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All My Secrets

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Dead.

The world had died and Kyosuke Munakata pinned its corpse under his foot, submitting it to his will. The world was dead and the sliver of hope for revival kept him going.

And now, the revival depended on this careful plan.

Munakata strode down the hall in long strides. Hands clenched into fists, he focused on his target in the same way that he always did: unforgiving, unyielding, unwilling to relent. At the end of the hall, he paused in front of a set of double doors, taking note of the sound of low voices on the other side. Munakata allowed himself a small moment of reprieve.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Two subtle movements. Just like the two years it had taken to get to this moment, and damn if he wasn't going to let another slip-up jeopardize the outcome, not when he was so close.

Munakata made his entrance. The voices immediately fell silent. The room he'd entered was a repurposed board room, plunged in darkness save for a few computer screens. Several armed guards lined the walls. From the side, Juzo Sakakura—tall and imposing as always—stood stock still, sparing Munakata a nod of acknowledgement and nothing else. There would be time for pleasantries later. Across from him, a long table had been set up with three seats. The centre spot—the one Munakata intended to occupy—was vacant. On one side, Kazuo Tengan. On the other, Chisa Yukizome. She offered a fond wave.

“Fashionably late as always,” Tengan quipped. The old man leaned with his arms folded on the table, his infuriatingly calm smile highlighted by the austere lighting.

“I don’t have to justify myself to you,” Munakata countered. He rounded the table and took his seat. “Let’s get straight to business. I don’t want to waste any more time on this case than needed.”

“Are all these guards necessary?” Chisa asked from his side, voice low. “Using all this manpower for one person seems like overkill.”

“I don’t want to take any risks,” said Munakata. “If I know him, he’ll try to use this situation to his advantage.”

“Sorry, Kyo—Munakata. It's just—you do realize that we’re talking about an eighteen-year-old here, right?”

“Junko Enoshima wasn’t much younger than he was when she initiated the Tragedy. Age means nothing, not anymore.”

Munakata braced himself. Now was the time.

“Shall we begin?”

Munakata's gaze travelled from Chisa, who nodded, to Tengan, whose thin lips pulled into a tight, noncommittal frown.

"I must admit, Munakata, this seems to be a waste of resources, since you're so thoroughly convinced of this boy's guilt," Tengan remarked. “A hearing to decide his fate appears to be more of a formality than a necessity at this point.”

"Ah, I see you read my report, then."

"Indeed I did." A sharp bar of light passed over Tengan's glasses as he dipped his head. "I only mean that it's unusual for you to take this extra step when it would be much easier to have him executed on the spot. You've gathered enough evidence that no one would bat an eye if you did so."

"We need to maintain records for posterity's sake. When this Tragedy nonsense is over, we're going to need records to prove justice was served properly. The courts are in shambles as it is, it is our responsibility to set an example."

"So the Tragedy is nonsense now? Huh."

"Don't get coy, Tengan. I gave you the option to abstain."

"Why, Munakata, I would never dream of missing a chance to see you throw your weight around."

Munakata decided to let the jab slide. Instead he continued, "This is a Remnant of Despair we're talking about. He isn't exactly a normal criminal and a conventional proceeding would be...troublesome. No murderer, rapist, or dictator could reach the depths of depravity he and other Remnants have achieved."

"I have yet to be convinced."

"Then clearly you didn't read my report thoroughly enough. I promise you that by the time this hearing is finished, you'll be convinced of his guilt." Munakata took a breath. Tengan knew how to get under his skin, but now was not the time for petty squabbles. "Let's begin. Is the prosecutor ready?"

“A prosecutor?” Chisa raised an eyebrow. “You really are taking this 'informal hearing' seriously.”

“More than you know.”

A clear, professional voice warbled out in the stillness. “I’m ready, Mr Munakata.”

A lithe, elegant form melted out of the darkness to stand before the panel. She was a young woman not out of her adolescence, dressed in a white dress with a black pinafore. From head-to-toe, she carried with her an immaculate sense of order and ceremony, perfectly poised to perform her duties to the letter.

“The panel recognizes Kirumi Tojo, former Ultimate Maid and the lead investigator in the case,” said Munakata.

“Wouldn’t the actual Ultimate Prosecutor have been a better pick?” Chisa asked.

“Miss Tojo is more than qualified to lead the investigation. She’s displayed nothing but efficiency and professionalism."

“Thank you, Mr Munakata,” Kirumi gave a slight curtsy. “And I would like to further thank the remaining panel members for agreeing to this hearing. The world will remember this moment.”

Tengan’s brow clamped over his eyes. He was unreadable. That unsettled Munakata.

After regarding Kirumi with cold calculation, Tengan said, “It wouldn’t be appropriate to have any kind of proceedings without the accused present.”

“I strongly advise against that,” said Kirumi. “The accused has a history of disruptive and manipulative behaviour. I am concerned that he will attempt to create contradictions in the evidence."

"Be that as it may, in a formal court, the defendant has the right to be present. If we are setting an example for the rest of the world, then it would be prudent to follow the same guidelines. Wouldn't you agree, Miss Tojo?"

For a far-too-long second, Kirumi's eyes remained steady and tenacious. The only sign of underlying annoyance came in the form of an almost-missable twitch on her left cheek.

Recovering, she said, "If that is your desire, then I will not object further."

“Excellent," Tengan smiled. "Mr Sakakura, please bring the defendant in.”

Sakakura looked to Munakata for confirmation, to which he nodded. There would be no avoiding it. Still, Munakata mentally braced himself for the literal shit-storm about to waltz through the door, kick over the table, and create a torrent that not even the Future Foundation would escape.

Sakakura hadn’t been gone for a minute when they heard the sounds of a struggle coming from outside the room.

“Gosh, do you think he needs a hand?” Chisa whispered to him.

“He has it under control,” Munakata said. He kept his uncertainty to himself.

Sakakura reentered dragging a chair behind him. It wasn't an ordinary chair; it was the one the Future Foundation used to secure especially uncooperative prisoners. The occupant was firmly strapped in and the chair could slide across the floor without much effort. Despite this, when Sakakura positioned him before the panel, the boy had the appearance of anything but a dangerous criminal.

The accused Remnant was a pale, dark-haired boy, bright-eyed and youthful. He was wrapped in a straitjacket—an extra precaution—with additional straps around his waist and legs. A gag was over his mouth, preventing him from speaking. All-in-all, the boy didn't look like he was capable of the pettiest of crimes, let alone enabling the world's worst genocide.

Munakata knew better. He knew the stories about Junko. He knew how innocent she seemed, how carefully she'd cultivated her image.

Moreover, he knew about Kamukura.

All the same, Chisa gasped beside him and rose to her feet. In her frenzied state, he half-expected her to leap over the table and immediately fuss over the wretched criminal like she was his mother.

“Is all of that necessary?!” she exclaimed. “He’s just a kid!”

“This ‘kid’ has attempted to escape fifteen times,” said Sakakura. “He also bites.”

To illustrate his point, Sakakura held up his hand. A fresh row of red bite marks was visible on the side.

“I know this is difficult, but we need to take these precautions,” Munakata assured her. “Please.”

The silence howled , broken only by the dozen or so soldiers cocking their rifles to aim directly at the boy in the chair. He peered at them with what was at best faint amusement, drinking in the attention instead of being terrified of it. Dangerous in every sense of the word. Chisa must've seen some flicker of it, because she lowered back into her chair. Although she didn't voice her protests, her eyes flared with concern and disapproval.

“You may proceed, Miss Tojo,” Tengan nodded to the Ultimate Maid.

The boy’s head whipped around and his smiling eyes landed on Kirumi. He cocked his head to the side.

"Thank you," said Kirumi. "Sitting before you is Kokichi Oma, the former Ultimate Supreme Leader. He was intended to be a student of the 79th class of Hope’s Peak Academy and be a model for our society—a paragon of hope. He now sits before you accused of theft, fraud, assault, vandalism, terrorism, and 2367 counts of first-degree murder.”

Kokichi Oma nodded in agreement at each of the charges.

“And yet, all of that pales in comparison to his most serious crime,” Kirumi continued. “Mr Oma is accused of being a member of the Remnants of Despair and a close disciple of Junko Enoshima—the Ultimate Despair, herself. As a Remnant, he’s committed acts of terrorism that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. He’s enabled his fellow Remnants to continue the struggle to this very day, prolonging the Tragedy and costing more and more lives while we sit here in this very room. Due to the nature of his wrongdoings, it’s impossible to perform a conventional trial, which is why we have gathered here today: to decide his fate.”

Tengan shuffled through the papers on the desk, fiddling with his glasses.

"I'm not convinced of your impartiality, Miss Tojo," said Tengan. "Were you or were you not in the same class as this young man?"

"It is true that we were intended to be in the same class at Hope's Peak," Kirumi confirmed. "However, although he accepted the initial offer to attend the academy, Kokichi Oma never showed up for that year. I did not know him until this investigation began."

“He didn’t? Why not?”

"We believe that he was aware that the Tragedy was about to occur and separated himself from the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence that substantiates that. Whenever the accused has been questioned, he has given contradictory statements of why he never went to Hope’s Peak. The primary basis of this case relies on witness testimony rather than physical evidence. Much of the witness testimony is documented in the files provided to you, but I do have a two individuals here today to provide—”

Kirumi cut short when the door slammed open with a resounding crash. A dark figure barrelled in. They moved so fast that they slammed into the table, where they crouched over, panting heavily.

"I'm sorry for interrupting!" the individual panted.

“What is the meaning of this?!” Munakata shouted, rushing to his feet.

“Oh—Shuichi!” Chisa exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

The individual drew himself to his full height—which proved to be nothing impressive. He was much younger than Munakata initially thought, probably around the same age as Kirumi and Kokichi. However, his demeanour was different. His expression went tense, laced with fear and doubt the other two lacked, as if he was hoping to slink away and turn himself invisible at the slightest confrontation. Trembling all over, the boy shrunk away from Munakata.

“...Yukizome, who is this?” Munakata asked, glaring at Chisa.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Chisa smiled. “He’s one of my agents. Although...I thought you were out on assignment, Shuichi..."

"I'm sorry, but I had to come," said Shuichi. “I know this is unconventional, but if the panel will allow it, I’d like to present some arguments of my own.”

“What for?” Munakata asked.

“I...I’ve been conducting my own investigation into Kokichi Oma’s association with the Remnants of Despair.”

Chisa blinked at him. “What.”

Munakata also blinked. “What.”

Kirumi let out a long sigh.

“It’s been a side project, if you will,” Shuichi continued. “At first I followed the case because I was interested in it, but then I noticed some circumstances that led me to do some investigating on my own.”

“That is very unconventional,” Munakata said carefully. “An investigator was already assigned to the case. Are you questioning her competence?"”

“N—Not at all! But I think I’ve found some details that—that warrant further analysis, things that might have been overlooked.”

Many emotions spiralled through Munakata at once: cold indignation, fiery frustration, lukewarm bewilderment. In the back of his mind, he vaguely thought that he should be raging at Chisa for not controlling some amateur investigator in her department, for jeopardizing his plans. If so much as a flicker of doubt was cast upon the evidence, that would be it. It would all unravel. Kokichi Oma would spirit away. The Remnants would continue. Munakata’s careful control would be threatened.

But looking at Chisa he realized that he couldn't possibly summon the strength to be angry at her. Not when she gazed at him with such careful regard, her lips smiling, her eyes encouraging him to do the right thing. Funny how they managed to carry a complete conversation in silence.

Relinquishing his vice-like grip on the table, Munakata sat back down and turned his attention to the boy in front of him. Dressed in the usual Future Foundation suit, the only deviation from the uniform was a cap concealing one eye.

“Shuichi Saihara, was it?” Munakata sounded out the name carefully, cataloguing it in his mind for future reference.

“Uh-huh,” Chisa nodded. “The Ultimate Detective himself.”

“The Ultimate Detective? Wasn’t that Kirigiri?”

“He was in the year below.”

Of course. When Hope’s Peak had been up and running, it was generally discouraged to have two students with the same talent in the school simultaneously. An exception was sometimes made so long as they weren’t in the same year.

“So you were in the 79th class as well?” Munakata surmised. This was turning into quite the class reunion.

“T—That’s right, sir,” Shuichi nodded. He spared a side glance to Kirumi, giving her as warm a smile as he could given the circumstances. “Hi, Kirumi.”

“Shuichi,” she said. “A pleasure to see you again.”

Her words were welcoming, but her tone was icy. Picking up on the frigid atmosphere, Munakata catalogued that into the back of his mind.

“Yukizome, do you vouch for him?” Munakata asked.

“Shuichi’s a very thorough detective, pretty much on par with Kirigiri,” Chisa assured him. “If he has something to say about Oma’s case, we should hear him out.”

Munakata inwardly groaned. This just wasn’t his day. “I’ll allow you to stay, Mr Saihara, but I’d advise you to think very carefully about what you present to the panel. For now, Miss Tojo, you may proceed.”

Kirumi’s gaze lingered on Shuichi for an extended second and her forehead didn’t clear. It took far too long for her posture to soften and break the gaze.

“As I was saying,” said Kirumi. “I have summoned two witnesses to this hearing to provide their testimony and support the conclusion that Oma is a Remnant. Do I have your permission to call a witness?”

“Proceed,” Munakata answered.

With a flourish, Kirumi gestured to the door. Sakakura went to open it, and the first witness filed in. Munakata knew the face at once, as did most of the people in the room, he suspected: it was Sohnosuke Izayoi. Lean, imposing, and aggressive, he regarded his audience with boredom, not looking in Kokichi's direction.

“I believe you are familiar with Sohnosuke Izayoi, former Ultimate Blacksmith and the leader of the Future Foundation’s ninth division,” said Kirumi. “Mr Izayoi, if you will.”

Kirumi gestured to a chair set off to the right of the room. Izayoi obediently sat down, arms and legs folded and looking more bored than intimidated.

“Mr Izayoi, are you acquainted with the accused?” Kirumi asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Izayoi. “I was the one who captured him.”

“When and where was Oma apprehended?”

“Two years ago. Kyoto.”

“Would you please tell us about the circumstances that led to his capture?”

“Fine. He stole my stuff. I tracked him down. I captured him.”

“...We’re going to need more details.”

Izayoi’s steely gaze flickered.

“Fine,” he said lowly. “There isn’t much to say. The story isn’t nearly as exciting as some people make it out to be. This happened six months after the Tragedy occurred, a little over two years ago now. I had been recruited into the Future Foundation and was tasked with manufacturing weapons for our peacekeeping forces. I wasn’t the leader of the ninth division at that time.

“Kokichi Oma was a thorn in the Future Foundation’s side. He’d made public declarations that he was a Remnant of Despair and he claimed involvement in the mass suicide of the Hope’s Peak Reserve Course students, however he’d evaded capture for six months. He came to my attention when his organization started intercepting shipments of weapons. My weapons. I was not amused. I was especially frustrated that somebody,” He glared pointedly at Munakata, “wasn’t doing anything about it.

“When I realized that the higher-ups in the Future Foundation weren’t going to act, I took matters into my own hand. I found out that Oma’s organization had several safe houses located throughout Japan, however since I was acting independently, I didn’t have the manpower to investigate all of them. That is, until I received intelligence that indicated his current location.”

“Where did the intelligence come from?” Kirumi asked.

“The intelligence came from within his own organization,” Izayoi revealed. His words were razor-edged, enough to disembowel.

From his chair, Kokichi’s eyes widened and then shrunk. Everyone in the room was moving—tapping their fingers, shifting in their seats, moving their arms—but Kokichi was motionless in every sense of the word.

“One of his subordinates came to their senses,” Izayoi went on. “They didn’t want to be a part of a Remnant’s plans. That didn’t save them, however. When I received the intelligence, I immediately went to their hideout in the hopes of intercepting Oma before he could cause any more damage. When I got there, ten members of his organization attacked me—and I defended myself. After they were dispatched, I realized that Oma wasn’t among the dead.

“When I recovered the shipments, the Future Foundation acknowledged my initiative and promoted me. I had the resources I needed to keep hunting for Oma. Two weeks later, I personally apprehended him in Kyoto, after which he was transferred to this facility and he’s remained here ever since. There, that’s my story. Can I go now?”

“Can I question the witness, please?” Shuichi spoke up. It was so sudden that several people in the room jumped.

“...If you must,” said Munakata.

Kirumi stepped aside, not looking at Shuichi as they switched places.

“You said that the intelligence you received came from within Oma’s organization,” said Shuichi. “How do you know that?”

“Because one of its members approached me, dumb ass,” Izayoi told him. “It wasn’t exactly a secret that I was looking for Oma. They came to me."

“Why not arrest them right then and there?”

“I didn’t have the authority to arrest anyone. Also, I needed their cooperation in order to corner Oma."

“Who was this person? Did you get a name?”

“No. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The members of his organization didn’t use their actual names; they all used card suits as aliases. That little monster over there was Joker.”

“So you didn’t even get the alias of this person. How could you be sure that they were part of his organization?”

“Because she was one of the ones that ended up dead.”

Shuichi paced in front of Izayoi, looking thoughtful. “If she was in the process of betraying Oma and his organization, why would she fight with the others when you tracked them down?”

“Who knows. Maybe she had a death wish.”

“You never found out what her motivation was.”

“It doesn’t matter. I was going to deal with her the same way that I planned to deal with the others. She betrayed Oma and his organization, but she still harboured a Remnant."

“Do you know why his organization stole the shipments?”

“To be a pain in the ass, that’s why.”

The corners of Shuichi’s mouth pulled into a frown. He placed a finger on his chin. Then, apparently remembering that he wasn’t alone, looked to the panel.

“I have no more questions,” he said.

“Then the witness is excused,” Kirumi stepped forwards. “Mr Izayoi, you may leave.”

“Finally,” Izayoi said. He got to his feet and marched out without looking back.

Once he was gone, Kirumi turned her attention back to the panel. “I’d like to proceed with the next witness, if the panel would permit it.”

“At your discretion, Miss Tojo,” Munakata agreed.

“Then I’d like to call Juzo Sakakura forward.”

Sakakura stepped up before Kirumi had even finished her sentence; he must’ve been anticipating it. Like Izayoi, he didn’t look at Kokichi, and took the chair with what was at best casual indifference.

“Mr Sakakura, please tell the panel what your relationship is with the accused,” Kirumi said.

“‘Relationship’ is a strong word,” Sakakura grumbled. “For lack of a better term, I’ve been his jailer ever since he came to this facility. And I’ve been held accountable every time the little monster’s attempted to escape.”

“Here we go,” Munakata sighed.

“Fifteen times,” Sakakura continued lowly. “Fifteen. That’s how many times he’s tried to escape. He nearly succeeded on two occasions! And that’s the ones I know about! Don’t even get me started on all the other shit he’s done.”

“Such as?” Kirumi asked.

“Everything from graffitiing his cell walls to selling DVDs.” Sakakura threw his arms up into the air. “I don’t even know where he got the DVDs! There weren’t even any movies on them! It was just two hours of him singing Frank Sinatra songs and somehow he managed to make more than 90,000 yen from selling them to the guards! I’ve had to fire eighty-four guards since he showed up here!”

Sakakura massaged his forehead.

“He flooded his cell, he incited a riot, he bribed the guards,” Sakakura went on, counting off his fingers. “He convinced a guard that he was his own twin—the 'good' one, and that the 'evil' one had already escaped. He told another that the Tragedy was a government conspiracy! He did this all in solitary confinement. He’s stuck in his cell twenty-three hours of the day and still...he still manages to cause trouble. That isn’t just a Remnant of Despair sitting there. That thing is a monster.”

“I understand that you’re frustrated, but please maintain your composure while you’re testifying,” Kirumi instructed him.

“Frustrated is the smallest word for what I am,” Sakakura snapped. “The monster has it out for me. He sent me a letter declaring his undying love in the hopes that he could convince me to let him go.”

From his chair, Kokichi batted his eyes.

“DON’T YOU DENY IT, YOU LITTLE FREAK!” Sakakura roared, pointing accusingly at Kokichi. “I KNOW IT WAS YOU!”

Shuichi stepped in. “May I?”

Kirumi glared, but stepped aside.

“How long has Oma been in solitary confinement?” Shuichi asked.

“Pretty much since he got here,” said Sakakura. “I put him in there after his first escape attempt.”

“It sounds like he’s caused a lot of trouble since his imprisonment. Is there any evidence that suggests he’s been directly corresponding with anyone on the outside, for example other alleged Remnants of Despair?”

“No, nothing."

Shuichi turned to the panel. “Could I question Oma?”

“I don’t approve of that,” Kirumi intervened. “As I mentioned at the beginning of this hearing, Oma has a history of manipulation and deceit. If he’s allowed to speak, he will attempt to misdirect the panel in an effort to preserve his own life.”

“I don’t think a fair hearing can be held without hearing from the accused,” said Shuichi.

“The accused has been questioned in the past. All of his interrogations over the past two years have been documented and recorded.”

“Yes, but I haven’t had a chance to interrogate him.”

Tengan peered at Shuichi over the top of his glasses. “You’ve been conducting an independent investigation into Oma, and you’ve never interrogated him?”

Shuichi lingered on Tengan, then gently travelled over Munakata, and his gaze finally settled on Chisa. She gave him a slight nod of affirmation.

“A—Actually, sir,” Shuichi stammered. “This—This is actually the first time I’ve seen the accused in person.”

“Absolutely ridiculous,” Munakata barked. “Your incompetence is astounding. What kind of so-called detective doesn’t even question the suspect?”

“With all due respect, sir, the reason that I didn’t interrogate the defendant was because Sakakura quite literally chased me away whenever I asked to see him...”

“Did not,” Sakakura denied.

“You said you’d throw me in jail...”

“Did not,” Sakakura snapped, his voice as shrill as a defiant child.

This was exactly what Munakata had been terrified of, and his fears were further confirmed when no one was able to come up with a legitimate reason to not let Kokichi speak. He gestured to Sakakura vaguely. At once, Sakakura was on his feet and closed the distance between himself and Kokichi, pausing only to give him what he had no doubt was the most lurid, scathing glare he could manage. Sakakura removed the gag.

Kokichi took a minute to stretch out his jaw.

“It's about time,” he said. “You're missing out on the sound of my wonderful, wonderful voice.”

“Shut up,” Sakakura snapped, and then grumbled under his breath, “Gonna regret this.”

“Aw, do you think so poorly of me, Juzo?” Kokichi asked. Fat tears blossomed in the corner of his eyes. “After all we’ve been through together, this is how you treat your one true love?”

“Don’t you fucking start!” Juzo shouted. He quickly removed himself to stand in the back of the room.

“Where you going?” Kokichi called after him. “C’mon, be a pal!”

In response, the many soldiers cocked their guns and aimed them right at Kokichi.

“Are all those for me?” he asked quietly, as if it was an afterthought.

“I have questions for you, Oma,” said Shuichi.

“Eh? Questions? But the Future Foundation’s so good at coming up with answers! You don’t expect me to come up with answers that they don’t approve of, do you?”

“This isn’t about the integrity of the Future Foundation. This is about you.”

“I’m really not an interesting person, I promise. Although I might become a more interesting person if you can talk them into letting me out of this chair.”

“That’s enough, Oma,” Munakata spoke up. “You will refrain from misdirecting this hearing and answer his questions.”

“Hello to you to, Kyosuke,” said Kokichi, leaning to look past Shuichi. “Been a while. How're you and your girlfriend getting along? You two married yet or are you still throwing bedroom eyes at each other?”

“That’s none of your business,” Munakata snarled.

“Ugh, this is boring!” Kokichi whined. “You wake me up at an ungodly hour, tie me up, drag me out of my nice cushy cell, and now I don’t even get to hear the latest Future Foundation gossip. Boring!”

“Oma, this might seem like an obvious question, but I feel that it’s one that needs to be asked,” Shuichi interrupted. “Are you really a Remnant of Despair?”

“Sure am,” Kokichi answered. “I’m the leader of an evil secret organization with 10,000 members. We have despair parties on Fridays. At least we did. I imagine that without me, the parties haven’t quite been as exciting.”

“According to the accounts I’ve uncovered, your organization only had ten members, not including you,” said Shuichi.

“Ha! You fell for that, did ya? Hate to break it to you, but the morons Sohnosuke killed were scapegoats, the lowest-ranking members of my organization. They were about as expendable as it gets. I should send Sohnosuke a thank you card for getting rid of them before I had to.”

“Only a Remnant would hold life in such callous disregard,” Kirumi sneered.

“Unless he’s lying,” said Shuichi. “You said yourself that he has a history of lying.”

“Be that as it may, he is a Remnant. There can be no mistaking that.”

Shuichi gave her a careful stare, one of restraint and caution. He ignored her and turned back to Kokichi.

“The charges allege you were responsible for the mass suicide that led to the deaths of Hope’s Peak’s Reserve Course students.”

“Could those losers even be called actual students of Hope’s Peak?” Kokichi asked. “It’s not like anyone would miss them.”

“...Except their families.”

“Eh, I’m sure that those guys were so boring that their families didn’t even notice they died. I mean, even they knew how boring their lives were. All I had to do was walk around and tell them to kill themselves, and they did it!"

“You went around telling over two thousand students to kill themselves.”

“Yup.”

“And they did it.”

“Yup.”

“Somehow I feel you’re lying.”

“Feelings don’t equate to evidence, Detective,” Kokichi smiled wickedly. “Can you prove I’m lying?”

Shuichi frowned. “No. But I can’t prove that you’re a Remnant of Despair, either, so I’d be a poor detective if I persecuted someone based solely on speculation.”

“There’s no logical reason for him to claim he’s a Remnant of Despair,” Kirumi intervened. “He stole from the Future Foundation. His organization hampered our efforts. Anyone who opposes the Future Foundation is clearly an agent of despair.”

“I’m not so sure that that logic is sound,” said Shuichi. “This hearing was called to determine Oma’s fate, but from my perspective, the investigation hasn’t conclusively proved if he's a Remnant. And since it's clear that Oma isn't about to provide any reliable testimony, then the basis of this case is even more reliant on physical proof, of which there is none."

“What are you saying, Saihara?” Munakata demanded.

“I’m saying that there are a lot of unanswered questions in Oma’s case,” Shuichi elaborated. “We don’t know for certain how he was involved in the mass suicide, nor do we know the motivations of the subordinate who betrayed him.”

“Motivations?” Kirumi seethed. “What possible consequence could that have? A Remnant's sole motivation is despair—logic beyond comprehension.”

“In any investigation, motivations are key pieces of evidence. Why would she betray someone that she’s worked closely alongside for years? If she held a grudge towards him, that might have motivated her to say things about him that weren’t necessarily true.”

“So now you’re speculating that Oma isn’t a Remnant,” said Munakata.

“Well, I...” Shuichi swallowed. The rush of clarity had receded, and Munakata could see the detective fumbling for words. “I—I just think it would be presumptuous to sentence someone who’s been accused for crimes as serious as this without understanding their motivation or concrete evidence. I won’t dispute that Oma was responsible for the stolen weapons, but can we be certain that he has ties to Remnants? All evidence that implies that has been circumstantial at best.”

“Wow, he’s actually trying to defend a nefarious criminal like me!” Kokichi marvelled. “You’ve got balls, Shuichi!”

“This is ridiculous,” Munakata sighed. “I won’t tolerate half-baked speculations.”

“B—But it isn’t half-baked speculation!” Shuichi insisted. “I really don’t think—”

“He’s got a point, Shuichi,” Kokichi chimed in. “I am a villainous Remnant, the bad guy your mom told scary stories about! No one in their right mind would claim to be one without it being true.”

“But there’s no proof!” Shuichi exclaimed. “There’s absolutely no proof that he’s a Remnant. A person can’t be convicted without evidence.”

“Quiet,” Munakata ordered.

Whatever further protests Shuichi had died in his throat, and he stared at Munakata with childlike fear.

“Oh, you made him mad,” said Kokichi. “This is gonna be good.”

“You be quiet, too,” Munakata snapped.

“What’s the matter, Kyosuke?” Kokichi cooed. “Are you mad because Shuichi here is ripping apart your argument with cold, hard logic?”

“W—What?” Shuichi stammered. “But you’re the one who said you were a Remnant—”

“I was lying, of course. Unless I’m lying about lying about being a Remnant. It doesn’t matter what the truth here is, because Kyosuke here doesn’t care about that. I confessed, I got in the way of the Future Foundation, and to him, that’s a big no-no. Poor Kyosuke! He’s a hard ass but on the inside, he’s a sweet, sensitive guy who wants to kill anyone who threatens humanity’s future. People like me.”

Munakata rose out of his chair. He stepped over the table.

Chisa reached out to him. “Kyosuke—”

“You’re right to be afraid,” Kokichi grinned wickedly. “I killed over two thousands students and I’d kill billions more just to keep from getting bored. Our motivations might be different, but you’d sacrifice anyone to preserve the future. I bet you’d even sacrifice your girlfriend over there for a bit of security.”

Munakata was barely conscious of his fist coming into contact with Kokichi’s face. One moment, he was trapped in his self-contained world of order and reason. Then, Kokichi’s chair fell back and he landed on the floor with a crash.

Kokichi cackled. Awful, terrible, heart-wrenching, spine-tingling laughter bounced around in the following silence, shaking Munakata out of his shock, forcing him out of his world. He willed himself to have control, and surrendered it to the burning rage heating his belly and fraying his nerves. Lying on the ground before him, Kokichi stared up with a fresh black eye, his eerie smile stretching from ear-to-ear.

Munakata reeled on the spot, taken off guard by Kokichi’s blatant insolence. Then, some part of him recovered, and he pulled himself back in.

Righting his tie, Munakata returned to his seat. As soon as he walked away, Shuichi hurried over to Kokichi’s side and pulled him back upright.

“I bet that’s not gonna be on the record, is it?” Kokichi quipped.

“I told you to be quiet before—I will not repeat myself,” said Munakata. “Saihara has made his position on the matter of Oma’s guilt clear. Tojo, do you have a response?”

“Indeed I do,” Kirumi stepped forwards. “Saihara is incompetent.”

“Ouch!” Kokichi snickered.

“K—Kirumi?” Shuichi spluttered. A deep line appeared between his eyebrows, his expression drawn with naked hurt.

“I must apologize to you, Miss Yukizome,” Kirumi addressed Chisa. “I have absolute faith in your competence as a leader of the Future Foundation. The fault does not lie with you. The fault lies with Saihara, himself—I, myself, do not doubt that he has good intentions, however his inability to conduct a proper investigation has led him to a false conclusion."

Shuichi looked like someone had given him a good smack and he couldn’t quite recover. Unable to articulate, his mouth hung open like a puppet that had had its strings cut.

“He wishes to live up to the standard set by another former Ultimate Detective: Kyoko Kirigiri,” Kirumi went on. “In his admirable but reckless efforts to gain renown as a just and fair investigator, he failed to thoroughly analyze certain elements of this case. He did not interrogate the defendant nor did he gather any new evidence that would corroborate his arguments.”

Shuichi flubbed about and managed to splutter out, “B—But I didn’t interrogate Oma because Sakakura—”

“And he blames others for his own shortcomings. Saihara is unreliable. I, however, have dedicated two years of my life to ensuring that the monster known as Kokichi Oma is brought to justice. Oma is a pawn. A dangerous pawn, but a pawn all the same. I recommend that the panel have him executed for his extensive crimes. He may be only one Remnant of Despair, but killing just one shows that they can’t escape the Future Foundation.”

“She knows her stuff,” Kokichi remarked. “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I’m in for it.”

“I agree,” said Munakata.

“Sir, can I say one more thing?” Shuichi pressed.

“No, you may not.”

“But—”

“No.”

“But sir—”

“I won’t repeat myself again. Speak out of turn again and you’ll be removed.”

“Sir, we’re talking about a life here! If the Future Foundation gets this wrong, then the integrity of—”

“Sakakura, see him out. The panel has wasted enough time on this as it is.”

Sakakura seized Shuichi's right arm. Shuichi wiggled out of it and approached the panel, hands outstretched and expression strained with desperation.

“Mr Munakata—” Shuichi started.

“Geez, give it up already,” Kokichi snorted. “Man, I hate it when people grovel to someone who isn’t me. It’s just embarrassing!”

Finally, a sense of resignation and shock washed over Shuichi. Then, Sakakura pulled on his arm and dragged him to the door.

“Thank you for your contributions, Mr Saihara,” Munakata called after him, trying to keep the sarcasm at a minimum. He promptly turned to Chisa. “I never should’ve let him open his mouth.”

“Shuichi’s a good kid,” Chisa said soothingly, her voice quiet so that it wouldn’t carry. “Even if his suspicions turn out to be nothing, maybe we should consider listening to him.”

“I’m sorry, Chisa, but this needs to be done. You understand the serious repercussions as well as I do if Oma isn’t found guilty.”

Chisa went quiet. Munakata turned so he wouldn’t have to look her in the eyes and prayed that she wouldn’t interfere. His gaze instead wandered across to Tengan, who had remained silent and resolute throughout the ordeal. He gave Munakata a slight nod.

“Very well, we’re ready to rule,” said Munakata. “Kokichi Oma, you’ve been found guilty of all charges. In two days time, you will be executed.”

“Alright!” Kokichi beamed as if this was the best news he’d ever gotten. “It’s about damn time. Y’know, you could’ve saved me the trouble and done that outright.”

Munakata massaged his forehead. “Sakakura...spare me the headache and get him out of here.”

“Aw, already? But we were having so much fun together. Don’t send me back to my room so soon, Kyosuke.”

“Sakakura. Please.”

Sakakura seized the back of Kokichi’s chair and dragged him towards the exit.

“Don’t leave me, Kyosuke!” Kokichi wailed.

Munakata pinched the bridge of his noise. Unfortunately, that didn’t drown out the sound of Kokichi and Sakakura exchanging choice words all down the hall.


 

Kokichi struggled.

It was what he’d been doing for the last two years, and damn if he was going to stop now, not when freedom was within reach, having finally drawn close enough for him to touch it. Deep in the essence of his soul, all he had to do was lean forward and grab it.

Sakakura was making it difficult.

Then again, Sakakura had made it difficult since the moment they met eyes.

Even though Kokichi spent most of his time in his cell—a place devoid of outside stimulation—he liked to think that he had a good handle on the facility’s layout from his escape attempts. Sometimes, he’d managed to get out, then realized that he wasn’t going to be able to grab his freedom, and was forced to run back to his cell before anyone noticed he was missing. The good thing about those failures was that it had given him vital opportunities to scout out locations, figure out patrols and where the cameras were, narrow down the weak points, and find supplies.

But it seemed that he was going to have to move up his plans if he hoped to avoid the execution.

The chair made an awful grinding noise as Sakakura dragged it down the hall, further and further from the room where Munakata, Chisa, and Tengan had peered down at Kokichi with mild indifference. The hearing had taken him by surprise; Kokichi had almost given up on the hope of getting a proper sentencing a year ago. He didn’t even know that today was the day until Sakakura and ten guards had rushed his cell and wrestled him into the straitjacket.

His thoughts were so immersed in recalculating his escape that he almost missed Shuichi Saihara, the boy detective who was now hurrying after them at a brisk pace.

“Mr Sakakura, could I talk—” Shuichi started.

“Did Munakata say it was okay?” Sakakura asked.

“Well, no—”

“Then how about you beat it?”

“You must be really stupid if you thought you could actually save an evil Remnant like me,” Kokichi jeered.

“I was trying to help you,” Shuichi said.

“And I didn’t ask for it. If you’re determined to be a do-gooder, go waste that energy on someone who actually wants it, ‘kay?”

“Shut up already,” Sakakura snapped.

“Are you jealous because I have eyes for someone else now?” Kokichi asked.

“I said shut up!”

“W—Why would you tell me to shut up?” Kokichi teared up. “I thought we were friends! Why are you so mean, Juzo?”

“I said shut up, you little monster! God, I can’t wait until they execute you. I’m gonna get a fucking front row seat.”

Wh-a-a-at? You mean you aren’t gonna do the execution yourself? How disappointing.”

“Don’t fucking tempt me. And you!” Sakakura shouted to Shuichi, who was still trailing behind them. “Stop fucking following and go bother someone else.”

Shuichi slowed and then stopped altogether. Sakakura pulled Kokichi to the elevator and shoved him in, but before the doors closed, he got a final glimpse of the so-called Ultimate Detective who had so foolishly fought for another person’s life.

For an extended second, their eyes met and Kokichi was stunned by what he saw. No cold indifference, no hatred, no outright terror coiling around his soul and squeezing the life out of him—no, none of that. The look sent a shiver to Kokichi’s heart. It was pity. He hated it. He gave Shuichi a dark glare and a wicked smile, the true look of a Remnant. He watched in fascination as pity melted away to a strange cocktail of fascination and dismay.

Then the elevator doors closed. Kokichi revelled in the feeling of the slight jolt as the elevator descended downwards. His cell was usually so quiet that any sensation was a good sensation, even the bad ones. The subtle vertigo of the elevator descending sent fresh shivers through him. Sakakura tapped the floor impatiently, his arms firmly folded as if to protect himself from some unseen threat.

Sakakura wasn’t his favourite person to talk to, but he was the one person Kokichi had had the most contact with since he’d been in Future Foundation custody. Looking up at him from this angle, he looked more imposing than usual: all muscle and thick lines and a hard, unlikeable face.

Beneath that muscle, Sakakura was an insecure mess as good at lying to himself as Kokichi was to others.

“You really aren’t gonna miss me just a little bit?” Kokichi asked.

“No,” said Sakakura.

“Not even a teensy little bit?”

“...I might miss beating you up.”

“Ouch! That hurts. Literally. I still have bruises, y’know. Still waiting for an apology.”

“You asked for it. I told you not to mess with the plumbing.”

“You didn’t have to ram my head into the toilet seat. Kinda rude, is all I’m saying. But I guess prisoner abuse is just a thing you’re good at, which is fine! We all have special skills and everyone knows what yours is.”

“Fucking hell, maybe I will ask Munakata if I can do the execution,” Sakakura grumbled.

The elevator door slid open. Sakakura dragged Kokichi’s chair over the threshold and into the strange silence that constantly shuddered over the segregation wing.

Kokichi memorized each turn they took. He knew it by heart already, but it didn't hurt to make sure that his mental map was accurate. His cell was on the second floor of the block. He’d been there for about seven or eight months after setting a fire in his last one. The doors were solid steel, consisting of little more than a small vertical window and a food slot.

Home sweet home.

Sakakura dragged him inside, undid the straps, and shoved him forwards. With the straitjacket holding his arms in place, he floundered about like a helpless infant, barely managing to roll onto his back. Sakakura was already stepping out the door.

“Hey, don’cha want to get me out of this?” Kokichi asked.

“Do it yourself!” Sakakura snapped.

He slammed the door shut.

Kokichi grinned at the door. “Nice seeing you again!”

It only took a minute or two to wiggle out of the straitjacket; he’d mastered the trick long before being cornered by the Future Foundation. Kokichi deposited it on the floor in an indistinguishable white lump, as if shedding a layer of skin, and moved to the window to peer out.

All was quiet. Sakakura was gone. Lunch would be soon.

He had no choice, then. He’d been expecting an execution, but not quite so soon. There was no avoiding it, no more delays. He’d have to escape today.

He scanned his cell and took inventory of his supplies. In segregation, worldly possessions were few and far between. There wasn’t even a bed, probably because that was the thing he'd set fire to last time. He kept his lock picks taped under the toilet rim and he retrieved them then. Hidden behind the toilet was a makeshift lighter he’d made from a battery, duct tape, and a bit of wire. Crude, but effective. Finally, he had a power cord kept in the same place. He coiled that around his arm and put the rest of his items into a pocket.

Now, he had to wait.

Kokichi crouched near the food slot and waited. Waiting was the worst part, waiting was what he had been doing after every failed escape. This time he could do it. If he didn’t, then his life was over.

He mulled over his plan again in his mind and it all depended on the food slot.

Over the last few months, Kokichi had been selectively starving himself. Not to the point where the guards noticed or his health was in jeopardy, but enough to lose some weight. He’d get a meal, eat a portion, then flush the rest. The change was so subtle that anyone who saw him would attribute it to stress. Other members of DICE had spent time behind bars, and Kokichi remembered from their stories that it wasn't uncommon to shed a few pounds.

But thinking about DICE ignited a stabbing pain at the front of his skull. Kokichi squeezed his eyes shut and said each of their names like a strange, silent prayer. That done, he shoved them out of his mind and focused on what the sky would taste like.

Kokichi was tempted to pace like he typically did when he was wound up, but he didn’t stray from his vigil. He waited and thought about the sky and the sun and the overwhelming urge to run. Running was what he was best at doing figuratively and literally. Based on conversations he’d overheard, the Tragedy had gotten worse before it started getting better; he wasn’t sure about Japan’s current condition. He imagined it had fared better than in other parts of the world, parts of the world where they didn’t have organizations like the Future Foundation. As much as he detested them, as much as he detested Munakata, they did do some good work, even if it was half-assed.

The food slot popped open. The tray of food nudged in.

Kokichi rushed forwards.

“Hey, keep that open!” Kokichi shouted. He stuck his hand through the slot and grabbed onto the latch, preventing it from shutting.

“What—get the hell off!” the guard demanded.

“Keep it open,” Kokichi demanded.

“Back off, Oma.”

“No, you’re going to keep it open.”

“Y’think this is a democracy? Back the fuck off or else!”

Kokichi smiled. “If you don’t keep it open, I’ll tell everyone that you’re my accomplice.”

The guard paused. Then, scoffed, as expected. “Oma, you’re a liar. No one would believe you.”

“I’m gonna die in two days. Maybe I got nothing left to lose, so in my final moments, I’m willing to dish out a few names. Maybe you’re one of them.”

It was a lie. He didn’t even know this guard’s name, only that his gloved hands were dark and had done terrible things.

Either way, the lie left the guard unbalanced.

“...You really want this thing open that badly?” the guard asked.

“That’s all you gotta do,” said Kokichi. “You leave it open, I forget your name. Simple as that.”

The guard sighed. “Fine, it’s not worth the headache. But I gotta close it when I come get your tray.”

“It’s a deal. Now go do your job and stop harassing me.”

Kokichi kept his hand latched to the outside in case the guard tried to double-cross him, but to his relief he didn’t press the issue and moved on with his rounds.

Good, good. This was good. Everything was fine so far.

Kokichi’s racing heart disagreed. A prickle of adrenaline pulsed throughout his body, putting his nerves on edge.

He took the tray and shoved a handful of rice into his mouth; who knew when he’d have a chance to eat again. Crouched by the food slot, he kept tabs on the guard's location based on the squeak of the trolley. He was going left. Kokichi's adrenaline was swelling to a monstrous size.

Now.

Kokichi tilted his head and pressed it against the slot. It took a bit of pressure to get it through. He'd carefully measured out the size of the slot and he'd known it would take force, but that didn't make it easier. His heart throbbed. This should work. Once he got his head and shoulders out, the rest of his body would slide out easily. It had to.

His head popped out into the open. He was forced to look left at the back of the guard delivering the food trays. Dammit, he had to be at least six feet tall.

Kokichi wiggled his body. This was no better than the straitjacket. He shifted his shoulders enough to force one arm out. He used that one to leverage himself and push back against the door. Then, the rest of his body followed. Starving himself had been a good move; any larger and he would've gotten stuck, and as it happened he barely managed to make it out. Years of being light on his feet had made silence of something of a second nature to him, so when he somersaulted out, he was careful to brace himself against the floor to prevent noise.

The guard was turning toward another cell. Kokichi worked quickly. He pressed himself against the wall and sidled to him, unwrapping the cord from his arm. How hard could it be to take out a six-foot man wearing body armour?

The adrenaline had gone from a mild pulse to an all-out tsunami. Kokichi hurried forwards, light on his feet, as quick as could be, remembering all of the times he’d had to pick pockets and make a break for it. This couldn’t be much different. He held the cord between his hands, the plug digging into his palm. The guard suddenly rushed toward him. Except it wasn’t the guard who was moving. It was Kokichi. It was Kokichi who was throwing the cord over his head. It was Kokichi who was seizing both ends and then pulling as hard as he could.

The guard let out a wheeze, a gasp, and then he was down, clawing at his neck. No words. Just shallow breaths followed by nothing as Kokichi wound both ends of the cord in his hands and pulled, pulled, pulled.

“C’mon, pass out!” Kokichi hissed desperately. “Pass out already!”

It might've been ten seconds, it might've been hours. The time heaved past him, dragging its weight, creeping, skulking, extending the torture for both of them. The guard struggled, vaguely reaching and brushing Kokichi’s hair. Kokichi counted the seconds away in his hand.

He reached twelve when the guard went slack. Kokichi released the cord and the guard collapsed, landing on the ground with a dull thud.

“Shit!” Kokichi breathed. “Shit, please don’t be dead...”

Kokichi felt for a pulse. For a terrifying moment, he thought that there was none...and then the slight movement of a vein sent a cascade of relief through him.

There wasn’t any time. Kokichi’s plan had played out so many times in his head that he now moved on autopilot, snatching the guard’s stun gun and then his security card. There was no sense trying to hide the body; the cameras were unavoidable, so Kokichi had to rely more on speed than discretion.

Kokichi followed the path Sakakura had taken him when he’d returned him to his cell, along the cell block and to a secure door. The door required a key card. To the immediate right was the sole shower used in the segregation block, a small crevasse with a chain link fence blocking access and a cloth blanket for minimal privacy. He’d hated it, but honestly, he’d always revelled in the chance to get out of his cell.

Fishing out his picks, he unlocked the gate and tossed the blanket into the corner. He fished out his lighter and gripped the wire between his index finger and thumb. Kokichi took a breath and willed his hands to stop trembling as he put the wire in contact with the end. The result was instant. A flick of fire sprang up and he tossed the makeshift lighter onto the blanket.

Kokichi didn’t wait to see the result. He used the key card on the locked door and it opened with a low buzz. His heart was pounding. Any second now, someone would realize his disappearance; the fire would only provide a few precious seconds.

He didn’t hesitate. Out in the hall, he immediately headed for the elevator...

...And the fire alarm sounded.

“That was quick,” he mused. Kokichi broke into a sprint.

He made it to the elevator without encountering anyone and slammed his fist into the call button. The doors opened at once and he dove inside, repeatedly pressing the basement button. Just under the wail of the alarm, he heard hollers, footsteps, and perhaps everyone in the facility descending on the fire. In a heart-pounding second that extended into eternity, Kokichi made himself as small as possible and crammed himself into the corner. When the doors closed, he stole a moment to catch his breath.

There was a camera positioned in the upper corner of the elevator. Kokichi made eye contact with it. He’d known that there would be no way to completely avoid detection, though he’d rather fancied the idea of just disappearing altogether. Since it was there, though, he blew it a kiss and made a heart shape with his hands.

Suck on it, Sakakura, he said in his mind. Better yet, suck Munakata, suck on the person who had deluded himself into thinking he’s the noble hero.

When the doors opened again, Kokichi stepped out without checking to see if it was vacant. There were no cameras in the basement. No budget for them. Kokichi had once hidden down there for three days before Sakakura finally figured out where he was, and still there were no cameras. It hadn’t been freedom, not really, because freedom meant he could go and do whatever he want. The basement had just been a slightly larger prison that smelt like cleaning supplies and it was even harder to get food. There was an advantage though, an advantage that the Future Foundation had overlooked when they repurposed the facility.

This hadn’t always been a Future Foundation building. Kokichi wasn’t sure what it was before, maybe it was some government building, maybe an office, maybe a place where businessmen in fancy suits discussed the future of the world while trading large amounts of money. Whatever the case, while Kokichi had been down here before, he’d discovered an important detail, a weakness that the Future Foundation couldn’t wish away.

It was the Tragedy itself.

Whatever this place had been, whatever its old identity was, it wasn’t built to house prisoners. That modification had come later, and that was it’s weakness. It had holes regular prisons didn’t have, tiny corners worn away by the war and the fighting on the outside. As a result of fighting, wear and tear, and lack of care, the walls were cracked, and there was an overall sense that the basement wasn’t as well-cared for as the rest of the building.

More importantly, there was a subway station next door.

Of course, the subway had long been out of service. It had pretty much crumbled right after the Tragedy and many people died during cave-ins and attacks by the Remnants. That left a lot of empty tunnels, a lot of places where he could hopefully slip through. Truth be told, his plan hinged more on luck than careful planning. There was no telling if he’d come face-to-face with a blocked tunnel or if the Future Foundation had placed security measures in there. That wasn’t even counting the possibility of encountering members of the many factions running rampant across the city.

He would just have to cross his fingers.

Kokichi headed down the hall, but didn’t get far when he heard faint voices up ahead. His heart stopped. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone done here save for maintenance workers. Worse, his probably-an-exit was in the direction the voices were coming from.

There was no avoiding it. He’d have to go toward the voices. Even if their conversation ended, this was the only way back into the main facility. Kokichi glanced upwards into the tangled mess of pipes running along the ceiling, normally too crowded to be of any relevance, but maybe just enough to hide him.

Kokichi pulled a folded chair out of an adjacent closet. He and stepped onto it, then leapt up. It took about four tries to grab the largest pipe, and a tremendous amount of effort to haul himself up. There was much less maneuverability than he’d anticipated. His back was pressed against the ceiling, his body spread across the pipe. Still, he was able to shimmy his way down, his hair catching in faint cobwebs, his breath coming out in shallow gasps.

Then, he caught words.

“—leave until you give me an explanation.”

“I do not owe you anything.”

Kokichi knew those voices. He almost froze. It was Shuichi and Kirumi. He continued creeping forward, as light as possible, as their voices drew closer and closer.

“I’m not letting you leave,” Shuichi emphasized.

“You are angry.”

“You’re damn straight I am. Just what the hell was that back there?”

The voices were now right below him. Kokichi leaned over the pipe just enough to get a view of them.

Shuichi was right in Kirumi’s face, pointing accusingly at her. Kirumi was as composed as always, save for her half-lidded eyes. Kokichi’s first instinct was to wonder why they were having a hushed conversation in the basement, but he answered his question almost as soon as he asked it. Shuichi must’ve asked her here in the hopes of catching her alone.

“I’m sorry,” said Kirumi earnestly.

“You’re sorry?!”

“I have responsibilities, Shuichi. It is unfortunate that they came at the cost of slandering your reputation as an investigator. I know that you are capable, but I must be sure that Oma is prosecuted for his crimes.”

“You think that’s what I’m mad about?”

Kirumi raised her gaze. “I beg your pardon?”

“I don’t give a damn about my reputation. You sent someone to their death, Kirumi.”

“Oma is a Remnant. He deserves no compassion.”

“On circumstantial evidence? Are you insane? I’ve seen the interrogations, the videos, the witness statements—it’s damning, for sure, but hardly substantial proof that he actually has link to anyone affiliated with Enoshima. There’s no sign that he’s ever directly communicated with the Remnants. The Future Foundation never had an opportunity to even question members of DICE aside from him.”

“What would you have had Izayoi do? He was attacked and he defended himself.”

“That’s precisely the point. If they were in the process of betraying him, why would they also defend him? Doesn’t that sound suspect to you? Or are you working with Munakata to manipulate evidence?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do.”

Kirumi let out a light huff and began to walk away. Shuichi quickly blocked her path.

“The Future Foundation needs a scapegoat,” Shuichi said in a shrill whisper. “Ever since the killing game ended, the pressure to do something about them has increased tenfold. Oma looks suspicious—maybe he’s a Remnant, maybe he’s not. What matters is that he looks bad. Want me to keep going or can you fill in the blanks for yourself?”

“...Clearly you don’t understand the importance of psychological warfare.”

“Dammit, Kirumi!”

“If that means sacrificing a potentially innocent person in order to preserve peace, so be it. These are the difficult choices leaders must make, Shuichi. I don’t take pleasure in taking a life.”

Kokichi craned his neck, enough to catch the look on Shuichi’s face. He eyes were wide, his mouth was downturned. Part of him was holding onto his professionalism, the other part was filled with hurt and confusion.

“What happened to you, Kirumi?” Shuichi asked. “I thought we were friends.”

“Hope’s Peak was a long time ago, Shuichi,” said Kirumi. “I have a duty to Japan, as do you.”

“I know that, but I’m not willing to sacrifice more lives. Hasn’t there been enough death already?”

“...I can see that I cannot convince you. Because of our past friendship, I will pretend this conversation didn’t happen. Please...I implore you. Do not ask more questions or Munakata will be forced to act.”

“Kirumi...”

Kirumi rushed past him, her heels clicking across the floor.

“Kirumi!” he called.

Kokichi didn’t dare move until the raised voices and the click-click-click of Kirumi’s heels faded away. The alarm was still blaring from somewhere in the distance.

When the worst of the noise was gone, Kokichi hung his legs over the pipe and jumped down. The stress of the adrenaline was still coursing through him, forcing details to jump out at him in stark detail: the stale air, the subtle pat-pat-pat of his feet against the cement floor, the faint, flowery smell of Kirumi’s perfume lingering behind her. Kokichi hurried down the corridor, to an inconspicuous storage room where he’d previously hid from Sakakura and his patrols.

In his mind, he knew that there was a good chance his exit would be blocked. In his heart, he believed otherwise. He held onto the belief, the small sliver of hope, his last chance at liberation from this hellhole. Alternatives were unacceptable. Today, there was only one option: he had to get away. Either leave or die. If he died in the escape, so much the better; at least the Future Foundation wouldn’t get the satisfaction of sticking a bullet through his skull.

Kokichi reached the storage room. It opened with a quick pick of the lock and swung open. At once, sharp, cool air struck his face—the unmistakable odour of freedom. When the smell reached him, the tension building in his shoulders lessened somewhat.

The room was packed with crates, shelves, supplies, and old furniture. The last time Kokichi had hidden in there, he’d slept on an old couch and it had been the best rest he’d gotten in months, even though he could feel the springs through the cushions. Kokichi climbed over the many obstacles in his path, following the fresh air. He picked up a flashlight he’d previously stored on one of the shelves.

In the corner of the room, just behind a crate, Kokichi found a place where the wall had been damaged—maybe in a bombing, maybe in an attack, maybe by some other desperate prisoner determined to dig his way out. Either way, part of the wall had collapsed, leaving behind a cramped hole in the spot where the wall met the floor. There was no sign that it had been detected by anyone. Kokichi shone his flashlight into the hole. Just a little more and he could squeeze through; this had been his other objective when he’d resolved to lose weight. In comparison, the food slot was nothing. This was going to take a lot of patience.

Using his hands, Kokichi dug through the dirt to make the opening a little wider, ears open for a sign that anyone was coming. Thick wires protruded from the cement from where it had crumbled. When the hole was just a little bigger, Kokichi turned on his flashlight and rolled it through first. He watched the pale light roll down on an angle until it disappeared from sight. Hopefully a good sign that the opening went into the subway station like he hoped.

There was nothing to it. If he was doing this, it had to be now. Sakakura had to remember this room. He would come looking for him.

Kokichi shimmied sideways and shoved his body into the opening. At once, he got caught on the wires protruding from the cement. He grit his teeth as they ripped through his thin clothing and sliced through his skin. They held on like angry claws attempting to restrain him, attempting to pull him back into the Future Foundation. Kokichi suppressed any urge to cry out in surprise and pushed further, getting past the worst of it until slowly, surely, the storage room started moving away and he was going down.

To say it was small was an understatement. Any bigger and there would’ve been no hope of getting through. As it happened, his back and chest pressed against the tunnel walls, his legs were uncomfortably sprawled out, and he was completely, utterly reliant on his hands to feel his way through the blackness. His hands ached with the stress of pulling his body along, the dirt digging deep into his nails, suppressing the urge to cough as fragments came loose and rained down on him.

Then, open air.

Kokichi fell.

It was a five foot drop, but he may as well have leapt form the Burj Khalifa with the force with which he hit the ground. Kokichi landed right on his shoulder. Pain thundered through him, but had the opposite effect that he thought pain should have—instead of paralyzing him, his mind sang, creating a rush of euphoria and glee. The adrenaline finally ran its course and reality hit him with all the force of the morning after a night of drinking. Sprawled on the ground, Kokichi rolled onto his back and laughed.

He’d done it. He was out. This was freedom. Lying in the dark, his body aching, his senses tingling, a cold chill nipping at his exposed hands. No Sakakura, no straitjackets, no hearings. The laughter exploded out of him, ripping the back of his throat and muffling his senses even though he was vaguely aware that he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Kokichi had to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing more, as tempting as it was to keep doing so, because he hadn’t quite processed what had happened, but his body knew that there was still much to be done. There was still an escape to be had. He found his flashlight had rolled not too far away. Still turned on, it illuminated a dark, cavernous field of tiled floors, beat-up posters, and broken electronics. His instincts had held fast; it was a subway and there was a maze of tunnels he could escape through. It didn’t matter which one, as long as they took him as far from the Future Foundation as humanly possible. To stay away from them, he’d walk on water and go to the ends of the earth.

He stumbled upright. Adrenaline had left him weak-kneed and clouded with fatigue. It was the sweetest sensation he’d ever tasted, and it was the sensation he carried with him as he stumbled into the safety of the shadows.

Chapter Text

Shuichi watched, transfixed, as the security feed showed a pale, thin boy blow a kiss to the camera, then make a heart shape with his hand. From the camera angle, Kokichi Oma looked uncommonly small given his large personality—a personality that had dominated the room when the panel decided his fate.

Looming over his shoulder, Sakakura said, "I really hate that guy."

Shuichi held onto doubt the same way he held onto his memories of the world before the Tragedy: tightly and terrified to let go. He felt doubt now as he noted the stiff smile Kokichi flashed the camera before fleeing from the elevator.

They were back in the boardroom for a purpose not dissimilar to what had drawn them there in the first place. They were deciding Kokichi's fate, though this time the accused was not present and Munakata was a little less composed and more frightened-angry. He would never admit it, but Shuichi detected the underlying dread in the way Munakata regarded Sakakura.

Shuichi wasn't sure how he'd ended up elbow-to-elbow with some of the Future Foundation's biggest names. Chisa was one thing. Chisa recruited him, Chisa had encouraged and mentored and given him a one-in-a-million shot. Interrupting the hearing had been nothing short of Shuichi's worst nightmare, something he'd only found the courage to do when thinking about an innocent life being lost for the sake of a lie. Munakata broke him, Kirumi betrayed him, Sakakura scowled at him. Now he, Munakata, Kirumi, Sakakura, and Chisa were all together, staring at the monitor as if they could reach in and pull the alleged Remnant out.

“I knew I should’ve budgeted for turrets,” Sakakura grumbled.

Sakakura gave Munakata a perplexing stare that piqued Shuichi’s interest. His eyebrows raised slightly, his chin crinkled. It was almost apologetic.

“It’s fine,” Munakata said. Shuichi wondered if he was responding to the comment about the turrets or accepting Sakakura’s silent apology. "Even if the hole had been discovered beforehand, I don’t think anyone could’ve guessed that he’d fit through there. Regardless, not many of the subway tunnels are still passable. The patrols should flush him out."

“If he hasn’t found a way out already,” Chisa worried.

Munakata pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is giving me a migraine...”

“Do you need a cold compress?” Chisa and Kirumi asked simultaneously.

“Later. I can rest when Oma is back in custody.” He turned to Kirumi. “Tojo, you know Oma better than anyone. You’re in charge of finding him.”

“Hold on a minute—” Sakakura started.

“And you and Sakakura will be working together.”

“NOW HOLD ON!” Sakakura protested. “I am not a team player.”

“Well, we all know that,” Chisa said with a wave of the hand. “Think of it as a team building exercise, Juzo.”

“I get it—Oma needs to be found,” Sakakura went on. “But I don’t need some maid bossing me around or tripping me up.”

“Mr Munakata’s reasoning is sound,” Kirumi interjected. “You possess authority and strength and I possess intelligence and a thorough understanding of Oma’s character. We compliment each other’s weaknesses.”

Sakakura’s hand snapped forward and grabbed the front of her dress, lifting her right off her feet. Kirumi stared challengingly back at him. Shuichi tried to get a read on her expression, but he may as well have been blind given her guarded composure. Even back at Hope's Peak, she'd been an expert at concealment. That part of her character hadn't changed.

“You sayin’ I’m stupid?” Sakakura growled.

“That was not my intention,” Kirumi seethed. “However...I am now considering it.”

“Juzo, play nice with the other children,” Chisa cut in. She smacked his arm. It was like she possessed herculean strength, because Sakakura released the Ultimate Maid at the slightest touch. "Really now, you'd think you'd have grown out of this phase."

“What phase?!” Sakakura raged.

“The phase where you go around hitting things.”

“...That is quite literally what the Ultimate Boxer got accepted into Hope’s Peak for,” Kirumi noted.

“Not helping, sweetie.”

“You’re working together,” Munakata emphasized. “This isn’t optional. You don’t have to like each other; you need to find Oma and do what needs to be done.”

Kirumi gave Sakakura an I-told-you-so look as pointed as a sword. He made a show out of rolling his eyes.

“Would you prefer him dead or alive?” Kirumi asked as if asking Munakata’s order for dinner.

Chisa raised her hand to her mouth. It was an intimate gesture betraying her position on the matter although she didn't speak a word.

“I’d prefer him alive, but I’m not opposed to a corpse,” said Munakata. “Depending on the circumstances when you find him, if you feel that there’s a minute risk of him escaping, do what needs to be done. No matter what, bring back the body so we can confirm his identity.”

“Understood.”

Sakakura groaned. “Fine, but I’m putting emphasis on not liking her.”

“Good, then you two will get whatever resources you need,” Munakata nodded.

"Then may I ask your permission to bring in special help?" Kirumi asked. "I know of someone, a former classmate of mine. She is skilled when it comes to hunting down particular people."

"Is she a member of the Future Foundation?"

"Yes, we joined at the same time. However, my understanding is that she is on a secret assignment in your department."

Munakata's gaze wandered and fixed on Shuichi. He didn't look away from him when he answered, "We'll discuss it in my office. If I can spare her, I will."

"Should we inform civilians?" Sakakura asked. "Who knows what he'll get up to if he dodges the search parties."

"No, not yet," said Munakata. "Let's not cause a panic. The Remnants do enough of that for us.”

Munakata, Sakakura, and Kirumi made their exit. As she reached the door, Kirumi peered at Shuichi over her shoulder, unreadable as always. Then she was gone again.

"This is a mess," Chisa lamented. Kokichi's image was reflected in her bright eyes. "With Oma on a loose, I'm afraid Sakakura might get a little too enthusiastic with the search. He's never had much self-control, that one."

Shuichi hesitated. “Listen, Chisa—I’m sorry about bursting in on the hearing like that. I should’ve given you prior notice.”

"It's okay, Shuichi. I'm glad you came and asserted yourself for once instead of holding it all in like you always do. I know it can't be easy being compared to Kyoko all the time."

“It’s—It’s not that,” Shuichi denied.

“Don’t be like that! You’re as good a detective as she is. I’m just sorry Kirumi dragged you through the mud."

He focused on the floor. "Yeah, that was...not a great feeling."

"Let's put that aside, though," said Chisa. "I have a proposal for you."

“A proposal?”

“That’s right,” Chisa came up close and took his shoulders. Her grasp was gentle, almost motherly. “How would you like your unofficial investigation to become an official one?”

He blinked, processing the words in his mind. “W—What? You mean it?”

"Of course I mean it. You made some good observations during the hearing and you're right: we need more evidence. Oma's escape has bought us some time to create a more concrete case for or against him, so I want you to go out there and get some solid proof about his affiliations. Plus, with me backing you, you'll have a bit more maneuverability in way of what you do and do not have access to. You even get a fancy security card!"

Shuichi did what he always did: he thought it over. This was big. It wasn't a small investigation on his own, it was official Future Foundation business. He'd been on that before, though nothing quite of this scale. A lot of time his duties were limited to collecting intelligence, imputing and managing data, and piecing together disjointed information to create a cohesive story. Stuff that never required direct intervention. The most he'd ever gotten to field assignments was the occasional recruitment mission.

Kokichi was different. The hand Chisa so tenderly offered him was different. It was consequential and that terrified him. But how could he not?

Shuichi realized with complete and utter horror that refusal was no longer an option. Refusal had ceased to become an option when he'd burst into the boardroom.

Shuichi looked her in the eye. “I’ll do it.”


He was cold.

Kokichi pried one eye open, tempted to lull back into what had been a restless and unsatisfying sleep. He would’ve done so, if not for the cold nipping at his bare fingers. Was this another hallucination? His cell was always lukewarm, never too cold and never too hot, never reaching extremes. Yeah, this had to be a hallucination. His escape had to be one, too, there was no doubt about it, because there was no possible way that he could actually be cold, no possible way that that was fresh air stinging his nostrils.

He rolled over, and at once something sharp jabbed into his ribcage. The light sensation of pain caused his mind to spring from vaguely conscious to high alert.

Gasping, he jerked upright, and his head slammed into something solid.

“Not a hallucination,” Kokichi murmured.

Kokichi’s fingers fumbled across the ground and traced the groves of a tiled floor. The sharp object he’d rolled onto turned out to be a sizeable shard of glass. He’d fallen asleep under a bench in a subway station. It wasn’t the one he’d first emerged in, but one he’d reached after wandering aimlessly for hours. Falling asleep in odd places reminded him of times before the Tragedy—before DICE, even. Now, a patchwork of crisp light poured from where the tunnel had crumbled away.

It had been pitch black when Kokichi had stumbled on the bench and decided to crawl under it for a bit of a rest. Now that it was day, he could see that the area was little more than a disaster zone. The stairs leading into the station had collapsed, but a large slab of concrete created a makeshift ramp leading into the open. Uneasiness settled in his body. Squinting against the light, Kokichi crawled out from under the bench, reached the slab, and dug his hands into the rough surface. Snowflakes pirouetted their way down in perfect formations. His breath came out in visible puffs.

So it was winter. Maybe. Kokichi had lost track of the months ages ago. If Izayoi’s timeline was correct, then it had to be somewhere between October and December.

Kokichi received some well-earned cuts on his way up the slab, the minuscule bumps on the concrete dragging through his palms. Loose pebbles cascaded behind him. Then, he dragged himself into the open and collapsed into a powdery bed of white.

Spent, Kokichi rolled onto his back and stared at the sky. It was overcast with pallid clouds blanketing over his field of vision while flecks of snow pelted his skin. The frigid air current slapped his cheeks.

The cold and his exhaustion went forgotten when his stomach grumbled. Hunger pangs settled in for the long haul. His entire abdomen stung, so desperate for food that he thought his stomach was about to gnaw its way right out of his body.

“Okay, time for breakfast,” Kokichi said to himself. “What’s on the menu?”

It took agonizing effort to get to his feet and look around.

He regretted not giving up and lying in the snow until he froze.

Hollow. Everything around him was a hollowed-out shell. Broken, metallic corpses of buildings and cars and scrap metal, scattered about him like discarded pieces of a chess set, like someone had gotten too frustrated in the middle of a game. The scene tugged Kokichi forward, and then the recoil sent him tumbling back, almost back into the subway. Pictures of the old Tokyo—the streets he'd been so intimately familiar with—bulleted through his mind in frozen pictures.

Kokichi squeezed his eyes shut and pried them open again. This couldn't be real. This wasn't why he had escaped. He collapsed to his knees, the snow soaking through his pants. In the back of his mind, he realized that he was still wearing the garb required of the Future Foundation's prisoners: black pull-up pants, elastic waistband, blue shirt. Out here, knelt down, his back exposed to the sky, he was a surefire target for anyone. This wasn't why he had escaped—a ruin wasn't what he'd wanted to see.

This was the perfect time to do his Charlton Heston impression, to slam his fists into the ground and curse humanity.

Unfortunately there was no time for that. As much as he wanted it to be, this wasn't Hollywood.

Kokichi took an unsteady breath. He could do this. He had to analyze. Righting himself, he buried the angry tendrils of fiery emotion and willed himself to observe rather than react. He scanned the blown-out windows, the abandoned storefronts, the rubble, and he finally settled on impressions in the snow indicating recent activity. There were footprints and a set of tire tracks—a larger vehicle, maybe a military truck.

Could be Future Foundation. Could be someone equally undesirable. Kokichi’s stomach reminded him that he didn’t have much of a choice. Where there were people, there was food.

Choice was something in short supply these days.

Kokichi kicked the snow around to cover his tracks; it wouldn't hurt to be a bit paranoid. He would walk in the tire tracks and follow them back to wherever they led—and pray with all his might that he wasn't walking straight into the waiting arms of the Future Foundation. He had no idea how great their manpower had become while he'd essentially been missing in action. Still, his stomach growled and the windchill went straight through his thin clothing. There was nothing to it.

He made sure to walk on the tire tracks as he waded through the ruins in the cold, his feet slipping in the wet snow. Prison loafers were definitely not meant for mucking about in the middle of winter. He didn't have to go far to find more signs of life. Some of the buildings were inhabited and he saw people peering through the windows, hanging their laundry on their balconies, and taking shelter in alleys. Kokichi stayed out of their immediate sight as a precautionary measure. Whether they were Future Foundation or civilians, they weren't the people of Tokyo he'd known, the ones who'd spat on his existence and forged him into the cynical liar he was.

Eventually he came to a road that was more well-maintained than the side streets. The tires cleared the snow down the street, leaving nothing but a white stripe down the middle. As Kokichi came up alongside it, an enormous truck barrelled down it.

Freeze frame. The Future Foundation logo jumped out of him. Time restarted and the truck sped on.

“Perfect,” Kokichi murmured.

Wrapping his arms around himself, Kokichi followed the road. He saw activity up ahead—the truck had stopped at some sort of checkpoint. Kokichi went off-road and back into the cover of the buildings.

He started when he realized there were a handful of people gathered around a fire barrel just out of sight. He stumbled back to a safe distance, but not before one of the men caught his eye.

“Don’t like the Future Foundation, huh?” the man said. “Can’t say I blame you.”

“What’s down there?” Kokichi asked. “A checkpoint?”

“Nah, refugee camp. You can get food and clothes if you need ‘em—just be careful not to piss off the soldiers or they'll find a reason to arrest you.”

Noted.

Kokichi moved on, silently lamenting that he was sticking out like a sore thumb. He was going to have to use the Future Foundation again if he hoped to get out of this mess he'd made for himself.

He navigated toward the campsite through the ruins, using the road as a point of reference to make sure he stayed on track. It was easy to discern his location; over the otherwise silent snowfall, the low rumble of voices chorused from the earth. Kokichi crawled up a steep embankment of snow-covered rubble, stuff that looked like it had been cleared out of the way to make room for something larger. He found that something as he peered over the top.

The camp had the Future Foundation's grubby fingerprints all over it. Just the thought of being in proximity to the fuckers sent a small tingle of rage down the length of his spine to settle in his abdomen along with his hunger. The entire area was littered with dark tents emblazoned with the Future Foundation insignia, steadily buried the snowfall. Vehicles were parked on one end and there were checkpoints all around. The Future Foundation soldiers were dotted throughout like dark roaches, contrasting against the snow as much as their weapons did. There had to be at least fifty guards alone.

However, the guards were outnumbered by the sheer volume of haggard people flitting about. They couldn’t all be Future Foundation people, not with their worn clothes, their expressions sagged with hunger and stress, and the way they hurried about like they were terrified of being caught in a firefight. The scars they carried were not the physical kind—although he quickly realized that that was not always the case when he saw a one-legged man hobbling around on a crutch.

Damn. Things must’ve gotten bad while he was locked up.

Kokichi scanned the campsite. Just as the man had indicated, it appeared to be more akin to a refugee centre than a military installation. Several tents had been set up into makeshift shops and distribution centres. Another had a red cross visibly printed on the top. Finally, a chain of people extended from the edge of the camp right up to the doorstep of one that appeared to be handing out food. The one that caught his attention, however, was right on the edge of the camp, close enough that he might be able to sneak into it.

The tent didn't have a lineup, though there were people making a beeline toward it. Not all appeared to have the intention of getting something from it. Some carried folded clothes in their arms or in bags.

No choice. As always, no choice.

Kokichi vaulted over the embankment and slid down the snow-covered rubble. He lost his footing during the last half of his descent and fell the last few metres, though fortunately, the people around him must've been accustomed to refugees coming out of the woodwork. No one paid him any mind when he melded into the thin crowd at the edge of camp and made his way to the tent. He closed the distance, though it was difficult to keep light on his feet when every movement jostled his stomach and sent fresh stabs of pain rocketing through his body.

When he reached the tent, he checked to make sure no one was watching, lifted the corner, and ducked inside. His suspicions were confirmed at once. Clothes were piled everywhere: everything from jackets, to shirts, to pants, to shoes, all organized and ready for use. The lighting was dank and he froze when he heard a man and woman bustling about.

"So then, this monster of a man gave me this look, you know the one?" the woman said. "The look that says he was gonna kill me."

"What'd he do?" the man asked.

"He gave me a lecture about bugs for an hour. An hour! I swear I don't get paid enough to deal with these morons."

The tent flap rustled and another voice chimed in, "Hey, we got more donations out here. Can you two help me out?"

"Sure thing," said the woman. "Just as long as it's not that damn bug guy again."

All three people ducked out.

When they were gone, Kokichi immediately set to work. He chose carefully. He needed something that wouldn't attract too much attention, something that would let him blend in like a single speck on a painting by Georges Seurat. Kokichi dug up a dark long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, and oversized boots. He traded clothes and tossed his prison garb into the pile. Good riddance. In the pile of coats, he dug out a black jacket with a skeleton pattern marking the ribcage, pelvis, spine, arms—the exposed parts of him that he kept well-hidden and well-guarded. Somehow it felt ironic and appropriate. When he pulled it on, he felt invisible.

Perfect. Kokichi pulled up the hood for good measure and slipped out the way he came.

As he did so, a shout ripped through his skull. He started, sure that he’d been caught.

“Hold the fucker still so I can hit it!”

Kokichi looked around. That didn’t sound directed at him. Nearby, he saw a trio of men had gathered around a dog that two of them were trying to restrain. The other loomed over with a wooden board. The dog struggled violently, its claws scraping against the snow and digging up the earth underneath.

“I’m doin’ the best I can!” another answered. “It has teeth, y’know!”

The dog let out a horrible squeal, its eyelids pulling back to reveal the whites, the candid look of betrayal and terror evident.

Kokichi made his exit and rounded the tent, his breath catching in his chest. He wasn't quite that desperate yet.

Heading through the compound, he made his way over to the food station. He skipped the line completely; there was no way he was going to wait. He had to be hungrier than most of these people, anyway. No Future Foundation soldier stopped him as he approached the station and the familiar whiff of cooked food hit his nostrils.

Kokichi put on his best game face. Time to see if he’d gotten rusty.

“Hey, gimme some food!” Kokichi demanded.

One of the women tending the station turned to him, eyebrow raised. “I beg your pardon?”

“Food. You have it, right? How about sharing with the little people?”

"If you want food, get in line."

"I'm way too important to stand in a line all day."

"I don't recognize you. Do you even have ration stamps?"

Ration stamps? What the hell? “I'm above stamps. Just gimme some food already!”

“No stamps, no food.”

“No fair!” Kokichi summoned his best crocodile tears and let them fall freely down his cheeks. “H—How can you be so awful? I’m just a poor, starving orphan!”

“You’re bothering me. Not only did you skip the line, but you also don’t have stamps. Do you want me to call security over here?”

“I want you to have a heart, you old bitch!” Kokichi snapped, his tears stopping at once.

“Someone call secur—”

A third voice intervened. “Please, don’t do that!”

Kokichi wheeled around. At the front of the line was a blonde teenager wrapped tightly in a battered pink coat. She had a kind, altruistic buoyancy about her and she looked at him with a gentleness he wasn’t accustomed to getting from other people—not since DICE, anyway. Even though he’d been hoping for some naive soul to step in, Kokichi couldn’t help but tense up in suspicion.

“Are you hungry?” the girl asked. “I have some spare stamps if you want them.”

A boy with avocado green hair standing beside the girl frowned disapprovingly. He had a different aura, one of composure, a striking look that burrowed deep into whatever was around him. The aura of someone who asked too many questions. It made Kokichi uneasy.

“Kaede, we need those,” the boy said.

“It’s okay, I already counted them out,” the girl—Kaede—waved him off. “We have a few extra for this week.”

The boy’s frown deepened. “If you say so.”

Kaede approached the attendant. “Can I get some rations for him, please?”

“I’m don’t know, Kaede,” the attendant said cautiously. She eyed Kokichi. “I don’t recognize him, which means he’s not from the area. He could be a Remnant spy!”

“You think everyone’s a Remnant spy,” Kaede pointed out. “Please?”

The attendant sighed. “Ugh, you’re too nice for your own good. I’m worried one day it’s going to come back to haunt you. I’ll let you trade your stamps for two extra rations, but that’s all I can spare.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t. If my boss finds out about this, I’m dead.”

The attendant handed Kaede two brown packages. Kaede turned to give them to him.

Kokichi plucked them right out of her hand. “Yoink!”

He sprinted off.

“Wha—hey!” Kaede called.

Kokichi distinctly heard Avocado Boy say, “I told you so.”

Kokichi didn't look back. The infernal urge to put as much distance between himself and the Future Foundation as possible overwhelmed everything else. It was bad enough that he had to carry around ration packages baring their symbols.

He headed out of the camp until the crowd had sufficiently thinned. No one followed him, but he still waited behind a dumpster to make sure that he'd slipped under the radar. After he was satisfied that he was alone, he ripped open one of the rations. There was a package of rice and dried fruit inside, all sealed in neat little packages.

He should probably cook the rice.

...Screw that.

Kokichi ripped open the rice packet and poured it into his mouth.

“That tastes better if you cook it.”

Kokichi looked up. Avocado Boy was back, carrying several bags filled with rations. Had he followed him? Did he know who he was? Had the Future Foundation made news of his escape public or were they keeping it their lurid little secret for the time being?

“Geez, stop judging people by what they eat,” Kokichi sneered.

The boy peered around. The gears in his head were grinding so loud that Kokichi could hear them.

At once Kokichi realized that this was a dangerous person for one blinding reason: because he asked too many questions, thought a little too hard, and saw a little too much.

“Where did you come from...?” the boy said quietly, more to himself than to Kokichi.

"What's a guy gotta do to eat in peace around here?" Kokichi asked.

Avocado Boy deposited his bags by the dumpster and knelt beside him. He stared intently at Kokichi.

"What's your name?" the boy asked.

“That’s a bit of a personal question,” Kokichi snorted. “You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”

“My name’s Rantaro. Rantaro Amami.”

“I see, I see. Too bad I was lying about all that right now. You want my name, you gotta guess it.”

“Why the secrecy? You don’t have anything to gain from it.”

“Ah, an astute observation,” Kokichi winked and tapped the side of his forehead. “If there weren’t any secrets in the world, it’d be a boring place to live. I’m just doing my part to liven things up a bit. Any-hoo, you’re bothering me, so you have my permission to leave.”

“People around here don’t wait for permission, and I can tell you’re not from here.”

“Don’t know what you mean. I’ve been around; I just haven’t felt like showing my face until now.”

“I’m not so sure that’s the case. You have a certain look about you.”

“And what kind of look is that, Mr Know-it-all?”

“A fish out of water look.”

Rantaro reeled Kokichi in. They were almost nose-to-nose, and the dark shadows falling over Rantaro clawed through his carefully crafted demeanour.

“A look that says you’re trouble,” Rantaro determined.

“I thought you were a know-it-all, but now you’re being dramatic,” Kokichi shoved Rantaro to a reasonable distance. “You’re not worthy to be in my personal space, so how ‘bout you back off a little?”

At the sound of light footsteps moving through the snow, Kokichi tensed and prepared to bolt, only relaxing when Kaede appeared. She was also carrying two bags filled to the brim with rations. Did two people really need all of those?

“What’s going—oh!” Kaede startled at the sight of Kokichi. “I half expected to never see you again. You took off so quickly!”

“Kaede,” Rantaro sighed.

“I have some more rations if you want them,” said Kaede, digging into one of the bags.

“Kaede, it’s not a good idea.”

“Aw, c’mon—he’s so cute! I mean, like puppy dog cute...”

“Kaede, you’re not going to try to adopt him, are you?”

“What do you mean?”

Rantaro caught Kokichi’s eye. “She makes a habit of adopting strays.”

“I do not,” Kaede tsked. "I just think it's important to keep an open door for anyone who needs it."

“We need to look after our own people. Also, the last stray you brought home cleaned out the pantry.”

"He probably had his own family to feed and thought that he had to steal," said Kaede. She knelt by Kokichi. "What's your name?"

“Kyosuke,” Kokichi lied.

“What’s your real name?” Rantaro asked.

“Don’t know what you mean,” said Kokichi. “My name is definitely Juzo.”

“...It was Kyosuke literally just a few seconds ago...”

“Eh, I can’t decide which I like better.”

Kaede watched him with soft eyes as he shoved more dry rice into his mouth. “...You know you’re supposed to cook those, right?”

“Don't tell me what to do”

Kaede glanced at Rantaro and Kokichi caught the look—it was pity. Always with the pity. People always looked at him with either pity or hatred and the latter was definitely preferable to the former. Kaede crawled over and sat in the snow beside him. Rantaro gave the sky a withering look and took the other side. Now sandwiched in between two people Kokichi was sure he couldn't trust, he held fast onto his suspicion in case they tried to grab him.

“You’re really cold,” Kaede noted. She took his free hand and examined his fingers. “Don’t you have any gloves? Your fingers won’t last like this.”

He wrenched his hand out of hers. “I know that.”

“Here—take my gloves—”

“Y—You mean to tell me...that I look like the type of guy...who would take handouts?”

Kaede blinked. “Huh?”

“Do you look down on everyone like that?” Kokichi sniffed. “Do you really think less of me just because I don’t wear gloves?”

“N—No, not at all, I—”

“Forget it, Kaede,” said Rantaro. “He’s messing with you.”

“...What?”

Kokichi cackled. “Sniffed me out, did you?”

Kaede puffed out her cheeks. “Why would you try to manipulate me like that?"

“You should know better than to trust the word of random weirdos on the street,” Kokichi shrugged. “I’m a liar, after all.”

“Lying is a bad thing to do around here,” Kaede frowned.

“Aw, you gonna beat me up for it?”

“I won’t. The Future Foundation might.”

Kokichi snorted. “Well, I know that. I’d have to be pretty stupid to get on the bad side of those killjoys.”

“At least you have some sense,” Kaede sighed. “They used to be pretty good for the neighbourhood, but they’ve gotten pretty rough ever since the killing game ended.”

“What’s a killing game?” Kokichi said with a full mouth.

At once, he realized that the question was the wrong thing to say. Kaede and Rantaro’s expressions went tense as they met eyes over Kokichi’s head as if he'd just told them an unbelievable secret and they couldn't quite figure out what to make of it. Rantaro’s confusion cleared quickly, but Kaede’s lingered like a disease, eating away at her as she mulled over the words.

“...The killing game,” Kaede elaborated. When Kokichi looked at her blankly, she went on, “Junko Enoshima’s killing game? The Hope’s Peak killing game?”

Junko Enoshima? Hope’s Peak? Did they mean Hope’s Peak Academy? Kokichi racked his brain for reasons why he should know what the hell they were talking about, then vaguely remembered the term ‘killing game’ being mentioned back at the hearing. Had they mentioned the name Enoshima too? He wasn't sure; he'd been so preoccupied with his thoughts that he hadn't paid attention. Now that his stomach was settling, Kokichi became aware of how exhausted he was, and how his mind dragged in its attempt to keep up with his own lies.

“Nope, doesn’t ring a bell,” he said truthfully—for once. “If I’ve never heard of it, it probably isn’t important.”

“Boy, you really have been living under a rock,” Kaede noted. “I didn’t think there was anyone around who hadn’t even heard of the killing game.”

“It doesn't matter,” Kokichi snorted. Time to downplay the revelation. If he was going to stick with this one truth, then it had to be a small one, one that they couldn’t turn against him. “Like I said, I haven’t been out and about for a while. What’s this about the Future Foundation causing problems ever since whatever this killing game is?”

“You’re...not curious about what the killing game is?”

Yes. But he couldn't let them know that. He'd do his own investigating later.

“Not really,” Kokichi lied. “Like I said, if I haven’t heard of it, it isn’t important.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” said Kaede. “It’s just that ever since the killing game, the Future Foundation’s gotten really paranoid about weeding out Remnant spies. They’ve even stopped allowing some people to pick up rations and arresting anyone they think is suspicious. It’s like some weird dystopian novel come to life.”

Kokichi was pretty sure the world was a dystopia long before the Tragedy happened.

“Hey, why don’t you come back with us?” Kaede asked.

“Kaede,” Rantaro sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Kaede said. “I can’t leave him out here. He’s cold and hungry...”

“It’s true,” Kokichi sniffled. “I’m cold, hungry, and all alone in the world!”

“This is a terrible idea,” Rantaro bemoaned. His face was taut with stress, and the look certainly didn’t clear when he met eyes with Kokichi. Kokichi sensed it. Rantaro could see right through the gimmick. Maybe he didn’t know the reason why, but his suspicion put him on edge.

Still, Kokichi knew. He knew that he wasn’t going to last out here alone. He had no supplies, no ration stamps, no allies, and no shelter. These teenagers—whoever they were, whatever they were—were well-established and had food to spare, enough that they weren’t as starving as some of the other people he’d seen wandering around. It wouldn’t be long until desperation incited recklessness, and with recklessness would come capture. And he would rather die before seeing the inside of his old cell again and suffer tortures a thousandfold what he'd experienced than see Sakakura's ugly mug.

If he went with Kaede and Rantaro, then he had a vital link to information regarding the Future Foundation. He could take a few days to recuperate and get his strength back, lift some supplies off of them, and be on his merry way before they got wise. Other options were out of the question. Kokichi was tempted to go looking for an old DICE hideout—one of the ones Izayoi never found—but he didn’t even know where he was in Tokyo. He could be anywhere and it could take forever to get his bearings on his own.

No, he had to take advantage of this opportunity while it dangled in his face. He’d be a fool otherwise.

“I’d love to crash with you guys,” Kokichi beamed.

“Hold it,” Rantaro intervened. “Kaede, he can’t be trusted. There’s something...wrong about him.”

“Is it because he lied?” Kaede asked.

“It’s not only that,” Rantaro glowered at Kokichi. “I know this is a bit of a stretch, but you know I’ve always relied on my instincts when I’m not sure about something. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what he’s hiding or what he hopes to gain, but I know that he’s trouble.”

“How can you say that?” Kokichi batted his eyes. “Why—I’ve never been in trouble a day in my life.”

Kaede bit her lower lip, like she knew Rantaro had a point but didn’t quite want to admit it.

“I don’t know,” Kaede said quietly. “It feels wrong to leave him here, even if he isn’t totally trustworthy. I mean, who is trustworthy nowadays...I guess our group learned that the hard way...”

Rantaro sighed. He rubbed his forehead. “You’re not making this easy...”

“Please?” Kaede asked.

He sighed louder. “I guess...it would be better to have him where I can keep an eye on him.”

Her shoulders relaxed.

“I don’t think the others’ll like this, though.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll talk to them,” Kaede assured him.

“Others?” Kokichi asked.

“The other members of our group,” said Kaede. “Our classmates, actually. When the Tragedy hit, we were all at school and we weren’t able to get back home. Some of us didn’t have anything left to go to. So we decided to stick together and here we are!”

“More or less,” Rantaro added. “A few people have left over the last few years.”

“Yeah,” Kaede conceded, her voice quiet and heavy with regret. Funny how such a melodic voice also carry the weight of the world. “But some of us have managed to stick together despite a few bumps in the road. We’re staying at an apartment not too far from here.”

“Excellent,” Kokichi drummed his fingers together. “If we’re going to be on our way, then I have one condition.”

“Condition?”

Kokichi pointed at Rantaro. “You have to carry me.”

“I have to what now?” Rantaro blinked.

Kokichi didn’t give Rantaro time to protest. He hurried around and threw himself at Rantaro’s back, parasitically latching his arms around his neck and his legs around his waist. Rantaro stumbled forward and nearly lost his balance, only righting himself when Kaede hurried to steady him.

“Ah—hey!” Rantaro exclaimed.

“Mhm,” Kokichi pressed his face into his neck. He smelt earthy. “You’re nice and comfy. I think I’ll live here from now on.”

“That doesn’t seem feasible,” Rantaro grunted. He shifted his shoulders in a futile attempt to dislodge his unwanted passenger. “I don’t suppose asking nicely will get you to let go?”

“Nope.”

“Ugh...”

Kaede scooped up the bags Rantaro had been forced to drop, while the latter grabbed Kokichi’s legs. As they set off at an easy pace down the frigid streets, the exhaustion buzzed in Kokichi’s mind. Unable to resist the urge, he lay his head down on Rantaro’s shoulder and was asleep almost at once.


He knew he couldn’t have been asleep for long when something nudged his ribcage. Kokichi snorted awake. His mind, bloated with fatigue, took far too long to get its bearings. For a terrible second, he thought he was in his cell, and only came to his senses when a few snowflakes pricked his face. Regardless, his surroundings swam as he struggled to maintain consciousness, unwilling to concede control when he'd only just gotten it back.

“Are you awake?” Rantaro asked. “You must really be worn out if you were able to fall asleep like that. Heh, I know the feeling. During my travels, sometimes I’d get so tired that anything looked like a good bed.”

Kokichi clamped down on his tongue and didn’t answer.

“Anyway, we’re here now and I don’t want to carry you up the stairs,” said Rantaro. “...That’s an invitation to get off me.”

Kokichi stretched out and let out an exaggerated yawn. “Eh, I was lying about you being comfy, anyway.”

He hopped off of Rantaro and brushed out his jacket. They had stopped in front of a two-story apartment building. One apartment on the upper floor had been shelled out like some great monster had taken a bite out of the building. The rest was mostly in tact except for a few blown-out windows hastily repaired with cardboard and tape.

Kaede heaved her way up the stairs carrying the bags. The moment Kokichi was off of him, Rantaro went to help. Kokichi took up the rear.

“Nice place you got here,” said Kokichi. “It totally doesn’t look like a dump.”

“I don’t think you can afford to be picky given your situation,” Rantaro noted.

"Someone's a teensy bit sensitive."

Their trio headed to the second apartment. As they passed the first one, Kokichi saw that someone had graffitied the door. In stark, angry red lettering were the words: GIRLS’ ROOM! DEGENERATE MALES ARE FORBIDDEN FROM ENTERING!

At the second apartment, Kaede barely managed to turn the knob.

“We’re home!” Kaede called out.

No sooner had she called out when a female voice screamed, “NEO-AIKIDO!”

Kaede stepped aside as a black mass careened out of the doorway and slammed into the balcony railing with a tremendous crash. The mass tumbled over and hit the ground below.

“Not this again,” Kaede sighed. She went to the broken railing and peered over. “Are you okay, Gonta?”

Lying on his back, spread-eagle, was a brawny man all muscle and tangled green hair. He was too dazed to give a proper response to Kaede aside from a groan. Off-balance, he staggered back upright and gave Kaede a half-hearted thumbs-up.

“Gonta...okay,” the man said uncertainly. He then staggered back to the stairs.

No sooner had the question left Kaede's mouth when a girl barrelled out of the apartment, her long pigtails floating behind her. Shoving Kaede aside, she shook her fist at the man. Despite her endearing and whimsical appearance, she had an expression filled with fire and passion—overwhelming the cold still hanging in the air.

“YOU GONNA SURRENDER NOW?” the girl screamed.

“Tenko!” Kaede exclaimed, putting her hands on her hips. “We’ve talked about this!”

“It’s—It’s not my fault!” Tenko protested. "I don't need a ‘supportive hug’ from a degenerate male!"

"I'm sure Gonta was trying to be encouraging."

"He doesn't need to touch me to do that!"

"Throwing him off the balcony again seems like an overreaction. Why don't you try to talk it out?"

"I've tried that. You know I suck at talking to men!"

"That's not their fault."

"Yes it is!" Tenko pointed accusingly at Gonta, who had staggered up the stairs and was approaching their group. "It's totally their fault that I suck at talking to them! They shouldn't have been born male!"

"Wow, that shtick isn't gonna get old real fast," Kokichi drawled.

Tenko blinked and took notice of Kokichi, her mouth forming into a perfect circle. “W—What? Kaede, who’s this?”

Another individual ducked out of the apartment to join them on the balcony. In contrast to the muscular man, he was so short that he barely reached Kokichi's waist. He was stuffed into a puffy coat, making him look like a delicious pastry.

The shorter boy immediately took notice of Kokichi. He clamped down on the candy cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

“Who’s that?” the shorter boy asked.

“A stray,” Rantaro explained. “Kaede picked him up at the refugee camp.”

“Not again,” he pulled at his beanie. “Kaito’s not gonna like this.”

“Is he back yet?” Kaede asked.

“No, I imagine they’re giving him a hard time. But back to my first question. Kaede, who is this?”

“Oh, um,” Kaede started. “This is Kyosuke.”

“That’s not his real name,” Rantaro said easily.

“He’s right,” Kokichi agreed. “I am a shameless liar, after all. My real name is Juzo.”

“That’s not your name, either.”

“If you don’t like either of those names, then you can call me whatever you like. I don’t mind!”

“A few choice words come to mind,” the short boy grumbled. He took the candy cigarette under his mouth and twirled it in his hand. "Funny coincidence, though..."

"What'dya mean?"

The short boy bulled his beanie over his head. "Nothing. It's just a coincidence."

“Gonta not think that very gentlemanly to call each other bad names,” the hulking man said. He held out a hand for Kokichi. “Gonta’s name is Gonta Gokuhara. It nice to meet you.”

“Yeesh, you’re huge,” Kokichi remarked, folding his arms. “Do you ever have trouble fitting through doors?”

“Oh, all the time,” said Gonta. Apparently, he didn’t know the meaning of a rhetorical question.

“If you were going to bring home a stray, you could’ve at least brought back a girl,” Tenko frowned. “The name is Tenko Chabashira, and don’t think those puppy dog eyes will work on me.”

“Nah, you’re too smart for that, aren’t you?” Kokichi sneered.

Tenko stamped her foot. “Oh! Men! You’re all the same!”

The short boy looked at Kokichi carefully. “Ryoma Hoshi. At least, I used to be. If you want to call me that, then I won’t protest.”

"There's also another member of our group—Kaito Momota," said Kaede. "He's not here right now.”

“Where’d he go?” Kokichi asked. “Out to pick up more 'strays' like me?”

“Actually, he went to talk to the Prophets.”

“The who now?”

Once again, Kokichi realized too late that it was the wrong thing to say. Kaede and the other exchanged weary looks between them, the suspicion deepening. Rantaro’s expression deepened into a mixture of mistrust and curiosity.

“They’re a...religious group,” Kaede said. Her words were tense; she was choosing them carefully. “Yeah. They’re a religious group that operates in the area, doing...charitable work. And stuff like that.”

“They’re a cult,” Ryoma elaborated.

“Ryoma!”

“That’s what they are, aren’t they?” Ryoma shrugged. “They’re a doomsday cult. An old friend of ours founded them and they’ve been a pain in the ass ever since.”

“That’s a strong way to put it,” said Kaede.

“Tch, they’re freaking weird is what they are,” Tenko spat. “Our so-called ‘old friend’ is brainwashing people into doing her bidding. I’ll...I’ll never forgive her for that. Never.”

“It’s okay, Tenko,” Kaede consoled her.

“Sorry, it’s just...stupid.”

“Kaito went to try to, um, reason with them,” Kaede elaborated. “We try every so often to try to get through to our friend. It’s...a bit of a crazy situation, really.”

It was then at that indescribable moment of clarity that Kokichi realized who these kids were, why they contrasted so violently with their surroundings. Oh, the irony. The sheer irony of his current situation rammed into him with the force of a thousand Juzos' punching his face.

“So,” Kokichi rocked back on his heels. “Hope’s Peak students, huh?”

“Huh?” Kaede recoiled. “H—How did you know that?”

“Oh, it’s pretty obvious,” he tsked. “You’ve got these nice colourful personalities, a sure trademark of any Ultimate. And there’s a smell.”

“A smell?!” Gonta exclaimed. “B—But Gonta careful with bathing...”

“Oh, you’d never know you were bathing by that dank stench. Pee-ew!”

“Oh no!” Gonta wailed. “Gonta have to go! Gonta have to get rid of smell!”

Gonta flew off in a panic down the stairs. The others watched after him in dead silence, and while they were distracted, Kokichi ducked into the apartment.

It was a typical low-income apartment, certainly nothing fancy, although very well lived-in. There was no counter space in the kitchen—only a fridge, sink, gas stove, and cupboards. A kotatsu took up the majority of the space in the primary living area. On it were cards—spread out, as if Kokichi had just interrupted a game—and a radio turned to what sounded like a news station.

Kokichi kicked off his shoes and tripped over the genkan, hurrying around the apartment to take a quick assessment of his surroundings in case he needed to make an escape. All of the doors were sliding. The kitchen was a combined toilet, sink, and shower. The sole bedroom was at the rear, though there wasn't much floor space. Much of the area was taken up with a queen-sized bed and a twin in the corner. Mashed in between them were various cots scattered about, far too many for the number of people present. At the back, a sliding door led out to a rear balcony looking out into the back of a high-rise. If he needed to, he could vault over the side and hit the ground running if he didn't break his legs in the process.

He returned to the kitchen and started opening cupboards. They were stock full of nonperishable goods, like packaged rice, carbonated drinks, and bottles of water. Most were labelled with the Future Foundation’s logo.

Then, he saw a familiar purple bottle.

“Oh my God!” Kokichi exclaimed. “You have Panta! It’s been forever since I had Panta.”

“Er—we were saving those for later...” Kaede said uncertainly.

“Yeah, you were saving them for my arrival. I like that you took the initiative!”

Kokichi grabbed the Panta and downed it. The familiar grape flavour flowed through his body, filling his throat and igniting his senses the way it used to. It was a relief. It was a relief that it wasn’t prison food, that it actually had flavour.

Turning, he found that the students had followed him inside. Ryoma had gone to sit at the kotatsu and was shuffling through the cards.

“So,” Kaede cleared her throat. “This is the boys’ apartment. Tenko and I live in the one next door—you...probably saw the sign. We don’t have running water, but the generator gives us a few hours of electricity per day. The Future Foundation runs some public bathrooms down the street...or you can use the toilet in the back. It's the only working one we have. It's...not great, but we make do with what we have."

“Fine, fine,” Kokichi waved her off. In his mind he added that these were all luxuries compared to prison. “So where do I sleep?”

“Hold it!” Tenko exclaimed. “You can’t just move in here!”

“Kaede invited me, so yes, I can move in here,” said Kokichi. “You wouldn’t kick a poor, helpless orphan like me out on the streets, would you?”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Eh, if you’re going to be stubborn about it, I’ll pick a random spot,” Kokichi decided. He headed back into the bedroom and the small group flocked after him.

“Um, you can pick whichever—” Kaede started.

Kokichi didn’t listen to her. He threw himself on the queen-sized bed.

“This is a good spot,” Kokichi decided. “I’ll sleep here.”

“Th—That’s Kaito’s bed!”

“Oh, really? Well, ‘Kaito’ can sleep on the floor. I have back problems.”

“But I don’t know if Kaito will—”

“I’m sleeping now.”

“But—”

Sleeping.”

To illustrate his point, Kokichi shimmied under the covers, pulled them over his head, and turned his back on the group gaping at him from the bedroom door. He waited, wondering if they were going to drag him out, wondering if he’d pushed his luck a little too far, gone that smidgen bit overboard.

He held his breath, only releasing it when someone slid the door shut and Tenko started arguing with Kaede.

Kokichi didn’t care. He didn't remove the sheets to pull off his jacket and he threw it carelessly to the side. The mattress was too soft and his mind was numb, so he lulled off into darkness.


Kokichi sensed it had only been a few hours when he stirred, unaware of what had woken him up until heavy voices carried from the primary living area.

"You're finally back," that was Rantaro's voice, his tone wavering as if he was holding back a laugh. "What happened to you?"

“Paintball guns.” An unfamiliar individual. That must be Kaito. He had a powerful, decisive voice that summoned an image of a big burly guy with a personality to match. “They chased me around...with paintball guns...Stop smiling! This is fucking serious! How am I gonna get this out of my hair?!”

“I think that’s a nice colour on you.”

“Why would they chase you around with paintball guns?” Ryoma asked.

“They said it was the ‘will of Atua’ and it was a ritual to ‘cleanse my spirit’. I dunno, I think Angie just wanted to make me look like a moron. Ugh, it’s gonna take forever to clean this off...I’m gonna go change.”

“Oh, there’s something you should know—” Rantaro started.

“Tell me later, man.”

“I really think you want to know now—”

Kokichi squeezed his eyes shut as the bedroom door slid open. Heavy footsteps moved around, followed by a bit of rustling and swearing. Then, they stopped.

There was no warning. A hand grabbed the sheets near Kokichi’s head and pulled them back.

“What the—?!” Kaito exclaimed. “Who the hell is this and why is he in my bed?”

“That's one of Kaede’s strays.”

“Dammit, not this again.” Kaito poked at Kokichi’s cheek. “Hey, get out of my bed! There’s plenty of places for you to sleep!"

Kokichi ignored him.

“I’m talking to you—uh, what’s his name?”

“Not sure,” Rantaro admitted. “He lied about it twice.”

“For cryin’ out loud.”

Kaito pulled the sheets back over Kokichi.

“Fine, sleep all you want. But you’re getting out of that by tonight.”

That was the last thing Kokichi heard before he fell under again.


Kokichi spent the next few days sleeping like he’d never had a decent rest in his life, which wasn’t too far from the truth. He slept like he’d spent most of the last two years without a comfortable bed, which was also not too far from the truth, only vaguely aware of the passage of a day and a night turning into two and then three. He only stirred to use the washroom or get something to eat. Even then, he stumbled about in a daze, unaware of what was going on around him and who was there and what they were saying and doing.

He had the most contact with Kaede and Rantaro. Occasionally, they would wake him up and ask if he wanted to join them for a meal, and when he inevitably refused and turned over in bed, they would save him a plate. They even managed to talk Kaito into taking one of the spare cots. It was a complete contrast to how Kokichi had wanted to handle this situation. He’d wanted to maintain his lucidity, to be ready to run at the smallest indication of trouble. In reality, his body had given out. It had burnt too brightly and now he suffered the aftereffects like a candlewick struggling to hold onto a flame.

During his sparse moments of situational awareness, Kokichi kept his ears peeled. Sound travelled well; the walls were as thin as Sakakura’s skin. In the morning, he heard Tenko bellowing in the next apartment over and heard the others preparing themselves for the day. Soon he was able to identify them each by sound. Rantaro was perfectly silent and straight to the point, getting up, dressing at once, and then leaving. Ryoma took his time and always stood out on the balcony to get some fresh air. Kaito fussed with his appearance. Gonta, however, was the worst offender—maintaining a routine that involved stamping around, brushing his hair, fussing over his teeth, and making sure he looked ‘proper’. Why such a thing mattered in these times was beyond Kokichi’s understanding.

Rantaro would always check on him after getting some herbal tea to start his day. On the third day, Kokichi was startled awake when Rantaro put a hand to his forehead.

“It’s okay,” Rantaro said softly. “It’s just me. You can go back to sleep.”

Kokichi turned over and tried to do so.

“Are you sure he’s not sick?” Kaito asked.

“He doesn’t have a fever,” said Rantaro. “I think he’s just exhausted.”

“Hmph. He better not get sick while he’s in my bed.”

“Hey, at least he’s an easy houseguest.”

Kaito grumbled at that. “At this rate, this ‘houseguest’ is going to become a permanent addition...”

A chill rumbled down Kokichi's spine. He meant to stay awake to try to ponder up a few lies to keep them off his tail, but before he could do so, he was out again.

He knew that the worst thing for him was sleep. Memories would contort into a ghastly cacophony, drowning him in an overwhelming chorus of noise, stimulation, and hellish music. While he slept, nightmares clawed into him, leaving invisible scratches across his prone skin. Waking was the worst part, worse than the nightmares themselves, because he would wake up with his cell walls bleeding into his vision. He woke up struggling for air, drenched in sweat, unable to speak. He kept still, hoping to remain unnoticed, but that didn’t stop the nightmares from sniffing him out.

Rinse, repeat, go back for more.

He hadn’t dreamt at all when the Future Foundation had him custody. His mind was finally catching up on all the nightmares he should’ve had in those two years, the ones he’d pushed away. Maybe it was better to get it all over with. Kokichi told himself that each time he woke up and right before he fell back asleep again.

He wasn’t sure what night it was when he opened his eye and peered out. Where was he? A bedroom in some apartment or in his cell? Which one was the hallucination and which was real?

There was a hand on his shoulder.

Kokichi’s body reacted before his mind did. It was Sakakura. It had to be Sakakura, trying to take him for an interrogation or to bash his head against the wall a few times.

Not this time. He was going to get the jump on him.

Kokichi rushed forward and seized Sakakura by the throat.

He was surprised with the ease Sakakura’s entire body crumpled. Kokichi dug his thumbs into his windpipe, rolling it between his digits. Straddling Sakakura’s chest, he pressed tightly into his neck and savoured the way Sakakura writhed for air

Then, voices barked out of the silence.

“What the—fuck!”

“What going on?”

“Grab him! GRAB HIM!”

Several pairs of hands ensnared his body, grabbing his arms, his chest, his legs. They dug into him like the claws from his dreams.

“Let go of me!” Kokichi screamed at them. “Don’t fucking touch me!”

“You let him go first!” someone shouted in his ear.

“Not until he dies!”

“What for? You haven’t know Rantaro for long enough to have a reason to kill him.”

Rantaro?

Kokichi came to his senses.

This wasn’t his cell. And it wasn’t Sakakura whose neck he was squeezing.

It was Rantaro Amami, looking at him with a soft gaze, perfectly calm despite the life was being squeezed out of him.

Heat radiated up the length of his arm and stung his lower jaw. Kokichi’s hands snapped back, his elbow colliding with one of the individuals grabbing him. He pulled back so fast that the bed disappeared underneath him and he went careening to the floor.

From his position on the floor, he was able to see Kaito, Gonta, and Ryoma all rushing toward Rantaro.

“C’mon, breathe already!” Kaito shouted, shaking Rantaro’s shoulders.

Rantaro blinked slowly. For a heart-stopping second, no air came out of him. And then he let out a series of violent coughs. He turned over onto his side on the bed, struggling to catch his breath.

“Is Rantaro okay?” Gonta asked urgently, shivering with terror. “Does he need CPR? Gonta can do CPR!”

“He’ll be fine,” Kaito assured him. “He just needs some air. Don’t crowd around him!”

Rantaro let out a few more strained coughs and hissed, “I’m okay. Not the first time someone tried to strangle me.”

“Y’know that’s not a good thing, right?” Kaito said.

Assured that Rantaro was okay, Kaito rounded on Kokichi, igniting with rage. It was the first time Kokichi had gotten a good look at him and he was much leaner than he’d anticipated. All the same, the overwhelming loyalty and sense of duty to his friends was still present in his eyes. Kokichi wondered if that passion would cause him to self-destruct someday.

“So much for my plan to kill everyone while they slept,” Kokichi lied. “Boy, I sure messed that up, didn’t I?”

“You little...” Kaito hissed.

“Don’t bother, he’s lying,” Ryoma scoffed.

“What?”

“He’s lying. He had a nightmare and Rantaro was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Trust me, I saw this kind of thing happen all the time in prison.”

“You’re accusing me of lying?” Kokichi gasped. “That’s a horrible thing to say about a person! I totally meant to kill him!”

“Why would you lie about something like that?” Kaito demanded. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”

Kokichi didn’t answer. He gave Kaito a broad smile.

“Will you stop smiling?!” Kaito screeched. “It’s creeping me out!”

“Oh, sor-ry,” Kokichi sang. “I guess I forgot to tell all of you. I’m evil. I am a pure, unmitigated embodiment of villainy!”

“Huh?" Gonta frowned. "Gonta not understand. Gonta not think you look like bad person.”

“Then you’re stupid.” Kokichi snapped.

“Don’t call him that!” Kaito shouted. “Don’t ever call him that!”

"It's what he is, isn't he?"

“Gonta is smarter than you could ever hope to be!"

"How do you know? You don't even know me."

Ryoma fixed him with a firm stare. “You seem awfully determined to convince us that you’re evil.”

“Huh?” Kokichi rounded on him.

Ryoma had crawled over back to his cot and sat on it, rolling a cigarette candy between his fingers.

"Do you know what cats do when they feel threatened?" Ryoma asked. "They make themselves look bigger than they really are. Same logic applies in prison. Behind bars, people play up their reputations. The funny thing is that those who say they're evil usually have something to hide."

Ryoma's eyes, lucid and round, sprung out of the dark.

Ryoma stared at Kokichi with a strange concoction of quiet regard and great experience not befitting his young age. He didn’t blink when he said, “I wonder what your secret is.”

Chapter Text

He was on the floor.

Heart throbbing in his ears, Kokichi’s eyes sprang open and he felt more alert and coherent than he had in years. Senses ignited, detonating in fierce, colourful waves through his vision, making every aspect of his surroundings—from the nip of winter to the smell of cooked food—jump out in lurid detail.

Kokichi sat up, a blanket dropping off of him as he did so. He was sitting on the floor beside the bed he knew he should be in. When had he fallen asleep down here? He vaguely remembered a nightmare, his hands closing around Sakakura’s neck, the satisfaction of draining the life out of—

Oh.

Oh. Right.

Kokichi sighed and held his head in his hands. So much for staying under the radar. All that time in segregation hadn’t eliminated his need to be dramatic and find ways to be the centre of attention; maybe it had actually fuelled it. Either way, he’d have to try to keep the nightmares under control, even if he had to reach deep into his own mind and strangle the living daylights out of them. Better to strangle the nightmares than his hosts.

At least the students hadn’t tied him up, which is what Kokichi would’ve done if a house guest had attempted murder. He must’ve either drifted off or passed out after the incident, and the blanket draped over him indicated that someone had the audacity to care. Annoyance prickled deep in his empty stomach. The world had self-imploded and someone—whoever it was—was still holding onto archaic ideals like compassion. What good was that in this monster-of-a-place he’d been so desperate to crawl out to? Kokichi sat still for a long time, stewing in his self-pity for as long as he could allow himself before moving.

The bedroom was empty and the door was closed, while a single strand of cool daylight streaked through the window, Most natural light blocked by the high rise. Kokichi pulled off the blanket and left it where it was, crawling around on all fours. His stomach reminded him that he’d have to get something to eat soon, but as long as they thought he was asleep, it might be a good time to do some snooping. Possible plans of attack to deal with his situation swam through his head, and they all started the same way: through some good old-fashioned investigation.

Kokichi surveyed the room and picked the bedroom closet first, which had been left open. The interior shelves had been disassembled to make room for a cot, and that was where Kokichi found Ryoma's living space. He only knew that for certain because he vaguely remembered seeing him crawl into it.

In any case, the cot was exquisitely maintained, the blanket and pillow folded, and the only sign of personalization from a framed picture of a tabby cat. The picture was on top of a footlocker Ryoma appeared to be using as a side table. Kokichi took the photo out and flipped it over, but there wasn't anything written on the back. Disappointing. The footlocker didn’t contain anything aside from folded clothes and a tennis racket, certainly nothing that looked suspicious. That didn’t put Kokichi’s nerves at ease. The image of Ryoma’s eyes jumping out at him from the dark put him on edge.

Gonta occupied the twin bed in the corner. Like Ryoma, Kokichi didn’t find anything of particular interest, although when he looked underneath, he found countless glass jars. At first, he wasn’t sure what was in them, but when he saw something dark crawling inside, he recoiled and decided that Gonta was too stupid to have any good secrets.

Rantaro was next. He had a footlocker stuffed underneath his cot, though his was decidedly messier. His clothes were all jumbled about and he had a baggie filled with spare earrings, rings, and other jewelry. At the bottom of the locker was a photo album, and tucked inside were countless pictures of Rantaro with several girls. Girlfriends? No, some of them were too young to be in the dating range, unless Rantaro was more of a monster than he let on. Kokichi decided against it when he noted they all had the same avocado green hair, indicating that they must be family. He tucked that information away in his mind under the the heading ‘possibly useful information’.

Kokichi righted himself, kicked Rantaro’s footlocker back under his cot, and headed back to the queen. Kaito usually slept there, right?

As he headed back, he passed the cot Kaito had been occupying since he’d come to the apartment.

His eyes wandered across a small dark spot on the pillow.

At first, Kokichi thought it was just a stain, seeing as cleanliness wasn't a huge priority in these parts. Then he noticed the red.

He stopped dead in his tracks. Brow furrowing, he examined the pillow closely. Sure enough, it was a small fleck of red, the unmistakable shade of blood. Where had that come from? Was Kaito injured? He hadn’t noticed anything.

Kokichi took the pillow and turned it over and—

He nearly dropped it.

There as a sizable bloodstain on it, splattered and haphazard like a clumsy splash on an abstract painting. What the hell? What-the-actual-hell.

Kokichi put the pillow back the way he found it and rubbed his chin. Interesting.

When he peeked under the queen, he found a footlocker with Kaito's name plastered across the side. He seized it and pulled it out.

Padlocked. What was something only a little bit interesting suddenly became a lot more so.

“Well, well, well,” Kokichi murmured. “Got something to hide, Kaito?”

He slid it back under the bed and made a mental note to get some picks.

A baritone voice barked out, “Snooping around?”

Kokichi rammed his head on the bed frame. Scrambling out, he found that Ryoma had opened the door and leaned against the frame, small hands shoved deep in his pockets.

“I’m looking for a map,” Kokichi said.

Ryoma squinted, the half-truth not settling with him. He jerked his head toward the primary living space.

Kokichi pulled on his discarded jacket and followed Ryoma to the kotatsu. The leftovers of breakfast were still scattered around, but no one else was in the apartment. Ryoma gestured for him to sit, which he did, and he pulled over a half-finished bowl of rice and started shovelling it in.

Ryoma returned a second later, sat beside him, and spread out a map of the city. It was already marked up with a few crosses.

“Where are we?” Kokichi asked, quickly and urgently.

Ryoma indicated a small building outside of the city centre. Kokichi put a cross over it.

“Where’s the refugee camp?”

Wordlessly, Ryoma indicated what had been a park about four blocks away. Kokichi outlined the park and wrote ‘camp’ inside of it.

“You’re planning something,” said Ryoma.

“Nah, I’m flying by the seat of my pants here,” Kokichi lied. He indicated the map. “I’m keeping this, by the way.”

“Fine.”

Kokichi kept shovelling rice in his mouth while he examined the map. He’d lucked out. Back in DICE’s glory days, Tokyo had been home to two safe houses, including their primary headquarters and a secondary hideout that they’d used for storage. Going to the primary hideout was not an option. Just the thought of the place threw him back into unwanted memories, ones filled with blood and guts and gore and the cold calculation on Izayoi’s ugly face. Fortunately, the secondary hideout was in walking distance of the apartment, and he didn't think Izayoi ever found it. If the security measures were still in place, it should still be intact. He could pick up what supplies he needed there and work out his options.

He finished the rice, pushed it aside, and grabbed a second bowl.

There was nothing for it. He’d have to leave the country, go somewhere where the Future Foundation didn’t have a large presence. But how to do that? Air? Sea? Magical teleportation? Did the Future Foundation have that kind of technology?

Kokichi ran a finger over his forehead and cursed how thoroughly ignorant he was, how deeply he’d been cut off while in segregation. If he'd been a good little prisoner, they would've been more lenient and he could've gotten more information about the outside, planned his move a little better, been a little more calculating and a little less desperate.

There was no changing the past.

Going on his third bowl, Kokichi looked up and realized that Ryoma was watching him far too closely.

“What?” Kokichi demanded. “If you’re gonna sit there and be useless, go get me a Panta. I need brain juice.”

“No,” said Ryoma.

“Well, it’s not gonna get itself. Go get me Panta!”

“Stop whining.”

“I’m not whining!” Kokichi whined shrilly.

“Ugh, if you’re going to reach that volume, then fine.”

Ryoma got up, grabbed a Panta from the cupboard, and returned. He held it out of Kokichi’s reach.

“Say ‘please’,” he said.

“Hand it over or I’ll kill you,” said Kokichi.

Ryoma rolled his eyes but tossed it over. As Kokichi opened the bottle, he turned over the map. The back was blank and ripe to be written on.

“What year were you in at Hope’s Peak?” Kokichi asked. “77th? 78th?”

“79th,” said Ryoma.

“79th, huh?” Kokichi mulled it over in his head. That was a weird coincidence. Nevertheless, he wrote ‘79'ers’ across the top and underlined it several times.

"'79'ers'?" Ryoma repeated.

"You said you were in the 79th class," said Kokichi. "So, you're 79'ers. Also, it's rude to snoop."

"You're a hypocrite."

"It's only hypocrisy if someone else does it. I'm a special case."

"Well, I knew that, but I don't think you're special in the way you seem to think you are. I'm gonna regret asking, but what are you doing?"

“Makin’ notes,” Kokichi answered. “If I’m gonna be hanging around you Hope’s Peak losers, I’m gonna have to take notes. Now give me a rundown on your talents.”

“You’re making a lot of demands.”

“You got something to hide?”

Ryoma crunched on his candy cigarette, completely and thoroughly unreadable even to Kokichi.

“Fine,” said Ryoma. “I’m the Ultimate Tennis Pro, Rantaro’s the Ultimate Adventurer, and Gonta’s the Ultimate Entomologist.”

Tennis pro. That explained the racket, although Kokichi mentally noted that it didn’t look like the racket had been recently used. Nevertheless, he scribbled down the names and their corresponding talents.

“Lemme guess—Tenko’s talent has something to do with aikido?” Kokichi surmised, remembering how she'd thrown Gonta off of the balcony.

“Yeah, She’s the Ultimate Aikido Master. And Kaede’s the Ultimate Pianist and Kaito’s the Ultimate Astronaut.”

“The Ultimate Astronaut?” Kokichi cocked an eyebrow. “Really? That moron is the Ultimate Astronaut?”

Ryoma gave him a hard, cold glare.

“Yeesh, no need to get all touchy about it,” said Kokichi.

Ryoma sighed. “Give me that.”

Ryoma pulled the map out of his hands and turned it back over. Taking the pencil, he drew a fat outline around a few square blocks, outlining a whole neighbourhood.

“You don’t want to go past this point,” said Ryoma. “The Future Foundation runs this whole area, and by ‘run’ I mean they provide protection, food, medicine, and other humanitarian resources. Past this, you have factions trying to get control of the city.”

“I know that,” Kokichi lied.

“Sure you do. Then you also know that some of those factions sympathize with the Remnants of Despair. You know who the Remnants are, right?”

“Duh. Everyone knows who the Remnants are.”

“Well, you sure didn’t seem to know much when Kaede brought you here. She said you didn’t even know what the killing game was.”

“That was a lie. I’m a liar, after all. I totally know what the killing game is.”

“Okay, so what is it?”

“You tell me first so I know that you know. After all, anyone who can’t say what the killing game is has to be super suspicious.”

They glared challengingly at each other.

“Forget it, you may think you have the upper hand now, but sooner or later this little game you’re playing’s gonna come back to bite you in the ass,” Ryoma said. “Point being, if you leave the neighbourhood, you’re entering a war zone where the Future Foundation, the Remnants, and their respective sympathizers volley for control. You got some other safe neighbourhoods dotted across the city, but we’re pretty isolated out here, so unless you go out there with a tank or a bulletproof jacket, then I suggest you don’t go out at all.”

Perfect. If the Future Foundation didn’t control the whole city, then their efforts to locate him would be hampered. It went both ways, however.

Kokichi pulled the map away from Ryoma so that he couldn’t see it and drew a small square over the old DICE storage hideout. It was outside of the designated safe zone. How bad could it really be out there?

“So when are you leaving?” Ryoma asked.

“Huh?” Kokichi looked up.

“When are you leaving?” Ryoma reiterated.

Kokichi shrugged. “Maybe I feel like sticking around for a while. Maybe I like it here.”

“You look like you’re ready to bolt at the drop of a pin.”

“Who wouldn’t? This place sucks.”

“If you feel that way, then leave.”

“Hey, I'm not one to take instructions from short assholes like you.”

Finishing off the Panta and the rice, Kokichi went to the kitchen and fished out some extra granola bars in case he got hungry later.

“Where’s Gonta?” Kokichi asked. He didn’t bother trying to sound casual; he wouldn’t be able to conceal his ulterior motives from this jackass.

And, just as Kokichi expected, Ryoma asked, “Why?”

“I want to play tag.”

“What?”

“Tag. It’s a game where you—”

“I know what it is!”

“So where’s Gonta?”

“Why do you want to ‘play’ with him?”

“Because he’s not as boring as the rest of you. Ah, if you’re gonna be stubborn, I’ll go find him myself.”

Kokichi headed out the front door and no sooner had he done so when he found Ryoma right on his tail.

When he’d first arrived at the apartment, he’d been too overcome by physical and mental exhaustion to survey his surroundings. Now he was on high alert, eager to make up for lost time. The streets were winding, cramped, neglected, and covered in a dusting of snow. Down one end, Kokichi saw a crowd of people gathered at the end of the street—that must be the public washrooms the Future Foundation allegedly ran. Down the other, a few locals darted between the buildings and didn't pay him any mind. Lined along the sidewalk were naked trees, stock still like large twigs someone had rammed into the ground, instead of living, breathing organisms.

It wasn’t hard to spot Gonta; he towered over everything and everyone. He was inspecting one of the trees down the street. Kokichi hurried up to him.

“Hey, Gonta!” Kokichi called.

Gonta looked up. “Oh, you’re awake! Gonta relieved that you’re okay.”

“Of course I’m okay, why wouldn’t I be?” Kokichi shrugged. “But now I’m bored. Wanna play with me?”

“Huh? Oh, uh, Gonta bit busy right now. Maybe later?”

“How can you be busy? You can’t possibly be busy if you’re not doing something to my benefit.”

“Gonta is rescuing bugs and giving them safe place. If Gonta doesn’t, then people eat them, and that not good... ”

Well, that explained the jars under his bed. “C’mon, playing with me is way more interesting.”

“Aren’t you a little old to be playing kids’ games?” Ryoma asked.

“You’re never too old for games!” Kokichi proclaimed. He seized Gonta’s forearm and tugged. “C’mon, play with me! Please, please, please?”

“Well—”

Kokichi smacked his arm. “Tag, you’re it!”

Giggling manically, Kokichi took off running. To his complete and utter relief, Gonta was willing to play along. By the time he reached the end of the street, he realized that both Gonta and Ryoma were chasing after him, though for different reasons he suspected.

Kokichi went over the map in his head. They were a few blocks from the nearest checkpoint separating the neighbourhood from the rest of Tokyo, and that checkpoint would be crawling with the Future Foundation ‘peacekeeping’ forces. He couldn’t go through that way. Was the subway an option? It had served him well during his escape, but it’d be crawling with extra security by now. No, he wouldn’t risk that. There were other ways with Gonta on his side.

First order of business was to ditch the unwanted shadow in the form of Ryoma Hoshi.

Kokichi chose his path carefully, navigating through the streets, being sure to stay out of Gonta and Ryoma’s reach while making it difficult for the Ultimate Tennis Pro to keep pace. Ryoma was fast—much faster than he’d anticipated. He chose twisted alleys, hurrying past confused civilians and ducking past Future Foundation soldiers. This was his natural habitat: being pursued, being light on his feet, having a good time. Because for the first time in a long time, he actually felt exhilarated about being chased. He was being pursued on his own terms, not because of a miscalculation, but because he had a goal to achieve.

His feet skidding across the wet snow, Kokichi found a street full of shops and vendors. It was almost like some weird flea market—almost a sliver of the old world found in this new, strange one. There was a notable crowd pressing in around him, so he slowed to a crawl as he wound his way between the people throwing their demure voices into the chilled sky. He peered around and saw that the vendors were selling everything from scrap metal to old luxuries such as televisions, things that the Future Foundation didn't regulate.

Behind him, he heard Gonta calling out for him. He’d be here soon. Kokichi ducked beside one of one of the stalls and waited. It was easy to see Gonta parting the crowd, his green hair bobbing above all the rest.

Kokichi waited until he was right beside him.

His hand snapped out and he seized Gonta’s arm, dragging him into an adjacent alley. He doubled back down the alley, his boots splashing in puddles, the low rumble of voices going quiet. Glancing over his shoulder, he didn’t see any sign of pursuit from Ryoma.

“Oh, is the game over?” Gonta asked. “Did Gonta win?”

“Eh, I’m bored of tag,” said Kokichi. “I want to play something else now.”

“What do you—”

Kokichi waved him off and put his fingers to his lips as they reached the end of the alley. He peered out. No Ryoma.

He wasn’t about to take a chance. Not relinquishing his grip on Gonta, he led him further away from the street, sticking to the side and the shadows. With luck, Gonta’s impossibly large presence wouldn’t attract Ryoma’s attention. By now he had to be looking for them.

“Hey, Gonta,” Kokichi went on. “How’d you like to go on an adventure with me?”

“An adventure?” said Gonta.

“Yeah, I got somewhere I need to go, somewhere outside of the neighbourhood.”

“Outside the neighbourhood? You mean...not near Future Foundation? But it bad to go out there!”

“How bad could it be? I bet it's just a government conspiracy to keep us all in here!”

“No, no, no! That not it at all! Gonta has been out there and it not nice at all—there are people hurting each other!”

“It’s not like I want to move out there,” Kokichi waved his hand dismissively. “I just need to visit my old pad and grab my stuff.”

“Gonta not think it worth it.”

“Yeah, but this is like—important stuff. Like, mementos. You wouldn’t rob me of my precious mementos, would you? Things like family photos? Don’t you have anything special that reminds you of your family?”

Gonta frowned slightly, but Kokichi knew he’d already won him over.

“Gonta not think it safe,” said Gonta.

“That’s why I want you to come with me for protection,” Kokichi cooed. “There’s no way anything bad’ll happen if we stick together.”

“Gonta still not think it good idea...but...Gonta not want you to get hurt...”

With that, he knew he had Gonta—hook, line, and sinker. Feeling a rush of excitement, Kokichi pulled Gonta down and scrambled up him like a spider to perch on his shoulders.

“YES!” Kokichi exclaimed. He pointed ahead. “Onward, my noble steed!”

“Gonta not a steed,” said Gonta. “Gonta is Gonta.”

“Yes! Yes, you are. Now let’s move. I got a schedule, y’know.”

“Okay, Juzo.”

“It’s Kyosuke. Let’s go—mush, mush!”

Gonta drew himself to his full height and the sudden rush made Kokichi dizzy, forcing him to grab tightly onto Gonta’s hair. If it hurt him, he didn’t complain as he started down the street at Kokichi’s instruction.

Perched on his shoulders, Kokichi saw that the world was a lot smaller and that Gonta must be quite a fearless person, simply because there was nothing to fear when you were the size of a tank.

He envied that invulnerability.


Kokichi guided Gonta through the labyrinth of snow-covered, desolate streets, perched on top of his shoulders with the map laid out on top of Gonta's head. Wherever they went, Kokichi marked landmarks on the map, from buildings that appeared to be occupied to a makeshift barracks for Future Foundation soldiers. Their path went unhindered. With his hood pulled far over his head, Kokichi kept his head bowed whenever the soldiers came near, but the lack of urgency about them made him think that Munakata was keeping his escape a secret. Was Kokichi Oma even a widely-known name? He wondered if he could risk asking Gonta, but decided against it—gullible as he was, he wasn’t going to risk him letting slip the name.

Getting out of the neighbourhood was surprisingly easy. The major roads were blocked by checkpoints, with other points of entry were just blocked with scrap fences and debris. These other exits were unguarded, so it was only a matter of climbing over and not looking back.

Outside the neighbourhood, the streets were quiet and the signs of recent life evaporated, replaced by the distant pop-pop-pop of gunfire contrasting against winter’s absolute stillness. Gonta waded through thick snow, talking aimlessly but quietly about his favourite type of insects. The conversation bored Kokichi to tears, to the point where he considered suicide by throwing himself off of Gonta’s shoulders, but at least he could feign interest while marking landmarks on his map. He even drew a doodle of him stabbing himself in the eyes just to get out of this conversation.

When even doodling had exhausted its interest to him, Kokichi grabbed onto Gonta’s thick mane of hair. He smelt strongly of the earth and the wild and the unknown. Despite being so rigorous with his morning routine, there was no taming this unruly mass growing out of his head. Looking closer, Kokichi thought he saw objects stuck deep inside, but no matter how hard to tried to get through, he couldn’t see what it was. Not without a flashlight, anyway.

Gonta jostled underneath him. Kokichi jerked forward and almost went flying, cushioned only by Gonta’s mane.

“Watch it!” Kokichi snapped. “I’m a very important person, y’know. If I get injured, a whole bunch’a people’ll kill you.”

“Oh, Gonta sorry!”

“Yeah, you should be. Now keep moving!”

“Sorry, Gonta has to be careful,” said Gonta, peering around a street corner. “Used to be snipers here. Not sure if they still here.”

“Snipers?” Suddenly Kokichi got very weary about being so high. “Eh, I’m sure if they see who I am, they’ll stop.”

“You really important person?”

“Would I lie to you?”

“Gonta not think so. Gonta not think you bad person and only bad people lie. Although Gonta would still like to know your name...”

“I’ve already said my name: it’s either Kyosuke or Juzo.”

“But those not your real name.”

“Eh, maybe I’m just borrowing them for a bit—or maybe that’s a lie and one of those is my actual name.”

“Gonta not understand...”

“So stop trying to and march!”

“Gonta not sure where he is going.”

“Keep walking in this direction and I’ll tell you when to stop, stupidhead.”

Kokichi turned over his map and examined the list of names on the back. At the bottom, he added Kirumi and Shuichi’s names. He bit his lower lip and decided to take the risk of asking.

“Hey, do you know anyone named Shuichi, by chance?” Kokichi asked.

“Gonta knew Shuichi at Hope’s Peak,” Gonta said fondly. Kokichi couldn’t see his face, but the smile carried on his tone. “Shuichi was classmate. He very nice. Why you ask? Do you know Shuichi too?”

“Nah, I was just thinking about how common of a name it is,” Kokichi lied. “Kinda like Kirumi.”

“Oh! Gonta knew Kirumi too! She was also classmate.” Gonta sighed. “Gonta miss Hope’s Peak. If it was still open, Gonta and his friends would be graduating this year, and now Gonta not even get to graduate from high school. It important to Gonta to get good education. Hope that world goes back to normal soon so Gonta can go back to school.”

“School, schmool. It’s overrated. Look at me—I never went to school, and I turned out fine.”

“You no go to school? But how you learn to read and write?”

“The voices in my head, natch.”

“Oh, Gonta see! They must be smart voices.”

While they were talking, Kokichi added Kirumi and Shuichi’s talents to the list. They’d all been in the same class together, but why would Kirumi act so coldly toward Shuichi?

As curious as it was, Kokichi realized that it wasn’t relevant to him—not as long as he kept out of the Future Foundation’s hands and executed his vague plan to get out of the country. He settled for making something up, like they were feuding exes planning to murder each other. It was probably way more interesting than the reality, anyway.

They were only a block from their intended destination when Gonta stopped short and, again, peered around the corner.

The sharp pop of a gunshot sounded in the distance. Gonta recoiled so quickly Kokichi fell off his shoulders and into the snow, as a thick bullet hole appearing on the opposite wall.

“Ah,” said Gonta. “There sniper.”

“Who the fuck are they trying to kill?!” Kokichi demanded, more irritated than afraid.

“Um, Gonta not sure. If they have Monokuma helmets, then they work for Remnants. But...not all of them have helmets—some don’t, some do—and other people just like shooting and hurting people.”

“Mono-what helmets?”

Gonta peered over his shoulder to where Kokichi had fallen, brows pinched toward a spot between his eyes. Kokichi was beginning to hate that you-should-know-this frown.

More importantly, the old hideout was right down the street where the sniper had a clear line of sight.

Perfect. Just perfect. Still, rather than give into his frustration, Kokichi felt a rush of renewed resolve; he hadn’t come this far to be chased off by some two-bit sniper trying to land a headshot. Shoving Gonta out of the way, Kokichi sidled to the corner and peered around, enough to get a good layout of the area.

The hideout was about one-quarter of the way down the road, but even then it was quite a distance to go without risking taking some flak. Fortunately, there were plenty of obstacles that would obscure the sniper’s vision, from overturned vehicles to staircases leading to doorways to what looked like abandoned military installations. Kokichi’s heart seized when he saw swathes of blood and a dark lump in the snow that looked suspiciously like a fresh kill.

Kokichi pulled back as a bullet rocketed off of the wall near his head, taking a bite out of the concrete.

“You stay here,” Kokichi told Gonta. “I got this.”

“W—Wait, it too dangerous!” Gonta exclaimed.

Now danger was something that had never stopped him.

Kokichi poked his head out again and pulled back in time for another bullet to ricochet off the building. In his mind, he imagined the sniper reloading the gun in slow motion, like a movie climax where the villain was prepared to take out the daring hero with a single shot. Playing the image in his mind, Kokichi darted out and bolted to the nearest cover—a staircase leading into an apartment building. He dove behind it just in time as the crack of the gun whizzed overhead. Even though it landed nowhere near him, Kokichi felt it. He felt the heat of the bullet, the graze of the metal, the sharp snap as it rocketed off of a metallic surface.

Whoever the hell this sniper was, he was a good shot. Just not good enough. There was an air of impatience with the way they fired. When Kokichi pictured snipers, he pictured a phlegmatic, serene soldier, poised and prepared. This person had an air of desperation. They took the shoot too soon.

To test his theory, Kokichi didn’t wait for the reload. He darted out and snaked across the street to an overturned truck. The shot cracked out far too soon again and collided with the ground right behind him as he dove for cover. Scrambling to his feet, he assessed the distance and relaxed slightly. If the sniper was impatient, then they were incompetent—good news for him, anyway.

But an idiot with a weapon was almost a greater danger than an experienced soldier. Kokichi reminded himself of that when he saw Gonta follow his lead and rush toward the staircase.

“Hey, wait!” Kokichi called. “You dumbass! I told you not to move!”

The soldier in Kokichi’s mind poised his gun and aimed it at Gonta.

Gonta moved far too slowly. Kokichi’s breath caught. If Gonta died out here, he wouldn’t be able to return to the Hope’s Peak students and plan his next move.

Any minute now, Gonta would die.

Kokichi crouched low and covered his ears, held his breath, steeled himself.

The shot didn’t come.

Kokichi startled. He kept motionless as Gonta crouched behind the staircase, not quite able to  fullyconceal himself behind it. The reload should’ve come by now. Had the gun jammed? Even if it had, a skilled sniper should be able to clear it.

Still, the shot didn’t come.

Gonta glanced to where the sniper was supposed to be and darted to the overturned truck to join Kokichi.

“I told you to stay over there,” Kokichi chastised him.

“Gonta not want to be on adventure anymore,” said Gonta. “Gonta think we should go home.”

“I am going home,” Kokichi snapped. “If you wanna get shot, that’s your decision, just don’t go blamin’ me when you’re bleeding out on the ground.”

Kokichi hurtled out to the next point of shelter, this time the exterior of a restaurant. He barely managed to duck into the doorway, making himself as small as possible, when the bullet hit a nearby patio chair. One recoil later, and another slammed into the wall, leaving behind an ugly scar.

Gonta once more messed up his timing, coming out as the sniper would be prepared to take another shot. But again, the shot didn’t come.

What the hell?

Gonta made it to the doorway, though he was so massive he stuck out in the open. Any reasonable sniper would try to make a shot at him, but when none came, Kokichi knew that they were specifically targeting him. Maybe they didn’t like his jacket. It gave Kokichi an idea about how to progress faster down the street.

“Okay, since you’re gonna be a pain and follow me around, you might as well make yourself useful,” said Kokichi. “I’m gonna hide behind you and you’re gonna lead the way to that alley over there.”

“B—But what about sniper?” Gonta asked, sweat beading on his forehead.

“It’ll be fine! They’re out of bullets.”

“What? You sure?”

“Absolutely! I’ve been counting. They’re out of bullets by now.”

“Oh! If they out of bullets, then it safe to walk in open!”

“Yeah, but let’s not test our luck, shall we? So get out there and protect me!”

Gonta hesitantly stepped into the open. No gunshots. No movement. Kokichi ducked behind him. Resting a hand on Gonta's lower back, he pushed him toward the alley, heart pounding in his chest, seconds seemingly dragging on for hours. Beneath his fingers, Kokichi felt Gonta’s muscles tense and contract. The slightest movement gave Kokichi an impression of absolute power; this was a guy who could handle himself, though he shivered like a lost child. Overhead, the sniper was silent.

“Are they even still up there?” Kokichi asked.

“Gonta think so,” said Gonta. “Gonta can see someone moving on top of building.”

Somehow that didn’t set Kokichi’s nerves at ease. He preferred to have his enemies where he could see them, but not now. Right now he willed the sniper to give up their incessant quest and leave him be.

They managed to reach the alley without incident, and Kokichi made sure to get Gonta to enter sideways so that he was still protected by his massive bulk. When they were finally out of sight, he released his grip, not noticing how tightly he’d been holding on until that point. In the shelter of the alley, he released the breath he’d been holding and looked down into a cramped space barely large enough for a single person to go down.

Ignoring Gonta’s inquisitive stare, Kokichi headed down the alley, swallowing the bubble of fear lodged in his throat. Anything could’ve happened in two years. The entrance could’ve been exposed and the place raided. A bomb could’ve blown the whole building apart. But when he headed down, he saw the sign on the wall: the DICE insignia. Kokichi had thought about it a lot, but seeing it in person again nearly did him in right then and there, and he stood, frozen, not quite able to muster the motivation to move. Too shocked, too emotional, too terrified to do anything except stare at it.

“Um, you live here?” Gonta said from behind him.

“Huh?” Kokichi shook himself out of his daze. “Well, not in this exact spot, dummy. I have a super secret hideout for super secret activities.”

“You do? Like...a cave?”

“Yeah, sure, why not.”

Kokichi approached the emblem and focused on the left diamond. Dissected down the middle, the right side contained an image of an eye with a teardrop and the left had an image of a smiling face with a cross for an eye. Kokichi pressed the teardrop, the cross, the smile, and finally the eye on the right face. Finally, he pressed his hand flat against the ‘e’ in the right diamond.

The machinery concealing the door may as well have been an ancient tomb with the way it groaned, the gears grinding together with a sharp, painful noise. Gonta leapt back and hit the opposite wall, eyes widening behind his glasses. It swung inwards and revealed a thick square of black.

“Welcome to my domain,” Kokichi sang, outstretching his arms.

Kokichi stepped into the darkness. The light flickered before coming on in force, though not to their previous strength, and then it reflected off of a metal pole that descended down a dark tunnel leading underneath. Latching onto the pole, Kokichi slid down with ease.

Florescent lights illuminated his path. As he fell, darkness was intersected by blinding light that changed colour, and the movement ruffled his hair and blew off his hood. When his feet hit the metal platform at the bottom of the shaft, he was sorry that the journey was over. He was forced to move when he sensed a weight above him and Gonta crashed into the ground.

Kokichi shrugged him off and hit the light switch next to the entrance. Rows of lights flicked on above him in thick bars, one at a time, revealing a cramped storehouse filled to the brim with crates filled every corner save for a small alley down the middle. The ceiling was low, so Gonta was forced to duck in order to fit.

“Don’t move from that spot while I get my stuff," Kokichi ordered Gonta.

“Uh, okay...”

“I mean it! Don’t move!”

Kokichi pointed two fingers to his eyes then pointed them to Gonta.

He headed down the makeshift walkway to the back of the storeroom. This had originally been their headquarters, long before they’d moved into the larger place where—well. Where it had happened. Back in the day, this had been the ideal location because they'd all been kids, but when some of the DICE members hit puberty and shot up a few feet, it became difficult to stay put. After that, they'd started using this one as a warehouse for leftover supplies.

Kokichi was searching for a particular crate, one he’d stored here in case of an emergency. He found it rammed in the back of the storage room, his name scrawled on the side in his clumsy handwriting.

Prying it open, he found his stuff folded neatly inside, including a spare DICE uniform and the checkerboard scarf, as well as a cape and military hat he used to parade around in. Underneath it was a bundle of his preferred picks, his old mask, a pack of balloons, and a rubber chicken.

Well, there was nothing for it.

Kokichi stared long and hard at his old uniform, debating whether it take it with him. But there were too many old memories tied to it, too much trauma, too much feeling. He set it aside and only took the scarf instead, wrapping it up underneath his jacket to provide some extra insulation. Kokichi took the rest of his stuff and shoved them into his pockets, save for the cape and military hat. Too many ghosts in those. He took a second to give them a forlorn gaze, memories threatening to overwhelm him, yet only succeeding in inspiring a sense of unease deep in his belly.

He pulled the skeleton jacket back on and returned to the entrance and—

There was no Gonta.

Dammit.

Kokichi looked around and found Gonta looking in one of the nearby crates.

“Hey, you’re shitty at taking orders, y’know that?” said Kokichi.

He went silent when Gonta pulled back and Kokichi saw what was in the crate.

Shit, he’d completely forgotten. Izayoi had found some of the stolen weapons from the Future Foundation when he’d first raided them, but they’d already moved some to this place. Now Kokichi saw a slew of guns, still in their original shipment packaging, neatly arranged in the crate.

“What you doing with guns?” Gonta asked. “People get hurt with guns.”

“Those aren’t guns,” Kokichi lied.

“They are too!”

“Those aren’t guns,” Kokichi insisted. “Those are...toys.”

“They look real to Gonta.”

“No way! These are toy guns that...just happen to fire real bullets.”

“Toy guns that fire real bullets?” Gonta tapped his chin.

Kokichi held his breath, the countless possibilities for lies swirling around him.

None of them were necessary when Gonta smiled, “That okay, then!”

“Damn straight it is,” Kokichi gave him a reassuring grin. “These toy guns will bring happiness to children everywhere as soon as this whole Tragedy thing is called off. For now, let’s get out of here before you go snooping around some more.

“Ah! Gonta is sorry he snooped. Gonta was worried.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s all forgiven—let’s go.”

Kokichi shepherded Gonta back to the pole. Once he was in place, he hit the elevator button under the light switch and the floor jostled up the shaft.

“This good place to hide,” Gonta noted. “You not stay?”

“Well, there’s no bathroom, so,” Kokichi shrugged.

“Hmm, that good reason. Gonta miss having good bathrooms. Future Foundation one okay, but can be dirty and lots of people there. Think it might be thing Gonta misses most. What you miss?”

“Huh? Me? I don’t miss anything. I like this whole Tragedy stuff a lot better and thinking about stuff that happened before it isn’t gonna make it come back.”

The elevator shuddered to a stop and they stepped out into the alley. The door slid shut behind them and the emblem reset itself. Kokichi hoped he would never have to look at it again.

“Thinking about stuff before Tragedy make Gonta sad, too,” said Gonta.

“I’m not sad. I’m as happy as a clam, except for hanging out with you Hope’s Peak losers. I’d be happier if you all died so I could have your stuff.”

“Gonta not sure where he would be if friends not help,” Gonta reflected. “It sad when Gonta see people who don’t have anyone to look out for them. Do you have no one who’s looking for you right now?”

“Ugh, there’s no point in talking about stupid stuff,” Kokichi said sharply. “You’re boring me, y’know. I don’t like to be bored.”

“But Gonta worried about new friend—worried that your family is looking for you and they don’t know where you are!”

“‘Friends?’” Kokichi repeated, cocking an eyebrow. “Aren’t we gettin’ a little too familiar here?”

Gonta looked at him evenly and said, “You have nightmares.”

Kokichi cackled. “Have nightmares? Gonta, I am a nightmare.”

“Gonta not understand what you mean by that, but you have bad dreams since you come to stay with us. Rest of us have trouble sleeping because you keep waking up. Gonta wants to help bad dreams go away...know all about having bad dreams. Used to have them all the time when Tragedy begin, because Gonta couldn’t go back to family and see if they were okay. Still don’t know if they were okay. If not for friends, then Gonta would be sad.”

“Okay, I’ll bite,” said Kokichi, spreading his hands out. “You’re right, Gonta, I’m having nightmares. I’m having nightmares because I have to be in proximity to the rest of you—that, alone, is nightmare-inducing. And F-Y-I, not all of us were having happy fun times with our friends during the Tragedy. Some of us were doing productive things, like making toy guns that shoot real bullets and whatever.”

Kokichi paced from one end of the alley and back to Gonta, rage flickering through him like a three-alarm fire.

“Where the hell do you get off sticking your nose into my business?” Kokichi went on. “We’re not ‘friends’. You don’t even know my name!”

“But—But your name Juzo—”

“IT’S KYOSUKE!”

“Gonta sorry!”

“Stop apologizing!” Kokichi shouted. “Oh, for fuck’s sake?! How are you still alive when you’re this stupid?! That was obviously a lie! Even stupid people should know that was a lie, but your IQ’s so low it doesn’t even register!”

“Gonta sorry!”

Fury. Kokichi's breath shot out in angry spurts, and the depth of the fury surprised him. It didn't creep up, it didn't stew, it didn't simmer, it exploded from inside of him and wanted nothing more than to lash at Gonta, to strike him with a good dose of reality.

And then with a breakneck change of direction, the fury died when Kokichi saw through his own rage and realized with a pang that Gonta truly, sincerely, honestly, was going to apologize no matter how harshly he insulted him or how poisonous his words were. It wasn't even a fake apology—the type of apology-lie people said to diffuse a situation and didn't mean.

Gonta meant it. And that terrified him.

Kokichi had seen liar after liar, seen Juzo lie to himself, seen Munakata lie to have him convicted, and seen Kirumi fabricate a lie against her own supposed friend. The lies weren't what sickened him, however. What sickened him were the lies that were readily accepted, the lies that people knew were lies and didn't call out. Gonta was apologizing, and the scary thing was that he meant it. He was sorry for what he perceived to be an error on his part and not on Kokichi's, although this wasn't the case in the slightest.

How. The hell. Was this guy able to be this honest? Kokichi wasn’t sure whether to respect, fear, or admire him for that.

“Kokichi.”

Gonta's not-unkind frown intensified. “Huh?”

Kokichi wasn’t the only one surprised by who spoke. It was him. And he was telling Gonta his name for some undefinable reason. The moment he tried to figure out why, his brain locked him out and refused him entry. It taunted him, saying 'figure this one out yourself, dumbass'.

“My name,” he elaborated. “It’s Kokichi.”

Gonta’s face exploded. A prominent smile, one easy on the eyes and the soul, took over the lower have of his face, while his intense red eyes crinkled with glee. The look, steady and absolute, didn’t waver as he held out a hand to Kokichi, and with a pang, he realized that it was the most honest look he’d had directed to him in a long time.

Very much against his well, Kokichi admitted to himself that it was a nice change.

“Nice to meet you, Kokichi,” said Gonta. “Gonta is Gonta Gokuhara, but you know that.”

Kokichi didn’t take the hand. He smacked it away. “Telling you my name was a formality. If you ever get the balls to curse my name, now you can do it.”

He didn’t take the time to analyze Gonta’s expression; he had a feeling he wouldn’t be happy with the results. Kokichi turned on his heel and headed out of the alley with the Ultimate Entomologist uncomfortably close.

“Don’t walk so close to me,” said Kokichi. “And by the way, if you tell anyone else my name, I’ll—”

Kokichi never got a chance to tell Gonta about the tortures he would inflict on him if he shared his name with anyone else.

Because that’s when blinding pain slammed into his shoulder blade.

The force punched through him. His body arched as he was thrown to the ground. He thought he had an out-of-body experience then, looking down on the scene from a downward perspective. He curved perfectly, the scream ripping out of him, his eyes widening, his pupils dilating, all perfect reactions to the perfect amount of stabbing pain that skewered his body.

Darkness clouded his vision. When it cleared, he realized that he’d landed flat on the snow and a thick liquid was ran over his right arm. Shifting, Kokichi saw a flicker of dark red splattered across the snow.

Oh. That wasn’t good.

“Kokichi!” Gonta was shouting. “Kokichi! Are you okay?”

Gonta’s hand brushed his side. The contact sent his mind to full alert and he shuffled upwards, adrenaline coursing through his veins so hard that he didn’t even register pain from what he knew had to be a grizzly wound.

“I’m fine—don’t touch me,” he said. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten about the sniper. “I meant to do that.”

Kokichi fumbled for his shoulder, desperate to get an assessment of the injury before he passed out or died from blood loss. To his relief, he realized that the bullet had only grazed him, slicing through the top of his right shoulder. One centimetre more and it would’ve actually caused some serious damage. There was an ugly rip in the coat soaked in fresh blood—a small price to pay for his life.

Kokichi turned—and he turned to see the perpetrator emerging from the white mist that had settled in the area. Like a ghost, she moved silently over the snow. His heart quickened.

The girl was young—much younger than he thought even the most rudimentary sniper should be. Her dark hair was fixed into two buns at the base of her head and her red eyes contrasted with the white encasing her. More importantly, she was armed to the teeth. Her sniper rifle was strapped to her back and she held a pistol in her hand, one which she aimed at Kokichi. That must’ve been what she shot him with. The harness crisscrossing her body was filled to the brim with knives, grenades, spare ammo, and guns.

She was there to kill, and she meant to make it an ugly death.

From his side, Gonta did a sharp intake and breathed, “...Maki?”

Kokichi whirled around. “You know her?”

Maki didn’t answer, her gaze not wavering from Kokichi, an angry shadow over her eyes. Gonta’s mouth hung open, his eyes bulging out from clear shock. He wasn’t in a position to respond.

Kokichi turned to Maki. “I take it you’re not here to give me a hug.”

“My name is Maki Harukawa,” she said. “I haven't slept for four days and I'm not in the mood for whatever bullshit you're going to try to throw at me, so I'm going to cut to the case. I have instructions to keep you alive if possible, so I suggest you don’t test your luck. Come quietly and you won't be hurt.”

“Ah, so you’re with the Future Foundation. I’m surprised it took you shitlords this long to find me. How’d you do that, by the way?”

“I’ve been watching this hideout,” said Maki. “I knew you’d come here. You wouldn’t go to the other one.”

Dammit. Kokichi realized his miscalculation. He’d assumed that Izayoi never knew about this hideout, yet that hadn’t been the case. Maybe the Future Foundation had never figured out how to get inside—or else they would've taken his stuff—but the emblem wasn't exactly hidden.

"I'm not scared of you," said Kokichi. He gestured to the cut on his shoulder. "You have shitty aim."

Maki's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You try not sleeping for four days and see how good your aim is."

“Maki?” Gonta stepped forward, finding his voice. “Maki, what you doing here? Why you want to hurt Kokichi?”

“Why do I want to hurt him?” Maki seethed, though her anger was not directed at Gonta. “Why are you with him? Where are the others?”

“T—They back home,” Gonta stammered.

Maki’s lips pulled back to reveal her bared teeth. The shadow over her face deepened as she glared at Kokichi. “If anything has happened to them...I’m going to be bringing back a corpse.”

“How do you two know each other?” Kokichi asked. “Wait, don’t tell me...Hope’s Peak. Are you an Ultimate too, Maki Harukawa?”

“That’s none of your business. You’re lucky Gonta was with you or you wouldn’t be capable of walking right now.”

“That explains that,” Kokichi mused, rocking back on his heels. “You care about Gonta, so you didn’t want to risk one of your shots injuring him. I guess even a heartless Future Foundation lackey has people they care about.”

“Shut up,” said Maki.

Her gun still poised, she advanced. Kokichi ducked out of the way and hid behind Gonta.

“You want me?” Kokichi jeered. “Come and get me!”

Maki exchanged her gun for a knife and she balanced it in her hand carefully, eyes flicking toward Gonta. The Ultimate Entomologist immediately threw out his arms. Kokichi placed his hand on his back, searching for the reassuring strength of his rippling muscles.

“Wait, what going on?” Gonta asked. “Why you want to hurt Kokichi?”

“He’s not your friend,” Maki said decisively. “Do you even know who he is?”

“His name is Kokichi and he is Gonta’s new friend.”

“No, he’s not—he’s just using you. Kokichi Oma, the boy you’re protecting, is a Remnant of Despair.”

The muscles went still. Kokichi’s heart hammered in his ears, unsure if Gonta was about to whirl around and close his massive hand around his neck. He could do it. He could hold his entire neck in one hand and with one squeeze snuff the life out of him. Somehow Kokichi thought that it might be a fitting end for him.

“So you understand why I’m not leaving without him,” Maki continued. “Kokichi coerced the students in the Reserve Course to kill themselves. Don’t you remember what it was like watching their bodies falling from the sky? What it was like watching them run into the fire? He did that.”

“W—W—What?” Gonta warbled. He finally turned—not harsh, but gentle. “You...You really do that? You really Remnant of Despair?”

“Actually, I’m not,” Kokichi said. He found himself backing away from the pair. “You see, I actually lied about the whole Remnant thing—actually, it was a lie that got a little bit out of hand, know what I mean?”

“You’re a liar and a sneak,” Maki seethed. “And I’m not letting you run away.”

Maki vanished.

At least, that’s what Kokichi thought.

Then, Maki’s very-not-vanished fist collided with his face.

Once again, Kokichi saw it from a downward perspective and it was almost comical: Maki’s clamped eyes betraying her suppressed rage, his body flailing mid-air, and his eyes bugging out. It was like that one scene in an anime where the tsundere love interest finally had enough of the bumbling protagonist and punched him in the face, except Kokichi lacked all of the boring qualities of being a hero. He preferred to think of himself as the loveable antihero. That was his thought as he snapped back into his body and he slammed into the snow, dazed.

He was, in fact, too dazed to immediately resist when Maki seized him by the hair and started dragging him, only coming to his senses when his nerves set on fire and he struggled to wiggle out of her iron-like grip. A frozen image of Gonta appeared before him, too stunned to move.

“Let...go!” Kokichi strained.

His voice seemed to shake Gonta out of his shock. He hurdled forward.

“Wait, you can’t!” Gonta exclaimed. “He say he not Remnant!”

“And who are you going to trust: me or him?” Maki asked. “Please, Gonta—don’t interfere. I’m not going to let the Future Foundation know that you had contact with a Remnant, so don’t make this complicated.”

“But he say he not a Remnant.”

“I’m not here to debate his innocence. Kirumi wants him brought in and that’s what I’m doing.”

“Kirumi...?”

“Yes, Kirumi. She has orders to bring Oma in and I have orders to assist her in any way possible...Really I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. Oma’s escape is supposed to be a secret...”

“But Maki, wait! It been so long! Not go so soon!”

“I have other responsibilities, Gonta, things that this roach is taking me away from. Just...leave...Leave and give my best to the others...and to Kaito.”

Kokichi writhed as Maki didn’t release her grip on his hair, but the distraction with Gonta gave him time to come up with a plan. Baring his teeth, he bit her leg.

Maki yelled, more out of surprise than pain, but her grip only tightened on his hair. With a swift kick of her free leg, he was forced to let go of her, though he tasted fresh blood in his mouth.

“Did you bite me?!” Maki shouted.

“Gonta, don’t let her take me!” Kokichi wailed, summoning the fattest tears he could manage. “I’m not a Remnant, I swear! I’ve never even killed anyone before!”

“Shut up already,” Maki ordered. “It was bad enough when you were just a Remnant, but now you’re trying to manipulate my friends?!”

“Funny, you don’t seem like the type of person who people would want to be friends with.”

“I said shut up!”

“She works with the Future Foundation!” Kokichi went on. “Everyone knows the Future Foundation is secretly super evil!”

“Stop lying.”

“I’m not lying! The Future Foundation is so evil that they...they kill bugs!”

Gonta gasped. “Maki, that true?!”

“It’s totally true!” Kokichi asserted. “They’re bug-killers! I’ve seen it myself! They gather up all the bugs they can find and squish them without mercy! AND MAKI HELPED!”

“What?!” Maki exclaimed. “I only just met you!”

“Your reputation precedes you, bitch! Everyone knows that you’re a bug-killer! Back in the slammer, they tell legends about how Maki the Bug-Killer massacred an entire nest of poor, innocent spider eggs!”

Gonta let out a vaguely distressed squeak.

“And how she pulls the wings off of butterflies before leaving them to die!”

Gonta’s vaguely-distressed-squeak became a definitely-distressed-squeak.

“And—And she sponsors corporations that produce insecticides that are responsible for killing all the bees!”

Gonta’s definitely-distressed-squeak became a full-blown yell of terror.

“Maki!” Gonta hiccuped, tears pouring out of his eyes. “What...What Future Foundation do to you?! Maki I know would never hurt bugs!”

Maki rolled her eyes magnificently. “Can’t you see he’s lying about all that? Dammit, Kirumi warned me that you were full of shit, Oma, but I assumed she was exaggerating.”

“Gonta...Gonta not so sure.”

Maki raised her gaze, and through the painful haze glossing over his vision, he saw her wrestle with many different emotions at once, most prominently of which was complete and utter shock. Shock that transformed her from a hardened killer to a something almost resembling a human.

“Gonta not so sure,” Gonta reiterated, filling with confidence. “Future Foundation...take you away from us. Take others away, too. It not hard to believe Future Foundation are bug-killers too!”

“We went over this again and again before I left, Gonta,” Maki snapped. “If you guys don’t want to join the Future Foundation, that’s your prerogative, but don’t go judging the rest of us for it.”

“But Future Foundation want to kill him!” said Gonta.

“Well, yes—”

“Killing is bad! Future Foundation know this and do it anyway! People are hurt and—and bugs can’t even defend themselves!”

“For God’s sake, are you really going to get worked up over bugs?”

“The Future Foundation has her brainwashed!” Kokichi proclaimed. “Gonta, you better do something before she can kill anymore bugs! And people, probably. More importantly—bug lives are counting on you!”

“Quiet already!”

Maki grabbed his scalp and threw him to the ground. Fortunately the snow was there to pad his landing or else he would’ve ended up with a concussion. Ignoring his writhing on the ground, Maki’s shoulders tensed, though with the haze growing deeper and deeper it was difficult to tell what either of them was thinking. Either way, Kokichi had accomplished his goal of making Maki let him go. With Maki’s attention trained on Gonta, Kokichi crawled across the snow.

“I don’t want to fight you, Gonta,” Maki raised her pistol and directed it at his chest. “But I will if I have to.”

“Gonta...no can let Future Foundation hurt more people,” Gonta decided. “Gonta can no let them kill Kokichi. Even if he is bad, killing is wrong.”

“Gonta—”

Gonta lurched forward before she could get another word out and wrapped his arms firmly around her, pinning her arms to her body.

“GONTA!” she screamed.

“Gonta sorry for his ungentlemanly behaviour!” Gonta said. “Kokichi, run!”

Kokichi didn’t have to be told twice. His feet slipped on the snow as he clambered up and charged off, glancing back if only to see Maki wrestle her way out of Gonta’s arms. With strength uncharacteristic of her light frame, she leapt up, and in slow motion, she seemed to be suspended above Gonta’s head. Unwilling to see how it would play out, Kokichi thrust his body forward to run as fast as he could back down the street from where they had first entered. He saw the chip in the concrete building that he first announced Maki’s presence, and as he swung around the corner, fresh gunfire erupted from behind him. The shots branched out and splattered across the opposite wall.

She wasn’t going to give up and neither was Kokichi. Air rippled behind him as an explosion sent powdery snow rushing to him, his jacket fluttering in the unnatural wind, and the force pulling his legs out from underneath him. Kokichi landed flat on his back. In the end, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for a massive dark blot spiralled right over him, grazing his nose. Only when Kokichi saw the red eyes did he realize that it was Gonta floundering through the air like a bird who’d failed to take flight, only halted when his massive bulk slammed head-first against a discarded car.

Kokichi rolled onto his stomach and saw Maki at the other end of the street, magnificently, terribly contrasted against the white. She’d discarded her pistol in favour for dual knives, though he didn’t recall seeing them on her person when he’d assessed her weapons. Where the hell had she been keeping those?

As he tried to answer that question, Maki streamlined over the snow. No powder lifted up under her footsteps. Kokichi scrambled back on his ass, uncertain if in her hysteria she’d remember that they wanted him alive.

Twenty feet. Kokichi bunched up some snow in his fist and threw it at her, the ball landing pathetically in front of her.

Ten feet. She reeled her left knife over her shoulder, prepared to slice.

Five. Gonta emerged over Kokichi, his bare feet appearing on either side of his body and thrusting his fist forward.

It was a true testament to the control and skill Maki possessed when she changed tactics mid-swing, her knives twisting in her hand so that they crossed together. Even if her aim was wobbly when sleep-deprived, there was no mistaking the tenacity of her close-quarter combat skills. If she was efficient when she was not at her best, Kokichi dreaded to see what she was like when at the top of her game. The flat edge of the blades hit Gonta’s fist and they froze there, both trembling from the effort of pushing against one another, the sweat beading on her brow and snaking down her cheeks in translucent rivers.

“Gonta, I don’t want to fight you!” Maki emphasized.

“Then come back with us!” Gonta said. “You no have to go back to Future Foundation!”

“I CAN’T GO WITH YOU, GONTA!”

Gonta’s sheer strength won the tug-of-war. He shoved his elbow forward, throwing her off balance, and she went flying.

Rising to his feet once again, this time Kokichi didn’t look back when ran like his life depended on it. It probably did. Behind him, he heard Gonta and Maki continue their struggle. Whatever Gonta was doing, he was successful in keeping her at bay, at giving Kokichi the precious seconds he needed to escape. Seconds were all he needed. Old instincts hit him with the addictive qualities of a can of Panta, making him feel invincible.

Right. He knew how to run. He was good at running. The speed came back to him and he made himself disappear into the twisted ruins, hurrying along the path leading back in the direction of the safe neighbourhood. The distant gunfire that had permeated the background throughout the ordeal was now swallowed by the sound of Gonta and Maki’s violent struggle sending explosions, shouts, and shockwaves rocking the ground.

He didn’t stop running until their fight faded away and melted with the other strange noises overwhelming the city.


Kokichi didn’t get back into the apartment until the sun had set, surrendering the responsibility of illuminating the city to fire barrels and the occasional working streetlight. It was only when Gonta and Maki’s fight was long behind him that Kokichi became aware of how stiff his body had become like someone had tapped planks to his limbs. Dull aches settled in its joints, reminding him that he'd let his guard down.

He made a mental note to run faster next time.

The ache made it difficult to scale the fence he and Gonta had climbed over when they first left the neighbourhood, and when he did, he tumbled over the top and landed far too hard in the snow. He didn’t immediately get up and settled for staring pointlessly up at the sky. To his surprise, he saw a scattering of white flecks overhead—stars which had previously been eradicated by light pollution now shone freely.

Then, a light beam shot out of the darkness and settled on him.

“Hey, you shouldn’t be wandering around this late.”

Kokichi’s heart seized. He knew Future Foundation soldiers when he heard them. They had a certain rigidity in their voices and he scrambled upward.

“I’m not wandering around,” Kokichi contradicted, pulling his hood back over his head and keeping his face turned from them. “I’m just going for a walk.”

“Well, it’s dangerous to be out at night,” said the soldier. “Move along.”

“Right-o, just don’t shoot me.”

The soldier gave a tense pause but didn’t harass him as he scurried across the street and made his exit.

On his way back to the apartment, it hit Kokichi that the Hope’s Peak students had to be missing them by now. They might not care if Kokichi made a sudden disappearance, but by virtue of Gonta disappearing at the same time, it's not something they would ignore. If he showed himself without Gonta, they wouldn’t be happy with him. Kokichi found the energy not to particularly care. Gonta was a tough guy and he didn’t think Maki would cause him serious injury. It would only be a matter of time before he returned to his friends.

Or the Future Foundation arrested him for interference. Either way, Gonta wouldn’t be back for a while.

It took him a few minutes to remember which street the apartment was on, and on his way, he was framed by fragments of gold light visible through the windows of buildings. Looks like some part of Tokyo was surviving despite the Tragedy and admittedly it was a nice sight, even if it was the slightest trace of the old world.

He was half-hoping that he’d find the apartment dark, but when he turned the corner, he found the windows illuminated and someone standing out on the balcony, though he didn’t see who it was until he was right underneath.

The person righted himself and said, “The fuck? Where the hell have you been?”

Great, it was Kaito. The guy-who-totally-didn't-have-a-dark-secret.

“I was out being not boring,” Kokichi replied. He made it to the stairs and seized the railing. His knee screamed in protest when he tried to lift it, but he swallowed down the pain and made himself climb. “You see, while you Hope’s Peak losers were moping around here, I got invited to a party. A party for cool people.”

“Fine, lie about it if you want to,” Kaito said sharply. “So where’s Gonta?”

“Who’s Gonta?”

“Gonta Gokuhara! Big, tall, muscular, likes bugs?”

“Oh, that Gonta! He’s dead.”

“HE’S WHAT?!”

“Well, when I say he’s dead, I mean he’s probably dead.” Kokichi fumbled for the doorknob. “Like, a ninety-two percent chance of being dead.”

“You little—you better be lying about that!”

“You’re right, it’s more like a ninety-nine percent chance. Anyway, what’s for dinner?”

“A knuckle sandwich if you keep being a jackass. Tell me where Gonta is! If he’s hurt, I’ll—”

Pinned against the door, Kokichi managed to turn the knob and stumbled backward into the apartment. He briefly caught a glimpse of Rantaro making tea in the kitchen.

“Let’s not do anything hasty,” Kokichi said. “I mean, I’m a poor, helpless orphan.”

“Poor, helpless orphan my foot.”

“What’s going on?” Rantaro asked.

“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” said Kokichi. He turned to face the room at large. “This dummy is falsely accusing me of—achk!”

Kokichi’s words strangled in his throat when he saw who was sitting with the other students around the kotatsu. There was Kaede, Tenko, and Ryoma all looking at him in mild confusion, and then there was a fourth person who hadn’t been there before. It was someone who had never factored into his plans, his assumptions, his predictions. It was someone he’d thoroughly purged from his mind, convinced that they would never cross paths again, so there was no rhyme or reason to even think about them again.

Sitting at the kotatsu was someone with the capacity to unravel his carefully laid plans and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Chapter Text

Shuichi typed ferociously on his phone, reviewing the massive data cache that had been deposited straight into his inbox, all files relating to the Oma case. Some of them he’d seen before, and others were brand new to him, flagged for Level 3 security only. Despite the fact that he’d gotten the clearance from Chisa—the fancy security card with his name was tucked in his breast pocket—he still felt dirty, like he was entering into forbidden territory, like he was breaking an unspoken rule. In reality, since he’d begun his own private investigation into Oma’s activities, he’d broken a lot of rules, pressed on invisible boundaries, done what he thought was right for what he felt was a righteous cause.

“We’re here, Mr Saihara.”

Shuichi fumbled with his phone, the Future Foundation logo on the back catching the light streaming through the truck window.

The armoured truck rumbled to a stop and Shuichi peered out the window to find snow pelting the window in swarms of white flakes. Beyond, the dark figures of the Future Foundation’s peacekeeping forces descended on the vehicle, weary but not alarmed to the point where they were waving their guns at him.

Shuichi didn’t wait for the driver to the make the move. Most Ultimates within the Future Foundation were happy to let the non-Ultimate lackeys do the dirty work, but not him. He pushed open the door and jumped out into the freezing cold, his coat ruffling in the breeze. All it took was a flash of his security card for the soldiers to lower their guard. Shuichi wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or uneasy about that.

He was at a checkpoint leading into one of the neighbourhoods the Future Foundation controlled. There were a dozen or so scattered across Tokyo, and in between were badlands, unable to be crossed unless you were riding in one of the Future Foundation’s armoured vehicles or had a small army with you. Shuichi was further accompanied today by a small contingent of guards. It was standard for former Ultimates these days since they were considered valuable resources, but that didn’t mean Shuichi had to like it when the guards cluttered around him, effectively blocking his field of vision.

“You don’t have to stand so close to me,” Shuichi assured them.

“Standard procedure, sir,” the lead member of the contingent stated.

From nearby, a clear voice rang out, “It’s a precaution, Shuichi.”

Shuichi wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or anxious to see Kirumi Tojo emerging from the snow-covered landscape, dressed finely as always. She only had two guards flanking her at a reasonable distance.

“Thank you for coming,” said Kirumi. “Walk with me.”

Shuichi felt a flutter of annoyance; he didn’t appreciate orders. All the same, it gave him an excuse to escape the cluster of bodyguards and walk into the neighbourhood.

It wasn’t the first time Shuichi had been in one of the Future Foundation’s neighbourhoods, but he'd never been to this particular one. He noticed the increased presence of soldiers dotting the streets, but aside from that it was standard. Shuichi accompanied Kirumi as they headed down the street running parallel to the border.

“I’m surprised you want to help my investigation, especially considering you were so determined to find Kokichi guilty,” Shuichi admitted.

“You misunderstand my intentions,” Kirumi said. “I firmly believe you will not find additional evidence regarding Oma’s affiliations, but I am giving you the benefit of a fair investigation out of respect for our former friendship if nothing else.”

“I like to think we’re still friends,” Shuichi said.

A flat, expressionless look flickered across Kirumi’s face.

“I see,” Kirumi hummed. “If it is your desire to remain friends, then I will not deny your wish.”

“Well, I’d like you to want to be friends, too...”

“My desires are irrelevant. There is only my duty to Japan, and to make up for my grievous error of being unable to prevent the Tragedy.”

“That wasn’t your fault, Kirumi.”

“And yet while I was at Hope’s Peak neglecting my duties, Japan fell into disarray. The Tragedy even began at the academy and I failed to see the warning signs. This is my penance, Shuichi.”

Shuichi realized that he wasn’t going to get through to her, not now, not when there was so much at stake.

“So what’s the relevance of this neighbourhood?” Shuichi asked.

It was subtle, but judging by the way the tenseness in Kirumi’s shoulders lessened, she was grateful for the change of subject.

“There is only one possible path Oma could have taken through the subway station,” said Kirumi. “The path splits into three directions which lead into three different exits. I believe it is most likely that he emerged through the one that leads here.”

“Why’s that?”

“The other two open into the disputed neighbourhoods.”

Shuichi rubbed his chin. “That makes sense. Kokichi’s smart. He wouldn’t last long out there without resources, and the only way to get them is to gravitate toward settlements, even if they are run by the Future Foundation.”

“Precisely. It is a calculated risk—one that he would take.”

“It's been a few days. Do you think he’s still around?”

“I do not know. I have other agents guarding the subway exits in case he’s still hiding out there. However, I think it more likely he already emerged and is hiding in the area.”

“Is his escape public knowledge?”

“No, that is another reason why I asked you here. You are not to reveal Oma’s escape to anyone. Is that clear?”

“Is that an order?”

“Yes, it is.”

“How do you expect to find Kokichi if you’re not asking the people around here if they’ve seen him?”

“There is no need for that, as we have the situation under control. I have highly skilled agents planted in the area and we will not leave until he is found."

“That doesn’t seem like an effective way to initiate a search.”

“We have no choice. If word of Oma’s escape gets out, there will be mass panic. We do not want riots to break out again and it is important to preserve peace. Do you understand?”

Shuichi frowned. He didn’t like it, but Kirumi had a point. It had been a few months since the last major riot in Tokyo and it had nearly toppled one of the other neighbourhoods. Word of an alleged Remnant escaping Future Foundation custody could throw the fragile peace into disarray, and in the chaos the other Remnants could take advantage of the situation.

“I understand,” Shuichi nodded.

“Good, then I expect you to report anything you uncover to Munakata,” said Kirumi.

“That doesn’t seem right. What if he compromises evidence?”

“This isn’t a negotiation. Munakata asked me to convey those orders to you and now I have done so, whether or not you follow is your decision.” Kirumi turned sharply on his heel and her guards immediately flocked to her side. “Now I have a Remnant to find. Best of luck in your investigation, Shuichi.”

Shuichi watched her depart, and this time she didn’t turn to spare him one of her nebulous gazes.

Shuichi massaged his temples. Well, he knew there was no way he was going to hand over any evidence, but perhaps that was the trap Munakata was trying to set. If he didn’t turn over evidence, then he could have him reprimanded or worse. His chest cinched. The unmistakable sting of betrayal entwined his heart, emerging from the ground to taunt him with old demons.

It took far too much effort to banish the demons, and when he did he realized that his contingent of bodyguards orbitting around him like a bunch of planets. They would have to go. There was no way he couldn't be certain that one, two, or all of them weren’t secretly working for Kirumi or Munakata.

“You can go now,” said Shuichi.

The lead bodyguard recoiled. “But sir—”

“Consider that an order. Just...go wherever I’m not.”

The bodyguards hesitated, but then melted away. Somehow Shuichi felt that that he wouldn't be rid of them entirely, but at least they weren’t so blatantly hovering over his shoulder. As long as he kept his wits about them, he should be able to shake the piercing sensation of being watched by unseen eyes.

Shuichi sighed and shoved his hands deep into his pockets so no one could see how his hands clenched. What a mess. He couldn’t fall into Munakata trap, but how could he make sure there was proper justice if he was backed into a corner like this? How could he do this without ending up a prisoner like Kokichi had been? Even now, Kokichi hadn’t escaped the Future Foundation. He was still a prisoner somewhere out there, forced into a hole.

Trying to occupy his mind, Shuichi took out his phone and reviewed Kokichi’s file, which contained all of his basic information: height, weight, hair and eye colour, birthday, and one scarily high intelligence quotient. Was that why Munakata was so afraid of him? The files even contained a profile leftover from Hope’s Peak Academy, complete with their emblem and his odd talent of ‘Ultimate Supreme Leader’. Shuichi wasn’t clear what that talent pertained to. There weren't many Hope's Peak faculty members left to question about talents anyway—most were about as dead as they could get.

Time to start with the basics. There was nothing for it. He had to question Kokichi. He had to find him before Kirumi did.

It was treason against the Future Foundation, but Shuichi didn’t see that he was being left any choice. There was no way they would give him an opportunity to perform his own interrogation. He was adrift at sea and he had a choice to make. He'd turned a blind eye to so many things within the Future Foundation, and he couldn't do it anymore lest he break.

When he finally decided, he was awash with both resolve and terror. Shuichi wondered why he was going to all this trouble for someone so thoroughly determined to be guilty.

Shuichi resolved to start his search at the refugee camp. Kokichi was likely prepared to steal from people who had nothing and the refugee camp was the focal camp of the neighbourhood—the place where all activity concentrated, where all aid was distributed, where all trouble started. He didn’t have to ask for directions; signs had been set up indicating which direction it was in. No one stopped him during his trek, though he noted the number of dirty glances stolen in his direction. There was no mistaking the aura of a Future Foundation mook, as he and the rest of his classmates had so egregiously called them, and now that label now applied to him.

It felt surreal to be out and about, not when he’d lived in such a tightly controlled environment for the last year. Old instincts came back to him, instincts that related to how to survive and how to not get shot and how to function and how to not crumple over in defeat. It stung a little. But he’d gotten so good at swallowing emotion that he was overweight with sorrow, so he  forcedit down into his stomach, low and hot, where it couldn’t hurt him. And still he felt like he was being dunked headfirst into the fire barrels lining every doorway. If he didn’t keep his emotions in check, he would actually dive into the barrels and roast in the flames.

When he found the camp, he found a place crawling haphazardly with a strange cacophony of emotional noise and a buzzing sensation crawling up the length of his arm so that it could settle in his jaw. The sensation put him on edge although he knew he was as safe here as he was at any Future Foundation facility. He noticed that many of the people were giving him a wide berth or else giving him uncertain, suspicious stares, their eyes squinting and their voices markedly lower when he drew near. Shuichi had the impression that even if he felt comfortable asking them about Kokichi, they wouldn’t answer.

He decided to start with a safe, Future Foundation-orientated location, and that was the medical tent. If Kokichi had been injured during his escape, it’d be the logical place to go. Or to steal from.

When he arrived, he found a solitary guard outside the tent who didn’t pay him any mind after assessing his appearance. It was then at Shuichi became aware of how blatantly he stood out in his surroundings, how obvious it was who he worked for. He ducked inside and found a standard medical tent, although there were no patients at the moment and the sole doctor was busying herself with what looked like a steamy romance novel by Toko Fukawa. Spotting him, she fumbled—the novel bouncing up and down in her hand before she got a hold on it and lay it cover-down on her desk.

“Injury or illness?” she asked.

“Neither,” Shuichi answered. “Shuichi Saihara, 5th Division.”

“Oh! Well, it’s about time they sent someone.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Do you know how much has gone missing in the last six months? I don’t even want to think about it—that’s how painful it is!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The doctor’s face fell. “So they didn’t sent you in response to my complaint. I should’ve known it was too good to be true.”

“What complaint? What’s going on?”

She sighed. “I’m sure it’s nothing you big wigs at headquarters would worry about, but out here, it’s kind of a big deal. Someone’s been stealing medicine from storage since forever now and nobody seems to want to do anything about it. Every time new stock arrives, it immediately disappears.”

“You say this has been happening for months now?”

“Well, like I said,” the doctor shrugged. “It’s not like you big wigs care about us little people.”

“I care,” Shuichi said earnestly. The thefts had been going on before Kokichi's escape, so he couldn't have had any involvement, but the doctor looked weary. Taking a minute to help her out probably wouldn't hurt. “Maybe I can help. Why don’t you tell me all about it?”

The doctor studied her face, her lips taut with suspicion. “Well...you do look like you mean it...who knows, something might actually get done about it this time.”

The doctor collapsed in her seat, looking strained.

“Like I said, someone’s been stealing medicine from the dispensary across the street for months now,” the doctor explained. “Normally I’d say that’s not a big surprise given the situation out here, as there’s a huge black market for aid, but I don’t think it’s a whole bunch of people doing it. I think it’s just one individual.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Well, the same drugs are always missing, and that’s what’s so strange about it. Anyone can go to the dispensary and get whatever medication they need within reason, of course.”

“If the medication is free, why’s the black market thriving off of it?”

“Not everyone is willing to trust the Future Foundation for their medical matters. They think we’re poisoning them or something. There’s been medication shortages as well, which has driven up demand, hence the market. That all said, the medicine that’s been stolen is in high supply.”

“What was stolen?”

“Eh—I made a list, hang on.”

The doctor produced a list she'd been using as a bookmark in her romance novel.

She handed him the list and he read down it. There were three medications: potassium iodide, ibuprofen, and KirumaCare 109-A. Some medical supplies had also been stolen, including syringes, disinfectant, and cotton balls.

“What are these two?” Shuichi asked. “Potassium iodide and 109-A?”

“Well, potassium iodide can treat hyperthyroidism,” the doctor explained. “It can also be used to treat radiation sickness.”

“Radiation sickness?”

“Well, that’s not a huge surprise. Don’t you remember the nuclear bomb that went off over the East China Sea? The wind blew the radiation over islands to the south, though fortunately only minute radioactive particles made it this far north. We’ve had a few refugees come up from that part of the country, hence the demand for potassium iodide.”

“And 109-A?”

“That’s one of Seiko Kimura’s drugs. You know, the Ultimate Pharmacist? She created that to treat the lingering effects of radiation sickness. That thing is a godsend—without Miss Kimura, most of the East China Sea refugees would be dead from the radiation already. While most of their conditions are incurable, with regular intake of 109-A they can expect to live long, healthy lives...with a few side effects.”

“What kind of side effects?”

“Well, most of the side effects have more to do with their conditions rather than 109-A, keeping in mind that the drug isn’t a cure. It just makes their symptoms manageable and, well, not deadly.”

“And the syringes?”

“109-A is more effective if taken intravenously. Usually we prefer to deliver it through an IV, but with long-term patients it’s more practical for them to give themselves the injections.”

“Huh. So given the fact that two of these drugs treat radiation sickness, do you think the ibuprofen could be used to manage pain related to their illness?”

“That’s a logical assumption. Potassium iodide and 109-A don’t have any adverse effects when used with ibuprofen.”

Shuichi frowned. Interesting.

“Can you show me the dispensary?” he asked.

With a gesture, the doctor showed him out of the tent and escorted him to a dispensary across the street. The dispensary was an old corner store renovated to suit the medical team’s needs, with thick bars striped across the windows to protect the precious medication within. The door was locked and the windows dark as they approached.

“You don’t have any guards?” Shuichi asked.

“No, they lost interest in this after it happened the fifth or sixth time,” the doctor explained. “The peacekeeping forces have extended orders to enforce the law where possible, but they’re more focused on weeding out terrorists and violent offenders. Since our thief has only been consistently taking a few things and nothing especially valuable, it hasn’t been a priority.”

The doctor began unlocking the door and pried it open only a little bit when she jumped back, going pale.

“What is it?” Shuichi asked.

“There’s someone in there,” she hissed.

Shuichi peered into the crack in the door. The dispensary was completely dark, save for a sliver of light visible in the back.

“This is it!” the doctor exclaimed. “This time, I’m gonna get him! I’ll get the damn useless soldiers!”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Shuichi. “Stay here while I’ll check it out.”

“Just let me get the damn soldiers so they can shoot this guy already!”

“I don’t think anyone needs to be shot! Wait here and I’ll see if I can reason with him.”

“...Okay...but scream or something if he’s killing you.”

That would be hard not to do.

Shuichi slipped inside the dispensary, tiptoeing across the tile floor without making a sound. The good thing about his secret investigation into Oma was that he’d gotten good at sneaking around, and he put those skills into use now as his ghosted toward the barely-open back door. Beyond it, he could see shelves lined with white bottles, and the vague noise of someone shuffling around, swearing under their breath.

“Fucking hell, where is it?” the voice murmured harshly to himself. The voice sent a flicker of recognition through Shuichi.

No, it couldn’t be.

Shuichi reached the storage room door and propped it open. Unfortunately, he was unable to stop it from letting out a high-pitch groan, bathing him in florescent light and giving him a full view of the perpetrator crouched down to examine a shelf. The intended thief went still at the noise.

Spiked hair, purple coat, one sleeve hanging loosely from his shoulder.

Shuichi only knew one person who wore a coat as impractically as that.

Hoping he was wrong, Shuichi breathed, “...Kaito?”

Kaito whirled around so violently he knocked back into the shelf. The white bottles made a suicide-dive off the shelf, clattering against the floor in a strange, hollow chorus. From his place in the door, Shuichi watched a bottle break open and scatter white pills across the tile. They spread out like the angry snowflakes flecked on the windows. The chorus of raining bottles gave way to thundering silence and the subtle rumble of the outside world quieted, and there was Kaito—only Kaito Momota—right in front of him.

Shuichi took in the sight, detective instincts kicking into gear. The lock on the backdoor was broken and the offending screwdriver and hammer were discarded on the floor. Kaito, flat on his ass, sat in front of him with his arms and legs spread out. Many emotions competed for domination on Kaito, changing so often in the span of a few seconds that as Shuichi got a handle on one expression, another took its place. Kaito finally settled on shock.

Moments ago, Shuichi Saihara was a Future Foundation mook.

Now, one of his best friends was on the floor and he had no idea what to do.

“Are you still alive?” the doctor shouted from the door.

The voice dragged him back to reality kicking and screaming. Shuichi willed himself to focus.

“Uh...there’s no one here,” he called back.

“Are you serious?!” the doctor shrieked. “They got away again?! That’s it, I’m getting the soldiers—he can’t’ve gotten far!”

“No, you’ll disturb the crime scene,” said Shuichi. “He’s not here now, but he’s definitely been here.”

“What—What do you want me to do, then?”

“Lock the door and leave it to me. I need to look for clues.”

Every part of the doctor’s face pinched with stress, and her forehead didn’t clear when she asked, “You sure?”

“Positive. Trust me.”

She must’ve been desperate or resigned, because she did as she was told and shut the door.

The distraction gone, Shuichi went back to staring at Kaito. Kaito rushed to his feet—almost floated right off the ground.

“Kaito, what are you—?” Shuichi started.

Shuichi didn’t finish his sentence, because Kaito closed the distance between them and hugged him. It was a decidedly masculine, very Kaito-ish embrace, all loose and casual, although there was no concealing the way Kaito's rough hands locked tight around around him.

“Shit, man!” Kaito shouted in his ear. “What the fuck are you doing here?!”

“Um, Kaito?!” Shuichi blinked.

This had not been the reception he’d expected. He'd been ready for screaming, he'd been ready for tears, he'd been ready for 'what the hell is wrong with you' and 'you're not welcome here'. But a hug? That had been on the bottom of the list of possibilities, if present at all.

“What—my sidekick finally shows his face and I’m not supposed to give him a hug?!”

“It’s not that—I—”

Laughing, Kaito lifted Shuichi right off the floor. “It’s been forever! I can’t believe you’re here! Damn, am I lucky you’re the one who walked in on this!”

“Kaito, I’m happy to see you too, but what are you doing here?!”

“Shut up and let me look at you!”

Kaito dropped Shuichi and gripped his shoulders, pushing down so hard that Shuichi was pretty sure he was going to shove him all the way through the floor.

“What the hell is this getup you’re wearing?” Kaito criticized, smile overtaking his lower face. “I thought you’d gotten over the hat thing. That’s not Future Foundation regulation, is it?”

“Hat thing...?” Shuichi gently touched his hat. In truth, he’d almost forgotten about it. “I—I don’t know, I liked the way it looked. Kaito, what are you doing here?”

“Give me the hat.”

“What?! No! You’re changing the subject.”

Kaito's ambience billowed around him like a roaring thunderstorm. Kaito must've sensed the crash of overwhelming emotion amassing inside of him, because he suddenly released his shoulder and stepped back. He kept his distance while Shuichi got his bearings.

Kaito. Kaito was here. Why the hell was Kaito here?

“Kaito,” he finally said. “What are you doing here? How long have you been in this neighbourhood?”

“Shit, Shuichi,” Kaito frowned. “This is the first time I’ve seen you in a year and that’s the first thing you’re gonna say? What about ‘hey, how are ya? I missed you!’”

“Kaito, believe me, I did miss you. I just didn’t expect to run into you here.” Shuichi looked him up and down. He definitely looked gaunt. “Why are you robbing a dispensary?”

Kaito went from gleeful to anxious at once, his entire lower jaw tensing as the smile slipped away.

“Oh, uh, I—I got an explanation, I swear,” said Kaito. “Uh...I’m selling drugs.”

“You’re what?!

“Well, I don’t got a choice,” Kaito snapped. “Sometimes I lift stuff and sell it to the black market. It’s not like I enjoy it, it’s just that the Future Foundation has so much and I can make a few bucks to help support the others. We gotta make a little extra cash when we can or we won’t survive.”

“Others. So the others are here, too?”

“Well...more or less...It’s a long fucking story, Shuichi. God! I can’t believe you’re here!”

“Look, Kaito, that story about selling drugs doesn't make sense,” Shuichi pointed out. “The doctor at the medical tent told me that the drugs you’re stealing are in high supply, so they won’t sell for much on the black market. There’s plenty of medicine here that’d sell for a lot more.”

Kaito flushed, his eyes darting to the side and then fixing on him again. Shuichi knew an impending lie when he saw one. The Ultimate Astronaut was no Kokichi Oma when it came to lying.

“That’s—That’s the point,” Kaito stammered out. “I don’t want to take drugs that the Future Foundation’ll actually need. I mean, sure I make less with this stuff, but money is money, y’know?”

“You’re lying to me,” Shuichi called him out.

Kaito sighed. “Look, I don’t want to get into this.”

“Kaito—”

“I’m not getting into this, okay? This isn’t a debate.”

“Kaito, you can’t go robbing the dispensary. They’ll give you the drugs for free, so I don’t know why you won’t ask for them upfront.”

Kaito groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I can’t ask for them upfront if I’m not sick,” said Kaito. “And I’m. Not. Sick.”

“Are you sure? I don’t understand why you wouldn’t—”

“I’m not sick, okay? I’m fucking dandy!”

“The doctor said that you were still drugs for radiation sickness.”

“See?! Exactly! Radiation sickness, pft! Do I look like I have radiation sickness to you?”

Shuichi wasn’t so sure. He was reeling from the encounter, going through the conversation in a half-daze while his mind tried to work out when, how, and why Kaito was standing here, when by all rights he knew he shouldn’t be. When Kaito smiled, Shuichi could see the lie sitting on his teeth, threatening to burst out.

He had to pick his battles. He would lose this one. But it wasn’t over.

“Okay, I believe you,” Shuichi lied.

“I knew you would!” Kaito beamed.

“Just—let’s put everything back together before that doctor storms in here with a whole contingent of the peacekeeping forces. We can talk afterwards.”

He and Kaito picked up the discarded bottles and put the lost pills back into its bottle, then stacked them all back on the shelves. They left through the back exit; Kaito picked up the screwdriver and hammer. There would be no repairing the lock, so Shuichi found a soldier who didn't look busy and flashed his identification at him, then ordered him to guard the rear entrance to prevent any further thefts. Kaito stood a safe distance away during the exchange.

They didn’t talk as Shuichi returned to the tent to tell the doctor not to worry about any future robberies, and they didn’t talk while they wound their way through the crowd, and they didn’t talk until they were well outside of the camp. Shuichi’s mind worked on autopilot, unable to work, unable to take in what was happening.

When they were on a safe, quiet side street, Shuichi finally found his voice and turned to Kaito. The vaguely distressed look Kaito wore while they'd been wandering around the camp cleared up.

“Thought you were gonna turn me in for a sec,” Kaito admitted.

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Shuichi. “I know you’re not gonna do this again, right?”

“Well, I can’t anymore that you know,” Kaito scoffed, folding his arms. “I can’t believe you’re here.”

“Same goes for you. What happened to the old place?”

“Eh, the Remnants moved into the neighbourhood—totally razed it. Those of us that were still there had to get out and figured we’d be safer in a place with more, y’know, guards in it. None of us were hurt, but we didn’t like the idea of getting our asses kicked again.”

Sensible idea. The old neighbourhood had been patrolled by a volunteer militia force, hardly experienced Future Foundation soldiers.

“How are the others doing?” Shuichi asked. “Good?”

“It’s...sort of. It’s a long story. We’re not exactly all under the same roof anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Shit, Shuichi, after you and the others left to join the Future Foundation, it all kinda fell apart. We felt like you guys had abandoned us, y’know?”

Shuichi dropped his gaze. He’d known that would be a consequence, that it would be a reality, but it still stung, still pierced through him with the torrential force of machine gun fire.

“Well, we all kinda split up,” Kaito continued. “It’s just Rantaro, Kaede, Tenko, Gonta, Ryoma, and me now. I dunno how closely the Future Foundation watches local events so I’m not sure if you know, but Angie founded a cult for Atua—they’ve been a bit of a pain in the ass.”

“A cult,” Shuichi repeated.

“Yeup, a god-forsaken cult dedicated to Atua. Atua’s Prophets, they call themselves. Anyway, when Angie left, Tsumugi and Himiko went with her, and Kiyo left a few months after to go study.”

“Study? Study what?”

“Yeah, I asked the same question. Kiyo said he wanted to study the effects of wartime on human culture and yada-yada-yada. He used a lot of long, fancy, anthropology-related words that didn’t exactly make a lot of sense to me. Not sure where he is now, but given how bad it is out there, I bet he found something interesting to study, y’know?”

“That definitely sounds like Kiyo,” Shuichi sighed.

“Hey, come back to the apartment with me,” Kaito said. He said it was like an order, and once again Shuichi knew he wasn’t going to be able to refuse him.

“O—Okay,” Shuichi agreed somewhat reluctantly.

Apprehension prickled through him. What if his old classmates had the same sense of abandonment Kaito had expressed? This was why he'd avoided them for the last year; it had been easier to throw himself into work, to focus on fixing the world, to focus in ensuring the future didn't implode.

“C’mon, they’ll be thrilled to see you again!” Kaito insisted, draping his arm over his shoulder. “I know Kaede likes to put on a smile for the rest of us, but she took it pretty hard. She was really out of sorts for a while.”

Shuichi’s insides seized. He’d been responsible for that, in part because he was part of the exodus to join the Future Foundation.

“She started coping by ‘adopting’ strays from the camp,” Kaito went on. “Y’know, people who didn’t have anything or anyone to lean on, so she brought them to stay with us until they got back on their feet. I guess with Kirumi off doing whatever she’s doing, someone had to become the mom.”

Kaito caught his expression.

“Uh, look, don’t go thinking it’s your fault or anything.”

Shuichi blinked. “How’d you know?”

“Because I know you,” said Kaito. “You carry the weight of the world around on your shoulders and lemme tell you, Shuichi, not even the Ultimate Astronaut can do that.”

Kaito squeezed him a bit closer.

“Come see the others. You won’t regret it!”


Shuichi felt regret with every step he took.

He trembled. He trembled as badly as he had the day he and his classmates had watched the Reserve Course students throw themselves from the building, falling into the inferno below, their bodies littering the ground like fallen leaves. This managed to be worse by virtue of how personal it was. For the first year after the Tragedy, he and his classmates had been inseparable, forced together by circumstance and leaning on one another because there was no alternative. There was no where else to go, no one else to turn to, and the world had forgotten about the Hope’s Peak students, or else blamed them for triggering the Tragedy.

Of course, with much of the Tragedy shrouded in mystery, Shuichi had only learned about the details after joining the Future Foundation. He’d only learned the full story about Junko Enoshima’s involvement along with everyone else after the killing game had been broadcast to the world, and just the nightmare of watching student after student die sent him into a plethora of regret. That could've been their class. None of that compared to what he’d done, what he’d been compelled to do one year ago when he and some of his classmates had decided to join the Future Foundation and do something to change the world. That split the class. He hadn’t spoken to Kaito or the others at all during their separation and he couldn’t even remember if he had a valid reason for it, though now that he drew closer and closer to where they were staying, he found himself struggling to come up with an answer that would satisfy them. An answer that would satisfy himself.

The only way he felt he was able to face his old classmates was Kaito, who kept an arm around his shoulder—probably more as a way to prevent him from hightailing it out of there than out of friendliness.

As they walked the few blocks to the apartment, Kaito went on ahead describing their new ‘digs’ and all of the things that annoyed him about having Gonta, Ryoma, and Rantaro as roommates, from Gonta’s tendency to collect bugs to Ryoma’s snoring. The new place must be a lot smaller if they were all shoved into a single room.

Overhead, the sun was setting and Shuichi realized that he was going to be spending the night in this place, as much as it put his nerves on edge. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the others were nearby; they might even let him crash with them for the night. As the sun painted the ruined buildings in blocks of orange, Shuichi thought that it wasn’t such a bad thing to get some distance from the clinical Future Foundation quarters.

Kaito was saying they weren’t far from the apartment when he stopped in his tracks. Shuichi quickly saw what had caught his attention.

Standing on the street corner were a handful of individuals dressed in bright yellow smocks. Most of them were sitting on the ground in meditative positions, looking pensive, but foremost among them was a familiar blue-haired girl standing on top of a box, holding leaflets.

It was Tsumugi Shirogane.

“Praise be to Atua!” Tsumugi exclaimed. “Join Atua’s Prophets and find salvation!”

“Shit, there’s Tsumugi,” Kaito sighed. “Want to know more about Angie’s cult? C’mon, I’ll show you how nuts it’s gotten.”

They approached the group, and they must’ve contrasted against the crowd because Tsumugi lit up at once.

“Kaito!” she said. “And...Shuichi? Is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Shuichi confirmed.

“If you’re here then...you’ve heard of our work!”

“Um, not exactly...”

“Hey, how ‘bout you tell Shuichi all about the Prophets?” Kaito insisted.

“Of course!” Tsumugi beamed. “A divine wind must’ve brought you here to join us, Shuichi!”

“W—What?” Shuichi blinked. “No, I was just here by coincidence.”

“There are no coincidences! Atua has a plan for you, Shuichi. If you join us, then you’ll unravel the true meaning of life and be spiritually resurrected!”

“Um, no thanks.”

“Aw, are you sure? All it requires to join are a few pints of blood and completely forsaking your previous life and worldly possessions.”

“What’s gotten into you, Tsumugi? Isn't Atua more of Angie’s thing?”

“That’s not my name.”

“...Huh?”

“What you called me. I’m forbidden from speaking the name, but you should know that I’m no longer called that anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“When one accepts Atua, one must forsake all ties to one’s previous life, so we choose new spirit names for ourselves,” Tsumugi explained.

“Okay...so what’s your new name?”

“No, no, no—you don’t understand, Shuichi,” Tsumugi shook her head, although the smile didn’t leave her face. “My new spirit name is a secret between myself, Atua, and the Oracle.”

“The Oracle?”

“She means Angie,” said Kaito.

“However, my face name is Magical Girl Super Sugar Plum.”

“It’s...what?!”

“You know, like in that one magical girl anime where all the characters fight the power of evil with sweets and love,” Tsumugi said fondly, twirling her hair. “Aah...anime would make such a good medium for spreading the word of Atua...”

While Tsumugi drooled, her eyes alight with fond memories of anime, Shuichi stole a glance to Kaito. What he got in response were raised eyebrows and an I-told-you-so shrug.

“What kind of things do you do to serve Atua?” Shuichi asked hesitantly, unsure if he wanted to know.

“All sorts of things!” Tsumugi lit up. “We meditate, throw parties, do art therapy, and hand out balloons to spread happiness to all. Here, take a look.”

Tsumugi handed him a leaflet. At once, Shuichi realized that Angie must’ve designed them herself. In the centre was a representation of Angie herself in a meditative pose, surrounded by bright yellow colours and symbols that he knew were associated with Atua. In brazen white lettering were the words: THE PATH OF ATUA IS OPEN TO ALL.

Opening the leaflet, Shuichi found more colourful illustrations accompanied by a quick segment about the Prophets:

The Tragedy was a precursor to a New World: ATUA’S WORLD!

Despair runs rampant! It seems impossible to stop! But there is a way to find salvation: BY SERVING ATUA!

The great god Atua has sent an Oracle to live among us and spread His word! Atua’s Prophets live according to Atua’s will! Happiness can only be achieved by living according to Atua’s message of happiness, acceptance, and hope!

Join the Prophets to begin your journey on THE PATH OF ATUA!

Shuichi reread it twice.

He looked up at Tsumugi and said, “That’s a lot of exclamation points.”

“Don’t you see, Shuichi?” Tsumugi continued brightly. “The Tragedy was a message from Atua! He’s trying to tell us that we have to be happy and serve him in order to eradicate despair!”

“Er, that seems like a nice sentiment, but—”

“You have to join, Shuichi! It’s the will of Atua!”

“Er, maybe I can...think...about it?”

“Of course, of course!” Tsumugi chirped in a very Angie-like way. She shoved more leaflets into his arms. “Take all the leaflets you want! The Oracle will be so happy when I tell her that I ran into you today. If we have a convert in the Future Foundation, we can spread Atua’s will to them!”

“That’s...a great idea! I think.”

Tsumugi handed a single leaflet to Kaito. “The Oracle hasn’t given up on you and the others yet, Kaito. Don’t forget! Because you were friends with the Oracle in her past life, you automatically start as a silver level disciple!”

“Thanks, Sugar Plum,” Kaito said flatly in a way that betrayed that he was all-too accustomed to this offer. “Have a good, Atua-filled day, and say hi to Mew Mew for me.”

“‘Mew Mew’?” Shuichi said.

“Himiko,” he hissed.

Kaito dragged Shuichi out of earshot of Tsumugi, who immediately went back to harassing anyone who would listen.

“That was...interesting,” Shuichi concurred.

“Yeah, you’d think they’d get someone other than Tsumugi to come up with face names,” Kaito shrugged.

“I meant in general.”

“Oh, well, that too.”

“And you said this all started soon after we left?”

“That’s right, and they’ve been gaining traction ever since. C’mon, let’s head back to the apartment—we can talk more there.”

Shuichi deposited the leaflets in a fire barrel on their way down the street. When they finally arrive at the apartment building, Shuichi was stunned by how dilapidated it was, although it was clear that the group had tried to make it more comfortable by performing minor repairs. However, given that none of them were the Ultimate Carpenter, the modifications were rudimentary at best.

“Looks good, huh?” Kaito said proudly. “Eh, except for the railing. To be fair, that just happened. Gonta tried to hug Tenko and she threw him.”

“I can see some things haven’t changed,” Shuichi remarked.

“Eh, not sure if the others are here right now,” Kaito continued. “Oh, Kaede did pick up a stray a few days ago.”

“She did?”

“Yeah, he’s pretty useless, though. All he does is sleep in my bed, eat our food, and drink Panta.”

Kaito led him up the stairs.

“Y’know, I’m still shocked that Panta managed to stay in business through this whole thing,” said Kaito, gesturing with his arms. “Pretty much every other business went under, but Panta's doing as good as ever. You don’t think there’s some sort of weird conspiracy going on over there, do you?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Hey, maybe you should get the Future Foundation to investigate!”

“Oh, I’m not that important. I’m just a grunt who goes around doing things no one else wants to do.”

“Heh, so no different from detective work, then.”

“...I guess so, I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”

“Got anything in mind for your big entrance? You only get to make one!”

“Actually, I was just thinking of going in and saying hello.”

“Tch, that’s not exciting. Suit yourself, but this is a wasted opportunity if you ask me.”

Kaito opened the door to the second apartment and walked in.

“Hey, Ryoma, guess who I found?” Kaito asked.

“I’m not interested.” Ryoma’s baritone voice shuddered through Shuichi. “We’ve got a problem.”

“No, no, no, really—take a guess.”

“I don’t—oh.”

Shuichi emerged from behind Kaito and entered the apartment. It was definitely too small given the size of their group. The majority of the space was filled by a kotatsu, and at the kotatsu Ryoma sat with the blanket over his lap, nervously shuffling a deck of cards. He stopped when he saw Shuichi. His wide, youthful eyes increased in size so much that Shuichi thought they might pop right out of his head.

For an extended second, they stood staring at each other, only a few feet between them, Ryoma’s lips tightening around his candy cigarette. Looks like he hadn’t broken that habit yet, but at least it hadn’t graduated to outright smoking. Shuichi studied him. He was in better shape than Kaito; he wasn’t underweight, though it was hard to tell under the puffy jacket wrapped around his small frame.

Ryoma’s lips loosened.

“So,” Ryoma said tensely. “You came back.”

“Actually, I was just in the area and I ran into Kaito by coincidence,” Shuichi admitted.

“Hmph. I appreciate the honesty.”

Ryoma’s large pupils raked up and down him. He sighed, and then he smiled softly.

“It’s good to see you again, Shuichi,” Ryoma finally said. He held out his hand.

Shuichi shook it. “Thanks, and same.”

“It’s been a long time,” Ryoma gestured across from him. “Want to take a seat?”

Shuichi did so and Kaito fussed around in the kitchen, trying to make tea. He’d never been good at that.

“Kaito filled me in on everything that happened since I left,” said Shuichi.

“That’s good, I didn’t want to go over the details,” Ryoma nodded. “How’s everyone who joined the Future Foundation?”

“Well...actually...I’m not in touch with any of them...”

In the kitchen, Kaito’s shuffling stopped and he glanced over his shoulder before going back to work. He filled the kettle with a jug of water; there must be no running water in the building.

“That’s surprising,” Ryoma remarked. “When’s the last you heard from them?”

“Well, Maki immediately got scouted for her talent as an assassin and was put on secret assignments for Kyosuke Munakata himself, so her communications are restricted to prevent information leaks,” Shuichi explained. “Kirumi...cut contact altogether...she wanted to focus on her work, and we stopped talking shortly after we joined.”

“And Keebo and Miu?”

“Miu’s still working for the 9th Division, but we’re not talking right now.” Shuichi bowed his head and focused on the table. Breath in. Breath out. “I don’t know where Keebo is.”

The tea kettle went crashing to the floor as Kaito whirled around. Ryoma’s candy cigarette fell from his mouth.

“He’s missing?!” Kaito exclaimed.

“I didn’t say that,” said Shuichi. “But...actually, yeah. He's missing.”

“Well, when’s the last time you heard from him?"

“It’s been about sixth months. Miu came to me at about that time and said that she couldn’t find Keebo, and she thought something terrible had happened. I asked some questions myself, but my superiors said that he was out on secret assignment like Maki and couldn’t have contact with me. When I backed off, Miu got angry and we stopped talking.”

“That’s fishy,” Ryoma noted. “Sounds like Keebo’s bosses have something to hide. Why didn’t you pursue it?”

“Didn’t want to get into trouble,” Shuichi admitted. “It’s cowardly, I know, but I trusted them. Departments within the Future Foundation don’t always communicate with one another, so it could be that they wanted me to stay out of their business.”

“But you don’t think that’s the case.”

“I...I don’t know. To be honest, I got so worked up over it and frustrated that going through regular channels didn’t work that I...I threw myself into my work and put it out of my mind.”

Ryoma’s eyes flicked down. Then up. “It’s been tough, huh?”

“Yeah,” Shuichi said quietly. “Yeah, a bit.”

As the silence settled in his bones, he heard footsteps and voices coming down the balcony, all  familiar and laughing and talking. Shuichi resisted the urge to crawl under the kotatsu when he heard a girl’s voice among them, so melodic that his knees turned to jelly and he was incapable of moving.

The apartment door nudged open and three people entered, immediately stopping when they saw him.

Rantaro, Kaede, and Tenko’s mouths fell open all at the same time. If the meeting hadn't sent an uneasy bittersweet sensation through him, it would've been comical, like a scene straight out of a sitcom when a bunch of people uncovered their friend’s embarrassing secret.

Sensing that they weren’t going to be capable of responding until he made the first move, Shuichi got to his feet.

“Hi,” he said with a small wave.

Kaede leapt forwards and threw her arms around Shuichi.

“AH, SHUICHI!” she shouted. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

She held tightly onto him for a few too-short-seconds before holding him at arm’s length.

“I can’t believe you’re here!” Kaede said again. “I can’t believe it! I mean, when—how—?”

“I ran into Kaito at the camp by coincidence,” Shuichi explained. “He filled me in on everything that’s happened since I left.”

“Oh,” Kaede’s face fell. “Yeah, it hasn’t been easy, but those of us that are still here stick together! Right, guys?”

She looked over to Rantaro and Tenko, searching for confirmation. Rantaro shook himself out of his shock.

“Well, if it isn’t the Boy Detective himself,” Rantaro said dryly, his mouth curving into a smile. “What’s the deal? You never write, you never call, you never visit...I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about us.”

Rantaro carried the drawl of sarcasm in his tone, but it still stung like a group of angry hornets. Kaede stepped aside so that he was face-to-face with Rantaro. Unable to bear it, Shuichi looked away, and when he turned back he found that Rantaro had raised his right hand at an angle and held it in the air.

Shuichi smiled despite himself and grabbed it.

“I’m glad you’re here,” said Rantaro.

“Yeah, me too,” Shuichi grinned.

They held their hands together for a few seconds and broke apart. From the doorway, Tenko scoffed and folded her arms.

“Don’t go thinking I’m gonna go easy on you, Shuichi,” Tenko sneered. “You left us.”

“I know,” Shuichi acknowledged. “You have a right to be angry at me.”

“You’re damn straight I do! I mean, even if you were a girl I’d still be pretty pissed.” Tenko’s glare softened somewhat. “But...I gotta admit, it’s nice to see a different face around here other than these guys. At least you know how to behave yourself!”

“I missed you too, Tenko.”

Tenko blushed. “S—Shut up!”

From the table, Ryoma stirred. “Shuichi was just telling us that Keebo’s missing.”

“He’s what?” Kaede gaped.

Shuichi briefly recounted what he’d told Kaito and Ryoma about Keebo. By the time he finished his story, they were all gathered around the kotatsu sans Kaito, who was making his second attempt at tea and failing miserably.

“That’s awful,” Kaede said when he was done. “We should do something about it.”

“I don’t know what you can do,” Shuichi confessed. “His activities were classified."

“Well, what about Kirumi? She used to the Prime Minister, after all. If anyone could convince the Future Foundation to cough him up, she can.”

“It’s not so simple. I don’t know if Kirumi will listen to anyone right about now, especially me.”

“What do you mean?” Rantaro asked.

“Well, it’s...a bit of a long story. And I’m not so sure I should tell you...”

“Oh, is it a super classified Future Foundation secret?” Kaede chimed.

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Wow, you said you were a grunt, Shuichi, but you gotta have some leverage if you got that kinda clearance,” said Kaito. “Most of the Future Foundation guys I know don’t even have clearance to get their thumbs out from their asses. Ah—Rantaro, I’m not having any luck with the tea. Want to take over?”

Rantaro sighed, but smiled as he and Kaito traded places and he went to tend to the kettle.

“C’mon, what the Future Foundation doesn’t know won’t kill them,” said Tenko. “They wouldn't arrest a bunch of former Ultimates just because we know a bit about their dirty laundry.”

Oh, she had no idea. Still Shuichi conceded that he was among his old, trusted friends—one who he’d been able to lean on in the darkest period of his life.

“Well...if I tell you some things, you gotta keep it a secret,” Shuichi emphasized. “And I mean that. You can’t tell anyone.”

“I’ll never tell a soul!” Tenko proclaimed.

“Same here,” said Kaede.

Everyone else agreed.

“Okay,” Shuichi sighed. “Kirumi and I are working on opposite sides of a special case. She’s the prosecutor and I’m investigating for the defence.”

“Yeesh, sounds serious,” Kaito whistled. “The Future Foundation’s doesn’t go after any ol’ criminals, after all.”

“Having the former Prime Minister act as the prosecutor sends a pretty serious message,” Rantaro added.

“Heh, I know all about trials,” said Ryoma. “Although mine was very brief. The evidence against me was overwhelming, after all.”

“Well, the evidence in this particular case isn’t overwhelming, which is kind of the source of the problem,” Shuichi imparted. He’d have to lie about some details if he was going to protect the integrity of his case, and he didn’t want to alarm them by telling them that a Remnant was loose in the neighbourhood. “You’ll understand why I can’t get into specifics, but the problem is is that all the evidence that is there is circumstantial. They were about to convict the offender when I stepped in at the last moment and challenged Kirumi’s case.”

“Eh, prosecutors can be touchy if the defence gets in the way of a clean conviction,” Ryoma remarked. He removed his candy cigarette and spun it between his fingers, his brows meeting. “That’s why you and Kirumi aren’t exactly on the best of terms right now?”

“Yeah, she wasn’t too happy with me.”

“Hey, I’m sure Kirumi will realize that you’re just doing your job,” Tenko assured him. “She’s pretty reasonable.”

“Not in this case. Kirumi thinks that even if the evidence is circumstantial, it’s for the ‘greater good’ if the accused is found guilty.”

“Regardless of his innocence?” Rantaro frowned.

“That's right.”

Ryoma let out a disapproving hum.

“Is that really ethical?” Tenko asked carefully. “I mean, the Future Foundation is all about the...well, future. You’d think they’d be more worried about convicting the right person than convicting a convenient target.”

“The Future Foundation doesn’t have any accountability, so when things like this happen, no one has the power to stop them,” said Kaede. “Still, it’s...surprising that they’d think this was okay. I mean, most of them are our fellow Ultimates. You’d think they’d know better.

“Actually, it’s not surprising at all,” Rantaro remarked. The tea finished, he joined them at the kotatsu and poured them all a cup. “It’s all about propaganda. The Future Foundation isn’t an inherently bad organization and they want to be able to inspire hope in people, so if people hear that they convicted a dangerous criminal, they’d find a reason to keep going. To do that, they're willing to go to extremes.”

“So you think it’s okay for them to convict a potentially innocent person?”

“I didn’t say that. I can just see why they would decide to be pragmatic about it. The Future Foundation is as afraid of Remnants as we are and they don’t want to take the risk of being wrong. Better to find a potentially innocent person guilty than let one of the million-class murderers walk free.”

When the word 'Remnant' was spoken, a hush descended, sudden and violent.

“I didn’t say anything about the accused being a Remnant,” Shuichi said.

“It seemed pretty obvious,” Rantaro shrugged. He put the kettle down and pulled his cup close, eyes half-closed. “Why else would the Future Foundation be so eager to convict a person? Why else would they get the former Prime Minister to be the prosecutor? They wouldn’t waste those efforts on any common criminal.”

Shuichi clamped his mouth shut, not trusting himself to reveal more details about the case.

“It’s understandable if you can’t talk more, but those are my thoughts,” said Rantaro.

“Sounds like a shitty situation,” Kaito concluded. “I wish everyone would come to their senses already. First Angie’s cult, and now Keebo’s missing and Kirumi’s gone all hardcore.”

“It’s just a shitty situation in general, I think," said Tenko.

Shuichi stared at the steaming tea in front of him. It didn’t look particularly appetizing.

“What happened to us?” Shuichi wondered.

Five pairs of too-large eyes broke their silent vigils over their tea.

“We used to be inseparable,” said Shuichi. “That month at Hope’s Peak was the best time in my life, and the year after—well, it would’ve been a lot darker without you guys in my life. What happened to us? We always said that even if we end up taking separate paths in life, we’d still be friends.We’d still support each other through thick and thin. It’s like...we’re a shadow of who we used to be.”

“Don’t say that,” Kaede said quietly, squeezing his hand. “We’re all different now, there’s no denying that, but what we promised each other when everything started still stands. We’re all still friends through thick and thin, and each friendship in our lives has its ups and downs. We just happen to be in the middle of a ‘down’ period.”

“Yeah, don’t go all emo on us,” Kaito agreed. “We need to find Keebo, don’t we?”

“But the Future Foundation—” Shuichi started.

“Are you really going to bend over backward for the Future Foundation, especially when it's clear that you don’t agree with all of their policies?” Ryoma asked. “Keebo’s missing and he’s our friend. Ergo, the least we can do is make a few missing posters and ask a few questions that might make ‘em squirm a little.”

Shuichi sighed. “You’re right, of course. I should’ve acted sooner, but I wanted to pretend it didn’t even happen. A lot of ground has been lost because so much time has passed and it’s clear the Future Foundation isn’t about to act any time soon.”

“Hey, it’s understandable that my trusty sidekick would get a little lost without me to guide him,” Kaito smiled. "Plus it sounds like you're under a lot of pressure, and with Miu and Kirumi being dumbasses, you've had more than your fair share of problems. Now that you got us, there's no way you can do wrong."

“I’ll help, too—Keebo may be a degenerate male, but he’s our degenerate male!” Tenko agreed. She then let out a forlorn sigh and leaned against the table. “Ugh, if only Himiko was here, she could use her magic to find him in an instant.”

Ryoma snapped his fingers. “Shit, I completely forgot.”

“Forgot what?”

“Keebo’s not the only one missing,” said Ryoma. “Sorry, I forgot all about this when Shuichi walked in. Gonta’s MIA, too.”

“Gonta? How hard can it be to find Gonta? He’s, like, a giant!”

“Are you sure he didn’t get lost again?” Rantaro asked. “You know how often he gets turned around.”

“Not possible,” Ryoma shook his head. “Seeing as I think our house guest is responsible.”

“You mean Panta Boy actually moved?!” Kaito exclaimed.

“Yeah, and kidnapped Gonta in the process. I looked for them for most of the afternoon and couldn’t find them anywhere.”

“Dammit, Gonta’s always gotta go and get himself into these situations, doesn’t he? So we gotta find Gonta first and then we find Kee—”

Kaito cut himself off when he erupted into a violent coughing fit that thrust him against the kotatsu, knocking over his tea cup. A steady puddle extended across the worn wood. It was a truly awful cough—moist and harsh, like someone was reaching down Kaito’s throat to rip out his lung.

“Woah, don’t drink so fast,” said Rantaro.

“Are you okay, Kaito?” Kaede asked.

“I’m fine—I’m fine,” Kaito insisted, waving his hand. Still, he descended into another round of coughing and barely managed to bark out, “I, uh, just need some air. Stuffy in here.”

His shoulders heaving from the effort, Kaito removed himself from the kotatsu—slipping away from Rantaro’s outstretched hand. He turned his head if only to give them a reassuring smile and a wave before heading out into the night. By the way Rantaro and Kaede’s steady eyes met over the table, Shuichi could see that he wasn’t the only suspicious one.

“Is he okay?” Shuichi asked the moment the door shut.

“Well, don’t tell him I told you, but he was very depressed for a long time,” Kaede conceded. “Losing you and Maki was really rough on him.”

A fat lump of inexcusable guilt lodged in his throat. Shuichi swallowed it down. He'd been more referring to Kaito's physical state, but somehow hearing that was worse.

"Should we go looking for Gonta now?" Shuichi asked, wanting nothing more than to change the subject.

"Eh, he could be heading back as we speak," Ryoma reflected. He checked a clock fastened to the wall. "The generator has about an hour of power left. Let's wait until it runs out, then we go looking for him and our house guest."

“In the meantime, when was the last time you heard from Keebo?” Rantaro asked. “Did he sound like he was in trouble at all?”

Shuichi raked his brain. “No, everything was normal. Then nothing. He was gone.”

“How was the Future Foundation treating him?” Ryoma questioned. “He was pretty eager to join them. Remember that he was the first one after Kirumi to say he was going.”

“He loved it,” said Shuichi. “The Future Foundation treated him very well since he was such a valuable asset. Most of Dr Idabashi’s creations were stolen or destroyed by the Remnants, so the fact that they managed to recruit Keebo was considered a huge win. He never expressed dissatisfaction to me at all. Of course, he was upset that not everyone in the class decided to join up, but he felt confident that soon we’d all be working for them.”

“Tch, he always did have a little too much blind faith in people,” Ryoma noted. “Are you sure there wasn’t any foul play involved in his disappearance?”

“I don’t know,” Shuichi confessed. “After I started asking questions, the 6th Division was quick to swoop in and tell me to back off.”

“Who heads that department?”

“Juzo Sakakura, former Ultimate Boxer.”

Ryoma scoffed. “I remember that asshole. He was the head of security when we were at Hope’s Peak, remember? Went around beating up anyone who got in his way.”

“The 6th Division handles policing, doesn’t it?” Rantaro remembered. “It seems a little out-of-character for Keebo to want to work in enforcement. He was always nonviolent to the point of pacifism.”

“It wasn’t his choice,” said Shuichi. “After we joined, we were assigned to the departments that best suited our talents. Kirumi and Maki got the 2nd Division, I got 5th, Keebo got the 6th, and Miu was assigned to the 9th. Keebo told me that the leaders ascertained that his abilities as a robot were ideal for enforcement. In the end, the only reason he didn’t oppose it too much was because they gave him assignments that didn’t involve him jumping into the middle of a firefight. Most of it was propaganda where he walked around looking impressive."

"It still seems strange,” said Rantaro. “Anyone want more tea?”

“I’ll have some,” said Kaede.

“Same,” Shuichi added. “Your tea tastes terrible, by the way.”

Kaede laughed. “We got it off the black market. Anything that comes off of there tastes awful, but it’s better than having rations all the time.”

Rantaro headed to the stove and refilled the kettle.

“Heh, it tastes bad enough that you might be able to defeat the Remnants with this,” Shuichi mused.

“If only it were that simple,” Tenko said. She traced her finger around the rim of her teacup. “If Himiko was here, she could just magic them all away and put the world back to normal...”

Under normal circumstances, Shuichi would’ve reminded Tenko that there was no such thing as magic, and no matter how adorable Himiko was, no amount of her childlike claims of being a mage could put things back in place.

Instead, he said, “Yeah, I bet she could.”

At that moment, they were interrupted when the doorknob rattled and the door swung open. A boy clad in a dark jacket backed into the room, hands held out as Kaito came in right after him, looking none-too pleased.

“Let’s not do anything hasty,” the boy said. “I mean, I’m a poor, helpless orphan.”

Shuichi went numb.

He knew that voice. He knew that snide, awful, playful voice, and it didn't instill the same sense of bittersweet happiness when he'd realized it was Kaito in the dispensary. Instead, it was outright horror.

“Poor, helpless orphan my foot,” Kaito seethed.

“What’s going on?” Rantaro asked from the kitchen.

“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” the boy began.

He turned. And Shuichi's fears were confirmed. It was Kokichi Oma.

Kokichi didn’t immediately see Shuichi, his head still turned to give Kaito a poisonous, affronted stare that just had to be part of a lie. He then started to turn, and Shuichi dreaded every agonizing moment it took for him to swivel his head.

Kokichi continued, “This dummy is falsely accusing me of—achk!”

When Kokichi noticed Shuichi, the world froze. It went silent and screamed simultaneously, and the cockiness, the facade, the confidence Kokichi had carried with him vanished. Shuichi realized that he hadn’t expected him here, that he hadn’t ever expected him here, that Shuichi had been just a footnote.

Now, Shuichi gripped the table to prevent himself from fainting from shock, and loathed the way Kokichi transformed from an overconfident brat to a terrified child right before his eyes.

Chapter Text

Kokichi and Shuichi gawked at each other from opposite ends of the kotatsu, the air bloated with tension. Through his mind, he played through countless scenarios in the span of what must've only been a few seconds. He could leap over and kill him. He could run away. Future Foundation soldiers burst in and arrested him. Or he could faint.

Instead, he chose to open his mouth and say, "Oh, shit."

How the hell had this happened? How the fucking hell had this happened? Kokichi froze, because there was no way fate was that cruel to him, that this was Shuichi Saihara, Ultimate Detective and professional do-gooder. The scenarios in his mind grew in extremes until he settled on the extreme that only he could pull off. He had to lie. A serpent lived in his mouth and he wasn't about to swallow it down now when he needed it the most.

Before he could act, Shuichi, his eyes partly concealed under his stupid hat, rose to his feet. He bent slightly, hands outstretched as if soothing a terrified animal.

“Kokichi,” said Shuichi. “Don’t run. I want to talk.”

“Kokichi?” Kokichi repeated. He looked from side to side,  catching a glimpse of Rantaro’s befuddled expression. “Who’s that? Sounds like a handsome devil. Well, nice conversation. Got to go!”

Door, door, door, door, door. Kokichi turned on his heel and made to run, but instead ran straight into Kaito, who blinked down at him in shock.

“Uh...do you two know each other?” Kaito asked.

“No,” said Kokichi. “I mean, yes! Yes, we do! We’re married!”

“Wha—no we’re not!” Shuichi exclaimed.

“D—Does this mean you want a divorce?” Kokichi gasped.

“We’re not married! Why would you say that?!”

“We’re totes married! You just don’t remember it because you had to drink a lot before you could say ‘I do’!”

“You got married, Shuichi?” Tenko asked. “Why didn’t you tell us?!”

“We’re not married, Tenko,” said Shuichi. “He’s lying.”

“W—W—Why would I lie?” Kokichi stammered. “I—I’m not a liar. He’s a liar! And—I—uh—is—is it getting hot in here or is it just me? I’m not sweating—you are!”

Kokichi closed his eyes for a brief second to curb his body's unwilling response to pinballing panic. His heart clutched at the ribs that imprisoned it and let out a shriek that shook every his every molecule. Unsure of what he was doing, Kokichi backed away from the front door and the kotatsu, stopping only when he bumped into Rantaro. He backed further and further into a corner, and watched in horror—unable to stop his life from unravelling in front of him—as Ryoma went to block the bedroom. Little shithead.

So much for his vague plan of breaking his legs from jumping off the balcony in case of an emergency. Sweat erupted across his brow, drowning him in a sticky, salty mess of emotion and panic. He couldn't figure out what had gone wrong. He couldn't do this, he couldn't go back to the cell, he couldn't deal with the Future Foundation, he couldn't die.

“Kokichi, it’s okay,” Shuichi said gently. “I just want to talk. I didn’t know you were here, but I’m sort of glad you are.”

“How do you two know each other?” Kaede asked.

“Er...well...”

“Please be honest with us.”

His attention never straying from Kokichi, Shuichi removed his hat and held it limply in his hand. From underneath an ahoge popped into the open and Kokichi let out a noise that sounded like a strangled laugh, but might've been more out of sheer terror than finding humour in the situation.

"The case I'm working on," said Shuichi. "The one with the accused Remnant. There's something I didn't tell you about that."

“What is it?” Kaede asked.

Ryoma, however, looked like he’d already figured it out. Rounding on his heel, his hands flew out of his pockets, balling into small but sturdy fists. He spat out his candy cigarette to clench his teeth. From across the room, Rantaro noticed, and his steady gaze went from Ryoma to Kokichi to Shuichi, and then back to Kokichi.

“A few days ago...the accused escaped Future Foundation custody,” Shuichi revealed. “And he’s standing right over there.”

Well, balls.

Ryoma and Kaito leapt for Kokichi at the same time. He slid back and let the two collide with each other, Kaito tripping over Ryoma, Ryoma swearing profusely. Kokichi fumbled for something to hide him, and he found a doorknob, and fell backward into a room. Of course—the bathroom. How could he have forgotten about that? He slammed the door shut and held it as Kaito regained his footing.

The bathroom was narrow enough that Kokichi could brace his feet against the edge of the tub and press his back against the door. Someone jiggled the doorknob frantically.

"OCCUPIED!" Kokichi shouted.

“COME OUT OF THERE, YOU LITTLE SHIT!” Kaito screamed. “I knew it! I knew there was something fucked up about you!”

Dammit, shit, dammit. The door had a lock—but Kaito was giving it his all. Kokichi looked around and noticed a curtain rod above the tub. Pressing one hand against the door, he used the other to reach for it, pulled it down, and braced it over one shoulder. Kaito's thick fingers pried open the door.

Kokichi slammed the curtain rod down the crack, thwacking Kaito over the head. His fingers retracted and Kokichi got the door shut, shoving the lock into place.

“OW!” Kaito shouted. “Bastard! Come out of there!”

“Crap,” Shuichi breathed. “How long has he been here?”

“I think it’s been about four or five days,” said Kaede. “Shuichi, are you sure he’s—”

“Believe me, I know who he is. His name’s Kokichi Oma. Another thing I didn’t tell you about the case—Kirumi’s assigned to track him down along with Sakakura. She’s in the area with a whole contingent of Future Foundation agents on the lookout for him.”

“Kirumi’s here, too?”

“Yeah, she asked me here to talk to her, and afterward I ran into Kaito. Crap, I mean...where did you find him?”

Kaede recounted the day Kokichi met her and Rantaro at the refugee camp and explained how they'd brought him to the apartment and how he'd taken Kaito's bed and how he'd been nothing short of a ghost. Kokichi listened helplessly, wanting nothing more than to ram his head through the door and scream at them to stop.

“So he didn’t say who he was?” Shuichi asked when the story finished.

“No, nothing,” Kaede assured him. “He wouldn’t tell us his real name.”

“That’s a relief.”

“A relief?” Kaito snapped. “A. Relief. I’m sorry, but I would’ve liked to have known that I had a Remnant sleeping in my bed!"

"I don't know for sure if he's a Remnant."

"Oh, come on. My gut instinct tells me that he's definitely guilty!"

“Ugh, don’t talk about your guts when there are girls present!” Tenko criticized him.

“Oh, that does it. Someone go get those useless Future Foundation guards. We’re turning this asshat in—and there had better be a reward for it.”

“Don’t!” Shuichi cried out.

There was a long, heavy pause on the other side of the door. Kokichi pressed his ear against the wood, and as his shoulder made contact with it, stifling pain rocketed up. When he withdrew, he saw a bloody imprint left by the injury he'd only just remembered he'd had.

“Whaddya mean ‘don’t’?” Kaito asked.

“Because if you turn him in...they’ll kill him.”

Kokichi shuffled over to the sink and turned the handle, hoping to find water to clean the injury. When nothing came out, he remembered that they didn’t have running water in the apartment and cursed the cascade of bad luck that had descended on him.

“Before he escaped, they’d decided to execute him,” Shuichi explained. “When he got away, that gave me some time to continue my investigation into his affiliations. And remember—there’s no conclusive evidence suggesting that he actually is a Remnant. It could be a lie.”

“Who in their right mind would lie about being a Remnant?” Kaito demanded.

“A kid playing a game might,” said Ryoma. “He certainly fits that description.”

“There’s...something else you guys should know,” Shuichi continued.

“Something else?” Tenko echoed. “How many more bombshells are you gonna drop on us?”

“Do you guys remember when we got to Hope’s Peak?” Shuichi asked. “There were supposed to be sixteen students in our class, but when we got there, there was only fifteen. The sixteenth student never showed up.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Kaito demanded.

“Well...Kokichi’s the sixteenth student. He’s the one who never came to class.”

Kokichi distracted himself by trying the bathtub. All he got out of the tub was a faint gurgling sound and no water whatsoever.

“He’s an Ultimate?” Kaito asked. “That dumbass is an Ultimate student?”

“What was his talent?” Kaede wondered.

“Kokichi is the Ultimate Supreme Leader," said Shuichi.

“...What kind of talent is that supposed to be?”

“It means,” Kokichi called, “that I am the unmitigated leader of villainy! I already told you this, you assholes, did’ya forget that already?!”

“Shut up!” Kaito shouted, kicking the door. “We’re talking here!”

“Hey, you’re talking about my future,” said Kokichi. “After all, you’re the ones who locked an evil Remnant in your bathroom.”

“You locked yourself in there,” Ryoma pointed out.

“Did not!”

“Here, let me try,” Shuichi intervened.

Giving up on getting water, Kokichi crawled into the tub and lounged back.

“Do you want to come out?” Shuichi asked. “I’m not gonna turn you in. I just want to talk.”

“Again?” Kokichi scoffed. “I’m feeling rather comfortable in here.”

“Can we talk through the door, then?”

“Not unless you want to completely surrender to me.”

“Surrender? You’re the one locked in the bathroom right now.”

“Don’t be stupid, I can get out anytime I want—all without you knowing it.”

“There’s no other way out of there, so I don’t see how that’s possible,” said Rantaro.

“Rantaro, save me!” Kokichi cried out. “They’re harassing me!”

“Don’t be immature. How about you come out and we can all talk about this?”

“NO! I’m happy right where I am!”

Rantaro muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “Stubborn.” Then, he continued, “Shuichi, what was that you were saying about circumstantial evidence in this particular case? Do you know for sure if he’s a Remnant or not?”

“I don’t want to make a hasty judgments,” said Shuichi. “But to be honest...I have a hunch that he isn’t.”

“Is that so?” Kokichi called through the door. “Well, Mister Detective, what brought you to that ingenious conclusion? A so-called impartial detective can’t make assumptions about a case when there isn’t any evidence for or against me, remember?”

“This isn’t an assumption, it’s a hunch—there’s a difference. I’ll rescind it if evidence shows up to the contrary. For now, this is a basic impression of someone who certainly doesn’t behave like a Remnant should.”

What an idiot. “And now you’re assuming how a Remnant should behave. What exactly led you to that conclusion?”

"For one thing, most of the Remnants' operations are covert. They thrive off of secrecy and espionage, so the fact that you're so ready to proclaim that you're a Remnant is suspect in itself. A real Remnant would fight to the bitter end in order to feel as much despair as possible when they're finally caught.”

Kokichi rolled his eyes and sunk deeper into the tub.

“Silence won’t help.  You don’t want them to execute you, do you? Do you have a death wish or something?”

Dick. Kokichi wasn't about to fall for Shuichi's half-assed attempt to 'help' him. He pulled off his boot and threw it at the door.

"I got nothing to say to you, dumbass!" Kokichi shouted.

"HEY!" Kaito yelled. "Answer the question! And you still haven't said where Gonta is! Open the door right now!"

"Just break it down," Ryoma suggested.

"Oh, good idea," said Tenko. "Stand back and let me do it!"

"EVERYONE CALM DOWN!" Kaede shouted.

"But Kaede—" Kaito started.

“I said calm down!” Kaede asserted. “I want everyone to take a breath.”

“But—”

“One breath. Now.”

Kokichi focused on the tight feeling in his chest and released the tension he'd been holding onto with an iron grip. His shoulder throbbed. Despite the pain, he pulled off his jacket and threw it off to the side.

“Okay,” said Shuichi. “Okay...lemme think for a second. I need to think.”

“What’s there to think about?” Kaito asked. “If he’s a Remnant, we should turn him in.”

“But I’m not sure he’s a Remnant, and Kokichi isn’t about to give me a straight answer.”

“He’s a Remnant—I know it! He did something to Gonta!”

“We don’t know that either,” said Kaede. “But we should find out. We should go out and try to find—”

Kaede cut off when the sound of a door creaked opening echoed easily through the apartment. Kokichi fumbled upright, at first thinking that it was the bathroom door, and then realizing that it had to be the front.

A familiar, friendly voice echoed out, “Uh, what going on? Gonta interrupting?”

Several voices called out, “Gonta!”

“What happened?” Kaede asked. “You look awful!”

“I’ll get something for those cuts,” said Rantaro.

“Gonta okay,” Gonta insisted. “Gonta had rough day and...oh...Shuichi? Is...Is that you, Shuichi?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Shuichi confirmed.

“Oh, Gonta happy to see you!”

Shuichi let out a strained noise and gasped out, “Gonta! Gonta, you’re strangling me! Achk!”

“Gonta so happy!” Gonta wailed. “Gonta was afraid he would never see you again!”

“I missed you two—but seriously—please! Can’t...breathe!”

“Gonta sorry!” Gonta apologized. There was a thud; he must’ve released Shuichi to the floor.

“Where were you?” Ryoma asked.

“Yeah, man, we were freaking out for a while there,” said Kaito. “Especially after the little monster came back without you.”

“Monster?...Oh! You mean Kokichi.”

“H—How did you know that? How do you know his name?”

“He tell Gonta, and then Maki tell Gonta same thing.”

Once again, the silence Kokichi always dreaded descended on the group outside the bathroom door.

“Gonta, what do you know?” Rantaro asked.

Gonta recounted what had happened with Maki, though thankfully he left out the part about finding guns at the DICE hideout. Shuichi then filled in the details of Kokichi's case. After everyone exchanged stories and was sufficiently caught up, Gonta let out a long sigh. The direction of the voice had changed to somewhere near the kotatsu. They must all be sitting down again, though from the shadow visible under the door, someone remained on the other side.

“Gonta glad Shuichi here,” said Gonta. “Wish it was better circumstances.”

“Yeah, me too,” Shuichi agreed. “Hey, Ryoma, are you gonna keep standing there? He’s not going anywhere.”

“Can’t be too careful,” Ryoma said. So he was the one in front of the door. “Remnant or not, he’s dangerous.”

“When are we gonna turn him in?” Kaito asked.

“We can’t do that,” said Kaede. “Shuichi said himself that they’ll execute him if he’s captured.”

“Not to mention there’s a certain risk if Kirumi finds out that Kokichi’s been here for the last few days,” Shuichi added.

“What do you mean?” Tenko questioned. “It’s not like we intentionally harboured him.”

“Kirumi might not believe you, and she’s not listening to reason at the moment. If you turn him in, then there’s a certain risk that the Future Foundation might treat you as accessories at the very least and collaborators at the worst. And again, don’t forget that Kokichi’s guilt is in question here. There are no clear answers yet and that’s what’s bothering me about this case.”

“You don’t want us to keep him here, do you?”

“I’m not saying that—I’d never ask you to take that kind of risk—I—crap.” Shuichi sighed. “I can’t think right now.”

“Ugh, if I had a piano here, I could give you some thinking music,” said Kaede. “Would humming help?”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

After a long silence, Kaito suddenly asked, “Hey, Gonta. How was Maki? Did she look good?”

“Oh, Gonta would never ogle woman,” said Gonta. “Very ungentlemanly.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant—did she look...healthy? Happy, maybe?”

“Hm, Gonta not sure. Maki never good at expressing herself. She look tired and angry.”

“That sounds like Maki alright,” Shuichi said quietly. “I suspected that Kirumi was trying to get her involved, but I didn’t think Munakata would actually take Maki off of assignment.”

“Did Maki follow you back here?” Kaede asked Gonta with the slightest trace of urgency.

“No, she get angry with me,” Gonta answered. “Gonta had to run away. Gonta not want to hurt Maki.”

“This is all well and good, but we still need to decide what to do about the Remnant—I mean, Kokichi,” Rantaro spoke up. “If we’re in consensus that we don’t want the Future Foundation to execute someone who may be innocent, then that leaves the option of keeping Kokichi here while Shuichi continues his investigation. In turn, if we’re caught, then that runs the risk of us actually getting in trouble for being accessories.”

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” said Shuichi. “I can take Kokichi and...bring him somewhere else.”

“And where would that be, Boy Detective? It’d have to be a secure location Kokichi couldn’t escape from, particularly since it’s clear he isn’t your biggest fan at the moment.”

“I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE WITH YOU!” Kokichi shouted through the door. “You’re mean and I hate the way you dress!”

“Well, that ends that idea,” noted Kaede. “Of course...Kokichi is welcome to stay here for as long as he needs to.”

“Hold it, it’s way too dangerous to have a Remnant here,” Tenko cut in.

“Do you want him executed?”

"He's a boy, isn't he?"

“Pft, I don’t think the Future Foundation would actually execute him, right?" said Kaito. "I mean, they're paragons of justice or whatever. If there’s no evidence, there’s no reason to kill him—and—and he’s an Ultimate. Lots of Ultimates have died already, so they won’t waste a perfectly good one. Right, Shuichi?”

Shuichi didn’t answer.

“C’mon, Shuichi, just say that the Future Foundation wouldn’t kill him. They’re just pissed off at the moment, right?”

“Ah...sorry,” Shuichi apologized.

“Dammit,” Kaito hissed. “Dammit. This is messed up. This is seriously messed up. Are we really going to shelter a Remnant? Is this really happening? I mean, does this guy even want shelter?”

"He doesn't have a lot of options," said Shuichi. "Kirumi's out there and the agents under her command are undercover. If he goes out, he could get picked up by them."

"Do you think they could've noticed him on his way back here?" Tenko asked. "He could've led them right to us!"

"Let's not panic. It's dark out and he's wearing a black jacket. They might not have recognized him, but if he goes out in daylight, then there's a greater risk of exposure. Plus, I don't know exactly how many agents she has in the area."

“This is Kirumi we’re talking about. She probably has eyes on every street corner.”

“Which is why we shouldn’t freak out or change our routine,” said Kaede. “Now, are we all in agreement that we’re not going to turn Kokichi in until Shuichi’s finished his investigation?”

The silence met her with crushing force.

“Ugh, I hate to put my neck on the line for a boy, but I can make an exception if this is what you want, Kaede,” Tenko conceded.

“I...I don’t like it either,” Kaito sighed. “I hate killing. I’ve seen enough of it. If you really think that they’ll do something to him if they catch him, Shuichi, then he can stay for now.”

“Thanks, Kaito,” Shuichi said.

“Gonta is happy to keep Kokichi safe,” Gonta declared.

“I’m fine with it, too,” Rantaro agreed. “Ryoma, what about you?”

From in front of the door, Ryoma’s shadow shifted.

“I don’t like it,” Ryoma admitted. “That said, I’m outvoted, so my opinion’s irrelevant.”

“It’s not irrelevant, Ryoma,” Kaede told him.

“It’s fine. Everyone else is in agreement to not turn him in, though that wouldn’t have been my choice. The jury has spoken. The kid’s innocent until proven guilty.”

“Thanks guys, I appreciate this,” Shuichi breathed. “This is the only way I’ll have time to complete my investigation.”

“Where do you plan to start, Shuichi?” Kaede asked.

“Easy,” said Shuichi. “Gonta, in the morning, I want you to take me to that hideout Kokichi took you to.”

“B—Back out there?” Gonta stammered. “You sure, Shuichi?”

“Absolutely. It’s the best lead I’ve got at the moment and time is of the essence.”

“I’ll go with you, too,” Kaede decided. “It’ll be like old times, Shuichi—you and me, solving a mystery. All we need is a theme song!”

“You still haven’t come up with one?”

“Hey, I was on hiatus for a while. At least this mystery is more exciting than our old ones.”

“Yeah, you used to solve mysteries like ‘who took the last chocolate bar’ and ‘who left that mess in the bathroom’,” Rantaro remembered. “I seem to remember that it was ‘Himiko’ and ‘Keebo’, respectively.”

“Right, I remember that!” Kaito burst out laughing. “Keebo wanted to simulate what it was like for humans to get ready in the morning and went a little overboard. God, I hope he’s okay.”

“What should we do about Keebo in the meantime?” Rantaro wondered.

“I hate to say it, but that might have to wait until this business with Kokichi is sorted out,” said Shuichi. “We can’t help Keebo if we’re all arrested for aiding a Remnant.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t help him,” Ryoma muttered.

If Kaede heard Ryoma, she ignored him and said, “There must be something we can do.”

“Well...I could try to catch up with Miu. If I know her, she’s been looking into this herself. Maybe she’s made some progress with it?”

“But will she talk to you? You said yourself that she was angry with you.”

“Yeah...but she might talk to one of you guys. The Future Foundation has a neighbourhood around its primary headquarters where most of the staff live. She runs a workshop over there. I can get one or two of you clearance and transportation. I can try touching bases with her myself, but if she won’t listen to me, then you guys are our best bet.”

“How soon can you arrange it?”

“I’ll need to make a few phone calls and clear it with my supervisor. It might take a few days, though...”

“That’s fine. In the meantime, we should try to touch bases with everyone else in the class and see if any of them have heard from Keebo.”

“Including Kirumi?”

“If she’s in the neighbourhood, let me take a whack at her. Deep down Kirumi wants to protect us, so there’s no way she’ll turn a blind eye when she hears Keebo’s missing. I don’t think it would hurt to ask Angie, Himiko, and Tsumugi, too. They might’ve heard something we haven’t.”

“Ugh, more talking to the Prophets?” Kaito groaned. “Not my favourite activity...but for Keebo, I’ll do it.”

"And Kiyo?" Rantaro asked.

"I have no idea how to get in touch with him," Kaede admitted. "You know Kiyo. He probably off with his head in the clouds."

"We'll have to make do without him," said Shuichi. "Okay then, I guess we have a game plan."

“And just in time, too,” Ryoma noted. “The generator’s about to go out.”

Just as Ryoma finished talking, the lights above Kokichi flickered and went out, plunging him into absolute darkness.

Most of the conversation after that was idle. Idle, boring, friendly, tooth-rotting conversation done in the dark. The students were up most of the night reflecting on old times they’d had prior and during the Tragedy—though how they could enjoy anything went over Kokichi’s head. All the same, he listened vaguely if only to find out Miu and Keebo were, and judging from the conversation, Miu had to be an Ultimate—something related to engineering or mechanics. He didn’t quite believe it when he realized that Keebo was a robot, but then again this was Hope’s Peak. Anything was possible.

When the conversation exhausted what interest he had in it, Kokichi turned his attention to his shoulder—knowing that there wasn’t much he was going to be able to do about it while floundering around in the dark. Without light, he had to feel his way around, and settled for making himself as comfortable as possible in the bathtub, his shoulder stinging the whole time. He tried to stifle the bleeding with his jacket, though it was hard to gauge success without being able to take a look at it.

He dozed off once or twice, waking only when he heard the others consenting to go to bed—having stayed up far too late for the hour they intended to wake up. Finally. Kokichi could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

He turned in the tub and stared blankly into the darkness, cursing it for failing to distract him with images and sound. In the dark, he could only dive deeper into his imagination. The students’ socializing sent pangs of jealousy through him—not because he wanted to join them, but because that was one thing he’d lost to the Tragedy.

He didn’t have that anymore. DICE was dead. Even in his memories, even though he could still remember the parties and pranks and good times he and the other DICE members had had, even vaguely thinking about it sent fresh waves of pain through him that did not originate from the injury on his shoulder. As always, he swallowed the memories down. Kokichi couldn’t think about them—and he resolved to never think about them again because they were a distraction because no amount of longing or small grief-filled twinges would change things. There was no comfort in them, only a dreadful ache pulsing like a phantom limb.

He slept again and resolved to purge his mind of anything save his singular goal of avoiding capture.


When Kokichi woke up, slivers of pale light snuck underneath the doorway and dread filled him.

He sat up in the bathtub, his shoulder stinging, and the steady lilt of quiet conversation came from the main room. Sounded like they were having breakfast. At the thought of food, his stomach let out a rumble.

Crawling from the tub, Kokichi pressed his ear against the door and listened. The hushed voices didn't carry far—perhaps they didn't want to risk him overhearing them.

“—take him some food?” That was Kaede.

"No, if he wants to eat, he has to come out," said Rantaro.

“We should just break down the door,” said Kaito.

“That’s counter-productive. We want him to trust us and trust that we want to help him.”

“Breaking down the door would be faster,” Kaito sang.

"Vandalism not proper behaviour," said Gonta.

"I knew you were going to say that," Kaito groaned.

So, they thought they could manipulate him, did they? Subtle annoyance prickled through Kokichi’s body. Only one person was going to be doing the manipulating here—and that person was going to be him.

He had to admit, though, that the bathroom didn’t qualify as comfortable accommodations. It had been okay for a while—it had been dark and safe and safely isolated him from the others. On the other hand, it reminded him a little too much of his old cell, the one he was certain Shuichi would drag him back to at the earliest opportunity.

Shit. What was he going to do?

The question hit him with such violence that he lowered himself onto the rim of the tub and held his head in his hands. He wasn’t used to asking himself that question. What was he going to do? In the past, the question had always had an obvious answer, such as when he’d been in prison and the answer had been to escape. When he’d gotten out, the answer had been to get as far away from the Future Foundation as possible. Shuichi was here, the Future Foundation was outside, Kirumi would catch him if he left, and Kokichi realized that this was somehow worse than his cell. When he’d been in his cell, the answers had been clear—now he was in a prison of his own making.

The realization struck him—reached out and slapped him silly with a firm, all-too-real hand. He was trapped. Thoroughly, insurmountably trapped.

Sweat beaded on his forehead. Okay. Okay, so he was trapped. He could handle this.

He steadied himself, the ringing in his ears intense and overwhelming. Kokichi was buried, buried in impossible sensation coursing through his body, igniting every sense on fire. He ached for certainty.

More than anything, he ached for DICE.

If they were here, everything would be fine. But they weren’t and the world was falling apart.

It took far too long to pull himself together, and even when he did, he felt nauseous and dizzy. Outside, the idle conversation continued as if nothing had happened.

Trembling, Kokichi tugged at his hair. He had to get a hold of himself; he couldn’t afford to have a moment. If the Future Foundation closed in, Kokichi knew what he had to do. He would have to kill himself, because giving them the satisfaction of a victory was unthinkable. Suicide would break a promise he'd made a long, long time ago, but he was as good as dead anyway if they caught him.

Another absolute decision he made then and there was that Shuichi could not be trusted, nor could his classmates. He was in this alone. The students were pawns in his game, and he was going to win.

Kokichi sucked in air through his nose and blew out through his mouth. He could do this.

The conversation outside of the door came to a halt with a ringing noise. Sounded like a cellphone. It had been so long since Kokichi had heard such a noise that he initially struggled to place it.

“Ah—that’s mine,” said Shuichi. “I better take this.”

Shuichi answered his phone with a curt greeting, then the sound of his footsteps went into the bedroom. If he was going to make his appearance, now was the time.

Unsteady on his feet, his hand trembling, Kokichi hovered over the latch.

Deep breath.

The mask slid back on and he yearned for a physical one to hide behind.

Kokichi unlocked the door in one fell swoop, swung it open, and casually strode into the room. The groan of the hinges caught the attention of everyone around the kotatsu, which included all residents of the apartment sans Shuichi.

Kokichi stared at them.

They stared back.

“Oo, breakfast!” Kokichi exclaimed.

He hurried over to the kotatsu, crawled over the back, and squeezed in between Kaito and Rantaro.

“Gimme!” Kokichi said. He stole Kaito’s bowl. Before diving in, he noted that it looked like he’d only taken a few bites, while everyone else was about halfway through their meal. “Ugh, more rice? Don’t you have anything else to eat around here?”

“Hey, that’s mine!” Kaito protested.

“Is not, you were saving it for me,” Kokichi said with a full mouth. He swallowed. “Y’know, like a good minion.”

“I’m not your minion.”

Kokichi laughed and patted Kaito’s cheek. “You’re stupid, so I’ll forgive that terrible transgression.”

He became acutely aware of everyone’s attention trained on him, tense and uncertain.

“What?” Kokichi asked. “You’re still useful, so I’ll spare your lives for now. Don’t think I won’t kill you all later!”

“Don’t make threats you don’t intend to follow through,” Rantaro chastised him. “What happened to your shoulder?”

Kokichi glanced at the shoulder in question. In the improved lighting, he could see that the bleeding had stopped, though it had stained his shoulder and sleeve with thick, scarlet patches.

"Ah, you not bandage it!" Gonta exclaimed. "Gonta sorry for not asking how you were sooner!"

"Shut up," said Kokichi. "It's not a big deal. Your friend, Maki, shot me. Or at me, rather."

“Gee, I wonder why,” Tenko drawled.

“It doesn’t look like you’ve cleaned it,” Rantaro noted.

“It’s fine, don’t baby me!”

“I’ll get the first aid kit,” Kaede decided, rising to her feet.

“You really want to give me first aid?” Kokichi chided, putting a finger to his lips. “Wouldn’t it be better to let me get an infection and die? Then you can kill me all without getting your hands dirty!”

“I would never kill anyone!”

“I’m sure you can do it if you try!”

“I’m willing to give it a go,” said Tenko.

“She has the right idea,” Kokichi hissed to Kaito.

Kaito scoffed and shuffled away from him.

Kaede returned with a first aid kit and started unpacking the contents.

“Um, we should flush that—” Kaede started.

She lightly brushed his shoulder.

The mild contact left a shockwave of fire through him. Kokichi leapt up so fast his knees knocked against the kotatsu, tripped over the back, and scrambled to put some distance between himself and her.

“Woah, woah, woah, woah,” he said, wagging his finger. “Don’t put your grubby hands on me, you pervert!"

“Pervert?”

“Yeah, pervert,” Kokichi spat out the word. “You’re desperate to get a piece of this! Not that I blame you, but y’know. I got standards.”

“I—what?”

Kokichi snatched the kit out of her hands and was pleasantly surprised to find it well-stocked. His previous attempts at self-administered aid never went well, and he'd wasted a lot of perfectly good clothing, toilet paper, and water that way. The kit even had little band-aids decorated with planets and stars. Either way, the cotton bandages were a welcome change.

He'd finished his survey when the bedroom door slid open and Shuichi stood there, as taut as a bowstring.

“Oh—you came out,” said Shuichi.

“Not to talk to you,” Kokichi smiled hollowly.

“R—Right,” Shuichi murmured. He turned to the others. “I have to head back to work. Apparently I still have my regular duties to perform while I’m investigating Kokichi’s case.”

"Can't you get someone else to fill in for you?" Kaito asked.

“I got a lot of intel to sort through and I don’t trust anyone to do it but me,” Shuichi sighed. “Anyway, going to that hideout will have to wait. If I don’t report in, someone might start asking questions.”

“What, are we supposed to keep this dumbass here until you get back?” Kaito asked.

“Sorry...”

Kaito groaned and slammed his forehead against the table.

“Kokichi, don’t leave this apartment,” Shuichi ordered him. “I’m serious. If you leave, Kirumi might catch you.”

Kokichi gave him the middle finger.

“That’s not the response I was looking for, but I’ll take what I can get,” said Shuichi. “Ah, Kaede—I want to give you this.”

Shuichi handed her his phone.

“Um, don’t you need this?” Kaede asked.

“I can get another one,” said Shuichi. “We need to keep in touch and this is the best option at the moment.”

They all said their goodbyes and then Shuichi hurried out, in too much of a hurry to pay Kokichi any mind aside from a steady, suspicious stare. He was probably relying on his friends at the moment, hoping that they would be able to control an uncontrollable person and achieve the impossible.

They held the gaze as Shuichi backed out of the door, and Kokichi threw him his best smile.


Kokichi kept a low profile for the next few days, busying himself by harassing his new roommates and planning his next move. The back of his map turned into something of a journal where he brainstormed the many ideas rolling haphazardly through his head. Between doodling, he wrote his notes with such vigour that he went through two pencils in one day alone.

His map became a mural of disjointed thoughts as he navigated the possibilities, writing only in the code he and DICE had used. Cornered as he was, he still had options. Get Gonta to act as his bodyguard and, while he was pelted with Future Foundation bullets, Kokichi could slip away. He could bomb the apartment and escape in the chaos. Except that might kill someone. Also, he didn’t know how to make bombs; that had been the expertise of DICE’s explosive expert, and he hadn’t paid that much attention to his attempts to teach Kokichi. Could he poison their food? Not enough to kill, just enough to make them sick. That might work. But what to use?

And then it always inevitably came back to Kirumi. Damn Kirumi and her damn agents and the damn Future Foundation.

Surprisingly, he found himself writing a lot about Shuichi, pondering his motives and what he could hope to gain. It couldn’t be justice because Kokichi was so despicable that no idiot would dare to think of him as anything other than a criminal. Was he looking for glory? To further his reputation? If a two-bit detective solved a complicated case, Shuichi might stand to receive a promotion within the Future Foundation. But he didn’t appear to care for the Future Foundation, even if he did wear the uniform. Was he a grandmaster using Kokichi has a pawn in his too-crazy-to-be-true scheme? What if Kokichi was falling for his trick—and Shuichi wanted him to try to make his escape? But what if his goal was to make Kokichi stay put?

Who the hell was Shuichi Saihara and what exactly was his angle? When would he finally shed that infuriating oh-poor-me persona and fucking act like the mastermind he was?

When days had passed and Shuichi still hadn’t returned, Kokichi sensed the morale of the others deteriorate, until there was little left of it save for Kaede and Kaito’s infuriating optimism. Kaito, especially, grated on him with the way he used every opportunity to follow the Ultimate Pianist’s lead and bind the others together with comradeship.

“C’mon, we can trust Shuichi,” Kaito insisted. “We half’ta bear with it a little longer."

“Bear with what?” Kokichi asked.

“'Bear with what', he asks,” Kaito snorted. He jabbed his chopsticks in his direction. “Bear with you.”

“What do you mean? Don’t you like me, Kaito?”

“I’d like you better if you weren’t such a brat!”

Kokichi burst into tears. “Why are you so horrible to me? After everything I’ve done for you?!”

“You haven’t done anything for me!”

“I’ve made your life more interesting, haven’t I?”

Kaito promptly chased him around the apartment while Kokichi giggled manically.

One evening, Kokichi found himself playing Gin with Ryoma while Rantaro watched. He decided to take advantage of the momentary silence to fill in some of the gaps in his knowledge of the outside world, gaps that had grown wider and wider during his imprisonment.

“Now that the cat’s out of the bag, how about someone explain to me what a killing game is?” Kokichi asked.

“Hmph, so you couldn’t resist asking any longer,” said Ryoma.

“You gonna tell me what it is or not?”

“It’s not something you can summarize in a single sentence,” Rantaro explained. “Right after the Tragedy occurred, one of the classes at Hope’s Peak transformed the old school building into a shelter to protect themselves from the Remnants. Except that the Remnants were already among them.”

“Let me guess: Junko Enoshima?” Kokichi postulated.

“That’s right. Her and her twin sister. Everything in the shelter was okay for a year until Junko triggered the killing game.”

“She had her classmates kill each other in a weird, elaborate game,” Ryoma added. “Every time there was a murder, there would be a class trial and the culprit would be executed in increasingly complicated ways. Tch, she was an attention hog, if you ask me. Anyway, they televised it all across the world. The Remnants arranged public screenings and not even the Future Foundation could stop them, so it was all anyone talked about for weeks. Eventually, the surviving students exposed Junko and managed to escape, but not before a bunch of their classmates died.”

“Wow, that sounds amazing!” Kokichi beamed. “I can’t believe I missed something so cool! Are there reruns?”

“Calm down, kid, I know you don’t mean to infer that a killing game is quality entertainment.”

“Of course I mean it. I can’t believe my fellow Remnants were having such a good time while I was stuck in prison...”

Rantaro frowned disapprovingly and said, “Anyway, the Future Foundation rescued the survivors and my understanding is that most of them joined up.”

“Ugh, there’s no accounting for taste, I guess,” said Kokichi. “What’s the Future Foundation ever done for people, anyway?”

“I’m the first to admit they aren’t perfect, but a lot of countries benefit from their humanitarian aid.”

“Other countries, huh?” Kokichi repeated, brow furrowing. He hid his face behind his cards. “How do they send aid to other countries?”

“...On ships, I think. That’s an oddly specific question. Are you up to something?”

“No-o-ope!”

Ryoma put his cards down. “Gin.”

“Dammit!” Kokichi cursed. “You beat me again? You’ve got to have some sort of secret to this, Ryoma.”

“You’re not even trying to win.”

“Sure I am, I’m giving this my all. Play with me again!”

He proceeded to let Ryoma beat him all twenty-four times, with the Ultimate Tennis Pro playing increasingly lousy hands, and Kokichi playing even lousier hands.

At the end of his first full week, Kokichi celebrated the occasion by downing the last bottle of Panta. It was much colder outside than it had been before and the others were out attending to whatever they did when they weren’t at the apartment. Kokichi had an inkling that they were making excuses to not hang out with him. Whenever one of them was there, he would demand that they entertain him by playing games. By now, he’d exhausted his knowledge of card games and the rough plan he’d formulated hadn’t made any progress by virtue of his self-imposed imprisonment. He wasn't about to rush things. He can't come this far to jeopardize his position because of gnawing restlessness.

Kokichi took his Panta and stepped onto the balcony, hoping that the cold would help him think. It was scarcely quiet for a minute when he heard a muffled retching noise. Confused, he peered over the edge and saw the door leading to the only working washroom in proximity to the apartment building. It was a converted public toilet that required a key to get in, located in the adjacent high-rise. All in all, it was about as private as it could get given the circumstance. All the same, there was no suppressing the noise of an individual vomiting profusely on the other side.

He kept a watchful eye on the door, reserving judgment until the door propped open and he ducked out of sight.

Kaito Momota stepped into view. Leaning over, he wiped his mouth before lapsing into a coughing fit. When he withdrew his hand, blood speckled across his fingers.

“Dammit,” Kaito murmured. He hurried back to the toilet before the door could even shut and retching sounded out again.

Well, that answered that. Kokichi finished the Panta bottle and threw it into a trash can he’d set up in the alley for the sole purpose of filling it with empty Pantas.

Kokichi returned to the bedroom. So Kaito was sick. He'd suspected it, of course, but it was a certainty now. Sick with what? Of course, Kokichi only had to look around to find possible causes, from severe food poisoning to a lung ailment. Most of these he ruled out fairly quickly as Kaito was still able to walk around and act normal save for the few telling symptoms. How long had this been going on?

Kokichi slammed a palm to his forehead. Kaito’s footlocker. He’d completely forgotten about it, what with his mind occupied with other matters such as his own survival. Kokichi dove over Kaito’s bed and shoved his arm underneath, feeling around for the footlocker. He pulled it out and lay it flat on the floor, took out his picks, and inserted one into the padlock.

It was far too easy to open; Kaito needed to invest in better security measures. Kokichi could think of at least six ways to better secure the footlocker, not that he was about to make any suggestions to him. He put his thumbs on the clasps, flipped them up, and opened the lid.

The footlocker was filled to the brim with drugs.

White pill bottles shone up at him, contrasting with his dark surroundings. As he opened it, a whiff of a woody stench hit him, like the smell of an ominous forest fire burning in the distance. Kokichi dug around the bottles and uncovered a fine dusting of green particles at the bottom of the case. His suspicions were confirmed when he found a glass pipe and a baggie filled with weed.

Shit. Just how sick was Kaito? There were far too many drugs for this to be a normal illness. Was he selling on the side?

The front door slammed open. Kokichi shoved everything back in the footlocker, sealed the lock, and shoved it under the bed. He leaned against the side of the bed and pulled his knees to his chest as Kaito pulled the bedroom door open. Looming above, Kaito bled confidence, though there was no mistaking the paleness of his skin.

“I’m going out,” Kaito stated.

“Going where?” Kokichi asked.

“None of your business,” Kaito snapped.

He said it simply, matter-of-factly, then turned on his heel. Kokichi scrambled up and followed him to the front door.

“Can I come with?” Kokichi asked.

“What? No. You know you have to stay here.”

“Aw, c’mon! I’ll wear an ingenious disguise and everything!”

“I will literally hit you.”

“No you won’t. You’re too nice for that.”

Kaito left the apartment. Kokichi pulled up his scarf so it covered the lower half of his face and hurried after Kaito, jacket fluttering behind him.

“Wha—I told you, you can’t come with me,” Kaito hissed when he emerged, glancing around for witnesses.

“C’mon, I’m bored,” said Kokichi. “I’d rather hang out with you than stay in that boring place.”

“If you leave, Kirumi’ll catch you,” Kaito seethed. He pushed Kokichi back in, but he slipped out underneath his arm.

“She will not,” said Kokichi. “What’s she gonna do? Arrest me?”

“That’s exactly what she’ll do—and I’ll get arrested for being in proximity to you!”

“C’mon, tell me where you’re going! I wanna know! If you don’t tell me, I’ll have to follow you to find out.”

Kaito groaned. “If you must know, I’m going to talk to Angie.”

“Ah, that’s the cult leader, right? Why are you going to talk to her?”

“I want to ask her about Keebo, she if she’s heard from him at all.”

“Ugh, she wouldn’t know anything useful.”

“I know that’s a possibility! I just need to be sure, plus Angie and the others there deserve to know that one of our friends is missing.”

Brushing past Kokichi, Kaito headed down the balcony, down the stairs, and out to the streets, walking at a decidedly casual pace with his hands in his pocket. Kokichi waited for a minute, prepared to duck back into the apartment and continue his stewing, but as he reached for the handle, a marvellous, exhilarating idea hit him, making him feel weightless and buoyant with glee.

He’d been waiting for an opportunity.

And now, the opportunity had risen.

Kokichi turned from the door and sprinted after Kaito, and this time the Ultimate Astronaut made no attempt to dissuade him from his pursuit aside from a disapproving glower.

“Fine, if you want to tag along, go right ahead,” Kaito sneered. “Just don’t go crying to me when Kirumi’s agents drag you off.”

“He’s not your friend,” said Kokichi.

“Huh? Who?”

“This Kee-boy guy—the robot. You haven’t spoken to him in a year, right? You can’t be friends with someone you haven’t spoken to in a year.”

“I’m not pretending it isn’t complicated, alright? What the hell do you know, anyway? Do you even have any friends?”

“I’ll have you know that I have people clamouring to be my friend. I even have a waiting list.”

“A waiting list? Tch, as if.”

“But I do! I need a waiting list so I can quickly replace friends that disappoint me. Those are the ones I’ve killed, by the way. Hey, why don’t you carry me?”

“Why the hell would I do that?”

“Gonta would do it. So would Rantaro.”

“Do I look like a ‘Gonta’ or ‘Rantaro’ to you?”

“No, you look like a Kaito, and you look like you’d be good at carrying me.”

“I’m not carrying you.”

“Then can you hold my hand?”

“What?! No!”

“C’mon, I might get lost otherwise!”

“What are you, fucking five?! Hold your own hand!”

“That’s not how it works! Hey, stop walking so fast!”

Kokichi hurried forward and seized Kaito’s hand. His large fingers were calloused and practiced, and yet still gentle even when he tensed under his grasp.

“Ah, let go!” Kaito barked. He tried to pull away. Kokichi tightened his grip.

“I don’t want to get lost,” said Kokichi.

“Let—go!”

A more mean-spirited person might’ve simply broken Kokichi’s fingers in a desperate attempt to put distance between them, but Kaito didn’t have it in him. He wiggled and squirmed and even lifted Kokichi off the ground to try to get him to release, and when that didn’t work, his face flushed a frustrated shade of red. It was the most colour he’d had since Kokichi had met him.

“Geez, you’re such a creep!” Kaito snapped. “If you gotta hold onto me, can you at least hold onto my sleeve instead of my hand?”

Kokichi feigned a long sigh and switched from Kaito’s hand to his sleeve. “Fine, but it’s not the same.”

“Thank you,” Kaito snarled without any weight behind the words.

Kokichi took careful note of his surroundings as he followed Kaito through the neighbourhood. They passed the flea market he’d lost Ryoma in when he’d kidnapped Gonta, and then navigated through streets crawling with Future Foundation soldiers. Whether they were looking for him or not, he kept close to Kaito whenever they drew too near, bowing his head and trying to make himself as small as possible—well, smaller. It was times like this when he enjoyed his light stature.

They wound through the streets, always keeping aware of where soldiers were located, and keeping tabs on the aching feeling that he was being watched. Glancing over his shoulder, he thought he saw people in suits watching, waiting, prepared for the right moment to strike.

He had to keep his mind occupied.

“Hey, Kaito, where does this cult have their headquarters, anyway?” asked Kokichi.

“An old Buddhist temple,” Kaito explained, not looking back. “Nice place, actually. But when Angie took over, she kicked the Buddhists out.”

“Eh, they were always pushovers anyway.”

“That’s a hell of a generalization."

As they turned the corner, Kokichi saw the temple the cult had overtaken before Kaito even pointed it out. It was elaborately decorated with Christmas lights and repurposed neon signs. Foremost among them was a flickering fluorescent light in the shape of a palm tree, as towering as the temple itself. The place was surrounded by a high wall decorated with garlands of fake flowers. It rather resembled a gaudy casino, which Kokichi reasoned wasn’t too far from the actual truth, given the cult’s reputation.

Wasn’t that what religion was anyway? A gamble with your soul?

“Woah, this place looks amazing!” Kokichi marvelled. “These guys can’t be that bad if they got digs like this.”

“Geez, I knew you would say that,” Kaito sighed. “I’d tell you to let me do the talking, but I know you won’t listen.”

“Wow, you actually learned something! Nice work, Kaito!”

“Sarcastic little—don’t make too much of a scene.”

Kokichi skipped after Kaito as they approached the front gate, guarded by two cult members donning yellow robes. They looked rather like flowers themselves, from their outfits to the willowy way they flitted about like they were being knocked about by the breeze. One of the guards was a blue-haired girl eagerly running back and forth.

“Come join Atua’s Prophets,” the girl invited a group of very disturbed looking pedestrians. “You get a cool name and are automatically enlisted in our rewards program!”

“Tsumugi, knock it off!” Kaito called as they approached. “Nobody wants to join your stupid cult.”

The girl—Tsumugi—spun on the tips of her toes and met Kaito’s eyes.

“Hello again, Kaito,” Tsumugi waved. “I’ve been hoping you’d drop by! Oh—who’s your friend?”

“He’s not my friend,” Kaito corrected her. “I’m gonna cut straight to the chase. I need to talk to Angie.”

“The Oracle?” Tsumugi repeated. She put a finger to her chin. “Oh, I don’t know...She’s terribly busy today...”

“Doing what? Prancing around giving everyone flower garlands?”

“No, she did that this morning. I think she’s meditating right now.”

“C’mon, this is important.”

“Hmm...if it’s important, I guess it’s okay. It’s not like you’re a stranger, after all.”

Tsumugi went to the door and propped it open. She did a double take when Kokichi shadowed Kaito.

“...Oh, is he coming too?” Tsumugi asked.

“Is that a problem?” Kaito countered.

“Atua’s temple is open to everyone,” said Tsumugi. “As long as they’re not mean, that is."

“Ah, no, he's...totally not mean.”

“Oh. Okay! Then it’s fine!”

What a gullible idiot.

Tsumugi led them through the heavy gates, and at once a rectangle of blinding gold light cut through the perpetual, destructive fog. As Kokichi stepped through the entrance, he felt rather like Alice stepping through a looking glass, thrown into an impossible situation painted with unsightly colour.

As the doors opened, what Kokichi saw was a place in complete contrast to his outside environment. Kokichi was struck with a sudden rush of humid air that blew the chill away, but not quite enough to warm his soul.

The courtyard outside the temple was clad in greenery. There were no indications of winter, only lush gardens and running water and butterflies and the flitting vestiges of life he’d thought had been snuffed out by the Tragedy. The sight slapped him silly, and for a too-long second, he stood there, stunned at what lay before him. How the hell was this possible when everything else was pretty much an abomination? Dotted throughout the courtyard where what was presumably the cult’s followers: people of all ages dressed eloquently in yellow robes and all barefoot and all smiles.

Kokichi wanted to pause and take in the sight some more, but Tsumugi ushered them toward the main temple. As Kaito had said, it was a repurposed Buddhist temple, though it appeared as though Atua’s Prophets had made an effort to expand upon it. There were several makeshift buildings attached to the exterior that contrasted with the ornate architecture. Kokichi had never considered himself especially religious, though he’d admired some of Buddhism’s philosophies, so it felt like the temple had been violated by the very-smiley people prancing about him. The moment he and Kaito approached the door, several followers emerged from the woodwork and showered them with flowers.

“Atua be with you, friend,” cooed a female follower.

“Yes, Atua is with you always, friend,” concurred a male follower.

They were smiling too much. Kokichi had always been all for religious freedom, but this was a whole other level of weird.

Tsumugi led them into an inner sanctum. It was also here that a garden thrived, with vines ensnaring pillars in a gentle embrace and patches of wildflowers growing wherever humanity had failed to cover the ground. The floor was a brilliant, multicoloured mosaic which had clearly been broken and then pieced together to create the image of a smiling girl with white hair, surrounded by light and flowers and visages of who-the-hell-cares. However brightly her tiled teeth shone up at him, the image sent a wave of dread through him.

Kokichi made a point to step on her eye as they passed over.

Finally looking up, he saw that the centre of the sanctum was home to a stone fountain, where koi spiralled under the surface in a brilliant display of bright colour. Right next to it was a pedestal clearly of some importance, and here he saw a spritely girl perched on a throne of cushions. She was crowned with fresh flowers and her white hair fell in two plaits framing her warm face, and he realized that it was the same girl as depicted in the floor mosaic.

“The fountain’s new,” Kaito murmured beside him.

The girl was surrounded by a few followers who scattered on their approach. When the girl, herself, caught sight of them, her smile increased tenfold, and Kokichi noted that it didn’t quite go from ear-to-ear, nor did her eyes smile with her mouth. Instead, the smile was tense and arbitrary.

“Kaito, so good to see you again!” the girl beamed. “Have you finally seen Atua’s wisdom? Remember, you immediately get to start as a silver level disciple.”

“Tempting, but no,” Kaito drawled.

“Who’s your friend, Kaito?” Angie asked. Her eyes darted to Kokichi, narrowing in the slightest way. Looks like he wasn’t the only one reading into every detail of his environment.

“I’m Kokichi Oma, a Remnant of Despair,” Kokichi introduced himself.

“You can’t introduce yourself like that!” Kaito spluttered.

“Ooh, a real Remnant of Despair?” Angie marvelled. “How fascinating!”

“Hell, Angie, that shouldn’t be your reaction to someone who introduces themselves as a Remnant,” Kaito chastised her.

“A man can speak many lies, but Atua reveals the truth,” Angie stated, clapping her hands together. “Atua says Kokichi is lying. Tsk, tsk, Kokichi. Don’t you know lies make Atua sad? But it is okay—I forgive you for your lies, as does Atua. He says you’re actually a very nice person who wants to help everyone.”

“This Atua guy sounds like he’s a lousy judge of character,” said Kokichi.

“What brings you here today, Kaito?” Angie asked.

“What, Atua didn’t tell you?” Kaito snapped bitterly.

“He did, but it is rude to make assumptions.”

“Ugh. If Atua tells you everything, then you must know that Keebo’s missing.”

“Keebo?” Angie repeated, eyes widening. “Ah, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. Poor, dear Keebo. What do you mean he’s missing?”

Kaito explained the reunion with Shuichi and the circumstances of Keebo’s disappearance.

“Oh no, that’s terrible!” Angie lamented. “I will have to pray for him.”

“Pray? So you aren’t gonna do anything?”

“Don’t be silly, Kaito. Praying to Atua will help Keebo immensely. The only reason he hasn’t been found yet is because I haven’t prayed for him.”

“Ugh, to each their own, I guess. Listen, the reason I came over here was to ask if you’ve heard from him at all.”

“No, no, no, I haven’t heard from him at all,” Angie shook her head. “It is quite a shame, really. He was finely attuned to Atua. I had hoped that once he heard about our movement, he would come to us to experience true happiness.”

“Okay, this is all very fascinating, but I’m on a timetable if you don’t mind,” Kokichi cut in.

“Huh?” Kaito frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Look, it was very nice to hang out with you and your Hope’s Peak losers, but I think I’m gonna move on now,” Kokichi decided. He turned to Angie. “Hey, can I join your cult? Actually, that wasn’t a question. It was a statement. I’m joining your cult.”

Angie’s hands snapped up to push against her cheeks, but that was nothing in comparison to the unfiltered look of horror on Kaito’s face. His jaw dropped, his eyes bulged out, his hair stood on end, and he rushed forward with such suddenness that Kokichi nearly tumbled over.

“YOU WHAT?!” Kaito screamed.

“I’ve seen the light!” Kokichi explained, thrusting his arms into the air. “I want to experience Atua’s wisdom!”

“Oh, this is wonderful!” Angie beamed, spinning in a circle. “Praise be to Atua! He has led a new soul into His fold!”

“What the hell are you doing?” Kaito demanded, seizing Kokichi’s sleeve.

“I seem to be joining a cult,” said Kokichi. He tugged out of his reach.

“Was this your plan the whole time?!”

“Yes’em. Surprised it took you this long to figure it out, actually.”

“Wh—Wh—Wh—Why would you want to join a cult?!”

“Dunno, it seems like fun, y’know?”

Kaito seized the front of Kokichi’s jacket and shook him violently. “CULTS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!”

“Ours is,” Angie protested. “Atua loves it when we are happy and having fun.”

“Man, that sounds great,” Kokichi sighed fondly. “Okay, I’m totally in.”

“You are not joining a cult,” Kaito stated.

“Now, now, Kaito,” Angie said. Her voice was suddenly as tight as her smile. “It is not a good thing to try to turn others from Atua’s divine light.”

“Yeah, don’t tell me what to do with my life,” Kokichi agreed. “You’re not my dad!”

“Shuichi told you to stay at the apartment,” Kaito seethed.

“I’m not gonna do what a Future Foundation mook tells me what to do. Anyhoo, this seems like a lot more fun.”

“Hold it, I’m not about to let you—”

“Why are you fighting? You’d think you’d be glad to be rid of me.”

“Believe me, that’s not the issue. The issue is—”

“The issue is that you want to please your friend, Shuichi. Y’know, it’s very admirable that you can be all buddy-buddy with Shuichi, especially considering that he abandoned you for a year."

If Kaito wasn’t going to get the message, it was time to twist the knife—and keep twisting until all but the handle was visible. The jab had the intended effect. Kaito’s confidence faltered. His large hands curled into even-larger fists. Walking with a slight bounce in his step, Kokichi walked up the pedestal to stand next to Angie.

“What...are you doing?” Kaito managed to say.

“Simple, Kaito,” Kokichi put on his most wicked grin, the kind that sent chills through his opponents, the kind that made him sick to his stomach. He made it as large as possible. “I’m playing a game. And I intend to win.”

Chapter Text

Rantaro steadied himself, trying to suppress the unease bubbling in his belly. This was it. This was the culmination of everything that had happened since Kaede first offered Kokichi Oma ration stamps and a place to sleep. As much as Rantaro didn’t want this confrontation to happen, he couldn’t stop it. He was the conductor of a runaway train with no brakes, unable to avert disaster, and all he could do was hold tight and pray for a one-in-a-million miracle.

He, Kaede, and Tenko stood in the refugee camp opposite of a blockaded section that had been set up in the days after Kokichi's escape. It had taken them a while to realize that Kirumi was there, that the reason there were so many Future Foundation suits walking around was for her protection. It should've been obvious. It should've been obvious that the makeshift walls, the armed soldiers, the tents, the resources were all to create a protective den from which Kirumi Tojo could call the shots.

“It’s not too late to back out,” said Rantaro. He turned to Kaede. “Are you sure about this?”

“No,” Kaede confessed. The singular word was released as a barely audible, breathless noise. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d do anything to see Kirumi and have the whole class together again. But I’m not sure about anything anymore.”

“Hey, you’re not in this alone.”

Rantaro searched for her hand and laced their fingers together, savouring the warmth of her ungloved hand and the intimacy of the subtle touch. Savoury emotion blossomed in the pit of his belly and crawled tenderly through his limbs, before settling in a small smile he let past his lips. Kaede met the smile with her own, and he felt it was worth the effort just to see the stress and dark shadows under her eyes vanish.

Behind them, Tenko let out a low noise out of the back of her throat.

“Are you okay back there, Tenko?” Rantaro asked, containing his smile.

“I am if Kaede is,” Tenko said briskly.

“I’m okay,” Kaede assured her.

“Well, if you want me to break his fingers, say the word,” Tenko told her.

“I’ll pass.”

“Thanks, Kaede, you saved my fingers,” Rantaro chuckled.

Tenko let out another low sound, and this time there was no attempt to disguise her disapproval.

“Well, here goes nothing,” Kaede breathed.

Kaede led the way across the campsite, still clutching Rantaro’s hand. Rantaro felt Tenko watching them both closely, but more importantly, he felt Kaede’s focus on a Future Foundation soldier guarding the entrance to the enclosed area.

The soldier noticed them long before they were near, and by the time they arrived, his hands were clutched around his assault rifle. He looked near-ready to shoot.

“Um, hi,” Kaede said. “Is Kirumi Tojo here?”

The guard gave Kaede a steady, unblinking look. He held onto the look for as long as possible before breaking it to peer over his shoulder.

“Mr Sakakura?” the soldier called. “Some kids are here asking about Miss Tojo.”

Rantaro went rigid at the name, as tight as a toy wound a little too much. Every beat in the sentence sliced through him, throwing him off-kilter and having him search for Kaede to stay upright. Their grip on each other’s hands grew so firm he was sure that blood squeezed out of it. And then Sakakura emerged, as tall and broad and terrifying as he had been back when he’d been head of security at Hope’s Peak.

No semblance of recognition flickered through Sakakura's features. Rantaro was both relieved and mildly annoyed; you’d think he’d take the time to know who and who was not an Ultimate. He pushed that aside when Sakakura fixed on them with a stony, unlikeable expression.

Sakakura glared at all three of them, assessing them. “Talk. And make it fast. I’m not a babysitter.”

“My name’s Kaede Akamatsu,” said Kaede. “Can I talk to Kirumi?”

“Why?” Sakakura demanded. “As a matter of fact, why would anyone want to talk to her?”

“We’re former classmates.”

“Tch, figures,” Sakakura snorted. “Her ‘former classmates’ keep popping up all over the place like goddamn rats. How ‘bout you scram and I don’t ram your head into the ground?”

“You can’t do that to a girl!” Tenko exclaimed. “Ugh, typical degenerate behaviour! You lay a single finger on her and we’ll see who can ram who into the ground!”

Sakakura drew himself up. Tenko wasn't overly short, and what she lacked in notable height she made up for with her steadfast character. That said, Sakakura—all unmovable muscle—dwarfed her in comparison.

“You wanna say that to my face, you little bitch?” Sakakura growled.

"You wanna call me that again, degenerate male?" Tenko seethed.

“Okay, break it up the two of you,” Rantaro intervened. Addressing Sakakura, he said, “We don’t want to fight or cause trouble. We just want to talk to Kirumi.”

Sakakura looked very much like he wanted to fight. He laced his thick fingers through his hair and flipped it back in a way more akin to a model than an Ultimate Boxer.

“You want to talk her up?” Sakakura scoffed. “Fine, knock yourself out. Maybe it'll get her off my back for a bit. But she..." he indicated Tenko, "...stays here."

"Don't try to restrict my movements!" Tenko exclaimed. "You can't tell me what to do! You want me to Neo-Aikido you all the way across the camp?"

"Ah, let's not do that," said Kaede. "Wait here for us, Tenko. Okay?"

Tenko grumbled and folded her arms.

"Tojo's in there, doing everything except be useful," Sakakura indicated a nearby tent. "Knock yourselves out."

Sakakura marched off, yelling at a few random soldiers, probably to release a bit of steam.

Kaede, Rantaro, and Tenko moved a short distance away so that the guard couldn't overhear them.

"That was easier than I thought it would be," Kaede admitted.

"Let's hope Kirumi's in a more agreeable mood than he is," said Rantaro.

"How bad can she bad?" Tenko shrugged. "She's got a good head on her shoulders."

"That may be true, but judging by Shuichi and Kokichi's descriptions of her, things are different now," Rantaro pointed out. "She might not be the same Kirumi we remember."

Kaede frowned, but didn't refute him.

Leaving Tenko outside the gate, he and Kaede headed to Kirumi's tent. They stood outside the flap, snowflakes cascading over them, and entered at the same time.

Despite its rugged, militaristic exterior, the tent's interior was immaculately decorated with high-quality furniture, including an ornate purple rug that softened their footsteps. In the centre was an oak table with a map of the area spread out atop, and two people were examining it. One was a Future Foundation commander preparing to take orders. The other, her back to the entrance, was Kirumi Tojo, dressed in a black lace coat certainly befitting her position.

“Create chokepoints here, here, and here,” Kirumi ordered, indicating spots on the map. “If people ask questions, tell them it’s for their own protection.”

“They’re already asking questions,” said the commander.

"You are not obligated to answer them. If they have questions, do not respond."

Kirumi snapped upright, her head turning a quarter of the way to see Kaede and Rantaro.

"You have your orders," Kirumi said to the commander. "You're dismissed."

The commander inhaled, lips parting. One firm gaze from Kirumi rendered him mute, and he hurried out.

Kirumi took an unhurried drink from a wine glass filled with plain water. She pirouetted on her heel and finally revealed her face. No change there, but with an unusual coldness, frigid like ice water. Rantaro felt less like he was coming to talk to an old friend and more like a teenager crawling home after missing curfew.

“I have been expecting you,” said Kirumi.

“Hello to you too, Kirumi,” Kaede smiled. “It’s been a long time.”

“Indeed it is. Much has changed.”

"Can I give you a hug?"

"I would prefer if you did not. I am unsure if I can trust you in the present."

Rantaro noted her expression of ferocious intent. He knew the look. He’d seen Kirumi use it before against anyone who threatened her friends. Except now, that expression focused squarely on them.

Something wasn’t right.

“I admit, even I did not expect traitors to walk straight into a Future Foundation camp, let alone come speak to me,” she said.

“T—Traitors?!” Kaede exclaimed. “Kirumi, what are you talking about?”

“I had expected better of Hope’s Peak’s finest,” said Kirumi. “I expected better from you.”

“Kirumi, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Kaede.

“Yes, you do. Your attempts at lying are poor and uninspired.”

Kirumi held out a gloved hand and indicated the corner of the tent. In the cover of shadows, a figure who'd been lurking out of sight stepped forward to reveal herself. Clad in the Future Foundation uniform, a visible red line down her cheek, was Maki—as iron-clad as the tanks that roamed the streets.

“Maki told me about Gonta being in the company of a certain individual,” Kirumi explained. “I knew that your group had moved to this area beforehand, of course, but I did not consider it a likely possibility that you would encounter this person. Need I say who this individual is?”

Rantaro watched in simultaneous fascination and horror as panic overtook Kaede. Her watery eyes shivered at the sight of Maki. Perhaps noting the attention, Maki bowed her head and averted her gaze to stare at her mud-coated shoes, her iron-clad tank impenetrable. No entry, no access, only one barrel pinpointing straight on them, yet hesitating to fire. Rantaro knew fear when he saw it, even when its owner so thoroughly suppressed her emotions that it was hard to get an accurate reading.

The train derailed, and he—the hapless conductor-turned-passenger—wanted nothing more than a quick death. Sweat prickled his forehead. He couldn't let Kirumi know that her accusation caught him off guard—that he hated himself for walking gladly into an obvious trap. The whole reason he'd permitted Kokichi to stay was so that he could stay one step ahead, knowing that he was deceptive. Meanwhile, Kirumi had duped him in an area where he should've seen it coming.

"I know you have Oma," Kirumi folded her arms. "You will hand him over at once."

“Why didn’t Sakakura arrest us on sight?” Rantaro asked. He wasn't sure where the question came from, but when it passed his lips, he seized on it.

“...I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me," said Rantaro. "Sakakura let us walk right in here. If you’d told him about Kokichi, then given his previous history, he would’ve arrested us right then and there, but he didn’t. Does he know about this? Have you even told him?”

Kirumi’s lower lip went tense.

“I am giving you the opportunity to do the right thing,” said Kirumi. “As a courtesy, I am ignoring your unwitting association with Oma.”

“You didn’t tell him,” Kaede realized.

“It is a courtesy—nothing more. There is no reason to have you become involved in my investigation. I implore you to comply with my wishes.”

“Your wishes,” Rantaro repeated. “Not your demands? Are you giving us a choice? What’ll you do if we refuse?”

Kirumi focused on them intently.

“For God’s sake, tell them what you told me,” Maki spoke up for the first time. Also for the first time, she met their eyes without the iron-clad stare. “If the Future Foundation finds out that you’ve been sheltering Oma, the outcome won’t be good. Hand him over, we can leave, and we can all forget this ever happened.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Rantaro. “What will you do if we refuse?”

“If you refuse, then I cannot guarantee your safety,” Kirumi said.

“But will you turn us over?”

“That is what I am attempting to avoid, which is why I have full confidence that you will return Oma to me.”

Kaede’s eyes widened. “You’re trying to protect us.”

“I have a duty to perform and you are interfering with it,” Kirumi snapped. “Will you give Oma to me or not?”

Kaede and Rantaro hesitated and stole a tense gaze. He saw it in her eyes: uncertainty, fearful hesitation, resolve to not surrender Kokichi. But Kirumi had backed them into a corner and Rantaro wasn’t sure if they had much of a choice, not when they’d been caught in the act.

He had to talk his way out of this. He wasn’t sure if he could do it, but he had to try.

“Is it true that he’ll be executed when he’s recaptured?” Rantaro asked.

“You do not expect them to risk him escaping again, do you?” Kirumi countered. “Did Oma tell you that? Did he try to assert his innocence and paint us as the criminals? If there was ever a chance that he could have avoided execution, that vanished when he ran. His death is inevitable at this point."

“It’s not right,” Kaede asserted. “Execution is never right.”

“Even if the individual in question has committed unforgivable crimes?”

“Even then. If he’s killed because of this, that’s murder.”

“You are wrong. His death is justified.”

“Listen to yourself, Kirumi!” Kaede exclaimed. “The Remnants have killed enough people. We don’t need to be taking any more lives.”

“Oma’s execution is the will of the Future Foundation,” said Kirumi.

“Yeah, the Future Foundation! And they don’t represent all people. If you spent more time out here in the camps, you’d know that.”

Kirumi was still as if she was the subject of a painting. The nice ones from the Renaissance, with purposeful brushstrokes defining deep-seeded emotion despite the stillness of the subject. The difference was that those Renaissance paintings showed more humanity than Kirumi did.

"Judging by this line of argument, I assume you have no intention of delivering Oma to me," Kirumi deduced.

"No, of course not!" Kaede declared, throwing her hands into the air. "Killing him isn't right."

“If you don’t hand him over, then I’m going over there right now and doing it myself,” Maki snapped.

“I would prefer him alive so that due process may take its course,” Kirumi stated.

“Why risk having him talk?” Maki demanded. “We want to keep them out of this, so it's better for everyone if I kill him before he causes any more trouble. He might talk if we capture him alive."

“I had planned to gag him,” Kirumi drawled. It was hard to tell if it was sarcasm, a serious statement, or a mixture of both. “You will not act without my order, Maki.”

Between Maki and Kirumi’s steely demeanours, it was hard to tell which was the bigger hardass. In the silent battle, Rantaro waited for anything—shouting, explosions, whatever. Then Maki stepped back into the shadows, her red eyes contrasting with the darkness, her silence answering the order.

“Give Oma to me,” Kirumi told Kaede and Rantaro. “Do not force me to make a difficult choice.”

“You don’t have to do this,” said Kaede.

“You can’t reason with her,” Rantaro stated. “She doesn’t want to listen even if she knows what she’s doing is wrong.”

“I am not wrong,” Kirumi said tensely.

“No, you are,” Kaede snapped. “The worst part is that you know you’re wrong and you won’t admit it!”

“This is stupid,” Maki groaned. “Why do you even care?"

“I care because I know you’re better than this!” Kaede shouted with uncharacteristic volume. Each word warbled through the air and struck through everyone present. “Both of you are!”

“...I appreciate your optimism, Kaede,” said Kirumi. “Nonetheless, Maki and I have obligations beyond this sentimentality, and the longer you delay giving him to me, the longer you take us from more urgent matters.”

“Matters like looking for Keebo?” Rantaro snapped bitterly.

If the accusation shook her, she didn’t betray it. Her lips pressed into a thin line.

“...You have been speaking to Shuichi,” she discerned. “What else did he tell you? Did he convince you to shield Oma from me as well? Was he complicit in his escape?”

Kaede went white. “Huh? No!”

“I have had just about enough of your insulting and dangerous lies.”

Kirumi closed the distance between them and shoved her face right into Kaede’s.

“Do you want me to place you in protective custody?” Kirumi demanded. “Do you not realize that Oma is deceiving you all?”

“I don’t know what his motives are,” said Kaede. “Keebo’s missing, you’re hunting down Kokichi knowing that the end result will be his death, and you don’t even seem to care about any of that. What’s gotten into you, Kirumi? You’re better than this! The Kirumi I know would want to solve this peacefully. Isn’t there a way to do that?”

“It ends peacefully when Oma’s surrenders.”

“He’s not—”

Maki suddenly held up her hand. “Wait, someone’s coming. Everyone shut your mouths.”

Kirumi’s mouth clamped closed, and Rantaro noted the determination in her jaw. He right hand clenched into a fist as the tent flap ruffled open.

It was Sakakura.

“Hey, Tojo, another one of your goddamn classmates showed up,” Sakakura growled. “When are you gonna stop having social engagements, stop sitting around this tent, and actually do something?”

“This is not any of your concern, Sakakura,” Kirumi said lowly.

A figure ducked under Sakakura’s arm, and to Rantaro’s surprise, it wasn’t Tenko as he expected—but Kaito. Unnatural stress lines tugged at his face, making him look far older than he actually was.

"Kaito," Maki said softly.

Kaito whirled around and focused on her voice at once. The whole world could’ve been screaming and he probably would’ve honed in on her voice without any effort.

"Maki?" he answered, equally soft.

"For fuck's sake," Sakakura rolled his eyes. "Lemme know when you're done hugging it out, goddamn losers..."

Sakakura ducked out, not that either Kaito or Maki or anyone else noticed or cared. Maki remain trained on the Ultimate Astronaut, her demeanour suddenly softening.

"Maki," Kirumi said. "Focus."

Maki snapped back and stood straight. "Sorry."

"Kaito, what're you doing here?" Kaede asked.

"Ah...it's..." Kaito ripped his gaze away from Maki, and clearly the action was painful for him. He hurried forward and hissed into Kaede’s ear. "Uh, we need to talk."

"We're a bit busy here."

"Need to talk now. It's about...y'know."

"Oh," Kaede said. Her gaze flickered to Kirumi. "Um...excuse us for just a minute, would you?"

Kaede seized Kaito's arm and pulled him out of the tent, with Rantaro right on their heels.

They headed outside the blockaded part of the camp and met up with Tenko outside. Together, the group hurried into an isolated corner outside the wall. They huddled together like athletes planning their next move.

“What happened?” Kaede asked.

“That dumbass joined Angie’s cult,” Kaito blurted out.

“He what?”

“He joined Angie’s goddamn cult!” Kaito asserted.

“Keep your voice down,” Tenko hissed. “Why’d he leave the apartment? I thought he knew he couldn’t risk being caught.”

“I thought so, too, but he followed me out when I went to go talk to Angie,” Kaito explained. “And then he fucking joined her! She accepted him even after he told her he was a Remnant.”

“I was afraid this would happen,” Rantaro sighed. “Is he over at the temple now?”

“Yeah, and being damn smug about it,” said Kaito. “There was no reasoning with him. I was hoping Rantaro could talk some sense into him. I don’t know what he’s planning, but I have a feeling I’m not gonna like it.”

“Huh? Me?”

“Well, yeah, he listens to you. Sometimes. Anyway, I figured you were my best bet.”

“Shoot, this is a mess,” Kaede lamented. “Okay, Kaito, Rantaro, and I will head over to the temple now. Tenko, you go find Ryoma and Gonta and let them know what’s happening, then head over to the temple yourselves.”

“You can count on me, Kaede,” Tenko declared. “And if you need me to beat Kokichi up, I’ll gladly do it!”

They broke formation and hurried along the perimeter of the wall.

Except when they rounded the corner, they came face-to-face with Kirumi. She stood motionless, hands clasped behind her back, and Maki hovering over her shoulder. There was no sign of Sakakura, at least.

"He's at Angie's temple, then?" Kirumi ascertained.

“Uh...I...” Kaede stammered, sweat beading down her forehead.

“Very well,” said Kirumi. “I will get him myself. Maki, with me.”

Maki hesitated if only to stare at them each in the face, her gaze lingering on Kaito for a little longer than necessary. Then she sprinted after the Ultimate Maid and was gone.

"Uh oh," said Rantaro.

"What now, Kaede?" Kaito asked.

The question shook her out of the shock. Looking Rantaro in the eye, she said, “We run to that temple as fast as we can and hope we get there before Kirumi does.”


 >>>...ACCESSING DATABASE...

>>>SUBJECT: OMA, KOKICHI

>>>PLEASE LOG IN

>>>SAIHARA, SHUICHI

>>>PASSWORD: ***********

>>>SECURITY CLEARANCE LEVEL 3 ACCESS GRANTED

Shuichi waited with bated breath as the database gave him full access to the files relating to the Oma case. Leaning against his desk, he watched the screen list countless recorded interrogations, witness statements, background information, and character evidence. Nothing physical, no forensics, no DNA, no nothing. As usual. He'd already been over every file available and his head throbbed with the effort.

Technically he should be doing his usual work. Actually, he should be on break. Shuichi occupied a computer located in the 5th Division wing of the Future Foundation's Tokyo headquarters, a place devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of other departments. The 5th Division preferred—and almost required—the peace and quiet. Better for concentration. Many of the other agents alternated between desk and field work, but not Shuichi. The moment he'd joined, he'd requested a desk job, a job that required less looking at gored corpses and more pouring over intel—with the intention to separate himself from the reality of the outside world. Besides, someone had to do the paperwork. While he did the grind, other skilled agents—agents that included talents from the Ultimate Spy to the Ultimate Hacker—could do the important work and get the glory. Shuichi was content to slip under the radar.

At least, he'd thought he'd been.

There was a long list of recorded interrogation files dating back to Kokichi's initial arrest, but having listened to all of them so many times, Shuichi could recite each one by heart. Most went mostly the same way. The interrogator—whether Sakakura, Kirumi, or some other ass—accused Kokichi. Kokichi remained defiant, proclaimed his loyalty to the Remnants, and insulted his interrogator to varying degrees. Probably not the smartest idea, but Shuichi reckoned that Kokichi didn't care, instead spinning a web of lies so thick that no one could escape entrapment from his coy smile. Somehow that made Shuichi more determined to resolve this case than ever, like it was more relevant than anything else he'd ever been involved in before. This wasn't a cheating spouse, a missing pet, or missing medicine. These were lies, and such blatant, open lies that he wondered if the truth was interwoven in there.

This wasn't about Kokichi's guilt. Someway or another, Shuichi wanted one thing and one thing only: to get Kokichi Oma to admit the truth. A silly, prideful, unethical motivation that would get his uncle rolling around in his grave. In a strange way, he and Kokichi were interconnected due to being two sides of the same coin. Kokichi was a teller of lies. Shuichi was a truth seeker. Lies frustrated him, but they also fascinated him.

Shuichi balled his hands into fists. Yes. He was going to get Kokichi to tell him the truth, no matter what. Only then would he be certain about who he was.

The door to the office opened. Shuichi glanced up, expecting to see one of his co-workers, and instead saw Chisa.

"I knew I'd find you here," said Chisa. "You should really take breaks now and then."

"Ah, sorry," Shuichi apologized.

"Why the long face?" Chisa sat on his desk. "Is the Oma investigation not going as planned?"

"I have a lead, but it's difficult to find the time outside of my usual duties to investigate it.”

"Hey, if you need more time for your investigation, just say so. I can get someone else to cover for you."

"It doesn't seem fair. I don't want to take anyone else from important work."

"The Oma case is important, too."

Shuichi clicked back to the main directory in the database.

"Are these all the files for the Oma case?" Shuichi asked.

"They should be," said Chisa. "Got a specific reason for asking that?"

Shuichi clicked to the directory filled with the interrogations and scanned through the timestamps. They were all spaced out rather unevenly, though given Kokichi's time in solitary confinement, maybe that was to be expected. Still, for an important prisoner, Shuichi wondered why interrogations weren't more frequent.

"I guess it's nothing, except me being paranoid," Shuichi sighed.

Chisa giggled. "You detectives are all the same. Look, you have some vacation time saved up, so why don't you take a week or two off and focus on the Oma case? And if you need extra help, why don't you ask Kyoko Kirigiri for advice?"

"Oh, I wouldn't dream of bothering her with this."

"C'mon, Kyoko's a bit intimidating, but she's got a lot more experience as a detective than you. Not that I don't think you're capable. Everyone needs some advice now and then. She ought to have some good insights."

Shuichi frowned and stared blankly at the screen without taking in any of the content.

"Anyway, it's a thought." Chisa placed a hand on his shoulder. "She's taking over the 14th Division, so if you want to talk to her, you can always head up to her office."

"Thanks, I'll think about," said Shuichi.

"I hope you will and you're not just saying that to get me off your back."

Chisa smiled in her familiar, welcoming way.

“Oh, right, the reason I came here,” Chisa laughed to herself. She dug into her coat and pulled out a cellphone. “Got your new phone. Try not to lose this one, will you?”

“Thanks, I won’t,” Shuichi promised.

Passing off the phone to him, Chisa released his shoulder and headed for the door.

"Let me know if you need any other help, kiddo," Chisa told him. "And don't forget to go talk to Kyoko!"

When she left, the room sank without her presence.

Shuichi logged out of the computer, pushed himself away from his desk, and left the office behind. Somehow it was even more stressful to be pushed away from his regular work than to have all the time he needed to focus on the Oma case. The good thing about it was that it had been monotonous, it had been mindless, and it had awarded him with the opportunity to think and brainstorm.

Outside the office, Shuichi shoved his hands deep into his pockets and went for a walk.

He didn’t go to Kyoko’s office. There was no way he could be in proximity to her; he was trying to get out of her shadow, not dive into it. It wasn’t as though he resented Kyoko, but it had been easier to be an Ultimate Detective when she’d been quietly tucked away in the Hope’s Peak shelter. There hadn’t been a shadow to stand in. He’d been as unremarkable as any other Ultimate. Now that Kyoko had become something of a living martyr, everyone aware of his talent couldn't help but compare.

That was the killing joke. Ultimates were the best at what they did, and still they were overshadowed by those with a better talent or those who were better achievers in the same field.

Before he knew it, Shuichi found himself heading down to the lobby and through the courtyard, elbow-to-elbow with nameless faces in the familiar black-and-white uniforms. He was beginning to hate the suit even though he wore one now, though it felt far too tight, clinging to his joints. Shuichi tugged at his collar to loosen it up.

He kept walking until he became vaguely aware that he was heading in the direction of Miu’s workshop. Well, it looked like he was going to talk to her. Truth be told, it was a confrontation he’d been dreading and seen coming for months and months. Encountering the others only gave him a reason to stop procrastinating and get it done—for Keebo's sake, if not for the sake of his friendship with Miu. That was what forced his feet forward, one in front of the other, each step taking a monumental amount of effort. It was for the better, but better didn't mean easy. Miu had never been what he would call a calm, rational individual ready to accept an apology at the drop of a pin.

He considered the thought of putting it off until Kaede and the others came. But in the meantime, he was right here, and he wasn't going to just walk by her workshop on his way out, completely ignoring what hung heavy in his heart. When he tried to practice what he was going to say, it turned into a bubbling cauldron of apprehension and shame. A part of Shuichi felt like he could've prevented this, that he had the impossible ability to reach into the past and drag Keebo into the present—safe and sound.

And then he found himself at Miu’s garage. She had refused the Future Foundation’s attempts to install her in one of their laboratories. Their first few days here had largely consisted of her yelling about the ‘nasty’ accommodations. They’d given her an abandoned garage after she'd speculated about the copious amounts of intercourse that went on in their own labs.

Shuichi peered skeptically up at the rundown garage, another shining example of the Future Foundation's unabating influence over their surroundings. If it wasn't for the Future Foundation, it would be an abandoned structure—a mere reflection of its previous usefulness. If it wasn't for the Future Foundation, Keebo wouldn't be missing and Miu would still be talking to him and Maki and Kirumi wouldn't be estranged and they'd all be with their friends. If it wasn't for the Future Foundation, everything would be different. And then Shuichi reminded himself that what-ifs were useless because no amount of wishing could help Keebo, only quick action and a whole lot of apologies.

Shuichi sighed. He didn't know what he was doing here. Miu wasn't going to listen to reason—she was Miu Iruma, the 'gorgeous girl genius' who didn't acknowledge anything beyond her emotional bubble. Keebo had been a special part of that bubble, and without him, her world was a lot smaller. After the 79th class split up, Miu and Keebo stuck together and had become strangely close after joining the Future Foundation, to the point where Shuichi suspected that there were feelings between them.

That must've made his disappearance sting even more. Shuichi had only seen Miu from a safe distance after their falling out, and now he couldn't believe he was going to come crawling back to her begging. This was his mistake.

There was still time to fix it.

Shuichi walked across the street and paused at the entrance. The garage door was open and the light was on. He prepared himself to head in when someone else came out and knocked right into him.

“Sorry!” Shuichi apologized.

“Watch where you're—oh. It’s you.”

Shuichi steeled himself. Standing in front of him, his red coat contrasting with his surroundings, was Izayoi.

“Oh, hi, Mr Izayoi,” said Shuichi.

“Don’t call me that,” Izayoi snapped. “I suppose you’re here to talk to Iruma, right? Normally I wouldn’t care what you do, but don’t distract her from her work or you’ll answer to me.”

“Right, sure thing,” Shuichi nodded eagerly.

Izayoi started to walk off, but as he did so, an idea came to Shuichi. Izayoi’s back was to him. Shuichi whipped out his phone, hit the recording function, and held it limply in his hand, the screen turned away so that the Ultimate Blacksmith wouldn’t be able to see that it was on.

“Um, could I talk to you for a second?” Shuichi asked.

“What for?” Izayoi demanded.

“I, ah, was hoping I could talk to you about the Oma case.”

Izayoi regarded him with the coldest indifference.

“Like...I was hoping you could give me a more detailed account of the story you gave during the hearing,” Shuichi elaborated.

“...Everything was already recorded and filed away somewhere,” Izayoi grumbled. “Stop bothering me and go do some reading if you really want to know.”

“I’d like to hear it from you.”

“Why?”

Because he wasn’t sure if he could trust the official files, because he was as paranoid as hell, because he needed to make make sure Izayoi corroborated the written account. "Because I want to make sure you didn't lie about anything."

"Why. The hell. Would I lie?"

"I'm not sure. But I got to be certain."

“Tch, you’re as nosy as that Kirigiri girl. Fine, if you’re so desperate to hear the details, ask your questions so I can leave. I got nothing to hide.”

Shuichi let the harsh tone slide. “Start with when this DICE member approached you. Where did this happen?”

“Eh, it was right here at headquarters, actually. I got an email from an untraceable address that told me to come to an isolated place just inside the wall. And then she climbed right over it.”

“She climbed over? That thing’s twenty feet high!”

“Didn’t seem to bother her. Didn’t even have any climbing equipment on her—she crawled over like a damn spider.”

“What exactly did she tell you?”

“Just what you already know. If you want Oma, come to this place, blah, blah, blah—”

“But how did she say it?”

“...Businesslike.”

“And she didn’t say why she was telling you all this?”

“No.”

“It didn’t occur to you that it might be a trap?”

“That’s the first thing I thought, which is why I went armed to the teeth and ready for a fight.”

“And you went alone, right?”

“You already know I did. Are we done?”

“Not yet. Can you walk me through what happened when you went to confront DICE?”

“I’ve been over this,” Izayoi said with the mildest air of impatience. “I got better things to do than answer your questions. I went there, they attacked, and I killed them.”

“Well, yeah, but I’d like you to go through it step-by-step. If you do, then I won’t bother you again.”

Izayoi’s eyes rolled so hard that Shuichi was stunned that they didn’t go back into his head.

“Fine, but you better be paying attention because I’m only gonna go over it once,” said Izayoi. He folded his arms and leaned against the wall. “DICE had their headquarters in an abandoned rubber chicken factory. I went there at night in the hopes of surprising them.”

“Wait,” Shuichi interrupted him. “A rubber chicken factory?”

Izayoi’s mouth twisted into a scowl, his eyes narrow.

“Never mind. Go on.”

“The place was heavily fortified and they had automated defences up and running,” Izayoi continued. “However, the defences weren’t much of a problem to circumvent given that they were nonlethal. Their turrets shot rubber bullets and they set up some damn traps that dropped water balloons. I went in through a second story window. When I got in, I got hit with an electric shock that knocked me out.

“When I came to, I was tied up and hanging upside down from the ceiling. There wasn’t anyone in the room. I got out and went through the factory looking for any sign of them. My main objective at that point was apprehending Oma, so dealing with the other DICE members wasn’t a huge priority. I figured that once I got rid of their leader, the rest would scatter or come to their senses.

“On the first floor, I came to some sort of banquet hall. There was a banquet table set up for tea and that’s where I found the DICE members—all ten of them.”

“Tea?” Shuichi repeated.

“No accounting for taste,” Izayoi shrugged. “There was tea and there was cake.”

“Tea and cake?” This story was getting stranger by the minute. First a rubber chicken factory, then tea, and now cake.

“Yeup, a giant ass cake,” said Izayoi. “Chocolate cake with strawberry icing. Good piping work. The taste was awful, though—too dry. Ruruka’s are better.”

“Um, I beg your pardon?”

“...Forget it. Unfortunately for them, tea’s not my thing. I told them that I wanted Oma. They told me to sit down and have tea with them. So we got into a scuffle.”

“But how did the fight start? Who attacked first?”

“Ugh, you’re such a dumbass for worrying about details that don’t matter. I was standing there, telling them how I was going to dismember their corpses.”

“Wait, what? You threatened them?”

“I wasn't actually gonna do anything to them, dumbass, and even if I had, it would've been to disable. The dead don't talk and I needed Oma's location. Before I did, the girl who gave me the initial information acted first. Turns out I wasn’t the only one in that room good with throwing knives because she nailed me right in the shoulder. The only reason I didn’t get a chance to deflect the shot was because she was standing out of my field of vision.”

“How did the other DICE members react?”

“They seemed surprised,” Izayoi continued. “They started arguing with her, asking what she was doing. Once I recovered, I retaliated and killed her before she could be too much of a nuisance.”

“But you were wounded.”

“Not the worst injury I’ve had in this line of work.” As if remembering it, Izayoi shifted his left shoulder. “Eh, they put up a pretty good fight, anyway. It took me an hour to beat them all.”

Shuichi’s stomach clenched. He’d heard stories about Izayoi’s remarkable professionalism in battle, and if there was one thing he could say about the guy, it was that he didn’t waste time on theatrics. The people he fought never suffered as long as they didn't resist. Clearly, that hadn't been the case for the DICE members.

“Is there anything you noticed during your fight with them?” Shuichi asked. “Their demeanours, for example? And was the fight confined to that one room or did it spread out?”

“Most of it was in the banquet hall,” said Izayoi. “Ace forced me to retreat once or twice, but the fight usually ended up back there. We blew out a few walls in the process, too.”

“Ace?”

“DICE’s second-in-command and probably their strongest fighter. He was a big, brawny guy with a stupid red afro. He got pretty pissed off after I finished off the first three or four. Ace was the last one standing, too, so given that he managed to last that long against me should give you an idea about his capabilities. It's a wonder the guy wasn't an Ultimate himself."

Izayoi turned a throwing knife in his hand. Where had he been keeping that?

“I wasted a lot of these on him,” Izayoi remembered. “I think he was more metal than flesh by the time he finally went down.”

Shuichi swallowed his nausea. “Once they were....Once they were dead, what did you do?”

“I searched the factory for Oma,” said Izayoi. “I found a bunch of crates containing the weapon shipments they'd stolen, though I didn’t find the guy. And when I went back to the banquet hall, nine of them were lying on the ground dead, but Ace was gone.”

“What?” Shuichi gawked. “You mean after all that, he was still alive?”

“I guess so, but I don’t think he got far before he died. Like I said, he had a lot of knives sticking out of him. Anyway, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I called the Future Foundation and had them send back-up. They weren’t too happy that I risked my life like that, but I needed some medical attention and I knew that Ace had to be nearby.”

“Did they find him?”

“Nope, just a trail of blood. Even that disappeared after a while and all we found was a bloody mask. Don’t know what happened to him, but I guess he went off to die in a hole like he deserved.”

“And not long after that, you found Oma?”

“Yeah, after I killed his brainwashed buddies, I guess he didn’t have the back-up he needed to stay off the Future Foundation’s radar. Tracked him down in Kyoto and arrested him at a hideout. The bastard didn’t even offer any resistance.”

“What was his demeanour like when he was arrested?”

“Eh, he didn’t really react, to be honest. He was kind of in a daze.”

“A daze? Was he injured at all?”

“Dunno. I handed him off to Sakakura right after. I didn’t notice any physical injuries.”

Shuichi frowned and regarded Izayoi carefully. Could he trust Izayoi to give him an accurate picture of what happened that night? Did he even have a choice? Izayoi's statement sounded consistent with the records, though Shuichi had recorded the conversation just so he could be sure.

And then a startling thought occurred to Shuichi. Was Izayoi the only living person who knew what happened in the factory that night? Or was there someone else?

>>>ACQUIRED TRUTH BULLET: IZAYOI’S ACCOUNT

“Can I go now?”

Shuichi looked up.

“Can I go now?” Izayoi repeated.

“Oh—yeah,” said Shuichi. “Thanks for talking with me.”

“Whatever,” Izayoi scoffed. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked away.

Shuichi had to admit that it was one of the more interesting witness accounts he’d ever taken. He pushed the stop button on his phone and stashed it away before anyone caught on to what he was doing; he didn’t think Izayoi would be the type to appreciate being secretly recorded.

With Izayoi gone, Shuichi took a final breath and stepped over the threshold into the garage.

Miu's workshop was a plethora of scrap parts, mechanical bits and bobs, and the distinct smell of oil. Off to the side was a table wherein lay sketches of her many, many good ideas—and a few of her bad ones. Given that Miu worked for the 9th Division, it was inevitable to find weapons scattered about, but Shuichi was stunned by the sheer amount that had accumulated since he'd last been here. He could see the corpse of a tank she was modifying, and various guns and bazookas and grenade launchers all piled up to the ceiling.

Shuichi hesitated, unsure if he should call out. With all these weapons, she might be inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. Edging forward, he saw that the back of the workshop was taken up by a bipedal mech—one of the ones that cost more than Shuichi thought his own life was worth. The cockpit was open and exposed, and it was from there that he saw sparks flying up as someone worked inside.

"Uh...Miu?" Shuichi said.

The person in the cockpit flew upright, her golden hair catching the light, her face concealed behind a welder's mask. When she propped it up, Miu pulled up the mask, and the confusion turned into unfiltered dislike.

"What the fuck do you want?" Miu snarled.

"Can we talk?" Shuichi asked.

"Oh, Poo-ichi wants to talk," Miu drawled. "What the fuck makes you think you're worthy to talk to the gorgeous girl genius, Miu Iruma? I'm above you, you little twink!"

"I'd really like to talk. About Keebo."

"Hm? Keebo? So you remember who that is?"

"Of course I remember who that is..."

"Oh, I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you over the sound of you grovelling at my feet and begging for forgiveness which I won’t ever accept!”

Miu vaulted over the cockpit, and from his position on the ground, Shuichi looked away as he saw a glimpse of her lace panties. Miu wasn't much for maintaining the Future Foundation uniform. The shirt was open to expose her generous cleavage and the skirt ripped to a spot well above the knees.

"You got a lot of nerve showin' your face here!" Miu shouted, waving a blowtorch in his face. "Didn't ya see the damn sign?!"

"What sign?" Shuichi squeaked.

"Whaddya mean 'what sign'?!"

Miu seized his sleeve and dragged him to the front of the garage. On the wall just outside, she'd erected a sign that read 'NO POO-ICHIS ALLOWED'. Right next it was a missing sign for Keebo. It looked like she'd lifted the picture right off of his Hope's Peak student ID.

"You could've used my actual name at least," said Shuichi.

"That is your real name," Miu snarled. "Now if you don't mind, the great Miu Iruma has better things to do than suck your dick!"

"W—Wait, I really want to talk!"

"I'm above you. I don't have to talk to you."

"Miu, I met up with Kaede and the others again. They want to help find Keebo."

That made Miu falter in her steps. Her shoulders went tense, and when she looked back at him, it was with a vague gentleness. Her expression switched back to on razor sharp.

"Oh, so the Virgin Squad suddenly cares," said Miu. "You can tell 'em that they half'ta come crawling back on their hands and knees if they want my forgiveness!"

"But they didn't even do anything wrong. They only just learned about Keebo."

"And whose fucking fault is that?!"

"I don't know! I haven't been in touch with them!"

"Well, I haven't either," she said meekly, lower lip quivering. "W—W—Why you yellin' at me? Wh—What'd I do?"

He didn't time to deal with Miu's personality shifts. “Miu, you can be mad at me if you want—that's understandable. But don't be hostile toward the others because they were out of the loop.”

Miu recoiled, her posture crumpling, her will crumbling. “First you abandon me, and now you’re yellin’ at me? Are you some kind of psycho abuser or what?!”

“I’m not abusing you! I just want to talk normally."

She squealed. “You’d rattle on a gorgeous, defenceless girl like me?! Tenko was right! All men are scum!”

“But Keebo was—”

“NOT WAS! IS! DON’T TALK ABOUT HIM LIKE HE’S DEAD OR SOMETHIN’!”

Miu seized the front of his shirt and dragged him to the entrance, shoving him back out into the cold.

“Eat shit, Poo-ichi!” Miu shouted. “It’s in your fucking name, after all!”

“Can’t we talk?” Shuichi asked. “I’d like to apologize properly.”

“It’s too late for that.” Miu spun on her heel, flipping her hair. “I’ve moved on. If you can’t, that’s your problem.”

She stuck her nose into the air and strutted back into her workshop.

Well. It had been worth a shot. Shuichi hadn’t had many hopes riding on a conversation with her.

Shuichi pulled out his new phone. It was the first time he'd taken a good look at it, and it had the same, uniform design as his old one. He dialled his old number and ducked into the alley next to the garage.

The phone rang several times. He listened tensely to the subtle buzz of the ring, hoping for an answer. It took far too long for it to finally pick up.

“Uh...hello?” Kaede’s voice sounded on the other end. The drone of voices was in the background.

“Kaede?” said Shuichi.

“Oh, it’s you!” Kaede said breathlessly. She was panting into the receiver. “I was beginning to worry when you didn’t call.”

“Uh...are you...jogging?”

“Running, actually. Running very fast.”

“What’s going on?”

“Uh, we have a teensy bit of a problem over here.”

“Kokichi?”

“The one and only.”

“I’m afraid to ask, but what’s he been doing?”

“Well...he ran away and joined Angie’s cult.”

Shuichi felt he should be surprised, that he should voice his shock and awe that Kokichi would do something so seemingly random. But he wasn't.

“We have another problem, too,” Kaede admitted.

“...Okay, I can take it,” said Shuichi. "What is it?"

“Kirumi. She overheard us talking about it and, uh, she knows Kokichi’s at the temple. She’s on her way there right now to get him.”

Well. That was even better.

“I’m coming over,” said Shuichi. He left the alley and started heading back toward headquarters, where he’d be able to get a ride. “I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

“Got it, we’ll do what we can on our end. Have a safe trip!”

Shuichi hung up and wondered why he even cared about Kokichi's life when his own was in shambles. Despite the doubts nagging at him, he broke into a sprint and ran.


 Kokichi unfurled the yellow frock and held it at arm’s length.

“Okay, gonna be totally honest here,” he said. “Yellow’s not my colour.”

It was a bit of an understatement. The yellow was just too yellow, like if he put it on, he would be wrapping himself in sun rays. It was too damn happy—and it made him a target. Tsumugi smiled broadly. He had a feeling that no matter what he said, she’d smile in response.

He stood in a strange approximation of a dressing room, a place Tsumugi whisked him off to the moment Kaito had gone running, muttering something about getting the others, not that they'd be able to do anything about it. The sentiment was downright adorable with its futility. After that, Tsumugi said something about celebratory attire and dragged him into her broom-closet-of-a-dressing-room. Judging by the cot in the corner, it doubled as her bedroom, and surrounding him were countless clothes in countless colours in a countless collage of nauseating pigments.

“You don’t like yellow?” Tsumugi asked. “But all Stone Level Disciples start with yellow.”

“‘Stone Level Disciples’?”

“Well, yeah, there’s five levels,” Tsumugi held up her fingers and counted them off. “Stone, Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Angie’s the only Platinum member, though, because to be platinum, you have to really be in tune with Atua like she is. She’s so amazing!”

“Uh huh, she sure is.”

“Well...if you’re really opposed to it, I guess there aren’t actually any strict rules about yellow. Pretty much everyone wears yellow because Angie wears it, though you can pick whatever you like—so what’s your favourite colour? Red? Pink? Indigo? Mauve? Smaragdine?”

Tsumugi tossed corresponding coloured frocks onto him until he was well and buried beneath a mountain of cloth. His vision obscured, he heard her muffled voice still listing off colours.

“—can always get some new fabric if—hey, where’d you go?”

“I’m under here, constructing a super secret evil fortress,” said Kokichi. “Of course, with these colours, it probably would just be a super evil fortress—not a ‘secret’ one.”

Tsumugi pulled a few frocks aside to uncover his head, her far-too-toothy smile never straying.

Kokichi looked at her blankly. “Listen, uh—Tsumugi, wasn’t it?”

“That’s not my name,” said Tsumugi. “My name is Magical Girl Super Sugar Plum. You know, like in that one ani—”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Kokichi waved her off. He pried his arms from the pile and leaned forward. “Your fashion tastes leave something to be desired, so I’m gonna stick with my current wardrobe, ‘kay?”

“Oh.” With the flick of a switch and the utterance of a word, Tsumugi drooped. He was surprised she didn’t crumple to the floor and turn into a puddle of tears. “I...I guess that’s...okay...at least I get to pick your face name.”

“No thanks, I like my name.”

“B—But—the Oracle thinks we should all have—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck what Angie ‘thinks’ we should have. Surprised she even has thoughts, actually.”

Tsumugi gasped and her hands flew up to press her cheeks in a distinctly Angie-like way.

“Besides, I don’t plan on sticking around long enough to need one of your dumb names,” Kokichi stated, extracting himself from the pile.

“What do you mean?” Tsumugi asked.

It took all of Kokichi’s self-control to not punch himself in the face. He was getting ahead of himself. If this was going to work, he had to be patient, he had to be sneaky, and he had to be calm. Even though he reasoned these cultists were easy to dupe, he didn’t want to risk exposure about his true intentions. It would take one stupid move on his part for his motives to become clear.

“Ah, never mind,” Kokichi waved her off. “I was kidding around. Boy, are you dumb to not recognize a joke when it’s wagging around your plain, ugly face!”

“P—Plain?” Tsumugi blanched.

“Hey, speaking of Angie, where’d she run off to?”

“Ah, you should refer to her as the Oracle—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna go look around, ‘kay? You stay here and put all this stuff away. I’m sure Atua wouldn’t want you to leave a mess.”

“Hold it!” Tsumugi rushed to the door and blocked his exit. “You can’t leave yet. I haven’t given you a face name!”

No way was he sticking around for that; his dignity had been shattered enough recently. Kokichi took one of the frocks and threw it over Tsumugi's head.

She let out a surprised screech and flailed about, and while she struggled with the mass of yellow devouring her upper body, Kokichi ducked out into the hall.

Kokichi had only had fleeting moments to assess the temple's layout. With Tsumugi distracted, it gave him the moment he needed to escape her gaze, hurry down the hall, and hide behind a pillar. Just in time, too. As he ducked out of sight, he heard the pat-pat-pat of her bare feet across the tiled floor.

“Come back!” Tsumugi called. “I need to think of a face name for you before you talk to anyone!”

No chance. Kokichi remained in his hiding spot, keeping still and quiet until she headed out another exit.

Thank God she was out of the way. Time to snoop.

Ever since he'd encountered the Hope's Peak students, Kokichi had been surrounded by people, and a reprieve was very much welcome. Now he could think properly and execute his plan, as well as be on his own to explore this strange, colourful, terrible, wonderful temple.

It was a good time to assess whether his plan would actually work. Truth be told since he was acting on impulse, he hadn't worked out all the details. He wanted to get out of Japan and far, far away from the Future Foundation, but he couldn't do so without transportation or resources. Most importantly, he couldn't do it without money to bribe irate guards and start over in a new country.

When Rantaro and Ryoma had told him about the ships filled with humanitarian aid, it had given him an idea. Perhaps he could stowaway on one of those vessels and go where it went. Whether that option was viable or not was still up in the air since they had to be well-guarded, but hopefully waving a bit of money in the guards' faces would be enough to get them to look away. The cult represented an opportunity he couldn't let slide through his fingers. They had enough food and money to shelter a sizeable population. His initial idea had been to rob him, yet that was too easy. Where was the challenge in that?

It would be much more amusing to have Angie and her cult give him money.

Kokichi's plan had to be initiated in a series of controlled steps like a game of hopscotch. Throw a stone. Take a step. Throw again. Take another. Keep going. Hope for the best. The first throw—that is, to join the cult—was done. Second was to convince Angie that he was a devoted missionary who wanted to spread Atua's love to the world. Third was to get her to give him money to get him out of the country and fulfill said lifelong ambition to spread Atua's word. Fourth was to leave the country.

Four simple, straightforward throws. One down, three to go. What could possibly go wrong? Kokichi had wrangled with much more complicated schemes. Hell, escaping from prison had been harder.

He could do this. He just had to lean on his lies and let everything fall into place, barring any interruptions. And if the 79’ers interfered, then he would throw a few maniacal laughs, scare them away with his proclamations of villainy, and they’d go running. Simple, simple, simple, like a game of hopscotch should be.

It didn’t take long for him to get a proper assessment of the temple’s layout. The main hall was in the centre of the complex, and to the rear were the monks quarters where he assumed the cultists slept. An abandoned bell overgrown with foliage lay in the courtyard and twin pagodas occupied the two front corners of the wall. It was a pleasant, lush place and he was inclined to despise it simply because of how happy it was in comparison to everything else. Still, the smile-or-else grins on everyone’s faces made him think something hid underneath the luscious garden and yellow frocks.

Kokichi assessed the entrances and exits. Situated at the north and south points were two gates leading into the complex. At one point before the Tragedy, they had been open to welcome lost souls in need of spiritual guidance. Now makeshift gates made of scrap metal and wood sealed the outside out and the inside in. Sealed gates struck him as a bit odd for a bunch of happy-go-lucky cultists.

He checked to make sure that no one was watching, though he didn't think it would matter much. A group of cultists sat in a wide circle nearby and they were busy talking idly among themselves. The gate wasn't especially secure. Anyone with enough manpower could rip it down. He was debating the likelihood of how the gate would hold if someone stormed the place when he heard a muffled explosion from nearby. Stumbling, he hit the gate post with his still-healing shoulder and dug his teeth into his lip to hold in a yelp of pain.

He got his bearings and looked around. None of the cultists were flying around proclaiming that it was the end of the world and Atua was upon them. Were explosions a normal thing? They sure seemed normal outside—maybe it was the same in here?

Kokichi snapped his head in the direction of a loud crash—which turned out to be the sound of someone thrusting a window open on the second floor of the nearest pagoda. A billow of puffy, multicoloured smoke burst into the grey sky, accompanied by a faint cough.

Well, he couldn’t ignore it now. Kokichi headed toward the pagoda. More smoke streamed out from underneath the door. Stepping onto the platform, he hesitated, ears sharp for any sign of danger. Kokichi’s initial thought was fire, but he ruled that out when he noted the lack of smell. Plus, fire smoke generally wasn’t a rainbow of pretty colours. On the door handle was a small sign that read 'DO NOT DISTURB' in a childish scrawl.

"Eh, I'm not good at following instructions," Kokichi shrugged to himself.

Not bothering to knock, Kokichi swung open the door and entered into the rainbow smoke puffing out.

“Yoo hoo, anyone home?" Kokichi called.

The smoke cleared out of the open door and permitted him a view of the pagoda's darkened interior. Sitting on a raised platform in the centre of the room, a bubbling cauldron overflowed with the same multicoloured smoke. It smelt faintly of lavender and herbs. A redheaded girl stood with her back to him, and unlike the other cultists, she was clad in a black robe and a witch's hat. Her arms outstretched like a religious icon, she held her pose and moved her hands in a flourishing motion.

It looked like the stage for a crappy metal concert. All the girl needed was a guitar to smash.

The girl spun around to reveal her face. She had a childlike appearance, with large eyes and a petite body swallowed by her clothes. The entire front of her body—from her face to the bottom of her cloak—was caked in a rainbow pattern which had probably come from the explosion Kokichi had heard.

“I am Himiko Yumeno, the Ultimate Mage!” she declared. “Who dares disturb my rituals?!”

Kokichi waved. “Yo.”

Himiko squinted at him, and in a heart-stopping second, she held her pose as if she was about to summon Atua’s wrath to strike him down. Then, her cloak lost its fervour and she deflated.

“Oh,” Himiko said. “You must be new.”

“Nah, I’ve always been here,” Kokichi lied.

“Hmm...I don’t recognize you, and I was one of the Oracle’s first disciples.”

“Aw, you caught me. You’re right, I’m new.”

“Then I guess you don’t know. My magic is a divine gift from Atua himself! Most of the others avoid me because of that...They’re afraid of what they don’t understand. Nyeh, you can turn on the light if you want, I just do it for the aura.”

Kokichi did so. When he did, the room became much less ominous. It was filled with traditional stage props, magic tricks, and a few colourful lava lamps lined up on a shelf. The air was still blurry with the remnants of the smoke.

"Sorry, I misfired my spell," Himiko apologized, waving vaguely. "I added eye of newt when I should've added spider eyes. It’s an easy mistake to make even for a level 96 mage like me.”

"Uh huh," Kokichi nodded like he knew what she was talking about. "Call this a hunch, but you're different from the other crazies here."

“Hey, they’re not crazy and neither am I!” Himiko insisted. “I just express my love for Atua differently! My worship is legit because the Oracle says it is, and she’s the boss around here and don’t think otherwise!”

Sounded like she made this argument a lot. Kokichi nodded, hummed, and rocked back on his heels. “Mhm, mhm—and yet, you introduced me with a real name instead of a face name.”

Himiko's hands snapped up to cover her mouth. “T—That was an accident! Let me try again.”

Himiko shoved Kokichi outside and slammed the door shut. The light flicked off. He waited patiently, and at her beck and call, he reentered.

The room carried the same vibe it had when he first entered: all dark and gloomy and strangely refreshing. Himiko stood in the same spot, and when she spun around, she carried with her conviction and determination.

“I AM MEW MEW, THE ULTIMATE MAGE AND DEVOTED SERVANT OF ATUA!” Himiko shouted. “WHO DARES DISTURB MY RITUALS?!”

It was so adorable and ridiculous that Kokichi applauded. It was apparently the right gesture to make because the tension in her shoulders relaxed and she bowed deeply.

“That was a real question, though,” said Himiko.

“Oh, right. I’m Kokichi Oma, Ultimate Supreme Leader, Remnant of Despair, and now a Stone Level Disciple.”

“Wow, three things at once,” Himiko droned, sounding a little less than amazed at Kokichi’s credentials. She picked her ear. “Nyeh, I guess the Oracle’s standards are getting higher. It’s a wonder she decided to start you at Stone Level instead of Bronze.”

“What level are you?”

“I used to be Gold, but I’m Silver now.”

“Ouch, how’d a crazy cultist like you get demoted? You must’ve done something really bad.”

“Eh, I wouldn’t get excited if I were you. I asked for a demotion. Being a Gold member like Tsu—er, I mean Sugar Plum—is too much of a pain.”

“Why’s that?”

“...You ask a lot of annoying questions...”

“What’s wrong? Don’t you like questions? Don’t you like answering them? Am I asking too many now? How about now?”

“Stop it!”

“Why aren’t you answering me?” Kokichi whined. “Don’t you like me?”

“No!”

“Well, you don’t have to like me to answer questions. Aren’t you gonna answer me?”

“Fine, but only to make you leave me alone,” Himiko conceded. “Gold members have to do stuff like preach and hand out pamphlets. I could use my magic to do all that, but my MP recharges faster at night and Angie says we can only do that work during the day.”

“So you’re allergic to daylight?”

“No,” Himiko insisted. She jutted out her lower lip and folded her arms. “I told you that my MP recharges faster at night.”

“For that to be true, wouldn’t magic have to be real?”

“Magic is real. Atua makes it so.”

“Sounds like this Atua guy can do a lot.”

“Don’t you even know what the Prophets are all about or are you one of those dummies who joined because you think you’ll get free food?”

“You mean there isn’t free food?”

“Don’t be stupid, of course there’s free food, but that’s not the point of the Prophets.”

“Okay. But do you have sandwiches?”

“Of course we have sandwiches—we have all kinds of sandwiches!”

“Thank God, because I am dying for a sandwich. Don’t suppose you can magic one up for me, could you?”

“That’s not how magic works,” Himiko maintained. She cocked her head at him, eyebrow hiking up her forehead. “Are you really an Ultimate Supreme Leader? You don’t look like an Ultimate anything.”

“Yeesh, I told you I was an Ultimate Supreme Leader and a Remnant of Despair, and you’re more worried about the ‘Ultimate’ part? And here I was thinking you had some sense, unlike that Angie.”

“Hey, the Oracle has a ton of sense! If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have this awesome temple to live in!”

“Yeah, I mean, who else would’ve kicked out the Buddhists. Only Angie!”

“She gave them the option to join us, and a lot of them said no,” Himiko shrugged. “Ugh, it’s too much of a pain to explain it to an outsider. If you want to hear the whole story, go talk to Sugar Plum an’ she’ll tell you the same thing.”

“I’m not so sure she’s reliable. Old ‘Sugar Plum’ strikes me as an itty bitty bit on the loopy side. She didn't even tell me about all the rules around here, and I care deeply about rules."

“Look, it’s not complicated,” said Himiko. “If you want to be a disciple, all you gotta do is be happy, talk about Atua a lot, and hand out balloons or whatever.”

She said it all very unenthusiastically and without the smallest flicker of a smile.

“Balloons?” Kokichi snorted. “The only balloons I have are these special ones, but I don’t plan to share.”

Kokichi pulled out his package of balloons from his jacket and waved them in her face.

“What’s so special about them?” Himiko asked.

“Let’s just say something horrible happens if one of them pops.”

“...You’re weird...You should fit right in.”

“One of us has to. With your glowing personality, it’s a wonder the other cultists haven’t declared you too sad to be a proper Atua follower.”

“Oh, they’ve tried, believe me....Why are you still bothering me? I’m supposed to be doing rituals...”

Kokichi opened his mouth to offer a rebuttal, but was interrupted when the door creeped open and Tsumugi poked her head in.

“Mew Mew, have you seen—oh!” Tsumugi caught sight of Kokichi. “Found you!”

“Oh, you got me!” Kokichi raised his arms in defeat. “I’ll try to find a better hiding place next time.”

Tsumugi pouted and said, “Well, I can think of a face name for you later. The Oracle wants you to come to the sanctuary. You should come too, Mew Mew.”

“Me?” Himiko pointed at herself. “Why me? What’d I do?”

“It’s a surprise,” Tsumugi flashed a smile. “Trust me, you’ll love it.”

“Aw, man, what a pain. Can’t you bring my surprise over here so I don’t have to go out in daylight?”

“C’mon, please?”

Himiko groaned. She didn't have much of a choice when Tsumugi seized her arm and dragged her out.

Kokichi hovered a bit longer in Himiko's workshop, surveying the various instruments laying about. Sitting on a crimson silk cloth on a side table were a number of knives, including a silver one with an ornate, carved handle.

It wouldn't hurt to have some extra insurance. He took it off and stuffed it into the back of his belt.

He caught up to Tsumugi and Himiko in the courtyard. The contingent of cultists in a circle hadn't moved. As they crossed to the main temple, their heads simultaneously turned to look at him, wearing the same unending smiles. Kokichi met them with his own smile.

He wondered whose smile was the most disingenuous.

With Tsumugi and Himiko on either side of him, they ascended the steps leading into the sanctuary.

“So what’s Angie want with lil’ ol’ me, anyway?” Kokichi asked. “Does she want to kill me or what?”

“There’s no killing allowed here,” Tsumugi declared. “Anyway, you’ll see what it is. But you should call her the Oracle.”

“She doesn’t look like an Oracle to me. She looks like an Angie.”

Tsumugi sighed. “I guess there’s no dissuading you. You really are stubborn, just like a lot of anime protagonists. I’m not sure you really fit the heroic archetype though—you strike me as more of an antihero.”

“I'd rather be the villain."

Tsumugi took the door handle and flew open. And when Kokichi entered, it occurred to him that he needed to get into the habit of checking what was inside a room before making his entrance, because this was one entrance he immediately regretted.

Kokichi's heart seized in his chest, compressing like a star about to go supernova. Because standing in front of him was Kirumi Tojo, with Maki Harukawa at her side.

They weren’t alone, either. All members of the 79th class he'd met so far sans Shuichi were present—Rantaro, Kaede, Tenko, Ryoma, Gonta, Kaito, and finally Angie. Of all of them, only Angie smiled—a smile bright enough to challenge Kokichi's supernova-of-a-heart.

Kokichi swung on his heel and started to run back out the way he came.

He slammed right into the closed door and bounced off, hand reaching up to clutch his nose. Tsumugi was holding the door shut.

"Ah, sorry, they said I should do that," Tsumugi apologized.

Kokichi was sure there was humour to be found in this situation. So he smiled, only he made sure to weave as much poison into it as possible.

“Well, aren’t you all a bunch of traitorous assholes,” Kokichi chimed.

“Don’t jump to conclusions, kid,” said Ryoma. “We didn’t invite her.”

“Maybe you did, maybe you didn't, but I’m sure she’s here because someone either tattled or couldn’t keep a secret,” Kokichi glared pointedly at Gonta.

“Enough,” Kirumi spoke, and her calm, even voice immediately commanded attention.

She stepped toward him. He stepped back, hand twitching back to the knife in his belt.

“Oma, I am affording you an opportunity to surrender peacefully,” Kirumi stated. “This is the only opportunity I will grant you.”

“Oh, sure, surrender peacefully so they can lug my head off—that sure sounds peaceful,” Kokichi quipped.

“That is not how the execution will proceed. It will likely either be via lethal injection or a firing squad.”

“Wow, that really puts my mind at ease! Thanks for that!”

“Kirumi, please, we need to talk about this!” Kaede exclaimed. She hurried to place herself between Kirumi and Kokichi. “I won’t let you do this—even if it costs me my life!”

“I fail to understand why you would continue to protect such a deplorable person,” Kirumi drawled. “His guilt is evident. Why do you impede me?”

“Kaede’s right,” Kaito agreed, also blocking Kirumi’s path. “Look, I don’t know what the Future Foundation’s problem is, but they gotta know that this is wrong. This is about the principle of an execution rather than who it’s being done to.”

Kirumi’s penetrating eyes watched both Kaede and Kaito and then settled on Kokichi.

She raised her hand in an off-hand gesture and said, “Maki, if you will.”

At the flip of a switch, Maki went from on standby mode to red-alert. In full stride, she closed the far-too-short distance between herself and Kokichi. Kaito leapt for her in a futile attempt to stop her, and a frozen picture of him leaping mid-air registered in Kokichi’s mind. Her fingers reached for him—long, grasping, spider-like fingers. They enclosed him. His feet lifted off the ground. He thought he was flying. Then pressure crushed his windpipe and he looked down the length of Maki's arm into her poisonous expression.

There were several shouts and protests. Maki wasn’t squeezing enough for him to lose consciousness, but certainly enough to make me feel like his head was being overinflated. Any tighter and it might explode. Pressure mounted in a spot behind his eye, his eyeballs squeezing against his lids and threatening to pop right out. Higher and higher he went up, ears ringing, air choking in his throat. Warm light streamed down on him.

He wondered if the Buddha would approve of this.

And it was then that he grabbed onto a latch-ditch idea. The only way to literally save his neck in the heat of the moment.

“S...Sanctuary!” he gasped out.

“...I beg your pardon?” said Kirumi.

“I’m...I’m claiming...sanctuary,” Kokichi reiterated hoarsely. “This...is a temple. I have a right...to sanctuary!”

“That is absolutely preposterous,” Kirumi scoffed.

“Hold it,” Rantaro cut in. “He has a point.”

Kokichi was very relieved that Rantaro spoke for him because he couldn’t any longer.

“Rantaro, I’m warning you—” Kirumi started.

“No, like it or not, this place was a Buddhist temple," said Rantaro. "Religious principle suggests that he should be afforded sanctuary if he wants it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The concept of sanctuary is more applicable to Christian institutions, not Buddhist ones.”

“But shouldn’t we respect it nonetheless? Buddhism is vehemently opposed to killing in general. If you take him, he dies, and that’s against its principles, so it doesn’t take a huge leap to apply the concept of religious sanctuary here as well—especially considering that Kokichi’s life depends on it.”

“This place is no longer a Buddhist temple!”

“True, but even if there aren’t any practicing Buddhists present here, this is still considered holy ground. Not to mention that the Prophets can be considered a religious group.”

“They are a deviant cult following a minor religion.”

“They’re an organized group led by Angie. They didn’t just appear out of no where. They’re following specific doctrines relating to worship of Atua.”

“You really should be calling her the Oracle,” Tsumugi protested meekly.

“And given the Prophets’ beliefs in general, I would assume that they would be open to the idea of giving Kokichi sanctuary,” Rantaro went on. “Am I right, Angie?”

“Oh, we’d be happy to have him,” Angie beamed, cupping her hands together. “Atua shelters all.”

“H—He’s right!” Kaede agreed. “Kokichi called for sanctuary. You can’t take him out of here using force.”

“What makes you think that I would care about that?” Kirumi asked.

“Because you care about rules, right? The rules of sanctuary protect Kokichi. Shouldn’t you at least contact your superiors to make a judgment on whether it’s morally correct to arrest someone who’s claimed religious sanctuary?”

“I am sure Munakata would concur that this situation is beyond religious concerns.”

“Other people beyond the Future Foundation might care,” Rantaro pointed out.

“Other people beyond the Future Foundation do not know that he is here.”

“But how long until they find out?” Kaede asked. “Many of the cultists have seen him.”

“Once it becomes clear that he is a Remnant, they will agree that we took the necessary steps.”

“What’s the point of that if it isn’t the ethical way to do things? You understand the Future Foundation better than any of us, Kirumi. You’re supposed to be representing humanity, but all you’re doing is being a bully!”

“I’m a bully?” Kirumi seethed. “I am attempting to secure a dangerous criminal!”

“At the expense of your morality?”

“Do you not understand that I am shouldering this burden so that others will not have to? The morality of the action is not consequential. What matters is that I do what needs to be done.”

“Well...I won’t let you! I won’t let you sacrifice who you are for something...for something so stupid!”

Before anyone could stop her, Kaede shoved Maki aside so violently that her grip on Kokichi faltered. He intended to crumple to the floor gasping for air but didn’t get the chance to do that when Kaede seized him in a bear hug, fully supporting his weight. Coughing into her ear, he struggled to make sense of what was happening.

“Kaede, what are you doing?” Rantaro asked blankly.

“I’m protecting him,” she asserted. “If I have to use my own body to do that, then I’ll do it!”

“This childishness is unbecoming of you,” said Kirumi. “Maki, please separate them.”

Maki stepped forward, her hand once more extending. This time she was stopped by a solid wall of muscle. Gonta made a move against her for the second time—seizing both Kaede and Kokichi in his arms and lifting them both off the ground. Unconsciousness threatened to take Kokichi as he was sandwiched in between Kaede and Gonta.

“Gonta protect Kokichi, too!” Gonta declared. “Gonta always protect his friends!”

“This is a serious violation of my personal space!” Kokichi screamed, voice muffled as he was pressed deeper between Kaede’s breasts.

This was so many levels of uncomfortable, from having nothing but a few layers of fabric separating him from a woman’s parts, to the feeling of being crushed and overwhelmed, to the outright terror that Kirumi would go to any lengths to secure him. Prison seemed preferable to this humiliation.

“LET GO OF KAEDE, YOU DEGENERATE!” Tenko yelled from nearby. Kokichi couldn’t see much beyond a brief glimpse of the consummate man-hater punching Gonta’s arm. It didn’t seem to be very effective.

“Maki, separate them,” Kirumi said more firmly.

Maki didn’t answer, nor did she act. At least, that’s what Kokichi deduced from her lack of response.

“Maki, do it now,” Kirumi ordered.

“If you want him, you’ll have to go through all of us,” Rantaro stated.

“Yes, I’m happy to shelter Kokichi from you and the Future Foundation,” Angie added. “Atua says that I must protect him and it shall be so!”

“You heard the Oracle!” Tsumugi exclaimed. “He stays! He’s under Atua’s divine protection!”

“Nyeh, I guess this is as good a time as any to cast a protective spell over Kokichi,” Himiko decided. “...There, I just did it.”

“Wow, you’re amazing as always, Himiko!” Tenko said appraisingly.

“But I didn’t see anything happen,” Kaede remarked.

“Of course you didn’t,” Himiko replied. “You can’t see a protective spell. It’s invisible.”

"So cool," Tenko whispered.

“Looks like you’re outnumbered, Kirumi,” Ryoma noted. “I wonder if you’ll be able to take Kokichi without hurting any of us in the process. Isn’t that your main goal here? To protect us?”

Kirumi was quiet, and everything went quiet, although for a heartbeat Kokichi thought that he really had lost unconsciousness. That wasn’t the case, however, because he could hear the thump-thump-thump of Kaede’s rapid heartbeat. In that terrible second, her arms tightened around him, and he felt the air squeeze out of his body again. Beyond, the world was a muffled, muddled mess of indiscernible noise except for the unmistakable hesitation. Ryoma’s words had shaken Kirumi—and, desperate to see the consequences, Kokichi managed to turn his head enough to see out from between his human prison.

The Ultimate Maid was giving them her full attention for the first time. Her hands clasped protectively in front of her body. Her index finger tapped up and down. It was such a small movement, but the weight of its implications stabbed him with torrential force. She remained unreadable save for that traitorous finger.

“If I leave without him now, I will return with not only Sakakura, but an entire contingent of soldiers,” Kirumi declared. “Is that what you want?”

“It’s going to take a whole army to get me to stand down,” Kaede asserted.

Kirumi missed nothing. And, judging by the way a spot under her left eye twitched, she certainly didn’t miss the absolute resolve in Kaede’s melodic voice. And then, Kirumi and Kokichi met eyes. There a different melody to be found there, one sung by the unquenchable, hell-hath-no-fury fire roaring behind Kirumi’s eyes. Kokichi realized that the rage wasn’t directed toward her classmates—but to him, because he held them captive with his mere existence.

“...Very well, I can see that you are leaving me without a choice,” Kirumi conceded. “Maki, come.”

“Are we seriously going to leave him here?” Maki snapped back.

“Only for a short period of time.”

Maki eyebrows curved upward, betraying her doubt. Still, she followed Kirumi as the Ultimate Maid parted her classmates. She stopped only at Gonta and Kaede’s Kokichi-sandwich and met his eyes again.

“Oma,” Kirumi nodded curtly. “I will be seeing you soon.”

Kokichi stuck his tongue out at her.

“You will rue the day you made this personal, Oma,” she hissed.

“You should go now,” said Kokichi. He extracted his arm and gave her a taunting wave. “Bye-bye!”

Kirumi scoffed and took her leave out the front doors. Angie hurried after her, and at the entrance, Kokichi realized that a number of cultists were hovering about. Eavesdroppers, probably.

“Please see Kirumi and Maki out, won’t you?” Angie instructed her disciples. “Oh, then seal the gates and don’t let them or any Future Foundation person in without my say so, okay? Okay!”

Angie shut the doors in their face and turned to the class.

“Ah, I think that went well,” said Angie.

“Nyeh, what a dumb surprise,” Himiko bemoaned.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Kokichi agreed. He glared pointedly at Kaede. “Unless you want a kiss, which I wouldn’t give you anyway due to your ugly face, you can put me down.”

Gonta dropped Kaede, and Kaede finally released him. Kokichi put distance between himself and the students, tugging at his scarf.

“Geez, you didn’t have to go and be dramatic about it, Kaede,” said Kokichi. “I had all that under control.”

“Yeah, I could tell by the way you were about to bolt out the door with the Ultimate Assassin on your tail,” Ryoma drawled. “Do you ever think these things through?”

“Once in a blue moon.”

“We should’ve let her have him while we had the chance,” said Tenko.

“Do you think he can make a run for it before Kirumi gets back?” Kaede asked Rantaro.

“Not a chance,” said Rantaro. “She'll leave Maki to watch the place, and when soldiers start surrounding the temple, people will notice. If Kirumi wanted to keep this on the down-low, it’s not going to be possible now.”

Rantaro turned and looked Kokichi in the eye without any of the hostility Kirumi carried with her.

“I hope you like talking about Atua, because it looks like you’re going to be stuck here for as long as we manage to keep the Future Foundation outside."

Chapter Text

Shuichi sprinted through harrowing streets, feet sliding across a fine dusting of snow. The dreary neighbourhood rushed past him in his hurry to part through the citizens, who remained unaware that everything crumbled around them. He, alone, was witness to the slow destruction of his world.

The overwhelming light display of Angie's temple peered over the subtle curve of the street. When he'd asked some passersby for directions, they'd laughed and merely pointed to the fingers of multicoloured light reaching to the sky, and now he was here, hoping he wasn't too late to prevent disaster—not only for himself, but for his classmates and for Kokichi. His worst fears acted out intricate dramatizations in his head, but when the street levelled, he realized that it was much, much worse than that.

Angie's temple was surrounded by a sizable crowd—a mixture of both Future Foundation soldiers and the local civilians. The soldiers had created a perimeter beyond the temple gates to keep the onlookers at bay. For an extended second, Shuichi froze as his heart twisted and writhed against his ribs. It took far too long for him to calm himself and approach the scene, feeling as though he was wading through his nightmares. His pushed his way through the crowd of people, eyes and ears sharp and seeing nothing but the fingers of colour beckoning him forward.

He overheard someone ask, “What’s going on?”

“The cult’s given shelter to some sort of criminal,” said a man.

Shuichi paused to listen in, filtering out the other noises to focus on this singular conversation.

“A criminal?" the first person said. "What’d he do?”

“Eh, not sure, but it must be something really bad if they got all these soldiers around. My understanding is that the cultists won’t give him to the Future Foundation. At least, that’s what I heard...”

A woman jumped into the conversation. "I heard it's a Remnant."

"What? No way, that has to be an exaggeration."

"Hey, I'm just repeating what I heard!"

"There's no way all these soldiers would be standing out here if the cultists are hiding a Remnant. I mean, they'd storm the gate if it really was one."

Well. That wasn’t promising.

Shuichi hurried through the last vestiges of the crowd, struggling to push through the congestion closest to the temple. This earned him annoyed stares and exclamations of surprise as he shoved through. Normally he'd be inclined to apologize, but this was an emergency. Their lives weren't on the line. When he got to the front, he found a soldier guarding the blockade, the temple wall towering behind him. Judging by the lack of theatrics, Shuichi realized that Kokichi must still be in the temple. But why were all these soldiers out here instead of in there?

“Sir, you need to step back,” the soldier ordered him.

"Shuichi Saihara, 5th Division," said Shuichi, flashing his identification. "I need to talk to Kirumi Tojo, if she's here."

"...Oh, sorry, sir," said the soldier. He didn't protest as Shuichi stepped over the barrier, though his thin lips pressed in disapproval. "Miss Tojo is here, alright. You'd better check in with her anyway if you're going to be wandering around, sir. She and Mr Sakakura are being pretty stringent on security."

"What exactly's going on here?" Shuichi asked.

The soldier glanced at the eavesdropping crowd and pulled Shuichi further away so they were out of earshot.

"Kokichi Oma's in the temple," the soldier explained. "We have orders to block all the exits."

Shit. "If Oma's in there, why hasn't he been arrested yet?" Shuichi asked.

"Er—you'd have to ask Miss Tojo about that, but we have strict orders not to move without her order. If you want the full story, you should go ask her. She's set up a command post at the konbini over there."

Shuichi turned and saw what he meant: an abandoned konbini next to the temple. The burnt out sign suggested that it had once been a colourful, lively place, only now it was grey and overshadowed by its neighbour.

Who the hell put a konbini next to a Buddhist temple? Had the Buddhists been fond of overpriced food and choosing from eighty-four different variations of ramen?

Shuichi thanked the soldier and headed over to the konbini. When he reached it, he hesitated to enter, knowing that Kirumi would likely not be happy to see him. Still, he gathered his strength and cracked open the door.

“This is fucking bullshit!” a heavy voice bellowed.

Shuichi resisted the inclination to run away at the first sound of Sakakura's voice, however he resisted temptation and peered inside to see what the commotion was about.

A holographic projector had been set up at the konbini's counter, displaying a screen hovering in mid-air to display the thoroughly displeased face of Kyosuke Munakata. Before him, highlighted by the artificial light, Kirumi and Sakakura stood before it, giving the impression of children being reprimanded by their mother.

"We need to storm the place and drag him out by his fucking hair!" Sakakura screamed.

"And I'm inclined to agree with you," said Munakata, with the air of someone who had repeated this many times before. Looks like Sakakura wasn't taking 'no' for an answer. "However, certain circumstances are at play here which make that a politically unsound move."

"Politically unsound my ass! This is exactly what Oma wants!"

"I know that. As does Miss Kirigiri. If you have complaints, I suggest you go direct them to her."

"What the hell does Kirigiri have to do with anything? Is she listening in on this?"

"I wouldn't put it past here, but as far as I know she isn't," said Munakata. "She asked me to convey to you that this situation with Atua's Prophets is a PR nightmare. We don't want to risk the cultists resorting to violence in order to protect Oma. If he wants to hide with them, let him. He'll leave sooner or later."

"What promise do we have of that?"

"This is Oma we're talking about. He hates confinement. He'll try to leave. So guard the perimetre and make sure he doesn't get away this time."

Sakakura slammed his fist on the counter. "You can't acknowledge this whole sanctuary thing! It's what he wants!"

"No, what he wants is for you to become desperate and do something to jeopardize your chances of recapturing him," said Munakata.

"Well, I hope you got a better fucking idea on how to do that than Tojo here, because she as sure as hell hasn't been offering up suggestions!"

Both Munakata trained his gaze on Kirumi, raking over her with unbridled scorn and his fingers drummed together.

"If you can't drag Oma out by force, then we'll have to convince the cultists to simply give him up," said Munakata. "If you can't persuade them by asking nicely...then starve him out. Put a blockade around that temple. I don't want those cultists getting a single scrap of food from the outside."

"They grow their own food, Mr Munakata," Kirumi asserted, her voice jutting forward as she pushed confidence into her tone.

"Be that as it may, I doubt they're able to grow enough to sustain their population," said Munakata. "The cultists will be as much prisoners as Oma is. When they tire of their situation, they'll have Oma over."

“What about her damn classmates?” Sakakura demanded, eyes flicking toward Kirumi. “They got something to do with this—I know it!”

"Are they still in the temple?"

"Yeah, and if you ask me their story's flimsy. They all said that they came to visit Yonaga and Oma was there when they arrived. Claim they had no association with him at all."

"Hmph. Tojo, is there anything you'd like to add?"

Kirumi looked up and said, "No, save that I believe their story."

A lie. What a blatant lie. But if Munakata picked up on it, he didn't betray it, though his already-hard gaze froze like a lake in the dead of winter.

"Of course you believe them," Sakakura snorted. "They're your classmates."

"It is unfortunate that they have become involved with this, but my previous association with them has no weight on my belief that they are telling the truth," said Kirumi. "Their stories are consistent with one another and they did not Oma before this incident. Given Oma's character, I find it improbable that they would be eager to lie to protect him."

"...I'll defer to your judgment on this matter," Munakata decided. "Know that if the 5th Division finds your classmates to be in collusion with Oma, it will reflect poorly upon you."

"They will find no such association—you have my word.”

“They’re in the temple now,” said Sakakura. “If they leave, should I arrest them?”

Munakata considered it, overlooking the papers in front of him. “Yonaga, Shirogane, and Yumeno are all members of the cult, yes? The others aren’t?”

“That is correct,” Tojo confirmed.

“If those three leave, arrest them for protecting Oma. As for the rest, have them placed in protective custody, that way we’ll be able to debrief them and make sure they’re separated from Oma. We can’t let Oma try to manipulate the students. He’s already gotten Yonaga wrapped around his finger. We can’t be certain that he hasn’t been able to corrupt the others. You two know what you need to do and the consequences if you fail," said Munakata. "I'll speak to Tojo alone, now. Sakakura—you're dismissed."

“Oh, good, here comes your reprimand,” Sakakura sneered. “About damn time, if you ask me.”

“Juzo, you can go.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going...”

Shuichi retreated and leaned against the exterior wall, trying to look as innocent as he could as Sakakura slammed it open. He craned his head back, eyes closed as snow lightly pelted his skin.

"Ah, Mr Sakakura?" Shuichi said.

Sakakura let out a long breath that came out in a puff of visible air.

"Came to see what the fuss was about, Saihara?" Sakakura asked in a casual, almost friendly manner. Then, his eyes opened and laser-focused on Shuichi. "Why is it that everyone in Tojo's damn class keeps showing up wherever she goes? You guys psychically linked or something?"

“Um, no,” said Shuichi.

“Really? Because you all have the uncanny ability to get on my damn nerves.”

“Is it true that Kokichi’s in there?” Shuichi asked, changing the subject. He knew the answer to that, but, again, he had to look innocent.

"No, dumbass, we all just like standing out here in the damn cold."

Sakakura rolled his eyes and walked along the perimeter of the temple's outer wall. Undeterred, Shuichi hurried after him.

"Thanks to Tojo, we can't even go in there and get the guy all because of some goddamn loophole," Sakakura complained. "He's claimed sanctuary on religious grounds. Munakata seems to think that we have our hands tied. I'm all for following his orders, but this is just stupid! I can practically hear Oma smirking from here..."

"You don't seem to like Kokichi very much."

"He's made my life a living hell, so saying I don't like him 'very much' is an understatement. Y'know he was supposed to be dead by now? I'll only have peace when the guy's dead!"

What a nice murderous outlook. Did this guy even have any friends?

"At least we got him cornered," said Sakakura. "Better to know where he is than to have him out there in the city wreaking havoc, or just not knowing what he's up to. Oma doesn't have anywhere else to go."

Somehow that didn’t put Shuichi’s nerves at ease. Kokichi had escaped from a Future Foundation facility, after all.

Sakakura cocked his head at Shuichi and said, “If you’re gonna be hanging around, I should warn you—”

Sakakura never got time to warn Shuichi about anything.

Because at that moment, a pie fell out of the sky and landed straight on his head with a wet squelch. Pastry and cherry filling exploded everywhere, flecking Shuichi’s face and running down Sakakura’s head in thick, scarlet globules. Eyes squeezed shut, Sakakura remained still, one hand on his hip, dignity intact.

Then, Sakakura swiped off the pastry and both he and Shuichi looked up.

They’d stopped underneath one of the pagodas in the two front corners of the temple complex, and looking out of the top window was Kokichi’s smiling face.

“DID YOU JUST DROP A PIE ON ME?!” Sakakura shouted.

“It’s my way of saying hello!” Kokichi called. “Hello!”

“COME DOWN HERE AND I’LL GIVE YOU MY OWN ‘HELLO’! WITH MY FIST!”

Kokichi leaned against the windowsill and twirled a lock of hair. “Oh, I dunno...I’m rather liking the Romeo and Juliet vibe we’ve got going here.”

“SPEAK FOR YOURSELF, DUMBASS!” Sakakura shouted, though a tinge of red crept across his cheeks. He swiped the pie crush off his head and stormed off.

Shuichi watched Sakakura leave, then craned his neck up to look at Kokichi. The moment their eyes met, the smile slipped from Kokichi’s face, replaced by raw, unreadable, serpentine poison. He ducked back in before the gaze held for too long

Shuichi ran his fingers through his hair. This might be difficult.

He rounded to the front of the temple, to the thick gate where two soldiers were standing guard. They stood at attention upon his approach, their demeanours making it clear that they weren’t going to let him pass without a problem. In the past, that would’ve been enough to deter Shuichi. Now, not so much.

“I need to get in,” Shuichi told them.

“I’m sorry, sir, we have strict orders to not let anyone pass,” one guard said.

"Could you make an exception?"

"I'm afraid not, sir."

"Please, this is urgent. I want to negotiate with the leader of the cult."

"We can't let you pass without authorization from Miss Tojo or Mr Sakakura, sir."

The conversation cut short when the gate cracked open and a familiar, lilting voice said, "Ah, Atua told me you'd arrived, Shuichi!"

Angie smiled at him through the crack in the gate.

"You can let him in," Angie told the guards. "He doesn't count as a violation of Kokichi's sanctuary conditions. The rest of you don't get any ideas, okay? Or Atua will strike you down!"

"We really shouldn't let anyone in without authorization from—" the soldier started.

"There's a good man! Come in, Shuichi, come in!"

Before the guards could protest further, Angie pulled Shuichi inside by the front of his shirt. At once, a sun-glowed glow washed over him, in stark contrast to the chill outside, sending a shiver through his body. Blinking against the light, he vaguely saw Atua spin in a circle, her yellow frock trailing behind her like a ray of sunshine. Once she finished twirling, she threw her arms around him.

“Shuichi, it is so good to see you again!” Angie grinned. “Truly this day has been a blessing from Atua!”

“A blessing from Atua?” Shuichi frowned. He held her at arm’s length. “Angie, you got soldiers right outside your door. I wouldn’t call that a blessing.”

"But with the attention we're getting, word of Atua's divinity will spread! This is a blessing in disguise. Now, how have you been, Shuichi? It's been a long time after all."

Shuichi pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ve been better, to be honest. Where’s Kaede and the others? I need to talk to everyone.”

“They’re having tea in the garden, except for Rantaro. He’s, and I quote, ‘babysitting’ our newest recruit.”

“You mean Kokichi? You know he only joined because he had ulterior motives, right?”

“Oh, that was obvious. I intend to change his mind with the power of unconditional love.”

Shuichi wasn’t convinced that Kokichi knew the meaning of unconditional love.

Angie escorted him to a garden in the rear of the temple. When he stepped out, he found most of his classmates just as Angie said: gathered around the garden, having tea, and oddly relaxed despite their situation. It was like old times again. When Tsumugi saw him, she leapt up and hurried over.

"Atua be praised!" Tsumugi beamed. "Hello again, Shuichi. I'm glad you're here. I missed you more than the other heathens."

"We're sitting right here," said Kaito.

"It's nice to see you again, too," said Shuichi. He turned, and met eyes with Himiko, looking unchanged from the last time he'd seen her. "Hi, Himiko."

"Nyeh, whatever," Himiko waved vaguely. Shuichi had difficulty telling whether the greeting was friendly or indifferent; Himiko had never been easy to get a handle on.

"The people outside are talking about Kokichi claiming sanctuary," Shuichi told the group. "Is it true?"

"That's right, and I think it might've actually worked," said Kaede. "I mean, they haven't stormed the place yet, so that's a good thing. I think."

"But they do have the place surrounded," said Shuichi, "and I overheard Munakata ordering Sakakura and Kirumi to put you all in protective custody if you try to leave."

"Tch, that's just a fancy way of saying we'll be arrested," Ryoma scoffed. "No doubt they don't want to take any risks when it comes to Kokichi. The fact that we've had contact with him is suspicious enough."

"Even if they go easy on most of us, it won't do much good for Angie, Himiko, Tsumugi, and the rest of the cultists," said Kaito.

"Speaking of Kokichi, where is he now?" Shuichi asked.

"I gave him a private room at the top of the pagoda over there," Angie indicated the pagoda Shuichi had seen him dropping a pie from.

"Are you sure it's a good idea to let him stay up there?"

"Oh, it wasn't my idea. Kokichi asked for it."

"He asked for it? Now I know it's a bad idea."

“Ye of little faith,” Angie chuckled, wagging her finger at him. “Kokichi won’t try to leave now, nor is he able to. I do not see what harm he can do from inside Atua’s sacred place.”

“You’d be surprised,” Shuichi sighed. “I have bad news, though. Munakata plans to starve him out by cutting off the food supply to this place."

“You mean no more food?” Himiko sighed. “What a pain...”

“Oh, how conniving of him,” Angie mused. “We do grow our own food, and we have a fair amount of storage saved up. And if we run out, I’ll pray to Atua to send us some more.”

“That must be very handy,” said Gonta. “Maybe can pray to Atua to send everyone—not just Prophets—more food in general? Then no one be hungry again!”

“Don’t think it works like that,” Ryoma said. “We need to come up with a more grounded plan. I don’t care how big your food storage is—eventually it’s gonna run out and when that does, you might not have a choice but to hand him over. Although I still think it’d be safer to do that straight away.”

“Let me start by talking to Kokichi before he becomes too entrenched in whatever scheme he’s cooking up this time,” said Shuichi.

“I don’t know why you even bother,” Tenko fumed. “If you ask me, we should stop trying to negotiate with some dumb boy and start trying to talk to Maki. If we get through to her, we can get through to Kirumi.”

Shuichi wasn't sure it would be that simple even if Maki was willing to listen to reason, but didn't contradict Tenko. Assuring the others that he would be back shortly, Shuichi headed through the temple and toward the pagoda where Kokichi was. In front of the temple, the came across a pair of cultists chattering away as if there weren't any soldiers camping out on their doorstep. Their smiles were far too smiley, especially when they fixed on him and pulled back their lips until all their teeth were revealed.

Creepy.

He entered the pagoda to find an unassuming place that looked like it was being used for storage. In the centre, a spiral staircase ascended to the floors above. Not wasting him, he hurried up and ran into Rantaro on the third floor. Rantaro stood out on the balcony looking out onto the street below. His arms folded against the railing, he seemed oddly casual for someone who recognized the danger of their situation better than anyone else. Rantaro turned to look at Shuichi as he approached, expression neutral.

"Do you see Maki?" Rantaro asked.

“Huh?” Shuichi cocked his head.

“Across the street, on the roof. Do you see her?”

Shuichi peered to the rooftop Rantaro indicated. Sure enough, on he could see a vague figure lying flat down, a sniper rifle directed to the pagoda.

"I think she's just using it to keep an eye on Kokichi," said Rantaro. "Not that I don't put it past her to actually take a shot at him, but Kirumi seems to have a tight leash on her. I give it a fifty-fifty chance she'll risk a reprimand by violating the sanctuary."

It wasn't a Maki Shuichi like to see, and he'd seen it far too many times since their class had endured the Tragedy.

"What's wrong?" Rantaro chortled, though it was clear he found no amusement in the situation.

"It's nothing," said Shuichi. "What's Kokichi doing? Aside from dropping pies on people, anyway. You didn't have anything to do with that, did you?"

"I only handed him the pie," Rantaro smiled, and the smile faded quickly. "I guess you're here to talk to Kokichi, huh? Well, you better let me soften him up for you, otherwise he won't listen to a thing you have to say."

"He hates me that much?"

"I wouldn't take it personally. I think it has more to do with your alignment with the Future Foundation than anything else.”

Rantaro led the way to the top level of the pagoda, where they found an unexpectedly comfortable room. Crates had been pushed aside to make room for a rather rudimentary living space including a bedroll and worn tea table. Kokichi, the man of the hour, was out on the balcony, a pie in hand.

"You're not trying to hit Sakakura again, are you?" Rantaro asked.

"Don't be stupid—that'd be too redundant," Kokichi chimed. "I'm more interested in nailing Kirumi. I bet she wouldn't be so prim and proper if she was covered in pie!"

"You should be saving those," said Shuichi.  

Kokichi stiffened, and rounded on him, eyes flaring with anger before he reined himself in.

“Oh, so they let you in, did they?” Kokichi drawled.

“Play nice, Kokichi,” Rantaro scolded him. “Shuichi wants to talk.”

“Ah, talking. Don’t you think there’s been enough talking? I’m more interested in nailing Kirumi.”

“But you should be saving those pies,” Shuichi reiterated. “Kirumi’s ordered a blockade around the temple. They plan to starve you out.”

“Oh, that’s almost creative!” Kokichi giggled. “Too bad they didn’t account for all the shitty prison food I had to eat. It’s kind of killed my appetite.”

“I don’t think the same can be said for the cultists. They’re hoping that the cult will turn you over once they run out of supplies.”

“Yeah, if your assassin friend doesn’t shoot me first. Gosh, she’s kind of a bitch, isn’t she?”

Shuichi opted to let that one go. “I have some questions I want to ask you.”

“Hmm? Questions? Me? Oh—hold that thought.”

Kokichi leaned over the balcony and dropped the pie. Shuichi followed the pie’s trajectory as it barrelled down toward a familiar, lithe form—the unmistakable form of Kirumi Tojo.

As the pie fell, Shuichi watched with acute fascination as Kirumi unfurled an umbrella and held it up. The pie hit the umbrella and exploded all over—and judging from his position on the balcony, not a single piece of pastry or filling landed on her.

“Wow, she’s good,” Kokichi whistled. “Rantaro, get me more pies!”

Shuichi turned and met Rantaro’s eyes, which were soft and twinkling with amusement. With a haphazard shrug and a lift of his eyebrows, Rantaro gave Shuichi a he's-all-yours look before ducking out.

Alone with Kokichi, Shuichi realized that he had no idea where to begin. His investigation had left him with so many questions, he was sure that even Kokichi—who an answer to the most impossible of questions—wouldn’t be able to answer them all. And yet the most fundamental question of all, the question about who Kokichi Oma was, remained locked behind the mask the Ultimate Supreme Leader so carefully maintained.

“So...like I said, I have some questions,” said Shuichi.

“Too bad,” Kokichi said. “Questions are unfortunate things to have, y’know, but you already know that. Anyway, since your presence is boring me, I’m gonna make this short and sweet and make it clear that I don’t feel like answering questions. Any. Questions. At all. Ever.”

“I want to ask about the night DICE died.”

Kokichi leaned over the railing, though his shoulders went stiff at the mention of his name. With a flourish, he removed himself from the balcony, his arms dropping like dead weights to his side.

“Those losers?" said Kokichi. "Why so interested in them?”

“The Future Foundation has detailed records about what happened the night Izayoi killed them, but somehow I feel like it’s not the full story. And my instincts tell me that your organization is at the centre of it all."

“What makes you think that?”

“For one thing, I still don’t know the motivation of the girl who allegedly betrayed your organization.”

“Who knows?” Kokichi shrugged noncommittally. He ducked back inside the pagoda. Shuichi followed him. “I sure as hell don't know. Doesn't matter, anyway. Who knows, who knows?”

“Kokichi, where were you the night the DICE members died?” Shuichi asked.

“Pretty sure I was committing some heinous act of terrorism on behalf of my fellow Remnants. Whatever or wherever it was, I’m sure it was evil.”

“Can anyone verify an alibi for you?”

“No one alive, no.”

“Do you know why this girl would betray you?”

"Hearts."

"Huh?"

"That was her name," said Kokichi. "Hearts. Like the card game? Anyway, maybe she was bored or whatever. It’s not like I care since I wasn’t there and everyone who died was so inconsequential I barely noticed anything when they were gone.”

“Kokichi. There were ten members of DICE. Not 10,000, not ten hundred thousand, not ten million—just ten.”

"Can you prove it?” Kokichi smiled mischievously.

“I’m the one supposed to be asking the questions. Why can’t you be straightforward with me?”

“Straightforward?” Kokichi rubbed his chin. “Tell you what, Shuichi. You beat me at a game, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Unconventional. But not unexpected. “What kind of game?”

“My kind of game.”

Kokichi sat at the tea table and gestured to Shuichi to sit across from him, which he did after a small hesitation. He was pretty confident he could overpower Kokichi if he needed to.

Of course, all that went out the window when Kokichi drew out a knife.

“Woah, where did you get that?!” Shuichi exclaimed, scrambling back.

“What, you think I’m gonna kill you?” Kokichi snorted. “You’re not worth the effort. No, we’re going to play my favourite game. The knife game!”

Kokichi lay his hand spread out on the tea table, the knife raised in his opposite hand.

“W—Wait, what’re you doing?!” Shuichi demanded.

Kokichi answered with a coy smile and stabbed the knife down between his fingers, the tap-tap-tap of the blade hitting the table permeating the air, setting Shuichi’s nerves on end.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” Shuichi exclaimed. “Stop that before you hurt yourself!”

“Hey, you’ll get your turn,” said Kokichi. “So do tell me about yourself, Shuichi. What’s your favourite colour? Where did you spend your childhood? ”

“H—Huh? I’d really prefer you focus on not stabbing yourself, or just stop it!”

“Oh, please, I could do this with my eyes closed, which is why you’ll never beat me.”

“If you’re so sure that’s the case, why challenge me to a game at all?”

“I like seeing people flounder around knowing that they’ll fail in the end. You see, I don’t flounder because I never fail.”

“You’re currently stuck inside a temple with a bunch of cultists. I wouldn’t call that a win.”

“The game’s not over yet, Shuichi. There’s still plenty of time to turn things around. I’m probably making a ploy to enable my victory—or maybe I’m not and I’m lying right now.”

Shuichi glanced down at Kokichi’s hand, watching with nervous fascination as the knife grazed past his fingers with expert precision until the blade was a silver blur moving across the table. The wood flaked as Kokichi created small grooves wherever the knife it. Shuichi thought about his next words carefully. If he was going to best Kokichi, it would have to be on his own terms.

“You know I can’t beat you at this game in particular,” said Shuichi. “But it wouldn’t be a fair game if there wasn’t any chance for me to win.”

“Ooh, that’s quite astute of you,” Kokichi smiled broadly. “What makes you think I care about a fair game?”

“A game where you cheat to win isn’t interesting since victory is guaranteed. I should think that anyone—especially a ‘Remnant’ such as yourself—would be interested in a game where there’s no chance of a loss.”

“Now you’re talking. Y’know, for a Future Foundation lackey, you’re not as dumb as the others. Especially Juzo.”

“You don’t seem to like him very much.”

“Eh, he’s okay, I suppose, but his loyalty to Munakata’s a little grating sometimes. Blind faith is a recipe for disaster. Plus the guy punches a little too hard for my liking.”

“You’ve had confrontations with him before?”

“Well, when you’re annoying as me, getting punched in the face is pretty much inevitable. Good thing I have an iron plate installed in my head. Lessens the blows somewhat.”

“If you had an iron plate installed in your head, it would be mentioned in your file.”

“Wow, does the Future Foundation really have a whole file dedicated to me? I never would’ve guessed!”

Shuichi frowned. “There must be some way I can get you to talk to me.”

“Shuichi, I’m an unreliable super evil Remnant,” Kokichi cackled. “Even if I did feel like laying all my cards on the table, even if you took me at my word, no one else would believe my testimony.”

“Why are you so determined to be guilty? You know that means you could be killed, right?”

Kokichi’s smile tensed, then broadened. “Maybe I have a death wish. Who knows?”

“Do you know?”

“I know that I’m winning at the moment.”

Shuichi glanced down at Kokichi’s splayed-out-hand, the blur of silver snapping between his thin fingers. Four grooves grew deeper and deeper. Then he drew back his arm dramatically and lodged the knife in the table with a thwak, leaned back, and gave Shuichi an appraising grin.

“Nailed it,” Kokichi proclaimed. “Okay, your turn.”

“Ah, no,” said Shuichi.

“C’mon, don’t you want to know my deep, dark, dirty secrets? This is the way to find out! The only thing you have to lose is a few fingers. Or a hand, if your aim’s shitty.”

Time to bring out the big guns. Shuichi leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. “Forget the game. Tell me about Ace.”

If Kokichi was surprised, he concealed it—he concealed it behind a placid smile. What he didn’t say with his mouth, he said with his eyes as they glazed over with a far-off, thousand-yard stare. Every word he’d ever spoken to Shuichi had been filled with strength. But when he looked past that, when he looked at Kokichi’s lithe frame, he saw that he checked off every box when it came to defining weakness. It struck Shuichi just how unwell Kokichi appeared, from his swallow skin to the trademark hint of not-quite-sane warbling behind his darkening gaze.

“You’re testing your luck, Shuichi,” Kokichi sang with a jeering smile. “Eh, if you don’t want to play with me, then you have permission to leave.”

“Not until you tell me about Ace.”

“Yeesh, you’re a stubborn one, aren’t you? Why do you even want to know about him? He was about as useless as lackeys come.”

“‘Was’?”

“Well, duh, the guy’s dead. Or he could be alive. But he’s probably dead. I’ve been a little wishy-washy on which one it is lately. I’m surprised you’re this quick to give up on your line of questioning about Hearts. But, again, you’re boring me, so you can go.”

“You’re trying to deflect my questions about him by referring to Hearts.”

Kokichi rolled his eyes. “I’m too old for this.”

Shuichi was about to remind Kokichi that he was only eighteen when the Ultimate Supreme Leader’s hand snapped to grip his knife. In a flourishing motion, he twirled it in the air, then slammed it back into the table, grazing the side of Shuichi’s palm. Frozen, Shuichi took in a sharp breath. A trickle of blood ran down both the blade and Shuichi’s hand to pool on the wood.

“I said,” Kokichi smiled. “You have my permission to leave.”

Shuichi held the gaze for as long as he dared to. Well, he knew where Kokichi stood, at least.

“I’m going to come back,” Shuichi stated.

Kokichi laughed. “I’m pretty sure you won’t. As you can see, I don’t want or need your so-called ‘help’, so it’s pretty much useless to try to offer me an olive branch.”

That was clear. Still, Shuichi didn’t give Kokichi the satisfaction of a response as he rose to his feet and headed to the staircase.

“Try not to do anything stupid to get yourself caught until I come back,” said Shuichi.

“You won’t come back,” Kokichi stated, almost tenderly.

Shuichi didn’t look over his shoulder as he headed down the stairs. On his way down, he ran into Rantaro coming back up with a pie.

“Any luck?” Rantaro asked, eyes flicking as he studied his expression.

“Well, I wasn’t exactly expecting miracles to begin with,” said Shuichi. “That’s fine, though. I already know my next move.”

Shuichi left Rantaro at the pagoda and navigated through the complex, back to the rear garden where he’d left his classmates. Kokichi’s words stung in the back of his mind, but he did the best he could to try to ignore the actual words and look instead at the weight behind them. There hadn’t been much there—in fact, there hadn’t been much of anything. It struck him how nonchalant Kokichi regarded the whole messy situation as if he didn’t care. But how couldn’t he?

His classmates hadn’t moved from their spots in the garden, though their expressions were tense and contemplative.

“How’d it go?” Kaede asked as Shuichi approached.

Shuichi supposed his strained expression answered her question because her lips pulled back into an ‘o’ and she offered a sympathetic, tender look.

“I got an idea,” Shuichi stated. “Gonta, I need you to take me to the DICE hideout Kokichi took you to the other day.”

Gonta fumbled with the teacup in his hand, a cup so small that it looked miniaturized in comparison to his bulk. “H—Huh? You want to go back out there?”

“It’s the only lead I have at the moment,” said Shuichi. “If I don’t take advantage of it, who knows what might happen.”

“I’ll come with you,” Kaede decided, rising to her feet.

“Eh, I suppose it might be worth the effort to see the look on the Future Foundation’s face,” said Tenko. “Want me to come along, Kaede? You know idiot boys can’t be trusted with anything...”

“We’ll be fine,” Kaede assured her. “Just try not to get into too much trouble. God knows we’re in enough of that with the Future Foundation already.”

“Understood, Kaede. I’ll stay here and guard Himiko. You can show me what cool magic tricks you’ve come up with since we last saw each other!”

“Ugh, what a pain,” Himiko groaned. “Hey, Kaede, can I come with?”

Kaede, Gonta, and Shuichi excused themselves and regrouped in the front garden. They were fortunately able to get back through the gate without incident, though the soldier on the opposite side gave them a hard stare. Still, they didn't linger—not wanting to be caught by Sakakura or Kirumi. Fears of capture disappeared as they melted off into the crowd and back toward the ruins of Tokyo, and hopefully in it he would find the answers he longed for.


Kokichi slammed his fist on the table. Stupid. This was all kinds of stupid and he had no one to blame but himself for his goddamn arrogance. He'd gotten cocky—he should've gone straight to Angie. Arrogance disguised itself under the veil of confidence, and he'd fallen for it.

He heard footsteps and didn't look up when Rantaro reentered.

"Problems?" Rantaro asked. "I didn't know what flavour pie you wanted so I chose one at random."

"Great!" Kokichi chirped, snapping upright. "But I don't need it anymore."

Kokichi leapt up, shouldered on his skeleton jacket, and hurried past Rantaro to the staircase.

"Going somewhere?" Rantaro asked.

Kokichi didn't answer. He hurried down he pagoda and out into the courtyard. A crooked tree grew near the wall. Not looking back, he seized the lowest branch, hauling himself up. He scurried up easily—in his youth, trees had been the best way to escape bullies and other tormentors. In an instant, he flew from the bottom to the top, and the wall drew downward until he was near the top. As he peered over, a rush of frigid cold struck his face to contrast with the temple's warmth. Beneath him, the otherworldly existence played out before him like a post-apocalyptic play set, swathes of darkly-clad soldiers marching around with their machine guns and set faces. And there were not only soldiers but civilians gathered around gawking at the temple like they were attractions at a human zoo. Either way, no way out. Not without getting shot or worse, captured.

Letting out a frustrated huff, Kokichi crashed back through the tree and landed right on his feet. He found Rantaro had followed him.

Shoving past Rantaro, Kokichi recalled the subway and how effective they'd been in aiding his flight from the Future Foundation. But it seemed unlikely that a Buddhist temple would have a disruptive subway running nearby. Sewers, then. He was small. He could manage. Unless they'd been blocked by wreckage. Maybe he could bribe his way out—but with what? Stealing from the Prophets had its appeal. Idea after idea rolled absently through his mind, each idea more audacious than the next.

Shit, shit, shit. He'd done this to himself. His arrogance had done this. His determination to make things more complicated than they needed to be. His determination to best himself with his schemes and ideas and intelligence and—basically anything to prove that he was better than everyone else.

"You can't escape."

Kokichi whirled around on the tips of his toes to face Rantaro. He was still holding the pie.

"Oh?" Kokichi cooed. "What makes you think I'm trying to do that? I've got you all right where I want you!"

"Nice try," Rantaro drawled. “There’s no way out of here, but I think you already knew that.”

“No, I totally didn’t figure that out for himself judging from the—what? Dozens of soldiers surrounding the place? Never would’ve figured that out for myself, Mr Obvious.”

“I’m trying to help. We’re all trying to help.”

“Ultimate Supreme Leaders don’t need help,” said Kokichi, shooting Rantaro his best glare. He was pretty sure it came out as more of a grimace judging by Rantaro’s expression of vague pity. “And they especially don’t like to be seen with people with avocado hair!”

He didn’t give Rantaro the chance to respond before darting off, not giving the Ultimate Adventurer an opportunity to come after him.

Kokichi ducked into the sanctuary, vacant of life save for the fountain and the gentle hum of insects buzzing through the air. No Angie, fortunately, because he needed a minute to collect his thoughts. He needed a quiet space to think and get his shit together and come up with a plan. An actual plan, not just bullshitting his way through life like he always did. Surrounded by the Future Foundation, surrounded by the 79’ers, surrounded by cultists, surrounded by his own disingenuous crockpot schemes, the time for play was over. Now was the time to get serious.

Before he could think about making a break back to the pagoda, his thoughts were interrupted by a hissing noise coming from nearby. Glancing around, he realized that it was coming from a yellow-clad cult member lurking behind a pillar and that the noise was an attempt to get his attention.

Frozen on the spot, Kokichi cocked an eyebrow and made to give the guy a friendly wave, when he noted that the cultist was unlike the others. He was tense. He was fidgety. His eyes darted back and forth as if he wasa child terrified of being caught of misbehaving.

“Y—You’re the Remnant, right?” the cult member hissed.

“Sure am,” Kokichi affirmed, approaching him. “Hey, why are we whispering? Is this a secret meeting?”

“Y—You gotta get me out of here. I’ll do anything. I’ll—I’ll even join the Remnants, I swear!”

“Um...what?”

“Can you get me out? You can do it, right?”

"What's the deal, pal? You got a good gig here! Freshwater, good food, nice garden, happy cultists—compared to the Remnants you're living the dream here!"

The cultist seized Kokichi's shirt and pulled him close, his breath hot and heavy and desperate.

"Please, I'll do anything! Please!"

"This is a little rude, y'know?" said Kokichi. "Personal space an' all."

Before the cultist could say any more, a familiar sight whirled out of seemingly nowhere, her mane of blue hair floating behind her. Beneath her familiar smile was a tense weariness that ballooned she saw the two of them huddled behind the pillar.

"Ah, there you are," said Tsumugi. Not to Kokichi, but to the cultist. She wagged her finger disapprovingly at him. "Now, now, now—you should know better than to speak ill of Atua after you've taken the vows."

"I—I wasn't!" the cultist squeaked, releasing Kokichi. "Tell her I wasn't!"

"You really shouldn't drag prospective servants of Atua down with you," said Tsumugi. Addressing Kokichi, she asked, "You were still interested in joining, right?"

"You know that was a rouse to protect my own skin, right?" Kokichi pointed out.

"You don't have to pretend for me," Tsumugi said. "I'm sure you were sincere in your desire to serve Atua, otherwise why would the Oracle have agreed to give you sanctuary? She would never agree to shelter an unbeliever!"

That's not what Angie had said. Before Kokichi could point that out, however, Tsumugi snapped her fingers and a pair of cultists rushed out to seize the dissident by his arms.

"NO!" The dissident screamed. "NO, I CAN'T! PLEASE, LET ME GO HOME!"

"You are home," Tsumugi cooed. "Don't worry, once you understand your transgressions, you won't be so resistant."

The dissident was dragged off kicking and screaming, although the noise abruptly stopped once he was out of sight, leaving a heavyweight behind him. Deep in his stomach, Kokichi suddenly felt a wave of nausea roll over him in thick droves of anxiety and sudden dread. Tsumugi, however, broadened her smile, teeth glistening, eyes sparkling, and not an ounce of sincerity behind it as she cupped her hands together.

"Ah, they're so adorable when they resist," Tsumugi sighed.

“What was that about?” Kokichi asked. “If the guy doesn’t want to be a loyal follower of Atua, why not let him leave?”

Tsumugi giggled as if it was the silliest question in the world. “You can’t just leave. Atua has granted us divine enlightenment. We wouldn’t dream of letting our brothers and sisters return to the other side, just like you wouldn’t leave a small child cross the street alone, right? Does that make sense?”

“Eh, it just doesn’t seem to be worth the effort.”

Tsumugi’s smile tightened. “Oh, Kokichi, once you become a Prophet, you can’t just leave. We’ve all been chosen to be the intermediaries between this world and the unseen world! You can’t just abandon that calling.”

“You mean you want me to be like crazy cultists you always see in anime? The ones who’re always worshiping some weird thing, like an inter-dimensional god or a giant Eldritch abomination or some machine that they’ve mistaken for something great and powerful when in reality there’s something really mundane behind it all?”

“Yes, just like that!” Tsumugi beamed. “I’m so glad you understand! I still haven’t thought of a good face name for you, though, so I hope you don’t mind waiting for your initiation. You’re going to be a tricky one to name—I can tell!”

“Maybe I changed my mind about joining,” said Kokichi.

“Oh, don’t be like that! You don’t want to be like him, do you?” Tsumugi gestured to the door where the cultists have dragged off the dissident. “After all, once you’ve expressed a desire to be one with Atua, there are no take-backs. You have to commit.”

Kokichi rolled his eyes. She really was looney—loonier than even Angie. He made to leave, but as he started to walk off, Tsumugi’s arm snapped out and pinned him against the pillar.

“You’re going to be a great addition to the Prophets,” Tsumugi smiled. “Once you spend some more time with us, you’ll realize just how beneficial it is to be one of us.”

Kokichi met her eye, and he saw something sinister and dark behind her welcoming gaze. His eyebrows met in the centre of his forehead, and deep within him, the small flickers of suspicion erupted into a full-out forest fire. And he knew that Tsumugi had a smile that couldn’t be trusted.


Everything Shuichi had read about the outside world hadn’t prepared him for the reality, something he'd realized the moment he'd stepped outside the safety of the Future Foundation headquarters. He hadn’t prepared for the virtual ghetto of refugees, he hadn’t prepared for his friends living on the fringes of society, and he realized now how unprepared he was for everything. Shuichi survived on memories of the world pre-Tragedy, on the days where his greatest concerns had been to make his uncle proud and survive school and hang out with his newfound gaggle of friends. All infinitesimally mundane events in his life—made legendary and good by the reality of the urban wasteland stretched out on all sides of him like an endless labyrinth.

He was thankful for Gonta’s guidance, because without him, Shuichi was certain he would’ve gotten lost—both in the emotional and physical sense. They’d slipped out of the neighbourhood through the checkpoint, though the guards had been none-too-pleased to let them leave. Out here, they were out of their control, and the further away they went from the neighbourhood, the more gunshots he heard firing in the distance. Whenever they heard an uncomfortably close shot, Gonta redirected them to safer side streets or cut through abandoned homes and storefronts.

Once during their journey, they heard a commotion, and hid inside a corner store, hiding behind the counter while what sounded like a large group of people passed by, just far enough away that Shuichi couldn’t make out what they were saying.

For a moment, he’d thought it was too peaceful for it to be anyone but the Future Foundation, until gunfire erupted, popping over their heads. Kaede had let out a terrified gasp and bent low, hands over her ears, her forehead almost touched the floor. Gonta, barely able to conceal himself behind the counter, curled his body over them until the gunfire carried away, with yells and shouts chasing after them.

“Gonta...think they gone,” Gonta said tentatively, peering over the counter. “Yes, they gone.”

“Let’s get out of here before they come back,” Kaede hissed. “Gosh, maybe we should have brought Tenko along.”

“Who do you think they were?” Shuichi asked as they hurried out of the store, checked the street for activity, and then rushed away.

“Probably a militia group out hunting Remnants, but better to be safe than sorry,” said Kaede.

“That’s...a very specific guess.”

“Do you want to stay behind and look for evidence?” Kaede asked half-jokingly.

“Nope. Let’s get this over with.”

They hurried off down the street, turned the corner, and headed off at a brisk pace.

“Not too much farther now,” said Gonta. He paused, and then said. “Er, Gonta hear fighting in direction we need to go in, though.”

Gonta’s hearing, always acuter than theirs, testified to its accuracy when Shuichi picked up on the sound of gunfire.

“Should we go around them?” Shuichi asked.

“Let’s see what the commotion is about first,” said Kaede. “I’d rather not spent too much time out here by taking a longer route.”

Gonta stopped them at the next corner and peered around, then nodded at them to confirm that the commotion was coming down the street. Shuichi moved forward and also peered around the corner.

Ahead of them, situated at an intersection, a squadron of soldiers clustered around a barricade blocking one of the streets. Shuichi recognized them as Future Foundation strain. They didn’t seem to be in any particular rush to attack whoever was shooting at them, for they were all at ease, their weapons at the ready but not about to fire, and some were even standing around smoking. Either way, there didn’t seem to be any way to get across the street without being seen by them.

“Oh, it’s just them,” Kaede breathed. “It should be safe to go by them.”

“Are you crazy?!” Shuichi exclaimed. “We can’t go in there!”

“It’s fine—it’s nothing we haven’t gone through before,” Kaede waved him off. “C’mon.”

when Kaede slipped on ahead with Gonta at her heel, behind the barrier where the Future Foundation soldiers crouched. His breath seized in his throat, and then he went after them.

They’d only gone partway past the barrier when a jarring explosion sent the ground reeling underfoot, shuddering and shivering as if it had only just become aware of the carnage. Shuichi stumbled, and he, Gonta, and Kaede pressed their backs against the barrier as a flash of brilliant light exploded overhead, then slammed into the nearby building. Brick and rubble rained down on them as Shuichi hurried to protect his face.

One soldier hurried over, seizing Shuichi's shoulder to keep him in place. When the dust settled, he moved aside.

“Careful!” the soldier shouted over the rapid gunfire flinging over their heads. “You shouldn’t be out here, citizen. Turn around and go back where you came from.”

“Shuichi Saihara, 5th Division,” said Shuichi, flashing his identification at him. “Do you need me to call for back-up?”

“Oh, sorry, sir,” said the soldier. “There’s no need for back-up, though I appreciate the offer. These guys are outnumbered. We’re waiting for them to realize we have them surrounded so they can kill themselves already?”

Shuichi started. “Kill themselves?!”

“Yes, sir, the Remnants’ followers usually prefer to commit suicide over capture.”

“Maybe you should just force them to surrender?”

“What for? Easier to get them to kill themselves, plus we risk fewer casualties that way.”

“Have you offered a surrender”

“No, sir, there’s no point. They wouldn’t accept, anyway.”

“Maybe these ones would?”

The soldier raised an eyebrow. “I’m just following orders, sir.”

Shuichi gawked at the soldier, unable to understand what he was hearing. Were the soldiers actually waiting for their enemies to commit suicide as opposed to trying to force them to surrender? What was the point in that? Didn’t the Future Foundation gain less intel that way? But the soldier looked back with an uncaring disregard, not for Shuichi, but for his opponents as his back slid down against the barricade and he lit a cigarette.

Kaede tugged at Shuichi’s sleeve and hissed into his ear. “Come on, let’s go.”

“But we should—” Shuichi started.

“You can’t convince them otherwise,” Kaede whispered. “Come on.”

Shuichi allowed himself to bed led away as they ducked underneath the gunfire, past the barricade, and through the masses of soldiers idling about while the Remnant sympathizers were in their death throes. Uncaring.

Shuichi had only seen a flicker of conflict from behind the safety of his desk, but he’d always thought it had been necessary. A means to an end. Now anxiety prickled through him as he wondered whether or not it was necessary to wear out the Remnants until they committed suicide, as opposed to forcing them to peacefully surrender. Why the hell wouldn’t they give the Remnants a chance to live?

Shuichi couldn’t help but look back at the cluster of activity getting further and further away from them until Gonta turned out a side street and they were finally out of sight. He slowed to a halt.

“C’mon, Shuichi!” Kaede called from up ahead.

“I...no,” said Shuichi. “It’s wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“The soldiers. They aren’t even giving the Remnants a chance to surrender! We need to do something.”

Kaede softened, as did Gonta.

“Shuichi, they never give them a chance to surrender unless there’s a high-ranking member among them who might have information,” said Kaede. “...Didn’t you know that?”

No. “It’s just heartless.”

“We can’t do anything, Shuichi.”

He snapped to look at her, surprised by her candour. The Kaede he’d known a year ago would never have said something so grave with such gentle, accepting sadness. Behind the sadness, pain ignited in her glistening eyes like the final embers of a fire.

“Most Remnants commit suicide if they’re backed into a corner, and they kill anyone who isn’t on their side,” Kaede explained. “It’s too dangerous for us to intervene. Even if we did, the soldiers would arrest us. There’s nothing we can do for them.”

It didn’t feel right. Shuichi stirred uncomfortably.

Kaede took his hand and pulled him on, and soon he was able to hurry along without having to be dragged. All senses were on high alert as they were bombarded with a myriad of sensations coming from all angles, some emotional and some from sight and sounds. The ground, covered with dirty snow and recent footprints and fallen debris, curved before him. Still, no matter how far away they drew from the gunfire, he never seemed to get further. In his mind, he was still there, standing with the soldiers.

Was this what they always did? Shuichi supposed that Kaede would know better, surely. Surely she couldn’t be wrong no matter how much he wanted her to be. Was the Future Foundation always this heartless toward its opponents? Was he wrong to feel the flickers of surprise when they’d so readily condemned Kokichi? Was that why outsiders looked at him with such mistrust?

Before, Shuichi felt that he hadn’t understood why people disliked the Future Foundation. Now he had an inkling as to why.

Soon, they came to a quiet stretch of road where Gonta stopped them, uncharacteristically grave as he surveyed the street ahead. Satisfied, he gestured them forward.

“Gonta not think there nobody here,” said Gonta. “Think it safe to walk now.”

Good. Sweat clung Shuichi’s clothes to his body, and it wasn't from heat, but from terrible realization. Still thinking of the Remnant followers the soldiers fought, he was glad to have a moment to slow down and collect his thoughts.

“Are you okay?” Kaede asked.

“I...I guess so,” said Shuichi. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. The intel reports I had mentioned stuff like this happening, but to see it for myself...it’s different.”

“It’s one thing reading about it, but another to see it firsthand. Don’t try to shoulder too much responsibility over it, okay?”

Shuichi sighed. “Maybe you guys were right.”

“What you mean, Shuichi?” Gonta asked from ahead.

“About Miu, Keebo, Maki, Kirumi, and me joining the Future Foundation. You guys tried to convince us not to go, but we did anyway. Maybe if we hadn’t, the five of us wouldn’t be so...divided. Maybe Keebo wouldn’t be missing.”

“Hey, nobody blames you guys for choosing a different path,” said Kaede. “Even with their flaws, the world needs the Future Foundation. It’s the only large organization not just looking out for its own interests, even if most of its extracurricular activities prioritize Ultimates over ordinary people...If you ask me, there’s a huge flaw in that logic.”

“What do you mean?”

Kaede bit her lip. “Well, Ultimates are supposed to represent humanity’s future, but what’s the point of that if we’re willing to let throngs of people die just to protect one Ultimate? Nothing should be worth that.”

“Gonta think it hard choice to make,” said Gonta. “Gonta not think there right choice. Gonta think Shuichi and others do what they think is right, and that’s what matters.

Their party continued in silence until the gunfire faded and all that was left behind was a ghost of its existence. Gonta remained tense, checking around every corner, scanning rooftops for snipers and streets for combatants, but their trek went unopposed until they emerged onto an undisturbed, snowy street—well, undisturbed save for the corpses of the continuing conflict. Whatever evidence Gonta and Kokichi had been here was erased by the snowfall, leaving the street placid. Gonta stopped them at the head of the street and, assured that it was empty, led them down a forgotten alley.

It was here that they found an emblem for DICE. Shuichi had seen it before on files pertaining to Kokichi’s organization. Reaching out, Gonta pressed parts of the emblem in a specific order, so that the wall retracted to reveal a pole behind it.

“Huh, it’s kind of like a game,” Shuichi noticed.

“What, the lock?” Kaede asked.

“Yeah, I would expect that an organization with ties to the Remnants would have a more sophisticated lock, like an iris scanner or even an actual passkey,” Shuichi explained. He leaned forward to peer into the depths of the passage below. “This pole—it leads inside?”

“That’s right,” Gonta confirmed.

Odd. Definitely odd and definitely not what Shuichi had expected. He’d been expecting something a little more well-guarded.

Still, he gripped the pole and slid down amongst a flurry of fluorescent lights before his feet hit the ground, and he emerged into a cramped warehouse filled to the brim with inconspicuous crates. Gonta and Kaede joined him shortly thereafter.

“Wow, he’s a hoarder,” said Kaede.

“I have a feeling that it’s a little more than that,” said Shuichi. “I don’t even know where to start...”

“Oh, Gonta know,” Gonta said. “Come look.”

Gonta led Shuichi and Kaede to some crates nearby labelled with the Future Foundation’s symbol. Pulling back the lid, Gonta stepped aside to reveal that it was packed to the gills with guns—real, functional guns, all packed in their original containers as if they were ready to be shipped to wherever the fighting was.

“That’s a lot of guns,” Kaede remarked.

“These are the weapons that Kokichi stole,” Shuichi realized.

“They...not toys?” Gonta asked.

Odd question. It only took one glimpse at the guns to know that they were as authentic as they got. “Er...no, these are real.”

Gonta sighed. “Gonta afraid of that. Kokichi lie and say that guns were toys. Gonta sorry for taking him at his word.”

“It’s not your fault, Gonta,” Shuichi assured him. “Are any of these other crates filled with weapons?”

He, Kaede, and Gonta took a quick survey of the other crates. While quite a few were filled with pranking goods, most of the others contained countless guns all packed and prepared for shipment.

“These must be the weapons DICE stole,” said Shuichi. “I wonder what they were planning to do with them.”

“Maybe they wanted to create their own army?” Kaede suggested. “A lot of the wealthy people who survived the Tragedy have been forming their own private armies for protection, and to monopolize on the situation. Or maybe DICE wanted to sell to the highest bidder?”

“It’s possible...but judging by the amount here, I’d say that what’s here is a good portion of the stuff that was initially stolen,” Shuichi observed. “The records are clear that there were only the ten members of DICE, and there was no mention of recruiting efforts. And if they’d been selling them, then some of the supply would be gone already.”

“I guess so,” Kaede tapped her chin. “Hmm, and it doesn’t look like any of them have been removed from their original crates, either. All of them are still in their special containers. Nothing’s been disturbed.”

“It’s like they stole them...and then immediately stored them here. Why they would steal a bunch of valuable weapons only to store them away for them to gather dust?”

It didn’t make sense at all, especially considering the Future Foundation’s decisive perception of DICE as an organized terrorist operation—a branch of the Remnants, themselves. The weapons could’ve been sold for money or redistributed to their allies, but certainly putting them in storage was a very strange thing to do. What did Kokichi hope to gain from this?

Whatever it was, Shuichi had an inkling that it was to the detriment of everyone else.

>>>ACQUIRED TRUTH BULLET: STOLEN WEAPONS

Chapter Text

From the flicker of the television stinging Kokichi's eyes, Leon Kuwata gave his final scream before the roar of baseballs pounding flesh drowned him out, the machine spitting them out like high speed bullets. Bullets might've been a little more merciful, a little quicker, with the way Leon jerked like a marionette pulled at the strings to do his death throes.

Kokichi stuffed another handful of popcorn into his mouth. Why was he eating popcorn when he'd never felt so nauseous in his life? Yet here he was, gulping it down like this was a movie night and he was watching Mothra vs. Godzilla.

He didn't remember Mothra vs. Godzilla having this much blood.

Kokichi tore his eyes away from the screen, not so much as to avoid watching Leon die again as to assess the damage he'd done over the last little while. When Angie lent him this room, he doubted she'd done it with the intention that he turn it into a veritable pigsty. The television set he was using was at least two decades too old, the screen heavy and box-shaped, and the VHS tape built right in. That was a little bit useful, and he was eternally grateful to whoever had the foresight to record the highlights of the Hope's Peak killing games onto tapes. He wasn't sure most people knew how to use one these days, but when he was a kid, he and the rest of DICE had settled for technology nobody wanted anymore. Most of their movie nights had been on discarded VHS tapes on discarded TV sets. Apparently being discarded was something of a running gag when it came to DICE.

In any case, Kokichi was glad Rantaro had managed to get the tapes for him, though he wasn't sure why he even bothered. Kokichi felt disgusted—for having the curiousity to actually watch this, that people thought he was associated with the killing games. Most of all, he felt disgusted with the students on the screen for resorting to such blatant, shameful murders, happening almost concurrently until Junko slipped up.

Watching the games put a whole lot of things into context. He'd assumed that the Future Foundation was so harsh with him because of his Remnant status, but now he realized that they'd imagined a connection between himself and Junko—perhaps between himself and the killing game as well. Junko never saw justice for her atrocious crimes. But they had him, ripe for the harvest. Kokichi was an easy scapegoat. After watching the highlights of the games twice, and on the start of his third viewing, he understood it perfectly. The intricacy of the Future Foundation's quest for justice. Munakata's unbridled anger. Kirumi and her determination to right wrongs.

If they didn't have the wrong person in their scopes, he almost couldn't blame them for their harshness.

When Leon was well and dead for the third time, Kokichi paused the tape and stretched. It was late, and muted moonlight cascaded through the window. He wondered if Maki was still at her post, or had taken one of her periodic breaks. He went to the balcony to check, but despite the bright conditions, he couldn't make out whether it was Maki or her relief on the rooftop across the street. Instead, his attention wandered to the blockade surrounding the temple, stiff and impassable since word of his presence here had broken out. During daylight, there had been a steady stream of curious onlookers passing by. Now there were only the soldiers and him.

Stupid. What a dumb miscalculation, letting himself get trapped like this—getting goddamn arrogant. He beat himself up over it every time his train of thought so much as grazed the mental image of how close he'd come to freedom.

Determined to make his mind off it, Kokichi headed to the opposite side of the balcony, the one overlooking the temple's courtyard. From here, he could see the 79ers in the garden, plus the three members that were also part of Atua's Prophets—gathered together, their lilting voices easily travelling through the uneasy silence of the night. As Kokichi observed, he caught the chime of laughter.

On the outside, Kokichi was the picture of composure. On the inside, he was a bullet-ridden mess, shot to pieces by anger and resentment. His composure nearly slipped in that private moment. How could they laugh at a time like this? They were as much prisoners as he was, and they were prisoners because of him. Were their roles reverse Kokichi was as sure as hell he'd be a little less gleeful and a little more I’m-going-to-strangle-you.

 
Footsteps came up the stairs. Kokichi's attention perked. If he was someone other than Rantaro, he toyed with the idea of diverting his attention by threatening them with the knife he still had tucked in his belt. A little entertainment wouldn't do him any harm.

He moved to act on the impulse as Kaede's bobbing head peered into the room. Out of everyone Kokichi had expected, Kaede had been near the bottom of the list, just because he thought her so boring and predictable that he'd expected her to stay close to her friends in this dire hour. To have her here was unforeseen to say the least.

"Aw, did you come to visit me?" Kokichi cooed. “How flattering! Too bad you’re still a pervert.”

“I am not!” Kaede protested. She pulled herself into the room and put her hands sternly on her hips as if it made her the least bit imposing.

“You...are adorable when you think you’re intimidating,” Kokichi cackled. “Hey, want to join my Hope’s Peak killing game marathon? If we fast forward we can skip ahead to the second murder!”

With the television being the only light source for the moment, Kaede’s skin looked waxy—almost doll-like, eerie and ghostly, like she was the visage of a pre-Tragedy Kaede. Her eyes didn’t so much as flick toward the screen.

“Thanks, but once is enough,” said Kaede.

“Ugh, please, you need to watch it at least twice to appreciate my dear Junko’s genius,” Kokichi tsked. “She didn’t orchestrate that game for you to only watch it once and be done with it.”

“All the more reason not to indulge her, then.”

Kokichi snorted and rolled his eyes. He leaned against the doorframe and continued glowering down at the 79ers in the garden below, his shoulders stiffening as Kaede came up alongside him.

“Um, I wanted to know if you wanted to join us,” said Kaede.

“Why would I?” Kokichi asked. “You guys are boring. And didn’t Rantaro tell you that I said no all the other times he asked?”

“He did, but I thought I’d give it a shot. C’mon, you can’t stay up here for forever! The garden’s quite nice.”

“Eh, it’s a lie. Not even a nice lie, either.”

“Huh? What’s a lie?”

“The garden. And Angie’s cult, for that matter. The whole thing in general’s a lie. I mean, I enjoy a good lie, myself, but they’re trying too hard, so what’s the point?”

Kaede leaned in, and she softened. Her brow, previously firm with confusion, relaxed. He knew that look. Pity. "I'm not sure what you mean, Kokichi."

"God, do I have to spell it out for you?" Kokichi scoffed. “Look, this is a really simple concept, so I’ll try to get it through your big fat head. You can all sit in a garden, have tea, and pretend that everything’s hunky dory like the old days, but the fact is that it isn’t. Y’all are sitting around, pretending that the outside doesn’t exist, that it doesn’t have consequence. Heck, you’re even doing an infamously good job at pretending I don’t exist, and although I’m not opposed to your continuing to do that, it’s just a symptom of a bigger issue.”

Kaede blew out her cheeks, clearly irked that she was being patronized by him. “I guess you already figured out what that issue is, huh?”

“Damn straight I have. The reality is this: the world’s a mess, and you’re hanging onto the ‘good old days’ when everyone was getting along and life was great. Eh, how long did that last before the Tragedy hit, anyway?”

“Why do you care what we do? We’re trying to preserve our friendships here. What’s so awful about that?”

What was so awful about it? How dense could you be? Kokichi glowered at her, loathing his short stature. He wanted to strangle her. He wanted to strangle all of them, for living in ignorance, for being so content to be one another. What was the point of it all when their families were dead?

Kokichi settled for, “It’s boring, is what it is.”

“If that’s your definition of boring, I’d rather be that than exciting and alone,” Kaede snapped.

Fortunately, the jab had the intended effect, and Kaede turned on her heel to leave. She was at the precipice of heading down the stairs when she paused, teetering on the edge, indecisive. Kokichi worried she wouldn’t. Then she turned and he noted the contempt corrupting her all-too-gentle eyes, and there was none of the kindness she’d shown him when she’d handed him the rations that brought them to this moment. He suddenly flashed back to that moment, contrasting it with this one like two pictures held side-by-side. Kaede, sweet and virtuous. Then Kaede again, defensive and ugly.

“And we’re not ignoring what’s going on with the world,” said Kaede. “We still find reasons to be happy despite everything horrible that's happened to us. Maybe if you tried seeing the good in people you wouldn’t be so miserable.”

Kokichi retracted from the stairs and went back to his vigil, glowering at the 79ers and watching Kaede’s form, half-concealed by the night, as it rounded the nearest side of the temple and went back to join them. Voices heightened with greetings, followed by quiet resignation, and the overall sense that no one was surprised Kokichi had refused the invitation. No doubt many of them were actually relieved, eager to be as far away from him as possible—Remnant or not.

Kokichi looked back over at the television, which sizzled to a close and now showed only static as the tape ended. Well, he could either watch the next entry into the miserable Hope’s Peak killing game, or he could take Kaede’s suggestion and try to find something that would make him happy.

However, the only thing Kokichi could think of that would make him happy was if he could sink away and leave. And tomorrow he would do just that.


 

It was the morning after Shuichi had seen the weapons inside of the DICE hideout, and his mind was a muddle of disjointed thoughts and rough conjectures.  After ensuring Kaede and Gonta’s safe return to the temple, he’d departed back to his personal quarters, and spent a restless night mulling over what he’d seen. His hope had been that the hideout would illuminate the darkest corners of this mystery, but rather than provide light, it had snuffed it out to create a darker perception of a hidden truth.

He got up early and immediately headed into the 5th Division office to dredge over the evidence files once again. One of the first things he'd done when he'd started his personal investigation was to go over the autopsy reports. Shuichi knew them by heart. Every stab, every injury, every speculation. He didn't know how many times he'd reread them in the hopes of finding inspiration. Despite the fact that this had not been the case thus far, he found himself laying them out on his desk to take another look.

The autopsy reports consisted of eight files neatly packed together and secured with a large rubber band, the aliases of the deceased pretended at the top in large, black lettering. There was a ninth file with Ace's name on it, but since they'd never foiund the body there were only odds and ends inside pertaining to what the Future Foundation knew about his history. That didn't amount to much.

The office was vacant save for a few stray agents going about their all-too-important-Future-Foundation-business. Shuichi spread the files out in front of him and flipped through to find the autopsy reports and mortuary photographs—an unfortunate, sticky business that had left him feeling nauseated despite his experience looking at dead bodies.

The eight corpses in total comprised most of DICE, and he remained stunned at how diverse they were. When he’d pictured Kokichi’s squad, he’d pictured identical yes-men flitting about in their clown masks, laughing maniacally as they perpetrated the most petty of criminal acts. And then he’d looked at the actual photographs and realized that they were about as varied as it could get. There was everyon—from a tall, blonde boy towering over most people, to a short round man that might’ve been capable of rolling around on his fat alone, and there were small, meeker members of the group—no more than thirteen or fourteen years old—and there were women and there were men and there were people who didn't look like they were capable of the slightest crimes. Somehow Shuichi found it unfortunate that they were only known by their aliases, for their names had been as closely guarded as Kokichi’s secrets.

Perhaps that was the point.

It was wonder anyone had ever been able to recover Kokichi’s identity at all, and that was to the credit of the academy employee who’d scouted him out—unravelling the thread and removing the mask from his smiling face.

But the rest? A complete mystery.

Shuichi shuffled through the files, searching for anything he’d missed during his initial study of them.

Ace, of course, was missing, but his file was right on top of the pile as if to assert its importance. All that was there was an empty autopsy report and a file photo of Ace without his mask. He was a burly man with a thick, square jaw, and a large red afro that made his already large stature even larger. He didn’t look like the type of person who Shuichi pegged for the friendly sort.

Royal Flush. Tall. Brown hair covering half of his mask. The mortuary photograph exposed him as a young man, perhaps in his twenties, and so grievously mutilated by the crime that only half of his handsome face remained recognizable.

Jack. Also tall. Around Kokichi’s age. Spiked hair, but there were scarcely any other details to be gathered from his body, since like Royal Flush his face was little more than a bloody pulp. There existed only one pre-mortem photograph of him, and it wasn’t a very good one, his head turned to the side and his firm lips betraying a serious and unreadable character.

Big Two. The large man—the round one who appeared to be one of the oldest members. Every aspect of him was as round as a ball. Also mutilated, and stabbed so violently that the knife used to kill him had broken off and lodged in his chest cavity.

Crazy Eights. One of the female members. Her flaxen hair pulled into pigtails, and her blank para-mortem photograph showed an expression of absolute horror. An expression cleaved right in half by the injury bisecting her skull, one eye strained and terrified, the other ejected from her skull from the force of the impact and dangling freely from her head.

Poker Face. A younger member, with brown hair and a piggish face. It was hard to tell when his head had been completely removed from his body, the skin jagged from where his neck had been cut. The beheading was what had killed him, and yet the culprit had felt the need to also stab his corpse multiple times.

Queen of Diamonds. Another female member. Older. Brunette. Large-chested, Shuichi noted sullenly, although it was hard to appreciate her body when she, like the others, had been stabbed so thoroughly that it was impossible to tell which was the killing blow and which were for fun.

Spider. A boy with a distinctive, tall haircut that rather reminded Shuichi of a yellow onion, his hair spikes sticking ffarir into the air as if to compensate for his short stature—although even he managed to be taller than Kokichi. It probably didn’t take much effort to do that. Spider had been stabbed so completely and violently that his organs had spilt out—maybe while he was still alive, maybe while he sat on the fringes between life and death.

“God, Izayoi,” Shuichi breathed. “Why the overkill?"

That was eight accounted for—including Ace and his missing corpse. That left one person. The traitor who he thought sat at the centre of this case.

Hearts.

Shuichi felt nauseous as he turned over the next page. When he'd first mulled over the autopsy reports, he'd expected to find a gruesome image of a girl whose life was stolen far too soon, expecting to see little more than a mass of pus, blood, and flesh in a haphazard, ugly approximation of what had once been a human life.

That’s not what he saw.

In her mortuary photograph, Hearts lay flat on her back, her half-lidded eyes staring up as if in the middle of a deep thought. As if she was just a little girl on the precipice of a great life. As if she wasn’t the girl who had betrayed Kokichi Oma. From the safety of the smooth photograph paper, she gazed at Shuichi as if she held a thousand secrets and had only time to tell one.

Hearts, herself, was a girl smaller than average, her brown hair trailing down her back in a long mane and partially braided on one side. She looked more like a child than the hardened traitor Izayoi’s account made her out to be.

Shuichi scanned down to examine the cause of death, and to his surprise the answer was rather simple. The girl had suffered a through-and-through stab that entered through her lower left abdomen, and shot up through her body in a diagonal fashion to come out through her right shoulder. The wound, however, had not been her cause of death. Hearts had been killed by a brain hemorrhage. A smattering of dried blood under her nostrils and around her ears indicated that she'd bled from those areas. No external wound visible.

Shuichi frowned, rereading her cause of death twice. He had the same reaction to it as when he'd first read it. It didn't sound right.

>>>TRUTH BULLET ACQUIRED: DICE AUTOPSY REPORTS

Mulling over the files, Shuichi came to a startling realization.

He would have to show his classmates

Shuichi had already been breaking Future Foundation regulation—and arguably those were more serious charges. He’d known where Kokichi was and didn’t report him. He’d initiated his own private investigation into the DICE murders. He’d protected his comrades when they’d snuck out of the temple yesterday. But this was different. This was something far more personal for the sheer virtue that he was sitting in the middle of their headquarters, and he had access to this privileged information. All of those other actions were removed from the Future Foundation, making the regulations easier to violate.

In order to show the others, he would have to steal the reports. As if fearful that the temptation would carry despite him not saying it out loud, Shuichi glanced around at the others in the office.

No, he couldn’t do it. He treaded on a thin line as it was. He just couldn’t do it. To remove the temptation from his thought, Shuichi first copied down the relevant notes to share with the others, and then put the autopsy reports back in his desk drawer. They would have to trust his word.

Shuichi removed himself from his desk and left the office, still unsure of what his ultimate plan was. He was filled with insatiable need to fix everything, and hoping that solving this mystery would do just that.

As much as he didn’t want to encounter Izayoi again, the of fact of that matter was that such a promise to leave him alone was impossible. He was the culprit after all, and there were still questions. Shuichi practised what he was going to say as he moved out into the neighbourhood and off into the direction where Izayoi kept his private offices.

Izayoi’s ‘office’ in actuality wasn’t an office at all, but an open forge area underneath a canopy to the rear of the Future Foundation’s headquarters. The stench of smoke and fire and sweat and burning metal carried on the frigid wind, the diagonal direction of the snowflakes betraying a distant storm bearing its weight on the city. Shuichi went unimpeded to find the forge—having only seen it from a distance before, and was not surprised to find that the area also contained a stockpile of weapons ready for distribution. Armed soldiers were all around, all giving Shuichi a curt, impenetrable look as he passed on his way to Izayoi.

The found the man himself hammering away at the forge, which looked like it had been haphazardly put together from whatever materials were available. Around him, an array of weapons lay about on tables, evenly organized for instant access. Without his coat and wearing a sleeveless shirt, Izayoi’s scarred, rippling body betrayed the dedication to his profession, his skin singed from the heat, his muscles pronounced and bulging, with the faint ripple of veins underneath. Shuichi’s feet crunched on snow, and then gravel as he stopped under the canopy.

Izayoi didn’t immediately give him his attention, his hammer focused on pounding the heat out of a long object that looked like he was making into a sword. Shuichi wasn’t sure what good a sword was in modern warfare, but there must be some potential in it judging from the number of them lying around. On a nearby table, Izayoi kept the kunai he kept as his personal weapons of choice.

Come to think of it, Shuichi didn’t think he’d ever seen the man with a gun before. He doubted he needed one with the way he wielded the kunai like they were bullets.

Glancing at Shuichi out of the corner of his eye, Izayoi paused in his work, hammer frozen comically above his head.

Izayoi’s eyes flicked up and down.

Then he said, in a low and rigid voice, sounding out each word as if he addressing a child, “Go. Away.”

“I have more questions,” said Shuichi.

“You said you were going to leave me alone, which is not what you’re doing right now,” Izayoi growled.

“I read the autopsy reports."

“Whose autopsy reports and why should I care?”

“DICE’s autopsy reports and you should care because you were the one who killed them.”

Izayoi rolled his eyes magnificently. “I don’t have time for this. I have an army to supply and none of the idiots under my command know how to forge a decent weapon.”

“...I don’t see how effective swords would be.”

Izayoi lowered his hammer, his open hostility simmering into a quiet rage. “You haven’t used mine before. I don’t make showpieces—never have. My weapons are made for one purpose: to be used. Bullets are expensive, wasteful, and a pain to make. The soldiers can use them all they like, but when our special forces get into close-quarters combat, they’ll be grateful that they have one of my daggers in their boot.”

Izayoi indicated a pile of daggers sitting nearby. Shuichi, however, turned his attention back to the pile of kunai.

“Those are yours, right?” Shuichi asked.

Izayoi jerked his head down in something like a nod.

“May I?”

“...Fine. Maybe I’ll get lucky and you’ll accidentally stab yourself to death.”

Shuichi picked up one of the kunai and examined it. It was a traditional make—Shuichi didn’t know anything about forging, but reckoned that the way to make kunai hadn’t changed since their initial conception. It was clear from the make and feel that Izayoi took special consideration into them, using the traditional method to forge them as opposed to modern techniques. The kunai were made from solid black metal, sturdy and unbreakable just like the smith who forged them.

 “These were the murder weapons, right?” Shuichi asked.

Izayoi jerked his head in an almost-nod again.

“Their deaths were...very violent,” said Shuichi. “Why was that?”

“...They fought.”

“One of them was beheaded. How did you do that with these? These aren’t very big.”

“It took a few shots. Kept throwing until his head detached.”

Shuichi remembered the rough lacerations around the dead boy’s neck.

“But why stab his body afterward?” Shuichi asked. “Why were you so violent with them? Was it necessary to use that much force?”

“I was pissed,” Izayoi shrugged nonchalantly. “They took my stuff and they wouldn’t give me Oma.”

Izayoi took the kunai from Shuichi’s hand and twirled it, studying the tip. The weapon was so dark that it absorbd the light, twisting it into only the slightest impression of a fragment of hellfire.

“Besides, they were criminals,” said Izayoi. “I didn’t shed a tear over them.”

“Whether or not you ‘shed a tear’ isn’t the point,” Shuichi asserted. “I noticed that Hearts only received one external injury, but all the other victims were stabbed almost beyond recognition. Why didn’t you give her the same treatment?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m reserving judgment until I have all the facts.” Shuichi frowned deeply. “And the reality is that I don’t think you’re giving me all of the facts.”

Izayoi stiffened. Whether it was from surprise or from the need to conceal, Shuichi couldn’t quite pick up on. The man was as hard as the weapons he forged.

“You’re accusing me of lying,” Izayoi sneered. A statement, not a question.

“I’m saying that there are certain inconsistencies in this case, things that don’t quite line up. I don’t know whether you’re withholding the truth or omitting certain parts of it, but there’s something you’re not telling me about what happened that night. Since you've already admitted to being the culprit, I would’ve thought that you’d be happy to clear them up given that you don’t face any real consequences for the killings.”

“Look, Saihara. You’re assuming that I give a rat’s ass about all this. I don’t. Killing those annoying little pests was another day of work for me, and frankly what I don’t get is why you’re focusing on this thing that happened two years ago, and not on the fact that Oma is currently hiding out with a bunch of nutjobs. Don’t you think that warrants your immediate attention?”

“The past has relevance in the present, Izayoi. Everything that’s happened concerning Koki—I mean Oma goes back to one, singular event. The night that you killed DICE. If your loyalty to the Future Foundation means anything to you, you’ll be straightforward with me instead of throwing your weight around.” Shuichi flexed his fingers, tempted to clench his fists, and settling for folding them behind his back. “When you try to dissuade me from investigating this, it makes me think that you have something to hide.”

It was strange how someone as stoic and nigh-unreadable as Izayoi managed to convey a plethora of emotion with a single stare. It was almost a necessity when he held his emotions as deeply as he did. Izayoi turned a kunai in his hand, fingers unfaltering.

And then Shuichi noticed it. A misstep as Izayoi turned the weapon in his hand. A moment where Izayoi nearly dropped the kunai, so subtle that Shuichi nearly missed the move.

His grip unsettled, Izayoi put the kunai back on the table with the others.

“Why would I lie about this?” Izayoi asked.

“I don’t know why,” Shuichi admitted.

“If you don’t know, then go away.”

“If I leave without the answers I want, I’m coming back with more questions until I get something out of you. This is a free pass to say whatever you want to say to me without consequences.”

“Consequences for me?” Izayoi looked over his shoulder and penetrated him with a cold stare. “Or consequences for you?”

Shuichi didn’t answer.

Izayoi turned away again and headed back to the forge.

“Go away,” said Izayoi.

Shuichi did. For now. In the streets, far out of Izayoi's aim, Shuichi thought back to the autopsy reports safely tucked into his desk drawer.

He hadn't been sure until now, but after talking to Izayoi he knew he needed another pair of eyes. He needed Kaede. He needed the others. If there was any hope of pulling the truth out.

Shuichi headed off to his office to retrieve the autopsy reports. There would be hell to pay for this, but for a little peace of mind he was willing to do it.


 

“Wakey, wakey—eggs and bakey!”

Kokichi jerked up so quickly that his head rammed against the underside, dissipating whatever leftover fatigue clung to him after a shallow sleep. He clutched the spot that had made contact with the wood, and then turned to see a bright smile framed by an blindingly bright face.

“My, my, that’s a funny place to fall asleep,” Angie observed. “Ah, no matter. Atua doesn’t judge you for your sleeping spaces.”

Kokichi glowered at her, in too foul a mood to bother putting up a facade. He'd fallen asleep under a table last night, hoping it should shield him a little from the stares. Except now Atua's Oracle, herself, smiled much too broadly at him. He pushed her aside to come out and found the room blessedly deserted save for the two of them. No Shuichi. No Rantaro. No anybody, except for Atua's most devoted servant.

“Ah, Atua has blessed us with fine weather for your initiation ceremony,” said Angie. “Huzzah!”

“That’s a dumb reason to wake a person up in the morning,” Kokichi chided. “Not even sure I want to go through with it. It sounds boring.”

“No, no, no, Kokichi! It’s not boring! It’s like a giant party! For someone as special as you, you get to have a party along with your initiation. Not that we don’t have parties for the others, but they’re not quite as nice. This one we’re going to bake a cake and have balloons and dance naked under the moonlight!”

“Huh? Really?”

“Of course, of course! I know cake isn't very common these days, but we were fortunate to have the ingredients needed to make one on hand.

“Wait, no—I mean, do we really dance naked under the moonlight?”

Angie twirled a strand of long, silvery hair. “Well, actually, no. Kaede doesn’t want us to ‘destroy Gonta’s innocence”.”

Kokichi arched an eyebrow.

“Her words, not mine,” Angie insisted. “I promise once they have gone or joined us that we will will engage in naked moonlight dancing. The human body is pleasing to Atua’s eyes.”

Kokichi’s gaze flicked up and down, watching her every move for insincerity. A faulty step, a flick of the smile. None of that. Only pure, honest devotion.

“What they don’t go or won’t join?” Kokichi probed.

Atua smiled and replied, “Then they will face Atua’s wrath. We are doing Atua’s divine work here, Kokichi. We are trying to save the world, and the unfortunate truth is that if they do not see fit to join us, then they are our enemies.”

“Um...aren’t those guys your friends?”

“They are, which is why myself and the other Prophets will do our best to save their souls.”

Ominous. But not surprising. “Hey, what does Atua’s wrath looks like?”

Angie leaned in, and her bright eyes were wide and all-knowing. “You say you are a Remnant. If you are a Remnant, than you already know the answer to that.”

Kokichi was filled with the overwhelming urge to shove her away and tell her to get a grip, but his body froze, and he couldn’t. He was helpless to do anything but meet her stare and amplify it. Then Angie’s smile reemerged like a blossoming flower after an especially treacherous winter.

“But Atua and I both know that you aren’t,” Angie asserted. “Do not be afraid, Kokichi. Once you are with the Prophets, you won’t have to lie anymore.”

“I won’t have to, but I probably will anyway.”

With a smile and a swoop that sent her yellow frock twirling, Angie turned as an attendant appeared at the staircase.

“See to it that Kokichi is ready for the ceremony,” said Angie. “Ah, don’t spoil everything though! We want some of it to be a surprise after all.”

The attendant nodded, and, humming to herself, Angie headed back down the stairs.

Kokichi turned to the attendant and squinted, realizing that it was the same cultist who Tsumugi had kicked off kicking and screaming. He was oddly calm now, his smile identical to the ones all the others wore, and not the slightest trace of terror.

“Hey, what happened to your whole ‘get me out of here’ thing?” Kokichi asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“You are the guy from yesterday, right? Remember? You were trying to run away and Tsumugi was all ‘no, don’t do that’ and you were all ‘no-o-o’! And then a couple of other guys dragged you away.”

The cultist cocked his head. “I have no recollection of this. Why would I leave Atua’s wisdom? His is the only truth.”

“How am I supposed to know?” Kokichi asked. “You’re the one who wanted to go. You seriously don’t remember?”

“No. I have no desire to leave. If I ever did, may Atua strike me down.”

Kokichi leaned in close and stared the cultist right in the eye. His glassy, too-wide, what-are-you-talking-about and what-was-my-name-again eyes.

And he realized that the man truly, honestly, earnestly had no idea what he was talking about.

Startled at the realization, Kokichi retracted a little too quickly and almost tripped over his own feet, though none of this seemed to concern the cultist. His unending smile didn’t stray as he backed away, melting out of his reach until he was gone with the shadows.

That was a little weird. All of a sudden Kokichi got the sense that there was more going on here than met the eye. And whenever Kokichi was presented with something he didn’t understand, he was helpless to resist the urge to investigate. Maybe that was something he had in common with that pest, Shuichi.

Kokichi shook off his curiosity. It didn't matter. Nothing that happened here did because he'd soon be far removed from whatever-this-place-was.

The rest of the morning went as it had during the last few days that Kokichi had been there, with the added exception that the cultists were a few percentiles happier than they usually were, which meant boisterous grins and all-knowing eyes tracking him wherever he went. After Angie made her disappearance, Kokichi ordered the amnesiac attendant to bring him breakfast, which he did, and ate on the balcony despite the height catching the chill drifting in from the other side of the wall. He could see Maki taking up her usual spot after relinquishing her spot to another sniper for a few hours of reprieve.

Kokichi spent his meal eating sparsely, his mind whirring as he searched for a way to wiggle out of this situation. He’d wanted to use the Prophets for his own advantage, not join them, but in the short run it was more of an inconvenience than an outright derailment. If anything, this might prove to be useful, proving his imagined faith to Angie and her cultists, earning their trust, getting a few more resources out of them.

The way he saw it, his adversaries weren’t so much the Future Foundation soldiers themselves—he could sneak past them as he had many times before during his former prison breaks. The real problem was Maki. It would be advantageous if he could escape during one of her sleep, meal, or bathroom breaks, which were few and far between but short enough that it could afford him a brief moment in which to get out from under her stare.

But Maki had weaknesses. Probably.

Big Two had once told Kokichi something that stuck out from his memories in that moment. Just thinking about Big Two conjured the smell of gunpowder and greasy junk food. But Big Two had always said that the simplest plans were always the best ones, just like he enjoyed the classic stick of red dynamite. Simple. Easy. Beautiful in that simplicity.

A distraction would be enough to get Maki off his tail. And Kokichi had nine of them.

The day went by in a blur as Kokichi was shuttled around by the cultists in preparation for his initiation. He still wasn’t sure what it entailed, only becoming concerned when he overheard Tsumugi and Himiko discussing piranhas. And by the time the designated time of the initiation came at sundown, Kokichi swallowed whatever leftover nerves he had. He had to admit that this was a little bit humiliating, but nothing that he couldn’t handle. He’d get the last laugh.

He’d taken a nap during the afternoon, and when he woke up he found that the cultists had gathered in the centre of the courtyard, and that the six 79ers—Kaede, Rantaro, Gonta, Ryoma, Kaito, and Tenko—had come as well. Tsumugi, Himiko, and Angie were no where in sight. Kokichi watched from the balcony as the worshippers gathered, their chattering gleeful but subtle and reserved. The cultists had dressed up somewhat for the occasion: in addition to their robes creating a sea of sunlight, they donned flower crowns consisting of brightly-coloured flowers not native to Japan.

Hearing footsteps coming up the steps, Himiko stuck her head into the tower. Dressed in black robes, the only smattering of colour on her came from the flower crown encircling her witch hat.

“Aw, you didn’t dress up!” Kokichi said.

“I did dress up,” Himiko insisted. “I told you: I express my love for Atua differently from the others. Atua loves all colours, including black, so I’m wearing my favourite colour to honour him.”

“Did Tsumugi approve of that outfit?”

“Nope, she didn’t. She doesn’t understand my interpretation of Atua. Sugar Plum said I was gonna go to Auta’s House if I wore this, but she doesn’t scare me.”

“What’s Auta?”

“It’s Atua spelt backwards.”

“I know that, but what is it and why does it have a house?”

“Auta is Atua’s enemy. Atua is a wizard of light, but Auta is a dark wizard. He cancels anime and lightly reprimands his followers. Auta’s House is where all the naughty people go—the nonbelievers and the disobedient servants and all that.”

“Oh. What kinda things do you do at Auta’s House?”

“You attend a self-help group for the Atua impaired.”

“...So Tsumugi pretty much told you that you were going to hell.”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Himiko brushed out her outfit and looked toward the yellow robe Kokichi had left draped over a chair.

“You gonna wear that?” Himiko asked.

“Nope, I’m fine like this,” said Kokichi.

Kokichi was pretty sure that his attire wasn’t appropriate for an event—from casual to formal. Tsumugi had repaired the hole made from when Maki had shot at him—fortunately his cut was healing up and barely pained him—but there was still a dry blood stain that he hadn’t bothered to clean. His boots were muddy, his black jeans were torn, and he was sure that he looked more like a hobo than a cult initiate.

“Eh, whatever,” Himiko shrugged. “Trying to make you get changed would take effort, and I don’t think the Oracle cares.”

Himiko led Kokichi down the stairs, talking as she did.

“The initiation isn’t that complicated,” said Himiko. "Just do what they tell you to do and you'll be fine."

“I’m kinda in the dark here—what do you have to do?” Kokichi asked.

“Eh, it depends on the Oracle’s mood. Sometimes she makes initiates play hopscotch with her. Other times they have to draw self-portraits of their innermost self, or recite the alphabet.”

“What did you have to do?”

“Well, me and Sugar Plum were initiated together. We did a blood ritual.”

“A blood ritual?”

“Yeah, we had to sacrifice a rat. The knife was pretty dull though, so it kept squealing.”

She said it all very casually, and one finger went to pick at her ear.

“I think the hardest thing the Oracle could make you do is make you cut off a finger.”

“Cut off a finger? You’re joking, right?”

“Nah, you’ll see some of the cultists walking around without a finger. She pickled them in jars and gave them names."

Kokichi drummed his fingers against his leg and hoped that he would end the day with a full set.

On the bottom floor, Himiko stopped him by the door, which she opened a crack to peer out.

“Okay, we gotta go out there and wait for the Oracle,” said Himiko. “Remember, if you’re up there and you decide that you don’t want to go through with it, just scream. The Oracle’ll take that as a sign that you’re not committed yet.”

Without waiting for his affirmation, Himiko swung open the door and stepped out. It was clear that this was supposed to be a moment of grandeur and charisma, that the crowd had expected Himiko to bounce out grinning from ear-to-ear and dancing away. Instead, she took a few slow steps, and slowly raised her hands up.

“Praise Atua, He has brought a new soul into His fold,” Himiko said flatly.

The cultists cheered as if Himiko was a famous rock star presenting herself to her groupies. Against the sea of yellow, against the colour and the cheer, Himiko was one adorable, little black cloud, the tip of her hat flopping to reflect the nonchalant despondency present in her droning voice. Her shoulders heaved with a sigh and he motioned for Kokichi to follow her as she moved through the crowd.

The crowd parted to allow their trek to the front steps, which had been set up for the occasion. Tsumugi stood waiting for them, and her robes were among the more impressive ones. Her robes were decorated in an gaudy floral pattern, and she was adorned with gold glitter sprinkled in her hair, which draped over her in a fine plait similar to Angie’s. The crowd, despite consisting of only a few dozen cultists, was enough to deafen Kokichi on his way to the steps, the excitement crushing his thoughts, making it impossible to think But going back to the pagoda wasn’t an option. The crowd pressed close, their hands lightly stroking him, and each touch was enough to have Kokichi will the earth to open up and swallow him whole.

The crowd funnelled him and Himiko to the steps, and once they were free from the claustrophobic sea of yellow, he could finally orient himself. From here, he—of course—could see across the way to where Maki stood watching. And then he could also see the faces of the six remaining 79ers hovering near the front of the crowd, looking uncomfortable and out-of-place. They couldn’t have contrasted more with their environment if Makoto Naegi was put among the Remnants of Despair. Of all of them, only Gonta seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, smiling, cheering, and clapping along with the cultists, while the others—particularly Kaede and Rantaro—met Kokichi’s passing gaze with thin, disapproving lips.

Once on the steps, Himiko pushed Kokichi to stand next to Tsumugi, while Himiko moved off to the side to stand near an empty brass basin situated in the middle of the first landing. The cultists craned their necks, their cheers falling silent as Himiko once again raised her arms.

“And now I, Himiko Yu—I mean, Mew Mew, the Ultimate Magician, will call upon Atua!” Himiko announced. “O Great and Wise Atua, if you find this initiate worthy, light this basin with your eternal flame! And by eternal I mean, it’ll probably last us a few hours.”

“ETERNAL FLAME!” the crowd echoed.

The crowd did an intake, their shoulders tensing. And then with a flourish of the hand, Himiko gestured over the basin, and for a brief, glimmer of a moment, Kokichi thought he saw her drop a fine powder. At once, with a loud poof, a roaring flame sprang into existence, just as the dimming sunlight retreated further and further from the temple to make way for the fire. The fire grew to a respectable size, sparks of brilliant orange escaping into the air to travel on the wind to parts unknown. Kokichi expected the crowd to start cheering, but they were quiet, and for the first time their smiles vanished.

All was still, and Kokichi wondered for a moment if time had stopped just for him—to mock him in this moment that he wanted to pass quickly. But it was apparent that he wasn’t the reason for the suspended time, for all attention focused on the top of the stairs—at the doors leading to the temple. Demurely, gradually, they opened, and parted like the Red Sea to reveal a pearly figure distorted by the fire.

It was Angie. Only not the Angie Kokichi had known before, who skipped around and had awoken him with a start. Here, she had evolved into a new form. She had shed her yellow frock in favour of white, and her face was painted with white lines crisscrossing her skin. Angie was adorned with the most flowers of all—so many tangled in her hair that she looked more like a flower than a human being. Eyes half-lidded, she slowly descended the steps, not making a sound despite the numerous anklets ensnaring her like shackles. It was a rather fascinating sight to see someone so entrenched by their beliefs that they lost all identity, that they became the embodiment of something else entirely—of an ideal, a virtue, a society. That was what Angie had become. The Angie he’d known had ceased to be, replaced by a god from a faraway land.

Angie stood on the landing above them so that she was above all else, the flame creating waves in the air to distort her. The light coming from the sun disappeared entirely, and it was finally night.

Standing there, Kokichi expected her to say something inspiring, even magical. Maybe tell a lie that even he would believe.

Angie held out a hand and curled her index, ring, and middle finger in, extending her pinky and thumb.

“Shaka brah!” Angie said.

“Shaka brah!” the cultists answered.

Okay. That hadn’t been what Kokichi had expected.

“Well, well, well, we’re all here—welcoming a new initiate into the Atua family,” Angie chimed, reverting back to her usual, chipper self. “It is an exciting occasion indeed, my little followers. Now you all know the routine by now. First we swear in the initiate. And then we party until dawn to let Atua know that he has a new son. Make sure to make it big and loud so he can hear it from the heavens!”

From his spot on the steps, it was hard to not miss the way Kaito facepalmed while the cultists let out their loudest cheer yet. Kokichi, for his part, decided to behave himself for the moment, partially perplexed, partially fascinated, and all-around doing his best to suppress his laughter. These guys made the Remnants look positively sane.

“Okay, Kokichi, are you ready for the initiation?” Angie asked.

“Sure, why not,” Kokichi shrugged.

“Okay then! Let’s begin.”

Kokichi braced himself, half expecting Angie to reach into her robes and pull out a knife with which to cut off his finger.

Kokichi braced himself, ready for the worst case scenario. He took a breath.

And then Angie extended a slender pinkie finger.

“Pinkie swear your loyalty to Atua?” Angie asked.

That wasn’t what he expected, and it was clear from the other’s hanging jaws and arched eyebrows that he wasn’t the only one stunned. Kokichi was sure that DICE’s secret handshake was more complicated than this.

“Just a pinkie swear?” he asked.

“Oh, no, no, no—a pinkie swear is serious business,” said Angie. “A pinkie swear can’t be broken, so make sure you mean it! I’m sure you do, right?”

It was clear that there was only one correct answer to this.

Not meaning a single word or action, Kokichi thrust his hand forward and hooked their pinkie fingers together. Under the protection of his coat, safe from the view of everyone else, he crossed his fingers behind his back.

“I swear it,” Kokichi said.

“HE’S LYING!”

Heads turned, whispers exploded out of the silence, and eyes landed on Kaito, who with his indomitable spirit contrasted violently with the obedient cultists. In that instant, Kaito seemed to regret speaking out, and retracted his pointing finger somewhat before visibly shaking off his nervousness.

“It’s rude to interrupt Atua,” Angie chided.

“But he’s lying!” Kaito declared, indicating Kokichi. “He’s got his fingers crossed behind his back!”

How the hell did he know that? Kokichi was going to have to up his game so Kaito wouldn’t be so easily able to predict him.

“I do not!” Kokichi protested, pulling his free hand out from behind him and wiggling his fingers. “You’re just jealous!”

“Now, now, Kaito, if you can’t behave, you’ll have to sit in the corner,” said Angie.

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud, I’m putting a stop to this,” Kaito declared.

The cultists let out a collective gasp as Kaito broke formation and ascended the steps, but he paid them no mind, throwing back his shoulders and strengthened his resolve. It was hard to believe that this was the same person who Kokichi had spied in a moment of weakness—vomiting into a toilet and hiding a secret. Now he was the picture of fortitude, a living propaganda figure he was sure the Remnants would like to exploit for their nefarious purposes.

“This is dumb,” Kaito asserted. “Why are you even bothering with this?”

“It’s a little late for that,” said Tsumugi. “Kokichi pinky swore. So that’s that.”

“That was a lie.”

“Oh, Kaito, you can’t interrupt a initiation like this. If you don’t go back with the others, you’ll have to go to detention.”

“He doesn’t even mean a word of it!”

“Atua’s sacred flames proved his faithfulness.”

“That was a magic trick!”

“Mew Mew’s magic is derived from Atua!”

“Atua isn’t even real!”

Tsumugi gasped sharply, as if she’d just been stabbed and Kaito was twisting the knife. The eerie brightness that had defined her demeanour slipped, and her gaze darkened.

“You take that back, heathen!” Tsumugi demanded.

“Now, now, let’s not fight,” Angie swooped in between them. “Atua loves everyone, even nonbelievers. Don’t judge poor Kaito too harshly, Sugar Plum.”

“This isn’t even about religion or whatever—I don’t care what you believe,” Kaito asserted, pumping power into his voice. “Maki’s out there right now waiting to arrest Kokichi—how can you initiate him into this thing? You realize how serious this is? We’re all in trouble here!”

“Atua sees all and will send us an answer.”

“Oh, really? Well, you’re his so-called ‘oracle’. What’s the answer?”

“Atua will reveal it to me in time.”

“And I fervently believe that Atua’s answer will involve crushing the demons!” Tsumugi exclaimed.

Kaito groaned and asked, “What demons? What the hell are you even talking about anymore?!”

“The Future Foundation. Atua will strike them down like he does all his enemies.”

“Strike them—some of our friends are part of the Future Foundation!”

“They are misguided souls who will be brought back into the fold, or else be crushed along with the rest,” said Angie. “It’s an unfortunate reality. I have no desire for harm to come to them, but if they do not change their way, then there can be no other end.”

“What about Shuichi? What about Maki?!”

Kokichi almost missed it, but there it was. A tightness present in Kaito’s tone when he mentioned Maki’s name. He’d heard her mention it before, mention it with such softness and tenderness that he’d suspected it, but in that moment what had been a vague suspicion was confirmed. Kaito threw out his arm to where Maki was visible, and some heads turned, and others did not, and all of Kokichi’s attention focused on Kaito.

Then he got an idea.

Kokichi’s problems cascaded on him all at once. The need to distract Maki. The need to get away. The need to divert her attention—the solution had been standing right in front of him the whole time, and the answer had a goatee.

He must’ve been smiling a little too broadly, because Kaito caught his eye and barked, “What the hell are you smiling at?”

“All we do here is smile, as it should be,” Angie declared. “Now Kaito, why don’t you go back with the others and I can counsel you about Atua’s love later?”

“But—”

“C’mon, you’re holding this up,” said Kokichi. “The sooner we get this finished, the sooner we can party!”

Kaito’s suspicious gaze rested on Kokichi for an extended second before he relented, and even then Himiko swooped in from the sidelines to push him back to his previous spot. He stood mutely between the other members of his class, protected on all sides by an impenetrable wall of glowers and confused stares.

“Anyway, if that’s done with,” Tsumugi said, glaring in Kaito’s direction. She stepped forward. “Kokichi Oma, as a prophet of the great and wise Atua, you’ve surrendered your current name. From now on, you shall be known as...Dark Yagami!”

Kokichi was so distracted with his sudden inspiration, that his gaze happened to be lingering on the others when Tsumugi announced the name. As such, he got a very nice view as some visibly groaned, others rolled their eyes, and Gonta applauded. Tsumugi, for her part, beamed with evident pride, her cheerfulness—so recently broken by Kaito’s dig at the Prophets—was back with inspirational ferocity. If Angie was the queen, then Tsumugi was her most trusted general, prepared to lead the troops, heighten the morale, and slaughter the enemy. And the moment the name was uttered, the Prophets erupted with such ferocity that it was a wonder that Atua didn’t part the clouds right then and there to see what all the fuss was about.

Overhead, there was a spark of multicoloured light that snaked into the air and exploded in a vibrant collage of brilliant neon colours, followed by another, and then another. The colour produced by the fireworks bathed the area, obscuring faces in a sharp contrast between the black shadows and the neon light. Then everything was lost to the noise. If Kokichi wasn’t so focused on other matters, he reminisced that this was something the other DICE members would’ve enjoyed, bringing themselves into the light wherein they’d mostly operated in the shadows. He stood forgotten as the cultists quickly indulged in their celebration, seemingly not caring what the occasion was, only caring to throw their voices to whatever demented heaven Atua came from.

Himiko tugged on his sleeve, and he turned to find her face starkly coloured by the fireworks: half in complete darkness, the other half changing colour as the sharp pops of colour exploded overhead. With a gesture, she led him back into the safety of the temple, and shut the large heavy door behind them.

“Thank Atua that’s over,” Himiko droned. “I hate these initiation thingys.”

“What happens now?” Kokichi asked.

“Well, if you were a normal initiate you’d get changed from the initiate robes to the fully-fledged member robes, but you didn’t even wear the initiate robes. So I guess now we just party.”

“Oo, I love parties! I haven’t been to one in forever. Do I get presents?”

“...You get a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

“...I would’ve preferred a car.”

“Most of the roads are impassable now. What would you do with a car?”

“Hide a body in the trunk. Cars are great for that.”

Kokichi followed Himiko as she led him deeper into the temple, while the roaring sound of the beginnings of the celebration were muffled by the walls.

“We just gotta wait here while they get ready for your big entrance,” said Himiko. “Just smile and wave or whatever.”

“Huh, sounds like it’s going to be pretty wild,” Kokichi noted, attention trained on the sound. People must be able to hear it for miles.

“Yeah, more so than usual, too. The Oracle made a big deal out of recruiting a ‘Remnant’. Even if she doesn’t think you’re a Remnant, everyone else thinks that. So.”

This might be exactly the opportunity he was looking for. Kokichi swallowed his excitement; if he wound himself up too much, he might risk blowing it again.

“Hey, Himiko,” said Kokichi. “Got a question for you.”

“Aw, man, I hate quizzes,” Himiko sighed, picking at her ear. “I didn’t even study for it...”

“Relax, I think you’ll get this one right on the first try. What’s Kaito’s relationship with Maki?”

“Maki?”

“Yeah, y’know. About so high, really scowly?”

“I know who Maki is, you dummy!” Himiko huffed, puffing out her cheeks and stamping her feet.

“Yeah, I’m just really curious about her relationship with Kaito. Because he talks about her in his sleep.”

“Really?”

Nope. Aside from coughing every so often, Kaito was about as sound a sleeper as they came. “Oh, yeah, he says her name and everything.”

“...Well...it’s not like it’s a secret. Back in the day, Kaito and Maki were dating—then Maki decided to join the Future Foundation. She broke up with him when he wouldn’t come with her—said that there were more important things to deal with. I think they still like each other, though.”

“How do you know that?”

“Through the power of Atua’s magic, I just happen to know these things.”

Of course she did. Kokichi considered the facts. He was sure that Himiko wasn’t entirely reliable for these things, but he was always open to a little risk.

“Hey, Himiko—I got another question,” said Kokichi. He clutched her shoulder. “Actually, I need you to do something for me.”

“I know what you’re gonna ask, and no, I can’t transfer my magical powers to you, even for a short period of time,” Himiko asserted at once.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Kokichi smiled. He tightened his grip. “You could say that I just need you to work a little magic for me.”

“Wow. I haven’t heard that one before.” Himiko sighed. “Nyeh...if I do a favour for you, you gotta do a favour for me...later. Because I can’t think of anything I want that you can give me right now.”

Kokichi didn’t plan to stay around long enough to fulfill a favour, so he lied through his teeth as easily as he could breathe. “Sure, a favour for a favour, I can repay you somehow if you do a little something for me. Cross my heart and hope to die!”

By the way Himiko’s lips curled slightly, she didn’t entirely buy it. Still, she said, carefully, “What exactly do you want?”

Chapter Text

Shuichi wasted no time returning to the temple, the folder containing the autopsy reports tucked under his arm as his driver navigated the Tokyo streets. Before they even arrived, there was a distinct scent on the air—one of strong spices and bonfires and joviality and all the things he’d forgotten existed.  And on the horizon, over the highest peaks of the surviving buildings, he saw an orange glow coming from the rough location where he thought the temple was—as well as long tendrils of flickering multicoloured light reaching their fingers into the dark sky before exploding in vibrant colours.

The vehicle made it to the temple in one piece, parking at the rear. Over the wall, the warm glow and the muted sounds of a loud celebration came forth. The guards gave Shuichi wretched scowls as he walked unimpeded through the temple gates, to face the full brunt of the celebration.

If he’d thought that the temple had been lively when he first came in, now it overflowed with a contagious vest for life. Paper lanterns were strung across the garden, basins contained warm fires, a table overflowed with food—pastries and desserts, he noted—and there was yellow. Yellow everywhere, like the cultists were little canaries flitting about and chirping their merry tune about their god. Stunned, Shuichi stood just inside, uncertain of where to go and who to talk to and how-the-hell-was-he-going-to-find-Kaede-in-this-mess. But he shouldn’t have worried, because he was scarcely there for a second when a piercing shriek overtook all others, and a pair of arms flew around him.

“You’re back!”

It wasn’t Kaede. Shuichi blinked as something sharp pricked at his eyes and—was that glitter? He squinted and realized that it was Tsumugi, totally unrecognizable as her usual blue mane of hair was adorned with gold glitter that caught the light and shone like small fires.

“Um...what’s going on?” Shuichi asked.

“Dark Yagami, formally known as Kokichi Oma, has become a prophet!” Tsumugi beamed. “Huzzah!”

“Oh. Okay. Hey, I need to talk to the others. Are they around?”

“They’re over there, being buzzkills.”

Tsumugi gestured to the side of the temple, where a notable area lingered that lacked any paper lanterns or blazing bonfires or Tsumugi Shiroganes.

“Don’t take too long talking to them if you must,” said Tsumugi. “Not unless you tell them all about Atua!”

He was pretty sure Tsumugi had that covered for him, but to placate her he gave his word and snuck around the crowd—keeping close to the wall.

Shuichi found the others gathered at the side of the temple. Whether sitting, standing, or doing push-ups like Tenko, they certainly didn’t look very Atua-like. They had been talking quietly among themselves but looked up upon his approach.

“Tsumugi said something about Kokichi ‘officially’ becoming a prophet,” said Shuichi. “Is that what this thing is about?

“Yeah, it was some sort of initiation," Tenko explained between push-ups.

“Kokichi’s somewhere in the temple with Himiko,” Rantaro explained. “Something about him ‘making a re-entry as a true Prophet’.”

“He doesn’t mean a word of it,” said Kaito.

“Of course he doesn’t,” Rantaro affirmed. “He’s up to something, though. Safe to say we should all keep a very close eye on him tonight.”

“What brings you back so soon, Shuichi?” Ryoma asked. His large eyes flicked to the folder tucked under Shuichi’s arm.

“Oh, uh...” With the Prophets’ celebration, Shuichi had completely forgotten his primary objective.

He took out the folder, clutching it protectively. The moment it left his hands, it would be yet another violation of Future Foundation rules to add to his growing rap sheet. Biting his lower lip, he realized that everyone’s attention trained on him, and he chose to hand them to Ryoma—since he’d been the first to notice.

There was an audible crunch as Ryoma clamped down on his candy cigarette, and he propped open the fat folder to peer inside.

He only skimmed over it for a second before saying, “You sure you should be showing this to us?”

“I need insight, and there’s no one else in the Future Foundation I can trust,” Shuichi explained. Remembering Miu and Keebo, he added, “No one around at the moment, at least.”

“What is it?” Kaede asked.

“It’s the autopsy reports for the members of Kokichi’s organization,” Ryoma told her. He went over to the basin and those of them that had strong stomachs went to look. Gonta peered over Tenko’s shoulder, but—catching a glimpse of the first page—turned stark white and recoiled.

“O—Oh!” Gonta heaved. “Gonta can’t look!”

“Geez...these are pretty gruesome,” Kaede said. The blood retreated from her face, and like Gonta she couldn’t stand to look for more than a few pages. “Izayoi did all that?”

“The culprit did all that, yeah,” Shuichi asserted.

Rantaro peered up. He lightly touched his chin, then asked, “Shuichi, did you take these without permission?”

Shuichi let his silence answer him.

“You could get in a lot of trouble for that,” said Rantaro.

“No more trouble than I could get in for protecting Kokichi,” Shuichi pointed out. “I’m...worried that if I leave them at the Future Foundation, someone might try to take them. I have to leave them with someone I can trust.”

“You think someone might try to tamper with evidence?” Kaede asked.

“I don’t know. But I want to be certain that they’re safe. Without these, there’s no case.”

Shuichi looked around as if expecting to see Kokichi emerge out of the woodwork to derail his plans and proclaim Shuichi’s ignorance and stupidity. Instead—suddenly, unexpectedly, quietly—Himiko was there, standing among them as if she’d always been part of the conversation. He hadn't even seen her approach.

“Nyeh...I can’t believe I’m doing this...hey, Kaito,” Himiko breathed, immediately going up to the aforementioned person. “I need your help with a magic trick.”

Shuichi saw the confusion roll through Kaito like a paver going over concrete, erasing any trace of the previous conversation.

“Now?” Kaito frowned. “Can’t it wait, Himiko? We’re in the middle of something.”

From her robes, Himiko produced a notepad and a pencil. It looked like she’d been chewing on it. “I need you to write ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’.”

“What? What for? Himiko, do we have to do this now?”

“You misogynistic pig!” Tenko barked. She teleported to Himiko’s side, hands on her hips and glowering. “She told you to write it down, so do before I break all your fingers!”

“Alright, alright, no need to get violent!” Kaito yelped. He seized the notepad from Himiko and scribbled down the sentence.

“No, do it again,” Himiko demanded.

“Huh?”

“You did it too fast. You have to write at your normal pace.”

“Why am I doing this again?”

“It’s for magic! And Atua. They’re one and the same.”

With Tenko frowning disapprovingly, Kaito didn’t dare disobey. He wrote down the sentence as normally as he could under threat and handed the notepad back to Himiko. Shuichi was about to ask her what it was for, but she skipped off before he could.

The only answer to the unspoken question came in the form of a coy smile on her lips that didn’t reach her eyes.


Kokichi waited patiently in the sanctuary, the only sound coming from the roar of the blossoming party outside and the gentle splash of the water fountain. He stood stock still, one hand gripping the pillar as he peered around it, the other braced against the back wall. In truth, he wasn’t sure how trustworthy Himiko was, and how deeply he could invest that trust in her. Impartial or not, she was a multicoloured lure bobbing in water, ready for some unsuspecting fish to come up and snatch her.

To his relief, when Himiko’s light footsteps reappeared, they were alone, though he made visual confirmation before reappearing. In her hand, she grasped the notebook he’d given to her.

“Got it,” said Himiko.

“Good, give it here,” Kokichi smiled broadly, hoping that his excitement wouldn’t suggest the slightest touch of insanity.

Kokichi took the paper and read the writing on it: two sentences reading ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the angry dog’. The first iteration was lopsided and far too quick. The other was only slightly more legible, with sharp edges and well-defined curves.

“Why did you want Kaito to write that?” Himiko asked, her impartialness finally giving way to subtle curiosity.

“It’s not the sentence that matters,” Kokichi explained. “I just needed a good sample of his handwriting to copy.”

“If you’re hoping to use his handwriting to forge documents or try to get into an astronaut program or something...it doesn’t work. Trust me, I tried.”

“You did?”

“Nyeh, for a spell. I wanted to magic myself into space.” Himiko picked her ear. “...It didn’t work.”

“Don’t worry, Himiko. Today you’re going to cast a spell that will actually work.”

“Hey, a lot of my spells have worked!” Himiko protested.

“I’m sure they have—as a bit of lame stage magic. But this, I think will actually be impressive.”

“So why exactly do you want to forge Kaito’s handwriting?”

“Ah, an excellent question with a simple answer: Maki Harukawa.”

“Maki?”

“Yup. At this very moment, Maki’s watching the temple from across the street. I can’t sneak out with her on watch—she’ll catch me for sure. Even I know I can’t escape the watch of the Ultimate Assassin. So I need to distract her, and it’s come to my attention that Kaito and Maki had a very particular relationship.”

“Wait, you’re doing all this just so you can get out of here?”

“Damn straight. Unless you’d rather I stick around?”

“...Nyeh...it doesn’t really matter to me. Do what you want, I don’t care.”

Himiko’s ho-hum attitude was exactly what Kokichi had been counting on to maintain her silence. Good to know she was reliable in that regard.

“So, to distract Maki, I’m going to write her a little letter,” Kokichi went on. “You see, I figure that once ‘Kaito’ tells her that he misses her terribly and he wants to talk to her...say...somewhere where she can’t see the whole temple...that should be enough to divert her attention long enough for me to slip away. Of course, Maki does have a relief, someone who takes her watch so she can sleep and eat and piss.”

“Then you can’t get away. The other guy’ll see you.”

“Already got a plan for handling him. Either way, Maki’s the main problem here. Her relief isn’t an Ultimate, so he’ll be easier to get rid of.”

“...Why do I have the feeling it involves me...”

“You feel correctly! This is another part of the favour you’re doing for me.”

“I only said I’d get Kaito to write that down for a favour—I didn’t say I’d do anything else.”

“C’mon, you barely have to do anything! Tenko’s gonna be doing all the legwork!”

“Tenko?!” The faintest bead of sweat appeared on Himiko’s forehead. “This is...getting complicated. What does Tenko have to do with anything?”

“You have her wrapped around your finger. If you told her to do something, Tenko would do it without question. Right?”

“Um...I guess...”

“Exactly! I mean, not that I don’t have that kind of hold over people, but Tenko I think could actually do this without getting herself killed.”

“Wait, what are we doing again?”
“It’s all quite simple. First, I need you to deliver the letter from ‘Kaito’ to Maki,. Then, when she leaves her post and her relief goes on, I want you to tell Tenko that you saw him peeping on you with his binoculars.”

“How’ll that deal with the relief?”

He offered a sly smile and waged his finger, “Ah, ah, ah—that would be spoiling the magic trick.”

“This is assuming I’m even gonna help you. I mean, you seem kinda crazy.”

“Do you have anything better to do this fine evening?”

Himiko murmured in a non-committal way, but by the way she tugged at the hem of her sleeves and the dip of her hat, Kokichi knew he had her. Himiko was easy to manipulate—she didn’t seem to care for the consequences of her actions. Still, a singular bead of shining sweat betrayed her hesitation. One wrong move—one wrong tone, or misstep, or hand gesture—and her frail loyalty would crumble.

“So you want me to get that letter to Maki, then tell Tenko that Maki’s relief was peeping,” Himiko recounted.

“That’s right!” Kokichi affirmed. “And then—poof! You’ve completed your favour.”

“...I guess it’s simple enough. It’s not like I gotta do anything that requires much effort...”

“Sure, sure, as long as you’re subtle.”

“Nyeh, I can do that.” Himiko said. “I got doves in my room. I can use them to send your letter to Maki.”

“Do it however you want—just don’t say a word to Tenko until my say so, okay?”

As expected, while Himiko didn’t look sold on the idea, he knew that she would go along with it, so she waited while he got to work on the forged letter. It took Kokichi a few practice lines before he thought he was able to pull off good Kaito-style handwriting—his letters seeped with personality and passion that his own lacked. With large loops and widely spaced letters, Kaito’s penmanship reeked of unnecessary bravado. Possibly to compensate for something, Kokichi mused.

Although not as masterful in forgery as other DICE members had been, Kokichi felt he was able to pull off a decent impersonation as he finished the fake letter by signing Kaito’s name. He kept the wording short and to the point—not trusting his forgery to deceive his target if she analyzed it for more than one or two readings.

 

 

 

Maki,

I need to talk to you. Meet me in the temple sanctuary.

Kaito


Short, simple, to the point.

Kokichi delivered the forgery to Himiko and she hopped off to her room to make the arrangements. All Kokichi had to do was get into position and hope everyone else was too occupied with the party to pay him any mind.

He watched from a crack in the door to monitor her path through the thick crowd of yellow. The cultists seemed to be celebrating the occasion of Kokichi’s recruitment with desserts and drinks, by making flower crowns, by frolicking, by indulging in their whimsical not-reality. It was all the same to Kokichi—so long as they didn’t impede Himiko, he didn’t care. And no one did. Her little black hat bobbed its way to the pagoda, then disappeared inside.

All he had to do now was take his predetermined position, where he had a good view of Maki, and stay there until he gave Himiko the signal. Or until his plan fell apart. Whichever occurred first.

Maki’s lookout position was located on a building peering down at the temple from the northwest, though the Ultimate Assassin could traverse the nearby rooftops if she wanted to change her vantage point. Kokichi selected a spot at the southwest corner of the temple, not quite in the shadow of the pagoda where his room was, where he could see the lookout spot. It was a clear view, and yet he was still protected so that if he needed to hide, he could do so, thus biding him vital time to make his getaway. The only problem was that he could be spotted by the temple residents, he silently worried as he pulled his hood over his head and tucked himself away in the corner. Perhaps If he stayed put they would know well enough to leave him alone. They didn’t even seem to care that the subject of their celebration wasn’t in their midst; only that they had a reason to party.

He leaned against the outside of the temple, arms folded, one leg curled so he could rest his foot against it, and waited. Kokichi had prepared this time. He couldn't climb over the wall straight over—not without help. But there were some decorative rocks in a small garden running parallel to the temple. Certainly not enough for him to leap onto the roof. However, an arbor did stretch between the temple and the outside wall, and with enough precision, he could climb the rocks, hoist himself onto the arbour, and tightrope his way across and over the wall to freedom.

Easy. In theory.

Kokichi squinted against the blinding lights bathing the surrounding rooftops in colour—including Maki’s lookout post. She hadn’t moved yet, nor had Kokichi seen any flicker of white indicating the dove delivering the message.

His hopes of going unnoticed didn’t go that way, however. Kokichi wondered if he’d become jinxed. He didn’t remember his plans falling apart this easily before prison. But there, across the courtyard, a pair of gold eyes slowly travelled, and were easily drawn to him.

Kokichi’s heart did a somersault, a backflip, and a tumble in an impressive array of acrobatic ability. What the hell? What was Shuichi doing here? And at such an inconvenient time, too.

He glanced around, hoping that Shuichi hadn’t quite noticed him, but Shuichi’s eyes narrowed, and then focused, and then—methodically—he started to close the distance between them. Kokichi tucked his hand under his jacket to grab the knife in his belt. He wasn’t about to let a lackey ruin it all, but he couldn’t move from this spot—not when freedom was within his reach.

Shuichi seemed to have it in mind that he wanted to talk alone, because he didn’t alert anyone else to Kokichi’s presence as he glided across the courtyard like a slow travelling bullet. When he was about twenty yards away, he stopped, and Kokichi recognized the all-too-familiar analytical gaze, asking unwanted questions like what-the-hell-is-going-on-here and what-are-you-up-to. Shuichi scanned the area, eyes never straying too far from Kokichi as if afraid he would disappear if he looked away for so much as a second.

Then he came forward another ten yards, and then five more, and then he stopped.

“The party’s for you, you know,” Shuichi said.

“The party’s for losers,” Kokichi retorted. “I’m not a loser. They don’t care what the occasion is or that the party’s for me—they’re looking for any reason to celebrate. So I’m not joining in.”

“Why are you hiding off in this corner instead of your tower?”

“That’s where people expect me to be. I thrive on the unexpected.”

Shuichi did an of-course-you-do roll of the eyes. Then he closed the final distance and leaned against the wall beside Kokichi.

“Hey, did I invite you to stand here with me?” Kokichi snarled.

“It’s a free corner,” said Shuichi. “If you don’t want to be near me, then go somewhere else.”

“I was here first!” And he couldn’t move lest he lose sight of Maki. What the hell was taking Himiko so long? And how long did Shuichi want to stand here and pretend to be buddies?

“I want to—”

“Ask me some questions? Of course you do, Detective Saihara, that’s the only thing your type is good for. To meddle in business that doesn’t concern them.”

“You seem pretty tense right now. Tenser, I mean.”

“If I’m tense it’s because I’m being subjected to you," Kokichi grumbled. "You shouldn't have come back. I told you not to come back.”

“And I said that I would, and here I am,” Shuichi pointed out.

They stood in silence together. He tapped a finger against the sheathed knife, pulling his hood far over his head so that Shuichi wouldn’t see where his eyes were fixed, that they were fixed on Maki—the unmoving, immobile Maki.

“What do you think of Izayoi?” Shuichi asked.

The question hurtled out of left field and collided with Kokichi’s skull—the spot right between his eyes—throwing him off balance. The umpire called a penalty, the fans screamed in anger, the ground beneath him swayed and heaved. But to Kokichi, nothing mattered. No amount of stimulation could minimize the suffering caused by one simple inquiry.

Kokichi hurtled. And then he wrenched himself up.

Composure. He could maintain his composure.

“Sohnosuke Izayoi?” Kokichi said as lightly as he could manage with such a heavy name. “What about him?”

“What do you think of him?” Shuichi reiterated.

“He’s the smartest idiot I know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he’s smarter than he lets on, it’s just that he doesn’t listen to his common sense. So he’s a smart idiot. A smar-diot.”

“Do you hate him?”

“For what?”

“For killing the DICE members.”

Kokichi tensed his shoulders. “Nah.”

The flicker of surprise in Shuichi was unmistakable, even when Kokichi refused to look him in the eye. “You don’t hate Izayoi?”

“I’d rather direct that energy toward someone who deserves it, like Munakata. If Munakata and his blubbering band of yes-men had bothered to investigate the stolen weapons earlier, Izayoi wouldn’t have taken matters into his own hands. Anyone with half a brain could’a seen that he’s volatile if left to his own devices. As a so-called ‘leader’, Munakata should’ve made the first move and given the guy orders.”

“So you blame Munakata.”

He shrugged noncommittally. “Leaders are responsible for the actions of the people they lead. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The end of DICE is on Munakata’s head. He knew that Izayoi was impulsive and violent, and putting him in a position of power like he did is a bad idea. I could hold a grudge against Izayoi, sure, and maybe I do a little. But DICE is an extension of the Remnants of Despair—it advertised itself as that. So I don’t expect Izayoi to act any differently than the way he did. If I was a dumbass who thought that killing a few people would save a lot of others, I might’a done the same thing.”

“Do you think Izayoi killed them because he thought that killing them would save others?”

“I think he did it because we were Remnants. Maybe not the head honchos, but a big enough problem that killing us would make a statement. I think Izayoi did it for a lot of reasons. Pleasure, vengeance, to get his weapons back, to save others. To him, there were boundless benefits to killing DICE and not a whole lot of reason to keep us alive. There’d be more risks in letting Remnants walk, anyway. Any sane member of the Future Foundation would’ve done the same thing.”

“Not everyone.”

“Right, I forget that you’re ‘special’,” Kokichi snorted. “‘Special Little Shuichi Saihara’. Do you want a gold star or something? Maybe you should just go back to serving your wannabe despots and stop protecting the enemy. I’m the enemy, by the way.”

“That’s strong language to use against the Future Foundation,” Shuichi protested. “We’re doing good work out there.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all—feeding the poor and helping the helpless and whatever. You can do that, sure, but the Future Foundation is just putting a colourful band-aid on a problem that requires major surgery.”

Maki forgotten, Kokichi pushed his foot off the wall. Shuichi looked scared. An indeterminate, vague sort of fear not necessarily directed toward Kokichi.

“They can’t fix the world,” Kokichi asserted. “You can’t fix the world. There’s nobody that can, no one single individual can swoop in and save the day. Junko initiated the Tragedy, sure, but the underlying truth is that the Tragedy is just a symptom. Humans are evil and do horrible things—always have, always will. You. You can’t change it. So there’s no point in trying.”

Shuichi was still. Kokichi rather admired that about the detective, that he was transparent one moment and clouded the next. He mentally ran through a list of possible rebuttals Shuichi could use—award-winning, speech-worthy responses such as ‘I can try’ or ‘Maybe not, but that won’t stop me’ or maybe ‘I can make a small difference’, or maybe even a list of his virtuous deeds and the good things he’d seen. A convenient list of reassurances, of meaningless lives and selfish good deeds.

Shuichi said none of that.

“That’s a lot of cynicism to carry around,” said Shuichi. “It must be a pretty big burden.”

“It’s not cynicism—it’s realism,” said Kokichi.

“If you’re bent on living that way, then why join Angie’s cult? If we’re going by your rules, the Prophets live by the exact opposite of your philosophy. They’re not realists.”

Kokichi didn’t answer him, keeping his gaze focused on the pagoda. He saw a distant flutter of white emerge and travel up, up, up to Maki’s rooftop.

“Kokichi, why are you here?” Shuichi asked.

“Why don’t you go away?” Kokichi countered.

“No.”

“You should.”

“I’m not.”

“You really should.”

“I really shouldn’t.”

Stubborn, impetuous, pretentious ass! Kokichi’s heart fluttered at his chest at the same speed that the dove had flown to the rooftop, and now he could see the slight shift of movement atop. He wanted to punch Shuichi, he wanted to push him, he wanted to beat on his chest until organs ruptured and bones broke, and the only thing he had with him was the knife. And as the flicker of the impulse rose him, Kokichi acted on it before he could think it through.

He pulled out the knife and pointed it at Shuichi’s abdomen. Funnily enough, the movement didn't garner a reaction from the detective, save for the slight pull of his lips as he frowned. Then came the expansion of his eyes, fixing on the knife as if there was nothing else in the world. It was a knife—not a gun, but there may as well have been a riveting gunshot that tore through the air and unleashed its fury because Shuichi froze. The panic held in his eyes, long and steady for a while, and then softened as he regained his composure.

“You won’t kill me,” said Shuichi.

“What makes you think that?” Kokichi snarled.

“Because you’re not capable of killing anyone.”

“You don’t know me. Besides, I don’t need you dead right now. I’m kidnapping you.”

Shuichi’s eyebrows hiked up his forehead. “That’s, uh, a good way to get yourself killed—wait, are you serious?”

“I’m sorry, what part of this...” Kokichi jabbed the knife at Shuichi. “Do you not understand?”

“Kokichi, what the hell?” Shuichi said, eyes flicking down at the knife, then back to his face.

“Don’t. Move.”

“I’m not.”

Kokichi checked for witnesses, but as he peered around he was so warped in his self-contained frantic bubble of hysteria that he saw nothing, except for blurs and facets and large, blocky shapes of colour—like the basic shapes kindergarteners learned. Except Kokichi was certain that the shapes would try to kill, or worse, capture him if he lost his nerve now, so he pressed the knife deeper into Shuichi’s abdomen, as deep as he could without actually breaking the skin.

Across the courtyard, he saw the door to the pagoda swing open and Himiko step out. She caught his eye, her gaze not faltering, and gave him a thumbs-up. Kokichi returned the gesture, and she broke away from the tower to disappear into the yellow sea.

“What was that about?” Shuichi asked.

“Get up,” Kokichi demanded.

Kokichi saw Shuichi process the statement like dial-up internet. He could hear the irritating buzz now.

“Climb on these rocks, then hoist yourself onto the arbor,” Kokichi reiterated. “Now.”

“You want me to climb that? That thing’s huge!”

“You’re a detective—I’m sure you’ve done some breaking and entering in your time. Get up there already—and don’t even think about jumping over the wall until I’m with you.”

A haphazard, stupid, fumbling, ill-advised plan. Kokichi felt like a pure amateur and Shuichi had to know it. There was nothing Kokichi could do to prevent Shuichi from screaming for help, or running away, or jumping over the wall anyway before Kokichi had a chance to threaten him again. Like Sherlock Holmes unravelling the motivations of his suspect, Shuichi stared down at Kokichi, lacking any previous nervousness. And Kokichi—as much as he loathed to admit it to himself, Kokichi was the fallibly hapless Watson in his vulnerability, forced to watch the master detective at work and roll around in his stupidity.

Kokichi almost wished that Shuichi would scream out in terror and expose his plot, thus wounding Kokichi’s pride before he could dig himself a deeper hole. Instead, he turned away from the knife and climbed the rocks. When he was as high as he could get, he leapt up with the precision of an Olympic gymnast and seized the arbor, hauling himself up. So sudden was his compliance that Kokichi felt rather like he’d been on the receiving end of a slap to the face.

Shuichi managed to cross the arbor, straddling the edge and peering over the other side, then back over at Kokichi, who had made no effort to move. He expected Shuichi to disappear over and be gone for good, but he sat there like they were two childhood friends trying to sneak into Old Man Takahashi’s garden.

“Are you coming?” Shuichi asked. “If we don’t get a move on your distraction won’t work.”

“What distraction?” Kokichi snapped.

“The one Himiko’s about to pull off.”

Right on cue, off on the other side of the temple, an unmistakable, enraged screech pierced over the sound of erupting fireworks and party-going cultists and Angie’s joyous singing. The unmistakable screech of Tenko Chabashira, followed by some indeterminate crash.

Whatever it was, Kokichi followed Shuichi’s lead and followed his path, his nervousness making him feel wobbly and unprepared. He crossed the arbor with ease equal to Shuichi. Peering over, Kokichi saw a street filled with lines of Future Foundation soldiers. They could still hear Tenko’s unrelenting screech, followed by a bang, and then a puff of smoke rising up from the front of the temple, and the cultists that were nearby and not paying attention to them scrambled out of sight. Shouts, screaming, mayhem. On the opposite side of the wall, the soldiers hurried in the direction of the chaos.

“Gosh, I hope Tenko will be okay,” said Shuichi. “What exactly did you tell Himiko to say to her?”

“What makes you think it was me?” Kokichi asked. “I didn’t have anything to do with this. Now is there a reason you’re not running for your life right about now?”

“I need to keep an eye on you,” Shuichi imparted. “Would you prefer if I ran?”

“Actually, yes. Then you wouldn’t be anywhere near me.”

“At least you’re being honest for once.”

From their perch, Kokichi looked over the other side and saw an armoured vehicle parked across the way.
“Is that yours?” Kokichi asked.

Shuichi nodded.

The wall was an easy twelve-foot drop, so Kokichi dangled off of the edge, hanging from the tips of his fingers before letting himself fall the rest of the way. He hit the ground, hard, and as his knees ached in protest, he caught a glimpse of the movement of shadows and pressed himself against the stone wall. Fortunately, shielded from the light, the vague figures of guards sprinting toward the distraction rendered him unnoticed. Shortly thereafter, Shuichi joined him in graceful fashion.

Kokichi waited until the guards rounded to the other side of the temple before breaking into a sprint toward the armoured vehicle. The passenger side was facing him and was unlocked when he tried the handle.

“You’re not planning on stealing that, are you?” Shuichi asked. He’d casually walked the street without any semblance of stealth. “Do you even know how to drive?”

“Of course I know how to drive!” Kokichi lied.

“You’re not doing a very good job at kidnapping.”

“Don’t need criticism right now. Get in the car.”

To emphasize his point, Kokichi waved his knife at him, although Shuichi had already hopped up the step and into the front passenger seat. Checking for witnesses and finding none, Kokichi also stepped in, crawled over Shuichi’s lap, and placed himself in the driver’s seat.

“Gimme the key,” Kokichi demanded.

“I don’t have it,” said Shuichi.

“How can you have a big fancy car like this and not have a key?! What, does it need your fingerprint or something?!”

“I didn’t drive myself here. I can’t drive.”

“You’re telling me that you even have a driver? And would you shut that door already!”

Shuichi did as he was told, muting the sound of the conflict outside. Sitting the driver’s seat, Kokichi felt like a small child pretending to be an adult rather than an actual adult formulating a half-baked plot to escape yet another prison. His mind whirred as he thought back to hot-wiring, something he was sure he hadn’t done in at least five or more years. Ace had always chastised him for not keeping up with it, to which he’d always jokingly responded that he didn’t drive anyway, so what was the point?

Shockingly enough Kokichi was beginning to entertain the possibility that fate was just this cruel to him.

He crouched under the stirring column and felt around underneath.

“That won’t work,” said Shuichi.

“Shut up,” Kokichi snapped.

“The car’s specially made to prevent it from being hot-wired,” Shuichi continued.

“I’ll make it work!”

Kokichi leaned back in the driver’s seat as far as he could go and kicked the stirring wheel.

It didn’t make him feel better. He kicked it again.

And before he knew it, he was in an all-out brawl with a very inanimate stirring wheel—kicking it, punching it, swearing at it, doing whatever he’d never been able to do against the likes of Sakakura. He gave the stirring wheel the no-holds-barred, no-punches-uncounted, no-stirring-wheels-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-film beatdown he so, so thoroughly felt it deserved for not working when he needed it to. And then his hands started to throb, prickling with pain and fresh bruises forming on the palms, so he stopped and settled for grabbing it in his hands. His entire body shook and his breath came out in ragged gasps.

The whole time, he felt Shuichi watching, not saying anything, not doing anything. With the beatdown on the stirring wheel done, Kokichi leaned forward until his forehead was against it, struggling to think of his next move.

“Are you done?” Shuichi asked.

“Why the hell are you still here?!” Kokichi demanded. “Go away!”

“I can’t, Kokichi.”

“Like hell you can! Why are you here?! Fucking say something useful for once!”

Shuichi paused, and then said, “Kokichi, I tried reasoning with you—that didn’t work. I tried arguing with you. That didn’t work either. So now I’m on Plan C.”

“Oh, and do tell me what your ingenious, flawless plan is! Hm? What is it?”

Shuichi turned his head a quarter to the right until his face was clouded in darkness. He folded his legs and placed his hands in his lap.

“I’m playing along,” he said. “You said yourself that the game wasn’t over. You made your move. This one is mine.”

Kokichi flopped back in the driver’s seat, allowing the wash of muffled conflict and multicoloured light to flicker over him like a stained glass window. He looked at his pale hands to watch the colour. In each one he saw a different emotion speckled across the patchwork: rage, frustration, resignation—all blending and changing on a whim like running oil paints.

“Leaving the country isn’t going to magically solve your problems,” Shuichi imparted. “Munakata’s too desperate to see you executed. He won’t let you go.”

“I’ll disappear,” Kokichi asserted.

“What if you don’t speak the language in whatever country you plan to run to?”

“I’m multilingual. I speak every language on the face of the Earth.”

“...You do not.”

“Okay, okay, you’re right. That was a lie. I only speak sixteen. And one of them is the universal language of Pig Latin.”

“Pig Latin isn’t a real language.”

“At'sthay atwhay ouyay inkthay, oserlay.”

“And what happens if you leave?” Shuichi pressed. “Even if you do ‘disappear’, you’re going to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder and wondering if the Future Foundation will catch up to you. You’re going to spend the rest of your life alone. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“I work alone. Always have.”

“What—no. Kokichi, you had an organization!”

“They were pawns. I didn’t care about them.”

“Did you care about Ace?”

“I care about my own skin, and I’m not gonna let the Future Foundation get the pleasure of lopping my head off.”

Kokichi reached for the door handle. If Shuichi wasn’t going to cooperate, and if the car was out, then he would have to make a run for it and hope for the best. Hopefully he’d be able to put some distance between himself and the Future Foundation before they realized he was gone.

“Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to bring them down a notch?” Shuichi asked.

Kokichi’s hand froze on the handle. He peered over his shoulder. “Bring who down a notch?”

“If you prove your innocence, then they’d be forced to admit that they were wrong about you,” said Shuichi. “That would wound their pride quite a bit.”

“Are you trying to give me a motivation to prove my innocence?” Kokichi chimed, forcing a smile which he was sure came out more like a grimace. “That’s shrewd of you, Shuichi—maybe even smart. I dunno whether to be impressed at your balls or insulted that you think I’m dumb enough to fall for it.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Shuichi. His posture tensing again, he rested one elbow on the top of the seat.“Anyone else in your situation would be desperate for any chance to clear their name.”

“Other people care about what others think about them. I don’t. I don’t need to care because I’m the leader of a super evil organization, and someday I’m going to conquer the world—so it’s better to let people fear the worst.”

“Your organization doesn’t exist anymore...”

“Ah, ha!” Kokichi pointed dramatically at him. “That’s what you think! DICE has over 10,000 members. While I’ve been in jail, they’ve been out laying the foundation for my master plan to work from the shadows and overtake every government on Earth, which they’ve already done.”

“Most governments also don’t exist anymore.”

“That’s what they want you to think. You’re falling for all their silly little traps, you see, as you’re falling into mine now. So save yourself the trouble and swear your undying loyalty to me already.”

But the lie was lost on Shuichi, as much as Kokichi willed for it to settle into the detective’s soul and drag him from the truth. But Kokichi had told so many lies in his life that even he wasn’t sure whether this was one or not, and he let it take effect, let himself believe for a moment that out there was the possibility of continuation—for the reality was worse, and unthinkable. He and Shuichi stared out the windshield into the darkened night, watching the glow of fireworks.

“You can’t follow me,” Kokichi stated.

“You don’t have to leave like this,” Shuichi said, voice tight with apprehension. “If you leave, there will be too much unfinished business, and after that, it might be too late to fix anything.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Kokichi went for the door handle, and barely grabbed it when Shuichi’s willowy fingers wrapped around his shoulder. The tug was gentle and beseeching.

“It matters,” Shuichi assured him. “It matters to me. And I think it matters to you.”

“I get that it matters to you because you want to be the big, strong hero who rolls in to save the day but—”

“That’s not why it matters to me.”

“Oh, and what’s the real reason, hm?”

“You’ve had an injustice done toward you, and to the memory of the DICE members. I would think that if you didn’t care about yourself, than at least you’d care about them.”

“They can’t be helped since they happen to be dead. The dead don’t need help—if people think badly about them, it doesn’t matter since they’re not around to contradict it. They didn’t care what people thought about them in life, so why would they care after death? Even if there is some great beyond out there, nothing they do in that place can effect what happens here.”

"You're right. The dead can't be helped—only their memories. But the living can, and last I checked, you were still alive."

"I'm a dead man walking, Shuichi," said Kokichi. He didn't turn to look back at him. "And I've been wanting to die for a long, long time."

He let the words sink in to punish Shuichi for his interference.

"I gotta go," Kokichi concluded.

Enough was enough. He pulled the handle and perched on the step, checking out for any sign of Future Foundation lackeys. They must be too occupied with Tenko, because there were none there.

“Where will you go?” Shuichi asked.

“Somewhere with a lot of palm trees and fewer nosy people,” Kokichi answered.

Satisfied that they were alone, he stepped onto the snow-covered pavement. As he stood there, prepared to slam the door shut before making his getaway, he caught Shuichi’s downcast gaze. First the detective focused on the seat where Kokichi had been, then it slowly rose up to meet him in the eye.

“...Ace was a good guy,” said Kokichi.

Shuichi frowned.

“You wanted me to say something about him, so here it is,” Kokichi reminded him. “Ace was a good guy.”

Kokichi prepared to slam the door shut, but Shuichi reached out, and he instinctively stopped. Shuichi held out a thin card of white paper to him.

“Wait, take this,” said Shuichi. “It’s my number. If you change your mind, call me.”

“That’s one way to get someone’s number,” Kokichi scoffed.

Kokichi didn’t tarry a second longer. He left the door open, tucked the number in his pocket, and bolted.

He slipped into an alley and ran like his life depended on it—and it did. And as he slipped away, the sound of the uproar Tenko was causing drifted behind and faded, and the walls rushed past him like he was on the precipice of death and he was going through a tunnel toward a guiding light. Kokichi felt like he was running toward heaven: the blissful escape, the final frontier, the release from the problems he was leaving behind.

He couldn’t stop himself. He laughed.

The laugh ripped out of him like spiders clawing out of his lungs. Despite his better judgement, despite his terror at being discovered, he no longer cared as a set of fireworks exploded into a cacophony of colour as if to celebrate his escape—to mock the Future Foundation and Kirumi and the 79ers and the cultists. They didn’t know it yet, but it was the herald of his disappearance, and he was to become one of those missing people who was never seen again. A living urban legend and a fitting end to the reign of Kokichi Oma.

Already his mind spun with the possibilities about where to go and who to become. He was going to become nameless, like had been before that pesky Hope’s Peak scout had peeled back the clown mask. There had been a time in his life when his instinctual response to ‘Joker’ had been stronger than his response to own real name. It would be nice to return to that anonymity, to build a lie so glorious that even he forgot what had transpired here. In a way, it would be beautiful—maybe beautifully tragic. Like an artist splashing fresh colour across a blank canvas, today he was finally liberated of the final chains that had held him for too long.

He encountered no resistance as he ducked into the back alleys and disappeared into the shadows, save for some Future Foundation soldiers standing stiffly at their posts. He crisscrossed through alleys and across streets, seeing only stray refugees, displaced from other parts of the city, gathered around flaming barrels, while some children dressed in secondhand clothing watched the fireworks. When he passed them, he pulled his hood far over his head and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible.

No one protested his presence, too engrossed with their own survival to care about a lone wanderer. There were too many of them as far as they were concerned, but Kokichi didn’t take chances with his identity—he wasn’t entirely sure if the Future Foundation had made his name public. No risks this time. No cockiness, no nothing. The scheme with the cult hadn’t gone as planned and he wasn’t about to test his luck yet again.

Kokichi ducked into a long, winding alley deserted save for a few of the homeless sleeping in the corners. Again, no resistance. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling of eyes resting upon him, striking out of the darkness and homing in on him like a sniper finding his target. In his heart, while he knew he’d managed to lure Maki away from her post, there were no promises that someone else hadn’t seen him. All it took was one set of eyes.

He hurried down a set of steps and was at the bottom when the impressionable feeling of being watched hit with full force.

He could feel it. And he wasn’t laughing now.

Small hairs on his arms stood on alert. Kokichi tried to convince himself that it was his paranoia forcing uneasy thoughts into his mind, but he knew that wasn’t the case. The instinct to turn and search for the eyes was insatiable, and even though he did just that, he paused at the bottom of the stairs and only to see a dim fluorescent light flickering from an old light at the top. The light caught the railing, and the gentle snow now increasing, the summer of Angie’s temple forgotten replaced by the treacherous cold.

“Gosh, I don’t think there’s anyone here!” Kokichi shouted to the silence. “Yup, I’m all here on my lonesome, totally defenceless! I sure hope no one comes to try to kill me!”

The challenge went unanswered. The light flickered.

Coward. Either way, Kokichi would deal with whoever it was when they bothered to confront him. He hurried down the last two steps, rounded the corner, and found himself near the end of the alley—and across the street, he saw it. His liberation. The fence surrounding the safe zone. Hurry up and over it and he would finally be gone.

He paused at the corner, looked up and down the street, and saw a trio of soldiers gathered by the outer fence, standing guard. They were too far away for him to overhear their conversation, but they were laughing, probably joking about a puppy they’d kicked that morning.

C’mon, c’mon. His heart pounded. Kokichi projected his desire for them to look away.

CRASH.

The sound was so sudden that his heart leapt out of his mouth and fell to the ground in a bloody pulp. The racket had come from behind him. He pressed his body flat against the wall and he edged over, thinking about looking back to see if his pursuer had decided to show himself.

No, the temptation was great, but he couldn’t. No more curiosity. From now on, he minded his own business.

Kokichi returned to the end of the alley. He would have to run for it and hope he could move faster than the guards—or that they weren’t feeling trigger happy. He peered around to check on their status and—

He saw three human-like figures on the ground, fresh scarlet blood pooling underneath them.

“Fuck!” Kokichi hissed. He stumbled back and tripped on a trash can, falling with a tremendous, metallic crash.

Who could murder that quickly? Kokichi instinctively backtracked, scrambling to his feet, his shoes slipping on slush. He was in a dreamlike daze, where his body didn’t move as fast as he wanted it to go.

He kept his face low and reached the bottom of the stairs, hurrying up two steps before he looked up and there was someone right in front of him.

Kokichi gasped and stumbled down. At the top of the stairs, framed in the light, was a tall, handsome woman, her hair draping behind her like a curtain of moonlight, her penetrating red eyes filled with the blood of her foes.

At once he was struck by her strangeness. Her suit was white, not Future Foundation make. She didn’t have the demeanour for it, either—too harsh, even for them—as her whole character was as razor-edged as the katana held at her side. Could she be a mercenary or bounty hunter, looking to use him for ransom? Maybe. She’d killed the guards—the blood was evidence enough, but she’d moved so fast. How had she gotten from there to here in the blink of an eye? No ordinary mercenary could do that or move with such precision. If she wanted him dead, he would already be so.

“What do you want?” Kokichi asked shakily, despite his attempts to keep the nervousness out of his voice.

She didn’t reply. Not the talkative type, then. She took a single step down.

“Fuck!” Kokichi exclaimed. He doubled back and hurtled around the corner.

Kokichi’s sprint slowed, slowed, and then he finally stopped. Because another figure stood at the alley exit, one shoulder leaning against the wall. Shrouded by darkness, whoever it was wasn’t much taller than Kokichi himself, with a thick black trench coat draped over his shoulder, and a fedora tipped so as to shield his face. The shadow of the fedora cast was so prominent that he didn’t even look like he had one—only an expanse of emptiness in the spot where all of his humanity should be. A halo of white light surrounded him though it was in no ways angelic. It was like the light was too afraid to encroach further on this stranger, like he was the epitome of secrecy and darknes.=s.

So commanding was the stranger, so strong was the wash of fear amassing over him like an angry wave, that Kokichi found himself unable to take a step further. Captivated, he watched helplessly as the stranger took a long drag from a cigarette, and he saw that he was missing two fingers from his right hand.

“Kokichi Oma?” the stranger asked.

“Nope, wrong person,” Kokichi said instinctively.

“Don’t. Fuck. With us."

The stranger emphasized each word, each syllable striking like a pinprick.

“I can’t give you my name,” Kokichi shrugged. “I mean, if you want to legally change your name, you can do better than mine—not to mention that you’d have to get the documentation, and then you’d have to tell your friends and family that you’re changing it, and that’s not even counting for the headache of changing your email address. Oh! But in this kind of world we live in, I bet you could take it up and no one would even question it—so if you’re desperate to have my name, I mean, it’s caused nothing but trouble for—”

“You can stop talking now,” the stranger instructed him, and against his better judgment, Kokichi reeled back in his senses. Panicking wasn’t going to get him anywhere now.

“So, should I know you?” Kokichi asked.

“No, but we know all about you,” the stranger responded.

“That’s kinda creepy. Just sayin’.”

“I have instructions to be gentle with you, so if you stop your fucking chattering, we can talk,” said the stranger. “Or more specifically, I can talk, and you can be quiet.”

What the hell? What was even going on anymore? Why couldn’t everyone leave him alone? Hardening his heart, Kokichi prepared to backtrack, only to see the silver-haired woman blocking his path. He spun on his heel, thinking perhaps that he could run past Fedora Guy.

That's as far as his thinking got before the full force of a body slammed into his back.

He could see it all as though the force of the impact had cleaved his spirit. The silver-haired woman ramming her elbow in his back, between his ribs. The unnatural arch of his body. The sickening crack of skull meeting pavement, numbness travelling down his spine, the cold hand seizing the back of his neck—all stood out in lucid detail, burning into his memory, clouding everything in white. When his senses came back to him, he blinked his eyes open and found the rough pavement digging into his cheek like nails.

Of course, as he came to his senses it finally occurred to him who these people had to be.

It was still and silent and he struggled to get out of the woman’s grip, only freezing when he heard the steady click-click-click of heels closing the distance between them. A pair of dark dress shoes stopped by Kokichi’s head.

“That wasn’t very smart,” the stranger remarked, pausing to take a long drag out of his cigarette. “My associate doesn’t like it when people turn their backs on her.”

“That’s a funny quirk to have—especially considering that having people turn their backs on her would make it easier to kill them,” Kokichi strained. “I’m guessing she’s pretty good at that.”

“You’re right, so how about shutting your fucking mouth for a minute before she decides to run you through?”

“Threats already? But we were getting along so nicely!”

“My name’s Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu,” said the stranger, tapping his foot impatiently. “And this is my partner, Peko Pekoyama. I don’t expect you to know our names, but I have no doubt you’ve heard of my organization.”

“You’re Remnants of Despair, duh,” Kokichi said. His voice was steady, but his heart was not—racing out of control and pumping far-too-much blood into his already flooded brain. “The friendly welcoming committee gave it away.”

The welcoming committee hadn’t been what had given it away. It had been the eyes. The eyes filled with the blood of their millions of victims, eyes suffused with agony—both of a personal sort, and of the others around him. If being in their presence didn’t fill him with disgust enough, knowing that a shameless murderer clutched his neck was enough to send Kokichi into a frenzy.

“If you’re inviting me to join your book club, the answer’s no,” Kokichi said. “The Ultimate Supreme Leader doesn’t take orders.”

“We’ll get to that some other time,” Fuyuhiko waved him off. “And I promise you that when the time comes, you’ll be desperate to join. For the moment, we want something else.”

“Forget it, even for me you guys are a bit on the crazy side. Whatever it is, I’m not interested.”

“Would you be interested if I said we could get you out of the country?”

Dammit. They had to play that card.

“I said no,” Kokichi insisted. “God, would’ya get off already? I got bigger problems to worry about.”

“Yeah, like the whole city looking for you, which is what they’re going to be doing when they find out you’re gone,” said Fuyuhiko. “How ‘bout you stop acting like a fucking moron and start using your head?”

“No.”

Peko lifted up his head and then slammed him face-first back into the ground.

“I didn’t come halfway across the city for you to be fucking stubborn about this!” Fuyuhiko said.

“This is pointless,” Peko said, speaking for the first time. Despite the softness of her voice, it rang out with such poignancy that even Fuyuhiko fell silent. “It would be more effective to torture him.”

“Izuru said to be gentle,” Fuyuhiko pointed out.

“What Izuru does not know cannot bring harm to him.”

Kokichi caught her shadow cast upon the wall, raising up a long sword behind him. Fuyuhiko darted forward and seized her wrist.

“He said,” Fuyuhiko emphasized, “to be gentle. We do what we have to do.”

She paused, and watched Fuyuhiko carefully. Peko had a few inches on him, but their presences were equally domineering.

“I have reservations about keeping him alive,” she said with certainty. “But if you think this is what needs to be done...I well...refrain.”

Fuyuhiko nodded. “Believe me, you're not the only one with reservations.”

During the distraction, Kokichi wiggled out from underneath Peko’s foot and crawled forward on the ground, clawing his way slowly across the pavement. He managed to crawl two feet—and he suspected that Peko let him—until her shoe reappeared and her sole dug into the back of his head. Kokichi felt her anger, her raw hatred, seeping through.

“You mad?” Kokichi asked, putting on his favourite Cheshire cat grin.

“You are undeserving of anger,” Peko said sternly. “You are fortunate that my partner is here to restrain me, else I take my time with torturing you. You insult Junko Enoshima by pretending to follow her philosophies. The fact that I cannot kill you fills me with deep regret.”

“Oh, do take your time with torture! I was always a fan of slow, painful deaths. Makes a better climatic ending.”

Fuyuhiko moved to stand by Kokichi’s head.

“You got balls, Oma,” Fuyuhiko conceded. “Gotta say, if you weren’t such a pain in the ass I’d be impressed. But being the Ultimate Supreme Leader, you must’ve known that this was gonna catch up to you someday. It’s just more convenient for us that you broke out of prison—saves us the trouble of going to confront you.”

Kokichi stopped struggling. His face pressed against the pavement, he let the smile slip.

“What’re you talking about?” he asked.

“The item you stole,” said Fuyuhiko. “You don’t have any use for it anymore, so I suggest you return it.”

“Return what?”

“Don’t play dumb!” Fuyuhiko bent down and gestured at him with his cigarette. “The item your organization stole two years ago!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. You got the wrong guy, buddy.”

“Look, you little fuck, you return the item, we get you out of the country, and Peko doesn’t rip all of your organs out!”

“Don’t even know what item you’re talking about.”

Fuyuhiko blew a puff of heavy, putrid smoke on him. “It’s taking a lot out of me to not yell at you right now. Hell, maybe if there wasn’t so much on the line I’d do just that. But Izuru figured that would be your response, which is why we’re giving you time to reconsider your options.”

“Thanks for not killing me right away, but I make my own options,” said Kokichi.

“Then let’s limit them a little bit, shall we?”

He snapped his fingers, and Peko punched him in the back, a spot right below his ribcage.

Kokichi furrowed his brow. “Um, if that was your idea of torture you didn’t do a very good j—”

The word choked in his throat as a bloody pulp ejected into his mouth, swirling around his teeth like a foul-tasting cocktail. He flexed his fingers, and that’s where the pain started even though that’s not where it came from. Then the prickling flew down his arms, increasing in intensity, the fire not quite hitting him—but sizzling like a slow-burning fire.

“What’s the problem, Oma?” Fuyuhiko asked. “You were so cocky a second ago.”

Kokichi tried to lie. Or laugh. Whichever came first. Instead, he tried to crank his head to the side—and that’s what he did, with the most tremendous effort. It felt like someone had stuck a stick down the length of his spine, rendering his limbs useless, turning, turning, and turning until he managed to get enough peripheral vision to see Peko’s katana sticking out the spot where she definitely-had-not-punched him.

With deliberate slowness, she extracted the blade. She hadn’t inserted it all the way through his body—she’d only done the katana equivalent of poking him, which in his case meant a significant portion of the tip. The crimson coagulated at the end of the katana to drip down, the blood becoming invisible as it hit his dark cloak. Invisible or not, it was agony as she pulled it out—not the type that made him want to scream, it was the type of agonizing, burning, paralytic torture that caused his limbs to twitch and his voice to make choking, blubbering noises.

Peko stepped out from over him and he was free to writhe, afraid to move, afraid to stay still, one hand jerking back to hover over the wound, then thinking better of it and clawing at the ground.

“Do not worry,” Peko said coolly. “I was careful not to penetrate any internal organs. If you are worthy of it, then you will live...Although, with an injury such as that, it will be difficult for you to move quickly to avoid the Future Foundation, or find a way out of the city. Perhaps then you will be willing to tell us what we want to know.”

His limbs jammed like the image of Leon Kuwata’s last moments replaying in his mind. Kokichi jerked, trying to crawl forward, and succeeding only in ramming his forehead into the cool slush coating the ground.

“We’ll be in touch, Oma,” said Fuyuhiko. He moved away and started to climb the stairs, with Peko beside him.

Kokichi swallowed and searched for his voice. “It...barely hurts! This won’t s—stop me!”

Fuyuhiko stopped. He took a drag out of his cigarette and watched the glow of red fireworks reigniting overhead.

“Hm,” he said. “You know...this place is a little too hope-filled for me.”

He turned his head a quarter to the side, showing his red eye.

Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu smiled, and it was the most devilish, awful, terrible smile Kokichi had ever seen. Although his words were to Peko, the look was for Kokichi alone. “What do you say we show them what despair looks like?”

Chapter Text

Kaito was not happy.

As he surveyed the pile of pastries and desserts set out on a gaudy plastic tablecloth, under the watchful glow of paper lanterns and five or six cultists, he couldn’t help but think how uncomfortable this was. Normally he liked to think that he was a pretty chill guy, and maybe he did enjoy the fame that came with being the Ultimate Astronaut. This was a whole other level of weird, to have those five or six eyes watch his hand hover over the desserts as he tried to make his choice.

“Do ya half’ta stare at me?” Kaito asked the cultists.

“You have been to space,” one marvelled.

“Um...actually, I—”

“That’s the closest anyone’s ever gotten to Atua!” another beamed.

“That’s...nice, but technically I never—”

“You’ve been touched by Atua,” a female cultist cooed. She nuzzled against him.

“Okay, it’s getting a little weird!” Kaito declared. “Begone, all of you! Lord Kaito demands it!”

The cultists scattered like mice fleeing from a cat. Kaito sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, silently bemoaning that these guys were starting to get to him.

Truth be told, Kaito’s mind was not on the desserts. Kaito liked people, and he liked parties, but he couldn’t see a reason to celebrate when they were playing right into Kokichi’s hand. It didn’t strike him as a party-worthy occasion. The end of the Tragedy? That would be party-worthy. A birthday? Party-worthy. The day Kokichi walked out of their lives and the Future Foundation magically forgot they were ever involved? Definitely party-worthy. Kokichi joining a cult? Not party-worthy. The opposite of party-worthy. More like panic-worthy.

Poking noncommittally at a plate of dry doughnuts, Kaito sensed someone coming up alongside him.

“For the last time, will you give a guy some space?!” Kaito exclaimed.

A dry, deep voice that definitely did not belong to a cultist said, “Well, if you feel that way...”

“Oh!” Kaito spun around, and looked down to see Ryoma with half-lidded eyes. “Sorry, I thought you were one of them.”

“If I ever become that perky,” Ryoma drawled, “kill me.”

“Yeah, I’ll try not to.”

Ryoma turned his back on the table and studied the crowd. “Do you know where Shuichi went?”

“Huh? Nah, he went off...somewhere. Why? Is there a problem?”

Ryoma chewed on his candy cigarette. “...Apparently not. I don’t know if—oh. Here we go again.”

Kaito turned, and emerging from the crowd were a pair of female cultists, each clutching a tennis racket to their chests.

“For the last time, no,” Ryoma told them.

“Could you just initial them?” one of the girls asked.

“Or—Or maybe show us some of your moves?” the other added, showing him a tennis ball.

“I said no. Now scram.”

They melted away, and Ryoma let out a long sigh.

“They’ve been following me around all evening,” said Ryoma. “They fancy themselves as tennis fans. I told them that they’re better off worshipping a tennis player who actually plays tennis and isn’t a murderer.”

“You are the Ultimate Tennis Player.”

“I’m not the Ultimate of anything. It’s high time they learned that.”

“Eh, they’re living in a fantasy world—I say let them. They’ll figure the truth out for themselves sooner or later.”

Hesitantly, Kaito took the dry doughnut and shoved it whole in his mouth.

“I wonder where Kokichi is,” Kaito said between chews. “Funny that he hasn’t made his grand appearance yet. I mean, not that I want him to, but it’s kinda weird.”

“...There’s Himiko.”

Kaito turned, and saw Himiko making her way through the crowd of yellow, her witch hat bobbing up and down. She ended up at the pagoda where her magician’s laboratory was and disappeared inside.

“Wonder what she’s doing,” said Kaito. He swallowed his doughnut. “Hey, as long as we’re here, we might as well relax. Have a doughnut.”

“I’d rather not get used to luxuries,” said Ryoma, folding his arms.

“C’mon, that’s backwards logic. We’re not always gonna have luxuries, so why not enjoy them while they’re here? This—This is chocolate cake! I can’t even remember the last time I saw chocolate cake!”

“It’ll turn my stomach.”

“Chocolate cake is worth the suffering!”

“Maybe for you. You should take it easy.”

“Like hell I—”

Kaito choked on the word in his mouth and lapsed into a violent coughing fit, a fit that reached into his lungs and tried to rip them out. Fortunately, the sound of the party around them masked the racket he was making from all but the people nearest to him. Unfortunately, said people nearest to him included Ryoma, who watched mutely and without the faintest flicker of surprise.

The worst of it passed after a minute or two of intense hacking, and Kaito leaned against the table to catch his breath.

“That cough’s getting worse,” Ryoma noted. “Have you been taking your medication?”

“I don’t need medication,” Kaito said hoarsely. “I ain’t sick! I...inhaled the wrong way.”

“Sure, and those pills you keep taking are candy. You can drop the act, Kaito. It’s something of an open secret at this point.”

“What secret? I told you—I ain’t sick and I ain’t taking pills.”

“We’ve been stuck here for—what? A few days? You’ve been missing your doses, Kaito.”

Kaito made to voice his protest, but that was lost with another hacking fit, this one forcing him to double over as his lungs struggled for air. Ryoma watched with his infernal, neutral expression, with are-you-going-to-admit-it-yet written all over him. But for Kaito to do that, he’d have to admit it to himself—and that was a monumental undertaking he wasn’t willing to do. So, in between coughs, he spluttered out something he hoped resembled the word ‘bathroom’ and stumbled his way through the crowd.

The temple was home to two communal bathrooms, one for men and one for women, and fortunately Kaito managed to get to the men’s room before the familiar taste of bloody bile salivated around his mouth. Stumbling into one of the stalls, he vomited the dry doughnut into the bowl. It wasn't so dry anymore, but didn't quite look as appetizing.

He spent a good ten minutes regurgitating his stomach contents, all the while cursing Ryoma’s stupid perception, though Kaito begrudgingly admitted that this kind of secret wasn’t exactly easy to keep when his roommates were as nosy as they could get. The only people he suspected didn’t suspect anything were Tenko and Gonta—due to their remarkable ability to be unperceptive. The others, though—the others had all the reason to suspect an illness, however he doubted that they had any inkling to the severity of it. Which wouldn’t be so severe if Kaito had his damn medication already.

Because Ryoma had to be right on that count, as well.

Kaito had never thought to carry his pills with him—too much of a bother, and if the others saw the bottles they would see that as an invitation to interrogate him. But no, his pills were back at their place, tucked safely in his footlocker, out of sight and out of mind, and here he was vomiting into a toilet and regretting that he lacked Kaede’s humbleness or Shuichi’s shrewdness. If he possessed Kaede’s humbleness, he would be willing to ask for help. If he had Shuichi’s shrewdness, he could’ve found a way to smuggle the pills into the temple. And as it happened, Kaito wasn’t sure how much longer he could go on like this before the more severe symptoms started rearing their ugly heads, snapping at his organs like the dogs of Hades looking for their next meal.

When the nausea had past, replaced by a vague dizziness that left him feeling light-headed and drowsy, he sat back against the toilet stall door to recompose himself, wiping a bit of blood from his chin. He had an inkling that he wasn’t going to be able to enjoy any more desserts this fine evening.

All of this was Kokichi’s fault.

At the thought of the smug motherfucker and his smug motherfucking smile, a sudden lash of anger, hard as a whip, struck his back. In his brief, uncontrollable rage, Kaito punched the toilet stall door. It rattled on its hinges, shaking back through his body much like his anger did. He should’ve kicked Kokichi out of his bed the day Kaede and Rantaro had brought him home. In the pit of his stomach, he’d had a feeling that he was trouble—and yet he’d ignored it. Something he was increasingly good at.

And yet, by some miracle of nature, it was because of Kokichi’s appearance that he’d reunited with Shuichi, the only spark of light to come out of this whole mess. Leaning on his knees, Kaito considered his options. He could fix this. Somehow. He wasn’t sure how, but as the Ultimate Astronaut, as a hero, it was his civic responsibility to get everyone out of this mess.

Kaito gathered himself, flushed the toilet, and went to wash his hands in the sink. He couldn’t get any hot water, but erasing the speckles of blood from his hands brought him some small satisfaction. If he scrubbed hard enough, he could erase all traces of his condition.

Kaito briefly looked up at his pale reflection in the mirror, then back down to enjoy the wash of clean water running over his coarse skin.

He looked up again.

And let out a high-pitched scream as he saw a second pale face standing right behind him.

Kaito whirled around so fast that his feet nearly came out from underneath him. Standing in the middle of the men’s bathroom was Maki—so incontrovertibly dark compared to the temple’s bright aura that she looked like a smear of black on an otherwise colourful piece of post-modern art. Maki had a way of being precise in everything she did, and even though she was that black smear, she looked like her presence was meant to be, an artistic statement, rather than a mistake on the artist’s part.

“M—Maki?!” Kaito exclaimed. “W—What the hell are you doing here?!”

Maki’s eyes narrowed. Assassin mode activated. He had a feeling that she was considering the number of ways in which she could kill him now.

“You’re not where you said you’d be,” Maki said coldly. “Say what you have to say.”

“Uh...what? Maki, you shouldn’t be here. I don’t like him much, but Kokichi has sanctuary.”

“I’m temporarily ignoring it. As long as your little friend doesn’t walk through the door right now, I’ll leave here without his head. Begrudgingly. Now what did you have to say?”

Kaito’s mind, working far too slow for his liking, mulled over her words.

“What are you talking about?” Kaito asked. “I mean, I got a lot to say, but—”

Maki glowered. “Then say. What you have to say.”

“Shit, Maki, I—I don’t think this is the time to get into it...I mean, you broke up with me, remember?”

Maki’s chest rose and then fell, her eyes pinching shut and then opening again. “You’re still not over me.”

“Still not over you?!” Kaito exclaimed. He waved his arms around frantically. “Still not over you?! Of course I’m still not fucking over you! I love you more than the sun and the moon!”

“If you did, then you would’ve joined the Future Foundation,” Maki said, folding her arms. “I had to make a choice, Kaito. What more is there to discuss?”

“It was a shit ultimatum, that’s what it is!”

“Joining the Future Foundation was and is the best chance of survival.”

“So it’s a necessary evil, is that it?”

“No, there’s more to it than that. The Future Foundation has given me an identity and a purpose beyond my talent. I would’ve thought given your preaching that you would’ve approved.”

“Of course I fucking approve of that—I approve of you not being a robot!”

With absolute seriousness, Maki replied, “That’s Keebo’s talent—not mine.”

“That’s not what I—” Kaito stopped himself short and slapped his hands over his eyes. “I’m not saying that the Future Foundation is the epitome of all evil—far from it. That’s not why I think joining them was a bad idea.”

“Then what was your reason? Are you willing to accept this world as is?”

“Yes. No! That’s not it at all!”

“If you’re not going to make sense, then I’m leaving.”

“No—wait!” Kaito rushed to the door and blocked it.

“You realize that I can just shove you out of the way, right?” Maki reminded him.

“Oh, trust me, I know,” Kaito said, and he silently mused to himself that it was part of the reason he found her incredibly attractive. “Look, don’t you remember when they detained us and tried to bully us into joining? Didn’t that leave a bad taste in your mouth.”

“We didn’t give them the chance to explain themselves,” Maki argued. “We were only detained for a day and we tried to spend that day escaping even though they assured us that we’d be free to leave once they were finished interrogating us.”

“They dangled false promises in front of us!”

“They gave us an opportunity, and I decided to take it,” Maki affirmed, folding her arms. “If we keep fighting like this, we’ll just keep talking in circles. Either add something new or get out of my way...I should’ve known to be hopeful that you’d changed your mind when you sent that letter.”

“What letter? I didn’t send any letter.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is!”

Maki pulled out a scrap of paper out of her breast pocket and threw it at him. He fumbled as it threatened to float away from him much as Maki tried to do as she shoved past him to get at the door, but as she reached for it, Kaito’s hand shot out and seized her arm. Simultaneously, his eyes landed on the letter she’d handed him.

“What the fuck?” he said. “I didn’t write this.”

“Don’t play dumb,” said Maki. “You wrote it and you had Himiko send it to me.”

“Huh? I saw Himiko earlier—but I didn’t tell her to send you a let—”

He stopped short.

“Do you remember now, Kaito?” Maki snarled.

“...I remember that she asked me to write ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ on a scrap piece of paper,” Kaito recalled. “She said she needed it for a magic trick.”

“Are you insulting my intelligence too or do you actually expect me to believe this story?”

“It’s true, Maki! The others can back me up on this—they all saw it happen.”

He didn’t have to grip her arm quite so tightly as her determination to leave slackened somewhat. Kaito found himself negotiating with Maki—perched on a cliff edge and prepared to dive off, but not quite to the point of absolute committal on her part. She looked at him with such candour that he was knocked off his feet. It had been a long time since he’d seen that look.

“I don’t think Himiko’s capable of forging a letter,” Maki concluded after considering it for a moment.

“Yeah, me neither,” Kaito agreed. He crunched the paper up in his fist and grit his teeth. “But I know who is.”

Kaito slammed the bathroom door open and stormed out, Maki right on his coattails, arms folded, expression guarded, but curiosity piqued. His frustration toward Maki dissipated—replaced by clenching, all-consuming anger toward the only person he knew could be the culprit. The only person who would have the gaul to manipulate Himiko into doing things for him. The only person capable of worming his way under his skin like a disease or an infection.

Kaito had entered the temple through a side entrance that didn’t require him to go through the temple sanctuary, so he hadn’t needed to go through it to reach the bathrooms. He’d been hoping to avoid him. Now, he watched directly to the sanctuary—on purpose—hoping to find his target, and finding nothing except the bubbling fountain. There wasn’t a Himiko—or a Kokichi—in sight.

“Goddamit,” Kaito growled. “When I get my hands on him...”

“Get your hands on who?” Maki asked rather stupidly.

“Who else?! Kokichi!”

“Oma? You think he—” Maki stopped short and realization dawned across her, lighting up before growing dark. “...If you don’t kill him, I will.”

Well, none of that was going to happen if they didn’t find the bastard first. Kaito opened the temple doors, unleashing the sound of the celebration upon them. He completely ignored the chattering colonists and headed straight for Angie—who was busy doing the limbo along with some others, including a little-too-enthused Gonta.

As Kaito and Maki approached, Angie took her turn to curve under the bar, which she did so with graceful, expert precision. Not a single hair grazed it, and she finished her turn with an impressive tumble. Heads turned as the cultists became aware of Maki’s presence, but none had the courage to intercept Kaito as he marched up to Angie.

“Angie, where the hell is he?” Kaito demanded.

“Atua is all around us!” Angie answered.

“I’m not talking about your damn god; I’m talking about Kokichi. Where is he?”

“Dark Yagami is in the sanctuary, seeking respite before he joins us.”

“Well, he’s not there, and you better fucking hope I don’t find him!”

The heated exchange didn’t go unnoticed, particularly by Kaito’s more astute classmates. Rantaro, Ryoma, and Kaede emerged from the sidelines. Gonta was taking his turn on the limbo bar, knocking his head against it and falling to the ground, and also took notice of the exchange.

“What going on?” Gonta asked. His eyes flicked and found Maki. “Why Maki here? Gonta always happy to see friends, but Maki should not be here.”

“I’m here to kill Oma,” Maki said simply.

“We’ll both kill him,” Kaito decided.

“What’s going on?” Kaede asked.

Kaito briefly explained what had happened, though the explanation did not ease the tension pulling Kaede’s face as tight as a violin string.

“You can’t kill him for that!” Kaede protested. “I mean, it’s awful and mean-spirited, yes, but Maki shouldn’t be here. We made an agreement! She’s violating his sanctuary!”

“I don’t give a damn about sanctuary right now, and if you ask me that whole thing was a waste of time anyway,” Maki declared. She reached into her holster and withdrew a pistol. “I’m going to end this ridiculous stand off. Dead or alive, Oma will pay.”

Kaede outstretched her hand as if she could possibly hope to dissuade the Ultimate Assassin, and Kaito thought that might’ve been the end of the discussion, when a bloodcurdling scream came from nearby—ripping apart the sound of the fireworks, and of the celebration, and of his own anger and frustration and worry all mingled together into one complicated ball of emotion. Like a scene in a move, he turned, and his vision laser-focused on Tenko and Himiko, who stood together some twenty yards away. It was Tenko who had screamed, her face reddened with unbridled rage he was all too familiar with, and had occasionally been on the receiving end of. It was the hatred Tenko reserved for men.

People parted, others were thrown, and all Kaito saw of Tenko was a blue blur that skirted across the courtyard like goddamn Sonic the Hedgehog. Out the gates she went with an overwhelming crash. Screams erupted on the other side, and there stood Himiko standing in the dust and not looking the least bit surprised.

Anger toward Kokichi forgotten, Kaito and the rest hurried to the gate as the explosion of activity enveloped Tenko and he lost sight of her. Future Foundation soldiers scattered to their posts, others reached for her, and yet she flitted away and was gone, scurrying into the thickening crowd.

There were swears and looks of terror from the 79ers, although the cultists seemed to barely notice that the gates were open and a bunch of confused Future Foundation soldiers were on the precipice of an invasion.

“Tenko, come back!” Kaede called.

She took two steps out of the gates, stopping short when several machine guns cocked and pointed directly at her.

“Woah, woah, woah, put those down!” Kaito demanded, immediately placing himself between the guns and Kaede and throwing his arms up.

Before the soldiers could respond, like a ghost, Kirumi appeared. Her presence immediately captivated the soldiers under her command, though their guns did not stray.

“Would someone mind telling me what is happening here?” Kirumi asked sternly.

“N—Not sure, ma’am,” a soldier answered. “She just burst out and started acting crazy.”

“Who?”

To answer that, a scream sounded from somewhere in the rooftops above them, and, framed by the glow of the fireworks still lighting the sky overhead, a body flew over the edge. It hurdled down, down, and landed on the ground with a sickening crack. Kaito could tell by the uniform that it was yet another soldier, though this one appeared to be more heavily armed than the rest. No sooner had he landed when a Tarzan-like bellow sounded and Kaito saw Tenko on the edge of the roof. With grace and strength, Tenko leapt down approximately three stories and landed by her victim.

Not paying any mind to the stunned soldiers around her, Tenko went to her target and seized him by the front of his shirt, drawing her fist back to deliver a punch.

“Tenko!” Kirumi yelled.

If Kirumi had been a male, she wouldn’t have listened. But as it happened, Kirumi spoke with such motherly rage that she froze, for the first time the rage clearing.

“This disgusting male is a pervert!” Tenko shouted defensively.

“That ‘disgusting male’ is a Future Foundation soldier!” Kirumi countered. She looked around briefly, eyes flickering with mild confusion, before resting on Maki. “Maki? Why aren’t you at your post?”

Maki did what she tended to do whenever she was nervous. She clamped down. Her face clouded over and became unreadable. The tensity in the air was so sharp that not even Maki’s most piercing gaze could hope to match it. Kirumi’s expression twisted—first confused, and then irate.

“...You disappoint me,” Kirumi said. She turned to the soldiers and continued, “Arrest them all, then search the temple for Oma. This has gone on long enough. And someone get Sakakura—if he is so eager to make himself useful, now is the time.”

“Woah, hold on—” Kaito started. He didn’t get two steps before the soldiers complied with Kirumi’s orders, surging forward to overwhelm him before he so much as got the chance to voice his distaste.

Kaito was helpless, like he’d been helpless to watch the Tragedy, or protect his grandparents, or keep his class together after it had so easily unravelled. Foreign hands shoved him to the ground with so much force that fresh blood curdled in the back of his throat. His head bounced against the pavement, and he squeezed his eyes shut to steady the dizziness, and when he opened them he found himself looking straight into Kaede’s face. She, too, was pressed against the ground while the soldiers handcuffed her.

Kaito’s arm cranked behind his back, his wrists seizing to their near-breaking point. He instinctively struggled, only for a knee to press into his spine. Pressing any further would crushed between the soldier slapping ice-cold handcuffs over his tangled wrists and the equally ice-cold pavement.
“Motherfucker!” Kaito cursed. “Kirumi, what’s the big idea?! What about sanctuary?!”

“Maki has violated that, has she not?” Kirumi said simply, her voice barely audible over the stampede of boots invading the temple. “Then the terms of the sanctuary were already broken.”

The steady click of her heels stopped near Kaito’s head.

“Line the Ultimates up on the sidewalk and corral the cultists inside the walls,” she ordered. “...Ah, Mr Sakakura. Good of you to join us.”

“Are we finally getting this show on the road?” Sakakura’s rough voice asked.

“Indeed we are. Please coordinate the search on the temple.”

Judging by the way Sakakura hurried off, he was all too happy to oblige—even if it was an order from Kirumi.

A pair of arms almost as large as Gonta seized Kaito by the back and deposited him on the sidewalk outside the temple. There, Kaito got his bearings as Kaede, Rantaro, and Hyoma—none of whom resisted—were placed on the pavement ahead of him. Nearby, the soldiers were negotiating how to cuff a very cooperative Gonta, and eventually settled on attaching three pairs together behind his back.

Gonta could probably rip this whole contingent apart if he wasn’t such a nice guy. Meanwhile, Kaito only got a glimpse of Tenko, assuming a fighting stance, as the soldiers started surrounding her.

“Fair warning, if any of you filthy men lay your hands on me, I can’t be blamed if fingers get broken,” she cautioned them.

“Uh oh,” said Kaede.

“Yeah, I wonder who’s gonna end up worse off: Tenko or them,” said Kaito.

“That’s not what I was saying ‘uh oh’ about.”

Kaito’s head snapped toward Kaede.

“I have the autopsy reports in my backpack,” Kaede whispered, shifting her shoulders to indicate that her prized backpack was still strapped to her. “If they catch us with them, we’re gonna be in big trouble. Big trouble.”

More than ‘big’. The word ‘prison’ came to mind, and 'trial', and 'no-space-mission-for-Kaito'. Kaito had an inkling that the Future Foundation wasn’t interested in fair trials given how they’d handled the whole Kokichi situation.

Before Kaito could mull on the implications of all the terrible, gruesome, awful things that could happen, he heard a piercing shriek come from the temple. Kaito was sitting at the far right of the door and had a vantage point so that he could peer inside. As the Future Foundation soldiers had penetrated the gate, the cultists had convened to present a united front before the temple steps. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Angie was on the steps behind them, rising above the crowd, while Tsumugi and Himiko were at the front. It was Tsumugi who had shrieked—and Kaito had never seen her embroiled with such undiluted anger, twisting her into something unrecognizable and thoroughly devilish.

“You...You dare encroach on Atua’s sacred grounds!” Tsumugi roared.

“My, my, my, what a terrible turn of events!” Angie bemoaned, even though she continued to smile and her voice lilted with cheer.

“For fuck’s sake, I don’t have time for this,” said Sakakura. “Ultimates, step forward and give yourselves up already. The rest of you get on your knees and put your hands on your heads.”

“We follow orders only from Atua,” Tsumugi growled. Peering over her shoulder, she asked Angie, “O Great and Wise Oracle, what is Atua’s bidding?”

“Hmm...let’s see.” Angie clapped her hands together. “Atua says...that we shall not surrender quietly!”

At her word, there was a great ruffling noise as the cultists reached into their robes, up their sleeves, into their pockets, and the glint of steel caused Kaito to squint and look away. When he looked back, he saw that each cultist had drawn out a weapon. Knives, swords, a few assault rifles and pistols, and even one petite woman shouldering a rocket launcher. Not even the soldiers were capable of reacting quickly enough to the sight of a few dozen cultists prepared to fight.

The sole person among the cultists who appeared to be uncomfortable with how things were going was Himiko, who was sweating and trembling so hard it was a wonder she didn’t turn into a little puddle then and there. She looked like a magician whose stage performance was going very, very badly.

Still shaking, Himiko thrust her arms into the air.

“I, the Ultimate Magician, Himiko Yumeno, thank you all for your attendance!” she called. “Alas, I must now leave you all, for the Netherworld calls me!”

What happened next occurred in the span of what must’ve been less than five seconds. Himiko reached into the sleeve of her black coat. A soldier called for her to freeze. She threw something on the ground. A puff of rainbow smoke erupted into the air, causing the nearest cultists to start coughing. Then, the ratta-tat-tat from an assault rifle, the unmistakable noise causing Kaito’s blood to run cold.

As the smoke dissipated, he expected to see Himiko’s corpse on the ground—dead and cold. But it had not been Himiko who was struck, for she had vanished as eloquently as a stage magician could. The bullets had instead hit a cultist who’d been standing behind her, and now lay on the ground. Whether he was dead or alive, Kaito couldn’t tell, nor did he think it mattered. He would be dead soon anyway, and the damage had been done as the crowd of cultist’s attention went from his twitching body to the perpetrators before them.

The soldiers couldn’t even get a single shot off before the cultists surged forward, and only then did they start firing. Kaito ducked down. He’d heard gunshots before, seen his friends in the line of fire, but emotionally, physically, and not just because of his turning stomach, this was more painful than anything else. Maki and Kirumi had been watching them, but with the outbreak of activity, and with Tenko currently resisting not too far away, their attention turned elsewhere.

“We need to get out of here,” Kaede said, voice shaking. “Gonta, get us out of these.”

“Gonta can’t break handcuffs,” said Gonta. “It would be rude.”

“If you don’t, we’re dead,” Kaede pointed out.

That got Gonta’s compliance. Without any further forethought, he snapped his handcuffs, then Rantaro's next to him. As he reached for Ryoma, the Ultimate Tennis Pro held out his arms to show that his hands had already slipped out.

“They never make these things big enough,” said Ryoma. “We should—”

“Wait a moment,” Rantaro hissed.

“On the contrary, hurry up and get me of these!” Kaito ordered.

In response, Rantaro held a finger to his lips and pointed with the other hand. There was uncharacteristic panic in its eyes, his pupils contracting to show as much of the green of his irises as possible.

Kaito did not like that look.

Against his better judgment, he followed Rantaro’s finger to see where he was pointing. And to his horror, to his absolute terror, what he was indicating was a lone man donning a Monokuma helmet marching down the centre of the street toward them. Unimpeded, nothing and no one stopped him as the soldiers were too occupied with the cultists, the cultists were too occupied with the soldiers, and there wasn’t anything Kaito could do to stop the situation from spiralling even further out of control.

It was then that Kaito Momota remembered what despair was.


 

Shuichi sat, slumped, in the armoured vehicle for a long time, staring at the alley where he’d last seen the flutter of Kokichi’s coat disappear. With each step, Kokichi drew further and further away, and with each unrepentant step he took, Shuichi became more and more convinced of his failure. He’d failed Kokichi. He’d failed DICE. And most, he selfishly thought, he’d failed himself.

What had he been thinking, clinging to the belief that somehow Kokichi would magically cooperate? He was too wanton, too damaged by the Tragedy—and any semblance of logic he had was clouded by emotional pain. Kokichi understood the reasons behind Shuichi’s actions. He just didn’t care. And Shuichi had failed to understand that, himself, thus driving the accused Remnant of Despair away. If Kokichi only popped back around the corner and announce that he’d seen the righteousness of Shuichi’s words, then somehow everything would be fixed. Shuichi would be vindicated.

But, as he slumped in his seat seat, vaguely aware of some commotion going on from the general direction of the temple, he realized that Kokichi was right. This had been about his own personal glory, about satisfying his incessant need to solve, rather than about helping someone. This had never been a problem he would’ve been able to fix, but because they'd said it was impossible, and because Shuichi thought he had something to prove, and because he thought he was the only one who could do it, he’d indulged his ego. He’d resorted to tactics that Munakata would be proud of—were he even remotely aware of the extent to which Shuichi had gone for his own sake, rather than Kokichi's.

It wasn’t right. It wasn’t what being a detective was about. It was supposed to be about finding the truth, not about himself. It should’ve been about vindicating Kokichi, and Shuichi felt that he’d lost sight of that somewhere along the line.

He let himself sink deeper into the seat, hoping that if he sunk low enough the fabric would envelope him and the noise outside would stop pop-pop-popping. It was beginning to sound rather like gunfire.

Shuichi shook himself out of his daze.

Once again, his own selfishness had stopped him from taking in what was going on around him. He squinted through the darkened bullet-proof glass to see flashes of light visible just over the temple wall.

He hurried out of the car so fast that he tripped over his own feet and landed face-first in the snow. He skidded to regain traction and slipped a second time. The third attempt was more successful, and he darted across the rear of the temple, not caring what or who was in his way.

Until a number of gunshots ran overhead, louder and more potent than before.

Startled, Shuichi instinctively pressed himself against the wall, holding his breath as the gunshots lasted for far-too-long and were all-too-loud. Why had he left the others?

“Mr Saihara? Mr Saihara!”

Shuichi flinched and whirled around to see his driver rounding the corner. The driver closed the distance between them and seized his arm.

“We need to leave, sir,” said the driver.

“I can’t!” Shuichi exclaimed, thinking of Kokichi and his friends and his unfinished business.

“I’m afraid that’s not an opt—”

With a jolt and a violent twist, the driver’s body arched back and collapsed in a heap, fresh blood running down his face from the bullet hole between his eyes.

The gunshot went off again, and Shuichi’s left ear bristled as the bullet whisked past him. He dove down, hands trembling as he instinctively rummaged through the driver’s pockets. Why was he doing this? He couldn’t remember why he wasn’t running for cover until his fingers closed around the cold metal of the car keys. In a single movement, he pulled them out, then braced his hand against the ground to give himself momentum to push forward.

With gunfire chasing him, Shuichi made it to the corner in time as bullets grazed over his head like an angry teacher reprimanding her class. A high pitched scream pierce the air nearby, and then was lost in the sound of conflict and fighting. Shuichi rounded the building, unsure of what exactly he hoped to accomplish, and only thinking that his classmates somewhere in the fray of an unknown conflict.

Before he even came close to the front of the temple, he saw soldiers gathered together in formation, assault rifles poised as they were forced backward. Of course, Shuichi had his suspicions as to who they were fighting—anyone from disgruntled civilians pushed to their limits to his classmates. But there was one possibility, one near-certainty, that filled him with dread and churned his stomach—and it was a possibility greater than all the others. He hoped to Atua that he wouldn’t inflict that on them, but as he drew closer, crouching low and one hand grazing over the wall to steady his balance, he already knew.

Shuichi barely had to peek around the corner before seeing a mass of armed people filled with Monokuma helmets.

Of course it was them.

All hell had broken lose, and Shuichi reckoned that Kokichi was responsible—indirectly, if not directly, as he usually was where these things were concerned. He watched, frozen, as everyone on all sides seemed to be fighting and no one seemed to know the reason why. The soldiers, barking orders and staying in formation. The Remnants, a scattered group of haphazard troops who made up for their lack of discipline with sheer numbers. The Prophets, who scattered with a panic that even Atua couldn’t contain. He saw Sakakura punching his way through the ranks of the Remnants, cracking their helmets, only for them to be easily replaced by another.

And he saw his classmates. From his position, he saw that some of them were taking to the front lines. He watched, helpless, as Maki sliced through the Remnants, arms and legs and heads sheering off with such velocity that blood barely spurted. He watched as Kirumi took up alongside her. Amed with a rapier, the two worked in remarkable tandem like a musical piece. Maki sliced, and Kirumi twirled around in a near-ballet like fashion, conducting her sword like a baton.

So much was happening, and it was so impossible to keep track of what was going on where and who was involved, that Shuichi couldn't bring himself to look away from the chaotic spectacle. The ground trembled with the sheer violence of the torrential noise, and—somewhere down the street—flashes of light betrayed that the Remnants weren’t just here. Somehow or other, as Remnants did, they were spreading.

In his panic, he searched for familiar faces—and found Kaito crouched by the temple gate. The Ultimate Astronaut’s gaze lingered on Maki, but he seemed to sense that he was being watched, and looked around to find Shuichi instead. His fear turned to relief, and then his eyes bulged out with fear once more as he gestured for him to come.

Shuichi scrambled to make it to the gate. A bright flash of light and a heart-pounding force of air hit him as an eruption of bright red light, intermingled with spurts of fiery yellow and orange, exploded from a building down the street.

Shit. They were tearing the place apart. They were tearing them apart.

He must’ve frozen on the spot, because Kaito hurried up, took his arm, and dragged him toward the temple. As they hurried inside, Shuichi tripped over a yellow cloak and—no. The cloak was attached to a body. He didn’t look at it for very long.

“—have you been?!” Kaito screamed. He must’ve said it more than twice by the frustration tearing his voice.

“W...What?” Shuichi blinked.

“I SAID,” Kaito hollered. “WHERE HAVE YOU—forget it. Tell me later!”

The temple courtyard was only marginally better than the outside. It didn’t look like the Remnants had managed to penetrate it, but the Future Foundation had. Shuichi’s blood rain cold when he saw the corpses of soldiers littering the ground alongside the yellow frocks.

He opened to mouth to ask what happened, even though the answer seemed obvious, but the words were wrenched out of his mouth as Kaito pulled him along. They tripped up the front steps and ducked into the sanctuary, where Kaede stood watch by the door. She was pale. Too pale. Her hand trembled as she shut the door behind them.

“Shuichi, where’ve you been?” Kaede asked.

“I was—” Shuichi started. He was interrupted by a rumble outside—either thunder or another explosion. Shuichi hoped for the former.

“We need to get out of here,” said Kaede. “Can we move Tenko?”

Shuichi turned and saw most of his classmates gathered in the back of the sanctuary. In the centre of the room, Angie knelt in a halo of light, with Tsumugi at her side, and a half-dozen Prophets in a semi-circle around them. Among the cultists was the girl with the tennis racket and ball, no longer hovering over Ryoma. Tenko sat on the ground, blood pouring down her left thigh and smacking away Rantaro’s hand.

“You need to put pressure on it,” Rantaro said.

“I can do it myself!” Tenko shrieked at him. “You just want to take advantage of me!”

“Is this really the time for your routine?” Rantaro asked. He looked up at Shuichi and Kaito’s approach. “Shuichi, where’ve you been?”

“I’m—” Shuichi started.

“We should leave,” Kaede pressed. “Tenko, can you walk?”

“I’ll manage,” said Tenko.

“If you move your leg around too much, the bullet could nick an artery,” said Rantaro.

“I said I’m fine!”

“Well, I don’t want you to bleed out.”

“Are you implying that girls bleed more than boys?!”

“...Well...technically...”

“Stop,” Ryoma intervened. “Just stop. We don’t need this right now. We should get Kokichi and get out of here before they reach the temple.”

“Before who reaches the temple?” Tenko asked. “The Remnants or the soldiers?”

“Either one is bad,” said Ryoma. He gave Shuichi a cursory glance. “Where’s Kokichi? I thought you might be with him.”

Shuichi inhaled, then said, “He...He left.”

The statement was greeted with silence. Rantaro darkened, his attention shifting to focus on Tenko’s injury. Ryoma’s eyes pressed shut, then opened again with renewed focus. Kaito flinched away from Shuichi, the surprise lingering for barely a second before lifting.

“...Good riddance,” said Kaito. Without hesitation, he turned to where Angie was kneeling. “C’mon, Angie, let’s go!”

“I cannot leave Atua’s sacred place,” Angie declared.

“Are you fucking serious?! You know Himiko already abandoned you, right?”

“You should pray with me—if we all pray loud enough, Atua will be able to hear us over this awful fighting,” Angie grinned. “O Great and Wise Atua! We call for aid in our time of need! Won’t you come down here and be a pal?”

“You...You idiot!” Kaito screamed. He stamped up to the praying group and flailed his arms comically. “Atua’s not coming! Atua’s not real! This whole thing is a fucking sham!”

“Unbelievers will face the wrath of Atua,” Tsumugi said simply.

Angie squeezed her eyes shut, then leapt to her feet all of a sudden. “Atua has spoken to me! We are to leave this place and establish a temple in a new location!”

“Good enough for me!” Kaito conceded.

Kaito started seizing the the knelt Prophets under their elbows and lifting them to their feet. The girl with the tennis racket took two steps before running back to collect it and the ball. Kaito ushered them to the back of the temple as fresh explosions, closer than before, caused the floor to tremble. Shuichi felt as though the Earth was trying to flip around on the wrong side.

“Everyone out back—GO!” Kaede ordered.

Kaede needn’t have shouted, because everyone swarmed to the back and out the rear exit, out into the garden. Shuichi watched the grand front entrance burst open, falling right off its hinges and slamming against the ground. He expected to see Remnants pouring in—their helmets catching the light from the rising fire blazing behind them. Instead, it was much worse—because Kirumi stood there instead.

“You will not leave!” Kirumi declared.

“Kirumi, this isn’t the time!” Shuichi exclaimed. “The Remnants are—”

Kirumi, whatever part of her was left, closed the distance in a flash that rivalled Maki’s speed. If not for a large hand pulling Shuichi out of the way, the tip of Kirumi’s rapier would’ve skewered him, as it did to the wall where he’d been standing seconds before. There was a long moment in which time slowed, and then she looked over her arm, gaze darker than he’d ever seen it.

“Traitors, all of you!” Kirumi yelled. “If you don’t give me Oma this instant, I will see to it that you all receive punishments just as severe as his!”

The statement stabbed him in the heart, and no sooner had it been spoken when the large hand that had grabbed him seized Kirumi’s rapier around the blade, and in one fell swoop sent her flying. Gonta’s massive presence couldn’t protect him from the raw anguish ripping at his face, like someone was cleaving his soul.

“Gonta sorry if he hurt you, K—Kirumi!” Gonta wailed, voice choking on tears.

He hadn’t. Kirumi rose to her feet as Gonta and Shuichi fled into the back courtyard.

The group huddled in the garden, pinned by the temple on one side and the wall on the other. Gonta let out a shout fraught with grief, and launched himself straight forward. There was barely time to scatter before his mass collided with against the wall with the same velocity of Kirumi’s controlled wrath. In a puff of grey smoke, a portion of the wall crumbled, the smoke filling the empty space. When it dissipated, Shuichi saw a massive scar where it had once been, opening into the street outside.

As the majority of the group wrestled their way out, Ryoma reached for the cult member still cradling a tennis ball and racket, looking thoroughly confused as to why she was there and what she was doing. He seized them both, and as Kirumi hurdled out of the back door, Ryoma tossed the ball into the air.

For a suspended moment, Shuichi watched with fascination as Kirumi froze, her attention trained on the tennis ball like a transfixed spectator.

Shuichi knew what was coming. He covered his ears.

He was glad he did because when Ryoma’s newly-acquired racket hit the ball, it did so with such force that it emanated a low shockwave emanated, vibrating through Shuichi’s body. The wall trembled, threatening to crack further under the force, and the world went silent. When sound resumed, Shuichi saw Ryoma reaching up to catch the ball out of the air. It had moved so fast that he hadn’t even registered movement from it, and yet true to the form the Ultimate Tennis Pro, it had hit its target and returned to him in an instant.

In the doorway, Kirumi lay flat on her back, sprawled like Evelyn McHale in her postmortem immortality. Shuichi didn’t care to try to get close, his arms and legs going numb with dread.

Flashes of information popped in front of him like an out-of-control projector. Tennis ball sized holes in the heads. The short, inconspicuous Ryoma Hoshi at the centre of it all.

“Did...Did you kill her?!” asked Shuichi.

“Of course not,” Ryoma said. “I didn’t hit nearly hard enough for that—just to give her a bit of a headache when she wakes up. Let’s go—those fires are spreading fast.”

Shuichi had been so engrossed in the fighting, so struck with concern for his classmates, that he hadn’t noticed the flashes of red growing stronger and stronger somewhere on the street over. The reek of burning wood choked the air, and light flicks of embers—as many floating above them as there were stars in the sky—flitted above. Shuichi recalled the small fire he’d seen before entering the temple, and it was impossible to imagine that such a blaze could grow out of control that quickly.

He gathered with the others out in the street and no sooner were they out when Angie started skipping away, her followers followed, including Tsumugi. The glitter tangled in her hair now trailed behind her, marking her path.

“Angie, Tsumugi—wait!” Shuichi called after her. “We can take that truck! I have the keys!”

“No thanks, Shuichi!” Angie waved, not looking back at him. “Atua is guiding my path, and he says to go this way.”

“But it’s faster in the truck!”

“No need, no need. Goodbye, all! If Atua wills it, we will all meet again!”

“But Angie—”

The ground jolted beneath them. Those of them that remained looked over their shoulder to see a great plume of red intermingled with stark black smoke gathering together to create a great fireball. Like a god rising from the underworld, it flew up from the street over, searing the air, and striking Shuichi’s face with a great heat that he feared would turn him to ashes where he stood.

Despite everything, he still clutched the car keys in his hand, so tightly that the teeth left imprints on his hand as Rantaro pried them out.

“Kaito, you know how to drive, right?” Rantaro asked.

“Um...yeah?” Kaito said.

“Then do it and get us out of here,” Rantaro tossed the keys over to Kaito, who fumbled with them.

“W—What about Angie, Tsumugi, their friends?” Gonta asked.

“Yeah, we can’t leave them out here!” Tenko argued.

“There no time and no room for them anyway,” Rantaro pointed out, his voice smooth and rational. “We’ll have to hope that they can get far enough away on their own. Everyone in!”

Shuichi sagged with relief that someone else was giving orders and had a better idea than standing around in a stupor. Shuichi piled into the front passenger seat where, not too long ago, he’d sat with Kokichi kicking and beating the driving wheel like it was his worst enemy. Only now, his classmates were with him, with Gonta barely managing to squeeze his bulk into the back, along with Tenko, Ryoma, Kaede, and Rantaro. Kaito took the driver’s seat, his hands shaking as he grabbed the wheel.

“Kaito, go!” Rantaro ordered.

“I’m going, I’m going—sheesh, I haven’t done this in a while, okay?!” Kaito barked back.

Kaito turned the key, and with a roar the engine came to life, and with a squeal of the tires, the vehicle jerked forward. Shuichi fumbled with the seatbelt, then was pinned against the seat entirely as Kaito slammed on the gas pedal. Suddenly, the temple veered past them, and was just an imprint in the side view mirror, flames licking the rooftop on the building next to it.

As they sped away, Shuichi watched with simultaneous relief and horror as a figure—Kirumi’s figure, for who else would dare to wear a skirt like that in this environment—hurried out and stood, frozen, in the street as they sped away.

Even though Kirumi was the enemy, Shuichi felt like he was abandoning a friend. He looked away and instead watched the embers plaster the windshield.


 

The fire burned.

A steady figure limped down a dimly-lit street, the heel on one shoe broken, the other in tact but threatening to buckle. That didn’t dissuade Kirumi Tojo.

Out of breath and dragging her rapier, Kirumi paused in the shelter of an alleyway to catch her breath, despite the smell of smoke burning her nostrils. After the fighting had dissipated somewhat, overcome by the fire, she’d fled on foot. Kirumi only knew of one Future Foundation outpost located within walking distance of the neighbourhood, and she wasn’t sure how long she could risk staying put. On the way, she'd seen civilians running—fleeing for their lives, and some standing in the streets completely confused, and others screaming from the buildings. Kirumi hadn't stopped for any of them, because there was work yet to do, and there was little she could've done to help anyway.

For the moment, she was safe—despite the bruises and cuts and the despondent feeling of overwhelming failure crashing over her. The flames may as well have consumed her, for all the self-loathing, depreciating frustration settling in her soul.

Kirumi took a breath. She couldn’t lose composure. She’d done that once already and hated herself for it—for threatening execution on her classmates. Her former friends. The people she was supposed to protect, and yet expected to sacrifice for the greater good. No matter how hard she willed it, she wasn’t able to transport back in time to let some other insult slip past her tongue.

Kirumi looked at her gloved hands, the fabric black and intricately embroidered. This was the sacrifice she made, she reminded herself. For the greater good.

With noise swirling in her head, Kirumi almost missed the sound of approaching footsteps. Quick. Too panicked to try to conceal themselves. She peered around the corner of the alley and saw a welcome presence—Maki. Maki skidded to a halt. She must’ve been on the lookout for Kirumi because she beelined right for her.

“There you are,” said Kirumi. “It is good to see that you escaped the worst of it. We had best report to the outpost before they mark us as missing in action.”

Maki wavered on the spot and took a step back, her presence expanding with surprise. Then she composed herself.

“Of course,” Maki nodded curtly.

Kirumi took a step, wobbled on her nearly-broken shoes, and then lead the way to the next street over.

“Did you see what happened to Sakakura?” Kirumi asked.

“No, I lost sight of him,” said Maki.

“...That is unfortunate.”

"He's tough. He'll be fine."

"That is even more unfortunate."

“...Kirumi, about the others—” Maki started.

“They escaped, if you are worried about that,” Kirumi imparted. “Though they will not taste freedom for long if I have anything to say about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean to set the entire Future Foundation on them if possible. It’s clear now that Kokichi has either coerced them into protecting him, or they are protecting him of their own free will. I do not know which is the worse implication. Regardless, our former classmates will be made examples of.”

Maki was quiet behind her.

“Do you have any protests?” Kirumi asked.

“...No,” Maki said.

They walked along for a few more minutes and around the street corner, when Kirumi saw white floodlights illuminated a closed-off area ahead. Her shoulders sagged with relief. Safe at last, for whatever that counted for. She picked up pace. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Maki with her gaze downcast.

“Do you have any injuries?” Kirumi asked.

“No,” Maki answered. After a pause, she asked back, “You?”

“...Nothing that I haven’t felt thousands of times before.”

As they approached the checkpoint, several armed guards raised their weapons, clearly tense at their sudden approach. However, they were only raised for a moment before they seemed to recognize them.

“Kirumi Tojo?” one soldier asked.

“Yes,” Kirumi confirmed.

“You should hurry inside, ma’am,” the soldier said after checking both her and Maki’s identification. “We’re on high alert and preparing to evacuate if needed.”

“Understood. Where is your commanding officer? I need to contact headquarters.”

The soldier indicated an abandoned storefront repurposed as their command post. As Kirumi and Maki walked there, several soldiers and agents skirted around with ferocity, intent, and fear defining their every move. Word of the attack must’ve already reached them—not that Kirumi was surprised by the quick communication. If anything, she wished it wasn’t so fast.

At the command post, she checked in with a commander far-too-young to be dealing with this kind of shit, who looked at the two Ultimates in undiluted amazement to be in the presence of such valuable Future Foundation agents, and who was all too eager to contact headquarters on Kirumi’s behalf. While she did that, Kirumi took a moment to stand outside in the sort-of-fresh-air-with-an-ominous-side-of-burnt-flesh, Maki with her the whole time. All the while, the Ultimate Assassin stared at the ground and didn’t make eye contact.

After a long silence between them, Kirumi asked, “Why were you in the temple?”

Maki pressed her lips together in the way she did when concealing deep-rooted emotion. “I got a letter from Kaito. At least, I thought I did. I think Oma might’ve forged his handwriting to lure me away from my post.”

Kirumi steadied herself and closed her eyes. “You should have known better.”

“I know,” Maki agreed.

“I had believed that you were no longer concerned with Kaito.”

“I thought so too.”

“Will this be a problem?”

“No.”

“...I no longer need your services, Maki. You are free to return to your duties if needed.”

Maki shook her head. “This is my duty.”

A hesitant voice piped up saying, “Um...Miss Tojo?”

Kirumi looked up. She couldn’t be especially presentable right now—not with a singed clothes and hair, not with her failure. Still, she steeled herself as she always did. Peering out of the entrance into the command post, the young commander looked at the two Ultimates questioningly and held onto a cellphone.

“Mr Munakata, ma’am,” the agent said. She handed Kirumi the phone.

...Oh.

“Thank you,” Kirumi nodded. “Please excuse us.”

The commander gone, Kirumi inhaled deeply, composing herself.

“This is Tojo,” Kirumi said into the phone.

There was dead silence. And then, in a low, growl of a voice, “Explain yourself."

“...Surely you have already received preliminary reports. You already know what happened."

“Then say it,” said Munakata.

Kirumi paused, and conceded, “The Remnants of Despair attacked, sir.”

“I see. Presumably to help their comrade?”

“Presumably, sir.”

“And Oma?”

“...I do not know his current location, sir.”

“I see.”

Munakata didn’t have to shout to make his boiling clear. It carried over his voice, tight and fiery. Kirumi curled her free hand into a fist.

“If not for your exceptional incompetence, this Oma problem would’ve already been dealt with. But now a section of the city is on fire and we barely have the resources to try to fight it. Do you know what that means, Tojo? It means a growing body count for the Remnants of Despair, of both our people and the civilians we’re trying to protect.”

“With all due respect, sir, I was under orders to respect Oma’s sanctuary at the temple,” Kirumi pointed out.

“I also said that Oma would try to leave given his dislike of staying confined. You were supposed to be prepared for that. And you. Were. Not."

Kirumi held the phone away from her ear. She’d hoped that the reprimand would stay between them, but judging by Maki’s tense face and her fist she dug into her check, the exchange had not been private.

“...I apologize,” Kirumi said curtly.

“Your apology is useless!” Munakata yelled. “And why the hell would you let Saihara into that temple?”

“...Saihara...?”

“Yes, Shuichi Saihara! The nosy little petulant so-called Ultimate Detective who you let waltz in and out of that temple while Oma was still inside! You gave explicit orders to the guards not to impede him!”

“How did you—?”

“You thought I wouldn’t find out? Do you think I’m stupid?”

“No, sir—Saihara wanted to have access to—”

“Explain to me why Saihara was let anywhere near that temple.”

“I—”

“It’s because you were soft on him, Tojo. Just like you’re soft on all of your former classmates from Hope’s Peak. Enoshima was a student too, remember. If Enoshima had been your classmate, would you have let her do whatever she want because you were friendly?”

“Of course not, sir. But might I point out that Sakakura never—”

“If you have the nerve to try to pin this on Sakakura, then I may as well have you hung right now. I promise you that I’ll be exchanging words with Sakakura, but you were both equally responsible for Oma’s capture and thus are equally responsible for the people who are dead and dying because of your sentiments toward your former classmates. For all you know, Saihara was complacent in Oma’s escape and this entire fiasco.”

“I do not believe that to be the case, sir.”

“And what is your flawless reasoning behind that belief, Tojo? And it had better be a damn good one.”

“It...It is because I believe in Saihara, sir. I do not believe he would be willing to aid in Oma’s escape.”

Silence. Then, “Tojo, I am baffled by your complete idiocy. I didn't know you were capable of this level of stupid. I'm used to it from a few certain subordinates, but I certainly didn't expect it from you.”

“My apologies, Mr Munakata,” said Tojo. “Your disappointment is understandable. I have failed in my duties.”

“You’ve done more than fail,” Munakata grumbled. With a sigh, he asked, “Where’s Saihara now?”

“He fled the temple with the other members of the 79th class when it started to burn.”

“Unsurprising. And the cultists?”

“They resisted. Some were killed, but I do not know the fate of others.”

“...It looks like Kirigiri will have her PR nightmare, but at least they shouldn’t be a problem anymore,” he murmured. “If the members of the 79th class fled, they must’ve taken Oma with them. That makes them fugitives and criminals for harbouring a Remnant of Despair—they may have turned already. This is no longer a ‘quiet’ matter. I’ll have public notices distributed in the other safe neighbourhoods in the city to be on the lookout for them, and have them captured alive, if possible.”

“I understand, sir. I will see to it that it is done.”

“Oh, no, Tojo. You don’t have to worry about this anymore. You’re fired.”

Tojo blinked. She realized that she was staring blankly at Maki, because Maki blinked back.

“But...this was my case,” Tojo said.

“This was never ‘your’ case, Tojo. This was Oma’s, and thanks to you he now has free run of the city. Either way you’re lucky that I don’t throw you out of the Future Foundation altogether, but as it happens, on a symbolic level you’re too valuable to let go. Report back to headquarters immediately, and I’ll have you assigned to someplace where our former Prime Minister can busy herself with political jargon without a whole lot of risk involved. Does Antartica sound like a fun assignment to you?”

Without looking away from Maki, Tojo said, “Buckets full, sir.”

“That’s the spirit,” Munakata said with the greatest level of sarcasm she’d ever heard him use. “It was nice doing business with you, Tojo. May all your future endeavours be as successful as this one.”

He hung up with a click.

Tojo stared at the cellphone blankly, completely unsure of what to make with it. She had the impression that Munakata had thoroughly enjoyed doing that.

She threw the phone on the ground and stamped on it with her heel.

“Good news, I take it,” said Maki.

Tojo took a minute to find her voice. Kokichi. Kokichi was behind this. Kokichi was the one who’d turned to despair. Oma was the one who’d killed the Reserve Course students. Kokichi was the one who’d sunk his teeth into her classmates.

And Kokichi was the one who was going to pay.

In her frenzied anger, she thought of all the things she wanted to do but technically knew she couldn’t. She imagined taking her time with Kokichi’s death, tearing him apart until he begged for mercy. She imagined dragging him to Munakata—and what an image it was, to have him concede defeat. No longer was this a simple case of a loose Remnant—not that it had ever been. No. It had never been that simple.

There was no turning back now. Kirumi had to finish what she started.

“I’m deserting,” said Kirumi.

“I...what?” Maki gawked at her.

“...At least...for now I’m deserting,” Kirumi clarified. “I do not plan for it to be a permanent situation. Oma’s on the run and he’s with our classmates. Munakata would see me removed from the case and transferred to some far-off place where he believes I won’t be any trouble. But I’m not about to let Oma win. I’m not about to let him manipulate our classmates. So I’m going after him. And I’m going to drag him back to Munakata in chains to see to it that he pays for what he’s done.”

“B—But how will you do that? I mean, you won’t have any Future Foundation resources!”

“I don’t need them,” Kirumi declared. She glanced away from Maki, then back at her. “You should return to the Future Foundation if you do not want to be involved. If so, I only ask that you deliver the message to Munakata that he can discipline me when I’ve personally recaptured Oma and freed our classmates from his influence.”

“I’m coming with you,” Maki decided then and there.

“I won’t ask you to do that.”

“I’m coming with you,” Maki repeated, more firmly. “You’re going to need all the help you can get, and Oma’s slippery. He won’t go quietly.”

Kirumi let herself steal a brief smile, but she didn’t let her keep it for long.

If she let emotion get in the way, then Oma would only escape again. It wouldn’t happen a second time.

Chapter Text

Kokichi's head rang like the full arsenal of Notre Dame was singing to him. And it wasn't a grand, epic overture of bells. It was a dirge.

He clamped down, body twitching uncontrollably. There was no coordination, no ability to move—not even the ability to scream. The pavement was cold, and his cheek pressed into wet snow. Despite that, he felt warm all over. Boiling, actually. A bath in a pit of lava would be a cool dip in a pond compared to how hot he felt right now. If not for the fact that the entire right side of his body had decided to no longer function, he would strip himself of his clothes and not care who stared.

That sentiment, that way of thinking, was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place.

Each breath was agony, each inhale like Peko was stabbing him again and again and again. Blinded by panic and pain, Kokichi forced a state of strange tranquillity. He was alone, and he was bleeding, and he was going to die— but no big deal. Acceptance dowsed alarm, and he thought of the DICE members, noting that dying by a simple stab wound wasn’t as torturous compared to what they had been through. This. This was a walk in the park. Yeah. He would get a little dizzy, let the blood loss overtake him, and then he’d be gone. Done. A speck. A blot in human history, dying forgotten.

It was comforting.

If he was going to die, he didn’t want to do it looking at the ground. He wanted to look at the stars, and remember the good times, and remember when he and DICE had been innocent.

Rolling over was an arduous task that took far too long to accomplish. Lacking strength and will, Kokichi pressed his left hand into the snow and hoisted himself onto his side. Had he the strength, he was sure he would’ve unleashed the most guttural, animalistic scream he could manage. But as it happened, the most he was able to manage was a grunt and a vague whine of raw pain. He meant to try to throw himself onto his back, but it took enough to get onto his side, and from here he could peer up to the sky. It would do.

Of course, it was just his luck that there weren’t any stars visible. Had the sky been clear earlier? His mind was muggy with the details. Kokichi listened for the cultist’s fireworks, hoping that they would give him a bit of direction and illumination.

Instead, he saw a murky orange glow, and as he stared, he could make out the shapes of thick, black clouds that turned invisible with the night.

He remembered the Remnants. The Remnants who had said something about spreading despair and paying the temple a visit.

“Fuck,” he hissed. He smelt the fire, now, heavy in his nostrils. The flames couldn’t be far.

Kokichi had seen fires spread at inhuman speeds, and this couldn’t be different. Images of Shuichi sitting in the driver’s seat beside him, framed by the fireworks, flashed in front of him. Given how the Remnants dealt with anyone who crossed their paths, the Ultimate Detective was dead by now. Kokichi had probably been the last person to ever speak with him before his life snuffed out.

With guilt threatened to overwhelm him, Kokichi swallowed it back down. It got caught in his throat for a moment—like the Grinch trying to shove himself down a too-small chimney—and then down it went. What was more blood on his hands?

He closed his eyes, both resigned and restless. He was exhausted and yet couldn't fall asleep. It shouldn't take long. All he had to do was wait and he could die.

And then someone stepped on him.

Of course, getting stepped on in his condition was the equivalent of getting run over by a combine harvester. Kokichi let out a strangled yelp, and a second one when the owner of the foot tripped and landed right on top of him.

“Ow,” a small voice said. A familiar voice.

“H...Himiko?” he gasped.

Kokichi craned his head enough to see Himiko lying flat on his back, her head just over his shoulder. She was covered in a fine dusting of rainbow dust mixed with snoot, eyes watering. She sneezed.

“Um...why are you lying on the ground?” Himiko asked, wiping her nose.

“Why did you step on me?!” Kokichi snapped.

“Geez, I didn’t see you, okay?” Himiko said. “I was busy running away.”

“Doesn’t your precious temple need you?”

“Oh, I’m—I'm sure they’re fine.”

Himiko pushed off and Kokichi hoped that she would be on her merry way, happily leaving him to die in peace. But as she rose, she stopped short and unleashed a shrill scream. It was easy to see why. During the fall, her robe had fallen open, revealing a school uniform underneath, and a stark white blouse. Except the blouse now had a smattering of fresh blood over it from where she'd landed on his injury.

“B—Blood!” Himiko shrieked. “You’re bleeding!”

“That’s not blood,” said Kokichi. “It’s ketchup.”

“It’s—It’s everywhere!”

“Yeah, in retrospect a ketchup sandwich wasn’t my brightest idea.”

She shrieked again.

“Will you stop it?” he chastised her. “Trying to die here. You’re making it more unpleasant.”

“D—Die?!” Himiko exclaimed. “You’re dying?!”

“No, Himiko, this really is ketchup and I was totally telling the truth right now—yes, I’m dying! And doing a very good job of it, so how about you give a guy some space and get out of here!”
 
“Y—You can’t die!”

“Oh, yeah?! Watch me!” He rolled his eyes into the back of his head and stuck his tongue out.

“You can’t die!” Himiko reiterated. She seized her hair, as red as the flames, and tugged on it fruitlessly. “T—They think my friends are harbouring you! You need to tell them they’re not!”

“Why the hell would I do that? Besides, we both know that’s a lie. Also, if you’re here and the others aren’t, then you must’ve abandoned your so-called ‘friends’.”

“I panicked, okay?! Stop judging me!”

“Fine, I’ll stop judging you if you go away.”

When there was no answer, nor did he hear her footsteps in retreat, Kokichi arched his head up enough to see her quivering ankles.

“I...don't need help!” Kokichi strained.

To emphasize his point, he fumbled with his non-paralyzed hand to grab at anything within reach—and found a pop can lying discarded in the alley. He threw it as hard with as much strength as she had left, only she easily dodged the attack. Her saucer-like eyes, watery and warm, trained on him, but she did not see him.

“Go away!” Kokichi shouted. “I don’t need help and I as sure as hell don’t need it from some half-baked stage magician! Your tricks couldn’t fool a toddler, you know that?! They couldn’t fool anyone! So get the fuck away!”

Strength spent, he collapsed with a thud. Sadly, the impact of his forehead against pavement didn’t knock him unconscious, only made him feel dazed and defeated.

 The choice hung far above them, far higher than the flames or the clouds or the height of Future Foundation influence—far higher than even Atua could go. But Kokichi knew, Kokichi dreaded, the instant Himiko’s trembling ankle stepped forward, and then the other, each a weary wade into treacherous and ever-deepening floodwaters. The warmth of her hands slid across the back of his neck, pulling off his hood, then travelled to his injury.

“I...I won’t let you die,” Himiko decided. “I won’t!”

“What’re you gonna do, magic this away?” Kokichi asked. “Use your Atua healing powers to fix everything? Y’know, while you’re wasting time here, that fire seems to be getting closer.”

“S—Shut up, I’m trying to concentrate here!”

Himiko ripped off a portion of her black cloak, bunched it up, and pressed it against the wound. The contact was like being jabbed with red-hot needles, and Kokichi couldn’t quite swallow the pain that wanted to so desperately escape from the cause. So he let out a choked yelp. Himiko screeched, hands retracting.

“Ngh, I don’t wanna do this!” Himiko bemoaned.

“You do want to do it, you don’t want to do it—make up your mind before we’re both burn to death,” said Kokichi.

“What do I do?!”

“Hey, you didn’t listen to my suggestions. Don’t complain to me when things don’t go your way.”

Himiko pressed the makeshift bandage against the wound, glancing over her shoulder. In what was the first show of clarity he’d gotten from her, she ripped off the hem of her cloak and—very clumsily, and with a lot of resistance on Kokichi’s part—tied it around his waist, securing the bandage over the wound. It wouldn’t do, nor did Kokichi think it stemmed the threat of blood loss to take him away, but it was nevertheless a surprisingly astute idea coming from her.

Kokichi made himself a dead weight as Himiko finished the makeshift bandage and hooked her hands under his armpits. She pulled with all her might, her body quaking with the effort of hoisting him up.

“I’m not gonna make this easy,” said Kokichi.

“Doesn’t...matter,” Himiko strained. “I cast a magic spell to make you as light as a feather.”

“Sure you did, because magic solves all your problems, doesn’t it?”

Strangely, the taunt didn’t dissuade Himiko, nor did it stop her from hoisting him up and wrapping his arm around her shoulders. With her supporting most of his weight, he hung limply from her, his feet grazing the ground. It put him in the position where he was forced to bear some of his own weight or else split open his skull on the ground. And like a puppet controlled by too-tight strings, he inched forward as Himiko struggled to walk.

And every step was agony, a fresh wave of renewed torture. And even though he knew they had to run, that they couldn’t stay here, that they risked turning to ashes, with the overhanging risk of the Remnants watching his every move, there was no stopping him. There was no stopping Himiko. As she walked, she gained more confidence, more certain with her decision, and dragged him along. Not even the Remnants themselves could hope to stop her.

They limped through the alley and into the street, their movement impeded by Kokichi's immeasurable pain on top of the fleeing people. People rushed by, twisted with panic, some screaming, others silenced. Regardless, no one protested, not sparing them a passing glance as they made their escape.

As they tried to cross the street to make their way away out of the neighbourhood, a panicked woman slammed into them, nearly knocking Kokichi out of her arms. What should have been a casual jostle sent fresh tempers of tooth-numbing pain all through him. He grit his teeth, blinded. His vision turned white, and when he came to, they were on the other side of the street and he was leaning against the wall.

"Are you okay?" Himiko asked.

Kokichi didn't answer the question, giving her a violent shove in a last-ditch effort to make her leave. She didn't.

They took a minute to let him recuperate, and then they were off again. Kokichi glanced behind them to see how far the flames were, and instead saw a trail of blood following their trek like a grim footpath.

Ace would be proud of him for still being on his feet.

The further they went, the fewer people they encountered, either because most had already fled, or had been overcome by the smoke and flames. The edges of his vision blurred, and the sheer heat forced them down unfamiliar corridors. Nothing impeded them except the embers, and Kokichi kept his vision trained on the ground, letting Himiko do the guiding.

Disorientation. He lost his sense of direction. Nothing looked familiar anymore. Why were they going this way again?

Here he was—in his confusion, in his haste—all colour and sound blended together and unconsciousness threatened to take him over again. And then a light—a glorious, blinding light. Whether it was the fire, the afterlife rushing toward him, or the last neurons in his brain firing off before he was smothered forever, Kokichi didn’t care. As long as it relieved him of his problems.

“Stay awake,” Himiko said, delivering a violent nudge to his ribs. “I could drop you if you don’t stay awake!”

“Where the hell do you plan to go, anyway?” Kokichi said, voice strained and quiet. “Where the hell can you go in this wasteland?”

“Anywhere where you can’t die,” Himiko snapped.

“Why so determined to save me? Seems a lot of people’s troubles would go away if I died.”

“I need you to tell the Future Foundation that my friends aren’t Remnants.”

“D’ya think they’d care what I’d have to say? If they think that your friends are Remnants, then they’ve already made up their mind. There’s no changing it.”

“Says you!”

Himiko paused. The heat from the flames penetrated the winter, confusing Kokichi’s senses. He was both swelteringly warm and bitterly cold at the same time, the tips of his fingers and toes going numb.

“Don’t die,” Himiko hissed, more to herself than to Kokichi. “Don’t die yet. You can’t die yet. You’re not allowed.”

“Leave me alone already,” said Kokichi. “Where the hell are you gonna find a doctor anyway? This hole in my back isn’t gonna magic itself away no matter how many spells you cast.”

Though his vision blurred, Himiko was in razor-sharp focus when the light returned to her childlike eyes.

“I know a guy,” said Himiko.

“Do you now?” Kokichi droned.

“I know a guy,” she affirmed. “He can fix this.”

“No, he can’t.”

“Yes, he can.”

“No, he can’t.”

“Yes, he can!”

Kokichi smiled coyly. “...Yes, he can.”

“No, he can’t!” Himiko blinked. “Y—You did that on purpose. Stop confusing me!”

“Please, I don’t even have to try very hard. You’re doing fine on your own.”

“Shut up before—before I curse you!”

“Oh, I’m trembling in my boots here.”

“If you’re not gonna be helpful, then why don’t you pass out already?!”

Kokichi considered the suggestion. Darkness encroached.

“Good idea,” he said.

His body lost the will to support himself and he collapsed, crushing Himiko beneath him. She flailed, a helpless witness to his demise. Admittedly, this wasn’t his ideal situation for death.

“Wait—I didn’t mean that literally!” Himiko exclaimed, her voice fading.

Then nothing.


 

Shuichi clutched his seat with white-knuckle strength. Despite the seatbelt, he felt like he was being thrown around the truck, losing his security and sense of control. Whatever control he’d had, he reckoned that he’d left it behind at the temple. Because there was nothing left on the outside except wasteland and the threat of the fire or the Remnants or both catching up to them, and Shuichi didn’t care where they went, as long as it was somewhere else.

For a long while, after they managed to get past the worst of the fleeing refugees and fighting, there was silence in the vehicle, interspersed only by a particularly bumpy ride as Kaito drove through the rubble-covered streets. Too often did Kaito have to slam on the breaks and take a detour around a collapsed building or a particularly stubborn piece of rubble that even Future Foundation’s greatest technologies couldn’t hope to move. In the back, Shuichi watched Kaede bound Tenko’s leg injury, doing her best not to jostle it too much. All they could do was to keep it steady until—if—they found a doctor.

In the silence, Shuichi met Rantaro’s striking green eyes, and though nothing was said, the meaning in them was clear. Shock, disappointment, fear for the future and for himself, and fear for their friends.

“I think we got past the worst of it,” Rantaro spoke up finally. “Kaito, pull over. Let’s take a break.”

Kaito obliged, swearing profusely at the non-existent traffic as the vehicle shuddered to a stop. He kept the engine idling and collapsed in his seat, beads of sweat visible on his face.

“Shit,” said Kaito. “Shit.”

“Tenko needs a female doctor,” said Rantaro, emphasizing ‘female’ while giving Tenko a side glance.

“I don’t know if it’s safe to head to one of the other safe zones,” Shuichi admitted. “The Future Foundation will be looking for us.”

“But we not do anything!” Gonta argued. He was crammed into the back seat and could barely fit in the car, his massive shoulders taking up most of the room.

“I know that, but...from the way things went down, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve come to the conclusion that we’re allied with the Remnants of Despair. Good intentions or not, we harboured Kokichi. I harboured Kokichi. It was my fault...and I’m sorry I dragged you guys into my mess.”

“We all agreed to do it,” Kaede assured him.

“It was a majority vote and some of us were talked into it,” Tenko pointed out.

“Hate to say it, but Shuichi’s got a point,” Ryoma agreed. Having lost a candy cigarette somewhere in the mess, he patted down his jacket and pulled out a fresh one. “We were on shaky ground with them already. If they don’t conclude that we’re working with or for Kokichi, then they’ll want to take us in for questioning.”

“That means prison,” Tenko spat. “I told you! I told you all that we shouldn’t shelter a filthy boy—and now look at what happened!”

Kaede sighed. “Let’s not linger on it. Kokichi’s gone—and I don’t think he’s coming back.”

“He was the smart one,” Ryoma mused. “We all should’ve run while we still could.”

“Well, we’re running now,” said Kaede. “Looks like we’ll have to go to the other place. It’s the best we got right now and it should be safe there.”

“The other place?” Shuichi asked.

“Yeah, we have a backup place,” Kaede admitted. “It’s near another neighbourhood, but it’s not run by the Future Foundation. It’s civilian.”

Shuichi tensed. “That means it’s lawless.”

“Sort of. We never thought we’d actually have to go there.”

“We don’t have much of a choice at this point,” said Rantaro. “Believe it or not, being in a ‘lawless’ place is probably ideal while we decide what we should do. The Future Foundation will have a harder time tracking us down and we can blend in with the crowd.”

“I don’t think you can blend with that,” Tenko said, indicating Gonta. Then she pointed at Rantaro. “Or that!”

“Why me?” Rantaro asked. “I'm inconspicuous."

“You have green hair!"

A distant rumble roared up, like ominous thunder bearing over the city. They fell silent, heads turning to look out the left side of the car. Though it was impossible to see the cause of the noise, a red glow peering over the rooftops told Shuichi all he needed to know.

They were all drawn in, and they were all frozen, and they were all gripped with the identical fear of being caught in a firestorm.

Shuichi swivelled in his seat to address Kaede. “Your hideout—are you sure it’s safe?”

“Positive,” Kaede affirmed. “There’s no way anyone will be able to find us.”

Shuichi hoped she was right when he said, “Then let’s go. It can’t be any more dangerous than what’s out here right now.”

There was a collective sigh of relief as everyone seemed pleased that someone had made the decision. Kaito spurred the vehicle into action and it jostled across the road, off into the deserted streets.

What should’ve been a quick drive pre-Tragedy took more like three hours, all through the night and into the early hours of the morning. Of course, it was hard to tell the passage of time—with the fresh blames came a blanket of smoke, heavy and hot over the city, and Shuichi was fairly certain that even if the sun had risen, it would be concealed. They didn’t dare stop and rest again, lest the firestorm or the Remnants or the Future Foundation or some-other-monstrosity caught up to them. It was better to be exhausted and on the move than rested and idle.

They encountered no one—the fighting having moved on to some other part of the city. The only inklings of life came from panicked civilians skirting out of sight when they saw the vehicle rumbling along. Shuichi didn’t blame them for the caution, not with the stench of smoke on the wind.

But none of it comforted Shuichi, and it didn’t comfort him to know that they were lugging on to a ‘safe place’, because nothing was sacred anymore. Moreover, every time he shut his eyes, he saw Kokichi hurry around the corner and disappear from his life.

He’d failed Kokichi. He wouldn’t fail his friends.

He must’ve fallen asleep at some point because all of a sudden there was a jolt and his surroundings had changed—morphed to another section of the city’s endless labyrinth. Kaede leaned forward between the two front seats, a city map sprawled out on the dashboard. Kaito’s teeth clenched so hard that it was a wonder they didn’t pop out of his jaw.

“This is it, isn’t it?” Kaito asked.

“I think so,” said Kaede. “Things look so much different than when we were last here. I just hope it hasn’t been overrun or that there aren’t some weirdos living there.”

“I’m sure if there are we can politely ask them to leave,” said Kaito.

“Park at the end of the street, not in front of the building,” said Rantaro. “We walk from here.”

“Where exactly is this place again?” Shuichi asked.

“It used to be an apartment building,” Kaede answered, shimmying back into her seat and nudging a dozing Tenko awake.

Smart. Bunking down in a apartment building was considerably safer than a smaller building. Their presence would be easier to conceal as they would be able to move about without an outside observer taking notice. Looking out, Shuichi saw high buildings towering over them. It was a double-edged sword: tall buildings and many floors meant many places to hide, but also just as many places to observe. There could be eyes all around them.

But no one else seemed concerned about this possibility as they piled out of the car in a heap, abandoning the vehicle in a side alley so it was not directly in sight. Despite her injury, Tenko scouted the path to the building and, reporting back that all was clear, they made a quiet and cautious trek to shelter. The only thing they took with them from the car were a pair of flashlights they found under the seats.

The building was abandoned when they entered, with looters having combed over the place long before their arrival. They entered through a hole that had ripped open the entry, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the building. Other than that, it seemed to be structurally sound, and they were able to climb the stairs to the top floor.

There, the stairwell opened into a long hallway, deserted.

"Are you sure this is safe?" Shuichi asked.

"I'll check the place out," Tenko said, ignoring him.

"Don't take any risks," Kaede told her.

"Whatever."

Tenko took the lead, in a ready position to attack any threats, though it was clear with a cursory glance that there wasn't anyone present. She moved lithely and quickly, injury forgotten, until she reached an apartment near the end of the block. The only sign that she was even there came from the flashlight she had in hand, and the beam disappeared as she sidled inside.

"Damn, she's not letting that leg get her down," Shuichi observed.

"I might have to force her to rest later if she's not too upset with me," said Kaede.

"Why would she be upset with you?"

"She's...angry that no one listened to her about Kokichi."

"Ryoma agreed with her about him, though. And Kaito did too at first."

"Yeah, but in her mind, they don't count. She's only worried about me for the moment, and if there were any other girls in the group, she'd value their opinions more."

Point taken. From the end of the hall, Tenko emerged from the door and waved.

The group joined her at the apartment and ducked in, though Shuichi tensed as they walked through the ominous hall. His fears lessened somewhat when they came to the apartment, and he saw that the neighbouring unit had distinctly Tenko-ish graffiti spraypainted on the ground. It read 'GIRLS ONLY'. They must have preemptively decided to split living spaces as they had at the old place.

For the time being, they all filed inside and collapsed by the door, a collective sigh of relief let loose. The apartment was larger than the one they'd left behind—dusty, but furnished and liveable. With the beams from the flashlight the only thing to go off of, Shuichi studied everyone's faces however highly contrasted they were. Rantaro and Kaede stood close together, holding each other’s gaze with unabated assurance in one another. Gonta’s attention flicked from one person to the next, studying and contemplative. Ryoma held his eyes closed. Kaito was drained, his face stark white, chest heaving as if his guts were threatening to explode from his chest.

“Kaito okay?” Gonta asked upon his attention landing on him.

“Fine,” Kaito replied tensely in a voice that most did not suggest any semblance of fineness.

Safe at last. Safe for now, at least, but Shuichi would take what he could get given the circumstances. It was good to relax. He almost felt like laughing, but even that would take too much energy.

Kaito staggered up, legs trembling.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Shuichi asked.

“Er—I gotta—use the bathroom,” said Kaito. He stepped over their legs and hurried around the corner. “Real bad!”

The moment he was out of earshot, Ryoma said, “Pretty sure he had a stash of medication in there. Hopefully it’ll last him until he can find a new source.”

Right. In the chaos, Shuichi had almost completely forgotten about Kaito’s condition. He rose to his feet and went after him.

The apartment must’ve once been a nice place to stay—perhaps inhabited by far too rich people with greater worries than the Remnants of Despair. The genkan extended until opening into a wide living space, a place muted by the heavy curtains covering the windows. Beyond them, a shimmer of light cut across the room, dividing it in half. Shuichi paused, uncertain, then committed and headed to the bathroom down an adjacent hallway. To his right, a doorway led into the bedroom. In front was the bathroom, and that was where he heard Kaito coughing.

He found Kaito rummaging around, carelessly scattering the contents of a drawer onto the floor. Kaito wrestled with some plastic packaging, ripping it with his teeth, and fumbled with a small glass jar. Shuichi remembered when they had first reunited, with Kaito robbing a dispensary. It was a perfect reflection of that moment under not-too-different circumstances.

For a moment, Kaito was so focused on wrestling with the plastic and the jar that he didn’t notice Shuichi. Not until he looked up to meet his reflections’ eyes and met Shuichi’s instead. Kaito seized up. Shuichi realized that the plastic package clenched between his teeth contained a syringe.

Shuichi clamped his brow low over his eyes and put his hands on his hips.

“I ain’th sickth,” Kaito insisted with the plastic still in his mouth.

“You have a needle,” said Shuichi.

Kaito took the package from his mouth and wagged it at Shuichi. “It ain’t for me!”

“Really.”

“Yeah, it’s for...it’s for Tenko!”

“Tenko? Is she sick?”

“Yeah, she’s got this horrible disease! It’s called...misandry!”

“Sounds terrible.”

“Oh, yeah! Just, uh, gotta give her a few shots of this...stuff.”

“A shot of what?”

“Er...it’s...it’s a long medical word. I dunno, you know me, I don’t bother remembering those complicated things. I’m dumb. Stupid, actually. It’s a hereditary affliction.”

“Well, if you don’t remember what it is, you could check the label.”

“Uh...I can’t read!”

“You what.”

“Sorry, Shuichi, I meant to tell you ages ago, but y’know—adult illiteracy is a huge stigma.”

“If you can’t read, how did you take the astronaut exam?”

“It was oral!”

“That’s convenient.”

Kaito stared at him.

Shuichi stared back.

“...Are any of these lies working on you?” Kaito asked.

“Nope,” said Shuichi.

“You could’ve said something before I made myself look like a goddamn moron,” Kaito pouted.

“Well, you never needed my help for that. But hey, I think you’ve told enough lies in the last minute or so that Kokichi would be proud.”

“Don’t even mention that jackass.”

The need for the lies forgotten, Kaito ripped open the syringe package and started preparing the injection with too-practised ease. It made Shuichi unbalanced, the proverbial scale tipping in Kaito's favour. With a little give, maybe Kaito would open up a little.

“What happened?” Shuichi asked.

Kaito sighed. “Look, I don’t wanna get into it.”

“I'd like to know what’s going on, Kaito.”

“It’s not a big deal,” said Kaito.

Kaito flipped the bottle filled with clear liquid over and drew it out with the syringe, a pointed stare sneaking out of the corner of his eye. Catching the hint, Shuichi turned his back to his friend to give him some semblance of privacy.

“East China Sea,” Kaito finally said.

“A nuclear bomb went off there,” said Shuichi.

“Yeah. Dunno if it was ours, or someone else’s, or maybe the Remnants. Anyway, just before the Tragedy went off, and when there was still a government to care, I got sent to some military base in Okinawa for ‘protection’, or whatever. I guess they had some forewarning that something was going down, and for some reason, the Ultimate Astronaut was worth protecting. Then someone dropped that bomb and a whole bunch’a radiation went over the island.

“Things fell apart after that. I got on the last flight back to Tokyo and met up with you guys at the school the night it all went down with the Reserve Course, if you remember that. Thought I was lucky that bomb didn’t land right on my head, but that was before I started getting sick. I started getting real nauseous. I couldn’t stop throwing up my guts for days. Dunno how I managed to keep it from everyone, but I did it somehow. Even felt better for a long while and thought I’d gotten past the worst of it. Everything was fine until after you and the others left for the Future Foundation. Okay, you can look now.”

Shuichi turned back around to see Kaito rolling his sleeve back down.

“This shit’s the only stuff that helps,” Kaito explained. “It’s something that Ultimate Pharmacist girl came up with—ah, what was her name? Keiko? Seiko? One of those, I think. It doesn’t even fix everything. It stops me from dying, which I guess I should be grateful for, except it sure would be nice to not go puking up my guts every so often.”

“So you’re okay?” Shuichi asked.

“Ah, sort of,” Kaito shrugged. “I mean, I was told that as long as I take this stuff, I can live a long life. Maybe not a comfy one, but at least I’m still alive, right?”

Shuichi kept his gaze downcast.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” said Kaito. “Look, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Just act like nothing’s different.”

But it was. Shuichi was about to say so, but Kaito beat him to it.

“Nothing’s different,” Kaito insisted. “I’m still me, I just go through a helluva lot of needles.”

“Shouldn’t we look for a new source for your medicine?” Shuichi asked, ignoring the request. “That stash you have won’t last forever.”

“Let me worry about that.”

“I can help—”

“I don’t want help, Shuichi,” Kaito said, not unkindly. “I’m not gonna be a burden on the group, so this is my problem, and I can fix it myself.”

“But I want to—”

“I can handle it, okay? I got it under control.”

Shuichi set his jaw. Nothing was going right for him. He hadn’t been able to effectively investigate Kokichi’s case, he hadn’t been able to help him, and now Kaito was refusing his help too. Was it because Shuichi’s failures reflected so strongly that even one of his best friends couldn’t see past them?

“Hey, stop moping!” Kaito barked.

Shuichi’s head snapped up. “How did you—”

“Because you’re predictable,” said Kaito. “Put a lid on it, okay? It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I’d rather handle this on my own...Damn, at this rate your self-pity’s gonna kill me faster than this sickness.”

Overhead, the lights flickered and turned on.

"Looks like one of the others got the generator working," said Kaito. "I'm gonna be in here for a bit to...unwind. Gimme some space, would'ya?"

Shuichi hesitated. Paleness crept up Kaito's neck and settled on his cheeks. He looked far too old.

"I'm here if you need to talk," said Shuichi.

"Don't need to," Kaito insisted. "But thanks. Shut the door on your way out.”

Shuichi did so—reluctantly, wanting nothing more than for Kaito to let him sit by and at least make sure he didn’t pass out.

He returned to the living room just as Gonta was pulling open the curtains to allow sunlight to stream in. Everyone else was gathered at the bar area, talking idly.

“Well, I wish Miu was here to take a look for it, but the generator should hold up for now,” said Rantaro.

“We’ll need to make a supply run to the nearby neighbourhood as soon as possible,” Kaede added. “Tenko, how’s the pantry?”

Tenko propped open a cupboard filled to the brim with canned food. “It’s full of gross stuff.”

“That should last us a while,” said Ryoma. He folded his arms on the counter. “Are you sure that it’s a good idea to risk a trip?”

“We need information, and we won’t survive if we cut ourselves off,” Kaede pointed out.

Shuichi slid into the chair next to her and sighed. He was beginning to miss the creature comforts of the Future Foundation. He’d had his own quarters, good food, warmth, and recreation. Being with his friends, hearing them talk about their own survival as if it was another Sunday, sent hot-cold chills through him.

Kaede reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Shuichi...uh...I—I don’t know what you want to do with these.”

She pulled out the thick file filled with autopsy reports out of her backpack and slid them across the counter to him.

“Yeah, that makes two of us,” Shuichi mused.

“You should burn those,” Tenko snapped irritably.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Shuichi. He spread the reports across the counter, opening one to look upon Hearts' postmortem photograph. Ryoma took another and started skimming through it with an indecipherable expression.

"I wonder if Kokichi's alright," said Kaede.

Tenko clenched with anger. She grabbed a glass abandoned on the counter and threw it across the room, and it shattered against the wall with enough force to rival any bomb.

“Why the hell should you care?!” Tenko shouted. “First that asshole used us, and then when he was done he threw us to the goddamn Future Foundation like we—like we were trash!”

“Tenko—” Kaede started.

“No!”

The wrath was primal—savage like an untamed beast. Shuichi clenched his abdomen to try to swallow the fear down, but nothing could contain it. It was hot and it was fierce. Shuichi let out an awkward cough into his hand, fixating on Hearts' image and hoping to stay out of it.

“He ruined everything!” Tenko hollered. “He ruined everything, and you’re gonna be worried about him over our friends?!”

“I like to think that Kokichi was our friend too,” said Kaede. “At least...I would’ve liked to have been friends with him.”

“Well, he didn’t want to be friends. We risked everything for him, and got nothing in return!”

“Friendship isn’t about owing each other,” Kaede insisted, voice warbling. “I’m just...I’m just sad...that we couldn’t help him.”

“You should’ve listened to me and never let him stay with us,” Tenko snapped.

With that, Tenko stormed out of the room, slamming open the apartment door and slamming it behind her. The ceiling trembled and specks of dust cascaded down on them.

After a pregnant silence, Ryoma said, "This report is...suspect."

“What do you mean?” Shuichi asked. “Which report?”

He expected Ryoma to hand him Ace’s near-empty folder. Instead, he slid over the one belonging to the round man—Big Two.

“Oh, him,” said Shuichi. “What’s so suspect about it?”

“Look at the cause of death,” said Ryoma.

“Multiple stab wounds, if I remember. The knife broke off in the chest.”

“Right.”

Ryoma held the gaze expectedly, an eyebrow cocked and an I-thought-you-were-smarter-than-this grimace curling his mouth.

The reality hit Shuichi.

Shuichi cracked open the file and flipped through it, skimming over the listed cause of death, and then going to the second page where the coroner had taken detailed photographs of the wounds. This included the knife extracted from the chest cavity—a kunai, like the ones Izayoi was so fond of. The ones he forged with such loving care, the ones capable of so much damage.

“Shit, I’m an idiot,” said Shuichi.

“What is it?” Rantaro asked, sliding up behind him to read over his shoulder.

"Izayoi's kunai," said Shuichi. "One of them broke off in the victim's chest."

“What’s so suspicious about it?” Kaede wondered.

“Isn’t it a bit strange that a weapon the Ultimate Blacksmith made would break like this?” Shuichi asked. “And even if it did, it’s a little odd that this kunai would break when Izayoi prefers to throw them from a distance.”

“Maybe he threw it with a lot of force?”

“That’s possible...But I saw these kunai myself. I held one. It was made of solid metal—very sturdy, very unlikely to break unless they were put under a lot of force. For a kunai to break like this...”

Shuichi stood up, picturing it in his mind. He pictured Big Two standing before him. He pictured the kunai in his hand. It flashed in front of him with unnatural clarity, imagining Izayoi finishing off Big Two with characteristic precision.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Shuichi. “Izayoi throws the kunai from a distance.”

He followed through with the motion of throwing the kunai. Big Two’s imagined body contorted with the impact, the kunai sinking into his body, disappearing, enveloping, and then gone. Still intact.

“For the kunai to break in the victim's chest, there'd have to be an extra force behind the attack. Like the attacker got up close and stabbed him at close range."

Shuichi stepped closer to the imagined Big Two, holding the equally imagined kunai like a traditional knife. He jabbed it into the body. He didn’t have the strength, but there were certainly others in the world that possessed it.

“Maybe it’s not in Izayoi's character, but it’s in the realm of possibility that he was up close and personal,” Rantaro pointed out. “This guy could’ve surprised him, and in that instant Izayoi stabbed him.”

“True. But then there’s the kunai. It’s hard to tell from a picture...but if it broke, then it’s not consistent with Izayoi’s talent. It’s like...it was made by an inferior blacksmith, a—a poor imitation of his weapon.”

“...Shuichi, what’re you trying to say?” Kaede asked.

“I should’ve realized this sooner...I could’ve confronted Izayoi with the evidence...”

“Am I to take it that you’re not giving up on this case yet, even though your primary suspect is who-knows-where?” Ryoma asked.

“I...I can’t,” Shuichi said. “It's not consistent. I need to know why."

“Hey!” Kaede exclaimed. “Could you explain what you're talking about and what it's supposed to mean?"

Shuichi resolved himself. He remembered his uncle, always sure in his investigations, and he remembered his old detective instincts. Filled with confidence, the anxiety boiled away, replaced by cool resolve.

"It means that this investigation isn't over yet.” said Shuichi.

 

>>>TRUTH BULLET ACQUIRED: BROKEN KUNAI


 

Kokichi woke up.

That, in itself, was an undesirable thing. He was awake and he was lying down and he was in considerably less pain than he had been—and there was a haze. A haze sifted through his thoughts and through his body, weighing his limbs down, making him sluggish and slow. He needed to do something. He needed to voice his disapproval of this state.

Kokichi spat up a globule of drool that hung in the back of his throat, and it threatened to choke him for a minute. The loom of an undignified death spurred him into action, however, and he moved it to the front of his mouth to moisten his tongue and enable some words, some sort of indication that he was here and he was not happy about it. He wanted to swear, curse, and thrash at whoever had the audacity to save his life. He wanted to scream. Instead, all he managed was a wet moan that rolled over his tongue, the quick reverberation of his voice telling him that he was in an enclosed space.

“Oh, you’re not dead. I guess that’s what I wanted. Still, kinda disappointing.”

The indolent tone, the lazy voice. That was Himiko. Kokichi pried open his eyes, but the light was a little too bright, enough to create spots when he slammed his eyelids back shut.

“I used magic to save you,” Himiko added.

“Like...hell...you did,” Kokichi managed to say out, squeezing every word out of his mouth like a clogged up bottle of toothpaste.

“Well...I guess he helped a little bit,” Himiko conceded. “He poked you with a lot of needles. He said it was for pain.”

“Who did?” Kokichi groaned. “Where am I, you crazy bitch?”

Another voice, male and lilting and far too cool given the circumstances, answered, “That is quite the way to thank the girl who saved your life.”

“More like kidnapped me!” Kokichi protested. Still, the new voice, the new threat of a stranger, prompted him to brave the light and pull open his eyelids once more.

He lay on a cot in a cramped, dark room. The lighting emanated from various lit candles lit on shelves and on the furniture. Kokichi was sprawled out on a bedroll and Himiko knelt by him, her eyes drawn but otherwise fine. Thick, antique rugs covered the floor, an ornate cabinet was carved with floral designs, and every surface was covered in some sort of odd ornament or antique. There was so much to take in, so much to see that Kokichi wasn’t sure where to focus first: on the katana mounted on the wall, on a jade Buddha smiling at him, or on a pair of woven shoes.

It looked—and smelt—more like a museum than a sanctuary from the outside. There was a musky, woody odour hovering in the air and something else—flowers? No, incense. It had been placed on a low table by his head as well, along with various charms. His body was too heavy for him to pull himself upright, but as he turned, he finally caught sight of the owner of the second voice. Standing behind Himiko, his body looking elongated from the angle Kokichi was at, was an odd-looking fellow dressed in...well, he wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be. It looked like a military uniform, but like no military Kokichi had ever known. More notably, the wearer was a man of dark hair trailed behind his back, and the lower half of his face concealed by a mask.

“Many fascinating cultures from around the world partake in greeting rituals, unfortunately, circumstances required that I forego these customs in favour of saving your life,” said the stranger. “I am Korekiyo Shinguiji, the Ultimate Anthropologist. But please, call me Kiyo. I have stitched your wounds, I have given you something for the pain, and I have welcomed you into my home. That will have to do for a greeting.”

“Kiyo...?” Kokichi blinked, his brain confused. This guy looked weird even by Ultimate standards.

“Yeah, yeah, save it,” Himiko waved him off. “You’ll get used to him. I’ve known him for a while and he still confuses me.”

“Where...Where are we?” Kokichi reiterated, desperate to know how soon he could escape.

“As I said, you are in my humble abode,” said Kiyo. “I do have some unsightly neighbours, however, and if they knew of your presence here, they would kick down my door and lynch you. For that reason, I recommend you do not leave."

Kokichi’s gaze wandered over the antique junk, trying to piece the puzzle together.

Kiyo must’ve noticed his gaze, because he continued, “Ah, these are not mine. I am protecting these priceless artifacts from any would-be looters. I doubt you’re capable of it at the moment, but in the future, please do not touch anything.”

“Protecting...? More like...stealing. You’re just a goddamn looter, yourself.”

“Are you always this quick to insult your host? As an anthropologist, these artifacts are in safe hands. I promise you that once circumstances permit, I will happily relinquish them to their rightful owners. Museums, that is. Where they can be protected and enjoyed by all of humanity!”

The end of his sentence lilted upward, and he practically sang ‘humanity’ like it was his goddamn kink. Catching himself, Kiyo let out a small cough and straightened his jacket.

“Excuse me, you are no doubt hungry,” said Kiyo. “I will prepare some food for you.”

“I’m not hungry,” Kokichi said, despite the subtle groan in his stomach that was somewhere between hunger pangs and a stomachache.

“Then I’ll liquify it and spoon-feed you like an infant,” Kiyo stated. “Himiko has made it clear that you are not to die. So, you will not die. It is as simple as that.”

“What makes you think you can keep me here?” Kokichi demanded, head starting to clear from the sheer annoyance of being alive.

“Well, your injury makes it unlikely that you will be able to get far,” Kiyo said. “But if I have to tie you down to prevent you from leaving, I will do it. Be forewarned that I know 1482 ways to tie a knot."

Kiyo let the word hang. Then, he turned lightly on his heel and exited the room through a curtain hanging over the door. Beyond it, an orange glow danced on the fabric.

“...Are you sure he’s not a serial killer?” Kokichi asked Himiko.

“Maybe,” Himiko shrugged.

Well, that had definitely not been the answer Kokichi had hoped for.

“How long have I been out?” Kokichi asked.

“A day or two,” Himiko answered. “I had to hitch us a ride to get here. We’re lucky we didn’t get stuck back there, or that you didn’t die on the way, and that everyone was too panicky to ask any questions.”

“How’s it looking over there? What happened to the neighbourhood we were in, I mean?”

She shrugged again. Less noncommittal, and more let’s-not-delve-into-it. “It burned to the ground. A lot of people died. People think you did it, and that our classmates helped. They’re looking for us.”

“Who is?”

“Everyone. The Future Foundation promised a big reward if we’re brought in alive. They think you brainwashed me and my classmates, and the Future Foundation made a public message saying that they can save us from you if we turn ourselves in.”

“Are they looking for Kiyo?”

“No, he wasn’t there, remember? They’re only looking for the people that were there: you, me, Angie, Tsumugi, Tenko, Shuichi, Kaede, Gonta, Ryoma, and Rantaro.”

“What happened to your friends anyway?”

“I think they got away, or else the Future Foundation wouldn’t have made a message telling them to turn themselves in. But—But I don’t know where they are! Or—Or if the Remnants of Despair took them or something!”

“Eh. Too bad.”

“TOO BAD?!”

All composure lost, with sweat beading and dripping down her face, she lunged forward and seized the front of his shirt, hauling him upright and shaking him violently. The sudden movement sent a wave of dizziness and nausea through him, compounded only by the dull throb in his lower back that he knew should be pain. Fortunately, it was too numbed by whatever cocktail Kiyo had created to do anything except make a vague groan of protest.

“My friends could be in the hands of Remnants!” Himiko shouted. “AND ALL YOU CAN SAY IS ‘TOO BAD’?!”

“Alright, alright, look, you’re getting a bit emotional here,” said Kokichi, seizing her wrists and pulling her off of him. He pushed her to a safe distance away, though her face flushed red with barely-contained rage. “Look, if it’s any consolation, you can rest easy that I’ll be out of your hair as soon as I stand up and walk out the door.”

“Can you walk?”

“I sure can,” Kokichi lied. “I’m about to get up and do it right now. Any minute. Right...now. Psych! That was a test to see if you were ready. I’m going to do it...now!”

He didn’t do it. He couldn’t. Himiko jutted out her lower lip and glowered.

“Fine, be that way!” Himiko said. She headed to the curtain. “But you’re not getting out here on my watch! I’m gonna put a curse that’ll keep you in place in here for the foreseeable future—then we’ll see who’s laughing at who!”

“I’m not laughing at you,” said Kokichi.

“I can hear your brain laughing!”

Well, she wasn’t wrong. Himiko disappeared behind the curtain and Kokichi heard her talking mutely with Kiyo outside, which was fine for him since at least both of those weirdos weren’t interacting with him for the moment. They deserved each other, it seemed.

He lay back on the bedroll and stared at the ceiling, clutching his forehead. What a mess. In general, what a godforsaken mess. Back in the day, jobs with DICE had occasionally leaned toward disorderly—and sometimes outright chaotic—but they had never been like this. He had never had to teeter so precariously without his family.

Without DICE, every plan he’d made had fallen apart.

Kokichi needed them more than ever, it seemed. He needed Ace’s guidance. He needed Hearts' vacant stares and subtle nods. Queen of Diamonds’s smarts, Big Two’s explosives, Royal Flush’s savviness. Hope’s Peak had been determined to recruit Kokichi as the Ultimate Supreme Leader, but in truth, he was part of a team. He was useless without them. And then the pangs of guilt and betrayal and anger simmered, searing and splenetic, in the tips of his fingers. He balled his hands into fists to rid himself of the sensation, digging his nails into his too-sensitive skin, though he knew it wouldn’t elevate anything.

What the hell was the Ultimate Supreme Leader without anyone to lead? What kind of fucking talent was that supposed to be?

If Ace was here, he would give him a good talking to. Kokichi sat up, grimacing against the pain in his back, and curled up to hide his head in his knees.

A deep, baritone voice rang out from his imagination. “You’ve lost your touch.”

Kokichi jerked up. He knew it was his imagination—it always was. Still, like always it drew him in, and he turned his head slightly to catch sight of a massive, hulking man kneeling next to the bedroll. Unable to look him in the face, he turned away.

“Go away,” said Kokichi.

“You used to be good at this.”

“I was locked up for two years—you weren’t,” Kokichi hissed, unwilling to give into the imagination but unable to resist. “If you think you can do better, then be my guest.”

“How many people are dead because of you?”

Kokichi didn’t answer.

“We only had one rule to follow above all others: never, under no circumstances, kill,” said Ace.

“I didn’t kill anyone—they got in the way,” Kokichi said. “Collateral damage.”

“Is that what you’re telling yourself?”

“Don’t you fucking judge me, Ace,” Kokichi snapped. “You killed a lot of people before we made DICE, and I never harped on you for that. I told you as long as DICE was around, then there wouldn’t be any of that. Well, DICE is gone now. It’s over. So the rules don’t matter anymore. You could kill a whole city and I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass.”

“How long do you think you can keep running?”

“I would’ve stopped ‘running’ a long time ago,” said Kokichi, “if you hadn’t made me make that ridiculous promise everything would be fine.”

“Are you planning on breaking it?”

“No.”

“Liar.”

“I’m not lying,” Kokichi snarled viciously. He didn’t look the image in the eye, partly out of fear of what he would see, and partly out of fear that it would disappear if he did. “You got a lot of balls to say that to me! It was a fucking stupid promise and I don’t think you know how much trouble it would cause me, but I’m gonna keep it, okay?!”

“You promised, Kokichi.”

Kokichi relaxed his grip, though his shoulders remained tense. “How could you make me promise to live when it has to be like this?”

The silence was crushing, like the weight of the earth, the sun, the stars, the galaxy, the universe all dropped on him at once, and like Atlas, Kokichi bore the weight of all that and more. Ace wouldn’t have had a problem with it, but there was only so much Kokichi could handle, and what little strength he had was sapped away from a mixture of whatever drugs Kiyo had pumped into him, plus the tingle of the stab wound, plus the memory of the treacherous smile on Fuyuhiko’s face.

“I’m not going to break that damn promise, no matter how much I want to,” said Kokichi.

“You came pretty close to it,” Ace pointed out.

“I won’t let it happen again. I’ll show you, Ace. I’ll keep going until I’m a dead man walking. And I’ll make you regret that promise.”

“So you’re doing it out of spite. Now that’s more like you.”

Kokichi steeled himself, hating the moisture clouding his vision.

“I can still get out of the city,” said Kokichi. “I still have time.”

“You could stay,” Ace suggested. “You like these kids. Your classmates.”

“They’re not my classmates, and I damn well don’t like them. Quite the opposite, in fact. I hate their guts.”

“You respect them, then.”

“I respect the fact that they’re in my way.”

“You’re thinking about this the wrong way. You almost had it right.”

“Ace, what the hell are you even talking about?”

“Your first plan.”

“What plan?! Start making sense!”

“If you weren’t so emotional right now, you’d know.”

The curtain ruffled.

Kokichi snapped toward it, and suddenly the image of Ace dropped as a pale face peered in. Himiko’s large eyes surveyed the room, tense like a taut bowstring.

“Um...you were...talking?” Himiko said. “You know there’s no one here, right?”

“Get out,” Kokichi snapped.

“Huh?”

“Get. OUT.”

Kokichi seized the nearest, most-valuable-looking object and threw it. Himiko ducked behind the curtain and he heard her little feet pattering away as the vase he’d apparently grabbed shattered against the doorframe.

From beyond, Kiyo’s clear and calm voice called, “That was a Bronze Age amphora recovered from a sunken cargo vessel in the Mediterranean—an irreplaceable artifact. And yet you managed to smash human history to bits in a matter of seconds.”

“So what?!” Kokichi snapped irritably.

The curtain swung back and Kiyo stuck his head in. Kokichi recoiled. A dark shadow hung underneath Kiyo’s hat, casting an ominous and mesmerizing aura of hostility around him. It swelled around the Ultimate Anthropologist, making him seem twice his size.

“Break anymore artifacts, and I will break your skull,” Kiyo said lowly.

Without another word, he disappeared.

Ace reappeared at the foot of the bedroll, and once more Kokichi looked away so as to not meet his eyes.

“You’re pushing them away,” said Ace, “when you should be pulling them closer.”

A light, small and fragmented, flickered on in Kokichi’s mind. It died, and in his state, he was unable to put it all together.

“What do you mean?” Kokichi asked.

“What was your first plan to leave the city?” Ace asked.

“...I was gonna use Angie and her stupid cult, get them to send me on a—a mission or whatever. Then they ruined it for me.”

“And you’ve been pushing them away ever since.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“Do the opposite. Draw them in. Convince them that you’re their friend.”

“Why the hell would I do that? It didn’t work the first time.”

“Because you panicked the first time. This time you won’t.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because I know you better than anyone, Joker. You’re a manipulator and you’re a liar. All you have to do is let go of the past and focus on your goal. Your classmates are perfectly useful tools ready to be used. You gain their trust? You find your way out.”

“Sounds like a waste of time. They won’t be able to get me out of this city.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. This is an opportunity in disguise.”

“You know, for someone who was just shaming me for getting people killed—which wasn’t my fault, by the way—you’re sure quick to tell me to throw them under the bus.”

“I didn’t say throw them under the bus. I said to use them. Your escape from the temple was close, but it couldn’t have hoped to work. It was too loud.”

“Too loud?” Kokichi repeated.

“It attracted too much attention. You should practice what you preach, Joker. You need to be more subtle and know which strings to pull on until you have your chance to get away. Otherwise, you’re going to be stuck here. If you don’t make allies, you’re not going to be able to keep your promise to me.”

Ace appeared beside Kokichi, his hulking height shadowing him.

Kokichi gathered his courage and looked him in the eye.

Ace stood there with countless kunai sticking out of his body, out of his muscles, out of his face, out of his neck, lodged in his ridiculously large red afro. The mask was absent, and in its place—in place of Ace’s face—was a massive hole, gaping like a pit leading to the centre of the earth. Leading to nothing.

“Don’t break your promise, Joker,” said Ace.

Ace’s hand lunged forward and seized Kokichi’s shoulder, shaking him violently. With a gasp, the visage melted before him, shrinking and shrinking and shrinking to reveal a much-smaller Himiko. It was her. She was the one shaking him.

“Hey, what’s wrong with you?” Himiko asked. “I think my spell misfired and broke your brain. Say something if you’re still in there!”

“W—What?” Kokichi blinked, coming to his senses.

“Oh. You’re not broken. I guess that’s good.”

Himiko released his shoulders and sat a safe distance from the bedroll. Funny, Kokichi didn’t remember for how long she’d been there.

“You were acting kinda weird,” said Himiko. “You were kinda talking and mumbling, but I couldn’t understand anything you were saying. It was like you were possessed or something.”

“Fell for that, did you?” Kokichi smiled.

“You...You were pretending? Why the heck would you do that?!”

“No reason—just wanted to see the look on your face. Yeah, that’s the one right there.”

“You’re such a pain!” Himiko huffed, face flushing crimson in rage. “You’re lucky I saved you at all!”

She got to her feet and stormed off again.

“Hey, Himiko,” said Kokichi.

She paused, one foot still in the air, one hand braced against the doorway. She peered over her shoulder hesitantly.

“...I tolerate you,” Kokichi told her. It was as close as he could get to express any semblance of false affection for her for the moment.

It was hard to garner an expression from her, not that he had expected much. Still, her lower lip twitched in a suspicious scowl.

“Okay,” she said.

Then she left. A good enough start for whatever would come next. And this time, Kokichi would be ready.

Chapter Text

Nice ’N’ Easy

“I don’t want it!”

"While I have nothing but respect for your masochist nature, I'm afraid Himiko is quite insistent. If you don't let me help you, the pain will return tenfold. Even an unfeeling cretin such as yourself cannot hope to escape the delicious agony of unbearable pain.”

“Fuck you!”

Short on projectiles, Kokichi searched for a new weapon, and seized a candleholder. The brass collided with the wall by Kiyo's head, then fell to the floor with a resounding rattle. It left behind a shaken silence wherein Kokichi and the Ultimate Anthropologist were locked in a death glare, and Himiko shivered behind Kiyo's legs.

Kokichi couldn't give in. He wouldn't become one of Kiyo's antiquities, the ones that surrounded him and smelt like musk and old ladies. He wouldn't become a possession that Kiyo coddled and put on a shelf. So many things had been out of his control, but he could rebel like this—he could refuse the painkillers. There was solace in sobriety. The image of Ace's walking, mangled corpse shivered just out of sight, thirsting for existence. One shot of Kiyo's painkiller cocktail would bring him back, and Kokichi had spent the last two nights sleepless and unsettled while Ace stared at him from the corner. No more. No matter the consequences, even if he had to feel the full brunt of the pain in his lower back, he wouldn't have any more walking nightmares. They did enough of that when he was asleep–no need to have them when he was awake.

“Just let us help you already!” Himiko begged. “You’re not doing yourself any favours by fighting us!”

“One injection and it goes away,” said Kiyo. He held up a syringe filled with an untrustworthy clear liquid.

“Fuck off!” Kokichi yelled.

He grabbed his boot and prepared to throw. As he lifted his arm, he shifted the wrong way, and a strangled cry replaced his scathing words. Pain riveted up the right side of his body, up his arm, and down his leg, and sent him into the throes of crushing agony just like Kiyo had promised.

“You see?” Kiyo said as if addressing a disobedient child. “This is the best way to manage your pain while you recover.”

“I’m doing fine on my own!” Kokichi denied. “It doesn’t even hurt!”

“Kokichi, if you don’t let us help you, we will have to use force,” Kiyo warned.

“You couldn’t lay a finger on me!”

“Watch me.”

“Just let us help!” Himiko intervened, perhaps hoping to reason with him before Kiyo followed through with the threat. “Please! Make it easier on all of us!”

“I said,” Kokichi reached for his other boot, “that I don’t—need—hel—”

Despite the throb, Kokichi prepared for another attack. This time, Kiyo acted.

Kiyo seized the wrist holding the boot, twisted, and pinned it to the ground. He pressed his knee against his chest. Himiko rushed forward as well, taking Kokichi’s other arm and shimmying up his sleeve.

“Stop it!” Kokichi demanded. “I’ll sue for malpractice!”

“Well, you will probably pout for a while, but this is for the greater good,” said Kiyo. “If you’re this insufferable when you’re not in agonizing pain, then I’d hate to see what you’re like when you are. Please hold his arm steady, Himiko, this will only take a second.”

It did only take a second. The longest second of Kokichi’s life. He tried to struggle, to free both arms, but he was helpless. Helpless as the needle came down, Kiyo found the vein and broke the skin.

Kokichi kicked with both legs but lost his will to fight when he realized that there was no removing the painkiller from his veins. He could, however, show how uncomfortable he was. Seeing Kiyo’s hand steadily pushing the syringe, Kokichi jerked forward, managed to somehow twist himself at the right angle, and sunk his teeth into Kiyo’s wrist. Since Kiyo wore long sleeves, and his hands were bandaged, he couldn't savour the taste of raw flesh. But he bit down hard enough to hopefully cause some mild discomfort at least. The only exposed part of Kiyo was around his eyes, and they didn't even flinch at Kokichi's attack. Himiko, meanwhile, let out a startled yelp, then tightened her hold on Kokichi's arm.

 For an endless second, they were all frozen there, together in their strange, haphazard game of Twister, the kind where everyone’s face was stuffed in someone else’s crotch and everyone was uncomfortable and everyone wanted the game to end. Kiyo, on his chest. Himiko, on his arm. Kokichi, with his teeth in Kiyo’s wrist.

Finally, the syringe spent, they all stepped back and Kokichi released.

"A promising show of force," said Kiyo. "You really do have quite the mouth. A shame you aren't a girl or I could send you to Sister...”

"Well, if you're into that," Kokichi quipped.

Kiyo hummed quietly. "I suppose I could arrange something if needed..."

"You can try, but I put a pretty powerful protection spell over Kokichi," said Himiko. "I don't think anyone could murder him, not even me!"

"I don't need a spell to avoid death," said Kokichi.

"As we're all too aware," Kiyo scoffed. "Well, I had best be getting back to work. And Kokichi—do try to stop sulking before I add you to my collection. And you wouldn’t even be an attractive addition."

"Fuck you!"

Kiyo waved his hand vaguely and stepped behind the curtain. Kokichi, indeed, went back to sulking. He pulled up his covers, shimmied under, and turned to the wall away from Himiko.

He wasn't sure why he felt betrayed. For there to be betrayal, there would have to be trust. But whatever he was feeling, fuelled by some powerful painkiller or not, Kokichi didn't like it.

“It’s for your own good, Kokichi,” said Himiko.

“You don’t know what’s for my own good,” Kokichi argued. “You got me locked up in this stupid museum with a serial killer—”

"He's not a serial killer. He's just kinda...eccentric? I think."

“Whatever he is, he keeps stickin' me with needles. Oh, sure, that’s for my own good!”

Kokichi studied the wood grain on the wall. It wasn't very interesting to look at. He longed for some colour in his life.

“Hey, you wanna play some cards?” Himiko asked.

“Not unless you stick ‘em in your mouth and choke on ‘em,” Kokichi grumbled.

Himiko was quiet for a moment, and Kokichi kept looking at the wall. How humiliating, to be reduced to this mess. He wished he’d bled out on the street where Himiko had found him.

He heard her light feet patter across the floor, followed by a rustling of papers. Despite his better judgment, Kokichi raised his head enough to peer over his shoulder. Himiko stood by the writing desk in the corner and was testing a pen out on some paper. The ink got stuck and clogged, and she swore under her breath before managing a thick scribble.

“Now what are you doing?” Kokichi asked.

“You owe me a favour,” said Himiko.

“A favour? If you're gonna ask me to do you a favour and die, it's not gonna happen. Also, I don't owe you anything."

“I helped you get out of the temple, didn’t I? You owe me a favour.”

“I only said that to make you help me.”

“Well, like it or not, you still owe me. So now you can repay it.”

“Hey, you stuck me with a needle and I haven’t killed you for it! Favour’s been paid!”

“That doesn’t count!” Himiko protested, stamping her feet. She held out the paper and pen. “I need you...I need you to write a letter!”

“Really? You want me to transcribe for you? That’s how you want me to repay the favour?”

“I’m not dictating a letter! You’re writing a letter to the Future Foundation.”

“Well, I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but ol’ Kyosuke would make for a lousy penpal. No thanks.”

“No, you have to tell them that my friends weren’t harbouring you—that they weren’t involved. You can clear their names and stop the Future Foundation from hunting them down if you do.”

How stupid could you get? Kokichi lounged back on his cushions as comfortably as he could, like a disinterested sultan unimpressed with the tribute of his people. “Bold of you to assume that the Future Foundation gives a single flying fuck about anything I say.”

“You’re my only hope. Please, just tell them they weren't involved."

“How exactly do you plan to get a letter to them?” Kokichi asked.

“I asked Kiyo—he said that he can make sure that it gets to the Future Foundation, and they won’t even know where it came from. It’s not like they’d be able to trace your location with it.”

Huh. So Himiko had thought ahead. Surprisingly smart for her. Maybe she wasn’t as dumb as Kokichi gave her credit for, but still, looking at the blank paper, he knew just how pointless it was. Smart in some ways. Stupid in others.

“You said I’d get a favour,” Himiko pressed. “I’ll—I’ll even get you some more stuff while you’re in bed. I’ll—I’ll get you Panta!”

Panta? Kokichi frowned, considering the offer. “...Tempting, I’ll admit...”

“I’ll—I’ll even get you more stuff,” Himiko promised. “You’re bored, right? I’ll get you some books or something!”

Kokichi shook his head. He had to be firm. “I don’t want whatever shit you have. All I want is to be left alone. You’re boring me.”

Himiko sat there, mouth gaping, aghast, uncontrollable, tearful, so many things vying for dominance at once that the moment he thought he had a handle on it, it had shifted to the next emotion. Himiko was an impossible torrent being drawn down the drain with a satisfying flush. Kokichi was startled and scared by just how good it felt to hurt.

“I hate you,” Himiko whispered.

Out of all the things Kokichi had expected to come out of her mouth—insults, negotiation, begging—that had been one of the last things. He kept his expression blank.

“I don’t care,” Kokichi replied.

“I hate you,” Himiko repeated. “I’m t—trying to help you!”

And there came the waterworks. Whatever emotion swelling beneath the surface burst out, and Kokichi watched with no empathy. He couldn’t take it. He couldn’t take her.

“You’re wasting your time,” said Kokichi. “Me writing an emotional plea to the Future Foundation isn’t gonna change reality. If you think they’ll even open the envelope, you’re deluded. If you hate me that much, then you wasted a chance to leave me to die in that alley. If our situations had been reversed, that’s what I would’ve done. I would’ve left you to die. Get that through your thick, stupid, pea-sized brain...” Kokichi flicked her between the eyes. “...And maybe we’ll get somewhere.”

Himiko sniffed, scrubbing at her eyes. For a too-long second, she grappled with torment, helpless to his words. But when she looked up again, despite the tears, there was focus there, and there was a fire.

“I should’ve gone to find Angie,” Himiko said quietly.

“Then why didn’t you?” Kokichi snapped. He’d intended it as a defiant question—a challenge, even. But he couldn’t hold everything back.

“I don’t know. I was scared.”

“Yeah, if I were you, I’d be scared of the Remnants catching up to me, too.”

“I’m not scared of the Remnants. I’m scared of Angie.”

Kokichi had folded his arms, propped up against the pillows, his back giving a painful throb to remind him of his precarious situation. Himiko’s words stirred him, though—piquing his curiosity like a distant, indistinguishable noise he had to decipher. Still, it didn’t surprise him entirely to hear that coming from Himiko. The only surprise was that she was admitting it.

“Why?” Kokichi demanded. “Did she blackmail you into joining your cult or something?”

“I dunno, sometimes she freaks me out with her talk about Atua,” Himiko elaborated with a subtle shrug.

“Uh-huh. And you’re only figuring that out now?”

Himiko let out a puff of breath. “She wanted the temple to be a safe place. She wanted to protect everyone. Even...Even if they wanted to leave...”

She trailed off.

“She couldn’t let them leave,” Himiko said. “Joining the Prophets is for life. You can’t leave once you’ve joined. So she couldn’t let people leave. Angie wants to protect everyone, she wants everyone to be safe and happy, in a place where I can do magic, and Tsumugi could make costumes, and we could all dance and have parties—”

“So what you’re saying is that you preferred the delusion?” Kokichi quipped.

“It wasn’t a delusion!” Himiko argued.

“Oh, really? Angie’s got her head in the clouds. Can’t say I blame her for letting herself get lost in a fantasy, but that’s not reality. That’s not the way things are, and that’s dangerous.”

“It isn’t! Angie just wants to make everyone happy.”

Kokichi sighed and made a show of rolling his eyes. “Look, I get it. You think if you put a pretty bow on it and some sparkles, everything’s gonna be a-okay. You want to make a good place or whatever and pretend the world hasn’t gone to shit. What, you don’t want to think about it? Hm? You don’t want to think about reality? Does that change it? Nope. Reality’s still reality, and fantasy’s still fantasy. And if Angie had the nerve to try to get people to buy into her lie for her ego or whatever then that makes her a pretty shitty messiah, don’cha think?”

Himiko shrunk away. She curled in on herself. Whatever light he’d seen in her eyes after first entering her magician’s tower had snuffed out. He was sorry to see it go.

“What’s the deal with lies being bad things?” Kokichi wondered. “Don’t get me wrong, the one Angie made was a bad lie if I ever saw one. It wasn’t a merciful lie, like the kind you tell a person when they’re dying when you say to them that everything’s gonna be alright. It wasn’t a lie done to make people feel good. It was a lie she told to try to be ‘noble’ and ‘heroic,’ but all she did was make things worse. She made things worse for the cultists and she made things worse for the people around them. And when people wanted out of the lie? When they wanted the truth? Forcing them to stay in the lie wasn’t the way to do that. Like it or not, you were a part of that. So congratulations, Himiko. You just came to the realization that you and your cultist friends are jackasses and I don’t give a single flipping fuck. Bravo.”

He gave her sarcastic applause, all while keeping the forced grin on his face, so tight that it hurt. The tears running freely down her pale cheeks didn’t satisfy him and he wanted nothing more than to be the psychopath everyone wanted him to be and feel nothing in response. And he didn’t want to be here, and he wished that Peko had killed him, and he wished that he didn’t see Ace’s faceless visage staring at him from the corner of the room, looming over as a starch mockery of all the mistakes he’d made.

What if this was a mistake, too? But what if it wasn’t?

“So a letter from lil’ ol’ me isn’t gonna fix what’s already happened,” Kokichi concluded. “This is a mess Angie made, not me. If that upsets you, then why don’t you go crawling back to your Oracle and pour your heart and soul out to her?”

“How can you blame Angie?!” Himiko exclaimed. “She’s not the one who caused a riot!”

“I didn’t cause a riot, dumbass,” said Kokichi. “I didn’t have anything to do with that.”

“But this is all your fault! Everything is your fault!”

“Nuh-uh! Not my fault. I don’t make people do things. Contrary to popular belief, we super-evil-Remnants don’t have mind control powers, just the power of persuasion. Kind of like Angie, except I don’t need to force people to stay. No matter who’s responsible, your Oracle and her giggling gang of insane bananas are somewhere you’re not, and you don’t seem to be in a hurry to do anything about it, are you?”

"I'm trying to make things right now..." Himiko argued weakly.

"Yeah, to save your own ass and make yourself feel better. The truth is, Himiko, is that you're a shitty person who did shitty things. Welcome to the club. The only thing you care about is yourself."

Kokichi took the piece of paper and ripped it in half. He threw the pieces at her.

"Get back to me when you want me to do you a favour that's worth a damn," said Kokichi.

He turned onto his side away from her and listened to her sniffle and cry her heart out for a bit until she finally gave up and left. No sooner had she done so when he heard the rustle of the curtain.

"This is why people don't like you," said Kiyo. Then he ducked back out again.

"Yeah, you're one to talk," Kokichi murmured after he was gone.

In the quiet, Kokichi tried not to feel regret, especially when he felt Ace’s eyes boring into him.


 

Despite the scarf concealing the lower half of his face, the smell of gunpowder and distant flames stung Shuichi’s nostrils.

He kept close to Ryoma, unable to help but worry that the amount of smoke still lingering in the air would effect Kaito's condition. Kaito had been the first to volunteer making a run to the nearby camp, but circumstances had forced him to stay behind. Circumstances that included him vomiting violently into a toilet. Despite his assurances, Shuichi didn't believe for a moment that he was fine. Generally, it was a safe approach to take the road of skepticism, even towards his closest friends. He thought about Kaito, and he thought about getting him medicine while they were at the camp, and in general, Shuichi just did a whole lot of thinking on the walk there. As they wove through the deserted streets, careful to keep to immediate cover, he hitched up the heavy coat weighing him down and tried to look natural.

Fortunately, he wasn’t alone. For the first time in a long time, after facing tribulations alone, he had people at his side. Ryoma was here. Kaede and Tenko lagged behind them, with Tenko leaning on Kaede. Her leg was bandaged up, but with the bullet still in there, the need to get her to a doctor had driven them out into the streets. Shuichi listened for harsh words exchanged under soft breaths between Kaede and Tenko, for animosity, for anything. But the silence that lingered between them weighed heavier than any argument. It made his chest seize and his ribs compress against his organs, increasing the pressure on all of them.

“Okay, stop for a moment. You’re just trying too hard.”

Ryoma stopped the group dead in its tracks and prodded at Shuichi’s knee. He had made no attempt to disguise himself.

“Does this look like a spy movie to you?” Ryoma asked. “Take off the trench coat. You’re embarrassing us.”

“W—We’re wanted fugitives,” Shuichi hissed.

“Look, wearing a trench coat and looking around with shifty eyes isn’t gonna make you more subtle. It’s going to make you stand off. Take off the coat now.”

Shuichi hesitated, but, aware that Ryoma had a point, shrugged off the coat and kept it folded in his arms. He felt bare without it.

“I don’t know how you can be so calm,” said Shuichi. “People have to be looking for us by now.”

“We don’t know that,” Ryoma shrugged. “All the more reason to check in where we’ll find other people. We’re not gonna get any news if we hide all the time.”

“And Tenko needs a doctor,” Kaede reminded them as she and Tenko hobbled up alongside as if the fact was impossible. Tenko’s limp had become more pronounced since their departure from the temple.

“A female doctor,” said Tenko.

“A female doctor,” Kaede affirmed. She didn’t look her in the eye.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s one there,” Shuichi tried to assure them. “Is this place close?”

“Around the corner and down the street,” said Ryoma. “There. See?”

Shuichi peered around the edge of a building and saw Ryoma indicating a subway station surrounded by the ruins. At first, it didn’t appear to be any different from any other parts of Tokyo, until he saw a man clad in black standing motionless by the entrance. A guard.

“Hey, we got this,” Ryoma said. “Just let us do the talking, okay?”

Shuichi swallowed and nodded, pulling his hat over his eyes.

He kept in line behind Ryoma as they turned the corner and approached the subway. The guard immediately noticed them, shifting his shoulders in a way that exposed the assault rifle he had. Fortunately, one quick assessment seemed to satisfy him that they were nothing but refugees, and he didn’t brandish it at their approach. As they passed him to enter the subway station, Shuichi wanted nothing more then for the ground to swallow him up. He wanted to fade like it had been so easy to fade into the Future Foundation, to conduct his business. In the eyes of the guard, he felt the weight of everyone and everything staring at him.

A voice in the back of his head remained convinced that the guard would expose them, that he would say that they had a bounty on their head, that they weren’t allowed. Though he didn’t stop them, his eyes lingered on Tenko and Kaede when they limped by. Ryoma kept close to the girls, staring the man down. Once they were passed, they all hurried down the steps and into the darkness as fast as they could.

“See?” Ryoma whispered to Shuichi. “They aren’t picky here. You can stop sweating, now.”

Shuichi took a quick inhale and tried to calm himself. This wasn’t the Future Foundation, and he wasn’t being watched at all hours. People wouldn’t care.

Unless they cared about possible reward money.

Pushing that out of his mind, Ryoma let the way down the tunnel, and already Shuichi saw sparse evidence of civilization. But this place was different. Gone was the protection of the Future Foundation, their soldiers, their medicine, their rations, their everything. Here was a beaten down trail. At some point, a subway car had crashed, and now blocked one end of the tunnel, leaning to the side, and underneath it—covering the tracks—the subway had flooded, creating an underground river that quietly gurgled under the chatter of voices. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed, but that didn’t deter people from wandering around as they would have before the Tragedy.

However, there were still fragments of life and a suggestion that despite it all, people were trying to live normally. Tents and makeshift camps had been set up at the edge of the platform, making it crowded and tense and warm with human presence.

It was evident that this was a much smaller population than the former neighbourhood, and that the people were of a rougher variety. One or two looked up and stared at the newcomers as they passed. But their attention was fragmentary, and their interest faded far faster than it would have in the other neighbourhood. If they were all like that, Shuichi saw the advantage that Ryoma had described in people being more interested in preserving their secrets than in uncovering the secrets of others.

“Doctor should be...uh...it should be this way,” Kaede said, glancing around. “Don’t separate.”

Shuich didn’t need a reminder of that as they hobbled along with Tenko down towards the tunnel. He feared that if he did wander off, that he would be swept away.

Peering around, Shuichi saw that blasts had ripped it apart, probably a part of the terrorist attacks that had ripped apart Tokyo in the early days. Scorch marks and dislodged tiles suggested a conflict, at the very least. He half expected to see bodies piled up, but there weren’t any there—none that were actually dead, that is. Shuichi waited for the rumble of a crowd to wash over him, but it was quiet as they limped down. Back in the day, this place would’ve been so blindingly bright that he couldn’t see anything, but now he was thankful that the lighting was just good enough to navigate.

Good enough was the best they could hope for.

They asked for directions from a passer-by who was quick to direct them to the doctor, then scurry on her way like a rat afraid of the light. Then they continued down the tunnel to where it widened to accommodate the large bustle of people who used to go through here. As it happened, most of the space had been overtaken by two dozen or so refugees, and they didn’t have to go far before the vaulted ceiling extended far upwards. Entering a small shopping centre, Shuichi saw the remnants of old businesses repurposed by the local residents. When they turned the corner, he saw a large red cross painted on the wall outside one of the abandoned store fronts.

Kaede led a hobbling Tenko up to the entrance. Coming up alongside the business, they started to turn the corner when someone small hurtled out and ran right into them.

The small person screeched.

Kaede screeched.

Tenko screeched.

Because the person who’d hurtled out of the medical clinic was Himiko Yumeno.

Frazzled, Himiko hit the ground, and the two metal crutches she’d had in her arms toppled to the ground in a resounding crash. She, too, fell right onto her rear, sprawled out in front of them as if they were classmates running into each other in the hall, and not in a life-or-death situation.

Several exclamations of surprise and relief washed over those that were present, attracting enough attention that a few refugees glanced in their direction. Shuichi couldn’t help but glance around as they all crowded in on Himiko, whose blanched face betrayed nothing but complete surprise at their appearance here. He surveyed any witnesses, though those that had looked up were quick to look away when he caught them staring.

“Oh my God!” Kaede exclaimed. Releasing Tenko, she wrapped her arms firmly around Himiko and lifted her off her feet. “You’re alright!”

“I knew you were alright!” Tenko beamed. For the first time since escaping the old neighbourhood, a genuine Tenko-ish grin, as broad as her personality, lightened her features. Gone was the weight of the world from her. It had lifted. And if not for her bad leg inhibiting her movements, Shuichi was sure that Tenko would’ve gotten to Himiko first. “I knew it! I told you magic is real! Himiko’s so great at it! I knew when she poofed away that she was okay!”

“Don’t hog her, Kaede,” Ryoma snapped, shuffling in with a calm smile. “Hey, shrimp, glad you’re all right. We were really worried about you!”

“Um...” Himiko blinked at them.

“The others are gonna be so relieved,” said KAede, releasing Himiko. “Hey, you dropped your...uh...”

Kaede looked at the metal crutches Himiko had dropped. She picked them off the ground and handed them back to her.

“Well, say something,” Kaede said. “Don’t just stand there.”

Himiko surveyed them all, expression blank. Her gaze settled on Tenko for a few seconds longer than the other, glancing at her bandaged leg.

“I guess my summoning magic worked a little too well,” Himiko remarked nonchalantly. “It’s what I get for being a level 97 mage. I levelled up, by the way.”

It was such a Himiko thing to say that Shuichi actually laughed, and he wasn’t the only one as Tenko bellowed out a laugh.

“Are Angie and Tsumugi with you?” Kaede asked.

Himiko hesitated. Shuichi saw something there, hidden behind her childlike features, but then it was gone and she relaxed.

“Nope,” Himiko shook her head.

“Oh,” Kaede pulled back. “At least you’re okay. If you’re okay, then maybe Angie and Tsumugi are, too.”

“Of course they’re okay. Atua is with them.”

“...Sure.”

Himiko glanced at Tenko. “What happened to your leg?”

“Oh, a little scuffle when we were escaping,” Tenko shrugged. “No big deal, just need to get a female doctor to get the bullet out. There...is a female doctor in there, right?”

“Nyeh, I dunno about a female doctor, but there’s a nurse in there. She’s kinda annoying but she can help. Probably. I dunno, I haven’t been here too long.”

“Then you can stay with me while I get it out. Hey, maybe you can even heal this, right?”

“Ah, I need to let my magic recharge. First I had to disappear from the temple, and then I had to summon you guys...my magic’s all worn out for the day. I’m gonna need a long rest.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” Tenko nodded. “You can come back to the apartment with us. We can all be together again!”

“Um...sure,” Himiko nodded. “Uh...I need to go...”

“W—What?” Tenko stammered. “What do you mean—ah!”

Tenko tried to put weight on her leg and nearly keeled over, if not for Kaede coming to her rescue. Shuichi's hands also reached out toward her to steady any potential fall.

“We need to get you to the doctor,” said Kaede. She locked eyes with Himiko. “Want to come in with us? You can keep Tenko company.”

“Uh...I got to go,” Himiko said. Beads of sweat poured down the side of her face in fat waterfalls. “I’ll see you around.”

There were no words that could do justice to the indescribable hurt that flickered through Tenko. The leg wound was inconsequential compared to the fresh one opening her chest. The tense quiet left afterwards was incomprehensible, as beyond all understanding, beyond all belief, Himiko walked away. Unlike her exit at the temple, this one was not impressive. Her tail tucked firmly between her legs, and her cards—if she had any—were under the table.

Shuichi squeezed Tenko’s shoulder and it was a testament to her state of mind that she didn’t protest the contact. Then he sprinted after Himiko, who was darting off into the thinning crowd like they were the school bullies she had to escape.

Himiko let him though the labyrinth of the subway station, down the old platform, up an abandoned and long out-of-service elevator, to the above ground station where hordes of commuters had once packed the platform. With the sound of distant explosions, it was no wonder that there were fewer refugees up this part, so it was easy to see Himiko making her way, her witch’s hat bobbing out of sight, down a row of abandoned businesses.

“Himiko, wait!” Shuichi called after her.

He broke into a sprint, and Himiko’s short little legs were no match for him as he closed the distance between them. Himiko ducked behind a bead curtain into one of the old business, which had been boarded up save for the exit. Shuichi skidded to a halt, unsure of what he was getting into, and then parted the curtain.

“Himiko?” Shuichi said into the quiet.

It was the strangest little shop he’d ever seen, all twisted edges and twisted objects and a twisted atmosphere, bristling under the light of various candles. No electric lights, he noticed, just fire and a heart in the centre. These strange creature comforts reminded him of someone he used to know, but it had been so long that the sight made him physically ache. Against his better judgment, he stepped into the curio shop, the beads rattling behind him like a waterfall, and when he heard them rustle again, his heart stopped. But it was Ryoma who came up beside him. Of course he had followed.

His eyes scanned over the voodoo dolls lining one wall and the paintings lining the other. There was a suit of armour in the corner, reflecting their blanched faces. It had been a while since he’d seen his reflection and the sight startled him: he looked old. Maybe as old as some of the objects decorating the curio shop.

Why would Himiko come here?

“Himiko?” Shuichi said into the quiet.

Ryoma tugged at his sleeve and pointed. There was a witch’s hat sticking out from behind a table, and a pair of crutches lying on top of it.

“I can see you, Himiko,” Shuichi drawled.

“N—No you can’t!” Himiko denied. “I cast an invisibility spell!”

“One, you said that your magic is depleted. Two, I’m staring right at you.”

Himiko’s head popped out from behind the table, bright eyes wide. Her gaze searched them for the truth, then sagged in defeat.

“Himiko, I get the sense you don’t want to talk to us,” said Shuichi.

“What?” Himiko startled. She sprang out from behind the table so fast that her feet left the ground. She shook her head vigorously. “No! That’s not it at all!”

“Then why did you run?”

“Because I wasn’t ready to talk to you! I didn’t even have a script planned for how I was gonna break the news to you! I’m glad you’re okay, really, I just didn’t know what to say.”

“What news?” Ryoma asked.

“Is this about Angie and Tsumugi?” Shuichi asked urgently.

“It’s not about them,” Himiko assured them. “As far as I know, they’re fine. Probably. It isn’t about them, I swear.”

“Then what is this about? Why are you hiding in this...place?”

Shuichi felt the answer to that question loom behind him. He froze, senses going on end as he took in a strangely familiar smell.

He sniffed. Musky smell. Smelt like an old lady's pantry. “...Kiyo?”

Kiyo’s voice whispered in his ear. “It is I.”

Shuichi swung around so fast that he smacked right into Kiyo, and stumbled back as the Ultimate Anthropologist stood before them, blocking the doorway. He hadn’t even rattled the bead curtain. Kiyo had the kind of presence you never forgot, one that inspired dread, but also familiarity and comfort.

“K—Kiyo?!” Shuichi exclaimed.

“Ah, a pleasure to see you again, Shuichi,” said Kiyo. Calm. As if they were coworkers on a coffee break.

“What are you doing here?!” Shuichi asked.

Kiyo and Himiko locked eyes. Himiko averted her gaze first, then he settled back on Shuichi. With the lower half of his face concealed behind his mask, all expression settled in his powerful eyes.

“I’m running a museum, of course,” Kiyo answered him.

“A museum?” Shuichi looked around. “This is your place?”

“Yes. I’m protecting these artifacts so that humanity doesn’t lose its history during this time of great transition. I’m afraid that many valuables that testified to humanity’s wonder have been lost in this conflict, but for the moment, I am able to save a small slice of it. Right here.”

He spread out his arms like Jesus on the cross, eyes thinning in glee.

“Even the ugly side of humanity is beautiful,” said Kiyo. “It is only when the ugly side becomes destructive that I am...moved into action, so to speak.”

Shuichi gawked at Kiyo. Of course, that would be Kiyo’s goal. He shook his feelings away.

“You always were weird,” Ryoma said bluntly. He tapped at the suit of armour. “How long have you been here?”

“Oh, a few months,” Kiyo shrugged. “My little expedition was not as profitable as I had hoped it would be, so I decided to settle here. These people are rugged but fascinating. Like tribesmen. I can already see humanity reverting to its most fundamental instincts in the interest of surviving. It’s strange how the Tragedy has stripped them back to their most basic forms. Fascinating.”

Shuichi shook his head, more in disbelief than disapproval. It was just like Kiyo to subscribe to that line of thinking. “It’s gotten kind of rough out there. You haven’t had any troubles at all?”

“A few here and there, but I am more than capable of looking after myself, and these ruffians know better than to disturb these artifacts when they are under my protection. Your concern is noted and appreciated, though. And how has the Future Foundation been treating you?”

“Um...I’m not sure if I’m part of the Future Foundation anymore. It’s a little bit of a grey area right now.”

“I’m not surprised. When the Future Foundation spread the word that you and the others were to be detained at all costs, I reasoned that you had run afoul of them due to your...adventure. Himiko did fill me all in on that, by the way. But don’t worry. I’ve done my best to downplay your involvement to that with the local populace. It isn’t a secret that I am the Ultimate Anthropologist, and you know that the regular people seem to think that all Ultimates know each other. I am not a high ranking person here. But I do have influence. And when you are an Ultimate, people listen.”

Kiyo moved around Shuichi and deeper into his museum. He stopped in his tracks and peered back over his shoulder, eyes glinting with mischief. Finally, his gaze landed on the crutches Himiko had left lying on the tablet.

“Don’t tell me you got those for him,” said Kiyo.

“Er...maybe,” Himiko confessed.

“Do do realize that he is in no condition to be moving around so soon? Plus there is always the threat of his escape.”

“I don’t think he’d get very far.”

“You would be surprised what someone with his determination is capable of.”

Shuichi exchanged a quizzical look with Ryoma, but let Kiyo and Himiko continue their exchange.

“Have they come to take your little problem away, then?” Said Kiyo.

“Um...what problem?” Shuichi asked.

His eyes steeled. “Ah. I see. Himiko, have you not told them yet?”

“I was—I was gonna tell them,” Himiko said. “I was just trying to think of the words.”

“Would you like to tell them, or shall I?” Kiyo asked.

“N–No, I got it,” Himiko said.

Shuichi sighed. “Okay, who’d he kill?”

“What?!”

“Kiyo. Did he finally snap and kill someone?”

“No! That’s not it at all!” Himiko averted her gaze. “...It’s worse than that.”

“Worse?”

“It’s...It’s Kokichi.”

Shuichi’s heart plummeted off a cliff and went careening into a number of jagged rocks. With two words. With two words, he knew exactly what Himiko was going to say to him, what it was about Kokichi, what had happened, and suddenly, irrefutably, the circumstances changed. And they changed with such violence that Shuichi had to steady himself against the wall to stop himself from plummeting into the jagged rocks along with his heart, to resist the temptation of a suicidal lunge into catatonia.

But...how? Kokichi had run. Shuichi had sat there, dumbfounded, and let him run. And yet Kokichi hadn’t run far enough, it seemed, because here they were, in such close proximity, that it seemed fate had intertwined them for reasons Shuichi had yet to understand. There was a reason he’d declared that the investigation wasn’t over. Kokichi had reappeared to affirm that, to guide him on a path of fate. Whether or not Kokichi liked it, they were intertwined. It was almost a sign from the divine, maybe from Atua, himself.

“...Where is he?” Shuichi asked.

“He’s in the back room,” Himiko hissed, looking around for eavesdroppers that didn’t exist. “He got hurt...”

Ryoma intervened. “How badly?”

“He...He got stabbed,” said Himiko. “I found him...and I didn’t know where to take him, so I brought him to Kiyo.”

“Stabbed?” Ryoma said quickly. It was hard to tell if it was concern or morbid curiosity. “Who stabbed him?”

“It—It wasn’t me! I found him like that. I couldn’t just leave him to die! It’s what Angie would do!”

“You did the right thing, Himiko,” Shuichi assured her. “How did you even know where to find Kiyo, though?”

“Let’s just say that Angie knew some stuff she wasn’t willing to share,” said Himiko. “He was the only person I could think of to help...”

“An interesting choice, but no judgment here,” Ryoma murmured.

Shuichi sighed. He massaged his forehead. “Okay. I’ll talk to Kokichi.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Ryoma asked. “You know he’s not your biggest fan.”

“All the more reason to try to build a rapport with him.”

“Nyeh, I don’t think Kokichi could really do anything about it right now,” Himiko said. “The painkillers kinda made him loopy.”

“Loopy?”

“You know...woo! Woo! Woo-o-o-o-o-o!” Himiko flailed her arms around in what Shuichi guessed was her attempt at imitating a loopy person. She spun around in a circle, flapping like a baby bird who couldn’t get off the ground.

“Thanks for the warning,” said Shuichi. “I think I can handle him.”

Shuichi knew for a fact that he could not handle Kokichi. Despite that, he went to the backroom Kiyo indicated, with Ryoma right on his heels.

“Could you wait out here?” Shuichi asked Ryoma.

“I got nothing better to do,” said Ryoma. “Gotta admit, I’m kind of relieved that he’s here.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. Better to have someone like Kokichi where you can keep an eye on him, rather than out there doing who-knows-what.” Ryoma paused. “You sure you can handle him?”

Shuichi nodded and ducked behind the curtain to enter the back room.

When he entered, Kokichi was so focused on what he was doing that he didn’t immediately look up. He was tucked into a bedroll, surrounded by loose sheets of paper and scribbling intently with a crayon. Shuichi stood there, wondering if he should clear his throat or announce his presence or whether to say hello or to apologize for something that he hadn’t done.

“Heard your voices,” Kokichi told him. “So I drew a picture to commemorate your arrival.”

Kokichi turned the paper he was scribbling on around to hold Shuichi like he was a kindergartener showing off his masterpiece. Shuichi squinted. The image was a hastily drawn picture of Shuichi, head comically large, getting impaled on multiple spikes.

“Will you talk to me now?” Shuichi asked.

“You can talk to the hand,” Kokichi answered. He raised the flat of his palm towards him to demonstrate.

“Who stabbed you?” Shuichi asked.

“Eh?” Kokichi cocked his head. “Who got stabbed?”

“I’d like to know who stabbed you.”

“I didn’t get stabbed.”

“That’s not what Himiko and Kiyo told me.”

“They’re unreliable. We both know I’m not stabbed...I’m...unstabbable!”

Kokichi murmured a bit, distracted by the crayons. It was clear he wasn’t entirely there, from the distant look in his normally focused eyes to the way he favoured his right side. With every jostle of his left, a fresh grimace flickered across his face.

Shuichi knelt on the ground next to the bedroll, gentle, as if at the bedside of a dying person. Kokichi focused on the ground, absently scribbling on the doodle of Shuichi to add more huge swathes of blood, although there was no discernible pattern to anything, only wretched emotions pouring onto the page.

Kokichi’s other hand twitched. He was hiding it under the cover.

When Shuichi leaned forward to get a better look, Kokichi brandished a knife he’d been hiding and jabbed at him.

Shuichi yelped and dove back in time to avoid the worst blow, the blade just grazing him. It was an old knife, one of the many artifacts that Kiyo was protecting, the blade engraved with intricate swirls and decoration that didn’t match the context for which it was being used. Kokichi’s face was frozen without feeling.

“Did you just...Did you just try to stab me?!” Shuichi exclaimed.

“No,” Kokichi lied.

“You’re holding the knife!”

“Am not,” Kokichi lied again.

“Your fingers are literally wrapped around the handle!”

“Are not, I don’t have anything in my hand,” Kokichi lied for the third time in a row while holding the knife.

“Give it to me.”

“I can’t give you something I don’t have.”

“Give it to me NOW!”

“NO!”

Emboldened, Shuichi reached forward and tumbled on top of Kokichi as he tried to keep it away from him. They flailed. Kokichi’s teeth grit and sweat dripping down his pale face. They wrestled with it for only a heartbeat or two before Shuichi pressed his knee painfully against Kokichi’s wound, and Kokichi shrieked. His grip slackened and Shuichi fell back, throwing the knife as far away as possible. It clattered against the far wall and to the ground.

Kokichi let out a low hum. “Well. That was anticlimactic.”

“What exactly did you expect would happen if you stabbed me?!” Shuichi demanded, unable to keep the bite out of his tone. He righted himself and gave Kokichi some space to recover.

“I dunno, I was just trying to live out a fantasy. Tell me, Detective Saihara, do you always go around ruining the hopes and dreams of all children everywhere?”

Shuichi frowned and folded his arms. “Only yours.”

Kokichi giggled. His eyes were unfocused and his balance unsteady as he sat there among his colouring books and loose crayons and the childlike sense of glee. Shuichi was used to seeing focus in those eyes, so intent on ideas that he never wavered, but there was none of that now.

“What...kind of painkillers did Kiyo put you on?” Shuichi murmured, partially in amazement, partially in concern.

“The kind that would make Kaito go spinning around on his head before he vomits all over the place,” said Kokichi. “Oh, did you know he’s a drug addict? Because I think he’s a drug addict!”

“He’s not—how did you even—never mind, don’t answer that. Kaito’s not addicted to anything, he’s just sick.”

“Yes. Sick. Sick in love!”

Kokichi cackled like a madman, laughing like a toddler Woody Woodpecker sped up after drinking twenty-eight cups of coffee spiked with energy boosters. The kind that made his ears bleed. That kind of laugh. Kokichi laughed until tears were streaming out of his eyes, then collapsed onto his front and gazed drowsily up at Shuichi. He noted the strained lines prominent around his eyes.

It was hard to compare the Kokichi-high-in-painkillers with the Kokichi-who-just-tried-to-stab-him. They were two different people trapped in a single body. Even if he was high on painkillers, even if he did have a hole in his back, Shuichi could sense Kokichi’s mind swerving and reeling like an out-of-control driver trying to outmaneuver the police. Maybe he could even succeed in that if he wasn’t paralyzed by other circumstance. Even in his haze, Kokichi fixed on a corner in the room, staring at something Shuichi couldn’t see, and his mind was working as hard as ever.

“Well, I don’t suppose all these painkillers make you want to tell me your entire life story?” Shuichi asked.

“It all started with a sperm—”

“Not that far back,” Shuichi said, holding back a laugh. “Never mind. You just focus on getting better.”

“Wow, not even gonna take advantage of me? Disappointing.”

“I would never do something like that. And even if I did, the information you’d provide wouldn’t be admissible.”

Kokichi popped his lips together a few time. “Not what I was talking about, but okay.”

Shuichi wasn’t sure what Kokichi meant by that. Either way, he decided it was best to ignore it. “Just try to heal, okay? Is it okay if I visit you again?”

“What would my life be without my favourite gnat around?” Kokichi drawled. “Just bring me an offering if you do want to visit. Colouring books will do. Or crayons. Or Panta.”

Shuichi stood and backed out of the room, careful not to turn his back to him. At the exit, Kokichi seemed to lose interest in him and instead stared, vehement, at a corner in the room, as if the corner was staring back at him in some capacity. Shuichi, for his part, stared before making his exit.


 

Kaede wished to God and all that was good and holy that she was surprised that Kokichi had reemerged into their lives, just when they were convinced of his disappearance. Despite Shuichi’s resolve to answer the many questions behind the Ultimate Supreme Leader, and despite her usual upbeat nature, Kaede had felt certain that it would end in defeat. That someday, Shuichi would’ve realized the futility of finding the answers behind someone who had vanished off the face of the Earth.

She wasn’t, though, because the one thing she understood about Kokichi was that he never acted in the way she expected him too. Not for Shuichi and his insistent need to solve a mystery. Not for anyone else. He was defiant even to himself, and Kaede envied that ability to act unpredictably.

She, Shuichi, and Himiko stood outside the medical clinic where she’d left Tenko, with people living in obliviousness just meters away. The news of Kokichi’s reentry had just been broken to her in hushed whispers, with Himiko staring guiltily at the ground. Himiko hadn’t said a word about it, but it explained why she had run away so quickly after seeing them. Kaede took a minute to process the news, thinking it over, before coming to her conclusion.

“I’m glad,” she said.

The wound-up tension in Shuichi’s shoulders released. “I knew you’d be.”

“Maybe we can actually get some closure out of this whole mess,” said Kaede.

Shuichi’s eyes flickered over her shoulder, into the makeshift medical clinic where Tenko was. “How’s Tenko?”

“She’ll be okay,” Kaede told him. “The nurse numbed the area and took out the bullet. Tenko was more annoyed than in pain. But she’ll be okay.”

“And Kaito’s medicine?”

“Got some. I’ll make sure he doesn’t know they came from us when we get back to the apartment.”

Satisfied, Shuichi gestured to the clinic. “Are you going to tell Tenko?”

“Not yet,” said Kaede. “I don’t want her to go and do something she’ll regret later.”

“You don’t think she’d actually kill him, do you? Especially when he’s already hurt?”

“Well, not kill. Seriously injure? Maybe. Either way, better to keep them apart for now.” Kaede bit her nail and ran over the scenario in her head. The idea of Tenko beating a semi-conscious Kokichi to near-death was something she preferred to avoid. “I should get back to her. Want to come, Himiko?”

“I’ll...wait out here,” said Himiko.

“I’m going to meet up with Ryoma and get some supplies for the hideout,” said Shuichi. “Then maybe talk with Kiyo about what we’re going to do with Kokichi for now.”

“What if he wants to leave again?” Kaede asked.

Shuichi shrugged. “I don’t know if he has a choice but to stay in hiding for now. We’ll see what happens.”

Kaede nodded and ducked back into the medical clinic where she’d left Tenko. Tenko sat upright, with her bad leg extended and wrapped up in a fresh bandage. Knowing Tenko, she’d be up and about very quickly, and right now she looked more peeved than anything else.

“Oh, you’re back,” Tenko snapped. “I figured that since your friends don’t matter that much to you, then you’d have just left me here.”

Kaede chose not to address that. “How are you feeling?”

“Peachy. No thanks to you.”

Kaede put her hands on her hips. “You know that’s not fair, Tenko. I’m sorry that this happened, but I’m not sorry that I decided to help someone who was in need, even if they didn’t completely deserve it.”

“Even if you put your friends in danger because of it?”

“I didn’t know that it would put anyone in danger,” Kaede argued. “I’m sorry, Tenko...I really am. I just wanted to do the right thing.”

Complex emotions vied for dominance on Tenko. Her brow knitted together, her chin jutted out. And then it softened all at once, fading into something almost childlike, like a stubborn child searching for reassurance. When she looked at her with wide, watery eyes, whatever frustration Kaede had held onto faded away.

“Don’t apologize,” said Tenko. “It’s not you. It’s him. If I ever see him again, I’ll wring his scrawny little neck!”

Kaede tried to vanquish that image from her mind. “Oh, sure. I’m...sure we can find you an outlet for that anger.” Preferably one that didn’t actually involve Tenko strangling anyone.

“You know he ruined everything, right?” Tenko went on.

“Things weren’t exactly perfect anyway,” Kaede pointed out.

“But things were okay! We had a roof over our heads, we had rations, we had protection, and there were people around us who knew what we were going through! I had a purpose to help you protect everyone, and I failed. I won’t fail you again, Kaede.”

“You didn’t fail me.”

“Things are going to be different from now on, Kaede,” Tenko continued, not acknowledging her. “I’ll protect everyone, even from themselves!”

“I don’t think you need to do—”

“I do need to, Kaede. I don’t think you really understand how much I need to.”

Kaede stood at Tenko’s sickbed, still and motionless. She didn’t let Tenko see the stress on her face, keeping herself smooth and even and composed for the sake of the others. Always for the sake of the others. She reached forward and squeezed Tenko’s hand.

“Just heal up quickly, okay?” said Kaede. “Then you can protect everyone.”

Tenko nodded in affirmation.

Kaede left the clinic, rubbing her eyes. The stress was getting to her. She wondered how far she was from a breakdown, then she swallowed thickly and found Himiko lurking just outside. A change had come over Himiko, unlike the hesitation she’d shown before when she and Shuichi had first told her about Kokichi. Her large eyes were focused with intent, sharp enough to slice through her foes.

“How’s Tenko?” Himiko asked. Her tone was almost as sharp as her eyes.

“She’ll be fine,” Kaede assured her. “She’s in good spirits, anyway.”

“That’s good.” Himiko went quiet. Then, she said, “Kaede, I’m...I’ll be back, okay?”

“Back? Back from where?”

Himiko didn’t reply. She turned on her heel and marched off into the tunnels.

“Hey, wait!” Kaede called.

When Himiko didn’t stop, Kaede took off after her, keeping a laser focus on her as Himiko navigated back down the tunnel where Kaede and the others had first entered. Himiko turned into a deserted corridor, and when Kaede also turned, she nearly tumbled headfirst down a steep, dormant escalator descending to the subway platforms below. The light was scant, but Kaede managed to keep her balance as she hurried down after her.

“Himiko, wait!” Kaede called. “Where are you going?!”

Again, Himiko didn’t answer, and Kaede didn’t catch up with her until they were on the platform, and Himiko peered down one of the subway tunnels. There was no life here, no refugees who dared to occupy these tunnels. Just the scars of a forgotten world.

“What are you doing?” Kaede asked. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to go get Angie and Tsumugi,” Himiko announced.

Kaede went quiet.

“I’m going to get Angie and Tsumugi,” Himiko repeated. “I—I don’t know for sure where they are...but I have an idea of where they might’ve gone. So I’m going to go get them. I’m gonna bring them back. We should all be together again. Maybe I can’t make Kirumi or Maki or anyone else come back, but I can get Tsumugi and Angie. They should be here. I’m going to make sure they’re here with us. None of us are sure if we have any family left in the world, but we have each other, and I can get Angie and Tsumugi to come back, I know it!”

“Where do you think they are, Himiko?” Kaede asked patiently.

“Like I said, there’s only one place I can think of.”

Kaede went quiet again. She thought hard and long about it, about Angie, about where she might’ve gone.

“No,” Kaede said. “No, she couldn’t have gone back there. It’s too dangerous!”

“It’s—It’s the only place I can think of,” Himiko stammered for the third time. “We reminisced about it a lot, it’s where—it’s where we all met. It’s where this all started. I think Angie would go back there.”

“Even if she did manage to make it, either the Remnants or the Future Foundation have taken it over by now,” Kaede pointed out. “She’ll never get through.”

“She has Atua on her side. If anyone can do it, it’s her.”

Kaede opened her mouth, willing a protest to come out. None did because she knew she was right, and she knew Angie, and she knew the place she had gone as if it had just been yesterday that she first roved through the halls. Kaede inhaled, still able to smell the fresh wood-grain finish of the freshly refurbished music room, still able to remember the smooth feel of the piano keys.

Because Hope’s Peak wasn’t a place you ever forgot. It took just one visit to have it seared into your mind forever, hot and painful like a brand.

“I would rethink your course of action if I were you.”

Both Himiko and Kaede swung around, startled by the voice coming from the darkness. Kiyo leaned against the wall of the subway. Kaede vaguely wondered if he’d been there the whole time, blending in with the shadows as easily as he did.

Nevertheless, having announced his presence, Kiyo righted himself and came forward. “As noble as your intentions are, I have made several trips to the ruins of Hope’s Peak since I left your company. In the interest of preserving human history, of course.”

“You have?” Kaede said. “You’ve been there? Before or after the killing game?”

“Both. As a fascinating case study if nothing else. However, the area is on the dangerous side. You can reach it by navigating these tunnels.” He pointed down the subway tunnel. “But if you insist on your trip, which again, I wholeheartedly do not recommend for the faint-hearted, I suggest I come with you as a guide.”

“No way,” Himiko shook her head.

At the same time, Kaede replied, “Yes, absolutely!”

Kaede met Himiko’s gaze. Himiko relented it after a moment, puffing out her cheeks and folding her arms.

“Yes, we’d like you to come,” Kaede reaffirmed.

Kiyo was quiet for a moment. Then he let out a soft laugh in the way that he did, spreading out his arms. “Oh, this is fabulous! Such determination to save our old companions! Such a pure, unadulterated example of human determination and love. You never fail to disappoint, Kaede.”

“Oh, I’m not that impressive,” Kaede denied. “Let’s not celebrate before we’ve accomplished anything. Who knows, by the time we get back, maybe this whole place will have gone up in flames, too.”

“Don’t jinx it,” said Himiko. “I feel like I’m gonna be sick already.”

“How exactly did you plan to get Tsumugi and Angie if you feel sick just thinking about it?” Kaede asked teasingly.

“I didn’t plan to think too much about it, to be honest.”

Kaede inhaled and exhaled through her mouth in a long, steady breath. “Well, let’s get this over with. What’s the worst that could happen, right?”

Kaede was the first to jump from the platform and onto the abandoned subway tracks, shortly followed by Kiyo and Himiko. The tunnel beckoned to her, and clustered together, the trio vanished into the darkness and the tunnel was quiet again.

Chapter Text

Kaede won her first piano competition when she was barely out of diapers. While she didn’t remember the act of winning the trophy, she still remembered the trophy itself: a dusty, forgotten piece of metal stuck in the back of a closet. It was small compared to the ones she won later, and so it never deserved a more prominent place on her shelves. A small footnote on the path to greatness. As she peered at the old Hope’s Peak building from the end of the pathway leading up to it, she thought of that trophy now. An old but monumental item, never forgotten, but swept under the rug.

Kaede had never actually set foot in the old building. By the time she and her classmates attended, the new building was operational, before burning to the ground during the Tragedy. She could still see the charred remnants standing like a tombstone off to the right, destroyed in an instant through an act of despair. Although never one to linger on the past, Kaede felt strange being here. It was a quiet apparition she’d thought she’d never set foot at again, and here she was, on the precipice of reviving memories that held no weight after the Tragedy. To her right, Himiko shivered under her black cloak and hat. To her left, Kiyo was imposing and draconian.

The journey to Hope’s Peak had been uneventful. There were the ever-present sounds of distant conflict, but Kiyo knew his way around, and guided them down twisting subway tunnels. Not native to Tokyo, Kaede didn’t know the layout of the city very well, so she was grateful for his help, even if Kiyo was a little odd at times. The most they’d had to deal with were scurrying rats and a foul smell of decay. An hour or so later, they arrived at the subway station near Hope’s Peak, and it was a simple matter to ascend above ground unimpeded.

Since the Killing Game had occurred, Kaede only heard vague rumours about the fate of Hope’s Peak. For the most part, it lay abandoned, combed over by Future Foundation agents dispatched to rescue the survivors. Anything that remained was abandoned when the area became too dangerous. The Future Foundation must’ve decided that it wasn’t worth holding, because Kaede hadn’t seen any of their soldiers around. Or anyone, really. It struck her as a little odd that not even the Remnants of Despair had any sentries.

Or maybe they did, and they were simply letting them past. Kaede’s stomach churned, like her stomach acid was making a very prolific attempt to eat her insides.

“Well, I have succeeded in getting us here,” said Kiyo. “What is your course of action now?”

He spoke in such a condescending way that Kaede gave him a sharp look. He didn’t recoil, but she hoped it conveyed her annoyance well enough.

“Any idea where to start, Himiko?” Kaede asked Himiko. When she didn’t answer, she turned. “Himiko?”

Himiko stared vacantly toward the distant building, lined on either side by charred trees. She was lost in more than one sense, existing in two places as the Ultimate Magician Kaede had first met here, and as the cult follower Angie had turned her into. With a soundless step, she glided forward as if in a trance, through the front gates, and beyond.

On edge, Kaede hurried after her, glancing from left to right in the tree line to search for strange eyes. Finding none, she instead picked up a distinct, rancid stench of a rotting corpse. It wafted around them with a breeze that rattled the blackened branches.

“Whatever or whoever it is has been dead for a while, no need to fear,” Kiyo assured her.

“You can tell without even seeing it?” Kaede asked.

“Of course I can. I would be more concerned about where Himiko intends to lead us, seeing as this place is abandoned.”

“It’s where we first met,” Himiko spoke up for the first time since emerging from the subway tunnels. “Angie has to be here.”

“I see no evidence of her. No footprints in the snow, no signs of a recent disturbance.”

“Angie can fly!”

“Ah. What a marvellous trick. I look forward to bearing witness to this miracle of nature.”

“Shut up! I didn’t even want to bring you along.”

Himiko stormed off, resolve quickening her step. Kiyo made no effort to pursue her, staying close to Kaede instead.

“This is a dangerous and symbolic place,” said Kiyo. Although his mouth was concealed, Kaede sensed the smile on his undertone. “I can see why Angie would be attracted to it.”

“I thought you said you didn’t see any evidence of Angie being here,” said Kaede.

“Such assumptions! And after I brought you all this way, too.”

Kaede frowned at him. Kiyo’s mane of hair floated behind him, his lower eyelids turned upward, his attention fixed on the old building. He clasped his hands behind his back and evened his pace, and it took a minute or two before he noticed Kaede noticing. Upon locking eyes, she looked away.

The smell of something rotting grew stronger.

Kaede rushed to catch up to Himiko. She remembered the path to the school vividly, both from her first entrance to Hope's Peak, to the day of the Tragedy. Signs of recent conflict lay around them. The Remnants had fortified the school to prevent any rescue attempt of the Killing Game participants, and the Future Foundation hadn't sat around to let it happen. Bullet holes, scorch marks, the remains of dismantled weapons and even an abandoned tank—all of it had been left behind in the hurry to liberate the students.

As they neared the school, Kaede overtook Himiko, certain that in her blind emotional state, Himiko would walk right into an ambush. They approached where the front doors should’ve been, but in their place was a sealed entrance. Or, what had been a sealed entrance, because now it stood open, like a gaping mouth leading further into the school. One step and they would head right down a sleeping dragon's throat—its next victims.

Kaede took out Shuichi's phone and aimed the screen inside. Whatever generators had been keeping the power on during the Killing Game must've been shut off, for there was no other light source. She stepped over the threshold and stared into the darkness. Not knowing the layout of the building, she wasn’t sure where they were supposed to start.

Kaede scanned the main hall with the phone, the beam falling upon a camera bolted on the ceiling. That must be what the Killing Game was broadcasted with. Kaede’s stomach turned a little just thinking about her upperclassmen who had died here—who she had watched die on the television screen.

“Angie?” Kaede called into the darkness. “Tsumugi? Is anyone here? We’re friendly! We’re not here to hurt anyone!”

Her voice reverberated back without an answer.

Kaede inhaled. Steady. Himiko needed her to be calm right now, and she flashed her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re alright. They’re probably just hiding.”

“I have a bad feeling,” Himiko admitted. “M—Maybe it was a mistake coming here.”

“We’re here now. If you want, you can wait here and I can have a look around.”

“...Nyeh, I think splitting up is an even worse—hey, where did Kiyo go?”

Kaede had been folded up tight to protect herself, but at the mention of Kiyo, she unfurled and swung around to scan the immediate area. No Kiyo. Just them and lingering ghosts.

“Kiyo?” she said into the silence. It didn’t say anything back. “Did he come in with us?”

“I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention,” Himiko admitted. “I thought he did?”

“Dammit, when I get my hands on him...” Kaede let out a tight breath between her teeth. “Well, we know he’s...capable of looking after himself. We’ll find Angie first, then Kiyo.”

Angie wasn’t making it easy. Yet they were here now, and it would be a shame to leave without answers. She forced a foot forward and committed.

Kaede scanned for signs of life and spotted a fresh blood trail leading to the left. She and Himiko stood in a titanic hall that branched out in multiple directions, and across from them was the remnants of the student store. The doors had been pried off and the interior raided. To the left and right, the halls were shrouded in darkness.

Until the lights turned on.

It was so sudden that Kaede jumped in the air as glaringly bright lights burst into existence overhead, followed by a heavy bang behind them. The door slammed with such force that fragments of ceiling rained down on them, and her instincts went from tense to full-on-red-alert-this-is-not-a-drill. The submarine needed to dive, but the water was too shallow. Himiko shrieked and clung close to Kaede. Above, a red light on the camera blinked on, lifted, and watched them with intent interest.

She knew she should be panicking, but at the moment, she was calm.

“H—How are we gonna get out?!” Himiko wondered, frantic.

“I’m sure there’s another exit,” Kaede assured her, despite remembering that the point of the killing game was that that door had been the only way out. No need to worry about that right now, though.

The hall fully illuminated, Kaede saw that the blood trail led to the nurse’s office before tapering off outside. She moved in that direction and stopped outside, listening for movement. Hearing none, she propped open the door and looked in.

It was empty. Although it was clear that someone had been in there. The blood trail splattered across the floor, but whoever had been doing the bleeding had survived whatever injury they'd had. Several of the cabinets were swung open and the contents were strewn across the floor. Hesitantly edging inside, Kaede surveyed the area and went to the medicine cabinet to examine its contents. Nothing of note except some basic painkillers.

Himiko hovered by the doorway, clutching the front of her shirt nervously. She was breathing heavily and biting her lower lip a little too hard. Still, she seemed to compose herself. It was short-lived as a loud cackle sounded overhead. Himiko yelped and seized Kaede’s sleeve as the speakers came to life. A sound of rustling papers sounded, followed by someone clearing their voice.

“Hello Kaede, hello Mew Mew,” said the voice. There was no mistaking it. It was Angie. “This is your Oracle speaking. Mew Mew, Atua has given me a divine vision and has new instructions for you. You have to kill Kaede. So grab the nearest blunt object and bop her on the head a little, okay?”

Kaede’s mouth fell open. She turned towards Himiko, for a moment panicked that she was going to follow through with the order and do something stupid. But Himiko was far too pale, far too meek, to follow through with such a thing. Himiko mouthed wordlessly, then found the camera and stared up into it.

“W—What?!” Himiko squeaked. “W—Why?! Atua would never say to do that! He’s a peaceful god!”

“Well, about that. He decided he wants to be a vengeful one now. So just give her a bop. Bop, bop!”

“B—But I don’t want to!”

“It’s a bit of a loss, I know, but I promise the rewards will be worth it,” Angie cooed.

“Why are you talking like this, Oracle? This doesn’t sound like you at all!”

There was silence on the other end of the intercom. Then, “Well...I’m not angry at you, Mew Mew. Only disappointed. Tell you what, I’ll give you some time to think about it! You got ten minutes before you make Atua angry, okay? Okay! Talk to you then!”

The speaker crackled and died.

“She must be in the control room, the one that Junko Enoshima used to manipulate everything during the killing game,” Kaede surmised. “That must be how she’s controlling the cameras and the lights and such. Don’t you think, Himiko?”

Himiko was trembling all over.

“I...don't want...to make Atua angry...” Himiko breathed.

Kaede’s heart plummeted. Not only plummeted, but dive-bombed off the edge of the void and straight into the depths of hell to be eternally tortured by some very irate demons.

“Hey, listen to me, you know you don’t want to do anything impulsive,” Kaede placed a hand on Himiko's shoulder. “We’re here to help Angie, okay? And I don’t think Atua would approve of her behaviour right now.”

“What if...she’s right?” Himiko wondered. “What if...Atua will be angry...if I don’t do what his Oracle says? What if I get punished and sent to Auta’s house?!”

“Nothing like that will happen, Himiko. You don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“I don’t...but...does Atua want me to? What if I need to do it?”

“Even if you felt like you needed to do it, I don’t think you’d be able to overpower me,” Kaede said. She tried to keep her tone light, almost teasing, like this was no big deal, like Himiko wasn’t actually contemplating trying to kill her. “I’d just pick you up and tie you up.”

Himiko tugged on her hair a little, conflicted. Kaede’s stomach tensed. She wouldn’t be able to proceed like this, with worrying about Himiko. She herded Himiko to one of the beds and sat her down.

“Stay there,” she ordered her.

“Why?” Himiko asked.

“I’m going to get Angie and Tsumugi,” Kaede assured her. “You stay here until I get back, okay?”

Kaede didn’t pause to assess whether or not Himiko would obey. There was no time to contemplate that possibility, not when the greater situation at hand drew her further inside. She propped open the door to the infirmary, confirmed that no one had appeared in the hall, and emerged. Of course, this was going against all her survival instincts, but she was doing what needed to be done.

In the hall, Kaede looked up at a nearby camera trained on her. So they’d rebooted the power and the systems used to broadcast the killing game to the world. The control room was on the fourth floor. Angie had to be there—there was no other location where she could exercise such complete control of the school. Up the stairs, down a few hallways, knock on the door, and Angie would be there. Then they could sort this mess out and...well, Kaede hadn't thought this plan all the way through. How hard could it be?

She trotted down the hall and up the first staircase to the next floor, the sound of her feet hitting the tiled floor the only noise. Much of Hope's Peak had been damaged or outright destroyed in the early days of the Tragedy, so she knew that the way up was a linear journey. Kaede paused at the top of the staircase to survey her surroundings. So many times she'd seen this place on a television screen. Walking through this place was like walking through a movie set. Hope’s Peak had become a caricature of its former self, a mockery of what it had meant to inspire. Kaede’s heart ached, both with the feeling of loss, and anger towards what Junko had turned it into.

Kaede took a cautious step forward, and the intercom crackled to life again. This time, she kept on coarse and didn’t falter.

“If you’re not going to die, you should turn around and go away,” said Angie. “We want to be alone with Atua.”

"Hard to do that when you locked the door behind us," Kaede hissed. She reached the next corner and spotted the next staircase.

“Well, if you’re going to be that way...um...I think this should—yes, this should still work,” said Angie. “Remember, I told you to leave!”

The ground rumbled.

Kaede faltered and braced herself against the wall. She stood still, listening for noise.

And then the wall exploded.

Barreling through a freshly created door, Kaede saw a bulky, monstrous machine emerge from the cloud of dust. Her heart slammed against her ribcage. A large barrel sliced through the dust and pointed at her. A tank? A gun? No. Neither of those things. This was much, much stranger.

It was a baseball pitcher, fastened on wheels, and with a childlike drawing of Monokuma plastered right on top of it. Although it was clearly in disrepair, there was no mistaking where she’d seen it before. It was the same pitcher that had killed Leon Kuwata.

Kaede dove in time to avoid the first volley of baseballs, while a manic, high-pitched, broken, mechanical, roaring laughter pounded overhead. Monokuma’s laugh. Coming from the machine. Or maybe it was the sound of the baseballs pounding against the wall Kaede had been cornered against, leaving behind a massive line of holes. Dust and debris exploded everywhere, clouding her vision. Kaede's sluggish mind decided not to question the existence of this...this thing. It was a futile effort, and there had been stranger apparitions during the Killing Game. Things she hadn't been able to believe, yet there they had been. Kaede decided to run.

The pitcher's tires screeched against the floor and slammed into the opposite wall in its desperation to get around the corner. Kaede launched forward and sprinted like a marathon racer jacked on steroids and one win away from being the Olympic champion. The pitcher couldn’t turn well—that might be her only saving grace. Acting on that knowledge, she skidded to a halt and doubled back right towards the pitcher, heart pounding as she raced towards it like she was going to dive right down the barrel and to her death.

The pitcher fired, the baseballs leaving a long line of indents behind her. As she whisked by, she heard a metal clank as the pitcher got locked at a ninety-degree angle, unable to turn any further without physically turning around. The hall would barely provide enough room to do even that.

Kaede raced down a side hall, knowing that she would need to double back to get past the pitcher again. She dove into the first classroom she came across. It would be best to hide here, wait for the pitcher to come after her, and then use the same technique to get past it again. Entering the classroom, panting hard, she pressed her back against the wall next to the door. It would have to enter to get in. Unless it burst through a wall again.

"Hello, Kaede.”

Kaede swung around. On edge, she raised her fists as if she could hope to even punch someone’s lights out. And then she saw that the someone that was there was Tsumugi.

Tsumugi was sitting on top of the teacher’s desk. She was still wearing the yellow frock, but there was a smattering of dark blood near the torso. Kaede couldn’t see any injury. If there was, she hid it behind her too-wide smile. More importantly, there was a knife lodged in the desk. Tsumugi's fingers drummed impatiently on the handle.

“Oh, Tsumugi, thank goodness you’re here,” Kaede exhaled. “We need to run, there’s a—a thing that’s coming after me!”

“I know,” said Tsumugi with a placid smile.

Kaede froze. That didn’t look promising. She heard the pitcher rattling around in the hallway behind her, knowing that at any second it would be upon both of them.

“Are you alright?” Kaede asked. “What happened to Angie?”

Tsumugi was still.

“...Tsumugi?”

Tsumugi turned with a flourish, a placid smile stretching her lips. “Mew Mew got orders to bop you on the head. Why aren’t you dead?”

“Not you, too,” said Kaede. “Look, I know what happened at the temple was...it was horrible...but going axe crazy and trying to kill people, especially your friends, isn’t the way to handle that.”

Tsumugi casually held out the knife towards Kaede. “If I kill you...then maybe Atua will reward me for my service.”

Kaede held up her hands. This was starting to get a little out of control. “If you kill me, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.”

Tsumugi laughed. “That’s kind of the point, you know?”

“...What do you mean?”

Tsumugi’s laugh died into a chuckle, then vanished. The smile did not. “You never understood. None of you ever really understood Atua. You just pretended you did, like Dark Yagami did. You never understood any of it. I don't think even the Oracle understood until we found Atua's beacon. It showed us the true meaning of Atua's nature, what he represents, what he wants us to do. After we found the beacon, everything finally made sense. It wasn't just about making people happy anymore—we finally had a purpose."

“Beacon? What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense.”

“The beacon! A sacred artifact sent by Atua himself to help Angie show the way to everyone! It made everything right again! That’s the point of it all, to be make everything right. Then to destroy that feeling so that we can feel despair.”

The word sent prickles of anxiety throughout Kaede’s body. She flashed back to the killing game, to watching Junko’s mocking smile on the screen, taunting everyone who had the misfortunate of laying eyes on it. She stepped back and Tsumugi stepped forward, holding out the knife towards her like she was making an offering.

“What...have you been doing?” Kaede asked. She glanced around, wondering if Hope’s Peak had become a toxic breeding ground for the kind of thinking Remnants subscribed to. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Tsumugi. How about you put down the knife and we talk about it a little?”

“I’d rather carry out the Oracle’s orders,” said Tsumugi. “The orders of Atua must be carried out. I was nobody. I was just plain, old, boring Tsumugi. Nobody notices Tsumugi. Nobody likes Tsumugi! The Oracle gave me a higher purpose, and that purpose is to protect the beacon from unbelievers like you!”

With that, she lunged.

Kaede screamed and dove out the doorway, sliding the door shut in time for Tsumugi to hit her face against it. With the whir of the nearby pitcher still on the hunt for her, she wasn’t eager to find herself in a corner where an old friend thought it was okay to stab her for no apparent reason. There wasn’t any reasoning for anyone who’d fallen to despair, and Tsumugi had clearly reached that oh-so-fragile tipping point. She wasn’t sure how it happened, or when it had happened, or if she’d always been like his, but she wasn’t going to fight her. Kaede sprinted down the hall at full throttle, hearing Tsumugi swing out of the doorway and hurry after her at equal speed.

Kaede reached the stairs leading to the upper floors. She almost faltered, uncertain of where she was going. She was spiralling. She heard her feet pounding on the steps, but didn’t feel it. She knew she was racing up, up, up, but was being pulled downwards, All Kaede felt was the impossible weight of Tsumugi’s knife aiming right for her back.

She heard Tsumugi let out a surprised cry behind her. Had she tripped? Kaede didn’t look back to find out. Whatever had delayed her, it afforded her a few precious seconds to get a head start. At the top, Kaede faltered and nearly tumbled back as a cultist, magnificently donned in his yellow frock, emerged out of nowhere. He had a glassy, hollow look in his eyes as his attention passed right over her and down the stairs.

“I was sent to—” he started to say.

Tsumugi drowned out whatever the cultist meant to say and pounced. Kaede rolled out of the way on the top step, causing her to collide with the cultist. Tsumugi rolled over until she was on top of him and, despite her eyes being wide open, they were unseeing. She slammed the knife into the cultist’s chest.

Kaede’s gasped as if she’d been the one to be stabbed. The pain ballooned in her ribcage. Tsumugi drew back the knife and stabbed again, and again, the sickening squelch of the blade drawing in and out of the body sucking all the air out of the room. Despite the force of the action and the crimson blood splattering all over her front, Tsumugi showed no signs of awareness. Between the stabs, Kaede stared deep into her eyes and saw nothing there. No feeling, no thought, just blind instinct, as if she was a wind-up doll who had been wound up too tight. It was so automatic, so eerie. She didn’t recognize this person in front of her. It was an approximation, a picture of someone she knew, like an incompetent artist trying to create someone's likeness from a basic description.

Tsumugi finished her assault on the cultist. They were both frozen there, panting. Tsumugi’s hands trembled around the knife handle. You’d think that upon killing someone, there’d be screaming, there’d be laughing, there’d be noise. There was none of that. Tsumugi was tranquil, like a poised and hardened criminal being led to the executioner’s block. There was no concern for her welfare, or her victim, or her circumstances. Tsumugi pushed herself back up and turned the knife on Kaede.

“Your turn,” she said.

When Tsumugi lunged for her, Kaede brought up her foot and kicked as hard as she could. Her heel made contact with Tsumugi’s chest, and she careened back to trip over the cultist’s corpse. Behind her, Kaede heard the pitcher crashing its way up the stairs.

“Keep her busy, Sugar Plum!” Angie ordered over the intercom. “I only need one good shot.”

Well, that wasn’t going to happen. Kaede’s feet skidded across the swathes of blood leftover from the dead cultist. She sprinted down the hall, turned the corner, and saw the stairs leading up at the very end. Just a little bit further. All the while, Tsumugi’s unforgiving presence bared down on her. There was nothing left for it. She raced for the staircase, but Tsumugi’s determination gave her impossible speed. Kaede turned, preparing to face her. There was Tsumugi. Behind her, the pitcher roared around the corner.

It was a slow-motion action scene. In full stride, Kaede's sudden halt threw Tsumugi off balance. She expected the climax of the musical score to be reached, to blare out as Tsumugi struck a death blow and the hero came to a sudden end. Instead, it went quiet as the spotlight tensed on Tsumugi. In her adrenaline-filled haze, Kaede noticed perfect details with Shuichi-level precision. She saw her own eye-bulging expression reflected in Tsumugi's glasses, and Tsumugi's dilated pupils behind them. She saw the shine of scarlet blood soaking Tsumugi's entire front. She saw the glint of metal as the pitcher's barrel rotated.

And then a baseball collided with the back of Tsumugi's head with such force that blood sprayed across the ground in front of her.

Tsumugi was just far enough away from Kaede that she avoided getting soaked with it. Blood droplets freckled across her shoes and Tsumugi slammed into the tiled floor. One moment she'd been there, whole and alive, and the next her head was an unrecognizable bloody pulp, blood and skull fragments and grey matter streamed in a cone shape in front of her. Everything that she was, that she had been, that she could have been—pulverized beyond recognition. Tsumugi was a prop. A mannequin meant to simulate a human, now lifeless on the floor.

A voice chimed over the speakers. Angie again. “...Whoops! I got a little carried away there. These controls are hard to use. Um...she’ll be alright! She just needs to respawn.”

Kaede couldn't breathe. Desperation swelled over her in an impossible wave. She was going to be like her. She was going to be like Tsumugi. A red splatter on the floor, her story ending in Hope's Peak, a tragic memory of a life lost. In her panic, she couldn't remember which direction she was supposed to go in. She couldn't. She didn't want to become a corpse like Tsumugi. She couldn't breathe.

“Well, this is it,” Angie chimed over the intercom. “You can’t get away from me. There’s nowhere to hide.”

The pitcher swivelled around and shot out a ball that rocketed into the wall next to her. Kaede flinched and covered her head. She had to think fast. There was no one here to protect her, no Gonta to rip apart the pitcher, no Maki to slice it into pieces. She was irrevocably, positively, inconceivably alone.

Until she heard light footsteps.

Kaede knew Himiko’s footsteps anywhere. She was so small that she barely made a noise when she moved, but in the moment they were deafening.  Himiko barrelled out of no where, skidding to a stop in full view of the pitcher as it haphazardly turned at the sound of the newcomer. Though they were on opposite sides of the pitcher, Kaede could see Himiko's terror even from this distance as she took in the scene in front of her, and her hands went to cover her mouth.

“Tsu—Tsumugi?” she stammered.

Kaede watched Himiko grapple helplessly with the reality lying in a bloody pulp, hands clenching and unclenching like she struggled to hold onto the last grip of her sanity.

She’d expected Himiko to burst into tears, but instead, there was quiet resignation. Her gaze fixed on Angie’s pitcher, and she tore her eyes away from Tsumugi's corpse.

“Hi, Mew Mew,” Angie said over the intercom. “You should probably go away. Kaede’s getting punished.”

“This is wrong,” Himiko told her. She stared down the pitcher with surprising resolve and edged forwards, hands outstretched. “What’s going on, Angie? This isn’t like you at all. You said that Atua would want to make everyone happy, and hurting Kaede isn’t...isn’t gonna make anyone happy.”

“Kaede won’t leave us alone, so now I have to kill her,” Angie explained. “The last time I let someone who wasn’t a believer in the temple, bad things happened. I won’t make that mistake again. You believe, don’t you, Mew Mew?”

“Of—Of course I believe...”

The pitch whirred, the barrel spun. Kaede imagined Angie’s mind doing the same.

“Don’t you know Atua hates it when you LIE?!” Angie screamed.

Himiko exploded into a puff of rainbow-coloured smoke. One moment she was there, the next the cloud expanded with such violence that it roared down the hall, overtaking both the pitcher and Kaede. She choked on a veritable cocktail of glitter and who-knows-what, a fruity smell flooding her nostrils. Her eyes overflowed and vision distorted, and in her blindness, she reached forward. A warm, small hand wrapped around here’s and pulled her along.

She flinched, a part of her thinking that it was Tsumugi’s ghostly hand reaching from the afterlife to pull her into it. Kaede started to pull back. It was only the small sneeze that betrayed who the hand belonged to.

Kaede pulled her coat over her nose, letting the hand guide her as she took tentative step after tentative step. The journey through the rainbow fog took an eternity. And then her toe collided with something solid—a step. She raced up the stairs, the fog receding, and fading, and then it was gone. Kaede looked downwards, watching steps whisk by her until she was at the top, then she released Himiko’s hand and they both doubled over, choking.

It was a minute or two until Kaede could take a steady breath. When she stood straight, she found Himiko beside her, covered head-to-toe in rainbow powder.

“The spell needs work,” Himiko hacked out.

“We—We should move, b—before that thing catches up with us,” Kaede coughed. She stumbled a little, leaning against the wall while she tried to regain her footing. Angie had to be close, she knew it. They just had to keep moving.

Himiko’s chest fluttered a little, then she wiped her eyes and moved further down the hall, away from the rainbow cloud drifting up the stairwell.

“Tsumugi...” Himiko sniffed. Then sneezed some glitter.

“It’s going to be okay,” Kaede assured her. “We’ll come back to get her. We have to find Angie first.”

Himiko nodded, her response automatic. Kaede took her small hand and pulled her along until they came to the next flight of stairs. She took a few steadying breaths to compose herself.

“Tsumugi said something about a...about a beacon, or something,” said Kaede. “Do you have any idea what she was talking about?”

Himiko blinked owlishly at her. She shook her head. “No? I don’t remember anything like that.”

“Are you sure? Think hard. If it’s something that could hurt anyone, I’d like to know before we find Angie.”

Himiko scrunched up her expression, then shook her head harder. “N—No, it doesn’t sound familiar...”

“That seems odd. Wouldn’t Angie share information like that with you because you were an original member?”

“Not since I got demoted to silver level...Tsumugi stayed gold, so maybe she knew something I didn’t. They don’t always tell me everything...or I wasn’t paying attention. Something like that. I wasn’t always invited to meetings, or sometimes I forgot about them...”

Kaede frowned. Strange that they regarded the hierarchy of the cult so rigidly that Angie wouldn’t share something that sounded as important as a beacon with Himiko, one of her closest friends. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe things had become so alien, so foreign, that nothing was how it should be. Maybe this was an example of how Angie was too far gone to be saved.

Himiko shook her head, more resolute this time. “No, I never heard about a ‘beacon’ or anything.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” said Kaede. “C’mon, we’re almost to the control room. I’m certain Angie’s hiding in there.”

Kaede led the way down the hall and up the next flight of stairs, heart pounding as a sudden thought occurred to her. Their class would be never united again. Tsumugi was dead. Tsumugi was dead.

How could she be dead? She’d been alive, not even fifteen minutes ago—half-crazed, but alive. Their entire class had been divided. With Tsumugi gone, they’d never be together again. In the same sense that she’d known in her heart for months that she’d never see her own family, she’d lost part of the new family she’d formed. She was being strangled. Torn apart on the inside until there was nothing left but the vague, happy memories she’d once shared with her classmates. The realization struck her with such force that she had to pause under the guise of catching her breath, when in reality she was trying to comprehend how it had come to this violent, terrible end. The cult had existed to make people happy, only now it was being mauled to death by a fragmented mind.

She was afraid of the state they would find Angie in. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good, if there was anything left at all. Kaede didn’t want to think about it too hard, but she was determined to not leave this place without her in one piece. She needed something, someone, to hold on to.

The corridor leading to the next floor was silent. No surprises. Not yet, anyway. Kaede imagined that a lot of the machinery that had kept the killing game operational was no longer in working condition, either salvaged or destroyed in the aftermath. Still, she inched forward down the hall and prayed to whatever god could hear her that Monokuma wouldn’t come peeking around the corner.

They were moving past the bathrooms when Himiko pulled on her hand and pointed. The door to the girls' bathroom was ajar.

Kaede went rigid. Angie couldn’t be in there, but...perhaps it was better to be certain. She decided to get it over with as fast as possible. Kaede didn’t want to explore the preifereal rooms too much, lest Angie slip away before they had a chance to confront her. When she poked her head inside, however, what she saw turned her stomach.

Two bodies were lying on the floor. They belonged to a pair of cultists, a man covered in blood and thick cuts, and a woman with a noose wrapped tightly around her neck. Both lay not three feet from each other in the girls' bathroom. A tennis racket lay not far from the woman’s hand, a faint bloody handprint showing where she’d clutched it in her final moments.

Himiko didn’t let out a noise, or even a cry. She looked, defeated, at the scene before them.

“Are they dead?” Himiko asked.

Kaede nodded, and couldn’t stop nodding. Her head bobbed up and down without stopping.

“Who killed them?” Himiko wondered.

Kaede wouldn’t put it past Tsumugi at that point, remembering the unfeeling and automatic gaze in Tsumugi’s eyes. Hell, the possibility that Angie was responsible didn’t seem like such a far-fetched notion. But surveying the scene, the conclusion seemed obvious to her.

“I think they...I think they killed themselves,” said Kaede.

“W—What?!” Himiko stammered. “No, that can’t be right! Look at those stab wounds!”

Kaede scanned the first cultist’s arms for defensive injuries and found none. The peaceful expression, his clenched hands, the blade being within arm’s reach—it was insane, but logical conclusion. Meanwhile, the second lay sprawled on the ground with the noose around her neck, so tight and constricting that she wouldn’t be able to draw a single breath. But there was no blood on her whatsoever, just foam and drool coming out of her mouth.

Kaede stepped in and did a quick look around. No signs of entry aside from the door they’d come in from. The only sign of movement postmortem was a bare, bloody footprint still wet on the tiled floor. There was a pile of clothes in the corner, contrasting against all the red. Kaede found them to be a set of flawless white robes she recognized as belonging to Angie, and the clothes she’d been wearing underneath.

>>>ACQUIRED TRUTH BULLET: SUICIDE SCENE


Kaede inhaled. There wasn’t anything she could do here. You couldn’t help the dead. Taking Himiko’s shoulder, she ushered her out the door.

“I’m sorry, Himiko,” said Kaede. “We can ask Angie what happened later. Let’s...leave them alone.”

She shut it quietly as if she was afraid to awaken an old ghost. And this place was full of them. Not wasting any time, she crossed the hall and around the corner until they were outside of the data control centre. This room wasn’t too familiar with her, but it was stiflingly dark when she peered inside, and a single door stood vigilant at the other end. The control room. If Angie was anywhere, it was there.

“None of this makes any sense,” Himiko sniffled. She pulled at the brim of her hat. “Suicide is against—against everything!”

“They were probably desperate,” said Kaede. She had to keep this as light as possible to avoid hurting Himiko further; she fragile enough in this state. “Sometimes people make certain decisions, and there isn’t anything you can do to talk them out of it. But it’s not too late to fix things. I want you to wait outside of the control room while I talk to Angie.”

Himiko sniffed. “B—But I came to get her...I can’t break that promise...”

“Hey, I don’t want anything to happen to you while I’m in there,” said Kaede. “I can handle her, okay? It’s...if you feel like something’s wrong, go find Kiyo.”

Himiko’s teeth clenched. “Why did he leave us here? He could’ve helped Tsumugi.”

“Well, he’s not. He’s off doing...whatever it is he’s doing. It’s okay to cry and be sad about Tsumugi, but we have to do it later.”

Himiko hiccuped and nodded, though there was no comprehension behind her actions.

Kaede positioned her by the door, hoping that no other surprises would burst through the nearest wall and gun her down while she was gone. Then, she crossed the length of the data control centre to the door leading into the control room. She was too tense to think about being afraid. Instead, she knocked politely.

And an equally polite, melodic voice said, “Come in!”

Well. Not a good sign. Kaede took a breath and entered. Kaede remembered the control room from the broadcast of the killing game, the mysterious place from which Junko Enoshima had orchestrated the whole thing. She’d watched her own sister die from that room, pressed the button that sealed her fate.

Kaede propped open the door and peered inside. The glare of several monitors blinded her for a moment, then her eyes adjusted to see that they showed the hallways and locations where the cameras were set up. Not all of them appeared to be operational, but the majority were, and Angie stood before them. She was framed in their light, and she was still.

“Angie?” Kaede said.

Angie didn’t reply.

Kaede stepped inside, making sure to leave the door open behind her. She took a few tentative steps.

“Angie?” Kaede scanned the face for any sign of the Angie she knew. “What are you doing?”

Angie looked over her shoulder. For an extended moment, she held the exhaustion on her face, before it faded to a distant smile. Angie looked like the sun. Beautiful, but deadly if you got too close. Kaede halted, extending a hand as if she could hope to stop her from becoming a red giant. Angie was completely naked, exposing white body paint she'd decorated herself with. It curved in intricate swirls around her, ensnaring her in her fantasy. Contrasting against it, Kaede saw dried blood caked on the curve of Angie's back, and fresh blood on her torso. There was a sizeable cut diagonally across her abdomen, far too straight to be anything but deliberate.

No sooner had Angie turned when Kaede became aware of the presence of the surviving cultists in the room, having been hiding in the dark on either side of the door. They were down from a half-dozen to just two, and there was no trace of the joviality they’d had when back at the temple. Their expressions were blank.

“Angie, where are you clothes and why are you naked?” Kaede said like a disappointed mother. She put her hands on her hips to emphasize the look, knowing that there was only one correct answer to this. She knew exactly where Angie's clothes were, and the fact that they weren't on Angie at the moment was the problem.

“I wanted to be liberated in these final moments,” said Angie.

A prickle ran down Kaede’s spine as if she’d backed into a cactus. “Angie, come back with us. Tsumugi’s...Tsumugi’s dead. She died. You killed her.”

“I know, “ said Angie. “I saw the whole thing.”

She pointed to a monitor that looked down at Tsumugi’s mangled corpse lying in the hall.

“She served Atua well, and in death, she gets to be with him,” Angie sang. “She’s so lucky!”

“Lucky? Don’t be ridiculous, Angie. I know what happened at the temple was horrible—believe me, I do. But hiding in this...this place...it’s not the answer. This isn’t a temple, it’s a tomb.”

“Don’t call me that! I’m the Oracle. I’m Atua’s Oracle!”

“Angie, you need help.”

“The Oracle needs no help!” Angie outstretched her arms as if wanting to grab them all in a tight embrace. “I’m the voice of Atua! I’m here to save everyone!”

Kaede bit back the retort she wanted to give out. Instead, she asked, “What happened to the rest of the people that were with you?”

“Oh. They killed themselves. I told them to do it and they did.”

“One of them was covered in stab wounds! Why the hell would you tell them to do such a thing to themselves?!”

“To spare them more pain.” Angie picked up a kitchen knife that had been resting on the console. “Atua and I made a pact. I was unable to keep it. And now all must return to him.”

“What are you talking about?”

Angie spun around with a flourish. Her expression was nearly as blank and placid as her followers. However, it was her tone that Kaede noted the most, the way it dipped and became even and stoic. It was a side of Angie she’d never seen before.

“I pledged myself to Atua,” said Angie. “In return, he would grant me with the divine powers I’ve used to protect my flock. Except I’ve forsaken the god of my island, and for that, he’s punished us all.”

“Forsaken? What do you mean?”

“I have disappointed him, so Atua punished us by burning the temple to the ground.”

“That’s not why it was burnt, Angie,” said Kaede.

“What other explanation could there be, hm?”

“It was a riot. These things happen. It’s called ‘The Tragedy’ because tragic things happen.” Kaede couldn’t keep the bite out of her voice. She didn’t want to hold back anymore.

Angie laughed a deep and throaty laugh. “A riot. If only the explanation was so simple. Atua sent a riot to destroy us. I brought an unbeliever into our midst, hoping to turn his lies into truth, but he must be cursed! Atua must not have approved of him! The Unbeliever must’ve been an agent of Auta to have been so nefarious. For serving Auta, by serving his agent, we were punished.”

“Wait, wait, wait. Are you talking about Kokichi?”

“DON’T SPEAK HIS NAME!” Angie screeched. With a wild frenzy, she yanked clumps of her hair out with a loud rip, like tearing fabric. “HE’S CORRUPT! HE’S A VENOMOUS DEMON SENT TO TEMPT US ALL!”

“Kokichi is a pain to deal with, but he’s hardly a demon,” said Kaede. “Maybe he has some responsibility for what happened—but he sure didn’t tell your followers to kill themselves. You did that.”

“I did it for their own good. Haven’t you been hearing a thing I’ve said?”

“I have, and you’re being irrational. You need to take a breath and pull yourself together. What happened at the temple was...it was horrible, and this isn’t the way to deal with that. You can’t resolve pain by inflicting more pain.”

Angie heaved, and for a moment Kaede thought that she was going to vomit. She hadn’t realized until then how much Angie had changed from the moment she’d first met her two years ago. She could still see her, flashing back to raw images of the Angie-who-had-been to the Angie-who-was-here-now. In one, a smiling, bright girl, splattering walls with paint. Presently, a disgraced self-proclaimed oracle.

Angie took a steadying breath and turned to face the monitors, and she was outlined in white. She kept still for a long time, then reached under the console to pull out a heavy-duty flashlight. Kaede thought that the flashlight looked a little odd, but from her distance and the lighting being what it was, she couldn’t be certain.

Regardless, Angie gazed upon it like it was a prized object and cradled it in her hands.

“Everything was so perfect,” Angie mused. “And I let a little boy take it all away from us! We had everything. Everyone was so happy...we were healing...we were going to fix everything. Make it better than the Future Foundation could. There isn’t anywhere else to go from here. My island is destroyed—it is gone now. But Japan is an island, and I thought...I thought I could turn it into a new Atua-filed paradise.”

“By forcing them to believe?” Kaede said despite herself, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. Most of the bitterness came from the raw hurt she felt for losing Tsumugi, for enabling that to happen. Angie’s cavalier attitude towards the death of a close friend only aggravated her annoyance.

Angie’s smile slipped like Kaede was trying to hold onto a rapidly melting ice cube. Once as warm as the sun, Angie became frigid.

“By saving them,” Angie affirmed. “This is what Atua would want.”

“Don’t you think that’s contradictory to his nature?” Kaede asked, hoping to appeal to her beliefs if she couldn’t logic her way out of this situation. “Doesn’t Atua everything represent everything good in the world? Do you really think he’d want to force people to believe in him through force? By hurting them?”

“I’m the voice of Atua—not you,” Angie snapped. You can’t hear his voice. You don’t understand. You can’t understand. All this time, I thought Atua was a god of hope. But I was wrong, Kaede. I was wrong. Atua isn’t a god of hope.” Angie laughed. There was a strange, inconceivable glint in her eyes. Dangerous. “Atua is a god of despair.”

It was then that the cultists took their cue and struck.

Kaede twisted on the spot, caught off-guard. One cultist lunged at her with a hammer. She raised her hands and seized his arms, trying to wrestle him off.

“Don’t fight it, Kaede,” Angie said calmly from the sidelines. “The beacon will solve everything.”

The other cultist lurched forward and wrapped his arms around Kaede’s upper body, restraining restrain her while she kicked and punched at anything she could reach. Amid the struggle, Kaede tried to piece the puzzle together, to try to figure out what Angie’s intentions were, what was happening, who was responsible. But then she didn’t have any more time to think as an unholy roar sounded from the doorway and a flash of red hair appeared.

Himiko charged out of nowhere and latched onto the attacking cultist’s back, sinking her teeth into his ear. He shrieked and the arms holding Kaede prisoner receded. Kaede landed, hard, on the ground, and from her vantage point saw a broken chair leg stacked with some furniture in the corner. She crawled on her hands and knees and seized it. Kaede rose and swung the chair leg in a wide arch and hope, hope, hoped that that she wouldn’t accidentally clobber Himiko. Adrenaline surging through her, she hit the side of the cultist’s head with the same precision that she hit piano keys. The force of the strike shuddered down her arms and entire body. The hairs on the back of her neck stood erect as he let out a gurgled shout and collapsed, twitching, landing right on top of Himiko.

Kaede thought that her heart should be racing, but it beat with the steady pace of a metronome. Time slowed. She played Debussy’s La plus due lente in her head. A piece played not slowly, as implied by the title, but leisurely, and calmly. She followed the tempo of the piece, flailing the broken chair leg and slamming it into the other cultist’s jaw. The cultist collapsed back, and as she hit the ground, Kaede acted at the height of the piece and dropped it into her skull.

There was a sickening crack as the skull shuttered, and a small clatter that followed. Breathing heavily, Kaede caught a fleck of white skirting across the tiled floor, and realized that it was one of the cultist’s teeth.

Kaede locked onto Angie next. As she swivelled, she caught a blurred image of Himiko trying to haul herself out from underneath the fallen cultist. Angie staggered back, holding the knife in one hand and the flashlight in the other. Images of Tsumugi stabbing the helpless cultist over and over and over again flashed in front of Kaede’s eyes. She didn’t want to become that victim. Kaede threw the chair leg at her. The force of the blow wasn’t enough to topple Angie, but both the flashlight and the knife clattered to the ground.

The flashlights on switch hit the ground force, and with enough force that a blinding beam of light bolted upwards, right into Angie’s face.

It was then that Angie started screaming.

Kaede had heard countless screams before, but nothing like the unholy shriek that ripped out of Angie’s throat Every molecule in the air shuddered. Her skin tingled, her stomach dropped so fast that she scrambled to pick it up. Angie went supernova, her hands shooting up to cover her eyes as she staggered, uncoordinated, slamming against the console like a broken pinball machine. Finally, her legs gave out and she didn’t fight gravity’s pull.

Writhing on the ground, Angie pulled her head forward and slammed it against the ground. The thick smack-smack-smack of her skull colliding with tile caused the tingle running throughout Kaede’s body to turn cold. Before she was aware of what she was doing, she closed the distance between them and collapsed at her side.

A smattering of scarlet marked where Angie slammed the back of her head against the ground, the sickening crunch of breaking skull mixing with Angie’s desperate scream.

“Angie, stop!” Kaede begged. “ANGIE, PLEASE!”

And then Himiko was there, small arms reaching out to help Kaede restrain Angie. The screaming faded, replaced by a choking noise. Angie’s hands pulled back from her eyes, and with crimson trails running down her skin, Angie looked around with an animal-like frenzy. She was a desperate cat searching for a hiding spot, and finding none, shut down. There was no intelligence in Angie’s eyes, only vacant instinct and desperation. A trail of drool frothed out of the corner of her lips to run down her chin, followed by tears mixing with the fluids covering her once pristine and innocent face.

“Atua!” Angie choked out. “Atua! I can’t—I can’t!”

“Angie, it’s us,” Kaede soothed her.

Angie whimpered and went limp in her arms. Like a discarded rag doll, she curled onto the floor.

“Kaede, what did you do?” Himiko asked.

“I—I didn’t do anything,” said Kaede. “I don’t know what happened. The flashlight shone in her face and she just—I don’t know!”

Since Angie now placid and quiet except for the occasional whimpering, Kaede and Himiko sat on the ground near her, panting heavily. Himiko wiped her eyes only for more tears to overtake them.

They weren’t sitting there for long when a tall, looming figure appeared in the doorway. Kiyo entered without announcing his presence, holding a katana as long and as slender as him. Fresh blood decorated the blade. He took one look at them, and held a baseball up on his free hand, tossing and catching it.

“There was a...device was in my way,” said Kiyo.

“Where were you?” Kaede asked, choking on her words. “Where the hell were you?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Kiyo said. “I was always nearby. Watching.”

“W—Watching? What do you mean watching? You mean when Tsumugi—?”

“Yes, I did see that. An unfortunate event, but it was fabulous to see her come apart like that. Literally.”

“You didn’t think to intervene?!”

“Oh, Kaede. Sweet, naive Kaede. Why would I do that?” Kiyo’s gaze bristled and wandered over the bloody scene before him with acute fascination. “You did so well on your own.”

“You BASTARD!”

Kaede took the flat of her hand and slapped it across Kiyo’s right cheek, the satisfying snap of skin-meeting-skin muffled by the cloth of his mask. Kiyo had the audacity, the nerve, to not even turn his head in the slightest, his eyes blinking with something between exasperation and amusement. He blinked slowly at her, then his cheekbones raised to suggest a smile.

“How dare you!” Kaede screamed at him. Her words mauled the back of her throat like an angry pit-bull. “HOW DARE YOU?! We’re not some fish in a fishbowl for you to observe! Tsumugi is dead! How DARE you just sit back and watch her die!”

“Oh, I’m afraid you misunderstand me,” said Kiyo. “It’s not as though I don’t feel anything for Tsumugi’s unfortunate passing. However, as an anthropologist living in a time of social upheaval, it’s my civic duty to not interfere with events, save in the interest of my own self-preservation.”

“Is that how you see all this?! As some—some study?!”

“Well, not know it isn’t. But in a few decades my insight will be extremely valuable to historians looking back on the events. I assure you, Tsumugi’s memory will be forever immortalized in my memoirs.”

Kaede spiralled through emotions she didn’t know she was capable of having. She’d spent the entirety of the Tragedy being not-angry. Not-angry at her family, for presumably dying, or else lost to the senseless slaughter. Not-angry at her classmates, for breaking apart. Not-angry at shouldering the emotional burdens. Not-angry for not having a goddamn piano to slam her keys again at the height of her rage. She wanted to slam all of the keys on a piano all at once, to let the noise scream out of her.

It was rather similar to the noise that came out of her mouth in that moment.

The sweet, terrifying rush of adrenaline surged back through her. Time sped up as she launched for the broken chair leg and swung it at Kiyo’s head. She felt like she was lifting off her feet. He stood still, unmoving, never wavering, not even flinching. Not even when Himiko scrambled up and put herself between them.

“Please, don’t!” Himiko begged. Tears streamed freely down her face. “I don’t want this!”

Kaede slammed back into the ground—and reality. The broken chair leg trembled in her hands.

“Please,” Himiko sobbed. “No more. I don’t want anyone else to die.”

Kaede was wound up so tight she thought she might snap. She’d already snapped. She was an out-of-tune piano in desperate need for someone to bring her back to perfection, knowing that she’d never reach that again. But at the sight of Himiko’s tears, the chair leg clattered to the ground.

The three of them were still for a long time. Kaede couldn’t be sure how long. Time warped around them, silencing all external noise except for Angie whimpering on the floor and Himiko crying quietly between Kiyo and Kaede.

It was Kiyo who made the first move. He breezed past the two to examine Angie. As he did so, Kaede came to her senses, and realized that she was staring at the discarded flashlight. In the struggle, it had turned away to shine on the wall, and she flicked it off before examining it, too terrified to flick it back on again after such an innocent object had caused so much destruction of life. This wasn’t how she’d wanted to end this, but it was almost fate. Almost an inevitable conclusion that there couldn’t be peace, not even for the cult that had wanted nothing more than to force it.

“Physically, Angie doesn’t appear to be hurt,” Kiyo reported. “However, she appears to be catatonic.”

“Oh, so now you care?” Kaede’s voice warbled out.

Kiyo didn’t respond to that. His focused eyes trailed down to stare at the flashlight in her hands.

“Perhaps you had better put that in your backpack,” he suggested. “Until we know what it is, I wouldn’t tinker with it.”

>>> ACQUIRED TRUTH BULLET: STRANGE DEVICE


Kaede took his suggestion, hating Kiyo for being right. She never thought that she could hate someone she’d loved just a few hours ago so quickly.

Kiyo removed the yellow frock of one of the dead cultists and wrapped it around Angie, then took her into his arms with ease. She was limp and lifeless except for her eyes.

“W—What about Tsumugi?” Himiko asked.

“She’s dead,” Kiyo said simply. “I can only carry one body. Do you wish to jeopardize Angie’s life to preserve Tsumugi’s dead corpse?”

Himiko recoiled, her small hands taking Angie’s limp one. “N—No...”

“Then that closes the argument. Shall we go? I don’t think anything else interesting will happen here.”

Kiyo was already heading to the exit, his pace quick. Himiko let out a distressed, strained noise, like a dying animal, and hurried after him.

Kaede remained behind a short while longer, knotting her hands in the fabric of her coat. Something had changed in her. Something that had effected her in a way that Tragedy had never been able to. Her chest ached with the effort of containing uncontrollable emotions, and fresh nausea rumbled through her like the unsteady surface of an ocean. Something hard appeared at the back of her throat that caused her to gag, and she vomited onto the floor. Her abdomen was so tight that she thought she might throw up her entire stomach, as well.

She didn’t. But even when she was done gagging, she walked unsteadily after Kiyo and Himiko.

Chapter Text

A hand, frigid like liquid nitrogen, squeezed the back of his neck. The contact prickled through him, thick, fat thorns burrowing into his flesh. 

Kokichi startled awake, choking on saliva and terror, he reached behind him to try to remove the large fingers. He only came into contact with air. Cold air that crushed like the bulk of the planet's atmosphere suffocating him, but air all the same. Invisible, immalleable. His jaw set. His vision became watery and narrow like he was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Kokichi needed to breathe, except deep breaths wouldn’t come—they came on in shallow gasps, and he could barely get his head above water before the current dragged him underneath.

There was something wrong with him. Kokichi wasn’t an idiot. He knew something was wrong with him, something had always been wrong with him. He’d been destined to be broken from the time he’d come into existence, destined to be a thing—a toy—that angry toddlers threw against the wall.

He couldn’t breathe.

“Hey. Hey, kid. You okay?”

No, Kokichi was not okay. He was broken, he was sure of it. Kokichi slammed the flat of his palm against something smooth in front of him—the wall. It was the wall. The wall was solid. He saw his fingernails digging into the paint, the quake of his arm vibrating his entire body.

“It’s Ryoma. Try taking deep breaths before you pass out.”

Kokichi managed to inhale enough to choke out, “F—Fuck...off!”

“Whatever you say, kid. I’ll get you some water.”

Footfalls walked away and then vanished. He had a minute to compose himself.

Get a hold of yourself. Kokichi sucked in a huge gulp of air a little too quickly. He coughed out a spit wad, then laser-focused on the air inflating his lungs until he was able to suck in enough oxygen to not die. Afraid of launching into another uncontrolled bout of panic, Kokichi timed his breathing, bending so far forward that his stitches pulled his skin. Sweat trailed down the back of his neck from where he’d felt the hand grabbing it.

He expelled the last of the nervous tension pin-balling through him with a hot breath. Kokichi realized that his other hand was clutching hard enough at his shirt that it threatened to rip, and when he released it, his fingers were cramped and locked in position. His entire head felt like it was about to explode and leave a mess all over Kiyo’s back room, where he realized he was curled up in the corner where they’d left him.

Kokichi scooted back and found Ryoma had returned at some point holding a water bottle. He accepted it without thanking and took a tentative gulp.

“How long have you had panic attacks?” Ryoma asked.

“I don’t have panic attacks,” said Kokichi.

Ryoma’s lips receded into his face. Although the spell had passed with agonizing slowness, he realized that it must've been caught in a trance for less than ten minutes or so. He didn't meet Ryoma's eye—the fact that he was here was horrible enough. In the aftershocks, Kokichi's limbs felt boneless, and any strength he'd had drained out. It was a struggle to even sit up.

“What time is it?” Kokichi asked breathlessly.

“Late,” said Ryoma. “Do you need any more painkillers?”

“Sure, just punch me right between the eyes,” Kokichi indicated the prime spot. “Knock me the fuck out!”

“How about you go back to sleep?”

“Not tired,” Kokichi lied. He wanted to collapse, but the threat of continued nightmares kept him up. “What’re you still doing here?”

“I’m watching you,” Ryoma told him. “Kiyo, Kaede, and Himiko are missing. The others are looking for them.”

“Wow, so Kiyo really was a serial killer,” Kokichi whistled. “Ah well, no great loss. Well, I might miss Himiko a little. She was good for a giggle or two, but I can replace her.” He eyed Ryoma. “Hey, can you do magic tricks?”

“...I think you need painkillers.”

“I said you could punch me between the eyes—not my fault you didn’t take me up on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Kokichi took a few uneven breaths and pulled at his collar. God, his entire body ached. He leaned forward and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Ryoma’s hand ghosted across his back. Kokichi jerked and slammed his shoulder against the wall in his eagerness to escape.

“Don’t touch me,” Kokichi snapped. “I don’t like being touched.”

“Sorry, should’ve asked,” said Ryoma. It was hard to tell if there was weight behind the apology, but he held up his arms in surrender. Kokichi hated Ryoma's eyes. Large, but alight with a quiet intelligence that most overlooked. And they were focused on him. “You don’t look so good. You want to talk about it?”

“Don’t have anything to talk about.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ryoma leaned to the side and stared at Kokichi’s back. “You wanna tell me who stabbed you yet?”

“It was Himiko,” said Kokichi. “Believe it or not, she’s actually a violent psychopath ready to attack at any time. There I was, minding my own business, and she came and stabbed me from behind! I met her when I was in prison, yeah. We were cellmates. She was trying to keep me quiet the whole time! Her murder attempt would’ve been successful too, if not for you meddling kids.”

Ryoma tilted his head and rolled a candy cigarette between his lips. Kokichi listened to the tip rattle against Ryoma's teeth, back and forth, and back and forth. “Alright, I get it. You don’t want to go there. Are you hungry at all?”

“First you get me water, now you want to get me food? If you’re so desperate to be my butler, just say so. I mean, you’re a little short for my tastes, but as long as you’re at my every beck and call, it’s all good.”

“Wish you’d stop being a sarcastic little shit,” said Ryoma. “I’ve been in your shoes, kid. I was—”

“Will you shut up?” Kokichi snapped. The words hissed out from between his teeth. “You don’t know shit. I’m not your friend, so stop trying to act like you know anything about me. I don’t care where you’ve been or if you think we have anything in common—because we don’t. I’m me, you’re you, and we’re nothing alike. If you want someone to unload your sob story on, why don’t you go crawling to someone who will give you the time of day?”

Kokichi found it difficult to look Ryoma in the eye, so he chose to look at the ground instead. The ground was fine. The ground was neutral. The ground didn’t penetrate the protective shield he’d put over himself.

Ryoma shuffled a little closer. He raised a hand over Kokichi’s back.

“May I?” Ryoma asked.

Kokichi’s entire body was stiff, his joints locking in place. Ryoma pressed the ball of his hand between Kokichi’s shoulder blades and pressed, then rubbed in small circles. The pinched spot Kokichi didn’t realize he had eased a little.

They weren’t like that for a long time until a clatter sounded from outside, followed by several sets of footsteps and low, urgent voices. Ryoma’s head snapped up like a meerkat about to sound the alarm. He was about the same height as one, too.

“Stay put,” said Ryoma.

Ryoma ruffled Kokichi’s hair, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and headed out.

As Ryoma exited, Kokichi distinctly heard him say to whoever was outside, “Where’ve you guys been?”

Kokichi curled up as comfortably as he could, his back giving a few throbs, but nothing agonizing. He steadied his racing thoughts to a manageable pace, though he still felt lost and useless. He didn’t want Ryoma here. He didn’t want any of his ‘classmates,’ either. He wanted Ace and the other members of DICE. He wanted it so bad that it actually hurt. Kokichi had never been one to believe that emotions could physically hurt until they'd died, and here he was, stewing in the aftermath.

He let himself brood before a low groan sounded from the main room. At last, he could no longer contain his curiosity, and it had to be better than sitting here. But how to get there? Kokichi spotted the crutches Himiko had gifted him leaning near the doorway. It was a few feet—if he fell on the way he could just crawl the remaining distance. Like always, he couldn’t resist a good mystery when something intriguing was happening in the room next door.

For the first time since he’d received his injury, Kokichi braced himself on the wall and hoisted himself upright. The attempt was a moderate success. He bit his tongue, hard, to prevent the pained gasp that tumbled out. Using the nearby furniture for support, he stumbled over to the crutches. Kokichi arranged them under his armpits and took a break to adjust them. With his injury in his lower right back, he was in the least amount of pain when his right foot lifted slightly off the ground, stopping the muscles from straining too much. Once he was satisfied, he used one crutch to part the curtain and limped into the open.

The scene in front of him was a strange one. The whole gang was there: Shuichi, Ryoma, Tenko, Kaede, Rantaro, Gonta, Himiko, Kiyo, and Kaito were all gathered around a table in the middle of Kiyo’s museum. They were close enough together that he couldn’t quite see what they were staring at, but their expressions said it all for them. Tense lips, drawn eyes, creases that shouldn’t be present on their young faces.

“What’s going on?” Kokichi asked. He was surprised by the exhaustion in his voice, but even though he sounded quiet, nine sets of eyes looked up.

“Should you be up?” Shuichi asked. “You look terrible.”

“Hard to relax in the spa when you’re making this racket out here,” Kokichi quipped. He forced a more jovial tone and hoped that it was good enough. “So what’s all the excitement about?”

Kokichi hobbled a little closer, and Kaede and Himiko parted to reveal what was on the table.

It was Angie. She was spread out like a corpse in the morgue, and Kokichi almost thought she was—except for the subtle rise and fall of her chest. Her face was streaked with smeared body paint, tears, snot, drool, and foam. Although wrapped in a yellow frock, it was clear she wasn't wearing anything underneath.

“Wow, she’s a hot mess,” said Kokichi. “What happened to her?”

“Can it!” Kaito barked. “We’re dealing with something here! Shit, I’d hoped you were lying about him being here, Shuichi...”

“Aw, I missed you too, asswipe!”

“We can talk about this later,” Rantaro cut in before Kaito could form a rebuttal. “Kaede, you were going to tell us what happened?”

Kokichi thought that Kaede looked worse than him. She, Himiko, and Kiyo—the three who had been missing for a few hours—all looked a bit different somehow. Unmistakable flecks of scarlet blood were scattered across Kaede’s front. Himiko’s eyes were swollen and bloodshot. Kiyo’s eyes twinkled in barely contained glee. Not a good look.

Kaede's breaths were forced. She took a few as if bracing herself for an especially arduous physical task. "Himiko thought that Angie and Tsumugi might be at Hope's Peak, so Kiyo led us there so we could find out."

"You should've told us," Ryoma said. “We were worried. I even ran back to get Rantaro, Gonta, and Kaito to help search for you.”

"It wasn't that far! I thought it would be a short trip at least to just—to just confirm." Kaede rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. "There—There was something wrong with them, they were acting crazy! Tsumugi...she...and there was this flashlight! When we found Angie, she had this flashlight. She dropped it, and it shone up into her face and she just started screaming. God, it was horrible. I'm never going to get it out of my head. The noise she made..."

“Where's Tsumugi?" Tenko asked. "Is she back at Hope's Peak?"

Kaede's head dipped. Enough to make the meaning clear. Enough to silence the room.

Kokichi bit back the surprise. He wanted the full story behind this—he was filled with the desperate desire to know. He was willing to claw through Kaede when she was in the full throes of emotional shock, while the details were still lucid in her mind. Kokichi remembered the obsessive blue-haired girl who'd buried him in multicoloured frocks. Odd, though harmless. However, he'd felt so accustomed to horrible things happening around him that the surprise only lasted a few heartbeats before he adjusted to the new reality, one without Tsumugi.

Around him, the others had appropriate reactions expected from someone who'd lost a friend. Himiko sniffed. Tenko rubbed her shoulder protectively, glaring at Kokichi when he stared a moment too long. Gonta’s large frame began to tremble. Shuichi recoiled from the table, and Ryoma's eyes pressed closed as he sucked in a breath. Kaito unleashed a disbelieving swear that sounded like it had gotten trapped under his tongue and only just now found release. Rantaro raised an index finger to stroke his chin, thoughtful and tense. The only person who didn't have an appropriate reaction was Kiyo. Tall, imposing, and emotionless, he thrust his chest out in a strange approximation of pride—as if Tsumugi's death was his own accomplishment, a reward after a long struggle.

Shuichi swallowed thickly.

“And you,” Kaede seethed. She glowered at Kiyo. “You let it happen.”

“I already explained the reasons why I didn’t intervene,” said Kiyo. “You should be less emotion.”

“Less emotional?!” Kaede turned to her audience. “He sat there and watched Tsumugi die—he didn’t do anything about it!”

“I was an impartial observer, not a participant,” said Kiyo. “I take no pleasure in Tsumugi’s death.”

“What the hell, man?!” Kaito exclaimed.

“You disgusting—how dare you let a girl die on your watch!” Tenko shouted. “The only thing you men are good for is cannon fodder!”

“Okay, let’s tone it down,” said Shuichi. “Can someone go get the nurse from the clinic?”

"I'll go," Ryoma volunteered. He sprinted out at lightning speed.

“Kaede, do you have this flashlight?” Shuichi asked.
“Yeah...yeah, it’s in my bag,” said Kaede. She shot a glare at Kiyo and didn’t look at him further.

Kaede reached into her backpack and pulled out a heavy-duty flashlight—not the normal ones stuffed in a kitchen drawer or at the end of a keychain. It had several wires and electronics strapped to it. Kaede’s arm sagged as she picked it up and placed it at Angie’s feet with an audible thump.

Kokichi frowned. The pinched spot between his shoulder blades was back again.

“Looks like a regular flashlight to me,” said Tenko.

“And we all know that your powers of perception of legendary,” Kokichi drawled.

“You want me to crush your skull, you degenerate male?!”

“Are you sure it happened when the flashlight shone on her?” Rantaro asked Kaede.

“Positive,” said Kaede. “She was acting oddly before, but she didn’t become like this until after.”

Shuichi examined the flashlight, his mouth and eyebrows twisting with each angle. It was a good look on him—almost adorable. When he noticed Kokichi watching, however, his face cleansed of outward emotion.

“Do you know what this is?” Shuichi asked.

“Me?” Kokichi pointed to himself. “What makes you think I know?”

“You spent time at Angie’s temple. Maybe you saw something?”

“Sorry, you’re out of luck,” said Kokichi. “Never seen anything like that before.”

Shuichi’s frown deepened and he examined the cluster of wires on the underside of the flashlight. “Well...it looks like it can plug into something. There’s a port here, see?”

Kokichi saw what he meant. There was a USB port haphazardly present in the mess. Whoever had made the flashlight had clearly just thrown together whatever parts they could find to create the device.

“Did you see anything when you were at Hope’s Peak that looked like it could plug into it?” Shuichi asked Kaede.

“No, I don’t think so,” Kaede said, massaging her forehead. “We didn’t take a good look around, though. The console was there but...I don’t know, I don't think so.”
Shuichi weighed the flashlight in his hands. “We’re missing something here...”

Leaving Shuichi to ponder the flashlight, Kokichi limped to the head of the table to stare at Angie. She was so vacant. She looked like she was dead. She looked like she should be dead. He poked her cheek. When he did so, Angie let out a strangled gasp, and a gurgling noise came out from her throat.

"Oops, I broke her," said Kokichi.

"Get away from her, you creep!" Tenko shoved him a little too roughly.

Somehow, he managed to not fall over. He pouted. "Aw, c'mon. It's not my fault that everything I touch breaks."

"Shut up, already," Kaede snapped. "She's throwing up. Roll her over—quick!"

Several pairs of hands rushed forward to haul Angie onto her side as she vomited clear liquid all over the table. Kiyo let out a small noise of disapproval.

"Worried about your friend?" Kokichi asked Kiyo.

“I’m more concerned about the table," said Kiyo. "It's an antique."

Vomit was still dribbling out of Angie's mouth when Ryoma barrelled in through the door.

“Got the nurse,” said Ryoma. “How’s Angie doing?”

“Well, since she’s a vegetable now, she could use a little seasoning,” said Kokichi. He watched Kaede quickly shoved the flashlight into her backpack. Out of sight, out of mind. “Otherwise I’d give her a four out of ten. Needs improvement.”

Behind Ryoma, a girl stumbled over the threshold of the museum. “I’M HERE! I’M HERE! WHERE’S THE—AAAH!”

The girl tripped with impressive skill Kokichi didn’t think even the clumsiest of people were capable of. She went somersaulting and ended up with her legs spread in an unfortunate position, her skirt hiked up around her waist. Face twisted, she sobbed miserably.

“I’m sorry!” she wailed. “Don’t l—look at me! I’m such a P—P—PIG!”

“Hello, Mikan, good to see you again,” Kiyo said evenly. “If you could kindly peel yourself off the floor, you have a patient on the table.”

The girl—Mikan—let out a whimper, but was unable to get herself up until Tenko stepped in, glaring at all the men in the room who dared to look at the hapless nurse. Tenko hauled Mikan up in one fell swoop and pulled her skirt down to cover herself.

Mikan was a meek, mousy girl around their age, dressed in a too-small white nurse's uniform, complete with a hat perched on top of her choppy hairdo. She had a leather bag with her, presumably carrying her medical supplies, and she shrank so completely under the attention given to her that Kokichi feared she might disappear altogether. All-in-all, there was nothing remarkable about her. No oddities, no quirks aside from what appeared to be crippling shyness.

So it was to his great and utter surprise that he immediately disliked her.

Kokichi focused on Mikan to try to dissect the reason behind this impression. He always had a reason. There was never not a reason. Kokichi assessed her again, clearing his mind in the hopes of getting a fresh perspective. Aside from landing on the ground and spreading her legs for the room to see, there didn’t seem to be anything especially offensive about her. Maybe she was a little annoying, but nothing to warrant outright dislike. She shivered, her knees pressing together as she waddled to her prospective patient. A light flicked on in her head, and she became sharp and focused as she examined Angie’s eyes, then felt her forehead.

The others wandered off to give her some space. Kokichi stayed where he was on the opposite side of the table, right across from Mikan. Finally, she looked up and they briefly locked eyes. Despite her demure appearance and her attention towards her patient, he saw it. It was there for just a second. A shadow that rolled over the still countryside, forewarning an impending storm.

“I don’t like you,” Kokichi said.

Mikan snapped up. “W–What?! What did I do?! Whatever it is, I’m s—sorry! Please forgive me!”

I don’t like you,” he repeated.

“Kokichi, please,” Kaede hissed from behind him.

He didn’t look away from Mikan even as a firm hand grabbed his shoulder.

“You shouldn’t let her near Angie,” Kokichi told the room. He was shocked how distant his voice sounded, how alien it sounded to him.

He was shocked that he cared. He wanted to grab Mikan’s hand and twist it away from Angie, to break all the bones in it. All for no discernible reason other than the shadow draping over Mikan’s eyes. His stomach twisted in his abdomen, sending out waves of nausea.

“Kokichi, that’s enough,” Kaede said. Her voice hissed into his ear.

Of course. Angie was hurt. Mikan was a nurse. No need to rock the boat too much. As Kaede started to turn Kokichi away, he scowled at Mikan.

Whore,” said Kokichi.

Tears exploded out of Mikan’s eyes, trailing down her flushed cheeks. Kaede’s hand crushed his shoulder, then moved to the back of his shirt.

Kokichi’s crutches clattered to the ground and his feet lifted from underneath him. Kaede’s hands wound into his shirt, maneuvering him to the wall. She slammed his back into it hard enough that the ornaments and antiques clattered against the wall. Stabbing pain pounded up his spine like someone was taking a hammer and breaking every vertebrae bit by bit. To his left, something hanging on the wall dropped to the ground. Over Kaede’s shoulders, Kokichi saw a flash-image of Shuichi rushing toward her from the other end of the room, eyes bulging out.

“I told you to STOP IT!” Kaede screamed.

“Woah, Kaede!” Kaito exclaimed.

“What’s...What’s wrong, Kaede?” Kokichi strained. He forced his smile as sweat dripped down his face.

“This is your fault. You did this!"

“I’m sure you’re eager to lump all your life problems on me, but that?” Kokichi pointed to Angie. “Not my fault for once.”

"Listen to me, you little FUCK!" Kaede hollered. Flecks of spit hit his face. This did not seem characteristic for Kaede, and despite the anger, he didn't detect light behind her eyes. "This is YOUR fault! If you hadn't shown up, none of this would have happened! Angie would've come to terms with everyone at her own pace! Tsumugi would be ALIVE!"

“Kaede, what are you doing?” Rantaro asked. “This isn’t like you.”

"Hey, let her do whatever she wants," said Tenko. "She's right, y'know. This is his fault.”

“Not fair to blame Kokichi for everything!” Gonta cut in. “This not you, Kaede. Please stop!”

“I...He...He did it,” Kaede stammered. A trickle of red dripped out of her nose. “He did...”

Kaede’s grip on Kokichi slackened and he crashed to the floor in a heap, unable to support his own weight without something to lean against. His vision whited out. A high-pitched ringing grew louder and louder and louder until it swallowed him whole.

Kaede’s voice sounded distant and muffled when she said, “I’m...I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me...”

“H—Here, sit down an—and let me have a look at you,” Mikan stammered.

“I’m okay,” Kaede assured her.

“Your nose bleeding,” said Gonta. “Here—Gonta have handkerchief.”

When Kokichi’s vision came back to him—the dim hum in his ears fading away—he was on his side on the ground with Ryoma kneeling over him. His crutches lay where they’d fallen, and Kaede was now sitting on the floor, pinching her nose with a tissue. Assured that Kaede was fine for the time being, Mikan’s attention turned to Kokichi, and she took a step forward.

“Don’t even think about it,” Kokichi grunted at her.

Mikan let out a startled shriek and redirected her fussing to Angie instead.

Struck with the need to get upright again, Kokichi started to stand. He didn’t thank Ryoma when he handed him back his crutches, nor did he thank him when he helped steady his balance as he got back up. For what it was worth, he was grateful for the silence—he’d had enough of people asking him if he was alright.

Kaede’s behaviour inspired something in him. Interest? Confusion? Something. It was a garbled mixture of emotions that he couldn’t distinguish from one another. Once the throbbing in his back died down, he took in everyone’s positions in the room. Himiko was standing in a corner, gaze downcast, and he realized that she hadn’t said a thing since her return.

“I’m okay,” Kaede was saying. “I—I don’t know what came over me, I know it’s—it’s...um...what were you saying?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Shuichi said. “Are you alright? Did you hit your head at some point?”

“N—No? At least...I don’t think I did...”

“Don’t think about it too hard, Kaede,” said Tenko. “And don’t worry. I’ll make sure none of these males take advantage of you when you’re like this.”

Shuichi stood up, his hand rising to touch his chin. Kokichi watched him rub his index finger over his lower lip. His preferred hat came off his head, and he held at his side, with his other hand on his hip.

Sensing Kokichi’s eyes on him, Shuichi looked up. Kokichi flicked his gaze over to Himiko, and Shuichi followed it to the wanna-be witch lurking in the corner.

“Are you alright, Himiko?” Shuichi asked Himiko. “You’ve been quiet.”

Himiko wavered on the spot and took a few seconds too long to respond to the question. “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m just really tired. Can I go to bed?”

“I—I wouldn’t recommend that just yet,” Mikan spoke up. She shrank a little when everyone’s attention turned to her. But the wellbeing of her patients pressed on. “I’d—I’d like to examine y—you two, if that’s okay...f—for head injuries.” She indicated Kaede and Himiko.

“Head injuries?” said Kaito.

“J—Just as a precaution!” Mikan added. “I just want to make sure that...oh!”

Mikan didn’t get to finish her thought, because at that moment Angie started convulsing on the table.

It was a truly startling moment, to have Angie be so still, and then her whole body started twitching. A horrible, choking, gurgling, bubbling noise erupted out of her throat like she was drowning in her vomit. Mikan went from shy and meek to hard-on head doctor in an instant, her hands lifting from Angie and going to block her from falling right off of the table. Looking at those present, Mikan honed in on Shuichi.

“Your jacket—quickly!” she said.

Shuichi discarded his jacket. Mikan bundled it up and shoved it under Angie’s head.

“W—What’s happening?” Himiko asked.

“She’s having a seizure,” said Mikan. “I—I was going to say that I believe she has a severe brain injury. I—I can’t be sure without a brain scan, but she has all the symptoms of it and she’s not responding to any of my verbal commands. I think her brain might be swelling.”

“How can we fix it? Will she be alright?”

Mikan didn’t answer. She kept right by Angie’s side in the agonizing minute and a half it took for the seizure to die off. Angie's convulsions strangled all noise and movement out of the room. Everything was frozen in time while she was the only one moving. When Angie was still again, then everything started moving again.

“It depends on how bad the injury is,” said Mikan. “It’s hard to tell without the right equipment. I’d like to get her to the clinic so I can treat her and monitor her condition, an—and I’d like you and you to come as well.”

She indicated Kaede and Himiko for the second time.

“T—They’re showing signs of some sort of injury as well,” Mikan explained. “It—It might just be the shock, but—I’d like to make sure. If that’s okay. I won’t do anything unless you want me to do.”

Shuichi bit his lip. He turned to the group. “Do you think it’s safe?”

“Well...it’s probably easier to treat them at the clinic,” said Rantaro.

“I won’t leave their sides, either,” said Tenko. “I can go with them and stand guard to make sure nothing happens.”
Shuichi hesitated, then committed. “Alright, that’s what we’ll do. Tenko, if you can help Mikan take them to the clinic, the rest of us should head back to the apartment. Having all of us hang around in a place like this probably doesn’t look good.”

“Got it,” said Tenko.

With Mikan’s direction, she hurried to scoop Angie off the table, bundled in the frock. Fortunately, Himiko and Kaede were still mobile, though Kaede was a little wobbly as she stood. As she left with the procession off to the clinic, she locked eyes with Kokichi and blinked slowly as if she was high on some drugs. Whatever she wanted to say, she didn’t seem to be able to spit it out.

Despite Angie—the source of the stress—being gone, the air didn’t seem less tense in her absence. If anything, not being at her side, not having her in their sights, made Kokichi all the more anxious. Shuichi collapsed in the nearest chair and discarded his hat over his shoulder. Ryoma stayed close to Kokichi.

It was a long while before Shuichi finally looked up, with a trace of resolve that hadn’t been present before.

“Kokichi, I want you to come with us,” said Shuichi. “I don’t want you staying here with Kiyo.”

“This shit again?” Kaito groaned.

“Gosh, that desperate to have me rejoin your band of idiots?” Kokichi smiled.

“Trust me, you’re better off with us than with Kiyo.”

“Really, Shuichi, I’m standing right here,” said Kiyo. “That’s rather rude, don’t you think? Perhaps I like having Kokichi as a house guest.”

“After what you pulled, you’re not in good standing with us,” said Ryoma.

“Oh? You’re pinning the blame on me when Angie was technically the one responsible. I think Angie got exactly what she deserved after killing her friend.”

“Shut up, already. It’s way too late to deal with your bullshit.”

“Let’s not fight about it, ladies,” said Kokichi. He shrugged at Kiyo. “Sorry, Kiyo, but I’m gonna run off with these assholes. I don’t think they’re giving me much of a choice in the matter.”

Kiyo laughed lowly. “Oh, you’ll be back. You can’t resist keeping away.”

“Nah, I don’t plan to ever see you again,” Kokichi lied. “I just hope Shuichi and friends can keep me entertained, although that shouldn’t be too hard given what happened. I’m just sorry I missed out on all the action!”

Kokichi was sure that in another time and place, Rantaro or Ryoma or somebody would’ve rebuked him for his words. But now, in the moment, they both looked exhausted. He got a grim satisfaction out of that, that maybe Shuichi understood now.

After all, this wasn’t the first time Kokichi had dealt with loss. It was time Shuichi felt it, too.


The trip back to the apartment took much longer than it should have on account of Kokichi’s condition, but eventually, they made it back to one piece. But then, it was early morning, and the slow crawl of orange peered over the horizon, framing abandoned buildings that stood like tombstones over Tokyo's cityscape.

Once the procession came back, despite having been awake all night, the others didn’t go to bed. Kokichi wasn’t sure what the fuss was about, and why every face was contorted with impossible grief. What happened was really quite simple, and there wasn’t any need to go over the details and try to figure out what happened. Why yes, Angie is a vegetable. Why yes, Tsumugi is dead. Oh, and by the way, Kokichi’s still alive and kicking. Several pieces of extreme news that on any given day alone would’ve been headline news. Now, they were going to sell a lot of copies hot of the press. Being upset about it didn’t change anything.

Whatever their reasons were for pacing around and speaking in hushed, urgent tones, it didn’t concern him anymore. Kokichi went to bed.

The 79th class had set up in a few apartments in the otherwise abandoned building. What with so much space around them, it didn’t make sense to cram everyone in one room, so they’d spread out in the surrounding apartments without much trouble. Kokichi ended up rooming with Rantaro—probably one of the least likely to stab him in his sleep. Their room had a small window facing the wall of the opposite building. Not the best view, but Kokichi would’ve felt more insecure if they were facing the street anyway. This way, he could be assured that nobody could peer in and watch.

When he woke up sometime in the mid-afternoon, Rantaro had gotten up, and he heard voices in the next room. Kokichi shambled up and went to listen in, recognizing Kaede and Himiko's voices right away.

"Your nose is bleeding again." That was Himiko. Quiet, in a barely perceptible, dazed voice.

"Sorry," said Kaede. Her voice was nasally. She must have tissues stuffed up her nose or something. "It hasn't stopped."

"Are you sure you're okay?" Shuichi asked. "You don't want to go back to the clinic?"

"Mikan said we had something like mild concussions, and as long as we took it easy, we were free to go," Kaede explained. "I don't understand, though, we didn't hit our heads at all...not...not even during the struggle."

“You were both in the same room when the flashlight went off, right?” Rantaro questioned.

“You think that the flashlight did it?”

“I can’t think of any other explanation,” said Rantaro. “Angie took the full brunt of it. If the flashlight does cause some sort of brain injury, then that would explain her condition."

“Don’t see how little light can do that,” said Gonta.

"We can't know for sure without examining the flashlight," Shuichi pointed out.

“But...what will happen to Angie?” Gonta asked. “She be okay?”

Kaede sighed. “Mikan wasn’t sure. She said that Angie’s injury was severe. Even if she does come around, she’ll probably still have a lot of symptoms, if she...if she’s even the same person. If the world was normal, she’d be at a rehabilitation centre, but that’s not an option right now. I just know that Mikan can’t keep her at the clinic forever. It’s too dangerous if someone recognizes her and Tenko.”

“We should bring Angie here first chance we get,” said Rantaro. “We don’t have a choice but to take care of her the best we can, and hopefully Mikan will be willing to offer support if we need it.”

Silence. There was always silence. There seemed to be more silence these days, like they were all out of encouraging things to say.

“Should we go back for Tsumugi’s body?” Himiko asked.

“Jesus!” Kaito burst out. The sudden volume caused Kokichi to startle. “Fuck this! Look, are we sure Tsumugi’s dead? Are you really sure?”

“She died right in front of me,” said Kaede.

“B—But what if she just got hit really hard? What if she’s been lying there all that time and she’s still alive?

“You didn’t see her brain on the floor, Kaito!” Kaede shouted. She paused. “I’m...I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. I’m sure she’s dead, Kaito. It happened...I saw it all happen.”

“Fuck this,” Kaito hissed.

"Should we go back for her body?” Himiko pressed again.

Kaede sighed. “I’m not sure that’s the best idea at the moment. I’d like to, but it could be dangerous and I don’t want to risk any more lives.”

“Can we at least have a funeral?” Himiko’s voice choked on the last word and became high-pitched. Every syllable that came out of her mouth took monumental effort.

“Of course we will,” Kaede assured her. “We can—”

Oh, that was it. Kokichi slammed the bedroom door open and burst in. He felt like he was interrupting a wake. Kaede, Himiko, and Shuichi crowded together on the couch, hunched over the coffee table. Ryoma, Gonta, and Rantaro were standing. Kaito was in the chair, his legs splayed, his elbows resting on his knees, his head bowed. All that was missing was an assortment of candles and a strict dress code.

It ended when he came in, and everyone looked up to stare at him.

“You guys are fucking pathetic,” Kokichi announced.

“Oh, I’m sorry that the fact that our friend is dead is fucking inconvenient for you, asshole!” Kaito roared. He’d been sitting on a chair, but pressed down on his knees and pushed himself up.

“Boo hoo, your friend is dead,” Kokichi mocked. “So what? What the fuck is wrong with you people?! Pick your lapels off the goddamn floor and shake everything loose already! The world’s not gonna fucking stop because you’re all sobbing over one person. Imagine if both of them had died! Just feel lucky you managed to save the vegetable, for whatever that matters. She’s probably better off dead, anyway.”

“Then we should all be glad that you’re not the one making that decision!” Kaito yelled. “Like it or not, Angie’s still alive!”

“Oh, she’s not alive! Did you even look at her on that table? Whatever she was, it wasn’t alive.”

“I—I can’t deal with more people dying!” Himiko wailed.

“That’s a lame-ass excuse if I’ve ever heard one,” Kokichi hobbled up behind Himiko and shoved her head forward. “What’re you gonna do? Cry about it? You think that if you were in Angie’s shoes that you’d want to be kept alive?”

“Why the hell are you making this all about yourself?” Kaito barked. “It’s always gotta be about you, doesn’t it?!”

“Well, naturally, Kaito, I’m the centre of the motherfucking universe,” Kokichi snapped. “Ultimate Supreme Leader, remember? That’s kind of the whole deal with a stupid talent like that, is that I lead, and people do what I say. Remember? Huh? And your leader thinks that you’re dumb for being all weepy about one person, so you need to move on now. ‘Kay, thanks, bye.”

“No, no, no, no, no—you don’t get to guilt us for being sad that our friend is dead! That is not what you get to do! This isn’t a contest about who has it the worst, do you understand?!”

Kokichi’s hands clenched, his nails digging into the palms of his hand. He couldn’t place his anger. It swelled from someplace inside of him, lashing out before he had the chance to contain it.

“Did you see Tsumugi die?” Kokichi asked quietly. “Did you get to see that? Huh? Cuz the way I see it, Kaede and maybe Himiko are the only ones here who have the right to be upset. They had the pleasure of being there and seeing her body, right? So what the hell are the rest of you so upset about? You should be fucking grateful that you weren’t there.”

“Just because we weren’t there, doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to be upset,” Shuichi said.

“Oh, ho! Is that so?” Kokichi laughed like he’d caught Shuichi in a lie. “I don’t get what you’re all upset about, is all. I’m just trying to understand why you all got your panties in a twist. I mean, since most of you didn’t see Tsumugi die, you can imagine it however you want. You can imagine that she died peacefully in her bed from old age after having lived a long and fulfilling life. My point is that since you can make up a lie about how she died, there’s no need to be all upset about her being gone.”

“Wait, so Tsumugi not dead...?” Gonta said.

“Of course she’s not dead,” Kokichi cooed. “Since you weren’t there, she can be dead or alive. For example, if I was to tell you that Tsumugi ran away to live on the moon, then there isn’t evidence to refute it, is there?”

“Kaede and Himiko were there,” Shuichi contradicted him. “There’s your evidence. And if we went back to Hope’s Peak, we would find Tsumugi's body.”

“I mean, not if Kaede and Himiko dressed some rando up to make it look like it was Tsumugi, since according to their account, her whole head region got pulverized. You see? There’s no reason to be sad about anything. Tell a lie enough times and it becomes the truth, know what I mean?”

“Gonta confused!” Gonta bemoaned.

“That’s exactly what he’s trying to accomplish,” said Kaede. “Don’t listen to him.”

“Yeah, don’t listen to me," Kokichi grinned. "Listen to the philosophers and such who’ve debated shit like this for hundreds of thousands of years! But I can see my point is lost on you idiots, so lemme put it another way.” He tapped his chin, smiled, and locked onto Rantaro. “Hey, you have sisters, right?”

Rantaro frowned. “Yes?”

“Ever think about how they died?”

For the first time since Kokichi had known him, a flicker of anger passed over Rantaro before it evened back out. “Sometimes, yes. But I hope that they’re alive somewhere.”

“Don’t yank me around, Rantaro, you’re smart enough to know how unlikely that is. A pretty good percentage of the world went up and died, and the rest of it is fighting over the scraps for whatever fucking reason. You don’t know where your sisters are, you don’t know if they’re dead or alive, and isn’t that worse? It’s perpetual hope that’s gonna get crushed by reality.

Deep inside you know they’re dead, so you imagine it. You imagine how they died, if they were shot, stabbed, crushed, murdered, raped—”

Rantaro showed no perceptible emotion or movement. He stared blankly at Kokichi, looking right through him to someone standing in the distance. The others, though, let out appropriate gasps and protests, Gonta twisting in horror, Ryoma grimacing as if a foul smell had suddenly rolled his way.

“Will you FUCK OFF?!” Kaito demanded. “What the fuck is your deal?!”

"What the hell?!” Kaede recoiled. “Why would you say something like that, Kokichi?!”

“You’re way crossing the line here,” Ryoma agreed.

“Do you think about the fear they felt when they were dying?” Kokichi went on. “Huh? Do you wonder if they knew that they were never going to see you again? You don’t want to think about it, but you do. You think about it all the time, don’t you, Rantaro?”

“SHUT UP!” Kaito roared.

“Don’t tell me to shut up—you know I’m right,” said Kokichi. There was something inside of him, something deep, that stirred, like a monster lodged in his gut. It stirred and bared its teeth. “Don’t you think there’s a kind of comfort in not knowing, though? You can imagine all that bad stuff, or you can imagine that they’re living out their lives somewhere, and sure you’re not there with them, but you can imagine that they’re happy and safe.”

They were quiet, now, all pairs of eyes staring at him with varying levels of shock, dismay, hurt, and anger. Kaito’s fists were curled so tightly that he could lash out at any moment.

“Don’t you guys get it?!” Kokichi went on. His voice cracked. It didn’t shatter, but it cracked. “You can make up whatever you want! Only Kaede and Himiko and Kiyo have to live with the truth! The rest of you can think up whatever fitting ending you wanted for Tsumugi! You don’t have to be all mopey about it!”

“What, you think that we’re gonna make up some weird fantasy world?” Kaito yelled. “What the actual fuck is wrong with you?! Are you seriously that fucked up that you think it’s okay to say that to someone?! Have you ever cared about anyone at all in your life?!”

“Wow, here I am trying to be constructive, and all you can do is attack me?” Kokichi seethed. “This isn’t fair. This isn’t fucking fair.”

“What’s not fair?” Kaito demanded. “How is this in any way about you?!”

“I lost everyone—and I never got to have a fucking funeral for them, and you’re crying over one person?!” Kokichi shouted. “Why do you get to grieve and I don’t?!”

Kokichi let out an involuntary gasp and recoiled, his own words startling him. The silence that howled out was the kind that lasted an eternity. The kind Kokichi only ever heard during the dead of night, when he was quiet and alone in his thoughts, when he didn’t have to save face or lie his way out or push, push, push until he sent everyone hurdling over a monstrous cliff to their deaths. His insides churned like molten lava, an angry volcanic god about to enact pointless destruction on everything around him. It wasn’t nighttime now. For the first time, it was happening in the middle of the day, and it startled him and everyone else into silence.

He blinked slowly. If he blinked slow enough, maybe he’d open them and the scene in front of him would be changed. The room would be empty and he’d be back in his cell. It occurred to Kokichi that maybe he’d never left that room, the one with the four corners and the metal toilet with the random shit taped under the rim. Maybe he was still there, a straitjacket hugging him hard enough to break ribs. Maybe he was still plotting his escape when he hadn’t moved from that spot. Though he was standing still, Kokichi felt like he was falling backwards. His chest cinched. The cold grip of racing memories, impossible to stop, poured through him in a torrential, impossible storm. He was helpless but to ride the waves on a leaky boat, helplessly dumping out water as fast as it could come in.

Helpless. That’s all he was. He was helpless. How long he’d been helpless, he couldn’t be sure—maybe he’d always been this way, a burden on everyone, and most importantly a burden on himself. Kokichi felt both heavy and weightless at the same time. Floating in space, he was being pulled towards the sun at an agonizing pace, seeing his demise coming up towards him, not able to stop it.

A laugh tumbled out. Kokichi’s face ached with the broad smile that chose to make itself home in his face. “That was a lie. Plot twist: it’s all a lie!”

Tension zinged through the air. Looks were exchanged, but no words. They didn’t need to talk for him to know what they were saying.

“It’s all just a big fat lie, isn’t it?” Kokichi said. He didn’t know who he was speaking to at that point. “Everything is a big fat FUCKING lie. The Future Foundation, the Killing Game, Angie’s cult, the Remnants of Despair—all just a whole lot of lies snowballed into one big one. I just find it hilarious, y’know?"

He was becoming unravelled. Everything was falling apart so, so fast, and he couldn’t do it and he was spiralling out of the atmosphere to crash-land in the ocean where he would drown. Everything was falling apart—

Kokichi laughed again. “Just feel lucky that most of you didn’t have to see Tsumugi die, because not all of us had the benefit of not being there when people we cared about died.”

Kokichi limp his way to the door. No one stopped him.

He needed to hide.

Kokichi had spent too long fantasizing about leaving his cell, and now that he was out, everything was crushing. He never thought that he'd want back in. But the cell had been a sanctuary. It had silenced everything, a terrible silence. A terrible silence was better than any noise.

Kokichi limped into the hall outside of the apartment and took two steps. Two steps, until he saw a massive, hulking shadow at the end of the corridor, and the gaping hole in Ace’s face. He froze, pupils constricting. The shadow wavered in and out of existence like poor satellite reception, and then Ace’s form blinked back and he was far too close.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Kokichi swallowed his scream and went in the other direction, agonizing over his slow pace. With every movement, he felt his stitches threaten to pull out and spill his organs all over the floor. He got two apartments down and shouldered opened the door, not caring which of the students was inhabiting the place. If he was lucky, they wouldn’t find him—both them and Ace’s shadow that was starting to chase him down, about to ensnare him in a crushing, cold grip.

"Kokichi, wait!"

That wasn't Ace's voice. Kokichi froze in the doorframe. Shuichi. Always Shuichi.

"I don't want to talk," Kokichi said.

"You don't have to talk." Shuichi appeared. Kokichi couldn't be sure whether he was real or not, but he fixed his gaze on the floor and didn't look back. "I don't think you should be alone right now."

"Shuichi, I've told you to go away so many times that I'm out of ways to say it," Kokichi snapped. "Just leave me alone."

He couldn’t be sure if Ace followed him into the apartment. Kokichi left the door open behind him and shambled into the bedroom, so desperate to find a hiding spot that his crutch nearly slipped out from underneath him. The closet was a safe bet. Sliding it open, he found a shelf cutting through the middle. More than enough. It took two tries to successfully climb up onto it, then he pulled his crutch in with him, and slammed the door shut.

By shutting himself in the closet, all outside noise cut out. All lights, all sound, all sensation. It was his cell all over again. Kokichi listened to his heart thump against his ribs like a racehorse bolting for the finish line. The only thing Kokichi could see was a sliver of light peeking out from underneath the door.
Something hot and wet dripped onto his hands as he crouched in the closet. He reached up.
He was crying.

Kokichi paused—startled, uncertain. When had he started crying? When had he last cried? He scrubbed his eyes with his sleeve, but more tears took their place. Giving up, he let them fall freely down his cheeks, snot dribbling out of his nose, chest spasming with the effort of not making a noise aside from the occasional sniff.

This wasn’t supposed to be hard. He was supposed to be able to handle this. Memories were holding him, prisoner, keeping him in irons when technically he was free. How free was he, even when he wasn’t being kept by the Future Foundation anymore? How free were any of them? How was hiding in a closet any different from a cell? How was being in a cell or a closet any different than the memories roaring around him? What was even real anymore? Everything disconnected, like someone going through his brain neuron-by-neuron to sever the connections that made him who he was. He'd fought against that, back in solitary confinement. Now, he welcomed it.


Kokichi moved into a closet.

The moment everyone had dispersed and he could get back to his and Rantaro's apartment without witnesses, he gathered up his sheets and made a comfortable nest in the closet space. Rantaro avoided him—maybe the comments about his sisters had finally broken whatever faith he'd had in him. So when the urge to sleep came around, Rantaro didn't question when Kokichi shut the closet door between them.

It was to his great surprise that the others left him alone for the next little while. There was no harassment, no dirty words, not even a look. When Kokichi walked into the room, eyes turned away, even when he unleashed a biting remark. The others ate meals together. Kokichi hid away until everyone wandered off before he stole into the kitchen to steal leftovers. Whatever wasn't perishable he hid in his closet, a leftover habit from the cell when the guards had decided to deprive him of food. Always better to have some on hand in case something happened in the future, plus when he was healed, he still toyed with the idea of outright living the squad.

Although the others fell silent when he walked into a room, there was still plenty to eavesdrop on. Conversations were limited to inane and safe subjects like the weather, and how Angie was doing, and what was their next course of action. The weather was fine. Angie was the same. Nobody had a good answer to the last one. Even the problem-solvers in the group were at a loss at what to do, with Shuichi skulking over files and folders and making notes, and Rantaro standing on the balcony staring wistfully out into the city. The less evolved among them were in a better place. Gonta busied himself by looking for bugs in the abandoned buildings, periodically bursting into tears over Tsumugi's death.

They decided that there wouldn’t be a funeral or memorial or whatever term they wanted to use for Tsumugi until Tenko and Angie returned. As it happened, it didn’t take long before it was too risky to keep Angie at the clinic any longer. Tenko had sent word along that Mikan was terrifyingly competent as a caretaker and willing to help support Angie and even agreed that it might be better to have her among people who cared about her. Judging by the lack of comment on her mental state, Kokichi could only assume that it was bad.

His curiosity was satiated when Angie made her triumphant, or not-so-triumphant, return cradled in Tenko's arms. There was little fanfare to her return. It didn't feel like a celebration. Mikan set Angie up in the apartment next to Kokichi and Rantaro's, and when no one was looking, he followed them in to listen as Mikan rattled off instructions. Angie could eat soft foods in small amounts. She was conscious, but not responsive. Speaking to her and spending time with her was good. Leaving her alone for long periods was bad.

When he looked into the room, Angie was propped up on pillows in bed and stared blankly out the window with drool dribbling down her chin. Mikan attentively wiped it away. Kaede sat at the end of Angie’s bed, wide-eyed.

“A—Angie?” Mikan tried prompting her. “Do you know where you are?”

Angie stared out the window.

“You haven’t gotten any response from her?” Kaede asked.

“N—No, but she’s conscious,” said Mikan. “She’s not in a coma or vegetative state.”

Kaede shuffled onto the edge of Angie’s bed and touched her hand. “Angie? It’s Kaede.”

There was no response to the words or the hand gently holding hers. Kokichi wanted to watch some more, but at that moment Tenko noticed him lurking by the door and shut it in his face.

Kokichi glared at the closed door. What exactly were they hoping to accomplish? There wasn’t any life in Angie’s eyes, just endless nothing. No spark, no joy, no sadness, nothing that made her human. Not even anything Atua-inspired.

He grit his teeth and made his decision.

He hobbled out and down the hall to where Kaede was staying with Tenko and Himiko. Looking in, he half-expected to find Himiko in there crying—he’d heard quiet sobs during the last few days when no one else was around, and could only assume that they were hers. Fortunately for him, nobody was there, and he found Kaede’s backpack unguarded in her room. She’d tried to hide it by stuffing under her bed.

It took a lot of maneuvering to get himself on the ground with his injury, but soon he thought to use the tip of his crutch to hook around the strap and pull it out. Opening the flap, he found the flashlight. Kokichi stared at it, long and hard, and picked it up.

Kokichi kicked the empty backpack back under the bed. It had already caused so many problems that he wasn’t going to risk another Angie incident. Why Kaede hadn’t thought to give it a more secure hiding spot, he couldn’t understand. The flashlight wasn’t something other people could be trusted with, most of all a group of emotionally unstable dimwits. Kokichi didn’t think that he was exactly stable, himself, but he had common sense. And he was smart.

It was tempting to dismantle the flashlight but...no. Not yet. He desperately wanted to, but it might still prove useful in the future. He clutched it awkwardly, checked for witnesses, and left to hide it.

That evening, everyone sans Angie was on the tail end of a meal. There was very little discussion, on account of the grim mood of Angie’s arrival, but Kaede didn’t bring up the flashlight, so she must not have noticed it was gone yet. With Angie and Tenko back, it was agreed that they would have a makeshift memorial for Tsumugi on the rooftop after dinner, so no one was in a rush to finish. Kokichi was the only one who cleaned off his plate while everyone else just poked at their food.

“Why the long faces?” Kokichi asked the table. “You got your friend back. That’s what you wanted, right?”

“Shove it, disgusting male!” Tenko snapped. “Nobody asked for your opinion!”

“I’m volunteering it,” Kokichi said. “So we gonna have a party or what?”

“What makes you think you’re invited?” Tenko demanded.

“Aw, don’t be like that,” Kokichi tilted his head at her. “I knew her too, y’know.”

“You barely knew her at all. Far as I’m concerned, you show your face on the roof, I’m gonna throw you off, Neo-Aikido style.”

Kokichi expected Shuichi or Kaede or Rantaro or maybe even Ryoma to jump in and defend him. None of them did. His chest tightened with an invisible hand crushing him.

“Well, fine, if you’re gonna be pissy about it,” Kokichi scoffed. “I have better things to do than mope around at a pity party, anyway.”

“I can’t listen to you right now,” Kaito said suddenly. “I’ll be on the roof. See you guys there”

Kaito shoved his plate away and left, Kokichi giving him an enthusiastic wave on his way out. When he was gone, Kokichi took stock of the mood. He watched Tenko push her rice around the bowl, like an artist in the middle of an infinite art block, and unable to put her emotions onto canvas. Ryoma sat with his arms folded and tight over his chest. Gonta dabbed at his eyes, his chest puffed out with the effort of keeping in the gushing sobs that wanted to be released.

This was just pathetic. And boring. Time to stir things up a little.

“So when’re you guys gonna kill Angie?” Kokichi asked loudly.

Kaede, the only one who’d managed a spoonful, choked.

“Excuse me?” Tenko hissed. “What the hell are you going on about now?”

“I asked when you were gonna kill Angie,” Kokichi repeated.

“Wh—What you mean?” Gonta asked. “Why we hurt Angie?”

“Wow, I thought that even you were smarter than this,” Kokichi shrugged. “Seems to me that Angie’s a vegetable, so what’s the point of keeping her alive? She was a pain before, but now she’s not even fun to play with.”

“Angie not vegetable,” said Gonta. “Angie a person.”

“We’re not talking about this right now,” said Shuichi. “And even if it was the time to bring it up, the answer would be no. Nobody’s going to do anything to Angie.”

“Nobody here wants to deal with the truth,” Kokichi continued. “Angie’s a burden. She’s another mouth to feed and she doesn’t contribute anything to your little group. Plus, Mikan said that there wasn’t any hope of recovery. It’d be more merciful to do the dirty deed and get it over with.”

“You little termite!” Tenko seethed. She jumped to her feet and slammed her fists on the table. “I’m gonna rip you to shreds!”

“Let’s just go, Tenko,” Himiko begged. She clutched Tenko’s arm and tugged. “C’mon, he’s not worth it. Let’s go.”

Kokichi busied himself by playing with his food, and despite not looking at her, he felt the poison from Tenko’s glare. It was a too-long second before Himiko ushered Tenko out the door and they were gone.

“So no one’s going to take me up on my suggestion, I take it?” Kokichi asked.

One-by-one, people slowly stood up and left the room. His suggestion went flying at low altitude over their heads, but they didn’t even blink at the roar of the engine and the vicious slap of the wind.

“Y’know, I don’t appreciate being ignored,” Kokichi called after them.

The final slam of the door answered him. In the quiet afterwards, he drummed his fingers against the table. The filled bowls of rice made for poor company.

Well, if they weren’t going to eat it...

Kokichi pulled over the nearest bowl and shovelled in a spoonful. Given the comments he’d spouted off, it was no surprise that they were still a little sore about it. That didn’t stop it from stinging like a bunch of wasps rattling around in his chest cavity. Despite his best efforts, he didn’t quite feel aligned. What the hell were they thinking, leaving Angie lying around? She was dead anyway. They had to bite the bullet and let it happen. It would be better for Angie, and although there would be grief in the aftermath, it would pass.

Kokichi was halfway through the third bowl when nausea rising inside of him overwhelmed his desire to pack away as much food as possible. His lungs released the air they were keeping hostage. Like the flashlight, he had to make a tough decision, for the sake of everyone. It was almost automatic, a natural conclusion to the end of a long saga. And once the idea came into his head, it became an infestation—an extension of the wasps' nest in his chest, impossible to remove, too ingrained to be destroyed.

It would be better this way. He’d made tough calls before, this was just another one to add to the list.
Kokichi hobbled over to the apartment Kaito was sharing with Gonta and Shuichi. He was lucky that they were all distracted on the roof; he was slow, and he couldn’t risk being interrupted out of a situation that even he couldn’t easily lie his way out of. Already, his mind was spinning with ideas about how he was going to get away with this, how he was going to explain it, if he could explain it, if he would try to hide it at all.

“What are you doing?” someone asked. It took Kokichi a moment or two to realize that he was the one who’d spoken.

What was he doing? Why was he not stopping?

Despite his racing thoughts, Kokichi acted on autopilot. There was no stopping him as he pushed open the bathroom door. He didn’t have to search very hard to find Kaito’s medication. The thought crossed his mind that he could use a pillow, but he didn’t think he had the strength for it, even if Angie wasn’t in a position to fight back. A needle was easier. Maybe a little more obvious and detectable, but he could dispose of the evidence and be done with it. With Kaito being as disorganized as he was, he likely wouldn’t notice that he was missing a needle.

Kokichi surveyed the contents of the medicine cabinet and settled on KirumaCare 109-A, written in very official-looking Future Foundation letters. He grimaced a little, but took it in hand and turned it over to read the label. Anything was lethal in excessive doses. Just to be safe, he took the whole bottle and arranged another in its place to make it look like nothing had been taken. If Kaito kept careful stock of exactly how many bottles he had, then there would be a problem. Kokichi didn’t think that was the case, though. If anything, he was more worried that somebody else was taking up that responsibility.

Grabbing a syringe, Kokichi headed out and made sure the hallway was clear before exiting. He listened for any signs of the others. His breathing was getting caught in his chest between his ribs, a painful lump he couldn’t quite get rid of no matter how steady he forced himself to remain. He needed to be calm. Panicking always led to mistakes. Panic could come later.

Kokichi entered Angie’s apartment and went to her room. Still no signs of life. It probably wasn’t wise for the others to leave her alone, but he wasn’t going to question his luck now. He opened the bedroom door.

Angie was sitting upright in bed, expression blank and staring out the window. Like his room,  side of the building faced the wall of the adjacent apartment building, so at best she was just counting bricks. Kokichi paused inside the door, sighed, and closed it behind him. He took a seat at her bedside, the plastic around the syringe crinkling as he crushed it in his hand. He put the bottle of 109-A on the side table, and with the other hand, lightly touched hers.

“I know you’re not in there, so I’m not gonna bother saying goodbye,” Kokichi told her. “I’m going to kill you. You don’t want to live like this. No one in their right mind would want to live like this, and your ‘friends’ are stupid for not figuring that out. It’s easier if someone who isn’t emotionally connected to you does the dirty work. This way, you’ll be put out of your misery and you won’t be a burden on the group.”

He squeezed her hand. He didn’t know why.

Kokichi flinched as if burned. He searched her for any discernible expression. When he found none, he reached for the bottle.

He drew out as much of the mixture as the syringe would allow. It might take a few doses to empty it, but this was a good start. Kokichi knew that there might be a mess afterwards. She might have a seizure or convulsions or just flail around. He knew the signs. It might hurt her, but there wasn’t anyone left inside of Angie to hurt anyway, and it was no less painful than smothering her with a pillow.

There was the risk that someone would walk in, so Kokichi was already forming plans. He would empty the entire bottle, then leave. Disposing of the syringe and the bottle would be tricky in his condition, but possible. Blame the death on the brain injury. Watch everyone mourn all over again. Hope no one ever, ever, ever found out.

Kokichi tried not to feel anything. That was the point. He was here because the others couldn’t be in this position. He had to do this.

Kokichi extended Angie’s arm and hovered the needle over her vein. He saw the faint outline of the blue vein under her skin. One push and he could end her suffering.

“Is this a game?”

The bubble in Kokichi's chest burst and radiated out, releasing the pain and an unpleasant chill that swam through his limbs. He realized that his hands were shaking. He turned his head towards the door, then realized that the voice hadn’t come from there.

It had come from Angie.

Angie stared with an expression so neutral it could be a bland coat of white paint, dried and flaked and uninteresting.

“Who are you?” Angie asked. Her voice was so quiet and childlike. His grip on her arm slackened.

“I’m...Atua, your Lord and Saviour,” Kokichi told her. “Stop talking.”

“Atua,” Angie’s unfocused gaze travelled to the needle. “Is this a game?”

“Sure, we’re playing doctor right now,” said Kokichi.

“Does it hurt?”

“Oh yeah, it’s agony. Extremely painful. I’m gonna shoot you up now.”

Kokichi pressed the needle to her skin, but something gave him pause. Angie’s shoulders started trembling. He found tears running down her face.

“What the hell are you crying about?” Kokichi asked.

“I don’t want it to hurt!” Angie wailed.

Kokichi retracted the needle. He took a sharp inhale, and it felt like someone was driving knives down his throat.

He couldn’t.

Can’t.

Kokichi wrestled with the decision. End her suffering. She was going to be a burden. She didn’t need to keep living like this. She was never going to recover from a scrambled brain. He knew this. What was the point of living?

“I don’t want it to hurt,” Angie repeated. Her eyes glossed over. She blinked once and focused. “...Who are you?”

“Kokichi,” he told her. “You know me. Don’t you remember?”

“I remember...hurt,” Angie slurred. Her gaze wandered over the room and out the window. “I remember...”

Whatever had enthralled her out the window grabbed her attention again, and she was gone. She slipped away.

The hand holding the syringe shook with incredible, uncontrollable violence. All the fight evaporated from him. Suddenly his fingers forgot how to hold, and the syringe slipped to hit the floor. He watched Angie grapple with—something. Did she even know what she was grappling with?

Kokichi pulled away from her, sighed, and held his head in his hands. He couldn’t do anything right.

“Not as easy as it looks, is it?”

Kokichi startled, his injury spasming, his stitches pulling as if they were a part of his body.

There had been someone watching.

"Mikan?" he said—surprised, despite himself.

This time, Mikan didn’t bother disguising the shadow. She peered in through a crack in the door, smiling. She looked like a cruel caricature of the girl Kokichi had seen first tending to Angie. Wherein that girl had been soft and squishy, this one was lucid and nightmarish. And there was certainly blood in her eyes.

Mikan entered and slid the door shut behind her. She leaned her back against it.

“Didn’t know you were still here,” Kokichi said casually.

“I was just getting ready to leave,” Mikan smiled.

“You shouldn’t eavesdrop on private conversations.”

“You’re one to talk.”

Mikan approached one step at a time. Defiant, Kokichi planted his roots so deep that not even the most stubborn of farmers could pull him out. His heart raced in his chest, and he glanced behind him at the window, wondering if he would survive the drop to the ground and whether it was the better alternative to being stuck here with this wild card.

Before he could act on the urge, Mikan was right in his face. Startled, he scooted back on the bed, but Mikan kept coming. She climbed on top of him, straddled his hips, and seized his wrists as he swung to fight back. Mikan squeezed with bruising force and pinned his hands down on either side of his head. Kokichi couldn’t hold back the involuntary gasp that came from his throat.

“Got you,” she purred.

Before him, Mikan’s visage shivered like a barely perceptible mirage peering over the horizon. In his emotional state, he was prepared to believe that she was here to kill him, and when he didn’t, he was left reeling and disappointed. He forced a moment of clarity, stilling the turbulent waters, to piece it all together.

“Wow, I thought you were just a whore,” he mused. “But you’re a Remnant of Despair whore. Impressive!”

“Remnant of Despair?” Mikan repeated. Her lips fluttered into a bemused, distant smile. “I suppose I am. Whatever they call someone like me, I’m glad I got to meet you before the others ruined your pretty face.”

“An-n-n-n-nd the Creep-O-Metre jumped to a hundred.” He then muttered in an aside, “That has to be some sort of record.”

“You think I’m creepy? I prefer to think of myself as...loving.”

“More like smothering. Can you get off me now?”

“Don’t you love me?”

“Okay, there’s a couple of problems with that. You see, first of all, we just met. Second of all, even if you were my best friend in the whole wide universe, I wouldn’t be interested. Trust me on this one. If you’re so desperate for a boyfriend, go feel up one of the others, why don’cha? As a matter of fact...I’m married! To Shuichi. So, it wouldn’t work out—the ol’ ball an' chain wouldn’t approve of me getting involved with someone else.”

Mikan laughed with the intensity of a speeding car slamming into a brick wall. First, her shoulders gyrated, and then her body. While she threw back her head with deep-throated laugh and giggles and guffaws, she twisted his wrists with enough violence that his bones strained. There was none of the shyness there now. In every possible way, Mikan was stronger—and worse off for it.

“If that’s the way you feel, who am I to break you up with your Beloved?” Mikan smiled lazily down at him. He stifled her grin and stroked her delicate fingers through her chopped-up hair.

“Take my advice and enjoy the time you have with your one true love. When he dies, it will be despair-inducing.”

Kokichi shifted and tried to wrestle out from her grasp. Her grasping pincers squeezed harder. “Okay, sure. Let me go now.”

“Forgive me...you don’t seem to understand,” Mikan leaned her full weight on top of him, her chest pressing against his, her uniform pulling to melt against her skin. Kokichi focused on the ceiling.

“You’re not going anywhere. Really, you should feel lucky that I’m here and not one of my friends. They wouldn’t have been as gentle.”

“Yeah, gentle—that’s what Fedora and Stabby said, and look how that turned out,” said Kokichi. 

"They got a little carried away. They enjoy hurting the things they love." Mikan's cheeks stretched tight with the force of her smile, giving her the appearance of an eerie mask. "Especially each other."

“What did you want again?" Kokichi asked. "Is this about the thing I allegedly stole, whatever that thing is? Feel free to tell me what that is, by the way, I’m su-u-u-uper interested to know.”

“You don’t have to feign ignorance for me.” Mikan twirled a strand of his hair.

Mikan sat up. For a blessed moment, Kokichi thought that she was going to get off, but instead she reached behind her and pulled out a familiar sight, as intimate and close to him as a lie.

The flashlight. The sheets sank under its weight as she placed it next to his head.

"Still want to deny stealing a certain something from us?" Mikan asked.

“How the hell you find that?” Kokichi asked quickly.

"Hm...I don't know how Angie could have aquired it. Maybe she got it from you. Convenient, isn't it? That's her secret. I don't know her secrets." Mikan smiled. "But I know your secrets. All of them."

Overwhelming, petrifying, nauseating dread rolled through him. All of them. Every miserable secret. His identity, DICE’s identity, every scrap of information they’d ever uncovered, everything they tried to conceal, every beating, every soul-crushing victory, every thought, every feeling, every everything—all of it, laid bare on the table for the world to see, to pick apart and judge. Like an old scab that wouldn't heal, Mikan picked away at it until it was raw and bled from infection. Why did that matter to him so much? It shouldn’t matter. None of it should matter, and here he was, sprawled on the bed with Mikan on top of him, blank-faced and empty-minded. Drowning.

All his secrets. Not one or two that might be a little embarrassing if they got out, like an especially pungent dump or that time he pulled at a door handle instead of pushed. The secrets where people died because of him, the secrets where if they got out, people would have power over him. Power over the soiled rags of his life. The information the Future Foundation had recovered had been peripheral data, nothing damaging to his reputation, and the claim that he was a Remnant was purely his own doing. No, the real secrets, the ones he kept so well-buried that even he struggled to comprehend them, that would actually hurt.

Kokichi bit his lip. Mikan mirrored the action, and it disgusted him. It wasn’t cute in any way. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t play these games anymore. These were games where people died, and both he and Mikan were committed to it.

"I don't have secrets," Kokichi lied. "I'm an open book."

“Lying as always,” Mikan giggled. She cupped his cheek in a gesture of gentle affection. “Listen to me, Kokichi, you don’t have to lie. I can help you.”

“Which would be a generous offer if I needed help with anything, bitchlet."

Her eyes uncomfortably roved over him, her mask-like smile fading. Her expression settled on something close to kind—or a close approximation like it.

“My Beloved would’ve liked you,” Mikan mused. “Maybe she would’ve even loved you. She would’ve liked playing with you to see what made you tick...My Beloved rescued me, you know. She rescued me from others, and she rescued me from myself...and now...I can continue her legacy by rescuing you.”

Mikan shifted. Kokichi closed his eyes, half-expecting her to pull out a knife or wrap her hands around his throat and squeeze. If he was going to die, he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of losing his shit. However, when he dared to look, Mikan was holding the syringe that he had dropped. It was still full.

“What’re you gonna do?” he asked. “You gonna torture me? Go ahead—I’ve done that song and dance before. You’re gonna leave here disappointed.”

“Torture?” Mikan peered down at him. “Huh? Huh, huh, huh? Do I really have to torture you to get you to cooperate? Can’t you see I have your best interests at heart?”

“Look, you have your flashlight back. What more do you want?”

“I don’t just want the Flashback Light. If I wanted just the Flashback Light, you would be dead already.”

“What else could you possibly want?” Kokichi asked, though he already knew the answer.

“I want you.”

Her breath, searing hot like the breath of a predatory dragon, wafted against his face. It was possessive, guarding over its horde of treasure, and it wanted to add Kokichi to the collection. Not out of any sentimental value, but just because she could.

“These years you’ve been out of our grasp have been torture,” Mikan bemoaned. “We’re a very exclusive group, and you...you are prime material. So much raw potential...I haven’t seen anyone toe this kind of line before, except for me. Not everyone manages to steal from us. I was so sad when the Future Foundation got to you before I could...and after that, it was too risky to try to break you out. And some of the others wanted you dead so badly...but others...like me...I wanted you, Kokichi...You’re hated by everyone else. Don’t you want to be around people who love you?”

Love. Kokichi couldn’t remember the last time he’d been loved. That had been a different person back then, before he’d been twisted by grief into whatever he was now, and the sensation was a distant speck of sunlight before it disappeared over the horizon. Horrible, blazing, blinding sunlight that pierced his eyes and burnt his flesh. He wanted no part of it.

“What makes you think I’m not gonna go crying to the others the moment you let me up?” Kokichi asked. “Don’t think they’ll take kindly to you being a Remnant”

“You think they’ll believe you?” she scoffed. “They’ll laugh in your face. You’ve done so well at antagonizing them. They won’t see this as anything more than your latest attempt to slander an innocent person.”

Unfortunately true. As a Remnant, Mikan had to be a good enough liar to remain undetected. She wouldn’t go down without a fight, and without concrete proof, there was no chance that they would listen.

It was so ironic that he laughed. The one time he’d be telling the truth and no one would believe him. Talk about a case of the boy who cried wolf.

Mikan smiled. “Don’t worry...I’ll ease you into despair. Slowly.”

“You’re crazy, y’know that?” Kokichi snapped. “So what’s your goal here exactly? To make me into something like you? Not gonna happen. The uniform wouldn’t suit me.”

Her smile exploded into a laugh. “You’re so funny! You’re going to make a wonderful Ultimate Despair.”

“Fat fucking chance.”

Mikan’s eyes roved over to the Flashback Light.

“Why don’t you keep the Flashback Light?” Mikan suggested.

He bit back his surprise. And his tongue. When he recovered, he glared at her. "You're shitting me. All this trouble over this stupid flashlight...and you don't want it back? You're shitting me."

“Hmm...I’m sure the others won’t be happy when they find out Ieft it with you. But I’m serious. It doesn’t work very well, anyway. You see what it does to people. It's more like a...failed project. A dangerous one, but a failure all the same. Maybe you can find a more productive use for it. I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”
Mikan nuzzled her cheek against his. He tensed.

“Don’t worry,” she cooed. “I’m going to take good care of you. I’ll be your big sister from now on, okay?”

She sank her teeth into his ear.

The move was so sudden that Kokichi flinched and didn’t get time to control his response. Like a struggling fly caught in the jowls of a praying mantis, he shoved against Mikan’s weight. Realizing that he couldn’t get away without her ripping off his ear, he went for the instinctive reaction to freeze, to not move, to not breathe, to not speak.

His vision whited out. And when he came to, Mikan’s weight was off of him, though that didn’t stop his chest from feeling like it was crushed.

It was a long while before Kokichi gathered the strength to sit up. When he did, he was alone except for Angie—and even then, he wasn’t sure that Angie was conscious enough to even be considered another presence. Mikan had left behind a silence so poignant that he couldn't breathe. Kokichi raised a hand to his ear and found it bleeding from where she’d sunk her teeth into it, but fortunately, the worst of the damage would be hidden by his hair, so no uncomfortable questions on that part. He felt the others staring at him at all times. No need to create more drama. Or to trust them.

Kokichi’s chest seized, thinking over what Mikan said, one hand clutching the handle of the flashlight. He would have to find a better hiding spot for it, and as he thought it over, a thought occurred to him. Mikan knew too much for someone who had just happened upon their little collective. She hadn’t been there when Kaede had first shown them the flashlight—she hadn’t even seen it.

Above him, most of the 79th class of Hope’s Peak grieved for their friend. And of one thing Kokichi was certain: one of them was a Remnant spy.

>>>ACQUIRED TRUTH BULLET: THE SPY