[KS] The Purest Form of Love Pt 6 - Second is the Best

Nov 26th, 2013
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  1. Original Post:
  3. Focus. On what? The finish line. How do you get there? By running. And what does it take to win? Doing it faster than everyone else.
  5. “On your marks!”
  7. Get in position. Good posture and stance are essential for maximum speed on takeoff.
  9. “Get set!”
  11. Eyes on the finish line. Nothing else exists. Just me and the track in front of me. Just me alone, tearing up the tarmac.
  13. Bang!
  15. Fireworks. Flashes of colour lighting up the track. Hanako’s joyous smile. The memory of Hisao asleep with Rin. My guilt. Cheering and applause.
  17. Wait, what? Where am I?
  19. I turn in a full circle, taking in everything around me as if to reassure myself that I am still here. Where is here? The track, of course, but… the other end of it. The finishing end. And everyone is crowding around Miki.
  21. “That’s too bad. B-better luck next time!”
  23. I turn again, this time to the voice behind me. Hanako’s reassuring smile leaves me uneasy for some reason. It’s actually more of a relief seeing Rin’s ever-present neutral expression.
  25. “What happened?”
  27. Hanako cocks her head bemusedly, saying “You didn’t notice? Miki beat you.”
  29. Second? Well, that explains why everyone else is crowding around Miki. Man oh man, second place… what kind of run was that? Why can’t I remember it? I was all pumped up and ready to go, and then… and then…
  31. “Hello? Hey, Emi, are you f-feeling alright? You look a little worried.”
  33. “Yeah, I just…”
  35. “It wasn’t your leg,” Rin states matter-of-factly. “It was something else, wasn’t it?”
  37. Before I can answer, a certain messy-haired transfer student pushes through the crowd in front of us.
  39. “Hey, girls!” Hisao says. “Man, that was some race. Very impressive. Shame you didn’t win, though…”
  41. I turn away from the group and look towards Miki and the other runners, each shaking hands and exchanging congratulations amongst themselves. I feel a shiver run down my spine. That could have been me. Should have been me. What the hell happened? One second I was there on the blocks, and the next…
  43. The feeling of something being draped over my shoulders startles me back to the real world. Over my shoulder I see Hisao smile, and I realise he has given me his jacket. I suddenly can’t find the energy to thank him, or even so much as smile back.
  45. “You looked cold,” Hisao says, answering the question I hadn’t yet thought of asking.
  47. Over the PA, I hear what sounds like Misha Mikado calling the podium runners over to receive their medals. First, second and third. Miki, me, and someone else.
  49. “I have to go get my medal,” I say. “We can hang out and talk later, okay?”
  51. “Sure. We’ll probably be in the tea room for a while, right?” Hisao asks, looking to Hanako and Rin. Hanako nods in confirmation, which Hisao repeats to me. “Oh! I nearly forgot. Your mom said to tell you that she’s proud of you and that she’ll call you later.”
  53. This brings a slight smile to my face. “I thought I saw her in the stands. I’m glad she made it. Thanks.”
  55. With a casual wave I jog off to the podium to collect my medal. The prospect of second place is a frightening one, for some reason. Still, I stand tall as I stride onto the podium. I offer Miki a congratulatory handshake as she steps up above me. She returns the gesture with enthusiasm, which softens the edge of her prideful smile.
  57. I try not to look bored as the medal ceremony is performed, focusing on the shrill tones of Mikado’s voice over the loudspeaker to keep me on edge. At the back of my mind, though, I find myself constantly returning to the night of the festival.
  59. Hanako must have been pretty sad to see Hisao and Rin asleep together. Who knows how long they were while Hanako and I were out on what may as well have been a date. I guess Rin was right. I really am good at getting people together. The wrong people.
  61. When the ceremony finishes, I make my way back to my dorm. Without even a second thought I throw off my sweat-covered clothes and step into the bathroom. Unsurprisingly, it’s empty. Company isn’t usually a problem anyway, given just how much Rin and I have seen of each other, but today I’m thankful of being alone.
  63. I slide shut the frosted glass door of the shower and turn the water to as hot as I can bear. I take my time under the near-scalding spray, letting the water run over me and wash away the sweat and bad thoughts. It only really helps with the sweat, no matter how hard I scrub. Eventually even the heat of the water loses its soothing effect. Sighing, I give up, reattach my legs and step out of the shower.
  65. Wiping away the built-up steam on the mirror, I stare hard into the reflected me’s eyes. There used to be a fire there. I even notice the beginnings of dark circles forming under my eyes. I try smiling, from several angles and poses. It looks as fake as it feels. At least I can still act kinda perky, even if I don’t feel so crash hot.
  67. No more stuffing around. I dry myself off, throw on some casual clothes, and end up standing in the middle of my room, unsure of what to do now. Going for a run isn’t worth it, since I just got out of the shower. Hanako and the others are probably still at the tea room, but… I dunno if I feel like being with people right now.
  69. What time is it? The light from outside my window suggests mid- to late-afternoon. Hmm… For once, I really cannot be bothered doing anything. I flop down onto my bed, rest my hands under my head and stare up at the ceiling. Sometimes, a bit of peace and quiet is what you really need.
  71. *****
  73. Tingling. Pins and needles, running up and down my legs. It’s so intense that it’s painful. Like every nerve is on fire and chilled to the bone at the same time. It shoots from my waist to my toes and back again in an endless loop. It causes my muscles to cramp up horribly, almost to the point of tearing the skin on my joints.
  75. “Emi, are you talking to someone?”
  77. There’s an incredible weight bearing down on me. Squeezing every last drop of blood from my lower limbs. Grinding them to a horrible, bloody paste. Every moment – every heartbeat – sends bolts of red-hot iron through my body. It burns. The heat is unbearable. I can’t do this anymore. Just let me die already.
  79. “Hello? Emi, are you okay in there?”
  81. “Make it stop!”
  83. The feeling of arms wrapping around my body snaps me out of my nightmare. As the fear and panic fade, I become acutely aware of the tears running down my face and the cold, wet puddle they’ve formed on my pillow. I slowly manage to release the tension in my curled-up body, extending my limbs to their fullest. Finally, I open my eyes.
  85. “H-Hanako? What are you doing here?”
  87. The concern etched on Hanako’s face is made doubly obvious by the way her voice cracks. “You never ended up c-coming to meet up with us, s-so I came to see if you were okay, and then I h-heard yelling and c-crying and I thought that something b-bad had happened and I – ”
  89. “It’s okay. Just a bad dream. I’m fine now.”
  91. Somehow I get the feeling that Hanako isn’t convinced. Her lower lip trembles, and tears begin to well up in her eyes. In response, I do the only thing I can think of that might reassure her: I sit myself up, reaching my arms around Hanako and pulling her into a nice, tight hug. Hanako hugging me back does wonders for easing the dull throb in the back of my mind.
  93. “You sure you’re okay?” she asks. “You looked off at the t-track, before, too.”
  95. “It’s just phantom limb pains. It happens.”
  97. “It sounded pretty bad. Does it happen often?” Hanako says, releasing her grip on me and turning to sit beside me with her back to the wall. I take the chance to lean against the wall as well.
  99. “Not really. It usually happens more often around the time of the, uh… well, when ‘it’ happened. The docs had a name for why it’s like that, but I don’t remember what it was.”
  101. “Anniversary Reactions.”
  103. “Hmm?”
  105. “Anniversary Reactions. They happen to me too. Except it hasn’t been so b-bad this year. ”
  107. “You mean it’s happening now?”
  109. “Not quite… I expect it soon. But, like I said, it hasn’t been so bad. I think it’s because I’m more c-confident than I was before.”
  111. “Heh, got that right. First time we really talked, you were pretty much a blubbering mess.”
  113. Hanako scowls at me; I offer a cheesy grin in response. Rolling her eyes, Hanako slowly curls her mouth into a smirk.
  115. “I guess this makes us even, then.”
  117. Oh, is that how it’s gonna be? I lightly jab Hanako in the shoulder as punishment for her sarcastic jibes. “That’s a low blow.”
  119. “You started it,” she rebuts, poking out her tongue.
  121. “Keep that up and I’ll finish it, too. Go on, get outta here and go to bed, you smartass.”
  123. Giggling, Hanako bounds off my bed to escape my reach. “I’ll see you at lunch t-tomorrow. No more nightmares before then, okay?”
  125. “I’ll see what I can do. Night, Hanako.”
  127. “Good night, Emi.”
  129. “Oh, and Hanako?”
  131. “Hmm?”
  133. “Thanks.”
  135. Hanako slips out of my room, calling, “You’re welcome,” behind her as she closes the door. I’m actually really glad she came by. If she didn’t… that nightmare might have crippled me.
  137. And it seems Hanako gets them too? She said this was around about the time she does… If I remember right, Hanako said the fire was the night of her birthday. Which means that her birthday is coming up soon. I’ll have to remember to ask Lilly when it is.
  139. *****
  141. The cold water falling from above brings out goosebumps all over my skin. It’s not nearly as soothing as a hot shower, but it’s more effective as a post-run recovery. It’s more… refreshing, you could say. It’s a hell of a way to wake up, that’s for sure – as if running didn’t get the heart pumping enough. Still, if I stand under here much longer, I’ll catch a cold or something.
  143. Stepping out of the shower, I catch a quick glance at myself before I grab my towel. My waist seems thinner than before. It makes my hips look sharper and the hints of ribs show through my chest. Even though cold water does contract the skin, I know it isn’t because of that – I’ve lost weight. All this worrying really is taking its toll. It doesn’t help that, in spite of my best efforts, I’ve been unable to talk to Lilly alone all week. Ugh, why must Hanako always be nearby her? It makes it hard to talk about someone when they’re standing right there.
  145. I quickly dry off and get dressed, determined to head out for breakfast and scoff a calorie-laden plateful of weekend bacon. Many a tale is told by the students of Yamaku about the life-giving properties of the cafeteria’s bacon. Really all it gives them is high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease, but damned if it doesn’t taste good. Just thinking about it makes my stomach grumble.
  147. But, surprisingly, Rin is waiting outside my room.
  149. “Hello,” she says. Completely neutral, same as always.
  151. “Hi… how long were you waiting out there?”
  153. “Come with me.”
  155. Rin turns and walks without so much as offering any explanation of where we’re going or why. Typical, really. I resign myself to following her. Maybe she’ll have somewhere actually interesting to go, this time. Maybe she’ll lead me somewhere with a banquet of delicious breakfast foods. Probably not.
  157. Rin leads me out of the dorm building out to the front of the school. Hisao, Lilly and Hanako stand, waiting, just outside the gate, Hanako holding her hands behind her back as if to hide something. Hisao catches my eye and waves us over.
  159. “So, uh… what’s this about?” I ask.
  161. Hanako turns sideways slightly, revealing a small picnic basket held behind her back. “We’re having a picnic!”
  163. “I can see that, but… why?”
  165. “‘Why’? What do you mean ‘why’? Does there have be a reason to have a picnic?” Hisao rebuts, crossing his arms. “Just come.”
  167. It’s not quite weekend bacon, but, if Hanako prepared it, it’ll be just as good. I nod, which elicits a squeaky ‘yay’ from Hanako. Smiling, she leads us down the winding road away from Yamaku. Hisao and Rin follow her, leaving Lilly and I to take up the rear.
  169. The journey passes rather quickly, owing to Hanako’s excited pace. Between the walk and the small talk, I notice that Lilly appears slightly unfocused. I pay it no mind; she’s probably just a bit tired. I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t do much in the way of physical activity, so a long walk might hit her a bit harder than the rest of us.
  171. When we arrive in town, we walk several blocks until we arrive at a small park not far from the town centre. I’ve seen it before; it’s a popular spot for Yamaku students to meet up outside of school. Once we’ve selected a nice spot under a wide, leafy tree, Hanako goes about setting up the picnic. It all seems a bit suspicious.
  173. “So what’s the reason we’re out here, again?” I ask, more forcefully than before.
  175. “Rin mentioned that you two usually have celebrations after your track meets,” Hisao replies. “So I suggested we all do something.”
  177. “I guess… I dunno, this just seems like a really lame cover for a surprise birthday party. You know my birthday was months ago, right?”
  179. Hanako frowns. “It’s not that. You looked down after the race. You have for a little while.” She smiles, adding, “We just w-wanted to cheer you up.”
  181. So it was that obvious to everyone else, as well, huh? Hmm. Guilt doesn’t exactly go away with a picnic. A picnic can’t make up for the potential date I stole from Hanako. A picnic can’t make up for the day that Hisao spent with Rin instead of her. I’m the one who has to do right by Hanako, not the other way around.
  183. “Thanks, but, like I said, I’m fine. Can we change the subject?”
  185. “Okay. Just know that if you wanna t-talk about something, we’re all here to listen,” Hanako replies, giving me a knowing look. I can take the hint. She wants me to tell the others about my nightmare. I don’t think so.
  187. I nod, wearing that fake smile I practiced in the mirror. It seems to do the job, since everyone quietly goes back to eating the sandwiches Hanako prepared. Even though she packed quite a few, most of them go quite quickly. I have to make up for the lack of bacon, right? The others won’t mind if my appetite’s a little more savage than usual.
  189. Rin suddenly looks up from her food, and turns to Lilly. “Lilly. You’ve been very quiet.”
  191. Hmm… Rin’s right. Lilly hasn’t said much at all this whole time. Hanako and I look to Lilly expectantly. She shuffles about where she’s seated for a few moments, looking almost like she’s been caught doing the wrong thing. She quickly regains her composure and smiles sweetly.
  193. “My my, I suppose I have. The walk from Yamaku was rather taxing today.”
  195. The way that everyone – except Lilly for obvious reasons – exchanges glances tells me that none of us buy it. Lilly’s expression suggests that she is just as aware of our doubt. Hanako puts down her sandwich, crosses her arms and frowns.
  197. “Lilly… we’re all friends here. Us being here to listen d-doesn’t just apply to Emi, okay?”
  199. Lilly sighs, all pretences of good spirits now dropped. “I’ve been struggling with how best to inform you all. You see,” Lilly starts. She takes a deep breath before continuing, “My dear aunt is gravely ill. My sister and I will be flying out to see her soon.”
  201. Hisao speaks slowly, almost stumbling over his choice of words. “Is your aunt – well, she isn’t okay, I guess, but is she… y’know…?”
  203. “I’m not entirely sure,” Lilly replies. “She’s clearly in a serious enough condition for Akira and me to be called out to see her; that much I can gather. It may well be that it will be to say goodbye.”
  205. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” Hanako says.
  207. “Yeah… I really hope your aunt is okay.” I share a glance with Hanako, adding, “It’s… really tough thinking about the alternative.”
  209. Lilly smiles tiredly, in stark contrast to her smile before and disturbingly similar to my own. “Thank you all for your concern. I do hope very much that she will recover. However, I’m afraid I have to say that, due to my absence, I will be forced to miss your birthday, Hanako.”
  211. There it is again – Hanako’s birthday coming up in conversation. It must be soon. I know it.
  213. Hanako shakes her head in disapproval, despite Lilly’s inability to see it. “Lilly… you shouldn’t worry about something like that. I’ll have p-plenty more. There’s not much to miss, anyway…”
  215. “Nonsense. You’re just as important to me as any of my family.”
  217. For a second, it almost feels like the conversation is headed the way of that night at my house several weeks ago. That feeling disappears as soon as Rin speaks. “Wait, so let me get this straight. You can fly? And your sister too?”
  219. The rest of us can’t help but to laugh at such an absurd question. Rin’s expression remains neutral, as if the possibility of someone flying is a completely sensible question to ask.
  221. “Heavens, no. I don’t imagine I would do so even if that were the case,” Lilly replies, unable to keep a genuine smile off of her face. “No, my aunt lives in Scotland, you see. My sister, Akira, and I will be travelling via aeroplane to see her.”
  223. Rin snorts in a way that sort of acts as the vocal equivalent of one of her shrugs. “It would have been more interesting if you could fly.”
  225. The conversation dies out immediately after Rin stops talking. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Luckily, Hisao manages to break the awkward silence.
  227. “So, I noticed we’re out of snacks. Should we pack up?”
  229. “Yes, I believe we should. I do have homework to attend to, and I’m sure you all do, too,” Lilly says.
  231. “Pfft, it’s just homework,” I retort. “Still, we probably should get going. I just had a run this morning, but I reckon I’ll have to go again this afternoon to work off those awesome sandwiches.”
  233. “You’re welcome,” Hanako chirps.
  235. “Then it’s settled. I’m glad we could all hang out like this. It was fun,” Hisao says.
  237. With that, we all start packing up the picnic stuff and make our way back to Yamaku. On the way up the hill, Lilly again drops to the back of the group. I gradually allow myself to fall back with her. Neither Hanako, Hisao nor Rin take any notice of just how far behind we are. This is as good an opportunity as I’m gonna get.
  239. “Hey, Lilly,” I whisper. “I need to ask you something.”
  241. “Hmm? Emi, why are you whispering?”
  243. “Keep it down, will ya? It’s about Hanako. I’m trying to make sure they can’t hear us.”
  245. “Oh, of course, my apologies.” Now whispering, Lilly continues, “What is it that you wanted to ask?”
  247. “I was wondering when exactly Hanako’s birthday is. It’d be soon, right?”
  249. “That’s correct – the tenth of July, to be precise. It’s the Tuesday after next, I believe.”
  251. “Okay, so a bit over a week. Perfect. When’s your flight?”
  253. “We’ll be departing on the afternoon of Sunday the first. It was to be Saturday but our flight was cancelled. Emi, I must say this conversation sounds like you’re trying to plan something.”
  255. Damn, she’s perceptive. “Yeah. I wanted to do something nice for Hanako, since she’s recently been really, uh… supportive of me, I guess?”
  257. “Oh my, is something troubling you? I’d thought you seemed somewhat distracted, and with the rather spontaneous discussion today…”
  259. “No, I – well, yes, technically, but this isn’t about me… Anyway! She happened to mention it was her birthday soon, and then you mentioned it today, so I thought…”
  261. Lilly frowns, holding up her finger to interrupt me. “I can see where you’re going with this. I feel I should tell you that Hanako doesn’t tend to do anything for her birthday. In fact, quite the opposite; she tries as much as possible to ensure that nothing happens at all. I believe it is related to the – well, I’m sure you know what I mean.”
  263. “Yeah,” I sigh, recalling Hanako’s vivid description of the fire that claimed her parents. “I do.”
  265. “Yes, well… history suggests that organising a birthday event might not sit well with her.”
  267. “I’d been thinking about that. What if she didn’t know?”
  269. “Oh?” Lilly says, arching her eyebrows. “A surprise? For Hanako, of all people? Emi, I’m afraid you haven’t thought this through very much at all.”
  271. “C’mon, don’t write me off just yet. I might not be the smartest girl but I’m not dumb.” Lilly opens her mouth to protest, but I continue regardless. “The birthday is the only part that needs to be a surprise. If she expects people anyway, it won’t be a shock, right?”
  273. “Hmm… I’m quite intrigued. Please, continue.”
  275. “So, if we organise a ‘going away party’ for you and your sister and invite a few people to arrive before Hanako, it’d work… I think.”
  277. “I see… This is an interesting proposition, but where might you host such a party? There’s hardly enough space in any of our dorm rooms to fit much more than the five of us, and I’d be disinclined to believe that people would take too kindly to a party in the common room unless they were invited.”
  279. Lilly does have a point. It’d have to be somewhere spacious, that won’t attract attention, and that Hanako is familiar with. Somewhere like…
  281. “How about my house? It’s only a city-bound bus ride away, and Hanako’s been there before.”
  283. “Are you sure? Your family wouldn’t mind?
  285. “Nah, Mom’s cool. She likes Hanako, so I reckon she’ll be happy to have people over for her.”
  287. “Very well. Still, please ask her before you organise anything. Let me know over the phone –”
  289. “Nice of you two to catch up!” Hisao calls, leaning against the wall surrounding the school. Hanako and Rin stand by his side. We’re back this quickly? And the others were back before us, even. Damn, I thought Lilly and I would have had longer to talk.
  291. “Nice of you lot to wait, smartass!” I retort.
  293. “We’re waiting, aren’t we?” he counters, which makes Hanako giggle. In contrast, Rin lets out a slight “heh”.
  295. “Ah, shaddup,” I grumble, punctuating it with a jab to Hisao’s shoulder. “You know what I meant.”
  297. He shrugs, clearly not denying it. “So, is this it? We’re really calling it a day for homework? It’s only, like, eleven in the morning.”
  299. “Homework is a responsibility all students must bear,” Lilly says. “Leaving it until the last minute to spend time with friends would be irresponsible, no?”
  301. “Probably. Yet here we are.”
  303. “Well I don’t know what you’re all so worried about,” Rin says. “I don’t even have homework.”
  305. “What?” I turn to her with a questioning look. That can’t be right. “Yes you do.”
  307. “Really? How do you know?”
  309. “We’re in the same class. If I have homework, then you do too.”
  311. “Huh.” Rin shrugs, gazing vacantly into the distance. “Maybe I do, then. I’m going to bed. Goodbye.”
  313. Without so much as a second glance, Rin wanders off in the general direction of the girls’ dorms.
  315. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to R-Rin,” Hanako mumbles.
  317. “That makes two of us,” I sigh, throwing my arm over Hanako’s shoulder in a sort of half-hug. “Well, the longer we stand around out here, the less time we have for homework…”
  319. “You don’t actually mean that, d-do you?”
  321. “Nah. I might do a bit, though, just so I can say I tried.”
  323. “Please do more than simply ‘try’,” Lilly chides. “Nevertheless, Emi, you are right. There’ll be plenty of time for us to talk later.” I notice a slight stress on the ‘talk later’. I take it as a reminder to continue the discussion with her about Hanako’s birthday party.
  325. Reluctantly, the four of us head back to our dorms; Hisao being the first to part ways as we pass the boys’ dorm building. Soon after, I’m back in the peace and quiet of my room.
  327. I stretch out on my bed and relax for a good few minutes before I decide I shouldn’t keep putting it off. I fish out my phone from my pocket and hit the speed dial for mom. It rings a few times before the woman on the other end picks up.
  329. “Hello~?”
  331. “Hi, mom. It’s Emi.”
  333. “Emi dear, how nice of you to call! I hear far too little from you these days, you know?”
  335. “Yeah, my bad. So, uh… is it okay if I have a few friends over for Hanako’s birthday?”
  337. Mom’s squeal of glee on the other end forces me to hold the phone away from my ear. “Oh, goodness, is it her birthday? How sweet of you to organise a party for her. I’ll have to bake her a cake, and –”
  339. “Mom, please…”
  341. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just so cute, I couldn’t help myself.”
  343. “Uh huh. So… is it okay?”
  345. “Oh, yes, friends coming over. Certainly, you can bring your little friends around. How many guests are we expecting?”
  347. “Uh… I’m not sure. I haven’t asked anyone yet.”
  349. “Never mind then, we can sort that out later. When were you planning to do this, by the way? I’ll have to make sure I’m home.”
  351. “Y’know what, I actually don’t know that either. This was kind of a spur of the moment idea.”
  353. “Goodness, Emi, you can’t very well organise a party without knowing when it is or who’s going.”
  355. “Yeah, I know. I just – it’s meant to be a surprise, so I figured I should get clearance before I start sneaking around.”
  357. “A surprise party? That’s just deliciously cute. Of course you can have it here. Just be sure to let me know the details as soon as possible, okay? Don’t leave it til the last minute~.”
  359. “I won’t, mom. I’ll talk to you later.”
  361. “Bye bye, dear.”
  363. Hanging up my phone, I roll myself up to a sitting position. That’s the venue dealt with. Now to tell Lilly… she said ‘talk later’, but didn’t say how. Texting is out of the question, obviously, but did she want me to call her? I think I have her number… Yeah. Good. But what if she’s not alone yet? I’d better give her some time. And make a start on this homework while I wait.
  365. …Nope, this isn’t working. A glance at my alarm clock tells me that I’ve been staring at the first question for half an hour. Stupid English. It may as well be gibberish. How can Lilly be so good at it? Wait a sec… that’s it!
  367. Feverishly I reclaim my phone and hit the call button next to Lilly’s number. It doesn’t take long for her to pick up.
  369. “Hello?”
  371. “Hi, Lilly, are you busy?”
  373. “I’m completing some homework, but nothing major.”
  375. “So Hanako’s not there with you?”
  377. “That’s right.”
  379. “Great. Would you mind stopping by? I could do with your help.”
  381. “Yes, of course. I’ll be there shortly.”
  383. “Awesome, thanks. Seeya.”
  385. Once again, I hang up my phone. It doesn’t take long for Lilly to arrive. It’s not really a surprise, given that our dorms are in the same building, and not that far apart. A controlled knock announces her arrival.
  387. “The door’s unlocked.”
  389. Lilly slips in through the doorway and shuts the door behind her, locking it just in case. With her relative unfamiliarity with my room, I do Lilly the favour of leading her to the seat at my desk. Taking a second to compose herself, Lilly speaks up.
  391. “You spoke to your mother, I take it?”
  393. “Yeah. We’re all clear to have people over.”
  395. “Excellent news. I suppose, then, that we should organise the details of this party. When were you intending to hold it?”
  397. “Uh… well, a party on a school night could be difficult.”
  399. “Yes, the night staff certainly wouldn’t appreciate a breach of curfew.”
  401. “Right. So, I was thinking maybe Saturday afternoon to evening. And night, maybe? There’s plenty of room for people to stay over.”
  403. “That sounds like the best plan. Keep in mind that Akira and I depart the next afternoon, so we shouldn’t be out too late.”
  405. “Yeah, yeah, of course. It’s not like we’re gonna be out on the town all night or anything.”
  407. “Very good. Now, the most important part is probably the guest list. It’s not too presumptuous to assume that Akira and I will be invited, given the cover story?”
  409. “And Rin, Hisao and me, obviously. But who else?”
  411. Lilly pauses, furrowing her brow in concentration. “Is that… really necessary? I mean, this is only meant to be a small thing, yes? So as not to startle Hanako.”
  413. “It’s a birthday party, Lilly. You gotta have your friends at your birthday, right?”
  415. “Certainly, but we will be there.”
  417. “Oh come on, we’re not Hanako’s only friends anymore. You know, she’s been speaking to Natsume and Naomi in her class. She might even join the Newspaper Club with them.”
  419. “I suppose you’re right. Miss Enomoto in second year also happened to mention that Hanako had stopped by the Fashion Club.”
  421. This takes me somewhat by surprise. I didn’t realise Hanako had it in her. “Really? She seemed pretty hesitant to take Saki up on her modelling offer at the festival.”
  423. “Yes, Hanako did speak to me about that. For the record, she declined. But, perhaps in the future…”
  425. “Hmm, fair enough. So, why not invite them? Natsume, Naomi and Saki, I mean? I’m sure Hanako’d appreciate it.”
  427. “If you insist. This is your event, after all.”
  429. “Great! I’ll go out and invite everyone during the week. I’ll make sure mom cleans up, and she’s already planning a nice cake…”
  431. “Wonderful.” Standing up and stepping towards the door, Lilly adds, “Now, unless there’s something else, I’d better be going.”
  433. “Yeah; actually, it’s the reason I asked you over here in the first place… do you think you could help me with my English homework?”
  435. Retracting her hand, which she had outstretched towards the door handle, Lilly smiles. “Of course.”
  437. *****
  439. Monday. It begins. Today I seek out everyone that Hanako could call her friend, and invite them to a surprise birthday party. First thing’s first.
  441. “Rin! Are you awake?”
  443. Through the rapping of my knuckles on her door, I can hear Rin grumbling a response.
  445. “GoawayEmifivemoreminutes…”
  447. Calling out “not a chance, lazybum!”, I open the door to Rin’s room and step inside. As I suspected, she’s still curled up on her bed. She’s also completely unable to shield her eyes – beyond scrunching them shut – as I throw open the blinds.
  449. “Whyyyyy?” Rin groans, kicking under her sheets.
  451. “You know why. Time to get up for class!”
  453. “I’m not going. Too tired.”
  455. I frown, putting my hands on my hips. “Oh yes you are. Besides, I have something important to ask you.”
  457. Rin opens her eyes, looking at me through a squint in suspicion. “Go on…”
  459. “Not until you get out of bed. And you have to keep it a secret.”
  461. “I’m good at keeping secrets,” Rin says after a few seconds of consideration, kicking off her sheets and sitting upright on her bed.
  463. “Yes, I know,” I reply as I slip Rin’s old shirt up over her head. Oh, she must have forgotten to wear a bra again yesterday. As comfortable with nudity as I am, it’s still a little embarrassing having Rin’s chest exposed right in front of me. At least I’ve gotten sorta used to it after all this time. It never seemed to bother Rin. “I was wondering if you were busy this weekend. Saturday in particular.”
  465. Rin scrunches up her face in concentration, even as I clip on her bra – a plain white one, as usual – and begin buttoning up a new uniform shirt. “I don’t think so. Is that the secret?”
  467. “Uh, no. Stand up?”
  469. Rin does as she’s asked, allowing me to pull down her panties. I’ll never get used to this part. I’m pretty sure she could do all this herself, anyway, if she wasn’t so airheaded. Or lazy. I shut my eyes to give Rin as much privacy as possible as I pull a fresh set on.
  471. “Actually, I wanted to invite you to a secret birthday party at my house, for Hanako,” I continue, pulling a pair of the uniform pants up Rin’s legs.
  473. “Oh. Yes.”
  475. “Yes?”
  477. “Yes I’ll go. Hanako’s a nice girl. But she makes me hungry sometimes.”
  479. In surprise, I miss poking the button on Rin’s pants through its hole. “You shouldn’t say that. It’s rude.”
  481. “Okay.”
  483. “Anyway, great! I’ll let you know later about the details, after I’ve invited everyone else. And don’t forget to keep it a secret. No telling anyone. Is that alright?”
  485. “Sure.”
  487. “Awesome. C’mon, get your sandals. Let’s go to class.”
  489. One down, five to go.
  491. *****
  493. The first periods of the day come to a close, and students begin filing out of their rooms for lunch. Room 3-3 isn’t far away, but I need to be there as soon as possible to minimise any chance of missing the dynamic duo from the Newspaper Club. Hopefully, I can do so without running into –
  495. “So, I just have to fill this out?” Hanako asks, looking at a sheet of paper; some kind of form, clearly.
  497. The blonde girl seated the desk next to her enthusiastically nods her head. “Uh huh~, then slip it in at the Student Council office and it’ll all be, like, official. Easy peasy~!”
  499. Her brown-haired friend at the next desk over notices my arrival. “Hello Emi.”
  501. “Hey Natsume, Naomi.”
  503. Surprised, Hanako turns to face me. “Oh, Emi. W-what are you doing here?”
  505. Oh, crap. Uh, quick, think of something.
  507. “I… was just running some errands. How about you?”
  509. “Um… Natsume and Naomi were giving me this form.”
  511. “It’s to join the Newspaper Club~!” Naomi chimes. “Turns out your li’l pep talk at the festival won over Hanako here. Isn’t that great?”
  513. “Yeah, it is.” I throw a thumbs-up to emphasize the point. “Good on you, Hanako.”
  515. Hanako shuffles her feet, playing with the form nervously. “I haven’t joined yet… don’t get ahead yourselves. I might not even be any g-good at it.”
  517. “You’ll be fine,” Natsume says. “You’re good with computers. I’ve seen you.”
  519. “And we’ll give you loads~ of help, too!” Naomi adds.
  521. “Thanks a lot. I’ll try my best,” Hanako says, smiling. “I’m g-gonna head over to the tea room. Are you coming, Emi?”
  523. “Uh… I’ve gotta finish these errands first. I’ll catch up with you later.”
  525. “Okay. See you later.”
  527. “Yeah, see ya.”
  529. Hanako walks out of the classroom at a noticeably quicker pace, struggling to contain the skip in her step. She really must be pretty excited. I keep my eye firmly trained on the door for several seconds after she exits through it, just in case she comes back.
  531. I can feel the girls staring into my back, so, feeling secure enough that Hanako isn’t returning any time soon, I whirl back around to Naomi and Natsume, pull up a chair and sit on it backwards.
  533. “Okay, let’s talk business. Are you guys free after class on Saturday?”
  535. “I think so… we didn’t have anything planned, did we?” Naomi answers, looking to Natsume, who shakes her head in response. “Nope. We’re totally~ free!”
  537. “Great! How would you two like to come to my house to throw a surprise birthday party for Hanako?”
  539. “Oooh, I love~ surprise parties! Yes, yes, yes, we’ll absolutely go!”
  541. “Do we need a present?” Natsume asks.
  543. A present? Damn, I hadn’t even thought of that. I don’t even have one myself. And it sure as hell is short notice to go shopping. If only I’d planned this sooner…
  545. “Uh… if you want, I guess. I didn’t really think of that.”
  547. “Oh come on, Emi, you can’t have a birthday party without presents!” Naomi chides.
  549. “It would be unusual.”
  551. “Okay, okay, get a present. Just be quiet about it, alright? It’s a surprise. Keep it secret.”
  553. “We can do that.” Natsume scribbles on a page of her notebook then tears it out, adding, “These are our cell phone numbers. Send one or both of us a message about the details.”
  555. “Sure. Thanks a lot, really. I’m glad you’ll come. It’ll make Hanako’s day.”
  557. “It’s our privilege~! Thank you for inviting us.”
  559. “No problem. Now I’ve gotta run, I need to find Saki Enomoto from the Fashion Club. See yas.”
  561. Natsume catches my sleeve as I turn to leave the room. Without any explanation other than “Wait here,” Natsume approaches a somewhat familiar looking girl nearby and shares a few words, before returning to her seat.
  563. “Misaki Kawana, our photographer. Enomoto had her take the photos at the yukata stall at the festival. She says you can usually find Enomoto in room two-seven after school.”
  565. “Oh, thanks a bunch! See you later – for real this time.”
  567. “Buh-bye~!” Naomi calls as I leave the room.
  569. Two-seven. That must be the Fashion Club’s room. But they don’t meet until after school. Well, that’s easy enough; and it gives me time to have some lunch instead of running around, looking for Saki. Awesome. I could really go for some relaxing tea. Not that I’d ever admit it. To the tea room!
  571. *****
  573. As the bell signalling the end of the day rings out, students across the school make their way over to their various after-school activities. Some wander off to do whatever takes their fancy while others attend organised gatherings, much like the students now milling about in room two-seven. Peeking my head through the door, I spot Saki fitting a paper pattern to one of the other students.
  575. “Can I help you?”
  577. The unexpected interruption makes me jump a little. Stepping away from the door, I notice a girl standing next to me, carrying an armful of fabric in various colours.
  579. “I was just looking for Saki Enomoto.”
  581. “She’s here. Get the door?”
  583. I oblige, holding open the door while the girl steps through. With her clear of the doorway, I follow her inside. She carefully lays out the fabrics into several small piles before leading me over to Saki.
  585. “Saki? This girl wants to speak to you.”
  587. Saki looks up from her work, holding several pins in her mouth. “Hmm? Oh, Emi, wasn’t it? I’ll be just a moment.” She carefully slips the remaining pins through the paper, ensuring a correct fit, before standing and dusting off her skirt. “What can I do for you? Did you want another copy of your festival photos?”
  589. “No thanks. One set for mom to fawn over is plenty. I actually wanted to talk to you about Hanako.”
  591. “Ah, of course. She’s a lovely girl. I’m quite disappointed that she decided not to join us in the Fashion Club.”
  593. “Who knows, maybe she’ll change her mind in time.”
  595. “I should hope so.” Gesturing towards a sketchbook on the table next to her, Saki continues, “Seeing her all dressed up has inspired a good few designs in the days since.”
  597. I look over the drawings, each one coloured in dark purple with hints of white. “So I can see. Anyway, would you be interested in coming to a surprise birthday party for her this Saturday?”
  599. “Is it her birthday? Oh my, I had no idea. I’d be happy to attend. When and where might this party be held, may I ask?”
  601. “It’ll be at my house, in the city, around dinner time. Did you want me write down the details?
  603. “It might be a better idea to send them to me via text message. I have a great many pieces of paper as it is, I’m afraid; it might get lost amidst the clutter.”
  605. “Sure, I can do that.” The two of us exchange phone numbers, bringing up three new contacts in one day. From what I hear, this is a daily occurrence for Lilly.
  607. “Okay, that’s easy. I’ll message you the details soon. Oh, and, I know this really, really short notice, but do you think you could figure out a present? I wasn’t stressing that sort of thing but Natsume and Naomi from the Newspaper Club decided to get one, so…”
  609. “It won’t be a problem. I think I have the perfect thing in mind.”
  611. “Oh, neat. Well that saves some trouble. Alrighty, I’ll catch you later!”
  613. “Ta ta~!”
  615. Four down, two to go. Just gotta invite Hisao then tell Hanako about our “going away party”. I dunno where Hisao’s dorm room is, so maybe I’ll have to ask him tomorrow. No biggie.
  617. I may as well head back to my room. I can get changed and go for a run, if the track isn’t too busy. I’m pretty sure the Soccer Club runs tonight, and they usually only use the field at the centre. Sounds like a plan.
  619. “Hello.”
  621. Goddamn! What is with people and surprising me today? They’re gonna give me a heart attack.
  623. “Rin, who are you – oh, it’s Emi. Hi.”
  625. Standing outside the art room are Rin and Hisao. It’s odd that Hisao would be here, unless…
  627. “You’re in the Art Club?”
  629. “Who, me?” Hisao asks. “Uh… yeah. I mean, sort of. I just tagged along with Rin a couple times.”
  631. “Huh. Wouldn’t have had you pegged for an artist.”
  633. “Well, I’m not, really. But hey, maybe this can change that. The teacher is a bit weird, though.”
  635. “Nomiya? Yeah, he weirds me out, too. I dunno how Rin puts up with him.”
  637. “I just forget about him. I’m good at forgetting,” Rin answers, looking at something in the distance.
  639. Both Hisao and I stand, shocked. For once, Rin actually gave us a straight answer. If only someone had recorded that moment as proof. No one would ever believe us.
  641. “What?” she asks, apparently completely unaware of the significance of what she said.
  643. Shaking my head to clear out my thoughts, I answer, “Nothing.” I pause briefly to regather myself, then continue, “What are you two doing now?”
  645. “I was just gonna go back to my dorm, I guess,” Hisao answers. “Maybe do some homework? I got slapped with a bunch more this morning.”
  647. “Same. Walk together?”
  649. “Sure.”
  651. Together, Hisao, Rin and I head out of the school building. The afternoon sun still has a bit of heat to it, leading to many of the students outside taking shelter under the shade of the many trees around the grounds. As we approach the dorm buildings, Hisao tenses up and whispers, “Oh man. Act casual. Follow my lead.”
  653. Before I can so much as begin to question what he means, or why, a black-haired boy with glasses and altogether too many layers of clothing spots us.
  655. “Hisao? That you?”
  657. “Yeah, Kenji, it’s me.”
  659. “I’ve been looking for you, son. I almost thought they got you. Wait, who’s with you? I don’t recognise ‘em.”
  661. “Uh… this is Rin and Emi.”
  663. “Emi? Emi Ibarazaki?”
  665. “Yup, that’s right!” I answer, perhaps a little too enthusiastically as Hisao groans audibly when I do. Kenji looks in my general direction and frowns deeply for several seconds, tapping his chin in thought.
  667. “Hisao, a word.”
  669. Shrugging, Hisao steps over to his companion, leaning in for a whisper. Kenji makes no such effort to conceal his voice.
  671. “What are you doing, man? That girl’s a feminist! And a high-ranking one at that! Have you seen her legs? They’re fake, man! Fake! Who knows what weapons of mass destruction she’s concealing in there?”
  673. What? This kid is nuts. I look to Rin, who seems to be listening intently with a smirk on her face.
  675. “Um… about that. I’m… undercover. Yeah. I’m working on bringing her over to our side.”
  677. “Huh. You’re a smart man, Hisao. You’ve got balls. I like that. What about the other one? Rin.”
  679. “Rin is… undercover with me. Top brass assigned us to the same target.”
  681. “It’s true,” Rin calls out. Kenji glares at us before turning back to Hisao.
  683. “He’s not very subtle, is he?”
  685. “Actually, Rin is –”
  687. “No matter. He’s clearly an agent-in-training. He’s got a good mentor. Train him well.”
  689. Apparently done with their ‘secret’ conversation, Kenji brings Hisao back over to Rin and me. All of a sudden he seems much more hospitable.
  691. “Apologies for that, Miss Ibarazaki. How are you?”
  693. “Uh… fine, I guess?”
  695. “Very good. I must be going. I have to prepare for the weekend. Things to buy, forts to build, you know.”
  697. “Okay then… oh! Hisao, that reminds me, are you doing anything this weekend?”
  699. “I don’t think so, why? Got something in mind?”
  701. “Yeah. I’m hosting a surprise birthday party for Hanako on Saturday. Wanna come?”
  703. Before Hisao can answer, Kenji steps back to the group and cuts him off.
  705. “Woah woah woah, what’s this about surprise parties?”
  707. “It’s a cover,” Hisao quickly says. “For… a sting operation. Emi’s in on it. If it all goes to plan, we can bust this thing wide open.”
  709. “A sting op, you say? Hmm. I want in.”
  711. “I dunno if that’s a good idea… there’s gonna be a load of feminists there, armed to the teeth. Right?”
  713. “Uh huh,” I confirm. “Loads of feminists. Lots of weapons. Very dangerous.”
  715. “Bah,” Kenji scoffs. “‘Danger’ is my middle name.”
  717. “Really?” Rin asks. I can only hope she’s being sarcastic.
  719. “Yes, as a matter of fact. Actually, it’s my codename, but I shouldn’t tell you that.”
  721. “You just did.”
  723. “…You’re a sharp one, Rin. Very wily. I should have given you more credit. Hisao! You’ve done well training this young lad.”
  725. “Thanks…?” Hisao says. I’m about as confused as he is right now.
  727. “Anyway, back to this operation. What’s the go?”
  729. “You’ll have to be in the advance party,” I say. “Infiltrating the group from the inside. You’ll hold down the fort, under intense scrutiny, until Hisao and his team arrive. Are you man enough to handle that risk?”
  731. “Fuck yeah I am! Is that even a question? Who better to lead the male race to victory against the forces of feminism and misandry? Oh man, I can’t wait to see their faces as their plans come unravelled! I need to change my preparations. I must go! Hisao, fill me in with the plan tonight. Godspeed!”
  733. Saluting dramatically, Kenji then scampers off in the general direction of the school gate, zigzagging between trees and bins as if they were cover in a gunfight. He almost doesn’t even notice the dozens of students looking questioningly at him as he runs past.
  735. “What the hell just happened?” I ask.
  737. “If I knew, I would tell you. Kenji is… kind of insane.”
  739. Rin chuckles heartily. “I like him. He’s funny.”
  741. “And we just invited him to my house for Hanako’s birthday. This can’t possibly go well.”
  743. “We can’t just uninvite him now,” Hisao sighs. “Not since you said he could be in the advance party. Is there even an advance party?”
  745. “Actually, yeah. Natsume, Naomi, Saki and my mom. And Kenji too, apparently.”
  747. “Oh god, they’re all women. He’s gonna kill them. Your house is going to be a crime scene.”
  749. “Come on, he’s obviously a little deluded but he’s not that bad, is he?” Hisao just stares at me with a frown. “Okay, point taken. I’ll tell mom to have the police on speed dial.”
  751. “I hope it won’t come to that. And, since I was so rudely interrupted before, yes, I’ll go. Actually, Lilly invited me earlier today. I was gonna go present shopping with her after school tomorrow.”
  753. “Damn, what is with people and presents? I’d thought at such short notice no one would bother.”
  755. “You can’t have a birthday party without presents,” Rin says.
  757. “So I’ve been told. Well, okay. I’ll figure something out from myself as well.” Turning to Hisao, I add, “If there’s anything you need to know, we can talk about it tomorrow, alright?”
  759. “No problem. Just one question; how are we getting Hanako to this thing without arousing her suspicion?”
  761. “Already got it covered. We’re gonna tell her that I’m hosting a going away party for Lilly and her sister.”
  763. “So does that make it a going away party covering for a surprise party covering for a sting operation?” Rin chuckles.
  765. “It’s not actually a – y’know what? Never mind. Yes. It is. You laugh at that. I’m going to go for a run. I’ll see you two tomorrow.”
  767. Over Rin’s continued laughter, Hisao calls out “See you.”
  769. What have I got myself into?
  771. *****
  773. Lunch time. Moment of truth. Any minute now, the others will arrive at the tea room. Most importantly, Hanako will be arriving. Everything else is sorted. Details messaged to invitees, presents organised, mom informed… all that remains is to invite Hanako. With how well everything has gone so far, I almost expect it to go belly-up right at the last minute.
  775. The possible ways this could happen start flooding through my mind. What if Hanako is busy? She’s not usually busy. What if she figures it out? Well, she’d probably still pretend to be surprised. What if… what if she doesn’t like it? No. There’s no considering that. I know Hanako. She’ll appreciate it.
  777. Rin wanders into the tea room, somehow taking nearly twice as long as me to arrive. Shortly afterwards, Lilly, Hisao, and – thankfully – Hanako appear at the door. Play it cool. There certainly isn’t any big conspiracy here, just an innocent going away party.
  779. “Would you like some tea, Emi?” Hanako asks as the others take their seats.
  781. “Buhhh…”
  783. “What?”
  785. Oh god, what the fuck was that? Get it together, woman. No gibberish allowed.
  787. “Uh, yes please.”
  789. Hanako goes about preparing tea for us all, while I fidget in my chair, twiddling my fingers. Goddamnit, why am I so nervous? Hanako placing my tea in front of me nearly makes me jump out of my chair.
  791. “Thanks.”
  793. “You’re welcome.”
  795. I take a long sip of the brew, in spite of its heat. It serves to settle my thoughts, at least a little.
  797. “So, Hanako. I was talking to Lilly, and…”
  799. “I know.”
  801. “You do?”
  803. “Yeah. I saw you coming back from the p-picnic, remember? I understand if you wanna to talk to Lilly. She’s a good listener.”
  805. “Huh? No, that’s not – I wasn’t talking about anything like that. We were organising a going away party before Lilly and Akira leave.”
  807. Hanako looks up from her tea curiously. “Oh? That sounds like a g-good idea. It’s really sweet.”
  809. “Yeah. I was thinking you could all come over to my place for dinner on Saturday. Mom said it was okay. What do you think?”
  811. “I’d love to. Is everyone else coming?”
  813. “Of course we will,” Hisao says. “What kind of friends would we be if we didn’t?”
  815. “I don’t know,” Rin answers. Apparently rhetorical questions go over her head. “What kind would we be?”
  817. “Now, now, let’s not be critical,” Lilly chides. “I’m flattered that you’d organise something like this at all, much less attend.”
  819. “Then it’s settled. We’ll take the afternoon bus to the city, walk to my place and party til we’re purple. Sound good?”
  821. My companions unanimously nod in agreement. I can’t help but smile. It’s a genuine smile, wide and toothy like usual. It feels really good. It’s the best I’ve felt in a while. And it’s only going to get better from here.
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