Yukinoshita Haruno and Yukinoshita Yukino. Earlier tonight, when the former first introduced herself, the image that sprung to my mind was of two swords, struck from the same metal, of the same ilk, but somehow lacking the slightest resemblance of each other.
Why is it that first impressions are inescapably proven wrong? It seems to me I could live in the same household as them, just like these two sisters did growing up, and discover some new, disturbing, irritating quirk of their persons every day.
I've not heard them talking to each other, but the way she just said "Yukino-chan"… That almost patronising tone, like a mother speaking of their unruly daughter… Yes. It's not hard to imagine the sort of relationship they have. How they might have affected each other growing up.
But what did I just say about first impressions? I'll just be proven wrong within the hour.
"She really is in a state, my poor little Yukino-chan," Haruno says, shaking her head. "Someone appears to have got under her skin. Why, I'm almost jealous."
"I pride myself on getting under Yukino's skin, Hikigaya-kun. She is my imouto, after all. But she's so much harder to tease nowadays! The old tricks don't work quite so well anymore." She smiles. "One must always be on the look out for new ones."
"…" I wish I had the energy for a quip. I wish I wasn't so tired of this night that even taking my hands out of my pockets feels like an arduous task. It's not as if my last conversation with this woman went well. So I ignore her bait and stare out across the street, into the distance.
"… Hello? Earth to Hikigaya-kun?" She crosses her arms, demanding my attention. "Someone is talking to you."
"… I'm aware."
"Then would you kindly-"
"Am I right in saying Nishimura-san has forgotten a prior arrangement?"
"…" She uncrosses her arms, smiling again. "Y'know, you're right! I was just about to mention. He had some extra work at the office which demands the upmost attention. Unfortunately, your interview's going to have to wait."
"Indefinitely, I suppose?"
"Of course not! Ask your editor to drop him another email and we can rearrange."
"… I hope Nishimura-san's aids are there to help with the extra work," I say, unable to resist the note of spite in my voice. "It would be a shame if he was left shorthanded."
"Oh, I don't think there's any danger of Nishimura-san being 'shorthanded'. Not for awhile, at least."
"…" Yukinoshita Haruno laughs her particular, somehow wayward laugh. "It seems you no longer have a reason to stay, Hikigaya-kun."
"What's stopping you from heading home right now, I wonder?"
"… Nothing." I'm still staring out across the street. "… I'll probably head back once you've had your way of me."
"My way with you! Wow! And this is the man who isn't interested in something on the side-"
"What did you want to say, Yukinoshita-san?" I cut her off.
"I believe I've already raised the topic. You were the one who changed it."
The woman in the amethyst dress moves closer until she's stood by me, hands behind her back. "Earlier, you said I reminded you of someone else… I take it that was Yukino-chan?"
I snort. "What a sharp deduction. Are you a private investigator by any chance?"
"No, but that sounds fun. Remind me to try."
"I doubt I'll get the opportunity to."
"You think we'll never meet again?"
"If my luck is in."
"However could that be, when you're such good friends with my sister…?"
"… How long have you two known each other, Hikigaya-kun?"
"…" If I let this conversation follow its course, I'm just going to lose my temper. Hell, I've almost lost it already. So swallowing down all the half-formed insults, like sand in my mouth, I face Yukinoshita Haruno head on.
"To be frank, Yukinoshita-san, there's not much I can say here. There's a lot of places I'd rather be right now. I've… This night has been a complete waste of my time. So if you don't mind, I'm going to head home. The subway won't be open much longer."
She just looks at me, as if I hadn't stopped speaking, as if she's a wind-up toy whose key hasn't been turned. I wait for a moment, for an acknowledgement of what I've said, but it doesn't come, so I remove my hands from my pockets and start to walk away, back in the direction I came.
"Goodnight, Yukinoshita-san. Sorry again for the mix-up-"
"Ah yes. About that, Hikigaya-kun."
I stop. "… What about it?"
"Y'know, I think I've decided that was more than a mix-up."
"I think you're excuse of being Takuma-kun's replacement isn't satisfactory. Who knows what you could have been up to, coming here uninvited? And there's the way you treated my imouto and I. You've been very rude. My imouto… well, there's not much in life that can persuade her to drink, and while you were out here, she had two glasses of wine." She whistles. "For Yukino-chan, that's unheard of! And that's not even taking into account how upset I am. You've been rude to me too, Hikigaya-kun. I'm beginning to think I should email your editor about it."
"Well? What do you say to that, Hikigaya-kun?"
I forcefully run my fingers through my hair. This isn't happening. It doesn't seem fair that a single night could go so badly wrong. I was just replacing my colleague at a work event. It's only been a couple of hours. That's it.
"… Do you mean that?"
"Of course I mean that! What reason do I have to lie?" Yukinoshita Haruno pouted like a child, but sarcastically, knowingly.
"…" I retrace my steps, walking back up to her, feeling more and more at the end of an extremely short tether. "If you wanted something, Yukinoshita-san, you could have asked right away. I understand your position. I've apologised for the mixup several times already. So go ahead. Ask for what you want. Stop dragging it out."
"Oh, Hikigaya-kun. It isn't healthy to pass up fun when the opportunity presents itself. You should take that advice."
"And what is that advice?" I say, trying to hurry someone along who won't be hurried.
"If people weren't so stubborn, they would always admit when they've made a mistake." And suddenly her voice is serious. "So far, you've only admitted to one of yours."
I probe her expression, trying to identify a hint of the oblique, the implicit. Something she isn't saying outright.
"… You… you want me to apologise? Is that it?"
She's quiet, but her finger is tapping on her thigh.
… So what is Yukinoshita Haruno asking, really? Is this just curiosity? If she treats her sister that way… That is, the way I assume she treats every person that stumbles unwittingly into her path… Is this merely the exercise of dangling a ball of thread to a cat? Something to pass a dreary evening of work?
Or is this her circuitous idea of help?
… All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Anna Karenina principle.
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Yukinoshita-san."
She raises her eyebrow. "Why ever not?"
"… One can only apologise when they have something to apologise for."
"… I see." She looks me up and down, eyes dilating. "So that's the kind of person you are."
"Yes. It is."
The elder Yukinoshita… observes me. While under the microscope of her dim blue eyes, that's the only I'm certain of; that I'm being observed. But what judgements she makes, what perception of me is either rebutted or reaffirmed, I couldn't begin to speculate.
"… The kind of person who thinks the means justifies the end," she utters, as if to herself. Her intonation suggests that more will be said, but the 'more' doesn't come.
Her comment earns a snort. "Takes one to know one."
"… That may be true, Hikigaya-kun." She tilts her head to one-side. "It looks I have to admit I was wrong… Hah. Me, admitting I was wrong! But it's true. Forcing you to do this wouldn't make any difference."
"… How so?"
She shrugs. "People like you and Yukino-chan are birds of a feather. An apology means nothing to you lot unless… well, unless it's meant. So there's not much I can do."
She must be lying. I can't believe that Yukinoshita Haruno would give up without ensuring any victory for someone other than herself, however small, was a pyrrhic one. But she just continues to observe me, head tilted to the side, like I'm some foreign curiosity brought back from abroad.
"I'm a little disappointed. For myself, of course. I thought there was more to this situation than there is. Although…" And at long last, the smile reappears. "… You must still have some personal investment, Hikigaya-kun."
Her wrist flicks, gesturing behind her. "There are an awful lot of taxis here. Any one of them could have taken you home. That is, if the subway was even closed. But here you are."
Right. It's because she isn't really giving up. Just getting what she wants in a different way.
… But can I really claim she's wrong?
I could absolutely have left. That much is undeniable. I could have taken the subway back, texted Yui and told her I was coming, walked through the door, maybe shouted out 'Yahallo' as a joke, checked if she was still awake, and if so made her a cup of tea, or poured her a glass of wine, and chosen right on the roulette wheel of words, found the ones which put all of this behind us, out of sight, out of mind.
Instead, I'm still here.
Because I have to be honest with myself.
I know that a certain memory of tonight is going to follow me like the sleuth of a jealous spouse. It would have done so regardless of whether I took one of those taxis as soon as I left the bar. For that sight… that sight of her, as I walked away, in pieces. A collage. The midnight dress. The slump where there was once straight, defined poise. The eyes which had lost their lustre; two chips of ice now melted.
And the hurt. The hurt most of all.
It's a feeling I wouldn't take back. That, like I said, I wouldn't apologise for. I won't apologise.
But it's also a feeling I gave her without understanding.
At the very least, I… I owe…
"Well, I'm sorry to cut this conversation short 'Takuma-kun'," Yukinoshita Haruno says, as if she can read my thoughts. "But there's always more important conversations to be had."
The woman in the amethyst dress starts to leave. Head back into the Shine Hotel. But I may as well ask the question. I may as well take something back.
"I don't understand, Yukinoshita-san."
She waits for me to finish. "Don't understand what?"
… I yank air into my lungs, for the word that's about to pass my lips feels like a stone forcing its way up from my stomach.
"I don't understand her. Your sister. So help me too."
She tilts her head again. I'm noticing it's a habit. "Are you sure that's true? I'm not so sure."
"No. I don't understand her." Another stone, squeezing its way up my airways. "… She could have anyone. Anyone she wants. Anyone at that bar. Anyone she's ever met. But she doesn't. And I don't understand that."
Yukinoshita Haruno is momentarily lost for words. Perhaps it was something she herself didn't consider. A facet of the situation that escaped her attention. But that's probably a naive assumption. She probably not only considered it, but assumed I had too.
But I don't know Yukinoshita Yukino as well as she does. So how could I?
"… Yukinoshita Yukino is the youngest."
My brow furrows in confusion.
"She is the youngest," Haruno repeats, with a bluntness that would make anyone recoil. "In our family. She is the younger sibling. And I might be cynical, but I'm not of the opinion that everyone in this world is unique. I believe that there are shared attributes between shared types of people. And younger siblings are one of those types."
I don't know if I agree with her or not. It depends on her justification. I wait for it.
She smiles, a little unpleasantly. "Younger siblings are jealous."
"Yes. Yukino-chan has always been like that." She flicks her wrist dismissively. "And that's always the way. The most privileged people in life are inevitably the most jealous. Yukino-chan and I… Ever since we were children, my sister took after me. I suppose that's common in a younger sibling, too. For her, it came from that place of jealousy. It came from her belief that I had more. More in my future, perhaps. That in being the eldest, our parents gave me something they didn't give her."
Her eyes are hard. "But the opposite was true. Yukino-chan has always had more than I could ever hope for. She's just too jealous to see it. Take tonight, for example. Do you think she needed to be here tonight?"
"She didn't. I need to be here. It's my responsibility, as the eldest. Yukino-chan has her own life. Her own career. After university, she chose to pursue being a lawyer, because she could. She had a choice. Why not? But in truth, she doesn't want that. She has always wanted to be involved in the family. She wasn't satisfied with just following in my footsteps. It's more than that. It's as if she wants to be anyone, anyone, other than herself."
Her voice is full of such… bitterness.
"Yes. Yukino-chan, like all people blessed with everything they could ever want, is envious at heart." She stares at me meaningfully. "She covets the few things in life she cannot have."
… I look at Yukinoshita Haruno with newfound understanding.
I wonder if it will be the same with her sister.
I doubt it.
"Well? Have I answered you question, Hikigaya-kun?"
For some reason, I hear a snort of laughter. "… I think I've found the one person on this planet who dislikes Yukinoshita-san more than me."
"Defending her now, are we? What, you think my Yukino-chan isn't so shallow?"
"I'm not sure. But if younger siblings are jealous, then older siblings are proud. I think there must be more to it than that."
Yukinoshita Haruno's eyes narrow. I can see the dozens upon dozens of retorts swirling in her head, ready for her tongue to loose towards me. She isn't happy with what I've said. But she isn't happy with her sister either.
But then she shakes her head. "… Again. Birds of a feather. There's not much I can do."
I open my mouth to say more, but she's walking away, back towards the Shine Hotel, with true intent this time. Apparently, the fun has been had.
"I'll talk to Yukino-chan, Hikigaya-kun. If you really want to 'understand' her, then you're welcome to. She'll come out."
… And the amethyst dress is gone. I'm alone again.
Now, all I have to do is wait.
Wait for a midnight blue dress instead.
I notice, while I'm waiting, that there's a karaoke bar nearby.
At first I think the sounds of bar tracks, charting pop songs, the occasional classic anime opening, are all evidence of a student house party somewhere down the street. But then I realise the tuneless echo of singing accompanying those songs is too regular, and it must be a karaoke bar.
Other than watching the late night passerbys of the Shine Hotel, and casting crude assumptions on their life stories, I busy myself by taking mental notes of each song I hear.
There's a Queen song I don't recognise. Then there's the original opening of One Piece, very drunkenly sung. Definitely a student outing. Maybe they're from Chiba University. Then there's some K-pop track I don't know. Then there's-
Ito by Nakajima Miyuki.
Our song. And presumably the song of a thousand other mundane couples.
It's a female voice singing it. Slurred and off-key from the no doubt copious amount of alcohol they've drunk, but definitely a female voice. It might be quite a melodic voice when sober. But now, hearing those lyrics which, given how much I've heard them, may as well be tattooed on the back of my hand… hearing them so butchered makes it sound like a new song again.
A new song which I hate. A song which I can't believe I ever fooled myself into thinking could mean something.
… No. I always thought that song was saccharine. That it was a false, idealised view of love, the kind which can only make sense when supported, strung along, by a beautiful melody. But I still found it charming. I still liked it. Of course I did, what with the associations.
It's my ringtone, for fuck's sake.
… This song… was playing in so many moments.
It was playing when I proposed, on the street where we met.
It was playing when we danced at our wedding.
Yui doesn't wear white much. Apparently it doesn't suit her, or fit her style, or something. But it's part and parcel of a wedding day to indulge in the cliches, because it's the one day of your life when all those painstaking cliches cease to be painstaking, escape your cynicism, and become enjoyable for what they are.
So yes. I did think she had never looked more beautiful than she did in her wedding dress. I did think she had never looked more beautiful than when we danced, awkwardly, out of rhythm, out of time, laughing, to this stupid song. And I thought the same, but louder, more defiantly, when we kissed, and the small service we'd invited all cheered.
… My eyes close of their own accord. I'm listening to the lyrics, however butchered.
Why do we meet? We have no idea.
"We should have practised dancing a little, Hikki. We look so stupid."
"You say that like it's a change."
When will we meet? We never know.
"I… I guess there are harder songs to dance to, ha ha."
"For sure. We can get away with the whole 'vague swaying' thing."
"Yeah, for sure."
Where have you been all this time?
We are two different stories, playing out under different skies.
"… Kiss me, Hikki."
"How dare you ask something so obscene. It's not like we're married."
I am the horizontal thread. You are the vertical thread.
Maybe the cloth we weave will-
… My eyes open. Back to the present.
A midnight blue dress.
… She's definitely been drinking. It's obvious. She's holding herself differently. There's a slight sway, but pronounced compared to her typical uprightness. On her right thigh, just where the slit of her dress opens, blue fabric switching to the white of skin, are two small dark spots from where she must have spilt wine. She's clutching her arm, lying limp at her side. Her eyes stare at a presumably fascinating piece of tarmac on the road.
I remove my hands from my pockets. I find myself mirroring her, clutching my arm.
… God. Why didn't I leave? The oppressive weight of our conversation earlier has returned, and I hadn't come close to forgetting it.
No. I owe her. That's why I didn't leave.
I hurt her. And while I can't apologise for that, I still owe her. My kindness, or my selfishness, or however I want to dress it up, only extends so far.
Yukinoshita Yukino's lips are pressed so tightly together they may as well be sealed with duct tape. She doesn't want to be the first to talk.
… Alright. Alright.
"How much wine have you had?"
Nothing for five seconds. Ten seconds. Fifteen. That piece of tarmac on the road remains as fascinating as ever.
"… Why ask? It's not like you care."
"…" I hesitate. "… I just… Well, I know you don't drink very much. I just thought I'd-"
"I've had three glasses. How virtuous of you to check, Hikigaya-kun."
Sometimes, there are so many landmines in a conversation it feels impossible to say anything at all.
"You must have something to tell me."
"When my sister told me that you were waiting outside, that you wished to speak to me again, I was surprised. I truly, honestly was. I'd assumed you would be back in your apartment by now. In your bed. That you'd be asleep. After all, you had nothing to stay for. Anyone with a scrap of intelligence could see that Nishimura-san wasn't going to attend. That you had no reason to remain. None at all. But then… when Nee-san told me that you hadn't left… the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I… I confess I had already finished that third glass of wine when Nee-san told me, but I abandoned my plans for a fourth be- because you wanted to talk to me. Un… unless I've made another mistake, and misjudged things again. Or Nee-san was just teasing me. But you stayed. You waited outside for me. So I can't be mistaken. Am I mistaken, Hikigaya-kun?"
"Well? Am I mistake-"
"Yukinoshita-san. Just…" I shake my head, aghast at the prospect before me. "… Just try to talk slowly."
Her eyes narrow, their target still the road. But I can see I might have phrased that better. There's no right phrasing here, but it sounded patronising. Yukinoshita Yukino would never appreciate being patronised, even unintentionally.
So when she finally looks at me, but more than that, right at me, into me, through me, and steps forward so that she's close, the distance between us minuscule, like she's seeing her reflection in a mirror, but inverted… I'm not too shocked.
"So you didn't mean it?" she whispers, slowly.
"…" I inhale, step away, so that my feet are on the edge of sidewalk. "… I meant to say it."
"That's not the same thing."
"… It's just like I said earlier. You know full-well I can't answer that question."
"Can't, or won't?"
"I see." Yukinoshita Yukino hand is back on her chest. "I… I see."
My mouth is dry, and getting drier. Was this part of what I owe her?
"… Yukinoshita-san, ah… I… The fact I waited, and we're talking again… Well… Look. I can't apologise to you. I can't, because again, I meant to say it. I would say it again. So I can't and won't apologise. But I… I acknowledge that it was hurtful. What I told you earlier. It was very, very hurtful. And maybe we need to talk about that."
"If you want to talk, then go ahead."
"No. I think you're the one who should talk. Because when I said that, I obviously… I obviously touched on something. Something I don't understand. There's still so much I don't know about you. For some reason, I feel like you know me better than I know you. Perhaps you're just more perceptive than me. Or I've just been trying my best not to be. It's probably both. But still… there's so much I don't know."
She blinks. "What is there to know, beyond what you see?"
… I shake my head. "Yukinoshita-san… I have absolutely no idea what you mean by that. This is what I mean. I just don't know."
She's considering this. Considering me. Her expression is a vague inbetween; open to a thousand interpretations. The alcohol can't be helping.
Or maybe it's doing the opposite. Maybe she'll find more clarity now than she ever could while sober-
"We can talk as we go."
"What?" I say.
Yukinoshita Yukino half turns her body, facing down the street. "… I need to get home somehow, Hikigaya-kun. Usually I would take a taxi, but my apartment's nearby. You've been there before. You probably noticed. You are perceptive, even if you've tried not to be. We can talk as we go."
"… Alright," is my tired, more than tired, exhausted, reply. I owe her. That's the reminder, the mantra, crashing around in my head. This night has been full of gut-punches. What's one more?
We start walking. At long last, I've left the Shine Hotel. The glimmering sign and the glass doors are abandoned behind, but all the burdens from inside trail us going forward. We are not in step. Yukinoshita is a couple of paces in front of me, and I am behind. Seeing the back of her head, I'm remind just how long her black hair is. It might be the longest I've ever seen. All the way past her waist.
Our pace is slow. Her steps aren't very certain; there's still that noticeable sway. The streets are mostly empty now. I haven't seen a passerby since she came out.
"What do you want to know?"
Her tone is uneasy, like this is the one inquiry she didn't want.
"… Not everything, I suppose. Just enough so that I… so that-"
"So that you can sleep easy tonight. Is that what this is about, Hikigaya-kun?"
"No. It's not just that."
Her head shakes, even as I see it from behind. "I don't see the point of this. What you see should be enough."
Again with the 'see'. I strain for a meaning behind it in my head.
… I think you dislike me because I'm beautiful.
… Surely she doesn't think that could be the only reason?
"People can't help but be superficial," she murmurs. "They can't help but make a judgement on exteriors. I have always been liked or disliked on account of what there is to see. That is the only thing that matters."
Her voice is so blunt. I can't detect any sarcasm. I can't see how this would be some sort've divisive test. A question that I have to answer in a particular way.
… But earlier tonight, she said something to me: I think you dislike me because I'm beautiful. And the response I chose was intentional. It was very, very different to what I could have chosen. Now, she is practically saying the same thing. Asking the same question.
… Should my response change now, once I've hurt her already?
Conflicted, I decide I have to say something. Anything.
"Yukinoshita-san. If… If you really think being beautiful is the only reason someone could like you, or dislike you, then you're wrong."
She stops walking.
I do too, so that I don't bump into her.
Both of her hands have gone to her chest. She doesn't turn around or look at me. But a quiet voice echoes from the front of the midnight blue dress.
"Do you really mean that, Hikigaya-kun?"
I still can't see her face. She's intentionally hiding it from me. I wonder what I would find there.
We start walking again, as if following directions in a script. But we don't go quiet. Just a few moments after out footsteps resume, Yukinoshita Yukino starts to speak. And her voice sounds totally sober.
"… When someone isn't loved, they begin to think never will be."
"… That… they start to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Something stunted and ugly inside. That they can't be loved. They… they may even be beautiful on the outside. But what else do they have? To be loved, you need to be warm. You need to be approachable. You need to be endearing. Some people have none of those things. People might desire them, but for one reason or another, they can never approach them. And people can change. Oh yes, they can change. But not as much as they need to change. Not when they're stubborn, proud and arrogant enough to believe they shouldn't have to."
"A family… some families are incapable of expressing themselves properly. If they really do love each other, then they can't show it. Not in the right way." She chuckles. "… 'All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Do you remember that, Hikigaya-kun?"
"I do." Two colours flash before my eyes: midnight blue, yes, and the maroon of earlier.
"Yes. Of course you do. And… and from that place of unhappiness, you can understand how going through middle school, high school, all the way up to university… I was always on my own. At home, at school, with other people. Always on my own. The few people in my life that I thought I could like, that might like me in return, would insist on proving me wrong. Even family. Or family friends. I… From the moment we met, I was under the impression you understood that. Simply from the way you spoke to others. To me. That once, you were the same, before…"
Before that. Yes. That.
"... When I was at high school, Hikigaya-kun, I always comforted myself with this idea of change. I genuinely thought I could change the world before I changed myself. It sounds juvenile now, but that was how I thought. But then, by the time I reached university in Tokyo, and I was on my own again, of my own self-affliction, it… it became harder to justify. That mentality that I should never change. I began to long for it more and more. A… a connection, I suppose. Something like the connections one reads about. A love. A friendship. Anything. And… I got what I longed for. A connection. But not really."
A part of me has begun to think I can see. See where this is going. Almost.
"There was a family friend of ours… Hayama Hayato. We were friends, of sorts, as children. He was there the night I met Yui, Hikigaya-kun. It was his birthday… You both went to Sobu High together, didn't you?"
She looks over her shoulder at me, and I can see her face again, and it's so… Open. Raw. I can tell these are things that she doesn't say. That she'd rather forget about. The unpleasant side of 'understanding'.
"Yeah. We went to high school together."
"Did you ever speak? What did you think of him?"
"…" I pause. "… We never spoke much. He was the popular sort, so we didn't have much reason to. But what did I think of him…? I suppose I thought he was… likeable. Or at least, that was the impression he wanted to give. That he was desperate for you to think. Does that make sense?"
She laughs spitefully. "Oh yes. That's him. Always concerned about what other people think… That was why he reached out to me at university, Hikigaya-kun. He had… he had always felt guilty. About how he ruined it. Our friendship, back when we were children. He failed to stand up for me when I needed him most, and that devastated me. We stopped being friends. But at uni, when I had never been more lonely… Suddenly, he started to reach out again. To try and talk to me. To make up for that error."
She takes a gulp of air. "… And I… I mistook that genuine regret, that guilt, for something else. For that connection I wanted. He was virtually the only other person I knew there. It was my own fault. And Hayama-san… encouraged it. It must have flattered him. That he could make up for a mistake so well. So perfectly. We… had a relationship, of sorts. As much as I'd like to deny it, we had a relationship. I can't ever take that back."
I can feel myself wincing, but as if it's the action of another. All I can hear is her words. That sense of personal disgust. Of self loathing… This, I hadn't seen coming.
"… He gave me… he gave me one of the worst moments of life. That was all. After a few months… when we were together, for the first time… it hurt. It hurt terribly. I was in so much pain. All the while, he tried to reassure me, make it better, but that was all I felt. Pain. And afterwards, I… I just lay beside him, quiet, still in pain, holding back my tears. And he must have wanted to comfort me. Make up just one more time for his own, personal failure. So he said he loved me."
"It… It was the first time anyone had told me that. That they loved me. In that way. And…" She's holding herself so tightly. "… To be told you're loved only out of social obligation… Out of guilt… It was unbearable. As soon as he said it, I felt every inch of my skin crawl. I felt like I wanted to retch. I realised how stupid I was being. How stupid I was to mistake his guilt for anything else. We… I think as soon as he saw my reaction, he knew it was over. It was over. Hayama Hayato cannot abide personal failure. That's what I was to him. A personal failure. We've barely spoken since."
We are nearly at her apartment. The street we've been walking along has faded into nameless obscurity, my focus on her words leaving my surroundings by the wayside. I only noticed we were close because of a signpost I passed the last time I came to her apartment.
Yukinoshita has gone quiet. I feel the need to fill that silence, but what would I say? Sorry? For what? I just let her gather herself, this woman I'm finally beginning to understand, and continue.
"… Even though I was always on my own, I… I don't think I had ever blamed myself for it. Before university. But after all that happened, with Hayama-san, I… I did. I started to blame myself. All the things that kept me alone began to stick out in my mind. That coldness in me… that inability to let people in, I… I laid the blame at my own door. But of course, that just deepened the hole I'd dug. Kept me further away.
"… I honestly thought I'd given up on love. On connection. That it was something I just couldn't have. But then… I met Yui. At Hayama-san's birthday party. I'd… I only attended because there were so many people going. Our whole family was invited. I knew I could avoid him, and I did. But while I was there, I met Yui. Or she met me, I should say. Hayama-san introduced us, but it was her that kept our conversation going. It was her that insisted on knowing me. On talking to me for half the night. And… I confess that I… I confess that I was jealous."
She says this just as we reach the door of her apartment complex. The nearest streetlight to us is flickering, on and off, on and off. The door has a code, which then permits you inside; Yukinoshita's apartment is high up, so you have to take a lift. This is know from the times I've visited, picking up Yui.
Yukinoshita Yukino has paused, and lifts her hand to type in the code. I can see her index finger quivering. I looking at my shoes. We've reached her apartment. There's no further to walk. That fact alone has kept me from being as surprised at what's she said, at her jealousy, as I should be.
"We… We're here, Hikigaya-kun."
"Yes, we are."
"… You can go home, if you wan-"
"You should finish what you're saying, at least. It… It wouldn't be right of me to leave now."
Her finger still quivers. "… Should we… Shall we carry on talking, until we get upstairs…?"
Yukinoshita Yukino nods, mostly to herself, and then inputs the code to the complex. The door buzzes, opens, and we step inside. There are no automatic lights; we walk up to the elevator, and the stairs beside it, in near darkness.
"… We could take the stairs? So that there's time to talk…"
"Alright," I say again, monotone. Apparently that's the only word I know.
We start up the stairs, our pace snail-like. Each of our steps echoes like we're stuck down a deep, inescapable mineshaft. Her dress has misplaced its rich shade of blue in the dark, and become black. Still, she moves in front of me, one step above, before carrying on.
"I… I know it's horrible. To say I was jealous of her. Of Yui. But that's how I felt. How I feel. Because she… because she was so warm. So approachable. So endearing. I had never made friends with someone so quickly. Never. I liked her, immediately, instantly, and… I was jealous of that. I thought to myself: 'this is the kind of person you can fall in love with'. And of course… I was right. She is loved. Why wouldn't she be?"
"And she spoke so highly of her perfect husband. Her perfect married life. She never said those words, of course, but the happiness on her face said it all. I liked her, and I was happy for her, but I couldn't help but feel… Well…" She glances down at me, and then back upwards. "… I suppose I comforted myself by thinking that she couldn't have everything. That the person she married couldn't be as wonderful as she made out. And… and…"
"…" My mouth is so, so dry.
"… And they weren't wonderful. They weren't perfect. But… they were… unexpected. They were… I think I… They were the exact opposite of who I expected Hikigaya Yui to love. They were the exact opposite of… of someone who had hurt me. The only thing they weren't the exact opposite of was… was…"
She doesn't have the will to finish that sentence. It's not as if she needs to. I know precisely how it will end, down to the specific words, down to the intonation. It's practically a truism, and Yukinoshita Yukino isn't the type for truisms. So she doesn't say it, and half way up the stairs, she's run out of words, just like I have.
But… but there's still more I wish to tell her. To communicate.
When someone spills their heart out like that… when they say things so personal, and so desperately… you're obliged to comfort them. That's what I'm thinking. I'm obliged to show her that it's alright. That she's misguided, horribly misguided, about so much of what she's just said. But I can't say the things that would help the most. I… I just can't. Just like I can't apologise.
So I settle on a gesture. I quicken the pace of my steps until I'm beside her on the staircase, instead of behind. She looks at me, breathing out, but I can't see her face through the curtains of her hair, and the gloom. I wish I could offer her some sort of ministration, some sort of healing, for the awful feelings she's just shared. But this is the best I can do. Simply standing beside her.
Our shoulders brush. The contact is like the sting of a needle. None of us address it. We don't address anything, delaying and procrastinating for as many minutes as possible, until we've reached the top of the staircase. Until we've reached her floor.
Until we're right outside her apartment.
… We're just standing here, next to each other, outside her door, afraid to speak. Imagine being afraid to do something as menial, as requisite, as that: speak. But here we are.
Is this… Is this where I was always going to end up? Outside her door.
No. Under no circumstances. I do not believe in fate. I reassured myself of that at the Shine Hotel. I made a set of choices over a set period of time which brought me here. Not just tonight. I decided that I owed her this. This understanding I've now been granted.
But do I really owe her anything at all?
A set of choices which brought me here… Was this just another of them? That resigned determination I felt, to stay outside the Hotel when I could have left, to walk her back, to give her what I owe… Was that just part of my choice? The choice I made to be here, outside of her apartment, instead of in mine?
Oh god… I'm so tired. I'm so fucking tired. And Yukinoshita Yukino is still stood beside me. My eyes are growing accustomed to the dimness. I can discern midnight blue from black again. Pale skin from pinkish lips.
"… Nothing comes from nothing…" she murmurs.
She's looking at me. Staring at me. "Nothing comes from nothing… I… The world is never going to change. The only thing that can change is me. And if I do nothing, like I always do, then I'll get nothing. My life will carry on like it is now."
"… What are you saying?" My voice sounds so… so small.
"… Hikigaya-kun… Would you… Would you like to-"
My heart constricts, shrivels in my chest, like it's been doused with ice cold water. I put both hands on the back of my neck, turn around. I can't look at her.
Her question is scarcely audible. Just a whisper. And this is… this is really happening. I've allowed it to get this far.
… I need to look at her.
I do. I look at her. And then, someone is talking, and they sound utterly, utterly defeated.
"Yukinoshita-san… If I let this happen, I would have nothing but you. Absolutely nothing."
Her eyes are wide. "… Then let me ask, Hikigaya-kun. Am I enough?"
I make my decision.
AN: Yes, I am indeed leaving the chapter there. But there's several reasons for that.
First of all, this was yet again a big update. Second, this is obvs the big crossroads moment in the story. From here onwards, there are, imo, two main endings. In all honesty, my original plan after this scene was to leave things ambiguous. Originally, I was going to cut back to the dinner scene from the start, to Hachiman and Yui's conversation; it would be open to interpretation whether the physical affair had actually happened or not. But now that I've got here, I absolutely hate that idea. It's one thing to have a story open to interpretation, and another to not properly conclude character arcs. I think Yukino's presence in the story became too big and developed for that to still be viable. Leaving it open to interpretation really hangs her character sequence out to dry. There's also the factor that, in my view, an affair of the heart is absolutely still an affair. So the ambiguity as to whether the physical affair happens suddenly feels rather cosmetic.
In other words, there are two main endings from here onwards. It should be pretty obvious what they entail; a 'Yui' ending and a 'Yukino' ending, of sorts. One of those endings is what I consider the 'true', thematic ending, and it's the one I'm going to write next. That's what the next chapter will be. Now, I've never written multiple endings for a story before, and once I've written what I feel is the 'true' ending, I might not have the urge to write the alternative. But at the moment, it does seem interesting to me, and I have several ideas, so we'll see what happens.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed this emotionally charged chapter. It's without a doubt the most divisive of the story so far, so I'm not sure how people are going to react, but yeah, hope you enjoyed.