In Japan, a young girl is crying. She crouches, clutching her knees to her chest, and sobs silently. Her name is Shizune Hakamichi, and this is her first day of preschool.

She has hidden herself between two small bushes against the fence that surrounds the school's playground. The other students don't seem to miss her, and the teachers don't realize that anything is wrong, either. So she continues to cry, unnoticed.

The girl is young, yet, so she does not know why she is crying. She couldn't tell you, if you were to ask, that she is lonely. She also doesn't know that the other children in her class aren't avoiding her out of malice; they are scared of her, because she is different. It is unknown to her that, many years in the future, one of her classmates will choose to become a nurse for deaf children – simply because the woman feels bad about what will happen today. And that knowledge wouldn't help her, anyway. Shizune is just a sad, scared child.

The school at which Shizune has been enrolled is touted as a school for disabled children. While this is true, budget problems have recently surfaced, problems that are being hidden from parents and students. Administration is changing quietly, behind the scenes, and many staff members have been laid off. These changes will eventually become public, and the school will close down, but that is in the future. For now, Shizune is stuck in a class where no one speaks sign language but the teacher.

In the defense of Shizune's parents, they do not know these things. They have done research and selected the "best fit" for Shizune. They toured the facilities, and saw none of the problems that would later emerge. They asked parents of enrolled students, who all recommended the school without reservation. And earlier that morning, when Shizune's mother dropped her little girl off, she had smiled at the organization on display. A desperate façade put together to hide a financial nightmare.

Shizune is still crying. The sound of sobbing fails to register in her own ears, defective as they are. Neither does she notice a young boy approach. He walks slowly, carrying a small soccer ball. He crouches and calls out to the crying girl. There is no response.

Shizune feels the bushes rustle around her and lifts her head to see another child crawling towards her. He stops, noticing her movement. He speaks - a useless gesture in this situation, but he does not know that. Blue hair swings back and forth as the girl shakes her head. She sniffles as snot runs from her nose. Again the boy opens his mouth and speaks.

From somewhere in her body another round of sobs rises up, overwhelms her. Her arms draw tightly around her knees and she pushes her face into her legs. Shizune thinks, 'Go away!' But of course the boy cannot hear her thoughts. He crawls closer, tugs on her yellow poncho. The girl lifts her head and tries to force words – what she thinks are words – past her inexperienced lips. She cannot hear the sounds coming out of her own mouth, and the boy flinches back. But he does not turn and flee.

Tapping into some deep well of strength and insight, something incomprehensible even to himself, the boy smiles. He speaks once more, then holds up his hands. From behind him he retrieves the soccer ball, and shows it to his new friend. Another large smile, more words, and he rolls it toward her. It bumps into her leg.

Shizune sniffles once more, but the tears have stopped momentarily. Hesitantly, she kicks the ball back toward the boy, who gently rolls it back to her. A small smile appears on Shizune's red, tear-streaked face. Again she kicks it back to her companion. Again he returns it.

Several volleys back and forth pass before the boy laughs and waves his arm for Shizune to follow. She does so, wiping her nose on her sleeve once more for good measure. Out in the daylight, the two children spread apart and begin to play.

Back and forth, the children kick the ball. Black and white hexagons blur together as it rolls one way, then the other. Suddenly, the boy greets his playmate. She cannot hear him state, "My name's Yukito." Her smile slips slightly. The return kick is more hesitant, this time. He moves his mouth again, and Shizune's grin is completely gone. Tense moments pass. Suddenly Yukito seems to get another idea. "Yu-ki-to!" he screams. Heads turn, eyes focus, and Shizune's lower lip begins to tremble.

Desperately, she starts to sign. 'I can't hear.' No response except for a confused look. She tries again. 'I can't hear.' Nothing. Tears well up in her eyes. 'I can't hear! My name is Shizune! I can't hear!' The boy is moving his mouth again. 'My name is Shizune! Want to be friends?' Other children are approaching now, following a teacher. The look on the woman's face is mistaken for anger, and Shizune flees back into her bushes. The tears come once more.

That night, Shizune will talk with her mother about what happened. She will cry, and her mother will stroke her hair, trying to comfort her daughter. Her father will have a 'talk' with her, in her room, about how sometimes people are different, and how that doesn't mean they are worse or better than anyone else. He will try to explain to her that there are some people who have to work harder to make people realize they're no different. It is not fair, he posits, but it is true. The little girl will nod her head, not fully understanding, but that conversation will stay with her for the rest of her life. And tomorrow Shizune will not return to that preschool, though no formal complaint will be made.

Now, though, sticks and branches poke at her tender young skin as she cries, huddled in the dark.

In Japan, a young girl is scowling. She stands, hands on her hips, and sends hate at the boy standing in front of her. Her name is Shizune Hakamichi, and this is her first day of second grade.

Her parents learned from the last debacle, and have sent her to another school, specifically for deaf children. Today, the children are supposed to get to know each other by working in groups on assignments. She has been paired with a girl named Reiko and a boy named Densuke, neither of whom are interested in doing any work.

'Will you stop messing around? We've got to finish this!' she signs angrily.

Densuke shakes his head and shoots back, 'No one else is working! Look!' He gestures to the other students in the class, only group of whom are actually working.

Shizune pounds a hand on her desk. Only the teacher turns at the sound. 'I'm not going to fail because you're lazy!' Her words illuminate a change taking place in her, one that will define her personality for the rest of her life. She does not fully understand why, but failing scares her more than anything in the world.

The boy, however, does not know this. No one does. He signs back, 'You're mean. I don't want to talk to you anymore.'

As he turns to talk with Reiko some more, tears of frustration well up in Shizune's eyes. But she lets it go, forces them back. She takes the worksheet and begins filling it out by herself.

Several minutes pass as the girl fills out her group's form. Reiko sends nervous, ashamed glances toward Shizune several times, but they go unnoticed. Around them, the rest of the class has made their introductions and, at gentle prodding from the teacher, begun to work. Except Shizune's group. The teacher approaches the children and frowns.

'Shizune,' she signs after getting the girl's attention, 'why are you the only one working?'

'They don't want to.'

Shizune's answer makes the teacher frown, then turn to her partners and scold them. She feels justified, and smiles. Densuke's eyes begin to water, and he starts crying. Shizune smiles some more. It feels good to be right.

In Japan, a young girl is ashamed. She sits at her dining room table with her father standing over her, scowling. He is signing furiously. 'You are bullying other students? Shizune, I thought I taught you better than that!' She attempts to reply, but her father cuts her off. 'No! Your teacher called me today. I know everything!'

'But Father,' she manages to sign before he turns his back.

A full minute passes before the man turns back. 'Shizune. Why are you doing this?'

'They are mean to me! They call me names and talk behind my back!'

'I don't care, that doesn't excuse your behavior.' His eyes soften. 'But why didn't you tell me?'

The girl lowers her eyes. 'I don't know.'

Realizing where he is once more, the man's gaze hardens. 'Shizune,' he signs, waiting for her to look at him. She does not. He lifts her chin, gently but firmly, to look into her eyes. He begins signing again. 'Shizune. You are going to be punished for this.'

'I know.'

'Your behavior is not appropriate.'

'I know.'

'You have to stop this immediately.'

'I will.'

They stare at each other for a heartbeat, then her father sits down. 'Shizune. You are a very smart, very strong girl. You can do anything you want in this world, I have no doubt. But if you let people get under your skin you'll never succeed.' He puts a hand on his daughter's shoulder. 'Ignore them.'

'I try, but...' She shrugs and drops her hand, dejected.

'Try harder.'

'But Father, I don't want people to hate me!' She feels her lower lip tremble, but refuses to cry.

A strong hand ruffles Shizune's hair gently. 'No one does. But you can't help that.' He sighs, inaudible to his little girl. 'You're a fourth grader now, Shizune. It's important to fit in, but if other people dislike you, you just have to ignore them. I know it's hard,' he smiles reassuringly, 'but you have to try. Try to fit in without making other people angry, but know when you can't help it.'

'But, I'm already at a disadvantage because I'm deaf-'

'No!' The man has a scowl on his face. 'That is not true. You're stronger because you are deaf, Shizune, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.' He sighs again, and scratches his head. 'This has nothing to do with being deaf. It's the way the world works. Everyone has to do it.'

Shizune sits silently for a moment, then signs. 'Did you have to?'

A small smile appears on her father's face. 'Yes, I have had to ignore some mean people in my lifetime.'

'Like Mom?'

A loud laugh escapes his lips. 'Yes, your mother can be very mean. But don't tell her I said that.'

In Japan, a young girl is torn. Shizune Hakamichi sits on the floor of her cramped dorm room with her only friend, Shiina Mikado – or 'Misha,' as she prefers to be called. The night is cool, and Shizune is lonely. Even with Misha there to keep her company, the girl can not shake the feeling that she's alone.

It is the first day of their senior year at Yamaku. Shizune has gone far in her short life, becoming student body president and achieving exemplary grades, but can't shake the feeling that she's been missing something. Letting out a small sigh, she flops onto her back and stares at the ceiling. She wonders why she feels so empty, when there is a good friend sitting next to her. She wonders why, with all the good things she has accomplished, she can't shake this funk in which she finds herself.

Misha's face comes into view, standing overhead. 'Shicchan, what's wrong?'

'Nothing,' responds the girl.

'Shicchan, don't lie! It's mean!' The pink-haired girl pouts like a child.

Shizune can't help but sigh. 'I just...' Her arms pause as she thinks of words. 'I feel... lonely.'

Misha's eyes drop a bit. 'But I'm right here.'

'No, no, that's not what I mean.' She scratches her head and shrugs, aggravated. 'I don't know what I mean, but that's not it.'

Golden eyes regard Shizune for a moment before Misha brightens visibly. 'Oh, you want a boyfriend!' Immediately Shizune flushes scarlet. Misha continues, completely ignoring her friend's blushing face, 'But all the guys in our class are no good! Who do you think would be okay for Shicchan?'

'I don't need a boyfriend!' But she does, and she knows it now. 'Boys complicate things, and I don't need that right before college.'

She can see Misha laugh, but hears nothing. 'Shicchan, you're so smart!' The girl cocks her head to one side. 'But then what is it?'

Shizune is not willing to go down this road again. 'Nevermind, I'll tell you some other time. I'm tired.'

A curt nod. 'Okay! Good night, Shicchan!'

'Good night, Misha.'

She closes the door on a bubbly, pink head moving toward its own room, and sighs. A small hand reaches out to turn off the lights; a pair of glasses are discarded on the bedside table. Sheets rustle, and Shizune tries to calm herself for sleep.

Before much time can pass, she blushes again. Though she would never admit it to anyone else, not even Misha, she does want a boyfriend. She wants someone to spend time with, to accept her for her. She needs that desperately, more desperately than she thought possible. Even an hour ago she would have vehemently denied the possibility of a relationship. But now, the flood gates have been opened. She is lonely.

She thinks back on all of the times in her life she has liked boys. There are not many. She tries to think of the perfect man for her, but has no frame of reference. This makes her depressed, and she closes her eyes, dejected.

There was one boy. Densuke was his name. An elementary school crush, short and sweet. She remembers meeting him in second grade, and fighting. In third grade they were in the same class again, and Shizune pestered him constantly. In fourth grade, she started bullying other children when they were mean to her. One day she found out that Densuke was saying those things, too. She cried that night, and hasn't loved a boy since.

Quietly she muses about the possibility she is not meant to be with anyone. Perhaps she is meant to be lonely, she thinks, that no one will ever love her.

Quickly, though, those thoughts are discarded. She is Shizune Hakamichi, after all. She is smart, funny, and beautiful. She's quite a catch. Someday, someone will come along and make her feel needed. At college, perhaps, she will meet a hard-working, smart young man working towards a law degree. Or a young doctor, fresh out of residency, will take a fancy to her and make her feel warm inside. But not anytime soon, she reminds herself, thinking of the boys in her class. No one here can make her happy. Not like that.

As she drifts off to sleep, a stray thought drifts through her head. She remembers the preschool, and the playground, and the kind young boy who wanted to play with her when no one else would. That would be nice, she thinks sleepily. Shizune just wants someone to spend time with her when she's sad.

She just wants someone to play with her.