NARRATOR: "Lilly is walking to my left with her cane swaying to and fro, holding onto her sister's arm for guidance while talking to her. Compared to traveling by taxi or bus, being driven by Akira in her rather nice car was a much more enjoyable experience. Maybe not for the person on my right, though. While Lilly was used to her sister's driving style, and I quite liked a bit of excitement, Hanako was holding very tightly to the door for most of the trip."
HANAKO: "E-everything looks so p-pretty at night..."
NARRATOR: "Hanako quickly looks down yet again as she accidentally catches someone's gaze."
HISAO: "Yeah, it does."
NARRATOR: "My answer isn't very thoughtful, since I'm distracted by so many thoughts that I find it hard to keep up on smalltalk. One of those distractions, aside from the city sights, is how Hanako looks. This is the first time I've seen her in something other than her school uniform or her pajamas. It gave me pause when I first saw her outfit, when we met up at the school gate. Considering how much her head is lowered when people walk near us, I imagine that the hat she wears is more than a fashion statement. While initially I was wary of Lilly's plan to take us out into the city, when night fell it became obvious she had thought about this. Not many people have paid Hanako much heed, since the darkness hides her scarring well."
HISAO: "So... we're in the city. Any ideas on what to do?"
NARRATOR: "Akira beams a smile. Something tells me that she's the one who is making this particular decision, even if her sister may have proposed the outing in the first place."
AKIRA: "You'll see. Just follow us."
NARRATOR: "I nod, and try my best to stifle a grimace. After what happened during Hanako's birthday party, I don't trust Akira's judgment all that much. We keep walking, and I notice that we're passing more and more cafés, restaurants, and other eateries. Every once in a while a drunken man in a suit comes out of a bar, usually being supported by another, but for the most part the customers around this part of the city look young and fashionable. Different kinds of music come and go as we pass by each business. The discord created by the overlaps should be grating, but it reminds me so strongly of the times I spent in the city with my old friends that I don't mind. Hanako and I have started to drift a little apart from Lilly and Akira. That comes to a stop when I hear a soft thud from beside me."
NARRATOR: "By the time she rights herself from her apologetic bow, the middle-aged businessman she bumped into is walking away after mumbling a half-hearted apology. Hanako looks a little put off by the experience, and as she quickly skips ahead to match my pace, I notice her head hanging low once more. She probably bumped into him because she was looking downwards and not where she was going. I step to the side a little and put one hand on her far shoulder, drawing her closer."
HISAO: "It's okay. You can walk closer to me if you want."
NARRATOR: "Hanako hesitates, but eventually nods in assent. After a couple of times when I'd thought we had arrived at Akira's destination, we reach our target. By now we're below the elevated walkways, and past the most garish and brightly-lit places. I'm a bit surprised. The average age of those around us is distinctly older, and the smell of cigarette smoke is pretty thick. The area is far from seedy though, and it's a little amusing to see Lilly's reaction to the smell of the smoke. While it's masked by the low talking of those around us, jazz music can be heard emanating from inside. Looking up at the dimly-lit sign, it becomes obvious why."
HISAO: "A jazz club. I have to admit, this isn't what I expected."
NARRATOR: "Lilly gives an amused snort and a smile."
LILLY: "Somehow I feel like I should have known it, Akira."
NARRATOR: "As we talk outside, I notice more and more odd sideways glances directed our way. People awkwardly catch themselves staring and look away, but that just makes it more obvious. I had noticed this occasionally when we were walking, but it's more pronounced now. I've never experienced anything like that in my life. An average-looking Japanese teenage guy, just a little taller than normal, isn't the type to draw attention without making an effort."
AKIRA: "Hey, c'mon. Just because you're teenagers, doesn't mean you can't have a taste. Right?"
HISAO: "Well... I don't really mind the music, if that's what you mean."
HANAKO: "I-I... don't mind it... either..."
NARRATOR: "She's only just managing to force the words out. It contrasts heavily to when we're alone in Yamaku, and it disappoints me a little that she's so highly strung for what's supposed to be a good time out on the town. It's hard to read Hanako's face as she keeps looking downwards. It's little wonder if she doesn't often come out into the city because of this, and it makes me a little thankful that my own scarring is easily hidden. Lilly has a similar way of attracting people's gazes, but the reason for it is clearly different. She hardly looks like a native, and the same can be said for her sister. That much is far more noticeable than her blindness, from a distance. She may not be able to see this for herself, but I have little doubt she can hear the odd whispered phrase from people who think they're out of earshot. Be that as it may, she doesn't seem to show any sign of either annoyance or pleasure at the attention. Akira's still as confident as ever, though. Flashing a smile, she strides in with Lilly by her side and the two of us following behind."
NARRATOR: "I had expected my eyes to need adjusting to the light inside, but it's not much brighter than outside. The music we'd heard is clearer now, mixed in with the sound of glasses moving on the tables and counter, and the husky chatter of the patrons. Looking to my right reveals the music's source, a jazz group playing beyond some tables. The patrons seem to be mostly men, and though there's a handful of women, nobody looks under thirty. Aside from us, of course. It feels a little like we've stepped into the 1920s, and the atmosphere is quite agreeable. I'm not completely comfortable simply because of my age, but were I older, I would probably feel quite at home. Hanako seems a bit more relaxed now, probably due to nobody looking at her. Everybody's talking between themselves, drinking, or watching the band."
NARRATOR: "Akira casually takes a seat at the counter without even glancing around. She's probably come here before. Lilly retracts her cane, feeling out the bar stool and the edge of the counter before taking a seat beside her sister. The bartender takes a brief break from polishing a glass to watch her, before putting it down and coming over."
BARTENDER: "Good evening, ladies. What'll it be?"
AKIRA: "Just a scotch, thanks. Lilly?"
LILLY: "May I have a glass of cham—"
NARRATOR: "A black-suited elbow hits her side sharply."
LILLY: "Orange juice, please."
BARTENDER: "No problem, coming right up."
NARRATOR: "The bartender starts to pour their drinks. A couple of seconds pass before Akira suddenly remembers that Hanako and I are indeed here, and turns around to us."
AKIRA: "You two want anything, or are you just gonna stand there?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako seems to be getting a bit restless. No matter where we're going to seat ourselves, there's going to be people right next to her, and I don't think she looks convincingly older than twenty, unlike Lilly. Looking around, there's a games section to our right. A couple of billiards tables can be seen in the corner, and nobody's using them either. I glance to Hanako, about to ask her if she'd like to play, but she's already looking longingly in the same direction. Maybe it says something that we can get by with so few words nowadays."
HISAO: "We'll go play pool over there."
NARRATOR: "Akira leans back to see past me, before shrugging and sitting back up."
LILLY: "It seems you'll have to put up with only me for company. How unfortunate."
AKIRA: "Have fun, you two."
NARRATOR: "We turn and set off for the abandoned corner, with Hanako taking the lead. The prospect of a nice, quiet game away from everyone makes her walk noticeably faster. Her eyes stay firmly fixed on her prize. The table's full-size and well-lit despite the surrounding darkness, thanks to the bright overhead lights. A huge painting of... something... covers the wall. There aren't many people milling about this corner of the club, and I can see Hanako becoming a little less tense as a result."
HANAKO: "You... kn-know how to play?"
HISAO: "I'm no expert, but yeah, I do."
HANAKO: "Then um... eight-ball?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako gets the chalk and two cues from a set of hooks against one of the walls, while I fetch the balls from the table's pockets and grab the rack from a shelf underneath. She patiently waits as I get the table set up. After slotting the final ball into the rack and doing some last adjustments, I end up having to fight my perfectionist urges in getting the bottom row of balls exactly perpendicular with the edges. With the balls arranged and ready for play, I step back and take my cue from her outstretched arm. I carry out a quick inspection of the tip before I'm satisfied that it's in good condition."
HISAO: "So you've played before?"
HANAKO: "Once... or twice. I j-just kind of... know the rules."
NARRATOR: "The air between us feels a little awkward. She's still pretty nervous; understandably, given that we're in public. Eventually the silence becomes too much even for Hanako, and she begins to quietly stammer."
HANAKO: "Wh-who'll... b-break?"
NARRATOR: "I think for a moment before reaching into my pocket and drawing a coin."
HISAO: "I'll take heads, you're tails."
NARRATOR: "After a nod of agreement from Hanako, I flick the coin up in the air, catch it, and flip it over onto the back of my left hand."
HISAO: "Looks like it's you that gets to break."
NARRATOR: "Hanako nods again, before taking up her position at the end of the table. She's not usually this quiet around me, but I'm not wholly sure if it's because of the tidbit of information about her past that slipped out moments ago. The cue comes back in a practiced gesture before smacking dead into the center of the cue ball with a thud. The white ball skates across the smooth green expanse before smashing into the carefully-arranged balls at the other end. Balls skitter across the table at high speed. The break was good, with the balls being nicely distributed around the table. My eyes are already flicking from one to another to pick out the easiest candidates to pocket."
NARRATOR: "Hanako retreats from the side and I take my shot."
HANAKO: "Well done."
NARRATOR: "It's only after Hanako says this that I realize the ball I was shooting at was sunk. I look at her and notice a small smile on her face. It's nice how playing games seems to loosen her up a little."
HISAO: "Guess I'm stripes, then."
NARRATOR: "I take a step back and let her take the next shot, but she doesn't advance to the table. Rather, she looks down a little and rubs her arm. By now I can identify this as one of her gestures that mean she wants to say something, but isn't sure enough of herself to do it."
HISAO: "What's up?"
HANAKO: "It's just... you had a... n-nice smile. Do you like... playing this?"
NARRATOR: "I sigh and lean back against the table."
HISAO: "I like playing, yeah. I think I was smiling because it's really nostalgic, though."
NARRATOR: "Hanako tilts her head quizzically."
HISAO: "Me and my friends used to play pool in the game centers near where we lived pretty often, and at night too."
HANAKO: "W-wouldn't your parents..."
HISAO: "My parents both worked, so they didn't mind me not being in the house. I stayed on top of schoolwork pretty easily as well, so there was plenty of time to do other stuff at night."
NARRATOR: "Our conversation dies down, with Hanako's timidity getting the better of her. In response, I get off the table and let her take her turn shooting."
NARRATOR: "There aren't many solids in easy positions, so Hanako bends down and takes a while to line herself up properly."
NARRATOR: "Hanako's expression is the same as when we play chess; a relaxed but focused concentration. Athletes sometimes talk about getting into a zone where nothing unnecessary enters their mind, and I wonder if that's something she can do. Her posture is good. Better than mine, to be sure. It's very close to a textbook method of playing, whereas I tend to contort myself into whatever position I feel is most natural for the shot I'm taking."
NARRATOR: "She lines up the cue. The cue comes back, and she does a couple of practice movements to make sure she's lined up correctly. Hanako takes games so seriously. It's the only real hobby I know she has, outside of reading. It feels good to be able to share this kind of experience with her. She takes the shot after careful consideration, and the cue ball zooms off towards a ball sitting at a slightly awkward angle near a corner. Hanako's careful preparation pays off as the cue ball hits and sends the ball rolling towards the corner pocket. For a moment it looks like it'll stop just on the lip of the hole, but it eventually tilts just enough to drop in."
HISAO: "Man, that was a hard shot. If you can pull that off, I don't think I have much hope."
HANAKO: "I'm not... th-that good..."
HISAO: "It's not just the shot though; even when lining it up you looked really serious. You're like this with chess, too."
NARRATOR: "The praise makes her a little flustered. She sets the cue against the table and stands, turning to me."
HANAKO: "I just... like those kinds of things..."
NARRATOR: "Her fingers are twisting and turning tightly."
HANAKO: "When I was in the orphanage... I just... k-kept doing the things I liked... before. If I p-played games with the others, th-that was enough for the helpers there, so..."
NARRATOR: "I'd never thought about it that way. Staff at an orphanage would naturally want to have everyone socialize at least a little."
HISAO: "If it's okay for me to ask... what was it like for you at the orphanage?"
HANAKO: "W-why do you want to know?"
NARRATOR: "I've touched a nerve, but the fact that she responded at all shows there's at least a chance she'll answer my question. Before, she likely would just have shrunk away from it without a word."
HANAKO: "I'll... tell you, but..."
HANAKO: "Could you... t-tell me who I-Iwa... n-nako... is?"
HISAO: "Iwanako...? Oh, the letter."
NARRATOR: "I wonder how long she's been waiting for the right opportunity to ask me this. I'm surprised, but don't hesitate. Sharing information is naturally a matter of give and take."
HISAO: "She's... someone I used to like."
NARRATOR: "Her nervousness subsided, at least for the time it took to ask. Her curiosity is getting the better of her, and I feel a bit uncomfortable to be questioned on this, of all matters. There's no way I could spill out all my feelings about Iwanako here. I don't even know myself what my feelings regarding her are, even after talking to Yuuko earlier, and I want to avoid the subject around Hanako. Hanako doesn't look overly satisfied with the awkward ending to the discussion, but thinks better of continuing it. She was only just managing to ask me in the first place, without knowing that I wouldn't want to talk about it. I move to finally take my own shot. The lack of talking between us is filled by the chatter of other patrons and the band at the other end of the club. Spying a shot that doesn't look too difficult, I try and shoot for it."
NARRATOR: "The cue ball taps the ball, and the trajectory is about right, but I put in too much power. It grazes the corner of the hole and moves off to the side, just skirting the pocket. I grit my teeth a little. I was pretty good at this game, and it's frustrating to have deteriorated so much. I step back and let Hanako take her turn, glancing towards the counter where Lilly and Akira are sitting. They're talking busily between themselves, and seem to be having a good time. I turn back to Hanako as she takes her shot. With the same face as before, she lines herself up and sharply pushes the cue. Just as before, she sinks the ball she was aiming for. It drops into the side pocket more cleanly than her last, though. It looks as if she's getting a bit more into the groove of the game."
HISAO: "Nicely done."
NARRATOR: "She hesitates for a moment, and begins to address me without turning her head."
HANAKO: "The orphanage... was nice. It felt a bit like Yamaku does... and the staff was r-really kind. But as th-the years went on, I realized something. I was d-different."
NARRATOR: "It feels strange to hear her speak so candidly about herself. She's audibly forcing the words out. It reminds me of when she insisted she tell me about the fire. Hanako must feel that she has to tell me of such things, if I'm willing to tell her about my own past. Her grip on the cue tightens as she continues to speak."
HANAKO: "M-most of the children there were up for adoption, just like I was. But unlike me... they gradually left, o-one by one. By the time I went to Yamaku, I was... among the oldest children there. For a while, I h-helped with some of the y-younger children, b-but eventually..."
NARRATOR: "I lay a hand on her shoulder. She's forcing herself by now."
HISAO: "It's okay."
NARRATOR: "She looks mildly surprised for a moment, but then nods before setting down her cue and turning towards me."
HANAKO: "Do you... really think so?"
HISAO: "Yeah, I think so. Even while Lilly's away, I'll be around to protect you, right?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako looks at me for a long time, and I'm taken a bit off guard. Her expression hasn't changed from before, still looking somewhat maudlin, and silences between us aren't unusual. I think it's the fact that she's holding such prolonged eye contact that makes this feel a bit odd. It feels as if she'd judging me. It's a very strange, vaguely uncomfortable feeling."
HANAKO: "I-I understand. Thank you."
NARRATOR: "She smiles and looks away a little, but it feels stilted. Hanako isn't very good at faking emotions, and this is no exception. I move to the table and take my turn to try and distract myself, but it doesn't seem to work. Does she think I'm not up to the task of helping her? Is she disappointed in me? I'm probably overthinking this. While her silences are just an accepted fact of life by now, sometimes I do wish she'd speak more. With a thud, I send the white sphere careening down the table into my target."
NARRATOR: "Hanako sees what's happening just as I do. The ball hits hard, with the striped ball I'd intended to sink veering off towards the eight ball. Sure enough, as both Hanako and I look on and bite our lips, they connect and the black ball rolls leisurely into a corner pocket. All I can do is sigh. It looks like Hanako is smiling again though, so maybe it wasn't for naught."
HISAO: "That was an awful shot, you win. It seems I'm getting pretty rusty after all this time."
NARRATOR: "Hanako bends down and begins to shoot the remaining balls into the closest pockets. I almost ask if we could play another game, but a quick check of my watch confirms that the night is getting pretty late. Lilly and Akira appear to be still drinking at the counter. Seems like we'll have to drag them away."
HANAKO: "Um, Hisao..."
NARRATOR: "I turn back to Hanako, who's still looking over the pool table shooting balls. Her voice sounds different from before."
HANAKO: "I'm... here for you as well..."
NARRATOR: "I suddenly find myself blushing. It's only natural that she'd respond this way, given what I said earlier, but it's still a shock to actually hear it. Just what is my relationship with this girl? I want to protect her, to make her happy... I'm not really sure that it's something like love, but I don't think these are the same kinds of feelings I have for Lilly, either. I feel sorry for her, having gone through so much in her life. Her parents died in a housefire, and she lived in an orphanage for much of her childhood... I can't even imagine that kind of life. But I feel like there's so little I can do for her, especially now that Lilly is going to be leaving the country."
NARRATOR: "Hanako and I finish tidying up the table and cues, and pick up Lilly and Akira on our way out of the club. It feels like something changed between Hanako and me. I can't quite place what it is, but Hanako is acting differently now. I feel like we're further apart, if anything."
AKIRA: "So, you enjoy yourselves?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako and I both nod and agree. The game was good, and we both did learn more about each other, so it's a honest answer. Lilly appears to be a little distracted."
HISAO: "Worried about the trip, Lilly?"
NARRATOR: "She pauses before sighing and smiling weakly."
LILLY: "A little. It means quite a bit."
NARRATOR: "The comment earns her a clap on the shoulder from her sister. Hanako smiles back, too."
HANAKO: "You'll be okay, Lilly. I hope you can enjoy your time over there."
LILLY: "Thank you, Hanako. I'll try to. It will be nice to be back with my family, after all, no matter for how brief a time it may be."
NARRATOR: "With that, the four of us begin the walk to the carpark where Akira's car is. We continue to talk between ourselves, but it's mostly just smalltalk."
Next Scene: Beginning of the End