Chapter 17:

海原 Ocean

Head Games with Hyouka

Contrary to her hopes, Hyouka was really beginning to doubt whether going on this trip was a good idea after all.

The moment she returned home from the mall, second thoughts had returned to cloud her mind, and as days passed, her unease only festered. When she messaged her about their plans, even Natsumi's optimistic encouragement was not enough to combat her anxieties.

What if the sun stayed strong all day? She'd have no choice but to loiter in the shadows, so then what would be the point of even going? But if she went and threw caution to the wind, she'd risk getting a horrible sunburn and be forced to suffer the consequences of peeling skin and itching.

Having a wardrobe malfunctions was an almost scarier thought. Even if her swimsuit fit her well, what if there was a mischievous pervert who liked to untie girls' swimsuits as a prank- what if she was targeted by them? The humiliation of being suddenly exposed to the world was unimaginable- she wouldn't be able to look anyone in the eye ever again.

Even worse- what if she drowned? She couldn't swim. Only Natsumi and Yuji knew that. What if one of the others threw her into the ocean as a joke, not realizing the danger it put her in? Drowning sounded like such an awful way to die. How would her family react if they learned she'd gone out for once- and never returned?

There wasn’t much Hyouka could do to remedy these illogical worries, so she simply tried to distract herself from them with hours of Critter Crossroads, renovating her entire island and befriending as many villagers as possible. She tended to her crops and constructed new homes, decorating them with all the care in the world.

But even in-game, she stayed clear of the beach.

The game continued to occupy her, even on that fateful day. As she lay sprawled out on her bed, her beach tote hung from her doorknob, unpacked. Her new swimsuit remained folded in its plastic shopping bag, as did the sunglasses that Yuji had purchased her.


Hyouka's cellphone vibrated on her nightstand. She tried to pretend not to hear it.

Buzz. Buzz.

She rolled onto her other side, gripping her console and staring at the screen a little harder. A few more minutes passed.


Sucking in a breath, the girl put it down and numbly reached for her phone, checking her messages. Her chest seemed to constrict as she read the most recent one.

[Natsumi says she couldn't reach you. Are you really not coming?] Yuji had asked.

Guilt churned in her stomach- it wasn't fair to keep them in the dark. Before she could change her mind, she bit her lip and replied.

[I'll be there.]

With that, Hyouka hurried to throw on clothes, stuffing everything she could think of into her tote bag and rushing downstairs.



Once she was belted into the passenger seat of Grandmother's car, there was no going back.

After having hastily asked to be dropped off at the station, Hyouka had come to terms with her fate, staring out the window, her eyes hidden by tinted lenses. The elder woman wore similar sunglasses, the air conditioner and hum of the engine being the only sounds within the car.

Even as minutes passed and her nerves persisted, Hyouka could not bring herself to make conversation. Her throat felt tight, dry, as if words that would normally come easily to her were trapped within.

"Darling Hyouka, you and your friends are having a beach day, is that right?" Grandmother broke the silence with a smile. "That sounds wonderful. Did you bring enough sunscreen?"

"Yes. I'm prepared for the sun to be out all day, so I hope there will be enough for me to do." The albino girl pushed up her sunglasses.

"As long as you take precautions and play it safe, I'm sure you'll have nothing to worry about, dear."

"Hopefully I don't miss the train..." Hyouka bit her lip, watching as Nagoya Station grew closer and closer as they inched through traffic. It was a large, imposing structure, the main building a wide, boxy shape, only short in comparison to the two towers attached to it, standing over 50 stories tall.

"We're almost there- I'll pull into where those other cars are so that you can jump out. Make sure you don't leave anything behind." Grandmother looked around, putting on her turn signal. "Do you know where you're meeting your friends?"

"In front of our platform on the Meitetsu Line." Hyouka unfastened her seatbelt, grabbing her belongings as the car pulled into the taxi stand.

"Take some pictures while you're there! Have fun, my dear." The elder woman smiled warmly at her, coming to a stop.

"Goodbye, Grandmother!"

Springing from the car and slamming the door shut, Hyouka dashed towards the station, her sandals smacking the pavement as she dodged other commuters, spotting an overhead sign labeled "Meitetsu."

She hurried down the stairs that led to an underground walkway, gripping the handrail to not stumble. With the station's florescent white lights and grey tile floors, her surroundings were almost disorienting as she tried to navigate them. It was such a huge building with so many people bustling around, filled with the sounds of footsteps, announcements, and rolling suitcase wheels.

For Hyouka, who had only been inside Nagoya Station a handful of times and never alone, it was almost too much. She felt weighed down by her thoughts as well as her luggage, grip tightening on her beach umbrella as she sprinted through the crowds, ignoring their stares- whether it be due to her rushed movements or her unconventional appearance.

Ears peeled for any announcements mentioning "Utsumi" and "1:26," she sped through the walkway, taking note of anything recognizable nearby- the grocery store with people surrounding a snack display, the columns with digital screen advertisements, the ticket counter, and the entrance to the Meitetsu Line Central Gates- there it was- right in front of her.

The girl hurried to a vacant ticket machine, looking up at the map above it for her destination. The fare to Utsumi was only 800 yen- punching it in, she was quick to insert the bill and confirm her purchase. Her change fell from the slot, as did her ticket. Grabbing both and shoving the coins into her wallet, she hurried to the gate- her train would be on Platform Four, and there were five minutes left until its departure. Inserting her ticket and swiping her IC card, Hyouka sped through the gate, looking around.

In front of the stairs loitered a cluster of teenagers, their heads snapping towards her. With their dyed hair, piercings, and obvious beach getup, she instantly recognized them, skidding to a stop.

“Look who finally decided to show up!” Moriyama drawled. “You’re late!”

“Hyouka-chan!” Natsumi exclaimed, relief spreading across her face. “Thank god! I was worried you wouldn't make it!”

“I’m...very have kept you waiting...” She bowed her head, trying to catch her breath.

“Hey, you're here now!”

“Did you forget that we're going to the beach? The hell are you wearing?” Yuji stared at the white hoodie Hyouka had covered herself in, raising an eyebrow.

“I’d get cooked like a lobster if I showed as much skin as you.” She stared pointedly at his bare arms.

“Can't you just put on sunscreen and a t-shirt? It’s hot as hell outside! We’re gonna have a repeat of gym class at this rate!”

“It takes more precautions than just that to protect my skin.” Hyouka retorted, pushing up her large, dark sunglasses. “I won’t overheat- I'll be in the shade drinking water.”

“But what about-”

“Hey, guys?” Ryuhei interrupted, looking at the time. “Our train's about to leave! We need to get on- like right now!”

“Shit, you’re right...” Yuji cursed. “C’mon!”

After accounting for all bags, the group dodged other commuters as they scrambled down a flight of stairs, where the walls covered in large, glossy white tiles became the densely-packed train platform. It was practically an obstacle course- businesspeople with briefcases and vacationers with bulging backpacks- in lines, in clusters, and leaned against pillars.

They kept running- and a distinct, buzzing chime rang throughout the platform- just as they stopped in front of their train- a boxy white one with red markings.

"We made it!" Ryuhei said breathlessly.

As they hurried through the open doors, it was apparent that there were no seats left. The train was packed with tourists and locals alike, the unfortunate ones squeezed in the aisle while trying to maintain some degree of personal space.

“Looks like we'll be stuck standing the whole trip.” Ueno muttered.

“Yeah, thanks to somebody.” Moriyama shot a dirty look at Hyouka, scowling as they filed into the train.

“I’m very sorry to have inconvenienced everyone.” She apologized, averting her gaze.

"It's okay, Hyouka-chan!" Natsumi insisted. "It's nothing we can't handle!"

"Hey, at least we didn't miss it. No sweat." Ryuhei chimed in, sliding next to his girlfriend and wrapping an arm around her. Natsumi was quick to move in and lean against his shoulder, shutting her eyes with a smile. Ueno sighed and Moriyama grumbled, both of them grabbing ahold of overhead handles.

Rubbing her temples, Hyouka reached for one as well, her hand closing around empty air. Too high. Craning her neck and stretching her arm, she stood on her tiptoes, but still could barely curl her fingers around the handle.

Eyes widening, she wasn’t sure what to do, looking around for a solution to this predicament. If the train came to a sudden stop, she'd go flying into another passenger- and that wouldn't end well.

Should she use her beach umbrella as a staff and hope for the best?

“Hey, what's the matter?” Yuji glanced down at her, seeming to sense her uncertainty.

“I...can't reach.”

“Shorty.” He snorted, smirking crookedly.

“You’re not tall either.” She glared up at him, grabbing onto his bicep instead.

“Still a head taller than you.”

“You'd look better if you were the one who needed to look up, kneeling before me.” Hyouka retorted haughtily.

“D-Don’t say shit like that..!” Yuji's cheeks reddened, caught off-guard. “People'll get the wrong idea!”

“What's there to misunderstand?” She smirked faintly, gripping his arm. “I am your master, after all.”

"Oh, shut up." Scowling down at her, Yuji dug into his pocket for his phone, stuffing his headphones into his ears to drown out her teasing remarks.

"How rude." She sighed flatly, looking away. Through the windows and over the heads of seated passengers, she could see the liveliness of the train platform as people moved in an organized chaos.

"Attention, passengers. The Chita New Line limited express train for 1:26 will now be departing." A female voice announced. "Please stand clear of the doors."

With that, the doors slowly closed on their own, and the engine came to life, the train passing through through the platform and finally embarking on its journey to Utsumi, gradually picking up speed. Hyouka watched as the dark tunnel walls eventually opened into the Nagoya cityscape and bright blue skies.

A tap on her shoulder got her attention, and she looked up at Yuji with a raised eyebrow.


Her gaze lowered from his nonchalant expression to his palm, where he offered an earbud.

"Wanna listen to music?"

"...Sure." The girl replied, inserting it into her left ear.

She was instantly thrust into the song- opening on the powerful riff of an electric guitar and steady, thundering drums. A loud, dynamic voice soon joined the alternative-style instrumentals, which were layered over a low, raspy growl, the wordless vocalization appearing between breaks in the lyrics. The high volume was almost enough to overwhelm her, and by the time the music began to bloom, she had to pull the bud from her ear. Even inches away, she could still hear it playing.

"What's the matter? You don't like it?" Yuji looked down at her.

"No, it's your volume." Hyouka shook her head, eardrums throbbing. "Do you need to listen to it so loudly? You'll be deaf by the time you're forty."

"Ugh, you sound like my brother..." He complained, but turned it down significantly. "There- better?"

"Yes, thank you." She placed the bud back into her ear. "What's this song called?"

"Undying by Malicious Widow." He replied, checking his phone. "They haven't released anything in a while, so we've all been hoping for a new album soon."

Hyouka hummed, glancing around the train, which had stopped at the first station, and some passengers got off. As the train continued and the song reached its end, another, less intense one began. Its instrumental seemed more retro, synthetic music accompanying the notes of the guitar and keyboard. The singer's voice was softer and more emotional, but still powerful.

"Oh, this one is nice."

"It's pretty old, from like twenty years ago. It's by Alice's Inferno, Anti-Freeze Dream." Yuji replied, closing his eyes. "I listen to it all the time- one of my favorites by them."

"What's it about?" Hyouka readjusted her grip, looking up at his relaxed expression.

"Basically, a little girl gets poisoned with antifreeze, but instead of dying, she goes into a coma and enters a dreamlike world, and she realizes that reality sucks and she wants to stay asleep forever."

"How morbid." She mused. "The song doesn't sound nearly as macabre as its inspiration."

"That's what I like about their music- the contrast is really cool." Yuji explained, grinning. "A lot of their other songs seem upbeat, but are actually pretty dark-"

"The train has now reached Jingumae Station." The announcer interrupted. "If this is your stop on the limited express, please stand clear of the opening doors and watch your step as you exit the train. Thank you."

With that, a large group of passengers got up to exit the train, vacating their seats in the process.

"Thank god!" The moment they left, Ueno and Moriyama sat down before anyone else could.

"Hey, there's still room for us!" Ryuhei maneuvered Natsumi towards an empty seat, pulling her onto his lap despite disapproving looks from middle-aged passengers. "C'mon, Yu!"

Letting go of the overhead handle and grabbing his bag, Yuji moved to join them and Hyouka followed, careful to not drop her earbud as they sat beside each other. A few more commuters boarded the train, the door shutting once more.

As Hyouka leaned back against the vinyl seat, shutting her eyes with music playing in her ear, she felt calm for the first time that day. Now that they weren't stuck standing for the rest of the trip, no one could complain anymore- she could sit in peace.

It seemed they still had quite a while until they reached their destination, though.


"The train has now reached its destination of Utsumi Station. Please stand clear of the opening doors and watch your step as you exit the train. Thank you for riding with Meitetsu Nagoya."

"Ugh, my neck hurts..." Ueno groaned, massaging it as he sluggishly got up from his seat.

"You didn't pack one of those travel pillows?" Ryuhei looked around, making sure none of them had dropped anything.


"I can't believe we're finally here!" Natsumi cheered, stretching as they stepped onto the train platform, which was much less populated than the other stops. "Oh my god, I can see the ocean from here! Look, Ryu-chan!"

"It smells good." Yuji sniffed the fresh coastal air, closing his eyes and taking in the scent of salt water.

"Are your canine senses kicking in again, mongrel?" Hyouka mused from under the awning, leaning against a pole.

"Oi, shut up!" He turned, glaring at her. "You're one to talk when you're hiding from the sun like a vampire!"

"Whatever." Rolling her eyes, Hyouka pushed up her sunglasses, her hood covering her head.

"Hey, c'mon!" Moriyama butted in, heading towards the stairwell. "If we don't hurry, people'll take all the good spots!"

"You sure about that?" Ueno glanced around as they walked through the tiny station. "It's pretty dead here."

"I swear the beach is way busier!" Their footsteps thundered on the stone steps.

"How long does it take to walk from here?" asked Hyouka.

"About fifteen minutes or so." Natsumi replied, checking her phone.

"Seriously?" Ueno huffed, looking like he was already wilting.

"Hey, I'm not paying for a taxi!" Moriyama argued. "Not like we could all fit into one anyway!"

"Maybe if we put someone in the trunk..." Yuji looked at Hyouka from the corner of his eye, who shot him a glare.

"Do you want to be tied to a tree, mongrel?"

"I'm just kidding! Jeez!"

As they stepped outside, Hyouka opened up her beach umbrella, using it as a parasol to shield herself from the sun, which shone down on them brightly. To say that it was hot would be an understatement- and her hoodie certainly did little to remedy that. If not for her shorts and sandals, she might've melted on the spot.

Perhaps Yuji's earlier remark about the incident in gym class wasn't too far off.

As they made their way through the rural beach town of Utsumi, there was a surprising amount to appreciate. The air was fresh, noticeably more clean-smelling than the big city, and the skies seemed much more blue. Though lacking in skyscrapers, it was populated by smaller, simpler buildings that were spaced further apart, with plenty more plants than Hyouka had seen in a long time. The streets were significantly less busy, with just a few cars populating the road.

Before they knew it, the sidewalk opened into white sand and they were at Chidorigahama Beach.

It was a long, pale stretch of sand with a backdrop of large green hills, and a cluster of hotels and other facilities seemed to follow the curve of the land, lined by tall palm trees. Small waves gently lapped at the shore, leaving white clouds of seafoam in their wake. A dock was visible in the distance, where a ferry seemed to be departing from, and far out, the ocean was dotted by smaller boats and jet skies.

"We made it." Hyouka sighed in relief, her arms sore from carrying the hefty umbrella.

"What are we waiting for then? Let's go!" Moriyama jumped into the sand, looking ready to take off running. The others followed, taking in the summery sight.

"Where should we put our stuff?" The albino girl looked around, scanning the beach for a vacant patch of sand. While not nearly as crowded as she had anticipated, there were still plenty of beachgoers.

"How 'bout over there?" Yuji pointed. "It doesn't look too busy, and we'd be close enough to bathrooms and food stalls."

"Sounds good- let's go!" Ryuhei and Moriyama took off running, with Natsumi following closely behind.

"Hey, wait up!" He shouted, sprinting after them.

Hyouka watched for a moment, before silently looking up at Ueno. He nodded in agreement, and they both started walking. With her heavy luggage and his tiredness, they knew there was no keeping up.

By the time they made it to the group's designated area, Hyouka's arms felt ready to fall off. She planted her umbrella into the sand and sank to her knees in exhaustion, next to a bikini-clad Natsumi, who had spread a beach towel on the ground. The boys were quick to rip off their shirts and kick off their shoes, already having on their swim trunks.

"Damn, you two are slow! Hurry up, Ueno!" Yuji complained.

Hyouka shot him a tired half-glare, and the blond responded by yanking off his own shirt, hurling it at Yuji's head.


"Today's gonna be great for getting a tan!" Natsumi smiled cheerfully, gazing up at the nearly-cloudless sky. "Ryu-chan~ I could use some help putting sunblock on my back!" She waved it at him, laying on her stomach.

"Aww, anything for my Natsu-chan~!" He graciously took the tube from her, squeezed some onto his hands, and practically begun giving her a full-body massage. Natsumi sighed in relief, resting her head on her arms.

"Ugh..." Moriyama groaned at the sight.

"People in love are the worst..." Ueno mumbled, the two of them begrudgingly applying their own.

Feeling like she shouldn't be watching them, Hyouka had laid her own beach towel out under her umbrella, now comfortably in the shade. Shrugging off the hot white hoodie, she revealed a simple black tank top underneath. Though she was seemingly protected from the sun, the girl still begun to apply a new layer of sunscreen to her arms and legs.

"Do you need a hand?" Yuji offered, crouching down in front of her. "I don't mind getting your back."

Hyouka paused for a moment, before averting her eyes and turning around, handing him the tube.

"...I suppose you can help."

"Why'd you say that like you're doin' me a favor?" The boy knelt behind her as she pulled her hair over her shoulders, and after rubbing his hands together, he began to spread the sunscreen over her skin.

"Because you get to put your hands on someone cute like me." She shuddered at the coldness of the cream, hugging her knees to her chest. Despite this, she could still feel the warmth of his hands.

"Be quiet." He scoffed, cheeks reddening. "Don't make me sound like some bozo."

"Tanihara!" Moriyama shouted. "Hurry up already!"

"I'm coming!" He huffed, wiping any excess sunscreen on the girl's arms as he stood up. "There."

"Thank you." She turned back around, looking up at him.

"C'mon, you too, Tachibana-!" Moriyama called out, as Ueno hooked his arms under his armpits, dragging him down the beach. "Hey! What gives?!" He squirmed and thrashed, trying to free himself.

"We're goin' for a swim now." The taller boy smirked evilly, yanking him towards the ocean.

"Put me down, asshole!"

"Serves you right!" Yuji hollered. "Ryu, let's go!"


Hyouka watched as the pair took off running after them, who had already made it into the water.

"Take this!"

They lunged at Ueno, all four of them yelling as they toppled over, crashing into the sea with a deafening splash. Seconds later, they emerged from the surface, wet-haired and burst into laughter. Pushing and shoving and slinging water at each other, they didn't seem like delinquents in that moment- they were just friends having fun.

"Watch out for stingrays!" Natsumi called out to them, giggling as she turned to look at Hyouka. "What an opening act, am I right?"

"You can say that again- I wouldn't expect anything less from them." The girl chuckled, sending a picture to Grandmother.

"Well, going to the beach is always a treat!" She grinned. "They've really been looking forward to this."

"Is that so?"

"Mhm! Ryu-chan told me he's only ever gone twice in his life! I dunno about the others, but they don't seem like they frequently go either."

"Well, it's nice that they finally have this chance to enjoy it." Hyouka reached into her tote bag, pulling out her console and switching it on.

"You brought that to the beach?" Natsumi seemed surprised. "Make sure you don't get sand in the ports!"

"I figured it would keep me busy for a while- at least until the power dies. I haven't charged it recently."

"What are you gonna play?"

"Stardust Meadows." She loaded it up.

"Oh, I love that game!" Natsumi laughed. "I used to play it all the time a couple years ago!"

"Really? What else do you like to play?"

"I'm really good at rhythm games! Bet I could beat ya at all the top songs!"

"Oh? You're challenging a dancer, Natsumin." A faint smirk played on Hyouka's lips. "Do you still want to try?"

"You're on!" She laughed, pushing her bangs from her face.

"You know," Hyouka mused, looking out into the ocean, where the boys splashed around without a care in the world. "If you want to join them and swim, I don't mind watching everyone's things. You're probably melting right now."

"Are you kidding?" Natsumi chuckled. "When am I gonna get a chance to tan like this back home? Besides, I wanna keep you company! It wouldn't be fair to abandon ya on our beach trip!"

"Well, thank you." The girl felt touched by her compassion. "That's...very kind of you."

"Of course!"

With the soft crashing of waves and the smell of ocean air, there was something soothing about the atmosphere. The heat was like a blanket that slowly enveloped them, slowing their minds, and Hyouka hadn't realized how much time had passed until Natsumi had flipped to tan her other side, and her console's screen went black. She pressed the power button repeatedly, but it refused to switch back on.

"'s dead."

"Oh no!" Natsumi turned towards her. "You can use my power bank! Do you at least have the charger?"

Hyouka shook her head grimly.

"...I think I left it in my room. I was in a rush."

"Aww! That sucks!"

"What sucks?" asked Yuji.

Hyouka and Natsumi looked up, only to find the boys standing there, sopping wet with disheveled hair, sand streaking their skin.

"It's nothing- just a dead battery." Hyouka stowed her console away in her tote bag. "What are you doing here?"

"We're starving, so we came to grab cash and get something to eat." He replied, toweling himself off.

"I'm getting a huge bowl of yakisoba!" Moriyama proclaimed.

"And tons of yakitori!" Ueno added.

"Don't forget the tempura shrimp! But what about you?" Ryuhei turned to his girlfriend. "Are you hungry, Natsu-chan? Do you want anything?"

"Do you think they have those giant festival french fries?" Natsumi asked. "If they do, could you get me some?"

"Sure thing!"

"Alright, let's get some grub!" Moriyama started leading them away.

"Wait." Hyouka interrupted, stopping them in their tracks.

"What's up?" asked Yuji.

"I don't want to risk going into the sun, so would you get me karaage? I'll pay." She reached for her wallet.

"Sure, I got it."

Hyouka put a few hundred-yen coins into his hand, and then the boys were off, jogging over to the line of colorful food stalls in the distance, where people had begun to cluster. The liveliness of the beach persisted, with kids running around carrying colorful beach toys, friends and family wading in the ocean together, and an assortment of towels and folding chairs scattered across the sand.

"It looks like they might be held up for a little while." She mused, turning to Natsumi, who had a vague smile on her face. This puzzled her. "What is it?"

"Oh, nothinggg~!" The blonde chirped, looking away innocently.

Hyouka's eyes narrowed, and she scowled lightly.

"It's something. Tell me."

"He's just so reliable, is all!"

"Who? Tachibana-san?" The albino girl blinked.

"No, I'm talking about Yuji-kun!"

That caught her off-guard, eyes widening.

"What about him?"

"Oh, you know what I'm talking about!" Natsumi replied playfully. "Look at him, going off and buying you food!"

"That's nothing new- it's what I requested." Hyouka shook her head, leaning back and closing her eyes. "Why wouldn't he? I compensated him."

"But he's always there when you need him." She countered. "Like earlier, I saw how he let you hang onto him on the train! And you were listening to music together!"

"Things like that are simple and don't mean anything."

"And yet they mean everything."

Natsumi's conviction was startling, and Hyouka couldn't help but stare at her, heart skipping a beat. Natsumi smiled playfully, her head tilted.

"Yuji-kun bought you those sunglasses, didn't he?"

"Off the clearance rack, when he and Tachibana-san were playing dress-up...What of it?"

"So he was thinking of you, even then."

"Well, it's not as if it's a secret that I need them in the summer." She looked away. "It's simply an association."

"You're so stubborn, Hyouka-chan." Natsumi giggled. "That's what makes talking to you so fun- you've always got a counterpoint!"

"I prefer the term resolute."

"There you go again!" She let out a sigh, still laughing. "Still, that works."

For a long moment, the two girls lay on their towels in silence.

"What I mean to say..." Natsumi spoke up again. " that I think you bring the best out of Yuji-kun. I've spent a lot of time with him since Ryu-chan and the others started high school together, and when I first met him, he was pretty standoffish- had a major chip on his shoulder. Obviously he was bound to mellow out over the years, but I've never seen him act so...attentive towards anyone else before. He didn't used to smile like that back then. I know you guys have your banter, but it's clear that he cares a lot about you."

Hyouka stayed quiet, those words hanging in the air, in that heat haze.

"I know I've only known you since May, but I've watched you change ever since we met, too." Natsumi looked at her. "All around school, I've heard people call you "an ice queen" and "a cold beauty" who refused to get close to anyone, but almost overnight- shockingly- you two became attached at the hip, and you seemed more willing to open up. You're more playful than you originally let on, and there's a more gentle side to you, too."

"I didn't realize you were so observant, Natsumin." said Hyouka.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to notice." She chuckled. "I like how at ease you two seem when you're together. Even as a third-party, it's nice to see."


"Hey!" A voice called in the distance, interrupting their conversation. "We've got food!"

It was, of course, Moriyama, followed closely behind by Ueno, Ryuhei, and Yuji, who carried two servings of karaage. As the boys approached, Hyouka watched as Ryuhei sat beside Natsumi, handing her a tray of jumbo, long-cut fries.

"I had them add extra seaweed flakes for you~"

"Aww, thanks Ryu-chan!"

"Here." Another voice caught her attention.

When she looked up, Hyouka found Yuji standing in front of her, offering one of the trays of chicken.

"Thank you." She gladly accepted it.

"No problem. I decided to get some too." He added, biting into a piece as he sat down on her towel. "Man, it's hot out..."

"It's supposed to cool off later, at least." Ueno muttered, fanning himself with a napkin.

"Can't come soon enough for me." Yuji sighed, leaning his head back. With it wet and ungeled, his black hair was loose and messy.

"Once I've finished this, I gotta get back in the water." Moriyama said, stuffing noodles into his mouth. "I'm gonna melt."

"What about you two?" asked Ryuhei. "Are you gonna join us?"

"The sun is still too intense." Hyouka shook her head. "I'll be waiting for a while."

"And I wanna keep sunbathing for a bit longer." Natsumi replied, although she was now taking a break in Hyouka's shade. "Maybe later!"

"Aww, okay!"

"Did you hear about the firework show? It's supposed to start at seven. People were talking about it when we were waiting in line." Yuji mentioned.


"We should stay for it!" Natsumi's face lit up. "We haven't been able to go to any festivals as a group yet, after all!"

"That would be nice..." Hyouka mused, almost to herself.

"As long as we don't end up stranded here." Ueno shrugged.

"Okay, perfect! We should have plenty of time before the station closes then!"

With their evening plans decided upon, the group could freely dig into their food, enjoying idle chatter and the beachy atmosphere, along with the occasional breeze.

Having stuffed herself with fried chicken, Hyouka leaned back against her towel and shut her eyes, ready to take a power nap.

After all, the real fun for her wouldn't start until it begun to get dark.


A couple of hours was all it took for the sun to begin to set, slowly sinking closer and closer to the horizon, turning the sky brilliant shades of orange and pink and tinting the ocean violet. With nightfall coming, older vacationers and families with small children had begun to leave the beach, instead heading for the parking lot or nearby hotels. While the beach had been significantly busier in the afternoon, there were still a few who stuck around for the firework show.

Hyouka, however, found herself standing in a changing stall, trying to steel her nerves. Having replaced her clothes with a swimsuit, a door was all that separated her from the outside world- an intimidating thought. She tried not to think about that as she brushed her hair, tying it up in a high ponytail.

Did she look alright? The girl turned to look in the mirror, her ruby irises staring back uncertainly. While the swimsuit fit her securely, she couldn't help but triple check that everything was perfectly covered, further tightening the knotted strings at the nape of her neck.

She would not be having a wardrobe malfunction that night- absolutely not.

Thanks to the precautions she had taken throughout the day, the girl fortunately had not sustained any sunburns, the only red on her being the color of her bikini. However, as she looked more closely at her reflection, she couldn't help but notice something on her skin.

Tiny, pale marks littered her bare knees- scars left behind by old injuries. Scrapes from concrete, jagged pieces of gravel- even classroom floors. She bit her lip.

Would other people notice them too?

"Hyouka-chan?" Natsumi's concerned voice called out to her, causing her to jump. "You okay in there? Do you need help tying your straps?"

"N-No, I'm okay...I'm coming out..."

Taking a deep breath, the girl grabbed her bag and undid the lock. The stall door swung open, revealing Natsumi on the other side.

"Kyaa, you look so cute! That swimsuit was such a good find!" She squealed, cell phone clutched in her hands.

"Thank you..." Hyouka looked away, embarrassed.

"Can I please please please take your picture?" Natsumi begged.

"...Just one."

With the lens aimed at her, Hyouka wasn't quite sure how to pose, eyes averted as she stood there.


"Aw, cute! I'll send it to you!"

"Did it really turn out alright?" She was surprised by this.

"Of course! And now that you're ready, let's go!"

Grabbing her arm, Natsumi practically dragged Hyouka across the beach, the pale dunes of sand bathed in the red glow of the sunset. She tried to keep up with her energetic pace without tripping, clutching onto her bag for dear life as they ran past other beachgoers.

A moment later, they finally reached Hyouka's umbrella and came to a stop, the boys sprawled out on their towels. Ueno let out a whistle, and Yuji's eyes widened.

"Wow, look at those two lovely ladies!" Ryuhei greeted them, getting up to wrap his arms around Natsumi's waist and kiss her cheek.

"Damn!" Moriyama mused, looking up at Hyouka, who crossed her arms over her chest, averting her eyes. "I dunno why you look so nervous, because you're rocking that swimsuit!"

Ueno nodded in agreement, giving her a thumbs-up.

"They're trying to encourage you." Natsumi stage-whispered, a hint of amusement in her voice.

"...Thank you..." She gave a tentative half-smile, warmth creeping to her cheeks. Her gaze instinctively wandered to Yuji, and she met his eyes.

He stared back at her, red-faced and saucer-eyed, and for a moment, she thought he was paralyzed- until a sheepish, lopsided grin tugged at his lips, and he lowered his head, rubbing the back of his neck.

"W-Wow, Hyouka, y-you look..." He seemed to struggle to pick an appropriate compliment. "...really nice."

The others seemed to gawk at him for a moment, before exploding into chaos.

"That's all you can say, Tanihara?!" Moriyama shouted, throttling him by the shoulders. "She comes out in a bikini for the first time and we're hyping her up- and all you can say is that she just looks nice?"

"How am I supposed to know what to say!?" Yuji protested, trying to escape his clutches.

"You cherry boy!" Ueno yelled, and Ryuhei burst out into laughter.

"Ew! Stop! Who even says that anymore?! Ryu! Don't egg him on!"

"Guys, c'mon!" Natsumi interrupted, trying to mediate the situation. "Yuji-kun just didn't want say anything over the top!"

"Exactly- gimme a break already!" He finally managed to shove Moriyama off, glaring at the others.

"...Well, thank you." Hyouka said, smiling softly.

"No problem." Yuji averted his gaze, face still on fire.

"A-Anyway..." Ryuhei wiped an amused tear from his eye, trying to catch his breath. "Are we gonna- are we gonna get to that volleyball game now?"

"Well, since it looks like those assholes aren't hogging the court anymore, I think we can!" Moriyama said loudly, glaring pointedly at another group of teenagers walking by.

"They can hear you, Sho-chan!" Natsumi scolded.

"Good- I meant it!" He jumped to his feet. "Ueno, you're on my team!"

"Fine by me." The taller boy got up from his towel, the two of them making their way to the court.

"Ugh, no fair!" Yuji complained to Ryuhei. "They play such brutal defense! You'd better be on your A-game!"

"You know it!" He stood up, turning to the girls. "You coming with?"

"No way- you guys play too rough!" Natsumi laughed, shaking her head. "All my nails will be broken by the time the game's over!" She protectively hid her hands behind her back.

"I won't be playing either." Hyouka agreed. "It's finally safe for me to enjoy the beach, so I'd rather not miss the chance."

"Alright, that's fair." Ryuhei put his hands up in surrender.

"Hurry up!" Ueno called to them.

"We're coming!"

"Have fun, you two!" Yuji called over his shoulder, he and Ryuhei running off to start the game.

"We will- won't we, Hyouka-chan?" Natsumi beamed, turning to her.

Hyouka nodded, dropping her bag under her umbrella.

"Let's go."

The girls headed down the bank of sand, leaving footprints as they finally waded into the ocean, the cool water lapping at their ankles.

"Make sure you shuffle your feet when you walk," Natsumi instructed, leading the way. "If there's any stingrays hiding in the sand, they'll know to move."

"Are there actually stingrays here?" Hyouka stiffened, warily stopping in her tracks.

"I dunno, but it's better safe than sorry!"

"If you say so..." She mused, slowly moving forward. The water felt nice on her skin- even more since she had sat in the heat all day. "Well, you can swim further out if you want, but I have to stay where it's shallow."

"Nah, I'm good!" Natsumi waved her off, moving to sit down. "It's nice to just relax in the- ow!" She sprang up, splashing water, and Hyouka jumped, caught in the line of fire.

"Did you get stung?!" Her heart pounded in her chest, wide eyes darting around for the offending sea creature.

"Ah! Nope- gotcha!" Natsumi broke out into laughter, gripping her knees for support. "You should've seen your face!"

"That's not funny!" Hyouka scowled at her, clutching at her heart. "I was scared!"

"Sorry, sorry!" The blonde apologized, wheezing.

"Natsumin!" She swiped her hands through the water, spraying her with droplets. Natsumi straightened up in shock- but then a playful look returned to her face.

"Oh? Two can play at that game!" She splashed her right back. Hyouka sent a small tidal wave in her direction- and a water fight ensued.

Splash. Splash. Splash.

The girls flung water with such ferocity that anyone nearby was forced to flee, and by the time that they had to stop to catch their breath, tired and laughing, they were rather thoroughly soaked.

"Okay, okay, you win!" Natsumi panted, giggling as she put her hands up in surrender. "I've had enough!"

"Is- Is that so?" Hyouka was gasping for air too, splashing her again for good measure.

"Yes!" She insisted, pushing her damp bangs from her face. "Look, we're all wet now!"

"Well, you're not wrong." The albino girl wrung out her ponytail.

"Let's get outta here..." Natsumi waved her off, stumbling back to shore. "I need a break!"

Hyouka began to follow her, quickly wading through the shallow water- until her foot got caught on something and she tripped, landing in the wet sand with a splat.

"Woah, Hyouka-chan! Are you okay?"

"I'm alright..." The girl muttered, sitting up and trying to wipe away the sand. "I just tripped on..." She looked over her shoulder. "...that."

Lying on its side, half in the water, was a red plastic pail. It was small, with a white handle and geometric bump-outs on the bottom.

"Aww, looks like some kid left it behind." Natsumi scooped it up, checking the contents. "And their shells!"

"What a shame." Hyouka said sourly, massaging her sore toe.

"Hey, wanna build a sandcastle?" The girl flashed a grin, kneeling next to her.

"Why?" She arched a brow.

"Well, we might as well put this bucket to use in the meantime- that's why it has those ridges."

"Might someone come looking for it?"

"When we're done, we'll leave it right here! It'll be fine!" Natsumi assured her.

"Alright." Hyouka sighed, standing up. "We should probably move further from the tide then."

"Yay! Here- take these." Natsumi shoved the shells into her hands. "I'm gonna start filling this bucket!"

Walking away, the girl looked down at the jagged pieces from broken ones.

Thank god she hadn't stepped on that.

Grimacing, Hyouka settled on a suitable spot nearby- safely out of the ocean's reach and even more isolated- sitting down and beginning to pack down a dense mound of sand and smoothing it out. As she was beginning to dig out a moat, Natsumi approached, lugging over a full bucket.

"Let's get building!"

Crouching next to her, she placed the pail upside down, smacking the base and shimmying it to free the molded form within. When she lifted it, some of the tiny ridged details at the top came crumbling down.

"Aww!" Natsumi complained. "Should we redo it? I probably didn't pack it well enough."

Hyouka shrugged and reached over, pressing a few pieces of sea glass into the sandy walls.

"It's not so bad- we can just call it rustic."

The blonde girl laughed lightly, using her nail to put cracks in the brick pattern.

"Works for me!"

They got to work adding onto their sandcastle- building more towers, decorating it with shells, and using washed-up pieces of seaweed as a garden.

"I have to say," Hyouka mused, as Natsumi made a path with pebbles. "It turned out quite cute."

"Right? Maybe we should go into the field of architecture!"

Chuckling, Hyouka stood up, grabbing the pail.

"I'll get some water for our moat- then it'll be finished."

"Alright, sounds good!" Natsumi leaned back, sighing blissfully.

The girl walked away with the bucket in hand, humming quietly as she wandered off. Wading into the shore, she bent over and dipped it into the sea until it was filled. She had just straightened up again when she heard a distant yell, and then a gasp.

"Watch out!"

Whirling around, she watched a rogue beach ball crash into the side of their sandcastle, toppling it over. Natsumi sat there, frozen in shock, before her expression melted into a crestfallen look, two boys running over.

Her grip tightening on the handle, Hyouka glared at them as she stormed over, ready to give them a piece of her mind- how dare they be so careless? Slowed down by the weight of the full bucket, they had beat her to it.

"Oh shit, did we wreck your castle? Sorry!"

"We can help rebuild it if you want."

Her eyes widened, and her blood ran cold as she stopped dead in her tracks.

Years later, she still recognized them- Sakamoto and Komori.

Though they were now in their late teens, the girl could easily pick her former bullies out of a crowd. Komori- who had since bleached his spiky hair- still wore an old silver dog-tag around his neck, and his thin, crooked "smile" didn't fool her- for it didn't reach his deep-set, half lidded eyes. Sakamoto, on the other hand, was still dark haired- although it was shaggier, his ears were still visible- and she recognized the distinct placement of his piercings amongst newer ones. With his sharp dark eyes and upturned nose, he looked almost serpentine.

Hyouka's head seemed to spin- the evening had been going so well, and now they had come to ruin it.

But Natsumi- friendly, benevolent Natsumi- had no idea who they were and held no ill-will.

Lifting the beachball from the remains of their collapsed sandcastle, she offered it back to the boys who stood before her.

"Here, don't sweat it." The girl replied, handing it to Sakamoto. "I was just shocked- but we can fix it on our own!"

"You sure? Your friend looked pretty pissed."

They turned to look at Hyouka, who tried to force her expression of horror into one of nonchalance, shaking her head as she walked closer and crouched next to Natsumi.

"Please make them leave..." She said in a voice so low that only the other girl could hear, trying to pick the shells out from the mound of fallen sand, praying that she wouldn't question the request.

Natsumi's eyes widened imperceptibly, but she hid it with a smile.

"Aha, really, it's alright!" She played along, waving her hands dismissively. "I'm sure you guys were having fun before this happened, so please, don't trouble yourselves!"

"We don't mind." Komori shrugged, his expression almost amused. "After all, we don't see two cute blondes everyday."

Blondes? Hyouka's hand flew to her ponytail- realizing that in the setting sunlight, its color resembled Natsumi's.

In the years that had since passed, perhaps her likeness no longer occupied their minds. There was no look of recognition on either of their faces- she had always worn glasses back then, her hair pulled up into buns, and of course, she was now in a swimsuit- something the old her would've never been caught dead in.

For now, it seemed she was in the clear- but only in that regard. Were they actually being hit on?

"U-Um..." Natsumi looked uncomfortable, her cheeks flushed. "We-"

"C'mon, let us give you a hand~" The boys insisted, kneeling down on either side of them. "It'd be faster than just you two doing it."

Hyouka stayed silent, anxiety pooling in her stomach.

"Yeah, what are you acting so shy for?"

"...Sorry, but we- we came with our boy-"

"Oh, you've got boyfriends?" Sakamoto scoffed. "Heard that one before- look, there's not even anyone around here."

"Yeah, chill- we're just helping you fix your little sandcastle." Komori rolled his eyes, leaning over. "Don't get ahead of yourself- what, they'd get mad if they saw you talking to another guy?"

Natsumi's discomfort was apparent as she shook her head, inching away as she tried to speak up.

"No, it's just-"

"Just what, huh?" Their voices were getting impatient, eyes lecherous and intentions impure. "You think you're too good for us, you stuck-up bi-"

"Leave us alone." Hyouka snapped, heart pounding.

The boys seemed stunned by her outburst, eyes wide as they gawked at her in silence. She sent the nastiest glare she could muster in their direction, standing up and offering a hand to her friend.

"Let's go, Natsumin." The girl tried to keep a steady tone, though her fingers trembled as Natsumi pulled herself up.

The boys, however, were quick to recover.

"It's you, Morikawa, isn't it?"

She couldn't help but freeze, paralyzed by panic.

Snorting, they got up from the ground, dusting the sand from their shorts.

"Finally got ballsy enough to speak up, huh?" They leered down at her. "Can you do it again?"

Hyouka stayed silent, her throat dry and her hands balled into fists.

"No?" Komori smirked. "That's too bad- thought you would've finally found your voice over the years."

"That makes it more fun for us though." Sakamoto drawled, a cruel glint in his eye. "Poor little Morikawa-chan."

"Doesn't look like you've hit a growth spurt yet- still as flat as a board."

"No way- she's definitely gained a few pounds- look!" As if to emphasize his point, Sakamoto squished her arm.

"Stop it!" Natsumi was shaking, yanking her away from them. "Leave Hyouka-chan alone!"

"Hey, assholes!" A familiar voice in the distance interrupted, a volleyball whizzing past their heads.

"The hell's going on here?!"

The first one to the scene of commotion was Yuji, his teeth bared and brows furrowed, and just behind him were Ryuhei, Ueno, and Moriyama- all glaring daggers. On the verge of tears, Natsumi sprinted towards them for refuge, Hyouka still in tow.


"Ryu-chan!" She cried out, dashing into the security of his arms and nearly knocking him over.

"Natsumi- what happened?" He gasped, cupping her cheeks.

"They- they..."

Hyouka stumbled into Yuji's chest, face as white as a sheet, and when she looked up at him, his eyes were wide, pupils shrinking as he glared at them.

"Is that you, Tanihara?!" They gawked at him.

His jaw dropped, anger turned to shock, then into something that at first, Hyouka couldn't quite identify.

"Sakamoto?! Komori?!"


The tension amongst the others only increased tenfold, mutters and glances being exchanged.

"What the fuck?"

"Tanihara knows these guys?"

"What's going on?"

Hyouka could fell Yuji's muscles tense at this, as he moved her behind him.

"Woah- talk about long time no see!" Komori greeted, as if they hadn't just been glaring daggers at one another.

"How've ya been?" Sakamoto asked. "Haven't heard from you in years, y'know."

"I-I've been fine..." He blinked, still bewildered. "Jeez, holy shit- I didn't realize it was you."

"You can say that again- you look hella different! Nice piercings! And you finally grew out your hair, huh?"

"Yeah, I did..." He grimaced, running a hand through it. "...So, what're you guys doing here?"

"Us? We're on vacation. We came from Kyoto a couple days ago."

"Makes sense..." He shoved his hands into the pockets of his swim trunks.

"Yeah, we're staying nearby with Matsuzaki." Komori replied, waving over a figure in the distance. "Oi! C'mere!"

"He actually moved away at the end of sixth grade, so you don't know him- but we've reconnected lately." Sakamoto mused, watching as the boy came running over. "Funny how that works, huh?"

"Damn, you really are fast!" Komori laughed, stepping back to make room for the newcomer.

As he joined the duo, Yuji was the first to gasp, Hyouka instantly going rigid.

It was him.

"You-!" Yuji choked out, jabbing a finger at him. "I remember you!"

Before them stood someone who neither of them had seen in months- the large, muscular boy who had accosted them on the street. He was nearly as tall as Ueno, with a tan, much more athletic physique, and an auburn buzzcut. Judging by the way his eyes widened, he remembered him too.

"Oh, you've met before?" Sakamoto glanced between them.

"A while ago...back in Nagoya..." Yuji muttered.

"...Briefly." said Matsuzaki, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

"Wow- small world, huh?" Komori shrugged. "Anyway, what were we talking about?"

"About what you two did to my girlfriend and Morikawa." Ryuhei cut in, harsher than Hyouka had ever heard him speak.

"Huh? Oh yeah, our bad. Sorry 'bout that. We didn't know."

"I told you." Natsumi glared up at them, tears gone and replaced with anger. "I told you I came with my boyfriend, and you didn't listen!"

"Sorry! We didn't know you were actually seeing him!"

"What, so you're still fine with bothering girls that don't want you?" Ryuhei's arms tightened around her. "They told you to fuck off! But someone's boyfriend is enough to stop you? You don't respect them enough to just take "no" for an answer?!"

*This is a two part update, read the next chapter*