“Sorry, I don't have my glasses on,” I mention, glancing toward the distant bench, “What's this about?”
“I beg your pardon for the intrusion, but Hanako mentioned you frequented the pool in the mornings,” Lilly explains, her voice filled with more tension than I'd usually expect, “And, I was given a message to deliver...”
“Message?” I echo, glancing at Hanako briefly while Lilly pauses.
If what little I know about Hanako's tenure at Yamaku is true, it seems like she had a similar experience to my own prior to enrolling here. The scars along her face tell me she had something traumatic happen—probably a fire—and I can't relate to that directly, but I got singled out and teased for more reasons than I usually admit. She's probably taller than me, but the way she huddles down and clutches Lilly's arm like a crutch makes her look smaller, which is probably intentional—trying to hide in plain sight. There's less of the nervousness I remember, though she looks at me with a kind of latent suspicion that's somewhat familiar.
I can find that look in some of my old photos...
“F-from Sh-Shizune,” Hanako stutters, then halts her explanation and looks toward Lilly.
Completely baffled, I prompt, “Shizune...?”
My bewildered expression apparently speaks volumes as Hanako adds, “I-it's... c-complicated...”
Something tells me that's less than true, and Lilly's tight-lipped grimace indicates it's actually really simple, but I'm not about to press for answers when I don't even know what I'm asking. Everything I know about Shizune and Lilly comes from past experiences in a few Council meetings, and rumors about their falling out after last year's festival. That Lilly would be carrying a message from the Student Council President is a little far-fetched, and that it's a week after the start of summer break is even stranger, but I'm more interested in the message—somehow I doubt it's good news.
“Well,” I say, turning back toward Lilly, “am I fired? Is that it?”
Her light laugh is both encouraging and disconcerting, and even Hanako smirks for just a moment, but then Lilly calms and shakes her head. “No, nothing like that,” she replies, clearing her throat, “I was asked to relay an invitation—per your friend
Shizune, not the Class President.”
"To where? Or what?” I ask, trying not to sound too suspicious.
“The Hakamichi home, of course,” she replies, nodding toward Hanako, “for a weekend gathering of some kind—there weren't many details.”
This is getting weird...
“Why would she send it through you?” I ask, the accusation in my question making the tall girl frown.
“She would have messaged you herself, but you know she hates that kind of rudimentary exchange,” she explains, which makes sense, but doesn't tell me why she's the messenger. “And I was heading back here to visit with Hanako, so she asked that I deliver the invitation in person—my cousin and I have... reached an agreement.”
Cousin...? Wait... How is... What...?
“Um...?” I sputter, thoroughly confused. “Your cousin...?”
“Shizune's mother and my father were siblings—I apologize if you weren't informed,” she explains, offering a slight bow, “it's not common knowledge, I suppose...”
That little logic bomb hits me square in the forehead, and I rock back for a moment, completely bewildered. It never occurred to me that the two of them could be related since they're so dissimilar—both physically, and in temperament. However, it might explain why they're particularly competitive, and have a tendency to turn minor arguments into full-scale verbal wars—the way only family can. While I'm sorting that out, I notice Hanako has gone silent again, and she's clutching Lilly's arm tighter than she was before—like she's afraid of my impending reaction.
I should say something...
“Sorry, it's just... I... it... u-um,” I stutter, trying and failing to turn my thoughts into words. “She never mentioned it,” I say finally, which draws a sagely nod from Lilly, “and... well... you're just so different...”
“I trust that's not an insult,” Lilly says, though her subdued smirk tells me she's being facetious.
“No, just a comparison,” I confirm, giving my head a quick shake, “but she's so... and you're...”
Nothing I say here can lead to good ends...
“Don't worry about it,” she concedes, patting the air with her free hand, “I myself have often wondered how we could be related.”
I bet Shizune wonders the same thing...
In the silence that follows, I take a moment to analyze Lilly's appearance more carefully. Comparing her to the mental image I have of Shizune, I fail to see any obvious similarities. Shizune is close to my height and narrow, with short, dark blue hair, sharp Asiatic features, and the disposition of a feudal dictator. Meanwhile, Lilly is relatively statuesque, with high cheekbones, long blond hair, wide hips, smooth, cream-colored skin, and a personality marked by graciousness and compromise. There are some cousins on my mother's side whom I've been told are my polar opposite, but I never believed they could be that different.
It's really no wonder I had no idea they were related...
Given that she's blind, I feel less apprehensive about staring at Lilly, and Hanako doesn't mention my gaze—she probably understands why I'm curious—though I immediately feel guilty anyway. “Sorry, I'm staring,” I admit, blinking a few times and averting my gaze, “I'm curious, but I know it's rude-”
“It's not unexpected,” she interjects, offering a flat smile, “there's little familial resemblance, I've been told, though Mother claims we have the same eyes...”
That sounds like a joke for a moment, but, as I take a closer look, I notice the similarity. Shizune's eyes are dark blue, and Lilly's are light and glassy—perhaps because of her blindness—but they're shaped almost identically. “Huh...” I grunt, trailing off and trying not to smirk, “is it okay if I call that irony?”
“It is what it is,” she says with a light chuckle.
Wanting to abandon this conversation before it leads somewhere bad, and because I feel like I'm neglecting my other visitor, I turn toward Hanako and offer a smile. “So, any other messages?” I ask, turning between them absently. When neither speaks, I remember the book sitting on my desk and decide to mention, “I still have Life of Pi up in my dorm... I'm sure Hisao mentioned it...”
The mention of Hisao seems to make Hanako's expression brighten for just a moment, but that quickly fades into her normal, unsettlingly neutral facade. She motions like she might reply verbally, then stops herself to nod instead. If what Hisao said is true, and she was starting to come out of her shell, I wonder whether I'm doing something wrong—she can't even hold eye contact for more than a few seconds. Lilly being nearby usually helps her relax, from what I recall, so the only remaining common denominator is myself, which means I must be doing something that bothers her—I don't think I'm intimidating, though.
That's Amaya's department...
If I really am the cause, she probably won't be forthcoming, and I don't know how to pursue the question without upsetting her, but maybe I'm misreading the whole situation. “Is something wrong?” I ask, trying to gauge their noncommittal reactions before adding, “I feel like I'm being left out of something...”
“N-no, n-nothing,” Hanako rasps, attempting a smile that's obviously forced, “I-if you remember l-later, I'll be back b-before dusk...”
As she trails off, Lilly picks up the explanation, “We're going into the city to surprise my sister—she doesn't know I've returned from Scotland.”
That tidbit of information is almost enough to make me ask what she means, but it's accompanied by an escape route from the conversation, which I decide to take. Turning toward the bench where I left my bathrobe and towel, I mention, “Well, I'll probably be here if you wanna stop by my room when you get back—I finished the book a few days ago, and I'm into another already.”
“Room three-fourteen, yes?” Lilly asks, and I nod dumbly as I start gathering my belongings.
After tossing my bathrobe on, I remember she's blind and sputter, “Um, yeah... right... three-fourteen—a couple hallways over...”
“Alright then. Contact Miss Mikado about the invitation,” she says, and it takes me a moment to realize she's talking about Misha. “She'll likely have more details.”
I wonder why Shizune didn't just have Misha call me..
“Will do,” I say, offering Hanako a nod, “Just knock—if I'm there, I'll answer.” It takes a moment before Hanako realizes I'm talking to her, but after a brief pause she nods in kind.
Holding all my stuff in hand, I stand and stare at them for a few seconds, nodding awkwardly, not sure what to do with myself. It's strange enough being visited by people I barely know, but now I'm hurriedly leaving and it feels even weirder. Not knowing either of these two particularly well, I'll feel more comfortable asking Shizune about this later, but, for now, I can't quite get my feet moving. Luckily, this seems no less awkward for them, as neither motions to leave or say anything else, so at least I'm not alone in my awkwardness.
I wish I knew the Weirding Way right about now...
For a few long seconds, we just stand and stare at each other—or Hanako and I stare, at least. Finally, Lilly lets out a sharp sigh, and I take that as a cue to put myself back in motion. “Thanks for the message,” I say, turning to start toward the exit, “and, um... welcome back, I guess?”
“You're welcome, and thank you,” Lilly replies, masking her awkwardness gracefully.
It feels weird offering a wave to a blind girl, but Hanako is there to see it at least, so I don't feel like a complete idiot. Although, with her hiding against Lilly's side, I'm not sure if she saw it either—I ought to be better at this by now. As I step out into the sunlight, I stop and look back over my shoulder, trying to organize my thoughts. Perhaps it's only because there were so many revelations in the encounter that's bothering me, but I'm also just not used to having people I don't know—at least not very well—walk up and ask me questions, or deliver information. The fact that it became so awkward probably only compounds the problem.
I guess I'm still not great at widening my circle of friends...
Deciding I can sort it out later, I give my head a good shake to clear confusion and start plodding along back toward the dorms. When my phone starts ringing, I immediately think it's Misha calling because of the conversation I just had—like she somehow knows it happened—but instead it's Mom. Still reeling from Lilly's information dump, I don't quite know how to respond, but, where Mom is concerned, I probably don't need to say much. For a moment I consider letting it go to voice mail because she probably has unwanted plans for me, but maybe I need the distraction.
I'm probably going to regret this...
“Hi, Mom,” I greet, slowing my walking pace as I approach the stairs leading into the dorms, “good news, I hope?”
“Did you just wake up, Kitten?” she asks, which makes me smirk and shake my head.
“No, just... never mind,” I reply, turning to take a seat on the stone steps, “It's been a weird morning is all—a weird week, really...”
“Ah, well, yes... Amaya made it home safely?” she asks, sounding genuinely concerned.
“Yeah, she finally called Thursday night...”
“Thursday night? Why didn't you call me?”
“I, well...” I trail off, realizing that's when the weirdness started with Hisao. “I forgot, okay?” I claim, which is at least partially true, “she called a little while before bed, and... anyway, she's fine.”
“Okay... And Tadao?”
“Alive, as far as I know—it could have been a recording, though,” I recount with a smirk.
“Good, good... And, what are you doing with yourself, Kitten?” she asks, her voice sounding dangerously cheerful.
Noting the change in her tone from genuine concern to unprovoked cheer, I'm guessing this is the real reason for her call; it's her version of burying the lead, and it likely won't take me anywhere I want to follow. Unfortunately I don't have a response prepared, so I pause for a moment to collect my thoughts. That's probably worse than not having anything to say, so I quickly try to drum up a reasonable lie, but I'm too scattered to think of anything she'd believe. Closing my eyes in resignation, I decide to try blatant dishonesty—maybe she won't expect that.
“I-I have,” I stutter, already off to a good start, “all kinds of things... going on... here...”
I'm so screwed...
“You shouldn't try to lie to me, Kitten,” she advises as I let out a frustrated groan. “You can't stay cooped up in that little cave of yours all summer,” she muses, the implication leading me to lean my forehead against the metal railing and roll my eyes. “However,” she adds, her chipper tone filling me with dread, “I have the perfect way to get you out for a day!”
“That's really not-”
“This isn't a negotiation, Aiko,” she interjects, using my name to emphasize her point. After a brief pause, she cheerily adds, “My class starts today, and I need an assistant.”
thing?” I ask in disbelief.
Did she forget who she's talking to...?
“Yes,” she replies dryly, “the cooking
“And... is Midori sick, or something...?”
“No, of course not,” she assures me, which is less than reassuring. “It's Saturday, so you ought to be out doing something fun,” she adds, pausing while I raise an eyebrow at her word choice—it's almost like she can see me over the phone. “And, maybe we can lure the dormant chef out of you~!”
“Mom? Hang on a sec,” I say, pressing mute then standing to lean against the rail.
I need a moment to think this through logically...
There really isn't any good reason for me to refuse her, aside from my being completely inept in the kitchen. It seems like that's half her reason for bringing me along, though, so I can't turn that to my advantage. All my friends are away, Yoko starts her weekend job today, and aside from a cryptic invitation from Shizune, I don't have any other plans. There's always the faking sick maneuver, but I think I've gotten too far into the conversation for her to believe that. Meanwhile, Mom is probably smirking to herself, casually waiting for me to cave and agree to her plan—it seems inevitable.
I regret not letting it go to voice-mail...
Taking the phone off of mute, and figuring I can get away with at least one stipulation, I request, “You promise you won't make an example of me?”
“Kitten, I'd never intentionally make you feel bad. Besides, I think you might surprise yourself~!” she says encouragingly, though I doubt she believes those words any more than I do, “We can make a day of it—maybe do something afterward. Go see a movie, do some shopping... talk about boys-”
“Fine, I'll go,” I concede, cutting her off before her list gets weirder, “When will you be here?”
“I'm just getting onto the freeway... probably ten minutes, maybe more—depends on traffic.”
“I never really had a choice in the matter, then, did I?”
“Of course not~!” she beams, laughing for a moment before adding, “but, I thought I'd give you the illusion of choice, at least.”
“Oh, don't sound so glum!” she chides, “I'm sure you'll do fine!”