Sunday morning. No swimming today, but the habit of early mornings is pretty solidly established now. Since it’s my routine every other day of the week, I’ve taken a liking to wandering the grounds early Sunday mornings.
While it’s normally deserted at this time anyway, it somehow feels even more deserted now that most of the students are gone - even if they would be sleeping anyway.
Every once in a while, I see a security guard making his rounds. Shift changes around six thirty, so they’re pretty much ready to be done by now. Best I can tell, they’re used to seeing me by now - they barely give me a second glance, even out of uniform.
With nothing better to do, I aimlessly wander the empty grounds, letting my thoughts drift with equal abandon.
As August winds on, the days are slowly getting shorter - it’s a little darker in the mornings, and night time comes a little faster. It’s still the middle of summer, and the days are still long; they’re just not quite as long as they were a couple of weeks past.
In the days since the incident, the nurse seems to be convinced that it was a false alarm and nothing to worry about, but it felt
real. And besides, that just means I was lucky. Every day, I stand on death’s doorstep, one unfortunate accident from tragedy.
At the same time, Misha was there for me. They all were. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Having someone to look out for you? After all, isn’t that why Emi’s covering for Misha as a swim partner? Even though she hates swimming? I really should ask her about that tomorrow.
But then what do I make of this whole business with the letter? Everything points to Shizune being the reason why I didn’t get the letter, and it’s still hard to believe that it was by accident or oversight. I’d like to talk to her now, but getting Misha involved would make things… complicated. And I don’t trust text messages for this kind of discussion. Come to think of it, I can’t recall Shizune ever even looking
at her phone other than the times she was making an excuse to leave Misha and me alone together. I don’t really have a choice other than waiting.
And then there's Keiko. I'm not sure what to make of her now. On the one hand, everything I thought I knew about her was just a facade to keep Shizune happy. On the other, she seemed to be under the impression that I was aware of the probationary period, and there seems to have been no ill intent. She was also very straightforward and helpful with giving me a second opinion on Iwanako's letter. Perhaps a bit too
straightforward, but nothing she said was wrong. A part of me is still surprised that I opened myself up to her so much, but it all seems to have worked out for the best.
As for Iwanako herself, Keiko's right - I was unfair to her. Cruel, in fact. I was probably that way to all my friends. No wonder they stopped visiting. I owe them all an apology.
...And here I am by the bench in the gardens. Yeah, that
one. I seem to gravitate here whenever I’m in deep thought. I guess you could call it my thoughtful spot. May as well sit and think.
“Solving world hunger?”
The sudden voice startles me out of my reverie. Collecting myself, I turn my attention toward the source of the voice - Natsume.
Giggling, she explains herself.
“You looked so serious, so I figured you were having deep Important Thoughts.”
I chuckle. “No such luck. Just ordinary everyday thoughts.”
Acting as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she takes a seat next to me and looks at me expectantly. Her cheerful demeanor is so disarming that I find myself talking before I can think better of it.
“Well, yesterday I got a letter-”
Her eyes meet mine, surprisingly stern. “Some ghost from your past suddenly appears, dredging up thoughts and feelings you thought you had resolved?”
She takes my surprised reaction as a confirmation. “You’re not the first to get a letter like that. I would’ve told you to burn it without even reading, but we’re past that point now. I’m guessing that’s why that underclassmen was in your room yesterday? Keiko, right?”
I feel like I should be used to it by now, but I’m constantly surprised by the near-total lack of privacy we have at this school. “Nothing gets by you, huh?”
Another giggle. “I told you: most of us don’t have anything better to do.” Returning to seriousness, she locks her eyes with mine. “But you do. You have a girlfriend - a whole group of friends, in fact. Let the past worry about itself - you’ve got the present to take care of. Life’s too short to waste on should’ves, could’ves, would’ves, or anything like that!”
“I should’ve expected that from you, huh?”
She sticks her tongue out playfully. “Doesn’t matter. It’s in the past. It’s the present now, and what you should do in the present is buy me breakfast for being such a good friend!”
I end up spending most of the morning with Natsume, hanging out in the lobby of the girls’ dorm, playing board and card games. They feel quite a bit less intense when Shizune's not around, I've noticed. On the other hand, Shizune wouldn't be Shizune if she weren't giving 110% on everything.
Around 11, I excuse myself. All the board games were making me think of the Student Council, so I figured I should drop by and offer to help.
It seems quiet when I arrive at the door to the student council room, but my knock triggers a flurry of activity from inside.
A moment later, the door cracks open wide enough for Aoi to peek her face through. Her expression is one of pleasant surprise, followed by a somewhat more stern question as to why I'm here.
“I figured you two might want some help with the planning and preparation.”
Aoi shakes her head emphatically, and begins to close the door when I hear Keiko speak up from inside.
“Is that Hisao? Why aren't you letting him in?”
Holding the door with one hand, Aoi turns around, leaving me facing her back. As if it were a phone conversation, I'm only hearing one side.
“Don't give me that. You know as well as I do that we can use all the help we can get.
“I don't care what Hakamichi said before - she gave us free reign to get ready as we saw fit.
“Now you're just making excuses. Besides, weren't you complaining the other day that we could really use a strong back and a cute butt?
“If you're so concerned about what he's going to hear, you should just give up and let him in, or at least come up with a better excuse.”
After what I can only imagine is a wordless string of profanities, Aoi turns back to face me, looking a little sheepish and blushing furiously. Trying to disappear behind the door, she lets me in.
As with the cultural festival and Tanabata, the room is full of all sorts of clutter. It's a different flavor of clutter, though. Aoi and Keiko seem to have taken the initiative to make the room their own - cleaning up and rearranging everything to their liking. Even Shizune's assortment of games has been neatly organised, filling one of the shelves against the wall with an impressive economy of space. Evidently, one of these girls missed their calling as a stonemason.
Somewhat surprisingly, it looks as if they discovered an ancient-looking computer, which Aoi is busily using for data entry of the assorted bits of paperwork surrounding her. Keiko, meanwhile, seems to be poring over a stack of regulations and bylaws. Looking up, she gives me a warm smile.
“Nothing better to do with your break?”
I shrug. “Never hurts to be helpful.”
She returns my shrug. “Suit yourself. I was serious about the heavy lifting. Last chance to back out.”
I'll admit that I got fair warning, but my body still kind of regrets volunteering. For all their differences with Shizune and Misha, these girls are just as good at working me to the bone. Fortunately, there's no looming deadline, so they let me go before too long. I grab an early dinner, then make my way back to my room. Misha said that this evening would be a good time to call, and I don't want to disappoint.
As the week rolls on, I find myself gradually settling into a routine - swim in the morning with Emi, play games and watch bad movies with Natsume until lunch, spend the afternoon helping Aoi and Keiko with their preparations, then call Misha in the evening.
“So, Emi, the other day you said you hated swimming. What was that all about?”
Emi sighs. Clearly, she’d rather I have left this alone. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a personal hang-up.”
In spite of her dismissive reply, and my own silence, she continues. “It just reminds me of physical therapy,” she says, tapping the premature end of her leg for emphasis, “I get that ‘it’s an important part of the recovery process,’ but water therapy just feels like giving up, you know? Pushing yourself is too hard, so you just take it slow. But then it’s too easy, so you just stop trying and end of going nowhere. I don’t have time for that! If you aren’t trying your hardest, you aren’t trying at all!”
I can’t say I agree. A mindset like that would probably kill me. I don’t want to get into an argument though, so I just shrug and dive into the water.
“So, Hicchan~, you’ve been spending a lot of time with Natsu, huh~?”
“I guess so.”
It’s probably more fair to say she’s been spending a lot of time with me, considering it feels like she’s always seeking me out.
“It kind of makes sense, considering we’re both orphans.”
“Hicchan~, I met your parents.”
“No, not that kind of orphan. Natsu said it’s a term they use for the students who stay on campus for the break.”
“Yeah, the, uh, YHoOS.”
“Ahaha~! You aren’t making any sense, Hicchan~. But~! Do you think she’s pretty, Hicchan~?”
Her question puts me on high alert. That’s not a question you want to have to answer, especially not when it’s your girlfriend asking.
“Given that special definition of ‘pretty’ you taught me, I can honestly say I have no idea.”
“Wahahahahaha~! Good one, Hicchan~! I’m not trying to trick you, Hicchan~. I trust you~. But~! Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can’t look at the menu, right~? Right~, right~! So~... do you think Natsu is pretty~? Regular pretty~?”
This… is not a direction I would’ve expected this conversation to go. Luckily, there’s one final gambit I can use to escape.
“I can tell you, but in return, you need to tell me what guys you find attractive, just to be fair.”
“Wahahahaha~! Okay, Hicchan~! You go first!”
This… did not go as planned. Better to admit defeat now than dig myself deeper.
“ I guess she’s kind of pretty…”
“Prettier than Mimi~?”
“...maybe? I haven’t really given it much thought.”
“What about Shicchan~?”
“Are you going to ask me this about every girl in the school?”
“Ahahaha~! It’s okay, Hicchan~, I know you like long hair~!”
...I don’t really follow the logic there, but it seems her mini-inquisition is over.
“Okay, now it’s your turn. Are there any boys in our class that you find attractive?”
“Well~... I guess~ I’d have to say that Akio is pretty cute…”
And now I know I didn’t think this through. It occurs to me that I know most of the boys in our class by their last name. Still, the name ‘Akio’ sounds familiar.
And then it hits my why it’s familiar. No. That can’t be. Can it?
The squeal on the other side is particularly painful, even for Misha.
“Eeeeeewwww~! Our teacher~?! Don’t be gross~! Ew ew ew ew ew ew~! I was talking about Hayashi! You know~, the boy that sits behind Shicchan~?”
Right. Hayashi. Walks with a cane and breaks bones so often you’d think it’s a hobby. So that’s her type?
“Why would you think of Mr. Mutou, Hicchan~? Who even thinks perverted things like that? Yeah, he’s got that ‘older experienced man who will treat you like a special princess’ thing going, but still~! He’s our teacher
‘Older experienced man who will treat you like a special princess’? I think I may have learned a bit more about my girlfriend than I’m comfortable knowing.
“...don’t you think you’re oversharing a bit? A little too much information?”
“Ahahaha~! No, Hicchan, oversharing would be telling you about the girls
I find attractive~! Ahahah-!”
Her laughter cuts off suddenly.
“Did I… Did I just say that out loud, Hicchan~?”
“Yeah. Yeah, you did.”
I was going to pass it off as a joke. A Strange joke, but a joke. But she sounds pretty serious about this.
“Hicchan~? Does that make me weird?”
Honestly, I’m not sure how to take this new… whatever it is. But It’s pretty clear this isn’t about me; I need to reassure her.
“No, Shiina, it just means that you’re you. You’re my girlfriend, and I trust you. You’re comfortable with me finding other girls pretty, so it’s only fair that I be comfortable with you finding other guys - or girls - attractive.”
“Are you sure, Hicchan~? You aren’t just saying that?”
“You can’t help the thoughts that pop into your head. They are what they are. It doesn’t make you weird because you can’t control where your mind wanders.”
I’ll admit, that’s partially for her, but it’s also something I want to believe for my own sake. Otherwise I’d have to have some seriously uncomfortable reflection regarding that dream I had where I was pregnant with Kenji’s baby…
“Huh~. I guess you’re right, Hicchan~. I never thought about it like that~! Wahahahaha~, thanks, Hicchan~!”
And she’s back to her cheerful self. It feels a little jarring how quickly she does that, but I’ve gotten used to the fact that that’s just how she is.
Act 3 Scene 9
| Act 3 Scene 11