The day of the funeral was a day Kumiko would remember forever. She remembered the black suits everywhere around her and the heavy rain pouring down, down, down, the soft glow of candles in the night and how many times she'd been told that she had been very brave to come here, that she was a strong child, that she would be okay. She couldn't forget it - after all, this was the day of the funeral - but it was also the day her mother gave her this strange and simple rule to always, always follow.
"Kumiko, if you ever... Please promise me that you will take care of yourself. You have to stay safe, I-I don't know what I would do if... Kumiko, don't get involved in anything that doesn't concern you. Never. Y-You have to stay safe. Always put yourself first. Can you promise me this? Please. Please promise me this. I don't- You have to be careful, I-I can't lose you too..."
...What she had answered was obvious, right?
And Dad always said that it was important to keep promises once you had made them, so she doesn't want to disappoint him. Children have to do what they can to make their parents happy, right? And Mom isn't asking for much, she's never asking for much, she just wants her daughter to stay safe and not to get involved, so this is what she will do. After all, it's only a matter of time before the noise stops and that she can sleep, it'll be over soon-
"Please... L-L-Let him go, you're going to hurt him!"
"Get out of my way, Yuka!"
"I'm sorry...! I'm s-sorry, I'm sorry, I promise I'll be good, I won't do-"
It is an old little house Kumiko and her mother moved in; a house that leaves small puddles on the floor each time it rains, a place where the paint on the walls is peeling off here and there and that always gets scarier at night. Dangerous, even. Someone is running upstairs; there are hurried footfalls above her head, the soft thump of a body falling to its knees, some mumbling too.
"H-Haru, wake up..."
And then someone starts to cry. She can't tell if these wails are coming from the boy or the girl, but it sounds so genuinely sad that she starts crying too. Hidden under her blanket with two trembling hands over her small head, the little girl closes her eyes and cries and cries and cries in her pillow.
...There is something horrible happening upstairs.
"-after all I do for you?! Why, you little-!"
And Mom isn't even here. It's Thursday, which means that she will work all night and come back in the morning to take her to school, so there is nothing she can do. She thinks that maybe she could do something to help or make it stop, she's pretty sure that it's what Dad would have done and that it's what she would have done before the funeral, but she can't because she promised she would stay safe and not do anything.
These thoughts that won't quiet down and these screams that won't stop will keep her awake the whole night.
When Kumiko trudges in the kitchen the next morning, her mother immediately understands something is wrong. Kumiko is a sunny child, her sunny child, and neither the pallor on her cheeks nor those reddened eyes belong on her face. When asked if she's okay, the little girl nods and keeps her head down and doesn't say a word as she eats her breakfast.
It isn't hard to understand what's wrong, though.
"Kumiko?" The little girl's spoon is put down in her bowl before she look up at her mother with big brown eyes that look so, so much like her father's in the weak morning's light. Her mother sighs and runs her thumb over her pale cheek once before letting go and looking away. "You're worried about the neighbours, aren't you? This is why you didn't sleep."
As her mother, she knew her child probably better than anyone, and while she had expected it, it still hurts, when Kumiko apologizes. It hurts more than it should to have her child apologize whereas she had no reason to.
...She had made her think that it was wrong, hadn't she? That helping people was wrong, that you had to be selfish in order to live. Looking back, talking with her on the day of her funeral had been a very big mistake. An irreparable mistake, maybe. She had been more of a widow scared to lose someone else and less of a mother.
"I'm sure you were scared," she tries again, and Kumiko presses her lips very tight and looks away because she can't lie and say that it's not true. "But I saw them earlier, before I came here. How about you go see them too? To bring them breakfast? And you can tell me if they like it too."
It's not one of the traditional gifts Japanese people usually offer their neighbours after they move in, like soaps or housing items, but the sight of the girl's too thin arms refused to leave her mind. If their parents allowed them to eat, then it clearly wasn't enough. "Is it really okay?"
This is something that Mom would never have suggested normally, but then she says that it would make her happy, and if she can make her mother happy and help the children upstairs, then- ...Oh. Right. There are precautions to take this time too, but it's easy. If she sees someone other than the two children, their mother or their father, then she has to leave. Just that. That's one of the simplest rules she's ever had to follow. She has questions - why not go say hello to the parents too? - but she doesn't ask anything. She'll be a good girl.
Not even ten minutes later, she's wearing her uniform and already heading out with two boxes full of rice and fish and vegetables for the two children, her pigtails bouncing at each of her steps. It would have been so cool if she could whistle. Dad often whistled in their former home, while he was doing her hair or cooking for Mom, but he died before he could teach her. Hopping the stairs two by two, she quickly sees the two Tajima children for the first time.
And she decides that they're weird.
First of all, they have blonde hair. She's never seen blonde hair on real people. Wasn't it forbidden to have blonde hair anyway? Because Watanabe-kun had red hair, but the director said that he had to dye it black to look like everyone and then his parents got mad and he had to change schools and she hadn't seen him after that.
And they are wearing their uniforms, too. It's weird. Well, it's not that weird, because you have to wear your uniform to go to school, but it's weird that they're wearing it to sleep. It's probably not very comfortable. Not to mention the fact that they're sleeping outside and that it's winter. Don't they have beds and blankets at home? It's the first thing Mom bought when they moved in.
The little brother is the first to wake up. He blinks his sleepy, half-lidded eyes open - he's got orange eyes! So cool! - and while he turns his head towards Kumiko, he doesn't move from where he is, in his sister's arms. "...Huh?"
"You're awake! Hello!" Her voice is a little too loud in the morning, but like a lot of children her age, she doesn't notice. It wakes the sister up too, and the siblings both stare at the child who continues to smile blithely and chat, oblivious to their shared confusion. "I'm Kumiko, and I'm your new neighbour! You can call me Kumi-chan like Mom does! I don't mind. I think your hair looks nice! You should keep it blond, okay?"
She wonders if she should talk about it, if Mom is going to be mad, but it's weighing on her and maybe they can keep a secret. "I also wanted to say that... I mean, I heard you yesterday. I... I wanted to help because it sounded bad, but I couldn't go. Why were you screaming? Did a bad man do that on your face?"
So it means that Yuka's black eye is that visible. Honestly, she kind of wishes that her father would stop hitting her face. There are already enough rumours and people talking behind her back like that. "Ah...! Uh, it's nothing. Don't worry about it. It was just, huh... Some... A-A burglar? He left, and we're alright now. Everyone is alright. I, um... I'm Yuka. N-Nice to meet you, Kumiko-chan."
She would have presented herself as Tajima-san normally, but it's true that she was young. That little girl probably didn't know that you didn't give your first name to strangers, normally. "And I'm Haruki," the boy mumbles. "But you can call me Haru."
"Haru and Yuka?" Kumiko repeats, and you could almost see the stars in her eyes. "These names are so cool! You have cool names, and I have to be called Kumiko! It's the most boring name ever!"
The neighbours laugh a little when she pouts. They look a little more happier now. Children, just like her. Maybe they aren't so weird after all. "Ah, that's right! Mom asked me to bring this for you!" The rice has cooled down now, with all this talking, but it should still be okay. She hands them the boxes with both hands. "I'm sure that you'll like it! Mom's food is always delicious. She even managed to make me eat natto, and it was good. ...Well, almost good. I wouldn't really eat it again."
The two children stare at the boxes as if they've never seen so much food before. Kumiko smiles. "I have to go now. Put the boxes on top of our letterbox when you're done with them, okay? Or you can knock directly on our door. Mom won't be back before tomorrow morning, but I'll be here, so it's okay."
She feels considerably better now that she's helped the neighbours, but this day that had started so well takes a turn for the worse. Takeshi-sensei gives back the tests they did last time, and the number circled in red is terrible. Thirteen points. She's got the worst grade out of the whole class, and Akira-kun bragging about how he did better than her isn't helping at all. She stares at her feet all the way home, unable to stop thinking about how disappointed Mom will be when she'll learn about it. Or maybe she'll just be sad. Very sad.
"Hey, Kumiko!" a loud voice calls her.
"Hm?" She stops looking for the house keys in her backpack when she spots Haru and Yuka waving at her. "...Oh. What's wrong?"
"Kumiko-chan, do you have a moment?" Yuka asks. She looks happy, even if there is still that mark on her eye. "There is something that I would like to show you, if that's okay."
She wonders what the siblings have prepared this time, but lets them take her by the hand. They only have to walk a little before arriving at a beautiful pond with ducklings and another duck that was probably their mother, and the little girl's eyes brighten again. She could have sworn that this bad grade had ruined her whole day, but she can't repress her smile. "Woah! It's so pretty!"
"It is, isn't it?" Yuka says in a soft voice. "You didn't look very happy when we saw you, and this place always cheers us up. You can show it to your mother too if you want. Maybe she'll like this place."
"It's so nice... I had never seen ducks so close before," Kumiko whispers. And then she crosses her arms on the fence and sighs. "Sometimes I wish I was one too."
"You wish you were one too..." The siblings exchange a glance before return their gazes on the little girl. "Do you mean that you want to be a duck?"
"Yes! I mean, if I were a duck, I wouldn't have all these hiragana to learn by heart and Takeshi-sensei wouldn't tell me that my calligraphy is terrible and that I'm the worst in my class! And he even said that- that there were more than hiragana to learn! What am I going to do?! He talked about kanji, I don't even know what this is!"
"I understand you," Haru moans. "Kanji are the worst. I mean, writing them isn't that hard, but there are so many of them and remembering how to read them is..."
"It's going to be okay," Yuka says kindly, and the two children look up at her. Haru and Kumiko look up at her, and she brings them both in a gentle embrace from behind. "Don't worry, both of you. It'll be okay."
Kumiko hugs her back and thanks her.
...The new neighbours are really nice.
A few days later, Kumiko decides that she's going to break her promise.
Her friends are in danger. They're screaming again above her head, and she can't ignore them. She is going to make it stop. A surprise attack always worked in the movies, no? It will help if she goes there and describes the man to the police, when she'll call them later. She can't remember hiragana, but she remembers the numbers to call. They're on the fridge.
The night outside is chilly and the stairs creak under her bare feet, but she gulps and tries to be as quiet as she can. After all, she is Dad's daughter. Dad always protected the people in danger, and she can't help but feel that he would be proud of her for doing this. She had stopped that bully from stealing Kanae-chan's bento; surely she could make that stop too.
But the neighbours' door isn't closed.
The door is far from being closed, it's wide open and she sees everything. A large hand grabbing Haru's hair to throw him down. Blood. Broken glass. She hears screaming and she sees more blood and it's horrible and she doesn't even understand what she's seeing because it doesn't make sense, it doesn't make any sense, the bad man who had made Haru and Yuka cry had been their father?
Why would a father beat his children...?
Dad always said that it was his role to protect her from dangerous things. Because he loved her and that the world could be a dangerous place for a little girl sometimes, but... But parents could be the danger? Parents could hurt their children like that? Parents could scream at their children and throw things at them and insult them and make them bleed?
She'd thought that the world was a better place than that.
The next morning, she sees them huddled outside in the cold again. And she thinks that maybe she hadn't judged them nicely the first time. Maybe they never were weird children, just children that are mistreated by their terrible father who threw them out again because he didn't care if they died in the cold or if they ran away because they were too scared. ...There is a cut on Haru's forehead. And dried blood under Yuka's nose, too. It doesn't really look right. Maybe he broke her nose.
She directly heads to school.
Akira talks about how great he is again, and it would have usually annoyed her, but now she barely listens to him. She barely listens to anything, actually. When she closes her eyes, she sees her friends' blood and Yuka's black eye. But it seems that Akira is a little more than an idiot who likes to brag, because he eventually notices something is wrong and asks her if she can come with him a moment. He says that his father is a police officer and that if there are bad guys that are making her unhappy, then he'll tell them to make it stop. She knows she answered something, but she can't even remember what. Everything is a blur, colours and words, and the next thing that makes her react is Haru, when she sees him on her way home. And there is something... off, about him.
She doesn't really know what to say to him, so she says, "Where is Yuka?"
"...She's safe," Haru mumbles after a while. A heavy silence follows.
"...Is there something I can do for you?" the little girl says, even if it might lead to another argument with Mom and that it might make her sad. And Haru stares at her for a moment, and then his face crumples and he falls to his knees and cries. He cries because he's tired, because Yuka doesn't answer, she never answers, because he has lost the only person who loved him and he can't live like that anymore.
"Sorry," he eventually rasps, once his tears are back under control. It's dangerous to cry outside like that. If his father learnt about it... "I don't- You're going to be in trouble i-if he sees you with me. I'm fine, really, so don't worry."
"You're the one who called the cops? They came earlier."
Kumiko and her mother both stay frozen when faced with this tall, strange man a few days later. He takes a sip of something in a dark bottle and glares at them, and Kumiko feels like it's... wrong. It's the same colour as Haruki's eyes, so how could they look so cold? "Maybe Akira-kun really did something," Kumiko wonders out loud. And even if her voice is small, it's clearly heard by both adults.
And unlike Mom who looks like she might start to scream, he doesn't sound mad. Not really. "...Apologize, then."
But he isn't talking to them. He's talking to the tired, submissive little boy at his left; he looks so tired that Kumiko's mother feels dread. No child should look this way. "Didn't ya hear me? I told you to apologize."
A tense silence passes between the four of them, broken by a weak mumble, but then Haru's father grabs a fistful of his child's hair - Kumiko remembers when her mom brushed her hair too hard, how it hurt - and hits his head against the doorframe. Haru and Kumiko both scream at that, but it's not louder than his father. "I told you to apologize! Your motherfucking screams made the neighbours call the cops, Haru! Do you understand that, or are you just too stupid?!"
"S-Sir," Kumiko's mother stammers out. "Your son is-"
"Hurt? It's his own damn fault," Haru's dad grumbles. "That worthless piece of shit."
"He..." She gulps. She wonders if her next words are going to make that man hurt his son worse. "I-I can understand that your child might not behave sometimes, and I can understand that it can be a little frustrating too, but he deserves to be treated better than this! You slammed his head against... You should bring him to the hospital. He might have a concussion. I- I can pay, if you can't afford to-"
"Oi." Haru continues to tremble behind his dad, repeating the same thing over and over too quietly to be heard. The hand raised to slap Haru clenches into a first, and furious orange eyes glare at her. "Who are you to tell me how to raise my son?"
"Don't approach me," he warns. "And if I see that girl anywhere near my son again, you're both going to regret it. You both have no idea what I can do to you."
Haru mumbles something that makes his dad frown. "What the hell did you just say?"
"I said," the boy growls, "that they wouldn't have had to call the police if you were a fucking decent human being."
Father and son glare at each other for a while, but Haru's bravado vanishes when he sees his father's eyes. "I didn't..."
Haru looks very small next to him. Defenceless. He tries to wipe his tears and fails and just sobs in his hands like a child who had just signed his own death. Kumiko's mother reaches out to hug him before she has even made the conscious decision to move, but his father is faster and blocks her way. "Go back to your bedroom right now. We need to talk."
The bad feeling Kumiko has each time she knows Haru is home or with his dad comes back, and even if it's later than usual, she hears the sounds of someone being beaten later that night, but Haru... Haru stays silent. Deathly silent. She might have heard a car disappearing in the night a few moments later, but the memories of that day are hazy. Like something that shouldn't have ever happened.
What's certain is that she never saw Haru again.
"And if I see that girl anywhere near my son again, you're both going to regret it."
Those words resound in her head each time she passes by the old building, even after all those years. Maybe something more happened. Something that a little girl couldn't understand at the time, something that made her mother move so quickly after that. Not a day passes by where she doesn't think about that boy with blond hair, the smile that gave place to bruises. She wonders where he is now.
"...Miss? You've dropped this."
"Ah? Oh, thank-" She stops short when she's met with a boy who looks terribly like that boy in her memories. It's... odd. Not that it could be, though. It had been more than thirty years. She accepts the scarf she dropped and bows. "Thank you."
The boy looks at her with a small frown, but eventually nods and looks back at the building. "It's... going to be destroyed soon, isn't it?"
"I knew a family here before," Kumiko whispers. "Well, I mostly knew the siblings. I can't help but think about them when I come here."
The boy blinks at her with new eyes, and then he almost smiles. "I... I'm sure that boy would be very happy to see you so all grown-up."
"You knew him?"
Yukine looks down, and Kumiko notices that his eyes are reddened. "I did, yes."
"His father was horrible. He beat him almost every day. Him and his big sister. I could hear them cry at night, and..." A sigh, and her voice grows quieter. She'll probably never be able to visit this place without having a lump in her throat. "I probably won't see him ever again, but I wonder how he's doing now."
"Mommy!" Kumiko barely has enough time to turn around that a little girl with a red coat dashes in her arms. "Mommy, I missed you!"
"You're at that building again," her husband notes with a frown. "It isn't good, Kumiko. You know that it's possible to find a way to know where that family went, right? You can find that boy again instead of torturing yourself."
"I think it's useless," she smiles. "I don't even remember that boy's name, and the landlord is probably dead since it's been so long. I just... I've never been able to help him, and..."
"Mommy, Mommy, something wonderful happened today!" Kumiko's little girl says. "You know, Takeshi-sensei said that I knew how to write katakana the best in my class! He was very proud of me, and he even gave me a sticker!"
"Really? You're wonderful, Haruka-chan!"
"And he also said that she did a lot better than you," her husband adds. And he continues, "My dear, you gave this poor teacher nightmares."
Kumiko blushes and glares at her husband. "Akira, shut up!"
The family continues to banter, and Yukine stands there, silent and forgotten. Yato had told him soon after he'd been named; that he was dead now, and that he couldn't have the things the living had. He had told him that it would be hard, even before Yato left to kill his dad and he ended up letting himself be manipulated by Father, and it's at time like these that it hurts more, because that child had been younger than him, and now- and now she was married, and she had a daughter and he was forever a child and it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair.
"Yukine?" a new voice calls, then a man with blue hair appears around a corner. "Ah Yukine, there you were! I've been looking everywhere for..."
Yato trails off when he notices the situation. The family talking, and Yukine crying in his hands. He doesn't resist when Yato takes him in his arms quietly. "...You remember what I told you, didn't I? Don't stay alone. I'm here for you, and I'm not going to leave you again."
He lets him cry and eventually moves back. "We should come home," he whispers. "It's pretty late."
"Just..." he sighs and rubs his eyes. "Can I have a second?"
Because he wouldn't be able to leave just like that, and maybe it's going to help him moving on too. "Kumiko-san!"
Kumiko stops walking away and turns around. "I... You don't have to worry about that boy anymore.
"I know that you were happy to know him," Yukine says. "And he was happy to know you too, even if it didn't last long. You made him feel less lonely. He went through awful things and he suffered a lot but- But he isn't with his dad anymore. Someone saved him now, and he's been through a lot of things since then, but..."
It had taken him a while to believe in these words again, but Yato and Hiyori and everyone repeated them so often that he had started to believe it too.
"...But he's going to be okay."