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[KS] The Purest Form of Love Pt 5 - First is the Worst

BlackWaltzTheThird Aug 26th, 2013 151 Never
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  1. Original post: http://ks.renai.us/viewtopic.php?f=52&t=7281&p=176869#p176869
  2.  
  3. The chill of the morning air, mixed with the self-made wind blowing against me as I run, makes my eyes water. Even though it’s the height of summer, it still takes a long time for the sun’s heat to take effect. It is only by the intensity of my run that I feel warm.
  4.  
  5. As I round the bend in the track for yet another lap, the sun peeks over the tree- and hill-tops that surround Yamaku Academy. Those first, glorious rays compel me to slow down, if only slightly, to bask in their warmth.
  6.  
  7. In the distance, I spy a person approaching the track. The glare makes it hard to make out who it is, and shielding my eyes with my hand does little to alleviate it. The person waves cheerfully, so I cut short my lap and make my way over to the mystery visitor.
  8.  
  9. “Hi,” he begins. “Your name is Emi, right? We had lunch with Lilly and Hanako yesterday.”
  10.  
  11. “That’s me! So, whatcha doin’ here, Hisao?”
  12.  
  13. “Oh, uh… the nurse told me to get some light exercise, so… here I am.”
  14.  
  15. “Here you are,” I repeat, nodding my head in agreement. “Did he give you the line about sending a spy to make sure you showed up?”
  16.  
  17. “Yeah, he did. How’d you know? Unless… that’s meant to be you?”
  18.  
  19. I grin, snapping my fingers in mock disappointment.  “You got me!”
  20.  
  21. “Hm,” he hums, as he awkwardly stretches his legs. “I was expecting someone from the nursing staff, to be honest.”
  22.  
  23. My mock disappointment turns to mock irritation. “What, are you saying I don’t look like I could be a spy?”
  24.  
  25. “Nah. You seem more like the X-Files type.”
  26.  
  27. “Huh?”
  28.  
  29. “Never mind. Now that I’m here, I guess we’re going to run together, huh?”
  30.  
  31. “‘Together’? You think you can keep up? Let’s go!”
  32.  
  33. I take off with renewed energy, as if I hadn’t even ran a single lap. I manage to run the whole track and catch back up to Hisao partway into his second lap, and lap him again as he slows to a walk. Concerned with how laboured his breathing sounds as I pass him, I skid to a stop and turn around.
  34.  
  35. “Finished already?”
  36.  
  37. He chokes out a laugh between lungfuls of air. “Heh, yeah. I don’t know how you do it.”
  38.  
  39. “Practice, I guess. And a lot of determination.”
  40.  
  41. “That reminds me; Rin? That girl you mentioned? I ran into her yesterday after school.”
  42.  
  43. That surprises me. What are the odds of a chance meeting only hours after hearing about someone?  “Really? How’d that go? Did she try to ‘collect’ you?”
  44.  
  45. “I get the feeling I’m not the only person she’s tried to ‘collect’”.
  46.  
  47. “Yup. She asks pretty much anyone she thinks looks ‘interesting’. People usually get annoyed by her.”
  48.  
  49. Hisao raises an eyebrow questioningly, then smiles. “I thought it was cute. It seemed so… I dunno, nonchalant.”
  50.  
  51. With Hisao not seeming to want to explain just what he means by that, we walk without speaking for a short while. His eyes trained on the height of the rising sun, Hisao suggests we head to back before we’re late for class. Since I’m already cooled down, and Hisao doesn’t seem up to another lap, I agree.
  52.  
  53. *****
  54.  
  55. One more lap. One more lap and he’ll be there. That’s what I tell myself. One more lap, and I’ll come round the bend to see Hisao making his way over to run again. But even I can’t run forever.
  56.  
  57. With a sigh, I turn off of the track and jog over to the bleachers for my bottle of water. Usually people don’t make it to the second day. I guess Hisao is one of them. Sighing again, I begin walking a lap to cool down.
  58.  
  59. On the return journey, I notice that someone is waiting for me. It isn’t Hisao, though; it’s someone I wouldn’t have expected to see down at the track.
  60.  
  61. “Hiya, Hanako! What’re you doin’ out here?”
  62.  
  63. “Hi, Emi… um, d-did Hisao come by this morning?”
  64.  
  65. “Nope. Sorry.”
  66.  
  67. Hanako visibly deflates upon hearing my answer. When she responds, she talks to the ground while fiddling with her hair.
  68.  
  69. “Oh… when I t-talked to him yesterday, he mentioned that he ran with you. I thought… maybe if I c-came here, I could…”
  70.  
  71. “Hey, c’mon, don’t pull that face. He’s in your class, right? You’ll see him there!”
  72.  
  73. Hanako brightens up considerably, smiling shyly and grinding her foot nervously like a little kid caught doing something naughty.
  74.  
  75. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s n-not the same, though. He would expect to see me in class. Out here…”
  76.  
  77. I pull a smug face, cupping my chin in my hand with my other hand supporting my elbow.
  78.  
  79. “Ohoho, I get it. You~ wanted to check him out in his gym clothes!”
  80.  
  81. “Emi! No, I w-wasn’t – I d-didn’t – I j-just –”
  82.  
  83. Hanako’s wide-eyed expression and deep blush contradict her protests.
  84.  
  85. “Hahaha relax, ya big ol’ perv. I’m just messing with ya. I know you really came here to see me in my gym clothes.”
  86.  
  87. “Oh, right. That’s all I e-ever think about,” Hanako mutters with a smile, rolling her eyes. “Let’s just get b-back before we end up late for class.”
  88.  
  89. I flash Hanako a huge grin and set about gathering up my belongings, before following her back towards the dorms. Sarcastic or not, Hanako’s comment leaves a warm feeling in my chest.
  90.  
  91. I have an idea.
  92.  
  93. “Hey, Hanako…”
  94.  
  95. *****
  96.  
  97. Only a minute to go until lunch. He shouldn’t be that hard to miss, but I can’t take that chance. No one escapes the fastest girl on no legs!
  98.  
  99. The bell rings out its familiar tune and, before anyone else so much as stands, I’m out of the door. The throng in the hallway makes it hard to see, but I manage to spot Hisao walking somewhat lazily out of classroom 3-3.
  100.  
  101. “Hisao!” I call, waving to get his attention. “I’m going to make you a one-time-only, super-extra special lunch offer!”
  102.  
  103. “Should I be worried?” Hisao says, interrupting my sales pitch.
  104.  
  105. “Huh? Why would you be worried? It’s just lunch.”
  106.  
  107. “I just thought, y’know, since I didn’t show up at the track this morning…”
  108.  
  109. “Oh, that. That’s okay. I’ll forgive you for sleeping in. So, how ‘bout it?”
  110.  
  111. “But, I didn’t–” Hisao starts, but he cuts himself off, scratching the back of his head. “Sure. With pleasure.”
  112.  
  113. “Great! Now, c’mon; to the roof!”
  114.  
  115. I take Hisao by the hand and lead him to the stairwell and up to the top level. Despite the short distance, my pace seems to have taken its toll on Hisao. I shoot him a concerned look, but he just takes a deep breath and shrugs it off. Not wanting to press him, I shrug myself and push open the door.
  116.  
  117. Seated at the near corner of the roof, as I had planned, is Hanako. Rin squats next to Hanako, staring intently at the gravel beneath her feet. While I didn’t arrange for her to be here, per se, eating lunch up here has become regular for us, so Rin’s presence comes as no surprise.
  118.  
  119. Probably having heard our arrival, Hanako looks up and starts to wave me over. When she notices Hisao behind me, she hesitates briefly before recovering and resuming her greeting somewhat more discreetly.
  120.  
  121. “Hi, Emi… I d-didn’t know Hisao was coming…” she says, a hint of blush on her cheeks.
  122.  
  123. “That’s okay, neither did I,” Hisao chuckles, taking a seat to the side of Hanako and Rin. “Emi only asked me to join her for lunch a minute ago. I guess I owe her for not turning up to run this morning.”
  124.  
  125. “Hey, don’t worry about it!” I say, clipping Hisao on the head then seating myself opposite him. “I said I’d forgive you for ‘sleeping in’,” I add, with a wink.
  126.  
  127. “Yeah… about that –”
  128.  
  129. “So I guess you do know this person,” Rin interrupts. Since she has conveniently failed to look up from the gravel or otherwise direct her comment, no one really knows who should answer.
  130.  
  131. After a few seconds of silence, she adds, “Emi. Hisao said you knew him.”
  132.  
  133. “What, you didn’t believe him?” I challenge.
  134.  
  135. “There’s a lot of people named Emi. There’s a lot of people that run. It’s possible there could be Emis that run and that aren’t you, right?”
  136.  
  137. “Yeah, but… at Yamaku? That’s impossible.”
  138.  
  139. “Improbable.”
  140.  
  141. “Huh?”
  142.  
  143. “Improbable. The word you want is ‘improbable’.”
  144.  
  145. I stare open-mouthed at Rin for several long seconds. Her impassive expression doesn’t even hint at cracking. “You’re improbable,” I mutter in surrender.
  146.  
  147. “Impossible,” Rin corrects, the tiniest hint of a smile fluttering across her lips. I throw my hands up in exasperation, which elicits a giggle from Hanako.
  148.  
  149. “Do you guys always talk like this?” Hisao asks, his expression somewhere between amused and bewildered.
  150.  
  151. The three of us answer simultaneously, our responses blending to a mixture of “like what?”, “not really” and “all the time”.
  152.  
  153. Hisao chuckles bemusedly, running his hand through his hair. “I see… so, does this ‘extra special lunch offer’ actually come with any lunch?”
  154.  
  155. Hanako’s eyes go wide with realisation, and she reaches behind herself to extract a plastic bag filled with recycled take out containers.
  156.  
  157. “Oh, right! Um, h-here… I have it.”
  158.  
  159. Hisao observes each of the containers with interest as Hanako arranges and opens each one in turn. Even though it was cooked this morning, the mouth-watering smell of each item remains as strong as if it were fresh.
  160. Rin surveys the containers as well, but she wears what seems to be a small frown.
  161.  
  162. “You didn’t make those fries.”
  163.  
  164. “No, I… I thought I’d t-try something else this time...” Hanako says, with an apologetic expression.
  165.  
  166. “That’s too bad. They were fun to eat.”
  167.  
  168. “You made all this, Hanako? For us?” Hisao asks, sampling some sort of rice dish.
  169.  
  170. “Um, that’s right. I like c-cooking things, though, so it’s no trouble.”
  171.  
  172. “Well, it’s delicious!” Hisao asserts, nodding his head for emphasis. “I didn’t realise people here were so creative. Rin’s an artist, you’re a chef…”
  173.  
  174. I raise my eyebrow questioningly as he trails off. “And? What about me?”
  175.  
  176. While Hisao stumbles over his answer, Rin quickly pipes up, saying “you’re pretty clever at thinking up ways to get people together” with a smirk.
  177.  
  178. I shoot Rin an icy glare, but, as usual, it seems to have no effect on her. Hisao, on the other hand, looks a little lost.
  179.  
  180. “Uh… what exactly does she mean by that?”
  181.  
  182. “N-nothing! Just a running j-joke we have!” Hanako sputters unconvincingly. “So, um… how did you go with the g-group assignment this morning?”
  183.  
  184. Luckily, Hisao takes the change of topic in stride, and we go about the rest of lunch discussing various classes and giving Hisao a rundown on their respective teachers.
  185.  
  186. It pleases me to hear that Hanako’s been working with the girls from the journalism club more often. It almost seems as if she’s interested in joining. On the other hand, I give Hisao my sincerest condolences for having been conned into working with the Student Council.
  187.  
  188. Rin doesn’t say much more, but what comments she does make cause a few giggles; mostly at my expense. Her offhand mention of the art club prompts a discussion about the clubs at Yamaku, but, before it really gets going, the warning bell rings. Rin, Hisao and I get up to leave, but Hanako remains seated.
  189.  
  190. “Aren’t you coming with us?” Hisao asks.
  191.  
  192. “I just have to tidy this up. I’ll be right b-behind you.”
  193.  
  194. “Here, lemme help you with that,” I offer, stacking two containers together.
  195.  
  196. “Okay, well, I guess I’ll see you in class,” Hisao says, waving casually as he turns towards the stairwell. “Hey, Rin, wait up!”
  197.  
  198. Once he’s out of sight, Hanako says “you didn’t need to help me c-clean up, you know.”
  199.  
  200. “Honestly, I was expecting Hisao to offer to help instead,” I sigh.
  201.  
  202. “Listen, Emi… I appreciate the h-help and all, but I… I wanna do this on my own. J-just this once.”
  203.  
  204. “Really? You sure? Like Rin said, I am pretty good at–”
  205.  
  206. “I’m sure. You’ve given me some g-good advice, but it’s no use if I don’t put it into practice, right? Naomi and Natsume suggested going to the f-festival with Hisao. I’m gonna try that. And if it doesn’t work, well… I’ll try again. And be b-better at it when I do.”
  207.  
  208. The unexpected weight of Hanako’s words hits me pretty hard. It hurts a lot more than normal for her to reject my help, but, on the other hand…
  209.  
  210. “You have learned well, young grasshopper,” I say, putting on my best old man impression and bowing formally. “Soon, you will be a master in your own right.”
  211.  
  212. Hanako bops me on the head with a container, muttering “cut it out” with a smile. “C’mon, let’s get to class already,” she adds, striding confidently towards the stairwell. Smiling widely, I follow her.
  213.  
  214. *****
  215.  
  216. Feeling refreshed after my shower, I gaze out my dorm room window at the beginnings of a crowd forming in the grounds below. Even this early in the day, it seems like this year’s festival is going to be bigger than ever before.
  217.  
  218. Despite the heat, the cool breeze blowing in through the window chills my wet hair. Moving away from the window, I discard my towel and put on my favourite outfit; a green singlet over a white top, tan shorts, and knee-high striped socks.
  219.  
  220. With my hair not wanting to dry off any time soon, I admit defeat and do it up anyway, resolving to let the sun do my job for me. Preparations complete, I open my door to head outside, only to run into Rin.
  221.  
  222. “Knock knock.”
  223.  
  224. “Who’s there?” I quip.
  225.  
  226. “’There’? I don’t think I know any ‘there’s. Do you? Who is he?”
  227.  
  228. “What? No, I – what’re you doin’ anyway?”
  229.  
  230. Rin cocks her head and gazes more vacantly than usual at the space slightly to my left. Her eyes gleam a little, as if she has figured out what she wants to say, but, just as quickly as it appeared, the gleam disappears.
  231.  
  232. “I forgot.”
  233.  
  234. I sigh loudly, putting my hand to my head for emphasis.
  235.  
  236. “C’mon then, maybe if we walk around you’ll remember.”
  237.  
  238. I make my way downstairs and out of the dorms, with Rin sort of following behind. Her leisurely pace means I have to stop several times for her to catch up. Gosh, walking around the festival with her is gonna be torture.
  239.  
  240. As we exit the dorm building, I notice the crowd has grown substantially. Amidst the crowd, I notice a dark shock of hair standing alone by Rin’s mural. With a wave, I call out and run over.
  241.  
  242. “Heya, Hanako! Whatchadoin’?”
  243.  
  244. Hanako starts slightly, but recovers, returning my greeting with a smile of her own.
  245.  
  246. “Hi Emi, Rin. Um, I was just w-waiting for someone.”
  247.  
  248. “By ‘someone’, you mean Hisao, right? Right~? So, he agreed to meet with you, huh?”
  249.  
  250. “Um… not exactly. He asked me what I was d-doing for the festival, so I said I was free. Then he said he w-wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he wanted to see how Rin’s mural t-turned out since we helped out on it and all so I figured if I waited here he’d show up eventually and then–”
  251.  
  252. “The mural.”
  253.  
  254. Once again, Rin’s context-free interruptions leave us dead in our tracks.
  255.  
  256. “Mister Nomiya wanted me to talk to someone about the mural. I think I have to stay here,” she adds.
  257.  
  258. “We can wait t-together, then,” Hanako says, with a nod.
  259.  
  260. The three of us take a seat up against the mural and watch the crowd as we wait. The crowd grows increasingly large as time goes on. A few people stop and examine the mural, but they go about their business pretty quickly.
  261.  
  262. As the noise of the festival reaches a dull roar with no Hisao in sight, a rumbling in my stomach serves to remind me just how long we’ve been sitting here. The smell of fried food – delicious, unhealthy, fried food – makes my mouth begin to water.
  263.  
  264. “Alright, I’m getting pretty hungry. Anyone want some lunch?”
  265.  
  266. “Sure,” Hanako replies. “What is there?”
  267.  
  268. “I have no idea. But I don’t think there’s gonna be anything healthy.”
  269.  
  270. “Fine with me! Rin, do you want anything?”
  271.  
  272. Rin, as usual, shrugs her answer. “Not really.”
  273.  
  274. “Alright. We’ll be right back. If Hisao shows up, tell him to wait here for us, okay?”
  275.  
  276. Rin shrugs again, which Hanako and I take to mean ‘yes’. With that, we make our way into the throng.
  277.  
  278. Rows upon rows of stalls line the grounds. Some offer all kinds of delicious treats, others flog show bags containing God-only-knows-what, and others still sucker people with loaded games in the hope of winning a prize. Sadly, it doesn’t look like there’s anything even remotely non-fattening on offer.
  279.  
  280. As we push through a particularly thick part of the crowd, I feel Hanako press up close to me and almost grab my arm. Instead, she backs away again and shows a tired smile.
  281.  
  282. “Crowds still get to ya, huh?” I ask.
  283.  
  284. “Yeah, a bit. I’m usually okay with it now, b-but sometimes strangers look at me f-funny and I just… freeze up.”
  285.  
  286. “Ah, don’t worry about them. They’re just not used to being around people as cool as us,” I giggle, with a wink.
  287.  
  288. Hanako rolls her eyes in response and shifts her attention to a nearby stall. Through the crowd, I can’t quite see what she’s looking at, but the sign looks like it reads ‘Noodles and Soup’. There’s something else underneath, but I can’t make it out at this distance.
  289.  
  290. Hanako leads me over to the stall, which is a lot bigger than I thought. At least ten people are staffing the stall, including a teacher. Standing at the counter, having just served a customer, is Lilly.
  291.  
  292. “Hi, Lilly,” Hanako says. I echo the greeting.
  293.  
  294. “Oh! Good morning!” Lilly chirps, her surprise quickly giving way to her usual formal tone. “I wasn’t expecting to meet you two out here. Are you enjoying the festival?”
  295.  
  296. “We haven’t really looked at anything, yet,” I reply. “We’re grabbing something for lunch, first.”
  297.  
  298. “My, my, can I interest you in something from our stall? We’re quite short on ingredients right now but I’m sure we can organise something for you.”
  299.  
  300. “How about the m-miso soup?” Hanako replies, which Lilly repeats to the boy manning the stove behind her. “Why are you so short on stock, anyway? I thought you had h-heaps of stuff on order.”
  301.  
  302. “That’s right. However, it would seem that there was a problem and only half of our order was delivered.” Lilly sighs, adding, “We’re working on getting the rest in, but it’s too little too late at this point.”
  303.  
  304. The boy at the back serves up two bowls of soup, which Lilly in turn passes to us. Hanako pays for both, so I quickly dig in. The flavour is good, if a little weak. I tell Lilly as much, to which she hums proudly.
  305.  
  306. “That’s lovely to hear, Emi. May I ask where you’ll be off to next?”
  307.  
  308. “I dunno. We don’t really have anything planned, I guess.”
  309.  
  310. “Then may I suggest the stall operating out of the clubroom on the first floor? I hear it’s quite popular.”
  311.  
  312. A stall, indoors? That’s quite unusual. I wonder what it’s for? If it’s a maid café again, I’m gonna…
  313.  
  314. “Emi? Do you w-want to check it out?”
  315.  
  316. “Uh… yeah. Why not.”
  317.  
  318. “Great! We’ll s-see you later, Lilly.” Hanako turns to leave, but stops herself, taking my bowl and handing both to Lilly. “Oh, and here’s your b-bowls back.”
  319.  
  320. “Thank you very much. Enjoy the festival!”
  321.  
  322. As we turn away from the stall, I briefly catch the text under the main heading of the stall out of the corner of my eye. For a second, I could swear it reads ‘do not eat – feminist stronghold’, but, that being as ridiculous as it is, I pass it off as a mistake and keep walking.
  323.  
  324. The crowd thins the closer we get to the main building, though the area is still very populated. Hanako seems to be relieved at the lessened activity. Lilly must have known that it wouldn’t be so crowded here. She’s so caring. That must be why she and Hanako are so close.
  325.  
  326. Inside, the crowd mostly filters towards a room on the left of the lobby. When we make our way over there, we find that the room has been converted into a photography studio. The sign indicates that it’s a joint effort on the parts of the photography and fashion clubs.
  327.  
  328. For a price, festival-goers can get commemorative photos taken with their partners, dressed in a selection of yukatas that look to have been made by the fashion club. As if to confirm this, one of the girls from the fashion club – the one with the sandy hair and earrings – approaches Hanako and me. It seems we’ve accidentally ended up at the front of the line.
  329.  
  330. “Good afternoon. You’re Ikezawa and Ibarazaki, correct? From the year above mine?” she says.
  331.  
  332. “Yup, that’s us,” I answer. “Enomoto, right? I’ve seen you around a few times.”
  333.  
  334. “Please, call me Saki. And yes, I believe you have. Though, Miss Ikezawa might be more familiar with me through Lilly, yes?”
  335.  
  336. Hanako nods her agreement. “Yeah. We worked on some c-class rep earlier this year. I had no idea you were in the f-fashion club.”
  337.  
  338. “Yes, well, until recently, there wasn’t fashion club to be in. With some of my influence as class representative I managed to reform it; and not a moment too soon, or else we might never have made these yukatas in time.”
  339.  
  340. An impatient cough from behind us draws an icy glare from Saki, before she turns back to us with a warm smile. The difference is startling.
  341.  
  342. “I’m very sorry, but we can’t chat forever. Would you like a picture together?”
  343.  
  344. Hanako and I share a quick glance and silently agree. I pull out my wallet and hand over the correct amount, since Hanako paid for lunch. Saki stows the cash in a money belt around her waist and, with a “right this way, please”, leads us over to a screened off area behind the photo screen.
  345.  
  346. Several yukatas hang on a rack, behind which are two smaller, makeshift change rooms. Though the selection is, understandably, limited, they seem to have been designed to fit pretty well on most people. Quite an achievement for one club, I gotta hand it to ‘em.
  347.  
  348. The yukata on the end of the rack catches my eye. It’s a relatively slim-fitting, light-blue number, with a basic floral pattern made to look like it’s climbing a pair of darker blue stripes. I slip it off the rack, and step behind the change room screen.
  349.  
  350. While I slide off my clothes, a timid voice peeps out from the other change room.
  351.  
  352. “Um, Emi? A-are we s-supposed to u-undress in here?”
  353.  
  354. “Yeah. I mean, they wouldn’t need change rooms otherwise, right?”
  355.  
  356. “Oh. R-right.”
  357.  
  358. “Why? D’ya need help, or something?” I ask, peeping around the fabric screen.
  359.  
  360. Hanako squeaks in shock and turns a deep shade of red as she tries in vain to hide behind her discarded shirt. Holding the shirt across her body with one hand, she pushes me back onto my side of the screen with the other.
  361.  
  362. “Ah, chillax, Hanners. I’m not tryin’ to perv on you or anything. It’s not like I’ve never seen a boob before.”
  363.  
  364. “You s-scared me! Warn me before you go s-sticking your head in while I’m ch-changing!
  365.  
  366. “Alright, I’m sorry. C’mon, let’s get this picture over with.”
  367.  
  368. “O-okay.”
  369.  
  370. Seconds later, I emerge in my yukata, followed shortly after by Hanako. She looks really… different. The guys would be all over her if she went out like this. The deep purple fabric matches well with her hair, and the crescent moon and cherry blossom pattern makes for a great contrast. She’s stunning.
  371.  
  372. “You ready?” she asks, still blushing somewhat from before.
  373.  
  374. “Mmhmm,” I hum, and we make our way around to the camera side of the screen. The girl behind the camera – she’s in Hanako’s class, I think – gets Saki’s attention, who gushes on seeing us all dressed up.
  375.  
  376. “Oh my, you two look wonderful! Particularly you, Miss Ikezawa. Excellent choice in fashion, I must say. I couldn’t have picked something better, myself! Shall we get started?”
  377.  
  378. Without even waiting for an answer, Saki leads us over to a seat in front of the camera and sets about posing us within the frame. Saki also takes the chance to tidy Hanako’s fringe, revealing some of her scars. To my surprise, Hanako doesn’t protest.
  379.  
  380. When she’s satisfied with her work, Saki signals the girl behind the camera and moves out of the shot. With a “3, 2, 1, smile!” the blinding flash goes off and we’re being ushered back behind the screen so they can prepare for the next customers.
  381.  
  382. Once we’ve changed back into our own clothes, Saki informs us that our photos will be delivered during the week. We thank her, to which she smiles warmly. Just before we leave the makeshift studio, however, Saki stops us short.
  383.  
  384. “Miss Ikezawa, forgive me if this seems presumptuous, but the fashion club is always looking for more models, if you’d be interested. It does get quite boring fitting our projects to ourselves all the time.”
  385.  
  386. “Oh, I… I’ll th-think about it. Thanks, Saki.”
  387.  
  388. “You’re very welcome! Ta-ta~!
  389.  
  390. Hanako and I exit the room, only to bump into a familiar face standing next in line.
  391.  
  392. “Haru?” Hanako exclaims.
  393.  
  394. The girl standing next to him – some blonde bimbo with far too much make-up far too little clothing – turns towards us and looks Hanako up and down with a sneer.
  395.  
  396. “Haru, baby, do you know this freak?”
  397.  
  398. Haru stammers something not quite resembling an answer, while nervously fumbling with a half-heart necklace. A matching necklace hangs between his companion’s excessive cleavage. Finally, Haru finds his voice.
  399.  
  400. “No. I’ve never met her before in my life. Let’s go get our picture taken, before any more of them try anything.”
  401.  
  402. Bastard! Haru’s bimbo girlfriend leads him into the studio without even paying, while Haru half-heartedly throws an apologetic smile over his shoulder. Too little, too late, you jerk ass.
  403.  
  404. Hanako looks like she’s been slapped right in the face. I take her hand firmly and near-drag her out of the school building.
  405. Once we’re outside, I sit Hanako down on a bench and crouch down to her eye level.
  406.  
  407. “You okay?”
  408.  
  409. It takes Hanako a few seconds to form her reply.
  410.  
  411. “Yeah. Just… disappointed.”
  412.  
  413. “Well, forget about him. He’s not worth thinking about.” I offer up a smile, adding, “C’mon, let’s go back to the mural. We’ve been gone a while. Rin’s probably wondering where we are. And Hisao might be there by now.”
  414.  
  415. Hanako’s response is more vacant than I expected – nothing more than a monotone “okay”. To lighten the mood as we walk, I ask Hanako what she meant earlier when she said that she and Hisao had helped out with Rin’s mural. Her mood seems to improve on hearing my question, and she smiles slightly as she answers.
  416.  
  417. “The other day, Lilly and Shizune had a f-fight again. They were arguing about festival plans, or something… anyway, Hisao and I st-stood up for Lilly, which she really appreciated. After that, Shizune was m-mostly ignoring Hisao, so we hung out for a while.”
  418.  
  419. “He made the right choice there, I reckon. So, how does Rin figure into all this?”
  420.  
  421. “Oh, right. Well, after class, we ended up just walking for a bit and ran into Rin as she was painting her mural. We offered to help her paint it, but she insisted that she paint it herself. So we mixed paints for her instead.”
  422.  
  423. “Oh come on, that hardly counts as helping.”
  424.  
  425. “Shush, you, it does count.”
  426.  
  427. “If you say so~.”
  428.  
  429. The mural comes into view as we round a stall offering some dodgy-looking dumplings and the line accompanying it. Rin sits against the mural, in precisely the same spot she was before we left, except that now Hisao is seated next to her and they lean against each other, asleep.
  430.  
  431. Hanako and I approach the sleeping twosome and, crouching, I prod Rin to see just how asleep she is.
  432.  
  433. “Nope. Out like a light,” I say, standing back up with a stretch. “The fireworks are gonna start soon. Should we wake ‘em?”
  434.  
  435. “No,” Hanako sighs. “They look c-comfortable. Let’s just go find somewhere with a good v-view.”
  436.  
  437. “Alright. I know the perfect place!”
  438.  
  439. *****
  440.  
  441. “Aw damn it! Someone got here first!”
  442.  
  443. Nearly invisible in the darkness of the empty track, two people sit, huddled, in the first row of the bleachers. I hesitate for a second, wondering if taking a seat would disturb their privacy, but they notice my vocal arrival and, surprisingly, wave us over.
  444.  
  445. I can’t make out who the mystery couple is, but, as we approach, Hanako recognises them and bounds over.
  446.  
  447. “Natsume! Naomi! What’re you two d-doing out here?”
  448.  
  449. The blonde girl is the first to answer. “Oh hi~ Hanako! Natsume and I were just, uh… we were…”
  450.  
  451. “Getting a good view of the fireworks,” the brown-haired girl finishes.
  452.  
  453. “Yeah~! That…! So! How ‘bout you? Who’s your li’l friend?”
  454.  
  455. “Oh, this is Emi. She’s in c-class 3-4. Emi, this is Natsume and Naomi. They sit next to me in class.”
  456.  
  457. “Nice to meet you,” I say, bowing slightly. “You girls run the school newspaper, right?”
  458.  
  459. “Mmhmm! That’s us~!” Naomi replies. “We’ve been trying to get Hanako here in on it as well, but~ she’s so flighty we never get the chance to bring her in!”
  460.  
  461. Hanako shuffles her feet nervously as she answers. “But, I… I don’t even know w-what to do.”
  462.  
  463. “You can type up our reports. Digitising things is the hardest part,” Natsume says.
  464.  
  465. “Yeah~, true? Computers, arthritis and epilepsy don’t mix so well huh~?” Naomi adds.
  466.  
  467. I find myself becoming affected by Naomi’s infectious enthusiasm. “Sounds great! Hanako, you should give it a shot!”
  468.  
  469. “Um… o-okay. Yeah. I’ll try it.”
  470.  
  471. “Yeah~ that’s the spirit! We meet after class pretty much every day, but you probably know  that, since we sit next to you~! Hahahaha!”
  472.  
  473. A high-pitched whining noise and Natsume’s comment of “It’s starting” interrupt Naomi’s snorting laughter. True to her word, the fireworks are starting, and what a sight they are. Hanako and I take a seat next to Naomi and Natsume and turn our eyes skyward.
  474.  
  475. Fireworks shoot up into the sky like backwards meteors, shattering into thousands of pieces as they hit the heavens, showering the sky with a rain of colour. Each flash temporarily lights up the area around us, and in the fleeting light I see Hanako’s broad smile. But, far from making me feel happy as well, it only fills me with a sense of guilt.
  476.  
  477. Hanako wanted to spend the festival with Hisao. I promised I’d help her get the guy, even if she decided to do it on her own later. Instead, Hanako spent the day following me around; eating festival food with me; getting dressed up in yukatas with me; taking commemorative photos with me.
  478.  
  479. And now, she sits beside me, under the fireworks signalling the end of the festival. Me me me me me. Also, for what may as well be the whole time, Hisao has been sitting with Rin. All because I got hungry. Some help I’ve been.
  480.  
  481. Again I look over to Hanako. My sigh goes unheard thanks to the volume of the fireworks.
  482.  
  483. I’m sorry I interfered, Hanako.
  484.  
  485. I’ll make it up to you.
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