Some days, Hisomu feels alive.
They won't ever forget their first summer. Obviously. The memories there are warm and sharp, and Hisomu thinks of it as a cut that's made a lasting scar. There's always going to be some sort of tightness to the skin, a different texture.
With his plethora of scar tissue, he doesn't mind.
In the beginning, it seems odd that the rest of them don't mind either, because they're not like him. They don't feel like him. He figures out fairly early that they have their own neuroses. As much as pain gets him off, on some level, the average person seeks it too. He's seen Nico watch Tenga together with Chidori. He's seen Honoka read the ending to her own manga over and over. He's seen Yuta diet for a role he no longer fills. He's seen Katsuhira rake his thumb over the edge of an open can, and stare in wonder that he feels it at all.
Pain is pain, not everyone likes it exactly like Hisomu does, but it proves that you're there.
The dull ache that's there when the pain subsides has always held less interest to him.
Their second summer together is made of less hurt, but is still tangled in messy romantic ties that make Hisomu take notice. There are obviously still feelings there, but everyone seems content to comfort themselves with their own relationships.
It's interesting to watch, but this detached observation smarts like a lie. He is one of them. Of course he is.)
For all of her talk, Noriko is content with Katsuhira's determination to romance her in the slowest, most tender way possible. It makes sense. The two of them are still testing the waters; they need to find out who they are. Together. Without. It's almost sweet.
Yuta and Honoka are entertaining in that they are on completely different pages at every point in time. It takes them awhile to navigate themselves to the point of being together in the first place, but when they do, it's nearly funny. Yuta seems content to go to dinner and a movie, and Honoka seems content to get kicked out of the movie theater for public indecency.
Yuta insists that they were just kissing, and Honoka just looks something between pleased and bored.
Yuta is perhaps the most well-versed in dating of all of them, but none of that experience applies one bit to her. That said, their relationship has a clear expiration date, with Honoka submitting her career intentions to go to Tokyo as a writer, and Yuta looking at schools further North for programming.
Chidori and Tenga honestly seem the most well-adjusted as a couple out of all of them. It isn't saying much, of course. Still, as hot-headed as they both are, they're stable. Chidori never lets her embarrassment turn into anger, and Tenga is gentle without treating her like glass. When Chidori starts working part time in the kitchens of a home-style restaurant, Tenga somehow wrangles getting a job serving. His consistently bruised knuckles fade, and when they reappear, she gives him hell while spraying the disinfectant she keeps in her bag. She never takes on his pain like she did with Katsuhira. Never attaches her worth to Tenga, or goes to bended knee to take care of him. They take care of each other.
Nothing is ever caught in a bubble, and feelings old and new always overflow. There's last summer's love-dodecahedron. Of course. There's a wry fondness on the part of everyone involved. The new feelings are downright fascinating. Maybe they're not new so much as more present. Hisomu watches, has been watching, but he cannot tell why or how.
They're at the beach. It's the second week of vacation. Everyone is more or less comfortable with Noriko's presence in the group, and is showing her the type of summer activities most of them only experienced last year. Today is fireworks. Last week was watermelon smashing.
Nico is jumping around utterly happy. She turns to Honoka, who is on the sidelines much like last time, and calls her name, bouncing around, urging her to at least try one of the sparklers. When Nico turns back to the rest of the group, Honoka's face goes something past fond. Is it nostalgic? Without finesse, Hisomu prods the wasp-nest.
"Honoka, do you like Nico?"
"That isn't your question." she replies after a moment. Her look is only a little cold, more along the lines of resigned. "Why, are you a voyeur on top of everything else?"
"No, just curious if you like her, or who she reminds you of."
This is the comment that provokes something icy and hard in her expression. In a flash, it's gone again.
"I would think you were a sadist given that you no longer get a share of our pain."
Honoka appraises him for a long moment, tension building as she looks for something in his eyes, but it flows away in her loud exhale.
"She reminds me of Ruru sometimes, but they're too damn different to even... Compare. She's Nico, and she gives herself over so fully to everyone."
Nico is Nico. A few weeks ago, she told Hisomu, in a roundabout way, that the urgency of her feelings about Tenga have faded, and that she just wants to be with everybody forever. That she really likes everybody. Loves them.
"I want to break her." It's a mirror of what she told Yuta, the echo of a ghost.
"She would let you." Hisomu says simply, practicing some restraint for once. It's obviously not quite enough because the look she throws him is pissed, and she immediately leaves for the comfort of the others.
It probably can't be helped. He takes a moment, and slides into the group as well.
Honoka doesn't look at Nico for the rest of the night.
Hisomu isn't going to pursue Yuta's comments or lingering looks. Whatever that boy is dealing with is packed under expectations, repression, and his current relationship.
Tenga appears to have a variety of feelings for Katsuhira, most of which could be categorized as being a bodyguard.
Hisomu watches for the ones that don't. The feelings that toe past protection into affection.
Midway through the second summer, mostly everyone has found a way to pick up Chidori and Tenga regularly from the restaurant. It's on one of these nights that Katsuhira is texting Noriko in a park across the street. Everyone else is inside, waiting on Tenga and Chidori to hang up their aprons and gather their things from the lockers in the back room.
It's like Katsuhira has a target on his back, even now.
When they all eventually exit, it's to the sight of their friend's white hair caught in someone else's tight grasp. There are two of the typical type of thugs, the ones that see an easy target and go in for money.
Tenga goes still, and then rockets past all of them to land a flying kick to one guy's face, and then punch the one holding Katsuhira. It's the over-the-top display everyone expects, but no one would complain about anymore. Especially not right now.
Tenga hoists the muggers up one by one, and says in a low voice,
"Remember my face. Got it? You don't come round here again."
He must have been holding back, pulling his punches, because the guys are conscious enough to sway out of the park and down the street. His face doesn't relax until they're gone, and he joins Chidori in checking over Katsuhira. His hand stills in Katsuhira's hair, and Hisomu looks on as Tenga runs his fingers through again before pulling his hand away. The two of them submit to Chidori's mighty antiseptic.
The hand flexes at Tenga's side, and then curls. Hisomu sees it all.
Katsuhira looks at him across the couch one evening, looks up from his phone, and says,
"I want you and Nico to meet my friends."
Hisomu can't think of a bigger expression of trust from Katsuhira.
The three of them take a regular bus this time, and make their way out to the new rehabilitation center. Nico and Hisomu are given a quiet talk about how getting pain back was different for each of the child-experiments. For the ones who still cannot return to their families, textures or pressure can read like pain. Katsuhira might seek out touch more these days, but his friends spend their time overstimulated. The pseudo-boarding school makes sure that the teenagers can acclimate to everyday life, but it's slow going.
The center they walk to from the bus stop is larger than Hisomu is expecting, but Katsuhira's friends are apparently not the only students there. Nico comments on how quiet it is while they take their shoes off. Just a light murmur filling the halls. As they walk through, the guest slippers seem quieter as well.
When they step into a game room, the teens with familliar white hair greet Katsuhira excitedly, but their hugs are feather light. They get a proper round of introductions, this time with no anguished cries. Nico is bubbly, but she never oversteps, or makes a move to initiate contact. When Yuki gently sets a hand on her shoulder, and she is obviously overjoyed, but contains her response to a bright smile and a clearly telegraphed brush of fingers.
They all speak slowly, but the conversation is free-flowing and happy. Hisomu engages very little for the most part, but there is some feeling that presses at his sternum in the way Katsuhira looks at them all. A soft smile that makes Hisomu grateful that he got to be here. To see this.
This feeling should worry him more than it does, but he knows what he's about. He never completely lets his guard down around the Kiznaivers, but he's not in denial. He's not Nico though. Doesn't have that all encompassing love for them all. But he feels that softness, at least when he's with his strange trio.
After an hour, they leave the center, and Katsuhira collapses into Hisomu and Nico with a tearful hug and smile that could pass as fierce.
"God, I'm so glad to have them back."
Nico nestles in closer, and says, "Nico is so happy for Katsuhira and his friends. Katsuhira was so sad last year... And we're glad to have you back too."
"I'm... Glad you were with me then. It would have been harder without you two, I think."
Hisomu let's his arms tighten around them both, feels them shake just a bit, and pulls back just enough to look him in the eye.
And they all burrow deeper into the hold.
Chidori, to her credit, looks on all of them in a caring way. Nearing the end of summer, they're all in the mountain cabin for the second year in a row. Seemingly free of chaperones this time. Or so everyone hopes.
Katsuhira and Noriko look startlingly different sometimes. The contrast between this year and last is a shock to the system. It's incredible to watch them both take in the same scenery with completely divergent reactions. Noriko's delight is a thing to behold when unhindered by constant sedation.
As with last year, the Kiznaivers break into small groups. It's a little different this time, with Nico, Noriko, and Hisomu joining Chidori in the kitchen.
Tenga is chopping wood, with Yuta playing common-sense. Katsuhira and Honoka clean out the tub.
Noriko comments while chopping things under Chidori's supervision, that the lodge is now being rented out on a regular basis to school clubs who need a study camp, or small companies who need a getaway. It's the only reason everything isn't covered in dust, given lack of funding.
Hisomu has been banned from knives, and goes about mixing an incredibly large bowl of eggs. Also supervised. Nico is apparently competent enough to avoid heavy watch, but everything in the kitchen goes under the inspection of their head chef at one point or another.
There's a ridiculous feast by the end, with an astounding variety of dishes.
It clicks partway through the meal that mixed into the bunch are dishes Yuta doesn't have to pick around. Ones that he doesn't have to even ask about. His plate is the fullest Hisomu has ever seen it, and Honoka seems to be taking mind with one of her softer smiles.
Chidori's caring attitude is well-known, and he could write it off, but the look on her face next to him is past content. It's general, of course, a job well done. But her eyes skip back to Yuta and the plate slowly being cleaned. Once, twice, again.
Hisomu wonders how they all must look these days.
Summer isn't the end, of course. They still have winter break, not to mention the rest of the school year. The autumn term starts.
The group communicates well enough. They coordinate in study sessions. Outings when they're all free: Chidori and Tenga of work, Noriko of tutors, Katsuhira of old friends, Nico and Yuta of cram school, and Honoka, shockingly, of a book-deal.
They don't isolate themselves, but it's obvious to their class, if not the entire school, that they share something different. Hisomu has come to think of them as codependent, and then follows that up with asking Noriko. She gives the impish grin that no one ever gets used to seeing on her face, and says,
"Aren't you all?"
Hisomu isn't sure what sort of expression he's making, but she laughs until he says, "And aren't you one of us?"
She seems surprised, a bit. Her grin fades to a warm smile with watery eyes. He watches her blink away the beginning of tears, and knows it isn't pain, but happiness that makes her cry like that.
Winter break is a surprising time for the tangle of relationships. The romance associated with the season seem to matter less to the established couples.
They all just seem to want to soak in as much of each other possible, every single one of them. There's a fresh, light sense of foreboding. A faint touch of desperation in the face of their looming departures. They mix and mingle, and do everything short of actually dating by name.
Hisomu waits and wonders if they'll realize how nebulous the term "romance" is in the first place. If anyone will say anything.
Nico's bright declarations of love ring as one of her quirks. Hisomu knows the depth of her feelings though, and wishes that the rest of the group could accept her as she wants to be accepted. He gives her the feelings she desires, quietly and sincerely, but he can't give her everything she wants. She wants something so free and boundless, unconfined by labels and expectations, that Hisomu doubts any one person could give it to her. But he tells her the things she needs to hear, and keeps her company when she desires simple affection.
There's no pressure from her to fit any mold, but Hisomu still worries just a little that he's not giving her enough.
Despite the insular direction that their group has been taking over break, Katsuhira makes a point of bringing Nico and Hisomu along to visit his old friends.
The bus rides are almost as long as the visits, but each time they go, things seem more... Stable. Hisomu isn't sure how the experiment-kids cope with a world that's too loud. Too rough. Too bright.
It feels wrong to analyze Noriko too much, but she's blunt as ever when she slides up next to him nearing the end of break.
"You don't have to ask my permission you know."
"To be with him."
Hisomu has some reservations about that comment. He's not sure how exactly she means it, to what degree.
A week later when Hisomu is watching gameshows with Katsuhira, head in his lap. Katsuhira leans over, curls in to press a kiss to Hisomu's temple. When he looks up into grey eyes lit by the flashing television, he finds something familiar there, and sits up. Katsuhira doesn't look nervous or bashful, or even curious. Just sweet, and perhaps expectant. Hisomu draws in, his weight resting on his left hand as his right hovers over Katsuhira's face.
Hisomu leans forward, and doesn't look for boundaries to press, or needs he wants filled. He just gives in to something uncomplicated. Maybe he'll think about all of this later, the way Katsuhira thumbs idly at the holes in his shirt, or breathes just a little shakily despite apparent composure.
There isn't any rush, so they both take their time. Katsuhira pulls back and runs a hand through his hair just as Hisomu is beginning to feel light-headed.
And then they go back to watching the television.