It wasn't even close. The next morning was one of the most awkward in Ayumu's entire life. She'd realized, rather quickly in fact, that her outburst was going to have ramifications. The contradictions had sharpened, as Kagura would say, and they needed to be rectified. But she wasn't sure of how that was going to happen. The things she screamed at Yomi and Tomo, in retrospect, felt unforgiveable. Was this guilt for speaking out about her feelings being hurt? Or guilt for hurting others? Or some combination thereof? Whatever the case, she was not feeling good as she prepared for her day.

The class treated her noticeably different again, and not in a good way. She could tell she had scared a lot of people yesterday. But by far the most heartbreaking was seeing Tomo, who visibly cowered as Ayumu took her seat. Yomi seemed like she wanted to say something, but knew it should wait until later. Fear was there, but probably more remorse than anything else. Tomo, however, was visibly terrified. She looked at Ayumu like a beaten animal, like if she said anything to her, she'd get screamed at again. This made Ayumu physically ill; what have I done? she kept repeating to herself. Just before Yukari entered the room, Sakaki handed Ayumu a note. It said simply, in Sakaki's delightfully florid, beauteous script:

Stick around after class today.

She was so concentrated on the note that she didn't notice Sakaki hand similar notes to the other girls, except Chiyo.

When Kagura walked in to class, it was much more hushed than usual. Ayumu had gotten there before her, and she was very pale, resolutely focused on class about to start, but her eyes full of an emotional storm. Understandable. She noticed a slip of paper on her desk. It said, in what she immediately recognized as Sakaki's handwriting, Stick around after class today.

So this is it, Kagura thought. This group is staying together or not. Either way, guess we'll find out by the close of business.

The day went by painfully slowly. It was one of those days where you'd look at the clock, and think that ten minutes had passed, only to find out it was more like two. But later rather than sooner, kids were filing out of the room to go home, leaving behind five girls. Sakaki immediately took direction. "Everyone, let's sit in a circle. Where people sit does not matter, although I would like it if Ayumu was facing these two." She gestured at Yomi and Tomo. Ayumu hated looking at people-direct eye contact gave her instant anxiety-but maybe it'd be for good here. Sakaki was a surprisingly effective leader when she asserted herself, and everyone listened. Soon, they came to an arrangement.

"Now," Sakaki began, "I think we aired all the dirty laundry we needed to yesterday, so I want to just focus on rectification now."

Yomi blinked. "Rectification?"

"Yes."

"I, um..." She looked nervously at Ayumu. "I'm not sure all parties want rectification."

"Do you know that for sure?"

"Well, no, but-" She stopped when she saw Sakaki's stern expression, took a deep breath, and asked Ayumu, "Do you...want to heal this?"

Ayumu was staring directly at the floor. She nodded firmly.

"Well," Yomi said softly, looking at Sakaki, "that makes three of us. But where to start?"

"What do you think?" Ayumu asked Tomo.

Yomi began, "I think Tomo-"

"I was asking her, Koyomi," Ayumu said, firmly but gently. She was looking directly at the spiky-haired girl, who still looked like a caged animal. "She is a third of this discussion. I want her to have agency."

Yomi turned red. "That's not what I meant."

"I'm aware. But she needs to learn to speak up for herself. And in a preferably healthier way than how I had to. I refuse to speak until she does."

They sat there for a very uncomfortable five minutes, before Tomo said, very quietly, "I don't know if I can say sorry."

"What do you mean?" Ayumu asked.

"I mean, I don't know what use saying sorry is. I've been...awful to you. Just awful. And...I don't know how...I can possibly..." Her breath shuddered. "How I can possibly...you deserve to be mad, you deserve to yell, you deserve to HURT ME!" She yelled those two words so suddenly it caused everyone to jump. "I deserve to be beaten, I deserve to bleed, I deserve to rot for doing all those things to you..."

Ayumu was horrified. What had she done? She didn't realize the words she said would have such a cascading effect. She thought Tomo was hardier, that she could handle it. She was now finding out, rather viscerally, that she was not. Tomo might be the most exposed, vulnerable live wire in the group, and she had lashed into her with the wrath of God.

"Is rectification me taking a pound of flesh from you, Tomo? Because that's not what I want."

The other girl looked up. "It...it isn't? But...I've, I've, I've-"

"No. It's not."

"Then what do you want with me?"

"It's not what I want with you. It's that I want to be your friend. Actually be your friend."

Now Tomo just looked confused. "Then why did you-"

"Because that's what emotions do, Tomo. When you don't know how to express them. They just kinda...explode. All over the place. Very messily. Shut up," she added, noticing a small smirk cross Tomo's face. "The point is, I didn't plan to scream at you. I didn't plan for any of this to happen. Or at least, the way it ended up happening. You...do tend to need a vibe-check, so to speak, in order to realize you're doing something. But not like that. It should've never been like that. And for that, I apologize. I really do."

Tomo sniffled. "I guess I never realized I was hurting you. I just thought it was in fun. I guess that's how I always am, huh? I think it's just fun, until someone starts crying, or gets mad, or..." She shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe I just shouldn't be around people."

"I have a complete outburst at you, and say things I've never said to anyone before and probably won't ever again, and you're the one who shouldn't be around people?" Ayumu asked, incredulous. "You just have...things to be better about. We all do. I wanna be your friend. I really do."

"You...you didn't see me as one before?"

"No. I really didn't. I saw you as a bully."

"And...you want to be my friend?"

"Yes."

Tomo's brow furrowed. "But why-"

"Because you have good in you, Tomo. I try to believe everyone's a good person. Well, not everyone, but we needn't dip into semantics. Point is, you are good. I want you in my life. I want all of you-"-she gestured at the group as a whole-"-in my life. But after a couple of years together, I think we can see we're not as close, or as kind, to each other as we can and should be." Sakaki gave finger-snaps of approval.

"I, I want you in my life too, Os-Ayumu. I really do. I just...don't. Really. Know. How to have friends."

Pause.

"I guess...I guess I'm the real problem here, huh?" Yomi said quietly. "I knew what I was doing. And I did it anyway. I don't have anywhere to run on that." She hung her head. "I am a bad person."

"No," Ayumu said, "what determines that is what you do afterwards. If you know you did something, and continue doing it anyway, that's different from knowing you did something and then not doing it anymore."

"Why would you ever want to be my friend, though? Tomo, Tomo I can understand, but me..."

"The same reason, Yomi. Because I just want to. I know we can be close. We just have to work to get there, right?"

"Y-yeah," she said. "I, I guess...still feels weird, like I'm getting off too easy..."

"Quiet, you," Ayumu said again to Tomo, who was suppressing a snicker. "You're not. Again, I don't want a pound of flesh from you two. I just want you to know what you've done to hurt me. Ideally, I would've told you like this, instead of...yesterday."

"Yeah. Yeah that was...that was really hard."

"Alright, you sleaze, you can laugh now," Kagura said, and Tomo burst into a giggle fit.

"That's it on my end," Ayumu said. "Did you two have anything else to add?"

Tomo and Yomi shook their heads.

"Alright. Then I think we're pretty wrapped up here."

"Not quite," Kagura said. "How many of us have parents who have...to put it kindly, instilled us with bad social skills?"

Tomo, Ayumu, Sakaki raised their hands.

"And for how many others, did those bad social skills come from other places?"

She and Yomi raised their hands.

"So, and I've been thinking, I want to go into psychology, and...I'm wondering if maybe doing a group therapy session like this would be helpful? Semi-regularly? Because I'm noticing a lot of issues here that are frankly too deep for us to unpack this afternoon, and honestly, for most of us here, I feel like...the only people we trust in the world when it comes to these issues are the people in this room."

"I'd like that," Tomo said.

"Me, too," added Ayumu.

"I...think I'm ready for that," Sakaki said.

"So am I," Yomi chimed in.

Kagura nodded. "Maybe starting next week? After school somewhere?"

"Why not here?" Yomi asked. "We can ask Yukari to keep the room for an hour or so?"

"That could work, yeah."

General nodding and agreement passed around the room. Finally, Sakaki said, "I think we should go home now. It's been...a day."

They walked home together (except Kagura, who had workouts) until the last possible minute. Sakaki was the first to go, since she lived near Chiyo. When Tomo and Yomi went their separate ways, they each gave Ayumu a big hug first, a final round of apologies and tears next, and then goodbyes.


Later that evening, Kagura and Ayumu sat by the water, holding hands. They didn't say anything. They just smiled at each other. There wasn't anything to talk about.

There really isn't anything in the world that compares to knowing someone loves you, Ayumu thought as she rested her head on Kagura's shoulder.

A snowflake drifted down.