Head Games with Hyouka
It's always calm after a storm.
When Hyouka and Yuji were at each other's throats, a restful period followed- a catharsis of their pent up emotions.
The albino girl's usual calm, collected demeanor had returned. There had been no complications with her recovery from heat exhaustion, which people had eventually lost interest in conversing about. The conspicuous relationship between her and Yuji was still a topic of intrigue to many, though its novelty had waned somewhat.
It did leave the boy conflicted, however.
The day after, as he happily ate the bento she had promised him, his mind drifted back to their recent argument. The meal reminded him of what she had seemed oddly concerned about- tarnishing his reputation.
For her to be unselfish was a rarity. He didn't know what to make of it, even throughout the following days.
Yuji found the weekend to be a much-obliged break from the standardized chaos of school, eagerly diving straight into leisure. With the threat of exams being roughly a month into the future, he was relieved to have time away from listening to his teachers drone on and on about topics they had already covered months ago. If they expected him to stay awake the whole lecture, they were sorely mistaken.
Two boys approached the Tanihara residence, the shorter one reaching into his pocket and unlocking the front door. Inside the apartment, they dropped their bags and kicked off their shoes in the genkan. A heterochromatic-eyed cat strode up to them, sniffing the ankle of the lankier one.
Going down the hall, the pair entered a bedroom. It was unorganized and chaotic- just what one would expect from a teenager boy.
“My room’s a mess, sorry about that.” Yuji mumbled, using his socked foot to shove a few articles of discarded clothing underneath his dresser.
“Nah, I don’t mind.” Ryuhei settled on the edge of the bed, leaning back.
“So, what do you wanna do?” Yuji crammed a few loose books back onto the small shelf, not caring much for how well they fit.
“Oh!” Ryuhei blurted out, and suddenly straightening up.
“Huh?” He blinked.
“Those’re old yearbooks, right?” He pointed them out on the bottom shelf.
“Yeah, from junior high. What about them?”
“I wanna see what you and Morikawa-san looked like back then.”
“N-No! My hair was really bad!” Yuji insisted, an embarrassed, red glow dusting his cheeks.
“It can’t have been worse than my buzzcut! I looked like an egg!” The other boy laughed at this, running a hand through his grown-out, marmalade-colored hair. “I’ll show you mine later, so lemme see yours.”
Yuji paused, attempting to imagine Ryuhei with a dark stubble covering his head, before grimacing at the thought. It just didn't suit him.
“Y’know what? Fine, knock yourself out, Ryu.” He tugged the dusty books off his shelf, tossing them in front of him.
“That’s the spirit!” Ryuhei laughed, sitting cross-legged and picking up the one on top. Yuji watched over his shoulder.
They scanned the contents of the yearbook, flipping through the pages of individual portraits. However, no one jumped out at them like a beacon amongst the sea of dark-haired students.
That seemed rather impossible.
“Did they forget to include her?” The tawny-haired boy drummed his fingers against the page, wondering if he was just looking past the girl.
“No, she’s in there.” Yuji took the book into his own hands, going down the list of surnames. “Morikawa- there she is.”
Hyouka’s seventh grade portrait stared up at them, but it didn’t quite look like her. It was not due to her glasses, nor the two buns she had worn her hair in. Such superficial discrepancies wouldn’t have made such a difference.
Rather, her hair was dark brown, and so were her eyes. It was unmistakably not her albino color palette.
“That’s not her, Yu!” Ryuhei chuckled, but it faded quickly. The girl’s face, while four years younger, was far too similar for it to not be Hyouka Morikawa. That was the name below it, after all.
“They, uh...edited her school picture that year...” Yuji mumbled.
“Why would they do that?” The boy gawked at this.
“I dunno, probably to make her look normal or some shit.” He snorted. “Everyone thought it was insane- it became a huge meme around school until the beginning of our eighth-grade year.”
“Dude, that’s so fucked up!” Ryuhei looked mildly horrified.
“Y-Yeah...” His gaze flitted between the boy’s expression and the book in his lap. Guilt churned in his stomach.
Yuji decided wouldn't mention that it had been he and his friends who had happily contributed to the spread of the uncanny photograph.
He dreaded what Ryuhei might think of him.
“A-Anyway, they only photoshopped her that one time.” He tried to change the subject. “She looks like herself in the other books.”
“Well, I guess that’s good.” Ryuhei picked up another yearbook.
“Oh, that one’s from 9th grade.” Yuji lay on his stomach next to him on the bed.
They flipped through the pages, skipping the students who were of little significance to what they were looking for. However, well into the “M” section, Ryuhei’s finger landed on a familiar portrait.
Yuji glanced down at the image, barely the size of his thumbpad. It was most definitely Hyouka- her startlingly pale face and snow-white hair enough to ascertain that much. Behind her thin framed, oval-shaped glasses, the crimson of her irises glinted.
Even back then, her expression was difficult to decipher. There was no hint of a smile on her face. It was frozen into a vaguely stoic mask, but something about the slight stiffness of her shoulders conveyed anxiety. Her eyes seemed melancholic.
“Has she always been so...” Ryuhei struggled to find the correct word. “...withdrawn?”
“People bullied her, didn’t they?” He frowned softly.
Yuji’s heart skipped a beat, sinking to his stomach.
Was Ryuhei onto him?
“...Yeah.” He suddenly felt the need to stare at the ground, rubbing the back of his neck.
Nobody had told him about what he had done...right?
The room was quiet, before he spoke up again.
“Man, that’s brutal...” The tawny-haired boy frowned. “Bullying someone for looking different- not that it’s okay to bully anyone!” He quickly interjected. “But it’s just..!”
Yuji stared up at him, his heart hollowly pounding in his chest.
“...I just know what it’s like to be the kid others pick on.” Ryuhei said softly, the familiar, cheery glint in his round eyes absent. “With how easily distracted, loud, and fidgety I am, I’ve also been bullied.”
Yuji’s eyes widened at this.
“If I encountered someone like that again...” He drummed his fingers against the book. “...I’d punch them right in the face.”
His rhythmic finger tapping filled the hushed silence of the bedroom, before Yuji’s lips parted to speak.
“Y-Yeah...it’s what they deserve.” He numbly uttered, staring at the floorboards.
A silent Ryuhei busied himself with turning pages, his normally smiling lips slightly downturned, until he reached where students with surnames beginning with “T” were organized.
“You should be near the beginning.” He hummed to Yuji, changing the subject.
It didn’t take long to spot those eyes- they hadn’t changed a bit.
Yuji’s slight scowl stared back from the page, his dull golden irises small and piercing. The collar of his gakuran was unbuttoned, his ears empty of metal ornamentation. The boy’s unruly black hair was noticeably shorter, especially the bangs that barely covered his forehead.
“No!” Just the sight of it was enough to make him cringe, desperately trying to confiscate the book from Ryuhei’s hands. The latter seemed to find this funny as his usual sunny disposition returned, snickering as he held it out of reach.
“Wow, Yu! That’s a hella different look! Your forehead’s kinda big!”
“Sh-Shut up! It’s the bangs!” Yuji pressed a hand to it, praying that he wouldn’t seek out his older portraits- his hair back then was even more regrettable.
“Wow, and you don’t even have any piercings!”
“Sorry, sorry!” He slapped his shoulder, trying to stifle his laughter. “You can make fun of my old hairstyles next time.”
“I’m gonna kick your ass...” He grumbled, rolling over onto his side.
“Anyways, are you in any other pics?” Ryuhei asked, looking deeper into the yearbook.
“Probably a few here and there.”
Throughout the various photo spreads of the students of Kyoto Municipal Junior High, Yuji had several cameos.
“Who’s in that photo with you?” Ryuhei pointed at the two boys on either side of Yuji. They seemed to be dressed for the school sports festival, in their gym uniforms and wearing red headbands.
“My friends- Sakamoto and Komori.”
“You still keep in touch?”
He fell silent, trying to recall the last time they had spoken to one another. Even counting social media interactions, the timeline seemed fuzzy.
Could he call them friends? They had all hung out due to convenience, hadn’t they?
The only significant thing that they had really had in common was the enjoyment of picking on others, after all.
“I mean, I moved away from Kyoto, so not really...” He reluctantly muttered, scowling slightly.
“Aw, damn.” Ryuhei sympathized. ”I get it- I only really talk to like one dude from ninth grade. I didn’t have that many friends back then either. But that’s okay!”
“It’s whatever.” Yuji shrugged dismissively, watching Ryuhei turn the pages. The photographs invoked a sense of nostalgia in him- he could practically recall when they had been taken. Moments from their school’s sports and culture festivals, class trips, and even more mundane, slice of life events had been captured on the glossy pages.
His brows furrowed as his eyes gravitated towards the background of some of the photos. A pale, ghostly figure often made cameos.
For the most part, the girl showed no indication that she was aware she was in frame, minding her business and keeping to herself. In some, she was simply reading a book at her desk or helping to clean the classroom.
"Hey, where'd her shoes go?" Ryuhei suddenly asked.
Behind two girls happily posing for the camera, Hyouka wiped down the blackboard on the other side of the room. The only thing that covered her feet were socks- her shoes had gone missing several times over the years.
In truth, missing was an inaccurate term- the shoes had been stolen. Her tormentors had thought it to be an amusing prank.
Now though, it just made Yuji’s stomach turn in knots.
Was his harassment of her that blatant? That extreme? Did Ryuhei notice?
Or would only someone who had witnessed or perpetuated her suffering be aware?
In the photographs that Hyouka appeared in, Yuji took note of several clues indicating what had gone on.
In certain pictures, tape held the bridge of Hyouka’s glasses together- though they hadn’t broken on their own. Someone had snapped them in half. Often, that someone had been him. Tugging them off her face, holding them out of reach as she blindly grabbed at them, then stepping on them until the lenses cracked- his younger self had found sick enjoyment out of her sightless dread when she realized her glasses had been destroyed.
In others, her pale knees were bruised in an ugly mosaic of purple, red, and even yellow, occasionally plastered with bandages and scrapes. Yuji just sticking his leg out far enough as she tried to walk by would cause her to trip, tumbling to the ground and dropping whatever she had been holding. However, the cause of such incidents was often ignored or overlooked- only serving to give her a reputation as a clumsy, bumbling idiot.
More of these signs jumped out a Yuji from off the page- stains on her uniform from having substances flung at her on the way home from school, pulled hair that sloppily stuck out from her buns before she could fix them, even the crude scribbles he and his friends had left in her books.
It was truly shocking to face what a ruthless brat he had been only a few years ago.
“Yu? Earth to Yu?” Ryuhei’s elbow lightly nudged him in the back of the head, snapping him out of his horrifying period of self-reflection.
“You good?” The boy cracked a lopsided grin. “You were zoning out like crazy. I thought you might’ve astral projected or something.”
“Y-Yeah, I’m okay...” He grimaced, rubbing at his temples. “Just thinking, I guess...”
“That’s enough of going down memory lane, huh?” Ryuhei chuckled, stacking the yearbooks in order. Oh, if only he knew.
But it was better that he didn’t.
“Mmm...” He hummed.
“Wanna game instead?” Ryuhei got up and set the books aside.
As the boys headed out into the living room, Yuji had one burning question, scorching his temples.
If Ryuhei had known, would he have punched him in the face?