The air is hot. The sun, bright. Not a cloud.
And, just like last year, and the year before, and before, and before, the cicadas sing hymns to the sky’s fading light.
Sunset is Rena’s favorite time of day, the world alight with color and beauty. The dump, her favorite hiding place since childhood, catches the sun in its nooks and doesn’t let go, and the day she discovered that, tucked away in that old tram, selfishly, she took hold of sunset and kept it close, because in that spot, at that time, she has a piece of the world to herself that no one else does.
It’s been quite a long while since she’s been able to stand in her little world, though. How frustrating, with the songs of the cicadas signaling summer and the sky shifting to night, that for the third week in a row, Rena can only glimpse it from the window by her desk.
Who knew being a junior detective meant spending so much time on paperwork?
Rena has just returned from her very first semester of college, and it’s terrifying enough leaving Hinamizawa for visits, but she’s better now, she’s changed, she’s comfortable, and unlike Mion or Keiichi she’s not particularly worried what to study, because the answer will come to her. Of course it does, and it does when she returns home, in a rush and a flurry of emotions and a quick declaration:
“Please, Ooishi-san, let me be your apprentice!” Rena speaks with a bowed head and a pounding heart. He’d been leaving, said to pack up in a few days and retire. This is her only chance.
She doesn’t, therefore, see his face, but she can imagine the confusion and surprise in the long moments between her request and the response. The cicada chirps seem louder, but Rena quells any dread they inspire; Rena is a strong girl, Rena is not going to be stopped by a few bad omens.
“Ah… Ryuugu-san… You know detectives don’t really have apprentices, right?”
Her cheeks flush but she meets his gaze. At least he’s not laughing at her, but the uncertainty, does it have to be so pronounced?
“Please,” she repeats. They stand outside the Okinomiya Police Station, having come straight here instead of going home, to her friends and father and familiar places, because she can’t risk this slipping through her fingers.
For a moment, Rena worries he’s going to tell her to come back in a few years, when she’s more grown up, that she’s still a little girl, because his lips twitch with a smile. She notices that; Rena’s the kind of girl who notices a lot of things.
However, he simply says, “There’re lotsa younger cops, you know. Kuma-chan, he’s my best--”
“No.” She is polite but firm, so much so that Ooishi appears startled. “I’m sure he’s great, but I’d like you to be my mentor. Please. Ooishi-san’s the best in Okinomiya.” With a little more song or sugar, those words could be to butter him up, but not now. Rena speaks with the utmost confidence and conviction. “You helped us so much. Please, be my mentor.”
Ooishi digs in his pocket. Ooishi pulls out a cigarette. Ooishi lights it and sighs out smoke and raises an eyebrow at her. “Still the most surprising person, Ryuugu-san.” Rena blushes again; she recalls a conversation over Watanagashi, where he bluntly told her that he’d done a full investigation on her background years ago and wondered how a girl so young could be so cheerful and, at one point, so terrifying.
Surprising, he’d said she was. That’s also what Keiichi said, in a fond murmur, late that night by the river, hands clasped. What Mion stammered when Rena kissed her nose out of the blue under the moonlight.
Rena takes surprising as a compliment. Rena glows with pride. Rena starts to realize at that moment, before Ooishi says anything more, what that word means.
He rolls his eyes and hums softly. “Not so fast. Retirement’s just in my grasp, so you’ve got one chance, and I just know you’ll make it good. What’s got you wantin’ to be a detective so badly, hm?”
Another folder sorted, another case filed. After that day, Rena transferred colleges to the small college in Okinomiya. Closer to home, easier to train and listen to her mentor’s advice. By day, she daydreams of late night patrols or hot chases, but by night she’s usually still at her desk. It’s a process. She knows. She’s been told. She tries to be patient.
Still she itches for a real case, to get a badge of her own, to pound the pavement and diligently look for clues.
“Still hard at work, Rena-san?”
Ooishi’s gentle drawl is a normal fixture, this time of night. It’s a test. Well, she’s not going to give up!
“Of course, sir!” Her enthusiasm makes him laugh; that’s also a tradition. Rena remains bent over the remaining paperwork, all small-time cases, mostly cold, requiring filing. Oftentimes, even her impatience gives way after a few minutes of deducing.
Ooishi leans against her chair. “Any leads tonight? Connections found?”
A stray hair slips from behind her ear. Rena idly pushes it back. “Not yet,” she admits, taking a moment to chew on her lower lip. “But I’m sure something’s coming, something’s coming.”
He pats her hard on the shoulder. “Well, naturally! Nothing else from our brightest upstart.”
Rena glows like the sun caught in her favorite place. She is 22 and already a bright upstart. She’s kept Ooishi from sweet retirement for four years, and yet he still gloats daily of how Rena Ryuugu, barely out of cop school, is on a fast-track to a detective badge. That’s, of course, just the deductive parts. She’s just finished college education, after all, and though a good word and demonstrations have sped up her time in the Okinomiya police academy, there’s months more of it and then more field training.
But a job in Okinomiya is almost assured. A small town, just near home -- just what Rena wants, and if she keeps working, she’ll get it.
“Oi. Rena-san.” At last, she looks from her desk. He’s smiling. “You’ve been working hard lately. Go on. Enjoy your night.”
“Ah, no, I can’t. Just a little longer, a little longer.” Her hand rests on an old case. It’s a missing person’s report.
Those Rena tends to take extra time on, not matter how fruitless it may be.
“Rena-san.” Ooishi’s swept the papers into a folder. “It’s late June. You’ve got places to be in the next few days, don’t you? People to see.”
That is true. Watanagashi. It always brings everyone home, just in time.
Ooishi’s almost shoving her out into the painted sunset, minutes later. “And don’t let me catch you sneaking in here.”
“H-hauu.” It’s something she’s done on a few occasions. Just a few. A sheepish smile overtakes her face as she notes that Ooishi is quite literally blocking her way back inside, planted firmly against the door. In some distant memory, from a dream or a nightmare, Rena was afraid of him, wary of him, paranoid and nervous and wrathful, but here, right now, that’s all wiped away, like every hazy, faded memory with a new beautiful experience.
And so soon, it’ll be time for more wonderful memories. Before she leaves, she asks, “Will you be around for the festival, Ooishi-san?”
A cigarette, between his fingers. A wrinkly smile. “I’ll find time to drop by…but if I can’t, give the best to them, yeah?”
Rena beams. She’s the sun, she’s always rising, again and again. “Mmhm!”
The classroom is almost empty. Everyone else left hours ago, but Keiichi remains. The sun’s setting and still, he’s at the small Hinamizawa schoolhouse, like when he went there – but not quite the same.
“And if you carry this—”
“—then I get sixty-eight!”
Keiichi nods. A little girl in pigtails sits at his side, positively ecstatic. She bounces in her seat, but before she can say anything else, he stands with a grin and a clenched fist.
“Aha! Just as I told you, you could figure it out! I only laid the foundation for you to build upon, and you’ve gotten every question right thus far. Who did those equations? You! Who recalled those dates? You! Every subject, every problem, you solved it. Congratulations, Mikoto-chan.”
The little girl giggles and blushes and hides her face. Keiichi suspects the last part is because she’s wiping away tears. He graciously averts his eyes and ruffles her hair. For the last few weeks, he’s had after school tutoring for hours with her, after she started crying in class one day about not getting anything right.
Naturally, Keiichi couldn’t just let that go. He promised her by the time they were through, she’d be the smartest kid in the whole schoolhouse, smarter than even than the older kids (Satoko had a field day with that one).
“Thank you, Maebara-sensei,” little Mikoto murmurs with a sniffle.
Sensei. Who’d’ve thought, huh?
Somehow the schoolhouse is worlds smaller without their club president. After months and months of late night tutoring sessions with Mion – and Rena, who had insisted on coming along for moral support – she’d actually gotten into college.
“Why do I even have to go?” She’d complained one night, head underneath a notebook. “Not like I gotta apply to be head of the family. I’ve already got a freakin’ guarantee!”
Rena rubbed her back and reminded her it was her mom’s one condition – an education after high school, not going straight to running the family.
It’s not like Mion needed reminding; she simply moaned after anyway, and she would complain again in days to come, so Rena rubbed her back and Keiichi made speeches and one night the Rena Punch appeared in full-force, and studying became a competition and that really got Mion fired up.
After all that work, all the celebration when she’d passed entrance exams, the high died down when they came to realize it meant a year without her. They still meet after school, the Hinamizawa Games Club, and they still compete as normal, but it’s a little less lively. A little quieter. A little smaller.
Of course, both have to worry about the same exams that plagued Mion before too long, and that reawakens a whole world of anxieties.
He has to do well. He has to be perfect. It was one thing, helping his friends and classmates study, encouraging them with a rousing speech and reminding them of how strong they are—but this? Focus, Keiichi. Focus. Be cool! You can do it!
None of that quells the growing unease in his stomach. On one occasion – he knows the answers, he does, they just – it all goes in his head wrong. He pushes his notebook off the desk and takes a deep breath and sits there with shaking hands, trembling arms and a racing mind.
“Keiichi-kun.” Rena. Thank everything for Rena. Her hand, on his arm, anchoring him. His whole world. “Let’s take a break. Okay?”
“Maybe I should just stay here,” he says, after one of these breakdowns. “I’ll help around town. Volunteer for Irie-san…clean around Rika-chan’s shrine. Shion’ll need help looking after Satoshi when he wakes up. I could focus on helping you pass instead!”
Lightly, Rena slaps the side of his cheek. She remains smiling as she does so. “No.”
He starts crying. He doesn’t stop for a long while, and she holds him.
Despite his own worries, he continues to help the younger kids when they’re having trouble in class. Not just Satoko, or Rika – who amazingly finally needs help, since she doesn’t have all of these problems memorized – but anyone. If they need help, he can’t sit there. He talks with them. He finds a way for them to understand, to connect. He watches them soar. That’s how he learned best, after all.
It’s winter when Chie stops him as he’s packing up, the last to leave, no club today. “Maebara-san. I wanted to talk to you about your future.”
His brow furrows but Keiichi straightens it out. “Ohh? It’s up in the air right now, remember?” A jovial tone, even though he has yet to take his exams.
“I was wondering what you were thinking about studying,” she asks, virtually ignoring the implications of his words.
“Ah… I haven’t thought about it.” There are ways in which Keiichi and Mion are very much alike; she too just focused on getting into school and not what to do when she got there, something that she’d told them in her frantic letters and troubled calls. Between all of them, they calmed her down, but it stuck in Keiichi’s mind; he had to pick something too, didn’t he? Just something else to worry about.
He had to be perfect at whatever he chose. Everyone would have to praise him—
But he can’t think like that anymore. Thoughts like that. They scare him.
“I really haven’t thought about it, Chie-sensei.”
“Well,” she replies with a kind smile, turning from him and starting to wipe off the chalkboard, “what if I told you you’d be perfectly suited to be a teacher?”
Usually, when Chie’s cleaning up and he’s around Keiichi helps out. He finds something to do, because it’s only right, she’s their teacher! This time, he’s still. He’s stuck. He’s there, frozen, unable to reply.
Something about Chie, she’s always patient. So when he doesn’t reply right away, or in a minute, or two, or once she’s done wiping down equations and dates, she doesn’t push him. She waits, like he’s trying to think of the answer to a problem in class.
Problem’s a bit of a light word for it.
“You…” He can’t find the courage to look at her. He can barely find the courage to breathe. “You know about my past.”
It’s not a question.
“Yes.” Her eyes, fixed on him. “I make an effort to know as much about my students as I can. But that boy who hurt others, that’s not the young man standing in front of me today.”
“But I’ll become him again!” Keiichi hasn’t voiced these fears. Not to his parents, not even to Rena. He trembles at his desk, muscles vibrating, and though they’re hibernating he can swear, behind his eardrums, the cicadas vibrate in time, drowning him. “I get so nervous and worried, if I give it my all—if I try to excel, I’ll go back to… to…!”
That little girl’s screams. What a disgusting person, to cause something like that.
“You’re not just trying to excel, Maebara-san.” Chie places a hand against his arm. It’s not like Rena’s anchoring and everything, but it’s still gentle, and he doesn’t dislike it. “You’re trying to help others. That’s what being a teacher’s all about. You’re worried that devoting yourself to academics will make you even worse than you were, right? Don’t think of it as learning for yourself. You’re learning so you can pass everything on to all the others who come after you. That’s why you go into education. That’s why you teach. That’s what I see you do, every day.”
What he sees is her smiling at him. It’s not praising, it’s encouraging.
“You’d make a wonderful teacher, Maebara-san. Just think about it. That’s all I ask.”
She pats him on the shoulder, and she leaves him, to pack up in peace and quiet, probably because she knows he needs that right now.
The drowning cicadas. They’re gone.
The sun’s dying down, but Mikoto has lived here her whole life, and it’s Hinamizawa, and everyone knows everyone, so Keiichi, who has to lock up, sees her off to walk home alone without a worry. Little Mikoto scampers off down the path with her little backpack, but then she turns back, and very swiftly, without a word, hugs Keiichi tight. It lasts a few moments. Then she rushes off, faster than before.
It wasn’t a cakewalk. Getting here was probably the hardest Keiichi had worked in his life, and he didn’t go into college assured that this was where he’d end up. Many nights, he worried. He wondered. Education? Him? But Chie’s words returned to him, in his most terrified moments, and Rena and Mion and Rika and Satoko, Shion and Hanyuu, his parents – everyone was rooting for him. They all were rooting for each other.
So, somewhere down the line, a teacher sounded pretty good. Student teaching in Hinamizawa – because that’s the school he wants to work at, and that’s the kind of environment he thrives in – was just a natural progression.
The town’s getting bigger. It’s no metropolis, but teaching a whole schoolhouse herself always did seem like a lot of work for one Chie, and now with even just a few more students than a few years ago… Keiichi is happy to help. Satoko and Rika tease him, the big teacher now, but he wouldn’t be content if they didn’t.
There’s not much to do to lock up the school. He’s the last one to leave, but he’d made sure to keep it clean. Most days he does, but today is special. There’s a meeting scheduled, after all. It’s where the earth gathers up the sun, and he absolutely doesn’t want to be late for that.
Just a few weeks. All that’s left, and then Sonozaki Mion will be the head of the Sonozaki family. How much time has she spent, observing in meetings, learning customs, developing her calm persona to switch to in a snap, the Sonozaki Head—how long? How long has she waited for and dreaded this day?
What she did in college doesn’t matter. In the end, it was a nice diversion. She does appreciate her mom’s insistence. A little politics, a little fine arts, a little science, a little everything. A well-rounded Mion. But what she ended up devoting herself to in the last few years – nothing like that matters like the rest of her life will. Every break, she sat in on every meeting held. Every break, she prepared herself.
A year out of school, finishing up preparations. Age 24, a nice age to take control of the family. On that birthday, in early July, Mion will inherit the family. Oryou’s old, and Mion’s amazed she’s still alive…but not for long. It’s time to take the burden of the family from her shoulders, place it on her own.
Already, the elders are whispering. She’s too young. Too wild. Sure, she’s good in the meetings, in front of the family, but what about everything else? The company she keeps? How she lives her life?
For the next few weeks, it’s not her job to quell these concerns. It’s her grandmother’s, who let loose the Sonozaki fury, for them to dare question the heir of one of the three families, to question her character and the current leader’s judgment. The Furude head’s even younger, as by technicality Rika’s the only Furude left. Mion knows what she’s doing. Mion’s been trained for this since she was young. Mion’s been ready.
She stares at the mirror before her. Reflected back, her eyes, mouth, her nose, the blinding streak of dying sunlight.
It’s another her.
The village feels so empty. Mion’s done with her schooling, finally back in Hinamizawa for good, and those weeks between graduation and now were heaven, with her friends by her side and worries lifted. Of course, she’s done but they’re not. Keiichi and Rena and even Shion, off to college. Satoko and Rika, back to the schoolhouse. And Mion? To her training. She still sees the younger two, of course, often in Rika’s case, at meetings. She has time to visit Satoshi, who’s recovering nicely, likely able to go home soon (his old one, or the Furude Shrine, that’s the real question--). Hanyuu visits her.
It’s not the same, though. Being away from everything hurt, but now being back, having pieces of her world just not there?
It’s only for so long. Only for so long. She tells herself this, again and again, but after only a few months she worries. Watanagashi’s approaching, and they will all return for that, but it all weighs on her. Her, Mion, hand matched against the mirror and eyes locked on a reflection.
There’s nothing to distract her. There’s whispers that she’ll be the new head within a year. The demon on her back is warm. Is feverish.
That reflection mocks her. Mion snatches her hand away, as if shocked, and her mirror image recoils in kind. Why does it always have to be like that?
Really, she should call Shion. She should talk to her. Something, do something, something other than what’s running through her mind right now. But Shion could be busy. She could call…who? Of everything, this is the one secret to keep, the one that throughout everything else the Club doesn’t know.
It’s not too late at night. The sun’s just set. The cicadas call out their comforting melodies; they encourage her. Through the halls she walks, room, to room, to room, to room. To find…
“Bacchan.” Already, Mion’s just slid open the door and she can’t keep her voice from breaking. Now, now, don’t be timid. This won’t go well if you’re already timid, she tells herself. It’s strange, it’s like even after all these years, once again, she’s—
“Mion.” Oryou looks up from her tea. She’s old, but that spark’s still there, a Sonozaki fire deep in her eyes. Maybe all of them have it. “You’re not scheduled for lessons tonight.”
“I know. Excuse me, Bacchan, but if I could enter.”
The teacup gently rests against wood. “You don’t have to take that tone with me. It doesn’t suit you, Mion.”
That’s a yes. The door slides behind her and Mion takes her place in front of Oryou, seated on her knees. “I…I need to talk with you about something. It’s- I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
“Straighten your back.” A quick movement and she corrects her posture. “…You’re jumpy. Mion.”
“Sorry.” What does that word sound like? Detached Sonozaki heir? Foolish granddaughter? What is she? It’s so easy for Mion to be one or the other with her grandmother, but right now, right here, with this, it’s impossible to find it—
“I was at the meeting that day,” she says. Oryou looks confused, so she tries to clarify. “It wasn’t her fault. I- we did it a lot. We didn’t know what would happen. We just wanted it to be fair. We didn’t know. It wasn’t Shion’s fault.”
At some point, her mouth has become very dry. She tries to wet her lips, but she can’t. She can’t quench her thirst, it seems.
“Stop saying that name, I took it!” How is it that she’s still sitting straight? Her hands are balled into fists in her lap, but she stays there, because her granny told her to. A moment hangs between them and then, very quickly, she bows her head. “I never meant to get the demon instead, Obaasama, I’m so sorry, you’ve been raising the wrong one.”
She cannot see her grandmother’s eyes. She cannot see anything, because her eyes refuse to open again. Maybe if her heartbeat keeps increasing, it’ll drown out everything else, and she can just drift away and not be in this moment.
It’s not so, however, because she can still hear Oryou’s voice. “Mi…” Yes. That’s right. She shouldn’t be called that name.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I should’ve spoken up then, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to tell you many times. But you…you forgave Shion—ah… I mean…it was okay, after so long. I thought saying something before then would make it worse, and then when I could’ve. I. I. I…was afraid again.”
The weight of Mion pushes her down. Further and further, until her forehead rests against the floor. Really, it’s been pushing her down all this time, ever since she was a little girl. It’s just that, now, she can’t keep herself upright.
“Forgive me. Obaasama. Please forgive me. I didn’t meant to take Mion.”
Even with open eyes, no light would shine on her. In this dark room, the sun can’t reach, not even when it’s setting. How alone. How isolating. Instead of pushing everything away, her hearing becomes heightened, so she knows when her grandmother stands up, she knows when she sighs. She wonders what punishment she’ll receive. She wonders if her sister will receive it too.
“Mion…” The name she stole. “Get off the floor.”
Her eyes open. Her head rises slowly. It’s light, filled with air. Despite that, she can’t really breathe.
“I think, for a long time, I suspected something,” Oryou murmurs in that low scratchy voice. The shadows keep her face, but there’s no screaming. “Do you want to know why?”
Stunned to silence, she simply nods.
Two steps. The face looking back at her is an old woman. No demon. No god. “I couldn’t forget your cries. How could I? I was supposed to strangle you, but you sounded so scared. You looked so scared. Mion.”
She wants to ask why Oryou’s still calling her that, but no words will rise from her throat.
“You’re still scared… We’ll need to have a long talk. You, your sister, and me.” A startled, strangled gasp from the heir prompts Oryou to correct, “A peaceful talk. Mion…I don’t have any right to ask it, but for now, look past the deeds of the Sonozaki family. I’m still the head, and I look out for my own. Even you. Both of you.”
At this point, Oryou sits once more, but it’s next to her granddaughter instead of across from her. So many racing thoughts. Of course, she did let Keiichi’s family buy land. She pardoned the Houjou family. She’d done much more than many saw, and she wasn’t perfect, but not a monster. Still, so scared. So scared, and so many questions, but when one finally reaches her tongue, what she can ask—
“Why…are you still calling me Mion?”
Oryou simply looks at her. “Do you want to be Mion?”
“I… Of course.” She blinks and down falls a tear. They’re from shock. After all this time, it’s shock. “She… She’s all I know how to be.”
Wrinkly hands hold her own. “Then you are.”
Mion cries into her grandmother’s knees for many, many hours.
The resulting conversation last Watanagashi had been…awkward, to say the least.
“Sorry, Shion,” Mion had said, hands clasped in front of her sheepishly. “I couldn’t hold it in anymore.”
Despite this, Shion still calls her Onee. “You’ve earned it,” the response was.
Now, Mion’s not sure about that, but who is she to argue with the stubborn twin in the family?
Mion turns from the mirror. Around this time of year, she’s always serious, despite her jubilation at everyone gathering for the festival, and she supposes now, with the anniversary of revealing her longest kept secret falling weeks before, and her succession taking place weeks after, late June and early July will be a rocky time in her life.
“Come on, Mion.” She slaps her own cheeks lightly. “Cheer-up-now!”
A deep breath in, and she grins.
“Bacchaaaaan! I’m going out! Be back later!”
For the last several hours, Shion’s been in a car. “Ahhhh~ Kasai, you’re a lifesaver,” she’d said the moment she got in, slipping off her heels and putting her feet up on the dashboard.
“Shion-san. Your skirt.”
“Ohhhhh?” Shion just giggled. “I’ve been in this since yesterday. I can relax if I want to, can’t I?”
A sigh. “Yes, Shion-san.”
There was no time to change from her suit, between last minute compiling, presenting her findings, and meeting Kasai for the drive back home. In fact, she’d taken her bags with her to the business center. If anyone wanted to complain, they’d just have to take it up with her, after she explained how to improve profits of the hypothetical company she was assigned to manage by 50%, of course.
“You’re asking me to leave?” Shion sits by Satoshi’s beside. Warm tears spill over her eyes, blurring the hospital lights until they’re all she sees, just light.
His hand, clasping hers. Her sight focuses, and there he is, close. The other hand, on her head. Patting gently. “I’m asking you to live.”
Shion started late. There had been other things – more important things – than school to look after, but after a certain point, it was time. A big business school, cities away, with her name on it. Business, what’s she going to do with it? Everyone asked, asks, will ask.
Every time, Shion just smiles. “I want to start something of my own.”
That has to be enough for them. She’s persuasive enough.
“Shion-san.” Lazily, she looks over at Kasai through half-open eyelids. On and off in sleep, in wonderful dreams that, when she wakes, don’t have to fade into fantasy, that are just a drive away. “We’ll be there soon.”
The sunset slips into the shadows of her face. It nestles and caresses her. It wraps her tight, like the wind through the slightly cracked window, like the growing sounds of cicadas, singing their welcome home.
“I can’t wait.”
Four sets of footsteps, down a dusty dirt path.
“I can’t believe this place is even still here.”
“You’ve missed a lot, that is so.”
“M-mou… I guess I have.”
“Shh! One day at a time, we’ll catch you up until it’s like you were never gone!”
Everyone has grown so much. Satoshi, who’s been recovering for years and finally integrating himself back into the world properly, appears ganglier than he once did, but he’s got meat on him. All the time he spent in hospital beds atrophied his muscles and stunted his growth, so it’s natural that he appears a little disproportionate; all that matters is he’s up and walking.
Not without help, of course. He walks supported on both sides. On one, his sister, who now stands just taller than him—though she’d probably appear taller anyway, since she always walks with her head held high. Satoko’s become such a nice young woman, having grown her hair just enough so it’s shaggy, but not enough so it reaches her shoulders. At one point, she tried long hair properly, but she hated it, complaining it got in her eyes and promptly cutting it herself.
That was such a fun disaster.
On his other side, oh… Hanyuu never thought she’d see Rika this old. She’s 17, walking with grace and confidence and joy, so much joy. Finally the age from all the tragedy she’s been through, though it will never truly catch up, starts to match her face. Most girls fear when they first start puberty, but Rika rejoiced—it meant the start of the curves she now has, the ones she wanted so desperately. Each inch taller, a new victory.
Hanyuu herself walks behind them, slower. Until Rika dies, Hanyuu will watch over her. When that happens, inevitably, she will finally rest, but not until then. Therefore, she appears like she grows, simulating how she’d looked when she was alive, in-time with Rika. When she gets older than that…well, they’ll figure something out. Hanyuu isn’t worried. Already, they’ve made miracles together. Something like that shouldn’t be a problem.
Rika stares over her shoulder. “You’re staring. Don’t start crying yet. We’re not even there.”
“H-hauu, hauuauau--!! I- I’m not crying, Rika!!”
Not yet, at least.
They made sure to start off with enough time, so they’d be there early. Satoshi can’t exactly run – or, well, he’d like to, but they’re being careful – and Shion has quite a trip from the big city, so they know not everyone will be there at once.
“Ah… It’s nice.” Satoshi smiles. The group looks over a literal sea of trash. It’s a dump, for all the things that Hinamizawa and the nearby towns have thrown away, but to them…it’s got history. For one, it’s one of Rena’s most precious places, and therefore of course it’s precious to them as well. For another, at one time, they’d united here, to vow not to suspect or fight each other anymore.
In retrospect, though not all of them can remember it, and though it took her much longer to believe, Hanyuu wonders if that fragment was the turning point. When the Club all reached out to Rena, and Rena reached back. Maybe that set it all in motion.
“Hello-llo~!” A call out, from the dump. There’s so much out there that they didn’t notice—no, that’s not it. She’d been hiding! Shion climbs up from behind a tram, waving to them. “You’ve kept me waiting.”
“Shion-san!!” Immediately, Satoko disengages from them and slides down the side of the hill, clambering over everything she can to get to Shion. Positively overjoyed, she embraces her, giggling happily.
“Ahh, Satokoooo! You’ve grown so much!”
“Nee Nee…! It’s only been a few months!”
Satoshi watches, almost dumbfounded. “I think I’ve been abandoned,” he murmurs to Rika.
The laugh Rika gives in response is not entirely unkind; shouldn’t have really expected anything else.
The rest of them take the path around, Hanyuu replacing Satoko as Satoshi’s support (“I am fine, you know, I can walk,” but they ignore him) and the two girls meeting them at the edge of the discarded clutter.
“It’s been some time, Satoshi-kun,” Shion says first.
“It’s been some time, Shion,” Satoshi replies in kind. She leans over and kisses his cheek, and he holds her. Their own special greeting, ever since he first awoke.
It’s Rika who disrupts the moment, sitting against a stump with a coy smile. “Shii, how’d you get here so soon?”
“I told you I’d be in as early as possible, didn’t I?” Shion winks. “Kasai picked me up this morning and kept driving the whole day. He’s sleeping now, I wore him out!”
Hanyuu makes a mental note to thank Kasai, he must be exhausted! Rika casts her a look; they still have their thoughts connected, after all, so they can hear one another’s, but often Rika enjoys replying without that. Today, it’s a sly little smile and a roll of her eyes.
“You didn’t tell Mion-san?” Satoko asks. Unlike Rika, she’s not sitting down.
Shion helps Satoshi to a log-bench near Rika’s stump to sit at, as he shouldn’t stay standing for too long. “We said we’d all meet here. Onee probably thought I’d be last, wait until I see her face, fukuku…!”
A good-natured chuckle from Satoshi. “Shion…”
She softens. “…Besides. She’s been busy lately. A little time to relax, that’s what Onee needs. Not to be rushed.”
And rushed she’s not. It takes another fifteen minutes of the five of them waiting, Hanyuu handing out some small sandwiches for the occasion and Satoko looking for something to give to each of the others when they arrive – not easy, because Rena would like all of this, but Mion and Keiichi?! – and Shion regaling them with a few tales from business school (“Thank goodness you changed from your nice suit, it could’ve gotten dirty!” Rika calls Hanyuu a spoilsport). After that time’s passed, there’s the familiar call.
“Oiiiii! What’s this?!” Down the path, Mion runs, waving a hand overhead and almost gasping. “Shion…! How’d you get here before me?!”
Shion gasps dramatically. “Ohhh? Onee’s gotten so slow! What a tragedy! She’ll have to give up her title at zombie tag, won’t she?”
“Such a pity,” Rika comments with a click of her tongue. “Poor Mii, pity, pity.”
“Sh-shut up! Stupid Shion, you’re ruining the moment!”
Despite the yelling, Shion meets Mion down the path, giving her a tight hug. A quiet moment between the two of them, before they join the group, and Hanyuu has a guess what it’s about. She’s been watching all of them for such a long time, after all.
“So nice to see you, Mion-san,” Satoko says with a teasing giggle. “You’ve been so busy lately, haven’t you?”
Instead of getting a makeshift seat like the rest of them, Mion simply flops down on the ground. “Tell me about it! Ahhh, Bacchan’s got so many last minute rules…!”
“You’ll do fine, Mion.” Satoshi remains on his bench, where Shion’s returned to his side, hands entwined. “We’re all rooting for you. We’ll give you all the support we can.”
Mion is, in kind, about to reply, but a loud, energetic voice cuts her off. “Well, she doesn’t need that!” Strolling, just minutes after her, it seems, Keiichi approaches. “She’s got it all inside her already!”
“Aha, of course. I was mistaken.” Satoshi chuckles once more; he and Keiichi have become fast friends, like Hanyuu always knew they would. Satoshi’s more subdued – and honestly, few are as fired-up as Maebara Keiichi – but they have a similar energy, a similar ideology, an understanding. They always get along.
At Keiichi’s arrival, Mion jumps up and marches to meet him. “You would’ve had to be just behind me…!”
“Mmm, I did see you a little away, yes.” Keiichi crosses his arms, nodding. “So deep in thought, so focused! I couldn’t interrupt that.” A pause. “And also…” His voice gets low and he grins. “Walking behind Mion…it’s a very nice view…”
“A-aaahhhhnnn…!” Mion shoves Keiichi away and turns around with a groan. “Satokooo! Rika-chaaaan! Your assistant teacher’s a pervert who must be detained! Creeping on innocent maidens!”
“Onee, you’re older.”
“Shhhhh, stupid Shion!”
Keiichi bursts out laughing. He throws his head back and laughs long, loud. At one point, Mion’s pout fades and she elbows him in the side, lightly. It only does a little to stop his laughter, so she grabs a hand instead and pulls him to the sit on the ground next to her.
“I still arrived before you, Kei-chan,” Mion says, soft enough so it’s intimate but loud enough so Hanyuu can still hear. “You know what that means…”
“Ah… Punishment Game, huh?” Keiichi doesn’t look too unhappy at that prospect.
Mion leans in…and hooks a finger into his tie, pulling it undone. “Have to wait until Rena gets here!”
“Ack…!” Keiichi puts a hand to his chest. “A wound to the heart…!”
“I don’t think that’s where Keiichi’s thoughts are.” Rika is, as ever, on point, and it causes Hanyuu to start screeching out her panicked au-au-aus.
Keiichi doesn’t look too embarrassed, in contrast. “Not going to respect your assistant teacher, are you, Rika-chan?”
“Why, what are you talking about, Keiichi?”
Keiichi, Mion, and Rena – it had been a bit of a surprise to Hanyuu, but when she really thought about it, the only surprise had been how long it took. They were all already so close that something of a confirmation felt like a shock. That hadn’t been how it always was? Unspoken? No, of course not. Mion had worried about ruining a friendship, and being the right kind of girl. Keiichi had worried about hurting either of his friends. Rena, letting something destroy her lasting relationship with Mion. When the three all realized they were worried about the same things, and when Rena boldly approached Mion with a surprising kiss one Watanagashi—well, the puzzle pieces all fell together then.
Unorthodox, but so is everything about them all.
“It should be illegal for Keiichi-san to flirt in front of his delicate students, anyway,” Satoko declares. She’s given up her attempts to find things to give the rest of them – it’s much more fun to dig through with all of them together, after all, isn’t it?
Mion stifles a laugh. “Delicate? After living in that love nest your whole life?” Satoko lets out a squeak. “Poor Hanyuu, poor Satoshi. Ahh, does Akasaka-san still visit? What does he say about it, the two of them stuck with two teenage girls in the throes of--,”
“MION-SAAAAAAN!” Mion leaps up as Satoko runs over to chase her, blushing furiously. Rika, however, just sits there, ever-smiling.
After all this time, maybe nothing fazes Rika; Hanyuu thinks it might be that she’s enjoying the view of her friends bickering, like she so often does…or maybe is thinking about Satoko in some…manner… Thankfully Rika filters those thoughts out. After a few years of it, Hanyuu’s crying got to be too piteous, or so Rika said.
What a sweet, kind girl, that Furude Rika.
The ruckus calms, eventually, as calm as they could possibly be, and they end up all seated, sharing snacks while waiting for the last member of their precious, precious group. Hanyuu sits against Rika’s stump, Satoko, Shion, and Satoshi share the log-bench, and Mion and Keiichi wait on the ground, the bunch of them swapping stories. They’ll have to repeat them when Rena arrives, but none of them really mind.
The weekend of Watanagashi is the first time in months that all of them can gather. How busy Rena’s been with training. How busy Keiichi’s been with teaching. How busy Mion’s been with her family. How busy Shion’s been with school. It’s a good kind of busy, though. They all are living their lives. Hanyuu can tell; they’re happy. Each and every one of them, like they always deserved to be.
Another ten minutes, the sun still sinking…
Satoshi spots her first. He can’t yell and scream and jump, but his face lights up and that’s how they all know. Keiichi and Mion are the first ones up, though Rena’s running fast enough so they don’t have to walk far at all.
“Everyone…!” Her cry grows louder as she gets closer. She hugs Keiichi first, then Mion, then the three of them as a group, heads drawn close in a little circle. Hanyuu can’t see, but they’re definitely all smiling. They’re definitely grinning as wide as they can.
Satoko and Shion and Satoshi join in after thirty seconds or so, enough time for…whatever the three of them are doing in that little love pile, Shion nudging so she’s between Mion and Satoshi, who has Satoko on his other side, who has taken up a spot next to Keiichi. Hanyuu watches. She watches, until she’s looking at Rika’s hand, extended down to her.
“Come on. Us too.”
Ah, that’s one part Hanyuu’s still not quite used to. (Now, here’s where she’s crying.)
She and Rika squeeze in, Rika’s next to Satoko and Hanyuu then takes up the spot between her and Keiichi.
And then, with the sun setting, and caught in the nooks and crannies of the dump, held in its embrace like they all hold on tight to each other, they say, as one:
Time and stress have aged her. More wrinkles and lines than she probably should have at her age.
However, she can’t complain. She’s alive. It’s okay for her to live.
“Miyo, you’re back from your walk late tonight.”
“Ah, Jirou-san… I ran into Rena-chan.”
“Ohfufu, don’t make that face. We talked. She’s doing well. A detective. She asked me how I was. How nice. Going to see all her friends… I’m afraid I held her up, but she wanted to keep talking to me. I wonder why. She’s a good girl. After everything, after all these years… Jirou-san, you’re still making that face.
“This is happiness, Miyo.”
“Ah… Of course. Me too.” Takano Miyo smiles into Tomitake Jirou’s embrace. At peace.
The cicadas gently sing to Hinamizawa. Hinamizawa sings back. Just as it was, just as it will be.