Chapter 20:

結紮 Ligature

Head Games with Hyouka

A dark, featureless door stood ominously before Yuji, his expression frozen into one of dreaded anticipation. Eyes locked on a small button, he took a deep, shaky breath, his arm stiff and outstretched.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

The cardstock handle of the bakery box bit into Yuji's fingers as he clutched it, his other hand inching towards the doorbell. A bead of sweat formed on his brow, threatening to trickle down. A car suddenly whizzed by and he jumped, springing back as if he had been caught doing something he shouldn't.

However, the vehicle merely continued down the road, paying no mind to him. Turning back around with a huff, the boy scolded himself for being so jumpy, gritting his teeth furiously. Though he had stood on Hyouka Morikawa's front porch a number of times before, his heart hammered as if it were his first, his stomach anxiously twisting and turning.

He could do this- rather, he tried to convince himself of that.

Wiping his face and taking another unsteady breath, Yuji lifted and shakily extended his hand, his pointer finger hovering uncertainly above the doorbell. Willing himself to just push it already, he stood there paralyzed, before his body betrayed his wishes and he recoiled, hand jerking back to his side.

"Stop being such a baby...!" He cursed himself, feeling utterly pathetic- he hadn't even done anything yet and was already falling apart. Balling his hand into a fist, the boy glared down at it, clenching and unclenching it over and over again in a determined attempt to steel his nerves.

Before he could stop himself, he pressed his palm to the doorbell, squeezing his eyes shut.


The soft melody echoed throughout the air, almost mocking the panic that rushed through his veins.

"Just a moment!" An older female voice called out from inside the house.

His heartrate spiking at the soft shuffle of footsteps, Yuji hurriedly swiped at the sweat on his forehead, trying to brush away the messy strands of hair that clung to it.

How unkempt did he look? How should he have spent longer freshening up in the café? Wait, did he stink?!

The knob began to turn, and before he could even think about bolting, the front door swung open, revealing a petite, elderly woman with round spectacles, her hair pulled back into a bun.

"Yuji-kun?" She inquired, ruby eyes widening at the sight of him- and likely his bruised face. "Oh dear...What brings you all this way?"

"Hey, Morikawa-san..." He self-consciously pressed his hand to the injury, suddenly unable to meet her gaze. " wanted to see how Hyouka was doing...Could I speak to her?" He tentatively added.

"To Hyouka-chan?" A light frown came to Grandmother's pale face. "Well...I'm very sorry to tell you this, but I don't think she's ready for visitors..."

"Huh?" His heart skipped a beat.

"How should I say this..." The older woman murmured to herself, smoothing out her yukata. "Well...for the past week or so, she's closed herself off in her bedroom. I've been bringing her all her meals- she hasn't even come out to eat."


"She simply takes the food and leaves the dishes outside the door when she's done with them." Grandmother's frown deepened. "The only time she leaves her room is late at night- I've heard the faucet running in the bathroom at 3 AM."

His stomach sinking, all Yuji could do was press his lips together in a guilty grimace, staring down at his shoes. He felt awful, negligent even.

Shouldn't he have tried to reach out to her sooner? Was he at fault for letting her get this bad?

However, Grandmother seemed to read his mind, shaking her head as she gently reached out to grip his shoulders.

"Don't blame yourself for this, Yuji-kun." The woman's voice lowered an octave. "It's not as if she's answered anyone else's calls either. Her mother and father have been worried sick, though even they can't reach her. I suspect she's turned her phone off completely...which must be why Maizono-san dropped by the other day-"

"N-Natsumi came by?" Yuji interrupted.

"Yes, she did...though Hyouka-chan wouldn't leave her room even for her..."

His throat seized up at this. If even Natsumi- the doting girl who had no trouble bringing others out of their shell- couldn't manage to convince Hyouka to come out of her room, then what the hell did he have any hope in doing?

"I-I see..." Yuji swallowed roughly, a lump forming in his throat. "I...I didn't realize she felt this awful..."

"You had no way of knowing." Grandmother firmly assured him, her palms warm on his shoulders. "...Even I never expected her to shut the world out like this- it's never happened before."

"I'm sorry." Yuji bit his lip, lowering his head. "I-I should get going then...I don't wanna bother ya, knowing you're dealing with this..."

"In this heat?" The old women gave him an incredulous look. "Why, you've come all this way! I can't just send you home- you've been out here for who knows how long!"

"I'll be okay, Mori-"

"I insist!"


"Please come in for just a little while, Yuji-kun." Grandmother looked up at him with an expression of maternal concern. "It would give me peace of mind if you sat down and had some water."

The boy gnawed on his lower lip, averting his eyes. The woman- there was a bleakness in her tone, a sense of worry and desperation. He couldn’t imagine how lonely of a week she had just endured, with countless concerns about her granddaughter looming over her head.

”…I’ll come in then.” Yuji quietly agreed.

Grandmother smiled softly at him, stepping back to grant him entrance to the home.

“Thank you.”

"No problem..." Cool air washed over Yuji as he crossed the threshold, suddenly remembering what was in his hand. "Oh, right- I dunno how well it’s held up this whole time, but I made a stop on my way over here.” He held up the white bakery box, handing it to Grandmother. “This is for Hyouka.”

”Oh, how thoughtful of you!” Grandmother’s face lit up as she accepted it. “Strawberry- that's her favorite!”

"It is?" Yuji thought to himself as he kicked off his sneakers- it was the only dessert he was sure she liked, recalling her haughty request that fateful afternoon.

His memory had served him well, it seemed.

Leaving his shoes in the genkan, he followed Grandmother into the kitchen, the woman seeming to be in higher spirits as she set the box on the counter.

"Why don't you have a seat?" She smiled up at him, gesturing to the kitchen table.

"S-Sure..." He hesitantly agreed, pulling out a chair and sitting down.

"What would you like to drink, Yuji-kun? Water? Tea?"

"Water's okay." He mumbled, his gaze dropping to his hands.

"How are your injuries?" Grandmother opened the refrigerator to pour him a drink. "I see you have a splint now..."

"Oh, yeah." Yuji cleared his throat, chuckling humorlessly. "My hand and wrist are sprained, but that's about it. Everything looks way worse than it is."

"You poor thing." The woman frowned, setting the glass of water in front of him. "Can you see out of your left eye alright? It's still swollen..."

"Yeah I can- it's a lot better now, actually. It was almost swollen shut that...night..." His voice trailed off as Grandmother pulled out a chair, sitting across from him.

"Yuji-kun..." She sighed softly. "...What happened to Hyouka-chan on that beach? What happened to you and the other boys?"

The drum of his heartbeat grew quicker and louder in his chest, and he felt as if the wind had been knocked out of his lungs.

"All of you looked so battered at the train station- just plastered in bandages and gauze! Hyouka-chan hasn't told me anything about what occurred that day!" She shook her head, eyes fervent behind round spectacles. "I've been kept in the dark about the situation the entire time, so will you please tell me what happened?"

"...Natsumi didn't tell you?" Yuji asked numbly, fingers curling around his glass of water.

"Maizono-san didn't stay to talk." The old woman shook her head again. "Regardless, I want to hear the story from you."

He fell silent, staring down at the glass in his hands, at his distorted reflection in the water, at the patches of gauze and medical tape that plastered his split knuckles. His chest felt tight, his throat dry. The bruised finger impressions on his neck almost seemed to throb.

"There was a fight." Grandmother stated- it was not a question. Yuji nodded hollowly, lifting the glass to his lips to take a sip, the cold liquid running down his parched throat.

"...It happened around sunset." He began, the red haze vivid in his memory. "The guys and I were playing volleyball, and Hyouka and Natsumi went their own way, near the water. At some point, these two assholes started bothering them, so we came over to tell them to piss off. But things...escalated, and got physical." He apprehensively explained. "It was a full-on fight- at one point we even thought someone had called the cops on us."

"How awful..." The old woman murmured, but then her eyes narrowed. "...It wasn't your friends who started the fight, correct?"

"It wasn't us!" Yuji insisted. "I swear, we wouldn't start anything in public like that! They didn't give us much of a choice wh-when they..!" His voice trembled. "...when they..."

He recalled Sakamoto and Komori's cruel, taunting faces, Matsuzaki's arrogant expression of mockery. Their words were sadistic and remorseless as they leered down at Hyouka, forcing her to relive their most evil scheme to date.

His most evil scheme...

"They..." He swallowed roughly. "...were guys who used to bully her in middle school...and they brought up stuff that the paint thing..."

Grandmother gasped quietly, hand flying to cover her mouth, eyes wide as saucers.

"And..." He continued.

He was one of them.

"This third guy who showed up...back when Hyouka was new in town, he and his friends harassed her on the street." Yuji remembered the event vividly. "...He snatched her by the hair when she slapped him for getting too close, and I got punched when I came to help her. That was the day I walked her home for the first time, and met you..."

"That's horrible..." The old woman whispered. "What a small world we live in..."

"I know." Yuji mumbled, his fingers tightening around his glass of water. "And they hit first, so..."

"It really is such a shame..." Grandmother said quietly, removing her glasses and massaging the bridge of her nose. "Hyouka-chan...she was so hesitant to go on this trip- she's never been to the beach before, you see- and to have such...cruel brutes waiting for her...!"

For a moment, the old woman looked as if she might cry, squeezing her eyes shut.

"If I had known what would've happened if she had gone..." Grandmother shook her head sorrowfully, regretfully. "...I wouldn't have allowed it..."

"I'm sorry, Morikawa-san..." Yuji breathed out, staring down at his hands.

"It's not your fault, Yuji-kun! What they did to her- what they did to all of you-!" She looked up at him again- at his bruised face- laying a hand over his. "'s utterly unforgivable!"

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

His heart went into overdrive, beating almost as rapidly as it had that night on the beach, making his chest ache. His pulse thundered in his ears, guilt churning in his stomach, and he almost felt as if he were about to be stick.

"I-It is my fault." Yuji's stammered, hoping that the old woman couldn't feel his hand tremble beneath her palm.

"Please, don't blame yourself." Grandmother insisted, putting her glasses back on. "Honestly, I shouldn't blame myself either..." She murmured the latter part more to herself.

"No, it is my f-fault..." He shook his head, digging his nails into his palms in an attempt to keep them from shaking. "I...I'm responsible for this!"

"What are you talking about, Yuji-kun?" She looked bewildered by his outburst.

He sank his teeth into his bottom lip, biting down hard. His throat felt constricted, heart violently pounding in his chest. He was sure he was shaking now- he saw his fingers quiver.

"I bullied her..." His voice was scarcely a whisper, almost hoarse.

"What did you say?" Grandmother blinked. "Could you please speak up?"

"I was one of the people who bullied Hyouka in middle school!" He confessed, the words just pouring out. "I was horrible to her for all three years, and it...i-it was my idea to throw that paint on her!"

Yuji shamefully lifted his head to meet Grandmother's gaze, and he instantly regretted it. Her normally warm and welcoming eyes were unrecognizable- cold behind the lenses of her glasses. The sight chilled him to the core and left him winded, paralyzed as an old memory resurfaced.

Following the paint incident, he remembered sitting in the headmaster's office with his accomplices, slumped back in their chairs. A scowl marred his face, and two inky black handprints stained the shoulders of his gakuran- from when Hyouka had shoved him out of her way as she fled the room.

He had sat there while the older man reprimanded them for his behavior, the stern, angry words mostly going in one ear and out the other- at the time, he was more annoyed that he was even in trouble in the first place. Komori and Sakamoto's parents showed up first, the two boys taken out of the room by them.

But then his father walked through that door, and his blood ran cold.

The man was dressed in a wrinkled t-shirt and jeans, as if he had thrown on the first clothes he grabbed and hurried over, his grey-streaked hair unkempt. As his father took a seat across from the headmaster, Yuji was unable to process the words exchanged between them, drowned out as he watched him lower his head, bowing to the man and apologizing profusely. His father did not protest when he heard the cost of the damaged uniforms, grimly accepting it as he stood up, bowing one last time.

They trudged through the school in complete silence, and Yuji thought his heart would explode as they stepped through the open gates.

"I'm so disappointed in you." His father growled, eyes narrowed into a firm glare.

The boy felt like his chest had been skewered with a metal rod, keeping his mouth shut.

But then Grandmother's expression softened, the look of resentment in her gaze fading into one of benevolence.

"...Why did you ever want to hurt Hyouka-chan?" Her question was almost innocent, but carried a heaviness that pressed down upon his shoulders.

Yuji's lips parted as he tried to answer, but the words didn't come. His past behavior was utterly unjustified- how was he to just explain it to his former-victim's grandmother? The woman sat across from him, her question hanging in the air for a long, silent moment.

Taking a deep breath, he tried again.

"...I was a selfish brat who made my own pain her problem..." Yuji confessed, unable to meet her gaze. "She never did anything to deserve what happened- I took her for an easy target, and made middle school hell for her." He shook his head, struggling to hold back the shame in his tone. "I...I was a damn coward, thinking that I'd feel better if I made someone else hurt more than me..."

"Why were you hurting, Yuji-kun?" Grandmother's voice was soft and gentle- a voice he felt undeserving of. A pang of remorse struck his heart, guilt coursing through his veins.


He fell silent again, hesitating to answer, for he struggled to find the words to explain it.

But there really was no delicate way to say it, was there?

Taking in another weary breath, he finally spoke up.

"...When I was mom...killed herself..."


It was a cold, bright afternoon in Kyoto, a crispness to the late-March air.

Yuji's shoes scuffed against the pavement as he walked home from a friend's house, bundled up in his coat- an old hand-me-down of Yuma's- though he was warm and couldn't really complain. The straps of his backpack tugged against his shoulders, weighed down by the heavy books he had been pretending to study. In reality, they had just spent the day playing video games.

However, he couldn't bring himself to feel guilty. After all, spring break was coming- plum trees were scattered around the area, and they were in full bloom.

Even Yuji could appreciate their beauty.

Taking in a deep breath of the fresh air, he shoved his cold hands deeper into his pockets, picking up the pace. His house wasn't far, but he was starting to get hungry again, wondering what they'd have for dinner. The sound of tires whizzing down the road willed him to walk with a purpose.

Amongst the typical small cars, Yuji took notice of a long, old black vehicle that drove slowly, more cautiously. Its size was not the reason it caught his attention, but the small Buddhist temple built into its rear. Though traditional-style hearses were not rare in Kyoto, he couldn't help himself from marveling at the vehicle's grandness, covered in black lacquer and adorned with serpentine figures and delicate flowers carved from gold.

Watching it disappear down the street, Yuji kept walking, readjusting the straps on his backpack. The tips of his ears stinging from the cold, he hoped for warmer weather to come soon.

As he made his way through his neighborhood and approached his house, he took note of Yuma's bike, propped up against the mailbox. Careful not to knock it over as he walked up the path, he was surprised to find the front door slightly ajar, warm air wafting outside into the cold.

Odd- after all, he was always the one nagging Yuji about not closing doors properly.

Huffing softly, he pushed the door all the way open, stepping into the genkan. Heat pleasantly enveloped him as he shut the door behind him again, dropping his backpack onto the ground with a thud.

"I'm home!" He called out, leaned against the wall as he kicked off his sneakers, shrugging off his coat.

Surprisingly, no one welcomed him back. But they were definitely all home- the car was parked outside.

Instead, he heard a panicked gasp, followed by hushed voices talking to each other, coming from deeper into the house.

What was going on?

Brows furrowed, Yuji was quick to investigate, passing the empty kitchen and living room. As he approached the bedrooms, Yuma suddenly sprung out from their parent's doorway.

"Yuji!" His brother choked out, face pale and eyes wide. The boy sprang back with a startled yell.

"H-Hey! Why'd you jump out at me?!" Yuji demanded, glaring up at him.

"Go outside- now!" Yuma shoved at his shoulder, his cellphone pressed against his ear. "Don't come back in until we tell you!"


"Go, now!" He shoved him back again, before blocking the doorway with his arm. An unintelligible voice could be heard on the other side of the phone.

"What's up with you?!" Yuji stumbled back, his bewilderment turning to anger. "I'm gonna tell M-!"

His words died in his throat as he looked into his parent's bedroom, beyond Yuma's shoulder.

Their mother lay sprawled out on the ground, her face a pale blue color, eyes rolled back in their sockets. Knelt beside her was their father, sweat dripping down his forehead. Stacked on top of the other, his hands rhythmically pressed down on her chest and up again, the veins bulging in his arms as he desperately worked to resuscitate her. A deep red mark spanned across her throat, where a ligature had once been wrapped.

Above her head, partially obscured by her dark hair, was a thick white cord.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

The anger turned into paralyzing horror.

"M-MOM!?" Yuji gasped, his heart thundering in his chest, harder and faster until he thought it might crack his ribs. His pulse rushed through his ears, drowning out the sounds of everything around him as he rushed to her side, eyes burning as they widened. There were red spots in his mother's scleras, her cracked lips a deeper shade of blue, her fingertips the same color. His father turned his head, his sweat and tear-streaked face grey with grief, shouting something that he didn't process.

Who had done this to her?! Why?! How long had she been like this?! Would she ever wake up?! Was she-

His own vision became blurred, distorted. Yuma's phone clattered to the ground. Hands seized ahold of his arms as he was yanked back, dragged away from their parent's bedroom, away from the motionless body of their mother, their father still performing chest compressions on her.

"Let go of me!" Yuji shrieked as tears streamed down his face, thrashing about in his brother's grip, trying to dig his socked heels into the wood floor- to no avail. Yuma was stronger than him, his light brown eyes narrowed in desperate determination as he pulled him into their shared bedroom. Yuji fell forward, pain shooting up his hands and knees as he landed on the ground, the door shutting behind them.

"N-No!" Yuji stumbled to his feet, lunging towards it.

"Yuji, stop!" Yuma was quick to press his back to the door, arms blocking his path. "You'll get in Dad's way!"

"No!" He gripped the doorknob, desperately yanking on it, pleading. "Let me out! M-Mom! Sh-She's...!"

"You shouldn't have to see her like this!" Yuma barricaded the door with his body, keeping his head down. "I already called the-!"

"BUT SHE'S MY MOM!" Yuji sobbed out, desperately slamming his fists against his brother's chest, harder and harder. Chest heaving, his lungs were about to burst, throat seizing up as he choked on his tears, drowning in them. Aching all over, his body felt as heavy as lead, knees ready to give out from under him. His innards were on fire, his heart pummeling his ribs so quickly he thought they had shattered- but at the same time, he felt numb, hollow. His punches grew weaker and weaker, before stopping completely. The once warm house felt ice cold, and his will died with another part of him.

What was even the point of fighting anymore?

"...She really is gone...i-isn't she...?" Yuji breathed out softly, his voice cracking.

Letting out a strangled sob, Yuma finally broke down, throwing his arms around Yuji and burying his face in his hair, shoulders shaking uncontrollably as they sank to the ground, crying for their mother, hoping, praying that she would recover.

The sound of sirens was drowned out by the tears that spilled, overflowing until the house was filled with them.


Yuji could still feel the cold grip of loss around his heart, even nearly five years later.

"...And in the end...they pronounced her dead at the scene..." His voice was hoarse, throat tight as he tried to swallow the sorrow that threatened to come pouring out. That bleak spring day loomed over his head, the weight of the memory only pressing down upon his weary shoulders. "If I had known what she was planning...I never would've gone to my friend's house..."

Silence. Yuji's words hung somberly in the air, and neither he nor the old woman across him attempted to say anything.

He couldn't fault her for that, though. What was there to say?

Taking in a deep breath, the boy kept his head down, staring down at his bandaged knuckles. His eyes stung, his vision blurry and his jaw burning as he clenched it in vain attempt to contain his emotions- he felt pathetic, seeming so vulnerable after pouring his heart out like that. A tear traced its way down his cheek, then another, until soon they were falling freely.

"Yuji-kun." Grandmother's voice was soft. "Don't blame yourself. You were a child."

He didn't respond, shutting his eyes and holding his breath.

"And I'm very sorry for asking that question..." The woman gently laid a hand over his splinted one. "I had no idea that she had passed away..."

"...S'alright..." He managed, sniffling quietly.

"I offer you and your family my deepest condolences." Grandmother continued, her palm warm and comforting. "I can't imagine what it must've been like, to lose her so young, and in such a horrible way..."

"...It's no excuse for what I did to Hyouka, though..." He shook his head, regret coursing through his veins.

"...No, it isn't." Grandmother quietly agreed.

"...I'm sorry, Morikawa-san." Yuji rose from his chair, bowing remorsefully. "I'm so, so sorry...I wish I could take back every awful thing I did! It was weak of me to take my grief out on her!"

The boy then sank to his knees, bowing so deeply that his forehead touched the ground.

"I can't express how sorry I am for hurting her all those years, and I feel responsible for what happened to her that night on the beach!" He pressed himself further into dogeza, squeezing his eyes shut. "Please...forgive me!"

Yuji could feel Grandmother's shock, but he didn't dare move, prostrated on the ground.

"...Please, lift your head, Yuji-kun." She said at last.

Heart pounding as he blinked back more tears, he did as he was told, anxiously meeting her gaze. The old woman's pale face was calm and benevolent as she looked down at him.

"I humbly accept your apology, though it is not my place to forgive you. Seeing who was hurt, I'm sure you understand that only Hyouka-chan can do this, correct?"

"Y-Yes..." He placed his hands in his lap.

"However, having said this, I do recognize your change in character." Grandmother said. "Though at first I hadn't realized who you once were to Hyouka-chan, I now see you've grown close with her and have become someone she can rely upon. You were the first friend she had to ever walk her home, Yuji-kun. Did you know that?"

"R...Really?" The boy murmured.

"Yes, and while we're on the subject, you came to her defense that very same day, and took a punch for her in the process. Though you may claim responsibility for what happened on your trip, you still protected her then, didn't you?"

"Yeah, so did the others."

"But you left that fight the worst-off, didn't you?" She frowned, her gaze flickering across his still-healing face, and then down to his splinted arm. "To put your well-being on the line for someone else's sake is very honorable indeed."

"Well, she protected me too..." Yuji murmured, tugging down his shirt collar to better expose the bruised impressions left behind. "One of these guys had me on the ground, strangling me...and she came and bashed him in the head."

"It seems Hyouka-chan wants you to be able to rely on her, too." Grandmother said softly.

"I think I would've died if she hadn't done that..." He brushed his fingers across his throat, averting his eyes. "I was passing out when she stepped in..."

"And even after all that had happened, you were worried enough about Hyouka-chan to come looking for her." The woman mused. "...So please, Yuji-kun, get up from the floor- there's no need for you to put yourself there."

Wiping his eyes, the boy slowly got to his feet, bowing to her again.

"Thank you, Morikawa-san..."

Grandmother then bowed her own head.

"And thank you, Yuji-kun, for having the integrity to give me closure for everything that has happened."

He nodded slowly, biting his lip as he straightened up again. His head throbbed- probably from the tears he had shed.

"...I should probably get going, then. I didn't mean to stay as long as I did."

"Very well." Grandmother rose from her chair, smoothing out her yukata. "You should at least finish your water though, before you go out into that heat again."

Reaching for his glass, Yuji downed it as if it were something stronger, the cool liquid feeling like a lifeline as it ran down his throat. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled roughly.

"...Thanks." He set it down again, stepping out of the kitchen and into the genkan, with Grandmother not far behind. "Make sure you let Hyouka know I stopped by, and give her that c-"

Heart skipping a beat, his words froze in his throat, golden eyes widening as he looked up.

At the top of the stairs sat Hyouka Morikawa, knees drawn up and hugged to her chest, her arms covered in the loose sleeves of a pink sweater. In that moment, time seemed to stand still, though Yuji’s heart pounded rapidly.

For how long had she been there?! How much had she heard him say?!

Vivid red eyes regarded him, though her enigmatic expression didn’t convey much- as if she hadn’t been eavesdropping- her pale face as unreadable as a noh mask. The girl’s usual red ribbon bows were absent, her long white hair cascading down her back, unbrushed strands sticking out from the rest. A pair of thin, oval-framed glasses were perched upon the bridge of her nose- an unexpected sight that Yuji hadn’t seen in years.

However, these ones weren’t held together by tape.

His chest tightened at the realization, remembering the day her glasses had been broken beyond the point of repair. Instinctively, he looked further beyond her lenses. Hyouka’s eyelashes were startlingly pale now- the same white color as the rest of her hair- a stark contrast to her crimson irises, as well as the darker color they usually were. Her eyebrows were now also white, just barely distinguishable from her porcelain face, which was devoid of what little color it usually had.

Yuji instantly felt stupid for not realizing sooner- of course she had been wearing makeup. How had he not noticed that she used mascara?

Suddenly, Hyouka stood up, silently looming over him, her legs pale and slender. The boy caught a glimpse of several small, faint scars that littered her bare knees- marks from old injuries that remained even years later- and quickly averted his eyes as he stepped back, unable to meet her gaze.

However, Hyouka stepped forward; one foot, then the other. Her strides were weightless and graceful as she slowly descended the staircase, towards him. Yuji was paralyzed as he watched her come closer and closer, his feet rooted to the ground and his heartbeat reverberating in his ears. Looking around in a panic, he saw that Grandmother was now gone.

The girl finally stepped onto even ground, standing before Yuji. Throwing her arms around his waist, her long hair flowed behind her as she buried her face in his chest.

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Yuji’s eyes widened like saucers, his breath hitching in his throat as he gaped down at her, his arms hovering uncertainly at his sides. His heart pummeled his ribcage, and as Hyouka’s arms tightened around him, he wondered if she could hear it too.

With his cheeks on fire, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her closer, digging his flushed face into her hair. Squeezing his eyes shut, he felt her fingers curl around the fabric of his shirt, gripping it tightly, and his body seemed to grow heavier by the second. Taking a deep breath, his legs slowly gave out from under him, his knees softly hitting the floor, and so did hers.

A long moment later, Hyouka was the first to pull away, knelt in front of him. Her features were even more ethereal up close, but Yuji noticed deep purple bruises under her tired eyes.

"...I was worried about you, y'know..." He mumbled, looking down at her.

"I'm sorry." Hyouka apologized, her voice quiet, though a wry smile crossed her face. "...I see you couldn't wait to see me again."

"Can you blame me?" He huffed, averting his gaze.

"It's nice to see you again, too." She admitted, gently prodding his cheek. "Even if you're a little worse for wear..."

"Ouch..." He grimaced, swatting her hand away and covering the bruised side of his face. "Well, y-you're looking different too...I forgot you still wear glasses..."

"...It's a privilege to see me looking unlike my usual self." Hyouka murmured, running a self-conscious hand through her unkempt hair. "Don't get used to it- I wasn't anticipating visitors."

"I bet..." For a moment, he hesitated. "...You pretty much dropped off the face of the earth- why didn't you respond to anyone's calls?"

The girl was silent as she reached into the pocket of her shorts, pulling her phone out and turning it on.

"...I needed the time to be alone with my thoughts, and think about everything that happened..."

She pressed a button to switch off airplane mode, and her phone vibrated. A barrage of notifications came flooding in, filling her screen. Yuji's eyes bugged out in disbelief at the amount.

Hyouka stared down at it for a long moment, sighing as she set it aside, new notifications continuing to appear.

"...That's what I told myself, at least." She tugged on the cuffs of her sweater, pressing her lips together. "...Honestly, I couldn't bear to face the world after everything...what are the odds of all three of them showing up?"

"No kidding..."

"That day was just..." Her voice trailed off.. "Ugh...I hate how I broke down in front of everyone like that!" She shook her head, rubbing her temples. "How humiliating...crying in front of other people...!"

"Hey, if it makes you feel any better, I did too..." Yuji begrudgingly reminded her, the tips of his ears heating up. "...And I was crying on the floor in front of your grandma...."

"It seems we're both pathetic, aren't we?" Hyouka smiled sourly, though she couldn't help but chuckle as she picked up her phone again, scrolling down her notification wall. "How tedious...I suppose I can't hide from the world any longer, hm?"

"Nope- I don't even wanna imagine how many messages you have to return..."

"I have a lot of people to apologize to, for worrying them." She shook her head somberly. "School is starting again, regardless." She added, glancing down at his splint. "How are you going to write notes?"

"Ugh, that's right!" Yuji groaned, gritting his teeth and pulling on his hair. "Goddammit...! I don't even wanna think about that right now!"

"You poor thing." Hyouka mused monotonously. "After spending a week sleeping on the couch, playing video games and eating snacks."

"Huh?!" His jaw dropped. "How do you know anything about that?!"

She held up her phone, showing him a photo. Yuma's smiling face was illuminated by the blue light of the TV, and in the background was the couch on which Yuji lay, his eyes shut and mouth hanging open. A controller rested on top of his chest, a few crumpled wrappers and bags peeking out from behind his brother's peace sign.

"Yuma?!" He glared at her screen in indignation, his pupils shrinking. "Ugh, that...assweasel! I'm punching his lights out the next time I see him!"

"Are you in any shape to fight him?" Hyouka raised a brow, sliding her phone back into her pocket.

"I've got two hands for a reason!" Yuji retorted, holding up his other fist.

Shaking her head and smiling despite herself, Hyouka got to her feet, extending a hand to him.

"Well, I'm sure he's waiting for you back home."

"Oh, that's right!" Yuji's eyes widened in realization as he pulled himself up. "I was on my way out before you jumped me!"

"Jumped you? I simply wanted to express how I missed my loyal dog." Hyouka lifted her chin haughtily, folding her arms over her chest.

"I-I didn't say I minded, d-did I?" He scowled back, his cheeks heating up again. "J-Jeez..."

"Oh?" A faint smirk crept to her face as she pushed up her glasses. "I suppose I'll keep that in mind, then."

"A-Anyways!" Yuji changed the subject, holding onto the wall as he shoved his feet back into shoes. "I brought you some strawberry shortcake- I dunno if it's still edible, but if it is, I hope you like it!"

"What did you do to it?" Hyouka looked mildly perturbed by this.

"Nothing, I bought it on my way over here! It just took me a while to get to your house!"

"How thoughtful of you." Her expression softened. "I'm sure I'll enjoy it."

"D-Don't mention it..." He straightened up again, his heart skipping a beat. "I'll be off, then!"

"Try not to pass out in the street." Hyouka mused, opening the door to let him out, before stepping onto the front porch herself.

"I won't!" He insisted, the sweltering summer heat hitting him like a slap in the face. "I'm not the one wearing a sweater in August, smart one!"

"I'll see you at school on Monday, mongrel."

"Ugh, don't remind me!" The boy complained, jumping off the porch and turning to shoot her a dirty look.

Hyouka, however, lifted her hand in a wave, a teasing smile on her face.

"Goodbye, Yuji~"

Eyes widening at the sound of his given name, Yuji tried to repress his shock, clamping a hand over his warm cheek.

"...B-Bye..." He managed to choke out, turning back around and quickly shuffling down the sidewalk, shoving his hands into his pockets. The humidity clung to his skin, and he could still hear his pulse thundering in his ear.

Unable to help himself from glancing over his shoulder, he found Hyouka still waving at his retreating form, before finally slipping back inside the house, pulling the door shut behind her.

Even though it was unbearably hot and he was exhausted, with his head throbbing painfully, Yuji felt good- better than he had the night before. It was as if an impossibly heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders, his footsteps feeling lighter as he walked.

Looking up at the blue sky, he stopped to watch the clouds leisurely drift by.

Though the journey had been long, exhausting, and even painful at times, he couldn't help but feel relieved.