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Invitation is the first page of Act 3 on Hanako's route
The tint of the room slowly changes from the shine of the afternoon to the orange of dusk. A clock lazily ticks away the seconds, counting in the background, on the verge of hearing.
But no matter how long I wait, the outcome cannot be changed.
The diminutive playing piece makes a small click against the board.
Like a wound spring, Hanako makes her move only moments after mine.
It's embarrassing. In comparison to my five-minute moves, she seems to know exactly what she wants to do.
Hisao "Again… What does that make this? 3-2?"
Hanako "S-stalemates don't count."
Hisao "Damn. You're getting better at this every day."
That, or she's been holding back. I'd never have thought it when I first met her, but she really has a knack for this game.
Chess seems to have become a popular pastime for the two of us; hiding away in the tea room, playing a game or two after classes.
From here, the students outside can just barely be heard milling about. The everyday noises from below remind me a little of my life before Yamaku, though I'm by now well aware that it's a life I'll never get back to.
Hisao "Fancy another game?"
Hanako "I… I have to finish my homework…"
Hisao "Oh. Well, I'll see you tomorrow then."
Hanako "But… what about this…"
Hanako points to the tea set surrounding the mostly-empty chess board.
Hisao "Don't worry about that, I've got it."
Hanako "Oh… okay…"
Hanako "S-see you."
Hanako departs as I start cleaning up the area.
The occasional whistles and cheers from the sporting clubs outside become less frequent, eventually approaching silence.
A part of me still wants to be in some kind of team. Since I played soccer and other sports before my accident, I guess it's only normal to feel nostalgic about what I can't do any more.
But I have other reasons than that for my coming here so often, and I don't feel so bad about losing that part of myself because of them. Lilly is a good friend by now, but it's the small exchanges I have with Hanako that feel especially dear.
The small victories I feel every day as I see more of what she's like under her self-imposed shell. That's why I come here most of all.
As I'm putting away cups and saucers, I hear talking outside the door. Pausing for a moment to listen, I can make out that it's Hanako and Lilly, and decide to go outside to investigate.
Lilly "Are you quite sure?"
Hanako "I… I'm sure…"
Hanako "Ah, Hisao."
Hanako turns to see me with a look of mild surprise as she notices my approach. Lilly must've caught her just as she was about to leave.
Lilly "Oh my, Hisao is here as well?"
Hisao "Afternoon, Lilly. What's up?"
Lilly "I was hoping, now that I've finished with my class representative duties for the day, that I might have the two of you accompany me for tea at the Shanghai. It would be nice to enjoy ourselves outside of the school, for a change."
Hisao "I'd be up for it. I think Hanako had work to do, though…?"
Hanako "I-it's… not all that much…"
Lilly "Wonderful. It seems that we're decided, then."
I cast my eyes across the café as the three of us step in. As usual, there are only a handful of people around at most, and the noise level is a quiet background hum.
The hold Lilly has on Hanako's arm remains just as it has been for the entire slow walk down the hill to the local town, though it's hard to say for which reason - for Lilly's guidance, or for Hanako's reassurance.
For a moment, Lilly removes her arm from Hanako's to retract her cane as Yuuko quickly skitters over to where we stand, but soon replaces it right back where it had been.
Yuuko "Welcome to the Shanghai! May I take your order?"
She gives a deep bow, her well-delivered and professional introduction putting her in a good mood. It's a nice change from the norm for Yuuko.
Lilly "Just tea, please. Hanako, Hisao?"
Hisao "I'll have a slice of pie and a coffee."
Hanako "Just… t-tea… please."
Yuuko "Coming right up. Please take any seat you wish, and I'll be back shortly."
Yuuko gives a smile and a nod before shuffling to the counter, and we make our way to some empty seats by the window in quick measure.
We slip into our seats, the girls on one side with Lilly's cane propped up beside them and I on the other. I realize that Hanako's not doing something that she so often does.
Rather than keeping her eyes pinned to the ground and hiding behind her blind escort, busily trying to convince herself that the world around them doesn't exist, she's merely keeping her eyes low and helping Lilly around.
Hisao "Are you you okay, Lilly? You look tired."
She lowers her head a little, looking somewhat embarrassed that she let it show.
Lilly "Class representative work can be very tiring, considering that it often means dealing with the Student Council."
Lilly "Very tiring indeed."
Hanako "How… do the other representatives go?"
Lilly "Better than I, but not by much. Shizune is a harsh taskmaster no matter whom she deals with."
Hisao "It doesn't sound like you particularly relish the job. Why do you do it in the first place, if it's that bad?"
Lilly "Being a class representative is enjoyable, and I can deal with the responsibility well enough. It's just that the people involved are sometimes…"
She trails off, cutting her words at a rather opportune spot. It's hard to imagine Lilly cursing, but I imagine that if anyone could make her do so, it would be Shizune.
Hanako looks to be withering a bit in the light of such conflict, but before I can steer the topic away a little, she stands up.
Hanako "I'll… be back in a bit."
With that, she leaves for the restrooms. I suppose that's one way to deal with the situation, if that was indeed her motivation.
Lilly, however, looks a little wounded.
Hisao "Don't worry about it. I don't think it was you."
Hisao "I think she's been getting stronger recently. You've seen it yourself… right…?"
That went a bit awry. Fortunately Lilly doesn't look offended, and by now I really shouldn't be quite so scared of stepping on that landmine around her.
Lilly "Possibly. Sometimes… I find it hard to tell, though."
Silence reigns for a moment before two teacups, a pie, and a mug of steaming coffee appear in front of us.
I notice that Yuuko takes special care to place the teacup against the tip of Lilly's fingers, letting her know where it is.
Yuuko "Here you go."
Hisao "Thanks, Yuuko."
Lilly "Thank you."
With a quick and silent bow, the bespectacled waitress takes her leave.
Lilly "Ah, that's right. I was meaning to ask you something, and now would be the right time to do so."
Hisao "I'm all ears."
Lilly "Hanako's birthday is coming up, and I was hoping that you might accompany me for present shopping in the city this weekend."
Hanako's birthday is soon? I suppose it would be a nice chance to cheer her up a bit. Like Yuuko, she always seems to be teetering on the edge of either panic or depression, and I've never seen her enjoy herself much outside of our chess games.
All that aside, learning the layout of the city better with a friend keeping me company sounds like a good way to spend a weekend.
Hisao "Sure, I'd be happy to. Have you got any plans for what to do for her birthday? A party or anything?"
Lilly "Hanako being Hanako, perhaps a low-key affair would be—"
Lilly suddenly cuts herself short, leaving me to wonder why as she brings her teacup to her lips and begins to sip.
After a few seconds, I notice Hanako walking up to us over her shoulder. Lilly's hearing must be very good indeed if it was the sound of the restroom door opening that tipped her off.
Hanako takes her seat once again, and wastes no time in drinking her tea. Soon the three of us are quietly eating and drinking as the sun sets.
It's a nice way to spend the remainder of the day's light, and it makes me appreciate the quiet and serene surroundings of Yamaku. I think I'm really beginning to like life here, as isolated as it may be.
I finish off the last of my coffee and rest the mug on the table while the girls talk between themselves. The coffee here's a little bitter for my tastes, but still quite good. Better than what I can make for myself, in any case.
The girls' discussion is mainly focused on their respective reading preferences, which does give me a little curiosity about a related topic.
Hisao "Hey Hanako, I was just wondering… aside from chess and reading, do you have any hobbies or things you like doing?"
She's completely stopped in her tracks, looking quite surprised that anyone would be interested in asking such a question about her. It takes her a little time to formulate a response.
Hanako "Um… I guess… I like singing a l-little. I'm okay with c-computers as well, but I… don't use them all that much."
Singing's not exactly something I expected to hear. It's hard to imagine her singing voice, given how soft-spoken she is.
Lilly, on the other hand, simply nods. She must already know all this, since she's been friends with Hanako for one year or so by now.
Hanako "W-what about… y-y…"
She hesitates before quickly flicking her head up and down. It's only logical that she'd want me to talk about my hobbies after she's told me hers.
Hisao "There's chess, obviously, but also… hmm…"
Hisao "There was soccer as well, though I can't really do that any more. Reading, which I picked up in hospital… um…"
This is surprisingly hard. Lilly and Hanako look a little put off by the direction this is taking, and the more I think about it, the more I am too.
Lilly "It sounds as if you've picked up quite a few things since your accident."
Lilly's candor is coated with probably the most positive spin one could put on what I said. Hanako, however, is silent.
If a situation becomes difficult, her reaction always seems to be withdrawing into silence, in order to prevent things getting worse. That, or physically retreating.
A soft ringing gives us pause. As Lilly reaches into her pocket, it becomes obvious that the sound's coming from her phone.
Hanako "I-it's okay…"
Lilly gives a quick nod before shuffling out of her seat and taking the call a little distance away, to avoid disturbing the both of us.
Hisao "Must be nice to be popular."
Hanako smiles, but doesn't take up the hook for further discussion.
I end up just sitting back and closing my eyes, relaxing as best I can.
Hisao "It's nice and peaceful here. I wonder what it'd be like to have grown up somewhere like this, rather than in the city."
Hanako "Y-you come from the city?"
Looks like I've found something she wants to talk about.
Hisao "Yeah. You could say I was a city kid through and through."
Hanako "I-it sounds like a lot changed…"
Hisao "It did. I'm still not quite sure what to make of it all, though. It's a bit of a culture shock, in more ways than one."
Hisao "You must've gone through something like this when you first arrived at Yamaku, right? I'd imagine most new students would."
Hanako "N-not really…"
Hanako gazes a little to the side, looking unwilling to go on. I tilt my head inquisitively, but a couple of seconds pass with no further answer.
Lilly "But can't we deal with that on Monday? The fallout has hardly settled from the last…"
Lilly "I understand. I'll try to talk her down. You know what she's like when she gets locked onto an idea."
Lilly "Yes, thank you. I'll talk to you later, then. Goodbye."
Lilly's conversation ends with the snap of her phone closing. She returns to our table, but doesn't take her seat.
Hisao "Need to go?"
Lilly "Unfortunately. Class representative work calls once again."
Hanako "I-I can come with you."
Lilly "It's all right, Hanako. I'll just be going straight to the Student Council. There's no need to spoil a fine evening on my account."
Lilly "Besides, if you were to accompany me on my way back to the school, who would keep our poor Hisao company?"
Lilly "I can join you for tea again later tonight, if you'd like. I may well need it."
We agree on that plan, and Lilly says her farewells to the both of us, taking her cane after Hanako passes it to her.
Despite my offer to pay for Lilly's share, she insists on giving us her portion of the bill, and gives her regards to Yuuko as she takes her leave.
And then… we're alone. It may be all well and good to leave Hanako and I alone to have some time together, but all it typically means is the two of us sitting near each other in silence for a while.
I wonder what I must look like to Hanako. I never thought of myself as a scary person, but to have someone my own age acting this way around me makes me intensely self-aware, as if it's my fault that she's so troubled.
She might get more used to people if she were to stop being so cloistered in Yamaku, but then again… when even people much older than her react so strongly after a single glance at her face, she may well feel the same way I do now.
It's a real catch-22. If she stays in Yamaku, she won't get used to socializing, but if she leaves, any efforts she might try would get thrown back at her by the people who can't deal with her scarring.
Hisao "Want to order something else to keep us going? We haven't had much of a dinner, after all."
Hanako brightens and nods vigorously, glad that I brought up the topic for her. I catch Yuuko's gaze, and she dutifully comes over to take our orders.
Yuuko "Would you like something else?"
Hisao "I'll just have a sandwich special and a hot chocolate. Bit late for coffee by now. Hanako?"
Hanako "I-I'll… have the same…"
With a nod and a bow, Yuuko turns on the ball of her foot and returns behind the counter, where she busies herself fishing out bread and condiments and working the machine to make our drinks.
Not a word is said between us until Yuuko comes back. She smiles and gives us our food and drinks, before moving to a customer who's called for her attention.
I give up on the prospect of having much of a conversation with my companion and decide to just enjoy the meal, small as it may be.
It tastes nice, as does most of the food here. After having a few mouthfuls, I notice something's missing. Namely, the sound of Hanako eating.
Looking back to her, I see Hanako fidgeting a little behind her untouched sandwich.
Hisao "Not hungry?"
She shakes her head from side to side. Even as she does, the patch of hair she keeps over the right side of her face still does its job in hiding it almost entirely.
Hanako "I-it's not that."
Hisao "Aw. I was all ready to have your share, too."
Hanako "You looked… t-troubled. I-is something… w-wrong?"
I'm startled by her thinking that I'm the one who looks troubled, but on second thought, she's probably right. My face may have given away my emotions without me noticing, and she's hardly a dim person; quite the opposite.
Hisao "We're friends, right?"
From the tone of her voice and shrinking posture, it looks as though I've hit yet another landmine.
This is another reason why interacting with her is difficult; the self-imposed psychological barriers she puts up between herself and others, including me and, most likely, even Lilly. It's a shame that—
Hanako "I-I think th-that we are…"
I'm a little taken off guard by Hanako's straightforward answer, all the more so since I was about to give up on getting any reply at all.
Hisao "I see…"
Hanako "A-am I wrong? S-sorry, I-I…"
Hisao "No, it's just… hearing confirmation of that from you is reassuring."
Hisao "To pick up on what you said earlier: since coming to Yamaku, I've been a bit uneasy about how I should relate with others."
I find myself chuckling a little. It's surprising how much of a relief that was. I can feel my face smiling as I pick up my cup of hot chocolate and bring it to my lips.
Hisao "Ouch! That's hot…"
Hanako "Th-that's why…"
Hanako "That's why I haven't eaten yet. I-I was waiting… for my drink to cool down first."
Hisao "I guess I'll wait, then."
The both of us share a little chuckle. The situation isn't really that funny, but for some reason… it feels like laughing is the most natural thing to do right now.
I guess we were both a bit wound up about each other. I was so busy thinking Hanako was the one with something wrong, it took her to remind me that I was uneasy as well.
But be that as it may… it still feels a little nice. A little nice to have someone thinking about me like that, in her own way.
Following a long, quiet trudge up the hill and into the school grounds, the two of us find ourselves between the two dormitories.
Regular night patrols pass between the male and female dormitory buildings, both for security and to quickly raise the alarm for any medical issues that may arise. The guard currently on duty notices us and gives a quick nod as he continues on his way.
A loud yawn escapes from Hanako's mouth before she has a chance to cover it. I have little doubt she's fairly tired by now.
Hisao "I'd better be off to my room, then. See you tomorrow, Hanako."
Hanako "G-good night…"
We separate and begin to walk our separate ways, before I stop and look back.
Hanako stands there, waving to me as she smiles. I smile and wave back to her, and after a few seconds, she turns and walks up the stairs to her dormitory building, disappearing through the door.
These little moments we share between us feel like a small treasure. One thing is sure; I want to protect that small, delicate smile she so fleetingly wears around so few people.
I wonder about these feelings I have when Hanako's around, and when I'm able to do things for her… whether they may be the seed for something beyond what we share now.