The classroom was much more peaceful without Ouma. There was Miu, but she was easily quelled with a few choice words, and there was Tenko, but she was easily quelled with a few choice words from Yumeno. There were no more shouting matches starting with only Momota but sucking in four or five more participants, no more suddenly collapsing chairs or blackboard-eraser hail. All in all, the consensus on the Ultimate Supreme Leader's departure was:
Even their homeroom teacher seemed to see storm clouds lifting and letting in the sun when she announced that he would no longer be attending Hope's Peak. This was hardly a breach of professionalism; it was no secret around the school that the little troublemaker had made everyone's lives miserable.
One month into the new school year, Ouma had turned into the myth of a vanquished evil. Some of the liveliest classroom conversations consisted of bonding over Ouma stories. Awful things he said and did, times he got his comeuppance, ways things were better without him.
Saihara alone missed him.
"I'm sorry for whoever goes to his new school," Momota sighed, coming down from a fit of laughter. "Good thing they only have to deal with him for one year."
"Tenko can't believe she agrees with a menace," Tenko declared, rolling her eyes.
They both laughed. Saihara threw a plastic smile at them. Across from him, Kaede offered him what looked like a sympathetic grimace.
Kaede alone knew that he missed him.
After class, she sat herself down in the desk next to his, hunching her shoulders confidentially. "How's Ouma-kun doing at his new school?"
"Oh, you know." Saihara rubbed at his eye absentmindedly. "Straight A's, absolutely no misconduct. Even the principal loves him."
Kaede raised an eyebrow.
"Which is just his way of saying that he's skipping classes and causing trouble already." A smile crept onto his face despite his exasperated tone of voice.
"Saihara-kun..." Kaede groaned. The smile grew embarrassed. "I still don't know what you see in him. Did he suddenly turn into an angel each time you two met on the rooftop?"
"He was nicer to me, I guess."
"He was." Kaede frowned. "Look, I know how you feel about him, but I want you to watch out for yourself, okay? I don't want you to end up like Gonta, or Iruma-san, or Kiibo-kun, or...Yumeno-san.
Gonta, unwittingly manipulated into stringing poor Miu up in the men's bathroom with no escape, taken off of honor roll for his behavior and serving detention for months afterwards. Miu, mummified with toilet paper and stuck in a dirty stall with dirtier words stenciled on the walls around her in washable non-toxic marker.
Yumeno and Kiibo, Ouma's favorite targets. They never managed to catch a break from his ruthless condescension. He stripped them of their humanity, made them the butt of every sour joke he tossed into the air like he didn't know better. Yumeno had, at one point, been so affected by his cruel comments on her appearance, mannerisms, and worth as a human being that she grew too tired to leave her house in the morning.
All of these things had happened last year.
"I understand," Saihara said, softly. "I don't mean to...forgive him for what he's done, exactly, but I think he was going through a rough time in his life."
"Really?" Her tone made Saihara flinch.
"I could be very wrong," he amended quickly. "But, ah, it'd make sense. Ouma-kun is the type of person who'd be too proud to tell anyone about it."
Kaede's lips twisted and pinched. "I'm going to trust your judgment."
"A-ah, thank y—"
"But the moment he tries to pull something on you, tell me. I'll let him have a piece of my mind."
"Th-thank you, Akamatsu-san."
WED 3:02 PM
Saihara-chaaaaan! Guess what?? Today I ran into your long lost twin! He had the stupid baseball cap and everything! Whoa, it really startled me. I was like, did Saihara-chan stalk me down and transfer to my school?! That's dedication! So romantic!
Juuuuust kidding. If you did that it would be SUPER creepy. I'd be shaking in a closet somewhere trying to dial the police with my trembling fingers. I'd dial 1111111119. Get it, because I'm shaking? Geez Saihara-chan, you're scary!
Oh and the part about your twin was a lie too, everyone at this school looks like they climbed out of a landfill. I'm so sorry for suggesting that one of those uglies looks like my beloved. Forgive me, Saihara-chan! Waaaaaaaaah!
"If there's anyone he likes back, it has to be you, Saihara-kun."
"Do you think so?"
Kaede rubbed her forehead. "Of course. You're the only one he spared."
"No no, don't apologize for that, silly."
"Don't apologize for that either!"
"O-okay!" Saihara put his hands up defensively, then breathed out a laugh. Kaede smiled. He fumbled with his fingers, knowing that what he was going to say next would wipe it off of her face. "I think I'm gonna tell him tonight."
Her mouth flatlined. "You're going to confess?"
"It's now or never."
She stood up to her full height, eyes shaded by her bangs and the beam going across the pavilion rooftop. "You know I want to support you, Saihara-kun."
He squinted up at her, the light coming in through the gridded ceiling making his eyes water. "O-of course."
"Yeah. But I still want you to be careful with him. He won't even tell you which school he's going to now. Doesn't that make you concerned?" She looked at him, not waiting for a response before she continued. "I don't want him to break your heart. You might know him better than I do, but I don't know if even you can tell if his affection is honest."
"I..." Saihara adjusted his cap.
"What I mean is...keep a lookout for warning signs. If you're sure he's the one you want, I can't stop you guys." Kaede's expression softened. She reached forward and patted him on the shoulder affirmatively.
Saihara was glad he had friends like Kaede.
FRI 4:45 PM
Fake love letters are SUCH an overdone prank! It was pretty ballsy of you to use something so basic on me, the undisputed master of practical japes.
I think you did a pretty good job though! Your letter was so mushy and sentimental that I wanted to throw up alllllll over my new couch. I bought a new couch by the way! I can't drive so I had to push it alllllllllllll the way down the street with allllllllllllllllllll the cars honking at me. They just don't get it.
ANYWAYS, try something more CREATIVE next time! Got it???
FRI 7:10 PM
Hey. It's really not funny.
If you're trying to shatter my poor maiden heart with your fakey confessions, go eat poop or something. That's REALLY mean.
FRI 8:52 PM
I hate you. Go away.
FRI 9:05 PM
Didn't I tell you to go away, liar? Big poopie meanie head.
FRI 9:30 PM
You're awfully serious about this prank...
This is your last warning. If you continue to insist that you have nasty, sappy, gooey feelings for ME, a known criminal and overlord of evil, you're contractually obligated to enter a huge battle to the death with all of my other suitors. Some of them are VERY scary. You can only come out on top if you're really, really, REALLY dedicated in your love for me.
P.S. I know you don't have an ounce of muscle on you, Twinkhara-chan. It's hopeless! Give up!
FRI 10:01 PM
Did I get you? Did I get you, Saihara-chan?????? Nishishi, gladiator fights for the sake of love are soooooo boring and cliche! I should make you guys have a huge dance off instead! Wouldn't that be fun??
Ahhh but I don't really care how well those guys can dance. They're nothing compared to my beloved. Dirt on my shoes. That's right, I don't care about any of them, so they can go cry while they jerk off to the thought of me at night! You're my one and only, Saihara Shuuichi!
Heehee, were you scared? Did you think I really hated you? I was pretty convincing, right? I bet your heart plummeted out of the bottom of your stomach at the idea that I could ever hate you. You don't have to worry about that anymore, because I love love love love love you sooooo much, and that's not a lie.
Acting like I wasn't interested made me really tired, you know? It took lots and lots of work. I'm sleepy now. Yaaaaawn. Night night, Saihara-chan. Have sweet dreams!
P.S. Dream of me, ok? <3
"You look happy today."
Saihara jerked his head upwards, stuffing his phone in his pocket instinctively. Kaede smiled at him quizzically. "O-oh, oh yeah, I am."
"That's good!" She beamed for a moment, but it dampened a little when she realized what must have happened. "...Did he say yes?"
"Yeah, he did." Saihara's smile threatened to spill off the sides of his face. He felt his cheeks burning.
"And you're sure he didn't lie?"
"Uh huh. I had to convince him it wasn't a prank."
Kaede sighed, then patted him on the back. "You really are special to him."
Was this really the same Ouma who had terrorized Hope's Peak? Saihara found himself wondering this all too often when he spotted the red notification dot indicating a new message from his...his boyfriend. Ouma-kun is my boyfriend, he thought giddily.
Sure, Ouma had always been a little more lenient on Saihara, even hanging out with him on the roof of the school building to idly discuss things that didn't matter, but nothing about his behavior at school had suggested that he could be this sweet and affectionate.
Dozens of sugary messages flooded Saihara's inbox, asking him how his day was and gushing over another one of his features each time. I wish I could see Saihara-chan's beautiful eyes again! I want to stare into them as a light spring breeze blows by...ah, that's just you blinking, because your eyelashes are so huge. I should employ you as a wind machine, it'd look cool with my cape.
Saihara fell asleep to the thought of his adorable boyfriend each night and woke up to cheery messages filled with nothing but Ouma's special brand of love each morning. Ouma was fond of providing inaccurate weather forecasts, squealing at Saihara to bring an umbrella when there wasn't a cloud to be seen in the sky and insisting in an almost motherly way that Saihara dress warmly when it was sweltering out.
Saihara was so in love he didn't know what to do with himself.
There were shameful nights when Ouma's messages grew dangerously raunchy and Saihara took it out on his rolled-up bedsheets. He thought of Ouma's pale lips, his messy hair, the way he tucked his hands behind his head just so when he smiled that particular smile. He thought of Ouma spread out on his Greek Villa-white sheets and Moscow Midnight-blue blankets, fighting down an Azalea Flower-pink blush as Saihara's hands glided over stretches of scandalously bare skin. He thought of Ouma's voice—"Ah, ah, Saihara-chan, harder—! There, right there! Oh, I'm so close, I'm so close..."
They'd be free from the clutches of high school soon. Saihara would learn how to drive. They could meet in a little cafe near Ouma's school and cling together, warm and happy amidst the aroma of overpriced specialty coffee.
Slowly but surely, Saihara felt his heart fill up to its brim with hope for the future.
Saihara jumped. "Akamatsu-san! I'm sorry, I didn't see you. How was your day?"
"It was good," Kaede said hastily, waving her hand as if to dismiss the thought. "Are you alright? You're always looking at your phone."
"Yeah. You hold it under the table in class. Don't think you're so sneaky," she teased.
"Oh—" Saihara let out an embarrassed giggle, scratching the back of his head. "You caught me. Sometimes Ouma-kun messages me in class. The little idiot's probably slacking off in the hallway..."
Kaede pursed her lips. "You never talk like that about anyone else." Her face broke out into a warm, resigned smile. "I guess you really love him, huh?"
Face red, Saihara pressed the screen of his phone to his chest as he nodded sheepishly. "I love him a whole lot."
MON 7:15 AM
Saaaaaaihara-chaaaaaan!! Good morning!
Did you sleep well? I slept so well that my mom thought I died. She ran into my room and her loud crying woke me up. What a drama queen...
MON 12:31 PM
Saihara-chan! I'm glad you slept well too <3
Are you on lunch break yet? I wanted to respond to you but school is keeping me so busy! I'm on 12 different committees because everyone wants to talk to the Hope's Peak dropout. It's like I have street cred. Isn't that cool?!
The food here tastes like cardboard...if only my darling Saihara-chan were here to prepare homemade lunches for me...you'd do that, right? Nishishi.
Unfortunately, this blissful state of being only lasted for two weeks. As the fuzzy warmth of a new relationship wore off, Saihara stopped being so flustered each time Ouma popped a digital heart into his greetings and didn't instinctively hide his face when Ouma complimented his eyes or nose or lips.
That was when he started noticing the patterns.
Ouma ignored certain things. When Saihara gathered the courage to voice his own thoughts instead of letting Ouma run the conversation, nine times out of ten Ouma didn't even acknowledge it. Movies that reminded him of Ouma, shy musings on how he loved the sound of Ouma's laughter, how much he missed seeing Ouma's face, all ignored. It was disappointing at best and soul-crushing at worst. Did Ouma not want his affectionate ways reciprocated? What had Saihara done wrong?
Saihara sent him snapshots of busy streets, of pink clouds like cotton candy spread over the baby blue sky with butter knives. Saihara sent blurry selfies, rarely capturing his entire face. For all his enthusiastic serenading of Saihara's handsomeness, Ouma met the photographs with the same eerie disregard. No comment. Not even a Saihara-chan looks so cute in that hoodie!
Come to think of it, Ouma never sent pictures. Saihara had once requested to see Ouma's face again, very hesitantly, using the most courteous language he could muster. He wasn't ignored, at least, but Ouma's response merely amounted to empty babble. Empty lies. He couldn't show his face because enemies of his secret organization could be stalking Saihara's email, couldn't show it because a lion attack had taken out his left eye and half of his mouth. Oops, just kidding. Saihara began to worry.
Worst of all was how Saihara remembered the Ouma he knew at school. Yes, their relationship had been worse at the time, but he remembered Ouma listening. He remembered Ouma's animated features reacting to his every word in real time, Ouma pouncing on every little misstep he took and poking fun at tiny details in his choice of phrasing.
And now Ouma wouldn't show his face.
After a bad day at school, Saihara sat down and slowly poured out all of his feelings into the crammed space of his phone screen in a font size that made him lean in until his nose was practically smooshed against the keyboard.
He pressed send.
THU 5:12 PM
I know it must be frustrating for the Ultimate Detective to not know what's true and not even have enough information to deduce the truth. I'm sorry it has to be this way.
You see, a dangerous person like me shouldn't be running around flirting with cute detectives, but I fell so hard for you that I thought it might work. I accepted your confession in the vain hope that we would just click.
I think we sort of did. I was really happy with you, Saihara-chan. That's not a lie. You can at least trust me with that, right? You made me the happiest boy on Earth.
I'm going to say something shocking next, so hold on to your seat! Ready?
You deserve better.
The longer we stay together, the more I'll hurt you. We should've known from the start that we wouldn't make it. We're meant to be rivals, not lovers, no matter what those sweeping romances that Shirogane-chan reads like to say. I'm really, really not a good boyfriend.
Sorry again for breaking your heart! I'm so clumsy. Go on now, forget about me! Bye bye!
THU 10:10 PM
Please let go already. You don't want this to turn into one of those TV dramas, do you? Those are embarrassing to watch. We've only been together for a month, so stop being a baby.
I lied earlier. I don't care about you at all and talking to you every day was annoying. Don't speak to me again.
THU 11:08 PM
You're just too sweet for this world, aren't you? It makes me want to cry.
We don't have a future together. That's the truth.
If you really care about me, then figure me out.
"What are you working on, Saihara-kun?"
"Hmm? Oh," Saihara mumbled, rousing himself. "My senior project. It's some weird murder case."
"Eh? A real one?" Kaede paled, but leaned in to observe the papers he was examining. Saihara almost laughed; he knew that feeling.
"Yeah. It happened about a month after school ended last year. It's...really rather gruesome, so I don't think it's respectful to the victim to go babbling about it."
"Ah..." Kaede's eyebrows crinkled in sympathy. "I'm sorry for them. It must have been a terrible way to go."
"Yeah..." Saihara's index finger traced over the victim's description. Nishioka Shinjiro, 17. Short, choppy black hair. Pale skin. Frail, skeletal. Approximately five feet tall.
A flash of dizziness overcame him. He didn't hear Kaede's concerned voice until she'd called his name three times.
It was silly and impossible, but it didn't hurt to check.
It was silly and impossible.
Saihara went through every link Ouma had sent him. Every article, every post, every image album.
Not a single one of them was posted any time after school had ended last year.
No. No no no no no no no.
Ouma had mentioned going to see a movie, right? Yes, that movie had only come out this month, and...
It had been announced last year.
No no no no no.
Silly, silly. This was only a coincidence. He was jumping to conclusions because he couldn't accept that Ouma could possibly want to break up with him.
Of course, of course. He messaged Ouma, casually bringing up a bizarre celebrity scandal that had occurred this month. It was exactly the kind of thing that Ouma would get a laugh out of.
Ouma ignored it.
He mentioned it again, more deliberately.
Ouma ignored it.
Please, Ouma-kun, please. It's funny, isn't it? Are you even listening to me? I'll tell you the story again. Two weeks ago—
Dread weighed heavy in his lungs, coated the sides of his throat and made it hard to swallow or breathe.
He asked Ouma if he'd heard of the boy crushed flat by a hydraulic press two hundred miles away in a custom truck manufacturing facility.