It's Sunday morning, and the house is surprisingly quiet. It's the last day before I start school again, and I am admittedly not particularly looking forward to it. Still, I do have this one day, and I am certainly going to do my best to enjoy it.
Once I've made myself properly presentable, I make my way downstairs to the kitchen, where I'm greeted by the smell of slightly burned eggs. "Happy one week anniversary in Scotland, Lils."
My sister says it with such wonderful mock sincerity that I can't help but laugh a little. "You're too kind, Akira, but thank you." After a quick hug, I add, "You're also out of practice."
"Sis, you of all people should know that I was never in
I laugh softly again, finding a place at the table so that I can once again enjoy a feeling I've missed so much. This is the first day since my return that I've had the chance to spend some time alone with my sister, and it brings back a lot of memories, pleasant and unpleasant alike. I'm reminded of the years we spent sharing an apartment in Sendai, not least because our parents have left us to fend for ourselves, at least for today. Apparently, one of father's business associates invited them on an excursion of some kind, and they were unable to get out of the obligation.
It's little different from how things have been all week, unfortunately. I've barely seen Father or Akira, and Mother has been friendly, but oddly distant. Neither have I seen any of the relatives who greeted me on the day after I arrived. I suppose I really am as much of a stranger to them as they are to me, if not more so, but it feels as though I'm the only one trying to close that distance.
Although I understand, I've been unable keep myself from becoming frustrated by the situation. After all, my decision to come here was predicated largely on a desire to please my family, in hopes that we might grow closer again. At the time I made the decision, I thought that would be enough. After all, they were the ones who had asked me to return, and why would they do that if they didn't want the same thing? Yet, as the days of freedom I've had to acclimate myself became fewer and fewer, I still find myself spending more time with my mobility trainer than any of my family.
So, when Hanako called the other day, I was more than happy to hear a familiar voice. As we talked I was more and more reminded of what I'd lost by coming here. I was taken aback by her admission that she'd already confessed to Hisao, but I had already prepared myself for that blow. At least, that's what I had told myself.
However, things changed when the topic turned to my own relationship with Hisao. I had intended to express how poorly rushing into my own confession had turned out for me. Hanako's response, that my mistake was in not being careless enough
, was...unexpected. In that moment, all the frustration I'd been feeling came to the surface, and I let a comment slip that I shouldn't have.
Immediately, I tried to apologize, but I couldn't find the right words. After I hung up, I stood there, stunned by my own behavior. The handset slipped from my grasp and fell to the floor, breaking into pieces. I collapsed onto the bed and remained there for what felt like days, waiting for Mother to come upstairs to scold me, or even just to see what was wrong. She never did. Eventually, I came downstairs to find my lunch on the dining room table, but heard no sign of anyone. When I returned from my mobility session that evening, I found everything had been cleaned up, and there was a new phone on my nightstand.
As I lay in bed last night, I knew that I hadn't gotten angry at Hanako, but at myself. I hadn't been able to argue with her, because even if I couldn't admit it, what she'd said was true.
As Akira sets our breakfast on the table, she asks, "What's on your mind, sis?"
"Nothing," I say, knowing that Akira will push me anyway. For today, at least, I don't mind.
"I know that look, Lils. Something's got you going. What's going on?"
"Hanako called on Friday," I say, taking a sip of tea.
"Oh, yeah?" Akira says between bites. "So how's she doing?"
"She seemed somewhat...troubled, but better than the last time we spoke, I think."
"Huh. If I had to guess, I'd say she's not the only one who's troubled."
"I never could hide something like that from you," I say with a sad smile. "Not that I didn't try."
Akira laughs. "Yeah...like that time the Kobashi kid took your history paper and snuck it back to you after copying it."
"You laugh, but I almost got expelled over that!"
"Yeah, because you were just as stubborn in junior high as you are now, and wouldn't admit you'd lost track of it. So, spill. I promise whatever it is will stay between me, you, and the black pudding."
I take a deep breath before responding. "Apparently, there have been some...interesting developments in the week since I left Yamaku."
"Interesting, huh? Well, a week's a long time. A lot can happen."
"Indeed it can, Akira. For instance, one's best friend might confess their feelings to one's ex-boyfriend."
This sends my sister, who had a mouthful of food, into a coughing fit. When she recovers, she says, "Wow, you said that with such a straight face..." She stops, apparently taking things in. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"I am indeed. She told me about it herself."
Akira says nothing for a while. "I...had an inkling that she might like Hisao, but I never thought she'd act on it like that. Did you know anything about it?"
I muster the best smile I can. "I should have, if I'd been honest with myself. Before I left, I'd assured Hanako that he'd be there for her, and when I called her the other day, the subject came up. Although she wouldn't come out and say it, I could tell from the way she spoke about him that her feelings ran deeper than friendship. Since my own relationship with Hisao had been damaged beyond repair, I decided that I couldn't stand in her way and still have a clear conscience, so I gave her my blessing to pursue him. I guess I...just didn't think it would happen so soon."
"You mean while you were still in love with him yourself?"
I open my mouth to answer, but quickly shut it again. I couldn't answer that question for the past two weeks, but yesterday I realized that I knew what the answer was. Obviously, my sister knows, too. I lower my head, saying, "That...doesn't matter anymore."
"Right, sis. It doesn't matter anymore to anyone who means anything. Since I know you don't count yourself in that category, I'll drop the subject."
"Thank you," I say, pointedly ignoring my sister's attempt to restart this argument.
There's silence for a few moments before Akira speaks up again. "So you finally gave up on the kid, huh?" I prepare myself to rebuff her again, but she continues, "Sorry, I was talking about this thing with Hanako. You actually gave her permission to go after Hisao?"
I reply, simply, "Yes."
Akira is silent again, and I can almost hear her mulling the situation over in her head. "Okay, I...guess if he's not going to be with you, the two of them would make a good match." She says this very deliberately, and I can tell my sister is forcing herself not to make this about me. "You told me that you thought he helped her a lot, and obviously she likes him. So, what's the problem?"
"The problem is that Hisao hasn't answered her yet."
"Ah...yeah. Well, I can understand that, considering how soon...but what the heck was the rush, anyway?"
"Hanako is supposed to be leaving on a trip with her friends from the newspaper club this week. She wanted Hisao to know how she felt before she left."
"Okay, that's understandable...but, still..."
"She also seems to believe there's someone else who has her sights on Hisao, and is afraid that they might become closer while she's gone."
"Heh...that'd be a pretty heavy motivation, wouldn't it? Well, I did say a lot can happen in a week. So what's the kid think about all this?"
"I wouldn't know. I haven't talked to him in several days, and the last time we spoke it was...somewhat tense."
"Yeah, I can imagine." Akira pauses for a moment as she takes another bite of her breakfast. "This other girl, it isn't anyone I know, is it?"
Despite myself, I laugh a bit at that. "No, and thank goodness for that."
The two of us say nothing for a moment, the silence broken only by the clinking of utensils and teacups. Finally, Akira says, "So, I can't help but feel like that's not the only thing bothering you."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I hate to bring up another sore subject, but how are things with you and our parents?"
"Akira," I say, hoping to stop this before it starts, "today is the first day we've had to spend together since we arrived. Can we try to enjoy it rather than argue throughout?"
Akira makes an annoyed sound. "I was kinda thinking we were just getting the argument out of the way early for that same reason. You know, it hasn't been easy for me to watch that smile of yours look more and more forced every time I see you."
"I understand that, Akira. I just don't think I'm in the right frame of mind to listen to you speak badly of our parents again."
"I shouldn't need to," Akira says pointedly.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"C'mon, Lils, can't you see what's going on here? Have the four of us done anything as a family since we got back? You passed that off when we were here last month because of our aunt, but what's the excuse now? You don't think, if he wanted to, our father couldn't get a few days off to spend with his daughter? If he had enough pull to get me my citizenship without jumping through hoops, he can do that. Instead, he decided it was more important to go fishing with his buddy from the company. Pffft."
"I'm sure it's more complicated than that."
"It always is, isn't it? Look, I don't care if I sound like a broken record, but things aren't ever going to be as rosy as you want them to be. You need to face reality. Our parents didn't summon you back here because they wanted you here. They did it because they didn't trust you to take care of yourself without me around to play mother hen."
I sigh heavily at that. I've heard it before, certainly, and I can't deny that my own feelings are starting to waver, but it does get tiresome. Perhaps a change of topic will lighten the mood. "Whatever the reason, we all still need to appreciate that we're together. I believe a shopping trip is in order."
Akira grumbles something I can't quite make out, then says, "Okay, I get the message. If you can stay cheerful for the rest of the day, I'll do my best not to moan about things, too."
I smile, reaching out to give my sister's hand a squeeze. "I appreciate it."
"I'll clean up down here, you get yourself ready."
"I'll be back shortly," I say with a smile. However, before I even reach the stairs, the phone rings. From the new phone in my room, I can hear the audible caller ID announce something that makes me freeze in my tracks.
"Call from Hisao Nakai."
After a second such announcement, Akira says, "Are you gonna answer it?"
"Do you think I should?"
"Sis, after what you just told me, if you don't I'll answer it and hand it to you anyway."
I sigh, shaking my head. "Very well. At least give me some privacy."
"Wouldn't dream of doing otherwise," she says, and I can hear her voice and her footsteps receding toward the sitting room. With no small amount of trepidation, I pick up the phone.
"It's...good to hear from you. I have to say, after our last conversation, I wasn't sure I'd be talking to you again so soon."
"I can understand that. Actually, that's...kind of why I called. I wanted to apologize for how I acted when you called me the other day. I should have let you say what you wanted to say about...our relationship."
"Hisao, there's no need to apologize for that. I should have known you'd still be hurt, so I shouldn't have brought it up."
"No, Lilly, you had every right to. As you said, things had been left rather...I think "unsettled" was the word you used, and if nothing else, it would have been good to have things settled, right? Had I let you say what you needed to say, I wouldn't have had to hear it from Hanako, and maybe we both could have had an easier time of it."
"No, it's all right. I already knew how things stood with you, but...actually hearing how you felt gave me the chance to close that chapter and move on. I'm just sorry I didn't let you tell me directly."
"I'm...not sure I understand. I...had thought...when we said goodbye..."
Hisao laughs, and I'm not sure if the bitterness I hear comes from him, or if it's in my own ears. "I...still wasn't sure how I felt then. I knew you were moving on, but I don't think I ever fully did until that day."
I pause, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The farcical nature of these past few weeks has been fully revealed. We both set out to move on, thinking that the other one already had.
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss...
And now, I take the stage again to play my part. "I'm...happy that my words to Hanako gave you what you needed, then. I...hope we can both find peace from this now."
"So do I, Lilly," Hisao says gently.
I move the phone away from my face and take a deep breath. I think I'm as ready to continue as I'm ever going to be. "I...understand that you've already received a confession since my departure, Hisao," I say in as light a manner as I can.
Hisao is quiet for a moment. "I had a feeling you would know about that, somehow," he says, and I can tell he's smiling a little. "I have to admit, I don't think I was really prepared for it."
"Is that why you haven't answered her?"
Hisao sighs. "It's...complicated. Are you sure you want to discuss this, under the circumstances?"
"Not...entirely, perhaps, but I'd be remiss if I didn't at least try to listen to you. You and Hanako are both very dear to me, despite all that has happened, and I don't want to see either of you hurt."
"That's good to hear. I was...concerned, with the way things have been, that you wouldn't consider me a friend."
Hisao's words sting a bit. Despite what has happened in the meantime, and despite the distance, in my heart I still feel the bond that the three of us formed. In some sense, I still think of us as a family, apart from the one into which I was born. "Hisao, no matter what happens, I will always think of you, and Hanako, as much more than just friends."
"I should know that, but it's good to be reminded." I smile inwardly at that. "But to answer your question, I haven't responded to Hanako because I don't know how. I hadn't even considered the possibility until a couple days ago, and I didn't feel like I could accept until I'd had a chance to come to terms with it. But after how I felt when we kissed...I knew I couldn't turn her down either, at least not yet."
Did he...just say what I think he said?
"Ahaha...I suppose it's more accurate to say that she kissed me, and I responded. She...didn't tell you?"
I know why she didn't tell me, under the circumstances, but that's something I'm not about to reveal. "No, I'm afraid I...wasn't privy to that detail. You do know that was her first kiss, Hisao."
"Yeah, I thought as much. Trust me, that significance isn't lost on me, either, any more than the fact that what I felt when it happened was definitely more than just friendship."
"I'm not sure I understand, then. If that is the case..."
"...why haven't I said anything to her since then? Because I want to be sure of myself, and until now I just haven't been able to think clearly. Talking to you and clearing the air was one of the things I felt I had to do. I just...wish I had more time."
"Hisao, I know Hanako would prefer to hear your answer before she left, but I know that she would be willing to wait until her return, if that was what you needed."
Hisao is quiet for a moment, which rouses my suspicion. "I wish it were that easy."
I can hear Hisao swallowing hard, trying to bring himself to say something. I decide it's easiest to save him the trouble. "Emi?"
"Oh...Hanako knows...about her liking me?"
"She suspects, at least."
Hisao sighs heavily. "The two of us had been getting closer over the past couple weeks, but we both held back because I was still...well, getting over you. Ever since Hanako's confession, I've been trying to figure out how I feel about them both before she leaves, but...it's not something that can be figured like that."
"No, it isn't, is it?" I say, unsure of what else I can add. "I...really wish I had some wisdom to share," I say, chuckling, "but it seems I'm fresh out. All I can do is wish you both...actually, that's not fair. I should wish all three of you good luck in sorting this all out."
Hisao laughs slightly as well, saying, "Yeah, I think we all need it. Thanks for listening, Lilly."
"You're welcome, Hisao. Take care."
I love you...
As I hang up the phone, I hear the sound of a throat being cleared. "So," comes Akira's soft voice from behind me, "you still care that much about those two."
"Sorry, I tried not to listen, but I couldn't help myself." I hear my sister walking toward me as she talks. "Kinda glad I didn't have anyone like that in Japan, or it would've been a lot harder for me."
"But your boyfriend..."
"Ah, it was never really that serious. I know I should've wanted it to be, but I've never been one to go in for tradition. Sometimes I wonder if that's why Dad made me the offer when he did, because he thinks now that I'm 25 I'm on my way to being an old maid." Akira laughs bitterly. "But you...you really do think of Hisao and Hanako like family, don't you?"
I smile wistfully. "I do. You might think it's strange to feel that way about people I've known for such a short time..."
"Nah," she says dismissively. "I can see why you think that way." She pauses for a moment before adding, "So tell me, are you that traditional, that you have to follow our parents' example that far?"
The sudden shift in tone confuses me for a moment. "W-what do you mean?"
"Well, didn't you pretty much do to them what our parents did to us six years ago?"
I can't help but fall silent at Akira's words. Hisao and I used to joke about us being fools playing at being adults, but...was it really playing? As I think about it, my decision to answer my parents' summons was my own final admission to myself that yes, it was playing after all.
No. Not an admission. A choice
. By my own free will, I decided
that how we all felt at Yamaku was born of pretense. I decided that, not just for myself, but for all three of us. Thinking about it that way, it was pretty much the height of selfishness. "Akira...I..."
"Sis," Akira says quietly from right next to me, "you don't have to say anything." She puts her arms around me, and I suddenly feel like I'm twelve years old again. My big sister's shoulder was always the best one on which to cry. "When you talked on the way to the airport about forming your own little family with them, I thought it was just a figure of speech, you know? But...you really did feel that way about them, didn't you?"
I nod as I try to gather myself. "I still do, Akira."
"I can see that. I didn't put the whole picture together until just now. I can't hold it against you for not thinking about it like that."
"You're right that I hadn't...but maybe I should have. Sometimes...I feel like I threw everything I had away when I got on that plane, except for you. Maybe I should have listened to you after all."
Instead of agreeing immediately, Akira just leans back against the counter and sighs. "Maybe. Problem is, it's a lot harder to undo things than it is not to do them in the first place."
I pull away from Akira and find my way into a chair, feeling badly worn out. "Do you even think it can
"Yeah, I think so. Not all of it, but some of it. It depends on what you're willing to do to make it happen."
What I'm willing to do.
"You really think I should go back, don't you?"
Akira pauses for a moment before saying, quietly, "You're actually considering it, aren't you?"
"I...suppose I am."
"It's about time," Akira says, coming over and kissing me on the top of the head. "That's all I ever wanted you to do, sis. Now come on," she nearly shouts, clapping me on the shoulder, "enough of this maudlin stuff. Let's go do some shopping!"
I go upstairs to get my handbag, laughing at my sister's ability to shift gears so easily. I have to admit, though, that I do feel a little bit better. Still, as I prepare to leave my room, I find myself standing in front of my dresser. I bend down and trace the outline of the bottom drawer with my hand, but decide not to open it. As I make my way back downstairs to join Akira, I can't help but think of the words of the Bard of my mother's land.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Another longer one, and apparently the trend of longer chapters is a continuing one, as this one was nearly 4,000 words.
Also, I probably should have just let this chapter answer the issue from Chapter 22 rather than jump in to defend myself. I suppose when I'm challenged by someone I respect as much as I do Mirage, I'm more likely to try and explain than to do what I normally would and say "there's a reason for that, which will eventually be shown." My apologies for doing otherwise.
Anyway, hope everyone enjoys this chapter, and as always feedback is very much welcome!