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Treading Softly is the fifth page of Act 3 of Hanako's route
I lay on my bed, trying to collect my thoughts.
After Hanako's panic attack, I've found myself fundamentally reassessing the relationship we share, and what I know about her.
I had a hard enough time dealing with four months in the hospital. One look at her scars tells me that she was in one for a lot longer than I was.
Be that as it may, I know next to nothing about her past. She has told me about the house fire, but only in the most basic way.
And what of her family? I still haven't asked Lilly about them; there hasn't been a good opportunity to bring it up.
I don't know where she grew up, or what her old school was like. Nor of her past friends, her wishes and ambitions. Not even her tastes in music, food and movies… all the little things that I knew about all of my old friends.
Just what have I been doing, for all this time I've been with her and Lilly?
In the distance, I hear the bells signaling the end of classes. With any luck, Lilly will soon realize that neither Hanako nor I are around, and return to the dormitories.
My mobile phone starts to ring, cutting my thinking short. It quite startles me, as I've rarely been called since coming to Yamaku.
Hisao "Hello, Hisao Nakai speaking…"
Lilly "Oh, Hisao, I'm glad I found you. You weren't at any of our usual places, so I thought this would be the fastest way to contact you."
I probably should have guessed it would be Lilly, as she's one of the few people I've given my number to. Even through the phone, her voice sounds slightly on edge.
Hisao "I… Hanako and I left class early. She had some kind of panic attack…"
The line goes silent. If it weren't for the background static, I would have thought Lilly had hung up on me.
Lilly "I understand. Could you come by my room? I'd like to talk with you."
Hisao "Sure. I'd… I'd appreciate the chance to have a bit of a talk, actually."
Lilly "Good… good. I… also have some bad news. I think we should discuss this in person."
It's hard to grasp the seriousness of the situation from Lilly's tone. She sounds so calm most of the time, but that could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
Hisao "Okay, I'll be right there."
I collect Hanako's school things from my desk and head straight for Lilly's room.
I rap my knuckles on her door, and she soon calls me in.
Lilly sits at the table inside her room, looking a little worse for wear; I guess that's because of the bad news.
Following her gesture of invitation, I sit across from her and lay Hanako's things on the table.
Lilly "Well, there's no point in either of us waiting. Would you mind going first, Hisao? What happened today?"
My memory of the incident is already beginning to fade, but I explain it as best I can to Lilly.
Inviting Hanako to work with the group, Shizune and Misha's questioning, our foray to town getting discovered, and the subsequent panic attack.
I add Shizune's reaction almost as an afterthought, but Lilly seems to take some kind of comfort in hearing about it.
I guess rivals don't become rivals for no reason. There must be some history there, but now isn't the time to explore it.
Lilly "I see. She had said her therapist sessions were helping, but I had my doubts. It's quite a shame."
Lilly "Her birthday has caused problems before, but I had hoped that she would have improved with you around, and the more intensive therapy."
Lilly "Where is Hanako now?"
Hisao "Last time I saw her she was in the infirmary. I guess she's gone back to her room by now."
Lilly "She wasn't in the library or the tea room when I checked, so I can only assume that too."
Hisao "You said you also had some bad news… what's the matter? Do they concern Hanako?"
Lilly shifts her position; the body's way of saying she's searching for the right words.
Lilly "My aunt has fallen gravely ill. I'm afraid I'm going to be heading back to Scotland to visit her, and to spend some time with my family."
Hisao "What? Is she all right? When do you leave?"
Lilly "I'm not altogether sure of exactly how she's faring at the moment, though last I heard she was stable. I'll be leaving Saturday; it's the earliest flight that I could get."
“Stable.” That's code for “needs to stay in the hospital.” I've been “stable” long enough to know that, and to know that it doesn't necessarily mean someone is in good condition, but merely treading water.
On the upside, “stable” is much better than “critical condition.” At least she's not on the brink of death.
Hisao "Stable… that's a relief."
Lilly "Yes, but this means that I won't be here for Hanako's birthday."
Lilly "I wanted to tell you now so we could think of something before we told Hanako, but after today's events, I'm not even sure if there's going to be an issue if we simply cancel the party."
Hisao "I… don't think that is such a good idea. Hanako already knows that we were planning a party now; to go back on that seems like the wrong thing to do."
Hisao "Also, we should do something for your going away, right?"
Lilly "You make it sound as if I won't be coming back. If all goes well, I should only be away for a week, though possibly two."
Hisao "That's one relief, at least."
Lilly "With that in mind, what do you suggest then?"
Hisao "Given the circumstances, I don't think karaoke is really appropriate. You're not going away for the greatest of reasons, so having too much fun would feel wrong."
Hisao "What did you do for her birthday last year?"
Lilly "Last year… I literally couldn't get her out of her room. She'd locked the door."
Lilly "All I could do was leave food outside for her, making sure that she was at least eating well."
This is perhaps the most depressed I've ever seen and heard Lilly act. I feel sorry for her, given how defeated she must feel to be unable to help her closest friend.
Hisao "Perhaps it would be better to throw the party before you leave, then?"
Lilly "That does sound like it would be the easiest option."
Hisao "I think we should at least tell Hanako, both about your trip and her party. I have her things from class as well."
Lilly "That's a good point. Should we go and visit her now?"
Hisao "I… I think that would be a good idea."
Part of me is dying to see Hanako. The last time I saw her she looked like death walking, and these last few hours have torn me apart just thinking about that.
We quietly get up and file out of Lilly's room. Hanako's room is next door in the same hallway.
Knocking lightly gets us no response, but the door proves to be unlocked. Lilly pauses for a moment as the handle unexpectedly moves under her hand, before opening the door.
Hanako's room is startlingly bare and monotone. There are no decorations on the plain white walls, a plain dark blue blanket, and only a few books, papers, and purely utilitarian items on the shelves.
Even her bedsheets are monochrome. The entire room feels as subdued as Hanako's character.
Hanako herself is laying curled up on her bed. She may not be crying now, but her eyes are closed tightly to stop herself, and the tracks left by her tears still sit on her reddened cheeks. I quietly walk in and set her bag down on her desk, afraid of startling her too much.
Lilly "Hello, Hanako. Hisao told me about what happened today… are you all right?"
Hanako's eyes open, though only a little.
Hanako "I… I'm okay…"
She tilts her head slightly to look at me, noticing my grimacing before I can hide it.
Hanako "S-sorry… f-for making you w-worry."
Hanako "R-really… I'm f-fine now…"
She really doesn't look nor sound okay, though at least she seems more calm than she was before. She still looks as if the slightest breath could emotionally break her.
Hisao "I said it before, right? You don't need to be sorry for this."
Lilly "Hisao's right. We… I… shouldn't have hidden something like a birthday celebration from you."
I see Hanako shiver at the word. Lilly picks up on the silence that follows, and crouches down to Hanako's level.
Lilly "I'm the one who should be sorry, Hanako."
Hanako's eyes open to peer at Lilly. She looks at Lilly for some time, taking in her face with those dark, analytical eyes of hers.
Lilly must have made the right impression on her, as Hanako recovers enough to prop herself up on the bed and shift to sitting on its side. Hanako worries about many things, but troubling others is foremost among them.
Hearing Hanako's shuffling, Lilly moves forward and feels out the side of the bed, eventually taking a seat beside her and taking Hanako's left hand in both of hers.
The feeling of me being out of place when the two are together has lessened in the time that we've known each other, but it's still occasionally very much there. This is one of those times, I think.
Hisao "Lilly, if you want me to go…"
Hanako "I don't… want that…"
Lilly and I are both surprised at Hanako mustering her courage. A half-mumbled “Okay” is all I can give her in reply, and I take her desk chair to sit in.
Lilly "Hanako, I'm afraid I have some bad news."
So Lilly's going to break the news now. With Hanako having affirmed our relationship so clearly, perhaps Lilly thought the timing was good, or at least, as good as it will ever be.
Lilly "My aunt has fallen ill, so I need to return to my family for a time."
Concern replaces Hanako's remorseful expression.
Hanako "Your… family… You mean in Scotland, right?"
Lilly "That's right. Akira and I will be leaving Saturday."
Hanako "S-so you're going away?"
Lilly "I won't be gone for long. Probably only a week or two. I'll be back before you know it, and Hisao will be here, right?"
Hisao "That's right, I'm not going anywhere."
Hanako seems to take only minor comfort in this, but she does manage to summon some resolve from somewhere inside her.
Hanako "I-is your aunt going to be all right?"
Lilly "I'm not sure."
Silence falls. It's depressing that the thing to truly bring Hanako out of her rut is another's misfortune. I decide to bring up the other matter that brought us here, to distract at least in part from the dismal feeling permeating the room.
Hisao "Anyway, we were thinking that it would be a good idea to have a going-away party for Lilly, and it could double as… yeah…"
I cut myself off before mentioning her birthday, as that seems to be a trigger for such fierce emotions within her. Lilly gives Hanako's hand a gentle squeeze.
Lilly "Is it all right by you, Hanako? It won't be anything lavish or overdone, just something small in my room."
Hanako "S-so just in the school? Just us?"
Lilly "That's right, just the three of us. If you like, I could ask Akira to come as well."
Hanako "O…kay. Y-you're only going for a week?"
Lilly "One week or two, yes. I promise you it won't be any longer."
Most people would be upset at hearing about a friend's family member falling ill and happy at having a party, but with Hanako it seems that both events are on the same level.
Hisao "All right then. You look like you need a rest, Hanako, so it might be best if we all went back to our rooms for now."
Lilly "You know that if you ever want anything, you can always talk to me or Hisao, right?"
Lilly's voice is pensive, an unusual edge for someone as confident in herself as she.
Hanako "I… understand. Thank you, Lilly, Hisao."
Lilly "Well then, good night, Hanako."
I let out a long breath after the door closes behind us. It feels a little like I've been deep underwater, and only now have been able to come up for air.
Lilly doesn't seem to be doing well either. She looks pale and drawn.
Hisao "Are you all right?"
Lilly "I'm just a little tired. It's been… hectic recently."
Hisao "Have you slept at all? “A little tired” sounds like an understatement, given how you look."
Lilly "I think I managed to get a couple hours of sleep before class. I'll be okay."
I feel bad about pressing Lilly right now. I think both of us are pretty tired from everything that's happened as well.
Hisao "I think you should get some rest. It's been a big day, and staying up isn't good for your complexion."
Lilly "Thank you for your concern, Hisao. Good night, then."
Hisao "Okay. 'Night, Lilly."
I leave Lilly in the hallway as she opens the door to her room, and begin to make my way to my own.
As I walk down the quiet hallway, I can't get that image of Hanako out of my mind. Huddled and pitiable, lying helpless with tears on her cheeks. I began to think that she was just a normal, if extremely shy, person, but her problems run much deeper. Trying to take our relationship further than what we share now, when she's so fragile and vulnerable, wouldn't be right. I don't need to be more than her friend in order to protect her, to try and stop anything like this ever happening again. The possibility of my feelings for her going beyond that… that doesn't matter any more. Hanako is precious to me, and that's why I can't take advantage of her. But even so… there's still that sting I feel when I think that way.
For now, I need to sleep. Tomorrow, hopefully, will be a better day.