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this lousy, second-rate body of mine

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“You’re a terrible man!” shrieks Monobear, and his claws ratchet out and his eyes blaze red, and Hinata scrambles hurriedly upright on the warm plastic deckchair where he’s spent most of the morning so far, gazing aimlessly out at sunlight glittering on water. “A disappointment! Every dream I’ve had for my students, you’re destroying them! You cold-blooded weakling! Can’t a headmaster relive the days of his scandalous cub-hood through his class every now and again?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Hinata, and shields his eyes to squint out from the shade of his beach umbrella, in case he’s missing some vital piece of visual evidence.

“Upupupu, I think you do!” says Monobear. He’s hopping from foot to foot, claws skittering out a manic rhythm on the terracotta poolside tiles.

It’s a hot day with the very barest breeze; Hinata presses his hands to his temples and says, as calmly as he can: “Can you just tell me what you want?”

“Uuh? – you’d be so rude to such a pretty face?”

Do you want something?”

“I do!” says Monobear, and he’s already off, tail waggling on his little round backside as he hurtles away down the edge of the pool. “Come on, you bastard, follow me!”

Hinata peels himself reluctantly up from the deckchair; there’s a sweatmark left behind in the shape of his body.

Outside the public baths Monobear’s waddle slows to a toddle and he hops up onto the rail of the shallow steps before the door and clasps his paws behind his back, puffs out his fuzzy chest and spawns a hundred bad dreams. “Hinata-kun!” he says, and Hinata looks up at him, unimpressed. “A body has been discovered!”

The screens anchored to the palm trees round the baths don’t light up; the electronic billboard on the side of the hotel doesn’t flash; the student handbook in his back pocket doesn’t beep with an update. “Wait,” says Hinata, “wait –” again, more skeptically, “– someone’s been murdered?”

“Ooh, I never said the body was dead, now, did I?”

“You found – a living body? In the baths?”

“You’re so quick, Hinata-kun!”

“Isn’t that just… a person?”

“Ugh! – you won’t let a bear have even a moment in the sun! You ruin all my plans!” One eye glows red; fangs flash. The fact that Hinata’s life and death rest in Monobear’s animatronic paws doesn’t make his regular histrionics any less irritating. “All I wanted was to set up the big news with a super cute lead-in, but you had to go and mess it up! You’re unbearable! This is the last time I do you any favors!”

“Uh,” says Hinata, after a moment, “if this is what your favors look like, then that’s… really not a problem.”

“Ugh,” says Monobear, again, and he waves one petulant paw at the heavy double doors of the public baths. “Just make sure you keep it family-friendly – we’re aiming for the broadest possible release certificate, apart from the murders. And if you can’t keep it family-friendly, at least try to keep it off camera!”

“Sure,” says Hinata, “but –” and he’s just about to point out that he’s still got no clue what’s going on when Monobear blips, very suddenly, out of reality.

Hinata takes a deep breath and exhales it through his teeth, and then he pushes his hair back from his forehead and shoves open the doors and goes in.

Inside the air is wetter and it presses in closer and sweatier, and he crosses the wood-paneled entrance hall feeling more uncomfortable and less prepared with every step. A living body has been discovered? – someone’s unconscious? dying, but not dead? – his shirt is sticking damply to his back and he rolls his shoulders but it doesn’t unstick it, and he sighs, and weighs up the consequences of barging unannounced into the girls’ showers against barging unannounced into the boys’.

“Don’t think these claws are only for show!” shrieks Monobear, blitzing back into existence just as Hinata reaches for the handle of the door with a stick figure in a skirt. “All perversions must take place within your own changing room! Boys in the boys’ showers, girls in the girls’ showers, and students trying to sneak around the rules will be punished for their dirty, dirty lust!”

“Look,” starts Hinata, who’s getting frustrated, “I still don’t –” but Monobear has already clapped his paws demurely to his cheeks and blushed and vanished. “For God’s sake,” he says, and goes in.

Every one of the smooth wooden lockers is shut; the changing room is deserted. A green coat hangs abandoned from a peg down the far wall. On the bench below it, more clothes are crumpled, and a towel droops half-in half-out a supermarket carrier bag and there are sneakers tucked away below the bench; and there’s a smell like soap and teatree, sharp and cold and cloying in the hot damp air.

Hinata closes the door quietly behind him. From the showers round the corner he can hear water hissing on tiles and someone humming, unconcerned, and he considers the fact that a body of some unidentified sort has been discovered; and then he moves very carefully across the room and starts to pat down the pockets of Komaeda’s coat.

They turn out to be empty, except for a half-eaten bag of raisins, and so Hinata begins to search the pile of clothes just as thoroughly, and just as quietly (so as not to disturb any possible culprit): shaking out his jeans (he needs to know what he’s dealing with) and holding his t-shirt up to the bright ceiling lights (information he can’t get from Komaeda himself) and looking suspiciously at his socks, which are balled up with his underpants, before pulling them apart and examining them each individually (the maximum possible evidence), and then he picks out the underpants, just as suspiciously, and holds them up by a corner.

Komaeda’s briefs are remarkably like Hinata’s own. Remarkably, uncannily, exactly like his own, right down to the lilac tint that happened to all his underwear when he didn’t notice Ibuki had forgotten her pajama top in the washing machine before he used it the other day. Hinata is sure Komaeda would have an explanation, but Komaeda’s still humming from the showers, tuneless and careless and faint over the slap of wet feet on wet tiles, and he wads the cast-off briefs back in with the socks and shoves them back into the jumble they were in when he found them, because Hinata is equally sure that any explanation Komaeda has is not an explanation Hinata wants to hear.

A body has been discovered: strangled, blue-faced in the gutters – stabbed, blood swirling and curling through the bubbles – tied up, ready for Komaeda to detach the shower head and force it down his victim’s throat till they drown – and Hinata crosses to the shower room, slowly, with his pulse hitting hard against his wrists and throat and chest and his hair limp from the heat and steam and clinging damply.

The showers are one long white room tiled on every wall; the floor slopes down to a single drain set at the center. Komaeda is – Hinata glances round the corner as fast as he can then presses his back to the wall again, in safety – Komaeda is under a shower on the left wall, side-on to Hinata – Hinata glances again – alone in there, still humming, no bodies immediately visible – and again – except for Komaeda’s, which is – there’s not a single part of Hinata that’s not sweat-sticky and uncomfortable – so very very pale, and skinny, suds running down the bolts of his spine and spattering the wall every time he rubs his hands up through his hair, which is a wild froth of shampoo, and Hinata finds – pulling awkwardly at the knot of his too-tight tie – that he’s not going anywhere, one damp palm on the changing room wall and one on the shower room tiles, at the edge of the shallow footbath at the entrance to the showers with sweat and steam trickling warm and unpleasant between his shirt and his skin.

Komaeda moves back under the shower, starts to rinse out the shampoo. Hinata watches foam streaming to the drain and then he watches Komaeda’s long fingers working through his hair and then he watches the shifting shape of his stringy thigh muscles when he crouches for another bottle from the small selection he has lined up against the wall and Hinata feels nauseous, and the damp heat presses in, and he watches Komaeda uncap the bottle and squeeze something out and recap it and drop it, and all of a sudden Hinata recognizes the tune he’s still humming to – it’s the theme Usami played in her island broadcasts before she was Monomi, and his stomach turns over on itself with a sick, heavy, bewildering mix of shame and hatred and whatever the fuck it is that keeps him watching as Komaeda soaps carefully round behind his neck and in the hollows of his collarbones and bump-bump-bump down the ridges of his ribs toward a very pale trail of tangled hair, and Hinata thinks: this is the bit where I get out of here.

But he doesn’t, and Komaeda rinses his hands soap-free then props one on the wall before him, dips his head, falls quiet. Hinata’s breath is coming shallow and shaky: he knows where this is going, he can’t tell himself he doesn’t – and he’s still here – watching – and the water of the shower shushes down on the tiles and Komaeda curls his other hand round his dick and rubs, idly, with one bony thumb, and –

“Hey,” he says, conversationally, “Hinata-kun – do you mind if I get myself off?”

“What?” says Hinata, and when Komaeda glances round his expression is perfectly open and Hinata’s heart trips on its own beat and clenches hard in panic. “No – I mean, no, don’t – I wasn’t –”

“No, you don’t mind, or no, you don’t want me to?”

“I don’t – what –”

“Well!” says Komaeda. “I’ve got a sort of routine when I’m showering, and this is usually the point where I’d masturbate –” and talking with his hands he makes a gesture that stops halfway but still ends up filthy, “– except I thought this time I’d better run it by you first, since you seemed to be having a good time so far just watching. But really, Hinata-kun, it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest, so long as you’re able to use me to enjoy yourself somehow!”

“I wasn’t – enjoying myself,” says Hinata, his gaze fixed fiercely on the ceiling; he can feel his blood pounding so hard in his throat he thinks he might be sick.

The manic light in Komaeda’s eyes briefly dims before striking back up, brighter than ever. “You weren’t? – oh, but it was foolish of me to presume someone as special as you could ever find joy in someone as unremarkable as me!” Water streams down his face, blurs his features, splatters around him when he flings out his hands enthusiastically toward Hinata. “You must be used to all kinds of wonderful, rarefied pleasures – I couldn’t even begin to imagine! I would never even dare to imagine!”

“That’s really not –”

“Would you like me to get you off?” asks Komaeda, and cocks his head expectantly when Hinata digs the heels of his hands into his eyes instead of answering. “Any pathetic service I could perform for you, just say the word!”

No!” says Hinata, and takes one jerky, involuntary step backwards. “Put some fucking clothes on, Komaeda, don’t – don’t just stand there –”

“Of course! Whatever you want, Hinata-kun.” The hiss of the shower grows weaker and then it stops and there’s just the drip of it emptying, slowly. “Anything you want, just tell me and I’ll do it!”

“I don’t mean for me,” says Hinata, “I mean – do it, but I’m not – this isn’t me telling you what to do –”

“Oh, no, I know that! It’s just you telling me what you want, Hinata-kun, and that’s the natural way of things!” Piling up the bottles from the foot of the wall to the crook of his arm he laughs, breezy and unconcerned, and when he stands up again the laughter’s still creasing in the corners of his eyes. “Nothing about me contributes a single thing to this world and that’s just the way it is, so all I can hope to do with my life is use it to improve yours as best I can! Whatever you want, that’s what I want, too!”

Hinata steps back again, and then again. His face is so hot the rest of him feels cold and he’s sick right through from shame. “Don’t do things just because I want them,” he says.

Komaeda pauses, one bare foot in the footbath and one on its way there, toes pressed flat to the tiles. “Does that mean you don’t want me to put my clothes on?”

“No,” says Hinata, “I mean – yes. No?”

“Or does it mean you want me to put my clothes on, but you want me to want to put my clothes on?”

“Yes,” says Hinata, “that’s exactly –” and then he stops, and tries again, and the room’s too warm and the air’s too damp and sweat rolls slowly down from his hairline to his collar, which has pasted itself so closely to his throat it feels like half-hearted suffocation. “Just… don’t do things because you think someone’s telling you to? I don’t see why that’s such an issue, just… get dressed because you want to?”

“Oh, Hinata-kun! You wouldn’t get it, would you?” says Komaeda, with a smile that’s more fondly indulgent than anything and more intensely disturbing than everything. “How about you just imagine I’m a part of you? Imagine I’m a part of you that’s inside you, and then it’ll seem perfectly natural you should be able to use me how you want!” and he laughs, one surprised, delighted huff. “You know, that’s not a half bad comparison – not coming from someone as talentless as me!”

“No,” says Hinata, after a silent, horrified moment. “That’s really weird. That’s – really weird.”

“Oh, man, d’you think so?”

“Yeah. Definitely.”

“Oh, man,” says Komaeda, again, and his thin shoulders slump before he bounces back, brighter than before and dripping wet and very much unclothed. “Well! It’s to be expected! And I’d never contradict the opinion of such a brilliantly gifted Super High School Level student – you of all people would know something special when you see it, Hinata-kun, I’m sure of that!” and then he pauses, thoughtfully. “Well – unless it’s your Super High School Level, I suppose.”

“Excuse me?” says Hinata, and as Komaeda splashes through the footbath to the changing room he flips a cheerful wink his way. “No, wait – Komaeda! Komaeda, what the fuck – Komaeda!” Wet footprints on the polished wooden floorboards; a wet handprint on the polished wooden wallpanels where he took the corner. Hinata breaks free from the paralysis of a hundred rapidly accumulated Komaeda-induced horrors and goes after him.

He’s sitting on the bench beside his clothes, rubbing a towel vigorously over his head, in faded lilac briefs.

Are those my underpants?” says Hinata.

“Maybe!” says Komaeda. “But doesn’t the despair of not knowing cause you such a sweet, strong hope that one day you will?”

“Komaeda,” says Hinata, and jams his hands down into his pockets in an attempt to stop himself from curling them in fists instead, “did you steal my fucking underwear?”

Komaeda pulls the towel off his head and looks up at him, affectionately, wildly straggle-haired with his icy eyes bright. His collarbones jut out like alarming handlebars below the skin. “I just want to make your hope the most powerful hope it can be, Hinata-kun!”

“That’s not an answer!”

“Think of this uncertainty as my gift to you,” he says, and wriggles into his T-shirt. “Are these your briefs? Am I going to kill someone today? Or will it be tomorrow?”

“Shut up –”

“Or maybe I’ll let someone else kill me today!” He jumps to his feet and uncrumples his jeans from the pile, shakes them out and drags them on. “Maybe I was showering now to make sure my miserable body becomes the least miserable corpse it can be!”

“Shut up –”

“You just don’t know, Hinata-kun, and that’s glorious! You’ve got to hope! Super-powered hope! The hope of the most magnificent boy could become only the most magnificent hope!”

“Shut up,” says Hinata, and his voice climbs louder and his heart hits faster and Komaeda’s crossing the room toward him, shrugging back into his coat, bare feet squelching damp tacky sounds on the floorboards, “shut up, shut up –” and then Komaeda’s right there and Hinata steps back and hits the lockers. “I don’t want to hear it,” he says, and he tries to make it forceful but he’s breathing too rapidly and his voice is unsteady, and it wavers, and he hates it, “your bullshit – you’re crazy, you know it, just keep it to yourself, I’m – telling you that, that’s an order, you do what I want –”

“Hey,” says Komaeda, gently, “hey.”

Hinata breathes and breathes and breathes and stares into those washed-out whacked-out eyes in case he spots an early warning for his own imminent murder there, but Komaeda’s just smiling, sympathetically, and he holds out his empty hands.

“I already told you,” he says, “I’m a useless person! I’m worthless, I’m insignificant – I haven’t earned the right to want things, Hinata-kun, but you!” and suddenly that weird depthless madness flickers back across his face and Komaeda seizes his wrists and holds them very tight between their chests, pale fingers turning paler at the knuckles with the strength of it, alight with a joy that makes Hinata sick: “You, you’re an amazing person! You’re incredible, Hinata-kun!”

“Let me go,” snaps Hinata.

Komaeda looks down at their hands and then he looks back up. “You’re right,” he says, regretfully, “of course you are – someone as loathsome as me shouldn’t be touching you like this. But I’m rotten right through, and I couldn’t help myself – that’s just what I’m like! I’m a truly inadequate person!”

“Let me go,” says Hinata, more forcefully, but Komaeda’s high on hope and lost to infatuation and all he does is dig in harder.

“Believe me, Hinata-kun, you deserve the world! Anyone I kill – you’ve got to remember, they’ll be dying for your sake!”

“I don’t want that!” says Hinata, and takes a breath that shudders from pain. “You’re hurting me, let me go –”

“What I’m saying,” says Komaeda, abruptly reasonable – and he releases Hinata, who barely manages to stop himself wheezing in relief – “is that you’re remarkable! And – if you ever want to watch me shower again, then all you’ve got to do is say so.”

“I wasn’t watching you shower.”

“No?”

Hinata rubs the life back into his wrists and scowls; stays silent.

“It’s – well, it’s not more than I dream of, but I sure do dream of it! – that you’d derive pleasure from this lousy, second-rate body of mine!” He’s there with his hands propped on his skinny hips, not looking bashful in the slightest, looking cheerful, looking carefree. “They’re dirty dreams, huh? The kind of thing you’d expect from me?”

“You seriously creep me out,” says Hinata, and when Komaeda laughs and starts to answer he says it again: “You seriously creep me out,” and shoves his way past him with an elbow to the stomach that leaves him doubled up and panting. “I’m getting out of here – you can do whatever you want, I’m through with you, you’re – insane, you’re disgusting –”

“I know!” says Komaeda, breathlessly, and laughs a winded laugh, “I know, I know – that’s it, Hinata-kun, that’s exactly it, you’ve got it –”

Hinata shoves open the changing room door and instantly there’s a camera whirring round to face him, one steady red light glowing down from the high shadowed ceiling. He looks back: Komaeda’s watching him, rubbing his injured stomach, and when he sees Hinata looking he smiles and it’s perfectly fond. “I think there’s something very special between us, Hinata-kun!”

“Komaeda,” says Hinata, and Komaeda stops rubbing his stomach and stands straighter, attentive, “you make me sick.”

“That’s right! That’s how it should be! I’m sickening! I’ve never met a guy like you, Hinata-kun – you just get me! And if it’s not too presumptuous –” he drops his voice and leans in, suddenly confidential, suddenly intimate, “– I think I get you, too!”

“Yeah,” says Hinata, “that’s too presumptuous,” and Komaeda swings half-out of the changing room to yell after him down the corridor: “Hinata-kun! – just so you know! You can see right into my private bathroom through the back window, if I leave the door open!” and Hinata stamps across the foyer in a fury and yells back, “Fuck off!” and Komaeda yells back, “I’ll leave it open! Have a great day!” and outside the baths there’s still no breeze, and everywhere smells like salt and sun lotion and the shadows stretch out very long and dark in the blank, blinding glare of the late afternoon sun, and Hinata wishes someone would be the first guy to start walking round topless: purely so he could follow their example.

---

He finds Monobear back at the poolside, shrieking at Tsumiki and flashing his claws, over and over again. “Boo! Made you jump! Boo! Get a grip!” and she buries her face in her hands, howling with fear.

“What the hell?” says Hinata, and Monobear spins round to him with one coy paw to one blushing cheek.

“Oh-oh-oh, have I finally found what makes your manly heart beat faster? Do you like them moe, Hinata-kun? Does the sight of Tsumiki-san’s damp little face give you… indecent thoughts?” Monobear waddles closer; Tsumiki lets out an anguished cry and crumples down onto a deckchair, sobbing wretchedly. “About… faces damp for other reasons, perhaps? Oof, such naughty talk!”

“Tsumiki, you know don’t have to listen to this garbage, right?”

She yelps and leaps up and runs for it – “If Hinata-kun thinks I shouldn’t listen then I won’t! I wont!” and he yells back, “That’s not what I meant!” but she’s gone, bandages tangled and trailing behind her.

“Not into the moe girls, then?” says Monobear, and presses his paws together thoughtfully. “I guess that whole weepy shtick’s a little played-out nowadays, huh? A little one-dimensional for you?”

“You know what this is about,” says Hinata, and shields his eyes with his hand so that his foul mood doesn’t go unnoticed in the sun.

It goes unnoticed. “Pick your poison, you bastard! How about Owari-san? She’s a well-rounded character in every sense of the word, upupu!”

“You told me,” says Hinata, doggedly, “that a body had been discovered.”

“What? What what?” says Monobear, and tilts his head in the closest approximation of well-natured incredulity any animatronic bear with a mouth full of jagged metal could ever hope to achieve. “Are you saying it wasn’t? Are saying you didn’t?”

“I,” says Hinata, and then he stops. Monobear is beaming: the fangs are on full, horrific display. “I… guess? If you’re being… technical?”

“Just so! I am a scrupulously honest and technical bear,” says Monobear, and the light in one of his eyes flickers on and off in what Hinata realizes, hours later, sprawled out on his back on the top of his bedsheets, naked but for his own pair of dubiously lilac-tinted briefs with a portable fan from the supermarket propped on his bedside table, still too shellshocked to do anything but concentrate on not overheating – it’s a flicker of light that he realizes, staring blankly up at the netting above his bed, was in fact Monobear offering a saucy electronic wink.

“Oh my God,” says Hinata, and presses his hands to his face in shame.