Hello again, everyone! To cut down on further delays, I'll be doing somewhat shorter chapters from now on. I hope you guys don't mind.

Also, if you haven't already, I'd recommend reading Kuzuhiko's Chapter 3 Update 4 before reading this chapter and the next. It covers a scene Orenronen skipped that I'll be, er, referencing. (As of this writing kuzuhiko's blog is password-protected, I don't know why, scroll to the endnotes for a description if you haven't seen it) (Edit as of 2016: Another relic, but given this is an easily missable scene in-game reading the description is well worth it!)

Chapter Three, Part Three

komaeda theater

"If you don't understand hope, I'd be more than happy to explain it to you. But before I do, you have to understand that we all live in isolation from each other. We have our ideas of our personal hopes and our ideas of our personal despair, and we may even go through life thinking that our hope and our despair is more important than anyone else's, by virtue of our being born in our bodies.

"But I let that disappointment pass me by a long time ago. Personal hope and despair are illusions created when a mass of worthless, talentless humans want to think that they're gods unto themselves. Whatever measure they have, what little, useless part they call their own, they naturally only carry to the whole, and they can only act and feel based on that whole. Any of them who say that they run contrary to that whole are really only lying to themselves. Hope is collective. Hope is potential. What matters in the end is your degree of influence. The powerful are the ones with the ability to warp hope and shred despair, not for themselves but for the world. And that's the meaning of this mutual killing; your purpose in the grand scheme of the world.

"I hope you can understand that a little better, now. You seemed so distressed before, and I thought an explanation would clear things up.

"Tonight's lucky numbers are 14, 56, 79, 8, 13, 20, 27, 39, 43, 41, 55, and 71."

You've only made things worse, Hinata thought, but before he could remember why he'd had that thought it vanished along with its context. His eyes were still closed, but he felt more aware of his surroundings then he had a moment before. Right, he realized. He must have gone to sleep at some point.

Out of habit he opened his eyes, and then shut them against a sudden dull throbbing at the base of his skull. He hadn't felt anything like this yesterday, but he had a pretty good idea of where it might've come from: the "training session" Mioda had roped him into the previous night, on top of all the walking he'd done around the third island. The last thing he remembered was the floor of the Titty Typhoon spinning out from under him, followed by several stumbling scenes from his trip back to his dorm. He did have to admit he was pretty impressed that he'd headbanged himself into exhaustion.

The Monobear announcement made the headache a moot point, so he got up and headed for the bathroom. Other memories crossed his mind as he went: the scene at breakfast, Togami's resignation, and the confrontation in the cottage. He still wasn't sure what would come of it. He hadn't seen Nanami since she'd shooed him out, and Togami hadn't taken Mioda up on her offer to come to the third island, not even after she'd insisted on waiting for him until sunset. No one else he'd run into had seen them, nor had they seemed particularly concerned about their whereabouts. Nidai and Owari were content with being confident they'd "know by now if something was wrong", Tsumiki had certainly been worried, but only in her usual general sense, and Souda hadn't seemed keen on talking to them about anything that didn't involve the walkie-talkie set he was rebuilding.

None of those responses had seemed reasonable at first, but Hinata supposed they'd gotten used to blocking out their situation whenever they could. He could understand – he didn't count himself an exception to that. But there was a time to block and a time to confront – he knew that well enough, and he was confident everyone else did, too.

We're choosing a new leader today, he remembered as he buttoned his shirt. He wasn't sure how much he liked the idea itself, but he'd seen enough Jabberwock breakfasts to know that they rarely went as intended. Even if his questions had nothing to do with the leadership of the group, it stood to reason that they might be answered anyway. He just didn't know if he'd like the process that they'd have to take to get there.

It was past seven-thirty when Hinata arrived at the main building, but the lobby was empty and he couldn't hear any voices from the restaurant. He could hardly believe he was the first one there, and in fact he wasn't. When he went up the stairs he found Tanaka on the other side of the room, next to Sonia's shrine – which, though somewhat worse for wear, had still not been dismantled. He had his back to Hinata, and if he had heard him come in he did not react.

Hinata felt a chill run down his spine. He didn't know if he was disturbing anything, but given that the others had to be coming, it was now or never. "Er, Tanaka," he said.

Tanaka turned his head slowly, and gave him a hard look. "You," he said.

"Yeah…me." Hinata hardly knew what to say to Tanaka in the best of times, but now he felt so lost his mouth ran without any thought at all. "I haven't seen you in a while," he said.

Tanaka stared another moment, then turned back to the shrine. "The certainty of this world disintegrates with alarming rapidity," he said. "'Turning and turning the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.' The black curse on the hearts of the desperate, unliftable by mortal means…how quaint of you, to think a mere council can erase it."

"Yeah, well…" Hinata had been thinking something similar. "Yeah."

"The quest of "Mirage Silver Falcon" Jum-P has led me to see the necessity of this journey of my own," he went on. "But my own private purposes must continue if anything is to be solved. At this I will but cast my vote and leave."

"Yeah…sounds about right." Hinata looked back at Tanaka for another second, but when he didn't continue the conversation Hinata headed for the food tables.

The others started to come in as he took and ate his breakfast. Nidai and Tsumiki were early as usual. Nidai greeted Tanaka with great enthusiasm, which Tanaka did not return with nearly the attention he had given to Hinata, while Tsumiki apologized for her lateness despite Hinata's assurance that she wasn't late in the slightest.

"I wanted to be here earlier," she said, hands clasped to her heart, "But Kuzuryuu-san…he didn't know about the meeting, so I went to get him…b-but he wouldn't answer me, or open the door…"

"That's about normal for him, though," Hinata said, hoping he sounded comforting. "I'm not surprised he wasn't interested."

"But I was supposed to, and I couldn't do it!" Tsumiki said, a tinge of panic in her voice. "And I couldn't change his bandages, either… if he keeps using his hands, they'll…!"

"We can try again after breakfast, Tsumiki," Nidai interrupted. "But I think we've done about all we can do for now."

"Yeah, if he forfeits his vote it's not really on you," Hinata said.

"Y-you're sure?" Tsumiki looked surprised to know that she wasn't at all to blame. "Hee…heehee…that's amazing…!"

Tsumiki laughed and clapped her hands, her concern for Kuzuryuu's health apparently set aside. Hinata looked over her shoulder and saw that Saionji and Koizumi had gotten their breakfast unnoticed; they were sitting now, casting glances at Tanaka and speaking in an undertone to each other. Hinata couldn't hear most of what they were saying, but when the phrase "dirty bitch foreigner" leapt out at him he immediately turned away.

Owari was next up, yawning and stretching, closely followed by Nanami, who greeted him almost too calmly before following Owari to the food tables. Hinata couldn't let her get away – he slipped away from Tsumiki and Nidai, followed her to the food tables, and caught her just as she was leaving. "Hey, uh," he said entirely too loudly, then slipped into an undertone. "How'd everything go?"

"Everything?" Nanami's eyes widened. "Oh, with Togami-kun? He's fine." She paused. "I think."

"You think?" Hinata said, though the "fine" surprised him more. "Well…what happened? He didn't show up on the third island yesterday."

"He didn't? That makes sense, I guess. He told me needed some time to himself." Nanami set her plate at the nearest table. "But I don't know what happened after that." She yawned loudly. "I…fell asleep."

Hinata wasn't surprised. "Well, whatever you did, I hope it worked," he said.

"Me too. But it may take some time to know for sure." Nanami stared out the window as she spoke. "I can't really be more exact."

"Right. I know." Hinata hoped he looked like he was satisfied, even if, deep down, he really couldn't be. What could Nanami, of all people, have to say to Togami that no one else could know? And what effect could it have? Was it something she knew about him, something no one else did? If so, what? How? He couldn't begin to imagine anything, not until he got at least one more hint that for now no one was giving him.

While they had been speaking, Souda had entered the room. At first glance he looked somewhat more animated than he had the previous day, and didn't even seem fazed by Saionji's fierce look. But the moment he saw Tanaka any of the good cheer he'd had vanished. He positioned himself behind the food tables, his hands in his pockets and his back turned to the rest.

Nanami tried to greet Souda without avail, and Hinata turned away just in time to see Mioda bound up the stairs and take a look around the room. "Whoa, Ibuki's pretty late!" she announced. "O-kay, somebody grab some buckets, Ibuki needs to stand in the hall!"

"Buckets?" Saionji said. "That only happens in anime!"

"I'm sure she knows, Hiyoko-chan. It's just a joke." Koizumi stood up from her seat, cleared her throat, and raised her voice. "Hey…this is everyone's that coming, right?"

Hinata looked around to see who hadn't been counted. Most everyone was already standing in a kind of semi-circle in the front of the room, conveniently enough – except Souda and Tanaka. Neither of them had reacted to the call at all – in fact, Hinata could swear that Souda had moved closer to Tanaka.

"I think I see everyone except Togami and Kuzuryuu," Owari said. "I guess we're not going to wait on them?"

"I tried to get Kuzuryuu-san to come," Tsumiki said. "But I couldn't…I'm sorry…"

"M-maybe Byakuya-chan's changed his mind, though?" Mioda said, rubbing her hands together. "I could go get him –"

"If they're not coming, they're not coming," Koizumi said. "Besides…if they're not going to act like they're part of the group I don't think we need their input."

"Well, if they show up, we'll figure that out when it happens," Hinata said. "Until then…are we taking a vote?"

"Just like that?" Nidai said. "Are we going to nominate anyone?"

No one said a word. Souda was definitely moving closer to Tanaka – they were both at the shrine now, on opposite sides. "That might be a bit messy," Nanami said. "We should go around to everyone one at a time, discuss whether or not they'd be fit for the job, and then take a vote."

"But where should we start?" Tsumiki said. Silence still – no one wanted to be the person that began the conversation, Hinata could tell. Or was he just projecting his own discomfort onto everyone else? He couldn't focus with the commotion in the background. Souda and Tanaka were inches apart – Souda was reaching for Tanaka's collar –

Wait, Hinata thought, why the hell am I not doing anything?

"SOUDA!" he shouted – but only in time for Tanaka to counter-grab Souda's jumpsuit and divert him into a nearby table. Tsumiki screamed, several others recoiled, and out of the corner of his eye Hinata could see Koizumi's mouth drop open.

Souda didn't appear seriously harmed, but he also wasn't getting up, as Tanaka still had him pinned. "An attack from behind?" he said, his expression as hard as before. "I expected nothing less from one with no Gifts of which to speak."

"Shut up! S-shut up!" Souda thrust his weight against Tanaka's arm, to no avail. "Y-you're just here to mock her, aren't you? Just to rub it in her face –"

"Then you still entertain your delusions?" Tanaka said. "I am told the weak take comfort in such. Go on, accuse me again of conspiracy. You will do nothing but make a fool of yourself."

"Oh, so this is what I get? This is what you think?" Souda grabbed Tanaka's arm with both hands. "It doesn't matter what anyone thinks now! You, and Monobear, you can't keep tricking them forever! They'll see – I'll show them –"

"HEY, HEY!" Nidai was already halfway to Souda and Tanaka, fists raised. "Break it up, right now –"

"This is not your battle, sportive one! Those who refuse the proper grief of body and soul must be taught a personal lesson!" Tanaka raised a fist at Nidai, but it didn't stop his advance – he pulled Tanaka off Souda with ease and held his arms behind his back.

"I'd like to see you try!" Souda was just about to lunge for Tanaka when Owari moved and pinned his arms, but unlike Tanaka he struggled fiercely against her. "I know the truth! There's evidence and I'm going to find it! Even if I have to beat you and Monobear black and blue, I'll expose the traitor – I'll have proof!"

"Th-the traitor?!" Mioda said. "Ibuki forgot that was even a thing!"

"Souda-kun, Tanaka-kun definitely isn't the traitor!" Nanami said.

"He's the only person who could've killed Pekoyama! I can prove it, I…" Souda shuddered; tears and snot were running down his face. "Why aren't any of you giving me a chance?" he moaned, almost inaudible. "D-d-do you want Sonia-san to be guilty that badly?"

Hinata hardly knew what to say, and yet he found his mouth moving, if only to convince himself that he understood. "Look, Souda –"

"Shut up!" Koizumi shouted over Hinata, her face red with anger. "If you're just going to interrupt our meeting, then get out! That goes for both of you!"

"But – but –" Souda looked up at Koizumi as if her words had come as a surprise to him.

"But what?" Saionji said, her voice venomous. "You're just a side character. You've lived too long anyway. What makes you think we want you to lead us? We already told you we didn't want to see you!"

No one raised any objection, but Hinata was growing more uncomfortable by the second. Did it make sense to ostracize two members of the group at a meeting about choosing who was best to unite them all? Not only that, but Tanaka was vengeful and Souda was clearly unstable. Shouldn't they be keeping a closer eye on them? That was what Togami might have suggested – but would that advice work?

The words were in Hinata's mouth, but he couldn't speak over Koizumi. "This shouldn't be a big deal if you weren't participating in the first place," she'd said, pointing her finger at the stairs. "Go ahead and fight for all I care, but don't get any of the rest of us involved –"

"My humble greetings to you all!"

Koizumi fell silent, and her jaw went slack again. Hinata couldn't help but do the same the moment he recognized the voice, but he still looked, just to be sure.

Kuzuryuu stood at the head of the stairs, his entire body sunk in a low bow. He held one hand in front of him, and the other on his knee. "I wish to speak, if you'll see fit to hear me!" he stated. "Before you stands Fuyuhiko, of the family Kuzuryuu! A novice, still untrained in the family business! I beg to intrude upon your notice!"

Hinata's mind went blank. Souda went limp in Owari's grip, his passion checked. No one said a word, or appeared able until Hinata heard Tanaka speak behind him. "What…was that?"

"I…It was nothing. Just a simple greeting…" Kuzuryuu looked from the main group, who were looking at him as though he had seven heads, to the group by the shrine, taking in Nidai and Owari's restraints and Souda's tear-stained face. "Wait, what the hell's going on?"

"None of your business," Owari spat.

"Fuyuhiko-chan's timing is even worse than Monomi's!" Mioda said. "It's so bad it went out the other end and become his best timing yet!"

"We'll…explain," Hinata said. "But what are you doing here?"

Kuzuryuu was silent for a long time. "Who knows," he said. "Could be the same reason you are. Togami's cracked, right? And you're here to replace him. With a lot of yellin' and screamin' involved."

"That's not what he meant," Saionji spat. "Why are you here at all? No one wanted to remember you exist!"

Kuzuryuu's expression, already somber, now grew dark. "That so?" he said, looking at Saionji.

"Is that even a question?" Saionji looked about ready to deck Kuzuryuu, but to Hinata's surprise Koizumi held her hand firmly. "You threatened Big Sis Koizumi! And then you went and betrayed everyone –"

"Hiyoko-chan…" Koizumi herself was opening and closing her mouth between false starts, and she had fixed Kuzuryuu with a look unlike any Hinata had ever seen on her face before. It occurred to him that this was the first time the two of them had seen each other since the school trial. Everyone else looked on them with caution, but no one looked to interfere yet.

"Yeah, I know, I've already been told." Kuzuryuu shuddered, and then shot a look at Sonia's shrine. "S'my fault. All of it. Peko dying…oh, and Sonia too while we're at it. Not to mention Togami and whatever he's up to. List just goes on and on, huh. All kinds of aches and pains I'm causing."

"Er…" Hinata couldn't predict Kuzuryuu's next move at all. His tone was somewhere between casual and morose, but he almost looked sad since Saionji had spoken. It was nothing like he'd expected and he didn't really have a rebuttal. "Well…"

"Wait, Kuzuryuu's responsible?" Souda said from the back of the room. "That doesn't make any sense –"

"SHUT UP!" Saionji shouted. "Is this all a joke to you? Like it doesn't matter? It is, isn't it? I'm not going to let you stand here and mock us!"

"Like it doesn't matter…" Kuzuryuu shook his head. "No…no, that's not how it is at all…"

Suddenly Kuzuryuu sunk to the ground, with his head between his knees. Hinata could hardly wonder why before he saw something small and metallic flash in his jacket. It took him a second to register that it was a knife – but before he could yell it slipped through Kuzuryuu's unmoving fingers, falling to the floor with a clatter.

Hinata hadn't realized until that moment that Kuzuryuu wasn't wearing any bandages. His fingers were frozen at odd angles, and it was clear he'd tried to slide some of his rings back over his blisters without success. In a swift move he grabbed for the knife again, trying to hold it, but his fingers refused to open – and the others hardly waited for them to cooperate.

Nidai and Tsumiki were on him in a moment. Nidai grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him away from the knife; he struggled at first, but gave up the fight when he saw his efforts weren't making a difference. Tsumiki ran over and examined his hands. "I…I told you…" Tsumiki mumbled. "If you use your hands, you'll just make your injuries worse…"

"I think that's the last thing we're concerned about!" Owari shouted. "W-what the hell –!"

"If he was sitting the way he was," Nanami said quietly, "The only place the knife could go –"

"That wasn't for any of you," Kuzuryuu interrupted, apparently not hearing her. "It was for me. Looks like I've fucked up my apology, too. Anyone want to help? Koizumi? Saionji? I'm dead serious –"

"Kuzuryuu, enough," Nidai said, looking scandalized. He said something in a lower tone to Tsumiki, and she nodded in response before turning back to the rest of the group.

"W-we…we…we need to re-bandage his hands," she said. "Just have the meeting without us!"

There were a few scattered nods, and the three of them headed for the stairs. Hinata was still reeling, and he was sure the rest were too. Saionji was frozen in place, her eyes wide with shock; Koizumi's head was tilted down, her hair in her face.

Tanaka stormed across the room and down the stairs without a word to anyone. A second later Souda followed – not with any purpose or look of vengeance, but with his head down, as though he were trying not to be seen. Koizumi trembled, then set off herself. She stopped at the head of the stairs to kick the banister, then followed after them with Saionji at her heels.

They couldn't continue their meeting after that.

After Hinata finished his food he had no reason to stay at the restaurant. Only four people remained – himself, Owari, Mioda, and Nanami – and he made sure to say his goodbyes so it didn't look like he was storming off too. He didn't know if they would have cared. None of them looked like they really knew what to do, in the face of…

In the face of all this despair, Hinata thought as he left the lobby. The word felt heavy and unsteady on his mind, but it was the only one he could think to use to describe his own feeling. He couldn't think of any way to approach any of their problems, and he already felt like he was at the end of his rope. And even then, if they didn't do anything, any minute someone could…someone could…

"Hajime-chan! Hajime-chan!"

Mioda's voice came closer with every word, so Hinata was surprised – but only barely – when he turned around and she was directly behind him. "Mioda!" he shouted. "What's going on?"

"'What's going on?' That's copyright infringement! Playful cluelessness is Ibuki's endearing character trait!" Hardly, Hinata thought. "Ibuki won't accept Hajime-chan ACTUALLY forgetting about the master plan!"

"Master plan…?" Hinata said. "Wait, are we still doing that?"

"Huh?" Mioda looked confused. "Why shouldn't we?"

"I…don't really think people are in the right mood for it."

"Hmmm, Hajime-chan has much to learn!" Mioda pointed forward and set off for the cottages, leaving Hinata to tag behind her. "This only makes Ibuki's Master Plan even more vital to everyone's well-being! You and Ibuki, as caretakers of the plan, have to make sure it goes off without a hitch!"

"I..." Hinata felt more doubtful by the second. "I guess we can see how far we get."

"That's the spirit!" Mioda turned and held a stack of papers up to Hinata's face. "Ibuki has all the invitations ready. We have to slide these under everyone's doors!"

Hinata squinted to read the bright purple lettering: "Summer Fireworks Festival at the first island beach! Meet Ibuki at the supermarket at 8:00." He found himself very glad that he'd been able to stop Mioda from putting anything about "the special return of Byakuya-chan" on them. "We're not going to talk to them in person?" he said.

"Ibuki's plan is to prevent hasty judgements!" Mioda said. "It's easy to say no to something that sounds like Ibuki just made it up on the spot, but with an invitation it sounds official and not like a plan thrown together the night before!"

"You did throw it together the night before," Hinata said.

"But they don't know that!" Mioda winked. As they talked, passed through the gates of the cottage areas, and stopped at the divide between the boys' and girls' sides. "Ho-kay, first up is buh- buh- BAH!"

Mioda swung around to face the boys' side, and Hinata followed suit when he looked after her. Togami was standing outside Kuzuryuu's cottage, apparently deep in conversation with Tsumiki. Togami's back was to them, and he doubted Tsumiki could see over his shoulder, but he could hear their conversation clearly.

"Nidai assisted you, then?" Togami said. "Is he still inside?"

"He left a while ago," Tsumiki said. "Kuzuryuu-san hasn't really been a problem, and I said I could take care of him myself…"

"You're sure, then." Togami paused. "How is he?"

"I bandaged his hands the best I could, but – ah, t-that's not what you meant, is it?" Tsumiki appeared to be even more on-edge than usual. "He hasn't been difficult, but he seems…disappointed. But I don't know, he hasn't really been talking to me…"

"I see," Togami said. "Well…I'd ask to see him, but perhaps this isn't the time. If you need any help, however, I'm right across the aisle."

"Are you sure? B-but that'd just be a burden on you –" Tsumiki's eyes shifted to look at Hinata and Mioda, and she flinched. "Ah! Hinata-san! Mioda-san!"

"What?" Togami turned and looked at them, his eyes wide. "You two –!"

"Byakuya-chan!" Mioda shoved the invitations into Hinata's hands and rushed for Togami, stopping just short of crashing into him. "I-is this an illusion? Ibuki might be imagining things!" She reached up and poked Togami's left cheek. "But she's not! It really is Byakuya-chan!"

"What th – of course I'm not an illusion," Togami said. He looked startled at Mioda, but regained his composure within a second. "Breakfast is over, then?"

"Uh, yeah," Hinata said. Togami did, at least, look more composed than he had the previous day, but with Tsumiki and Mioda around he wasn't sure how much he could say. "We, ah, don't have a leader yet…"

"I'm aware. I heard about everything from Tsumiki." Togami inclined his head towards Tsumiki, who reddened, then turned back to them. "It's…well, I'm sure you will soon enough," he said tonelessly, before turning his back. "Now, if you don't mind, I should probably get my own breakfast. I've been delayed on that too long."

"No, wait, not yet!" Mioda rushed out into Togami's path, blocking his way with her arms outstretched. "Ibuki is on a mission that can even overcome the importance of food!"

Togami hesitated. "I'd love to stay and play with you, Mioda, but there are things I need to accomplish after breakfast and I can't afford a delay –"

"But Ibuki won't take more than five seconds!" She pointed two fingers at the sky, then swung around and pointed at Hinata. "My lovely assistant is holding an invitation you need to see! Mikan-chan needs to take one too!"

"Lovely assistant...?!" Hinata tried not to look Togami and Tsumiki in the eye as they took and read the invitations. Togami's eyes widened considerably; Tsumiki looked startled, but pleased. "A s-summer festival?" she said, squeaking out her words. "R-really? Do we have everything for one?"

"For a true summer festival Ibuki'd need flimsy masks and carnival games to scam little kids out of their money. But there's definitely yukata and fireworks!" Mioda put her hands on her hips. "Ibuki won't say attendance is mandatory, she'll just say that if you don't come she won't leave you alone until you do!"

"This is…" Togami stared at the invitation for a moment, then looked up with a confused expression. "Why are you doing this, Mioda?"

"Hmmm? Cause it'd be fun, of course!" Mioda folded her arms. "Building bonds on a summer night is what the Japanese summer festival is all about!"

"So you've said. But…" Togami shook his head. "Won't such an event take up a large amount of the time we have? Don't we have other things we should be doing?"

Mioda tapped her chin. "Well, we could do anything, really. But even if it wasn't the right time yesterday, or the day before…Ibuki thinks this is the right thing to do, right now." She looked up at Togami. "Do you trust Ibuki?"

Togami looked Mioda directly in the eye, and wrinkled his brow, but he didn't hesitate for long. "I don't…doubt your thinking."

This sounded like an uncertain answer to Hinata, but Mioda took it wholeheartedly. "Oooh, I knew it!" she shouted. "So you're coming?"

"I…" Togami looked over to his side. "Hinata."

"Eh – huh?"

"Do you agree with her?"

"I mean…" Hinata stopped himself from shrugging - he had to be confident. "Yeah. It sounds like fun."

"Then I will give it some thought." Togami's expression did not change. "You're…giving those to everyone, aren't you? Then everyone is able to come to this gathering?"

"I-I'm coming for sure!" Tsumiki piped up. "Ah – do I count?"

"There's no reason you wouldn't," Hinata said before turning back to Togami. "Yeah, that's what it looks like."

"Then perhaps it would be…" Togami mumbled so softly that Hinata could hardly hear him, but spoke up again when he realized Hianta was listening. "No, I'll consider that later. I've delayed breakfast too long."

"Ooo-kay!" Mioda stepped to the side, and Togami passed her without looking at her. "Eat your breakfast, Byakuya-chan! Remember, supermarket! Eight o'clock!"

Togami did not answer – he was already almost out of sight by the time Mioda was done speaking. Mioda didn't look fazed, however – she turned to Hinata with a grin. "Ah, Byakuya-chan," she said. "Ibuki hates to see him leave but she loves to see him go. And she'll see him tonight for sure!"

"Er, okay," Hinata said. "Are you…really that sure?"

"Maybe Ibuki is, maybe Ibuki isn't." Mioda rubbed her chin. "But Ibuki can hope harder than anyone has ever hoped!"

The morning preparations for the party didn't take long at all. Tsumiki asked them for Kuzuryuu's invitation and took it back into the cottage with her, and they divided up the rest and slid them under everyone's doors. From there all that remained was gathering the crowd, changing into yukata at the supermarket, and taking the fireworks to the beach. This didn't have to be done for quite a long time, so they split up for the day, leaving Hinata to his own devices.

His afternoon was relatively uneventful. He spent most of it walking around the islands, looking for people to pass the time with, but there were very few to be found. Saionji shooed him away from the Chandler Beach house, Nanami seemed spacier than usual, and though he did find Nidai and Owari by the airport they looked to be deep in an intense conversation, and Hinata wasn't keen on interrupting them. Monobear popped up around four o'clock, taunting him about his victories, but he didn't tell him anything he didn't already know. He couldn't find Togami, or any of the others that had disappeared after breakfast.

Mioda had asked him to meet her back at the supermarket half an hour ahead of time, so at seven-thirty he arrived. He found Mioda leaning against a SPAM display, her arms folded and a grin on her face. "Hajime-chan," she said, in a low, triumphant tone. "Hajime-chan, Hajime-chan, Hajime-chan."

"Yeah, uh, hello to you too." Hinata always felt odd answering Mioda's overly informal addresses. He saw she'd already changed into a yukata – it was a dull-pink color, and fairly basic looking. "Wait, where'd you find those? I've never seen them in here."

"In the clothing section, but Ibuki put them on a rack by the bathrooms for easy changing purposes! They're nothing super special, but they have one for each of us. They even all have our names on the collar. That's what Ibuki calls a convenience store!" Mioda pointed towards the bathrooms. "Ibuki even put yours near the front!"

Hinata turned, saw the yukata racks, and balked. "Wait, wait, wait," he said. "I never said anything about wearing a yukata –"

"If you're coming to the party, you're wearing a yukata!" Mioda interrupted. "Ibuki's plan is very specific! It's a summer festival, so there have to be yukata! No exceptions!"

"But that's not –" Hinata stopped in his tracks – he knew from the look on Mioda's face that he didn't stand a chance against her. "Alright, alright. I'll wear it over my clothes."

"Grr, that's a major technicality…but Ibuki'll let it by. Now change! There's not a moment to lose!"

But we still have half an hour, Hinata thought, though he didn't dare say it. Instead he moved to the back of the supermarket, where the yukata racks sat. He located HAJIME HINATA right behind BYAKUYA TOGAMI, took it off its hanger, and pulled it on. Though he left it untied, it felt like a perfect fit.

He was about to turn back when he happened to look up at the next yukata, and did a double take at its label: NAGITO KOMAEDA. He was half-sure he could see a shorter, stouter one behind it, one that looked like it might have fit TERUTERU HANAMURA. A chill ran down his spine at the sight of them – but before he could process it he picked them both off the rack and shoved them into the nearby wetsuit display. He did the same with PEKO PEKOYAMA and SONIA NEVERMIND, wondering vaguely why Mioda hadn't done this herself.

A loud grunting noise snapped him back to reality; he turned to see Mioda struggling to carry several boxes of fireworks to the front of the store. Immediately he moved to help her out, despite her insistence that she could absolutely take seven at a time, and before long they were surrounded by what looked like the store's entire stock. "This looks like more than enough," he commented. "So, should I take these to the beach?"

"As quick as you can," Mioda said. "Ibuki needs to stay and greet our guests, but we can't have them go expecting fireworks and have to wait for them to be set up!"

"Speaking of guests, did anyone tell you whether they were coming?" Hinata said, picking up two boxes. "No one said anything to me about it."

Mioda's grin faltered slightly. "Ibuki's human contact's been pretty small today, but we do have Chiaki-chan and Mikan-chan! The others are a mystery, and Ibuki hasn't even seen Byakuya-chan since after breakfast. Gnnn, the anticipation's too much!"

Hinata didn't really want to see what would happen if Togami happened not to show up. "Well, I'd hope he comes, anyway," he said.

"Of course he will!" Mioda said. "We hardly need to hope! But there's still half an hour to go, and if Ibuki keeps being stuck between knowing and not knowing-"

A bell tone sounded, interrupting Mioda. Hinata looked up to see the glass front doors sliding shut – and Togami standing in front of them. He turned his head from left to right, then faced them directly, looking suddenly surprised at the sight of them.

Hinata was fairly certain he looked just as surprised. "Togami?" he said. "What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same," Togami said, but before Hinata could respond Mioda preempted him. "N-no way – that's just supernatural! Byakuya-chan really is a ghost! But that doesn't matter right now!" She shot past Hinata, again coming to a stop in front of Togami. "You came! But you're way too super early!"

"Early? Absolutely not. To come this early would be ridiculous. I'm…here on unrelated business. I wasn't expecting this to already be underway." Togami crossed his arms, and turned away from Mioda, looking rather more awkward than usual, by Hinata's estimation. "But if you expect me later, would you rather I leave for now?"

"No! No way!" Mioda pumped her arms rapidly up and down. "Earliness is next to godliness, that's Ibuki's motto! In fact, we can even move up the time, so that everyone else is late! I'll even make it explicitly clear-"

"That's not necessary, Mioda." Togami put a hand to his chin, and furrowed his brow for a moment. "You mentioned yukata earlier. Given your own I assume you're distributing them here."

"Oh – yeah! By the bathrooms, in fact!" Mioda made a swirling motion with her arms and pointed back to the racks. "Byakuya-chan's is right up front!"

"Then I will put it on this instant." He started for the bathrooms, then stopped and turned to look at Hinata. "You haven't tied yours, Hinata," he said.

"I…didn't really intend to," Hinata said.

"Do you not know how?" An odd look came over Togami's face. "You cross one part over your shoulder, wrap the other part around, and tie the ends."

"I'm fine, really." Hinata grimaced.

"Very well." Togami kept going, stopping only to pick up his yukata before closing the bathroom door. For a second there was silence in the supermarket – then Hinata noticed that Mioda was making a kind of keeing sound, and watching the bathroom door intently.

"Are you…okay?" he said.

"Does Hajime-chan really not know?" Mioda grinned, and shifted back and forth on the balls of her feet. "An extremely vital moment is coming! Ibuki has to be prepared!"

It didn't take long for the penny to drop for him. "Wait, don't tell me –"

"Ibuki's plan is full of little surprises," Mioda said with a wink, "but it's only one vital moment of what could be many! Example one! Hajime-chan knows that thing boys do where they stretch and then their shirt rides up so you can see their stomach, right?"

Hinata's eyes went wide. "That's…a thing?"

"An extremely important thing!" Mioda said. "But while the tucked-in dress shirt is perfect in every other way, its strength is legendary! And a yukata has no division between top and bottom at all…hmmmm, Ibuki's going to need a new plan with new surprises…"

Why am I hearing about this? Hinata thought – but before he could say anything, the bathroom door opened. Togami stood in the doorway for a moment, looking back – into the mirror, Hinata presumed – before he stepped out, holding his folded day clothes under one arm. Hinata didn't see anything particularly striking about what he was wearing – it was the same kind of yukata he was in, albeit much larger and tied properly – but Mioda's jaw dropped open, and she clutched her cheeks in her hands and froze, her eyes wide.

Togami started in their direction, but saw Mioda about halfway to the front and stopped, giving her an odd look. "Mioda? What are you doing?"

Mioda shook her head, her mouth still open – which only confused Togami more. "If this is a game of some kind –"

Mioda snapped her hands off her cheeks and took a loud gulp of air. "Ibuki wanted to answer Byakuya-chan but Ibuki saw something amazing and she was struck speechless for thirty whole seconds!" she said in one breath.

Togami stiffened, looking back and forth between Mioda and Hinata. "I don't understand what you're talking about –"

"And now she's filled with the opposite feeling! She wants to yell and yell about the amazing things she's seen!"

"T-that isn't necessary, Mioda –"

"And Ibuki isn't saying this is related to any of that, but Byakuya-chan's yukata suits him perfectly!" Mioda pointed straight forward at Togami. "Ibuki never had a doubt, of course, but the actual results are beyond anything she could've –"

"Mioda, I've finished my business here," Togami said rapidly, turning his back. "If the beach is where you'll be directing us, then I'll go ahead."

Mioda's smile faltered; she relaxed her arms, and gave Togami a worried look that he couldn't see. Hinata watched as Togami headed for the door. His shoulders were hunched, or so Hinata thought, and he seemed oddly melancholy. Hinata was feeling more and more like an intruder on the scene. Awkwardly, he bent down to grab another box of fireworks.

"Hey," Mioda said suddenly, prompting Togami to turn around. "If Byakuya-chan's ever not having fun, let Ibuki know, okay?" She grinned. "And Ibuki'll change whatever it is!"

Togami looked surprised – for a moment Hinata thought he saw him smile, but so briefly he wasn't sure he'd seen it at all. "I'll expect you to keep your word," he said. "I'll see you later, Mioda."

"Yes you will!" Mioda said, looking somewhat more buoyant. "When everyone's been greeted and changed, the real fun begins!"

"Indeed." Togami looked away again, then, as if as an afterthought, turned back. "I assume you were about to leave, Hinata?"

"Yeah, I was just bringing the fireworks –" Before Hinata could finish, Togami bent to pick up the remaining boxes, stood back up, and marched out of the supermarket, leaving Hinata to catch up with him.

"You really didn't need to carry those," Hinata shouted, panting between words. "I could've made two trips."

"That's a completely foolish insistence to make. Two sets of hands make the job easier. It's common sense." Togami's arms were piled so high that Hinata was surprised he could see in front of them. "But it's exactly the kind of overestimation I'd expect from you."

"What? No, that's not it at all." Hinata sped to keep pace with Togami – he hadn't quite kept up his sprint, but he was still going forward at a fairly steady clip, and they were already almost to the beach. "It's just that Mioda told me to do this, not you."

"And what difference does that make?" Togami lowered his arms slightly, looking out at the sandy expanse in front of him. "This argument is irrelevant. We're almost there. Was there any spot you had in mind for these?"

"Wherever I can put them down," Hinata said. "These things are heavy."

Togami nodded, but did not respond. They set the fireworks down some distance from the path, but still close enough that Hinata didn't feel completely winded. Looking back he saw no one else around – no other students, no Monobear or Monomi, nothing but the stars in the sky and the faint purple glow of the sun disappearing over the horizon.

Togami crouched to take the fireworks out of one box. Hinata wasn't surprised, but he wasn't sure this was something he should be doing. "Really, I can set those up," he said. "You don't have to."

"That doesn't mean I can't." Togami moved to place the first firework on the beach, and then started assembling the next. "I don't understand why you keep insisting otherwise, unless Mioda's word was that specific."

"Well, you're our guest," Hinata said quickly. "That's really all it is."

Togami paused, absently tapping the firework rocket he was about to place. "I shouldn't be," he said. "This party shouldn't have to be necessary at all."

Hinata felt a sharp, stiff feeling in his stomach. "Wait, no, that's not what I –"

"No," Togami interrupted. "Don't try to say anything. Just forget it."

"But –"

"I said forget it, Hinata." Togami placed the firework down, but did not move to pick up another. "I said nothing you had any reason to hear."

He continued his work in silence. Hinata picked up another firework, but couldn't think to place it – a hundred things to say were swarming in his head, and he couldn't decide which one to use, if he used any at all. "Look," he started saying before he could stop himself, "It's not like I think any less of you or anything. So –"

"That's not what I meant." Togami did not continue for some time. "The things I said yesterday, and again just now…you and Mioda were right about them. I was being unreasonable. And going back to them is only going to put me back where I was. I have to confront things as they are." He turned to face Hinata, tapping faster and faster. "Hinata, from your position among the others, tell me truthfully. When I see them in a few moments, will they think there's anything I can still do for them?"

Hinata knew in an instant how general this question was. He remembered the anger in Koizumi's eyes, the hope and enthusiasm in Mioda's, and then the others, mired in their own emotions, their own despair. He remembered how things were, and what they'd become, and everything that had led from the past to the present. Then he stopped thinking of the others – his own answer, he knew, would work better than trying to guess anyone else's.

"You're still alive," he said. "And you have determination. We've all seen the things you can do. And as long as you're alive, you can still make new ideas, and work with the rest of us." Hinata shrugged – he felt he was repeating his ideas too much. "Because, no matter what, you're one of us. No one's given up on you, if that's what you think."

"That's…that's an interesting possibility, Hinata." Togami moved away from the other fireworks, setting the one he'd been tapping far closer to the water. "No matter what they may think…I suppose I could hold that as true." He chuckled. "I could even make it so. Byakuya Togami can direct events in just such a direction if he wishes."

"I know that much," Hinata said. Odd as Togami's pronouncements often were, it was a good sign, in Hinata's estimation, to be hearing them again. For a second he considered asking Togami what Nanami had talked to him about, but before he could second-guess the idea, Togami turned his head towards the path. "I can hear voices up ahead," he said. "The others must be coming."

I hope you enjoy seeing these kids as much as I do writing them. What happened is, there's an easter egg scene in Chapter 3 that you can only access by having a certain item. If you have it, Ibuki throws a firework party and it's the most adorable thing ever. I think kuzuhiko's translation of this scene is the only one at the moment but trust me, it exists! (Also, a yukata is a light summer kimono. You wear them to summer festivals in Japan.)

Also note that I will not be answering any questions about the lucky numbers. (Although, if you want to follow me on tumblr, I'm breathe-into-the-bee-orb! And I've also made a System Restore blog. It's sysrestoreblog.)

- Carth