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Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Wed Jun 24, 2015 2:26 pm
by HoneyBakedHam
You should. It's not a classic or even an instant classic, like Developments, but it is definitely a good current series to read. I'd say it's the Nisekoi of our fanfics here.

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Wed Jul 08, 2015 4:49 am
by forgetmenot
*sighs loudly*

I suppose it's time for that one errant comment I leave every now and then around these parts. Promise it won't take too long.

Everything that's happened in these past few chapters is absolutely lovely. Truly. Mayoi getting her happy ending (although it's a bummer she's leaving), Hanako making new friends, Emi and Meiko making up (as well as Meiko and Goro getting engaged) - it's all been a treat to read. Anything I'd have to say about the contents of these chapters would be nitpicking at best. They're well thought-out thematically and they make sense as far as tying up loose ends go. Really, well done.

However (and this is probably best taken with an entire shaker's worth of salt), I fail to see why these chapters exist in the grand scheme of things. I've sat back and tried to defend "to give all the characters the happy ending and resolution they deserve" to myself, but I just don't see it working, at least not in a dramatic sense.

Let me illustrate what I'm talking about. Developments started off as very much an Emi vs. Hanako "who will win the heart of our intrepid hero, who is for some reason Hisao" kinda thing. Cool, I'm tracking with ya. Then there's some character development amongst our protagonists, which affects the swing of the Emi vs. Hanako pendulum. This, too, makes sense to me.

Then Lilly decides to return to Yamaku! Awesome. This completely flips the entire premise of the story on its head. Now instead of Emi vs. Hanako, it's a weird sorta love quadrangle. A good dramatic wrinkle. More character development ensues; Lilly quickly falls out of contention (which is still all well and good). Back to Emi vs. Hanako.

Then, something weird happens. Hisao chooses Emi. And, just like that, the entire premise of Developments is finished. The dramatic arc is sealed with a kiss, as it were.

And yet there are seven more chapters of denouement that exist for some reason? More to the point, they have little to do with anything other than niceties regarding stuff that was left unfinished during the main arc. I dunno. Giving everyone the happy ending you want them to have is certainly more forgivable in fanfiction, which is, at its core, a form of wish fulfillment.

Maybe Developments evolved over the course of its life, and I was too dumb to pick up on it.

Maybe there was no good way to finish the story if Hisao just up and picks Emi or Hanako. I certainly can't think of one (but you are already aware of my early crackpot theories that ended with a single, yet more independent and self-assured Hisao).

Maybe I'm just up too late and should go to bed.

In any case, don't let my ramblings distract you too much from finishing up your story as you've envisioned it. This is a monumental achievement any way you slice it. After all, The Lord of the Rings ended about five hundred different times after Sauron's defeat and it's still regarded as a classic. Congratulations.

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Wed Jul 08, 2015 10:04 am
by dewelar
forgetmenot wrote:*sighs loudly*

I suppose it's time for that one errant comment I leave every now and then around these parts. Promise it won't take too long.
No worries. The fact that your comments often skew in a different direction is what makes them some of the most interesting, so thanks again for that :). As always, I do appreciate the kind words, but this time I'm going to have to get a bit harsh right back...
Then, something weird happens. Hisao chooses Emi. And, just like that, the entire premise of Developments is finished. The dramatic arc is sealed with a kiss, as it were.


Maybe Developments evolved over the course of its life, and I was too dumb to pick up on it.
Nope, it didn't evolve; this was always where it was supposed to go. I know I've said it before, but this arc was never more than the hook on which to hang the real story of Developments. It's right there in this thread's OP:
OP wrote:The general concept of this story is that it follows Hanako, Hisao, and other KS characters as they deal with the aftermath of the aforementioned ending.
This is all still a part of that. Sure, you can argue that in order to fully do that I'd have to pull a brythain and tell everyone's story forever, and honestly you'd be right. However, I will leave that to someone else to do if they so desire. Ch.60 (now at over 15K words and counting :shock:) will be the conclusion to the part of the story I needed to tell.
In any case, don't let my ramblings distract you too much from finishing up your story as you've envisioned it. This is a monumental achievement any way you slice it. After all, The Lord of the Rings ended about five hundred different times after Sauron's defeat and it's still regarded as a classic. Congratulations.
Heh...that might actually be an apt comparison, storytelling-wise. After all, The Lord of the Rings wasn't meant to be primarily about the war or the One Ring, either. Leaving "The Scouring of The Shire" out makes it a different story altogether, and IMO a lesser one.

Thanks again for sticking with me all the way through!

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Wed Jul 08, 2015 10:39 am
by brythain
dewelar wrote:Sure, you can argue that in order to fully do that I'd have to pull a brythain and tell everyone's story forever, and honestly you'd be right.

If I told everyone's story forever at the level of detail you, my dear colleague, have done — well, I'd be able to cram in a couple more PhD theses, qualify for the Bar in several states, write a history of Northern Asian literature that would include Russia, and still have room to spare. :D

I thank you, however, for raising my name to that level. 8)

Apart from that, I have the feeling that you probably have occasional twinges of wanting to do a director's cut official version of Developments some day. Do as you will, but as you said at the end of AtD proper — and as I will soon be saying to you in similar words, "It'll take a while before I really know where this ... fits in the pantheon of KS stories, but firmly in the upper echelon, by my reckoning."

60 is a great number too, for so many reasons.

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Wed Jul 08, 2015 1:17 pm
by forgetmenot
dewelar wrote:Nope, it didn't evolve; this was always where it was supposed to go. I know I've said it before, but this arc was never more than the hook on which to hang the real story of Developments.
Well, that's fair enough. If it's always the story you wanted to tell, nobody can fault you for it.

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Wed Jul 15, 2015 3:28 am
by Solistor
This chapter's heartwarming and I love it and I love you

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Fri Jul 31, 2015 4:16 pm
by dewelar
Just to let everyone know I haven't entirely dropped off the face of the planet, here's an update. First order of business:
Solistor wrote:This chapter's heartwarming and I love it and I love you
Ah...warms my heart, it does...

Anyway, I know I haven't been on the boards lately, mainly because I have wanted to focus on this chapter exclusively. Unfortunately, that has meant that I've been unable to post during the YBC's Iwanako Month (I've already kissed Leaty's ring, so it's all good). However, at long last, Ch.60 is nearing readiness, and right now I'm looking at posting sometime on Monday in all its 23,000-word (give or take) lengthiness. There will be a special surprise coming along with the chapter as well, so hopefully it'll all be worth the wait!

After that, there will be one more piece to Developments before this particular story comes to its conclusion. Thanks as always to all of the commenters and lurkers in this thread for making it the great big ball of fun it's been for me!

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.59 posted 6/1

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 11:59 am
by SirKaid
After that, there will be one more piece to Developments before this particular story comes to its conclusion.
As much as a part of me always cries out "more, more!" a solid conclusion to an enjoyable tale is always a joy to see. There's no question in my mind that this will be that, so I shall look to Monday with eager anticipation.

Developments, Chapter 60 (Part 1)

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 12:16 pm
by dewelar
All right, everyone, here it is -- the final full chapter of Developments. As promised, there's something connected to this being posted by none other than Leaty, who has written a story called Bantamweights that...well, I don't want to call it a prequel per se, but it fits neatly into this continuity, and substantially influenced characters and events that appear in this chapter. I definitely suggest you read it, as it might provide some insight into things. Also, thanks to Leaty for doing proofreading and other good stuff for this chapter! Anyway, enjoy!


Of all the nights for this to happen...

It's Monday morning, a few hours after the date changed, and I'm sitting in my chair watching Emi sleep. I've been accused of enjoying watching girls sleep before, and while there's some truth to it, that's not why I'm doing it. The medicines I'm taking for my heart condition do this to me from time to time, and will do so for the foreseeable future. Still, from where I'm sitting, that future is starting to seem bright for the first time in months.

It seemed like yesterday went a lot better for Emi than she expected. Considering how nervous I was, I wasn't even sure how nervous she was. We both needed a breather after that, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's also contributing to my sleeplessness. It was nice to have Emi fall asleep in my arms, but extricating myself from that position wasn't exactly easy. Still, there are worse things to do as the dawn approaches than to look at the peaceful face of the girl I love.

I wonder if I'd have been able to sleep if we hadn't decided to abstain last night.

Although I agreed with Emi, I didn't feel like my heart was particularly problematic at the time. If anything, I felt a lot better physically than I ever did during my time with Lilly. Despite my fragility, we were still indulging her healthy adolescent sex drive pretty frequently, and thinking back I almost wonder if, beyond just letting myself be a leaf, I might have had a subconscious death wish.

Actually, maybe it was something more insidious than that. I've read my share of manga, watched my share of anime, where the main character is taken away from their old life. When it happens, they expend a lot of energy trying to return to it, or at least complaining about how they want it back. I thought I'd acclimatized to my new life, but maybe subconsciously I was sabotaging myself in order to stay closed off from everyone around me. After all, if I had opened up to Lilly and not held back, that would have meant closing the door on my old life. Now, thanks in no small part to Emi, I'm ready to take that last step, and lock that door.

Just then, I hear "Mmm..." from the direction of my bed. Emi doesn't move just yet, but I hear her murmur, "There's no Hisao next to me. Why isn't there a Hisao next to me?"

I smile at the early-morning teasing. "Sorry about that. I couldn't sleep, and I didn't want to keep you awake tossing and turning."

Emi frowns, opening one eye to look at me. "Did you get any sleep at all?"

Sighing heavily, I admit, "I dozed on and off in this chair. Maybe two or three hours, all told?"

Emi props herself up on one elbow. "I know I don't have to tell you this, but you're going to be seriously stiff." In response, I stretch my legs out without getting up from the chair and start flexing my arms. She fights back a giggle, but then switches to a sympathetic look. "Nervous about today?"

"Yeah, a little," I say honestly, "but I think it's just my medication messing with me."

"That's gotta be a pain in the ass," Emi says undiplomatically. She stretches languidly as she sits up, then she looks at the clock. "Almost time. You gonna be okay to run this morning, Hisao?"

With everything else going on, I'd nearly forgotten about that. "What happened to making sure I get to my parents' house in one piece?" I say teasingly. Before I can react, I get clobbered by my own pillow. "Hey!"

"You awake now, Hisao?" Emi taunts.

With nothing at hand with which to counter-attack, I settle for one of Emi's usual retorts and stick out my tongue. "Yeah, yeah, fine. Do you need to get anything from your room?"

Emi pushes the covers off herself, and I do a double take. She's wearing a T-shirt that I dug out for her last night when she had to use the bathroom, and it seems to have entirely swallowed her up. It's very cute. "Nope, got everything I need right there," she says, pointing to her duffel bag. She looks over at me with mischief in her eyes and says, "I'll leave it up to you if you want to watch me change."

Not taking my eyes off her, I answer, "If I didn't want to catch an early train, I'd take you up on that."

Emi playfully tosses the other pillow at me, but this time I'm able to dodge. "You're not turning into an old man on me already, are you?" I pick this one up and toss it back at her, and things quickly devolve into an intense, but sadly brief, make-out session. Once we've recovered, we both change into our running clothes, Emi puts on her legs, and we make our way down to the track at a brisk walk.

Despite my exertion and the lack of sleep, I still feel pretty good, and I even catch myself humming as we stretch out. I know some of that is adrenaline, so I consider asking about shortening our session. When we finish warming up, though, Emi surprises me when she asks, "Do you mind if I run with you today, Hisao?"

I raise an eyebrow as we walk over to the track. "You mean no sprinting?" Before Emi answers, I ask, "Is this another one of those experiment days?"

"I could say that," she grins, "but I'd be lying. Actually, I got some good extra sprints in yesterday afternoon before we went to my house." I frown at her slightly, but she just smiles mysteriously. "Don't worry, everything was fine – at least as fine as you staying awake all night worrying."

I flinch a little at the direct hit. "Well, I can't say I mind. It makes it easier for me to keep an eye on you, after all."

Surprisingly, Emi doesn't react to that. Then, once we start to warm up, she gets an odd look on her face. After we finish the first lap, she says in a slightly halting voice, "Hisao...what would you think if...well, if I told you that I might not run competitively anymore, how would you feel about that?"

I don't say anything right away because the question shocks me. Running always seemed to me to come as naturally to Emi as breathing. "What's this about all of a sudden?"

"Heh, I know, right? It's something I've know, thinking about, and I just wanted to know if you'd think it was weird for me to do."

After I think about it for half a lap, I reply, "Well, I guess it would depend on your reason for stopping."

There's another extended pause, and as we finish the third lap, Emi takes a deep breath. Then, the words start to pour out of her. "Well, first of all, I don't know if I'm actually going to stop, and it's not like I'd stop running with you, just competitively. I just know that I'm not going to be the Fastest Thing on No Legs forever, and eventually, I'm going to have to make a living for myself, and...ugh." Emi finally pauses to take a breath, and when she turns to face me she looks apologetic. "Sorry, I didn't really want to make it about this, but mainly I want to try and go to university with you, or at least near where you go." She turns to me with a serious look in her eyes. "I've been playing catch-up for eight years now, Hisao. I don't want to have to do that anymore. From now on, I want us to keep up with each other, which means..." She sighs again and looks away. "...which means I need to start putting in some hard work over the next few months, so that I have the best chance at us breaking that tape together. So, promise me you won't run away from me while I do that, okay?"

That's an answer I don't need to think about. "I promise," I reply, smiling. "I already told you I'd stay with you, remember?"

Emi leans into me and puts her arm around my waist, and for a moment it's like we're running the three-legged race without even being tied together. "I remember."

After a few strides like that, we go back to normal. It isn't long before I recall something Emi said yesterday. "Is that what the whole thing with Lilly is about? Because you know I'd..."

"Stop right there, Hisao," Emi says firmly. "I know what you're going to say, and it won't work. Just like I told Lilly, if you were tutoring me, there's no way I'd be able to concentrate."

"Yeah, that's true," I say with a chuckle. "Come to think of it, neither would I."

Emi shifts to her brilliant grin. "Well, I figured that went without saying. Now, outside of studying, be prepared to spend every waking moment with your bombshell beauty of a girlfriend!"

"Heh...I'll do my best," I say, returning her grin.

"Good to hear it! So, Hisao, do you know what schools you'll be applying to yet? I...kinda want an idea of what I should be looking at."

I cringe, realizing I hadn't given that subject nearly as much thought as I should have by now. "Well, I'm not sure I'll be able to get into a top school, so I'll probably be applying to several different ones. Once classes start again I'll talk to Mutou and see what he thinks."

Emi sighs. "There's only four months until the exams, so let me know as soon as you can, okay? Once you do, I can talk to Nurse about what I need to do. He's got a better handle on what I want than any of the teachers."

I nod, saying, "Yeah, that makes sense. You might want to check in with Yuuko, too. She's been through the whole process pretty recently, and there's a lot of material in the library."

"That's not a bad idea, Hisao. I've already started getting brochures down in the administrative offices, but I kinda feel like I'm in a little over my head." Emi veers to her left to nudge me with her hip. "If you'd started running with me sooner like you were supposed to, you would've saved me all this grief now!"

I roll my eyes at her. "Eh, I blame Nurse. If you'd known about my heart, you'd have never run ahead of me that day, and I might not have bailed on you."

Emi looks away from me for a moment. "You're giving me too much credit, Hisao. I don't think it would've mattered – not until I figured things out." When she looks back at me, there's a small smile on her face again. "I guess we should be happy it worked out like it did. I mean, if you had tried to keep up with me, you probably would've been right back in the hospital."

"Yeah, probably," I say, laughing. "Then again, back then I was more interested in having a peaceful life. I was more likely to die from inactivity than..." Emi blanches when I say that, and I hold back the rest of that sentence. "Sorry, I didn't mean..."

"No, Hisao," she says, holding up a hand, "it's not your fault. It's something I've got to get used to. Maybe I should ask Lilly how she does it – how she doesn't get bothered when people say things like that."

That nearly makes me stumble. "I think you've got the wrong idea. I know Lilly says it doesn't bother her, but I think she's just learned how to hide it better than most people."

Emi looks at me curiously for a moment. "Huh. I don't think I want to learn that, then. I've done enough hiding in my life already." Those are the last words either of us says for the remainder of the routine.

When we sit down on the bleachers, Emi still looks thoughtful. "You sure you don't want to do some sprints?" I say, trying to sound cheerful, but not very successfully. "I mean, well, you look like your head could stand some clearing."

"It's fine, Hisao," she replies, sounding sincere. "Like I said, I'll just have to get used to it. I've just got a lot on my mind right now, you know?" She brings her face closer to mine and says, "I hope you can be a little patient with me again. You're still better at it than I am." I lean in for a kiss, but all my lips touch is the air, because Emi is already up off the bleachers and headed for the auxiliary building. "I'm still better at this, though!" she shouts, and I can't help but grin as I haul myself up to my feet and follow her.

After a cursory check-in with Nurse, during which we tell him our plans and after which he waves us through with a "Get going, already!" we make our way up to my room. The two of us take our showers separately, so as not to lose any more time, and after we both finish packing we're on our way. As we're waiting for the bus, Emi moves a little bit closer to me on the bench. "You know, Hisao," she whispers, "I'm going to be very happy once this is over and I don't have to scratch my own itch so often." I cringe at her phrasing of the situation, but since I'm in the same position I stay silent. "Think there's any chance we can do something about that tonight?"

I shake my head sympathetically. "I seriously doubt that my parents are going to look kindly on you actually being in my room. They're...well, pretty old-fashioned, I guess."

Emi grins mischievously. "Oh, I'm sure we can find some way around it."

As the bus pulls up, I grin back. "Weren't you the one who said it would be good to take a break from that once in a while?"

"I take it back," she replies, sticking out her tongue. Once we've boarded, I notice Emi looking a little serious. "So, this is the first time for you, too, right? Bringing a girlfriend home?"

"Yeah, it is. My parents met Iwanako in the hospital, so the only girl who's ever been in my house was Mai, and back then I figured she barely qualified as a girl." I chuckle a little. "It's hard to believe it's only been six months since I've seen her and my other friends."

Emi starts to fidget a little. "So...what did your parents say when you told them I was coming?"

I'd almost forgotten I hadn't told Emi about that. "Well, I didn't get to talk to Dad, but Mom...well, I think she's still disappointed about what happened with Iwanako. The two of them got pretty close while I was in the hospital, and I guess Mom still keeps in touch with her. She might be a little slower to warm up to you."

Emi stares out the window, and her voice gets quiet. "Your mom really liked Iwanako, huh? Did you tell her you were planning to see her while you're there?"

"Try to see her, but yeah."

Emi's head whips around to look at me. "Whaddya mean, try?"

"Well," I say sheepishly, "I don't know how to get in touch with Iwanako. I used to have her number, but I deleted it back when she sent that letter. So, I just have to hope I can figure out how to get in touch while we're there."

Emi looks at me incredulously. "Don't any of your other friends have it?"

That one sets me cringing again. "I haven't spoken to any of them in six months, remember? I can't exactly just call them out of the blue and ask for my ex-girlfriend's phone number. Mai's the only one who really knew her, and I was planning on sending her a message once we got there. Heh, I remember Takumi told me that he asked her for it once but she wouldn't give it to him."

"So," Emi says, sounding exasperated, "for you to be able to do this thing you need to do, you have to hope that someone you haven't seen or talked to in months is willing to give you Iwanako's number, and then hope she'll answer when you call her?" She sighs heavily and looks out the window. "Forgive me for not having a lot of confidence in this plan of yours, Hisao."

"It's a long shot, yeah. If all else fails, at least you'll get to meet my parents, and get to see...well, part of Tokyo, anyway."

Emi snorts, then settles back in her seat. After a few more moments of scenery-watching, she says, "So, what are your parents like, Hisao? I kinda feel like I don't know anything about them."

I sigh heavily, trying to think of how to describe them. After a while, I come up almost entirely empty. "It's funny, but I'm not even sure I know much about them. Especially the last few years, I spent a lot of time by myself or with friends because they were hardly ever home. I wandered around the city a lot, and had my share of people call me a delinquent for it."

"You, a delinquent? I don't know if I can even imagine that, Hisao." Emi leans in a little closer and peers at me. "Although, come to think of it, you do look a little rough around the edges..."

"Cut it out," I say, gently pushing her away as she giggles. "But no, I wasn't one, really. I knew a few, though, and I didn't care that that's what they were, so I'd hang out with them sometimes. Once you start doing that, you get that label yourself."

"I thought you said you didn't have any more skeletons, Hisao," Emi says with a wink.

"Heh, I don't think that counts. At least my parents never got wind of it – or if they did, they never said anything." I take a deep breath before continuing. "Anyway, there really isn't much to say about them. My dad is pretty much a typical salaryman, although a few years ago he was moved up into middle management, which meant that he was home even less than before. Mom works in public relations for a department store chain. She does a lot of promotional stuff for them, so she's in the city a lot at night." I turn to stare straight ahead before continuing, "When I had my heart attack, I saw more of them that week than I usually would in three months."

Before Emi can respond, the bus pulls up to the stop across from the train station. We pick up our bags, pay our fares and get off. We've only got a few minutes before the next Shinkansen arrives, and Emi looks at me with a wink and says, "You ready for that sprint now, Hisao?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," I reply, and the two of us take off, me running as fast as I dare and Emi loping along comfortably next to me. We make it to the platform about thirty seconds before the train pulls in, but despite my lack of sleep and the fact that I already ran once today, I don't feel like I over-exerted myself. The place is pretty noisy, so when Emi looks at me questioningly I just give her a thumbs-up, and then we're on the train.

As we sit down in an empty bank of seats, Emi says, "It's been a while since I've been on one of these."

"Huh? Doesn't the track club take them to meets?"

"Nah, for track meets we always took a bus." I nod in response. I remember Mai taking the Shinkansen to the occasional judo tournament, so I just thought that was how it was done everywhere. "Last time I was on a train was my last summer break before coming to Yamaku, the last time we visited Mom's parents."

"Where do they live? Your grandparents, I mean."

"They're in Maruko...well, I guess I'm supposed to call it Ueda now. When I was little, my grandfather worked at one of the hot springs there, and I used to love going. The last time we all..." Emi stops for a second, and I'm about to say something when Emi holds a hand up again. I just smile as she takes a deep breath before continuing. "The last time we went there while Dad was still around was for the Olympics in Nagano. His parents even came down from Niigata...well, anyway, that was the last time we were all together. I heard they all came for Dad's funeral...but...well, I wasn't there."

I put my arm around Emi's shoulder, and I can feel her shaking a little, but when I look over no tears are coming out. If anything, she looks more angry than sad. "I remember one of the things that I hated Mom for back then was not moving there before I started middle school. She told me it was because it was too far away, that...that she didn't want to take me away from my life in Sendai, but back then I felt like I had no life in Sendai. We only moved here for Dad's job anyway, so I figured we could just go back." Emi seems to be calming down, resting more of her weight on me as she does. "At least Yamaku finally gave me a chance to start over...and since I met you I guess I really did start over."

"Yeah, you did," I reply, giving Emi a squeeze. After a moment, I amend that. "We both did."

A few more moments pass, the scenery continuing to rush by, until I break the silence again. "You know, this'll be the first time I've been on the Shinkansen in a while, too. When we went to Hokkaido, Hanako insisted on taking one of the older trains. Even when my parents brought me to Yamaku, they drove there so they could make sure to be back in time for work the next day." Emi looks at me oddly, and I'm the one spitting out words now, getting angry without even realizing it, so I consciously stop myself from talking. It's been three months now, so you'd think I'd be fine with them not even saying goodbye to me before they left, but it seems like I'm not.

Maybe I wanted to forget that part, too.

I throw my head back and stare at the roof of the train car. As always, Emi's warmth feels nice against me, and I suddenly notice that she's started stroking my back, which goes a long way toward calming me down.

The next thing I know, I'm being shaken awake. "Hisao? Hisao, we're at Tokyo Station! We're getting off here, aren't we?"

I look over at Emi's concerned face, and I struggle my way back to full consciousness. Given how last night went, I'm not surprised I fell asleep. "Yeah, we are," I say, pushing myself to my feet. Unfortunately, I do so a little too quickly and feel a bit light-headed. In what's becoming a regular occurrence, Emi's right there to stabilize me before I topple over. "Thanks," I say with a smile, and although Emi returns it I can see a hint of apprehension in her eyes. I can't say I blame her.

Of all the days...

As we're walking through the station, Emi catches a glimpse of the transit map and pauses to look at it. Honestly, I'm thankful for the opportunity to stop and regain my senses. "Wow, that's crazy! I feel like I'm looking at a bowl of noodles with all these squiggly lines. It's even worse than the Sendai bus!"

It's then that I realize that this is not only the first time I'm bringing someone home to meet my parents, but also my first time guiding someone through Tokyo. I find myself suddenly wishing I'd spent more time exploring the city instead of just going to the same shopping districts all the time. To divert the conversation, I joke, "Are you trying to make me hungry or something? We can eat lunch when we get to Jiyūgaoka."

"So, lunch at your place? Do you think anyone's gonna be home?"

My brain quickly catches up with her train of thought as we reach the platform for the Keihin-Tōhoku. "I doubt it, but we probably shouldn't take the chance of one of my parents walking in on us."

"I was joking, Hisao," Emi says, sticking her tongue out at me. "This is just payback for last night, isn't it?"

"You know," I say with a grin, "once you actually see my room, you may not be quite so eager."

"Ohhhh, so that's why you never brought any girls home!" Emi quips back at me. "You were ashamed of your room."

Now it's my turn to roll my eyes. "You know, I seem to recall not getting to see your room last night."

"Yea—oh, hey, isn't that our train, Hisao?" Indeed, she's right, and I chuckle at the perfect timing of the interruption. The train's not too crowded, at least, so we manage to stand without pressing against anyone. "How far to your house from here?" Emi asks after we pull out.

"Well, we'll have to transfer trains one more time after this, so maybe forty-five minutes to the station, then maybe another ten on foot." Emi nods in response, then moves closer to me and presses herself against me. It's quite distracting, and it soon becomes the most tortuous train ride of my young life.

I guess this is payback for the payback...

By the time we finally reach the station nearest to my house I've been on my feet for nearly an hour, and I feel like I'm dragging my whole body. Emi, on the other hand, is bouncing along like she hasn't a care in the world. It's more than a little annoying right now, but before I can tell her that I spot a familiar figure leaning against the wall with a can of soda in one hand and a cigarette in the other. When he spots me, he stubs out the latter and waves to me. "Hey, bro!"

"Shin?" I say, picking up my pace as much as I can. "What are you doing here?"

"What kinda greeting is that, bro? We don't talk for five months, that's what I get? C'mere!" Shin suddenly throws an arm around me like nothing's happened, and I have to make sure my heart's handling it. After letting me go, he turns to look at Emi. "Still killing the ladies, I see."

Emi rolls her eyes at him. "I can see why coming to Yamaku didn't bother you very much, Hisao. It got you away from this guy."

Shin looks at her, she looks at him, and suddenly they both start laughing. My head immediately starts to go off-kilter, but then I realize that Emi's just doing what she always does: being friendly. After blinking a couple of times, I interject, "Since you two are having so much fun, you should probably know each other's names. Emi Ibarazaki, this is my old friend, Shinjiro Okaizumi. Shin, this is my girlfriend, Emi."

"Nice to meet you," Shin says with a slight bow, which Emi returns. "Like you said, I can see why it wasn't a big thing for him to go to Yamaku if he met someone like you there."

"Thanks," Emi says with a grin. "I am pretty awesome, after all!" Shin laughs again, and Emi says, "Okaizumi, huh? My second-year homeroom teacher was Okaizumi. You have family in Sendai?"

"Dunno, distant cousins, maybe. The country folks don't visit us here much."

"Maybe," Emi says with a shrug. If she's offended by the typical Tokyo view of the rest of Japan, she doesn't show it. "You've got the same sense of humor, anyway. So how long have you and Hisao known each other?"

"Hisao 'n' me go way back, all the way to the start of primary. We met Mai and Takumi in middle school, and the rest is history."

I look up and down the platform before asking, "So where is Mai? Since you're here, I figured she would be, too."

"Yeah, you'd figure," Shin says with a pained look on his face, "but she's been actin' weird lately. Actually, since this year started, I hardly ever talk to her or Takumi. It's like when you left, the old gang just fell apart, bro."

Fell apart...

Suddenly, I feel the wind trying to blow me around again. Of all the things I might have expected to happen to my old group of friends, the three of them just quietly going their separate ways wasn't one of them. "What do you mean, fell apart? What happened?"

"Well, like I said, things have gotten weird, right? Mai's not in the same class we are this year, and I don't ever see her at lunch. Takumi's busy doin' cram school all the time, and nobody sees him. Shit, the only reason I'm here is because I saw your mom in the shopping district yesterday, and she started up with "Oh, Hicchan~ is coming home tomorrow. I asked him why he couldn't come today, and he said he had something important to do. He couldn't even call..." and I kinda tuned out after that."

I exchange a guilty look with Emi. "Yeah, well, I'll just have to make it up to her by coming back for New Year's..."

In mid-sentence, I hear the distinctive sound of Emi's stomach growling, followed by her laughter."Sorry, Shin," she says, not sounding at all sorry. "Now that we're here, Hisao is supposed to be taking me for lunch."

"Ah, yeah, we haven't really eaten much today. Hey, Shin, you want to join us? We could catch up a little."

Shin eyes Emi as he says, "Well, if your girlfriend doesn't mind..."

"Nope!" she says as she bounces impatiently. "That's why we're here, after all! Let's go!"

Shin shakes his head and says, "No way I can say no, then, right?"

"I learned it the hard way, Shin," I say, clapping him on the shoulder. "Resistance is futile."

The three of us make our way to a family restaurant about a block from the station and quickly grab a table. I used to come here with my grandparents occasionally, but the place has been redecorated pretty heavily since then. "So, Emi," I say after we sit down, "did riding the subway put you in the mood for udon after all?" Emi sighs and rolls her eyes at me, so I'm satisfied.

After we all put in our orders, Shin says, "So, lemme get right to it: why haven't you called any of us since you left, bro?"

He looks at me with the most serious expression I've ever seen on him, and I shift uncomfortably in the booth. This may be what I came here to do, but that doesn't make it easy. "Honestly, when I first got out of the hospital, I didn't want to remember anything about what happened before. I thought that part of my life was over, and I guess in a way it was. After that, things just kind of slipped by, and I figured it was too late." I bow my head after saying that. "I'm sorry."

Shin looks at me a little less seriously. "Yeah, bro, apology accepted." He holds his hand out to me, which kind of shocks me. Hesitantly, I reach out to shake it. "I know how much being in the hospital can fuck you up. You remember when my dad's appendix burst a few years ago, how he was all morose for weeks? He almost lost his job over that. I figure this was something like that, only bigger. So, yeah, ain't no thing, bro."

Almost not believing how easy that was, I venture a smile. "Thanks, Shin. I really mean that." With that out of the way, I return the favor. "So, why didn't any of you call me?"

Shin looks a little embarrassed at that. "After how you were in the hospital, we kinda figured you didn't want to talk to us, either. Sounds like I was right."

I sigh heavily. "Yeah, I know I was pretty closed off when I was in the hospital. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, and I kept on feeling sorry for myself until a few weeks ago." I look at Emi and smile. "You could say Emi's the one who broke me out of it." Emi grins, sitting up a little straighter. "That's why I came back. I want to apologize to everybody: you, Mai, Takumi, my parents...and Iwanako, if I can find her."

Shin's eyes narrow, as though what I just said touched a nerve. Just then, our food arrives, which cuts off the conversation, at least temporarily. We all start to dig in; as usual, Emi pretty much inhales hers, and before I know it I'm finished almost as quickly. Shin stares at me again for a moment, then shakes his head before taking another bite of his hamburger.

Figuring there's not going to be a better time to broach the subject, I ask as casually as I can, "So, do you still see Iwanako around?"

As he swallows, Shin winces visibly. "Bro, I thought you would've wanted to avoid her at all costs. Most everybody else does after what happened." Shin's eyes dart around nervously, and he stabs at his rice with his chopsticks. "I haven't talked to her since the last time I saw her at the hospital. For a while, Takumi bugged me about including her, but I figured she wouldn't wanna do the stuff we did. I mean, she did flower arranging and shit. You think she'd'a fit in with us?"

Now that he mentions it, that's true. I'd never done much more than exchange greetings with Iwanako before that day in the woods, but she did try and tell me about what was going on with her afterwards. She told me some bits about her family, especially her brother, and about the Ikebana Club, but I never really paid her the courtesy of listening. We never talked about things like why she liked me, or what kinds of things we had in common. The letter she sent didn't shed any light on it, either. At the time, that never seemed all that important, since I was stuck in the hospital feeling sorry for myself, but now I'm curious.

"Flower arranging, huh?" Emi says, sounding amused. "Yeah, that really doesn't sound like Hisao's type." She turns to me and asks a question I'd wished she wouldn't. "So, you said you never answered her confession, right? What do you think you would have said?"

I know this is going to be a dangerous answer, but under the circumstances, I have to tell her the truth. After shooting a quick glance at Shin, I look back at Emi and turn my palms up. "I won't lie, I would have accepted."

At Emi's surprised look, I can't do anything other than shrug. Shin laughs, saying, "I was waitin' to see if he'd tell the truth, but yeah, he liked her a lot. He was just too scared to make a move. Bro thought she was too good for him or something."

"Scared to make a move, huh? I can believe it." Emi shakes her head, clicking her tongue at me. "But it sounds like you had it bad, Hisao. Maybe I shouldn't have let you come here after all."

Shin groans like he thinks she's serious, but I know that tone in her voice. "Heh, if I still had it bad, I'd have left you behind."

Emi gives me a mock-glare, but quickly shifts to a pout. "You don't really mean that, do you, Hisao?"

"Come on, bro," Shin says with a nudge. "You gonna let that slide?"

"Emi," I say seriously, "You know...pff...I..." I can't keep a straight face, and then neither can she, and we both break out in peals of laughter.

Shin looks confused for a moment, then starts laughing along with us, shaking his head. "Man, you two are sickening," he says derisively. "I guess you two were made for each other."

"Thanks!" we reply in intentionally sickening unison, and Shin just closes his eyes.

"But yeah, what can I say?" I say in an apologetic tone. "I did like her, or at least I thought I did. She was definitely cute, and she had this atmosphere about her that drew me in, and back then that was enough. When I was standing there that day in the snow, I remember thinking that her voice was the voice of my dreams. Heh, when my heart started acting up, I thought it was just my nerves. I think she might have actually figured out something was wrong with me before I did."

Shin finally finishes his lunch and leans back in his seat. "So, you seriously want to talk to her, huh?"

"Yeah, I do. I really, I really need to apologize to her for everything that happened."

Shin sighs resignedly. "Well, okay, but don't count on her listening to it. So, what, you just gonna call her outta the blue?"

"I would," I say, lowering my head, "if I knew her number."

Shin drops his head onto the table with a bang. "Seriously, bro?" he says with an exasperated groan.

"I know, right?" Emi adds unnecessarily.

"So," Shin says sarcastically, "you do still have Mai's number, right?"

"Yeah," I say flatly. I figure any scorn I get from all this is deserved anyway, so I can't comment.

"Well, if you're really sure that's what you want, then it's Mai or nothing. I haven't seen her since last term, but when I found out you'd be in town I sent her a message, so even if she ain't expecting a call, it won't be a surprise." Before I can ask what he means, his phone beeps. He pulls it out, looks at it, and says, "Ah, shit, I gotta go. I was supposed to meet the guys at the arcade ten minutes ago." He gets up in a rush and tosses his share of the bill on the table. "It was nice meetin' ya, Emi!" he says, and then adds, "Later, bro!" and slaps me on the shoulder as he heads out.

"Yeah, later," I say after he's already left. I turn to Emi, who's got a neutral expression on her face. "Same old Shin," I say with a sigh. "He hasn't changed at all. Still no girlfriend, either."

"'Cause he would've said something, right?"

"Heh, exactly. Everybody always used to tease him about how he'd marry Mai someday, because they used to fight like a couple all the time. The thing is, that was about the only interaction they had. Even if they did get together, it would've blown up in about ten seconds."

Emi nods in response. "He reminds me a little of Hajime – he's gotta be cool about everything, all the time."

"Your ex-boyfriend?"

"Yeah," Emi says with just a trace of bitterness. "If you hung around with him, I can see why you might have gotten labeled a delinquent." She winks, but it's a half-hearted one. "So, you gonna call this Mai person or not?"

"Oh, right." I'm still feeling a little tired, so I almost forgot I actually needed to do that. I pick up Shin's money and bring it to the register and pay the bill.

Once we're outside, I move off to one side away from the door and pull out my phone. Emi leans against the wall next to me as I scroll through my contacts for Mai's number and place the call. It rings for a while, and for a moment I wonder if Mai's going to blow me off. Eventually, though, she answers with, "Hey, Hisao. You here in town already?"

As usual, Mai doesn't waste any time on pleasantries. She also sounds a little out of breath, which doesn't surprise me. "Yeah, I'm at that family restaurant by the train station. We just had lunch with Shin, and he said you couldn't make it over."

"Yeah, well, my club had a meeting after we finished with the attendance shit, so I'm stuck here. Listen, I gotta get back, so can you make this quick?"

"As long as you promise to talk more later."

There's a brief pause before Mai replies, "Yeah, I'll let you know. So what do you need right this second?"

Mai sounds pretty annoyed, and although I used to tease her about that being her usual state, now's not the time. Besides, I can think of a few legitimate reasons for it right now. "I need to know how to get in touch with Iwanako."

This time, there's a longer pause. "Are you sure you wanna do that? After everything you put each other through?"

That's not too different from what Shin said, and it would probably make me think twice if I wasn't so confident about this. "Yes, I'm sure. That's the one thing I have to do while I'm here."

Mai sighs loudly. "Fine. Don't say I didn't warn you. I'll give her a call after club, tell her you wanna talk. If she's okay with it, then I'll get back to you with time and place. That okay with you?"

Taken aback by what seems to now be barely-concealed anger, I say, "Yeah, that's fine. I don't want to force her or anything."

"Good. Neither do I."

There's now an odd tone to Mai's voice, and I decide it's best to change the subject. "You know, I haven't talked to Takumi yet, either."

"That guy?" Mai spits, right back to being annoyed. "I don't talk to him anymore. As far as I know, he's been sulking for months over losing his best tsukkomi." I chuckle at that, hoping to lighten things up, but it's no use. "Listen, Hisao, if you don't hear back from me in half an hour, then you can just go back to your new school and your new friends and forget all about us. You know, just like before. Later."

I start to make a retort, but before I can even take a breath Mai hangs up. At least I'm getting the reaction I expected from her, and because of that I don't hold out much hope for getting the chance to meet with her. I momentarily entertain the possibility that she might not even bother to call Iwanako, but dismiss it immediately. When Mai says she's going to do something, she does it, no matter what. Closing my phone, I turn to Emi. "Mai said she'd talk to Iwanako and let me know if she's willing to see me."

"Yeah, I kinda figured that," she replies with a roll of her eyes. "It'll suck if she's not, because I don't want to leave here with you still sulking." I can't help but agree with that sentiment, but before I can say so, Emi continues, "So what now?"

I jerk a thumb over my shoulder. "We might as well go to my house – at least we can drop off our bags."

"Sounds good to me," Emi says with a half-smile. "This is starting to get a little heavy." We walk down the main street for a while as I point out some of the places I used to hang out. Emi, her arm linked with mine, looks up at the sakura trees lining the boulevard strip, and I realize with a little twinge of sadness that this was the first year I didn't get to view them with my family. We pass a café with a small pool in front that has a gondola sitting in it, and I make a mental note to bring her here the next time we visit.

If there is a next time.

Pushing that thought out of my head, I lead Emi off the main street and through a couple of turns onto the street where my parents live. Then, just before we reach the house my phone goes off. "That her already?" Emi asks as we move out of the way.

Pulling it out and checking the number, I see that it is. "Yeah, that was quick," I reply, then answer the phone. "Hey, Mai, how did it go?"

Sounding slightly displeased, she replies curtly. "You're in luck, Hisao; she's willing to talk to you. Don't ask me why, but she wants you to come to her house at four. I'll e-mail you the directions."

"Thanks, Mai. I owe you big time – for this, and a lot of other things."

There's no sound from the other end for a moment, and I almost think she hung up on me again. Then she says, "Yeah, whatever. Don't worry about me collecting or anything. Later."

"Later," I say, and this time I get it out before Mai hangs up.


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Developments, Chapter 60 (Part 2)

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 12:16 pm
by dewelar
"Yeah, she's definitely not happy with you," Emi comments as we start walking again.

"You think?" I say sarcastically, and Emi retorts by doing a full-on akanbe. I just shake my head and chuckle, and a few steps later we're standing outside my parents' house. As I expected, there's no indication that anyone is home, but I ring the doorbell just in case.

From next to me, I hear a soft whistle. "Not bad, Hisao," Emi says quietly. "Your parents must do pretty well."

"Yeah, you could say that," I say as I pull out my key. I can understand, since this house is about the same size as hers, but with an additional floor. I never really thought about it before, because my friends and I all come from pretty similar backgrounds, but I suppose we were all from reasonably well-off families. Not that any of us had anything like Lilly's upbringing, but none of us ever really wanted for much growing up. I can only hope to do as well once I'm out of school.

Opening the door, I take in the sight of a place that I haven't seen in eight months. "I'm home," I say in a subdued voice, but I'm not entirely sure how much it feels like home to me anymore. At Emi's urging, I've been able to make the room that used to feel like it belonged to nobody into something of my own. Even today, part of our mission is to augment that process by taking things from here back to Yamaku.
That's when it hits me.

I'm probably never going to live here again.

I'm...not sure how I should feel about that.

Emi finishes removing her sneakers, then clumsily slips into a pair of indoor shoes. Taking a couple of steps forward to stand next to me, she says, "So, this is where you grew up, huh?"

"Mostly," I reply. "This was my grandparents' house, and my family moved here when I started primary school. At first, it was so my grandparents could be here for me after school, but soon enough we were taking care of them." I'm not quite feeling ready to continue this conversation, so I hoist my bag back up onto my shoulder. "Let's drop off our bags, then I can show you around the place."

"Sounds good," she says, shifting her burden with a slight grimace before following me up the stairs. Mom told me she'd cleared out what's now the guest room, which we'd been using for storage since my grandparents passed away. When we get there, I realize how literally she meant it, as there's not much beyond a small night table and a fresh futon within. Boxes are stacked around the outside of the room, floor-to-ceiling, except for the window that faces the back. "Well," I comment, "at least it still has a good view."

Emi drops her bag next to the door and moves over to the window. "Yeah, that's a nice garden," she says quietly. "Your mom's?"

"Yeah," I reply as I come over to stand next to her. "It's pretty much the only hobby she's got – the only one she has time for, I suppose – so she spends a lot of time out there, especially during the summer. She's never liked air conditioning – too artificial, she says – so she goes out there with a pitcher of chilled tea and watches the birds. Dad used to join her once in a while, but lately he'll just watch TV, especially if there's a Giants game on." I hang my head slightly at the thought. "I don't even know if Mom cares."

"Huh, I wonder if she'd get along with Rin," Emi says, continuing to look out the window. "But it sounds kinda lonely to me. Like, even when they were here, they weren't here." I frown, because that accurately describes how it felt here too often. Looking back over at me, Emi smiles nervously, "Um...s-sorry to be so grim, Hisao. So, how about that tour?"

I take a deep breath, trying to throw off my doldrums, and straighten up. "Right! Since we're already upstairs, I guess we might as well start with my room."

"I'll do my best not to get my hopes up," Emi says wryly as I open the door. As I expected, the room looks exactly the way I left it, only cleaner. I toss my bag onto the bed as Emi enters behind me. "Wow," she says, almost sounding awe-struck, "that's a serious collection you've got here. You weren't kidding about not having any empty space."

"Yeah, I suppose so," I reply neutrally. "My parents always made sure I had plenty of spending money when I was growing up, especially once I got to high school. I used some of it on meals, and the rest pretty much went into this." I gesture to indicate the shelves full of video games, DVDs and CDs. "I don't know if I've played or watched even half of them."

"I gotta say, I'm a little jealous – or at least I would've been a few years ago when I was laid up. But if you didn't watch 'em, why'd you buy 'em?"

I respond with a shrug. "I guess I was just bored, and wanted stuff to fill my time when nobody was around."

Emi looks at me with a hint of sadness – or maybe it's pity? – but quickly looks away. Her eyes move around the room and light on one of my posters. "You a baseball fan, too?"

I shake my head. "Not particularly. I only watched when Dad watched, and only if I wasn't doing anything else. That's Utsumi," I say, indicating the poster. "On one of his rare days off, Dad brought me to a game last year, and he was pitching that day. Dad's favorites were always the pitchers. I was happy enough to get to go somewhere with him that he went ahead and bought the poster for me, then put it up himself. It was the last empty space on the wall, but right at that moment I didn't care." I look up at it nostalgically. "I think he was trying to tell me something," I say, walking a few steps away, "but now that I think about it, if I'd listened to him I might be dead now."

I sigh as Emi stops running her finger along the spines of the game cases to look at me. "Hisao..." she murmurs, taking a step toward me.

This isn't how I wanted this to go.

"Um...I've...heard the Giants are doing pretty well this year, but the guys in the common room are always watching Rakuten, so I don't really bother joining them."

Emi comes the rest of the way over and takes my hand. "You know, Hisao, if coming here was only going to make you depressed, maybe...maybe we shouldn't have bothered."

I sigh even more heavily. "Yeah, I know. I knew going in it wasn't going to be easy, but I need to see this through, for my own peace of mind if nothing else."

Emi wraps her arms around me, laying her cheek against my chest. "I understand. Just don't push yourself too hard, okay? And remember, if you need it, I can always spare you a little bit of my energy." She pulls away and flashes a huge grin at me. "I mean, Okinawa can stand a brown-out once in a while, right?"

I pull Emi back in and squeeze her tightly, a big smile on my face. For that moment, I think I can actually feel a little bit of that power of hers. Then, I lean down to kiss her, and I can't feel anything else but that.

After we separate, we pick out and pull down a couple of posters from my room – but not the baseball one – to take back with us. We stow those in our bags along with a few DVDs that Emi wants to watch. At one point, I try to call the number I had for Takumi, but I get a message that it's no longer in service. I make a mental note to see if Shin has his new number later.

Since there's not a lot of time before I'm supposed to meet Iwanako, we take the whirlwind tour of the rest of the house. After I give my face a quick splash of water, the two of us head out the door and back to the train. Fortunately, the trip to Harajuku isn't too long, so we make it there with a few minutes to spare. When we get out to the sidewalk, Emi turns to me and says, "So, where do you want me to wait for you, Hisao?"

That takes me by surprise. "Eh?"

Emi takes a step away and puts her hands on her hips. "Oh, come on, Hisao! You really think I'm going all the way to her house with you? I know how this works: if you wanna talk to her without holding back, and for her to do the same, do you think that would really happen if your girlfriend was standing next to you?"

Feeling a little sheepish, I rub the back of my neck. "Yeah, that's a good point."

"Now you're catching on," Emi says with a wink. "So, that means I wait close by, and when things get too hairy, or things just finish up, you come back and we talk about it. So," she says in an exaggerated fashion, "where do you want me to wait for you, Hisao?"

"Well, I've never been to this part of the city before, so I don't know if there's a good spot between here and there." I glance around, taking in our surroundings. There are a few shops and cafés along the sidewalk, so I say, "Her house is less than a kilometer away, so maybe you should just wait around here. It shouldn't take me more than ten, maybe fifteen minutes to walk there from here."

Emi looks around at the shopping district as well. "Yeah, that's fine," she replies. "I should be able to find something to do here. Hopefully it'll be enough to keep me from thinking too much about it, too. Just don't take too long, okay?"

"Okay." With a grin, I add, "If I'm gone for more than an hour, you have my permission to hunt me down."

"Ye be a brave man to say that, Hisao Nakai," she says in her pirate voice. "Good luck, matey!"

I give her a mock salute before turning around and heading off down the street. Between my own anxiety and having to focus on Mai's directions, nothing about my surroundings registers with me as I make my way toward Iwanako's family home, which the directions say is in Sendagaya. When I get to what's supposed to be her house, I can't help but note its odd appearance. I double-check the nameplate, and since it does indeed read "大道寺" I can only conclude that this is it.

The house itself definitely stands out as ostentatious even by the standards of Sendagaya, but to me it doesn't really look like something you could live in. It's all metal and glass, strange shapes and angles, and it all looks so grey. In a way, it appeals to the scientist in me, as if someone was performing an experiment to determine how closely you could make a house resemble a pop-up book version of Flatland. Eventually, I tear my eyes away from the construction and press the buzzer next to the nameplate. "Hello," says a voice that's somehow both familiar and alien to me.

"It's Hisao Nakai," I say, trying to mask my nervousness. "I'm here to see Iwanako."

"Yes, I'll be right there." The voice holds no emotion, neither excitement nor nervousness; just flat grey, like the color of the house. As promised, I don't have to wait more than half a minute before the front door opens and Iwanako steps out. Still, if her face hadn't been imprinted on my brain I might not have recognized her. The most obvious change since the last time I saw her is her hair, which is maybe a dozen or so centimeters shorter than before and put up in a side-tail, the tip of which sits precariously on her left shoulder. She also looks a few centimeters taller, and given the length of my old school uniform I can see that her legs have gained a fair amount of definition.

I guess I'm not the only one who's started exercising.

"It's good to see you, Iwanako," I say as confidently as I can with a brief bow.

Iwanako looks at me strangely, and when she returns my bow she seems a little stiff. "It's good to see you too, Hisao, although admittedly I never thought I would."

"After the letter you wrote, you mean?"

"No, before that, on the day I walked out of the hospital for the last time. I'd made up my mind that I'd had enough, and I thought you had, too."

"So did I," I say honestly. "Until a few days ago, I had no intention of ever coming to see you, either." I close my eyes for a moment and take a deep breath. This may be my only chance, so I forge straight ahead. "I know you wrote that it might be better that way, but at the time it made me angry because I thought you were just brushing me off. I know now that I was wrong, that the letter was probably your way of trying to get some closure that you couldn't otherwise. I came here to apologize for not being able to do that for you myself, and maybe, even if it's selfish of me, to find my own closure as well."

I bow deeply, and for a while I do nothing but listen to the sounds of the cars passing behind me. After a while, I risk raising my head, only to see Iwanako wearing a small smile. It's a sight that, for a moment, brings me back to that day in the snow that started all of this. "I believe that's the most you've said to me at once," she says quietly. "Are you sure you're Hisao Nakai?"

I straighten up, chuckling in spite of myself. "Well, yes. I'm not sure I'm the same Hisao Nakai I was eight months ago, though."

After staring at me for a moment, she responds, "Noooo, I don't think you are, either. For one thing, you're talking to me. For another, you don't sound like you're feeling sorry for yourself. For a third..."

"I—" I try to interrupt, but Iwanako continues talking.

"For a third, you look healthier than I've ever seen you, even before...even when you were playing soccer. For that, I'm grateful. I suppose that school your parents sent you to was the right choice."

"Given everything that's happened since I started there, I think so. Actually, I could say the same thing about you; you look a lot healthier than you did the last time I saw you."

Iwanako smiles bitterly. "And, for a fourth, you're noticing things that wouldn't have even registered with you back then. So tell me," she says with a sigh, "why didn't I ever have the chance to see this Hisao Nakai? I always knew it was there, but I could never bring it to the surface. I couldn't even tease out one iota of it. Why?"

"That's why I wanted to apologize. That wasn't your fault, any more than my heart attack was your fault." Iwanako sighs and shakes her head, but this time it's me who doesn't allow the interruption. "Before you confessed to me, I'd had a crush on you for months, but I thought you were out of my league. If anybody was going to get through to me back then, it should have been you. I'm honestly happy you tried as hard as you did, but I just wasn't ready to handle anything yet."

Iwanako hesitates for a moment, probably to make sure I'm done talking. "I know that now," she says. "I just didn't know if you'd know. Neither did Mai, and that's why she didn't think I should even talk to you."

"That...explains some things. I can't blame either of you for thinking that, and it did take me a while to figure that out. If I hadn't had some special people around me these past three months, I doubt I ever would have."

Iwanako looks away for a moment, then says, "Actually, I think we're the same on that account, Hisao." She turns back to me, an unreadable expression on her face. "You tell me you're not the same Hisao Nakai you were eight months ago, and I believe you. Believe me as well when I say that I'm not the same Iwanako Daidouji I was. Do you think either of us can find closure from each other?"

Even as she says them, I'm struck by the awful realization that her words are entirely correct. That she's changed a great deal had been obvious from the moment I saw her, but I just didn't put two and two together. I suddenly feel like the entire world has been snatched out from underneath me. The thing I wanted, the reason I needed to come here in the first place, is something that was never here. "I suppose I don't," I reply, my voice sounding hollow.

"Neither do I," Iwanako says with a wry smile. "As superfluous as it might sound, I'm sorry."

I tilt my head to the side, but don't ask what she means, because I think I already know. From somewhere in the depths of my mind, I dredge up the other thing I wanted to ask. "In that case, maybe you'd be willing to answer something else."

"If I can."

"Why did you ask me out in the first place?"

"That's...a bit of a long story. Maybe I should walk with you back to the station while I answer, so you don't miss dinner with your parents."

I scoff at that. "They won't be home for at least a couple more hours, but you're right, I should get back. I have someone waiting for me down by the station."

"Your girlfriend?" she inquires.

"Good guess," I reply.

"Then we definitely shouldn't keep her waiting," Iwanako states, and the two of us start retracing my steps. "Also, it wasn't too hard to guess, after all that talk about 'special people'."

I nod in response. After everything that's happened, walking with Iwanako feels strange. Thinking about it, this is the closest we've ever been to being on a date, and it's in the service of going to meet my current girlfriend. It reminds me somewhat of my meeting with Lilly at the Shanghai after her return from Scotland. It doesn't take much for my mind to jump to the idea that this may be just as much of an experiment. It's then that I notice Iwanako looking at me, and realize that we've been walking in silence for a couple of blocks now. "My mother still speaks highly of you, you know," I muse. "I'm pretty sure she wishes we were still together."

Iwanako grimaces. "I'm intimately aware of it, believe me. I stopped answering her messages months ago, but she keeps trying."

That information should surprise me, but it doesn't somehow. "I'll talk to her about that."

"For all the good it will do," Iwanako says under her breath, and I can't help but silently agree. "So, you want to know why I confessed to you. That started with Mai, and how she used to talk about you back in middle school. It was so divergent from the image everyone else had of you, so it was like I knew a different Hisao Nakai than everyone else did." Iwanako half-giggles and continues, "How many Hisao Nakais are there, anyway?"

I resist the urge to say "too many" and instead reply, "Only one at a time, really. I know there were rumors about me, mostly because I only had a few friends." I think back to what I've heard about the Yamaku rumor mill, and some of the things it generated about Hanako and Noriko.

People really are pretty much the same everywhere, aren't they?

"Yeah," she replies pensively. "That's why I wanted to get to know who you were. I'd put you up on a little pedestal, like you were my own Le Penseur. I wanted to be the one to bring that side out of you, where nobody else could. I wanted to be the one to show the world who you really were, and have everyone deify me in turn for doing it." She barks out a laugh, then continues, "I guess that wasn't my destiny after all. It was someone else's instead."

"I guess so," I say, laughing a little myself. " liked the idea of going out with me more than the reality?"

Iwanako immediately turns serious again. "I don't know anymore, Hisao. I never knew the old Hisao Nakai well enough to say for sure."

Her words have a very familiar ring to them, and I can't help nodding. Once again, I've lost track of where we were, and I can already see the station from here. Narrowing my eyes, I can see Emi sitting at a table on the sidewalk, and before she notices us I stop walking. "That's her," I say as I turn to face Iwanako. "My girlfriend, I mean. Her name is Emi Ibarazaki; she's a track star at Yamaku, and we've been running together to help me get into shape, hopefully enough to..." I let my voice trail off rather than bring up that subject again. From the look on Iwanako's face, it didn't help much. "Anyway, do you want to meet her?"

"That's probably not the best idea," Iwanako replies. "Track star, huh? I didn't expect a place like that to..." This time Iwanako lets her voice trail off, and her face reddens. "Well, then, I shouldn't keep you from her," she says, her voice reflecting her obvious embarrassment. That, too, is very familiar to me, and while I'd like to alleviate it, I know it's not that easy, so it's probably best to let it pass. "It was good to see you again, Hisao. Goodbye!"

She bows deeply, and I return both the bow and the sentiments. "Goodbye, Iwanako. It was good to see you as well." By the time I straighten up, she's already turned back and is striding briskly up the street. I realize that I didn't even hear about how she's doing now, or who her special people might be. As I turn myself around and continue my journey back to the station, I think that, too, is probably for the best.

As I approach the table where Emi is sitting, staring at a magazine with a nearly empty glass of something pink in front of her, I try to sort out what Iwanako told me about why she confessed to me. It reminded a bit of something Emi said, when she accused me of trying to "fix" her. In a way, maybe I was, just not in the way she thought. Really, "fixing" might be a good way to describe what's happened to me during my time at Yamaku, because there were parts of me that were broken, but it was more like Emi was just helping me along in my own do-it-yourself project. If Iwanako had tried something similar, either at school or in the hospital, I would have been pretty angry.

ESPECIALLY in the hospital.

I'm nearly on top of her when Emi finally sees me, and she immediately springs to her feet and waves energetically. Wishing I could respond in kind, I just smile and pick up my pace to meet her, and we give each other a quick hug. Emi pulls back and looks at my face, then frowns. "Ummm...Hisao, did you...get what you came for?"

After thinking for a moment, I say, "I'm not sure. I guess I'm going to have to think about it."

"Yeah, I was afraid you'd say something like that," she says resignedly. "Do you want to do anything else while we're here? You know, to take your mind off things?"

I sigh, saying, "Do I want to? Yeah, but I don't think I have the energy for it. I think I just want to get back home."

Emi nods in understanding. "All right, then, let's go," she says as she links her arm with mine again, and we return to the subway.

Neither of us says much until we pull up to the station nearest to my house. When we get out to the street, my eyes light on a shop I haven't been to in ages. "Hey, Emi, you like sweets, right?"

Immediately, her eyes light up, and she says, "Of course I do, Hisao! moderation, of course," she says, nudging me in the side. "I need to keep my girlish figure, after all!"

I laugh as I reply, "In that case, come with me." I lead Emi into a little candy store about half a block from the station. The last time I was in here was just before White Day last year when I helped Shin pick out something for a girl who liked him. Shin insisted to me that the gift had nothing to do with their breakup a week later, but that didn't help my self-image at the time. The shop itself looks almost exactly the same right down to the short, balding, middle-aged man behind the counter. "Hey, Shigeo!" I shout to him as we enter.

"Oi, Hisao!" he shouts back, followed quickly by, "And with a cute girl on his arm! One who isn't Mai, too," he finishes, glancing around as if to look for her. Shigeo always used to tease Mai about how she should act more feminine, and she'd always act offended. Thinking back, it might not have been an act, but it always looked like one. "Where is Mai, anyway? I haven't seen her or the other two in ages!"

"Eh, it's a long story. Anyway, this is my girlfriend, Emi. We're visiting from school out in Sendai, and I wanted to get her something good while I was here."

"Girlfriend, huh?" he says with an exaggerated wink. "No wonder you ain't with Mai! I didn't think you'd ever find someone else to put up with you!"

Emi grins and adds, "What can I say? I'm a glutton for punishment!" I roll my eyes at both her and Shigeo.

"Well, then, in honor of one of my favorite customers finding love, here, have some on me!"

"You don't have to do that, Shigeo," I say, but he just holds his hand up.

"I don't hear you, Hisao. And you," he says to Emi as he hands us a couple of small boxes, "you make sure to bring him back here for Christmas!"

I say, "She probably will, too!" Emi elbows me playfully, and this time all three of us laugh. "Thanks, Shigeo! We'll definitely be back!"

At least I hope so.

The shopkeeper waves heartily at us as we leave, and Emi immediately sets to work at opening the first sample as we walk through the shopping district. The area is a little less crowded than it was at lunch time, and a couple of other vendors call out to me as we pass them. "Huh, you're pretty popular down here," Emi says as she disposes of the first box in a nearby receptacle. "I thought you said people thought of you as a delinquent."

"Eh, that was mostly at school or over in Shinjuku, where I met up with my friends. Most of the time I spent down here was either the very rare occasions when Mom asked me to do some shopping, or to buy dinner for myself. By the time I got to high school, I was doing that almost every night. That ramen shop we just passed was a regular haunt when I got tired of leftovers or going to the convenience store."

"So you never learned to cook for yourself?"

"Unfortunately, no. Mom wouldn't let me near the kitchen when I was younger, so pretty much all I learned how to use was the microwave."

"Heh, so you must've been really happy when I made lunches for you, right?" Emi says with a wink.

"Yeah," I say honestly. "Hanako, too," I tease, and when Emi glowers at me, I hasten to add, "although yours were better. Trust me, that's not just because you're my girlfriend, either. Hanako's still learning, and she has a tendency to experiment, with...well, let's just say mixed results."

Emi giggles. "I see, I see. Well, at least I have her beat in that area."

"Among others," I say, smiling at her. A couple minutes later, we're back at my house. Stretching, I say, "Well, we've still got a couple of hours before Mom gets home. What would you like to do?"

For a second, I'm afraid I'm going to regret those words, but instead Emi gets a stern look on her face. "What I would like, Hisao, is to see you get some rest!"

I raise an eyebrow and say, "Hey! I thought I was the one who liked to watch people sleep!"

Unfortunately, Emi is now in no mood for joking. "I mean it, Hisao!" she says, crossing her arms. "You look like you're dead on your feet, and I don't think that's how you want to look when your parents get back. When's that supposed to be, anyway?"

"Mom said they couldn't get time off on short notice, so probably around eight o'clock or so, maybe seven-thirty if she can catch the earlier train."

"Okay, then we've got a couple hours. So, go upstairs, get some sleep, and I'll just hang out in your room and see if I can find a manga I haven't read on your shelf and be ready to wake you up."

I sigh heavily, because I know she's right about this. Between my lack of sleep and my conversation with Iwanako, I'm feeling more than a little like a zombie. With a weary sigh, I turn toward the stairs. "Yeah, all right, let's go."

As the two of us reenter my room, Emi says, "Sorry if I sound like a killjoy, Hisao. I just want everything to go well later, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," I reply as I lie down on top of the covers. "Actually, I was trying to play host, wanting to make this trip more fun for you, so..."

Emi sits down next to me and starts to stroke my hair. "I wasn't expecting this to be fun, Hisao. We'll save that for next time."

Finally, for the first time since I got here, I start to relax. As I drift off to sleep, my final thought is that it's good to hear Emi being so positive about there being a next time, how negative I've been about the same thing since we got here, and how the one thing not contributing to the negativity is the one putting me to sleep right now...

* * * *

The next thing that registers on my consciousness is Emi's shouting voice. "Hey, Hisao! I see someone coming up to the front door! Is that your mom?"

"Ugh...yeah, let me look..." I respond. I totter over to the window, and I see Mom just getting to the front door with bags in hand. I blink a couple of times before I realize it's still light out. "Crap, she's early! We'd better get down there!"

"Huh? Oh!" Emi says, realizing the precariousness of the situation, and then living up to her name as the Fastest Thing on No Legs by getting to the front door before I've even made it to the stairs. Still a little disoriented, I carefully negotiate the steps and reach the first floor hallway just in time for the front door to open.

As we approach, Mom doesn't notice us right away, since she's facing the door and her bags are making a lot of noise. I decide it'll be more fun to surprise her, so I face Emi and put my finger to my lips. She nods in response as my mother sets the bags down on the cupboard and changes into slippers. The first thing I notice is that she's finally given up on keeping her hair dyed black, as the iron gray that's been slowly taking over has finished the job. She starts to pick up the bags, and I quietly make my way up behind her and say, "Let me take some of those, Mom."

"Tha—Hicchan!" she shouts, clubbing me in the back with a couple of the bags as she throws her arms around me. "It's so good to see you! Before you called, I thought I wouldn't see you until New Year!" She pulls back enough for me to be able to start breathing again before continuing, "How was your trip? Were you able to make all your train connections all right?"

"Everything was fine, mom," I say, kissing her on the cheek as I take two of the bags from her. "It's good to see you, too," I continue, and as I turn around Emi is right behind me with her hands out. I pass the bags to her, then take the rest, and the three of us move toward the kitchen. "Mom, this is Emi Ibarazaki, my girlfriend."

Unfazed by my abrupt declaration, Emi bows and says, "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Nakai," in as polite a tone as I've ever heard her use.

"The same to you, Emi," Mom says less formally, inclining her head, and the three of us head toward the kitchen. For a second, it strikes me as odd, as I seem to recall her speaking differently when she met my other friends. It doesn't seem to bother Emi, who happily goes about helping us put away the groceries, so I shrug it off.

Once that's done, Mom begins preparing to make dinner. "Is there anything I can do to help, Mrs. Nakai?" Emi says, still more politely than usual.

"That's not necessary," Mom says somewhat tersely.

"It's no trouble, Mrs. Nakai," Emi replies, still smiling. "I've been helping out with the cooking at home for years, and..."

Mom puts down the pot she had just retrieved from the cupboard rather loudly and turns around. "Please, make yourself at home," she says, gesturing toward the living room. Although her tone remains even, I can see that she's straining to keep a neutral face. "If you don't mind, I would like to speak with my son for a few moments."

Here it comes.

Emi's smile wavers a bit, but firms up again quickly. "Thanks, Mrs. Nakai, I'll do that." While my girlfriend is obviously doing her best to go with the flow, I'm finding myself feeling angry on her account. It's now fairly obvious that these slights have been intentional, and while I have my suspicions as to the motive, I don't want to make any accusations until I've had the chance to talk to Mom.

Mom pulls me further into the kitchen, but not so far as to be out of Emi's earshot. She obviously doesn't care if my girlfriend hears what she says – or perhaps she wants her to hear. "Hicchan," Mom says, her face quickly becoming stern, "why did you bring her here? It's bound to cause misunderstandings with Iwanako."

Suspicion: confirmed.

"Mom, I've already met with Iwanako..." I start to say, but she cuts me off.

"You did?" she exclaims, her face brightening up. "Is she well? What did you talk about? Do you think she's willing to reconcile with you?"

Having expected this onslaught, I weather it as best I can. I know how I need to respond, but I know it's unlikely to be convincing. I take a deep breath and steel myself for what's to come. "Mom, there's nothing between Iwanako and me anymore. If her last visit to the hospital wasn't enough to demonstrate that, she sent me a letter back in June that reinforced it, and just a few hours ago put the final seal on it. Even if I wanted to reconcile with her now, which I don't, it's simply not going to happen."

Mom puts a hand to her face and says, "Well, of course not! After the way you treated her, who can blame her for acting cold toward you? You didn't see how heartbroken she was when she left that hospital the last time. I watched her walk out that day, you know; she looked so distraught, clinging for dear life onto that apple..." Mom sighs, laying a hand on my shoulder, then trowels the guilt on even more thickly. "She kept coming to the hospital for weeks, but you never really talked to her, never gave her the chance to show you how she really felt. I'm sure that if you just apologize sincerely, she'd be willing to accept your feelings just like before. She just needs...time to recover."

"I've already apologized, and I told her how much I appreciated her coming to the hospital, but I don't have feelings like that for her. I'm not sure I ever did. Besides, I'm dating..."

"Oh, Hicchan, that's just because you haven't seen her for so long. I'm sure, now that you have, you'll start remembering, and soon enough everything will be like it was."

"Like what was, Mother?" I say, raising my voice as I start to get upset. "It's not like we were even going out! I never accepted Iwanako's confession, so I can't..."

"Hisao," Emi says quietly from the entrance to the kitchen. "You need to be careful about getting too worked up."

Mom's head swivels to look at Emi. "This is a private conversation, and no business of yours."

Mom's words shock me a bit. They were said quietly, and seemingly without malice, but they're as wrong as they could possibly be. "It's very much her business, Mom. She's my girlfriend. Without her..."

"Hisao," Emi says, in almost exactly the same tone as Mom used. I take a deep breath and focus on my heart, and I can tell it's working harder than it should. I close my eyes, grab hold of a nearby counter, and let it calm down. Surprisingly, both Mom and Emi remain quiet while I do this, which goes a long way toward allowing me to avoid an attack.

When I open my eyes, I notice Mom looking at Emi appraisingly. I don't know if the way Emi handled the situation impressed her – it certainly impressed me – but the atmosphere has definitely changed. "If it's all right, Mrs. Nakai," Emi says, "there's something I'd like to say."

For a moment, Mom seems taken aback. She looks back and forth between us with a clouded expression. "Please," I say simply, hoping it's enough.

Finally, after studying my face silently for a moment, Mom inclines her head in my direction. "Very well, Hicchan. For your sake, I will listen." I breathe a sigh of relief. I was fairly sure she wouldn't be able to refuse my request, but there was a chance she'd be stubborn enough to walk away instead.

Emi hints at a smile in my direction, but when she turns to face my mother her eyes are saying that this is going to be all business. "Mrs. Nakai, the first time I met your son was when I ran into him in the hallway. I mean literally – he even had to go to the nurse's office afterwards." My mother draws a sharp breath, but Emi keeps going. "That's the kind of person I am, or was, before I met him. I never really saw what happened to other people because of what I did, because I didn't want to get involved with other people. That's because everyone I did get involved with left me behind, one way or another. Eventually, I figured it wasn't even worth the chance, so I started pushing people away even before getting involved."

Emi takes a breath, gathering herself before continuing, "At least, that's what I thought until a few months ago, when I met Hisao. At first, he was just a guy the school nurse told me to keep an eye on. He was kinda lost when he came to Yamaku, maybe even more than I was. So, I wanted to make sure he got found, you know? But then he had another girlfriend, and I figured maybe she'd find him instead."

Mom seems startled by that, and I realize I never told her about Lilly. Emi, however, doesn't slow down in the least. "The thing is, I don't think she really ever did, and then when she left school Hisao was even more lost. That's when he finally decided he needed to take care of himself, and he asked me to help him. So, we started running together in the mornings, and talking to each other about all kinds of stuff, and I could see that...well, he just started looking more alive, you know? That's when I discovered that Hisao was someone I couldn't push away. We helped each other get past a bunch of stuff, and we fell in love. That's how it's supposed to work, right? People who love each other help each other?"

Emi grins her brightest grin, and at first Mom just stands there, staring at Emi with a strange expression. After a few moments, her whole body seems to relax, and she frowns a little bit. "Yes, it is," she says. "That is how it is supposed to be, but it is not always that way. I certainly believe that you love my son, but..."

Before my mother can finish her sentence, the front door opens for a second time, and this time it's my father who walks through it. Unlike my mother, he doesn't appear to have changed a bit. If anything, he seems to be standing up a little straighter than the last time I saw him. "I'm home," he says, a little louder than he did in my memories. A chorus of "Welcome back" greets him as he walks over to me. Bowing formally, he says, "Welcome back, my son."

"Thank you, father," I say as I return his bow. I then turn to Emi, who has walked over to my side. "Dad, this is Emi Ibarazaki, my girlfriend."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Nakai," Emi says, bowing and using the same polite tone she did when she met Mom.

My father studies Emi for a moment, then replies, "Indeed, the pleasure is mine." I see him shoot a glance at my mother, who is still working in the kitchen. He then turns to me and, in a tactic I've seen him use fairly often, he raises his voice to make sure Mom hears him. "The two of you met at Yamaku, I presume."

"Yes, we did," I reply. In an effort to ensure his approval, I add, "Emi is the star of our school's track team."

My father raises an eyebrow and quickly glances at Emi's legs. "Quite interesting," he says, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards just slightly. "I wonder," he muses, "what other quite interesting things you might have found at your new school."

This is the question I'd been expecting, and I draw myself up to my full height. Like Emi earlier, I speak to him as formally as I know how. "Father, I believe I have found a course for my life. When I graduate, I am going to university to study the sciences. I'm not certain which one, but physics seems the most likely choice. I hope this meets with your satisfaction."

"Yes," Dad says with his voice still raised. "Yes, quite interesting." Emi looks at me questioningly, but all I can do is shrug at his ongoing demonstration. "Your grades in the subject were always good, but you never showed much interest in it. Did something happen to change that?"

At that, I return a somewhat proud smile. "Yes, Father. One of the teachers at Yamaku, Mr. Mutou, has been something of a mentor to me. He even approached me about forming a science club at the school." Again, my father raises an eyebrow in surprise. "Although I haven't yet given an answer, I hope the opportunity is still there in the new term."

My father finally shows as much of a smile as I've ever seen from him, which admittedly isn't very much. "I see," he says with a nod, "quite interesting indeed. It would seem that you have found a great many things at your new school that speak well of it." He glances over his shoulder again, and I follow his gaze to where I can see that Mom has given up all pretense of ignoring him.

"Yes, Father. It's given me the opportunity to think a good deal about my future," I say, glancing at Emi before finishing, "on several levels. I doubt I'd have felt the same way if I'd returned to my previous school."

Father nods. "When we agreed to have you placed at Yamaku Academy, we were understandably concerned that the school might turn out to be inferior in some way, whether it be academically or socially. However, it seems that such fears were..." he pauses as he looks once more at Mom, then continues, "...well, perhaps misplaced would be a strong word. Instead, let us say they are no longer needed." Dad puts a hand on my shoulder. "In fact, I think that perhaps we should look at that day, not as an end to your old life, but as the beginning of a new one. Wouldn't you agree, mother?"

"Yes, father," Mom says softly, looking back down at the stack of dishes she's holding. For the first time I can remember, I feel slightly sorry for her.

"I'll make sure to keep him focused, Mr. Nakai," Emi says as her way of echoing our sentiments.

Dad looks a bit surprised at her interjection, but his smile returns quickly. "That is good to hear. In that case, Miss Ibarazaki, we would be honored if you would join us for our evening meal. Though the hour is late, I hope you find it to your satisfaction."

"Thank you, Mr. Nakai," Emi says with a bow, "I would be honored, too."

Without bothering to ask – since I know she'd decline the offer – I immediately go to help Mom finish bringing everything out to the table. She remains silent, but she has always found it difficult to mask her emotions, so I can tell that she's seething inside. At times like this, I know the last thing I should do is try and talk to her myself, so I also remain silent.

When I return to the table, Emi is chatting happily with my father about her exploits on the track team. He seems particularly amused by Emi's "Fastest Thing on No Legs" appellation, and periodically asks Emi questions about her team and Yamaku in general throughout dinner. Of course, she's only too happy to answer them, and in turn I'm only too happy to let her answer them. To my relief, he makes no further inquiries about her prosthetics, especially how she got them, so at least one bullet got dodged.

After supper, Mom prepares the bath, and insists that Emi go first. I expected as much, of course, since she's our guest, and I settle in on the couch, watching the news as I wait for my turn. "Miss Ibarazaki seems quite spirited," my father says as he sits down next to me. "If you marry her, I will at least have someone I can talk to in my retirement."

"Father," Mom says icily from the hallway.

"I was just teasing, mother," Dad says, stretching out a bit. "Still, I would say that this house could do worse than to add a little youthful energy, wouldn't you?"

"Father, you know too much energy isn't good for Hisao's heart," Mom says reproachfully as she walks in carrying an empty laundry basket. I shut down my retort, but it doesn't last long. "Speaking of which, are you sure all this running you're doing is the right thing? I remember the doctor at the hospital saying..."

The sentence pierces my shielding like a laser. I straighten up and turn around to look at my mother. "The nurse at Yamaku says I should be getting exercise as long as I don't push myself too hard," I say through clenched teeth. "Not doing anything would be worse. Before I started running, my heart acted up a couple of times..."

I regret the words almost as soon as they're out of my mouth. "And you didn't tell us?!" Mom says loudly. "There wasn't any further damage, was there? Is there anything else we need to be doing for you?"

"No, Mom. It's fine now," I say, my anger rising even further. "I just had to rest for a while afterwards. It was actually my fault that it happened, because I wasn't exercising like I should, and I forgot my medications a couple of times. Actually, Emi's..."

"Forgot your medications?!" Mom says, sounding like she's starting to panic. "Father, I knew it was a mistake to send him so far away! If we'd been there, then..."


Oh, crap...


I block out whatever Mom says next and try to focus on my breathing, trying to make sure the stress doesn't get out of control. I think I can hear Dad's voice, too, but I can't tell what he's saying.


I can hear Mom's voice starting to sound shrill, and in my ears it's echoing along with Iwanako's screaming from that day in the woods, and Hanako's in Hokkaido, and Emi's at the track a few weeks ago. It all starts to swirl around in my head like a cacophony of cicadas, chirping and buzzing and whining, with a blizzard of white flashing along with it...



Then there's a different voice shouting, clashing with the other two, and for a brief moment my head feels like it's going to shatter...


But then... doesn't. The din all around me slows, then stops, and for a moment I think it's because I passed out. Then, one of my senses comes back on-line...


Someone's holding my hand...

The other senses kick in one by one...the taste of coffee in my mouth...the scent of strawberry in my nose...the sound of someone asking me if I'm all right...and then I engage the fifth one and see Emi's face in front of me. She lets out a long breath and says, "He's back."


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Developments, Chapter 60 (Part 3)

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 12:17 pm
by dewelar
As I take in my surroundings, I realize that the hand I'm holding is wet. After blinking a couple of times, I realize that Emi is completely naked – she didn't even put her legs on, so I'm not entirely sure how she got here, but since she is I grab hold of her as tightly as I can. "Damn, that scared me," I whisper in her ear.

"Me, too," she whispers back. A little bit louder, she asks, "How bad was it?"

After taking a few seconds to assess my condition, I reply, "Not as bad as the time you carried me to the nurse's office; more like that time on the roof. I think I was just getting a little too stressed out." I release Emi and look around for my mother, who's sitting on the couch looking very, very tired. Behind her, I see my father coming back with a towel, averting his eyes as he hands it to Emi. "Lack of sleep lately hasn't helped, and I didn't run this morning," I say pointedly.

"Yeah, well, just stay here on the couch for a while to be safe," Emi says as she wraps the towel around her. "I've got to get dressed, then your parents can take their turns in the bath. You should probably just skip yours for tonight."

"Emi's right, Hisao," my father says. "Just lie here for now. We can visit a bit more in the morning." I see Dad shoot a look at Mom, and without saying anything she gets up to make room for me to stretch out. My father then leaves also, leaving the television on for me. "Forgive my impertinence, Miss Ibarazaki," he says formally, "but perhaps I could carry you back to the bathroom."

Although I can't see her face, I hear the smile in her voice. "I suppose I can trust you to do that much. After all, there's not much more to see after this, right?"

"I saw nothing," my father says neutrally, and Emi does her best to stifle a giggle. I hear him strain slightly as he lifts her, but soon enough they've disappeared down the hall.

I doze for a while, and at some point Emi comes back to the living room. She carefully lifts my head and places it in her lap, and she absent-mindedly plays with my hair for a bit as she watches TV. After a few minutes, I say, "You really are amazing."

"Oh! You're awake, huh?"

"Sort of," I admit. "Sorry about Mom going off the deep end a little..."

"Nah, I can't blame her," she says with a yawn. "You should have seen me the first time I saw one of our runners collapse on the track." She shivers slightly before continuing, "Once I saw how you were breathing, I was more worried for your mom than I was for you." Emi's face pinches up, looking like she's thinking about something. "Part of that is because...Hisao, I didn't realize your parents were to be rude, you know...but...well, you're younger than me, but compared to Mom, they're just so..."

I think I know where she's going, so I venture, "So old?" Emi winces at my bluntness, then nods. "It's not that surprising, is it? After all, they were both in their early forties when I was born." Emi looks at me curiously, so I figure now's as good a time as any to tell this story. "They don't like to talk about themselves, but before Mom's father passed away he told me a lot about my parents. They always wanted children, but shortly after they got married Mom had two miscarriages. The doctors told them that she wouldn't be able to bear children after that, and it drove a wedge between my parents. Mom even told my grandfather that she expected Dad to leave her because of it. He didn't, obviously, but over the years they drifted apart, and they both settled into their careers."

Emi nods sympathetically, and I continue, "Around their twentieth wedding anniversary, apparently something happened to convince them to try again. Grandfather didn't go into details, and I didn't ask because I was a kid, but this time they were successful, and I was born. Mom was overjoyed, he said, and over my father's objections she left her finance job to take care of me. Looking back, I think she took care of me a little too well."

"You did say she was kind of overprotective," Emi says with a chuckle, but it's not really that funny to me.

"'Overprotective' doesn't begin to describe it, believe me. Halfway through primary school, it got to the point where I felt like I couldn't set foot outside our house without her following me. When I started playing soccer after school with my friends, I told Mom that I'd joined a club that met every day so that she wouldn't hover over me all the time. She tried to make me think she was happy for me, but to me she just looked like she'd lost something."

I sigh heavily as I consider the next part. "The next school year, Mom got a job in a department store – the same place she works now. She still pampered me any chance she got, but those chances were so rare that I could tolerate them, so we wound up never discussing it. After tonight, I don't think it's happening any time soon, either."

I take a couple of deep breaths, then shift into a sitting position. As comfortable as Emi's lap was, I don't want to fall asleep here again. After thinking a bit, I make a connection I hadn't before. "It's funny, but I think my parents have the same kind of relationship."

"Hm?" Emi says quietly, and I think she might have been dozing off herself. This couch has always had that effect on people.

"Well, that's what they do most of the time: tolerate each other. Sometimes I wonder if they're only together because they have no reason to leave each other. When Mom and I started drifting apart, she really had nobody else. Maybe that's why Mom latched onto Iwanako so strongly, hoping it would bring us closer together again." I turn to Emi, who's listening intently now. "When she accepts you, she might do the same with you."

Emi's expression doesn't change, but there's a hint of an edge in her voice as she says, "You say that like it's a bad thing, Hisao. Are you saying I shouldn't do it?"

I frantically wave her off. "No, not at all! If anything, I'd prefer the opposite!" Emi relaxes, and so do I. "I don't want to go back to being smothered, but I'd like to have a closer relationship with my mother, too. It just can't be on the terms she's locked in on right now. So, if she does come to you..."

Emi smiles at me. "I understand, Hisao. I can see where she could be a little too much, but I'll do my best to get along with her. Your dad...well, your dad's a lot more like you: quiet, serious, and the same idiot hair you've got." She reaches up to try and straighten it, just like my mother used to do, both to him and to me. "He listened to me at dinner, so maybe you get that from him, too."

"Heh, I guess that's possible. Like I said, I don't really know him as well as I'd like, so you might be right about all of that. As for Mom, I know she was a little harsh with you earlier, but..."

Emi shakes her head, and I allow my thought to trail off. "No, that was nothing. I mean, I expected a lot worse, so it's fine. Like you said, she liked Iwanako, and she didn't know me at all. Now, maybe she does, a little. She loves you, Hisao, and so do I. I figure, eventually, we'll come together, you know?"

"Meet somewhere in the middle?" I ask with a wink, and Emi laughs. I sigh happily and say, "You know, you're making entirely too much sense for this late at night. We should probably go to bed." Preemptively, I add, "Our own beds."

Emi goes into a mild pout at the addendum. "Okay, if we have to." She gets up from the couch and starts to walk away, but then pivots and bends over, giving me a long, lingering kiss. "Good night, Hisao," she says teasingly.

Forcing myself to live up to my own words, I say, "Good night, Emi."

She giggles and heads up the stairs, but I decide to stay here for a bit to try and relax. I wind up just feeling restless, so after about half an hour I follow her upstairs and try to sleep. Unfortunately, I just wind up tossing and turning for a couple of hours before I finally give up, get dressed, and go back downstairs. I pour myself a glass of water and sit down at the dining room table, hoping I'll be relaxed enough to sleep soon.

A few minutes later, I hear Emi's quiet voice from the hallway. "Can't sleep, Hisao?"

"Oh," I say, a little startled. I'd been so engrossed in my thoughts that I hadn't even heard her approaching. "Yeah, but this time I'm not sure if it's the medicine or...well, everything else." After a second's pause, I say, "Probably everything else."

Emi comes up behind me, wraps her arms around my neck, and kisses me on the ear. "You wanna talk about it?"

I swing myself around and out of the chair so I can hug her back. I can't help but notice she's wearing the same shirt of mine she was wearing this morning, which feels oddly nice. After a few seconds, I pull back slightly. "Actually, I have a better idea. Would you like to go for a walk?"

"A walk?" Emi says, sounding slightly incredulous. "Right now?"

"Yeah. It's something I used to do all the time when I needed to think. I love Yamaku and all, but at night it's just too quiet. This is where I grew up, so this is where I'm used to walking. It's...oddly comforting, if you know what I mean."

Emi gets a wistful look on her face. "So, kind of like how the track is for me, right? This is where you used to go to clear your head?"

"That's...pretty much it, yeah."

"In that case, let's do it!" Emi says, and I can feel a sudden rush of energy from her. "Just let me get some clothes on!" she says before quietly dashing back up the stairs.

While she's gone I open the front door and, this being September, it's gotten a bit chilly. I take a look in the nearby closet and, as expected, my green jacket is still hanging here. I grab it and put it on, by which time Emi has already returned, dressed in the light blue windbreaker and black exercise pants that she wears to the track on cold mornings. "You brought that stuff with you?" I whisper.

"Well, I was hoping we'd get a run in later," she whispers back, a bit sadly, "but I guess we'll settle for this as our exercise for today." I nod in response, and trying to be quiet I gesture for Emi to follow me out the door, then lock it behind us. As we make our way out to the sidewalk, she asks, "So, are we going anywhere in particular?"

"Not really," I reply, "just over to the business district. It's well-lit, so we shouldn't have any problems." Emi shrugs, and we make our way down the street towards the forest of neon in the distance.

Once we're there, Emi starts craning her neck this way and that, taking in the spectacle. "Back home I don't really spend a lot of time in the city at night," she says, "but I seriously doubt Sendai is this bright at three in the morning."

"No, probably not," I say vaguely. We've already begun following my usual random pattern among these streets. I've done this countless times, so I can fairly easily avoid the areas where the drunks and perverts are likely to be. Still, while the changes I notice are small ones – a closed bar here, a new net café there – they add to a growing feeling that something is off. The sights, the sounds, the smells...all of it seems distinctly alien to me, and I can't help but feel out of place.

As if...I don't belong here anymore.

In a way, everything that's happened since I came back has felt that way, but only a bit – like I'm just slightly out of phase with everything I used to know. Things might seem the same on the surface, but looking a little deeper I see the changes. Iwanako was obvious, but Mai seems like she's gotten bitter, Shin feels a little hollower, maybe Takumi's gotten more serious, and even my own family feels different. I don't really know what I expected to find here, but it wasn't this feeling, as though I'm a tourist in my own life. Thinking about it from that perspective, coming here might have been a waste of time.

Looking over at Emi, who's still taking in the spectacle, I realize that that's wrong. I needed to see these changes for myself, for the sake of being able to move forward. It doesn't matter that things aren't exactly like they were, because things are never exactly like they were. Even if I hadn't had my heart attack and gone to Yamaku, things would have been different; they just would have been different in some other way. Maybe I wouldn't have even noticed, because I would have been here to watch it change. All I can do is take responsibility for the changes that were set in motion by my actions, and for now I've done what penance I can for those. Whatever happens now, I'm willing to live with it.


That's the answer, then, isn't it?

"Hey, Emi?"

"Yeah?" she replies, tearing her eyes away from a rather imposing nearby office building.

"Remember when you asked me if I'd found what I came here for?" Emi nods, looking at me imploringly. I smile contentedly back at her. "I think I found it after all."

Emi looks at me for a moment, then grins broadly. "Good! In that case, you ready to go back to your parents' house?" She lifts one arm and sniffs. "I haven't even gone for a run and I need a shower!"

I laugh. "Yeah, let's go."

I turn to Emi and offer her my arm, which she takes. As we start on our way, the sky is already starting to lighten. "I hope you know how to get back, Hisao," Emi comments, "because I lost track about a dozen streets ago."

"Me? I thought you knew!" Emi just rolls her eyes at my retort, and like that we happily make the fifteen-minute trip back to the house.

When we arrive we try to be as quiet as possible, but it turns out not to be necessary. "Ah, I was wondering where you were," my father says quietly as he emerges from the kitchen and walks toward us. "I was about to make breakfast, and since Emi said you've become an early riser, I thought you might want some as well." He looks slightly amused as he adds, "It appears that you rise even earlier than I'd thought."

Emi chuckles slightly, but I'm the one who responds. "Actually, I couldn't sleep last night, so I decided to go for a walk, and Emi went with me."

"I see," Dad says, sounding a bit reproachful. "Are you sure it was wise to bring a young lady on a walk through the city so late at night?"

This time, it's Emi who preempts my answer. "Don't worry, Mr. Nakai. If anyone comes at Hisao, I'll protect him." She puts on a fierce expression, which causes my father to take a step back. Emi straightens up again with arms akimbo, obviously pleased with herself.

My father can't help but laugh. "I'm sorry," he says, inclining his head in an exaggerated show of deference. "I should never have doubted you. I hope that my humble cooking is sufficient apology for the affront. Since you will be gone before I return, it is the least I can do."

"Thank you, Mr. Nakai," Emi says answering his bow, "I'm sure it will be delicious!"

"Yeah, thanks, Dad," I say tiredly. "We've been walking for a couple of hours, so hopefully you don't mind that we haven't showered."

Dad smiles a little. "Do not concern yourselves for today. At least there's no mistaking the fact that you've been exercising."

I look over at Emi, who grins. "Well, it might not be as good as our usual morning run, but it got the job done."

My father nods, and as he leads us into the kitchen I can see and smell that he already has breakfast well underway. "Even under these circumstances," he says as he tends to the stove, "it is good to see Hisao being active again. I am sure that he has told you that, much to my chagrin, he was never much of an athlete." I roll my eyes at his well-worn complaint, but Emi lays a hand on my arm. "For a while, he devoted his time to soccer, but he never really got serious about it." He glances back at Emi as he continues, "That was always the way of things then, so that he has become serious about things recently pleases me greatly. I have always believed he had that within him. It would seem I have you to thank for bringing that side of him out, so, thank you, Miss Ibarazaki."

"You can call me Emi, Mr. Nakai."

My father turns around and looks at her seriously. "Thank you, Emi."

"I think I understand what you mean, Mr. Nakai. When I first met Hisao, he gave up on running the second time he tried. It took him a while to come around, but now he's pretty serious about that, too."

"Running is very important to you, isn't it?"

"Well, like I told you last night, they don't call me the Fastest Thing on No Legs for nothing!"

"How is it that you came to running, then?"

"I..." Emi starts, then coughs a bit. I squeeze Emi's hand, wondering whether she's going to tell him the story. She nods slightly, takes a deep breath, then says, "My dad was the one who got me into running, and until I met Hisao it was the only thing I was ever serious about. I..." Emi chokes up a little, and I can see a tear forming in the eye nearer to me. "I...lost him eight years ago."

"I see," my father says without turning around. Unless I miss my guess, he's intentionally not facing Emi out of respect. For a few moments, there's an awkward silence as Emi collects herself, followed by a sense of relief at the sound of footsteps descending the stairs.

"Good morning," my mother says, once again using the neutral tone with which she spoke at dinner last night.

"Ah, good morning, mother." Dad says as he starts to bring plates over. "As you can see, breakfast is already prepared."

Mother nods and sits down, and after saying thanks we all start to eat. The mood seems a bit lighter, so I don't want to bring up any more heavy subjects right before we leave. At a loss, I decide to ask Dad about the Giants, and of course he's more than willing to hold court on the topic. Emi joins in as well – although she doesn't follow baseball closely, she seems to know enough to at least keep up her end of things. Mom is still quiet, her expression remaining neutral, and I lower my head when I realize I've left her out of the conversation. When I look up, I'm struck by how much Mom's face right now reminds me of Lilly's trademark placid smile, attempting to cover the emotions churning just below the surface.

Just what IS she thinking?

Then, all too quickly, breakfast is over. My father has to leave for work first, and after he gets dressed he bids us all a pleasant but restrained farewell. "Take care of each other," he tells Emi and me, and his eyes are a little brighter than I remember seeing them in a while.

"We'll do our best," Emi says, and I echo her words. Once he's out of sight, the two of us return to the kitchen to find that Mom has already finished cleaning up and has headed to the bathroom to complete her morning ritual. "Man, I must look like a mess," Emi comments out of the blue. "I'm gonna go clean up. Be back in a flash!"

"Okay," I say, giving her a quick hug before she heads up the stairs. Like my father earlier, I'm sure Emi is being considerate. Like she did with Iwanako, like I did for Emi and her mother, she's giving me the chance to talk to my mother without holding back.

I don't have much time to prepare myself, as Mom comes out shortly thereafter dressed in a snappy business suit. I suppose it's the only way I can picture her anymore. "Oh, Hisao!" Mom says as she comes out, sounding a bit startled. "Were you waiting for me? Where's your friend?"

I cringe inwardly at the term, but try not to let it show. "Emi is upstairs in the bathroom. Actually, while she's not here, there's something I wanted to talk to you about."


"Yes. I wanted to know why, even after what happened last night, you've been treating Emi coldly. Mother, she's my girlfriend, I love her, and I brought her here so you could meet her. Are you that unwilling to approve of us?"

Mom lowers her head slightly and sits down on the couch, gesturing for me to join her. Once I do, she takes a deep breath. "Hisao," she says, sounding a little sad, "When you told me that Iwanako was no longer interested in you, it was like a knife in my heart. During the months you were in the hospital, I got to know her quite well, and I saw how devoted to you she was. I couldn't help but think that she was everything I could wish for in a daughter. When I saw how poorly you were treating her, I couldn't help but hope that eventually, you would realize the mistake you were making and look at her again. When you called me to tell me you were returning, that you were planning to talk to her, I thought my prayers had been answered. Instead, you brought a stranger with you and called her your girlfriend. I was devastated all over again."

"Mom, I..."

"Please, let me finish," Mom says sternly. "I had no choice but to open our home to her, but I could not bring myself to accept the situation fully. However," she says with a sad smile, "I realize now that there is something else I needed to consider. Hisao, I am being unfair to you. I do not like to be reminded of it, but neither of us may have many years left to us." I breathe in sharply at those words, but am unable to say anything. "I do not have the luxury to wait for you to come to your senses, so for now I will accept things as they are."

So, things are laid bare now. I had expected her to be stubborn, but not this much. Still, I find myself surprisingly calm, since I am on firm footing again. "Mom, why are you still doing this? Why can't you just let go of Iwanako and understand that I love Emi?"

"Do you really need me to spell it out for you, Hisao?" Mom says, her voice like a razor. I'm almost afraid to hear what she's going to say, but I nod in the affirmative. "Iwanako would be better able to take care of you, because she's a whole person. She isn't...missing anything. If she'd been here last night, she would have been out of the bathroom and by your side in two seconds instead of having to crawl across the floor like a dog."

What. The. Hell.

I stand there, mouth agape, at my mother's words. My anger tries to make itself felt again, and I feel like I want to just vent everything I've got at her, but then...

...I don't. I realize that no matter what I'd say right now, it's not worth it. Those words don't deserve a response. Even if they did, this is not a fight I'd be able to win today, if I can win it at all. The only thing I can do to get her to see things the way they are, is to show her. Looking my mother dead in the eye, I say, "I understand how you feel, but I cannot accept it."

Mom takes a deep breath, then smiles. Looking at her face right now sickens me, but I swallow my bile. "I know," she says gently, and it's all I can do not to shrink away when she gives me a hug. "That is why I will do what I can to accept Miss Ibarazaki. If she is still a part of your life, please bring her back here over the winter break. I will welcome her with open arms, and we will all move on as best we can." Mom pulls back and slips into her shoes. "Your father was right about you finally being serious about something. I just wish you had chosen something...else." She opens the door, then takes one last look at me over her shoulder. "Have a safe trip back to Yamaku, Hicchan."

After Mom leaves, I step back and sit down wearily on the couch. Whatever energy I had has been stripped away, and trying to process what she just said only serves to make my head spin.

How could she...does she understand what she said? And that if it applies to Emi, it applies to me just as much?

Realizing that Emi is still upstairs, I struggle back to my feet. Feeling very tired and not a little nauseated, I slowly walk toward the stairs, only to see Emi coming down. "I heard the door close, so I thought I'd—Hisao? What's wrong?"

I turn my head and look back toward the front door, as if Mom might have somehow reappeared there. I shake my head, trying to clear the cobwebs, and then say, "No, it's nothing." After realizing what I said, I add, "Well, nothing worth dwelling on right now, anyway."

Emi looks at me dubiously, then says, "Okay, Hisao, I'll take your word on that, buuuut if I catch you doing any dwelling on the way home, you're spilling. You got it?"

"Got it."

Emi quickly shifts to a smile and holds up the basket she carried down. "Good! Now, do you think you're up for that shower?"

"Yeah," I say, and the two of us head back upstairs. After taking a shared shower – which winds up being our way around my parents – and checking one last time that we didn't forget anything, we sling our bags over our shoulders and head down the stairs to the front door. Emi walks out first, and before I follow I turn around to look at the house again. It may not have changed much physically since January, but it has changed, and at least for today I'm happy to leave it behind.

Closing my eyes, I pass through the door and back to the rest of the world. After locking the bolt, I turn around to see a familiar, yet unexpected, figure walking up the street toward us. "Mai?" I exclaim in surprise. "I thought..."

"Yeah, I know, so, I changed my mind. I'm entitled, right? And this is the new girlfriend I heard about from Shin, huh?" She looks at Emi with a half-smile. "I hear I don't need to tell you to take care of him, but I will anyway."

"Thanks?" Emi says uncertainly. "Anyway, it's nice to meet you, Mai. I thought we weren't gonna get the chance."

"Yeah, same," Mai says tersely. "I wasn't planning to come, but I talked to Iwanako last night, and figured I should. Is that a problem?"

"No, not at all," I say. "It's just that the timing is a little...awkward, since we were just on our way to the station."

"Shit...well, why don't I just walk you guys there?" Mai asks. "Should be enough time to say what I gotta say."

"Yeah, sounds good," I reply, and the three of us start off down the street. At first, things are quiet among us, and I feel a little tense. I'm hesitant to start the conversation after my earlier phone calls with Mai, but she doesn't seem inclined to say anything herself. Hoping it doesn't make things worse, I decide to bite the bullet. "So you and Iwanako seem pretty close now," I say casually. "I know you knew each other, but I didn't think you hung out much anymore."

"Yeah, I figured you'd see it like that," Mai replies, and her clouded look makes me doubt my choice of topics. After another moment, Mai runs her fingers through her hair and says, "We started talking a lot while you were in the hospital, and we kinda bonded over that. This year we're in the same class, and I even got her to join the judo club."

"Wow," I reply with a chuckle, both because I never pictured that being possible, and because it explains the changes to her physique. "I never expected to hear that."

Mai looks over at me with an unreadable expression before continuing. "I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I think you should know. The day she stopped going to the hospital, Iwanako kinda had a breakdown – and I mean a fucking full-on, crying all over me breakdown. She felt like she'd done all she could for you, and it was her damn fault that you were closed off."

"I know. We talked about that a little..."

"Yeah, and she forgave you in two seconds, right? That's what she does. She didn't want to rip you a new one over something that in her mind is over and done with. I talked her down back then, but I couldn't really help her, 'cause I felt like I didn't know you anymore. You fuckin' abandoned us, Hisao. All of us."

"I know that, too," I say with a sigh, looking down at the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I see Emi glaring at Mai, but thankfully she doesn't say anything. "That's why I came here, to apologize. I don't expect it to make everything all better, but I knew I needed to at least do this much."

"H'yeah, Shin might've bought that, but I'm gonna need a little time to think about it. I just came down here because I wanted to say I was wrong. I thought you'd be comin' here to try and make things happen with Iwanako again, and I didn't want to have to watch her break down all over again for her trouble. I was planning on being the one to do the ripping, but after talking to her, to Shin, and to you, it sounds like you might already be doing it to yourself." We've arrived at the station now, and Mai turns to me. "You know, I think you grew up a little at that school of yours, Hisao. So, this time, when I tell you to go back there, it's not because I'm pissed." Mai shoots a quick look at Emi, then turns back to me. "Take care of yourself, Hisao."

I grin and look at Emi as well. "I'm not very good at that, so that's her job."

Mai laughs, then says, "As long as it's someone's. Well, I guess I'd better get to school – only missed two classes today, so they probably won't care. I'll see you two around, huh?"

"Probably," says Emi with a smile. Mai walks off with a vague wave, and the two of us head for the train.

Since it's still early, things are still somewhat crowded, so there isn't much chance for us to talk until we've already boarded the Shinkansen at Tokyo Station. We settle into our seats, with Emi once again sitting by the window. The train soon pulls out, and she falls asleep almost immediately. After last night's activity, I'm not surprised, but it mean that now I have to stay awake so we don't miss our stop. Looking at her leaning comfortably against my arm, I think that maybe a little peace and quiet couldn't hurt after all.

As we speed on our way back toward Sendai, I find myself lost in thought. As I've been reminded often these last two days, a lot has happened since I first left Tokyo. I really was lost, and feeling sorry for myself, and at first I really needed a comfortable place to land. Lilly gave me that, and even though things didn't go well, I'll always be thankful for that. Still, looking back, I can't help but see those early days at Yamaku as having a black cloud hanging over them, left over from my days in the hospital. If things had gone differently with Emi, maybe that black cloud would have loomed over us, too. Not that it matters anymore, because things change, and any one choice I made might have sent things in a different direction. The fact is, in the end, I can't imagine them having gone in a better one.

That's what really bothers me about my conversation with my mother this morning. She did something that, even though I've seen it, and had to fight against doing it myself at first, I never thought I'd see from my own family: think about a person only in terms of their disability. More than that, she'd done it to the girl I love. I don't know if she knows how much that hurts, or if she even cares. She thinks she's doing what's right for me, but she's not thinking hard enough. She said she wants us to come back during winter break, but I don't know if I'll be able bring myself to inflict that kind of atmosphere on Emi. The thing is, I know that if I don't, things will only get worse, and I'll miss out on my best chance to bring everyone together.

If I even CAN.

DAMN it.

I'm glad Emi's asleep, so she doesn't have to see the face I'm making right now.

I know this isn't something I'm going to be able to solve now. All I can do is hope that things will get better with time, and maybe some nudging from me. For now, I pace up and down the aisle a bit, get a can of coffee from the food cart, and do everything else I can think of to stay awake until we arrive in Sendai.

When we finally reach our destination, I nudge Emi awake. "Ugh...oh, man, did I sleep the whole way back?" she mutters as she rubs her eyes. "Sorry, Hisao." she says, then stands up and stretches. "Crap, our schedules are going to be so out of whack the next few days."

"Yeah, probably," I say as I retrieve our bags and hand Emi's to her. "I won't ask to skip our run tomorrow if you don't."

"Heh, putting the burden on me, eh? I think you know what my answer will be!" Her energy apparently restored, she bounces her way out to the aisle, and the two of us make our way up and out. "Ah, I'm ready to get back, though. I've got a lot of studying ahead of me if I'm going to catch up!"

"Yeah, so you keep reminding me," I reply, and Emi sticks out her tongue. I laugh, and I suddenly feel like bouncing a little bit myself.

We walk out of the station to the elevated busway. As we near the bus stop, I hear an unfamiliar voice calling my name. I look down the platform to see a girl who looks like she's waving to us. Taking a couple of steps in her direction, I recognize her as Tainaka, the girl who sits behind Misha. Looking more closely, I see a much more familiar figure, and one I would never have expected to see just now. Seeing the same thing, Emi asks, "Hey, isn't that Hanako over there next to that girl?"

"Yeah, I think it is." I hesitate for a moment, debating with myself whether talking to Hanako right now is a good idea. We haven't seen each other since I rejected her, and I don't know what she's feeling right now. However, since she already knows I'm here, avoiding her would probably be the worse option. "We'd better get over there before Tainaka makes her disappear." I quickly start making my way through the crowd.

"Aren't they here together, though?" Emi says, easily keeping pace with me.

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean Hanako's comfortable." As I say that, though, I see Tainaka approaching us, with Hanako sticking...well, not right with her, but a good deal closer than I remember her walking with me the first few times. Maybe they know each other better than I thought.

"Nakai, that's you, right?" Tainaka says as our two duos meet near a row of vending machines. She holds out her hand, and I hesitantly shake it. It feels...odd, and then I notice that it also looks a bit odd. "And you're Ibarazaki," she says, repeating the ritual, "Tezuka's hallmate. I've heard a lot about you. I'm Ritsu Tainaka, class 3-3, severe carpal tunnel syndrome!" She throws both hands into the air in front of Emi.

"Um...Tainaka...nice to meet you, but...what are you..." Emi says, taking a step backwards.

"Oh! Heh, um," Tainaka sputters and withdraws her hands. "I heard Tezuka likes to collect people with different problems. Since I don't know if I'll get to meet her, I thought maybe you could collect me for her!"

"You...want to meet Rin?" Emi asks incredulously. "I'm...pretty sure I can set that up for you..."

"Great! So, tell me, is it true that she slept outside for days when she was..."

As Tainaka buttonholes Emi to talk about Rin, Hanako surprises me by coming over to stand next to me. "H-how did things go with...your parents?" she asks, stunning me even further. Hanako continues, "Sorry, I...called Lilly this morning, and she said you T-Tokyo."

"Ah, right," I reply, glad that Lilly didn't mention the other reason I went. I shake off my daze and reply, "I think things went okay."

"That's a r-relief, isn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess you could say that. What about you? How are you doing?"

Hanako studies my face for a moment, but before she can say anything Emi pries herself away from Tainaka. "Don't mind Hisao, I think he's just tired. We didn't get much sleep this trip..." Emi starts to say, and then Hanako starts to blush, and she continues, "No no no! Not like that! Hisao was just...kinda stressed out, you know? We didn't even get a chance to run to clear our heads or anything!" Hanako giggles a little at Emi being flustered, and then Emi starts to laugh, too. "Sorry, sorry! I do wish I'd been able to see the running tracks they have there – I bet they're a lot fancier than the one we've got." She looks back and forth between Tainaka and Hanako, then asks, " Anyway, what are you two doing here in the city?"

"Hanako's taking up photography, so we came to buy her a camera," Tainaka replies.

Hanako holds up the item in question, which is on a strap around her neck. "That's why I called Lilly, to ask her aunt about a...g-good place to buy one in the city. I'm thinking about making it my c-career, so I...used the money I saved for the t-trip to buy this. We're on our way back now."

I never knew Hanako had an interest like that, but I suppose there are probably a lot of things I never got the chance to find out about her. As I consider asking more about it, Tainaka steps forward, her face brightening. "Hey!" she says animatedly. "Why don't you take a picture of these two? They're here, right?"

"That's t-true, Ritsu," Hanako says, starting to fidget a little. "I h-haven't used it yet, but...I s-suppose I could use the practice..."

I start to feel a little anxious myself, but then Emi interjects. "Sounds great to me!" Emi stands next to me, nudging me in the ribs before putting her arm around my waist. "Just let us know when you're ready!"

Hanako hesitates for a few seconds. At first, I'm concerned that the pressure might be too much, and that she might decline because of it. She closes her eyes for a few seconds, standing stock still. When she opens them again, she smiles shyly. "Okay, I will. This way, m-my first first memory with my first c-camera will be of...people who m-made this summer the first one I've really...enjoyed in a l-long time."

Emi and I look at each other, we share a knowing smile, and I put my arm around her shoulders. I look over at Tainaka, who's got a bit of a goofy grin as she shrugs in confusion herself. "All right, then," I say, "I'm ready."

"We'll get copies of it, right?" Emi asks pointedly. "I mean, this is a historic event, so we'd better get copies!"

"O-of course," Hanako says, now a little flustered again. "I'll...make sure you b-both get one. Just let me s-set it up." She looks down at her camera and starts to fiddle with it. "Could you move that way a little?" she asks, waving us to our left a couple of meters. I look behind us, and it seems she's trying to get the train station in the background. Once we're positioned, she looks up at us, then back to the camera. "Okay, ready. Cheese!"

The two of us hold our pose, and the camera clicks. Tainaka leans over Hanako's shoulder to look, then winks and gives us a thumbs-up. Hanako smiles in relief, and the two of us come over to look as well. It's small, so it's hard to tell, but it looks good enough to me. "Nice one!" Emi says, looking happy, and just then the bus for Yamaku pulls into the busway.

Once the four of us climb aboard, Emi sits down next to me with a big grin, and the bus pulls away. Like when we get off the Shinkansen, her whole body is moving with her typical, seemingly boundless energy. In the seat in front of us, Hanako is talking excitedly with Tainaka about the picture she just took. After feeling really tired for the last 36 hours or so, I even feel a little energized myself. It might seem odd, but I think all in all there's one thing I've felt more often at Yamaku than I have in a long, long time: happy.

I remember what Dad said about coming to Yamaku being the start of a new life for me. I think I'd call it more of a new chapter – I wanted to close and lock the door on my old life, but in reality, I can't. I'll always carry that with me, and I think that's just fine. What's more important right now, though, is all of the memories, all of the relationships that I've developed here, that will be what I carry forward into the rest of my life. I lean over to kiss Emi, who looks a little surprised, and then finally lean back in my seat with a contented sigh.

It was a pretty good summer after all.


Prev | Next

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.60 posted 8/2

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 1:11 pm
by brythain
Next? Next?! That can't be all?! Surely?

Aww, I really loved this last (no, not last?!) chapter. Argh. I can see all the bits Leaty put you up to. "大道寺" indeed. :D

Will digest and then resume. Thanks so very much!

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.60 posted 8/2

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 4:04 pm
by Hoitash
You know, it's always interesting to read people's views of Hisao's parents.

your interpretation was... realistic to a degree that I find disheartening, but that's a personal problem. Excellent work, excellent chapter, and glad to see you back.

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.60 posted 8/3

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 4:56 pm
by Oscar Wildecat
Have to think on this chapter...

But, what immediately stood out to me was the contrast between Hisao's new environment ("Mother of the Year" :roll: :x notwithstanding) and his old. Hisao's old town felt so disjointed -- for the lack of a better term -- compared to Yamaku.

To elaborate, while the relationship matrix of Yamaku has shaken up over the course of the story, and a few major breaks have occurred, what's come out of it seems to be a new and hopefully better whole. On the other hand, back in Tokyo, things have seemed to fallen apart completely, with the exception of Iwanako and Mai.

Now, back to thinking...

Re: Developments (Post-Lilly Neutral End) - Ch.60 posted 8/3

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 5:56 pm
by forgetmenot
Huh. Lots of stuff happening in this chapter.

Hisao's conversation with Iwanako was sublime. I wish it had lasted a bit longer.

Good job on the whole.