Authors Note: As stated in the story summary, this story is based off of Shadow1001's own, In which Hikigaya meets Yukinoshita in elementary. If you haven't read it I highly recommend you do so, it's easily one of the best stories the fandom has to offer, at least in this writer's humble opinion.
This story covers the events of chapter 1 of Shadow1001's stories. Do note that the following is simply my personal interpretation of how things may have played out.
"Hayato you're so amazing!"
"Yeah, I thought we were goners for sure but you completely turned things around at the end!"
"Thank you but I really couldn't have done it all on my own; it was a team effort that let us win."
For as long as he could remember, Hayama Hayato had never had any trouble with people. Whether it was through natural instinct or simple talent, he'd always had a knack for bringing people together, being liked by his fellows and generally just helping everyone in a room get along. Being encouraging was one way he knew. Many of his classmates had potential, far more than they would ever believe about themselves, if only they just had the confidence to bring it out.
Another way he found was to always keep his expression friendly. Many times, he's noticed that a person's face tended towards blankness whenever they were absorbed in thought and while they weren't trying to look aloof, the neutrality on their face could easily be construed as such. It was why he always did his best to keep an open smile on his face. Not only did it make him more approachable for others, it tended to make them more likely to smile back as well. Smile at the world and the world will smile back.
Still, whether he had a natural aptitude at social interaction or not, it had helped that the importance of knowing what to say and how to act had been drilled into him since he was old enough to walk and talk.
"Never expose weakness. Never give an opening." His father had once told him. "Above all, you must always give the impression of absolute confidence. Even if circumstances are far from ideal, the ability to project the image of utter assurance is a necessity for dealing with whatever obstacles one faces in life."
To which Hayato had simply smiled and nodded along with a simple "Yes father" as he had learned to do so.
Far be it for him to treat his father's advice with anything less than utter respect, Hayato had been too young, was still too young in fact, to fully grasp the meaning behind his father's words and, though he had done his best to take what he could understand to heart, in truth much of his social graces were probably owed to someone much closer to his own age.
"All you have to do is smile." Yukinoshita Haruno had told him on his first day at elementary school, nervous yet excited at the prospect of meeting with so many new people his own age. "Smile, be nice, remember everyone's names and before you know it everyone in the school will want to be your friend!"
The Yukinoshita's were long time associates and friends of his parents and, as a result, their two daughters had been a near constant presence in his life since an early age. Haruno was older than him, yet not so old that it felt like she was unapproachable. Like the sun she was named after, she never failed to light up a room she was in. Haruno was pretty, smart, sociable with a pleasant laugh and smile ready for everyone and anyone. Even at her young age, she truly seemed to have no flaw. Being an only child himself, he had always looked up to the older Yukinoshita daughter, both as a person of admiration and a person to emulate.
At the sight of a familiar black car, shining brightly in the morning sun, pulling up at the school's entrance, Hayato smiled and ran out just in time to see a girl his own age with long black hair striding purposefully through the gate.
Yukinoshita Yukino had arrived.
"Yukino-chan!" Hayato called out, waving out to her with one hand and Yukino immediately ducked down bashfully at his voice.
If it could be said that Haruno shone like the sun, then it was only fitting to say that Yukino was like the moon. Quiet and reserved. More distant and less personable, yet with a deep earnest drive burning within that made her just as bright in her own way. If Haruno was the person who Hayato strived to be like, Yukino was the one whose path he walked alongside with.
"I got a little worried when you didn't show up at your usual time." Hayato continued, "Did something happen at home?"
"Mmm." Yukino murmured in assent as she fell into step alongside him. As was usual, her bearing and gait was much more proper and controlled compared to those of their fellow students. Hayato had been similarly coached on the importance of proper walking and standing posture but in recent years he'd tended to loosen up more, especially during school. He found that his peers tended to find it easier to relax around someone who held themselves more casually. "It wasn't anything important. I've already taken care of it."
"Ah, I see." Hayato nodded in understanding, already used to Yukino's taciturn nature. "That's good to hear."
Since the first time their parents had introduced the three of them, Yukino had always been much more passive than her sister, unfailingly polite and gracious when addressed but rarely going out of her way to take the initiative in a conversation. It had taken time, patience and innumerable visits, both to her house and his, for Hayato to gradually coax her into opening up to him but now they enjoyed a familiarity he shared with few others. If pressed on the issue he could truly say Yukino was one of his closest and dearest friends, if not the closest.
"Still maybe it's something I can help with?" Hayato offered. "If I can't help, maybe the least I could do is lend an ear?"
Yukino shook her head in denial but her lips curved up slightly at his question to show she appreciated his concern.
"It's alright. I just needed to clarify something with my English tutor."
That's right, in less than two years Yukino would be going overseas as part of a study program. One of the requirements of the exchange was that Yukino become fluent in a foreign language so her parents have recently hired a private tutor to accelerate her learning. It was something he'd known for some time but he could never shake the small feeling of surprise he got whenever the subject came up. After spending so many years with her at his side, he had taken her presence as a constant in his life. Trying to imagine the next few years without Yukino's steady company was a concept Hayato had a hard time wrapping his mind around. He was happy for her sake of course but he couldn't help but feel a small twinge of loneliness at the idea.
Still, that just meant he would have to spend as time with her as he could until then.
"In that case, maybe you could help me instead."
At his words, Yukino glanced up at him in confusion, a quizzical tilt in her head.
"I'm actually going to start learning English at home as well soon." Hayato laughed awkwardly. As the language was growing increasingly common in Japan, his parents have gradually been pushing for him to begin more in-depth study on the language in preparation for his future as well. Last he heard, they were even thinking of hiring a tutor of his own.
"To be honest, I'm a little nervous about it so if I had someone explain it to me it might make it easier. That's why I thought maybe you could help me instead?"
Yukino hummed slightly, one hand coming up and forming a fist under her chin as she pondered his words.
"I don't mind, though I'm still learning myself so I can't promise how much help I can be."
"Great." Hayato smile grew broader at Yukino's assenting to his request. "How about we have a study session at lunch today, in the library perhaps?"
"That's fine for me but is that alright for you?"
With deliberate care, Yukino turned back towards the front. "I know that you have… commitments to other people in school."
At this Hayato's smile grew slightly strained in realization. He'd actually forgotten. These few minutes at the beginning of each day were a rare moment where the two of them could freely talk amongst themselves. During school hours, he had so many other friends and acquaintances, both in his class and others, that he didn't always have time to spare for Yukino, though he certainly tried his best. It was a fact that always made him feel a little guilty, especially since Haruno had asked him to look out for her "adorable little sister" upon her graduation. He knew that Yukino didn't have many other people to talk to and although she always insisted she was fine, he could tell she was probably lonely whenever she was quietly reading on her own or when he noticed her watching him from a distance whilst he was surrounded by groups of people, strangers to her that she couldn't approach.
"Maybe I could bring a few of my friends along." Hayato offered hesitantly. "I'm sure the studying will be helpful to their future."
Yukino didn't reply immediately, which was enough for him to know what she probably thought about that idea. Ever since she started Elementary, Yukino had great difficulty finding common ground with the other students. Not only was she deeply uncomfortable around crowds, the few times in the past he'd convinced her to join him with a group of friends most of her time was spent silent, only talking regularly with him and having short perfunctory exchanges with the rest of the group. It didn't help that a lot of the other students found it difficult to approach her as well. None of his other friends were as academically inclined as either him or Yukino either and probably wouldn't respond well to the strict study methods she'd use.
"If you still want me to help you study, maybe you could come to my house after school today?" Yukino finally offered.
"That'd be perfect for me, but is that alright for you?" Hayato said tentatively, echoing Yukino's concern for him as he thought back to that time she'd shown him one of her timetables, setting out her activities for the day. It had been a pretty daunting list. "I know that you have a busy schedule. I wouldn't want to put pressure on you just for my sake."
"I'll make time." Yukino promised.
"…sorry. And thank you."
"Again?" Hayato muttered with exasperation, stepping back from where he'd been looking over Yukino's shoulder, an uncharacteristic frown on his face. "This is the sixth time this week!"
"It's not a big deal" Yukino insisted as she shut her locker door.
It was the start of another school day and unfortunately, like so many others in recent times, things weren't off to a good start. Someone had taken to stealing Yukino's indoor shoes every day before morning. She'd already gotten in trouble twice already and the thievery has shown no signs of stopping.
"We should let the teachers know. Things are starting to get out of hand." Hayato liked to think he and Yukino were mature for their age but they were still children and this felt like a situation where the problem has grown beyond their ability to solve. In this case, the best thing they could do was call on an adult for help. One of the first things the school had taught their students was not to be afraid to approach their teachers for assistance and this definitely felt like one of those times. "There's no shame in getting help, you know."
"No." Yukino replied with just a hint of forcefulness in her voice.
Hayato had to hold back a sigh. For better or worse, Yukino was determined to resolve the situation through her own actions, a feeling that had only intensified since his own attempts to help in the beginning hadn't worked out. The first time her shoes had gone missing Yukino had been awkward about approaching her classmates over the issue so Hayato had asked on her behalf, going around to the students in his grade if anyone had seen where they could have gone or if anyone had taken them by mistake. In the end nobody had seen who had taken her shoes, but the next morning they found the shoes had been returned to their proper place.
Believing that everything was resolved, Yukino had thanked Hayato for his assistance and for a time that seemed to be the end of things. Now though, the thievery had returned, even worse than before. It was enough that even Hayato had to admit whoever was behind it was likely targeting Yukino intentionally.
"Neesan wouldn't ask for help." Yukino continued, "She'd take care of it herself. I have to do the same."
"She would wouldn't she?" Hayato agreed, thinking back to the sister that both he and she admired. He didn't doubt Yukino's words. From what he knew about Haruno, and the little he'd seen of her in school before her graduation, in the unlikely circumstances she was ever with a problem like this she would no doubt find a way to resolve everything in a way that made everyone happy and satisfied. "But I can't see Haruno-san getting picked on like this."
At his words, a grimace crossed Yukino's face and the fingers gripping the straps of her bag tightened. Yukino had never liked being compared to her sister, especially in areas where she felt she was coming up short. He'd done his best to help her but now things have spun out of their control. The second time he had asked around, he had learned that it was not one person behind the ploy but an entire group, or so the rumors went.
Truthfully, he wasn't entirely sure what to think. He got along well with Yukino of course, but most other students didn't. From what he'd heard, many of the girls were envious of her while most of the boys found her intimidating and hard to approach. But no matter how he thought things over, he just couldn't see what anyone had to gain from trying to hurt Yukino like this. Bullying it was called. But no, he shouldn't think badly of them. He was familiar with the girls whose names he'd learned. Had talked to them on several occasions and all of them had been nice, friendly and overall good people. He couldn't imagine they'd possibly be doing this out of mere dislike. It was more likely they simply didn't understand Yukino, mistaking her quiet, thoughtful nature as aloofness and seeing her constant drive to improve herself as grandstanding.
If there was just a way they could have a chance to really get to know her. For them to be given a chance to see that Yukino was really just a girl like any other. He was sure that was the key to solving everything. If Yukino could come to an understanding with them, they would stop taking her shoes and perhaps they could even become friends. Surely that would be the best outcome for everyone?
"But if she were to, I'm sure she would settle it with a nice, quiet discussion over tea." Hayato offered, thinking over how Haruno might tackle the situation in their shoes.
For her part, Yukino stayed silent as mulled over his words.
"Yes." She finally said, her features slowly filling with determination. "Yes she would."
"Hayamaaaa! Are you really sure you can't play soccer today?"
Hayato just smiled apologetically at the crowd of disappointed faces that surrounded him.
The Yukinoshita's family car hadn't been available to pick Yukino up today so he had been given the task of walking her home. It was Yukino's turn to on cleaning duty today so, with school finished, he'd been patiently waiting near the entrance for her to appear when a group of his fellow students had found him. From the bits and pieces he picked up from their talking, apparently a bit of an argument had broken out between some of the boys in his year group and one of the upperclassman during lunch and it had somehow spiralled into an afterschool soccer match with the pride of the best athletes in both year groups on the line.
As one of the best at sports in his grade, the group had naturally tried to press Hayato into playing for their team and leading the team was Tanaka Akihiko, one of the boys in the school he was closest with and who he also shared a class with. Tall, yet stocky, he'd paired with Hayato a number of times both during PE classes and lunch time when everyone was out to play in the yard. He was one of the better students in their grade when it came to sports and had a natural knack for bringing together a team as well even if he could be just a little bit pushy and rambunctious at times.
"I'd really like to, but I've already made a promise to walk Yukino-chan home today." Hayato said apologetically.
Akihiko just groaned in response, which was followed by a small chorus of groans from the various boys he'd assembled for his team, and Hayato's smile grew slightly sheepish at the clear disappointment on everyone's faces. He didn't like turning them down like this but the fact was he'd already made prior commitments.
"But we'd win for sure if you were with us." Akihiko grumbled as he crossed his arms and his gaze sank downward. A few nods and grunts of assents echoed out from the small crowd at his words. "And we won't have enough people to make a team without you."
"I've never even played soccer before. I might not even be all that good at it." Hayato laughed good-naturedly, trying to dispel the dour mood that had settled on them. "Besides there are plenty of great players in our grade, I'm sure you could find someone else to make an even team for both sides."
"I guess," Akihiko grumbled under his breath as he shoved his hands into his pockets. "But where are we supposed to find someone else now?"
Hayato hummed a bit under his breath. Truthfully, refusing them like this after seeing how eager they were to have him did make him feel a bit guilty. They had clearly been hoping he'd be able to play for their team, and while he had made a promise he still had a bit of time before Yukino would turn up. He may not be able to play with them personally but the least he could do was help find another player so their afternoon wouldn't be ruined. Right?
"Well…" Hayato looked around, hoping he could find someone in the area, though he wasn't really expecting to. It was already rather late so most of the students had either gone home or were already in the midst of afterschool activities. He had already been waiting for a while when the group lead by Akihiko had caught sight of him and Yukino would probably be finished soon enough but if he ran maybe he could find someone to play with his friends and still make it back in time for-
Just out of the corner of his eye caught sight of someone at the far end of one of the lockers, crouching near the bottom, as he rummaged around the interior for his outdoor shoes.
"What about him." Hayato said, pointing the lone boy out. "I'm sure he'd be happy to play if you asked him."
Akihiko craned his neck around to see who he was pointing at but, as his eyes fell on the boy who was now fumbling with his shoes, the look of slight anticipation on his face immediately faded.
Hayato blinked and his smile lessened ever so slightly at Akihiko's unenthusiastic tone.
"Is something the matter?"
"Eh? Ah! Nothing's wrong, it's just that guy is kinda…? I mean I've heard things about him that are sort of…ugh?"
Akihiko trailed off uncertainly and some of the other boys in the group were now twisting around to see who they were talking about. As they did so one of them, Kojiro from class 5-F he believed, widened his eyes in recognition.
"Oh it's just froggy. What's he still doing here?"
Surely he didn't hear that right?
"Yeah that's his name." Another boy, Yanagi from the same class, piped up. "Hikikaeru. We usually just call him Froggy though."
Hikikaeru. Kaeru as in frog? That was certainly a rather… unfortunate name. He'd never heard of that particular student either.
"Come on guys, it's not nice to make fun of other people's names." Hayato scolded gently. He could tell they were just teasing but even so it'd be better if they'd used the boy's proper name.
In response, the two boys shrank back in surprise.
"Eh? We don't mean anything bad by it. Besides he doesn't mind."
"That's right. We call him that all the time and he never says anything about it."
Hayato's smile dipped slightly at the two boy's excuses but before he could say anything else one of the other boys in the group suddenly made a sound of recognition.
"Ah I think I remember him now! All the girls in my class think he's gross." Tokita, from class 5-E, exclaimed looking proud of himself for adding to the conversation.
"Oh yeah! One time on the field trip he had to hold hands with a girl and she screamed because he was all sweaty," Gojo also from class 5-F, said with one hand raised as if answering a teachers question before chuckling. In response several of the other boys began to snicker as well.
"Really? Wow, I guess the name froggy really suits him."
"I once heard he still goes around calling for his mom when he gets upset. He really is a baby isn't he?"
"He is! One time he actually started crying and a teacher had to come help him even though he's already as old as us."
"And the way he's always hiding in the corner of the room like a weirdo. It's just creepy!"
Before he knew it, a whirlwind of conversation quickly erupted around Hayato faster than he could keep up and soon he found himself standing silent as everybody fought to add their voice to the din. Laughing faces, excited chatter, playful tousling as everyone talked amongst themselves. This should have been nothing new for him, there've been many times he'd been at the center of these sorts of group talks, often he'd even be the one leading them. But the atmosphere this time… there was something just a little off-putting about it. The words being exchanged seemed a little too mean-spirited. The way it seemed there was just a little too much edge in the smiles on their faces. In some ways it even reminded him of the looks some of the girls in the school would throw at Yukino-chan when they saw her. It just didn't feel right to him.
"Well in any case, it looks like he's going home so he might already have plans." Pushing down that small twinge of discomfort, Hayato interjected into the conversation, trying to wrestle back the flow of conversation and bring everyone back to original topic at hand. With the direction things have gone, he felt slightly regretful in pointing out the boy's presence and hoped to move things away from him and back to more familiar territory. Given everyone's mood, trying to introduce the boy into group probably wouldn't go so well at this time either.
"For now let's all go try and find someone else to play soccer with."
Akihiko however didn't seem to be listening, in the midst of laughing with his friends, he seemed to come to an idea and gave Hayato a speculative look.
"Hey Hayato, why don't you go try talking to him."
"Huh?" The word of surprise left his mouth at the sudden suggestion. Of all the things that he was expecting, that wasn't one of them.
"You're good with people right? You should go and talk to him."
Hayato's shrank back slightly as everyone's gazes immediately focused on him at Akihiko's words. He'd been feeling slightly out of his depth since the conversation started and now, at the sudden surge of attention he was given, he found himself rather lost for words.
"Um, weren't we looking for someone you can play soccer with?" Hayato offered tentatively as his mind raced to try and figure out how things had ended like this.
Normally, he would have no problems with talking to new people. In the past he would often be the one who would introduce himself and his friends whenever they met students from other classes they weren't familiar with. He's done it so often in fact that it was actually something of an unspoken rule in his class that he'd be expected to break the ice whenever the need arose. But this time, with everyone looking at him with eyes filled with an intent that he couldn't identify, he felt reluctant. Somehow, it almost seemed like everyone was expecting for things to go badly, yet still wanted him to go talk to the boy anyway. But that couldn't possibly be true. Could it?
"Never mind that now." Akihiko said impatiently. "Like everyone said, that guy's a real weirdo but talking about it isn't the same as seeing it. You should go and see for yourself."
That discomforting feeling that Hayato had been trying to suppress was growing stronger than ever. Murmurs of agreement were rippling through the group and everyone was looking at him with one mind. He could see the agreement, and anticipation, in their eyes and he felt the protest that had been building in his throat die down. Although that sensation of apprehension in his chest was only getting worse, trying to refuse when everyone in the group was looking at him in clear support of Akihiko's suggestion felt impossible.
"Alright I'll go, but I'm sure he's nowhere near as bad as what you've heard about him." Hayato relented.
As he made his way to the front of the crowd he could hear everyone begin to murmur to each other in excitement and Akihiko suddenly perked up as if he suddenly remembered something.
"Ah. But when you go just don't let him touch you."
Hayato blinked at the strange piece of advice.
"Because otherwise he'll give you his Hikigerms and everyone will want to stay away from you as well! Ahahaha!"
"A-Ahaha." Hayato laughed unconvincingly at the joke as he turned around and began walking just a little bit faster than his normal pace. The uncomfortable sensation hadn't disappeared, had only grown stronger since, but he did his best to quash that feeling back down. Briefly, he wondered if perhaps he should have refused after all but quickly pushed that thought away. What's done was done and he'd already agreed to this. He couldn't just back out now.
Besides, even in less than ideal circumstances, befriending new people was never a bad thing. Maybe this was actually for the better. He'd always been good at making friends and helping to bring groups of people with conflicting personalities or interests together. Later on in the future, maybe he'll be able to introduce the boy to everyone else and they'll see for themselves that he isn't so strange. If everyone can come to an understanding and become friends, that would be the best solution surely?
Nodding to himself, Hayato soon found himself standing directly behind the boy just as he was finishing putting his shoes away and closing his locker.
"Excuse me. Hikikaeru-kun?"
At the sound of his voice the boy started. If it hadn't been for his familiarity with Yukino and her subtle changes in body language he may not even have caught the way his shoulder had tensed and hunched up ever so slightly. Slowly. Cautiously. The boy stood up and turned until half his face was visible and, despite himself, Hayama couldn't help but fight down a sudden flinch.
From a distance it had seemed to him that the boy was rather average both in height and build. His face was ordinary enough as well, certainly not anything he'd think particularly strange if he saw him in a crowd.
But the eyes!
Dull. Lifeless. As if all light had been drained out of them. In all of his life, Hayato had never met anyone with such an unsettling gaze. Maybe this was the reason why the others didn't get along with the boy.
It took him a moment to remember that it was rude to stare and the boy himself was still just eyeing him warily, evidently waiting for him to make the first move.
"I was wondering if you would like to talk for a bit?" Hayato asked making sure that his own smiling face hadn't wavered. From the looks of things, the boy was something of an introvert, so it would be best if he didn't try to come off as too overbearing. Briefly, Akihiko's parting advice flashed through his mind and, in defiance to those words, he extended a hand out in greeting.
For his part, the boy didn't answer, just continued to stare at him with that disconcerting side look. Briefly, his eye flicked downwards to Hayama's hand, still outstretched, before coming up again, narrowing slightly in confusion before they suddenly flattened.
"A dare huh?"
This time Hayama did flinch. The boy's tone had been soft, yet held an undercurrent that was unlike anything he'd ever heard before. All the words he had been prepared to say fled his mind in an instant and he found his mouth opening and closing involuntarily as he tried to find his bearings.
But the boy was already turning away from him, apparently dismissing their brief interaction as complete.
"Go away. I'm not interested in your games."
For a brief moment Hayato floundered at the unexpected direction his greeting had gone but he rallied quickly and, after making sure his expression was still friendly, he called out to him once more, even taking a few steps after the boy's retreating back.
"Well to be honest, yes." Hastily trying to salvage the situation, a nervous chuckle let itself out even as he scrambled to smooth the misunderstanding over. "However, I accepted because I know you're a good person."
The boy paused mid-step. This time, when he turned around, he faced Hayato in full. Slowly the boy's lips curved upwards and for a brief moment Hayato thought his intentions made it through to him. But the smile the boy made, if it could even be called a smile, was like none Hayato had ever seen before. There wasn't an ounce of joy or happiness to be found in it. If anything, the way he looked seemed almost… mocking.
"I don't like pity. Just leave me alone, or you might catch the Hikigerms."
Without even waiting for a response the boy turned around and began stalking off again, this time at almost double the pace he had walking at before.
For a few moments Hayato simply stood there, frozen as he tried to understand what had just happened.
It had been the first time in his life someone had rebuffed him so harshly.
"What did we tell you? Froggy is a big weirdo."
"Yeah, he wouldn't even talk to Hayato! Now we definitely know he's a freak!"
"We're all better off just leaving him alone."
"Well, I'm sure he was just shy." Hayato managed even as everyone around him continued to make disparaging comments. He wasn't sure if any of them even heard him.
When he had come back to the group, everyone had immediately erupted and, contrary to their words, many of the boys in the group actually seemed pleased with the way things had played out, as if his actions had simply been confirmation for them. Uncomfortable but unwilling to voice his thoughts, Hayato could only stand silently and watch as everyone tried to have their say. It was all very unsettling, especially when he was so used to knowing what to say in a given conversation. In the end, he found a lull in the conversation to interject.
"For now let's just go find someone you can play soccer with."
This time, everyone acquiesced to his suggestion and it was with some relief that Hayato finally lead the group away. Soon, the conversation shifted back towards the soccer game and as everyone began to talk about how they planned on showing off their skills to their seniors, Hayato offered advice based on his knowledge of each boy's strengths and weaknesses. Several others continued to wish that Hayato could play for their team to which he would chuckle good-naturedly and promise that he would be available next time.
Throughout it all, though the smile on his face never slipped as conversed with his friends, Hayato couldn't help but think back to his encounter with the boy from earlier, Hikikaeru. From their brief contact, it didn't seem like the boy had many friends and he didn't seem well liked by his peers either. As he continued to think, his mind couldn't help but draw links between the lone boy's behaviour and the words his own friends had said about the boy. To say the least, he didn't like the conclusion that he was creating.
The boy had certainly been blunt, even harsh, but from the little their interaction had held, Hayato didn't think he was a bad person. Perhaps, if he found a chance in the future, he could try and clear up the misunderstanding and introduce himself properly?
"Are those formal invitations?" Hayato asked curiously, as he looked at the cards Yukino held in her hand. Alongside the invitations, she was also carrying an extra, smaller, bag with her. From the faintest hint of aromatic fragrance wafting from the opening, he could take a good guess what was inside.
"Even if this isn't going to be a formal tea ceremony, it's still best that I observe proper customs." Yukino said as she stared at the cards, brows furrowed in concentration. "I was already thinking of how best to request their presence at lunch and I decided that this was the best way."
It was certainly just like Yukino to go through such formalities Hayato thought with small wry smile as his eyes traced the careful calligraphy of the handwritten print. Most of the girls he knew at school wouldn't be putting so much thought and effort into something as simple as asking someone to have tea together. Even Haruno wouldn't have gone through the trouble of penning out four individual letters; she'd simply invite the girls out in person.
"So how do you plan to deliver them? Are you going to leave them in their shoe lockers?"
"That was my original intention, only…" Yukino hesitated. "I'm worried that they may decide to refuse my request."
That… was certainly a genuine concern.
Many of the other students in the school had probably never received a formalised invitation directly addressed to them and wouldn't know how to respond to such a thing on their own. Combined with how many in the school saw Yukino as difficult to approach, the chances that they may decide not to show up wasn't one that could be ignored.
"Maybe you can try giving it to them directly then?" Hayato suggested. If she handed the invitations to them in person, it would be harder for them to turn her down. "I know which class they're in so I can show you."
Yukino bit her lip and looked down, a troubled expression on her face and Hayato was hit with the sudden realization that perhaps it wasn't just Yukino's observation of propriety that made her choose the method she did.
In that case, then perhaps...
"How about I deliver the invitations for you, Yukino-chan?"
"E-eh?" His suggestion caused Yukino to glance up at him, blinking in surprise.
"I'm familiar with most of our fellow students." Hayato reasoned. He knew that Yukino wanted to solve the situation on her own but he couldn't simply leave her alone when he could see that she was in trouble, not when he could do something. "I think they might listen to me if I asked nicely."
For a brief moment it looked like Yukino was going to accept. There was a faint but palatable air of relief about her as she considered his words but then an uneasy look crossed her face and she ducked her head back down, hiding her expression behind a curtain of hair.
"Thank you but you've already done enough for me. I don't want to keep bothering you with my problems."
"It's not a bother at all." Hayato insisted, but Yukino wasn't done talking.
"It's not just this incident or even when all this first started. You've been helping me since we started Elementary and I'm grateful for everything you've done but this time, I want to take care of things myself. If I'm ever to catch up to nee-san, I have to learn to solve my own problems."
Hearing this, Hayato fell silent. Privately, he sometimes thought that Yukino could be a little too zealous in her attempts to follow her sister's footsteps, but at the same time he couldn't bring himself to try and dissuade her. Partially because he didn't want to deny all her efforts and partially because it would be somewhat hypocritical of him, considering how much he looked up, and how much he learned from, Haruno himself.
"I understand." Hayato finally said. "Even so, I can't just stand by and do nothing. I know you want to be like Haruno-san but that doesn't mean you have to do everything alone. This was my idea in the first place, so I need to do at least this much to help."
Yukino still looked reluctant but Hayato wasn't done.
"Even Haruno-san would ask for help if she needs it and besides…" He paused to take a breath. "We're friends and friends help each other out when they need it. I want to help you because you're my friend, Yukino-chan."
Of everything he could have said, this seemed to surprise Yukino the most. Her mouth hung open and her eyes widened further then he'd ever seen them. Slowly, two faint spots of colour began to burn on her cheeks. For a few minutes Yukino simply stood silent as she digested his words but slowly, yet surely, a small, shy smile bloomed on her face that was quickly echoed by a, much broader, smile of his own.
"Yes. We are friends aren't we Hayato-kun" Yukino said looking back down at the invitations in her hand before slowly holding them out to him.
"They said they'd come." Hayato announced, having made his way to Yukino's classroom at the beginning of lunch to deliver the good news.
With little time in the morning before homeroom, Hayato had to run fast in order to deliver the invitations to their intended recipients. It was fortunate that the four of them were all together in the same class so it wasn't too hard to him to make his way there and back without being late.
On their part, the four of them had certainly seemed receptive to his presence, judging from the muffled giggling and coy looks they gave as he introduced himself, especially when he revealed he already knew all their names. They'd become more guarded admittedly when he mentioned Yukino's name and presented the actual invitations to them but with a smile ready and several words of reassurance he managed to disarm them of most of their misgivings and all four of them had soon agreed to accept Yukino's offering to have tea together at lunch.
"They should be here any minute now." Hayato added, glancing down at his wristwatch.
Yukino was sitting at her desk with a look of calm on her face, hands demurely folded in her lap. She had pushed another desk up against hers and laid out a patterned cloth with five cups and a teapot neatly arranged on top. Several of her classmates that were still in the room were throwing openly curious looks at the unusual arrangement but none of them evidently had the nerve to approach her.
"Thank you Hayato-kun."
"Well, I'll be going then." Hayato nodded. He'd made a promise to some friends that he would join them at lunch today and they were probably getting a little impatient waiting for him. "You probably won't want a boy around for your talk."
Turning around, he was prepared to leave when a surprisingly timid call stopped him.
"A-Ah, please wait a moment Hayato-kun."
Turning around he saw that Yukino had a hand half raised in his direction and her previously composed expression has been replaced by one of anxiety.
"You'll be fine Yukino-chan." Hayato assured, thinking she was still nervous about meeting the four girls. "The four of them aren't bad people. Just be polite and friendly to them and everything will-"
"It's not that, it's…um."
For several seconds, Yukino squirmed in place as she struggled to find the words to say. Her mouth opened and closed a few times and one hand surreptitiously grabbed the fabric of her skirt.
"A-As you know." Her brows furrowed slightly in frustration at her stutter and the grip she had on her clothes tightened further but she pressed on nonetheless. "As you know, once I graduate from Elementary, I'll be travelling overseas for the beginning of my secondary education."
"Yes?" Hayato answered. It was the first time Yukino had brought it up since she'd first told him and he wondered what she was driving at.
"As part of my preparations for my time abroad, I've begun learning how to prepare my own meals and I was thinking…" Slowly, a faint tinge of red began to creep up on her face as her voice trailed off. Pausing to take a long, deep breath, Yukino lifted her head up and looked at him directly and Hayato felt himself reflexively draw a breath in surprise. This was the first time she had ever made direct eye contact with him on her own volition, on all previous occasions whenever their eyes had met she would hurriedly avert her sight away from his, and though it obviously took an effort she was holding his eye steadily. As he continued to stare into them he couldn't help but wonder if her eyes have always been such an entrancing shade of blue.
"Hayato-kun, all this time you've always helped me even when it caused difficulty for you, yet I've never done anything for you in return. That's why, as thanks, tomorrow I'll make you a bento."
Now it was his turn to be surprised. Not at the offer itself but at something else his young mind couldn't quite grasp or put into words. Perhaps it was the way she was determinedly holding his gaze, despite the faint redness on her cheeks and the slightly wavering in her voice. Or the sheer unvarnished expression of hope he could see reflected in her eyes. Though it may be arrogant to say, since the time he's known Yukino from early childhood he'd gradually come to believe that he knew her better than anyone else, save perhaps for her sister, yet now it felt like he had just caught a glimpse of a side of her that he hadn't even known existed. A part of him couldn't help but wonder whether he really deserved the amount of gratitude Yukino was expressing to him; he'd been her friend since early childhood, but it wasn't like he'd really done anything he wouldn't do for any of his other friends.
Lost in these thoughts, it took Hayato a minute to remember that Yukino was waiting for an answer.
"Alright. I'll be looking forward to it." He answered, making sure his usual friendly smile was still in place. After seeing her make such an earnest offer, how could be possibly say no?
The slow blossoming smile he received in return was a sight to behold. Unlike the various other small and shy smiles he'd seen from her previously, this one seemed different. Deeper, filled with more emotion and all the more striking because of how elusive her smiles were to begin with. He could scarcely bring himself to look away.
But the moment couldn't last forever. With embarrassment finally overcoming her, Yukino once again shifted her eyes downward and stared down at the teapot she had set on the table.
"But umm… this would be my first time preparing a proper lunch so I can't make any promises on how it will taste. Or if it will even be edib-"
"I'm sure anything you make will be delicious, Yukino-chan."
Yukino choked and sputtered on the rest of her sentence. The redness on her cheeks deepened further but she managed a nod as she hurried to begin brewing the tea.
Hayato smiled wryly at the sight of Yukino fretting so much. She was usually so seriously and proper all the time that the occasions where she gets flustered was always an unbelievably endearing sight, something that he had learned the first time he'd spent a day out with Haruno and Yukino together.
"Excuse me." A voice called out in the room. A glance to the entrance saw a group of four girls entering the classroom. "We're here for a tea party?"
Nakano Himiko. Ikeda Akane. Chibana Eriko. Fuji Kanako. The four of them have arrived.
Hayato turned back around to see that Yukino had already composed herself in the face of these new arrivals. Not a trace of her previous embarrassment was left in her expression. Hayato had to hold back a small sigh. If Yukino was just a little bit more open things would be much easier, if everyone could just have a chance to see what she was really like deep down, no doubt they'd realize there was no need to keep such a distance from her. Looking around, it seemed that the few remaining students had already cleared out of the classroom at some point as well.
"Please take a seat." Yukino said to the new arrivals, gesturing to the four chairs she had set out at the opposite end of the table. "The tea will be ready soon."
"Oh, of course." Himiko said offhandedly before turning directly towards Hayato. As one of the smartest and most athletic girls in the school, she also seemed to be the unofficial leader of the group. "Thank you so much for inviting us, Hayato-kun."
"Ah. It was no trouble at all." He had turned to face the four of them upon being addressed and so missed the slight frown that briefly appeared on Yukino's face before her expression smoothed over again. "I'm just glad you could all make it." All four girls just giggled together in response.
"I'm glad we made it too." Himiko said as she looked in Yukino's direction with a bright smile. On her part Yukino was resolutely concentrating on brewing the tea and didn't look up.
"Well, I'll leave you all to have fun together then."
Giving a final wave of goodbye to everyone, Hayato walked back towards the entrance and was surprised to see some students peeking curiously into the room. Giving a final backwards glance, he saw the four girls had seated themselves at the table whilst Yukino was in the midst of pouring out the tea.
Truthfully, deep down, he had still been harbouring some misgivings about this idea. He knew that Yukino had great difficulty talking to their fellow students even under ordinary circumstances but, after seeing everyone sitting together in a group, he felt his doubts ease. No matter what differences there were between them, now that they were all together face to face, they could finally have an opportunity to come to an understanding. Even if it wasn't perfect they could at least move things forward for potential improvement in the future.
He was sure now that this was definitely the correct choice.
How had things gone so wrong?
"And what's with this tea? It tastes like mud!"
"Ah, oops I think I broke the cup."
"She's rich isn't she? She can just buy a new one."
It had been getting close to the end of lunch when Hayato had excused himself from his group of friends in order to check up on Yukino. When he had arrived at the classroom he'd been surprised to see that a large crowd had formed at the entrance. There, after making his way to the front and peering into the classroom, he found himself looking at a scene out of a nightmare.
"Hey why isn't she saying anything?"
"Pfft, she probably thinks she's too good to talk to us."
He couldn't believe what he was seeing, could scarcely believe what he was hearing. That those four girls who had been so charming just previously when he'd spoken to them could glare at Yukino so fiercely, their formerly lovely faces twisted into such ugly sneers. That those same people he'd seen innocently laughing and chatting among themselves and others without a care in the world could spout such cruel, spiteful words. Words made to hurt.
It only got worse when he moved his eyes to Yukino herself. The sheer distress that she was desperately trying to hide behind her rapidly crumbling composure made a sharp pang echo through him. He could already see the cracks of confusion on her face as she stared, uncomprehending, at the venom the four girls were spitting at her.
"Who even drinks tea like this anymore? Do you have something against canned drinks that normal people buy?"
"And why are these invitations so fancy? Are you trying to show off your writing or something?"
This could no longer be written off as simple ignorance, or even mere dislike. This was calculated cruelty.
He had to do something to stop this before it went any further. But as he tried to gather breath, he found himself at a complete loss for words. Why? Why was his mind, always so quick to find the best words to say in any situation, drawing a blank? There have been times in the past when he had to break up fights between fellow students so surely he could do that here? Yet this situation felt different from all those other times. Before he had always settled things in a way where everyone came out satisfied or were at least pacified enough to stop arguing. This time it felt like there was no way of settling things so peacefully. The obvious relish on each of the girl's faces every time Yukino shrank back, the way they pushed even harder the more she withdrew. They could clearly see the effect their words were having and were actually enjoying it.
Hayato glanced back and forth into the crowd hoping to find people who echoed his thoughts but he found, with a sinking heart, that the majority simply looked on with looks of idle curiosity, as if they didn't care at all upon seeing a fellow classmate being tormented so cruelly. Some, mostly girls his mind couldn't help but note, were even nodding along in agreement, their faces openly eager as if they wanted see it continue.
"And worse of all you made Hayato-kun play messenger boy for you!"
Hayato's head snapped back towards the front. Why was his name suddenly getting brought up!?
"Do you think you're too important to ask us yourself? Or do you think you're so much better than us just because Hayato-kun is always spending time with you?" Himiko continued to taunt, "Don't go thinking you're special just because he's nice to you. He's nice to everyone and it's not like you have any one else who'll talk to you. He probably just feels too sorry for you to say no."
"You really are the worst!"
"Taking advantage of someone just because they're nice."
Involuntarily he took a step back and for the first time in his life Hayato felt regret at the fact he was taller than everyone else in his year group. In an instant he could feel the weight of several stares being directed at him from the crowd and, whether she caught his slight movement out of her peripherals or if she was simply trying to find a reprieve from their verbal attacks, Yukino happened to peek in his direction. For the second time today Yukino made direct eye contact with him and didn't look away. Rather, after widening slightly in surprise at his presence, they tightened into a desperate expression he couldn't mistake.
For just a brief moment, the sight of her silent plea seemed to galvanise Hayato into action. He could feel the hesitation from earlier fading and he drew himself up. But as he opened his mouth, ready to move to her defence, he found his voice catch in his throat. He could still feel the eyes of those few who had noticed him in the crowd on him, if he called out then everyone's attention would focus on him. What was he supposed to say? There was no room for smiles or friendliness here. All his previous ways of interacting with his peers were utterly inappropriate for the situation. He would have to be stern, even harsh. Something he'd never done before, something he wasn't sure he could even do. And if he did would it even solve anything? It had never even occurred to him that his attentions to Yukino had been exacerbating the bullying she was going though and if he intervened now would they only hate her even more?
Or worse he thought with a sudden chill. What if the four of them didn't stop at all? What if they simply turned their hate filled words against him instead? It was a selfish, self-centered thought and he felt ill for even entertaining it, but he still couldn't stop it from taking root in his mind. He'd always gotten along so well with everyone, had gotten so used to getting along with everyone, that he couldn't imagine all those previously friendly faces now looking at him with sneers and scorn. To hear those harsh tongues spitting words filled with poison at him. The mere thought was enough to make him his stomach churn.
The brief surge of resolve had faded, replaced by a hollow feeling of utter helplessness. Hayato slowly shrank back down and, though he hated himself for it, this time he was one who couldn't hold Yukino's gaze.
He looked away.
Torturous seconds ticked by in the classroom, punctuated only by a steady stream of jeers and taunts, yet Hayato still couldn't bear to bring himself to face that awful scene again, to see whatever face Yukino was making as a result of his inaction. It was only after what felt like a small eternity had passed that he somehow found the strength to chance a look.
Yukino's head had dropped down, hanging so low that her bangs concealed whatever expression she was wearing. Her lips were pressed together into a thin, taut line, her fists were clenching her skirt so tightly they'd gone white from the strain and even from a distance it was obvious that she was trembling badly.
Her change in demeanour wasn't lost on her bullies and, like a school of sharks that could taste blood in the water, the four girls were leaning forward in tandem, anticipation practically dribbling from their eyes and voices.
"Hey what's happening? Is she going to cry?"
"Oh please. She's so much smarter and more talented than us remember? What does she have to cry about?"
Stop saying such things to her.
"I didn't even know she could cry. I always thought her face was carved out of ice."
That wasn't true. That wasn't true at all.
"Hey if she cries, maybe her tears will be made out of icicles?" This last barb was met with howls of barking, derisive laughter.
Someone, anyone, please…
The sudden exclamation shattered the tense atmosphere that had taken over the room, like a hammer smashing through a pane of glass. In a single concerted movement, everyone's attention was brought towards the source of the shout. Hayato was no exception and as he craned his neck alongside the crowd, it was with a jolt of recognition that he caught sight of a pair of familiar, dull eyes glaring into the classroom.
But there was something different this time. Whereas the first time he'd seen them those eyes had looked completely dead, as if the owner was utterly bereft of life or drive. Now? Now those same eyes were fiercely lit with grim determination.
"What the HELL are you all doing!?"
The events that occurred afterwards felt like they were experienced in a dream to Hayato.
The boy, Hikkikaeru, after shattering the mood in the room in such spectacular fashion, had walked right up to the table where the four girls had been sitting, glaring all the while. There, he'd slowly yet surely torn them apart, doling out verbal abuse towards them just as cruel as the ones they'd been directing at Yukino. Crueller even.
The four girls had tried to fight back but no matter how harsh their words were, the boy seemed to weather them with ease. Even the worst insults they could think of didn't make him so much as bat an eye. By the end of the exchange, the four girls had been left red-faced and in tears until they finally ran for the entrance, unable to withstand any more abuse from the boy. As they reached the door the crowd of students, Hayato alongside them, had moved back and gave way to them, allowing them to take refuge. Someone had shut the door and the four blubbering girls were soon at the center of the throng.
In the end a teacher, Suzuki-sensei, had come across the crowd and, upon seeing the four girls bawling their eyes out, had singled out Hayato for an explanation. Still in a daze, he had directed the teacher to the classroom with vague words he couldn't recall and it was only after seeing Suzuki-sensei go in and drag the boy out by the arm that he realized he had misconstrued the situation. But it seemed he didn't need to worry. Moments afterwards, Yukino appeared out of the door looking back and forth in the hallway before scampering after the two without a backwards glance at the crowd. No doubt she was coming to the boys defence.
Afterwards, things were a chaotic blur. Everyone else in the crowd had burst into intense chatter, individual conversations melding back and forth, impossible to follow out of the din. Hayato himself was left largely adrift in the sea of talk as he tried to wrap his mind around everything that had happened, and it was only after someone prodded his arm that he looked up to see Himiko and the other three girls in front of him, still sniffling and red in the face but no longer sobbing.
"Hayato-kun, everything that boy said was wrong wasn't it? We weren't doing anything bad were we?"
For a full minute Hayato could only stare at the group, uncomprehending. Surely they couldn't be serious?
Yet as he looked at their faces, blotchy and smudged red from when they had been crying, try as he might he just couldn't see any signs or hints of the ugliness they had been showing to Yukino even with the memory of those moments still freshly engraved into his mind. All he could see were four teary-eyed girls in desperate need of comfort.
But he couldn't just let their behaviour go.
"Well Hikikaeru-kun shouldn't have said what he said, but the four of you really shouldn't have acted that way with Yukino-chan either."
Four, tearful, outraged looks of betrayal was his response.
"Hayato-kun! Who's side are you on?!"
"I-I'm not on anyone's side" Hayato said defensively, raising both hands in front of him. Their shrill calls had attracted attention from the crowd and were drawing more and more looks to the five of them with every second. "It's just that Yukino-chan was only trying her best-"
"Yukinoshita was the one who started it!"
"That's right! It was all Yukinoshita's fault!"
"She's always going around acting so high and mighty, as if she's better than all of us just because she's a little rich. I can't stand her!"
"Just like how she's always throwing around big words like she's showing off how much smarter she is. She's such a spoiled know-it-all!"
Hayato wanted to tell them. He wanted to tell them so badly that they were wrong. That that wasn't what Yukino was like at all. But seeing the sheer vehemence on their faces, and all the others in the crowd with faces of agreement, it was obvious they'd already made up their minds on the matter. What would arguing with them achieve except make everyone even more unhappy than they already were? Would the four of them think he was calling them liars? Yet still, he wasn't sure how much longer he could endure seeing them badmouth his friend.
"Well regardless of who started it." Hayato said, trying to placate them before they had a chance to escalate their grievances further, "What's important is that we learn from this experience. I mean, nobody likes having bad things said about them- which is why we should strive to improve ourselves from here out and…"
Slowly he trailed off, fully aware that he was only giving vague platitudes with little real meaning. However weak his words sounded however, it seemed to be enough to mollify the four girls and before anyone else could restart the conversation the bell for the end of lunch finally rang. Instantly, the mood changed as the large crowd dispersed into various smaller chunks and everyone hurried back to their own classes. No matter how dramatic the topic of conversation was, the importance on not being tardy to classes was one of the first lessons to have been ingrained into every student. Hayato was no different but even as he walked he could still hear snatches of conversation as everyone continued to talk about the events from lunch.
"What was with that guy at the end anyway?"
"Who knows, he'll probably be getting expelled anyway after what he did."
"Who was he anyway? I think Hayato said his name was Hikikaeru?"
Hayato bit his lip as he continued to hear similar talk along the way to class. It wouldn't be right to say he agreed with everything the boy had done during lunch but he could at least understood what he'd been trying to do, which was more than could be said for the actions of the girls. Yet somehow it seemed that the boy was the only one whose actions were considered wrong. He just didn't understand but he was already feeling weary from everything that had transpired since lunch and he just didn't have the heart to join the conversation, even when a few other students tried bringing him in, so he remained silent.
For the remainder of the day Hayato found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on his lessons, it wasn't until he'd almost got reprimanded by Yamamoto-sensei that he managed to push his thoughts about everything that had happened to the back of his mind and focus on his schoolwork. He hadn't even realize how exhausted he was until after he had finally arrived home, gave his customary greeting to his mother and father and flopped down onto his bed feeling more drained than he'd ever been in his young life.
So much had occurred today he could barely begin to process them all. Foremost was that Yukino's attempt at making peace had failed spectacularly. There was no telling how things will be for her in the future. He couldn't find a chance to meet up with her again after lunch today so he had no idea how she was doing or what state of mind she was in. More importantly, what was he supposed to say when he saw her tomorrow? No matter how he looked at it, he'd let her down completely today. In her time of need, she'd looked to him for help but he couldn't give it. Every time he thought back to that moment a nauseous feeling of shame would crawl through him, threatening to overwhelm his young mind. But there was no point dwelling on things he couldn't undo. The only thing left for him was what anyone who'd made a mistake could do; apologise and promise to make things right.
It was clear now that trying to solve things by themselves wasn't working. As much as Yukino disliked asking for help, surely after today even she would realize that she wouldn't get anywhere by continuing to face everything by herself? Tomorrow he would talk to Yukino, they would go to the teachers and…
Things had been different when the ones stealing her shoes were still faceless individuals whose motives were still inscrutable. Back when he believed things could still be settled peacefully. But now? Now, he was able to put a face and name to the one's making life harder for Yukino, saw how they had spurned Yukino's offer of peace and had witnessed with his own eyes the lengths they were willing to go to make Yukino miserable. If they went to the teachers they would have to explain everything and the four girls would surely be singled out from the rest of the school. Could he really do that after everything that had already happened? The four girls were quite popular throughout the school and there was no way of knowing how things would end up if he went to the teachers. In the worse case, the mood in their entire classrooms would be disrupted. And would the bullying even stop?
What was the ideal answer that would satisfy everyone?
Letting out a sigh, Hayato lifted himself off the bed and inspected his appearance critically in the mirror. He'd figure out the details later, for now it was almost time for supper and the last thing he wanted was to make his parents worry about him by appearing at the dining table looking as tired on the outside as he felt on the inside.
Come to think of it, he should probably thank Hikikaeru for what he did today as well though, if he was being honest, he wasn't entirely looking forward to that conversation. As grateful as he was for the boy's intervention, the memory of the last time they'd talked still hadn't faded from his mind.
"It's fine if she isn't back yet. Thank you anyway."
Hayato smiled and stepped back away from the classroom, waving goodbye to the students inside as he did so. It was only after the door shut that he allowed the smile to fade and he released a small, tired sigh. Lunch period was almost finished and Yukino still wasn't back in her class. He was starting to get worried, especially since he still hadn't met with her since yesterday.
In the morning he had waited by the gates to meet her at their usual greeting place as he'd always done but, to his surprise, the Yukinoshita's family car never arrived. For a brief, panic stricken moment he had wondered whether she'd been so shaken up from yesterday's events that she'd refused to come to school at all, a worrying sign given how seriously she took her academics, but his fears turned out to be unfounded. A brief detour on his way to homeroom, allowed him to take a quick peek into Yukino's classroom and, to his relief, he'd seen her sitting at her usual table, as calm and composed as she ever was. She must have arrived earlier than her usual time.
When the bell for lunch had rung, Hayato had immediately made a beeline for Yukino's classroom but to his disappointment, she was already gone by the time he arrived. He'd asked her classmates whether they knew where she was heading (they didn't) and, undeterred, he'd gone on to search through all the various other locations around the school he knew she liked to spend her time when she wasn't with him. The library, the lone bench located to the western end of the playground, the shaded area under the large tree that grew at the far side of the school. He checked all of them and she was nowhere to be found at any of them.
It was after he glanced at his watch and saw, to his mild alarm, nearly three-quarters of lunch period had already passed that he'd returned to her classroom expecting to find Yukino, ever diligent, already at her desk and in the midst of reviewing the material for her next lessons, but she wasn't.
As he walked along the hallway Hayato wondered what he should do next. Logically, he should simply return back to his classroom before the bell rang. He'd already done everything he could reasonably be expected to do in his search for Yukino. Even if he did find her, they wouldn't have much time to talk, certainly not enough to unpack everything that needed to be said. It was probably better to wait until school ended to catch up with her, there would be time for them to talk then. She'd probably be returning to her classroom soon anyway and he'd only miss her if he tried looking around the school again. Even if it was a little strange for her to be so late he knew how responsible she was and she probably had a good reason for...
Hayato halted mid-step as a sudden, horrible possibility crossed his mind. The memories from yesterday replayed themselves in his mind in vivid detail; four girls sneering and laughing, Yukino shrinking back further on herself with every word, a crowd of students looking on, indifferent to her suffering. What if the reason she hadn't returned to class wasn't out of choice but rather because she couldn't? It wasn't like him to entertain such dark thoughts and nor was it in his nature to think ill of his fellow classmates but after the events of yesterday he couldn't simply discard the possibility out of hand.
Before he knew it, Hayato was practically sprinting down the halls.
"Excuse me, but you wouldn't happened to have seen Yukino-chan around here?"
"My apologies, but has anyone here seen Yukino-chan pass by?"
"Sensei, I'm sorry to bother you again but has Yukino-chan come by the library at all?"
With each negative response, Hayato felt himself growing more and more agitated. He knew that he was probably getting worked up over nothing but his fears had seized full command over his brain, overriding his usual calm and level-headed nature.
If Yukino really was caught by a group of tormentors again, this time with no one to stop them…
"Eh? Hayama-senpai what are you doing here?"
Blinking at the call, Hayato paused and looked down at the source of the voice. Three girls who, by the looks of it, were probably first or second graders were staring up at him in naked curiosity. Looking around he realized he had arrived near the first year classrooms on the ground floor. He'd been so focused on his search he hadn't been paying any attention to where exactly he'd been going.
"Hayama-sempai? What's wrong? You look worried?" One of the girls asked again.
"Ah, it's nothing that you need to be worried about though I appreciate your concern, Ojou-san." Quickly smoothing over his features, Hayama gave the trio a reassuring smile. No matter how worried he was, the last thing he wanted was to cause undue concern from the other students as a result of his actions. It was unfortunate that he didn't know any of their names so he had to default to what he'd been taught about etiquette whenever he had to greet new people. Still, given the way the three girls immediately huddled together and giggled, it seemed his assurances had worked.
On that note, since he was already here…
"Actually, while I'm here, maybe the three you could help me with something?"
At once three girls brightened up and straightened at his words and, despite the urgency at which he'd been searching, Hayato could feel his smile grow a bit wider at the sight of the three of them being so adorably eager to please. It was a bit of a long shot, he had to admit, but it was still worth a try.
"I'm looking for a girl around the same age as me with long black hair and tied with two red ribbons. Have you seen anyone like that come by?"
Two of the three girls immediately replied, looking disappointed that they couldn't be of more help. The third however had a thoughtful look in her eye.
"I think I saw a really pretty oneesan with long hair walk by at lunch." She said, pointing down to the end of the hallway. "I don't think she's come back yet." She added.
"I see." Hayato said, looking down the corridor in question. "Thank you very much. The three of you should probably get back to your classroom soon as well. It's almost time for lessons and you don't want to late and upset your teachers."
With a chorus of "oks" the three of them scampered off. Hayato saw them off with a wave and a smile and it was only when he saw them disappear into their classroom or around the corner that he turned back towards the hallway he'd been directed down. From memory of the schools layout, that way only lead to some supply closets and the door leading to the parking area behind the school. If there was even a chance she was there, it was worth a look but, as he hurried down the corridor, he couldn't help but wonder whether he really was going find Yukino at the end. It was hard to think of a reason why anyone would spend lunch at such a lonely location.
So he was incredibly surprised when he opened the door and caught sight of Yukino sitting placidly ahead at the concrete steps. Even from a distance he could tell it was her. Few girls in the school had hair that length and she was the only one he knew who'd be sitting with such proper posture. Aside from her there was only one boy sitting about half a metre away from her. From her relaxed bearing, it seemed his previous worries that she was being bullied again were unfounded. His shoulders slumped in relief and he even felt a little silly for getting so worked up just before.
Even from a distance, he couldn't miss the way Yukino paused mid-conversation at the sound of his voice. Making sure that none of the anxiety he'd previously been feeling would show on his face, he slowly jogged his way towards her. He took a brief glance at the boy that had been sitting next to her and felt another jolt as he recognised who it was.
Eyeing him with the same guarded look he'd given him at their first meeting, Hikikaeru slowly put away his bento and stood up at the sound of his approach. Alongside him, Yukino had also gotten to her feet though she still had her back to him. As she stood up he noticed that she was wearing her indoor shoes for the first time in weeks. At least something good had come out of everything that happened yesterday.
With a slightly hesitant smile, Hayato stopped short just a few feet away from the two of them.
"Yukino-chan, I-" Hayato began, taking a brief glance at Hikikaeru, still silently watching, before focusing his attention entirely onto Yukino. "I-I was looking you. The bell is about to ring and you're usually back in your classroom well before the bell so I got worried and-"
"That's enough Hayama-kun."
A voice of pure ice pierced through him midsentence.
Freezing in place at Yukino's icy tone, the rest of Hayato's words died on his tongue and his eyes widened in shock.
Hayama, not Hayato?
Yukino finally turned around to face him and Hayato recoiled. Her voice had been cold and the expression on her face was colder still, but her eyes. Her eyes were blazing. The sheer, unbridled fury contained in her glare made him retreat backwards several steps on instinct.
"I am well aware what time the lunch bell rings." Yukino continued her voice still as frosty as the snow she was named after. "I can handle myself. You don't have to look out for me anymore."
Faced with such animosity, Hayato couldn't muster the strength to speak. Everything he'd been planning to say, the words he'd practised in front of the mirror both the night before and the morning after, about finding another way to help her deal with her tormentors, apologies for giving her the idea that had blown up so spectacularly, how sorry he was for not standing up for her when she needed him to. They all felt utterly inadequate in the face of her rage.
He had been expecting her to be upset, even angry, with him. He'd been bracing for it, in fact. As close as they were, there had been times in the past where he had done things that had made Yukino unhappy with him. That time when he tried to coax her into petting the neighbour's dog that had wandered near his house, when he'd first admitted that he didn't find her beloved Pan-san very appealing or the occasions when she lost a game or competition to him and she would pout about it for the rest of the day, even as she insisted she didn't mind. Countless moment when things had soured between them but this time seemed different. The sheer intensity of her enmity had caught him completely off guard. It almost seemed as if she- she hated him.
Without another word Yukino walked away, not giving so much as a glance in his direction as she passed him by. He watched her ascend the steps leading back into school and as she reached the door she paused and looked back. Hayato had to hold back the instinct to cringe, the memory of her glare still seared into his mind, but she wasn't looking at him at all.
Throughout the entire exchange, Hikikaeru had been silent all the while wearing an uncomfortable expression on his face, as if he felt he shouldn't be watching but not knowing what else he was supposed to do. After giving a brief, unreadable, look in his direction Yukino disappeared back into the school.
Now it was just the two of them, two students who barely knew the other standing awkwardly around each other. It suddenly occurred to Hayato that he still needed to thank him for what he did yesterday. It had been pushed to the back of his mind for much of the day, but now there was no better opportunity for him to-
The tone of Hayato's voice was desperate and completely lacking their usual geniality but he couldn't bring himself to care. The boy stared at him, clearly perturbed at the sudden attention.
"Why did you do that? Ruin yourself to save her?"
Hayato didn't give details of what he was asking, but then again he didn't need to. All day at school, he'd caught snatches of the topic being discussed both in class and during lunch. The events from that awful day had spread like wildfire through the school. There didn't seem to be a class that didn't know what had happened, he'd even heard some of the other year groups talking about it when he'd been searching the playgrounds. And they were almost all awful words. All of them directed at the boy who had intervened to save his friend. Nobody seemed to think there was anything to say about how the girls had been treating Yukino. They were only ever talked about as innocent parties being victimised. Just remembering it all made him feel sick.
At the time he'd been more concerned with finding Yukino but now that she was gone and he was face to face with the boy with nothing else to distract him, it was the only thing he could think to ask. How could the boy have done that so easily? How could he expose himself to such vileness without any hesitation? The boy didn't even know Yukino yet he'd stepped in without even an ounce of the indecision that had plagued Hayato, her closest friend. He had to understand. He needed to understand.
"What possible reason could you have?"
The boy simply stared at him for a moment uncomprehending, his dull eyes no longer showing any glimmers of the resolve they'd shone with on that day. Then they narrowed and his lips curled up in a sneer.
"In case you haven't noticed, my reputation's already down the drain. And when I see something like that happening, I don't just stand by. Not when I can do something."
Turning away, he abruptly walked by him and into the building and Hayato simply stood frozen, just like their first meeting.
Ever since the day before Hayato had been feeling the bitter sensation of guilt gnawing at him, as unpleasant as it was unfamiliar, but it had been a dull ache, one he'd largely managed to keep under wraps at the back of his mind as he'd focused on trying to make amends. Now, with how everything had ended, those feelings had emerged to the forefront and he could feel the full force of them weighing down on him.
Just what was he supposed to do now?
It was only when he remembered that classes were going to begin any minute that he was able to muster the strength to move.
"Oi Hayato! Where were you? You're almost late!"
Energetically calling out to Hayato as he entered his classroom, Akihiko waved an impatient hand in greeting. Giving a smile slightly wearier than his usual one, he had run at a fair pace to make it in time, Hayato waved back.
"Sorry, I was busy and I ended up losing track of time." He replied as he took his seat next to Akihiko.
"Yeah, yeah I know. We saw you running around at lunch. You didn't play Onigokko with us either." Akihiko rolled his eyes slightly at the memory. "Still did you find Yukinoshita in the end?"
"Ah- Yes I did." Hayato said, carefully keeping any signs of discontentment from showing on his face. No matter how he unhappy he felt about the way things had turned out, he shouldn't allow it to affect his relationships with his other friends and it wasn't like Akihiko would have any idea how things had went. "I didn't have a lot of time when I did but I still caught up with her."
"That's good. Anyways, me and a couple of other guys are heading to the park for a game after school. I-We were wondering if you want to come with us?"
"I-" Hayato hesitated as he considered his plans after school. Originally, he'd actually been hoping to visit Yukino's house after school but, with the memory of Yukino's chilly reception to him still lingering in his mind, now he wasn't so sure that was a good idea. With how angry she was with him, it would probably be best for him to give her space for the time being. With that now said, he didn't really have any reason to refuse Akihiko's invitation and spending some time with his friends would probably do well in cheering him up after the turbulent day he's had.
"Sure I'd be happy to join everyone."
"Great!" An ear splitting grin from Akihiko made Hayato smile back. "Things will definitely be good with you there! I can't wait to-"
He paused as Hayato's stomach suddenly gave a small rumble.
"Don't tell me you didn't have lunch." Akihiko said disapprovingly. "That's not like you at all."
"H-Haha, I guess it slipped my mind." Hayato said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head with one hand. It was true though. Thinking back, he'd been so caught up in his search for Yukino that he hadn't even had time to eat anything.
"Here you can have this." Akihiko extended a hand, offering a bar of chocolate he'd surreptitiously taken from his desk. "You gotta keep your energy up. Just eat it quickly, you know how Sensei hates seeing us snack in class."
"Thanks." Hayato said gratefully, taking the candy bar. Even if it was a poor substitute for an actual meal, the thought and consideration alone more than made up for it. Fished out a coin from his pocket, he passed it over to Akihiko.
"Here. For the food."
"You don't have to do that." Akihiko said, though he still took the money regardless. "It's just something I saved from lunch to eat later."
"Even so you're still giving me something that belonged to you." Hayato replied, unwrapping the bar of chocolate and taking a bite. "It's only fair that I pay you back."
"Sure, sure. Just make sure you don't forget to eat lunch tomorrow. Don't want you to fall over when we're in the middle of a game."
"I won't. Who knows? Maybe I'll buy a bento for tomorrow…" Hayato trailed off, as a sudden memory from yesterday resurfaced in his mind.
"As thanks, tomorrow I'll make you a bento."
Yukino's promise to make him lunch today. After everything that had happened afterwards, and with everything he'd had to keep in mind today, it had completely slipped from his mind, but, with the topic of lunch coming up, those memories had all come back to him now. Yet when he thought back to the glare that Yukino had given him…
Hayato suddenly wasn't feeling very hungry.
"Oi Hayato? You ok? That chocolate isn't too sweet is it?"
"Ah… no. I was just thinking I probably won't be getting a bento tomorrow either."
There was something about rain that often made it associated with sadness. Perhaps it was the dreary overcast, with the normally clear blue skies covered in grey and the brightness of the sun unable to penetrate the thickness of the clouds. Or maybe it was the way drops of water raining down seemed so reminiscent of tears, as if the sky itself was crying.
These thoughts idly ran through Hayato's mind as stood on the sidewalk as he patiently waited, clutching a large umbrella to shield him from the worst of the deluge. Though he didn't really care for wet weather, he was an optimistic person by nature and even in circumstances like these he'd always tried to see the bright side to things. Today however that seemed harder than usual. He was restless as he stood in place, fidgeting back and forth as the minutes passed and constantly checking his wristwatch. As much as he was trying to keep his mind occupied, it was all too obvious what the source of his restlessness was.
He was waiting for Yukino.
Hayato looked up at the sky as much as his umbrella would permit him, gazing across the seemingly never-ending expanse of grey clouds. In truth, he probably wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for the message his mother had received this morning. Despite the cascade of water that was pouring from the sky Yukino still intended to travel to school on foot and, out of concern for her health, he'd been called on to escort her to school. It was far from an unusual request. Previously, he would always walk Yukino if her family car wasn't available on a rainy day. At least it wouldn't have been unusual up until fairly recently.
Looking back down again, Hayato couldn't help but let out a sigh. It had been months since that fateful lunch day, months since the resulting fallout had been the talk of the school for nearly two entire weeks before finally subsiding, months since Yukino had last had her shoes stolen or been subjected to any further harassment.
Months since Yukino had made it clear she no longer wanted anything to do with him.
Hayato checked his watch for what felt like the hundredth time. It wasn't like he could refuse either. Not only was it his nature to avoid disappointing his parents, he hadn't told them about his estrangement with Yukino and, judging from the ease which they had discussed the issue with the Yukinoshita's, she hadn't told hers either. If he had said no he'd have to explain everything. A part of him actually wanted to, not because he was against walking Yukino in the rain, but so he could talk them about his falling out with Yukino and ask them what he should do. His parents have long been a source of comfort and guidance whenever he found himself in a situation he didn't know how to resolve, and he'd never had any reservations about asking them for advice before, but this time he'd been hesitant.
He knew that his parents strongly encouraged him to grow closer to the two sisters and if he told them about the newfound distance with the younger Yukinoshita daughter they would almost certainly bring it up with Yukino's own parents and there was no telling how that would have turned out. At minimum, he knew that the Yukinoshita matriarch had high expectations of her daughters and would likely be displeased at the development and Yukino already had enough reason to be angry with him without him causing her more trouble. It also just didn't feel right either, divulging something so private, even if they were his parents.
"Hey Hayato! What are you doing standing here in the rain? Come on! Let's share your umbrella and go to school!"
"I'm sorry, but I've made a promise I'd wait for someone. I'm very sorry that I can't help this time."
Watching as the student, Takumi Kobayashi from class 5-C, run off, Hayato fought down a small twinge of shame. It was an exchange he'd gone through several times already. As he'd been waiting on the sidewalk, various students from his school had run past, bags held over their heads to shield them and their Halloween costumes from the rain. Every time he saw a small frantic figure making their way through the shower he had fight the urge to run out and shield them from the rain, but every time he forced the feeling down and remained where he was as he was supposed to. It made him feel guilty, not being able to offer them shelter, but he'd made a promise and he was determined to fulfil it. Not just because of obligation, but also because he'd been putting things off between him and Yukino for too long.
In the days since she'd first rebuffed him he'd made a few tentative attempts in approaching her, from greeting her in the mornings and calling out to her when they passed each other in the hallways. During those times Yukino had always replied but her words had been curt, with no openings to engage her in conversation. Afterwards he'd taken the hint and backed away to give her space as intended hoping that, with time and distance, her temper would eventually cool.
Time had passed and he spent more of his free periods with his other friends in school. Things had been easier then, he could admit. The pain from his separation from Yukino had lessened, almost forgotten at times, as he spent his days chatting with his classmates, helping them with their schoolwork, playing out in the fields during lunch and otherwise ensuring the overall mood, wherever he went, was a positive one. It was simple, it was familiar and it was satisfying. But today that was no longer an option.
Letting out another sigh, Hayato ran through what words he should use to greet her when she finally appeared. He thought back to the exchanges they had in the past, times where he hadn't needed to think so much before seeing her. He wondered whether he'd dragged his feet because he really thought giving Yukino space was the best thing he could have done or if it had merely been an excuse to put things off. He wasn't used to being so unsure of himself, to put it lightly. Though he harboured hopes that things will be somewhat easier now, with several months worth of time since the last time they've spoken, he couldn't shake the growing sense of unease he felt as the minutes trickled by.
A sudden burst of melodic, girlish laughter in the air made Hayato's head snap up.
Along the pavement, at the opposite end of the street he was on, he saw her. Yukino. Instead of the usual neat and practical clothing she preferred, she was wearing a police officer's uniform, tailored for her small size. When did she develop an interest in Halloween costumes he couldn't help but wonder? Unlike most of the other students he'd seen thus far, she was walking leisurely along the street, unbothered by the rain as she was shielded from the drizzle by an umbrella. An umbrella carried by… him.
The boy with the lifeless eyes. Hikigaya Hachiman, he'd been mortified to learn sometime in the interim since they'd last spoken.
At first glance, the two looked rather out of place together. Whereas Yukino was elaborately dressed up, complete with props, Hikigaya was still wearing regular, mundane clothes. While Yukino walked with her head held up high, exuding an aura of confidence and assurance, Hikigaya put his head down and did everything he could to mask his presence and avoid attention. Two people who didn't seem like they would ever be a match but Hayato knew better. He'd seen the how closed off the two were when they were on their own, how guarded they became around their fellow students. Although Hikigaya appeared to be grumbling over something while Yukino was still in the midst of laughing, their willingness to be so open with each other made it plainly obvious just how close the two of them actually were. Still were in fact.
Unconsciously, the grip Hayato had on his own umbrella tightened until his knuckles were white. Once, during a rare moment of freedom at lunch, he'd gone back to the back parking lot some weeks after the first time he'd been there. He hadn't quite known why he went, wasn't even sure what he was expecting to find, but when he'd arrived he saw the two of them sitting together just like on that day. Unlike before he didn't call out and simply stood back, and watched them talk from a distance.
Gone was the reticent Yukino that appeared whenever she was with anyone other than him or her sister. The two spoke freely and often, bantering back and forth with a relaxed easiness that would make any outside observer believe they were lifelong friends with years of history rather than mere weeks. He had thought back to the time when he'd first been introduced to the Yukinoshita sisters, how much time and patience it had taken for to coax Yukino into becoming this open with him and as he'd continued to watch a strange sense of uneasiness had begun to creep up on him. The same unpleasant feeling he was experiencing now. The longer he had watched, the greater that feeling became, until the urge to avert his eyes had become overwhelming.
He was so lost in his thoughts that it took Hayato a moment to realize the sound of Yukino's laughter had ceased. Looking up he saw that she was now staring in his direction.
With the distance between them, as well as the large set of aviator glasses she was wearing, it was impossible to tell what expression she was wearing, what she could possibly be thinking. He was debating whether he should wave out to her when, sensing Yukino's change in mood, Hikigaya also turned to look in his direction and he saw the boy's dull eyes widen in shock at his presence.
For a moment it seemed as though Hikigaya was about to gesture in Hayato's direction but then Yukino put a hand on his shoulder and nudged him forward, shaking her head and saying something he was too far away to hear. Throwing one last look in Hayato's direction, the boy continued onwards, matching paces with Yukino and continuing to exchange words with her, neither of them paying any further attention to his presence. Hayato slowly watched as the two of them walked away. He continued watching even as they turned the corner at the end of the street and were gone leaving him with a strange sense of numbness in his chest.
There had been a time when he'd actually entertained the notion of asking Hikigaya to assist in reacquainting him with Yukino. After seeing how well the two got along, it was a natural step to take after all. If it had been anyone else he wouldn't have even hesitated to ask yet, in the time since, he'd come to discard that idea. It wasn't because he wasn't familiar with the boy or the fact that their interactions thus far had been tense, to say the least. Rather, as Hayato had mulled it over, he couldn't help but find the thought, inexplicably… distasteful. Almost as if asking Hikigaya for help would be- would be like conceding something. It was a truly bizarre feeling, one Hayato had never experienced before.
Why did he feel like this? In the past he'd always tried to help Yukino make new friends, had always been concerned with how alone she was. Even if he was no longer so close to her himself, surely he should at feel happy that she finally had someone she could talk freely with? So why wasn't he? Why did he feel a knot in his chest when he saw the two of them together like this? Why did the sight of them so close make him want to do nothing more than turn away? Why was he feeling so… unsatisfied?
Unbidden, an image of Yukino appeared in his mind. From a time before she'd begun distancing from him. Of a smile, warmer than any he'd ever seen on her face before. A side of her that he had only caught a fleeting glimpse of before that door had been slammed shut. And he couldn't help but wonder. Was Hikigaya being shown that smile now? Was he seeing a side of Yukino that Hayato was no longer permitted to see?
The sudden call snapped him out of his thoughts and Hayato spun around to see a pair of girls from his school standing a few feet away, Aoi and Rindou, both from class 5-B he believed. They were both dressed up in costumes of characters from a popular anime that was currently airing and, like many of the students he'd seen, they were clearly unprepared for the weather considering how their colorful outfits were already partly soaked through by rain water.
"It really is Hayato-kun!"
"Can you walk us to school? Pleaaase?"
Hayato turned back around, reflexively looking in the direction Yukino and Hikigaya had gone. He'd been sent to ensure Yukino would arrive at school safeguarded from the rain and, regardless of how it happened, she was clearly well taken care of on that front. In that respect, there really wasn't any point in letting the umbrella he was holding go to waste nor was there any more reason for him to wait in place any more.
"Of course, I'd be happy to."
"It's been so long since we've just spent a day by ourselves!"
"It really has, hasn't it Haruno-san."
Returning the smile from the teenage girl sitting at the front, Hayato leaned back into the soft leather of his seat and tried to make himself comfortable. Directly in front of him, the Yukinoshita's family chauffer was keeping his eyes firmly faced forward as the car travelled steadily along the road.
It was nearing the end of December and with it, the beginnings of winter holidays had finally begun. As was usual both his father and mother were, regrettably, busy with last minute deadlines, though of course they had promised they would be present for their customary shrine visit at the start of the New Year as well as the following celebratory dinner with some family friends. Today however, he would be spending his time under the care of the Yukinoshita's, specifically Haruno's as her parents were also caught up wrapping up business before the holidays well and truly begun.
"We really need to do this more often." Haruno continued, stretching her arms out from over the seat. "We hardly ever have any time together anymore."
"We really don't anymore, don't we?" Hayato replied, a slightly nostalgic tinge in his voice. "It would be nice if we could have more time to spend together."
It was true he'd be seeing less of Haruno in recent years. Not only was she attending a completely school since her graduation from Elementary, she'd also begun more vigorous studies at home as well as participating in numerous other extracurricular activities. No doubt the additional instruction was preparation for Haruno's future as the Yukinoshita family's heiress. As the elder sister, he knew that her parents placed great expectations on Haruno and had high hopes that she'll grow to become a proud leading member of their family.
Certainly, she seemed to be handling the additional responsibility with aplomb. Despite the added workload, she was still the same bright and cheerful person who drew the attention of everyone around her that he remembered. Perhaps it was simply the physical growth spurt she'd undergone, but it seemed to him that Haruno had become much more mature since he'd last seen her, as if she was already beginning her transition into adulthood rather than mere adolescence. He could only hope that he'd be able to handle things just as well when it was his turn.
"So Hayato-kun, what attraction are you looking forward to seeing the most at Destinyland?"
"I'm not sure really." Hayato admitted, looking over the brochure she'd handed him. It had been a few years since he'd last been to Destinyland so there were quite a few new attractions he hadn't seen before. "There are a lot of great things to see. There's a play that's being shown at the theatre, there's also the Christmas Parade and Santa's Village. Not to mention the fireworks show in the evening. There's really too much to choose from, I think."
"Too much to choose from, huh? Well it's true that they're really going all out this year."
"If I may ask, what are you looking forward to the most, Haruno-san?"
"The roller coasters of course!" Haruno declared without hesitation. "There's nothing more freeing than the sensation of wheeling and spinning about in the air. It's like you're flying in the sky, as if even gravity couldn't hold you down." Haruno paused and then threw a mischievous glance directly behind her.
"I probably don't have to tell you that Yukino-chan is looking forward to Pan-sans Bamboo Fight the most."
Hayato couldn't help but let his eyes fall on the other occupant in the backseat of the car. Sitting neatly to his left, Yukino had neither looked up nor replied to the sudden mention of her name. Serenely, she simply continued to look out the window to the sight of the city zooming by, as if entranced at seeing Chiba covered in the snow she was named after.
"Well that's not really unusual. Yukino-chan loves Pan-san after all." Hayato offered tentatively, trying not to let his eyes linger on the younger Yukinoshita daughter. Besides a single politely uttered greeting when Hayato had first climbed into the backseat, she hadn't said a word during the entire trip. She wasn't treating him with any of the open hostility he'd been expecting, yet she wasn't exactly friendly either. There was still a palatable sense of distance he could still feel between them.
"That's true but she could certainly stand to show it a bit more!" Turning her head around again Haruno gave another look in her sister's direction. "Hey Yukino-chan? It's Christmas and we're going to spend the entire day at Destinyland! Just the three of us! Why are you sitting there so gloomily?"
"There's nothing wrong if Yukino-chan doesn't feel like talking." Hayato said, slightly nervous now that Yukino was the subject of conversation. "I mean she's never really been as lively as you after all, Haruno-san..."
Wincing at his unintended comparison of the two sisters, Hayato snatched a quick look in Yukino's direction but she still hadn't reacted, even to his slight faux pas. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
"You're so understanding, Hayato-kun." Haruno noted with a smile. "With the way she's acting though, it almost makes me think she doesn't want to be here."
"That can't be." Hayato said uneasily, giving another quick glance in Yukino's direction. That last statement had hit a little too close to home. Did Haruno know about the newfound distance between him and Yukino? If there was anyone Yukino would be comfortable confiding that information with, surely it would be her older sister? But she hadn't shown any signs of knowing when she came to fetch him at his house, nor was she treating him any differently than she always had. "I mean you're here, Haruno-san. I can't possibly see how she'd be unhappy about that."
"You think so? But I still can't help but be afraid." Haruno whined playfully. Lifting a hand she pretended to wipe a tear from her eye. "After all, nothing makes an older sibling sadder than the possibility her adorable little sister is too grown up to want to spend time with her anymore."
Hayato was about to answer but then, out of the corner of his eyes, he noticed Yukino finally shift in her seat at Haruno's words.
"I was simply surprised." Yukino spoke up, though she didn't look away from the window. "I was only given notice about the changes in our plans at the last minute. It's only natural for me to be taken off guard."
"Changes in plans?" Hayato wondered. Was she talking about him? His presence? That seemed to fulfil his worst fears and he felt a sudden lump in his throat he forcefully swallowed down. Maybe it would have been better if he hadn't gone on this trip after all? "Am I intruding perhaps? I don't want to interrupt a trip between sisters."
"Oh don't go thinking like that, Hayato-kun. You're practically family already." Haruno said, giving him a reassuring look. "It's just it was originally going to be our father that was going to take Yukino-chan to Destinyland, but then something came up at his company and of course mother couldn't do it, so it fell onto me to keep Yukino-chan company. She's been sulking ever since."
Haruno craned her neck around her seat so she could give Yukino a mischievous look. "Really now, do you hate your big sister so much?"
"I haven't forgotten what happened the last time I went to Destinyland with you, neesan."
"Oh don't tell me you're still upset over that! It was months ago and I already said I was sorry!"
"What happened last time..?" Hayato couldn't help but interject as he looked back and forth at the exchange between the sisters, wondering whether something had happened between the two. While the bond between two sisters was far from what one could call perfect harmony, they had still always been as close as any pair of people he'd ever seen and the thought they may have had a falling out was concerning. There was also a tiny part of him buried deep down that was just a little bit relieved at the revelation that maybe it wasn't his company that was the cause of Yukino's melancholy mood but he did his best to quash that thought down.
"Oh don't look so worried about it," Haruno waved one hand carelessly. Leaning closer, Haruno whispered conspiratorially to him, as though she was sharing some incredible secret with him, despite the fact Yukino could easily hear every word she was saying. "It's just the last time we went to Destinyland, Yukino-chan was finally tall enough to go on the fun rides, but it turned out that she's just a teensy little bit scared of all those big, loopy, fast roller coasters."
"…I'm not afraid."
"Really?" Haruno said teasingly, immediately turning her attention directly onto her sister. "But how about when we went on Space Universe Mountain? You'd gone so white, I thought I was sitting next to a ghost! And afterwards you were clinging onto father and quivering for almost an hour?"
"That was only because you kept pulling my hands off the safety bars every time we made a turn or spin!" Yukino shot back, finally turning away from the window and facing her sister in full.
"Well of course! You're supposed to put your hands high in the sky when you're going fast. That's when the ride is at its most exhilarating!"
"The regulations clearly state riders are to keep their hands securely in the ride at all times for safety…"
As Hayato watched Yukino and Haruno begin to bicker back and forth about the merits, or lack thereof, of too many rules and regulations he released the slight breath he hadn't even known he'd been holding. It seemed that he'd been concerned over nothing. Though it may seem strange to be relieved at seeing the two sisters in the midst of quarrelling, it was something he'd already seen before and had long since gotten used to.
For all that she loved and doted on her younger sister, Haruno also had a impish streak a mile wide and could almost never pass up an opportunity to tease Yukino whether it was about her borderline obsession with Pan-san or, in this case, uneasiness about roller coasters. Though there were times when Hayato felt she took it just a little further than strictly necessary, she always knew where to stop before doing any real damage to their relationship was done. He also knew it was really just her way of trying to get Yukino to be more interactive. In fact, there had been times in the past when he'd also been on the receiving end of Haruno's playful machinations though significantly less so than Yukino. According to Haruno he was "too understanding" for it to be as fun.
With Yukino fervently engaged in discussion with her sister, Hayato felt himself relax for the first time since the trip began. Even if he wasn't involved in the conversation, the familiar sight alone was enough to set him at ease. It really was just like Haruno to be able to so effortlessly draw Yukino into the fold no matter how reserved she was acting, it was something he was honestly a little envious about.
"Well I suppose in the end Yukino-chan is still too young to truly appreciate roller coasters." Haruno finally said, huffing playfully. "I guess the rides for younger children are still your favourite but that's ok, it's what's so cute about you after all."
Yukino bristled but Haruno had already withdrawn from the argument and had turned around in her seat. Leaning back into her seat, Haruno threw her arms into the air.
"We're all going to have a wonderful time together!"
"Haruno-san, that's really enough don't you think?" Hayato said uneasily. "I think we should give Yukino-chan some time to catch her breath."
Squatting some distance away, Yukino was currently hanging onto the bottom rungs of some metal railings with both arms, having staggered over to the fence after disembarking from the latest rollercoaster, her chest was heaving and gasping while her face was red from exertion.
"I suppose we should." Haruno agreed, thoughtfully tapping one side of her face with a finger as she took in the sight of her sister sucking in air. "I guess going on all those rides in one go was a bit much."
Hayato could only nod in agreement. According to Haruno it was best to get to an early start on the attractions given that the crowds at Destinyland would only grow larger as the day went on and since she was the one technically in charge, as well as the fact that both him and Yukino didn't have any particular attractions they wanted to go to right away, they'd largely been following her lead. However it seemed that the back to back course on all the thrill rides was wearing Yukino down quite fast.
"Yukino-chan seems about at her limit but-" Turning towards Hayato, Haruno gave him a smile. "You seem to be coping rather well though." Leaning forward, she gave him an affectionate pat on the head.
"Maybe a little bit." Hayato admitted, slightly bashful at the attention. It was true that he'd fared considerably better than Yukino after going on those consecutive roller coasters but it would be inaccurate to suggest that he was totally unfazed. His own legs were still feeling a little wobbly from the after-effects of the last ride he'd been on.
"I suppose I've had my fill for these sorts of things as well." Haruno said, stretching her arms up over head. In contrast to her sister, Haruno seemed to become more and more jubilant with every ride she'd gone on. "Alright then. It's time for a change in scenery. Let's go take a look and if that Christmas musical is really as good as the flyers say's it is."
"I think that would be best." Hayato replied with relief. After the exhilaration of all those thrill rides, a nice quiet time at the theatre would be a nice change of pace. For both him and Yukino.
"In that case I'm going to go check what time the play is going to start." Haruno announced whilst clapping her hands together. "In the meantime why don't you go and cheer Yukino-chan up."
But Haruno had already skipped away, too far in the distance for his voice to reach her.
For a brief minute Hayato stood in place, unsure of what to do. Things were still decidedly awkward between him and Yukino and the idea of simply approaching her out of the blue like this made him nervous. He also couldn't help but wonder whether Haruno had set this up deliberately. She'd always been perceptive and had a keen eye for reading the subtleties in a person's mood and actions. It wasn't out of the question that she'd noticed that he was keeping his distance from Yukino.
Sighing, Hayato took a deep breath to calm his nerves and even slapped his own cheeks a little. In the end there was no use worrying so much about everything. Even if things were still cool between him and Yukino there was nothing wrong with going over and talking to her. Not only that, Haruno had implicitly asked him to help Yukino. He couldn't disappoint her simply because of his own misgivings.
"Are you alright Yukino-chan?" Hayato asked, having made his way beside her and now stood beside her. "You've been staying in place for a while now."
Though he appeared outwardly confident, he was still conscious of the fact this was the first real exchange he would have with her in months and, despite himself, he couldn't help but reflexively brace himself. His worst fear was that Yukino would simply rebuff him the same way she'd done before.
"Thank you for your concern. I'm fine."
Though she was still out of breath and didn't lift her head up, Yukino's reply was steady and Hayato held back an urge to sigh in relief.
"Haruno-san's gone to check out the times for the play at the theatre." He went on, slightly emboldened by her reply. "She'll be back soon but, in the meantime, why don't we go wait at that bench over there? I'm sure it'll be more comfortable than staying here."
Reflexively, he held out a hand to help her up. Taking a deep breath, Yukino gripped the railings harder before pushing herself onto her feet.
"Very well. Let's go then."
Hayato withdrew his hand and as Yukino began to make her way across the footpath he followed. As Yukino walked she wobbled back and forth a bit, evidently still disorientated, but otherwise made the journey fine on her own and was soon sitting on the bench, huffing at the exertion. After a moment's hesitation Hayato took a seat on the other end, a respectful gap left between them.
The silence stretched on longer and longer, and as the seconds grew into minutes he was starting to feel uncomfortable and not just because of how quiet it was. He'd always been proud of his ability to read and interpret Yukino's mood and feelings merely from her body language alone but now those signs were as inscrutable to him as the rest of her thoughts. It actually reminded him a little of how she would withdraw into herself in the past whenever she was part of a large group or in a crowd. It hurt a little, to see that she was now acting the same way with him.
As he cast his eyes around, looking for something to distract him from the stillness, he spotted a vending machine in the distance.
"I think I'm going to get something to drink. Is there anything you want Yukino-chan? My treat."
"You don't need to worry." Hayato insisted. "I got some extra allowance today and I really think a drink would really help you recover-"
"There's no need. I've brought my own."
From the satchel she had beside her, Yukino withdrew a small thermos, embossed with a picture of a familiar evil-eyed panda. Unscrewing the cap she took a sip.
"Ah… I see. Well I'll be back soon then."
After browsing over the selection of drinks displayed, and taking a few minutes longer than what was probably strictly necessary, he decided on a blend of green tea. Popping the tab off the can, Hayato took a gulp and held back a wince as the temperature of the drink scalded his tongue, his own fault for drinking too quickly.
For several more minutes the two sat in silence, nursing their respective drinks. Licking his lips, which felt dry despite the already half empty can he had in hand, Hayato took a peek in Yukino's direction. It seemed that the time spent resting had done her good. She was no longer huffing so heavily and seemed to have caught her breath. The redness on her face had receded as well. She looked calm, at ease.
Now was probably as good a time as ever.
"How have things been in school, Yukino-chan?" Hayato asked, his question tentatively probing. "Is there anything you want to talk about?"
He winced on the inside at how stilted his voice sounded, unused to having to put so much forethought into simply holding a conversation.
"It's been fine." Yukino replied shortly.
"What about the schoolwork? Are you having any trouble with the curriculum?" Privately, he felt a little foolish for asking. Though Yukino never boasted about it, it was a well known fact throughout the school that she got the best grades in the year by a wide margin.
"It's nothing I haven't been able to handle."
"Are you excited about next year? Is there anything you plan on praying for at New Years?"
"Perhaps." She replied vaguely.
Hayato took a deep breath, fortifying himself with a gulp from his tea.
"Have you had any problems with… other students? Are your shoes still getting taken in the morning?"
He held his breath.
"Nothing's happened since that day."
Hayato held back the urge to cringe. Although Yukino's voice was entirely dispassionate, it was all too clear to him what she was referring to. The reminder of that day, as well as the memories they stirred, alone was enough to make him want to sink down in his seat. Still, no matter how uncomfortable he was, he couldn't back down now and so he asked his next question before his courage had the chance to falter.
"A-Are you… unhappy because I'm here?"
Yukino took a slow, deliberate sip from her thermos.
"It's fine Hayama-kun. You don't have to act so self-conscious."
"…are you sure? From the beginning it feels like you haven't really been enjoying yourself…"
Hayato's voice trailed off as Yukino turned and gave him a look.
"What do you want me to say then?" She asked forcefully, an unmistakable note of challenge in her voice.
"I… never mind."
Hearing the small amount of heat in her voice, Hayato could only shrink backwards. Not wanting to potentially start an argument, he avoided her stare and focused entirely on his, almost empty, can of tea.
The two fell back into uncomfortable silence.
Absentmindedly shaking his can to see how much he had left, Hayato tried to gather his thoughts. He knew that Yukino was honest, often to a fault at times, so he should have no problem taking her at her word yet he couldn't quell the uneasy feeling that had sprung up in his chest. At the same time he didn't want to alienate himself by pressing the issue further. It was frustrating, being caught in a situation where he had no idea what he could say or do.
It was only when he finally caught sight of Haruno weaving back through the crowds towards them, calling out and waving an arm to get their attention that he let out an almost inaudible sigh of relief. Throwing his empty can into the bin Hayato stood up and began to make his way over.
Unbeknownst to him, Yukino had released a similarly silent sigh of her own as she stood up to follow.
"I think Yukino-chan has cheered up quite a bit." Haruno whispered conspiratorially to Hayato.
"I think so too." Hayato replied as he and Haruno took in the sight of the borderline euphoric younger Yukinoshita daughter.
Having just exited the gift shop set right next to Pan-san's Bamboo Fight, Yukino still seemed to be coming off the high of the experience. During the wait for the attraction itself, she'd practically buzzed with excitement and impatience as they slowly worked their way up the line and, once she boarded the cart itself, had seemed to enter a trance as they moved along the tracks, watching the various adventures of Pan-san play out on the screens with unwavering attention, even shushing him or Haruno if either of them made a sound.
"The first time we came here, Yukino-chan practically wanted to spend the night in the store." Haruno whispered as they continued to watch Yukino follow in a blissful daze. "It took forever to convince her to leave, not to mention talk her out of getting father to buy out the entire store's stock." Haruno leaned back while giggling. "I had to remind her that Pan-san was for everyone, not just her."
Hayato couldn't help but chuckle at the story. Somehow it wasn't hard to believe. The sheer intensity in which she'd perused the various Pan-san memorabilia in the store almost seemed greater than when she was actually on the ride itself. He and Haruno had actually gone and browsed around the surrounding area only to come back to find Yukino still in the store looking over the various assorted plushies, water bottles, scarves, picture frames, pencil cases, and other Pan-san themed items with the same concentrated focus she had in the beginning.
"I think it's nice to see Yukino-chan is enjoying herself." Although Hayato had never shared Yukino's passion for the character, the effect it had on her mood was undeniable. For the first time today, Yukino seemed completely at ease. She was smiling openly, her bearing was relaxed and there was just a general air of contentment that surrounded her. It just went to show how much she treasured the mascot.
"Speaking of enjoying, I bet she'll be even happier once you give her your little surprise." Haruno said conversationally. She gave a pointed look at the calico bag, emblazoned with the Destinyland emblem, he was clutching, a secretive smile on her face.
"I hope so." Hayato admitted, his hands tightening on the straps.
It had been something of an impulse buy. When he happened to catch sight of the item on sale the thought of getting it for Yukino had suddenly entered his mind and wouldn't leave his thoughts. It was something of a tradition for their families to exchange Christmas gifts and he'd done so every year without fail, yet this time he'd been hesitant. Not only was the item far more extravagant then anything he'd given her before, the distance between them was still a problem.
Although the heat of Yukino's anger seems to have cooled, there was still an air of awkwardness between them that would make it difficult to pass the present on. The easy rapport he'd enjoyed with her in the past was gone and now things between them were tense and filled with caution. The idea of simply giving her the gift and not saying anything wasn't very appealing either. He certainly didn't want to give Yukino the idea that the gift was intended to be some kind of compensation yet, was that really true? Under normal circumstances he wouldn't have dared to spend so much money on a present, even if it was for Yukino.
In the end, caught in his indecision, he'd sought Haruno for her opinion and, although he'd omitted his estrangement with her sister, it was ultimately her enthusiastic urging that made him decide to go through with the purchase. Still, even with Haruno's support, a part of him still had reservations.
But even so, no matter the distance between him and Yukino, he wanted to believe he was allowed to do at least this much for her. That was what he'd decided on.
"It's a good thing Yukino-chan is so focused on Pan-san. I don't think she's even realized you've bought something."
"Well, it'll be a surprise for her at least."
"I do get worried sometimes though. Yukino-chan's not very good with directions so whenever she ends up in her own little world, it's so easy for her to wander off somewhere she shouldn't, especially somewhere unfamiliar... Hey Yukino-chan! Hurry a bit, you're falling behind!"
With the hours of the day passing, Haruno decided it was time for a, slightly, late lunch and so led them to a particular outdoor restaurant she'd heard about. Haruno had apparently read good reviews about it and the food certainly lived up to her praise. As they ate, she asked about various topics such as school, how well he was getting along with his fellow students, any special plans he had for the holidays and so forth. She even cajoled Yukino into joining the conversation by, of course, bringing up Pan-san though she was still the quietest out of the three. It was probably the most at ease Hayato's been the entire day.
"I think this is the perfect time, don't you think Hayato-kun?"
Putting down her napkin down on her empty plate Haruno gave him a meaningful look. Hayato swallowed the last of his meal. It was true that right now, with the atmosphere as pleasant as possible and with Yukino in a cheerier mood then she would ever be, it was the best possible time. Already he could feel his nerves beginning to flutter but he did his best to squash them down.
"Perfect time?" Yukino echoed, looking back and forth between them with a curious expression.
"Yep. Hayato-kun has a little something he wants to give you." Haruno inclined her head and letting him know the floor was his.
Taking a deep breath, Hayato placed the bag on the table and pushed it towards Yukino who stared at it in bemusement.
"Merry Christmas, Yukino-chan." Hayato said, before sitting back down and holding his breath.
After a few seconds of waiting, Yukino slowly reached into it and drew out a large white binder, stylized to look like it was covered in snowflakes. The cover had all of Destinyland's most famous mascots on the front, including Pan-san who Yukino's eyes immediately zoomed in on, and in the background was the world famous Destinyland castle. Near the top of the binder, the year and the words Destinyland Fantasy were emblazoned in bright red and green letters.
"What do you think?" Haruno exclaimed, clasping her hands in delight. "It's Destinylands deluxe photo album! Hayato got it for you while you were still in that souvenir store looking at Pan-san. He had to wait in quite a line for it too, and he even insisted on paying for it with his own allowance, the little gentleman!"
Yukino slowly lowered the album, her brow furrowed with thought. She gave Hayato a brief, uncertain look and looked like she was about to say something but then seemed to change her mind and looked back at the album. The silence trickled on and for a moment Hayato feared that she would actually refuse to accept the gift but she took a breath and turned towards him again.
"You didn't have to get this for me." Yukino said, one hand resting on the album. "But thank you."
Haruno blinked at Yukino's reserved response, clearly befuddled by her lack of enthusiasm.
"What's the matter Yukino-chan? Don't you like Hayato-kun's present?"
"It's not that I don't like it." Yukino said carefully. "Rather he didn't have to spend so much money for a gift. Something smaller would have sufficed."
"Please, I bought it because I wanted to." Hayato insisted. "When I saw the albums were on sale, I simply thought you would like one and-" he hesitated, struggling to find the words to describe everything that had gone through his mind, everything he'd felt as he'd made his purchase. He could feel his doubts from before beginning to resurface but he did his best to keep them down. "- and it would make me happy if you accepted it." He finished uncertainly.
With baited breath he watched as Yukino mulled over his words. Unconsciously, his hands gripped at the fabric of his pants. Finally she slowly inclining her head in acceptance and Hayato couldn't help but give a relieved smile as she packed the album back into the bag.
"Well then, Yukino-chan don't you have a little something you want to give back to Hayato-kun?" Haruno piped up. She'd looked a little lost at their exchange but had shaken it off and was now leaning forward, eyes wide in anticipation.
"Ah, there's no need, Haruno-san." Hayato spoke up. "She wasn't expecting me to give her anything today so she wouldn't have anything prepared."
"Really?" Haruno commented while eyeing Yukino pointedly. It almost seemed as if she was trying to hint at something. At what though, he had no idea.
Still, whatever Haruno was suggesting, Yukino seemed take her sisters words to heart. Letting out a sigh she turned towards Hayato.
Pushing herself out of chair, she nimbly made her way away from their table and Hayato watched as she walked into a small shop on the opposite side of the restaurant. He honestly hadn't been expecting a gift to be given back to him and he wasn't sure what how he felt at her doing so at her sisters prompting. Haruno however, was now wearing a somewhat perplexed expression, as if surprised at her sister's actions. But before he had a chance to ask her what was wrong, Yukino was back from the store.
She held out her hand and, automatically, Hayato put a hand forward. With the gentlest of brushes, Yukino placed the gift in his hand and he held it up close to take a look. It was a keychain, crafted into the shape of a Christmas laurel. The words "Destinyland" and "Merry Christmas" were embossed in the center.
"You didn't have to go and get this for me, Yukino-chan." Hayato said, carefully closing his hand over the gift. "But thank you, I'll be sure to treasure it."
Yukino raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him before she flicked her eyes towards the bag containing the album. Giving an awkward chuckle, Hayato raised a hand to scratch at the back of his head.
"Hmm? This is a bit odd isn't it?"
Blinking, Hayato turned to see Haruno was now staring at him and Yukino with open bewilderment.
"What do you mean, Haruno-san?"
"I mean, this doesn't really seem like equivalent exchange at all." Haruno said, pointing out the two gifts they'd exchanged.
"It's perfectly fine Haruno-san." Hayato assured her. "Christmas isn't about how expensive your gift is anyway."
"It couldn't be helped." Yukino said defensively. "This was the only thing I could afford within my price range."
"All you could afford huh?" Haruno said as she idly stirred her cup of tea with a spoon, her eyes never once leaving from her sister. "But isn't that only because you went and bought that Pan-san picture frame back in the store?"
At her sister's seemingly innocuous words, Yukino stiffened.
"…picture frame?" Hayato asked, glancing in Yukino's direction as his curiously peaked, despite himself.
"Yep. Yukino-chan picked it out while you were off waiting in line to buy that album. It's one of those special Christmas editions too so it wasn't cheap either."
Hayato continued to stare at Yukino who remained silent. Unconsciously his eyes drifted to the satchel that she'd been clutching protectively ever since she'd left the souvenir shop. Slowly, unconsciously, the wheels of his mind began to turn.
"…well Yukino-chan probably just wanted a souvenir for herself." Hayato said at last. It wasn't a secret after all just how much she adored the mascot character. "It was probably just something she bought to remember this day for."
"But it's still a bit strange don't you think?" Haruno remarked, rocking back and forth slightly in her chair. "I mean, out of everything Yukino-chan could have chosen, she decides to pick out the one thing that she already owns back home?"
"…well that's not really so strange. I mean Yukino-chan adores Pan-san after all." Hayato said, trying to make his voice sound as certain as possible. He was starting to get a bad feeling at the direction the conversation was going.
"There's nothing wrong with wanting more than one copy of the same item." Yukino bit out at the same time, as she started to glare at her sister.
"True, true. That doesn't explain why you went through all the trouble of paying extra to have it gift wrapped though." Haruno noted nonchalantly.
Yukino gritted her teeth.
"And you even did it all sneaky like when you thought I wasn't watching." Haruno finished with a triumphant grin.
"So if it wasn't for Hayato-kun, just who were you planning on giving it too hmm? Our father? Or me? Or do you have some sort of super special someone you've been keeping secret from your big sister? Oh Yukino-chan, you're growing up so fast!"
As Haruno's prodding continued Hayato could only watch helplessly from the sidelines. He knew that her teasing was good-natured in intention but Yukino was only growing more agitated as it continued. Worse it seemed that Haruno, for all her natural social grace, was failing to realize just how deep a nerve she was striking with her poking. He desperately wished he could say or do something to defuse the situation but he didn't know what.
"Two servings of ice cream and an iced coffee. Will that be all?"
As it turns out he didn't have to, as that was the moment their waiter finally brought out their desserts. Nimbly placing the dishes on the table, the server stepped back with a flourish and a bow before leaving. Though the interruption had only lasted a few seconds, Hayato saw his opening.
"It all looks really good doesn't it?" Hayato said as loudly as he could, putting on a slightly forced smile as he did so. He looked at Yukino and then Haruno in turn. "Let's all enjoy it before it melts." He picked up his spoon.
"Hmm." Haruno gave a slightly disappointed pout but obligingly dropped her questioning. Though it felt like he'd narrowly managed to avoid disaster, he couldn't ignore the uncomfortable atmosphere that had settled over the table and the remainder of their meal was finished in silence, save for Haruno's contented humming.
Several minutes later, after Haruno had paid for their food and the three of them found themselves out on the pavement again, Hayato chanced a glance in Yukino's direction. What he saw wasn't encouraging.
Whatever joy Yukino had derived from riding on Pan-san's Bamboo Fight appeared to have evaporated completely. Her current mood was as dour as he'd ever seen it, judging by the near scowl that she wore on her face. There was also a noticeable gap between them as she followed along her sister's path, one that seemed deliberately paced out this time around.
Haruno didn't seem to notice, or was pretending not to, and was going about as exuberantly as she always was.
"Since Yukino-chan's already seen everything she wanted to see, I think I have an idea for where we can go to next!" Haruno declared, raising her hand excitedly as if she was asking a question in class.
"…and where would that be, Haruno-san?" Hayato offered after a few moments of silence when Yukino didn't respond to her sister's enthusiasm.
"Santa's Village of course!" Haruno pointed out the area marked on a large board in the street. "That's where everyone is going to see the jolly man himself! We can't possibly come to Disneyland and miss this! I think I have an idea that'll make your present for Yukino-chan even more special!"
Her sister's proclamation finally seemed to stir a reaction from Yukino. "What mischief are you up to now, neesan?" she demanded.
"Mischief?" Haruno said in mock offense, her eyes exaggeratedly wide with innocence. "I'm just suggesting that you and Hayato-kun can get your pictures taken together with Santa-san. You two might still just be small enough that you can each fit on his knees, one for each of you!"
"Ah." Hayato managed uneasily, as he risked a side eye look at Yukino. Beside him, the younger Yukinoshita stood rigidly in place, her posture stiff and her face stony.
"Oh I know what you're going to say Yukino-chan. You don't like getting your picture taken, you don't like the physical contact and you've already had a photo with Santa-san done before, not to mention you're too old to believe in Santa anymore, but this is different! Destinyland really outdid themselves this time, I even heard rumours they brought in real deer!"
"Besides there might be Christmas photos taken with you, me, our parents and Santa-san but you haven't taken one yet with Hayato-kun yet. You even have a brand new photo album to put it in, one Hayato-kun gave you no less. Or how about that picture frame? You know the one you bought for yourself? A photo with your oldest friend would be perfect for it, don't you think so? And I'm sure Hayato-kun would want one of his own too?"
"Um, Haruno-san, I'm actually fine…"
"Not only that, I promised to bring back some Christmas souvenirs for the parents. Both ours and Hayato-kun's. I think a picture showing of you two together would be the best gift for them, don't you think so too? You know how much they love seeing the both of you together. This way they can see for themselves just how close you two are. And a picture of you two sitting together on Santa's knees would be just perfect. The two of you would look so cute together, I can just see…"
"I SAID NO!"
The sudden exclamation was piercing in its intensity but as loud as it was, it was the near dead silence that followed that was truly deafening.
Yukino was red faced, and breathing heavily. Her eyes were slightly watery but were still glaring defiantly. Even her hair seemed slightly dishevelled. In all the years Hayato had known her, he'd never once heard Yukino raise her voice in such a fashion, much less at her own sister.
Haruno had fallen silent too, a look of undisguised shock on her face. Her mouth hung open and her eyes were wide as saucers, this time out of genuine alarm.
But before either of them had a chance to regain their bearings Yukino suddenly started, looking just as surprised at her own outburst as the two of them were.
"I'm sorry. That was improper of me. I shouldn't have lost my temper, or raised my voice." Yukino bowed down. "Please forgive my unseemly behaviour."
Once more, silence engulfed the air. On one side, Yukino had her head bowed down low, concealing her expression from view, hands clasped together but visibly trembling. On the other, Haruno stood, looking more out of depth than he could ever remember seeing. For the time in her life, it appeared as though Haruno was in a situation where she didn't know what to say.
Off to the side, Hayato looked back and forth between the two sisters helplessly. He wanted to say something, anything, to make everything alright again but he didn't know what he could possibly do. He'd already allowed his own friendship with Yukino to deteriorate and the last thing he wanted to see was things go bad between them as well.
The silence seemed to stretch on as the three of them remained rooted in place but soon enough, Haruno was the first to stir.
"…please look up Yukino-chan, I'm the one in the wrong here. I'm the one who should be saying sorry."
Speaking with a soft voice, uncharacteristically meek and filled with regret, Haruno slowly walked up to her sister, still bowed down, and gently lifted her head up.
"This entire time I didn't realize just how upset you've been. No. I noticed but I didn't care. It was my fault for pushing you so much and it's supposed to be your special day too."
Haruno, looking more somber then Hayato had ever seen, gave a melancholic smile.
"Some big sister I turned out to be."
Reaching out with both arms Haruno drew her sister into a hug and although Yukino didn't hug her back, she didn't resist her sisters pull and allowed herself to be pulled into Haruno's arms, resting her head on her shoulder. For several minutes the two simply remained in place together, locked in their embrace.
"I'm sorry Yukino-chan." Haruno said softly whilst gently stroking Yukino's hair with one hand. "Do you forgive me?"
Yukino mumbled something into Haruno's shoulder.
"Good. How about I make it up to you then? For the remainder of the day we'll do whatever you want. Whatever rides, whatever attractions, if you want to go on Pan-san's Bamboo Fight again, wherever you want to go we'll go, no questions asked."
Yukino mumbled indistinctly again.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that?"
"Home, Nee-san." Yukino said finally pulling back from Haruno's embrace. She looked at her sister with a weary expression. "I'm tired and I wish to return home."
For a brief moment, Hayato wondered if Haruno, despite her words just prior, was going to protest leaving Destinyland so early. They hadn't even been to half of the attractions in the park nor had they seen the parade or the fireworks display in the evening, but the older Yukinoshita simply nodded her head in assent without even an ounce of hesitation.
Pulling out her phone Haruno quickly pressed a number.
"…hi Tsuzuki? …Yeah it's me. There's been a change of plans, we're returning earlier than expected so if you could come over now that would be fantastic… Alright we'll see you soon, I'm sorry for the short notice."
Hanging up, Haruno turned towards the two of them. "Tsuzuki-san will be here soon, so let's make our way back to the parking lot." Turning she pointed out a pathway on their right. "We can cut through this way and get there in record time."
As Hayato walked past, Haruno placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry Hayato-kun. I know that there's still a lot to do but we have to cut today's trip short today. I promise I'll make it up to you at a later date."
"Ah, its fine, Haruno-san" Hayato answered, raising his hands in placating fashion. Truth be told, he was feeling a little tired himself and didn't mind finishing early. "It would probably be better for us to be back before sunset anyway."
And so that was the end of their visit to Destinyland. For the remainder of the day, Haruno was as accommodating as she could be towards her little sister, dispensing entirely with her usual teasing. When Yukino started showing signs of fatigue, Haruno attempted to carry her bags and, when Yukino protested the treatment, Haruno had insisted claiming that "nothing brings an older sister more joy than spoiling her little sister." Nevertheless she still allowed Yukino to hold onto her satchel without argument.
When the car arrived, she let Yukino have the front seat and spent her time in the back humming tunes from the Destinyland play to herself. Seated next to her, Hayato simply sat quietly and tried not to fidget. He was unused to such long stretches of silence when in company and a part of him wanted to try and start a conversation with Haruno, yet it didn't seem right to do so. With Yukino sitting at the front, unseen but still present, mollified but still melancholic, it felt improper to talk when she was unlikely to be a part of the discussion. Better to bear the silence rather than potentially set off another scene.
At the same time he couldn't help but secretly admire how well Haruno had dealt with everything that had happened. Though she'd been taken aback at first, the speed at which she'd assured Yukino and the grace in which she'd reconciled with her sister and arranged everything to finish was nothing short of amazing to him. It seemed that he still had quite a bit to learn before he could be as capable as the older Yukinoshita sister.
Compared to the morning drive to Destinyland, the return trip was quite peaceful. So much so that, when they arrived back at the Yukinoshita family home, it turned out that Yukino had actually nodded off at some point.
"I'm going to walk Hayato-kun home." Haruno announced, after gently shaking her sister awake and having escorted her to the front door. "It's been a busy day so try and get some rest Yukino-chan. I'll be back soon."
"Is it really ok to leave Yukino-chan by herself?" Hayato asked after they finished waving goodbye and watched Yukino enter the house and shut the door behind her.
"Don't worry your about it. It'll be our little secret." Haruno replied with a wink, holding a finger up to her lips. "Contrary to what mother might think, Yukino-chan can already look after herself at home just fine. Our parents are just a little bit overprotective about her, especially father. Besides..."
Haruno looked up at the sky, tinged orange from the late afternoon sun she took her name from, as she did so her pretty features seemed to twist into a strange mixture between a frown and a smile.
"I don't think Yukino-chan wants to see too much of me right now."
"Hey Hayato-kun, did you and Yukino-chan have a fight?"
With a jolt, Hayato looked up from his cup of hot chocolate, but Haruno was still looking down at her own drink, a thoughtful expression on her face she continued to stir the cup with a teaspoon. Outside of the cafe they were in, the orange skies were slowly beginning fade to black as the sun dipped lower on the horizon.
"You noticed?" Hayato finally replied, after taking a few seconds to gather his thoughts.
"A little." Haruno admitted, tapping her spoon against the rim before lifting the cup and taking a sip. "For one thing, the two of you weren't talking as much as you used to, even after I went gave you two some space."
Hayato shifted uncomfortably.
"So then." Haruno said, as she set her cup down on the table with a deliberateness that belied her relaxed manner. "Did something happen?"
Hayato hesitated. The tone of Haruno's voice was light and the playful smile she wore on her face hadn't shifted an inch, but the solemn glint in her eyes made it clear the sudden question was no mere whimsy of hers. He still didn't like thinking about the events that had lead to his estrangement with Yukino, much less talking about it, but it was pointless trying to keep it to himself now that Haruno had made it clear that she was truly concerned.
"Yes." Hayato admitted. "Something happened."
Haruno gave an understanding nod. "It seems pretty serious this time though. I mean I've never seen Yukino-chan lose her temper like that before. Not even with our mother."
"I know." Hayato took a deep breath. "There was… an incident. A group of girls were bullying Yukino-chan and-and she was counting on me to help her but I… I didn't. I couldn't."
Haruno waited patiently for Hayato to continue but he fell silent. For several minutes the two simply sat at their table, their drinks slowly cooling untouched.
"It sounds like there's more to it than that." Haruno finally spoke up.
"There is."Hayato admitted. What he'd said before was technically the sum of all that had happened, but a single sentence utterly failed to encapsulate the entirety of the impact of the events that had transpired. It was hard, trying to put everything that had happened that day into words. Even now, so many months since, he could his emotions writhe in turmoil when he thought about everything that had happened on that fateful day.
The discomfort must have been obvious on his face because Haruno reached out and pushed his cup of hot chocolate closer towards him. He took a drink, the sweetness of the drink helping to soothe the bitter emotions his thoughts left him to stew in.
"Take your time, Hayato-kun." Haruno said soothingly. "If you're not comfortable talking with me about it, just pretend I'm not here."
Haruno promptly swivelled on her seat until she was turned away from him. "Just imagine that you're talking to yourself. You're simply trying to get your own thoughts in order by speaking out loud. I'm just a wall that you happen to be facing."
Hearing this, Hayato couldn't help but let out a small snort of laugher at Haruno's rather silly suggestion.
"That's not really necessary, Haruno-san."
"There's no Haruno here!" She sang back. "I'm just a wall minding its own business!"
He gave a mild sigh of exasperation at her antics but all the same he couldn't help but grin as well, though she couldn't see it. At the same time, he could feel some of the tension in his shoulders relax, leaving him feeling lighter than before. That was probably her intention in the first place.
"Well, in all seriousness though." Haruno turned back around and scooted her chair right next to him. "If it makes it any easier, I won't ask you any questions. I might 'hmm' or 'huh' a little but otherwise I'll just listen to whatever you feel comfortable talking about. Is that alright with you?"
"I think I'd be ok with that." Hayato admitted, leaning a little closer into the arm she'd put around him. That's right, for almost as long as he could remember, Haruno had always been someone he could rely on. Practically an older sister in all but blood. Not only that, she was also the person in his life he looked up to more than any other. If he couldn't even talk about this with her, then who else could he trust?
Taking a deep breath he began.
"It started when Yukino-chan's shoes were getting stolen every morning at school…"
"…and we haven't spoken to each other since." Hayato finished before taking another drink to soothe his parched throat. He'd lost track of how long he'd been speaking but, given the slow darkening of the streets outside, it had probably been for some time. As he'd talked he'd found himself gaining confidence as he'd gone on. Though at several parts of the recounting had been difficult, at the same time, it had also felt alleviating to finally get some of the disordered feelings off his chest.
Putting his cup back down, he released a small breathe of relief. For a few minutes he sat in place, allowing the peaceful silence to permeate the air and taking the time to recollect his own thoughts. Finally, he turned towards his companion.
True to her word, Haruno had remained quiet as she had listened, nodding along or occasionally humming a small sound of understanding at a particular recollection he described. As he'd gone on further however, the small sounds and bobs of the head she made had steadily decreased until, near the end of his story, she was practically still.
Now she seemed entirely lost in her own thoughts, her head was propped up on one hand, her eyes were gazing forward unseeing, her lips set in an uncharacteristic frown and her cup of hot chocolate sat on the table forgotten. Her reaction wasn't entirely unexpected. It was hardly a joyful tale he'd been relating after all.
He was debating whether or not to call out again when Haruno finally stirred from her silence. Lifting her head up and folding her arm back down onto the table, she leaned back into her chair with her eyes closed her eyes and gave a distinctly tired sounding sigh.
"I guess this sort of thing really is inevitable." She murmured, more to herself than to him.
Hayato couldn't help but flinch back, unused to hearing such a dark tone of voice from the older Yukinoshita. It didn't help that the ambiguousness of her words meant it was difficult for him to determine her thoughts. Was she angry at him? Or the ones who had put her sister through such torment? He'd been bracing for some kind of response, most likely negative, when he revealed the circumstances behind his division with her sister but her expression now was unreadable to him.
Then she seemed to notice him staring at her.
"Well..." Haruno began, the blankness of her face vanishing and smoothing over into the familiar easygoing smile he was used to, but it was an effort he could tell and though he may have been imagining things, for just the briefest flashes, he thought he saw the faintest trace of disappointment in her eyes. "I guess I understand why you stopped visiting our home now."
He swallowed, suddenly overwhelmed by a myriad of emotions he could scarcely begin to define. "Um… I'm sorry." Hayato burst out, bowing his head down as he did so.
"Hmm? What are you apologising to me for?" He looked up to see Haruno giving him a helpless smile.
"It's just…" Hayato began, still struggling to articulate himself. He remembered how, during the first few years when Haruno was still attending Elementary alongside them, she had always been someone both he and Yukino could turn to during trouble. There was no doubt in his mind that if it had instead been Haruno there on that day she would have solved everything in a way where nobody would have gotten hurt. With how much he admired the older girl, it only made his own inadequacy seem starker.
"I-I promised I would look out for Yukino-chan at school but when everything happened..."
"I don't think I'm the one you should be apologising to." Haruno's voice was gentle and warm but the unmistakable air of admonishment in her tone, soft as it was, made him cringe. Of course she would see right through him.
"Well in any case." Reaching out, Haruno affectionately rubbed his head. "The more important question right now is what are you planning to do next?"
"Do next?" Hayato asked, resisting the impulse to squirm as Haruno's continued to ruffle his hair.
"Trying to make up with Yukino-chan of course." Haruno said matter of factly.
Hayato looked down at the table, an uneasy expression on his face.
"Of course maybe things aren't so easy to fix, at least on your own." She continued without missing a beat. She gave him a side-eye look. "If you'd like, I can have talk with Yukino-chan tonig-"
The exclamation burst out before he had a chance to stop it. At the look of mild surprise on Haruno's face, Hayato took a deep breath and tried to calm down his rapidly beating heart.
"What I meant to say was, that isn't necessary, Haruno-san. Things really aren't as bad as they seem."
"Are you sure about that?" Haruno questioned, a doubtful look in her eye.
"They aren't." Hayato replied firmly. His talk with Yukino at Destinyland today had made it clear that, at the very least, she was receptive enough to his presence to be willing to hold a conversation with him. It wasn't much but it was far cry from the fiery anger she'd shown him before. Their school lives have also been rather stable since their split. Hayato had always been social so, while he may not have Yukino's companionship anymore, he still had plenty of other friends to spend time with and while he had seen little of Yukino, the few glimpses he had managed to catch of her suggested she was doing well too. The fact that she was no longer getting bullied was a definite plus.
Though Haruno meant well in offering her intervention, there was no telling how things would settle if the newfound equilibrium the both of them had managed to find was disrupted.
"Right now, things are still ok. They might not be good but it's not getting any worse either. For now, I just have to be patient and hope things will get better in the future."
He remembered the first time his parents had introduced him to the two sisters. How much time it took for Yukino to open up to him back then. This was no different from back then, he would just have to take things slowly.
"Well if you're sure, then I'll trust you on that." Haruno conceded. "But you know? As cute as she is, Yukino-chan isn't really very good at dealing with these sorts of things. She's never had many friends, not to mention she's terrible at trying to communicate her own feelings, so simply waiting probably isn't the best approach."
Hayato clutched at his cup, his grip tight. It was already empty but it gave his hands something to hold onto. He already knew that of course, trying to equate his situation now with things back in the past was naiveté at best. The chances of Yukino approaching him on her own were slim, but what choice did he have?
"Even so, if that's what Yukino-chan chooses, then I'll just have to accept it."
"…are you saying you don't want to make up with Yukino-chan?" Haruno asked slowly, as if she was trying to understand his thought process.
"Of course I do!" Hayato half-shouted, his voice containing more heat and volume then he intended. "It's just… I don't want to force her into doing something she doesn't want to."
He wanted nothing more than to mend his relationship with Yukino and it was ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But she had made it clear she didn't want to continue associating with him and the last thing he wanted was to prioritise his own feelings and wants at the expense of Yukino's. In the first place their estrangement had come about as a result of his actions. After failing to stand up for her, there was little room for him to claim that she owed him anything. Did he even deserve to be friend anymore?
It was a thoroughly unpleasant line of thought to entertain but it was one he couldn't shake no matter how hard he tried.
"It's my fault that things ended up like this. Yukino-chan was hurt because of me. That's why… I don't have the right to demand anything from her. If she decides she doesn't want to be friends anymore I… I can accept that."
"…is that really something that you're ok with, Hayato-kun?"
"I…" He hesitated.
Something about the way Haruno had asked, from the carefully neutral tone of her voice, to a certain intensity she seemed to have in her eye as she regarded him. It didn't just feel like she was asking him a question, it almost felt as if she was giving him some kind of test.
There was no question that he wished that he could go back to the peaceful times between him and Yukino, but it wasn't only his own feelings he had to consider. He could learn to be ok with things as they are now if that was what Yukino truly wanted.
"I want what's best for Yukino-chan." He said at last.
"…I see." Haruno answered, eyes shrouded. From her voice, to her posture, nothing about her bearing gave away the slightest hint of what she was thinking.
He waited for her to say more but she simply drank the last of her, now cool, hot chocolate and stayed silent. Did he say something wrong he couldn't help but wonder as the silence stretched on? The sight of Haruno acting so subdued, so unlike her usual energetic self, was almost unsettling. Try as he might though, no matter how he turned them over in his head, he couldn't see any problem in the words he'd spoken.
Haruno abruptly stood up and clapped her hands. Her sudden movement startled Hayato more than he cared to admit, almost knocking his cup over in surprise. Turned towards him, once more wearing that familiar warm smile he was used to, she picked up both his and her empty cups.
"I'm going to go get another hot chocolate, how about I get another one for you as well?"
Hayato blinked at her sudden change in demeanour. In a single instant it seemed that the restrained Haruno from before was gone, replaced by the familiar bright and lively one he was used to. It was such an abrupt shift that he found it difficult to find his bearing. Was Haruno simply putting on a brave face for his sake? Or, maybe he'd simply been worrying too much?
"That isn't necessary, Haruno-san." He managed to say, his mouth half working on auto-pilot, "You've already bought me one before so you don't really need to treat me further."
"No no I insist." Haruno said, already grabbing for her purse. "After all that dismal talk, we both need something sweet to wash the bitterness away."
Ignoring his protests, Haruno made her way to the counter and Hayato could only give a light sigh and settle down. Even if he really did want another hot chocolate, he still would have refused out of politeness. Not to mention, with the rich dessert he had at Destyinland as well as the first cup he'd already finished, he'd already eaten more sweets for the day than he was technically supposed to.
But he couldn't exactly refuse Haruno's offer now that she was already buying. In due time, she was back carefully balancing two newly filled cups in her hands.
"Ok, two cups of hot chocolate as promised, one for you and one for me!"
With Haruno's eyes focused squarely on him, Hayato dutifully began to sip from the new cup placed in front of him, taking care not to drink too much of the hot beverage too quickly. For the next few minutes there was only peaceful silence as the two of them worked on their drinks.
"What can you tell me about this… Hikigaya?"
"Hey Hayato did you hear!"
"Hear what?" Hayato asked, turning around to see Akihiko approaching his desk, face filled with eagerness. Since the start of the New Year, he and Akihiko weren't as close as they were used to, owing to their getting sorted into different classes making it difficult to find time to catch up, especially since the both of them had found new people in their respective classes to form friendships with as well, but they still did their best to see each other when they could during lunch and afterschool. "Did you find one of those rare, limited edition trading cards you were looking for?"
"What? No! I'm talking about yesterday! Someone from class 6-C I think, I forgot his name-"
"Takuma." Another boy, Sakamoto from Akihiko's class he believed, spoke up from behind where he'd been following. "His name is Takuma."
"Yeah him. He tried to ask out Yukinoshita!"
"What!?" That got Hayato's attention.
"I know." Akihiko nodding along to Hayato's exclamation, "Yesterday, right when everyone was going home, he just confessed to her right at the entrance! He did it in front of the whole school too. I don't know if he's really brave or just really dumb."
Hayato frowned slightly, somewhat disapproving of the boy's derisive description but the other boys he'd been having lunch with seemed very interested in the conversation.
"Really? What happened after? Did she say yes?" One boy, Gojo asked eagerly.
"Pfft. Yeah right. She rejected him just like that." Akihiko snapped his fingers for emphasis. "He was all like "Yukino! Be my Valentine!" but she just said no and walked away. You should have seen the look on his face afterwards!"
"Well just remember that it only seems funny from the outside." Hayato pointed out, even as everyone else in the group snickered or laughed. "It probably took a lot of courage for Takuma-kun to go forward with something like that so you really shouldn't laugh about it."
"Yeah, yeah I know" Akihiko waved off his chiding, rolling his eyes as he did. "I'm surprised you didn't already hear about it though. Didn't Yukinoshita say anything to you?"
"A-Ahaha, not really." Hayato replied uneasily. Even though he hadn't seen much of Yukino since their families New Years dinner, nor had he met up with her at all since the new school year, it seemed that many of his fellow classmates were under the impression they were still close. "We don't really talk as much as we used to."
Even after so many months he still couldn't help but feel a small jolt of sorrow when he recalled the distance that had grown between him and Yukino but slowly, yet steadily, he was also growing used to no longer having her presence by his side. It still felt uncomfortable on the occasions he was reminded about her absence, but the pain was now a dull familiar ache rather than the sharp fresh stab he'd felt before. It helped that he had many other good friends that made the void left by her absence easier to bear.
"Still, I don't know what the guy was thinking though, asking out Yukinoshita of all people." Akihiko continued on. He crossed his arms and scowled. "I really don't get what some guys see in her."
"Oh really?" Sakamoto piped up again. "Didn't you used to say she was the cutest girl in the whole school? I even remember the first time you met Hayato was to try and get him to introduce you to her."
A faint tinge of pink colored the stocky boy's cheeks. "Yeah, well I know better now!"
"Hey, speaking of Valentine's day."
Another boy, Nakamura spoke up. With thin delicate features, he was a new face to Hayato but was evidently a friend of Akihiko, having followed him into the classroom. "Did anyone here happen get any chocolates this year? I got no less than four from my class. I even got one from Megami-chan from across 6-A."
A wave of silence engulfed the rest of the group. There was a small but unmistakable aura of smugness surrounding the boy and it was obvious his question was partially just a way for him to show off. Many of the other boys in group found themselves awkwardly looking at the floor or ceiling and avoiding each other's eyes.
"Well it's still too early to talk about this kind of thing." Akihiko spoke up defensively. "I mean we're still just in Elementary after all."
"That's right! Besides I don't really care about this sort of mushy stuff anyway!"
"T-This year was just a coincidence. I haven't gotten a chance to show my stuff at the sports festival yet, that's all!"
"Umm I got some from my big sister, does that count?"
"Hayato got a ton this year." Tojo, a new friend Hayato had made in his class, spoke up. Turning, the boy gave him a pointed look. "I think every girl in the class had chocolate for him, there were even girls from other classes wanting to give him chocolate. There was practically a line of them at lunch yesterday."
Hayato shrank down slightly as everyone's attention slowly turned onto him. Even Nakamura, who suddenly didn't seem so haughty anymore either, was staring at him as if they weren't quite sure what to make of Tojo's words.
"Well yeah, I did get a fair armount yesterday." Hayato admitted self-consciously, giving everyone helpless shrug. He was used to being at the center of attention, but the intense way everyone was staring at him was discomforting enough that he had to fight down the urge to fidget.
"Must be nice, being popular." Akihiko snorted, with just a touch of envy in his voice and Hayato could only give an awkward chuckle as he sheepishly scratched at the back of his head. "Come to think of it, you got quite a bit of chocolate last year too, am I right?"
It was true that he always received more chocolate each year compared to the average male and he honestly wasn't entirely sure what to make of the attention. He was flattered of course and he knew intellectually about the concepts of dating, romance, finding a significant other and eventually settling down with a family but the actual idea of it still seemed so far away in the future to him that he still had trouble trying to work out his own stance on the matter in the present.
He also couldn't help but be a bit taken aback at the sheer volume of sweets he'd received this year, far more than he ever had before in fact. He couldn't bring it in him to refuse either, even as his desk had practically overflowed with colorful parcels. With how eager each girl had been in presenting their confections to him, the last thing he wanted to do was hurt their feelings by rejecting their gifts. But it was still rather overwhelming, especially with him having to return the favour for each and every one of them on White Day. It was also rather uncomfortable, watching some of the girls throwing downright vicious glares at each other's backs as each one took their turn to step up to him.
"Well, I don't really understand it myself." Hayato admitted, though now that he thought about it, there had been a sudden surge in confessions to Haruno around the time of her final year as well. "Besides it's not like I'm the only one who's gotten chocolates. I'm sure that there were plenty of girls who were simply too shy to come forward to give all of you chocolates. Like Akihiko-kun said, it is still early for us to be giving serious thought about this sort of thing."
"Yeah, I suppose." Akihiko conceded, pleased that his opinion was given consideration. "Besides it's not like losing to Hayato is something to be ashamed of."
"Well yeah, I mean it's Hayato we're talking about."
"That's right, Hayato's a special case."
"And it's not like he gets chocolate from all the girls." Nakamura put in. "Yukinoshita doesn't give him any, even though they're friends."
"Yukinoshita doesn't give anyone chocolate. She doesn't count."
"A-Ahahaha." Unsure on how to act when the discussion was centered on him like this, Hayato could only give an embarrassed laugh. He chose not to mention that he had in fact received chocolate from Yukino on previous Valentines Days. He had little doubt that information would only lead to further trouble. Then again, they weren't exactly wrong that he hadn't gotten any chocolate from her this year.
Still, as the discussion about Valentine's Day continued on, a sudden thought crossed his mind and Hayato couldn't help but wonder whether Hikigaya Hachiman had received any chocolate the previous day…
Where had all the time gone Hayato couldn't help but wonder?
Adjusting the scarf he wore around his neck once again, Hayato couldn't help but shake his head in mild disbelief. To think that in a little less than a month's time, he would be starting Middle School. Much like Elementary, his parents had chosen a private school with a rather prestigious reputation. The entrance exam had certainly been more difficult than anything he'd to do in Elementary but, with diligence and determination, Hayato had passed with flying colors, much to his parent's approval.
Continuing to fiddle with his scarf, a nervous tic that betrayed his outwardly confident demeanour, he stepped out of the entrance of the school for the last time and made his way to the entrance. After passing through the metal gate Hayato turned his head to the left and then to the right.
Off to the side, Yukino was standing just a few feet away from the gate. She hadn't yet noticed his presence; her eyes were focused on a phone she held in her hand, a soft smile on her face as she looked down at the surface of the device. When had she even gotten a phone he couldn't help but wonder?
For a brief moment Hayato was tempted to turn back and give up on the entire idea. It seemed she was in rather high spirits and the last thing he wanted to do was bring her good mood down. But he did his best to shake off his doubts. This was his last chance to meet with her. It was now or never.
Hayato took a deep breath and called out.
As expected, the moment she heard his voice her posture, always so proper yet still relaxed, stiffened immediately. For a brief second he caught the look of surprise that was on Yukino's face as she turned her head in his direction but as their eyes met her expression tensed and became coldly inscrutable. Slowly the phone was placed back into her pocket.
"It's been a while." He greeted a small, carefully neutral, smile on his face. As much as he tried to give her space, he had seen Yukino at intermittent times throughout the year, whether they'd passed each other by chance at school or at the occasional get-togethers between their families. But this would be their first time he'd sought her company out on his own volition in a long time. Today was her last day in Japan after all.
"Congratulations on graduating. I hope the last year hasn't been difficult for you."
"Thank you. It hasn't."
"You've been waiting for your car right. Do you mind if I wait a bit as well?"
"…do as you wish." Yukino replied, as she turned back towards the street though her nonchalance was betrayed by the subtle tenseness in her stance.
Taking a few steps closer, though making sure to leave a respectable gap between, Hayato likewise faced the same direction. For several minutes there was only silence, punctuated by the occasional car driving past.
"I heard from my parents. You passed the entrance exam for the overseas school. Congratulations." Hayato said somewhat abruptly, his light and easy tone at odds with the slow, uncomfortable way he could feel in his stomach rolling.
"Thank you." She confirmed without looking at him.
"You're being taken straight to the airport right? I'm sorry that I can't be there to see you off, but my family has dinner plans tonight so I won't be able to…"
"I've already heard." Yukino cut in. "It's no trouble at all."
"…I see." He replied. "That's good then."
He waited expectantly for a few minutes but Yukino offered no signs she was going to continue the conversation. Suppressing an urge to sigh, Hayato took drew in breath again.
"How are you feeling? You must be nervous at the idea of spending so much time by yourself in a foreign country? I'd be pretty scared myself if it were me."
"A little perhaps. But I've already prepared myself a long time ago."
"…I see. I'm glad then."
He fell quiet after that. Slowly, the time passed by, neither of them making any move to engage with the other. After several, long minutes Yukino finally sighed.
"Was there anything else you wanted to sa-"
Turning towards Yukino, Hayato dipped down in a deep bow. With his head bent down low he had no way of seeing what expression Yukino was making but perhaps that was for the best. Maybe it was cowardly of him admit, but he probably wouldn't be able to say the words he needed to if he was looking at her head-on.
"Back during that time, when those girls were saying all those cruel things to you, I- I should have said something! I should have done something! But I didn't, I don't know why but I didn't. I didn't even try. That's why I'm sorry and-"
His half-rambling stream of words halted but Hayato kept his head bowed down. His eyes squeezed themselves shut and both his hands clenched themselves into fists.
He heard Yukinoshita take a deep breath.
"I accept your apology."
Hope flared in his chest and he looked up.
"But I can't- We can't go back to the way things were before."
Yukino was finally facing him in full, her face as solemn as he'd ever seen it. For the first time in what felt like a very long time, it felt as though her expression was completely unguarded around him. On the surface a mixture of sorrow and apology was clear on her face but, above all, the strongest and most overwhelming emotion he saw painted out from her delicate features was resolution.
Hayato felt whatever words he was about to say die on his tongue.
That's right. It was truly naïve to believe that a simple apology, delivered over a year late no less, would be enough to make everything right. Even after he promised himself he wouldn't cause further troubles for her, here he was selfishly burdening her with his own regrets when she was less than a few hours away from embarking on her long journey overseas. Yet, in the moment, he couldn't help holding out hope…
"You know." Hayato managed to say, trying to speak with the same lightness or surety he'd spoken with before. "There was a time when I was considering attending an overseas Middle School as well."
"?" Yukino didn't reply, but her expression made it clear she was confused at his sudden non-sequiter.
"I started thinking about it sometime last year actually." In the back of his mind, a small voice was wondering why he was even telling her this. He had no doubt it wouldn't make a difference at this point yet, somehow, he just couldn't stop himself from talking, from trying to make her understand.
"I mean there are a lot of prestigious schools overseas. Not to say that Japan has bad schools but there's a lot the entire world has to offer. It would have been an invaluable experience for my future."
Hayato looked up at the sky, tinged pink and orange from the setting sun.
"But well, after thinking about it more I decided it was probably for the better if I stayed in Japan. I mean I'd probably get homesick very quickly. Even putting aside the language barrier, being in a foreign country by myself, away from everyone I'm familiar with would probably be hard for me. I've always enjoyed time spent with my family and with my friends. Having to leave all that behind wouldn't have been easy for me, I think. It would probably have interfered with my learning as well."
"Why are you telling me this?" Yukino asked.
"It's just." Hayato floundered a bit, trying to find the words to use. "Before, I thought that if I had someone with me, someone who I was close with, someone who could help share the burden with me. I could probably have coped with it. Even if it was just one other person, I think I would have been fine."
He gave her a weak smile. With how obvious he was being, there was little chance she hadn't picked up on what he was saying.
"I think you're selling yourself short." Yukino finally spoke, after taking several minutes to absorb his words. "Even with a language barrier, I don't think you would have had trouble becoming accepted. If anything, having someone with you would only make things harder for you."
"You think so? It's true I've always been good at getting along with people, but I don't think I'm as capable as you say. I'm sure I would have needed someone to help support me along."
"I disagree." Looking down, Yukino gripped at her sleeves. With her vulnerable expression, it looked as if she was hugging herself. "You've never needed any support to stand tall on your own. Guidance perhaps but never help. The same thing would just happen again. You would move forward, bringing every new person you meet along with you. Having someone along, they would struggle to keep up but you wouldn't just let them fall behind. You would do your best to bring them along, splitting your efforts and trying to make everyone happy. But eventually you'd hit a limit on how far you could carry them and then you would have to let them go."
"…I see." Hayato answered, looking down at the ground as well. It felt like there was a lump welling up in his throat. It was the most Yukino had spoken to him in a long time yet, given the circumstances, he couldn't find any joy in the matter. In her own way, she'd given him her answer to the question he didn't have the never to actually ask. "I suppose it was for the best I decided against it then."
What were they even talking about anymore?
"This- This wasn't the way things were supposed to end." Hayato muttered in a soft voice. Whether he was saying it for her or for himself, even he didn't know.
"Perhaps not, but it has." Yukino replied simply and Hayato couldn't hold back a wince at her bluntness. Already the brief show of vulnerability she'd displayed earlier had faded and her usual expression of self-assurance had taken its place. It was now Yukino who was looking up at the sky.
"The circumstances may have been less than ideal, but I think I've still gained some valuable insights from the experience."
"Deep down, I think that I've always been a little envious of you. The way you can draw everyone towards you so easily, how you can act so open and friendly with anyone you meet. You're like nee-san. You can get along with anyone and everyone no matter how different they are. I… can't."
Looking down, Yukino wore a bitter smile on her face.
"I've realized that we're different people you and I. Different in the things we value most. It probably hasn't been easy for you either, trying to accommodate both me and your friends. That's why it might be better for us to walk separate paths from now on."
"That's not true!" Hayato exclaimed before he managed to collect himself. "It was never a choice between you and my other friends. It's not your fault things ended like this…"
He trailed off, all too aware how hollow his words were when compared to his actions over the past year and a half.
"I was just afraid." Hayato admitted. At his side, his hands curled themselves into fists. "Seeing all those people, I was terrified that I'd somehow make the situation worse but that doesn't excuse my actions. It was the same afterwards. I told myself I just wanted to give you space, that I didn't have to right to approach you but deep down I was just scared. After everything that happened, I shouldn't have just left you alone afterwards."
"Do you feel guilty for that? You shouldn't have to. That was more my choice than it was yours. And besides-" Here, an uncharacteristic softness touched Yukino's eyes and, perhaps unconsciously, a small smile appeared on her face. "I haven't been alone. Not for a long time."
"Are you talking about him?" Hayato blurted out, and he was surprised at the tinge of bitterness in his own voice. "Hikigaya Hachiman?"
It felt like a mistake, mentioning the boy's name like this, but it was already too late for him to take his words back.
Yukino's eyes hardened instantly.
"That's none of your concern."
Hayato couldn't find the nerve to press the point further, despite his own burning curiosity to know more, and so fell silent. Several tense minutes passed by and he wrestled with whether or not he should try and restart the conversation with a different topic when Yukino spoke up.
"It's more than just that." Her words were so soft that he could barely make them out. "I've also realized my own limitations, ones that I've imposed on myself."
"What do you mean?" Hayato couldn't help but ask.
"It was mistaken of me to act as though I was neesan. Even if everything had worked out, it would be nothing more than a deception. I don't want to be accepted for hiding who I am or pretending to be someone I'm not."
Yukino's voice had started out soft but she seemed to grow in confident and surety of her words as she spoke on.
"I've always thought of neesan as utterly perfect. She was the standard I gauged myself against yet, no matter how much I tried, I always fell short of her. I thought the only way I could find what I lacked was by following in her footsteps, by matching if not exceeding neesan's own achievements."
Looking out into the distance, Yukino seemed almost melancholic as she continued to talk. It was understandable, given the admission of her shortcomings. Yet, beneath that hint of sadness, there also seemed to be a new fire burning deep below. One lit from the ashes of her previous ambition.
"But now, I've come to realize that's probably the very reason I've never been able to catch up to her. Why I was never satisfied no matter how much I excelled. I've simply been imitating neesan's accomplishments rather than trying to make my own. I've never once tried to step out of her shadow. I may look up to neesan but I don't want to become a duplicate of her. I want to be me."
Hayato couldn't help but stare in wonder. For as far back as they've known each other, Yukino had been determined, almost to the point of single-mindedness, in her goal of becoming as capable as her sister. It had been such an intrinsic part of her person that to see her now, so willing to discard what had previously defined her so much, yet also moving on to affirm an even higher aspiration for herself at the same time, was nothing short of amazing to him.
"You've changed." Hayato finally said. It was all he could think of to say.
"Have I? It doesn't feel like it. " Yukino disagreed. "It's more like… my view of the horizon has simply been expanded. Before, when I looked into the distance, all I could see ahead of me was neesan. All my life I've been following her road because that was the only path I could see. But now…" She fell silent.
"And what do you see now?" Hayato prompted.
"I don't know." Yukino replied honestly but, contrary to the uncertainty of those words, her eyes were gleaming with purpose and determination. "But I'm going to try and find it."
After giving such a declaration, Hayato couldn't bring himself to do anything more than look on her in awe. In spite of the past year and a half, the two of them had always been kindred in their mutual admiration and pursuit of her older sister. They'd always walked side by side in their chase yet now, before he'd even realized it, it seemed as though Yukino had stridden ahead of him. Ironically, in spite of her intentions to step out of her sister's shadow, it almost felt as if he was looking upon Haruno herself. Instead of merely reflecting her sister's brightness, it was as if Yukino was beginning to truly shine on her own.
Before he had a chance to regain his bearings however, a familiar sleek black car pulled up at the far end of the road. From one of the back windows he saw Haruno stick her head out and frantically wave a hand. In the windshield he could just make out the sight of Mr and Mrs Yukinoshita in the front seats.
Reflexively turning to look at Yukino, it hit him. This was it. This was the moment he would have to say goodbye to Yukino.
Without even realizing it, Hayato's breathing begun to grow heavier. It was too soon. It felt like there was still a mountain of things he wanted to say, so much more he needed to say. The sudden eruption of these raw emotions terrified him with their sheer intensity. Why had he waited all the way until now to try and approach her? He had done his best to convince himself that it was for the best. That it was enough for him to keep his distance so long as Yukino was doing well. Yet now, that he was confronted with the reality of it all, he wanted nothing more than to cry out that it wasn't enough. How could this possibly be enough compared to what they once shared?
"For what it's worth." Her voice interrupted the turbulent storm his mind had turned into and he lifted his head up to see Yukino was actually giving him a smile. It was small and melancholic, but it was a smile nonetheless. "I do appreciate the years we had before. It had been nice, while it lasted."
Hayato felt his throat close over.
"Yeah." He managed to say, fighting the urge to choke. "It was."
This really was the end then.
"Farewell, Hayama-kun. I wish you all the best for your future endeavours."
"And you as well. Goodbye… Yukinoshita-san."
He watched her walk up to the car. He watched her climb into the backseat. And he watched the car drive away, carrying her onto a new road towards her future. A road he could no longer follow.
For a long time, long after the car had disappeared, he continued to stand there looking out across the road ahead of him.