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Story: [Her Heartbeat]

Summary: Yutaka's health gives out. Misao makes a habit of taking detours past the hospital.

Genre: Romance, Drama

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Disclaimer: I don't own anything.

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Of course she'd noticed the mood. She was cheerful and loud, but that didn't make her an idiot.

Konata was pale, those younger girls who they sometimes hung out with looked kind of shell-shocked, and even Kagami and the others were worried.

And-... wasn't there one girl missing? That small, short one. The one who was always next to the taller, stoic one. Konata's cousin. Yutaka, was it?

So, even if it wasn't something they wanted to talk about, she asked. She asked because she was a friend, and she was a little bit worried about whatever it might be that had the rest of them so obviously distraught.

Collapsed. Yutaka had collapsed, a fever suddenly revealed. And she was now in the hospital. The hospital that she'd already spent so much time in due to her fragile health.

Misao winced a bit at the thought of it, but she was going to be alright, wasn't she? Her health might be fragile, but she seemed to have bounced back just fine before, so there wasn't any need to be all pale and worried over it, right?

Except Konata was worried. Really worried. Worried enough that she didn't even try cracking any of her usual stupid jokes, or rile up Kagami, or come up with lame excuses for not doing her homework. Heck, if Tsukasa was to be believed, the girl had barely responded at all when their teacher had scolded her for it. Kind of just hunching in on herself in a disturbingly uncharacteristic way.

By lunch, it was reaching the point where Kagami had to coax the girl into actually eating.

It was... worrying.

And so of course, everyone wanted to check in on Yutaka the moment school ended, just to make sure that Konata was just being an uncharacteristic worrywart for some reason. After all, everyone had things that they got overly worried about, didn't they? It was just that normally that kind of thing seemed to revolve entirely around anime for Konata.

Besides Konata, the one fretting the most was Minami, even if at first glance she didn't seem to be. Apparently the girl's stoic tendencies got worse depending on how worried she was about something. The only reason they had any clue about it at all was from how the girl's hands were shaking so hard that she'd barely been able to eat during lunch.

Not particularly invested in the small girl's health herself, Misao still didn't fell nearly rude enough to say that out loud. Besides, 'a friend of a friend' was still a friend, right? So obviously she needed to go along with them to the hospital to wish the girl well.

Ayano seemed to be of a similar mind-set, though she was probably ultra-nice enough not to even really register that 'not visiting' was technically an available option in the first place.

XXX

She looked even smaller than Misao remembered her, bundled up within the sheets of the hospital bed. Her skin so pale that it reminded Misao more of that weirdly thin paper that could be torn apart by scraping a fingernail across it, than of actual skin.

Even her hair seemed to have gone paler somehow, but that was probably only her imagination, or some weird effect of the hospital lighting.

She seemed to be cheered by them showing up though, even if she looked tired.

Konata made a few jokes, and Kagami's smacks were a lot gentler than usual, bu that was only to be expected really. Especially with how forced Konata's voice sometimes ended up sounding.

Hiyori said something about 'health' being more important than 'inspiration', along with the more appropriate well-wishing, whatever that meant. Patricia tried to keep the mood as upbeat as she could make it, combining forces with Konata more often than not. Tsukasa, Ayano and Miyuki all seemed to have decided on holding a conversation going, letting Yutaka or the others intrude on it whenever they wished, but also keeping the mood around them 'normal'.

And Minami was trying to pretend that her hands weren't shaking. From the sad, worried glances that Yutaka kept sending the taller girl, Minami wasn't doing very well at it. Out of everyone, she was clearly the one who worried the most about the smaller girl, though whether that was their closeness or because Minami – unlike Konata – was actually a natural worrywart, Misao didn't know enough to say.

It was kind of disturbing how – despite the conversation and the jokes – the mood remained so gloomy. Not just because of the whole 'being in the hospital'-thing, but more because Misao kept having the really uncomfortable feeling that they weren't so much there to 'wish her better' as they were there to 'say goodbye'.

Yutaka's smile was fond, but sad. Konata kept looking a bit like she wanted to cry whenever she thought that nobody was watching. And Minami was on the verge of tears more than once.

Misao wondered if she ought to feel more than uncomfortable about it. After all, it was the looming death of a kouhai, a friend of a friend, and a very nice girl. But apparently she wasn't emotionally close enough to the girl to really cry about it. It was sad that her health was failing, it was a shame that it had to happen to such a sweet girl, but Misao had never really figured out how to cry about things that didn't directly effect herself.

Still, she tried to keep up with the conversation, and throw in a few jokes of her own into the mix, mostly because it made Yutaka smile. Though Misao couldn't help but wonder if the reason she wanted the small girl to smile so badly was because she didn't feel as sad about the girl's situation as she probably ought to.

And then their visit came to an end, ushered out by what was probably a nurse – Misao didn't have enough experience with hospital to really have a clue on how to tell – leaving them standing outside by a parking lot.

Konata broke down crying into Kagami's arms, Minami was dragged into a hug between Patricia and Hiyori, Ayano bowed politely and made her excuses to catch the bus, Tsukasa and Miyuki politely pretended not to see Konata being comforted, and Misao turned back to stare at the hospital.

She wasn't entirely sure why she hadn't immediately run off with Ayano, even if she didn't actually have anything time-sensitive on her schedule for the day. Nobody could've blamed her for stepping away and letting these people who actually cared about Yutaka feel miserable about it on their own. But it felt wrong somehow to cut and run when she couldn't feel even half as distressed as her friends did.

Finally, after a long time, Minami was calm enough to stop shaking, and Patricia and Hiyori surrendered her to Miyuki who promised to take her home, her face unusually serious. Then, they too made their excuses to disappear homeward.

A bit later, it turned out that Tsukasa had called Konata's dad, who came to pick up the still crying Konata. He looked just as miserable as his daughter did, and kept shooting awkward glances towards the hospital.

Then Kagami and Tsukasa made their own way home, obviously exhausted.

And Misao stared at the hospital and wondered why she was still there, intruding on the miseries of people whose grief she didn't share.

XXX

The mood was still crap.

Konata was teetering on the edge of being downright unable to function, and Kagami was checking in on her regardless of their classes with a degree of fretting that made Misao wonder exactly how close those two really were.

Minami had to be excused from classes, apparently. Though if it was because she couldn't concentrate properly, or due to the girl having some kind of nervous breakdown, Misao didn't know. She did know that Hiyori and Patricia were skipping class to be with her, and that Miyuki was worried about her.

Ayano seemed to be distancing herself from the whole mess, trying to let the group of 'true mourners' work their way through things on their own terms. A distant support, but mostly simply someone not included deeply enough to risk offering much of anything to the ones who were actually effected.

Tsukasa was running some king of 'support of the support'-thing with Kagami and Konata, where she mostly tried to keep Kagami from worrying herself to the bone about Konata. Misao tried to help her out where she could, but her jokes were probably a bit too close in nature to Konata's for it to really do much good. Misao was pretty sure she was simply reminding Kagami of how miserable Konata currently was, but being the 'cheerful idiot' in her place.

Still, she tried, and that had to count for something, right?

Of course, lingering on the edges of things the way she did, Misao picked up on a lot of little clues.

Konata's mother had always had a fragile health, and she'd died before Konata could really remember. Yutaka's health was fragile, and she was hospitalized, and the doctors were using a lot of of complicated words that all loosely translated into 'bad stuff'. The connections were there, and it was hitting her entire family hard.

Yutaka had an older sister who was apparently trying to file for leave in order to watch over her, but it was kind of running into a lot of red tape for some reason. Konata was a pseudo-sister herself, and was taking it pretty hard. And Konata's dad was an absolute emotional wreck of the thought of visiting the sickly girl in the hospital.

Apparently, Yutaka and Konata's mom had more in common than simply their health, and he couldn't quite handle just how similar they looked in their respective hospital beds. Or, possibly, how horrifyingly worried he was that one day it would be Konata in that bed, instead of her cousin.

It was all actually kind of ridiculous, if one had a morbid enough sense of humor. With how heavily influenced everyone was by the high likelihood that Yutaka wouldn't be recovering this time, everyone had kind of leapt straight into the mourning-stage of death.

As in, instead of being able to visit the girl in her hospital room and cheer her up during whatever little time they had left, they kind of just curled up in a corner and cried about how unfair the world was. Sure, that was in no small part because everyone loved her too much to really accept the thought of her disappearing forever, but that didn't make it any less ridiculous.

Which was why Misao – the mostly unaffected person that she was – decided to bite the bullet and do the whole 'cheering up'-thing on her own.

Her knuckles made a soft sound against the wood of the door. Or were doors like these even made of wood? They kind of looked like they might've been, but plastics could be deceptive and weird, so it was hard to tell.

Opening the door enough to peek through a crack, Misao spotted Yutaka staring out through the window, apparently lost enough in thought that she hadn't even heard her knocking.

It was pretty enough view, Misao thought. Kind of sterile in a way, with the nature outside being a bit too carefully groomed to feel 'natural' to Misao's eyes, but – for being inside of a city – it was nice. The leaves were changing colors right about now, too, so there was that.

It kind of made her wonder if Yutaka would survive long enough to see winter come, or if her last moments would be surrounded by the bizarrely bright colors of autumn.

Resisting the impulse to sneak up on the sickly girl and scare her – because that would probably not to her health any favors, and Misao wasn't a complete moron – Misao sneezed.

Or well, she'd tried to cough, but it kind of got stuck somewhere along the way, and then her nose started to itch, and that was how she'd managed to sneeze. Thankfully, her sneezes weren't anywhere near as ridiculously loud as Konata's, or else that whole 'not scaring her'-thing would've completely fallen through.

Making a slightly disgusted face as she swiped at her still-tingling nose, Misao gave the small girl a grin. "Yo."

Yutaka blinked at her confusedly, bending her head a little to see if there was anyone hiding behind her. "Umm... Kusakabe-senpai?"

"Ah, sorry to intrude." Misao said, suddenly recalling just how fiercely Ayano had beaten politeness into her head over the years. "I was kind of in the neighborhood, and thought I should at least drop by to say 'hi'."

Whether due to luck or some benevolent passing-by kami of awkwardness, the rest of their conversation flowed a lot more smoothly than that.

And apparently, from the stories they had to compare, Yutaka was nearly as bad at video-games as Misao was. Which was ridiculous, because Misao could've sworn she wasn't nearly bad enough to be pitied by someone of Yutaka's caliber.

Then again, perhaps it was just that she mostly only played against Kagami, and how that girl was scarily good at them. It was hard to say.

XXX

Misao wasn't entirely sure why she went back there.

It wasn't that much of a detour to make on her way home from school, true. But it was a detour, and Misao generally had reasons for taking those. Even if the reasons sometimes amounted to nothing more than a faint desire to not take the same road every day.

Perhaps it was the adorably confused face Yutaka had made when Misao had greeted her, perhaps it was seeing her smile so much easier than during that one suffocating visit Misao had first taken part of, perhaps it was that she'd looked so much older than her age when Misao had first seen her stare out through that window all by her lonesome, or perhaps it was that Yutaka had looked sad to see her go when the visit was over.

Perhaps it was simply the fact that Misao's heart had hurt a little bit when her 'see you' was returned with a 'goodbye'.

Either way, no matter what her actual reasoning for it might've been, Misao visited again.

The hospital room was as blank as always, though apparently either Konata or one of her other friends had dropped off some manga. Also a few books, so it had probably been Konata with Kagami trailing in her wake.

Kagami had always like to read.

"Yo!" Misao grinned as she waved a little at the girl in her bed.

"Ah, Kusakabe-senpai." Yutaka looked up from where she'd been reading the book, clearly a little bit surprised at seeing her again, but not unpleasantly so.

From how quickly Yutaka put down the book in question, Misao was willing to bey that Kagami hadn't found a willing convert to her fascination with books.

Her grin stretching a little wider at the thought, Misao sat down in an available chair.

XXX

Misao stared at the annoying midget who so often monopolized Kagami's time, but who usually never deigned to talk to herself. "Huh?"

Konata made a face. "It's not that I don't-..." She made an aborted gesture with her hands, clearly frustrated as she searched for the right words. "Yutaka enjoys your visits, but I'd like to have an explanation for them."

Which made a certain amount of sense, to be fair. Misao wasn't a close friend to either Konata or Yutaka, and yet she was one of the ill girl's most frequent visitors. Appreciated though it might be, it probably set off a lot of protectiveness-alarms from Konata's side of things.

Unfortunately, Misao hadn't quite managed to figure out the answer to that question heself, yet. Though she might admittedly not have been curious enough to try digging too deeply into her own motivations.

It wasn't really that big of an inconvenience to drop by the hospital on her way home from school, and Yutaka was nice enough to talk to – even if half the time Misao was the only one who actually talked, by bragging randomly of something she'd managed to pull off in track-and-field that day. But she couldn't really put a finger on any specific reason for visiting.

Obligation? Except she'd never really been the type to do what someone asked of her – unless they had a very large stick to smack her over the head with, but even then she'd mostly learned that particular distinction the hard way. And, besides that, visiting Yutaka didn't feel like a chore – which obligatory things always seemed to be. It was simply a perfectly natural stop on her way home from school.

Kind of like a bus-stop, only with a person instead of an inconvenient location. A person who was pleasant to talk to. It was a weird way of describing it, but by now her visits felt more like a comfortable habit than anything else.

"Dunno." She finally admitted with a shrug. "She's nice to talk to, and it's not that big of a detour for me to drop by."

It felt a bit too shallow to be a proper explanation, but it was the best way Misao could think of to describe it without it starting to sound really weird.

And how was she supposed to say that Yutaka always somehow managed to look extra-miserable whenever anyone else had just visited her? That the ill girl wasn't dense enough to not notice how blatantly pained the people she loved were by her illness, and how that seemed to wear her down to the bone?

If Misao stopped visiting, then Yutaka would be surrounded by that and only that all the time. And that just felt cruel.

Thankfully, Konata seemed willing to accept her word for it, and stopped pushing.

Which, in hindsight, was probably just another symptom of how badly she was being affected by it all. Usually, Konata would've at least tried to get a Kagami-like tsundere-type reaction from her before stopping.

Not that she would've succeeded, mind you. But it was weird that she didn't even try.

XXX

"Senpai?" Yutaka answered her usual greeting, her head turning in the general direction of the door.

Misao blinked, not quite sure why the girl sounded so uncertain about it. "Yeah?"

Yutaka still didn't really look at her, but she smiled. The expression looked more sad than anything though. "I can't see you, senpai. Everything is dark."

It took Misao a moment to realize what that actually meant, and when she did, she hurried over to the recently-blinded girl's bedside.

"It's so dark." Yutaka scrubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her hospital gown as Misao took her other hand in her own.

Misao wasn't really sure what she was supposed to say to that. It wasn't as if anything she didd would be able to make losing her eyesight better, right? But that didn't mean she shouldn't at least try. "Well... at least you won't have to stare at these sucky hospital-walls anymore?"

Yutaka paused, then giggled. A weird hiccup-sound to go with her wet eyes. "That's awful senpai."

Misao grinned, perfectly content to admit to that, as long as it made the girl happy.

XXX

"Am I scary?" Yutaka asked her in a lull of the conversation.

Misao felt her brain kind of screech to a halt in a way much akin to a particularly rusty set of gears. "Huh?"

"Am I scary?" She asked again.

Misao stared at the small girl, bundled up in between sheets as she was, thin and pale with illness. "You're as terrifying as a newborn kitten."

Yutaka pouted at her. "I'm serious."

Misao gave the girl another considering glance, before dismissing the thought of Yutaka as 'scary' forever from her mind. "Not really, why?"

Yutaka squeezed the hand she was holding, her face conflicted. "It's... not really my place to say."

Misao blinked at her, tilting her head in thought before narrowing her eyes in suspicion. "This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with Iwasaki-san, would it?"

Yutaka rather visibly flinched, guilty. She turned slightly away from Misao, though it only made her 'gaze' shift from the general direction of Misao's chest to a blank hospital wall, rather than towards the actual window. "Minami-chan-..." She paused, visibly fumbling for words. "Minami-chan was so scared, her hands were shaking."

Misao couldn't really imagine the stoic girl being scared – despite the way she'd seen the girl fretting more than once – but then she couldn't really imagine Kagami having wild sex with Konata, and she was pretty damn sure that kind of thing wouldn't be far off from whatever it was those two usually spent their time doing – it would certainly explain why they kept insisting on doing it by their lonesome. So, instead of saying anything, she kept her mouth shut and gave Yutaka's hands a comforting squeeze.

"She's my best friend, you know?" Yutaka shook her head, lips twitching upwards. "I've always admired her, and she looks kind of cool, even when she's really nice."

Misao was still in the middle of trying to figure out exactly how that related to Yutaka being worried that she was 'scary', or why Minami would be scared in the first place. But she was patient enough to let Yutaka's rambling continue until it started making sense, even if she felt oddly irritated about the way Yutaka was talking about the other girl.

"But... she's my friend." Yutaka continued. "I was a little bit shocked, and I thought they were joking at first because I couldn't imagine it at all, but she's my friend." Yutaka made a strange face. "I still can't imagine it at all. And I'm a little bit worried that they'll end up hurt. But-..." Yutaka faltered, turning back to Misao, her perfectly clear eyes aimed at a point somewhere to the left of Misao's head. "Senpai, how do people date more than one person at once?"

Misao suddenly felt a little bit like someone had dropped a sack of flour on her head.

Seriously, when had the conversation turned to people's love-lives?! And what did that have to do with Minami?! And how was she even supposed to answer a question like that in the first place?! She didn't know anything about romance! Ayano would've been a much better person to ask, at least that girl watched soaps and stuff. But Ayano wasn't really there, and for some reason Yutaka was turning to Misao for experienced advice about love.

Mouth dry, even as she nearly managed to choke, Misao stared at the smaller girl's earnest face. "I have no clue." She answered as honestly as she could, before hurrying to add. "But to be fair, I don't really have a clue about romance in general, either." She fumbled for some kind of reassuring words as Yutaka's face fell. "But Ayano described dating as a bit like friendship? Only with more kissing and stuff? So it'd be like having... more than two best friends, or something?"

Yutaka made a thoughtful face. "I guess that makes sense." She sighed, the serious mood fading away. "And I'm glad that they're there for her." She smiled. "Even if I can't really imagine them kissing at all."

Minami was dating two people. Misao suddenly felt woefully inadequate as their senpai. She was supposed to be the experienced one, and she hadn't even lost her first kiss or anything, and yet her kouhai was dating two people at once. Her faith in life was forever ruined.

"So... Iwasaki-san was scared over how you'd react?" Misao tried to figure out the series of events.

Yutaka hesitated, but nodded. "Hiyori-chan has been using the two of us for inspiration to her romance-stories since forever. I guess she was afraid that there might've been something more than 'friends' in how I felt about Minami-chan." She giggled. "Minami-chan's hands were shaking, but I'm pretty sure Hiyori-chan nearly had a heart-attack."

Misao grinned along with her, but turned that last sentence around in her head for a bit more. That sounded like Hiyori had accompanied Minami, which meant that she would've been aware of the dating-thing already. Except-... why would Hiyori have been worried about it?

The image of three girls huddling close together – both after that first hospital-visit, but then again later in glimpses she'd caught between class – passed through Misao's head. She felt her jaw drop. "Iwasaki-san is dating Patricia and Tamura-san?"

Yutaka startled, suddenly panicked. "You can't tell anyone!"

Misao held up her hands in surrender, only belatedly realizing that the smaller girl couldn't actually see that, and quickly vocalized it. "I won't. I won't say anything at all, to anyone. Don't worry."

Yutaka calmed down, nodding gratefully. "Thank you."

"No worries, no worries." Misao waved it off.

Still though, Misao had to agree with Yutaka. She couldn't imagine those three kissing at all. It was easier to imagine Tsukasa making out with Miyuki in the middle of a crowded hallway, than it was to imagine those three dating. Even if it was still a tiny little bit easier for her to imagine than Konata and Kagami having sex.

How did two girls even have sex in the first place?

Misao, suddenly struck by curiosity, decided that she should probably look that up or something.

XXX

It was a bit weird to realize that the hospital staff knew her now. If not by name, then at least by sight.

She knew that she visited a lot, but it was still a bit strange to realize that she'd somehow inadvertently become a fixture in the lives of people she didn't know. Misao was in fact pretty sure that there were rumors and wanton speculation – possibly even betting-pools, though she doubted anyone would've told her about those even if they'd existed – about why she visited so often.

They weren't related, they weren't classmates, they weren't dating, they didn't share club-activities, and they'd barely even talked before.

There was no reason at all for Misao to always show up every day the way she was doing. At least nothing that seemed to make any sense. But Misao couldn't quite imagine forcing herself to stop doing it. Yutaka enjoyed her visits, and she enjoyed visiting, and – even if Misao didn't have a clue as to why she was doing it – that didn't mean that she should stop.

They were friends now, even if it was probably a very strange kind of friendship.

Knocking on the door, and saying the same cheerful 'hello' that she always did, Misao entered the room.

And then Yutaka started crying.

Panicking at the abrupt change from the norm, Misao rushed over to her. And somehow she ended up with an armful of crying girl as a result.

Not entirely sure how to deal with that, Misao tried for the kind of comfort-hug she'd seen Kagami giving Konata all over the place. Stroking her hair and making soothing noises. It seemed to help, so she probably wasn't screwing it up completely.

It took her nearly half-an-hour before she finally managed to figure out why she'd started crying.

Yutaka had lost all feeling in her legs. All of it.

On top of the blindness, she was now also completely unable to walk. It was a sobering reminder of the reason why Yutaka was stuck in the hospital. Even if from the half-choked sentences and choice of words, it seemed like Yutaka's reaction had to do more with something other than that. Or rather, it had to do with her being forced to abandon a pleasant daydream she'd apparently been entertaining about joining the track-club with Misao one day.

Which was a shame, because it would've been fun to run with Yutaka like that. Maybe she could've even chased Misao around the track, being her 'terrifying' self. Puffing herself up like a fluffy kitten all the while.

Misao wasn't entirely sure when she started crying too.

XXX

Misao knew that Konata still visited, that Minami still dropped by, that Yui would sometimes pass her in the corridors as they exchanged Yutaka-shifts, and that even Sojirou managed to drag himself into the hospital and pretend to be cheerful.

But somehow, she got the feeling that she was the only one visiting Yutaka.

It was a strange and irrational feeling, and it didn't really have anything to do with much of anything. It was just that Yutaka would always brighten when she arrived, as if there was nobody else she'd been able to talk to for days, instead of however long it'd actually been.

So when she opened the door with her regular 'hello', she was oddly hurt when Yutaka's face continued to stay the same. Her expression didn't twitch, her blind eyes still staring out through a window she couldn't see.

A little hesitant, Misao closed the door and watched Yutaka turn in her direction with a start.

"S-Senpai? Is that you?" She sounded almost terrified for some reason.

"Yup, it's-"

"I-I can't hear you, senpai." Yutaka interrupted her, almost in tears. "Is that you, senpai?"

The smile that had been slowly fading ever since she'd entered the room crumbled completely, and Misao hurried over to the girl's side.

Wrapping the girl in a hug was perhaps a little bit much for a greeting, but it wasn't as if Misao had any other way to communicate with her. She couldn't hear her voice, and she couldn't see her face. The only reason she'd even noticed the door closing had been because of the vibrations it'd caused. Touch was the only way they had left.

Yutaka trembled a little bit in her arms, but she hugged her back just as tightly.

It was awkward and cumbersome, but after a while they calmed down enough that they could communicate by having Misao spelling out words in Yutaka's palm.

Not that she could really think of much to write once Yutaka confessed what the doctors had told her.

They were counting hours now. Not days, or weeks, or months. Hours. And there was no miracle-cure coming, nothing they could do except watch her die.

Her family would be arriving soon, rushing from wherever they'd been when the hospital had called them. In hindsight, Misao was almost impressed that she'd somehow managed to be the first one to arrive, unknowing as she'd been.

Even Sojirou showed up, red-eyed and blatantly miserable.

Misao would've probably tried to give them some privacy, if Yutaka had ever let go of her hand.

In the end however, even that rush of final goodbyes came to an end, and Yui went off to arrange for staying the night in her room.

For a moment, Misao was left alone with Yutaka, holding her hand in her own, and feeling more than a bit out of her depth.

Yutaka's fingers were trembling, and the way she shifted her arms was slow and deliberate enough that Misao sincerely suspected that it was painful to her. So when Yutaka pulled her closer with all the strength of someone handling a newborn kitten, Misao leaned in without a thought.

And lips met lips.

It tasted a bit salty.

Misao stared at blind half-open eyes, and wasn't sure if she should laugh or cry.

Why did her chest suddenly hurt so much more than it used to?

She kissed her back.

XXX

Misao woke up to the sound of a heart-beat monitor flatlining.

She couldn't remember much after that. Her awareness of the world slipping away into a blur of noise and panicked activity.

She couldn't quite remembered what had happened that day, but she was pretty sure someone had driven her home, because she woke up in her own bed.

That same morning, she showed up bright and early at the hospital again. This time for herself, and for her fractured knuckles. She probably wasn't quite past being dazed, and the sound of her alarm clock still echoed that hauntingly familiar tone in her ears.

Her knuckles hurt, and she was scolded for being reckless, but she didn't regret it at all.

The closest she came to regret was a faint sting of guilt at scaring her parents awake by nearly tearing apart her entire room in her struggle to kill that horrible noise with her bare hands.

XXX

The sun was shining, and Misao didn't know what to do.

She'd gone back to school, but even among the sympathy and the tears, all she felt was numb.

And now there was nothing to do.

School was over for the day, and she supposed that she was on her way home, but the path didn't really make any sense.

She'd caught herself before she'd taken a detour past the hospital. There was no reason for her to go there anymore, fractured knuckles or no.

But what was she supposed to do now?

There weren't any people she wanted to talk to, there weren't any games she wanted to play, or shows to catch, or movies to watch, or-... There wasn't anything at all, really.

So she walked, meandering along the roads, dazed and numb.

"Oh." A vaguely familiar voice and a somewhat startled expression.

"Izumi-san?" Misao blinked up at him, confused.

"Groceries." Sojirou explained, smiling at her, polite and weak.

"Ah." Misao nodded, not really caring.

Sojirou stared blankly at her face for a long moment. "It gets better, Kusakabe-san." A laugh, too bitter to be truthful, slipped past his lips. "It never goes away, but it gets better."

Misao felt herself bristle, suddenly angry. What did he know? He hadn't-...!

If he noticed her mood, he didn't draw attention to it, simply continuing to speak. "I was lucky. I had Konata, our daughter. I was so scared she'd follow her mother-..." Sojirou shook his head, pained. "I was lucky."

Misao wanted to hit him. He might've been lucky, but she hadn't been! Konata was perfectly healthy, but Yutaka had-...!

Sojirou bowed, deeply. "Kusakabe-san, thank you." His voice choked a little bit. "I know I-..." He shook his head, aborting the sentence. "Yutaka was happy in the end. So thank you."

Misao felt all of her anger drain away completely, replaced with a hollow ache in her chest that didn't want to go away.

She wasn't entirely sure how long they talked about that, but she remembered listening to him talk about his late wife, and she remembered crying as she tried to sort through her time with Yutaka to tell him something – something that wasn't personal, wasn't a secret between only the two of them – in return.

When she finally came home, she fell straight into her bed.

She dreamed of tasting salt, and of a newborn kitten puffing itself up, trying in vain to look scary.

XXX

It'd been a bit over a month since she'd returned to school after Yutaka had-...

It still hurt. Hurt so badly that she could barely think about it, let alone figure out what to do.

Which was why Ayano had decided to drag her out to pet some cute animals, because apparently that was supposed to help somehow.

Frankly, Misao thought that it was a stupid idea, but she'd been overruled. And Ayano was her best friend for a reason, so she didn't really complain about it overly much.

Even so, catching a glimpse of a group of kittens crowding together in a fluffy pile, felt more painful than adorable. Yutaka would've loved coming here.

Ayano followed her gaze. "Huh. Why are all of their eyes blue?"

A shop-keeper threw a smile at her, before explaining. "All cats are born like that. It'll start to fade for these ones in a couple more weeks. They're barely a month old yet."

Misao didn't really pay much attention to the conversation at all, still wishing that Yutaka could've been here, could've puffed herself up just like a kitten as Misao teasingly compared her to them.

"Stupid." Misao breathed to herself, eyes stinging, as Ayano struck up a cheerful conversation with the shop-keeper.

One of the kitten perked up, turning towards her with green eyes.

But-... Kittens of that age were supposed to have blue eyes, weren't they? Hadn't that been what the shop-keeper had said? And why did that shade of green look so terrifyingly familiar?

"Green eyes." Misao pointed to the kitten in question.

"Hm?" The shop-keeper startled, turning towards her and then towards where she was pointing. "Ah, yes. We're not entirely sure about that. We've had it checked and it doesn't seem to be a disease, but it's definitely something. That one's eyes have always been like that, since the moment she opened them."

Misao felt her face begin to drain of color as the kitten in question struggled free from the pile of its siblings, as if to get a better look at her. "How old?"

The shop-keeper frowned, a little bit confused, but answered. "About four weeks."

Four weeks.

Misao walked closer to the little enclosure that had been built for them, her mouth suddenly painfully dry.

She stared into familiar green eyes. As clear as she'd ever seen them, focused directly on her own. "You're a kitten." She choked out, voice trembling.

The kitten in question puffed up, halfway into being offended, before squeaking something that might've superficially passed as a 'meow'.

Misao felt her eyes start to burn, and reached out towards the green-eyed kitten staring back at her.

A tiny little tongue licked at her fingertip, and – sending the briefest of glances towards the somewhat bewildered shop-keeper to make sure it was alright – Misao cradled the kitten into her hand and lifted her up.

"You're a kitten." She said again, and this time the kitten latched onto her clothes until it could pull itself up far enough to place one tiny little lick on Misao's lips.

It tasted a bit salty.

Misao wasn't entirely sure if she was laughing or crying, but it was probably a mixture of both. Her world entirely revolving around holding her endlessly precious green-eyed kitten in her arms.

XXX

A/n: Interesting facts about this fic:

The first iteration of this fic was entirely from Yutaka's POV and was really awkward in a very fragmented way. The second iteration was this story, but even that was later exposed to a full side-by-side rewrite in order for it to become this 'third' iteration, and then further polished through random editing.

Whilst the first iteration was inspired by "Proof of Life" sung by Kagamine Rin. The second iteration was heavily reliant on "Rockbell" sung by IA.

No, Yutaka's illness isn't following any true-disease symptoms. I considered it, but I liked the progression of the illness in the first iteration too much to change it into something else (and I was still crying from PoL when I wrote that, so I wasn't really in a state to do fact-checks).

I considered including an epilogue where Misao finally returns to the track-and-field club, and people look at her funny for bringing a cat with her to run with during practices. But (cute though it might've been) it didn't feel like it would've fit the mood of this fic.