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Hanako Epilogue Part Two

mehkanik Jan 23rd, 2012 8,565 Never
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  1. Hanako Epilogue; Part Two
  2. L-Look at Me!
  3.  
  4. I walked over to the air conditioner. The heat was so unbearable. Cranking it up, I could hear Hisao's displeased voice from the next room over. "Hana, try not to turn it up too high. The electric bill lately has been getting crazy and I'm having trouble covering it. Even with all the hours I'm getting lately at work, school fees and rent is making it hard to cover the electric."
  5.  
  6. I frowned a little as I tried peeling my tanktop from my skin. "B-but... it's so hot! Just for a l-little?" I could hear Hisao getting up from the bedroom, collecting some books and moving his studies into the living room. He sat himself on the couch, laying his books on the coffee table. He was wearing less than I was, just a pair of denim shorts and no shirt.
  7.  
  8. Even though I lived with him and we were lovers, the sight of him walking around without a shirt still made me blush a little. "Alright, we can keep it on for like, twenty minutes. Might as well enjoy it a little, right?" I smiled, kissing him on the cheek. "Yep!"
  9.  
  10. While he studied on one side of the table, I grabbed a couple of manilla folders I had on the corner of it and opened them with a slight frown. "I really don't like how they organize these..." Hisao glanced over to me as I sighed. "What do you mean?" My mumbling was distracting him from his work. Which I shouldn't so, but recently he'd been really busy with work. Plus, school exams were coming up. It didn't really leave us as much time for each other.
  11.  
  12. I opened the folder and started sifting through the papers. They were just black and white sheets of paper with names at the top, psychiatrist evaluations and droll, depressing descriptions of the children I worked with. Some time ago, I decided I wanted to be a social worker so I started volunteering at an orphanage a city over.
  13.  
  14. One of my coworkers picked up on my interest in social work, pulled some strings and got me a paid internship learning how to be social worker so long as I enrolled in a college for child psychology like I had been wanting to. Since then, I've been working at another orphanage, counselling children.
  15.  
  16. But the way they listed all the information on the kids was so... depressing. It was all just text and medical terms. Dry, cookie cutter analysis of kids who were struggling with life. "I don't like how impersonal it is. These files are just... words. Scientific explanations, there's no..." I glanced over to Hisao and realized he was staring at me rather intensely with a smile on his face.
  17.  
  18. "W-what? Wh-why are you staring at me like that?" My stammer returned as I started feeling more embarassed. "You've got such a big heart, I love it. You really want to do your best for these kids, to give them back what they've lost." He leaned over, kissing me on the lips. The heat his body was throwing off and the texture of his skin was doing those... funny things he always did to me.
  19.  
  20. I kissed him back, but I had to push him off with a smile and a heavy blush. "L-later, okay? We both have stuff t-to do." He nodded, although he did lean over and nibble a bit playfully on the side of my neck, causing me to shiver.
  21.  
  22. Jerk.
  23.  
  24. What I did like doing with my files though was take a picture with the kid I was counselling and pin it to the file of them, along with my own notes. I felt like these files needed a more personal touch, so I always offered my own notes and observations to whatever professional social worker a kid I was counselling ended up going to. They usually looked at me oddly when I did, but ended up smiling and accepting my offer.
  25.  
  26. I grabbed my tape recorder and plugged a pair of headphones into it, listening to the recorded session I had most recently undergone.
  27.  
  28. =====
  29.  
  30. "Hey there, Takara. If it's okay with you, I'm going to record this, alright?"
  31.  
  32. "...It's fine." The little girl told me.
  33.  
  34. As I listened, I started sinking into memory; recollecting the session as I reheard it.
  35.  
  36. I looked at her. Downcast eyes, messy unkempt dirty blonde hair. A ragged teddy bear on her lap and worn looking clothes.
  37.  
  38. As usual at work, my voice was calm and warm. I took on another personality here, Hisao would probably love to see it. Although my coworkers suggested I dress formally for work, I tried to dress semi-formally so the kids wouldn't think I was just another social worker who wanted to push them through the system.
  39.  
  40. My coat rested on the back of my chair in the little office they let me use. It was kind of cool, I had a little desk and a nameplate and everything. It made me feel so official and like I was really doing something that helped the children who came into my office at the firm when I couldn't make it to certain orphanages. Usually I had a social worker with me, helping me with the counselling but they wanted me to try and take this one on myself. I was a little nervous, but I felt pretty confident.
  41.  
  42. I folded my hands on my lap, no clipboard and no notes. The little girl in front of me was ten and had been through multiple therapists, social workers and counselors but none had been showing any progress. I honestly preferred being a counselor on the path to becoming a social worker rather than a psychiatrist or a therapist. I sometimes did house visits and worked directly with the kids rather than just sitting at a desk all day and having kids go in and out.
  43.  
  44. "Aren't you going to... write stuff down?" Her eyes looked around while I waited for her to get comfortable. I had bean bags in the office rather than chairs. Kids tended to like them better and I always felt more comfortable in them too. They reminded me of the library at Yamaku, my safe haven. The place where I spent so much time with Hisao.
  45.  
  46. I shook my head, my smile feeling permanent. She was a cute girl. "Nope. That's why I'm recording. It lets me pay more attention to you if I record instead of write things down. Afterwards when we're done talking, I'm going to listen to it and write some notes down so when we talk again later, we can make more progress." The look in her eyes belied that she didn't really believe in 'progress'.
  47.  
  48. "You're not like the other social workers, are you?" I shook my head. "Technically, I'm not a social worker. Not yet. I'm a counselor. Therapists and psychiatrists can suggest medicines or medical help, social workers have legal powers. I... I just talk and try and help." Takara glanced at me in a kind of unusual way.
  49.  
  50. As the quiet ensued, I decided to start the way I usually did. With one of my awkward laughs and a question. "So, do you want to get to know each other a little? Is there anything you'd like to know about me? I know a lot of people you've been sent to are pretty impersonal when they try and talk to you, so I'd like you to get to know me a little more. You know, like friends." I said, clapping my hands together.
  51.  
  52. A year or two ago, the concept of asking someone "Would you like to know anything about me?" would never have been a feasible action to me. I hated people prying into my life. I used to be so ashamed of who I was and why I existed. But now... things had changed so much. When people asked about certain things, I was more comfortable.
  53.  
  54. Some things were still too personal to talk about, but I was much less conscious about my burns. They had even begun to fade little by little over time, although I knew they'd never fade completely.
  55.  
  56. Eventually Takara spoke. "...How'd you get those scars?" Her eyes roamed along my scarred side and I flinched a little at the question. Takara noticed my faltered expression and lowered her head. "Sorry, I shouldn't have asked." I shook my head.
  57.  
  58. "No, no. It's fine. I... a long time ago, I became an orphan in a house fire." I sighed, folding my hands together to keep them from shaking. The memory was still a painful one.
  59.  
  60. "My... mother covered my body when the house started collapsing and we couldn't escape. I was burned really badly." Even trying to say it the way I rehearsed it in my head all the time was difficult. I felt a welling in my chest and my eyes water a little.
  61.  
  62. The children counseled almost asked and not only that, the coworkers I became friends with asked. And I would always try and tell them without losing my composure. I wanted to try and become strong enough to completely accept my past.
  63.  
  64. "The b-burns cover a lot of my body." I pause. "I looked uncomfortable a second ago because I had post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a really hard thing to get over and it's not completely gone even now, years later. But... I've come a really long way."
  65.  
  66. There was a long silence and then I noticed a painfully melancholy expression on her face. "So your mother died because of you too...?" I remembered her files. Her mother was a young, single mother. She had multiple jobs to afford her apartment, the bills, food and deal with finding babysitters for her child.
  67.  
  68. According to friends of the mother, she barely ever got any sleep and wound up finding relief in a nasty drug addiction to heroin. Ultimately, that was what caused her debt to skyrocket and local gangs to become involved.
  69.  
  70. Eventually, the addiction claimed her and the daughter, walking home from elementary school at seven, found her mother dead on the living room floor, some needles and drug paraphenelia scattered on the floor.
  71.  
  72. I leaned forward and placed my hand on hers. "We don't have to talk about things like that yet, although I would like to eventually. I can tell you about my mom and dad one day, too. I can barely remember them, but there's a few stories I keep close to my heart and I like sharing so I never forget them." She looked up at me with conflicted eyes.
  73.  
  74. "Why...?" She seemed unsure of what to say. "What do you mean, Takara?" Her eyes narrowed and her mouth folded into a pained frown. "Why do things like this happen to us?" I tightened my hand on hers. "There's no reason for it, but no matter what, things get better. It's hard to see now, but trust me. I... such terrible things happened to me, I used to be such a mess. But I found someone who helped me grow and cared about me for who I was."
  75.  
  76. Takara started to sob a little and I knelt closer to her.
  77.  
  78. I took in a deep breath. "That's who I want to be to you. I want to be someone who cares about who you are and help you get where you want to be, so long as you want that help. I'm not going to pity you or look down on you. No matter what your mom did or happened, I'm never going to look down on you for it. Things will get better, I promise. And I'll always be here, in this little office, with these little beanbags. O-okay?" Her slight shudders at my words eventually exploded into full-out crying.
  79.  
  80. I drew her closer to me, letting her cry into the vest and blouse I wore to work. "I know it doesn't feel alright, but it will. And things will get better and I'll listen to anything you want to say, Takara."
  81.  
  82. =====
  83.  
  84. According to my superiors, the fact that I was so much like those orphans let them open up much more in comparison to some of the other social workers or counselors at the firm I was working with. They opened up, grew to trust me quickly and I always seemed to know the things to say and how to put heart into the things I wrote.
  85.  
  86. These kids weren't just a diagnosis or a mental problem, even if they might have one or two or wind up with some in the future. They were people to me, and I cared and loved each one of them. Some of them I visited when I had the chance and would play games with them and the other children at the orphanages. It was satisfying and it gave me direction and meaning that I felt I had lacked for so long.
  87.  
  88. I continued jotting down discussions I wanted to bring up, mindsets I wanted to address and deep-seeded problems I wanted to unearth carefully.
  89.  
  90. I really enjoyed my work. It let me come out of my shell just a little bit every day, something that I wanted to do so badly. If I didn't, I felt like Hisao would eventually leave me behind. I didn't want him to get away from me, in any way.
  91.  
  92. The snapping of Hisao's book shut caught me off guard. I jumped a bit and placed my hand to my chest. "H-Hisao, you're going to give me a heart attack one day." I gave him a little smile, poking fun at him. "Ha ha." A wry smile as he leaned back against the couch and fanned himself with some of his university worksheets. He had finally narrowed his study down to medical science.
  93.  
  94. He would be one of the guys one day who sits in a laboratory, mixing new chemicals together to invent new medicine and save lives. We both were going to save lives. He would save lives with medicine and I would save children with my compassion.
  95.  
  96. I smiled as I leaned back and placed my head on his lap, looking up at him. He glanced down at me, deciding to fan me with his papers too, making me giggle a bit. I could take my eyes from him. I loved him so much. What would I do without this boy? Well, man. We had grown a lot since graduation. He had gotten stronger, both physically and emotionally. So had I.
  97.  
  98. I placed my hand to the scar on his chest. He was looking across the room and doing math in the air. It looked like he was trying to figure out some kind of chemical formula.
  99.  
  100. "I love you, you nerd."
  101.  
  102. "Hey! Just because you put 'I love you' before it, doesn't make it okay to make fun of me. Even as cute as you are, I'm not gonna just ignore that." I wanted to put that theory to the test, I decided.
  103.  
  104. "Sure I can!" Hisao arched an eyebrow at me.
  105.  
  106. "I love you, even with your ugly, messy hair." I put on a cute smile and let the warmth of my love for him fill my eyes.
  107.  
  108. He paused, looking confused. "I should feel insulted, but I can't."
  109.  
  110. "I love you, even though most middle-schoolers can outrun you." This time I wrapped my arms around him and pressed my face to his chest, sighing contentedly.
  111.  
  112. "That... that's really not fair!" I was winning and he didn't like it. "You're kind of making me feel bad, you pain in the ass."
  113.  
  114. I cooed at him. "Aww, I'm sorry." This time I kissed him on the cheek.
  115.  
  116. "How about I make it up to you. I'll let you take me on a date, because I love you."
  117.  
  118. Hisao stopped dead in his tracks, this time rolling up his worksheet and batting me with it. "That's it! I'm not letting you get away with this anymore." His arms shot to my sides and I felt the shooting sensation of tickling force laughter through my entire body. "N-no! No! Not t-t-tickling!" My one true weakness, the only counter that Hisao had to what he called my 'unstoppable cuteness'.
  119.  
  120. I tried pushing him off, but my strength was being sapped by all the laughter he was forcing out of me. Plus, I was quickly becoming short of breath.
  121.  
  122. After some time, he stopped abruptly and I realized he was on top of me, his hands pressed against the couch to the right and left of my face. I could see in his eyes where he wanted to go with this. He leaned forward and kissed me, his lips trailing off down my neck and towards my shoulders.
  123.  
  124. "N-nnn..." I couldn't contain my voice, I was too lethargic from the heat. "B-but it's so hot..." I protested, but Hisao's hands kept roaming and once they found their way to my chest I exhaled sharply.
  125.  
  126. "Yeah, but we've both been so busy with everything but each other lately. I miss you. And that stammer when you get embarrassed. It reminds me of when we met. And how hard I fell for you." I blushed and looked away. "Hisao, master of romance. You j-just can't help but sweet talk me, can you?" I gave up, he was right with how we hadn't spent much time together lately.
  127.  
  128. He was at work, I was at work, he was at school, or he was relaxing with friends. I didn't demand all of his time, but I did miss him too. Especially the intimacy. At night, we were usually both just so tired and it was too hot to want to do anything between the sheets.
  129.  
  130. My capris came sliding off, as did my top. I didn't waste any time with removing Hisao's clothes either.
  131.  
  132. "C-condom." A command, less than a statement. Hisao looked slightly taken aback by my forcefulness. "We've forgotten a couple of times and even though you pulled out, my period was late last month." Hisao looked a little dampened by my statement. He wandered off into the bedroom eventually to return with one of those familiar square packages.
  133.  
  134. As I waited and caught the breath that Hisao had stolen from me, I thought about what kind of future we were going to have together. It had been two years since we got together, I had become really close with his parents. We lived together and we made love often...
  135.  
  136. I wondered if he'd ever propose to me. Such a thought put a blush in my face and a heat in my chest I wasn't very comfortable with. The concept of marriage and proposal embarassed me.
  137.  
  138. But at the same time... wouldn't it be wonderful?
  139.  
  140. Just as I started daydreaming about marriage, Hisao walked back into the room, climbing onto me. "Why's your face so red? You must've missed me more than I thought..." His voice was low and seductive. I couldn't resist.
  141.  
  142. "M-mhmmm..." I didn't want him to know what I was actually thinking. Instead, I wrapped my arms around him, pressing my nails into his back and dragging them slowly against his skin.
  143.  
  144. Hisao didn't expect this and the expression on his face was priceless. I smiled, my face still red. He positioned himself after putting on the condom and I began wrapping my legs around his waist. "You are something, Hanako..." His voice was just a whisper as he gently slid into me and I pulled him close to my body. Even though it was easily 90+ degrees outside, I didn't want the heat of his body to be lost.
  145.  
  146. I loved the warmth he gave off. I loved the sound of his voice, I loved how his brown eyes bore into mine. I loved how he gave me everything I could want in a person. As we rocked back and forth, voices mingling together in pleasure between kisses, his whispered something in my ear.
  147.  
  148. "You know... I feel like the longer I spend with you and see the person you're becoming," He paused to catch his breath. I wasn't worried about his heart, he had gotten a lot stronger since he had started his runs so long ago to improve his health. I hadn't let him forget about the promise I made him make, that he wasn't allowed to die before me.
  149.  
  150. "The more I feel like I'm still falling in love with you." It had been a long time since he had said something that had caused an upwelling of emotion in me. I shed a tear while we made love. "Hanako?" He sounded concerned, but I pulled his head to my shoulder. "D-don't stop." He always stopped if I ever cried. He always mistook it for pain or sadness when it was always overwhelming happiness.
  151.  
  152. So I just didn't let him see it for now and instead whispered how important he was in his ear until we finished. I was quickly reaching that point, shots of pleasure arching up my back and stomach into my chest, causing me to tighten my hold on him and let loose a sigh that eventually culminated into a loud exclamation.
  153.  
  154. We collapsed into one another, clad in each other's and our own sweat. It wasn't unpleasant and I still held him close to me while he rested his head on my chest. I played with that goofy hair of his while we caught our breath.
  155.  
  156. I imagined him one day being an old man, in a laboratory with glasses the size of Kenji's, mixing things together and trying to create artificial life or something ridiculous, his uncontrolled hair turning gray...
  157.  
  158. I wanted to be that mad scientist's wife one day.
  159.  
  160. I laughed and Hisao looked up at me. "What?" His smile was plaintive and content. I shook my head, kissing him on the forehead. "N-nothing." He got up and motioned towards the bathroom with a thumb. "I'm going to take a slightly cold shower. Want to join? It'll be refreshing." I nodded and extended my hand, which he took.
  161.  
  162. We walked together into the shower and cooled off a bit. I had fun shampooing Hisao's hair and making it stick up even more ridiculous than it usually did. As retaliation, he attacked me with soapy sponge. Afterwards, we both got dressed and returned to the living room. It was one in the afternoon, so I decided I'd start making something.
  163.  
  164. I opened the fridge. I wanted to make something refreshing. Maybe that risotto recipe I had read the other day? It was asparagus and almond risotto. Part of the recipe involved adding ice to cool it after it was cooked through to keep us from feeling overheated by the meal.
  165.  
  166. I grabbed a sauce pan and saute pan, placing both on the stovetop. From the fridge, I grabbed a cup's worth of pre-made stock and placed it in the center of the sauce pan, heating it to an eventual boil. On the saute pan, I heated up some vegetable oil over a medium flame. While that heated, I chopped some garlic and onion, adding it to the saute pan. About three minutes was what the recipe recommended, so that the vegetables were translucent but not browned and cooked too through.
  167.  
  168. Cooked, but not too much. I wanted to retain some of the crisp flavor of fresh vegetables to compliment the dish. In the sauce pan, I added the arborio rice to the boiled stock. I lowered the heat on the sauce pan so that the rice wouldn't burn. Back to the saute pan. I poured in the sauted vegetables, adding ice and asparagus. Another cup of stock added to the sauce pan and I began stirring it together, adding a little bit of wine at a time until it was completely absorbed.
  169.  
  170. Then, the final touches as I turned off the flame. Stir in some lemon, some parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper. Top with crushed almonds. I separated the meal onto two plates, pouring a little bit of wine for the both of us to sip with the lunch.
  171.  
  172. "You're going to be a hell of a wife one day." Hisao said from where he rested his chin on the back of the couch like he always did. W-what? This caught me off guard as I brought the plates to the dining room table. I could feel my face burning red and I avoided his gaze.
  173.  
  174. I could hear his soft laughter. "It's true, you know. And one day I am going to marry you." God, Hisao! Could you try and embarrass me any more? I covered my face with both hands, unwilling to move from where I stood to bring the glasses of wine to the table where our food waited. Hisao walked over to me, kissing me on cheek and grabbing the two glasses, handing one to me.
  175.  
  176. "C'mon, let's eat. It smells really good."
  177.  
  178. =====
  179.  
  180. After the meal, Hisao washed down the last of the meal with the white wine I had poured for us. "You know what would be nice?" He asked while kissing me on the cheek as thanks for the meal and walked into the bedroom across the apartment. "What?" I asked, my mind drifting off to the thought of marriage again.
  181.  
  182. My imagination started to flare up and for a second I lost myself in a daydream of Hisao coming out of the bedroom with a magnificent ring.
  183.  
  184. "Hanako?" I was shaken from my daydream and I was caught by Hisao looking at me confused. "Are you okay lately? I hope you aren't catching a cold or something..." He said, placing the back of his hand against my forehead. "N-no, I'm f-fine..." My voice trailed off.
  185.  
  186. "You didn't hear what I asked?" I shook my head, smiling a little. "Sorry, no. What was it?" Hisao sighed and shook his head at me, a soft smile on his face. "I wanted to know if you would go to the beach with me. All of my classmates have been talking about the beach and I'm dying to go. The weekend's coming up, I think we could both use a break and some more time together."
  187.  
  188. Damn it Hisao.
  189.  
  190. Beaches were one thing I absolutely abhorred... but that smile. I couldn't handle this. I wanted to go with him, but I didn't want to go. I could let him go by himself, maybe he could get his friends to go with him...
  191.  
  192. But wait, didn't he make some female friends from his general study classes? He mentioned a couple of them like him, because he doesn't feel comfortable not telling me. ...If he's going to the beach with friends instead of me, won't he go with those girls?
  193.  
  194. No, nononono. If I didn't go with him, he might look at them. I didn't want Hisao looking at any other women. Wait. Even if he didn't go with friends, wouldn't there still be women there? I felt like steam was rising from under my tanktop and out from my ears.
  195.  
  196. If I went, he would be focused on me and wouldn't look at other women. Going to the beach though means wearing a bikini or some kind of swimwear if I want him to look at me instead of the other girls.
  197.  
  198. ...That would mean everyone else would see my scars.
  199.  
  200. In public.
  201.  
  202. Everyone.
  203.  
  204. I felt my breathing suddenly sharpen and I felt myself relapsing into the old panic attacks I used to have. Tunnel vision started to overwhelm my sight and all i could see were my hands on the table. My head was pounding and I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
  205.  
  206. Hisao's touch brought me back. "Hanako." A firm tone that got my attention. He placed his hand on my cheek. "Don't worry about it. You don't have to. Maybe I shouldn't have asked." A plain smile, one I hadn't seen in a long time. I hated that smile. That distant smile. It reminded me of high school. The days when he first met me. When he pitied me, before he became close to me and saw past it all.
  207.  
  208. "N-no! I sh-should worry about it." My eyes were focused on him as I grabbed his hand before he walked away. "And... d-don't ever look at me like that. You used to look at me like that back then..." My voice tapered off into silence and Hisao sighed.
  209.  
  210. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that. And whenever you want to, let me know. Doesn't have to be this weekend, can be the next. I should've thought about it a little more." He kissed me on the lips and I didn't let go of him. My eyes wandered to the floor.
  211.  
  212. "This weekend." I finally said. Hisao seemed surprised, but he didn't try and reassure me that I didn't have to. He knew if I wanted to face my fears, that I would. "I'll call Lilly, she's down here for the summer, we can meet up at the beach. Kenji would probably like to come, too. He's got a girlfriend now, can you believe it?" Hisao laughed cheerfully, but I was still worried. I was horrified of the concept of beaches, but I was going to do it.
  213.  
  214. "Hey, we said we were going to always face our fears together, okay? I have my own scars, too." Hisao. Stop being so reassuring, it made it harder to be as afraid of this as I should be.
  215.  
  216. I kissed him, nodding quietly. "I-I'm going to play a video game. I need to relax." A sigh from myself as I moved over to the little console we had.
  217.  
  218. Our gamecube collection had grown a bit, despite the fact that it was still an incredibly old system. Hisao was always picking up new used games from the video game shop that he passed on the way home from work.
  219.  
  220. "Alright, have fun. I've got to get dressed for work. Being an assistant manager at a grocery store sucks. Dealing with a bunch of stupid kids in highschool." He griped as he walked into the bedroom again, getting dressed in his work uniform.
  221.  
  222. "Old man Hisao, complaining about those whippersnappers again." I teased and he threw a sock at my head from the bedroom door directly to my right. I dodged it with a laugh, looking through our games. Hmmmm. Metroid Prime? Metroid Prime. I hadn't played that one in a while and I needed that 100% completion.
  223.  
  224. "At least they have air-conditioner blasting all day. One thing that's good about it being a chain." I sort of envied that. I kind of wanted to turn up the air conditioner all the way while Hisao was out, but when the electric bill came in, Hisao would be kind of angry if it was way over what he designated as a limit.
  225.  
  226. His parents still helped with the apartment, but as time went on and he found a decent job in the meantime while studying, they started paying for less. 'Become a man already, pay the damn rent', his dad complained over the phone at him. So far we paid a third of the rent and all of the utilities and groceries between our combined pay. It wasn't bad, honestly. We were comfortable.
  227.  
  228. "Oh, also." Hisao said as he exited the bedroom, wearing a shortsleeve collared shirt with a tie. Over his shoulder was his blue, thin coat that designated him as an assistant manager. "I kind of didn't want to bring this up, but I have a reason for asking you to come to the beach. I probably wouldn't have asked otherwise..."
  229.  
  230. I locked onto a barred door and hit it with a missile, revealing a new path. "Oh?" Hisao seemed kind of nervous. "The reason I'm going is because Iwanako invited me. You know how we started texting instead of sending letters back and forth? She... wants to see how I've been."
  231.  
  232. I put down the controller and glanced at him with a sort of sharp glare that neither of us was aware I had. The two's correspondence since a couple years ago had improved and their letters became more frequent and eventually it became occasional text messages.
  233.  
  234. "Why'd you say yes?"
  235.  
  236. He sighed. "Because... I really don't know. C'mon. I want you to come with because in case she tries pulling anything funny, I have you as protection. That's why I want Kenji and Lilly to come too."
  237.  
  238. I folded my arms and pouted. This was getting more and more complicated as it went. As it was, I was uncomfortable with random passersby gawking and making a debacle of my scars, now I had to worry about a person where mutual romantic feelings were involved in the past. What if she made fun of me?
  239.  
  240. I felt that heat rise up in my chest again.
  241.  
  242. "Don't worry, Hana. If she starts causing problems, I'll just tell Kenji she's a feminist. He'll run her out faster than you can say 'conspiracy'." Okay, you got me laughing. I sighed at him, pausing my game and walking towards him. I gave him a kiss on the lips.
  243.  
  244. He placed his forehead against mine while we hugged for a little while. "Have fun at work, okay?" Although I worked a lot, my schedule was kind of sporadic, generally based on when I was needed, rather than a schedule. A lot of the time we worked opposite each other's schedules.
  245.  
  246. Hisao forced a smile. "If you call dealing with kids and disgruntled consumers 'fun', I will have tons of it." I pinched his rear as he walked towards the door. "Yeah, yeah." He waved as he exited the apartment and closed the door behind him.
  247.  
  248. First thing I did after he left was grab my cellphone and start going through my contacts as fast as possible. Lilly, Lilly, LillyLillyLillyLilly, I needed some help here.
  249.  
  250. I found her name pretty quickly and dialed.
  251.  
  252. She picked up pretty fast. "Hello?"
  253.  
  254. "Lilly, I really need some advice." Lilly was quiet for a moment, then spoke.
  255.  
  256. "Hmmm, involving Hisao?" I nodded, even though I was on the phone. "Yeah."
  257.  
  258. "About the beach?"
  259.  
  260. "He already invited you?"
  261.  
  262. "Yes. I'm currently in the area for a few weeks for the summer and he asked me around when I arrived, about a week ago." I groaned into the phone.
  263.  
  264. "He just asked if I wanted to go. JUST asked. About ten minutes ago. And told me Iwanako was the one who invited him."
  265.  
  266. "Yes." As plaintive as ever, Lilly.
  267.  
  268. I was a little agitated, which was somewhat new of an emotion to feel for me involving our relationship. "I like how I was the last he asked, about four days from the weekend of the plans." Lilly chuckled softly. "My, my. Aren't you getting flustered. This is a bit new from you. You've grown a lot since we last talked, haven't you? We really should more often."
  269.  
  270. "Yeah, it has been a while... but, I'm- I'm really worried about this whole beach thing. I almost had an anxiety attack a little while ago because of it Lilly. I-it's been years since I've had one." Lilly's voice seemed contemplative at this statement.
  271.  
  272. "Because of your scars or because of Iwanako?"
  273.  
  274. "Both, honestly. I've never worn a s-swimsuit before because people made fun of me with clothes on, never mind with a swimsuit."
  275.  
  276. "Hisao said the beach was supposed to be fairly private, despite being a public beach. Only a few people go to it, so you shouldn't have to worry too much about people staring." I sighed a little. "That... feels like a slightly minor problem. I do work at a social worker's firm, a lot of people have stared. I've gotten able to ignore it... I just... I don't know, the concept of Iwanako, someone who used to be important to Hisao being there, seeing me, judging the person who he chose over her..." I paused for a moment.
  277.  
  278. "I just feel like she's going to be bitter and say some really hurtful things. Th-things I don't really want to hear. And... I don't know what kind of swimsuit to buy. I was going to hope I could turn this discussion into 'can you help me pick one out'?" I admitted guiltily. Lilly laughed on the other side of the phone.
  279.  
  280. "If she winds up bitter and insulting, you should take it as a compliment. It means she's jealous of you and the fact that he loves you instead of her." That was one way of looking at it. And Hisao was always telling me I looked beautiful, shouldn't his words be the only ones that mattered anyways? I sighed. "Alright, between you and Hisao, I can't help but look at this in a positive way. I'm still n-nervous, though."
  281.  
  282. "That's entirely understandable, dear. Akira is with me, she was just saying she wanted to go for a drive... where do you live again? I've only visited a handful of times, I can't remember the address for the life of me." A graceful chuckle.
  283.  
  284. I used to wish a lot I was like Lilly, sometimes I still did. Always taking things with grace and balance while I teetered along the edge of panic and delirium, dealing with something as simple as going to the beach with my boyfriend. I told her the address and she agreed to head over soon while Hisao was out at work.
  285.  
  286. =====
  287.  
  288. Two days later, I received a call from one of my supervisors.
  289.  
  290. "Hanako, the boss is calling you in." Nothing else from the phone, no explanation. It was my serious-as-stone supervisor. "Err... is something wrong? Why's the boss want me?" I could hear in the background people talking and the printing of paper. The company was always busy and buzzing with work.
  291.  
  292. "Well, the girl you counseled, Takara... she had a serious break down, the workers at the orphanage found out she was hurting herself. She refuses to talk to anyone other than you, Hanako. The boss wants you in as soon as possible. Can you do it? We can try something else if you're unavailable." Although he said he could find someone else, his tone encouraged that I not decline.
  293.  
  294. I glanced at the video game I was playing. Well, I was saving the world from Metroid Prime, but... I think that world could wait a little. Takara's world was a little more important to me right now. I paused, turned off the television and walked into the bedroom Hisao and I shared. I started digging through the dressers, grabbing a ruffled blouse and a ribbon from on top of it.
  295.  
  296. "No, I can be there in twenty minutes. Five to get dressed, ten for the train to arrive, ten to get there. Give or take five minutes." I started pulling off my shirt and put the phone on speaker. "Good. We all appreciate it. We've been tearing our hair out over this girl, we didn't think we'd actually have to call you."
  297.  
  298. I couldn't seem to get the shirt on right. I was rushing a little and was having a bit of trouble talking on the phone while putting on a shirt. "N-no, don't worry. I'm glad I'm needed and can be of use. That's why I started working with you guys, so I could be useful." I finally got the shirt on right and started tying the light purple ribbon around my tall collar into a bow.
  299.  
  300. "Alright, see you when you get here. She's in your room, waiting when you get here." He hung up the phone and I put it into the coat I just donned. I ran out of the bedroom and into the living room, grabbing my notepad, the recorder I used and a pen. A clip dangled from my mouth, which I used to pin my bangs out of my eyes.
  301.  
  302. Just as I was about to charge out of the apartment, Hisao called after me. "Pants, darling. Or skirt, whatever you want to put on." I glanced down and realized I had forgotten I was only wearing my panties because we were still in the middle of a heat wave.
  303.  
  304. "Oh, thanks." I rushed by Hisao and watched as he stuck a spoonful of peanut butter in his mouth. "You better not put that spoon back in that jar after it's been in your mouth." Hisao smiled like an idiot. "Like this?" His voice was sort of lispy from all the peanut butter in his mouth. He then jammed the spoon into the jar. "So gross."
  305.  
  306. I slipped on a pair of black slacks that would breathe easily and grabbed a pair of flats from the closet that looked businesslike but comfortable.
  307.  
  308. "Have fun, sounds like you've got a little bit of a case on your hands."
  309.  
  310. I ran out of the bedroom again, this time fully clothed. "Yeah." Was all I felt I had time to say as I kissed Hisao on the cheek and ran out. I had to catch the train. Thankfully, I had a very small wallet in this jacket that I only kept for the sake of train fare so I didn't have to worry about fumbling for money.
  311.  
  312. While I rode the train towards my company, I glanced out the window. I tried not to look at the people who occasionally stared at me while I rode the train. I glanced down at the scarring on the back and side of my hand. Scars... a daily reminder of the sacrifices made to preserve my life.
  313.  
  314. One that I was living for myself and for Hisao. I thought about Takara, the little girl who I was going in to talk to. She and others like her were the reason why I was studying to get a degree that I could become a social worker. So I could study and take the licensing test and become a proper social worker. One who could make a real difference in these kids lives.
  315.  
  316. When I arrived at the company, I didn't waste any time. A few people said hello and I nodded quickly to them, moving towards my office. I opened the door and Takara was sitting at my desk, looking at a small picture frame I kept there, one with two pictures.
  317.  
  318. One of myself with Hisao holding hands, Lilly standing besides us. The other was a half burned, hard to make out picture of me as a child with my two parents. The picture was so badly scorched you couldn't make out the faces of my parents, but I was still visible. Just like in real life. They had been consumed by the flames and I had been left in the ashes.
  319.  
  320. I used to hate that picture, but I sort of grew attached to it over the couple years. It was one of the few things that survived that blaze.
  321.  
  322. "Is this the person who loves you, even with your scars?" The little girl asked, turning the frame towards me. She looked bitter, jealous even. Her right arm was wrapped in bandages. I smiled at the picture of Hisao and myself close together. It was taken a summer ago.
  323.  
  324. "That's him. He's a wonderful person. I wouldn't be here without him." Takara turned it back towards herself. Her eyes were empty. How it pained me to see eyes like those. They reminded me of my own, the eyes that greeted me in the mirror every single day of my life until Hisao entered it.
  325.  
  326. I sat down on a beanbag chair opposite her. It was kind of funny, seeing her sitting at my desk and myself sitting where the person I counseled sat. "So, you've been asking to talk to me specifically, Takara. Is it okay if I record this? I have to ask every time by law, so sorry if it gets repetitive." She shrugged.
  327.  
  328. "It's fine." I placed down my recorder on the desk, turning it on after making sure I had a fresh minitape in it. "So what was it you wanted to talk about?" Takara was silent, but silence sometimes was good. In that silence, you could learn a lot about a person. As much as if they were talking.
  329.  
  330. How they moved, how they held themselves. Their posture related to their self-esteem and their expression spoke their mind without a single word. "You seem really upset." I finally broke the silence. Takara seemed to shoot me a look as if to say 'Should I be happy?' I gave a stilted smile.
  331.  
  332. "No, but you shouldn't be unhappy. That's what I want to help with. I want to make it so you can stop being unhappy." Takara seemed confused that I could read her. "...Are you a psychic? Or a spy?" I laughed for a moment, but shook my head. The little girl glared at me suspiciously. "Psychic spy?"
  333.  
  334. "No, no. Just good at reading people. These scars did a good job at keeping people away. I've watched people a lot, trying to learn if there was anything I could do to make up for my scars. But there was really nothing,"
  335.  
  336. Takara seemed to hang on my every word. I was beginning to think she didn't want to talk, but she wanted to listen. She wanted to know what what sort of spell I had cast to put myself, an orphan like her, with a troubled past like hers, in the good place I've been in.
  337.  
  338. "People tried pitying me. Tried to 'take care' of me. Rescue me. People wanted to be my knight, they wanted to be my hero. I just wanted to be accepted." I paused for a moment. "Do you feel that way too, Takara?" She nodded slowly. "So that's a yes," I dictated so that the recording would be clearer when I went over it later and my memory was a bit cloudier.
  339.  
  340. "What people don't accept you, Takara?" At this, her eyes darkened a bit. "Everyone." I gave a soft, warm laugh. She glared at me. "That's not true. I accept you. For whatever you are, want to be or become." She sighed a little. "That isn't enough, Miss Ikezawa." She wound up hopping out of my seat and into a beanbag near me, laying on it like a bed.
  341.  
  342. It wasn't until she was closer to me that I realized how thin and gaunt she looked.
  343.  
  344. "Some of the other kids at the orphanage make fun of me. I get sick. I'm always so weak so I get bullied. They steal my snacks and my toys..." I wasn't sure why exactly she was always sick or weak, though. There was a long silence and then Takara spoke again. "One of the workers at the orphange called me a 'dope baby'. What's that mean, Miss Ikezawa?" I frowned a little. "It means you are or were addicted to the same drugs that your mom was. How long did she breast feed you?"
  345.  
  346. Takara hugged her ragged teddy bear closer to her chest. It was probably the only toy they didn't steal from her because of how worn it was. Her eyes had dark bags under them and her lips were thin. The little details, ones that were hard to notice, were becoming apparent. "Up until she died... we sometimes couldn't afford food so she did her best to make sure I was fed, even a little."
  347.  
  348. Her mother had died only a few weeks ago. If her mother had been using drugs for a long time, this child had been exposed to the same chemicals for a long time and was experiencing compromised immune systems, chronic weakness and withdrawals.
  349.  
  350. "I've seen scary things. Things that shouldn't exist. That's what the doctors tell me."
  351.  
  352. Hallucinations as a result of withdrawals. They must've been over by now, but she was still suffering from a weakened immune system. That weakened immune system, paired with malnutrition left her a mess.
  353.  
  354. And all she wanted probably was a friend. Someone to accept her. Even if it was one person, I know it'd give her strength to cope with all the other people. It did for me. If I could provide her that little bit of hope, that light, she could find the strength in herself eventually too.
  355.  
  356. I'm sure the doctors knew about her malnutrition and her immune system. "Do they give you medicine?" She made a face. "They taste bad, huh?" She nodded and I laid on my side on my own beanbag, facing her.
  357.  
  358. "Well, those pills will make you better. From what I've read about you, they don't think you have any problems with your brain. No one wants to take certain kinds of pills because they're afraid it'll change them. Does that scare you? Have you seen other kids change because of the pills?" Takara nodded, burying her chin in the teddy bear she held.
  359.  
  360. "Don't worry, it won't happen to you. But if you don't take your pills, you won't get any better. You'll keep getting sick and you'll never get bigger or stronger." The concept of always being as small and weak as she was seemed to frighten her. "Promise?" She asked, extending a pinky. A sacred promise to me, those pinky promises. I wondered if they meant the same to her. "Of course." I said, wrapping mine around hers.
  361.  
  362. "And... how about this? Do you want to meet the guy who made my life better?" She seemed to contemplate the question and then nodded. "Well, we're all going to the beach. Me, Hisao, and some of his friends. I'll ask the people at your orphanage if it's okay. And I'll ask my boss if it's okay, too. If we're lucky, you'll get to come with us and have fun with people who'll all accept you."
  363.  
  364. Takara didn't seem to believe that. "Why would they?" She finally asked. I smiled. "They're all a little broken, like us. Hisao has a heart condition. My best friend is blind. Hisao's friend is almost completely blind and he's the craziest person I've met." At the word crazy, she seemed to reconsider the offer a little. I laughed. "Don't worry, he's nice. He just seems crazy because he doesn't think like us."
  365.  
  366. "...So they're all like us?"
  367.  
  368. I nodded. "Each of them have had really sad times in their lives. Each of them. Just like you and me. I promise you'll have fun. We'll build sandcastles and swim and eat hot dogs and it'll be fun. And if you stop hurting yourself and be really good, we'll do it more often. I'm sure you could see me more often and we can turn these little talks into really fun times together. We can talk at the beach, we could talk at my house. We could even talk while playing at the park."
  369.  
  370. "I'd like that."
  371.  
  372. I smiled at Takara. "Your name means 'treasure', doesn't it? She nodded slowly. "Mommy used to call me her little treasure, so that's why she named me that. Even though daddy didn't love me or her, she wanted me to know that I was a treasure. Like gold." I reached over to her, patting her hand.
  373.  
  374. "You are a treasure."
  375.  
  376. Our talk continued for a while until she decided she was willing to go back home to her orphanage. I handed my recorder to my supervisor, the same one who had called me. He was a registered social worker, five or ten years older than me. He had a hard expression, a long, thin face and a pair of small circular glasses.
  377.  
  378. "You want to take her to the beach?" His tone was as sharp as ever. Talking to him was always a little scary. I nodded. "I-It's... part of what I'm trying with her. Listen to the recording and please get back to me. I think it'd really help. I feel like I made some good progress with her today." He adjusted his glasses and looked at me in a strange way.
  379.  
  380. "You're a very unorthodox counselor. Do they teach you to act this way at the university?" He seemed very serious all the time. I shook my head. "I guess I'm b-being a little progressive?" He sighed, but conceded. Nothing else had been helping, he said. It was better to take a shot in the dark than to not be able to do anything.
  381.  
  382. "I'll talk to the boss and see if we can work something out if the recording is what you say." I nodded and on the ride home, I tried jotting down as much as I could before I forgot it seeing as I had given my recording over to my supervisor so he could convince our boss to let me take the little girl to the beach.
  383.  
  384. =====
  385.  
  386. The day of our little beach get-together came a bit faster than I had wanted. My supervisor had shown up at my apartment with Takara in tow. Apparently, my recording was good enough and they thought although straying from the norm, my very personal approach could work well with Takara.
  387.  
  388. "So, are you and Miss Ikezawa married?" Takara asked Hisao. He laughed a little, shaking his head. "No, we aren't. But I'm sure we love each other as much as some married couples do." I felt myself blushing a little. My supervisor was sitting on our couch, listening in while reading a book. I knew what he was doing.
  389.  
  390. He was doing what we all were paid to do. Our job. Which was listen. He was trying to figure as much about the two of us from today as he could. Just so he could dismantle us and know any flaws and shortcomings our relationship might have. He was... an odd one.
  391.  
  392. "And what do you do? Miss Ikezawa helps people and says you're a really important person to her. Do you help people too?" Her expression was so blank and so was her tone, but I could tell she had a real interest in Hisao. "I do, but in a different way. I'm learning to make medicine in school so I can become a special kind of doctor. I won't treat patients directly but come up with new kinds of medicine to help people."
  393.  
  394. She looked to him with those dark green eyes of hers.
  395.  
  396. "You two are real saints, huh?" I heard my supervisor ask. I sighed, I didn't really have anything to say to that. We helped people because we wanted to. Not to be righteous or anything. It was just what we wanted to do. It was like asking 'You really like breathing, huh?'.
  397.  
  398. "When's Lilly getting here, Hisao?" I asked, holding his hand. "She managed to text us a little while ago. Akira's driving her and coming with, should be about ten minutes from now." My Supervisor, Tomo, seemed interested in the other people going.
  399.  
  400. "Who else is coming with to this little extravaganza?" Hisao answered before I could. "An old friend of mine named Iwanako, Lilly and Kenji, high school friends of mine from Yamaku-" My supervisor cut in. "The school for the crippled?" Hisao frowned heavily at him. "For Hanako's superior, you're rather rude and disrespectful." I pat Hisao on the shoulder. "Please don't cause a fight."
  401.  
  402. Tomo flipped a page of his book quietly. It looked like he was reading Pride and Prejudice in English. "It's a school for the disabled," Hisao said, putting emphasis on disabled. Cripple, crippled... they had very negative connotations to them. "And the people from that school are good people. Akira is Lilly's sister, they're both also coming with." Tomo didn't seem as interested as he originally let on and he didn't respond.
  403.  
  404. "Mister Aizane is mean." Takara eventually said, in that blunt flat voice of hers. "He's just different, not mean." I think. I don't think he intended to come off as mean, which was different in my book.
  405.  
  406. Eventually the doorbell rang, which I was thankful for. The awkward silence and Hisao's dislike for my supervisor was causing an air of discomfort although Takara was pretty content with exploring the apartment and trying out my video games.
  407.  
  408. I walked to the front door, letting the others in. "Hoooo, it's nice and cool in here. Didn't think you guys would have an air conditioner!" Akira's eyes turned towards Hisao who was reaching into the fridge for a cool drink.
  409.  
  410. "Hey there Hisao, long time no see! You're looking pretty good for a guy with a heart condition. How's all that nerd stuff going for you at university?" Hisao grinned a little at Akira. She was wearing a T-shirt that said something in english and denim shorts. It looked her shirt had something to do with a foreign beer brand.
  411.  
  412. "Well, it's going pretty good. I know enough about different chemicals to make a pretty nasty nerve agent if I wanted to. But you know, the usual 'nerd' stuff." Akira laughed halfheartedly and I slapped him playfully on the arm. "Don't be a jerk." Tomo seemed to raise his eyebrows at this statement, halfway worriedly.
  413.  
  414. I think Hisao made that remark on purpose. Lilly was wearing a light jacket and small denim shorts over her bikini and I was immediately reminded of the fact that I was wearing mine underneath the baggy tee that belonged to Hisao and my own pair of shorts.
  415.  
  416. "My, my, sounds like we have a lot of people in here today. A child, Hisao and Hanako... and someone reading a book on the couch. Someone who doesn't smell familiar either." Tomo closed his book and glanced towards our blind friend. "What are you, a bloodhound?" She smiled in a somewhat devious way.
  417.  
  418. "I've been told I bite like one." How risque, Lilly. "Well." Tomo said, not having a response to that.
  419.  
  420. "Not sure who you are, but you better not think you can mess with my sister. I will knock you out, you skinny punk." Akira, always on the offensive. I sighed.
  421.  
  422. Jeez Tomo, why are you such an unlikable social worker? It must've been the fact he worked with the service in our company that mainly dealt with family separations and deciding whether families ought to be separated and where those children should go and who was responsible enough to do so.
  423.  
  424. I had heard from a couple people at the company that he used to be a really nice guy, but after a while, he just started... shutting down. His smile vanished, his demeanor became hard and he sort of devolved into a grumpy person who often came off as rude. It was probably because of his position in the company.
  425.  
  426. Having to split up that many children, to be blamed for families being torn apart even when they needed to be... that was a burden he always carried and I'm sure it weighed down on him. That was why I always talked to him whenever I got the chance. I hoped a little I could break past that shell of his.
  427.  
  428. "This is my supervisor, Aizane Tomo. My boss allowed me to take a little girl I'm counseling so long as my supervisor... well, supervises." I said with a small laugh. "He'll be coming with us today to the beach."
  429.  
  430. "I hate beaches." Tomo said. I sighed. "What a sour puss." Akira responded. "Why don't you just say you hate fun?" She added. "I do." I felt myself laughing. He was like a poorly written character, one you just couldn't like. But, he was my boss. I had to deal with him so I could help Takara.
  431.  
  432. We all got into the car, Takara on my lap because we were short one seat. "You know, Hanako..." Akira said while she adjusted the rearview mirror and glanced at me with a single burgundy eye. "What's up?" I played with Takara's teddy bear's arms, making it do a little dance that caused Takara to giggle a bit. "Actually, nothing. Don't worry." I wondered what she was going to say.
  433.  
  434. Lilly laughed a little to herself. Was there something I missed? I glanced to Hisao who looked to me with a smile and a shrug. Seemed he was playing dumb though and everyone was sharing some kind of inside joke.
  435.  
  436. And then we arrived at the beach. Kenji had already arrived and was sitting on a cooler, looking like the angriest gargoyle defending his cooler cathedral. He was sitting on the sidewalk of the parking lot, facing towards us. Even though it was the summer and he was wearing swim trunks, he still wore his red and gold scarf around his neck.
  437.  
  438. We all funneled out of the car, the two of us approaching him. "Hey, Kenji." Hisao said, wondering if he was catatonic or something. He was sitting completely still, arms folded. Completely unmoving. He didn't even turn his head our way.
  439.  
  440. Then I heard something a little soft.
  441.  
  442. A snore. "He's asleep, Hisao." Hisao laughed pretty loud at this and placed a hand on Kenji's shoulder. "Hey, Kenji. If you sleep in the open like this, you're going to wake with a knife in your back from some feminist who passed you by and realised you were the last bastion of hope against the feminist invasion."
  443.  
  444. At these words, he seemed to snap awake. "I thought I heard the voice of a comrade." Hisao chuckled a bit. "Yeah, what's up Kenji? Where's your lady friend?" Kenji coughed a little. His breath still smelled faintly of garlic, but not as strongly. "Oh, she's working. Couldn't come. The feminists are holding her down. She's planning to break their chain of command, though. Also, it sounds like there's a lot of women around. I assume you screened them properly and there are no feminists in our midst?"
  445.  
  446. I shook my head at this absurdity, but Hisao seemed to enjoy it. Like it was some kind of surreal play and he was one of the lead roles. "Absolutely. I interrogated each of them thoroughly and they're part of our cause. Also, why are you wearing your scarf in the middle of the summer?"
  447.  
  448. Kenji adjusted his enormous glasses. "The threads of my scarf are interwoven with nanomachines in them." Hisao nodded slowly. "Nanomachines, huh?" Kenji returned his nod. "Yes. I'm not at liberty to discuss that though. Military stuff. Need-to-know clearance."
  449.  
  450. "Aha. Also, the cooler is filled with anti feminist supplies, right?" I asked, deciding to try my hand at joining the nonsense. "Oh, hey there bacon bits, didn't see you there. And no, it's filled with booze. I brought some pansy drinks for you girls though who don't share my comrade and myself's tolerance for whiskey and scotch."
  451.  
  452. I was a little insulted at having been called 'bacon bits'. I was about to tell him off, but Hisao smacked him in the back of the head. Somehow his glasses didn't come off.
  453.  
  454. Akira, having heard the magic words from Kenji, came over. "Hey. hey! I will drink you under the table, buddy. I drink things so hard that if I'd burp at you, you'd wake up with a hangover the next day." Lilly seemed disapproving of such speech though. "Akira, you're never going to get married if you keep acting like such... a man." Akira laughed. "It's okay, my boyfriend is pretty much a little girl, it all works out in some kind of way."
  455.  
  456. Hisao glanced to Tomo who seemed rather taken aback by all of these discussions going on. "These are my friends, Tomo. I wonder where Iwanako is, she said she'd be here..." He looked up and down the beach casually and a silence descended over the group. It was probably because they could sense my displeasure at the name.
  457.  
  458. "Hisao?" My boyfriend turned around quickly to see a mature-looking woman in a black bikini with a slightly revealing sting top and bottom. Only one word came to mind;
  459.  
  460. Slut.
  461.  
  462. Even if I was calling her a slut, I had to concede that she was definitely attractive. Long dark hair pulled into a side-ponytail and round umber eyes.
  463.  
  464. "Iwanako?" Hisao asked, unsure. It had been a long time since he had last seen her, so he probably had no idea what she looked like if she had changed at all. She had a soft serve icecream cone in her hand and she quickly glanced towards myself and the little girl whose hand I was holding.
  465.  
  466. "Is that...?" She began, a little confused. Hisao smiled. "That's my girlfriend Hanako. The little girl is someone she's counseling. She part of a a social worker company the city over." Iwanako smiled at me, extending a hand. "Nice to meet you, Hisao has told me a lot about you."
  467.  
  468. I took her hand, shaking it firmly. "Good things, I'd hope." I said, trying out an attempt at humor with someone who felt like my archnemesis. Instead, it came out sounding somewhat threatening. "Of course. He cares very much about you. I'm glad he found someone like you after the incident. And you're all friends of his from Yamaku, I assume?" She asked, looking towards Lilly, Akira, Kenji and Tomo.
  469.  
  470. "I'm also a worker from Hanako's company. I'm here on business." Tomo answered. Kenji glanced in the general direction of Iwanako, reflecting the beach's bright sun off of his surface into her eyes. I wasn't sure if that was intentional or not, but I enjoyed the cringing effect it had on her.
  471.  
  472. "So you're that skirt who gave Hisao his condition, huh?" He asked. Hisao laughed weakly. "She didn't give it to me, Kenji. I had it before, but never knew. She kinda... confessed and I had an attack." Hisao informed his companion.
  473.  
  474. "Oh yeaaaaah? Sounds like some sort of feminist attack. They probably have charts. Charts, Hisao. They were studying you. They sent this girl to assassinate you and now she's here to finish the job after all the years."
  475.  
  476. "...Is he okay?" Iwanako asked Hisao. He nodded. "He's always like this. And Kenji, I already said no feminist spies have infiltrated us. It was an accident." Hisao's words seemed to placate our paranoid friend and he nodded. "Okay. I'm only sparing you from my full optic blast because Hisao's vouching for you. Me and him, we go back. We've seen some shit, fought some crazy battles. He's disarmed bombs you know."
  477.  
  478. "I haven't disarmed any bombs, Kenji."
  479.  
  480. "But that one time-" Kenji assured, but Hisao shook his head. Takara laughed. "Your friends are really funny, Miss Ikezawa." I nodded, squeezing her hand a little. "They are. So, we should really set up the blankets and an umbrella or two. Everyone nodded and Iwanako seemed to gravitate towards Hisao while he helped us all set up.
  481.  
  482. Lilly could sense my annoyance and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Just remember who he comes hom to at the end of the night." She winked at me and I couldn't help but smile a little. "Yeah. I-I'm kinda scared to take off my shirt... I feel kind of embarrassed wearing the swimsuit you and Akira helped me pick out."
  483.  
  484. Akira clasped a hand on my back. "Don't feel that way! Hisao's eyes will be stuck to you all day and it'll be even better when you two get back home." A nudge in my side and I sighed. "What are they talking about, Miss Ikezawa?" I pat her on the head. "Nothing. And just call me Hana, Takara. It's good to be polite, but we're all friends here." She nodded and decided to lay down on one of the blankets, enjoying the sunlight.
  485.  
  486. She was smiling a lot more and she had laughed a lot while playing with Hisao. For a ten year old, she had the mentality of a five or six year old even if her cognitive ability has been forced to mature with her experiences. She really just wanted to be cared about and be around people who she felt comfortable with.
  487.  
  488. To her, we were all broken souls with our own secret, dark pasts. But we were beacons of hope because we were all happy and all the cracks had been filled with each other.
  489.  
  490. Hisao laid down on a beach towel, Iwanako on his right. They were chatting a lot and he had removed his shirt earlier while setting up our towels and umbrellas and food. Lilly and Akira had brought actual food, so we were sitting down and eating because it was close to lunch.
  491.  
  492. I could see Iwanako's eyes straying to Hisao's chest and the scar he wore. A somewhat pained expression crossed her face. I knew why. She blamed herself for what happened to Hisao. He would tell her it wasn't, but she still felt guilty. It was easy to see.
  493.  
  494. And part of me wanted to say she was going to act that way so that Hisao would pity her and try to make her feel better.
  495.  
  496. As much as I wanted to interject, it would be more mature if I let two old friends catch up. I had my own friend to catch up with, one I cared about deeply. Lilly had been in and out of a couple relationships she informed me, not having found any that stuck. It was somewhat sad to hear, because when Hisao and I started dating, I had a sneaking suspicion that she had feelings for him but let them go because she'd rather I be with him instead.
  497.  
  498. I think that was the only act of pity I ever accepted during the course of my life. If she hadn't, I feel like I would've lost a person who was incredibly important to me. A person who gave me a reason to improve instead of loathe myself every morning I woke.
  499.  
  500. Instead, I decided to listen in on a conversation that Tomo got into with Akira when he finally dodged Kenji who seemed to be trying to recruit him into the ranks of the Feminist Resistance Force, or whatever he called it. He wound up bumping into Akira on accident while he was glancing at his book, to which she got kind of annoyed. I overheard her asking for an apology, one I doubted Tomo was going to give.
  501.  
  502. "How do you get off being so rude? Didn't anyone ever teach you manners?" Akira asked, to which Tomo glared at her from over his spectacles. "Manners are pointless. They get you nowhere. I know that fairly well." Akira seemed confused at his statement and even I was curious. I silently eavesdropped on them.
  503.  
  504. "That's just your opinion! And it's a rude one. You don't have to be an ass every time you meet someone." I could see something boiling underneath Tomo's skin. "And idealism isn't the same as realism. You haven't seen the kind of reality I have."
  505.  
  506. Akira scoffed. "Oh yeah? Try me, big shot." Tomo donned a scowl. "I've had to go with police in to take people's children from them, forcibly. I've worked with my heart to protect people and give them better lives. Instead, I've been threatened, I've been hated and I've even been attacked." His voice cut through the air and Akira seemed to be upset that he had to deal with that, not that his tone made it sound like he was attacking her.
  507.  
  508. "I've watched mothers kill their children rather than be taken by the company I work for so that they could be given better lives. Babies, fed poisoned formula, fathers stabbing me when I arrived and confronted them after multiple complaints from their neighbors who heard the beatings and arguments-" I placed a hand on his shoulder.
  509.  
  510. "Tomo. You've been through a lot, but you don't need to act that way with us. We're all friends. Just lighten up and enjoy yourself. Maybe we could get coffee some other day? You sound like you need someone to talk to..." I offered, to which he seemed surprised. He wasn't expecting me to interject, he was getting so focused on his memories and the things that haunted him.
  511.  
  512. "...Why should I?"
  513.  
  514. I smiled at him. "Because letting those kind of things fester will only make you unhappier. At least let me help. Or listen." Surprisingly, he gave a bitter smile. "...I think I'm seeing what the boss does in you. You're hard to deny." He said, sighing turning towards Akira, his eyes darting away.
  515.  
  516. "I'm... sorry." How many times had he said those words to parents who he took the children from? How many times had he heard himself say it, only to be greeted with harsh words?
  517.  
  518. "Maybe we should talk sometime, Hanako." Although the things he said brought him to a bad place, he looked a little lighter. "Yeah, m-maybe we should. I mean, you feel a little better getting all of that off your chest, huh? And I can keep it off the record, too." I told him with a laugh. "Yeah, let's just get along, okay? I mean, we're supposed to have fun, right big guy?" She asked with a boisterous laugh and slapping him on the back.
  519.  
  520. "Yeah..." It was about then that the sound of a bottle of liquor being opened caught Akira's attention. I glanced over and saw that Kenji was already busting out the alcohol, to which Akira wooped at. He was passing out a couple whiskey glasses, pouring some of the hard drink for those who wanted them. I approached him and he reached into the cooler, finding a wine cooler for me to drink.
  521.  
  522. "No, I don't want that. Wh-what's some of the harder stuff that you've got?" Maybe a little alcohol of the harder variety would help me loosen up. Not care as much. I didn't want to have an anxiety attack or anything. "Awww yeah Toasty. Steppin' up, drinking with the men now. I've got scotch, whiskey and a pint of bourbon."
  523.  
  524. "I guess the scotch." I said, completely ignoring his annoying nicknames for me. He scooped some ice out of the cooler with the glass and poured the scotch into it for me. I sipped it. It went down smooth but the afterburn it left in my chest was painful and made me cringe a little. It wasn't bad though... it had a nice taste at least, for being so potent. I felt like I was breathing fire after a few sips.
  525.  
  526. Takara was given a juice box and a wrapped sandwich from the cooler and started building a sand castle while we all chatted and enjoyed the initial relaxation of our little beach party. Everyone was talking with each other and enjoying one another's company. Lilly, Akira and Takara were chatting, Kenji seemed to have his sights locked on Tomo for discussing his conspiracy and Iwanako and Hisao were still talking, catching up. After drinking half of the short glass of scotch, I was feeling really warm. I really wanted to swim.
  527.  
  528. For a second, my head wanted to tell me I didn't, because doing so would require me to remove my clothes and reveal my scars to the person who might try and use them against me, to turn Hisao against me. But my mind was kind of cloudy and the mist filling the space between my ears said differently. It'll be fine, the fog told me.
  529.  
  530. I put down the glass on the sand and stretched a bit. "Iiiiiii'm going to go for a swim, okay? Tomo, keep an eye on Takara." Takara had been wandering from person to person after talking with Akira and Lilly for a while, getting to know each of them and enjoying the fact that they didn't seem to judge her or treat her differently. She got tired easily, I noticed and every now and then she'd lay down besides me on my towel.
  531.  
  532. "Aye aye, cap'n." He responded, turning another page of his book while trying to ignore Kenji's loud rants. I reached towards the bottom of my shirt, pulling it up and over my head. I unbuttoned my shorts, letting them fall to the ground. Sure, Iwanako had her little skimpy string bikini.
  533.  
  534. But I was feeling confident all of a sudden. I knew my body and I knew it was something that Hisao loved. The bikini that Akira and Lilly helped me choose was a bandeau top, a strapless one that wrapped around me and a skirt bottom that had a slit in the side and revealed some of my hip.
  535.  
  536. I picked up my glass and walked into the water by myself. As I walked across the warm sands, I wondered whose feet I was using. Because they sure didn't belong to the same Hanako who I used to be. I wouldn't have stepped so confidently towards the water, all by myself, even with the aid of a little bit of alcohol.
  537.  
  538. The water greeted my ankles with a warm embrace and then pulled away, inviting me deeper. I walked in until I was up to my abdomen in the warm ocean's water and then I floated on my back, resting on the gentle rocking of the sea. I rested the glass on my stomach as I closed my eyes and let the sun wash over me.
  539.  
  540. The world was such an interesting thing. The past mingled with the present and joined with the future. Iwanako became a part of Hisao's life again, but I was his future. We were each other's future.
  541.  
  542. I glanced up at the blueberry skies, wondering how much time had passed since I had started floating on the ocean's waves. Staring at the sky, it felt like I was flying. Nothing around me, just the sky and the ocean below me. I closed my eyes and relaxed, enjoying the sun on my skin and the sound of the world. I was so content.
  543.  
  544. I heard the movement of someone through the water and I realized that the glass I had been resting on my abdomen was empty. I glanced over and it was Hisao. He kissed me and I smiled. "H-hey." I said.
  545.  
  546. He had a cocky grin on his face. "Iwanako is impressed with you. She said you looked really beautiful, walking so confidently into the ocean without even turning around. Something about being independant." I laughed, righting myself and standing in the water facing Hisao.
  547.  
  548. "So... uh... how do I look?" A slight blush crept into my features and he placed his hands on my hips, leaning forward and kissing me. "How about I let you know what I think later?" His hands gripped my hips and I knew what he was thinking. Sometimes I couldn't keep up with his ridiculous drive.
  549.  
  550. I kissed him teasingly on the lips, just barely slipping my tongue past his as I walked away with a wink. Much to my chagrin, I tripped over a stone on the sand and nearly toppled into the water, having had a bit to drink. Hisao burst out into laughter and I rushed out of the water as he charged at me.
  551.  
  552. It looked like Akira had grabbed a volleyball from the car. "C'mon guys, lets play!"
  553.  
  554. Tomo stood up at this remark, removing his shirt. "I'll play." He announced, to which some of our friends afforded the strangest look possible.
  555.  
  556. For such a tall, skinny guy, he was pretty chiseled. Had a few scars, too. "I didn't think a bookworm like you would like volleyball." Akira said as she tossed the ball towards him and moving towards the volleyball net that was a little ways away. I followed, I kind of wanted to try playing.
  557.  
  558. "You'd be surprised what you'd learn about me. One thing is that I love to win. Winning is the most satisfying thing in the world." Lilly at this looked horrified, knowing a person who was just like that. Lilly and I both realized at the same time, too. "He's a male Shizune." Almost everyone started laughing, but Tomo paid it no mind.
  559.  
  560. Ultimately, we all had fun. Even Tomo. It was the first time I saw him smile and laugh since I started working at the company so I was happy. Takara and Tomo were both getting things they needed. Maybe the boss told him to supervise not just to keep an eye on Takara, but for his own good too.
  561.  
  562. =====
  563.  
  564.  
  565. Night started falling and despite some suggestions of a bonfire, Tomo insisted he get back to our apartment and drive Takara back to the orphanage. We all piled into Akira's car, smelling of sand and sea, content and happy. Iwanako was taking her own car on a long drive back to where she lived and said goodbye to Hisao outside the car while I carried a sleeping Takara.
  566.  
  567. I glanced out the window of the car and Iwanako hugged him, patting him on the shoulder. Although my first instinct was to be possessive, she was probably congratulating him. After Hisao's life had nearly ended, he had managed to make one out of nothing.
  568.  
  569. He got into the car and put his hand on mine while I held the sleeping Takara and we all got in and put on our seat belts. He raised it for a second and kissed it gently. We were all tired and much talking wasn't made while we drove about a half hour from the beach to our apartment back in the city.
  570.  
  571. I carried Takara into Tomo's car and closed the door. Before Tomo opened the drivers side, he pat me on the shoulder. "I didn't expect something this mundane to help. Good job. You better study hard and pass the licensing test when you get your degree. I won't forgive you if you don't become a social worker. You have a talent for it. Don't waste it." He said firmly and I nodded. "I-I don't plan to." As he got into his car, he paused for a second. "And thanks."
  572.  
  573. "For what?"
  574.  
  575. A strange, unusual grin appeared on his face. "Nothing. Tomorrow afternoon, Takara's going to be coming in as a regular for you. We better be having coffee at lunch."
  576.  
  577. Hisao and I got into the apartment and I hopped in the shower. After I got out, Hisao decided he wanted to take a shower after I had gotten out and was mopping my hair off with a towel, another wrapped around me. "We could've just taken the same shower, you know. If the water bill gets high, it's your fault." Hisao smirked. "Yeah, yeah. I can still blame you for the electric though."
  578.  
  579. He got into the shower and I walked into the bedroom, looking for clothes. Even though it was the night, the heat wave prevented the temperature from dropping very much. I opened Hisao's drawer sneakily. I was going to steal a pair of his boxers and wear a tanktop to bed tonight.
  580.  
  581. As I was digging through his underwear drawer looking for the thinnest pair, I found something in the corner of the drawer, hidden by his boxers.
  582.  
  583. A small velvet red box.
  584.  
  585. I felt like my heart stopped.
  586.  
  587. =====
  588.  
  589. When Hisao got out of the shower to get the salt off of his body, he was greeted by me staring at him from the dining room table, the little red box in front of me.
  590.  
  591. Hisao froze in place, the towel around him barely hanging off of his waist.
  592.  
  593. "Why do you have that?"
  594.  
  595. Good, Hisao. No deflections or lies.
  596.  
  597. "Did you look in it?" His voice was a little panicked. I nodded slowly. My face was a deeper red than the box in front of me that I had pressed between my two fingers.
  598.  
  599. My love groaned. "You weren't supposed to see that... that's why I've been having trouble making ends meet the last few months. I was saving for that..." He said, looking a little dejected that I had ruined it.
  600.  
  601. "I was waiting, too. For tonight. I wanted to see whether we were ready. Well, both of us. I wanted to test us at the beach today. I wanted to put myself in a place where I could test my emotions."
  602.  
  603. "Iwanako didn't invite you, huh?"
  604.  
  605. Hisao shook his head. "No, I did. I wanted to see if my heart would falter at all if I exposed myself to a person I once had feelings for." That frustrated me a little, but I understood. Why would he buy something like this if his love could change? "I tested you too, I wanted to see whether you could handle the pressure of dealing with Iwanako and the beach. Your social anxiety, the attacks, your confidence... I don't have any reasons to not do what I'm about to."
  606.  
  607. He reached towards the little red box and I let him take it from me. He was testing our strength, the two of us. We were always facing our fears together, growing and becoming stronger people every day we stood by each other's side. I didn't bother fighting tears at this point. This was all overwhelming.
  608.  
  609. Hisao knelt down, slowly opening the box and revealing to me the amazing ring that he had bought for me. As he did though, the towel fell off of him. I don't think he noticed, because he continued on.
  610.  
  611. "Hanako Ikezawa, will you marry me?"
  612.  
  613. I didn't stop crying, nor did the embarrassment of being proposed to fade at all. But I couldn't help but laugh.
  614.  
  615. "Hisao, you're proposing to me naked. You suck at this so much."
  616.  
  617. He looked down and realized the same thing I was aware of.
  618.  
  619. "God damn it, hold on, let me just put the towel back on and I'll do it again-"
  620.  
  621. I laughed and leaned forward, kissing him. My stupid, goofy, wonderful Hisao.
  622.  
  623. "I will."
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