I've had this story stuck in my head for a while now and have spent ages writing and rewriting and frankensteining pieces together, so I'm just going to leave it here and move on with my life once and for all. Note on Japanese honorifics: I choose to preserve them in fanfiction because they're so important to the dynamics of Japanese relationships. Sorry if they bother you, and I hope you enjoy the story regardless.
"Enough is enough!"
The sudden, defiant shout startled Tomoe, and she drew her shoulders slightly up, her usually warm features falling into a frown. "What?" she said. "Why are you so angry all of a sudden?"
"Enough is enough," when he repeated the words, it was at a volume more characteristic of him. "How long are you going to force your stupid ideals into my life? How long are you going to pretend we're so similar?"
It wasn't often that Houtarou argued with his sister. In fact, in spite of his frequent agitation with her behavior, his tone rarely surpassed disdain. There was only so much, however, that he would tolerate, and her all too frequent intrusions in his life were growing wearisome - to be polite.
It was obvious in her features that Tomoe wasn't accustomed to her brother arguing against her, and she wore a faintly wounded frown. "You're only complaining just now? You know that I only have your best interest in mind." Her gaze fell slightly. "Or at least, I hope you do."
Houtarou attacked the response, "And how should you know what's in my best interest? How should you know what I need more than me?"
"Oh, come on, you aren't really trying to convince me that you were happy living that halfhearted life of conserving energy, are you? You can't tell me that you don't enjoy life more after joining the Classic Literature Club."
He clenched his hands in anger, scowling deeply. "In the end, you just think your way of life is better, don't you? Sorry we can't all be born geniuses, and that I had to grow up in your shadow! I gave up trying to live up to the standard you set a long time ago!"
Ah, Houtarou thought to himself somewhere in the part of his mind that was only passively observing, that did it. She's angry now. She's hurt now. Indeed, Tomoe drew up her shoulders and tightened her hands into fists, wearing a terrible expression that foreshadowed the shout to follow, "You're saying it's all my fault then?!"
"That's exactly what I'm saying! Ahh, how nice that for the first time in fifteen years we were able to agree on something!"
"No one's agreeing, you—!" She stopped herself, exhaled loudly, and moved at a brisk pace towards the door. Houtarou watched her as she went, as she pulled her shoes onto her feet, as she grabbed an umbrella - it was snowing wretchedly, despite the season's growing proximity to spring - and placed a hand on the doorknob, "I'm going out."
"Right, right. And don't bother coming back, while you're at it."
It wasn't until the door slammed shut that he realized the cruelty of his words.
"Don't you think something's strange about Oreki lately?"
It was easy to say, especially since all three of them had been thinking it, but it was Mayaka's voice that finally birthed the words. The individual in question had been oddly unapproachable as of late, attending the meetings of the Classics Club silently and with a frosty indifference towards the antics of his friends. Satoshi's bad jokes had gone without retort, and Mayaka's scathing comments on the lazy boy's ambivalence were received without remark. Even Eru's curiosities had gone without answer, and he always gathered his things and departed the room before any of the others and without saying a word to anyone. It was peculiar.
"I wonder if he's ill..." Eru glanced worriedly at the window, the gray clouds wilting over the sky. It was awfully cold lately, and it wasn't a stretch to imagine that Houtarou had been afflicted with some seasonal virus resulting from the weather.
"I don't know about that," Satoshi said. "If he weren't feeling up to it, I don't think he would come to the clubroom in the first place. He hasn't told me anything, either." Houtarou, like most humans, certainly wasn't above complaining when he was sick, but more than that, it didn't appear as though he was symptomatic. There was no coughing, no sniffling, no fatigue - just a quiet sense of worry and sorrow and a stubborn reluctance to interact with others unnecessarily.
"There has to be an answer!" Eru waved her small hands with a sudden sense of resolve in her features. "There has to be some kind of reason for it, right? We have to find out what it is! Fukube-san, Mayaka-san, I can't stop thinking about it!"
A momentary silence punctuated the girl's urgent determination, and Satoshi and Mayaka exchanged hesitant glances. This was, without a doubt, Houtarou's territory, and it felt somehow sacrilegious to answer Eru's curiosity in his place.
"I know, I know," Satoshi replied, his tone complacent. "I'm sure we'll figure it out somehow." They were big words coming from the database, disperser of inconclusive facts. Satoshi's conjectures had only ever been useful for finding what wasn't there; certainly, this often played a role in narrowing things down until it was possible to find what was there, but it was difficult to have confidence after repeated failure. A sigh, but then a smile, "I'll call his house. His sister will know what's up for sure, and I bet she'd tell me too."
A distinct optimism bloomed in the room in response to Satoshi's suggestion.
"Ah, that's right!" Mayaka leaned into the table, a broad smile on her lips. "She would definitely have something to say about it. Good thinking, Fuku-chan!"
Eru's response was more reserved, and she raised a thoughtful hand to her uniform's neckerchief, "Oreki-san's sister... What kind of person is she?"
Satoshi hummed a long, single note. "In a nutshell, the opposite of Houtarou," he said, gesturing matter-of-factly. "She's energetic, motivated, and expressive." Sympathy crept into his expression. "Houtarou can't stand her for a variety of reasons, but I think the fact that he never gets outright angry at her says a lot."
"You've met her, Fuku-chan? I remember him mentioning her every now and then in middle school, but I think I probably only saw her once or twice."
The boy nodded, "Sure, I visited his house every now and then during middle school. She was always teasing him; it was a lot of fun." His smile grew benignly mischievous at the memory, but the quality soon faded. "Anyway, I'll call tonight. Let's put this mystery to an end!"
The declaration was met with unanimous enthusiasm, and the club disbanded for the evening on the promise of learning the cause of Houtarou's behavior before the new day.
The evening dragged on. Houtarou, seeking to dull his lingering aggression, reclined in front of the rarely used television. The screen displayed a weather report, delivered in a cheery, female voice and discussing the viciousness of the winds and temperature. The snow was expected to give way to sleet and eventually to rain some time in the early morning, she said. Drive carefully, she warned. Stay inside if possible, she recommended.
Houtarou's thoughts, against his own wishes, were elsewhere. They traveled back to the inn owned by Mayaka's relatives, to the wistful Eru insisting that siblings were cute little brothers and reliable big sisters to support and be supported by - precious, irreplaceable family. They traveled back even further to his childhood, to the expectations placed on him by his family that directly resulted from Tomoe's enthusiasm and achievement. For a time, he recalled, he had chased after her. His big sister was the best person in the world, always encouraging him even when the task at hand seemed impossible. The expectations, though, had grown and grown. Tomoe was at the top of her class. Tomoe won the martial arts tournament again. Tomoe was accepted to a prestigious university. Tomoe was going to travel the world. Each hurdle was higher and higher.
He didn't know when he surrendered to her, and it seemed she didn't either. Houtarou had long given up on catching up with his sister, preferring to save his energy rather than try and fail again and again, but Tomoe never seemed to realize that her brother had stopped chasing her. She continued to subject him to her whims relentlessly.
Enough was enough.
The television flickered to blackness, and the rest of the house followed suit. Outside, the snowstorm ravaged the windows, and from the gray-streaked world of darkness, Houtarou could conclude that his was not the only house that had lost power. Passingly he considered what had become of Tomoe. She had a friend that lived nearby, didn't she?
Not that he cared.
The boy felt his way to his room, guiding himself by the pitiful light of his cellphone screen. It was only 10 in the evening, but there wasn't much he could do without light by which to see - not that he especially wanted to work on his homework anyway. He fumbled into bed, and it wasn't long before the reclining posture, the inky darkness permeating the room, and the lullaby howl of the wind bade him to sleep.
Satoshi was only slightly surprised to have his call answered by a male voice. Fortunately, it wasn't Houtarou; he wasn't sure how he would explain wanting to talk to his friend's sister. The answer Houtarou's father provided to Satoshi's request to speak with Tomoe, however, was beyond any expectation, leaving him with little to say but an apology and a farewell. Indeed, his talents were only good for finding what wasn't there. He sat in the silence of his room, staring unthinkingly at his vague reflection in the cellphone's small screen, before eventually raising the device to dial a number.
Mayaka's voice on the other end of the line was a comfort, a sacred bastion amidst a squall of uncertainty, and Satoshi's insincere smile was audible in his words, "Yo, Mayaka. I called Houtarou's house."
The response answered the unsureness of Satoshi's tone, "Bad news?"
A brief grunt of a sound to indicate an affirmative. "She's dead. Tomoe-san."
Silence, then, "Oreki's sister? That Tomoe-san?"
For a time, the only sound exchanged between them was breath. Mayaka was the first to speak again, and she did so in a trembling voice that seemed almost to reach through the speaker and take hold of Satoshi's hands, "What do we do? What do we do?"
"I'm not sure," he admitted slowly. "I get the feeling this is something Houtarou didn't want us to know..."
"Should we pretend we don't know?"
"Can you just act normally, knowing? I don't think I can." His words were sheer frustration, and he massaged the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "First, we need to get Houtarou to tell us himself. I'm not sure what he's thinking, but he's probably just going to bear it all on his own if we don't do something."
There were tears in Mayaka's reply, a deep and painful sympathy that filled and overflowed from the tiny cellphone, "I've been so mean to him lately. I thought he was just moping. I'm the worst—"
"Mayaka," Satoshi was careful to speak gently, warmly, "it's okay. Let's just do what we can from now on, all right?"
Houtarou's respite was temporary, and around 11:30 the electricity lurched and restored itself, its soft glow infecting his room. He was roused from his dazed half-dream, his thoughts recalling the assignment left unfinished on his desk. Lazily, he rolled over on his sheets. He was still wearing his clothes, too. No choice, then.
He became aware, as he sorted through his things in search of a pencil, of a faint ringing sound from beyond his shut door. The telephone, he surmised. At this hour? Probably Tomoe calling to let him know she had found refuge for the night, he surmised. Houtarou was still half asleep as he ambled through his home and pulled the phone from the receiver.
"Hello, Oreki residence." Somewhere in his wandering mind, he realized that he was relieved to hear from Tomoe. It was rare that she stormed off like that.
"Hello, Oreki-san? This is Akira Satou, calling on behalf of the Kamiyama General Hospital. Am I speaking to a relative of Tomoe Oreki?"
He could think of nothing but to answer, "Yes, this is her brother."
The woman on the other end of the line drew a quiet breath, "I see. Are your parents around, Oreki-san? I'd like to speak with them, if so."
He shook his head - an empty gesture for a telephone conversation. "No, they aren't available at this time." They would be away for business for a couple days' more time, if his memory served him as well as he suspected, though he realized that his confidence in his fumbling thoughts was misplaced.
"I see..." A long pause. "Oreki-san, I have something very important to tell you. Try to stay calm and listen, okay?"
The atmosphere in the geography prep room was heavy, solemn, and infected with a growing anxiety. Satoshi made repeated efforts to avoid Eru's obstinate eyes, for she was apparently determined to discover what came of his promise to get in touch with Houtarou's sister. Mayaka turned the pages of a small book intermittently, her bright eyes occasionally flicking upwards toward Houtarou, though he never divorced his gaze from his own reading. Minutes ticked away like hours in uneasy silence before Satoshi, breathing a long sigh, finally spoke.
"Houtarou, I wanted to ask your sister something about her trip. Can I come over later?"
When he looked to the addressed for a response, he was met with an unnerving stare. Houtarou regarded him almost unblinkingly, a slight pallor in his complexion, a glassiness in his green eyes, and hesitance on his lips. He eventually broke his gaze, turning an expression wounded by realization towards the pages of his open book. Suddenly, he stood, snapped the book shut, and hurriedly began to return his few items to his bag. The rest of the Classics Club stood with him, calling for him to wait, but he was deaf to their cries. He was finally made to stop by Eru's hands on his, her prying eyes reaching out to him in desperation.
"Oreki-san, don't go," she pleaded. "What's wrong? Please, I don't want to see you suffering like this anymore."
She earned a sidelong glance and a gradual easing on his panicked disposition. His countenance melted and solidified, leaving his expression stoic and flat. His previously emotive features, pained as they had been, were now cold and unfeeling.
"Aneki's dead. I killed her."
He stared unwaveringly at the table, waiting for any reaction. His company, stunned by the confession, could offer none. Eru recoiled a half a step with a startled frown. Houtarou was apparently satisfied by this absence of response, and he took his bag in hand and left the room unimpeded. His friends stared after him; Satoshi had the thought that he should follow, should call after him and beckon that he remain, he could will neither his legs nor his voice to comply. There was something deeply frightening in Houtarou's behavior, and Satoshi wasn't comfortable with the prospect of questioning it.
"What does that mean?" Eru's words rippled weakly through the room. "Fukube-san, Mayaka-san... What does that mean?"
Satoshi shook his head slowly, "Don't worry. I'm sure it's not what it sounds like."
"Should we go after him?" Mayaka offered, holding her hands at her chest and sinking into a chair.
Satoshi opened his mouth to reply, but Eru was moving past him before he could voice his thoughts. He called that she wait, but she did not heed him, her dark hair streaming after her as she descended the stairs in pursuit of her friend.
His mind wasn't so addled with sleep that it couldn't understand where this conversation was going. Absently, he moved to sit on the floor, silently pleading with the woman to stop talking before she said too much. I understand, he told her a thousand times in a shout so loud it couldn't be heard. I understand, so please don't say any more.
"Tomoe Oreki was involved in a traffic accident earlier resulting from the slick roadways. Unfortunately, the power blackout affected a critical procedure during her treatment, and our doctors were unable to save her life. Your sister passed away peacefully; in spite of everything, there was no pain in her expression. You and your family have my sincerest..."
He had tuned her out a long time ago. And don't bother coming back, while you're at it.
"That's too cruel, Aneki." There was a tremor to his voice, a staggering drumbeat singing the tale of a hideous war brewing in far-off lands. "How is it that the only times you listen to me are when I don't mean what I say?"
His voice was quiet when he spoke again, his words having stepped away from the brink of tears and wrapped themselves in the comfort of ambivalence, "Sorry. Thanks for calling to let me know. Is there anything you need me to do?"
The woman seemed slightly startled, "Um, if you could contact your parents and let them know, or give me a way to get in touch with them myself..."
"I'll call them." The frown in his expression was shallow but persistent. She began to speak again, but Houtarou returned the handset to the receiver with a quiet click.
Enough was enough.
Somehow, remaining silent on the matter had allowed Houtarou the sanctuary of pretending that his sister was alive and well; he had been happy to indulge in the fantasy that she was simply out traversing the world again. Had he really been happy, though? Was there any joy to be found in his blissful lie? Evidently not, if his friends were so concerned about him that they were using words like 'suffering.'
Was he suffering? Wasn't he suffering? He remembered feeling depressed after realizing that Fuyumi Irisu had used him to further her own ends, but this was innately different from that. He had resolved his conflicts through the encouragement of his friends and by proving to himself that his talents weren't empty or imagined. There were no words of support that could save him now, no evidence in the world that would offer solace.
His feet slowed and stopped. His blood was stone in his veins. He was sure that his legs would at any moment fail him, leaving him unable to rise from the cold pavement. Maybe that was for the best, though. It was a merciful fate for the boy who had wished away his sister's life, but it was just.
Houtarou recognized that he had found his answer, and he willed himself to move again, pushing beyond the school gates. The road that passed the front of the building was quiet, but it took only a few brief moments of waiting for the headlights to appear against the horizon's waning sunset.
"I don't know if it works this way, but all I want is to trade places with Aneki. Please."
The despairing murmur would have become a groan of pain, a strangled breath, a screech of tires, a dull thud. It would have become panicked shouts and an ambulance's siren. It would have become tears and sorrow, but instead it became a short gasp as someone seized his wrist and suddenly jerked him backwards.
"Oreki-san." Eru's wide eyes were searching him once more, or perhaps pleading with him. She was impossible to ignore, her hand like hot iron on his. Her ebony hair was disheveled from her hurried pursuit through the school, and there was a quiet urgency in her breathless words, "Oreki-san, you have to pay attention near the road. What if you were hurt?"
The kindness and sincerity of her words hurt Houtarou more deeply than any simple traffic accident could. With gentle, careful hands, she reached out and ripped apart the stitching he had so diligently sewn and re-sewn to keep himself together. The seam buckled and tore, spilling all the pain that had been festering for so long.
Death was something truly horrific, carving mercilessly into everything it touched with its long, pervasive tendrils. But there was no healing in a wound that could not drain, and Houtarou was so overwhelmed by relief to finally have those tendrils pulled out of his person, to finally let the blood and rot weep from his body, that his strength fled him and he sank to his knees. He clung stubbornly to Eru's hand even as he bowed his head sobbed thick, wretched tears from tightly shut eyes. He leaned into her shoulder when she knelt to comfort him, afflicted by a faint trembling as he realized the warmth of her arms around him. He couldn't calm himself through any force of will, even as he recognized the approaching calls and footsteps of Satoshi and Mayaka, even as he felt their presence at his side and heard their warm words.
Tomoe Oreki was dead, but Houtarou Oreki lived yet. His sorrow, his frustration, his pain - they were all his own, as were the ease and happiness that were sure to come in brighter days. The wound bled and bled, but slowly, gently, his friends bandaged it in hopes of the day that it would be healed.
Known errors include poor pacing, overuse of certain words, stagnating sentence structures, inconsistent POV, and probably a smattering of typos despite how many times I proofread it. Critique is welcome but not desperately desired or anything. Hope you were able to find some entertainment in my sadistic tendencies!