Change is hard: it was a cliche Hato had often heard. And he didn't completely disagree. Good or bad, no one likes to upend their life, whatever the reason. That didn't make change the enemy, at least not to him. Hard was something that Hato had slowly become accustomed to facing head on.
It helped to start at the most obvious place: the desk. It's layout normally suited Hato's interests and needs to a T. But after the critique from Ogiue and the group, he realized it may not serve those purposes anymore. The books lining the top edge were banished to a pile by the far side of the bed. Stray doujinshi—Hato was still moving at a glacial pace through the haul he had bought off of Yajima—were filed away in his collection for later. All sense of clutter was removed from around the desk and pushed to the furthest reaches of his apartment. Drawing accoutrements laid around the sides and the first few pages of his manga filled the center.
Hato looked the scene over and smiled. He swiped a hand across the back of his skirt and took a seat in front of his work. Pencil in one hand and eraser in the other, he gave a curt nod to the scene before him and said, "Let's get to work."
Twenty minutes later found him in the exact same position. What was wrong with it again? A few days later and their words had began to fade into the background. "'The story is hard to follow,'" he murmured, "but why? Did I even ask them?" That question was all he needed for the horror to well up inside him. It was the feeling he had been avoiding: something was wrong but he couldn't quite see it.
Hato jumped from the chair and scrambled to the kitchen to grab his phone. But who to call? Anyone from the group would be suitable but his hand shrank back from the contact list as he considered them. Their words would be understanding, but there would be something unspoken behind them, something that merely forced his failure into greater highlight. No, he couldn't call anyone who had already read the story. Instead, he called someone else.
"Madarame-senpai? It's me. Um...could you come over? I've got something I'd like you to look at."
* * *
"It's been a while," said Madarame. "You haven't stopped by in days."
"I've just been busy, that's all."
Hato noted the sing-song tone his words were taking. It sounded forced. Still, he kept the smile calm and ushered Madarame into the apartment. He turned away as Madarame gave a cursory, if wide-eyed glance around his apartment. Sweat dripped down his neck and his hair began to stick there. "Stay calm," he whispered, "This is no big deal".
"It's not what I expected."
"How so?" Hato closed the door and leaned against.
"I don't know. It's just so...small," he said. "I don't know how it contains you."
"Barely," said Hato. "Remember, I used to live in a larger apartment."
"So I heard. It feels so long ago." Madarame paused a moment before a smile slowly spread across his lips. "It's a bit of a role reversal for us."
"Well, you used to come to my place to change for the club. Now, I'm coming to yours to prepare you for them."
"I guess so," said Hato.
Madarame smiled, a bit forced. "Why would you ask me for my opinion. I don't have the background of someone like Ogiue."
"No but you've read a lot of manga. And all sorts of manga. You may not create much, but I think you've got the eye and experience to know what works and what doesn't."
Madarame's eyes narrowed as the explanation spilled forth. The smle did not budge. "I'd be happy to look it over. Give you my expert opinion."
"Would you like to see it now?" He nodded. "Take a seat by the table and bring it to you."
Hato slipped into the bedroom and grabbed a stack of papers from atop the desk. Hato gave a quick flip through the stack as he walked—checking that everything was in it's proper place—and handed it off to Madarame. He held the papers at length and asked, "Are you going to tell me what it's about?"
"No disclosure. I want you to tell me what it's about."
Madarame nodded and pulled the papers closer and began to read.
Hato couldn't bear to watch and used every moment to step away from the scene. Up and down from one room to the next, if only just to grab a glass of water or drum his fingers against the wall in the kitchen. "You couldn't watch them when they read it, why should this be any different," he whispered.
On his final trip back he found Madarame staring at the last page, slight scowl in place. "How...how was it?"
"It was an experience."
Hato cringed and moved to take the seat across from him at the table. "Tell me. I want to know."
"Well, the art is good. It's not a style I particularly like, but it's well done. And your composition looks solid, mostly."
"But I lost the story by page two."
"That's where it starts."
Madarame nodded and motioned for Hato to come over. He slipped from around the table and hovered over his shoulder. Madarame turned to the third page and pointed to the upper panel. "What are they talking about?''
Hato leaned closer, slipping a loose lock of hair behind his ear as the looked over the panels. "It's not clear from the context?"
"I wouldn't point it out if it was."
Hato stared at the text. He rose and glanced around, stopping only when he noticed a pen nearby. After retrieving it, Hato motioned over and took the paper from his hands. "What if I change it to this?" he said as he wrote.
"Better. But what about this panel?" he asked, pointing to the bottom left.
"I can change that too."
Hato hovered over the page. What happens next? Madarame sat nearby and held the next page in front of his face. "Remember: this should all flow together."
"I'm not sure it can anymore" Hato glanced between the two page. "Come with me. Let's start over...panel by panel."
Hato led Madarame to the bedroom. He took a seat and pulled a stack of blank papers from a drawer. "These are just going to be rough sketches."
"That's all they need to be." Madarame laned over and placed the third page on the desk. "Make this make sense."
Hato closed his eyes. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to make sense. He let go a breath and put pencil to paper. It was odd. Hato normally put so much analytical thought into his drawing. But he could feel Madarame behind him, his eyes on his hands and his body poised behind his. He had an audience; he needed to be quick and coherent.
Hato placed the pencil down and turned back to Madarame. "What do you think?"
He leaned closer, brushing pst Hato's shoulder. "Much better. It may just be the sketching, but there's a real urgency here. Another quick sketch?"
Hato nodded. He grabbed another sheet of paper and sketched another scene. Madarame still stood behind. Hato couldn't push that knowledge from his mind but his presence almost had become welcome. Hato's movements became more florid, as much a performance as anything else.
"What about this?"
Madarame bowed in again. "Great!"
"Thank you." Hato glanced back to the table. His first inclination was to grab another page and keep with the momentum. Instead, he turned back to Madarame, placed his hand on his shoulder and leaned in. Their lips brushed briefly.
Hato pulled back with a sudden jerk. His eyes drifted back to the desk as a heat began to burn in his cheeks. What did you do? His eyes darted back towards Madarame's. He couldn't help but notice their wide-eyed stare.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked.
"I think you've got at least two more sketches to work on."
Hato smiled. "I think so too." As pulled another sheet off the stack, he said, "We can talk about all this…"
"When you're done."
* * *
Ogiue arrived just a few moments later. Hato turned to her, his smile demure but genuine. "You didn't explain what this was about," she said.
"You still agreed to come." Hato patted the packet on the table. "I've made a few revisions."
"Really," she said, drawing the word out casually. "Why didn't you wait until everyone was here. We all read it."
"I know...but this isn't perfect. I'd like for you to look it over as it is. You could tell me if it's going down the right path."
Ogiue smiled and took the seat across from Hato. "Can I see it now?" Hato pushed the packet across the table.
Hato kept his eyes firm on Ogiue. The first time he let others read this manga, he had looked away: a bit frightened yet eager to please. He had been a little too embarrassed to watch them read it. That attitude had gotten him nowhere. Although his hands tensed in his lap and grasped at his skirt, he wanted to watch.
When her brows shot upward, Hato tried not to interpret it. And he recognized that the small vocalizations that sprung forth from behind the packet might have a variety of meanings. Her stop-and-start manner of flipping through the pages could mean anything. Even the sharp edge of her smile could mean certain doom. You should get your hopes up his inner voice whispered. But you shouldn't be too scared of what's to come, either.
Still, when she placed the packet down, he couldn't help but notice the slight waver in his voice when he asked, "What did you think?"
"Much better," she said. "A real marked improvement! Can I ask: what happened?"
"Oh, I had someone else look it over. They had a lot of energy and it sort of just...ran from there."
"Is it someone I know?"
"Maybe," answered Hato. He maintained a faint smile.
Ogiue stared a moment before shaking her head. "It doesn't matter. Come here," she said as she motioned to him. Her finger pointed down at the packet and she said, "Let's talk about this."
Hato nearly jumped from his chair. Legs still shaking, he rounded the table and slid in next to her. Ogiue flipped through the pages before landing on one towards the middle. "I love this. There's a real sense of motion here."
"Thank you." And though Hato was able to elaborate and listen as she pointed out the various improvements she liked, his thoughts turned back to Madarame. Maybe I should send him a message to tell him how this went? He banished the thought almost instantly. Best to wait until he was able to present him with a polished copy. Hato wanted him to see what his inspiration had wrought in the very best form.