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Equivalent Exchange is the eighth and final page on Act 2 of Hanako's route
I turn my back on Lilly as we head in opposite directions. For some reason I find myself hoping she doesn't get into another fight with Shizune.
As much as I like Lilly, Shizune and Misha have been pretty instrumental in helping me adjust, even if half of our conversations are thinly-veiled recruitment attempts.
Then again, I barely know either of them. Maybe they were previously leaders of some kind of secret society, but their love for each other drove them apart…
Man, I need to stop reading cheap fiction. It's rotting my brain. Either that or I've got to move away from Kenji and his bad influence.
It's sad that I can't tell the two apart any more.
I slide my books down the return chute and they crash into the cart with a pleasant thud.
Yuuko, however, doesn't seem as impressed as I.
Yuuko "H-Hisao! You scared me!"
Hisao "Sorry, I thought you would be used to that by now. Or is the literacy level here so low that nobody borrows any books?"
Yuuko "Huh? No I think everyone here can read fine…"
Hisao "Yeah… never mind."
There are some battles that you can never win. Trying to explain jokes is one of them. My Dad taught me that the hard way.
Hisao "Say, Yuuko, have you seen Hanako about? She left class early but she wasn't in her usual hiding place."
Yuuko "I think I saw her sneak in before lunch…"
Yuuko "Oh! But I'm not supposed to tell anyone that!"
Hisao "I just told you that I saw her leave, no need to stress out…"
Yuuko "Oh… of course. She's probably in the back."
Hisao "Thanks. Get any new books in recently?"
Yuuko "No, sorry. I'll let you know when we do, though."
If there's one thing I know about librarians, part-time or otherwise, it's that they appreciate people that take a genuine interest in their work.
I walk the now-familiar path to Hanako's reading nook, picking out a few titles along the way.
Sometimes I find it hard to discover a book that will interest me among the shelves. An author's name and a two-word title don't mean much in a sea of similar words.
For that reason, I sometimes re-read books that I read in the past. Better to bet on the favorite than a new runner.
An unfamiliar title from a familiar author peeks out among the spines of its neighbors, so I remove it from the shelf.
At least I'm not going over old material.
As expected, Hanako sits on her beanbag, buried deep in a copy of “Dance Dance Dance.”
Hisao "Hi Hanako. How's it going?"
I fight back the urge to ask why she left class early. If Lilly's suspicions were right, then asking her about that could have the opposite effect.
Best to leave it for the time being. Sometimes the best way to get an answer from someone is to never ask the question.
Hanako "Hello, H-Hisao. I'm fine."
Something seems off, and after a couple of seconds, I realize what it is. Hanako's smiling.
She looks as if she's pleased to see me. It's a nice change from the usual, instinctively frightened reaction, and something I hope I can see more of as we get to know each other better.
Hisao "Good to hear. How's that book? I've heard it's a trip."
Hanako "I-it's good… I think."
Hanako "I've only j-just started it, so I d-don't really know."
Hisao "Fair enough. Let me know how it goes; I may borrow it once you're done."
There's a good fifteen minutes left in lunch. Not enough to really get into a book, but too much to stand around doing nothing.
And Hanako's already returned to her reading, so I doubt I'll get much conversation from her.
Oh well, I'd better make myself comfortable.
I slouch into a beanbag and crack open my book.
The familiar style of the author leaps out at me from the very first line. As the sentences turn into paragraphs, I start to relax a little.
But no matter how I try, I can't seem to get myself into the atmosphere of the book.
This is partly due to the lack of time, but the more distracting factor is Hanako.
Every ten or so seconds she peers over the top of her book, but when our eyes meet she quickly ducks behind the covers.
I guess she did want to talk about something after all.
Hisao "What's up? You look like a prairie dog on lookout."
Hanako "N-… it's nothing."
Hisao "I've told you before, “nothing” means “something” when you say it like that."
Hanako squirms a little in her beanbag, hoping that by changing her position she'll find the words she's looking for.
Hanako "I… I was in an accident."
Hisao "Accident? Just now? Are you all right?"
Hanako shakes her head, her hair flowing around her shoulders in wisps of amethyst on a background of pale and dark flesh.
Hanako "N-no. When I was y-younger."
Realization crashes into me like a semi.
Hanako "When I… when I was…"
Hisao "It's all right Hanako, you don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to…"
Again she shakes her head.
Hanako "N-no. I want… I have to tell you."
Hanako "When I was young… I was in a fire."
Hanako "M-my house b-burned down, and I nearly… I nearly didn't make it."
Hanako "A-after that… I was alone…"
Hanako's eyes glisten in the dim light of the library, and I reach out to grasp her hand.
Hisao "It's okay, Hanako. You don't have to keep going."
Hanako "B-but… I have to…"
Hisao "Why? What brought this on?"
Hanako "L-Last night Lilly t-told me about your heart…"
Hanako "A-and I… I didn't think it was f-fair."
Hanako "T-that I knew about you b-but you didn't know about me…"
I squeeze Hanako's hand a little.
Hisao "Don't be silly. But yes, I have a heart condition."
I lean a little closer to Hanako.
I smile a little to break the tension.
Hisao "Really. I haven't heard from her for a while though, so I guess it's all over."
I know it's all over. There's no other way to interpret what happened the last time I saw her. In some ways, not having heard from her again has helped me move on from that period of my life.
Hisao "So now, we both know a little more about each other. But you don't have to talk about things if you don't want to."
In fact, I feel a little bad even thinking about that whole incident. I can almost smell the hospital's disinfectant burning the back of my sinuses again.
I imagine Hanako is going through the same thing now.
When I was in the hospital I went to the burn ward once, and only once. I was bored, so I went for a walk through all of the wards.
I went through oncology and thought I could take it, but when I got to the burn ward I turned around and went back to my bed.
To think that Hanako would have spent months in a place like that, smelling nothing but corrupted skin, strong disinfectant and sterilized air.
The really bad cases were kept in isolated pods that no foreign objects could enter. That would have meant no reading.
I would have gone insane if I didn't have my books in the hospital.
And she said she was alone…
Did her parents die? I'll have to ask Lilly about it. I can imagine myself saying something dumb unintentionally.
Hanako "T-thank you, Hisao."
Hanako "I… I haven't told many people about this."
Hisao "To be honest, I haven't told many people about my… circumstances either."
Hanako "T-then I won't tell a-anyone either."
I change my grip on Hanako's hand into a handshake as the warning bells chime through the window.
Hisao "Well then, we'd better head back to class then, eh?"