Sisterhood: True Edition (Hanako Epilogue) (Completed)

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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."

--------------------------------------
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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
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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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Joined: Tue Jul 10, 2012 12:42 am

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."
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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

"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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Chapter 54 - cont.

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

03
"Please enjoy."

"T-Thank you."

I put the bowl of tea I just received to my lips and take a careful sip. Miss Yumi does the same after giving the waiter who brought us our drinks a 'thank you' of her own. I try to remember the last time I visited the Shanghai. It must have been over half a year ago. They still serve some fine meals and drinks, even with Yuuko no longer working here, but I've nevertheless been reluctant to come here for the same reason I hardly ever have lunch in the 'tea room' anymore. It's a bit depressing without Hisao and Lilly around.

Miss Yumi's giving me an analytical look. I ran into her on my way to the nurses' building, and she asked where I was planning to be this evening. When I mentioned the Shanghai, Miss Yumi drove me here, and we got ourselves a tasty cup of tea.

"You look a little bit wistful, Miss Hanako."

"This was... W-where we hung out last year."

Miss Yumi gives an understanding nod and smiles.

"Then this is probably the perfect place to spend tonight as well."

Maybe.

"Now then, dear. Shall we get down to business?"

She briefly drums on the table with her fingertips and, getting the hint, I take out my phone. I take a deep breath, turn it on and put it on the table. Then I fish the outline of my article out of my bag and hand it over to Miss Yumi, who quickly starts reading it.

Minutes pass without either of us saying anything. Miss Yumi goes back and forth between skimming the sheets of paper in front of her and taking sips of her tea. I doubt it'd really take her that long to read through the whole thing. Maybe she's simply trying to buy some time.

"Well,..."

Miss Yumi puts the sheets of paper on top of each other in a neat stack and then hands them back to me.

"From the looks of it, you've seen your first assignment through succesfully. Only one more to go."

"Y-Yes."

"How are you feeling right now?"

I'm not really sure. In their correspondence, Hisao and Lilly told me that they're doing well. Does that mean they're doing just fine without me? Or have they been putting on a brave face just like I have? And am I to blame for some of that? I really don't know how to feel. Either way makes me uneasy.

Miss Yumi must have noticed my frown, for she makes an 'ah-ah-ah'-motion with her finger.

"I think I just saw some very bad thoughts sneaking in there, Miss Hanako."

Feeling caught out, I mumble an embarrassed apology. Miss Yumi nods and looks at me with a sheepish expression.

"It still happens from time to time, doesn't it?"

I don't answer, but that's probably okay. It was probably a rhetorical question anyway.

"I think the best advice I can give you is to simply concentrate on the moment. Don't dwell on what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Just allow yourself to enjoy the present. It's not a good habit to adopt permanently, but I think it'll make a positive difference tonight."

"I'll... try."

"Good."

Miss Yumi beckons the waiter and pays her part of the bill. Then she takes a look at her watch.

"Are you... leaving already?"

"I can't stay for too long. I still have to make my way back to school and find a nice place to watch the fireworks. You don't need my help to hang out with your friends. That's never been the case. We'll wait for five more minutes and if there hasn't been an incoming call by then, we'll just call them ourselves. I'll leave once you've made contact. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to stay around any longer."

"O-Okay."

"You'll have no problems getting back to school on your own, will you?"

"Don't worry."

"Hmmm... And try not to violate curfew too much, okay?"

"Uh... I d-don't think..."

Rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg - rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg

"Aaah!"

My heart immediately performs a somersault as my phone on the table springs to life. Miss Yumi chuckles and gets up.

"That sounds like my cue. And yours. I'll ask the waiter to get you another drink. This one's on me. You go and enjoy yourself."

Rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg - rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg

It's been a long time since I've heard that sound. It still makes me shiver a bit.

Miss Yumi heads for the exit, but before leaving the room she turns around and looks at me.

Rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg - rrriiinngggggg rrrriiinnnngggg

I take a deep breath, pick up my phone and flip it open. Miss Yumi gives an appreciative nod, waves goodbye and walks out, leaving me... well, not exactly on my own.

For a few seconds, there's near-absolute silence. I think I hear some soft background noise on the other end of the line, but nobody says a thing.

They made the call. The last move was theirs. I suppose it's my turn now. They're waiting for me to make the next move.

Just focus on the moment.

I feel a nagging sense of guilt in the back of my mind, but I'm able to preempt it before it has a chance to take hold and whisper a soft greeting into my phone.

"H-Hello?"
04
"Hello, Hanako."

"Hey there, Hanako."

Before today I wasn't quite sure whether I'd feel happy or uneasy when suddenly faced with my two best friends. Turns out it's a little bit of both. There's more happiness than unease, I think. I really did miss both of them terribly.

"H-Hey."

A brief silence. I think we all grasp the fact that it's been really long since we spent time together like this since I spent most evenings hiding away in my room prior to graduation day. Eventually, Lilly breaks the silence.

"It's really good to talk to you again, Hanako. It's been such a long time since I last heard your voice."

I don't think it was Lilly's intention, but I instantly feel a pang of shame upon hearing her words.

"I'm... s-s-sorry."

"I'm sorry too, Hanako. Maybe... we should leave it at that and not exchange any more apologies for the remainder of the evening?"

"O-Okay."

My attention is briefly drawn away when the waiter approaches my table and refills my drink. I quickly nod in order to acknowledge him, but don't say anything. Nevertheless, Lilly seems to have picked up the sound of his footsteps.

"Hanako, is there somebody with you right now?"

"It's just... the waiter. I'm at the S-Shanghai right now."

"The Shanghai? Just like..."

Hisao doesn't finish his sentence, but Lilly lets out a soft 'hmmm'.

"This week is a very special week, isn't it Hanako?"

"It is. This is... the week we f-first met Hisao. One year ago."

I hear Lilly giggle softly followed by Hisao's groan.

"Okay, okay. You were right. She remembered. No need for the smug expression."

"It's... the week of the festival this week, so it w-was easy for me to remember."

"Well, I definitely would have remembered, too, if there had been festival preparations going on around me. My first week at Yamaku was a pretty memorable one in hindsight. I'm just bad with keeping track of dates."

"Memorable, Hisao?"

"Well, while I was in the hospital, my life was pretty much on hold. It was during that week that things finally started moving forward again. Looking back on the whole thing, it seems like the entire foundation of my ten months at Yamaku was laid that week. I met Mutou who played a pretty big role in getting me to pursue a career in science. I met Shizune and Misha who helped me get settled in class and who saw to it that I always gave the class assignments a 100 percent. I ran into Emi who became my running partner in the mornings. Uh...there was Kenji too. But most importantly, I met you and Hanako who became my first real friends at school and in Hanako's case, more than a friend. Looking back on things, that first week turned out to be pretty important."

"F-For me too."

"Today it's exactly a year ago that you and Hisao first spent time together, isn't it Hanako?"

"Actually, t-today was the first anniversary of our f-first chess match, but... we... already spent s-some time together that day before."

"Yeah, I remember. I didn't really have anything to do after classes ended, and on a whim I decided to visit the library and read a bit. I met you there, and we spent several hours reading together. I think it was during that time that I first got curious about you. I remember you thanking me for spending time with you, which I thought was really sweet. Our time spent together that day was probably what made me seek you out again the next day."

I feel my the blood immediately rush to my cheeks upon hearing Hisao's sweet words, and I'm kind of relieved that he can't see me blush right now, though I also feel a bit sad that we're so far apart right now. What he said made me feel really happy, and if we had been in the same room right now, I could have given him a little kiss in return for his kindness. As things are, I have no way to return his kindness except by saying something sweet in return which I'll probably hopelessly fumble.

"T-That first... afternoon... was nice. And... when you... came to k-keep me company that day after and... we played chess together... that made me r-r-really happy."

I hear Lilly giggle softly.

"It sounds like the seeds that your relationship sprouted from were sown this weekend one year ago."

That's a rather poetic way to describe it, but it's probably true. I remember last year clearly. After watching the fireworks, we headed back to the school grounds and said goodbye to Hisao. Lilly seemed tired, so we called it a day without spending any more time together in her room. But before we parted ways, Lilly said that I sounded like I had a good time today, and I replied - perhaps a little too eagerly - that I did. This was followed by an awkward silence, and before she excused herself and went to her room, Lilly gave me one of those knowing smiles of hers that managed to keep me awake for a large part of the night, because it implied that she noticed the same thing I did.

I hung out with a boy that day. A boy who could see me and still willingly spent time with me.

A boy who liked reading and playing chess, just like I do. What were the odds of that?

A boy who sought me out and talked to me without asking what happened to my face.

A boy who had a very nice smile.

It was that last thought that shocked me more than any of the others, because that one was about me rather than him, and I wasn't sure whether I was comfortable with the implications. It was still a rather mild crush, but a crush nevertheless. And it was on a boy I had known for less than a week and spent barely more than a few hours with. The development scared me a bit. Surely he wouldn't actually like me in that way? Lilly seemed rather fond of him as well, so he'd probably just get together with her. I felt I was on the road to an inevitable heartbreak.

I ended up talking to Lilly about it soon afterwards. If I could get Lilly to admit that she liked Hisao as well, I'd at least know that it was best not to cling to any foolish hopes. Lilly played along at first, mentioning that she thought Hisao was a good person. When I tried digging deeper though, Lilly promptly shut down my offense by assuring me that she wasn't going to become a rival to me. All I could stammer afterwards was: 'How?'

Then she told me that she didn't know for sure until now. While Lilly was going on about how she thought we would be quite well-suited for each other, having several interests as well as maybe some past experiences in common, I was just sitting there feeling stupid. Still, with nothing to lose, I confessed to Lilly about how I felt. She told me not to immediately write myself off, since he did seek out me of all people during the festival.

The next day she invited Hisao to spend the evening with her and me.

I wasn't completely convinced back then that Hisao and Lilly wouldn't grow closer with me falling by the wayside. Why would Hisao put up with my large collection of anxieties when he could have someone like Lilly by his side, who was pretty much the perfect partner? But looking back on the whole thing, Lilly's promise not to become my rival turned out to be completely serious. If she really concluded that Hisao was probably more interested in me than in her, then that first week really did matter a lot more than I thought at first.

Hisao's chuckle interrupts my musings.

"Sown seeds, huh? It makes me wonder sometimes how our lives would have fared if things had gone a little differently. That day I first hung out with Hanako in the library, I was actually wondering if I shouldn't go and take a long walk around the surrounding area... maybe check out the town some more, or give in to the guilt trips Shizune and Misha put me through and help them out with the festival preparations. I actually befriended you two during this weekend last year. If that weekend had gone differently, would we be where we are today?"

"Where we are today?"

"I mean, would we still have become friends? Would Hanako and I still have gotten into a relationship? Would you have stayed in Japan anyway or would you have left? If not, would we still have taken that trip to Scotland? How about all the other events of last year, like my accident, Hanako's first aid course, your father's hospitalization and your parents' return to Japan? If you believe in the butterfly effect and that all things are connected, then a couple of minor events during the weekend last year could have had major consequences."

"Hmmm..."

Lilly sounds half-intrigued and half-amused at Hisao's words.

"What do you think, Hanako?"

"Uh. M-My head is spinning a bit right now."

Hisao laughs cheerfully at my reaction.

"You're probably not the only one. A lot has happened since then, and every time I try to imagine how things would have run their course if I had picked different people to hang out with at that time, I get a headache."

"Perhaps you're simply overthinking things, Hisao. Maybe it's a lot simpler than you think."

"How so?"

"Have you considered the possibility that... your actions were being guided all along?"

"I can't say I'm comfortable with that idea, Lilly. I'm not exactly religious."

"Most people in Japan aren't, but many of them do believe that their actions are guided in some way, be it by God, ancestors' spirits or simply fate."

"Fate, huh? Is that what you believe, Lilly?"

"I do, Hisao. I'd like to believe that you and Hanako were simply meant to meet and become part of each other's life, just like my parents returning to Japan was meant to happen. Even if you hadn't befriended us that weekend, it would have happened at some point afterwards. I would like to believe that because of the person that you are and the person that Hanako is, you two were fated to find each other eventually. Whether it was coincidence, fate or something else isn't all that important."

That's both kind of uplifting and kind of scary. If my relationship was meant to happen, the same is probably true for my breakdown. That's not exactly encouraging.

My thoughts and our conversation are suddenly interrupted by several loud noises coming from outside. Realizing the source of the sound, I quickly pay the waiter and hurry outside. When I make it outside, the sky is already brightly lit up. As I look at the colorful explosions above me, I hear the voices of my friends.
05
"That sound... Hanako, is that...?"

"That's the sound of fireworks, isn't it, Hanako?"

"It... it is."

"That brings back memories."

"Y-Yes."

My thoughts briefly return once more to the evening we shared here last year, back when we watched the light show together with Yuuko.

"Hanako, how is it?"

"It's... just as beautiful as last year. Maybe even more so."

"Hanako, could you describe the sight to us?"

"Umm... okay."

My eyes focus on the bursts of light that are lighting up the sky.

"There's a white one over t-there that looks a bit like a flower... and uh...there's one a bit farther away that consists of really pretty green and red sparkles... and umm... there's also..."

The fireworks last for several more minutes, and I do my best to let my friends experience the show through my eyes. Eventually the last colorful sparks fade out on their way down, and for a long time neither of us says a word. The silence is strangely comfortable.

"Lilly... Hisao...?"

"Yes, Hanako?"

"T-Thank you... f-for sharing... this moment with me."

"Thank you too, Hanako, for making us part of it."

After everything we went through, we've made a pleasant memory again together. I'm happy I didn't chicken out of this phone call this evening.

"Hanako, how are things going at school? Is this a busy period for you?"

"A bit. I'm trying to t-take all the tests that the 3rd years take. There are several c-coming up this month. I'm trying to study as hard as I can."

"Do you have any plans for summer break?"

"N-No. How about you? Are you going to Scotland again?"

"Not this summer. Akira said she expected things to get very busy for her at work during the later part of the summer, and I'd feel like I'd be imposing on her. I'm expecting to spend most of the summer break in Hokkaido. Father and Mother will be renting a vacation home there, near the place where the previous summer home was. I... don't think they would mind if the three of us spend some time there as well. Would you two consider it?"

"What do you think, Hanako?"

"I..."

I did enjoy the little bit of time we spent in Hokkaido last year. Maybe this year won't be different.

"I... I think I'd like that."

"Then if your parents have no objections, we'd both be glad to accept your offer."

"I'm really happy to hear that, Hisao. I'll talk to my parents about it, but I don't expect any problems."

"I'm looking forward to it."

"Me too."

I hadn't even thought about the summer break before. Lilly's proposal at least gives me something to look forward to. But summer break's still nearly two months away. Hisao will probably be disappointed with me if we go back to just mail contact after tonight. Jun's suggestion springs back to mind momentarily, but it seems like a silly thing to suggest right now. I'm still not even sure how well that'd work for us, since neither of us is really into those kinds of games.

My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by a loud beep from my cell phone.

"Hanako, what was that sound just now?"

I look at my phone's display and cringe.

"It says... My phone's b-battery is running low. I forgot to charge it b-beforehand. I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Hanako. You'll probably have to get back to school in order to avoid missing curfew and it might be time for me to go too. It'll still take me some time to get home."

I think I just heard a yawn in his voice.

"Can I get you one last cup of tea, Hisao?"

"Yeah, that'd be great, Lilly. Thanks."

Despite Lilly merely being a good host, her exchange with Hisao still stings me a bit. Lilly invited Hisao to join her and participate in this call, and she's acting as a host. What have I done for Hisao lately?

I wonder if there isn't a way I can improve our relationship with no risk of screwing up.

"Hanako, we'll mail again this week, won't we?"

"I'll be sure to write you, too, Hanako."

"Y-Yes."

I wonder if...

"I was really good talking to you, Hanako."

"Yes. Stay well, okay?"

Another beep from my cell phone. This conversation looks to be over, whether I like it or not.

"I will."

Suddenly, as I briefly think about Jun's suggestion again, I have a sudden moment of clarity and before I can have second thoughts or my friends can hang up, I shout my boyfriend's name.

"HISAO!"

"Huh?"

"Uh... I... I'd like to... play a game of chess with you..."

"Well, uh... it'd be my pleasure, but..."

"A chess site! There are... s-sites where you can register and... p-play others online. W-We could both... create a profile. It... might have a chat function too, so we could talk during the g-game. We c-could... we could..."

I'm not sure how the idea suddenly popped in there, but while Jun was showing me an internet search about chess games, I saw several sites that allowed people to play others online. If we could 'meet up' in this way...

"Hanako..."

"Y-Yes?"

"That's a brilliant idea! We should do that. Do you have a site in mind? Just mail me the address and I'll register an account there. Maybe we can plan a game for tomorrow or the day after."

For a moment I'm too overwhelmed to respond. I didn't expect him to be this enthusiastic. While I'm trying to think of how to react, I hear Lilly chuckle.

"That was an unexpectedly enthusiastic reaction, Hisao. It almost sounded like Hanako offered you a date this week rather than an online game of chess."

"I don't know if the difference is as big as you're making it out to be, Lilly. We'll still get together to talk and more importantly, engage in an activity we both greatly enjoy and that has a strong meaning for both of us. It's a lot like a date, especially since to me, chess has kinda become 'our thing'. I guess that also means I'm a little bit out of practice. I hope I can still give you a decent challenge, Hanako."

"I'm... out of p-practice too, so I..."

Another sharp beep from my phone and then the display goes dark. I listen closely, but it sounds like the connection's lost. I sigh loudly in frustration. What an anticlimactic way to end our talk.
06
Still, something good came out of it. The three of us will be spending some time together in Hokkaido this summer. That still gives me some time to focus on my therapy and build a bit of confidence before hanging out with Hisao and Lilly again. Most importantly, Hisao and I will be going on an online chess date this week. I could use the computer lab or maybe get Jun to lend me her laptop. I can't call her to ask, but maybe I can make it back to the dorms before she goes to bed. I put my phone back in my bag and start walking down the road heading back to Yamaku.

"A chess date..."

I let out an excited giggle.

I start walking faster. A wide smile is starting to form on my face.

Our relationship still has a way to go before it's back to where it was before my breakdown, but tonight I feel I managed to recover a very important part of it.

My steady pace speeds up until it's a stiff little jog. Running uphill is probably not the smartest thing I can do, and I'll probably be out of breath in less than a minute, but right now it feels good to run off the feeling of excitement that just welled up inside me.

Some true progress at last.

I'm really looking forward to tomorrow.
07
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 5:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Chapter 55

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:20 am

Chapter 55
01
The first time I saw this gate, it felt intimidating and unwelcoming. Now, just over a year later, it almost feels like an old friend whom I haven't seen in a long time.

When I left this place about three months ago, I didn't expect to see it again this soon.

The lush greenery of the school grounds feels soothing. It's not like Kasshoku doesn't have any gardens, but somehow Yamaku's feel neater.

Or maybe that's simply nostalgia talking.

Either way, when I first came here I couldn't help but feel that I stepped into another world. Even though I'm familiar with this school and its surroundings now, coming back here after having spent some time in university and Chiba it once again feels like I've entered an isolated bubble that's cut off from the rest of the world. How strange that I still feel this way, even after all this time.

As I walk down the tree-lined walkway leading from the gate to the main building, a group of students passes by. They don't look familiar, so they're probably 1st years. As we pass one another we exchange a polite greeting, but as I proceed, I feel their eyes on my back and for the first time since my arrival, the feeling of nostalgic comfort fades a bit to make room for the sense of being a stranger here.

Ironically that's how I felt when I first started attending here too.

For a moment I find myself wishing I still had my old school uniform. Being the only teenager around here not wearing green and white probably draws way more attention than I'd welcome right now.

I suppose the best thing I can do is not loiter around here for too long.

I reach the point where the pathway splits off in several directions, and I wonder where to go. Would Hanako be in her room today? I rack my brain in an attempt to determine whether she was already holing herself up in her room around this time last year or not, but can't tell for sure.

I'm not sure if it's a good idea to go straight to the girls’ dorms though. I think I'll search the school building first, particularly rooms like the tea room, the library and the newspaper club room. Maybe our old classroom too.

The lobby of the school building is a little busier than the area outside, and my eyes dart left and right, scanning the place for people I know. A group of three female students stands near the entrance, chattering away. A nurse is checking his watch as he's hurrying for the exit. A teacher and a male student are coming down the ramp leading to the first floor. A student with crutches is sitting in a chair near one of the doors reading a study book.

The student in the wheelchair coming down the ramp actually looks familiar and he's even waving at me. The teacher accompanying him is someone I know too, but he's decidedly not waving.

Oh crap! How ironic is it that Mutou's once again the first person I run into? Since I've already been discovered, I wave back at my former clubmate and my former homeroom teacher.

"Hi there, president Hisao!"

I roll my eyes at the boy in the wheelchair before returning his greeting.

"That's former president Hisao, president Nobuyuki. But good to see you, too."

"Couldn't stay away from us, huh?"

"Well, I felt I had to check up on you guys from time to time, just to keep my peace of mind."

"Is that really so, Nakai?"

Contrary to Nobuyuki's jovial expression, Mutou's looking a bit sour. I hope he's not jumping to the wrong conclusions about me. I face my mentor and make a respectful bow.

"It's good to see you too, sir. I was just joking a bit. There's another reason I came here."

Nobuyuki snickers.

"You didn't drop out already, did you?"

Mutou's glare tells me that if I dare to say yes, even as a joke, I can safely consider my life over.

"Hey, what do you think of me?"

"Well, i wouldn't make sense for you to visit here if you dropped out. In fact, if that's what happened, it'd be in your best interest to stay as far away from here as possible. So I guess you're still in the running."

My former homeroom teacher's expression becomes just a little less hostile and a little more curious.

"Then what brings you here, Nakai? Is it...?"

I nod.

"I came to see Hanako. It's... uh... her birthday tomorrow."

Mutou doesn't immediately answer. It's obvious that he's at least partially in the loop about Hanako's birthday issues from the past years. Eventually he sighs, probably having decided that this isn't a subject that's appropriate to be discussed at length, particularly in front of Nobuyuki. Not wanting me to get off the hook too easily, he gives me a scolding look.

"You're still skipping class."

"The only major thing for this week is a report for molecular physics that I have to finish together with some classmates. I brought some books from the faculty library with me, and I intend to use the computer lab here tomorrow to type up my part and send it to the rest. I'll be doing an extra large piece of the work to compensate for my absence."

In hindsight this seems to have been a real bargain for my classmates, since they got me to write up the toughest part. At least I was discreet enough not to mention that I was taking my leave of absence in order to visit my girlfriend, or they would probably have dumped the entire project on my shoulders.

"Hmmm..."

A few painful seconds pass, and then suddenly Noboyuki looks up at our teacher and addresses him.

"Sir, may I make a suggestion? Maybe it'd be a good idea to have the former president drop by the club tomorrow and tell everyone about university and what he's learned there so far. It could be a big boost for morale. He could show us his report too, so we can have a taste of what's going to be expected from us after we graduate. I think everybody would love it. Maybe even be inspired to work as hard as we can to get good marks and do well on the exams."

That's some pretty smooth talking right there. I can see Mutou furrow his brow, and he doesn't say anything for a very long time. Just when things start feeling too awkward, he gives me an exasperated look.

"I hope you can show us something impressive tomorrow, Nakai. I will not be expecting anything less from you."

He makes a small bow in my direction, and after I return it, he walks off in the direction of the staff room. Nobuyuki and I watch him until he rounds the corner of the hallway. When he's finally gone from sight, I turn towards my former clubmate.

"That was a pretty clever suggestion you came up with. I could just see the teacher and the scientist engaged in a tug-of-war game inside Mutou's head."

"And the scientist won out. Lucky for you."

"This was not how I imagined my reunion with him."

"He probably would have welcomed you with open arms if you had only picked a Saturday afternoon to drop by. I think deep down he was happy to see you, but as a teacher he can't bring himself to condone someone playing hooky. As a guy who wants to follow in his footsteps someday, you ought to understand that."

"Yeah, that's a good point."

"I'm kind of surprised he dropped the matter this quickly. Maybe I was wrong and he's simply biding his time and waiting for the right moment."

"What do you mean the right moment?"

Nobuyuki snickers.

"Not only did you turn up here in the middle of a school week, but you also suggested that you're planning to spend the night here, most likely in the girls' dormitory. That's... probably not the smartest thing you've ever done. Maybe Mutou decided that having you kicked off the school grounds here and now would be boring, so he's gonna ask the dormkeeper to check in on your girlfriend's room later this evening and have you kicked off the school grounds wearing nothing but your underwear."

"I see the position of club president hasn't done much to diminish that twisted imagination of yours."

We both laugh at that. I've always gotten along pretty well with Nobuyuki during our science club sessions, and when I graduated I felt like the club was left in good hands. He's a pretty good guy with a real passion for science, especially physical cosmology, but also fun to occasionally exchange down-to-earth banter with.

"Glad to see you too."

I step aside as a group of students passes us on their way to the exit. I exchange a glance with Nobuyuki who smiles sheepishly.

"I think we're kind of blocking the traffic here. Want to stop by the cafeteria? Or am I keeping you from your girlfriend?"

"I guess I can spare a few minutes. I'm not even really sure where she is yet anyway. It's possible she's in her dorm room, but I thought I'd check a few places in the school building first instead of heading straight to the girls' dorms."

We head over to the cafeteria where I pick a quiet corner for us to sit. With my clothes having already drawn a few stares, I'd rather avoid attracting too much attention. I wait until Nobuyuki has maneuvered his wheelchair into the right position before posing the question that's been on my mind since I ran into him today.

"So Nobu... How's the science club doing these days?"

Nobuyuki smiles proudly.

"We've picked up six new members among the 1st years. Courtesy of Takahiro and me campaigning at the start of the school year."

"Hey, nice work! I'm looking forward to meeting them tomorrow."

"That reminds me... Some of them have been having a bit of trouble with the finer points of thermodynamics. I was wondering if you could... hmmm..."

"I can see where this is going. Isn't it your job to provide the explanations now? You've always gotten good marks for science, haven't you?"

"Yeah, but I'm not as good at explaining the stuff as you are. Help me out, will you? Consider it a counterfavor."

"A counterfavor for what?"

"For not making an anonymous phone call to the dormkeepers' office this evening."

"You're stooping to blackmail now?"

"It's okay. You weren't going to turn us down anyway, were you?"

"Okay then. How many people are going to take part in this miniature tutoring session?"

"Eh... Jurou, Katashi and Minoru. That's three."

"All guys. We're still a men's club, aren't we?"

"Uh, yeah. There are a lot of female students here, but our club still only has male members. I wonder if the female part of the student body simply isn't interested in science."

"I don't think it's that simple. There are probably few female students who like the idea of being the only girl in the club, so they're hesitant about joining, which in turn discourages other girls from joining up as well. It's kind of a vicious circle."

Nobuyuki grins.

"Even though we're a club filled to the brim with strapping guys? I know that the prospect of being the only guy in an all-female club wouldn't put me off. Heck, maybe the opposite."

I chuckle.

"Then you'd better stay far away from the faculty I'm studying at right now, because guys are all you ever see there. If you're hoping to get lucky, best try your chances here while you still can. A strapping guy like yourself shouldn't have too much trouble following in my footsteps in that area too."

My successor puts on a mock-grumpy expression.

"Rub it in, why don't you? I know I'm definitely making that phone call tonight."

"Let's drop the phone call stuff, okay? I'm kinda curious. You're in class 3-3 now, aren't you?"

"That's right."

"Are you taking classes with Hanako these days?"

"Ikezawa? I don't think she's actually part of any class right now. I think she studies somewhere else during the day. You'd have to ask her."

"Have you seen her today already?"

"Not as far as I can remember. If she's in the building, there's one place I'd check out before all others."

"The library."

"Yep."

"I'll go and have a look then. If she's not there, I can come back here."

"I have some homework to do actually, so I'm afraid I can't stick around. But assuming you're not going to get kicked out of here, I'll see you tomorrow after classes, right? Classroom 3-3."

"Alright, alright."

I say goodbye to Nobuyuki and leave the cafeteria. As I walk through the school's hallways in the direction of the library, I replay the events that just took place in my head. I didn't count on immediately running into Mutou, so I was caught off guard when I suddenly came face to face with him. It's a shame we got off on the wrong foot like this. I hope I'll be able to get back in his good graces tomorrow. It'll be good to see the guys at the club again, though I hope this unexpected club session isn't going to mess up my schedule for tomorrow.

A wave of nostalgia hits me as I open the door to Yamaku's trusty old library and walk inside. The gardens and cafeteria were familiar places, but I never spent hours in there. The same cannot be said about the library. This room holds a lot of memories for me.

A quick glance around tells me this place hasn't changed a bit. The slightly musty smell, the students studying or stealthily sleeping at the tables, the sunlight shining through the windows and the peaceful atmosphere... It's all exactly like it used to be. Well, almost exactly. A teacher and two students are standing near the counter, and I can hear a soft shuffling sound coming from the storage room behind the counter. I play with the thought of hanging around here and saying hello to Yuuko, but then I remember that Yuuko doesn't work here anymore, so I walk past the counter and towards the quiet little corner that Hanako has always used as her own personal place of shelter.

I guess even here, some things do change. To me, Yuuko's always been a part of the library, and yet now she's gone. I wonder if Hanako's once again in her usual place.

As I approach Hanako's corner, I can't help feeling a little apprehensive. Hanako doesn't know I'm here. My visit here is a surprise, and I have no idea how she's going to react when suddenly coming face to face with me. There's a chance she'll be overjoyed, but a little voice in the back of my mind also tells me that there's probably a chance of her either clamming up or even running off. That'd make things awkward in a hurry. It's too late to turn back now though, so I take a deep breath and make my way past the bookcases only to find...

...nothing.

My heart, which has been beating at a significantly faster pace since I entered here, slows down again and a pang of disappointment surfaces. I just got myself riled up for nothing.

I suppose even Hanako isn't in here 24/7. Maybe I should check the tea room or the newspaper club classroom next. Before doing so however, it might be a good idea to talk to the librarian and ask if Hanako's already been here today. She's bound to be a familiar face around here even to a new staff member.

I turn back and head back towards the entrance. My mind is already trying to determine where to go next. The tea room is closer to the library than the place the newspaper club uses to have its meetings, but the chances of Hanako being in the tea room outside of lunch breaks are slim. Maybe it's worth heading to the dormitory straight away. I'm still weighing my options when I suddenly hear a thud coming from the direction of the counter. I turn my head towards the source of the sound and my heart promptly skips several beats.
02
Standing behind the counter, both hands in front of her mouth and eyes wide enough to fall out of their sockets, is my girlfriend. She doesn't move. She doesn't even blink. She just stands there, staring at me in total shock as if I'm a ghost. I open my mouth to greet her, only to find out I'm at an equal loss for words. Just when the moment becomes unbearably uncomfortable, the spell is broken by a sharp cough from the teacher standing at the counter. Hanako's eyes dart from me to the people standing near the counter, and a blush appears on her cheek. I turn to the bystanders and make an apologetic bow.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to cause any trouble. I'll be on my way."

I quickly turn to Hanako, who still hasn't moved a muscle.

"Uh... I'll be in the usual place, okay?"

My girlfriend manages a nod that almost seems mechanical and, still looking a bit dazed, bends down to pick up the books she just dropped. Meanwhile, I go back to the reading corner where I sit down on one of the beanbags and try to put my thoughts in order.
03
I'm not surprised to have found Hanako here, but finding her behind the librarian's desk was certainly something I didn't see coming. Well, she did say she ran a few errants for the librarian in one of her more detailed e-mails, but this is a lot more than a mere errant.

As much of a surprise as Hanako's apparent job here is to me, it didn't even remotely compare to the shock she must have experienced when suddenly finding me right here at Yamaku. I quietly curse myself for having been just as tongue-tied as Hanako despite the fact that I've had nearly a day to think up something to say.

But what do you say when you're suddenly faced with a girlfriend you haven't seen in months?

Good to see you again?

I've missed you?

I love you?

I'm not sure if I'd be able to say these kinds of things just like that without sounding cheesy.

The fact that there were other people nearby didn't help matters. I would have liked to speak with her without anyone else around, but since there are still students coming and going I don't think that's an option right now. The best thing to do is probably to just wait.

I check my watch. It's nearly five o' clock right now. The library closes at half past 6. That means I've got just over 90 minutes to kill.

Racking my brains over what to say to Hanako might do more harm than good. I don't want to spend one and a half hour getting myself worked up. Maybe it's best if I simply find something else to do. I could make a start on my report. If I can't come up with something that'll impress the guys at the club tomorrow, Mutou's probably going to be grumpy again.

I think I'll do that. It'll allow me to get my mind off things until it's time to speak with Hanako. I get up and head for the scientific literature section. I recall there being a book or two about molecular physics that I borrowed for the science club a few times last year.

Fortunately, the books I was looking for are still where I remembered them to be and after returning to the beanbag, I start thumbing through the pages in search of excerpts I can use. If I'm not allowed to take these books out of the library, I'll just use the photocopier to copy the pages I need.

As the outline of my report slowly starts taking shape, my thoughts occasionally jump back to Hanako.

She's probably trying to figure out how to deal with this sudden reunion, just like I am. I wonder what she's thinking right now.

I wonder if they made Hanako the school librarian as part of her therapy or simply in order to give her something to do other than studying during the day. I'm kind of curious how she's handling it. I remember how there was always a guilty look on Yuuko's face whenever she told me that it was time to leave because the library was closing. I could see Hanako having similar troubles.

Still, it seems fitting - just like it seems fitting that our reunion takes place in the very spot where we first talked to each other. That feels like such a long time ago.

I lose track of time as I work my way through the first book I borrowed, and as I finally finish my list of references I intend to use, I suddenly become aware of how silent the place has become. When I first sat down here, I could hear the occasional sound of footsteps or people speaking in hushed tones. Right now, though, the library is almost eerily quiet. A quick peek at my watch tells me it's a quarter to seven right now; 15 minutes past closing time. Just when I consider getting up and paying a visit to the front desk, I become aware that I'm being watched.
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 1:15 pm, edited 3 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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Joined: Tue Jul 10, 2012 12:42 am

Chapter 55 - cont.

Post by Guest Poster » Fri Sep 19, 2014 5:20 am

04
I turn my head, and Hanako, who seems to have been standing in the nearby aisle for a while, quickly looks away as my gaze meets hers.

I wonder for how long she's been standing there, just watching me without saying a word.

I can tell that my stare is making Hanako nervous, but I try to block her fidgetting from my mind. It's been over three months since I've last seen her.

Despite the uneasy expression on her face, Hanako's actually looking a lot better than she did the last time I saw her. That evening before graduation day, she looked ill, scrawny and at emotional rock bottom. From the looks of it she's at least eating regularly again. I could be mistaken, but I think her hair's a little bit longer than it was three months ago. Even though Nobuyuki suggested that she's not officially part of any class, Hanako's still wearing her usual school uniform.

The mutual staring is starting to get a bit much. Seeing that there doesn't seem to be anyone but us left in the library, this awkward situation is probably going to last until one of us says something. Since I took the initiative to come here, I guess it's up to me to make the first move to break the ice.

"Hey, Hanako."

"Hey... H-Hisao."

"Uh... You know, you're...looking a lot better than the last time we saw each other. I mean... You're... uh... looking pretty good."

I cringe upon realizing how stilted that sounded, but I think that for just a split-second I could see a trace of a smile on her face.

"I... ah... wasn't really sure whether coming here at this time was a good idea or not, but... I was hoping you'd at least be happy to see me."

"I... I... I'm h-happy t-to see you."

"..."

"..."

This ice proves tougher to break than I thought. It's a little jarring how awkward our interaction is right now. It wasn't this bad while we were exchanging e-mails or smalltalk through the chess site's message channel. Then again, Hanako probably realized this, and that's why she's been limiting our interaction to more indirect ways of communication until now.

Well, there was that phone call on the evening of the festival, but back then Lilly was present with her ever-realiable knack for making pleasant and relaxing conversation. I won't be able to rely on her this time.

But then again, maybe making conversation isn't what we need right now. We've had conversations over the internet, but I didn't really have the impression that we started closing the distance between us until we started playing online chess against each other. The fact that Hanako suggested those chess games made me realize that she's also aware of how our relationship works.

I could tell her that I've missed her, and she'll probably stammer a response, but there are other ways of getting that point across and maybe those other ways are worth a try.

"Hanako?"

"Y-Yes?"

I smile at her, doing my best to hide my nervousness, and gently tap my knee with my hand. I feel a bit silly doing this, but judging from the sudden blush on Hanako's cheek, she understood the meaning behind my gesture quite well.
05
After a short moment of hesitation, she walks up to me, turns and sits sideways on my lap. I wrap one arm around her waist and place my other hand on her leg. For a while, she doesn't react. She just keeps staring at it, seemingly unsure of what to do now. Then she carefully takes my hand in her own and starts caressing it with her own.

Neither of us says a word. My gaze wanders from the sight of her hand stroking mine to the unreadable expression on her face and then back to the hand that's carressing my own. To my surprise, my eyes first focus on her neatly trimmed fingernails before they move to the scarred area on the back. It's a relief that even after a few months of separation, looking past her scars is still a second nature to me.

I let her caress my hand for a little while longer and then gently move it up to my face where I press a little kiss on the back of her hand, right on the spot where her scar tissue ends and her undamaged skin begins. Then I look at her face for a reaction.

This was one of the little gestures we came up with on one of our dates during the summer vacation last year. The time that was more or less the honeymoon stage of our relationship. That seems so long ago now and so many much has happened since then.

But then a look of recognition appears in her eyes and she takes my hand, brings it up to her lips and places a little kiss on it herself.

She remembered. That's a relief.

I pull her a little closer to me until her left side is leaning against me and I think of what to do now.

Maybe the best thing to do is to just keep going.

Think up some other ways to make things more comfortable between us without having to hold a conversation.

I rack my brain trying to remember the little rituals and gestures Hanako and I used to take part in. I know she really used to like playing footsies, but I'm pretty much guaranteed to destroy the moment if I ask her to get off my lap so we can take our shoes off.

Then I suddenly remember something else that especially Hanako enjoyed far more than a person of her age probably should. I bring my hand up to my lips and place a kiss on my fingers. Then I slowly move my fingers in the direction of Hanako's face and very softly touch her cheek with my fingers, as if putting a kiss there. A childish smile appears on Hanako's face as she presses a kiss onto her own fingers and then touches me on the nose.

This 'kissing by proxy' game was something we came up with during our vacation in Scotland last year. We'd often play it while we were in public places that weren't too crowded, trying to see how many 'kisses' we were able to sneak in while avoiding attracting attention.

I respond to Hanako by placing an indirect kiss on her nose as well.

Which results in a touch just underneath my right ear.

Then one just above her eyebrow...

An excited giggle...

One to the side of my neck...

One near the edge of her mouth...

A tender one on my lips.

One on her lips as well.

I eagerly wait for Hanako to pick a new spot for her next semi-kiss, but there's no immediate response. She merely fidgets a bit, her eyes jumping back and forth between me and her hands. Then she gets up and turns towards me. Just when I'm about to get up as well, she takes a step forward, lifts her skirt just a little bit and straddles my lap. My heart instantly skips a few beats. This is one sensation I haven't felt for a very long time.
06
Hanako still doesn't say a word, but she slowly moves her shaking hands towards my face and gently places them on both sides of my head. Her hands are just a little bit sweaty and very warm to the touch. It definitely feels nice.

Eager to reciprocate, I take her face in my hands as well, brushing aside the lock of hair that obscured her right eye until now. A rush of nostalgia hits me as my right hand feels her warm, soft cheek and my left hand feels the leathery roughness of her facial scars.

Noone but Hanako feels like this.

Our faces slowly approach each other, and I close my eyes and open my mouth just a little in anticipation of what's to come. Then I feel a pair of lips gently suckling on my upper lip. Hanako moves her head just a little bit and locks her lips with mine. Unable to wait any longer, I slip my tongue into her mouth, and as soon as my tongue finds hers and almost pounces on it, it's like a switch is thrown in the back of my head, and all the self-restraint I've mustered up to now vanishes in an instant.

My hands, moving on their own, slide down her back and then lock around her waist, pulling her closer.

My tongue dances around hers, sampling the taste and softness.

My lower body has started making jerking motions in response to the grinding movements of her hips. I feel myself slipping off the beanbag just a little and brace my right leg in an attempt to compensate.

My breathing becomes shallow as I struggle to breathe in and out without breaking our feverish kiss.

I want her. Badly.

We both gasp for breath as she breaks our kiss. Then she embraces me and hugs me, causing my face to press tightly against her chest. I can actually hear her heartbeat which sounds just as frantic as mine, and the feeling of her breasts causes my arousal to go through the roof. One of my hands makes its way underneath her blouse and starts stroking her back.

As she briefly lets go, I look up at her and smile sheepishly.

"This... kind of brings back memories, doesn't it?"

She blushes a bit, but nevertheless nods and smiles. Then her lips lock with mine again, and she starts moving once more.

I feel myself slipping off a bit again, but I'm way past the point where I can bring myself to care. Our bodies start moving in unison, old instincts reawakening within both of us.

Until I slip off the beanbag completely, nearly dragging Hanako along with me.
07
"Whoa!"

"Aah!"

Fortunately, I kind of slide off instead of dropping straight on my tailbone. I'm more startled than hurt. Hanako, though, looks at me with eyes as large as saucers.

"I'm okay. I'm not hurt."

I hold out my hand, which Hanako takes and uses to pull me up. When I'm back on my feet we exchange an awkward stare. I may not have been hurt, but the mood we were just in has been killed on the spot. Pity.

"I... uh... guess these beanbags aren't suitable for this kind of thing, huh?"

Hanako doesn't respond. I can't really blame her. It's not like this discussion about beanbags is really gonna go anywhere.

"So uh..."

Now what? Ask her if we can go to her room? That would be kind of bold.

While I'm busy trying to figure out what to say, I notice that Hanako's kind of fidgetting and fumbling as well. The expression on her face is a familiar one. It's her 'I want to say something, but I'm not sure how to say it'-expression.

"Hey Hanako, is everything alright?"

Still no response. Hanako closes her eyes, and I can see a frown on her face as if she's trying hard to make a decision of some kind.

"Hanako?"

Her eyes open, but her gaze remains focussed on her feet.

"H-Hisao...?"

"Yes?"

"Ummm..."

She falls silent again and starts to nervously play with her hair.

"You know you can tell me anything, don't you?"

She nods, but still seems to be struggling to say something. Eventually, she opens her mouth.

"C-C-Can you...?"

"Can you?"

"CANYOUWAITHEREPLEASE?"

Before I can say 'sure', Hanako has already taken off towards the librarian's desk. I wonder what that was about. I scratch my head, shrug and sit down on the beanbag again.

That sure felt familiar just now.

But so did many other things.

Her sitting on my lap. Us holding hands. The kissing-by-proxy game. They were all familiar little rituals from the earlier days of our relationship.

Even her straddling me like that, holding me to her chest and moving around on my lap. She did that during our vacation in Scotland in an attempt to distract me. She was kind of tipsy back then and really embarrassed about it afterwards. We both were, in point of fact, and kind of avoided speaking of it afterwards.

And yet, when I brought it up just now, we both smiled. Maybe because at this point, it may still be a little embarrassing, but it's also turned into a pleasant memory. A memory of more carefree times. A memory of how much fun we had together back then and how happy we were.

Maybe that's the key to bridging the gap between us. Maybe we need to remember the good times, draw resolve from them and do what we can to relive them.

Well, that's kind of why I'm here to begin with.

Maybe there's no need to talk at all.

I kind of wonder what Hanako's doing right now. If she wants to leave here and retrieve her handbag, why is it necessary for me to wait here?

Just when I start considering to get up and see what she's up to, I hear footsteps and the next moment she's walking up to me. As I look at her, my eyes grow wide in surprise.

Hanako's standing there, her mouth clamped shut, her eyes aimed at the floor and her face red like a tomato.

She's wearing the hairclip that I gave her on our first date.

And she's holding a blanket in her hands.

A blanket!

My first thought is: 'where did she get this?'

That's kind of an irrelevant question though and it's quickly replaced by a more relevant one.

Here?

Well, assuming Hanako locked this place up already, we'll actually have more privacy here than in the girls' dorm. But still...

Here?

While I'm trying to digest this sudden turn of events, Hanako hasn't moved a single muscle, and if I don't say anything, I could easily imagine her remaining standing here all night.

Here?

On the other hand, is there a more suitable place to reconnect than the very place where we first connected with each other?

Maybe there's no need to talk at all.

As I get up from the beanbag, I realize my legs are a little shaky. While we were making out earlier, going all the way would have felt more natural than it does now. The last time we did it, it ended rather badly. I pray that we won't end up in that kind of situation again.

No point in worrying about that now.
Last edited by Guest Poster on Sat Sep 20, 2014 1:16 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Sisterhood: True Edition. Hanako epilogue I wrote. Now expanded with additional chapters.

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