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The sun wobbles low in the gaps between the passing houses, occasionally spilling its contents like a pierced yolk into his eyes as the train keeps to its course. He tries to suppress a yawn, and, in failing, feels the slight tickle of wispy hair against his neck as a head turns towards him. 

“I’m sorry for boring you, Hinata-kun. I must have been rambling and lost track of time. Typical of an insect like me…” 

Hinata, tired as he is, finds himself unburdened by the need to show even a modicum of social etiquette. And so he says, “I’m okay. But look what you’ve done to Nanami.”

Nanami is completely unconscious, slumped against his left shoulder with her DS hanging on for dear life between her index fingers and thumbs. Even with the periodic hitch of the train over the tracks—enough to jostle them in their seats—she remains unphased. Her cat backpack lies on its side between Hinata’s pack and Komaeda’s tote bag, still choosing to smile up at them despite its predicament. 

Komaeda chuckles, a playful smile curling his lips. “Hinata-kun’s quite prickly when he doesn’t get enough sleep. If you don’t mind me saying this, we should be up at this time more often. It’s kind of exciting!”

He groans, turning his face into Komaeda’s shoulder as a few bars of sunlight swoop in through the windows. 

The train rolls along, slow and steady.  

Eyes still closed, voice a little muffled, Hinata says, “You were just talking about the lighthouse.”

“I was,” Komaeda says. “So you were paying attention.”

“Yeah.”

“I see…” 

“I told you not to look anything up."

“Don’t worry, Hinata-kun. It’s one of the island’s feature attractions, so it’s something that even I could come to know about.”

“Okay,” Hinata says, though he doesn’t feel very convinced.

“Sadly, I don’t think it’d be prudent to visit the observation deck. I’m really not sure what my luck might do…”

“Maybe nothing. That’s a possibility, isn’t it?”

“Certainly. But it’d be irresponsible for me to think that way. Although...I suppose that would only be a small addition to the trouble I’ve already caused by accompanying you and Nanami-san.”

“I wouldn’t have invited you if I didn’t want you to come along. It’s no trouble at all.”

“You might regret that statement.”

“And there’s a chance I might not,” Hinata says.

“Thinking to pit your luck against mine…” Komaeda murmurs, and Hinata feels him push his shoulder against him, “...maybe it’s better for you to get your eight hours of sleep, hm?”

Hinata returns the favour with a push of his own. “Hey. It was you who wanted to come out this early, not me.”

“If it’s any consolation, you’re free to continue using me as a headrest until we reach our stop.”

Hinata can only manage a grunt of approval, attempting to force himself into some state of sleep. 

Of course, they reach their destination only two stations later. 

*

Despite their being entrenched in the throes of summer, the morning air today is surprisingly clear and cool and takes away the last flecks of exhaustion in his eyes. He breathes in deep, stretching his arms over his head as he strolls through the exit gate of the station. Nanami follows close behind, shambling while readjusting the straps of her backpack. They watch as Komaeda wrestles his ticket into the gate, spends at least a minute trying to coax it out on the other side, and examines it once the machine cooperates. It’s really something that could have happened to anyone, truly, so Hinata chooses to pay it no mind (or tries to at least). 

“Well then,” Komaeda says, trying to work out one last wrinkle in his ticket before tucking it in his pocket, “shall we head to the island first?”

“That’s a good idea, I think,” Nanami says, grabbing a map from an information box by the exit. “I get really sleepy when it gets too warm…”

“And the tide might come back in by the time we return,” Hinata adds. “So c’mon, it’s this way.”

He leads them out of the station to the double bridge connected to Enoshima. On his own he might’ve taken to a brusque pace, the clear weather and occasional groups of palm trees lining the road enough to charm him; with Nanami and Komaeda by his side, he slows himself to an amble and slings his hands in his pockets. When they had first started really hanging out, spending most of their time wandering around, he’d inadvertently outpaced them more times than any of them could count. Now, at times like these, he feels he could stand to walk even slower. 

...Did he really just think that? Never mind that, just keep walking. 

Nanami’s more awake than usual, glancing around with bright eyes. “It’s like downloading a whole new map to explore,” she says.

“Huh. I guess it is,” Hinata says. The buildings are familiar in their shape, rectangular and as tightly packed in groups as they are in downtown Tokyo. Here, though, the hallmarks of small coastal life substitute the contemporary designs of the city. Colourful beach houses, antiquated stores full of trinkets and last-minute beach needs, buildings no more than a few stories high outside of hotels. And, of course, the smell of the ocean.   

“Thanks to Hinata-kun, I’ve gotten to experience that a lot,” Nanami continues. 

“It’s no big deal…” Hinata mumbles. 

“You’ve never been to Kamakura before either...is that right, Nanami-san?” Komaeda asks.

“Yup.” She teases the strap of her backpack between her fingers, tipping her head in thought. “I think I might’ve seen it on TV once. Probably.”

“Nervous?” Hinata asks.

“Mmm. A little, maybe. But I’m with you guys, so it’s okay.”

Komaeda clears his throat. “I apologize for sharing my opinion so recklessly, Nanami-san, but I’m not sure that that reason is entirely sound.”

“Why not?”

“It should be fairly obvious—”

“—that it’ll be fine.” 

Nanami’s eyes fall on him, Komaeda’s following with a bit of skepticism. Not sharp as it would’ve been a few years ago, but there nonetheless. 

“I know what you’re gonna say, Komaeda, and it’s something like, ‘That’s not something I can guarantee.’ And well, no, it isn’t.” Hinata checks to see if Komaeda’s listening, and he is. “But no matter what, I can try. And I’d rather try, because who knows—there is that chance that something good can come of it, and I want to choose my own future. Don’t you?”

Komaeda sighs, a small smile easing onto his lips. Just as soon as Hinata leans over to catch more of it, he turns his head away. “Isn’t it just typical of Hinata-kun to say something so nonsensical with a straight face?”

Nanami nods. “It is, isn’t it?”

“H-Hey! Isn’t this the part where you’re supposed to back me up, Nanami?” Maybe it was a little dramatic, but it’s not like he’d reached that conclusion all on his own… 

“Oh. We were playing a co-op game?”

While he delivers a withered look towards Nanami’s much-too-innocent face, Komaeda clicks his tongue. “Hinata-kun, it’s not very nice to rope people into your schemes without them knowing.”

Schemes ? Aren’t you one to talk?” 

Komaeda’s eyes widen. “There’s absolutely no way someone like me would be capable of that.”

“No way, are you—Nanami!” Maybe the exasperation on his face will... 

No response from either of them, other than a chorus of tittering. 

“What the hell…” Hinata grumbles. He grumbles even more under his breath for good measure, although it leads to nothing more than his two assailants sandwiching him shoulder-to-shoulder. 

“He’s turning an interesting shade of red, isn’t he?”

“Mmhm.”

Wriggling his way out, Hinata firmly crosses his arms and walks ahead of them, making eye contact only long enough to say: “It’s probably because you were crushing something important!” 

Despite the way he stalks off, it’s all too easy for them to catch up with him; soon enough, their strides align once again. 

*

Cars and small trucks roll back and forth on the left side of the bridge, while the pedestrian side to the right accommodates a few early risers like themselves strolling along and snapping photos. From here they can take in the entirety of the island awaiting them, something of a floating emerald gleaming against the sky. On its far side, a lighthouse peeks out from above the trees. A marina half-filled with boats trails out to the left. 

They take their time crossing, listening to the lazy rumble of traffic and the cries of seagulls, watching fishing boats chug towards a horizon that still hasn’t lost its softness. 

Nanami steps up onto the railing, glancing from the mainland to the island and back again, to the people on a nearby pier fishing while lounging on old lawn chairs. 

“What’s up?” Hinata asks. 

“Nothing,” she says, hopping back down. “Just...doesn’t this feel like a really long dynamic loading screen?”

“Dynamic loading screen…” Hinata nods, unsure of what he’s agreeing with. 

“It probably means that whatever we’re going to see is really cool. We have to do a simple task while the level is being prepared.”

“Mm. I’m looking forward to seeing your taste,” Komaeda adds. “What sort of feeling will it inspire?” 

Hinata scoffs. “Don’t get tooexcited; this was a last minute thing I decided to do.”

“Is it…? But I can’t help getting excited when it comes to the machinations of Hinata-kun’s mind.”

“Don’t say weird things like that…” Hinata grits out, feeling his face heat up. 

“Is it weird?”

“It’s a little weird,” Nanami says. “But it’s okay, I think.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

“I don’t think that’s for you to…” Hinata lets the rest of the thought dissolve and shakes his head. “Never mind. We’re here.”

From the bridge they make their way into the town, a quaint little thing composed of only three streets: one leading to the main shopping street and loop of the island, the second to a few amenities and restaurants, and the last dedicated to marina access. Like eyes still dazed by morning, the shutters of some shops remain closed or half open while their proprietors sweep in front, making for a rather uneventful walk up the paved way until Nanami points out a stall setting out a fresh batch of goods. 

“Komaeda-kun, you should get something to eat,” she says, coming to a stop.  

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine. Just rushed a little this morning, is all.”

“Hinata-kun and I already picked something up to eat before we got to the station, and I also turned off my DS...so the sound I heard couldn’t have come from us.”

Komaeda stares at her. The smile on his face becomes a little too pleasant. 

Hinata sidesteps them for the stall and slips his wallet out of his pocket; the best Komaeda can do is try to fumble for the edge of his shirt, flustered as he is. He misses. 

A few moments later, the three of them are standing off to the side and munching on whitebait croquettes. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside with the subtle taste of salted fish mixed with potato. 

“Really, neither of you had to…” Komaeda mumbles. 

Hinata shrugs with one shoulder. “Well, we did.”

Nanami nods. “Yup.”

“I suggest you think carefully over your choices next time.”

Hinata nods idly. “Will do.” 

“Sadly, I don’t think that’s a quest line that can be finished,” Nanami says, taking another bite. 

“S’not the kind of thing that has to be platinumed, right?” He looks at her with a grin. 

Nanami smiles brightly. 

And then the seagull arrives.

It swoops down with an obnoxious squawk and leaves in the same breath, giving them barely enough time to duck.  

“Ah.” 

Or rather, not enough time at all. 

Hinata and Nanami look over to Komaeda, who in turn is looking at his distinctly empty hands. Then they direct their attention upwards. There it is: the seagull. Sitting on the roof of a nearby shop. Gobbling down Komaeda’s croquette. 

Komaeda laughs lightly. “See? It’s only natural that—”

“Here.” Hinata extends his arm, cutting Komaeda off from both speaking and walking away. 

Komaeda studies the half-eaten croquette before him. Sure, it’s a little sad in this state—maybe even gross—but that isn’t the point here.

“Take it. Don’t act like we haven’t—”

Before he can finish, Komaeda leans forward and takes a bite. 

Somehow, he manages to keep his arm steady and his face (relatively) calm.

“Is this what you wanted?” Komaeda asks. “Not that I mind, but this is far too gracious for someone like—”

Hinata takes Komaeda’s hands and shoves the croquette into them, folding his fingers by force to make him hold it. “Just shut up and eat, alright?”

“Of course!”

He stands with his arms folded, brows furrowed, and listens to the crunch crunch crunch on either side of him. 

Nanami leans over. “Mmm. I think you walked into that one,” she whispers. 

Hinata chooses to respond with only a loud sigh. 

*

Komaeda keeps a fair distance away from the cat winding around their feet, preferring to lean against a railing under the shade of a leafy tree. Even so, he looks at it affectionately. 

Owing to a particularly steep set of stairs, and several more flights after that, they’ve stopped by a shrine for a short break. The climb is much easier without the heaviness of a full summer sun in the sky, but Hinata’s careful to adjust their pace to account for two staminas that aren’t as robust as his own. 

Nanami indulges the stray cat angling itself beneath her hand, scratching behind its ears before letting it meander towards Hinata. “I thought about having a cat, once. But...it’s probably harder than managing a Tamagotchi.”

“Tamagotchis are hard enough,” Hinata says, following the arc of the cat’s back with his palm. 

“It’s because you never follow my strats.”

“Is that right?” Komaeda sighs. “How unbecoming of you, Hinata-kun, ignoring the advice of an ultimate.”

“Things would be a lot different if I didn’t, huh?” He peers up at Komaeda, raising his brows. 

Komaeda pauses. Lightly kicks at Hinata’s feet.

“Usamitchi would still be alive,” Nanami says. 

Hinata almost believes in how doleful she sounds. Almost. 

“Usamitchi?” Komaeda repeats.

Nanami nods, solemnly. 

Hinata rubs the back of his neck. “So I hatched this weird bunny thing—” 

“She’s a magical miracle girl.”

“I hatched this weird magical bunny thing—”

“—with a spawn rate of 0.01%—”

“—and she died before I could trade her to Nanami.” Curt and concise, because he knows that nothing could absolve him of guilt when it comes to Komaeda’s judgment in a situation like this. 

As expected, a disapproving look comes his way. 

He’s mostly content to accept it, but Nanami intercepts with a yawn.

“It wasn’t a big deal; Hinata-kun had exams, remember? Besides, I already had her once. I really just wanted him to boost his compendium completion.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me about those exams,” Hinata says, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Ah, I remember,” Komaeda says wistfully, like ten years had passed rather than a single month. “What a despairing time that was. And yet you managed to pull through—to the top of your class, no less. Your hope shone so brightly…!”

“S-Sure, but did you have to give me practice tests with content I wasn’t even supposed to cover?”

“It got you to review your material even more thoroughly, didn’t it?”

“...I guess.”

“But that diligence caused the demise of Usamitchi. What a pity.”

“I’m sure we’ll see her again. Between you and Nanami, I don’t think a 0.01% spawn rate means anything.”

“Speaking of Nanami-san, where did she go?”

They look around. Nothing in their immediate area except for the cat slinking away to a sunny spot. Just as they make their way back to the inner shrine grounds, she reappears with something in her hands alongside a felt-tip pen. She shows it off once they’ve regrouped. 

Hinata’s eyes narrow as he takes the item for inspection. “Nanami, where’d you get this? This isn’t a normal ema.”

“Is there something wrong with it?” 

“It’s not that there’s something wrong...it’s just that…” 

They peer down at the small wooden plaque. It does have a spot for a written wish on the back; the front, however, features a heart-shaped outline with the characters for ‘he’ and ‘she’ on each side and enough space underneath for a set of names to be added.

“It seems Hinata-kun didn’t do his homework.”

“Huh?”

“This shrine,” Komaeda gestures behind them for emphasis, “is known to pilgrims not just for prosperity and good fortune. It’s also known for matchmaking.”

“Matchmaking…” Did he mean...matchmaking?

“Wonderful, isn’t it?”

He knows he doesn’t look as composed as he needs to be, but he can’t falter now. “I thought I told you guys not to look anything up.”

“I’m sorry. It escaped my mind at the time.”

Hinata sighs. He knew it. 

“But don’t worry! My laptop shorted out last night before I could finish my investigation.” Komaeda laughs, more to himself than anything else. “Enough about me and my shortcomings. Why don’t you and Nanami-san take a moment to fill out the plaque?”

Hinata and Nanami stare at him and say: “...Huh?”

“Just kidding! My, your faces are so serious.”

“Shut up…”

Nanami tilts her head, hums. Tilts her head to the other side. “Why don’t you and Hinata-kun fill it out? You could rewrite the characters, probably.”

Now Hinata joins in with Komaeda to stare and say: “...Huh?”

“Kidding. That was my wakeup attack,” Nanami says, smiling cheekily. 

“Are they supposed to cause collateral damage?” Hinata asks. 

“Sorry. It’s not out of the question.”

“Well-played, Nanami-san,” Komaeda says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the plaque was in the area of effect. What shall we do about it?”

Silence falls over them. 

It takes Hinata loudly clearing his throat to shake them out of it. “Look. We don’t have time for this right now. Let’s do this later, alright? I’ll keep it in my bag. Pass me the pen, too.” 

“Maybe that’ll charge it up and give it extra strength...” Nanami murmurs, heeding his request.  

“It’s not a talisman…” 

Komaeda puts a folded index finger to his lips. “Isn’t it Hinata-kun’s resolve that needs charg—”

He doesn’t get to finish; Hinata shoves him along and shushes him whenever he tries to speak. 

*

Just a half hour or so later, past small shrine complexes housing intricately carved statues and cradled by foliage, down a long, long staircase that angles against shops and ocean-view restaurants, they reach their goal. At a gradual pace the smell of the ocean becomes stronger, as if instead of drawing nearer to its hem they were descending into its depths. The illusion breaks once they cross the final stretch of paved path, manufactured walls offering a framed portrait of the water before falling away. That opens into an endless swathe as they round the last corner and the uniformity of the stairs melts into the crags of the coastline. 

To the left is the evidence of their journey: a steep cliff topped with grass and stringy fronds, irregular along the top like the back of an ancient beast. To their right, the rock imitates the waves, undulating up and down and for a moment looming high before releasing them. 

“Alright,” Hinata says. “We made it.”

A light wind whips a group of flags marking the start of a bridge leading to a cave system. They pass by its staccato rhythm and down a final staircase to meet the sound of surf making fountains against the shore.

The tide pools resemble strangely shaped mirrors, though not in a distasteful way. More in the way of drawings made by children, uneven edges made in earnest, sizes varying wildly. Undisturbed, they capture pockets of the sky and shine a brilliant blue at certain angles. Between them, the land is level enough to support careful strolling, save for some craggy patches or shelves by the water; fishers dot these spots, busy at work. 

Where they’re standing now is an elevated concrete path sitting flush to the innermost area of the space, allowing for a more accessible walk by the water or a refuge from the tide. Owing to the time—it’s just past mid-morning—both the tide and the number of visitors is low. 

Hinata sneaks a furtive glance at his companions. 

They both glow in their own ways. Hands in his pockets, Komaeda smiles as the wind tousles his hair and carries the stiffness out of his shoulders. Nanami’s eyes are wide, her mouth slightly agape as she grips the straps of her backpack with more force than usual. It looks like she wants to stand on her tiptoes. 

(His heart is radiating, but he’d never admit that aloud).

“An eternal clash between land and sea, a confrontation written into the very fabric of nature where only one can triumph…” Komaeda whispers, the volume of his voice growing as he continues. “To be able to witness such a phenomenon on nothing less than a splendid day, and with people who dare call me their friend…! This is amazing!” 

Hinata snorts and gives Komaeda a playful shove with his shoulder, then steps off the path. “We can get a bit closer, if you guys want?”

Komaeda’s still processing Hinata’s touch; Nanami answers with a resolute ‘yes,’ clenching her fists tightly. 

Off they go, stepping down to thread between the pools and peer into them. Up close, the reflections of the sky give way to glimpses of swaying moss and critters scuttling around. It feels like exploring the surface of another planet, the sensation only heightened once they’ve made good progress; all too easy, the drop of cliffs disappears behind them as they take in only the shore and the ocean surrounding it, the colours made more vivid in the light. 

At some point, Nanami stops to crouch by a pool, staring into it intently.  

Hinata crouches next to her and follows her line of vision. Near the edge of the water, a little crab toddles along. “D’you wanna hold it?”

He can almost see sparkles emanating from her when she says, “Can I?”

“Sure. Let me just...”

“Don’t you want to hold the crab, too, Komaeda-kun?” Nanami asks. 

They turn to look at Komaeda, who has chosen to sit on a nearby lump of rock with his arms crossed. 

He waves at them before returning to his original position. “It’s alright. Please don’t mind me.”

Nanami’s lips quirk before she says, “Well, okay. But join in next time. It’ll be more fun, I think.”

“I’m not certain of that, but I’m glad you think so. For now, I’ll provide supervision and make sure Hinata-kun’s on his best behaviour.”

Anyway…” Hinata continues, shaping his hands into a cup, “you go like this and...just let it get on. Like that.”

Nanami observes him and the crab sitting in his hands, her brows tight together. It’s the same sort of look that accompanies her when she’s poring over a game guide. “I see. So you don’t really need a critical hit to do this.”

“Not at all.” A criticalhit? 

“That’s good,” Nanami says. She proceeds to keep her hands resting atop her knees.  

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s...a little scary.”

“Really? It’s pretty small,” Hinata says, tilting his hand to keep the crab centered in his palms, “so it won’t be able to do anything to you. Kind of cold and ticklish, though.”

Her lips quirk into a knowing smile. “Nothing like a cow.”

That gets a chuckle out of him. “No. I’d sure as hell hope not, anyway.”

“Hmm. Well, if you think it’ll be alright, then…” At that, she holds out her hands next to Hinata’s. “Okay, I think I’m ready.”

He carefully angles his hand to encourage the crab in the right direction. Slowly but surely, it heads over onto Nanami’s waiting palms. 

The moment it makes contact with her skin, her eyes light up and watch closely. She lets it crawl around, climb up and down the curves of her fingers.     

He fights the urge to smile too wide.  

After deciding that it’s had its fill, she lowers her hands and helps the crab back into the tide pool, meticulous in her motions. “I never thought I’d get to do something like that,” she says, watching it disappear into a bed of algae. “I guess they’re not so scary when they’re not giant enemy bosses.”

“I’m glad you got the chance,” he says, flicking the water from his hands. As he goes to stand, he notices that Komaeda isn’t paying attention to them. Back in the water his hands go. Making eye contact with Nanami, he gestures with his head to indicate their target. She nods and copies him. Together, they slink away. 

Closer. Closer.

Just as they move to strike, droplets hit them. 

“Agh!” Spluttering, he wipes himself off with his arms as Komaeda laughs. It turns out he was sitting next to a small pool hidden from view. Of course. 

Nanami assumes a dramatic pose and attacks anyway. “We can get through a preemptive strike, Hinata-kun!”

“Right!” He’s not going down like this. Not a chance. He joins in with a maybe-too-loud yell.  

It doesn’t do much to faze him—if anything, it just prolongs his laughter—but seeing as Komaeda fails to block most of the onslaught, it’s definitely a win. 

“I’m glad neither of you backed down,” Komaeda says, cleaning his face. “Excellent work!”

“Like hell we would,” Hinata says, sharing a triumphant smile with Nanami. “Don’t catch a cold, alright?”

“I certainly can’t promise anything given my condition, but I’ll try!”

“Good. Let’s keep going.” Extending his hand, he waits until Komaeda takes it and hoists him to his feet. 

*

“Hmm. Would this be considered a ‘test of courage’?”

“Oh. I’ve never done one before…I think.”

“Sure you have. There was that maze at last year’s school festival, and that thing that Mioda tried to put together...”

“That was Mioda-san’s Halloween concert.”

“...My bad.”

“If I’m recalling correctly, I got a cold every time one was held. And the one time I was well, I ended up at the wrong location, haha!”

As for Hinata, he had skipped out on every invitation up until a few years before getting into Hope’s Peak; his classmates had either fallen into the same mindset as him or learned to refrain from even entertaining the thought of asking him to go anywhere. Even as they had scampered into the room and crowded each other’s desks, guffawing about some place supposedly teeming with spirits or rickety infrastructure, he hadn’t felt a speck of jealousy. He’d gone so far as to avoid festival days and field trips when he got desperate. The looming shadow of tests and prep tests and cram school reviews had filled every corner of his mind. 

“What’s the matter, Hinata-kun? You’re not scared, are you?”

“Huh?” 

The two of them are staring at him. 

“N-No way! I was just...thinking.”

“...About how you want to go first?” Nanami asks. 

“What?”

Komaeda claps his hands together. “Is that right? That’s just as expected of someone like Hinata-kun!”

“Uh…”

At one particular spot in the coastline, there’s a chunk of rock flanked by two natural walls of eight or nine feet in length, one side braving the ocean and the other forming the basis of a huge tide pool fit for wading (as evidenced by an older woman climbing out with a bucket of sea snails). The walls also seem to double as bridges; a fisherman makes his way across to the rock’s edge, returning to the several lines set up there.

At irregular intervals, the ocean crashes against either bridge and sends over a foaming wave that even overflows onto the surrounding land. Smaller ones come and go, too. They’d watched a pair of kids make their way over, psyching themselves up before running across one at a time, waiting on the outcrop, and then running across again. One of them ended up losing their shoe in the process. 

“Do your best, Hinata-kun!” Komaeda and Nanami cheer. They sound much more enthusiastic than he thinks is reasonable. 

...Should he always have to live up to the concept of his name? 

He can’t help but drag his feet a little as he positions himself at the leftmost bridge. The water remains suspiciously calm. It rolls up against the edge, as if to taunt him. His hands curl into fists. His body tenses.

“Wait, Hinata-kun.”

“Y-Yeah?” he replies, wondering if he heard correctly and holding his pose until Nanami comes up beside him. 

Slinging her backpack over her front, she digs through it and pulls out a large ziplock bag. It already contains a few things: her DS, her phone, a coin purse, and loose cards. “Do you have one?” she asks. 

“Uh, no. For what?”

He gets the impression that that wasn’t the right answer, considering the crumpling of her expression. “To keep your things safe, you know? I made a lot of progress this morning, so there’s no way I’m letting anything happen to my DS.”

“Good thinking, Nanami-san,” Komaeda says. “Certainly the kind of initiative that belongs to the Ultimate Gamer.”

“Mmm. I dunno about that,” she says. “But if you guys don’t have a plastic bag, then put your stuff in here.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” Hinata says, “but sure.” 

His compliance comes easy as he empties his pockets, while it takes a little time to convince Komaeda that his wallet—he’d forgotten his phone at home—won’t sully their things by virtue of its being there. The familiarity of the conversation brings some comfort, though, and Hinata doesn’t feel as anxious setting himself up again to cross the bridge. 

“Alright!”

Off he goes, sprinting across to the outcrop. The bridge occupies that sort of length where one feels both obligated to move quickly considering the circumstances and charmed by the idea that there’s plenty of time. He doesn’t take any chances. Other than his foot slipping a bit near the end, he makes it over fine with his heart fluttering. The roar of a wave punctuates his arrival; he turns in time to meet a refreshing cloud of mist. As it clears, Nanami provides him with a double thumbs up, while Komaeda claps. 

“Who’s next?” he calls. 

“Me.” Nanami’s hand goes straight into the air. 

Without a preamble or single interruption, Nanami trots across the bridge, her backpack bouncing along. Hinata almost yelps at her to be a little more careful, though the water remains motionless as if her steps are too light to register. Once she makes it over, she turns to confirm that she did, in fact, make it. Her face carries no emotion. 

“Feeling a...burst of courage?” Hinata asks.  

Nanami pouts. “Not really. Maybe if there were disappearing platforms...or something along those lines. That wasn’t even much of a tutorial level.”

“Maybe...next time?”

“Really?!”

“Er...” Okay, he can’t lie to her. “...No.”

Her cheeks puff out a little more and she plants her feet; he ends up having to move her away from the bridge himself, steering her by the shoulders. Komaeda comes into full view, his arms crossed and his mouth a firm line. 

“Hinata-kun, I couldn’t possibly hear everything that you’re saying over there, but it’s quite clear that Nanami-san isn’t pleased. I hope you haven’t resorted to bullying people again.”

“Of course not,” Hinata says dryly. 

“Is he telling the truth, Nanami-san?”

Nanami hums, eyes turning towards the sky. 

Hinata puts his weight onto one leg, arms limp at his sides. “Really, Nanami?”

“This isn’t looking too good for you, Hinata-kun…”

...Had he really upset her?

Finally, Nanami’s gaze comes back down. “It’s okay, he’s telling the truth,” she says. 

He almost falls to his knees in exasperation.

“Wonderful! Shall I make my way across then?”

“Yup.”

“We don’t have all day.”

“That is true...but let’s make things a little more interesting.”

Draping one arm over his eyes, Komaeda begins his journey at a relaxed pace. The bridge now seems much, much narrower than before. Has it always been that uneven? 

Despite himself and everything he knows, Hinata feels his heart tighten yet again. “Do you really have to do that?!”

“That would’ve been a good way to make this game more exciting...” Nanami mumbles. “I should try that for Level 2.”

“Thank you for considering my idea as something worthwhile, Nanami-san.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Don’t encourage him!”

“It’s far too late for sentiments like that,” Komaeda says, using his free hand to gesture with a wider sweep than usual. As if to agree, a moderate wave splashes the bridge behind him. “Say, wouldn’t it be quite unlucky to fall on the outside of this bridge and become trapped in an undercurrent? Or even something as simple as a misstep that sprains my ankle. Or perhaps I’ll face yet another—huh?”

Slowly, Komaeda uncovers his face and realizes that he’s not only made it across the bridge, he’s also walked right into Hinata. He almost topples backwards in his effort to recollect himself, movements becoming frenzied and eyes widening. When his hands shoot out for balance, Hinata grabs for them and yanks Komaeda into his arms. A wave arcs over the bridge, drenching the entire path and nearly tagging their shoes as they stumble away.

“You actually thought to save someone like me?” Komaeda asks, gripping Hinata’s arms. Doing that alerts him to the fact that they’re still close; he backs away and holds his own arms instead.

“Why the hell not?” Besides, it wasn’t that much of a rescue venture. And...he’d kind of caused the need for it. 

Komaeda opts for gawking at him as a response.

He clicks his tongue and turns. “Don’t give me that. Let’s do Level 2.”

“Level 2!” Nanami says with a single nod and fist pump. “I hope there’s a difficulty spike.”

“One that rivals Hinata-kun’s?”

“Huh?” Hinata blinks. 

Komaeda points to the top of his head. 

“That would have to be a pretty big spike,” Nanami says.

“That’s quite true…”

“I’ve played a lot of games, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“He’s one of a kind!”

Hinata doesn’t know where they’re going with this, or if they’re even following the same lines of thought as each other. He makes a show of rolling his eyes, jerking his thumb towards their next target. “Thanks, you guys. I’ll be waiting over there.”

“Take care!” they say. Again, much too enthusiastically. 

The ocean pays him no mind as he crosses the second bridge.  

Nanami follows close behind, impeded only briefly by a tiny wave. Out comes the pout again, which Hinata tries to dispel with a few pats on the back. 

And just like that, it’s Komaeda’s turn once more. 

“No weird tricks this time,” Hinata says sternly. 

Komaeda puts his hands up, beaming. “I would never!”

So there he goes. It’s a very casual affair. Peaceful, even. 

That is, until Nanami points at something a little ways out from their spot. 

“It’s coming in pretty fast,” she says, and Hinata must be imagining it, but her tone sounds even flatter than usual. 

“What’s coming in—oh. Shit.” 

There are a multitude of waves coming in, mostly small ones aiming for the outcrop, although even Hinata can recognize that one stands out from amongst them. It’s rolling in faster than the others and growing more rapidly as a result, moving in like an animal.

Of course, of course...its path appears to align with an oblivious Nagito Komaeda.

“Komaeda!” 

Hinata rushes forward to seize Komaeda by the wrists and pull him out of the way; Nanami latches onto the hem of his shirt to offer her own strength.

His hands make contact for no more than a second before a roar fills his ears and foam makes plumes around him. The ocean consumes his vision as he tumbles. 

Time appears to slow as he struggles to find his bearings. Once his feet meet level ground, he pushes upward and breaks the surface of the tide pool, gasping for breath. He spots Komaeda still standing on the bridge, eyes wide. But where’s—

“...Nanami? Nanami!” 

“Hey, hey. Behind you.”

Despite being soaked to the bone, water dripping from the ends of her hair, Nanami’s top priority is going through her bag. She doesn’t look the least bit affected. 

“Wh-What are you doing?” Hinata asks, swinging his legs through the water to reach her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Monotone as ever. “Ah—here it is.” Out comes the ziplock bag, their things nestled inside. Perfectly dry and perfectly intact. 

“Oh,” Hinata says, more than a little dumbstruck, “that could’ve been bad, huh?”

“Yup. The amount of save scumming involved to get my builds…” Nanami shakes her head. “I don’t want to think about it.”

“Me neither,” Hinata says, seeing as he’d been the personal witness to her most aforementioned session of resetting and rejecting and resetting and saving and resetting. Refocusing his attention on Komaeda, he turns to him and waves. “Hey, Komaeda! We’re okay!”

Komaeda doesn’t look even half-convinced. Rather, he looks as though he’s witnessed a terrible accident, his brows drawn up together and his hands trembling by his sides. 

Hinata and Nanami share in a nod, wading together towards the bridge. They’d been swept maybe five or six feet away.

Once there, Nanami cocks her head to one side. “Komaeda-kun?”

Komaeda doesn’t say anything, biting his lip instead. Other than his hands, he’s completely dry. 

“Komaeda?” Hinata echoes. 

“I’m—I’m so sorry,” Komaeda says, putting a hand to his head. “This really is bad, isn’t it, haha…”

Hinata pushes a few locks of hair away from his forehead and shrugs. “It’s not ideal, but whatever.”

“I agree,” Nanami says.

“I mean, shit happens and—”

Komaeda laughs. “Hinata-kun. Nanami-san. Surely you must understand what’s happening? What’s going to happen?”

Neither of them say a word.

“You know my luck is an inescapable force. Good follows bad, bad follows good. It will always find a way to reach me. Having these opportunities to spend time with you two, for you to continually extend your kindness—well, it’s quite clear that it could be nothing other than good luck for trash like me. And because I selfishly allowed this to happen…” Komaeda’s smile stretches thinner. “You’re going to get hurt. It’s the logical conclusion to this. It’s what happens to the people around me.”

It’s a little hard to meet his gaze, but Hinata does it all the same and aims for the centre of that shifting spiral. 

Another laugh cuts the air. Komaeda grips his arms, breaths coming out uneven. “Forgive me for saying something so vile, but I do wonder what would be in store for me after such an event...what could possibly follow something so despairing…?”

“Komaeda,” Hinata says. 

“It would have to be something truly—”

“Komaeda-kun,” Nanami says. 

“—unimaginably wonderful, and yet I—”

“Komaeda!”

That seems to do it. Komaeda blinks and attempts to focus on him, panting with a hand to his chest.

Hinata stretches out his arms with a small huff. 

“I-I’m sorry, I don’t…” Komaeda says unsteadily, trailing off.

“Take my hands,” Hinata says. 

“Your...hands?”

He wiggles his fingers a little to bring attention to them. The reality of standing in waist-high water while wearing jeans is setting in, and he hopes Komaeda understands that that’s why he’s grimacing.

“Um…” 

“C’mon. Don’t make me say it again. Really.”

Komaeda’s expression is unreadable. “I wonder if you’ve actually sustained a head injury of some kind, Hinata-kun.”

“Maybe,” Hinata says. “But like I said, I’m not repeating myself.”

Sigh. “Well...alright. I can’t deny you a request, even if it’s highly questionable.”

The moment Komaeda obliges his request, Hinata tugs him forward without much effort. It’s an awkward manoeuvre, to be sure, but he manages to catch him in his arms before they both plunge into the tide pool. Bubbles obscures his vision, resembling pearls as the sun catches on their edges. 

A grin aches on his face as he surfaces and helps Komaeda wobble to his feet. His hair appears first as amorphous white swirls when he starts to emerge, flattening against his head once he’s upright so that he looks more like a drenched sheepdog. 

Slowly, Komaeda parts his hair and pushes it away from his forehead, his eyes owlish as he looks from Hinata to Nanami and back to Hinata again. 

“So,” Hinata says, “was that good luck or bad luck?”

Komaeda can’t supply more than a bewildered expression.

With one hand, Nanami sends a small splash his way. “Not much of an Astral Finish,” she says, “but that’s okay, I think.”

It starts with Hinata snorting, first at the genuine confusion on Komaeda’s face, and then—as he takes in Nanami clutching her ziplock bag, the sensation of his drenched clothes, the stares of a few passing tourists—at the complete absurdity of what’s transpired. What crosses into restrained giggling soon turns into full-blown laughter, the kind that makes your knees wobble and your cheeks hurt. He ends up collapsing against the nearest slab of rock available to him, rolling onto his back and holding his stomach. 

Nanami’s giggling enters his ears, the sound drawing nearer as she carefully places her backpack on land. At least he finds himself able to help her out of the pool, letting her use his weight as a tether to pull herself up so she can plop down beside him. There’s a hesitant swish, swish as water parts for another figure, this one voiceless. 

He turns to see Komaeda hovering, wringing his hands. 

“Get out of the water already,” Hinata says, still laughing a little.

Komaeda nods reluctantly and makes to clamber out. His task is interrupted by Hinata leaning in to once again offer assistance. As he settles down, his eyes focus on Hinata in a way that turns him quiet. 

What fills the air then is the rolling of the waves, all other sounds tucked into its peaks of meringue foam. 

They remain that way for a moment, silent, taking in the sun.  

Before Hinata can speak, Komaeda averts his gaze and says, “When we met up in Shinjuku, you gave us passes you said you’d just bought from the ticket machine.”

Nanami hums in agreement. “He did that while we waited for him at the gate.”

A little surprised by the choice of topic, Hinata blinks. His voice takes some time to form. “Y-Yeah. That’s right.”

“You told us later that you’d decided to bring us here on a last minute whim.”

“Yeah…”

“Was that really the case, Hinata-kun?” 

“What makes you say that?” he asks.

“The tickets you gave us,” Nanami says, putting up a finger. 

“...What about them?”

“I suppose you didn’t expect us to catch such a miniscule detail—a fine expectation to have for someone like myself,” Komaeda explains, “but I ended up doing such a thing when my ticket got caught in the gate.”

Hinata freezes. Opens his mouth. Closes it.

“You must’ve seen it, too, Nanami-san.”

Nanami, in the middle of wringing out her backpack, nods her head. “Not at the same time, but...yup yup.”

What…? 

“Yes...the fact that the date of purchase was from seven days ago.”

Hinata can only muster a small, “...Ah.”

“If you buy a pass from a ticket machine, it has to be used on the date of purchase. That isn’t the case if you buy it from the service desk for the train line.”

“Oh,” Nanami says. “I didn’t know that. I just know what it looks like when someone’s only pretending to press buttons. So after I watched Hinata-kun at the ticket machine and he gave us the tickets, that’s when I noticed.”

He can feel their eyes settle on him now. Not exactly probing, but more the result of a natural conclusion, like watching a leaf fall until it lands on the ground. Despite the nonchalance—or maybe because of it—he feels less like a leaf and more like a criminal on the stand, caged in by a podium and facing double condemnation. 

“U-Um,” he croaks. 

Neither of them say anything, neither of them move. 

“...Uh.” He looks beyond them to the sky, right now a blank canvas that he wishes he could imprint onto his face. At least the water streaking his forehead conceals the sweat beading there, but he can’t stop the awkward smile and upward pull of his brows. What had been a mild summer day now feels unbearable, the worst of it seeping deep into his cheeks.

“Ha-ha…” Dammit. Not even a laugh can come out right. 

Komaeda’s laugh flows much more naturally, quiet enough that he’s almost indecipherable from the waves. His voice flows even quieter. “I wonder...how does someone like Hinata-kun exist?” he asks. “Have you ever thought about that, Nanami-san?”

“H-Hey. What’s that supposed to mean?” Hinata asks, but his question seems to melt into the next drawn breath of the waves, since neither of them pay him any mind and regard only each other.

“Hmm. Not in the same way as you, probably,” Nanami replies, putting a finger to the corner of her mouth. “I’ll admit that sometimes...I’m not really sure what you’re talking about. But I think what you’re saying is that you’re happy that someone like Hinata-kun is able to exist. And not only that, but to be here, now. That’s what I’ve thought about.”

“...You can’t just say things like that,” Hinata says, covering his eyes with his hands. “How…”

“Why?” Nanami asks. 

“B-Because!”

“Tsk. Hinata-kun, if you’re going to open a debate, then shouldn’t you do so with sound arguments and conviction?”

“No, that’s wrong, I’m stating a…” 

When he peers up at the two faces above him, he wonders how such soft expressions can be so sharp as to pierce right through him, and how that sharpness can strike without even a hint of pain. Nanami is bright, bright as an open window in the summer, and in place of the airy smugness he’d expected from Komaeda there’s only fondness. Soft, way too soft…

“I-I’m stating a fact!” he says quickly, gathering up his backpack and standing. “And here’s another fact: we need to hurry up and dry off, so let’s move already. C’mon!”

Despite his abrupt about-face and show of being ready to leave, no one moves.

“Hey, did you guys hear what I said?” Hinata asks brusquely. 

They still appear dazed, or at least in a state that suggests they’re waiting for him to say something in particular. Say what? Like hell he knows. He resists the urge to haul them up by the backs of their shirt collars. It conjures up the image of chaperoning lost kittens, and he just doesn’t think he can handle that at the moment. Instead, he picks up Nanami’s backpack, letting it dangle from his hand. 

“We don’t have all day, you know.”

It isn’t until Nanami and Komaeda exchange not-so-discreet smiles that they get up, plucking at their clothes to adjust them.

“He’s stubborn as ever,” Komaeda murmurs.

“His stat is totally maxed out…” Nanami adds, taking her bag and pulling it on. 

And enhanced.”

“Ah. It must be the spike.”

“The spike…”

“What’re you guys going on about?” 

Komaeda smiles. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

“He’s right, I think,” Nanami says. 

Hinata doesn’t say anything in response. 

*

“Oh no, it’s really no trouble at all. I was waiting for you three to come by. It’d be no good for you to catch a cold when summer’s just begun, right?”

That’s what the elderly woman running one of the restaurants near the tide pools had said, escorting them into her homey cliffside establishment fitted with seats overlooking the water. She’d given them fluffy beach towels to expedite the drying process and directed them to prime seating so they could air out their bags. Hinata’s beyond glad that she had only been able to see them, not hear them. 

“Unfortunately, I don’t have any extra clothes I can give you,” she says, “but I’ve got plenty of whitebait, so plenty of whitebait’s what you’ll get!”

Hinata decides over a bowl of raw whitebait over rice that the next time they go to the ocean, he’ll follow Nanami’s lead and ziplock all of their things away for safekeeping. And pack extra things. Just the short journey from the tide pools to the restaurant, steeped in too-long stares and the sensation of wet clothing, had been more of an ordeal than he’d been prepared for. 

(That his brain had latched on to what Komaeda and Nanami had said at the tide pools with an unrelenting grip, sticking to him just like his clothes, hadn’t helped one bit).

“Ah.”

While holding out one hand to prevent Nanami from face-planting into her meal as she nods off, he watches as a seagull carries off the crisp bundle of whitebait tempura that had been sitting on Komaeda’s rice bowl. At least he’d gotten to try some of it this time.

Hinata sighs into a wry smile. 

Maybe he ought to ziplock everything and everyone

*

The way back is relaxed and uneventful, characterized by the ease of going down stairs rather than plodding up them. This side of the loop is narrower, kitschy shops lining much of the trail between stretches of colourful gardens. 

Hinata’s glad for the distractions that engulf the attention of his two travelling companions. If not for the shelves of souvenirs to dazzle them, they might pick up on the fact that he’d revolved the same stoneware cup in his hands for the last five minutes. Or that he needed more than twenty seconds to decide on whether he’d liked that pickled daikon sample or not. 

Whether they had or hadn’t noticed, the overall effectiveness of his ruse, these weren’t things that he could mull over for more than a moment. 

A wave passes over his thoughts, and he goes back to thinking about the tide pools.   

*

When they return to the mainland and board the train to get into Kamakura proper, they’ve dried off enough and need only to endure frizzy hair and the slight stiffness of their clothes. 

They visit a few notable temples and shrines, pick up souvenirs and sample street food while perusing the main shopping street. Moving at a relaxed pace, it’s not until early evening that they amble down to a parking lot overlooking one of the main beaches. 

The lot is part of a high concrete wall that sidles up against the drop of the beach, stretching out along the entirety of Kamakura’s coastline to demarcate the paths of the road and the railway. Sprawling on the barrier is a welcome change, all plans of meandering alongside the water and dodging the incoming waves abandoned in favour of resting their aching legs (and avoiding the prospect of becoming soaked again, thank you very much). The wide view offered by such a perch can’t be ignored either.

To the south and southeast, the ocean stretches for what seems to be an eternity away. To the west, Enoshima is a dark silhouette; at this range, the lighthouse resembles a smokestack and gives the island the appearance of a strange ship moored to the mainland by its bridge. The haze of summer obscures the shape of what should be Mt Fuji beside it, leaving a gap that pinkening clouds eagerly fill. Beneath it all is a sky turning pale and soft as the sun sinks and takes the vividness of the day with it, keeping for itself and the horizon a final blaze of orange. 

A few beachgoers descend the long, fan-shaped staircase connected to the lot, joining the scattered groups already dotting the sand. Couples, small troupes of friends, people playing with their dogs, photographers. The odd surfer takes to the waves, the glittering waters that look so calm swelling beneath their boards. 

There’s the puttering of passing cars, the occasional rumble of a motorcycle, the even more occasional ringing of a nearby railway crossing whenever the local train departs from the station. Laughter, faint conversations. 

Even like this, senses alight with sights and smells and sounds, Hinata finds himself drawn in by the push and pull of the tide, regular as breath. As he leans over the edge of the barrier, kicking his legs, he can’t shake the feeling that the water draws nearer each time it rushes in, soaking more and more of the sand.  

Closer, and closer. 

Just touching. 

And then it does make contact with the wall, and then with him, too. Or, rather, that’s the impression he gets from this height as the water roves beneath his shoes. Pulls up through his legs with a tingle, swirls into his chest, fills his head. 

He lets out a long exhale, which attracts the attention of Komaeda and Nanami. He’s a little startled himself, but allows himself to start talking. 

“Hey, you guys. About...what you were talking about earlier today. At the tide pools.”

“Uh-huh,” Nanami says. Although she’s playing with her DS, he knows by the tilt of her head towards him that she’s listening. 

“Sorry,” Komaeda says, softly, “I hope it wasn’t too upsetting.”

“What? No—No, it wasn’t—” He stops, shaking his head. “It wasn’t upsetting at all.”

A chime sounds from Nanami’s DS, signalling the completion of a task. “So, what’s on your mind?”

“Well…” Hinata starts, tracing aimless patterns on the surface of the wall with his index finger. “Is it...true?”

“Is it true…?” Nanami repeats.

“I mean, do you guys really think that?” 

“Oh.”

“I-I couldn’t possibly speak for Nanami-san,” Komaeda says, staring into his lap, fiddling with his hair as he pushes some of it behind his ear, “but…” He trails off without finishing.

“I do,” Nanami says simply. She places her DS down. “It’s true.”

Hinata’s mouth opens, albeit nothing comes out. 

“I’m definitely happy that you’re here, Hinata-kun,” she continues, putting a hand to her chest, “and that we were able to help each other. We probably still have some learning to do, but we made lots of memories anyway.  So, thank you.”

His eyes widen a little. “Nanami…”

“Yup. That’s what I think. ...What about you, Komaeda-kun?”

Komaeda flinches in the way that an unprepared student might in response to a teacher calling on them. Hinata half-expects him to stand up and provide an answer. 

He doesn’t. Instead, he pulls his fingers through his hair and makes gradual eye contact as he speaks. “I realize that what I’m about to say is unquestionably revolting,” he says, “but...yes. I’ve thought the same thing. Countless times.”

If they were closer to the water, he might have dashed into it and let the waves engulf him, as if that might contain whatever’s trying to burst from his skin in an array of sunlight. Here, he can only steady himself by bringing his knees to his chest and folding his arms on top and boring his eyes into them. Nothing can get out that way, nothing too extraneous, he thinks. But a container can only endure so much; his shoulders start to tremble. 

He blinks hard. Enough for a spray of colour beneath his eyelids. 

He thinks of the years he spent alone at the mercy of thoughts inadvertently compounded and shaped by his parents, his world, the world beyond it. Of the years he spent trudging through class after class, formless, faceless, festering with desperation. Of the years that passed holding no memories other than the cycle of studying and test-writing and staying up into the night. Of how—

Warmth closes in on his right side. He jerks his head to see Nanami shuffling closer. She leans forward and motions for Komaeda to do the same. While he doesn’t say anything, he stiffens with nervousness. 

“It’s okay, isn’t it, Hinata-kun?” Nanami asks. 

“Um.” He swallows. “Y-Yeah. It’s okay.”

A stilted moment later, Komaeda presses up against his other shoulder. 

They’re warm, and real, and solid. He basks in that feeling. And he thinks of how… 

Of how he hadn’t found what he was looking for at the most prestigious academy in the country. Of how he’d come across something—an entire classful of somethings and beyond—that’d turned that wish on its head and given him so much more. And of how... 

“...I think the same thing, too. About you guys.” He pauses, brows knitting together. Rubbing the back of his neck does nothing to ease the growing heat out of it. It doesn’t help having two people right next to him. “I-I mean, even if you can get kind of weird sometimes and whatever. I’m still—glad that we met.”

There’s enough of a pause that he gets a little worried. Then: 

“I think...it’s you who’s weird,” Komaeda mumbles. 

Hinata narrows his eyes. “What?”

“You’re at least a little weird, I think,” Nanami says. 

He drops his head into his arms, sighing heavily. “I say something like that, and you guys come back with—”

He’s ensnared in the same trap. There isn’t anything for him to chastise. What can he say when they’re both looking at him as if he’d just started to make it snow by word alone, immeasurable awe on Komaeda’s part, a dazed happiness on Nanami’s, and really, if only the water were closer, deeper, then he could plunge into it and scorch the ocean dry. 

Maybe he is a little weird.

“It’s because I spend a lot of time with you guys,” he says. “That’s why.”

“Mm, that’s true,” Komaeda and Nanami say.

He doesn’t feel a need to say anything more. Neither do they, it seems. 

Together they watch the sun lower into the ocean, the sky mellow into the pinks and yellows of a delicate sorbet. He sees himself in the clouds, an amorphous shape haloed by brightness. 

When the crowds swell to take in the full spectacle of the sunset, they take their leave.

*

He notices it when they’re on the train heading back to Enoshima Station, where they’ll transfer over to Katase-Enoshima and get back to Shinjuku. Nanami and Komaeda have both fallen asleep, or at least into some state of drowsiness; he’d shooed them into the last available seats, choosing to stand before them with his backpack slung over his front. 

The train runs through a short swathe of buildings before moving into an open view of the main road and ocean, allowing the car to fill with a warm, sleepy light that contrasts with the blue of night flowing in. It drapes over the sitting passengers like a blanket, catches on motes of dust. Combined with the relaxed pace of the train, the sight of the ocean running past in the large windows is comforting, nearly enough to have him nodding his head. 

Idly, he had started to go through his bag as a last minute check on the souvenirs he’d acquired. A variety of snacks to pass along to friends and family, a little jar of pickled vegetables that Komaeda was wary of carrying, and, most notably, two little hedgehog sculptures Nanami and Komaeda had found separately that both sported the same sort of disgruntled expression that did not resemble him at all (no matter what they said and how many times they said it). As he put them away, they had clacked against another wooden object he couldn’t immediately identify. Not until he wraps his fingers around it and pulls it out. 

It’s the wish plaque. 

His heart tumbles against one or two rungs of his ribs—it feels like that, anyway—and rights itself only due to the bumping of the train. He fixes his posture, as if that might protect him from another blow. 

And so, back to it: the wish plaque. Blank as ever with its heart-shaped outline. 

The train makes a stop. A passenger beside Nanami alights and encourages Hinata to take the spot, nodding as he thanks them. He seats himself carefully. 

Staring at the plaque doesn’t seem to act as the catalyst for his brain to produce a solution, no sudden visions of a puzzle he can piece together or a tunneling chasm of answers he can choose from appearing before him. Nothing. 

A weight leans on him. 

...Is that the truth? There’s nothing? 

Nanami makes a strange noise as her head rests against his arm, probably due to the fact that her face is squishing into her bag as she holds it tight. 

“You’d better not be drooling, Nanami,” he says, pushing her back into place. 

She stays still for no more than two seconds before dropping onto his shoulder. “You have to attack while they’re...stunlocked…” she mutters. 

Past her, Komaeda sits perfectly upright and perfectly still, eyes closed and breathing slow. He would be a model passenger, if not for the fact that his tote bag is starting to slip from his hands to the floor. Hinata leans forward, taking Nanami with him, and reaches for the bag’s straps with his fingers. Slow, steady. Once he has them looped in his grip and pulls the bag closer, he swings it behind his legs for safe keeping. Nanami doesn’t stir at all. 

Still stunlocked, he supposes with a smirk. 

With that out of the way, he puts his chin in his hand and studies the sleeping faces next to him. Remarkably peaceful, they offer not even one hint of the nonsense they get up to during their waking hours. Monotone comebacks, cryptic comments. A shared tendency to become enthusiastic over the strangest of subjects. The neutrality of their expressions hides, too, their relentless determination, dedication, limitless curiosity. 

And somewhere during the many years they’d spent around each other, he’d come to accept all of those things, expect them. ...Appreciate them?

“Maybe I really am the weird one,” he says quietly, and digs through his bag for the marker.  

As the train pulls away from the ocean, threading between old homes and shops, Hinata uncaps the marker and gets to work. In between the already established characters, he adds another ‘he’ in the middle. Beneath that, he writes his family name. On the proper sides, he writes ‘Nanami’ and ‘Komaeda.’ He isn’t certain of the validity of the modified plaque, whether close friends count as a form of matching, or whether an already-made-match can receive any kind of favour. That’s something they can figure out when they come back here some time. 

What he is certain of is the warmth that unfolds in him when he studies his work, as if the sun were setting in his chest instead of the ocean. It’s the kind of warmth that goes along with summer; bright and full of possibilities, limitless in its reach, and the only thing he can do in response is grin and think of the days that await them.