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Class of 2017 (Part One)

FluffandCrunch Jul 19th, 2012 7,474 Never
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  1. “Hisao, are you ready yet?”
  3. I mumble something nonsensical from within my fortress.
  5. “Hisao?”
  6. “Mmhmmph!”
  7. “What ever are you doing?”
  9. A pair of hands touch tentatively on the pillow over my face and press it down slightly in investigation. The pillow is lifted from my head, my wife tossing it aside.
  11. Lilly sighs, a disappointed look on her pretty features.  
  13. “You're not going to avoid this, Hisao. We're all going together, whether you like it or not.“
  15. I glare at her from the bed, my dress shirt itching terribly. “I'm not going. It makes no sense and it's a waste of time and money.“ I know I sound like a plaintive child, but it's true.
  17. Lilly laces her fingers together in front of her, her lips pursed in disapproval.  “It's important! It's a chance to meet all our old friends again.“
  19. “I get to meet all my old friends every day at work, at least the ones I want too. I live with two of them! Why would I want to go back to work during my vacation to see the people I spend every day at work with? It makes no sense!“
  21. I grab another pillow and put it over my head, dampening any rebuttal on Lilly's part.
  23. "Uhm noht goihin!" I mumble at her.
  25. This time Lilly grabs the pillow away from me and swings where my head approximately should be located, scoring a light hit before I scoot out of the way.
  27. “Hisao Nakai, you will be going if Hanako and I have to drag you there ourselves!“
  29. I playfully growl at her as I sprawl out across our bed. “You're such a slave driver! Almost as bad as Shizune,” I mutter under my breath.
  31. I duck the awkwardly hurled pillow and it bounces off the wall.
  33. I chuckle and crawl across the bed towards Lilly, eying my wife up and down lasciviously.
  35. “Why are you in such a hurry? You're not even dressed! At least I hope you're not planning on wearing that to the reunion; what would the Yamaku Foundation think?“
  37. Lilly crosses her arms and taps her foot impatiently. She cuts a quite an attractive figure, standing there in her undergarments, white and lacy against her pale skin. “Are you thinking dirty thoughts...?”
  39. I chuckle at her and lay on my back, enjoying the view of her immensely. “You put them there, Lilly. You're standing in front of me in stockings and panties. If I wasn't thinking dirty thoughts about you, I would be a terrible husband.“
  41. Lilly smiles and steps towards me, the front of her white, lacy panties barely brushing against my bangs. She leans over me and runs her fingers through my hair, a little smile on her face as she does.
  43. “You know,” I suggest, “we could just blow the whole thing off and stay home tonight. I can think of a few things we could do to pass the time. I promise, you won't be thinking about Yamaku at all.“
  45. She plays with my earlobes and giggles coyly. “Oh, really? What exactly did you have in mind for me?”
  47. She leans over, her unbound hair falling around my eyes, the long gold locks caressing my cheeks with the soft touch of a hundred tiny kisses. I can smell her perfume surround me as she leans in closer, her fingers caressing my face and her lips just barely meeting mine, painfully and achingly close. With a feather soft touch, her tongue just barely makes contact with my lips, dragging across my mouth, tasting slowly, tempting me with it's softness.
  49. This is going to be a good night, I think to myself as I begin to react to Lilly's touch.
  51. She pecks me quickly on the lips and walks away, abandoning me in the midst of a harsh, full stop, leaving me blinking and feeling unfulfilled.
  53. “Come along, we don't want to be late now,” she giggles back at me over her shoulder.
  55. She leaves me on the bed and heads to the bathroom where I can already hear Hanako preparing for the so-called festivities. Left to my personal frustrations, I consider throwing a pillow at my wife's back, but that strikes me as being both ungentlemanly and unfair.
  57. Falling back onto the bed, I stare upwards, blowing a long, slow sigh as I study the tiny dots on the textured ceiling. “Fine, I'll go. It still doesn't make sense, though.”
  59. Hanako speaks up from the bathroom as she and Lilly prepare. "Hisao, this isn't just for us, you know. The Yamaku reunions show the Foundation that their money is being well spent. They get to see the effect their donations have on the students and how the school helped them.“
  61. “More like a zoo or circus, if you ask me!” I whine.  “I don't like being put on display for them. If they really wanted to see how the school helps students, the Foundation is more than welcome to stop in any day of the week and take a seat in my class. Why should the school spend all this money to try and impress them? It's nothing more than a popularity contest to those people. They get to brag about how much good they do and throw their money around and look impressive to each other!“
  63. Hanako sticks her head out the door, a makeup brush in her hand and a little, half rosy glow on her cheek.
  64. “You know as well as I do by the end of the night each and every one of them is going to be writing a big check for the school. You may not like it, but it's good for Yamaku and good for our students.“
  66. From inside the bathroom, I hear Lilly speak up. “In addition, my family happens to be among 'those people' who contribute to the school. I have to be there to represent them.”
  68. Hanako gives me a smile and lightly stabs at me with the brush, punctuating Lilly's point, before disappearing back into the bathroom.
  70. I scoff back at her but I'm sure she doesn't hear me. It doesn't have any effect on the argument, but it makes me feel better at least.
  72. Staring up at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of the girls preparing, the shuffling of makeup and the running water in the sink nearby, boredom swiftly overtakes me. I shuffle over to the side of the bed and sit upright, picking up from the nightstand Lilly's music box. I hold it up and twist it in my hands idly, knowing every carving and contour by heart at this point. The antique wood is finely smoothed down from years of being handled and every nick or dent that it's collected over the past decade has some private and secret meaning for the two of us.
  74. Three of us, I remind myself, still a little unused to the idea.
  76. The music box has broken twice before and I spent a considerable amount of time and effort fixing it, hours spent painfully bent over the delicate machine with special tools designed to handle the tiny, aged mechanisms. I probably could have found someone who could do the work themselves, but I couldn't stand the thought of someone I didn't know handling the tiny artifact. I'd rather learn the process and spend the time myself. In my opinion, it was time well spent.
  78. Hanako and Lilly step out of the bathroom a few minutes later and I hold my breath when I see the pair of them.
  80. My wife is clothed in white and silver, Hanako in black and gold. The silk brocade patterns flows like water, identical flowers sewn in brilliant silk down the front of the ankle length dresses. Lilly's hair is up and wrapped tightly, a pair of white chopsticks holding the delicate structure aloft.
  81. Hanako's own glossy hair is intricately woven into a long braid, reaching halfway down her back where it ends in an elaborate ribbon. Both wear long, silk gloves which give a teasing reveal of their arms before the sleeveless, cut-in shoulders begin. The small diamond windows in the center are an alluring, but still modest touch
  83. “How do we look?“ Hanako asks hopefully.
  85. A few choice words run through my mind immediately. I announce my approval by grabbing my chest and laying myself back onto the bed, a long, strained groan emerging from my clenched teeth.
  87. “He likes it,” Lilly says with a smile.
  89. The girls turn around, revealing undone zippers up the back of both their dresses. “Zip us up?”
  91. I smile from my reclined position. “Couldn't you have helped each other with that?”
  93. Hanako gives me a delicate and pretty shrug with her slim shoulders. “We thought we'd let you have the fun.”
  95. Perhaps I get up from the bed a little too eagerly, but I try my best not to sprint towards the pair of them, sauntering my way nonchalantly. Using just the tips of my fingers, I slowly pull the sliders on each of their dresses up simultaneously, dragging the teeth together, savoring the pleasant sound they make.
  97. Once they're secured, they turn and smile at me and I feel my heart flutter from the combined expressions. “Thank you for that. I must be a very lucky man,” I say honestly.
  99. They lean forward, kissing me on either cheek, Lilly guided by her hand resting gently upon my face. “If you behave yourself,” my wife says, “we may let you take them off as well later.”
  101. Hanako blushes, but gives me an eager smile and a wink.
  103. “Well, when you put it that way,” I shrug dramatically, “I guess I can try and be on my best behavior for tonight.“ I hesitate for a moment, then raise a single finger. “Just one condition, though....“
  105. Hanako narrows her eyes suspiciously and Lilly tilts her head. “Yes?”
  107. I pause for effect before saying, “I get to wear the kilt.”
  108. Lilly frowns deeply. “No.”
  109. “But I haven't been able to wear one since the wedding.”
  110. “No.”
  111. “It's unfair to Akira! She bought it for me, it's only polite.“
  112. "This will not happen.”
  113. "Your Mother thought I looked very handsome."
  114. "I do not care."
  115. “Kilts are technically formal wear, you know. It's completely appropriate for the occasion.“
  116. “No.”
  117. “I hate tuxedos and I'll be more comfortable! That way I'll be more pleasant tonight.”
  118. “No, Hisao!”
  119. “Hanako?”
  120. “Hisao, I don't think it's a good idea.”
  121. I glare at them and cross my arms obstinately over my chest.
  122. “Then I'm not going!” I whine with a swagger.
  124. ----------------------------------------
  126. I'm pleased to see Akira's gift still fits me so well.
  127. The three of us drive towards Yamaku, Lilly in the passenger seat looking rather displeased, and Hanako in the back, trying to keep the smile off her face.
  129. “There will be some very old friends of my family here, Hisao. Please, don't do anything to embarrass me tonight.”
  131. I shrug, spinning the wheel as we turn into the Yamaku parking lot. “I'll do my best. No promises, though. If anyone asks, I won't lie to them.“
  133. “Ask what?” Lilly says in a temperamental and confused tone.
  135. I remain perfectly silent and avoid looking at Lilly directly.
  137. Hanako's eyes go wide and she covers her face which slowly turns red. “Hisao! You didn't?”
  139. I try not to smile, but I can't help it and I end up chuckling to myself.
  140. Lilly pauses for a moment and then opens her mouth in realization and horror. “You are wearing something under that, yes?“
  142. I refuse to respond to preserve my facade of innocence.
  144. Lilly turns bright red, her hand on her cheek in abject terror. “Oh, Hisao! How could you!?”
  146. “You're the one who insisted I come along,” I shoot back. “You should blame Akira, she's the one who gave it to me. And your Mother would be disappointed if I didn't wear it properly! It is a part of her family's culture, after all.”
  148. Lilly is speechless and impossibly flustered. Somehow I feel a deep sense satisfaction seeing her shocked into silence. “I'm so very glad you've taken such an interest in my family's customs!“ she pouts, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring furiously in the opposite direction.
  150. Hanako is trying to smother her laughter in the back seat, one hand on her stomach, the other covering her mouth.
  152. We pull in front of Yamaku's gates and and begin to step out of the car. A man in a red vest opens the door for Lilly and while I hold the door open for Hanako, another similarly garbed man steps up to me, greets me politely, and holds his hand out. I look at him a bit dumbfounded before I realize what he's here for. I hand him the keys and the valet thanks me, sitting down in my car and driving away.
  154. I do not like people driving my car.
  156. Looking around, I feel like I've stepped into some twisted version of my safe, familiar world. It looks like the Yamaku I know, but it really isn't, my familiar haunting grounds replaced by someone's idea of what the school should look like.
  157. Red banners hang from the gates, welcoming the students back to school. Inside, I see a huge spotlight weaving back and forth, shooting out into the night sky. From inside the quad I hear mingled voices and classical music and there's even a thick, red carpet under my feet.
  159. “I sense Shizune's meddling in this nightmare,” I bemoan.
  161. Hanako steps up beside me and bumps me playfully with her elbow. "Try not to look so upset. It is our reunion, after all. Besides, you might have fun.”
  163. Lilly joins us and I put my arm in hers, my other arm escorting Hanako. “I'm still very disappointed in you,” Lilly whispers to me.
  164. I take advantage of the situation and give her a light kiss against the ear as I whisper back. "I'll find some way to make it up to you."
  166. The three of us enter Yamaku's gates and we find a fair sized gathering of people in the campus center. Some faces I recognize from my years as a student, others I know professionally, fellow teachers and V.I.P. from the Yamaku Foundation. A few tables have been set up with white linen and dozens of colored silk lanterns have been strung overhead, giving the school's quad a garden party atmosphere, complete with a string quartet playing something I can't place, but that I'm sure is from Vivaldi. Everywhere I look I see fancy dresses and expensive tuxedos with a few waiters armed with silver trays intermixed, passing delicately stemmed glasses filled with champagne and wine to guests.
  167. Nearby a modest stage has been set up with a podium, a large screen behind it with blown up pictures taken over ten years ago of students and faculty, some of them capturing moments I recognize or even had a part in making. With this many people, some of whom I remember from my teenage years and some who are now professionally connected to me, I find myself becoming very self conscious and it has nothing to do with my form of dress.
  169. I'm not the only one feeling the pressure. As we make our way towards the party, I notice Hanako begin to cringe next to me. “I think people are staring....”
  171. I take a look around and I don't notice anyone paying an undue amount of attention to the three of us.  “If they are, it's only because I'm escorting two beautiful women. Anyone would be jealous of me at this point," I quip.
  173. I feel Hanako shrink away a little at my side and begin pulling away. “M-maybe I should have come separately....”
  175. Lilly reaches over me and puts a hand on Hanako's arm. “It's all right, Hanako. There's nothing to be concerned about. If people stare, let them stare.“
  177. The change in the relationship that the three of us have undertaken hasn't been something we've treated lightly. As far as we're concerned about work, it's business as usual, strictly professional. Hell, Lilly has a difficult time letting me hold her hand at Yamaku when there are students or faculty around.
  178. Of course, students have their own gossip that they like to pass around about the three of us, but that was going on long before Lilly and I told Hanako how much we love her. It's only natural for the students to spread rumors about us, though. It's fun for them to think that their teachers are hiding some sort of double life. In this circumstance, it just happens to be true. Trying to prove them otherwise would be all the proof they would need.
  180. Lilly speaks to Hanako, ignoring my presence utterly. “Besides, it's not because of you, Hanako. They're only staring because Hisao looks ridiculous.”
  182. I smile as we walk down the scarlet carpeting. “That must be it. I can see the envy in their eyes.“
  184. Lilly shakes her head. “You are not nearly as fashionable as you think, Hisao.“
  186. I play with her fingers in my hand. “And how would you know, my dear?” I say, teasing her.
  188. She gives me a playful smirk. “Even I know how bad you must look in that thing.“ She gives my hand a playful squeeze. “I will get you for this,” she vows with a cunning smile.
  189. “That's okay. I have Hanako to watch my back, right?“
  190. Hanako smiles a little, still a bit concerned about her presence. “Don't get me i-involved, Hisao.”
  192. The three of us enter the party. A few colleagues nod in our direction, some give polite greetings. From amongst a group of them, a pink, fluffy thundercloud emerges and approaches us.
  194. “Hichan, Lilly, Hanako! I'm so glad you could make it!”
  196. Shiina Mikado looks lovely in a curvy, pink sequined dress that matches her curls perfectly, her hair up and piled atop her head, a slight spin to the braids. Around her neck is a delicate gold chain with a pink stone set in it. Her high heels add a few alluring inches to her height and click on the stone pavement pleasantly as she approaches.
  198. “Misha,” I say, “there is a giant spotlight right over there and you are still the first thing I noticed when I stepped in.“
  200. Misha plants her hands on her hips, loud and unconcerned about the glances she attracts as she booms with laughter. “Thank you very much, Hichan! You look quite dashing yourself!  I can't believe it, but you actually pull that off!“
  202. Lilly's lips tighten into a barely noticeable grimace, but I ignore her.
  204. “Lilly, Hanako, I love your dresses!” Misha continues. “You look like you could be sisters!“
  206. I snort a laugh and get a pair of sharp jabs in my back. “Thank you, Misha,” Lilly says, after she and Hanako are done digging towards my kidneys, “Hanako picked them out for us.”
  208. “You always did have excellent taste, Hanako~!”
  210. Hanako smiles a little bashfully. “Well, th-thank you, Misha. I like your dress, too.”
  212. Misha waves her hand in a wide, sweeping gesture and winks. “This thing? Please~! I'm only wearing it because Shichan made me. I hate these parties! All these stuffy people! Most of them are fat, old and boring!“
  214. A couple guests turn disapproving glances at Misha, but I'll be damned if she lets that stop her. “Truth is, I wanted to stay in tonight!”
  216. “You and me both,” I respond.
  218. Misha waves a finger dramatically in my face, a glare in her eyes. “As if you have any reason to complain, Hichan! You didn't help us at all to set the evening up! You big slacker, you should be ashamed!“
  220. “As far as I'm concerned I've already done my part, Misha. If you want more help, maybe you and Shizune should ask nicely."
  222. Misha crosses her arms over her chest. “As if that's ever worked with you! If we asked everyone nicely and got turned down, where would we be?"
  224. “In the same position you're in right now; alone and doing all the work while I enjoy myself,” I retort, a smug grin on my face.
  226. Misha wags her fingers around again, driving her point home. “We need people who are willing to put the work into this school that it deserves to make it the best we can! If everyone doesn't do that, we don't deserve our jobs here!“
  228. I roll my eyes.  “You know very well Shizune already assigned me work for tonight, despite my objections.“
  230. Looking only slightly satisfied, Misha taps her foot on the pavement, a harsh clicking sound emerging from her stilettos. “Yes, and you never practiced with me! I need to sign everything you say! Did you at least prepare for it on your own?“
  231. “I'll be ready for her little speech, don't worry about it.“
  233. Lilly turns towards me. “Shizune asked you to do a speech? You never made mention of it before.“
  234. I shrug, looking away. “Yeah, she asked only a couple days ago.“
  235. “Then why were you so hesitant to come tonight?“
  236. I breathe a sigh. “It's for something I didn't really want to talk about.“
  238. I'll give credit to Misha when it's deserved. She goes from berating me to sympathetic in an instant, switching gears as fast as fast as anyone I know. “Are you going to be okay, Hichan?“
  240. I nod quickly, not wanting to drag this out any longer. “Yeah, I'm fine.“
  241. “What is it, Hisao?“ Lilly asks softly.
  242. Hanako looks on concerned.
  243. “It's a speech," I say after some hesitation. "About someone who isn't here anymore.“
  245. Lilly smiles sadly and then nods. “Are you going to be all right?“
  246. I smile back at her and squeeze her hand. “Yes, I'll be fine. I can talk about it now.“
  247. Lilly nods at me, returning my affectionate grip.
  249. “I assume Shizune is elsewhere, then?” Lilly asks, turning to Misha, thankfully changing the subject. “I suspect she's been very busy the past few weeks with getting everything set for tonight.“
  251. Misha rolls her eyes, moving on from the uncomfortable topic quickly and looking as if she deflates one or two sizes smaller. “The past two months all she's talked about was the reunion. Getting all the invitations out, setting up the schedule, booking the band, transportation! She's been a real pain recently!“
  253. “I'm sure she'll be back to normal once this is all over.“
  254. “That is normal,” I mutter under my breath, getting my humor back.
  256. Misha glares at me. “Anyway~! Shichan is showing a few of the guests around the campus. She wanted me to stick around the entrance and make sure everything here goes smoothly.“
  258. “Is Shizune all right? Without a translator, that is?“
  260. Misha laughs. “Already taken care of! She dragged Hideaki to the party to help out backstage and he went along with her. And a few of the Foundation members already know sign, as well!“
  262. Hideaki is here?  I ponder that for a moment.  I wonder if he's wearing a suit? That's something I would like to see....
  264. Misha continues on, thinking of something else. “Oh! Lilly~! I was wondering; would you help me out? There's a few people here who wanted to meet you! Your family is a big contributor and you're the only Satou here!“ She clasps her hands together imploringly. “Please~!“
  266. Lilly smiles and nods. “Of course, Misha. I had planned on it anyway. I'd be happy to meet them.“
  268. “Thanks a lot, Lilly! I can use all the help I can get!“ Misha looks surprised for a moment. “Oh! I almost forgot! You still need to get your name tags!“
  269. “Name tags?" I ask. "Is that really necessary?”
  270. “Of course! It's so everyone knows who you are, silly! It has been ten years, Hichan~!”
  272. Misha leads us to a long side table set up on the grass where a pair of pretty girls are taking down names, handing out programs, answering questions and passing out tiny plastic tags with people's names on them.
  274. Misha searches for and finds three with our names on them, handing them to us. Hanako takes her own while I help Lilly, carefully pinning the tiny card to her dress. As I go to attach my own, though, she takes it from me rather quickly, running the tiny needle carefully against her fingertips, checking it's length. “Here, Hisao," she coos,  "let me help you with that.”
  276. She then sharply jabs the tiny needle into me, stabbing me squarely in the chest. I hiss and try to keep a strained smile on my face as the tiny pin passes through several layers of cloth and lightly pierces into my skin. Hanako gasps and muffles her squeak of laughter with an upraised hand.
  278. “You, ooh, um, got me a little there, Lilly," I hiss. She turns the sweetest, most innocent smile I've ever seen on me, completely disarming any reproach. “Oh, did I? I'm so terribly sorry! How clumsy of me....“
  279. “Still upset with me are you?” I whisper under my breath. She leans forward and whispers back, her smile taking a dangerous turn. “I told you I'd get you back for it.”
  281. I lean forward suddenly and kiss Lilly, taking her by surprise and stealing the taste of her lips for myself. She gasps in shock, which quickly turns into a pleased, little moan before she kisses me back. Her hand finds my face and gently touches the lines of my jaw, the curve of my eyes, the tips of my ears before her fingers run through my hair. We pause there momentarily, breathing each other in and out before the two of us separate.
  283. “Hmm,” Lilly murmurs. “Apology accepted.”
  285. Misha and Hanako watch and smile, though seeing the glint in Hanako's eyes, I imagine for very different reasons entirely.
  287. “Come on, Lilly! Let's not keep them waiting!” Misha says, turning towards me with a wink. “Don't worry, Hichan! I'll bring Lilly back soon~!”
  289. “Have fun,” I tell my wife, half jokingly. She puts her hand back  on my face and taps me playfully on the nose, her smile showing me just a glint of teeth.
  290. “Behave yourself.”
  291. "Oh, of course. How much trouble could I get into?"
  293. Lilly holds out her arm and Misha lightly takes it. I give a little wave of my hand, catching Misha's attention. She quirks her eyebrow curiously and I hold my hands up, signing to her. [Don't let Lilly drink too much.]
  295. Misha gives me a somewhat bewildered look, but then nods and smiles, signing with one hand.  [Okay.]
  297. Misha leads Lilly towards a group of well dressed men and woman who seem pleased to take the pair into their tiny group. I find myself  intently watching my wife, admiring the way her hips moves within her dress as she greets them, her manner confident and demure, suddenly the center of attention.
  299. I shake myself from my fixation and turn towards the other woman in my life. I'm surprised and pleased to see Hanako watching Lilly walk away just as intently as I had been.
  301. "See something you like?" I tease.
  302. Hanako snaps out of it, her cheeks turning just a shade red. I take her arm in mine and smile.
  303. “Drink?” I ask.
  304. Hanako nods meekly, still a bit shaken. “Well, okay, but only a little.”
  306. ----------------------------------------
  308. Hanako and I walk from the main gate towards a small bar which has been set up, a long glass top illuminated from below by several dimly glowing, multicolored bulbs. A pair of young men attend the bar, pouring drinks and taking orders from the few guests standing at the chest high partition.
  310. The two of us wait for a moment and step up towards the bar when a spot opens. With practiced politeness, the server asks us what he can get the two of us.
  312. “Champagne, p-please.”
  313. “And you, sir?”
  314. “Scotch.”
  315. “Sorry, sir, no Scotch.”
  316. “What do you have?”
  317. “We have an extensive selection of champagne and a large wine list.“
  319. I curl my lip a little. “Looks like I'll be driving home tonight. Nothing for me, thanks.”
  321. The server pours a small tulip shaped glass for Hanako, the crystalline bubbles floating up towards the top. She takes the glass in her hand and we step away from the bar, finding a tiny, intimate table removed from the rest of the party.
  323. I take a look around at my surroundings, at the tasteful decorations and the carefully managed setup to appear both classy and comfortable at the same time, transforming Yamaku's gardens into a suitable hosting site. The light murmur of conversation is all around the two of us, masked over by the sound of the stringed instruments playing nearby. A chill, night breeze causes the hanging silk lanterns to bob and dance above the pair of us on their invisible cords.
  325. “All right, I guess I have to hand it to Shizune. This is kind of nice.“
  327. I turn back towards Hanako to ask her opinion on the event so far, but I find her sitting a bit hunched over in her chair, her hands tightly clenched in her lap, her drink untouched. Her eyes furtively scan all around the two of us and her cheeks have a red tinge to them.
  329. “Are you all right?” I ask in a hushed voice, leaning forward. Despite my lowered volume, Hanako still jumps a little at the sound. “I-I'm okay,” she replies shakily.
  331. “No, you're not.“
  333. She looks down into her glass and loosens her hands, laying them perfectly flat against the table. “I'm just...still trying to get used to this, to us. I'm f-feeling really nervous.“
  335. A pang of sympathy shoots through my heart. “Hanako....”
  337. I take her hand into mine. Her face turns red and her eyes won't meet me at all.
  339. “You and I have spent plenty of time alone without Lilly. There's no reason that you should feel awkward about that now.“
  341. She glances up at me and her face deepens to a  brilliant red. She snaps her eyes away again. “But, now there is a r-reason....” she whispers.
  343. I want to touch her face, rest my hand against her, stroke her cheek to reassure her, anything, but I don't. It would only make her feel more uncomfortable than she already is.
  345. “I feel like....” she continues, holding her free hand up helplessly over her marred cheek.
  347. “I feel like e-everyone is staring at me again. Like they can see it written all over my f-face. Like they know. They know how I feel about you and Lilly. They can see what's inside me now, just like they can see the outside.  It used to be that was the only p-place I had to hide. Now I can't even go there anymore.“
  349. I run my thumb gently against her fingers. “It'll take time,” I assure her. “I was nervous too when this started, so was Lilly. But you'll get used to it, we all will. Maybe it will take a little longer for you than us, but it'll happen.“
  351. Hanako shrugs, squeezing my hand. “I guess I'm just not s-sure how to act anymore when I'm around you or Lilly.“ She looks up at me and glances quickly away once more. “I've never b-been in a relationship...especially not one...like this....”
  353. The sad honesty she says it with makes the pangs of sympathy in my chest deepen.
  355. Smiling at her, I give her hand a gentle squeeze.
  357. I pull away my hands away and flex my fingers, grasping my wedding band firmly. I can't remember the last time I removed the gold ring, but eventually it comes off with only a little pain. Hanako looks shocked when I open her gloved hand and discreetly place it in her palm, closing her fingers around it.
  359. She looks frantically around, her voice a sharp whisper. “H-Hisao! Wh-what are y-y-you d-doing?“
  361. I smile and hold her fingers closed around the ring. “I want you to hold onto this for me.”
  363. She shakes her head furiously and tries to hand the ring back, but I refuse. “I-I can't! I c-c-can't!”
  364. “It's my ring and I can do what I please with it, Hanako. It's only metal. Au, Aurum, atomic number 79, a transition metal. Nothing more.“
  366. She shakes her head. “But that's not true! It's more than that! It's y-yours and Lilly's!“
  367. “So it's more than a ring? It represents something?”
  368. “Y-yes! Of course!”
  369. “It represents our marriage?”
  370. “Y-yes!”
  372. I pull my hand away, leaving her holding the ring. “Then if we already trust you with our marriage, why wouldn't I trust you with some silly bit of metal?”
  374. She looks at me, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open in astonishment and uncertainty.
  376. “Lilly and I aren't going to be able to say or show you how we feel very often," I tell her. "This is my way. I want you to hold onto that ring and know that this isn't something where you hover around the outside edges, Hanako. I'm married to Lilly, but we both love you in the exact same way. I want you to have this because I won't be able to use words or actions. For God's sake, Hanako, you're offering to carry a child for Lilly and me! After that, I'd trust you with my life! So I want you to hold onto that.“
  377. I smile and chuckle to myself. “At least until I can afford to buy you one for yourself.“
  379. Hanako is speechless for some time, holding the ring in her hands. The large hoop makes her gloved fingers look even more delicate than they are, yellow gold against black silk.
  381. Her cheeks turn red and she clenches it tightly within her fingers.
  383. “L-lilly won't be upset, right?”
  384. “Of course not.”
  385. I give her a keen smile. “She's shared more than that with you before.“
  387. Hanako blushes furiously and hesitates before nodding. “Th-thank you, Hisao.” She looks at me and smiles in that special way, that bashful, innocent way that makes it impossible to not smile right along with her. It reminds me once more that there are few things in the world that make me happier than seeing Hanako happy.
  389. She hesitates before speaking again. “So, have you and Lilly talked about me being your surrogate?“
  391. I breathe deeply, thinking about the sensitive subject as we change topics. “Yes, we have. And we've talked to Nurse as well. It...seems fairly straight forward. Right now the problem is timing. With school and work, and...well, the three of us just starting this relationship, Lilly and I think it would be best to hold off for a few months at the very least, maybe even a year or two. If you're still all right with going through with it, that is.“
  393. Hanako nods, an earnest smile on her face. “I am. I've never been as sure about anything before as I am now.“
  395. I clasp her hand warmly. “Thank you for this, Hanako. It means everything to me and Lilly.“ My gaze turns towards the table. “There is a problem, though. Timing isn't the only thing. The procedure is expensive, very expensive.“
  397. “How much?“ Hanako asks after a moment's hesitation.
  399. My eyebrows lift slightly. “A lot. I mean, we both have good jobs and we couldn't ask to work anywhere better than Yamaku, but it's still going to be a lot of money.“
  400. "Then I'll help."
  401. I shake my head. "You'll be doing more than your fair share, Hanako. That wouldn't be right."
  402. Hanako has a determined look on her face, a look I've always found amusing but have learned never to doubt or underestimate. "It'll be my child as well, Hisao. I'll help in anyway I feel like."
  404. I hold my hands up in surrender. "Yes, ma'am, but I have a few other ideas how to make it easier."
  405. "Like what?"
  406. “I think I might sell Rin's painting. I've had a few offers and it would help a lot to pay the doctor's bills.“
  407. “Oh, Hisao, you love that painting! She made it for you and Lilly when you got married!“
  408. “Yes, I know. But if it's between that and our child, there's no question for me.“
  410. I nervously drum my fingertips together on the tabletop. A grim look passes over my face.
  411. “There is...one other option.“
  412. Seeing my expression, Hanako looks afraid to ask. “Wh-what is it?“
  413. I look up at her and swallow the hard lump in my throat. “I haven't said anything to Lilly yet, so I'd prefer it if you didn't either. Not yet anyway.“
  414. “Of course."
  415. “I think....“ I try not to choke on the bilious words, “I think I may ask Hiroyuki.“
  417. Hanako's eyes go wide at the mention of Lilly's Father. “H-Hisao...are you sure that's a good idea? You and him have never....“
  418. “Yes, I know. He hates me almost as much as I hate him. But if it's for Lilly, I'll swallow my disgust for that....monster, and I think he'll do the same for me. He wants a Grandchild more than anything, and I doubt he's counting on Akira for that. If he wants his precious Satou line to continue, he'll buy it if he can.“
  420. “You do know that if h-he does help, he'll want to be involved with the baby, right?"
  422. I nod, locking eyes with Hanako. “I know. I've made my peace with that to a certain extent. He knows where we stand. He knows I'm not afraid of him. I'm not that 'boy with a gimp heart' he can push around anymore. If he wants a fight, I'll be happy to give it to him.“
  424. Hanako smiles and I see the pride in her eyes. By silent consent, we agree not to talk about the specter of Mr. Satou anymore.
  426. For several silent moments, Hanako looks deep in thought before a little smile creeps onto her face. “Hisao, can I ask you a question?“
  427. “Of course.“
  428. Her smile turns a little playful. “...are you really going to buy me a ring?”
  429. I smile back and nod. “If you'll let me.”
  430. She avoids my gaze, smiling, her hand covering her pretty blush. She bites her lip and looks at me knowingly. “I...I think I'd like that.”
  432. ----------------------------------------
  434. Hanako and I sit at the table across from each other, talking at times, enjoying the atmosphere and making conversation with old acquaintances and coworkers who happen to pass by.
  436. In the midst of talking together, Hanako looks up and smiles widely, waving down a pair of women at the bar. I look behind me and see Naomi and Natsume. I smile a little seeing them together, remembering how intriguing I thought they used to be, knowing that the two of them were dating back in school. Naomi looks good, but I notice Natsume is slowly walking with the help of a cane and one of her hands is a little shriveled. I recall she had severe arthritis and it doesn't look like the past ten years have been kind to her.
  438. The two are pleased to see Hanako and they practically kidnap her to meet other members of the old newspaper club who are gathering together to reminisce about their school days.
  440. As the three of them hurry off arm in arm, Hanako looks back at me and smiles, a little wave and hesitant wink as she's carted off.
  442. It's hard to describe how happy I am seeing Hanako like this. Maybe it's all the old familiar faces, but I keep thinking of how she was back in school and how much she's changed since then. I can't help but think about everything that's changed.
  444. So many faces and the memories to go right along with them. I may be at Yamaku almost every day for work, but seeing all these people, it's like I'm eighteen again, fresh from the hospital and feeling utterly abandoned and alone in the world.
  446. The effect of the faces I see, though, isn't as strong as the faces I don't. Maybe they simply didn't show up or the reunion was too far away from their homes, but I can't help but ponder how many people I used to know are gone now, taken for various reasons or by the very reasons they came to Yamaku in the first place.
  447. I find myself wondering whether or not I could have been among them. Maybe, in another life, it would be another person sitting here, wondering whatever happened to Hisao Nakai, that kid with the bad heart.
  449. I don't like thinking about it. Too many risks when I was young, too many times I pushed myself too far.
  451. My hand dips into my jacket pocket and I feel the small stack of note cards I've written my speech on. Next to them is a small thumb drive with a very important picture on it. I wasn't pleased when Shizune asked me to take on this speech responsibility, to speak at the reunion. She asked me for one reason and one reason only and I resent the fact that she took advantage of my feelings on the subject to guilt me into doing it. She said it was for a 'student who is no longer with us', but I know her well enough that she'll try to make it about the school or the Yamaku Foundation in some way. She'll turn what was supposed to be a memorial into a publicity stunt to garner donations and reputation for her friends in the Foundation.
  453. Most of all, I resent the fact she went digging into my personal history. I tried for a long time to forget about the girl named Saki Enomoto, but it seems I can't escape from her memory, or her ghost, no matter how hard I try.
  455. A raised voice nearby shakes me out of my contemplation, a nasally, grating tone filled with indignation. “What the hell kind of service is this, anyway? What are you trying to pull on us?!“
  457. I look up towards the bar and the figures standing there. The server looks shocked and unsure how to deal with the irate guest.
  459. “I-I'm very sorry, sir, but we don't have any whiskey!“
  461. “Yeah, you already said that! All you have is froo-froo drinks! This is not okay! What are you trying to do to me, huh? Why don't you mix me up a 'cosmo' and I'll tell you all about my new purse, Samantha!“
  463. I'm glad for the distraction from my thoughts. I shake my head and chuckle as I stand up and make my way towards the bar and stand behind the shouting individual. I slap my hand down on the shoulder of the disgruntled man standing amidst the group and I give the flustered server a smile. “Don't mind Kenji, he's normally a perfectly sane person, but when it comes to drinks, he doesn't make any compromises.“
  465. Kenji turns around and stares for a minute. His lean frame looks fitted for his tux and a white silk opera scarf is wrapped around his neck.
  467. He leans in closely and smiles when my face comes into focus. “Hisao! Glad to see you! I was afraid you were trying to avoid me!”
  469. The two of us exchange a warm hug. “Avoid you? Never, Kenji! Work and family have been keeping me plenty busy.“ I turn and look at the faces of the people around Kenji.
  471. They've all changed in certain ways, and they're wearing suits, but I recognize all of them immediately.
  473. “Good to see you, Hisao,” Akio Hayashi says in his normally reserved manner. I see by his smile though he's glad to be back among friends.
  475. Taro Arai shakes my hand, nearly crushing it in his monstrous grip, laughing the whole time.
  477. I turn towards the last member of the crew, Takeshi, who has a grimace on his face.
  478. “Nakai, nice skirt,” he snickers with a grin.
  479. “It's a kilt, Maeda.“
  480. “Whatever,” he says with a noncommittal shrug. “I'm surprised to see you here. If anyone wasn't going to make it to the reunion, I thought it was going to be you. How's the heart?“
  482. I cup my hands around my mouth and speak loudly. "It's doing very well! How's your ear feeling, TK!?"
  484. Takeshi grimaces unpleasantly, a slight twitch of pain. He gingerly touches the side of his head.  “Asshole. I hate it when people call me 'TK'.“
  485. “Yeah, I remember.”
  487. He rolls his eyes. “Saw your wife earlier,” he continues. “How you ever managed to land that piece of ass, I'll never understand. What's your secret, Hisao, did you drop some of your pills in her drink when she wasn't looking? Then again with all the Viagra you must cram down your throat, I can understand the attraction.“ He begins taking a sip from his glass of wine, a smug look in his eyes.
  489. “Just lucky, I guess,” I say. “How about yourself, TK? Is your husband here with you?“
  491. Takeshi chokes a bit and sputters into his glass.
  492. Taro guffaws, his massive chest bubbling with laughter.
  493. “Takeshi,” Akio says with a smile. "Let's not ruin the moment with arguments.”
  495. Takeshi looks like wants to contest the point, but he quickly shrugs and holds his hand out towards me. I take it and we shake hands, squeezing each others fingers as hard as possible without grimacing. “Your hair still looks terrible,“ he says.
  497. “You still look stupid in that ridiculous hat.“
  499. He smiles and chuckles a bit. “I like this hat. It's good to see you, Nakai.”
  500. The handshake is firm and warm, if a bit forced. “Same here, Maeda.”
  502. “So what have you guys been doing with yourselves?“ I say after we loosen our grip.
  503. “It's been a long time since the five of us got together.“
  505. Kenji nods towards Akio. “I just got done telling the guys about my book when you showed up. Hayashi was just telling us about his work. He's a doctor.“
  507. “A doctor?” I say, mildly surprised. “That's impressive, Akio! What's your specialty? Orthopedics or Endocrinologist, I suppose?”
  509. Akio shakes his head, leans heavily on his cane and says, “Obstetrician/Gynecology.”
  511. My eyes go wide and I think I can hear crickets somewhere. “Oh! Uh, okay. I see....”
  512. Silence, utter silence.
  514. I hear a sound and turn around. I find that Takeshi is trying to smother his laughter with a straight face. Taro soon joins in and Kenji is the final straw as the three of them begin an uproarious laughter at my expense.
  516. “Well, I'm glad to see you guys are still jerks. Since when did Hayashi have a sense of humor?“
  518. Akio smirks only slightly. “It took some time, but I think I've got the hang of it.“
  520. Takeshi slaps me on the back in a friendly manner with a lurid look on his face. “Can you imagine it? Akio is still elbow deep in the girls after all these years!“
  522. Akio turns away, looking slightly offended by Takeshi's crude comment. “I wouldn't know anything about that, TK.”
  524. “Come on, Akio!” Taro says, a drink in his hand. “Everyone remembers how the girls were crawling all over you in school!“
  526. Takeshi cups his cheeks, a stupid look on his face. “They were all, 'Oh, that Akio! He's so handsome! He's always got his face in a book, he must be so~ introspective and deep!'“
  527. Ridiculous kissing sounds from all of us soon follow.
  529. Akio watches impassively before speaking. “So what about yourself, Hisao?” he asks, changing the focus of the conversation. “How have you been doing here at Yamaku?”
  531. Akio never did like being the center of attention, I remember.
  533. “I'm doing good,” I say. “I like it. I love it, but it's a lot more than just teaching when you work here. I mean, you guys know what it was like for us. Every teacher has be be part tutor, part counselor and have some emergency medical training on top of that, so the work is challenging enough. I've even learned sign while I was at it, it got to be a pain to communicate if I had a student with deafness. Only bad side is that Shizune can yell at me directly from now on. Overall, I have to say Lilly and I are really happy working here.“
  535. “How have you and Lilly been?”
  537. I hesitate for a moment. “We've been good. Really good.”
  539. My prepared answer seems to please them, but Akio gives me one of his blank, thoughtful looks before silently nodding in acquiescence. I see Kenji look at me sideways as well and he gives me a supportive little nod.
  540. Kenji is the only one I've shared mine and Lilly's difficulties having a child with, but even he doesn't know yet that Hanako will be our surrogate, let alone our new relationship with her. I did confess some confusion on my feelings towards Hanako during a Manly Picnic a few months past, but that's mostly blown over and we haven't talked about it since.
  542. “What about the rest of you? What have you been up to since school?“
  544. Taro smiles broadly, fists planted on his hips. “Got married to the prettiest girl in the prefecture! Four kids, another on the way! My father retired, so I took over the restaurant. Best cuisine in Japan! I can cook anything from anywhere, no matter what! Traditional, American, Italian, I do it all! You ever find yourself in Chiba, Hisao, you should stop in for a bite. I'll whip you up something good!“ He smirks pridefully with a glint in his eye. “Come around in the summer and you might even get to see me in action!”
  546. “Oh?” I ask curiously.
  547. “Yep! You're looking at the runner-up from last year's Kanto Open!“
  548. “Is that a cooking contest?”
  549. Taro scoffs. “It's only one of the most important arm wrestling tournaments in the east!“
  551. “Here we go....“ Kenji says, rolling his eyes.
  553. “Ignore the weaklings, Hisao!“ Taro says with derision. “They can't appreciate a real man's sport.“
  555. “You...you're an arm wrestler?”
  556. “Amateur, but yeah, I am!”
  557. I must look a little doubtful, because Taro smiles and flexes his arm. “Right arm, Hisao. Right arm!”
  558. “Oh! Well, of course! I mean, it just seems kind of odd considering everything, right? Doesn't it?“
  559. Taro shrugs. “Not to me. Like you with your running, Hisao, why should I let a bum arm hold me back? The other one is perfectly fine! That's one thing this place taught me.“
  560. Taro looks at us with a bit of a sneer. “Not that any of you ladies have the balls to take me on.“
  562. “No, thank you!” Takeshi says. “I'm an artist. I need my hands!”
  564. Akio clicks his tongue. “I've spent my whole life avoiding broken bones, I don't see any reason to start now.”
  566. Taro turns to Kenji and me and I see the challenge in his eyes. “Either of the boys man enough?”
  568. Kenji shakes his head.  “Not on your life, Taro.”
  569. I agree with Kenji, I'm not about to start a fight today. "I felt your handshake, big guy, that's all the proof I need.“
  570. “Wimps!”
  571. "Not wimps, just smart."
  573. “You'll be happy to know, Hisao,” Takeshi cuts in, “that's I've made quite a name for myself in the graphic art world!“
  574. “Really? Where do you work?”
  576. I can see the smugness in Takeshi's eyes, as he primly inspects his nails. “A small studio in Tokyo. You've probably never heard of it.  I've done some work on a few series and if everything goes according to plan, I'll be publishing a new line of comics starting this year.“
  578. Kenji leans in close and whispers under his breath. “Don't let him fool you, Hisao, he got started drawing porn.“
  579. I sputter with laughter and point mockingly at Takeshi. "I always knew you were a pervert!”
  581. “I am not!” he responds angrily. “Shut up! Jerk! Everyone has to get a start somewhere, okay? I had to pay the bills somehow! Lots of artists start in Ero and move on to legitimate work!“
  582. Takeshi glares at Kenji.“And anyway, how would you know, huh? You were always the one with the stack of porn back in school!”
  584. Kenji shrugs.  “I'm not hiding anything. Besides, the big words are easier to read.“
  586. I'm still laughing.
  588. “Shut up, Nakai! Kenji's the one with the smut collection and you're calling me the pervert? Not all of us artists have our careers handed to us like Rin got!“
  589. “Hey now,” I warn, “watch what you say about her. I'm still friends with Rin.“
  590. “Yeah, well, I'd have my own gallery too if I had a gimmick like she does. I'm sick of her bragging about her stupid career!”
  591. “I find it hard to imagine Rin bragging about anything at all.“
  592. Takeshi snorts and crosses his arms over his chest, a pissed expression on his face. “She doesn't have to say anything, I can tell by the look in her eyes!”
  594. “What look? Dazed, confused, that 'thousand yard' stare of hers? Besides, it's not like you don't have your own gimmick to play around with. You've got that whole 'ear thing' going for you and you look like that dutch artist you're so fond of.“
  596. He glares at me. “Fuck you, Nakai....”
  598. “Isn't this great?” Kenji says, putting his arms around the brooding Takeshi and me. “All of us together back at Yamaku? Real men, manly men, catching up and sharing stories! When I write my memoirs,  I'm going to have a whole chapter just for us and all the hell we got into!“
  600. “Better not share a few of those stories, Kenji. The police could still arrest us,“ Akio points out.
  602. “Yeah,” I say, “like that time we stole Mutou's keys and drove into town looking for girls?“
  603. “Or that time we all broke into the girl's dormitories for reconnaissance on the 'Feminist Fortifications',“ Taro reminds us.
  604. “That mission was a complete success!” Kenji protests.
  605. “Yeah, it was,” Takeshi says, looking considerably less pissed than before, rubbing his chin in thought. “I saw Molly in her underwear, so I'd count that as a success.”
  606. I groan in disgust. “When you write that one, Kenji, leave me out of it. I was already dating Lilly and you guys dragged me along in the middle of the night.“
  608. “I don't recall hearing you complain at the time, Hisao,“ a voice says from outside the group.
  610. We all turn around in unison to see the newcomer. It's amazing how the appearance of a pretty woman can make all men in the immediate vicinity suck in their guts. There must be some scientific law behind it. This warrants further investigation at a later point.
  612. “Hello, boys! How's the gang doing?” she says.
  614. I hear Takeshi chuckling behind me and I imagine the dirty little imp rubbing his hands together eagerly.
  615. “Umm,” I sputter. “Hey! H-how you doing, Miki?”
  616. “Great, Hisao! Come on, don't leave a girl hanging! High five!”
  618. ----------------------------------------
  620. I admit, it's pathetic. Surrounded by old friends, though, I should expect for all of us to start falling back into the old habits. As soon as Miki shows up, we all start fumbling over each other, making fools out of ourselves at her expense.
  622. Out of all of us, Akio fares the best, remaining sternly silent for the most part. Kenji and Takeshi are worst off and I only think me and Taro being married saved us from the embarrassment of trying to flirt with Miki and being horribly outclassed. Needless to say, she enjoys every minute of the attention we shower on her.
  624. After we all stop thinking with our pants, we continue the conversation in the avenue it had been going, reminiscing about our days in school around a large table in front of the bar. As I recall, Miki seemed to play quite the part in our more daring acts of delinquency. If it hadn't been for her leaving the window unlocked, we never would have gotten into the girl's dormitories with the ladder in the first place. She also let us hide in her closet when the guard came around. On top of that, she always did seem to encourage our more blatant stupidity.
  626. “That was not my fault!” Kenji shouts. “How was I supposed to know it was the wrong test! You said, 'top left drawer', that's it! Nothing about which test to grab! It wasn't even my classroom, how was I supposed to be know where everything was hidden?“
  627. “You grabbed the answer key to the geography exam!” Takeshi yells back.
  628. “So?“
  629. “It was history!” Miki shouts. “History, you dolt! How do you get those two mixed up!?“
  630. “Should have known better than to send the guy in glasses,“ Akio mutters.
  631. “Not like we had a choice,” I say. “Kenji was the only one who knew how to pick a lock.“
  632. “I told you I could have gotten the keys out of Mutou's coat. I was pretty good at picking pockets before I lost Lefty, but no one liked that plan!“
  633. “Too risky,” Kenji responds. “We didn't know if Mutou was on our side or not. He was an unknown factor!“
  634. "I told you I vouched for him."
  635. "You were an unknown as well, Hisao."
  636. "That's hurts, Kenji."
  637. "It's your own fault for spending so much times around those feminists you called friends."
  638. "Just because I hung out with girls, doesn't make me the enemy. What about Miki?"
  639. "Miki doesn't count as a girl."
  640. "Oh, thanks, Kenji, that makes me feel special, you jack wagon!"
  641. "You're welcome, Miki, but I don't see what the wild west has to do with it. Anyway, I wasn't about the trust a teacher under any circumstances. They were all in on the conspiracy."
  642. “I doubt Mutou would be happy either way if he caught us cheating,“ Taro says between drinks he's been impressively slamming back with increasing frequency. “As it is, we ended up having to take the test over again.“
  643. “Quit complaining, fatty! We all passed, didn't we? So who cares if I grabbed the wrong test?“
  645. The conversation continues on in that manner for an hour and a half, the six of us going back and forth, correcting faulty memories and recalling the days of our misspent youth.
  647. Time flies and eventually everyone starts peeling away. Taro leaves for the long trip home, giving all of us a loud invitation to his restaurant at any time. Takeshi leaves suddenly as well, having caught sight of Molly passing by. He gives us all a farewell, an eager glint in his eyes as he follows closely behind her.
  649. Akio breaks off to see others from school, but I excuse myself and follow behind. “Akio, can I talk to you privately for a moment?”
  650. He turns back towards me, pivoting on his cane. “Well, of course, Hisao.”
  652. The two of us take a few steps away from the party for privacy, our conversation sheltered in the shadow of the main building. “What is it?” he asks me.
  653. “I was wondering; were you really joking back there? About being an Obstetrician?“
  655. Akio smiles a little. “Yes, but I work closely with a few. My area of expertise often crosses over into that work for older women; bone loss, vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis. Why do you ask?“
  657. “I was wondering if you knew anyone who was really good?“
  658. Akio smiles. “Looking to get some work done, Hisao?”
  659. I chuckle nervously. “No. It's actually...it's actually for my wife.”
  660. Akio's smile vanishes. “Oh! Oh, I'm sorry Hisao. I didn't mean to make light of it. If you don't mind me asking, is everything all right with you and Lilly?“
  661. I give him half a nod. “Well, we've been to a few specialists so far. Nurse has suggested a few, but I was wondering if you knew anyone personally that we could talk too?“
  662. “Are you...comfortable with giving me some more information right now?“
  663. I shake my head. “No, not right now.”
  665. Akio nods and retrieves an expensive looking business card from his wallet. “Here, you can call anytime and the three of us can talk over the phone or meet at my office. I can give you and Lilly the numbers of a few specialists and recommend you to them.“
  667. I take the card from him and slip it into my own wallet, handing Akio one of my own. I'm jealous; his cards are nicer than mine.
  669. “Thanks, Akio. I appreciate it.”
  670. “Not a problem, Hisao.”
  672. “You know,” he says, turning back towards me before leaving. “You and Kenji were always the closest among us, but if you ever need anyone else to talk to, you can always call. It would be nice to connect with the group of you more often.“
  674. I nod and give Akio a firm handshake. “I'll remember that. Thank you.”
  675. “Not a  problem, Hisao. I hope everything turns out well for you and Lilly.“
  676. “So do I.”
  678. I turn around and re-enter to party, joining Miki and Kenji at the table the group of us commandeered for our conversation. Kenji is animatedly moving his hands about above his head, excitedly talking about some esoteric subject while Miki looks on with the look of a deer in oncoming traffic, eyes darting about for a path to safety. She sees me walking towards the two of them and excitedly waves me over, kicking out a chair next to her for me to take.
  679. “Here, Hisao! Sit next to me, please!” I take the chair and she scoots closer, taking refuge from Kenji in my presence. “Kenji, Hisao's back! You can talk to him now!”
  681. Kenji stops suddenly in mid-rant. “Huh? Oh, hey, Hisao. Back already? I was just telling Miki about my research into Yamaku.“
  683. “Oh, God, not this story again....”
  685. “It's not a story!“ Kenji shouts. ”It's true! Yamaku's campus used to be a military academy in World War Two! They trained soldiers in the use of paranormal weapons and tactics! Psychic spies, man, I always knew it! Look it up, it's history!“
  687. “Yeah, yeah, I remember this one," I say, trying to placate Kenji. "The army trained blind soldiers to use remote viewing to spy on the enemy with psychic powers and look into the future. We've all heard this one from you before, Kenji.“  I turn to Miki and roll my eyes.
  689. “But it's true, bro! I've got readings and tests that prove that Yamaku is still a hotbed of spiritual and supernatural activity! The place is crawling with paranormal entities!“
  691. “Ooh, like ghosts?” Miki asks, suddenly very interested in the topic.
  693. “Absolutely!” Kenji replies. “Ghosts and other ectoplasm based manifestations! I've been trying to get the Foundation to let me stay overnight so I can get more evidence and better readings, but they've always turned me down! Trying to keep their dirty, little secrets under wraps! They're hiding something, I just know it!“
  695. I cup my chin in my hand and look at Kenji with a bored expression on my face, trying to humor him as always. “Yeah, because they want to explain to the parents of our students why a crazy man in a tinfoil hat is running around their children's dormitories at night searching for ghosts.“
  697. “You just wait, Hisao! The truth will come out one day! I will expose the dark secrets of this place once and for all!“ Kenji stabs his finger into the table top repeatedly, nearly knocking over a glass of wine as he does, trying to punctuate his point. “Even you, you unbeliever, will accept the hard evidence I can provide! Doubter! And another thing, tinfoil is out! I use a lead helmet these days! More effective protection from mental assault!“
  699. “Sure, Kenji, whatever you say.”
  701. Miki smiles and turns towards me, a glass of something deep and burgundy in her hand. “So, not a believer in ghosts, Hisao? Not even a little?”
  703. “I am a man of science, Miki. I need evidence, hard facts, that sort of thing. So far, Kenji hasn't brought me anything to convince me otherwise. Ghosts are beyond my horizon.“
  705. Miki chuckles and leans towards me, our eyes meeting for a few moments. She holds the gaze for some time and I get a little nervous from the way her chocolaty brown eyes lock onto mine. She studies me for a while and then suddenly pulls back, laughing.
  706. “You're a terrible liar!”
  707. “You think I'm lying?”
  708. “I know you're lying! I have a way of reading people.“
  710. Kenji perks up. “Hisao's lying? Dude, if you've seen something, anything, you've got to tell me! Have you encountered an apparition here at Yamaku? Maybe a poltergeist? Is there still blood running down the third floor bathroom wall on Tuesdays?" He grips the side of his head in a panic. "Is it that painting on the third floor!?"
  712. I turn to Kenji and shake my head. “Calm down! No, of course I haven't seen anything! No ghosts, Kenji!”
  714. Miki smiles at me, all brilliant white teeth and I avoid her eyes.
  716. Kenji glares at me through his thick lenses. He pulls a pen from his jacket and begins scribbling some strange looking symbols on a cocktail napkin, using his hands to cover them from my sight and muttering something in a language I don't understand.
  718. “So, Miki,” I say, changing the subject, “are you here alone or did you come with someone."
  719. Miki gives a little, dramatic sigh. "No, all by my lonesome! The closest thing I have to a date is Suzu."
  720. "Suzu is here? I didn't see her."
  722. Miki smiles sadly. "We drove up together. Well, I drove, actually. She slept the entire way. Last time I checked, she was passed out in the passenger seat of my car. She told me to go enjoy myself and she'd be out in a few minutes. That was almost an hour ago."
  723. "I hope she doesn't miss the party."
  724. "Yeah, so do I. She'd never forgive herself if she slept through the reunion. I'll go shake her awake in a little while."
  726. "Glad to hear, it would be nice to see her again. As for you, you're looking lovely. What have you been doing with yourself?“
  728. Miki smiles at the flattery. I'm not lying when I say she looks lovely. Her red dress is cut high enough to expose plenty of her dark and glossy legs. Around her neck is a black ribbon choker and she wears long black gloves, her missing hand covered with a sleeve of silk trailing several ribbons, both hiding and somehow accentuating the missing appendage.
  730. “Well, thank you for the compliment, Hisao. I should hope I'm looking good! My job depends on it!“
  731. “Oh, really? What have you gotten yourself into?“
  732. She smirks and winks at me. “Can you guess? Come on, give it a try!“
  734. I think for a while, remembering all the details about her from our days in school. “Well, you're in good shape. Are you an athlete?“
  735. She sticks her tongues out. “Nope, that's Emi's business, not mine!“
  736. “How about sales? Pretty girls are always in sales.“
  737. Miki slaps me playfully on the shoulder. “Hisao, stop it, you're gonna make me blush! And that's a second wrong guess! Keep trying!“
  738. I really have no clue as to the answer and Miki's idea of a game could go all night long, so I decide to have a little fun at her expense.  "Are you a hand model?“
  740. Miki smacks me again, this time hard enough to smart. “Jerk!“
  741. “Well, I can't spend all night trying to guess what your career is, Miki! You'll just have to tell me.“
  742. Miki rolls her eyes and laughs. “You're no fun, Hisao! That was always your problem in school. You had no patience for a good tease!“
  743. “Well, I've gotten better over the years. So come on, what are you doing with yourself these days?“
  744. “Well, you're not too far off, I am in modeling.“
  745. “Good career choice, Miki! You always were a looker.“
  746. “There you go with that flattery again, Hisao! Don't write checks to a girl you can't pay back,“ she winks.
  748. Kenji finishes writing whatever he's been working on with the napkin, studies it intently for several seconds, then pulls a lighter out of his pocket, setting it aflame. He disposes of the ashes in an empty glass, then pulls a cigarette out of his pocket and lights up. I glare at him and give a smack to his shoulder. He waves me off, blowing the smoke away from my direction. “So, modelling, Miki?" he says. "What do you do, runway work or something?“
  750. Miki has a little smile on her face, bobbing her head back and forth. “Mm, not exactly. A little lower on the rung than that.“
  751. “What is it you do?“ Kenji asks.
  752. “Well, mostly photo shoots and magazines. A few videos.“
  753. “I had imagined I would have heard or seen something you did by now," I add.  "The Foundation is always tooting it's own horn when one of it's students makes good.“
  755. That smile that Miki has gets a little self-depreciating. “Well, Hisao, I don't think the Foundation would really want to have me on their honors list. Besides, I should hope you haven't seen any of the magazines I've been in. You'd be surprised by how many guys there are that like to look at girls who are missing some equipment,“ she says, giving a coy little wave with her missing limb.
  757. Kenji nearly swallows his cigarette, spitting it on onto the grass with a cough. I'm left silent for my part.
  759. “What's wrong, boys,“ Miki asks with a grin. “Did I shock you?“
  761. Kenji silently lights up another horrid smelling stick of nicotine, leaving me to answer. “Well, no, not at all, Miki!“
  762. “Oh, so that's the exact sort of work you've always imagined me being in, is that it?“
  763. “No! That's not what I meant! I'm sorry!“
  765. Miki laughs, putting her one hand over mine. “Chill out, Hisao, I'm teasing you! And don't you apologize!“ she says, a little steel in her voice. “I'm not sorry. It pays well and it's worth it. It helps me take care of my little girl.“
  767. I gratefully accept the change of subject Miki gives me. “You have a little girl? How old is she?“
  768. “She just turned five! You want to see a picture?“ she asks excitedly.
  769. We agree and Miki pulls an expensive looking phone from a tiny spaghetti strap purse. She fiddles with it in one hand with impressive dexterity before she flips it over and shows us a picture of a darling little girl riding a bicycle wearing a bright pink helmet.
  771. “Oh, my God, Miki, she's adorable, she looks just like you!“
  773. Kenji manipulates his glasses for a bit, setting the tiny screen in focus. “Yeah, pretty cute, Miki!“
  774. I suppress a chuckle. Kenji can't see the picture, but he's trying to be polite.
  776. Miki takes the phone back and looks at her little girl fondly. “Thanks guys. She is pretty cute, isn't she? Only good thing my ex ever did for me! This little girl is my entire world! Everything is worth it for her.“
  778. The smile on Miki's face makes me a little bittersweet. I think of Lilly and Hanako and I want nothing more than to see that exact expression on their faces when we finally have a child we can show pictures of to all our friends.
  779. Soon enough, I tell myself.
  781. Miki stows her phone away, sliding her purse over the back of her chair. “Enough about me, how about you guys? Nice to see you've mellowed out, Kenji. I've read a couple of your books. They're not my kind of scene, but they are pretty funny. Still fighting against the feminist conspiracy or have you moved onto aliens and secret societies?“
  783. Kenji blows a long stream of smoke into the air and I wave my hand in front of my face, swatting it away. “Miki, I haven't forgotten my mission, but let's just say there are things on my mind that are occupying my time. Your mistake is thinking they aren't all connected. That's the secret, you know. No need to fear, I've got everything under control.“
  784. “I'm sure you do, Kenji. The world depends on it!“
  785. Kenji laughs, but then halts, suddenly looking around nervously.
  786. “Did any of you hear that?”
  787. “Hear what?” I ask.
  788. Kenji hesitates, tense and alert. “Nothing...nothing. I just thought I heard a voice....”
  790. Miki turns towards me and props her chin on her wrist, a devilish smile on her face directed towards me despite Kenji's strange actions. “Hisao, you don't mind if I say you look great, do you?“ She puts her hand over mine and smiles at me, turning her head and shrugging her shoulder in just the perfect way to make any man's heart flutter, a dangerous possibility in my experience. Miki always did have that effect on anyone she met.
  792. “I won't hold it against you if you do.“
  793. “Oh, don't say that, you can hold anything against me that you want to.“
  794. Oh, my, I think.
  795. “Are you still teaching?“ she asks.
  796. I nod, unable to make any other response.
  797. “How is it?“
  798. I collect myself for a moment before responding. “I love it, I absolutely love it. Yamaku is an excellent school, as I'm sure you know.“
  800. “No one should be that excited about school, Hisao! You're such a geek! I always thought this place was a little too stuck up for it's own good. Very 'old money', know what I mean?“
  802. “Yeah, and it's only gotten worse since we were students. But it's not about the Foundation, it's the kids. It's weird being on this side of the classroom and looking at them, but it's given me a good perspective, I guess. Getting the chance to help these kids is the greatest opportunity I've ever had. I wouldn't trade this for anything.“
  804. Miki smiles at the passion that I have as I say the words and her fingers playfully drum against my hand. “Kind of weird, though? You and and a bunch of the others working here all together?“
  806. I shrug. “The Foundation changed it's focus a few years ago. They expanded their mission statement to help the students not only during their time here, but afterwards as well; scholarships, job programs, advocacy and support groups, there's a whole slew of new programs around that have been created to help the students after graduation. That includes recruiting former students to fill the faculty roles. You can thank Administrator Hakamichi for that. I know the scholarship I got from the Yamaku Foundation helped me at university to become a teacher and they turned around and hired me right out of school! It makes it so that students can relate to us when they know we've gone through the exact same trials they have."
  808. "Mutou once told me that Yamaku's purpose was to prepare young people for a role in society, to help them learn the rules of that society and find a way to fit in despite any of their inherent difficulties. While she and I may not agree on many things, ever since Shizune started running the school for the Foundation, that's been the main focus of what we do here. I may not like the money that flows through this place, but if it helps the students, then I guess it's worth it.“
  810. There's a glitter in Miki's eyes I hadn't seen before. “You always were a pretty noble guy, Hisao. I like that about you.“ She leans back and looks me up and down. “And like I said, you look fantastic! Keeping in good health, I hope?“
  811. “Absolutely.“
  812. “And a snappy dresser, I see. A kilt? Very daring! I like that!“ She leans in conspiratorially close. “So, come on, tell me; is anything worn under that thing? You can share, I won't tattle on you!“
  814. I smile. “No, Miki, nothing is worn under the kilt, just don't spread that around.“
  816. Her nose scrunches up and I notice the alluring, tiny dimple in her cheeks for the first time. “That's good to hear,“ she says with a wink.
  817. I cough into my fist nervously.
  819. Kenji pipes in, knocked out of some internal thought process, looking nervously around for whatever it was that heard had heard before. “Takeshi said you were wearing that old thing. I didn't think you would be caught dead in one of those after what we pulled off at your wedding."
  821. Miki's eyes go a little wider than they were before. “W-wedding?”
  822. “Yeah,” Kenji says, picking up a glass I'm sure isn't his and drinking some wine from it. “Lilly and Hisao got married, you didn't know?”
  824. I imagine a large train slowly backing away from the station, sirens and klaxons blaring loudly. It must be similar to what is going on in Miki's head right now.
  826. She surreptitiously removes her hand from mine, covering up the gesture by picking up her wine glass and taking a delicate sip from it. “No, I didn't. I remember you two were dating in school, but I didn't think you got married. How long have you two been together?”
  828. I have a smile plastered on my face that must make me look pretty goofy. “A few years.”
  830. Miki puts her glass down and slaps me in the shoulder again, striking the same spot as before, this time making it hurt enough for me to wince. “Jackass! You did that on purpose! I'm practically crawling into your lap and you just let me keep making an idiot out of myself! How could you do that to a pretty girl?“
  832. “Sorry, Miki, you were on a roll. You seemed to be enjoying yourself so much!“
  834. “Yeah, well,” she pouts, “you're the one sending all the wrong signals. Aren't you married guys supposed to be wearing rings to make sure poor, single ladies like me don't waste our time trying to pick you up?“
  836. Kenji halts mid way through drinking his wine.
  837. Damn it, Miki.
  839. She must see my reaction, because now it's her turn to have a stupid grin on her face. “Oh, I see! You should be more careful, Hisao! After all, I'm the kind of person who pays careful attention to someone's hands!“ She waves her arm about as if to drive her point home.
  840. “Well, sorry about that, Miki,” I say, coming up with an excuse. “I needed to get my ring refitted.”
  841. She does that thing where she locks eyes with me, smiling as she does. “Liar.”
  843. Damn it!
  845. “If that's the case," she continues, "then imagine my surprise when I saw you and Hanako at a little table getting all cozy together. What's up with that?“
  847. Miki, you insufferable gossip! I hate you! I wish I could hate you to death!
  848. She has a look on her face, telling me that payback is, indeed, a bitch.
  850. "Hanako was having trouble, lots of people around and all. She needed a few minutes to collect herself, that's all," I quickly throw out.
  852. Miki's face changes from one of puckish delight to concern at the mention of Hanako. "Is she all right?"
  853. "Yes, she's fine. I guess it must have been all the old faces, but she's doing okay. She ran off with the old newspaper club to catch up."
  854. "Oh, I see," Miki says. I'm not sure if she believes me or not, but she seems to realize she might have taken her teasing a step too far, the atmosphere around the three of us having dramatically altered.
  856. There's a few moments of uncomfortable silence between us, Miki looking contrite and me avoiding any eye contact. Kenji drums his fingers nervously on the table, a tenseness coming over him.
  858. Kenji sets his glass down and pushes away from the table. “I'll see you guys around.”
  859. He quickly leaves and vanishes into the party throng.
  860. Miki looks a bit confused before turning back towards me. “Hisao, did I do something wrong?”
  862. My teeth grind in my skull.
  863. "No, Miki. It's not you."
  864. Miki looks upset.
  865. "Liar...." she bemoans.
  867. ----------------------------------------
  869. Part Two;
  870. http://pastebin.com/EY28L25Y
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