"Okay, I...yeah, I understand. It...well, you probably felt the same way I've been feeling, you needed to tell her how you felt, because you hadn't yet, just like I haven't told you that I love you..."
My mouth opens to refute what she was saying about Hanako, but then...she said...she...?
Time seems to slow down around me as those words imprint themselves on my mind. I'm still not...sure
of what I heard, and given recent events I'd have no trouble believing that I'm just hearing what I want to hear.
...what I want to hear so, so badly...
I need to be sure. I need to confirm that those words weren't just a figment of my imagination. "You...did you just say..."
Emi blinks a few times, like she's not even sure of what she just said. "I...um...yeah, I...said that," Emi says, looking and sounding even more nervous than she was when she was telling me about her parents.
She did? She DOES? SHE LOVES ME?!
As the dopamine levels in my brain switch into high gear, they just as suddenly grind to a halt at her next words. "Just...don't worry about it."
Damn it. She's going to run again, isn't she?
"I didn't mean to...I mean, I know Hanako loves you, too, and...you probably need to meet her for lunch or something..."
I can see her muscles tensing up already, but I promised both of us I wouldn't let this happen.
"...so...um...morning run! Don't forget!" Emi quickly turns around and starts to run, but since I anticipated it I'm not exactly slow out of the blocks myself.
After all, I've been trained by the best running coach I could ever ask for...
Only about fifteen meters separates us as I hit my full stride, but then...she...stops?
...and turns around...
I'm not going to be able to stop in time, so I do the next best thing and lean forward so my chest doesn't hit her. Instead, my shoulder hits her
chest, and we both tumble to the ground. For an instant, I feel a sense of déjà vu, but in reverse. I lift myself up a few inches so I can look at her, and fortunately it doesn't look like she's hurt at all. If anything, she looks a little confused. "What are you...mmmffff?"
It's best to be as clear as possible at times like this.
When our lips part she looks up at me in surprise, and I break out into a huge grin. "I love you, too. That's
what I wanted to tell you today." Emi pauses for a second, and then I see the most beautiful sight in the world: Emi lighting up all of Japan with her smile. She grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me back down into another kiss, one that somehow feels...different
from any I've felt before. There's a feeling of pure joy coming through, above and beyond the physical pleasure of it.
Or maybe that's just a projection of what I'm feeling myself, but at the moment I don't really care...
We stay like that for a while, allowing the sensation to drown out our surroundings. I wind up breaking away first, needing to catch my breath after all the recent exertion. I inhale deeply, taking in the mixed scents of grass, sweat, and just a hint of strawberries like they're life itself. Well, maybe they are, because after that kiss I feel like maybe I could light up...well, at least the town at the bottom of the hill. "Mmmm...well," I say, barely noticing the goofy grin on my face while looking at the one on hers, "I was going to ask if you were all right, but I'd say that's been pretty well answered."
"Yeah, you could say that," Emi says, only slightly less breathlessly. "You know, for all the times I've done that to other people, that's the first time anyone's ever plowed into me like that." She winks at me, and after realizing what she just said I start to blush a little. She laughs, then says, "Hisao, have I ever told you how cute you are when you blush? Because I could watch you do that all day and all night for the rest of my life and not get tired of it."
"Thanks a lot," I say, a little happy despite the embarrassment. Much as I'd like to stay in this position for a while longer, my arms are starting to feel the strain. I roll to one side and sit up as I ask, "So is that why you tease me so much?"
Emi pushes herself up to sit next to me. "Well, it's one
of the reasons," she says, bumping her shoulder against mine. I automatically put my arm around her shoulders, and she rests her head on my chest. We just stay like that for a few minutes, enjoying each other's warmth, before Emi says, "Thanks, Hisao."
"Eh? Thanks for what?"
"For never giving up on me." Emi takes a deep breath. "After all the times I ran away, or pushed you away, anybody else would have probably just let me do it. You...didn't. You kept right on being there, and caring about me, until I just couldn't deny my feelings anymore." She looks up at me and says, "You do know I've been in love with you for a while now, right?"
"Heh...I'm not that
good, really. I had my doubts. I was confused about a lot of things this summer, but there was one thing that I was always sure of: that I never wanted you to go away." I squeeze Emi's shoulder and take a deep breath, still enjoying the atmosphere around me. "I didn't really figure out how I
felt until yesterday. I realized then that I'd had feelings for you for a long time, but I held them back – not just because you were pushing me away, but that was
part of it." I sigh and look out at the sky. "It was also because I didn't want to hurt Hanako by rejecting her."
Emi laughs a little at that. "Yeah, Hanako kinda has that effect on people, doesn't she?" Her face turns a little more serious as she says, "She does love you, though...doesn't she?" I sigh as I nod in agreement. "You'll...probably wind up hurting her more by waiting, then."
"Yeah, I know," I say, closing my eyes. "Once I figured things out, I knew I needed to tell her as soon as I could. That's why I couldn't talk to you yesterday. I wanted my thoughts to be in order when I talked to Hanako, and I knew that no matter what happened between us that wouldn't be how it was." I turn back to Emi and continue, "I was a little scared that if you rejected my feelings, I might not be able to tell her."
"So, basically, if I could have told you how I felt sooner, we all would have been hurt a little less." Emi lowers her head, balls up her fists, and hits herself in the forehead a couple of times. "Stupid, stupid..."
I put my own arm over hers to stop her from doing that. "Maybe so, but there's nothing you can do about that now. I'm just as stupid for not figuring this out myself, right?"
Emi looks up at me and winks. "That's a good point, Hisao." I laugh, feeling the small amount of tension that was threatening to creep in, dissipate. "So...how did
Hanako take it? Do you think she's gonna be okay?"
"Actually, she took it a lot better than I thought she might. I have a feeling she might have known this was coming, so that probably helped."
"Because of the argument you had the other day?"
I think about that for a moment. "Maybe that was part of it, I'm not sure. More likely it was the conversation she had with Lilly afterwards." I let out a dry chuckle. "I'd ask her, but I don't think she wants to talk to me anytime soon."
"Heh, she probably wouldn't want to talk to me, either," Emi says as she draws her knees up to her chest. "It's too bad, because she could probably use someone to talk to right now. Hang on, didn't you just say she talked to Lilly after
your argument? I thought you didn't know where she was or something."
Now it's my turn to hang my head. "Ugh, that's right, I haven't told you yet. Lilly was staying with family in the city, and Hanako had been planning to go see her. Then the whole thing with Noriko happened, and Lilly agreed to come back here instead, and it blew up in everybody's faces. I don't know how things stand between them right now."
Emi shivers slightly. "Ouch, that's not good. I really
hope she's okay...well, I hope they're both
okay." Emi sits up straight, gently shaking my arm off. "You know, we should probably get over to see the nurse, Hisao. If neither one of us shows up soon, he might send someone out to look for us," she says, winking.
"You have a point," I concede as I push myself up from the ground. "Besides, we wouldn't want to be caught in a compromising position again, right?"
"Oh, heavens no!" Emi replies in mock embarrassment. "What would
we do if that happened?" I offer my hand to help her up, and she accepts it. "Thanks again, Hisao."
"No problem," I reply, and when I try to let go, Emi...doesn't. "What's up with this?" I ask, raising my eyebrow.
"Oh, I just figured we might give Nurse a little shock when we get to his office," she says mischievously. "Might finally give him some ideas," she adds with a wink.
, exactly?" I ask cluelessly.
"Never mind," Emi says, "you'll probably find that out soon enough. C'mon, let's go!" She starts dragging me up the hill toward the auxiliary building, and since I would prefer to keep my arm in its socket I follow.
It doesn't take us long to cover the ground to the nurse's office, and the door is open when we get there. Emi knocks anyway, and Nurse looks over from his workstation. "Oh, Emi..." His gaze crosses over to me, and he raises an eyebrow. "...and Hisao, too. So, which of you is going to have the honor of going first today?"
"Oh, I thought maybe both of us?" Emi says innocently as she steps in with me in tow.
Nurse eyes us both and starts, "I don't th-" before his eyes drift downward to our linked hands. Unexpectedly, he shifts to a stern expression and focuses it straight onto Emi. "Don't tell me you used glue instead of lubricant again."
My eyes become saucers and I start to splutter incoherently. Emi just looks bemused, replying, "Yep, I'm afraid so. We're officially stuck together now. Oh, and don't worry about separating us, I think we'll be just fine like this from now on."
As I attempt to re-engage my speech center, Nurse puts a hand to his chin and gives me a thoughtful gaze. "Hmmm...are you sure you can handle that, Hisao? I don't think I could last an hour like that, much less..."
"W-what the hell is going on here?
" I shout, and Emi and Nurse both break out laughing.
"Emi, I'll give you the win in this round," Nurse says through his grin. "I was beginning to worry that I might be in my grave before you two finally got together. Believe me that I'm very happy to be proven wrong." He smiles sincerely and claps us both on the shoulder. "Congratulations, both of you."
I'm about to say that they never answered my question, but before that I happen to glance over at Emi, who's giving the nurse a side-eye. "Hang on juuuuust a second...were you angling to get us together or something?"
Now it's Nurse's turn to look innocent. "Who, me
? I would never
do anything like that
. It would be horribly unethical!"
Emi waves his mock indignation aside. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. So, what, did Mom put you up to it?"
This time, Nurse's indignation looks a little more sincere. "No, not at all. If anything, you might say it was the other way around." Emi's glare heats up, and Nurse sighs. "It's been obvious to me for a while that you both had feelings for each other. All I did was try and make the sailing as smooth as I could. You two didn't exactly make that easy, you know." Emi's look softens a little as he says that, and I can feel a little heat come into my cheeks as well. "The past couple of days had me especially worried," he continues, turning a harsh gaze on me, "but it looks like things have settled down nicely."
Emi looks at him for a long moment, then sticks out her tongue at him. "You may be an ass, but I'll forgive you this time since it was for a good reason." She steps back over to me, wraps her arm around my waist and gives me a squeeze.
Nurse visibly relaxes at that, then asks, "When did this happen, by the way?"
"Oh, about a half-hour ago," I say with a grin of my own, finally feeling like I'm into the spirit of things.
"I see," Nurse says with a wink. "In that case, Hisao, I suppose there's no point in my checking your heart just now." He fixes his gaze on me, and I can tell he's giving me the chance to tell him if I'm noticing anything unusual. I shake my head slightly, hoping it's enough for him. It must be, because he immediately turns to the girl next to me. "Since I'm feeling magnanimous, I'll give you a pass today, too, Emi, unless your newly minted boyfriend thinks I shouldn't."
Emi turns to me with quite possibly the most powerful puppy-dog pout the world has ever seen. "I didn't look like I was having any trouble, did I?"
The heat level in my cheeks continues to rise as the nurse stands there barely containing his laughter. I say the only possible thing I can say at this time: "Nope. In fact, I'd say you looked perfect out there today, Emi."
This time, it's Emi who blushes, saying, "Well, I don't know about perfect
, but I am pretty amazing, right?"
At that, Nurse's laughter comes roaring out. "Good job, Hisao! Looks like I can let you live for today." He then turns back to Emi. "So, when are
you planning on telling your mother? I know she'd be very happy, or at least relieved
, to hear about this development."
The color drains from Emi's face. "Oh, she...didn't talk to you yesterday?" she asks hesitantly. When he raises an eyebrow, Emi immediately says, "Oh, okay, then I'll tell her the next chance I get. So are you sure you don't want to check Hisao's heart? You never know what kind of problems all that excitement might have caused." Emi winks at the nurse, and I know very well what she's trying to do by changing the subject.
Nurse looks at her seriously, and I'd bet anything that he knows what she's doing, too. However, after a moment he goes back to his usual smile. "Yes, I'm sure. Now go ahead and enjoy the rest of today." Emi breathes a sigh of relief, and so do I. "Unless, of course, you need anything else
Emi hesitates for a second, a confused look on her face. Then she breaks into a grin and says, "Nah, I'm always prepared for these things."
Nurse rolls his eyes. "I thought as much. Just remember what I told you a few weeks ago, all right?"
Emi nods vigorously. "Oh, yeah, I definitely will. Anyway, see you tomorrow!"
"I certainly hope so," he says, slightly seriously. "You, too, Hisao. This is two days in a row you've skipped, so I expect to see you here tomorrow, too."
"Right," I reply, feeling like the last part of the conversation went over my head just a bit. "I'll make sure to be here."
"Great! Now get out of here already!"
Both of us depart the office quickly, and as I realize what Emi meant by "being prepared" my face got a little warm again. As we start walking along the path, I take a deep breath. "It looks like I'm finally going to keep that promise I made," I say with a smile.
Emi returns the smile and says, "Ah, so you're still thinking about that?" I nod, and she sighs a bit dejectedly. "Yeah, I guess I am too, now. I just wish there was more time left in the break."
"Hey, there's still a week, at least, and after that...anyway, you're right, we don't have that much time, so we should start right away. What do you want to do with the rest of today?"
Emi opens her mouth, but then she seems to remember something and her face drops again. "Sorry, Hisao, but this afternoon is kinda booked. I need to go with Rin to get her hair cut. If she doesn't get it done regularly, it gets in her way with painting, and we've put it off too long already."
"Well, can't she go by herself?"
Emi sighs heavily. "Last time I let her do that, she wound up not getting back until almost curfew, plus she came back with her pad full of sketches and her hair still falling in her eyes. And then she didn't even go to bed, because she had to go work on her mural." Emi's eyes widen suddenly. "Hey! You saw her there, didn't you?"
I think for a moment, then laugh. "Yeah, that was right before the festival, right? I was walking home from the convenience store with Lilly, and Rin was just randomly standing there in the middle of the street."
Emi starts laughing, too. "Yeah, she came back talking about how you were a mind reader or something, because you knew something or other. She still says that, sometimes." Emi pinches her face in thought, and then snaps her fingers with a grin. "You know, when Rin was talking about needing a haircut the other day, she said she wanted you to come with us, so I'll bet she wouldn't mind if you came along. We can replace that poster I wrecked while we're there, too."
"That sounds good to me." Honestly, I wouldn't mind it at all, especially if the alternative is sitting in my room all afternoon. Any time I get to spend with Emi right now is welcome, and the last time the three of us went to town together it was pretty fun.
"It's settled, then," Emi says with a decisive nod. "After I take a shower, I'll talk to Rin and then give you a call. If she's okay with it, we'll meet you down at the front gate and head to the Shanghai for lunch."
"So lunch first, huh?"
"Yeah, Rin doesn't like to eat right after a haircut because then it gets in her food, you know?"
"I guess that makes sense. And then the art store after that?"
"Yeah, and maybe a couple other places while we're down there. You need to hit the convenience store?"
"Yeah, I probably should."
"Oh, yeah, and the next time I'm in the city, let me know what you need. I usually pick up stuff there for Rin, too, because I can get a lot of stuff cheaper at the stores there. It might be a few days before I go back home, though, so for now we'll have to settle for the Aura Mart."
The part about not going home for a few days reminds me of her evading Nurse's question earlier. Now's not the time to start that discussion, though, as we arrive at the entrance to the boys' dorm. "Heh, I'm all for cheaper. I'm going to need to save some money now that I have a girlfriend again, right?"
Emi looks at me for a moment, a little surprised, but quickly grins again. "Yep, that you do! I'm probably a cheaper date than Lilly was, too," she says with a wink.
I can't help but laugh at that myself. "Well, we didn't exactly go out on many dates, but the first official one we did go out on...heh, let's just say that while I didn't feel too good about it, I was a little relieved when she offered to pay. The suit I rented had already eaten up a healthy chunk of my funds."
Emi's eyes go wide at that. "Rented a suit? Seriously
?" She makes a sour face at the idea. "Well, don't worry about having to do anything like that anytime soon. Although I'll bet you looked sharp that day," she adds with a soft elbow to my side. I try to keep myself from blushing, but it's futile. Emi's grin widens as she grabs my shoulders and pulls herself up to give me a light kiss on the lips. "Call you in about an hour, Hisao," she says, and runs off up the path, leaving me to enjoy the after-effects.
You know, I think I could learn to like this.
Just to be safe, I take the elevator up the one level to my floor. The last thing I need right now is to have to pay another visit to the nurse – I'd never hear the end of it from either
of them. I open the door to my room, toss my bag on the bed, and start to head for the shower, but I stop myself for a second when sure enough, I notice that my heart rate is still higher than it should be.
Well, that's to be expected, but I'm taking
no chances today.
Instead of heading for the shower, I instead get myself some water and take my medications first. Then, I sit down on the bed and try to relax, using some breathing techniques Nurse taught me. I focus across the room, looking at the two items hanging on the wall, then close my eyes with a smile.
The next thing I know, I'm startled by my phone ringing. I suppose I'm not surprised to have dozed off after barely sleeping at all last night. It looks like Emi's prediction of calling me in an hour was pretty accurate, too. "Hey, Emi, what's the word?"
"Hisao, the word is go!" Emi says excitedly on the other end. "Rin was definitely fine with you coming along with us today. In fact, when I told her what happened this morning, she had this weird smile, and she seemed kinda...hmmm...serene
, maybe? Anyway, we'll meet you at the front gate in a couple hours!"
"Sounds good to me. I'm looking forward to it."
There's a brief pause on the other end. "This may sound weird, Hisao, but...I kinda miss you already."
"Nope, not weird at all," I say, feeling a smile coming to my lips. "Well, unless we're both weird."
"Yeah," Emi says, laughing, "maybe we've both been hanging around with Rin too much! See you soon!"
"Yep, see you soon." I hang up the phone, and realize that I feel more relaxed now than I have in a while. After all the craziness of these past few weeks, I finally feel like I might have things a little more in hand now. With that happy feeling, I pick up my things again and head for the shower for real. In the hallway, I pause for a moment when I think I smell a hint of strawberry, but then I realize that it's coming from me. While I really don't want to wash this away, it's comforting to know that it will return soon enough.
After showering and reading for a bit to pass the time, I head down to the front gate. A few minutes later, I spot Emi and Rin coming towards me – Rin moving in her usual arrhythmic way and Emi looking a bit frustrated at her slow pace. I find myself smiling, both at the scene in general and at the sight of Emi, who spots me and waves before bounding over to give me a hug. "I see you didn't fall asleep this time," she says with a wink as Rin meanders over to us.
"Well, I didn't want to get kicked again," I say, inclining my head in Rin's direction. If the girl in question heard my teasing, she makes no indication of it. Instead, she stares down the hill – or more appropriately vaguely, in the general direction of the bottom of the hill – impassively, apparently content with letting us decide when to start walking.
Emi, on the other hand, laughs as she asks, "So how're you feeling, Hisao? All recovered from this morning's excitement?"
"I think so," I say, still smiling. "Well...physically, at least."
"In that case, let's start walking!" Without waiting for a response, Emi starts off down the hill. I quickly catch up, leaving Rin to amble along by herself a few paces behind us. Since she doesn't seem bothered by it, I decide that I shouldn't, either. Personally, I'm quite happy to just walk next to Emi right now, enjoying the warm atmosphere of late summer.
The rain seems like it's going to hold off today, as there are only a few clouds lazily drifting through the sky. Occasionally, I look back to make sure Rin is still with us, and I catch her looking up at the sky herself.
As we arrive in town, we slow our pace to let Rin catch up. When she does, I ask out of curiosity, "So, Rin, how often do you need to get your hair cut like this?"
"It depends. When I start seeing it when I look down, that's when I tell Emi it needs to be cut."
"Yeah," Emi interjects, "it's usually about once a month or so."
"It must be kind of annoying doing it that often," I say, and Rin just shrugs. Jokingly, I ask, "Have you ever thought about getting your head shaved? Then you wouldn't have to get it cut for a long time."
Rin shakes her head. "I never really felt like I needed to change enough to do that."
Something in what she said reminds me of what she told me the other night. "Right, but weren't you just telling me you were trying to see if you could become a different kind of person? Maybe that's the kind of thing you should do."
Rin looks at me blankly. "No. I think that's the kind of thing you do when you're trying to forget something. I'm already good enough at forgetting things, so that's not what I need to do."
I nod, remembering that changing one's hair that drastically often meant a girl wanted a new start for some reason. I'm somehow reminded of the photo Akira showed me, where Misha had relatively normal-looking hair, and wonder if she had something like that in her past.
"What are you two talking about?" Emi says suddenly.
"Oh, just something Rin mentioned when she brought me that scroll. Something about the art teacher wanting her to show her paintings to people, right?"
"Oh, right! The exhibition! Are you still thinking about that, Rin?" Rin thinks for a moment, then shrugs, and Emi turns to me. "Yeah, apparently some friend of his liked her mural and wants to display her stuff in her gallery. Rin still hasn't given Nomiya an answer, though."
I look over at Rin, who seems to have lost interest in the conversation as she watches a stray cat wandering along the sidewalk. "Yeah, she said something about that, too. So what about you, Emi? Have you ever done something like that? Shaved your head, I mean."
Emi laughs. "Nope, although I've heard it cuts down on wind resistance, so maybe I should think about it."
"What, and deprive me of the sight of those twin tails of yours streaming out behind you? Pass." Emi laughs, and I continue, "Hmmm...so breaking up with that Hajime guy didn't drive you to anything extreme? I guess that's a good thing."
"Be careful, Hisao. I could say the same about you and Lilly. Last time I saw her, she still had that big pile of blondeness on top of her head!"
"Heh, that's true, too. I didn't know you kept such close tabs on her, though," I add with a wink.
"Actually, that's...something I meant to mention to you. I ran into her a couple days ago, and I asked her if she might be interested in...tutoring me a little."
Emi's voice was noticeably quieter for the last few words, which piques my curiosity. "That's unexpected."
"Yeah, I suppose it is," she replies cautiously. "It's just that lately, for some
reason, I've been thinking a little more about the future. Like you said, there really isn't much call for pirates these days. Anyway, you're planning on going on to university, aren't you?"
"Well, I'm seriously considering it, but a lot has been happening lately, so I haven't really given it much thought these past few weeks."
"Hmmm," Emi says, looking at me with that pinched face that tells me she's thinking about something. Before I can ask her anything more, I notice that we've reached our destination.
The three of us enter the Shanghai, which is a little busier than I expected. Yuuko is back today to greet us, looking a little more frazzled than usual. "Welcome to the Shanghai! Please do your best to find a seat! Oh, it's you three...ah, it's good to see some familiar faces!"
"Hey, Yuuko!" Emi says happily.
"Hi, Yuuko. Busy day today, I see."
Yuuko sighs at my comment and closes her eyes. "Yes, it is, but there's an open booth right back here." As she leads us to it, she says, "Hisao? Can I...umm...there's...something I wanted to talk to you about for a moment?"
"Yeah, sure, what is it?"
"It's...er...well, it's about that friend of yours...at least I think he's your friend, because you came over to his table that time, and then he came over to your table that other time, but maybe he's not? Oh, I'm sorry if I got the wrong impression, it just seemed like you two knew each other pretty well, and..."
"Whoa, hold on! By any chance are you talking about Yoshi?"
"Yes! He is your friend, right? I mean, other than Lilly, you're the only one I've seen him talking to..."
"Um, Yuuko?" Emi says. "They're friends. Don't worry about it."
"Oh, I'm sorry for rambling, Emi. It's just that something happened and..."
"It's fine, it's fine!" Emi says dismissively, then winks at Yuuko. "I'll let you borrow my boyfriend for a minute if you need him."
"Okay, tha-oh! B-boyfriend?" Yuuko looks taken aback for a second, then looks from Emi to me and back before breaking out in a smile. "Well, congratulations, then! And thanks, we'll just be a minute!"
Emi grins, and I think I detect a hint of pride in it before she turns to Rin and starts talking. Yuuko and I walk over to a somewhat quieter spot at the far end of the counter. Looking and sounding anguished, she says, "I'm sorry to trouble you like this, Hisao, but I haven't seen Lilly in a while, and he hasn't been in these past few days, and I thought I might have been too harsh with him..."
"With Yoshi?" I ask, and Yuuko nods. "Well, he did seem pretty broken up afterwards..." I can immediately tell that was the wrong thing to say, as Yuuko looks even more miserable. "But, the last time I saw him, he seemed better." It's stretching the truth, but only a bit, and I needed to say something
positive. "I'm sure he'll be fine, and he'll get over it soon enough." I don't say that he might already be
over it based on what happened with Noriko, because I don't really know.
Yuuko sighs, looking relieved. "Thank goodness. I've never been very good at relationships, and...well, I think you're probably better with people than I am. It's just that he made me a little nervous, and I might have overreacted when he said...well, you know, right?"
I nod, wondering exactly how Yuuko could be any more nervous than her usual self. "I don't know about being better with people," I say, rubbing the back of my neck. "I know you've helped me out a couple of times, too, so I'm just happy to be able to return the favor."
"Thank you very much," Yuuko says, bowing to me so forcefully that I need to back up a couple of steps to avoid being hit.
Something else occurs to me, and I ask, "Is it going to cause problems for you if he keeps working with you? I mean, I don't know if Lilly intends to return to being class representative, or to helping you out with the Braille books again."
Yuuko gasps, saying, "Oh, no! I hadn't even thought of that! And the library is opening again on Monday! I hope she comes in before then so I can find out..."
"If I see her, I'll ask her, too," I say quickly, trying to keep Yuuko from panicking. "In the meantime, I'd better be getting back to my table...and my girlfriend."
Yuuko's face sobers up quickly at that. "Right! Right! I should get back to work!" She bustles off and I head back to the table where Emi and Rin are sitting.
"It's a good thing I'm not the jealous type, Hisao," Emi says with a wink when I get there. "I might start getting suspicious of you two."
I sit down in the booth next to Emi and chuckle a bit. "Don't worry, she just wanted me to give someone a message. I was..."
"I forgot to ask if you were ready to order! I'm sorry!" Yuuko interrupts with another violent bow. Emi and I both stifle laughs, and we all give Yuuko our lunch orders.
As we wait for our lunch to arrive, Emi turns to me. "Oh, yeah, speaking of my rivals for your affection," she says with a nudge, "Rin's working on a new painting for Hanako."
Surprised, I turn to Rin with a raised eyebrow. "Oh, still thinking about that exposition we were talking about? Trying to see if you can paint for other people?"
Rin nods languidly. "Especially now that what I'd hoped yours would do, it did. It's just that Hanako is more of a wall than a door, so I'm having trouble with hers." Yuuko arrives with our lunch and arranges it on the table. After she leaves, Rin cocks her head to the side and asks, "What do you think she'd like, Hisao?"
Not expecting that question, I don't answer right away. Emi turns to me with an interested look on her face. "Well, you did
say you've been in Hanako's room before." It still surprises me that she can say things like that without any hint of being embarrassed. "What kind of stuff did she have in there?"
I look down at my juice glass. "Actually, I think she might have had even less than I did. Her walls were pretty drab, like all the color had washed out of them or something. The only decorations I remember her having were some knick-knacks on the shelf above her bed. Her birthday was a couple months ago, and even Lilly was having trouble figuring out what kind of thing to get her. She wound up getting her a stuffed bear, and I found a doll in a little antique shop in the city. I think there was another doll there, too, but that's about all."
"An antique shop, huh?" Emi says. "Mom loves to look around places like that. Which one was it?"
"Hmmm..." I say, wracking my brain to remember the name of it. "It was kind of on the edge of downtown, across from a newsstand..."
"You're not helping, Hisao," Emi says, making a face at me. "That probably describes like half the antique shops in Sendai!"
"Hang on, hang on, I remember the name sounded Western, like something out of a book or something that I'd read...oh, yeah, it was something by Shakespeare, I think. Romeo's? No..."
"Oh, yeah! I think I know the place you're talking about! It's on the west side of downtown...Otero's or something like that?"
"Othello's," comes Rin's voice out of the blue. "That explains the butterscotch."
"Eh?" Emi says, looking surprised. "You know the place too?"
Rin nods at Emi. "I was there once when I was looking for ideas for the art club." She then turns to me. "That helps, Hisao. I should be able to finish it after this."
I blink my eyes a couple times, wondering exactly how that conversation went past me so quickly. "Okay, then. I'm not sure how that helps, but I'm glad it did." Emi gives me a sympathetic look, and we return to eating.
The rest of our lunch passes quickly in conversation. A couple of times, my mind drifts idly to what Emi asked me earlier about going to university, but the subject doesn't come up, and I'm not really sure what I'd say anyway. After settling up the bill with Yuuko, we're on our way to the salon where Rin gets her hair cut. On the way, we pass a barber shop which has fairly reasonable prices. I'm reminded that I haven't gotten a haircut myself since arriving at Yamaku, and my stray tufts aren't getting any easier to control. Lost in thought, I nearly bump into the two girls, who are standing in front of a more upscale-looking salon a few buildings down from the barber.
"So, if we're not here when you're done," I hear Emi telling Rin, "we'll meet you over at the art store, right?"
"Hopefully," Rin responds cryptically. I'm about to ask what she means when I feel Emi lay a hand on my arm. I look over and see her shaking her head, so I stay quiet. Knowing Rin, that's probably for the best, as her explanation would probably involve time machines or black holes or something. I just smile as casually as I can as she walks into the salon. Looking through the window, I catch a glimpse of a list of prices, and it takes me a bit aback. That kind of money once a month would clean me out pretty quickly, and I start to wonder what kind of family she might have if expenses like that don't bother her. Even after having gotten a glimpse into the world of people like Lilly and Shizune, it still seems a bit far away to me, but perhaps Rin has a similar experience.
"Well," Emi says brightly, "she'll probably be at least an hour in there, so is there anything you wanna do while we wait?"
Looking inside, the place doesn't seem very busy, so I'm curious. "It takes that long to get a haircut? It usually only takes me about fifteen minutes, and I didn't think Rin was the type to care about her hair that much."
Emi rolls her eyes. "You do know that girls have hair in places other than their heads, right? I mean, I know you told me you've had sex before, so I figured..."
"Oh! You mean...she..."
"Yeah, she has to get that
done, too. Not as often as a regular haircut, but once a season or so. I've done it for her a couple of times, but I'm always scared my hand's gonna slip or something." Unbidden, a scene comes to my mind of Emi...tending to Rin. I've never really thought about Rin that way, but the concept is undeniably erotic. My mind is cleared instantaneously by a punch to the shoulder. "Pervert," Emi says with a grin on her face.
"Hey! I thought I was the mind reader here!" I protest as Emi breaks out laughing. "Besides, can you blame me? How would you react if you heard that Kenji and I..." I decide not to finish that sentence for the sake of the contents of my own stomach. Looking over at Emi, her face looks a bit green as well.
"Um, can we leave Setou out of this, Hisao? I'd really prefer not to think about him at all."
Emi leers at me a bit, then says, "Now, if instead you had said you and...say...Kenta
, then you might be onto something."
"You know, the captain of the track team? I mean, it helps that he's gay himself, so he wouldn't mind..."
"Ah...um..." I stammer. I've entered a world I'd only read about, and just now I think I'd prefer it had stayed that way. "Well," I say, desperate to latch onto something intelligible, "despite what Nurse might have you believe, I like girls."
"And I like guys," she says, elbowing me sharply, "so keep those thoughts to yourself."
"I tried! You're
the one who said something first!"
Emi squirms just a bit, and I feel vindicated, if only slightly. "Okay, guilty as charged." Emi lets out a sigh. "Aaaaand now you've got my motor running, damn you."
"Well, you started it, after all," I say teasingly.
Emi elbows me a little harder. "Jerk! At least I didn't do it intentionally!" I endure the pain in my ribs with a smile, and she throws up her hands in frustration. Then a mischievous look crosses her face. "You know, Hisao," she says under her breath, "maybe we should just let Rin find her own way back after all."
Until this moment, I never thought Emi could sound quite so sultry
. As I look at Emi's face, my entire body is aching to agree with her. "Weren't you the one who didn't want to do that earlier?" I say quietly.
"I didn't know it was gonna take so long," Emi says through her teeth. "I haven't been able to stop thinking about being with you since this morning." I feel her hand sneak underneath my shirt, and I can't say it's an unpleasant feeling. I also can't deny having similar thoughts. "Maybe we can come back down and get her tonight, like the last time."
Thinking quickly, I reply with a leer of my own, "Are you sure we're going to want to separate long enough to do that."
She returns my gaze and says, "While I like the way you think, Hisao, you're going to need a break at some point."
"And you're not?"
"Nope," she says with a satisfied grin. "But I'm willing to take one for your sake."
"Ah, but are you sure the best way to spend that break is walking up and down that long hill?"
Emi looks at me for a second, then laughs, totally breaking the mood. "You're too smart for your own good sometimes, Hisao. Okay, you win. We'll wait for Rin, but maybe we can do a little shopping in the meantime."
"Sounds good," I say, feeling somewhat deflated as I realize I was totally ready to be persuaded. "Any ideas about where?" To preserve my own sanity, I quickly add, "Although I'd prefer to avoid clothing stores."
"Agreed," Emi says a little too quickly. "We don't have time for that sort of thing anyway, right?"
I roll my eyes a bit. "It seems I have more days as a pack mule ahead of me," I say, only half-jokingly.
Emi turns to me, looking slightly offended. "Are you implying I can't carry my own bags, Hisao? I don't just exercise my legs, you know." Looking at Emi's frame, I definitely believe that. There isn't a part of her that doesn't look athletic. "Like what you see, Hisao?" she says with a grin. "Good! I'd hate to think I'm losing your attention already!"
Not much chance of that happening anytime soon.
"So," I say, forcing myself to look Emi in the eyes, "about where to go..."
After a moment's pause, her face brightens. "Oh! I know! There's a shop over here that sells kitchen supplies. I should really pick up some things to keep here at the dorm so I don't have to go home all the time to make lunch."
"I hope that means I'll get to be the beneficiary of some of those lunches," I say with a grin.
"I have a feeling you might," Emi says with a nudge. "Actually, I'm kinda sorry I haven't had the chance to do that very often yet. I know it's a little stereotypical, but it's true that knowing I'm making lunch for you makes it a little more enjoyable, you know?"
"Heh, I never would have taken you for the domestic type."
Emi's eyes flash dangerously. "Watch out, Hisao. Don't start expecting me to start cleaning up after you or something. I just...well, I know when I'm the one making lunch for you, you're not filling yourself up on crap."
"Hey, now!" I say with no small amount of indignation. "I've been doing my best to stick to that dietary plan you drew up, you know!"
Emi looks at me dubiously. "Are you sure
about that, Hisao?"
"Ummm...well, I did say trying
, right? I can't say I've been perfect, but I've mostly stuck by it."
Emi's face lightens considerably at that. "That's good to hear, Hisao, that you've done that even when I'm not around to keep an eye on you. That means you want to take care of yourself, and that's important." She puts her arm around my waist and gives me a squeeze, then turns down another side street. "That's the place!" she exclaims, and the two of us go in.
Our time in the store is satisfyingly short, as Emi seems to know exactly what she wants and finishes up quickly. We're each carrying a medium-sized bag as we head back toward the salon. "Are you sure making lunch for me isn't going to be a bother?" I ask. "I mean, with your training schedule and all?"
"Nah, I'm used to it. I've been doing it for a while now, and I make lunch for Rin a lot, too. I had to do a lot more around the house after the accident, and one of the things I learned first was how to cook for myself. I don't do it every day or anything, but when I get the chance."
"Well, everything you've made for me has been good so far. Did your mother teach you?"
Surprisingly, Emi starts to fidget as I say that. "Mmmm...not exactly
. I mean, I learned a lot from her, just not directly. You know, I used her recipes and stuff, but..."
"Ah..." I remember what she told me this morning about what happened with her mother after the accident. It also reminds me of what happened at the nurse's office, and I wonder if it's connected somehow. So, as we turn the corner back onto the main street, I decide to see if she wants to talk about it. "So, did something happen between you and your mother yesterday?"
Emi stumbles slightly and looks at me with death in her eyes. It only lasts for a second, though, as she quickly turns away from me. "Yeah, you did
notice, huh? I'm still trying to decide if I should like or hate that about you, Hisao, but for now I'm still leaning toward the first one." She turns back to me and continues, "I guess that's because I'm still in a mood where nothing's going to get me down."
"And who's responsible for that, exactly?"
"Hmmm, I wonder..." Emi says as she nudges me. "Hisao, I...don't think this is something I can say right now, okay? Maybe later when we have some more time, I can explain it, but for now all you need to know is that I'll probably be spending the next couple days at Yamaku." She leans into me a little more and says, "I think I know who I'll be spending it with, too."
"Okay," I say with a sigh, "as long as it's just for now." I feel Emi nod her head in agreement. Just then, a thought strikes me. "Hey, remember the last we did this, you said I should go home and get some stuff to put in my room?"
"Yeah, I do. I said I'd go with you and help..." Emi suddenly pushes away and turns to me with her eyes wide. "H-hang on a second, Hisao...are you sure you're ready for that? I mean, I've only been your girlfriend for a few hours, and you're already talking about bringing me home
I grin at her. "It'd be a way for you and your mother to cool off for a couple of days, right?" Emi narrows her eyes, and I respond more seriously. "Besides, the end of break is coming up soon, and I won't get another chance until the winter. By then, I might as well not bother doing something like that. Besides," I say, putting a hand on Emi's shoulder. "I really don't want to go by myself. I have something else I need to take care of there, and I could use some moral support."
"Moral support, huh?" Emi says, fidgeting a little. "Are you sure I'm the one you want for that?"
"I wouldn't want anybody else," I say sincerely.
Emi smiles, putting her arm back around me. "You'd better not," she says playfully, and I smile as we start to walk again. A few seconds later, she asks, "Waaaaait, what something else
do you have to take care of, exactly?"
"I'll tell you," I say nonchalantly, "when you tell me what's going on with your mother."
Emi separates from me for a second and punches me in the shoulder. "Dirty pool, Hisao," she says, then sighs and leans back into me. "But...fair is fair, I guess. We both kinda need to know what we're getting ourselves into, right?"
"Yeah," I say with a sigh. "I suppose that's true."
"If you really want me to come with you, Hisao, I will, but I think I want to take care of things with Mom first." Emi pulls away from me and says, "Hey, come to think of it, that whole moral support thing might be a good idea for me, too."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Mom's been bugging me to meet you, so I thought maybe you could come to dinner at our house this weekend. I wouldn't mind having you along the next time I see her."
I'm about to answer, when I spot Rin coming out of the salon a few dozen yards down the street. I'm shocked to see how neat her hair looks, as it's always looked like she barely brushes it at all. It's the most...feminine
I've ever seen her look. Then, as we continue to approach, she stands still in the middle of the sidewalk and suddenly shakes her head rapidly, sending her hair flying in all directions. Just like that, she's back to looking like her usual self.
I chuckle a bit, then turn to my right and see Emi looking in the same direction. "Congratulations, Hisao. You've just been witness to Rin's entire hair care ritual. It's almost enough to make you jealous, right?" she says, reaching up to swat at my own unruly strands. "Anyway, you should feel honored! Hey, Rin! Over here!"
Rin turns to look at us, then nods and walks over. "Feeling refreshed?" I ask, slightly sarcastically. Rin just shrugs in response, which in retrospect I should have expected.
The three of us walk down the street and around the corner to the art supply shop and adjacent music store. Emi opens the door to the first one, saying, "Do you think you're going to buy anything today, Rin?"
Rin tilts her head to one side and surveys the premises at length. Finally, she says, "It's possible. I can't guarantee anything, though."
"Gotcha. Let me know when you know." Rin nods in response and sets off for a display of drawing implements. Emi turns to me and says, "When she says that, you need to be ready for anything. She might give up in five minutes, or she might be here all day."
I look at our red-haired companion, who seems to be looking at a shelf lined with colored pencils, and sigh. "Well, in that case, I'd better have my poster in hand, right?" I turn to make for the right-hand side of the store when I feel Emi's hand on my arm.
"Are you sure you still want that one, Hisao?"
"I mean, if that's what you want, I did promise to replace it, but now you have the one Rin made for you, right? I thought maybe you might want something a little more...colorful instead."
"You mean like that drawing of you that Rin gave me?" I shake my head in denial. "I might sort of understand it now, but the thing still gives me headaches if I look at it too long. Besides, the game posters we got last time are plenty colorful."
"Yeah," she says sarcastically, "I'll bet those really
help you relax."
I smile back at her. "They don't. That's why I put them on that wall where I did."
"Ah, I getcha," Emi says with a nod, then nudges me in the back. "Well, we can see if they've got another one but I thought...well, you might not want to remember what happened the day we got the first one."
When we get to the poster display I wonder for a moment why it is that I want this specific one. The answer comes to me immediately, and I turn to Emi. "Actually, that's exactly why I want this one. Even if I didn't realize it at the time, that was the day I fell in love with you. That's what Rin tried to tell me with the scroll, too, I think: that I should always have it, and remember."
"You know, Hisao," Emi says with mock seriousness. "I've been thinking romantic schlock like that myself lately. Now I know who I can blame for putting those thoughts in my head!"
"You mean Rin?" I say with a wink, and when Emi sticks her tongue out at me I start laughing, and so does she. I quickly locate another copy of the poster, and after picking it out of the bin I turn to see what Rin's doing. I see her already at the counter, dropping a single jar of paint onto it. I point her out to Emi, and we both join her over there.
"You know, Rin," Emi says, sounding apologetic, "I...kinda feel like I owe you after all the trouble I've caused you lately, so let me pay for that, too."
Rin shakes her head and starts to reach for the chain connected to the wallet in her pocket. I glance at the jar, which I can see from here is a yellowish-brown color. I glance at the label, which as I'd guessed reads 'butterscotch'. "For Hanako's painting, then?"
Rin nods in agreement, at which point Emi grabs onto Rin's foot to stop her from taking her wallet out. Rin almost loses her balance, but Emi catches her by her shoulder in what looks to be a practiced motion. "In that case, there's no way
I'm letting you pay for it. I...kinda owe Hanako, too, so this is the least I can do. Without the two of you, everything that happened today might never have happened." Emi looks over her shoulder at me and grins. "Compared to that, a few hundred yen is nothing." Rin looks at Emi, her mouth slightly open, then immediately withdraws her foot. As Emi lets go, she immediately wraps Rin up in a hug. "Thanks, Rin."
Rin looks over at me with a crooked smile of her own. "See that? I didn't kick her this time." Emi lets go and starts laughing, and I can see as she turns to face the counter that her eyes are glistening just a bit, too.
Once everything's paid for, that bag is naturally assigned to me, and we start on our way back up the hill to Yamaku. As we walk, I think about how much of a shame it is that summer break is nearly over, especially since it feels like today was just a beginning. Emi keeps up a steady chatter as we walk up the hill, talking about the upcoming Sports Festival and some of the work she's been doing with Yamaku's wheelchair athletes. I actually find it kind of heartwarming to hear how enthusiastic she is when she talks about things like that. I don't say much, and neither does Rin, although I can tell she's also listening intently.
All too soon, we find ourselves back on Yamaku grounds, and then by the entrance to the boys' dormitory. Emi says, "So, I'll go back with Rin so we can drop off our stuff, then come back here so I can...er...help you hang yours up again."
"Sounds good," I reply with a nod.
"I could help," Rin says flatly.
Emi gets a slightly panicked look on her face, "Eh, that might not be such a good idea, Rin. Besides, don't you need to work on that thing for Hanako now that Hisao helped you on that?"
Rin considers that for a moment, then nods. "That's true. I need to see if what I've done already will be part of what it ends up being."
"Yeah, exactly! Besides, this is kind of a two-man job anyway, Rin."
Rin looks Emi up and down. "Do you need me to find another man for you?"
"Just...go!" Emi says, breaking down laughing as she does. Rin turns to me and shrugs, and I swear there's just the hint of a smile on her face as she turns and makes her way up the path to the girls' dorm. "I'll be back in a bit, Hisao," Emi says, still grinning. "Then we can give this whole...decorating
thing another try."
"Aye-aye, captain!" I say, letting the possibilities of what might happen run rampant through my hormone-addled brain. Climbing the stairs, I feel like I can be pretty sure of one thing: this time, I don't think she'll be running away.