Running fingers through his silvery hair, Souji sighed and pushed himself away from his desk. Glancing at a nearby clock, he decided it was a good enough time to take a break and closed his textbook.
He rose to his feet and stretched his body, cramped from sitting for so long. Before he had a chance to consider what to do, his stomach announced its displeasure of being ignored with a low grumble.
Souji placed a hand to his stomach, but still hesitated. Part of the reason he was locked up in his room studying was simply an attempt to avoid being downstairs as much as possible. Still, he knew he should probably eat something, and when his stomach rumbled again, he gathered his resolve and forced himself to leave his room.
He made his way down the stairs slowly, partially due to the pain that lingered from the recent battles within the television; pushed past their limits, they were all exhausted and sustained many injuries, enough that the damages lingered even as they returned to the real world. He assumed that last fight in particular would be difficult, but certainly not in the way he anticipated. Fighting Adachi had been one thing, and they had spent weeks preparing for him. But the following battle with Ameno-sagiri had been especially tough, one they barely managed to win.
And yet somehow they did win, and all their troubles were over. Ameno-sagiri lifted the fog from the town, Adachi was going to pay for his crimes, and all was right with the world again.
…For the most part, anyway.
Because as he looked into the family room, Souji found it hard to ignore the ache that clenched his heart. He observed the emptiness and listened to the silence, so out of place in this house even after all this time, and couldn't help remembering the missing ones who filled that space.
Souji shook his head in slight frustration. They caught Adachi and prevent the shadows from taking over this world, with even some time to spare before the end of the year. It was better that way. But – as much as he hated himself for it – there was a part of him that selfishly wished that it hadn't ended yet, that they were still chasing after the man who caused so much trouble.
He wished for it so he would have something to distract himself from the nothingness that filled the empty house.
Even after the past two months, he was still surprised when he returned with no one to greet him. He had gotten so used to seeing his little cousin sitting and watching television, hearing her happy voice welcoming him back. And no matter how often he reminded himself that she and his uncle were still at the hospital, he continued to be disappointed when neither of them was there when he returned.
After experiencing what it was like to have people to come home to, it was difficult getting used to the lonely silence…like he had before.
It was so quiet in the house that, even from the kitchen table, Souji could hear the click of the unlocking door. He looked up hopefully, but knew even before the middle-aged woman came through the door that it was not his mother.
"Hello, Ota-san," he called as she stepped into the kitchen.
"Oh, Souji-kun," she replied, setting down plastic bags on the counter. "You're already home?"
He didn't answer, simply returning to the drawing he was working on at the table. Whether he came home to find the woman there, or she arrived after he'd come home from school, Souji knew what it meant if his parents contacted her. Still, he couldn't help asking, "Are my parents working tonight?"
Ota-san sighed softly. "I'm afraid so. Your mother asked me to make dinner for you since they won't be home until very late."
"Oh…" Though he tried his best to keep the disappointment from his voice, he suddenly decided that he didn't want to work on his picture any longer. Pushing himself away from the table, he slid off the chair and headed to his room, unable to look at anything but his feet.
He stopped, however, when he felt a hand on his head, and he looked up at Ota-san questioningly. She gave him a small smile as she knelt before him, moving her hand to his shoulder. "Souji-kun," she said softly. "It's been pretty lonely for you lately, huh?"
The child nodded. "We used to eat dinner together every night. But now they're working all the time."
She sighed. "I know… I know it's hard. And they're not used to working so much either. But it's their job, and you have to help them so they can do what they have to."
"But how can I help?" Souji wondered.
"You can be a good boy and not cause trouble for them, so it's easier for them to work." She ruffled his hair gently. "You think you can do that?"
Souji nodded. "Okay," he murmured. He did want to help them, especially if working a lot was hard for them too. He would do his best not to bother them.
He just missed them…that's all.
Souji shook his head again to clear the memories away, turning away from the family room and heading into the kitchen. It was hard to admit, even after all these years, that something like that bothered him. And it was difficult not to think about it, especially after moving to Inaba and learning how his little cousin was growing up in a similar way he had. It was why he spent so much time with Nanako, being with her and helping his uncle realize the mistake he was making by ignoring Nanako. He felt sorry for his little cousin…because he knew what it was like to feel so alone.
And along the way, he found himself truly content with the company of his cousin and uncle, more so than he expected to be when he first arrived in town. He enjoyed his time with these members of his family that he didn't know until mere months ago. Just having them there gave him a feeling he'd never experienced before, something that warmed his whole body whenever he saw their smiles.
And now that they were gone…the emptiness left behind seemed much greater than before.
He thought he could get used to it. He had before when he was little, so why couldn't he now? It should have been much easier to adjust to being alone until they returned from the hospital. Being left on his own was familiar to him growing up, so there shouldn't be any problem adjusting to their absence.
At least that's what he thought. But no matter how many times he told himself that, it was so hard to look into the empty refrigerator, seeing it look the same as it always did, and not feel that…something was wrong.
Unsure how, or perhaps unwilling, to deal with it at the moment, Souji pushed aside the growing ache in his chest and decided to distract himself by spending the day outside.