Kaede was always the same. Even a complete wipe of her memories couldn't get rid of her sunny personality. Bossy, yes, but kindhearted, and always ready to see the best in everyone. Maki remembers this now. Maki remembers this when it is far too late.
Team Danganronpa staff members come to retrieve the three survivors along with Kiibo's broken body and what remains of Shirogane. Maki goes without a fight. Saihara trembles, and Yumeno cries. But Maki simply doesn't care. Everyone else is dead.
Maki signs exit forms and nondisclosure agreements and tells the execs she doesn't want therapy. Would you like to restore your memories of the real world? one of them asks, and Maki says Sure with a roll of her eyes. If anything, her real memories will be a step up from the assassin backstory Shirogane gave her. They're probably boring, and normal, and not painful and harsh and filled with abuse and torture.
What she gets instead is worse.
They're twelve when they first kiss, Kaede leaning close to Maki and pressing their lips together. Maki squeals, face reddening. "What was that!"
Kaede giggles. "You're supposed to practice, you know? For when you're older and you have to kiss a boy."
Maki sputters. All the boys in the orphanage are disgusting. Maybe it's just her shyness talking, but Kaede is the only person Maki can trust. They've been together for as long as Maki can remember, Kaede's outgoing personality the perfect foil to introverted Maki. They click. And the thought of them being separated by boys one day makes Maki's stomach turn.
"I'm… not interested in that," Maki says. And Kaede pouts and turns away, and they don't mention it again. But that night, when Maki lies awake in the cramped bedroom she shares with Kaede and three other girls, she replays the kiss over and over in her mind.
Something in Maki's chest aches whenever she thinks of the dead. She finds herself knocking at the door of Team Danganronpa's licensed psychologist, just to confirm that her time with Kaede truly did happen. She's not sure which answer would be worse; yes or no. Her stomach sinks when the doctor tells her that we simply restored the portion of your memory that was closed off during the killing game, nothing more.
She and Yumeno and Saihara are invited to prominent talk shows, magazine interviews, photoshoots, parties. Interviewers always ask her about Momota. She doesn't know what to say.
She stops going to the events.
I've never... fallen for anyone before.
It plays over and over in her head when she can't sleep at night (which is often), whenever there's a spare moment in her day (which is always). It's so vivid she feels like she's reliving it each time. Her hand grips a knife, her throat closes up with tears, her mouth says I've never fallen for anyone before.
But that had been a lie too, just like everything else in that sick game. Those fleeting feelings of admiration, developed over a week or two, simply pale in comparison to what she'd felt for Kaede—childhood friendship turning into deep love over years and years. I just love tragic pairings, you know? Kaede had told her once, when they were fourteen and watching Season 49, when the Ultimate Shrine Maiden was brutally torn apart while trying to put a stop to the Ultimate Painter's execution. It all makes sense to Maki now. It's all fake, all manufactured to tug at the heartstrings while using people's lives and deaths for entertainment.
Maki doesn't know who she hates the most: Shirogane, the writers, or herself.
Maki turns seventeen first, on a bitter chilly February morning. The heat's gone out at the orphanage again, and Maki's hands and feet are cold. She tiredly lifts up the blanket from Kaede's futon next to her and snuggles in as best she can.
"Nngh... Happy birthday," Kaede says, without opening her eyes. She rolls over and wraps her arms around Maki, pulling their bodies close together. Maki's thankful for the warmth. "I have a present for you... later."
"Mmm." Maki concentrates on the heat spreading to her fingertips and toes, and soon she's asleep again, content in Kaede's arms.
The present is an original song, performed by Kaede on the orphanage's worn-down piano to an audience of Maki and several of the younger kids. They all clap for her, and Kaede leads the children in wishing Maki a happy birthday. And Maki smiles, trying not to think of how this will be the last time she can celebrate growing older at the orphanage.
Kaede's birthday comes with less fanfare, toward the end of March. Maki's not one for handmade gifts, and she doesn't have Kaede's skill at the piano. She confesses this to Kaede one night, but Kaede only laughs and says she doesn't need a gift. "Just being with you makes me happy enough!" she says, and Maki's heart pounds.
Season 52 of Danganronpa airs that spring, easing into summer. Kaede and Maki watch it religiously, as always, huddling together at an internet cafe after school once a week to catch up on the episodes they can't watch at the orphanage. As summer grows closer to fall and Season 52 is down to six remaining players, Team Danganronpa posts its casting call for Season 53.
Do you want to be on Danganronpa V3?
...Signups close Dec. 1, 20XX
Must be between 18 and 24 years of age by April 1, 20XX... appear between 16 and 18.
...chosen participants will be contacted by January 1, 20XX to inform...
Maki's eyes skim over the announcement, only taking in every few sentences. She's never thought of participating in the show before, but the possibility is there: she will turn 18 almost exactly two months before the cutoff date.
She puts the thought out of her mind. It is a terrible idea for a girl like her.
"You know, we're gonna age out of the orphanage soon. Would you want to try out for Danganronpa?" Kaede asks.
Maki reaches up to fidget with her ponytail. "…Only if you do."
They get in.
"Oh my god, Maki, Maki, it's here," Kaede says, her voice shaking with excitement as she lifts two red-and-black envelopes out of the orphanage's mailbox. "Oh, I can't wait, I'm gonna open it now!"
"At least let's get inside first," Maki whines, making a halfhearted attempt at dragging Kaede through the doorframe. "I'm cold…"
"Okay, okay," Kaede says, hurrying inside. She drops her bag immediately, not even bothering to take off her shoes before ripping open the letter with her name on it. Maki watches her carefully—it's always a joy to observe Kaede at times like this. "Oh my god, Maki!"
"I got in! Ultimate Pianist! Oh my god!"
"Open mine too," Maki says. She doesn't have high expectations for her own envelope, and either way she'll be happy for Kaede.
"Are you sure?"
"Okay." Kaede's shaky fingers tear open the letter more gracefully this time. And then—"Maki!" she squeals. "We're gonna be on Danganronpa!"
"Both of us?" Maki finds that hard to believe.
"Both of us! You're gonna be the Ultimate Child Caregiver! Oh my god, Maki, I'm so happy!" Kaede pulls Maki into a tight hug, laughing. "We did it!"
The Team Danganronpa facility is a large brick building surrounded by a tall iron fence. It almost looks like Hope's Peak itself, from the very first season. Kaede and Maki check in at the front desk, though Kaede does most of the talking. "Season 53 participants, Kaede Akamatsu and Maki Harukawa," Kaede says proudly. Maki just signs the papers with her name on them, skimming the fine print.
The rest of the day is a blur, filled with waiting and paperwork and waivers and briefing. Maki is taken to the Team Danganronpa licensed psychologist to go over her planned role for the season and review expectations. "Harukawa-san," the doctor says. "This season's dark horse."
"The what?" Maki asks, equal parts intrigued and afraid.
"You're the Child Caregiver, right? How do you feel about kids?"
"Alright, I guess."
"And how would you feel if that talent were actually a coverup for a different talent?"
Maki looks down at her shoes. "I… guess that would be fine."
The doctor nods and writes something down. Maki's heart sinks in her chest, but she can't explain why.
"Mmm?" Kaede rolls over, splaying herself across the Team Danganronpa guest bed that she and Maki are sharing. Filming for Season 53 starts tomorrow, and neither of them can sleep.
"Can I tell you something?"
"Yeah, of course! Go ahead!"
Maki's chest feels like lead. "I'm... not supposed to tell anyone. But I mean, it's you, so... I'm not—I'm not really going to be the Ultimate Child Caregiver."
"Huh? But it said on your acceptance letter—"
"No, I know, but... That's a coverup, they said. I'm... I'm actually going to be the—" Maki's eyes start to water as she makes herself say it. "The Ultimate Assassin."
Kaede looks confused. "Assassin?"
"I dunno if I can do it," Maki says, her voice cracking. "I'm not—strong like you."
"Oh, Maki..." Kaede pauses, chewing her lip. "D'you think they'll have you be a killer?"
"I don't know," Maki says quietly. "It would make sense, but..." I'm more suited to be a victim , she wants to say. Either way, she's sure she won't survive. She was never planning on it, anyway. Survival is for the strong, brave contestants, like Kaede, who deserve it.
It suddenly hits her that this could be her last night with Kaede, and Maki feels her body shake with the beginnings of a sob.
"Hey, hey, don't cry," Kaede says, sitting up quickly and hugging Maki close against her chest.
"I'm, I'm gonna die," Maki gasps against Kaede's shoulder. "I'm gonna die and, you know, they wipe your memories and you'll—you'll forget about me."
"Maki," Kaede says. She pulls back so that Maki can look her in the eyes. "I could never forget about you, okay? I love you. No matter what. And I'm sure a part of me will always know you loved me too," Kaede whispers, cupping Maki's face in her hands.
"Kaede," Maki sobs. "Kaede..."
"Shhh," Kaede says, kissing Maki's forehead. "Don't cry, okay? I don't want tonight to be sad. I love you. I love you."
"I love you too," Maki whimpers, trying to hold back her tears. "I love you so much."
That's the last thing Maki remembers. After that she woke up on the floor of a classroom in the prison, with a red and black uniform and thoughts of assassination and the vague memory of girls long since past.
So much has been left unfinished now. There is so much that Maki will never get back.
What a horrible, horrible waste.