Chapter 19:

有罪 Guilt

Head Games with Hyouka

It had been a week without word from Hyouka, each passing day only contributing to Yuji's concern. Initially though, it hadn't bothered him- after everything that had happened, he couldn't fault her for needing time to process her emotions, for he needed it too.

Feeling as if he had been hit by a bullet train, Yuji spent his first few days back in a state of total exhaustion, sleeping in until midafternoon with Kaiya languidly stretched out next to him. He lacked the energy to do much but sprawl out on the couch, eating snacks and playing video games- as well as he could, considering the state of his hand. When his father had taken him to get x-rayed, he learned that both it and his wrist were sprained. After he admitted that his injury was from fighting, the doctor had said that it was likely sustained by punching someone in the head.

"All the tiny tendons and bones in your hand are no match for the durable skull," he recalled her saying. With his knuckles bandaged and a splint covering his left arm, he was lucky to get off without a more serious injury, like a fracture or concussion.

Even so, anxiety slowly seemed to cloud his vision.

In the aftermath of their beach trip gone-wrong, Yuji had done his best to keep up with his friends, who shared similar circumstances. In their group chat, they joked about their families' horrified reactions the night they arrived home, the various states of their healing injuries, and generally shared what they had been up to as of late, even throwing in a meme every now and then. But gradually, the boys seemed to grow more and more inactive, sending fewer messages until the chat slowly died. Even when Yuji himself sent something in an attempt to revive it, the effect was short-lived.

Were they trying to distance themselves from him? Or was he simply jumping to conclusions? Yuji wasn't sure, but it made for an unpleasant weight on his shoulders that he could only try not to think about.

The Tanihara household seemed different somehow, too. His father didn't come across as so abrasive, despite having to help with chores usually left up to Yuji, but made difficult due to his injury. After dinner, the man let him have the TV as he took his place washing dishes, folding the laundry before going to his room. Yuma was less condescending, less nagging. Early in the morning, when Yuji awoke on the couch to his brother coming home from work, he was not met with the usual complaints about the forgotten snack wrappers he had left nearby. Instead, Yuma simply threw them out, murmuring a quiet, "You should go to bed," as he opened the fridge to look for leftovers.

"Things could always be worse," Yuji had told himself late one night, staring up at his dark bedroom ceiling. Lounging about the apartment and blasting the AC was certainly a comfortable way to spend the remainder of the summer, but as he tried to occupy himself with mindless entertainment, his thoughts always seemed to circle back to Hyouka, who he had not heard from since the trip.

When Yuji finally decided to text her- when her silence had begun to worry him- every message he sent was left on delivered. No matter the hour, she did not pick up his calls. The line simply went straight to voicemail each time, ringing in perpetuity until he hung up, never to be returned.

It wasn't a matter of her forgetting to reply- Hyouka didn't forget these things. She was always very purposeful with what she did. Her actions and inaction alike held meaning.

It was more likely that she was ignoring him, too.

Yuji's chest constricted painfully at the revelation as he rolled over, the idea oppressively looming over his head. With how Sakamoto and Komori had sadistically forced her to relive such an awful experience, was Hyouka better off avoiding all contact with anyone associated with them?

Was just trying to reach her doing more harm than good? Or was it an appreciated gesture, even if she didn't respond?

He wasn't sure what to think, but ignoring his concern was nearly impossible, countless possibilities leaving him overwhelmed. Just a few days remained before the end of summer break, but what if the distance between them only festered? What if she began to treat him with the same indifference as she would a stranger? Or on the other hand, what if she could no longer even bear to be near him? What if when they broke down her formidable, dignified persona that evening on the beach, the damage was permanent? What if she had reverted to the timid, withdrawn girl that Yuji and his former accomplices had cultivated?

What if she stopped coming to school altogether?

The simple question caught Yuji off-guard, causing his heart to skip a beat and chilling him to his core. He tried to be rational, reasoning that Hyouka placed too much importance on attendance to skip school, much less drop off the face of the earth. Even if she did seem more distant than usual, things would go back to normal at some point.


Then he remembered her paper-white, horror-stricken face, the tears that had streamed down her cheeks, the heartbreaking sobs that had poured from her lips as her shoulders heaved- it made him feel sick all over again, his stomach knotting.

Was their bond already broken by the time they had left the beach? Had it only shattered further the longer they went without contact? Was it beyond the point of repair?

Walking home from school together, getting ice cream at the mall, and their dry, sardonic sense of humor- those things that they once shared would become a thing of the past, leaving a lingering emptiness in its wake.

The boy grit his teeth, burying his face into his pillow as he tried to purge those thoughts from his mind. No. No, he couldn't sit idly at home, passively waiting for everything they had built together to come crashing down like a house of cards, like a sandcastle struck by a violent tide. There had to be something he could do. He couldn't allow a wedge to be driven between them, forced to again be strangers only bound together by a painful past that neither of them wanted anything to do with.

His heartbeat quickening, thundering in his ears, Yuji vowed to rectify the situation- he would see her again and ensure that she was alright. He wouldn't overstay his welcome, but he'd remind Hyouka that even after everything that had happened, he was still there.

He owed that much to her.

Taking deep, shaky breaths, the boy rolled over to lay on his back again, his eyes numbly trained on the ceiling. With the soft, familiar creak of the door opening, he knew Yuma was coming to bed. For a moment, he heard the rustling of clothes and the low squeak of his brother's bedframe, before silence filled the room once more. Shutting his eyes, he tried to force the drowsiness to take over, to be saved by the sweet embrace of the sandman.

But the sleep didn't come soon enough, leaving him to toss and turn for hours, flipping and fluffing his pillow, wrapping himself in his sheets before kicking them off again. He was too hot, then too cold, and with his sore wrist, he couldn't find a comfortable position in which to lay, a barrage of unpleasant possibilities preventing him from relaxing. An ache grew behind his eyelids the longer he lay there a prisoner to his consciousness, trying to drown out his thoughts with the noises around him- the sound of the AC, cars outside, and Yuma's soft breathing.

Eventually, it began to drizzle outside, and with the soft drum of raindrops, Yuji was slowly lulled to sleep.

A dream was waiting for him, and so was Hyouka.

Laying on a mound of sand, he knew it was her without even needing to see her face, small icy fingers grasping his shoulders. The boy tried to sit up, to move into a position where he could turn towards her, but his muscles were rigid, frozen in place. Hyouka hovered above him, her face bathed in shadow as a warm, bright light shone down on them, which alarmed him.

The sun. They were in the sun- she wasn't supposed to be out in the open like this.

Upon his realization, Yuji tried to warn her, but it felt as if his jaw had been wired shut and left him mute. Hyouka didn't seem to share his distress, however. Her expression was almost amused, haloed by an angelic glow. Her lips moved as she spoke to him, but her voice was muffled and distorted as if underwater, her message incomprehensible. Paralyzed, he wordlessly blinked, hoping to somehow convey that he couldn't understand what she was saying.

Suddenly, she dropped that playful half-smirk, replacing it with a look of apathy, cold indifference in her eyes as she blankly stared down at him. Her lips stopped moving, the sound of the ocean filling Yuji's ears, the briny smell of salt in the air. Frozen on the ground, all he could do was helplessly stare back. Hyouka seemed to sigh as she stood up, tenderly cradling a bouquet to her chest, the flowers' thin red petals a stark contrast against her pale skin.

Turning her back to him, the girl began to walk away, towards the deep, dark water.

"Hyouka!" He tried to call to her, but his voice wouldn't come out, even as he screamed it in his head. She did not react, a gust of wind blowing her long, white hair, fanning it out behind her like a sheet on a clothesline. Stopping at the shore and kneeling in the wet sand, the girl reached into her bouquet of red spider lilies, twisting and breaking the heads off the stems, gently setting them into the water one at a time, where they bobbed up and down like tiny boats.

Waves calmly lapping at them, the flowers began to change before Yuji's eyes, their crimson hue bleeding into the water, staining it as they faded into lighter and lighter shades of pink. Their spindly, paling stamens grew in thickness and number, becoming densely packed domes of round white petals. A forlorn look seemed to appear on Hyouka's face as she watched the chrysanthemums slowly drift through the sea like lanterns in a river, leaving trails of red in their wake.

The girl languidly swept her hand through the water, and when she lifted it again, it was covered in what looked like tar. For a moment, she stared down at her tainted palm, dripping dark sludge onto her skirt, crests of seafoam lapping at her knees, the scarlet-tinged water creeping up the white fabric of her sundress, staining it.

Hyouka's head snapped towards Yuji, ruby eyes brimming with hatred, and that's when he regained control of his body.


Lurching forward, a strangled gasp tore from the boy's throat, his eyes bugging open, darting around wildly as his pulse pounded in his ears. He quickly realized that he was in his room- dimly lit, with sunlight peeking in through gaps in the curtains- where the only eyes on him were Kaiya's heterochromatic ones, her tail lazily flicking back and forth where she lay on Yuma's bed across the room.

There was not a flower in sight.

Heart painfully racing, Yuji took a shaky breath, trying to calm down and regain his bearings on reality. He insisted that it was just a dream, that it was nothing to get so worked up over. Could he even call it a nightmare? It lacked anything conventionally horrifying, save for the "bleeding" flowers.

But that look of pure abhorrence in Hyouka's glare...

It was enough to make him shiver- after hours of tossing and turning, a bad omen like that was not what he needed, considering his plans for the day. Feeling wearier than he had the night before, it was tempting to stay in bed and pretend he hadn't made that vow, to hide under the covers, protecting his conscience from the acrimony he feared Hyouka felt for him.

However, Yuji knew better than to run from something so serious.

Lethargically crawling out of bed, the boy shuffled into the bathroom and shut the door behind him, his tired reflection staring back at him in the mirror. His developing dark circles didn't do any favors for his face, the left side still swollen, with the bruise having deepened to a wine and purple color, the edges an unpleasant shade of yellow. His throat was just as bad, the ugly colors taking shape in the outline of large fingers, darkest in the center.

Some impression he'd make...

Grimacing, Yuji immediately dropped his gaze, lowering his head to wash his face in the sink, the cool water at least helping to wake him up as he splashed it on his skin, hoping to rinse away his guilt. Brushing his teeth with one hand and combing his hair with the other, he tried to figure out what he'd say to Hyouka after all this time, mulling over what would be an appropriate opener.

"Long time no see." Talk about overly-casual...

"Haven't heard from you in a while." No, that sounded passive-aggressive...

"You don't hate me, right?" That's not something you can just ask!

Huffing in frustration, Yuji tried to gel his hair into its usual style, but the splint covering his hand made the mundane ritual more difficult, strands of hair getting caught on the velcro straps. After a few minutes of struggling to get it to look right, he settled on a subpar result, begrudgingly dragging himself back to his room to get dressed. Though his battered appearance sabotaged the effort, he picked something he hoped was presentable enough.

Eventually, after pacing around for ten minutes straight, the boy stepped out into the sweltering late-August heat, locking the door behind him and clomping down the apartment steps. The humidity was horrendous, the muggy air leaving him feeling sticky by the time he had just left the neighborhood.

"Ugh..." He tugged at his shirt collar, hoping he wouldn't be drenched in sweat by the time he made it to the girl's house- he wasn't easy on the eyes as it was, so smelling awful certainly wouldn't do him any favors.

Sighing heavily, the sun oppressively beat down on his back as he trudged along, head bowed in defeat. In the summer, walking even a few miles felt like an hours-long excursion, and perhaps it was. With the rare tree's shade to take refuge under, his sneakers scuffed against the sidewalk with his tired, uncertain steps, cars whizzing past him on the road.

From the corner of his eye, Yuji saw a large, dark vehicle driving more slowly, more carefully. It was a long black sedan, but with what resembled a small Buddhist temple set into its rear, decorated in ornately carved dragons and lotuses of gold.

Dread coursed through his veins, the sight causing him to stop dead in his tracks. Instinctively, he hid his thumb in his fist, heart pounding. Rooted to the ground, he kept his head down, waiting for it to pass.

Only when it turned the corner and was out of sight did he relax, shakily letting out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. Rubbing his temples, Yuji grimaced, trying to repress the memory that threatened to resurface. His legs felt numb as he took an unsteady step forward, his heart continuing to beat more quickly than it normally did.

Unfortunately, he had nothing but his thoughts for company, and the weight of them pressed down upon his shoulders, only exacerbated by the miserable heat.

He remembered the view from his desk in junior high- the perpetually tensed shoulders that sat before him, the lowered head with fair hair swept up into two symmetrical buns, revealing the pale nape of a neck. He could recall tapping the shoulder, watching it stiffen further as the head slowly turned towards him, revealing oval-framed glasses and a pale, meek face. Her eyes were bleak and mistrustful, rimmed by dark circles as they stared back at him.

It was a sight he had become well-acquainted with over the course of three years.

Any time he and his friends spoke up in class, moved in her direction, or made any sort of gesture with their hands, she would flinch, her head tipped downwards as her brows knitted together, lips pressed together into a tight frown.

Corpse, ghost, and haunted baby doll- those were all names they had mockingly given her, degraded her with. She was their Hanako-san of the Toilet, their school's resident urban legend, and someone to make a spectacle of. Bandages plastered her knees and palms, bruised and scraped. Tape bound the bridge of her glasses, scratches and cracks littering their lenses. When her shoes went missing, they were found full of dirt- on the rare occasion that they were found at all. Usually, they ended up in the garbage. When she left the classroom during lunch, she took her bag with her- lest she find it hanging from a tree branch, its contents dumped on the ground below.

The bullying hadn't stayed confined to the campus, though. In seventh grade, her yearbook portrait became the laughingstock of the school when her hair and eyes were edited to be dark brown- an obvious discrepancy, considering her infamous appearance. Uploaded online, the uncanny photo spread from group chat to group chat, ridiculed by their peers.

For the first time, someone else was responsible for starting something, but it was not as if he remained blameless. Amused by the image, he and his accomplices had played a role in expanding its reach, joking about it any chance they got. It didn't end as a one-off incident either, for it was just the beginning of a long campaign of levity. Unflattering candid photos of her began to circulate online, coupled with untrue and unfounded rumors about what kind of person she was. Sometimes, they ended up being printed out and taped to her locker, or even pinned to school bulletin boards. No matter how many times she tore them down and shoved them into her bag, another one would eventually replace it.

The malicious game of amusement was only put to an end when other targeted students stopped coming to school, when the headmaster threatened all who participated with suspension, and expulsion for those who continued to perpetuate the cruel campaign. Their involved peers rushed to take down their posts and rid themselves of any evidence of wrongdoing. From an outsider's perspective, once the other students finally returned to school, the year-long situation had been remedied.

But had it really? Hadn't it just made the perpetrators more cruel in private? All they had changed were their tactics- threats of punishment hadn't reformed them.

It certainly hadn't been enough to reform him.

Sick- the role he had played throughout junior high was sickening. Yuji's stomach churned with shame as he came to a stop, slumping against a light post for support. Massaging his throbbing temples, he tried to purge those thoughts from his mind- they weren't good for his conscience.

Taking deep breaths as he wiped the sweat from his forehead, he tried to get his bearings on where he was. As he looked at his surroundings, part of him hoped that he was nearing the Morikawa residence- how long had he even been out in this ungodly heat and humidity? An hour? More than that? Less?

However, judging by the lack of traditional-style buildings in the area, it seemed he hadn't even made it halfway- instead, there were apartments and small modern houses. Somehow, Yuji felt almost relieved. In his current state of crisis, he needed the time to pull himself together before facing Hyouka.

Across the street, he spotted a shopping plaza- the one often frequented by the students of Inukami High School, which was just visible in the distance. Amongst the small stores, his eyes were instinctively drawn to the noodle shop he and his friends liked to go to for kishimen. To him, it was a place of fond memories and high spirits.

But how long had it been since they had last went? Weeks? Months? Would there even be a next time?

Shaking his head at the intrusive thought, Yuji crossed the street and hurried towards the strip of buildings- he'd pop inside one of the shops for just a moment, to hopefully catch his breath and briefly escape the sweltering heat. Avoiding the cars parked in front of the first establishment, he gripped the door handle and pulled it open.


Hit with a gust of ice-cold air conditioning, he instinctively looked up at the small bell above the door, panting slightly as sweat threatened to trickle down his forehead. Compared to how hot it was outside, he felt almost as if he had walked into a freezer. Relieved by the welcomed coolness, Yuji glanced around the shop.

In the air lingered the rich aroma of coffee beans and freshly baked goods, a few customers populating small wooden tables, nestled between bookshelves and vinyl sofas. There was a rustic accent wall of exposed brick, the others painted cream, with floors of dark wood. Hanging from the ceiling were simple pendant lights, giving off a warm yellow glow despite the cool temperature of the café.

The boy's eyes widened as he realized where he was, his eyes instinctively darting to a table in the back.

“You’ll be my servant- my dog. You’ll obey my requests, and if you do so sufficiently, then I suppose I may forgive you.”

Hyouka's voice rang out clearly in his mind, a vivid memory of that exhausting Friday afternoon and the agreement they had made. With her head held high and the orangey, midafternoon glow that had haloed her as she spoke those words, she had seemed to embody the aura of an empress, more powerful than he had ever seen before. The white hair that had once been swept into simple, unassuming buns freely and proudly fell to her waist, adorned with those bright red ribbon bows that made her irises even more striking, no longer behind glass.

But most prominently, he recalled her piercing glare- those ruby eyes he once despised.

It was ironic- how he had desperately ended up in that café again, anxious and exhausted with a pounding headache and nothing but her on his mind. Chuckling humorlessly, Yuji grabbed a handful of napkins from the condiment bar, blotting the perspiration from his skin. Had he looked this unkempt and pathetic when he had begged her for forgiveness months earlier? Perhaps he was worse now, with that unsightly bruising all over his face and the splint on his arm. The other customers seemed alarmed by his appearance, doing their best to hide their stares.

That evening on the beach came flooding back to him- the adrenaline that had pumped through his veins like never before, the raw rage that he had fought with, and those huge, brawny hands that had struck him over and over again, wrapped around his throat and choking him within an inch of his life. He remembered wheezing and gasping for air that he couldn't take in, the high-pitched ringing in his ears, and the numb dizziness that he had been fighting a losing battle with as his grip slackened and his consciousness faded.

But then, he was splashed with cold water. The pressure around his neck weakened, and then it was gone. He could breathe again- coughing and panting as his chest rapidly rose and fell, desperate for air. His throat throbbed and so did the left side of his face. The sound of his pulse pounding in his ears gradually went down, and the dark haze over his eyes did too.


Amongst the chaos, he heard her voice above everything else. He felt those ice-cold fingers desperately grasp his shoulders and felt her looming over his body like an angel of death. Even with his eye nearly swollen shut and his still-distorted vision, he could just make out her pale face, hair tangled wildly with her own cheek inflamed.

It was her eyes that came into focus first- not due to their color, but the panic and distress that burned in them. Pupils blown wide, there was a franticness that he had never seen from her before, darting around wildly as she tried to help him up, before hastily grabbing his injured hand.

Yuji's wrist throbbed at the memory as he plucked a canned coffee from a chilled shelf, keeping his head down as he joined the line, standing behind the other café patrons.

Perhaps it was due to the adrenaline, or the pain he was in, or even the lack of oxygen to his brain, but in that moment, he felt a sense of unwavering devotion to her. It crashed over him like a tidal wave, leaving him stunned and unable to think straight.

He really hadn't sustained a head injury after all, right?

Yuji shook his head, shoving the napkins into his pocket and pressing the cold can to his hot face. No, the doctor had been sure that he didn't have a concussion- he was very fortunate to not have one, in fact.

Even so, as the line crept forward, he couldn't stop his eyes from drifting to that small table in the back of the café, two empty chairs sitting across from one another, bathed in that golden light.

"Is that all you're getting, dear?"

Yuji jumped slightly, whirling around to face the smiling older woman behind the counter. Nodding curtly, he had just started digging around for his wallet when his gaze dropped to the bakery display case, and he spotted something.

"...Um! Actually..." He blurted out, heart skipping a beat as he pointed to it. "Could I get one of those to-go?"

"Certainly! Your total is ¥389."

"Thank you..." He mumbled, counting the coins in his hand before placing them into the change tray. As the employee packed it into a small box that she handed to him, he made a small, silent request to whatever deity might be listening.

"Please don't let it go bad before I get there...!"