NARRATOR: "With that in mind, I knock on the door next to Hanako's."
LILLY: "Is that you, Hisao?"
HISAO: "Yeah, it's me."
NARRATOR: "I can hear the pitter-patter of footsteps coming to the door, followed by the sound of the lock snapping open. I don't think I've ever seen Lilly's door locked before, and it makes me a little suspicious. Once the door opens, the sight is... a little underwhelming for a birthday party."
NARRATOR: "Hanako returns to her seat at the table with a quick smile and a nod, leaving me to close and, assuming they wanted it to be kept that way, lock the door. As I do so, I realize that the scene before me is that of an evening tea party, just like any other between the two. Somehow, I don't think I should be surprised. To my relief, Hanako looks relatively calm. The break from class has probably done her good, and given her time to wind down a bit."
NARRATOR: "I take a seat between the two at the low table in the center of Lilly's room, the brightly-colored teapot steaming away between us. A tall brown bag close by Lilly's side catches my attention. I covertly try to glance inside it a couple of times, but can't get a good look from here. Looking to Hanako, it seems like she's as curious about it as I am."
HISAO: "Hey, Lilly?"
NARRATOR: "Lilly finishes off the teacup raised to her lips before setting it down and giving me her attention."
HISAO: "I was just wondering about that brown bag..."
NARRATOR: "She pauses for a moment, then gives a slightly cheeky smile."
LILLY: "That would be Akira's present. Unfortunately, she said she was working and can't join us."
NARRATOR: "Lilly leans over and feels out the item inside before raising her arm. I raise an eyebrow as two items, not one, rise from the bag. The glass necks are grasped by Lilly on either side of her middle finger. So this is why she had her door locked."
NARRATOR: "There are two small thuds as the bottles are brought to rest on the table; one red, one white. I want to believe that it's fake, non-alcoholic wine, but if it was, there wouldn't be any need to be this circumspect."
HISAO: "Alcohol? Seriously? Are you sure this is a good idea?"
NARRATOR: "Lilly smiles politely and giggles. I'm not really convinced that she is."
LILLY: "These would be the present from my sister. I know it's a bit questionable, but a little shouldn't hurt."
NARRATOR: "If Lilly took serious issue with it, I don't think she'd have agreed quite so easily. That aside, I had Akira squared as the serious and responsible type, maybe like an older Lilly, but it looks like I was wrong. We aren't even legally able to drink yet."
HISAO: "Well, in that case, I won't complain. They don't look bad, either."
NARRATOR: "I'm no connoisseur, but at least the bottles look nice. Apart from a surreptitious glass of wine or two given from my father at family dinners, I haven't really had enough to know what's what. That, and I can't really say that I'm a total straight edge. Going by Hanako's expression, she's thinking the same, and it's her birthday anyway."
LILLY: "Shall I open one?"
HISAO: "Sure. I'll get some—"
NARRATOR: "My heart skips as I hear three sharp bangs coming from Lilly's door. Hanako's head flicks around, and Lilly's eyes close as she listens intently. None of us want to be busted for this."
LILLY: "Who is it?"
AKIRA: "Lemme in, I'm cold!"
NARRATOR: "Lilly lets out a resigned sigh before motioning for Hanako to open the door. She obediently gets up and fusses with her gown before moving, apparently still not quite sure of who it is, but trusting enough in Lilly to do as she requests. I can just see a blonde, dark-suited figure become visible over Hanako's shoulder as she opens the door."
AKIRA: "Happy birthday, Hanako."
HANAKO: "Th-thank you... Akira..."
NARRATOR: "Hanako gives a small bow while twiddling her fingers in front of her. So, this is Lilly's elusive sister. Akira follows Hanako to the table after shutting the door behind her, giving me plenty of time to have a good look at her. She looks to be about the same height as Hanako, and has short blonde hair that's quite roughly cut. That, in addition to her rather modest breasts, masculine suit and deep voice, gives her quite an androgynous effect. Without further ado, she plops herself down on the side of the table across from me."
LILLY: "It's nice to have your company after all, Akira. Did work let you off?"
AKIRA: "Yep. I have to go back there in a bit, but I managed to get enough of a break to drive down. So... this would be Hisao, then?"
NARRATOR: "A confident smile gets thrown in my direction, so I nod politely in return. Considering she just jumped straight to using my first name, she's much more informal than her appearance would suggest. Wait, if she already knows who I am, that must mean that Lilly's talked about me with her. I wonder what she said."
LILLY: "Sorry for not introducing you, Hisao. This is Akira Satou, my elder sister."
HISAO: "I see. Nice to meet you."
NARRATOR: "The person in question loudly claps her hands together, making Hanako jump a little bit. Akira notices this, and looks uneasy for a fraction of a second before getting back into her stride. Only now do I realize that Akira hasn't paid Hanako's scars any undue attention. Hanako also seems to be comfortable, if not exactly relaxed, around Akira."
AKIRA: "Well then, I assume the presents got through? No point in waiting, considering Hisao and the birthday girl look like they're pretty eager."
NARRATOR: "Lilly giggles as I awkwardly turn away, a little embarrassed by the fact that I couldn't hide my interest. Hanako's eyes are telling me that she wants to try the wine together with me, though, so I settle for a look of badly feigned indifference. Akira manages to uncork the first bottle with small effort, and Hanako goes to get some glasses before I get to pour the four of them full of white wine. I heard somewhere that white wine has less alcohol than red wine, so I think it would be the best to start with."
HISAO: "Here's to Hanako, and to Lilly's trip."
(at the same time)
NARRATOR: "After the traditional raising of the glasses we all take sips of the pale yellow liquid. It's nothing like the stuff I've had with my parents, with the fruitiness of the flavor almost entirely hiding the taste of alcohol. Maybe this is what proper wine is supposed to taste like. Then again, it's possible that Akira just chose a wine which would be suited to our tastes, since none of us are used to alcohol yet. Or at least, I hope none of us are."
HISAO: "This isn't too bad. I was expecting something... harsher."
AKIRA: "If you hadn't liked it, I have a few other varieties you could have chosen from."
HISAO: "You sound like you know your stuff when it comes to wines."
AKIRA: "Only a bit; I'm more of a beer kind of person. I have the drinking side down pat, though."
NARRATOR: "As if to prove her point, she refills her glass before bringing it to her lips and flicking her head back. Hanako and I silently watch as the whole glassful disappears down Akira's throat. I can't decide whether to be impressed or put off, but I certainly don't have any urge to imitate the act. Lilly grimaces slightly at her sister's boast. I note that she is sipping from her glass as she does so, though."
LILLY: "Anyway, now that Akira's gift has been opened and sampled, shall we move onto ours?"
LILLY: "That's right, we got you presents. It's your birthday, after all. This is from me."
NARRATOR: "Lilly pulls out the carefully-wrapped doll from under the table and passes it to Hanako. Hanako handles the present as if it was glassware, carefully turning it over to remove the tape that binds the wrapping. Eventually the paper falls from the doll, revealing the emerald green of the doll's dress."
HANAKO: "It's... beautiful."
NARRATOR: "I'm not sure what reaction I was expecting from Hanako. The near-total lack of dolls in her room made me think that she didn't care about them, but the look in her eyes now is something different. She turns the doll around with the same delicacy she afforded the wrapping, as if she was expecting it to fall apart in her hands."
LILLY: "I'm glad that you like it. Hisao picked it out, to be honest."
NARRATOR: "Hanako suddenly remembers that she is not alone in the room, and shifts her focus from the doll."
HANAKO: "Y-yes, I like it. Th-thank you, Lilly and H-Hisao."
HISAO: "Actually, I got you something else..."
NARRATOR: "I reach into my bag and remove the wrapped chess set."
HISAO: "Here. Happy birthday."
NARRATOR: "Hanako carefully sits Lilly's doll next to her and opens my present with the same care that she showed Lilly's. Before long, the checkered squares of the chessboard are visible, and Hanako gently runs her fingers across the carved surfaces."
NARRATOR: "Almost by accident she triggers the catch to the lid, startling herself in the process. She opens it and retrieves one of the gray pieces. She seems as absorbed in the chess pieces as she was in the doll before."
HISAO: "They're coral. Natural coral, undyed. Or so I'm told."
HANAKO: "Thank you, Hisao..."
HISAO: "No problem. It's your birthday, after all."
HANAKO: "That's right... my birthday..."
NARRATOR: "Once again Hanako's reaction seems a little off, but she carefully closes the board lid."
NARRATOR: "I notice Akira's smile beginning to look very strained. I wonder if she knows anything about what happened in class, given that she seems to be treading on eggshells around Hanako."
HISAO: "I'll have to play you again sometime."
HANAKO: "I'll... make sure I'll play you first..."
NARRATOR: "She takes the doll she received from Lilly and holds it to her chest together with the small chessboard, putting the piece on top. The act seems to settle her down somewhat, and we just sit in silence for a while. I think it's one of the few times I've seen her genuinely happy, cradling the friendship of two people to her chest as tightly as she can."
HANAKO: "Thank you, Lilly. Thank you, Hisao."
NARRATOR: "In the process of thanking us, Hanako drops the chess piece and fumbles a bit in her rush to retrieve it. Once she finds it, Hanako puts the chess set down and nervously gulps at her wine. It's as if the real world suddenly rushed back into her consciousness, and her fastest escape from it was in a glass."
HISAO: "Hey, easy there, you shouldn't drink it that fast..."
LILLY: "It is a party, Hisao..."
NARRATOR: "Despite saying this, there is a slightly concerned edge to her voice. Eventually acquiescing, Lilly proceeds to follow Hanako's lead, though not as eagerly. She looks to be taking small sips from her glass and letting the wine settle on her tongue before swallowing. I decide that this is probably the best approach and do the same myself."
HISAO: "Since this is kind of a going-away party for you as well, I hope you enjoy your trip at least a little, Lilly. Hopefully your aunt will be okay."
HANAKO: "I-I hope your aunt is okay too, Lilly..."
NARRATOR: "Lilly and I are slightly taken aback by Hanako's fervor to wish Lilly well, despite her own familial situation. I'm a little impressed."
LILLY: "My my, thank you both. I'll be sure to convey your thoughts to my family when I meet them."
AKIRA: "It'll all be fine in the end, Lilly. Don't worry about it."
NARRATOR: "Since the room's mood has become noticeably more sullen, I decide to try and move things along."
HISAO: "Well then, shall we start on the cake?"
NARRATOR: "My tentative suggestion has the intended effect, everyone lightening up considerably."
HANAKO: "Y-yes, please..."
LILLY: "Cake? I didn't know there was any cake..."
HISAO: "I picked one up before I came, along with some snacks."
LILLY: "Well done, Hisao. At least one of us remembered to bring one."
NARRATOR: "Everyone seems to welcome the distraction, so I retrieve the cake from my bag and start cutting it up. Mixing wine and chocolate cake isn't something that I thought would work well, but none of us seem to mind. Conversation is temporarily suspended as we start to eat. I was initially wary of this idea; after Hanako's panic attack I expected the worst from tonight, but I think Lilly's idea of giving her good memories of her birthday is working. That, and also having it shared with her going-away party. From Hanako's reaction to her gifts, I can tell she was really appreciative." Hanako tries to pour herself another glass of wine, but ends up spilling some on the table. She's had a couple by now, so considering that she's never had alcohol before, it's no wonder if she's feeling a bit light-headed."
HANAKO: "S-sorry Lilly... I didn't mean to make a mess... I..."
HISAO: "Don't worry, I've got it..."
NARRATOR: "Lilly reaches sideways and gently takes the fussing Hanako in her arms, giving me pause."
LILLY: "It's okay, Hanako. I'm just happy you're here."
NARRATOR: "Hanako gives only a faint nod in response. It's fitting, I suppose, that Lilly would be the one to support her like this. I have no idea what Hanako would be like if she hadn't. Seeing the two like this makes me appreciate the fact that I'm privy to such an intimate moment. Even Akira can't help but smile at the sight. I never would have thought I'd manage to find new friends so quickly, and I'm all the more thankful that of all people, these two are the two I befriended. They slowly break off from one another, Hanako regaining herself somewhat while I quickly get myself back on task. I find a towel among Lilly's tea set and start mopping up the spillage. By the time I finish, however, Hanako and Lilly have managed to uncork the other bottle and have topped off their glasses."
AKIRA: "Looks like you're enjoying the wine, then. Just don't go too crazy with it after this, mind."
NARRATOR: "We all dutifully nod and agree, but her reminder feels a bit silly given that she's the one supplying underage people with alcohol. The second glass of wine goes down a lot quicker than the first, and before any of us notice, the second bottle is empty. While Akira is helping us finish them off, Hanako looks to be almost equaling her in the amount she's had. My head feels a little light, but I think I've managed to gauge my own tolerance surprisingly well. Hanako smiles lazily, toying with her doll's hair. I think it's a pretty safe bet that she... hasn't moderated herself as well as I. I don't think it was Hanako's intention to get this drunk, but it seems that the alcohol hit her all at once. She has a very light frame, something which wouldn't help her handle her booze well, either. Lilly cradles her glass, running a finger around the rim. Her cheeks are rosy, but she's managing to avoid looking woefully drunk. Akira is, as I somewhat expected, largely unaffected. Her smile might be a little wider than before, though. Maybe. Hanako suddenly hiccups and accidentally knocks over the doll."
HANAKO: "I... think I should maybe go to bed. T-thank you, Hisao, thanks Lilly and Aaaakiraaaa."
NARRATOR: "She slurs Akira's name pretty hard, barely avoiding breaking out into a giggle midway through. She's completely plastered, and I can't decide whether I should feel a little bad or not for being amused at the state she's in. It really is bizarre to see her acting so carefree. A shame that it's only with the help of alcohol."
AKIRA: "Here, let me give you a hand."
NARRATOR: "Akira begins to get up to help Hanako out, but she's stopped when Lilly gives a sharp cough."
LILLY: "Hisao, would you please?"
NARRATOR: "Akira looks a little surprised, and I have to admit that I am as well. I don't mind the request at all, let alone when it's said with such a smile... it just comes rather unexpectedly."
HISAO: "S-sure. No problem."
NARRATOR: "I pick up the chess set and help Hanako stand up. I do feel somewhat responsible for her considering that, other than Akira, I'm probably the most sober person in the room. She nurses the doll in one hand and offers me the other. We stumble out of the door, into the hallway, and into Hanako's room, Hanako bumping into me a number of times on the way. Inside the room, I flick on the light as Hanako turns her attention towards a shelf on her dresser. An elegant doll is sitting on it, staring into the bare room."
HANAKO: "There you go... you'll be safe in here..."
NARRATOR: "Hanako gingerly places the doll next to the other one and straightens its dress. They sit in silence, hair and clothes perfectly arranged. Just like the teapot in Lilly's room, they serve as a distinct contrast to the dull whites and grays that permeate her bedroom. Satisfied that her dolls, her only two real possessions, are safe, Hanako takes a step back and stands up, staggering severely. I step forward to catch her if need be, but she regains her balance without my help. For a while, both of us stand in silence as Hanako looks downwards toward the cupboard. After a minute or two she begins to sway a little from side to side. It's very off-putting."
HISAO: "Are you... going to be all right?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako raises her head, and turns around to me as if she's only just remembered that I'm also in the room. What's unexpected is that she takes two steps towards me and wraps her arms around my body, her head coming to rest against my chest. I can feel my heart beating as all of my senses feel like they're coming alive again after their deadening through the previous drinking. The smell of wine on her breath, the feeling of her fingers through my clothing, the scent of her hair underneath my chin... My hands remain out in front of me, not daring to touch her. The temptation is there to hug her, to embrace her, to tell her everything will be fine... but this feels wrong. Really, really wrong."
HANAKO: "But I want to staaaay with you and Lillyyyy."
NARRATOR: "Hanako's slurring reminds me a bit of Misha. She probably wouldn't be pleased to hear that."
HISAO: "You know I can't. You're a girl and I'm a guy, after all, and Lilly needs to sleep."
NARRATOR: "She gives a disappointed groan. It's so strange for her to act so forward."
HISAO: "Don't worry, I'll see you again tomorrow, okay?"
NARRATOR: "I decide to rest a hand on her head to reassure her, deciding that this is as far as I'll allow myself to go in terms of physical contact with her while she's in this state. Hanako's head nuzzles against my chest. It makes me feel all the more uneasy with the situation, and as her arms tighten around my back, I quickly decide to bail out. I rest my hands on her shoulders and give a firm but gentle push. Her grip tightens a little as I do so, but she eventually breaks off."
HANAKO: "I don't want you to go..."
HISAO: "Hanako, please. Akira and Lilly are going to start thinking weird stuff if I take too long here."
NARRATOR: "It's perfectly true, too. I really don't want to take any chances, and I feel very uncomfortable right now. I shouldn't try to read anything into the way she's acting right now. I read that aside from alcohol lowering inhibitions, people can react to getting drunk in many different ways that don't necessarily reflect reality. And even without that, there are plenty of ways to interpret what she's saying. As long as she's safe, I'm going to try and get out of her room as soon as possible."
NARRATOR: "Hanako hiccups again, looking a right mess as she stands and looks downcast in the center of the room. Her personality changed as she drank more and more, and now, all alone in her room with me, her previous brightness seems to have left her. Was she just acting upbeat to make sure we didn't worry? Even if she was... what could I possibly do for her, since I do exactly the same thing in regards to my own condition? Distancing myself from my thoughts, I eventually manage to corral Hanako towards her bed, though her attempts to tame the wild sheets on it end up accomplishing little."
HISAO: "Sorry about tonight, Hanako. I know you probably won't remember any of this, but... happy birthday. I'm sorry I couldn't do more for you."
NARRATOR: "She looks up at me for a moment. I have no idea if what I said actually got through to her, but any chance to ask is lost as her eyes peacefully close. I sigh in relief before quietly backing away from her and leaving the room, flicking the light switch off as I go. I hesitate a little before opening the door to Lilly's room again, quickly rehearsing what I should say if I get questioned about Hanako. After a few seconds, I still can't come up with anything. I open the door and make sure to close it behind me, lest any passing students catch a glimpse of the wine, before turning my attention to the two girls at the low table. Akira's casually smiling, as is Lilly. I welcome the change from the mood in Hanako's room."
LILLY: "Is that you, Hisao?"
HISAO: "Yeah. I got Hanako to her bed; she's sleeping now."
LILLY: "That's good. I have to admit I hadn't thought that she'd drink quite so much."
AKIRA: "Hey, it's fine. She's all safe and tucked up in bed now. With the way she is..."
NARRATOR: "She awkwardly trails off, though Lilly and I would hardly protest. For someone so anxious and fearful, drinking would give an easy out from those constant feelings. I wish I could do more for her. I feel useless. Looking at Lilly, I think back to what I asked myself in town. My relationship with her is that of a friend, and has only ever felt that way, but now I think I know why. Lilly's been there for both Hanako and me since I first met her, but she's like that for everyone, trying to do her best to make them feel better. With that in mind, then what's the bond between me and Hanako? After rescuing our relationship following the panic attack I inadvertently triggered during class, I feel like we're back to being friends, but she's on my mind more and more. I can't say I view any other girl in quite the same way, but maybe it's just a normal reaction to someone acting like this."
HISAO: "Say, Akira?"
NARRATOR: "She yawns before looking at me. It is getting pretty late."
HISAO: "You know about what happened with Hanako, don't you?"
AKIRA: "Yeah. Lilly told me. I negotiated pretty hard for a break so I could come down and help make her birthday a bit brighter. We get along pretty well."
NARRATOR: "It's surprising to hear that from someone as extroverted as her, but if Hanako came to know her through Lilly, maybe she had time to get used to Akira."
AKIRA: "And on that note, I'd better get going. I'm already going to be a bit late as it is."
LILLY: "But it's already so late..."
AKIRA: "Sorry. We got a bunch of work dropped on us, so overtime it is."
NARRATOR: "She levers herself up with a grunt and heads past me towards the door. Just before she leaves, she turns back towards us."
AKIRA: "You haven't forgotten about the time for the flight and all the rest?"
LILLY: "Don't worry, I have everything ready. It's just a matter of packing when it gets closer to the time to leave."
AKIRA: "'Atta girl. I'll see you guys later, then."
NARRATOR: "And with that, she disappears through the door with her hand held high in farewell."
HISAO: "Your sister is... something, all right."
NARRATOR: "I probably should have thought that comment through before saying it. Regardless, Lilly seems quite amused at my appraisal."
HISAO: "You okay after all that drinking? Not wasted and just hiding it well?"
LILLY: "I assure you, I am quite all right. I can moderate myself. You seem quite self-possessed as well, if I do say so myself."
HISAO: "Yeah, well, I guess your moderation applies to me as well."
NARRATOR: "With a little hesitation, I take a seat at the table in front of Lilly. I want to address this directly, if for no other reason than to settle my own thoughts."
HISAO: "I've been meaning to ask this, but it took me a while to make up my mind... Do you have any idea about what triggered that panic attack? I gathered it was something to do with her birthday, but I don't know anything more. Even Akira was being really careful around her, so I assume she knows as well."
NARRATOR: "Lilly's smile drops, the gaiety of the birthday party now well and truly over."
LILLY: "To be honest, I'm not sure of all of the details myself. Hanako told you that she was in a house fire. She told me as much, after we met and spent a lot of time together. Other than that... she quite simply never told me."
HISAO: "She never told you..."
LILLY: "Assuming the worst, what does she have to look back upon? A life of isolation and possibly even the death of her family? Maybe even going as far as blaming her existence for their deaths?"
NARRATOR: "Even thinking about what little I know of Hanako's past is bleak. To have lived through all that, and to live on with those memories, must be infinitely worse. Lilly looks similarly depressed, but I can see her rebuild at least some of her composure before my eyes. I get the feeling that both of us are talking more frankly than we might otherwise do thanks to the wine, but it feels like just talking this out is a good thing anyway."
HISAO: "I feel kind of helpless about it. When it's put like that, what can I possibly do for her?"
LILLY: "I'm not wholly sure I should tell you this, but Hanako told me that you visited her the day after we both went to check on her. I must admit that I did not predict she would take such a step so quickly after what happened, nor did I expect you to. I think it was a nice gesture on your part."
HISAO: "It wasn't much, really. It's just... at times like this, I sometimes think it would be better if we never had to leave Yamaku, or at least this town. Things are so much easier without others around."
NARRATOR: "I didn't expect Lilly to look quite so troubled at what I say, and for a while she looks lost in thought. She moves to speak, but stops herself as soon as she does, and rethinks. It's a bit off-putting."
LILLY: "I think... Tell me, do you have anything planned for Friday evening?"
HISAO: "Friday evening? No... Isn't your flight to Scotland the next day? I don't think it would be a good idea to tire yourself out before you even get there."
LILLY: "I'll be all right, you needn't worry about me. I'd do this tomorrow evening, but I imagine Hanako will be feeling rather off for a while."
NARRATOR: "The thought of how she's going to be tomorrow makes me grimace. Maybe we should count our blessings that she didn't end up simply throwing up from drinking so much while having such a low tolerance."
HISAO: "Well, I'm going to be able to attend whatever you are planning. What is it?"
LILLY: "Nothing unusual, I assure you. Just a little excursion. And you'd better be off, Hisao. I can't imagine it's long at all until curfew is here."
NARRATOR: "Oh damn, curfew. I'd completely forgotten. I look at the clock next to Lilly's bed, but it seems to be some oddity without written numerals. Which I suppose makes sense, given Lilly's condition. Not wanting to risk a haughty security patrol giving me a scolding, I get up and decide to go to my dorm as she says."
HISAO: "Well then. I guess I'll see you and Hanako tomorrow, assuming the both of you manage to get up in the morning."
LILLY: "Thank you for your concern, Hisao. Until then."
NARRATOR: "With that, I make my way out of her door and into the hallway. I hope her idea will be a good one."
Next Scene: One Piece of Paper