The next time Hinazuki sees Satoru, he’s lying still as death in a hospital bed, having been in a coma for nine months.
He looks strangely peaceful, eyes closed with a mask over his mouth and nose—“to help him breathe,” the doctors said. Hinazuki struggles to match the Satoru she knew, smiling, bright—brighter than anything she had ever known—with this pale, still version of him.
She cries for days.
When she’d arrived back in the little town she had once wanted so desperately to escape from, she’d been so excited to see all of her friends again. She wanted to tell them about her grandmother, her new middle school and all the people she’d met there. She wanted to share her discoveries with Satoru, Hiromi, Kenya, Kazu, Osamu, Satoru’s mother… she wanted everything to be better.
She didn’t want this.
Kenya is the one who tells her. It’s not really a surprise, he’d always been the calmer, more level-headed of Satoru’s friends—her friends too, she reminds herself. When he tells her, he looks resigned, closed-off in a way she had never seen him look before. He’d always been the most distant of Satoru’s friends. Of course, when he’d helped Satoru hide her in the abandoned bus, she’d come to understand that it wasn’t because he wanted to be distant, it was more a way of looking at the world. He kept himself apart so he could observe. Hinazuki understood that sentiment, having done the same thing for years herself.
In the months that she hadn’t seen them, Kenya had grown his hair a bit. They were still gold and soft-looking, but instead of the usual sleek, controlled way he used to wear his hair, it has a wilder look to it. As if he no longer cares what it looks like. When she sees the others, huddled around Satoru’s bedside, they all look more or less the same. Osamu has new glasses, Kazu’s taller and broader than she remembers, and Hiromi, in contrast to Kenya, has cut his hair short and cropped. Where his hair used to fall past his chin, it now ends in tuffs at his ears. Hinazuki doesn’t recognize the dark haired girl next to Kazu, though. They are holding hands, she notices, with mild interest, both their heads are bowed. Hinazuki almost wants to ask who she is but refrains when she gets her first look at Satoru’s face.
She doesn’t know how the others can stand it, just standing there looking at Satoru, unable to hear him speak, to talk, just saying anything, let them know he’s right there, protecting them. Hinazuki grasps one of Satoru’s hands, peeking out from underneath the covers, and holds on tight.
Hinazuki can’t bring herself to visit Satoru alone, not yet, it’s still too frightening, remembering how full of life he was. She knows she’ll break down into tears if she has no one there to keep her sane. She ends up tagging along with Hiromi the most often out of all of them; sometimes Kenya will join them but he visits the most often out of all of Satoru’s friends, and usually by himself.
Hinazuki and Hiromi arrive one day and catch Kenya by himself with Satoru. Hiromi goes to enter the room, but Hinazuki sees the distressed face Kenya wears and tugs him away from the door. In truth, the times she’d been in Satoru and Kenya’s company, she’s noticed the way Kenya looked at Satoru. She spent a lot of time watching the other children around her, especially before Satoru approached her. She noticed the imperceptible change in the way Kenya looked at Satoru; it was gradual over time, it started out curious, almost calculating, then it became something more complicated, softer. At first she hadn’t quite understood what had changed, but Hinazuki recognizes the look for what it is now. Back at her new middle school Hinazuki noticed young couples giving each other fond looks, like the one Kenya gives now to Satoru, like the way she knows she must look, staring down at Satoru, if only she would chance a glance in the mirror and look hard enough at her own face.
“Let’s leave him alone.” Hinazuki whispers to Hiromi and the other boy nods, letting Hinazuki tug him along.
As time goes by, Hinazuki realizes she won’t be able to stay here much longer. Soon classes will resume and she’ll have to leave to continue her studies. She doesn’t want to leave, not while Satoru lies practically lifeless in a hospital bed. It’s not fair, she thinks, he did so much for her and this is how the world repays him? She nearly reverts back into the bitterness she used to carry around herself as a shield, but she realizes that Satoru wouldn’t have wanted that. He’d have pulled her from her shell, cupped her hand and smiled that smile he used to have and tell her to live.
Before she leaves, Hinazuki makes friendly with Misato. Misato, who she used to hate almost as much as she’d hated her mother, who now is working towards campaigning and gathering money for Satoru’s medical bills. Hinazuki meets Nakanishi Aya, another person Satoru saved, and they bond over this shared fact. Kazu and Osamu remain the same, boisterous boys they were before, but it’s in controlled bursts now and they spend most of their energy helping out Misato.
“I want to be a doctor.” Hiromi tells Hinazuki, a couple days before Hinazuki has to leave to return to her new home with her grandmother. “I want to find a way to revive Satoru.”
Hinazuki squeezes his hand in hers. She’s found she likes holding hands with others, it reminds her of Satoru and it makes her feel safe. Hiromi takes it upon himself to protect her these days. He hasn’t quite taken Satoru’s place, but that’s alright because he doesn’t want to, and she doesn’t want him to either. “Satoru would have wanted you to be safe.” Hiromi tells her, “If this makes you feel safe, I’ll hold your hand as long as I have to.”
It’s weird, but Hinazuki allows Hiromi to do it. Hiromi has seemed to grow into himself a little more since last she’d seen and spoken to him before Satoru went into a coma. He sounds more confident. “I want to make Satoru proud. He protected all of us, so I want to protect us all too because I believe in him.”
Hinazuki thinks that sentiment is a good one. She wants to protect the others too.
On the morning before she leaves, Hinazuki works up the courage to visit Satoru alone. When she gets there, Kenya is just leaving. His expression is hard, there’s a determined set to his jaw. When he catches sight of Hinazuki, his expression softens ever so slightly. “Hi, Kayo. You leave today?”
“Yes, I wanted to see Satoru one last time before I go.”
Kenya nods and steps aside to let her pass, but she stops him by grabbing his sleeve. “I know how you feel Kenya,” Kenya looks at her in surprise and she smiles up at him, trying to convey her feelings to him, “he means the same to me too. We both love him.”
Kenya startles, as if he hadn’t thought Hinazuki had known. It’s obvious from the guarded look he gets in his eyes that he doesn’t know quite how to respond. Hinazuki smiles to herself, having expected that response, “he would want us to be happy.”
Kenya’s eyes are hard. “I won’t be happy until I find who did this to him.”
Hinazuki agrees. She can see the anger in Kenya; it’s behind his eyes, in the tenseness around his shoulders. Hinazuki feels the same, in a way. She wants to know who did this as much as Kenya. She wants to find a way to bring Satoru back.
She takes Kenya’s hand and squeezes it in hers. Kenya seems to understand the gesture, a gesture of understanding shared between two people who love the same person, and squeezes back. He leaves her to visit Satoru on her own.
Satoru looks the same as he has the several times she has visited him with everyone else, but there’s a strangeness to the air, like a charged tenseness. Hinazuki knows it’s because this will be the last time she will see Satoru again for a while. She takes Satoru’s hand in hers like she’d done every time she came to visit him, watching the way his chest rises and falls with each breath.
“Thank you.” She says. She thanks him for everything he’s done for her. Saving her, stopping her mother, keeping her safe, keeping Hiromi, Aya, and the others safe, for taking their place—the tears start to slide down her cheeks, she chokes on a laugh. This was why she hadn’t wanted to come here alone.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to cry the last time I came here.” She sniffles, brushing her nose with the edge of her sleeve, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry—” She dissolves into hiccupping sobs, mumbling her apologies in between each shuddering breath. When she can finally get a hold of herself enough, she looks up into Satoru’s face and breaks into a smile, tears sliding down her face.
“Thank you for allowing me to smile again.”