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Return to Hinamizawa II – Wind-Weaving Chapter

Epilogue

It was a warm summer morning. Waves of sunshine washed over the white rocks, and were here and there thrown back by minuscule points of crystal, erupting into splashes that got into your eyes and stung. The trees had awoken and lifted themselves up to greet the sun, spreading out their branches so the light fell on them and painted them in glorious colours, a mosaic of flowing greens and yellows like an enormous patchwork cloak. The patches were tattered in places where the river lay like a jagged tear running through them, but they reached out across it until it was barely visible. A road ran among the trees where they were thinner near the top of the mountain, and a bus rolled along the road at a leisurely pace.

There were only a few passengers, some sitting in pairs and chatting, some sitting alone and fidgeting or trying to read a book. The only person paying attention to the scenery was an old man in the front seat, who had stared through the window in silence since the start of the journey. He was tall and dignified, smartly dressed in a dark suit with a beige jacket; thin spikes of grey hair hung about his head like a crown of thorns. He had once been handsome, and it still showed in the strong line of his jaw; but his face was now worn and wrinkled, his dark eyes reduced to mere points of light peering out from the shadows. When the bus stopped at Okinomiya, he heaved himself from his seat with a deep sigh, as if the weight of the world's sorrows was trying to press him back down. The other passengers watched him doddering towards the exit with expressions ranging from impatience to pity, and then returned to their books and forgot about him.

He sat on a bench and took out a drink from his bag, and then set off, not into the town but down the old road where the bus route used to go. It was long disused now, and young trees had stretched out their careless roots and torn cracks in the paving, but there was still enough of the road left to make for a pleasant hike that would not tax his old legs too much. He was still decently fit, and it was not long before the noise of the town was a long way behind him, and he was alone with the drowsy fluttering of the leaves and the perennial song of the cicadas. Their voices were much softer now; they had almost forgotten how to sing after being alone for so long.

The road took a heavy bend around a spur of rock, and as he came round it, Akasaka saw the valley that was his destination, stretched out below him until its colours disappeared into a golden haze on the horizon. He stopped for a moment to take it all in, resting on his stick with a posture of deep weariness. So many memories lay buried in that valley, now covered deep beneath a blanket of new soil and grass. Yet it was easy to see that it had once been a human habitation, and not just because there was a gap that the forest had not yet closed over. Although no buildings were still standing, here and there were large slabs of stone that marked where they had once been. And towards the south, close up against the boundary of the forest, two huge pillars stood side by side. The arch they had once held up was gone, and if Akasaka had not known, there was no sign that they marked the boundary of the shrine precinct, and his final destination.

It was close on noon when he reached the pillars. As was his custom when he made this pilgrimage, he stood between them and bowed in homage to the god of the destroyed village, and then turned and rested on the steps as he surveyed the ruins and tried to hold in his mind the memory of the place this had once been.

It was only when he at last stood up again and looked between the pillars one last time that he realised that he was not alone.

A person – a girl, he guessed from her very long hair – knelt among the ruins of the shrine, in a huddle with her head bowed, making no movement, and no sound at all. How long had she been there? Was she even a real person at all, or a ghost? In a place like this, seeing ghosts would not be at all surprising. And she did remind him of Rika, with similar indigo blue hair. But it wasn't quite the same; this girl's hair was a darker and more vibrant blue than Rika's had been. Still, he felt by association that if she was a ghost, she would not be a malevolent one.

"Good afternoon," he said quietly.

The girl sprang up and slowly turned to face him, trembling as she did. Akasaka smiled and took a step back, spreading his arms to show that he meant no malice. She stared at him with wide, vacant eyes. She was young, perhaps sixteen, and had a sweet face; but her mouth was flat and dead, as though it had forgotten how to smile.

"I'm sorry if I frightened you," Akasaka said. "I was just surprised to find you here."

"Not half as surprised as I am," she said. "I thought I was the only one who remembered this place."

"I came here a few times, a long time ago. Look... you're Furude Kizuna-san, aren't you?"

She nodded.

"I was friends with your mother, Rika-sama. You won't remember me, but I held you in my arms once when you were very small."

"Really?" Her mouth made a hesitant step in the direction of smiling.

Akasaka stepped forward until they were close enough to chat comfortably. There was no sense of unease about Kizuna now; the two of them were like old friends already.

"Really. I'll never forget that day and how happy she looked – just as if she were a child again." He smiled wistfully. "That was always how I thought of Rika – she was both an adult and a child, in a way. She had a tremendous amount of courage and wisdom, but she never lost that sense of deep-seated joy at how beautiful the world is that only children have."

Now Kizuna really did smile. "That's a lovely way of putting it. I take it you have kids yourself?"

"A daughter, and two grandchildren. Ken's four, and Naomi was born this January."

Kizuna nodded. "I'm glad. To know that life is going on, I mean."

She turned and stared into the distance, out across the ruins of the village. Akasaka coughed nervously, feeling that he ought to speak, but not knowing what to say.

At last he said, "That's the way it has to be. When we lose someone we love, they leave a mark on our souls that can never be erased. But we have to keep going, because it's what they would want."

"I know," Kizuna said, without looking round. "I have a new life now. My adoptive parents have been very kind to me; they love me as if I was their own daughter. And I have good friends at school. But... I still miss them all terribly. It's so hard, knowing that they'll never get the chance to grow up. Seiji, Akito-kun, Naoya-kun, Miaka-chan, Saki-chan, Eiko-chan..." She closed her eyes, and her voice dropped to the merest ghost of a whisper. "Kotone..."

"They'd all be glad to know that you escaped alive, I'm sure of it," said Akasaka.

"I know," Kizuna said bitterly. "But it all feels so wrong. I don't know if you know the story of what happened that night..."

"I know as much as was in the official records."

She gave him a sharp glance.

"I used to be a police detective. I would have done anything to protect Rika-sama, but since I was unable to save her, I tried my best to solve the mystery surrounding her death."

Kizuna nodded slowly. "So you know that Sonozaki-sensei kidnapped me and took me to Okinomiya with her, before she... before..." She began to tremble again.

"Before she either fell or jumped from the balcony of Kasai Tatsuyoshi's apartment."

"Yes. And it's entirely because of that that I survived when all my friends died. She wasn't trying to save me or anything – she just needed a hostage, and I was close at hand. It could have been any of the others instead. It just happened to be me." She sobbed, and then quickly shook her head and wiped away the tear. "It's so unfair. I've spent so many nights lying awake, wishing it could have been Kotone instead of me. But I suppose Sonozaki-sensei didn't have time to run back to the Manor before the police arrived. They were after her... she said they suspected her of killing Satoko-san, which is stupid, because she never would have done. And for that stupid reason..."

There was a long silence.

"Kizuna-san," said Akasaka, "can I ask you a question?"

She turned back towards him, and stared at the ground between them, swinging one hand loosely to and fro. "Go ahead."

"You know, I've come back to this mystery so many times over the years, trying to piece together the clues and work out what happened here. I know that you were questioned officially at the time. But I've never gotten the chance to speak with you before now. So I wondered if, maybe, if we put our heads together, something new might turn up..."

Kizuna shook her head. "I'm sorry. I've been over it in my mind again and again, trying to remember everything Sonozaki-sensei said to see if there's some clue there... but it's too long ago now, and I was only a child at the time. I can't remember it any more. I'm sorry."

"It's all right," Akasaka said gently. "If you can't remember anything, I understand that."

"It's like you said. It's best left in the past. We have to move on." She lifted herself up. "Mother should be here soon."

Akasaka bowed. "I wish you all the best," he said. "And I promise, I will do my best to find out the truth, if I can."

"Don't," said Kizuna. "It's not worth wasting your life over. You can't bring them back. It's most likely that the real killer died along with everyone else. The truth will never be known."

"Perhaps," said Akasaka. And he remained standing by the pillar and watched as the girl slowly walked away, her long hair floating out behind her in the soft breeze.

"Kizuna!" a voice called out. Just on the edge of the forest, where an old path ran out from the shrine precinct and vanished under the trees, a woman was standing. She was too far away for Akasaka to see her clearly; but he somehow felt that they had met before, he couldn't remember where. There was definitely something familiar about her – her shoulder-length red hair, her white clothes and hat, even the particular words she happened to use:

"Time to go. Come on now, I'm taking you home with me."

And Kizuna took her hand and they walked away together: just two more ghosts vanishing back into the past.