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The ship is never quiet. None of them like the quiet, even the ones who did in the past.

Nothing about their pasts is an indicator of anything now. Favourite foods, temperatures for sleeping, songs… there’s no telling what will set off a moment of stillness in one of them, a darkening of the eyes, a jump in pulse rate, sweat along the hairline.

Hinata’s mind holds information on every physical indicator of mental stress, and he’s seen the whole catalogue on display among his friends over the last few weeks.

In other words, a consistent sleep schedule is a thing that happens in other places and to other people, and so is silence. Someone’s always awake and making noise, no matter what time of day or night.

Hinata likes it. It’s less of a help to him than it is to the others — his brain is so vast now, far too large and ordered to ever be distracted by a little bit of conversation or music — but he likes it. He likes seeing the others happy or, when that fails, pretending to be.

Because the ship is never quiet, there’s never really much in the way of privacy to be had. That shouldn’t matter, not after everything, but Hinata’s always been a reserved person. He’d almost call himself shy, if it didn’t sound absurd to use a word like that about the part of him that’s Kamukura.

And so it’s Komaeda who kisses him first, and it’s on the deck, a light wind coming in from the port side, making Komaeda’s lips salty and cool and damp. Hinata goes absolutely still.

It’s not that it’s a surprise, exactly. But the part of Hinata that can remember believing Junko’s lofty speeches about how only despair is ever unpredictable feels a bittersweet little twist in his heart, because he had been so very, very stupid. The smartest, most talented mind in the world, and he’d been an idiot. Joy and hope are the most chaotic, frightening things in existence. Despair doesn’t even come close. All misery is the same misery, when it gets dark enough. Bright things are each bright in their own strange new ways.

“Someone’s going to see,” Hinata says in an embarrassed mutter, when he manages to move again. Komaeda’s cheeks are pink from windburn.

“Probably. It’s never quiet here.”

Trying to turn their history into a single coherent story is impossible. All of Hinata’s memories are pin-sharp and perfect now — no comforting blur with time, no forgetting painful details, not for a mind like his — but how to stitch together a series of first meetings, of almost-chances? How to find meaning in the disorder of it?

Would the story begin before they knew each other’s names, in a dim but clean-enough public bathroom eight blocks from the school campus, notorious in the neighbourhood?

It had been a typical enough day for Hinata. Nothing especially depressing had happened, but the damp pervasive misery was there inside him as usual. He’d needed to forget himself, to stop thinking, to just feel for a while. But feeling anything was becoming harder all the time, as if he was going numb.

So he’d gone to restroom that everyone knew about, and got down on his knees.

Not in his school uniform, of course. That had cost a lot of money, and he wasn’t going to ruin it. Without it, he didn’t have to be a Reserve Course student, at least for a little while. He didn’t have to be anybody.

He’d been a little afraid, underneath the numbness. There were so many bad things that could happen, doing something like this. But most of him didn’t care.

The boy who’d come in a few minutes later wasn’t at all what Hinata expected. He didn’t look any older than Hinata himself, and his clothes were too casual to have been what he’d worn to school.

Even so, Hinata knew he couldn’t be a Reserve Course student. The Reserve Course had to attend the same hours and lessons as any other ordinary school for ordinary students. The true Hope’s Peak students didn’t have to go to anything that didn’t interest them; all they had to do was pass their practical exams.

Hinata knew he’d have noticed this boy in class, with his shock of pale hair and skinny, loose-limbed body.

But the boy didn’t have any way to know for certain that Hinata was a Reserve Course student, unless he’d seen him around the greater campus area. Two students could be in the same class for their entire time at Hope’s Peak and yet, if they were there because of talents rather than fees, it was completely possible for them to never meet even once. Hinata’s anonymity remained intact. He could be anybody. He could be nobody.

Despite that quick-fire series of complicated thoughts which began the encounter, Hinata’s memory of the rest of it is almost entirely sensory. He’d given himself over to feeling, not thinking, and so now the most vivid recollections he has are of the taste when he’d flattened his tongue on the underside of the boy’s cock, the immensely powerful sensation of so much soft, vulnerable flesh in his mouth. The contrast of the delicately pink skin and coarse, colourless hair of the boy’s balls, and the way his whole thin frame seemed to shake with the moan he made when Hinata cupped them in his hand as he sucked.

Hinata remembers the ragged thumbnail, bitten to the quick, on the thumb that traced against the hollowed curve of his cheek. He remembers staring up at the boy, his own dick hard and aching as he relaxed his throat and breathed through his nose. He remembers his eyes watering a little and the sting of that making him blink, even though he didn’t want to blink, he wanted to keep staring up at this boy who was staring at him like he was the most beautiful, perfect thing in all creation.

“That someone wonderful like you would do this for trash like me,” the boy had whispered to him, reverent, cupping Hinata’s steadily working jaw with the lightest, most careful touch.

(If there’s a coherent thread to be found throughout their whole shared history, Hinata thinks, then that’s it: reverence. The way Komaeda loves is like the way fugitives used to seek sanctuary in churches, devotion and desperation knotted up together.)

Hinata knew the boy thought that he was a real Hope’s Peak student, worthy of that respect and awe. The misunderstanding was intoxicating, and made Hinata’s eyes roll back a little. His jaw was hurting, and he was lightheaded from not being able to breathe very deeply, and he was on his knees in a public restroom while a stranger fucked his mouth, and just for a moment, everything was perfect.

The boy’s climax arrived so abruptly that Hinata choked and spluttered. He’d never done anything like this before, and he wasn’t ready. His eyes watered, spunk getting on his chin and on the boy’s own shoes as Hinata doubled over and coughed.

Dimly, he could hear the boy apologising, over and over, but he ignored it. All Hinata wanted was to chase that perfect feeling, just for a few more seconds. How adored and appreciated and special he’d felt when the boy had touched his face and used his mouth.

He didn’t know where the idea came from, but almost before he knew what he was doing Hinata bent even lower, almost to the floor, and licked up the pearly splatter that had landed on the boy’s shoe. The leather itself looked clean enough, and the come was no worse than the stuff that Hinata had managed to keep in his mouth and swallow down.

It was wild impulse that he couldn’t have explained properly even to himself. The boy’s apologies died mid-sentence, cut off by a broken groan of raw lust. The sound was almost enough to make Hinata come without even touching himself.

Suddenly the boy’s hands grabbed at his arms, hauling him up to standing position. Hinata stumbled to find his balance, head spinning, and then the boy’s mouth was on his, hot and greedy. His tongue shoved into Hinata’s mouth, fucking it with even more desperation than his cock had, licking at the boy’s own taste. Hinata thought his knees were going to buckle from the force of it.

They did buckle a few seconds later, when the boy unzipped Hinata’s fly and got his hand around Hinata’s dick. Everything was slick with precome and the boy’s fingers were hot, so hot, and Hinata had to bury his face against the boy’s shoulder and shout at how good it felt, keep himself anchored and steady against the boy to stop himself from staggering or falling over.

He came like that, mouth biting helplessly at the fabric of the boy’s jacket, his whole body shuddering. Hinata felt humiliated at how quickly he’d finished, and felt stupid for feeling humiliated over something like that when he’d been licking the boy’s shoes a little while ago.

All the dark, heavy feelings he’d managed to escape for a little while came rushing back in, making Hinata’s shoulders sag under the weight of them. The boy didn’t seem to notice any change in him, though.

“Thank you,” the boy said, as if Hinata had given him directions to the local bus stop, and then he was gone.

Was that the first scene in their story? Two strangers, connecting for a moment before coming apart again? Hinata had lost that memory, along with all the rest, when he’d become Kamukura. It was only much, much later, when he had escaped the program, that he’d regained it.

And now that he has it again, he doesn’t know where to fit it into the larger picture, any more than he does any of the other moments between them.

The second first time belonged to Kamukura. The room stank of stale sweat and junk food and blood, as Junko’s rooms always did sooner or later. Komaeda and his classmates had fallen to despair at the violent, torturous death of their dear friend, and Kamukura had felt the first stirrings of curiosity about the unpredictable potential that love and hope might offer. If they were more potent than despair, then… well. It wouldn’t be boring, at least.

He wasn’t under any illusions about the desperate, drooling blowjob that Komaeda gave him being any kind of love. Kamukura understood, at least theoretically, about devotion and obsession. He understood that he had become some kind of almost holy symbol to Komaeda, an avatar of a hope turned to despair. Komaeda would have gladly died for him in that moment, without a moment’s hesitation.

The endorphins released at orgasm felt pleasant enough, though Kamukura felt they were still quite boring as far as sensations went. His creation had involved far more inventive cocktails of chemicals than simple sexual pleasure could offer. He made a note to consider experimenting with sexual practises involving pain in the future, if such a thing was even possible with his excellent levels of tolerance.

Komaeda was a satisfactory sexual partner. Junko had made extremely overt overtures towards the same ends, but Kamukura didn’t trust her motives. Komaeda’s motives were almost painfully obvious.

It might be worthwhile to find out whether physical attraction relied on the context of the participants’ meeting. Kamukura thought that the concept of soul mates, of fated love, was boring. But the thought that two people, without any kind of predestination, could nevertheless end up entangled in one another’s lives in entirely different contexts… that hypothesis might be interesting to explore.

So he had Junko erase Komaeda’s memory of him, and his own memory of Komaeda.

He wanted to see what would happen, if they were given another first chance.

They never got it, of course. The Future Foundation stepped in and thwarted the Remnants of Despair before they could.

And then there had been light, so much light, and hot sand underneath his back, and someone asking if he was okay.

Hinata remembers how frightened he’d been by the strangeness of it all, trying to keep his feelings locked up and failing miserably, his stomach in knots as he’d paused on his exploration of the island to sit and rest under one of the trees.

Komaeda, still apparently unflappable and level-headed then, his wildly veering moods yet to reveal themselves, had sat down beside him.

“I feel as if we’re just normal friends hanging out, or something,” Komaeda said, and… even now, with all the reasoning power of history’s philosophers at his disposal, Hinata can’t say for certain why he responded to those words the way he did.

It was just that Komaeda had sounded so wistful and content, as if having the illusion of a friendship, just for a moment, was more than he thought he could ever hope to have. Maybe some part of Hinata’s mind, where lost memories left behind a ghost of their meaning, remembered what it had been like to kneel on the floor of a public toilet and let himself indulge in a lie, just for a little while. Just long enough to feel some kind of meaningful connection with someone.

Whatever the reason, Hinata had closed the distance between them, and pressed his mouth to Komaeda’s, there under the bright sky of an imaginary world.

They’d never progressed further than kissing, in their time on the island. At first it had just been shyness, two people in a strange situation feeling out the edges of a new kind of companionship. Then, after Komaeda had begun to unravel, and their whole world was going to hell around them as one classmate after another lost their lives, it had been something darker and more desperate driving Hinata.

He didn’t have a name for that variation of the dance between them, either. Something angry and afraid and helpless on his part, something reckless and jagged and broken along every edge on Komaeda’s. They’d bitten each other’s mouths to bleeding.

Then Komaeda had found out the truth about him and… well, there hadn’t been time for anything, after that. Not before Komaeda took himself out of the game.

And now they’re on the deck of the boat, the wind sharp and clean and cold and turning Komaeda’s cheeks pink.

“Let’s go to my cabin,” Hinata says to him.

“You really hate the idea of people seeing you that much?” Komaeda teases with a laugh.

Hinata shakes his head, even though it’s a little bit true. He’s just not good at simple stuff, like public displays of affection. Too bad Hope’s Peak never enrolled someone with top skills at that, for him to be installed with when he was upgraded.

He shoves away the thought, and takes Komaeda’s hand in his instead.

“I want to be alone with you,” he tells Komaeda, the words low, their meaning obvious. Komaeda’s pupils dilate, his lips parting as his tongue darts out of wet the lower one. He nods.

“All right, lead the way.”

Hinata’s cabin doesn’t have a stamp of personality on it. They don’t have much in the way of possessions, and spend most of their time in the communal areas or keeping the ship running. It doesn’t feel like his room, really. It’s just a room.

His own identity sometimes feels equally impersonal, a cracked and damaged thing without enough original substance to withstand any subsequent repairs. But he pushes those thoughts away, when they come. In time, it might almost get easy to do so.

The Hinata who knelt on a bathroom floor remembers how Komaeda, despite himself, craves the feeling of being worshipped and adored. Kamukura remembers how to move so fast and unexpectedly that Komaeda almost can’t keep up, his senses blurred and overwhelmed by the strength and power opposing him. The Hinata whose body was just bits and bytes of information nevertheless remembers the feeling of Komaeda’s mouth against his own, a friend and then an enemy, and always something that was never as simple as either.

When they make it to the narrow bed together, Hinata intends to use all this past experience to make things just the way Komaeda likes them. But what actually happens is completely different: they’re slow and fumbling and gentle with one another as they remove each other’s clothes, and their touches are soft and careful. Komaeda’s new hand is capable of finesse and sensitivity, and makes Hinata’s breath hitch as the warm metal fingers play with one of his nipples and then the other.

Hinata’s concerned about his own strength, and wants to make sure that he doesn’t do anything that could hurt Komaeda. It makes him methodical and deliberate, and he spends so long preparing Komaeda with his fingers that by the time Hinata enters him, Komaeda is already a shivering, gasping mess. His hair is as pale as the worn white linen pillowcase beneath it, his bony knee crooked up against Hinata’s upper arm, and there are small, damp tear-tracks running from the corner of each eye to his temples.

Hinata expects his eyes to be crazed and bright and reckless, but they’re clear and calm and steady as the two of them gaze at one another.

Hinata wonders what Komaeda thinks of Hinata’s own looks now, the mis-matched collage of selves that fit together so oddly in his different irises.

How much does Komaeda remember of their various beginnings? Does he miss one variation of Hinata, or Kamukura, and wish that the others present in Hinata’s face now would fade away?

When they’ve exhausted each other, and are lying together on a bed that would be too small if they didn’t mind being so close together, Hinata can’t help but voice at least a fraction of the questions in his head.

“Do you wonder about what our real beginning was? When it was that this started?”

Komaeda makes a thoughtful face, his fingertips tracing a random pattern lightly on Hinata’s bare shoulder as he considers before answering.

“I don’t think it matters anymore,” Komaeda says finally. “The past stays the same no matter how we decide to look at it, after all. It just is what it is.”

“You’re right,” Hinata agrees, tightening his hold across Komaeda’s chest. “It's better to wonder about what comes next.”