[KS] The Purest Form of Love Pt 7 - Third Time's the Charm

Dec 1st, 2013
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  1. Original Post:
  3. “Do you need a hand, Lilly?” I ask, extending my hand towards the girl on the bus.
  5. “No, no, I’m quite alright, thank you Emi,” Lilly replies, stepping gracefully onto the pavement. Behind her, Hanako also steps off the bus. Lilly quickly latches onto her, arm in arm. With his eyes on the tall buildings around us, Hisao follows us onto the footpath.
  7. “I’d like a hand, if you don’t mind,” Rin says with a smirk, as she, too, steps off the bus. I don’t even respond to her joke, choosing only to roll my eyes and turn away. Though neither Lilly nor Hisao respond either, Hanako, at least, does Rin the favour of acknowledging her with a smile.
  9. As we begin to walk, Lilly coughs politely, getting our attention. “I must say, Emi, it was rather generous of your mother to offer her house for the occasion. Are you sure it’s not too much trouble?”
  11. “Nah, it’s all good. Mom adores Hanako, so when I asked her if you guys could come over for dinner she agreed straight away.”
  13. “Emi…” Hanako protests.
  15. “It’s true, though!” I say, walking backwards so I can face the others. “All I ever hear from her is ‘when’s Hanako coming over’, ‘what has Hanako cooked recently’, ‘do you think Hanako would like this thing I made’… I’m a little jealous, actually.”
  17. “Oh, stop it. You’re making me b-blush.”
  19. “My, my, how cute,” Lilly chuckles. “I must remember to thank your mother for her hospitality.”
  21. I wave my hand dismissively at Lilly’s formality, turning to walk forwards once again. “Ah c’mon, there’s no need for that. Like I said, it’s all good. Besides, didn’t you say your sister was going to bring something?”
  23. “Akira’s coming?” Hanako says, her interest having been piqued. “You didn’t mention that before.”
  25. “I didn’t think it was necessary,” Lilly says, arching her eyebrows in surprise. “She is going with me, after all, and what good would a farewell party be if those departing weren’t present?”
  27. “I guess you’re right.” Hanako pauses for a second, before adding, “It’ll be good to see her again, even if it’s to say g-goodbye.”
  29. “We’ll be back in no time at all, don’t you worry,” Lilly says, smiling.
  31. “So, uh, since I’ve never met this Akira, d’you guys mind telling me what I’m in for?” Hisao asks. I was about to ask the same thing, myself.
  33. “You’d like her,” Hanako replies. “She’s a lot of fun. She and Emi have a fair bit in common, actually.”
  35. I whirl back round to face Hanako. “Really?”
  37. “Yeah. Akira’s got a similar look about her, in, uh… certain w-ways, and she’s pretty cool and casual like you, too.”
  39. “And she has a penchant for getting into mischief at school, might I add,” Lilly remarks, stifling a giggle.
  41. “Is that so? I dunno if I can handle two resident detention experts,” Hisao chuckles.
  43. I frown at Hisao, crossing my arms. “Hey! Shut up! How’d you even know about that, anyway?”
  45. “Guilty,” Rin says, smirking just like before.
  47. “Ugh, you guys… why do I always have to be the butt of your jokes?”
  49. “Well, someone has to.”
  51. “Can’t it be you?”
  53. “What? No. Of course not. How can I be the butt of my own jokes? I can’t even see my butt.”
  55. “No, but I can.”
  57. “How? Do you have x-ray vision?”
  59. “Woah-ho-ho-kay, uh… that’s enough talk about butts, I think,” Hisao interjects nervously, stopping me from replying. “Um… where is your house, anyway, Emi?”
  61. “Oh, it’s just over there,” I reply, pointing to the house just across the road from us. I almost hadn’t noticed how far we’d actually walked. I’m a bit surprised that we got here so quickly.
  63. Just as I’d asked, all the curtains are drawn shut and not a trace of decoration is visible from the outside. I cross the road, walk up the driveway and open the front door, ushering the others into the darkened room beyond. Hanako, however, stops short.
  65. “I thought you said your mom was home…” Hanako whispers.
  67. “Don’t worry,” I whisper back. Then, noticeably louder, “She’s here!”
  69. With a booming cry of “Surprise!” the light switch is flipped on and everyone bursts out of their hiding places. Having only just arrived, Rin, Lilly and Hisao weren’t exactly hidden in the first place, but they call out regardless. It is a little worrying, though, that Hisao’s friend is nowhere in sight.
  71. As I turn to see Hanako’s reaction, however, I do a double take. Where… where’d she go? I don’t have to look far for my answer; a loud ‘oof’ and the sound of someone falling over just outside is a big enough hint.
  73. Sprawled on the ground, Hanako rubs her nose gingerly. Next to her, a blonde woman in a suit sits, stunned, holding a large, wrapped box under one arm and a paper bag held just off the ground in her other hand.
  75. “Woah, Hanners, you okay there?” the blonde woman says. Her voice is deep – almost masculine – but smooth.
  77. “Yeah,” Hanako replies, standing up with a groan. “Are you?”
  79. “Nothin’s broken, that’s for sure,” the blonde woman says, eyeing her cargo. “What the heck are ya doin’ running so fast?”
  81. Eyes widening in realisation, Hanako whirls around to face me standing on the door step. “What the hell was that? You scared the crap outta me!”
  83. I feel pretty guilty. Well, I already felt guilty, but Hanako’s expression makes me feel guiltier. I’ve never known Hanako to shout, much less curse. Maybe surprising her was a bad choice after all. Oh well. It’s too late for that now. I smile apologetically and shrug. “Happy birthday, Hanako.”
  85. Hanako’s mouth opens and closes several times before she finally manages to say something.
  87. “You told me we were having a farewell p-party for Lilly and Akira.”
  89. “Ehehe… yeah…”
  91. “And you got everyone out here under my nose.”
  93. “Sure did.”
  95. Hanako sighs, burying her face in her palms. When she looks back up, there’s a steely glint in her eye that I’ve never seen before. She strides up to me, hands on hips, and looks me square in the eye before lightly punching me in the shoulder.
  97. “D-don’t ever do that again.”
  99. I flash the biggest grin I can muster and reply, “You’re welcome.”
  101. Rolling her eyes, Hanako ushers everyone back into the house. Watching from her place on the ground with a smile of wry amusement, the blonde woman extends the hand holding the paper bag towards me. Taking the hint, I remove the surprisingly heavy bag from her hand and help her up.
  103. “You must be Emi,” she says, dusting off her suit.
  105. “That’s me. Lilly’s sister, right?”
  107. “Yup,” she replies, taking back the paper bag. “Akira Satou. Nice to meetcha.”
  109. “Likewise. Come on inside, everyone else is already here.”
  111. I turn on my heel and head back inside, with Akira following close behind. In the dining room, everyone is milling around, variously chatting amongst themselves and wishing Hanako a happy birthday. As much as she may protest, I can tell she’s glad that so many people turned up.
  113. Akira steps past me and approaches the dinner table, placing the box and paper bag down on it. The other Yamaku students look curiously at her as she grips Hanako in a rough bear hug and ruffles her hair.
  115. “Happy birthday, Hanners. Never thought I’d see you having a party like this.”
  117. “Neither did I. I wouldn’t have organised anything this big, at least.”
  119. “Well I’m glad there’s so many of your friends here. Wouldn’t want you to keep your present all to yourself.”
  121. “Y-you got me a present?” Hanako peers over to the items Akira left on the table, eyeing the paper bag in particular. I notice it looks suspiciously like a bottle. Clearly, Hanako notices this as well. “It’s not… is it?”
  123. “What, you mean this?” Akira laughs, holding up the bag. “Nah, this is for Mrs. Ibarazaki as thanks for hosting this whole shebang.”
  125. Akira slides the bag upright across the table to where mom stands. Mom, in a panic, snatches it up before it has a chance to fall off the edge. With a muttered ‘oh my’, she pulls a bottle of some fancy red wine out of the bag.
  127. “Now this,” Akira continues, gesturing to the large box, “is for you.”
  129. Hanako runs her hands over the wrapped box, looking to Akira for approval. With her nod of confirmation, Hanako gently tears the coloured paper away from the box underneath to reveal a case of some kind of pre-mixed alcoholic drinks. Despite her being unable to see the box, Lilly seems all too knowledgeable about its contents.
  131. “Akira, please tell me you didn’t…”
  133. “Okay. I didn’t.”
  135. “You did, didn’t you,” Lilly sighs.
  137. “Ehehe, yep. Surprise~! Don’t forget to share ‘em around, Hanners. There’s more than enough there to give all you kids a good buzz.”
  139. Hanako blushes, possibly out of embarrassment. “Akira… I c-couldn’t. We’re all u-underage…”
  141. “I’m not,” Kenji interjects, raising his hand out from under the table. So that’s where he went. Hisao immediately slaps his hand to his face.
  143. “Psh yeah, but no one’s gonna find out,” Akira replies, completely ignoring Kenji. “What’s a party without good friends, good fun and good booze?”
  145. “A legal one, for starters,” Lilly answers sternly.
  147. “Aww chillax, Lils, it’s not like I’ve never been involved with underage drinking before.”
  149. “Um, if it’s alright with Mrs. Ibarazaki, I think it’d be o-okay…” Hanako says.
  151. Mom doesn’t respond at first, causing most of the group to look over to her in the kitchen. With a loud ‘pop!’, she wrenches the cork out of the bottle of wine and begins pouring herself some. Having carefully measured out half a glassful, she finally notices the expectant air.
  153. “Oh my. Up to me, is it?” Mom pauses for a second in consideration, swirling her glass under her nose then taking a sip. “It would be hypocritical of me to open up this wine while saying no to you lot. Go right ahead! I trust you’re all mature enough to take responsibility for your actions.”
  155. Hisao and I immediately share a glance that simultaneously flicks to Kenji, now crawling out from under the table to inspect the box. Hisao makes a cutting gesture, but I simply shrug in response. Maybe Kenji won’t kill anyone if he’s in a booze coma. Maybe.
  157. Everyone eyes the box uncertainly. If my own thoughts are anything to go by, they’re thinking something like ‘will I or won’t I?’ while at the same time trying desperately not to be the first one to take a drink.
  159. Nervously, Hanako rips open one end of the box and extracts a single beverage. What’s it say on there? ‘Vodka and raspberry’? Huh. Hanako pops it open, releasing a loud fizzing noise, then examines the liquid within, taking it in by smell. With one final look at every else, Hanako takes a sip.
  161. “Not bad. It’s really sweet.”
  163. With the taboo now breached, everyone but Lilly, Saki and Rin reaches for a drink. I notice that each one has a different colouration and flavour; mine is apparently vodka and lemon. Before opening it, I grab a second drink – this one vodka and orange – pop it open, stick in a straw, and place it on the table, in front of Rin. Her face on sampling a sip is probably the most expressive I’ve ever seen her.
  165. Nearby, Akira pours Lilly a glass of the wine, and a second for Saki soon after. Saki watches Lilly carefully, mimicking every movement Lilly makes as she savours the aroma. Natsume and Naomi each take a sip of their own drinks, before switching and trying each other’s.
  167. In the corner, Kenji seems to have successfully swindled a top-secret feminist-sponsored vodka and apple drink. He inspects it closely, periodically looking at it without his glasses, as if checking for signs of tampering. With a shrug, he cracks it open and chugs the whole lot in one go.
  169. “Jesus Kenji, slow down!” Hisao shouts in surprise.
  171. Downing the last sip, Kenji dramatically lobs the container into the nearby rubbish bin, bellowing ‘Hoo rah!’ like some kind of deranged madman.
  173. Naturally, this attracts everyone else’s attention. Kenji doesn’t seem to take any notice of everyone’s confused stares, merely posing with his fists on his waist and looking slightly to the right of the window. Yep. He’s nuts.
  175. Akira – wearing an expression somewhere between impressed and confused – steps over to Kenji, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Hold your horses, kiddo, you’re gonna knock yourself out if you keep drinking like that.”
  177. “Not likely. This alcohol is for sissies. It’ll take a drink of real masculine strength to bring me down.”
  179. “Uh huh. Whatever. We’ll see about that.”
  181. Kenji brushes Akira’s hand off, following through the motion to adjust his glasses. “Is that a challenge, sir?”
  183. “You wanna make it a challenge? I’d like to see your face when you get out-drunk by a woman, sir.”
  185. Noticing the imminent hostility, mom steps between the two. “Now now, let’s not get ourselves too tipsy before we even get to the rest of the presents, please…”
  187. Hanako nearly chokes on her drink in her surprise. “There’s more? Y-you guys…”
  189. “You bet your ass there is!” I chirp. “You can’t have a birthday party without presents!”
  191. Naomi sends a wink my way in approval. Natsume, on the other hand, just rolls her eyes and extracts a gift bag stashed behind a potted plant. Together, they stride over to Hanako and hand it to her, chirping ‘Happy birthday!’ at the same time.
  193. In seeing how perfectly in-sync they act, I notice that they’re dressed very similarly as well. Both wear matching t-shirts; white, with printed patterns resembling the outfits in one of those magical-girl TV shows. Natsume’s shirt is patterned in blue, while Naomi’s is green. The main point of difference is their shorts; Natsume wears dark cargo shorts while Naomi’s are of the denim variety.
  195. Hanako gasping turns my attention back to her and the gift she now holds in her hands. A copy of the school paper? I sneak a peek of it over Hanako’s shoulder. It looks like a newspaper should, I suppose, except for one little note at the bottom; ‘Formatted by: Hanako Ikezawa’.
  197. “It’s the first copy we printed,” Natsume says. “We thought you’d like to see it before the rest of them get distributed on Monday. It’s yours to keep.”
  199. “And don’t forget this bit~,” Naomi adds, removing a small parcel from the bottom of the gift bag. Hanako opens it up to reveal a fancy-looking fountain pen. She examines it closely, and I notice that she’s staring at something inscribed into the side of it.
  201. “If your aim is to change the world, j-journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon,” Hanako reads.
  203. “Tom Stoppard, 1988,” Natsume says. Deciding further clarification needed, she continues, “It’s a quote. I thought it would be relevant.”
  205. “Thank you two very much. It means a lot… really.”
  207. Naomi claps her hands excitedly, throwing in a bow for good measure. “You’re welcome~! So, who’s next?”
  209. “Ooh, ooh, me me me! Can I go next?” Rin asks.
  211. No one voices any opposition, so Rin gets out of her seat, reaches behind the curtain with her foot, and – quite impressively – pulls out a small canvas, about a foot by a foot and a half in size. Hanako takes it from her and promptly almost drops it.
  213. “Oh my god… Rin, it’s… what is it?”
  215. “It’s you. On the first day we really met. Except your clothes are on the ground because you’ve shed the you that was you back then, kind of like a bug. The angel wings are because they look cool and because I thought being naked at the beach was a bad idea. You know, sand ‘n’ all. Do you like it?”
  217. Hanako peers at it carefully, looking at it from several different angles as if doing so might make the painting suddenly change into something else. “I… I love it. Th-thanks, Rin.”
  219. Rin beams and sits back down at the table, sipping more of her drink through her straw. Hanako, meanwhile, sets the painting down on the dinner table, which allows me to take a look at it. It’s… very Rin-like. Rin at her Rinnest. I have absolutely no idea how it looks like anything she described, though. Maybe if I squint?
  221. “I suppose it’s my turn, then,” Saki announces, withdrawing a gift bag of her own from under her seat. “When Emi mentioned gifts, I had only one thing in mind. I trust you’ll like it.”
  223. Setting the bag down on the table, Hanako pulls out a mass of folded purple fabric. When she unfurls it, though, it becomes a lot more familiar.
  225. “It’s the yukata from the festival!”
  227. “Mhmm. I thought you looked wonderful in it, and you seemed to enjoy wearing it quite a lot. It’s yours, now.”
  229. “B-but… didn’t you make this by hand?”
  231. “Yes, but I can’t possibly wear everything I make, can I? It will be put to best use with you, I believe.”
  233. Before Hanako can reply, Kenji barges in front and drops a plastic bag on the table, before backing away quickly.
  235. “Emi… who is that?” Hanako whispers to me.
  237. “Hisao’s hall mate. He’s kind of crazy.”
  239. “I d-don’t even know him, why is he here?”
  241. “He shouldn’t be, but he overheard me inviting Hisao and insisted he come with him.”
  243. Kenji clears his throat awkwardly, asking “Aren’t you going to open it? I was told I had to bring an offering.”
  245. I share a grimace with Hanako. I’ve known Kenji for a grand total of about five minutes and that time was not pleasant. This ‘offering’ could be anything. Hesitantly, Hanako lifts open the plastic bag.
  247. “Is that… a packet of frozen bacon?!” I exclaim.
  249. “Premium bacon,” Kenji corrects. Unbelievable.
  251. Hanako stammers uncontrollably. Not out of nervousness, I think, but out of sheer confusion. “What… I… Why? Why would you g-get this? Is this some kind of j-joke?”
  253. Kenji frowns, as if the concept of gifting someone bacon was a completely sane thing to do. “Well it was either that or the pretzels. Ain’t nobody touchin’ my pretzels.”
  255. He’s completely serious. I can’t even… What the ever-loving fuck? And Rin’s sitting over there, laughing. Can’t she see how retarded this is?
  257. “Uh, so, this is from me and Lilly,” Hisao interjects, sparing us from any further insanity. He hands Hanako a porcelain doll in a green dress and a wooden box marked with black and white tiles on one side. “The doll is from Lilly. And the chessboard is from me. Happy birthday, Hanako.”
  259. Lilly, still seated, repeats the sentiment. Hanako looks the two presents over, feeling each texture of the doll and marvelling at the craftsmanship of the chessboard.
  261. “They’re b-beautiful. Thank you guys so much. I… I…”
  263. Without warning, Hanako throws her arms around Hisao and me in a tearful embrace. Unsure of what to do, Hisao takes to resting his hand on Hanako’s head comfortingly. I’m not sure what to do with mine. I settle for patting her on the back.
  265. “Ah come on, Hanako, you can’t go getting emotional just yet. I’ve gotta give you my present still.”
  267. “You mean after all your complaining, you got a present anyway?” Hisao asks. Snarky bastard.
  269. “Shaddup. I got mom to call in a favour. If you guys could come with me…”
  271. Extracting myself from Hanako’s embrace, I lead everyone into the living room. Sitting front and centre, adorned with a purple bow, is my gift. Hanako covers her mouth in shock, and approaches it carefully.
  273. “This… this is for m-me?”
  275. “Uh huh.”
  277. “You b-bought me a karaoke machine? I thought these were r-really expensive…”
  279. “Well, it was only going to be a rental, but, as I said, mom called in a favour and we got this one outright. I even loaded it up with all of mom’s music. It was torture.”
  281. Hanako turns back to face us all, lip trembling through her smile. She fiddles with the ruffle on her shirt, trying her hardest not to cry. Instead, she rushes at me, trapping me in a flying hug that almost knocks me off my feet. I have to whirl around somewhat to prevent myself from falling over.
  283. “Thank you for organising this. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday party,” Hanako whispers into my ear. She couples it with a small peck on the cheek as she lets me go. It makes me blush a little; not that I let anyone see it.
  285. “So, are we gonna fire this thing up or what?” I ask.
  287. “Aww yes, totally calling first go!” Akira shouts, slipping through the crowd and removing one of the two microphones from the machine. “Who’s with me? C’mon, Hanners, how ‘bout you? It’s your present!”
  289. “A-alright. What do you want to sing?”
  291. As they scroll through the song choices, I feel my skin crawl. Bleh. Old music. I need a drink.
  293. I step back into the dining room, looking for the distinctive yellow that was my can. I find it on the kitchen bench, next to…
  295. “Oh, Lilly, I didn’t realise you were still in here.”
  297. “That’s quite alright, Emi. Everyone got up so suddenly that I thought it tad risky to follow.”
  299. “There wasn’t much to see. Hanako just gave me a big-ass hug and nearly cried a bit.”
  301. Lilly chuckles, waving her hand in dismissal. “I think I would have missed seeing it regardless of whether or not I was in the room, don’t you?”
  303. “Oh, right. Sorry. I keep forgetting that you’re – you know.”
  305. “Yes, that does seem to be a common occurrence. Is that not a positive thing, though?”
  307. “It would be if it happened to the rest of us as well,” Saki replies, taking a seat on Lilly’s other side. I can’t help but get a sense of bitterness behind her statement. “Mind if I join you?”
  309. I shrug in response. “Sure. That trashy music getting to you too, huh?”
  311. “More so the singing. Hanako is surprisingly talented, but the other – Akira, I believe? – not so much…”
  313. “Ah, yes,” Lilly sighs. “I’m afraid singing isn’t very prominent among my family members. I’d be hard pressed to attempt more than a hum.”
  315. “Same,” I add. “I could probably hum that whole song right now and do pretty well, but as soon as I open my mouth…”
  317. “We’d both end up sounding something like that cacophony in the living room, I presume.”
  319. Laughing, I take another swig from my drink. Man, did I finish it that quick? I didn’t even notice. “Hey, Saki, could you pass me another one?”
  321. “Certainly. Any flavour in particular?”
  323. “Uh not really, just gimme whatever, I guess.”
  325. Saki slides a drink across the table to me. This one is raspberry. Sure, why not. Like the last one, I crack it open and start to down a few mouthfuls. It’s not bad. Not as good as the other one, though.
  327. “Hey-hey, Emi, you’re really taking a shine to those,” Akira chuckles, having wandered in from the living room. She pats me on the shoulder for good measure.
  329. “It’s only my second one.”
  331. “That’s one more than everyone else. ‘Cept your mom. She’s a trooper.”
  333. “Oh god… how many has she had?”
  335. “I dunno, two or three glasses of wine. I’m thinking maybe I should go get some before she drinks it all.”
  337. “Please do,” Lilly says. “I’m sure Emi would rather not see her mother inebriated.”
  339. “Hah, you’re just sayin’ that ‘cause you want me to pour you some more. I can see your empty glass there.”
  341. “Don’t change the topic,” Lilly huffs.
  343. “Alright, alright. Calm yer tits.” Turning towards the living room, Akira calls out “Hey, Hanners, do me a solid and nab the bottle of wine off Emi’s mom, yeah?”
  345. As Akira asked, Hanako soon arrives, wine bottle in hand. “Here you go. That was f-fun, by the way, Akira. What are you doing over here?”
  347. “I’m just pouring these fine young ladies another glass of wine and chatting about… uh, what were you chatting about?”
  349. “Your terrible singing! Ooh burn!” I snicker, snapping my finger for emphasis. The other girls, save for Akira, giggle along with me.
  351. “You watch your mouth,” Akira warns. “I heard ya’ll talking about how bad you are. We’ll see who the real Slim Shady is.”
  353. With Akira’s reference going completely over my head, I settle back into sipping from my drink, while she goes about refilling Lilly and Saki’s glasses. Hanako, since she’s here, grabs a second drink for herself and takes a seat.
  355. “So, what were you really t-talking about?” she asks.
  357. “That was pretty much it, actually. But hey, you’ve got nothing to worry about; we all reckon you’re pretty good.”
  359. “You’re just saying that because it’s my birthday party…”
  361. “I’m serious! I’d rather listen to you than whoever’s singing now.”
  363. “Yes, they are quite bad, wouldn’t you say?” Saki adds. “Who is singing, might I ask?”
  365. “Actually, that’s N-Natsume and Naomi. They volunteered as soon as Akira and I were done.”
  367. “I don’t feel quite so bad about myself anymore,” I snort.
  369. Lilly clicks her tongue disapprovingly. “Emi, please. I have little doubt that the rest of us are likely to be coerced into participating at some point; with that in mind, I wouldn’t judge others so harshly.”
  371. “Hey! You were slagging off Akira only five minutes ago!”
  373. “I said nothing of the sort. I merely said that singing is not prominent among my family members. Derive from that what you will.”
  375. “Well I thought Akira’s singing was more than adequate,” Hanako counters.
  377. Akira looks up from examining Saki’s present to give Hanako the thumbs up. “Good to know at least one person’s got my back. So, yukata-girl, you made this yourself, huh?”
  379. “That’s right.”
  381. “Where’d you get the fabric? This is top-quality cotton right here.”
  383. “There’s a tailor’s on the other side of the city. They order in too much sometimes, so we at the Fashion Club buy up the excess.”
  385. “Genius. You kids get more inventive every year. And this has a good fit, too; it’d probably fit well on most of the people here. Do you mind, Hanners?”
  387. “It’s okay with me,” Hanako answers.
  389. Saki rises from her seat to help Akira put on the yukata. It proves a little difficult with Akira’s suit jacket, so she quickly throws it off and gets right back into getting dressed up. Saki goes about tidying up Akira’s hair as she tries to get a look at herself in the reflection in the oven.
  391. It almost makes Akira look pretty. No, that’s not the right word. Feminine? Ah, I dunno, it keeps sounding like she’s not those things in the first place. The fact of the matter is that she currently looks more closely styled to Saki with her floral summer dress than that androgynous look she had in just her suit.
  393. “Ehhh it’s nice, but not really my colour. Red is more my sorta thing. I can see why you like this one though, Hanners. And again, compliments on the craftsmanship.”
  395. “Thanks,” both girls reply, as Akira removes the yukata.
  397. “Playing dress-up, are we? Whoops! Sorry about that,” mom chuckles, having bumped into Lilly on her arrival into the dining room.
  399. “What’re ya doing, mom?”
  401. “I’m just looking for another drop of that fabulous wine that Hanako dear snatched off me.”
  403. “I think you’ve had plenty for now.”
  405. Mom pouts at me, leaning on the kitchen bench for balance. “I’m a responsible adult, Emi, I know when I’ve had enough.”
  407. “Good. You still need to cook dinner.”
  409. “I can take care of that,” Hanako offers.
  411. “Aha! See, Emi? Problem solved. No need to worry. You can run along and play with your friends now. I’ll call everyone in when the food is ready.”
  413. “Mom, I’m not a little kid.”
  415. “Forget it, Emi,” Akira says, throwing her arm over my shoulder. “You can’t argue with alcohol. C’mon, let’s go check on the others.”
  417. I don’t bother resisting as Akira leads me back into the living room, where Rin and Kenji take up one seat each on opposite couches and Hisao stands around near the karaoke machine, microphone in hand. Natsume and Naomi appear to be trying to convince Kenji to sing. It isn’t going well by the look of things. Honestly, for how little I know about Kenji, I think that, even if it was going well, it wouldn’t be going well for long.
  419. “Beat it, four eyes. I told you, I ain’t singing to your dumb song. It’s not manly.”
  421. “There are lots of male singers on this.”
  423. “Manly. Not ‘male’. There’s a difference.”
  425. “I give up!” Naomi exclaims. “Does anyone else wanna sing with Hisao? Mister Party-Pooper~ here isn’t being very helpful.”
  427. Natsume catches me watching with wry amusement. “Emi. How about you?”
  429. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t be caught dead singing this stuff.”
  431. Naomi frowns at me, waggling her finger disapprovingly. “You’re as bad as this guy. Rin? You know you want to~.”
  433. “Lemme finish this drink.” Sucking up one mighty mouthful through her straw, Rin burps. As completely unnecessary as it is, she also rolls her neck, shoulders and back – making the joints pop – and stretches her legs out. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
  435. Naomi makes to hand her the microphone, but Rin’s lack of arms clicks in her mind. Rin offers her feet up to hold it instead. That looks like it would be really awkward, as well as making it hard to see the TV screen for the lyrics.
  437. “Alright, I’ll hold it for ya,” I sigh, hopping onto the couch next to Rin.
  439. Naomi claps and bounces on her toes excitedly. “Hooray! Hisao, have you picked something out?”
  441. “Huh? Oh, yeah. I’m good to go.”
  443. “Perfect~!” Turning back to Kenji, Naomi adds, “Scooch over a bit, Mister Party-Pooper.”
  445. Kenji refuses to budge, but Naomi sits down next to him anyway and moves close enough to him that he makes room for Natsume to sit down as well. Akira takes the chance to sit down on my other side. Still standing, Hisao hits the start button on the karaoke machine and music starts to pump out the speakers.
  447. Hisao seems to be really getting into it. I’m not familiar with the artist but it’s more tolerable than the other stuff I’ve heard sung tonight. It must have been on the machine when we got it. I notice Hisao tugging at the neck of his sweater vest as he sings. I can’t believe he wore a sweater vest and slacks on a day like this. It’s little wonder he’s feeling the heat now.
  449. Similarly, Kenji is also somewhat over-dressed. However, Kenji seems to have opted to stick to his school uniform and scarf. These boys are crazy. Kenji especially so. Does he even have casual clothes?
  451. It strikes me that Rin is dressed casually for once. She usually only ever wears her school uniform, simply because it means she doesn’t have to change clothes as much. And she must have gotten dressed by herself, too, since she was already wearing her green-and-white striped undershirt and navy top when I came to get her.
  453. Soon enough, the song finishes. No one immediately volunteers for another go, so the machine gets left untouched while we alternate sipping from our drinks and making small talk. Kenji just sits with his arms crossed, staring at the wall and looking thoroughly displeased. Serves you right for inviting yourself to this party.
  455. In the midst of a lively debate between Akira and the girls from the Newspaper Club about which character from some anime is better, I finish my drink. I immediately feel like another one. No wonder mom was looking for more wine.
  457. “I’m gonna grab another drink. Anyone else want one?”
  459. “Orange please,” Rin answers. Hisao and the girls also make note of their empty beverages.
  461. “Alright, so five drinks. Kenji, you want anything?”
  463. “I have my own.”
  465. He does? Hmm. Well, whatever. I hop to my feet and return to the kitchen. Saki and Lilly seem to be animatedly discussing something to do with French perfumes while mom and Hanako are hard at work in the kitchen. None of them take any notice as I remove five drinks from the box. Hmm. Nine left, and whatever’s left of that bottle of wine. It goes quick.
  467. Just as I’m about to turn around and leave, I hear mom excitedly jabbering that the food is done. She looks up and finally notices my presence. “Emi! Perfect timing. Could you call the others in for dinner, please?”
  469. Shrugging, I do as I’m told. Everyone in the living room makes their way in here, each one taking a drink out of my arms on the way – except Rin, for obvious reasons, and Akira, who settles for a glass of wine instead.
  471. Mom and Hanako dole out the food onto several plates. It’s nothing fancy; simple party fare, no utensils required. People take turns milling about the table, stacking paper plates high with finger food, and backing away to chow it down. Between it all, people chug mouthful after mouthful of alcohol. It almost reminds me of those American teen comedies.
  473. The piles of food quickly shrink, which evidently means that it’s time for cake, as mom whips out an elaborately-iced number from the fridge. Kenji reaches out a finger to try and wipe some off and is quickly swatted away. Mom lights the big one and eight shaped candles in the middle, flicks off the lights, and counts us in.
  475. “Happy birthday to you,
  476. “Happy birthday to you,
  477. “Happy birthday dear Hanako,
  478. “Happy birthday to you.”
  480. I lead the cheer of ‘hip hip hooray’, with everyone – even Kenji – joining in. In the low light of the two candles, I can see a single tear roll down Hanako’s cheek and curve around her wide smile.
  482. “Go on, make a wish.”
  484. After a moment of consideration, Hanako blows out the candles. The lights are flicked back on and Hanako starts cutting up the cake. It’s devoured even faster than the party food. As slices of cake disappear, people begin filtering back into the living room and the grating tones of bad singing and bad music start up once again.
  486. I find myself squished onto the couch with Naomi and Natsume on one side of me and Hanako on my other. Kenji, Hisao, Rin and Akira sit on the other couch while Mom helps Saki and Lilly set up the karaoke machine with something Lilly is familiar with.
  488. “Are you enjoying yourself, Hanako?” Naomi asks. She has to raise her voice a little to be heard over the din.
  490. “Oh, yes. Very much. I’m really glad you guys organised all this. You c-could have told me, though.”
  492. “Pfft, what’d be the fun in that? Besides,” I continue, “Lilly said you’d try and stop me if I did. I just wish I could have seen your face before you bolted.”
  494. “I’m going to g-get you back for that, you know. And don’t you worry; I’ll make sure I see your face.”
  496. “Oh yeah? And how are you gonna do that?”
  498. “We’ll help,” Natsume offers. “We can even set up a camera if you want photographic evidence.”
  500. “Y-you don’t have to do that. I was just kidding…” Hanako says.
  502. Naomi looks rather disappointed by that, visibly deflating as she speaks. “Aww… Natsume and I play pranks on each other all the time. It’s fun~.”
  504. “You’re in the club with us now. We can initiate you,” Natsume adds.
  506. “Speaking of that,” I begin. “How’s the whole club thing going, anyway? That newspaper looked pretty neat.”
  508. Naomi perks right back up as she answers. “Oh~ you should have seen Hanako. Took to it like a fish to water.”
  510. “It was like she’d been doing it her whole life.” Natsume continues, nodding her head sagely.
  512. “P-please stop overselling it,” Hanako pleads. “It wasn’t fancy; just a couple of text boxes and pictures.”
  514. “I think they’re just being grateful,” I suggest. The girls nod their agreement. “See? Help is always nice.”
  516. By the way the background volume in the room dies down, I figure Saki and Lilly have finished singing. As expected, they’re winding themselves down from the effort. Mom traipses around the room, tempting people to have the next go.
  518. “Emi! You haven’t sung yet. What do you say? Do it for your old mom?”
  520. “No.”
  522. Everyone in the immediate vicinity starts heaping on the requests. Great. I sigh in resignation. There’s only one way to stop this nonsense.
  524. “Alright, fine. One song.”
  526. “Woo~! Okay, and who’s going to take the stage with my lovely daughter?”
  528. It almost disappoints me that no one immediately puts up their hand. I’m disappointed for real when the first person to do so is, of all people, Kenji.
  530. “Perfect! Two first-timers, ready to show the world what they’ve got! Break a leg, kids~!”
  532. Mom’s game show host attitude is increasingly becoming annoying. At least she managed to get Kenji out of his seat to join in on something. As he gets up though, Rin falls sideways, through the now-vacant space, landing on Hisao’s lap. It startles him quite severely; if not for the shock of the impact, then for the position that Rin’s head now occupies.
  534. “Uh… I think maybe Rin should go to bed,” Hisao stammers.
  536. “Oh my. I believe Emi set up a futon in my room upstairs for her. Are you able to lift her?”
  538. Hanako jumps up off the other couch to sit Rin up. “I’ll help. Hisao, can you get her on your b-back?”
  540. “Yeah. I can do that.”
  542. While Hanako and Hisao awkwardly go about taking Rin upstairs, Kenji whispers conspiratorially into my ear.
  544. “Ibarazaki. I thought you said this was a sting op. When’s the sting, woman?”
  546. “Not now. We’ve gotta wait for the right moment.”
  548. “Right. Of course. For maximum overkill. Gotcha. Now focus, we need to keep up this shoddy ruse.”
  550. Taking an almighty swig from a hip flask – where did he even get that? – Kenji burps and dramatically mashes the ‘start’ button.
  552. At the very least it’s a song I’m familiar with. It’s something mom sings all the time. The lyrics are in English but I have a solid enough grasp on them to not make a huge fool of myself. On the other hand, Kenji sings with a passion not shared by anyone except maybe Hanako. He’s even pretty good. Crazy kid’s full of surprises.
  554. Hanako and Hisao return by the time Kenji and I finish our song. Hisao still looks a little jumpy. I can’t blame, I guess. It’s Hanako looking dazed that gets me. Did they…? Maybe. Good for them.
  556. “Hey, Hisao; your buddy here’s not half bad. Why didn’t you tell me he could sing?”
  558. “Kenji can sing?”
  560. “I am a man of many talents!” Kenji states proudly.
  562. “Can I sing with you?” Hanako asks.
  564. Kenji mulls it over for a second before leaping back onto the couch and chugging some more of whatever is in his hip flask. “No.”
  566. I roll my eyes at him. So much for that. “It’s okay Hanako, I’ll sing with you.”
  568. *****
  570. I can barely stay awake. It must be after midnight by now. Between those of us still awake, we’ve finished the remaining drinks and the rest of the bottle of wine. Mom’s response when she found out it was empty was to go to bed. Not how I would’ve reacted, but whatever.
  572. Apparently having finished singing another song solo, Hanako flops over in a really awkward way, giggling at nothing in particular.
  574. Akira turns to me, whispering in my ear, “Do you want me to take her back to Yamaku? I’m gonna be driving Lils back anyway, so…”
  576. “Nah, she can sleep it off here. Mom said it was okay for people to stay over.”
  578. In the corner of the room, a lone hand raises itself off the floor, pointing in Akira’s general direction.
  580. “I’ll take you up on that,” Kenji slurs. “This place is a death-trap. Can you believe it? A woman owning a house? Us guys have got to stick together.”
  582. Akira sighs, bringing her hand to her forehead. “Yo, kid, I told you –”
  584. “Shhh,” Hisao whispers. “Let him keep thinking you’re a guy. It’ll be easier for you in the long run. And it’ll be better than letting him wake up here. Trust me.”
  586. “…How much did you say he had to drink? It couldn’t have been more than one or two, right?”
  588. “I dunno. He told me he was bringing some ‘refreshments’ in case someone tried poisoning him, though.” Hisao burps quite impressively before continuing, “I think that’s code for whiskey. And pretzels, if his room is anything to go by.”
  590. Still on the floor, Kenji mumbles, “Whiskey only. The drink of true men. Like me. And you. And blondie. And that Rin guy. He’s cool.”
  592. Hisao and Akira stare blankly at Kenji. I find myself giggling uncontrollably at just how loopy Hisao’s hall mate really is. No wonder he took a liking to Rin, even if he does think she’s a dude.
  594. “He had a hip flask with him,” I say. “It was probably full of it.”
  596. “Makes sense. So, we good for that lift?” Hisao asks, turning back to Akira.
  598. “Sure, kiddo. Gimme a hand peeling your buddy off the floor.”
  600. A little unsteadily, Hisao gets to his feet and stumbles over to Kenji. Taking one of Kenji’s arms over each of their shoulders, Hisao and Akira hoist him off the ground and half-drag-half-walk Kenji towards the door.
  602. With the door open, Akira remotely unlocks her car and nudges the boys down the driveway. Stepping back inside, she gently prods Lilly awake and, taking Lilly’s arm in her own, leads her to the car as well. Over her shoulder, Akira calls, “Anyone else want a lift? I’ve got one more seat free.”
  604. Saki, seated next to where Lilly was not a moment ago, stands up effortlessly. Either she holds her liquor well or she didn’t have much to drink.
  606. “That would be splendid, thank you.” As she passes me, Saki adds, “Thanks again for inviting me, Emi.”
  608. “Sure, any time. Thanks for coming.”
  610. With a smile, Saki follows Akira out the door and shuts it behind her. Man, I sure hope Kenji doesn’t realise that Saki’s a girl. It’d be bad enough with him just being in the same car as Lilly. The thought of Kenji flipping out makes me resume my earlier giggling, in spite of the danger it might pose to Akira’s driving.
  612. Hanako, still perched awkwardly on the floor, starts giggling along with me. I walk over and look to her for explanation for her laughter. Hanako merely points over to the seat of the couch, where Natsume and Naomi lie curled up together, holding hands in their sleep, and starts giggling again.
  614. “Hahaha, isn’t that cute? They’re holding hands. Y’know what? I should have g-got a lift with Akira. Then I could have gone back to Yamaku with Hisao and held hands toooooo.”
  616. I sigh, rubbing my temples to relieve both the pressure of the alcohol and Hanako’s extremely low tolerance for it. “Yep, definitely time for you to go to bed, giggles. C’mon, up ya get.”
  618. Much like Hisao with Kenji, I hoist Hanako’s arm over my shoulder and walk her upstairs. It’s slow enough going just trying to keep Hanako upright, much less myself. Alcohol really makes it hard to walk on prostheses. It must be even harder on normal legs by the look of things.
  620. Ugh. Never again.
  622. By the time we reach my room, Hanako’s giggling has petered out. As I go about unrolling a futon for her to sleep on, I notice she’s gone completely silent. When I turn to look at her, her eyes seem to be focused on some place far into the distance, razor sharp and filled with a strange clarity.
  624. “Hanako? You okay?”
  626. “Yeah… hey Emi, y’know how you said you had a b-boyfriend before… it was a while ago.”
  628. “What about it?”
  630. “What’s it feel like to kiss a boy?”
  632. I can’t say I expected a question like that. This must be how mom felt like when I started asking questions about boys. Running my hand through my hair, I sit down on the edge of my bed.
  634. “What makes you think I kissed him?”
  636. “Didn’t you?”
  638. “Well, yeah, but -”
  640. “See, I t-told you. So, what’s it like?”
  642. I cup my chin in my hand in thought. What is it like? I wrack my brain to try and remember how mom put it way back when. She got pretty tongue-tied, I can recall that much. I’m no poet, but I think I can explain.
  644. “Well, you know what kissing is, right? Of course you do. It's like, well, kinda smooshy, and maybe a little wet. And it hurts if you push too hard. I don't know. I've only done it a couple times, myself.”
  646. Anything else? Oh, right; “But it does feel nice.”
  648. Hanako looks out the window vacantly. “Huh.” I take this as a hint that there’s some back story behind her asking.
  650. “Sooo… why’d you wanna know?”
  652. “Oh, no reason. I just saw Rin k-kiss Hisao and I wanted to know what she would have felt.”
  654. I’m taken aback at Hanako’s response. “You what? She did?” I frantically try to recall the rest of the evening. No memory of such a thing happening turns up. “When did this happen?”
  656. “When Hisao and I took Rin to bed in your mom’s room. She was very fidgety. B-but~ we got her under the covers easily enough.”
  658. Hanako pauses a little, seemingly trying to remember the event through the alcoholic haze.
  660. “When we went to leave, Rin told us to wait so she could walk us out.” She turns to face me, with a childlike seriousness on her face. “Because it was ‘what a gentleman would d-do’. Isn’t that weird? Hahaha…”
  662. Hanako trails off, so I snap my fingers in front of her face to regain her focus. “And then what happened?”
  664. “Oh, um… she sort of tripped and Hisao c-caught her and then BAM they were makin’ out.”
  666. “Making out? Really?”
  668. “Hahaha I dunno, making out means kissing, right? They were k-kissing. Hisao was as surprised as I was.”
  670. I had known that Hanako was reserved, but that she was this… naïve? I guess I should have expected it.
  672. “Uh, I guess, but making out is sorta more… intense. Like… I dunno, like when people are about to have sex in the movies.”
  674. Hanako’s face lights up in a mixture of curiosity and embarrassment. “Ooooh really? Well, good thing they weren’t doing that, then. How did you know that?” Hanako gasps with her hand over her mouth, adding, in a whisper, “Ooo, have you had s-sex? Is that how you know? Hahaha, that’s naughty…”
  676. “Hey! No, I did not have – that! And it’s none of your business if I did. Now you need to calm down and sleep this off.”
  678. I try to gently push Hanako into a laying position, but she resists. Suddenly, she sits bolt upright and points out the window.
  680. “Look, a shooting star! Make a wish, Emi~.”
  682. “I wish you’d go to sleep already, you alcoholic.”
  684. “That’s mean. Well I wish that someone would k-kiss me. On the lips, like Rin did to Hisao. See, that’s a good wish.”
  686. The words escape my lips before I even think about what they mean.
  688. “Anyone?”
  690. “Anyone.”
  692. By the time I realise exactly what I’m doing, I’m already doing it. My lips press against Hanako’s. She immediately goes rigid and her eyes go wide. Just as quickly, she relaxes, and I feel just how soft and full her lips are. Hanako closes her eyes and presses her lips back against mine.
  694. I press back in turn, more forcefully than before. Why? I don’t really know. I don’t really think about it. I just feel the touch of Hanako’s lips pressing against mine. I feel the low hum vibrate through her mouth. I feel her hand come to rest against my cheek.
  696. The cool touch of Hanako’s hand stands as a sharp contrast to the heat of my flushed cheeks. I open my mouth ever so slightly, enough to allow my tongue to flit across Hanako’s top lip. She backs away the tiniest amount, but presses onwards soon after, repeating the process on my bottom lip. I take it as a challenge, and push forwards even harder.
  698. My hand moves of its own accord, resting itself on Hanako’s shoulder. But it doesn’t stay there for long. It quickly traces down her collarbone then down, under her arm, to her side. Hesitantly, I slip it under Hanako’s shirt. She gasps lightly at the feathery contact with her skin. My fingers begin to crawl, millimetre by millimetre, edging further and further up her torso.
  700. Beneath me, Hanako’s legs flex to the point that her right foot now sits between my legs, with her right thigh brushing up against my derriere. I’m trapped, in a way. It almost feels as if she’s pulling me closer. As much as I want to, I can’t; there’s just no more room for my knee to push forward. Her body halts my advance.
  702. In the midst of pushing at each other, I feel my tongue make fleeting contact with Hanako’s. And then again, a little longer. As the third time hits, I almost laugh at how this must be some perverted guy’s fantasy; two schoolgirls, drunk as hell, making out, and –
  704. “Making out is sorta more… intense. Like… I dunno, like when people are about to have sex in the movies.”
  706. Fuck.
  708. I push myself away from Hanako forcefully. She grunts – or moans, I can’t tell – and I realise I’m putting my weight on my right hand. Which is cupping her boob. I roll to the side, recoiling my hand in horror.
  710. What am I doing? Holy crap, I just kissed Hanako. Made out with her. Grabbed her freakin’ boob. Hell, I was the first person to do any of that with her. Ohhh man, I really screwed up this time. Jesus. Shit. What am I going to do?
  712. Having only now realised that our contact has been broken, Hanako slowly sits up. Her expression is unlike any I’ve ever seen her wear; her eyes are heavy lidded, cheeks flushed redder than a tomato, and lips hung slightly open as if to invite something to fill the gap. And that’s not to mention her shirt, half hiked up to reveal more than just a misaligned bra.
  714. I can’t look at her. Timid, shy, naïve Hanako shouldn’t have a face like that. Especially not because of me. I have to say something. I have to… I…
  716. “I… I…”
  718. “I…?”
  720. “I’vegottagodosomething!”
  722. In a flash, I bolt from my room, colliding heavily with the wall outside and careening off it, down the stairs, and, with a flying leap that would make dad proud, land flat on the couch opposite the one occupied by Naomi and Natsume. It’s a miracle that I don’t damage anything on the way down; myself especially so.
  724. I can feel my heart racing in my chest. I look to the ceiling, hands under my head, and try to control my breathing in an effort to calm down. We were drunk. She was really drunk. We got a little carried away. That makes it okay, right? We’ll probably both forget about it in the morning. Right?
  726. I look to the other couch, at the two girls sleeping peacefully, hand-in-hand. I can’t say I’ve ever heard rumours about them, but that night at the festival, they were – no. Let’s not make assumptions. But still, there they are… big spoon and little spoon, holding hands on my couch. And they look so happy.
  728. Maybe… maybe it won’t be so bad. Hanako and I can talk about it in the morning. Or something. I don’t think it’s the same as Naomi and Natsume. Or, at least, I don’t think it’s the same as what I think Naomi and Natsume might be.
  730. This is getting confusing. Too much thinking. Too much booze. I need to sleep it off, too. It’ll all be okay in the morning.
  732. I hope.
  734. *****
  736. Unwelcomingly, I’m torn from my chamber in the castle of dreams. It leaves me with a strong sense of longing. It was warm there. And cosy. In my mind, that faraway land tempts me with its pleasantries. It speaks of only the highest of comforts; the basest of pleasures.
  738. “Emi? Are you awake?”
  740. “Wuzzat?”
  742. I flail my limbs about blindly to try and ward off this interruption. That was a good dream, for once. What was it about? I can’t quite remember. I almost feel as if it involved Hanako somehow. Hanako and –
  744. “Oh god!” I shout, sitting bolt upright. I regret it immediately afterwards as my head begins to throb with the force of a thousand suns. It’s so painful that it leaves my eyes unable to focus for a good few seconds. When they do, I find myself staring directly into a pair of dark purple eyes, etched with worry.
  746. “Sorry for waking you,” Hanako whispers. “Can we talk?”
  748. “Sure,” I grumble, awkwardly staggering off the couch. I notice only now that blankets were draped over me and both Naomi and Natsume at some point during the night. Taking a second to right myself, I realise that getting to my feet only makes the headache worse. “How are you even standing right now?”
  750. “Lots of water. Also, Rin g-gave me an aspirin. I think.”
  752. “Hold up. You took a pill, from Rin, without even knowing what it was?”
  754. Hanako pouts; a look reflected in her eyes. It reminds me of a child being told off. “It was still in its wrapper and Rin was holding a b-box with ‘aspirin’ written on it. I dunno, I was barely awake, cut me some slack.”
  756. “S’alright. Whatever it was, it seems to be working. Anyway, you wanted to talk about something?”
  758. “Um, yes. In private.”
  760. Hoo boy, I can see where this is going. “Okay then. Give me a hand getting upstairs?”
  762. Having my arm slung over Hanako’s shoulder for support makes me chuckle a little. Last night the exact opposite was the case; me, relatively sober, helping Hanako, drunk, upstairs. Now it’s Hanako, relatively clear headed, helping me, hung over like a bitch, upstairs. There’s a word for that. I dunno.
  764. Walking like this also makes me acutely aware of a large bruise forming my shoulder. I must have hit that wall pretty hard. I keep an eye out for any damage as we pass it. Thankfully, there isn’t any. On the wall, anyway; my shoulder throbs painfully. Not as bad as my head, thankfully, but painful nonetheless.
  766. When we arrive in my room, I find that it’s already occupied. Rin stands in front of my window, staring at something beyond the glass. Or maybe the glass itself, who knows? She must have heard us approach, as she turns to greet us.
  768. “Hello.” Cocking her head to the side, she adds, “Emi, you look like crap. Figuratively speaking.”
  770. “Gee, thanks. Good morning to you, too. What’s got you so chipper?”
  772. “Good sleep. Good dreams. Good.”
  774. “Uh, Rin? Do you think you could get Emi one of those aspirins?” Hanako tentatively asks.
  776. “They’re right there,” Rin replies, pointing with her foot to a pile of wrappers on the futon I got out for Hanako. “You were right; they were all aspirin after all.”
  778. She’s not taking the hint. “Rin, if you don’t mind, Hanako would like to talk with me for a bit.”
  780. “Okay.”
  782. “Without you.”
  784. “That’s fine.”
  786. Grimacing, Hanako clears her throat. “What Emi means is that it would be best if you weren’t in the room while we talk. As in, you should go elsewhere. Right n-now.”
  788. I gotta give her some credit; I didn’t realise she could be this heavy handed. It seems to have the same effect on Rin.
  790. “Oh. I see. Okay. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”
  792. As Rin departs, deftly closing the door behind her, I can’t help but feel a little bad. She seemed kind of… disappointed. I don’t have much time to think about it though, as Hanako leads me to take a seat on her futon.
  794. “Okay, so, you p-probably know what this is about,” she begins.
  796. “You mean last night? Yeah. I wanted to talk to you about that as well.”
  798. “You were? S-so, you know? Okay, this makes things easier.”
  800. Huh? Of course I know! I was the one who – wait. Unless… “Are we talking about the same thing here?”
  802. “Uh… I dunno, w-what are you talking about?”
  804. “Last night, um… you and me…? You don’t remember?”
  806. “No… w-why, what happened? Did we fight? I was gonna talk about Rin and Hisao.”
  808. Yep, she doesn’t remember. Jeez… this is gonna be a fun conversation. “No, we, uh… we didn’t fight. Actually, we already talked about Rin and Hisao. Last night.”
  810. Hanako is, understandably, surprised. “We did? Oh. Were you mad?”
  812. “No, not mad. A little surprised, maybe.”
  814. “That’s good to hear. I sort of p-probed Rin about it before and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I guess she forgot.”
  816. “Rin is good at forgetting things,” I confirm, with a shrug. “Besides, these sort of things do tend to happen when alcohol is involved. You know, people get caught up in the moment and do things they might not have done otherwise, and maybe they forget. It happens.”
  818. Hanako tilts her head ever so slightly. I can almost hear things falling into place inside her head. “Yeah, I guess it d-does. What was it that you wanted to talk about?”
  820. Ah, shit. No escape. Well, here goes nothing. Deep breath, and one, two, three…
  822. “Okay, so… last night – after Akira left with a few others – you were pretty plastered. I took you upstairs to get some sleep. And then you told me about Rin and Hisao. And then you asked me what kissing was like. And then we-were-kissing-and-it-got-pretty-intense-and-I-started-feeling-you-up-and-taking-your-clothes-off-but-I-freaked-out-and-ran-away-and-that’s-why-I-slept-on-the-couch-last-night-please-don’t-freak-out-or-hate-me-Hanako-I’m-so-sorry-”
  824. Hanako holds her finger up to my lips to halt my stream of word vomit. There’s definitely some feeling reflected in her eyes, but I can’t tell what.
  826. “Take a second, Emi. Then… tell me again. W-without speeding up at the end.”
  828. I do as I’m told, inhaling and exhaling several times to calm myself before repeating last night’s… ‘transpirings’ in greater detail. When I’m done, I’m surprised to find that Hanako doesn’t seem angry or upset. She just sort of sits back and mulls it over for a long while. It makes me antsy. It’s a major relief when she finally speaks her mind.
  830. “So no one else knows about this?”
  832. “No.”
  834. “Alright.”
  836. And she goes back to thinking again. Man, if only I could hear what she was thinking about. For all I know she could be plotting to kill me right now. No, Hanako wouldn’t do that. For my musing, I almost miss what Hanako says.
  838. “Would you say I was satisfied with your answer?”
  840. “What answer?”
  842. “About how it felt to k-kiss someone.”
  844. “Oh.” I’m not sure her response – or lack of one, really – to my answer really counts for anything. The only other option to consider is… ugh. Remembering Hanako’s lusty expression makes me shudder. Where’s Hisao with his jacket when I need him?
  846. “Well… in a manner of speaking…” I answer.
  848. “Then that settles it.”
  850. “Settles what? I don’t follow.”
  852. “I asked you a question and you answered it, regardless of how and whether or not I remember it. So, what’s done is d-done.”
  854. I’m a little taken aback. “Y-you’re not mad?”
  856. “What should I be mad about? It’s in the past. It can’t hurt me anymore. You said it yourself, a long time ago: ‘These things happen’.”
  858. “B-but… I made out with you. And I fondled your b-boob. That doesn’t bother you?”
  860. “A little. It’s not like you’ve never felt a boob before, though, am I right? I mean, you’ve got…”
  862. This is… completely unlike Hanako. The Hanako I first knew, anyway. How long ago was that, now? Several months, at least.
  864. “You’ve changed. A lot. So have I, I-I think. It’s all because of you.”
  866. Hanako blushes, looking quite sheepish. “Maybe. I can’t take all the credit. You’ve been a huge influence. And the others, as well.”
  868. “Things sure have come a long way since that day on the beach, huh?”
  870. “Yeah. I still remember what you said afterwards: ‘We can go meet some more cute boys together!’”
  872. “Haha, I guess I did. Haven’t really done a good job of that, though, have I?”
  874. Hanako turns her head to gaze out the window. She looks a little wistful. “It’s okay. We both gave it our best shots. I think Hisao belongs with Rin.”
  876. “You’re not disappointed?”
  878. “Of course I am. But I’ll get over it. Your first crush didn’t work out either, right?”
  880. “Yup. Most don’t, I think.”
  882. “Then it’s nothing to worry about. There’ll be others. That was more of your advice.”
  884. “That it was.” Stopping to think about it, the mood of the situation finally hits me. “Y’know, I thought this conversation would have gone a lot worse.”
  886. “It could have. But it would have meant my wish didn’t come true.”
  888. “Your wish? What was it?”
  890. Turning back to face me, Hanako smiles. It’s a radiant, honest smile. Frankly, it looks beautiful on her.
  892. “That things would keep on going as they are. I wished that I could continue just being happy, here with my friends.”
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