Chapter 3:

The Girl (2)

The Exile Returnee


It did not take long before Ichiro came out from his unit. He had everything ready. He combed his hair again. His blazer and shirt were buttoned and tidied back. Now, he also had his loafers on, as well as his school bag. 

A spirited Horikawa freshman—more of a persona in the making, so to speak. Ichiro was a high school student now. He had to act as one.

Hanami still stood outside, waiting for him. She seemed to be fidgety for some reason. Ichiro walked closer to ensure it, but then she was just being usual. Nothing was weird. It was just Ichiro's imagination, apparently.

Ichiro was calm, but he felt awkward inside. For the past years, he rarely interacted with girls at the same age. Ichiro did have acquaintances back in Sewunusa, but Hanami was different in every way. Hanami felt more familiar to him. They occasionally met several times when they were children. It could be said that she was the closest girl Ichiro had ever met.

Now, everything was different from the past. They had grown up. They were not children anymore.

Hanami had changed in many ways. Her appearance, manner, and even the sweet perfume—Ichiro was not used to all of it. Hanami was also taller than Ichiro back then. Now, she could only reach Ichiro's shoulder. She became a different person from what Ichiro could remember of her.

Ichiro wondered if she thought the same of him. It would make things more uncomfortable if that was the case. At the very least, Ichiro could maintain his composure because he had another thing in mind. Something that had puzzled him since several minutes ago.

The sudden presence of Hanami.

After seldom mentioning her name in their talks, let alone the notion of meeting Hanami in person, Kaori surely had something in mind. Even Ichiro was under the impression that Kaori barred Hanami or everyone in the Hashiratani clan from being involved in their business. It seemed he was wrong. Then again, there was no way it was not deliberate. 

He would see the light soon, he decided. In the meantime, he decided to play innocent and act as usual.

"Sorry for making you wait," Ichiro said.

"No problem."

"Let's go, Hanami-chan."

Hanami looked confused at first before she smiled and burst into laughter. Ichiro frowned, seeing her reaction. But, he soon realized the mistake. That was dumb, he regretted.

"Sorry. The habit hasn't gotten over me," he said.

"I don't mind if you call me that way, Ichiro-kun," Hanami replied as she grinned. "Should I call you 'Ikkun' as well? Just like the old days?"

"No! 'Ichiro' is fine," Ichiro replied with a stern voice. "I'll go with just 'Hanami' as well. You won't mind, right?"

Hanami let out a little smile. "If that's what Ichiro-kun wants, it's fine."

Ichiro nodded and could not help but smile back. Hanami then giggled.

"What? Why?" Ichiro narrowed his eyebrows.

"No, it's nothing," She said with a smile. "We shouldn't be here for too long, Ichiro-kun. Mother is already waiting for us."

Hanami turned and started to walk through the carpeted corridor alone. Ichiro left bewildered. His eyes were glued towards Hanami's back as their distance widened further. Although Hanami's giggle left an impression in Ichiro's mind. Just as she was when she was still a kid. She had not changed at all, he thought.

After several seconds, Ichiro soon began to walk and finally caught up with her. The elevator was not that far, so they got into it quickly. The elevator's interface showed the twelfth floor as Hanami pressed the ground floor button. After a while, the door closed, and the elevator started moving. Ichiro then looked at Hanami as he continued the conversation again.

"To be honest, I don't expect to see you here, Hanami," he said. "Kaori-san—I mean, Aunt Kaori said that you're in Kōyama."

"I moved in as soon as I applied to Horikawa a month ago."

"I thought you would go to Akayama Imperial..."

"I was," Hanami said with a bitter smile. "Then, for some reason, they suddenly moved the test a week early. There was no time for me to attend as I was still at the World Junior Duel Summit."

After saying that, Hanami then peered at Ichiro's eyes. It seemed that she expected a reaction from Ichiro. Ichiro knew what she wanted to hear. He was not stupid enough to not know that, but he still maintained the straight and innocent facade. There was something that he still needed to know.

"Can your family do something about that?"

"They tried, but it was for naught," Hanami replied as she sighed. "As such, Tochigi and Horikawa were the only option left from the 'Big Eight' for me. They were the ones that hadn't begun their admission test yet at the time."

Ichiro understood and nodded in silence. Between those two, it was a no-brainer that Hanami would pick Horikawa, as they were located in Hagi. The city was the base of the Hashiratani clan since its founding.

Even he would not be surprised if there were a lot of Hashiratanis enrolling there this year. Not that Ichiro knew anything about it. It was not important to him anyway. Still, it was unfortunate for Hanami, who could not enter her mother's alma mater. She had already expressed her sadness and disappointment on TV, but she could do nothing about it.

At that time, the chime of the elevator suddenly pierced the air, and the elevator's door opened. Ichiro and Hanami emerged out to the apartment's lobby almost simultaneously. They then strolled towards the front entrance. It took some more steps before Hanami continued the conversation.

"May I ask you something, Ichiro-kun?"

"What is it?"

"Since when did you decide to enroll at Horikawa?"

"Around a month ago," Ichiro replied. He did not expect the question. "Why?"

"Really?"

Seeing Hanami's reaction, Ichiro stopped his stepped just right at the front of the entrance door. Hanami halted her walk as well. She put on a pensive look.

"That sounds like I should be asking you 'really.' Shouldn't you know about this?" Ichiro asked. "Because it was Aunt Kaori who asked me to go there."

"Mother doesn't say anything to me. I didn't even know about it until yesterday."

Ichiro went silent for a few seconds before answering, "She doesn't say anything about you, either."

Both Ichiro and Hanami then locked in silence. Ichiro could see her in deep thought. He was surprised to know her reaction. Ichiro did not know what Hanami was thinking now, but he started to walk outside anyway without saying anything.

"Wait!" Hanami rasped as she followed Ichiro from behind.

The apartment's front light shone bright, but the dawn sky above was dark purple. The spring air was cold, prompting both of his hands into his trousers' pocket. Something was missing, though. Ichiro did not realize it first because he was focused on his conversation with Hanami before.

The black limo he had expected was not there.

Ichiro turned towards Hanami and asked, "Where's Aunt Kaori?"

"She's there."

Ichiro followed Hanami's index finger as she pointed towards a lone black sedan parked on the other side of the road. It was three buildings away relative to his apartment. Its lights were off. Probably, Kaori switched off her car for some reason.

"Let's go," Ichiro said.

"Mhm."

Ichiro and Hanami then walked together to the side of the road and crossed it. They did not talk to each other anymore. Ichiro's mind was already focused on Kaori. He had a lot to ask.

After some time, they finally reached the sedan. After looking it closer, the window was tinted black. It was impossible to see anything from outside. 

At this point, Ichiro expected Kaori to slide the window and greet him, but she did not. There was no reaction at all. More so, Hanami herself looked more confused than Ichiro as she walked towards the driver's door and knocked on the window.

"Mother?"

There was still no reaction. Hanami then stuck her palm onto the window and closed her eyes. A moment later, her face turned towards Ichiro. Perplexed.

"There's no one inside," she said.

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The Exile Returnee