Flowers bloom across these hands.
Red and purple and blue - roses and violets and forget-me-nots. You count the imaginary petals with idle attentiveness, eventually letting that idleness slip away for static, before too-forcefully straightening your back and gluing your eyes to the whiteboard. The professor in front drones about the ethics of killing animals and the worth of mankind, a marker squeaking occasionally across the board. There is an awfully awful thought to make there, you think, but you don't and decide to take some notes. In-between pen smudges melting across the paper and a few sentences about some philosopher called Singer, you scribble roses and violets and forget-me-nots, and resolve as always to think of nothing more.
As with all things, you must think no more. Let the flowers bloom in your dreams, one by one by one by one by one by one by one - forever, until twelve are gathered. But by then, morning has come, and they must fold back to sleep again. Each a memory, each for another day. A cycle of possibilities always ending before flowering.
The sky tastes like sulfur, and Angie keeps braiding crowns from thorns.
A long time ago you would have stared at her bleeding hands, dutifully curling the stems and razor-leaves into each other. She always keeps a smile on her face as she does her work, the gesture feeling soft but carved from stone - a permanent, empty fixture. It's as permanent as the arrow in your arm, always reappearing in a blink no matter what. But at the very least, you'd like to think of them as comforting in their persistent tangibility. For now, yes.
One of these days, you can remember - as the sky tilts back into a reversed horizon, the clouds blurring as much as the days are, you lay down on the uncomfortable grass and listen to Angie hum an off-tone song while making her ten thousandth crown. You listen to her as she finishes the crown, finishes the song, finishes sighing, finishes staring out at something in silence before starting a new crown. You listen with your eyes closed as she begins to babble about her island home, about a nostalgic story that goes in and out of your ears, because she and you know it by heart, and lately these days, Angie can't finish telling any of her stories without her words dying sharply to whispers.
So, you remember. What happens one day in Hell, after one such story - the girl glancing at her handiwork, ivory lilies weaved in like jewels, before she gingerly sets it on her head and experimentally tugs at her hair.
"We asked for this, right?"
You open one eye. Her accent is gone.
"And we died as something meaningful."
She turns back to look at you, lips pursed into a light frown. The both of you know how much of a lie that is. You ought to try better, you think - being sarcastic really isn't a lie, just a lame tier of laziness. But Hell has left you lax with all thoughts, distant from all things because if nothing mattered before you died, before you were recreated, before you died again—then, even afterwards, nothing really matters.
"Kokichi," she murmurs, kindly enough that you want to spit out a laugh into her face, "Do you regret going on the show?"
"...Not sure." You roll onto your side. "It doesn't matter though. I told you already."
"But, just a while ago—"
"I won't take it."
Angie mutters something that sounds like gibberish, a false and random curse, still speaking quietly, "Even if you don't want it, the choice is still there. God said so." And the both of you also know, illusionary or not, her god exists only in a different life.
"Then why don't you take it, Yonaga?" You're not bitter, but you still can't help the slight bite that slips into your words. "Go back there. Go back to being Yonaga - or Angie, whichever one - and live the life you could have lived. And then, maybe, come back here."
"But I—!" A breath, a sharp pause. The girl crushes flowers and thorns under her palms, shaking her head for a moment. "Everyone else deserves that too."
You snort. "Sure, maybe. But none of us want it. Going back there - what's left for us, the way we are?"
For your birthday, your parents gift you a thin blank book and a box of acrylic paint. They say it's because of the comments that a teacher made during the last parent-teacher meeting. You're very good at drawing animals - the horses were especially nice, they said. For quite a long time after that, you had to wear a bright smile, something angelic and sunny and warm, something that shines gold and burns black and drowns you in white and pink again. To say it gives you shivers or left you staring blearily at the bathroom mirror, hearing tap water echo as it kept flowing down the drain—it would mean remembering things, and you resolve as always to think of nothing more.
So you purchase a book on gardening, and try to make yourself into a plant lover. Something completely different from who you are now and before and before the before. It was a good attempt, all things considered - the backyard was a rainbow in spring. But only for that one spring, when butterflies fluttered over the dewy hedges, when dragonflies sped past your eyes, when ladybugs slept on the edges of the flowerbeds and you had to wonder, idly and constantly, what plant attracts the most bugs.
There are no graves nearby to visit, much less Gonta's, which is ultimately why it's so pointless.
"How is this?"
"It's really good! But I still wish I could cut it."
There are many things you can remark there. Perhaps that it would be nice, perhaps that it would not be a good choice, perhaps that regardless of how she'd look with shorter hair, the change will only be for a moment before the ghost of their forms goes back to looking overwhelmingly dead.
"Hey, Kirumi." The girl turns around and looks up at you with smiles around her eyes and laughter bubbling silently in the air. "Have you ever thought about how you'd look with long hair?"
"Ah..." You push back a lock of your hair, feeling it come lose and fall back in front anyway. "Not particularly. But I can imagine it to some extent - I used to have long hair."
"Ohhh, really? I can't really imagine that! But you must have looked great, right?"
"Perhaps. I always thought of myself as rather plain and below-average, either way."
You busy yourself with a moment - gathering Angie's hair back into your hands, sunset-tinged silver spilling into an open river. With a makeshift comb of warped willow, you pull away knots and absently bask in the feeling of straightening hair through the teeth. Angie hums loudly at your words, sounding thoughtful and amazed in one. It's a grand act. Perhaps Ouma was right in mentioning, once upon a time, that a performance at its peak only means that everything will go downhill henceforth.
"And then," Angie says, looking up at the sky. "They cut your hair, and dyed it into a really dull color. In a way, that's plainer, isn't it?"
"Sadly, yes." You pull the comb along one final time. "Everything about me was exaggerated, but I still looked rather plain. At least, to me, it seems so."
"Hmmmm. ...Soooo, do you regret it?"
"What is there to regret?" You tie her hair into a single high ponytail, using blood-dotted ribbons, and make sure to give the ribbons a few secure tugs to keep them snugly in place. "Despite how I feel, no matter how you look at it, I was still exaggerated and acted as an exaggerated character. That's what I auditioned for - to not be me. And I died as a person who wasn't completely themselves. At least that, I am satisfied on."
She doesn't say anything back, and threads a hand through the ponytail. You think it's a success that she isn't trying to pull her hair out again.
Your classes end early today, and you hurry to the bus stop in hope of catching an equally early bus home.
There's a boy at the stop when you do reach it, holding an open sketchbook in his arms, his fingers dusted grey from charcoal as he tries to sketch the large bookstore on the other side of the road. Or at least, you think that's what he's trying to do. His face is one of deep concentration as he sketches, and while you can appreciate the pure concept of effort and passion in itself, you can only look on a bit nervously at the brushes sticking out of his bag and the scratched Danganronpa keychain hanging from one of the zippers. In the end, your eyes stare for a long time at your phone screen, thumb constantly scrolling and scrolling through an endless playlist of songs and screens, and you nearly miss the bus from how much you tried to tune everything out.
The show is over and banned and bankrupted, has been over for years and decades now - but as you know, some things can take ages, and you don't know why the show's fans and fleeting remnants won't stop showing up in odd nooks and crannies of your life.
As if your previous lives didn't have enough of Danganronpa in them.
You're not the first person to enter Hell, but at least for the newest batch of entries, you're one of the first of those, surely.
Having that time, that small sense of preparation, if you can call it that - you think of it as a good thing, sort of. It gave you the chance to offload a hundred thousand apologies to Amami, who only confused you by saying the iron ball didn't kill him, and so gave you the chance to calm down from trying to rationalize the consequences. (The killing game is an utter farce, start to finish, and you desperately, desperately wish you had a way to tell someone that truth - but Hell is Hell, dead is dead, and Akamatsu Kaede will not return in either form she had before and during the show.)
Once you managed as such, you began to explore the afterlife. You learnt how it's always changing, always expanding, and that every once in a while there are more people and more true memories rising up from the surface of a thinly suppressed life. It's a painful joke, you think, that you couldn't last at all despite genuinely thinking you had everything you needed to reach the end-game.
"—Ahh!" There's a sudden yell, and you quickly turn around to find a cheerful bob of white hair waving at you. "It's Kaede!"
"A-Angie!" You blink, and suddenly you're being tackled at the waist by two arms and one imitation artist. "If you're here, then—"
"Hey, hey, is this Hell, Kaede?" Angie grins wide. "Is it?"
"It... is, I guess." The sky is always red, the grass is always dead, and the noose around your neck might as well be glued there, despite the things you do to untie it or cut it or to just throw it aside somewhere in hopes of not having an eternal reminder of what it's like to suffocate. "But more importantly, since you're here, did you or someone else kill—"
"Hahaha, that's just perfect!" She grabs your hand, squeezing it tight. "Come with me! I just figured out how to make some flower crowns."
"Flower crowns? Here?"
"Yes, yes." Her grin becomes a smile, her loud glee transformed into a feeling of gentleness. "Even in Hell, God is with me - and in a vision, thus revealed a bed of flowers! So come with me, and I'll show you how to make a flower crown. —Ah, unless, does Kaede already know how to make flower crowns?"
You blink a couple of times at her, wondering if perhaps she doesn't remember everything yet - the process has clearly been different and selective for everyone down here - but as the moment stretches on for a few seconds too long, Angie's smile also stretches and stretches accordingly, until her eyes become glassy and her teeth are almost completely bared. You have to swallow down a breath and push up a smile of your own, squeezing her hand back in acknowledgment.
"I've never made flower crowns before. They seem difficult."
Angie giggles. It sounds like jagged glass. "They aren't at all. You'll see, you'll see!"
She takes you to a miniature meadow in a meadow, filled with swaying spider lilies, red and white and covered in unusual thorns. Before you can revise or regret your choices, she begins plucking handfuls without care for her hands, and simply demonstrates how to make flower crowns by herself. The crowns are amateurish and clumsily woven, but she assures you - it's not because of the fact that her hands hurt. Angie is a vessel for God, but this is Hell, so God is just having a difficult time creating any art since his vessel is going to rot and fade in this afterlife. Knowing that, even so, she wanted to show you how to make the crowns, because this is simply who and what Angie is.
You nod at her reasoning, and don't comment on how her voice is shaking.
Once upon a time, you wanted to break out of a cycle - the kind where flowers don't bloom to beauty.
Be it parents who wanted you to become a doctor and nothing else, be it a school that laughed at your foreign name and your half-foreign family, be it an empty circle of friends and nothing to feel passionate about besides a death game - because that was the worst rebellion you thought you could have - whichever reason you pick and blame, anyway, you wanted to make choices that had some kind of significant ending. And so, you got an ending.
And then you came back, because no one else would.
(After all, everyone died, and what was recreated from their bodies was a script of tropes. What would come back, if they actually chose to come back? The person they were before the game? The person who existed during the game? Yet another person? Regardless of any of those, no one had a guarantee that reality would be kinder than their experiences.)
Sometimes, you wonder what your choices even are. Their contents, their worth, their effects. You've returned to a world where your favorite show has been dismantled, to a world where Angie Yonaga is an oddball character who died halfway through, to a world where Yonaga Angie left behind a divided family and a lousy school and a life that didn't seem like it was going anywhere, so you signed up for a reality show that dyed your hair blinding white and temporarily implanted the skills of a prodigy—so that even if you died, you would still have a moment under the spotlight, and that's supposed to be a dazzling thing for anyone, right?
You don't know. You really don't.
But you've made some choices now, and as always, like with what it means to have a resolve - you can't go back once you make them. (Which is a good thing? Usually, yes, they say. You can't go back on your choices on a whim, unlike your resolve itself.)
(manjusaka, withering in the breeze, forming a burning red sea in hell.
you wonder if you should stick with the group's flow and fade along with everyone. you wonder if you should make a final choice and walk to the other side of the sea. is this right, or is this abandonment? is this wrong, or is this selfishness? you don't know, you don't know.)
On the weekend, you and your family visit a travelling show.
The lady on stage, nearing her twilight, keeps a brilliant smile as another lady - her assistant - stands inside a box that gets cut into blocks. It's a very boring, almost predictable show. Your parents keep polite, rather than entertained looks on their faces. But you follow the magician's movements closely, and at the end of the show, hurry as fast as you can to the backstage rooms for the meet-and-greet segment.
"Looks like you still have some big fans, Himiko," the assistant laughs, as you barge into the proper room and nearly trip over your feet. The magician shrugs at a vanity table, while a third person - a man in a dark suit, looking around their ages, shoots you a concerned look as you take a breathless moment to just gape.
"Nah, I'd say it's your looks, Maki."
"That's a bad joke and you know it."
"It's true, though. You were completely in the center spotlight during the show!"
Harukawa makes a wry look, glancing over at the man in the suit. "Huh. As much as Shuuichi was, sure."
"U-Um!" You blurt out, intelligently. "I... I'm—"
Yumeno slides off her cushioned stool, approaching you with quick steps and a raised hand. You take a second to process it, grab it, and shake it - which you do as hard as you can, enough for eleven people and one particularly beloved person. The lady smiles as if you didn't just try to squeeze her hand into a floppy pancake.
"I'm—" You try to breathe. "I'm... not the biggest fan, but at the same time, I really am."
"That's kind of a contradiction there, isn't it?" Saihara says, gently. You simply nod.
"It is. I'll be honest, even if it hurts—" You steel yourself, feel your heart trembling because if there's one certain rule of the universe, it's that no one likes unpleasant pasts - but you need to get it out. "I'm a fan of you guys, when you were a part of that... that game. The show."
The magician's smile goes stiff, and the assistant narrows her eyes at you. The man sits up a little straighter, frowning, but contemplative. You want to run away. (What's the point of this or of that? Shouldn't it be a long gone thing? You're a person completely unrelated to the past that you remember. So you don't have to do this, you don't have to do this. ...But here you are anyway.) You let your hands curl into fists, try to keep your mind focused on the task at hand - though memories slip through, flashes of death and suspicion and your religion, fake as that was. It's such minor distractions that spur you forward.
"—I'm happy for all of you." You simply say. True and completely. "You... got out, in the end. We— I— I'm glad you did."
"Is that all you have to say?" Harukawa sighs, looking immensely uninterested in letting this continue. Yumenko shoots her a look, and urges you to continue on.
"S-Sort of, yes." You pull at your hair. You keep it as short as you possibly can, but it's still long enough to twist into a few circles around your pinkie if you try. "What I'm... kind of glad about the most, is that you're alive - but, as you are right now. Not as before, but..."
You bite your lip. "Sorry, I don't know how to explain this. There's a lot I want to say, but, the words..."
...Even if you had the words, what can you say? How can you tell them that you've seen the hell of a killing game, the hell after life, the hell of living as someone entrust with fragments of the dead because for some damned reason you couldn't actually remake yourself into a completely different person after being reborn? All of it is a surreal joke, even to you.
The clutter hurts, the longer you think back on it. So you shake your head, and talk - there might be tears, but you think you can keep them at bay for now, hopefully. "This— This won't make sense at all, what I'm going to say, but - I can't speak for everyone, but I think that everyone was happy with the way things ended. They probably would have wanted to pass some things on, if they could, but I guess that's my job for this life. Your job, though, is to be happy for everyone else who couldn't. I think. Maybe." Another deep breath. You try not to think about the strange group meeting that happened just before you crossed back to life - everyone giving you stories, memories, wishes.
Iruma who liked flowers, Hoshi who enjoyed philosophy, Momota who talked about fame and regret, Chabashira who asked you to remember but to not be burdened, Shinguuji who whispered in contrast that being dead and forgotten would be best for him - by now, you doubt that they're still roaming that endless place. All that's left is you, and you're not sure if saying anything has purpose. No one likes opening a can of worms, right?
You did it anyway. And this is the end of it.
Hollow or fulfilling - you can't take it back.
"That's all." The girl mutters, quietly enough to sound dead, and soon spins on her heel to walk out.
You find yourself catching her by the shoulder at the last minute, watching surprise flicker like the blaze of shooting stars. From the corner of your eye, you see Maki raise an eyebrow, and Himiko blink several times, quizzically.
"Something about what you just said..." Cogs, rusty but there, turn gradually. "Hey. Can you tell us your name?"
Her expression shifts into something like a deer's caught in the headlights. Or perhaps, for a better analogy - like someone who peeped into Hell for a second.
(but you answer, and what happens after is of your own choice, as you've always wanted.)