"Hisao," Hanako says quietly, "I...don't think I want to be alone...right now. C-could you...keep me company...for a while?"
I'm surprised by this. I don't want to read anything into it, but even taken at face value it's something I wasn't expecting. "Sure," I say softly, trying to smile at her. "I think we have a lot to talk about."
She opens the door, and I follow her into the building. As we climb up the stairs to the second floor, I can feel my heart rate starting to speed up, but not from the exertion. I suppose in a situation like this it's normal, but given what I've been through recently I need to keep an eye on it.
Hanako's room is the first one on the right as we exit the stairwell. Although I've never been inside, I've stood at this door often enough to remember. When she opens it, my first thought is that the room looks even emptier than mine. Maybe it's the way the light comes into the room, but even the walls seem more pale than mine, giving the entire area a somewhat washed-out look.
After Hanako turns on the light, she quickly closes and locks the door, then removes her cap and jacket, putting them in the closet. Before she turns to face me again, she takes the lock of hair that covers the right side of her face and tucks it behind her ear, the same way she did right before she confessed to me. The considered way in which she does it is quite alluring, and my heart starts to race a bit again.
The sight triggers a flashback to the first time I saw Hanako, on the day I introduced myself to my new classmates. I didn't know who she was at the time, but I remember thinking how beautiful her hair was, and how she tried to hide from me behind it. In the process of trying to shield herself from my attention, she piqued it. Other aspects of her may have dominated our interactions in the meantime, but I've never forgotten that.
I just had...other things on my mind.
"P-please, Hisao," Hanako says, a bit more nervously than is usual for her lately, "come in and s-sit down."
As she says this, I realize I still haven't budged from the doorway. I hesitantly step in as Hanako sits on her bed, and I notice the shelves on the wall above it, a feature my own room lacks. Sitting there amidst the odds and ends, I see the doll that I had given Hanako for her birthday, as well as the stuffed bear she received from Lilly.
Bringing her desk chair over to face the bed, I sit down across from Hanako. When my eyes return to her, she's watching me curiously. "Hisao," she says in a small voice, "C-can I...ask you something?"
Hanako takes a deep breath, closing her eyes. "If...you and Emi...w-why did you...go out with me today? Why are you h-here now?"
The questions take me aback, even more so when I realize Hanako is asking sincerely. "Heh...I suppose it would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn't it?" I say, lowering my head and sighing heavily. "I meant it when I said that I wanted a fresh start, but I guess that's easier said than done. With Emi, I never even got the words out. I...just wish I had told you about it myself."
Hanako's voice gets even quieter. "Don't...blame yourself, Hisao. I sh-shouldn't expect you to...tell me about things like that. I...should know they're going to h-happen, s-so it...shouldn't hurt like that."
My head snaps up at that, and Hanako jumps back a bit, startled. "Don't say something like that! Of course..." I look down again, unable to look her in the eye, and take a deep breath. "Of course it should hurt. As I've now been reminded twice today, I'm hurting both of you by not being able to make a decision. How can any of this not
be my fault?"
"But if I hadn't confessed to you when I did...then..." Hanako lowers her head, and I can see tears forming in her eyes again. "Th-then you...w-wouldn't have to worry about...hurting me. You...you wouldn't have to...worry about...h-how you feel about me. You...could just be with Emi..."
I look at Hanako incredulously. This whole line of reasoning is just coming out of the blue, but this is obviously something she's been thinking about. I don't even know how to respond to it, but I feel like I must. "Hanako...I didn't know how I felt about Emi when you confessed. I'm not sure I do even now, but that doesn't matter. There's one thing I do know, and it's something that I've learned from the harsh experience of these past weeks."
As I take my hand and put it on top of Hanako's, she draws back slightly in surprise and looks up at me again. She remains silent, waiting for me to continue. "Dwelling on what you could have done is a waste of time when you're still dealing with the reality of what you have
done. I spent so much time trying to figure out what went wrong between me and Lilly that I might have lost the chance to repair the damage. Even after that, I've lost chances to get closer to you, and to Emi, that might have meant not having to deal with the pain I'm causing you both now."
"Hanako, keeping my feelings from people has cost me far too much in my life already. The last thing I could ever do would be to tell you that you should have kept yours from me."
Hanako lowers her head again. "But...k-keeping my feelings from people...is w-what I've always done. I'm...used to it now."
That strikes an ominous chord for me, and I wonder again how long she kept her feelings for me hidden. "Hanako," I start, but the words catch in my throat. Looking across at her, I can tell she's feeling like she's opened herself up more than she's comfortable with doing right now. Almost instinctively, I get up from the chair and move to sit on the bed next to her, putting my arm around her shoulders.
As if she was waiting for this, she rests her head on my shoulder as well, and sighs softly. "Maybe I'll never be able to do anything else."
I'm suddenly struck by the incongruity of what she said with the position we're in now. "Hanako, just the fact that you and I can talk like this, can be
like this, is proof that you're changing."
"But I can only...be like this around you. I c-couldn't even be like this with Lilly..."
"I don't think that's so unusual. Before I met you and Lilly, I don't think I could have been like this with anyone, either."
Hanako looks up at me with the faintest hint of a smile on her lips. "I didn't mean this
I return her smile and ask, "Well, then what did you mean?"
Hanako sighs a bit more heavily. "I mean...not b-being constantly...anxious. I know it's not...normal, but..."
"Hanako," I whisper, wanting to stop this train of thought. "Do you remember the first time we met? I mean, outside of that awkward introduction to the class."
Hanako's eyes widen a bit. "Of course I do!" She says, with some indignation. "Even then, I knew you were..." Her voice trails off before finishing the thought. The way she said it makes me wonder if she knew what I'd been planning to ask earlier.
"Back then, could you have done what we did today, going to that café, and talking to Inoue and Ooe?" Hanako looks at me questioningly, and I look off into the distance. "I wasn't sure what to make of you back then, but now...after everything that's happened in the past couple of weeks, after everything you've done for me, I understand what Lilly meant when she said she knew you'd be a strong woman someday."
"I...H-Hisao...I'm n-not that...s-strong...at least...not r-right now..."
I start to stroke Hanako's hair, saying. "I know. I also know that you're already stronger than you were then, and I believe that that's going to continue."
Hanako pulls back from me slightly, placing her hand on my chest. She looks up at me, and her expression has changed. Her hair has fallen back down over her face, so it's not easy to read, but her next action leaves little room for doubt. She brings her other hand to my cheek and strokes it gently, then brings her face to mine and places a soft kiss on my lips. The sensation of the kiss, along with that of her hair brushing against my face and neck, causes me to shiver.
When she pulls away, she's tucked her hair back over her ear again, and the nervousness in her expression has returned. I'm beginning to feel a reflection of that myself, as my sense of what might be happening returns. The flush I'd felt briefly when she asked me here returns in full force, and my heart rate begins to rise again.
Hanako takes my hand, her hands more steady than the last time we kissed but still noticeably trembling. "Hisao," she says quietly, "th-there's something...I want you t-to see."
"Okay," I say with a crack in my voice as Hanako stands up. She moves to the window, where she draws the curtains. My sense of anticipation heightens, and I quickly find it difficult to focus on anything other than the movements of the room's other occupant.
When she turns from the window, I watch as Hanako fumbles with the small bow tie she uses to keep the collar on her blouse up. She visibly swallows, then pulls it free with a single tug, laying it on her desk. The collar flutters down, revealing her neck. Somehow, just this small glimpse causes my heart to soar, and I have to fight to keep it from racing too fast.
As my assessment switches from "might be happening" to "is
happening," my own hands start to shake, and I try to bring myself to question the situation before rational thought goes out the window. "Hanako," I start, but she quickly lays a hand on my shoulder to interrupt.
"Hisao," she says with a pleading look in her eye, "just l-let me do this." I fall silent, still trying to come to terms with the scene unfolding before me. Returning to her collar, Hanako begins to undo the buttons that lead down to her breast. Her hesitance is causing her to do it slowly, which only accentuates the sensuality of the action.
When she's unfastened the last one, she turns away and lifts her blouse over her head. On the side of her that's nearer to me, the extent of her scarring is revealed, covering nearly her entire upper back and a good deal of the lower. As I'm watching, she unclasps her bra, allowing it to fall away. Before doing anything else, she takes the time to once again drape the lock of hair over her ear.
For a moment, she stops moving and looks back over her shoulder. I feel a bit embarrassed watching this, but since that's what she asked I try my best to meet her expectant gaze. Once our eyes lock, she closes them and nods, her lips set in a thin line of determination. She then begins to work at her pants, unfastening them and sliding them down her shapely legs. When she removes them, she also takes off her socks, leaving only her white panties behind.
Time stands still. I can neither hear nor see anything other than the figure a scant few feet in front of me. She still has her back to me, and I can see the continuation of the roughly-textured skin on her right thigh. Her lower legs appear to have escaped untouched. I think back to just a few minutes ago, about how strong I thought Hanako could someday be. Standing before me is a testament to how strong she has already been, to have literally come through a trial by fire to be able to stand here like this. I feel...not a little awestruck.
Hanako turns to face me, crossing her hands in front of her as she often does. However, her eyes look directly into mine as she says, "Hisao...this is me. All...of me."
This is...what she wanted me to see...
As I continue to struggle to find words to respond to this situation, Hanako inches closer to me. "I...told you the other day...I d-didn't want to hide anything from you...anymore." I try my best to focus on her words as my body reacts to what I see. Somewhere in a currently underused part of my brain, the scarring that wraps around her right side and the outside of her breast registers. Meaningless details, but perhaps those are the only things keeping me from losing myself entirely.
And then, she reaches out to take my hand, and I'm lost after all.
I draw Hanako in quickly, and my lips and hers meet. My hands are exploring her back before I know it, and her own are pressed to my chest. I'm entirely fascinated by the differing textures of her skin, while she's clumsily trying to get at mine, her hands now pulling at my sweater vest. I step back long enough to remove it with a single motion, and reach my hand up to start unbuttoning my shirt.
Immediately, I feel Hanako's hand stop me, and I look up at her. She's looking directly at my chest, and I feel her slowly moving my hand away. Her other hand reaches up to my shirt, and just as slowly it begins to work at the first button. It's not hard to understand the significance of this, so I allow my hands to drop, finally finding purchase on back of the chair in which I'd been sitting earlier.
One by one, Hanako undoes the buttons on my shirt. Whether the unhurried pace is from an unpracticed hand or simply a desire to linger, I don't mind, because with each revelation comes the feeling of her hand on my skin, soft and warm. As expected, she pays special attention to the area over my heart, which is moving at speeds in inverse proportion to her hands, until finally my shirt joins hers on the floor.
As Hanako's hands play across my chest, my own run along her sides and hips. I do my best to return my focus to details, observing every nuance of her movements. The subdued reactions of the right side of her body are immediately apparent, so I focus my attentions on the other, receiving pleasant sighs from Hanako as a reward.
Somewhere, I feel my rational voice trying to reassert itself, but another part of me clamps down the wall behind which it had retreated, and I draw Hanako in for another kiss, this one deeper and hungrier. She responds, at first tentatively, but then with something more instinctual. I hear and feel Hanako's breath on my cheek, and the sensation of our bodies pressing against each other is nearly overwhelming.
...what am I...
The wall tries to rise again as we separate enough for me to resume paying attention to Hanako's body, this time with my lips. Planting gentle kisses, first on the nape of her neck, then down her shoulder, I soon arrive at the first of her curves. As I start to caress her breast, I look into Hanako's face again, and I see she's turned away from me entirely, her cheeks bright red, her mouth drawn tightly.
...what am I doing?
The sight gives me pause, just enough to allow that thought to breach the wall and fully enter my consciousness. Something doesn't feel right about this, as though there's some distance that still needs to be closed. If this had been even a few weeks ago, that wouldn't have mattered. Being with a girl like this, knowing that the girl in question has only ever opened up to you, that you're her first, is like piling fantasy on top of fantasy.
But this is Hanako, and that's why I can't think of it that way. I've been through too much. Hanako
has been through too much. If I can't even accept her confession, how can I accept this?
I can't believe I'm thinking this, but...I have to stop this before it goes too far.
I move slightly away from Hanako, but not so far as to force her left hand from its place on my shoulder. As her breathing starts to calm down, she opens her eyes and turns toward me. "Are...y-you...all right?" she says slowly, as though she's forcing the words out.
"I'm...not sure." It's the truth, but not in the way I think she's asking. "Do you mind if we...sit down for a while?" Hanako, still watching me carefully, nods her assent. I sit down on her bed, sliding back to lean against the wall, and she joins me. We naturally wind up in the same position we did before this all started, with her head resting on my shoulder and my arm around her. Of course, now that there's a lot more direct contact, it's much harder to keep my thoughts together.
And, if I'm being honest with myself, just being this way isn't bad, either.
As I'm trying to get my thoughts to coalesce, I hear a quiet, slightly sad voice next to me. "M-maybe we sh-shouldn't have...done this," Hanako says. "W-was it...too much?"
I have to stifle a laugh, realizing that what she asked is also true placed against what I meant. I look at Hanako, who's looking down at her still-trembling hands, which don't seem to know where they want to go. "Well...not exactly. I was just wondering why we were doing this all of a sudden."
Hanako sits up straight and looks me in the eyes. "I d-don't...understand what you mean..."
I sigh, trying not to look away myself. "Well, just a little while ago you were questioning whether you should have confessed your feelings to me at all. Suddenly, there we were, about to do something that...well, that I didn't think either of us was ready to do."
Hanako looks at me questioningly for a moment, then draws her knees up to her chest and looks straight ahead. "Neither of us," she mutters as if talking to herself. For a few moments, she remains silent, thinking. "I...don't th-think I understand...any of this. So...that must be why...I k-keep making these...mistakes..."
I can see her eyes becoming moist again, and it's all I can do to stop myself from telling her this wasn't a mistake, from just wrapping my arms around her and accepting whatever she wants to give me. I can't do that, because I don't want to lie to her, especially not right now. I keep my arm around her, and I can feel her sobs shaking her body, but I don't dare bring her any closer. As for my own feelings...
As for my own feelings...what are they really?
I ponder that, wishing that this had somehow gotten me closer to an answer. I continue pondering long enough for Hanako to settle against me, no longer shaking. "I should probably leave now," I say quietly.
"Probably," Hanako says in a voice devoid of emotion. I slowly remove my arm, and ease her down onto the bed. As she pulls the covers up around her, I pick my shirt and sweater vest off the floor and put them back on. Before I reach the door, I feel like I need to say something to her. "You know, I didn't stop because I thought there was anything wrong with you."
Hanako looks toward me at that, and surprisingly there's a small smile on her lips. "I know, Hisao. Th-that's the one thing...I'm sure of. That's why this is...so hard." She takes a deep breath before continuing. "Will you be at lunch...tomorrow?"
There's a tinge of despair in her voice, and my emotions bottom out. "I can't," I say, praying she doesn't inquire further. If anything, after what happened today some time apart might be for the best for both of us.
"I...see," is her response, as she turns her head back. I can tell she's making a considerable effort to keep her voice even as she says, "The...next day, then?"
"Right," I reply. "I'll look forward to it. See you, Hanako," I say, opening the door. She only nods in reply, so I walk out, closing the door behind me.
What the hell AM I doing?
I prop myself up against the wall with one arm, trying to collect myself. As my heart is finally calming down, I hear the sound of another door opening across the hall. I turn to see a vaguely-familiar freckled face appear. "So," she says, "you got tired of the foreign girl, and now you're seeing Ikezawa, huh?"
I remember this girl, a thin second-year with short dark hair that's tinged with red. "What business is it of yours...um..."
"Yoshimura. Noriko Yoshimura. Your name's Hisao, right?" I cock my head at her. "Don't be surprised. Those two talked about you often enough."
"Nah, call me Noriko...or even Nori if you want." She starts walking over to me. "You know, Hisao, there are rooms on the other side of this hall. If you ever want to visit one of them, give me a call." With that, she slips a piece of paper into my hand, and her touch lingers on it a little longer than necessary before she goes back into her room.
For some reason I feel a bit clammy all of a sudden, and I shiver involuntarily. Despite my better judgment, I take a glance at the paper, and there is indeed a phone number on it. The situation almost strikes me as comical, and I start to laugh bitterly as I make my way toward the stairs. Then, I think better of it and instead head for the elevator, my bitter laugh now turned upon myself.
As the elevator opens onto the ground floor, I see a pair of girls walking past, chatting airily. Passing me, they stop talking and look at me, and I realize I must look a bit crazy. Perhaps they see me as I saw Kenji on my first day here, and I wouldn't blame them.
I step out of the elevator and start walking toward the boys' dorm. Halfway there, I realize I'm still carrying that stupid piece of paper. With nowhere to throw it out here, I put it in my pocket before entering the building. I start to laugh at the ridiculousness again, but it quickly turns to tears as I think about the scene I left behind me. I turn around to look back at the building I just left.
I have to stop hurting her.