despite the fact that the janitor erased it a few hours later. Somehow, she doubted the perpetrators of this particular vandalism would waste time on guilt.

“What were they trying to say?” Rin asked.

Emi snorted. “I don’t think they were trying to say anything. They were just some punk-assed kids being jerks.”

Rin shook her head. “All art says something. But…is this my art, anymore?”

Hanako felt better able to answer that one, having thought about similar things while helping Rin. “Of c-course it’s yours. Was it any l-less yours…when I helped you paint p-part of it?”

Rin looked at Hanako, a small frown on her face. “But you worked with me. This person…” She looked back at the mural and shook her head. “Were they working with me? Or against me?”

“You got me,” said Emi. “But at least they didn’t do too much damage. I bet you could fix it up in just a couple of hours. Less, if Hanako helps.”

Hanako suspected Emi was seriously underestimating how long it would take to match colors to paint over the black paint.

“No…” Rin moved over to a tree, and sat leaning against the trunk, facing the mural. “I need to think about this.”

Emi looked at Rin, then looked at Hanako, and shrugged. Hanako shrugged back. “Listen, I gotta get to practice,” Emi said. “I’ll swing by afterwards and drag you to dinner if you’re still here.”

Rin gave a barely discernible nod of acknowledgement, still staring at the wall. Emi gave Hanako a little wave of farewell, then turned and jogged back toward the dorm.

Hanako felt pretty sure she knew the answer, but she asked, “Do you think…you’ll want to p-paint me…today?”

Rin shook her head.

“All right.” Hanako looked at Rin, then at the mural, then she decided to stay a while. She still wasn’t sure if Rin was upset or not, but if she was, having someone around might be nice for her. She sat down next to Rin and leaned back against the tree trunk.

After several minutes of silently contemplating the mural together, Rin asked, “Would you help me clean and repaint it?”

“Of c-course,” Hanako said, pleased to be asked.

But Rin remained seated, not getting up to go get supplies, just staring at the mural some more. Hanako thought about it for a moment, then she realized that Rin had asked her if she would help her—if she would be willing to help her if she repainted it. She hadn’t yet said she was going to repaint it. So she leaned back and relaxed while Rin contemplated her work.

Eventually, Rin spoke softly, “I was never totally sure what this mural was about. I only did it because Sensei pushed me to do it. I tried to put some of myself into it, but…it was too murally for me to completely get a grasp of it. But now…” She shook her head. “Part of me feels like maybe I should be angry or hurt that someone changed my art, but there was so little of me in it that I’m not really sure it was mine to begin with. I painted it, but I also directed the art club and Hisao and you in painting it. It’s as much theirs and yours as mine.”

“I d-don’t really think so,” Hanako protested.

“Are you upset?”

“Yes. Of c-course.”

“Why?”

“B-because…” Hanako had to think a minute. “Because…destroying art…is a bad thing.”

“Is it destroyed? It’s changed, but it’s still here. They didn’t blow up the wall.”

That was true. Technically. Hanako stared at the vandalized section again, trying to imagine that what she was seeing was how the work had been originally done. She shook her head. “B-but the style of…the graffiti. Doesn’t match the rest of the piece. It’s…tacked on. Not integrated. So…I don’t think it adds…anything m-meaningful. To the mural. Even if you d-don’t know what it says.”

Rin nodded. “True. And if I do get rid of those mustaches and things, at least I’ll know a little bit more of what this mural is saying.”

“What’s that?”

“‘Screw you’ to the people who did this.”

Hanako giggled at Rin’s unexpected vulgarity. “Th-that…could be a good headline. If they’d…actually print it.”

A corner of Rin’s mouth twitched briefly, and Hanako was glad she could cheer Rin up a little in the face of this vandalism. Rin nodded her head decisively, and unfolded her legs under her, rising. “Let’s go get some paint thinner and scrub brushes.”
Last edited by Lap on Thu Mar 25, 2021 11:27 am, edited 1 time in total.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:07 pm

Fortunately, the paint the vandals had used was a cheap spray enamel, which she and Rin were able to mostly remove with scrub brushes and turpentine. They managed to get almost two thirds of the graffiti off before stopping for dinner.

A late dinner—Emi had dragged them away from their labors just barely before the cafeteria closed for the night. Hanako was grateful for her intervention. “Looking good!” Emi exclaimed. “Not bad for just a few hours of work!”

Hanako groaned. “J-just a few hours of w-work?” she muttered. Her arms ached with the unaccustomed labor. Although they’d had a scrub brush with a strap that Rin could slip her foot into, Hanako had ended up volunteering for the lion’s share of scrubbing. It wasn’t that Rin was unwilling to work, but it made Hanako nervous watching her balance on one leg atop a ladder while scrubbing vigorously with her other foot.

Emi clapped a hand on her shoulder, almost knocking her off balance. How does someone so small get so strong? Hanako wondered. “Y’all are doing great. Thanks for helping Rin out. I would’ve, but I’ve got a meet this weekend, and couldn’t skip practice.” Hanako reflected that it seemed like there was never a time when Emi didn’t have practice, but she would never say so out loud.

After dinner, Hanako returned to the dorm and took a shower, trying to get rid of the smell of turpentine. Even after washing her hands a half-dozen times, a hint of the odor lingered. I should ask Rin how to get rid of this smell, she thought. Then she realized, Rin frequently smelled faintly of turpentine, so she probably didn’t know either.

She returned to her room and changed into her nightgown, taking a couple of pain-killers from the bottle she kept on hand. Pulling out her textbooks, she set to work on her homework. She didn’t have much, for which she was grateful. The afternoon’s unaccustomed labors made her tired and sleepy, and she hoped the painkillers would kick in soon. In addition to her homework she also tried to pull together a rough draft of a report on the vandalism for Naomi and Natsume.

She nervously handed the draft to Naomi the next morning before class began. She skimmed it quickly, then looked up at Hanako with a large smile. “You write well. You even use paragraph breaks appropriately!”

“Er. Yes?”

“Most new writers just hand us a wall of text,” Naomi said. “I can see a few things to tweak, but overall, this is one of the better first submissions I’ve ever gotten. Thank you!”

Hanako ducked her head, hiding her blush, warmed by this unexpected praise. “You’re w-welcome.”

“Can you come to the clubroom after school today? I’d like to go over this with you, get it polished and ready for publication.”

Hanako felt nervous about going to the newspaper clubroom for the first time. She had no idea how many other people would be there. Although the fact that Naomi and Natsume were trying to recruit her seemed to indicate that there probably weren’t too many people in the club. “Okay,” she said.

Just after the lunch bell rang, Lilly met her at the door of her classroom. “Hanako? I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to lunch with you. I need to complete some paperwork for the student council.” The tension at the corners of her mouth gave Hanako a clue as to who was demanding said paperwork.

“Th-that’s all right. I was g-going to suggest…we eat on the roof…anyway.”

Lilly smiled. “Indeed? That works out well, then. Enjoy your lunch.”

“Thank you.”

After climbing the stairs to the roof, Hanako paused before opening the door, wondering if Hisao would be there today too. He’s been nice to me so far, she reminded herself, then took a deep breath to nerve herself and pushed the door open.

She was surprised to find that not only was Hisao absent, but Emi as well. Rin lay on her back in the middle of the roof, staring up at the clouds. It was a lovely day, the brilliant blue sky filled with scattered fluffy cumulus clouds. Hanako walked over to Rin, and noticed she had an unopened bento next to her. Rin didn’t react to her approach, although Hanako was certain her footsteps had been plainly audible. “Hello,” she said quietly.

Rin’s gaze flicked toward Hanako for a moment before returning to the clouds. “Mmm,” was all the response Hanako got. Hanako hesitated a moment, then sat down cross-legged next to Rin’s head. She pulled out her own lunch and began to eat. She looked up at the clouds between bites, wondering what about them had arrested Rin’s attention. They were pretty, but they were just clouds.

“Are you…g-going to eat…your lunch?” Hanako asked, when she’d finished about half of her own.

“I wonder what clouds taste like?”

Hanako blinked. “W-water. They’re j-just…water vapor.” How can someone be in high school and not know that? she wondered.

Rin looked disappointed. “That’s boring. They should taste like cotton candy. Or cauliflower. Or mashed potatoes.”

“Are you th-thinking about what clouds…t-taste like…because you’re hungry?”

“Maybe.”

“Would you l-like me…to open your bento?”

Rin sat up suddenly and pivoted to face her lunch. “No. I can do it.” She matched actions to words, deftly opening the box with her feet. She peered inside, and frowned.

“Is…something…wrong?”

Rin shook her head. “I was just hoping that Emi might have looked at the clouds this morning too, and packed cauliflower and mashed potatoes and cotton candy for my lunch.”

Hanako giggled at that notion. “That…would be a v-very unusual…lunch.”

Rin sighed. “And too unhealthy for her.” She picked up the fork and speared a piece of what looked like steamed broccoli.

“At least it l-looks tasty,” Hanako offered consolingly.

Rin nodded as she chewed.

Hanako ate a few more bites of her own lunch, then asked, “Does Emi m-make you lunch…often?”

Rin shrugged. “Sometimes. Sometimes we make lunch together. Sometimes we get it from the cafeteria.”

"W-where is she…today?”

Rin paused with the fork halfway to her mouth, and glanced around the roof. “She’s not here.”

“Er. Yes?”

“Wasn’t she here before?”

“M-maybe…before I came up?”

Rin finished putting a piece of chicken into her mouth, then looked around the roof some more. Hanako wondered if she was trying to find Emi.

Hanako finished her lunch before Rin did, and she packed up her empty lunch box. “Will you n-need help cleaning…the mural after school?”

Rin shook her head. “I finished that.”

“W-what? When?”

“This morning.”

Hanako frowned. “D-didn’t you have…classes this morning?”

Rin shrugged, apparently indifferent to such pedestrian concerns.

“D-did all of the black paint…come off? Does any of it n-need…repainting?”

“Ish fine,” Rin said around a mouthful of food.

Hanako reflected that Rin hadn’t exactly answered her question, but apparently she was satisfied with the results. Which was all that really mattered. “I’m g-going to m-meet with Naomi and Natsume…after school. To work on the article about the v-vandalism.”

Rin stopped chewing for a moment and made eye contact with Hanako for the first time. “Will you come to the art room after so I can finish the painting?” There was a small hint of tension in the question, despite Rin’s normal flat affect.

Hanako sighed to herself. I’d kind of hoped she would forget about that. But of course, she knew that that was an unrealistic hope. Rin might seem scatterbrained at times, but she would never forget something about her art. She nodded. “D-do you think…you’ll finish today?”

Rin shrugged. “I’ll finish when it’s done,” she said, echoing her response of a couple of days prior.

Hanako remembered Rin’s comment about finishing artwork. “When d-do you think…you’ll abandon it?” she offered, trying to phrase it in Rin’s terms.

“Probably today.” Hanako was surprised that her response was so simple and direct, compared to her previous equivocation. “Maybe,” Rin added, undercutting that certainty.

“All r-right. I’ll see you…then,” Hanako said, as the end-of-lunch bell rang.

Rin nodded. She closed up her bento, and shoved it back into her book bag. She lifted the strap of her bag to her shoulder before standing up, then silently followed Hanako back downstairs.

She followed Naomi and Natsume to the journalism club room after school, her heart pounding in nervous anticipation. To her relief, there was only one other person in the room when they got there, a girl she vaguely recognized as a second-year who lived on the first floor of the dorm. The girl was hunting and pecking at a computer, squinting hard at the screen through thick-lensed glasses. She completely ignored the others’ arrival.

Naomi waved a negligent hand toward the typist. “That’s Tsubame. Our master typist and layout artist.”

Hanako nodded, not sure any response was called for, since the typist was ignoring them. Natsume walked over to a desk, her cane hitting the floor with louder than usual force. She sat down gingerly in the seat and sighed heavily.

“Bad day?” asked Naomi sympathetically.

Natsume grunted, “Yah.”

“Have you taken any meds?”

Natsume glowered at her co-editor. “Gee, no, why ever would I do that? That might interfere with my appreciation of the subtle flavors of pain. Yes, of course I’ve taken my meds.”

“Don’t give me that crap,” Naomi shot back, apparently unfazed by Natsume’s sarcasm. “You know you forget half the time if you’re wrapped up in something or other.”

Natsume grimaced and nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I took a lovely cocktail of methotrexate and ibuprofen an hour ago.”

“Good.”

Hanako found herself slowly edging back from the two of them, intimidated by the heat of their conversation. She couldn’t imagine talking with Lilly like that.

Natsume looked up and noticed her halfway to the door. She gave a slightly pained smile. “We’re scaring off our new recruit,” she said to Naomi. “Sorry, Hanako, don’t mind us. I just get a little cranky when I’m in pain.”

“Which is why you’re always cranky,” added Naomi.

“Don’t remind me.”

Hanako knew Natsume had arthritis of some sort, but she hadn’t realized it was that painful. “I’m sorry…th-that you’re hurting.”

Natsume waved a dismissive hand. “Eh. We’ve all got our crosses to bear, right?” She took a deep breath and seemed to visibly set aside her discomfort. She pulled Hanako’s article out of her bag and set it in front of her. “C’mere, pull up a chair and let’s go over this together. You’ve got a great start, there are just a few places where I think you could tighten it up a bit…”

A half-hour later, Hanako felt slightly exhausted, but at the same time she was pleased with how her article had shaped up. Natsume was a good editor, skilled at explaining the why and how of the changes she wanted. Hanako felt like she’d become a little bit better of a writer just from that one editing session, and she looked forward to applying some of her new knowledge to her stories as well.

Bidding farewell to the journalistic duo, she headed to the art room, and Rin. When she got there, she looked again at the painting. Having not seen it for a couple of days, she looked at it with fresh eyes. She tried to pretend that it wasn’t a picture of her, to try and appreciate it for itself. She was aided in that mindset by Rin’s style and bold color choices. Although the portrait was more detailed than the large mural figures were, it wasn’t as realistic as the pencil sketch of her had been. Her scars were barely visible and had been detailed in a dark blue that almost looked like deep shadow on her form. Hanako grudgingly admitted that the painting, if not exactly pretty, was at least good. She still found it somewhat disconcerting that Rin could produce a work of art using her form.

Rin hopped off the window ledge where she’d been staring out the window and came over to sit in front of her canvas. “That l-looks…pretty finished to m-me,” Hanako said.

Rin frowned. “No comments. And it’s not done.”

Hanako nodded and pulled out a new book she’d just checked out from the library. She sat down in the chair, positioning herself more from memory than from the by-now mostly scuffed-out marks. She glanced over at Rin for confirmation that she was in the right place. When Rin made no correcting comments, Hanako opened her book and began to read.

It was the next book in the series she’d begun at Hisao’s recommendation. She had been a little surprised at how much she’d liked the first book, her usual tastes running toward fantasy and historical fiction more than science fiction. But the main character was physically handicapped, always struggling to overcome his weaknesses, and she found herself identifying with him to a remarkable degree. The new book pulled her in, and the art room and Rin faded from her awareness.

It was her bladder that finally pulled her out of her reading trance, and she looked up at the clock to realize she’d been holding the pose for over ninety minutes, much longer than usual without a break. “Rin? I’m…g-going to stretch,” she said, suiting actions to words. After shaking out her limbs, she headed to the bathroom.

Returning to the art room, she looked over Rin’s shoulder to see if she was done yet. She was shocked to see that the canvas on the easel was mostly blank. She stared at it for a moment, confused, then looked around. She found the painting Rin had been previously working on resting on a nearby table. “Rin? D-did you…finish your painting?” she asked, even though the answer was obvious.

Rin nodded, not looking at her.

“Why d-didn’t you…tell me?”

“You were holding still. And I wanted to try a different style.” Indeed, the current work-in-progress looked quite different, the colors applied in short staccato strokes, not the broad swaths of color that the previous painting had.

“B-b-but…” Hanako felt her heart sinking as she realized that Rin would want her to model some more. “I…”

Rin paused in her painting, still not looking at Hanako. She stared at the canvas in front of her. “You don’t want to model any more,” she said flatly as she set her brush down.

Hanako hesitated. “W-well, I…I mean…”

Rin said softly, in a slightly rehearsed-sounding tone, “Thank you for modeling for me. It was very helpful.” She turned to face Hanako and smiled the most patently false smile Hanako had ever seen. Hanako wondered if perhaps Emi had told Rin that she should smile when thanking someone for something.

Hanako had to suppress a small shudder. Rin’s normally blank unemotional face was far preferable to this false mask. “You’re…welcome,” she squeaked, giving Rin a smile that was equally false in return. She grabbed her book bag, and fled the art room before she had to look at Rin’s disappointment any more. Because that was all she could think of that false smile as: a mask for her disappointment.

Dang it. I did what she asked me to do. Why is she disappointed? She kept thinking variations on that over and over, as she tried to assuage her irrational sense of guilt.


_________________



It still wasn’t yet dinner time, since she’d modeled for only an hour and a half, unlike the previous two times. Hanako hesitated at the exit of the academic building, unsure of where to go. To her room? Back upstairs to the library? Maybe to see Lilly?

No, definitely her room, she decided. She’d already spent more time talking with and interacting with other people today than she normally would in the course of several days. As much as she treasured Lilly, the thought of spending more time with another person right now was utterly enervating.

Upon reaching her room she set her bag on her desk and flopped onto her bed. She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to relax. Unbidden, Rin’s face, wearing that fake smile, floated up in her mind’s eye. She grimaced and tried to banish the image. I did what I’d promised to do. I don’t need to do more. Nonetheless, Rin’s disappointment tugged at her heart.

Dang it. Just because she wants something doesn’t mean I have to do it for her.

But Hanako didn’t have much experience with others wanting something from her. Helping Rin, being useful, being wanted, was such a strange feeling. It had all started with helping her with the mural. And then grown when she’d helped Rin finish it.

And then Rin had somehow talked her into modeling for her. And she’d helped Rin clean the mural, as well as write an article about the vandalism that was properly respectful of the art. And the artist. Which also helped out Naomi and Natsume.

I’ve been…helping a lot of people lately, she realized. In addition to helping Lilly with shopping, as she did every week. It felt nice. She’d even made a vague promise to Naomi and Natsume to consider writing something else for the paper. Helping all these different people felt good, even if it was exhausting.

Hanako rolled over and sat up. Homework. I need to focus on my homework. She moved to her desk chair and pulled out her class notes, and got to work, putting her unsettling thoughts behind her.

Her studies were interrupted an hour later by Lilly’s gentle tapping at the door. Setting down her pen, she rose and answered the door. “Hello…Lilly,” she said with a smile.

Lilly smiled back. “Hanako. I was wondering if you’d had dinner yet?”

“No.”

“In that case, would you care to join me?”

“Y-yes. Thank you.”

As they walked to the cafeteria, Lilly chatted lightly about her day, which had been fairly normal aside from several hours spent helping Yuuko in the library. “And how about you?” Lilly asked as they cafeteria and got in line for dinner. “How was your day?”

“It was…” Hanako hesitated. She wasn’t quite sure how to summarize her day. It had had its ups and downs. “Different,” she settled on.

“Oh? How so?”

“Hmm…” Hanako was overly aware of the students standing in front of and behind them in the line. She still hadn’t told Lilly that she’d been modeling for Rin, and she didn’t feel like broadcasting that fact to other people either. “L-let’s get…dinner first,” she temporized.

“Very well.”

Their food acquired, Hanako guided Lilly to a table that had no one else sitting nearby. Since that wasn’t an unusual thing for Hanako to do, Lilly made no comment about it. They settled in and began to eat.

“So…different?” Lilly prompted, after they’d had a few bites.

Hanako nodded, unable to break that habit, even though Lilly couldn’t see it. “The l-last few days…I’ve been…I’ve b-been…” She broke off, blushing, and took another bite of her dinner.

“Helping Rin clean the mural?” Lilly asked.

“No…well, yes, b-but that only took one day. But b-before and after that…I’ve been…m-modeling. For a painting.”

Lilly looked startled. “Was this a follow-up on the sketch she did of you in the library?”

“Sort of.”

Lilly took another bite of her meal and chewed for a moment, looking thoughtful. Swallowing, she said, “That’s very brave of you.”

Hanako was startled. Brave? That wasn’t a word she would ever apply to herself. “N-not brave. I just…let myself get t-talked into it.”

“But…given how you feel about people staring at you…to choose to allow her that privilege seems to me to be remarkably brave.”

Lilly’s choice of words continued to baffle her. Privilege? What privilege could there be in staring at me? She decided to ignore that comment. “Well…anyway…she finished the p-painting today.”

"And are you pleased with how it turned out?”

“I’m…not really sure,” Hanako admitted. “I b-barely saw it…before leaving.” She explained how Rin had started another painting without her knowing it.

“So, you felt like she was taking advantage of your good nature by starting a new painting without asking you?”

“Th-that’s a good way to…put it,” Hanako agreed.

“Do you think you would have agreed to do it if she’d asked?” Lilly asked, sounding genuinely curious.

“Nnn…” Her automatic denial died on her lips. Would I have agreed to do more if she’d asked? She was surprised to realize that her answer wasn’t clear. “I’m…not sure. I liked…being helpful.” She blushed, and admitted, more quietly, “I l-liked what little I saw…of the p-painting she did. So…m-maybe I would have.”

A tiny smile graced Lilly’s lips. “Indeed.”

“Y-yes… And m-modeling wasn’t all that d-difficult. I j-just got lost in a good b-book, and held still.” She grimaced. “I w-wish I’d gotten…a better look…at the finished painting.”

“I’m sure you could go see it tomorrow.”

Hanako shook her head. “N-no. She m-might be…angry w-with me.”

“For not continuing to model?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you think she would instead be grateful for what you did do for her?”

“B-but…”

“I admit I don’t know Rin all that well, but from what you’ve told me, she’s appreciative of the help her friends give her. Even if she doesn’t always say it.”

Hanako considered that. “M-maybe.” Her voice dropped to a near whisper. “B-but what if she is…mad?”

“Sometimes friends get mad. It’s not the end of the world.”

Hanako considered Lilly, who up until recently had been her only friend. “You…don’t…get angry,” she hesitantly pointed out.

Lilly looked taken aback at that comment. “I…” She blushed. “I may not be the best example, but…you’ve gotten angry with me. When I…when I pushed you. About your birthday, last year. And we’re still friends.”

Hanako looked away from Lilly, embarrassed by the memory of last summer. “Th-thank you…for forgiving m-me,” she said softly.

“There was nothing to forgive. I overstepped. But my point remains, even if Rin gets angry with you, it doesn’t mean you’ll never speak to each other again.”

“M-m-maybe,” Hanako said dubiously.

“Did you really mean what you said?”

“Which?”

“That you might have agreed to model more for her if asked?”

Hanako thought about it as she finished her last bite of dinner. “I th-think so, yes. Though I d-don’t think I’d…want to do it every day.”

“Understandable. If you did agree to do it, you’d need to set some limits.” Lilly looked wryly amused. “I suspect Rin is sufficiently, ah, focused on her art that she would happily monopolize all of your time not spent in class.”

“Set l-limits. Right.” Hanako grimaced. Not exactly my strong suit, she thought glumly.

Lilly apparently heard the dubiousness in Hanako’s tone of voice. “You should remember, you’re the one providing her with a service. A favor. That apparently no one else does. Strictly speaking, you have the upper hand for any ‘negotiations’ that need to take place.”

"I hadn’t th-thought of…that.” Hanako was startled to think that she had something that Rin wanted. That that put her in a position of power. It was simultaneously exhilarating and disquieting to consider.

“It’s a thought. If you do want to continue to model, of course.” Lilly set her napkin on her tray. “Are you finished eating too?”

“Yes.”

They cleared their trays and headed back to the dorm. “Would you like to eat lunch with Rin and Emi tomorrow, so we could discuss this?”

Hanako could hear Lilly’s unspoken offer to ‘negotiate’ for her with Rin. She appreciated that Lilly was trying to help, but… I really should try and handle this myself. “N-no, thank you. I’ll…talk with her…myself.”

Lilly smiled and nodded. “Good,” she said approvingly, which warmed Hanako an embarrassing amount.

The next day, Hanako walked down to the art room after classes had ended for the day. She took a deep breath, and pushed open the door. She was unsurprised to find Rin was already there, working on a painting of abstract figures, similar to a composition Hanako had seen in her sketchbook. The style was similar to what she’d done with the mural, but the paint was applied more thickly, the brush strokes more evident. Overall, the piece seemed to have more motion than the mural had.

Rin didn’t look up as Hanako approached her. Hanako noticed the painting of her sitting on an easel by the rack of paintings. She walked over to it, her stomach quivering as she took it in.

Her initial impression of it from a few days ago remained unchanged—it was a good painting, subject matter notwithstanding. She was surprised that the piece managed to feel both peaceful and dynamic. All of Rin’s work that she’d seen so far had seemed very energetic, with contrasting colors adding to the pieces’ sense of motion. But this painting of her was somehow subdued—the energy was almost constrained, held in somehow. As Hanako studied it, she realized that the painting had a focal point, where the brushstrokes and various compositional lines converged: the book. Somehow the peacefulness of the reader—of her—seemed to be in direct contrast with the energy of the story she was reading.

“You came back.” Hanako jumped at Rin’s words. She turned and faced the artist, who had put down her brush and was staring at her. Hanako wondered if she’d been watching her look at the painting.

“Y-yes. I…wanted to see…the finished piece.”

Rin nodded. Hanako waited for her to say something—to ask her if she liked it, perhaps. But Rin remained silent.

“You’re p-painting…something new.”

Rin nodded again. “Always.”

Hanako bit her lip, then asked, “Wh-what did you do…with the second p-piece you started…of me?”

Rin tilted her head at the canvas in front of her. “Painted over it.”

Hanako wasn’t sure why, but that made her sad. “I’m sorry.”

Rin shrugged.

Hanako looked down at the floor for several seconds, gathering her nerve, then she looked back up. “You know…I’m n-not against m-modeling…for you. Some more.”

Rin’s eyes widened. “You’re not?” Her voice held a faint note of eagerness.

“N-no. But I’d like…I would’ve l-liked…to have been asked. First.”

Now it was Rin’s turn to stare at the floor for a moment. Hanako was used to Rin not always making eye contact with her while talking, but this was the first time it seemed like she was actively avoiding eye contact. Eventually, she muttered, “Sorry.”

At that simple apology, Hanako felt the release of a subtle tension she’d not been aware she’d been carrying. She smiled. “It’s…all right.”

Rin looked up at her through her bangs for a moment, then lifted her head and faced Hanako again. “Do you really mean it?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yes. But…”

The excited gleam that had been forming in Rin’s eye dimmed. “But?”

Hanako took a deep breath. Limits, she reminded herself. “I c-can’t do it…every day. I need t-time for homework…and other things.”

Rin blinked a few times, looking slightly puzzled by those requirements. Hanako wondered if she was trying to comprehend someone not wanting to do art-related work every day. “But you will model?”

“Yes. I c-can manage…three afternoons a week. Three hours each. And m-maybe…one of those days could b-be a l-little longer…on the weekend.”

Rin seemed frozen, as if not daring to move for fear of startling Hanako into changing her mind. “Really?”

“Yes. M-maybe we could do…T-tuesdays, Thursdays, and…Saturdays?”

Rin nodded. “Okay. Are you doing anything right now?”

Hanako hesitated. I don’t really have much to do this afternoon… But then she heard Lilly’s voice: Limits. She stiffened her resolve.

“I…really need…today off. But I can p-pose…on Saturdays.”

Rin accepted this without changing expression. “Tomorrow is Saturday. Could we start then?”

Hanako smiled at Rin’s eagerness. “D-don’t you want…to finish that piece first?”

Rin waved a stump dismissively at the canvas. “I can work on this on days you’re not here. Working from a live model is better.” She looked at the canvas, and her lips twitched in a small grimace. “I hadn’t realized how much better.”

Hanako felt flattered by that, even though she knew Rin would feel the same way about any other person she could talk into holding still for her. “Well, then. Shall I see you…t-tomorrow at…two?”

Rin nodded, looking subtly pleased.

“B-by the way, did you see…this week’s school newspaper?” Hanako asked. It had just come out that morning.

Rin shook her head.

“It had m-my article…about the v-vandalism to y-y-your mural.” She reached into her book bag and pulled out a copy. She held it up. “On the f-front page, even,” she said, shyly proud. There were a couple of photos to go with it, one of the clean mural, and a close-up of one of the vandalized figures.

Rin stared at the paper in Hanako’s hands. “Those are your words?”

“Um…yes? Natsume…edited it a b-bit, but…it’s my story.”

Rin nodded somberly. “That’s good.”

“Th-thank you.” She’d hoped Rin would be more excited about the article. “Sh-should I leave a c-copy…for you to r-read?”

Rin cocked her head and appeared to think for a moment. “Yes. I think I would like to read your words.”

Hanako blinked, not exactly sure what Rin meant by that odd phrasing. “Okay…” She started to set the paper down on the table next to where Rin was working.

“Could you put that in my bag?” Rin asked.

“Sure.” Hanako looked around, and found the bag sitting on another table. She slipped the newspaper inside.

Rin picked up her paintbrush and dabbed it in some paint. “See you tomorrow,” she said absently, as she returned her focus to the painting.

“Bye,” Hanako said, but she wasn’t sure Rin heard her. She slipped quietly out of the art room, pleased to have successfully negotiated with Rin.


________________


Hanako wasn’t sure if Rin usually finished a painting in just six or seven hours, or if she was afraid that Hanako would disappear again, and so felt she had to work quickly. But she finished the next piece in just two sittings, on Saturday and Tuesday.

Hanako was heading down the stairs to the art room Thursday after school when she heard Emi behind her call out, “Hey, Hanako!”

She flinched a little at being so loudly addressed in public. She turned to look up at Emi, at the top of the stairs. It felt odd to be looking up at her. “Yes?”

Emi came down the stairs, stopping a step above her, so they were almost eye-to-eye for a change. “I didn’t see you at lunch. I wanted to let you know, Rin’s sick, so she won’t be painting today.”

"Is she…all right?”

Emi shrugged. “Just a little cold, I think.” A slightly guilty look crossed her face. “I, uh…I might have given it to her.” She smiled. “But I got over it in a day, so I’m sure she’ll be back at the easel tomorrow!”

“Okay. Thank you…for l-letting me know.”

“No prob!” Emi waved goodbye cheerily and darted down the stairs.

Hanako felt like she ought to visit Rin. To wish her well, if nothing else. She wondered if she should bring her something, a get-well present, or at least something that might help her get better. Wasn’t orange juice supposed to be good for colds? Full of vitamin C?

Hanako stopped at the drink vending machine by the cafeteria before heading back to the dorm and purchased a couple of boxes of orange juice. It probably wasn’t as good as something actually squeezed from oranges, but at least it was something. The nutritional label said it contained vitamin C, so that was good.

She dropped her book bag in her room and headed down the hall to Rin’s room. She knocked hesitantly, afraid of waking Rin if she were sleeping. She listened carefully, and thought she heard motion inside the room, so she knocked a second time, a little more loudly, in case Rin hadn’t heard her.

The noises behind the door came closer, and then Rin opened the door. Hanako was startled by her attire, or rather, lack thereof, dressed in just panties and an unbuttoned uniform shirt. She wondered why Rin wasn’t in something more comfortable to sleep in.

“Hanakooooooo,” Rin said, her face lighting up in a completely unfamiliar grin. “Helloooo, Hanakooooo…” She trailed off with a giggle

Hanako’s first reaction to Rin’s greeting was to flinch, memories of classmates mocking her by drawing out her name like that flashing through her mind. But that was quickly replaced by concern for Rin, whose flushed and sweaty face, and uncharacteristic display of emotion, were disquieting. “Rin? Are y-you okay?” she asked hesitantly.

Rin’s smile didn’t fade as she nodded in reply. She closed her eyes as she continued to nod, her head starting to roll a little from side-to-side as she did so.

“Um…Emi s-said you were sick…so I thought I’d bring you s-some orange juice. To help you…get better.”

Rin opened her eyes and stopped nodding. Mostly. She smiled even more broadly at Hanako. “Thank you.” That reminded Hanako uncomfortably of the false smile Rin had given her when thanking her for modeling. Except this smile seemed more genuine, albeit still abnormal. Rin turned around, and staggered back over to her bed. She fell face-first onto the messy pile of pillows and blankets.

Hanako decided to take this as an implicit invitation to enter and stepped into the room. She closed the door behind her to protect Rin’s modesty. If she has any, she thought wryly. As if on cue, Rin rolled over onto her back, oblivious to the way her shirt fell open, exposing herself to Hanako.

Hanako frowned for a moment. She’s even skinnier than I thought, she realized, worried that she could see individual ribs. She set the juice boxes down on Rin’s desk, then reached over and tugged a blanket out from under her, and pulled it up over her body. Partly to keep her warm, and partly to lessen her own embarrassment at being around the half-naked girl.

Rin continued to smile. “Thass nice. Thank you. You’re nice. Hanakoooo…” she crooned softly. “You’re my first visitor.” Her smile faded as she looked thoughtful. “Actually, that’s not quite true, Emi visits alllll the time, but she visits so often she’s not really a visitor anymore, she almost lives here, helping me dress and stuff.” Her eyes fluttered closed for a few moments, and Hanako wondered if she was drifting off to sleep. She was just about to turn around and leave when Rin’s eyes snapped open again. “She woke me up at seven thirty this morning!” she said indignantly.

“Er…yes?” Hanako ventured. That seemed like a reasonable time to wake up for classes.

“I told her to sod off, and she just grumped at me, then came back a bit later to give me this medicine.” Rin waved a stump at her bedside table, where a small vial of prescription pills sat.

Hanako picked up the vial and examined it. Cough suppressant with…codeine? Is that why she’s so…happy? “How m-many…did you take?” she asked.

Rin shrugged and closed her eyes again. “Dunno. They weren’t doing much, so I took some more.”

That doesn’t sound safe, Hanako thought as she set the pill bottle back down.

Rin’s head lolled around on her pillow, and she opened her eyes to smile up at Hanako. “But I think they’re working now. I feel much better. Much mush better. Better better like a butterfly. A betterfly? A betterfly buzzing around in my head except butterflies don’t buzz, that’s cicadas, isn’t it? Or is it crickets?” She smiled and blinked owlishly at Hanako, as if awaiting an answer.

Hanako was beginning to find Rin’s continual smile unnerving. It was very…not-Rin-like. “Ci-cicadas, yes,” she agreed.

Rin nodded, looking satisfied. “Good. Thank you for visiting, it’s very nice of you. But that’s not surprising since you’re so nice,” Rin said, her voice trailing off into a mumble as her eyes drifted shut again. “Nice. Nice. Beautiful beautiful Hanako’s so nice, nice…niii…” She stopped talking and her face went slack. The gentle rise and fall of her chest beneath the blanket reassured Hanako that she hadn’t just died of a codeine overdose.

Hanako watched her sleep for a moment, disturbed by Rin’s final words. She’s stoned on codeine, she reminded herself. Which prompted her to pick up the pill bottle again and examine it. She dumped its contents into her palm to count the pills. It looked like Rin had consumed eight since Emi had dropped them off at eight or so that morning. Only two more than she should have taken in that time span, so, not life-threatening.

Placing the pills back in the bottle, she debated whether or not to return them to the bedside table. On the one hand, they were Rin’s; but on the other hand, she didn’t want to risk Rin waking up and taking too many more. She didn’t seem to be very responsible about her medications. Though her irresponsible behavior might be due in part to the medication itself, she realized.

I would hate for anything bad to happen to her just because I was afraid to do something, she realized. Sighing, she moved the orange juice boxes to the bedside stand, where Rin could easily find them when she woke. She regarded them a moment, then she unwrapped the little straws that came with them, and stuck one into one of the boxes. Then she picked up the pill bottle and left.

Hanako quietly closed the door to Rin’s room behind her. Turning, she found herself facing the door to Emi’s room. She bit her lip, considering. Emi’s probably at practice anyway, she consoled herself, then she stepped across the hall and knocked.

“The door’s open!” called Emi out, making Hanako twitch in surprise. I guess she isn’t practicing all the time…

Entering Emi’s room, Hanako saw immediately why she’d called out instead of answering the door herself—she was sitting on her bed, surrounded by textbooks, not wearing her legs. “Hi, Emi,” she said shyly.

Emi looked startled to see her, but she smiled back after a moment. “Hey, Hanako. Whassup?”

“Um…I just visited Rin…”

“Oh, yeah? How’s she doing? I looked in on her a little while ago, but she was asleep.”

Hanako considered how best to respond to that question. “Stoned on…c-codeine,” she finally replied.

Emi snorted. “How can you tell the difference?”

Hanako gave a weak smile, though she didn’t actually find the question all that funny. “She w-was all…smiley. And sleepy. I th-think she took…too many pills.”

Emi’s smile vanished, and she frowned. “Damn. Any idea how many?”

Hanako held out the bottle. “J-just two more…than she should have, I think. B-but I didn’t want…to leave the pills there. In case she accidentally…took some more.”

Emi relaxed a little and sighed. “Yeah. Prob’ly a good call.” Hanako was pleased that Emi supported her decision. Emi eyed the pill bottle in Hanako’s hand. “I’m guessing you wanna leave them with me, since I’ll probably see her next? I can dole them out as needed.”

Hanako nodded. “Yes. P-please. She might…need some later. But not for at least…four or six hours or so, I’d guess.”

Emi nodded. “You can set ‘em on my desk,” she said, waving at the paper-covered surface.

“Th-thank you,” Hanako, said, setting the bottle down amidst the mess.

“Nah, thank you for looking in on her. I peeked in a little while ago but she was sleeping; I didn’t realize she’d been overdoing the meds.” Emi smiled. “It’s good that she has more than one friend looking out for her.”

Hanako smiled back reflexively, thinking, Am I her friend? “I’ll…see you later,” she said, turning to go.

“See ya.”


_______________________


By Saturday, Rin was recovered and ready to start a new painting. After classes, lunch, and therapy, Hanako returned to the art room. For this third painting, Rin asked Hanako to do a standing pose.

“O…kay,” Hanako said dubiously. Standing for three or more hours at a time sounded tiring. And she didn’t think she could hold up a book for that entire time, so she wouldn’t be able to read. She stepped up onto the model’s plinth next to the comfy chair. “How w-would you like me…to pose?”

Rin stared at her for a while, her eyes looking vaguely unfocused. Hanako wondered if she was actually looking at her, or at some image of her in her mind’s eyes. Eventually, her focus returned to Hanako, and she said, “Put one hand on your hip, and the other on your chest.”

Hanako put her right hand on her hip, then hesitated with her other hand hovering over her chest. “H-holding m-my…b-b-breast?” she asked, blushing.

Rin shook her head. “Arm between your breasts. Fingers on collarbone.”

“Ah.” That was better.

“Look up a little,” Rin directed.

Hanako looked up and out the window. The sky was mostly clear, with just a few clouds to watch.

“Good. Hold still,” Rin commanded.

Hanako tried to relax into the pose. This is going to get boring without a book to read, she thought glumly. She knew the school’s library had a lot of audio books for the visually impaired students. Maybe I should get one of those. She wondered if Rin would mind her listening to something while she painted. Or if she’d mind drawing Hanako with earphones on.

She decided to occupy herself with plotting out the next scene in the story she was currently writing. She let her eyes go unfocused as she turned her thoughts inward, not seeing the clouds scudding across the sky.

She managed to work out the bare bones of the scene in fifteen minutes or so. Because she wasn’t really watching the outside world, she didn’t immediately notice when her vision began to tunnel, the periphery turning speckled and black. She swayed in place for a moment as her vision faded further, then she dropped to the floor, landing with a sharp thump on her knees. The pain registered vaguely, at a distance, and she slumped sideways, leaning against the side of the comfy chair.

“Hanako?” Rin’s concerned voice sounded far away.

Hanako squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, trying to regain her senses. She felt dizzy, and forced her eyes open again, struggling to remain conscious.

“What’s wrong?” Hanako tried to focus on Rin, but for some reason she couldn’t get her body to respond. She slid from a slumped position against the chair to laying on the model’s plinth.

“Tezuka? Ikezawa? What’s going on?” Nomiya’s harsh voice sounded concerned too, and Hanako fought to focus on the teacher as he bent over her.

“Fell down,” Hanako mumbled.

“She fell,” Rin confirmed.

Nomiya grunted and placed a restraining hand on Hanako’s shoulder as she struggled to sit up. “Stay down, Ikezawa. Tezuka, would you please call…no, never mind, I’ll call the nurse’s office.”

Hanako felt a rush of heat to her face, accompanied by a return of sensation and mental acuity. “Thas n-not…necessary,” she slurred. “’m fine.”

Nomiya snorted as he stood up. “No, you are not, and yes, it is necessary. There are protocols for dealing with fainting students at this school. Tezuka, don’t let her sit up.” He walked back to his office, and Hanako could hear him on the phone as her brain slowly returned to its normal acuity.

“This is…embarrassing,” she muttered to Rin.

Rin was watching her with an uncommonly somber gaze. “You fell.”

“I’m…sorry,” Hanako said, feeling miserable and stupid.

Rin gave her an indecipherable look, then just shook her head.

Hanako closed her eyes, resigned to having to lay still until a nurse arrived. She was feeling physically better, but embarrassment was overwhelming any concern she might have had for why she’d fallen.

“Miss Ikezawa. Are you awake?”

Hanako opened her eyes to find Nurse kneeling beside her, looking concerned. “I’m…fine,” she said. “Just…f-feeling stupid.”

“Can you track my finger?” He held up a finger, and moved it from side to side, then up and down. Hanako followed it without problem. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three. Now one. F-f-four,” Hanako said, as he varied the number of fingers he was displaying.

“Good, good.” He peered intently into her eyes, and she fought to not close them to hide; she knew what he was looking for. “Pupils match, that’s good. Any pain in your head, or nausea?” He took her left wrist in his hand and monitored her pulse.

Hanako sighed. “No. I just…got dizzy and fell. The only p-pain is in my knees.”

“What happened?”

“She fell,” said Rin yet again.

“Yes, but before that?”

“I was m-modeling. For Rin. A…standing pose.”

“Ah.” Understanding blossomed on Nurse’s face, and he nodded. “So you would have been standing motionless for an extended period of time.”

“Y-yes?”

“Did you strike your head as you fell?”

“No.”

“How are your knees?”

“Achy, b-but not…too bad.”

“If I may check?” He didn’t wait for a response, but rested a hand on her right knee, gently palpating it and sliding the patella around. Hanako gritted her teeth against the discomfort she always felt at being touched. “Does that feel any worse when I do that?”

“No,” she replied, since she knew he meant physically, not psychologically. He repeated the process with her left knee, to similar results.

“Do you feel up to sitting up now?”

Hanako nodded and pushed herself up. Nurse placed a protective hand on her back as she did so. She took a deep breath, momentarily worried that she might faint again. But she still felt basically fine. She glanced around the room, to see Nomiya hovering a few meters away, looking equal parts annoyed and concerned. Rin just looked like Rin, a neutral expression on her face as she stared at Hanako.

Nurse studied her face for a moment; then, apparently pleased with what he saw there, he nodded. “Have you had any other incidents like this recently?”

“No. N-never.”

“Good.” He finally smiled. “I think it was simple syncope, brought on by standing still for too long.”

“Syncope?” Hanako asked, startled.

“Fainting brought on by a drop in blood pressure,” Nurse replied.

“I know…w-what syncope is. I meant…why would j-just standing…cause syncope?”

“The movement of blood from the feet up to the rest of the body is in part propelled by the movement of your leg muscles. When you stand for an extended period of time without moving your legs, blood begins to accumulate in your lower extremities, resulting in a loss of blood pressure to the brain. Followed by fainting.”

Hanako frowned. “Then how do…people st-stand still…for long periods?”

“As long as you’re aware of the issue, you can just gently flex your leg muscles periodically as you stand. Keeping a slight bend to your knees can also help, so they aren’t hyperextended, further blocking blood flow.”

Hanako nodded. “All…right.”

“But I would suggest that you call a halt to today’s activities. Or rather, inactivities, in your case.” He flashed her a grin, looking pleased at his witticism.

“But—” Rin began, then she cut herself off.

Nurse looked up at her. “Miss Tezuka?”

Rin shook her head.

Nurse looked back at Hanako. “Would you like to come to my office to rest a while, or return to your own room?”

“M-my room. If…you don’t mind.”

“I wouldn’t have suggested it if I did. Though it might be best if you had company for the next few hours, just to be safe.”

Hanako suppressed a grimace at that. What she wanted right now was to be alone, to get over her embarrassment at being the center of attention for something so trivial. But she knew Nurse felt responsible for her. For all of the students.

“I can stay with her,” Rin spoke up, surprising Hanako.

“D-don’t you…want to stay here…and p-paint?”

Rin stared at her somberly. “It’s my fault you fell.”

“N-no it’s not—” Hanako began to protest.

“It’s no-one’s fault,” Nurse agreed. “It’s just something that happened. But if you’d be willing to accompany her back to her room, that would be a comfort to me.” He gave Rin one of his dazzling smiles, which she accepted with her usual flat stare.

“How l-long should she stay with me?” Hanako asked. She was afraid that if Nurse didn’t set a time limit, Rin would stay with her all night.

“Just a few hours. Say, until dinner time.”

“Okay.”

Nurse helped Hanako stand, and made her wait a minute to be sure she was steady on her feet. Then she sat down on the comfy chair to wait while Rin put away her painting supplies.

She tried to ignore Nurse and Nomiya talking quietly in Nomiya’s office. It sounded like Nurse had some paperwork that needed filling out regarding the incident, and Nomiya was being a little grumpy about it. Sorry, she thought to the art teacher, ashamed at having caused such a disturbance for something so trivial and stupid.

When she noticed Rin slipping her book bag strap over her shoulder, she stood up and got her own bag, and they headed out.

“Y-you don’t really…need to c-come with me,” Hanako protested to Rin as they walked between buildings. She felt guilty about pulling her away from her easel.

Rin shook her head but didn’t say anything.

“It’s r-really…not your fault.”

“But I should stay with you. Nurse said.”

Hanako sighed. Rin could be unexpectedly stubborn about the oddest things. She didn’t reply, and they completed the trip in silence.

Hanako started to feel nervous as they walked up the steps of the dorm. This will be the first time anyone other than Lilly has visited my room. That thought was both unnerving and depressing. Two and a half years here and…no one else? She racked her brain. A few people had knocked on her door, usually to drop off homework she’d missed when she’d slipped out of class early. But no one else had ever entered the room.

It’s not as if I’m hiding anything, she reassured herself. It’s not unbearably messy. But it was her space. The only personal space she’d ever had since before. Always at the orphanages she’d been in a bunk room, or at the least, had had a roommate. She was startled to realize just how possessive she’d become of this little room over the years. But I never mind Lilly coming in. Was that because Lilly couldn’t see her room? Or was it just that Lilly was that important to her? Surely the latter.

And what will I do when I graduate and have to leave? The thought made her shudder, and she shoved it aside.

“Is something wrong?”

Hanako startled at Rin’s voice, and realized she’d been standing outside her room door for a while, key in hand, not moving. “S-s-sorry,” she muttered, blushing. She unlocked the door and pushed it open.

Rin stepped in behind her and slipped off her sandals. Hanako closed the door, and nervously looked at Rin as she slowly scanned the room.

“You have oranges,” Rin observed, looking at a couple of oranges sitting on Hanako’s desk.

“Uh…yes?”

“I have difficulty peeling oranges.”

Hanako considered that. “W-would you like me…to peel you an orange?” she offered hesitantly.

“That would be nice.” Rin dropped her shoulder, letting her book bag fall to the floor with a thump.

Hanako winced, wondering if all of Rin’s textbooks had bent corners. She set her own bag down more gently on the desk, then sat and picked up an orange. A snack does sound good, she thought. She shoved her thumbnail into the skin of the orange, enjoying the acrid scent that burst forth from the puncture. She peeled the orange, split it into sections, then looked at Rin. “How…do you eat this?”

Rin glanced down at her feet, and grimaced. Hanako followed her gaze, and realized that Rin’s feet were rather dirty from walking around the art room barefoot, splashes of paint contrasting with black charcoal marks between her toes from sketching. “Do you have a fork?”

“N-no.” Hanako bit her lip, then offered, “Should I…would you m-mind…if I fed them…to you?”

Rin nodded, and leaned toward Hanako, opening her mouth like a little bird waiting to be fed. Hanako had to choke back a giggle at that mental image, and she popped a slice of orange into Rin’s mouth. Rin closed her eyes as she chewed on the orange. She swallowed, and opened her mouth again, without opening her eyes. Hanako obliged her with another slice, moving carefully so as to not touch Rin’s lips.

Hanako was glad Rin kept her eyes closed, because it allowed her to examine Rin’s face without embarrassment while she fed her. At first Hanako thought Rin’s expression was as unchanging as ever, but eventually she realized that it had softened a little, as if she were enjoying the taste. Hanako was glad she could provide such a simple sensual pleasure to Rin.

Eventually, Rin finished the orange. “That’s…the l-last bite,” Hanako informed her, as she slid the last slice into Rin’s mouth. Rin nodded slowly as she chewed, then opened her eyes after swallowing.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Hanako replied with a smile.

“How are you feeling?”

Hanako sighed. “I’m fine.”

“You should lay down.”

Hanako suppressed a grimace. “Truly, I’m f-fine. I…walked over here…without p-problems, right?”

Rin cocked her head, as if considering that. Then she nodded. “Okay. Then may I lay down?”

“Uh…on my b-bed?”

“It would be more comfortable than the floor.”

Hanako couldn’t think of a reason to refuse. “Okay,” she said reluctantly.

Rin walked over to the bed and sat down, then lay down, curling up on her side. Without further conversation or ado, she closed her eyes, apparently intending to take a nap.

Hanako stared at her, bemused. Why did you come to keep an eye on me if you’re just going to sleep? she wondered, but she didn’t voice the question. If she did, Rin might feel compelled to stay awake, and then what would they do together? Talk?

She sighed and set her own book bag on her desk. She sat down and pulled out her class notes and textbooks, then paused. She thought about the story plot she’d been thinking about before she passed out.

I really should do homework first…

But she wanted to at least jot down the basic ideas she’d had before she forgot them. She pulled out the notebook she wrote her fiction in and opened it up. Just get a rough outline down, then do homework, she told herself.

A half hour later, she sat back and stretched, feeling vaguely guilty about how long she’d spent working on something that wasn’t homework. She glanced over at the bed, and was startled to find Rin’s eyes were open, and she was staring at Hanako. “Ah! Y-you’re awake.”

Rin didn’t bother to respond to that statement of the obvious. She rose from the bed, and stepped over to peer over Hanako’s shoulder. Hanako defensively shut her notebook.

“You were writing,” Rin observed.

“Y-yes.”

“Was it homework?”

“No.”

Rin nodded. “I didn’t think so.”

“Why…not?”

“You were enjoying yourself too much.”

Hanako blinked, startled that her pleasure had been externally evident.

“I’d like to paint you writing sometime,” Rin added. “It makes you look more like you.”

Hanako didn’t quite understand what Rin meant by that, but she still blushed. “It’s just…silly stories,” she muttered, looking away from Rin.

Rin didn’t respond to that, and Hanako risked looking back at her. She was staring at Hanako with disturbing intensity. “W-what?” she asked nervously.

“Your birds don’t get lost. You write them down on paper.”

“Ah…” Hanako considered that for a moment, remembering Rin’s metaphor about the birds of her thoughts. “I…guess so?”

Rin nodded. “I’m glad.”

“I guess…m-me too,” Hanako admitted. She had no illusion that her stories were any great literary works, but writing them brought her pleasure.

“May I read what you’ve written?” Rin asked, and Hanako immediately tensed up again. She resisted the urge to pick up her notebook and clutch it to her chest defensively.

“N-n-no…I…that is…” she floundered for a moment. “I’ve never…finished anything,” she offered weakly, trying to discourage Rin’s interest.

“Have you never finished, or just never abandoned them?”

Hanako snorted. “M-my stories…aren’t art. They’re just…doodles.”

Rin frowned. “I…don’t do words. But…doodles can become art.”

“M-maybe. Someday. If I…work at it,” Hanako conceded.

Rin nodded approvingly. “Working at it is good.”

Hanako glanced at her stack of textbooks, and sighed. “Speaking of w-work…I should do homework.” She glanced at Rin. “We should d-do homework?” she offered hesitantly, recalling Emi coaxing Rin to do her homework.

Rin glanced at her book bag, then she also sighed. “I guess so. If I can’t be painting.” She slipped her foot through the strap of her book bag and dragged it over next to the bed. She sat down and leaned back against the bed as she began to pull out her books.

“W-would you like…to use the desk?”

Rin shook her head. “The floor is easier for me.”

"Okay.”

Hanako watched curiously as Rin pulled out papers and books and began to read through a textbook, pausing now and then to make a note in a notebook. Somehow, writing seemed like a whole different level of accomplishment from painting. It did require more fine motor control, though from what she could see, Rin’s writing was rather sloppy and difficult to read.

She tore her attention away from Rin and started on her own work.

A couple of hours later, Rin stood up and walked over to look over Hanako’s shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“M-math.” She waved at the page. “D-do you…understand this?” she asked, not that she had high hopes.

Rin glanced at the page and shook her head. “I’ve barely understood anything in math this year.”

“That’s…not good. What if you f-fail…the Center Test?”

“Art schools have different admission standards.”

Lucky you. Hanako looked back at the page, and closed her textbook with a sigh. I wonder if I could ask Hisao about this. He seemed interested in science, and math was…related, right?

“W-we should get dinner.” And hopefully, afterwards Rin would return to her own room.

Rin nodded, and stepped into her sandals. “W-would you like me…to pick up your book bag for you?” Hanako asked nervously. She hoped Rin wouldn’t take offense at the offer. She knew Emi did things like that for Rin occasionally, but the two of them seemed to have worked out an understanding between them over the years.

“Please,” said Rin.

There was no hint of annoyance on her face, but then again, there was rarely any sort of expression on Rin’s face. Hanako bit her lip as she lifted the strap of the book bag and draped it over Rin’s shoulder. “D-do you mind…my offering that?” she asked. Some people were sensitive about their disabilities, and the limitations that came with them. Even Lilly occasionally got drily sarcastic at her when she wrongly assumed Lilly couldn’t do something because she was blind.

“No.” Rin’s expression didn’t change, and she didn’t seem to feel a need to expand upon that simple negative.

"Um. G-good.” They left the room, then Hanako waited a minute while Rin went to her room to drop off her bag.

As they walked to the cafeteria, Rin said, “I should paint you in a reclining pose.”

Hanako flushed. “I w-won’t…pass out again. N-now that I know…what to do.”

“Hrm.” They walked in silence for another minute before Rin added, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Hanako sighed. “I’ll be c-careful.” She was simultaneously annoyed and touched by Rin’s concern for her.

Rin paused outside the door to the cafeteria. She turned and looked Hanako seriously in the face. Hanako wondered if she was waiting for her to open the door, but it was a push-bar door; she’d seen Rin hip-check her way through it without issue before. “W-what?”

Rin looked like she was about to say something. And then she didn’t, simply turning and pushing her way through the door.

What? Hanako wondered.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:07 pm

Hanako managed to complete the standing pose without passing out again, although she wondered if Rin rushed things a little for her sake, since she only spent another couple of hours on that painting before going to the next one.

The next pose wasn’t as difficult—sitting again, despite Hanako’s reassurance that standing was fine. The difficulties came when Rin positioned her easel on Hanako’s right side and asked her to brush her hair back behind her ear.

“Why w-would you…want that?”

“So I can see your face.”

Hanako winced. “C-can’t you paint…my left side?”

“Yes.”

Hanako waited a moment for Rin to say something else, or to move her easel to her left. Then she realized Rin was simply responding to a hypothetical. She sighed, feeling slightly aggrieved. “W-would you please…paint my left side?”

“But I want to paint this side.”

Why? W-why do you want to paint…my right side?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Rin looked puzzled.

Hanako stared at Rin, trying to determine if she was joking or not. But she appeared to be sincere. “B-because of…” she waved a hand at her face. “My scars?”

“But…they’re part of you. Part of what makes you unique.”

Hanako grimaced. “Unique,” she muttered bitterly.

“Yes. Your unique beauty.”

Hanako shuddered. There was that word again.

Rin cocked her head, frowning slightly. “Why do you flinch when I say that?”

Hanako considered pretending that she didn’t know what Rin was referring to, but she knew Rin would probably just persist in asking until she got an answer that satisfied her. For someone who could be so oblique and opaque in answering questions asked of her, Rin could sometimes be annoyingly persistent in probing for answers to her questions.

“I…I know I'm n-not…b-b-beautiful,” Hanako whispered. “You don’t have to waste that word on m-me. I d-don't like hearing it…applied t-to me.”

Rin’s frown deepened. “But that's not true,” she said, sounding almost angry. It was the most manifest emotion Hanako had ever heard in Rin’s voice. “You are beautiful.”

Hanako shook her head. “No. I…” She continued to shake her head. “N-no. J-just…” Rin’s frown remained fixed on her, and suddenly Hanako felt she couldn’t breathe. “No…” She was struck speechless, her teeth chattering slightly, as she stared back at Rin. Why does she really want to do this? she wondered helplessly.

“All right,” Rin said suddenly, breaking their silence. “How would you like to pose?”

“Ahh…” Hanako was startled at having the awkward discussion simply dropped, and the decision of how to pose tossed back at her. “I…don’t know. I just…” She stared down at her lap, letting her hair fall forward to hide her face. “Anyth-thing…but this.” She waved a hand at the right side of her face.

“Is how you are now okay?”

Hanako considered it. She knew almost none of her face was visible at the moment, nothing but hair, which was nice. But at the same time, she could tell that her neck would very quickly get sore if she had to hold this position for hours. She sighed and looked back up at Rin. “N-no. I d-don’t know. I g-guess…” She felt weary, unable to push back much more.

Set your limits, she imagined Lilly saying. But I’m not sure exactly where my limits are, she thought bleakly. She’d thought she was okay with Rin painting her scars, but the first few paintings hadn’t shown as much as Rin was asking for now. “I’m n-not…comfortable. Showing so m-much,” she said quietly.

Rin’s face was almost as expressionless as usual, but Hanako thought she detected a hint of sadness there. Or maybe disappointment. “Okay. Then you choose,” Rin repeated.

Hanako closed her eyes and tried to visualize what she looked like from the point of view where Rin’s easel currently was. She tried to settle her body into a comfortable position, one she could hold for hours. Then hesitantly, slowly, she reached up and brushed her hair back over her shoulder. Not back behind her ear, not fully exposing her face, but showing more than a simple cascade of hair along her right side. Her heart was pounding at her choice. She bit her lip and looked at Rin. “Is th-this…okay?”

“I don’t know. Is it?”

Hanako considered it some more. “You…won’t…m-make me l-look…hideous, will you?” she asked, her heart in her throat.

Rin looked puzzled. “How could I?”

Hanako gave a bleak laugh. “Quite…easily. J-just paint…what you see.”

Rin shook her head. “Which is why I couldn’t.” A small frown furrowed her forehead, and she stared at the floor, obviously thinking hard for a minute. Hanako waited patiently for her to put her thoughts into words. Finally, Rin looked up at Hanako, and simply said, “Trust me.”

Hanako sucked in a sharp breath at that simple request. Trust her? She contemplated that, and realized that she did trust Rin, or she wouldn’t have been here in the first place. “I…do,” she whispered.

Rin gave a single, sharp nod. “Good.” She stared at Hanako for another moment, as if waiting to see if there was anything else to be said, then she moved back to her seat behind the easel. “Don’t move,” she admonished.

Hanako almost laughed at Rin’s sudden return to focused painter mode.

Don’t move, and trust her. She opened up her book, and tried to put the last few minutes’ unsettling conversation out of her mind.


_______________________


After her modeling session with Rin, Hanako had dinner with Lilly. They were returning to the dorm after dinner when Lilly asked, “Do you have time for tea with me this evening?”

Hanako smiled. “Y-yes. I don’t have…too much homework.”

Lilly nodded. “That’s good. I have…I have some news I need to share with you.”

Hanako’s smile vanished, and she tensed. “Oh?”

“It’s…well, I can’t say it’s not bad news, but…” Lilly sighed, apparently picking up on Hanako’s tension. As they arrived back at their rooms, Lilly said, “Come in, let’s not wait on this.”

Hanako followed Lilly into her room and sat nervously in her usual spot at the low table. Lilly seated herself opposite her and smiled at Hanako. “What…is it you wanted…to tell me?” Hanako asked.

“I’ve received some bad news from my parents. One of my aunts is rather ill, and they want me to go to Scotland to see her.”

“Oh, no! W-will she be…okay?”

“I’m not sure. I hope so. She’s in the hospital, and her condition is stable.”

“W-when will you be…going?”

“That’s the other bad news. I’m afraid I’ll have to leave this Saturday, and I’ll be gone for at least a week. Which means I won’t be here for your birthday.”

Hanako shuddered. She wasn’t sure if Lilly being absent for her birthday counted as bad news, though she knew Lilly thought it was. “I…see.”

“So I was thinking, if you don’t mind, might we celebrate it early? Maybe tomorrow evening?”

Hanako considered that. Sooner was probably better. More removed from the actual day. She hadn’t been expecting much of a “celebration” in any event, but she suspected Lilly might give her a gift again. And maybe cake. “That…would be…nice,” she whispered. “Do you know…when you’ll be back?”

Lilly shook her head. “It depends upon how my aunt is doing, and what my parents want.” She smiled. “It will be good to see them.”

“It’s been…several years for you…hasn’t it?”

“Yes.” A small frown passed across Lilly’s face, but then her usual placid smile returned. “I was thinking of asking Akira to join us tomorrow night, if you wouldn’t mind?”

Hanako smiled a little at that. Akira was nice. She was loud and brash and slightly intimidating, but she never treated Hanako any differently than she did anyone else, which she greatly appreciated. “I think…I’d like that.”

“Excellent. Is there anyone else you’d like to have join us?”

Hanako couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily coming to a party for her; even Akira would likely attend solely as a favor to her sister. “N-no…”

“What about Rin? You’ve been spending a fair bit of time with her lately.”

“Um…” That notion gave her momentary pause. “I…don’t know,” she said dubiously.

“Would you like me to ask her? At worst, she’ll say no.”

No, at worst she’ll attend solely out of pity for the poor friendless orphan, Hanako thought, but she couldn’t really believe that of Rin. Rin was painfully blunt. If she didn’t want to come, she would simply say no. “M-maybe…”

Lilly smiled, apparently taking that for assent. “Then I’ll ask her.”

Hanako felt something tighten in her chest at that, but she wasn’t quite sure what the emotion was. Something like fear, but nowhere near as dark. Maybe…anticipation?

Maybe…

Hanako dragged her thoughts back to Lilly’s earlier statement. She bit her lip, then voiced her worry. “Will you be…returning to Yamaku?”

“Of course. Even if…” Lilly paused, and took a deep breath. “Even if the worst happens, and I have to stay a little longer for a funeral, I’ll be back eventually.”

“Good. I hope it d-doesn’t come to that…but I’m glad you’ll be back.”

Lilly smiled. “Of course I will,” she repeated. “So, should we do tea now, or would you like to get together in a few hours after we’ve finished our homework?”

Hanako considered the question, and sighed regretfully. “I w-wasn’t able to…work on homework this afternoon. So I p-probably should do that…first.”

Lilly grimaced, then smiled ruefully. “When did you become the voice of academic reason?” She rose from the floor, and Hanako followed suit. “Then, I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Yes.” Hanako let herself out and returned to her own room. She sat down at her desk, and considered Lilly’s news. Although part of her was worried on Lilly’s behalf for her aunt, she was more worried about Lilly being half a world away from her. What if she reconciles with her family, and doesn’t return? She shuddered at the notion, then pushed it firmly aside. She said she’d return. She tried to believe that. Sighing, she pulled out her textbooks, and settled down to work.


_______________________


Hanako took a breath to steady her nerves and tapped lightly on Lilly’s door. “Come in, Hanako,” Lilly called out.

She entered Lilly’s room, and was surprised to find Rin was already there, sitting at the low table in the middle of the room. “Happy birthday, Hanako,” Lilly said with a smile. Hanako wondered if she imagined the note of relief in Lilly’s voice. How long Rin had been there, and how well had she and Lilly been getting along?

She was surprised to see that Rin was still in her school uniform. She and Lilly had changed into their sleep wear—a long pink night gown for her, blue silky pajama shorts and shirt for Lilly. She wondered why Rin hadn’t changed. Or maybe she just sleeps in her underwear, she thought, suddenly remembering what Rin had been wearing when she’d visited her while sick. Or nude… Somehow, that didn’t seem too unlikely a choice for Rin.

Rin nodded to her, her normally flat expression looking a little warmer than usual. “Happy Birthday,” she echoed.

Hanako smiled back shyly, feeling a bloom of warmth at the greetings. “Come, sit,” Lilly invited her. “Akira said that she hopes she’ll be able to come by, but she might not be able to because of work.”

Hanako sat down next to Rin. “Th-that’s too bad.”

“Would you care for some tea?” There was a steaming pot sitting on the table, along with three empty cups.

“Yes…please.”

“And you, Rin?”

“Yes.”

Lilly poured the tea, and Hanako noticed that Rin watched her intently, apparently intrigued by how Lilly operated without sight. Lilly slid the cups and saucers across the table to Hanako and Rin, then she frowned. “Ah…can you handle this teacup with your feet? I’m sorry, I have no idea how you normally manage.”

“W-would a straw…be easier?” Hanako asked.

Lilly made a little moue of distaste at the notion of drinking hot tea with a straw, but Rin shook her head. She leaned back against the bed, raising both feet to the table to lift the tea cup. She cautiously cradled the cup between her feet, then nodded. “It’s not too hot.”

“This tea brews at a lower temperature, to preserve the delicate notes,” Lilly said.

Hanako raised her cup to her face and inhaled. “It sm-smells…lovely,” she said to Lilly. It was a beautiful pale green, and smelled slightly smoky and sweet. She took a small sip. Rin did likewise, and Hanako was surprised to see a small smile cross her face.

“Have you b-been here…long?” she asked Rin.

“Eighteen years and almost four months,” Rin answered.

Lilly looked as nonplussed by that response as Hanako felt. “Er…I m-meant, here in Lilly’s room.”

Rin looked thoughtful. “I didn’t look at the clock when I came in, but it feels like half an hour. Unless I’ve already managed to forget part of this visit. Which I might have, since this room is a bit dull.”

Hanako blushed, embarrassed by Rin’s blunt assessment of Lilly’s room. Lilly looked momentarily startled into silence. “Lilly…doesn’t have m-much use for…paintings and such. On her walls,” Hanako said, defending her friend.

“I hadn’t thought of that. Which means I should view this room as an exercise in visual minimalism instead of simply boring.”

“That would certainly be a more polite assessment, yes,” said Lilly, a touch sharply.

A flicker of a frown passed across Rin’s face. “Was I rude?”

“A l-little,” Hanako said.

Rin seemed to absorb that assessment for a moment, then she said, “Sorry.”

Hanako saw Lilly’s shoulders drop a little at that apology, and she smiled. “Thank you for that. Apology accepted.”

“I’m glad, since I wouldn’t know what to do with it if you didn’t accept it. Maybe save it for later? I seem to use a lot of apologies.”

Three sharp raps on the door made Hanako jump. Before Lilly could reply or answer the door, it opened.

“Akira Satou is in the house! Happy birthday, Hanako!” She beamed at Hanako.

Hanako smiled back. “Th-thank you…Akira,” grateful for both the birthday greetings and the distraction from the awkward conversation.

Lilly smiled toward her sister, also looking a little grateful. “Akira. I’m glad you managed to get away from work.”

Akira sat down at the table with a small, tired grunt. “Not for long, I’m afraid—I’ve got to head back almost immediately. But I wanted to say happy birthday, and give Hanako my present.” Hanako noticed for the first time that Akira had a shopping bag with her, which clinked interestingly when she set it on the table.

“Th-thank you, Akira,” she repeated.

Akira cocked her head and give Rin a curious glance. “And who’s your friend?”

Hanako tried to make introductions, something she didn’t have much experience with. “Ah…th-this is Rin Tezuka. She’s an artist. Rin, this is…Akira Satou. L-lilly’s…older sister.”

“Heya, Rin. Nice to meetcha.”

Rin stared at Akira. “I thought you were Lilly’s brother, at first.”

Hanako winced at that, but Akira laughed. “Yeah, I get that sometimes. It’s not like I don’t kinda lean into that perception, what with my haircut and suit.”

“True,” said Lilly.

“But I’m afraid I really can’t stay long, so, before I go…” She reached into the bag she’d set down and pulled out two bottles, both labeled in French.

Hanako realized with a shock that they were wine bottles, one white, one red. “Akira…isn’t that, ah…” she trailed off, not wanting to sound ungrateful for her gift, but not sure how to react to this illicit present.

“What is it?” asked Lilly.

“Wine,” supplied Rin. “Good wine, too,” she added, surprising Hanako.

Akira arched an eyebrow at Rin. “You know wines?”

Rin hesitated a moment, then said, “My father likes wine.”

“Akira…that’s possibly not…” Lilly trailed off, looking concerned.

“Relax, sis, it’s not like Shizune is lurking in the closet, waiting to jump out and arrest you.” Hanako couldn’t help but glance nervously at Lilly’s closet door at that comment, but it remained closed.

“So, you are aware we are under-aged for drinking?” Lilly asked drily.

“Yeah, yeah, but this is a special occasion.” She flashed a brilliant smile at Hanako. “It’s your birthday!”

Hanako couldn’t help but smile back for a moment before blushing and looking down. She was curious about the wine, she had to admit. It wasn’t something she’d ever had a chance to try.

Lilly gave a resigned sigh. “Very well. But please don’t breathe a word of this to anyone at school.”

“Hey, I’m not stupid,” Akira protested. “But anyway, I gotta run.”

“So soon?”

“Yeah, sorry,” Akira said, as she rose from the floor. “But happy birthday, Hanako. And nice to meet you, Rin.

“G-goodbye…Akira,” Hanako said. Rin just gave another minuscule nod.

Akira let herself out of the room, leaving Hanako and Rin staring at the bottles, while Lilly pinched the bridge of her nose, apparently thinking. At last, she sighed. “Well…it’s not going to just disappear. I know it's a bit questionable, but a drink or two shouldn't hurt. Would you ladies care to partake in some wine?”

Hanako giggled and Rin looked nonplussed at being called a lady. “Yes. B-but how d-do we…open them?”

“Corkscrew,” said Rin.

“Which is not an implement I own,” Lilly said. “I wonder if Akira truly thought this through. In more ways than one.”

Hanako pulled the bag the bottles had been in over to her and peeked inside. "She b-brought one.” She reached in and pulled it out.

"Do you know how to use it?”

“N-not…really.” She’d seen corkscrews used in movies and TV shows, but that wasn’t exactly an instruction manual.

“I know,” said Rin, surprising Hanako. “But I’ve never done it.”

“Er. Yes. I guess that would be somewhat…problematic for you,” Lilly conceded. “Could you talk Hanako through the process?”

Hanako wondered if it might be easier for her to figure it out on her own, but Rin nodded. “The top needs to be naked.”

“P-pardon?”

“The…foil. At the top.” Rin reached up and tapped a toe at the top of the red wine bottle. “Cut it off.”

Hanako pulled the bottle over to her, then looked at the corkscrew. She realized that there was a small blade folded into one end of it, like a pocketknife. Hesitantly, she pried it out, and tried to figure out how to cut the foil with it.

“Cut its throat,” Rin suggested.

Hanako blinked, then nodded. She drew the blade across the foil just below the top of the bottle. The foil was surprisingly easy to cut, and she peeled it back away from the top.

Rin continued to walk her though the steps, and in short order, they had two bottles of open wine on the table. “I’ll g-get…glasses,” Hanako said, rising from the table. She slipped downstairs to the dorm kitchen. Of course, there were no wine glasses to be had, but she found three small tumblers which she thought would suffice.

When she returned to the room, she was surprised to find that the tea set had been cleared away, and a cake was sitting in the middle of the table, along with the wine and two gift-wrapped boxes.

“Oh! Cake!” she said happily.

“It is a birthday celebration. What would it be without cake?” Lilly asked with a smile.

“Cakeless,” said Rin helpfully.

Lilly hesitated only a moment at Rin’s response. “Indeed,” she agreed.

Hanako suppressed a giggle as she wondered if Lilly was slowly growing used to Rin. “I’m g-glad it’s not…cakeless. Thank you.” She sat down and set the glasses in front of her. “Should we start w-with…red or white wine?” she asked.

“Red,” said Rin.

Hanako was surprised that she had such an immediate opinion. “Have you…had w-wine before?” she asked.

Rin nodded. “My father sometimes serves it with dinner.”

"Is r-red…okay with you, Lilly?”

Lilly nodded. “I’ve had little experience with wine. I will defer to Rin’s tastes.”

As Hanako poured three glasses of red wine, she asked, “Why r-red first?”

Rin pointed her chin at the cake. “Red pairs better with chocolate.”

“Speaking of which, shall we have some?” Lilly asked.

“Yes, please,” Hanako said.

After Lilly had cut and served the cake, she found her glass of wine and raised it in a toast. “Happy birthday, Hanako!” Rin didn’t echo the toast, but she nodded in agreement, and she even had a small smile on her face as she did so.

Hanako blushed and hid her happy embarrassment behind her wine glass. “Th-thank you both,” she said, then sipped the wine. She was surprised to find that the taste was agreeable, then she shuddered as she swallowed; the alcohol burned a little as it went down. She glanced at Lilly and Rin to see if what they thought of this forbidden fruit.

Lilly was smiling, as if she were pleased with the drink. Rin was looking thoughtful. She raised the glass to her face and sniffed the wine before taking a second sip. She nodded as she swallowed. “Nice.”

Thus encouraged, Hanako took another sip of wine. Then the allure of chocolate overcame the novelty of alcohol, and she set down the glass, and picked up her fork. The cake was delicious, and she made short work of it. She looked up to find that Lilly was nearly as fast as she was in eating it. Rin, as always, was slower at eating.

Lilly set down her fork and picked her wine back up. “Now that Akira's gift has been opened and tasted, shall we move on to the others?”

“You d-didn’t have to…get me p-presents,” Hanako protested out of habit, though secretly she had been hoping for such.

“Nonsense,” said Lilly cheerfully. She moved her hand slowly across the table until she bumped into a package. She ran her hand over the wrapping and bow, then picked it up. “Here you go,” she said as she held out the package toward Hanako.

Hanako quickly moved the white wine bottle out of the way of the oncoming package before accepting it from Lilly. She examined the present curiously. It was heavier than she’d expected. “Sh-should I open it?”

“Of course.”

Hanako untied the ribbon and set it aside, then unwrapped the present. Inside was a leather-bound book and a smaller box. “How…lovely,” she exclaimed, pulling out the book. She could smell the book’s binding, the rich scent of real leather. There was no title on the cover, so she opened it, curious as to what Lilly might have thought to be an appropriate book for her. "A b-blank book?”

Lilly smiled. “Yes, for your writing. Did you open the smaller box?”

“N-not yet.” Hanako pulled out the long slender box, and prised it open. It was hinged along the long edge. Inside lay a glossy black pen, looking heavy and imposing. “Ah! A writing…kit.” She picked up the pen, and pulled off the cap. It was a fountain pen, and the size and weight of it felt good in her hand. “Th-thank you, Lilly. I’ll…try to write stories…w-worthy of these.”

“I have no doubt you will,” Lilly said.

Hanako looked over at Rin, who was looking at the pen and book with an indecipherable expression on her face. “Odd, that we should think alike,” she murmured.

“Oh? Why don’t you give her your present, then,” Lilly suggested.

Rin reached up a foot and slid her present across the table to Hanako. Hanako took the package, slightly larger than the one from Lilly, and opened it. Inside lay a sketchbook with a bamboo brush and ink set. She looked up at Rin, slightly confused. “Th-thank you?”

“It’s also for your words. Calligraphy,” Rin explained.

"Th-thank you,” Hanako repeated, unsure how to tell Rin that she had no idea of how to do brush calligraphy. She hadn’t done any since sixth grade art class.

“What is it?” asked Lilly.

“A sketchbook and a…b-brush. And ink,” Hanako told her.

“Rika can show you how to do it,” Rin said.

“Rika?” Hanako didn’t recognize the name.

“The second-year ghost girl. She does shodo. Brush calligraphy.”

Lilly coughed delicately. “I believe you mean Katayama. She’s albino, not a ghost.”

Hanako couldn’t picture herself asking a stranger to teach her calligraphy, but she was touched that Rin, too, had thought of a present having to do with writing.

“She’s usually at the art club meetings,” Rin said.

“R-really?” Hanako asked nervously. She picked up her wine and took another large sip. The burning sensation seemed to be lessening the more she drank, leaving just the pleasant taste. “M-maybe…I’ll ask her,” she said, the wine giving her a little courage. Though she was fairly certain that her courage wouldn’t last until Monday.

She started to take another sip, only to realize that her glass was empty. She refilled it, and topped off the other two glasses while she was at it. Rin nodded her thanks as she picked up the glass, sipping delicately at the rich red wine. She stared at the glass, a thoughtful look on her face.

“What are y-you…thinking, Rin?” Hanako asked curiously.

“Burgundy red paint isn’t quite the same color as real burgundy,” Rin replied. “I’d like to paint these colors.”

Lilly smiled. “I’m sorry that I can’t appreciate your art,” she said to Rin. “Though Hanako makes it sound fascinating.”

Rin shrugged. “Most people don’t appreciate my art anyway, even if they can see it.”

“I d-do,” Hanako protested.

Rin cocked her head and regarded Hanako curiously. “You do?”

Hanako nodded vigorously. “I may n-not always…understand it…but I appreciate it. I l-like it.”

Rin smiled. Hanako smiled back. She took another sip of her own wine—it was definitely going down easier, the more she drank of it. She felt warm and happy, and she could feel herself relaxing. I had better not get drunk, she thought, though she wasn’t sure if two bottles of wine were enough to get three people drunk.

She put aside the two books and writing implements. “Thank you…both. For such thoughtful g-gifts,” she said with a smile.

“You’re welcome,” said Lilly, and Rin nodded.

Lilly told her about her trip into the city, her quest to find a gift for Hanako. Hanako was embarrassed but touched that Lilly would spend a whole afternoon looking for a gift for her. As she and Lilly talked, Rin watched them with a small smile on her face. She held the tumbler of red wine cupped between her feet. Occasionally she lifted the glass and took a small sip, but for the most part she seemed content to just sit and listen to Lilly and Hanako chat. Hanako felt a little guilty that Rin wasn’t more involved in the conversation, but then again, Rin had never been much of a talker. Even by Hanako’s standards. But she looked relaxed, even happy, so that was good. Hanako wondered if the alcohol was responsible for Rin’s unusual level of emotional display.

As the evening wore on, Hanako tried to keep track of how many glasses of wine each of them had, but she lost count after three. She noticed that Rin was still sipping the red wine, while she and Lilly had moved on to the white. Rin was slouching against the side of the bed, looking mellow. “You l-look like…you’re enjoying the wine,” Hanako observed.

“Indeed,” said Lilly, not knowing that Hanako was addressing Rin. Rin simply nodded in response. “Do you like it, Hanako?” Lilly asked.

“Y-yes. It’s…nicer than I expected.” She took another sip of the white wine and added, “This is…nicer than the r-red. Sweeter.”

“I suspect Akira chose wines that would be suitable for our, ah, naïve palates.”

“I left my palette by my easel,” Rin said.

Hanako giggled.

“Er, no, I meant—” Lilly began.

“That was a joke,” Rin explained. Her deadpan delivery made Hanako giggle all the more.

“Ah. Of course.” Lilly looked slightly abashed at having missed that, but she managed a smile.

Rin’s eyes began to drift shut, and she set down her glass of wine, folding her legs back under her. She seemed to be listing a little to the side, making Hanako wonder how drunk she was.

“I th-thought you…had drank wine b-before,” Hanako said. Then she frowned. “Drank wine? D-drunk wine?” She wasn’t sure which was the correct word.

“Drunk Hanako?” suggested Lilly with a giggle.

Rin forced her eyes open and blinked slowly. “My father only let me have a quarter of a glass now and then with meals.” Her head seemed a little loose on her neck, wobbling around from side-to-side.

“I see.” Hanako had assumed that Rin, having had experience with alcohol, was a veteran drinker. Apparently not.

Lilly put a hand on top of the table to push herself upright, then she slowly stood. It took her two tries, but she achieved verticality eventually. She stood, feet planted wide, swaying slightly in place. “I,” she announced solemnly, “Need to urinate.”

Hanako giggled at the incongruity of those words delivered so seriously.

Lilly looked offended at Hanako’s giggle. “Issa perfectly natural function,” she said in the same sententious tone of voice. She staggered toward the bedroom door, swaying the whole way. She had her hands out in front of her, and she bumped into the wall a meter to the right of the door. “Where’d the door go?” she asked querulously. She began patting the wall, working her way to the right.

“The other d-direction,” Hanako told her, still giggling.

“Of course,” said Lilly, as she reversed direction back toward the door.

Hanako pushed herself to her feet, not feeling any more stable on her feet than Lilly looked. “I’ll c-come with you.” She took a deep breath, trying to regain her equilibrium.

Rin also stood up, only to immediately fall over backwards onto Lilly’s bed. “I think I’ll stay right here,” she mumbled, closing her eyes.

Hanako reached out to offer Rin a hand to help her sit up, then realized that Rin couldn’t take her hand. “S-sorry,” she said, but since Rin’s eyes were closed, she hadn’t seen her faux pas. “D-do you n-need to…g-go to the b-bathroom too?” she asked.

“Mmm. Maybe?”

“Then you sh-should…come with us.”

“Don’t wanna,” Rin mumbled.

“I d-don’t think Lilly would…appreciate…you w-wetting her bed.”

“Indeed not,” exclaimed Lilly, who had finally found both the door and her cane.

Rin opened her eyes, and stared at the ceiling. “Okay,” she said, but she didn’t move.

“D-do you need a hand…g-getting up?” Hanako asked.

Rin nodded and flapped her arm stubs. “Two hands would be nice.”

Hanako giggled and blushed at her poor word choice. “Here. Lemme…” she bent forward to try to put a hand under Rin’s armpit and pull her upright. Somehow, she managed to do so without falling over herself, resulting in her and Rin standing beside Lilly’s bed, swaying in place.

“Ladies? Shall we be off?” asked Lilly from the doorway. “Nature is calling.”

Rin nodded. “Yeah. I can hear it.” Which made Hanako giggle again. Everything seemed to be amusing this evening. Rin was leaning toward the bed, so Hanako put an arm around her shoulder for their mutual stability.

It wasn’t until they were all out the door that it occurred to Hanako that it might not be the best idea to be seen drunk in public. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the hall at the moment, so she said to Rin, “Shhh. We n-need to appear…sssssober.”

“I am perfeckly sober,” said Lilly, as she caromed off the wall. Hanako fought down yet another giggle again at Lilly’s antics.

They made it to the bathroom without meeting anyone else, much to Hanako’s relief. That relief was short-lived when the door on one of the shower stalls opened, and Emi stepped out, towel draped over her shoulders and a shower caddy in her hand.

“Hey, there,” she said genially, then she did a double-take as she saw Lilly stagger towards a toilet stall, looking like she was walking into the wind. Then she noticed Rin and Hanako, propping each other up. She frowned. “Are you guys all right?”

“We are perfectly fine,” Lilly reassured her loftily. “We are just in need of the facilities.” She found her way into a stall and plopped down on the toilet seat without closing the door, her cane clattering to the floor beside her. Then she groaned, forced herself back to her feet, and pushed down her pajama shorts and panties before sitting down heavily again.

Emi stared wide-eyed at this anomalous behavior for a moment before turning away quickly so as to not watch Lilly. She looked at Hanako and Rin. “Are you guys plastered?” she asked incredulously.

“Of c-coursh not.”

“Very,” said Rin.

Emi snorted. “I never thought I’d see the day I’d get a straighter answer out of Rin than out of you,” she said to Hanako.

“Just a lil…t-t-t-tipsy,” Hanako conceded.

“Will y’help me to the toilet?” Rin asked Emi.

Emi sighed and rolled her eyes, but she set down her shower caddy and towel on the counter. “C’mere. If you guys were gonna have a party, you coulda at least invited me,” she grumbled, as she guided Rin into another stall.

Hanako staggered after them, taking the next stall over. She wondered why the toilets were uphill from the sinks. “Ish Hanako’s birthday party,” she heard Rin explain to Emi.

“Really? Happy birthday, Hanako,” Emi called.

“T’anks.” Hanako managed to latch the stall door behind her, unlike Lilly. She hiked her nightie up around her waist before shoving her panties down, then whimpered as her nightie fell back down. She rucked it up again, and finally managed to sit. Her relief was intense, both psychologically and physically.

Needs attended to, she exited the stall and made her way to the sinks to wash. For some reason, the sinks were now uphill from the toilet stalls. Emi was there with Rin, washing her hands, which puzzled Hanako. “Do you w-wipe her privates for her?” she asked, her inhibitions destroyed by the alcohol.

Emi snorted. “No, but I pressed the buttons on the washlet for her. Which is enough to make me want to wash my hands.”

“I never wash m’hands after using the bathroom,” Rin said blandly.

Hanako giggled, then felt bad for giggling, which for some reason just made her laugh all the more. She felt a little reassured when Emi chuckled along with her, and she saw Rin had a small smile on her face.

Hands washed, she looked to Lilly, who was standing at the sink next to hers. “Are y-you ready…to go back t’your room?” she asked.

Lilly jumped, as if startled by the question. “Hmm? Oh. Yes. Let us return. I believe there is still some wine left in the second bottle.”

“Wine, eh?” said Emi.

Lilly turned her face towards Emi. “Emi? When did you get here?”

Emi sighed. “I’ve been here. Let’s get you party girls to your beds.”

Hanako’s first instinct was to protest that notion, but then she realized that bed sounded incredibly appealing just now. She nodded, her head loose and wobbly. “Yessss…all right.”

As they headed back down the hall, they first dropped off Rin at her room, then Lilly, and finally Hanako. Hanako was fuzzily impressed with how adept Emi was at shepherding drunks into their beds. “Thank youuuu,” she crooned up to Emi as she snuggled into her bed.

Emi chuckled, and turned out the room’s lights. “You’re welcome. G’night, Hanako, and happy birthday,” she said, before exiting, closing the door quietly behind her.

A happy birthday…what a concept, Hanako thought, before falling into drunken slumber.


_______________________


Morning was overly bright and painful. Hanako peeled her eyes open in response to her alarm, then immediately closed them again, whimpering in pain. Why was the light so bright? And her alarm so loud? “My head,” she moaned.

She slapped at the clock with her eyes closed, shutting it off by reflex. She groaned as she recalled the previous night’s antics and realized the cause of her…discomfort. She cautiously cracked an eye open again, and saw something unusual on her bedside table. Forcing both eyes open, she realized it was a water bottle, with a sticky-note attached to the side. “DRINK ME” was written large on the note. Hanako realized that her mouth was dry, and tasted awful, so she forced herself upright and twisted the cap off of the bottle to drink.

She only managed a couple of swallows before her protesting stomach made her stop, but even that little bit of moisture helped her feel a touch better. Glancing at the bedside table, she saw a second note on the top with two white pills on it, and “TAKE ME” written beside them. She unthinkingly followed directions, not wondering what it was that she was taking.

Tasks accomplished, she flopped back on the bed, groaning slightly. Emi. Those must be from Emi, she realized. She felt a renewed surge of gratitude for the short woman’s kindness. Thank goodness it was her and not Shizune who bumped into us in the bathroom last night. She shuddered to think what that interaction would have been like. Nowhere near as kind and gentle, she suspected.

After a few minutes, the throbbing in her head had faded a bit, and she felt like she could stomach some more water. She gingerly sat up and took a few more cautious sips. The pounding behind her eyes was still pretty bad, but at least she wasn’t worried about her head exploding.

She wondered if she could make it to class, then decided that it would be better to do so. If all three of them were out at the same time, it might look suspicious. She hoped Lilly and Rin weren’t feeling as awful as she was, though she seemed to recall that Lilly had drunk a bit more than she had. Rin hadn’t even gotten any of the white wine, so she was probably okay, Hanako hoped.

She took another long drink, and sighed. She stood up and slowly began shuffling around the room, getting her school uniform on and getting ready to face the day.

Never. Again, she vowed to herself.

Though feeling relaxed and happy had been awfully nice…

No. Never again, she scolded herself.

Or at least, not to such excess.


_______________________


Hanako went alone to the roof at lunchtime, since it seemed that Lilly hadn’t attended classes that morning. She was surprised to find not only Emi, but Rin too up there, eating lunch.

“Hi,” she said shyly, as she joined them.

Emi smiled at her. “Hey, Hanako. How’s your head feeling?”

“B-better. Th-thank you…for taking such g-good care…of us. Especially the water…and painkillers.”

Emi waved a hand. “No problemo. You don’t survive two and a half years of away meets with the track team without learning how to babysit tipsy people.”

“We weren’t tipsy, we were drunk,” said Rin flatly. Hanako thought that she looked a little sallow, as if she hadn’t yet fully recovered from the previous night’s excesses.

“Have y-you…ever g-gotten, ah, tipsy, too?” Hanako asked curiously.

Emi grinned. “Not telling.”

“Yes,” said Rin.

“Rin!” Emi scowled at her friend. “Not fair.”

Rin blinked owlishly at her. “But it’s the truth.”

Emi rolled her eyes as Hanako giggled at their interactions. “Yah, yah, whatever. It helped me know what you’d need this morning, anyway.”

“Th-thank you for that,” Hanako repeated. She started to eat her lunch, and was surprised to find that, unlike at breakfast, she now had an appetite. In fact, once she started eating, she realized she was starving. She wolfed down her lunch, and mournfully wished that she’d bought more. She glanced at the door to the stairs, wondering if she had time to go back to the cafeteria for another round. No, probably not. Alas.

She looked at Rin, who also looked a little better for having eaten. “Are y-you…going to p-paint today?” she asked. Since it was a Thursday, she’d usually model for Rin.

Rin nodded.

“Then I’ll…see you there,” Hanako said as the end-of-lunch bell rang.

“Have a good afternoon!” Emi said cheerily.

“Th-thanks again,” Hanako said, then she headed back to class.

After classes were over for the day, Hanako headed down to the art room. An albino girl with a long braid was just leaving as she approached the door, and she gave Hanako a friendly little nod. Hanako realized that this must be the “Rika” who did calligraphy that Rin had mentioned. Hanako nodded back nervously, unable to bring herself to ask the girl about possibly learning from her. Maybe some other time…

She caught the door to the art room before it swung fully closed. She was about to enter when she heard the teacher talking.

“Why do you keep painting the same subject over and over?” asked Nomiya, sounding annoyed. “You used to do such interesting work.”

Hanako froze just outside door, not wanting to interrupt.

“She is interesting,” Rin said.

“You’re too young to be limiting yourself to a single subject like this. You’re not Wyeth, and she’s no Helga.” Hanako wondered what that meant. Nomiya sighed. “Is it money? Would you like me to hire a different model for you?”

“I don’t want another model. I haven’t painted her right yet.”

“What do you mean by right,” Namita asked, sounding annoyed. “You’ve portrayed her in a half dozen different ways.” When Rin didn’t respond, he went on, “You’re always rambling on about meaning, about using your art to get people to understand you. But what is there to understand about these portraits?”

Rin was again silent for a long moment, and Hanako wondered if she was going to continue to refuse to speak. Then she said, “If I can paint her right, then she’ll know it too.”

“It? It what?”

Rin muttered something so quietly that Hanako couldn’t hear her from the doorway.

“Beautiful? Ikezawa?” Nomiya asked, sounding baffled. Hanako could understand his confusion; she felt it herself.

“Yes.” Rin’s answer was simple and firm, brooking no contradiction.

Nomiya was silent for a moment, then he grumbled, “I won’t gainsay an artist’s aesthetic perception. But you need to add some variety to your work if you want to develop a viable portfolio for university admissions.”

Rin again didn’t respond. Hanako wondered if she was somehow affecting Rin’s chance at getting into a good art school. The thought made her heart race, nervous about the possibility she was hurting Rin.

The teacher seemed unable to let a silence last for too long. “Listen, Tezuka, I’ve got a friend in town who owns a gallery. I think, if you’d show her some of your work, she might be willing to give you a show. That would be quite the feather in your cap, for someone as young as you. But you need to mix things up a bit, paint things other than portraits. Or at least, this particular portrait.” He was silent for a moment, as if waiting for Rin to respond, but still she remained silent. “Think about it, eh? Not many young artists get a solo show before college, but I think you could pull it off. Just…paint something else for a little while, okay? Will you think about it?”

Rin again mumbled something too quiet for Hanako to hear.

“Good! Good!” Nomiya seemed pleased by her response, whatever it had been. “You do that. You could go far, young woman. You have a rare talent, and I’d like to see you blossom into your full potential. Just…try adding a little variety, all right?”

Rin made no verbal response to that that Hanako could hear, and she decided that that was as good a time as any to enter the room. Nomiya looked over to her at the sound of the door closing. "Your scarred muse arrives,” he murmured quietly with a slightly sour smile.

Hanako wasn’t sure if she had been meant to hear that comment, but she blushed at that description. Rin scowled at the back of Nomiya’s head as he left the room, looking more annoyed than Hanako had ever seen her.

“R-Rin?” she asked quietly. “D-do you want…to paint something else?”

Rin turned toward her, her frown fading to her normal blank visage. “No.”

Hanako waited a moment for Rin to expand on that flat negative. When it became obvious that she had nothing more to say, Hanako said, “I heard…your teacher. I d-don’t want to keep you…from getting into a good school.”

Rin shook her head. “That’s not important.”

“Um…it kinda is?” Hanako offered tentatively.

Rin just shook her head and turned to her partially completed canvas. She pulled the plastic cover off of her paint palette. “Sit down. Please.”

Hanako sighed and resumed the pose she’d been in during their previous session. She pulled out her book and settled in for another still and quiet afternoon.

Three hours later, as they left for dinner, Hanako said, “I forgot to t-tell you…I m-may be late on Saturday. Lilly is…leaving on a trip.”

“How would that make you late?”

“I want to…see her off.”

Rin shrugged. “Okay. I’ll be here.”

Indeed, where else would she be? Hanako wondered wryly.


_______________________


Friday evening the distinctive thump of Rin kicking her door startled Hanako as she was about to crawl into bed. She pulled open her door a few centimeters and peeked out at Rin. Unusually for her, she was dressed in only a tank top and shorts. Hanako was startled to see her stumps so plainly exposed. “Rin? It’s k-kind of late.”

Rin was staring at the floor. “It's Friday. But Emi is away at a track meet overnight.”

After a moment of silence, Hanako replied, “Um. Okay?” She hoped the subtext of “What does that have to do with me?” came through.

“Tuesdays and Fridays are when she washes my hair.” Then she just stood there, still staring at the floor, as if that answered Hanako’s unvoiced question. Hanako noticed for the first time that Rin had a shower caddy on a strap slung over one shoulder, loaded with soap, shampoo, and a towel.

Hanako pieced together Rin’s implied request, although she had a hard time believing it. “Y-you w-want me…t-to wash y-your hair?” she squeaked.

Rin finally looked up at her and nodded. “I’d thought I could wait until she got back tomorrow to do it, but…” For the first time Hanako could ever recall seeing, Rin looked slightly abashed. “But…Friday is a hair-washing night,” she muttered.

Hanako stared at Rin, and Rin stared levelly back. There was just a hint of pleading in the armless young woman’s expression. Hanako had come to realize that Rin, for all her flighty behavior, was a creature of habit in many ways, and she disliked change. She could sympathize with Rin’s desire to keep to a routine, but… “I…I've never w-washed…someone else's hair before,” she protested weakly.

Now Rin’s expression turned slightly puzzled. “It’s not that hard. I have less hair than you do.”

“Y-yes, but…how w-would I do it? Over a sink?”

Rin’s puzzled frown deepened. “No. In the shower.”

Hanako searched for a way out of this situation. “I d-don't own a…b-bathing suit.”

Rin’s expression shifted to confused. “Are you going swimming?”

“N-no, but…what else would I wear in the sh-shower?”

Rin blinked. “You normally shower clothed?”

“No! B-but I n-normally shower alone.”

“Oh.”

Hanako stared at Rin, and she realized that she wasn't going to be able to explain this in a way that Rin would accept. “I’m sssorry, Rin, I d-don't think I can…help you.”

Rin’s face resumed its more normal blank mien. “Oh,” she repeated. “Okay.” She turned and walked away from Hanako’s room. Hanako opened her door a bit more and poked her head out to watch her go. Rin didn't stop at her room, but went on past it to the bathrooms.

Hanako slowly closed her door, then stood staring at it. It occurred to her that this was the first time in her life that someone non-medical had asked her to get naked.

It’s an innocent request. She just needs help. She found herself trying to talk herself into helping Rin. We’re both girls, it wouldn’t matter if she saw me naked. But the nudity had nothing to do with it. Hanako didn’t really care about another girl seeing her breasts or privates. Too many years of communal showers at the orphanages had eroded that commonplace modesty. It was her scars, always her scars, that held her back.

She bit her lip and considered it. The thought of Rin standing alone in her shower, water pouring over her head without shampoo, just seemed…sad. Then Hanako had another mental image, of Rin sitting on the floor trying to scrub her hair with her feet. She knew Rin was, of necessity, unusually flexible, but surely that would be beyond her abilities. Wouldn’t it? Why else would she ask Emi to help her wash her hair?

“Dang it,” Hanako muttered to herself. She slowly picked up her own bath towel, then headed down the hall to the bathrooms.

She had no problem determining which shower stall Rin was in, as it was the only shower running this late at night. It was one of the larger shower stalls, with room for two, made for people who needed assistance. Like Rin. She walked up to the stall, then paused. Can I really do this? she asked herself. She raised a hand to knock on the stall door, then she froze. Aside from doctors and nurses, the only people who had ever seen the full extent of her scars were various roommates in the orphanage over the years. And most of those encounters had left her chary about exposing herself to the judgement of other girls.

This is Rin. She’s different. She…likes my scars, for some weird reason. She tried to make herself knock, but her hand just twitched a fraction of a centimeter, failing to make contact with the door. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Then she lowered her hand and sighed. I’m sorry, Rin. I can’t do this. She opened her eyes and started to turn away from the shower, but the stall door swung open, revealing a wet and naked Rin.

“Did you come to wash my hair?” asked Rin, a faint hopeful note in her voice. She leaned against the door, propping it open with her stump.

Hanako stared, her eyes wide. She’s beautiful, she thought numbly. The broad expanse of Rin’s scar-free skin caught her attention more than her casual nudity. So much unblemished skin. So smooth, with glistening droplets of water sliding down it. Hanako found herself wondering what it felt like, to have such lovely skin. What would it feel like, to touch such lovely skin?

“Nn…” The words froze in Hanako’s throat. “Nnnn…” she tried again. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Her stutter wasn’t often so bad as to render her completely speechless, but this time it was.

Rin stared patiently at her, awaiting an answer. Hanako suddenly realized that Rin was one of the few people who never displayed any annoyance at her stutter, never tried to finish a sentence for her. She just waited for her to speak. That realization helped her calm down enough to let her words out, and it also changed her answer for her.

“Yes,” she said.

Rin nodded and turned around, returning to the still-running water. Hanako caught the door before it could slam shut and followed her into the changing area of the shower. Rin didn’t close the curtain between the wet and dry areas of the shower stall, she just returned to the spray and closed her eyes, letting the water run down over her head and body.

Hanako was grateful for those closed eyes; it made it easier for her to disrobe. Her hands shook as she pulled her nightgown off over her head. She glanced at Rin to see if she was looking at her. She was still standing there, eyes closed, water cascading over her. She looked like she was lost in her own world of watery bliss.

Hanako knew the next step was to hang up her nightgown but she froze, the gown clutched in trembling fingers against her right side. I’m just…a subject to her. Something to look at and paint. She doesn’t judge. She tried to convince her fingers to loosen. She closed her eyes in shame. I made it this far…

“Hanako?” Rin’s voice startled her into opening her eyes, and she looked at Rin, her face flaming red with embarrassment. Rin looked slightly puzzled. “I don’t think you can wash my hair from there.” She showed no reaction to Hanako’s appearance, to the skin and scars that couldn’t be fully concealed by the crumpled nightgown.

“R-r-r-right,” Hanako managed to stammer out. She took a deep breath and hung the gown on the hook next to her. She didn’t look at Rin as she stepped out of her panties. She twisted her hair into a knot and shoved it on top of her head, in an attempt to keep it dry. Still staring at the floor, she stepped cautiously into the wet half of the shower stall and closed the curtain behind her, to keep their clothes and towels dry.

After a long moment, she lifted her eyes to look at Rin. Rin’s expression didn’t change as her gaze traveled down and up the length of Hanako’s body. Hanako felt herself holding her breath, waiting for some sort of reaction. But Rin simply said, “My hair is wet enough now.”

Hanako nodded jerkily, and stepped closer, into the water. The warmth calmed her a little, and she was grateful that Rin apparently wasn’t a fan of very hot showers. Extreme heat was difficult for her scarred body to tolerate. She picked up Rin’s shampoo bottle and flipped open the lid. The pungent scent of rosemary and mint filled her nose. Rin bent forward at the waist, presenting her head to Hanako.

Hanako squirted a large puddle of shampoo into her hand, then she realized that what was necessary for her long head of hair was overkill for Rin. She grimaced at her mistake, and set the bottle down. She rubbed her hands together, distributing the shampoo between them, then gingerly applied her hands to Rin’s hair.

Rin leaned into her hands a bit, and Hanako rubbed more firmly, working the auburn hair into a lather. She felt hesitant, uncertain of how to proceed. Which seemed silly; it wasn’t as if she hadn’t washed her own hair a thousand times before. But never someone else’s.

“Harder.” Rin said. Hanako was grateful for the guidance, and she scrubbed more firmly, making sure to get all of Rin’s hair.

“Fingernails?” Rin asked quietly, almost sounding shy. Hanako hesitated a moment, then arched her fingers to dig her fingertips into Rin’s scalp, scratching the skin underneath the auburn hair. Rin gave a small contented sounding sigh, almost a purr. Thus encouraged, Hanako continued to scratch for a minute or two, longer than was strictly necessary for cleanliness.

Rin suddenly stood upright, pulling her head out of Hanako’s hands. She leaned her head back into the stream of water, letting the suds wash out of her hair. Since her eyes were closed against the suds, Hanako took the opportunity to look at Rin more fully. When she’d seen Rin while she was sick, she’d noticed how thin she was. Now that the initial shock of seeing Rin totally naked had passed, she was able to look at her more objectively. Her skin was beautiful, yes, but she was still disturbingly thin. Her breasts looked like they had been larger and fuller at one point, but were now a little flat and deflated looking. Her abs were impressive—Hanako supposed that doing so many things while balanced on one leg was good for developing her core. But her hip bones protruded sharply at her waist. She recalled all the times that Rin had skipped dinner to continue painting, and realized that that must not be an uncommon occurrence for her. She suddenly understood why Emi badgered Rin to eat, and she made a resolution to help Emi in getting Rin to eat more regularly.

Hanako lifted her gaze from Rin’s hips to her face, startled to see bright green eyes staring back at her. Hanako blushed, embarrassed to be caught out examining her friend’s naked body. “Do you like what you see?” asked Rin curiously.

Hanako’s blush deepened, and she blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “You n-need to eat more.”

Rin nodded, as if this were the expected response. “Emi says the same thing.”

“She’s…right.”

Rin nodded again, and then she in turn blatantly looked Hanako up and down again, slowly scanning her body. Hanako wanted to turn to the side, to hide the right side of her body away from Rin, but she managed to refrain from doing so.

“I know you don’t like that word,” Rin said quietly. “But it applies.”

Beautiful. The word echoed unspoken between them. Hanako turned away from Rin and pulled the washcloth and soap from Rin’s toiletries. “W-would you l-like me to…wash your back?” she offered, changing the subject. She glanced back at Rin, and thought she saw a flicker of sadness pass over her face, but then decided she’d probably imagined it. Rin’s expression was as neutral as ever.

“Please,” Rin said, turning her back to Hanako. Hanako soaped up the cloth, then scrubbed Rin’s back. Her thinness was evident here, too, her shoulder blades prominent, individual vertebrae distinguishable. Hanako scrubbed from shoulders to the small of her back.

Rin turned around, putting her back to the water to rinse it off, and Hanako stepped back a pace to keep her own hair from getting wet. Rin lifted her arm stumps, and asked, “Would you mind?”

This is considerably more than just washing hair, Hanako thought, but she could see why washing her armpits would be difficult for Rin. She was surprised to see only a hint of stubble in her armpits—apparently Emi helped her shave, too. Hanako hoped that she wouldn’t be called upon for that delicate task. She was sure she’d end up cutting her. She soaped up the washcloth again, then gingerly applied it to Rin’s right armpit.

Rin twitched and giggled, startling Hanako into stepping back away from her. She’d never heard Rin giggle before.

Rin’s face returned to its neutral state, but a hint of humor remained in her eyes. “Press harder, or it tickles too much,” she instructed.

“R-right.” Hanako took a deep breath, and stepped forward to try again. She scrubbed more vigorously, and although Rin shuddered a bit, she didn’t giggle again. Hanako was almost disappointed by that. She thought she’d like to hear Rin giggle again. It had been a nice sound. She briefly considered doing one final, light pass with the washcloth, just to hear Rin giggle, but she restrained herself.

“D-done,” she said, stepping back. Rin turned to face the shower head again, arm stumps raised to rinse them off. Hanako rinsed the soap out of the washcloth, then wrung the excess water out of it. She wanted to escape, to get dried and covered before Rin could make any more disconcerting comments, but she managed to ask, “Is th-that all…you needed help with?”

Rin turned and stared at her, head cocked, a small thoughtful frown on her face. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then she closed it and nodded her head.

Hanako slipped through the curtain to the dry section and quickly toweled off. Rin seemed to be spending more time rinsing, or maybe she was just enjoying the water. Hanako felt herself relax as she slipped her nightgown back on over her head, hiding most of her body from view again. She pulled her underwear back on, then glanced back at the still running shower. She raised her voice, to be heard over the water. “Rin? D-do you need…anymore help?”

There was a long pause, and Hanako was wondering if Rin had heard her. But before she could repeat herself, Rin said, “No.”

Hanako wondered how Rin would dry herself and get dressed, but she supposed that she had been doing so for most of her life. If she didn’t have a way to do so, she would have asked for help. Right?

“All right,” she said. “I’m…going to b-bed now. Good night.”

“Good night,” Rin replied. “And…thank you.”

Hanako smiled. She so rarely heard Rin express appreciation unprompted that it felt extra special. Especially given what a challenge it had been for her to reveal herself to Rin. “You’re welcome,” she called back through the closed curtain, then she headed back to her room.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:08 pm

When classes ended on Saturday, Hanako waited a minute for the rush of students out the door to die down. Lilly had told her last night that her classmates might hold her up a bit, so she didn’t wait for Lilly, but instead went to 3-2, Lilly’s classroom. It was, she reflected, the first time that she had gone to Lilly’s class, instead of vice versa.

When she got there, she was surprised to find Lilly in the center of a small group of girls, wrapped in an enthusiastic hug from one of them. The girl hugging her was short, her head fitting easily under Lilly’s chin. Hanako paused just inside the doorway to watch as Lilly, smiling kindly, returned the hug. Then another girl had to give her a goodbye hug, and another. Hanako watched with mixed emotions. On the one hand, she was a little jealous of all the girls receiving such kind attention from Lilly. On the other, she was irrationally proud of her friend for being so popular and so beloved.

A boy with unkempt black hair, thick glasses, and a ridiculously warm scarf for this time of year shoved past her, not even bothering with a “Sorry” as he bumped into her. Hanako decided to move further into the room.

“Hello…Lilly,” she said, raising her voice a little above her normal quiet speech in order to be heard above the other girls chattering around Lilly.

Lilly turned her head toward Hanako. “Hello, Hanako. How are we for time?”

Hanako glanced at the clock on the wall. “The taxi sh-should be here…in twenty-five minutes.”

“Oh, you’re Hanako?” A girl with thick glasses and a wide smile turned toward Hanako, her head turning from side-to-side a little as if she needed to home in on her. She stuck out a hand, which Hanako bemusedly took. “We’ve heard so much about you from Lilly! I’m very pleased to meet you!” She shook Hanako’s hand with unnerving enthusiasm.

“Ah…p-pleased to meet you…um…” Hanako hesitated.

“Rabi Yahagi,” the girl supplied.

A couple of the other girls also introduced themselves to Hanako, in quick enough succession that she had trouble catching their names. She was surprised that Lilly had talked enough about her that these girls had heard of her. I’m sure they’re just being nice to me because they like Lilly. But the fact that they all were in some way visually impaired made it a bit easier for her to relax, knowing that they saw little to none of her scars.

“Hanako?”

Lilly’s voice easily caught her attention through the chatter. She glanced up at the clock. “I’m sorry, we…need to go,” she said to the small group around her. She flashed them all a nervous smile, despite knowing that they mostly couldn’t see it, and joined Lilly at the doorway. “Let’s g-g-go.”

Lilly made a final farewell to the group, and followed Hanako out into the corridor. “My, my. I did not expect my departure to cause such a fuss.”

“Your classmates…l-like you,” Hanako observed.

Lilly huffed a little laugh. “I suppose so.”

Hanako wondered at that response. It didn’t seem to be in any doubt, based on what she witnessed in Lilly’s classroom. “Are you b-bags…all packed?”

“Yes, I left everything ready to go this morning.”

They returned to their rooms, and Hanako dropped off her book bag as Lilly changed into her travel clothes. Five minutes later, they were heading to the front gates of Yamaku. Hanako pulled Lilly’s suitcase behind her. They stopped at the bench, and sat down to wait for the taxi. “I’m g-going to…miss you,” Hanako said softly.

Lilly reached out, found Hanako’s leg, and patted her knee. “I shall miss you too, but it will be less than a week.”

I hope, Hanako thought, but did not say. She had no idea what condition Lilly’s aunt was in.

“But you should be busy with Rin and the newspaper club while I’m gone, yes?”

Hanako noticed that Lilly didn’t mention being busy with her birthday. “Yes. Rin…” she gave a little laugh. “L-last night…she asked me to h-help her…wash her hair.”

Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “An unusual request, to be sure. Did you help?”

“Umm…eventually.”

Lilly looked curious. “And how did you go about it? At the bathroom sink?”

It belatedly occurred to Hanako that she could have done it at the sinks, it was just that Rin was used to Emi helping her in the shower, and she had simply gone along with that. “N-no, I j-joined her…in the shower.”

“My, my. How brave of you.”

“B-brave?”

“Revealing so much of yourself to another. I know that is not…” Lilly paused, as if searching for the right phrase. “Your favorite thing to do.”

Hanako snorted. “True. B-but Rin…” she hesitated, unsure how to put it into words. “She…n-not only isn’t repulsed b-by my scars…she seems to…appreciate them?”

“Yes, you said she’d said before that she found your scars beautiful.”

No, she’d said that she found me beautiful, Hanako thought, but she still couldn’t bring herself to say that out loud. “Yes. I g-guess that m-m-made it…easier. Still…scary, b-but…doable.”

Lilly smiled. “As I said. Brave.”

Hanako shook her head but didn’t say anything to that.

“And are you working on anything new for the newspaper?”

Hanako was grateful for the subject change. She smiled. “Natsume m-managed to…persuade me…to write an article about the…debate team.” The fact that she and Naomi had been so complimentary about her vandalism article had made it hard to say no to them. And, really, she had been happy to give it another try.

“I’ll look forward to reading it. Your article on the mural was quite well done.”

“Th-thank you.”

Lilly lifted her head in a gesture Hanako recognized as meaning she’d heard something of interest. “Ah. I believe my taxi is about to arrive.” She stood up, and Hanako rose with her.

“Akira w-will meet you…at the airport, right?” Hanako asked, worried.

“Yes, she’s already texted me that she’s there.”

“Good.”

She helped Lilly get her bag to the taxi, and the driver put it in the trunk. She paused next to Lilly by the open door. “Have a…safe trip.”

Lilly opened her arms, and Hanako embraced her. “Thank you, dear. I will call you with details of my return when I know what’s going on.”

“All right. G-good bye.”

“Good bye.”

They broke off the embrace, and Lilly got into the taxi. Hanako resisted the urge to wave goodbye to taxi as it departed. She watched until it disappeared, then sighed to herself.

She’ll be back soon. Right now, it’s time to get some lunch. And some therapy. And some modeling work done. It was a surprisingly full schedule for her. She turned and headed toward the cafeteria, to start working her way through that schedule.

Rin found her in the cafeteria as she ate her lunch. “I want to paint a reclining pose,” she said, without preamble or greeting.

“O…kay,” Hanako said nervously.

“We don’t have a good surface for it in the art room. Will you come to my room to model this afternoon?”

Hanako blinked. “Reclining on y-your…bed?”

Rin nodded.

Hanako wasn’t sure why, but the notion made her blush. But she nodded back.

“Maybe you could change into a different outfit first, for a change of pace,” Rin suggested.

Hanako considered that, and nodded in agreement.

“Or you could model nude.”

Hanako stared at Rin, wide-eyed, before shaking her head vigorously. “N-n-n-no. I…just…n-no.”

Rin seemed disappointed but not surprised, and she didn’t persist. “Then I’ll see you then.” She turned and walked off without waiting for a response.





_______________________





Hanako managed to force herself to attend classes on Monday, the day before her birthday, but she went back to her room after school let out for the day and collapsed on her bed. A feeling of impending doom weighed her down, the specter of the next day clouding her feelings like some black clouds on the horizon.

Her birthday was always a day of sorrow, of regrets. All her worst impulses and memories came bubbling up to the surface to torment her, and she spent the day in her room, alternately crying, staring at the ceiling, and sleeping.

Many things tore at her soul about her birthday. It had always been the one day a year that the other orphans had pretended to care about her. That experience just exacerbated her awareness of how far removed she was from everyone else.

She also found herself wondering why she’d been born at all. What was the point of it? Eight years of happiness with her parents, followed by a lifetime of pain, hideous ugliness, and social exclusion. She lacked the nerve to end her own life, but she found herself wishing she had never been born.

She wished Lilly were here to ask after her. She hadn’t let Lilly into her room on her last birthday, but maybe she would have this year. But Lilly was thousands of kilometers away.

When she heard the thump of Rin’s kick on her door later in the afternoon, she ignored it. Then came a second, slightly louder kick, and she sighed and pushed herself out of bed. Oh. Right. It’s a Tuesday. I should be modeling. She opened her door a crack, and peered out, not saying anything.

“Are you ready?” asked Rin.

Hanako almost said no, but the weight of her depression made it nearly impossible for her to refuse. Saying no to Rin was difficult at the best of times. If she refused, she would have to explain why, and that just sounded like too much work. It was easier to just go along with Rin’s expectations. She closed her eyes for a moment, sighed to herself, then opened them and nodded silently. Rin nodded back and walked away.

Hanako followed Rin back to her room. She threw herself down onto Rin’s bed and waited for Rin to direct her, to correct her pose. But Rin said nothing.

The pillow smelled of Rin’s shampoo, rosemary and mint. And Rin. It wasn’t as good as burying her face in Lilly’s hair, but still, it soothed her a little. She closed her eyes, and tried to think of something, anything, to keep herself from bursting into tears.

Much to her own surprise, that wasn’t difficult. Just having another person present, especially one studying her, staring at her, was a sufficient deterrent for her tears. Shortly after laying down, she fell asleep.

In her dreams, she walked around an unfamiliar city with Lilly. Sometimes she guided Lilly, sometimes Akira did, sometimes Lilly walked alone, navigating by cane. Hanako kept losing track of her, kept watching her step in front of busses or stumble down stairs, but somehow Lilly survived, avoiding every potential disaster, even without her.

Hanako woke a couple of hours later to the sound of knocking. The door opened, and Emi stepped in. “Rin? It’s dinner time. Oh, hey, Hanako.”

Hanako realized she wasn’t in the same position she’d been in when she’d drifted off to sleep. She wondered why Rin hadn’t woken her to reposition her. And I’m wearing my uniform, not the clothes I initially posed in. She wondered why Rin hadn’t said anything about that.

“Not hungry,” Rin said absently.

“You need to eat,” Emi said firmly. “And I bet Hanako wants to, too.”

Rin grimaced, then looked at Hanako. “Hungry?”

Hanako’s first instinct was to say, “No,” but she thought a moment. She wasn’t hungry, but if they didn’t take a break to eat, Rin might want to go on painting all evening long. She needed an excuse to get out of Rin’s room. “Yeah,” she said flatly, and sat up. She wearily stretched while Rin cleaned her brushes and covered her palette.

As she headed to the door, Hanako glanced at the canvas, mildly curious as to how Rin had dealt with her restless sleep. There were multiple figures on the canvas, all superimposed on each other, showing different sides of her, blurring together into a surrealist version of herself. She stopped and stared at it, and Rin paused in the doorway, watching her. Hanako couldn’t help but feel that the image was far too lively and active, given how inert and lifeless she felt inside.

“You needed sleep,” Rin said, as if answering an unasked question.

Hanako nodded numbly and left the room. Emi opened her mouth as if to say something to her, then she closed it, looking concerned. Hanako felt like she ought to be embarrassed to be seen in her current state, but she lacked the energy to care. She brushed past Emi and headed toward her room without saying anything. “Uh, are you coming to dinner too?” Emi asked of her back.

“L-later,” Hanako lied as she opened the door to her room. She entered without looking back and closed the door behind her. She took the few short steps to her bed and fell face-forward onto it. Despite having just woken from a nap, she felt utterly exhausted, weighed down and heavy.

Rin’s thump of a kick-knock made her twitch slightly, but she ignored the sound. Go away, Rin.

Rin apparently couldn’t hear her thoughts, because she kicked the door again a minute later. Hanako curled up into a ball on her bed, willing the outside world to go away and leave her alone. A third kick came a minute later, and Hanako could hear Emi’s annoyingly peppy voice ask something of Rin, although she couldn’t be troubled to try and make out the words. Rin was apparently closer to the door than Emi, because Hanako could clearly hear her say, “No. I can’t.”

Can’t what? Hanako wondered, not really caring. Her door opened a moment later, and Rin stepped into her room. Dammit, I didn’t lock my door. She remained curled up in a ball and didn’t speak to the unwanted intruder.

Rin walked over to her bedside, and Hanako closed her eyes, wishing Rin might disappear as easily as that. “You need to eat,” Rin said.

Hanako almost chuckled bleakly at that. That’s my line to you, she thought, but she kept her eyes and mouth closed. Rin waited silently for a long, interminable minute. Eventually, Hanako cracked one eye open just enough to make sure that Rin hadn’t quietly slipped out of the room. She was still standing in the same place, staring impassively down at Hanako. “Go ’way,” Hanako muttered as she closed her eye again.

“No.”

Hanako rolled over, turning her back to Rin. Go away, go away, go away…

Emi’s hesitant voice came from the doorway. “Rin, maybe we should, um…”

“You go eat,” said Rin. “I’ll wait for Hanako.”

“Um…” There followed a long pause, and Hanako wondered if the two of them were silently communicating somehow. “Okay.” Hanako heard the door close.

Why are you still here? Hanako wondered. She heard a shuffling noise and felt a slight thump against the side of the bed.

“I’ll wait,” Rin repeated. Her voice came from lower than before, and Hanako imagined she was sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed.

“Go ’way, Rin,” Hanako repeated wearily.

“No.”

Hanako decided to just ignore her. She curled into a tighter ball, and tried to go back to sleep, to escape the world, her birthday, her life. Having slept while posing for Rin, sleep was not forthcoming, and she was left alone with the thoughts roiling through her head.

No. Not alone, unfortunately. Rin’s silent presence behind her felt like a boulder, an immense inscrutable presence that was both immovable and impossible to ignore.

Why are you here? It was a genuine question, a puzzle. Even Lilly hadn’t intruded on her solitude during her birthday last year, politely tapping at her door and then leaving her alone when Hanako asked her to. Why was Rin here?

I’m not worth her attention. I’m just a body for her to paint. Scars to fetishize. Why is she pretending to care about me? She continued to ignore Rin, and hoped she would eventually get bored enough to go away.

But ignoring her proved impossible. After several minutes of silence, Hanako could still feel her presence behind her just as much as she had in the beginning. Rin the rock, she thought bleakly. Unmoving, expressionless.

She wished she could be so expressionless. Not feel anything.

You know that she feels things just as much as you do. She just doesn’t show it, scolded a small voice in the back of her head.

I don’t care what she feels. She’s ignoring how I feel right now. “Go away, Rin,” she muttered.

“No.”

If I ask her why, I probably won’t understand her answer. “Go away go away go away,” she whispered under her breath.

Rin either didn’t hear her, or chose not to respond.

“God, I hate me.”

“No.” Rin’s flat declaration was monosyllabic, but it felt larger, taking up space in the room. Like her presence, unmoving, unmovable.

“I wish I’d never b-been born.”

“No.”

“Go away!”

“No.”

“I hate you!”

“No.” Hanako felt some small disappointment that Rin didn’t sound hurt at her declaration, then she felt guilty for trying to hurt her. She groaned.

“I hate myself.”

“No.”

Please g-go away.”

“No.”

Hanako felt like her bleak mood was shattering against the wall of Rin’s obdurate stony denial. “I d-don’t want…to feel better,” she muttered softly. “I don’t d-deserve it.”

“Wrong.”

“Go away.”

“No.”

Hanako lapsed back into silence, stewing in her agitation and annoyance. At least I’m not only depressed right now, she thought bleakly. She tried to understand why Rin was there. What she was trying to accomplish. Nothing came to mind. Finally, she asked quietly, “Why?” She was surprised to find that she was curious enough to want to know the answer.

There was a long pause, then Rin said, “I’m not sure.”

“What?” Hanako rolled over, to stare at the back of Rin’s head as she sat, leaning against the bed. “Then w-why are you…here?”

Rin looked down, and Hanako saw she was absently rubbing her feet together, like another person might twiddle their fingers. She sighed. “I don’t know what you’re feeling. But I can tell it’s not good.”

Hanako wanted to cry at the sheer magnitude of that understatement.

“I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now. But I know I don’t want to leave you alone.”

“W-why?” Hanako repeated.

“I don’t know!” Frustration filled Rin’s normally flat voice. She lifted her legs off the floor and pivoted in place, turning to face Hanako. She stared at Hanako, and Hanako could see tension around Rin’s eyes and mouth. Normally her expressionless face was loose, relaxed. This face was tense, as if she were actively struggling to keep her expression blank.

“I don’t know,” Rin repeated more quietly. Some of the tension left her face as she stared back at Hanako. “But I’m not leaving you alone right now.”

Hanako closed her eyes against that penetrating gaze, and took a slow, deep breath. Opening them, she looked back at Rin. “All right.” That felt like an inadequate response. She tried again. “Th-thank…you.”

Rin continued to lock gazes with her, then she nodded. “We should eat.”

I surrender. “Okay.” She felt wrung out, exhausted, like she would after several hours of crying, even though Rin has been in her room for less than half an hour.

Rin unfolded her legs underneath her, rising to stand beside the bed. Hanako slowly rolled upright herself, then after a moment’s pause to summon up her energy, she stood up too.

Rin took a step closer, pressing her chest against Hanako’s, and lifted her arm stubs to squeeze Hanako’s ribs. “I’m hugging you, Hanako.”

“Yes. I know.” After a moment, Hanako returned the hug. It wasn’t as comforting and reassuring as a hug from Lilly, but Rin was here, and Lilly was not. That counted for something. For a lot.

She held onto Rin for a long moment, marshaling her strength move on. To move forward. She released Rin, stepped a half step back, and nodded silently to her. Rin nodded back, and headed to the door. Hanako followed.

“Will you carry my tray for me?”

Hanako couldn’t help but laugh a little at such a mundane, everyday request. “Of c-course.” A reaction which filled her with wonder. I never thought I could laugh on my birthday.





_______________________





Apparently, Rin considered the multi-imaged reclining pose painting ready to be abandoned, because she asked Hanako to meet her back in the art room the following Thursday. Hanako draped herself sideways across the padded chair’s arms while reading her book. The room was quiet, just the two of them, with nobody else working on anything. It was nearing dinner time when the door to the art room opened, and Emi came in.

“Hiya, Rin. Hey, Hanako,” she greeted them with her usual cheer. “Dinner time!”

Rin didn’t respond, and Hanako waved a hesitant hand “Hi.”

Emi stepped over to look at Rin’s current work in progress and nodded in apparent approval. “Oh, that’s nice.”

“No comments,” admonished Rin.

Emi rolled her eyes and stepped closer to Hanako. “Hey, I was hoping to ask you for a favor, if you don’t mind.”

Hanako clutched her book a little tighter and held it up to cover her lower face. A favor? From me? What could Emi possibly want from me? “Uh…w-what?”

“Hisao and I are going out to a movie tomorrow night. I heard that you helped Rin wash her hair when I was at a meet?”

Hanako blushed at the memory of that night. She nodded to Emi, her stomach sinking as she realized where Emi was going with this request.

“D’you think you could do that again?” Emi asked.

Hanako searched for a way out of the task. “Sh-shouldn’t you ask Rin…if that’s okay with her…first?”

Emi shrugged. “Hey, Rin. Do you mind if Hanako helps you wash your hair tomorrow night instead of me?”

Rin didn’t respond, and Hanako and Emi looked over to see if she had heard. Rin was staring at Emi, a small frown on her face. “Rin?” prompted Emi.

Rin shrugged, and went back to painting. “Okay.”

Emi smiled and turned back to Hanako. “Great! So, it’s okay with her, d’you think you could you help me—help her—out?”

Hanako was surprised at how ambivalent she was about the prospect. Normally, her immediate response would be a simple, flat, no. No, she didn’t want to get naked in front of Rin again. No, she didn’t want to wash Rin’s hair and body again. No, she didn’t want Rin looking at her and telling her…disturbing things. About how she saw Hanako.

And yet…

She felt her pulse pounding hard, as she realized that that last one was a lie. She did want to hear Rin tell her that she found her…not ugly. Even if she couldn’t actually believe it.

And the mental image of all of Rin’s skin—so smooth, soft, unblemished… She shivered. Before she could think about it too much, she surprised herself by nodding to Emi. “Okay,” she said softly.

Emi beamed at her. “Great! Thanks a million, Hanako! I really appreciate it, and I know Rin does too, even if she never remembers to tell you that.”

“I said thank you last time,” Rin protested, not looking away from the canvas.

Hanako nodded in confirmation. “She did.”

Emi looked surprised. “Oh. Well. That’s good.” She gave Rin a puzzled look, then shrugged. “Anyway, come on, Rin, it’s quitting time. You need to eat, and I bet Hanako is hungry too. And you need to do homework.”

“Don’t wanna,” Rin muttered mulishly as she continued to paint.

“Tough titties,” Emi retorted. “You promised me yesterday that you’d eat dinner tonight.”

Rin froze, a slight frown on her face, then she sighed and put her brush back down on the palette. “All right.”

Hanako was impressed, wondering how Emi managed to get Rin to acquiesce so easily. Or maybe it wasn’t easily, she conceded. After all, she hadn’t seen yesterday’s conversation that had elicited Rin’s promise.

Emi helped Rin clean her brushes and wrapped her palette in plastic. Hanako packed her homework back up in her bag, and waited for them.

“Come on, Rin, let’s get some food into you,” said Emi, as the three of them headed down to the cafeteria.

“Can I have daifuku for dessert?” Rin asked.

“If they have any.”

“I d-don’t think they do,” Hanako said apologetically. She’d seen the evening’s menu in the school newspaper. “J-just…ice cream, tonight.”

Rin sighed.

“And yet somehow, we’ll survive,” said Emi cheerfully. Hanako giggled at that. It was nice to have someone to eat dinner with, while Lilly was away.





_______________________





When Hanako’s phone rang, it took her a moment to realize what the noise was. She had received so few calls since Lilly had given it to her that she was unfamiliar with the sound. She fumbled through her book bag for the phone, but it went silent before she could find it. Finally retrieving it, she looked at the display to see that the call had been from Lilly. And her battery was at three percent.

“Dang it,” she muttered. Then she jumped when the phone rang again, slipping out of her fingers and dropping onto her bed. She hastily snatched it back up and managed to flip it open before it went silent again. “L-Lilly?”

“Hello, Hanako. How are you doing?”

Hanako smiled, happy to hear friend’s voice. “Hello, Lilly. I’m…good. It’s nice to hear your voice.”

“And it’s nice to hear yours.”

Hanako looked around her room, trying to remember where she put the charging cable for the phone. “How is…your aunt?” she asked distractedly.

“Much better, thank you for asking. Honestly, I’m not sure she was ever in much danger, so much as my parents were looking for an excuse to get Akira and myself to visit them.”

Ahah, there, Hanako thought, spying the cord behind her desk. She got down on her hands and knees, holding the phone between her ear and shoulder. “Then why w-wouldn’t they…just ask you to v-visit…at the holidays, or something?” she asked. She pulled the phone away from her ear long enough to plug in the charging cable.

“…quite sure why my parents do what they do,” Lilly was saying as she lifted the phone back to her ear.

As she crawled back out from under her desk, she sat up too soon, banging her head. “Ow!”

“Hanako? Are you all right?”

Hanako leaned against the side of her desk, rubbing the back of her head as she grimaced. “I’m…fine. I j-just banged my head…under my desk.”

“Under your desk?” Lilly sounded understandably confused.

“My phone b-battery…is almost dead. I had to…plug it in.”

“Ah.” Lilly paused for a moment, as if mentally shifting gears. “Well. In any event, I’ll be back at Yamaku tomorrow evening.”

“That’s wonderful!”

“We have a long weekend coming up, do we not?”

Hanako wondered why she was asking, since Lilly surely knew the calendar as well as she did. “Yes?”

“I was wondering if you would like to spend it with me at my parents’ country house, in Hokkaido.”

“Ah…” The thought gave her pause. She’d never travelled that far in her life. “That sounds…” She trailed off as she struggled to balance her fears with her desire to spend time with Lilly.

“I know it’s short notice, but I think you’d like it. It’s very peaceful there, in the countryside. We could just relax and read and enjoy nature. And recover from jet lag, in my case.”

It didn’t sound like there would be too many people around, which Hanako found reassuring. She nodded, and said, “Th-that would be…lovely. Thank you.”

“Oh, good. Thank you, Hanako; I really want to visit there, but I could not do it on my own.”

“Akira…can’t come?” She’d just assumed, since it was a family home, that Akira would be coming too.

“No, she’ll need to get back to work, and catch up on what she’s missed while we were here in Scotland.”

“All right.”

“So…how are things back at Yamaku?” Lilly asked hesitantly.

Hanako tensed, wondering if she was asking about her birthday. “F-f-fine.”

“How was…er…are you still modeling for Rin?”

Hanako tried to keep her sigh of relief silent. “Y-yes. She did…a very…energetic painting this week,” she said, thinking of the birthday painting she’d slept through. “With…multiple views of m-me…overlapping.”

“That sounds interesting.” Lilly cleared her throat. “In any event, I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. I should be back at school by four or so, as long as no flights are delayed.”

“I look forward…to it.”

After they’d said their goodbyes and hung up, Hanako continued to sit on the floor, leaning against her desk. She thought about her birthday, and what she might have told Lilly about it if she had asked. Truth be told, despite all the tears and misery, she felt like she’d weathered her birthday in better form than she ever had before. Maybe someday…I’ll react “normally” to my birthday? She considered that notion for a while. Having first Lilly, and now Rin, as friends, had made things easier to bear. Will I go back to being a wreck when I get to university? What if I can’t make any friends there?

She shuddered at that prospect. But I never thought I’d have any friends, and now I have at least two. Three if I count Naomi. That relationship was in its early days but…she and the newspaper editor seemed to get along well. She’d even laughed at a few jokes Hanako had cautiously ventured while they were working on the most recent issue of the paper.

I may not ever be the most social person…but I think I’m getting the hang of this “making friends” thing. She smiled, stood up, and set her phone on her desk.





_______________________





Hanako was nervous all day Friday, but it was a happy sort of nervousness, an excited anticipation of Lilly’s return. Lilly texted her when she landed, to tell her she was on schedule, and expected to arrive back at Yamaku by four at the latest.

Hanako was at the front gates of the school by three-thirty, just in case Lilly was running early. She’d brought the book and pen Lilly had given her for her birthday to occupy her time, working on a story.

It had taken her several tries before she had been able to bring herself to actually write in the lovely blank book. It was so pretty as to be slightly intimidating. How can anything I write be worthy of this beautiful thing?

But she’d imagined Lilly asking her if she’d used her gift, and she didn’t want to say “No.” What if Lilly thought she didn’t appreciate it? So, heart in mouth, she’d begun by simply transcribing a few pages from the notebook she’d been writing in, editing as she went. After that, the sanctity of the pure, pristine pages had been broken, and she’d come to appreciate the feeling of the fountain pen’s nib gliding along over the rich cream-colored paper in the book. It made her writing feel more special, more real, than just scribbling in a school notebook.

At first, as she wrote, she kept looking up at every little sound, hoping it was Lilly’s taxi. But after a while, she fell into what she thought of as her “writing trance,” and the outside world faded away.

When Lilly finally arrived, she didn’t even notice until the taxi door opened, and she heard Lilly’s voice thanking the taxi driver. Hanako looked up, startled, then capped her pen hastily and put it and the book back into her shoulder bag. “Lilly!” she called out happily, as she hurried over to the taxi.

Lilly turned her head toward her and smiled. “Hanako. Thank you for coming to meet me.”

“Of c-course,” Hanako said. She paused next to Lilly, always too shy to initiate a hug, but happy to accept one when Lilly spread her arms. “I’m g-glad your aunt…is okay. And that you’re b-back.”

“I’m glad to be back,” Lilly said. “It’s wonderful to see you.”

“You too.”

The taxi driver pulled Lilly’s suitcase out of the trunk, and Lilly broke off the embrace to thank him. “I’ll…take that,” Hanako offered. She did her best to ignore the way the driver flinched and looked quickly away from her. It would take more than that commonplace reaction to ruin her happiness that Lilly was home.

“Thank you, dear,” Lilly said, as she unfolded her cane. Hanako likewise pulled out the suitcase’s handle, and they began the walk back to the dorm.

Lilly chatted lightly about her trip, Akira, and her aunt, as they walked. Hanako listened happily, glad to have Lilly’s company again. The third time Lilly yawned mid-sentence, Hanako asked, “D-do you want…to take a nap?”

Lilly sighed. “Six days is a horrible length for an international trip. I’d just barely recovered from the jet lag when I had to come back. But, no, I should try and stay awake as late as I can, to reacclimate to this time zone.”

Arriving at their rooms, she pulled out her room key and unlocked her door. “Would you please put the suitcase on my bed?”

“Sure.”

“I think I need to make some strong black tea to keep myself awake. Would you care for some?”

“Yes, please. I’ll g-go fill…the kettle.”

“Thank you.”

As Hanako headed down to the dorm kitchen to fill the kettle, she reflected on what Lilly had talked about on their walk back to the dorm. Not one word about her parents, she noted. I wonder why? She wasn’t sure if it was her place to ask, but given how excited Lilly had been to meet them again, it would be odd for her not to ask, wouldn’t it?

She returned to Lilly’s room and plugged in the kettle, turning it on to heat. She saw that Lilly had prepared the teapot in her absence and was in the process of unpacking her suitcase. Given where Lilly would have to go to put things away, she said, “I’ll just sit…at your d-desk, out of the way, while you…unpack.”

Lilly nodded. “Thank you.” Hanako had long since stopped offering to help put things away for Lilly. Lilly preferred to do all such tasks for herself, so she would know exactly where everything was. “So, how was…” Lilly faltered, then continued, “How was your week?”

Hanako hesitated, then decided to answer the unspoken question. “My b-birthday…was…like usual. M-mostly.”

"Mostly? Was it…better?” Lilly asked, leaving the “Or worse?” unspoken.

“In…some ways. Yes. I…I had agreed to m-model for Rin that afternoon, and I f-f-forgot to…c-cancel.” She sighed.

“Was that a good thing?”

Hanako thought about it for a moment. “All in all…yes. Sh-she…it…distracted m-me. T-took my mind off of…things.”

"I’m glad.”

Hanako nodded. “M-me too…I guess.” She gave a short laugh. “She even m-made me…eat d-dinner.”

Lilly smiled. “When normally you are the one persuading her to stop and eat?”

“Y-yes.”

Hanako saw Lilly’s shoulders relax a little, and she realized that Lilly had been worried about her. She felt simultaneously pleased that Lilly cared, and guilty about making her worry when she had more important things to worry about.

“H-how was…s-s-seeing your…parents?” Hanako asked, eager to change the subject away from herself.

Lilly’s lips twitched, as if she were aware of what Hanako was doing, but she allowed the change of topic. “It was…emotional. Mother was shocked that I’m now taller than she is.” Lilly smiled. “Father was…much unchanged. I can’t say there weren’t some bumps and hurdles to our reunion, but overall it went well.”

"That’s g-good.” Hanako wondered about those “bumps,” but Lilly didn’t seem to want to go into detail right now. She decided to wait until Lilly was more rested to probe further. “Oh, you’re j-just going to have to…re-pack for our t-trip t-tomorrow, aren’t you?”

Lilly nodded. “Indeed. I’m not fully unpacking. By the way, when you pack, don’t forget a sweater or two. Despite the summer heat, evenings in Hokkaido can get cool, down to seventeen or so.”

“All right. D-do I need…anything else sp-special?”

Lilly gave the question some thought. “I don’t believe so. We’ll be out in the countryside, so there won’t be a lot of things to do around us. I would suggest some books to read, pen and paper for writing. I’ll bring my Braille deck in case we want to play cards.”

“It sounds…p-peaceful.”

“It is.”

As if prompted by the word “peaceful,” the kettle began to whistle, and Hanako quickly turned it off and poured hot water into the waiting tea pot. “The tea will be ready…in a few minutes.”

“Thank you.” Lilly sat down at the low table, and Hanako sat opposite her. “The tea p-pot is to…your left,” she told Lilly.

Lilly nodded, her graceful hands drifting gently across the table to determine the placement of the pot and teacups. After the requisite number of minutes, she pulled the tea strainer out of the pot, and poured tea for them both.

“How w-will we get…to Hokkaido?” Hanako asked as they sipped their tea.

“By train and Shinkansen. We’ll have to leave Yamaku by seven, I’m afraid, in order to make all our connections.”

Hanako grimaced at the notion of waking up so early. “W-well…we can sleep on the train, at least.”

“Indeed. And our return trip will leave in the afternoon on Monday, so we can sleep in on Sunday and Monday.”

“Th-that’s…nice.” Especially for someone suffering from jet lag, she thought.

Lilly finished her tea and set her cup down with a weary sigh. “I had better finish repacking before I pass out. Will you knock to make sure I’m up by six tomorrow morning?”

“Of…course.” Hanako was always pleased when she could provide some assistance for Lilly. She stood up. “I’d b-better go pack…too.” And wait for Rin, to wash her hair, she thought, but didn’t share.

Lilly nodded and also rose. She stepped around the table to give Hanako a hug. “Good night, Hanako dear. It’s wonderful to be back with you.”

Hanako smiled and returned the hug, warmed to the core by Lilly’s comment. “And it’s w-wonderful to…have you back.”

“I’ll see you far too early in the morning.”

“Yes.”

Hanako went back to her room and dug into the back of her closet to pull out the smaller of the two battered suitcases she’d brought with her from the orphanage. Placing the suitcase on her bed, she unzipped it and lifted the lid. A stale scent of old cleaning products wafted up to greet her. It reminded her of the orphanage, where the caregivers had always been meticulous about making the children keep their rooms and the building clean.

I’ve barely left this place in two and a half years, Hanako realized. It was her first time using the suitcase since arriving at Yamaku. She’d always spent spring and summer breaks at school, sometimes as the sole occupant of the dorm.

Yamaku…Aura-Mart…the Shanghai… Those three places encompassed almost the entirety of her world since arriving here. She accompanied Lilly to a department store in the nearby city a couple of times a year, which allowed her to restock on shoes and underwear, and the few items of clothing she owned that weren’t uniforms. But that was about it.

I’ve really taken root here. Despite the fact that her room was almost devoid of personal decoration and personality, it was still hers. The thought of leaving was sobering, especially given how soon she’d be uprooted by graduation. What then? It was a line of thought she’d been avoiding, despite being urged in that direction by the career survey form she’d had to hand in for class.

She looked down at the battered blue suitcase, remembering dragging it through the gates of Yamaku. Mama Ando had helped her pack it for that trip. Who will help me pack for my next move? Well, Lilly will probably help me. But what if we don’t go to the same university? She grimaced, and turned to her dresser to start pulling out clothes. Maybe I should ask her where she’s applying. If I don’t know what I want to do, where I want to go, maybe I could follow her…

She wondered if Lilly would like that. Or is she looking forward to getting away from me? She knew that was a paranoid thought, that it wasn’t unusual for friends to try getting admitted to the same university together. But she still had that little demon of insecurity in the back of her mind, whispering doubts at her.

In some ways, I’m the same neurotic mess who walked through those gates almost three years ago. And in other ways… She considered herself. Who would I have become if I hadn’t come here? Despite being an asocial recluse, she was still shaped by those around her. Almost all of her own personal growth in recent years she felt she could credit to Lilly and Dr. Tanaka. Even Rin. What if I’d never met them?

Hanako couldn’t imagine being in any better shape psychologically than she was now, but she could easily imagine herself worse. She pulled her attention away from the past, and focused on deciding what to bring with her on the trip.

It took longer to pack than she had thought she would; she kept dithering over trivialities. It’s not as if I have a hundred outfits to choose from, she groused to herself. And it’s just two nights.

But eventually she finished, and then found herself waiting on Rin’s arrival at her door with increasing nervousness as the evening wore on. She worked on homework for a while as a means of distraction, but eventually gave up on that as a lost cause, as her attention kept wandering to her door. Wondering when Rin’s thump of a kick-knock would arrive. Listening to every set of footsteps that wandered down the corridor, wondering which ones would stop at her door. She changed into her night gown and gathered up her toiletries.

Rin arrived earlier than last time, a little after ten o’clock. The gentle thump on the door made Hanako jump, and she scrambled to open the door. “R-rin,” she greeted the artist as she opened her door. Once again, she was dressed in shorts and a tank-top, with her shower caddy slung over her shoulder.

Rin looked at her, and frowned slightly, making Hanako wonder what she looked like. “You don’t have to do this. I can wash my own hair.”

“You c-can?”

Rin nodded. “It’s slow. Hands help. But I can do it. Have done it.”

It seemed like Rin was offering her an out for some reason. Once again, Hanako found herself wondering just what kind of contortions Rin needed to go through to shampoo herself. “B-but I…m-make it…easier?”

Rin nodded.

Hanako took a deep breath. “Well, then. I said…I’d help. I will.”

Rin nodded again, her expression going unreadable again. She turned and headed down the hall towards the bathrooms.

Hanako found disrobing easier this time, partly because she was distracted by watching Rin undress herself. She continued to be amazed by how flexible Rin was. She had half expected Rin to ask her to undress her, but she hadn’t, she’d just sat down on the bench and pulled her tank top off over her head with her feet. She discovered how Rin handled pants by herself—she had a small stick with a rubber-coated hook on one end that she held in her mouth to manipulate the button. Once the shorts were unbuttoned and shoved a little way down her hips, she just shimmied out of them, pushing them off her legs with the opposite foot. That would explain why she likes loose pants, Hanako thought.

She was pleased to see that Rin didn’t look quite as gaunt as she had a few weeks ago. Her ribs weren’t as visible, her breasts were a touch fuller, and she had a little padding on her stomach, keeping her hips bones from looking so prominent. We just need to keep reminding her to eat, she thought. It wasn’t that Rin disliked eating—she ate just fine once she had food in front of her. The problem was getting her to step away from her canvas long enough to do so. Food wasn’t a priority for her.

Then she wondered what would happen after graduation. If Rin went off to art school without Emi, or her. Who would keep her eating properly then? Maybe I should follow Rin, not Lilly… Not that I would ever get admitted to an art school.

“You’re frowning,” Rin observed. “Is there something wrong with the way I look?” She looked down at her body, as if assessing herself.

“N-no, nothing’s wrong,” Hanako said. “You l-look…wonderful.” Then she blushed at giving her friend such a compliment while naked.

“So do you.”

Hanako bit her tongue against her automatic retort and turned her attention to putting her hair up in a bun. She picked up Rin’s shampoo and soap and stepped into the shower area. She turned on the water and waited for it to warm up, for the moment ignoring Rin behind her. Rin and her discomfiting compliments.

“Are you going to wash your hair too?” asked Rin.

Hanako shook her head. “N-no. I like to…shower in the m-morning. It helps…wake me up.”

Rin grunted. “Waking up early is for birds who want worms. I hate worms.”

Impish humor prompted Hanako to ask, “How d-do you know? Have you…tried them?”

To her amazement, Rin nodded. “I wondered what the attraction was, for the early birds.”

Hanako giggled, and she noticed that Rin’s eyes were crinkled in amusement too. “R-really?”

“As far as you know.” Rin stepped into the shower’s stream, and sighed. She closed her eyes, and seemed to relax as the water flowed over her.

Hanako was struck again by the fragrance of rosemary and mint from Rin’s shampoo. It was a strong scent, and she wondered if Rin, or perhaps Emi, had chosen it to help cover up the smell of turpentine that so often lingered around Rin. This time, she didn’t squirt an excessive amount of shampoo into her hands, and she scrubbed Rin’s scalp thoroughly. Once again, Rin seemed to linger longer than was strictly necessary, letting Hanako massage her scalp.

Rin straightened up and let the water cascade over her head, rinsing away the suds. When her head was cleared of shampoo, she turned her face toward the spray to wash the last bubbles of soap out of her eyes. She turned back to face Hanako and shook her head vigorously, clearing the water from her eyes. She blinked rapidly, then focused on Hanako.

“Will you wash my back again?” she asked.

Hanako had anticipated that request, and nodded in response as she lathered up Rin’s washcloth. Rin turned her back to Hanako, and she set to scrubbing. She was happy that here, too, was evidence of Rin’s recent eating habits, as the knobs of her spine weren’t as prominent as they had been a while ago.

When she finished with that, Rin silently turned around and raised her arm stubs. Hanako again had to repress the urge to scrub her armpits lightly, wanting to hear Rin’s giggle. The hair under her arms was a little longer than before, looking like it hadn’t been shaved since the last time she had helped Rin bathe. She wondered how often Emi did that. She was pretty sure that it was Emi who instigated that aspect of grooming; she couldn’t see Rin really caring one way or another about excess body hair. She snuck a quick glance further down Rin’s body. It didn’t look like Emi had trimmed her bikini line anytime recently either. Well, Rin never wore skirts, and Hanako wasn’t even sure if she could swim.

As Rin turned to face the water, rinsing her armpits, Hanako asked curiously, “D-do you ever…go swimming?”

Rin turned back to face her, her eyebrows raised. “Yes. Do you?”

“Ah…no.” She had no desire to expose that much of her body to the world. She hadn’t been in a pool or the ocean since before. A sudden memory of playing in the waves with her father made her flinch. She shook her head to dispel it.

"That’s too bad.”

“Eh? Why…too bad?”

“You would look good in a bikini.” Rin’s gaze flicked up and down the length of Hanako’s body, as if confirming that assessment for herself.

Hanako felt herself turning bright red. “N-n-never…a b-bikini.”

“Or nude.”

“W-what?”

“Would you model nude for me?”

Hanako was once again flabbergasted by how casually Rin made that outlandish request. “N-n-n-no!”

“Why not?”

Hanako decided that her best course would be to ignore the question. “D-do you need…help washing anything else?” she asked a bit desperately, eager to change the topic.

Rin studied her for a moment, then shook her head. “I can do the rest by foot.” She sat down on the floor, and lifted a foot toward Hanako. “Could I have the washcloth?”

Hanako stared at her for a frozen moment, taken aback by just how…exposed that posture left Rin. Pink. So very pink, she thought, her thoughts short-circuited by the view. Rin jiggled her foot a little, as if to catch her attention, and she tore her gaze away from Rin’s crotch and dropped the washcloth onto her foot. “S-sorry,” she muttered.

“For what?”

“Um…n-never mind.” If Rin hadn’t noticed her inappropriate staring, she wasn’t going to point it out to her. I never knew women’s parts could be so different. Rin’s vulva looked nothing like her own.

“Would you put the handheld on the floor next to me?”

Hanako nodded, and took the handheld shower head off of the wall and set it down next to Rin. She tried to place it so that it didn’t spray into Rin’s face.

“If th-that’s all you need…I’m going to g-get dressed, now.” Before I embarrass myself further.

Rin nodded, and Hanako breathed a silent sigh of relief.

She stepped into the dry area and closed the shower curtain behind her. She immediately felt less tense with that barrier between herself and Rin. Between her and Rin’s disquieting questions. She toweled herself off, then dressed in her nightie and panties. She let her hair down, and patted it dry. It had mostly remained out of the water, she was pleased to note.

Just as she was about to leave, she heard the water turn off. She paused, wondering if Rin would need any help drying off. She dried off by herself last week. She felt torn between wanting to escape before Rin made any more odd requests of her, and not wanting to abandon Rin prematurely.

Rin shoved the curtain aside with her stump and stepped through. She didn’t look surprised to see Hanako still there. She walked over to her towel hanging from the hook on the wall, and proceeded to rub up against it, like a cat stropping itself on someone’s legs. Oh. So that’s how she does it.

“W-would you like me…to dry your hair?” Hanako offered tentatively.

Rin paused in drying herself, and looked at Hanako. She nodded, and stepped away from the towel so Hanako could take it down.

“D-do you want to…get dressed first?” Hanako asked, slightly intimidated by Rin’s nudity. Which is just silly. She’s no more naked now than she was in the shower. But somehow this felt different. Maybe because I’m dressed?

“No.” Rin bent forward at the waist, presenting her head to Hanako just as she had for washing. Hanako toweled it vigorously. As Rin slowly stood back upright, she patted Rin’s face dry too, before draping the towel around her shoulders.

“Good?” she asked Rin.

Rin nodded. “Would you hold my panties and shorts for me to step into?”

“Um…okay?”

“I can put them on by myself but I have to sit on the floor to do that and that gets them wet which is really irritating but Emi says I can’t walk back to my room naked to get dressed where it’s dry.” She looked a little annoyed. “I don’t know why not, we’re all girls in this dorm.”

“S-sometimes…boys visit,” Hanako pointed out.

Rin shrugged, as if that was of little concern to her.

“Or you c-could wear a r-robe from the shower…to your room.”

“I can’t tie the sash.”

“Maybe a p-pull over…nightgown…like mine?” Hanako suggested as she picked up Rin’s panties and shorts.

“I don’t like nightgowns. They restrict my legs too much.” Rin stepped into her panties, and Hanako pulled them up, then they repeated the process with her shorts. She picked up Rin’s tank top and gave her a questioning look. Rin nodded, so Hanako pulled it over her head.

Rin stepped back into the wet side of the shower and collected her shampoo and soap in her shower caddy. She folded her washcloth over and stomped on it a few times, startling Hanako, until she realized that that was Rin’s way of wringing it dry. Then she added that to her caddy too.

“I’ll g-get that,” Hanako offered, as Rin began to pick up the shoulder strap with one foot. Watching Rin balance on one leg while standing on wet tile was too nerve-wracking. Rin dropped the strap, and Hanako picked it up. She put the shoulder strap on Rin’s shoulder, and she draped her towel over her other shoulder.

They exited the shower, and headed back to their rooms. “G-good night,” Hanako said to Rin as they reached her door.

Rin nodded back, then paused before opening her door. She stared at Hanako intently.

“W-what?”

Rin continued to stare at her for a long moment, then she said, “Would you think about it?”

“About…what?” Hanako asked, confused.

“Modeling nude for me.”

Hanako blushed, and looked down at the floor. “Ah…” She didn’t see any point in thinking about it, as she had no intention of changing her mind.

“Please.”

Hanako sighed, not looking up from the floor. “O…k-kay,” she said softly. She wasn’t sure if she actually would think about it, but at least agreeing to it might get her out of this awkward conversation.

“Thank you.”

Hanako nodded, still not looking up at Rin. The fact that she was lying about thinking about it made it hard to look Rin in the face. She turned and headed down the hall to her room.

When she got to her room she shut the door and leaned against it, barricading it. She turned the lock, and immediately felt a little better. This had been a very odd evening, she thought with a sigh. Seeing Lilly again, then helping Rin. In some ways, this time was easier than the first time she’d helped Rin bathe. But in others…

Why would she want to paint me nude? Of course, artists had been painting nudes since forever, but why her?

It’s probably just because I’m available. Her only option at the moment. Hanako nodded to herself.

She pushed herself upright and went to hang up her towel and prepare for bed. As she curled up in her bed, feeling safe and secure in the familiar darkness and place, she found her thoughts returning to images of Rin in the shower. She blushed at some of those, and tried to change her line of thought.

Lilly’s back. I’m so glad her aunt is okay and she returned on time. She smiled as she remembered the warmth of Lilly’s hug, and their plans for travel together to Hokkaido. It will be nice to spend some time alone with her. She tried to imagine what Hokkaido would be like as she drifted off to sleep.

Just before she fell asleep, her thoughts were pulled inexorably away from Lilly and back to memories of Rin in the shower. So...pretty...
Last edited by Lap on Fri Mar 26, 2021 1:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:08 pm

The trip to Hokkaido was even more interesting than Hanako had anticipated. She’d never ridden on the Shinkansen, and she was happily enthralled with watching the scenery whip by at such high speeds. Cities followed by farms followed by towns followed by mountains—it seemed that no sooner had she absorbed one landscape that another one appeared. Lilly slept through most of the trip, her body’s clock still in a state of confusion.

The summer house was everything Lilly had promised, nicely isolated in the midst of beautiful scenery. They spent the days just relaxing and reading, broken up with occasional conversation or walks.

On the second evening, as Hanako was cleaning up the dishes after dinner, Lilly asked, “How goes your modeling for Rin?” She had cooked their dinner, so Hanako was doing the cleanup.

Hanako continued washing the dishes as she thought about it. “Not…bad,” she said. “I’m…getting used to…being stared at. And the p-paintings…are interesting.”

“Are they all in the style of the mural that you described to me?”

“N-no. The…first painting she did was…similar to that style. B-but for each painting…she does something d-different.”

“Hmm.” Lilly sipped from her cup of after-dinner tea. “I know this may be difficult to convey in a manner that I can understand, but how are they different?”

Hanako searched for a tactile analogy. “You’ve…touched sculptures b-before, right?”

Lilly nodded. “Yes. Not a great many—most museums frown upon handling the art—but some institutions allow the visually impaired to explore certain works.”

“Okay, so…to compare it to sculpture…y-you could have a bust, a head…that’s smooth and p-polished marble, r-realistic looking…or it could be made out of…scrap metal, all r-rough and pointy. Abstract.”

“I see. Each would be a representation of a human head, but with very different approaches.”

“R-right. S-some of Rin’s paintings are m-more…realistic than others. Some…use large, smooth swaths of color. Some are m-more…jagged. The p-paint applied in short, staccato strokes, d-dancing around the…canvas.”

Lilly smiled. “That was a rather poetic description.”

Hanako blushed, pleased by Lilly’s praise. “Th-thank you.” Finished with the dishes, she dried her hands and sat down across the kitchen table from Lilly.

“Tea?” Lilly asked her.

“Please.” Hanako waited until Lilly had poured her a cup of tea before continuing. “And her colors…aren’t always…realistic. Or harmonious. Oh!” A new analogy occurred to her. “Sometimes it’s l-like a song that has a simple m-melody in a major key. And other t-times it’s like a v-vast symphony…in a discordant minor key. Both c-can be interesting, but in…very different ways.”

“As I understand it, most artists tend to work in a consistent style, no?”

“Mmm. I g-guess. B-but Rin…is still learning. Exploring. T-trying out different things. She did three quick charcoal sketches of m-me one afternoon that were all…exactly the same pose. But in very different…styles.”

"Like transposing a song from a major to a minor key, or scaling a symphony down to a simple guitar piece.”

“Yes.”

Lilly flashed her a smile. “So, you don’t regret having agreed to work for her more?”

“N-no…not…usually.” Hanako blushed as she remembered Rin’s request of two evenings back.

“Usually?”

Hanako took a sip of tea to stall for a moment. “She asked m-me…the other day…if I w-would consider…m-modeling…n-nude…for her.”

Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “And what did you tell her?”

“I s-said n-no, of…course.”

Lilly cocked her head curiously. “I don’t disagree with your decision, but why is it ‘of course?’ Simple modesty?”

“N-no…not that. But…”

Lilly waited patiently while Hanako tried to put her thoughts in order. “If it were…just the l-left side…of my body, I d-don’t think I’d care. But…” She trailed off, embarrassed to put her shame into words. She stared into her teacup, frowning.

Lilly began, “Just how—,” then she cut herself off.

Hanako looked up. “What?” She was surprised to see that Lilly was looking uncomfortable. Maybe even a little embarrassed.

Lilly smiled nervously and set down her teacup. “Would you like to move to the couch? I’d like to get under a throw.”

Hanako nodded. “That w-would be…nice.” She’d been surprised to discover how cool the evenings in Hokkaido could be, even though it was July. She finished her last sip of tea and rose.

She and Lilly sat down on the couch, and Lilly pulled a warm throw blanket off of the back of the couch to spread over the two of them. It was a smallish throw, so they had to sit close together, which Hanako didn’t mind at all. Feeling Lilly’s warmth against her left side was almost as good as hugging her.

Hanako contemplated changing the subject with their change of seating, but she found she was curious about what Lilly had been about to say. “W-what were you…going to say? Before?”

“Ah.” Lilly bit her lip, then said slowly, “I…don’t want to hurt you.”

Hanako remembered Rin saying the same thing shortly after she’d fainted while posing. For some reason, the fact that they both had said the same thing bothered her. “I’m n-not…made of glass,” she said. She hoped Lilly wouldn’t hear the annoyance in her voice, though, given Lilly’s auditory acuity, that was a slim hope.

“I know you’re not. But nonetheless, there are things I’ve avoided discussing because I don’t want to cause you unnecessary pain.”

Hanako felt her heart lurch at that. She doesn’t actually like me, she’s just been humoring me all along. Then she grimaced and shoved that thought aside. If that were true, she wouldn’t have invited me to travel with her. “L-like…w-what?” she asked, her voice quavering a little on top of her stammer. Logic was all well and good, but she was still nervous.

Lilly’s eyes were mostly closed, the way they were when she wasn’t focused on presenting a pretty public face. “You’ve never told me, and I’ve never asked, but…just how extensive are your scars?”

That was what Lilly was afraid to discuss with her? Hanako thought back, and realized that Lilly was right, she’d never told her the full extent.

“You’ve mentioned the right side of your face, and I’ve felt your hand and arm while you were guiding me, but…I’ve always gotten the impression it was more extensive than that, but I was afraid to ask.”

“R-right. I see.”

“I don’t,” said Lilly drily.

Hanako snorted. Lilly almost never made jokes about her blindness, and the moment of dark humor helped her to relax a bit. “I…it’s…” She stalled, surprised at how hard it was to actually tell Lilly.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, of course,” Lilly assured her.

Hanako shook her head. “No…I want to. It’s, um…I j-just don’t often…talk about it.” She took a deep breath for courage, and continued, “Most of m-my right side…is scarred. Head to f-foot. The d-doctors said…about twenty p-percent of my body had…third degree burns. And another…t-ten or fifteen percent had…second degree burns.”

Lilly looked shocked. "I…had no idea it was that extensive.” She lifted a hand, as if she wanted to pat Hanako consolingly, but then she dropped it back to her lap.

Hanako shrugged. “It…was l-long ago,” she said, trying to sound casual. And failing, she was pretty sure.

Lilly frowned, looking thoughtful. Hanako wondered if she wanted to ask more.

“W-what…are you thinking?” asked Hanako.

Lilly said slowly, “It’s been over a year since I first asked, and was refused. But I was wondering, would you let me examine your face now?”

Hanako felt a chill run through her at the prospect. Her immediate reaction was to say “No,” but this time, she realized that that wasn’t fully true. “I…I want t-to say yes…b-but I’m…afraid.”

“Of what?” asked Lilly gently.

Hanako stared at Lilly. Beautiful Lilly, who turned heads wherever she went. Could she ever understand what it means to be hideously ugly? Then, for the first time, it occurred to her to also wonder, Could she ever understand what it means to be incredibly beautiful? All Lilly knew about her beauty was that people told her that she was beautiful. She’d never seen it, would never see it, for herself.

“I’m afraid…th-that you’ll be…repulsed…by how hideous I am.”

“Hanako…” Lilly sounded sad. “Do you really think me that shallow?”

“Well…n-n-no,” she conceded, embarrassed by the implied slight.

“And do you really think I judge people based on what they look like?” she asked, her tone becoming gentler, more teasing. “Even leaving aside the question of whether or not I’m that shallow, there is a fundamental flaw with that idea.”

Hanako gave a nervous little laugh. “Y-yes. I suppose…there is.”

“So…is there some other reason you don’t want me to touch you? Touch your face, that is?” Indeed, they were already touching, sitting next to each other. “I don’t want to try and talk you into something you really don’t want, I would just like to understand what your reasons are. You said you want to say ‘yes.’ Why is ‘no’ overriding that?”

Hanako sighed. “You’re b-beginning…to sound like…my therapist.”

Lilly smiled. “From all you’ve said, Dr. Tanaka is a good therapist. So I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“It is,” Hanako said. “It’s j-just a little…uncomfortable.” She snorted, and shook her head ruefully. “B-but it’s when he asks m-me…the most uncomfortable questions…that th-things really get…worked out.” She fell silent as she tried to put her thoughts into order, to answer Lilly’s question.

Lilly seemed to intuit what she was doing, because she didn’t say anything else. She reached over and patted Hanako’s knee, and Hanako placed her hand on top of Lilly’s, squeezing it gently.

’Th-thank you for your p-patience,” she eventually said.

“Of course.”

“I th-think part of my…reluctance…is because I don’t want to d-destroy…your mental image of me.”

Lilly frowned. “It might change it, but I don’t think it could destroy it.”

“N-no, but…” Hanako blushed. “I’ve always th-thought, that since you c-can’t see me…your m-mental image of me might be…of a normal girl.” She felt embarrassed that such a shallow reason was standing in her way of getting closer to Lilly.

“Ah.” Lilly looked thoughtful for a moment. “But I’ve long known your face is scarred. You told me that, and Akira did too, after she first met you.”

“She did?” Hanako hadn’t considered the possibility of others describing her to Lilly. Which was silly, now that she thought about it.

“Yes. So I’m not sure that my mental image of you would change all that much, except to become more accurate.”

Hanako absorbed that thought for a moment, then she turned her torso towards Lilly, so she was facing her fully. She took Lilly’s hand that she was still holding and raised it to her face. To the left side of her face, to start.

“Is this truly okay with you?” Lilly asked.

Hanako nodded, knowing that for once, Lilly could perceive her nod. She didn’t trust herself to speak at the moment.

“All right then. Thank you, Hanako.” Lilly sounded oddly formal.

Lilly’s fingers roamed the left side of her face, gently tracing the contours of her nose, her ears, her eyebrow, her jawline. She revisited each part of the face several times. Hanako quivered at her touch. So intimate, so close, touching her as she’d never been touched before, and yet in a way it was almost clinical. She stared at Lilly, who was smiling slightly as she touched her face. Lilly’s eyes were still mostly closed, which, illogically, made it easier to bear.

Lilly raised her left hand to join the right, and Hanako tensed. Lilly paused at that, her left hand centimeters from her face. “May I?”

Hanako tried to speak twice before she managed to utter, “Yes.”

As Lilly’s hand began to touch the scarred side of her face, Hanako had to fight to keep her eyes open. She wanted to hide, afraid of the revulsion or disgust that she would see on Lilly’s face. Trust Lilly, she thought to herself, and she kept her gaze on Lilly’s face as Lilly “looked” at her face. Wanting to see for herself that Lilly wasn’t repulsed.

“Can you feel this?” Lilly asked curiously.

Hanako shrugged. “S-some. M-my sense of t-touch is…pretty diminished. But I c-can tell…that you’re touching me.”

“And not all of your right side is scarred,” Lilly noted, her fingers tracing a gentle arc around her eyebrow and eye. Hanako had to close her eyes for a moment for that.

“N-no. I still…have my r-right eye.”

“I know you may not fit the conventional definition of beauty, but you are still beautiful to me.”

Hanako flinched. There’s that word again.

“Your right side is merely…different. To my perception. Neither better or worse.” Indeed, Lilly’s smile had remained in place as she stroked the scarred skin of her right side. “Thank you for allowing me this. For trusting me.” Lilly cupped Hanako’s face with both hands for a moment, then dropped her hands back to her lap, her examination complete.

Now Hanako did close her eyes, and bowed her head. She fought to keep the tears that were threatening her from falling. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome.”

Hanako took a deep breath, and sat up straighter. She opened her eyes and looked at Lilly again. Insecurity forced her to ask, “You r-really…don’t…mind the w-way l…look?”

“How could I? It’s you, Hanako. I know you worry about your appearance, you may not be happy with it, but to me, you’re still my beloved friend.” Her smile faded as she added more soberly, “The only disturbing aspect to your scars from my point of view is that they are a record of pain, and it saddens me to know you’ve gone through so much of it. But still, you’ve survived. It amazes me how strong you are, to weather all that.”

Hanako laughed bleakly. “Strong. M-me,” she said bitterly.

“Yes, you. I know you have difficulties, challenges that you deal with. But you do face them.”

“If I d-don’t…run away from them f-first,” Hanako muttered.

Lilly tilted her head. “Sometimes. At first, yes. You can’t always be ready to face a challenge the first time it presents itself to you. But you face it eventually, be it the second, third, or fourth or more time.”

“Mmm.” Hanako made a skeptical sound.

Lilly looked pensive for a moment. “Tell me, if I’d told a year ago that you’d be modeling for Rin right now, would you have believed me?”

“W-well…no.”

“Or writing for the school newspaper?”

“No.”

“Or that you’d be eating lunch occasionally with three other people besides me?”

“N-no.”

“Or even traveling as far from Yamaku as Hokkaido?”

“Mmmaybe that. If it was…with you.”

Lilly smiled. “But my point remains, you’ve changed and grown a lot in the past year. In the past few months, even.”

Hanako blushed, uncomfortable with the compliment. “B-but I’m still…just barely f-functional. Sometimes.” She slumped a little. “I still…went to pieces…on…on my b-birthday,” she ended in a whisper.

Lilly nodded. “True, you had difficulty on your birthday. But from what you told me afterward, you spent part of that day with Rin. Last year you wouldn’t see anyone at all.”

Hanako wondered for a moment if Lilly was annoyed or jealous that Rin had managed to do what she had not, but she discarded that idea as unworthy. Lilly’s not that petty. “I…guess so,” she conceded reluctantly.

Lilly frowned. “I don’t want to sound like your therapist, because I’m your friend, not your therapist. But it seems to me you are getting better. Stronger. Maybe not as quickly as you might like, but still, always improving.”

“M-maybe.”

“Definitely,” said Lilly firmly. “Trust me on this. I can see it, even if you can’t.”

Hanako smiled at Lilly’s choice of words. “Okay,” she said shyly. “Thanks.”

Lilly lifted an arm and slid it over Hanako’s shoulders, and pulled her close, into a sideways hug. Hanako hesitantly rested her head on Lilly’s shoulder, and Lilly tilted her head to rest against hers. “You’ve made a lot of changes in the past couple of years. Maybe it’s not so evident to you, but from the outside, it’s apparent.”

Hanako thought back to the first time she met Lilly, as she moved into the dorm. Or the first time she approached her on her own, terrified and mostly speechless with anxiety. She still had a lot of the same issues as she had then, but…maybe Lilly was right. Maybe she was slowly improving.

“Thank you,” she said softly to Lilly. “You’ve helped m-me…so much.”

“I’m glad you think so. But I think most of the hard work, you’ve done yourself.”

Hanako smiled. “I should p-probably be thanking…Dr. Tanaka, t-too.”

“Indeed.”

Hanako sighed, and relaxed into the warmth of Lilly’s embrace. She found her eyes drifting shut, even though it wasn’t that late in the evening. It seemed like Lilly still wasn’t fully over her jet lag, because after a few minutes of peaceful cuddling, her breathing slowed to a steady pace. “Lilly?” Hanako whispered.

Receiving no reply, she smiled and relaxed further into Lilly’s embrace. “Sweet…dreams,” she murmured, before slipping into sleep herself.





_______________________





By the time Hanako and Lilly got back to the dorm Monday evening, the stress of travel had eroded some of the relaxation the vacation had provided. Hanako helped Lilly get her suitcase into her room, then went back to her own room and collapsed.

Hanako arrived at the art room Tuesday after classes to find Rin waiting for her outside of the room. "There you are,” Rin said, as if she’d been waiting for longer than the five minutes since classes had ended for the day. Which she might have been, Hanako supposed; she’d come to realize that Rin’s classroom attendance was erratic at best.

Hanako nodded in lieu of speaking. Rin just nodded back, then turned and walked away, forcing Hanako to speech. “R-rin? Are y-you not…painting, today?”

Rin shook her head as she continued walking. “I need to visit the worry tree. But Emi said I shouldn’t stand you up, so I waited to tell you.”

"Th-thank you.” What was a worry tree, and why was Rin going to it?

Rin paused at the top of the stairs and finally looked back at Hanako. “You can come, if you want.”

Hanako slowly approached Rin, who turned and headed down the stairs. She considered asking Rin what a worry tree was, but she decided to just wait and see. Rin’s answers had a way of being non-answers, eliciting confusion more than understanding. Waiting for understanding to emerge would be easiest. She picked up her pace and followed Rin out of the building.

Rin didn’t comment on her decision to join her, if she even noticed; she just turned and headed toward the wooded area behind the school. As they passed through a rusty iron gate, Hanako realized that in the two and a half years she’d been at Yamaku, she’d never ventured back to this area. She found the untamed woods a little intimidating, despite the paved path. Rin, however, showed no hesitation about venturing into the forest. They followed the paved and accessible path for a hundred meters or so, then Rin turned off the path and started walking through the undergrowth.

Hanako realized, as she followed Rin, that there was a path of sorts through the undergrowth, a trail worn in the dirt by animals, maybe even students. But it wasn’t what she’d consider a real path. Rin showed no sign of slowing, agilely clambering over tree roots and hopping over small rivulets as they went.

Just when Hanako was afraid that they were wandering without any direction, and would be forever lost in the woods, a clearing appeared in front of them. Rin paused at the edge of the clearing, and Hanako came up beside her. Rin flicked a glance sideways at her, the first acknowledgement of her presence she’d shown in fifteen minutes. Hanako was heartened to note that Rin was sweating almost as much as she was.

“It should be around here somewhere,” Rin murmured.

Hanako just stood and looked at the meadow in front of them. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the brightness after the overgrown forest. It was beautiful in way she wasn’t used to, with flowers and butterflies appearing among the tall grasses. She’d seen such things in photos and movies, of course, but it was a new experience for her. The grass wavered in the breeze, and bright yellow spots of color dotted the field. There were no signs of human-made structures visible anywhere, aside from one lone contrail slowly dissolving in the bright blue sky.

Rin wandered along the edge of the clearing, looking up at the trees as she went. Hanako followed, their pace much slower now, as Rin appeared to contemplate something invisible to Hanako. Was she looking for a view to paint? Inspiration of some sort?

“Ahh,” Rin said softly, sounding satisfied. She sat down with her back to a tree, which even a city girl like Hanako could recognize as a gingko, with its distinctive fan-shaped leaves. Rin’s whole body seemed to relax a little as she sat, and she stared up at the overhanging branches and leaves. Hanako hesitantly sat down beside her and glanced up too.

The blue sky made a lovely pattern through the gently shifting leaves. She wondered what it would be like to be an artist and draw inspiration from such sights. Not that she’d ever seen anything like those leaves in Rin’s paintings, but maybe she would in the future?

Rin sat up from her reclining position, and twisted her shoulders. “Take off my shirt.”

“W-what?” Hanako sat up too, and stared at Rin.

“Take off my shirt,” Rin repeated. “Please. I'm too hot.”

“B-but…we’re outdoors.”

“Yes. That's why I'm hot.”

“B-but…” Hanako looked around the open meadow. “What if…someone s-s-sees you?”

Rin shrugged. “No one ever comes here.” She slipped off a sandal and reached up with her toes to tug at the knot of her tie, not waiting for Hanako’s assistance.

Hanako took another look around and sighed. She leaned over and gently pushed Rin’s foot aside. “L-let me.” She removed Rin’s tie and unbuttoned her shirt. She was relieved to see Rin was wearing a short tank top underneath, so at least she wouldn't be totally exposed. “No bra?” she asked.

Rin shrugged. “Emi wasn't in her room this morning. A tank top is easier for me to put on by myself.”

The word “easier” implied that Rin could, if needed, put on a bra by herself, and Hanako found herself wondering how she did it. The contortions required…

She shook her head sharply, dispelling the slightly lewd mental image. She set Rin’s tie and shirt aside. It was odd to see her bare stumps, usually hidden inside her knotted sleeves. Rin didn’t seem to mind having them visible, which made Hanako wonder why she wore the long sleeve shirts in the first place. Especially in summer. Was it just habit? To make other people more comfortable? Or something else entirely?

“You can take off your shirt too, if you want,” Rin said.

“Ah…” No, I really can’t.

“You're sweating.”

That was true, but Hanako was nowhere near as comfortable with her body as Rin was. Still, she could take off the black bow from around her neck and unbutton a few buttons. It did feel cooler to do so. Feeling greatly daring, she undid a couple more buttons, going down as far as the clasp on the front of her bra. She would never dare show so much cleavage in school, but out here? It felt like Rin was right. No one would come by and see them. The place felt almost other-worldly, isolated from Yamaku and the rest of the world.

Rin was already leaning back against the tree, staring back up at the leaves and sky. Hanako admired the strip of stomach between the bottom of her short top and the top of her slacks for a moment before looking away, blushing. She decided to emulate Rin’s pose, stretching her legs out in front of her and leaning back. After a moment’s hesitation, she toed off her shoes, allowing her feet to cool off too. She noticed that Rin had already removed her sandals and was absently playing with a stalk of grass between her toes. She watched Rin’s feet, fascinated anew by how agile her toes were, mindlessly fiddling with the stalk of grass much like a person with hands would.

She tipped her head back and looked up at the sky, and felt the peace of this quiet meadow slowly sink into her. As the sweat from their climb slowly evaporated, she relaxed even further, the warmth and her exertions making her close her eyes. With a quiet little sigh, she drifted off to sleep.





_______________________





Hanako woke after a brief nap to the sound of Rin whispering something. She opened her eyes and looked around blearily, wondering how long she’d been asleep. Not too long, judging by the sun. She looked over to Rin, wondering what she was whispering about, but her words were only barely audible, unintelligible except for a word here and there—such as “Art” and “Sensei.”

“Rin?” she essayed cautiously.

Rin stopped whispering, and looked over at her.

After a moment of silent mutual contemplation, Hanako asked, “W-were you…talking to…someone?”

Rin looked around the meadow. “Who? You’re the only other person here.”

“Well, yes, b-but sometimes…” Hanako took a deep breath. “Sometimes I t-talk to people…who aren’t here.” Like her parents.

Rin cocked her head. “Do they talk back?” she asked curiously.

“N-no.” Unfortunately.

“Oh.”

When Rin didn’t seem inclined to pursue that line of conversation any further, Hanako asked, “Did you…is there something…you’d like to t-talk about?”

Rin stared at her for a long moment with an intensity that she rarely displayed when not actually painting. Hanako began to feel nervous, wondering if she’d somehow managed to offend Rin, although she couldn’t imagine how.

Finally, Rin nodded. “Yes.”

After another silence, Hanako said, “Okay…about what?”

Rin tipped her head back, and stared back up at the leaves again. “Sensei.”

When Rin said “Sensei” without a name, it always meant Nomiya. Hanako wondered if any of the other teachers at school held any significance for her. “W-what…about him?”

Rin sighed. “Sensei…wants me to change.”

Hanako recalled the conversation she’d overheard a few days ago. “He wants you…to do a show.”

Rin nodded, not showing any surprise that Hanako knew that.

“Why w-would doing a…show…change you?”

“I…don’t know. I’m not sure it would. But I’m not sure it wouldn’t.”

“Oh.”

“I wouldn’t mind…just showing what I’ve done so far.”

“B-but…he wants…something different?”

Rin nodded. “He wants new work.”

“That’s n-not me.”

“Yes.”

“But…you don’t want to p-paint…what he tells you to paint.”

“No. But…he says doing a show would be ‘good for me.’ Make it easier for me to get into an art school. Get me…noticed.” That last word had a faint tone of distaste to it.

Hanako had no idea what was required to get into a good art school, but she assumed Nomiya would know. “Would that be…so bad?”

“I’m not sure I want to be more noticed. I get enough notice just because of my arms. I don’t know if I want any more.”

Rin dropped her gaze from the canopy overhead and stared at Hanako, her normally expressionless face looking slightly bewildered. “What do you think I should do?”

Hanako considered the question for a long moment. Rin waited patiently. There was only one possible answer Hanako could come up with. “You should do…what you want to do.”

“But I’m not sure what I want to do is.”

That was a little more difficult.

“I want…I think I want…to go to art school. And become an artist. I want more people to see my work, to understand me.”

“But you c-can’t become an artist.”

“What?”

“You…already are an artist.”

“What?”

Hanako frowned at Rin, puzzled by her reaction. “You already are…an artist,” she repeated. “You create…art. That’s what an artist…is.”

Rin just continued to stare at Hanako. She went on, “You would learn…new things, in school. New techniques…new media…but you wouldn’t be any m-more or less an artist…than you already are now.”

“But…the way Sensei says it…” Rin said slowly.

“Maybe he means…become a p-professional artist? A commercially successful artist? Famous?”

Rin nodded slowly.

“Are those things…important to you?”

Rin stared off into the distance, visibly thinking. Hanako studied her while waiting. Tiny flickers of emotion passed across her face, barely perceptible, most of them indecipherable. But if she had to guess what Rin was feeling, based on those little clues, she would say she looked uneasy.

When she finally spoke, it was slowly and haltingly. “I don’t care…about being famous. Not for its own sake. I don’t want to be an idol. But…if I was famous. More people would see my work. I think I might like that.

“I want…people to understand me. I can’t express myself in words, I’m not like Emi or you or Naomi or Natsume or Misha or Lilly or…” She cut herself off, shaking her head a little. “I have these…these things, these ideas, these emotions, flittering around inside my head like too many birds in too small a cage, that try to come out in my paintings. If I learned more about being an artist…maybe I could do that better. Set more birds free?” She looked at Hanako. “Is that…possible?”

Hanako was impressed. She was pretty sure that was the longest speech she’d ever heard from Rin. “I th-think it’s possible. That that’s…what art school is for.”

Rin looked faintly relieved at that reassurance and she relaxed a bit. She nodded slowly, then said, “Yes. I should go to art school.”

Hanako was surprised that attending art school was even a question for Rin. What else would she do with her life? Art was her passion, her life. Hanako couldn’t imagine having that kind of focus and drive. She was envious of it. Yet, apparently, despite having that passion, Rin was as uncertain about her plans for after high school as anyone else. I guess we’re all just uncertain, insecure teenagers at heart, she thought wryly to herself.

Then she remembered what Nomiya had said, and what Rin had just said about what her art was for. Expressing herself. She bit her lip, studying Rin, wondering if she dared ask.

“You look like the birds are circling in your head too,” Rin observed. Hanako considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Do you want to paint something?” Then she frowned slightly. “No. You paint with words. You tell stories. Can you let them out that way?”

Hanako took a deep breath to steel herself. “So if you p-paint to express yourself…why do you keep painting…me?”

Rin just stared at her for the longest time, and Hanako began to get nervous. More nervous. Then, to her amazement, Rin’s flat expression slowly softened into a smile. A tiny smile, but an unmistakable one. About the only thing Hanako could say about the expression for certain was that she was for some reason sure that Rin wasn’t laughing at her. “That’s a very good question,” Rin finally said quietly.

Hanako waited to see if there was any further explication coming. But Rin just turned her smile upwards, and stared at the sky and leaves making patterns overhead.





_______________________





At the end of lunch Thursday, just before Hanako and Rin parted ways in the hall outside their classrooms, Rin said to her, “I won’t be painting today. But could you still meet me at the art room after school?”

That surprised Hanako. “Why?” she asked, wondering both why Rin wasn’t painting and why she wanted her there anyway.

Rin didn’t respond immediately, instead staring mutely at the floor. After a long silence, she said quietly, “Sensei…” She sighed and shook her head. She looked up at Hanako. “Please.”

That single syllable held more emotional weight than most of Rin’s flat speech. Hanako nodded. “Okay.”

Rin nodded back, and entered her classroom. Hanako stared after her for a moment, wondering what was going on, then went to her own class.

When Hanako arrived at the art room after school, she was surprised to see Nomiya talking with Rin, not holed up in his office like he usually was. He looked over at her as she entered the room, and he smiled jovially. “Ah! Ikezawa! Just the girl we need. You can help carry some of these canvases out to the car.”

“P-pardon?”

“Tezuka finally agreed to meet with a gallery owner in town I know, to show her some of her paintings. An excellent opportunity for her, quite unprecedented for someone her age.” He beamed at Rin, as if encouraging her to be excited too, but if anything, she looked even more stony-faced than usual.

Hanako shot Rin a questioning look, wondering if she actually wanted to do this, but Rin didn’t seem to notice. “What d-do you need…help with?” she asked the teacher.

He gestured to a set of canvases leaning against his desk. “I’ve selected a few of Tezuka’s more representative works. If you can help me carry them down to the car, that could save me an extra trip. Tezuka can’t help, of course!” He laughed, as if that were somehow a funny observation. Hanako suppressed her grimace at his “humor;” she didn’t want to seem disrespectful to a teacher.

“All right,” she said, and she bent to pick up a couple of canvases. She noted that the three paintings were older ones, none of them of her. She supposed she was grateful that her image wasn’t going to be examined, but at the same time it didn’t feel like it was a good representation of Rin’s work, either. Nomiya picked up a stack of photos from his desk and grabbed the third canvas.

“Let’s go, ladies!” he said jovially, and led the way downstairs and out to the staff parking lot. Hanako placed the canvases in the trunk of his car at his direction, then paused, looking nervously at the teacher. Was she done here?

“Come along, Ikezawa. I could use your help at the other end, too,” Nomiya said, gesturing her toward the car and giving her a plastic looking smile.

Hanako glanced at Rin. Rin met her gaze for a second, and Hanako saw Rin’s lips move, forming a single silent word: “Please.”

Hanako nodded, reminded of Rin’s earlier “Please,” and got into the backseat of the car. Rin slid in next to her and slipped off her sandals, crossing her leg up and over her body to pull the seatbelt across her lap. Clipping the buckle into place proved a little more tricky, and Hanako quietly asked, “Would you l-like…help?”

Rin glanced at her sideways, and nodded, dropping her foot from the buckle. Hanako buckled Rin in, and then herself.

Nomiya drove rather quickly for Hanako’s taste, and she clung to the door handle for safety as they barreled into town. Fortunately, the ride was only about ten minutes. After they parked, Hanako went to the back of the car and picked up the paintings, then she and Rin followed Nomiya several blocks to a gallery, with a large sign proclaiming “22nd Corner.”

“The twenty-second corner from where?” Rin asked, staring at the sign.

Hanako shrugged. “The…first corner?”

Rin considered that for a moment, then nodded, apparently satisfied.

Nomiya held the door to the gallery open, gesturing to them impatiently. “Come along, children!”

Children? Hanako thought, slightly offended. But she hefted the canvases in her arms and followed Rin inside. The gallery was air-conditioned and cool, a welcome relief after carrying two canvases for several blocks through the summer heat. The walls were filled with paintings done in a fairly traditional representational style.

“Sae! Hello!” Nomiya called out.

Hanako turned to see an older woman in a tan suit approaching, her attention focused on Nomiya.

"Oh, there you are, Shinichi. So good to see you. I take it that these two are your students?" She looked at Rin and Hanako. She seemed unsurprised by Rin’s lack of arms, but when she looked at Hanako, her steps faltered for a second, and she winced. Hanako looked down at the floor, her face flushing with embarrassment. She let her hair fall forward over her face, hiding herself from view. She shuffled over to a long table by the wall and set the canvases she’d carried in down on it.

“Yes,” said Nomiya. “This is Tezuka, and her muse, Ikezawa.”

Sae’s eyebrow shot up. “Muse?”

Hanako blushed and looked away from Sae’s inquisitive gaze.

Nomiya chuckled. “Tezuka has done a series of portraits of her. A fascinating exercise, really, exploring various styles using the same subject, though I think you’ll find some of her older work to be even more interesting.”

“Ah,” Sae said. She gave Hanako and Rin a slightly strained smile. “Pleased to meet you both. My name is Sae Saionji. I'm the owner of this gallery. Would you care for some tea?"

“Oh, no, no, thank you, we're fine. Let’s have a look at what we brought,” Nomiya answered for them, spreading out the photos he was carrying next to the canvases on the table.

Feeling like her work was done here, Hanako backed away as the two started talking about Rin’s work. She wandered around the gallery, examining the art on display. It seemed to be mostly the work of one artist, a collection of landscapes and portraits. They were nicely done, she supposed; realistic and pretty to look at, at least. But when she compared them to the bold lines and vibrant colors of Rin’s work, they felt a little…simple. Shallow.

To be honest, dull.

She shook her head and smiled at her thoughts. I become an artist’s model, and now I’m automatically a critic? But it was more than just that. During her time working with Rin on the mural, and watching Rin work on other paintings, she’d developed an appreciation for her style. Like she’d said at her birthday party, she wouldn’t go so far as to claim she understood all of what Rin was doing, but she liked it. It had vibrancy, life, heart, whereas the pretty landscapes and faces here felt soulless.

Her circuit of the gallery brought her back to where the other three were standing. She blushed to see that Nomiya hadn’t totally ignored her portraits. Among the photographs of Rin’s other work spread out on the table were two of the more abstract portraits of Hanako.

“So, kitten, do you think you’re ready for a show of your own?” Sae was asking Rin.

Rin was silent for a long moment, looking around the gallery, then she said, “No.”

Hanako sucked in a breath in shock but was ignored by the other three.

“What?” Nomiya spluttered. “Tezuka, what are you talking about? You said you would do this!”

Rin shook her head, not looking at anybody. “I said I would think about it. I thought about it. I said I would meet your friend. I’ve met her.”

Hanako glanced nervously at the art teacher, whose face was getting redder by the moment.

“Young lady, I don’t think you appreciate the magnitude of the opportunity you’re being presented with here!”

Rin stared at a landscape painting on the far wall as if it were the most fascinating thing she’d ever seen. “Probably not.”

“But you—” Nomiya cut himself off, and turned to Sae. “Would you pardon us for a moment? Tezuka and I need to have a little talk,” he said with a tight smile.

“Of course.” Sae caught Hanako’s eye and cocked her head toward the gallery’s door. Hanako hesitated, glancing at Rin and Nomiya, then nodded. She followed the older woman out of the gallery to the sidewalk outside. After the cool gallery, the summer heat felt twice as oppressive.

Sae walked over to the side of the gallery where an ashtray was mounted on the wall, pulling out a cigarette pack and lighter. She held out the pack to Hanako with a questioning look on her face. When Hanako shook her head, Sae smiled and shrugged.

Plucking a cigarette from the pack, she lit it with her lighter, then tucked the pack and lighter back into her jacket pocket. She took a deep drag from the cigarette, then blew a stream of smoke out with a satisfied sigh.

“So,” she said to Hanako. Hanako jumped to be addressed, then she nodded jerkily in response. “Why you?” asked Sae.

“P-pardon?”

“Why you? Why are you our armless prodigy’s muse?”

“M-m-muse?” Hanako grimaced, annoyed by Sae’s referring to Rin as an “armless prodigy.”

“Yeah. Shinichi says that pretty much all she’s painted for the past month are pictures of you. Why? Why are you her muse? Are you her girlfriend?”

Hanako’s eyes went wide. “W-what? No. N-not her… girlfriend. Just…a friend. And model.”

“Then why is she obsessed with painting you?”

Hanako frowned at the Sae’s word choice. Obsessed? She’s not obsessed…is she? Despite the fact that Hanako had asked Rin a similar question just a couple of days ago, the way Sae framed it was…irritating.

Sae took another drag from her cigarette, then jabbed it at Hanako. “At the moment it’s you she wants to paint, and nothing else. Something about you captivates her.” She cocked her head and examined Hanako critically, as if trying to determine what it was that held Rin’s attention.

At least she didn’t flinch this time, Hanako thought sourly. Sae was setting her teeth on edge. “R-rin paints…what she wants to paint. Sh-should she paint…what someone else wants her to paint, instead?” Hanako never could have spoken so boldly in self-defense, but she could, and would, defend her friend.

“No…” Sae conceded. She took another slow drag off her cigarette. “So, what about you? Why do you like her? I haven’t spent a lot of time with her, but I can already tell that, even by the standards of artists, she’s an odd duck. Why do you stick by her? Defend her? Model for her?”

Hanako stared at the ground for a long moment, thinking, then she lifted her chin and met Sae’s eyes directly. “She has n-never…flinched…when she looked at me.”

Sae grimaced and looked away. “Sorry,” she muttered.

Hanako could feel her cheeks burning, but she didn’t lower her gaze. “I’m…used to it,” she said flatly, and Sae flinched again.

“Right.” Sae sighed as she stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray and dropped it in. She glanced through the window back into the gallery. “Looks like they’re done. Let’s go back inside before I shove my foot any further into my mouth, shall we?”

Hanako nodded and followed Sae back into the cool gallery.

It wasn’t just the air conditioning that made the gallery seem cooler. The tension between Rin and Nomiya felt practically arctic to Hanako, and she shivered as she regarded them. They were standing at opposite ends of the gallery, not facing each other. Whatever conversation they’d managed to have—or, more likely, whatever shouting Nomiya had been doing—had finished in the brief time they’d been outside.

The art teacher looked up at the door’s chime, and pasted a patently false smile on his face. “Well, Sae. Sorry to have wasted your time. I think…we’re done here.”

Sae nodded, not looking at all surprised.

“Ikezawa, could you get those canvases?” Nomiya asked. Hanako nodded, and stacked the three canvases together, taking all of them this time. She and Rin left without waiting for Nomiya, letting him make his farewells to his friend. They walked the several blocks back to the car, and she loaded the canvases into the trunk again. A few moments later, Nomiya arrived and gestured them into the car. “Let’s go,” he grunted.

Hanako buckled Rin into her seat, then herself. The trip back to school was silent, but it was a loud silence. Nomiya continually seemed like he was on the verge of saying something, but he never did. Hanako felt herself growing more and more tense as the ride went on, wondering what, if anything, the teacher was going to say, waiting for his explosion. She looked over at Rin, who seemed to be getting more relaxed as the ride went on.

When Nomiya pulled up to the gates of Yamaku, he said, “I’ll bring the paintings back up tomorrow. You can leave them in the trunk. Thank you for your help, Ikezawa. Good night.” With that blunt dismissal, not even acknowledging Rin, Hanako and Rin got out of the car, and Nomiya drove away.

Hanako looked at Rin, who was watching the disappearing car. “Th-that…could have gone…b-better,” Hanako ventured hesitantly.

Rin shook her head, still watching the road, even though Nomiya’s car was no longer visible. “No. That was the best it could have gone.”

“Huh? You d-didn’t want…a show?”

“Sensei wanted it. He wanted it for me. But for me to do that show…I would have had to become someone else. Someone new. I’m not sure I would have survived that change.” She turned to face Hanako with an enigmatic smile. “I’m not done with this me, yet. So…” She paused a moment, looking thoughtful. “So I’m glad I don’t have to change. Yet.”

Hanako didn’t understand what all of that meant, but she was glad that Rin wasn’t upset with the way things had turned out. She smiled back. “Let’s…head inside.”

Rin didn’t respond, but she turned and started walking towards their dorm.

It was dinner time when they returned to the dorm, but Hanako found the thought of seeing so many people just then utterly enervating. The emotional strain of dealing with Nomiya and Sae had left Hanako feeling limp and flat. She just wanted to eat something and collapse into bed. “I’m g-going to make…something to eat…before g-going to bed. Do you want to j-join me?”

Rin looked at her, a faint trace of surprise on her face. “Join you?”

“For dinner?”

“Oh.” The surprise faded. She shrugged. “I guess.”

“You aren’t hungry?”

“I might be?” Rin looked thoughtful for a moment. “I don’t think I’ve eaten since breakfast, so I probably am.”

“C-can’t you tell?”

Rin just shrugged yet again. Hanako supposed that someone who regularly painted through meals, never stopping to eat, might lose sense of what hunger felt like or meant. She sighed, remembering what Rin had looked like in the shower, almost too slender. But still, so very lovely…

She tore her mind away from that mental image and headed to the dorm kitchen. Rin followed along. “Is there anything…you d-don’t like to eat?”

Rin looked thoughtful for a moment. “Bricks. And jellyfish.”

Hanako smiled. “L-luckily for you, the Aura-Mart…was all out of fresh bricks and j-jellyfish…this week.”

Rin nodded. “Good.”

Hanako almost responded to Rin’s flat reply with, “That was a joke,” but she decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Instead, she opened the refrigerator and poked through her cooking supplies.

Leftover teriyaki chicken…eggs…green onions…cabbage… She smiled as inspiration struck. “I b-bought…some okonomiyaki mix…last week.” The cabbage was a little wilted, but chopped up and cooked it should be okay.

Rin nodded. “Okonomiyaki is good.”

Hanako nodded happily, pleased to be able to pull something together from what she had on hand. And she was sure Lilly wouldn’t mind if she used some of her bonito flakes. She set to work, pulling out food and cooking implements.

“Can I help?” Rin asked suddenly.

Hanako stopped and looked at Rin. She’d never seen Rin cooking before. She tried to imagine how she’d manage, without hands. “I d-don’t know. C-can you?” she asked honestly.

Rin nodded. “I’m not very fast at cutting things, but if you set things on the table for me I can measure and stir.”

“All right.” Hanako moved the bowl and spoon, pre-packaged mix, and measuring scale to the table as Rin hopped up onto the counter next to the sink. She turned on the water with her foot, then picked up the bar of soap sitting next to the sink and rubbed it between her soles. Hanako watched with interest as Rin washed her feet, grateful that she hadn’t had to ask Rin to wash up before handling—footling?—their food. She held out a paper towel for Rin to dry her feet with when she finished, then she washed her hands.

Rin slipped off the counter and sat down next to the table on one of the higher chairs. She lifted her feet to the table top and pulled the box of mix over to her.

“I’ll…chop the c-cabbage and chicken, and you…can mix. Things.” Hanako hesitated, then asked, “Can you crack eggs?”

Rin nodded. Hanako was a little dubious, but she didn’t want to call Rin a liar, so she put the egg carton on the table too.

Rin picked up the box and read the instructions on the side, then began to measure out the mix. Hanako began to chop the cabbage and green onions, but she kept getting distracted watching Rin at work. She’d grown used to seeing Rin paint or eat with her feet, but she’d never seen her doing something as mundane as cooking.

Hanako gave up on chopping for a moment to stop and blatantly stare when Rin picked up an egg between two toes, tapped it on the edge of the bowl, and pulled the two halves of the shell apart using both feet. Hanako thought it was the most amazing exhibition of dexterity and precision that she’d ever seen Rin display. And then she did it three more times, never dropping any shell into the mix. Hanako wasn’t sure if she could crack four eggs without dropping some shell into the bowl.

Looking at Rin’s feet as she picked up the spoon to stir with, she was surprised to note that Rin was wearing toenail polish. It was subtle, probably clear, but definitely there, neat and shiny. A mental image sprang to mind of Emi sitting with Rin some evening, painting her toenails. She wondered if Rin would ever like to have her paint her toenails sometime.

Then she shook her head. She never painted her own toenails; why would she want to paint Rin’s? And why would Rin want her to?

“I need two hundred milliliters of water,” Rin said, interrupting her train of thought.

Hanako filled a measuring cup with water and set it on the table by Rin. She resumed chopping as Rin continued mixing. She added her ingredients to Rin’s, and put a pan on the stove to heat. Once it was heated, she put some oil in, then poured in the completed mixture. It sizzled nicely, and a mouth-watering smell began to fill the kitchen.

Fifteen minutes later, Hanako slid the cooked okonomiyaki out of the pan onto a plate, where she drizzled some mayonnaise on top, then sprinkled some of Lilly’s bonito flakes on top of that, followed by a large pinch of dried seaweed. She cut it into two pieces and slid one onto another plate. She glanced at Rin. “W-would you like me…to cut yours up…for you?”

Rin picked up her fork and poked at the okonomiyaki. She shook her head. “This is soft enough. I can cut it.”

“Okay.”

For a while there was no talking, just the quiet sounds of their eating. Hanako was quite pleased with how the dish had turned out; it was one of her more successful ventures in cooking, and without Lilly’s guidance at that. She glanced at Rin, wondering if she liked it too. Rin kept eating, slow and steady, so she didn’t hate it, at least.

Hanako’s hunger propelled her to finish her portion of the meal before Rin finished hers. “I was surprised…you followed the d-directions,” Hanako said. She smiled to try and make it clear she wasn’t criticizing. “I thought you’d b-be more…creative.”

Rin shook her head. “My mother never liked my creations. I follow recipes when cooking with someone else.”

"D-did you cook…a lot…with your mother?”

Rin was silent for so long that Hanako didn’t think she was going to answer. She was about to say something else, to change the subject, when Rin said, “It was important to my mother that I know how to cook.”

Hanako waited for further explication, but none was forthcoming. Rin stared off into the distance, looking a little sad. On the one hand, Hanako envied Rin for having a mother. On the other hand, it didn’t sound like Rin was very happy with her mother. Or maybe it was her mother who wasn’t happy with Rin. Hanako wondered what the story was there, but she didn’t want to upset Rin by poking into her past, especially if that past wasn’t happy.

“Well…I th-think we made a good t-team,” she said to Rin with a hesitant smile. “At least it turned out t-tasty.”

Rin blinked, and looked back at the food in front of her. She put another bite in her mouth, and chewed thoughtfully, as if tasting it anew. She swallowed, and nodded. “Yes. Tasty.” She took another bite, then looked at Hanako as she swallowed. “And yes. A good team.” The corner of her mouth twitched up for a moment, and she gave Hanako a look that Hanako could only describe as fond. “Thank you.”

Hanako smiled, warmed by Rin’s words. “You’re welcome. It’s n-nice to cook…with someone else.”

Rin shook her head. “I didn’t mean that. I meant, thank you for being a good team. Today…” She paused and looked down, her voice dropping. “Today would have been harder without you.”

Hanako thought about that for a moment. She thought about Nomiya, and the way he kept pushing Rin. She thought about Sae, and grimaced. She didn’t doubt that Nomiya honestly wanted to help Rin, in his way, but…that wasn’t Rin’s way. And he didn’t seem interested in finding out what Rin’s way was. “You’re w-welcome.”

Rin nodded, and resumed eating. Hanako started to stand up to begin cleaning, then she stopped herself. Just because it took Rin longer to eat using her feet was no reason to abandon her mid-meal.

Rin’s eyes flicked toward Hanako as she re-seated herself, but she didn’t comment. Hanako took a deep breath, and just enjoyed the moment of peace and quiet. Lilly…she didn’t like to think unkindly toward her best friend, but sometimes it felt like she talked just to fill the silence. And to be fair, sometimes that was what Hanako wanted, too. But Rin was comfortable with silences, and Hanako felt no obligation to fill the quiet. She smiled to herself and relaxed into the moment.

It surprised her, that this day could end on such a pleasant note. Given how tense and fraught the visit to Sae’s gallery had been, she never would have imagined that a few hours later she—and Rin too, for that matter—would be feeling so much better.

Rin finished her last bite of food and set down her fork. “Do you think okonomiyaki made with jellyfish and bricks would taste this good?”

Hanako giggled. “N-no, I…don’t think so.”

Rin nodded in solemn agreement, but Hanako thought she saw a hint of a smile at the corners of her eyes. “Me neither.”

Hanako laughed, and stood up, taking their empty plates to the sink. Rin stood too, and hopped back up onto the counter by the sink. “I’ll wash the dishes if you can do the pan and the knife.”

“Of c-course.” After watching Rin crack eggs with her toes, she had no doubts that she could do anything she wanted to with those talented feet. Maybe not as quickly as Hanako could with her hands, but speed wasn’t everything.

Later, as they walked back to their rooms, Hanako paused outside her door. “G-good night, Rin.”

Rin nodded, but didn’t speak. Nor did she move on towards her own room. She stared at the floor, chewing on her lower lip and frowning slightly.

“Did you want…something else?” Hanako asked.

Rin glanced down the hall towards her own room. “I didn’t want Emi to think I took her for granted.”

It took Hanako a moment to recall the conversation they’d had while working on the mural together. “Y-yes?”

Rin turned back to look at her, staring her in the eyes. Such lovely eyes, Hanako thought, then blushed slightly.

“I don’t want you to think I take you for granted either. Thank you.”

Hanako’s blush deepened, and she nodded at Rin, uncertain of what to say beyond, “You’re welcome.”

Rin nodded, and smiled slightly at Hanako. “Good night.” She turned and headed toward her room.

“Good night,” Hanako echoed quietly, both touched and a little disturbed by Rin’s gratitude. She unlocked her door and slipped into her room.





_______________________





Saturday afternoon was the first time that Hanako modeled for Rin in a week and a half, what with the visit to Hokkaido, the visit to the worry tree, and the visit to the gallery. Hanako showed up ready to resume her previous pose, but was surprised to find Rin waiting with a blank canvas in front of her.

“Aren’t you g-going to…f-finish the previous painting?” Hanako asked, puzzled by its absence.

“I did.”

Hanako waited, but when no further explanation was forthcoming, she asked, “Then, c-can I…see it?”

Rin jerked her chin toward the corner, where a painting sat on an easel, waiting for the oil paint to dry. Hanako hadn’t recognized it at first glance as being one of her. Not only had the colors changed drastically, but the figure in the center was barely discernible as human. It looked like large swaths of paint had been scraped off the canvas with a palette knife, making the piece look unsettlingly like it had been attacked. I don’t need to worry about my scars being on display with this piece, she thought wryly. “Why didn’t you…w-wait for me…to finish it?”

Rin stared at the white canvas in front of her, not looking at the previous painting. “I wanted to paint you.”

“B-but I wasn’t here.”

A muscle in Rin’s cheek jumped, and she repeated, “I wanted to paint you.”

“O…kay.” Hanako looked at the disquieting painting and shuddered. She wondered if this was in some way a reaction to the visit to Sae’s gallery. Taking a deep breath, she turned away from the canvas and moved over to the plinth. “W-well, I’m here now. So…how should I p-pose?”

Rin continued to stare at her blank canvas. “It’s not my best work,” she said softly. “Sorry.”

Hanako cocked her head and regarded Rin, feeling puzzled. “Th-that’s…all right,” she said consolingly, for lack of anything better to say.

Rin shook her head. “No. You give me your time. I should give you my best.”

Hanako was touched to hear that Rin valued her time. “But n-not everything can be…your best. Especially if you’re…l-learning. Expanding. T-trying…new things. I’d rather you stretch and grow, and…occasionally f-f-fail.”

Rin closed her eyes, and a small furrow appeared between her eyebrows. After a long moment, she opened her eyes, and finally looked at Hanako. She nodded. “Okay.”

Hanako smiled back. “So…how should I pose?”

“Nude?” Rin asked hopefully.

Hanako sighed. And we were doing so well. “N-n-n-no.”

Rin waited, as if hoping for more, but Hanako didn’t feel like expanding on her refusal. Didn’t want to engage in any debate on the topic. If we don’t talk, she can’t talk me into anything. After a long minute of silence, Hanako pulled the cushion off of the chair and set it on the floor in front of it, and sat down. She opened her book, and leaned back against the chair behind her, one leg stretched out in front of her, the other crossed under it. “How’s th-this?”

Rin just nodded, and picked up a piece of charcoal to begin sketching on her canvas.
Last edited by Lap on Thu Mar 25, 2021 11:30 am, edited 1 time in total.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:09 pm

At the end of the afternoon, Hanako closed her book and stretched. If nothing else, modeling is good for reminding me to do my PT, she thought wryly. She normally didn’t stretch quite so often, and so didn’t have such frequent reminders.

She put the cushion back onto the chair, and packed up her book bag. She glanced out the window at the rain coming down. It wasn’t heavy, but it was constant, having come down non-stop for the past couple of hours. She considered leaving right away, but she decided to wait for Rin. Some days they ate together afterwards, some days not. As far as she could tell, Rin didn’t care one way or the other. But Lilly was having dinner with Akira in the city tonight, so she thought it would be nice to eat with Rin, and possibly Emi, if she joined them.

When Rin finished cleaning up, Hanako asked, “D-dinner?”

Rin nodded, and Hanako picked up both their book bags, slipping Rin’s onto her shoulder. Rin preceded her to the door, then stopped just before leaving. She turned to face Hanako.

“Rin?”

Rin didn’t respond, but stood staring at her, looking thoughtful.

“D-did you need…something else?” she asked.

Rin nodded. “Why don’t you want to model nude? We’re both girls. And I’ve seen you naked twice. There’s nothing new for me to see.”

Hanako cringed. She’d hoped that this topic was behind them. She really hadn’t wanted to debate the idea. She floundered around for another reason to avoid it, since Rin didn’t seem to have an understanding of Hanako’s particular kind of modesty. “Have y-you ever…posed nude?” she challenged Rin.

Rin nodded. “The only time I’ve ever painted a nude from life before was a self-portrait a couple of years ago. But Sensei was unhappy with it.”

Hanako blinked as she tried to imagine what that portrait had looked like. Which only made her blush. Yes, I can’t imagine he was pleased to be presented with a portrait of a naked sixteen-year-old girl. And given the way you paint, with your legs akimbo, I suspect you were displaying rather more than a normal self-portrait would show. But still, she had to concede that at least Rin wasn’t hypocritical about it, having done it herself.

“I’ll be the only one looking at you,” Rin reiterated. “And you’re eighteen now, so Sensei shouldn’t get upset.”

At least she understands something of why he didn’t like her self-portrait. Hanako sighed. “Y-yes, but…eventually others w-will see the painting.” She felt a sense of déjà-vu at those words, and worried that she was being led down the same path.

“What if I didn’t include your face?” offered Rin.

“My…my…s-scars are identifying. Unless you weren’t g-going to…paint them.”

“No. They’re part of your beau—part of what make you interesting. Visually,” she finished. She stared at the floor for a moment, thinking, then offered, “Can’t we try it just once? It would be helpful for me to get some practice at working with the figure.”

“Um…” How was Rin making this sound so commonplace and reasonable?

“I’ll give you the painting when it’s finished. You can do whatever you want with it.”

Hanako considered that, imagining if the painting turned out as hideous as she feared. “Even…d-destroy it?”

Rin’s flinch was constrained to a twitch of her eye, but it was there. Nonetheless, she nodded.

Hanako closed her eyes. I’ve got to learn to say “no” to Rin, she thought with bleak humor. She imagined Lilly saying Set your limits and stick to them. Then she recalled their talk in Hokkaido. But she also said I was merely different. Not better, or worse. Not…ugly. Which Rin apparently felt, too. She opened her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay.”

Rin raised an eyebrow in surprise but she didn’t question her luck. “Tuesday after class?”

Hanako bit her lip, then nodded.

“We’ll work in my room, not here,” Rin added.

Hanako couldn’t help it, she giggled a little hysterically at the concept of being naked in the art classroom. “Of c-c-course.”

“Would you lock the door and turn out the lights for me?” Rin asked, as she turned and headed out of the room.

Hanako complied, rattling the door knob to make sure the room was properly locked up behind them.

“I wonder what’s for dinner?” Rin mused.

Hanako felt a little mental whiplash at the change to such a mundane topic. But Rin apparently thinks modeling nude is somehow mundane. She sighed. “Let’s g-go…find out.”


_______________________


Hanako had thought she was nervous the first time she modeled for Rin. But that was nothing compared to the way she felt Tuesday. She was jittery and out of sorts all day, and, unlike the first time she’d modeled, she was too nervous to use focusing on her classes as a way to distract herself from the coming ordeal. She twice slipped out of class in order to hole up in a bathroom stall and shake.

Why did I agree to this? Even if she destroyed the painting after it was completed, and no one else ever saw it, she still would have gone through the experience of being stared at while naked for hours. How did Rin make this seem like a reasonable idea?

Part of it, she knew, was her desire to help and please Rin. She enjoyed feeling useful. She liked helping Rin with her art, in her struggle to express herself. And while modeling clothed, she had slowly acclimated to being stared at by Rin.

But more than that, Rin had seen her naked twice and never reacted negatively in any way. Indeed, she was disturbingly complimentary. I know you don’t like that word, but it still applies. Hanako didn’t actually believe those words, but some deep-down part of her so desperately wanted to believe them that she’d finally said “Yes” to Rin’s request.

She looked at herself in the mirror over the bathroom sink, something she usually avoided doing. She found it difficult to look at herself for long, however, her gaze skittering away from her scarred features almost instinctively. Maybe…when I see myself through Rin’s eyes… What? She’d finally see beauty? She shook her head, annoyed at herself. As if.

She sighed, washed her hands, and returned to class.

Hanako wished that she had thought to ask Lilly to meet her in the tearoom for lunch, but they had begun to make a routine of having lunch with Emi and Rin on the roof on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hisao rarely joined them these days, and she was afraid to ask Emi why. So she found herself sharing a table with Rin at lunch time.

Rin was oblivious to her agitated mental state, but the other two seemed to notice. Emi gave her a puzzled look, but said nothing. Lilly, however, addressed her head on.

“Are you all right, Hanako? You seem…out of sorts,” she ventured.

“I…” Hanako glanced at Rin, which of course Lilly didn’t notice. “I’m…fine,” she mumbled.

Lilly arched an eyebrow at that obvious lie, but much to Hanako’s relief, she seemed disinclined to pressure her about it.

Rin had no such compunction. “She’s nervous about this afternoon,” she offered.

Dang it, Rin, why couldn’t you just make an observation about the butterflies instead? Hanako wondered, blushing.

“What about this afternoon?” asked Emi, her gaze flicking between Hanako and Rin. Hanako wasn’t sure which of them she was addressing, but either way she didn’t feel like answering.

“It’s her first nude modeling session.”

What?” Emi exclaimed.

Lilly started coughing, having apparently inhaled a piece of food.

“R-Rin!” Hanako protested.

Rin looked puzzled by Hanako’s protest. “It is.”

Hanako turned her attention to Lilly. “Are you…all right?” she asked, patting her on the back. She tried to ignore her the heat she could feel in her cheeks.

“Rin!” echoed Emi. She frowned at Rin. “How did you strong-arm her into that?”

Rin looked at her empty sleeves and flapped them once. She gave Emi an enquiring look.

Emi rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean,” she growled.

“She d-didn’t…force me,” Hanako admitted quietly.

Lilly cleared her throat a final time, then asked, “Truly? You…changed your mind?”

“Change your mind?” Emi echoed, sounding incredulous. “You’d talked about this before?”

Hanako sighed. She looked at Rin, but she was already eating again, apparently uninterested in answering. “Rin had… asked me to model…n-n-n-nude…a few times before. I always said…no.”

“But not the last time,” Rin added helpfully.

“Ugh. Rin, you can’t—shouldn’t harass your friends like that,” Emi scolded.

Rin finished chewing a mouthful of food and looked over at Hanako. “Did I harass you?” she asked.

Hanako hesitated. She didn’t like the connotations that came with the word “harass,” even though it did feel a little bit like that. “I n-never thought of it that way,” she said truthfully. “But you were…persistent.”

Rin frowned slightly. “But that was the only way to get you to say yes.”

Emi gave a short bark of laughter at that, shaking her head.

Rin stared down at her lunch and poked at it with her fork. “You can change your mind,” she said quietly.

Emi looked at Hanako expectantly. Lilly tilted her head slightly toward her, indicating that she too was waiting on Hanako’s response. Hanako fiddled with the chopsticks in her hand. “I…said ‘yes’ of m-my own…volition,” she began, to reassure Lilly and Emi. “And it is…scary. But Rin said…I could have the p-painting…afterwards. If I wanted. Even…destroy it. So no one else…will ever see it. If I w-wanted.” She looked up at Lilly, afraid of what kind of judgement she might see in her expression. Lilly’s expression was a stiff smile, which Hanako was sure meant she was trying to hide what she was feeling.

“My, my. I must confess to being surprised by your change of heart, but if that’s what you wish to do…” she trailed off.

“It’s partly b-because…of what you said…that I said yes,” Hanako told Lilly.

Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “What was it that I said?”

“Th-that my scars weren’t…ugly. M-m-merely…different.”

Lilly nodded slowly, and her frozen smile thawed, becoming more genuine. “Yes.”

“Huh. Good way to put it,” Emi agreed. “You are really pretty, y’know.”

Hanako pretended not to hear Emi, and kept her attention on Rin.

Rin looked up from her food. “So…you’ll still do it?”

“Y-yes.”

“Good.”

Three hours later, she was wondering why she had agreed a second time, despite having been offered a chance to change her mind. Why didn’t I jump at the chance? she asked herself as she headed back to the dorm after school. She dropped her book bag in her room and headed down the hall to Rin’s room. She was surprised at how much she was shaking. You’d think I was heading to a firing squad, not a modeling session. When she arrived at Rin’s door, she took a deep breath. Enough. I said I would do this, so I’ll do it. It will be just the two of us. She said I could have the painting afterwards. I’ve nothing to lose. Unless she found out she looked even worse than she thought she did…

No. Don’t think that way. Trust Rin.

That thought resonated with her. Trust Rin. She nodded to herself. Rin was odd, but she wasn’t intentionally cruel, or deceitful. She was a friend. She would…paint honestly. Like she always did. And if Rin thought there was some beauty to be found, somewhere in Hanako’s scarred body, maybe…maybe she’d finally get to see it.

Trust Rin, she repeated to herself as she knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Rin called.

Hanako entered Rin’s room, making sure to lock the door behind her. “Hello,” she said. Rin was sitting on a chair in front of a horizontal blank canvas, opening a tube of paint. She was facing her bed, which was neatly made up for a change, with pillows piled at the head.

Rin nodded absently to her as she squeezed a large blob of dark green paint onto her palette, amongst a dozen other differently colored blobs of paint. She looked up after she put the cap back on the tube. “You came.”

Hanako blinked, surprised by that. “I said…I would.” Twice, in fact.

“But this scares you.”

She nodded, blushing a little, grateful that Rin understood how hard this was for her. “But I s-said I w-would,” she repeated.

Rin gave her a solemn nod. “Brave.”

Hanako’s blush increased, and she looked away from Rin, disconcerted. I’m not brave, I’m quaking in my boots. She gestured to the bed. “D-did you want me to do…a reclining pose?”

Rin nodded. That was nice, reclining would be easier than standing, or even sitting, for several hours. “Did you bring a book?” Rin asked.

"No.” Hanako grimaced, annoyed with herself. “I’ll…be right back.”

As she headed back down the hall to her room, Hanako had a momentary thought of, This is my chance to escape! But she couldn’t do that. Not really. She’d just have to face a disappointed Rin afterwards if she did. As well as explain to Lilly and Emi that she’d chickened out, and let Rin down.

She picked up the novel she was currently reading, then, after a moment’s consideration, folded her robe over her arm too. It would be convenient to not have to fully dress every time she needed a bathroom break.

Returning to Rin’s room, she again locked the door behind her. Emi and Rin seemed to just wander in and out of each other’s rooms, and she didn’t want Emi walking in on her. She walked over to Rin’s bed, and froze. Am I supposed to just strip? Even when she undressed for doctors, they left the room to give her privacy while she did so. The transition from fully clothed to nude was somehow more intimate, more vulnerable, than simply being nude. I wonder how they do it in art school?

She dropped her book on the bed, and kept her back to Rin as she dithered. She plucked at the bow at the neck of her uniform blouse, slowly untying it. She suddenly remembered the day at the worry tree, when she’d unbuttoned her blouse part way. Start there, she thought, and pulled off the bow, setting it aside. She unbuttoned her blouse, her fingers trembling. She managed to get her blouse almost fully unbuttoned before she froze again. Staring down at the scars that were revealed as the sides of her blouse parted, she wondered, Why would she want to look at this, paint this?

“Would you be more comfortable if I stripped too?” asked Rin, startling Hanako. She pulled the sides of her blouse together, covering herself back up, and turned to face Rin.

“W-what?” Rin’s suggestion was so outré that she had problems processing it.

“Maybe you would be more comfortable if we were both nude. Like in the showers. I don’t mind.”

“Ah…” Hanako had certainly noticed Rin’s lack of body modesty. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Rin’s modesty that was the issue. Nor hers, really, at least not in the traditional sense. If she had an outfit that covered just the right half of her body, she imagined she could easily bare the other half. Would Rin be happy with just the left side of her body to paint?

No, she…likes my scars. For some reason. “I d-don’t think…that’s necessary.” She was touched that Rin was thinking of her comfort to that extent, even if her proposed solution was a little unorthodox. “But…would you…t-turn around while I…undress?”

Rin stared blankly at Hanako for a moment, then she shrugged, stood up, and turned her back to her.

Hanako took a deep breath, then stripped as quickly as she could, before her nerve could fail her. She let her clothes fall in a pile next to the bed, too nervous to take the time to fold them properly. She sat down sideways on the edge of Rin’s bed, her left side facing Rin. She steeled her nerves, and said, “You c-can t-turn…around…n-now”

Rin did so. Hanako was sure the unscarred side of her face was red enough to almost match her scars. She stared at her hands, clasped tight on her lap. She was morbidly curious about Rin’s reaction to her appearance, despite the fact that Rin had seen her before, so she kept stealing quick glances of her.

Rin’s expression remained unchanged. She nodded to the bed. “I put some pillows there for you to lean on.”

Hanako sighed. She’d noticed the pillows, at the left end of the bed. Meaning her right side would be towards Rin if she lay on her back.

She stretched out, then realized, I don’t have to lie on my back. She rolled over onto her stomach, putting her left side toward Rin. She pulled the pillows under her chest , so she was propped up on her elbows, the book in front of her. She shifted slightly, trying to make sure the pillows supported more of her weight than her elbows did—the pose would rapidly become uncomfortable, otherwise.

Hanako looked over at Rin and asked, “Is this…okay?” Please, please, please, don’t ask me to turn over.

Rin stared at her for a long moment, then stared at her canvas for an equally long time, as if to somehow confirm that Hanako’s image would fit there. “Hold still,” she said, picking up her charcoal.

Hanako breathed a silent sigh of relief, and turned to her book. She was glad she’d managed to find a pose that mostly obscured her scars, as well as her front. Her blithe assumption about her body modesty had been a bit optimistic—she actually did feel more comfortable with her breasts and privates covered. Not that my butt isn’t out there for the world to see…

Still, that was better than she’d feared, and Rin wasn’t protesting, so she counted it as a win. She relaxed a little, remembering, I can destroy it afterwards if I want to. She settled in to read.





_______________________





“So, how was your afternoon?” Lilly asked Hanako as they sat down to dinner later that evening.

“It was…okay.” Hanako glanced around, to make sure no one else was within earshot. “Once I m-managed to…undress…it was…not easy, really, b-but…not as bad as I’d f-f-feared. It was…just as b-boring as regular modeling.”

“I’m glad. Did Rin finish the painting?”

Hanako gave a groaning sigh. “N-no. Once again, I f-f-forgot…to ask her…how long it would take.”

“So, will you pose again?”

“Yes,” she said, feeling resigned.

“What do you make of the painting thus far? Do you think you’ll want to keep it, or destroy it afterwards?”

“I’m not…sure. So far it’s…okay. I m-managed to pose so that…most of my scars…weren’t visible.”

Lilly nodded. “If that makes you more comfortable. Though I don’t think it necessary.”

Hanako took a bite of her pork cutlet. She was sorry that Lilly couldn’t see what Rin was producing, couldn’t give her feedback on what she thought of the paintings. It was ironic that the only person she could imagine ever being fully comfortable showing the nude portrait to would never see it.

“If you don’t end up destroying it, who else will see it?” asked Lilly.

“Eventually…Nomiya, at the l-least. M-maybe other members of…the art club.” She took another bite as she considered that idea. Swallowing, she said, “I actually…d-don’t think I’d mind…Nomiya seeing it.”

“Truly? You’re that comfortable with him?”

“No, it’s not…that. Mostly he…annoys me.” She glanced around guiltily, hoping no one had heard her criticizing a teacher like that. “B-but, like most Yamaku teachers…he d-doesn’t see my scars…the way most people do. They’re used to…different students.”

“That is true,” Lilly nodded.

“As f-for the other art students...I think, as long as I’m not there when they see it...” She shrugged. “Nude paintings…are just a normal part of…well, n-not of life, exactly, but part of…the art world.”

“One hopes Rin will at least refrain from hanging it in the hallway,” said Lilly with a wry smile.

Hanako shuddered. There were at least two of Rin’s paintings hanging in public spaces that she knew of, not counting the mural. “I’m sure she’d...ask me. B-before doing something...like that,” Hanako said, trying to reassure herself. She wasn’t actually sure of that at all.

Lilly apparently heard the uncertainty in Hanako’s voice. “Perhaps it would be best to ask her directly not to do so?”

“M-maybe. Though I suppose...the school...wouldn’t w-want...nudes hanging where the y-younger students...might see them.”

“Or their parents,” said Lilly.

“Yes.” Hanako felt a surge of relief. “That’s t-true.” Though it did make her wonder once again why Nomiya had allowed Rin to paint nudes on the mural. Admittedly, they were more simplified and abstract than realistic, but even so…

“So if you’re thinking ahead to the other art students seeing this, does that mean you’re not intending to destroy the painting when it’s done?”

Hanako sighed. “I…I’m not sure I could. D-destroy an artwork. Especially one of Rin’s. It just f-f-feels…wrong. Unless the painting…is…” She wracked her brain for the right way to phrase her feelings. “Unbearably p-painful…to look at…I won’t destroy it.” She shrugged. “And s-so far…it’s not that. Embarrassing, yes, b-but…all of her paintings of me are…embarrassing.” She grimaced. “I’ve become…used to that.”

“Ah. Interesting.”

“Mmm.” Hanako focused on eating for a few moments. The fact that she couldn’t really imagine destroying the painting added an additional level of anxiety to the modeling. One way or another, this painting is going to exist in the world for some time to come. She grimaced and swallowed a bite of potato. “I w-wonder how…I will feel…about this painting…ten or twenty years f-from now.”

Lilly looked thoughtful. “That’s an intriguing way of framing it. Do you have an answer?”

Hanako spent another couple of mouthfuls of food thinking. “If I look back…over the last couple of months…I’ve become l-less…concerned about my appearance. In n-no small part due to…you. And Rin.”

“I would think especially Rin,” said Lilly.

“Perhaps. B-but because of that…if I…continue this way…” She blew out a breath. “A d-decade or two from now, I th-think I might…be grateful to have this record. Of m-my time at Yamaku.”

“How would that be different from the normal, clothed portraits Rin has done of you?” Lilly asked.

“I’m not sure…” Hanako wondered if Rin was rubbing off on her, because she found Lilly’s use of the word “normal” a little annoying. Nude portraiture is normal, too, even if it’s not common… “I j-just know…th-this painting exists, will exist…and I…” She paused, startled by her realization.

“You what?” Lilly prompted.

“I’m…glad of that.”

Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “Indeed. Well, that…that’s good.” She cocked her head curiously. “Why so?”

Hanako sighed. “Once again…I’m n-not sure. But still…I am.”

Lilly smiled. “Then we’ll leave it at that.” She tidied her dinner dishes and utensils on her tray. “Are you finished with dinner?”

Hanako looked down, and realized she’d finished eating without being aware of it. “Yes.”

Lilly rose, picking up her tray and cane. “Then, let us head back to our rooms. I have an unfortunate amount of history homework to read tonight.”

“M-math…for me,” Hanako agreed mournfully. Unfortunately, extraordinary events like modeling nude for the first time didn’t make the rest of the world come to a halt, no matter how momentous the event felt to her, personally.





_______________________





Hanako’s second day of nude modeling was not much different from the first. It did, in fact, become easier to do with repetition. This time she solved the issue of undressing in front of Rin by changing into her robe in her room before heading to Rin’s room, book in hand. She looked at the painting before heading to Rin’s bed. It was, surprisingly, one of Rin’s more abstracted pieces. She’d thought that the whole point of having a model—a nude model, more so—was to study anatomy and form. Well, perhaps more detail will come with time, she thought.

She stretched out, once again grateful that Rin had allowed her to pose on her stomach, with her scarred side mostly hidden. She settled into the pillows and began to read.

“Pffft.”

Hanako slowly realized that she’d been hearing the same soft sound coming from Rin at irregular intervals for the past hour while modeling. She looked up from her book over at Rin, wondering what it was. Rin was very focused on her canvas, so Hanako kept looking at her. Normally, she didn’t have the nerve to look at Rin for very long while she painted. She just stole occasional glimpses of her now and then, quickly averting her gaze before she could get caught looking.

She didn’t have to wait too long before discovering the source of the sound. Rin stuck out her lower lip and directed a sharply exhaled puff of air upwards, blowing her bangs out of her eyes. Hanako just barely kept herself from giggling at the sight. But of course Rin couldn’t easily reach up and brush the hair out of her eyes, especially when her foot was occupied with a brush.

Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, Hanako realized it was past time for a break. “Rin? I’m going…to stretch,” she warned the artist. Rin nodded absently and kept painting.

Hanako stood up and grabbed her robe, slipping into it before she stretched. She walked over to Rin and asked, “Would you l-like me to…pin your b-bangs out of your eyes…with hair clips?”

Rin paused, brush hovering over the canvas, then she nodded. “That would be useful. But I don’t have any hair clips.”

“You don’t?”

“They’re difficult to put in by foot. And my hair isn’t usually this long. But Emi has some.” She put down her brush, rose to her feet, and left the room.

Hanako followed her across the hall to Emi’s room. Rin kicked the door in her usual knock, then reached up and opened the door simultaneously with Emi’s call of “Come on in, Rin.” As they entered, Emi added, “Oh, hey, Hanako. Rin got you hard at work?”

Hanako nodded. She tried to unobtrusively hide her right leg behind her left.

“I need hair clips,” Rin stated. “My bangs are getting in my eyes.”

Emi rolled her eyes. “Hi, Rin, why, yes, I’m doing great, thank you for asking.” But she rose from her desk chair and walked over to her dresser even as she was speaking. She rummaged around in a small jewelry box, and pulled out a few simple bobby pins. “Here. No more pretty hair clips for you, you just lose them.”

Rin nodded, then held still as Emi brushed her bangs back out of her eyes and pinned them in place. “You need a haircut.”

Rin grimaced, but didn’t disagree.

Emi glanced over at Hanako. “Hey, are you willing to go with Rin to the hairdresser?”

“Um. I guess? But why d-does someone…need to go with her?” Hanako asked, puzzled. Getting a haircut wasn’t like shopping. Rin didn’t need a pair of hands to carry things for her.

Emi snorted, and Rin’s expression somehow became even stonier than normal. “Because the last time I let her go by herself, she got a buzz cut.”

Hanako gave a startled giggle. “R-really?”

“It was easier to care for,” said Rin, sounding a little defensive.

“But your forehead is too large to pull it off,” Emi said. “Some girls can rock a buzz cut and look cool. You’re not one of them.”

A mental image of Rin with extremely short hair bubbled up out of Hanako’s memory. “I th-think I remember…that. It was…near the end of our f-f-first year?” Hanako hadn’t known Rin’s name at that time, but she had certainly stood out from the crowd for a while.

“Yup. Can I make an appointment for Saturday afternoon for you?” Emi asked Rin.

Rin frowned. “But I paint then.”

“You’re always painting.”

“T-true,” Hanako agreed.

Rin sighed and looked at Hanako. “Will you model Sunday instead?”

Hanako repressed her own sigh. She’d almost gotten a day off. “S-sure.”

“Are you free Saturday, Hanako?” Emi asked. “I’ve got a meet in Kaminoyama this weekend, or I’d take her.”

Hanako wavered for a moment, then she thought, Maybe I can get a trim at the same time? The last time she’d trimmed her hair, it had ended up a little lop-sided. She nodded at Emi. “After…two.”

“Great! Thanks a million, Hanako.”





_______________________





Saturday afternoon, after her session with Dr. Tanaka, Hanako met Rin by her mural. Rin was sitting with her back to a tree, staring at the wall. Hanako waited a moment for Rin to react to her presence, then she coughed quietly. “Rin?”

Rin didn’t look at her, just continued staring at the mural, her gaze traveling back and forth along its length. Hanako was about to say something again when Rin sighed and said, “It’s still too murally.”

“Yes? D-did you expect that…to change?”

Rin shrugged, and rose to her feet. “Sometimes I understand a painting better after I ignore it for a while. It’s like meeting a stranger, where you notice things that you would ignore with someone you’ve known a long time, like a hairy mole or crooked teeth.”

“But not…this time?”

“Not yet.” Rin started walking.

“Oh.”

They walked into town. Hanako enjoyed not having to converse as they walked, leaving her free to just enjoy the day. It was warm, but overcast, so the heat was manageable. Rin was ambling at a casual pace, so they didn’t work up too much of a sweat. As they passed the Aura-Mart, she asked, “D-do you know…where the hairdresser is?”

Rin nodded. “Across the street from the art supply store.”

Hanako felt reassured by that. If there was any location in town Rin would be sure to know, it was the art store.

Hanako spotted the hairdresser first, and the art store second, when Rin shouldered her way into the art store. “Um…” she began uncertainly.

“We’re early,” Rin said absently.

Hanako glanced at a clock on the wall behind the cashier, and realized Rin was right. She sighed and nodded. She just had to make sure to drag Rin out in fifteen minutes.

“Miss Tezuka! Welcome!” said the man behind the counter. Hanako wasn’t too surprised that the staff here knew Rin.

“Hello, Mr. Kawasumi,” said Rin.

“How are you this fine day?”

“Fine.”

Hanako was surprised that Rin responded to such a mundane sort of question. She suspected that it meant that Rin liked the man. Or at least his painting supplies.

“We got in some lovely kolinsky sable brushes this week, sizes fourteen through twenty-six.”

“Can I see them?” Hanako was surprised to hear a hint of eagerness in Rin’s normally flat voice.

“But of course.” Mr. Kawasumi reached into a glass display case and pulled out a small canvas bundle rolled in a cylinder. He reverently unrolled it on the countertop, revealing a half-dozen brushes with reddish-brown bristles. “We normally only get watercolor and ink brushes in sable, but I managed to find some oil brushes, thinking of you.”

“Thank you,” said Rin absently as she stared at the brushes. She nodded toward the largest brush. “May I?”

“Of course.” Mr. Kawasumi pulled the largest brush out of its holder, and stretched to hold it over the counter below the top so that Rin could grasp it. Rin bent over almost double to inspect the brush closely, then she closed her eyes and gently brushed it against her cheek. She made a small noise in the back of her throat that Hanako couldn’t quite identify.

“I want this,” Rin said quietly as she passed the brush back.

“Just this one?”

Rin hesitated. “How much is the set?”

Mr. Kawasumi named a price that made Hanako twitch in disbelief. That much? For just six brushes?

But Rin seemed neither surprised nor put off by the price. She stared at the set of brushes for a long moment, then nodded. “Yes.” She turned around and said to Hanako, “Could you get my wallet, please?”

Hanako hesitated, then slipped her hand into Rin’s pocket, blushing at the intimate contact. Rin’s thigh felt muscular and firm under her fingers, but Rin seemed oblivious to Hanako’s presence in her personal space. After Hanako pulled the wallet out, Rin added, “Use the credit card.”

“All…right.” She was surprised that Rin had such a thing.

“My father gave it to me to use for art supplies,” Rin said, answering Hanako’s unasked question.

“This l-large of a purchase…won’t upset him?” Hanako wondered if Rin’s parents were wealthy, or if they just prioritized Rin’s artwork that much.

“No.” Rin’s flat voice held no uncertainty.

Mr. Kawasumi rolled the canvas brush holder back up, then wrapped it in lovely packaging. “Will you be carrying this for Miss Tezuka?” he asked Hanako with a smile. The only evidence that he noticed Hanako’s scars was a slight twitch at the corner of his smiling eyes when he met her gaze.

Hanako blushed and nodded, and gingerly took the proffered package. “Thank you, Miss Tezuka. I hope to someday see what you produce with these. They should serve you well.”

Rin nodded back. “Thank you.” She turned and walked to the door, then paused to let Hanako pull it open. She marched right across the street and into the hairdresser’s. She stood in front of the counter, not saying anything, until a woman in a smock came over, smiling. “Miss Tezuka. Your usual, today?” Her glance fell on Hanako, and for a moment she seemed to be admiring her long hair. Hanako could tell when the woman’s attention shifted from her hair to her face, and she quickly turned away from the hairdresser. So much for getting a trim…

Rin followed the woman back to an empty stylist’s chair. Hanako slipped into a chair in the waiting area, sitting so her right side faced the wall, away from the prying eyes.

Hanako found it interesting that at neither the art store nor the hair salon did anyone comment on or even look surprised at Rin’s lack of arms. If she’s been coming here since the first year of school, they must be used to her. Hanako had some experience with that type of casual acceptance; the clerks at the Aura-Mart and the waitresses at the Shanghai were all inured to her appearance.

Again, she considered how her world had been constrained to just three places the past few years. Soon I’ll have no choice but to venture into other places. Graduation, and the frightening world beyond Yamaku’s gates, loomed on the horizon.

She snuck a glance over at the stylist’s chair where Rin sat, getting her hair cut. The stylist was humming along with the salon’s background music, apparently undeterred by Rin’s lack of interest in conversation. It made sense that this salon would be used to Yamaku students, located where it was.

You’ve changed and grown a lot in the past few months, Lilly had said.

Hanako looked past Rin, to where two stylists without customers were chatting quietly. I’m doing new things. Surviving new things. She slowly stood up. I can do this. Compared to modeling nude, this is nothing. Trembling slightly, she walked over to the counter and stood there, waiting. I should cough, or say “Excuse me,” or something. But she remained silent, fidgeting and waiting. She’d used up most of her nerve in just approaching the counter.

The older of the two chatting stylists finally glanced over and noticed her, and said something quiet to the younger woman. She turned and looked at Hanako, and walked over to the counter. “May I help you, Miss?” Her smile was surprisingly warm. She wore a name tag that said “Kaede.” She was short and cute, probably only a few years older than Hanako.

“C-could I get…just a slight t-trim?”

“Get rid of the split ends?” Kaede looked down at the end of Hanako’s hair.

Hanako nodded. “Yes. Just…even it up.”

“Very well. Could I have your name?”

“Ikezawa.”

Kaede made a notation in the appointment book on the counter, then gestured to Hanako to follow her back to a chair two seats down from Rin.

Hanako sat and watched the woman in the mirror as she spread a cape around her, and fastened it shut. Hanako tensed as Kaede’s fingers brushed her neck, then pulled her long hair back to hang over the back of the chair. Doing so exposed more of the right side of her face than Hanako normally liked, but she was surprised to see that Kaede didn’t react at all to the sight. “You have lovely hair,” Kaede said, as she began to brush it out.

“Th-thank you.”

“How long have you been growing it out?”

“About t-ten years.” She repressed a shudder at the memory of the stench of burning hair.

“When was the last time you had a trim?”

“I…trim it m-myself, usually.” The last person who had trimmed her hair for her was Mama Ando, back at the orphanage.

“Do you want it to fall in a straight line across your back, or would you like it shaped?”

I just want a trim, not a conversation. “S-s-straight.” Hopefully that would be simpler, and quicker.

“Do you normally wear your bangs draped forward on the right?” Kaede asked bluntly, surprising Hanako.

Hanako gave a single quick nod. She looked in the mirror at Kaede behind her, to find that she was regarding Hanako with a frank, curious look. Not repelled, not judging, just…evaluating? Trying to figure out how to best cut her hair, Hanako supposed. Kaede met her eyes in the mirror, and smiled. “I think we can handle that.”

“Th-thank you.”

Mercifully, Kaede seemed to pick up on Hanako’s discomfort, because she fell silent as she brushed out Hanako’s hair. It felt nice to have someone else brush her hair. Mama Ando used to do that for her, and Lilly had done it for her a few times, but not recently. Thinking back, she realized that Lilly had done so at times when Hanako was stressed, in order to soothe her. She smiled to herself at the thought, grateful to have Lilly in her life.

Hanako glanced into the angled mirror beside her at Rin, whose haircut was proceeding apace. She was surprised to see that Rin had her eyes closed, almost looking asleep. I guess if you have no interest in how you look, this isn’t a stressful experience. For Rin, this was just an annoying interruption to her painting.

Hanako’s attention was drawn back to her own situation as Kaede traded brush for scissors and comb. The scratchy snip of scissors through hair behind her back made her tense slightly, hoping that Kaede wouldn’t take off too much. I only asked for a trim. I’m sure it’ll be fine, she reassured herself.

She flicked a glance at Rin out of the corner of her eye, then decided to emulate her. She closed her eyes and let out a small sigh of relief. Not being able to see Kaede, not having to worry about what kind of repelled expression she might be repressing, made the process easier. In a way, it was like modeling—holding still while someone else examined her critically. Though in Rin’s case, she was examining her to make art, and in Kaede’s case, she was hopefully working to make Hanako look…well, if not prettier, at least less unkempt.

Eyes closed, she was able to drift into a calm, almost meditative state, much like she did while modeling. It made it easier to endure Kaede lifting her bangs away from her face as she worked, evening out her all-important shield from the world.

In fairly short order, Kaede said, “There. How does that look?”

Hanako opened her eyes, to be greeted by the unwelcome sight of her own face in the mirror. She looked quickly away at the hand mirror Kaede was holding up behind her, to display the hair behind her head. Brushed out and freshly trimmed, her hair looked lovely. Her hair was her one vanity, the only part of her body that she could somewhat freely admire and enjoy. She gave a small smile, and glanced shyly at Kaede in the mirror. “Th-thank you. It’s…good.”

Kaede smiled back, and pulled the cape off of Hanako. Hanako rose and glanced over to find Rin standing by the front counter, her haircut already done. She walked over to join Rin.

“You l-look…good,” she said. The new haircut framed Rin’s somewhat plain face in a way that made her look a little cuter, which made Hanako smile.

“So do you,” replied Rin, her expression unchanging.

Hanako wasn’t quite sure how to take that blunt statement. Was Rin merely being polite, responding in kind? Or did she really think Hanako looked good? There were times when Hanako found Rin’s unreadable face disconcerting.

“Do you need any shampoo or conditioner?” Kaede asked, distracting Hanako from Rin. Hanako turned to the cash register and shook her head. She pulled out her wallet, and paid for her trim. She realized that Rin must have already paid for her cut, and wondered how she’d dealt with her wallet without Hanako’s assistance.

“Thank you, Miss Ikezawa, Miss Tezuka! Please come again!” said Kaede cheerily, bowing them out.

Hanako opened the door for Rin and they left the hair salon. Rin glanced down at Hanako’s hands, as if to make sure that her new brushes hadn’t been left behind, then she turned back the way they had come. Hanako fell into step beside her, and they headed back uphill to Yamaku.

Upon arrival back at the dorms, Hanako followed Rin to her room. “I’ll s-see you…tomorrow. After lunch?” Hanako asked Rin as she set the package of brushes on Rin’s desk.

Rin nodded, and sat on her bed. Hanako noticed that her shoulders were drooping, and her eyes partially closed. “T-time for a…nap?” Hanako asked sympathetically.

Rin nodded again, and lay down. Hanako looked at her for a moment, then let herself out of the room. A nap sounded like a good idea, actually. Dealing with strangers was exhausting.

As she stretched out on her own bed, it occurred to her to wonder if Rin was exhausted for similar reasons. Normally she’d be busy painting at this time on Saturday afternoon, not napping. Rin’s affect was always so flat and unchanging, it was hard to tell if she found such interactions enervating too. As she drifted off to sleep, she thought, Maybe…she’s like me in some ways…





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Sunday afternoon, at the start of Hanako’s first break, Rin asked, “Would you be willing to continue like this after I finish this piece?”

“L-like this…you mean, n-nude?” Hanako asked, as she slipped into her robe.

Rin nodded.

Hanako had already given the question some consideration, having anticipated it. “D-does it really…make that much d-difference…for you?”

“Yes.” Rin looked at the canvas in front of her. “A lot.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t quite sure why she had decided to say “yes” to this question. That lack of understanding made her pause, but still no reason sprang to mind. A dozen reasons to say “no” came to mind, yet “yes” still held sway. She took a deep breath. “Yes. And th-thank you…for asking.”

“I’m done with this painting,” Rin said, standing up. “Would you help me put up a new canvas?”

Hanako was surprised. “Would you have…continued working on th-this painting…if I’d said no?” she asked curiously.

Rin nodded. “But I can abandon it now.” She waved a stump toward the wall next to her desk. “Just lean it over there to dry.”

“Okay.” Hanako gingerly picked up the canvas by the unpainted outer edges. She set it down at the indicated spot, then stepped back to take a fuller look at it.

As always, she had some discomfort looking at a picture of herself, but this one was abstract and anonymous enough that that feeling was minimal. Indeed, she felt confident that anyone viewing the painting would never link it to her without actually being told who the model was. That was a bit of a relief, but also a puzzle. “R-rin?”

“Hm?”

“Why d-do you want…a model? I mean, th-this piece…” Hanako waved a hand at the painting. “It’s so…abstract. Not as realistic as…your sk-sketch was. Why d-do…how does…my being here…help?”

Rin frowned. “That painting…is of you. I…” She was silent for a long moment, looking at the painting. “It wouldn’t be the same painting without you. Or, no, more than that…” She frowned at the painting. After an uncomfortably long moment, she continued, “It’s just…it’s you. It goes from you, to me, to the canvas.” She looked at Hanako, a faintly pleading look on her face. “See?”

Hanako didn’t see, but she could tell that trying to put it into words was difficult for Rin. She nodded. “Okay. If you r-really…want me. Need me.”

Yes.” Hanako jumped a little at how emphatic that one word was. She stared at Rin, and Rin stared back at her, and it felt to Hanako that Rin’s gaze was boring into her. Her gaze more intense than it ever was when she was painting her.

Hanako flushed red, and looked away to the corner of the room where a couple of blank canvases sat. “Which…canvas do you want…next?” she asked, and walked over to them. One was long and narrow, similar to the one just completed but larger, good for a reclining pose. The other was almost square and more modest in size.

“The smaller one,” Rin said.

Hanako picked it up and put it on the easel, glancing at Rin to see if she had the right orientation. Rin nodded.

“Let me run…to the b-bathroom,” Hanako said. “Think about…the next pose…while I’m gone.”

“Okay.”





_______________________





Thursday noon, Hanako and Lilly joined Rin and Emi for lunch on the roof. Hanako was pleased that Lilly seemed to be getting along a little better with Rin, or at least wasn’t as taken aback by her as often. Lilly and Emi had fallen into easy conversation, both of them social and verbal enough to fill the silences that Rin and Hanako would have otherwise left in the lunchtime.

As they were packing up their things at the end of the meal, Hanako asked Rin, “W-would you mind working…on a new painting today? I d-don’t want to…model nude…for a few days.”

“Why not?”

“I’m having…my period.”

Rin shrugged. “Okay.”

“Should we work…in the art room…since I won’t be…nude?” A change of scenery and furniture felt like a nice idea.

Rin nodded.

Walking into the art room after school felt like a return to a old familiar surroundings, despite the fact that it had been less than two weeks since they’d last been there. Hanako was a little surprised at how comfortable sitting in the old overstuffed chair was. Not just physically, but psychologically; it felt a little like returning to their beginnings.

“Do you have…a specific p-pose in mind?” Hanako asked.

Rin thought for a moment, then said, “Just sitting up straight, reading, is fine.”

“Okay.” That was nice, a simple pose was easier to maintain over the long run. Being draped sideways across the chair, or curled up with her legs tucked under her, might have been more visually interesting, but those poses became uncomfortable fairly quickly, requiring more frequent breaks.

“Would you move my easel to the right side of the chair?” asked Rin.

Hanako sighed, but nodded and stood up to help. She didn’t like having her right side emphasized, but she didn’t have the energy to try and dissuade Rin from choosing whatever angle or view she wanted.

As she sat back down in the chair and picked up her book, Rin asked, “Will you tuck your hair behind your ear, please?”

Hanako grimaced, remembering the first time Rin had made that request. She’s nothing if not persistent, she thought wryly. But it’s not as if she hasn’t seen all the rest of my scars. Repeatedly. She lifted her hand to her bangs, hesitated, then brushed her hair back. Somehow, revealing her full face felt like a deeper intimacy, more revealing than merely being nude. She felt a blush heating her face, and she bit her lip, struggling with the desire to move her hair back to its more usual place.

“Are you going to bite your lip for three hours?” Rin asked curiously.

Hanako huffed a little laugh at that. “No.” She released her lip and took a deep breath. Rin was going to do a profile of her scarred side. She shuddered a little at the thought, but she trusted Rin to do it well. I trusted her with my naked body. I can trust her with this. Maybe this one will also be so abstract as to be unrecognizable.

She shifted in her seat, to settle into a solid position, then she opened her book and fell into her usual modeling trance.

At break times, she didn’t look at the painting, afraid of what she might see. Afraid that if she did look, it would scare her off from continuing. If Rin noticed that she was ignoring the painting, she didn’t comment on it. Hanako suspected she was just happy to not have any comments on the work while it was in progress.





_______________________





Saturday, they returned to the art room to continue. Hanako worked through most of another novel over the course of the afternoon.

“Done.”

Hanako twitched a little at Rin’s sudden pronouncement. She’d been silent for the past while, since the last time Hanako had taken a break. Hanako looked up at the clock on the wall—it was past their usual stopping time, nearing the end of dinner time. Immersed in her book, Hanako had failed to notice, and Rin of course hadn’t said anything. She’d undoubtedly been pleased to be able to paint for more than three hours.

Hanako put down her book, stood up and stretched, groaning quietly to herself. Rolling her shoulders a little to loosen them up, she walked towards Rin. “M-may I see it…now?” She was simultaneously afraid and morbidly curious to see what her profile looked like from the right side.

Rin nodded, and stepped to one side, allowing Hanako access to the painting.

Hanako had slowly been getting used to seeing her face and form captured in paint, but this was one of the clearest representations of the right side of her face she’d seen yet. It wasn’t a full-body portrait; Rin had done just her head. Her hair was dark red, almost black, and her skin a light green, the color of new leaves. Her scars were a dark blue-green, like old pine needles. Yet apart from the odd color choices, the representation was less abstract than usual, more realistic.

It was the first time Hanako had ever really examined the right side of face in profile. As she often did when looking at Rin’s completed work, she blushed at first, but then she froze.

The scars on her face had a small diversion around her eyes; if they hadn’t, she would have been blind in the right eye. But she’d never really considered that patch of unscarred skin from this angle. It wasn’t quite a semi-circle; more oval in shape, and it had slightly scalloped edges.

Like a handprint, she thought, suddenly feeling dizzy. Slowly, she lifted her right hand to trace the edge of the unscarred skin surrounding her eye.

“Hanako?” Rin asked, sounding unusually concerned. Hanako vaguely wondered what had provoked the unusual display of emotion from the normally flat-affect artist. She swayed on her feet, and realized, Oh. I must look a little pale. It felt like the thought was coming from somewhere outside of her.

Suddenly Rin was in front of her, between her and the painting, and she leaned against Hanako, her short arm stubs pressing into Hanako’s sides. Hugging her as best she could. Rin didn’t say anything, she just held her.

Hanako closed her eyes and tried to take a breath. Her chest felt tight and constricted. She tried again, and took a shuddering breath. Slowly, hesitantly, she wrapped her arms around Rin in turn, waiting for Rin to protest or withdraw. But she did neither, and Hanako lowered her head to Rin’s shoulder as she held on. They held onto each other for a couple of minutes, and gradually Hanako felt herself returning to something approaching normal.

“Did I do something wrong?” asked Rin quietly.

Hanako shook her head.

“I’m not sure exactly what you’re feeling…but I don’t think this was what I wanted people to feel when looking at this painting,” Rin said hesitantly.

Hanako snorted, and pulled away from Rin. She wiped her eyes dry on her sleeve, then glanced briefly at the painting before looking away. She looked at Rin, surprised to see a look of concern on her face. She licked her lips, and tried to explain.

“D-do you know why…I only have…ssscars…on the r-right side of my body?”

“Because that was the side you were burned on?”

Hanako gave a short humorless laugh. “Y-yes, but…” She closed her eyes, and hugged Rin tighter for a moment. “The f-fire. Where I was burned. My…m-mother. Tried to protect me. She covered m-me…with her own…body. B-but…she could only c-cover…p-p-part…of…”

Hanako couldn’t go on. She buried her face in Rin’s hair, and tried to ground herself with her scent, the feeling of her in her arms. I smell Rin, and paint, and turpentine, not smoke and…

As usual, Rin didn’t try to finish her sentence for her. But she made a small pained sound, and Hanako was certain Rin understood what she wasn’t saying.

Hanako loosened her hold on Rin, and opened her eyes to look at the painting again.

“I’m wearing…my m-m-mother’s…handprint,” Hanako whispered. She pressed her left hand across her eyes—for once, not in an effort to hide her scars, but instead to feel the unscarred skin that her mother had covered. To match that pattern to her own hand.

Rin also looked at the painting for a moment. “She was trying to protect your eyes,” she said softly.

Hanako dropped her hand and nodded. A tremulous smile appeared on her lips, despite her tears. She was wearing a concrete symbol of her mother’s love, and desire to protect her. Not that all of her unburned flesh wasn’t that, but this…this was the shape of her mother’s hand.

“You never noticed that it looked like a handprint before?”

“I n-never…look at my face in…mirrors. Or photographs. I never…saw it,” she said softly.

Rin absorbed that statement silently for a long moment. “I don’t like mirrors either, but probably not for the same reasons as you.”

“Why d-don’t you…like mirrors?” asked Hanako, grateful for a change of subject.

“I’m afraid the Rin in the mirror might do something different. Or that she knows something that I don’t, but won’t tell me.”

“What if you know…something that she d-doesn’t?”

Rin’s eyebrows shot up. “I hadn’t considered that.”

Hanako hugged her closer for a moment before letting go. “I think you know…m-much more than you realize.”

Rin looked at the painting. “Thank you,” she said softly. “And…I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I…didn’t know where your scars came from.” Rin looked away from Hanako, looking ashamed. “I never asked. I just asked you to let me paint them.” She frowned. “I don’t know why I never wondered. Maybe…maybe I was afraid of your answer.”

“It’s n-not a pleasant…story,” Hanako said. “I d-don’t often tell it. And I probably wouldn’t have t-told you…if you’d just asked me outright.”

Rin looked back up, meeting Hanako’s eyes. “Then thank you for telling me now.”

Hanako smiled. “Of c-course. You’re…my friend.”

Rin stared into Hanako’s eyes for a long moment, then she slowly smiled back. “Friend,” she repeated.

“Yes.”

While Rin cleaned her brushes and put away her paints, Hanako studied the painting. “Rin?”

“Yes?”

“M-may I…have this painting?”

“To destroy it?”

“No!” It was the first painting of her she ever thought she might want to look at again someday. “N-never.” She probably wouldn’t hang it on the wall, but she wanted to be able to look at it occasionally.

Rin looked at her, and a gentle smile slowly spread across her face. “Of course.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you. Let’s go get dinner,” Rin said.

“That sounds…good.”
Last edited by Lap on Thu Mar 25, 2021 11:33 am, edited 1 time in total.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:09 pm

Hanako had just finished up her homework and was putting her books away when she heard Lilly’s familiar gentle tap-tap-tap at her door. She smiled, and rose to answer the door. “Hello, Lilly.”

Lilly was in her pajamas, and her usual smile was missing. “Hello, Hanako. I was wondering if you would care to join me in a cup of chamomile tea before bed?”

“Yes, th-thank you.” Hanako recalled the last time Lilly had invited her to tea out of the blue, and that, combined with Lilly’s demeanor, caused her to worry that something was amiss.

She followed Lilly the short distance back to her room and seated herself at the low table in the middle of the room. Lilly had already laid out the teapot and cups, and the kettle was already steaming. Apparently she had been confident that Hanako would oblige her request. As Lilly sat down, Hanako asked nervously, “Is…everything…all right? Is your aunt…” She trailed off, not wanting to voice the worst-case scenario.

Lilly shook her head, looking sober. “My aunt is quite recovered, thank you. But you are correct in assuming that I have something that I need to discuss. Something I need to tell you.” She filled the teapot from the hot water kettle. “That will be ready in a few minutes.”

She reached out and touched the teacups gently, as if to reassure herself that their position hadn’t changed, then she folded her hands on the table in front of her. Her hands, normally so poised and graceful, fidgeted and rubbed together, expressing nerves that Lilly seemed to be trying to hide. Her half-opened eyes seemed to be staring through Hanako’s abdomen, and for the first time in a long time, Hanako found herself discomfited by Lilly’s sightless gaze.

“What’s…wrong?” Hanako asked quietly.

Lilly sighed. “I’m sorry, Hanako. This is difficult for me to say, because I know it will be painful. For you, for me. For both of us.”

Hanako felt a rising sense of nausea, fear at what Lilly might be about to say. “What?” she whispered. When Lilly bit her lip and didn’t respond, Hanako added, “You c-can…talk to me. Trust me. Please?” she pled.

“Yes. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be dragging this out.” Lilly took a deep breath, and sat up straight, as if facing a firing squad. “My parents have summoned me to join them. In Scotland. And I…” Her resolve wavered, and she bowed her head, hiding her face from Hanako.

“You’re leaving,” Hanako realized.

Lilly nodded. “Yes. You should know…I don’t want to leave you. To leave Japan. But still…”

“But you’ve l-long wanted…to be with your p-parents,” Hanako said sadly. She knew it wasn’t reasonable, it wasn’t fair to feel slighted because Lilly valued her parents above her, yet it still hurt. But I would surely do the same if I could, she told herself.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I…I should have told you this weeks ago, but I’ve been…struggling with this decision. Trying to make up my mind.”

Hanako felt that like a blow. Weeks? “You c-could have…talked it out. With me. I could have…helped you.” It was depressing to realize that Lilly had been struggling with something so monumental, but hadn’t trusted her enough to confide in her about it.

Lilly gave her a weak smile. “I didn’t want to burden you with it. I knew you would want me to stay.”

Hanako flinched. “D-do you think I v-value m-my own…d-desires…above what is g-good f-f-f-for…you?” She was grateful that Lilly couldn’t see the frown that was forming on her face, although she was afraid it might be audible in her voice. “I w-want you…w-with me, b-but…” She gritted her teeth for a moment, trying to calm down. “I w-would give anything…to ssssee my p-parents…again. D-d-did you think I w-would try to k-k-keep you…from yours?”

Lilly closed her eyes, squeezing them tight as if trying to hold in the tears the trickled down her cheeks. “No. Of course you wouldn’t. I was just…” She sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I didn’t want to upset you.”

Well, you failed at that, Hanako thought, but she couldn’t say that out loud. She closed her eyes for a moment, blocking out the misery on Lilly’s face. “You’ve helped m-me…so much. Why w-wouldn’t you l-let me…help you?” she asked quietly. “Aren’t we…friends?” Or am I just some helpless child you felt you needed to take care of?

Lilly sucked in a sharp breath, as if Hanako’s words had landed like a physical blow. Hanako opened her eyes, to see that Lilly’s expression had changed to one of shame. “Yes, we’re friends. I…I’m just…” She slumped, and wrapped both her arms across her stomach. “Afraid,” she whispered.

Despite feeling hurt that Lilly hadn’t trusted her, hadn’t confided in her, she still felt sorry for Lilly’s distress. “Afraid of...what?” she asked gently.

“Hurting you. Even though I knew this choice would inevitably hurt you, I...kept putting it off.”

On the one hand, Hanako was touched that Lilly apparently held her feelings in such high regard. On the other hand, that answer felt incomplete. Like Lilly was avoiding something. “Is th-that all? Aren’t you afraid...of something for...yourself?”

Lilly hesitated, then nodded mutely. When she didn’t seem to be forthcoming with words, it suddenly occurred to Hanako, If our roles were reversed, she would have given me a hug by now. She scooted around the edge of the table, to sit next to Lilly. Hesitantly, because in the past it had always been Lilly who initiated such things, she placed an arm around Lilly’s shoulders.

She immediately felt reassured that she’d made the right choice when Lilly turned into the embrace and buried her face in Hanako’s chest. Hanako brought her other arm up and embraced Lilly fully, pulling her closer to her. Lilly felt rigid at first, her muscles taut, but after a moment she relaxed into the hug.

As Lilly relaxed, Hanako asked again, “What…are you afraid of?”

Lilly licked her lips, then said nervously, “What if this is the wrong choice?”

“How c-could it be wrong? Don’t you want…to be with your parents?”

“Yes. But…you may have noticed I didn’t talk much about my reunion with my parents last month.”

Hanako nodded. “I d-didn’t want to…pester you…if you didn’t want to t-talk about it. But it was…noticeable.”

“Yes, well, I avoided talking about it because it was not as joyous a reunion as I had hoped. I was happy to see them, they were happy to see me, but…there was some emotional distance. Reserve. That I had not anticipated.”

Hanako remembered Lilly’s comment about now being taller than her mother. “They hadn’t seen you…in several years. Years in which you g-grew a lot. They p-probably need time…to get to know the new you.”

Lilly nodded. “I hope that is the reason. Indeed, that hope is the main reason I’m choosing to rejoin them. So that we might get to know one another better. Reconnect.”

“That sounds…good to me.”

“But what if that reconnection never occurs?”

“You’re family. You l-love them. It probably will occur, b-but…if you don’t spend time with them…it almost certainly won’t.”

“I know. I know. I just wish I could know for certain. What if I’m leaving Japan, leaving you, my friends, and the life that I know, for something that doesn’t work out?”

“Then…you return to J-japan. For university, if n-nothing else. You can always…stay with me.”

“Truly?” Lilly’s plaintive voice sounded almost child-like and fearful. “You won’t hate me for leaving you?”

Hanako pulled Lilly closer and hugged her tight. “N-never. Why would you think I would b-begrudge you…a chance to connect with your parents?” She hesitated, then kissed the top of Lilly’s head. “I l-l-love you, Lilly. That won’t change…just because you’re f-far away.”

Much of the tension in Lilly’s shoulders melted away, and she sagged into Hanako’s embrace. “Thank you, Hanako. Thank you.”

“Of course,” Hanako said, as she gently rocked back and forth with Lilly in her arms.

After a peaceful minute of reassuring contact, Lilly sniffled and sat up. “I’m afraid the tea is rather over-steeped by now.” She reached out and found a napkin by the teapot, and used it to wipe her eyes.

Hanako smiled. “That’s f-fine. Shall I…empty the pot and we can…start over?”

“Start over…” Lilly paused with her hand on the handle of the teapot. “Can I start over?”

“Y-yes,” Hanako said firmly. Thinking not only of Lilly starting over with her parents, but also of Lilly starting over again with her, someday, if she were to return to Japan.

“Thank you.” Lilly took a deep breath, and sat up straighter, her more usual posture returning along with a more genuine smile. She held out the teapot to Hanako. “Then, if you wouldn’t mind, I would appreciate a second chance.”

Hanako laughed. “In everything.”

“Yes.”

Hanako dumped the old, bitter tea, and they shared a couple of soothing cups of properly steeped chamomile before heading off to bed. As she said goodnight to Lilly, she paused at the door to Lilly’s room and looked around for a moment, appreciating the clean austerity of the room. I won’t be seeing this for much longer, she thought sadly.

Closing the door to her room behind her, she sat down heavily on the edge of her own bed and buried her face in her hands. I hope I said the right things to Lilly, she thought, playing back their conversation in her head. I hope the advice I gave was as good as the advice she’s given me. She’d tried so hard to put Lilly’s needs in front of her own for the past little while, but now the emotional reality of what was happening came crashing down upon her. Lilly is leaving. She shuddered at the thought. She knew she wasn’t as friendless as she had been a year ago—she had Rin, Naomi and Natsume, even Emi to a certain extent. But she’s still my best friend. And I’m going to miss her so much…

Hanako didn’t want Lilly to hear her crying, so she buried her face in her pillow and tried to cry herself to sleep as quietly as she could.


_______________________


By Tuesday, Hanako’s period was over, so they returned to Rin’s room for painting. Instead of a book, Hanako brought a stapled stack of papers to read while modeling. Rin glanced curiously at the papers. “What are you reading?”

“It’s a s-story for…class. ‘Flowers for Algernon.’”

Rin nodded. “We’re reading that in our class too.”

“Have you…read it yet?”

Rin shook her head.

Hanako wondered if Rin would ever get around to it. “Would you l-like me…to read it aloud?”

Rin looked intrigued by the idea. “I’ve never listened to a story while painting before. That could be interesting.”

“All right.” Hanako settled into a comfortable pose, sheaf of papers in hand, and began to read. She was nervous at first, but as she got into the story, the words began to flow more freely. When the words she spoke weren’t her own, her stutter almost vanished. She lost herself in the story of Charlie Gordon, a simple man whose life was turned upside-down by a scientific experiment.





_______________________





P.P.S. Please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard…”

Hanako finished the story, and wiped the tears away from her eyes. She looked up to see Rin sitting motionless on her chair in front of her easel, staring at her. She didn’t have a brush in her toes, and she looked almost as motionless as a model herself, as if she hadn’t been painting for a while. Her normally impassive face looked unsettled.

“That was a sad story,” Rin observed as Hanako set down the papers.

Hanako nodded. “Yes.” As she got up and put on her robe, Rin seemed to thaw, beginning to shift a bit, her face twitching with small fragments of emotion that were there, and then gone in an instant. “Did you…like it?” Hanako asked.

Rin closed her eyes, a small furrow appearing between her brows. “I don’t think that’s the kind of story you ‘like.’”

Hanako nodded in agreement. It was too sad for that.

Rin was silent a little longer, then she opened her eyes and stared intently at Hanako. “I’m not Charlie Gordon.”

“Er. Yes? I know?”

Rin shook her head. “He didn’t know he was different at the beginning, or at least, he didn’t see how his difference affected those around him. He was innocent. Unaware. It was only when he got smarter that he understood how he was different, that people were laughing at him because he was different.”

She looked away from Hanako, turning her gaze to her canvas. She didn’t look like she was looking at the canvas, though; it was more like she was looking through it. “But I’m not innocent, I know I make people uncomfortable, or confused, or upset. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable or confused or upset, but…it just happens. By me being me. Whoever that is.”

Hanako felt her tears returning. “Rin…” she said softly. She felt like her heart was breaking, on Rin’s behalf.

Rin continued to stare through her canvas. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m not even sure of who I am most of the time, but I know that the ‘me’ that I am usually isn’t good enough for the rest of the world, isn’t right for the rest of the world, I’m too different from everyone else. Alienating. Too difficult to understand. Even Emi sometimes laughs at me when I’m being serious, because she doesn’t understand.”

“I…don’t,” Hanako said quietly. Hoping Rin would hear her meaning. Even when she didn’t understand Rin, she still knew that there was meaning to her words. And to her silences. Despite Rin’s occasional inability to find the right words, she was expressing herself as best she could. Hanako sometimes felt like it was her fault when she couldn’t understand what Rin was trying to say.

But she wasn’t surprised that Rin knew that people laughed at her. Rin was more perceptive than most people thought.

Rin looked away from her canvas and regarded Hanako. She nodded slowly, and her shoulders dropped a couple of centimeters, as if she were releasing some tension. “You don’t,” she agreed. A small warm smile shone briefly on her face. Hanako was so used to Rin’s deadpan that that brief smile was like seeing another person grinning from ear to ear. She gave Rin a shy smile in return.

“Maybe…people d-don’t always understand you…I know I don’t, always…but…” Hanako bit her lip, not quite sure how to say what she wanted to say. “But your m-meanings…show up in your w-work.”

Rin closed her eyes for a long moment. “That’s all I want,” she said quietly.

“All?” Hanako asked curiously. “R-really?”

Rin remained silent for a while, then opened her eyes and gazed levelly at Hanako. “I...think so? Or, no. No. It’s all I want, but also it’s not, I want…” Her cheek twitched, a nervous tic that Hanako had never seen before. She looked back at her canvas. “I don’t know what I want,” she finished quietly. She picked up a brush, held it over her palette for a moment as if she were about to load some paint onto it, then she sighed and put it down. “Don’t know,” she muttered. She glanced at Hanako, opened her mouth, then closed it with a shake of her head. “Dunno.”

“M-maybe…that’s okay? To not know?” Hanako offered hesitantly.

“Is it? Really? Sensei gets upset when I tell him I don’t know what I want to do with my art.”

Hanako fought down a grimace, thinking of Nomiya. “Sensei…has his own…wants. Which m-might not always be c-compatible with…your wants,” Hanako said. “He w-wants to help you, in his way…b-but that might not be…your way.” Hanako stopped, feeling confused, not sure if she was conveying what she wanted.

But Rin nodded slowly. “Yes. He’s not me. I need to remember that.”

Hanako blinked. “Right.”

“Nor are you.”

“Right…?” Hanako said more hesitantly. Was Rin lumping her together with Nomiya somehow in her mind? She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

She tried to wrench the conversation back on track. “B-but still…I th-think it’s okay to not know…everything you w-want. Or want to do. Some things…we’ve got to f-f-figure out…as we go.” She blushed a little, hoping she didn’t sound as pretentious as she felt, saying something like that. She thought of Lilly, worrying about whether or not going to Scotland was the right thing to do. Lilly, whom she’d thought of as the most “together” person she knew, still worried about things like that. “I don’t know…everything I w-want. Nor does…Lilly. It’s…it’s normal to not know.”

Rin’s lips twitched in something that was a little too bitter to be called a smile. “I’m normal?”

That question felt like a landmine. Hanako was certain that Rin had been pressured to be “normal” far too often, in too many ways. And she had failed to meet those expectations. “You’re…b-better than normal. You’re…Rin.” Hanako smiled. “You’re the m-most perfect Rin…I’ve ever known.”

Rin snorted and looked down, not meeting Hanako’s eyes. “I’m…”

Hanako waited as the silence stretched out, wondering what Rin was thinking. Rin finally looked up at the canvas in front of her, and said, “I’m done painting for today.” She began to cover up her palette and rinse out her brushes.

It was the first time Rin hadn’t taken the full time Hanako had allowed for modeling. It was only an hour early, but it was still disconcerting. “All right,” Hanako said quietly. She slipped out of her robe and began to get dressed as Rin cleaned up.

Hanako finished pulling on her tights, and looked up to find that Rin had finished her cleaning. Sudden inspiration prompted her to ask, “W-would you like to g-go…to the…worry tree?”

Rin blinked. “I’m not worried.”

Hanako shrugged. “Still. It’s a l-lovely place to…relax.”

Rin looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. That sounds good. Do you want to come too?”

“Ah…yes.” She’d just been assuming she would accompany Rin. She hoped Rin didn’t mind her company.

“Good.” Rin cocked her head. “Do you have something you’re worrying about?”

Hanako nodded. Lilly is leaving me. She waited for Rin to inquire as to what, but Rin just nodded back, then turned and left the room. Hanako followed. Maybe the tree will have some advice for me, she mused wryly.





_______________________





Hanako woke up on Friday morning before her alarm clock went off, a feeling of dread clouding her mind before she was even fully awake. She was momentarily confused as to why she felt that way, then she remembered. Lilly is leaving today. Her final week at Yamaku had passed by in what seemed like the blink of an eye to Hanako.

The thought of Lilly’s departure made her feel heavy. Dragging herself out of bed felt like too much effort. She closed her eyes, and briefly considered going back to sleep, to escape the events of the day, but then she sighed and sat up. If I don’t say goodbye to her in person, I’ll always regret it. She swung her feet out of bed, took a deep breath, and stood up. I need to send her off in good spirits, to let her know I believe she’s making the right choice.

She went to the bathroom to get ready for the day, her body operating on autopilot. She didn’t really want to attend classes, but she also wanted to be where Lilly could easily find her at any given time during the day, if she chose to do so.

At lunch time, Hanako waited for a few minutes after the bell to let the crowds in the hall disperse, then she went to the tearoom for lunch with Lilly. My last lunch with Lilly. Her stomach knotted at that thought, and she tried to think of something else to distract herself. She wondered if she would continue to eat there when Lilly was gone—but that line of thought wasn’t any more cheerful. She sighed, and entered the tearoom.

Lilly was there, already putting together tea. For the last time, repeated the voice in the back of Hanako’s mind, but she ignored it. “H-hello, Lilly,” she said quietly as she entered the room.

Lilly smiled. “Hello, Hanako. It’s good to hear you.”

Hanako smiled a little bit. “It’s g-good to see you…too.”

“Tea?”

“Yes…please.”

Hanako sat down at the table and pulled out their lunches. “I’m s-sorry I didn’t…make anything special. For your l-last lunch at Yamaku.”

Lilly’s smile faltered a moment at that comment, then it returned. “It’s not the food that’s special, it’s the company.”

“Y-yes.” Company I’ll soon no longer have. Then she shook her head at herself, annoyed at that train of thought. No. Focus on what I do have, now. Be like Rin. Live in the moment, don’t inhabit the future.

“I’m g-glad you could make…time. To have lunch with m-me. Today,” she said, with more conviction. She knew Lilly must be busy with getting ready to leave.

Lilly smiled as she poured their tea. “I could not miss this lunch. I’ll…” Her smile faltered. “I’ll miss it enough. In the future.”

“Will you?” asked Hanako suddenly, her curiosity and insecurity bursting out of her before she could think to hold it back.

“Will I what?” asked Lilly, looking puzzled.

“Miss…our l-lunches. M-miss…me.” She knew the question wasn’t necessary, that it was insecure and needy, seeking reassurances of things she already knew, yet she couldn’t help asking it.

Lilly closed her eyes as she finished pouring the tea. Hanako knew that that made no difference in her ability to pour tea, but it felt odd to watch. With a start, she realized that the reason Lilly had closed her eyes was to hold back tears. “Oh, yes, Hanako. I will miss you—and our lunches—very much,” she said quietly. Her voice sounded tight, as if she were speaking around a lump in her throat. Her smile was gone, replaced by a look of sorrow.

Hanako let go of a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. She was glad Lilly hadn’t begrudged her the inane question. She reached out and took hold of Lilly’s free hand, resting on the table. Lilly turned her hand palm up and returned the gesture, squeezing Hanako’s hand tight. She set down the tea pot, and Hanako took her other hand, too, and they faced each other across the table, holding hands for several silent moments.

Hanako was moved by Lilly’s sad demeanor to ask, “Will you be…okay…over there?” It seemed like Lilly’s fears were close to the surface, too.

Lilly nodded. “Of course. I’ll have my…my parents. And Akira.”

Hanako wished that Lilly sounded more certain in her reply. “You’ll never know…how things will work out…unless you try,” she reminded her.

Lilly nodded, and gave a hesitant smile. “Yes. I’ve dreamed for so long about reuniting with them. This is the right thing to do,” she said firmly, sounding more certain. Then she immediately undercut herself by asking, “Isn’t it?”

Hanako bit her lip. Be strong. For Lilly’s sake. “Yes. It is.” She took a deep breath, then gave Lilly’s hands a gentle squeeze before letting go. “Shall we…eat?”

Their meal passed in a comfortable, routine discussion of their respective days, and all too soon the end-of-lunch bell rang. Hanako sighed as she stood up to clean up the tea set. “Are you…g-going to take this tea set…with you?” she asked Lilly. It wasn’t as nice as the set in Lilly’s room, but she assumed that it was Lilly’s.

Lilly shook her head. “No, it belongs to the school. Or to the student council, I suppose. Shizune bought it last year, when we would do tea together. While doing student council work.”

As long as Shizune didn’t come looking to reclaim it, it might as well stay in this room, Hanako thought. Maybe she would continue to take tea here occasionally, even after Lilly was gone. Maybe have lunch with Rin and Emi on rainy days.

The rest of her afternoon classes passed in a blur, and far too soon Hanako found herself standing with Lilly by the front gates of the school, waiting for Akira to come pick her up. Lilly had two large suitcases. The rest of her belongings were packed into boxes in her room, awaiting pickup by a freight company on Monday.

“When w-will you arrive…in Scotland?”

Lilly stifled a small groan. “We leave tomorrow, so we’ll arrive around nine p.m. local time, which will be six a.m. Sunday in Japan. It will be almost twenty hours in flight, with connections.” She sighed. “I do so hate jet lag.”

“R-right. I’ll try to remember…the time differences…if I c-call you.”

“I expect I will be too exhausted to talk when we land, but I’ll ask Akira text you when we get in to let you know we arrived safely.”

“Th-thank you.”

Lilly tilted her head in that “listening” gesture that Hanako had come to recognize, so she wasn’t surprised when a moment later Akira’s car drove through the gate. Hanako was sorry to see Akira for once, since it meant Lilly would be leaving soon. Akira pulled up right in front of them.

“Heya, Hanako,” Akira called out as she emerged from the car. “Glad I get to say goodbye to you, too.”

Hanako nodded, and she pulled Lilly’s suitcases over to the trunk. Akira popped the trunk open, and the two of them wrestled the large bags inside. Hanako was surprised that the trunk was empty. “D-don’t you have…any luggage?”

“Yeah, but I already left ’em at Uncle Jigoro’s place. I was afraid Lilly might pack the kitchen sink, so I made as much room as I could. Good thing, too.”

“I didn’t pack that much,” Lilly protested. “These have to last me until the rest of my belongings arrive in Scotland.”

Akira laughed, and Hanako giggled. “Relax, sis, I’m just teasing ya. My bags aren’t much smaller.”

“Hmph.”

Akira slammed the trunk closed, then startled Hanako by pulling her into a warm embrace. “Take care, Hanako. Keep in touch, all right?”

Hanako nodded as she hugged Akira back. It was startling to feel how much more slender Akira was than her younger sister.

Akira released Hanako, then went back to the driver’s door. “Time to hit the road, Lils.”

“Right.”

Hanako went to Lilly and grasped her hands. “Have a s-safe…trip,” she said, feeling inane.

Lilly smiled. “I will.”

“Please…keep in t-touch.”

“Don't worry, I have your phone number. And with Akira's help, I could send you email, as well."

Akira snorted. “Hey, I’m not your tech support, just because you won't learn how to use a computer."

Hanako and Lilly giggled at that. “I’ll send you…my email address,” Hanako said.

“Um…” Lilly looked hesitant.

Akira sighed, and reached into a suit pocket to pull out a business card. “Here, kiddo, my email address. I’ll forward things to my techno-illiterate sister until I can get her set up with a computer of her own.”

Hanako took the card and smiled at Akira. “Th-thank you.”

“I’ll call you as soon as I get in, and am settled,” Lilly assured Hanako. “We’ll talk often.”

“All…right.”

Lilly smiled toward Hanako, her expression an odd mixture of proud and wistful. “I have faith you’ll be fine, Hanako. You’ve grown and changed so much since I’ve met you, and even more in these past few months. You have friends other than myself to stand beside you, people who support you, and whom you support in turn. You are so much stronger and more capable than when we first met, years ago. This parting may be difficult—I’m sure you will miss me as much as I will miss you—but can you not find it in your heart to wish me well on my journey? To let me go with a free heart?”

Hanako swallowed against a lump in her throat. “Of…course, Lilly. I hope your…reunion…with your parents goes as you d-desire.”

“Thank you.” Lilly pulled Hanako into a hug. Hanako struggled to not crush Lilly in her grasp as she hugged her in turn. “I love you, dear friend. Will you be okay?”

Hanako nodded against Lilly’s shoulder. “I will,” she whispered. “I love you…too.”

They reluctantly broke apart, both of them wiping at the tears standing in their eyes.

“Time,” Akira said quietly, sounding regretful.

Lilly nodded. She took a deep breath and smiled one last time toward Hanako. “Goodbye, Hanako.”

“Goodbye…Lilly.”

Hanako watched as Lilly got into the car. Akira started the car, then rolled down her window and waved to Hanako. “See ya, Hanako! Take care of yourself!”

Hanako waved dutifully back, then stood and watched as they drove off. As Akira’s car disappeared around the bend, she sighed and turned back toward the dorm. I can do this, she said to herself resolutely. She glanced back at the empty road behind her. I told her I would.

Putting one foot doggedly in front of the other, she slowly made her way back to the dorm.





_______________________





Hanako slowly climbed the stairs to her room after her therapy session. She kept her eyes on the floor as she approached her door, not wanting to look at the door to Lilly’s room. Not that Lilly had ever had any decorations on her door. It looked the same as always had, but when she’d glanced at it this morning, it had looked emptier, somehow. Colder. Less inviting.

She went into her room and closed the door. She slipped out of her shoes, and went and sat at her desk, dropping her book bag beside her chair. I should work on homework, she told herself dully. Lilly wouldn’t want me to fall behind. She tried to make herself care, but her heart wasn’t in it.

She looked at her door, heart leaden. I’m never going to hear Lilly’s gentle tapping at my door again. She’s never going to come in here and give me a hug. Never going to make me tea again. She struggled to suppress those depressing thoughts, but they pushed their way to the forefront of her mind. The door went blurry as tears formed, and she closed her eyes. She’d tried to avoid thinking about Lilly all day, to just get through her classes. She’d been more focused on the teachers and note-taking than she’d ever been, to try and distract herself.

I might never see her again. Scotland was half the planet away, and Hanako didn’t have the funds to travel such distances. And with Lilly’s family in Scotland, everything she valued was there, so why would she come back to Japan? She was sure Lilly would successfully reconnect with her parents. There would be no reason she’d ever need to return to Japan.

She stood up and staggered over to her bed and collapsed on top of the covers, letting her sorrow take her. She curled up in a little ball, hugging her pillow to her chest, various refrains of never again running through her mind. She let loose the tears and sadness she’d been repressing since Lilly’s departure, and sobbed uncontrollably.

Eventually, her tears faded out, leaving her limp and drained, her head feeling stuffed, her face and pillow soaking wet. With a grimace of self-disgust, she sat up and grabbed a handful of tissues to blow her nose. Several times.

She glanced at the clock. She’d been crying for over half an hour. No wonder I’m exhausted, she thought numbly.

A thump at her door made her jump. Oh. Right. I should be modeling right now. She felt a pang of guilt at having forgotten about Rin. One of the few people left at Yamaku she might call friend. She didn’t want to face Rin, didn’t want to have to apologize for not telling her she wasn’t going to model today, but a second, more insistent thump made her sigh and roll out of bed. She shuffled to the door and opened it a few centimeters. She didn’t face Rin, but stared at her sandaled feet.

“I’m s-s-sorry, Rin,” she began to apologize dully. “I…” I what? What could she say to Rin to explain what she was going through?

“You’ve been crying.”

Hanako nodded.

“Do you know why you’ve been crying?”

Hanako was startled by the oddness of that question. She looked up at Rin and nodded again.

Rin looked reassured. “Good. Sometimes I cry and I don’t know why, which is always disturbing. I’m glad you know why.”

Hanako couldn’t help it, she giggled at Rin’s response. A slightly hysterical giggle, which lasted only a moment before turning into another sob. She closed her eyes and choked it back, biting her lip.

“Why are you crying?” asked Rin curiously.

Hanako just shook her head, unable to speak.

“Is it because Lilly left?”

Hanako nodded without opening her eyes.

"That is sad. I would miss Emi if she left. I would miss you if you left.”

Hanako’s eyes flew open at that. “Y-you’d…m-miss…me?”

Rin nodded. “Yes. I don’t have many friends. I would miss you if you left.”

Hanako felt like there was a constricting band around her chest. “Am I…your friend?” she whispered. Am I more to you than just a body to paint?

Rin looked alarmed. “Aren’t you?”

Hanako hesitated, then she nodded. Rin’s look of concern faded. “Good.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, then Rin added, “If I had arms I’d give you a hug. That’s what friends do when you’re feeling sad. But you can give me a hug if you’d like. It’s almost the same thing.”

Hanako bit her lip, considering, then she nodded and stepped back, opening her door wider. “I’d…like that.”

Rin stepped into her room, and walked right up to Hanako, pressing her body against her. Rin raised her arm stubs and pressed them into Hanako’s sides, hugging her as best she could. Hanako wrapped her arms around Rin, and hugged her tight. Rin was a few centimeters shorter than Hanako, and it felt odd to be hugging someone shorter than she was. Lilly was taller—

Hanako shied away from that thought. I still have a friend. She squeezed Rin tighter for a moment, and Rin squeaked a little in protest. “S-sorry,” she muttered, as she loosened her hold on her. “I…” She didn’t want to talk about Lilly right now. Thoughts of her were too raw, too painful.

“You need a hug,” Rin reiterated, and leaned against Hanako more firmly, as if pressing herself into the hug as best she could.

“Th-thank you, Rin,” Hanako whispered, as she hugged Rin back. It felt odd, with no arms around her, with someone shorter—

No. Don’t think of Lilly. Focus on Rin.

Hanako took a deep breath, and inhaled the scent of Rin’s hair under her nose. Rosemary and mint from her shampoo, combined with a hint of linseed oil and turpentine. Her grasp around Rin loosened, became less frantic, less intense, turning more warm and friendly.

“Did you eat today?” asked Rin.

“What?”

“Did you eat today? That’s what you and Emi always ask me, so I thought maybe I should ask you too.”

Hanako smiled at that logic, but, to be fair, Rin had a point. “Well…no.”

Rin nodded. “Then you should eat.”

“W-we should eat. Unless you’ve already eaten.”

Rin looked thoughtful. “I did eat lunch. But I’m not sure if that was today or yesterday.”

Given what she knew of Rin’s eating habits, Hanako suspected it was the latter. “Th-then we should eat,” she repeated.

“Okay. What?”

Hanako glanced at the clock. The cafeteria had closed for lunch but wasn’t yet open for dinner. She didn’t think she had enough food to feed two people lunch in the kitchen at the moment. “Shall we see what we c-can find…in the kitchen?” she suggested.

Rin considered that for a moment, then nodded. She rose and headed out the door. Hanako ran a hand through her hair, finger-combing it, then followed Rin without bothering comb it more neatly. Rin wouldn’t care what she looked like. Or rather, she would accept Hanako no matter how she looked. Which wasn’t quite the same thing.

When she opened the cupboard with her supplies, she had another momentary heartache as she saw all the spices and supplies Lilly had left behind for her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Rin was poking her head in the refrigerator. “I have some eggs.”

Hanako looked away from the cupboard. “Tamagoyaki? Or m-maybe omurice?”

“Do you have any rice prepared?”

“N-no.”

“Tamagoyaki, then.”

Hanako nodded, and pulled the mirin and soy sauce out of the cupboard. She put the carton of eggs and a bowl on the table where Rin could get to them, and she dug around in the communal cupboard for a tamagoyaki pan. She set the pan on the stove to heat, and turned to watch Rin. She still liked watching Rin crack eggs, fascinated by her dexterity. She wasn’t sure why she found it more impressive than painting or eating, but she did.

Their impromptu lunch came together in fairly short order, and they ate in companionable silence. After they’d finished eating and cleaning up, they wandered back upstairs toward their rooms.

Hanako paused outside her room and turned to Rin. “Th-thank you. For the…hug. And lunch.”

Rin nodded. “Would you like to model now?”

Hanako laughed, causing Rin to cock her head curiously. “What’s funny?”

Hanako smiled. “You’re v-very…Rin.”

Rin considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Good. I’d hate to be very someone else. I have enough difficulty just being me.”

“I th-think you do a very good job…of being you.”

Rin looked pleased by this assessment. “Do you want to model now?” she repeated.

Hanako laughed again. “Sure. W-why not.”





_______________________





Wednesday after classes, Hanako looked into the dorm refrigerator to see if she had anything sweet to eat. She glumly inspected her section of the fridge, where only a jar of chili paste and a couple of slightly wilted carrots sat. I need to go shopping.

Which she usually did with Lilly. The thought provoked a moment of sadness, but at least there were no tears. I can do this. I promised Lilly I’d be okay without her. Lilly had called her a couple of evenings ago, and they’d talked for almost half an hour. It had helped Hanako’s loneliness, knowing that Lilly could still be in her life in some fashion, but it had also reminded her of what she was missing.

She gently closed the refrigerator door, and sighed. Still, promise or no, the thought of shopping without Lilly’s comforting presence beside her was daunting. She pondered the problem as she climbed the stairs back to her room.

Maybe Rin or Naomi or Natsume would go with me? But she was pretty sure Naomi was tied up with putting the paper to bed. And she wasn’t sure if Natsume could walk that far. It would depend upon whether it was a good day for her arthritis or not, something which seemed to be totally random, at least as far as Hanako could tell. Natsume had joked that it depended upon the weather, the phases of the moon, and her horoscope.

She stopped briefly in her room to get her shopping bags, then walked down the hall to Rin’s room. She knocked on the door. After a moment, Rin opened the door. She didn’t say anything, she just looked at Hanako expectantly.

“I n-need to go…grocery shopping. W-would you like to…come with me?”

Rin looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded.

“Do you have…grocery bags?”

Rin shook her head and turned back to her room. “I use a small backpack. It’s easier to carry without hands, though I’ll need help putting it on once it’s full.” She shoved open her closet door with a foot, then dragged out a small backpack that was sitting on the floor.

Hanako stepped into the room. “Do you need…help now?”

“It would be quicker.”

Hanako stepped over and picked up the backpack, and slipped the straps over Rin’s shoulders. She couldn’t help but glance at the contents of Rin’s closet, which she hadn’t seen before. She was surprised to see that there were several colorful dresses in there, although she’d never seen Rin wear one. Even more surprisingly, a couple of them were sleeveless. Then something hanging on the wall at the end of the closet caught her eye.

“You have…p-prosthetics?” she asked, startled.

“Yes.” Rin didn’t look at the pair of prosthetic arms hanging from a coat hook in her closet. Hanako was reasonably sure that that was not the way they were supposed to be stored.

“Why d-don’t you…use them?”

Rin didn’t answer her as they left her room and began walking down the hall. As they exited the dorm, Rin said, “I don’t want to.”

It took Hanako a moment to realize Rin was answering her question of a minute ago. “Okay.”

As they headed toward the gate, Rin added, “They probably don’t even fit anymore.”

“Mmm.” Hanako had learned while at Yamaku that prosthetics were custom shaped and formed for each individual. And that they needed to be adjusted and replaced over time as people grew. If Rin hadn’t used hers for years, they probably didn’t fit.

She glanced at the mural as they passed it, glad to see it remained unaltered. She noticed that Rin didn’t look at it. Is she ignoring it? Trying to become a stranger again? She wondered if Rin had ever found any additional meaning in the mural beside being “murally.” As they passed through the gates and headed down the hill, she thought of asking Rin, but it seemed like the kind of question that could generate an incomprehensible answer.

Still…I should at least try. She considered the notion for a moment, then braced herself to ask.

Just as she was opening her mouth to ask, Rin said, “Mother insisted.”

Hanako blinked. What? Her mother insisted she paint the mural? After a confused reflection, she realized Rin must still be talking about her prosthetics. It surprised her that Rin would still be thinking and talking about something from five minutes ago.

It must be significant to her, Hanako realized. She recalled Rin’s comment while cooking about her mother not allowing her to improvise. She again felt a stab of envy for Rin’s having a mother, tempered by the realization that their relationship sounded a bit…problematic. Insisting that Rin wear prosthetics, when she so clearly didn’t like them. Not allowing her creative daughter express that creativity through cooking.

“D-do you and your…mother n-not get along?” she ventured cautiously.

They walked in silence for several more minutes before Rin responded, just as the Aura-Mart came into view. “Mother’s birds never escape.”

Hanako considered that. “I’m sorry.”

Rin nodded. “You’re an orphan.”

Hanako twitched, startled by the sudden topic change. “Y-y-yes?”

Rin stopped walking outside of the store and just stared at the ground in front of her. Hanako glanced at Rin. She looked somber, a small furrow between her eyebrows.

“I…wouldn’t like that.” She looked up at Hanako.

Hanako hesitated, wondering if a response was really called for. Well, this was Rin. “No. You wouldn’t.”

“I guess I love her?” Rin’s question seemed slightly plaintive, and she gazed earnestly at Hanako, as if seeking an answer from her.

“Th-that’s…good?” Hanako offered.

Rin nodded, her expression returning to her normal blank mask. She stared into Hanako’s eyes for another long moment, then she looked away. “Hello.”

“Eh?” Hanako looked where Rin’s gaze was focused, and saw a familiar black and white tomcat. She recognized the cat as one of the strays that lived around the Aura-Mart. She assumed it foraged in the trash for food, or perhaps for the mice that fed on the food in the trash. “I thought you weren’t…supposed to l-look at the cat,” said Hanako, smiling.

Rin considered this. “But he’s not in a box.”

“T-true.”

“Maybe someone else already opened his box and let him out.”

“Maybe so.” Hanako slowly crouched down and held out a hand, but the cat hissed and skittered away, slipping into a dark space behind the trash can beside the store.

Rin watched the cat go. “You scared him.”

Hanako rose back to her feet. “He’s a…stray. He’s b-been here for years, b-but I’ve never…managed to pet him.”

Rin nodded, and turned to walk into the store. Hanako followed. “Should I g-g-get a basket…for you too?”

“Please.” Rin wandered past the stack of baskets by the front door and started walking down the aisle. Grabbing two baskets, Hanako followed.

“D-do you know…what you want…to buy?” Lilly had always shopped with a list, a plan of what she wanted to buy. Hanako would help her find what she wanted and place them in her basket for her. But Rin didn’t seem to have a list.

“Hmm.” Rin ambled down the canned goods aisle. “I’ll know what I need when I see it.”

“O…kay.”

Shopping with Rin was not at all like shopping with Lilly. Occasionally she’d stop, slip out of a sandal, and grab something off the shelf. Or, if the item was higher up, or too large to grasp with toes, she’d point with an arm or foot, silently asking Hanako to get it.

Rin paused in front of the pre-packaged dried goods and stared at the shelf for a moment. Hanako realized she was looking at the same okonomiyaki mix that they’d used together last month.

“D-do you want…that?” Hanako asked.

Rin looked at her. “Would you mind?”

“M-making it…with you…again?” Hanako smiled. “I’d…like that.”

A small smile flitted across Rin’s face. “Me too.” Hanako happily took the package from the shelf and added it to her basket. She made sure to get some cabbage and green onions to go with it.

Hanako was about to move from the produce section to the breads, but Rin stopped and stared at a stack of oranges. Hanako hesitated, then asked, “Do you w-want oranges?”

“I have difficulty peeling oranges.”

That wasn’t a no, Hanako realized. “I c-can help…with that,” she said, as she picked up a couple of oranges and put them in her basket.

“Hmm.” Rin gave a small smile and moved on to the breads.

When they got to the check-out, Hanako placed her items on the counter first, then Rin’s. “Could you get my wallet out of my pocket?” Rin asked.

“Okay.” Hanako still felt awkward sliding her hand into Rin’s pocket, but she complied. She paid for their purchases, then helped Rin put her backpack back on.

Just after they left the store, Rin stopped, and squatted on the ground by the side of the market. Hanako looked, and saw that the black and white tomcat was there again. “I d-don’t think…he likes people,” she told Rin.

Rin didn’t respond, she just stared at the cat. The cat stared back, the tip of its tail flicking back and forth, then it blinked twice and stepped up to Rin, rubbing against her legs. Hanako stared, dumbfounded. “He n-never let…me pet him,” she muttered.

“Maybe he likes me because he knows I can’t pet him,” Rin speculated. “I mean, I could, but I’d have to sit down and take off a sandal but he probably doesn’t know that.” She waved an arm, and the knotted end of her sleeved fluttered through the air, catching the cat’s attention.

Rin repeated the motion, and the cat’s ears perked forward, and he began to track the motion. He might be a feral stray, but a cat was still a cat, and he looked entranced. He crouched down low to the ground, and the tip of his tail twitched as he tracked the sleeve’s movement. Hanako watched, charmed by the sight of the stand-offish cat and the undemonstrative artist playing together.

Rin suddenly stood up, startling the cat into jumping back away from her. “Wh-why did you…?” she asked Rin.

“I didn’t want him tearing my sleeves.”

Given how little concern Rin showed for getting paint on her clothes, Hanako was surprised that she worried about tears. She watched the cat disappear into the alley. “M-maybe he’s going to go…back into his box,” she hazarded.

Rin cocked her head, considering. “Maybe. Though he might be safer staying out of it, where he’s all alive, not half-alive.”

Hanako still didn’t understand exactly what Rin was talking about, but she was pretty sure that was meant as a joke, so she smiled. “L-lets get back…before your mochi m-melts.”

Rin nodded in agreement, and they headed back to Yamaku.





_______________________





Lilly’s absence didn’t slow the regular march of life at Yamaku, and classes proceed apace. Additionally, Hanako found herself spending more time on the days she wasn’t modeling with the newspaper club. She’d been surprised to find that she had a knack for using the computer, and the vision impaired Tsubame had been more than happy to pass most of the newspaper’s typing and layout jobs on to Hanako. Naomi and Natsume had even listened to her timorous suggestion and allowed her to write an article about the school library, the first time she’d done an article that was her own idea.

One Thursday afternoon she arrived in Rin’s room to find that Rin had finished the previous canvas in her absence. A blank canvas was sitting on the easel, laid out in a landscape orientation. Rin had piled several pillows up at the foot of her bed where it met the wall.

“How d-do you want me?” Hanako asked as she slipped out of her robe.

Rin waved a stump at the pillows. “Just sitting up reading, leaning against the wall.”

Hanako nodded, grateful for the back support that the wall would provide. A couple of paintings ago she’d posed sitting in the middle of the bed cross-legged, and her back had gotten quite sore after three hours. She sat, plumped the pillows into a more comfortable support, and picked up her book. She looked at Rin. “Is th-this okay?”

Rin stared at for a long moment, as she often did when contemplating a new pose. “Lift your left knee. Maybe you can rest your book there.” Hanako complied, and Rin stared a little more. “Can you brush your hair back behind your ear?”

Hanako grimaced, but complied. She still felt awkward showing her full face, despite the lovely portrait Rin had done of her. She was already sitting with her left side towards Rin, the full length of her scars from shoulder to toes showing.

But I trust her, she reminded herself. She rolled her shoulders, trying to settle into a neutral pose, easy to hold for a long stretch of time. She turned her face toward the book, then flicked a glance at Rin out of the corner of her eye. “Good?”

Rin didn’t respond verbally, she just picked up a piece of vine charcoal and began to sketch on the canvas. Hanako gave a small smile at that response, and turned her attention to her book.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:10 pm

Tuesday at Lunch, Hanako told Rin, “I’ll b-be a little…late…this afternoon. I need to finish t-typing up…an article…for the newspaper.”

“How late?” Rin asked.

“Mmmm…maybe fifteen minutes? I’m almost d-done.”

“Is that the story you were working on about the wheelchair track team?” Emi asked.

Hanako nodded.

“They’ve been doing great this year. I think it’s the strongest chair team we’ve had in a while,” Emi said. “Especially Kohei.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen them racing,” Hisao said.

“Because your time at the track is always taken up worshipfully watching me,” Emi teased. “And also, we have different practice schedules.”

“They’re…really interesting,” Hanako said. “You should…check them out. They’d…appreciate…m-more spectators.”

Hisao nodded. “Maybe I will.”

“But you will come model afterwards?” Rin asked Hanako.

“Yes, Rin,” Hanako said soothingly.

Hanako wasn’t sure if Rin disbelieved her, or if she was just bored, but she was surprised when Rin wandered into the newspaper clubroom after school. “Hello,” Hanako said.

Rin nodded back and wandered over to stand behind Hanako, peering at the computer screen over her shoulder. “Words,” she said absently.

“Y-yes?”

“Your birds come home to roost as words,” Rin said quietly. “Word birds. Bird words.” She stared at the screen for another moment, then wandered away, peering curiously at the rest of the room.

Hanako turned her attention back to the screen and worked on finishing her story. When she finished, she emailed the story to Naomi and Natsume.

She glanced at the contents of her inbox, usually a repository for junk mail and notices from the school. She was surprised to see a day-old message from satoulillian@satouindustries.eu. Her heart skipped a beat as she clicked on the message, puzzled but excited to be receiving something from Lilly and not Akira.



Dear Hannukah,

Surprise exclamation punt Akira has, at long last, persuaded me to try using a computer and electronic meal. I concede it may have some advantages, but the text to speech programs aren’t totally reliable yet. Please forgive any odd turns of phrase or punctuation as I learn these new systems new paragraph I hope you are doing well, I am glad to hear you are settling into the newspaper club. If you write any more articles please email them to me so I can read what you’re doing. Are you still modeling for green? How go your classes question marred



No wait delete paragraph



No

Dam



I miss you, and our times together. I even find I miss sheets in neigh, though maybe you shouldn’t tell her that. Akira and I try to spend at least one day each weekend together exploring the air rhea, which has been good for familiarizing me with my new neighborhood. I start at my new school this week which should be interesting.

My reconnection with my parents is going slowly but well, reassuring me that I made the right choice to come here even though it took me away from you

Take care, sweetheart ago, and know that I think of you often, especially at eat time. Akira sends her regards as well.

Love, your friend, Lily



Hanako smiled, both pleased to hear from Lilly, and amused by the numerous errors that the voice-to-text program had introduced into the letter. Lilly would never have sent such an error-riddled letter under normal circumstances, but she was pleased that Lilly was at least trying to learn new technology, reaching out to her in this way.

She looked over at Rin, who was staring at a set of photos tacked to a bulletin board. “Rin? Would you m-mind waiting…a minute more, while I reply to…an email f-from Lilly?”

Rin shrugged. “Okay.” She wandered over and sat down beside Hanako and stared at a newspaper on the desk in front of her. Hanako wondered if she’d ever read the school paper before. She wasn’t even totally sure that Rin had read her article about the mural vandalism. She’d given her a copy of it, but Rin had never said anything about it.

Hanako hit reply on Lilly’s email and began typing.



Dear Lilly,

I hope you are settling down well in Scotland, and your family is doing well. I’m glad Akira has helped you set up a computer. I know you don’t much care for them, but it will be easier for us to communicate in the long run, I think. And it’s certainly much quicker than postal mail.

I miss you, but Rin and Naomi have been good friends, and have been helping to cheer me up. I still occasionally join Rin and Emi and Hisao for lunches, which was awkward at first but I’m slowly getting used to them. And they to me.

The teachers are nagging us more and more about the Center Tests and our plans for after graduation. With Naomi and Natsume’s encouragement, I’ve been thinking of some sort of career in journalism. Maybe as an editor or some such, not a reporter—I don’t think I could interview anyone to save my life.

I’m still modeling for Rin two or three days a week—or more, when she importunes me to. By now the entire art club has seen paintings of me, nude and scarred. Which I try not to think about too much, but at the same time…it is weirdly liberating. When I talk with one of them, I can know they’ve already seen the worst of me, which makes some encounters a little easier.

At least, with the girls. Some of the boys are…well…boys. Scarred or not, all they see are boobs. Thankfully, Hisao isn’t like that. He’s seen a couple of the paintings when visiting Rin’s room with Emi, but he’s been very respectful. Maybe because of Emi’s influence, but I’ll take what I can get.

With Rin’s encouragement I did manage to talk with Rika about learning Shodo, and she’s promised to help me learn it. We haven’t started that yet, but I’m nervously looking forward to it. She seems a nice girl.

I think of you often, and I’m so glad to hear from you. Say Hi and Thank You to Akira for me.

Love,

Hanako



Hanako re-read her letter, corrected a typo, then clicked send. She watched as the message disappeared from her screen. It felt a little unsatisfying—her words were just there, and then gone. She knew that it would be easier for Lilly to have a computer read the email to her than to find someone else to read a hand-written letter to her, but it felt a little impersonal. She stared at the screen for a moment longer, as if waiting for a response of some sort, but of course nothing came. She turned to Rin and smiled. “Th-thank you for waiting.”

Rin nodded. “Can you help me with an email, too?”

“Of c-course. What kind of help…do you need?”

“I should write to my mother. Typing with feet is tedious. If you wouldn’t mind typing for me.”

Hanako nodded. She closed up her email account and then followed Rin’s directions to log into her account. Rin seemed singularly unconcerned about Hanako knowing her password—JohnCageIsDead. She wondered what it meant.

There were a few dozen junk messages, several newsletters from 22nd Corner Gallery, and numerous announcements from the school administration that had piled up in her in-box over the last few months. It didn’t appear that Rin checked her email all that often. Hanako started a new message, and Rin directed, “To Tezuka Mayumi.” The email program inserted the appropriate address.

“Wh-what subject line would you like?” asked Hanako.

Rin thought for a moment, then said, “Rin.”

Well, that was the subject of the letter, Hanako supposed, so she typed it in, then began the body of the letter. “D-do you begin with… ‘Dear Mother?’”

Rin shook her head. “It’s sent to her address. She knows it’s to her.”

Hanako thought that a little bald, but she nodded. “So, what d-did you want…to say?”

Rin stared at the screen for a full minute, as if willing words to appear there by magic. Finally, she looked at Hanako, a faintly pleading look on her face. “I never know what to say. She doesn’t care about the patterns of shadows that the leaves make in moonlight.”

“Well…” Hanako thought for a moment. “You c-could tell her…about how you’re doing in classes?”

Rin shook her head. “She won’t like how I’m doing in classes. She never does.” True, academics were not Rin’s strong suit.

“Um…” Hanako tried to think what she would want to tell her mother. Everything. The thought made her heart ache. She could write all the letters in the world to her mother, but she’d never read any of them.

She dragged her mind away from that depressing train of thought. “You c-could tell her…about your friends.”

Rin stared at her for a moment, then nodded and began. “My friend Hanako is typing this letter for me. She is a good friend who models for me. I’ve done many paintings of her, exploring many different styles. This annoys Nomiya-sensei, but I don’t care. My friend Emi has a new boyfriend named Hisao. She seems very happy with him. I thought at first his disability was in his pants, but it’s actually his heart. I hear them having sex regularly enough that I’m sure he’s—”

Rin!” Hanako stopped typing and stared at Rin, feeling her face turn red. “D-do you…regularly t-tell your mother…about your friends’ l-l-love lives?”

Rin looked puzzled. “You’re the one who suggested I tell her about my friends.”

“I…d-don’t think most people…talk about sssex with their parents…all that much?”

“When I told her that I had bought a vibrator, she seemed happy for me.”

“I…” Hanako stared at Rin, jaw hanging slack for a dumbfounded moment, unable to think of a reply to that. Back at the orphanage, Mama Ando had always been open and plain-spoken about sex education, but that wasn’t quite the same thing as talking to your own mother about sex. Or masturbation. Hanako’s blush intensified. “Okay,” she finally squeaked. “C-continue.”

Rin looked at the screen, re-reading her words, and frowned. “I forget what I was going to say.”

“M-maybe we can just…delete those last couple of l-lines…and you can start a new train of thought?”

Rin shrugged, and Hanako deleted everything after “She seems very happy with him.” Rin stared at the screen for a while, then added, “Hanako and I cook dinner together sometimes. I follow the recipes. We are a good team.”

Hanako smiled as she typed that last. After another long pause, Rin said, “Say hello to Father. Your daughter, Rin.”

It was a rather short letter, Hanako thought. She looked at Rin, about to ask her if she wanted to add anything else, and saw that Rin looked…weary. A little depressed and beaten down. It seemed like organizing her thoughts into a coherent letter was exhausting. “Shall I ssssend that?” Hanako asked. Rin just nodded, staring at the floor.

Hanako clicked send and watched again as the words she’d just typed disappeared. She logged out of Rin’s account, and turned to Rin. She still looked deflated, her shoulders slumped. Hanako bit her lip, then asked, “Would you like…a hug?”

Rin nodded again and stood up without looking up. Hanako stood up from the computer desk to wrap her arms around Rin and hug her tight. This time, Rin didn’t protest the strength of Hanako’s hug. She leaned into it, as if trying to get closer to Hanako. Hanako felt the pressure of Rin’s arms against her sides, squeezing her back. “I’m sorry that that’s…so hard for you,” she murmured to Rin.

Rin’s embrace loosened, and she bent her head to rest it on Hanako’s shoulder, relaxing more. “Thank you,” she mumbled into Hanako’s shirt. “I know…I should be grateful I have parents. But…”

Hanako felt a small pang at that reminder, but at the same time, she was moved that Rin would consider her feelings in that way. She tried to focus on Rin, and her problems. “R-relationships with one’s mother…can sometimes b-be tricky,” she observed, thinking of stories she’d read and movies she’d seen. She recalled a line she’d once read in a book. “Your mother knows how to p-push your buttons better than anyone else…b-because she sewed them on.”

Rin didn’t reply to that for a moment, then her shoulders started to shake. Hanako worried for a moment that Rin was crying, but it quickly became apparent that she was shaking with silent laughter. For some reason Rin seemed to be trying to keep the sound of her laughter in, but it just ended out leaking out in little giggling squeaks, which Hanako thought sounded beyond adorable. She started to laugh with her, which finally broke through Rin’s reticence, and she started to laugh out loud.

“She s-sewed them on,” Rin spluttered between laughs, apparently taken with the word play. Their laughter lasted another minute before trickling off. Rin lifted her head from Hanako’s shoulder, and looked up at her. Hanako was stunned to see Rin smiling a broad smile. It was the most overtly happy she’d ever seen Rin, a warmer and more genuine smile than the codeine-fueled smile when she’d been sick. She couldn’t help but smile back, happy she could be there, could possibly have contributed in some way to Rin’s current emotional state.

Rin bit her lip for a moment, then started giggling again. “My kids will be safe. I’m a lousy seamstress.” Which got them laughing all over again.

As their laughter trailed off the second time, Hanako realized she was still standing there with her arms wrapped around Rin, holding her close. Rin’s smile faded from her lips, but the corners of her eyes remained crinkled, smiling at her that way. “Thank you,” she said quietly, intensely.

Hanako could feel her heart thudding in her chest, and she tried to say “You’re welcome,” but nothing came out. She couldn’t explain why she suddenly felt so nervous, but she could feel the familiar heat of a blush covering her face, even though she’d done nothing to be embarrassed about. She couldn’t break her gaze away from Rin’s beautiful green eyes, didn’t want to look away, and yet at the same time her heart was pounding hard in her chest, making her want to flee. But she remained still, holding on to Rin.

Rin leaned in closer, her eyes locked on Hanako’s, and Hanako stopped breathing as Rin pressed her lips against hers. For a moment she let her eyes flutter shut and she felt nothing but lips, her lips hot against Rin’s. Soft and hot and sweet and delicate and—

Then reality came crashing back down on her. What am I doing? she thought, appalled. She jerked her head back and opened her eyes, staring at Rin, stunned by what they’d just done. She jerked her arms from around Rin and crossed them over her chest, putting up a barrier between them. “I…I…I—” she stammered, staring wide-eyed at Rin.

Hanako watched, her heart breaking, as the smile in Rin’s eyes slowly died, turning flat and expressionless once again. “You’ve got to go do something,” Rin said dully. She stepped back away from Hanako and looked down at the floor, as if giving her permission to flee. Permission which Hanako took, running out of the newspaper club room and down the hall, bursting out onto the campus grounds at a dead run. Someone called out “Hanako?” as she ran, but she didn’t recognize the voice, and she didn’t look back, running flat out, running away, running as if she could somehow flee the turmoil of emotions that flooded her soul.

She ran away from the academic building, away from the dorms—she didn’t want to see anyone just now. She fled up the path to the woods behind the school and continued for a good several hundred more meters before exhaustion overtook her and she staggered to a stop.

She braced herself with one hand against a tree, half-bent over and panting. What did I just do?

What did we just do?

_______________________


Her sleep was restless and disturbed. Rin kept appearing in her dreams. Sometimes Rin was enthusiastically kissing her. Sometimes she was simply painting her, like nothing had changed. Sometimes she was shoving Hanako away from her in disgust with hands she’d magically grown.

Hanako awoke in the middle of the night feeling a disquieting mixture of depressed and aroused. She buried her head under her pillow, and tried to distract herself by plotting out the next scene to her story in her head. But her mind kept returning to that moment against her will, recalling the warmth and soft affection she’d felt in Rin’s lips.

Towards dawn, she finally fell into an uneasy dreamless slumber, only to be awoken by her alarm far too soon thereafter. She sat up in bed, her head foggy and heavy, her mood depressed. She had plenty of experience with waking up already depressed, but she realized that it had been several weeks since the last time she had done so. I’d grown…happier. With Rin. Which made this falling-out all the more sad.

She sat on the edge of her bed, staring dully at her feet—one scarred, one not. I don’t think I can do this, she thought, then lay back down and curled up on her side, hugging her pillow. So stupid. Why did I do something so stupid? She drifted back into restless slumber.

Hunger woke her shortly before noon, and she blearily contemplated dressing and going to lunch, then afternoon classes at least. Lilly wouldn’t want me to miss too much class. If Lilly were still here, she would have come tapping at her door at lunch time, maybe even breakfast time, to see if she was okay. But Lilly was half a world away.

Which made the knock at her door startle her all the more. It wasn’t Rin’s kick-thump of a knock, but regular knuckles on the door. She considered answering it, but found she lacked the energy to do so. It can’t be Lilly, so leave me alone, she pled silently.

“Hanako? You okay?” came Naomi’s voice through the door.

Hanako sighed. She didn’t want to talk, and yet… I have few enough friends as it is. I can’t afford to alienate all of them. She rose to her feet and cracked the door open. “Hello,” she said quietly.

Naomi’s gaze flicked up and down, taking in Hanako’s night gown. “You okay?” she repeated. “We got worried when you didn’t show up to class at all today.”

Hanako shook her head wearily. “I’m…” What? What could she say? I’m a stupid idiot who messed up her relationship with her friend? “I’m j-just having…a bad day,” she hedged.

Naomi waited a moment, as if hoping for more details, then she nodded. “Okay. If you don’t wanna talk about it, that’s your call. But you know you can talk with me, or Natsu, if you need, right?”

Hanako tried to smile. “I…appreciate that. M-maybe…later.”

“I’ll bring you class notes after school, okay?”

“Th-thank you.”

“You need me to bring you lunch?”

Hanako shook her head. “No. Thanks. I’m…good.”

“All righty. I’ll see you after school, ’kay? Take care of yourself.”

“Thanks,” Hanako said yet again, and gently closed the door. She stood staring at it for a long moment, listening to Naomi walk away. I’m not completely friendless, she reminded herself. Even if I’ve destroyed my friendship with Rin, I still have her and Natsume, and Lilly.

She considered, briefly, calling Lilly to talk with her about what had happened, but she found the notion too embarrassing. I don’t think I could actually tell her that Rin and I kissed, she realized glumly. Which made calling somewhat pointless.

She pulled open the desk drawer she kept snacks in, to find it empty but for a healthy granola bar that Emi had given her a couple of weeks back. She picked it up and sighed. If my relationship with Rin is over, does that mean my relationship with Emi is, too? It wasn’t as if Emi was a close friend, but still…she had few enough friends. Losing two at once would be a harsh blow.

She sat down on her bed and glumly gnawed on the bland snack. Emi apparently valued nutritional value over flavor. Her stomach temporarily placated, she curled back up in bed and drifted back to sleep.





_______________________





The following day, Hanako doggedly forced herself to attend class. Recalling Rin’s dislike of early rising, she woke up earlier than usual to make sure they didn’t bump into each other in the bathroom. She arrived at the cafeteria earlier than usual, and she kept her head down and sat in a corner, not looking around to see if Rin and Emi were present.

Hanako avoided the roof, and Rin, at lunch time, by taking her lunch in the tearoom. For the first time, Lilly’s absence didn’t feel like a wound, but was rather a welcome silence.

At first. After she finished eating, she began talking quietly to herself. Talking to Lilly, who wasn’t there.

“I don’t know what to do, Lilly,” she whispered. She stared out the window, so that she might pretend that Lilly was sitting across from her at the table. She would be smiling gently at her, hands wrapped around a tea cup, her half-closed eyes making her look coquettish.

What do you want to do? she imagined Lilly asking.

Hanako shook her head. “I don’t know…” She sighed. “I hate not knowing.”

Then what does Rin want to do?

“I’m not sure about that, either.”

Maybe you should ask her?

Hanako groaned. Her imaginary Lilly was too sensible and direct. “It’s not that easy. What if she hates me for kissing her?”

Is that really likely? It seemed like she enjoyed it too.

Of course, imaginary Lilly knew exactly what had happened as well as she did. “Maybe. Or maybe she was just…carried away in the moment, and regrets what she did.”

Hmmm… Maybe… She could easily imagine Lilly’s skeptical tone.

“And…” Hanako’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What about you? Would you hate me, be repelled by me, if I were…if I were a lover of women?”

You love me.

“Not the same thing.”

No, I suppose not. But I’ve received confessions from girls before.

“And you never told me how you felt about that, aside from rejecting them.” She wondered if Lilly had been happy to receive those confessions, flattered by the implied compliment, or appalled by those girls and their perverse desires.

Did I seem appalled?

“Well…no,” Hanako conceded.

The end-of-lunch bell rang, and Hanako sighed and packed up the remains of her lunch. She stared down at the table as she did so, not looking over at Lilly’s seat, trying to preserve the illusion a little longer.

“I miss you,” she whispered just before she left the room.

I miss you, too, she hoped Lilly would reply.

“And I miss Rin,” she admitted sadly.

Perhaps she misses you, too?





_______________________





Hanako spent the next few days hiding from Rin. She was good at hiding. She’d done it for years, after all, before Lilly had entered her life. Hiding from other kids at the orphanage, hiding from teachers, hiding from her classmates, hiding from…herself.

When she realized that she was hiding like she used to, reverting to old behaviors, it made her nauseous for a moment. I thought I was past this.

But this was different. She wasn’t hiding from shocked eyes, or taunting orphans, or well-intentioned but inadvertently cruel adults. I’m hiding from a friend.

She sat at her desk and stared unseeing at a textbook, thinking about that. A friend. A former friend? Whom I kissed. Who kissed me.

She shuddered. What did that mean?

Rin was strange. Rin was different from most people. Perhaps it didn’t mean anything deep or significant to Rin, but was just a passing fancy, a simple expression of friendship.

But try as she might to convince herself, she couldn’t fully believe that.

There was…something…there. Some connection. Between us. Not just the physical pressing of lips.

Wasn’t there?

The more she thought about it, the more confused she got about it. How much of that “connection” is just wishful thinking warping my memory? Did it really happen that way?

“Dang it!” She tossed her pencil down and closed the text book. I’m just going in circles. She stood up, grabbed her shopping bag and purse, and headed out to the Aura-Mart. I need more snacks, at the very least. And to get away from the four walls of her room for a while.

While at the store, she passed the pre-packaged mixes and saw the okonomiyaki mix that she and Rin had used twice now. She picked up the box and stared at it, suddenly blinking back tears. Cooking with her was fun. She hesitated a moment, then regretfully put the box back on the shelf. I’ll cook something else this week.

Arriving at the produce section, she picked up an orange, recalling the times she’d peeled one for Rin. Rin consumed the orange slices one by one, her eyes closed as she savored each juicy bite. Watching Rin eat oranges had been oddly enjoyable. Rin’s expression had barely changed while eating, yet still her pleasure had been so clear that it had warmed Hanako’s heart.

Hanako stared at the orange in her hand. I’m happy…when Rin is happy. That wasn’t the only time she was happy, of course, but of late it seemed that many of her happier times had happened with or around Rin.

Being with Lilly made me happy, too. But…not in quite the same way. She frowned as she placed the orange in her basket. She hesitated with her hand over the pile of oranges on display, then slowly, she picked up a second one and add it to the basket. In case I want another one later.

She was partway back to Yamaku when her phone rang. Startled, she rummaged for it in her purse. Might it be Rin? But, no, that was a foolish hope; she and Rin had never exchanged numbers. She didn’t even know if Rin had a cell phone. She’d certainly never seen her with one.

The caller ID showed Lilly’s name, and for just a split second, she felt a flicker of disappointment. She flipped the phone open. “Hello?”

“Hello, Hanako. Is this a good time to talk?”

Hanako smiled and moved over to the shade of a tree. “It’s f-fine. I’m just walking back…from the Aura-Mart.” She put down her bags and leaned against the tree.

“Did you and Rin go shopping?”

Hanako’s smile vanished. “N-no. J-just…me. How are you…doing?”

“I’m well, thank you.”

“How is your n-new school?”

“It’s going well. I decided to start my third year of high school over again.”

“That sounds…tedious.”

Lilly laughed. “Not really. It will give me a chance to practice my English, and get a bit more grounding in local culture before going to university.”

“Oh. Well…that’s g-good.”

“I was in an odd position, being just a semester from graduation at Yamaku, but a lot of courses required for graduation here are not ones I’d taken in Japan.”

“Oh. Well, I h-hope you…can m-make new friends.”

“As do I. I admit to being a little nervous—I’m the only visually impaired student in the school, but everyone has been very helpful thus far. I’m slowly learning my way around.”

Hanako remembered Lilly’s schooling before Yamaku. “Is this another…Catholic g-girls’ school?”

Lilly chuckled. “No. Although it is a private school, it’s co-ed, and not religious. But because it’s private, it’s smaller, and easier for me to learn my way around.”

“Well, th-that’s good.” Lilly made a sound like a muffled yawn, and Hanako did a quick calculation. “Isn’t it…almost m-midnight there?”

“The other direction, it’s early morning. I should go down to breakfast soon, then off to school. I just…” Lilly’s voice turned unaccustomedly shy. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

Oh.” Hanako blinked rapidly against unexpected tears. “I…I’m so happy to hear y-your voice…too,” she said softly.

“Yes.” Lilly was silent for a moment, then said, “I miss you, dear. I hope you’re doing well.”

“I am,” Hanako said, not wanting to try and explain her falling-out with Rin. “Have a g-good day…at school.”

“I shall. Farewell.”

“Goodbye…Lilly.”

Hanako closed her phone and put it back into her purse, then stood staring blankly at the sidewalk for a few moments, worrying. Lilly had said she was doing well, but she’d called before school just to hear a familiar voice. Hanako hoped there wasn’t some underlying problem that Lilly wasn’t admitting to.

Like I’m not admitting to my problems with Rin.

She sighed, picked up her bags, and resumed her walk back to Yamaku.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:10 pm

Saturday afternoon, Hanako returned to her room after her therapy session utterly exhausted, and sat on the edge of her bed. What should I do? she wondered. Her head felt foggy, stuffed with cotton, a jumbled mixture of conflicting emotions and thoughts. She wanted to be with Rin, she never wanted to see her again. Desire, and embarrassment. Friendship, and fear. It was all a stew; talking with Dr. Tanaka had just stirred that mixture to a muddy chaotic mess in her mind.

I give up, she whimpered to herself, and curled up on her side in bed. Sleep, escape into unconsciousness, felt so attractive, but it took half an hour for her brain to slow down enough for that surcease to come.

She awoke several hours later, feeling surprisingly at peace. Sleep seemed to have helped even more than she had hoped. Fear and embarrassment had had time to ebb, and in the calm that remained, a desire to see Rin came to the forefront. She sat up in bed and stretched.

Dr. Tanaka had asked her several times during their session, What is it that you desire from this friendship, Miss Ikezawa? She had hemmed and hawed, dodging the question She hadn’t been able to speak her desires, too embarrassed to admit them out loud. But deep down inside, she knew that she knew what she wanted.

She stared out the window at the cloudy evening sky, trying to force herself to put her desires into words. I want…

I want…

Rin.

She trembled at that admission. “I want Rin,” she said softly. Saying it out loud made it more real.

She hadn’t yet been ready to say that to Dr. Tanaka, although she was sure that he’d realized it. It felt both terrifying and oddly liberating to finally admit it to herself.

She had never really been attracted to anyone before—not a real person, anyway. All of her fantasy lovers had always been characters from books, mangas, or movies. Fantastical ideals. Not flesh-and-blood beings who would shy away from the reality of her, be repelled by her appearance.

Now, she tried to imagine herself with Rin. Sharing a beanbag chair with her. Hugging her. Washing her hair.

That thought brought back vivid memories of Rin in the shower, wet and naked. Naked, unashamed, unassuming, regarding her with her cool appraising stare. Appraising and assessing Hanako’s scars, and then somehow finding them—finding her—beautiful.

Now Hanako regretted not touching Rin’s skin when she’d the chance. When she’d finished with Rin’s hair, she’d kept a washcloth between them. Had not indulged her desire to caress that smooth and supple skin. She bit her lip and shuddered a little at the notion of running her hand over Rin’s bare flesh. Over her back. Her face. Her belly.

Her breasts…

She considered that notion for a long time. Do I want to be…intimate…with her? The notion wasn’t totally foreign to her. She’d read a few tattered adult mangas that had been furtively passed around the orphanage, including a couple that focused on girl love. But life isn’t a manga. Most people disapprove of that kind of behavior in real life. She thought about what she’d read in those illicit ero-mangas. Girls kissing, and caressing, and doing…things…with each other.

Do I want to do that with Rin? She was a little surprised that the question didn’t provoke an immediate “No” reaction. If anything, the notion felt oddly comfortable. Right.

What would others think if I—we—did become a couple? She thought about that for a while, then wondered, Do I really care if others disapprove of who I love? Society might disapprove, but society had already shunned her. What was one more crime, of love, added to the crime of being hideous and scarred? And society wasn’t much kinder to Rin, for her differences. Not just her visible differences, but for the unique and wonderful way she viewed the world.

Then she noticed the words she had used, without even thinking about it: Who I love.

Do I love her? It wasn’t an easy question. She knew she loved Lilly. She’d loved her parents. But what she felt for Rin…wasn’t quite the same thing. And yet the intensity was similar…

She stared out the window for a long time, trying to decide. Wondering if it was really something she could “decide.” But the more she thought about it, the more right it felt.

If Rin feels the same way…

But hadn’t that been why Rin had kissed her? Or had that been mere lust, not love or affection?

She snorted. As if someone could lust for me.

Still, a small bubble of hope formed in her chest. She continued to stare out the window, but no answers were forthcoming from gray sky. Eventually, she sighed and shook her head. I need to know. I don’t want to lose her.

She rose to her feet, determined to act before her fears could paralyze her again. I can’t decide on my own, but together we might. And I think…I know I want to love her. If she’ll have me.

As she turned to leave the room, her eye fell on the oranges sitting on her desk. Oranges she could now admit she’d bought with Rin in mind. She bit her lip for a moment, considering, then she picked them up. A peace offering, she thought. She wasn’t quite sure how that would work, but it felt right.

Hanako hoped that Rin was in her room. She was pretty sure Rin would be painting, since that seemed to be her way of dealing with her emotions, but would she be working in her room, or in the art room?

Just before she got to Rin’s room, Emi stepped out of it. Her normally cheery face went blank when she saw Hanako. “Um. Hi,” she said, sounding uncomfortable. She gently closed Rin’s door behind her.

“Hi,” Hanako replied. She gestured to Rin’s room. “Is she…here?”

Emi nodded. “Yeah. You, ah…you gonna talk to her?”

Hanako nodded back.

“Good.” Emi stared at her for a moment, chewing on her lower lip. “Please…don’t hurt her.”

Hanako recoiled a little in surprise. Hurt Rin? What on Earth made Emi think she had the power to hurt Rin? But she nodded in agreement again.

Emi paused, looking as if she wanted to say something more, but then she just shook her head and entered her own room. The soft click of the closing door’s latch sounded ominously loud in Hanako’s ears.

She took a deep breath, and knocked on Rin’s door. When there was no response, she knocked again, saying softly, “Rin? It’s…me.”

She waited another half minute, then tried the door handle. It was unlocked, and she hesitantly opened the door a few centimeters. It felt like the inverse of when she opened her room’s door, on the inside peering out. Now she was on the outside, peering in. Petitioning for entrance. She couldn’t see Rin through the small sliver of opening. “Rin?” she called through the doorway. “C-can I…come in?”

After a moment, Rin said, “You can. Unless your feet have stopped working.”

Hanako decided to take that as permission, an invitation, even though she knew it wasn’t, quite. She entered the room and closed the door behind her.

There was a canvas on the easel between Hanako and Rin. She gave it a glance as she headed toward Rin, then she stopped, startled, and stared.

The painting wasn’t one of Rin’s usual figure studies. It was all angles, geometric, with no organic shapes or form to it at all. At first glance, Hanako assumed that Rin had shifted subjects, but after staring at the canvas for a moment, she realized that there was a human figure, of sorts, portrayed in those angles. The colors weren’t vibrant and bold, like Rin’s usual work, but muddy and desaturated and bleak. If she’d seen it in any other place, she never would have guessed it for Rin’s work at all. It reminded her a bit of the painting Rin had done after visiting Sae, only darker. Grimmer. It made Hanako shiver a moment before she tore her eyes away from the canvas. She noticed the unfinished painting of her sitting up and reading was leaning against the wall beside Rin’s desk. She looked away from that painting to Rin.

Rin was sitting on her bed, slumped against the wall, knees drawn up to her chest. Her head was turned slightly so she was staring out the window at the gray cloudy sky. She was dressed in her uniform slacks and shirt, no tie.

“Hi,” Hanako said quietly. She wasn’t surprised that Rin didn’t respond. Hanako shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, unsure if she should approach, stay where she was, or flee altogether.

No. I ran away before. Not now. She looked at the easel, grimaced, and stepped forward, so that it was out of her line of sight. She set the oranges down on Rin’s desk, suddenly feeling foolish standing there with them in her hand.

“I’m sorry,” Hanako said. She felt she owed Rin that much, at least.

Rin didn’t look away from the dreary view out of the window, but after a moment she asked, “For what?”

“For r-running away…from you.”

Rin was quiet for a while before responding. “I do that too, sometimes.”

“Pardon?”

“Run away from me.” She finally looked at Hanako, and added, “Sometimes I need to be somewhere where I’m not me.”

Hanako considered that notion. She too sometimes wished she could be somewhere else, somewhere where she wasn’t her. That was part of what reading gave to her. An escape into a world where she wasn’t scarred, stuttering, and neurotic. She wondered if Rin accomplished that through her art.

“B-but…” Hanako made herself meet Rin’s gaze. “But I don’t want to…run away from you. Anymore.”

Rin stared back at her, her face still expressionless. Hanako noticed that the muscle at the corner of Rin’s jaw was twitching. Eventually, Rin said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Hanako took a cautious step closer to Rin’s bed. Rin didn’t react, neither encouraging nor discouraging her approach. “I think…” She paused and licked her lips. “I think it means…I want…you. I’m sorry I…didn’t know that. Before. When you…k-kissed me.” She studied Rin’s face, looking for some reaction, some sign that she understood Hanako’s words. “When I…kissed you.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “When we kissed.”

She thought of how Rin sometimes spoke of her past self as a different person, and tried to phrase her thoughts that way. “That me then…didn’t know, c-couldn’t admit to herself…how much she wanted you. But…I know now.”

The only change in her expression Hanako could detect was that the twitching muscle in her jaw had stilled. That’s a good sign. I hope. So much of trying to understand Rin rode on such tiny clues. Clues that most people missed. Tiny clues, and patience. So Hanako gave Rin time to put her own thoughts into words. She tried to keep still, to not fidget, as she waited. It wasn’t easy.

Finally, Rin said, “I’m never very sure of who I am. But…” She scooted to the edge of her bed, planted her feet on the floor, and looked up at Hanako. “But I think that, whoever I am…I’m more me. When I’m with you.”

Hanako smiled, feeling tears welling up in her eyes. Rin cocked her head. “Do you know why you’re crying?”

Hanako nodded. “B-because that’t the n-nicest thing…anyone has ever said to me.”

"So, those are happy tears?”

Hanako nodded again.

Rin’s posture relaxed, and for the first time her ghostly thin smile graced her face. “Good.” She stood up and stepped closer to Hanako, leaving only a hand-width of space between them. Her smile faded, and she said, “I…should say I’m sorry, too. I thought if I wanted to kiss you, that you would automatically want to kiss me.” She looked down, her hair falling forward to hide her face. “That was…presumptuous.”

Hanako blinked, and wiped away her tears. “P-presumptuous?” That didn’t sound like a word that Rin would normally use.

Rin peered up at her through her bangs. “Didn’t I pronounce it right?”

“Yes…” Hanako put two and two together, and smiled. “Did Emi…tell you that?”

Rin’s tiny smile reappeared. “Maybe.”

Hanako laughed, and lifted a hand to brush Rin’s hair away from her face. “But…if I wanted you…to…k-kiss me. Again. It wouldn’t be presumptuous.”

Rin nodded, rubbing her cheek a little against Hanako’s palm. Hanako shivered at the sensation. “Yes. That is true. Do you want me to kiss you again?”

Hanako stared into Rin’s brilliant green eyes and nodded. She let her hand slide down the side of Rin’s body to her waist, and she hesitantly raised her other hand to hold her, pulling her just a little closer. Hanako felt flushed and a little dizzy, not quite believing both her luck and her daring. “Rin?” she whispered.

“Hanako?” Rin whispered in return.

“Please kiss me.”

“Okay. But only if you’ll kiss me back.”

Hanako gave a nervous little giggle, and nodded, leaning in closer. Rin likewise leaned in, and their lips connected. It was an awkward smushing of lips at first, not at all like the hot kiss of a few days ago, and Hanako had to force down another nervous giggle. Their first kiss had happened almost by accident, on instinct. Now, she was all too aware of what she was doing, and felt clumsier thereby.

She pulled back just a fraction of a centimeter, and brushed her lips more gently across Rin’s. Rin made a small noise at the back of her throat at that, one of the most wonderful sounds Hanako thought she’d ever heard. A sound of longing, of desire, and it was directed at her. Caused by her. Hanako inhaled deeply, enjoying the scent of Rin: rosemary and mint and turpentine, and some faint warm animal smell that was just Rin. She felt a wave of heat rush through her body, and she realized she was on the verge of happy tears again. She pulled her head back a fraction, not letting go of Rin’s waist, and asked, “Is this r-really…happening?”

This time, Rin didn’t question her tears. “I think so. If it isn’t, I don’t want to know.” She gently kissed the tears away from Hanako’s cheeks. Hanako flinched a little when Rin kissed her scarred cheek, but she tried to ignore it.

“M-me too.” She leaned in closer, and pressed her lips against Rin’s again, kissing for a moment before pulling slightly back, testing the waters. Rin leaned in, pursuing her lips for another brief kiss, then another, slightly longer one. The tip of Rin’s tongue traced a gentle circuit around the perimeter of Hanako’s mouth, and she gasped at the sensation. Rin chuckled softly at her response, sounding pleased. Feeling greatly daring, Hanako also traced a gentle trail across Rin’s mouth with her tongue, and she decided that Rin tasted even better than she smelled. Hanako was amazed at how sensitive her lips felt; she’d never experienced such sensations before.

When next their lips met, they both parted their lips, and their tongues shyly met. Hanako shuddered, surprised at the wave of heat that rushed through her body at that gentle touch. She pulled Rin tighter into her arms, desperate to feel her, smell her, taste her. Rin offered no resistance to her embrace but leaned into her harder too.

After a minute of passionate kissing, the pulled apart, both of them panting slightly. Rin’s cheeks were flushed, and her brilliant green eyes were half-lidded with pleasure. For once, Hanako had no problem deciphering Rin’s facial expressions; she was patently happy, and relaxed, and aroused.

“You taste like sunshine on an open meadow,” Rin murmured happily.

Hanako was fairly sure that was a good thing. “And you taste…deliciously like Rin,” she countered.

Rin chuckled, a surprisingly deep sound coming from her slight frame. She bent forward and began kissing her way down Hanako’s jawline, over the left side of her neck and across her pulse point. Hanako moaned at the sensation, surprised at the intensity of feeling Rin’s lips provoked. She’d read of lovers kissing each other on the neck, but those stories hadn’t prepared her for the heat and passion of the reality. He knees felt wobbly and weak, and she felt Rin turning in her arms, guiding her toward the bed. When she felt the edge of the bed hit the back of her knees, she gladly sank back onto the bed.

Rin unhesitatingly climbed on top of her, her lips still producing a flare of heat all along Hanako’s neck. Hanako fell backwards onto the bed, and Rin pursued her down. When her tongue ventured to trace the shell of Hanako’s left ear, Hanako half-expected the lick to tickle, but the sensation startled her into a louder moan, and she clasped Rin even more tightly to her.

The wonderfully arousing tongue stopped its motion, and Rin whispered into her ear, “I need to breathe.”

Even the heat of breath in her ear was arousing, but after a second, Hanako processed Rin’s words, and loosened her grip on her. “S-sorry!” she gasped, panting.

“Don’t be. It just means I’m in the right place.” Rin lifted her head away from Hanako’s and stared down into her eyes from centimeters away. There were soft smile lines at the corners of Rin’s eyes, and Hanako again felt a surge of affection and wonder, that this amazingly talented young woman would want to have anything to do with her.

That tongue is certainly talented, too, she thought dazedly. She wondered if it was partly because Rin used her mouth in lieu of hands for so many things. Then she wondered if she could learn to produce similar sensations in Rin.

Well…I can certainly try. The thought made her shiver.

Rin gave her another gentle kiss on the lips, and then she began to trail her kisses down Hanako’s neck—down her right side, this time. Hanako jerked, and pushed Rin away. “D-don’t.”

Rin sat up, straddling Hanako, and stared down at her. Her previously smiling eyes were somber. “Why not?”

Hanako shuddered, and covered the right side of her face. Isn’t it obvious? “Th-that side…is…ugly. Don’t k-kiss it.”

Rin shook her head. “None of you is ugly.” She spoke quietly but firmly, staring hard into Hanako’s eyes, as if daring Hanako to contradict her.

Hanako clenched her teeth, and turned her head to the right, breaking eye contact with Rin. She still couldn’t understand how Rin could say such things, could apparently believe such things. She wasn’t blind, like Lilly. She’d studied Hanako more intimately than any other person in the world. So how could she still say something like that?

“Hanako.” Rin’s voice was uncommonly gentle. Hanako took a deep breath, and forced herself to look back up at Rin. Rin lifted her arm stumps. “Are my arms ugly?”

“N-no. Of course…not.”

“Are Emi’s legs ugly?”

“No.”

“Lilly’s eyes?”

“No.”

Rin just stared down at her, daring her to take her line of thought to the logical conclusion.

She felt tears welling up in her eyes. She bit her lip and shrugged helplessly. She knew what Rin was trying to say, she just didn’t believe it.

Rin closed her eyes. “Words,” she muttered, making the word sound like a profanity on her lips. A small frown furrowed Rin’s brow, and Hanako watched her, apprehensive and yet fascinated, wondering what was going on inside that beautiful mind.

Rin opened her eyes and spoke slowly, haltingly. “Why would I limit myself…to only half of you…when I could get twice as much joy…by loving all of you?”

Now Hanako had to close her eyes, to keep the tears from spilling forth, shaken by Rin’s unexpected and unprecedented eloquence. Love? That was the first time either of them had mentioned that word to the other.

Rin’s weight shifted, then Hanako felt Rin’s hair brush her face as she leaned down and rubbed her cheek against Hanako’s scarred right cheek. She cringed, imagining what that horrible texture must feel like to Rin.

Rin gave her scarred cheek a gentle kiss, which Hanako could barely feel. Then she nuzzled the side of her head, her mouth close to Hanako’s right ear, and whispered, “Let me have all of you.”

In her deepest, most private dreams, Hanako had fantasized of someday finding someone who might at least tolerate her appearance, who would overlook her scars in favor of her “better half.” She’d never dared hope that someone might actually value her appearance, all of it, the good and the bad. It’s not bad, merely different, Lilly’s voice chided in her memory. She quivered at the thought. Slowly, hesitantly, she raised her arms and embraced Rin again, pulling her close. Rin’s weight on top of her was both alien and comforting at the same time.

“Th-this can’t be...real. I’m g-going to wake up...and find that th-this is all a dream.”

“If so, I’m dreaming it too.”

“How c-can you...” Hanako swallowed hard. “Like...this?” They were too close together for her to gesture to the right side of her body, but she assumed Rin would know what she meant.

Rin sat up again and shrugged, staring down into Hanako’s eyes. “It’s you. All you.”

“W-why…d-do you…like me?” Hanako asked timorously.

Rin was silent for a long moment, looking puzzled. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I…d-don’t know.” Hanako grimaced, embarrassed about putting her insecurities on display. “I’m s-sorry, I’m j-just…”

“Scared?”

Hanako nodded.

“Me too.”

You don’t look scared, Hanako almost replied, but then again, Rin’s emotions were rarely overtly on display. And as she gazed at her, she realized that there was a subtle tension in Rin’s features.

“I like you because…because…” Rin trailed off, her expression growing inward. She was silent long enough that Hanako began to get nervous. More nervous. Is there nothing she can think of?

Rin brought her attention back to Hanako. “When the birds of my thoughts fly off in all directions, they know they can come back to you. You let them land on your shoulders without trying to shove them back into too-small cages.”

“Oh…” breathed Hanako quietly.

“You listen to me, even when I’m not talking. You…you see.” Rin looked vaguely frustrated, and shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t say it right. I never know the right words to say.”

Hanako huffed a short laugh at that last. “Y-you’ve said…many r-right words…this evening.”

"I have?” Rin looked startled for a moment, then pleased. “Oh. Good.” She leaned forward, then paused with her lips centimeters from Hanako’s. “Then may I still kiss you?”

Hanako nodded, not trusting her own words just then. Rin’s lips met hers, and the small spark of her ardor, cooled during their discussion, flared up again. Rin’s kissed fanned that fire, her lips and tongue exploring Hanako’s mouth, and Hanako tried to respond in kind, learning as she went, listening to the sounds Rin made for clues to what pleased her.

This time, when Rin’s lips began exploring the right side of Hanako’s face, she tried to accept the attention. Rin gently, almost reverently, kissed an arc around her eyes, and Hanako realized she was tracing the perimeter of her mother’s handprint. Hanako wrapped her arms around Rin and whispered, “Thank you.”

Rin pulled back, and Hanako released her to sit up, still straddling Hanako. Rin stared down at her, her eyes half-lidded with pleasure. “Would you unbutton my shirt, please?” she asked Hanako.

Hanako reached for the top button on Rin’s shirt, almost automatically complying, then she froze. “Are y-you…do you…w-want to get…undressed?” she asked, her pulse accelerating at the thought.

Rin cocked her head and regarded her. “Don’t you?”

“Y-yes…no…yes, b-but…” Hanako swallowed. This was moving awfully quickly. “W-we just had our first—second k-kiss…are you…are we…ready for…” She couldn’t complete the sentence.

Rin looked away from Hanako for a moment. “If you don’t want to, I won’t force you.”

“N-n-no, it’s not that I don’t…want to…I…” She took a deep breath. “I d-do…want to. I want you.”

Rin ducked her head and peered up at Hanako through her lashes. “Do you really? Want me?” she asked shyly.

Hanako reached up and stroked Rin’s cheek. Rin turned her head and kissed the palm of her hand. “Y-yes. Very much so.”

“I’ve wanted you for a while, now. Stopping at this point would feel like half measures.”

Hanako considered that idea, and slowly nodded. Rin wasn’t one for half measures, and Hanako found she couldn’t disagree. They’d made it this far. She knew what she wanted. Rin, for a change, seemed to know what she wanted. Maybe it was time to take what they wanted. She stared into Rin’s eyes, feeling an almost physical connection to her, and she corrected herself. No. It’s time to give each other what we want.

If I can figure out how…

“Y-yes, but…I’ve n-never done this,” Hanako admitted shyly.

Rin nodded. “Me neither.”

“What?” Hanako couldn’t hold back her long-standing curiosity. “You and Emi…n-never…?”

Rin blinked. “Emi?” She sounded confused.

“I…th-thought…I assumed…” Had all those showers together really been just showers? She felt a little embarrassed by her assumption that the two friends couldn’t have spent so much time together naked and wet without taking things further. That probably says more about what I wanted than about Emi’s and Rin’s relationship, she reflected wryly.

“Oh.” Rin looked thoughtful. “I’m pretty sure she’s not that kind of friend. And I think Hisao might object.”

Hanako smiled to hear that. She gathered her courage. “Well, then. Let’s l-learn…together.” She reached up, and, with trembling fingers, unbuttoned Rin’s uniform shirt. When she reached the last button, Rin rolled her shoulders backwards a few times, encouraging the shirt to fall off of her. She was wearing a pale green bra with a clasp in the front. Hanako licked her lips and looked at Rin. “This…too?”

Rin just nodded.

Hanako slowly unclipped the bra’s clasp and pulled the cups to the sides. Rin again rolled the clothing off her shoulders. And Hanako blushed to at the sight of the half-naked young woman sitting on top of her. So beautiful….she thought to herself. She longed to reach out and stroke Rin’s flesh, but her nerve failed her. Instead, she plucked at the bow around her own neck, untying it, and began to unbutton her own blouse.

“Wait,” Rin said.

Hanako froze. Maybe she doesn’t want to see my hideous body after all?

Rin said, “I want to do that. You did mine.” She leaned forward, and grasped the top button of Hanako’s blouse in her teeth. The feeling of Rin’s hair and cheek brushing against her neck made Hanako shiver, and she relaxed, her momentary fear banished. Rin tugged on the button for a moment, doing something that Hanako couldn’t see, then she moved down to the next button. When she got that second button undone, she pulled the collar of Hanako’s blouse apart, and kissed the base of her neck. Hanako made a soft whimpering noise at the sensation, and Rin chuckled softly, sounding pleased with that result.

Rin was slow, some buttons surrendering to her talented teeth and tongue almost immediately, others taking as much as a half a minute, but every button undone was followed by a kiss. The slow pace of the unbuttoning was stretching Hanako’s nerves to their limit, and she found herself breathing deeper and faster the further Rin went. When she got as far as Hanako’s navel, she swapped a gentle lick for her kiss, making Hanako giggle and twitch. She put her hands on Rin’s head, burying her fingers in her auburn curls. Recalling how Rin had liked her to scratch her head while shampooing her, she gently scratched Rin’s scalp. Rin’s response was a gratifying little purr made around the button in her mouth.

Reaching Hanako’s waistband, Rin tugged on the blouse, pulling it out of her skirt, and finished the last button. She grabbed the bottom of the blouse and pulled it to the side, exposing Hanako, first on the left, then on the right.

By this point Rin had slid so far down Hanako’s body that she was kneeling on the floor beside the bed. She rose to her feet and looked down at Hanako,. Hanako was all too aware of how disheveled she must look, with her blouse parted, her breath and heart racing, and she was sure she could feel a flush of embarrassed heat all the way down her body. Rin stared for a long moment, a small smile on her face, making Hanako even more self-conscious.

“I don’t think I can do your bra,” Rin said, breaking the long wordless silence. “At least, not easily.”

“R-right.” Hanako sat up, which put her sitting with her face at Rin’s chest level as she stood in front of her. She was going to slip off her blouse, but she got distracted by the sight of Rin’s breasts, her nipples erect and her fair skin flushed. She longed to reach out, to touch Rin, to feel that beautiful skin, to find out what another woman’s nipples felt like, but she was still too shy to actually do so.

“Hanako.”

Hanako snapped her gaze upwards, embarrassed to be caught out staring at Rin’s breasts. “Y-yes?”

“Would you kiss me?”

Hanako nodded, and waited for Rin to lean down and present her lips to her. But she didn’t do so, she just smiled gently down at Hanako. Hanako’s breath caught as she realized what Rin meant. Slowly, giving Rin time to step away if she’d misinterpreted what she meant, Hanako leaned forward and gently planted a kiss in between Rin’s breasts. Rin mad a small “Mmm” of appreciation, and turned her torso a little to the side, stroking Hanko’s cheek with her breast and presenting her nipple to her.

Hanako hesitantly kissed the tip of Rin’s nipple. She didn’t know exactly what she had been expecting—superhumanly soft, or some sort of different taste—but it was still just skin. But skin that made Rin inhale sharply at that light kiss. Hanako to pull back a little and look up at her. “Am I d-doing…it right?”

Rin nodded, and the tip of her tongue appeared for just a moment between her lips. “More.”

Hanako leaned forward and kissed the tip of Rin’s nipple again, and then, feeling daring, she part her lips a little to let the erect bud slip between her lips. Rin moaned softly at that greater contact. Thus encouraged, Hanako ran her tongue over her areola. It was puckered tight and hard, the texture intriguing under her tongue, but not as intriguing as the sound Rin made. She leaned into Hanako, pressing her breast against her mouth. Hanako obligingly opened her mouth and sucked her nipple fully in, running her tongue around the taut nub, enjoying the texture of the puckered areola.

“Yesss…” hissed Rin. “Yes, yes…”

Hanako lifted her hands, one to go around Rin’s back, the other to explore Rin’s other breast. Rin continued to make sounds that encouraged Hanako in her explorations, and she finally let her hands roam free on Rin’s skin, exploring and experiencing the broad swaths of soft, smooth skin.

After a few minutes of this breast play, Hanako wrapped both of her arms around Rin and buried her face between Rin’s breasts, hugging her tight. This close to her, she smelled not of turpentine and linseed oil, or rosemary and mint, but just Rin. Hanako found her scent wonderfully soothing.

She could hear Rin’s heart, pounding fast, her breathing accelerated too, and Rin was making soft little crooning noises in the back of her throat which Hanako could only assume meant she was happy. Hanako hugged her tighter.

“I l-l-love you,” she whispered, afraid to say the words, afraid to not say them. She wasn’t even sure she’d said them loud enough to be heard.

She felt Rin kiss the top of her head. “Yes,” Rin said quietly.

“Yes?”

Rin kissed her again. “I think I love you too.”

Hanako loosened her grip and pulled back so she could look Rin in the eye. “You th-think?” she asked nervously.

Rin regarded her levelly and nodded. “Feelings are…” She trailed off and shook her head. “And ‘love’ is one of those complicated words, it’s thick and it’s deep and it’s wide, and it comes in many many different shades and hues and textures, it’s too big to grasp. But…being here with you feels right. Happy. Seeing you, feeling you, is good. I want more of this. And I want to make you feel the same way. So…is that love?”

Hanako considered it. “I think so?”

Rin nodded. “That’s what I said. I think I love you.”

Hanako giggled, torn between nerves and relief.

“Will you take off your bra now?” asked Rin, reminding Hanako of why she’d sat up in the first place. She let go of Rin, and Rin stepped back a half step away from the bed. Hanako hesitated a moment, unaccountably shy, then she slid her blouse off her shoulders and removed it, dropping it to the floor. Rin watched her with what Hanako could only describe as a hungry look as she reached behind her back to unclasp her bra. She unhooked it, then paused, her hands holding the cups in front of her. Don’t be ridiculous, it’s not as if she hasn’t seen my breasts a dozen times or more. Forcing herself to move, she dropped her hands, and let the bra drop to the floor too.

“Yes,” murmured Rin.

Hanako shyly crossed her hands over her chest momentarily, then she dropped them. “Yes?”

Rin nodded. “Very.”

Hanako giggled at that odd remark. “You…too,” she replied, admiring Rin’s form.

Rin stepped a little closer. “Can you take off my pants?”

“O…kay.”

As Hanako hesitantly unbuttoned and unzipped Rin’s pants, Rin added, “I liked unbuttoning your blouse but I don’t think I can unzip your skirt as easily and your tights and panties would be a real challenge so I think you should take those off too.”

Hanako froze with Rin’s zipper halfway down, and looked up at Rin, her eyes wide. Rin regarded her levelly. “You did say you wanted this?” she asked, sounding uncertain. “I didn’t imagine that?”

Hanako nodded. “I’m just…n-nervous. I…” She took a breath and bounced Rin’s question back at her. “You r-really said you w-wanted…me?”

Rin nodded slowly. “Yes. So much yes.” She leaned forward a little, pressing her crotch into Hanako’s hands, which were still holding her zipper. Hanako blushed at that reminder of where her hands were. She hastily finished unzipping Rin’s pants, then reached for the waistband. Not letting herself think about it overmuch, she pulled Rin’s pants and panties down to her knees, then Rin stepped back a step and shimmied the rest of the way out of them. She stood fully naked in front of Hanako, her head slightly cocked as she regarded her. Hanako finally allowed herself to admire Rin in her entirety, not self-consciously looking away as she had in the shower.

So beautiful…does someone so beautiful really want me? But Rin had said so several times now, and Hanako still wasn’t sure if Rin knew how to lie. So…it must be true?

“Are you going to finish undressing too?” asked Rin. “Or just stare at me? I thought this kind of thing involved both of us being naked together.”

“R-right.” Smooth-talking sweet words of seduction obviously were never going to be a part of Rin’s repertoire.

Whoever I am, I’m more me when I’m with you, echoed in Hanako’s memory. And, Why would I limit myself to only half of you when I could get twice as much joy by loving all of you? Well, Rin had her poetic moments. Smiling, she rose and unzipped her skirt, and followed Rin’s example.

Both of them stood naked before the other, breathing a little faster than normal. Rin studied her body with an intensity that Hanako had become somewhat used to, but she was usually subject to this kind of scrutiny only at the beginning of a new painting. Rin’s roving eyes finally met Hanako’s, and she asked, “Now can I say it?”

Hanako bit her lip and nodded shyly.

“You’re beautiful.”

Hanako tried her best to believe her. “So are you.”

Rin shook her head. “I know I’m plain-looking—”

No,” Hanako interrupted her firmly. “You don’t get to say th-that if I don’t. You’re beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful, b-beautiful, and…and…sexy.”

Rin ducked her head with a bashful smile—the first time Hanako could recall seeing such an expression on her face. “Really?”

“Really.” Hanako reached out and pulled Rin to her into a hug. She gave a small gasp of sensual pleasure at the sensation of so much skin pressed against her, a totally new sensation to her. Rin relaxed into her arms and turned her head to kiss the side of Hanako’s neck, provoking more shivers.

After a long moment of embrace, Hanako let go and lay down in Rin’s bed. She opened her arms invitingly, and Rin accepted the invitation, joining her on the bed.

She wrapped her arms and legs around her, reveling at the sensual delight of so much skin against her own skin. “Really,” she repeated to Rin. “I w-wouldn’t lie to you. You’re beautiful, and sexy, and I…I want you.”

Rin pulled away from her a little, so she could look Hanako in the eyes. “What do you want me for?”

“For…loving.” She swallowed, and said hoarsely, “M-make love with me…please?”

For the second time in Hanako’s experience, a broad smile slowly lit up Rin’s face. “Will you make love with me?

Hanako nodded, her breath shaky with nerves. “Oh, yes.”

“Then, yes.”





_______________________





Hanako woke in the middle of the night, momentarily confused as to why she couldn’t roll over. Then the warmth and weight and scent of Rin, curled up against her left side, reminded her, and the evening’s events came back to her in a rush.

Oh. That wasn’t a dream. She looked down at the tousled auburn head resting on her shoulder and smiled. She couldn’t see Rin’s face from this angle, but that was all right. She had a dozen different images of it burned into her memory from the evening’s activities. Rin’s face, hovering over hers, her lips flushed and swollen, her eyes closed as she focused on the sensation of their mouths against each other. Rin’s eyes, smiling up at her from between her legs, as Hanako cried out in startled ecstasy, previously unaware that an orgasm could be so intense. Rin’s face as they lay side by side, scrutinizing Hanako’s face with a fervency she’d never before seen from Rin, as if she were committing Hanako’s very soul to memory. Rin’s face, her eyes closed and mouth forming a nearly silent “O” as she shuddered and convulsed under Hanako’s attentions.

Hanako buried her nose in Rin’s hair, relishing the scent of rosemary and mint, turpentine, and sweat. A feeling of peace accompanied that scent, bringing a small smile to her face. I never dared dream…she doesn’t just accept me, she wants me.

“Ah, Rin,” she whispered to her sleeping girlfriend. “What are we d-doing here? I never dared dream I might ever…fall in love. But I think I’m falling in love with you.”

She considered that notion, tried to imagine what Dr. Tanaka might say. Did she even know what it meant to be “in love?” Did she know Rin well enough to be in love with her? But they’d gotten to know each other over the past two or three months. Maybe “know” was stretching it, in some ways—Rin could be so elusive and opaque at times that she despaired of fully understanding her. And other times, she was so blunt and direct that her raw honesty was terrifying and intimidating.

“I don’t know if I understand you…I d-don’t know if anyone can ever truly understand anyone else…but I enjoy trying. I know I want to keep trying to understand you. And even when I don’t understand you, I appreciate you. You p-puzzle me, and challenge me, and support me, and, and…I love you.”

She kissed the top of Rin’s head, taking another breath of her scent. She wondered when she might have the courage to say all these things to Rin while they were awake.

“Shhh,” murmured Rin, startling Hanako. “No…words…” Her voice trailed off, thick with sleep. Hanako waited for Rin to say something more, but she didn’t. She sleepily kissed the curve of Hanako’s breast, then snuggled in closer, giving what could only be described as a contented sigh.

Hanako smiled and closed her eyes. Maybe Rin was right. This wasn’t the time for words. She kissed the top of Rin’s head yet again, and fell back asleep.

Image



_______________________





Hanako awoke to confusion again, this time wondering why the sunlight and window were on the wrong side of the bed. Then she remembered she was in Rin’s room, not her own. The previous night’s events came back to her in a rush.

But she was alone in Rin’s bed. She sat up and looked around, to find Rin sitting on the seat in front of her easel, partially hidden from view by the canvas in front of her. She was still naked, a brush clenched in her toes.

“G-good morning,” Hanako said softly.

“Lay back down,” said Rin. “Please,” she added, almost as an afterthought.

Hanako stared at Rin for a moment, then slowly lay back down. She tried to remember what position she’d been in when she’d awoken, but she had no idea. So she just lay there and watched Rin work, assuming she’d be instructed if Rin wanted her to reposition herself. Rin somehow seemed more intent than usual, focused on her canvas with a quiet fervency, her brush strokes quick and sure.

Hanako thought that waking up to paint was perhaps an unusual response to the previous night’s activities, but she knew that unusual responses were what she had to expect with Rin. The canvas was a different shape from the one that had been on the easel when she’d walked in yesterday, and Hanako realized that it must be the painting Rin had started of her last week. But she was nowhere near being in the same pose—her head was at the opposite end of the bed, and she was reclining, not siting up.

Rin glanced at her only occasionally, her attention primarily on the canvas. Hanako studied Rin in turn, emboldened by last night’s events to actually stare at Rin in a way she’d never dared before. She’d only ever watched Rin work out of the corner of her eye, flicking a shy glance at her now and then while modeling.

Now, she blatantly stared, fascinated by what she saw. Rin’s countenance was, at first glance, as impassive as ever, an emotional blank slate. But prolonged observation revealed the lie of that impression. Her eyelid twitched a millimeter, her nostrils flared, a tiny crease appeared between her eyebrows for a split second as she considered the work that consumed her attention.

And despite the intensity with which she worked, her face, overall, somehow looked more relaxed than usual. Her jaw was not clenched, and there was a softness around her eyes that made her seem…content. Maybe even happy. Hanako felt certain that Rin was pleased with how her painting was progressing.

Her foot moved confidently across the canvas, pausing only to mix a color or reload the brush with paint. Hanako admired the dexterity and strength in Rin’s feet and legs. Her attention was drawn up the length of her legs to the brief flash of pink she could see amongst the auburn curls between Rin’s legs as she moved. Hanako felt her face growing warm at that sight; not solely in embarrassment, but also with the memory of passion and arousal. Of how Rin had felt and tasted. She wondered what Rin thought of their lovemaking, but she suspected that she would have to wait to see the painting to find out.

“You said some things to me last night,” Rin said, startling Hanako. Rin rarely spoke while painting, except to ask her to move, or to ask for help opening a new tube of paint.

“Yes,” Hanako replied. I said many things last night, she thought, wondering what, specifically, Rin was referring to. There were several things said that Hanako considered significant, but she knew Rin might have focused on something else entirely.

Rin picked up a smaller brush, which she placed in her mouth, making speech unlikely for the moment. Hanako waited, surprised at her own patience. Not that she lacked experience with patiently waiting for Rin to speak, but she was surprised that she was not more nervous this morning. She was not fretting about last night’s events, about taking such a huge leap into the unknown. So many unknowns. A new level to their friendship. Her first relationship, her first lover, both things she had never expected would ever happen to her. She would have assumed all that would have her fretting and worrying about what she and Rin were doing. Where their relationship might go.

Instead of feeling worried, she felt remarkably content. She smiled as she watched Rin work, her head moving slowly, painting delicate lines. She watched her girlfriend work. Painting her. She knew Rin had issues with words and might not call her her girlfriend in turn. But for herself, she thought the term was fitting.

She didn’t even realize she was relaxed enough to fall back asleep until a knock at the door woke her up again some unknown time later. The sun had moved far enough for her to notice the change. She opened her eyes just as the door opened, and Emi stepped into the room.

“Hey Rin, how’re—oh. Already at work, I see,” Emi said, stopping beside Rin. She seemed unfazed by Rin’s nudity, and Hanako’s presence in Rin’s bed. Hanako pulled the sheet up to her neck, even though she knew Emi had seen paintings of her body many times.

Wow. That’s—” Emi cut herself off, presumably remembering Rin’s attitude toward comments on unfinished works. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the canvas over Rin’s shoulder, and a smile slowly formed on her face.

Eventually, Emi looked from the canvas to Hanako. “Hey, Hanako.”

Hanako nodded back, not budging from under the covers. “G-good morning.”

Emi grinned. “Yeah, a very good morning, from the looks of things. And an even better evening. Looks like you two worked things out?” Hanako blushed and nodded shyly.

Emi looked back at the painting, her eyes seemingly drawn by whatever was there. She shook her head slowly, admiringly, and said, “I know you don’t like—”

“No comments,” Rin admonished sternly, not looking at Emi.

“Right, right, right. Okay. I’ll leave you two lovebirds to it. I assume you can help Rin get dressed this morning, Hanako?” Emi asked with a cheerful leer. “Since it seems you didn’t have any problems undressing her.”

Hanako nodded, too embarrassed to reply verbally, but she was grateful that Emi didn’t seem to be shocked by or disapproving of their relationship.

“All righty. See you later. Don’t forget to stop and eat occasionally,” Emi said, as she slipped back out the door.

The mention of food brought Hanako’s attention to her body’s needs, and she realized she needed to use the bathroom. “Rin?” she called softly.

“Hm?”

“I need…a break.”

Rin continued to paint, then said, “Just one more minute.”

Hanako decided she could wait a little while, even though she knew Rin’s “Just one more minute” could sometimes be much longer. She returned to watching Rin’s face as she painted. My girlfriend. My lover. She smiled as she tried the terms out in her mind. She was surprised at how easily they fit. Despite assuming all her life that she was straight, the notion of having a girlfriend felt right. Or maybe it was just that Rin felt right. The fact that she was female was secondary to simply being Rin.

“Done,” said Rin, less than five minutes later. She set her paintbrush down in its holder.

“Done?” Hanako asked, surprised, as she sat up in bed.

Rin nodded, staring at the painting for a long moment before shaking her head and looking away. She sat up straighter and rolled her shoulders, then shook out her feet, stretching. “I need to pee,” she announced gravely.

Hanako giggled, reminded of Lilly the night they got drunk. “Me too.”

Rin turned toward the door and raised her foot to the door handle. “Ah…Rin?” Hanako called out as she threw back the covers and lurched out of bed.

Rin paused, balanced on one foot, and looked back at Hanako curiously. Her gaze traveled down and up the length of Hanako’s naked body, then, as if reminded, she looked down at herself. “Oh. I didn’t put on pajamas last night.” She lowered her foot.

“Ah…no. You d-didn’t,” agreed Hanako.

Rin looked back at Hanako. “Nor did you.” There was a faint hint of an appreciative smile on her face, making Hanako blush.

Hanako helped Rin don her shorts and tank top, then she looked at her own clothes, scattered around the floor. She sighed, wishing she had her robe. She pulled on her panties and skirt, then her bra and blouse. She looked glumly at her leggings. It seemed like too much effort to struggle into them just for a walk down the hall to the bathroom.

“Let’s go,” said Rin.

“I n-need to put on my…leggings.”

Rin shook her head. “We’re just going to the bathroom.”

“B-but…” She looked down at her right leg and foot, with all the scars exposed below her skirt.

“I’m not the jealous type”

Hanako frowned. “P-pardon?”

“I don’t mind if others see how beautiful my girlfriend’s legs are.”

Hanako blushed, and blinked away tears that suddenly welled up in her eyes. “Th-that’s the first time…you’ve called me…your girlfriend.”

Rin cocked her head. “You are, aren’t you?” she asked quietly.

Hanako nodded emphatically, brushing away her tears. “Oh, yes. B-but only if you’ll…be my girlfriend.”

Rin frowned. “Isn’t that implicit? An inherently reciprocal relationship?”

Hanako laughed. “I s-suppose it is. Let’s go…to the bathroom.” She very deliberately didn’t look at the painting before they left. She wanted to see it without being distracted by biological pressures.

Walking down the hall, Hanako felt in some ways even more exposed than she did while modeling, with the air flowing over her bare calves, but they only passed two people, and neither one seemed to notice anything unusual.

When they returned to Rin’s room after using the facilities, Rin paused outside her door. Hanako assumed Rin was waiting for her to open the door, so she reached for the door handle. “Wait,” Rin said.

Hanako looked at Rin. “What?”

Rin looked down the length of the hall. “You said some things last night,” she said, repeating her earlier statement. “About…us.” Her brilliant green gaze skittered around the hallway, as if unable to settle on a single thing. Looking everywhere but at Hanako.

“I was m-mostly just…thinking out loud. I know you…d-don’t always like to…put things into words.”

Rin nodded. She finally met Hanako’s eyes, staring at her intently. Hanako was struck anew at how beautiful Rin’s eyes were, and she felt like she could happily stare into them all day. After a long moment of silent connection, Rin turned away, reached up with her foot, and opened the door. She stepped aside, inviting Hanako to enter first.

Hanako walked into the room, and stopped, stunned by what she saw on the canvas in front of her. It was not a completely new painting, of her sleeping, but it was a continuation of the painting Rin had started several days ago. In the initial pose, Hanako had been semi-reclining on Rin’s bed, leaning against a wall of pillows and reading a book. That painting had been completed with the image of her sleeping. Hanako suspected that Rin must have been awake for several hours before she woke up, to have gotten as much done as she had. The reading figure sat up with her head at the left side of the canvas, the sleeping figure reclined with her head on the right, where the reader’s feet would be. The forms blurred and melded together, looking like someone reading a story about sleeping, or perhaps a sleeper dreaming about reading a book.

But in both cases, the images of Hanako almost glowed. There was nothing as obvious as a literal halo or aura around the figures, but somehow, they seemed to be lit by an almost ethereal luminescence. The figures stood out from the dark background, almost floating in space. Her scars stood out in sharp contrast to her unblemished skin, not subdued or ignored. The reader was intently engaged in her book, a look of concentration on her face. The sleeper looked like she was having a wonderful dream. Her face was relaxed and seemed happy, without anything as overt as a smile. The fact that she was sleeping on her left side, with almost no skin visible that wasn’t scarred, somehow didn’t detract from the image’s beauty.

“It’s…beautiful,” she whispered. She shook her head in wonder. “How…” How had Rin managed to paint a picture of her that was so beautiful—a painting that focused so much on the scarred side of her body, at that.

“It’s you,” Rin said.

“I…” Hanako literally had no words. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from the painting. For all of its fantastical elements, the image of her was one—rather, two—of the most realistic portraits of Hanako Rin had painted yet. In all her scarred glory. She felt Rin press her body against her back, her small arm nubs coming up to squeeze her ribs from the sides. Hugging her as best she could.

“Is th-that…what I look like…to you?”

She could feel Rin shake her head against her shoulder. “But that’s the best I can do.”

Hanako gave a short, choked laugh at that, torn between laughter and tears.

“Sensei was wrong,” Rin whispered into her ear. “You’re my sacred muse.”

Hanako blushed at that, her embarrassment at Nomiya’s comment overwhelmed by Rin’s additional comment. “R-really?” she asked shyly. “I’m…your muse?”

Rin was quiet a moment, and Hanako turned around in her embrace so she could face her. Rin was looking puzzled. “Yes…didn’t you see this painting?”

Hanako gave Rin a kiss on the cheek. “Yes. Thank you.”

Rin’s puzzlement reverted to her more normal neutral mien. “Will you put the used brushes in their holder, please?” Rin asked.

“Okay.” Hanako placed them into the wire holder that held them suspended in turpentine, waiting for a more thorough cleaning later, then she draped the palette with plastic.

When she turned back to Rin, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching her. Hanako caught her breath, struck once again by amazement that Rin was her girlfriend. Wanted to be her girlfriend. She bit her lip and shook her head slowly, wonderingly.

Rin cocked her head curiously. “What?”

Hanako licked her lips. “I c-can’t believe…I just keep getting surprised…by the idea…th-that you love me.” She smiled, feeling happy tears welling up in her eyes. “I f-f-feel so lucky.”

Rin stared at her for a long moment, then cocked her head at the bed beside her, inviting Hanako. Hanako sat down, and wrapped an arm around Rin’s shoulders as she snuggled into her. The warmth and scent of her pressed against her side relaxed Hanako.

“You shouldn’t be surprised,” Rin said quietly. “This isn’t luck. It’s only natural. My birds love their nest, and their nest is you.”

Hanako tried to parse that metaphor. “Your thoughts…belong to me?” she asked, puzzled.

Rin shook her head. “No. Not just thoughts, and not belong to, exactly, but...they turn to you. My thoughts, my feelings, my muse.” She sighed, sounding vaguely frustrated. “Words…”

“Mmm. I think…I understand?” Hanako said hesitantly. She pulled a little away from Rin so she could turn to face her. Rin turned too, and they locked gazes for a moment before leaning in for a brief kiss. Hanako added, “Even if I d-don’t fully…understand, I…want to. Will keep trying.”

Rin smiled. “I know.” She leaned backwards, falling onto the bed, and Hanako went with her. Rin immediately rolled over on top, and sat up, straddling Hanako. She smiled down at her, her brilliant green eyes glittering. “My nest and safe haven.” She leaned forward and kissed Hanako’s cheeks, first the scarred right, then the left. She rubbed her cheek against Hanako’s, sighing softly, sounding happy.

Hanako wrapped her arms around Rin and hugged her tight. “Yes,” she whispered back. “I d-don’t know…what will happen next w-with us. But…” She smiled shyly at Rin. “I’m looking forward t-to it.”

“We can never know what happens next,” Rin agreed. “But I think this cat is out of the box, and alive and happy.”

Hanako smiled. She didn’t need to completely understand Rin. They didn’t need to know their future. She just knew that she wanted to face it with Rin at her side.

Rin’s stomach grumbled, and Hanako giggled. “I think what should happen n-next is breakfast.”

“Hmm.” Rin sat up, still straddling Hanako, and peered over at her desk. “There are two oranges. Although I have problems peeling them.”

“I might b-be able to help…with that.”

Rin nodded thoughtfully. “That could work. But we should probably be naked while you peel them.”

Hanako thought that an odd requirement. “Why?”

“So that when you drip juice on your body, I can lick it off.”

Hanako sucked in a sharp breath, surprised at the wave of heat that Rin’s words provoked. “Yes. Yes.”

It was remarkable how messy she was at peeling oranges that day.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:11 pm

EPILOGUE



Dear Lilly,

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written to you. I’ve been attempting to write this email to you for several weeks now, but have been uncertain as to how to phrase things. I’ve written and deleted literally dozens of drafts, and finally, I have decided to take a page from Mama Ando, and be as blunt and direct as I can.

Rin and I have become lovers. Yes, I have a girlfriend. (And so does she, as she would remind me :-) ). I was probably as shocked as you are right now, when I first realized that I was attracted to her. But after examining my feelings, and considering Rin’s feelings, I finally admitted to myself that I am, if not exactly a lover of women, at least a lover of Rin, who almost incidentally is a woman.

You’d said in the past that you received several confessions from girls at your all-girls school, and that didn’t seem to disturb you. I hope that you aren’t disturbed by this revelation about me. Your good opinion means the world to me, and it was the fear that you might hate me or be repelled by me that’s kept me from writing for so long. But it seems like this relationship, strange though it may be, is going to work, and so I need to tell you of it. I don’t wish to lie to you, even by omission.

I know you’ve never really understood or been totally comfortable around Rin. To be honest, I don’t understand her some of the time either. But I’ve come to realize that understanding isn’t always necessary to loving, as long as we can accept and support each other as we are. Which we do. I love her differences, her eccentricities, her beautifully unique vision of the world. And she, for whatever reason, loves me. She rarely says so in words, but her paintings say it all the time. Quite clearly. I am sorry you’ll have to take my word for this, though I may send some pictures to Akira to show what I am talking about. (If you can keep her from making lewd comments about my nudity, that would be appreciated.)

I had never allowed myself to imagine a life with a partner—boyfriend or girlfriend. It always seemed so totally unattainable to me that imagining such a thing was just depressing, even painful. So I wasn’t too certain what to expect when this change came to my life. Honestly, not much has changed, day-to-day. I still have classes, and the Center Exams to prep for (I bet you don’t miss those!). I still work with the newspaper club. I still nag Rin to eat more regularly, and we cook together at least once a week.

Now that Rin feels she’s painted me “right,” she’s begun to paint other subjects again, much to Nomiya-sensei’s relief, so I model less often. But I spend much of the time when I would have been modeling sitting with Rin anyway, studying or reading or writing, or just watching her work.

Emi knew about our relationship almost before we did, and subsequently, the whole school knows too. I had been afraid of what peoples’ reactions might be, but overall there’s been little in the way of negative reactions. I think because Rin and I are already so much on the outside of normal, everyday life, even by Yamaku’s standards of “normal,” that our “perverse liaison” means little to most people. Indeed, the most common reaction I’ve encountered is people being happy for us. Happy that the two misfits have found someone to be happy with?

Or maybe simply happy for us, period.

Naomi and Natsume admitted to me, in private, that they’re also in a relationship with each other, which was hardly a surprise, but I was glad they finally felt comfortable telling me. I half-expected to receive a similar admission from Miki and Suzu, but apparently they truly are just friends, or else they’re more closeted than I’d imagined. Which, given how bold Miki is, makes the former seem more likely. But I guess three lesbians in one classroom is probably enough :-).

Emi and Hisao are still dating, despite a short period of time in which it seemed like they’d broken up. Rin and Emi are still close, and the four of us sometime go out together, and I’m getting more comfortable around them. Hisao is quiet, but kind (though I guess anyone would look quiet next to Emi, except maybe Misha). He seems to find Rin’s more obscure comments and observations interesting instead of off-putting, and he never stares at my scars, which I appreciate. Though at this point, it feels like the whole school has seen my scars—all of them, and everything else about me—in the paintings Rin has done of me.

So I hope you are well, and not too upset by my news. I look forward, a touch anxiously, to hearing back from you soon. Give my regards to Akira, and your parents.

Love,

Hanako


Hanako paused before hitting send. She looked over her shoulder at Rin, who was hovering behind her, reading the letter. “Sh-should I…send it?” she asked.

Rin didn’t respond immediately, her eyes still flickering back and forth as she read. She frowned. “Should I say I love you more often?”

Hanako smiled, touched that that was what Rin focused on. “You should say it…only as often as you want to. I know it.”

“Hmmm.” Rin bent forward, her eyes still on the screen, and kissed the back of Hanako’s head. “Four,” she said absently.

“Pardon?”

Rin didn’t reply as she read the rest of the letter. “Send it.”

“Okay.” Hanako took a deep breath to steel herself, then she sent the email. She sat back in her seat and smiled nervously up at Rin. “I hope…she’s okay with that.”

Rin nodded. “She will be. She’s your friend.”

“And so are you.”

Rin nodded again. “Of course. That’s implicit in the word ‘girlfriend.’”

Hanako laughed, surprised at how relieved she felt to have finally informed Lilly of the changes in her life. The secret had been weighing on her for far too long. She hoped Rin was right, that Lilly would have no problem with who she chose to love, but that was out of her hands, now. “Come on, then, friend. L-let’s go get dinner.”

Rin regarded that notion for a moment. “Can we have oranges for dessert?”

Hanako smiled. “Always.”



--------------------------------- END -----------------------
Last edited by Lap on Thu Apr 22, 2021 10:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
One-shots

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Razoredge
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Razoredge » Sat Mar 27, 2021 3:43 pm

As I told you on Discord, this is a strange pairing, but also a very pleasant one. Even if it's strange, it kinda works, I'm amazed, to be honest. The whole thing was extremely cute, I love it, and it comes from someone who wasn't a Rin fan at all (now I kinda like her). I really love your writing style and I want to thank you to have shared this cute thing with us.
Lilly = Akira > Miki = Hanako > Emi > Rin > Shizune

Stuff I'm currently writing : Beyond the haze : A Lilly Satou pseudo-route, Lullaby of an open heart : A Saki pseudo-route & Sakura Blossom : A way with Hisao

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NoticeMeOppai
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by NoticeMeOppai » Mon Mar 29, 2021 8:57 am

Always a pleasure to read your work Lap and you've once again proved there's still stories to be told about these crippled teens and talented people still interested in telling them.

This is the first story in a long time that's managed to capture my imagination so well and reignite my love for this fandom. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Now I have a craving for oranges for some reason...
NmO Does Shorts

I deeply regret my choice of username.

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Lap
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Re: Scarred Muse

Post by Lap » Mon Mar 29, 2021 9:31 pm

Thanks for the kind words! Glad you both enjoyed it. It's always gratifying when something I've worked on and enjoyed for myself turns out to be appreciated by others. I.e., it wasn't all just my own weird tastes :D .

Scarred Muse Hanako and Rin.
Avenues of Communication: Shizune suffers an accident.
Home: Hanako & Hisao at University, sharing an apartment with their friend Lilly (on Ao3).
One-shots

camerone0420
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Joined: Fri Jun 05, 2020 5:32 pm

Re: Scarred Muse

Post by camerone0420 » Thu Apr 22, 2021 8:25 pm

To answer the question that nobody has been asking, "What has Lap been up to the past year?"
I asked, internally. I've enjoyed reading your works, and Scarred Muse is no exception!

If there's one complaint I have, it's that I don't know how many more times I can take Lilly deciding to move to Scotland :P

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