Huh? Too bright...what time is it?
I wake up to a scene that's all too familiar, although it's one I've experienced less and less of late. I turn my face away from the shaft of light cutting between the curtains, but my eyes are still a bit sore. My sheets are tangled around me and soaked with sweat, and there's an overwhelming feeling of nausea running through me. I slowly open my eyes and see that it's already after 10 o'clock. I haven't gotten up this late since my birthday, and the aching I feel throughout my body reminds me of that day, too.
I rouse myself to a sitting position and close my eyes against the brightness. Behind my eyelids, snatches of the dreams I had last night start to resurface – seeing Hisao, trying to reach out for him as he drifted further and further away from me, not being able to tell whether he was rising or I was falling. Then, watching him disappear and being left with a feeling of profound emptiness. That emptiness has followed me ever since our conversation on the roof. I'd hoped to banish it by meeting with Naomi and Natsume yesterday, but any relief I gained was sadly temporary. This morning, the emptiness is back in full force.
Smallest of all.
On my way into the city yesterday I was surprised, yet grateful, that I wasn't feeling particularly anxious. If anything, I was a little excited by the idea of going farther out on my own. Still, I hedged my bets by arranging to meet them at the nearby café, since navigating the crowded station wasn't something I felt quite ready to do yet. However, I felt the anxiety start to build as I entered the café, because it was in that half-full state that always feels the worst to me. I tried to picture it in my head as the Shanghai on a day when Yuuko wasn't there, and that helped a little. However, that was soon undone when their train was a bit late getting in. I was able to prevent myself from having a panic attack until they arrived, which counts as at least a small victory.
After we greeted each other, the first thing Naomi did was ask how things were with Hisao. Since that was exactly what I expected, I was able to tell the story slowly and methodically. I left out certain details along the way, and although I could tell Naomi wanted to interrupt with questions, she held back until I was finished. Even Natsume seemed poised to say something on a couple of occasions, but her companion stopped her with a gesture each time. I had mixed feelings about that, but said nothing.
After I finished, Natsume seemed to get angry for some reason. She immediately called Takako and told her that she wanted to have a meeting of the newspaper club tomorrow – or today, now. Natsume also specifically asked her to tell Misaki to come as well, which struck me as odd. Naomi, on the other hand, was beyond disappointed. She said she was sure, after seeing how Hisao had treated me, that he really cared about me. I told her she wasn't really wrong, that he does care for me as a friend, but it did nothing to mollify her. It probably didn't help that I couldn't look at her while saying it, either. Still, from the way she talked, I felt like she wasn't mourning our relationship so much as the failure of love to blossom in general. The more I've come to know her, the more Naomi's romantic side has shown itself. Even I couldn't help but feel a little sad at not being able to make fulfill her expectations.
I thought that once that conversation was out of the way, things would feel more relaxed, but I was wrong. The conversation turned to their trip, and how they'd had to cut things short in Nagoya when Natsume's arthritis started to bother her. I remembered how much Naomi had wanted to go to Osaka in particular, and how she especially wanted to visit Ame-mura, so she must have been very disapppointed. That feeling started to leak of her out a little as we talked, and Natsume apologized to her repeatedly. Naomi smiled at that, but I could tell that she was doing her best to hide her feelings.
All the while, I felt like I was the one who should be apologizing. After all, I was supposed to be the one who went with Naomi on this trip. If I hadn't stayed behind to be with Hisao, she wouldn't have pressed Natsume to come with her. If I'd been the one to go with her, Naomi would have been able to do what she'd wanted. I felt a twinge at my own selfishness – selfishness that's been spread like a disease across these past few weeks. The small victory I thought I'd earned in coming to the city was turned upside-down, bringing things right back to the status quo, if not worse. The empty feeling was gnawing at me again.
In the end, it all came back to that. On the bus back to Yamaku, I couldn't say anything. I just stared out the window, watching everything pass me by. I didn't need to be here. I wasn't doing anyone any good here. I thought about what Hisao had said about being a leaf in the wind. I thought that, maybe, I'd been a leaf for my whole life until I met him, because that's when I knew there was something I wanted. I never saw a way to return the favor. In the end, I wasn't what Hisao needed, and I haven't been able to be anything that Lilly needs, either. I reached out as much as I could, and maybe more, but I wound up feeling more alone than ever.
Why does being alone have to feel empty now?
When I first came to Yamaku, I wanted nothing more than to be alone. For over a year, I went out of my way to avoid others. It wasn't difficult, as most of those who tried to approach me quickly decided it wasn't worth the trouble. The first time I ran away from someone was generally the last time they approached me. It was very convenient, until two people came along who never ran away. I wanted those two people with me for the rest of my life, but just as I was coming to terms with that, I lost them both.
No, I didn't lose them. I threw them both away.
Looking back, this whole summer suddenly feels like it's been a waste. I've spent so much time focusing on Hisao, and then on trying to reconcile with Lilly, only for it to come to this. Actually, even before that, I'd been tying myself to them since Hokkaido. I'd lost myself in the fantasy of us being like a family to the point that I even considered going into education like I'd heard them planning to do. It was the first time I'd even given thought to what I'd do after graduation, and it felt comfortable to me, if only for a little while.
But, really, that was just me being selfish again. That kind of folly is now well and truly buried. In some ways, I may be no worse off than I was when all I wanted was to get through life day by day, but the thing I've lost is important: time. I've put off all the heavy questions of what to do with my life after Yamaku, and now that I've got nothing left to divert my attention they're staring me in the face.
As I've been sitting here thinking, half an hour has already gone by. Our club meeting is scheduled to begin after lunch, so I quickly get ready and head for the bathroom to take a shower. Once under the water, the problem of my future comes back to my mind. University exams are coming up soon, but I haven't even started preparing yet, and even if I wanted to take them I doubt I could handle that kind of pressure. I haven't even looked into whether there might be any kind of exemption for special circumstances. And that's if I even take the exams. If I don't, what would I do with my life next?
And am I just doing what I've always done in reverse? Thinking about my future to put off thinking about my present?
Sighing heavily, I lean against the side of the shower for a few minutes, grateful once again that Yosh...Noriko
is a morning person. I still don't know what to make of her apology yesterday. After all, I've gotten used to discounting apologies entirely. After the accident, so many people apologized to me that I became numb to it. When they tried to be nice to me on my birthday, it was like everyone trying to apologize for a year's worth of reality. I've learned that when a person apologizes, it usually isn't for the benefit of the recipient, but because they have some feeling of guilt and want to absolve themselves as painlessly as possible. For myself, I often give apologies because people expect them, and they're easy words for me to say to deflect attention. Sincere apologies, I know, are extraordinarily rare. I don't know how sincere Noriko's apology was, but I give her full points for making the effort.
Once I notice how long I've been in the shower, I realize that I'm not going to have time to prepare anything for lunch before the meeting. Instead, I head to the cafeteria and grab the first thing I see before going to the newspaper club room. If I catch anyone's attention on the way, I don't notice it in my haste.
When I arrive at the club room, I see that all of our official members are there, along with Misaki. I already knew Takako was staying on campus, but this is the first time I've seen her since our last meeting. Although I haven't seen Noriyuki Tazawa since before the break, he lives in Tome so he didn't have to come very far. On the other hand, I'm very surprised to see Tsuyoshi Ikeda, who looks like death warmed over from his chemotherapy, but it's good to see that he, too, is making an effort.
"Hey, Ikezawa," Naomi calls out to me as I step into the club room, "glad you could make it!"
I glance over at Naomi, who's sitting next to Natsume at the table in the front of the room, and smile slightly. After that, I look out at the rest of the members and say, "G-good afternoon." Even as it comes out, I realize that I don't think I've ever called out like that before. Before I can even start to wonder if it was a mistake, the heads of everyone else in the room turn towards me. Takako turns away quickly for some reason, and the other girls soon follow her example, but both Tsuyoshi's and Noriyuki's gazes remain on me for a few seconds. I reach up to my lock of hair automatically as I move to take my usual seat near the far door of the room.
"All right," Naomi says, sounding a bit flustered herself, "since we're all here, we can start."
"Before we do, Inoue," Noriyuki says in an annoyed tone, "I'm wondering why this meeting was even called. It's still over a week before classes even start, and you were supposed to be gone for a while longer."
I see Natsume glaring at Noriyuki, but it's Naomi who answers him. "Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control," she says sadly, "my trip had to be cut short." I shrink a bit at that, knowing I bear some responsibility for it, but neither of the club officers even so much as glances at me. "So, I know it's kinda short notice, Tazawa," she continues, shifting back to her more typical casual tone, "but Ooe and I thought maybe it would be cool if we could have another issue ready when everybody gets back. We've got the Sports Festival coming up, and I heard Hamaguchi had an idea about doing an article on Ibarazaki." Naomi glances at Takako, and following her gaze I can see the first-year staring straight ahead, not looking back at her. "I figured the rest of us could brainstorm some other articles and whatever."
Noriyuki slumps back in his chair. "Oh, is that all? When Hamaguchi called me, she made it sound urgent or something. Not like I've been thinking about this stuff anyway, but..."
"I'm afraid that might be my fault," Natsume says, bowing slightly. "I did have an urgent matter to discuss with Hamaguchi herself, so perhaps that was the source of the misunderstanding." Everyone's heads turn to Takako, who continues to stare straight ahead. Now I understand why Tsuyoshi felt he needed to come, too. "If you're truly not interested in being here, Tazawa, you're welcome to leave."
Although Natsume's tone is even, the look in her eyes is quite heavy. The temperature in the room drops as everyone's eyes turn to Noriyuki. He draws a breath and leans forward as if he's about to challenge her, but then apparently decides against it. Instead, he sits back in his seat and crosses his arms with a dark look on his face. "Nah, I'm already here. Might as well stick around."
"Okay, Tazawa, thanks," Naomi says. "What about you, Ikeda? I know you've been kinda out of the loop lately, but sometimes that works for the creative juices, right? Whaddya got for me?"
"Hm," Tsuyoshi says, digging for something in his bag. "Thought you might." He pulls out an envelope and reaches out to place it on the table. "Sorry it's handwritten."
"Don't worry, that's why we have Taka-Taka," Natsume says with a glance at the girl in question, who is now staring at the ceiling.
"What's the topic?" Naomi asks brightly as she pulls the envelope towards her.
"Obon at Yamaku," Tsuyoshi says flatly. "Why no recognition? You know, that. Best I could do on short notice."
"Well, thanks...but...um, you didn't need to push yourself," Naomi says quietly, and for a second I swear I see a tinge of red come to her cheeks. "I mean, we only want it out by the start of term, so we've got a few days."
"Yeah, so now he'll just write three more," Noriyuki mutters. Natsume shoots him another glare but says nothing. She follows up by looking in my direction and nodding once, which is her signal to ask me if I have anything to contribute. Since I didn't even know this was coming, I've had no time to think, so I just shake my head. She turns to Naomi and does the same.
"Guess that's it, then!" Naomi says cheerfully. "Don't want to keep you all anymore. Next meeting on Monday, but if you have any ideas before that shoot 'em over to me or Ooe, right?" A few random murmurs of assent follow, along with some grumbling from Noriyuki. "Right! Meeting adjourned!"
With the meeting done, I finally start on the lunch I'd bought. When I lift my head after the first bite, Takako has already disappeared. Tsuyoshi and Noriyuki head out shortly thereafter, chatting with each other. I see more than hear Tsuyoshi laughing at something, and I smile a little, too. I continue eating, and consider hanging around to get some more time with the archives. The whole time, there's a quietly intense conversation happening between the two officers and Misaki. I can't hear any of it, but when it's over the latter nods curtly and leaves, her eyes flashing with anger.
Naomi watches Misaki leave, then turns back to Natsume and I hear her ask something like "Was that necessary?" Natsume sighs visibly and closes her eyes, and Naomi then leaves as well. I look back at Natsume, and she looks almost as tired as Tsuyoshi did, rubbing at her eyes with her fingers. When she puts her glasses back on, she looks over to me and gestures for me to come to the table. Hesitantly, I walk over to where she's sitting, stopping a few feet in front of her. "A-are you all right, Natsume?"
Surprisingly, Natsume lowers her head in my direction. "I'm the one who should be asking you that, I think. It seems I've failed you, Hanako."
That surprises me even more, and I take a half-step backwards. "F-failed...me?"
Natsume lifts her head to look at me. "I've said it before, haven't I? We're comrades in this club, and we should do what we can for each other. Therefore, I must apologize for not doing everything I could to secure your love for Hisao Nakai. Forgive me."
What is she saying?
My anxiety starting to rise, I stand in front of Natsume pulling on my hair, not understanding the nature of this apology. Finally, I recover enough to say, "I d-don't understand."
"It is said that it is a poor artist who blames her tools for her failure," Natsume says cryptically. "Therefore I must take responsibility for placing my trust poorly while I was away. I thought Taka-Taka understood, but she is only a first-year after all, so it was my mistake to ask too much of her. As for Misaki...well, in the end, she's not really one of us. Perhaps, had I stayed behind instead of going with Naomi, we might have fared better."
At this point, Natsume might as well be speaking Sanskrit for all that I'm following her. Still, I think I get the general idea, so I say, "No...none of this was y-your fault. It w-was..."
Natsume raises a hand to stop me and sets her mouth firmly. "Hanako, if you don't allow me to take responsibility for my own actions, I'll be very disappointed." I blink at her a couple of times in surprise until the corners of her mouth twitch upward. "Never mind. If you don't feel I owe you an apology, who am I to argue?" She spreads her hands and leans back in her chair. "Besides, it appears that you're well on your way to getting over him already."
I back up another half-step at that remark, bumping against a desk in the process. Does she really think that's true? "But...I don't..."
Natsume interrupts again, saying, "I expected you to be much more upset over the matter. After hearing your story yesterday, I was frankly surprised to even see you at the café, much less at this meeting. During our trip, Naomi was concerned that you might shut yourself up in your room for days if something like this were to happen, yet here you are, having a conversation with me. Either you've got a deep reserve of strength, or perhaps your feelings for Nakai weren't what any of us presumed. Those aren't mutually exclusive, but I'm curious as to which it might be."
Again, I have trouble responding. Looking at myself as objectively as I can, it's easy to see how Natsume can say that. Naomi's concerns aren't far off from how I used to think things would go if Hisao rejected me. Even as it was happening, somewhere in the back of my mind I kept expecting myself to break, or at least more than I actually did. Maybe it was because of what Noriko had told me earlier, but I remember everything feeling a bit...muted. Even when Hisao threw his coffee can I only shrank back into myself for a few moments.
"Hmmm..." Natsume leans forward again. "I suppose 'conversation' was an overstatement, then. It's certainly understandable if you don't know the answer yourself. Still, it looks like you've changed quite a bit this summer. I, for one, am pleased to see it. I hope this means you'll be a full contributor to this club from now on."
This conversation is beginning to remind me of riding in Akira's car. "I'm still not s-sure I...understand."
Natsume smiles, an unusual gesture for her. "Hanako, if we'd had this conversation, say, a month ago, you wouldn't have even looked at me for the length of it. You would have been constantly tugging at your hair, looking off to the side or down at the ground. A year ago, if I'd even spoken to you, you probably would have run off to the library or the toilet or something." She closes her eyes and sighs. "You did that to me a couple of times, so I know it well."
I nod in acknowledgement of her statement, and I wonder again at when and how I came to this point. "I'm s-sorry," I say, being careful not to avert my eyes as I do.
"Nothing to be sorry for!" Natsume retorts sharply. "I may not know your reasons for being the way you are, but I'm not insensitive to it like most people in this godforsaken place." She shifts slightly in her seat, which is accompanied by a mild groan of discomfort. When she's settled again, she continues, "That said, I'll admit to refraining from assigning you heavier tasks in deference to your issues. I wasn't sure what you could handle, that sort of thing."
So, Natsume was being considerate of me, too. The long line of people who have had to accommodate me, even here at Yamaku, has just become a little longer. While there are times when I appreciate it, it's times like this, when someone makes a point of bringing it up, that are particularly demoralizing. It also makes me appreciate someone like Hisao, who always knew how to do things for me in ways that only I'd be aware of. I incline my head toward Natsume, in part so that she doesn't see the expression on my face, but my bitterness leaks out through my voice anyway. "In that case, I h-hope I can...live up to your expectations."
"So do I, now that I actually have some." I lift my head with a slight gasp, but Natsume holds up a hand. "Not because I thought you were incapable or anything. I mean, literally, that I did not know what to expect when you joined this club. You might have quit after one meeting, or become a ghost member, or you might have worked harder than anyone here. None of those would have surprised me. The fact that it was
none of those, on the other hand, did
surprise me a bit."
Damn it, Natsume, give me time to process all this!
"I'm still n-not sure I..."
Natsume looks at me and sighs. "That, too, doesn't surprise me." Slowly, she pushes herself up out of her seat and retrieves her cane from its resting place. "For now, just think about what you'd like to write for our next issue. Or, at least, what you'd like to contribute
. I'll see you on Monday." She turns around with a curt wave and walks out the door, leaving me to work out what she meant by all of that. For now, I decide that it's not going to happen in my current frame of mind. I look down at my half-eaten lunch and realize that I've lost my appetite, so I dispose of what's left and leave the club room.
Making my way along the path, I can't help but reflect on what Natsume said. I may have been feeling empty since yesterday, but it hasn't kept me from going about my normal tasks. My anxiety has started to rise, but not enough to be any more than an annoyance. But...why?
are my feelings?
I hear the sound of someone running, and I realize I've stopped moving right in the middle of the path. I look up, and once again I've been cursed by the gods of coincidence, because the person running towards me is Emi. This is not a conversation I was prepared to have, and I silently express a fervent hope that she feels the same way. However, when she notices me she slows down, coming to a stop a few paces away. "Oh...uh, Hanako...um..." Looking at her face, it's obvious that she was indeed as unprepared for this meeting as I was.
Why didn't you just keep running?
"E-Emi...I..." is all that comes out of my mouth. We both laugh nervously, followed by a similarly synchronized silence. For a moment, I feel like I'm rooted to the spot, but I don't sense any panic rising within me. It seems that I still don't have anything I have to go do.
Emi looks away from me, tracing lines on the ground with her shoe. Everything seems to slow down as she scrunches up her face in thought, then she visibly swallows before looking back at me. "Are you...um...all right, Hanako?"
"Y-yes...I'm sorry," I say unnecessarily. "No...I m-mean..." I shake my head, both in negation and to try and clear it a little. "I...shouldn't have g-gotten in your way..."
There's a pause for a moment, and then Emi says, "Seriously
?" I look up, and I see Emi smiling at me. It's more than a little disconcerting. She takes a step closer and says, "You're talking about Hisao, right? Not the running part?" I nod in agreement, and Emi sighs. "If anything, it kinda feels like I got in your
way. I mean, yeah, I had a crush on him for forever, but you spent all that time with him, too. You're furious with me, right?"
Should I be?
"N-no, it's...fine. I sh-should be congratulating you. You...won, after all."
Emi looks a little confused at that. "Eh? Won? I don't think..." She thinks for another moment before looking at me curiously. "Yeah, I suppose maybe you might have thought that I was thinking like that, since I..." I can see her cheeks start to flush a bit, which I find odd. "It's just...I don't think it's really about winning
, is it? I mean, it's not like it was a competition."
But it felt that way to me.
"Hanako, believe me, if it was
a competition, you would have beat me in a landslide. I was a mess these past couple of weeks. Heck, I couldn't even figure out if I should even be trying
to get together with Hisao. If anything, I was trying harder not
to for most of it. Heh, maybe that whole playing hard to get thing works after all, except I wasn't playing."
Emi smiles, and it almost looks sad. I start to wonder if I should have gotten out of bed at all this morning, because I just keep getting more and more lost. "I d-don't understand," I say, for what feels like the thousandth time today.
"I'm not sure I do either, Hanako," she replies, looking a little more serious. "I guess...I just hope you didn't get hurt too much."
"B-but you...you were hurt by it, too! I sh-should have known, and..."
"...and stepped aside?" Emi says, looking away as she does. Not expecting that kind of understanding, I stare at her, open-mouthed. "Eheh, I guess we both thought about breaking our agreement, didn't we?"
I close my eyes, and for some reason I feel a little lighter for hearing that. "Emi...Hisao t-told me something yesterday. He said that...y-you helped him feel alive again. If th-that's true, then...I...c-can't fault him for choosing you. I knew that...if anyone could k-keep him alive, it was you."
Emi looks surprised now. "Yeah...that's right, you did say that the other day. You may not want to hear this, but I think that was what made me not want to give up on him, either. Without that, I don't think I'd have had the courage to tell him how I felt...even if the actual confession was kind of an accident." Emi turns away as she says the last part, and her voice is a little quieter. "So...I think I owe you a lot, Hanako. Thank you."
I gasp slightly at her words, but at the same time an odd warmth starts to grow within me. Without knowing it, I'd helped make two people who have become very important to me happy. It's not the first time, and this time hurts a little more, but I suppose it's not such a bad outcome. I wonder if it will work out better this time. I start to say "Y-you don't..." but Emi interrupts me.
"Hanako, I'm...um...kinda in a hurry right now," she says with a chuckle. "But maybe later...well...um...I know you and Lilly aren't really getting along right now, but I've been learning lately that it's really important to have someone who'll listen to you. Maybe one of these days, if you want..." She trails off, looking a little flustered, but then picks up as she continues, "Well, right now, I guess I just hope that you still consider me your friend."
I stare at Emi for a moment, blinking. I wasn't sure what I expected, but it wasn't that. "Th-thank you," I say quietly. "I...yes, I do."
I really do.
Emi lets out a breath, which I think she was holding since she stopped talking before. After that, she smiles brightly again. "Glad to hear it! So...we'll talk again soon, okay?" Before I can open my mouth to answer, Emi is already halfway down the path, and her call of "Later, Hanako!" echoes among the buildings. I watch for a few more seconds, and I see her entering the boys' dorm.
So that's how it is. It's that kind of relationship after all.
I let out a heavy sigh, moving off to the side of the path to sit down on the grass. I glance off in the direction of the boys' dorm again, the empty feeling returning once more. I feel like, just as I'm starting to step outside myself, the world around me has moved even further away. Hisao, especially, has run far ahead of me, but perhaps I should have expected that all along. On that night when Lilly rode away from us, when I finally found the courage to reach out and pull him up, I wanted to believe that we could move forward together. Instead, he kept climbing right on past me, and when I tried to follow, I just wound up making mistakes. I could feel the distance getting wider, and in trying to cover it my mistakes just kept getting bigger.
Then came the biggest one of all.
I always knew that someday, someone would want to be with me in that way. Until the day I invited Hisao to my room, I'd never really had those kinds of thoughts myself. Even in my fantasies, it never went much beyond holding each other, perhaps exchanging a light kiss while we did.
But that day...something...changed
. The dreams began to have more and more of a tactile component, and I could feel things where I hadn't since the accident. I didn't quite understand at first, maybe because I'd never talked with anyone about sex. The closest I came was during a meeting with the nurse shortly after I started attending here. While his office was an appropriate place for a panic attack, he never made any mention of the subject after that. Since then, I'd read enough to know the basics, but it had always seemed to be somewhere in the distance. Now that it no longer does, it just adds to the emptiness.
Like everything else this summer, I'm just a little bit out of synch.
Even if everything had worked out differently, though, would he have wanted me like I am now? He said Emi showed him how to live again, and I can only think that I would have held him back from that. If that was what he needed, I don't have that kind of ability. All I could have done was pull him down to my own level, content to exist from one day to the next. Is that even living?
That thought brings me out of my reverie, and I must have been here for a while because the shadows are already pretty long. Just as I'm about to stand up, I hear a vaguely familiar voice from a few feet away from me say, "Miss Ikezawa?" I turn to see Takako Hamaguchi sitting next to me, a curious look on her face. Her tone and method of address are oddly formal, and I instinctively shrink away at the intrusion.
I wonder how long she's been sitting there.
Takako awkwardly levers herself off the ground and turns to me with a similarly formal bow. "I am sorry if I startled you. I assure you that it wasn't my intention."
I stand up as well, brushing the grass from my pants. "It's f-fine," I say, curious myself as to why she's here. "D-did you have some...business with m-me, Hamaguchi?"
If she's going to be formal, so should I.
"Yes, I do. I've been informed that I owe you an apology."
I'm not sure how many apologies I've gotten lately, but it's starting to get a bit ridiculous. Even worse, she just said she was informed
she owed me one? I guess it's good that she's being honest, but... "Informed? Is this...r-related to the club in some way?"
"I can understand why you'd be confused," Takako says, frowning. "I really would have preferred to avoid this discussion, but after speaking with Miss Ooe earlier, I realized that probably wouldn't be possible. It seems that I may have..." She draws a breath and says the next part stiffly, like she's standing in front of the class giving a presentation. "...misused my position as a member of the newspaper club to the detriment of a fellow club member." Takako turns her face to look at me again. "As you know, Miss Ooe takes such things very seriously, and has placed me in your care in regard to my continuing membership in the club."
I take a moment to parse that sentence. This is obviously of a piece with what Natsume was saying earlier, but I don't understand the part about club membership. Although we've only spoken a few times, I've found that Takako Hamaguchi is very careful about what she says – or, more precisely, is very careful about how
she says what she says. Still unable to think of what might be behind all this, I answer as neutrally as I can. "I'm n-not sure what you mean."
"Of course you wouldn't," Hamaguchi says with a thoughtful expression. "Perhaps I should start from the beginning. You are aware that Ooe intended to support your relationship with Hisao Nakai, right?"
"Yes," I reply. It wasn't just today's discussion, either. I remember the talk we had at the café, when they told me about Emi and Hisao kissing, and told me I should do something about it. When I said I didn't know what I would do, Natsume seemed almost angry then, too. All in all, the whole matter seems strange.
Takako smiles wryly. "I'm afraid I crossed Miss Ooe on that count." She closes her eyes and adds, "And you as well, Miss Ikezawa. That is why I must apologize."
I stand there looking at her for a while, neither of us saying anything. This is doing nothing to alleviate the lack of understanding I have of either Natsume or, now, Takako. Having already accepted my own failure at getting Hisao to return my feelings, apparently I'm now being asked to believe that this girl was actively working against me somehow. I shake my head again against the mass of rapidly accumulating cobwebs and say, "Crossed...h-how?"
Takako sighs, rolling her eyes a bit. "Miss Ooe called it 'aiding and abetting the enemy'. I passed information to Mister Nakai under the guise of interviewing him for the newspaper, for an article on Miss Ibarazaki that was not on our agenda. She believes that the information likely led directly to the two of them becoming a couple, as I confirmed with my own eyes this morning. She feels that, had I not done that, your own bid might have been the one accepted instead." She sighs again, then continues, "I...respectfully disagreed. It was then that I was advised to come to you directly and apologize. So, here I am. I leave the matter in your hands, Miss Ikezawa," she finishes, bowing deeply.
I wait for a moment, but Takako doesn't raise her head. The thoughts in my head stubbornly refuse to stop spinning. I'm not sure what kind of information she might have had that would bring Hisao and Emi together, but given how things worked out, would it have mattered? If it did matter, would I have wanted it to? I don't have any answers to any of it, but maybe there's one I can
get. "H-Hamaguchi...if that's t-true, then...why?"
Finally, Takako raises her head to face me. "Because I wanted to help Miss Ibarazaki," she says matter-of-factly and without hesitation. "She seemed very somber when I saw her the other day, so I promised her I would do what I could to improve her mood. It seems I was successful," she finishes with a wistful smile.
It's a sentiment I can understand, even if it's one I've never actually been able to carry out all that well. "In that case, there's...nothing to apologize for. I'll m-make sure to tell Natsume that."
"Ah, before you go that far, there was another reason for what I did." I look at Takako curiously. "Of course, you know that Miss Ooe wasn't the only one supporting you. Naomi, too, was rooting for your relationship to grow. And that's not all: I've learned from various sources that others were in your corner as well – not just your friend Miss Satou, but also your classmate Miss Mikado, among others. Even those who weren't actively cheering you on were aligned against Miss Ibarazaki. Miss Kawana falls into that category, as does Miss Hakamichi. I thought, with all those forces in play, one lone voice calling from the other side of the bleachers wasn't much, but perhaps I have more power than I knew." Takako smiles shyly as she continues, "I hope you can still forgive me, knowing that."
I look at Takako, and I can feel an odd pride coming from her. It's misplaced, I think, because even without her assistance things still would have turned out the same eventually. If anything, if her actions moved things along, that might have been a good thing. "You weren't...trying to hurt me, just to help Emi, r-right?"
Takako looks up at me in surprise. "You're that close to her, after all this?" She casts her eyes down again. "I can't help but feel a bit jealous of you, then." Something clicks inside my head as she says this, but I say nothing. "No, I had no intention of hurting you, just of helping her."
"Then...I stand by what I s-said before. There's n-nothing to apologize for."
Although Takako never looked particularly down, her face noticeably brightens. "I am in your debt, Miss Ikezawa," she says, bowing again. "In that case, please excuse my intrusion." She turns around as if to leave, but then glances back over her shoulder. "I'm quite serious about that, Hanako," she says, jarringly switching back to being familiar. "If there's anything you want me to do for you, let me know."
"A-all right," I say, still feeling a bit out of the loop. "See you l-later, Takako."
"You know, you can call me Taka-Taka if you want," she says with a wink. "Everyone else in the club does already, and I really don't mind it. Being nicknamed after one of your talents isn't such a bad thing after all, is it?" Rather than wait for a reply, she immediately turns around and walks off at a surprisingly fast pace, her long ponytail swinging back and forth as she goes.
That's right, it wouldn't have mattered.
Lilly was right after all. I wasn't ready.
I hadn't given myself a chance to think about that aspect of my conversation the other day with Lilly. I knew I'd gotten angry unnecessarily, but I thought at least a little bit of that anger was justified. After all, things had been going well with Hisao at that point, and the disagreement we'd had really wasn't that significant. I'd simply let my emotions get the better of me, and that was that.
But now, the hindsight is so clear it's enough to make me as blind metaphorically as Lilly is physically. The feeling that I need to apologize to Lilly, to reconcile with her, has become a constant in my life of late. I wonder, though, if my apologies have become as cheap as everyone else's. It's hard to keep myself from thinking that I don't deserve her friendship after all, a feeling that I thought I'd put behind me some time ago.
As I've been standing here thinking, the sky has already begun to turn red. Both Natsume and Taka-Taka have given me a lot to ponder, but I have no idea where it might lead, or if it's even worth going down that path. In the end, I decide that for now, the path I need to follow is the one that leads to the cafeteria, because I've gotten hungry again. Normally, I wouldn't go this late because I'd be too anxious of the attention, but I tell myself that if I'm ever going to catch up with Hisao, or anyone else, I need to get myself past things like that.
I make my way back over to the main building, and when I get to the cafeteria I do the same dance I did at lunch. This time, though, as I turn around I'm nearly trampled by a wild Misha. "Hi~ Hanako!" is Misha's aggressively cheerful greeting. Behind her, I can see Shizune, who's wearing a slightly annoyed expression. "I didn't expect to see you~ here! Were you looking for us, hm? Hmmm~?"
While I wasn't looking for them specifically, I realize that this might be the opportunity I need. "S-sort of," I say. "I...think I'm ready to go m-meet with Lilly."
Shizune smiles at me and adjusts her glasses. "Good! There's something~ that requires your help!"
"R-requires? What do you mean?"
"Let's talk in the Student Council room!" is the reply. "The door is unlocked, so we'll meet you back there!" Shizune immediately begins to stride off towards the counter while Misha hurries to catch up. I slowly head in the other direction, carrying my meal up to the first floor. Entering the Student Council room, I sit at one of the chairs surrounding the table in the front. I don't have to wait long for the duo to return with their own food, and the three of us settle down to eat.
While we partake, things feel awkwardly quiet, and I notice Misha occasionally looking intently in my direction. I wonder if she already knows what's happened and is waiting for her chance to apologize for it like everyone else. Instead, once we're done it's Shizune who starts the conversation with a loud snap of her fingers. With Misha's attention now fully on her, Shizune leans forward slightly as she starts to sign, her eyes shining behind her glasses. "Allow me to fill you in on the matter at hand. My cousin seems to be feeling as low as I've ever seen her. She needs something to cheer her up~, and I don't think that will happen~ without you."
I don't need to ask why
Lilly needs cheering up. The answer is obvious, after all. Even if there's something else involved, what happened the other day between us must be at least part of the reason, and most likely the greater part. I am surprised, however, that Shizune is the one suggesting the idea. I know the two of them have had a bit of a thawing lately, but for her to go this far for her cousin is a real surprise. Under the circumstances, I don't know if my presence would have the intended effect, so I have to ask, "Are you s-sure I should come? I'm...not certain I'd...cheer her up very much."
Shizune scowls slightly as her arms cut through the air. "Of course I am! It's absolutely ne~ ce~ ssa~ ry~!" Shizune looks at me, and her scowl softens a bit. There might even be a hint of embarrassment on her face. "I know you're aware that my cousin and I often disagree~ on things. My~ presence alone would do little to help the situation. In the past, I might have called upon Hisao's aid, but that doesn't seem to be an option. No matter what~ difficulties the two of you have had recently, I know~ with certainty that she would be happy to meet with you again."
"Th-that may be true. But...y-you said you wanted to...cheer her up. I d-don't think...that's what would happen if we met now."
This surprises Shizune a little, as she draws back with her mouth slightly open. After a brief flurry between her and Misha, she faces me again. "You seem to be troubled yourself, Hanako. Perhaps you~ need to be cheered up as well! You think so too, Shicchan?"
For a moment, I stand stock still. I hesitate to call it freezing up – it's more a case of, this being Shizune, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I simply can't picture her being involved in an activity that would cheer someone up, but from the look on her face I think she might actually be sincere. Whether she is or not, the Student Council President is currently serving as Lilly's gatekeeper, so if I want to meet with her, I need to play along. "O-okay," I say hesitantly. "What are you...planning?"
Shizune visibly relaxes, looking rather pleased with herself. "Just as you~ suggested, Hanako! We're going to pay my cousin a visit at my mother's home. It's a rather nice house on the outskirts of the city. I was already planning to take Misha there tomorrow – You were, Shicchan? I'm happy to hear that~! – so it's no problem for you to come as well! Is that all right with you, Hanako?"
I think about the idea for a moment. I realize that I had really been hoping to meet Lilly by myself, maybe at the café near the train station that I've visited a couple of times now. Just thinking about being able to show Lilly something rather than the other way around makes me feel a bit giddy, although I know that's selfish, too. But, if things between us are mended, there will other opportunities to do things like that soon enough. Besides that, every time the two of us have met by ourselves lately has turned out to be a disaster, so perhaps this way will work out better. "Yes," I say firmly. "That's fine with me."
Shizune smiles pleasantly again, and Misha looks downright ecstatic. "Good~! Misha will get in touch with you tomorrow with the details – wait, I will? I guess I will~! – so be ready~!" I start to get out of my chair when I hear the words that Lilly always taught me to dread. "Before you go, perhaps you'd like to play a game~ with us?"
I look over, and see Shizune looking scarily predatory. "Um...n-no thanks. M-maybe another time."
"Awwww," escapes Misha's lips, and Shizune looks a bit crestfallen. Without any further signing from her companion, Misha says, "Guess we'll see you tomorrow, then!"
"R-right. See you...tomorrow." I give a slight bow as I add, "Thank you," before leaving the room.
I only get a few steps when I hear someone behind me. "Hanako?" I pause, and look back to see Misha walking up carefully behind me. She stops a couple of paces away, and I can see a sad look on her face. "I...think I know why you need cheering up," she says in the more serious tone that I've heard only rarely from her. "I hope you'll tell me I'm wrong, but...Hisao rejected you, didn't he?"
Is it that obvious on my face? I guess that doesn't surprise me.
I remember back to a few days ago, when Misha came to the tea room and asked about my feelings for Hisao. It's the same look she had then. "Yes," I say quietly. "I th-think...he and Emi are a c-couple now."
"I'm sorry, Hanako," she says, her usual cheerfulness completely gone. "I was really rooting for you two. I think you could have been good for each other. Not..." For a moment, it seems like she might continue, but then she closes her eyes for a moment, and when she opens them her usual smile bubbles to the surface. "I hope tomorrow cheers you up, too~! Take care, Hanako!" Misha retreats to the Student Council room at a run, and I turn around, resuming my walk back to my room.
If it does, it will be a miracle.