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The world slowly sharpens into focus, but he doesn’t process his surroundings properly and rolls onto his side -

“Ow goddamnit!” Junpei turns back onto his back, writhing in pain. His forehead throbs and he rubs it with a hiss.

Slowly, Junpei sits up and glances around. His surroundings are strikingly familiar - he’s lying on the bed next to the nightstand in the corner of a small room he called his bedroom, which he had banged his head against, and the desk set against the other wall alongside a dresser - this was his apartment. The one he had been kidnapped from.

“...What the hell?” Junpei can’t help but ask aloud. His memory is hazy and muddled, but he searches his mind for something, anything -

Clover, collapsed on the ground. Snake, consumed with rage. He and Ace, both lost to the flames. Santa, not with June. Kanny, gone. Zero, over the speakers. And then darkness.

Junpei grits his teeth.

“Zero… that asshole…”

Who was Zero? The thought makes him pause, and then makes him laugh. Here he is, two minutes after waking up from a drug-induced sleep, and he's trying to figure out the identity of the mastermind behind one of the most life-changing events in his life.

Zero was Ace. It had to be Ace. After all, he killed Clover, threatened Lotus, and forced Snake to his death.

No, as morally reprehensible Ace was, he had already been dead by the time Zero had made his announcement. That ruled out Ace, Snake, and Clover.

Who was Zero then? It left only Santa, Akane, Snake, and Lotus. But it couldn’t have been Akane - he was with her when that announcement had been made. And it couldn’t be Seven or Lotus; they would have had to go through the chapel where Junpei was to make any sort of announcement to the ship.

That left… Santa.

In light of that revelation, Junpei grumbles a “God damn it” and shoves his hands into his pockets. His fingers brush against something rough, and he pulls it out of his pocket.

It’s a note from Zero - Santa - with “I lost. I’m sorry” scribbled on it.

Junpei wants nothing more than to burn it, but when he flicks on the lighter he painstakingly searched his entire apartment for he’s reminded of the roaring flames that consumed Snake and Ace in their last moments, and so he settles for ripping the paper into little shreds over and over.

He goes back to class the next day, and when his friends swarm him, asking, “Yo, where were you?” and “Are you okay? You disappeared without a word!”, he brushes off all their concerns, making up some lie about how he had some family emergency and then asking his friends for their class notes.

Eventually, his friends learn to drop the topic of Junpei’s disappearance, and it all goes back to normal - at least, for his friends.

There are whispers in his friend group that Junpei’s lost his mind - all he does everyday is sit in his room and stare out the window. Whenever they have discussions involving psychological trauma due to a life and death situation, he has to step out because he gets a fear in his eyes and a panic in his heart that’s too much to bear. Sometimes, when they’re about to enter through a door, he’ll ask “Everyone ready?” and then fall silent as they look at him strangely.

“Junpei, are you sure you’re okay?” one of his friends asks when they come over to Junpei’s house for a group project and finds the place messily strewn with papers. Some are about their class. Some are covered in formulas and calculations. At the top of each paper of calculations, there’s something bold and circled in red: “3 = 0”.

“I’m fine,” Junpei replies. “Now, about this case…”

Of course, no one believes him, for there’s doubt in Junpei’s own eyes when he replies confidently that he’s fine. Yet, there’s nothing they can do.

“Who am I?” Junpei whispers one night at five in the morning, leaning over a paper of calculations.

Tenmyouji Junpei, his mind whispers. But that’s not true. Tenmyouji Junpei didn’t have psychological trauma, Tenmyouji Junpei doesn’t pull two all-nighters just to calculate some numbers.

You’re bracelet number five, his mind says then. You’re the Junpei that went to hell, and came back changed. You’re the Junpei that was with the girl he loved and couldn’t even protect her. You’re the Junpei that solved puzzles to escape with only his life, and wound up running into an incinerator to try and save another’s.

And Junpei can’t disagree even when he wants to.

~ / . / . / ~

Two weeks later, Junpei walks into his apartment complex’s lobby and comes face to face with a hauntingly familiar man.

At first, Junpei doesn’t know what to do. He’s sitting there in the lobby, tossing his beanie between his hands with an anxious look on his face. Junpei thinks about leaving the building, but that’s ludicrous because he just walked half an hour to get back home, and there’s no way he’s going back to school.

Then, Junpei’s overwhelmed by the urge to simply bolt past Seven and ignore everything and anything he says. That’s the best solution, he thinks, but his legs won’t obey him. Instead, they take soft steps closer and closer to Seven.

Seven looks up, and that’s when Junpei knows there’s no going back, because there’s a look of relief so blatant in Seven’s eyes that he feels bad for wanting to ignore him.

“Why… are you here? How did you - ”

“It was pretty easy to get my hands on your file when one of my buddies is an Interpol agent,” Seven replies, a small but lax smile on his lips. He stands then, and all Junpei can think is, he’s the same mountain of a man he was a month ago. “We need to talk, Junpei.”

Junpei swallows the lump in his throat. “Let’s talk in my room,” he says, and gestures for Seven to follow him. He takes him up a flight of stairs and then another, because he has never taken the elevator after that game. All it reminds him of is the glimmer of hope they had had down there in E Deck of all of them escaping together.

Junpei unlocks his door and holds it open for Seven. Both of them take off their shoes by the doorway, and Junpei pulls up the seat from his desk to the dining table before sitting opposite of that seat. Seven sits down in the other seat.

“Seven - ” Junpei starts. Seven interrupts him.

“Ishihara. Ishihara Malcolm.”

“...I’m sorry, what?” Junpei questions, holding back an incredulous laugh.

“That’s my name,” Seven - no, Ishihara - says. And then Junpei realizes.

“You got your memory back?” Junpei questions excitedly.

“I did,” Ishihara replies with a nod. A small smile grows on his own face before his eyes becomes solemn again and his lips set into a line. “Listen, Junpei. I… You know about the disappearance of those sixteen kids nine years ago, right?”

“If you’re going to tell me about Akane, save it,” he replies, laughing bitterly. “I already know.”

“Wait, what?” Ishihara leans over the table suddenly, scrutinizing Junpei carefully. “So you’re tellin’ me you knew?”

“Yes, I knew June was Kurashiki Akane, and that she just disappeared at the end of the Nonary Game for some unknown reason.”

“No, not that,” Ishihara replies hotly, “I mean did you know about her involvement in the first Nonary Game?”

“What?” Junpei’s eyes bulge wide open, and he stares at Ishihara with a wide mouth. “There… There was a first one?”

“Yeah. Listen, I… after I got my memory back, I realized somethin’. That’s why I had to come find you.”

And, without another warning, Ishihara launches into an explanation. He’s a detective who had been on the case of those sixteen missing kids. He’d saved four of them, but one of them had gone missing - a girl named Kurashiki Akane. Her brother, Kurashiki Aoi, and a blind boy, Light Field, had doubled back with him to find her. Instead, what they witnessed was her incineration.

“You mean - ”

“She was dead. I saw her ashes right in front of me. That Aoi kid, he… he was Santa.”

“Zero?” Junpei blurts out. Ishihara frowns, and then sighs.

“...I knew it. You figured it out, didn’t you?”

“How could I not?” Junpei asks with a bitter laugh. “I’ve spent too much time thinking about it, to be honest.”

Ishihara just looks at him sympathetically before continuing. “Yeah, Zero was Santa. But my main question is… how was that Akane girl even there during that Nonary Game? She’s supposed to be dead.”

“Honestly…” Junpei sighs. “I don’t know. But I know it had something to do with me.”

“Hm…” Ishihara murmurs, holding his chin between his fingers.

Junpei’s clock beeps. They both glance over. Four o’clock is flashed back at them, written out in letters.

“...Your clock - ” Ishihara starts.

“Yeah,” Junpei mumbles softly. In response, Ishihara pulls out his phone and shoves it to Junpei. Every single number that Junpei has resigned himself to seeing on his phone is all written out in letters. Junpei swipes. Even the passcode digits are written out.

“You’re not on your own, Junpei,” Ishihara murmurs.

When Ishihara leaves later that day, there’s a new phone number on both of their contacts’ lists.

~ / . / . / ~

He has to step out of class again; literature class this time, because they’re discussing the way priorities are organized in the novel they’re reading and the word “nonary” has been repeated in that class too many times for his own comfort.

Junpei keeps his eyes on his feet as he walks down the hallway toward the bathroom. He hears footsteps, and moves to right. Unfortunately, it seems as though the people approaching him had the same idea, and they collide painfully. Junpei stumbles back before starting.

“Oh, shit, sorry,” Junpei apologizes. “Are you okay?”

He freezes. The hairstyle and clothing is completely different, but the face - those slim black eyes and high cheekbones and sharp chin - there’s no mistaking it.

It’s clear he’s not the only one who’s awestruck, because she stares at him, mouth agape and the beginning of a snarky remark dying from her lips as she stares, just stares at him, and neither of them say anything.

“...Junpei?” Her voice is barely audible. “Is that - Is that you…?”

“Yeah,” his voice feels caught in his throat, and he swallows. “Yeah, it’s me. Junpei. Had bracelet number five Junpei. Went to hell, met you, and then came back after seeing all our friends die Junpei.”

“Christ, Junpei, you don’t have to put it like that.” Still, the relief in her voice couldn’t be clearer, and she pulls him into a tentative but tight embrace. He stands there, floored for a moment, before wrapping his arms around her thin frame and hugging back.

“Mom?”

A tentative voice breaks through their embrace, and Junpei jumps back. He glances over Lotus’s shoulder and sees another girl standing there. She looks around his age, but he can’t say for certain.

“Um… what’s happening?” she - most likely Lotus’s daughter - asks. Lotus turns to her, and then touches a gentle hand to her daughter’s shoulder.

“Nona… this is Junpei. I met him on my trip. Let’s just say we… well, we were something like partners in crime.”

“Hey, I did no crimes with you. You were the one at fault, criminally underdressing.”

“Oh my god Mom, were you wearing your belly dancing outfit? Seriously?” Nona looks at her mother incredulously, an exasperated expression on her face. “I told you to stop wearing that to places that aren’t class!”

“Nona, stop.” Lotus throws her daughter a look that, if looks could kill, Nona would be as dead as the Ninth -

Junpei chokes, keeling over and coughing. The two women look over at him in surprise.

“Junpei?” Lotus asks cautiously. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he sputters, coughing, “I’m fine. I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.”

“If you say so,” Lotus responds.

“Anyways, what are you doing here?” Junpei asks, desperately trying to push the thought he had just had out of his mind.

“We’re looking into grad school options for Nona,” Lotus responds. “Although I didn’t know you attended this school.”

“Yeah. Criminology major. Although I doubt I’ll find any work for a while.” Junpei shrugs. “Doesn't matter though.”

“...I didn’t know you studied criminology,” Lotus murmurs.

“Yeah, not a lot of people do,” Junpei replies before glancing over at Nona. “What’re you here for?”

“Oh, I’m looking into getting my psychology certification here,” Nona replies. Junpei nods.

“Psych, huh? That’s pretty cool. I’m taking psych classes too. I think you’ll like it here.”

“This is cool and all,” Lotus starts, “but shouldn’t you be in class?”

Junpei sighs. “Alright, alright, Lotus. I was just going to the bathroom.”

As soon as Junpei lets the word “Lotus” slip out of his mouth, her expression changes. With a fiery look in her eyes, she grabs Junpei by the arm and pulls him around the corner, only turning to give her daughter a glare that screams, “Don’t follow us”.

“Don’t call me that,” she hisses as soon as they round the corner. “I can’t stand it. My name is Kashiwabara Hazuki. Lotus doesn’t exist anymore. Got it?”

Junpei pauses, frozen in shock, before nodding understandingly. “I got it, Kashiwabara.”

“...Thanks,” she murmurs before clenching her hands into fists. “God, that game has ruined my life. I can’t even look at lotuses without wanting to vomit.”

“Yeah,” Junpei echoes in agreement. “Once, I saw a lotus flower on my neighbor’s balcony. I wanted to tear the thing apart and throw its petals into the wind.”

Kashiwabara can’t help but laugh at that. “Look, Junpei. I can’t say I liked the situation we were in when we met. But… you’re certainly not a bad guy.”

“It’s nice that you think that,” Junpei responds, a small grin on his lips. “I’ll make sure to tear apart each lotus flower I get for your sake.”

The next day, when his literature teacher gives each of his students a lotus flower as a representation of wisdom and prosperity as a good luck charm for their final, Junpei tears off each of the eight petals and watches with satisfaction as the wind carries them away.

~ / . / . / ~

Junpei glances around in surprise. He’s standing in a two-story house turned investigative firm, courtesy of Ishihara. The first floor has been filled with filing cabinets, desks, and even two computers. There are a few potted plants, just by the window, that Ishihara claims add ambiance to the place. He’s not wrong. Without them, the place would look gloomy and desolate.

“Pretty nice, huh?” Ishihara questions, a hint of pride in his voice.

“Yeah,” Junpei agrees. “It’s really nice. I like it.”

“Thanks,” Ishihara grins at him. “Say, Junpei?”

“What?”

“I was wonderin’… do you wanna work with me? You’re a criminology major, right? I figured you would do best workin’ for someone like me.”

If by “someone like me”, Ishihara meant a private investigator who specialized in missing person cases, then he would be right. Junpei had studied the nature of criminals - he knew how they thought and how they would act. He would be an incredible asset to Ishihara. Still...

Ishihara seems to notice the internal struggle Junpei is having, because his grin grows wider, and says one more thing with a sense of finality in his voice, like this one thing will finally convince Junpei to work with him.

“Y’know, Kashiwabara agreed to work with me.”

Junpei pauses, blinking. It takes a minute for the name to register in his mind, but when it does he stares at Ishihara.

“You got in contact with her?” Junpei inquires.

“Sure did,” Ishihara replies. “Hey, you didn’t tell me you ran into her at your college.”

“Oh, uh… that was right before finals week. I didn’t have time to call you. I was busy studying.”

“Oh, right. That week.”

“The week where I picked up your call once, hung up on you immediately afterwards, and then proceeded to ignore every one of your calls? Yeah, that week.”

Ishihara rolls his eyes before grinning. “But hey! You’re out now!”

“Not yet. Graduation is tomorrow, so I’m officially out then. But yeah. No more classes for me.” Junpei frowns then. “Is Kashiwabara moving here too?”

“Yeah,” Ishihara replies. “How else would she be able to work for me? Well, that and her daughter’s goin’ to grad school at your college. I think her other daughter is stayin’ in California.”

“She has two daughters?” Junpei squawks in surprise. Ishihara raises an eyebrow at him.

“Jeez, did that old demoness not tell you anything? Yeah, Nona and Ennea are twins.” Ishihara frowns. “Hold on. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No!” Junpei exclaims before falling very silent. “That fourth kid you managed to save…”

“Yup. That was Nona. We went to Nevada to go get all the other kids in Building Q, but one of my detective pals took the twins back to California. I never met Kashiwabara until the Second Nonary Game.”

“...That’s crazy,” Junpei murmurs. “Does Kashiwabara know?”

“Right now? No. But, when I go to help her move in, I’m sure she’ll want an explanation as to why her daughter knows me.”

“I’m sure she will,” Junpei grins. “When is she coming?”

“July. Nona needs some time to adjust to life here before she starts school, so they’re movin’ in pretty early.”

“Makes sense.” Junpei nods. He searches the room for a clock, any indication of time, but doesn’t find one, and is forced to pull out his phone instead.

“We used to have this big grandfather clock,” Ishihara says as Junpei shoves his phone back into his pocket. “It was real big and chimed every time it hit the hour, like that clock in the game. Only kept it around ‘cause my ancestors apparently carved the thing by hand. Still need to find a good clock that doesn’t have numbers. Of course, it’s real damn hard.”

“...That’s why,” Junpei murmurs sympathetically. “What’d you do with it?”

“Sold it to an antiques shop.”

“That was a good idea,” Junpei reassures. “We already have enough reminders of… that game.”

“Yeah…” Ishihara’s voice is barely audible. “Don’t need more.” Then, he turns to Junpei and asks, “How about it?”

Junpei blinks. He’d almost forgotten why Ishihara had even invited him to the firm in the first place. Even now, he was still awaiting an answer.

In Junpei’s mind, the answer is already clear.

~ / . / . / ~

“That’s the last of them,” Kashiwabara calls over her shoulder as Ishihara sets down a large box with a huff. “But I need you to move them to their respective rooms. They all have labels, so check and see which one goes where.”

Ishihara tries to stifle a groan, but Kashiwabara hears it and rolls her eyes.

“Oh, come on. It shouldn’t be hard for a guy like you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbles, heaving a box into his arms. “Where’s the kid’s room?”

“All the way down the hall, last door on the left,” she replies, bending down to unpack more contents from the box at her feet. The sound of Ishihara lumbering down the hallway heavily fills the house until Nona says something and his footsteps lighten up, indicating to Kashiwabara that he’s put down the box he was holding.

He reappears, heading straight for the multiple boxes, strewn haphazardly across the living room floor. They continue the same routine in awkward silence.

Just as Ishihara bends down to pick up the last box, Kashiwabara pipes up.

“Hey, thanks, by the way.”

“I already told you, it’s no big deal,” he replies, turning to look at her before grinning smugly. “What, you feelin’ like expressin’ some gratitude suddenly? Who are you and what have you done with Kashiwabara?”

“Shut up. No, I’m not talking about this moving in thing. I’m talking about… nine years ago. My girls… Thank you for saving them.”

“I was just doin’ my job. It’s no biggie.”

“It is a ‘biggie’ to me,” Kashiwabara retorts. “You saved my girls’ lives, Ishihara. You saved them from a life or death situation. So really. Thank you.”

“...You're welcome,” he replies, a surprisingly soft smile on his face.

They continue to unpack boxes, but it's not the awkward silence they had once worked together in. Instead, it's a comforting silence, only interrupted by Kashiwabara directing him to toss out every floral printed object she owns.

“Shit - ” Ishihara starts, jumping back a bit. “Shit!”

Kashiwabara looks over her shoulder, blinking. “What's wrong?”

“I… uh…” Ishihara looks over. “Look, I know it sounds weird, but I've got this weird trauma with numbers and - ”

“I planned to toss out that clock anyways. Here, let me handle it.”

Ishihara doesn't say anything, but the way he rests a hand on her shoulder tells her everything.

“This place is pretty spacious,” Ishihara comments when the whole place is unpacked and set up.

“Yeah.” Kashiwabara pauses before smiling. “Hey, can you let Junpei know he can stay with us? The more the merrier, right?”

Ishihara just laughs and pulls on his shoes. He pushes open the door, and Kashiwabara stays in the doorway as he strolls out.

“Make sure you let Junpei know!” Kashiwabara from the door.

“I will!” Ishihara calls back.

And he clearly does, because Junpei shows up at Kashiwabara’s door the next day, a sheepish smile on his face and two suitcases behind him as he says, “I heard I could stay in your house?”

Kashiwabara just laughs and ushers him inside.

~ / . / . / ~

The television flickers for a moment before turning on.

“You might want to get that checked out,” Junpei says around a mouthful of ribs. “I'm pretty sure televisions aren't supposed to work like that.”

“Thanks, genius,” Kashiwabara calls from the kitchen, the sound of a metal spoon scraping against a pot breaking through the sound of the television.

Ishihara screeches suddenly, and Kashiwabara laughs.

“Damn it, Kashiwabara, this ain’t funny!” Ishihara yelps, and Junpei cranes his head over the couch, peering into the kitchen.

“What did you do?” Junpei asks, grinning.

“She almost threw a spoonful of steaming hot mac and cheese at me!” Ishihara replies, storming out of the kitchen and dropping onto the couch beside Junpei with a plateful of ribs.

“Hey, I want some mac and cheese,” Junpei calls, raising the remote towards the television, switching through the channels. He flips through them mindlessly.

“Turn it to the local news and then you can have some,” Kashiwabara replies, emerging with a large plate in her hands. Junpei does as she says, and Kashiwabara scoops a few spoonfuls of the comfort food onto Junpei’s plate before sitting down beside him.

“Why’s it gotta be so hot next week?” Seven groans as soon as the forecast comes on. “We’re goin’ to be out investigating all week.”

“You two are,” Kashiwabara shoots back, grinning. “I’m going to be inside programming things.”

The television interrupts the heated argument Seven wants to retort back with.

“The company Crash Keys is facing some difficult times after the disappearance of their founder, Kurashiki Akane, about three and a half years ago.”

Junpei and Ishihara freeze up, sharing a gaze. Kashiwabara keep eating, but her eyes stay glued to the screen.

“We’ve asked their CEO, Kurashiki Aoi, to give a word.”

The screen suddenly changes to a man with gelled back white hair, and that's when Kashiwabara realizes.

“What the hell!?” she screams, slamming down her plate. “That’s where he went!?”

“Shut up!” Junpei yells. “I want to hear!”

Kashiwabara purses her lips but shuts up, a reluctant yet understanding look in her eyes.

“It’s definitely been hard,” Santa - no, Aoi - is saying. “Akane handled everything that wasn’t finances. Nowadays, we’re converting to more of a stocks focused company, but it’s going to be a while before we can truly focus on stocks.”

Rapid scribbling breaks through the focus Junpei has attuned onto the television, and he glances over to see Kashiwabara, leaning over the coffee table and furiously writing something on a piece of scrap paper. Slamming down her pen, she leaps off of the couch, tearing towards the dinner table - no, towards her laptop, sitting on the table.

Ishihara peeks over Junpei’s shoulder at the paper before his gaze goes to the television, and he whispers, “No way - ”

“Move,” Kashiwabara demands, pulling open her laptop.

That’s when Junpei realizes, the combination of letters she has written down spells out an email address; an email address that’s displayed on their television screen, an email address listed as being Crash Keys’s email address.

“Wait - ”

“I’m going to do this, so if you don’t want me to snap at you for the rest of the week, help me write it.”

“I - ” Ishihara sighs and glances over her shoulder. “This email is gonna go through at least one person before it gets to the big head of the company. Name it somethin’ significant to Santa. Significant enough that he’ll insist he read it himself.”

“Well, don’t just tell me that. Give me something to work with,” Kashiwabara snaps back.

“Uh…” Seven scratches his head.

“‘Santa read this’,” Junpei suggests, dropping the bone from his rib onto his plate and wiping his greasy fingers on a napkin.

Kashiwabara shakes her head, but Ishihara chimes in.

“No, that’s a good title. It’ll confuse the people that have to read his emails first, and they’ll go to ask Santa about it, who’ll realize and read the email himself.”

“That’s - ” Kashiwabara pauses, and bites her lip. “Fine. What should we write in the email?”

What follows is the most heated debate they’ve ever had since the Nonary Game ended. Finally, they all give in to Ishihara, who just writes seven simple words: “We need to talk. Quietus Café, Seattle”.

“It’ll work,” Junpei murmurs, not out of confidence, but out of reassurance; for all of their sakes.

A few weeks later, they get an envelope and a small box, mailed to Kashiwabara’s house. Inside the envelope is a small slip of paper. All it says is “I don't deserve to. I'm sorry”. Inside the box are six lotus flowers, with a small note attached: “In case you want to take out your anger on something. Be my fucking guest”

Of course, they spend the next few hours picking the petals off of three of the lotus flowers in tense and angry silence. The other three, they decide to reserve for another occasion.

Yet, in the middle of it all, Junpei wonders if Aoi also has no idea who he himself is, just like all of them. He must know his own identity, Junpei thinks, because he’s Zero; if anyone lost the least, it was him, right?

The news of Aoi’s suicide that makes national headlines two weeks later gives Junpei his answer. When he comes home that night, he finds the porch littered with slightly wilted lotus petals. On the steps, there are three crushed lotus stems.

~ / . / . / ~

It’s like he put on glasses after years of not wearing them, because one day he wakes up and realizes that Kashiwabara is in love with Ishihara.

It’s blatantly obvious now that he’s come to the conclusion. The way she laughs uncontrollably around him, the way she’s almost always by his side, whether or not it’s for work.

To be honest, it gives Junpei hope. It gives him hope that his two friends who deserve the world will be able to recover from the trauma that has haunted all three of them.

But every time, Kashiwabara shys away. When Ishihara reaches for her hand, she makes an excuse and leaves the room. When he tries to speak with her about anything personal, she pretends to be completely immersed in her work. The porch is completely covered in torn lotus petals at this point.

And it’s clear that Junpei’s not the only one who’s noticed, because he leaves his room to grab something to munch on as he works on the case from home because he’s caught a nasty cold and instead overhears a heated debate between Nona and Kashiwabara.

“Look, Mom,” Junpei hears Nona start. There’s a hint of frustration in her voice, telling Junpei that they’ve been at this for a while. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You used to be a risk taker, someone bold and unafraid.”

“That was before I was unspeakably traumatized by a god damn Nonary Game,” Kashiwabara snaps back. “You of all people know how hard it is.”

“I do, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t let myself be happy.”

“If you had really wanted to be happy, you would have gone and found your father,” Kashiwabara spits. There’s a prolonged silence, and then Kashiwabara sighs. “I knew I didn’t deserve you. You’re just trying to make me feel better, and I snap at you. I’m going to go.”

“Wait, Mom!” Nona screams. “Mom!”

Kashiwabara turns her head pointedly and makes to continue down the hallway; at least, until she sees Junpei standing outside his door, a hand resting on his door knob and his eyes wide.

“...I'm not surprised,” Junpei whispers when they're sitting on his bed. “To be honest, I already knew.” He draws his knees to his chest.

“Did you?” The words are phrased more like a statement than a question, like Kashiwabara herself knew of how blatant her actions were.

“...Why not?” Junpei finally asks. His question needs no explanation.

She’s silent, and the prolonged nothingness between them remains until she finally responds with, “Some things are better left unsaid.”

And when Kashiwabara looks down, gripping her left elbow with her right hand, Junpei’s struck with the realization that he hasn’t seen that desolate look in her eyes since she was number eight, that she hasn’t held her arm like that since that game.

So when she calls Junpei over the next day at work, laughing and touching elbows with Ishihara, he joins in, and pretends that nothing happened.

He pretends that their identities haven’t been ripped from them. He pretends that a number is just a number. He pretends that petals are something beautiful.

It’s the only thing that can keep them safe.