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the beginning of always

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In junior high, the first thing he learns – before geometry or essay-writing, before English vocab or chemistry – is who can see the island.

 

They all whisper about it during free period.

 

“I hear that Shinohara Noa can,” the girl behind him is saying. “Have you seen her? She’s way too perfect, right? How do some people have all the luck?”

 

“Mino Yuuri,” says a boy to his left. “Kinda small, mousey-looking kid? Yeah, in class 2A. Apparently he’s really smart. His parents are both, like… world-renowned surgeons or something. That’s what Takahashi told me.”

 

“Katou can see it,” his friend Tomo says, out of the blue, and the room falls abruptly silent.

 

“Shh,” he hisses, but the damage has already been done. Two dozen pairs of eyes slowly turn to stare at him, and he slumps down in his seat, heat creeping up the back of his neck, wishing desperately that he were invisible.

 

“Really?” someone says. The incredulity in their voice pricks at his skin like countless needles. “You sure he’s not just faking? ‘Cause there’s always some kid who lies about it to make himself look cool, y’know?”

 

The rest of the class murmurs their agreement.

 

“It’s not a lie,” Tomo says hotly. “Katou can see it!”

 

“… Seriously, dude, shut up,” he mutters. “It doesn’t matter.”

 

“It does matter!” Tomo’s face is an angry shade of red. His hands are curled, white-knuckled, on the edge of his desk. “Just tell them, okay? Tell them what it looks like, and then they’ll believe you!”

 

“Everyone knows what it looks like, dumbass,” he says softly, tugging on Tomo’s sleeve, a subtle message to stand down. “Just forget it.”

 

His classmates are sneering at him, laughing behind their hands. For a time, he knows, they’ll call him a pretender. Perhaps he’ll be tripped in the hallway, shoes stolen from his locker, whispered about in hushed tones every time he’s called on in class. Perhaps he’ll find the word “pathetic” scrawled across his desk like a red-hot brand.

 

But eventually, he knows, they’ll move on. Find someone new to antagonize, and forget all about Katou Mitsuki, the plain, boring kid who liked to imagine himself special.

 

Eventually he’ll be erased from their thoughts, just like he’s been a hundred times before.

 

.

 

.

 

Tomo joins the student council; starts working overtime during lunch breaks. With no one else to talk to, Mitsuki often finds himself wandering up to the roof to eat lunch alone. There’s a rusty deadbolt on the door to the roof, but picking it is easy enough. (The internet can teach you anything, as long as you know where to look.)

 

He likes the solitude of the roof – no one in his space, no noise other than the occasional whir of airplanes overhead. Just peace and quiet and sun-baked brick against his back. For a half hour every afternoon, it’s his haven.

 

That is, until the day he arrives to find the door suspiciously unlocked.

 

His pulse quickens. He pushes the door open a crack, peering through the gap cautiously. There’s someone else there, sitting against the wall with their head bowed over an open book. Long hair – longer than school regulation allows – tied back loosely at the nape of his neck. A green pin on his lapel, which means he’s in the same year as Mitsuki.

 

Mitsuki takes a deep breath and steps out of the doorway. “Hey,” he says, as threateningly as possible, drawing himself up to full height. “What are you doing here? This place is off-limits.”

 

The boy glances up at him.

 

“I’m reading,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “What are you doing here?”

 

Mitsuki opens his mouth to voice some witty retort but finds none. “I, uh… I’m…”

 

“Oh, I get it.” The boy smiles; snaps his book shut. “This is your place, right? And I’m intruding? There’s plenty of room here for the both of us, you know.”

 

“Well, yeah,” Mitsuki says lamely. “I guess so? But, uh, if it’s not too much trouble, maybe you could – ”

 

“I’m glad you understand,” the boy says, cutting him off. He gets to his feet and extends a hand in greeting, still smiling in a manner that seems almost businesslike. Mitsuki hesitates for a moment before reaching out and shaking it. “Name’s Hinata Sanjuurou. Class 2A. And you are?”

 

“Katou Mitsuki… 3C.” The boy’s name echoes in his mind, and he frowns, trying to remember where last he heard it. “Wait… Hinata Sanjuurou? You’re one of the kids who can see the island, right?”

 

“That’s right.” Hinata taps his chin thoughtfully, something akin to amusement flickering across his face. “And so can you, if I’m not mistaken.”

 

Mitsuki blinks; takes a wary step back. “How do you know that?”

 

“I have my sources,” Hinata says. “Collecting information is a… hobby of mine, one might say. I can tell you something interesting about every person in this school. For the right price, of course.”

 

“Wow. That’s, uh… That’s kind of creepy, to be honest.”

 

Hinata laughs. “You say that now, but give it time. Soon enough there’ll be someone you want to know more about. And that’s when you’ll come to me.” He winks and reaches down to pick up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. “Listen, Katou… You seem like a nice enough guy, so I’ll leave you in peace today. But I’m fond of this spot, y’know? I’ll be back sometime soon. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find me to be a more-than-satisfactory lunchtime companion. See you around?”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Mitsuki says without thinking, and Hinata vanishes down the stairwell with a smile and an amiable wave.

 

(It’s a full minute after Hinata disappears that Mitsuki finally realizes:

 

There’s something clenched in his fist. A business card, of all things, glossy and professional-looking. Hinata must have slipped it into Mitsuki’s palm as they shook hands, the sly bastard. He lifts it up to the light to read it.

 

Hinata Sanjuurou, 1st Year Class 2A

Advice, Consulting, and Information Retrieval

Come visit me in my offices, located in the out-of-use Geology Room on the second floor. Business hours subject to change based on schedule. Feel free to leave a message in my inbox if I’m unavailable.

Results 100% guaranteed. My rates are reasonable and my intel is worth every cent!

 

Mitsuki rereads it a few more times, just to make sure he’s not imagining things.

 

Wonderful, he thinks, and runs a hand through his hair tiredly. Of all the people to show up on his roof, it had to be a freaking weirdo.)

 

.

 

.

 

It starts with a 500 yen coin dropped underneath a vending machine.

 

It’s summer break, and he’s on his way home from Tomo’s house, dying a slow death under the sun’s merciless glare. Heat shimmers off the asphalt. The island is little more than a wavering black speck against the empty blue sky. He reaches the corner convenience store; fishes around in his pocket for some money to buy a drink. But as he approaches the vending machine the coin slips straight through his fingers and rolls out of sight.

 

“God dammit,” he sighs. He’s about to get down on hands and knees to search for it when he hears someone call his name, and turns to see who else but Hinata Sanjuurou walking towards him. Mitsuki bites back a grimace.

 

“Well met, Katou-kun,” Hinata says, smiling wide. “Do you live around here, too?”

 

“Uh… Yeah. A couple blocks away. I was visiting a friend,” he blurts out, and winces at his own awkwardness. He doesn’t want Hinata thinking he’s some pitiable friendless freak, but his words have an desperate, frantic ring to them all the same.

 

“… I see.” Hinata looks pensive for a moment, then withdraws a coin from his pocket and reaches out, pressing it into Mistuki’s palm. He winks. “To replace the one you just dropped. Don’t go losing that one too, okay?”

 

Mitsuki stares at him.

 

“Thanks?” he says hesitantly, closing his fingers around the cool metal. “I’ll pay you back when school starts up again – ”

 

But Hinata holds up a hand. “No need, my friend! Just consider it a gift. Or maybe, in return… You’ll just owe me a little favor?”

 

Years later, Mitsuki will look back on this moment with exasperation and a kind of weary remorse. He’ll know Hinata better, then. Know that Hinata’s mind is like a well-oiled machine, each cog constantly turning, planning ahead for every possible outcome. Know that Hinata never, ever forgets, no matter how insignificant the memory.

 

But at the time he simply nods his assent.

 

In this heat, a “favor” for a drink sounds like the best deal ever struck.

 

.

 

.

 

Summer break ends, and Hinata makes good on his promise to start joining Mitsuki for lunch.

 

It’s uncomfortable at times, and Hinata often disrupts the roof’s precious silence, but Mitsuki finds that he doesn’t care as much as he thought he would. Hinata’s rambling is strangely interesting – his claim to know something about everyone was not by any means a lie. He knows which students are dating and which teachers are having extramarital affairs. He knows that Morinozuka Junko’s father has ties to the yakuza, and that Usui Yasuhiro is too old to be a second year – he was in the hospital for months with an illness he refuses to speak of. He can recite the birthdays, hobbies, and blood types of all his classmates upon request, and one day Mitsuki gives in to temptation.

 

“What about Fuyuki Sanae? From 1B?” His voice cracks and he averts his eyes, studying his hands pointedly. “You know anything about her?”

 

He can feel Hinata’s amusement without seeing it.

 

“Fuyuki Sanae… Let’s see… Blood type AB. Her sign is Pisces. She lives with her parents, her aging grandmother, and a younger brother who gets on her nerves more often than not. She’s on the tennis team because her classmate Kirishima talked her into it, but secretly she wants to run track. She and Daidouji Haruna were best friends in elementary school, but had a falling out at the end of sixth year for reasons unknown. Daidouji seems untroubled by this and has already moved on. Fuyuki, however, is still struggling, and is clearly having a hard time without Daidouji’s headstrong personality to guide her. Due to her mature appearance, Fuyuki is often hit on by men much older than herself, and their advances make her feel uncomfortable and insecure. Anything else you’d like to know?”

 

“No,” Mitsuki says quickly. “No, that’s… that’s enough.” He feels vaguely sick to his stomach, nausea lying heavy on the back of his tongue. All he’d wanted to know was her favorite colour or something, not… Not all of that. It’s too personal, too intimate, and all his innocent fantasies of Fuyuki – of holding her hand, and hugging her close – now seem disrespectful and obscene.

 

(Now and again there are moments when Mitsuki begins to wonder about Hinata. Is there anything in this life he holds dear? Does he actually care about people at all? Or are they all just specimens to him, subjects to be observed and catalogued for his own amusement?)

 

“Quality intel is 20,000 yen,” Hinata is whispering to himself. “Plus the 5,000 for the notes I lent you the other day… Plus that other time… Total comes to 28,850, give or take?”

 

Mitsuki glances at him sharply. “What are you mumbling about now?”

 

“Oh, nothing to worry about,” Hinata says with a smile. “Are you going to finish your melon bread?”

 

.

 

.

 

They don’t talk about it.

 

Until one day in second year when, abruptly, they do.

 

Hinata’s been strange ever since second year began. His intel operation in the Geography Room is gone, shut down without notice a few weeks prior. He no longer accepts the money of desperate, lovesick kids, no matter how much they’re willing to pay for information. On the roof Mitsuki tries to make small talk but finds Hinata moody and unresponsive, closed in upon himself, his usual easy smiles conspicuously absent.

 

“Are you going?” he asks one afternoon, shattering the awkward silence, and Mitsuki glances up in surprise.

 

“… Going where?”

 

“You know where,” Hinata snaps. His voice is sharp and tinged with frustration, a complete 180 from the jovial confidence it used to possess. He is staring into the sky, shielding his eyes from the sun, and Mitsuki follows his gaze to the island, hanging there like an ever-present, watchful sentry.

 

“Oh, Naraka…? Yeah, I’m going.” Mitsuki shrugs. “I’m not like you or Shinohara or Mino. I’m not talented or a genius or whatever. So graduating from Naraka is my only chance to ‘be someone,’ y’know? I mean, I’m not looking forward to it, but if that’s what I have to do…”

 

“Why not?” Hinata asks.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Why aren’t you looking forward to it?”

 

“I…” Mitsuki frowns. “I don’t really know. It’s just… Whenever I look at that island, I get this real… foreboding feeling. It’s been that way ever since I was a kid. Something is wrong with that school, I think. But I have no idea what.”

 

“Yeah,” Hinata says softly. “I know what you mean.”

 

(They lapse back into silence and do not speak again that day, but still Mitsuki feels as if something has changed between them.)

 

.

 

.

 

Slowly Hinata returns to a semblance of his former self. But there is a quiet, calculating solemnity about him now that was not present before. He doesn’t bother reestablishing his business, and when Mitsuki asks him about it he laughs bitterly.

 

“It’s strange. Just a few months ago I thought I had all the answers. But in truth… I didn’t know a damn thing.” He leans against the railing with a sigh. “Don’t you get it, Katou? None of this,” and here he makes a broad, fluttery gesture, “matters anymore. This school, these people… Once we get to Naraka, they’ll be the farthest thing from our minds.”

 

Mitsuki’s gaze slides towards him, cautious and questioning.

 

“Why?” he asks. “What do you know about it?”

 

“Not much yet. Just bits and pieces. But it’s enough to set me on edge, y’know? My sister… She graduated from there almost a decade ago. And she always refused to talk about it, no matter how often I asked. Until a little while ago, when suddenly she calls me up out of the blue and wants to tell me the ‘real truth of Naraka.’ Said she didn’t want her brother going into it unprepared like she’d been.” He rubs a hand across his face tiredly. “Some of the stuff she’s been telling me is just… I don’t know. If I didn’t have such faith in her I’d call it unbelievable. You were right to be wary of that place, Katou.”

 

Mitsuki feels nervousness flutter like a caged bird in the pit of his stomach. He’d hoped to be wrong about Naraka.

 

“I want to know,” he says, and to his credit his voice only wavers a little. “I want to know what I’m getting into.”

 

“… Yeah,” Hinata murmurs. “Yeah, you’re right. I should tell you guys what I’ve learned. I’ll talk to Noa and Yuuri – tell them to come up the roof sometime, so we can discuss this. I don’t want you being caught unawares.”

 

The somber weight to his words gives Mitsuki pause. Does that mean… that Hinata is worried about him? Hinata, who cares for no one but himself? Mitsuki swallows nervously; feels his face grow hot for reasons he can’t rightly explain. It’s nice, he supposes, to know that Hinata thinks of him as more than just –

 

“I mean,” Hinata continues, “you still owe me a favor. It’d be a shame if you were to die before paying me back.”

 

He laughs, then, and claps Mitsuki on the shoulder, and Mitsuki has to resist the urge to punch the smile off his smug face.

 

.

 

.

 

He catches himself staring, sometimes.

 

He doesn’t mean to, of course, but there’s not much else to look at up on the roof. Just dirty concrete, empty sky, and Hinata.

 

He catches himself tracing the pale curve of Hinata’s neck, the slope of his back, the hollow of his throat visible beneath his loosened collar. He catches himself watching Hinata’s fingers – drumming out a rhythm against the spine of a book, twisting in his hair when he’s deep in thought.

 

One day Tomo confesses that he likes Nagano Arisa from 1C; asks him if there’s someone he has his eye on. Mitsuki thinks of Fuyuki Sanae first, with her wide, sad eyes and cute smile. He thinks of Imayoshi Yui from 2A, with her beauty mark and neon-painted nails and long, slender legs.

 

And then, unexpectedly, he thinks of that familiar, arrogant smirk.

 

His mouth goes dry. His stomach feels like it’s trying to twist itself into knots.

 

“Oh fuck,” he whispers, and that about sums it up.

 

.

 

.

 

Their second year of junior high fades away into their third, and all they ever seem to talk about is Naraka. This endless discussion of characters and Eclipses, battle strategies and death counts is sobering at best and panic-inducing at worst, and often Mitsuki finds himself saying things he probably shouldn’t in a vain effort to change the topic.

 

Today, it seems, is no different.

 

“How come you never call me by my first name?” he asks, interrupting Hinata in the middle of a rambling spiel.

 

Hinata turns to stare at him.

 

“You call Shinohara and Mino by their first names,” Mitsuki says, blustering recklessly onward. “But I’m always just ‘Katou.’ Why is that?”

 

It’s not often that Hinata is taken aback. But this question, it seems, has caught him completely off guard. He frowns and is silent for nearly a minute as he deliberates with himself.

 

“I don’t know,” he says finally. “I’ve… never really thought about it before? Noa and Yuuri are friends, so of course I call them by their first names. But you… I don’t know what you are. You’re just Katou.”

 

Mitsuki scowls at him. “Seriously? I’ve been putting up with your bullshit for more than two years now, and you don’t even consider me a friend? Wow. Thanks so fucking much.”

 

“Hey, c’mon now,” Hinata says with a wry smirk. “You should feel honored. I can count on one hand the number of people I’m unable to categorize. You’re special, Katou.”

 

And though he hates himself for it, Mitsuki’s chest feels tight at these words, constricting and painful, as if there were a fist closing round his heart.

 

.

 

“Can you believe he said that?? God, he’s such an asshole sometimes. Why do I even bother?”

 

Tomo merely ‘hmm’s, noncommittal and evasive. They near his house and he pauses, back turned to Mitsuki, reaching out to rest a hand on the bars of his front gate.

 

“Hey Mitsu,” he says. His voice is detached and empty. “Maybe we should stop walking home together.”

 

Mitsuki blinks. He can feel his own expression soften, exaggerated grimace fading away into a weak, confused smile.

 

“What,” he says, more of a statement than a question.

 

“I mean… We’ll be graduating soon, and you’ll be going away to Naraka. And once you do there’s a good chance that I’ll never see you again. That’s what they say, right? ‘Most people who graduate from Naraka never come home, and the ones that do are different.’ Or something like that. It seems easier to cut things off now, y’know? So there won’t be any abrupt goodbyes or sappy bullshit when the time comes.” Tomo rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. “And speaking honestly… You’re just not much fun to be around these days. All you ever do is talk about Hinata Sanjuurou. It’s kind of starting to piss me off.”

 

“…No,” Mitsuki says, because he can’t think of anything else. “No, I… I don’t always talk about him.”

 

“Yeah, dude, you kind of do.” Tomo turns towards him, rolling his eyes exasperatedly. “And it’s pretty fucking irritating. Do you… like him or something? I’m not gonna judge you for it or anything; I’m just honestly curious. ‘Cause that would explain a hell of a lot.”

 

“Wh-what??” Mitsuki splutters. “No, of course I don’t like him! What the fuck, Tomo? He’s a guy, if you haven’t noticed by now! And even ignoring that particular glaring detail he’s still a fucking sociopath! I’d like to think I have better taste than that, thank you very much.”

 

“… Yeah, okay. Whatever you say.” Tomo looks wholly unconvinced. He pushes the gate open with a sigh and begins to walk away. “I’ll see you around, alright Mitsu? But honestly… I’d rather if you didn’t wait up for me after school tomorrow. I was serious about cutting our losses. You were a good friend while it lasted, but… things change, y’know? Shit happens. That’s life.”

 

He lifts a hand in a half-hearted parting gesture and vanishes into his house, leaving Mitsuki standing shellshocked on the sidewalk, unsure of what just happened.

 

.

 

“This,” he says, “is all your fucking fault.”

 

Hinata barely glances up when Mitsuki jabs a finger in his direction, absorbed as he is in the Naraka dormitory blueprints his sister recently sent him.

 

“Really?” he hums. “What did I do this time?”

 

“My life is in absolute shambles thanks to you, that’s what!” Mitsuki massages his temples wearily. “Tomo refuses to hang out with me because of you, and I’m scared shitless over Naraka because of you and your endless horror stories and battle plans, and, and… Ugh! I seriously cannot stand you sometimes, you know that??”

 

“Mmhmm.”

 

“You do realize what all I’ve put up with for you, right? You think of Shinohara and Mino as friends but they hardly even like you, for fuck’s sake. They just deal with you because they have to! I’m the only one who cares about you,” (oh god what is he saying), “and without me you would’ve been alone on this roof with your books for three goddamn years!”

 

Finally, Hinata looks up. Mitsuki is damn near panting, face flushed from shouting, and he feels suddenly foolish under the weight of Hinata’s steady gaze.

 

“I suppose you’ve got a point,” Hinata muses aloud. He sets down his documents; pushes himself to his feet and advances toward Mitsuki with a purposeful stride. Before Mitsuki can react Hinata is reaching out – putting one hand on the back of his neck and another on his waist and pulling him closer.

 

And then he’s kissing him.

 

It takes Mitsuki some time to process this. He stands there like a limp ragdoll for a long moment, until the press of Hinata’s lips (rough and warm) against his own suddenly registers. He flails about madly before lifting his hands and shoving Hinata away, trying desperately to hide his flushed face, which burns with an intensity he didn’t know was humanly possible.

 

“Wha… What…”

 

“That partially makes up for it, right?” Hinata is saying. He’s smiling just like he always does – amenable and genial and inscrutable all at once. “All the times I’ve been obnoxious to you, I mean? If you’re lucky I might even consider taking a few thousand yen off your debt as an added apology.”

 

And amidst the strange lightheadedness and the overloud pounding of his pulse in his ears, Mitsuki has a moment of clarity.

 

“Wait,” he says slowly. “What debt?”

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

The world seems to have melted. Beneath their feet the grass has flattened into a greenish swirl, and the trees droop like wilted flowers, colours blended together into an incomprehensible earthen muddle. There are two moons hanging above them, one white and the other blue, both of them “dripping” as if they were made of wet paint, streaking the black sky like a canvas. Mitsuki sees a flash of bright red on a nearby tree branch and thinks it must be a bird, or at least a semblance of one, as its features seem to be in a constant state of flux.

 

The only thing untouched by this deformity is the clock, suspended high above, counting down the seconds with its usual ominous steadiness.

 

“God, this place is creepy,” Mitsuki mutters.

 

“Could be worse,” Hinata says, nonchalant as always. They stop at what looks like a crossroads, two tree-lined paths branching in opposite directions, and Hinata thinks for a moment before taking the left one. The third member of their group still hasn’t shown up. Mitsuki wonders if something happened to them, and tries not to imagine the deathtraps that might be lying in wait within the forest. He’s so busy worrying that he hardly notices where he’s putting his feet, until suddenly there’s nothing but air beneath him – a yawning chasm in the middle of the path. He lets out a panicked shout, arms pinwheeling madly, struggling to regain his balance.

 

A hand reaches out and grabs him by his collar, yanking him backwards, and he collapses in a heap in the dirt.

 

“God, you’re an idiot,” Hinata sighs. “We’ve discussed this before, haven’t we? ‘Watch where you’re going’ is rule number three of an Eclipse, dumbass.”

 

“Sh-shut up,” Mitsuki says shakily, legs unsteady as he stands. “I was lost in thought, okay? I’m not a multitasker like some of us.”

 

“Mmhmm. You do realize what this means, right? I just saved your life. That adds approximately 800,000 to your current debt, for a combined balance of 1,146,000. All in all, I’d say that equals… 93 favors in total that you owe me.”

 

Mitsuki glowers at him. “Seriously? My life is only worth 800,000 to you? Wow, Sanjuurou. Just… wow. That really boosts my confidence.”

 

“Don’t be mad,” Hinata says. He reaches out and brushes some dust from Mitsuki’s hair, his hand lingering just a heartbeat too long. “Most people would only be worth about 100,000.”

 

And despite it all, Mitsuki laughs.

 

(Maybe someday this thing between them will no longer have a price.)