NARRATOR: "I realize that I've begun to wheeze. I sound like an old man that's overexerted himself, and having to connect that to the fact that I'm the source is a bit disturbing. I put a hand on my chest and concentrate for a bit to make sure I haven't gone far enough to cause any further problems. Thankfully, my heart is acting normally. There's no dull pain, and the beating is regular, albeit fast-paced, as I recover from overdoing things in this kind of heat. I hate my body. It's frustrating to be held back, even more to be held back by fear of my life being ended, when doing something as simple as walking around the city for a while."
NARRATOR: "As I ponder on my health, I feel my pocket vibrating. By the time my phone's begun to ring, my hand is already fishing for it. A glance at the screen shows a caller number I don't recognize. Strange. Shrugging, I press the button to answer the call and bring the phone to my ear."
HISAO: "Hello, Hisao Nakai speaking."
NARRATOR: "The sound of a couple of short breaths can be heard, but no actual speech is forthcoming."
HANAKO: "H... Hisao?"
NARRATOR: "It's Hanako. Her voice is really easy to place, even if I've never heard it over a phone before."
HISAO: "Hanako? Sorry, I wasn't expecting you to call. What's up?"
HANAKO: "U-um... I... um... If... if you're not busy... I-I was wondering if y-you would... l-like to... m—"
HISAO: "Meet up?"
HANAKO: "Yes! U-um... I mean..."
NARRATOR: "She sounds really wound up about this. I can hear muffled voices in the background, and it's about time for afternoon tea, so I guess she'll want me to meet her at the Shanghai or something."
HISAO: "That sounds fine. Are you at the Shanghai?"
HANAKO: "I-I'm in... the city..."
NARRATOR: "Hanako's here? Alone? That's a surprise. It's little wonder she's like this, if she's surrounded by people and entirely by herself."
HISAO: "That works out well; I'm just wandering around there now. Where are you?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako manages to stammer out the street name, address, and some basic directions to where she is. Luckily It's not too far, so I agree to see her soon before hanging up. I look up to the sky. The summer heat is beating down. This is the first time Hanako's asked for us to do something together beyond a simple board game, and the first time, at least since I've known her, that she's come to the city by herself. Maybe this means that Lilly was right."
NARRATOR: "By the time I manage to stagger up to the café where Hanako is, I've started to wheeze again. I'm sweating so much that I feel like a melting popsicle, and can barely hold the bag in my hand. I need to sit down, badly. The tables outside are all occupied by busily chatting couples and girls gossiping between themselves. The contrast between the different age groups and fashions of the people here and the people from the town near Yamaku is striking. I scan over the people sitting at the tables, but I can't see Hanako. She did say she was sitting outside, so I must just be missing her. Not difficult, given how small she usually tries to make her presence. I look around again, more slowly this time, taking particular care to see if I can find Hanako's hat. It's pretty distinctive, and I'd be very surprised if she wasn't wearing it. There she is. Sure enough, her head is kept low and the table she's sitting at is right beside the building in an inconspicuous corner. I walk up to where she is and make sure that I have her attention before I sit, lest I give her a scare. She notices me, and gives a small wave as I arrive at her table."
HANAKO: "A-are you feeling okay?"
NARRATOR: "I try my best to laugh it off, but doing so just makes me more out of breath."
HISAO: "Not very fit these days. Don't mind me."
NARRATOR: "Hanako nods, but still looks a bit put off. Now that I can get a good look at her face, something about her seems a bit different. I'm not sure if my eyes are playing tricks on me, but she looks kind of nice. Her eyes move upwards to look at me, before quickly flicking down again. I begin to think this is going to be a rather quiet meeting, but a waitress thankfully arrives and sets down a cup of tea in front of Hanako. Hanako almost automatically turns slightly away and lowers the side of her head. It's an amazingly practiced motion, and does a good job of its intended purpose - hiding her scars from someone who's leaning in close. Her right arm is still laying on the table though, with the scarring on the back of her hand quite visible. It catches the waitress's eye, and I move to quickly distract her."
HISAO: "Excuse me, may I place an order?"
NARRATOR: "The waitress nods and gives me a couple of seconds to look at the menu."
HISAO: "Could I have a mango smoothie, please?"
NARRATOR: "She gives a nod before almost enthusiastically bouncing inside. Everything is so different in the city, in more ways than one. Hanako looks back up towards me and adjusts her hat a little. If she noticed the waitress staring at her scars, she doesn't show it."
HANAKO: "N-not coffee...?"
HISAO: "I think I'd die from this heat if I had something like coffee right now."
NARRATOR: "Resting my head in my hand, I look to my quiet companion. She seems taken aback; a very unexpected reaction to my lame joke. An unwelcome emotion bubbles up inside me as I realize her reason why. Unlike most in Yamaku, indeed, unlike anyone there that I'm aware of, my condition goes beyond limiting the activities I can do. Or to be more precise, breaching those limits could have much more grave consequences. Thankfully, it's something that's very rarely come up since I entered Yamaku. I thought that it was so rare that Hanako and Lilly might not think of it at all. It turns out that I was wrong."
NARRATOR: "Hanako silently drinks her tea while I wait for my drink, confirming that it's the right temperature with a small sip before she begins in earnest. I feel guilty for being the cause of an uncomfortable silence, since in the past I've been kind of hard on Hanako for those. Eventually the same waitress as before bounces up, handing me my drink. I gather change from my pocket and drop it into her waiting hand, before she goes off to attend to another customer. My eyes linger on her as she walks away."
HANAKO: "Do you think that she looks... pretty...?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako is following my gaze, her eyes taking in the waitress that served us. I can feel my blood slowly going to my cheeks as I rest my smoothie back on the table."
HISAO: "Nah, can't really say that I'm really into that look. She just looked a lot like an old friend I knew before my heart attack."
HANAKO: "Did you... have many friends?"
HISAO: "I had a few at my previous school, though I wouldn't say a lot. The four of us just hung around together after school and stuff."
HANAKO: "Do you still talk to them?"
NARRATOR: "I shake my head."
HISAO: "No. We gradually lost contact while I was stuck in the hospital."
HANAKO: "You're not... saddened by that? Or angry?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako looks genuinely surprised. I guess it's the right reaction."
HISAO: "Well, life did move on for them while I was stuck in the ward. I was pretty sore about it at the time, but now it's just a bunch of nice memories."
HISAO: "Besides, once I came to Yamaku I found new friends as well."
NARRATOR: "That's quite a whitewash of what my feelings were back then. I went through some dark times during my stay at the hospital, and I really am glad that Hanako and Lilly were around to help me after I left it. Hanako blushes as we both get down to enjoying our drinks. She seems to have calmed down since I arrived, and I've started to feel a little better now that I've had the chance to rest a bit, so this is getting to be a nice outing already. Even if she's calmer than before, though, she's still fidgeting a bit. She runs her hand down one of her bangs as I try to think of something to say."
HISAO: "That's right. I was going to ask..."
NARRATOR: "Hanako tilts her head quizzically."
HISAO: "I didn't know you had a mobile phone. How'd you get my number?"
HANAKO: "L-Lilly... gave it... to me."
NARRATOR: "I should have guessed."
HISAO: "You know, you could have just asked; I'd have given it to you. Want to exchange email addresses?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako nods, setting down her drink and fishing out her phone from her pocket as I do the same. It's, surprisingly, the same model as mine. Pink, though."
HISAO: "Nice phone."
NARRATOR: "She looks to me with a curious expression, before noticing my phone and giggling. It's one of the very few times I've seen Hanako let her guard down enough to do such a thing."
HANAKO: "I didn't pick it out myself, though."
HANAKO: "It was a present, from Lilly. I never really needed a phone, and I couldn't afford one. She bought me one for Christmas, though, saying that we could use it to keep in touch."
NARRATOR: "They see each other basically every day anyway, both in and out of school... Then again, Lilly does have her class representative duties and other friends that she talks with. It'd probably help for situations like this, too, when she's gone away for a while."
HISAO: "Lilly's a very special person to you, isn't she?"
HANAKO: "She is. I... love her... very much."
NARRATOR: "Hanako looks down and smiles as she thinks of her. None of my friendships were as deep as theirs, and I have to admit to myself that I'm a little jealous of their relationship. We tell each other our email addresses and thumb them into our respective phones, and I get Hanako's number from earlier and put it into my contacts list."
HANAKO: "...Done. That makes three, now."
HANAKO: "Lilly, Akira and you."
HISAO: "Ah, Akira. She's an interesting person, isn't she?"
HANAKO: "She is. She's also really nice, though. Her suit makes her... look a bit cool."
HISAO: "I'm a little surprised you know each other well, what with her job taking up so much of her time."
NARRATOR: "Hanako looks down a little and takes another sip of her drink. If I wasn't looking intently at her face, I'd miss the small smile perched on it. I guess when she knows so few people, those she knows must mean a lot to her."
HANAKO: "How many... do you have?"
HISAO: "Me? About nine or ten."
NARRATOR: "I hesitate to go into them for fear of rubbing in the fact that Hanako doesn't have parents, or apparently even close relatives. Two of those are Shizune and Misha, too, which is another can of worms."
HISAO: "I imagine that Lilly would have more than both of us put together, probably."
NARRATOR: "Hanako gives a childish giggle, and I can't help smiling. It's a good feeling that she's gotten this comfortable around me; at times like this, I feel like I'm getting close to talking to her true self."
HISAO: "Do you mind if I ask something that I've been wondering?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako shakes her head as she takes a last sip of her tea, finishing it off."
HISAO: "You don't seem very jealous of Lilly having lots of friends. Don't you want to make some more friends yourself, or get to know some of hers?"
HANAKO: "I'm not jealous. I... don't like people, so I don't mind not having many friends."
NARRATOR: "That's... really not the answer that I was expecting. She doesn't look fearful or sad as she says this, but rather, quite serious."
NARRATOR: "Hanako rubs her arm awkwardly, having taken my quietness as a reason to continue. I'm not really sure what I should say, so I end up simply giving her my attention in silence."
HANAKO: "In middle school, I got bullied... a lot. I was called names, and got excluded from work groups and sports teams. There were... worse things, too."
HISAO: "And that's what made you not like other people?"
NARRATOR: "She shakes her head."
HANAKO: "That was... elementary school."
NARRATOR: "I feel bad for bringing this up now. Adults have enough problems dealing with Hanako's scarring; children would be all the worse. I had assumed that the way she tried to make her presence not felt was just to avoid people staring at her, or because she was afraid of them; certainly not because she genuinely didn't want to interact with them in the first place as well. I notice the condensation from my neglected smoothie forming a little puddle around the bottom of the cup, so I take the opportunity to finish it off."
NARRATOR: "As I drink, she begins to fiddle with her phone. It looks like she's remembered the people around her again, and begun to tense up. It isn't exactly a cheap phone - I had to save up for quite a while to afford one when I got mine. If Lilly went to a private school, she probably wouldn't have too much trouble getting one for a present, though. Watching her fiddle with it gives me an idea..."
HISAO: "Hey Hanako, wait for me. I'll be right back."
NARRATOR: "I put the now empty cup down, slip my phone into my pocket, and begin to move off, carefully stepping around the bag I'd placed beside my feet. Thankfully, sitting around while talking to Hanako has helped me feel a lot better than before."
HANAKO: "Wait, w-what? Wh-where are you going?"
HISAO: "Just stay here, I'll be back in a bit!"
NARRATOR: "As much as I'd have liked to have jogged back, I know full well that I couldn't. I end up walking back to the café, a little blue bag in my right hand."
NARRATOR: "Hanako notices me quickly, looking about as confused as she did when I left. I deposit the diminutive bag in front of her and sit back down."
HANAKO: "Is this...?"
HISAO: "It's for you. You can open it."
HISAO: "Go on."
NARRATOR: "She looks very unsure about it, but eventually gives in, slowly opens the bag and picks its contents out. A silver chain phone strap dangles from her fingers, ending in a delicate flower. It isn't exactly a masterwork of jewelry, but it's about as much as I could afford. Hanako's eyes light up when she looks at it. It's the kind of reaction I was hoping for. The summer sun's light glints off the silver as it twists to and fro a little. It's not too ostentatious, but still looks a little charming. I think it suits her well. Hanako lowers the phone strap to the table and looks to me once more."
HANAKO: "But... it's not... Christmas, or my birthday..."
HISAO: "It's fine, don't worry about it. I just thought it might be nice to have something to decorate your phone with."
HANAKO: "I-I don't have anything to give to you..."
HISAO: "I told you, it's fine. Friends can give things to each other like this sometimes, right?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako lowers her face so much that I can't see her expression. She eventually nods, before taking her phone and fiddling with the strap to attach it properly. She looks to me and smiles as she holds up her phone, now adorned with a little flower."
HANAKO: "Thank you... Hisao."
NARRATOR: "Her smile proves infectious. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a couple getting up and leaving. That reminds me that the bus back to the town below Yamaku will be coming soon."
HISAO: "I guess I'd better be going if I want to catch the next bus back to town. You coming as well?"
HANAKO: "Ah, y-yes."
NARRATOR: "She hastily nods before carefully putting her phone back into her pocket and getting out of her chair. I do the same and pick up the bag I'd left beside me on the way out. We walk side by side as we make our way to the bus station, exchanging no words between us. Hanako's gaze is firmly locked ahead of her, though she looks very happy with herself. I'm not sure what I should say to her, but I'm also not sure that I need to say anything. The fact that Hanako is happy, and happy because of me, is enough to make the load on my arm feel light as a feather."
Next Scene: Whispered Touch