Chapter 1 – Exchange

"OK, everybody; can I have your attention please?" the teacher called.

The class of children stopped chattering, and stared up at the front of the class. The teenager standing next to the teacher squirmed uneasily, uncomfortable with all the attention. He was wearing a white shirt and straight, sensible black trousers. The tidy effect was rather put off by the pair of battered white trainers he wore on his feet. His grey schoolbag was hanging from one shoulder, and was clearly stuffed with one too many books. His hair was long, brown and straight, and hung over one eye. The other was a coppery shade of green and looked tired and jet-lagged. He hardly seemed to fit in the class of mismatched children of all ages from about six to seventeen.

"This is our new student," continued the teacher. "His name is Henry Parkinson, and he is here as an exchange student. I trust you will all make him feel happy and comfortable here in Hinamizawa."

Hinamizawa. Henry had wanted to go somewhere new. There was something about the little rural community that attracted him. It may have been the peace and quiet; it may have the community spirit. Even so, it was hard enough just getting there. Several hours on the plane followed by a three-hour bullet train ride. And an hour-long regular train journey. And another half an hour by taxi.

He'd arrived in the small hours of the morning, tired and hungry. Henry couldn't fall asleep on a moving vehicle, so he'd whiled the long hours reading through a stack of books. He collapsed onto the bed in the house he'd been given for accommodation, too exhausted to notice that there was little in the way of a mattress and that there was no bed frame. He was, naturally, woken by the alarm too early to be reasonable for school.

He'd been so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't realise that the teacher was talking to him.

"Sorry?" he asked in broken Japanese; his grasp of the language was limited, and he was barely keeping up. He made a mental note: Next time, take more time to learn the bloody language. Several of the younger kids giggled at his funny accent; flat and depressed.

"I said that you had best be getting on with your work. There's a seat next to Rena."

"Rena?"

A cute-looking ginger girl of about fourteen or fifteen waved at him. Sitting around her table were another two kids about Henry's age; a boy with messy brown hair, and a tall girl with a long green ponytail.

Henry sat down, dropping his bag to the floor. It promptly burst open, scattering thick textbooks and battered lever-arch binders. He ducked beneath the table, gathering them up with practised ease. He sat back up, slammed a slim, orange textbook titled IB Physics (in English, naturally) on the desk, and stared blankly at it as though it might start cartwheeling around the table or something.

"So, when'd you get here?" asked Rena in fascination, as though the brooding person next to her was the most interesting person in the world.

Silence. She waved her hand in front of his face. Still nothing. She prodded Henry hard in the arm. Instantly he shook awake; not like a human, all panicky and flustered, but more like a machine. He looked around at her.

"Yes?" he asked. His tone wasn't irritated, but patient. It was as though he'd shut down and rebooted.

"I asked when you got here."

Henry checked his watch. "About six hours ago."

"Aren't you tired?" asked the tall girl. Unlike Rena's sailor-like uniform, she wore a yellow waistcoat, white blouse, narrow green tie and a pink, pleated skirt.

"Use your imagination," Henry replied, flipping open his book and grabbing a highlighter from his pencil case. He realised too late that he sounded about as friendly as a stinging nettle. "I had about two hours' sleep. Of course I'm tired. And you are?"

"Sonozaki Mion. This is Maebara Keiichi and Ryūgū Rena. So you're an exchange student?"

"Yeah," he said nonchalantly, putting his highlighter down. He was too tired to concentrate on quantum physics anyway. "I used to live in the UK."

"Wow," said Rena, fascinated. "Did your family come with you?"

Henry shook his head, his hair flapping in the breeze from the open window. "Dad couldn't leave his job; the boys couldn't leave their school. Plus I'm the only one who knows any Japanese. There's just me."

By the end of the day, it seemed like Keiichi, Mion and Rena knew his whole life story, yet they still had questions they wanted to ask him. Mion grabbed his arm as he was about to leave.

"You have the honour of joining our club!" she declared, as though he knew what the hell she was on about.

"Club?" he asked, clueless. He looked around at the students still in the classroom. It was the end of school, and most of the small class had already run off into the sunshine outside. Even the teacher had left. Aside from his 'friends', Henry saw another two girls. One was wearing a green dress and yellow neckerchief with cropped blond hair, the other with a white blouse, red skirt and long, purple-blue hair. Both were about eleven.

"Come on, Henry," said Rena, tapping a chair. The tables had been pushed to the walls, with one large table in the middle. "Rena wants you to join in."

"What is this club?"

"We play games, sir," said the purple-haired girl. "Nipaa," she added, although Henry couldn't understand what it meant.

Henry sighed. He was not, by nature, a very game-y sort of guy. He'd hoped to go home after school and catch up on some sleep. However, they were all staring at him earnestly. If he ever wanted to fit in, it would be best to get to know them all.

"Fine. I'll stay."

He was about to take his seat when he heard it; a faint rattle of something metallic on the wood. The blond kid was, valiantly, holding in a chuckle, and her eyes were twinkling. He pulled out his chair.

Scattered all over the seat were a couple of dozen thumb tacks.

He looked at the blond girl, and cocked an eyebrow. She stopped chuckling and looked faintly cheated.

"We haven't introduced you yet, have we?" said Keiichi brightly, trying to break the frosty atmosphere that had fallen. "This is Hōjō Satoko and Furude Rika. Be warned; Satoko is a little trap-happy."

Henry swept the tacks up and put them back in the little pot on the teacher's desk. He sat down as Mion opened her locker door. It was crammed to bursting with almost every game imaginable. She drew out a deck of cards, causing the piles of games to teeter threateningly. She slammed the door shut and walked back to the table, shuffling the cards with a look of malevolent glee on her face.

"As it's your first club meeting, we won't be playing anything too strenuous. Old Maid all right with you?"

Henry nodded, though he doubted he would have had a say in it anyway. On the other hand, his instincts were screaming at his rational mind that it would all end in tears. He paid it no heed.

However, as Mion dealt the first hand, he grew slightly suspicious. A ripple of malevolent chuckles flitted around the girls, and Keiichi had an expression that almost resembled pity.

He lost the first hand by an epic margin. And the next. And the one after that. After four hands, it was his turn to deal. That's when he noticed the cards were a little fishy.

They were absolutely ancient; they must have been older by far than Mion, who was a little younger than he was. They were stained, battered, folded and dog-eared.

They know what the cards are from the damage to the backs.

He dealt the cards, but this time he hid all but the very tops of his cards in the cup of his hand. He noticed that the girls and Keiichi were quickly and surreptitiously scanning everybody's cards, finding out what they had. He may not know the deck, but at least he could make it harder for them.

Or so he thought. After ten hands, Mion called it a day and began to tot up the scores. Henry came stone-dead last, Mion and Satoko joint first. Henry got to his feet.

"Well, that wasn't so bad," he declared. The others got up too, but instead of moving for the door they pounced, pinning him to the ground. He didn't realise how strong Rena was; she was like a dead weight on his shoulder. Mion pulled a black marker pen from her pocket, pulled off the cap and advanced, looking down on him with a demonic glee in her eyes.

"You thought you could get out of the punishment game?" she laughed.

"Punishment game?" Henry said, struggling to keep his cool.

"Rule number one in our club: Do everything in your power to win. If you can't keep up, you must be punished."

She was kneeling on his chest now, the pen poised. Henry guessed that whatever she was going to draw or write, it wouldn't be good.

Henry was not in his best of moods when he got home. It wasn't the 'punishment'; cat whiskers and a Japanese taunt he couldn't understand were easy enough to take in his stride. Rena wouldn't shut up about it all the way home; she and Keiichi lived in the same neighbourhood as him, so they went home the same way.

No, what was bugging was that he needed some sleep. He kept drifting into catnaps at school, and he didn't want to be doing the same after the weekend. But he still had unpacking to do; his stuff had been moved weeks in advance so that it would arrive before he did. Unfortunately, he was so shattered after his day that he only stayed awake long enough to wash the graffiti off his face before he collapsed into bed thankful that, at least, there was no school the next day ...

Henry cursed his luck when he woke the next morning. The doorbell was ringing insistently. He ambled to the front door, blinking the sleep from his eyes.

Rena was on the other side, with a large plastic box and a huge smile.

"Morning, Henry-kun!" she said brightly.

"Morning," replied Henry, bewildered. "D'you want to come in? I'm hardly awake."

Rena blushed, and stepped inside uncertainly.

"Relax; I don't bite," he said, shutting the door. Rena was wearing a white dress the billowed in the breeze, and was pulling off a pair of tall, slim brown boots. Henry, on the hand, was still wearing his crumpled school uniform. "Just make yourself comfortable. I've got to change."

"Henry shouldn't sleep in his uniform!" Rena called after him, turning into what was only informally his living room. Henry shut his sliding bedroom door. There were actually two bedrooms in the house, so there was a choice. Henry vaguely had the room plan in his head, but apart from the kitchen and the bathroom, nothing was concrete. He hauled his casual clothes out of the trunk that was lying open next to his bed, and got changed as fast as he could. He had, after all, a guest.

He washed and brushed his teeth, then went to find Rena. She was sitting in one of the armchairs that he'd managed to acquire, her knees drawn into her chest as though the floor was contagious.

"Wow; that was quick!"

"A true gentleman never keeps a lady waiting," Henry said, dropping into a low bow and doffing his fake-fur raccoon hat. The effect was marred slightly by his broken Japanese. Nonetheless, Rena turned bright red again and gasped. Henry had noticed that; Rena would blush at the drop of a hat. "And what was it you wanted at this unholy hour?" he asked.

"Rena wanted to bring you food," she said, opening the box. Inside were all kinds of cold foods.

"Thanks," said Henry, stunned. He'd heard of the community spirit in Hinamizawa, but he wasn't expecting Rena knocking on his door first thing in the morning, especially with enough food to last him a week. "Is that all? Or did you want me to hang out with you or something?"

Rena beamed. "Henry-kun hasn't seen all of Hinamizawa yet has he? Has he?"

"Rena, I've been here ..." He checked his watch. "Twenty-seven hours. I haven't had the chance. Why? If you to show me the sights, I'm cool with that. Just let me find my shoes."

"They're by the door," she said, clearly eager to go.

"Oh, yeah. Of course."

"... and this is the Furude Shrine!" she declared, once they'd reached to top of the stone steps, worn and pitted from thousands of feet. The steps looked as though they'd always been there. Henry was out of puff by the time he reached the top.

"Furude?" he gasped, clutching a stitch. To be fair, aside from walking to school and back, he hadn't done any real exercise since before heading to the airport. That felt like months ago to him. "As in Rika? Do her parents run it?"

Rena stopped dead in her tracks. "Family," she said seriously. "Her whole family helps keep the shrine going." She turned round, and was smiling again. "Come on, over here!"

Henry had the strange feeling that he'd brushed a sensitive subject.

Rena led him over to a sort of stone stage, with a stone wall at the far end. She was leaning on the wall, looking out at the view. Henry decided to join her.

"Whoa," he said quietly. The view was absolutely spectacular. Now he knew why the shrine was built on the top of such a steep, high hill. The whole village lay splayed out beneath them as though they were flying. It was as though the shrine was a kind of stone sentinel, standing impassive and imperious over the village. The rice fields were dyed a brilliant cinnabar by the sunset; Rena had taken him everywhere in Hinamizawa and to most of Okinomiya, the nearest town. They had had lunch in the Angel Mort restaurant, and Henry could have sworn that he saw Mion there.

He wished his family could see this. To compensate, he took a photograph; he had taken so many today, and he wanted to send the best on the long trip back to England with a postcard to his family.

"Do you like it, Henry-kun? Do you?"

Henry wasn't the sentimental type, and he certainly wouldn't rush to write a long poem the moment he saw a daffodil. But he was almost lost for words. He was completely blown away by the view.

"It's beautiful," he said. And he was honest. He could see why Rena had saved it for last.

"Come on!" said Rena, turning away, and walking towards the stone benches.

"What's up?"

Rena opened her bag. Inside was what looked like a large lunchbox, similar to the one she'd dropped off at his place that morning. Inside was a frankly incredible spread of food.

"Don't you want any dinner?"

The dinner was delicious. Henry felt, miraculously, happy. Ecstatic, even. He was back at the stone wall, gazing out at Hinamizawa. There was a breeze playing with his hair, the higurashi were chirping in the undergrowth, and night had fallen. Henry loved night time, especially out here. Margate, where he used to live, was almost always in a state of dusk; the clouds always blotted out the sky and shone faintly orange from the streetlights far below. And there was the noise. But here in Hinamizawa, the sky was clean and clear. The stars shined like pinholes in the black velvet sky. The moon was almost full, and the twilight dyed everything soft shades of blue-grey. He loved it.

It was certainly an interesting day.

"Arigatou gozaimasu," he said, when they arrived at his house. It was one of the only Japanese phrases he could say with confidence. Thank you very much. "Today was brilliant."

"That's okay, Henry-kun!" she beamed.

"You guys up to much tomorrow?"

"Rena doesn't think so."

"If you find something, do tell me, yeah?"

"Okay!"

Henry chuckled and sprang to a mock salute. "Have a safe journey, ma'am!" he said.

Rena blushed, and began to cycle to her own home.

All of a sudden, Henry felt something peculiar. He didn't care what happened, this was what he wanted forever; the peace, friendliness and beauty of Hinamizawa.