(WARNING: COMPLETE SPOILERS FOR CHAOS;CHILD)
Chapter 2: Kazuki Hana
Kazuki Hana was engrossed in playing on her handheld gaming device during breaktime in her classroom, when a female student called out to her.
“Erm, that’s the latest game which was only released yesterday, isn’t it?”
She was a distinct-looking girl with straight black hair which extended past her shoulders and she wore large red-framed spectacles. Hana felt like she recognized her, but maybe not. At the very least, she was not from her class and they had never spoken before.
With some hesitancy at being spoken to so abruptly, Hana nodded. The game she was playing had indeed launched yesterday.
“My go-to shop was totally out of it already. How’s the loading time and UI compared to the original?”
“Mm… The loading time has hardly changed. The UI has been simplified, but it doesn’t feel that different, maybe.”
Hana answered, wondering if she was also a gamer. The girl nodded her head in understanding, then suddenly brought her face close.
“I’m Hatsuyama Mizuki from the class next door. I apologize for eavesdropping, but I heard you play ESO2 too, Kazuki?”
When Hana brought up the matter regarding Hatsuyama in their conversation, Hinae nodded with a, “Heeh,” and leaned forward on the table as if she heard something truly interesting.
Then, after staring at Hana as if trying to scrutinize her, who was just resting her chin in her hands, Hinae said so joyously.
“You should’ve just gone.”
They were in the usual room, the former room of the Newspaper club.
With the end of the ‘Return of the New Generation Madness’, the Newspaper club was placed under indefinite shutdown. It was effectively a disbandment of the club, an action the school has taken due to the fact that the president of the club, Takuru, was the perpetrator of the chain of incidents.
The school mandates that all students join a club or a committee, and as the only member of the Newspaper club remaining, Hana was required to join another club or committee. But, as she has yet to decide, she naturally headed to this room after school ended.
“After all, we’re not even planning to buy anything but to just go around looking here and there. Rather, if you turn down such a date that’s so rare to come by, you’re going to be left on the shelves, you know?”
“…She wasn’t inviting me to a date.”
“The fact that you get caught up on such insignificant matters like gender shows that your worldview is narrow still.”
Hana had received an invitation from Hatsuyama out of nowhere to go out tomorrow. Her destination in mind was a certain manga café in Ebisu where they had a buddy plan. They had a special room where you got a bonus item if you logged in to ESO2 from there. ESO2 referred to an MMORPG Hana had been playing since a while back, and which Hatsuyama was also playing apparently.
However, Hana rejected her offer as she had already made plans to go out with Hinae tomorrow.
“Mm… Certainly, the rare drop rate-up potion may be tempting, but since we’ll probably be hunting as a party, there’s no point if you lose the dice roll. Also, I asked about her equipment and it sounds like she has an all-strength build, which has bad compatibility with me since I don’t have any buffs, maybe… Not to mention, the IN rate has dropped recently too.”
“…Hana, Mommy here has absolutely no clue as to what you just said.”
“It’s just your comprehension skill that sucks. And I’ve explained it to you so many times too.”
“I also remember mentioning this before repeatedly that I have a weak memory!”
Hinae said so exasperatedly and slump back to her seat before facing Hana again.
“Like, what if you went, seriously? You really don’t have to mind me.”
“But… I’ve never talked to her before.”
“It’s not like there’s even people you’ve talked to in the first place.”
Hana groaned with a, “Uu…” as she became lost for words.
Due to a certain event that occurred to her halfway through middle school, Hana spent most of her life without speaking to people except to grunt in response vaguely. Now that she no longer needs to stay silent, she has managed to have normal conversations with Hinae and Senri and the rest, but pretty much still didn’t talk to others like her classmates. In fact, she had never spoken even once to her classmates in this half a year since entering high school. She was not being bullied, but was clearly isolated, and this hadn’t changed even after school reopened.
“This is your chance since the other party is the one approaching you. I was a bit doubtful when she suggested a manga café from the start, but thinking about it, perhaps that’s just what it’s like for fellow gamers? Not that I understand that however.”
“…You sure are pushing hard for this.”
“A certain wise guru once said this: ‘If you don’t make more friends, the future is going to be tough, isn’t it?’ ”
“…Who’s that supposed to be?”
Hana sighed. Now that she thought back, she might have heard Senri say something like that before.
“I feel the same too. It’s about time for you to make some friends. In a certain sense… no, more like in the literal sense, all of us attending this school are in the same boat.”
“That… may be so, perhaps.”
Hana thought about Hatsuyama and nodded vaguely.
All the students attending Hekihou Academy, both the high school and middle school sections, were former patients of the Chaos Child Syndrome. There were more than a few who were still hospitalized, or who cannot return to school yet because of the aftereffects on their mental health due to the syndrome. But, those attending school currently like Hana and the rest were the ones who prevailed over the syndrome and started moving forward in life. All of them faced prejudice or misunderstandings with regards to the syndrome on a day-to-day basis without exception, and only those in this school can understand each other’s hardship.
“…Hina, you sure have lots of friends.”
“I’d be disappointed if you were to look down on me, the assistant professor of lip service. Let me just get this straight, the saying that friends are not to be made but just come to you naturally is but a mere platitude said by those who count acquaintances as their ‘friends’. Carve this into that large rack of yours. Friends are something you make yourself.”
When Hana tilted her and asked, “Is that so?”, Hinae nodded in reply, “It sure is.”
“Well, but I won’t hand the position of Hana’s best friend to anyone though.”
“…Best friend? Hina is?”
“…Can you not say that in disbelief with such a straight expression?”
Hinae said sulkily and then took out a piece of paper from her bag and passed it to Hana.
“Our club still have some slots.”
It was a club entry form. Hinae served as the president of the Literature club.
“You still haven’t decided, right? I know Senri never mentions it, but it seems like the teachers are pestering her quite intently.”
Hana nodded slightly with a look of apology. The teachers were chasing Senri, the vice-president of the Newspaper club, to get Hana to decide on a new club soon. However, she has never once heard a word from Senri telling her to make a decision quickly. Senri was the one who knew deeper than anybody about that series of incidents which the Newspaper club was wrapped up in. She probably sensed that Hana would not be able to easily decide which other club or committee to join.
In other words, she was being coddled, thought Hana.
Not just by Senri of course, but it was also thanks to that person that she could return to these quiet yet priceless days of going to school and being able to choose a club freely.
“I think it’s even fine for you to join Senri’s student council if you have no interest in any clubs. Of course, the Literary club would also welcome you with wide arms.”
“Does the Literary club even have any club activities?”
Since school reopened, Hinae would come by this room almost everyday, making Hana wonder if they even had any club activities.
“That’s rude. It’s one thing if we’re messing around, but I’ll have you know that I’m devouring books at a pace of two volumes a week currently. Well, it’s a different case when it comes to writing however.”
Hinae took out what seems to be a hardback modern literature novel from her bag. It was indeed different from the one she was reading the other day. She was probably finished with that already.
“For now, why don’t you just go out with her tomorrow? A revolutionary once said this: ‘The wise are the best encyclopedias.’ I don’t know what kind of person this Hatsuyama girl is, but it’s possible that the experience of meeting a friend is worth more than what you can gain from a thousand books.”
Hana exclaimed with a stunned look, “Someone from the Literary club is saying that?”
“Was that also from Senri?”
“No, it was Che Guevara. Wait, or was it Napoleon? Well who cares, it was probably some revolutionary from some country.”
When Hana went to search up the quote for some reason after she got home, she found that it was by Goethe in fact. She then sent a message to Hinae saying, ‘Isn’t that quote from Goethe actually? He’s not even a revolutionary.’ Which sparked Hinae to call her back within the minute shouting, ‘G-Goethe is also a revolutionary of sorts, okay! Though all I know about him is Werther. Gracias!’, whereupon she just cut the call.
She was definitely correct in that the kind of feelings evoked by such a boisterous friend could never be found in any books, thought Hana.
The next day, when Hana told Hatsuyama that she can go to the manga café, she was overjoyed.
After school ended, they returned home to change their clothes before meeting in front of Ebisu station and heading to the manga café together. On their journey there, Hatsuyama began chatting with Hana about ESO2 with quite the fervor.
She hadn’t been playing for very long, a measly three months. Apparently, she had just started playing after she was released from rehabilitation at the hospital. Hana mostly replied with interjections, but had fun discussing about the dungeons and the effectiveness of different skills in the game. They were all things she had contemplated about when she first started out in ESO2.
The manga café was just a few steps away from the station, but Hana had never been there before. As they needed her student card for registration as a member, Hana did not think much of it as she handed her card to the staff who made a copy of it and glimpsed at her face for a moment. Surprisingly, it was also Hatsuyama’s first time there and she also showed her student card to register.
The room had two flat booths covered by mats. It was designed such that the buddies or couple could converse easily, but was spacious enough even though it may be slightly claustrophobic when the doors are closed tight due to their soundproofing.
“…You’re pretty amazing.”
Hatsuyama said so to Hana who switched on her PC after checking the specs of the two computers.
“No… erm, it’s with that shop assistant just now. Doesn’t it bother you?”
Oh, nodded Hana in understanding. It was a common occurrence for her to receive curious gazes from strangers due to her being a student from Hekihou Academy. It was something she had long been sick of since her time in the hospital for rehabilitation. The mass media had found out from who-knows-where that Hana belonged to the Newspaper club which Takuru headed, and slipped through the cracks in the security at the hospital to drown her with questions.
“I… can’t really get used to it. Or rather, I do feel really bothered by it.”
“…Is that why you wanted to change clothes?”
They could have come earlier if they headed here right after school, but Hatsuyama was the one who suggested they went home to change clothes first.
She nodded in slight shame and spoke.
“Right, because I thought we would be too conspicuous wearing the uniform from Hekihou. But, now that I think about it, it makes no difference since we needed to register with our student cards anyway.”
The specs of the computers were sufficiently powerful enough to play online games. When she saw the screens displaying the login page of ESO2, Hana felt a strange dissonance.
It was a first for her to be playing the same MMORPG with someone right next to her. And when she thought about it, Hatsuyama was the first gamer she had met in reality outside of the game.
Feeling perturbed by the silence which she was supposed to be used to, Hana started speaking first.
“…R-right, from where did you hear that I play ESO2?”
Her voice was shaking. Why was she getting nervous now, she wondered.
“Ah, I’m sorry. There was one time in the corridor when I overheard the student council president talking to you.”
“Ah, oh… We might have talked about that, maybe.”
The student council president referred to Senri. Hana has already lost count of the times Senri told her something along the lines of, ‘don’t just play games all the time.’
“Err… how far along the main quest are you at, Hatsuyama?”
“I’m around the Great Verdant Labyrinth.”
In terms of the overarching storyline, it was a quest between the middle stages to the final stage. Hana already cleared it some time ago such that even her other four sub-characters had done so.
When she told her that, Hatsuyama fretted for a while before saying.
“Erm, in that case… If it’s alright with you, do you mind starting a new character together with me?”
“We can each create a new character, starting from level 1.”
“…I-I guess so. That’s for the best, balance-wise, maybe.”
Despite not actually thinking about balance, Hana replied stiffly, to which Hatsuyama smiled merrily.
After creating the new character, it unexpectedly felt like a brand-new experience for Hana to start from scratch. Even with the same old map and enemies which she was used to, much less tired of, this was the first time she had progressed with the same two-member party. Hatsuyama’s player control skill was not bad in the eyes of a heavy-player like Hana, and it was also interesting how they were able to coordinate more smoothly by talking to each other directly instead of using the in-game chat which she had relied on thus far.
As they were playing, Hatsuyama asked all sorts of things about Hana, from ESO2 to other games and even her glasses. Even Hana, who felt anxious at the start, could feel herself relaxing as she entertained her questions.
It felt like she was reliving the past. When she could still speak normally, she had this kind of everyday humdrum with her school friends just like anyone else. She felt the same kind of distance with Hatsuyama as those friends of the past, different from that of Hinae or Senri who were in the know about the cases, including why she stopped speaking. So this was what it felt like, she thought to herself dissociatively, and felt nostalgic as she smiled to herself bitterly.
“Kazuki, what club were you in during your middle school days?”
That was a curveball to her.
Hana was tongue-tied. Without letting her unrest show, she answered.
“…The Kendo club, maybe.”
“Ah, no. …I mean, yes, the Kendo club. Though I quit after less than one year.”
“I didn’t expect that,” said Hatsuyama, whose words only echoed in Hana’s mind meaninglessly. Hana tried her best to concentrate on the screen.
She was reminded of her friend from the Kendo club during middle school. They were as close as sisters. After getting to know each other at the Kendo club, they became inseparable even when their class differed.
However, that friend and her family were ruined. Her father commited suicide, her mother dabbled in drugs, and her sister went missing, causing her friend’s mind to break down. And the cause for all that was the inexplicable power that Hana’s voice held. Even before then, Hana had already indistinctly sensed that mysterious power of her voice, but she merely chalked it off as a coincidence and stifled her premonitions.
As penance for her naïveté, Hana sealed her mouth. She quit the club and literally accepted losing the friends around her without saying a word.
“Just, what should I do…?”
The last time they met, her friend asked this of Hana. She was completely expressionless, her eyes dried and tearless. But, that in itself was infinitely more painful to Hana than hearing her scream and sob. Hana did not reply her.
It was not because of her decision to stop speaking. She would not have minded breaking the rule she created for herself if she had any words of apology or encouragement to offer. But, she couldn’t open her mouth. It was because she had neither the courage, nor the words to speak.
Hana did nothing for her friend.
Hatsuyama was staring at her since her fingers had stopped. Hana hurriedly moved the mouse to gloss over her inattention.
“…What about you, Hatsuyama. What club were you in?”
“Mine’s the Tennis club. And I’m still in it now. …Though I’ve become a ghost member since school reopened.”
Hana was surprised and looked at Hatsuyama again. She thought she looked more like an indoors type.
That must have shown on her face, as Hatsuyama showed a wry smile.
“There’s actually quite a number of people in the sports clubs who are ghost members like me, you know. Our advisor keeps on saying that it’s precisely because of now that we need to exercise more than in the past, but… for us to be like we were in the past is a bit…”
Hana nodded. Any student from Hekihou Academy would be able to relate to that feeling even without it being spoken out loud.
Hana manipulated the mouse adroitly in a change of gears, blowing up the enemy mobs in a flashy way.
“…Everyone is struggling in their own ways.”
She was not the only one suffering. Seated right next to her was, to borrow Hinae’s words, someone in the same boat.
That day, the two of them spent what was supposed to be prime time for a high schooler, from after school all the way till 10pm, at the manga café. When they were leaving, Hana took Hatsuyama’s portion of the fees and paid for her as it looked like she did not want to speak to the shop assistant.
Before they went their own ways, the words spilled from Hana automatically.
“There’s no need to use polite language between us, maybe. …Since we’re in the same grade and all.”
Hatsuyama was stunned for a moment, but immediately smiled back.
“Then, you can just call me Mizuki.”
“My name. Hatsuyama Mizuki.”
Hana nodded and replied, “Hana is fine too.” and Hatsuyama beamed back in lieu of an answer.
Enroute back home, Hana realized that they had not used the item which increased the drop rate for rare items that they had received as a bonus.
Oh well, thought Hana as she hastened her pace with some excitement in her footsteps.
On that day, lunchtime in the room was quiet unlike the usual.
Hana and Hinae were eating their bread and onigiri which they bought from the school store, while Senri was eating a bento she prepared herself. Since school reopened, it had become second nature for the three of them to eat lunch together here in the room of the former Newspaper club.
Hinae was the one behaving oddly. She was not chattering non-stop as she usually did, nor did she try to steal one of Senri’s side dishes, but caught glimpses at Hana from time to time.
Since she wouldn’t say anything even after a while, Hana was the one to give in first and asked.
“…What is it?”
“Hm? Nothing much?”
At her feigned ignorance, the room turned silent once more. Hana had a look of doubt, but Hinae only took out one of her paperbacks to read after she was done with lunch without minding her.
Watching the two of them, Senri smiled wryly.
“She’s just feeling jealous.”
“T-that’s not true at all.”
Hinae placed her book down with more force than usual, causing Senri’s mischievous smile to deepen.
“Didn’t you mention you went to visit Hatsuyama’s house yesterday?”
“When she heard that, Arimura became strangely quiet.”
“How can you blame me.”
Hinae jumped out of her seat and clung onto Senri.
“It was just one week, one week ago when Hana started talking to Hatsuyama. And now, she even went to visit her abode, even though she hasn’t even been to mine!”
“…Aren’t you the one who said you don’t want us visiting because you don’t get along well with your family?”
“We’re getting along much better now.”
“Then, you can just invite us, right?”
“We’re not that close yet.”
“Which is it,” asked Senri exasperatedly as she hugged her back and stroked the back of her head. She then looked at Hana and told her, “You don’t have to mind her.”
“Yes. I’m not really minding her really…”
Hinae even began to shed fake tears as she held onto Senri even tighter. Hana’s expression softened as she saw that they were acting the same as always with Senri shrugging her off with a, “There there.”
Ever since that time at the manga café, it became frequent for Hana and Hatsuyama to hang out after school. As they obviously did not have the money to visit the manga café each time, they only went there once more since, and often visit fast food restaurants instead where they’d game together on their handheld devices, or purely for a tea break. Yesterday, at Hatsuyama’s suggestion, Hana had visited her house just to chat.
“So, what kind of person is Hatsuyama really?”
Senri tore away Hinae who was still clutching to her sobbing and asked Hana.
“Mm… She’s a strange one, maybe.”
“What do you mean?”
When Senri looked at her puzzledly, Hana wavered over what to say.
When they first spent time at the manga café, Hana thought that Hatsuyama was simply a gamer. But, over this past week of hanging out, her inital impression of her changed. To Hana, a gamer was one who loves playing games above all, not someone who only has gaming as one of their favorite hobbies. As they conversed, she found out that Hatsuyama has many interests besides gaming. Apparently, she was pretty into tennis before becoming a ghost member, and also read a good many books.
Somehow, she just felt very inconsistent. She was particular enough to use polite language with Hana who was the same age, and yet familiar enough to invite someone she met for the first time to a manga café. Also, the trigger for their getting to know each other was games, but she was not hung up about that at all. Hana did not know if it was too hasty to invite someone you had just got to know a week ago to your room, but at least felt that it was being rather assertive from her point of view. Yet, she was also more mindful than most about the looks from the public directed towards students from Hekihou.
“Well… in many ways. But, she’s fun to be around.”
That was the truth. Part of it was due to nostalgia at having a normal conversation with a normal friend, but she did enjoy chatting with Hatsuyama.
“Also, she didn’t say anything bad about Takuru.”
Senri opened her eyes wide in surprise.
“I must say… that’s a pretty rare one, isn’t it.”
Even Hinae stopped her pretending and said so, impressed. Hana nodded.
Amongst the students of Hekihou, or rather the former patients of the Chaos Child Syndrome, almost none thought well of Takuru. In actuality, a large proportion of them held animosity towards him. That was due to the fact that Takuru, the perpetrator of the series of incidents, was a former patient of the syndrome himself, which contributed to the prejudice faced by other sufferers. Baseless rumors such as former patients of the syndrome having violent tendencies, or that they may go berserk once their anger snapped were frequent topics in serialized magazines and on the internet, where they would invite overblown controversialists as guests to discuss such topics.
But, Hana had never once heard Hatsuyama say anything that censured Takuru despite her being so sensitive to the bias she faced as a victim of the syndrome.
The chime signalling the end of lunch break sounded. The three of them cleaned up after themselves and stood up.
“In that case… there’s no helping it, huh. I have no choice but to approve of your acquaintanceship however reluctant I am. I was planning for us to go window-shopping and café-hopping this weekend, but I guess you can play around Hatsuyama or whatever freely.”
“Mm, we’re going to the manga café.”
“Eh, seriously? She already invited you?”
Hinae widened her eyes in surprise. Then, she ran out of the room leaving the words, “So, you were just aiming for my body all along, damn it!”
Feeling slightly troubled, Hana looked to Senri for help. She grinned back and told her it’ll be alright.
“You don’t have to mind. I saw her smiling when she closed the door. Well, I might feel a bit lonelier too.”
It was a habit for the three of them to gather in this room after school and chat. During this week when Hana went to play with Hatsuyama, the three of them did not see each other as much.
“Kazuki, don’t get the wrong idea.”
All of a sudden, Senri’s expression turned stern.
“Don’t apologize. You are not doing anything wrong. Be sure to cherish your friends.”
When Hana nodded, Senri returned a smile at her.
I have to quickly decide on a new club, Hana thought to herself.
Hatsuyama had returned to their room in the manga café in a fluster right after they made plans to shift to Hatsuyama’s room following one last dungeon run.
Hatsuyama, who had gone to the drink bar to refill her drink, had a terribly panicked expression on her face. She had probably spilled her drink, as there was a large orange stain on her light-pink blouse.
“…They took it.”
She mumbled, placed her drink on the table and sat down with her back facing the wall furthest from the door. Then, she stared at the door intently without moving.
“…They took a photo?”
When Hana asked, Hatsuyama nodded. “…had a smartphone. A female customer. Looked over here,” she continued with a trembling voice. Hana tried to leave the room to check, but her hand was grabbed.
“But,” Hana tried to say when Hatsuyama cut her off, “Please.” Subsequently, Hana nestled up next to her.
They could not hear anything outside due to the soundproof walls. Even so, the two of them placed their ears to the wall and focused.
After a while, Hatsuyama said, “Sorry.” When Hana replied, “No worries,” Hatsuyama smiled back without even trying to hide her fear.
“…Hana sure is strong.”
“That’s not true.”
It’s just that she was used to it. Hana closed the distance between them and leaned in close towards her such that their arms were touching. Hatsuyama smiled faintly and leaned back.
“As expected of a member of the club ran by Miyashiro.”
“Eh?”, Hana looked at Hatsuyama in surprise. She smiled back looking slightly embarrassed.
“Actually, I’m a fan of Miyashiro. After all, isn’t it amazing that he caused such an incident?”
Hana was speechless.
“Say, you want to come over to my house right away? I have so many things I want to ask about.”
At Hatsuyama’s excited voice, Hana neither nodded nor replied. However, she seemed to take that as assent.
When they were footing the bill, Hatsuyama hid behind Hana.
After leaving the shop, they walked towards the station. Hatsuyama talked nonstop to Hana who did not reply.
“I’m sorry to say this, but I hadn’t even heard of the Newspaper club before finding out about our illness. But then, Miyashiro was captured, everyone went into a coma, and then we found out about our sickness.”
An announcement was made over the platform. Hana pricked her ears at that in order to block out Hatsuyama’s words, but they still went right into her head.
Hatsuyama didn’t stop even after they boarded the train.
“When I saw my own face, I was so shocked I couldn’t move. You often see something like this in movies, right? People who keep questioning if they were living in a dream. I always thought they appeared to be so fake, but at that time I truly wondered if I was dreaming. I had absolutely no idea what was going on then. I even remember always cursing, ‘Die, die, die.’ I seriously thought that everyone should all go and die, be it those pretty nurses who kept telling us we’ll be fine during the rehabilitation, or all those people who just left us be. I’m sure they’re laughing behind our backs anyway.”
Hatsuyama was fervent. She spoke rapidly and was seemingly excited at something.
“So, I went to investigate more about our illness. I was curious, why did this happen to us only. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a thing. All there was were some contrived theories or random gossip. However, I did manage to dig up a lot about the cases. This is just my personal theory, but I thought, wasn’t Miyashiro the only one who realized his own illness?”
The train reached Shibuya and they pushed their way out of the station.
They came to a stop before the traffic lights of the scramble crossing before Shibuya station. Throngs of people surrounded them. Up till now, whenever they were outside of school and there were other people around, she would not mention a word about the syndrome. However, that was not the case now.
“I noticed, aren’t the victims all patients of the syndrome? Not to mention the ostentatious manner in which they were killed. Wasn’t that sort of like a warning by Miyashiro? Telling the patients of the syndrome to wake up and open their eyes? If not for that, why bother making them so eye-catching? Perhaps, he thought that the dead bodies would appear in their natural state to the eyes of the patients? Hana, did you hear anything about that from Miyashiro before he was apprehended?”
When the traffic lights changed and they started moving, Hana caught a glimpse of some familiar figures.
It was Hinae. Senri, Uki and Yuuto were with her too. The four of them were talking happily at a distance of a five-second dash away. They were all smiling. She recalled Hinae mentioning that she originally planned to take Hana around the clothes shops and cafés. She must have invited the gang from Aoba dorm instead.
The group was still talking amongst themselves; they hadn’t noticed Hana.
“He even killed a girl living in the same facility as him. Isn’t that incredible? Well, strictly speaking, the killer was Itou who was instigated by Miyashiro though. Ah, in fact, I’m also a fan of Itou. Hey, do you think Itou also noticed his true visage? In that case, wouldn’t that mean the two of them were trying to awaken the patients of the syndrome?”
Hana interrupted her after they crossed the pedestrian crossing.
She was at her limit.
“…I need to go, maybe. I can’t go over to your house.”
Hana started running without waiting for an answer. She ignored whatever Hatsuyama seemed to be saying. Her voice soon gave way to the hustle and bustle and couldn’t be heard anymore.
When she retraced her steps back the pedestrian crossing, Hana realized that she was chasing after Hinae and the rest. Her legs came to a stop as if she had been shot.
She could no longer see them. The four of them, companions who had experienced everything about the cases together, were chatting as they walked.
Meanwhile, who was it who was by her side, wondered Hana.
A feeling mashed up from guilt and anger rose up within her, making her tremble. She felt like crying for some reason and started running again to escape from this place.
Not towards the direction of Hinae and gang, nor towards Hatsuyama. She just wanted to disappear into the crowd.
After school. Hana and the rest were in the same room as usual when there was a knock on the door along with a voice.
“Erm, excuse me.”
Hana got up from her seat instantly and hid her body in the shadow of the shelves.
Hinae sighed as she saw that and headed to the door.
Hatsuyama stood there when she opened the door. She looked at Hinae with some hesitancy.
“Erm, my name is Hatsuyama. Is… Is Hana in?”
“Ah, it seems like she has gone home already.”
“Oh, I see…”
Hatsuyama paused for a moment before saying, “Then, can you pass a message to her when you see her again that I came by,” and left.
Hinae closed the door and waited until her footsteps could no longer be heard before she turned back with a slightly exasperated look.
“…You heard her, Hana.”
Hana tottered out from the back of the shelves. She sat down on a chair and slammed her head onto the table.
“You can’t keep this up forever, you know.”
Senri said so with a concerned tone as she looked up from the documents she was going through, to which Hana groaned in response. She never imagined that Hatsuyama would even come here to find her.
In these few days since Hana one-sidedly ended their meeting, she had been completely voiding Hatsuyama. She did not reply to her messages on Rine nor to her emails and also ignored her calls. She would avoid meeting her during breaks by hiding in the toilet or in this room, and even when she was waiting for her by the main gates in the morning, Hana would use the back gates or even enter late.
“Why don’t you just spit it out already? You’re making Mommy sad like this. Why do you keep running away from her?”
Hinae hounded her from an answer, but she only shook her head without raising her face.
“…Did she steal from your katsudon? Or was it your dried squid?”
“Come on, don’t make fun of her like this.”
“But, she just won’t say.”
How could she tell them, thought Hana. She was ashamed of herself for having thought that being together with her was enjoyable. And more than that, she did not want Hinae and the others to be hurt any further. They would surely be distraught to learn the reason behind why Hatsuyama did not speak badly about Takuru.
“Isn’t it amazing that he caused such an incident?”
Hatsuyama’s words were like the unpleasant buzzing of a fly that wouldn’t leave her mind.
She was already used to the populace treating Takuru as a cold-blooded murderer from just the information announced publicly. Conversely, she was also sick of the people proclaiming that he was the descent of a serial-killing God. She wasn’t swayed by either side, because she and her friends knew the truth about the incident. No matter what other people say, all she would feel was that they were fools or that they had too much free time.
But the fact that those words came from Hatsuyama who was a fellow victim of the syndrome made Hana’s feelings complicated. All the more so with that twisted image she held of Takuru. She’d rather it had come from someone online who just said so thoughtlessly out of fun behind the veil of anonymity. If so, she could just cluster those comments together and sweep them into the trash.
“Wasn’t that sort of like a warning by Miyashiro? Telling the patients of the syndrome to wake up and open their eyes?”
She wanted to shout, “That’s wrong!”, but she also couldn’t tell her the truth.
At that time, Hatsuyama had gotten so worked up. Ah, I see, Hana realized it now.
Hatsuyama had most likely approached her with the intention of finding out more about Takuru. It may also have been why she started playing ESO2. As she thought, Hatsuyama wasn’t actually a gamer. Hana finally understood the reason behind her inconsistent nature.
“Kazuki. Is it because of what I said?”
Senri’s words made her look up. “What do you mean?” She knotted her eyebrows.
“Because I told you to cherish your friends. But, you need not force yourself to, alright?”
“Ah, no… It’s not that. It’s just…”
Kazuki shook her head vehemently. But, she couldn’t continue.
“What is it?”
As she looked at Senri still waiting for an answer, Hana wondered what she should do. Like Senri mentioned, she could not keep this up forever. Hatsuyama definitely wanted to hear about the case, but Hana could not tell her the truth. Even if she were to make up a plausible lie, what would she do after that?
Hana couldn’t bear hearing others say that about Takuru up close and just let it go. But, there was nothing she could do about that no matter how much time passes.
“Erm… how did you guys explain it. That is… to your friends in school?”
When school reopened, Senri resumed serving as the student council president and had to interact with many different people, while Hinae simply had a lot of friends.
“Explain? With regards to what?” Hinae asked.
“Mm… about the case. And, about Takuru.”
The two of them stared at each other for a while before looking back at Hana.
“There’s nothing to explain. I was just pissed off at them.”
“…I wouldn’t go so far as to say pissed off.”
Senri smiled bitterly at Hinae’s straightness.
“Since we can’t speak about the truth, there’s nothing we can do, is there?”
Hana thought for sure that the two of them would just accepted what others said about Takuru while still associating with them.
“I was wondering what it was all about, so it was about Miyashiro after all. What, did someone say something that infuriated you?”
After Hana reflected upon Hinae’s question, she surprisingly found herself feeling the same as her and nodded.
She may have been feeling infuriated. Of course, towards Hatsuyama for thinking that way, but also at the situation which prevented her from announcing the truth out loud, and at herself who just listened and could not say anything back.
It was so mortifying, she thought.
Hana started spending her time with Hinae and the others again.
She would show up at the room after school and the three of them would chat as they did their own stuff. Senri would leave to settle some student council work, and they would wait for her to return before going home together. On the weekend, she went out with Hinae as per her prior plan to window-shop for clothes and visit cafés. They passed by Aoba dorm on the way back where they stayed for dinner.
Neither Hinae nor Senri asked about Hatsuyama. They seemed to be just waiting for Hana to speak out, but she couldn’t say it. Even so, they accepted her back like they always did.
After a while, Hatsuyama also stopped coming to look for Hana. When a few days passed without her waiting at the gates, Hana tried staying in her classroom during breaks and Hatsuyama did not come to find her. Hana did not pay particular attention, but she did not walk by her in the corridor either.
She felt slightly appalled at herself for feeling relieved, but at the same time felt a lingering sense of regret.
Hana resumed spending her breaks playing games on her handheld device. No one came to speak to her. It seemed that none of her classmates even realized that she had been gone from the classroom these past few days. She spent her days the same way as always. That’s just how it goes I guess, she thought.
That day after school, Hana and the others were in the usual room discussing which movie to watch the next day which was a public holiday.
Hana wanted to watch an action movie, while Hinae preferred a more muted one and pushed for some German social film depicting some slightly introspective topics. If pressed to pick one, Senri would rather choose the more straightforward Hollywood movie, but her priority as usual was the movie which had a showing early in the morning. The movie theater they frequented had discounted prices for early morning showings.
Their discussion was getting heated up when Hinae shouted, “Senri and Hana just don’t get cinema!”, to which Senri tried to peddle for a child-oriented animation movie with an early morning showing which incorporates the action Hana seeks as well as a plot capable of satisfying Hinae. In the midst of her fervent persuasion, a knock came from the door.
Hana was already half up her seat when she realized it wasn’t Hatsuyama.
She looked at Hinae and Senri in turn, but they had no clue who it could be either. Accordingly, she went to open the door.
“Ah, are you… Kazuki?”
It was a female student. She was wearing the school jersey and had a healthy tan on her skin.
When Kazuki replied, “That’s right,” the female student peeked past her into the room and saw that Hinae and Senri were also in the room. Then, she said, “Sorry, can we talk privately,” and pulled Hana out of the room.
“Oh, pardon me, I’m Mizu’s friend from the Tennis club. Ah, I’m referring to Mizuki. You know her, right?”
Hana nodded with a start.
“Has Mizu contacted you lately?”
Not even a single call or message which had been incessant up till recently.
“…I see. As I thought. Hey, Mizu has been hanging out with you lately, right?”
“Did you notice anything weird about her in that time?”
“…Not in particular.”
Hana thought for a moment before she answered. She had not spent such a long time with Hatsuyama that she could tell for sure that she was behaving strangely. But, there wasn’t anything notably amiss from what she saw.
“Did something happen?”
“…She hasn’t been coming to school for a while. Also, she’s not picking up my calls.”
Her face twisted in worry as she replied.
“Eh… since when?”
“Since a week back.”
That was right around the period when Hatsuyama stopped appearing before Hana. She was taken aback.
“Do you know anything about it?”
She pressed Hana upon seeing her reaction, but Hana wasn’t sure if she could explain it properly. She didn’t even know if the reason behind her disappearance was related to her.
“…No, it’s just so unexpected.”
It can’t be, Hana told herself as she exhaled deeply to calm herself down. If it was because of what happened at the manga café, she would have skipped school right after that. But, Hatsuyama still went to school after that where she waited for Hana at the gates and even came to this room to find her. It was true that she avoided her, but surely that couldn’t be the reason for her to stop coming to school.
The female student seemed to be waiting for Hana to say something, but when Hana remained silent, she eventually pulled out her phone.
“Do you mind if we exchanged numbers? Please let me know if Mizu contacts you.”
Hana nodded and they exchanged contacts. She was also a first-year student and was in a different class for Hatsuyama. She had gotten to know her purely through the club, “Though she pretty much stopped coming after school reopened,” she added with a resigned smile.
“I’ll also give you a call if I can contact her.”
When she said that as she left, Hana was taken aback. At that, the female student looked surprised.
“Aren’t you worried too?”
Hana was speechless. Still unsure of her feelings, she barely eked out a vague, “…Mm,” neither affirming nor denying.
When she returned to the room, Hinae and Senri looked at her, concerned.
“It’s nothing,” she said, to which Senri turned serious and retorted, “It sure does not look like it’s nothing to you though.” Hana merely repeated, “It’s nothing.” She did not want to worry them needlessly.
Even so, the two of them continued staring at Hana for a while, but she wouldn’t meet their eyes. Finally giving up, Hinae clapped her hands and said.
“…Fine. But, be sure to tell us whenever you feel like it.”
Hana nodded apologetically. Senri still wasn’t satisfied, but eventually gave up as well and sighed.
“We’ve made up our minds over here. The German film it shall be,” Hinae declared.
“Wait a minute, I still haven’t consent to that.”
“You leave me no choice but to play my last card. Truthfully, I wanted to save this for some expensive 3D movie, but we’ll use this discount coupon that’ll make it the same price as the morning showings.”
“Let’s watch the German film then. It’ll be strange for three high-schoolers to be watching a child-oriented anime.”
“…Senri, I know that you’re the backbone of the family, but could you at least pretend to be less obvious with the way you prioritize things.”
Sitting next to them, Hana felt adrift from their conversation.
“Aren’t you worried too?”
That sentence wouldn’t leave her mind.
When she returned home, Hana looked up the contact on her phone for Hatsuyama. She stared at it for a long time, but obviously nothing happened. In the end, she did not dial the number.
The lobby of the cinema was packed at just past noon on the public holiday.
The mini-theater, which boasted of a wide range of indie movies, was located right next to the hotel street of Dougenzaka.
Hana and the rest arrived here 30 minutes before the screening as Hinae was the type who liked to read through the pamphlet closely before watching the show. Leaning on the wall next to Hinae who was engrossed in reading, Hana gazed at the passers-by in a daze.
“Are you all right?”
Hana nodded towards Senri’s question. She knew that she was making Senri worry over her, but couldn’t help it. She couldn’t make of the hazy feelings in her heart or what to do with them.
Ten minutes before the start of the screening and when they were allowed to enter, Hana’s phone rang.
The display showed the name of the girl who she just exchanged numbers with yesterday.
“Hello, is this Kazuki? There’s something I want to ask you.”
“Eh… it’s a bit inconvenient for me now.”
“Did you go to a manga café with Mizu before?”
Ignoring what Hana said, the female student spoke over her. Sensing the haste in her tone, Hana replied, “Yes, we have gone before.”
“I’m not quite sure, but a picture from then seems to have been uploaded on Twipo.”
“I don’t know why, but it’s spreading around rapidly.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like I said, I also don’t know,” she repeated. Her voice fluctuated between soft and loud. It appears that she was doing something on her phone.
“…There’s also a part of you which appears on the image. Is that a photo of your student card?”
Hana was shocked. Hinae and Senri looked towards her in puzzlement, sensing that something was wrong.
A picture of them was posted onto a SNS. She recalled the look of fear on Hatsuyama’s face when she said, ‘They took it,’ at the manga café.
“This is definitely why Mizu is not coming to school. Have you heard about her situation, Kazuki?”
“This isn’t the first time this happened to Mizu. Her picture’s been taken before, one time during rehab. Hey, what do we do?”
What do we do? Hana brooded. She could not speak.
“She’s not picking up my calls. I’ll try one more time. You try calling her too.”
She hastily ended the call without even waiting for a response. The clatter of the crowd entering the theater entered Hana’s ears once more.
When Senri came up next to her, Hana showed her the Twipo app on her smartphone. When she had searched for Chao Child Syndrome on the app, Hatsuyama’s picture showed up.
“…What is this.”
Hinae growled in a low voice.
An image that was edited in the style of a 4-koma comic had been uploaded. The topmost panel showed who appeared to be Hatsuyama when she was still in elementary school. She had a youthful, smiling face. The next depicted her in a hospital gown undergoing rehabilitation. As her hair was short here and she wasn’t wearing her spectacles, it was hard to tell that it was her at one glance. It must have been from early on during rehabilitation as she was leaning on a crutch and her arms and face showed the aging phenomenon due to the syndrome. Following that panel was a picture of her student card. When school reopened, all students were required to retake a photograph for their student cards. It had only been three months ago, but it clearly showed her being much more emaciated than now. At the edge of the picture was Hana’s student card.
At the bottommost panel was a picture of Hatsuyama holding a cup. It was from when they were at the manga café. The cup held orange juice. Hana recalled the orange stain on her light-pink blouse stained by it.
The image had a title of ‘The transition of that sickness’, and had quite a large number of views and shares. The post had also been tagged with the contemptible tags of ‘What a change’ and ‘So gross’ that made Hana feel disgusted.
“Mizuki hasn’t been coming to school lately. This is probably the reason why.”
“…Why didn’t you say something earlier.”
Senri’s words had a slight tone of censure to them. And her expression as she gazed towards the smartphone was undoubtedly furious.
Hana could not answer her. She held her phone with trembling fingers.
“What are you going to do?”
She did not know and hung her head down.
She remained like this for some time. Then, Senri placed her hands on her cheeks all of a sudden and said, “Kazuki. Look at me,” and forced her head up.
“Since this is your problem, you decide what to do. You can go on and watch the movie just like this, or if you’re not feeling up to it and want to go home, that’s fine too. You don’t have to tell us about the situation if that’s what you want. But, I just want one thing from you. I want you to tell us clearly what you are going to do now, because I will not be able to calm down otherwise.”
There was a wide smile on Senri’s face. However, the hands holding up her cheeks were like an infrangible vice. “There it is… The Empress…” Hinae mumbled as she backed away in fear. Hana wanted to retreat too, but her face wouldn’t budge. Those hands were biting into her cheek bones. She knew that Senri was most fearsome when she had this expression and that her temper was surprisingly short at these times.
Hana somehow managed to nod, and Senri released her hands.
“I want to know… How is it that you can accept Ms. Komori?”
When Hana asked that, Senri’s expression changed. Her brows knotted, as though to say she did not understand the question.
“Uki and Yuuto too. How come?”
Hana already met with Komori, the new caretaker at Aoba dorm, several times before. She also heard from Senri together with Hinae that she was a personnel from the police force and that she was a nice person. She understood that Komori held a license as a caretaker and was someone legally required to be at Aoba dorm.
However, Hana was surprised at Senri’s decision, knowing her as someone who treasured her family above all. She knew it was a situation that they had to accept no matter what. But, somewhere inside, Hana always thought that that home was a place only for people who knew the truth to gather and live in.
“…Is Takuru fine with that?”
That seat which Senri and the others at Aoba dorm were vacillating about, much less Hana and Hinae, was now Komori’s. She heard that it was Uki’s idea. That was how it should be. Rationale and emotion-wise, she could understand it.
But, even still.
She clearly picked up the hesitation in Senri’s low murmur. Hana stared back at her for an answer.
“Isn’t it obvious that it’s totally fine. Let me quote you what a great person once said.”
Hinae was the one who answered that in her usual laid-back tone.
“ ‘It is precisely because something is precious, that we must let go of it. Lest we hold on to it so tightly that we destroy it by our own hands.’ Just who do you think we are? Don’t you dare look down on the experiences that we have gone through together.”
Hana was stupefied, while Senri smiled faintly in contrast.
“…I owe the matter with Ms. Komori solely to Uki. That, and Ms. Komori herself too. She was the one who tore down her own walls. I couldn’t do anything because I was weak.”
“If you call that being weak, then nobody’s strong…”
When Hinae unconsciously muttered that, Senri turned her smile at her, causing her to cower and take a few steps back.
“You are a strong girl too, aren’t you? I don’t know what kind of person Hatsuyama is, nor what happened between you girls, but at least when it comes to the syndrome, you are more informed than her in that regard. Really, I have no right to say this, but if you want to clear up the misunderstandings, what you need to do is…”
Senri said so ashamedly, to which Hana nodded. She knew even without her saying it out loud.
Hana took out her smartphone and looked at the prior image.
Absurd. That’s the only way to describe it. Truly, how absurd.
“What is it?”
“Whose words were those just now?”
Hinae puffed up her chest proudly.
“Heh,” uttered Hana unwittingly. Looks like the Literature club is not to be sneered at either, she thought.
“Sorry, there’s something I need to do, so please excuse me.”
“Eh, right now?”
Hinae pointed at the theater in surprise. It was right before the film was due to start. They were the only ones left at the lobby.
“It is precisely because something is precious, that we must let go of it, isn’t that right?”
Hana said so, to which Hinae flapped her hands around in confusion.
“Th-that and this are different! Also, we’ve already paid. To tell you the truth, I’ve been looking forward to this girl’s outing so much since it’s been so long since the three of us have watched a movie together. And what about our subsequent plans, I’ve already plotted out the perfect itinerary though!”
“You are not wrong, so go on, Kazuki.”
The buzzer signalling the start of the movie sounded just as Hana started to run. “Traitor!”, shouted Hinae before Senri gagged her mouth.
Now, where shall I start from, thought Hana as she swiped down the image on her phone, a smile forming on her lips in excitement.
It was already 8.30pm by the time Hana reached Hatsuyama’s house.
Her visit was an unexpected one since she did not phone beforehand, but Hatusyama’s mother let her in readily despite the late hour. She must have remembered Hana from her previous visit.
Her mother confirmed that she had shut herself off in her room. It would seem that the cause was the image uploaded on the internet after all. The look on her mother’s face was haggard as she said, “When I think about how she must have felt, I couldn’t bring myself to force her out…” Hana told her, “I’ll talk to her,” and she bowed her head deeply.
“Mizuki, I’m coming in.”
Hana opened the door without waiting for a reply. It wasn’t locked. Apparently, her parents had promised her that they would not force her to go to school or come out of her room in return for her not locking the door.
Hatsuyama was hunched over on her bed as she stared blankly.
Hana was shocked upon seeing her. Her previous chest-long hair was only shoulder-length now and she wasn’t wearing spectacles.
But, she still looked familiar somehow. Hana soon recalled where she saw this appearance. It was the same as that in the image. Hatsuyama’s current look was completely the same as when she was still undergoing rehabilitation, excluding the aged complexion.
She repeated again, this time just a bit sharper.
“I heard about the image.”
Hana then brought out the name of her friend from the Tennis club, at which she uttered, “…I see,” and sank her head into her knees.
“Sorry for not picking up your calls.”
“…No. I was the one avoiding you.”
“…So it was like that. Just as I thought.”
Hatsuyama said so, not sounding very surprised.
“So it was a wig. Are the glasses also for show only?”
Without lifting her face, Hatsuyama moved her head ever so slightly to affirm it.
“Is it because of the picture they took of you from that time during rehab?”
“How did you know about that?”
Hatsuyama looked up in astonishment.
“I also heard about that from your friend. That you tried to change your looks.”
“That was… because I hated it.”
“Is that also why you stopped showing up at the Tennis club? I’m sure part of the reason for the other ghost members was that their bodies aren’t as active as before, but the reason for Mizuki was that you definitely didn’t want to get your picture taken again, right? Since the tennis court is outdoors after all.”
Hatsuyama laughed as if she was all figured out and said, “As expected of someone under Miyashiro’s tutelage.”
Hana approached the bed and brought her face close.
“Takuru isn’t the kind of person you are imagining him to be. Those incidents weren’t a warning to the patients or anything. He himself never realized the truth about his own appearance either.”
Hatsuyama bent backwards as though she was daunted. Nonetheless, Hana drew even nearer.
“…I don’t know what Takuru was thinking about or what his intentions were when he caused those incidents, but.”
It hurt her to lie like this. Hana bit her lip and dug her nails into her palms to bear with the pain.
“He truly did not wish for that to happen to Yui… to his sister . It’s the same for Itou. They’re not that kind of people.”
“…That can’t be! We’re talking about those cases, you know, the ones that shook the whole of Japan. That’s right, did you know? It wasn’t just Japan, it was quite a hot topic worldwide too.”
*Thump* Hana slammed the wall.
Hatsuyama’s words were cut off in shock.
“And what do you hope to achieve with that, Mizuki.”
“What are you hoping for in making yourself believe that about Takuru and Itou? Do you want to think that there were people who kept their awareness even with the syndrome? Or is it that you want to believe that you were the first to realize this, and that you are different from the rest of the patients?”
Hana thought back to the time when they were pursuing the case in the Newspaper club. An unpleasant feeling spread through her heart. She endured it and continued.
“Even if you do that, the fact that you are a former patient of the syndrome will not change. Neither will the spread of the image, and the people spreading it won’t stop.”
“…I never thought about it that way.”
Hatsuyama tried to deny it, but her voice was powerless. She averted her eyes and hung her head, her body shivering as though she was out there in the winter night.
“B-but, that’s right, you see. Miyashiro was the very first one to recover from it, isn’t that so? It can’t be a coincidence. He must have known about his appearance in the first place after all.”
*Thump* Hana smashed the wall again, causing Hatsuyama to shrink smaller.
The wall was dented in slightly, and cracks entered the wallpaper.
“Stop using Takuru as your excuse.”
Hatsuyama was petrified. Hana did not mind that as she took out her phone and checked the time. It was just before 9pm. Hana got up from the bed and dragged Hatsuyama over to the inactive computer in the room.
“Hey, that hurts!”
“It’s time. Take a look.”
She accessed Twipo and went to the account which first uploaded the image.
Hatsuyama averted her eyes. The monitor displayed the 4-koma image, and the share counts were higher than when she had seen it at the movie theater in the afternoon.
9pm came by and Hana refreshed the page. There wasn’t any change except that the number of shares had increased. Hatsuyama tried to return to her bed, but Hana gripped her arm tightly and forced her to stay. “What are you doing, just stop it, seriously,” she implored, but Hana ignored her and continued to refresh the page again and again every dozen of seconds.
After around five minutes, the displayed page changed. The words ‘Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!’ were laid out on the screen.
Paying no heed to her confusion, Hana refreshed the page one more time just in case. As expected, the screen still displayed the words ‘Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!’ Hana nodded with a, “…Mm.”
“The scumbag who first posted the image deleted his account to try to escape. Well, I don’t think he has anywhere to run though.”
“That image had pictures of our student cards, right? That was a copy of the picture taken at the manga café.”
In most manga cafés, they required an identification card when someone was registering. This was in order to determine who was using which computer out of the large number of users, in case of damage. That goes the same for the one Hana and Hatsuyama went to.
Hatsuyama seemed to have known that already as she said, “Well, that’s what I suspected as well.”
“It’s against the law to reveal personal information to irrelevant parties. I contacted the organization that protects the rights of the syndrome patients and reported it to them.”
They were a diligent organization. When Hana apologized for calling them on a holiday, they explained that as an organization not concerned with profits, it was more common for them to be active on rest days than not. They mentioned that they should be able to get into contact with the culprit at the manga café who uploaded the image at around 9pm. The origin was one of their employees after all. Hana was wondering if they would delete their account in a panic and they did.
“You mentioned a woman took a picture of you at the manga café, right. It turns out that she was a friend of the employee who spread the image.”
Hatsuyama looked at the monitor in disbelief. Then, she reached out for the mouse herself and refreshed the page multiple times, but the display was still the same.
Hatsuyama had a look of prayer as she typed on the keyboard and searched through Twipo. Sure enough, she found another copy of the edited image, the one depicting her in a 4-koma comic.
“…I thought so.”
She bemoaned. Even if the original account was deleted, the image which had already spread could not be taken down, All it takes is for another person to save the image and reupload it again, and it would remain on the internet forever like a hydra regrowing its head.
“…Mm. That’s why I won’t let them escape this time.”
Hana began to type a different keyword into the search bar of Twipo.
What was displayed was still an image of a 4-koma comic. However, the one depicted in it was not Hatsuyama, but Hana. The format was the same as that of Hatsuyama’s, with pictures of Hana before she had the syndrome, during her rehabilitation, her student card, and a current photo of her.
“I made this during the afternoon and sent it directly to the email of the dirtbag. He uploaded it onto Twipo straight away. So, I reported that to the organization too, and as for the finishing touches, I publicized all his wrongdoings on his Facemook as well. By now, his real name and history and such are all exposed on the web, along with that of the woman who took your picture. It turns out they were dating.”
Hana typed in an address into the browser to a page which chronicled the happenings. There was a black stripe covering his eyes, but Hatsuyama could tell it was the employee at the counter. Next to it was a photograph of a woman. “It’s her,” Hatsuyama said in a daze.
“…How did you do it?”
“…Mm. …Well, just somehow.”
Hana recalled the displeasure in Kunosato Mio’s voice as she said, “You owe me one.”
At first, she refused to help and said, “That’s none of my business. Settle it yourself.” But then, Hana brought up the fact that they, together with Senri and the others, were helping out with her research into the syndrome by staying in the hospital once a month, at which she clicked her tongue. She then gave this suggestion one-sidedly and cut the call, “Send him your pictures. The idiots on the internet may laugh when it’s just one person, but their reaction will differ if he continues with another.”
All that was left to do was to wait. In the short period since Hana’s image spread around, threads with the title ‘Who’s that freak who keeps on posting about patients of that syndrome’ began to appear here and there. And at an unbelievable speed, the doxxing of that man began.
Mio was indifferent when she told her to do that, but the effectiveness of it was extraordinary. When Hana contacted her again in the evening, she just rambled in a single breathe, annoyed, and then hung up without waiting for an answer, “They’ve already starting hounding his SNSs. It’s time to scare him out. Send a message to the rights organization later on with an overview of what happened. If a woman picks up, tell her to get a man on the line instead. I’ll also send you a list of their members afterwards. Getting a member of the opposite sex is going to be much more effective. Act out a frail voice and tell the guy that you can’t bear for the image to spread, this’ll make him put in the extra effort to help a damsel in distress. Remind them about the matter with the student card, so that they will have an official reason to take action since that is an infringement of privacy. If the guy isn’t familiar with the law, just tell him it contravenes the 23rd article of the Personal Information Protection Act. Just in case, you should also read it up. That was also written under the third clause of the terms and conditions of that manga café you used. Afterwards, you can just stay in touch with the organization and do as you please. Don’t forget that you’re staying over in the hospital next week.”
Is she actually an idiot? Thought Hana in amazement. It was obvious that she was having fun.
“If it becomes known that the people who do this kind of thing are condemned for their actions, images like this won’t be posted again, maybe… That’s why.”
“But… even your picture is…”
“I just did it because there was a need to.”
Actually, Kunosato was the one who mentioned that, but Hana thought it was better this way.
“Not to mention, something like this… Never mind.”
Compared to what Takuru made up his mind to do, having a ridiculous image of her being passed around on the internet was not even worth caring about.
Hatsuyama stared at Hana in amazement.
“…This is the Newspaper club, Takuru’s style of doing things. That goes the same for that employee at the manga café, the woman who took your photo, or those fools sharing the image online… and even those people doxxing the employee. They’re all only just jumping on the kinds of information that they want to see.”
Hana turned off the screen. The spreading of the image and the flaming were continuing even now surely, but there was no point in following them anymore.
“You should stop it too, Mizuki. I don’t know what you think of them, but stop attributing your own beliefs to Takuru and Itou.”
When Hana faced her once more and spoke, tears welled up in Hatsuyama’s eyes. She hung her head down so as not to be seen.
“…What should I do?”
Hana thought back to the past when her friend asked her the same question.
Her friend from the Kendo club who was as close to her as as a sister. The friend who’s family she had destroyed through her words. At that time, Hana couldn’t say anything to her.
The situation was different then. However, Hana herself was different from then, and she now had the experiences that she went through with her friends.
“…Stand tall. The scales at which they have spread may be different, but we are in the same boat now. I am not ashamed. Pretty much all of them are just sharing it just for fun, even though it’s making us suffer like this. There’s absolutely no reason for us to have to agonize for the sake of garbage like them.”
Hana walked away from the computer towards the door. Right before she left, she turned her head around.
“…This is what my best friend said. Friends do not come by naturally, but are to be made. I’m going to make one right now. I’m going to make Mizuki my friend. But, if you decide to hide like this and use Takuru or Itou as your excuse again, sorry but no thanks. I’ll pass on making you my friend.”
She did not receive a response. Hatsuyama was still looking towards the ground.
“…You can do as you please. But if possible, I want you to be my friend. …Sorry about that dent on your wall.”
She closed the door.
In response to Hatsuyama’s mother, who wanted to know how it went, Hana only gave a slight bow and left.
She felt bad for her, but her throat was too parched. She had not spoken so much ever since before she got the syndrome.
It was during break time in school the next day.
Hana was focused on playing on her handheld device as usual, when a shadow came over it.
When she raised her head, she found Hatsuyama there. Hana was lost for words.
“…Just say something already.”
“…Mm. …Err, erm.”
Her hair was short and she wasn’t wearing glasses.
Hana’s classmates caught glimpses at them, as if the two of them staring at each other silently was some kind of spectacle
“…How’s your eyesight?”
When Hana finally asked that, Hatsuyama replied, “2.0.” After the strange pause, both of them had started smiling at some point.
“Are you going to attend the Tennis club again?”
“Yeah, that’s what I plan to do.”
“…Mm. Are you free during lunch break, Mizuki? I need a small favor from you.”
She agreed, and during lunch break, Hana brought her to the usual room.
When she opened the door, she found that Hinae and Senri were there already and were about to start their lunch. After seeing Hana and Mizuki, Hinae leaned far back on her chair, flapped her skirt and placed her legs on the table.
“Oh oh, look which traitor finally decided to show her face. Since you didn’t even bother to even give us a call, shall I tell you all about the lonely adventures Senri and I had? That pasta we had after the movie sure was tasty. As was the tart we had for dessert. Not to mention they were cheap thanks to all the studious research I did. Let me repeat that, because-of-all-the-research-I-did. Ah, what a pity.”
“Arimura, that’s bad manners.”
Senri slapped her thigh and she placed it down obediently. “Are you Hatsuyama?” Asked Senri gently, to which she nodded with some bewilderment at Hinae’s attitude.
“Erm, I want to talk about the club issue.”
Hana spoke up and took out the club entry form from her bag which Hinae passed her last time.
Senri’s eyes widened.
“Have you decided? Which are you going to join?”
“No, I want to ask about something before that. Am I right that you can’t start a club without five people or more?”
“That’s right, but why…?”
Senri answered her with some doubts.
Hekihou Academy was a school with a short history, with Senri’s batch being the first. When they first opened, there wasn’t any particular membership count required to establish a club or committee, but now five was the minimum.
I guess so, thought Hana.
“Then, I would like to form a new club, so would you please join me, Senri. And Hina too.”
Senri let out a rare, “…Huh?” Even Hinae, who was looking out of the window in displeasure till now, turned to her in confusion.
“I still haven’t decided on what it should be called, but I’ve written down the overview here.”
Hana passed the paper to Senri who was still in shock. She was still staring at Hana until Hana turned towards the paper when she realized it was already in her hands. She then scanned through the document minutely.
“ ‘A club to contemplate the circumstances surrounding former Chaos Child Syndrome patients’…?”
Yes, nodded Hana. Hatsuyama who was behind her was astonished too.
“…Mm. I began thinking about a lot of stuff after the incident with Mizuki.”
Senri stared at the document thoroughly for a while which only had that overview written, then turned her sights back to Hana. Hana looked abashed and smiled back faintly.
“…I see. Fine, I shall recognize it. But, you must promise me something. About what happened yesterday, surely that was Kunosato’s idea, wasn’t it.”
Hana nodded, expecting that Senri would have known about it. They probably found out about that after searching online out of worry when Hana forgot to contact them.
“Don’t you ever do something like that again! You mustn’t escalate the situation in any circumstances. And, I personally won’t allow something like that to occur a second time either.”
Hana nodded expressly. That was her intention even without Senri mentioning it.
“Also, let’s make it a committee instead of a club. Since the details of the activities concerns all the students, it will be better that way. If we establish it under the jurisdiction of the student council, it’ll be easier for me and Arimura to be a member of it concurrently too.”
“I-I still haven’t agreed to join it, okay?”
Hinae leaned back heavily on her chair again and started rocking it, as if to reproduce the character that she had just played out. Both Hana and Senri ignored her.
“The club president… or rather, the head of the committee shall be helmed by you then. I will be the deputy head. What about Hatsuyama?”
Hatsuyama hurriedly straightened her back when the topic came to her. It seems that the rumors about the Empress are also quite well-known amongst the first-years.
“Will you be joining us as well?”
Hatsuyama turned to Hana and asked, “…Is this the favor you mentioned?” Hana nodded.
“I don’t mind if it’s just in name. You’ll be in it concurrently with the Tennis club though.”
Hatsuyama assented with a serious expression. “I’ll help out sometimes too,” she added and Hana nodded.
Before they could look for more members, they needed to submit a document for the establishment of a new committee, and Hana, Senri and Hatsuyama signed on it. The row for the head of the committee was the topmost, and Hana felt out-of-place as she signed above Senri.
“Come on, Arimura,” said Senri.
“Now, what should I do? I won’t be satisfied unless Hana at least treats me to something as a consolation before I even consider it.”
“Just write your name down quickly!”
Hinae wrote down her name obediently. Even then, she was still muttering under her breath disgruntled, “Buuut, I was looking forward to it so much.”
Hinae wouldn’t look at Hana in the eye even when she passed her back the document and stared out of the window instead. Her dissatisfaction seemed to be pretty deep-rooted this time. I should really treat her to something, thought Hana.
“Hey, could it be?”
Sensing something between the two of them, Hatsuyama looked between Hana and Hinae and then poked Hana’s shoulder.
“What is it?”
“Is your ‘best friend’ referring to her?”
“No way. That can’t be.”
“Return that immediately!”
Hana darted her hand away from Hinae who was trying to snatch back the paper. Hinae tried to lean her body forwards, but was forced down by a one-handed eagle-grip from Senri.
“So, do you have any hits for the last member?”
“Yes. She’s from the same Tennis club as Mizuki. She already promised to let me use her name.”
Hatsuyama probably knew who it was as she uttered, “…Ah.”
Senri was slightly surprised for a moment before nodding, satisfied.
“Then, please go get her signature, preferably by today. I’ll bring it up during the student council meeting tomorrow and get their approval, then we’ll submit it to the school the day after. It’ll be fine if we designate the room as here, right?”
“Just a word of warning however, if I find you shutting yourself in here and gaming all day, I’ll dissolve the committee right away, okay.”
Hana laughed and shook her head lightly.
“Mm, I’ll be fine. It looks like it’ll be getting busy. Also, I want to go out with you guys more often too.”
1. Che Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, activist, guerrilla leader, diplomat and major figure of the Cuban Revolution, his stylized visage has become a ubiquitous countercultural symbol of rebellion and global insignia in popular culture.
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader of Italian descent who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. ↩
2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer and statesman. The Sorrows of Young Werther (German: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is a loosely autobiographical epistolary novel by him, first published in 1774. The novel was the loose inspiration for the opera Werther by Jules Massenet. ↩
3. A Yonkoma (“four cell” or 4-koma for short) is a comic strip format, generally consisting of gag comic strips within four panels of equal size ordered from top to bottom. ↩
4. This corresponds to 20/10 visual acuity. ↩