Sisterhood: True Edition (Hanako Epilogue) (Completed)

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Chapter 50

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:14 am

Chapter 50
01
One more day.

That thought keeps returning to me as I look around the nearly-empty space of my dorm room. Tomorrow is the day we'll be graduating - the day we'll be leaving the school that I've come to call a second home. Over the last few days, the results of various entrance examinations have been slowly coming in. There's a notice board in front of the main school building that's being used to display the results for everyone to see. I've been paying the notice board a visit every day since the school started posting results.

Not so much for my own results, since those weren't set to come in until tomorrow, but simply to see which of my classmates managed to pass. Two days ago, I learned that Natsume made it through. That's probably a big load off Naomi's mind. Yesterday, I found out that Shizune succesfully passed her entrance exam. I can't say I'm surprised about that, given her fiercely driven nature.

Tomorrow, the uncertainty will end. The fact that graduation ceremony is also tomorrow means that the diploma I'll be getting will either be the cherry on top of the cake or a consolation prize that'll do little to take away the utter disappointment I'll be feeling.

I remember how apprehensive I felt about coming to live here at Yamaku. How trapped I felt here. Yet now, nearly ten months after I first came to this school, I've grown so comfortable here that the day of departure kind of crept up on me. I tried not to think too much about it.

About a week ago, I started making a list of people I thought I should say goodbye to before I leave Yamaku tomorrow. The first rule I laid out for myself was that I would not try to write them down in any kind of special order, like least important to most important.

Somehow it ended up like that anyway, though it also ended up being slightly longer than I expected it to be. As I skim it over, my thoughts again go out to all the people I've met here and who became part of my life.

Yuuko... Being an avid reader and Hanako's boyfriend on top of that meant I probably had more interaction with her than most students. I remember her telling me that she was working those jobs at Yamaku and at the Shanghai for the purpose of financing her studies. It made me appreciate the fact that my parents have shown willingness to pay for my studies - as long as I make it into university and not spend years at cram schools attempting retakes. The last time I spoke to Yuuko she mentioned that our efforts at passing our tests had motivated her to do well on her own entrance exams. I wonder if she'll decide to go through with things this year or if we'll have a reunion here in 10 years or so and still find the same Yuuko bumbling her way through the library. I really hope not. She's a pretty nice person beneath that neurotic exterior, and she's shown so much enthusiasm towards her chosen subject that it'd be downright cruel if she never got to study it in university.

The head nurse... After taking the entrance exams, I made good on my promise to him by resuming my morning runs, and he made good on his promise to me by supplying me with a training and diet plan. It was a lot harsher than I expected. Although he denies it, I think this was his revenge against me for not mentioning my heart problems to him sooner during examination hell. Still, despite his tendency to crack stupid jokes, he's been a very reliable source of support over the year, and in the end I'm thankful that he's always been so serious about keeping me healthy.

Mutou... I remember when I met Lilly, she said that my homeroom teacher was quite a character, but that I'd probably come to like him. She turned out to be pretty much spot on. I never imagined Mutou to become an inspirational figure to me when I first met him, yet that's exactly what eventually ended up happening, and I think that my plans for the future about studying to teach science one day are for a large part due to his influence. Seeing that a lot of students seem to think his lectures are incomprehensible, I'll probably have to aim higher than his standard as far as teaching the subject is concerned, but when it comes to being a highly regarded homeroom teacher, I think the example of my mentor will definitely end up sticking in my mind. I hope to return here for a reunion one day with a teaching degree to show him.

Nobuyuki, Eiji, Wataru, Takahiro, Okahito and Naozumi... The science club - our science club - ended up having a total of eight members, myself and Kenji included. Eiji, Naozumi, Okahito and Takahiro initially joined up because they were getting low grades in science class. They admitted that much to me privately. But they stuck around because they enjoyed the activities. Even though Mutou and Lilly were the ones who brought up the idea of teaching as a career, the junior club members I helped with their homework were the ones who made me realize I'd probably enjoy doing that sort of thing for a living. Being stuck in the position of club president has also made me a little less reluctant to take initiatives. I've always been more a follower than a leader, and that's unlikely to ever completely change, but I'm a little less reluctant to take charge when the situation calls for it now. In a way, they've helped me as much as I've helped them. A few days ago I transferred the title of president to Nobuyuki, who is one of the few 2nd years in the club and also the one with the biggest knack for the subject. I hope the club will continue to fare well under his guidance. He may even become Mutou's new star pupil.

Kenji... He remains a wildcard to me even today. There have been times when we were discussing stuff like the law of gravity, and he'd suddenly throw a random conspiracy theory into the conversation completely out of the blue. There have been other times when he'd approach me and just when I started bracing myself for the latest update on the machinations of the feminist movement, he'd simply ask me for my notes on one subject or another. I used to hold out hope that Kenji's membership in the science club would strengthen his link to reality in general, but it seems that Kenji's perfectly capable of appearing normal in public while still checking the roofs of the nearby buildings for snipers every time he enters his dorm room. I ended up coping with his antics by dismissing anything related to the feminist movement and simply focussing on whatever he said that did make sense.

Shizune and Misha... These two didn't exactly make the best first impression in the world. When I first came to this school there was a lot on my mind that needed to be sorted out, and Lilly's easy-going coaxing strategy worked a lot better at making me feel at home here than Shizune's aggressive recruitment tactics for the student council. It took me a little while to realize that both cousins had been trying to achieve the exact same thing with different methods. Despite having been put off by Shizune's confrontational personality at first, I ended up warming up to her and Misha rather quickly, and by the time I started dating Hanako, I considered the student council duo to be genuine friends.

While I've considered Shizune and Misha to be literally inseperable from the moment I met them, it turned out that they will still be going their separate ways after tomorrow. Through a lot of hard work and supplementary lessons, Misha's managed to do well enough to get herself a recommendation letter from the school, and she's set to transfer to a university in the United States later this year. Shizune, on the other hand, will be spending the upcoming years earning her business degree at a prestigious national university. I think they've been struggling a bit with the prospect of their roads splitting up after graduation, especially Misha. I hope they'll stay in contact with one another. Seeing how close they've been for as long as I've known them, it'd be a shame for them to completely drop out of each other's life.

Emi... I think I owe the fact that I've been in relatively good shape throughout my time at Yamaku (examination hell not withstanding) largely to Emi's efforts. My motivation to go through with my daily morning runs has had its ups and downs over the months, but Emi's been there every morning which in turn pushed me to keep going, too. The few times I've skipped practice consistently left me feeling guilty throughout the day, which is probably something Emi'd take as a huge compliment.

I also learned that Emi likes playful arguments, and I enjoyed my bantering with her, but unfortunately I never learned all that much else about her despite seeing her nearly every day. Our interactions were pleasant, usually half-joking and perfect to fill the silences between the end of practice and the checkups with the nurse, but I've realized lately that they've also always been a bit superficial. Around the time preparations for the mock exams were starting, I remember inviting Emi to come and study together with Hanako, Lilly and me, but she politely declined the offer. I guess just being running buddies with me was enough for her. At least I've made some good memories together with her, and I hope she feels the same way. According to the nurse, Emi's applied to a junior college in the nearby city with the intention of being a PE instructor. I think she'd be a good one, albeit a bit scary sometimes. Apparently the college has a track team of its own. I'm sure she'll do well.

Lilly... I think it's hard to overestimate the impact that Lilly has had on my life since I transferred here. From the moment I first came to this school, Lilly's been there looking out for me. I don't think I would have gotten into a relationship with Hanako if it hadn't been for Lilly's matchmaking efforts and emotional support. For a long time, I really looked up to her. She always seemed to be so confident, so level-headed and so in control of things. Due to certain events, I came to learn that Lilly's just as prone to screw-ups as everyone else, but despite the fact that she fell off that pedestal I put her on, I think part of me will always keep seeing her as a kind and reliable older-sister figure to turn to whenever I'm in need of advice or a listening ear.

Lilly's been directly involved in several major events in my life. Me getting a girlfriend, that big vacation in Scotland and finally the decision to study science and aim for getting a teaching degree. I wonder how things will play out between us after we all graduate. If everything goes well, Lilly, Hanako and I will all be attending the same university, but since we'll be studying at different faculties there won't be any more shared lunch breaks from now on. At least we'd be able to hang out at Lilly's place in the evening if we wanted to. It'd allow us to continue spending time together. If everything goes well, that is...

Hanako... In retrospect, things went really fast between us. During our first meeting, I managed to make her so uncomfortable that she ended up fleeing the scene in a panic. Six weeks later, we got together in the park, letting out that anguished confession that was the start of our relationship. Despite our rocky start, I've been really happy with Hanako, and from what I could tell, she's been really happy with me as well. It's been truly a sight, seeing Hanako slowly coming out of her shell, first merely in front of me but then in front of the rest of the world as well. There are plenty of wonderful memories I have from the first few months of our relationship, but the thing that stands out most among all of those is Hanako's smile. Even though she's started showing it more and more as time went on, it's never lost its charm. That sweet, child-like smile always manages to brighten my day and make me feel good no matter how often I see it.
02
I just hope I'll ever get to see it again...

Part of me probably never believed that Hanako's been secluding herself to such an extreme degree merely because she needed to study for her entrance exams. But for the sake of doing well on my own tests, I blocked Hanako from my mind to the best of my ability. Then the entrance exams came and went. Life slowly returned to normal as we started the process of waiting for the results and graduation day to come around. Students who had been cramming non-stop over the last months had a long night's rest and started resuming their daily activities from before exam season. Natsume returned to Naomi's side at the newspaper club, eager to bring out the next issue. I started my morning runs again, returned to the science club where I started my preparations of passing the presidential torch to my successor and spent the rest of my free time helping out Shizune finishing up the student council's duties in time for the swearing in of the new council. Business as usual everywhere, with one exception.

Hanako didn't come out of her room.

Ever since the entrance exams ended, I've made it a habit of dropping by at the girls' dorm twice a day. I'd knock on Hanako's door and ask if she needed anything. The answer would usually be a soft 'No, but thanks.' muttered through the door. She'd rarely open it, and the few times she did, she was always wearing her nightgown, no matter what time of day it was.

I recently asked Miss Takawa about it, and she merely said that I should continue what I was doing without trying to force anything. She told me that she's had several talks with Hanako over the last two weeks and that the dormkeeper was keeping an eye on her as well.

She had already predicted during my previous visit that Hanako would probably get worse as graduation day drew closer. This time she said that that day would bring the whole thing to an end.

What she didn't say was how she thought things were going to end.

One more day.

There isn't much I can do in my room right now. Nearly all of my possessions have already been packed, and I've already returned all of my borrowed books to the library.

I guess I should go and see Hanako. See how much progress she's made with packing her stuff.

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"Hanako?"

I knock gently on the door to Hanako's room, putting my ear to the door in an attempt to better pick up a reaction, any reaction, from inside. There is none, however. That could mean two things. Either Hanako's in there and she simply doesn't feel like replying, or she's not in her room right now. I notice that the nearby bathroom door is locked, but standing around waiting for the person inside to come out might get me in trouble with the dormkeeper. I knock again, calling Hanako's name once more and prepare myself to return to the boys' dorm. I was going to offer to help her pack, but seeing that she still doesn't have a lot of possessions stored in her room, it's not unlikely she already finished up long ago.

"Hisao?"

Hearing a familiar voice, I turn around and see Lilly standing there.

"Hi Lilly. Do you know where Hanako is right now?"

"If she isn't in her room then I'm afraid I have no idea. I've just returned from a get-together with friends in the common room downstairs, so if she's gone I didn't hear her leave."

"Oh well, maybe I'll come back later. Unless you can use some help with packing things."

Lilly smiles sadly and shakes her head.

"I've already packed most of my possessions myself, and my family will probably help me with the rest when they get here. But..."

She walks up to her own door, opens it and makes a beckoning gesture inside.

"...perhaps you'd like to join me for a little while? For one final cup of tea in here?"

"Okay."

An actual tea party in that room with just the two of us would feel sacrilegious, but I sense that Lilly's offer isn't merely a polite request, so I follow her into her room without further ado. As I enter, I notice that the room is indeed largely empty already with the exception of the tea set, which is still standing on her dresser. I close the door behind me and sit down at the table. Lilly takes the teapot and fills two of the cups before handing one to me. We silently drink, neither of us feeling like saying much. We eventually finish our cups and as Lilly puts hers down, she has a wistful look on her face.

"This... feels wrong without Hanako here with us, doesn't it?"

"We could have waited until she got back, although... I'm not sure if she'd have accepted the invitation. She doesn't really seem to feel like doing much of anything these days. I was kind of surprised she wasn't in her room just now. Unless she was and she simply didn't react to my knocks."

"I've heard that she's still meeting with Miss Takawa on occasion."

"I spoke to Miss Takawa not too long ago. I asked her for some clarity on Hanako. She was evasive as usual. The gist was that Hanako seemed to be perking up right after the center test, only for her to start relapsing some time later. That's all she would tell me. She assured me she was still making use of every minute she had with Hanako, but I don't know..."

"You don't think she's serious? She gave us her word she'd do whatever she could to help Hanako."

"It's not that. I'm sure she's trying. I just don't think her therapy is helping anymore. She's just applying bandaids now. And why not? It's not like Hanako will still be her responsibility after tomorrow."

"Hisao..."

"Tomorrow we'll know more, Lilly. But..."

A mutual sigh. We're both thinking the same thing. Unlike Lilly and me, Hanako's taken part in two entrance exams, although I wonder if she'd truly have considered attending that second university in a town where she doesn't know a single person. It's possible she merely took that particular entrance exam because it was given before the exam that would let her into her first choice, meaning she'd be able to get a feeling for what the other exam would be like. The results of her 'plan B' exam came back three days ago already and she didn't do well enough to make it in. It left me with a very uneasy sensation and judging from the look on Lilly's face, she's thinking the same.

"Hisao, I've been thinking. It's possible that she didn't give that second exam everything she had."

"Yeah. It's even possible she passed her exam and I failed mine. We'll know tomorrow."

"The last time I asked how you thought you did, you said you were 'cautiously optimistic'."

True. My own exam wasn't easy - far from it. But all that cramming I went through did pay off, and there were no questions on the exam that were about things I never heard of before.

"Yeah, if I do end up failing tomorrow, I'll be genuinely disappointed."

"I asked Hanako about her exams too, but... She just said she didn't know."

Cautiously optimistic is obviously not a good way to describe Hanako's attitude towards her results.

"I wonder if she really doesn't know or if she simply wants us not to worry about her."

When Hanako passed the National Center Test, I was relieved and convinced she'd easily be able to pass her entrance exams too, but after she failed to get a passing grade on that second exam, the possibility of her not being able to attend university with us suddenly became very real again.

"I don't think it's just us. Earlier this evening, I ran into Naomi, and she asked if I knew where Hanako is going to go after tomorrow..."

"That will depend on whether she's passed her entrance exam or not, I suppose."

"Will it? No matter what results are posted on the board tomorrow, she'll need a place to stay, won't she?"

"...yeah."

Lilly absentmindedly fumbles with her hair.

"Naomi said... that if there are no alternatives, she was willing to talk to her parents about letting Hanako stay over for a little while."

"It's nice to hear that she's trying to help, but I'm not sure if that's a good idea. I don't think that Naomi's parents ever even met Hanako. Who knows how they'd react."

"I... agree."

"Lilly?"

"Yes?"

A short pause. We've done a remarkable job of avoiding this subject for quite some time, but I feel not bringing it up now would be irrational.

"That... um... offer your parents made Hanako during our Christmas visit..."

A pained expression appears on Lilly's face. When her parents gave that adoption form to Hanako and we all got over the shock, I was initially exhilirated. I used to worry a little that Hanako might not have a place to go to after graduating here, and this seemed a really good solution.

Except after that day, Hanako never brought the subject up again, and now I'm not sure what to think of the whole situation. Judging from Lilly's expression, she's not exactly comfortable with the subject matter either. Still, after some hesitation, she starts speaking.

"I visited her room a few days after the Center Test and brought the subject up. I asked her what... what she thought about my parents' offer and if she had given it any consideration. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. She immediately clammed up and I... ended up leaving when the silence became too much to bear. I wonder if I oversimplified certain things. I..."

I wonder for a moment if she's going to say it, but then Lilly sadly shakes her head and falls silent. I don't think she'd ever be able bring herself to wonder out loud if the whole thing may have been a mistake from the beginning.

"Was that the last time you spoke about it."

Lilly nods.

"Interaction between us became very awkward afterwards. Almost as if I confessed to her and she didn't have the heart to reject me despite not being interested. I... created distance between us at the very time she needed my support the most."

Lilly's depressed look is painful to see. So it wasn't just me whose interaction with Hanako was put on the backburner.

"I... wonder if having her accompany me to my parents' home and having her move in with me is even feasible at this point. I would really like it to be, but... Will Hanako still want to? I... haven't really had the courage to ask her."

"Even if she doesn't, there's still another option. I've been talking to my parents this week and I've... been trying to gauge how open they'd be to the idea of taking Hanako in themselves. It would be a pretty big change, suddenly having an extra person in the household. It's not like Hanako and I have been there all that often. They said they wanted to take some time to think about it, but they seem to like Hanako, so I don't think they'll refuse in the end."

Of course, my parents aren't millionairs with a big house like the Satous, so we'd have to make do from time to time, but there's no way Mom and Dad would leave their son's girlfriend out in the cold like that.

"That... is a relief. I've been thinking of asking the school if there were additional options they could think of in case they were needed, but perhaps that won't be necessary now."

"We'll get something worked out somehow, Lilly. Surely Yamaku must have... you know... protocols in place or something. Don't you think?"

"I don't know about that, Hisao. But I have no intention of leaving here without..."

"Hmmm?"

I wait for Lilly to continue, but she merely frowns as if deep in thought. Before I can ask her what's wrong, she gets on her feet and takes a few light steps towards the door. She feels out the location of the door handle and gently swings the door open, revealing...
03
"Aah!"

I recognize the voice even before Lilly steps aside to reveal its owner.

"Hanako..."

Lilly calls the name of her friend in a tone that's barely above a whisper. I feel my heart skip a beat as I look at my girlfriend. Hanako's dressed in her nightgown, as usual. It's always been a little bit too large for her, but it seems larger than ever now. Or rather, Hanako looks a lot thinner than I remember her. There are thick bags under her eyes. Has she been eating or sleeping at all these days? She looks almost like a ghost. My eyes meet hers, and I can see that they're moist, as if she's fighting back tears and barely holding them back. Her fists are clenched and shaking slightly, and in her eyes I can see a look of sorrow mixed with just a subtle hint of anger. Her breathing must have reflected her current mood, for Lilly softly whispers Hanako's name again, this time sounding more unsure of herself than before.

"Hanako, I..."

How long has she been listening on the other side of the door? How much of our conversation has she picked up?

Hanako's eyes and jaw squeeze shut for a moment as Lilly repeats her name. She's still shaking a bit, and for a moment I think she's going to say something or cry, but then she suddenly exhales loudly, causing Lilly to take a startled step back, shakes her head a few times and runs down the hallway. The next moment, we hear the door of her room slam shut. The sound makes Lilly flinch as if someone just slapped her across the face.

For a moment, time seems to stand still.

Then, like a sleep walker, she starts moving towards Hanako's bedroom door. Before she can reach for the handle, though, I walk over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

"Lilly, I... don't think that's a good idea right now."

Lilly raises her hand towards the handle, but then lowers it again and nods.

"You're probably right. I just..."

"I know how you feel. I feel the same. We'll talk to Hanako first thing in the morning, okay?"

Another sullen nod. Then, still a little unsteadily, Lilly walks back to her own room. I follow her to the door, but decide not to go back inside.

"I'd best be going now. We'll talk again tomorrow."

"Hisao?"

"Yes?"

"I feel that, no matter what I do, I'm only making things worse... I just wanted to..."

"I know, Lilly. I think even Hanako knows, deep down."

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Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 50 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:14 am

04
It sure is bright in my room.

Blinking a few times against the sun, I yawn and open my eyes and look around the room; the room that'll only be my dorm room for a few more hours. Tonight, I'll sleep in my parental home again, far away from here. It'll be weird waking up there again.

I already packed my alarm clock yesterday and decided to leave the curtains open so I wouldn't oversleep.

Graduation ceremony will start around noon. I know from the days before that the exam results aren't posted until shortly before that time. That's still at least 2 hours from now. I'm not going to put myself through the agonizing process of going there early and sitting there doing nothing. I'd rather do something to keep my mind off my test. Something like cleaning this room and packing the few things that are still lying around.

I get a quick bite in the kitchen downstairs, grab some cleaning supplies and start the process of cleaning this place. It's not something I usually enjoy doing, but this time I welcome the opportunity to keep my mind off things.

Things like my exam results. Within a few hours I'll know what my upcoming year will be like. As well as Lilly's year. And...

...Hanako's year.

Dusting my desk only does a moderately succesful job at keeping my thoughts away from what happened last night. I still feel bad about it, and it took a long time before I managed to fall asleep. I'm still not sure when the best time will be to talk to Hanako. Probably before we go to see our test results. Assuming Hanako's willing to come out of her room this time.

My thoughts are still on Hanako when I'm suddenly startled by a loud knock on the door, which flies open a second later.
05
Damn, this is one thing I'm not going to miss.

"What's up, man!"

"Kenji, do you remember that night when you knocked on my door so loudly that I nearly died? I think that knocking back then sounded suspiciously like the knocking just now."

"Huh, you seem fine now, man. You don't look like a man ready to drop dead. Don't they, like, always clutch their heart and let out some guttural moan or something before falling to the floor?"

As if trying to stress his point, he presses a hand to his chest and lets out a loud 'HNNNNNNG' while gritting his teeth.

"I don't think that's quite how it goes."

"Whatever, man. Anyway, today's the big day. I showed them, didn't I? I've lived here rent free for more than long enough. If you take into account the rising cost of land, I think you could say I've won in the end."

A cheerful smile suddenly appears on his face.

"No, you know what? I did win. History will acknowledge me as the victor."

"The victor of what?"

"I managed to stay out of sight and slip through the cracks. I beat the system."

"If you put it that way, it sounds like you just ran away from the system."

"Sometimes, running is the greatest form of victory; like in the Olympics."

I'm not in the mood to argue that point with him. Who's he kidding? Everyone knows the shot put is the best Olympic event, in any case.

"So, what you're basically saying is, you won't miss it?"

"Miss what?"

"School, dummy."

"No, I told you, this place is too filled with feminists. It's beyond saving. But at least I'll be able to get out before it reaches critical mass."

"You're not going to miss the science club either? It was a nice group, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, but a small resistence group isn't really gonna make a difference when we're this vastly outnumbered. I'm gonna focus on mobilizing the troops somewhere else."

I sigh in resignation.

"Well, good luck fighting the good fight."

"I could send you updates on my status. What's your home address?"

"You want to swap home addresses?"

"Sorry, man. Can't give you mine. With that tracking device of yours, they could follow you right to me. Can't go and give up my position that easily."

If I give this guy my home address, I could see my parents filing a restraining order against him at some point or another.

"Maybe we should simply swap phone numbers instead."

"I don't have a phone. Not gonna get one either. I'm kinda scared of them. Not sure why. Maybe I was beaten with one in the past and can't remember."

Right. I think I've heard that story before.

"E-mail addresses then?"

"I don't trust the internet. You shouldn't either, man. They're monitoring that shit. Every mail you've ever typed up is backed up and stored on one of their servers somewhere."

"Why would anybody want to watch me? For associating with you? Are you on some secret service's black list?"

"They don't need an excuse, man. They do it because they can. Privacy is on life support. Nobody believes me, but you'll see... someday. Don't say I didn't warn you when the truth comes out."

"Uh... Yeah... Right. I won't. So no internet. Maybe you can just give me a status report the next time we meet. They do the ten year later reunion thing here, don't they?"

"How would I know that? Probably. Anyway, I have to start packing now. Take care of yourself, man."

He gives me a saluting gesture and walks out, slamming the door shut behind him.

'Take care of myself.' It's the first time I've heard him end a conversation like that. Usually, he parts ways with something like 'seeya.' 'I'll pay you back later, man.' I wonder if him saying goodbye here means he's not gonna attend the graduation ceremony. He might be more uncomfortable in crowds than Hanako. I could see myself ending up missing this guy even though he was a little annoying at times.
06
With Kenji gone, I resume my chores and finish cleaning and packing without further interruptions. There's probably no reason to carry all my stuff downstairs yet. Dad can probably help me with that when he and Mom arrive. Realizing I still have a bit of time to spare, I decide to drop by the girls' dorm before going to check the notice board. When I reach the hallway leading to Hanako's and Lilly's rooms, I briefly consider knocking on Hanako's door before deciding to check up on Lilly first. When I knock on her door, I'm greeted by a face I haven't seen in a long time.

"Yo, graduate boy. Have you come to share some good news with us?"

"Hi Akira. It's been a long time since I've seen you. You're certainly here early."

Lilly's sister flashes me her typical jovial grin. Her expression is familiar, but her outfit is not. This is the first time I've seen Akira wear a fancy blouse and a long skirt. It's a big difference from the business suit or sporty jeans I've seen her wear in the past. It kinda makes sense that Akira would put on something relatively fancy for her sister's graduation, but it still takes some getting used to. Akira notices my staring and rolls her eyes.

"I still prefer my jeans, but if I wore those during an occasion like this, Dad would probably first kill me and then himself. Anyway, my little sister here was commenting on my timing as well. I think my arrival actually woke her up."

She steps aside, and I walk into the room. Lilly's no longer wearing her pajamas, but she still looks rather sleepy. It appears I'm not the only one who had trouble falling asleep last night.

"Good morning, Lilly. How are you feeling?"

"Good morning, Hisao. I'm okay. Still a little tired and just a little nervous."

Akira snickers.

"If it turns out you've flunked your test, Sis, I don't think Mom and Dad will be speaking another word of Japanese to you for a whole year."

Lilly smiles weakly.

"At least it would be good practice."

I turn to Akira.

"Speaking of which, are your parents here as well right now?"

Akira shakes her head.

"They're probably on their way. I didn't sleep at their place last night, so we've been travelling separately. I figured I'd be here a little earlier and help my sis pack her things."

Lilly gives her older sister a grateful smile.

"Your help was greatly appreciated."

"So Hisao, have you already heard the results?"

"Not yet, Akira. The notice board is probably being updated as we speak. I just wanted to go and fetch you guys before heading over there."

"Well, my curiosity is ready to be satisfied. You want me to read the results to you when we get there, Sis?"

"That won't be necessary, Akira. The results will also be posted in Braille."

Lilly gets up from the bed and picks up her bag, taking her retractable cane out of it.

"But before we go, there's still one thing we have to do, isn't there Hisao?"

"...yeah."

I look at Akira, but the lack of confusion on her face tells me that Lilly has already let her in on what happened last night. Her smile drops for a moment before suddenly returning.

"Hey, I was thinking... She might still feel awkward talking to you two, but maybe I could talk to her and ease the tension a bit."

Lilly's expression clears up upon hearing her sister's suggestion.

"That's a good idea, Akira. I'm sure she'll be happy to see you again."

Akira nods, opens the door and walks down the hallway while Lilly and I remain at a comfortable distance. As she reaches Hanako's door, Akira gives a few sharp raps on it.

"Yo Hanako! It's me. Are you up already?"

Lilly and I both hold our breath, and I can see Lilly listening intently. But there doesn't seem to be a reaction. Akira briefly presses her ear to the door and then knocks again.

"Hanako, you in there?"

Again there's no response. Akira shrugs and takes out her cell phone. She presses a few keys and then holds it to her ear. After a few seconds she sighs and snaps her phone back shut. Then she walks back to us.

"No dice. She's got her phone switched off. I can't tell if she's in there or not."

"Lilly, have you already heard her this morning?"

"I'm afraid not, Hisao. I only woke up a little while ago. If she's not in her room right now, she must have left before I woke up."

"That's a shame. Now what?"

Akira scratches her head.

"Maybe we should just go and check the exam results. Some good news might lure her out there - assuming she's even inside. "

"Yeah."

"Hey, ditch the gloomy face. She did fine on the Center Test, didn't she?"

"You're right. Let's head for the notice board."
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 5:37 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 50 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:14 am

We leave the girls' dorm and start making our way to the school building, making sure our pace matches Lilly's. As we walk down the path to the building, Akira gives me a curious glance.

"Hey Hisao, I suppose your parents will be here too today, won't they?"

"Yeah, I'm kind of expecting them to be here any moment."

She grins.

"I think I'd like to meet them. You know... to see if there are any similarities."

"Heh, I had exactly the same train of thought when we met your parents."

"Uhh... I think I can do without having to hear your conclusions there."

"I doubt it'd be something you haven't already heard before."

Akira gives a mock-indignant huff, but then switches her stare from me to the school building ahead.

"Wow, quite a few people there. Looks like we're not the only ones who are eager to see the test results."

"Seriously."

Akira's right. There's quite a crowd of people standing in front of the notice board right now. As we approach, Akira gives me a little poke with her elbow.

"Have you guys considered that maybe Hanako's already here to check the results herself?"

"You're right, it's a possibility. I don't think she'd be very comfortable with this many people around, but I bet she's still very curious about the results."

"Let's keep an eye out for her."

We join the chaotic mass in front of us and I struggle to catch a glimpse of the notifications hanging on the board. I notice that my heart's pounding in my throat right now. The moment of truth is probably mere seconds away. If only I can get a little closer.

"Hey Nakai!"

While I'm still in the process of making my way through the crowd of students and parents, I'm suddenly greeted by a voice coming from somewhere in front of me. I look in the direction of the voice and find myself face to face with a rather large guy whom I recognize as Taro Arai, the guy normally sitting behind me in class. Taro seems to have seen the results already as he's making his way through the crowd in the opposite direction with one hand, the other one hanging by his side. He has an excited smile on his face.

"Hi Arai. You seem to be in a good mood. Did you make it in?"

"I totally did! Against all expectations. Man, spring break's gonna be so awesome now. I think I deserved it after all the cramming. I must have lost ten kilos over the last few months from all the stress. Heck, I barely ate this morning because I was so nervous."

If that's true, it isn't very noticable. Then again, he has plenty of reserves.

"Congratulations. Really good work. I hope I can join in the celebrations soon. I'm on my way to see how I did."

"Would you like me to tell you?"

"Huh?"
07
He flashes me a broad grin.

"I noticed your name on there while I was checking my results. Congratulations man. You'll be a university student after today."

"W-Wha...?"

"You passed. Saw it myself just now."

"W-W-Whoa..."

Time seems to slow down around me as the realization hits me.

A university student.

Me.

Wow.

After all the stress and the short nights. After all the cramming and nearly killing myself. After everything that's happened... I've made it. It's all been worth it.

I've made it.

Taro's enthusiastic pat on my shoulder brings me back to reality.

"How's it feel, man? Wait, don't answer. I already know."

"I... hahaha... Wow, I can barely believe it... It's just..."

"Hehe, I know how it feels. Kinda surreal, doesn't it?"

"Y-Yeah."

"Go ahead and see for yourself. I'm out of here. See you!"

He makes his way past me, and I slowly become aware of my surroundings again. I look around for my blonde companions and from the look of it, Lilly's been spoiled by a classmate as well as they haven't made it to the board yet, but Akira is already sharing a loving hug with her sister and Lilly's laughing in a much more enthusiastic manner than she would usually do. With some effort, I manage to make my way over to them.

"Lilly?"

"Hisao. Did you...?"

"I've made it in. At least, a classmate just told me he saw my name. It's... still kind of hard to believe."

Lilly smiles.

"The same happened to me. It's wonderful, isn't it? I can't wait for my parents to arrive. I want to hear their reaction when I tell them."

"I'm sure they'll be proud of you, Lilly. Any parent would be."

"I hope so. We should probably still go and check the board for ourselves. Just to make sure this isn't just some wonderful dream."

"Not needed, Sis. I've just checked and you're on there. Congratulations. Congratulations to both of you."

"Thanks, Akira. There's still one thing we need to check though."

"About that... I... umm... haven't seen Hanako."

"You mean she's not among the people here?"

"That's not exactly what I mean. What I mean is that... uh..."

I look at Akira and see a pained expression on her face.
08
"What I mean is... that I haven't seen Hanako's name on the list. She's not on there. Looks like she... didn't pass after all."

"Hanako…"

"N-No..."

In one moment the rush, the happiness and euphoria I felt - all of them collapse as Akira's words sink in. What was the greatest achievement of my life just seconds ago now feels like a hollow victory. Lilly's expression has changed to one of horror, and she's slowly shaking her head as if she's unable to accept what she just heard.

"Akira... D-did you check thoroughly?"

"I did. I'm really sorry, Sis. This is a real shock to me too. I..."

"No..."

With a look of despair on her face, Lilly starts pushing her way through the crowd, not even caring about the surprised reactions from those in front of her. Akira and I do our best to follow as closely behind her as we can, with Akira muttering a few apologies to people nearby. As she reaches the announcement board, Lilly presses her shaking hands on the sheets of Braille paper hanging there and skims the list of names...

...again...

...and again...

...and again.

I'm close enough to read the list myself now and confirm that Akira didn't misread it. Lilly's and my names are on it, but Hanako's isn't. Despite the fact that the possibility was there all along, it still feels like an excruciatingly painful slap in the face. For a moment, I feel extremely frustrated. Hanako's already been through so much and deserved so much better than this. Then Akira gets my attention with a quick nudge.

"There ain't much for us to do here anymore. Let's find ourselves a quiet spot to let this sink in."

She beckons me to come along and gives Lilly, who only barely seems to be hanging onto her composure, a forceful tug on her sleeve. Walking slightly faster than she usually would while walking with her sister, Akira guides the two of us away from the crowd and to a secluded spot in the school's gardens. All along, Lilly is walking alongside us in what almost seems to be a daze. When we reach a spot where nobody else is near, Akira lets go of her sister's sleeve and sighs deeply.

"I feel really bad for her. After she passed the Center Test, I seriously thought she'd clear this one no problem."

"T-This..."

Lilly looks completely crushed at this latest development. She's squeezing her eyes shut in a futile attempt to hold back her tears.

"This w-wasn't supposed to happen, Akira. S-She did so w-well before. B-Before..."

Akira steps forward and gently takes Lilly in her arms. Unlike the savage hug she gave Lilly after she heard about her succesfully passing the entrance exams, this embrace is tender, almost motherly. Even though I know that Lilly and her sister are very close, it still feels a bit strange seeing the usually unrefined Akira comfort her sister in this way.

"A-Akira..."

"Yes, Lilly?"

"W-When I made that p-phone call to Mother, telling her that I was s-staying here in Japan, Hanako was there with me... g-giving me her support. W-We promised then and there that we would graduate together. We were going to f-face the challenges of university together too. And now... *sniff* Now what?"

Akira gives her sister a comforting pat on the back and then lets go.

"Now what? Good question. That's probably up to Hanako. As rotten as this news is, at least the uncertainty is gone now. Now we can determine what to do next. Hanako will have to do the same. Maybe we can help her make a decision... If she's going to let us. Only one way to find out."

"I wonder if I can even face her after this. If it hadn't been for me..."

"This is no time to be thinking about that, Sis. Let's go back to the dorms. If she's in there, we'll find a way to get her out of her room. We'll have to hurry though. The graduation ceremony will be starting soon, and we'd better be there."

Lilly gives a weak nod and takes a hold of her sister's sleeve as a sign that she's ready to go. Just as we reach the entrance to the girls' dorm, Lilly's phone suddenly starts ringing. With an unsure look, she shows the display to Akira.

"Akira, is that...?"

"Nope, just Mom and Dad. They're probably wondering where the hell we are, what with the ceremony and all."

"What should I tell them?"

"You don't have to tell them anything. Just let me talk to them, Sis. I'll explain the situation. You'd better go inside. Maybe you should visit the bathroom really quick and clean yourself a bit. Your eyes are all red, and Dad's probably gonna give you a scolding if you attend the ceremony looking like that."

"...alright then."

We hurry inside, and while Lilly enters one of the bathrooms to make herself more presentable, I move along to the hallway leading to Lilly's and Hanako's room. I give a loud knock on the door and press my ear to it, hoping to pick up a sound on the other side. A surprised cry, shuffling or any other sign of life.

Nothing.

I'm getting kind of worried.

I wonder if Hanako has been expecting this. If she had a blackout or something during the entrance exams, she must have known all along how this was going to turn out ever since exam season ended.

Is that why she's been secluding herself like this? Because she didn't think she'd be able to keep up appearances all day long in front of us and she didn't want to worry us either?

How awful that must have been.

"Hisao? Is she...?"

I see Lilly carefully navigating her way towards me. She's looking a little better now, although that elated smile she showed earlier today probably isn't going to make a reappearance anytime soon.

"I haven't heard anything. Maybe we should simply ask the dormkeeper for help. This room's officially supposed to be cleaned out, isn't it?"

"Mister Nakai! Miss Satou! You still haven't left for the gymnasium yet? Certainly you're not planning on being late for the ceremony, are you?"

We turn around and notice a familiar figure walking down the hallway.

"Miss Takawa."

Lilly and I do a quick bow in unison. The old lady gives us a careful look-over.

"I have the impression you've already heard today's results. Am I correct?"

"Yes, we have."

"Could I have a little talk with the two of you? It will not take long."

"Uh... Sure?"

"I'd rather not talk here. Let's go to the common room downstairs."

A bit puzzled, Lilly and I follow Miss Takawa downstairs where we take a seat at one of the tables. The old therapist folds her hands and gives us a sympathizing look.

"The last time the three of us sat together like this, I expressed the hope that our next talk would be under more uplifting circumstances. It appears that fate decided otherwise. I still hope you don't mind if I extend my well-wishes to the two of you. You have done very well. Congratulations."

"T-Thank you. But Hanako..."

Miss Takawa lets out a weary sigh.

"Yes, I know. I suppose you are here to talk to her, aren't you?"

"That's the idea. But the door is locked, and we don't even know if she's inside. We haven't seen her around the school grounds today. We were about to ask the dormkeeper for a spare key."

"That won't be necessary."

The old lady reaches into her bag and takes something out of it. When she shows me her hand, a small key is lying in its palm.

"A key. A key to Hanako's room? Looks like you beat us to it. Great. Let's get going."

Miss Takawa slowly shakes her head, closes her hand and puts the key back in her bag.

"I believe that there is a right time for everything, but now is not the right time for you to visit Miss Ikezawa."

"E-Excuse me?"

"Miss Satou, the graduation ceremony is set to start in 15 minutes, and the two of you will need some time to get there. You would have only little more than five minutes to deal with Miss Ikezawa, even if you'd be able to talk to her right now. Do you think that would be enough?"

"But Hanako's school grades have still been high enough for her to have earned her diploma. We can't just let her miss her own graduation ceremony, can we?"

"The same is true for the two of you. You can't afford to miss your own graduation ceremony either. You really can't."

I scratch my head.

"Don't you think that we should be here for Hanako right now?"

"Out there in the gymnasium are a father and a mother waiting for their son to take part in the ceremony and take his diploma. I imagine your parents to be here as well, Miss Satou. And your sister too if that young lady standing near the building's entrance is related to you. These people came here to see you stand there and participate in the ceremony that marks the end of your high school days. If your chairs were to remain empty, how do you think they would feel? They'd feel terrible, I'd imagine. Please take that into consideration."

Yeah, Mom and Dad will be expecting me to be there. They came all this way for that specific purpose, but...

I grit my teeth as a realization hits me.

"Do you realize how horrible that sounds? You make it sound like it's okay for Hanako to miss the ceremony because there are no people coming here today specifically for her. She doesn't have a father and mother sitting there to watch her graduate, so she has less priority? Are you saying that she can be missed?"

Hanako's therapist shakes her head and lets out a tired sigh.

"Calm down, Mister Nakai. All I'm saying is that a child's graduation is one of the most important events in a parent's life. Don't dismiss it so easily. Miss Ikezawa would not want you to miss the ceremony on her behalf."

"But..."

"I think she's right, you know."

We turn around, and I see Akira standing in the doorway.

"Akira, y-you too...?"

Lilly seems a bit flustered by Akira's sudden intervention.

"You know that Mom and Dad would be crushed if you stayed away, Lilly. They've really been looking forward to this. Just like I have. Dad would be very upset with you too. Shizune's folks are probably in the audience already and your absence would surely be noticed. I don't think Hanako would want to create trouble for you."

Lilly opens her mouth to speak, but then stops herself and just nods as Akira continues.

"You remember New Year's Day, right? When we went to visit that shrine and had to return because Hanako felt suffocated there. How do you think she'd react when she had to stand there in front of a big crowd, unable to just walk out without disrupting the ceremony, faced with a whole audience of other students' proud parents sitting there? You think she'd enjoy being there?"

"I... I know what you're saying, Akira. But... it just seems so unfair. Hanako's worked as hard as everyone else, maybe even harder. To not even get to attend the ceremony, to not even have people acknowledge all her hard work and just have her pick up her diploma at the administration building, out of sight of everyone... It just seems so wrong."

Hanako's therapist gives a grave nod.

"Your sister makes a good point, Miss Satou. It may seem anticlimactic not to have a memory of the ceremony, but no memory is arguably still better than a bad one. She already has more than enough of those."

She gets up and looks at us with a slightly forceful look.

"Please go now and attend the ceremony. Try to feel proud of your achievements, and know that Miss Ikezawa is proud of you too. Say goodbye to the people you wish to say goodbye to, and then please come back here. Hmmm, if you meet Miss Inoue there, please ask her to accompany you. I'll be here when you get back. That's a promise."

"...okay then."

We get up as well, and Lilly takes hold of Akira's sleeve.

"Until after the ceremony then, Miss Takawa."

"Yes. Until then."

As Lilly and Akira hurry along towards the exit, I take one glance back. I notice Miss Takawa is staring at the staircase leading to the upper floor with a strange look on her face. I rush to catch up with the Satou sisters, but as we walk towards the gymnasium as fast as Lilly can manage, I think back on Miss Takawa again.

Something about the look in her eyes gave me a really uneasy feeling.

Let's hope the ceremony isn't going to be drawn out for too long.
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sun Sep 21, 2014 2:08 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 51

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:15 am

Chapter 51
01
"The ceremony should be over by now."

Having checked my watch, I walk up to the room's door and open it, so when Mister Nakai and Miss Satou return here, they'll know that it's okay to enter. Hopefully they've been able to find Miss Inoue as well. That would be convenient.

My gaze once again wanders around the room. I've worked here for nearly two years now, and I've been Miss Hanako's therapist for equally as long, but this is the first time I've actually been in her room. The one time she was in such a bad shape that I deemed it best to accompany her here, the day Mister Nakai got hospitalized, we parted ways at the door.

This was her own little sanctum, and she had the habit of locking herself up here whenever she felt distressed. That was sometimes a little frustrating since it also sometimes caused her to miss appointments, but I've never considered asking the dormkeeper to let me in here. For a person who had no place to call home except for this little room, violating its sanctity would have been a fatal breach of trust.

Despite this place having been the closest thing she's had to a place to call her own, I don't think she ever really decorated it accordingly. From what I've heard, it's always remained very bare bones. Miss Satou's room may actually have been easier on the eyes, ironically enough. I've always been curious why. It's not due to the lack of preferences. During one session, I gave her a few catalogues and asked her to come up with decorating advice for a girl around her age. She knew it was a test of some sort, but still went along with it, and the result might have been one of the girliest rooms one could imagine. She obviously had very specific tastes, yet when I asked if she'd consider dressing up her own room a little, she said she wasn't interested.

Maybe she saw no reason to make a place homey that she knew she was going to lose when her time here ran out.

My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of voices coming from the hallway.

"Hisao, do you see her anywhere?"

"Not yet, Lilly, but she said she'd be here."

"Didn't you guys say that Hanako wasn't out of her room yet when you left?"

I recognize two of the voices as the ones belonging to Mister Nakai and Miss Satou. The third one is unfamiliar to me. It must meant that Miss Inoue is tagging along too. That's good.

"That's right. Why?"

"Because I can see that her door's open."

"That's strange. There have been times when Hanako has kept her door unlocked, but she's never kept it open as far as I remember. Let's go see."

Well, I suppose this is it. I get up from the desk chair I was sitting on and turn towards the door.

"Hey Hanako, are you th...?"

A girl with distinctive bleached hair comes walking into the room and lets out a shocked gasp.

"WHAT THE HECK?"

"Naomi, what's wrong? Is something... HUH?"

Next is Mister Nakai, who seems as surprised as Miss Inoue.

"Hisao, what is it? Is she there? What do you see?"

And finally Miss Satou enters the room, a worried look on her face.

"Ummm... Miss Takawa is here, Lilly. But Hanako isn't. And neither is anything else."

"Neither is anything else? What do you mean?"

"The room's completely empty except for the furniture. It's like... like..."

I nod gravely.

"Like she has already left? Yes, I'm afraid so."

Miss Satou's worried look becomes pained.

"Already left? But... When? Why? And... Where?"

"Please take a seat on the bed."

I sit down on the desk chair again, and the three graduates hesitantly sit down across from me. Mister Nakai has a scolding expression on his face.

"Miss Takawa, have you been here all this time? Did you see Hanako walk out of here and simply let her?"

I shake my head.

"Miss Ikezawa already left the school early this morning. When the three of us spoke earlier today, she was already gone."

I apologetically bow my head.

"I apologize for not telling you this sooner, but I felt that you probably had enough on your mind already and didn't want to make you more worried than you already were while attending the ceremony."

Miss Satou makes an uncharacteristically impatient gesture as if to urge me not to waste time talking about trivial matters such as a ceremony.

"Miss Takawa, we appreciate your concern, but please tell us what you know about Hanako. Why would she just up and leave like this? Is it... something we did?"

There's a guilty look on her face that catches my attention. Miss Hanako will have to excuse me for inquiring about this.

"Miss Satou, has something happened between Miss Ikezawa and you over the last few days?"

Miss Satou seems a bit put off by my question. Was it an inappropriate question or is she simply impatient to hear about her best friend?

"Miss Takawa, please..."

"I will tell you all I can afterwards."

Miss Satou hesitates for a moment, but then tells me about how she and Mister Nakai were discussing what to do about Miss Hanako last night, only to discover she was actually listening in. Mister Nakai added that Miss Hanako seemed upset, maybe even a bit angry.

"Hmmm... That might have played a role. Thank you, Miss Satou. And you too, Mister Nakai."

"Played a role?"

"I ran into Miss Ikezawa when I arrived here early this morning. She was waiting for me near the school gate. She was carrying her backpack, and there were two suitcases standing nearby, undoubtedly belonging to her. When I asked her what she was doing here this early, she told me she was planning to leave."

"Did she tell you why she was leaving or where she was headed?"

"She wouldn't tell me where she was planning to go, if she even knew herself. She did tell me about her motivation, which was along the lines of... hmmm... No longer wanting to be a burden on others."

The hurt look on their faces is particularly excruciating to watch. Miss Satou in particular looks crushed. When she answers, I have to strain to hear it.

"But... she... isn't. Why did she have to do this?"

"I wasn't very fond of her plan myself and spent some time trying to talk her out of it. Unfortunately without much success. I did make a quick phone call to the school administration in order to ask about your exam results, and she seemed relieved when I told her that both of you passed. It didn't convince her to remain on the school grounds for today, but I think you nevertheless took a load off her shoulders."

Mister Nakai gives me an inquisitive look.

"So you have no idea where she could be headed?"

"I might. I urged her to go somewhere where I could get in touch with her."

"Somewhere?"

"That's the tricky part. I could tell you, but that would involve me breaking my client confidentiality with her and I'm afraid I can't afford to let that happen."

"Even though after today she won't be a client of yours any longer?"

"That doesn't really make a difference. I wouldn't be able to do my job any longer if the rest of my clients were to believe that my confidentiality only lasts until graduation."

Miss Inoue makes a face.

"You've gotta be kidding me. So you have an idea where she is, but you won't tell us? What are we supposed to do? Just wait until she comes floating to the surface, as it were? Why even tell us all this at all?"

"I had a reason for calling you here. Please take a moment to reach under the bed you're sitting on. Be careful not to damage them."

"Huh? Hey, she's right. There's something under here."

Mister Nakai and Miss Inoue get on their hands and knees and reach under the bed. Moments later, they pull out what was hidden there. Three beautiful flower arrangements, each of them with a small card attached. The one with the card printed in Braille looks rather odd, the flowers' colors not really complementing each other well like the other two do. When Miss Hanako was making that one, I wondered what her reasoning behind it was. But when taking it to her room, I noticed that it was much more fragrant than the others. It must have been made specifically with Miss Satou's blindness in mind.

Miss Hanako's friends look confused for a second as they each take the arrangement that was meant for them. Miss Satou runs her hand through the flowers and takes in their scent. Then she gives me an unsure look.

"Are these...?"

"These are Miss Ikezawa's graduation gifts to you. She asked me to give them to you. Please accept them."

Their expressions slowly change from puzzlement to awe, though still with a clear hint of sadness.

"Wow, these are really pretty. But where did they come from?"

"She made them herself. Miss Ikezawa and I usually play board games during our sessions. They help her relax. She wasn't in the mood for games over the last few weeks, so I suggested an alternative. I had her work on these little gifts for you instead. She picked out the flowers and materials and we had them delivered at my office. She has spent the last few sessions putting them together. Just between you and me, I think she has a knack for this. Perhaps not so surprising for someone whose first name means 'flower girl'."

"They're beautiful."

"She also prepared two sets of cards. One set with a congratulatory message and another one with a consolation. I attached the right cards to the pieces just before hiding them here."

I smile sheepishly at Miss Satou.

"I'm afraid I don't read Braille, so I really hope I didn't accidentally attach the wrong note to your arrangement."

"Don't worry, it's the right one. Did... Hanako really make these?"

"She did. I'm afraid that Miss Ikezawa has known what her own exam results were going to be long before this day arrived. She might even have known that she wasn't going to make it in before she even started those entrance exams. They weren't particularly easy, and one would need complete focus in order to do well. In the end, there were probably far too many things tugging at her and holding her back for her to have a realistic chance of success. I'm sure you'll understand that she was not looking forward to this day. These presents were her attempt at... hmmm... lightening the mood, so to speak. She was quite worried about how her exam results were going to affect you today. Although to be honest, I think just working on these also provided her with a limited means of distraction. It made the last few days here more bearable for her."

I smile sadly at Miss Hanako's friends.

"Please consider these the smile and well-wishes she wanted to have for you today, yet could not give you in person due to her own circumstances. I hope that despite Miss Ikezawa's situation, you will still be able to feel pride and a measure of happiness today."

A conflicted expression appears on their faces. I find myself wondering once more whether I shouldn't have taken the risk of pushing Miss Hanako to stay here today just a little bit harder. Her friends are touched by her gesture, that much is obvious. If Miss Hanako had been the one to give them these gifts personally, I'm sure she would have been looking at three huge smiles right now. It's obvious that the main thing on their mind right now is still worry about their friend. Eventually, Miss Satou speaks up.

"Miss Takawa, you said something about getting in touch with Hanako. Are you planning to do so?"

"I am, Miss Satou. As I'm sure Miss Inoue here can attest, whenever a student here fails his entrance exams, it is customary for that person's homeroom teacher to have a talk with him or her and discuss the options available to them."

"Yeah, I had that talk with Mutou and Hoshino after I screwed up on the Center Test. They told me that if my parents could afford it, my best option was to attend a cram school for a year and try again next January. Hoshino felt that I had enough academic ability to succeed the next time, assuming I'd be less reckless with my condition. We found a cram school in my hometown that has someone with a first aid diploma on duty, and the people here are now in contact with him to instruct him on how to deal with me if I have a fit."

"We had a meeting about today's exam results this morning, and Miss Ikezawa was brought up as well. I volunteered to take the task of having this talk with Miss Ikezawa off Mister Mutou's hands. I intend to get in touch with her later today. But... I cannot have this kind of talk with her if she does not trust me. So..."

"You... Don't want us to try and find her?"

"Miss Ikezawa has had a few very rough months and is probably still not really sure what she wants to do now and where she wants to go. She might need a little bit of time to sort things out for herself. I might be able to help her a bit, but in the end she'll have to make the final call herself."

"A little bit of time?"

"A few days maybe. When I talk to her, I'll try to convince her to contact you. If you haven't heard anything from her in... say... three days, feel free to give me a call."

I reach into my pocket and give a card with my phone number to each of the three graduates sitting in front of me. Mister Nakai looks a bit doubtful as he takes the card.

"Days?"

"There is no need to worry about her safety."

There's a short silence, but then Miss Hanako's friends give a resigned nod.

"Miss Takawa?"

"Yes, Miss Satou?"

"If you talk to her, please tell her that... I'm sorry."

I study the expression on Miss Satou's face for a second and sigh.

"I think you've already apologized enough as it is for your part in this whole situation, Miss Satou. I doubt Miss Ikezawa even holds you responsible to begin with, so try not to blame yourself too badly for what happened. In the end, neither you nor Miss Ikezawa were truly responsible. If I had to point fingers, I would say that the real culprits are Miss Ikezawa's anxieties or the things that created them, not Miss Ikezawa herself."

The half-hearted nod I get in response isn't really the answer I was hoping for, but it'll have to do.

"I think I've pretty much said all I came here to say. If none of you have any further questions, then perhaps it is better to take our leave here. I'm sure your parents are wondering what's keeping you."

Mister Nakai and Miss Inoue wearily get up, but Miss Satou remains seated. For a moment, she appears deep in thought, but then nods and turns to me.

"Miss Takawa, I have one more request to make of you if it's not a problem."

--------------------------------------
02
"Hmmm. Still nothing."

I shrug and put my cell phone away. As expected, Miss Hanako still has her own phone turned off. I had been hoping to get lucky and be able to inform her how her friends reacted to her gifts, but I suppose that'll have to wait.

After leaving the dorm building, Miss Hanako's friends were greeted by their parents who had been waiting for them outside. They're standing outside of earshot range - well, my earshot range at least, which has admittedly been decreasing a bit over the last few years, but from the looks of it they're currently trying to explain the situation to their parents to the best of their ability. Eventually I see Miss Inoue walk up to Mister Nakai and Miss Satou and take out her phone. I don't need to hear their words to comprehend what's going on. They're probably exchanging phone numbers in order to make sure that they're all kept in the loop when one of them hears more about Miss Hanako. Upon finishing, Miss Inoue exchanges polite bows with Mrs. Satou and then waves goodbye to Mister Nakai and Miss Satou before walking off together with her parents. Mister Nakai and Miss Satou merely stand there for a bit until Mister Nakai's mother pats her son's shoulder and gives what appears to be an indication that they'll be leaving soon, too. Before they can part though, I see Miss Satou's older sister suddenly gesture in my direction, and her parents turn their heads to look my way as well. I approach them and bow politely.

"Good afternoon and congratulations on your son's and daughter's succesful graduation. I hope this day will be a special one to you despite the fact that Miss Ikezawa couldn't attend."

Nobody really seems sure how to react at first, but eventually they return my bow, and we exchange introductions. Miss Satou's father, a tall and stern-looking man, gives me a long look-over.

"Miss Takawa, our daughter has just explained the situation to us, but there is still one thing I am rather curious about. You mentioned making contact with Hanako and discussing the available options with her. Exactly what options are you going to bring up? And... What option are you planning to recommend? Are you... aware of all the options she has?"

"To be honest, I would like to discuss the options and my reccomendation with Miss Ikezawa herself before discussing them with anyone else. But if there's a specific suggestion you have in mind then this would probably be a good opportunity to discuss it with me."

Truth be told, I've been wanting to have a talk with Mister and Mrs. Satou for quite some time, so I hope they'll accept. I see them exchange a short glance and then nodding.

"Very well. We are at your disposal."

"I'm glad to hear that. My office is on the upper floor of the nurses' building. It's not very far from here."

Mister and Mrs Satou turn to Mister Nakai's parents and say their goodbyes, congratulating them once more on their son succesfully passing the exams. Then they turn to Mister Nakai himself.

"Mister Nakai, I am certain we will meet again in the future sometime, so please stay well until then."

"Yes, please take good care of yourself."

"You too, sir, madam."

He briefly turns to me.

"Thank you for all your efforts on Hanako's behalf, Miss Takawa."

"My efforts were not any more important than your own, Mister Nakai. Perhaps we will speak again soon. Until then."

I bow and then head off with Miss Satou's parents following me. I look back one more time and see Miss Satou and Mister Nakai sharing an embrace. A parting like this, even though it's most likely temporary, must be difficult for both of them.

--------------------------------------
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 51 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:15 am

"Please enjoy."

I hand Mister and Mrs Satou their bowl of tea, and we all take a careful sip. Mister Satou gives an appreciative nod at the taste and then proceeds to sweep the room with his gaze.

"You have quite an impressive and unique work environment, if I may say so. Is this a common practice for people in your profession?"

I chuckle. It's far from the first time I've heard that question.

"In a way it is, I think. Creating a calming and non-threatening atmosphere is an essential part of our jobs. If a client cannot relax, they usually cannot work with us. Although... hmmm... I've been told that I have taken the principle a little farther than most. But I believe it to be important to ensure this place does not resemble a doctor's office in any way or form. There are already enough of those kinds of rooms in this building."

"Is it that important?"

"I think so. A doctor's office can help but look somewhat clinical. You visit a doctor when there's something wrong with you. That's not something you want in the back of your mind when seeing a mental health professional. That is one of the two reasons."

"And the other?"

"This school is not a mental hospital, and we do not accept students whose condition isn't physical. But the truth is that even physical disabilities sometimes need more than mere physical treatment. Especially when a person's condition came later in life. Accidents have the tendency to also leave marks on a person that are more subtle than missing limbs. We have students in here each year whose conditions are the result of such events and who went through a long period of hospitalization. An office that reminds students of a hospital room would merely rile them up."

Mrs. Satou, who has remained silent until now softly speaks up.

"So your job is to help students suffering from post-traumatic stress?"

"That's correct. All treatment here is voluntary, though our suggestions to them to accept treatment are more persistent with some than they are with others. The treatment is somewhat unofficial, too, so students can have therapy sessions here without having to worry about the social stigma that society usually places on visits to mental health officials."

"What exactly does unofficial treatment mean?"

"I may have worded that a little poorly. The students' visits are unofficial, meaning we try to remain somewhat low-key about them. The treatment itself is a recognized therapy form. Its name is cognitive behavioral therapy. I was hired by this school because I have received official training in it. It has proven to be quite beneficial to people suffering from various anxiety and stress disorders, including post-traumatic stress."

Mister Satou raises an eyebrow.

"I may be mistaken, but is that not a western therapy form? I was not even aware it was practiced in Japan."

That's a surprise. Most people simply nod whenever I mention my specialty.

"You've heard of it?"

"I've read an article about it once while my wife and I were living in Scotland."

"I see. It's not practiced here much. I've actually received my own training abroad. There's still official research going on that's trying to prove that the therapy is... compatible with our country's culture and mindset. I myself have already reached my own conclusions about that, as has the school, but unfortunately my own findings do not qualify as peer-reviewed research. Still, the therapy has a proven track record. *sigh* Just not an official local one."

Mister Satou smirks slightly.

"It must be frustrating to have a specialty that's not widely in demand here."

"To be very honest, I believe our mental healthcare system has a lot of room for growth. I'm not merely talking about getting rid of the extremely strong social stigma associated with psychological conditions, but also about the way we treat them. Most mental hospitals are located about as far from 'proper society' as possible, so it's easier for the rest of the world to pretend that they're not there, and when people are admitted there, they're often being kept there for as long as possible, under as much medication as possible to keep them docile. It's not a system I agree with, but changing it isn't easy. There are quite a few economic interests involved for some to keep the beds filled for as long as possible and the medicine cabinet filled to the brim. Thankfully this school is different."

"I can imagine that you would want to keep students' medication as limited as possible because 'docile' students may not do well on their exams."

I smile.

"Exactly. We're trying to keep our students' lives as normal as possible and go out of our way to prepare them for life as a productive part of society. Hence the school's desire for... hmmm... less intrusive methods of mental health treatment. To be honest, I'm quite fond of this job. I've always loved working with children. They are our country's future, after all."

Maybe I'm rambling on a bit. I take another sip and look at my guests.

"But forgive me. You did not come here to listen to an old therapist vent about the problems in her profession. Let us talk about the reason you are here... Miss Ikezawa."

Mrs. Satou gives me a curious glance.

"Has Hanako had... therapy of any kind before she came here?"

Now there's a question. I strongly suspect she hasn't. Part of me rues that fact. Heaven knows she would have benefitted from it if she'd been properly counseled from the very beginning. The orphanage staff must have known that she wasn't functioning well. Of course, having her committed to a psychiatric hospital, even for a little while, would have had its own issues if word got out somehow. A 'mental patient' label would have been a bigger stigma than even the burns on her face. A stigma that would make it hard for her to get a job or even a place to live. Do you risk placing that kind of alienating label on a child who is already lacking a real home or family?

"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss that subject without her permission. I don't think it's very important right now anyway."

Mrs. Satou gives an apologetic nod.

"I apologize. Please forget what I just asked."
03
"Very well. Getting back to the subject at hand; a few months ago I had a conversation with Mister Nakai and your daughter about Miss Ikezawa. I remember urging them to do what they could to make it through their own exams successfully. The idea was for the two of them to become sources of stability in Miss Ikezawa's life. From what I've seen, your daughter has taken that advice to... far greater lengths than I could ever have anticipated. It's... quite the permanent solution to a temporary problem."

Mister Satou gives me a frown.

"That has to be the first time I have heard those words in that particular context. Miss Takawa, if I may... I think all of us are aware of the fact that Hanako's situation is on Lilly's mind a lot. But I hope you are not seriously suggesting that our daughter is responsible for the offer that I have made Hanako. I am still the head of this family, not Lilly, and as such the final responsibility for that decision lies with me. If you deem the decision an unwise one, I would like you to take that up with me as well and leave our daughter out of it."

"Of course. To be honest, it's probably a little early to make a final judgment on whether the offer itself was wise or not. "

"Has she ever told you how she feels about it? Or does that also fall under patient confidentiality?"

"Client confidentiality, Mister Satou, and I'm afraid it does. That said, your offer came during an extremely stressful time for her, so I think it's too early to make a call on it."

"You believe the timing could have been better?"

"Rather than suddenly confronting her with it, you could have consulted me about it first. Your daughter and I somewhat know each other, and she knows how to contact me. I would have been happy to... ahem... subtly test the waters for you without arousing her suspicion. But said water is under the bridge right now, so there's no point in dwelling on that. That said, I'm curious what moved you to undertake such a... unique course of action."

"Unique? Adoptions of adults are extremely common in this country, Miss Takawa. Hanako would be one of many, I assure you. Why, my own brother, who now runs the head office of our company, is an adoptee."

That's not really the answer I was looking for. In fact it almost feels like a deflection.

"Oh yes, adoption of promising male business heirs is quite common here, but Miss Ikezawa is neither male nor a promising heir for your family business. Mister Satou, the adoption of a female adult would be unique enough to make the local news. I do not think you have made the offer for her to join your family because you're hoping to bequeath her your business assets."

He chuckles briefly and then shakes his head.

"No, the family business has nothing to do with this. It is a more personal perspective. As you are no doubt aware, Hanako has done a great deal for our family in its time of need. I believe that it is only appropriate that, now that she is going through a difficult time herself, we make an effort to return the favor. I consider it a matter of honor."

"Yes, I've heard of your hospitalization, and I'm glad you are doing better now. I imagine you are quite grateful to her. Maybe even grateful enough to take on a life-long responsibility such as this. Speaking of which... May I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"What... do you think about marriage?"

"W-What does that have to do with Hanako?"

I'm a little surprised at how defensive Mister Satou suddenly seems. I wonder if I touched a sensitive spot. Still, I'll have to make my point now. At least Mrs. Satou seems willing to humor me and gives me a curious smile.

"Could you elaborate a bit, Miss Takawa?"

"It is a life-long responsibility, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes, it is."

"Just like a child."

"Yes... just... like a child..."

For just a second I see a profound sadness in her eyes.

"For what reasons would you marry someone?"

"That's quite an embarrassing question."

From the sound of her playful chuckle, I suspect she was merely being polite.

"Hmph, with all due respect, Miss Takawa, I believe you are out of line here."

Mister Satou looks extremely uncomfortable, but his wife doesn't look embarrassed at all. She merely gives me a tender smile.

"There's only one reason I could think of. For myself, at least. I'd have to feel a strong affection for a person in order to marry him."

She throws a quick side glance to her husband and smiles warmly. Her husband sighs, but doesn't respond. I nod.

"What if a person came along for whom you didn't feel this kind of affection, but who did you a favor too great to just ignore. What if, when asked if there was anything you could do in return, that person asked you to marry him. Would you do it? Would you accept that life-long commitment purely out of gratitude? Out of a sense of honor?"

"I..."

Mrs. Satou opens her mouth to answer, but then realization dawns on her face, on both their faces, and there's a long painful silence.

I give the two of them an earnest look.

"I realize you are very grateful to her, but gratitude or obligation alone cannot carry a family. If you merely did this because you felt that you had an obligation to settle, she'll eventually feel that her presence is merely being tolerated and not truly accepted. In fact, I would be surprised if this isn’t something that she has already thought of. A lot."

Mister Satou acknowledges my words with a short nod and a pensive look on his face. His wife, on the other hand, looks completely crushed - not completely unlike her youngest daughter when she found out that Miss Hanako had already left the school grounds. She gives me a pleading look, and her words are little more than a whisper.

"Is that... how Hanako feels? Is that how she thinks?"

There's probably a lot more to it than that, but I'm almost convinced that this is one of the reasons Miss Hanako hasn't accepted their proposal.

"Miss Ikezawa has lived a very hard life, and she is still struggling to regain her faith in other people. Especially when she's feeling down, her resolve to regain it tends to falter from time to time."

"But, this is not how it is... She's... mistaken about us..."

I give her a probing stare.

"Do you love Miss Ikezawa then?"

Mrs. Satou doesn't answer. Her husband, however, gives me defensive look.

"To be honest, we do not know her that well. But I believe you are being a bit unfair. Can couples who visit an orphanage in order to adopt one of the children there say for sure that they know the child? Or love the child? Would you discourage that practice as well?"

I shake my head.

"I wouldn't, but Miss Ikezawa is no ordinary orphan. She's..."

I pause for a moment while searching for the right words.

"...a special needs child, I suppose. It's not all she is. She's a person with her own talents, hopes, dreams and tastes. But she is carrying a lot of baggage around. Very heavy baggage. It's not something that should ever be ignored or dismissed. We are a school here, and common school etiquette says pupils can't be late for class or leave early or ignore the teacher's request to form groups and work together. Yet we make exceptions because we know that Miss Ikezawa's behavior isn't due to a refusal to conform, but due to an inability to. You are right in that it's impossible to really love a person whom you do not truly know yet, but it is possible to accept a person you do not truly know yet. Unconditional acceptance would be required from the very beginning. Imagine..."

I think for a moment before continuing.

"Imagine being at an event - a family reunion or something similar - together with her. All seems fine at first, but at some point something suddenly happens. Something that triggers her anxieties. She panics and runs off. There is an awkward silence around you. People look at her go. Then those people turn their gazes onto you. They say nothing, but you can see the judgment in their eyes. What will you do? Scold Miss Ikezawa for disrupting the harmony and making you lose face in front of your peers? Or go after her to see if she's alright? There's no need to answer this question, but think about it. More than the financial security, she needs the emotional security. A place to feel accepted regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of her. And people..."

I fold my hands and give my guests a solemn stare.

"...who are not merely willing to share her joy and her sorrow, but also - if necessary - her loneliness."

The people in front of me merely nod and for a moment I feel like a school teacher. Then Mister Satou scrapes his throat.

"We will think about what you have told us."

"Thank you. There is one other thing I am a little curious about."

"And what would that be?"

"Now that Miss Ikezawa has failed her entrance exams, what will your daughter do? I recall that she and Miss Ikezawa were set to become roommates if they both passed their exams."

"That is correct. However, I have told Lilly that I would only arrange an apartment for her if she took a roommate. If I know my daughter a little bit, I think she will want to hold out for Hanako, rather than simply pick someone else as her roommate. That would mean she will be spending her first year in the dorms, and we can give the apartment another try next year."

"I can imagine she will be quite disappointed."

"Yes, it is very unfortunate, but it cannot be helped."

"I was wondering... hmmm... if you wouldn't reconsider, for Miss Ikezawa's sake."

It sounds crazy, asking people to reconsider getting an apartment just like that. Especially with the high costs of living space these days. But from what Miss Hanako has told me about their accommodations during their stay in Scotland, I’m fairly confident that money isn't the problem here.

"What does Hanako have to do with this?"

"Your offer to let Miss Ikezawa move in with your daughter was most generous and well-meant, but at the same time it also put a lot of pressure on her. She knew how much your daughter was looking forward to having her own little place, and that that prospect is now gone because of her. There's no doubt that the feeling of having failed your daughter was one of the reasons Miss Ikezawa chose to leave here early. If you were to reconsider, you'd surely spare Miss Ikezawa a tremendous burden this year."

Mister Satou huffs.

"I understand what you are saying, but surely you see potential problems with leaving a blind girl on her own in a town she does not know."

"There will be challenges, sure, but we have blind students graduating here every year and several of them go on to live relatively independent lives. Your daughter has had 19 years to adapt to her lack of eyesight, and people like her tend to have more coping strategies than we can even imagine. From what I have heard, your daughter is one of the most self-reliant students of her class. She may need a month - maybe two, but she'll adapt eventually."

"That still leaves us with one or two months of her needing oversight."

"Perhaps one of you could be her temporary roommate - until she's grown accustomed to her new place."

"Hmmmm..."

A short pause and then Mrs. Satou turns to her husband.

"Maybe... I could be that roommate? For a little while. You already started your new job after all. The two of us would be living separately for a little while, but... I kind of owe Lilly something, don't I?"

"Karla, let us speak about this at home."

"Alright. Just remember that sometimes you have to endure some short-term hardships in order to make a positive difference in the long run."

For a split-second I see Mister Satou smile as if enjoying some private joke.

I open my notebook, thumb through a few pages and then write a phone number from one of the pages onto my business card.

"If you intend to follow through with this, please call this number. It's the number of our mobility instructors' office. They're the ones helping our blind students navigate the campus when they first get here, among other things. Surely one of them knows your daughter. They can tell you everything you need to know about helping your daughter adapt as quickly as possible."

"Thank you for all your help."

"Perhaps you should return to your daughters and do what you can to celebrate your youngest daughter's exam results."

"We will."

We get up, and I start putting the bowls that used to hold the tea away. Mister Satou is already preparing to leave the room, but his wife seems to hesitate. When he gives her a quizzical look, she merely smiles.

"I'll be right with you."

"Very well."

As her husband leaves the office, Mrs. Satou walks up to me and gives me an unsure smile.

"I've... been thinking a little bit about what you said. My husband's... usually pretty sensitive about what others think of him."

I nod.

"I think most of us are. We are very much a group-based society. Peer pressure and avoiding loss of face are some of the cornerstones of our culture."

"But I don't think he'd scold her, even if her anxieties caused trouble. That night he came home after that train wreck of an open house day, he seemed genuinely troubled by what happened to Hanako. It usually takes a lot to rattle him. I think... his first reaction might be to apologize to others if she accidentally caused a scene, but I'm sure he'd also go and see if she's alright afterwards. He has to."

"You seem quite certain."

She smiles sadly at me.

"Our daughters would never forgive us if we messed something like this up. We might lose them permanently."

"I suppose the principle can work both ways."

"I'm not sure what you're planning to recommend to Hanako, but... she can come to us if she ever needs a place to stay. We could even arrange for her to have her own little place if she needs some extra space. The costs are not a problem. Our family has done pretty well... financially."

"I think the best thing to do would be to leave this matter in her hands from now on. If she were to decide to rely on you or accept your offer at some point, she'll probably do so when she feels the time is right. If she decides not to, there's no need to ever bring it up again."

"Alright. I'll tell my husband and our daughters."

She gives me a thorough look-over, almost as if analyzing me.

"I was impressed by how passionate you were about the situation with Hanako just now. You... really seem to care about her."

I chuckle.

"Aside from being a therapist, I also play the role of counselor from time to time here. I'm merely looking out for the best interests of those placed under my supervision. But I care a lot about the work I do."

"You said before that you loved working with children."

I smile warmly.

"I do. I hope I can keep doing this job for a long time."

"Do you have any children?"

"I've had many over the years."

"I mean... Do you have any children of your own?"

I shake my head.

"If you were faced with the decision - between being able to play an important role in the lives of many, or merely in the lives of a few... What would your choice be, Mrs. Satou?"

"I wish this sort of thing wouldn't have to be a choice to begin with."

The woman in front of me gives me a long look, and her gaze sends an uncomfortable shiver down my spine. I struggle for a moment to maintain my smile. There's a hint of sadness and quiet understanding in her eyes, but most of all there's... pity. I give a short cough.

"Is there anything else you wish to know?"

Mrs. Satou shakes her head.

"I'd better get back. Lilly's probably wondering what's keeping me."

"Please give my regards to your daughter."

"I will. Goodbye Miss Takawa. And good luck with Hanako."

--------------------------------------
Last edited by Guest Poster on Fri Oct 03, 2014 2:09 am, edited 2 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 51 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:15 am

04
"Hmmm... Again nothing."

I put my cell phone away and open the door of my car. Looks like Miss Hanako's phone is still turned off. I consider trying the landline, but then conclude there's no chance she'll pick that one up. Oh well, I'll just have to wait a little while longer. Before I drive away from the parking lot, I take a look back at the school. When I look at this place, I merely see the school where I work as a counselor and therapist. But quite a few students must have left this place today and looked back only to realize that they will never return here, save for perhaps a reunion someday. I wonder what that feels like. Several people I've spoken to today must know by now.

While driving back home, I think back on what happened today. It's certainly been an eventful day. First my encounter with Miss Hanako at the school gate this morning, followed by a rather intense meeting about the graduates. Then there was the talk with Miss Hanako's friends, both before and after the graduation ceremony and the conversation with Miss Satou's parents. I've been filling up the rest of my time writing and filing reports. Graduation day is always a bit busy for me. I'm still a bit behind on my reports, but I want to be home rather early today, so I convinced myself to shelf the workload that didn't have to be done today. In a way, I'll be working this evening as well.

As I arrive at the parking lot near my apartment building, I experience a slight feeling of pride. That meeting today went very well - much better than I had anticipated. The school administration turned out to be impressed by my preparations and gave me the cooperation I asked for. Better late than never. Now the only thing that's left to do is to speak with Miss Hanako.

As I take out my key to the front door, I realize I've made quite an exception myself in allowing my guest to stay here today. I was a more than a little bit uncomfortable with it, realizing this is not something I ought to make a habit of, but drastic circumstances call for drastic measures and I think I owed it to her. Still, it'd be good if we could sort things out this evening, and she can sleep somewhere else. I've already been skirting the line of what's appropriate.

I open the door to my apartment and smile as I'm being greeted by a soft meow from my companion.

"Hello, Yuki-dear. Have you been a good kitten today?"

I kneel down and let the young Japanese Bobtail sniff my hand before gently stroking its chin and behind its ears. I take a mouse-shaped cat toy from my bag and toss it towards the far wall of the entryway area. Yuki immediately turns her head and dashes after it, awkwardly pouncing on it as if it's a real-life prey. I chuckle at the endearing sight of her taking the toy in her mouth and walking back to me, dropping it in front of me as if it's a present. If what I read is correct, playing fetch is only a fraction of the tricks this breed can learn. I just hope it'll still take a little while before she starts dragging formerly living animals in here as presents.

"Good kitty. Have you kept an eye on Miss Hanako as I asked you to?"

In response, the young cat merely takes the toy in its mouth again and drops it on the floor once more, this time a little closer to me, as if wanting to remind me that this is the part where I take the toy and throw it away again.

"I'll play fetch with you later, dear. Mommy's got some things to take care of first."

I get up and raise my voice a bit to announce my arrival.

"Miss Hanako? I'm back. Would you like me to make you some tea?"

No response. That's a bit odd. I expected her to at least come out here and say hello. Is she still in a gloomy mood? Well, probably, but...

As I look around, I suddenly realize that there's something missing here. Something that was here when I left again this morning.

"Miss Hanako!"
05
Her shoes aren't in the place where she left them. Or anywhere else for that matter.

Completely forgetting to take off my own shoes, I hurry into my living room.

There's no one here.

How can this be?

"Miss Hanako?"

No answer.

What's going on?

I told her to stay here this morning. Take some time to calm down and play with Yuki. Yet she's nowhere in sight.

I quickly search the other rooms of my home. Miss Hanako is nowhere to be found. What's more - her suitcases are gone too. That means she's not taking a little stroll around the block. She didn't seem to be in the mood for one anyway.

I don't understand this.

I quickly take out my cell phone and call Miss Hanako's number. The phone's turned off just like before. Starting to get a little worried, I quickly call the school.

"Good evening. Yamaku Academy administrative office, Mariko Harada speaking."

"Good evening Miss Harada. This is Yumi Takawa speaking."

"Miss Takawa, what can I do for you?"

"Miss Harada, I would like to make a request of you if it's not a problem."

"Of course, what is it you want me to do?"

"I would like you to ask a few members of the nursing staff to go and look around a bit for a certain student. I would like to find out whether she's on campus or not."

"That's not a problem. And what if they find her?"

"I'd just like to be notified. The girl's name is Hanako Ikezawa. She's a 3rd year, relatively tall, long dark hair, shy demeanor, wears a denim jacket and a dark hat... and she's a burn victim. Most of the nurses are probably familiar with her, seeing that she's lived on campus for three years."

"Ahm... Miss Takawa... If she's a 3rd year then doesn't that mean she's graduated today? Why would she still be on campus?"

"The situation is a bit complicated, Miss Harada. You'll have to excuse me for leaving it at that."

"Alright then. I'll ask a few people. Do you have any suggestions on where to start?"

She can't be in her own dorm room, since she gave me the key this morning, and I left it at the administration office before leaving the school grounds.

"Hmmm... Start with the library if it's still open, the roof and the classrooms. Ask the dorm keeper to drop by Miss Yamazaki's room. She's the only friend of Miss Ikezawa who's still living in the dorms. If she's not there, have a look around the running track, perhaps."

"Alright, we'll do our best."

"Thank you, Miss Harada. I'm looking forward to hearing from you."

I hang up, give Yuki some of her favorite cat food and absentmindedly get started on making dinner. It shouldn't take the nurses too long to search the spots I indicated. Deep down I don't even believe she's gone back to Yamaku at all. She can't use her dorm room anymore, so where would she stay? But I want to rule out the possibility. Of course, if she's not at school, then where could she have gone?

I'm almost finished eating dinner when the phone rings. Could they have found her? I hurriedly pick up the phone.

"Good evening, Yumi Takawa speaking."

"Good evening, Takawa."

"Miss principal! This is an unexpected surprise."

"I'm merely returning the favor."

I don't like the tone in her voice. She sounds upset about something. I wonder what this is about.

"How can I be of help?"

"I would really like to know what is going on here, Takawa. During the meeting this morning you volunteered to have a follow-up talk with Ikezawa in Mutou's place. We gave you the green light on that, as well as on your other proposals. And now, while I stopped by the administration office, I heard that you requested the patrolling nurses to search for this girl. What on earth is going on?"

"I apologize, madam."

"You didn't have that talk with Ikezawa after all?"

"Please allow me to explain. Miss Ikezawa was actually waiting for me at the school gate when I arrived at work early this morning. She was set on leaving the school, and she asked me to present her friends with the graduation gifts she made for them."

"She was leaving? Without picking up her diploma or attending the ceremony? Why was she so eager to leave?"

"A minor misunderstanding with her friends combined with guilt and shame about not having passed her entrance exams. She's been under heavy emotional pressure lately, as I've mentioned this morning."

"So you let her leave?"

"I voiced my misgivings about it myself and tried to dissuade her from leaving, but I couldn't convince her to stay on the premises. So I... drove her to my apartment and told her to stay there until I returned. We could then take our time and have a talk together about her future. That was my condition for me doing her the favor with the presents to her friends."

"So that was why you were late at the meeting this morning?"

"My apologies again for my tardiness, madam."

I really hope this morning didn't earn me any speeding tickets on top of the scolding I'm taking now.

"Isn't taking a client home an inappropriate action for a therapist? Aren't you supposed to maintain - what do they call it - professional distance? You've literally taken your work home with you today."

"It's not something I intend to make a habit out of, madam, but I had to think quickly this morning. I couldn't convince her to stay on the school grounds, but I couldn't just let her wander off either. I thought that giving her a bit of space would be beneficial and buy me the time I needed."

Though I suspect that easing my own conscience played a very large role as well. I felt I partially responsible for her state and may have gone too far in trying to make that up to her. Not to mention the fact that the very idea of her walking away from Yamaku in a worse mental state than when she came, despite all the time and effort I put into her therapy, felt like the ultimate slap in the face. I've accepted the fact that she'll still have baggage to sort out even after her graduation, but the thought of her leaving school in the condition she was in was something that my personal pride resisted with all its might.

"But something happened?"

"When I came home an hour ago, I couldn't find her here. She appears to have left, but I have no idea when and where to."

"Why would she do that?"

"It's mostly guesswork on my part, but I think it's connected to her trust issues. She has difficulty trusting other people on a deeper level. She has to make a bigger effort than most to maintain her trust in others, and she's prone to lapses of faith during times of extreme stress. It's a defense mechanism that developed during her elementary and middle school years."

"But you still thought it was a good idea to leave her alone? I suppose you didn't anticipate this?"

That hurts. It's true, though. I should have anticipated the possibility of this happening, but I didn't. I suppose I deemed myself exempt because I was her therapist, rather than her friend. But then again, didn't I cross that line today by sheltering her? Did I cause her to become suspicious of me? Did I try so hard to convince her that I was on her side, that she started doubting my sincerity? I really messed up this time.

"I... have no excuse, madam."

"Does the fact that she left mean that your proposal this morning is now moot?"

"Not at all, madam! Let's not take any rash action! We should take a bit of time to wait things out."

"According to the nurses you sent out to search the campus, she's not anywhere around here. They'll keep an eye out for her, but we can probably discount the possibility. Do you have any other idea where she could be?"

"She might have contacted one of her friends after all."

"Also people from school?"

"Mister Nakai and Miss Inoue from class 3-3 and the Satou family. Their youngest daughter was class representative of class 3-2. The problem is that if we call them and she's not there, we might cause them quite a bit of distress."

"I'm sorry, but did you mention the Satou family? That Satou family?"

"If you are talking about the parents of Miss Lilly Satou of class 3-2 then yes, madam. They seem to have taken great interest in Miss Ikezawa's well-being lately."

"This is a big problem, Takawa. Are you aware of Satou Medical Technology?"

"They manufacture some of the equipment we use, don't they?"

"Yes, which they provide us with for quite a low price too. They're actually also one of the school's financial benefactors. Do you realize what would happen if we upset them and they pull part of the school's funding? That would be very bad. For all of us. This is quite a mess you've gotten us into, Takawa!"

Am I being thrown under the bus here? No, this is ridiculous. This whole situation is ridiculous. I'm getting a bit frustrated here. This isn't just my fault.

"Miss Principal, I will not deny my part in all of this, but this situation could have been avoided if I had been given the guarantee I've been asking for. It was frustrating having to settle for pep talks that were barely registering anymore. We could have spared that girl some truly dreadful weeks."

My superior responds with a dismissive sigh.

"You said before that you understood the school administration's policy and decision."

That doesn't mean I don't vehemently disagree with it.

"I'm afraid I still can't agree with it."

"That isn't important right now, Takawa. Do you have any idea where Ikezawa could be?"

"I... need to think about that. If I can figure out her train of thought, I might be able to come up with something."

"I hope you'll do a better job at this than you did earlier today then. Don't make us lose face in front of our benefactors, Takawa."

"No, madam. I'm sorry, madam. I'll keep you updated."

"Please do. Good evening."

As I put down the receiver, I feel exhausted. Exhausted and irritated. I can't help but feel that this issue is being politicized. Well, it's the principal's job to worry about our relations with our donors, but I still feel put off by the idea of Miss Hanako's situation suddenly being a matter of school-wide importance, just because a rich family took an interest in her. As if her well-being wasn't important before.

And then the matter of Miss Hanako's sudden disappearance. To be honest, I feel a bit betrayed. I've put so much effort into this. And now it's threatening to blow up in my face.

I rub my forehead to dull the throbbing sensation that started during my conversation with the principal. No point in getting angry. I must think. Suddenly, my attention is drawn by something sticking out from under the couch. I cleaned this place yesterday, so it's something that ended up there today. I kneel down, pull on it and find out it's a piece of paper. A piece of paper with tears and little bite marks in several places. I give my feline companion a scolding stare.

"Bad kitten. This wasn't meant for you."

I reach into my bag to retrieve my reading glasses, but even without them I can tell that it's a letter, probably left on the low table near the couch before Yuki got hold of it.

As I start reading, I immediately see that it's a letter of thanks. The letter is longer than I thought, but its message can be summarized in a mere four words.

Goodbye and thank you.

I shake my head and pound the nearby table with my hand in frustration, startling my furry roommate.

"Miss Hanako, you foolish girl."

At least this rules out the possibility that she returned to the school. Could she have contacted one of her friends after all? I'm a bit afraid to approach them. What other possibilities are there?

Think like Miss Hanako. Think like Miss Hanako.

She's a girl, not particularly strong, carrying a backpack and two heavy suitcases. She wouldn't just randomly start walking off, unless I'm really off the mark about her emotional situation.

There's a bus stop in front of the apartment building. She probably took a bus out of here.

Think like Miss Hanako. Think like Miss Hanako.

I leave my apartment and take a look at the bus stop. There's one on each side of the street. I look back at my apartment and notice that the caretaker's office is still occupied.

"Hmmm..."

That man knows each of the tenants, and he might remember an unfamiliar person, particularly if said person was lugging a lot of baggage around.

I make my way to the office and gently knock on the window. The middle-aged caretaker opens the door and bows politely.

"Good evening, Miss Takawa."

I do my best to put on my most convincing smile.

"Good evening, Mister Kondo. May I ask you a question please?"

"Of course."

"Have you been here all day?"

"Most of the day. Did something happen?"

"I was wondering if you've seen a girl leave the building today. She's 18 years old, has long dark hair and was carrying a backpack and two suitcases."

"Oh yes, I remember her. I greeted her, but she kind of shied away. Seemed a bit nervous. She was heading for the bus stop."

"Do you remember when exactly you saw her and where she was headed?"

"It was during my lunch break, so it had to be close to one o' clock, give or take a few minutes. I saw her get on the bus at the bus stop on this side of the road."

"Thank you, Mister Kondo. You've been of great help to me."

"Anytime, Miss Takawa."

I walk back towards the bus stop, wondering if this information is really going to be of use to me. I can probably pinpoint where she's headed now, but I still won't know where she got off. Maybe I could call the bus company and ask who the driver of that particular bus was. Would he even remember her, let alone remember where she got off the bus? Probably not.

I take a look at the schedule on the bus stop in search of the bus that stopped here at one. I sigh loudly when I see what bus she must have taken.

That line only makes one more stop and then it goes directly to the train station.

I could check out that last stop, but I doubt it'll do me much good.

Goodbye and thank you indeed.

"Miss Hanako, you foolish, foolish girl..."
06
Last edited by Guest Poster on Fri Aug 21, 2015 11:51 am, edited 4 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 52

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:16 am

Chapter 52
01
I wonder what time it is now.

Having just awakened from my restless state of semi-slumber, I try to fight off the disorientation that's the result of waking up in a strange place.

Even though the room's almost completely dark, I know instinctively that this room is not my own. The atmosphere is... different. Of course, was my own room at Yamaku ever really my own or was it just temporary too, like the rest of my high school life? A short reprieve from the rest of my life?

The drowsiness I feel slowly starts subsiding, but I still feel tired, exhausted even. My mind is clear enough to remember where I am, but I still wonder how long I've been in this state that might have passed for sleep. I think I retired to this room around nine o' clock. There wasn't any more work for me to do, and I wanted to be alone. I don't think I've slept much though. I haven't really slept much at all over the last few weeks, despite occasionally taking one of the sleeping pills that Miss Yumi prescribed. And when I closed my eyes, the nightmares would usually come. During the last two nights they've been different, but not any less horrifying.

My eyes have now adapted enough to vaguely make out the interior of the room I'm in. The fact that there's so little light getting past the curtains probably means it's still night. Should I try to get some more sleep? I wish there was an alarm clock in this room. There isn't, though, and I never got around to replacing the alarm clock that Naomi broke during one of her epileptic seizures. I've been using my cell phone as an alarm clock ever since.

My cell phone...

I could turn it on for a second.

I wearily get out of bed and feel my way over to the chair my clothes are draped over. I take the phone out of my pants' pocket, but before I can flip it open, a thought enters my mind that completely paralyzes my fingers.

If I turn it on, will it ring?

That's crazy and I know it. How coincidental would that be?

Still, it's not completely impossible, is it?

Just for a second. I'll turn it on, check the time and then turn it off again.

My fingers still won't move.

I carefully move the curtain in front of the window aside and peer through. It's either still night or extremely early in the morning. Nobody's up but me right now.

Just for a second then. Just to check the time.

Finally getting a hold of my anxiety, I fold out my phone and turn it on. Preparing to turn it off immediately again, I look at the small lit screen.

- 5:45 a.m. -

- 16 missed calls. -
02
I let out a tortured whimper and abruptly drop my phone, fortunately into the pile of clothes on the chair.

16 missed calls...

A normal person would have checked her phone sooner. A normal person would have responded.

But how should I respond? What would I say to them?

And...

What would they say to me?

I wonder for a moment if there are voicemails too, but I know in advance that I won't have the nerve to listen to those.

What would they say to me?

That question keeps bouncing around in my head, and I'm unable to get it out. What's worse, a little nagging voice in the back of my mind starts answering it.

What do you think they'll say?

Hanako, where are you? We're worried sick about you.

I'm sorry...

What were you thinking, running off without telling us? After everything we've already done for you.

I'm sorry...

I'm so disappointed, Hanako. Don't you remember our promise after I decided to stay in Japan? Didn't we promise to graduate together? I've kept it. Why couldn't you? Why couldn't you pass as well?

I'm sorry...

I know you're smart enough to have passed your entrance exams. You did well on the Center Test after all. Why couldn't you graduate with us? Why did you throw the fight?

I'm sorry...

Yes, why couldn't you pass as well? We could have celebrated going to the same university together. Now you've ruined the most important day of our lives. You only graduate high school once. Some memory that's turned out to be.

I'm sorry!

I was so excited about being able to have our own little place where we could live, study and spend time together. All we needed to do was to both pass our exams. I did my part. Why couldn't you do yours? Didn't you want this too? Didn't this prospect motivate you as well? Now I'll be stuck in the dorms there for a year, thanks to you.

I'm so sorry!

How are we even supposed to continue our relationship now? We probably won't be able to keep a long-distance relationship going, will we? Have you ever thought about that? Shouldn't that have been motivation enough?

I'm sorry!

At least our sex life isn't going to get any worse.

I'm sorry! I'm sorry!

Beads of sweat start appearing on my forehead, and my breathing gets more frantic by the second. I struggle to regain control of myself, but my legs nevertheless give out and I collapse in a heap on the floor. My lungs are screaming for air, but they're barely getting any, no matter how hard I try to breathe.

Keep it together.

My chest is hurting really badly, and for a moment I wonder if my heart is going to give out. I feel like I'm suffocating, yet I can't pass out.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.

My heart's pounding like a jackhammer, but I'm suddenly hit by a flash of insight. Using every bit of strength I have, I pick myself up a bit and manage to reach into the pile of clothes on the chair and retrieve my phone. I can keep my shaking hands steady for just long enough to reach the power button and press it.

Breathe in, breathe out...

The sensation slowly starts ebbing away, but I can still barely breathe in here. I shuffle towards the door. I need to get some fresh air.

I open the door and stagger into the hallway. Everyone else still appears to be asleep.

I can breathe a little easier here, but I don't want to be caught here looking like I just had a heart attack, so I make my way to the nearby bathroom.

I soak one of the washing cloths lying near the sink and use it to wipe the sweat off my forehead. As the cool cloth soothes my throbbing head, the adrenaline rush from the experience back in my room makes way for an overwhelming tiredness, so I sit down on the edge of the bath and wait for my mind to get its bearings back. Eventually, the exhaustion starts fading and is replaced with a feeling that's not much better.
03
A feeling of depression.

I just had a debilitating panic attack. And it didn't happen because my boyfriend was dying in front of me or because I was trapped in an auditorium filled with people who were all looking in my direction. I had a panic attack because I looked at a cell phone.

I looked at a cell phone.

How pathetic can a girl get?

Have I really become this weak?

Seems like it.

My mind floats back to five months ago. We were going to try and get into the same university. Lilly, Hisao, even Naomi. And... me. I remember feeling a little uneasy about it even then, but... I had to leave Yamaku eventually. And I'd be able to share an apartment with Lilly. What more could I wish for?

But then, that panic attack happened. Lilly blamed herself and went really far to try and make amends for it, but this was never her fault to begin with, nor was it her responsibility to fix. A normal person would have turned that phone off after it went off, would have felt a bit awkward and then would have moved on. It was a painful reminder of how feeble I still am and how a single bad moment can immediately turn me back into a quivering semi-catatonic mess. Suddenly the future didn't look bright anymore. It started to terrify me.

Lilly must have been really happy when her father agreed to let her live on her own as long as she took a roommate. But I was secretly mortified, because I was thrust into that role. Now I had no choice but to pass. I'd never be able to forgive myself if Lilly became the victim of my weakness.

And yet that's what happened. My weakness eventually won out. I did surprisingly well on the Center Test. Perhaps part of the reason was Naomi. I knew I had to spare her the burden I was carrying. Then the entrance exams came. I had been struggling to keep studying despite my nightmares becoming more and more frequent. Maybe the little nagging voice in my head was right. I simply lacked the motivation to pass. I probably could have gotten in if only I had been a little more determined and a little less weak. The questions on the exam weren't easy, but they didn't make my head spin either. What made my head spin were my thoughts of what could happen if I answered them correctly.

And thus I failed not just my exams, but also Lilly and Hisao.

I managed to keep it hidden afterwards by hiding in my room, only sneaking out ever so often because I had to visit Miss Yumi in order to get a note that'd allow me to get my medication replenished. I didn't even think those antidepressants were helping anymore as graduation day came closer and closer. They were going to find out eventually and then what?

And here I am now. A nervous wreck, hiding away in a place far from the place that was like a home to me.

I think back on the thoughts that were just whirling around in my head. Thoughts about Lilly and Hisao. Bad thoughts about Lilly and Hisao. As if my downer mood wasn't enough already, a sense of shame now rears its head as well.

Miss Yumi's words from one of my sessions come back to mind. Psychological projection. Attributing one's own negative thoughts to other people. A defense mechanism against feelings such as guilt or inadequacy during times of heavy stress.

They wouldn't think such thoughts about me.

But I would would think such thoughts about me.

I'm such a horrible person.

I wearily get up and prepare to return to the room I spent the night in, but before I walk out, I take a long look in the mirror.

I look even more terrible than usual. My face has grown skinny. In fact, I probably lost quite a bit of weight due to stress ever since examination hell began. The bags under my eyes can be seen from all the way across a large room. And my scars...

I carefully move the lock of hair that partially obscures the right side of my face. Is it just my imagination or are the scars... covering a larger area of my face than they were before?

No, that's crazy. That has to be my imagination. And yet... That was the first thought that came up when I looked at the blight on my face.

I can't sleep this way. I need to find a way to distract myself.

Maybe I could... continue my chores. Yes, that'd get my mind off of things.

I'll wash myself and get dressed. And then I'll get to work.

It's a little too early to prepare breakfast and vacuuming will be too loud. I could clean this room though. Maybe there's some more laundry to iron.

Yes, I'll go and make myself...

...useful...

--------------------------------------
04
"Ummm... Miss... uh..."

I cringe as I enter the kitchen and approach the woman who's busy cutting pieces of chicken meat while watching over a pan containing fried rice, judging from the smell.

What was her name again?

"...Ah... madam?"

She turns around.

"Ah... Ikezawa, wasn't it?"

"Y-Yes. I... umm... c-came to say that I'm f-finished with the laundry."

"Oh. That's... uh... good to hear. Thank you for getting it done so quickly."

"M-Maybe I could... do some vacuuming next?"

"Have you already eaten? I didn't see you around at breakfast."

"I... wanted to finish up f-first."

"It's almost noon already and you haven't eaten yet?"

"I'm... not very hungry right now."

It doesn't look like that's what she wanted to hear. I fidget nervously under the woman's stare.

"You have to eat something or you're going to faint at some point. I think you can afford to take it easy for a little while. It's not like we're understaffed here."

I'd actually rather keep busy for more than one reason.

"..."

My silence is met with a resigned sigh.

"If you want to help out more, you can sweep the backyard. But please take these leftovers from breakfast with you. Have a bite or two to eat, and just give the pieces of meat you don't want to the dog."

"Okay..."

I take a paper bag filled with leftovers from the kitchen table and make my way to the backyard where I sit down on the ground with my back against the wall. The fresh air clears my head a bit, but it still doesn't take away the unease I felt when the woman working in the kitchen tried to reassure me.

It's not like we're understaffed here.

I let out a depressed sigh. Then I absentmindedly take some of the pieces of bread from the paper bag lying next to me and start nibbling on them. Suddenly, I catch some movement in the corner of my eye and turn my head to see a friendly-looking Golden Retriever lazily approaching me. I wonder if he's just curious about this person sitting here or if he's smelled the pieces of meat in my bag.

"H-Hey..."

He sniffs into the air and gives me a curious look as if trying to determine if I'd be willing to share my food with him or not. I decide to take away his doubt by taking a piece of chicken from my bag and putting it next to me on the ground. The dog immediately walks up to me, sniffs the piece of meat and then quickly devours it. After swallowing his treat, he looks at me again as if begging for more.

"Ummm... D-down?"

He obediently lies down, putting his chin on my upper leg. For the first time in a long time, I smile a bit. They trained him pretty well, it seems. I take another piece of meat from the bag, and this time I hold it in the palm of my hand, extending it towards him. He sniffs my hand and then eagerly takes the piece of chicken. I tenderly stroke his back as he gorges himself on the food. As I keep feeding my canine companion, my thoughts return to my current situation.

I figured I'd stay here until I figured out what to do next, but I'm still as lost as to what to do and where to go as when I came here. Lilly and Hisao are probably angry at me right now, and I don't want to be a burden on them. But... I wonder if I'm not a burden here either, despite my attempts to be useful here.

Maybe I'm just fooling myself when I'm telling myself that I'm here because I need some space to think of what to do next. Maybe I'm really just here because I'm afraid of everyone's reactions, and this is the one place where I don't think anyone's going to find me.

I probably can't stay here, can I?

I suddenly become aware of the voices of two people talking somewhere nearby. The dog has probably picked it up as well as his ears perk up for a moment before deciding that the possibility of me maybe having some more food is of greater importance to him. I present him with the last piece of meat in the bag. As he takes it from me, I put my hand on his head and gently stroke it. He settles down, clearly enjoying the attention.

I think I've always liked animals more than people. As I keep stroking the dog's head, I sadly smile at him.

"H-Hey... Niji. I... umm... d-don't think we really know each other well, do we?"

His ears perk up again briefly at the sound of his name.

"We... never really interacted much, b-but I'm h-happy to see you again. I've always liked you."

"My... ummm... n-name is Hanako and.... I used to live here. D-Do you... remember me?"

I'm not sure if his soft whimper is a confirmation or not, but it still makes me smile a bit.

My nerves soothed a bit, I sit back and try to empty my head. As I do so, I once again become aware of the conversation nearby, this time fragments of it reaching me.

"...not too much of an inconvenience?"

"...change of pace, actually. It was..."

"...not quite sure... a phone call myself..."

"... you did what was best. Besides. I've always wondered about this place."

"Let me see where she is."

The gate leading outside the yard suddenly opens, and I see the orphanage director walk in. She gives me a friendly nod when she notices me.

"Ah, there you are, Hanako."

I quickly spring to my feet, wondering what she wants with me.

"M-Matron... I'll g-get started on the yard right away!"

She rolls her eyes at my reaction and shakes her head.

"That won't be necessary. Someone else can do that later. But I was wondering if we could have a moment of your time."

"O-Okay. You w-want to t-talk to me about s-something?"

"Not me, actually. There's somebody here to see you."

"Miss Ikezawa! Fancy meeting you here."
05
Just as my brain makes the connection between 'somebody being here to see me' and 'somebody knowing that I'm here', the gate opens a bit further, and the owner of the second voice steps forward. I reel in shock as I recognize who it is, and panic promptly takes my heart in a suffocating grip.

"M-M-Miss Yumi!"

How did she find me? Why is she here? Did the orphanage staff call the school? What's going on? Is she here to scold me? What should I do? Should I run? Can I even run? But where to?

Niji, who was peacefully lying down just earlier seems to sense my fear and starts barking loudly. After exchanging a glance with the matron, Miss Yumi slowly walks forward and holds out her hand. After sniffing for a moment, the dog relaxes and licks her hand a few times, deeming the situation a false alarm. Miss Yumi smiles at him.

"Aren't you a good dog?"

The matron smiles.

"He is. All the children are very fond of him."

She then sharply whistles, and Niji quickly walks up to her. She points towards the door.

"Inside, boy. Come on."

As the dog casually walks off to its dog bed inside the common room, the matron turns to me. I eye her with an unsure look.

"D-Did you c-call the school?"

She shakes her head.

"I received a phone call from Miss Takawa this morning, asking me if you were here. I confirmed to her that you came here two days ago, offering to help out the staff in return for shelter."

Miss Yumi nods in order to confirm the matron's words.

"I had a bright moment last night, and the contact information of this orphanage was still in the school's records, so I gave it a try. I'm happy I decided to do so. There's... still some paperwork that has to be tied up that we didn't get around to."

The matron gives me a puzzled look.
06
"Why didn't anybody at the school know that you were planning to go here?"

I feel a sense of dread as I start racking my brain for an excuse, but Miss Yumi merely shrugs her shoulders.

"Graduation day and the days leading up to it are always rather hectic at school. I'm sure there's merely been a miscommunication in our administration."

"I see. It must have been a rather long trip for you. Would you like some tea?"

Miss Yumi smiles at the matron.

"If it's not too much trouble for you then I would be honored."

"Not at all. Please have a seat in the common room."

The matron turns around and walks inside, but Miss Yumi doesn't immediately follow her, merely gesturing me to come along.

"After you, Miss Ikezawa."

I silently enter the building and follow the matron to the common room. On the way, I feel Miss Yumi's eyes on my back, and it makes me feel extremely nervous. The way she's following close behind me almost feels like she's a prison guard escorting an inmate to his cell. Or a police officer escorting a suspect to the interrogation room. I don't think the matron noticed anything, but I immediately picked up the fact that Miss Yumi isn't addressing me as 'Miss Hanako' right now, and that's something she's been doing for over 1.5 years. There was an amiable smile on her face just now, but somehow that smile felt really fake.

She's probably upset at me for unexpectedly walking out on her, and I'm starting to feel really scared. It might be weird for me to feel scared of an old lady who's about a head shorter than I am, but Miss Yumi probably knows more about my various emotional landmines than anyone else at Yamaku, and if she was truly angry and willing to turn me into a quivering catatonic mess, she'd probably need less than a minute to blow up most of those landmines and achieve exactly that result. After last night, I don't think I'd need more than just a little push anyway.

We reach the common room, and Miss Yumi sits at one of the tables, gesturing me to sit down opposite her. As the matron heads towards the kitchen, Miss Yumi shoots a glance at Niji, who is lying on his dog bed in one of the corners and who's happily chewing away on an old slipper.

"He seems like a good dog. Personally, I'm more fond of cats than dogs. Yuki, whom you've met two days ago, actually knows several tricks that are usually associated with dogs."

I don't think she just came all the way over here to talk to me about cats and dogs.

"To be honest, I used to distrust dogs when I was younger. As a child, I tried to pet a dog in the park once and got bitten. Perhaps I came onto him a little bit too strongly, or perhaps the dog was in a bad mood or not properly trained. I never found out. It wasn't that big a deal. My mother cleaned and bandaged the wound, which was completely healed after two weeks."

Why is she here?

"Still, the saying goes: Once bitten, twice shy. That certainly applied to me too. I don't think it was abnormal for me to be on my guard around dogs from that point on. It's a defense mechanism that most humans possess and those that lack it don't tend to live long and succesful lives."

Why is she here? Why did she come here?

"That discomfort diminished when I reached my teens, though I still wouldn't take a dog for a pet."

I'm starting to feel aggravated by her small talk. If she's here to scold me, why doesn't she do so?

"Taking a deep breath and thinking about the situation often helps too. Not always, but most of the time. Back there in the yard, for example, I told myself that an orphanage wouldn't keep a dog around if he was prone to biting people. He'd have to be extremely comfortable with human contact. Ah.... Thank you."

The matron returns with two cups of tea for us. She smiles at Miss Yumi.

"Not a problem. I... do have a few things I have to tend to though. Is there anything else I can do for you before I get back to work?"

"Hmmm... This room is nice, but I assume everybody living here is free to come in at will. I'm terribly sorry to impose on you, but is there a place here where we can have a little bit more privacy?"

"You can use the room that Hanako has spent the night in if you wish. Nobody else is using it right now."

Oh no...

"Thank you, I greatly appreciate it."

The matron makes a polite bow and then walks out. Miss Yumi takes a few careful sips from her tea before returning to the topic at hand.

"In the end, it might have been okay if I had remained uncomfortable around dogs. It's quite possible to live a productive and relatively carefree life without one's distrust of dogs ever becoming a real burden on one's life."

She takes another sip and then, for the first time since she came here, her eyes look straight at me.

"Unfortunately, the same can't be said about a distrust of people."

I cringe. I knew where this was going, but the punchline still feels like an actual punch. I look away from Miss Yumi and try to steady my shaking hands. Miss Yumi finishes her cup and slowly gets up.

"Miss Ikezawa, I think it's best if we continue our conversation elsewhere. Please lead the way."
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 5:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 52 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:16 am

I don't have the courage to refuse her request, and with a slightly unsteady pace, I walk through the hallway towards the room where I've slept the past two nights, with Miss Yumi following close behind. When I reach the room, I sit down on the bed and I expect Miss Yumi to sit down on the chair nearby. She does so, but not before picking it up and putting it down in front of the door. When she looks at me, the smile she was wearing earlier has completely vanished, and she has a scolding expression on her face. I really feel scared now. Scared and trapped.

"Now then..."

Please don't hurt me.

"Back there in the yard, I didn't merely tell that little white lie to the director in order to avoid an awkward situation, but also because it would have looked silly if I had told her that we weren't merely in the dark about where you were, but also why you left without saying anything. Perhaps you can explain that?"

"I'm... S-sorry."

I reflexively let out an apology, but Miss Yumi doesn't respond, obviously still waiting for me to elaborate. When the silence becomes too pressing, I start stammering an answer.

"Y-You r-really wanted me to s-stay on the school g-grounds that morning, so when you s-suddenly changed your m-mind and took me to... your place, I s-started wondering..."

I was a little surprised that Miss Yumi didn't simply order me to stay at school, but when she drove me to her apartment and told me to wait there and think about my plans for the future, I didn't think much of it... at first.

But then, about an hour later, a thought suddenly popped up in my head.

What if this was merely a stalling tactic to keep me occupied?

What if she's telling Hisao, Lilly and Naomi that she's left me at her place and they're welcome to pick me up there?

I tried to dismiss the thought and that worked at first, but as the time the graduation ceremony was set to end drew closer and closer, a little nagging voice in the back of my mind kept bringing it up, until that thought was replaced with another more distressing one.

What if they're on their way here as we speak? I've ruined their big day. What will they say to me?

Eventually, I completely lost my nerve, and, after penning a letter to Miss Yumi to thank her for all she's done for me over the years (it was the least I could do for her), I fled the apartment and took the next bus to the train station where I took a train to the city where I spent most of my childhood.

"What is it that you started wondering?"

"M-maybe... y-you were just p-playing along... I'm s-sorry."

Miss Yumi sighs. She doesn't look shocked. Judging by her earlier story, she must have suspected this already. She still looks put off though.

"I must admit I had to make an effort to refrain from telling your friends about your location. As touched as they were by your gifts, it was easy to tell that you were still the only thing on their mind. But in the end, I didn't tell them anything because I was afraid that breaking my promise to you would destroy our bond of trust. Little did I know that bond was either already destroyed or never existed in the first place."

"I'm... r-really sorry."

Miss Yumi gives a quick nod, but she shows no signs of getting up.

"Ummm... Isn't... t-this why you're here?"

"I'm here because I kept my promise to you, but you failed to keep your promise to me. So now I'm here to give you an additional chance to fulfill it."

"Oh..."

"How about you, Miss Ikezawa? Why are you here? You haven't been here in years."

"I..."

"Yes?"
07
"I... didn't know what else to do. The night...before g-graduation, I overheard H-Hisao and Lilly... t-talking about me. About what... what to do with me. I... know they m-meant well, but... it... really hurt."

"Go on."

It feels like a flood is welling up inside me, and I'm too tired to try and stop it. Besides, what point is there to try and hold it in? Miss Yumi's obviously not planning on leaving until she heard whatever it is she wants to hear, and I doubt anything I say is going to lower her opinion of me even more.

"I'm... I'm so tired of being a burden to other p-people. B-But, no matter what I d-do or where I g-go, it's what I... end up b-being. H-Hisao and Naomi were going to... ask their p-parents to give me shelter, but... H-Hisao's parents are already paying for his university. They... shouldn't have to f-feed yet another mouth f-for a whole year. And Naomi's p-parents don't even know me. They'd get t-tired of me before the year is over."

"What about the Satou family? They seem affluent enough to support you for life. In fact... that's exactly what they offered you."

"I'm... a burden to them too. I was... with them on New Year's Day, but... my fear of crowds only made things d-difficult for them and I'd... p-probably continue to h-hold them back."

"Did they tell you that they were inconvenienced by you?"

"They wouldn't do that, but... why would they w-want me around if n-not m-merely out of obligation? They already h-have two daughters who are... pretty and c-confident and s-succesful. Unlike m-me. I'd j-just spend m-my entire life l-living in their shadow."

Not to mention their shared past. Despite the fact that Lilly has been estranged from her parents for nearly six years and has only been getting herself reacquaintanced with them for just over half a year and despite the fact that Akira is still distant from her mother and father, I was the one who ended up feeling like a fifth wheel during the times whenever the rest would bring up amusing memories from years back. It was a painful reminder of both my status as an outsider and an orphan.

"You said earlier that you listened in on Mister Nakai and Miss Satou and that their words hurt you. Why? You didn't think they were merely being concerned?"

"It felt like... everything was g-going back to the way things used to b-be, with Hisao and Lilly s-seeing me as a ward... instead of as a f-friend. I... don't want t-things to g-go back to b-being that way, but... it s-seems inevitable."

Miss Yumi sighs loudly.

"Of course the timing and circumstances of their conversation could have been better and that kind of talk should have taken place with you being present, but..."

She suddenly gives me a stern glare that has just a tinge of anger in it.

"...don't you think it should have been up to you to instigate that talk to begin with and preferably a bit sooner than the night before graduation?"

"..."

"When was the last time you spoke with them at length? From what I remember, you spent most of the last few weeks hiding away in your room. What did you expect them to do? Leave Yamaku while pretending that you don't exist? You're their friend. They care about you."

"I...know, b-but..."

"I know you used to worry about your friends merely spending time with you out of pity, but people with that mindset wouldn't have stuck around during the more pleasant months of the summer and autumn. They would have drifted away, pleased that their job was done, and would have moved on to other people for whom they could feel sorry. Instead, they seemed happy to spend time with you and share in your moments of joy. Friendship isn't just about supporting others in times of hardship, but also about sharing moments of happiness with one another. If your friends were making efforts to help you out, that wasn't because they needed something to distract themselves from their own problems or because fixing you would make them feel better about themselves, but because they, too, wanted the good times between you and them to return. And as soon as possible. And yet here you are, claiming that it's inevitable that you'll return to being like a ward to them. Don't you think they deserve the benefit of the doubt by now? And if not, what could they possibly do to receive it after all this time? Have you thought about how they must have felt? Surely they must have wondered about that as well."

Her eyes narrow a bit more as she continues.

"They should treat you as an equal, but you should also remember to act like one."

Those last words sound familiar. Miss Yumi's frequently spoken them to me. I know I have to act like an equal to Hisao and Lilly, but what I know and what I feel are sometimes two different things. They've been two different things for weeks. I want to be their equal and I know I have to act like one, but how can I act like one if I don't feel like one? It's a contradiction that's been driving me crazy.

"It's fine to demand a bit of space to sort things out for yourself every now and again, but that's not what you've been doing. You've been shutting people out, placing unnecessary stress on your friendships. Friendship isn't just about supporting others, but also about allowing others to support you. Like Miss Satou has been doing."

"L-Lilly?"

"I remember Miss Satou went through a rather difficult time herself after the hospitalization of her father. And who was it she turned to in those difficult times?"

"M-Me..."

"Yes. There are various ways to handle a personal crisis, but some ways are less healthy than others. How would you have felt if, instead of accepting your support at that time, she'd have shut herself in her room 24/7, refusing to eat or talk to anyone? How would you have felt if she had unexpectedly walked off without telling anyone where she went? "

I'd be beside myself with worry.

"I'd f-feel b-bad, I think..."

"The same is probably true for them."

"I..."

"Relying on you for emotional support must have been tough for Miss Satou as well. She came across to me as someone who has quite a bit of pride, and I doubt she likes showing her vulnerabilities to other people. The reason she was comfortable with temporarily using you as an emotional crutch was probably because she had faith that, once everything was sorted out, you'd dispose of that crutch role and resume the friendship on equal footing again. Why can't you bring yourself to have that kind of faith as well, Miss Ikezawa?"

"It's... different. L-Lilly only r-relied on me f-for a few weeks. I've b-been a wreck for m-months on end already."

"I don't think there's a difference. There's no time limit to these sorts of things. Or are you implying that you would have only supported Miss Satou emotionally for a few weeks and then had left her to her own devices, regardless of how she'd be doing at the time."

I wildly shake my head in order to deny Miss Yumi's suggestion as vehemently as possible. She smirks a bit in response.

"I didn't think so either. I think the same applies to them as well."

She gets up from her chair and gives me a long look.

"Do you remember what I said when we met at the school gates that morning and what I urged you to think about?"

I nod my head.

"What did I say then?"

"I..."

I sigh. Miss Yumi had been talking during the entire car ride from Yamaku to her place, but not a lot of that registered at the time. My mind was just too occupied by other things.

"It didn't really stick back then, did it? I reminded you that just like you'd be worried if Miss Satou would disappear without a trace during a bout of distress, the same is also true for her and your other friends. When you've lived a life of isolation, it's easy to forget that almost all of your actions still have an impact on others. You would do well to pay more heed to how your actions affect those around you, even during times such as these. You spend a lot of your time worrying about burdening others and yet your attempts to avoid doing so end up burdening others all the more. Whenever you lock yourself in your room for an extended period of time, you burden them. Whenever you suddenly vanish without telling anyone, you burden them. Don't you understand that your absence will always be a bigger burden on them than your presence could ever be? That's what having other people in your life is all about. Still..."
08
She takes her handbag from the nearby dresser and reaches into it. As she does so, her scornful expression softens a bit.

"...despite everything, your friends are still rooting for you. Even now. Have a look. This is what they wanted me to give you. They said you'd understand."

She takes something out of her bag, and I reel in shock as I recognize it.

It's the plush puppy I gave to Lilly some time before the summer break. The one-eyed puppy we got out of the crane game whom I named after the dog with whom I shared my breakfast earlier today.

"N-Niji!!"

I remember giving him to Lilly when she was struggling with her parents' summoning. I didn't know for sure what was bothering her, so this gift was my way of telling her: 'even if you won't entrust me with your burden, I'm still thinking of you and rooting for you.'

Even if you won't entrust me with your burden...

...still thinking of you and rooting for you...

A lump appears in my throat.

"L-Lilly... Hisao... Naomi..."

I'm not sure what it was that set me off. The kindness of my friends' gesture where there should have been indignation? The slightly sad stare of plush-Niji's single eye? Or the realization of the meaning behind this gift? Maybe a combination. But as I take the plush toy from Miss Yumi, it feels as if a pressure valve bursts inside my head, and a steady stream of tears starts flowing. My breathing becomes uneven, and my shoulders shake as I start sobbing uncontrollably. So many feelings have started bouncing around inside me that there's simply no other way to let them all out. I feel moved, ashamed, relieved, confused, happy and sad all at the same time. For a long time, the only sound in the room is the sound of my ragged breaths.

Eventually, Miss Yumi reaches into her handbag again and hands me a neatly embroidered handkerchief, which I use to dry my tears.

"Feeling better now, Miss Ikezawa?"

"I'm n-not sure."

As stress-relieving as that crying fit has been, it's also left me feeling extremely tired and a bit empty inside. I'm not really sure how to feel now. I'm not even sure if it's an improvement. All I know is that I feel different from before.

"You look rather tired. Have you slept at all since you came here?"

"A bit... but not much."

"Perhaps you should get a few hours of rest right now. There's no point in continuing our conversation if you're too tired to think clearly. Here..."

As I give her back her handkerchief, she gets a small sleeping pill out of a pocket in her bag and removes the wrap.

"One of these should be okay. Take it with a glass of water and get some sleep. We can have our talk after you've woken up. There's no need to rush it."

"Ummm... T-talk?"

"About your future. It's why I came here, and I have no intention of leaving here until we've had this discussion. I feel you owe me at least this much. Besides, I happen to have a vested interest in getting this situation properly resolved as well, but I won't bore you with politics."

"O-Okay then."

"Good. If possible, try to think about what I just said. And more importantly, try to have an answer to one thing in particular."

"One thing?"

"Think about whether you're willing to continue pursuing your dream in spite of this setback."

"M-My dream...?"

Miss Yumi nods as she moves the chair back to its original place and opens the door.

"Yes, regardless of whether you believe you're up to it or not. This is about what you want, not about what you currently think you can achieve."

I give a meek nod and walk to the bathroom to get a glass of water. As I exit the bathroom, Miss Yumi is waiting for me outside.

"I will see you in a few hours, Miss Ikezawa. Then we can exchange apologies."

Then she walks off without further explaining herself.

--------------------------------------
09
I wake up feeling drowsy, but still oddly refreshed. My watch indicates that I must have slept for four whole hours, and the fact that I can't remember whether I've dreamt or not is probably a good thing. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and get out of bed.

Miss Yumi's probably still here.

I tried thinking about what she said after getting to bed, but I started feeling woozy after a few minutes already and fell asleep soon afterwards.

I try to recall what I said to Miss Yumi during a previous therapy session when she asked me about my dream. I believe that session was a day after a very good date with Hisao during one of my better months. I was in a very good mood during that session and may have been way more optimistic than I should have been.

What exactly did I say back then?

I think I said I wanted to get into a good university and get a writing degree. I had been hesitating between picking copy writer or content writer as my goal to shoot for and settled on the latter. I think informing readers or getting them to contemplate something fits my personality better than writing sales pitches meant to convince readers to buy a certain product. It's also closer to the journalism end of the writing spectrum, which is always a plus. My ultimate dream would be to do creative writing, maybe publish a novel or something, but I wanted to aim for something stable first and do a novel on the side someday.

In the heat of the moment, I may have also said something about marrying Hisao and starting a family.

I really hope she's not going to bring that one up.

I've already failed the 'get into a good university'-part though, and that makes the rest a lot harder as well. I'm not sure what options I have. There might still be universities I could enroll in that don't use entrance exams. But I still remember what Mutou told me about aiming for the best academic credentials I could go for.

Should I try again next year? That's what Naomi's going to do.

Naomi's going to attend a cram school to prepare for the examination season next year though, and that's where my first hurdle is already. As things currently are, I'd probably have to spend so much energy on merely functioning on a basic level in such a place that I might be unable to actually study. And it's not like those cram schools are cheap. Wouldn't it be a waste of my parents' money?

Also, where would I study? Where would I even live?

I wonder if Miss Yumi has any recommendations. Am I the first orphan who attends the school and fails to get into his or her school of choice?

I suppose I'll have to apologize first. I did inconvenience her two days ago, and instead of writing me off, she took the time to look me up here. I don't even want to know what she meant with her words about vested interest and politics. I probably created trouble for her with the school administration. I do wonder what she meant with exchanging apologies though. What does she have to apologize for?

I walk out of the room, planning to visit the bathroom and wash my face (both in order to feel more awake and in order to erase the traces of my crying fit from a few hours back), and am somewhat taken off guard when I find Miss Yumi waiting outside my room.

"Ah, Miss Ikezawa. Have you slept well?"

I give a confused nod. Has she been sitting here outside my room all the time? I notice a deck of cards on the sidetable nearby. Can someone really play solitaire for four hours straight and not get bored out of her mind? Why didn't she simply wait in the common room? It almost feels like she's been standing guard out here.

Or...

Maybe that was the idea. Maybe she didn't quite trust me not to try slipping away when she wasn't looking. Or... Maybe the idea was to give me the idea she was standing guard, just to make the point that it's not fun when someone can't bring herself to trust you. Or maybe...

Ugh, maybe I should stop thinking altogether.

I enter the bathroom, quickly wash the traces of my tears away, return to Miss Yumi and make an awkward bow.

"Ummm... M-Miss Yumi, uh... I mean... Miss Takawa?"

"Yes?"

"I'm... uh... r-r-really sorry."

"Sorry for what?"

"F-For b-breaking m-my p-p-promise."

"Hmmm..."

She gives me a skeptical look.

"How can I be so sure that it won't happen again?"

"..."

I really don't know. I can't force her to trust me...

I wonder if this is what others think of me sometimes.

Miss Yumi sighs and then nods her head.

"Very well, Miss Hanako, I accept your apology this time. Just make certain that this doesn't happen again."

"O-Okay. T-Thank you, Miss Yumi."

She gets up from her seat, puts her deck of cards away and gestures towards the exit.

"Now then, would you like to get some fresh air? I could use some myself."

I nod, and we make our way to the backyard where we sit on a bench near the gate leading outside. We stay silent for quite some time, just enjoying the breeze a bit. Then Miss Yumi speaks up.
10
"I remember asking you about your dreams for the future near the end of last October, and you had some pretty specific plans. I spoke to your Japanese teacher about the... ah... academic aspect of your plans, and he said that he felt you had the academic ability to succeed as long as you did your best. The school would have been happy to give you a letter of recommendation."

"Dreams... M-Maybe that's all they w-were."

"Have you already given up on those dreams, Miss Hanako?"

"I'm... n-not sure. I would have l-liked it if they could b-become reality, but..."

"Your confidence has suffered a rather major blow in the last few months, but there's no reason to believe it will stay that way. A recovery process of this kind is never smooth sailing. Most of the times, it involves two steps forward, followed by one step back. The last months were a painful step back, maybe even more than one step back, but let's remember where you were exactly one year ago. Would you have believed a year ago that you'd become a member of a club? That you'd go on a vacation abroad together with Miss Satou and a classmate? That you'd end up in a relationship with that classmate?"

I shake my head.

"Those were some pretty impressive steps forward. I see no reason why this little relapse should be considered permanent."

"I... don't know."

"If I told you that I knew of a suitable place for you to study without too much discomfort, would you be willing to give things another try?"

"A suitable place?"

"Would you?"

"M-Maybe. "

"In that case, I suppose you are what they call a ronin, aren't you? As in... a student spending a year preparing to try and get into their university of choice?"

"P-Probably. But..."

Miss Yumi gestures me to be silent and gets up from the bench. Then she turns around and looks straight at me.

"Yamaku is not a cram school. We don't really have the teaching staff to cover a 4th year for students who fail their entrance exams. What we usually do is help students look for suitable cram schools in their home area that have a school nurse or staff with some basic medical knowledge and who are willing to supervise our alumni. Our head nurse then writes a treatment plan with instructions on how to deal with our students' condition, whether that student makes it into a university or spends a year at a cram school. Of course, that's not always enough. Some conditions are more severe than others."

"Like H-Hisao's?"

"It was actually a heart patient who was the reason for the creation of a small-scale ronin program at Yamaku. That happened many years ago. He was a very gifted student, and his teachers had high hopes for him, but during the examination season he suffered a rather severe episode and was hospitalized until after the exams were already over. After he was released from the hospital, he expressed a desire to try again next year, but cram schools near his home didn't want to take responsibility for him. They deemed his condition too volatile. It was at that point that the school administration decided to set up a ronin program themselves in order to give that student one more year to prepare for his entrance examinations under the supervision of our nursing staff. From that point on, there have been years where the school has made exceptions and allowed a promising student whose condition required more oversight than the average school nurse could reasonably provide to stay at Yamaku for one more year in order to prove themselves. Two days ago, after all the results were in, the school gave one student in your year permission to enter its ronin program."

She gives me a solemn look.

"You are that student, Miss Hanako."

I gasp in shock at this unexpected news. Is it really okay for me to return to Yamaku? But... Why was I never told about this?

"M-M-Me? But..."

"I've been trying to convince the school to grant you admission to our ronin program in case your exams went badly, but it hasn't been easy. Until now, all exceptions that were made were made strictly on medical grounds. You'd be the first one to gain admittance for psychological reasons with a therapist making the request, rather than a teacher or the head nurse. The fact that this was uncharted territory for the people who had to make the decision resulted in a lot of reluctance."

Miss Yumi closes her eyes.

"I've made attempts to get you an official guarantee that you could enter the program, but that request was outright refused. The school didn't want to make a decision until all exam results were in. When the decision was made, a mere two hours after I dropped you off at my apartment that day, it was made due to a combination of three things: the testimony of your Japanese teacher that you had the academic abilities to make it in next year, the positive outcome of the National Center Test and, most importantly, me having prepared a detailed full-year treatment plan for them to inspect. I put a lot of time and work into it, but it ultimately paid off."

She permits herself a proud smile for a second, but then an apologetic expression appears on her face.

"Go ahead and ask."

"F-For how long have y-you been planning this?"

"For a few weeks. At first, I was hoping ordinary therapy would be enough. You gave me some hope when you passed the Center Test and your mood improved for a while. But then it started regressing faster than ever, and I started realizing that what I said was barely even going through to you. I kept trying of course. That's what I'm paid for, after all. But I also started looking for a plan B. I was unaware of the existence of the ronin program at first, since I haven't been employed at Yamaku for that long and the last time a 4th year was admitted was four years ago. The head nurse brought it up during one of my talks with him, and I started looking into it. It was a long shot, but I'm happy I took the chance. I only wish I could have told you about it sooner, but the school wouldn't allow it. Students being admitted to the program before the results are even in would have created quite a stir among the student body. The last thing we want as a school are accusations of nepotism from our students or their parents."

She makes a graceful bow.

"These must have been some truly awful weeks for you. I'm truly sorry, Hanako."

"It's... o-okay..."

She modestly shakes her head.

"The sessions the last few weeks were difficult for me as well. I've been biting my tongue for longer than I thought I'd be able to. I think me giving you shelter, rather than letting you leave, two days ago was because I felt guilty and tried to make it up to you. In retrospect, that was the wrong thing to do. Therapists are supposed to be neutral. In the end, I probably should have recognized that I was merely complicating matters. I apologize for that as well."

I know how she must have felt. I've been biting my tongue around Lilly and Hisao for much longer than a few weeks and it's been horrible.

It's funny though. A long time ago I offered Miss Yumi my friendship and asked if I could come over. When she said I couldn't, I was deeply hurt. Yet when she left me at her place two days ago, it merely confused me and caused me to start questioning her motives. I suppose she had a reason to reject me back then.

"Everybody...m-makes mistakes."

She gives me a gentle, grateful smile and makes an inviting gesture with her hand.

"So... will you come back to Yamaku with me? We made sure not to assign your room to anyone else yet."

"I..."

"You know, I gave Miss Satou's parents the number of our mobility instructors. There's a possibility of them reconsidering giving her a place of her own to live. When you make a decision, keep only yourself in mind. That is what your friends would want as well."

That a relief to hear. I've always felt very guilty about the impact of my failed exam on Lilly. I think she'd get used to a new place rather quickly. She probably wouldn't need me for longer than a month or two.

Miss Yumi's offer does sound very tempting right now. I wouldn't have to worry about a place to live, and I could study in peace. It would mean I'd spend a year far away from my friends though. But maybe me returning to Yamaku would allow them to concentrate on their own lives without having to worry about me all the time. That would be good. I'd probably feel extremely awkward facing them right now anyway. I think I'll need some time to sort things out.

Still, there's one thing I wonder about. Will I not be merely postponing the inevitable? Will I really be in a better position to try the exams next year?

"M-Miss Yumi, w-would I really have a chance next year?"

"I think you would. You've grown a lot over the last year. There will be things that will give you difficulty, even in a year. But you will be stronger, there's no doubt about that. All you need is time, therapy and support. You'll have time. A whole year, starting now. You'll have therapy. I intend to step up our sessions, and I've planned some very specific goals. And you'll have support, as you've seen for yourself just a few hours ago."

I smile a bit as I remember the plush puppy.

"I... guess I do."

"Miss Hanako...?"

Miss Yumi gives me an expectant smile and then holds out her hand.

"...if we hurry, we can probably avoid the worst of rush hour."

Another year... another chance...

I take a deep breath and then take Miss Yumi's outstretched hand.

--------------------------------------
11
I stare through the window of our passenger car as the last buildings of the city pass by. After gathering my possessions and thanking the matron, Miss Yumi and I left for the train station where we took a train heading for the station closest to Yamaku. It feels strange leaving this city again. Through the reflection of the glass, I notice that Miss Yumi's watching me.

"This is the city where you were born, isn't it? How does it feel to leave it again?"

"S-Strange. A bit... déjà vu. We w-went to visit Hisao's hometown d-during summer break and Christmas, but... I've never been back here."

"Brings back memories?"

"I... liked the orphanage, but... there are more p-painful memories than good ones here."

"Then maybe it's a good thing you've decided to come back. As pleasant as this orphanage was, it's part of your past. This year, it's the present and then the future we'll be concentrating on, starting today."

"T-Today?"

"We're going to be intensifying therapy for a while. I have daily sessions planned for you for the upcoming month. The first session will be tomorrow. The month after, we'll slow down to 3 visits a week. Every now and then, I'll be presenting challenges to you, intended to push against your boundaries a bit. We'll also be working on your faith."

"Faith?"

"In yourself and other people. Confidence is largely a subconcious process, but to have faith is a concious choice. We're going to try and learn how to keep believing in yourself and those around you even during the more difficult times against all evidence to the contrary."

"I'm n-not sure if..."

"Hmmm, hmmm... And it sounds like we have our work cut out for us."

I sigh. I really don't have an answer to that kind of attitude. Miss Yumi takes a small agenda and scribbles something in it.

"I'll also have to remember to tell the school administration that you've accepted and will be staying for another year. I think I located you just in time. I don't think they would have waited for another week. After all the preparation that went into it, it would have been most upsetting if the school had called off your admission because they didn't know where you were."

Something tells me that if the school had really retracted my second chance because I wasn't around to accept it, Miss Yumi would have cursed my very existence. I really dodged a bullet here. From the way she looks at me, I think she can read my thoughts.

"This is not a stunt you can afford yourself a second time, Miss Hanako. Not with me and despite that gesture of support, not with your friends either. Not now, not ever. In a way you're lucky that two of the people you left hanging there had some minor involvement in the incident that kicked off this mess and probably extended you the courtesy of leaving part of the blame at their own feet. Next time you won't have that luxury. Remind yourself of today the next time you feel like leaving everything behind. If you're too insecure to rely on those around you during times of stress, those people will certainly draw their own conclusions. Do you understand?"

I cringe.

"S-Sorry..."

"Do you understand?"

I nod slowly and make an effort to look into her eyes.

"It...It w-won't happen again. I p-promise."

"Good. Can I have your cell phone, please?"

"Uh?"

A bit puzzled, I take out my phone and give it to Miss Yumi who promply turns it on and gives it back to me.

"Since it'll take a while for us to reach our destination, I suppose a useful way to pass the time would be to let your friends know where you are and that you're alright. What do you say?"

"Uhh...."

I suddenly feel a sense of panic. After the way I left, I have no idea what I'd say to them. The crushing shame I'm feeling right now would probably shut me down before I could form a single coherent sentence.

"If you don't think you're up for an actual conversation, then a simple text message will suffice for now, even for Miss Satou. I'll call them myself afterwards to explain the situation in detail. But you have to be the one to initiate the first contact. That's your first official challenge."

After a moment of hesitation, I slowly nod my head.

"O-Okay."

I reluctantly start typing my first message, promising myself to include a sincere apology in each of them. Miss Yumi gives me an encouraging smile.

"Good. Miss Hanako... Let's get started on those steps forward!"
12
Last edited by Guest Poster on Mon Dec 02, 2019 2:22 am, edited 18 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter Alpha

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:17 am

Chapter Alpha
01
As I enter the lobby of the hotel where we agreed to spend the night, I'm approached by a young staff member who bows deeply before making a welcoming gesture and tells me I'm being expected.

"Hello. Were you asked to look out for me?"

He takes a careful look at me and grins for a moment before bowing again and nodding. I allow myself an amused smile. The lack of a completely shocked expression on his face tells me that he was informed of the fact that I speak the language, but is still a little awed to hear me speak without tripping over my words. It's a reaction I still get on an almost daily basis. An 'American' speaking Japanese fluently never fails to get jaws dropped around here. I think the baffled stares are kind of funny nowadays, though there are times when I wish people would just realize that being able to speak a foreign language and being able to use chopsticks correctly don't make someone the 8th wonder of the world.

"He didn't want you to go through the hassle of waiting in line at the reception desk, so he asked me to look out for you and give you his room key once you arrived."

I take a quick look at the reception desk further down the lobby. It does seem to be very crowded there. I smile appreciatingly.

"Ever the gentleman. Did he tell you to look out for a foreign person?"

"I had to look out for a tall, blond and beautiful woman."

I chuckle playfully.

"How bold."

It's probably partially practicality too. I know that my last name isn't particularly easy for the Japanese to pronounce. I wonder if this person even knows or remembers it. There's one way to find out. I give him a playful wink.

"Just between you and me, I think I saw another blonde woman hanging out just outside the front entrance. Am I ever lucky to have gotten here before her."

His face briefly shows an expression of almost comical terror as he realizes that he just addressed the first foreign-looking woman he saw without even confirming if I really was the person he was supposed to look out for. I chuckle briefly and make a reassuring gesture before the avalanche of apologies can be let loose.

"I guess Mister Satou would have had pleasant company either way."

He visibly relaxes upon realizing I know the name of the person who addressed him earlier and then beckons towards the elevator.

"Eighth floor, Lady."

We ride the elevator to our destination, and upon being given the room key I bow to him and thank him. When he walks down the hall back to the elevator, I open the door of our hotel room.
02
As I enter the room I notice he's casually sitting in one of the chairs with a book, my book, in his lap. When he spots me he gives me that sweet and slightly shy smile of his, walks up to me and shares a gentle kiss with me.

"Good evening, Karla. I am glad you could make it on such a short notice."

"Hey there, Hiro. Missed me?"

Hiroyuki Satou... currently employed at the finances department of Satou Medical Technology, oldest child and heir of its current CEO, graduate of Tokyo University and my boyfriend. The first three things are known to everyone who knows him. The last part is known only to the two people in this room.

"I apologize for not having had the opportunity to spend time with you lately. Hopefully this evening will make up for that."

For a moment I'm startled by a sudden knock on the door. Hiro walks up to the door, opens it and two waiters come in. Each of them is pushing a food cart filled with several delicious-looking dishes. After bowing to me they start putting the food on the nearby table. After guaranteeing my boyfriend that he'll just need to call if he needs anything they walk out, leaving me to appraise the meal before me. Just the smell makes my mouth water.

"Tonight we will be having a pleasant dinner in private. To celebrate Valentine's Day."

"Sounds good."

The food looks delicious, and I'm kind of looking forward to spending a nice evening alone with Hiro, but I still wonder if this is all there is to it. Are we having a private dinner because it's romantic or is he wary of being seen in public with me? We are rather close to his offices, but that usually hasn't been a problem in the past.

He chuckles as he suddenly seems to remember something.

"And if you are still hungry after our meal I am more than willing to share some of my Valentine chocolate with you - give or take a dozen."

"A dozen chocolates?"

"A dozen boxes of chocolates."

I know all about that. I ended up buying my boss and my male Japanese coworkers some Valentine chocolate too today. Not because I have the hots for them, but simply because it's expected here.

"You're getting to be quite the ladies' man, Hiro."

I give him a short stare, but I get no reaction other than a playful chuckle. I didn't think it was going to be this easy anyway.

"A mere formality and gesture of politeness. If the office ladies in my department were to start sending me the romantic chocolate variety, then I would consider your statement to be true. Although to be frank..."

He looks briefly at the book he was reading before I came in.

"Even lovers' chocolate would pale in comparison to this. When I said previously that you picked up our language very quickly, that turned out to be such an understatement that it feels like an insult to me in hindsigh."

It's true that I seem to have a knack for languages. Even while I was still living in the UK, I was able to adequately interact with French and German colleagues with a modest amount of effort. By now I have no doubt that my Japanese is a lot better than my French or German ever was. Before migrating to Japan I took some basic courses, but in the end it was everyday life in this country that gave me enough daily practice to get a fairly solid grasp of the language in a mere two years, though I never managed to completely lose my accent.

The book he's holding is my Valentine's gift to him. A book seemed a fitting present for an avid reader like him. Last year he went all out on his gift and he gave me a pair of beautiful origami swans whose necks formed a small heart. I already knew he was good with origami - he has the tendency to start folding nearby pieces of paper into figures if he has nothing else to do, and there's no book for him nearby to read. Still, that must have taken a long time, so I was inspired to make at least a similar effort. I've been reading a whole slew of Japanese poetry books over the last two months, and I copied the poems I liked best into the notebook I sent him today. (writing down my sources on the last page of course) In addition, a handful of pages contain poems I wrote myself. Most of them were rather simple haikus, but it's the thought that counts. From what I know, Hiro's more into fiction than poetry, but I still had faith he'd be able to appreciate a gift such as this one. In addition, this little project had been very educational for me as a non-native speaker as well.

"I guess that means you like it?"

"It is beautiful, and I will treasure it. Matching a gift as personal as this will be very difficult for me, however. It must have taken you months to create it."

He looks sincerely troubled for a moment. I'm pretty sure I know what he's thinking right now and it makes me frown a bit.

"Hey, don't be like that. Attaching obligations to this kind of thing ruins the fun of giving to each other. Consider this an obligation-free gift on my part."

Hiro has always come across to me as more open-minded than his traditional upbringing would have one suspect, but in some areas his mindset has always been - and I believe will always be - unquestionably traditional Japanese. This is one of those areas, I suppose.

The Japanese call it 'giri'. I don't think the Scottish have a term that comes close to completely describing it although 'social obligation' is probably rather accurate. One of the facets of 'giri' is unquestionable loyalty towards one's superiors. Another one is always keeping one's obligations in mind and meticulously repaying any gifts or favors bestowed upon you in order to set the balance straight again. Some go pretty far in that regard. Hiro once told me that when his grandfather died, his family kept a list of all the gifts they were given at the funeral as well as their appraised value so that his grandmother would know exactly to which people she still owed how much. Gifts that don't have an easily appraisable value are sometimes frowned upon for that reason. I can't exactly call myself an extremely devout catholic, but I nevertheless remember being taught that you can never give too much to others. That lesson clashes pretty harshly with the mindset that giving someone too large a gift is equal to placing an unbearably heavy burden of obligation on him. The principle isn't adhered to as rigidly among very close friends, but I've definitely seen it sneak into my boyfriend's thought process now and then. This appears to be one of those times.

"...very well then."

We both take our time enjoying the delicious meal that was prepared for us without really talking any more. After a filling dessert, we open some of the bags of chocolates my boyfriend was given today and feed each other some pieces of chocolate.

"I hope my gift didn't end up causing office gossip."

He chuckles as he shakes his head.

"Fortunately it did not. It is not customary to unwrap gifts in front of the giver here, so while my colleagues could see it might not have been a bag of chocolate, they did not find out what exactly was inside it. For all they knew it was yet another gift from a coworker. You were very clever in sending it to my office instead of my home address. That certainly would caused certain people to take notice."

I sometimes rue the fact that our relationship is still a secret around here. While Hiro insisted that he isn't ashamed of me being his girlfriend, he wasn't quite sure how his parents would react, and since he works at his family's company that also meant our relationship had to be hidden from his colleagues who form pretty much his entire circle of friends. Like many unmarried oldest sons in this country, he still lives at home. (along with his parents and paternal grandmother) Fortunately I managed to get my own apartment (courtesy of my employer's connections) when I moved here so we can still spend time together in privacy whenever he has time to stop by after work. Still, one wouldn't call our relationship normal, and my mind once again dwells on what I've been struggling with the last few days.

"Hiro... I... am wondering..."

"Yes, Karla?"

"What exactly am I to you?"

He looks a bit puzzled at this sudden question.

"You are my girlfriend, Karla. You have been for two years. I am afraid I do not understand why you are asking me this question now."

Yeah, I'm his girlfriend. Hiro and I met three and a half years ago at a business conference in Inverness. He, a businessman, was there to attend it. I, at that time a business and finances reporter, was there to write an article on it. We briefly spoke there and exchanged business cards. We met again by coincidence that evening in a small pub near the place where the conference was held. His two colleagues, who accompanied him to Inverness, wasted little time in sampling the Scotch and getting hammered on it. Hiro himself seemed reluctant to empty his glass, merely taking a sip whenever one of the others shot him a glance so I decided to keep him company. I've always had a fascination for all things related to the far East and Hiro's gentlemanly demeanor made him a very pleasant conversation partner even though I probably did way more talking than he did.

Eventually Hiro's colleagues started getting seriously slammed, probably having underestimated the whiskey's potency, so I offered to take them to their hotel in my car. He seemed very hesitant at first but gave in when I pointed out it'd be troublesome if one of them were to throw up while inside a cab and the police might mistake them for vagrants if they took a nap in a public place. It turned out that unlike his colleagues, he actually knew that public drunkenness was an offense in the UK and seemed to dread the idea of one of his colleagues being forced to sober up in a police cell, but he didn't feel like it was his place to tell them to tone it down since they were both his seniors, so the only thing he could do was try and keep a clear head himself.

When I dropped them off at their hotel, Hiro stayed behind for a little while and insisted to repay my efforts in some way or another and we ultimately settled on them buying me dinner before they'd leave the country the upcoming Saturday. When I arrived at our agreed upon meeting point that Friday evening however, expecting all three of them to be there, it turned out that it was just Hiro waiting for me. Thinking back on the whole thing, it wouldn't surprise me if Hiro simply never told his colleagues that they were also invited.

In the end it turned out to be for the best since it allowed us to get to know each other slightly better. After dinner in a charming restaurant (which I picked since he didn't know the neighborhood) I drove us to the ruins of Urquhart Castle where we climbed the tower and spent the evening enjoying the breeze, watching Loch Ness under the starry sky and swapping stories about our respective homelands. (or at least trying to - he sometimes had difficulty understanding me despite me having largely ditched my Highlands accent during my work over the years) At the end of the evening, just before I drove us back, we agreed to stay in touch with one another through written correspondence.

I was already playing with the thought at the time to quit my job as a business reporter and become a foreign correspondent. By that time my job had already taken me all over the UK, and I had seen most of what there was to see. I was eager to expand my horizons and after an old college friend at the BBC told me that some positions in China, Hong Kong and Japan had opened up, I was quick to file my application. Hiro wrote that he'd be honored to help me acclimatize if needed, and since the apartments I ended up living in and the Satou offices were located in the same town, he was able to drop by after work on a fairly regular basis.

Eventually, our friendship turned into something else. All in all we're a rather strange couple. I'm a rather care-free and extroverted person who loves a good conversation, having a beer with buddies, riding my bike around the countryside, and I'm known to be a bit of a tease with the people I care about - and sometimes with people I've just met, though I've tried to cut down on that habit a bit. Hiro's a reserved and rather quiet man, more curious than most people I've met here but still rarely willing to express too much interest out of fear of appearing impolite. He's both a bookworm and a gentleman, his behavior always impeccable and always mindful of how others perceive him. I often wondered at first what exactly he saw in me. As far as I know, the general concept of beauty here involves being short, quiet and 'cute'. With my height of 173 cm and up-beat and playful personality, I couldn't be further from that ideal. It wasn't until I started learning more about his life and family situation that I started believing that part of his attraction to me must have been based on the fact that I was a bit of a wildcard in his otherwise tightly structured and regulated life and that being with me allowed him to be less restrained and more open than he could usually afford himself to be, if only a little, since I didn't care whether he was acting like a person in his position was expected to or not.

"I once heard about a guy who dated a Japanese girl for a while and after a short affair she ended up dumping him. It turned out she was mostly dating him out of curiosity regarding what it was like to be with someone 'exotic'."

He lets out an amused chuckle.

"We have been together for two years now. If you truly believe I am still merely dating you out of a sense of curiosity, you are giving my attention span far more credit than it deserves."

"So you're dating me because I'm me and you're happy with me?"

He gives me an analyzing look.

"Karla, you surprise me. It is not like you to display such a sudden lack of confidence."
03
I sigh and reach into my handbag. This might not be pretty but this has been eating away at me for days, and I've been hoping to be able to settle this tonight. Without saying a word I hand him the photo I took last weekend. A photo of him and another woman exiting a hotel. I hope he's not going to try and tell me it was a business meeting. The world of business here is still very much male-dominated in many regards, and she wasn't even dressed as a company representative. He takes a look at the picture and closes his eyes for a second but his facial expression remains unreadable. After taking a moment to contemplate his answer, he opens his mouth to speak.

"Was it a coincidence that you were there? With a camera on hand no less?"

I can sense an aggravated tone in his voice. Privacy is a pretty sacred thing here, and I realize that he feels I crossed a line, but I have no intention of letting this conversation get derailed.

"It's up to you to believe me or not, but it was. The hotel you picked was only two streets away from your office, and I was on my way there to ask you to come over to my place after work when I saw you leaving the lobby with her. I snapped a picture so I could talk to you about it later. I figured it was better than confronting you on the spot. As for the camera; I'm a journalist, Hiro. I barely ever leave my apartment without my camera and notepad. It's like a second nature. That shouldn't surprise you about me."

I can see him weighing my words carefully but after a long pause he seems to relax a little bit. It looks like he appreciated the fact that I at least refrained from confronting him in public and waited until it was just the two of us.

"I was actually not the one to pick the hotel, but... please go on."

"That's all there is to it. Would you please tell me who that woman is? Given the way you said goodbye to her, I doubt she's a family member or coworker."

"You are correct. She is neither of those. But she is not what you assume she is either."

He gives a sigh of resignation.

"I was planning to tell you this - after I sorted things out for myself. But you do deserve to know."

"Please explain."

"I have told you that I am up for promotion in the near future, did I not?"

"Yeah, you told me about that. And I'm sure you'll do a very good job. But I don't really see the relevance here."

"My new position will come with additional responsibilities. And my father indicated to me it might help if I take steps to improve my credibility towards the rest of the department."

"Steps?"

"He advised me to get married."

What the hell? What does that even have to do with credibility?

"Married? But..."

"In this country, marriage comes with social status, Karla. A man who remains unmarried past a certain age, an age I am rapidly approaching, is considered to lack a sense of responsibility here and his coworkers may look upon him as untrustworthy. Not the kind of person one would want to put in charge of others. This is something that is expected of me."

I notice with some wry amusement that he's taken that familiar school teacher-like tone as he puts forth his explanation to me. Over the past two years he's often taken time to explain various aspects of Japanese culture to me, and I have to admit he's pretty good at talking about these matters in a relatively objective and detached way, at least compared to a lot of people around here who have the tendency to clam up whenever I highlight something about this country that strikes me as odd or who blow me off with the typical 'It's simply a Japanese thing. It cannot be explained.' It is my personal belief that Hiro might have been a very good school teacher if he hadn't been born as heir to the head of a corporation.

"My father approached a friend who was willing to act as go-between during the introductions. You can see him behind us in that picture you've taken."

Well dammit! I can't believe I missed the fact that there was a third person leaving the hotel together with them. So much for my sharp observation skills.

"So, that woman who was with you was..."

"Yes, she was one of the bridal candidates my parents picked out."

"So you're being pushed into an arranged marriage - like the one your parents have?"

"It is not quite the same. My father's spouse was picked for him. I am being introduced to potential partners, but in the end they are not forcing me to marry a person I do not approve of."

It's still not exactly a day and night difference in my eyes.

"It's still a marriage you're being pressured into, Hiro."

I look at him, wondering if I'm ready for a breakup if I pry any deeper, but I have to know how this is going to end.

"So... Hiro... after two years... Is this the end for us?"
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 5:50 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter Alpha - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:17 am

He doesn't respond immediately, avoiding eye contact while absentmindedly folding the pages of a brochure that was lying on the nearby table.

"My parents really want me to..."

I sigh softly. When I graduated high school my parents were content to let me move out of the house, get my own place while attending college and they encouraged me to live independently from that moment on. I can't say I have an extremely close bond with my parents anymore, but I value what they taught me, and have good memories of my childhood. I personally consider independence to be a strong Scottish trait.

When I came to Japan, I learned that the people here value interdependence much more than independence. Many people live with their parents until they get married. Oldest sons often remain at their parental home even afterwards, eventually taking care of the parents when they grow old. As a result of this and as a result of the concept that the gifts of life and upbringing are considered gifts that warrant a life-long debt, parental word is practically law to people like Hiro. For the most part I'm no longer astonished about the degree to which he still allows them to dictate nearly every aspect of his life for him even at his age. But tonight is different. Before Hiro can finish his sentence, I stop him with a sharp gesture.

"I know what your parents want, Hiro. But this is about your life, not theirs. What is it that you want?"

"I..."

"And don't tell me that's not important because it is. Your happiness matters to me, and it should matter to them as well."

"..."

"I want to know how you feel about this. I want your opinion and not theirs."

"..."

"You do have an opinion of your own about this, don't you?"

"Karla!"

His eyes narrow, and he gives me a scolding stare that stops my verbal barrage dead in its tracks. Hiro doesn't raise his voice very often, but the effect is that much greater the few times that he does.

"I will not have you talk to me as if I am a child."

He takes the phone on the nightstand, calls the reception desk and exchanges a few words with them. A minute later two waiters enter the room and start removing the leftovers of our dinner. During the entire time they're busy cleaning up neither of us says a word. The silence is the most painful one I've ever endured around Hiro. When the waiters finally leave, my anxiety has subsided a bit, and now I just feel exhausted. My boyfriend's still not saying a word. I suppose it's up to me to restart the conversation.

"Hiro... I'm... sorry. I... shouldn't have said what I just said. I got carried away."

I can see him relax a little upon hearing my apology. That's good. For a moment I was afraid he was going to walk out of here.

"I didn't mean to talk down to you. I get that this is hard for you, too."

"Karla, we have come this far together because we were able to respect each other's cultural differences. I do not fault you for having different views on certain things, but I still need you to respect mine."

He has a point. I've had my share of social faux-pas over the last two years in my attempts to become part of Japanese society, and Hiro has always been patient and understanding with me. The least thing I can do is keep that respect mutual. While I'm still contemplating this, Hiro sighs deeply, and for a moment he looks even more exhausted than I'm currently feeling.

"As for what you wanted to know - the girl you saw in the picture was actually the fourth candidate I was introduced to. All four of them were fine young women from upstanding and respected families in our neighborhood who had all the qualities to be excellent wives, and I had very little reason to reject them. They all put sincere effort into their introductions, as did their families when they accompanied them. I decided to avoid loss of face on their family's part by not turning them down immediately and go through the obligatory three meetings before telling the go-between that I would not pursue a marriage with them. I felt like a con artist during every single meeting, but in the end I still turned them all down, only because..."

He seems to struggle a bit with the last part of his sentence.
04
"...because ultimately they were not you. Does that answer your question?"

It does, and upon hearing these few words my anxiety ebbs away, and a strong sense of relief washes over me. I walk up to him and wrap my arms around him.

"Hiro... Thank you."

We share an embrace and stay like this for a long time without saying a word. Hiro's announcement that his parents want him to marry has shaken me, but I nevertheless retain a feeling of hope. He still loves me like I love him. Now that I know this I'm sure we'll find a way somehow. It may sound corny, but I sincerely believe that love conquers all.

"Hiro?"

"Yes?"

"You've been stalling things for now, but if you accept none of the candidates your parents picked for you will they leave it at that? Or will they...?"

"They will at best be openly questioning my good taste and sanity. *mumble* And at worst Father will take me to our company's development labs, hook me up to one of the EKG devices we make and show me pictures of naked men while praying to his ancestors that there will not be any sudden… rises in the resulting printed graph."

Before I can prevent it, his words have created a mental image in my mind that is so comically absurd that I burst into uncontrollable laughter. It must have been a release of the stress and anxiety I've built up this evening. Hiro for his part merely chuckles along with me. After I finally catch my breath, I give my boyfriend a mischievous wink.

"I could reassure your father on that particular front if you like."

He smiles shyly for a moment before shaking his head. Neither of us really knows what more to say, so I embrace him once more and give him a light kiss before looking into his eyes.

"Hiro?"

"Yes, Karla?"

"Let's... forget about all of this for just a little while. Let me... help you forget, even if it's just for a few moments."

I shoot a brief glance at the bed on the other side of the room to stress my words. He gives a wordless nod, takes my hand and gently leads me to the bed.

--------------------------------------
05
As the blissful feeling of our lovemaking session slowly subsides, my mind once again drifts back to what I discovered today. I came here prepared to deal with an affair and part of me is relieved to know that he hasn't been unfaithful, but now that I think about it an affair might have been easier to handle than a marriage forced upon him by his parents. The thought of him spending the rest of his life with a wife he doesn't love feels depressing to me. I realize that arranged marriages aren't necessarily loveless, and love eventually could grow, but it still feels unsettling to me. And the thought of him... doing what we just did with some relative stranger makes me sick to the bottom of my stomach and makes me more determined than ever to do what I can to prevent that.

"Hiro?"

I snuggle up to him. He doesn't react immediately, making me wonder if he has fallen asleep already, but eventually I hear his voice; weary but still awake.

"Yes?"

"I guess... eloping is out of the question?"

"I... cannot... do that. I could never bear to bring shame of that magnitude onto my family. After all that my father has invested in me... running out on him like that would disgrace him for life. I... do not know how he would react to that, and I would prefer not to find out. In addition to that, I would permanently burn literally every bridge I have built in my life... except this one."

My first urge is to tell him he's exaggerating, but I don't think that's entirely the case. I have found that Japanese are extremely sensitive to what others think of them… or rather what they think others think of them. It's what makes social pressure such a strong influence here. And the bigger your reputation, the more spectacularly it can crash. To me, the thought of Hiro's father taking his own life due to the shame of his carefully sired chosen son walking out on him would feel extremely melodramatic. But during my stay in this country I've heard several stories of important people who were publically shamed - deservedly or otherwise - and ended up stepping out of life. It's a cultural aspect that you can't ignore as a journalist in Japan.

My thoughts briefly switch to Hiro's parents and what I know of them. At some point, as our relationship became more serious, Hiro said that he wanted me to meet his father. Aside from my activities on behalf of the BBC I made some additional money by occasionally submitting freelance work for a local magazine. Hiro introduced me as a reporter writing for that magazine who was working on a piece about local companies working in the technology sector and who wanted to include Satou Medical Technology in the article, and I briefly got to speak to his father. I was told that the company was honored to be included and I was treated like an important guest there. I ended up taking full advantage of the offer when he said I could come back anytime I needed more information. That was a good time as I was finally given a peek into Hiro's life that I formerly only knew from his stories. I could finally be seen together with him. Thanks to my previous experience as a business reporter the magazine ended up approving and publishing my article, and as a thanks for the exposure the management allowed me to attend one of the company's receptions for business partners later that year where I spoke briefly with Mister Satou senior again.

Hiro's father was extremely polite and friendly to me and was quick to heap a mountain of praise on me for speaking the language so well and for submitting such a well-written article that featured the company, for being so well-versed in the customs of Japan etcetera, etcetera. It probably helped that Hiro and I practiced my introduction to him several times in advance. However, he became evasive when I asked him a few questions about his family, and I wasn't surprised when Hiro revealed that his parents hardly ever saw each other except on Sundays. I suspect that in those few years working as an employee for his father, Hiro has already gotten to know him better than his mother ever did over the course of their marriage.

"I hope this isn't just about your father, is it?"

"It is also partially about me, Karla. I made the decision many years ago that I would not walk away from the responsibilities I inherited. I cannot simply throw away everything I have studied and worked so hard for since I entered elementary school."

I can't really blame him for that. His education and job up to this point were all geared towards his future position as head of the company, and I get that he doesn't want to throw away something he's already invested so much in. It's very much become part of who he is by now. But we've also invested a lot into our relationship, and now our options are severely limited.

I'm relieved to at least know Hiro doesn't think of me as a temporary love interest to toss aside once it gets inconvenient. I very much feel the same way about him.

Despite that, I don't think we ever made any long-term plans since our relationship was a secret to those who were part of Hiro's life.

Still, I think me visiting the company as a reporter and meeting and talking to Hiro's father was our way of gently testing the waters. Hiro, ever the supporter of the slow-and-steady approach, believed that gradually sneaking me into his parents' life was the best way to improve the chances of them approving our relationship. In the end that approach was brutally cut short by this whole marriage business, but it did show we were both hoping for more.

I guess... since the stakes suddenly went up, we can stop playing it carefully. I feel the combatitive mood I was in earlier returning. Our relationship may be doomed, but I'll be damned if I let it go down without putting up a fight.

"Hiro... I was wondering..."

"Yes?"

"If it's okay with you I would...really like to talk to your parents. Just them and me. To explain the situation to them."

"Do you want to try and change their minds about encouraging me to get married?"

"That would only delay things. I was wondering if... ummm... well... we should... err..."

"I would... I think I would... very much... enjoy having you... as my wife..."

This is a truly wonderful moment. I give him a sweet kiss on the lips and giggle.

"Did we just propose to each other?"

"We did not. If it is okay with you, I would still like to be the one doing those honors under more fitting circumstances... assuming we can facilitate them."

"Hehehe, sure."

"Karla... with all respects, I believe that you confronting my parents would merely make things worse. I know you. You would do your best to convince my parents that you would be a good wife for me by stating all your good points and my parents would most likely merely conclude that you lack humility and reject you immediately. Besides...*sigh* approaching my parents about this should be my task, not yours."

"Yeah, I guess it'd be best if you talked to them. Though if there's anything I can do to help, just tell me."

"It is not uncommon for future in-laws here to hire a private investigator to do a background check on a possible addition to the family. Since the rest of your family lives abroad, they might decide not to bother with that, but I trust there are no scandals in your family?"

"None that I know of. Just some speeding tickets I got from time to time, but I always properly paid them. I doubt a Japanese investigator could dig that deep anyway."

"Other than that, it would be best not to get your hopes up too high."

"When I met your father he praised me to high heaven in all sorts of ways. Was he just being polite?"

"I believe his praise was completely genuine. He was truly impressed by your quick mastery of the language and your politeness towards him. It must sound like a contradiction to you... if I tell you that he can be completely sincere in his praise and admiration of you as a person and yet be adamantly against you marrying his son - against you becoming part of his inner circle."

"I think I've lived here long enough to know there's not necessarily a contradiction."

As polite and friendly as this society is, I've also learned that it's an extremely closed one that's at times very much on its guard against outside influences, and while it's relatively tolerant of outsiders on the surface, it's also very resistant to the practice of fully embracing them.

"I can't really change where and to whom I was born Hiro, nor do feel the need to apologize for who I am and where I'm from. But I'm a pretty worldly and adaptable person. I would would be glad to make an effort to be a good wife to you if they're willing to give me a chance. A chance to prove myself is all I really ask for."

"My family is more traditional than most, Karla. And I wonder if its traditions would not clash with the way you are."

"What do you mean?"

"Traditionally, a married woman has three duties here. Serve and support her husband. Run the finances and the household. And finally give birth to and raise the children. "

"I've been running my own household since I graduated high school, and I know enough about finances to make a living writing about the subject. And I'll do whatever I can to support you. I'll even pretend to serve you in front of others as long as you don't forget who the person you fell in love with really is."

"I have trouble envisioning you changing yourself that way. Not to mention the fact that you love your job. I have difficulty believing that this would really make you happy."

"Being with you makes me happy too. Nobody's changing herself. I'll merely be keeping up appearances. I'll always be the person you know me as. Besides, I've always known that I'd probably have to stop doing what I do when I have children. I can't go waltzing around the area chasing news stories when there's a child who might need me back home."

The truth is also that I would really like to have children. I'd like to have 3, maybe 4. And I'd very much like Hiro to be their father.

"It might be very hard to me at first, but if it helps your parents in opening up to me over time, I think I can take it. Sometimes you have to endure some short-term hardships in order to make a positive difference in the long run."

"That sounds familiar."

I chuckle. That last part is one of Hiro's own mottos and a saying he likes to use from time to time.

"Wise words from a wise person."

Me having made my case, we fall silent again. I know I'm promising a lot, but my mind is made up. I'm going to fight for this relationship even if some sacrifices have to be made. I guess that's true for both of us. I can tell by his soft sigh that the prospect of confronting his parents about this is pretty intimidating, and his desire not to lose me is only barely keeping at bay the conformitive instincts that have been nurtured since his early childhood.

"I know this probably feels very intimidating to you, but I don't think we have anything to lose by at least trying."

"Except possibly the respect my parents have for me at this moment. Regardless of what they say, I will probably have to work very hard to win it back."

"I still think you're a very good son to them.You're smart. You're loyal. You're dedicated. And when your father retires you'll do a wonderful job leading your family's company. And you know what?"

"What is it?"

"Seeing that the company recently made customers and partnerships in the UK, wouldn't it be fitting if you'd eventually expand and both the family and family company were to become half Japanese and half Scottish?"

I take his brief chuckle as an agreement.

"I am not certain if my parents would find it amusing. I think my best bet would be to try and convince them that you would be a very diligent and capable wife. But be warned that on the slight chance that they were to accept, they will expect you to make good on that. "

"No impassioned speech about the power of love, huh?"

"That is unlikely to convince them. Nobody in our family's social circle that I am aware of married for that reason. It was usually for security or simply to join two prominent families together. A speech like you are talking about would merely cause my parents to remind me that this is real life and not some theater play."

That sounds kind of sad to me. Then again, a few generations ago 'Lie back and think of England' was probably a common piece of advice on the British Isles as well, so maybe I shouldn't judge too harshly. Still, this means that appealing to their sense of romanticism is right out. Thinking back on what we spoke of earlier, however, I am reminded of something else.

"Hiro?"

"Yes?"

"The Satou company recently getting its foot in the door in the UK... Did anybody at your work ask any questions?"

"All the official introductions were done by the usual party, and I made sure to keep a low profile."

Although I now live in Japan, I've still made it a habit to visit headquarters and my family in the UK every four to five months. Since Hiro became my boyfriend, I've also picked up the habit of doing some unofficial networking on his company's behalf whenever I was in the UK. I still have a very large network of contacts I built up during my days as a business reporter, and I knew that dropping the right name at the right moment and in the right place could have very real results, especially since Hiro's company doesn't sell equipment to consumers.

I didn't think much of it at first. Hiro was my boyfriend, the company would be his someday, so I didn't think there was anything wrong with doing something that might benefit him in the future. But at some point last year, Hiro made mention of several business opportunities suddenly popping up in the UK. At this point several hospitals in the country are among the Satou company's clientèle and there's talk of hiring a local company in Scotland to assemble some of their products there to make distribution easier. The same local company I recommended to Hiro early after having visited there myself to talk to them about their theoretical willingness to do assembly jobs for foreign clients and assess their ability to do the job well. Seems like he did a good job subtly getting my advice to the right people without making too many waves.

"Part of the credit goes to the quality of your products and the efforts of your marketing department to seize the opportunities that were presented to them, but..."

"...we owe you a great deal as well."

"Hiro... then maybe you should tell your father about that. He might feel an obligation to... a look-in. "

If we can't appeal to his sense of romance then maybe appealing to his sense of obligation would help.

"It is not something he would be able to ignore, but it could easily end up escalating the situation."

"You know them better than I do. I'll trust your judgement."

"I might need to sleep a few nights on it. Think carefully on what I should say. And anticipate every single one of their possible responses."

"You'll only get one chance at this. So make it count. Give it your all. Don't hold back. And don't back down. Heck, make sure to have had a drink before you confront them. Just one. Always worked for me."

"I will do what I can to find a way to... settle this. I do not want to lose you, Karla, but I do not want to lose or abandon my family either."

"And you'll never have to, Hiro. I'll never ask you to choose between me and your family, nor will I ever expect you to abandon them on my behalf. You have my word. I think that with some honest effort... the two won't remain mutually exclusive."
06
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 5:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 53

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:17 am

Chapter 53
01
As I pass through the school gate, I stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Even though it's been two months since I started attending here, the sheer size of Kasshoku University's campus still manages to overwhelm me. I don't think I'd mind the quiet and cozy atmosphere of Yamaku at this point, but high school is a definite thing of the past now.

After my graduation from Yamaku just over two months ago, I moved back into my parental home. It's taken some getting used to not living a mere three minute walk away from school anymore, but on the other hand it's good to see my parents on a daily basis again.

Kasshoku is too far away from home to walk, so I now commute to school each day. I can't say I enjoy stuffing myself into those crowded busses each morning, but my current living situation is certainly more comfortable than a dorm room on campus and less expensive, too.

The teachers are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them seem to talk about their subject with genuine passion while others just mechanically scribe stuff on the blackboard. Business as usual, I guess. Overall, the majority of the subjects are pretty interesting.

I had to get used to walking to class on my own again. At Yamaku, I'd regularly walk there with Hanako, but Hanako flunked her entrance exams two months ago, and it was decided that her best option was to stay at Yamaku for another year. I didn't even know that option existed, but I guess they made an exception for her.

Not wanting to be late, I pick up a steady pace and make my way to the science faculty.

--------------------------------------

"And that's all for today. Remember that this material will return in the upcoming tests, so study it carefully."

As the teacher walks out of the room, I take one more opportunity to compare my notes with the contents of the blackboard. After confirming that I've got all the important points down, I put my books and notebook away, and my thoughts dwell on where to spend this lunch break. As I do so, I pick up pieces of conversation from the other people in class.

"Man, I'm glad it's lunch break. That guy just drones on and on."

"Hey, when are you going to return that copy of Valkyria Chronicles that I lent you? You've had it for nearly three weeks, and I barely had time to play it myself."

"Relax man. I'll have it with me the day after tomorrow."

"Wanna stop by the arcade later today?"

"Sure, why not?"

"You guys gonna stay here this lunch break or head down to the cafeteria?"

"I'm up for some ramen, so let's go and get some downstairs."

"Hmmm, don't know. I'd like some curry myself, but I'm kinda broke at the moment."

"Why not have you-know-who get you some? He still owes us something, doesn't he?"

"Hmmm..."

Just as I'm about to get up from my seat, three of my classmates suddenly crowd around my desk.

"Hey Nakai!"

"Hey guys."

"Do you already know where you're gonna have lunch?"

"Not really."

"Why not join us in the cafeteria? Also, could you buy me lunch today?"

"Huh?"

"Well, you kind of owe me something from two days ago, remember? If you buy me something to eat for today, we'll call it even."

"Ummm..."

I get three stares that seem to suggest I'm crazy for having to think about such a bargain.

"Alright."

"Great. Just get me today's special. We'll be right there."

I pick up my stuff and leave the classroom. As I walk down the hallway leading to the cafeteria, I realize that being pressured into paying for someone else's lunch gives me a feeling of déjà vu.

Makes me wonder how Shizune is doing these days.

The three people who were at my desk just now were all people I already met before enrolling here, though I didn't know it at the time. Kamijo, Kisaragi and Sazukawa were there at the open house day last year as well and passed their entrance exams just like I did.

We tend to work together on group assignments during class, though we're not exactly close enough for me to stop by at their place for tea. Still, when I had to skip school last week due to having a checkup at the hospital, they were kind enough to provide me with a copy of their notes of that day when I got back the day after. I was grateful for that and told them to just give me a call when I could do something back. I was kind of aiming at letting them have my notes some time rather than getting one of them a free meal, but I guess there's no point in complaining. They did do me a favor last week, and I don't want to go back on my word, though I promise myself to be more specific about my counterfavors next time.

There's already a line forming in the cafeteria, so I quickly join the queue hoping the people in front of me aren't going to take too long to make up their mind.

"Can I help you?"

When it's finally my turn to order, I quickly address the man behind the counter.

"Today's special, please."

"Curried rice? "

"If that's today's special then yes please."

At least Kisaragi didn't go for the most expensive meal he could think of.

I pay for the meal and walk around the cafeteria in search of my classmates. I eventually find them at a table near one of the corners. As I walk up to them and put the tray on the table, I find them already in the middle of a heated discussion.

"Oh, thanks Nakai. You're a real lifesaver. I can't study very well when I'm hungry."

"I might just ask for a free meal myself the next time you miss a class."

"I'm sure you'll get the opportunity someday. Anyway, Nakai, we need your opinion. What type do you like most? Traditional or exotic?"

"Traditional or exotic what? Music? Food?"

Kamijo rolls his eyes.

"When was the last time you heard him talk about music or food?"

I let out a weary sigh.

"So this is about girls?"

"Hey, what's with the sigh? You're not... ah, never mind. Not my business."

"No, I'm not. But what's with the traditional or exotic thing?"

"Do you like a traditional woman... you know, the gentle and quiet kimono-clad kind or the hip exotic type?"

"Are those my only two choices?"

"It's more a spectrum than two choices, but surely your preference doesn't lie right in the middle?"

"Uhhh..."

I personally think that despite her dressing sense, Hanako is still the traditional type deep down. After New Year, Akira sent me a photo of Hanako dressed in a kimono - probably taken secretly - and I thought she was a very cute sight. I think that if she got over her skittishness, Hanako might be able to rival Lilly in terms of elegance.

"I think traditional."

"Damn, then we got a tie. Maybe I shouldn't have asked you after all. Oh well..."

"Where did this come from?"

Sazukawa shrugs his shoulders.

"While you were waiting in line, Kisaragi went to take a bathroom break and saw an attractive girl in the entrance hall."

"That's all?"

"What do you mean, that's all? You've been here long enough to know how much of a rarity it is to see females around this place. How many girls do you see around this faculty on a daily basis?"

"I have to admit not many. But I kinda wonder if males being in the majority isn't a universal telltale mark for most science faculties around the world. Social sciences or humanities-related faculties often have more female students than faculties that focus on physics, chemistry or IT. If you wanted to see more girls, maybe you should have ditched the university idea and attend a junior college. I heard the female-to-male ratio is around 90% to 10%."

"Yeah, but that would have gotten me into a big argument with the folks back home. Anyway, even you have to admit that this place is a sausage fest inside a sausage fest. I mean, this university probably has a 70-to-30 male to female ratio already and even that 30% might as well not exist when you're studying in this building."

"How does this relate to traditional or exotic?"

"Because the girl looked exotic. Probably a foreigner. Or a 'hafu'. You know, a half-Japanese. I wonder if she's an exchange student."

"And she caught your eye?"

"Yeah, she was really hot. I like exotic types. They're kinda hip although this one didn't really dress the part."

"So... by exotic types, you mean foreign people or people with mixed blood?"

"Yeah, kind of. Lots of fashion models and newscasters on TV are hafu these days. So I think they're kinda cool."

I can't help but grin a bit at that. I know only two people who are half-Japanese, and while the jury's still out on Akira, I don't think Lilly could ever be called 'cool' or 'hip' no matter how badly you stretch the definition. She's just way too old-fashioned for that. In fact, Lilly's really hard to place inside Kisaragi's inane traditional vs. exotic spectrum, because she acts more traditional than most full-blooded Japanese I know, despite her foreign looks. I've actually found that when you spend some time around Lilly, you quickly tend to forget that she's half-foreign to begin with.

"So uh... This cool person, did you talk to her?"

Or did you just ogle her from afar?

"I would have, except... she was on the phone."

The rest of us lets out a snicker. Kisaragi's not a bad guy, but for all his talk about girls, I don't think he's ever asked one out. Most of his knowledge probably comes from the dating simulators he's so extremely fond of playing.

"Hey, I'm totally serious."

This creates an 'are not / am too'-discussion between Kamijo and Kisaragi that I decide to stay out of, and I decide to focus on finishing my lunch instead. After eating the last of my food, I decide to make myself useful and load the empty cans and plate onto the tray and then head towards the nearby tray rack. Just before I reach it, my phone suddenly rings, surprising me enough to nearly cause me to drop the tray. If I had set the volume on my phone a little bit higher, I probably would have dropped it for real.

"Whoa!"

I quickly put the tray away and then fish my cell phone out of my pocket. As I fold my phone open, I see a familiar name on the display.
02
"Lilly, is that you?"

"Hello Hisao. I hope I'm not calling at a bad time."

"Not at all. It's been a little while since we've talked."

"About two months, hasn't it?"

"Yes. Are you calling to catch up? It seems... a little odd to do that during school hours, even though it's lunch break."

"I wanted to talk to you about that, but right now I was merely thinking I'd say hello personally while I was in the area. If it's not too inconvenient, that is."

"It isn't, but... Are you really here at the science faculty right now?"

"I am. Hmmm, at least I think I am. Where are you right now?"

"I'm at the cafeteria."

"I'm in the entrance hall right now. Could you explain to me how to get to your location?"

"Wouldn't it be easier for me to just come over to where you are?"

"It would be easier, but it wouldn't be what I'd prefer."

"Uh... Okay then. Let me think."

I suddenly remember that whenever we visited an unknown location in the past and Lilly tried to orientate herself, it was usually Hanako explaining these kinds of things to her. I try to remember how she'd usually go about that.

"If your back is facing the exit, there's a hallway at one o' clock you'll need to follow until there's a large door on the left after...erm...I think about 30 meter. It's still rather crowded here, so you can probably follow the sound. When you enter the room, I'm near the corner of the area at ten o' clock."

"That should suffice, Hisao. Thank you."

Lilly hangs up the phone, and I put my cell phone back in my pocket feeling a bit puzzled. It'll be good to see Lilly again, even if it's only for a little while, but I do kind of wonder what she's doing here. This place is actually quite a stroll away from her own faculty. Did she walk here all the way by herself?

Wait...

Lilly said she was at the entrance hall right now. Kisaragi said he saw that 'exotic girl' there as well.

I groan loudly and slap my forehead. It looks like this whole idiotic discussion between my classmates just now has been about Lilly. Next time this subject comes up, I'm just going to do my best to shift the topic back to video games or baseball.

I walk back to the table and sit down. The back-and-forth between my classmates seems to have subsided a bit and they give me a curious look.

"Got a surprise phone call, Nakai?"

"Yeah, from a friend from high school who's studying at another faculty here and who wanted to drop by and say hello really quick."

"Oh? What faculty are we talking about?"

"English. It's been a little while since we last talked."

"Figures. That place is on the other end of the campus. Not a big chance of running into each other by accident."

"Yeah."

Kisaragi grins.

"Maybe we could ask him for his opinion too. To break the tie that you caused."

"Not that again, please."

I kinda wonder how my classmates are gonna react to Lilly. I hope they're not gonna say anything embarrassing. There's another issue too. I've never told my classmates about my heart condition. The only people who know about it are my mentor and a nurse here. They're mostly following the outlined plan that Yamaku's head nurse wrote up for them after I graduated. If my classmates see that my friend from high school is blind, I kinda wonder if they're gonna jump to any conclusions about me. I really hope not. I found that as my time at Yamaku drew to a close, I didn't really have much difficulty telling fellow students about my condition anymore. After all, everybody there had something or another. But out here, I realized that I was still squeamish about telling others that there was... well... something wrong with me. I might eventually let them in on it, but I still prefer to wait a bit with that.

"Hey guys, look over there."

Sazukawa points towards the front of the cafeteria where I catch a glimpse of familiar blond hair. He turns to his neighbor.

"Is that the person you talked about?"

"Yeah, that's her. So, any of you guys want to reconsider your vote?"

"Well, she doesn't look bad, but she's kinda tall for my tastes. I like girls who are just a bit shorter than I am."

"She's not on the phone this time, Kisaragi. Wanna try and say hello to her."

"Gimme a break."

"Hey, do you see what she's carrying? Is that a cane? You know, the kind that blind people use?"

"I wonder if she got lost."

"If you want to know for sure, ask her. Ask her if she's looking for something or someone."

"Looking? Aw, that's cruel, man."

Trying to block out the random remarks from my classmates, I follow Lilly with my eyes as she's slowly approaching the spot where we're sitting, occasionally standing still to listen. It's still kinda crowded in here, and she's probably feeling a little disorientated, so I get up and call out to her.

"Lilly! Hey Lilly! Over here!"

Lilly's head instantly turns towards the source of the voice calling her name. She slowly walks towards me, and when she's right in front of me I greet her to confirm my presence.

"Hi Lilly. Long time no see."

Lilly turns to face me responds to my greeting with a dazzling smile.

"Hello Hisao. It is indeed. How have you been doing?"

"Okay, I guess. How about you?"

"I think I've been doing fairly well. Are the classes to your liking?"

"Yeah, they've been pretty interesting so far."

"Hey Nakai, what's going on here?"

Lilly tilts her head slightly in an attempt to place the voice of Kamijo who just spoke up.

"Hmmm, you're not alone here, Hisao?"

"Sorry, I was having lunch with a couple of classmates. I guess I should do introductions."
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Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 53 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:18 am

I step aside a bit so Lilly faces my classmates.

"These are Shouta Kamijo, Takumi Kisaragi and Yuuto Sazukawa. We're in the same workgroup, we usually do group projects together and hang out during lunch break."

Lilly makes a polite bow in their general direction.

"I'm honored to meet Hisao's friends. I am Lilly Satou, and I'm a friend of Hisao's from high school."

Kisaragi makes a baffled face.

"You're a friend of Nakai?"

Lilly nods.

"Yes, we often had lunch together last year. Hisao is also currently dating my best friend."

"Oh... Uh, nice to meet you."

"Yes, pleased to meet you."

"Uh... H-hi there..."

With the introductions behind us, I turn back to Lilly.

"I didn't expect to see you here. It must have been quite a walk from the English faculty to this place."

Lilly nods.

"It was, but I'm slowly getting the hang of the layout of the campus. I've been taking strolls around the campus since I first started attending here. At first strictly in the company of others, but lately I've also been exploring by myself."

"So it's kind of like training to you?"

"A bit. It ties into my mobility training. Since you will be attending classes in this building for the upcoming years, I felt it worth the time to try and familiarize myself with the location."

"That's very much appreciated. So that's why you didn't want me to meet you in the entrance hall?"

"Indeed. It's easier for me to remember the layout of a place when my hand isn't being held."

"I'll keep that in mind. I'd give you a tour of this place and catch up a bit with you in the meantime, but I'm not sure if we can do that and still leave you with enough time to get back to your own building before the next classes start."

Lilly nods her head.

"I appreciate the offer, but you're right in that there's probably not enough time for a tour. Perhaps another time. As for the catching up... Did you get the card I sent you with my new address?"

"I did. Thanks. You must be pretty thrilled to still have been able to get a place of your own. I'd love to see it sometime."

Lilly smiles.

"That's actually part of the reason why I'm here. I know it's a bit sudden, but do you already have plans for this evening?"

"I don't. This evening will work fine. We can catch up then."

"I'm looking forward to it. Between seven and eight o' clock at my apartment then?"

"Works for me."

Lilly turns towards my classmates and bows again.

"It was a pleasure to meet all of you. Perhaps until some other time."

I walk Lilly to the cafeteria's exit where we say our goodbyes. When I watch her slowly make her way out the front entrance, I can't help but feel a bit of admiration. I haven't been to the English faculty ever since the open house day and would probably have trouble finding it unless I paid very close attention to the signs. And here's Lilly navigating the campus without eyesight. Maybe I gotta get around more as well.

Still, her visit was a nice surprise today, and I'm looking forward to visiting her this evening. First things first though. Lilly has at least been thoughtful enough to avoid asking me about my health, but it's still possible that the guys are now wondering whether I attended a special school or not and if so, what the reason behind it could be.

I sigh and return to the canteen to find my classmates in the middle of another heated conversation. I feel a bit uncomfortable as I sit down at their table and get three pointed stares in return. I decide to make an awkward attempt at conversation.

"So... I guess the person you guys were talking about turned out to be an old friend of mine. What a coincidence, huh?"

"..."

"..."

"..."

"Why are you guys so quiet all of a sudden?"

"Nakai..."

"What is it?"

Kisaragi gives me a withering look.

"The first hot girl who's walked into this building for nearly a month doesn't merely turn out to be on first-name terms with you, but also invites you to spend the friggin night with her right in front of us and all you have to say for yourself is 'What a coincidence'? I'm never lending you my notes again! And these guys won't either. Serves you right, you son of a bitch!"

"She said 'evening', not 'night'. Don't get the wrong idea."

"Like that makes a difference! And you're already dating her best friend too! Is there any more salt you wanna rub in my wounds while you're at it?"

I smirk and roll my eyes. Looks like I have nothing to worry about after all.

--------------------------------------
03
I look at the card in my hand a few times in order to confirm that I have the right address and then walk over to the buzzer. As I look at the nameplate next to the button, I can see that's it's clearly been placed recently. Sure enough, the name engraved on the nameplate, next to the number 522, clearly reads 'Satou'. I press the buzzer, and a little while later I see the door open slightly.

"Hisao?"

"Hi Lilly. Can I come in?"

"Welcome, Hisao."

The door now opens completely to reveal Lilly standing there.

"Please come in, and make yourself at home."

"Thanks."

I walk into the entryway area and put my shoes away. Lilly walks past me and makes her way down the hallway into the living room. I notice that she moves around this place without her cane and without carefully feeling her way around, so she's probably intimately familiar with the layout of this apartment already. As we reach the living room, Lilly turns around and spreads her arms in a welcoming gesture.

"Welcome to my little home, Hisao."

As she hears me walk closer, she carefully feels her way to my shoulder and then gently pulls me into a loving embrace which I'm all too happy to return. I have to admit I did kind of miss my daily interaction with Lilly. As we break off our hug, Lilly chuckles.

"This seemed like a more fitting way to celebrate our reunion. Unfortunately, hugging in the middle of the school cafeteria would have been a bit improper."

"You probably saved my life by deciding not to hug me there. Our faculty barely has any female students, and at least one of my lunchmates is a frustrated single, but he probably wasn't the only one in the room. I would have been lynched for sure."

Lilly giggles.

"Still getting used to your new school life?"

"A little bit."

"Can I get you some tea, Hisao?"

"It wouldn't feel right without some, wouldn't you agree?"

"Completely. Please make yourself comfortable. I'll be right with you."

Lilly gestures towards the couch and then walks over to the kitchen area. She opens one of the cabinets and takes a tea set out of it. I instantly recognize the red color and flower motif on the cups and teapot. A sense of comfortable familiarity washes over me. So much has changed since I left Yamaku, so a familiar ritual such as this feels surprisingly good to me.

As Lilly's busy heating water for the tea, I take a moment to look around. The apartment is surprisingly spacious. It's probably built to house a couple and one or two children. The living area is rather sparsely decorated, but the furniture has the same antiquish style as the cabinet in her dorm room. A table in the middle of the room serves as the dining area, and near the back of the room is a sitting area with a low table and an angled sofa that seems large enough provide room for five or six people. In the corner is a cabinet with a landline phone and an extremely small television on top of it. The kitchen area is rather standard although one thing that catches my eye is the fact that there are several sheets of paper with text in Braille attached to one of the cupboards.

"Feel free to look around a bit if you wish, Hisao."

"Don't mind if I do."

I walk back to the entrance area and look around. Aside from the front door and the doorway leading to the living room, there are three other doors there. One of them merely leads to an extremely small room with a few cabinets. It's probably used as storage area. The other doors lead to a bedroom and a bathroom area.

Lilly's bedroom has the same familiar fragrance of perfume and nail polish that her dorm room at Yamaku used to have. In addition to a bed, it also has a bookshelf and a desk. Despite there being a bookshelf here, half of the books in this room are still stacked on the floor. Either Lilly has a system she's been using for a very long time and doesn't like to deviate from or she simply doesn't like putting away her books. The desk houses a braille device similar to the one I've seen in Yamaku's student council office a few times. There's also an old-fashioned typewriter there. Each of the typewriter's keys is covered by a sticker with something that looks like a braille code for the respective characters. Seeing that her teachers probably don't know Braille, this must be how Lilly writes the reports and essays she has to hand in.

The bathroom area houses a simple sink and two inner doors, one leading to a toilet area and the other one to a bathing area with two small stools, a small bucket and a rather deep bath. All in all, Lilly´s apartment seems to have all the amenities of an actual family home.

I return to the living room and take a peek behind the door near the cabinet holding the television. There's a fairly large but completely empty room behind it. One of the walls has a large empty compartment that was probably built to house futons. This room would probably be used as either a secondary bedroom or a secondary living area, but currently it seems to serve neither purpose. I think I have an idea of the reason behind it.

"Hisao?"

I look around and notice that Lilly has finished preparing the tea and has put the cups and tea pot on the table in the sitting area.

"Okay."
04
I take a seat at the low table and watch as Lilly pours the tea in a practiced motion. She hands me a cup and slightly raises her own.

"To the good old times?"

"Works for me."

It's been two months since I last saw Lilly. We both graduated that day and passed our entrance exams to boot, but our joy was marred by the fact that Hanako didn't manage to make it in, and to make things worse, Hanako had disappeared without a trace, apparently having left the school grounds earlier that morning.

Hanako's therapist informed us that Hanako was in a safe place and busy sorting out her thoughts, but I don't think I was the only one who suspected that Hanako's desperation simply got the better of her and that she fled the school because she didn't know how to deal with the situation. We reluctantly left the matter in Miss Takawa's hands, and returned home with our parents, though I suspect I haven't been the only one who had trouble sleeping the nights after.

Finally, two days afterwards, just when I was contemplating calling Yamaku, I received a text message from Hanako. It didn't shed a lot of light on her circumstances, but it did say that she was okay, that she'd be spending another year at Yamaku and that she was sorry for having run off like that. I couldn't reach her when I tried to call her, but an hour later I received a phone call from Miss Takawa who explained the situation to me in full.

It turned out that Hanako had sought shelter in the orphanage where she grew up. I can't say I ever would have found her there, seeing that Hanako never told me where exactly it was located. Miss Takawa also informed me that Hanako had been accepted into Yamaku's ronin program, and that the school would do its best to make certain she'd be better prepared for the exams next year.

I offered to drop by at Yamaku that very day, but Miss Takawa said that it was better if I didn't. She said Hanako'd had a few very stressful months behind her and that it was best to simply let her get her bearings back and give her time to get back into a normal daily routine. In time, Hanako would have settled down enough to initiate contact with us. In the meantime, she advised me to concentrate on getting settled in my new life myself as I probably had more adapting to do right now than Hanako. I couldn't really argue with that, so I left it at that.

I had a long phone conversation with Lilly that same day, and it turned out that Miss Takawa had contacted her as well. While both of us were already missing Hanako, we agreed that there was no longer any reason to worry about her, and the best thing we could do was get our own life in order right now so Hanako wasn't going end up worrying about us. Lilly argued that it probably was best for us to go our own way for a little while and focus on meeting new people at our respective faculties, rather than clinging to each other for company. I've missed hanging out with Lilly, but I recognized the value of getting familiar with the people in my own class, so we agreed to focus on our own lives for a bit and catch up once life started settling down a little.

"You used to call your parents' place your home. I suppose now that you have this place, that's not the case anymore?"

"Actually, I call both places home now. It can be a bit confusing, but it reflects how I feel."

As I drink my cup of tea, I notice that it has a very familiar taste.

"Is this the same tea you'd usually drink at Yamaku?"

"Orange Jaipur. Indeed. I'm fortunate that the local store carries it."

"If you don't mind me asking: do you do your own shopping nowadays?"

Lilly smiles.

"I do. We have a very convenient system in place for that."

"A system?"

Lilly briefly points at the sheets of Braille paper taped to the front of the cupboard.

"Those lists you see there are shortened inventory lists of some of the nearby stores. They contain most of the items I need in my daily life. When I need to do some shopping, I can make a phone call to one of those stores and tell them what I need. By the time I've made it there, they usually have the order ready for me to pick up. All the remains then is to pay for it."

"Wow, that's some customer service."

"Father made the arrangements for me. He and I had a personal talk with each of the stores' managers, and they were happy to be of assistance to a regular customer."

"Looks like you managed to adapt really quickly."

Lilly modestly shakes her head.

"Last Wednesday was actually the first day I've lived completely on my own. Up until that point, Mother has lived here with me. Throughout the first four weeks, she's been here with me seven days a week. During the first three weeks, she even accompanied me to school. Over the last two weeks, she's only been here on Mondays and Thursdays. I don't think I would have been able to adapt without her efforts. I'm truly thankful to her. And also to Father for changing his mind about letting me live here without a roommate."

"Wow, that's some dedication."

"She said she felt she owed it to me. I... don't really agree, but I'm nevertheless thankful for her efforts. I think... it's truly better that Mother has taken this role upon herself and not Hanako. Better for everyone."

That's probably true. I could have seen Hanako agreeing to move in with Lilly anyway if that had been the only way for Lilly to be allowed to live here, but it probably would have lead to problems down the road, especially in the emotional state Hanako was in around graduation. With no school to study at and nothing to do all day long except act as Lilly's temporary crutch, her self-esteem probably would have suffered, and as Lilly became less and less reliant on her, it'd probably start dropping even more with each passing day. I'm not sure how well Hanako would have functioned guiding Lilly around a crowded school either. No, this approach was definitely better.

"I agree. So, is your mother still staying over every now and then or are you truly on your own from now on?"

"She won't be spending the night here anymore, but I still spend my Sundays at my parents' home each week. When they come here to pick me up on Sunday mornings, Mother usually does a quick check to see if everything here is still in order and does some additional cleaning if it's required while Father assists me with my mail and administration."

"Sounds like you're holding up here just fine."

Lilly empties her cup and then promptly refills it. Looks like that raging caffeine addiction of hers hasn't gone anywhere in the meantime. As she takes another sip, she smiles playfully at me.

"That about covers my life up until this point. How about yours, Hisao? Catching up is a mutual process, you know?"

"Point taken. I've moved back in with my parents. We don't really see each other that often because both of them are working, but we try to spend some time together each evening. I'm also trying to make myself useful around the house and do some chores every now and then. They are paying for my tuition after all."

Lilly smiles in appreciation.

"That is a very good attitude to have."

"It's kind of funny, but I didn't really use to be very close with my parents. I think that ever since I started dating Hanako, I've grown a bit more… appreciative of them."

Lilly gives an understanding nod.

"I think I know what you mean. How about the people at school? Were the people you were having lunch with your friends?"

"It's kind of difficult to say. We work on group projects together and spend lunch breaks together on a regular basis. They even made notes on my behalf when I was absent for a day last week. So I guess you could call us friends, though I kinda feel like the odd one out."

"Hmmm, how so?"

"I'm the only one who doesn't live in the dorms for starters."

"That's not necessarily a problem. You don't have to live in the dorms to make friends. With the exception of Hanako, I made all of my friends at Yamaku during my first year when I was still living with Akira, and many of my friends were boarding from the beginning."

"I guess there's something else too."
Last edited by Guest Poster on Mon Oct 06, 2014 1:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 53 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:18 am

"Your health? How is it these days?"

"I haven't had an episode since I started attending here. I no longer have a running track in my backyard, so my parents and I shelled out some money for a home trainer that I use on a daily basis to stay in shape. Emi would probably call me a turncoat for switching from running to cycling, but the neighborhood I live in just isn't very suitable for jogging. I had a checkup at the hospital last week, and they seemed satisfied with the results."

"That's good news. I'm happy to hear that you're taking good care of yourself."

I can't suppress an amused smirk. I don't think Lilly even realized how extremely motherly that sounded just now. She really hasn't changed a bit.

"Well, I try. I'd really hate to have an episode during schooltime."

"Hisao... Does anybody at school know about your heart?"

"One teacher and a school nurse. I guess I'd have some explaining to do if I ever were to have a heart flutter in the middle of class, so I'm doing my best to prevent that kind of thing from ever happening in the first place."

"Most of your old classmates from Yamaku knew about it, didn't they?"

"Yeah, eventually. But that was because I also came to know their reason for attending Yamaku. Everyone had their own condition to deal with, so once I accepted what I had, I felt petty for trying to avoid the subject in front of my fellow students. After all, having a medical condition didn't make me different from the rest. But it's kind of different now, because I'm probably the only student in class who attended a school like Yamaku. The last thing I want is to get stares and whispers whenever I enter class. I'm not sure if this is something people even care to know about."

Lilly looks a little saddened to hear my words.

"It almost sounds like you're feeling guilty for being the way you are. Have I ever apologized for my blindness, even once? You can't help the way you were born, Hisao. There's no point in apologizing or feeling guilty for who you are."

I wouldn't have expected Lilly to say anything else. But there's a difference between us. Lilly's blindness is impossible to hide, so it'd be unreasonable for people to expect her to do so. My condition is a lot more subtle, so it's not really fair to compare the two. Still, since Lilly can't hide her condition, I wonder how her school life's been.

"Lilly, can I ask you a question?"

"Of course, Hisao."

"How's your school life been? It's good to hear that you've managed to adapt to your new environment and that you're now capable of finding your way around, but how's your interaction with your classmates? And... How's their interaction with you?"

"Most people in my class are very friendly. There are several people with whom I spend time after school. I still like to take walks across the campus during lunch break in order to familiarize myself with the terrain, but eventually I'll probably join them for lunch as well."

"..."

Lilly makes an uncomfortable grimace.

"You... are asking how people reacted to my blindness, aren't you?"

"If that's not too personal a question."

She shakes her head, but judging from the expression on her face, it very well might be.

"Mostly positive. It's difficult for me to determine if I get many stares or not, but people don't speak ill of me. Quite the opposite. People are generally very helpful. But there's still quite a bit of awkwardness from time to time as well. I can tell that people sometimes don't really know how to act around me. I... could probably do without the praise too."

"Praise?"

"Sometimes people try to be friendly and tell me how impressed they are that I can eat with chopsticks or use a cell phone, despite the fact that I've been doing that for years. They mean well, but it comes across as a bit..."

"Condescending?"

"...a bit like: 'Look at that monkey peeling a banana, mommy.' "

"That's kind of why I'm reluctant to let other people in on my condition. I don't want people to have that kind of interaction with me."

"Neither do I, but your classmates might eventually find out about it unless you go out of your way to keep them at arm's length. And doing that will make you more of an outsider than your condition ever could. I believe that people simply need some time to adapt. After all, you were a little uneasy when you first came to Yamaku, weren't you? If you could do it, certainly others can as well."

"That's not a bad point."

"Whenever people are awkward around me, I try to remind myself that many of my former classmates from Yamaku, as well as yours, are probably faced with the same situation or will someday. The knowledge that I'm probably not alone in this makes it easier to put things into proper perspective."

True. Several of my classmates have disabilities less subtle than mine. I'm pretty sure Shizune or Miki or even Natsume would be more eye-catching than I would be. And that's not even counting Hanako.

"Are you talking about Hanako?"

"Not specifically, although it's probably unavoidable that she'll attract her share of stares eventually. We can only hope that by then she can deal with that kind of attention."

I wonder if Hanako will ever be able to deal well with that kind of attention, but at least that's not going to be a concern for at least ten more months.

"Speaking of Hanako; she and I have been corresponding through e-mail lately. Has she... reestablished contact with you as well?"

Lilly's smile returns.

"She has. Just a moment, please."

Lilly gets up, disappears into the hallway and comes back after a minute holding a binder in her hands.

"I keep all my correspondence with her in here."

I take a look at the binder that Lilly placed on the table. It contains between eight and twelve sheets of Braille paper, presumably letters from Hanako to Lilly. Looks like Hanako found a way around Lilly's lack of technical savvy. I can't really read what the letters say, though most of them aren't extremely long. Assuming she started writing Lilly around the same time she reestablished contact with me, Hanako must have been writing about 2 letters a week to Lilly. That's quite a lot, considering the fact that she and Lilly correspond through snail mail.

"Letters in Braille. Hanako's probably using the newspaper club computer to print them. I believe she said it has a program that can convert normal text into Braille. That's how they make the special editions of the school newspaper too."

"Apparently it works both ways. She said it was okay for me to write back in Braille too. I'm better with a brailler than with a normal typewriter, so this is quite convenient for me."

So Hanako basically scans in Lilly's letters and then runs them through some conversion software.

"So when did she start writing you?"

"Around the third week of April. I was getting a bit anxious already, but I wanted to keep my promise to Miss Takawa."

"So Miss Takawa also asked you to leave it up to Hanako to reestablish contact?"

"Yes. I asked her why and she said that Hanako having to take that initiative was part of her therapy and that it was best if we first let her regain her footing a bit until she was comfortable enough to interact with us as equals again."

"Hanako probably still feels really bad about what happened on graduation day, so indirect contact through e-mail and letters probably feels safer to her."

Lilly nods.

"I think so too, though there may have been other factors besides her actions on graduation day. It's a real shame though that she doesn't seem comfortable with phone contact yet. I'm fine with letters, but... Being able to hear her voice from time to time would be very welcome too. Especially during this week, don't you agree?"

"This week?"

"You know..."

"I'm not sure..."

Lilly looks a bit upset. Did I miss anything? Hanako's birthday is still slightly over a month away.

"This week, one year ago, something very special happened."

"..."

"..."

"Wait! Was this week the week I transferred to Yamaku last year?"

"It was. Last year, it was during this week that Hanako and I first met you."

"I can't believe you remembered that."

"I'm sure Hanako remembers it too, Hisao. Girls remember these sorts of things, and meeting you was a very special occasion for her."

"Yeah..."

"Hisao?"

"Yes?"

"Is something the matter?"

I tried to be casual in my tone, but it looks like Lilly still managed to pick up a wistfulness in my tone.

"Can I ask you something, Lilly?"

"Of course."

"How do you feel about... Hanako no longer being a daily part of your life?"

Lilly smiles sadly.

"I miss her presence, and I hope that she'll soon get to the point where we can talk directly to each other again and spend time with each other again. In the meantime, I keep telling myself that Hanako received a valuable opportunity to become stronger and that it's a good thing that she's chosen to take advantage of it."

"That's a good way to look at it, I guess."

"But how about you, Hisao? You two were dating, and then you were suddenly separated and thrust into a long-distance relationship. To be very honest, I would personally have difficulty maintaining a relationship of that kind, so I'm curious how you are holding up."

I sigh.

"To be honest, the moment where our relationship suddenly changed didn't take place on graduation day, but several months earlier. All that happened at the end of March was a physical separation."

Lilly smile immediately vanishes, and a guilty look appears on her face.

"Hisao... I'm sorry."

"Hey, don't be like that. I'm not pointing fingers."

It's not like I'd need to anyway. Lilly already does a fine job of claiming responsibility for Hanako's situation even though I don't think that Hanako is blaming her. I do kind of wonder if I should discuss this with Lilly to begin with, but ultimately decide that Lilly's probably still the best person to talk to about this.

"Of course... Please continue, Hisao."

"That period between the start of our relationship and that incident at Kasshoku consisted of some of the best months of my life. But afterwards, she immediately started relapsing. She started secluding herself in her room again. She often seemed lethargic whenever we could make time to hang out. Maybe that stressful exam period was a blessing in disguise because it served as a distraction from the fact that our relationship was already in the freezer. There were times when I told myself that everything would be okay after we all graduated and that we'd be able to pick up where we left off afterwards, but that was probably very naive."

"I'm sure that Hanako isn't happy with the situation either, Hisao."

"I'm not blaming Hanako, Lilly. I'm mostly frustrated with the situation and not really with her...anymore."

"Anymore?"

I take a deep breath.

"I won't lie. There have been times when I wondered whether it was even worth it. I couldn't help but wonder if this was what a relationship with Hanako was going to be like in the long run too: good times, followed by months and months of helplessness and feeling like I'm walking on eggshells. What if it's a cycle that never ends?"

Lilly looks uncomfortable. Given how supportive she's always been of our relationship, this must be painful for her to hear.

"I don't think that's fair to Hanako, Hisao."

"I know that. It's not just unfair, but hypocritical too."

"Hmmm?"

"After my last hospitalization, Hanako and I made up and she made me a promise."

I pause for a moment to study Lilly's face and her tiny knowing smile confirms that Hanako must have told her about that at some point.

"When she promised me that if something happened to me again, she'd wait for me, even if she couldn't be by my side through it all, that meant the world to me. It may seem like a small thing, but her keeping that promise would still put her ahead of most people who used to be in my life. And despite her relapse, I'd like to think she'd keep that promise, even now."

"She would, Hisao. There is no doubt in my mind about that."

We both let out a soft chuckle. I bet that Lilly, like me, realized that the most sure-fire way of seeing Hanako in the flesh again would be for me to have another heart attack.

"Let's hope I won't have to find out. Anyway, in the end it wasn't me who got put out of commission, but her. And now I feel like it's up to me to keep up my end of that vow. It's pretty likely that at some point in the future, I'll be hospitalized again, maybe be out of commission for months on end, just like Hanako. It's happened before, after all. How can I expect Hanako, or anyone for that matter, to stick with me if I can't stick with them when they go through their darker moments?"

"It's almost like a test, don't you think? Like a trial to test your resolve?"

"I told myself I'm going to tough things out, but even so, I never expected the wait to be so...damn...long."

Lilly nods and there's a long silence. I've never discussed this with anybody and I'm surprised how relieved I'm suddenly feeling after letting this off my chest. I'm happy that I took this opportunity to talk about this to the one person who probably knows Hanako as well as I do. Eventually, Lilly speaks up.

"Is this situation on your mind a lot?"

"I'm trying not to think too much about it. And for the most part, I've been succesful. I've had my hands full getting my university life in order over the last two months, so I've been able to keep my mind off Hanako so far and I thought that was a good thing since it's better being busy than being bitter, but now I'm starting to wonder if that was the right thing to do to begin with. What if I focus so much on my university life that I'll wake up one day and realize I feel content with the way things are now? And then realize I feel content despite being in a relationship that's a relationship in name only?"

Lilly gives me an amused smile.

"I think I know what you mean. It's a little bit similar to how I used to feel after Mother and Father left for Scotland. Eventually I got to the point where I was fairly happy and content despite them not being there because there were others who were an important part of my life as well. That doesn't mean I wasn't hoping they'd move back someday. I don't think you should feel guilty about feeling content with your life, because you can feel good about yourself and still hope for your life to get even better."

"Maybe... It's just that I can't shake the feeling that this isn't how things are supposed to be. I was pretty frustrated when she left just like that, but focussing on getting settled at my new faculty allowed me to get my mind off things and I'm no longer upset with her, but I'm not really feeling that spark either. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I'm just not feeling that right now."

"Do you really feel like your relationship with Hanako is one in name only? Despite the fact that you're exchanging correspondence with her?"

"The mails we exchange are usually rather short and about casual stuff. It sounds a bit harsh, but right now it feels like Hanako and I are just pen pals, rather than boyfriend and girlfriend."

"Have you talked to Hanako about this?"

"I'm afraid that if I bring it up, she'll jump to the conclusion that I'm on the verge of breaking up with her."

"Maybe you could try to make your interaction with her less casual? Maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned, but have you tried writing her a romantic love letter? That would certainly win me over."

I chuckle briefly at that. That really did sound like something Lilly would say.

"I could be mistaken, but I think that's one area where you and Hanako are different, and I'm not merely saying that because I'm reluctant to write her a sappy love letter."

"How so?"

"What would your idea of a pleasant date be if you were in a relationship with someone?"

"Hmmm... I would... go somewhere together... for a nice dinner, some tasty wine and a pleasant conversation."

"You probably nailed it with the last part. I'm not saying that Hanako's incapable of enjoying conversation, but it's never been at the core of our relationship life. Whenever we'd go out on a date, we'd go and see a movie or visit an arcade center or do karaoke. Whenever we wanted to bond, we'd play a game of chess or snuggle up to each other while reading books or... uh... make love. I think some of the most romantic moments of our relationship have been just walking hand in hand through the forest near that Scottish village, or reading a book together or waking up or dozing off in each other's arms. Do you know what all those activities have in common?"

Lilly nods.

"You don't need conversation to enjoy them."

"Exactly. It's not that Hanako and I hardly ever talked, but I don't think Hanako or I are really talkers by nature and with Hanako's social skills, conversations often contain just a little bit too much awkwardness to feel fully relaxed. So we kinda built our entire relationship life around activities that we could enjoy just as much without the need to engage in conversation. And it actually worked really well for us. But right now... it seems that conversation is all we have left. To be honest, I don't think we're cut out for a long distance relationship. But if I tell Hanako that, she's probably going to freak out."

"..."

"Damn, just listing those things suddenly made me really miss her again."

Lilly giggles.

"It's a relief to hear that. I realize that a relationship with Hanako may not always be low maintenance, but there have been many wonderful memories you have of her despite the recent struggles, don't you agree?"

That's true and that's probably why I still consider her my girlfriend even though we're so far apart right now. Hanako's bad times have been pretty bad, but the good times have been wonderful and I sincerely want those back. I miss those little moments we used to share. Despite everything, Hanako's still really special to me even though being her boyfriend has been difficult the last couple of months.

"Yeah. I guess it'd be best to hold on to those memories and have faith that those kinds of times will return eventually."

"Hisao, would you like my opinion?"

"Uhuh."

"If just the mention of those moments make you feel that way, then perhaps we should make an effort to create such a moment ourselves. A bonding moment as it were."

"But how? Other than ignoring Takawa and taking the next train to Yamaku, that is."

"Maybe we could talk to her. Have an actual direct conversation with her. My landline phone here has a speaker."

"You want to phone her? Didn't Takawa ask us to leave all the initiative with Hanako?"

"We won't phone her, but we could tell her that we'd like to have a phone conversation, even if it's only once. We'd take part of the initiative, sure, but in the end the final decision would still lie with Hanako. We could plan a special moment for it."

"Do you have one in mind?"

Lilly gives a reassuring nod.

"I think I do. Do you have time to visit here later this week?"
05
Last edited by Guest Poster on Thu Aug 20, 2015 12:41 pm, edited 4 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 54

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:19 am

Chapter 54
01
"Haha, missed me!"

"Ugh..."

"I don't think that attack's going to do much good."

"Hmmm..."

"And here we go!"

"Hmph, lucky shot."

"Is this how you want to play it?"

"And... Owned!"

"Hehehe."

"Let's try this one more time."

"Ummm... Jun?"

"Yes?"

"Was it... uh... class 1-3 or 1-4 that held that fishing game today?"

"Mmm... I'm pretty sure it was class 1-4. You know that 1st year who joined the newspaper club recently? Makoto... something? He was operating the stall for some time and I think he's from class 1-4. Uh... We can probably check that later, right?"

"R-Right. Thanks."

"Okay."

"I accept the challenge. Give me your worst!"

"Huh? Jeez, that attack is overpowered. How did that get through the beta testing?"

"Well, both can play at this game."

"How's that?"

"Whew, that was close."

"J-Jun?"

"Yes?"

"Do you... know who organized that h-haunted house event?"

"I think it was Aoi from the student council. It's a bit cliché, but she's wanted to have one here for years."

"Okay."

I turn my attention back to my notepad and start scribbling again. I'm really exhausted right now and I'm struggling to hang on to my recollection of today's events, but if I don't commit as much as possible to paper before the end of the day, I'll have forgotten half of it by tomorrow morning. Besides, I need a basic outline done this evening to show Miss Yumi.
02
I have barely finished writing two lines when I realize that it's suddenly rather quiet in the room. I look back at Jun, who has spent the last hour or so in front of her television. There's a message on the tv saying: 'Searching for an opponent'. Jun's fingers are idly fiddling around with the Wii controller in her hands, but her eyes are looking at me.

"Is... s-something wrong?"

"You seem pretty serious about getting this piece of yours done. I'm not distracting you, am I?"

"It's okay."

"If you say so."

I don't think it's my place to tell Jun to stop playing games on her own console in her own room anyway, but fortunately her vocalized thoughts aren't particularly distracting.

Not distracting, but still a bit bizarre.

Jun recently found out about my tendency to only step on the dark tiles in tiled hallways when there are no other people around and was pretty amused by it. But before that, I already found that she has a rather interesting quirk of her own. Whenever she's playing video games, she really gets into them. When we were playing Mario Kart earlier today, Jun tended to suddenly lean left or right whenever she needed to dodge an obstacle or car at the last moment. And ever since we visited the arcade last year together with Naomi, I've known that Jun likes to think out loud while playing games. At first I thought she was talking to me and was a bit weirded out, but now I realize that she probably does this even if there's nobody else in the room.

She says she enjoys the game more this way.

It still feels odd for someone who usually provided the calm and collected counterpoints to Naomi's spontaneous outbursts during our writing club meetings.

"Hanako, is there a word for the opposite of being grounded?"

"Being g-grounded?"

"When you're sent to your room and you're not allowed to leave, you're being grounded, right? But is there a word for when you're told to stay of your room and you're not allowed to enter?"

I think for a moment, but then smile and shake my head.

"I... d-don't think there is."

"I guess your situation is that unique, huh?"

"Yes."

Today was a busy day for Yamaku as it was the day of the annual school festival. Since I'm no longer part of any official class, nobody asked me to help at any of the stands and to be honest, that suited me just fine. I don't think I would have enjoyed spending the entire day getting stares from people as I took their orders for fried rice or noodles. Unfortunately, the option of sitting the day out in my room was denied to me by noone other than Miss Yumi.

Two days ago, she gave me an assignment for today. An assignment that was meant to be part of my therapy.

The gist of it was that I wasn't allowed to set foot in my room or in the library today. I could bring a book from the library if I wanted to read, but I wasn't allowed to hide away in there. In addition, I was asked to write a small article about the festival. It wasn't necessary for it to be published in the upcoming newspaper issue, but Miss Yumi wanted to read it. Because of that, I was pretty much forced to go outside today and tour the school grounds. At least I had an official excuse to convince myself and something to keep me partially occupied.

I didn't really feel up to spending hours upon hours among the crowds today, so I got up really early this morning and tried to gather as much information as I could before the start of the festival while the students were still setting up their stands. I still ended up having to take a few trips across the school campus during the festival itself to fill in the blanks in my piece, but I managed to make those as quick as possible. I spent the rest of the day either reading a book in the school gardens, which remained relatively quiet, and hanging out in Jun's room who got a Nintendo Wii on loan from her father for a few weeks as a reward for doing well on her last test and as a consolation for fracturing a bone in her foot a little while back, forcing her to spend most of the day in her dorm room.

We spent some time playing a few games together until I decided to resume piecing my article together and Jun switched to online play. The last hour has consisted entirely of me trying to make something coherent out of my large collection of notes and Jun holding one-sided conversations with whoever's on the other side of her internet connection.

"How's the article coming along?"

"Okay... I think. I'm currently... t-trying to just get a complete outline done without too much d-detail."

"Are you sure you don't want me to help you write the whole thing out?"

"I'm sure. Besides, it s-sounds like you're having fun."

"Heh, I actually like the older Pokémon games better, but the ability to battle random people online is a pretty fun feature and..."

The 'searching for opponents'-message disappears from Jun's screen and is replaced with a menu. Jun gives me a look that says 'Do you mind if I take that one?' and I give a quick nod in response.

I get back to my outline and Jun gets back to her game. Judging from the sound of it, it's not going to be a drawn-out one.

"Hmm, hmm... Are you sure you want to pick that attack?"

"I have you now."

"Boom! One down. Bring on your next one."

"Uh?"

"OH, COME ON!"

I jump a little, startled by Jun's sudden exclamation. When I look at the screen, there's surprisingly a 'You win' message there that doesn't seem to validate the death glare that Jun is shooting at the television.

"W-What happened? You w-won, didn't you?"

That sure was quick though. Her matches usually last way longer. Jun doesn't respond at first, but eventually puts down her controller slightly more forcefully than usual and turns off the tv.

"I hate ragequitters."

"W-What?"

"Imagine you're playing a chess game against someone and during the opening you already manage to capture his queen. Instead of taking his setback with dignity, he flips the chessboard and walks off, probably under the belief that he hasn't really lost as long as you didn't get the opportunity to put his king in check mate. How would you feel?"

Probably extremely frustrated. I'd never goad my victory over a fellow player, so I really don't like sore losers either.

"P-Put off, probably."

"Exactly. I got one good shot in and the guy immediately disconnects. Ugh."

"I'd never do that myself."

Jun's smile returns and she nods.

"I know. That's why I like playing games with you. You're a good sport. You don't gloat when you win and you don't pout when you lose. I admire that mindset."

When playing video games with Jun, I spend more time losing than winning, although since our win-lose rate was close to 50-50 when we visited an arcade last year, that's probably simply due to Jun having had more practice with the games we play here.

"It feels good to be able to p-play games with someone."

"I sometimes feel a little guilty though. All the games we play here are games I've had lots of practice with. You're starting to catch up, but I still wonder at times whether you're actually enjoying yourself."

"It's okay. I enjoy playing games, regardless of the outcome."

"It doesn't matter to you whether you win or lose?"

"I like winning when p-playing, but I'd rather play and lose than not p-play at all. When I visit with Miss Yumi, we often play a game of Go. She really likes that game."

"Go, eh? Is she any good at it?"

"I think she m-mentioned once that she used to p-participate in local competitions a few decades ago. I've never beaten her so far. S-Sometimes the session ends before anybody's in a clear winning position, but m-most of the time she simply beats me."

"Is it even still fun that way? A competitive player going up against a casual one without some sort of handicap to even the odds is really unfair, isn't it?"

I smile sadly at Jun.

"Her answer t-to that was that... l-life isn't always fair either, so..."

Jun nods understandingly.

"So the best thing you can do is improve yourself rather than count on the rest of the world to keep accommodating you, right? That does make sense. Even so..."

"She's a very p-pleasant opponent. She usually gives me t-tips after each session on how to improve my game or points out the m-moments where I made mistakes. She also p-praises me when I come up with an effective s-strategy or counter one of hers. And I've been s-slowly getting better at it, which already feels good on its own. Just like it felt good when I started k-keeping up with you or was able to follow you across shortcuts in Mario Kart."

"In other words: the little victories can and should be appreciated too?"

Miss Yumi never grew tired of reminding me that the same principle also applied to life in general. My physical scars will remain with me forever, and many of my mental ones will take a long time to heal, but there are plenty of smaller victories to be savored in the meantime, and I shouldn't think of life as a zero-sum game that's always either completely won or completely lost.

"Yes, b-but those little victories wouldn't mean anything if I knew she was merely letting me win or d-deliberately holding back. They only feel genuine because she's never going easy on me."

Jun takes several seconds to think about this really hard, then taps her red-and-white cap and breaks into a smile.

"That does make a lot of sense. It's like those old 8-bit Famicom games, right? Back then you could barely ever save your game and lives were limited, so it was really hard. You'd first start playing it and you'd get a game over message on the first part of the first level. Then, with lots of practice, you'd beat the first stage, and you'd feel great about yourself. Then the second level repeated the process until you finally beat the game and felt like a pro or got to a point where things became too hard or cheap to continue. It was always a struggle, but it wasn't just beating the game that felt really good. Every time you got just a little further than before felt like a major accomplishment. It's something like that, isn't it?"

I giggle a bit and manage to avoid rolling my eyes. I don't have any experience with 8-bit consoles myself, so Jun kind of lost me half-way through her rant, but I think she caught the gist of things.

"I... I think so."

"So you like playing games for those little victories that come with getting better at it?"

"That's... one reason. I also like playing games because I feel good when playing. It's a... very special feeling. It's h-hard to explain."

Jun grins.

"I think I know what you mean."

I'm not so sure about that. What I feel while playing games with someone isn't the urge to play the role of some outlandish commentator. It's a sense of comfort I usually don't feel when interacting with someone in any other way. After I became disfigured, most of my ways of interacting with other people became stunted. I just wasn't able to relax while someone was staring at the burns on my face, and I knew my stammering and tendency to clam up made conversations frustrating for other people, which made me stutter even more and shut down even sooner as they waited for me to finish my sentences. In a way, playing a game with others is interacting with them too, but others' attention isn't on my facial scars for once and instead of exchanging words, you exchange cards or moves. It feels so much more natural. The sparse times I played games with others were the sparse times I felt a bit normal.

Miss Yumi and I spoke about this during therapy a few times, and she said she believed that playing games was my way of interacting with people as equals. She noted that people could be on different levels in terms of playing skill and still respect each other as opponents as well as respect themselves as players.

Playing a game against someone who takes the game seriously and who's making a sincere effort to win has always been the one time I felt like I was interacting with someone without them looking down on me or being annoyed by me.

"It's about... respectful interaction... while also relaxing and h-having fun."

Jun looks a little puzzled at that, obviously not completely able to figure out my train of thought.

"Ummm...?"

"N-Never mind."

I shrug in order to dismiss the matter. I really don't feel like going through the struggle of explaining all of that to Jun right now. Maybe some other time. Jun frowns for a moment, but then nods.

"Okay. Still, it might be a nice change of pace to play something you have more experience in. How about a little chess match some time? You're really fond of that game, aren't you?"

"B-But you don't have a chessboard."

Jun laughs.

"Chessboards are nice and all, but in this day and age they're not exactly mandatory anymore. If you're up for it, I'll just get my laptop and download a chess game off the internet. There are plenty of free ones available online. See?"

Jun opens her laptop, clicks her mouse a few times, types in a few words and then turns the computer around so I can look at the screen. It indeed looks like there are plenty of alternatives to my old-fashioned chess set these days, though I already knew that. Back at the orphanage I occasionally played chess on the computer there, though never against another person. Lilly was the first human opponent I had in a decade and Hisao was the last one.

A game of chess does sound tempting, but before I can consider accepting Jun's offer, a sharp sense of guilt runs from my gut to the top of my spine and I shiver. Jun notices the expression on my face and frowns.

"Did I say something wrong?"

"It's... nothing. I think I'll p-pass this time."

Jun thinks for a second whether a 'nothing' that's obviously 'something' is worth questioning me about
...and decides that it is.

"I hope I'm not being a bother, but is it's not really 'nothing', is it?"

"P-Promise me that you won't laugh."

"Ah... Alright."

"It would... feel a bit like... I'd be... cheating."
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 12:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 54 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:19 am

From the baffled look on Jun's face, I can tell that my answer was not what she was expecting. She just sits there, with her mouth agape.

"Uh... I know it must s-sound a bit..."

My words are cut off when Jun starts giggling.

"Whoa. That's a bit... hahahaha. That's not something I ever expected you to say."

"P-Please don't laugh."

Jun makes an apologetic gesture, snickers a bit and then scrapes her throat.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to laugh at you. It's just that you're usually not that confident about anything. I may not be the best chess player in the world, but don't you think you're underestimating me just a little bit by saying that playing against me would feel like cheating to you?"

Ugh. That's not what I meant at all. I really could have worded that better.

"It's not l-like that. I mean..."

This may actually not sound any less silly to Jun.

"Ever since we... s-started dating, Hisao's been the only p-person I've played chess with. I quickly started seeing it as... something special between us. It... probably doesn't make sense to you, but..."

Jun quickly shakes her head.

"I think it makes perfect sense, actually. People can bond in all manner of ways, and I personally think that bonding over a game just feels more natural than bonding by getting drunk together or having a long conversation over dinner."

Somehow I feel that Jun's not the most objective person in the world in this regard. Still, it feels good to hear her emphatize with me.

"I think bonding is the perfect word to describe it."

Jun suddenly gives me a playful look.

"So... ah... does that mean your boyfriend is also abstaining from chess?"

"W-What?"

I can barely suppress a cringe at that remark, and even when it becomes clear that Jun wasn't referencing my love life, it still takes me a moment to recollect myself.

"I... uh... don't know... how he feels."

"I'd be surprised if the significance was lost on him. It's not like you two got together only recently. Although..."

Jun's expression suddenly turns serious. The way she averts her eyes gives me the impression she's not fond of the idea of bringing up the elephant in the room, but she doesn't like the idea of ignoring it either. Eventually, she gives me an awkward stare.

"Wasn't today an ideal day for him to visit? I was kind of expecting him to drop by. And maybe your friend Lilly too. Even my parents were here briefly today, and they don't come over very often."

I sigh softly. I can't really blame Jun for bringing this up, though I kind of wish she hadn't. On my way back from the orphanage, after I sent my friends a text message to let them know I was safe and sound, Miss Yumi called up each of them and told them the situation in detail. One thing that stood out in my mind was the fact that she made a request to leave the initiative for further interaction up to me.

In theory, this meant I was free to set my own pace in the process of getting back on my feet and getting back in touch with everyone.

In practice, this meant that the process of getting back in touch with everyone has been moving along at snail's pace.

After returning to Yamaku, I started the long process of crawling back from the emotional edge I've been dangling over for months. When Miss Yumi mentioned she was planning to step up the therapy sessions, she wasn't exaggerating. During the first month, each day contained of either a session in the morning and one in the afternoon or one session spanning two hours or more. Either would usually leave me feeling drained. Miss Yumi pulling some strings allowed me to help the school librarian sort and categorize books from time to time, but most of the time the rest of the day would be spent studying in either my room or the library for the tests I was meant to take along with the 3rd years and the occasional supplementary lessons in the late afternoon or early evening.

I'd occasionally join Jun in her room for a bit of company or to watch her play games on her old laptop. Jun occasionally exchanges e-mail with Naomi, and she usually lets me in on how our mutual friend is doing. I'm pretty sure that in return, she's also keeping Naomi updated on how I'm faring, though I'm not too bothered by that.

Aside from that, most of my evenings are simply spent in my room, and it is during those times that I feel Hisao's and Lilly's absence the most. About a month after returning to Yamaku, I finally managed to work up the courage to get back in touch with them, using e-mail to interact with Hisao while exchanging letters in Braille with Lilly. The initial letters I sent made no mention of my sudden 'escape' from Yamaku on graduation day, and the letters I received in response avoided bringing it up as well, so in a way that was a relief. But I still can't shake the feeling that, as pleasant as our correspondence is, there's also something missing. It sometimes feels as if we're just going through the motions.

Miss Yumi likes to frequently remind me that in order to really pick things up where we left off, all I'd need to do is send them a little message telling them that I'd like to visit them or that I'd like them to visit me.

If only things were that simple.

Where exactly is 'where we left off'?

Is it that evening before the ceremony, when I listened in on Hisao and Lilly trying to figure out how to deal with my housing problem?

That was actually a horrible place to pick things up.

Or is 'where we left off' the time before both that open house day and my big relapse? Back when my anxieties seemed mostly under control, my self-esteem was higher than it had been in a decade and I was cautiously optimistic about the future?

My assignment today to mingle with the festival crowd wouldn't have given me nearly as much trouble eight months ago when, emotionally, I was in a better place. If, during that time, I was at my peak, I haven't gotten back there yet.

Miss Yumi argued that Hisao and Lilly weren't worrying over me out of pity, but because they too wanted the good times from the past to come back. I think I have enough faith in them to believe that. I didn't back when I was at my lowest point and even though I've since made a solemn promise to myself never to treat my friends that way again, I still feel really guilty about that.

But will I ever get back there? Or were those carefree times simply the result of me being ignorant and oblivious and too used to life inside the comforting bubble that is this school?

I really don't know.

Miss Yumi praised me for reestablishing contact with my friends, but in a way it has also made things more complicated. Exchanging mails and letters has felt relatively safe. My friends can't hear my stammering, there are no uncomfortable pauses, and since I can take my time to choose my words, I'm probably coming across as a lot less awkward and a lot more confident.

The magic words being: 'coming across', unfortunately. In reality, as I've been reminded once more today, my issues haven't really gone anywhere. I'm no longer as much of a nervous wreck as I was around graduation day, but I'm still quick to get nervous and start stuttering, I still have a great deal of difficulty dealing with crowded places, and my self-esteem is still severely lacking. I can only imagine that if Hisao and Lilly were here right now, they'd be disappointed that I've made so little progress and that our correspondence put me in a better light than I feel I deserved. That's probably the main reason I've been hesitant to take our interaction beyond written correspondence - at least until I can clamber my way back to the place I was until everything came apart. Well, hesitance or not, that's not going to matter much anymore later tonight.

"We're... g-going to be on the p-phone t-tonight."

"I'm happy to hear that..."

Earlier this week, I received a letter from Lilly telling me that, for old times sake, she wanted to spend some time talking with me personally. She also mentioned that she spoke to Hisao this week, that he'd be visiting her today and that if I could be there, even only through the telephone lines, it would make both of them very happy. I talked the matter over with Miss Yumi and managed to send a letter of agreement back to Lilly to let her know that I would call her or she could call me.

We'll be having that phone call later tonight, and I'm really nervous about it.

Jun absentmindedly runs her fingers across her laptop's keyboard and then looks back at me.

"But are you really content with just contact over the phone? I remember the three of you were really close, but I haven't really seen your friends around here since graduation."

"W-We w-were... I mean... W-we are close. It's j-just... complicated."

"Well, I'm not saying it's not possible to keep a friendship going through letters or mail. I've been able to keep in touch with Naomi through mail, but..."

I don't really like where this is going.

"Relationships have to be maintained, don't they? If you don't meet up with your boyfriend, then how are you supposed to go on dates or... uh...?"

I give her a puzzled look, not sure if she means what I think she means, but when Jun shoots a quick, but obvious glance at her bed, I instantly feel every drop of blood in my body rush to my cheeks. The only response I can muster, a flustered 'I'm still working on that', comes out as such a soft mumble that Jun probably didn't even hear it.

What makes it extra uncomfortable is that Jun has a point. Hisao's probably been very busy since graduation with getting settled back in his hometown, starting at an entirely new school and getting to know new people and teachers. But eventually the hecticness of that big change is going to wind down. We might actually be at that point already. And then Hisao might start wondering why he's still in a relationship with me if he's not going to get more than casual correspondance out of it. At this point, we're little more than pen pals.

Then there's the matter of the sex life that Jun painfully reminded me about. I used to have one, and I used to be pretty happy with it. It was one of the ways we strengthened the bond that existed between us and the sense of closeness I'd feel during the afterplay, the sight and sound of the reactions I could draw out of him and the knowledge that I was giving him a good time and turning him on were just as wonderful as the physical pleasure I got out of it. Being able to not just be Hisao's girlfriend, but also his lover gave me a welcome boost to my confidence as well.

Then I had that breakdown and my... performance was completely crippled. I could barely get aroused, I couldn't get into it, and my mind kept wandering off. The experience ended up being such a failure that the sliver of self-esteem I still had left was utterly shattered.

We haven't done it ever since.

During the therapy session where Miss Yumi first gave me a recipe for a small batch of medication, she also handed me a printout with some general information about depression and one thing of note on there was a line about one's sex life being negatively impacted being extremely common. Having an official excuse didn't make me feel like any less of a failure.

I'm still worrying from time to time how things would play out if I were to visit Hisao and stay over at his place.

Would he want to do it?

Probably.

During the better times, like the summer break, I would have welcomed that. But how about now? Would it be like last time? Would I still be… lacking? And how would he react?

Frustrated?

"Hanako? Hey, Hanako."

"S-Sorry, what is it?"

Jun's voice suddenly pulls me back to planet earth. I must have gotten lost in thought.

"I said I was sorry about what I just said. I was probably a bit out of line."

"It's okay. I... t-think you had a good point before... about r-relationships needing to be... maintained."

Jun gives a satisfied nod and grins.

"They do. Neglecting your relationship is disrespectful towards those of us who are single."

With some effort I manage to hide an amused smile of my own. Jun likes to complain about her own status as a single from time to time, but at the same time she doesn't seem to ever make any active efforts to talk to any of the boys around here.

"I'm... trying."

Jun gestures towards her laptop.

"It's difficult for us to imagine, but one generation ago, maintaining a long-distance relationship was very tough and slow-paced. You were completely reliant on snail mail, and that was slower back then too. Telephones weren't very common, and there was no internet either. What horrible times to live in that must have been. Nowadays, you can use e-mail, chat programs or webcams. You can even set up game dates."

That's the first time I've heard that term.

"Game dates?"

"Or whatever it's called. I'm not sure if it even has an official name. It's a date in an online world. You know what Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are about, don't you? They're like gigantic worlds for people to explore and play alongside other people. There are several examples of people who met in those game worlds and got involved with one another. Some of them actually went on dates inside the game world. I was thinking that maybe you and your boyfriend could try that kind of thing. It's not the same as the real thing, but it's a close second. You could get a 30-day trial for Final Fantasy XI, or you could look up a free online RPG-game. There are quite a few of them on the internet. You could walk around the game world together, try to find a secluded spot and talk. Maybe do a quest or two together and use the cash to buy each other a little gift in one of the stores there. It's a little nerdy, but it's a lot more involved than simply passing mails between each other. You can always borrow my laptop if you need to. It's not the most reliable system, but it's never died on me. Think about it."

I have to admit that that's a pretty creative solution Jun just thought up. I'm not sure how well it would work for us though. Hisao and I are both casual gamers at best, usually only playing video games when we visit an arcade hall together, and I've heard that role playing games can be quite the time sink. Going on a 'game date' might feel odd or unnatural too. Still, I don't want to dismiss Jun's suggestion outright. The idea to not just write back and forth but also do something together is a good one.

"I... I will."

Jun gives a satisfied nod.

"That's good to hear. You can ask him for his opinion when you speak with him tonight."

"Ummm... I could... give it a try."

"When exactly is the talk with your friends?"

I look at Jun's alarm clock.

"In less than an hour. I'm heading for a place that's probably not t-too crowded right now."

Jun picks up one of her Wii controllers by its strap and playfully twirls it around.

"Does that mean there's still time for a little game of Mario Kart?"

I consider it, but then decide that there's still one more thing I have to do.

"Thanks, but... Maybe another time."

--------------------------------------
Last edited by Guest Poster on Mon Oct 06, 2014 3:12 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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