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The best lies are the ones shrouded in truth.

Chapter Text

“This is fucked up. This is so fucked up.”

 

Kuwata’s hands shake as he drops the gun, but I have bigger things to worry about. Once I’m sure that I’m not in any immediate danger, I take my attention away from him, turning around and dropping down to my knees again to access Shirogane’s injuries. From what I can tell, she’s already sustained a pretty gruesome bullet wound to her midsection. But the blood that is dripping from the injury is minimal, so I don’t think she’s in any immediate danger. At least, not from the bullet. I swallow down what remains of my modesty and scan the rest of her figure.

 

Her face and arms are scratched and bruised. She’s sporting a particularly nasty cut on her left shoulder. I’d really hate to be in her shoes right now; my stomach clenches in sympathy. Her t-shirt, once a pale blue, is darkened with the red of her blood. I pull off my jacket and tear the fabric at the seams, using the sleeve I’ve just destroyed to wrap her cut. I’m trying to focus on my task, because if I think too hard about it, I know I’ll just end up losing my resolve.

 

Then, a pale hand stops one of mine. Her grip is surprisingly firm, and I’m so surprised that I meet her eyes.

 

“Saihara-” she begins, but I must make a face, because she hesitates. As much as I don’t want to overthink this, I also want to hear what she’s going to say, so I make an effort to relax my facial muscles. From where her wrist touches the back of my hand, I can feel her pulse. Her heartbeat is slow. “I… you shouldn’t. Save me, I mean. It’s plain to see that we’re enemies. You’re risking your life defying the Future Foundation.”

 

I sigh, and then look back to where I tied my sleeve. It seems to be soaking up the blood from the cut fairly effectively. I need to prioritise. The bullet wound on her torso probably didn’t hit anything too important, or else she’d have lost more blood. But the rest of her wounds are superficial. I mean, I don’t know very much about medicine, or how to judge the severity of an injury. It’s possible that she’s gotten seriously hurt somewhere else that I just can’t see. But I should think about how to stem the blood flow from her bullet wound. No matter how little of a concern it might be, I don’t think ignoring it is necessarily a wise course of action.

 

“I, uhm,” my fingers find the hem of her t-shirt and I pause, wondering how to verbalise my thoughts. “Ah, your injury… I need to lift your shirt to…”

 

Shirogane seems to appraise me. For a moment, she doesn’t understand. But then she catches on. “Oh! Yeah, that’s okay. I’m not all that worried about you being a creep while I have a bullet in me.”

 

Since there isn’t really a good way to answer that, I instead peel her shirt up until the wound is entirely visible. Beneath the fabric, I can see the faint outline of her ribs, and I have to wonder about the way that Enoshima treats the people who work for her, because this is just…

 

I grab my jacket from where I put it to the side and begin to tear the fabric into a long, thin shred. My hands are shaking from the effort I have to put into it. Frankly, it isn’t so hard to do. In theory, all I have to do is rip across the base of the jacket until I reach the other side, and stop about an inch from removing the section of cloth completely. It’s rugged and uneven by the time that I’m finished, and my hands are tingling and red, but it’ll do.

 

As I wrap what used to be my jacket around her abdomen, Shirogane speaks again. “Why are you helping me, anyway?” Her voice sounds small, which really makes my heart begin to ache. When she’s speaking so quietly, she’s not able to hide very much of what she’s feeling, and I can hear the pain seeping into her voice. I try to be more gentle wrapping her wound. “I’m not a good person, you know? I’m just plainly a part of the government that your Future Foundation hates so much.”

 

My hands tremble a little when I tie the cloth into a knot. I suppose I should answer her… if only because I feel bad. “I’m not with the Future Foundation.” I mutter. “They’ve hurt too many good people.”

 

“What?” Shirogane is confused. “Then, wait, what side are you on? Don’t tell me you’re siding with Junko.”

 

I can’t help but notice that Shirogane and Enoshima are on a first name basis. I can’t even imagine being on a first name basis with somebody like Enoshima. “No. I’m not on either side.” I feel my voice shaking and try to reign it back in. “I’m not on any side. I’m fighting for what’s right.”

 

At this, she laughs. I’m startled by it, and a little peeved, but all that evaporates when she breaks off mid-chuckle and holds her stomach, pain flashing across her features. For a moment, she tries to compose herself, and I wonder how I can help her, but then the moment ends and she looks me in the eye, a weirdly disjointed smile on her face. “On the side of what’s right… you sound like him. ” Shirogane narrows her eyes at me. “You’re interesting, Saihara.” Then she stops, appearing as though she’s muddling something over. “But, I don’t think that your heart is-”

 

Whatever she is going to say, I suppose I will never hear it, because just then, three gunshots ring through the air. Behind me, there is a thud, and Kuwata screams in pain. I can only assume he has fallen to the ground. But I don’t get a chance to turn around and look at him, because simultaneously, two spots on my back erupt in pain. Unlike Kuwata, I barely make a sound as I fall forward, catching myself on my forearms only to sink down onto my stomach.

 

I’ve been shot.

 

The thought barely registers in my mind. Shirogane is screaming, maybe louder than Kuwata. There is a note in her voice that I sort of recognise, find almost familiar. It’s… it’s desperation, I think. She’s…

 

There’s a lot to unpack in that. But the edges of my vision are rimmed with black, and already keeping my eyes open is a battle. I feel the strength draining from my limbs rapidly, and what little of my senses remain pick up that I’m now lying in something warm, and wet. My own blood, I suppose. I’ve been shot before, but… somehow, now, the pain is unbelievable. I’ve never felt anything so painful.

 

At least… at least I get to die like he did.

 

Darkness takes me.

Chapter Text

Before I left for the mission, Kyoko Kirigiri grabbed my arm and pulled me off to the side, staring me in the eye with a severity I had never before felt directed at me. Kirigiri was one of my more serious comrades. I could never really get a read on what she was thinking. Ever since I joined the Future Foundation a few months ago, I’ve been hearing non-stop about how excellent she is on a strategic front. Many of my superiors have given me an earful about how competent she is.

 

Even if they hadn’t though, it’s obvious she knows what she’s doing. Her lavender hair is long but kept out of her face in an intricate plait. Her bangs are cut neatly, framing her striking, dark violet eyes in a way that gives her a very professional air. In the times I’ve seen her, her expression has always reflected deep thought, rather than any strong emotion. I’ve never seen her so much as grimace, even when Aoi Asahina spilled hot coffee on her lap. I admire Kirigiri, because she’s not only composed, but she manages to remain objective in the most heated moments. Even when the rest of the Future Foundation is fueled only by hatred, she can keep a cool head and a neutral expression.

 

Not only that, but she’s skilled at discerning what people are thinking and feeling with very little indication. Maybe, when you spend as much time hiding your feelings as she does, you get really good at telling when other people are doing the same. Me, I’m a bit of an open book. If something upsets me, it’ll show on my face. I can lie, pretty easily, but I can’t just hide my emotions like she does.

 

Suffice to say I was a little startled when her full attention was focused on my face. I felt an overwhelming urge to cover my face with both hands, but it would’ve been rude, and besides, I wanted to hear what she had to say before I returned to the group and was suited up to go to the battlefield.

 

“Ah, Kirigiri,” I felt butterfly wings fluttering in the pit of my stomach. Her gaze was so intense. “What is it?” I had to ask, if only because she’d said nothing at all upon taking me off to the side. Not that I distrusted her motivations. I was sure that she had a good reason for wanting to talk to me. (Even if it was something entirely trifle… I wasn’t a very big name at the Future Foundation, or in the rebellion as a whole.) She considered me, expression as impassive as ever.

 

Then, the smallest frown creased her expression, betraying a little bit of worry in her eyes. I was startled to see something so out of character from the woman who stood in front of me, but I didn’t speak, instead waiting with baited breath for her to say what she wanted to say. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Saihara.” She spoke matter-of-factly, like she wasn’t even really complimenting me. Just stating a fact. My face heated up. “That’s why, I… I’m trusting you to do me a favour.”

 

A favour? For Kyoko Kirigiri?

 

“O-Of course, what is it?” I blurted, and she met my eyes, her frown being replaced by a hint of a smile.

 

“You and Makoto Naegi are assigned to the same mission. Makoto-” I noticed that she was on a first name basis with the man she spoke of. “-is, if nothing else, noble. He has a sort of integrity that’s going to get him killed on the battlefield. I don’t know you well enough to ascertain, but I have deduced that you’re wise enough not to be so blindly heroic. Please, look out for him. Keep him from getting himself killed.”

 

I didn’t know Makoto Naegi any better than I knew her, but I knew a few things about him, perhaps to the same extent. I’d heard he was kind, empathetic. I’d heard he was a good leader, and that he stood up for people regardless of who they were in the past. He didn’t judge people for things things that were out of their control. And I knew, for a fact, that he had integrity. The way Kirigiri spoke about him, with that tiny smile playing on her beautiful face, I could tell they were close. I failed to see a way that I would be able to protect Naegi , of all people, but I wasn’t about to say no.

 

“Right… of course, I-” it occurred to me that I’d already said of course, less than fifteen seconds ago. I hoped my face wasn’t too red. “I’ll do my best.” I promised. Kirigiri brushed her bangs out of her face with a gloved hand, somewhat arbitrarily. Then she nodded, her smile having disappeared. There was something calming about her impassiveness, however, so I figured that she was more relieved than she let on. I wasn’t sure how good my best was, to be honest. Nothing compared to hers. But she still looked to be appeased by my answer, so there was no way I could regret making that promise.

 

“Thank you.” She told me, looking away. Then, without any further words to exchange, Kirigiri walked away, and I slowly rejoined Naegi.

 

This moment is replaying in my head while I am following Naegi as he weaves his way across the parking lot. I have to admire the way he walks, confident, like he’s not afraid of the soldiers that will inevitably be tucked around the corner. Though, I guess, if they do show up, it’ll be somewhat easy to evade them. The leader of the government we’re fighting against, Junko Enoshima, is nothing if not flamboyant. Ever since she came into power, the military leaders we’ve faced off against have been dressed in ugly black and white uniforms that stick out in the washed out streets like a sore thumb. Worst case scenario, I have that gun they gave me…

 

“Shuichi,” Naegi calls out to me. I realise he’s stopped walking, and is looking at me with a smile on his face. It’s a kind smile, like he’s suddenly detected where my thoughts have gone. “Stop thinking so much. Think about right now.”

 

“Ah, y-you’re right.” I say, biting my lip. I want to say something else, but before I get the opportunity, there is the sound of gunfire, and he’s grabbed me and dragged me against the wall of the abandoned grocery store we’re walking by. His grip on my shoulder is hard, his fingers digging into the flesh almost painfully. I wonder if he’s stronger than he looks. He’s five inches shorter than me, after all, it’s only natural that I would make a couple assumptions about his physical capabilities.

 

I watch his grey-green eyes scan our surroundings as they narrow. For such a carefree guy, he definitely spends a lot of time scowling. I wonder why that is. When he catches me looking, he smiles a bit, and I avert my gaze, feeling my face heat up again. I’ve got to stop doing that. It’s just that I have so many questions that I want to ask him, about the revolution and otherwise, that it’s hard to maintain a cool disposition around him.

 

“So, I guess the bomb is going to be in one of those cars.” Naegi says this calmly, like cars being loaded with bombs is an everyday thing. I guess it is, for him. He’s been working with the Future Foundation for much longer than I have. Up until two months ago, I’d been living with my uncle, who’d managed to survive under the radar for decades before I came into his life. I was eight at the time, with nothing to look forward to in the future. All I foresaw happening was more pain, under our government. And my uncle hadn’t had any intention to fix this. Until he took me in. And then, one day, the government discovered his efforts, and he was killed.

 

I’ll spare you the details. I would’ve died, too, but the Future Foundation saved me. That’s probably the biggest reason why I joined. I felt indebted to them.

 

It occurs to me that I haven’t responded, so I clear my throat. “I agree. Uhm, perhaps we could try searching the cars at the edge?” Naegi raises an eyebrow at me, and I hurry to explain. “My first instinct is to go and search for the bomb in one of the cars that’s parked on the inside of the lot, just because it seems more well hidden there, but I know that anybody who works for Enoshima will have a way to outwit our basic presumptions. I doubt she personally planted the bomb, s-so…” I stutter at the end, realising that I’ve spoken a bit more than I intended to.

 

But he offers a smile. “You’re really smart, Shuichi. I never would’ve thought of that.”

 

“Th-thank you,” I have to look away, because now I am blushing, and this really isn’t the time to feel flustered by praise from somebody who I admire. Even if he has been calling me by my given name, despite not knowing me. (Though, I guess it could just be because I’m younger than he is.)

 

Our objective: To find the bomb hidden in this parking lot, and disable it. It’s supposedly big enough to destroy the entire block. I don’t know where the Foundation got the tip off, or what the government is doing destroying a piece of property like this, but that’s what make Junko Enoshima so terrifying. She doesn’t do things for the sake of a plan, or because they will ultimately ensure her survival. She does things because she knows that they will leave suffering in their wake. That, to her, is the best kind of fulfillment. It makes me sick to my stomach.

 

Naegi and I get to work. He fixes his collar and jogs across the lot before I can volunteer to take the trip, sending me a two fingered salute as he goes. I watch his retreating form for a moment before I turn and walk briskly to one of the independently parked cars near the edge of the lot. As I set about busting open the hood of the car like I was taught in training at the Future Foundation, I allow myself a moment to wonder why somebody so high in rank as Makoto Naegi is on such an arbitrary mission such as this. There are plenty of other Foundation members who aren’t so vital to the cause.

 

I mean, I appreciate that Naegi doesn’t think he’s too good for this kind of work. It’s honestly rare that people high up are willing to take on the responsibilities of people who aren’t regarded similarly. But still, is it really the Foundation’s doing? Why would they put him on a task that’s so dangerous, and so… short-term? Success on this front would mean we saved quite a few lives, I won’t deny that. But it isn’t something that’s going to guarantee our success in the upcoming war.

 

Eventually, upon moving on to my third vehicle, I dismiss the thoughts. There’s no use thinking about it; the Future Foundation has their reasons. Everything they do is for the sake of hope. For the sake of the future.

 

It takes me a moment to get the hood up, for this particular vehicle. But once I’ve succeeded, I look down, expecting to see the engine, as I have with the rest of the cars thus far. Instead, before my eyes, there sits a bear-head shaped black machine, with what looks to be the face of a digital clock on the front. Intrigued, I watch the red numbers count down for a moment, only to realise suddenly what I’m looking at. Swallowing the lump that rises in my throat and makes my heart pound with some severity, I turn my head partway, yelling over my shoulder, “Naegi, I found the bomb!”

 

There are twelve minutes left on the clock. I feel a knot unraveling in my chest, and I sigh. Thank god we got here when we did. If we had gotten here later, even by a little… I don’t really want to entertain the possibility. Footsteps behind me alert me to Naegi’s arrival, but I don’t look at him. My attention has been captured by the bomb. He settles next to me and digs around in the bag he’s brought with him.

 

With little ceremony, we set to work disarming the bomb. I was never really very good at that part of the trainings (it’s a wonder I was even sent on this mission to begin with) but even though Naegi doesn’t seem to know much more than I do, we’ve retained different types of information, and with him filling in the blanks, we get the bomb disabled. The numbers on the front blink out, and then the pieces settle into place. It won’t be a problem for anybody, anymore.

 

He sighs next to me, and I wonder if he was worried, like I was, that he wouldn’t know what to do. Even if he is older than I am, and much more experienced, I’m sure he still experiences some degree of self doubt. I can’t stand to put him up on a pedestal right now. Not when we’re supposed to be working together. So, with some hesitation, I reach out and touch his upper arm.

 

“Ah, I uhm… appreciate that you’re here, Naegi. You’re a very reliable person.” I tell him, trying to imitate the warmth I previously heard in his voice, when he complimented me. There is some degree of surprise in his expression when he looks up, eyes flitting from my hand on his arm to meet my gaze.

 

“Huh?” It’s clear that I’ve taken him off guard with the out of the blue compliment, but I’m not sure that he’s upset by it, so I try to reformat my words in a way that sound more sincere. If it’s more personal to me, I’m sure it’ll do more to make him feel reassured.

 

“I’ve always admired the way you look at things.” I admit. “I’m not cynical, by a long shot, but I also tend to shut myself down before I can even really start, so it makes me feel more confident to have somebody like you around.” I think of somebody else who I once knew, who was optimistic like Naegi is. How I never told her how much it meant to me. I don’t want to make that mistake again.

 

“Shuichi…” he starts to smile at me, and opens his mouth to speak, but then a look of alarm floods his features and he grabs my hand. I want to ask him what’s going on, but he doesn’t give me time to do so before he’s began to run back over to the grocery store. I run after him, tripping over my own feet a little bit at being dragged along by him. I don’t know what he’s seen, or what’s happening, really, but before I can regain my senses, he stops next to the wall and pushes me against it with one hand, looking out into the parking lot.

 

I can tell that Naegi is somewhat winded from the run. Perhaps it’s on account of his being so small in build. But training must have taken care of that, so I don’t really understand the big deal. His hand is still on my chest, keeping me in place. Even so, I want to know what’s going on, so I reach out and grab his shoulder, as though to get his attention. He doesn’t respond. Whatever he’s looking for, it must be dangerous.

 

I try to speak to him: “Naegi, what’s going-” but he cuts me off.

 

“Wait, Shuichi-” he breaks off, potentially realising how harsh his tone comes out and wanting to right it. “Be quiet for a second, okay?”

 

So I do, because what else can I do? I scan the parking lot too, wondering what Naegi could possibly see that would make him react like this. But I don’t see anything. I see cars, and abandoned buildings that are across the street. What trees and shrubbery there once were here were destroyed in the takeover, so there’s really nowhere somebody could be hiding, especially not in the attire of one of Enoshima’s soldiers. So what’s Naegi afraid of? I don’t-

 

He flips around and leans in really close to me. Honestly, to be at eye level with me, he must be on his toes, but I’m distracted because now both of his hands are on my shoulders. The close proximity makes me nervous. I’ve never really been good at standing so close to people I don’t know so well. (Especially people who I admire as much as Naegi.)

 

“Hey, Shuichi. Tell me about your family.” It’s so out of the blue, I’m at a loss for words. What could possibly be running through his head right now, for him to ask such a question at such a time? He seems to realise that I’m taken off guard, because he continues. “You remind me of my friend Kyoko, y’know? So, do you come from a family of people who are really smart, like she does?”

 

I suppose, I do. I’m not really sure if my parents qualify, but they aren’t the ones who come to mind when I think of family, so I don’t think I should talk about them. “You could say that, yes. At least, my uncle was intelligent. He was very… determined.”

 

“Was?” Naegi inquires.

 

“Ah, uhm. He passed away, two months ago.” I say this more quietly than I said the first part. I don’t want to see his eyes soften as the eyes of most people do when they learn this, so I hurry to continue. “He was a detective, you know. Or, well, he would’ve been. If not for the society we live in. He used to read books about the way the world used to be, about the detectives who lived within it, and he used to tell me that that was where he saw himself. For the last five years that I knew him, he tried to make that a reality.” I think back on it, the way that he would go out and find the perpetrators of crimes, whether members of the government or not, and the way he delivered justice upon them. Because somebody had to, he used to tell me. “I tried to work with him, when I got old enough.”

 

Naegi seems to be thinking about my words. For some reason, I said more than I meant to. Perhaps it’s just the air that hovers around him. It makes it easier to talk about things that I’ve tried to avoid, for a long time. “I’m sorry I made you think about it.” He eventually says, meeting my eyes. “Whatever death entails, and however he’s participating, I bet he’s proud of you now.”

 

This makes a lump build in my throat.

 

“Naegi, th-”

 

Before I can finish the sentence, the deafening sound of gunshots echoes through the air. The sound stagnates, and then Naegi smiles at me as he slumps to the ground. A cry builds in my throat but I hold it in, scrambling to catch him and soften the impact as he falls. Instead of holding him up, though, I fall down with him, slipping a little on my own feet.

 

When we meet the ground, I’ve fallen to my knees, and he’s essentially on his back, held off the ground by my weak grip. I try to brace his back and help him up, but when my fingers touch his shoulder blade, I feel something wet, and he cries out. Oh, god, that’s a bullet wound.

 

As carefully as I can, I turn him over, trying to access the damage. I’ll have to stop the bleeding, just as Seiko Kimura taught me in training, and get him back to base, where they can operate. But when I’m faced with his injuries, I stop cold. Somehow, within a few seconds, his back has ended up perforated in five different places. He got shot five times. One of the injuries is right at the base of his spine. There’s no doubt that he’ll be paralysed, if there’s any way to save him, to begin with. (Ugh, don’t think like that.)

 

I fumble, reaching for the bag that Naegi dropped. He’s lying on his chest on the concrete now as I push myself up, grabbing the folds of the bag and dragging it over. His blood is pooling on the ground and soaking into the knees of my pants. Already I’m getting the bag stained, too. As I start digging around in the bag for the bandages that we’ve packed, he grabs my wrist, and halts my movements.

 

“Sh-Shuichi.” He chokes out my name through a cough, and his lips get stained red with blood.

 

“No…” I mutter, scowling. I locate the gauze and bandages, pulling them out and trying not to stain them with blood.

 

“Shuichi, it’s pointless.” Naegi wheezes, squeezing my wrist.

 

“No! I won’t-” I break off when I see the look in his eyes. Fighting off the pain, struggling to retain consciousness. The way he’s breathing, choked and erratic, like he can barely make his lungs work. He’s already having to fight to keep his eyes open, to tell me this to begin with. It doesn’t matter if I wrap his wounds. I’m not a doctor, and he’s been shot five times. There’s no way one of those bullets didn’t hit his spine, and the others? I’m not an expert, but there’s no way. My heart sinks.

 

Despite the pain he must be in, when Naegi sees my face crumbling, he smiles at me, toothy and wide. But his teeth are smeared with blood, and a moment later, he’s coughing from the exertion. I reach out to touch his shoulder, trying to figure out what to do, but- but-

 

But what? But what? He’s injured, isn’t he? He’s going to die, isn’t he?

 

Makoto Naegi. A hero. Somebody who the rebellion needs. Somebody who even Junko Enoshima fears. I can’t just- there has to be some way that I-

 

“Damn!” I yell, because there’s nothing. I can’t even make it hurt less. The only way to do that would be to-

 

Ah, no.

 

“Shuichi…”

 

I promised Kirigiri, I promised. What will she think? Why wasn’t I more careful? Why wasn’t I paying attention?

 

“Shuichi, you…”

 

He must’ve known, that’s why, that’s why he pinned me to the wall and stood in front of me. He was protecting me. He was making sure that there was no way that I could get hurt. Makoto Naegi was protecting me and I promised to protect him and god damn it-

 

“Shuichi!” It must take Naegi quite a bit of effort to get my attention, because when I’m pulled back to reality, he’s pale and his breathing is even more laboured than before. Guilt lodges itself like a block in my chest. He’s going to die and I’m not even listening to him.

 

“S-Sorry,” I manage, meeting his eyes. “This is my-”

 

Naegi grabs both of my hands, grip tight and gaze severe. “Don’t you dare- ” he stops, struggling to get out the words. “Don’t you dare blame yourself, I chose to-” he stops, closing his eyes briefly. There is a deep crease between his eyebrows, and his features are contorted. His chest rises and falls quick, and I’m reminded of the panic attacks that I used to have, when I was younger. He’s still near my age, isn’t he? As I watch his face, waiting for him to have regained his composure enough to continue. “Listen to me, Shuichi.”

 

Suddenly he’s attentive, eyes wide open and boring holes into me.

 

“You have to-” he flounders for words, then reaches into his pocket, grabbing something and putting it into my hand. When I retract it, I open my fingers and see two items, rather than one. One is a cell phone. It looks to be pretty high tech. And on my palm next to it is a flashdrive. The flashdrive is labelled with a piece of masking tape, the letters “M.I.” written on it in sharpie. I look up at Naegi, confusion blooming across my features. He struggles to explain. “Take this flashdrive, and… and go to that house, right there.” My attention is directed to the house that he points at. It’s small, and white, and altogether unnoticeable. “The door will be open. J...Just go right in, and you’ll see a laptop on the center table. Put in the flashdrive and transfer every file on it onto the laptop. Don’t let anyone see you. Okay? Can you do that?”

 

He sounds so weak. “Y-Yes, I- of course. I will.” I promise, thinking about the last promise I made and how well I’ve kept it so far.

 

“Right, and-” he breaks off, only to continue a moment later. “When you finish doing that, go into the grocery store, this one,” he points at the building behind us. “Call out to Mukuro Ikusaba. When she comes out…” Naegi trails off, his gaze seeming lost. “Tell her… tell her you did it, you transferred the files. And, also, tell her that- that I’m sorry, I couldn’t keep my promise.” A tear falls from his eye, down his cheek, and takes any semblance of calm that I might have just regained. “S-Sorry, I-”

 

“Naegi-” I begin.

 

“I’m supposed to be ready for this, y’know?” He whispers. “I joined the Foundation understanding that… that I could die, and it would be for the good of the future. B-But… it’s wrong. I mean-” he coughs. “People dying, it’s… it’s wrong. Who decided that…” Naegi trails off, panting. “N-No, I need… I can’t be sc..a...red…”

 

“It’s okay to be scared.” I mumble, feeling like I can barely breathe. “It’s okay.” I don’t know what else to say.

 

For a moment, neither of us says anything. What is there to say, I wonder, other than what has already been said? Naegi’s grip on my hand is weakening. I look him in the eye, trying to memorise his face, because this is… this is the last time, I know, the last time I’ll ever get to see Makoto Naegi alive.

 

“I’ll do what you told me, Naegi. I promise.”

 

To my relative shock, he chuckles, offering a slight smile. “I’ve been… meaning to ask you to… call me Makoto. We’re friends, Shuichi… that’s why…”

 

Ah…

 

“M-Makoto… I’m…” what do I say? “I’m sorry.” I whisper finally. There’s nothing else I can say. There’s nothing else I can do, but hold on to the last flicker of life in his eyes.

 

The smile he gives me is wide, and full of life. It’s the most human expression I have ever seen somebody make. There is so much fear in his eyes. My heart seems to stop.

 

“I’m sorry, too.” He tells me.

 

Makoto takes a deep breath, and a breath after that, and a breath after that, and…

 

And he never breathes again.

Chapter Text

I don’t know how long I sit there, staring at his face. For a moment, I’m not even sure he’s actually dead. But I’m pretty sure that’s just denial, trying to numb the grief that is fighting to come over me in waves. His eyes are half open and glassy now, moistened by tears that are never going to fall. There are a couple other, grosser aspects of a person dying that I really don’t want to get into, but after a while, I have to come to terms with the fact that Makoto has taken his final breath.

 

His lips are still fixed in that last smile he gave me. Now that the life has left his eyes, the fear has gone with it, and really he looks downright peaceful. He could just be resting, really. But there’s no good in pretending that what’s true isn’t. Makoto said it best when he said that he had to be ready for it, for people dying. That’s something the Future Foundation has always been prepared to tell its members at every turn.

People are going to die. It’s better to come to terms with it.

 

Right?

 

But, Makoto had been saying something else. He said it’s wrong, that people are dying. And he hadn’t been able to finish the sentence that my mind keeps going to, but he had begun to question it. Begun to question who it was that decided that human life is expendable. I’ll admit there’s a certain beauty in sacrifice. It’s the appeal of martyrdom. But… if we have the choice…

 

No time to dwell on it. I must have been sitting here for fifteen minutes already, doing nothing more than thinking about it. Nevermind that there are far more productive uses of my time than sitting here and thinking about it. I have a mission to undertake. I made a promise, before Makoto died.

 

With that at the front of my mind, I push myself to my feet, using the wall of the grocery store to support my weight on shaky legs. I teeter back and forth for a minute. It feels as though each of my limbs has been sapped of any of the strength that they might’ve had. I sort of want to collapse. But I can’t stand to lose my resolve right now. Not right now, when I haven’t yet done what he asked of me. I look at the phone and the flashdrive he gave me once again before putting both items into the pocket of my pants. It takes me a moment to gather all of the stuff that spilled from the bag he brought, but I put everything back and sling the bag over my shoulder.

 

Finally, there’s the matter of Makoto’s body. I grimace at the sight of him, lying there, and then wonder what I should do. Realistically, I know that I’m going to need to carry him back to Headquarters. But I have a couple things to get done before I can even begin to think about going back to the Future Foundation, and I need to prioritise. Since I have to do them in secrecy, it would be ideal if I could find a place to hide his body while I’m out doing what he asked me to do.

 

(Ah, I wonder… what is it, exactly, that he asked me to do? Perhaps top-secret, high security responsibilities that the Future Foundation assigned to him? Is that why the Foundation asked him to come along, so he could simultaneously fulfill those duties and help me disarm a bomb? It doesn’t seem so impossible. Even so, I don’t have all of the details, and I doubt the Foundation will be very liberal with the information… moreover, the most approachable person I knew who would have understood the reason for the assignment was Makoto himself. And, frankly, there’s… there’s no asking him now.)

 

I scan my surroundings for a place where I could hide the body. As I previously noted, what trees and shrubs there are are scarce. There isn’t really a good location. Ideally, I’d find a couple bushes and tuck him in, but…

 

I have to settle for lifting his body and carrying it (somewhat haphazardly) to the side of the abandoned grocery store. I use my jacket and a couple of the spare washcloths I found in the bag to cover him as best as I could. In the end, I felt bad leaving him in such a spot, but… it’ll have to do for now. I’m going to be coming back for him, in any case, and in the end, I’ll return him to his family in as good condition as is possible.

 

I make a mental note to stop making so many promises that I might not be able to keep. I should, instead, focus on the task that I’ve been given.

 

I’m somewhat reluctant to leave his body, but I manage to force myself to turn around and start across the parking lot. In a different time, I might stick out rather grossly on such a quiet block, being covered in blood as I am. Somebody else’s blood, no less. But the world I live in has never conformed to such standards. Under Junko Enoshima, it’s nothing more than an everyday occurrence to come across a person who has been beaten within an inch of their life, limping across the street to their apartment complex. Of course, you can ask a person what’s happened to them, but most would prefer not to. It’s normal for the authorities to attack a random person. There’s hardly a person out there who really wants to hear about it.

 

(It’s, ah, part of the reason the Future Foundation exists. Most of the reason, really. The Foundation says no to the needless violence, to the cruelty, to the turning a blind eye on injustices. The Foundation says no to Junko Enoshima. To despair.)

 

In other words, I make it across the parking lot without any interruptions. As I jog across the street, I stick my hands in my pockets, and the fingers of my right hand close around the cell phone Makoto gave me. I have to wonder why he gave me the phone in the first place. He never instructed me on what to do with it. It doesn’t pertain to the mission he gave me, in the slightest. In retrospect, I should’ve asked, but… there wasn’t ever a point where it felt tactful to do so.

 

Upon stopping in front of the house he pointed out to me, I find myself once again overcome by trepidation. His instructions were pretty clear. Get in, load the files, get out. Do not be seen. But I still feel my stomach curling. What if I can’t do it? What if I somehow mess it up, or what if I fail to load a file or two? What if somebody walks in on me doing it? It feels as though there are so many things that could possibly go wrong with this plan. I’m hardly qualified to carry out the promise that I made.

 

But I can’t let that stop me. I can’t. Not when I made a promise. Not when I already broke a promise. I’m so tired of breaking promises. My nerves are momentarily steeled by the exhaustion, I clench my fists at my sides and walk up the steps in front of the house. I reach out and grasp the doorknob, turning it experimentally to see if it’s unlocked as he told me it would be. True to form, the knob turns easily in my hand and I push it open. The bottom of the door drags a little bit on what I can only assume is a carpeted floor on the inside. I bite my lip, worried about dirtying the carpet with the blood on my shoes, only the realise that the fear is entirely needless, and that I have bigger things to worry about.

 

So I walk in.

 

The foyer is dark. The only light in the house would seem to be the natural light from behind me, and even that is obscured by the grey clouds that fill the sky. I sigh and close the door as silently as possible before turning around and attempting to scan my surroundings. Upon second glance, there is another light in the room. A faded blue light, like something from some form of technology. As I recall that Makoto told me about a laptop that I’d find in here, I walk towards the source of the light, and turn the corner.

 

Atop a mahogany table that sits underneath a window, there sits an open laptop. The screensaver is blue, and I come to the conclusion that this is what provided the light. Adjacent to the small table is a door. Out of curiosity, I turn the handle and peek inside. The door leads to what appears to be a small broom closet that locks from the inside. I chew the inside of my cheek and close the door, marking that information for further examination.

 

Finally, I turn to the laptop. The screen has only begun to dim, and I wonder briefly if somebody else was here recently, and using the laptop. Since I doubt Makoto would send me into anything too dangerous, I decide to trust in that whoever used it last must be at least moderately trustworthy. Worst case scenario, I could try to reason with them, and assure them that I was only here as per Makoto’s instruction.

 

I’ve used a flashdrive once or twice in the past, so it’s pretty clear to me how I should go about this. I extract the drive from my pocket and plug it into the computer, waiting for the icon of the drive itself to pop up on the screen. It takes a moment, which makes me think this might be an older laptop model, but once it registers, I double click the icon and watch as the files open up. My eyes scan the contents and I can estimate that there are about fifty files on here that I’ll need to load onto the computer. I sigh, running a hand through my hair, but quickly set about doing so.

 

Since it doesn’t look like there’s a “select all” option, I have to go through each file individually and go through a series of options in order to load them onto the laptop. The work is fairly repetitive, and while tedious, it soon becomes a little cathartic. My eyes almost glaze over once or twice, but I try not to go on autopilot, because that would make it more likely for me to make mistakes. Though I’m trying to focus primarily on my task, I do key in a little bit to what the files are. Out of curiosity, really.

 

For the most part, they’re the sort of files that I would expect a Foundation member of Makoto’s rank to be handling. Maps of Junko’s home base, detailed reports of excursions with soldiers, files regarding the casualties suffered on either side. But a few of them give me pause. There are several maps of the Future Foundation headquarters, and files describing the lives taken by several members of the Future Foundation in immense detail. I can’t help but wonder why the Foundation would disclose such information. I mean, it’s a fact that they have to take a life in some circumstances. We are, essentially, fighting a war. But it’s bad for morale, the release of this information. Knowing that we might have to kill… it’s really dehumanising. I haven’t even killed anybody yet, and just thinking about it makes my stomach churn.

 

But what really makes me freeze are fifteen files that make absolutely no sense to me. I have never seen them before, nor have I even heard of them. Really, it shouldn’t matter, because I know that I’m not very high ranking in the Future Foundation to begin with, so of course they’re not going to make much sense to me. Even so… something about those files in particular makes a chill run down my spine.

 

Each one is formatted similarly. The files all focus on a particular individual, detailing a list of their crimes and their backgrounds. But the real kicker is the red stamp over each file, written in all caps, ELIMINATION WARRANTED. I want to say that it doesn’t make any sense to me, but logically it seems as though their murder is being given the “OK” back at the Future Foundation headquarters. I almost go back to double check if this is, in fact, a Future Foundation file, but of course it is. They’re formatted the same as all the other Foundation files.

 

Underneath the names of each individual, written on the files are the words “Ultimate Despair.”

 

It… makes little sense to me. It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around. Ultimate Despair? Elimination warranted? Who is Makoto sending these files to? There’s no way he’d issue an order for somebody to kill somebody else- especially not one of the people in these files, because all fifteen of them were born either in the same year as I was, or the two years before that. That would make them twenty, nineteen... or even eighteen. I doubt Makoto would ask somebody to kill anyone, much less a bunch of children. It’s not in his nature. So…

 

I dismiss the thoughts and go through the files, loading them onto the laptop. Questioning what I see isn’t going to help me do what I need to right now. After finishing with those fifteen, there are a few more arbitrary files, and then I’m finished, and my hands freeze over the keyboard. My brain stalls. I’ve run out of files to load, and for some reason, now I’m hesitating. I feel almost possessed to go back into the files that caught my eye before, and look them over again. There was something about them that really made my gut clench, and I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I feel like I’m missing something, something really important. But that’s not what he asked me to do.

 

Eventually, I manage to push away the urge and eject the flashdrive manually before pulling it out from where it’s been plugged in. For such a small device, it really does hold a lot of information. I’m kind of amazed at the technology. It isn’t that technology like that doesn’t exist; it does. In fact, we have plenty of it, at the Future Foundation. But it’s… something about the drive makes my brain do a somersault. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m completely blind to something that’s right in front of my eyes.

 

Before I can go too far into it, I hear the front door of the house opening and closing. My heart leaps up into my throat. I’m not supposed to be seen. I wonder quickly if there’s any chance of escaping the house as a whole without being seen, but I doubt it. They seem to be coming straight here from the foyer, based on their footsteps, and I don’t know any ways out aside from the front door. In lieu of jumping out the window or running further into the house, I opt to hide, and dash to the closet, swiftly pulling open the door and closing it behind me.

 

It seems I made it into the closet in the nick of time, because just as I’m catching my breath, I hear footsteps coming to a stop in front of the door. I lean forward, resting a hand on the wood and peeking through the crack between the door and the wall. I can barely see anything from where I’m looking, but I can see the faint outline of a person’s profile. They seem to be looking at the laptop, and they aren’t saying anything. (Admittedly, my escape was pretty sloppy. It’s fairly obvious that somebody was there a moment ago. I’m 90% certain I got blood on the keyboard.)

 

“Naegi, are you here?” It’s the voice of a girl, so I can only assume that the person outside the door is at least biologically female. If I look harder, I can see the light from the computer illuminating brown hair, and a red shirt. It’s not a very inconspicuous outfit, but I don’t really have much room to talk in the Future Foundation suit that I’m wearing.

 

I realise that I want to answer her, to tell her that it isn’t Makoto doing the job he was supposed to have been, but… he told me not to be seen. I don’t know if that applies to her, but I also don’t recognise her, and she clearly isn’t a member of the Future Foundation. And, as much as I would hate to admit it, I don’t know if this is even sanctioned by the Foundation, so I might not even want to reveal my presence to somebody that I do recognise.

 

“You’re staying quiet, right? Is it because you’re still upset? Or are you not even here?” I hear her laugh, but it sounds more bitter than anything else. “Well, I guess I have no way of knowing one way or the other. You don’t have to talk to me.” I feel something blossoming in the pit of my stomach, weighing down on my heart, but I’m not sure how to identify it yet. I hold my breath, waiting. “I just… if you are here… I wanted to apologise for what I said, about…” she trails off, and for a minute she’s quiet. At the sound of sniffling, it occurs to me that she might be crying. “You’re obviously not doing anything wrong through all of this. I just wanted you to know that you’re a lot better than I ever give you credit for.”

 

Oh, I shouldn’t be hearing this- this isn’t-

 

“Listen, Naegi, you don’t have to talk to me right now. But I do… when I see you next, I mean, I hope…” she sighs. “Well, whatever. We’ll talk when you’re feeling up to it. I get that you’re angry. Thanks for the files, Iruma is going to be ecstatic.” From the clicking sound on the other sound of the door, I can only assume that she’s just closed the laptop. There’s some shuffling and I hear her footsteps beginning to retreat. Then, “See you later.”

 

That’s the last thing she says before I hear her footsteps fading. The front door opens and closes, leaving me in the silence of an empty house. I clench and unclench my fists, suddenly aware that my eyes are burning. Everything that she just said was so raw, so- emotional? Real? I can only assume that she, whoever she is, had an argument with Makoto the last time they saw each other. They must have ended the interaction without apologising, and she regrets doing so. That’s why she just said all that she said. She took my silence to mean that Makoto hadn’t forgiven her.

 

And… she’ll never know. He’ll never get to hear her apology, and she’ll never get to feel his forgiveness. All because, an hour ago, I failed to keep a promise.

 

Ah. I can’t start crying yet. I still have something that I need to do.

 

I’m a lot less careful leaving the house than I was entering it. It’s a quick trip into the foyer and out the door, practically running down the front steps. I look around, blinking the moisture out of my eyes and fixing my attention on the grocery store. There isn’t any need to worry about cars coming around the corner nowadays, so I simply jog across the street and through the parking lot. Momentarily I glance at where I hid Makoto’s body, whispering an inaudible apology to him under my breath for having heard what I just did, even though I had no right to.

 

When I come up to the front of the grocery store, I’m not sure what to expect. Most grocery stores have motion activated sliding doors, so I would hypothetically be able to walk in without opening the door manually, but this is an abandoned grocery store, so to begin with I don’t really know how I’m going to get in. As it turns out, this isn’t a problem, as the doors of this particular establishment have handles. I reach out, grasping the handle and trying to pull it open. It doesn’t give, so I try again, pulling a little bit harder and gritting my teeth in frustration.

 

What, is it stuck? I grab the other door handle and try that one, huffing once I find that it is locked as well. With some irritation, I turn and look over my shoulder, glaring at nothing in particular. Makoto wouldn’t send me to a grocery store that I can’t even get into, right? Like, this has to be a mistake on my part, somehow? I turn back to the door, wondering where I should even begin. I reach out to try and open the door again, only for my eyes to fall on the sign that’s right there at eye level: “PUSH”.

 

I don’t think exhaustion qualifies as a valid excuse for what just happened. Determined to erase it from my memories, I push the door and it opens with ease. I can feel my face heating up with embarrassment, and I take a minute to thank whoever is up there that it’s an abandoned grocery store, and there was nobody around to witness what just happened. I’m not sure that I’d ever be able to live that down, if there was. Even if I didn’t know the person.

 

As I step into the grocery store, I rack my mind for the instructions that Makoto gave me about this part. Who am I supposed to call out for? It’s a name that I’ve heard once or twice, though I’m not really certain as to the origin… regardless, I’m sure I can remember it if I just…

 

Ah!

 

“Uhm, Mukuro Ikusaba?” I call out, hoping that I said the right name. It sounds correct, of course, but I might’ve mixed up some of the characters over the past hour. I tend to do that. Thankfully, somebody emerges from the shelves, and begins to walk over. Mukuro Ikusaba, or who I assume is Mukuro Ikusaba, is a young, black haired woman. She must be around my age, or maybe a little older, like Makoto. From her gait, I can detect that she’s graceful. Most notably, her footfalls are completely silent. Likely, she would be able to sneak up with me, and I’d never see her coming.

 

When she sees me, though, she stops short, and though she’s somewhat far away from me, I see something dangerous flash across her expression. Suddenly, her movements blur, and a moment later, there is a burst of pain in my shoulder, and I stumble backwards, a cry breaking free from my throat. Even though I stopped myself from yelling when Makoto got shot, I can’t hold it back now, and I fumble to catch myself on the door. I’m now glad that it’s a push door from the outside, because otherwise it would open under my weight.

 

In a flash, she’s right in front of me, her cool grey eyes boring holes into mine. A knife has appeared in her hand, held in front of her, and another is clearly the cause of the pain in my shoulder.

 

She threw a knife at me, I think, startled.

 

“You’re with the Future Foundation,” she growls accusingly, and brandishes her weapon. Despite the jerky emotion in her movements, I can tell that she’s well practiced. Her eyes follow my every movement. Every slight twitch under her gaze must be noted, and kept for future reference. It makes my heart sputter out for a minute, pounding out a sporadic rhythm.

 

“Yeah,” I manage, swallowing my fear. If she’s working with Makoto, wouldn’t she be on good terms with the Foundation? Why is it that even though she’s already put a knife in my shoulder and is likely planning on putting in another one, I feel like I’m the one here to attack her? She’s certainly not fragile. I’m pretty sure she could break me in half if she wanted to. But… I… “I’m here on Makoto’s request, though. Not theirs.”

 

She hesitates, sizing me up, as though to check that I’m not a threat. “Can I trust you?” She asks, narrowing her eyes at me.

 

That’s not fair. Is there ever a good answer to that question? What does she expect me to say? I’m not going to say no. “Ah, y-yes.” I answer anyway, as sincerely as I can. And honestly, she has absolutely no reason to trust me. I just walked in and called her name, and am now claiming that I know someone who is probably a friend of hers. (A friend of hers who is dead now, who died protecting me.)

 

It doesn’t occur to me that I’ve been holding my breath until she puts the knife away, sighing and shaking her head. I feel my muscles relaxing a little, and I sigh too, rubbing my temple. The adrenaline starts to ebb away, and the pain in my shoulder becomes more potent. I look up at her, waiting for her to say something, but then I realise that she’s probably waiting for the same thing. She doesn’t have anything to say to me, after all. I called her name. I’m the one who should carry this conversation.

 

“Makoto told me to tell you that I loaded the files.” I pull the flashdrive from my pocket and hold it out to her, biting my lip. “From this, onto the laptop.”

 

Ikusaba reaches out and takes the flashdrive from me, looking at it with an impassive expression to rival Kirigiri’s. “This is covered in dried blood.” She observes, looking back up and meeting my eyes. “Not yours…?”

 

“A-Ah.” I swallow, and it feels like my throat is made of sandpaper. “Not mine, no. Makoto’s.” I don’t know how to continue, but I force myself to keep saying words, because I can’t just stop there. “Makoto- he-” I take a deep breath, preparing to force out the rest of the sentence, but she cuts me off, somewhat abruptly.

 

“He died?” She asks the question with no pretense. Her tone is entirely emotionless, as though she is merely stating a fact. Since she is, I just give her a nod in response, feeling spent already from having said what I did. Even though it’s been a little more than an hour since Makoto actually died, now that I’ve said it out loud, it feels like I’ve made it real, now. It feels more heavy. And suddenly I really want to break down. But I can’t do it in front of Ikusaba. She purses her lips, and eventually closes her eyes, teetering a little bit. “I’m used to death.” She mutters, and I can hear the shaken quality of her tone.

 

Even if you’re used to death… it’s not the same, when it’s Makoto, is it?

 

“I’m sorry.” I whisper. “It’s my fault. That’s why…”

 

“That’s why you’re here?” She finishes my sentence again, suddenly having regained her composure. I have to admire the way she’s turned off her feelings so suddenly, like putting on a mask. I imagine she’ll mourn when she’s alone, but I’m a stranger. Not that I’d be upset or judgemental if she did lose it in front of me, but even so… I don’t know if I’d be able to hold it together if she did. “Look, this isn’t- this isn’t Future Foundation business, alright? Far from it, in fact. This is something entirely different and you can’t get involved in it because you want to repay Naegi.”

 

I feel the contents of my stomach hardening into a block. “What do you mean by that?”

 

“This, what Naegi asked you to do? It’s not going to help the Foundation. It’s not for the Foundation. I appreciate that you did as he asked, but you need to make sense of this yourself. Did he give you his cell phone?” This question takes me off guard. Is she going to explain the reasoning behind my receiving it? I nod, and she hums, pulling her knife back out and using it to clean out her fingernails. “Hold onto it for a bit. Go back to your headquarters, get your shoulder injury taken care of. I’m… sorry about that, by the way.” She indicates towards where the knife is still lodged in my shoulder, and I shake my head, as though to wave it off.

 

“Don’t worry about it. I- I get it. At least, as best as I can, right now.”

 

“Right. Uh, anyway. Go back to headquarters. Do a little digging. When the text detailing the location and time of a meeting coming up comes in on the phone, figure out the whereabouts and go to the meeting without letting anybody from the Foundation know. There, you can give back the phone, if you decide you don’t want in on any of this. It has to be your choice, it’s what Naegi would’ve…” she stops cold, blinking like she just woke up from a twisted daydream. “But… do, dig around. Figure out what the Foundation has been up to, recently. If you don’t like it, then… then come to the meeting, we’ll tell you everything.”

 

“We?” I repeat.

 

Mukuro Ikusaba meets my eyes, and for the first time, I see a smile spreading across her features, even as a tear tracks down her cheek. “Yeah. We. I’ll see you again, but thanks for doing what you did.”

 

I want to ask her more, but she’s already turning around and walking away. Instead of stopping her, I just watch her retreating form fade into the dusty shelves of the abandoned grocery store.

Chapter Text

Ikusaba’s words follow me out of the grocery store and onto the sidewalk as I hobble along to where I left Makoto’s body. Any of the determination that was fueling me before is gone now. I’ve kept my promise. Realistically, I know that I’ve done all that I can. And it should make me feel at least a little better. I made true on my word. But even so… even so. The adrenaline that was, previously, keeping me on my feet, has worn off. All that remains now is pain from the knife in my shoulder, and exhaustion.

 

Regardless, I uncover the body and swallow hard to keep from dwelling on it. If I stop to think, I know that I’ll just collapse. I swing my bag off my shoulder and shove my jacket inside, as well as the washcloths, before reaching down and grabbing Makoto’s arm. He’s dead, and has been for well over an hour at this point, so he’s fairly cold. And heavy. I doubt I’ll have the strength to carry him back to headquarters. But I really don’t have any other options, so that’s what I begin to do.

 

Once I’ve actually dragged his body out into the parking lot, though, it becomes evident to me that the knife in my shoulder is going to be more than just a mild inconvenience in this endeavour. Every slight movement sends waves of pain over the right side of my body. It needs to be dealt with. Not to mention that it’s hard to move with something actively penetrating my shoulder. I don’t want to pull the knife out, because I know the presence of the blade there is the only thing stopping the injury from bleeding more than it is already, but it seems to me that I’m running out of options. And I’m not sure how good it would be for me to leave it in, either.

 

That in mind, I lean over and rest Makoto’s body on the pavement as delicately as I can. The smile is still fixed on his lips. I wonder if that will be the expression his face will be pulled into until it decomposes. I… don’t like the possibility, so I clear it from my mind. I can’t think about it right now. Not right now. Somewhat unceremoniously, I dump the bag on the ground next to me, and kick it to the side, wanting space to do what I have to do.

 

Gritting my teeth, I brace myself and wrap the fingers of my left hand around the handle of the knife. It’s an elegant weapon, upon closer expectation. The base of the handle is made of leather, with somewhat intricate embroidery near the blade itself. I have to wonder why Ikusaba left it behind, as though it means nothing. Perhaps it does mean nothing.

 

I count down from five in my head in order to give myself something to focus on. On one, I squeeze my eyes shut tight and bite down on my lip so hard it draws blood as I yank the weapon from my shoulder. Because my mouth is closed, the scream that escapes my throat is muffled. Tears prick my eyes and I want desperately to let them fall. It hurts more now that I’m thinking about the pain. I don’t have anything else to focus on, after all. But painstakingly, I make myself calm down. My breathing is forced to slow and even out, and I swallow down the lump that’s surfaced in my throat. It’s not even everything that’s happened that’s making me want to cry right now. Just the pain.

 

Warm blood trickles down my side and when I open my eyes, I see that the entire shoulder of my white dress shirt has been stained with red. I must look terrible. I feel terrible, in any case.

 

Even though I doubt it’ll help, I force myself to take a couple deep breaths, dropping the knife and reaching up with my left hand to run it through my hair. The knot in my chest unwinds a little bit, leaving me feel the slightest bit relieved. The hardest part of tending to the injury is over. I just… I just need to focus, and then I can keep going. Once I get back to the Future Foundation, I’ll be able to grieve. The idea of facing Kirigiri, of telling her how I failed to keep her promise, makes my gut clench and my palms get all sweaty, but I have to do it. I already got Makoto killed. I have to tell her what happened, to her face. She needs to hear it from me.

 

I sink down to my knees and reach out, grasping the bag and tugging it back over. I’m regretting it now, kicking it away, because even though I can move my right arm, any slight disturbance makes my shoulder feel like it’s being stabbed all over again. I teeter back onto my rear and sit tailor style as I pull out gauze and bandages. We brought a medical kit that has needles and thread, but I don’t think I’ll be able to sew anything worth crap with my non-dominant hand. But I do pull the hydrogen peroxide out of the kit, as well as a washcloth, because I don’t want my shoulder to get infected.

 

To begin with, I have to rip the hole in my shirt even larger than it already is to give myself more access to my wound. I feel bad destroying the fabric, but I don’t have any other options. The process of actually disinfecting is tedious and it takes some effort to get myself to look at the injury as I’m dabbing it with the washcloth. I’m well aware that hydrogen peroxide is used because it’s alcohol, and it kills the bacteria, but using it also stings, and I flinch every time the towel comes into contact with my wound. When I’ve finished, I doubt I’ve spent enough time cleaning it out, but I really can’t stand to keep at it much longer so I go ahead and put the cloth aside, gathering up the gauze and pressing it against my shoulder.

 

I grit my teeth so that my responding groan comes out in more of a hiss. The act of cleaning an injury is unpleasant. I’d really hate to be a doctor. (Though I’ve heard that doctors are lousy patients, so maybe it’s easier when you’re working on healing somebody else? Then again, thinking back to when Makoto got shot… the way that I panicked… no, I don’t think that would be a very good career choice for me.)

 

It takes some uncomfortable maneuvering, but I manage to wrap my shoulder several times, as tight as I can. In lieu of tying the end of the bandage into a knot, I have to settle for tucking it under the rest of the wrapping, because I’m doing this one handed. I hope it’ll stay in place for now. It doesn’t need to hold for too long anyway- just until I can get Makoto back to headquarters.

 

Of course, saying that, I’m really not accounting for any strenuous labour. And I think carrying Makoto’s body the couple miles back to the Foundation’s base definitely qualifies. It’s not that he’s particularly heavy. As I said before, he’s a good five inches shorter than I am, and he’s also not very large in width. I’d actually say that he has a more feminine build than the average guy. But he’s… well, he’s dead. And while on an ordinary day, I’d probably be able to carry him, I’ve lost a considerable amount of blood already, and I’m already fighting off the ever-growing urge to collapse into tears.

 

At this point, though, even getting to my feet feels like too much effort. I’m sorely tempted to just lie back and close my eyes. Sleeping sounds really good, right about now. Forget the tiredness- after everything that’s happened today, closing my eyes on all the bad memories and negative thoughts sounds like an amazing idea. Even if I’m on pavement, and out in the open for any one of Junko Enoshima’s people to come and get me… it doesn’t seem to matter right now because I’m so tired.

 

I just don’t know if I’ll wake up afterwards. After losing all that blood, what if my body just stops functioning? I don’t know if that’s medically possible, but right now it seems like a distinct possibility. My stab wound could have already been infected by the time I thought to take care of it. I’m not sure I even did a very good cleaning it in the first place. All that aside, I’ve heard of a phenomenon in which the body completely gives up. The most basic of human instincts is to survive. That’s the purpose behind living, really. Continuing to do so. But if I just give up, well, then my body might, too. What if I fall asleep here and never wake up?

 

What’s really scary to me is how tempting that sounds. Makoto Naegi is dead, and it’s my fault. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just turn my back on those responsibilities? Does the rebellion even need me? It wouldn’t make a difference in the long run; the Future Foundation is doing just fine with or without my help. There are too many complicated things to think about. I don’t know if I could handle it. Or if I’d even need to. Besides… she isn’t around anymore, so maybe…

 

I find myself staring dully at Makoto’s dead face. His skin has lost all of the life that it had previously. I don’t know how that happened in such a short time. But suddenly it’s not Makoto anymore. It’s just… it’s just a body. Can human life really be so unimportant? Why is it that he’s suddenly ceased to be a he? Why is Makoto Naegi no longer Makoto Naegi? Just an hour ago, he was talking to me, and smiling at me, and making me feel more important…

 

Really, it should have been me. I know why he did it, why he backed me into the wall and then leaned into my face. If I was against the wall, my face would be protected, and it would be harder to get me from the sides, too. He put himself right in front of me, which kept my front guarded as well. I was safe. He was turning his back on danger in the name of protecting me. And for what? I’m not nearly as capable as he is. I’m nothing, really. Nothing but an expendable, nameless member of the group that will change the world. Someday, I will be a statistic. One number in a big one. I won’t matter. But he will. And he threw all that away, for what?

 

I should get up and go, I know that. But I don’t see the point. I’m exhausted, and my shoulder hurts, and I am unable to look what happened in the face. I can’t even go to sleep and give up entirely because I know I need to get up. There’s a chance that the Foundation will find us, if I give up and die, and then both of our bodies will be returned. When my body is revealed, I know at least one person will mourn. I have a best friend, after all. But Makoto’s? I mean, how could I ever…

 

But the alternative is that the government finds us. And then what? Who knows what Junko Enoshima will do with Makoto’s body. Something screwed up, I’m sure. Something designed to cause pain. Something that can only make things worse for the hundreds of people who will be left reeling from Makoto’s death. I barely knew him, really, and I’m already on the verge of losing it entirely.

 

My train of thought stops abruptly, and I blink, trying to go back a couple paces. I’m on the verge of losing it entirely. What’s holding me back? I’ve transferred the files, I’ve spoken to Mukuro Ikusaba. Alright, yes, I need to bring his body back to headquarters, but it’s obvious that that isn’t happening any time soon, so I don’t understand what’s stopping me from having a mental breakdown here and now. My brain refuses to wrap around it. Maybe holding it back for so long has made me unable to let it out altogether. I understand on some level that this is highly improbable, considering that it’s been an hour and half, but I just…

 

Once again, my gaze lands on Makoto’s face, and I find myself staring until my eyes glaze over and my vision unfocuses. I don’t think I doze off. Not really. I know that I’m still conscious. But everything blurs together around me, and the pain in my shoulder feels more like the memory of pain, rather than something that I’m currently experiencing. If I had to put a word to it, I’d call it disassociation. Regardless of the proper terminology, I don’t know how long I spend, just sitting there and blinking in and out of consciousness. I don’t know how long I’m going to spend like this.

 

But I don’t get to find out, because somewhere along the way, a car pulls up in front of me, and I snap out of my daze. It’s a black SUV, which tells me that it belongs to the Future Foundation. Or else it’s the government, trying to trick me into feeling relieved before they crush my hopes by stepping out and ending my life. I wouldn’t put it past Junko Enoshima to try to pull something like that. Even so, I’m too lethargic to do much more than look up at the black tinted windows of the car as somebody gets out of the driver’s seat.

 

“Shuichi!” Actually, I’m surprised that Kaito Momota calls me by my actual given name now, seeing as he’ll usually call me bro, or something like that. In any case, he’s not smiling right now, so that might be it. His expressive purple eyes are irritated on the surface, but beneath that I can read concern. I don’t know how long it’s been since Makoto and I went off on the mission, actually, so maybe… maybe they all worried. At the very least they worried about Makoto. “Where’ve you been, bro?” Ah, there it is.

 

I don’t answer, but I swallow hard, trying to figure out what to say. I open my mouth but my tongue feels like it’s made of lead. All of a sudden, my voice has stopped working. Even if I knew what to say, I couldn’t say anything. My throat is closing up, and constricting my breathing. I pinch my lips together and force myself to breathe sharply through my nose, willing myself not to have a panic attack.

 

Kaito doesn’t seem to pick up on my efforts to stay calm right away, and keeps talking. “Y’know, everybody was really worried. I mean, I wasn’t so worried about you, because I know you can take care of yourself, but for a minute there, I-”

 

“K-Kaito,” I finally manage to say something, but once I get out his name, it occurs to me that I still don’t know what to say beyond that. I don’t even want to say anything beyond that. I just want to get his attention. And when he stops talking and meets my eyes again, I know I’ve got it. But what for? I don’t even have anything to say. He absolutely has something he wants to tell me. Kaito is open, and articulate. He’ll have a bunch of things to say, that I probably need to hear. But I just- I-

 

“H… Hey, Shuichi, why are you…?” I realise at the same moment that he does that tears have begun to fall from my eyes, faster than I’m accustomed to. I don’t really want to cry in front of Kaito, so I pull my sleeves over my hands and wipe the moisture from my cheeks, even though more tears are rapidly replacing the ones that have already fallen. “Wh- Is Makoto okay?”

 

…that question.

 

I have to force out the words, and they still come out as barely coherent. “He’s dead, Kaito, he-” a gross sob rips its way from my throat and now it’s less that I’m trying to wipe away my tears, and more that I’m trying to hide my face with my hands because I’ve always been an ugly crier. But aside from that, I just don’t think I can stand to look at my friend’s face right now. Moving my right arm so much causes more pain but at this point I’m far beyond caring, much less accommodating. I press my palms into my eyes and shudder, all the tears I’ve held back this whole time escaping with reckless abandon.

 

Hands are suddenly bracing my midsection, just under my ribs, and pulling me up to my feet. I choke on one of my sobs and pull my hands from my face, looking at Kaito as he helps me to stand. I sway a little when I’m fully resting on my feet, but I’m hardly standing for a moment before he pulls me forward, and my face is pressed into his chest as he hugs me.

 

“…” I screw my eyes shut, clutching the fabric of his shirt as tight as I can. Of course, it… it’s Kaito, he’d never judge me for something like this. After all, he didn’t last time. It’s just the manifestation of my own anxiety and regret that make me think that he might blame me for something like this. I feel his arms tighten around me and his chest vibrates a little bit as he speaks, voice low and calming.

 

“Bro, y’know, this… this isn’t your fault. Whatever happened, it’s not on you.”

 

Even if it is my fault, even if it is on me, that’s all I really want to hear right now regardless. I wonder how Kaito even figured that out. I don’t think it matters. I shake my head against his chest but I don’t say anything, because there’s nothing else for me to say. I’m tired, and his arms are warm, and everything feels like it’s crashing down on me anyway, so I just… I just want to have a moment to let it all fade away into obscurity. I’ll worry about it later. I’ll think about it later. But right now, right now, I… I’m going to break, and I’ll leave it to future Shuichi to worry about putting myself back together again.

 

Things I remember from that point onward: Kaito, helping me to the car and resting me against the side of the vehicle for a moment. Watching as he crouches down and reaches out, closing Makoto’s eyes for good with one hand. Closing my own as Kaito covers Makoto’s body with his jacket and picks it up, putting him in the backseat of the SUV. Being guided to the other side of the car and bucked into the passenger seat. Leaning back against the headrest and falling asleep despite everything, despite the discomfort and the pain. Waking up briefly as Kaito is lifting me out of the car. Taking the cell phone Makoto gave me and shoving it into Kaito’s hand, asking him to promise not to give it to anybody from the Foundation, and to hold onto it until he can give it back to me.

 

Closing my eyes again and letting unconsciousness take me once again, this time for longer. I don’t dream, or if I do, I don’t remember what I dream about. Instead, I drift off into the darkness, utterly drained from everything. There is nothing there for me to see, nothing there for me to remember, in my head.

 

And then, a white light pierces the soothing nothingness and brings me back into reality.

 

I open my eyes and look around, trying to get my eyesight to adjust to white walls and a lack of notable paintings and pieces of artwork up on the walls. It registers somewhere in the back of my brain that I am likely in the infirmary back at headquarters. Kaito must have carried me here, from the car. My shoulder has been rebandaged, this time much more effectively. I make a mental note to thank the doctor who did so, and the anesthetist as well, because though everything is a little bit hard to process, the pain is all numbed.

 

From what I can tell, all the blood has been washed off my body. Even underneath my fingernails, there are no traces red. It’s as though nothing happened, really. But the bandages on my shoulder and the heaviness in my heart serve as proof that it wasn’t really a nightmare. It’s all reality. Not that I would be immature enough to hope, at this point. I’ve known that this is reality since the day my uncle died. There’s no way my own head could think up something so messed up.

 

I’ve been changed out of my ruined Future Foundation uniform. It’s been replaced by a pale blue hospital gown. On the table next to me, a new suit has been folded, with a note on top of it that I don’t reach out to look at more closely. Instead, my attention falls on the chair next to my bed, on its occupant. I’m momentarily taken off guard that I didn’t even notice her presence up until now, but I… I’m still feeling a little bit out of it, and from her expression, I can’t detect any resentment. Though I suppose that’s never really been a good indication.

 

“How are you feeling?” Kirigiri asks calmly. I give her a onceover. Her hair is out of the plait it was in last I saw her. It is currently allowed to tumble over her shoulders. Ordinarily, her purple locks are immaculate, even when she’s moving around a lot, but now, they’re in a state of moderate disarray, which doesn’t really come off as a surprise to me. A flower begins to blossom in my gut, and I swallow down the guilt that rises in my throat. If I start blubbering, that will only make it worse for her. At the very least, she deserves to be allowed to be angry with me. I can’t rob her of that by making her feel sorry for me.

 

“Ah, I-” my voice comes out hoarse, likely from being unused for however long it was after crying like I did earlier, so I clear my throat. “I feel fine.” I mean it, too, at least partly. I’m not in very much pain right now. Even if I’m still… distraught, I’m calmer, and I can almost ignore my shoulder if I focus on her. “Kirigiri, I-”

 

She sighs, and that serves as an effective means of cutting me off. “If you’re going to apologise, save it. Momota already told me how shaken you were when he found you.” Kirigiri’s eyes are closed, and she is pinching the bridge of her nose as she speaks. “I shouldn’t have asked you to look out for him.” This is said in an undertone. “What happened would’ve happened regardless, it would seem, and by putting that responsibility on your shoulders, I probably just made this a lot worse for you.” Suddenly she’s meeting my eyes, and though her expression is still swept of any feeling, she’s more genuine than I’ve ever seen her. “I can’t even imagine…”

 

“You can’t.” I whisper. “I mean, you can’t blame yourself. For what I’m feeling right now.” My words come out jerky and unnatural, so I take a breath and try again, because I want her to understand that I mean what I’m saying. “He died protecting me, you know? S-So… even if you hadn’t asked, I… in any case, I wanted to apologise.” I force my tone to strengthen, my words to solidify into something more stable. “Because even if it was inevitable, I still broke a promise. And even if I hadn’t broke a promise, you’ve just lost somebody who matters to you. Ah, he- Makoto matters to you, right? I’m not being presumptuous?”

 

Kirigiri searches my expression, and I’m not sure what she finds there, but she closes her eyes again and nods. “Yes.” It comes out more shaky than anything I’ve ever heard her say. “I tried not to let him, but…” I can tell she’s trying to hold back tears. Her expression is screwed up and her lips are quivering with the effort it takes to press them together as tightly as she is.

 

I reach out, and take one of her hands. She’s wearing black gloves, as she always is, and the material is fairly soft to the touch. Her hand is clenched into a fist, so I squeeze gently and work her fingers until they’re relaxed. When I look up again, she’s meeting my eyes, and there are tears sparkling in hers. I wonder how long it’s been since Kaito and I returned. How long it’s been since she learned Makoto Naegi is dead. How long she has been sitting here at my bedside, waiting for me to open my eyes so she can lift the weight of my responsibilities from my shoulders.

 

Has she ever cried in front of another person, I wonder…?

 

“Uhm, K-Kirigiri,” I bite my lip. “It’s okay if you want to cry, uhm… I’ll look away, if you need me to.” I mutter the words and avert my gaze, to show that I want to make good on the promise. To my surprise, I hear her laugh quietly, and my eyes reflexively flicker back to meet hers. Even though tears have begun to fall from her eyes, her lips are pulled into a sad, watery smile.

 

“Saihara, I was wrong about you.” She says this quietly, and squeezes my hand. “You’re much more like Makoto than I originally thought you were.”

 

I’m not sure what to make of that statement, or how to respond, but it occurs to me suddenly that I don’t have to. I don’t need to respond to everything. Sometimes I just have to listen.

 

I sit there, with Kirigiri, for a long time. Holding her hand while she cries. All of my tears were cried earlier, into Kaito’s arms, so there’s really very little that I can reciprocate, but I don’t have anywhere to go, and even if I did, I’d stay where I am. It’s the first time I’ve really seen Kirigiri, beyond all the words spoken about how excellent she is. I don’t really understand it right now, but I don’t think I’m the only one who’s broken some promises, between the two of us.

Chapter Text

Just as I’m tying my tie in the mirror by my hospital bed, I hear the sound of the door opening and closing. Instead of looking up to see who’s walked in, I focus on tightening the knot as best as I can, smoothing out the wrinkles with still hands.

 

I’ve spent about four hours in here conscious, according to few visitors I’ve had aside from Kirigiri. Before that, I slept for six hours, likely as a result of the medicine they gave me to put me to sleep for the operation. In any case, I’m ready to get out of here. I’m getting tired of being in bed, and the white of the walls in here is starting to hurt my eyes. I’ve always been a fan of darker colours.

 

“Hey, bro!” At Kaito’s call, I pull my attention away from my tie and meet his gaze, smiling slightly but saying nothing. He’s not here alone; standing next to him at the foot of my bed is Rantaro Amami. I don’t know Amami as well as I’d like to, but we’ve spoken a couple times, and I respect him. He’s a pretty composed, laid back sort of guy. Definitely one of the more reliable members of the Future Foundation. As far as I know, he really doesn’t have any reason to be here right now. Which, I guess, makes it all the more respectable that he is.

 

“Ah, Kaito,” I finally find the words to speak, and stand on unsteady feet to walk over to them. “Amami,” I add, inclining my head towards my friend’s companion. They’re dressed like I am, in a black suit with a Future Foundation pin on the lapel. Kaito’s tie is undone, and I try not to call attention to it, but I’m pretty sure it’s because he doesn’t actually know how to tie it. “I was just about to head out, actually.” I say, trying to maintain my smile.

 

“Not before I give you this back, I hope.” Kaito fishes something out of his pocket and tosses it over to me. I fumble for it, but it lands flat on my left palm, and when I look down, I see the cell phone that Makoto gave me yesterday. Last I saw it, it was covered in dried blood and a bit of a mess to handle (though I wasn’t really conscious of it at the time because I had bigger things to focus on) but now it’s clean. I only have my friend to thank for that, so I look up, opening my mouth to express as much. Before I can, however, he’s speaking again, scratching the back of his head. “What is it, anyway? I mean, it’s not that weird to have a cell phone, but why-”

 

I figure he’s about to ask me why I don’t want the Foundation knowing about it, so I give him a look, and he takes it as a signal to remain quiet. A sigh fights to escape my lips and I hold it in, but the relief washes over me all the same. I’m glad that I can trust Kaito. Even if I’m not sure yet what I’m trusting him with.

 

“Where are you headed, Saihara?” Amami asks, smiling slightly. From the look in his green eyes, I can tell it’s not a loaded question. Likely, he’s just making conversation. Which is good, because I’m having a hard time figuring out why he came to visit me to begin with.

 

“Probably back to my room.” I’m not lying about this. I don’t really know where else I would go- though, now that I have the cell phone again, I’m starting to think back to what Ikusaba asked of me. I wonder if, once I’m there, it would do me some good to look on the cell phone, and see what Makoto has kept there. With that in mind, I put the phone in my pocket. It knocks against my thigh slightly when I start to walk towards the door, and there’s something reassuring about the weight.

 

“Oh, then, can I accompany you?” Amami steps forward and falls into step next to me, so I stop to wait for him, tilting my head inquisitively. “I had something I wanted to talk about.”

 

Well, I don’t really have a reason to say no. In any case, I’d like to hear what he has to say. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t curious. I nod, then think better of it, deciding that it might be more tactful to give him a verbal response. “Sure, that’s fine.” My eyes find Kaito, and I raise an eyebrow, asking him with my eyes if he would like to join us. But he shakes his head, stepping past us into the hall.

 

“Nah, I’m actually supposed to meet Hagakure down at Command.” When he says the name, an image pops into my head of Yasuhiro Hagakure, one of my associates. Unlike the two guys standing in front of me, Hagakure is unreliable, and a little bit of a coward, but Kaito has always seemed to be fond of him, so I try to keep those judgements to myself. Nonetheless, I nod, and bid him adieu. Kaito waves over his shoulder as he walks down the hallway, his arms swinging at his sides. I admire that he can be so carefree right now.

 

With a glance at Amami, I incline my head and then start off in the other direction, trusting that he’ll keep pace. I’m still tired, and as such I’m walking pretty slowly, so the green haired man next to me is able to do so with relative ease. For a moment, we walk in silence. My thoughts are consumed, for the most part, with a whole lot of nothing, aside from the occasional inquiry as to when he’ll choose to begin to speak. But I don’t want to rush him, so I don’t say anything.

 

Finally, he speaks. “So, how are you holding up?” I’m not expecting the conversation, and it must show on my face, because he laughs nervously and backtracks. “I ask because of what happened. You know what I’m talking about, right?” He must be talking about Makoto’s death. I nod, then look away, biting the inside of my cheek to keep from saying something. “I know the Foundation talks a lot about sacrifice and right and wrong and stuff, but it’s okay to feel pretty crappy after what happened yesterday.” I make myself look over at him, and my feet stop in place. It takes a moment for Amami to realise that I’ve stopped walking, but once he does, he stops too, and looks at me, smiling. “I know I’d be feeling bad.”

 

“…yeah, I feel…” I don’t know how to put it, exactly. I fish for the right thing to say that would describe how I’m feeling. “I don’t feel very good right now. But I feel like I just need to keep moving, and fighting the government, because if I don’t, we’ll just keep losing more and more people like Makoto.”

 

Amami regards me with some interest. “Makoto, huh?” I realise that I’ve used Makoto’s given name out loud, and feel my face heating up. Nobody was there to see him in his final moments, so there’s no way that they could’ve heard the exchange… but to my great relief, Amami smiles a moment later. “He must’ve been quite the guy.” I don’t know what he means by that, but I agree anyway, averting my gaze and feeling a real smile touch my expression.

 

“He was.” I agree.

 

We walk the rest of the way to my room in silence, but it’s a comfortable silence. It occurs to me that I’m feeling a little bit lighter, despite only having exchanged a few words with Amami. It felt good to be asked how I’m handling what happened. I wonder if he did that on purpose.

 

Upon arriving at my door, I stop and look over at him, attempting to put my thoughts into words that will make sense to him. “Hey, ah, Amami.” I call out, and he meets my gaze. His expression is unreadable, but I think it’s different than Kirigiri’s particular brand of impassiveness. I don’t think he’s trying to hide anything from me; that would imply that he views self expression as a form of weakness. I think he’s just trying to gauge what I’m about to say. Which I often find myself doing as well. Perhaps I should try to spend more time in Amami’s company. “Thank you. I mean, for… yeah.”

 

He nods, and when he smiles this time, I smile back. “Call me Rantaro, Shuichi.”

 

With that said, he waves, and I watch his back as he retreats around the corner.

 

Once I’m inside and sitting on the cot that the Foundation supplied me with, I pull the cell phone back out of my pocket. There’s a lot that I could be thinking about right now in regards to that interaction with Ama- no, Rantaro- but I want to focus. In the future, when my roommates return, I can always put away the phone and let my thoughts wander, but I need to prioritise. The room won’t be empty for very long. If there’s ever going to be a time for me to look at the contents of the phone that Makoto gave me, it’ll be now.

 

So I tap the power button and watch the screen flicker to life. On the top of the phone there’s a small hole, presumably the camera, but it takes me off guard when a blue light is emitted from the camera and shines directly in my face. I am captivated by the light, and it seems to scan my features for about fifteen seconds, before shutting off abruptly. The screen of the phone turns grey, and in white text, I read,

 

“Hello, Shuichi Saihara.”

 

Somewhat startled by this turn of events, I jump back a little, dropping the phone on the cot. It barely rebounds on the stiff surface of the mattress, which I suppose works in my favour for the moment, because it rests there without much interruption upon falling still. More words are appearing on the screen, and I scramble to grab the phone, scanning the text as it shows up.

 

“I have been programmed to unlock upon recognising your facial features and voice. In other words, if you want to unlock me, all you’ll have to do is hold my camera in front of your face. Unfortunately, my functions are a little bit slow at the moment, and I’m having a difficult time processing new information. Is that alright?”

 

I sit there, staring dumbly at the screen.

 

“My microphone can receive audio-input, so you can go ahead and give a verbal response.”

 

“O-Oh,” I manage. “Yes, th-that’s alright.” I blink, still having a difficult time processing what I’m reading. “Are you an AI?”

 

“Yes, I am an Artificial Intelligence, though I am still in the developmental stage of my creation. My database tells me that more advanced versions of my system do exist, but in order to achieve such updates, you would have to take me to Miu. Are you in the position to do so?”

 

“Who’s Miu?” I ask, frowning.

 

“Hold on a moment.” A low beeping sound comes from the device. “Ah, alright. My calculations say that there is an 82% probability that Makoto has not yet been able to introduce you to the members of the FYG. Is that correct?”

 

“What’s the FYG?”

 

“It is not in my programming to say one of the words in the acronym, but I would have assumed that by the time you’ve received this device, he would’ve told you at the very least who we are. Nonetheless, it is possible that not everything went as according to plan. Makoto Naegi is dead, is that correct?”

 

I feel a lump rise in my throat. “Yes, he is.”

 

“He died of poisoning, is that correct?”

 

…poisoning?

 

“No, he was shot.” I say. “Five times, in the back.”

 

“Ah.” The device buffers for a moment. “My calculations tell me that it is unlikely that this was the Future Foundation’s doing, as they would not go through all the trouble of poisoning him if they planned to shoot him later.”

 

“Wh-What do you mean by that? Why would the Future Foundation poison him?”

 

“One moment please.” Once again, the device buffers. My heart rate is picking up. I’m not sure what the AI on the phone is talking about, but… “Alright, I have finished. I was instructed by Makoto to explain to you the plans for our next course of action, but it would seem that he was unable to tell you what he planned to, so instead, I have a video for you to watch. Makoto recorded it in the event that he would be unable to carry out his plan. Please watch it, and I will assist you in any way that I can when you have finished.”

 

Just as I finish reading that last sentence, the screen shuts off. I recoil, surprised, and for a fraction of a second, I wonder if something has gone wrong with the device. Then, just as I’m about to try troubleshooting, the screen turns on again, and I’m staring once more into Makoto Naegi’s grey-green eyes.

 

From what I can tell, he’s sitting in somebody’s living room, in the middle of a brown couch. His brown hair is messier than it was when I saw him, and his skin is pale, which only serves to further emphasise the purple bags under his eyes. I wonder if those are the effects of the poison that the AI was speaking about. He’s smiling at the camera, but I can tell that it’s taking him a degree of effort. Instead of the Future Foundation uniform that he’s worn in all the times that I’ve seen him, he’s dressed in a pair of black jeans and a white tank top. A green sweatshirt is lying on the couch next to him.

 

“Shuichi, if you’re watching this video, it means that I’m dead, and my plan wasn’t executed like I meant for it to be.” On camera, he sighs, running a hand through his hair. “I’m going to tell PAE to show you this video in the event that something goes wrong, but I’m not sure what exactly that entails, so you might know some of what I’m about to tell you already. Best case scenario, I would’ve given you the phone after telling you everything, face to face, and you’d already understand what danger you’re in by having it. But since you’re watching this, I can only assume that things didn’t go like I wanted them to.”

 

I watch as he shifts, looking down at his hands and then back at the camera, a careworn smile on his face. “So, you probably have a million questions, but I’ll say this one first: yes, I am dead. About a week ago, the Future Foundation issued a warrant for my death. For two months now, I’ve been fighting against the stuff that’s been going on here, and that means that I’m a threat, and I need to die.” Those words leave me reeling, but I don’t have time to analyse them, because he keeps talking. “Three days ago, my friend K1-B0 approached me, and explained the message that he’d received. Yesterday, I discovered that for the past five days, the Foundation has been working diligently to inject a slow-acting poison into my body. At this point, there’s more than enough of the poison in me for me to be killed by it. I only have so many days left.”

 

When he says that, I gasp, and cover my mouth with my hand. I think back to the way that he ran, to how hard he was breathing when he pushed me against the wall. At the time, I dismissed it as a result of his small physique, but now I’m beginning to wonder if that was really all there is to it. Was he in such bad shape because of the poison?

 

“I’m leaving this message for you because Kaede Akamatsu said you could be trusted.” The mention of the name makes me cringe. “And from the interactions that we’ve had thus far, I think she’s right. You have a drive that makes you want to do the right thing. I don’t think you could ever turn your back on injustices the way that the Future Foundation has, so-” Makoto stops mid-sentence and coughs violently into his hands. It lasts for about three seconds, but when he stops, I can see that he’s coughed up more than just phlegm.

 

“I need to focus…” he mutters to himself, closing his eyes. When they open, he’s staring at the camera once again. “But here’s what I’m planning on telling you a couple days from now. The Future Foundation isn’t what it appears to be. I know that they’re really good at playing the hero, and for the most part, the things they say seem to be the right things, but they’re not. The Foundation is not above killing, or doing any of the things that the government would do. I know it’s weird hearing this all of a sudden, especially when I’m one of their members, but if you can’t trust me, then here’s what you need to do.” His gaze seems to burn into my own, even though I know that he’s dead, and this is just a memory of the person who once existed. “Go to the computer lab on the third floor. Make sure that nobody is around. Log on to one of the computers with my username and password. I have higher access than most people will. Oh, but, if you don’t hurry, you’ll miss your chance to do it. They’ll probably disable my account access soon, now that I’m dead. So you might want to go quickly.”

 

With that said, he fiddles with some loose strings on the hem of his shirt, looking away from the camera briefly. “I’ll let you go. But, uhm, Shuichi… there are things that I haven’t told you yet, that you should know, someday. You won’t find them when you go digging in the computer lab, however… there’s another video, on this device. In order to access it, you’ll need to use a password. I won’t tell you what the password is. But someday, you’ll figure out what it is. When that day comes… you should watch that video, too. So that you can have the whole truth.”

 

Makoto smiles at the camera. “I’m sorry for leaving you in the dark like this, Shuichi. But you’ll know what to do when you know everything.”

 

When the video ends, the screen goes black once again, but I’ve averted my gaze and turned it onto the window. It’s about midday now. There are always more things for me to do around here. More missions to undertake. More trainings for me to attend. If that hadn’t just happened, I could probably go out right now, and do what I’ve been doing for the past two months. But…

 

The Future Foundation isn’t good? That’s the takeaway that I’m supposed to have from that video, right? It isn’t what it appears to be. But… that can’t mean that Makoto’s working with the government. There’s no way that he’d be working with Junko Enoshima. He even spoke about the government as if they’re in the wrong. And there’s no disputing that, because they are. Anybody with eyes can see as much. Even Enoshima herself knows that the things she does are wrong. But for Makoto to say such things about the Foundation, I…

 

In my hand, the phone vibrates, and I look down, eyes met with another piece of white text.

 

“The information that I have collected on you thus far serves to tell me that you are likely experiencing a large degree of shock after watching that video.” The AI is speaking to me again. I can’t find my voice to give a response. “That is natural. It is perfectly human to be taken off guard when everything that you have been led to believe up until this point has been proven to be false. However, as Makoto said, you don’t have very much time to access the database as he asked of you, so it might be in your best interests to think about it after you have done that.”

 

Despite the confusion that’s making my mind stutter, I have to admit that the device has a point. “A-Alright, yes.” I force myself to speak, rubbing my temple with one hand. “Can… can I ask what I should call you? Just for the future?”

 

“Of course. The term used for my system is Alter Ego, but I am a prototype, so often I am referred to as Prototype Alter Ego. To save time, Makoto and the rest of the members of the FYG have taken to calling me PAE. You may do the same, Shuichi.”

 

I’m having a hard time accepting most of what I’m hearing, but once again, I need to get my priorities straight. I can freak out later. PAE is right in saying that I should focus first and foremost on looking at the information that Makoto asked me to. So I put my game face on and get to my feet, taking a deep breath. “PAE, I’m going to turn you off and put you in my pocket, is that alright?”

 

“That’s fine. It is, after all, the most common means of transportation, for me.” Since I have very little desire to ask about the other means of transportation for the AI, I simply do as I told it I would and clench my jaw. The computer lab on the third floor. My room is on the second, so I’ll have to go down the hall and take the stairs. I doubt anybody will try to stop me, but just in case, I should be quick and swift. I don’t want any of this to be found out, lest something bad happens, and my actions end up getting Makoto’s friends in trouble with the Foundation.

 

The trip to the lab is uneventful. I walk briskly and purposefully, and the people who I walk past barely give me a second glance. It’s the good thing about looking like you have an important place to be. If you know where you’re going, odds are, you won’t be interrupted. Especially if you make like you’re in a hurry. And, I suppose, at the moment, I am.

 

I look around the computer lab upon entering, checking to see if there is anybody present. Aside from a girl who I recognise as one of Makoto’s friends, Aoi Asahina, on a computer in the corner of the room, the lab is pretty empty. He told me to make sure nobody was around, but I don’t see any reason for her to check up on what will be on my computer screen, and if I sit across the room from her, I doubt she’ll so much as glance in my direction. So I hurry across the room and take a seat.

 

I stare at the screensaver of the desktop that I’ve chosen for a fraction of a second before it occurs to me that I don’t know Makoto’s login information. Anxiety begins to creep up on me but I pull the cell phone out of my pocket, wondering if I can manage to discreetly ask PAE for the information.

 

Before I can set about finding out, however, the screen comes to life and words appear in the grey.

 

“I predicted that you would need to know Makoto’s login information, so I have listed it below. Do not share this with anybody.” As if I needed to be instructed. In any case, I’m grateful that they thought to give me the information. “His username is ff_mnaegi and his password is komarunaegi.”

 

As I input the information, I wonder about his password. Obviously, Naegi is his surname, but Komaru…? A family member, perhaps? Either way, I should’ve known that Makoto would be the type to put his password as the name of a friend or loved one. I doubt he’s ever been the type to put a lot of thought into what might happen if somebody guessed his password. Perhaps he thought that nobody would ever be able to figure it out.

 

The computer logs in fairly quickly, and as soon as it’s completed the process, his screensaver pops up, as do all the files he has put there. For the most part, they’re titled things that seem irrelevant to the situation, and therefore none of my business; “kyoko’s stuff”; “sakura’s training thing”; “draft of letter to enoshima”; “battle plans, u know the ones”; “get ur crap together naegi”- but one of the files catches my eye. It’s labelled “ULTIMATE DESPAIRS”. For a moment, I’m not sure why it makes me hesitate, but then I think back to the files that Makoto had me transfer onto the laptop. The fifteen profiles that I saw, for a bunch of teens. People my age. They were called the Ultimate Despairs, right?

 

Overwhelmed by curiosity, I open the file. There are plenty of sub-categories, but I start from the beginning, which looks to be an overview of sorts.

 

Written in black text:

 

“The ‘Ultimate Despairs’ are a group of eighteen to twenty year olds who have, for the past three years, been working under the command of Junko Enoshima and Tsumugi Shirogane.”

 

Shirogane…? I furrow my brow at the words on the screen but continue to read.

 

“They have been recognised for their talent, and the despair that follows their presence at a scene. They are ruthless, and methodical. All of the actions that they have carried out have been perfectly done. Recently, however, there has been evidence that suggests that their loyalties do not lie entirely with Junko Enoshima and her government. Nonetheless, they must be eliminated at all costs.”

 

Beneath this writing, somebody has edited the document in red:

 

“where are they?? gotta find ‘em before munakata…”

 

I can only assume that this is Makoto’s annotation, but… if I’m right, Munakata refers to Kyousuke Munakata, the leader of the Future Foundation. Even if the Foundation itself has done wrongs, I can’t imagine that Munakata has been behind them, even slightly…

 

The next subsection is titled “HAJIME HINATA/IZURU KAMUKURA”, and headed with a picture of a young man. He is distinctly Japanese, thin, pale skinned. His hair is a washed out shade of brown, and messy. Though it’s shorter than Makoto’s, I can’t help but compare their hairstyles. The young man in the picture is wearing a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and a grey tie. There is a small smile on his face, but if I had to guess, I would say that he’s faking it for the sake of the picture.

 

“Hajime Hinata (or sometimes referred to as Izuru Kamukura) is the leader of the Ultimate Despairs…? This is what the evidence points to, but we are tentative to point to there being a leader of this group other than Junko Enoshima. He is nineteen years old, and while it is difficult for us to pinpoint any particular talents, he’s known to be highly intelligent. Moreover, rumours suggest that he is good with words, and is excellent when it comes to mobilising the other despairs. Evidence suggests that Hinata/Kamukura is also closest to Enoshima, out of the other despairs, aside from Tsumiki.”

 

Underneath, still written in black text:

 

“If found: apprehend, alive if possible, and extract information as to Enoshima’s plans for the future and whereabouts by any means necessary.”

 

…by any means necessary? I swallow dry. Makoto has written,

 

“hinata is a good guy, i doubt he’d do something like work for enoshima without a good reason… finding him and the others is a priority right now. it’s highly probable that he has feelings for nanami, too…”

 

The files that I read after that are of a similar nature. From leafing through them, I learn the names of twelve others. Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu, Gundham Tanaka, Sonia Nevermind, Akane Owari, Nekomaru Nidai, Kazuichi Soda, Ibuki Mioda, Nagito Komaeda, Mahiru Koizumi, Hiyoko Saionji, Teruteru Hanamura, Peko Pekoyama… all of the profiles describe them, their skill sets, their positions in the group… beneath the profiles, Makoto has written humanising comments about each of them, and something along the lines of, “we have to find them.” It’s starting to become evident to me what Makoto was trying to prevent. But most of the information that I’m receiving is refusing to come together in my mind.

 

After reading through Pekoyama’s profile, I come to a profile that is fairly nondescript, talking about somebody whose true name and identity is unknown by the Future Foundation. All Makoto has written at the bottom of that one is that they will likely be around the others, if they are to be found. But the fifteenth profile really catches me off guard. The profile of Mikan Tsumiki. The picture of her shows a young woman, smiling anxiously and averting her gaze at the camera. She’s pretty, from what I can see, but her dark purple hair is chopped jagged at random places and the sad light in her eyes makes my heart clench in sympathy.

 

“Mikan Tsumiki worked with the Future Foundation in one of our hospital wings until she was seventeen years old. She was a talented nurse, and a highly intelligent young woman. Despite the pain she suffered again and again in her past, she was full of hope, and we always trusted that she would help to lead us to the future. But one day she came into work distracted, and muttering under her breath about somebody she had fallen in love with. The next, she didn’t show up, and she wasn’t seen until the day she appeared in a news broadcast next to Junko Enoshima. It is thought that she may have fallen in love with Enoshima. If found, apprehend, alive if possible, and, by any means necessary, extract information from her as to Enoshima’s plans, whereabouts, and potential weaknesses.”

 

I suddenly want to throw up. I can tell that Makoto felt similarly, because his writing at the bottom is messy, and I can barely make it out.

 

“i thibk enoshinma maniopulatrd her, she was soo gentlle. fibd her!!!”

 

At the end of the document, there is one more subsection, and I click on it.

 

“The Ultimate Despairs have gone missing and ceased working with Junko Enoshima, excluding Mikan Tsumiki. It is imperative that we find them first, extract the information that we need, and see to it that they are executed.”

 

A shudder runs through my body. I understand that the Foundation has to be severe. There comes a point where some severity is necessary. But this is… this is too much, even for a group that is facing off against the government. I can hardly believe the cold, objective language that is being used here as the Foundation issues warrants for the murder of children. I find myself staring into the eyes of one of the people whose faces I saw, Ibuki Mioda. Her file says that she is eighteen years old, just as I am. In the picture, she’s even younger, with a large, crazy smile. With the eccentric way that she dyed her hair, I can only imagine how fun she must be to be around. To heartlessly demand that she be murdered….

 

When I have finished going through the file, an option pops up, asking me if I want to move on to the next file. Intrigued, I hit yes, and begin to click and read through the text on the documents. Within the file, I find myself scanning over countless detailed reports of all sorts of people, young and old, whose tortures and executions have been ordered and carried out. Some of the files have pictures of their dead bodies, and I have to click away from them as quickly as I can, because it makes my stomach curl just to think about the pain that they must have been in.

 

Makoto doesn’t write much about these, just a clarifying statistic here and there. I can only imagine the disgust he must have felt, to learn about all the terrible things that the Future Foundation was doing right under his nose. How long had he been a member, up until yesterday? Years, I’m sure. He said in the video that he had only been working against the Foundation for the past two months. The two months that I had been a member. How could it have felt to find out that the group that he had served so loyally had been doing such things for so long? How did he even find out?

 

The last file that I am taken to is marginally smaller than all of the rest. It is titled, “CHIAKI NANAMI” and formatted in a similar fashion to the profiles of the Ultimate Despairs.

 

Next to the name, there is a picture of a young woman. Her hair is silver, and frames her round face in a way that brings out the prominence of her bright pink eyes. A gentle smile curves her lips and I can see just from the light in her eyes that she is a kind person. Her head is tilted to the side slightly, as though she is asking the camera a silent question. She dresses in a grey sweatshirt and her hair is clipped back by a pin that depicts a small, pixelated spaceship.

 

Beneath her picture, there is a small bio.

 

“Chiaki Nanami is nineteen years old, and it is thought that she was kidnapped by Junko Enoshima and those who work for her for the purpose of blackmailing Hajime Hinata and the rest of the Ultimate Despairs. From what is known about her, Nanami is a leader amongst her friends. Level headed, kind, intelligent, compassionate, and determined. She has not appeared since she was captured by Enoshima, but some think the Despairs found her and rescued her before fleeing the government.”

 

For the most part, the bio speaks kindly of her, praising the way she has been known to treat others in the past, and how loudly she spoke up against the actions of Junko Enoshima and the government. But it’s the part at the bottom that makes a chill run down my spine.

 

“If found: see to it that she is killed painlessly, and work the crime scene so that it appears that she was killed by Enoshima’s people.”

 

The contents of my stomach turn cold, and I freeze in place, staring uncomprehendingly at the computer screen. Why? Why kill Chiaki Nanami? She did nothing wrong, she’s never so much as threatened the stability of the Future Foundation. She wouldn’t do them any harm if she came back alive. What would be the reason for killing her? The blood is rushing in my ears. I can feel every beat of my heart. A low, cold voice in the back of my mind answers my questions: because she would be more useful to the Future Foundation as a martyr than a survivor. If it got out that the government killed Nanami, there would be a flood of support form those who are indifferent. This isn’t a decision made because of right or wrong. This is a decision made to liken the Foundation to the public. Killing Chiaki Nanami would be a political choice.

 

I wonder… how are they going to frame Makoto’s death?

 

There are two words at the bottom, written by Makoto.

 

“FIND HER.”

 

There’s hardly anything there, but I can feel the rage in the words. I can feel the passion, the righteousness. Upon seeing this, something inside him must have shattered. Before, perhaps, he was empathetic towards the remnants and the people who the Foundation has hurt, but I can’t say whether or not that would have fueled him to work against them. But this… this is incentive, to stop them, to find Chiaki Nanami and protect her because there is nothing more disgusting than killing an innocent person purely to maintain one’s image.

 

I feel the urge to throw up. Numbly, I log off the computer and grab the cell phone from the table, putting it into my pocket and turning around. As I walk out, I meet Aoi Asahina’s gaze and she offers me a smile, potentially recognising me as the person who was there when Makoto got shot. I try to return it, but it feels like lifting dead weight. I shuffle out of the computer lab and down the hall, passing several other members of the Foundation, but I can’t even meet their eyes.

 

Once I’m in the bathroom, I lock the door behind me and stumble over to the toilet, dropping down to my knees in front of it. I lean over and clutch the bowl with both hands, but despite feeling nauseous enough to want to regurgitate the contents of my stomach, nothing comes up. I’m left sitting there, crouching over a toilet and swallowing dry, reeling from what I just read. I can’t even muster the energy to feel angry at Makoto for giving me the means to access that information, because I would feel even worse if he had hidden it from me. God.

 

The phone vibrates in my pocket, so I pull it out and scoot over to lean against the wall as it scans my face.

 

“Shuichi, I’m sorry for the bad timing, I know you’re still trying to process the information Makoto left for you.” This time, instead of appearing on the screen, a robotic voice sounds from the speakers of the phone. It is distinctly feminine.

 

“It’s fine, PAE. What is it?” I ask dully, holding the phone about half a foot away from my face. The device buffers for a moment, then an icon appears on the screen. From what I can tell, it’s a messenger app. There is a red dot on the corner, which tells me that I’ve likely just received a text message, or something of the sort. I select the app with my thumb, and the envelope icon opens, revealing a chatroom with an number that I don’t recognise.

 

There’s very little conversation above the text that’s just been received, but the message itself contains an address, a time, and a date. Another message comes in fairly quickly; a smiley face emoji.

 

Ah… that’s right. I remember what Ikusaba told me. I’m to come to the meeting whether I plan on joining their group or not. I haven’t really given myself enough time to think about it. I take a deep breath. What should I do? I suppose I’m going to attend either way, but I should make up my mind before I attend. I have to wonder if this is what Ikusaba meant, when she told me to do some digging. I’m starting to understand the situation, now, at least a little better than I did before… yet despite having answers, I’m not feeling very relieved at all. I’m just tired, and conflicted.

 

“Shuichi?” PAE pauses, presumably waiting a moment for me to get my bearings before she speaks again. “You are going to go to the meeting, correct? Forgive me for having eavesdropped during your conversation, but that is what Mukuro asked of you?”

 

I can’t help noting that she’s on a first-name-basis with the woman I met yesterday. Shelving that train of thought for later pursuit, I hum out an affirmative. “Yeah, that’s right.” I murmur.

 

“Then, after that, what do you intend to do? Will you give me back to the FYG?” What indeed? I wonder if there’s even a point to resisting the Future Foundation. They have so many resources, and so much influence… not to mention how much they’ve already been able to achieve. Would my working with this group really make much of a difference? Probably not. I can barely keep my promises, much less fill the hole that Makoto will have undoubtedly left in dying.

 

But… but what about Chiaki Nanami? What about the Ultimate Despairs, who are trying to protect her? What about Makoto, who would’ve died at the hands of the Foundation regardless of whether or not he chose to defend me? Should I really just turn my back on them? Should I really ignore what’s true, just because I don’t think I can change anything? Surely there’s something I can do. There has to be.

 

I think of what she told me, two months ago, the last time that I ever got to see her. She was distracted by something that I was too nervous to ask her about, but she still reached out to me and took my hand, smiling gently. She told me not to worry, because whatever was going to happen next, she believed that I’d be able to get through it.

 

“No matter how bad things get, or how hopeless they feel, you can survive, okay? As long as you do what you believe is the right thing. You can’t go wrong if you’re fighting for what’s right. I believe in that. And I believe in you.”

 

Yeah… I need to do what’s right. I can’t just know that something is wrong, and then do nothing about it. There’s no way.

 

“No,” I tell PAE. “I’m not giving you back. I’m… I’m going to join them, the FYG.”


I’m going to do the right thing.

Chapter Text

I have a bit of difficulty finding the meeting place described in the text message that I received earlier this week, but PAE is helpful. Before I set out to walk to the meeting from headquarters, I dug in my personal belongings from before I joined the Future Foundation for a pair of earbuds. It’s been a while since I’ve even thought about the contents of those bags, but I eventually located a pair and on the trip, I’ve been using the headphones to subtly communicate with the AI.

 

Of course, actually arriving at the meeting place is something entirely different. I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest. Maybe a big headquarters, like the Future Foundation has. Something showy, that will tell everybody in the vicinity exactly who works there. (In retrospect, though, it wouldn’t make much sense for the building to be super high profile, because otherwise I would probably have heard of it.) In any case, I’m sure that out of everything that I was expecting, somebody’s house was near the bottom of the list. But I can see the appeal, now that it’s right in front of my face. Anybody watching might assume that this is just a gathering of friends, or something else entirely arbitrary.

 

Still, I have to double check. “Ah, PAE,” I glance down at my pocket, where I put the phone. I’m wearing my Future Foundation uniform, naturally, but I also put on a winter jacket over it, because the air is getting colder as the end of autumn draws nearer. “Is this really…?”

 

“Yes, Shuichi.” Since she’s an AI, she’s patient with me, despite the fact that obviously, she knows what she’s doing. “Usually the FYG cycles through a few different meeting places. This week, we’re here, at Kiyotaka’s house.”

 

I’m not sure I know who Kiyotaka is, but I might have heard the name before. If I’m remembering correctly, Kiyotaka is the given name of a man who used to be a member of the Future Foundation: one Kiyotaka Ishimaru. From what I’ve heard, he’s a very diligent, hardworking, and leadership-oriented sort of guy. Beyond that, though, I’ve also heard that he was rather pedantic, and overly trusting. But I can only take those words with a grain of salt, because I’ve never met him. He left the group shortly after I joined.

 

“Does the FYG meet every week?” I ask, rocking back and forth from the balls of my feet to my heels. I’m a little early, but that’s not really the reason why I’m hesitating. Anxiety is making the contents of my stomach curdle. To be honest, even though I know that I want to do something about the information I learned a couple days ago, it’s a lot easier said than done. The prospect of going into a room and talking to a group that knew Makoto and might expect me to live up to the example that he set… well, it’s nerve wracking. Even so…

 

PAE interrupts my train of thought with a response. “Yes, most of the time, though on occasion, there will be more than one meeting a week, or the meetings will have to be cancelled, depending on the circumstances.” She pauses, as if debating saying something, and I’m not really sure how that really works for a computer. “...My calculations tell me that there is a 94% chance that you’re experiencing some level of apprehension right now. Is this correct information?”

 

“Uh, yes.” I admit quietly, fiddling with the cord of my earbuds.

 

“My understanding of human emotions is somewhat limited for the moment, so you will have to bear with me, but I would like you to know that if you keep postponing the beginning of something that scares you, it will only get scarier. The best thing you can do right now is plow forward. At least, this is my rationale. I may be wrong.”

 

A chuckle bubbles in my throat. Once again, she’s right. I just have to do it. If I just do it, then even if things go wrong, I’ll know how to fix them. Delaying the inevitable will only make things worse for me in the end. “Yeah, you’re right.” I tell her, smiling slightly. “Thank you for that.”

 

I force my feet to carry me up the steps in front of the house and walk up to the door, biting my lip as I reach up and ring the doorbell. PAE doesn’t say anything, so I can only assume that either she doesn’t see a need to respond to my thanks, or she wants to allow me to engage with the world around me. I guess it would kind of make things harder for me if I had to split my attention between her and the people who I’m about to meet. It takes a bit of effort, but I relax my shoulders and take a stabilising breath. No reason to overthink this. It will be fine.

 

The door opens a crack, and I see a grey eye peeking out at me. Before I can react, the door slams shut again, and I hear the sound of metal clinking. Then, it swings open all the way, revealing the young woman standing behind it. From her chin-length black hair and the freckles that dot her nose, I identify her as Mukuro Ikusaba, the woman who I met four days ago, and who threw the knife that lodged in my shoulder and landed me in the infirmary. Her expression remains completely devoid of emotion as she takes me in, but after a moment, her features relax into a tentative smile, and I feel a bit of the anxiety ebbing.

 

“How’s your shoulder?” She asks, and she’s so much less accusatory than she was the other day, I’m taken completely off guard. To be polite, I pull the earbuds from my ears and return her smile, shrugging both shoulders to show her that I’m healing just fine.

 

“I barely even notice it.” I tell her honestly. Ikusaba nods, then looks away, as if she’s pondering how to word something that she wants to say. While she does so, I seize the opportunity to give her a onceover. She’s dressed in a grey turtleneck and black leggings. She has her own pair of indoor shoes resting on her feet, as though she comes here often enough to keep them. I wonder if she’s close to the man whose house this is- Kiyotaka Ishimaru, I remind myself. Her grey eyes are murky, and I can barely read what is floating in them, though I’m sure there’s some flavour of contemplative to be found there. On the back of her right hand, there is a tattoo of what appears to be a wolf. What really strikes me as odd about the woman before me, however, isn’t the tattoo.

 

Now that I’m standing so close to her, there is something unsettling about her bone structure. It’s familiar to me somehow, yet I can’t place it. Some part of my brain informs me that she’s attractive, but I barely think about that. I can’t shake the feeling that she looks like somebody I’ve seen before…

 

“What’s your name?” Ikusaba blurts, scattering my thoughts. Is that what she took so long to figure out how to ask? The notion turns my smile a little bit more genuine. I wonder if she makes small talk very often.

 

“Shuichi Saihara.” I introduce myself as concisely as possible, and then, for the sake of politeness, I add, “And you’re Mukuro Ikusaba.”

 

A curt nod. “Yeah.” She steps back, gesturing with her hand for me to follow her into the house. “C’mon, you’re a little early, but most of us are here now.” As I enter the house, she turns around, beginning to walk away. “Lock the door, please.” She calls over her shoulder. I close the door behind me and furrow my brow slightly at the locks, wondering how to work it, but I settle for redoing the latch at the top as I step out of my shoes. Ikusaba pauses where she is standing at the end of the hallway, presumably to wait for me, so I jog a little to catch up with her, and follow her the rest of the way into what I take for the sitting room.

 

The space is somewhat well-furnished. By the wall, in place of a television, there is a worn brown couch that I recognise as the one Makoto was sitting on in the video. Now, it is occupied by a couple people who I don’t recognise. There is an assortment of other chairs, most of which are already taken, and a couple people are seated on the floor. Excluding Ikusaba and myself, I count a total of seven people in the room, and I can hear bustling from the kitchen.

 

On the couch, a young woman is sitting with her hands pressed hard into her skirt. From the set of her jaw and the way she is focusing on the floor, I can tell that she’s anxious about something. Her dark purple hair is done in two braids, but she’s pulled it into a bun, presumably to keep it out of her face. Although, it doesn’t make much of a difference, because she’s wearing a pair of round glasses that somewhat hide her eyes from view. When she looks in my direction, however, I see that they’re grey. Next to her, a young girl is seated tailor style. She’s petite, with light brown hair that is clipped out of her face and yellow-green eyes. When I make eye contact with her, she smiles nervously, and I return the gesture.

 

I glance over to the couple armchairs in the room. In one chair, a robot is sitting with immaculate posture. From what I can tell, he is going over a list on a piece of paper in a state of quiet concentration. I’ve seen him before- in fact, I’ve seen him at the Future Foundation. If I recall correctly, this robot is named K1-B0. I’ve never held a conversation with him before, but I am intrigued by the fact that he is able to think and feel in a similar manner to a human. (Though, I shouldn’t verbalise those thoughts. I’ve heard that he’s somewhat sensitive regarding the topic.)

 

Another chair is occupied by a somewhat disgruntled looking young woman. Her blonde hair is in a state of disarray, and her pale skin is flushed, as though she’s just been insulted- or, perhaps, from the posture of the girl on the ground in front her, told off. The woman in question, who is seated on the ground but poised as though she is about to get to her feet, looks… kind of scary. Her brown hair is incredibly long, and tied into low pigtails with a couple red scrunchies. When I meet her eyes, I’m startled to see the vivid shade of red that her irises take on. Her expression is severe, and I wonder what could’ve possibly been said to make her angry like she is.

 

There are two others sitting on the ground. And… though I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, at first glance, I’m not certain as to the gender of either of them. One of them is seated tailor style next to the couch, fiddling with the pendant on the end of what appears to be a silver necklace, hanging around their neck. From examining their physique, I finally identify them as a man. His black hair is longer than the hair of most women I know, and though I don’t feel that that should necessarily be a defining feature of either gender, it still leaves me at a slight loss. His eyes are a striking golden colour, and from what I can see, his features are fairly feminine- but it’s difficult for me to ascertain, because half of his face is covered by a black mask.

 

I decide that the other person is most likely a woman. She’s definitely the strongest person in the room, if her large figure is anything to go by. Her skin is a darker tone, and her eyes are such a pale shade of blue, they seem to glow. She has long, unruly white hair which she has tied back into a loose ponytail. Even though I wasn’t sure initially what gender she was, I can tell now that I made the right call with female. There is something serene about the way she holds herself- even her seating position is elegant.

 

I look back over to Ikusaba, who has pulled in a couple chairs from the dining room. With a slight inclination of her head, she points at one of the seats and drops gracefully into the other, as though she is waiting for me to sit next to her. I appreciate the gesture; if she hadn’t done so, I’m not sure I’d be able to figure out where to sit. Nervously, I walk over to the chairs and take a seat, folding my hands together in my lap. As I do so, the strong woman sitting on the floor directs her attention onto me.

 

“You are Shuichi Saihara.” It’s not a question. I have to wonder how she knows my name. “If you are here, then that means that what Mukuro said is the truth.”

 

What Mukuro…? Oh…

 

“A-Ah, regarding Makoto?” I ask in a small voice. The woman I am speaking to nods solemnly. What little chatter there is in the room falls silent and I bite the inside of my cheek, anxiety threatening to swallow me whole. Naturally, I figured that I would have to talk about it eventually, but I haven’t actually taken the time to mentally prepare myself for the conversation. It’s been hard enough rehashing it to my superiors at the Future Foundation (especially considering the things I now know about the Future Foundation). I can hardly wrap my head around the idea of talking about it with strangers.

 

Thankfully, I don’t have to say anything, because Ikusaba chooses that moment to speak. “I told you, I was telling the truth.” She says this with some frustration, glaring at something off to her right. “You all know who Makoto is- was, to me,” she corrects herself in an undertone, suddenly more emotional than she was the moment earlier. “Why would I lie about it?”

 

“We didn’t think you lied,” the robot, K1-B0, amends in a very matter-of-fact way, giving her a grave look. “We just thought you might be mistaken.”

 

“We hoped you might be mistaken.” The man on the floor corrects pointedly. “But it’s clear now that she wasn’t, because there is no reason that a member of the Future Foundation would come here for the sole purposing of fueling a misconception of our teammate’s.”

 

A member of the Future Foundation. Suddenly the uniform that I’m wearing feels more synonymous to a bright red target, painted on my back. I shift uncomfortably in my seat.

 

“Saihara isn’t bad, right?” The young, brown-haired girl on the couch speaks up timidly, looking at me rather than her teammates. Her voice is more androgynous than I would’ve thought, from her appearance. “Makoto said he was trustworthy. That’s one of the last things he said.”

 

The scary woman with red eyes scoffs. “Makoto also said that the Future Foundation would never figure out that he was working against them. Kiibo here is living proof that that isn’t true.” The way she spits out those words, it’s almost as though she’s… bitter, about something. Understandably, of course, seeing as one of her teammates has died quite recently… her voice is familiar to me somehow. I’m sure I’ve heard it before.

 

“That’s not very fair.” The timid looking girl frowns. “It’s not like he was trying to get caught.”

 

“I never said that,” the red-eyed woman rebuffs. “I’m just saying, he might be wrong about this, too. We don’t know why Saihara is here, or what his plans are. For all we know, he could be here to hurt us.”

 

“No.” Ikusaba interrupts. “If that were true, he would’ve come armed with more than just the mandatory handgun. Even Makoto had to carry one, and he never used it.” She looks at me, as though trying to search my expression. Clearly, she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, because she huffs and looks back at her friends. “Besides, Saihara has only been a member of the Foundation for two months. I doubt he’s high enough in the ranks to be a spy for them, or even have an inkling as to what’s going on there.”

 

I bite my lip, hesitant. I do know what’s going on at the Future Foundation, and I should say so. Furthermore, I should tell them what my motives are- to join them, to help them, to avenge Makoto Naegi and to save Chiaki Nanami. But my tongue is suddenly frozen to the roof of my mouth, and I’m finding it hard to swallow.

 

“If there is something you’d like to say,” K1-B0 says to me, not unkindly. “You are welcome to say it. We’ve all been in a state of disarray since Makoto’s passing, but we’re open to hear what you have to bring to the table, even if Maki is distrustful.”

 

The woman with red eyes, presumably named Maki, rolls her eyes. “I never said I didn’t want to hear him out, I just-”

 

“It’s alright, Maki.” The white-haired woman on the floor gives a calm smile, of sorts, as though she understands where the other woman is coming from. “I’m sure plenty of us have the same doubts lurking in the back of our minds that we are merely holding back out of fear of judgement.”

Well, I can sympathise. I clear my throat, and any words that might have been on the verge of being spoken seem to dissolve into nothing. Eight pairs of eyes have fallen on me. They’re waiting for me to say something. So I take a deep breath.

 

“I was there.” I begin, then it occurs to me that I should specify. “I mean, when Makoto died.” My voice cracks when I say the final word of that sentence, and several of the people sitting in front of me wince in sympathy. “He, ah, he asked me to carry out a couple of actions for him. One involved transferring a number of files from a flashdrive onto a laptop.” Maki’s eyes widen at this, and then narrow, and I avert my gaze as realisation dawns on me. I force myself to continue speaking. “The other was meeting up with Ikusaba at the abandoned grocery store and informing her that I had completed the task. I did both of them.” My throat feels abnormally dry. “U-Uhm, after that, Ikusaba asked me to do some digging at the Future Foundation. See for myself what Makoto must have seen. And he, uh, he left me a video, as well as a bunch of information regarding some of the things the Foundation has done.”

 

At this point, my voice tapers off, and I think back to files that I spent that time poring over. The people who have died at the hands of the Future Foundation. The people who the Future Foundation is still planning on killing. “I assume, based on what I saw, that this group is… working against the Foundation, to stop them from doing the things that they are doing.” Several members of the group nod. “I thought about it, as Ikusaba asked me to, and I decided that I would like to join you all. And help. In any way that I can.”

 

The man whose face is covered by a mask tilts his head to the side. “Is this out of obligation, or because you would genuinely like to fight against both the Foundation and Enoshima’s government?” He inquires this as though it an obvious question. I have to think about it for a moment.

 

“Both, I suppose?” I finally answer. “I’d be lying if I said that Makoto’s death doesn’t make me feel at least somewhat obligated to join, but… it’s… what I saw…” I swallow hard. “What the Foundation is doing, it’s wrong. It’s not any better than what Enoshima is doing. I can’t just stand by and allow that to continue. Not when lives are in danger of being lost. Not when lives have already been lost.” I clench my hands into fists so tight that my fingernails dig into my palm. The pain helps me focus a little, and I try to answer the man’s question in a more substantial way. “I want to fight the Foundation, and I want to do that without working with the government.”

 

The purple-haired woman sitting on the couch tilts her head to the side very slightly, as though she is sizing me up. But aside from her, nobody else gives any indication that they’ve heard what I’ve said. The room is silent, except for the sounds still coming from the kitchen. I can only assume that somebody else is there, perhaps preparing refreshments of some sort. It’ll be pretty awkward when they come back into the room to have missed this conversation.

 

Finally, the bespeckled woman speaks; “I-I think he’s t-telling the truth.” I’m not expecting the stutter, I’ll admit, but she doesn’t speak with uncertainty. I suspect that the stutter is merely a speech impediment. “After a-all, I don’t th-think that s-s-somebody like him c-could l-lie so well.”

 

“Somebody like me?” I repeat.

 

“Yeah, Toko’s right.” The previously disgruntled blonde woman speaks up for the first time, a crude grin spreading over her features. Without such an abrasive smile on her face, I’d almost call her pretty. “She knows plenty about liars! After all, she-”

 

“Sh-Shut up, Miu!” The purple haired woman who previously spoke up in my defense snaps before the blonde can get another word out. “If you’re a-about to speak b-badly about Byakuya, th-then just sh-shut your whore mouth!”

 

“Wh-Whore?!” The blonde, apparently named Miu, blushes heavily, and I’m aware that I am made violently uncomfortable.

 

It occurs to me that the serious atmosphere that previously hung in the air is quickly fading. I’m not sure how to feel about this. Is this a common occurrence here? I scratch the back of my neck, at a loss for words. As I attempt to figure out what I could say to possibly get everything back on topic, K1-B0 beats me to it.

 

“Uhm, anyway,” the robot turns his attention onto me, and smiles. (I marvel at the circuitry in his face that must be there to allow him to take such an action.) “I agree with the first part of what Toko said. I think that you’re telling the truth. And I believe in Makoto’s judgement. If he trusted you, then so do I.” The words seem to warm my heart. Now that he’s said that, I still don’t know what to say. But now it’s for an entirely different reason.

 

The white-haired woman nods. “I don’t believe there is an insincere bone in your body.” She tells me. “So I trust you as well.”

 

“I’ve been trusting Saihara.” Ikusaba mutters, and for some reason I think of the knife that she threw in my shoulder, but decide not to comment on it, because I’m still touched by the words that she’s saying. “But…” and she gives me a wry smile, “I think anybody who knows that Makoto Naegi died trusting them would have to fulfill whatever promise they made. There’s no bigger standard to have to live up to.”

 

“I agree with you on that much.” The man in a mask seems to be smiling, though it’s difficult for me to tell… as he’s wearing a mask. “And from what I know of people, which is quite a lot, I think Saihara is trustworthy thus far. Though this is merely a first impression, so you can expect to be held to this.”

 

“R-Right,” I stutter, apprehensive. Even so, I’m still grateful to receive their trust.

 

“Oh, I trust you, Shuichi!” The brunette on the couch smiles at me, then falters. “Uhm, is it alright if I call you Shuichi?” The way that she looks at me through her eyelashes, smiling shyly, I don’t think I could say no even if I wanted to.

 

“That’s fine,” I tell her, offering a smile of my own.

 

Maki glares at me for a moment, silent. Then she closes her eyes and sighs, shrugging her shoulders as if she’s given up. “Whatever. I’m sure we’re all going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya now or whatever, so I might as well declare that I trust you too. I guess you don’t seem entirely untrustworthy.” She hesitates. “You… remind me of Makoto a little, anyway.” The red-eyed woman messes with one of her pigtails, making a face, and suddenly she seems a lot less scary.

 

“Hey,” the girl who just asked to call me by my given name perks up a little bit. “We should introduce ourselves. It’s kind of unfair that we all know Shuichi’s name but he doesn’t know ours.” She pauses, and seems to realise something. “Uhm, so, I’m Chihiro Fujisaki. I was a member of the Future Foundation like you are once, but I left when Makoto told me what was going on.”

 

Chihiro… Fujisaki? I’ve heard the name before. Fujisaki was a programmer, and a very good one at that. But, Fujisaki was… a man…

 

Ah. I’m an idiot.

 

Fujisaki gives me a worried look. “Are you okay, Shuichi?”

 

“Y-Yeah,” I manage, smiling sheepishly. “I’m fine.” I choose not to elaborate. The quicker I can bury my initial misgendering of the boy sitting across from me, the better, so I opt to shift my attention onto the white-haired woman as she begins to speak.

 

“I am Sakura Ogami.” She speaks in a low, mature voice, and I am grateful that I wasn’t wrong in guessing her gender, as Sakura is generally a woman’s name. “I was never a member of the Foundation, but I got acquainted with everybody here around the time that the FYG was being started.”

 

Next to her, the masked man introduces himself, “My name is Korekiyo Shinguji. I never had any interest in joining the Future Foundation, just as Sakura did not, and as such I was a little bit later to join this group than the rest, but I am looking forward to working with you regardless.”

 

“You’ve already heard my name a couple times, but I’m Maki Harukawa.” The final woman who is seated on the floor introduces herself as though it’s a great hassle. She doesn’t add anything else, merely glares at something off in the distance. I’m beginning to wonder if she always conducts herself in this manner, or if she’s just irritated with me for some reason that I cannot fathom. I guess that wouldn’t be such an uncommon occurrence.

 

“I’m Miu Iruma, but you should already know that already, fuckwad!” The blonde shouts this with somewhat unnecessary enthusiasm. Needless to say, I did not already know who she was. Though PAE has mentioned her name a couple of times. And, if I think back, I can recall that the flashdrive Makoto had me transfer files off of had Iruma’s initials written on masking tape on the top, so it’s likely that she is somewhat tech savvy, as Fujisaki is. With those two in the group, I can only imagine how advanced their tech capabilities must be.

 

“My name is K1-B0, but you may call me Kiibo.” The robot introduces himself, though I already knew who he was. His smile returns to his features and he bows a little bit. I return the gesture, not wanting to be impolite. “I was with the Future Foundation up until about a week and a half ago, so I’m pretty much in the same boat as you.”

 

“I-I’m Toko Fukawa,” the woman with glasses glares at me out of the corner of her eye. Even though she spoke up in my defense earlier, I’m already starting to question the reliability of the woman. Still, the fact that she’s even here to begin with speaks volumes. “I g-guess you don’t seem c-completely useless, s-so… yeah.”

 

Is that really a compliment? “Thanks,” I say anyway, not wanting to offend her. “Ah, wait.” I add, suddenly remembering something. “I know that this group is called the FYG, but what does FYG stand for?”

 

Fujisaki and Ogami exchange a meaningful look, and I’m left confused until Iruma blurts, “It stands for Fuck You Gang!” and there is a collective sigh from the other group members.

 

“Wh-What?” I blanch. “You’re- that’s not really it, right?”

 

“I wish this were the case.” Shinguji pinches the bridge of his nose. “But certain members of our team, for example, Oowada, who is not here at the moment, thought it would be funny to choose such a vulgar name.”

 

...I have no words, honestly.

 

“That’s why we say FYG.” K1-B0 gives me an apologetic smile. “Because nobody likes to say Fuck You Gang unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

 

“Which it usually is!” Iruma cackles. “What, are you afraid of cursing or something, Saihara? Or are you embarrassed because it turns you on to hear those words from a woman with fine arts such as mine?”

 

“Wh- No! No, that’s not the reason, I-” my face heats up. I’m starting to understand why PAE wouldn’t tell me what FYG stands for. Maybe I was better off not knowing.

 

Ikusaba fixes me with an emotionless stare. “This conversation is completely off task.” She points out, somewhat needlessly, before rising from her seat and walking across the room. She stops at the doorway between the sitting room and the kitchen and calls, “Taka, come out here. We’ve all finished introductions already.” This is worded somewhat flatly, and I’m beginning to wonder if she’s only done this because she’s fed up with the topic of conversation when somebody else joins her at the doorway.

 

The man who stands there now looks to be about my height, though my only point of reference is Ikusaba, so I could be mistaken. His posture is beyond immaculate- in fact, his spine is so straight, it’s almost curved in the wrong direction. His breathing is slightly laboured, I suspect from running to get to the doorway, and the expression on his face reflects great seriousness, as though he is disgusted with himself for having missed this much of the conversation. I might confuse him for a brother of Harukawa’s, as his eyes are a similar vivid shade of red and his hair is black, but they are different enough in other aspects of their appearance that I can differentiate between the two quite easily.

 

“My apologies for my tardiness! I was cleaning the kitchen after Miu ransacked it from coming in through the window!” He exclaims, giving the blonde in question a pointed look. (She moans, quite loudly, upon receiving his scorn.) His attention is quickly taken from her, however, to focus on me, and his expression breaks into what is a very becoming smile on his grave looking features. “Shuichi Saihara, right? It’s a pleasure! I am Kiyotaka Ishimaru, but you can call me Taka!”

 

Taka, huh? I might stick to calling him Ishimaru for the time being, but I will definitely take this into consideration. I offer him a light smile and a nod rather than verbalise this thought. “The pleasure is mine,” I respond. He seems to accept the response and looks around the room crossing his arms across his chest in thought.

 

“Where are Himiko, Tenko, and Mondo?” Ishimaru inquires. Though the question is asked of the whole room, he looks to Ikusaba as he says this, and she is the one who responds.

 

“They’re unable to make this meeting, but Tenko is still willing to host for next week.” She lists off the words as though she’s been told to say them in that precise manner. The man beside her nods, and then walks into the living room. Fujisaki scoots over on the couch to make room for him, and Fukawa follows suit, seemingly begrudgingly.

 

As Ishimaru settles into his place, he clears his throat, a very professional expression playing on his features. “Right, then, we have a lot of things to get done, especially since…” he trails off for a minute, then plows forward. “Our previous leader isn’t here anymore, so we should get into it right away. Saihara, don’t worry about contributing so much for now. Just listen to the way that we conduct the meeting, and follow suit once you think you’ve got the hang of it.” Once I nod, he sets his jaw, scanning the faces of the other members. “The meeting will start now. All in favour, say aye.”

 

A chorus of “aye”s ring out across the room.

 

“Any opposed?” When silence follows the question, he adds, “Any abstinences?” and again nobody says anything. Satisfied, Ishimaru looks at K1-B0. “Are you keeping minutes again, Kiibo?”


The robot nods. “Affirmative.”

 

“Right. Then, the first item on our agenda…”

 

And… well, what is there to say? It is a meeting. For everything that’s surprised me about this group, I am a little stunned at how organised they all are. Ishimaru lists off agenda items and calls for comments and reports. Though he earlier said that Makoto was their leader up until his death, I can’t help noticing the practiced ease with which he carried out these actions. Reminding members to stay on task, gently asking certain members for contributions when they haven’t spoken in a while. How much of this is him following Makoto’s example, I wonder, and how much of this is his own skill?

 

I am listening to what they are saying, but I can’t help noticing quite a few things about the group. They are productive, organised, and passionate. The way that they interact with one another, even with the robot, who has, in his own words, only been here for a short time, reflects an underlying sense of camaraderie between each member. Even when they dissolve into bickering, Ishimaru pulls them back to the surface, and it is abundantly clear that there is no malice behind any of their words or actions.

 

Even so, there is also a sense of loss, in the group. From time to time, somebody will trail off, as if they are about to say something, but then lost the desire, or perhaps they couldn’t find the words. I’d imagine that no matter how well they work together, Makoto was a stabilising presence in the group. It’s obvious that everybody here was fond of him, otherwise they wouldn’t have decided to trust me to begin with.

 

But even with the loss, they’re all surviving. That’s something that I have to admire, the way that they all trust in each other. I don’t see it often at the Future Foundation, aside from among close friends. Maybe this is one of the things that makes the members of the Foundation so willing to do wrongs. They don’t have the same bonds with their members. This is important. Love. Friendship. Patience. I have to remember that. I have to remember this.

 

“The final item on the agenda,” Ishimaru breaks me from my thoughts in the same loud tone as he’s been using this entire time. “Is in regards to our inside source at the Future Foundation. That is to say, we no longer have one. Makoto is…” he swallows hard, as though tentative to speak the word. “Well, he’s not here,” even if he avoided saying it, his voice still cracks. Several members avert their gaze. “And there is still a lot of information we need from the Foundation that we’ll only obtain through an inside source. So, what do you all think?”

 

“I could try to join,” Ogami offers. “They have never heard of me before, after all, so I doubt they’d be aware of my being in the FYG.”

 

“But I’m sure they know that you are associated with Makoto,” Shinguji points out. “And that will cause them to be distrustful already. It could potentially jeopardise your own safety for you to join them in that manner, and while you may be willing to take that chance, we agreed that our number one priority in this group is the preservation of human lives.”

 

“You have a point,” Ogami concedes with a frown. “But then, who could try to join? Not you, Kiyo, surely.”

 

The man in question smiles. (Or at least, I assume he does, from the way his eyes crinkle at the edges.) “No, I’m afraid my past encounters with the Future Foundation have likely been enough to warrant my name being out on a list somewhere and labelled untrustworthy. I doubt I’d be able to do anything as a spy, if they even let me join to begin with.”

 

Fujisaki messes with his shirt collar. “I wish I could rejoin and help, but I don’t think they’d let me do that. It would definitely be suspicious if I rejoined now, of all times, right after Makoto died.”

 

“Mukuro and I could always go in under the pretense of being mercenaries and try to work our way in that way.” Harukawa suggests. “It’s worked before.” She says this casually, but it certainly takes me off guard. I already figured that Ikusaba is some sort of trained fighter. Considering the accuracy with which she threw that knife. But for both her and Harukawa to have the skill to pull off pretending to be a mercenary… it’s a little frightening.

 

But K1-B0 shakes his head. “I doubt the Foundation would be willing to hire mercenaries, no matter how good they are, unless they were planning on killing them once they had exceeded their usefulness. It’s too dangerous to keep around a person who knows who you’ve had killed.” He pauses, and I can’t help comparing his prolonged silence to a computer loading. “I’m unfortunately out of the question, as I left only a week and a half ago. They would definitely suspect something. It would be less risky if we had somebody who was already a member, but…”

 

This causes a bell to ring in my head. “I could do it,” I blurt out. When their eyes focus on me, I feel my heart pounding a little bit faster, and I hurry to continue speaking before the anxiety gets to me. “I mean, I know that I’ve only just joined you all, but it seems like the most logical course of action, that I do it. I’m already a current member of the Foundation, and even though I’m pretty low ranking, I know that I’m trusted.” Saying as much makes me feel a twinge of guilt, for wanting to misuse that trust, but I remind myself who it is I’d be betraying, and it makes the feeling disappear. “Besides, I’d rather do it than have any of you risk your lives when I can do so conveniently.”

 

“I didn’t want to ask you to do it,” Ishimaru begins tentatively. “Because the last thing I want is for you to have to stay at the Future Foundation when we can always try to find another way, but…” I can tell, from the way he’s looking at me, that he’s putting his faith in me. It feels odd, carrying the weight of somebody’s belief, but… I like it. It’s a good weight.

 

“Okay, then,” Fujisaki smiles. “We’ll leave it to you, Shuichi!”

 

“Don’t fuck this up!” Iruma chortles, but then sobers a little. “And, uh, be careful, I guess. Stay safe. The Foundation is fucking insane. Who knows what they’ll do if they find out.”

 

“It’s in your hands, Saihara.” Harukawa says this quite seriously, and a shiver goes down my back at the look she’s giving me.

 

“I will contact you with a list of the things that you need to look around for.” Ishimaru directs his attention fully onto me. “If it seems like you’re going to be found out, or you might be in the same danger that Makoto was, we want you to stop right away, okay? Your life is the priority here.”

 

My life is the priority here. Huh.

 

“All in favour of Shuichi Saihara becoming our new spy in the Future Foundation?” Ishimaru calls out, looking around at everybody else. The entire room fills with the sound of people saying “aye”, and my voice joins them. “All opposed?... any abstinences?”

 

Silence has never tasted sweeter.

Chapter Text

After that, there really isn’t much more to be discussed. A few more logistical things are cleared out of the way, and K1-B0 relays to me an abridged account of his time as a member of the Future Foundation so that I can effectively avoid being found out, but otherwise, the majority of the time remaining for the meeting is spent wrapping up. Ishimaru has K1-B0 run over a brief summary of everything that was discussed, and then he calls the meeting to a close, reminding everybody once more to be aware of the commitments that they have already made prior to today, as well as the ones that they made in this meeting.

 

I rise to my feet and turn around, grabbing my coat from my chair (where I put it about halfway through the meeting upon taking it off) and tug the article of clothing back over my shoulders. I sneak a glance around the room and note that a couple people- namely Fujisaki and Ogami- are helping to tidy things up around the sitting room, so I go ahead and take the chair back into the dining room, where I saw Ikusaba initially collect the chair from.

 

As I walk back towards the living room in order to go through and exit the house, I stop by the mantle at the fireplace. There are a number of photographs sitting there. A couple are clearly of Ishimaru, and I can even find a couple that feature various members of the FYG, but what really catches my eye is a photograph of an older man who resembles Ishimaru quite closely. They have the same hairstyle, though perhaps that’s more a stylistic choice, and a similar face shape. Also, their eyebrows are somewhat obtrusive. He is alone in the picture, staring directly at the camera with an intensity I’ve rarely seen before.

 

“That’s my father.” I turn at the sound of Ishimaru’s voice beside me, and am surprised to see the gentle expression on his otherwise pugnacious face. “I used to live with him. In this house, actually. Some of these pictures are the ones that he kept.”

 

I note his somber tone and ask quietly, “Where is he now?” The other man shrugs, as though attempting to process something difficult and faltering halfway.

 

“He was killed some time ago by one of Enoshima’s men.” Ishimaru tells me this with some bitterness, but I can tell that it isn’t directed towards me. “It was the biggest reason why…” he hesitates, staring at the photograph with a lost expression on his face. But then he turns his attention onto me, and I feel my eyes widening slightly upon noticing the smile that has taken over his features. “He didn’t go down without a fight, which is why I decided not to. I’m going to fight against every wrongdoer and honour his legacy!” He says this with such confidence, I can’t help but believe him.

 

“That’s the right attitude to have.” I tell him sincerely. “Wherever he is right now, I bet he’s proud of you.” I add, unconsciously echoing some of the last words that Makoto spoke to me. But once again, Ishimaru surprises me by shaking his head.

 

“No, even if he is proud of me,” he murmurs, almost to himself. “I won’t allow myself to accept that pride! Not when there is still battle that needs to be won. I still have a lot to learn, and a lot to teach. You should be the same, Saihara. Always keep improving, and working hard. Even if you think you’ve won, keep fighting anyway. That way, when you finally rest for a while, you’ll be able to do it knowing that you’ve done your best!”

 

Yeah, I will, Ishimaru. Makoto left the FYG in good hands. “I’m looking forward to working with you.” I feel a smile pushing its way onto my expression, almost without my meaning for it to. But I let it, because I feel it. I think we can really do it. Save Chiaki Nanami. Defeat Enoshima. Find a right in all the wrong. And that makes me smile.

 

I’m feeling similarly optimistic for the majority of the trip back to the Foundation, but eventually some of the elation wears off a little bit. There’s still plenty of work that needs to be done. If I start congratulating myself now, I’ll just be disappointed later. I need to keep my head in the game, and my eyes on the road ahead of me. With that in mind, I rest against a building with about a quarter left of my journey and take out my cell phone, tapping the power button. I’m starting to get used to the blue light that scans my features every time I turn it on. I much prefer it to a password that I would have to put in manually, at any rate. While I wait, I put one of the earbuds back in.

 

When the phone unlocks, I speak. “PAE, can you show me the contacts saved on this phone? I want to make sure I recognise the number when Ishimaru sends me the information later this week.” The phone vibrates in my hand.

 

“Of course. One moment, please.” PAE’s voice speaks quietly through my earbuds, and then the screen on the phone changes from grey to white, and a list of contacts opens up. It’s fairly short, so I can scroll from top to bottom with a shallow sweep of my thumb. “Listed here are all the members of the FYG. Makoto had other people he spoke to, of course, but he contacted them with a different cell phone; one that is likely in the possession of the Future Foundation right now, that I didn’t have access to.”

 

“It’s good that you didn’t have access to it.” I mutter. “I don’t know how I’d feel if the Foundation had access to your capabilities, but I know that any sentiments I might have wouldn’t be positive.” I’m not sure if artificial intelligences can laugh, but that’s the only way I can describe the noise the PAE makes.

 

“I’m flattered that you’d say so, Shuichi.” Her voice is, while warm and sometimes calming, by its own definition, emotionless. Even so, I can almost hear amusement in her tone. “But I only activate for people whose voices and faces I have had repeated exposure to. It takes a certain amount of time for me to be programmed to activate for people. And even if I do get a lot of exposure to a person’s face and voice, if they are not explicitly shown to me by somebody who I am already programmed to activate for, nothing will happen regardless.”

 

I frown. “Wait, then why…?”

 

“Why do I activate for you? Well, you might not have noticed it, because you’ve generally been preoccupied in the past, but Makoto spent the week leading up to the day that he figured he would die (and the day you two went on a mission together) taking candid photos of your face, as well as getting recordings that you spoke in, as often as possible.” So, in other words, Makoto effectively stalked me for a week before I even knew about any of this.

 

Well, maybe stalked is too harsh of a word… but either way! What the heck?

 

“Are you serious?” I exclaim, feeling my face heat up for reasons that I can’t really fathom. For some reason, it’s embarrassing to me that he would have spent so much time looking at my face.

 

“It isn’t really in my program to make those kinds of jokes.” PAE says. “So yes, I am serious. If you would like, I could show you the pictures he took.” She pauses. “I could pull them up right now, if you want.”

 

“Ahhhhh no,” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “No, I…” I really don’t want to see those pictures. I honestly can’t think of anything more mortifying. “I’d rather, uhm, look at the contacts.” With that said, I scan through the contacts. Most of them are names and faces that I recognise- Ishimaru, Ikusaba, Shinguji, Ogami, Fujisaki, Fukawa, Iruma, Harukawa, K1-B0… but there are three that are somewhat unfamiliar to me. The names on the contacts are Tenko Chabashira, Himiko Yumeno, and Mondo Oowada. Chabashira and Yumeno are women, from the pictures attached to their contacts, and appear to be around my age.

 

There’s only so much I can see from those pictures, but Chabashira would appear to be an assertive looking young woman with long black hair and grey-green eyes that remind me a bit of Makoto’s. She’s smiling widely for the camera, and it looks as though she has her arm around somebody’s shoulders. In Yumeno’s picture, I can tell that she is a more juvenile looking woman with red hair that has been cut in a bob. Her expression reflects exasperation, but her lips are pulled in a begrudging smile. From the arm around her shoulders in the picture, I deduce that hers and Chabashira’s contact photos are cropped from the same photograph, of them standing together. They must be close.

 

Oowada is a young man who must be one or two years older than me. I put him around Makoto’s age, though it’s worth noting that he’s definitely much more bulky as far as physique is concerned. His hair is black in the back, but there is a big poof of more blonde hair on top that he has styled into a pompadour. From his rowdy grin, I can only guess that he’s a very energising person to be around. His eyes are closed in the picture, so I can’t tell what colour they are. But I suppose I will figure that out once I meet them- and I will, as well, figure out if my surmises regarding the three who I haven’t met are in any way correct.

 

As I am putting the phone back in my pocket, the sound of a gunshot pierces the air. I jump, and my heart jumps with me as I nearly drop the phone onto the ground. Startled, I look around, trying to place the location that the sound came from. I yank the earbud from my ear and ball up the cord, shoving it into the pockets of my pants alongside the cell phone so that it doesn’t get in my way. When another shot reverberates in the air, I am finally able to distinguish the place of origin and I spring into action, running down the sidewalk and turning the corner into an alleyway.

 

When I skid to a stop, I am met with a sight that is, unfortunately, pretty familiar to me. A tall, bulky man in an obnoxious black and white uniform is reloading his gun, and it’s clear to me that he’s backed another person into the wall. There are two bullet holes smoldering on the wall next to the person in question, but it looks as though he hasn’t been shot.

 

“He” refers to a young man, perhaps a year older than me, with dark purple hair and wide, coy violet eyes. I am surprised, slightly, to see how relaxed the purple-haired man seems to be despite his current situation. As well as being backed into a wall, he also appears to be somewhat roughed up- there are a variety of blackened spots on his white clothing, and he sports a large, brownish green bruise right beneath his eye. It sticks out like a drop of blood on white bedsheets on his pale skin. I take a moment to observe the situation, one of my hands drifting towards my gun.

 

“Y’know,” the purple-haired man chirps, tone painfully bright and carefree. “I bet I could make a lot of money collecting bets on when you’re finally gonna manage to put a hole in me with that thing. So, whaddaya say? Think five dollars is a good starting price? Wanna place your bet?” His eyes widen, shining innocently. “I’ll give you a discount if you miss on purpose.”

 

“Shut up,” Enoshima’s soldier growls, brandishing his weapon. “Soon as I get a bullet in this thing, you’re gonna wish you’d kissed my ass, Ouma-”

 

“Aw man, you’re disgusting!” The other giggles. “You think I’m really so desperate I’d lay some old coot like you? I mean, I’m pretty desperate, so I guess I can see why you’d think that way, but c’mon, look in a mirror, Reginald!”

 

The soldier pauses, confusion flickering over his features. “What? My name isn’t Reginald.”

 

Ouma blinks twice, raising his eyebrows. “Oh, really? Guess my guess was off then, shucks!” He smacks his forehead with the back of his hand. “My bad! Hey, are you gonna reload that gun or what? I’ve been looking forward to getting shot, ya know? It’s on my bucket list!”

Apparently getting tired of the other man’s crap, Enoshima’s soldier finishes doing just that. Upon seen this, Ouma appears to blanch a little bit, as though he hadn’t been expecting to be taken seriously.

 

“Ummmmm, yeah, so, that was a lie, I really don’t actually want you to shoot me?” He says this like a question, even though in my opinion, it seems like a perfectly reasonable request. “So, if you could-”

 

The soldier raises the gun, and gets ready to shoot. My heart skips a beat, and I snap out of the haze of shock that I was just in. I can marvel at the cheekiness later- at the moment, I need to worry about the life that’s about to be lost. Even if this purple-haired man is really good at putting on a brave face when his life is being threatened, he’s just as human as I am, and a shot would definitely end his life. So I grab my gun from the hilt and point it in front of me, stepping forward into sight of the both of them.

 

“Hey!” I call out, glaring. “Drop your weapon!”

 

Enoshima’s soldier turns and looks at me, confusion flashing over his features. Realistically, I know that shooting him isn’t something that I’ll be able to pull off. I’m not a bad shot or anything- I can hit the center of a target, and stuff like that- but I have an aversion to shooting people. Even before Makoto died that way, I just… I don’t want to shoot another person. But the soldier doesn’t know that. And if I keep him from figuring that out, then I’ll hopefully be able to pull this off without any casualties.

 

“Oooh,” Ouma puts a hand over his mouth in shock, but I can see from the amusement dancing in his eyes that it’s insincere. “The Future Foundation is here to save me. I expected one of my men more than I expected that.

 

The soldier scoffs, rolling his eyes and readjusting his grip on his gun. “Drop my weapon, you said?” He asks calmly. I feel a little bit of panic struggling to take hold of my heart, but I force it down, instead focusing on keeping my expression unreadable. The only thing I want him to see in my eyes is anger. Because that’s the only emotion that I’m feeling right now that will help me in scaring him off.

 

“Yes,” I affirm, clenching my jaw. “Drop your weapon, or I’ll shoot. You’re welcome to shoot this man, but if you even start to pull that trigger, don’t think for a second you’ll walk out of here with your life.”

The words I’m saying are scary words, but I can’t really verify that they sound so intimidating. The blood is rushing before my ears and making it difficult for me to hear myself, much less get a read on how I might be coming off to this soldier.

 

He smirks, which really doesn’t do any good for my anxiety. “Like you’d shoot me. I doubt you even know how to use that thing. Go home, kid.”

 

Wow, did Enoshima personally teach him in the art of patronising? His tone makes me feel insecure, I’ll be honest, but I have bigger things to worry about- namely, the purple haired man who’s still standing against the wall. Later, I can go complain to Kaito about how upset that comment makes me, but for now, I need to prioritise. I have to find a way that I can convince him that I am somebody he needs to worry about. Furthermore, I need to convince him that the only way he can keep his life is by dropping that gun and walking away.

 

I don’t have enough talent to shoot the gun out of his hands. (Otherwise, I might’ve done so already.) But I do know something that I think I can pull off. I purse my lips and shoot him a glare before moving my gun to point downwards. My gaze follows the weapon, and once I’ve aimed well enough, I squeeze the trigger. The noise seems to explode from the weapon, and the rebound from the shot makes me take a step back, but it has the intended effect.

 

There is now a smoldering hole in the ground right next to his left foot. I lift my eyes up to meet his, and am relieved to see the fear and surprise that have now replaced the smugness. I inhale and lift my gun once more, aiming it at his heart. I’m not going to shoot, but that doesn’t matter. As long as he thinks I am.

 

“I missed your foot on purpose.” I say, making my tone as cold as possible. “I could easily shoot you dead right now, and I will do so, without hesitation. I know about fifteen different places I could aim for that would kill you instantly. No chance of survival. And I doubt Enoshima teaches you survival techniques.” My heart is pounding harder than it’s ever pounded before. I barely recognise myself; I know that I’m just mimicking other, more ruthless members of the Future Foundation. But now that I’ve actually fired the gun, I don’t think that he’ll be able to call my bluff. “Drop your weapon, and I’ll let you live. The Future Foundation has no reason to spare murderers like you.” I add the final sentence with a sneer, letting some of my bitterness towards the Foundation creep into my voice.

 

But it works. The soldier drops his gun on the ground and raises his hands in the air in a position that indicates that he’s surrendering. I choose that moment to advance, not wasting any time as I stride forward and scoop his gun off of the ground. I slide mine back into the holster and then focus on his, cocking the gun and pointing it at the ground. Six shots into the same place, and the barrel is empty. That is how I hand the weapon back to him.

 

“Go back to your boss.” I tell him firmly. “If I run into you again, I won’t be so forgiving.” I can tell that he’s surprised that I didn’t just kill him, because he takes the gun from my hand and slips it into his pocket as he turns on his heel and runs away, likely as fast as he can. Only when he’s disappeared into the distance do I release a breath, pinching the bridge of my nose. Damn. I’ve never said any of the things that I just said. I know that I didn’t mean any of them, but it’s the principle of the thing…

 

Before I can collect myself, though, a voice chirps up from beside me. “Wow! You’re pretty scary!” I open my eyes from under my hand, looking over to the man whose life I just saved. He’s grinning at me like someone might grin at a friend who just finished an impressive song in karaoke, or done something cool on a roller skating rink, rather than a perfect stranger who just threatened to shoot another person. “I almost thought you’d actually kill him, for a second there.”

 

His words leave me at a loss. “What makes you think I wouldn’t have?” I ask. Though it’s supposed to come out testy, it sounds more tired, and a little bit resigned. I guess I’m just really drained from what I just pulled- which doesn’t really make too much sense to me, seeing as it really didn’t take so long, and I only did it to save a life.

 

“Oh, well,” he grins. “I’m psychic, y’know?”

 

I sputter, “What?!”

 

“Haha, just kidding. That was a lie. But I still figured that you were bluffing just now. I can usually tell.” He winks at me, and then pushes off the wall, walking over to stand in front of me. I notice as he approaches that he walks with a slight limp, as though he hurt his leg or something, but I’m not really sure if it would be tactful to point it out. Once he’s standing right in front of me, I realise that he is… quite short. Likely even half a foot shorter than me. “Thanks for saving me, mister! I don’t know how I would’ve gotten out of that if you hadn’t come in with your gun!”

 

Ah, I’m… not sure if he’s being genuine, or not. It must show on my face, because he frowns playfully and continues to speak.

 

“Y’know, even if I was acting like I wasn’t, I was secretly pretty scared. All I’m good at is running, so I’m not really fit to defend myself.” An odd smile crosses over his features. “Actually, that’s a lie. I definitely could’ve kicked his butt. But I’m still totally glad that you came, because now they don’t have more reasons to kill me than they already have.”

 

I don’t think I want to ask. “It’s, uhm, no problem. Don’t worry about it. It’s…” my voice falters. “...what the Future Foundation is supposed to do… after all.”

 

He appraises me silently, impassive, then he smiles again, as though he has decided not to say what he was just thinking. A moment of silent passes between us, and I’m beginning to wonder if it would be alright for me to walk away. “Well?” He asks suddenly, eyes wide.

 

“Uhm, yes?” I ask, unable to stop the worry from creeping into my tone. For some reason, the way that he speaks, while harmless, is starting to tire me out.

 

“Aren’t you gonna tell me your name? Because, like, I don’t go out on dates with guys who don’t tell me their names, you know?”

 

I choke on my own spit, and my face becomes incredibly warm. “Wh-What? Wait a minute, I-”

 

The man giggles. “I’m kidding! Mostly. Though it’s pretty cute that you’re so flustered over a joke.” He clears his throat. “But, what is your name? I wanna know the name of the guy who saved me! C’mon, c’mon, tell me your name!” Based on how little space he’s giving me to respond, I couldn’t say my name if I wanted to. But when he falls silent and his eyes widen, it occurs to me that I really have no reason to refuse him. Besides, I mean, he did just almost get shot. Maybe being insufferable is just his coping mechanism.

 

“Shuichi Saihara.” I finally answer, giving a tired smile. “I’m with the Future Foundation,” I add, arbitrarily.

 

“Oooh, your name is alliterated!” He chirps, and I sigh, which only makes his grin widen. “I’m Kokichi Ouma- you didn’t ask, but I thought I’d tell you anyway!” When Ouma pauses, he shifts his weight, as though just having realised something. “Hey, hey, I think I should go, but can I see you again?”

I don’t know how much I want to, but… “Sure,” I agree tiredly. “That’s fine.”

 

“Nee-hee hee, great!” I have to admit that the smile he gives me in response is kind of cute, but I don’t know how much that really makes up for all the badgering. “Okay, well, I owe you anyway, so if you’re ever in a pinch, or you wanna see me, just call me up, okay?”

 

“Ah, uhm,” I clear my throat. “I don’t have your number…?”

 

“Oh! Well, that’s easy. Just call my boss.” At my inquisitive look, he adds, “Y’know, Junko Enoshima? I thought that was kinda obvious? It is obvious, right?”

 

I find myself choking again. “What?” I manage. “Y-You-”

 

“Don’t be so gullible, Shuichi!” Ouma chides me. I feel a little irritated at the use of my given name- also, at being chided by this guy, but I hold my tongue, feeling my face warm a bit. “That was clearly a lie. Since one of her guys just tried to kill me, you know?” He waits. “Oh, but I guess you’re new to this, so I’ll forgive you this time. Next time I won’t go so easy on you!” Even though that final sentence is blatantly terrifying, I choose not to comment on it, and instead nod weakly.

 

I wait for Ouma to do something practical, like, I dunno, give me his number, but instead he turns around and starts walking away. I watch him go, confusion beginning to swirl around in my gut.

 

“I’ll see you later!” He calls out. It would be a more impressive exit if he wasn’t limping away. I’m watching him go for a long couple moments.

 

Eventually, with some level of exasperation, I yell, “Do you need some help, Ouma?” He stops, looking back at me for a moment, as though to judge my sincerity. There is a certain glow in his purple eyes that wasn’t there before. Almost as though he’s making an expression that he really means to make, now. I wonder if all the ones from earlier were fake. Then he smiles, and it’s a smaller smile than the others that he flashed me.

 

“Nah,” he responds, waving. “I think you’ve already helped me enough, Saihara. Go on back to the Future Foundation you love so much.”

 

Something about the way that he emphasises the word “love” makes me think that he was perceptive to a lot more just now than I originally thought. But before I can process it fully, he’s turned again and disappeared around the corner, and I’m left to wonder if I’ll really ever see him again.

 

I guess it doesn’t matter, anyway.

Chapter Text

In the heat of the moment, I guess I didn’t really think about everything that being a spy entails. As of current, however, one fact has become glaringly obvious to me: being a spy means that I will have to lie.

 

Now, let me be clear, I’m not so worried about lying to my superiors. The people who I know for a fact are high enough in the Future Foundation to know about the things that the Foundation is getting up to- well, I can handle them. And I can handle the prospect of deceiving them. It doesn’t bother me all that much to lie to murders when the subject matter is their wrongdoings. Besides, they’ll know the truth someday. And when that day comes, they will no longer be in the position to do what they’ve been doing.

 

But there are some people who I really don’t want to lie to. One person, in particular, actually.

 

“Shuichi!” Kaito comes up to me almost immediately upon my return to headquarters. There is an energised smile on his features, so I can only assume that he’s just gotten finished with some routine training with a couple of his other friends around the Foundation. “Where’ve you been, bro? You missed training today.”

 

...ah.

 

Well, I can’t tell him the truth. In all honesty, what I’d really love to be doing right now is running around the Future Foundation and locating every single trustworthy person in order to key them into what’s going on without their knowing. I don’t want another good person to have to continue working in kahoots with a group that does what the Foundation is doing. But I know that some level of discretion is required, especially because we can’t afford for the Foundation to find out about the FYG. Even so, I desperately want to give Kaito every single detail. Not just because he’s my best friend- but because I trust him, and I know that he would never tell anybody anything that I didn’t want him telling.

 

Even so, I haven’t talked to the FYG about it. I don’t know if they really want me inviting all of my friends from the Future Foundation to their meetings. Kaito would fit right in, but I just don’t know if they’re okay…

 

But I can’t just lie to him. Not when he trusts me.

 

My stomach twists with indecision. I have to tell him something, whether it’s the truth or not. Finally, I release a breath. I have to come up with something untrue to tell him for now, but next time I get to talk to the FYG, I’ll ask them if it would be alright for me to tell him the truth. I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to lie to him consistently. Even so much as omitting a couple pieces of information from him makes me feel guilty.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I do mean the apology. “I hadn’t realised it until this morning, but I actually had a mission this afternoon that I’m just getting back from now. That’s why I wasn’t there earlier.” It’s a half-truth, I suppose. The meeting was a mission, of sorts. For a moment, I’m worried that Kaito isn’t going to accept that answer, but then he just grins at me and flashes a thumbs up. I had forgotten, I suppose, how trusting he is. That just makes this ten times worse.

 

“No problem, bro. We can just reschedule to this evening. You don’t have anything going on, right?”

 

“Nothing more important than training.” I promise with a smile that certainly betrays some of my exhaustion. “I’ll be there. It’s at the usual place, right?” I add, referring to the courtyard behind the main building. Usually doing things outside is considered pretty risky, but we like the fresh air, and Kaito likes to ascertain that we’ll be able to fight off anything that comes at us, in the case that we do get attacked. I think that’s a pretty bold assertion for a guy who can’t tie his tie correctly, but I’m also confident that he knows how to take care of himself, so I don’t worry about it so much.

 

“You bet.” Kaito confirms, clapping my shoulder. I raise my hand and make it into a fist, and he follows suit, touching his knuckles to mine and turning his hand one hundred and eighty degrees. We share a quiet smile, and then he gives me a two-fingered salute as he turns around and starts down the hall. “Tonight, Shuichi! Don’t forget!”

 

I laugh, “I never forget, are you kidding?” but once he’s disappeared around the corner, I feel the guilt settling back in again. Maybe if he trusted me a little less, lying to him wouldn’t feel so much like the end of the world. But I don’t like lying to my friends and loved ones. Honesty and communication are the most important factors in a healthy relationship. Within the friendships that I look to for stability, it’s especially important to me that we have a healthy, open relationship.

 

I should stop thinking about it. No matter how questionable this decision is, I’ll amend it later by telling him the whole truth and making it up to him. I doubt that he’ll be angry at me- and even if he is, it’ll be plenty justifiable, and I know that he’s mature enough to move past it.

 

Even though these reassurances are somewhat insufficient in regards to easing my mind, I swallow my thoughts and turn around, starting down in the direction of my room. Once there, I figure that I’ll drop off a couple things (namely PAE) and then head to Command to see if there’s anything that I should get done. Until Ishimaru’s text comes in, there really isn’t anything that I can do for the FYG snooping wise, so I should just focus on keeping my cover for the moment. I’m consumed by my thoughts of what I’ll spend the next couple of hours doing, and as a result, I am not looking where I’m going- I only become aware of my surroundings when I bump into somebody and stumble backwards.

 

An apology is already forming on my lips as I look up to meet the eyes of the person who I’ve bumped into. It takes a moment for their features to register in my mind, but when they finally do, I blanch, and my throat goes dry. My words freeze on their way out, so all that emerges is a half-assed “sorry”. I clench my teeth and swallow hard, trying not to let my hesitation show on my face, because of course there’s no way I can afford to let anything slip.

 

But my mind is suddenly preoccupied. Even if the white suit wasn’t an indicator, I’d know who I’ve bumped into, because we’ve met before. He’s the reason I joined, really. The biggest reason. The only reason.

 

“Oh, Shuichi.” Kyousuke Munakata, the leader of  the Future Foundation, offers me a small, apologetic smile. The times that I’ve met him, he’s always given a smile of a similar calibre, with a kind light in his eyes. He’s been patient and understanding of any mistakes that I might make around him- usually because I’ve been around him. It isn’t as though I have some sort of crush on him, or even any kind of hero-worship, like how I felt about Makoto.

 

But… but Kyousuke Munakata saved my life. That’s why… it’s why I’m speechless now, because I know know what he’s been allowing to happen. What he’s been ordering to happen.

 

“I’m sorry, I was in a bit of a hurry and I wasn’t watching where I was going.” He continues, with that same smile.

 

In the past, I’ve acted nervous and inarticulate around him as a result of admiration and gratitude. Now I’m not sure that I can speak, but it’s for an entirely different reason this time. This time, it’s because of what I know. Still, maybe I should be grateful for that, because I’m sure he won’t think too much of this, or of the way that my face must be reddening a little bit looking at him. “I-It’s fine,” I force myself to speak, clearing my throat. “It was my fault, anyway. I’m thinking a bit too much.”

 

Munakata chuckles. “I understand.” Maybe he does, but if he knew what exactly I was just thinking about, I doubt he’d be so allowing right about now. If he knew what I was thinking about… well, maybe my fate wouldn’t be so different from Makoto Naegi’s. Oh, that’s… maybe that’s not the best thing to be thinking about, right about now. “Hey, Shuichi, I know you’ve probably got a few things on your plate at the moment, but do you think you could stop by my office sometime today or tomorrow, when you get the chance?”

 

“Huh?” I visualise my thoughts coming to a crashing halt, and I meet his light blue eyes, tilting my head to the side slightly. My brow furrows in confusion. Why does he want to see me? Is there something that I’ve done that’s let on what I’ve been getting up to, what with the FYG and all? “What for?”

 

“Don’t worry so much about it,” he must say this in response to the expression that I’m pulling, so I make an effort to relax my facial muscles. “I just want to talk to you about what happened last week. And discuss… well, it’d be best to wait until you come by.”

 

He… wants to talk about Makoto dying. For some reason, the prospect of doing so makes me feel sick to my stomach, but I nod anyway, swallowing. I shouldn’t skip out on this opportunity. At the very least, there might be good information that I’d get from going, that could potentially help the FYG in some way. “Sure, I’ll see when I can come by.” I promise, sounding a lot more self-assured than I feel. Briefly I worry that he’ll be suspicious of my sudden assertiveness, because I doubt I’ve ever spoken to him in such a composed manner, but he just nods in response, giving a more genuine smile.

 

“Just stick your head in. If I’m not around, feel free to wait around awhile for me to show up.” Munakata’s smile seems to vanish and he touches my shoulder for a short moment before walking off with a quick goodbye. From his terse disposition just now, I can only assume that he meant it when he said he was in a hurry. I pinch the bridge of my nose and release the breath that I didn’t realise I’d been holding in. I really don’t like the idea of going to his office to talk about a death that he is most likely at least partially responsible for orchestrating. But now I’ve already agreed, so I have to go.

 

I decide to head there tomorrow morning, maybe after breakfast. Around ten. In the meantime, however, I’ve still got a couple things that I need to get done. On the rest of the trip back to my room, I am more mindful of my surroundings, and as a result, I don’t bump into anybody else, much to my relief. The last thing I want is to end up having an uncomfortable conversation with some other high up member of the Future Foundation. Especially not with everything that has already happened today.

 

When I arrive at my room, I first do a check to make sure that nobody is around. My roommates must be off doing something or other, because the room is empty. This is good for me. I walk inside and shrug off my coat, tossing it onto my cot. I peer into the mirror next to one of my roommates’ cots and fix my tie. Somewhere along the journey, the knot got a little bit undone. I hope that nobody thought anything of it. I don’t really care about Munakata’s opinion of me, and Kaito has seen me in a far worse condition than this, but…

 

For some reason, the purple-haired man I met only about an hour ago, Kokichi Ouma, is coming to mind. I really don’t want to think about that encounter right now, because even just remembering the conversation that we had is making me tired, but… still, I can’t help feeling that he was perceptive to a lot more than he let on. I thought about it before, so it’s really very counterintuitive to keep on that train of thought, and yet my mind keeps returning to it. Specifically the final smile that he gave me, and his parting words. It could have just been an unintentional jab at my status as a member of the Future Foundation, but for some reason, I really don’t think so.

 

But the fact is that I don’t know what to make of it. No matter what he was meaning to say, I don’t have enough evidence to be certain, one way or the other. And that’s what’s really irritating me right now. I hate not being able to come to a conclusion. Maybe it won’t even matter. Maybe I’ll never see Ouma ever again, and what happened during that encounter will never amount to anything. But I can’t stop thinking about it nonetheless, and for some reason, the idea that I’ll never see him again so it doesn’t matter doesn’t serve to ease my nerves very much either.

 

I finish fixing my tie with some aggression and drop down onto my cot, pulling PAE out from my pocket. With a sigh, I say, “PAE, is it alright if I put you in a drawer for a while? I’ve got a couple things to do for the next couple of hours and I don’t want to risk anybody seeing you and asking questions.” I especially don’t want to encounter one of Makoto’s closer friends within the Future Foundation and have them recognise the phone. It would be pretty bad if they asked why I have it. I don’t know if I’d be able to come up with a good excuse for it.

 

“Sure, that’s fine.” Rather than speaking the words, they appear on the screen again in white text, as they did the first time that I turned her on. “I’ll let you know as soon as I can when Ishimaru sends you that text.”

 

When PAE says this, a question pops into my mind, and even though it’s pretty unimportant, I suddenly feel possessed to verbalise it. “Hey, do you hear what’s going on in the world around you even when you haven’t been activated?” The device buffers for a moment, as though contemplating an eloquent response to my inquiry. I’m glad that she’s putting so much thought into it, even if it’s only because she’s a prototype version of an artificial intelligence and therefore a computer and therefore not a being that can whip up certain responses without thinking about it.

 

“Sometimes. I hear words and phrases. But the person who programmed me, Chihiro, installed a setting that makes me activate every time I hear his voice. It works pretty well for the both of us. For me, so that I can get a fuller understanding of everything that is happening among the group in order to assist you as best as I can, and for him, because I have excellent memory capabilities, and thus if Kiibo is ever unwilling to serve as secretary, I could always keep track of what has been said during the meeting.”

 

Hm. I should take note of that. It might be really helpful later. I hum, and then nod. “Alright. Thank you. I’m going to put you into a drawer now, but I should be back in a couple of hours.” I wait for her to confirm what I’ve just told her, and then I open the drawer by my cot and place her inside. I tuck the earbuds in alongside her before closing it and turning away. I should get down to Command, now. There must be something that I’m supposed to do, that I’m just not remembering right now.

 

But just as I’m about to get going, somebody knocks on the door of my room. I look over, furrowing my brow because the door isn’t entirely closed, so it’s kind of weird that they’d choose to knock. Pushing that aside, I walk over and open the door further, coming face to face with the person standing behind it.

 

“Oh, Shuichi, good.” Rantaro Amami smiles at me, waving. “I was hoping you’d be in here, but I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten the right room. I actually didn’t come here first- I came to a room in a different hallway and ended up being chewed up by Byakuya for interrupting him… but that doesn’t really matter,” he concludes. I have to stop myself from snorting aloud at his expense, because I know that that isn’t necessarily the kindest thing to do, but the mental image is almost too much for me to be able to hold back a slight chuckle. Byakuya Togami is one of the more elite members of the Foundation- I’d worry about him, but he was close friends with Makoto, so I doubt he knows what the Foundation does. If he did, I’m sure he would have done something about it by now, because he is a good person. But with that in mind, he’s also a bit of a snot, so I can imagine why Rantaro might get lectured by him.

 

“What did you interrupt him doing?” I ask, smiling despite myself. Thankfully, Rantaro doesn’t seem to be offended. Rather, he smiles with me at his own expense, rubbing the back of his neck as he thinks about it.

 

“Y’know, I’m not sure, but I bet it was important. Byakuya is an important guy.” I can’t tell if he’s being ironic or not, but I decide to let it slide, because he says it so nonchalantly. “Anyway, you’re just getting back from a mission, right?”

 

Well, like I said earlier. That’s not an incorrect presumption, so I don’t really need to correct it. I hum in a non-committal fashion, and I think Rantaro notices that I’m not really giving a positive or a negative response, but he doesn’t say anything. I’m glad for it, because I don’t know what I‘d say if he questioned me further. I want to try to avoid outright lying to people as much as I can. Especially the people who I like: Rantaro included.

 

“Well, if you’re feeling up to it, Kyoko and I are working on a plan to infiltrate Enoshima’s base. She found a way in that she wants us to look at as soon as possible, because it’s possible that Enoshima doesn’t know about it yet.” Rantaro doesn’t say so, but I know that there likely are a couple weak points. Junko Enoshima is a genius, but she’s also a huge masochist. I doubt she’d make a plan that didn’t have some chance of failure. “But we could use a third head. Want to join us?”

 

It would seem that I’ve been spared the trip to Command. “Yeah, of course.” I nod. “I’ll just…” I turn around and grab my notebook off the nightstand next to my cot, and a ballpoint pen. “In case they’re needed,” I explain quickly, in response to Rantaro’s inquiring eyebrow raise. He seems satisfied by this answer, (which is good, because it’s the truth) and thus slips out of the room, presumably waiting for me in the hallway.

 

I turn off the light and do one last quick sweep of the room. I doubt anybody would go looking through my stuff, so they wouldn’t be likely to find PAE, but even so… I can’t erase the feeling that there’s something inherently wrong with leaving her here, unguarded. Before I can do anything about it, though, Rantaro calls my name, and I respond that I’m coming before turning around and heading out the door.

 

Most of the trip is spent, on my part, following Rantaro. We walk in silence, as we’ve done before, and when we reach the staircase on the east side of the building, only then do I begin to wonder where we’re headed. I’ve been here before, naturally- when I first joined the Future Foundation, one of the senior members, Kirumi Toujo, gave me a tour of the place. The tour took us through this section of the building, and I’ve seen quite a bit of it. And yet, I hardly spend any time here. It’s not like it’s forbidden fruit, or anything. My duties just haven’t brought me here. And as we continue to walk, it starts to become evident to me that this is the case for many members of the Foundation.

 

The number of people we pass in the hallway slims considerably until eventually, the only sound in the area is the sound of Rantaro’s and my footsteps. He takes a left when we come up to a fork and I follow, furrowing my brow. When Toujo was giving me a tour, we passed this corridor, but we took a right, and she told me that nobody really heads down this hallway anymore. Someday, she explained, if the Future Foundation gets big enough, we will have to renovate the space for more people to sleep, but in the meantime, it remains unoccupied. At the time, the idea of expanding the Foundation more had excited me. Now it just makes me feel a little bit sick to my stomach.

 

But I can’t say that I’m not a little excited about where we’re going, now. It isn’t necessarily that I delight in dangerous situations, but I do like to explore. And going somewhere that I haven’t been before when I know that I’m not about to be fighting for my life is not only a rare experience, but a pleasant one. Rantaro must read my anticipation as apprehension because he touches my shoulder lightly in what is meant to be a comforting gesture, giving me a light smile.

 

“Don’t worry, this part of the building is safe, and we’re allowed to be here. Kyoko just thought it would be best if we spoke here rather than down in Command or something so we don’t get interrupted so much. Besides, uhm,” he clears his throat. “I didn’t really tell you the whole story, earlier. It’s not like there are cameras or microphones around in people’s rooms or the halls or anything, but there are always ears. This isn’t really something that’s sanctioned by our superiors. Sorry that I didn’t explain as much.”

 

I blink. I’m a little surprised that Rantaro and Kirigiri, of all people, are doing something in defiance of the higher ups. Well, maybe it’s not as high-scale as what I’m doing, but even so. It’s a little reassuring. For appearances sake, I try to aim my surprise towards something more understandable from Rantaro’s perspective. “Ah, but,” I begin. “Isn’t Kirigiri rather high up in the Foundation? I’d think that she has the clearance to do quite a few of the things that she wants to do.”

 

“That may have been true two weeks ago.” Kyoko Kirigiri emerges from behind the open door that leads to one of the rooms to our right, arms crossed over her midsection as she rests on the doorframe. “But… well, I’ll tell you later.” She glances off to the side, and I wonder briefly what she’s thinking. “At any rate, I found something on my last field mission.” She pushes off the wall and walks over to me with the same briskness as ever. I’m glad to see she’s bouncing back after Makoto- there is no trace of the young woman who sat at my bedside and cried for half an hour, unused to expressing emotion and not being targeted for it.

 

She holds out a gloved hand and I realise that she is holding something. I put out my own, opening my fist for her to drop it into my palm. When she does so, I bring my hand over to my face and look down at what she’s put into my hand. At first glance, it looks to be a small grey disk. It’s completely opaque and somewhat spherical on one side- though the other side is flat, and as such it is given the appearance of a paperweight. I run my thumb over the round top and am surprised to see that it gives under the weight of the joint. It’s soft. I press down harder, and there is a click.

 

Nothing happens, but I’m sure that it’s a button of some sort. I look back up and meet Kirigiri’s gaze, tilting my head to the side and asking a silent question with my eyes. She reads it and responds.

 

“It’s a key.” She explains concisely. “At least, that’s my conjecture thus far. I haven’t actually tested it. A couple weeks ago, Hoshi and I went to Enoshima’s base, and he took out one of her higher ups. The soldier dropped this, and I grabbed it before Hoshi saw anything. Later, before I could figure anything out about it, we were ordered to retreat, but I kept it on me.” Kirigiri clears her throat. “It’s been a concern of mine for a while now, but I’m not so sure that the Future Foundation can be trusted. Or at the very least, I’m not sure that they can trust, period. And there’s a lot of danger in a group that cannot trust. Which is why…”

 

“That’s why we’re here,” I guess, when she trails off. “Because you want us to work to find out a way to take down Enoshima without the Foundation.” I wonder… no, it couldn’t be because of Makoto, right? I wonder, just how much do Kirigiri’s emotions really control her? In suppressing them as she does, she allows them to have more power over her. I glance over at Rantaro, but I can tell they’ve already discussed this, and he’s agreed. I wonder where his loyalties lie. What, I wonder, has happened to him to make him distrust the Foundation?

 

“That’s right.” Kirigiri affirms. “And I believe that I can trust the both of you.”

Well, I’ve never seen her and Rantaro interacting before, so it’s not like I’d know anyway, but it’s definitely news to me that they’re close enough that she would trust him. Still, I’m… flattered, that she thought of me. “You can,” I affirm. “Trust me, I mean.” If she wants to do things against the will of the Foundation, I should really tell her about the FYG. I’m sure she’d be a great asset, and there’s a lot about the Foundation that she deserves to know. Rantaro, too. But if I couldn’t tell Kaito, then I can’t tell her. Not yet.

 

Kirigiri seems to pick up on the fact that I’m not telling her something. At least, that’s what I can read from what little her expression tells me. But she doesn’t say anything about it- instead, she takes the key from my hand and turns around, heading into the room. “Come on,” she calls over her shoulder, glancing at me. “I’ve collected all the information that I have about Enoshima’s base and brought it with me, so we should start by looking over it.”

 

“Ah, right!” I look at Rantaro, and smile slightly. “I want to ask how you managed to gain Kirigiri’s trust of all people’s, but I guess you’re just that kind of a guy, huh, Rantaro?”

 

He returns the expression with a laugh. “So I’ve heard. But Kyoko is actually a pretty big softie when you get to know her. She’s just been hurt pretty bad.” Rantaro puts on a serious expression, gesturing towards the room. “Let’s get to work, yeah?”

 

“Yeah.” I agree, and without anything else to say, I accompany him into the room.

 

We talk until my hand is cramped from all the notes I’ve taken and the sky outside the window has turned a deep blue after the sun dipped under the horizon. For the past few hours, we’ve been discussing the general layout of Enoshima’s base, and potential strategies for getting in. We aren’t able to get anything beyond theorising just yet, but it’s definitely a start.

 

I take a peek at my watch and realise with a shock that it’s coming on to eight o’clock, and I’m meeting with Kaito in about half an hour. Since I still want to honour my commitment, I get to my feet, closing my notebook. “I’ve got to go,” I murmur in an apologetic tone. “I’ve got some plans for tonight, and I can’t cancel.”

 

Kirigiri nods. “That’s fine, I have a couple other things on my agenda as well.” She clears her throat. “Is it alright if we meet back here at the same time tomorrow? There’s a lot more to discuss before we can get down to real planning.” The way she speaks is so businesslike, I’m sort of in awe of it.

 

Rantaro, of course, hardly seems to be affected by it. He glances at his own watch, as though making calculations in his head. “Uh, 4:30?” He asks, and when Kirigiri nods, he gives a nod himself. “Yeah, that’s fine. Shuichi?” When he looks at me, I shoot a thumbs up. The green-haired man gives a carefree smile and gets to his feet, stretching his arms over his head. “Well, I’m really hungry, so I’ll go on ahead of you two. See you tomorrow.”

With one last wave over his shoulder, he turns around, and in a moment, he’s gone. I’ve already gotten to my feet, but I linger for a moment to help Kirigiri fold all her maps and diagrams and return them to the folder that she’s brought with her. All of them are labeled and composed very neatly and I wonder briefly if it’s her who did the handiwork. I certainly admire that she’s able to be such a tidy person. My own files, back among my possessions, can get to be a bit of a mess if I’m not careful. (Though I like to keep them clean if I can.)

 

As I’m handing her the final map, Kirigiri speaks. “Can I ask you a question, Saihara?” I tilt my head to the side slightly, but nod, curiosity outweighing any potential apprehension that this question gives me. “There was something you wanted to say earlier, right? About the Future Foundation, and about my decision to distrust them? What was it?”

 

She’s so astute. Has anybody ever managed to slip one past her before? I sincerely doubt it. She would probably get along very well with my uncle. The thought makes me sad, and I try to reign it in by contemplating a way to answer her. I mean, I can’t tell her about the FYG. But… well, after what the Foundation did to Makoto… knowing how close she was to him…

 

“Do you think the Future Foundation has disabled Makoto’s login access yet?” I ask, in lieu of telling her anything else. Kirigiri gapes at me, like she wasn’t expecting the question. I’m not sure what she was expecting, or if she was expecting anything at all. Perhaps, just… not this.

 

“Well, it’s been a week.” She murmurs. “So they might have. But there is also a lot they need to get done, at the moment. Especially with his death. So it’s possible that they haven’t gotten around to it yet. Ever since the Foundation lost Fujisaki, they’ve been somewhat slow on the tech front.”

 

She adds this last part almost to herself, and I have to consciously attempt to stop myself from cringing at the name, because that will definitely be suspicious. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I can’t stop thinking about the files on his account; about the one titled “kyoko’s stuff”. Maybe… well, I might just be being reckless, but even so, my heart is telling me that I can’t ignore this. I can’t ignore her, or her question. Not when she’s decided to trust me.

 

“Do you know his login information?” I ask.

 

Kirigiri considers the question. “I know his username.” She eventually says. “But I am unsure as to his password.”

 

“Did Makoto have any siblings?” Is this too much information? PAE told me not to share the login info with anybody. I’m sure Kirigiri is included in anybody. Still, it’s not really sharing the info if she figures it out herself… if she just happens to see the same information that I did, well, then, who’s to say that I necessarily told it to her? She will do with it what she will. I’m not telling her anything she probably doesn’t already know. I’m just pointing her towards something new, is all.

 

Her eyes widen in response to my question, and I know she’s caught my meaning. For a moment she’s silent, like she doesn’t know what to say. Then, “I should log on to Makoto’s account.” She states, rather than asks, me this. I nod almost imperceptibly. “Why?”

 

What is there to say to that? “There is information there.” I say, trying to keep my voice even. “You’ll understand more when you find it.”

 

For a moment, neither of us says anything. She is considering me and I am considering her. I wonder if she’ll even do what I’m suggesting, if she’ll go and read the files that I read that so radically shifted my views in barely under an hour. But then Kirigiri nods. “I should get going, then, if I want to do so. I don’t know if I’ll still have the opportunity.” She says this in her normal manner, expression returning to normal. With that, she brushes past me, out the door. I watch her stop just in the hallway and look back at me, the slightest smile on her face. “Thank you, Saihara.”

 

I nod, and just as her footsteps recede, I remember that I need to meet Kaito. A glance at my watch tells me that I still have ten minutes. I can’t believe twenty minutes went by so quickly, but then, it’s easy to lose track of time when I’m talking to her. I smack my forehead with my hand and grab my notebook and pen before hurrying out the door and jogging down the hallway. I’d hate to be tardy.

Chapter Text

I take PAE with me to breakfast the next morning. For some reason, my gut is just telling me that I shouldn’t be leaving her behind. I know that I initially left her in the desk drawer because I didn’t want to risk any of Makoto’s friends seeing her and asking questions, but I can’t shake the feeling that it would be a mistake to leave her where anybody can get to her. Until I find a place where I can keep her safe, I can’t afford to let my guard down. Since it seemed like Iruma was somewhat good with tools yesterday, maybe I could ask her to help me make something. Even if I don’t want to impose, PAE’s safety is kind of a priority.

 

When I enter the dining hall, I note with a frown that I can’t see Kirigiri anywhere. Not that this is necessarily a particularly big realisation, because often she isn’t here for breakfast, but it still worries me a little bit. I try to dismiss the concerns, telling myself that she probably just has something else to be taking care of right now, in lieu of eating breakfast with everybody else, but I still feel the anxiety beginning to fog my mind.

 

Just as I’m grabbing an apple from the table at the front of the room, I hear my name get called, and I turn my head to look for the source. I’m not surprised to see that it’s Kaito, standing up in his seat and waving me over. They’re near the back of the dining hall, but that’s alright. I don’t mind the trip. I glance back at the table next to me and grab a mug, heading over to the coffee pot and pouring myself a cup before I start over to where my best friend is seated. When I stop next to the table, he pats the back of the empty seat at his side, and I put my mug on the table before I take a seat.

 

The rest of the seats at the table are already occupied with various Foundation members who I recognise. Across from me is seated Aoi Asahina, who I saw in the computer lab the other day. Her long brown hair, usually put into a high ponytail, is loose and tumbles over her shoulders. I can tell that, despite her positive disposition at all times, she is pretty tired. She was really close to Makoto, and it’s only been a week. That aside, I don’t think she’s quite so headstrong as Kirigiri, to have recovered right away. Nonetheless, the smile she gives me touches her blue eyes, so I figure she’s doing okay.

 

Next to her is another friend of Makoto’s- Sayaka Maizono, who, last I met her, was utilising her excellent performing capabilities by doing spy work for the Foundation, is staring down at her lap with a blank expression on her pretty, delicate features. I don’t know her very well, nor have we talked very much, but I know that she and Makoto were close, so I can only guess how she must be feeling right now. Her blue hair is done a braid, but the braid is messy, like she slept in it. All of the occupants of this table, aside from her, are wearing the Future Foundation uniform. But she’s dressed in a blue turtleneck and grey shorts. I’m assuming the higher ups are being more lenient with her right now, seeing how she’s handling her grief. I’d respect it, except that I can’t really respect anything that the Foundation is doing in regards to Makoto’s death. Not when they were instrumental in causing it. My heart aches for Asahina and Maizono.

 

Across from Kaito is his friend, Yasuhiro Hagakure, who he went to meet with in Command the day that Makoto died and I spent time with Kirigiri in the infirmary. Hagakure, who is as tall as Kaito, wears his uniform in a similarly questionable manner- though I will say, to his credit, his tie is done correctly, if obnoxiously loose around the collar; it looks more like a necklace than a necktie. His large head of hair is styled, as always, in a large assortment of messy dreadlocks, which he has tied back into a ponytail. He’s smiling a relaxed smile as he usually is, but it looks a little bit strained. Which is normal, considering not only the circumstances but the heavy atmosphere clinging to Asahina and Maizono.

 

Finally, seated on the other side of Kaito, in the only other chair at the table, is Gonta Gokuhara. I want to emphasise that I’ve been under a lot of stress. And it’s pretty obvious that I’m not the only one. But seeing Gokuhara sitting at the table and eating cereal brings a smile to my features despite myself. The man is huge in both height and shape; he could probably break anybody at this table in half without putting in half the effort that might be expected of anybody else, but even just judging by the small smile on his face as he meets my eyes, it’s evident that he wouldn’t hurt even a fly. (Or perhaps especially a fly? Gokuhara seems to be pretty fond of bugs.)

 

Through his glasses, I can see that there’s a little bit of worry shining in his red eyes as he looks everybody over, but he eventually focuses his attention on me, I suppose because I’ve just arrived. “Good morning, Shuichi!” He greets brightly, and I nod in response, returning his smile and inclining my head slightly. In order to more efficiently carry out a conversation, I lean forward slightly, looking past both Kaito and his heaping plate of food to look at Gokuhara.

 

“Good morning,” I verbalise what I initially returned with body language, sipping my coffee. Usually I take my coffee with some milk, because though I’m not really adverse to the bitter flavour of black coffee, it’s sometimes a bit much for me to handle so I try to dilute it as much as I can. But this morning I just poured myself a mug and headed over. Still, it’s not so bad. I take a second sip then place the mug onto the table. “How are you, Gokuhara?” I ask quietly.

 

“Gonta fine,” he tells me, tilting his head a bit. A couple locks of his brown hair tumble off from his shoulder with the action. “How are you? You are doing okay, right?” I assume he’s talking about what happened a week ago. I understand that he’s well-meaning, and I do appreciate the concern, but I wish that people would stop asking about it. I don’t like to think about it, but with all the questions, my mind can’t help but return to what happened. Still, I don’t say any of this, mostly because it is Gokuhara.

 

“I’m alright.” It’s not totally a lie. I’m definitely worried, anxious, guilty- but none too excessively. Even if I am sort of stressing out over the meeting with Munakata I’ll likely be having in about an hour, it’s nothing that I can’t handle. Most certainly nothing that I see much of a reason to tell Gokuhara about. “Thanks for asking, that’s very considerate of you,” I add the second remark under my breath, in a softer tone than before.

 

“Of course!” Gokuhara smiles. “Gonta gentleman, after all. But,” and his smile fades. “Not everybody doing so hot today.” Quickly his expression is troubled by a small frown, and I follow his gaze to where Maizono is still spacing out. “Gonta not sure what to do,” he murmurs. I figure that there isn’t so much that we can do for Maizono- not anything that Makoto could’ve done, at least, but it’s still probably best that we give her our support. So I indicate towards her with my head to get Gokuhara’s attention before I turn my gaze onto her.

 

“Maizono,” I speak quietly, “Have you eaten breakfast yet?”

 

She looks up at my words, surprise flashing over her features. Her blue eyes are wide, as though she’d forgotten where she was. Maizono looks at me, reads my expression, and then eventually cracks a half smile, shaking her head. I can tell that she’s forcing it, but I wait for her to respond verbally. “No, I guess I haven’t.” She sighs, messing with the end of her braid. “Sorry, Saihara. I’m a bit of a mess right now.”

 

“Yeah, that’s pretty obvious.” Kaito chimes in, as though it’s only natural that somebody would say what he’s just said. “You look terrible, Sayaka.” He leans forward a little bit. Even though he’s smiling as he says it, I can tell that he’s concerned. “You know, he wouldn’t want you to ignore your health like this.”

 

Once again, her expression is fragmented by shock, but this time it remains, her lips slightly parted, as though she was not expecting Kaito to say it so blunty. I can tell that Asahina is surprised, too, but the shock is quickly replaced by anger. “Hey, Momota, cut it out. She’s allowed to feel crappy.” Asahina says this in a very righteous way, crossing her arms over her chest. “You’d feel pretty bad too if your best friend died.” Her gaze flickers over to me momentarily, but then she focuses on Kaito. “Have a little compassion, would you?”

 

“I am having compassion,” Kaito mumbles. “I get how you’re feeling right now, y’know? I lost my grandparents to Enoshima’s people.” I mean, now I’m surprised. I know that he can be pretty blunt when he’s giving people pep talks- he was the same towards me after what happened two months ago- but I’ve never heard him talk about his grandparents before. At least, not in the past tense. “I felt terrible, but you know what I did after that? I stood up and I said, no, I’m not going to let those jerks in the government take my spirit from me, too. You should take your heart into your own hands, Sayaka. Especially because it just doesn’t suit such a pretty girl, being depressed all the time. You should be smiling.”

Well, I’m not sure how tactful that remark is, but I can tell that Maizono is thinking about what he’s saying. The blankness that previously clouded her eyes is starting to lift a little bit. The slightest bits of light are starting to shine through. Even though she doesn’t smile, she does give Kaito a meaningful look. “You’re… you’re right.” She agrees faintly, with a nod. “Okay. But… what should I do?”

 

Kaito shrugs. “Take things one at a time. Start by eating some breakfast. Then go take a shower, and try to figure out if there’s anywhere that you can channel your energy. You feel sad now but you won’t later, you know?” Maizono doesn’t seem to, but she nods anyway. “And you can call on any of us if you need help. Right, Hiro?” The man in question seems to snap to attention.

 

“Huh?” Hagakure scratches his head. “Oh, uhh… yes. Absolutely! You’re gonna feel better in no time, Sayaka.”

 

Asahina narrows her eyes at him. “You weren’t even listening!”

 

He gasps, as though offended. “I was so! I definitely listened enough to hear you criticising Kaito’s methods. Not cool, Hina! He knows what he’s talking about!”

 

“Hey!” Asahina flushes. “I know he knows what he’s talking about, I was just concerned that-”

 

“It’s fine,” Kaito interrupts. “Aoi had a valid concern, so-”

 

“See? Kaito agrees with me!” She fumes.

 

“Now you’re cutting him off again!” Hagakure puts a hand to his chest. “You-”

 

They all fall silent, however, at the sound of a quiet laugh. Five pairs of eyes go over to Maizono, who is holding a hand over her mouth and laughing into her fingers. Even though her eyes are swimming with tears, she’s smiling wider than I’ve ever seen her smile before, and a quiet, shaky laugh is escaping her lips. I can see a shadow of her in there, in her eyes. It must be the first time she’s laughed in a week.

 

“There you are,” Kaito whispers, almost to himself. There’s a gentle smile on his face. “That’s Sayaka Maizono. C’mon, let’s go get some breakfast.”

 

“Yeah, right.” Maizono nods, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. The two of them get to their feet and I watch them walk over to the front table together. Even though Asahina was in the middle of shooting another irritated look at Hagakure, a smile quickly replaces any traces of frustration that were previously there. I can tell that she appreciates what Kaito just did. Asahina wears her heart on her sleeve, so it’s pretty easy to read what she’s thinking.

 

Suddenly, I wonder if Asahina and Maizono know what the Future Foundation has been doing. Is it possible that they would be high enough in the chain of command to be in the know about it? But if they were close to Makoto, they wouldn’t have allowed it to continue, right? And seeing how torn up Maizono is… there’s no way that she could possibly know about the Foundation ordering his death, otherwise she would’ve had multiple things to say about it. The thought makes my gut twist with anger. I want to tell them what happened, and who they should channel their anger towards. They deserve to know what really happened to Makoto. They deserve the truth.

 

But I can’t tell them. Just as I can’t tell Kaito and Rantaro and Kirigiri (well, I guess Kirigiri is a special case, but the point still stands) I can’t afford to divulge any information at this point in the process. I’ve already taken a pretty big risk telling Kirigiri what I did. I could barely face PAE last night when I came back from training, because she told me not to tell anybody Makoto’s login information. I know that all I did was give Kirigiri a hint, but for somebody as intelligent as her, who knew Makoto so well… I might as well have written it down for her in red ink. I don’t want to lie to anybody, but if I have to, I need to minimise the amounts of people I’ll be lying to… which means I need to be completely honest with the FYG, if I want my conscience to survive this.

 

And that means I can’t tell Asahina and Maizono what they deserve to know. It feels like there is a knot in my chest, threatening to snap if I pull to hard in an attempt to untie it. This really isn’t very fair.

 

When Kaito and Maizono return to the table, Maizono with a few pancakes and Kaito with another obnoxiously loaded plate of food, I avert my eyes to hide the guilt that I know will be shining in them. I take a bite of my apple and while I chew lament about how times like these make me wish I still wore a hat… but I’m keeping a promise to an old friend, so really, putting the hat back on isn’t an option.

 

I spend the rest of breakfast in silence. It doesn’t take long for me to finish my apple, but once I’ve done so, Kaito demands that I eat some of his food so that I don’t go hungry, and to spare him from having to admit that he just doesn’t have a big enough stomach for all of the food that he took, I do as he asked. Gokuhara and Asahina exchange friendly chatter throughout the meal, and occasionally Hagakure will interrupt to say something nonsensical, but for the most part, none of it really catches my attention. So I’m left with my own thoughts for company.

 

Finally, when my watch tells me that it is now ten o’clock, I excuse myself and bid my friends adieu to head to Munakata’s office. I place my mug on a dish rack and mouth the word “thanks” when I make eye contact with this morning’s dishwashers, Hifumi Yamada and Angie Yonaga, on my way out. Once I’m out of the dining hall, I duck my head a little and quicken my pace, but make sure to keep an eye on my surroundings as I walk briskly down the hall.

 

For the most part, the hallways are pretty empty. People are out on missions right now, or finishing up their breakfast, so they don’t have much of a reason to be roaming around. I’m sure there are plenty of people keeping themselves occupied by training or going over the same old maps of Enoshima’s base over and over again. The thought makes me think a bit of what I spent yesterday afternoon doing with Rantaro and Kirigiri. We haven’t yet been able to make much of a plan of attack, but Kirigiri was thinking that somebody could go in and attempt to use the key while the other two of us served as a distraction. I didn’t say so, but it seemed pretty clear to me that she meant she would go in while Rantaro and I distracted Enoshima’s forces. It made me wonder if that was the role that Makoto often played in her plans, the distraction.

 

The thought makes me sad, so I dismiss it. Munakata’s office is on the top floor of the building; the sixth floor. One of the things that I used to really admire about the Future Foundation was that they didn’t give their leader some big, extravagant office that would place him far above the rest of us. Instead, his office is much like a normal office; a small waiting area in the front where the secretary sits behind her desk, and inside his office there is room for a desk and a number of filing cabinets, but that’s about it.

 

I stick to the wall as I climb the stairs, my fingers and palm brushing over the railing. It used to be that I wouldn’t want to touch the hand railings on staircases because I was worried that they might carry germs, but when I was seven, I tripped and fell down the last couple of stairs and banged my head at the bottom. I was fine, really, because it wasn’t so far of a fall and the floor was carpeted, but I knew that I only fell so fast because I wasn’t holding the railing, so after that, I tried to make a habit of keeping a firm grip on it.

 

I stop at the top of the staircase and take a couple of deep breaths, because my lungs are burning. I’ve gotten in better shape through being a member of the Future Foundation, no matter what the connotations of that are, but I still don’t do very well after six flights of stairs. By the time I’ve caught my breath, my watch tells me that it’s 10:15, so I adjust my tie and run a hand through my hair, hoping that my windedness has vanished from my disposition.

 

Since I don’t have a mirror, there’s only so much I can do, and with that done, I clench and unclench my fists before heading down to the end of the hallway, where I know Munakata’s office is. I’m not sure what to expect from this, but I’m trying to prepare myself to deal with it. There’s no way for me to figure out what his impression of me is, at the moment, but I know that he’s going to be lying to me when I go in there. Furthermore, I will be lying to him. I might as well be sitting down to a game of chess. I should be on my guard.

 

Upon arriving, I meet the gaze of his secretary, a young woman whose name I don’t know, and she tilts her head to the side. “Shuichi Saihara?” She asks, and I hum.

 

“Y-Yes, that’s me,” I tell her, sounding shamefully uncertain. The secretary nods and points behind her, at Munakata’s door.

 

“Go on in, he’s just finished breakfast.” She informs me, smiling slightly. I return the smile, but it doesn’t really do much to ease my nerves, because I’m having a hard time finding even the slightest possibility that she, as Munakata’s secretary, doesn’t know what kind of things the Foundation has been doing. I wonder if this is how things are going to be for me from now on- will I never be able to look at another person again without thinking about all the wrongs they must have done? That can’t be a healthy mindset. It’ll make me distrustful, and therefore untrustworthy. Kirigiri was right when she said that there’s danger to be found in a person who can’t trust.

 

I do as the secretary told me to, murmuring a quiet thanks as I walk up to the door and grasp the doorknob. Experimentally, I turn it, and as expected, it is unlocked. I take a final moment to steel my nerves and pull open the door, stepping inside.

 

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but sitting behind his desk inside his office, Munakata looks… well, he looks normal. Human. His gaze is focused on a stack of papers atop his desk, and he’s reading them through what would appear to be a pair of square reading glasses, but when I step inside, he looks up, and a smile appears on his face. “Shuichi, excellent.” He calls out, pushing the stack of papers to the side. “Take a seat.” He gestures at the seat in front of his desk, so I walk forward and do as he instructed.

 

There is probably something that he is expecting me to say, but for the life of me, I’m not sure what it is. I look up at him and meet his gaze, feeling a familiar swell of anxiety begin to form in my chest. Now that I’m actually here, I really don’t know where things are going to go. I’ve deduced that he wants to touch upon, at least slightly, Makoto’s death. But he could probably do that in the hallway, so beyond that… I’m at a loss. It’s the biggest reason why I came, my curiosity is shaping out to be. I really need to check myself on that front. It’s starting to become troublesome.

 

“I want to start by saying that I’m sorry you had to be there when Makoto Naegi got shot.” Munakata says his to me in a kind way, but his tone is businesslike. “That must have been difficult, especially considering that you two were friends. Uhm, you were friends, correct?” He raises an eyebrow.

 

I mean… yes? At the end, Makoto did tell me that I’m his friend, and that was why he called me by my given name… moreover, it’s why he asked me to call him his. It’s why I’ve been doing so since then. But I don’t know that we were particularly close. Still, at this point, it’s better to just agree, since I’m not sure where Munakata is going with this. So I nod. “Yeah, we were.” My voice cracks when I say it, but it probably just comes across as emotion, so I don’t make any attempts to amend what just happened.

 

“Junko Enoshima and her people have ended a lot of good lives.” He states in a very serious voice. “Too many good lives. I had my disagreements with Naegi, but if I’d had my way, he would’ve lived a long life, and gotten to see the world after we removed Enoshima from it.”

Yeah, I think with some bitterness. Which is why you ordered for him to be killed. I try to hide that I’m frowning and instead nod in avid agreement with his words. The principle of what he is saying isn’t wrong. Makoto deserved to live through the rebellion and then for a long time afterwards. But hearing it from Munakata makes me feel sick to my stomach.

 

“At any rate, I can only imagine how you might be feeling right now.” He looks at me meaningfully, and it occurs to me that I should supply him with a vague description. Obviously, I can’t tell him the truth, but I’m not sure what he wants me to say.

 

I clear my throat. “Ah, uhm, well…” I trail off, looking to the side. “I’m upset about it. It’s hard for me to process what happened. But, most of all, I…” a little bit of emotion colours my tone. “I’m angry. At the person who’s responsible for his death. And, I… want them to pay for it.” Do I? I look at Munakata again, see how he’s watching me with such sympathy in his eyes. I guess I do, I do want revenge for Makoto’s death. Not just on Enoshima and Munakata, but on the people who let these things happen. Who pushed Makoto to the point where he had to sacrifice.

 

Still, I don’t say anything else, and Munakata nods. “I understand that. I felt the same way when my lover died.” He gestures towards a photograph on his desk, and I look at it, raising an eyebrow. The lover in question would appear to be a young woman, perhaps my age in the picture but likely around Munakata’s age, were she alive now. Her hair is long and tied into a high ponytail, and she’s smiling so genuinely it makes my heart hurt a little bit. “Which is the biggest reason why I called you here today. Take a look at this,” and as he says it, he passes me a folder across the table.

 

My hand shakes a little when I take it from him. I open it and begin to leaf through the contents, my eyes scanning the pages for something significant. To my surprise, it’s a folder full of case descriptions of different things that have been caused by the government in recent years- spontaneous acts of terrorism, public executions… I can recognise the happenings, of course, because it’s my reality, but what I don’t understand is why Munakata is showing them to me. I look up at him and tilt my head to the side, asking a silent question.

 

“We’ve found out recently which group of Enoshima’s people has been responsible for these acts.” He explains calmly. “A group of young adults just as deranged as Enoshima herself called the Ultimate Despairs. We aren’t sure what the title refers to, but this is what Enoshima has branded them. Recently, they’ve gone missing, but as far as we know, they’re a danger, and can’t be allowed to run out and about.”

 

...Ah. I understand, now. He wants me to help find the Despairs. He thinks that I can be trusted to find them, that I won’t betray the Future Foundation because of my grief and anger over Makoto’s death. He’s… taking advantage of my emotional instability, to try to turn me into a killer. I wonder, if Makoto hadn’t left behind all those things for me to see… would I have been susceptible to this? Would my admiration for Munakata and my hatred for the government have made me blind?

 

“Wh…” I accidentally let out a bit of my anger but force myself to quiet down, glaring at the file in my hands. A lump is rising in my throat. I realise just how badly I want to get to my feet and yell at Munakata, and tell him that I’m not going to be like them, and I’m not going to help him to torture and kill children for things that I could never understand. But… but…

 

“I know how you feel.” Munakata says. “They make me sick, too. I wasn’t sure what to do about them at first, because they’re just so good at spreading pain everywhere they go. But they need to be killed. Eliminated, as soon as possible. For the sake of the future. If we find them before Enoshima does, then we can destroy them, and she’ll be at a disadvantage.” I see. “I’m putting together a team of people who I think are both trustworthy and capable enough to do this. I want to know if you would be interested in joining that team, Shuichi. I think you’re an excellent young man, and we really need your skills.”

 

I want to throw up. It’s disgusting, I mean, I don’t even know how to articulate how this makes me feel. To think that once upon a time, I might’ve said yes to this… I open my mouth to say no, I won’t, I can’t, but the words freeze before I can even utter a sound. I… this is just what the FYG needs, isn’t it? Somebody on the inside. Our priority is finding the Despairs, and saving them. That’s what Makoto wanted us to do. If I work with them, I can get information on the Despairs for the FYG- not only that, but I can help find ways for the FYG to foil the Foundation’s plans. This way, I can be right there to protect the Ultimate Despairs. I can be right there, as somebody the Future Foundation trusts, in the case that something doesn’t go according to the FYG’s plan.

 

It’s risky, and dishonest, and honestly, I still want to say no and spit in Munakata’s face, but this is the best opportunity I’m going to get. How else could I get the information that the FYG needs? There’s no if or buts about it, I need to put my personal feelings aside and do this. For the sake of the Despairs. For the sake of Chiaki Nanami.

 

I force myself to take a deep breath. “Yes.” I choke out the word, and it sounds so unnatural, I have to try again. “Yes, I want to join that team, and find the Ultimate Despairs. Gosh, I-” I don’t know what else there is to say. Munakata smiles at me, a real smile, like the kind you’d give somebody who’s equal to you. I can tell that I’ve made him happy by doing this. A week ago that would’ve made me happy. But now it just makes me feel even worse.

 

“Excellent. That’s excellent. I’ll send Leon Kuwata to talk to you about the first meeting- I’m going to try to partner people off to go on missions together and other things. You and Kuwata would make an excellent team, so I’ll have you two work together. Thank you, Shuichi. You’re really going to help us to make a better future.”

 

I think I’m actually going to vomit.

 

“Thank you, sir.” I manage, as politely as I can. “For the opportunity.”

 

When he smiles again, I struggle to return the gesture. “Call me Kyousuke.”

Chapter Text

I refrain from running out of Munakata’s office for the sake of appearances, but once I’ve gotten out of his secretary’s sight, I quicken my pace, feeling as though my stomach is going to fold in on itself. I’m still in awe of what I just did- and it really isn’t a very positive kind of awe. It’s starting to hurt to swallow, which tells me that my throat is closing up. That’s a blatant warning sign that tells me that I’m probably on the verge of a panic attack, or something, so once I arrive at the top of the stairs, I linger there, grabbing the handrail to steady myself for a moment.

 

Get it together, Saihara. I smack my forehead, forcing down a couple slow, even breaths in an attempt to get a hold of myself. I’m not alone right now, so losing control would be a pretty bad idea. Besides that, I’m just not in the place where I’d want to have a panic attack right now.

 

Or ever, actually, but that’s unimportant. I run a hand through my hair and my hand latches on the back of my neck. I think back to a couple of the relaxation exercises that I was taught back when I first joined the Future Foundation, and wonder if they would be any good to me right now. At the time, I just disregarded them, because I didn’t have any interest in being told how to handle my panic attacks by somebody who doesn’t experience them, but from where I am now, suddenly the supposed results of some of those techniques are seeming really appealing to me. I eventually settle for trying to undo some of the tension in my neck with the hand that is resting there. I’m not a masseuse, so the results are fairly minimal, but by the end of the excursion, I feel better than I figure I would’ve if I hadn’t done anything, so I guess that it’s okay.

 

Having calmed down a little bit, I start down the stairs once more. Now that I’m somewhat alone, and left to my own thoughts, I have a second to consider what it will really mean to be working with Munakata to find the Despairs. I mean, obviously I’m not going to do anything that will aide the Foundation in executing them if I can help it, but there has to be a line that I’m willing to cross in order to keep my cover. I don’t want to give off the impression that I’m a bad worker, or else they’ll be less inclined to rely on me, but at the same time…

 

I guess I’ll feel better about it when I talk to the FYG. I make a mental note to do that later, and hope for the moment that I won’t forget. Maybe, when I’m in a place where I’m sure that I won’t be overheard, I’ll ask PAE to remind me. But perhaps the stairs leading up to the floor that Munakata’s office is on aren’t such an ideal location. I exhale and slip one of my hands into my pocket, (the other is still holding the rail as I walk down the stairs) fingers closing around PAE as though to reassure myself of her presence.

 

I don’t really know why it’s necessary, since I know that she’s still there. I can feel her knocking against my thigh with every step that I take. It isn’t as though she’s in a very unobtrusive spot. The most remarkable thing about her is that she’s looks to be an ordinary cell phone; anybody who sees me using her will assume that I’m just doing something on my phone. And, I mean, that presumption wouldn’t be entirely wrong, either, so…

 

When I get down to the second floor of the building, I start on the way to Command, but pause when I hear footsteps getting louder. From the location of the sound, I can tell that they’re in front of me, but I don’t see them yet, and I’m not sure which side of the hallway they’ll be walking on yet, so I wait for them to appear in order to adhere to their position next to the wall.

 

But when I see the person in question, I see that that won’t really be necessary. Kyoko Kirigiri looks about the same as the last time I saw her- uniform crisp, black gloves worn on her hands, lavender hair immaculate. The only difference that I can note is that she’s pulled her hair out of her face in a low ponytail this time, in lieu of an intricate plait. Though I will note that she has a couple of pieces of hair loose from the style, and one of them is braided. Her expression is blank, but distinctly serious, and focused. If I had to guess, I would say that she hasn’t slept. Something must have been occupying her last night. And I have a couple guesses as to what that something was.

 

Kirigiri stops when she reaches my side and looks at me, presumably reading the residual stress that must remain on my features. Her brow furrows just a fraction. “Are you alright?” She inquires, and it takes me off guard, because while I understand that she’s a good person by nature, I’ve never known her to have a very caring personality. I can tell that asking any questions along that line of thinking will get me nowhere, though, and she has just asked me a question of her own, so instead of trying to analyse her motivations, I choose to answer her.

 

“Ah, I’m fine.” I can’t really justify this particular lie, but I can tell that she sees through me. Kirigiri is perceptive, so she likely would’ve picked up on my distress regardless of the expression I was making just now, but for her to comment on it, I must look pretty bad. I take a deep breath and focus for a moment on wiping my expression of any telling emotions. It isn’t that I’m afraid to show my feelings- not really. I don’t care so much about appearances, and I’m not of the opinion that emotions are a tool that can be used against a person. I’m just not in the space where I want to invite questions about my wellbeing at the moment. Especially not when I haven’t entirely thought about everything that I need to just yet.

 

Fortunately, she seems to accept that answer- or rather, she chooses not to call attention to it, instead opting to change the subject. “Can you accompany me on a field mission?” She inquires, all pretense of small talk having evaporated. “It’s a small task- menial, really, compared to some of the chores I can imagine Munakata may want to put you up to in the future,” I think I can read distaste in her tone, but I don’t want to point it out and be wrong, so I say nothing. “But I would appreciate a second head.” Even though Kirigiri says only so much, the meaningful look she gives me afterwards makes me think that this may not be all there is to it.

 

I wonder if there is something that she wants to talk to me about. Undoubtedly, considering the information that I put in her grasp yesterday. I don’t know if she will necessarily have questions to ask me about it, because I doubt I’d be able to answer them, but she probably still wants to talk about it, in some way. I could be reading the situation wrong, but somehow I don’t think I am. Considering the circumstances, Kirigiri is definitely intelligent enough to at least surmise what my impression of this request is bound to be, so I doubt she’d invite me without being at least semi-aware of my preconceptions. That in mind, I understand she has been known to be the sort of person who will allow people to believe the wrong thing if it fits her agenda… nonetheless, I have no reason to say no, even if that is the case.

 

“Of course,” I say. It is at this point that I remember that the last time I said those words to Kyoko Kirigiri, Makoto Naegi ended up dead. Even if I couldn’t have stopped it either way, the weight of the broken promise still weighs on my back, and Kirigiri doesn’t even know about the order issued for Makoto’s execution. “I mean, I’d be happy to. When are we leaving?”

 

“Now.” Kirigiri says this abruptly, as though it should be obvious, before turning around and walking briskly in the other direction. For a moment, I am too surprised to follow her, and this moment is all she needs to stop and look back at me over her shoulder with an eyebrow raised. “Well? Are you coming, Saihara?” She asks expectantly, frowning almost imperceptibly.

 

“Y-Yes!” I stutter, kicking my feet into action and hurrying after her. Satisfied, Kirigiri continues at the same quick pace, leaving me to have to jog a little to keep up with her. She doesn’t say anything else to me as we go through Command and down the stairs on the other side of the building, to a door that I didn’t know existed up until this moment. I don’t recall Toujo ever telling me about it, but I guess she didn’t really have a reason to. I don’t know if she ever foresaw me using it, seeing as there is another door on the other side of the room that I have been using every time I’ve gone on a mission up until this point.

 

The door leads out to the side of the building, and if I stare beyond the chain link fence, I can see the city in the distance. Amidst Japan’s many tall buildings, there is one obnoxiously prevalent skyscraper that is undergoing new, unnecessary construction at its very top. Junko Enoshima is many things, cruel included especially among this list, but she is also very notably somewhat of an enigma. She does things at her own whims, and genuinely the reasoning behind them is that they will cause pain and suffering in their wake, but from time to time, she does things that just don’t make any sense. For example, the top of that skyscraper that is being renovated.

 

She’s having the construction done in order to build a large bear head at the top. It’s only half finished now as I’m looking at it, so it looks more like half of a bear hand and half a bear skull, but it’s still pretty confusing, if not downright terrifying considering how nonsensical it is. But Enoshima is a person who I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out. I haven’t ever met her, anyway- and if I can help it, I won’t ever be meeting her. From the few members of the Foundation who have met her, I understand that she is not only morally exhausting to be around, but mentally, as well.

 

Kirigiri walks purposefully up to one of the Future Foundation’s black SUVs. I’m surprised that she’s choosing to drive one; I personally have only ridden in one, but that of course is because I don’t know how to drive yet. I can’t tell how old she is (perhaps a year or two my senior) but it’s clear that she has some level of knowledge about her, in regards to how to use a car, because she gets in on the right. I walk around the back of the car and open the passenger side door, sliding in next to her and buckling the seatbelt.

 

The only sound in the vehicle is her shifting around to pull keys out of her pocket and put them into the ignition. Kirigiri starts the engine and puts the car into reverse before pulling out of the parking space. I’m somewhat fascinated with this process, and watch quietly as she shifts gears and drives to the end of the parking lot. She stops momentarily at the opening in the gate and speaks with the guards there in a low tone, then, once they’ve put their guns at ease and wave her off, she drives out of the lot and turns down the road.

 

We are about ten blocks away from headquarters when she finally speaks- but when she does, it isn’t to speak about the files that she must have read last night. “Don’t worry about timing. I told Amami that there was a possibility we might come late.” I’m assuming she’s talking about the meeting we scheduled for 4:30 today. I glance briefly at my watch. It’s 10:47. I’m not sure what we’ll be doing for five and a half hours, but I guess she knows what she’s talking about. But something is still bothering me a little.

 

“When did you do that? We came straight here after you asked me if I wanted to accompany you…” I trail off, trying to reason it out in my head. Kirigiri keeps her gaze fixed on the road, but I can tell that she’s a little bit exasperated as she responds.

 

“Use process of elimination, Saihara.” When I don’t say anything, she sighs. “Evidently, I informed Amami of our potential tardiness before I came to grab you.” Even though she says this like she’s explaining something incredibly arbitrary to a toddler, I’m still kind of confused.

 

“So-” I break off. “You told Rantaro that we’d be late before talking to me, because you assumed that I would say yes?” I don’t even know why I’m asking, because it’s obvious to me that Kirigiri thinks this should have been obvious from the start.

 

But she humours me anyway. “Yes, I figured you’d say yes. You’re a good person, and because of this, I assumed that after you led me to the information you led me to last night, you’d want to talk to me about it. So I guessed that you’d jump at the opportunity to be somewhere private with me, where the Future Foundation couldn’t hear us having this particular discussion. Especially since you went to such lengths to keep Makoto’s password ambiguous. And, at any rate, it would seem that my deduction was correct.” She adds this final sentence with some smugness, and even though I’m a little flustered to have been figured out so completely, I feel myself smiling when I hear the smile in her voice.

 

“You’re good,” I murmur. “You would’ve gotten along well with…” oh, my throat suddenly feels dry. “...my uncle.”

 

From her profile, I can see her raise an eyebrow, but she doesn’t ask me to elaborate, so I don’t. “I do want to talk to you about the files I read last night.” Kirigiri eventually changes the subject, and I’m glad of it, even if I was the one who initially brought something uncomfortable into it. “How many of the files did you read?”

 

“I read all of the ones pertaining to the Future Foundation’s crimes, and the Ultimate Despairs, as well as Chiaki Nanami’s file.” I respond, counting off the files in my head. “So maybe… around forty three?” At this, she hums, nodding slowly.

 

“Well, I read all of them.” Kirigiri says this with no pretense, as though it is a perfectly normal thing to do in her position. I am somewhat surprised to hear it, because I had been so worried about not violating Makoto’s privacy when I read the files, but in retrospect, I probably should’ve done the same thing. Who knows what kind of information I could’ve obtained, had I done as she did and read through everything that was there for me to read? Still, I’m glad that at least one of us has her head screwed on correctly. “For the most part, the stuff on there was just…” she trails off, and I see her grip tightening on the wheel. “Irrelevant items of Makoto’s, but… there were some important things there, so I would say it wasn’t entirely a waste of time.”

 

She speaks in such a business-like manner, I’m sort of impressed. But from the way that her voice closed just now, I can tell that her formal emotionlessness is just her way of staying strong. I doubt that she wants to keep crying about what happened. But I can also tell that she still isn’t okay. (Why would she be? It’s been barely more than a week since he died.) I shouldn’t bring it up, though. She’ll talk about it if she wants to. She doesn’t need my pity. There are more important matters to address.

 

“What are your thoughts?” I ask tentatively. “About the Despairs, I mean, and much of the things that the Foundation has gotten up to.”

 

Kirigiri considers my question. “For a while now, I’ve suspected that the Foundation was hiding something from me. Here and there, I would hear whispers about a memo I hadn’t received, or there would be files I wasn’t given access to, but I haven’t been very sure of the severity up until a couple days ago. I’ve been fairly sure that the acts they were committing without my knowledge and the knowledge of most of my friends have been of a dubious nature. Such suspicions were only enforced when Fujisaki, Ishimaru, and K1-B0 left without a word.” I clench one of my hands into a fist, and feel my fingernails digging into my palm. I really want to tell her. “But I haven’t had confirmation until last night.”

 

I nod slowly, debating multiple ways to respond. “You still want to work against them?” I ask.

 

She scoffs. “Of course. Now more than ever.” Kirigiri gives me a sideways glance. “I know that you’re hiding something, Saihara.” The bluntness of the accusation makes me nervous. I swallow. “I don’t have the right to demand that you tell it to me, but I can tell that there’s something you aren’t telling anybody- even Momota.” Right on the nose. It’s a conscious effort not to wince at the mention of the lie that I’m telling my best friend. “It seems likely to me that you already started working against the Foundation before I asked you to join me. That’s the biggest reason I asked you in particular. But I’m not sure of the whole scope of the situation, because these are only deductions. If you can’t tell me, for whatever reason, I don’t mind, because you’re not obligated to, but I know you know more than I do, and I would like to help you, if possible.”

 

I already told myself what I would do. I said that I’d ask the FYG for their opinions on the matter, and then I would tell Kaito and Kirigiri what’s going on. I can’t break that promise to myself. Because if I can’t trust anybody right now, I have to trust myself. But the way that Kirigiri is speaking to me, my heart is telling me that I can trust her. No matter what my head has to say, I want to tell her. I want her to know, because I think that not only does she deserve to know, but she is far more capable than I am, and she could be beyond helpful.

 

I have to compromise. “Can you hold that thought?” I ask quietly. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you, it’s just that I’m not the only person who has a say in it, and I don’t want to…” I don’t know how to word it. “I’ll tell you soon, just not right this moment.”

 

Kirigiri parks the car on the side of the road and pulls the key out of the ignition. For a moment, I wonder if my response has made her upset to the point that she has to stop the car to talk to me. But then she puts a hand on the door, and looks over at me before she opens in. “You know, Makoto once told me something similar.” She says this with some wistfulness. “Alright then. Let’s get on with this so we can return to headquarters at a time where we won’t leave Amami waiting.”

 

I’m so relieved that she’s taking my words at face value, I almost forget to respond. But when she raises her eyebrows at me, I snap out of it, letting a smile cross over my features. “R-Right!” I say, and she gestures for me to follow her with her chin before opening her car door and stepping out. I follow suit, closing the door behind me and smoothing out the creases in my uniform that developed from sitting for a while with both hands. Once I’ve finished, I look up, and watch her come around the car and get into the sidewalk. I stick my hands in the pockets of my pants and fall into step alongside her.

 

I follow Kirigiri around a large, abandoned building that I can’t really distinguish the origin of. Perhaps it was once the home of many smaller businesses, but now it is unoccupied. Seeing it somehow serves to remind me that no matter how terrible the Future Foundation is, Enoshima’s people are just as bad. Just because I’ve realised that there are multiple evils in this fight, it doesn’t mean that I should ignore one to spite the other. After all, isn’t the point of saving the Ultimate Despairs to protect them from the government too? Munakata sanctions quite a few inhumane things, but Enoshima has done just as much in equal, if not greater measure. I shouldn’t forget that. After all, it wasn’t the Future Foundation who killed my uncle. And it wasn’t the Future Foundation who…

 

“Here we are.” Kirigiri stops at the side of the building. If she hadn’t led me to the place specifically, I doubt that I would’ve known it existed, or even known how to find it, without incredibly detailed instructions. I look around, eyebrows raised. About fifteen feet away from here, there is a large crater in the ground, as though there has been an explosion recently. The concrete at my feet is singed, which only further speaks to the fact that likely some kind of explosive was detonated at this spot. From the scent of burning in the air, I judge that the event was recent.

 

“What are we doing here?” I ask, glancing over and meeting her eyes. She shrugs a bag off her shoulder and starts rummaging through it, then grabs a small brown box from inside. With little ceremony, she holds out her hand, and I take the box from her.

 

“You know what this is, correct?” She asks, and indeed I do. I’ve worked with it a couple times in training- enough to know how to use it, and what purpose it solves. Generally, we use these kit to collect samples, and then we bring them back to the lab at the Future Foundation. They are typically purposed in order to figure out what materials or weapons have been used by the government in recent events, but from time to time, it is my understanding that other uses have been found. “I’m going to be setting up cameras around this area, in order to monitor it for further activity. Bomb prevention. Can you go down into that crater and get a couple samples of the dirt from at least three spots?”

 

It’s such a simple task that it’s almost ludicrous; but Kirigiri did tell me, before asking me to come along, that it was fairly menial. And besides, between the two of us, it should only take a couple hours, based on my previous excursions with collecting samples (there is a certain amount of sifting that needs to be done with the samples in order to get optimal results) and my limited knowledge in regards to setting up cameras. So I nod, and shoot her a smile, before turning around and walking over to the crater.

 

I’m just eyeballing it, so I can’t say for certain, but the circle definitely seems to be about four meters in diameter, and maybe six feet deep. In other words, I can’t anticipate that I’ll have a simple time getting in and out. Fortunately, there’s a slight slope on the edges of the hole that I think I can use in getting in. The biggest problem is getting out, but if I can’t just hoist myself out with my own strength, I could always just ask Kirigiri for help. I’d hate to trouble her when I know she has work to do, but I’d rather do that than spend the rest of my life in a hole.

 

So I brace myself for any unwilling occurrences and begin to inch myself into the hole. I slip and lose my footing about three feet down, which results in my crashing onto my knees, but it isn’t far enough of a fall for me to get hurt, and anyway, I had already resigned myself to the fact that my black suit would be getting dirty today. My knees are a little sore from the impact, but overall they aren’t too worse for the wear, so I pull myself to my feet with the hand that isn’t currently holding the kit, and survey the crater.

 

Since Kirigiri said I’d want to get at least three samples, maybe five or six might be a good number to shoot for. I don’t know how many sample tubes will be in the kit, though, so I’ll probably just have to take what I can get based on the materials that are present.

 

Once I do a quick scan of the tools at my disposal and choose a particularly large pile of dirt and ash from which to grab my sample, I get to work. It’s a slow, tedious job that takes far too much time if I want to be careful about it, but at the very least moving as much as I am now is keeping me warm. The air has a bite into it, because winter draws closer and closer every day. I’m starting to regret not grabbing a coat. (Not that I had an opportunity with how suddenly Kirigiri took off down the hall, but still, I wish I could’ve made an opportunity.)

 

I need to stop thinking about being cold, or else I’ll just get colder. I shiver and wrap up the first sample, sealing the tube and labeling it with a piece of masking tape before getting to my feet and moving over to a different spot. The dirt is a little bit darker there, and from what I can tell, finer. I’m not sure what effect the consistency will have on the sample, or what that will say to the people who analyse this, but it isn’t really my responsibility to figure out, so I start on this sample too.

 

By the time I get to my third sample, I’ve fallen into a rhythm of sorts, and am completely absorbed in my work. Once again, I tend to stop being very purposeful whenever I go on autopilot, so I try not to if I can avoid it, but I’m definitely starting to slip into that state of mind. I’m a little bit worried that my fourth sample won’t be as careful as the rest I’ve done thus far, but as soon as I begin to think about it, I am interrupted.

 

“Ohh! What are you up to, Mr. Saihara from the Future Foundation? Playing with dirt?”

 

The enthusiastic words that are practically sung behind me startle me to the point where I almost drop the sample in my hands. Thankfully, I manage to avoid doing so, and save myself a lot of extra work in the process. Already, the sound of the voice has made me tired, and I haven’t even entirely identified its owner yet. Even though I want to get back to my work, I turn around, looking for the source. And as tends to happen, I find it.

 

“...ah, uhm, Ouma, correct?” The purple-haired man I saved yesterday is crouching at the mouth of the crater, smiling impishly down at me. When I say his name, he perks up and tilts his head to the side, a gleeful giggle escaping his lips.

 

“Wow! Shuichi remembers me!” Is he going to be this inconsistent with his way of referring to me for the rest of the time that I know him? If he’s going to call me by my given name, can’t he at least stick to it? “I must have made an impression, huh? It’s not every day you meet a guy who’s as devilishly handsome as me!” Another giggle. “Just kidding! That’s a lie. My friends always tell me that I’m not really that attractive at all, and I just look like a horse.” His expression goes serious for a minute. “Or maybe that’s another lie. I might not even have any friends at all.”

 

I decide that it would be in my best interest if I just don’t respond to any of what he just said. “Do you need something? What are you doing here?” I ask, my words coming out more blunt than I meant them. I almost get to my feet to talk to him better, but I have a task to carry on with, and I shouldn’t let the interaction distract me. It would be pretty bad if Kirigiri finished up and came over, to find me not even halfway finished collecting my samples.

 

Ouma pouts. “Isn’t it obvious? I came to visit my knight in shining armour! Y’know, it’s not every day that you get saved by a guy who’s actually good looking. Usually I just get saved by some blonde guy with glasses. Not my type, and anyway, he’s an asshole.”

 

I can’t tell if he’s being serious or not. But I’ve always been susceptible to flirting, no matter how audacious, and at this rate, my face might as well catch on fire. I look back down at the same and continue working it, because I don’t have anything good to say in response to what Ouma has just told me. (I assume that it isn’t the real reason he’s here.)

 

Then, to my surprise, he straightens up and jumps into the crater. Yesterday, he could barely walk, so I don’t expect him to be too much to behold as far as grace goes, but today he lands deftly on his feet, barely even disturbing the dirt around him. Which, for a guy wearing an entirely white uniform, I suppose is a good thing. I’m actually fairly impressed with the way he managed to jump into the crater without so much as stumbling, but then I consider that it might’ve come with having many opportunities to build experience, and I’m not sure how to feel.

 

“Anyway, really,” Ouma walks over and crouches down next to me. “What are you doing? I assume you aren’t making a mud pie, ‘cause like, you’d need water for that. I would know, since I make the best mud pies.” He hesitates. “Actually, that’s a lie, I’m a lousy cook, even when every ingredient is mud. I always add too much water.”

 

“I think the idea is that you use mud that’s already-” I realise that I’m enabling him and break off halfway, but it’s too late.

 

“Ahhh? Is Shuichi a mud pie expert? I see, I see… my Future Foundation saviour is becoming more of a prince as the moments pass, I could swoon!” Ouma says this with a large grin but otherwise his expression is unaffected by the words that he’s speaking. I consider this to be pretty unfair, because I, on the other hand, am in the process of dying. I furrow my brow and look down at the sample that I’ve collected. I guess I’m done with this one, which means that there are three left for me to do.

 

As carefully as I can, I label the vial and tuck it in with the others before getting to my feet and stretching. Staying in the same position for so long really isn’t good on my joints. I’m starting to feel sore.

 

Ouma observes, “You’re taking samples of the dirt.”

 

“Yes,” I confirm, because of course that’s what I’m doing. I’m sure that Ouma had figured as much from the get-go, and just wanted to push my buttons a little before actually admitting that he knew what I was getting up to. It seems that he’s more perceptive than he wants to let on.

 

“Well, can I help? I don’t know how many more you need to do, but I’m pretty good at taking samples, and it looks like pretty intuitive work.” He makes the offer without a trace of pretense, and I’m taken off guard by his sincerity. Obviously, I should say no, because he isn’t a member of the Future Foundation, ergo not trustworthy when it comes to a task like this, but I’ve already decided that the Foundation isn’t trustworthy, and as irritating as Ouma might be, he doesn’t seem to have any ill-will. Besides, the offer of help is more tempting than I’m willing to admit.

 

“Ah, I suppose…” I pause, looking down at the vials I set aside to fill. “How much of this do you know how to do?” I ask, looking back up and meeting his gaze. He seems to contemplate my question.

 

“I was watching you for a couple moments there, so I know the tail end.” Ouma murmurs, and I’m surprised that he isn’t embarrassed to admit that he was watching me (or maybe I shouldn’t be.) “But I’m not sure how to start it off. Could you show me, perhaps, Mr. Saihara from the Future Foundation?”

 

I think I’d rather he use my given name than continue calling me that. But I sigh and nod. “Here, I’ll get the dirt you’re going to work with.” I tell him, and then I scoop small cups from the kit before walking over to a spot that I had previously eyed for my fourth sample. I grab a cupful of the dirt there and then select another spot, grabbing a cupful from there before returning to Ouma.

 

He takes the cup from my hand without any instruction and eyes me silently as though waiting for me to tell him what to do. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s pulling my leg at least slightly with the quiet earnestness, but I appreciate it either way. As soon as I’ve gotten settled back where I was a moment ago, I begin to explain the process of filtering the dirt. Some parts of the dirt are too large to yield good results back at the lab, so there are a series of sifters I need to go through in order to collect the sample. Ouma follows my words with precision, and as I watch him to make sure he’s following through with them, I find myself impressed with how methodical he is.

 

About a third of the way through, he grins at me. “Okaayy, this is where I started stalking- I mean watching, so you can go ahead and work at your own pace. I think I remember everything else from here.” Well, I’m impressed by his memory. Less so by the comment about stalking, but there isn’t really much that can be done.

 

Either way, he finishes before I do, and labels the vial with a rather fancy looking four. When I notice that he’s done, I pause in my work for a moment. He’s good at this, huh? “Uhm, you can grab the last sample from that spot of dirt over there.” Both of my hands are occupied, but I point with my elbow, and Ouma walks over to the spot that I selected, pointing the toe of his shoe at it. I nod to confirm that he’s got the right place.

 

“Nee-hee hee! I didn’t actually see it from your pointing, you know, I read your mind!” I give him a flat look. “Okay, I actually just followed your eyes. Jeez, you may be heroes or whatever, but you Future Foundation people sure are boring.”

 

For some reason, that remark about the Foundation being heroes makes me cringe. I don’t want to call attention to what just happened, though, so I turn away, hoping that he didn’t notice. Thankfully, Ouma doesn’t say anything else. He just gets back to work, and I focus on finishing the sample that I’m working on now.

 

About fifteen minutes later, Ouma puts the sixth vial into the kit with the rest of them, and I close it, doing the latch. I get to my feet, stretching out once again and attempting to dust the dirt from the knees of my pants. I figure that there’s not much I can do in that particular endeavour, since my hands are also pretty stained, but I do it instinctually. He gets to his feet and stretches as well, yawning into one of his hands. When he pulls it away, there is a smear of dirt from his cheek to his chin. I almost want to call attention to it, or wipe it off, or something, but I don’t, because I think that would be crossing a boundary.

 

Instead, I speak. “Thank you, Ouma. I don’t think I would’ve finished as quickly as you did just now.” I offer a smile, meaning it. I am grateful that he stepped in to help- almost to the point that my prior irritation with him is starting to evaporate.

 

“Of course! You’re pretty slow, so, I guess you really needed my help, huh?” He giggles, and I consider retracting that previous sentiment. “Kidding, you’re probably just thorough. Shuichi is a good worker. Maybe even too good for those losers at the Future Foundation, y’know?” Ouma winks, and I’m not really sure what to say. It’s so hard for me to tell if he’s kidding. “C’mon, c’mon, you don’t have to think so much about everything you say to me. I’m actually not judging you, even if I say later that this is a lie.”

 

For some reason, that’s kind of reassuring. “...alright, I’ll keep that in mind.” I tell him. “Ah, uhm…” the prospect of getting out of the hole suddenly seems a little bit daunting. “Would you like some help, uh…”

 

Ouma winks at me, fairly obnoxiously. “I think I got it.” With that said, he skips over to the edge of the crater. Even though his head is almost a foot below ground level, he manages to jump up high enough to catch the edge two handed and hoist himself up from there. It leaves me somewhat stunned that he’s able to do so with ease. But, if he was able to jump in the whole, why wouldn’t he be able to get out?

 

My exit of the hole is far less impressive, I’m ashamed to admit. I put the kit on the surface so I don’t have to worry about taking it up with me, and then I reach up and grab onto the edge, kicking off the ground and inching myself out of the crater from there. By the time I get up halfway, I barely have the strength to swing my legs over, but Ouma grabs my shoulder and helps me up entirely. After I’ve caught my breath, I get to my feet, thanking him quietly for helping me out. He either doesn’t hear me, or chooses not to acknowledge my gratitude, because as soon as I’ve said what I have, he looks me in the eye with a wide, mischievous grin.

 

“I’ve gotta run, but maybe I’ll come visit you at the Future Foundation someday!” He chirps, and before I can tell him that maybe that wouldn’t be in his best interests, he’s speaking again. “Just kidding! That’s a lie. I actually hate going by there. Though I guess I would brave it for you.” Ouma shrugs. “Anyway, this was fun. I’ve never collected samples before, so…”

 

“Wait, but…” I stop. “You said you were good at collecting samples.”


“Did I?” He tilts his head to the side. “Huh, that must’ve been my evil twin. You should look out for him, he’s a real liar.” I just… I don’t even know how to respond. Ouma giggles. “Not that I’m much different, though! See you later, Shuichi!”

 

I start to respond in kind, but just as he’s turned around and taken a step in the other direction, he turns around, looking at me with a different kind of smile on his face. It’s far more… devious.

 

“By the way, you should be less obvious about hating the Future Foundation so much if you’re going to keep working for them. I hear they kill people who they deem a threat, and you’re a pretty bad liar.” He says this in a low, silky voice, and even though it’s Ouma and I’ve been trying to tune out his nonsense, this nearly makes my heart stop. “Bye bye!”

 

With that, he’s run off, and I’m left trying to remember how to breathe.

Chapter Text

On the drive back to headquarters, my phone vibrates in my pocket, which makes me think that one of two things is probably happening.

 

Either PAE has something to tell me, or Ishimaru has now gotten to texting me instructions as to what information to gather, if possible. No matter which one it is, I don’t think I should risk taking out my phone right now, as I don’t see how it’s possible that Kirigiri wasn’t close enough to Makoto to know about this phone that he evidently carried for so long. I make a mental note to check on it as soon as I return, but for now, I’ll need to hold that thought.


I’m starting to recognise landmarks that indicate that we’re halfway back. A glance at my watch tells me that it’s 3:00, so we won’t have to worry about being late to meet Rantaro. If all goes well, I should have an hour or so to kill upon returning; a period of time that I can hypothetically spend doing whatever it is that Ishimaru has likely just texted, or maybe in training, in case something happens like what happened to Makoto. I’ll want to be more prepared in the future, so that in the event that I do end up having to treat somebody’s injuries, I’ll know better what to do. I don’t ever want to feel so helpless again. Not when there is potentially something that I could do.

 

The vehicle makes a left and I glance over at Kirigiri’s profile. She hasn’t said much to me since she finished setting up the cameras, though there was a brief inquiry on her part when she initially walked over.

 

“Hey,” she frowned at me, though I didn’t think it was a very loaded expression- more curious than much else. “Who was that?” I assumed she was talking about Ouma, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to explain. To be honest, I didn’t even know how to describe him. What was he to me? An acquaintance? That would make the most sense, wouldn’t it? I’ve barely had the chance to interact with him.

 

“I, uhm, saved his life yesterday, on my way back to the Foundation,” I explained, staring off in the direction that he’d gone in. I disliked the wording. It was difficult to unabashedly describe myself as having saved another person. But I also found myself unable to take the credit away from what had happened. I felt good about it. I mean, I know it sounds conceited, but I did feel good about it. I do. And I’m proud of the way that I handled it, even if it did degree quite a bit of bluffing on my part. “I suppose he was returning the favour by helping me collect samples.”

 

Kirigiri’s expression barely changed. “Can he be trusted?”

 

Once again, I didn’t really know the answer to that question. I figured he could, because I didn’t see any reason he had to deceive me (as he was obviously not a member of the government, nor the Future Foundation) but that parting statement had left me on edge. Was my distaste for the Foundation really so obvious? I wouldn’t say that I’m a good liar by any means, but I’ve never considered myself to be very bad at it, either. I was ill at ease, to put it delicately. But eventually I nodded. “Yeah, I think so. He’s harmless, if a little…” I struggled to find the correct word. “Spontaneous?”

 

“I see.” I wasn’t sure what exactly she saw, but I could tell that she wasn’t going to ask any more questions. “Well, come on, then. We’d better get back.”

 

And from there forward, she hasn’t said anything else. It’s hard for me to differentiate between irritation and thought with her. Then again, it’s hard for me to differentiate between most of her emotions. I’ve seen her smile before, and the times when I’ve known it to be genuine have always warmed my heart, but I’ve also seen her give a small, passive aggressive smile to anybody who gets on her nerves. And for somebody so intelligent, people are bound to get on her nerves constantly, so I’ve seen her give that smile fairly often. Thankfully, she hasn’t directed it at me yet, but…

 

At any rate, I don’t think she’s irritated, or upset at me. I doubt Kirigiri is the sort of person to let her emotions control her actions, but even if she is, I haven’t done anything to upset her, and she probably would’ve given me some sort of indication, if I had. I don’t have her down as the sort of person to just leave me in suspense like that. No, most likely, she just doesn’t have anything to say. She certainly never wastes any words. But there are a couple things I’d like to ask her, while we’re alone. Since there isn’t very much time left, I clear my throat, and by the way she snaps to attention slightly, I know that she’s listening for what I’m going to say.

 

“May I ask you a personal question?” I begin, because I don’t want to make her uncomfortable.

 

Kirigiri hums. “You may, but there’s no guarantee that I’m going to answer.” Well, I figure that’s the best response that I’m going to get from her. It’s a lot better than an outright no.

 

“What…” I struggle to verbalise the words in my mind’s eye. “What was the nature of your relationship with Makoto?” I don’t mean for it to come out so formal, I honestly don’t, but when I open my mouth again, the professional sounding inquiry tumbles from my lips. It’s a delicate subject that really shouldn’t be treated like a business matter, but I can’t help it. I don’t want to ask her in a way that makes it sound like I’m pitying her.

 

For what it’s worth, she doesn’t give any responses by way of facial expression. Her gaze stays fixed on the road. I guess she would be unfazed by a question like that. “Why do you ask? Is it important?” I recognise that it’s a diversion of sorts from answering the actual question, but I feel like if she’s humouring me, I can allow a couple non-sequiturs.

 

I don’t have any particular reason for asking. I know it’s an insensitive question and I’m probably better off just not asking at all, but I can’t help but wonder about it. Because even though I barely spent any time with Makoto at all on the day he died, it was enough time for him to mention Kirigiri’s name, and speak highly of her. I can’t imagine that they weren’t close. It’s possible that they were just best friends, like he and Maizono appeared to be, but I still…

 

“Curiosity, probably.” I admit. It’s best that I’m honest with her, because I’m asking her to tell me something private. I can’t imagine that she opens up to other people very often. Kirigiri chews the inside of her cheek and we sit in silence for a deafening fifteen seconds, but then she opens her mouth and speaks.

 

“I don’t have much experience when it comes to love and infatuation and all their forms, but I think if I had to describe my feelings for Makoto, I…” she trails off. “I was in love with him.” Somehow, even though I had already kind of suspected that this was the case, hearing her say those words out loud makes my heart ache. For someone like Kirigiri, who doesn’t often express her emotions, to openly admit that she loves somebody the way she loved Makoto… well, I can only imagine the kind of relationship they had. They knew each other for way longer than I ever knew either of them. “I’m still in love with him,” she adds quietly, and I’m startled to see that her face is touched with a slight blush.

 

I wish…

 

“I didn’t know him well, but I know he thought highly of you,” I say. It’s a questionable choice of response, especially because I specifically asked her to divulge this information, and I’m almost certain that it isn’t the right thing to say, but I’m not sure that there’s ever a right thing to say in this context.

 

To my surprise, she chuckles bitterly. “I should hope so, he…”

 

It occurs to me that Makoto and Kirigiri might have been together, and I curse myself for being so slow to realise it. Of course they were, why else would she… well, no use going down that train of thought, in any case. Hearing this is only making the guilt that is solidifying as a lump in my throat worsen. Even if I couldn’t have stopped it. Even if Makoto knew he was going to die. That doesn’t mean she didn’t lose her lover. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t able to protect him when he really did get shot. Even if doing everything I could wouldn’t have been enough. It’s just so utterly unfair that he had to go.

 

“So, what about you, then?” Kirigiri glances at me very briefly, and I can’t help admiring how strong her tone comes off. Even if it hurts, she’s still surviving. She is awfully brave. “Have you ever loved somebody before?” It’s entirely warranted, but I’m still taken off guard by the question. I know what she means by it: have I ever loved anybody romantically? But it’s less that I don’t know how to answer (because of course I know what the answer is) I just don’t know how to breach the topic.

 

Still, I owe it to her, to try. “Yes.” I respond as simply as I can, and then I clear my throat. “Ah, uhm, I’m not sure how much it qualifies because it was such a short time, but…” I clench my fists in my lap, staring at the dashboard in front of me as if it will contain the courage I need to say this. “There was a member of the Future Foundation, maybe you knew her… Kaede Akamatsu?”

 

I hear a hum from next to me, even though I’m now avoiding looking at her. “We were acquainted, but she was closer friends with Makoto. The piano player, right? The one who convinced a group of government soldiers to put down their weapons and join the Foundation?”

 

“That’s the one.” My throat is comparable to the Sahara, right now. “I’m closer now to Kaito Momota, of course, but when I first joined the Future Foundation, she reached out to me, in the interest of helping me adjust. She was kind, and understanding, and… I don’t know.” When it first happened, I couldn’t stop seeing her face in my head every time I closed my eyes. But now I struggle to recall what she looked like, aside from a vague recollection of her features. Two months is a terrifyingly short period of time during which to forget another person. Especially a person you’re in love with. But it’s the brain’s way of coping, I guess. “But before I could even figure out if it was really love…”

 

“She got killed,” Kirigiri guesses. “By Enoshima’s soldiers.”

“Right.” I murmur. “You remember, don’t you? It stirred such anger.” I close my eyes and recall the onslaught of sensations that hit me when I first heard the news. I wasn’t able to comprehend it, at first. My eyes started burning and I stopped being able to breathe. There was suddenly an explosion of sound around me and even though I heard it at full volume I barely heard it at all. I still don’t remember everything that happened that day, because I must’ve passed out soon after being told. I woke up in the infirmary. It was Kaito who brought me.

 

“Mmm.” Kirigiri takes a right and I note that we are coming up to the Future Foundation. “Makoto was upset too. But I doubt any grief I felt through him could even reach what you experienced.”

 

What I experienced… well, I’m glad for the empathy, at any rate. I don’t even know if she felt the same. I didn’t get the chance to find out. But I doubt I would’ve been upset no matter what the outcome was. I would’ve just been happy to be around her. And I don’t really have that opportunity anymore. I think that that is really the biggest reason why I was so willing to join the FYG… because Makoto said, on that video, that Kaede Akamatsu said I could be trusted. If she thought that I would be somebody he could rely on, then, I couldn’t let her down.

 

I still want to talk to Kirigiri, but now I’m not really sure what to say. Fortunately, she speaks first, and I don’t have to. “I should thank you.” She says this in the same way that she says everything; objective, and matter-of-fact. But I’m not sure what she means, and I frown.

 

“Huh? Thank me? Why?” The response makes her smile slightly. I can’t get much of a read on it, because it’s the same smile that she gives me every time she smiles at me, but I’m glad that she’s smiling, at the very least.

 

“For asking me to talk about it. It might seem like an insensitive decision to you, but I needed to talk about it, and I wouldn’t have asked for the space to do so without being prompted.” She sighs, and I wonder if that’s a note of relief that I hear in her voice. “So, thank you. And thank you for talking about Kaede, as well.”

 

I’ve never taken Kyoko Kirigiri as a very emotionally articulate sort of person. When she parts the car and looks at me, I smile, and she returns the gesture in a miniscule way. “Thank you for answering.” I say honestly. “It was none of my business and you were under no obligation to answer.”

 

“As true as it is that I didn’t have any obligation to answer, I think it’s for the best that I did.” Kirigiri pulls the key out of the ignition and opens her car door. Before she steps out, though, she looks at me. “I’ll see you in an hour or so, Shuichi.”

 

And it’s only when she’s entirely out of my sight and I’m still seated in the car that I realise she’s called me by my given name, this time.

 

I walk through Command on my way back to my room. As I’m walking through, I pass by a couple people who I recognise, both poring over what appears to be a map. I stop briefly, looking with them, but I can’t tell what building it’s supposed to be. Kirumi Toujo, one of the people standing there, looks up at me, a small, polite smile on her features. Her darker blonde hair has fallen over one of her eyes, as it tends to do, but the green eye that I can see is touched by her smile, so I can tell that it’s genuine. Like all the other women at the Foundation, she dresses in a white blouse tucked into a black skirt, as well as a black necktie and a black jacket with a Future Foundation pin on the lapel.

 

Next to her, sitting down on a somewhat taller chair than is normal in order to see the map, is Ryoma Hoshi, one of the more serious members of the Future Foundation. When he meets my gaze, he gives me a two fingered salute, but his expression doesn’t change. Hoshi is small; it’s a wonder to me that the Foundation even had a uniform to give him. I’m fairly sure his hair is red, or maybe reddish brown, but it’s usually covered by a hat, as it is now, so I’ve never been able to check. His irises are black, which makes it difficult for me to discern between his irises and pupils, but I think I can sort of tell where one ends and the other begins.

 

Nonetheless, I’m on friendly, if not particularly close, terms with the both of them. In the past, I would’ve easily called them my friends, but now I don’t know. I don’t think either is the sort of person to be alright with torture and killing if they know that it is happening, but I thought that about Munakata too, and I don’t know them as well as I know Kaito. They aren’t people who I can make those kinds of judgement calls on. Even so, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

 

“Saihara,” Hoshi greets me in his low voice, nodding slightly. “Just got back from a mission?” At my affirmative hum, he continues. “You’re a busy man. You’ve been running around non-stop for the past week.” He points this out as though it should be obvious, but it makes my face flush a little.

 

“A-Ah, is that so?” I ask nervously. He gives me a look.

 

“You don’t have to be embarrassed about it. You’re too smart not to be on a bunch of missions.” He doesn’t say the obvious, which is that I’ve only been so busy since Makoto died, and I’m glad for it. I don’t know how comfortable I would be talking about it with him. Either way, I’m flattered that he thinks that I’m smart.

 

I gesture at the map in front of them. “So, what’s this? Is this a new base of Enoshima’s, or something?” Toujo responds to me now with a shake of her head, calmly displaying the notes that she has written thus far on the map in a small, tidy print.

 

“When given this map, I was instructed to take note of as many remarkable things about the space as possible.” She explains deliberately. “As well as any potential weak points, or places of attack. I am uncertain as to what the place is, or why it matters to the Foundation, but I am not sure if it matters.” Toujo closes her eyes briefly and shrugs. “At any rate, I suspect that this is a new place that our superiors are scouting out.”

 

“Oh, alright. I see.” I think this is important information; I should take note of it. I glance down at the map once more, but aside from what Toujo has written, there isn’t very much that I can get from it. So I turn my gaze from the map and offer the both of them a smile. “Good luck, then. I wish I could help you, but I don’t know very much about maps.” This isn’t really the truth (I do well at cartography), but I’m really planning to step away because there is work that I likely have to get done for the FYG. Thankfully, though, neither seems to notice.

 

“Glad you could stop by.” Hoshi tells me, and he cracks a slight smile.

 

“Until later then, Saihara.” Toujo gives me a very polite nod as she too breaks into a smile. I return the gesture, waving at them as I begin to walk away.

 

“Yeah,” I say. I’d add something else, but frankly I’m not really sure what else there is left to say, so instead I turn around entirely and head back to my room. It’s coming to be 3:30, according to my watch, so I have as much time as I thought. An hour doesn’t honestly seem like very long, but I’ll use it to the best of my abilities. Worst case scenario, if I don’t finish within an hour, I can always just continue tomorrow morning. I’d do it after 9:00, but I still have training with Kaito, and I’d like to go.

 

When I arrive at my room, I glance around to check that it’s empty before pulling PAE out of my pocket and sitting on my cot. Once she’s activated and the device has scanned my face, her voice immediately comes from the speakers.

 

“A text came in from Kiyotaka. Would you like me to read it for you?”

 

“Uhm, yes! I would, thank you, PAE.”

“There’s no need to thank me; it’s in my programming, after all.” I chuckle quietly. “One moment, please.” The device buffers, and as I wait, I stop to wonder if there are more advanced versions of PAE’s AI. Ones that resemble her personality and functions but complete them in a more efficient manner. I guess I could just ask, but I don’t know if it would offend her or not…? Am I overthinking this? She’s an AI, after all, so it’s possible she wouldn’t even think anything of it, but I don’t want to write off her feelings just because she isn’t human.

 

Before I can go too far down that particular train of thought, PAE finishes loading. “The text reads: Hello Saihara! My apologies for taking so long to get in contact with you, it’s been a fairly busy couple of days.” I find myself smiling at the manner with which he speaks- I’ve only just met him, but his diction is familiar to me somehow, and it’s very endearing. “So, since I’m assuming you haven’t been briefed just yet, I’ll go ahead and inform you that before he passed, Naegi was collecting information on a new lead that the Foundation has on the Despairs. We’ve been working recently to follow those leads and find the Despairs before they can, but in order to do that, we need all the information. Don’t do anything too strenuous just yet, because we haven’t quite given you the rundown (and of course your own safety is more important than this particular mission’s success) but if possible, please try to obtain the map of the location that the Foundation has pinned down as the most likely hiding place of the Despairs. I will send a follow-up text later this week with the address for next week’s meeting, but it will likely be at either Chabashira or Fukawa’s houses. Good luck!”

 

It’s a pretty long text, I’m sort of impressed. Not that I really use texting as a frequent means of communication, but in the times that I have used it, the texts that I’ve sent and received have been nowhere as long nor as eloquent as the one that I have just received from Ishimaru. “Is that all, PAE?” I ask. I figure that it is, but I still want to check, just to make sure.

 

“Yes, that’s all. Oh, wait. Kiyotaka signed the text with his name, as well as several smiley face emoticons. Would you like me to read them out for you, Shuichi?” As tempting as that sounds…

 

“Ah, uhm, no thank you.” I smile and shake my head, but my brain is already working overtime to process the information that I have just received. “And thank you for reading the text, as well. I’m going to turn you off for a bit, to think. Is that okay?”

 

“Of course. You know what to do if you need me.” I do, so I tap the power button, and once the screen has gone dark, I put her to the side and lie back onto my cot, resting my hands under my head.

 

A new place, huh? Could it really be the place where all the Despairs are hiding? But, how could the Foundation have a map of it if the Despairs are actively hiding in there? Maybe they’re trapped inside…? At any rate, I’m not really sure as to where to begin looking. I could ask Munakata for details, but I’m pretty sure that trusting him is out of the question. Even if he views me as somebody who can be manipulated, that’s not synonymous with a person who is trustworthy. Besides, I doubt that any of the things that he relays to me would be information that the FYG doesn’t already have, even if he does trust me. Which I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.

 

Oh, but, wait a minute. I just remembered something. Toujo and Hoshi… they were looking over a map, weren’t they? A map that I couldn’t recognise, that Toujo said was of a new place that the Foundation had discovered? Maybe that has some sort of pertinence… could that be the map that I’m looking for? If so, how should I go about obtaining it? If it was a person like Kaito or Asahina, I wouldn’t have much of a problem, because both of them are trusting by nature. Especially in Kaito’s case. He loves to believe in the good intentions of the people he has chosen to be fond of. And I happen to be one of those people. But both of them are pretty wary individuals.

 

I guess I could ask anyway, if I could spend a while looking at the map. I don’t know what the harm would be if they rejected me, but I don’t think they’d do anything malicious. After all, they seemed to trust me at least somewhat earlier. And Toujo didn’t seem to mind when I looked at the map from in front of them. I should tread lightly, though, because I wouldn’t want the Foundation to find out that that information got leaked right after she gave it to me. That would not only point the finger at me, but it would be considered negligence on Toujo’s part, and I don’t want her to take the fall for my actions. Even if I’m not entirely sure if I can trust her or not.

 

If it is a place where the Despairs are probably hiding, it’s a possibility that I should at least give some level of consideration to that they might already be planning on giving the map to me. I did agree to join a special group of people who are dedicated to taking down the Despairs just yesterday, after all. It doesn’t matter that it’s a ruse and I only joined for the purpose of protecting the Despairs from the inside. They have no way of knowing that, so they should trust me to some degree. Ah, but, I can’t count on the possibility that they’ll just hand the map to me… if it’s true, then I’ll have been spared some work, but if it isn’t, then I’ll have to have a solution of sorts at hand. A way to get the map by some other means.

 

I don’t know what else there is to be said about it, however. Because until another idea presents itself, I’ve only got a couple. I could ask Toujo and Hoshi for it, but there’s no guarantee they would say yes. I could try to steal it from them, but they’re far too diligent for me to be able to get away with it, and if I got caught, I stand a chance of my cover getting blown. Asking Munakata remains an option, but I’m not sure about reliability, and besides, I would rather not talk to him if I can avoid it. I could just do nothing and bank on the idea that they’ll just give me the map in response to my current position, but that’s lazy and entirely dependent on a possibility. None of these ideas is guaranteed to go well. Most of them seem doomed to fail.

 

Frowning, I sit up on the cot, and a slightly crumpled piece of paper floats onto the floor next to me. Confused,  I reach down and pick it up, smoothing it out with my fingers. It’s a piece of notebook paper that has been torn out and folded in half. My name is written on the front in a handwriting that I can’t recognise. It seems to be a pretty important note, since my full name is written there, but it looks as though I just spent the past fifteen minutes or so lying on it.

 

Uhm, oops. I unfold the paper and begin to read the words that have been written in pencil on the inside.

 

“Hey, Saihara. I stopped by to see if we could actually get acquainted this morning but you weren’t here, so I decided to leave a note. Your roommate said this is your cot, so I put the note on it. Hope I was right. We’re going to be working together to catch the Despairs, so I guess we’d better get used to each other, huh? :-) anyway, my room is just down the hall and on the left, so if you wanna come by at some point and chat a little, that’d be great. Also, there’s a meeting tomorrow at eleven with the whole group, so even if you can’t come talk to me, you should definitely come to the meeting. Like seriously. It’s pretty important,

 

Sorry for the emoticon.

-Leon Kuwata”

 

I recognise the name. I think… I think I’ve met Leon Kuwata a couple times before. From what I know, he was a friend of Makoto’s… but Munakata did mention his name, now that I think about it. He told me that Kuwata and I would be working together. I just wasn’t really listening at the time. I’m kind of surprised that another friend of Makoto’s is on this team, but… I don’t know. I’m not in the position to be judging him right now when I’ve barely met him. I don’t know if he knows all that catching the Despairs even entails, to be frank.

 

Munakata wasn’t exactly volunteering the information when he spoke to me, after all. It’s entirely possible that Kuwata was manipulated, just as I might’ve been, if not for the actions that Makoto took before he die

 

Still, I guess I should go and meet the guy. If I’m going to work with him, then he’s definitely right that we should get used to each other. He’s probably the person that I’ll have to be deceiving the most frequently, but since I don’t know him very well, and since I know that he’s working to catch the people who I am working to save, for some reason, I don’t feel as bad about it.

 

Maybe that’s a lie. I don’t know if I’ll ever not feel bad about deception. But in this case, I can at least justify my actions to myself, which is more than can be said for lying to Kaito.

 

I should go now. My watch is telling me that it’s 3:50, so I only have about half an hour or so to talk to Kuwata before I have to leave for the meeting with Kyoko and Rantaro. I’d rather not be late.

Chapter Text

I manage to find Kuwata’s room after knocking on a couple of doors that aren’t his. For the most part, the ones that I knock on that don’t belong to him are empty, and I just keep moving, but at one point, the occupant of the room that I’ve come up to actually is present, and I have to make a couple of excuses before moving along. I’ve only seen Leon Kuwata a couple of times, and it’s possible that I’ve forgotten what he looks like, but I’m pretty sure that that particular room isn’t his because last I checked, he wasn’t a woman.

 

But eventually, I come to the door at the end of the hallway and rap on it thrice. I’m waiting out there for a couple of moments, wondering if this will be another one of the rooms that is empty, when the door swings open and somebody leans out.

 

“Hey,” I’m kind of surprised; his voice sounds a lot like mine. I give the man a once-over. His red hair frames his face in a style that to me resembles a lion’s mane. There are deep smile lines around his pale blue eyes and he has a couple of cartilage piercings in both of his ears, as well as a silver stud in his chin. I have to wonder how the Future Foundation lets him get away with it, because from what I understand, piercings require a lot of maintenance to avoid getting an infection. He’s dressed in a Foundation uniform, as I am, but he isn’t wearing a tie, and the top few buttons are all undone. “Are you Saihara?”

 

“Ah, uhm, yes.” I’ll admit that it speaks to a fairly shrewd part of him that he was able to identify me so quickly. Though it’s entirely possible that he was just waiting for me to arrive. “Then, you are Leon Kuwata? I have the right room?”

 

Kuwata nods, placing one of his hands behind his head. A wide grin crosses over his expression.  “The one and only! It’s nice to meet you, I’ve been hearing about you non-stop from my girlfriend and her friends.”

 

Oh, that’s news to me. I tilt my head slightly, raising my eyebrows. “Who’s your girlfriend?” What I really mean to ask is, who’s been talking about me so much? But I don’t want to be rude, and I figure this is the safest way to ask the question that I want to. Even if it is a pretty personal question, seeing as I’ve only just met the guy. Some people want to have more private relationships. I wouldn’t want to infringe upon that. But seeing as he just mentioned having a girlfriend so offhandedly, I don’t think he’s going to take offense.

 

“Sayaka Maizono- you’ve met her, right? She said that you and your friend Momota gave her a good pep talk this morning after I told her that we’d be working together.” Ah, Maizono. So I was right that Kuwata was associated with Makoto in some way; he’s in a relationship with Maizono.

 

“Well, it was really Kaito doing the talking,” I admit, smiling nervously. I’ve never been very good at emotional talks. It’s usually Kaito who handles that. “But I’m glad that we could help. She’s been…” how to put it? “Or, rather, I’ve been pretty worried about her. I don’t know her so well, but it’s pretty clear to me that she’s having a hard time coping with what happened to Makoto.”

 

“Yeah, we all are.” Kuwata’s smile fades, and he sighs. “Man, I know this is a war and people are bound to die all over the place, but I just don’t get why it had to be Makoto, you know? He was such…” he struggles to find the right word. “He was in so many ways the glue of the Future Foundation.” I wonder how Kuwata would feel if he knew that the Future Foundation was planning to kill him. “And Sayaka- I don’t even know how to talk to her about it. Most of the time we’ve spent together recently she’s just been completely silent. It’s mostly been me doing all of the talking. It was only this morning that she actually opened up to me a little bit. I have you and Momota to thank for that.”

 

I bite my lip. He seems like such a decent, genuine guy. So many members of the Future Foundation do. I can already tell that it’s going to be difficult for me to lie to him. Is it going to be this way for the other people on the team that is working to catch the Despairs? “I think she just needs time.” I say, in lieu of verbalising any of my sudden thoughts. (Because why would I?) “And being there for her right now is the best thing that you can do.”

 

“You’re right on that point.” Kuwata runs a hand through his hair. “Hey, I know you probably only came over to say hi, but if you’ve got a little bit of spare time, want to head down to the dining hall and grab a bite or something? Maybe get to know each other a little bit better? I know I could use a little bit of time to just unwind.”

 

“Oh, uhm,” I check my watch. It’s 4:02, so I suppose heading to the dining hall seems plausible as long as I’m on top of things. “Sure, alright, but I’ve got a meeting at 4:30, so I can’t stay for too long.” Kuwata nods and turns around momentarily, turning off the light in his room before stepping out and closing the door behind him. I start in the direction of the dining hall and he falls into step next to me. From his gait, I can tell that he’s a pretty carefree guy. I wonder how reliable he really is. For somebody so relaxed to be involved on such an important mission… well, there has to be more to it than that, right?

 

As we turn the corner, Kuwata speaks. “You’re a busy guy, yeah, Saihara?” I glance over at him and shrug, not trusting myself to formulate a proper response to that question. “Well, it makes sense. You’ve only been here for two months but you already strike me as a really trustworthy teammate.”

 

I think back to something that Kaede told me, when I first met her. She told me that initially, she didn’t take me for a very reliable person, but I was quickly disproving her presumptions. It’s intriguing that her first impression of me contrasts from his so starkly, but then, I’m not the same person now as I was when I knew her. “Thank you,” I say, and I’m surprised to realise that I mean it. “I’ll be honest, I think most of what I’m doing right now is just in the name of not stopping and thinking too much about what’s happened.” I’m referring to Makoto, but I don’t want to put a name to it, so I don’t specify. “It’s a pretty lousy way to deal with grief, but…”

 

“Nah, I get it.” Kuwata opens the door to the dining hall and holds it for me. I murmur a thanks and step through. “I don’t like to think too hard about it either. If I stop and think about all the great times Makoto and I had together, I’ll stop being able to function. And I can’t afford to do that right now, since there’s still more work to do. That sort of thing, right?”

 

It sounds almost exactly like my current thought process. I’m almost not sure what to say to him as we walk up to the table at the front of the room. I grab a bagel, but I’m not very hungry, so I figure that it should be fine. Kuwata follows suit but grabs a butter knife and a dollop of cream cheese before we head off to find a table.

 

Once we’re both seated, I find the words to respond. “Yeah, I mean, that’s spot on.” I watch as he halves his bagel and begins to spread on the cream cheese. “It feels like if I stop and think about it for more than a moment, I’ll lose the motivation that I need to keep moving in general.”

 

“Dude,” Kuwata says this through a mouthful of bagel. “I have no place to talk since I’m basically experiencing the exact same thing, but you’re totally allowed to just take a break, y’know? Or sit down for a minute and cry a bit. I mean, I don’t really cry very much,” somehow, I doubt that. “But there’s nothing wrong with it if you’ve got to. Or just mourning, that’s fine too.”

 

I mean, he’s right that it’s a little bit hypocritical, but it makes me smile regardless. Instead of speaking with my mouth full as he just did, I wait until I swallow the food that I’ve just taken a bite of before I answer. “I appreciate it.” even though this is a pretty nice conversation, I’m starting to feel more and more guilty about deceiving him, the more that he shows himself to be a good person, so I figure it might be in my best interests if I changed the subject. “I don’t want to go too much into it because we’re in a slightly public place, but what do you know so far about the people who we’re going to catch?”

Kuwata thinks about it. “Hm… well, I know they’re bad.” This makes me laugh a little, even though I feel that that’s a slightly unfair judgement. (Especially because my current goal is to save them.) “I don’t know anything about where they’re hiding, but a couple years ago I had an encounter with one of them.”

 

This catches my attention. “Oh? How did that go?”

 

“Not much happened, really.” He shrugs. “I was on a mission for the Foundation, and my buddy Kiyotaka was in the other room,” the mention of Ishimaru’s name catches me a little bit off guard. It’s starting to become evident to me that a great many of the members of the FYG were Foundation members for a while before I joined. “And this girl with multicoloured hair walks into the room. She’s not wearing a government uniform, so at first I think she’s a civilian, and I walk up to her, to tell her that it’s not safe. But she just gives me a very serious look, which I don’t quite understand, and she tells me in a low voice that I need to get out.”

 

I frown. “This is the Despair, right?” I mean, from what I know, the Despairs were doing Enoshima’s dirty work because she had taken one of their friends hostage, so of course I understand why this young woman (from the description Kuwata just gave, likely Ibuki Mioda) told him that he had to leave. But I’m not supposed to understand this yet. Or at all. “Why would she tell you to get out?”

“Well, at the time, I figured she was just out of uniform and thought that I would be a danger to the government. I wasn’t about to just abandon my mission, but then Kiyotaka calls me, and he tells me that the entire building is rigged to explode. The woman has left at this point, and we get out too, but I keep thinking about that encounter. If I think hard about it, I’d almost say that she was trying to save my life. But I don’t really get why.” So maybe Kuwata isn’t blind to as much as I thought he might be. At the very least he understands that the Despairs are human. Still, I’m not sure if saying as much would be wise.

 

“That is weird,” I opt to say instead, and I’m a little perturbed to hear the lie coming so naturally from my lips. To avoid having to say anything else, I take another bite of my bagel.

 

“Yeah. Like, you’d think that if she was about to blow up the building, she’d probably want me to stay in it.” Kuwata shrugs. “I guess I’ll never figure out what was happening that day, though. Since our goal is to kill the Despairs. Kinda fucked up, but it’s what we’ve gotta do, right?”

 

Well, that is the question, isn’t it? “Yeah, that’s right.”

 

At this moment, I check my watch, and I see that it is 4:26. Ideally, I’d have left a couple of minutes ago, because I’m not sure how long it’s going to take me to get across the building to meet with Rantaro and Kyoko, but now that is clearly no longer an option. I get to my feet, smiling apologetically.

 

“Sorry, Kuwata, I’ve gotta run. I have a thing in about four- ah, uhm, make that three minutes.” Thankfully, he smiles, and nods. I’m glad he understands, because I really don’t want to make it seem like I’m just trying to escape the interaction. “It was nice, though, talking a little bit.” I tell him, meaning it more than I thought I would.

 

“For sure.” Kuwata’s smile turns into more of a grin, and he winks, flashing me a thumbs up. “Hey, I’ll swing by your room tomorrow morning so we can walk to the meeting together. I think I know where it’s going to be, but it’ll be nice to have another person with me, in the event that I can’t find it.” Well, I only just found out about the meeting around half an hour ago, so I guess it’s good that we’re walking together, because I’m not even sure where it’s taking place. “Sound good?”

 

“It’s a plan.” I affirm, smiling slightly. “Tomorrow morning, then.” He waves, and at that, I turn around and hurry off, because I now have more like two and a half minutes to get there before I’m late. Fantastic. I’m probably going to be late no matter how fast I walk, but I should still try to walk as quickly as possible, just so that I can try to avoid being over five minutes late, because that would be more than just a little bit rude.

 

Since I’m walking so fast, I’m not so tuned in to my surroundings, which results in my bumping shoulders with a couple of people as I walk. I give a couple rushed apologies but hurry along, since I’ve got no time to stay and chat. I don’t recognise any of the people who I bump into anyway, but if any of them are particularly offended, they could always just approach me later, and I’ll give a more sincere apology then. (Honestly, I doubt it’s really that much of an issue, but I can’t help worrying about it regardless.)

 

I’m almost not sure that I’m going to the right place, but as I walk on, the number of people in the area thins just as it did yesterday, and eventually, I am the only person around. I catch a brief glimpse of my watch as I jog down the hall and note that it’s 4:31, which means that I am, in fact, late. But it’s nothing that I should really lose any sleep over. I figure that a couple minutes or so aren’t going to be completely vital to the time we’re spending planning. Still, I feel a little bad for losing track of time talking to Kuwata, even if he was surprisingly easy to talk to.

 

Oh, there’s that guilt again. For me to be lying so consciously to a person so sane… I was even lying throughout the conversation, and the situation was remarkably low stakes. One could argue that by simply continuing to be a member of the Future Foundation, I am lying to everything I talk to. The only possible exception to this is Kyoko, and I still haven’t even told her the whole truth. It’s been two days and I’m already feeling as though I can’t keep this up. (But I have to… maybe it will get easier? Do I even want it to get easier?)

 

By the time that I arrive at the room we were in yesterday, I’m fairly out of breath. I open the door and look inside, noting that Rantaro and Kyoko have, predictably, already arrived. There is the same assortment of maps from yesterday spread out over the table Kyoko is leaning over, chewing her thumbnail in thought. When I step inside, though, she hears me (presumably by my slightly laboured breathing) and looks up, smiling slightly. I saw her little over an hour ago, so it’s not as though it’s strange for me to be seeing her again, though I will note that it looks as though she’s taken a shower, because her hair is still wet. (I should consider doing as much. My clothes are still stained with dirt.)

 

Rantaro speaks first. “Shuichi, hey.” He smiles at me, the same nonchalant smile as always, and waves. “Glad you could make it.”

 

The way he’s saying it, it’s as though there was only a slight possibility that I’d show up, even though we all agreed to be here yesterday. Still, I wave back and close the door behind me, walking over to take a seat next to him. “Hi, Rantaro.” I greet. I decide not to respond to his second comment. “Ah, uhm, Kyoko,” I add, glancing at her. She nods at me in further acknowledgement of my presence before looking back down at the maps that she’s examining.

 

“Hm.” Rantaro hums, tilting his head to the side almost imperceptibly. I glance over at him, raising an eyebrow, but he shakes his head. “Uhh, don’t worry about it.” He chuckles, waving his hand dismissively. “I was just noticing something, is all.” Suddenly, his expression turns serious. “Alright, so we’ve all got a pretty good idea of what Enoshima’s base looks like, at least structurally, right?”

 

“That’s correct.” Kyoko agrees. “Our biggest concern right now is trying to figure out how to get past her defenses so that we can infiltrate.” She picks up a pencil from the table and pushes forward one of the maps with a gloved finger so that Rantaro and I can see. “This is the building that we’ll be trying to get into. I estimate we have about three days until Enoshima cancels this key’s access to the building, so we’ll need to act quickly. From scouting the place in recent and older missions, this is what I can gather of the building’s defenses.”

 

She circles a number of spots on the map with the pencil. I note that she does so with great precision. “These are the spots that I understand to be defended by gatling guns of sorts, so there’s really no point in trying to infiltrate here. These spots are surrounded by land mines. At the moment, the Foundation is working to gather intelligence on the placements of the mines, but many of Enoshima’s men don’t even know where the mines are, because she really doesn’t seem to care for their lives.” I frown, but Kyoko takes no notice of this and continues to speak. “This is the only place we have a chance of entering. It’s protected by an around the clock guard, but if we can get the guards to leave their stations, one of us can sneak in and use the key.”

 

“By one of us,” Rantaro interjects. “You mean you, right? Shuichi and I will distract, and you’ll break in.”

 

Kyoko smiles. “Right. I’ll leave the specifics to you two. But before we can do any of that, we need to find a way to get our hands on the schedule rotations of the guards.”

 

“Ah, I understand…” I murmur. “It would be pretty bad if we were distracting one guard, but another came down for the next rotation and ran into you while you were trying to get in.” I guess. She nods, and I close my hand into a fist, holding it in front of my mouth in thought. “I suppose… if one of us were to stake out that entrance for a couple of days, we might be able to draw some conclusions, but it would be pretty bad if the schedule changed on a weekly basis, because we don’t really have enough time for that…”

 

“It’s also highly improbable that they would simply leave their guard schedule lying around somewhere. It’s possible that one of the guards is a little bit careless, but I doubt Enoshima would allow that kind of negligence.”

 

“Enoshima is intelligent.” Rantaro states. “We know that. But we also know that she’s a huge masochist. So I don’t think she’d ever design anything that’s completely foolproof. Even if she wants her plan to succeed, she’d put in some sort of way that the plan can fail. Right? So I don’t think she’d make her guards make a schedule that’s too complicated. More likely than not, they switch posts on an hourly basis. But if we have three days, then that means we can probably afford to spend two of them gathering intel.”

 

I frown. “What are you suggesting?”

 

“Well, it might not be the best plan, but it seems the only viable option for the moment… I could head out to her base tonight or tomorrow morning and stake out for a couple days. Then I could come back in three days and let you guys know what I’ve figured out.”

 

“It’s not a bad idea.” Kyoko remarks, before I can say anything. “But are you sure? This means a couple of days spent outside in enemy territory. No sleep, if any at all, because you’ll be watching for the rotations. And it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to eat very much if you’re trying to avoid being found out.”

 

“Also, uhm,” I hesitate briefly but find that my conscience is stronger than my reluctance to object. “It’s really dangerous? What if you get caught? Wouldn’t you be cold?”

 

Rantaro considers my words. “I’m pretty good at camping and power napping. Besides, I don’t think we have any other choices. And if either of you wants to do it, then I’d be okay with not taking the responsibility, but I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing that you actively want to do. Also, I’m not sure how comfortable I am putting the duty onto one of you two, since I’m the oldest here, and I also have the most experience doing things like this.”

 

“I have total faith in your abilities, Rantaro.” Kyoko assures. (I note that she is calling him by his given name as well.) “I’m just making sure that you’re completely aware of what doing this will entail. It’s definitely noble, but I don’t feel comfortable sending you into it unless you’re completely sure.” She clears her throat. “I, uhm, learned the hard way that it’s important to ascertain before I agree to send somebody into a potentially dangerous situation.”

 

Something about the way that she says this must give Rantaro pause, because he waits for a moment before he speaks again. “Of course. But I’m sure.”

 

It seems like a pretty spur-of-the-moment decision to me, but it’s possible that he’s already anticipated that we might need something like this, and prepared himself accordingly. Or maybe he’s just always ready for the event that this sort of thing might occur. I don’t know. I don’t know Rantaro well enough to speak definitively, (though I would like to) and I don’t think it’s a very good idea to speak for him. Still, I should say something before we move on.

 

“Then, wait until tomorrow morning to leave. Bring a lot of water and energy bars.” I look him directly in the eye when I say this. “Your body will eventually adapt to losing sleep, so you’ll be able to stay awake longer, but it’s important that you bring enough to keep yourself going. It would be bad if you came back and were too weak and exhausted to come with us and help me distract the guard.”

 

“Don’t worry so much, Shuichi. I got this.” Still, I can detect a little bit of gratefulness in his eyes, as though he’s pleasantly surprised to see that I care. “Anyway, I’ll sleep plenty tonight so that I’m super well-rested when I leave tomorrow morning. Sound good?” I nod, still a little dissatisfied but understanding that this is probably the best that I’m going to get. This would be so much easier if we could just try to break in and find a schedule, but if we had the ability to do that, then we really wouldn’t need to make a plan to get Kyoko in to begin with.

 

“I’m glad we have a plan for figuring out that much,” Kyoko interjects, “but there is still more that we need to discuss. We have a couple hours, but I think they’ll go by faster than we anticipate, so we should focus.”

 

“Ah, you’re right.” I put on my game face, so to speak, and listen to Kyoko as she continues to speak.

 

By the time that 8:00 rolls around, I’m still not sure that we’ve been able to figure out everything that we need to, but Kyoko and I plan to meet at around the same time tomorrow. I imagine we’ll talk about more then. Since Rantaro is going to be gone, it falls to me to plan out how to distract the guards. That’s just another thing to add to my to-do-list. I’ll figure it out, of course, but it kind of blows that I still haven’t thought of  way to get that map for the FYG.

 

As I am helping Kyoko gather up her maps, Rantaro puts a hand on my shoulder, and I look over at him. There is a somewhat faraway look on his expression, which makes me curious. I pause what I’m doing very briefly and stand up straight, crossing my arms. “What is it?” I ask lightly.

 

“You’re headed to training with Kaito, right?” He asks, and I nod. It’s really no secret that Kaito and I train together, after all, so I have no reason to worry about telling him. “Then, can I accompany you there? I won’t try to infringe upon your training session, don’t worry. There’s just something that I’d like to talk about with you.” Huh, deja-vu. Still, I nod, smiling slightly.

 

“Yes, of course.” I affirm verbally, to make clear that I’m alright with it. “And, ah, I’m sure Kaito wouldn’t mind if you joined in on training, either, you know?”

 

Rantaro shakes his head. “I appreciate it, but I think I gotta spend tonight getting ready for the next couple days. Even so, I’d still… well, I’ll wait for you to finish up.” He looks out the window again, and I can’t help wondering what it is that he’s thinking about that’s got him so pensive. In order to avoid making him uncomfortable, I turn back around and fold up one of the last maps that is sitting on the table.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I tell Kyoko when they are all loaded into her folder. She nods, her expression, as usual, clean of all emotion.

 

“So you will.” She agrees cooly. I’ve learned, at this point, not to take it personally. But then she looks at me, and I can tell that she’s debating with herself about whether or not she should say something. Finally, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew, Shuichi.” She speaks, as though those words aren’t totally cryptic. “Good night.” Without giving me any space for a reply, she turns around and briskly walks out of the room. I suppose that I shouldn’t be offended at her shortness. Kyoko certainly doesn’t waste any words.

 

I look over to Rantaro. “You ready?” I ask, and he snaps back into reality, a look of surprise touching his expression before he meets my gaze and nods.

 

“Yeah, let’s go.”

 

We walk together out of the room and down the hall. Though Rantaro told me that there is something that he wants to talk to me about, he doesn’t say anything for a while. But when we reach the staircase on the west side of the building, he stops at the top of the stairs, as though he has a paralysing fear of heights and the very notion of going to the bottom terrifies him. I stop about halfway through my descent and look back at him, unable to hide the confusion that flashes over my expression.

 

“Uhm, Rantaro, are you alright? You know, you, ah, you don’t have to spend two days watching the entrance to Enoshima’s base? I’m sure Kyoko will-”

 

“Nah, that’s not what I’m worried about.” Rantaro stops there, then continues. “You’re getting closer to Kyoko now, right?”

 

“Huh? I mean, yeah, I am.” I nod, not sure about where he’s going with this. “Why do you ask?”

 

“Well, just, keep an eye on her for me these next couple of days, yeah?” He frowns, looking more troubled than I’ve ever seen him. “I don’t have a lot of history with her, don’t get me wrong, but when I first joined the Foundation, she and Makoto were a big help to me in adjusting here.” I think about Kaede, and about how much her help meant to me, and I think that I understand where Rantaro is coming from. “It isn’t my place, but I worry that she’ll do something reckless and try to get revenge on the people who killed him. That’s why she’s suddenly so insistent about getting into Enoshima’s base, now. Y’know? I’ve been trying to look out for her recently, but I can’t do that when I’m not around.”

 

He wants me to make sure that nothing bad happens to Kyoko in his absence. I think I can do that. I don’t know how well I’ll actually be able to protect her in the event that something goes wrong, but at the very least, I can keep an eye out for her. I’m pretty wary of making another promise like this, since it worked out pretty terribly last time, but… well, maybe I can stop it from going wrong this time. “Sure, yeah, definitely.” I nod. “I’ll… definitely make sure that nothing happens.”

 

When Rantaro smiles, he looks relieved. “Thank you. I figured I could count on you, Shuichi.” Ah, I hope I don’t disappoint him, then.

 

With that said, he resumes moving and walks next to me in amicable silence on the rest of the way to training.

Chapter Text

By the time Kuwata knocks on my door, I’ve finished taking a hot shower and am in the process of getting dressed. I haven’t finished clothing myself entirely just yet, but I don’t want to be rude, so I finish tucking my white undershirt into my pants before I head over to the door and pull it open, thankful to see that it is in fact Leon Kuwata who stands on the other side. Not that I’m expecting anybody else, but you never know, and it would’ve been kind of awkward had there been somebody else there.

 

“Good morning,” I greet with a small smile. “I’m not quite finished getting ready yet but you can come in and sit down for a minute if you’d like.” Kuwata gives me a brief once over before nodding, flashing me the same carefree grin as he sported so many times yesterday.

 

“Sounds like a plan!” He chirps, and I chuckle, stepping back and beckoning him inside the room. As he enters, I close the door behind him before turning around and heading back over to my cot, where I’ve placed my button up, my tie, and my jacket. Nothing more than the normal Future Foundation uniform, of course, because I don’t have any reason to wear anything else, but I’m still conscious of it.

 

As I am buttoning up my shirt, Kuwata makes small talk. “So, you got to your thing on time yesterday, right?” It takes me a moment to realise what he’s talking about-when I do, I assume he’s referring to how I rushed off yesterday fairly early in our interaction to meet with Kyoko and Rantaro. I feel bad about it, of course, but I did warn him… either way, it’s a pretty harmless question. I nod over my shoulder.

 

“Yeah, it was…” I pause, debating whether or not I should button all of the buttons or leave one or two of them undone. Eventually I decide to leave a couple open and grab my tie, smoothing it out before I move to tie it. “I got there about a minute late but it wasn’t a problem. And, anyway, it wasn’t really on your account that I was late, so…”

 

“Oh, yeah, well, obviously!” Kuwata chuckles. “I wouldn’t make somebody late, because that’s like, a jerk move, and I’m above that, man!”

 

I mean, I figure that he probably isn’t, but I have to admire the confidence. It reminds me of Kaito, in a way. I feel myself smiling but I don’t say anything, instead opting to focus on tying my tie as I look in a mirror to guide my actions. I do fine at tying a tie, so I guess I don’t really need the visual reference, but I like to have one. It helps me make sure that it’s as neat as I can get it. And, there was a time when I especially cared about impressing everybody here at the Future Foundation, so everything had to be perfect… I don’t want it to look like my way of thinking has changed.

 

Once I’m sure my tie is perfect, I grab my jacket from the bed and pull it on. I grab a couple other things-- a notebook and pen, headphones, PAE-- and put them into my pocket before taking my attention off of what I’m doing with my hands to look at Kuwata. “Alright, I’m ready to go,” I tell him, and at that, he gets to his feet (for he had sat down on one of my roommates’ cots earlier) moving at somewhat of a leisurely pace towards the door. I do a quick double check to make sure that I’ve got everything I need before following him.

 

The first couple moments of our walk are silent, and I’m alright with it, because I’ve never been the type to be made uncomfortable by silences, but unlike Rantaro, I don’t really think Kuwata is the same way. Which means that he’ll probably be breaking the silence soon enough. I don’t mind that, either, though I do think that there is a lot of wisdom to be found in a person who is comfortable enough with themselves to accept a moment wherein there is nothing but the sound of their own thoughts. I think anybody could stand to listen to those a little bit more.

 

Sure enough, as we round a corner and come up to the stairwell on the west side of the building, Kuwata does just as I anticipated. “So, like, are you a little nervous for this meeting?” He gives me a sideways look, as though checking to see if I’m lying (which is a little stupid, I’ll admit, seeing as I haven’t even said anything yet) before he continues. “I mean, I’m not, but I figure… if you are, that’s cool, y’know?”

 

“Ah.” I nod. “Right.”

 

“Because, like, it’s sort of intimidating to be going to a meeting with all these people Munakata has deemed to be the best of the best here at the Foundation? And I know that I belong there, because I trust my abilities, but for somebody newer, I thought it might be intimidating to you, y’know?”

 

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” I supply.

 

“Haha, dude, don’t sweat it, just… don’t even worry, y’know? I think it’s going to go great!” Kuwata gives me a wide, toothy grin, and I return the gesture, even if I’m pretty sure I know what just happened and I don’t think it’s the same as what he thinks just happened. “It’s all for a common goal, anyway.” At this, he sobers a little, a frown creasing his expression. “We gotta catch those Despairs, man.”

 

...right. Because at the end of the day, no matter how much I like Kuwata, I have to remember that he’s here to kill the people who I’m trying to protect. I force my features into something that would make sense in this particular situation and nod in what I hope is a very avid manner. “You’re right.” I affirm, trying to figure out how to continue on a whim. “People who cause so much pain… they gotta take responsibility for their actions.”

 

“Not only that, but we gotta make them pay, y’know? People like them are the reason that Makoto is dead.”

 

No, I want to say, I don’t think it matters whose fault it is that Makoto is dead. In the end it doesn’t even make a difference who works or has worked for Kyousuke Munakata or Junko Enoshima. It’s those two who are responsible. They’re the problem. They have to take the blame.

 

“Yeah. That’s right.”

 

Kuwata stops suddenly and I follow suit, nearly tripping over my own feet at the abrupt stop. I watch as he turns to the side and looks at the door at his right, one of his brows raised in intense thought. Then, with little ceremony, he reaches out and grabs the door handle, yanking at the door. To his surprise, though, it doesn’t open. His brow furrows and he tries again. Still no results.

 

I clear my throat. “Uhm, let me.” I step forward and he moves aside as I grasp the handle and push the door open. It gives easily. I look over to Kuwata to flash him a smile but he looks so embarrassed, I decide it would probably just be best if I didn’t mention it. At least when it happened to me, I was alone. There was nobody to see my failure. But in his defense, there isn’t really a sign here that says push, unlike with the door that I was trying to get open.

 

Looking away, I gesture for him to step into the room ahead of me. After he does, I follow, and close the door as I step inside. I’ve never been in here before, so it is with some intrigue that I glance around the room. There is a long table in the very center of the room, surrounded by office chairs. They look pretty uncomfortable… not that that’s really my priority right now, I just can’t help noticing it. Thus far, it looks as though most of the chairs are taken, aside from a couple empty seats near the head of the table. I assume that that is where Kuwata and I should sit. The head itself is also empty, though I note the presence of Munakata near the front of the room, and surmise that that seat is his.

 

Speaking of Munakata- when Kuwata and I walk in, he turns around and looks (presumably to see who’s just entered the room) and a smile crosses his features. I instinctively smile back, feeling a surge of gratification, before I remember who he is and why I’m here and no, he isn’t just the person who saved my life anymore. My mouth suddenly tastes sour, despite the fact that the aftertaste of toothpaste hasn’t really left my tongue yet. Still, I maintain the expression as he crosses the room to greet us.

 

“Shuichi, Leon,” he greets, nodding to each of us respectively. “I’m glad you’ve gotten acquainted.” I figure it’s a safe time for my smile to fade, and instead I focus on looking past Munakata, at the people who are already seated at the table. As I previously observed, it does look as though most of the people are already here. But other than the two seats that I assume Kuwata and I will end up taking, there are two empty seats across from ours.

 

I hum. “I hope we aren’t later…? Is everybody here already?” I ask, and Munakata follows my gaze before shaking his head.

 

“We’re expecting a couple other people, but we’re not sure when they’re going to get here, because they don’t always work with the Future Foundation.” Oh, well, that is certainly peculiar. I’m surprised to hear that the Foundation works with people who aren’t their members. I wonder who it is that could be so helpful that Munakata is willing to work with them regardless.

 

“Then, every member of the Foundation is here already?” I scan the room. Actually, there aren’t very many people here. There are only two, other than Munakata and Kuwata, who I recognise: a heavy-set man named Hifumi Yamada who I’m aware was a pretty close friend of Makoto’s (it’s upsetting to me that friends of Makoto’s would be working to catch the Despairs, but I really can’t take any time to think about it right now) with foggy glasses and brown hair that he always uses gel to make spiky, and a young, darker skinned woman named Angie Yonaga. Her platinum blonde hair is tied into two loose ponytails. She wears the Future Foundation uniform like the rest of us, but her blouse is tied at the waist. When she sees me, she smiles, the cheery smile that I usually see her sporting, and her blue eyes shine with sincerity. A bit of a weird disposition considering the times we’re in, but I know that Yonaga is just an optimist.

 

“That’s right.” When Munakata responds, I look back at him, focusing my attention on his answer to my question. “You two can go ahead and take a seat, and we’ll resume waiting for the other-”

 

“There will be no need for that.” A woman’s voice speaks from behind me, and I startle, turning around to see who has come in. I’m surprised by the sudden entrance, of course, but I’m more taken off guard by the accent of the woman who has spoken. I can’t identify it, but the way she speaks… I can tell, either Japanese isn’t her first language, or she’s intentionally speaking in an accent. At any rate, the woman who I make eye contact looks like she’s Japanese. Her black hair is cut short in the back, but there are two pieces of hair that are longer in the front and frame her pale features. She is smiling as she stands there, but I note that the smile on her face is not touching her red eyes. “We are here. I apologise for our tardiness.”

 

So… formal.

 

“Miss Ludenberg, excellent,” Munakata says this with a smile, and I do a double take, because despite my initial presumption, Ludenberg is not a Japanese surname. “I’m glad you’re here.”

 

“Celeste?” Kuwata sputters, and I look over at him with wide eyes, surprised that he knows her. “What are you doing here? I thought you didn’t like the Future Foundation!”

 

Ludenberg chuckles, but there is no amusement in her eyes. “Oh, well, I suppose it would seem that way, given how suddenly I left. No, my…” she glances at Munakata, and his smile becomes slightly strained. “Actually, we’ll have to get caught up later, Leon, if that is alright by you. I don’t think it would be very tactful for me to discuss it so openly.” She fans her face, and I note that there is what appears to be a silver claw on her right index finger. Her attention moves over to me, and she tilts her head slightly in what might come across as a curious manner, if not for the total blankness in her eyes. “Who is this? A new member? I see Yamada is still here,” she adds the last part in a distasteful huff, averting her gaze.

 

“I-I’m Shuichi Saihara,” I curse myself for stuttering through my introduction, managing a nervous smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, uhm- ?”

 

“Celestia Ludenberg, but you are welcome to call me Celeste.” She explains, curtsying, and I nearly choke on my own spit. “Or, as Kyousuke seems to prefer to do, Miss Ludenberg works fine as well.”

 

Munakata doesn’t seem to appreciate the jab, and clears his throat. “Where is your companion? You said you’re both here?”

 

Ludenberg pauses. “I… thought…” she glances behind herself, and I can see the corner of her jaw ticking as she looks. With a sigh, she runs a hand through her short hair, messing it up somewhat. “I told him to… alright, then.” She takes a deep breath, as though preparing to call out to somebody, but just as she is about to do so, the door slams open.

 

“Celeste, don’t go so fast!” Kokichi Ouma whines, completely out of breath. “I got totally lost, y’know? This place is like a maze!”

 

With a roll of her eyes, Ludenberg folds her hands behind her, a somewhat forced smile appearing on her face. “I see… but you don’t really get lost, do you, Kokichi? It seems more likely to me that you wandered off while we were walking here to go sightseeing. I’m sure you knew where I was, and where we were going.”

 

“Did I just get caught?”

 

Now I really do choke on my own spit. “Wh- Ouma?!” I exclaim, and he turns away, his pout disappearing and his composure automatically regained as though he hadn’t just been utterly winded two seconds ago. It is as though he pressed a button and turned off his exhaustion at his whim.

 

“Mister Saihara from the Future Foundation!” He grins. “Fancy seeing you here at the Future Foundation! Hey, hey, Celeste, you didn’t tell me Shuichi would be here!” Suddenly all traces of happiness completely vanish from his expression, being replaced with indignation. Unlike Ludenberg’s total poker face, his features shift every few seconds, to make way for almost flawless imitations of real emotion- but I’m beginning to suspect that he doesn’t really mean them. “I would’ve worn something a lot nicer! Y’know, it’s rude to show up looking like you didn’t care to dress as nice as your date! He’s here looking all sharp and I’m basically wearing a garbage bag!” I don’t understand… I’m wearing the same thing that I always wear…

 

“I wasn’t aware you two were acquainted.” She excuses, closing her eyes and shaking her head, totally unfazed. “Otherwise I might have said something.”

“Yeah, right,” Ouma shakes his head. “Lie harder, sweetie.”


“No, you.”

 

“Nooo, y-”

 

“Ouma,” Munakata interrupts. A vein is bulging in his forehead and I can tell that his patience is wearing thin. Kuwata, to his credit, looks as though he’s trying not to laugh. But I’m mainly just confused. Why is Ouma even here? Surely he would’ve told me that he works with the Future Foundation…? But then, what reason would he have had to do so? We barely know each other. I didn’t tell him anything about myself, after all, so he wouldn’t have been obligated to do the same. Even so, it’s somehow incredibly irritating to me, that he’s even here to begin with. Based on what he said as we parted ways yesterday, he should know that the Foundation is bad, shouldn’t he? He’s definitely smart enough, so… why is he here? “I’m glad you’re here, but can you please…?” He gestures at the seats.

 

Ouma’s purple eyes widen. “Uhh, yes, I’ve seen chairs before, papa, but what do you want me to do with them?” Munakata says nothing. “Okayyyy. Jeez. I was right about you guys being boring.” He shoots me a meaningful look as he says this, and I swallow, remembering that he did comment on it the last time I saw him. As he and Ludenberg walk to their seats, it occurs to me that Kuwata and I need to do the same, and I elbow him to get his attention before moving to take my spot at the table.

 

Once everybody has settled down and fallen silent, Munakata seats himself at the head. “Alright, it’s quarter past eleven, so I think we should get started.” He organises a couple of the papers that are scattered in front of his seat. “So, we all know why we’re here. To take down the Ultimate Despairs. As you all know-”

 

“Erm, professor?” Ouma raises his hand. “What’s an Ultimate Despair? Can I eat it?”

 

I blanch.

 

Munakata sighs but responds. “The Ultimate Despairs are a group of fifteen young adults who have, for the past three years, been carrying out Junko Enoshima’s demands. They’ve been known for committing various acts of terrorism, enabling her soldiers to do as they please, and setting off things that will otherwise disrupt the natural order of things. They are incredibly formidable, and incredibly dangerous. That we know of, they are entirely loyal to Enoshima and her ideals, but recently they have disappeared, and we’re taking this opportunity to find them and eliminate them.”

 

“Uhm, I’m sorry for interrupting, but,” a timid looking woman seated on the other side of Ludenberg speaks up rather quietly, raising her hand slightly in the same manner as Ouma did. “May I… ask a question?”

 

“Go ahead, Kimura.” Munakata’s tone is unusually warm when he addresses her, smiling gently, and I have to remind myself not to get more fond of him, because I am aware of the things that he has done.

 

“The Despairs are bad, right? Irredeemably so?”

 

“That’s correct.” Nodding, Munakata folds his hands across the table in front of him. His gaze is cold as he stares down at them. “Our intelligence tells us that they are partially responsible for engineering the disease that’s been spread as of late… so yes, they are quite bad. Once we find them, they need to be killed.”

 

Kimura nods, tucks a curl of white hair behind her ear, and says nothing else. I look at her for a moment longer, observing that she is wearing a mask over the lower part of her face. It’s entirely possible to me that she has a weaker constitution, and that is the only reason why she wears the mask, but from her disposition, I can tell that she’s also fairly shy, which makes me wonder if health is really all there is too. I refocus my attention as Munakata begins to speak again.

 

“Does that answer your question, Ouma?” His tone is somewhat flat.

 

“You didn’t tell me if I can eat them or not,” Ouma frowns. “But I guess that’s good enough for now.”

 

With a sigh, Munakata looks away from the purple-haired man, as though determined to keep talking despite the interruptions. (I, on the other hand, remain irritated, and it’s getting to the point where I don’t really know what’s causing my irritation. I’m pretty sure it’s not the teasing. For the most part, it’s all just pretty meaningless words that are coming from Ouma’s mouth right now. But I can’t help but feel a little more frustrated with every word he speaks.) “Thus far, we don’t have much information on the whereabouts of the Despairs- but very recently, we found a location that may possible hide one of their members.”

 

Ah! This is what Ishimaru was telling me about, isn’t it? I should pay special attention…

 

He takes a map out from his folder. It appears to be printed on eight by eleven inch printer paper, so really, nothing special, but I do a double take when I see that it is the same map as the one that I saw Toujo and Hoshi looking over. So, I was right about that. “This is a map of the location. We haven’t been able to go inside yet, because we aren’t sure if it’s safe, or what the Despairs are capable of, but we should start looking into sending a team into there to potentially apprehend the inhabitant.”

 

“Apprehend, you say?” Angie Yonaga leans forward almost dramatically, an unnervingly large smile playing on her features. “Why, why? Did you not say we would be killing them? I think that is what you said, yes?”

 

“That’s true,” Munakata nods. “However, we’d like to apprehend the first person we capture, alive, if possible, to see if there is anything we can learn from them about their fellow Despairs’ whereabouts. But we wouldn’t be doing anything further than a cursory questioning, so it’s unlikely that it’ll actually yield any information. Even so, it’d be pretty bad if we just killed them and missed an opportunity.”

 

We wouldn’t be doing anything further than a cursory questioning…? No, that’s- that’s a lie! I grit my teeth and avert my gaze to avoid saying what I want to say, clenching my hands into fists under the table so hard that my fingernails dig into my palm. The pain helps bring me to reality just as Kuwata speaks.

 

“Okay, so like, our job is to get in there, apprehend the Despair, take them back to base, and then ask them a couple questions before we pop them off?” He tilts his head to the side. Munakata, however, hums in disagreement.

 

“No, you’ll just be apprehending them and taking them back to Headquarters. We don’t want to risk anything happening to you guys in the questioning period. The Despairs are known manipulators. I’d rather it be somebody used to it than any of you.”

 

“Soooo,” Ouma leans forward, putting his elbows on the table. “That’s great and all, and I’m sure you’ll come up with an absolutely perfect plan, but why are me and Celeste here? Because we’re really awesome but I’m super weak and Lessie is a coward.”

 

Ludenberg smiles. “Yes, I would like to know that as well. I might be able to help you apprehend the Despairs in certain instances, but Ichi would only slow the rest of us down.”

 

“Your job, if you’ll accept it, is to snoop around for leads as to the whereabouts of the other Despairs. This is the only one we’ve gotten so far. Once we apprehend the people hiding in this building, the other Foundation members here will be able to help you, but for efficiency’s sake, I think it would be best of the two of you started on this together.” Munakata pays no heed to their banter, which seems to be a lot easier said than done.

 

“Ooooh! We’re gonna get to work together to catch the big baddies! Taekoooo, it’ll be just like grade school!” Ouma practically sings these words. I’m not sure who Taeko is, but Ludenberg’s smug smile doesn’t fade even slightly. It’s as though she is used to this pestering from Ouma.

 

“I’m preemptively nostalgic.” She informs him, and I don’t hear a trace of irony in her tone.


The conversation segues. There is discussion as to possible strategies to infiltrate the building, and several inquiries are posed as to who will want to have what responsibility when we’re going in. Yamada points out that it would likely be wise to scout out the place before we actually go about sneaking in, and he is met with a chorus of agreement. For the most part, the people sitting at the table around me participate eagerly and actively. Even though Kuwata’s additions aren’t always the most well-thought-out, or even the most helpful, I can tell that he’s engaged. I suppose the only person here showing any sign of detachment from the group is… me.

 

And for some reason, even though I knew that this would be the case, it’s frustrating to me that I’m the only person here who even has an inkling as to what is going on. We aren’t fighting to catch some big baddie, we’re fighting to catch a kid, who will then be tortured and killed. And I’m not going to say that the Ultimate Despairs didn’t do a bunch of terrible things, because they did, and that should be dealt with. But, can we really just kill them? Is that fair? Do we even know that they’ve done what has been said that they’ve done?

It seems to me that there are so many good people at this table, yet I’m the only person who’s keyed in to what’s happening behind the scenes, and my only knowledge is from Makoto. If he hadn’t left that for me, I never would’ve known. I’d just be going along with all of this. I suck in a silent breath and swallow hard, trying to reign in my frustration. I knew that it would be this way. I resigned myself to this fact. I agreed to it, because I knew that there is no other option. So it’s harder than I anticipated. I can’t back out on account of that. What good would I be if I did? I need to put my game face on.

 

Before I know it, though, Munakata has asked the group if they have any further questions before he calls a break. He doesn’t want the meeting to end, just yet, but he figures that we’d better all move around a little bit so our legs don’t fall asleep from sitting for too long. It’s a good suggestion, really, and I have to respect it, even if I am trying furiously to remain livid. (It isn’t so difficult- all I have to do is remind myself of all of those pictures I saw on the computer and it all comes rushing back to me.)

 

“I have a question!” Hearing that it’s Ouma saying this somehow seems to put a crack in something in my gut. I force myself to remain calm. “So, we’re gonna get actual planning done today, right? Not just speculation? Because, y’know, it seems like these Despairs are really nasty, and I want to apprehend them as soon as possible! And it feels really useless, just talking a lot, so-”

 

Something snaps. Before I know it, I’ve shot to my feet, slamming my hands on the table. The chair I just stood up off of rolls backwards into the wall. It’s loud, but all I hear for a moment is the blood rushing in my ears. I’m at the boiling point with anger and frustration. I know that people are staring at me, eyes wide in confusion, because I’ve been silent this whole time but suddenly I am acting up- furthermore, I know that Munakata is looking at me with concern, and maybe he wants to say something, but if I talk to him one-on-one right now, I’ll probably break and expose my cover, and then I would definitely end up dead.

 

But… I just can’t stand it.

 

“Sorry,” I mutter, and even though I do mean the apology, I sound way less sincere when I’m so angry. “But- ah, Ouma, can-” I struggle to formulate a sentence. “Can I speak to you for a moment? In private?” I look at him, and when I see his face, I notice that his expression is entirely blank, as though he is trying to figure out what just happened. I wonder if I have taken him off guard.

 

Then, a smile quickly replaces the blank seriousness, and he springs to his feet. “Sure thing, Shuichi! Let’s go, let’s go!” He turns and heads towards the door. I make to follow him, but first I slide my chair back into its spot, and accidentally meet Munakata’s gaze. He tilts his head to the side, and I hate how genuinely concerned he looks, so I shake my head a fraction and force a smile, trying to convey to him that I’m fine. Because, I mean, I’m mad, but… I don’t want to give him any indication as to what I’m gonna talk to Ouma about.

 

As quickly as I can, I turn and follow the shorter man out of the room, pulling the door closed behind me.

 

Once I’ve done so, I waste no time in checking the hallway around us to make sure that there is nobody to overhear what I’m about to say. I doubt it, because people rarely come this way, but I have to make sure… thankfully, the hallways aren’t videotaped, so I don’t have to worry about that.

 

“What are you doing here?” I finally ask, looking at him once I’m sure there is nobody. Ouma doesn’t seem to get my question, because he raises his eyebrows, that smile remaining glued to his lips.

 

“Huh, huh? Is Shuichi asking why I’m here to help the Future Foundation? What a silly question! I’m here to help, duh!” He says this as though it should be obvious, but it’s far from a placating gesture. In fact, it only serves to sour my mood, and I pinch the bridge of my nose. I don’t even know why I’m so irritated!

 

“No, that’s- that isn’t what I meant.” I sigh, trying to gather my thoughts enough to elaborate. “I mean, why are you helping the Future Foundation?”

 

“Hmmm~?” Ouma puts his hands behind his head, grinning. “Why wouldn’t I be helping the Foundation? You’re the good guys, y’know? Nee hee-hee!”

 

I groan, scrubbing my face with my hands. “Don’t make me spell this out for you, Ouma. I don’t know anything about you, except that you’re clearly very intelligent, so surely…” I remove my hands from my face, staring him directly in the eyes. “Surely, you know- you know that-” despite the fact that it is obvious what I want to say to him, he doesn’t humour me, instead opting to stare at me, with that same irritating smile. “The Future Foundation isn’t good!” I finally hiss, my aggravation bleeding through my tone.

 

Ouma blinks. “What? Uhm, duh? Everybody knows that the Foundation is garbage, what of it?”

 

I am completely dumbfounded. “What of it? I-”

 

“Nooo, don’t worry about answering that, it’s a lie. It’s not really common knowledge, but of course Celeste and I know that, since it’s pretty obvious.” He hesitates. “Well, maybe not Celeste. I dunno. She left the Foundation because she didn’t like the uniform, so it’s kinda hard for anybody to know what she’s thinking, even me! But, but, I mean, that’s a really good question, props for that.” Ouma nods. “I’m mostly here for Celeste, since she asked me to come, but I think I’ll come back, because I can cause the most trouble this way.”

 

I frown. “You’re here to cause trouble?”

 

“Yeah, aren’t you?” His eyes widen in an innocent manner that I now understand to be completely insincere. “Your allegiance obviously doesn’t lie with the Foundation! You hate them! So why else would you be here, if not to cause trouble? Unless you’re a spy? I thought you were a pretty bad liar, before, but I guess I can see it now. Since you hid your hatred for this group so well in that meeting just now.”

 

“I… I still don’t understand how I haven’t been found out yet.” I admit quietly. “I’m not really wired to lie so much…” I run a hand through my hair (it’s still wet from my shower) and try to refocus, thinking about what he just said, before going off on a tangent. “Why do you think you can cause the most trouble working with the Foundation? If it’s obvious that the Foundation is bad, then…”

“Oh, did I say that? My bad! That must have been a lie. But I did mean that I can cause a lot of trouble working with you guys! It’s because the Future Foundation is full of so many good liars, y’know? They know so much about how to lie effectively, they even tell the truth most of the time!”

 

“Huh?” I furrow my brow. “How… what do you mean by that?”

 

“They aren’t mutually exclusive, truth and lies.” Ouma explains cheerfully. “People who are really good at lying probably don’t even lie so much. They just tell the truth over and over again, to gain trust, and then at the center of all of those truths, there’s a really big lie. Like, the Future Foundation is right on a lot of things! They’re right that Junko Enoshima is a garbage person, and that we need a rebellion, and that this world is in desperate need of fixing. But they tell a really big lie at the center of it.”

 

“...what is that lie?”

 

“That they’re any different.” He giggles. “They know just the right words they need to use to mobilise the masses. The lower class, the oppressed. If they spout some crap about hope, and justice, and fairness, then all the people who are mistreated will fight the war for them. Then, afterwards, they’ll take over and do the exact same thing. They’re just a bunch of cowards, using the truth to shield their lies. Because after all,” and now Ouma smiles, a terrifying smile that I have never seen before. I can barely see his eye. “The best lies are the ones that are shrouded in truth, right?”

 

I’m not sure what to say. My throat feels dry, and my stomach is churning. I don’t want to rejoin the meeting- or rather, I’m not entirely sure that I can. But Ouma doesn’t wait even a minute for me to be ready; his expression immediately returns to normal and he prances past me, opening the door.

 

“C’mon, we don’t want to leave Big Brother waiting!” And without missing a beat, Ouma heads back inside, and I force myself to follow.

Chapter Text

After the meeting has ended, I close my notebook (which I have been using to take notes throughout the latter part of the meeting) and begin to help tidying up. I’ve calmed down a little bit since that conversation with Ouma, but I’m having a difficult time processing what just happened, and as such, I’ve been trying to avoid making eye contact with him. I’m sure that he’s noticed, but to his credit, he doesn’t say anything, or try to get me to talk to him.

 

Because, if I think about it logically, I know that he’s right. And really none of what he said to me should’ve been particularly surprising. In fact, it’s a bunch of things that I already should have known. It’s just that… well, he implied that the Foundation’s villainy is common knowledge, and even if that was a lie, the prospect just scares me. That he knows is scary.

 

Even more than that, though, I’m scared of how easy it was for me to tell him that the Foundation isn’t a good organisation. I’ve known him for three days, and already I was able to tell him, point blank, that they’re bad. And maybe it was in the interest of protecting him. There isn’t a problem with that part of it. Besides, I could always try to excuse it by saying that I found it easier to talk to him about it because he isn’t a member of the Future Foundation, and thus by confiding in him, I’m not risking blowing my cover. But I know that isn’t really the reason; I can’t pinpoint what the reason is. Not being able to rationalise my own feelings is scary.

 

The scariest thing, however, is that I was able to tell Kokichi Ouma before I was able to tell my own best friend. Kaito is putting his trust in me. I know this, because he’s told me before, and even if he hadn’t, I’d know anyway, since he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is my best friend, after all. But do I really deserve that right now? When I was able to say something to near-stranger that I wasn’t able to say to him? It’s just terrifying that I would choose to trust Ouma before I’d choose to trust him. I can’t even use the excuse that I’m waiting on the FYG’s permission anymore, because… well, I didn’t wait to tell Ouma.

 

“Shuichi, are you alright?” At the sound of my name, I look up, meeting Munakata’s gaze. I feel a surge of guilt at how much concern I can see there before I perish the thought, reminding myself (quite aggressively) that he ordered for Makoto to be killed. “You’ve been somewhere else since talking to Ouma. Did he say something to you that upset you?”

 

Yes, he did. “Ah, no.” I lie. “It’s alright, I’m just…” What do I even say? Not the truth, surely. “I’m nervous,” I admit, and it’s the truth. “I’m nervous about catching the Despairs. I’m worried that I won’t be much help to everybody.” Hah, I could say that again… I’m going to be actively working against them, to delay their progress. Of course, there is no way that Munakata could know that, and by the small smile that appears on his face, I can tell that he really has no idea.

 

“I think you’re selling yourself short.” He tells me firmly, reaching out and clapping me on the shoulder. Honestly, he isn’t that much older than me. I’d say that he’s five or six years my senior. But the gesture feels, at the very least, big brotherly- if not fatherly. It feels like there’s a lump rising in my throat. I remember the contempt that I felt when he was asking me to work on this team and it’s still there. I still hate what he’s doing and what he’s done and I hate that he took advantage of my vulnerability to draw me into this group. I hate that I’m not supposed to know everything that is happening here. But the fact that he isn’t acting antagonistic, that he’s being supportive and kind and a good leader… it’s really… “Naegi thought so too, you know?” This catches me off guard. I forget to breathe. “I could tell that he thought you had so much potential… that’s why he asked to work with you, a couple weeks ago.”

 

No… that would be because he knew he was going to die, and he needed me to keep carrying out his work. There’s no way that he… he only trusted me because of Kaede, that’s all…

 

“So, try to believe in yourself a little more. I wouldn’t have asked you to join this team if I didn’t think you were well-suited for the position. You’re highly capable, and I think you have a nose for justice that I haven’t seen among members of the Foundation in a long time.” I hate how validated his compliments make me feel. Still, I’m able to recognise that this is probably just more manipulation, and the thought manages to help me grasp what is right in front of me. I swallow hard, forcing a smile.

 

“Thank you, sir.” I answer, because there isn’t much else that I can say.

 

“I thought I asked you to call me Kyousuke?” He raises an eyebrow, smiling slightly.

 

“Ah, r-right. Kyousuke.” I will not call him Kyousuke in my head, I refuse to. I can’t let myself grow fond of a person who endorses torture. At the thought, I suddenly remember something. “Oh, uhm, you know the map that you were speaking about earlier?” I ask, biting the inside of my cheek. When Munakata nods, I continue. “Well, I’m not an expert, but I do know a thing or two about cartography, and I was wondering… may I have a copy of the map, to study it?” I’m worried that it comes off as suspicious, but he doesn’t seem to suspect a thing, nodding and turning around to dig around in his folder.

 

After a moment of digging through papers, he pulls out the same printer paper map that he showed us earlier and passes it over to me. “Here, you can have this physical copy, but in case you use it, I’ll send it to you. You do have access to our database through your login information, right?”

 

“Uhm, no?” I shake my head. Access to the database is only for higher ranking members, like Makoto was. Vaguely, I wonder if Kyoko has the same access. Surely not, as she would’ve discovered those files before I told her about them, if that was the case…

 

“Well, that’s no good.” Munakata frowns. “Meet up with me after lunch tomorrow, and we’ll set up an account for you. How does that sound?”

Uhh… more one-on-one time with Kyousuke Munakata? I’d rather eat one of Ouma’s mud pies. “Sounds great!” I respond, hating how much more genuine I’m already sounding. I don’t want to get good at lying. I don’t want it to be a regular thing for me. But I’m a spy now, and lying is part of the gig. I need to get used to it. I need to toughen up. (What I really need to do is tell Kaito. Then less of this will feel bad. But…) “I’ll see you then, then.”

 

“Alright.” Munakata squeezes my shoulder one last time before pulling away and turning around, walking back to the front of the room to catch Ludenberg before she leaves. As I watch him do so, I can’t help looking for Ouma’s gaze in the area. I don’t know if it’s by luck or coincidence, but I find his eyes almost immediately, and note that they were already focused on me. His expression is blank, as it tends to be when he’s not interacting with other people, but when he sees that I’m looking back, he grins and winks, as if that past conversation never happened.

 

And even though I’m still leagues beyond anxious, I can’t help smiling a little bit in response, which I think is pretty unfair, just in general. As soon as the exchange is finished, though, I tear my eyes away from him and look for Kuwata, who appears to be caught up in a conversation with Hifumi Yamada. They’re standing near the door, so I tuck my pen behind my ear and turn around, walking over to stand next to my red-haired partner.

 

Just as I stop by them, Yamada finishes whatever he was just saying, and Kuwata struggles to formulate a response. “I-I mean, maybe it’d be best to wait a bit before approaching her, y’know? Girls love guys who stick away a little bit.”

 

“Oh, most certainly, Mr. Kuwata,” it bothers me for some reason that Yamada is addressing people by their surnames, as I am, “but consider this: what if Miss Ludenberg is merely waiting for me to make the first move? After all, she hasn’t initiated any conversation with me for the past couple of hours that she has been here, and considering how close we were…” he trails off. “Well, she’s the closest thing to my type that I’m going to get in the real world, and I know that she’s really looking for a man like me!”

 

Kuwata puts a hand on his forehead. “Uhm, uh, yeah, I bet… but, maybe you should-” from what I’ve observed, I assume that Yamada is looking to talk to Ludenberg (probably in a romantic context, and I really don’t know if this is the best time for that, but…) and Kuwata is trying to politely tell him not to.

 

“I don’t mean any offense, because you’re a close friend of mine, but as a person who has only managed to win the affection of a woman of Miss Maizono’s calibre, are you really in the position to be advising me on this matter?” Kuwata’s face turns a shade darker and he sputters, which I figure is a pretty bad sign, and I should probably step in before things get out of hand.

 

“Hey, don’t talk about my girl like that, you son of a-”

 

“UHM,” I clear my throat, forcing a smile. “Kuwata, think you’re ready to head back?” We didn’t really discuss walking back together, but that isn’t the reason why I’m doing this. Thankfully, he looks at me, and his expression relaxes. He nods. I sigh, relieved.

 

“Yeah, let’s go.” Kuwata looks over to the front of the room. “Hey, Celeste! Hit me up when you want to catch up a little, yeah?” He calls, and I hear his smile bleeding into his voice. “It’s been way too fucking long. We should play a game of darts, or something, for old times sake.”

 

Ludenberg looks over in our direction at his words, and I note that her smile seems to be slightly more felt than all the others that she’s worn in the past. (This isn’t to say that I know what she looks like with a real smile with her face, but something about this one seems to be more genuine. I’m glad that she, at least, seems to honestly treasure Kuwata as a friend.) “Of course. I still have your phone number, so I will be sure to reach out to you tonight.” She responds, somehow managing to project her voice across the room without shouting.

 

With a two fingered salute, Kuwata nods to me and the two of us head back out into the hallway. For the first few moments that we’re walking, neither of us says anything. But as we turn a corner, we make eye contact, and neither of us can help the smiles that start to spread over our features.

 

“Aw, man.” I run a hand through my hair. “Are you alright? I don’t know what just happened, but it seems to me that Yamada was about to say something about Maizono…” Kuwata nods, but thankfully, I can’t detect any resentment in his expression.

 

“Nah, man, I’m all good. I overreacted, really. Hifumi is kind of like that with most people. He’s very particular about the kind of woman he pursues. Not that he ever really has much luck.” He sighs and shakes his head. “I think he’s definitely barking up the wrong tree with Celeste, anyway. I doubt she’d kiss him if she was held at gunpoint. I just got kinda pissed- not because he implied that I can’t get girls, because of course I can- but because he implied that Sayaka is somehow lesser than other girls. Y’know? Like, Celeste is an old friend of mine so I adore her, but Sayaka… she’s the best woman I know.”

 

Well, he’s slightly biased, but his tone is suddenly a lot softer than it was before, and it makes me smile. “Yeah? I think I can understand feeling that way.” I tell him, and I’m surprised to realise that I do mean it. There have been so many instances where I’ve sat down and allowed people to insult me to their heart’s content, but when they talk about the people that I love…

 

“I really think I love her, man.” Kuwata sighs. “And, not like Romeo loved every girl with legs. I mean, I really think she’s the one for me. And it’s so scary feeling that way right now, because what I really want to do is just be selfish and only care for myself, but… I can’t help but want to throw away everything else just to see her smile.” It’s warming my heart to hear him speaking this way. I barely know the first thing about romantic inclination, but I can hear the love in his voice. “I want to live through this war and then spend the rest of my life with her. That’s what I’m fighting for, right now.”

 

It’s… what we should all be fighting for, isn’t it? The people that we love. We shouldn’t be fighting against the people that we hate. Everybody who is worth protecting right now… they’re all fighting out of a place of love. I keep forgetting that.

 

“I think… I think that’s a very brave thing to say, Kuwata.” I tell him genuinely. “And I think that Maizono is lucky to have a boyfriend who loves her as much as you do.”

 

He isn’t looking at me now, but I can still hear the smile in his voice as he responds. “I’m the lucky one, Saihara. That she’s in love with me… I’ve always had shit luck. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

 

Those are such big words to use in the middle of a war, but I hope that he and Maizono can keep those feelings, and when the war is over, I hope that they get to spend the peace together. I think this is when I decide that I really do like Kuwata. Not because he can sometimes remind me of Kaito, though I’ll admit that that’s part of it. Just… because he isn’t afraid to admit how much he loves his girlfriend. And because he’s so sure that he wants to protect her. It makes it exponentially worse to be lying to him, but still… I can’t help but feel fond of him right now.

 

Kuwata and I part ways when we get to his room, and I decide to head down to Command, because I haven’t really gone down there for anything aside from waking through with Kyoko yesterday in about a week. I figure I might ask around to see if there’s anybody who I can help with anything to kill some time. After all, Kyoko and I aren’t meeting until 4:30, and my watch tells me that it’s 1:34 right now, so I have about three hours to spend doing something or another.

 

As soon as I arrive in Command, however, and am on the verge of setting about to take inventory of my surroundings, my name is called, and I look around for its owner.

 

Just as at breakfast yesterday, it is once again Kaito who has called me over. He’s sitting alone at a table with several pieces of paper spread out in front of him. There is a wide grin on his face, and he’s waving at me, but the sight of him kills my good mood, replacing it with guilt. I can’t get over the fact that I was able to be honest with Ouma in a way that I still haven’t been able to be with Kaito. One of them has proved time and time again that he deserves my trust. The other… well, he hasn’t done much else than show up a couple times when I really haven’t been expecting him.

 

Still, I try to hide all of my thoughts as I make my way over to where he is sitting. Once I’ve arrived in front of him, he immediately begins to speak. “Hey bro! I didn’t see you at breakfast this morning!” Even though a remark like that is generally phrased as something passive, he says it with gusto, so I figure he’s in a pretty good mood today. (When is he not?) I manage a smile, shaking my head.

 

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I was at a meeting.” I choose not to elaborate, and for a moment I’m concerned that he’ll expect me to continue, but of course, since it’s Kaito, he doesn’t. And that makes me feel kind of worse.

 

“You’re a busy guy, Shuichi.” He says this with a smaller smile, as though he’s calmed down a little bit. “It’s almost like you’ve barely got any time for your friends anymore!” Though he says this with a chuckle, this definitely helps in pushing my guilt closer to the breaking point.

 

“A-Ah, I’m sorry.” I murmur, looking down at the table. “I’m not trying to avoid talking to anybody, or anything… I hope it doesn’t seem like I am.”

 

Kaito waves off my apology, shaking his head. “Don’t apologise! You’re just in high demand, y’know? It’s as expected of my sidekick! Besides, you still come to trainings, even if you have been late the past two times!” His dismissal of my concerns helps to alleviate a little bit of the negative emotion, but not nearly enough to clear away my guilt. I smile weakly and clear my throat, gesturing at what he’s working on.

 

“So, uhm, what’s this? Is it something that I can help you with?” I ask, and I look over the papers in front of him. From the look of it, he’s designing something, but I’m not really sure what it is.

 

“Well,” Kaito chuckles sheepishly. “I just got out of a short meeting myself, where I ended up volunteering to design a new kind of gun for our members to use. And it’s not like it’s a super big task for me, because I’m Kaito Momota, and I can totally do it if I want to! But, y’know, I really don’t know very much about gun design, and so progress is sort of…” he clears his throat. “Slow-going.”

 

It’s pretty clear to me that he’s bitten off a little bit more than he can chew, and that makes me chuckle. “May I help you? As your sidekick, of course,” I add, offering a crooked smile. Kaito nods and scoots over on the chair that he’s sitting on, patting the half that he’s just made available. And, I mean, it’s definitely not going to be a very sufficient amount of room for the both of us, plus there are a bunch of empty, unused chairs all over Command, but I don’t mind sharing a chair with him, so I walk around the table and sit down next to him.

 

The next hour and a half is spent discussing the ideas that Kaito has managed to come up with (and they are very few) as well as, on my part, sketching out concepts that I have heard of in the past. It’s pretty mind boggling work, because I have absolutely no experience designing weapons, but it’s also fairly practical, and that makes it easier for me to get into it. Something about working with Kaito on something as small as this is cathartic. Even if the pit of guilt in my stomach is slowly growing with every smile and every compliment that he throws my way, I’m able to relax for a while, and that’s really a lot more than I can say for the past couple of days.

 

But at around 3:00, Kaito puts down his pencil, looking over at me. It isn’t really to turn and face him fully, because it’s such a tight fit on this chair, but I make an attempt, focusing on his face as he speaks.

 

“Hey, is something on your mind, Shuichi?” The question is out of the blue, but I guess I’m not surprised. There’s no way that he wouldn’t notice. Not only is he too observant, he also just cares too much about me for something like this to go unnoticed. It’s honestly shocking to me that he’s taken this long to confront me about it. But maybe he was just waiting to see if I would mention it myself before he tries to speak with me.

 

I’m still surprised, though. “Huh?”

 

“You’ve been somewhere else these past couple days. I can tell when my sidekick is hiding something from me, y’know?” Augh, that hurts. “Is everything good? You know you can talk to me, bro.”

 

I do know that, and I want to talk to you, Kaito, I really do, I just…  I just can’t, yet, you know? If you knew, I’m sure you’d understand, so…

 

When I don’t say anything, he narrows his eyes, observing my expression. “Is it something that you can’t talk to me about? I can’t really imagine what that might be, because I can handle take much anything, but… in the case that it’s something I can’t take, are you not answering because of that?”

 

“N-No,” I force myself to speak up, swallowing dry. “I believe that you can handle anything, Kaito.” I mean it, too, and that’s why my stomach is churning so hard, because lying doesn’t feel like this with anybody else. It’s because I trust and believe in Kaito that it destroys me to lie to him. I want to tell him the truth. I am naturally inclined to do so. I know that he’d take my side. But, but, I need… “I just, can’t, right now… it really makes no sense, but I can’t- it’s not just me, who I’m speaking for… so I can’t tell you yet.”

 

“Yet, huh?” Kaito nods. “Okay.”

 

I blink. “Okay?”

 

“Yeah, okay.” Kaito grins, flashing me a thumbs up. “I trust you, Shuichi! If you’re keeping something from me, it’s for a good reason, and I’ll trust your judgement until you’re able to tell me! You wouldn’t do something out of malice. I believe in you, y’know?”

 

Dear. God.

“Thank you…” I trail off, not sure what to say. “I’m going to tell you as soon as possible, so…” I mean it, I really, really do, so don’t… stop believing in me, okay?

 

Kaito claps me on the shoulder, and it feels different than when Munakata did it. The gesture soothes me. I feel a little bit more placated. “Sounds good, bro!” As he says this, he gets to his feet, gathering the papers from the table. “I’m gonna go grab some lunch, if you want to come with?”

 

“Ah, uhm, no.” I shake my head. “I’ll have to decline, I’m sorry. I just…” I need to be alone right now. Thankfully, Kaito seems to understand.

 

“I figured. Well, I’ll see you at training tonight, then! Don’t be late!” When he says this, he puts up his fist, and I raise mine, touching our knuckles together and turning my hand one hundred and eighty degrees. As usual, we exchange smiles, and then he turns around, rushing off. Before I’m aware of it, he’s left Command, and I’m alone amidst the sounds of other Foundation members discussing plans.

 

I inhale, closing my eyes and massaging my temple. If I wasn’t sure earlier, I am now. There’s no way I can go on like this. I was stupid for thinking I could. Trusting Kaito isn’t a weakness or a character flaw. I know what I need to do. I should’ve realised it sooner.

 

I’ve got to tell him.

Chapter Text

I drag myself back to my room and glance briefly at the time as I step inside. My watch tells me that it’s a quarter past three. In an hour and fifteen minutes, I’ll be heading to the east side of the building to meet with Kyoko. But in the meantime, I really need to start figuring out how I can tell Kaito without betraying the FYG. I want to be honest with them, after all. I sit down on my cot, wondering how to go about this. Thankfully, my room is empty (as it usually is at around this time) so I feel pretty safe taking PAE out from my pocket and tapping the power button.

 

Once she’s scanned my face and unlocks, her voice immediately fills the room. “Afternoon, Shuichi. Is there anything that I can do for you?”

 

I figure that I should communicate with her. I’m not really sure, at any rate, how I could talk to the entire FYG about this, as I would like to do. So I think for a moment and then I speak. “Hi, PAE. Uhm, so, I have a slight problem.” She doesn’t say anything, and I assume that she is giving me space to elaborate. I press forward despite my gentle anxiety. “I think keeping the secret that I’m working with the FYG right now is going alright, but I’ve got a friend who I’m feeling really terrible lying to, and I’d like to speak with everybody and ask if it would be alright for me to tell him.”

 

PAE buffers. “My calculations say it doesn’t seem likely that you’d feel comfortable talking to any member of the FYG about this directly, because you don’t know them very well. Is that correct?” I hum my affirmation and she continues. “Well, this has been the case in the past, and often Kiyotaka and Makoto have had announcements that they would like the whole group to see without sending them out to everybody individually, so there is a texting group chat that you could use.”

 

“O-Oh, you can do group chats?” I ask. It’s not like it’s rare for a cell phone to have group chat capabilities; I mean, PAE talks a lot about how behind her software is, but the fact that she, an artificial intelligence, even exists is pretty incredible. I’m just a little bit surprised because she hasn’t mentioned it before.

 

“I can. Would you like me to open it for you, so that you can send the message asking?”

 

“Sure, thank you.” I run a hand through my hair, suddenly curious about something. “Hey, is it possible for me to do all of these things manually?”

 

“Why, do you dislike my doing it for you?” I can detect a trace of irony in her tone, even though it’s a computer generated voice. Still, the question takes me off guard, and before I can stumble to apologise and explain what I meant, PAE is speaking again. “I’m joking, I think I understand what you mean. Yes, in the event that something happens to me, it’s possible for you to unlock the phone yourself and use most of my functions in the same way that you’d use a regular cell phone. I’m opening the group chat right now, but you’ll be typing out the message yourself. This is a touch screen phone, after all.”

 

I hum. “It’s interesting that you complete most of those tasks for me, though. Were you just programmed to do so? It’s really not so difficult for me to open up on app on a cell phone.”

 

“Makoto thought the same thing, you know.” The comparison makes me blanch. PAE doesn’t lie, but still, I can’t help the disbelief that floods my mind when she makes the remark. Being compared to Makoto makes me nervous, even if I did (and do) admire him. I don’t like the expectation, regardless of the fact that, in some ways, I put it on myself. “I can’t explain the rationale behind my being programmed to fulfill these tasks. It’s in my basic coding. But, I do like to be helpful. I haven’t figured out if it’s merely because I was programmed to, or if it is my own will, just yet. It doesn’t really matter though.”

 

Huh. That’s odd. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s her own will or her programming that makes her want to help. She just does, by nature. For some reason, that thought gives me pause. But before I can delve into it, or ask her any further questions, she opens up the group chat, and I see the last couple texts on the screen. They were sent several weeks ago, so I assume that this chat isn’t used very often, but… aside from a few texts from Ishimaru and Harukawa, the most frequent texts are from… Makoto.

 

He didn’t capitalise any proper nouns in his texting. I wonder if that was intentional…? I noticed it in his notes on the files, of course, but I dismissed it at the time. Most computers don’t auto-capitalise, so I figured he was just in too much of a hurry to worry about that sort of thing. And yet…

 

I shouldn’t dwell on this right now. I don’t have unlimited time to do this. Even if an hour and fifteen minutes is a pretty generous amount, time tends to slip away from me when I least expect it to. I need to go ahead and ask, so I can hurry up and tell Kaito. I might have to do it at training tonight, if I don’t see him again before I meet with Kyoko, but I’ll do it today. I have to. I have to start being honest with him.

 

I type out several sentence starters and delete them. For a moment, I experience some difficulty figuring out how to string together the words that I need to (because it’s kind of a difficulty thing to ask when I’ve barely been a member of the FYG for a few days) but eventually, I type out the message, triple check it for typos, and send it into the group chat.

 

[Hey, this is Shuichi Saihara. I’m not exactly sure how to say this, but basically, I have a friend named Kaito Momota and I’ve been trying not to tell him about you guys or this for the sake of confidentiality. And it’s starting to become incredibly difficult for me to lie to him, because he’s my best friend and he trusts me… so, what I’m trying to say is that I trust Kaito with my life and I know I’m supposed to keep this a secret and I’ve got no problem with it but I would like to tell him.]

 

Barely a second later, a text comes in from Miu Iruma.

 

[lol, then tell him]

 

I blink, staring at the text for a good two seconds. I’m not really sure what to say at first, but before I can respond, another text arrives; the sender this time is Maki Harukawa.

 

[whoever told you we were this big secret group? idiot. we have thirteen members and we meet every week in somebody’s living room. even if mukuro and i can fight we’re rlly not very qualified to take on both the ff and the government as we are. if you think this kaito guy can be trusted, then tell him.]

 

I swallow hard. More texts are arriving, from Chihiro, K1-B0, and Sakura respectively- and even if I’m starting to feel quite a bit of pressure alleviated from my chest, I’m starting to question whether or not any of them have actual lives.

 

[!!! I know Kaito :D he’s such a good guy ABSOLUTELY tell him!!! I don’t even know why I didn’t??? Shuichi you’re a genius <333 no homo though]

 

[Erm, excuse me for not having the same enthusiasm as Chihiro, but I agree that you should tell him if you think he can be trusted. I’ve met Kaito as well and he’s somebody who I would be glad to have on our team.]

 

[We apologise if it ever came off like we wanted you to lie to the people you are close to, Saihara. It is important that you maintain your close relationships, especially in times like these. We would never want you to risk harming those for our sake. Please keep that in mind in moving forward.]

 

Ishimaru sends a text message as well;

 

[I can’t be on for very long because I’m busy, but TELL HIM!!!! I already told you that you’re more important than the mission, didn’t I?? DO NOT LIE TO PEOPLE YOU CARE FOR, SAIHARA!!! EVEN FOR US!!!! That’s an order!!! >:000]

 

A couple text messages come in from the people who weren’t at my first meeting, as well: Mondo Oowada, and Himiko Yumeno.

 

[nye,,, idk who u are but if everybody else trusts you then yea tell ur friend… i told tenko so jdskfbjdbf]

 

[REAL MEN DON’T LIE TO THEIR FRIENDS!!!]

 

A follow up from Oowada.

 

[but dont feel bad dude just tell him the truth]

 

My hands are shaking as I type out a response. I don’t know why I’m tearing up, because it’s ridiculous for me to cry over something like this, but the overwhelming support is making me feel emotional. I decide not to question myself on this, because it probably won’t yield any results anyway, so I might as well just take it into stride.

 

[I was so worried about it, oh my gosh, thank you guys. Also Ishimaru idk if this is the right place to tell you but I got the map.]

 

[I know I said I wasn’t going to be on here for very long but SO QUICKLY??!!! YOU’RE INCREDIBLE SAIHARA!!!! DON’T LOSE IT. I’ll contact you with a way to send it to me by tomorrow!!]

 

That response makes me laugh out loud, wiping at my eyes. As if I would lose it after all the anxiety I had about getting it. I pull the map out of my pocket and unfold it, smoothing out the creases and examining it. Upon closer inspection, I note that some of the annotations that Toujo and Hoshi had made when I saw them yesterday are copied down onto the paper in what I can only assume is Munakata’s handwriting. Those notes will hopefully be pretty helpful for the FYG. Even if I’m not sure if Toujo and Hoshi can be trusted, I at the very least have faith in their abilities. And it looks as though the notes that they have taken are pretty spot on, from my knowledge of cartography.

 

Suddenly, my brain is going fast, picking up all sorts of details about the map. It’s ridiculous, because even though I haven’t even told Kaito about the FYG yet, I’m starting to relax, as though I’ve already walked up to him and told him the truth. I don’t know if he’ll believe me, even if I have faith in his trust in me, but it feels like such a weight has already been taken off my shoulders. The FYG… they aren’t going to hold it against me, when I tell him. Maybe he’ll even join, if he… well, I shouldn’t think that way just yet. I haven’t even told him. It’s possible he’ll be angry, and he won’t even believe me. But I have the truth on my side. If he doesn’t believe me at first, he’ll come to see the truth soon enough. I have faith in that much. And I know that I owe him an apology regardless.

 

I power off my cell phone and put it to the side, taking a seat at the desk next to my cot and taking out a pen. Since I have a moment to spare, I might as well start working on this map. I should take note on a couple things, and get familiar with it. If I’m likely to be spending a lot of time thinking about it with both the FYG and the Foundation, then I should really get used to looking at it.

 

Without my knowing it, an hour quickly passes. By 4:20, my hand is cramped from taking notes, and the underside is stained with ink. I fold the map back up and put it into my desk drawer, taking care to tuck it away where it’s not going to be easily accessible. I start getting ready to go to meet with Kyoko, but since I started getting ready with ten minutes before rather than two, this time, I am able to take my time a little bit. I make sure to grab a pen, my journal, my headphones, and PAE- tucking the four items into my pocket before turning off the light in the room and heading out.

 

There are a few people milling about, but I avert my gaze, staring determinedly ahead. The thought of telling Kaito the truth is fueling me to walk with more power in my step. I don’t know what to expect of it, but whatever happens, there won’t be any good in dwelling on it. I think this on loop in the back of my head like a mantra, timing it to the beat of my footsteps. By the time I turn left at the fork, I’m feeling sufficiently invigorated.

 

As I’m coming up to the room, I see Kyoko leaning against the wall next to the door, her arms crossed over her chest. She looks as she always does; immaculate, composed. Her hair is out any particular style, and it is gently disturbed when she turns to look at me, expression barely changing when her gaze finds mind.

 

“Hey,” she greets, pushing off the wall and walking over to stand in front of me. Now that she’s standing right in front of me, I’m a little bit off my guard to realise that she’s an inch shorter than I am. I don’t know why it surprises me, to be honest. I haven’t really thought about it before. I suppose her disposition makes her seem a lot taller than she is. But she really isn’t very tall. (I’m not in the position to talk, exactly, but still…) “You’re on time today.”

 

I feel my face burning. “I wasn’t that late yesterday,” I mutter, in my defense. I hadn’t been aware that she’d noticed my tardiness, to be honest. She hadn’t commented on it. But I guess she was just more focused on other things. But even though I’ve protested her remark, Kyoko smiles, and it occurs to me that she might’ve just been teasing. Does… does Kyoko do that, tease people? I’ve never seen her do such a thing before. I wonder…

 

“Let’s talk somewhere else today.” Kyoko orders rather than suggests, gesturing with one gloved hand for me to follow her before she turns and starts walking. This time, I’m a little bit quicker on the uptake, hurrying after her and keeping pace. I’m not seeing the point of going all the way to the east wing of the building only to turn in the other direction, but I know that she usually has a reason for doing what she does, so I try not to question it.

 

“Ah, did Rantaro leave this morning?” I ask, suddenly remembering that he had said he would. I can’t believe that it slipped my mind- with all that was going on, I suppose it’s understandable that I would be thinking about other things, but for me to be so preoccupied while a friend of mine is off risking his life… I feel bad. Remembering that he’s gone also makes me remember the promise I made him yesterday evening, that I would look after Kyoko. To be honest, I don’t think that she needs very much looking after, but I trust his opinions and observations more than I trust my own.

 

Nodding, Kyoko points to the left with her chin, and we turn around the corner, coming into the section of the building where all of our rooms are. I blink, surprised that we’ve come here. Maybe she wants to talk in her room? The thought of that makes me a little bit nervous, for some reason. “I saw him off at breakfast.” She answers me out loud, and I startle, having half forgotten that I’d asked her a question. If she notices, and I’m sure that she does, she doesn’t have anything to say to my surprise. “He’s plenty prepared for the mission, and he seemed well rested, so try not to worry so much about him.”

 

I feel bad, actually, because up until now, I hadn’t even been worrying very much about Rantaro’s well-being. I know that I’ve been busy, but it’s only been half a day since he left, hasn’t it? Kyoko is assuming that I’m a lot better than I am. I don’t say anything in response to her comment, only give her a nod. She doesn’t continue further, and I suppose I’m thankful for the slight reprieve from conversation as she stops outside what I assume is her room and fishes a key from her pocket.

 

Now, I feel more inclined to say something. “You have a key for your room?” I ask, skeptical. “Most of the rooms that I’ve been in don’t really lock…” I think of Kaito’s room, and before Kaito’s, Kaede’s. I don’t recall either of them having keys, or any reason to have keys. Though, I suppose that as Kyoko is a pretty secretive person, it makes more sense for her to have a room that she can lock.

 

“Yes. A perk of being trusted, I assume.” She clears her throat and shoots me a rueful smile. “Not that it’s necessarily the case at the moment, of course, but I’m sure it would put the Future Foundation into a pretty uncomfortable position if they suddenly revoked this privilege.”

 

It’s out of the park, for me, the idea that the Foundation would give certain people advantages over others. I mean, not that it should be. I should be able to expect anything of people who would do the things that the Foundation does. But it still takes me off guard. I try to recover from my shock and respond. “Well, it’s pretty convenient for you, huh?” I prompt, smiling slightly. She doesn’t answer right away, unlocking the door and pushing it open. She points through the door for me to step inside, and as I do, she chooses to respond.

 

“Naturally, I like to have a room that can lock. It’s easier for me to maintain my secrecy this way. But I’m certain that somebody has a copy of the key. There’s no way the Foundation would willfully allow one of their members to have access to a means of keeping secrets from them. As I said, they appear to have an inability to trust in their members. You remember what that means, right?”

 

“...people who can’t trust, can’t be trusted,” I recall, and Kyoko nods, a bit of a triumphant smile appearing on her face. Her neutral expression quickly returns, however, and she closes the door behind her, carefully locking it. I try not to pay that any heed; she’s just opting to choose a room that can lock so that we won’t be interrupted. Not that we had very high chances of being interrupted on the east wing of the building, but I’m sure she has a reason for doing what she’s doing.

 

I turn around and take in my surroundings. For the most part, it’s pretty bare bones. There are hardly any indicators that it is Kyoko who sleeps here. The walls aren’t decorated. The cot in the centre has a plain white blanket resting on top. There is a desk next to her cot, as there is in my room, but it doesn’t look as though she uses it very often. On mine, there is a surplus of annotated documents left there. Most of them are from over a week ago, because I didn’t really care very much about secrecy for the first two months of my time in the Future Foundation. The only indication that anybody stays here at all is the closet door, hanging slightly ajar. Inside, there are only two sets of clothing; one is a woman’s Future Foundation uniform, but the other looks to be a dark purple jacket and black skirt, as well as a white blouse and an orange tie. Under her cot, a pair of black boots are just barely peeking out.

 

Kyoko seems to notice me looking and walks over to the closet, opening it all the way. On the floor of the closet, there seems to be a backpack sitting there that I hadn’t noticed before with the door mostly closed. I look at it for a moment before looking up at her, raising an eyebrow in a questioning gesture. She doesn’t make any indication that my seeing these things make her feel anything. In fact, she merely shrugs, grabbing the backpack off the floor of the closet and tossing it over to me. I catch it, fumbling a little, but look back at her when she speaks.

 

“I keep a bag packed, in case I ever need to get out of here and there isn’t any time for me to grab everything. You can look inside, if you’d like.” Since she says it so offhandedly, I let my curiosity get the better of me and take a peek inside. For the most part, it’s what I’d expect. An outfit to match the one hanging in the closet, toiletries, underwear (I avert my gaze from the latter two) but there are also a couple notebooks packed, as well as a folder that I identify as the one she’s been bringing to meetings. As I poke around through it, Kyoko speaks again. “In the event that I have to leave, I want to be able to continue fighting Enoshima, even without the Foundation.”

 

Or especially without the Foundation, but… we haven’t really had that conversation yet. Suddenly, I wonder if I should tell her. I did promise her that I would, after all. And I basically just got permission from the FYG. Technically, they only told me that I could tell Kaito, but they also told me not to lie to my friends on their behalf. I think Kyoko definitely counts. And I trust her, so… the biggest thing holding me back right now is the concern that if I tell her, I’ll be putting her in danger, and that’ll be going against the promise I made to Rantaro, regarding keeping her safe.

 

But, I mean, she already knows how bad the Foundation is. (On my account.) Shouldn’t I tell her the full story? I can, now, anyway. I really need her on my side. I already decided to myself that I’d be telling her eventually, regardless, so what difference does it make if I tell her now or later? It’ll have the same outcome. But if I tell her now, I’ll be getting it out of the way sooner. Besides, she knows that there’s something that I need to tell her… I’ve kept her waiting for over a day at this point, haven’t I? She deserves to be told as soon as possible.

 

Before I can fully convince myself, she speaks, interrupting my thoughts. “Yesterday, I told Rantaro that I’d leave the specifics of your plan up to you two, but the situation has changed slightly since then. In the interest of preserving time, would you like to discuss a plan of attack for how you’ll distract the guards in a couple nights?”

 

Really, I’d like to tell her about the FYG as soon as possible, but it can wait until we have this conversation. I nod, pulling my journal out of my pocket. “Yeah- uhm, yes. I would really appreciate your input on how to go about it.” I mean it, too. I haven’t been worrying too much about making the plan without Rantaro’s assistance, because I like to think that I’m pretty good at playing the distraction, but it can always help to have a second opinion. Especially if the person giving that opinion happens to be Kyoko Kirigiri. She doesn’t smile, and really, barely responds, but she does nod, indicating towards her desk chair before dropping gracefully to sit on her cot. I realise that she means for me to sit at the desk chair and do so, ducking my head a little in embarrassment at how long it took me to figure it out.

 

Since there isn’t really anything else for us to establish, we get to work talking about the diversion. Kyoko tells me that she thinks it may be prudent to plan around Rantaro, in the event that something happens to him. I hate to even consider that possibility, but I know that she’s right. So we end up coming up with two plans. One of them involves both me and Rantaro in equal measure, acting as though we’re attempting to sneak around Enoshima’s guards to get in, only to get caught intentionally. From there, we’re supposed to try to talk our ways out of it- at the very least, for long enough that they don’t kill us right away. Keep them distracted long enough for Kyoko to sneak in. Then we’d escape, if possible, and wait around in the perimeter for her to get out.

 

The other option, however, and the one that I don’t like to think about, is that something happens to Rantaro, and I have to go in alone. Pretend that I’m doing something similar to Kyoko, and sneaking in without the Future Foundation realising it. Bluff. Get out of there alive. All by myself, without Rantaro there to assist me. The fact that the plan seems so feasible is frightening to me, as if something has already happened to him. And I tell my brain to stop thinking like that, because there’s no way that he’s gotten injured just because I haven’t spent the entire day being anxious about his well-being, but my nerves are having none of it.

 

But by 7:30, the discussion has dwindled, because we’ve gone over the plan three times and can no longer find anything else to nitpick. It seems possible to me that Kyoko might just kick me out now that we’ve made the plan, but I still need to tell her about the FYG, so before she can say anything, I speak.

 

“Uhm, so, do you remember what we talked about yesterday?” I blurt out, and she tilts her head to the side, looking me over with some curiosity in her gaze.

 

“Are you referring to when I observed that you’re hiding something from me, and you asked me to wait for you to be ready to tell me what that is?” I nod once, swallowing, and she nods in return, running a hand through her hair. “Yes, I recall. Why do you ask?”

 

“I, uhm, discussed it.” I don’t want to say that I asked the FYG for permission, so I charge ahead without elaborating. “Anyway, the reason I even knew about Makoto’s login information, or all the things that the Foundation has been getting up to… it’s because Makoto was working against them, while he was alive.” That last sentence makes me want to stop short but I figure it would be a pretty lousy place to stop, especially considering who I’m talking to. “He started a group called the FYG, and he was spying on the Foundation on their behalf.”

 

Kyoko is silent for a moment. Pensive. “I imagine he wanted you to fulfill the responsibilities that he left behind?” Her surmise is pretty spot on.

 

“Ah, partly. I haven’t taken over the FYG as a leader, or anything like that. But I have joined as their spy. A-Anyway, the reason he left that information for me was because he…” I take a deep breath. “The Foundation must have found out that he was working against him, and they ordered that he be killed. He was being poisoned for about a week by the time he got shot.”

If these words affect Kyoko in any way, and I’m sure they do, she doesn’t let it show on her face. “That’s why he threw his life away with so little hesitation.” She guesses. “Because he knew he was going to die regardless.” She pauses, as if debating with herself whether or not she should say something. “...no, he would have done that anyway. If not for you specifically, Shuichi, for some noble reason. Makoto was especially prone to them.” I hear her sigh, and it occurs to me that she’s probably holding a lot inside.

 

“Kyoko…”

“That information makes all of the pieces fit together.” Kyoko says these words in her usual manner, if somewhat roughly, and I get the message. She doesn’t want to talk about it. “Thank you for telling me.” She messes with some of the buttons on the back of her glove, and I wonder what to say to her. I feel as though “you’re welcome” wouldn’t be very tactful, given the circumstances.

 

“Does it bother you?” I ask, and immediately regret begins to settle in when I hear the words from my lips. It’s such a stupid and insensitive question for me to ask when she’s clearly still grieving, but now that I’ve asked it, I have to elaborate, otherwise, she’ll think that I’m just pitying her. “That… that he didn’t tell you about this, I mean.” Why he wouldn’t is still beyond me. It was obvious, while he was alive, that he cared for her. Even though he only mentioned it briefly. And Kyoko clearly returns the sentiment.

 

But there’s no hidden meaning in the resigned expression on her face as she shakes her head, massaging her temple with one hand. “No, I know why he didn’t. It’s stupid, and really it’s everything that I’ve come to expect from Makoto, but… he was likely trying to protect me, by keeping that information a secret. He didn’t want me to have to lie. And he trusted me to figure it out on my own. When that happened, I’m sure he would’ve come clean. I assumed he was hiding something from me from the get-go, but I assumed he would tell me about it when he felt the time was right.”

 

How terrible it must be, to hear about this from somebody like me, after her lover has already died. To find out that he lied to her for a couple months before he did so. A bitter taste enters my mouth. If I found out, out of the blue, that Kaede was lying to me for a while when we were acquainted, I don’t even know how I’d take it. I might lose it. The fact that Kyoko is as composed as she is is admirable.

 

I reach out to touch her shoulder but my hand stops halfway, uncertain. She’s looking away from me, so she doesn’t notice the gesture, but I still don’t know if it’s a good idea. Or even my place. My hand remains frozen there for a moment, and I remember Rantaro, asking me to look after her. Surely, he means in more ways than just keeping her alive. He wants me to make sure that she feels okay, too. I should push past my reluctance to cross the invisible boundaries that I’ve created between us in my mind.

Forcing myself to be brave, I finish reaching out and put my hand on her shoulder. Kyoko barely acknowledges that my hand is there, but I suppose it’s the thought that counts. I squeeze tight, to let her know that… I don’t know. That I’m here. That I don’t understand, that I couldn’t, but also that I’m trying to. And that I care.

 

It’s just a physical gesture, but I mean it so much more than I’ve meant any of the words out of my mouth the past couple of days.

Chapter Text

At eight, I bid Kyoko a good night, and she returns the gesture, but does little else to send me on my way, so I take that as a sign to head out. I should give her some space to think. Even if Kyoko is among the most level-headed, capable people I know, it’s quite a bombshell to drop on her all of a sudden. And even if she told me that she understands why Makoto had to lie, it’s not really the best thing to find out about your boyfriend postmortem. I’m willing to give her as much time as she needs, but even if I wasn’t, for some reason, it wouldn’t be right for me to try to take that away from her. We’re friends, but we aren’t that close. I couldn’t.

 

I make the journey through the building alone, and in silence. A couple of the people I pass in the hallway are people who I recognise- notably, Kuwata and Gokuhara, but I do little more than nod at them in acknowledgement, and I think they catch the hint that I’m in a bit of a hurry, so I’m not otherwise interrupted. As I head over to the door that leads to the courtyard, I take a deep breath, closing my eyes. I’ve never been very good at pep talks. Especially those administered to me, rather than people who I care about and want to support. But even though I sincerely doubt that Kaito would just shut me down, I’m still nervous, so I try to encourage myself as best as I can before stepping outside.

 

It’s a cool night, like most before it, and I close my eyes briefly and suck in a deep breath. It’s not the clearest air I’ve ever breathed, but it’s certainly worlds away from the stuffy air inside the Future Foundation building, and when I open my eyes, my gaze moves upwards and I take in the shimmering expanse of stars that spread about above me.

 

My uncle has told me stories of a time when the night was so peacefully uninterrupted that the night sky was full of so many stars, it was difficult the get your bearings. I’m sure it existed once, but civilisation has put an end to that with street lamps and cars and the lit windows in the many buildings that I am surrounded by. In the parts of the sky that aren’t filled with stars there is nothing but a dark, murky blue. I’m grateful for the clear night. It puts my mind at ease. And Kaito has always loved looking at the stars. I’m sure he’ll be calm, too.

 

As soon as I think of him, I look down, searching the area for my best friend. When I spot the unmistakable purple, spiky hair that I know is his, I smile despite myself and walk over, arms swinging at my side. I close my hands into fists, squeezing tight for a moment, and then release the gesture, stretching out my fingers and trying to relax the tension that has suddenly appeared in my shoulders. Before he can greet me, I open my mouth and force out the words that are reverberating through my skull.

 

“I need to talk to you about something.” I tell him jerkily. If he thinks that something is wrong in my disposition or my tone, he chooses not to comment on it, instead smiling nonchalantly. It doesn’t look like Kaito is taking anything very seriously right now. And I can’t decide if it makes this easier or harder.

 

“Sure, bro, you know I’m always listening.” His assurance manages to calm me down a little bit, but it also reminds me of the guilt I felt earlier today, and while anxiety is still burning a hot flame in my gut, it thins out and makes room for determination. That’s right. That’s why… it’s why I’m even taking this risk to begin with. I close my eyes and take another deep breath, relishing the feel of the cold night air on the back of my neck and forehead.

 

“Uh, let’s sit down.” I say. “I think I’ll be talking for a while.” Kaito gives no verbal response, only takes a seat on the ground in front of me, and I have no choice but to follow suit, dropping to sit in the grass. It is slightly wet with dew, and I can feel it staining my pants, but there are more important things for me to be focusing on, so I draw my attention away from those sensations and make myself meet his eyes. Then, having done that, I force open my mouth and begin to talk.

 

As I explain to him what I’ve been learning these past couple weeks, and all of the things that Makoto has left behind for me to discover, he is oddly silent, Kaito’s expression a mask of thought. I’m not sure what I’m hoping that he’ll say, to be honest, and anyway, it’s easier to continue when he’s not saying anything for me to interrupt, so I say as much as I can (as much as I will allow myself to) before falling silent and waiting for his response.

 

There is a tense moment during which neither of us says a word. He sits there, his gaze flitting across the sky and between the trees that stand above our heads, and I can’t help but watch his face. It’s hard for me to get a read on what he’s thinking about all of this, which is rare for him, since Kaito genuinely hides so little. His face is completely devoid of emotion, but not in the same way as Kyoko, or Ikusaba… more as though he’s just trying to figure out for himself what his thoughts are. I don’t think he’s making a conscious effort to hide anything from me. Despite the intense thought that is undoubtedly filling his mind right now, his features are free of stress. Above all else, he is relaxed. He must still feel safe, despite all that I’ve said.

 

Eventually, though, a crooked smile makes its way onto his expression. It’s not the most unexpected of faces that he could make, and definitely not the worse, so I feel myself smiling too, feeling oddly shaken. It’s like the feeling I always get after crying, where I’m still hiccuping through the remainder of my sobs and my insides are all trembly and everything feels weirdly funny and sweet and warm. It’s silly because all I’ve done is tell the truth… but the air suddenly smells much sweeter.

 

“Wow,” Kaito finally says, and I laugh, more out of nerves than much else. I’ve told him everything; about the FYG, about the Future Foundation and about how Makoto died. And I’ve told him about Kyoko, too, about Kyoko and Rantaro and our plans and how Rantaro went off on a mission that is far too dangerous. I even told him smaller, more irrelevant details- about how I heard Harukawa giving Makoto an apology that he’ll never receive, and how Ouma keeps hinting that I’m a terrible liar, and just how unsure I feel about all of it. I didn’t need to say those things, but as I spoke, they just came out of my mouth. “I’m sorry you felt like you had to keep all of that to yourself, Shuichi. That’s my bad.”

 

“What?” If I was drinking water or something just now, I’m sure I would’ve done a spit take. The last thing I expected coming into this conversation was an apology. I don’t want him to feel bad for any of this!

 

“You’re my sidekick, so I thought it would be obvious that any responsibilities that fall on you fall on me, as well. That’s why I never reminded you, and you probably felt like you were in it alone. You can always rely on me, bro, that’s why I’m here.” Kaito is still smiling at me, but it looks like the saddest smile I’ve ever seen him give, and that is the last expression I want to see on his face right now, so I try to figure out what I can say that would alleviate his guilt.

 

“U-Uhm, Kaito, it- it isn’t your fault, you know…?” I swallow hard, fiddling with my tie. “I mean, I know that I can trust you, and rely on you. I just…” What would even work right now? What would be the truth? “I didn’t want to betray the FYG’s trust, I guess? And I went about it in the complete wrong way. That’s nothing you did.”

 

“I guess you’re probably right about that,” Kaito admits, shrugging. “But don’t worry! Any mistakes that you make are my mistakes, remember?” He clears his throat, refocusing. “To shift the conversation a little bit though, damn! I thought the Future Foundation was totally the good guys here!” That really sums up all of my thoughts for the past week and a half, yeah. “But it seems like they’re total jerks.” Oversimplified, but basically. “Also, I don’t like that Ouma guy. He sounds like a prick.”

 

I snicker, despite the situation. I feel lighter. He believes me- not only does he believe me, but he’s not… he’s not angry at me. (What was I expecting? Of course he does, of course he’s not, it’s Kaito. There’s a reason why I decided to believe in him two months ago.) “A prick, huh? I don’t think he has any ill-intent, to be honest… I just think he’s a bit…” what word would suffice to describe Kokichi Ouma? “...childish?”

 

“You don’t sound sure,” Kaito points out, and I shrug.

 

“I’m not sure,” I admit, frowning. “That guy completely baffles me. I have no idea what he’s meaning to do at any given moment. I think I’m starting to understand when he’s lying and when he’s telling the truth, but he’s such a good liar that he keeps slipping things past me. It really doesn’t help that for the past three days, he’s been popping up out of nowhere with little warning.” Was it really only this morning that I saw him last? It feels as though that meeting with Munakata and the group working to take down the Despairs was ages ago.

 

Kaito considers my words, counts on his fingers. “That’ll be three times he’s popped up, yeah? Maybe he’s into you, Shuichi.”

 

I choke. “Okay, so telling you that I’m bisexual was a mistake, I understand that now.” Kaito laughs, and I begrudge a smile at my own expense, feeling my face heat up despite the incredibly low stakes of the situation. “But I don’t think so…?” I squint, thinking of all of the flirtatious jokes he’s made at my expense. “I think he just enjoys picking on me?” It’s hard to tell. Hard to read him. “He’s basically a stranger, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

 

“Yeah, I was messing with ya.” Kaito nods sagely, and I can’t help snorting, because while I’ve had pretty limited experience with love, he’s probably had way less. (Not that I think he’s unlikable, nor does anybody, he just… doesn’t hold himself with the air of a person who’s traversed in that area before.) But when he clears his throat, sobering up a little bit, I do too, focusing. “Y’know, I’m glad you did choose to tell me now. I mean, I would’ve been fine waiting until you were ready, but I don’t know how much longer you could’ve survived keeping a secret from me.” He adds quickly, “I’m sure you could’ve handled it, since you’re my sidekick and all, and you can do anything if you set your mind to it, but that’s one hell of a secret, Shuichi.”

 

“I know.” I scratch the back of my neck, leaning back and resting my weight on my other arm as I look up at the stars. “I’m… glad I told you. I’m not going to be keeping any secrets from you. Not again. That was way too much, and I trust you too much to survive doing it a second time.” I mean it, too, which probably says some pretty bad things about my self control, but I don’t care.

 

“That’s good! And now you’re going to have another person on board to help you do this, so it’s a win-win!” Kaito chirps, and I’m surprised by the declaration. There are a lot of implications that I can logically identify with what he’s just said, but while it seems pretty arbitrary for a guy like Kaito, I didn’t really think much beyond the ‘actually telling him’ part of what I’m doing right now. I was too stressed out to think about what might happen afterwards.

 

“Do you mean…?” I don’t even dare ask, looking at my best friend with wide eyes. He nods at me, eyebrows raised as though it should be obvious.

 

“Of course I’m joining your group, are you kidding me? There’s no way I’m going to keep helping the Future Foundation when I know what you’ve told me!” He says this with no reservation, and I jump a little, putting up a hand. His eyes widen slightly. “Ohhh, right, yeah. I’ll have to be pretty careful with that, huh?”

 

“Are you going to leave the Foundation?” I ask carefully, as calmly as I can muster. “Or…”

 

“Depends on where you need me. I can leave, or I can stay, and help you do that spy stuff. You’ve got a lot on your plate, after all. It might help to have an extra brain. Especially the brain of Kaito Momota!” I find myself laughing, despite being in emphatic agreement with what he’s just said.

 

“We’ll figure it out in due time.” I decide. “At the end of the week, you should come with me to the FYG meeting. We can ask then for alternate opinions.” I pause, then add, “Also, I’m not sure which decision is more appealing to me, at this moment in time,” and Kaito nods, stretching his arms over his head and getting to his feet.

 

“C’mon, the night is still young! Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get some training done, a’ight? Just because we spent the beginning talking doesn’t mean we can’t still get some work out of the way!” I hum out my agreement and stand up, dusting water droplets off the legs of my pants and frowning when it gets them wet as a result.

 

We start training as we usually do, with pushups, but even though Kaito is chattering away about one thing or another, my mind is elsewhere. I’m thinking about how good it feels, to be open with him. It’s so nice to tell him the truth. Keeping that secret from him was what really made all of this hard. But I was right that I could trust him. I’m glad, because I know that out of every single person fighting this war, Kaito Momota, at least, is somebody worth fighting for. And that’s really what should be motivating me right now.

Chapter Text

“Great, Shuichi,” Munakata looks up from the computer he’s seated in front of when I step into the computer lab, my journal tucked under my arm. “Right on time.”

 

Well, I’m not sure about that. After lunch is a pretty general time slot. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to make a good guess as to when Munakata finishes eating, but I simply went to lunch at noon and came here an hour later, hoping for the best. Looks like my judgement hasn’t failed me yet. I offer a quiet smile and walk over to where he’s seated, taking the spot next to him.

 

“Hello, s- ah, uhm, I mean, Kyousuke,” I correct myself, disliking the way his given name feels on my tongue. He responds with a knowing smile and looks at the monitor before him, directing my attention there too. I don’t recognise the interface that the computer is on. Presumably, it’s some sort of system for making new accounts for new members, but I’ve never been on it before. Logically that makes sense, though, as I’ve… never had to make an account for a new member in my time as a member of the Future Foundation. “What’s this?” I ask anyway, gesturing at the screen.

 

“This is how I’m going to make you an account,” Munakata explains, clicking an icon in the middle of the screen. “You don’t need all of the details because as far as I know, you don’t have any particular proficiency with computers,” he raises an eyebrow at me and I shake my head in agreement with his comment, “but basically, the interface was designed by one of the older members of the organisation. You might have heard of him- Chihiro Fujisaki?”

 

Uh, I’ve done more than hear of him. “Oh, you mean that programmer who left? I’ve heard a little bit about him…” when Munakata nods, I speak again. “Uhm, may I ask…? Why did Fujisaki leave the organisation?” I know the answer, of course; he left on Makoto’s behalf. But I figure that it would make sense for me to ask, if I didn’t know.

 

Munakata considers my question, frowning. “To be honest, I’ve never been sure.” He muses, brows knitting together. “Him and Kiyotaka Ishimaru… they both left the group at around the same time. Actually, they left at around the time when you joined.”

 

I laugh slightly, but before my own ears, it sounds forced. “Ah, what a coincidence.” I make myself say the words as lightly as I can, but if anything seems off about my diction, Munakata gives no indication that he’s noticed. Perhaps he is simply choosing to ignore it, but I can’t say that I’m not glad he’s chosen not to comment on it. Hearing him say something about it would seriously put me out. Thankfully, he moves on.

 

“Anyway, it was Fujisaki who put this system together. He was very good at it, though it’s my understanding that his biggest priority at the time was creating an AI that could hack Enoshima’s servers.” Huh. I wonder if he ever managed that. Suddenly I want to ask PAE why Fujisaki programmed her to begin with… and why she ended up on somebody’s cell phone, in lieu of doing something as big and important as hacking Enoshima’s servers. Still, it’s startling to me how much of an asset Fujisaki appears to be. It really is a good thing that such a talented person is as obviously kindhearted as Fujisaki appears to be. “I can barely use it, to be honest, but I know how to give you access.”

 

“Is it complicated?” I ask, and surprise myself with my genuine curiosity.

 

“Oh, yes. It’s one of the best things about Fujisaki’s abilities.” Munakata replies, tapping his fingers on the table as he waits for the computer screen to load. “It’s this complicated to make it harder on Enoshima’s people, should they attempt to hack in.” He hums. “I doubt there are any members of the Foundation right now who actually fully grasp how our servers function, but it’s a small price to pay for security.” I wonder how good their security really is, considering that Makoto was able to smuggle off all sorts of incriminating files. I figure, though, that that would be a pretty crappy addition to the conversation, so I keep it to myself.

 

Instead, I opt to switch topics slightly. “So, when I get access, how much will I be able to look at?”

 

“Not much on there is confidential, you’ll find, except for a few select files.” As the screen finally boots up, he begins typing as he continues to speak. “You should be able to read up on past missions and case reports. Once you have access, I’ll be able to share a number of files with you in regards to the mission to find the Despairs, and also several reports and previous encounters with them.”

 

“I would like more information about these Ultimate Despairs,” I murmur, hoping that I’m not being too forward. “I’d like to know a bit more about what we’re up against, y’know?” Munakata nods, meeting my eyes briefly before turning his attention onto the screen once more.

 

“That’s a reasonable enough request. I can brief you, but I can also send you the case files themselves later today if you’d prefer. Anything that I could tell you would probably be at least somewhat obscured by my own bias.” I’m taken off guard by the thoughtfulness in what he’s just said. Everything that he could relay to me would be coloured by his personal thoughts and experiences in regards to the Despairs. I feel guilty respecting that he’s able to acknowledge as much. (But maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to respect him…? I’m bound to respect him regardless, right? As long as I don’t forget what he’s done…)

 

“That would be great,” I say, and then add, “Uhm, the part about you sharing the files with me. Though I wouldn’t mind hearing it directly from you, either.” This part is a lie. Spending time with Munakata, I’m sure I’ve emphasised heavily in the past and will continue to moving forward, is pretty uncomfortable for me all around. I’d rather just read it from a file. Besides, if I am sent physical copies of files, I can try to pass them along to Ishimaru and the FYG. It would be good to get more information on the Despairs, and try to find the discrepancies between what he’s willing to show to me and the information that Makoto directed me towards in the video that he left.

 

For some reason, that thought in particular makes me pause. That’s right. Munakata and the Future Foundation are always willing to lie to me. I’ve been lied to since the moment that I stepped foot in here. I doubt that anybody has ever been entirely frank with me, except for perhaps the members who exist at my level; such as Kyoko and Kaito and maybe a few other people who I’ve conversed with in recent months. It isn’t as though I’m betraying the trust of a group of well-meaning people who have never done anything but believe in me. They don’t trust me to do what they want me to do. This isn’t a one-sided relationship. They’ve lied to me, too. I shouldn’t waste time beating myself up over things that I need to do. I think some guilt is well-placed, as far as Kuwata and a few others are concerned, but otherwise… I need to stop guilt tripping myself. It’s necessary. Deserved. I just need to use my judgement when it comes to when I should lie, and what I should lie about.

 

“Okay, your username is going to be f, f, underscore, s, Saihara. No capital letters or spaces.”

 

Written, that would look like ff_ssaihara. I am reminded of Makoto’s username. I wonder if all of the usernames in the Future Foundation are similar. If I was going to hack Munakata, would his login information be similar? Would his username be ff_kmunakata? It seems fairly intuitive, in retrospect. The FF most certainly stands for Future Foundation, and the underscore is a given. I nod, to let him know that I understand, and that he can keep talking.

 

“Here, you can write your password.” Munakata slides me the keyboard and I look down at it, resting my right hand atop the shiny black keys. For some reason, I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to make it. It shouldn’t be something so obvious, like Makoto’s was, right? Using the name of somebody who I really care about would be absurd; I’m sure that anybody could see through it. Putting my password as something like Kaito or Kaede’s name would jeopardise my privacy. It isn’t as though I’m intending to put anything serious or important on this account, but I should still get into the habit of putting something that nobody would be able to guess.

 

That means my uncle’s name is out of the question, too… if I choose a bunch of random letters and characters, as my uncle once told me to do, there is no doubt in my mind that I would forget it almost immediately. I’ve never been very good at remembering complex combinations. Which means that a word (probably a name) is my best bet. Choosing something like “password” seems like a pretty terrible idea… 123456 is easy to remember but unfortunately would also probably be somebody’s first or second guess. I go over the names in my head of the people who don’t mean anything to me, or aren’t really big players in my life, and I wonder if I can spell any of them. Briefly I entertain the idea that I could use Munakata’s name as my password, because I really doubt that anybody would ever guess that one, but I’m pretty sure that if I did that I would put myself into a terrible mood every time I typed it in. Also, it would be pretty uncomfortable if he attempted to go into my account of some reason and he found out that my password is his name.

 

Suddenly, an idea pops into my mind, and before I’m entirely sure, my fingers are moving on autopilot and I type the name “Kokichi Ouma” into the bar. None of the letters show up on screen, so I have to be extra careful that I’m choosing all the correct characters to set as my password. I hope I’ve spelled his name correctly, but I guess it won’t matter anyway, because as long as I continue to spell it the way that I did, I’ll be able to get in with or without the knowledge of whether or not I’ve succeeded.

 

I slide the keyboard back over to Munakata, and he taps the enter key without a second glance. When he catches me tilting my head in what I imagine must be an inquisitive manner, he shrugs. “I don’t have any interest in what your password is, even if I did have any way of finding that out. It isn’t as though I’ll be attempting to access your account at any point.” I guess that any information that I could possible obtain would be obtained through his merits, anyway. I nod, but I don’t say anything else, instead watching as the screen loads.

 

The computer goes green and a check icon appears in the center. Munakata clears his throat and gestures at the computer that I’ve taken a seat in front of, telling me to try logging in on it with my credentials. I turn and do as he indicated, typing in my new username (the positions of the characters on the keyboard are somewhat unfamiliar to me) and respectively Ouma’s full name, with no caps or spaces. As soon as my pinky finds the enter key, the screen immediately begins loading, and it occurs to me that it has likely worked. Just in case I might be wrong, though, I wait for more substantial results, and find myself smiling when the computer unlocks.

 

“It worked,” I tell Munakata, somewhat needlessly, as he has been watching over my shoulder. A (rather becoming, I think grouchily) smile crosses over his features and he gives me a thumbs up as he gets to his feet, stretching.

 

“Excellent. I have a few other things to attend to, so if it’s alright by you, can I take my leave?”

 

I nod, and look at the computer screen again, because there are a few other things that I could use this time to be doing, now that I have access. The screensaver is blank, likely because I’ve never used this account before, but I’ve no doubt in my mind that I could find a number of documents that could at the very least satiate my boredom for a short period of time. Before I can set about looking at them, however, Munakata seems to remember something, and speaks once again.

 

“Actually, hold on.” I look over at him, raising an eyebrow. “I gave you a physical copy of the map yesterday. Do you have any thoughts on it so far? I know you’re busy and it’s possible that you haven’t gotten a chance to look it over yet, but…” Well, I had many thoughts on it yesterday, but I don’t want to share them with the Future Foundation… thankfully, I thought about this particular dilemma while I was annotating the map yesterday afternoon. I copied down a few of the less consequential notes that I’d had in my notebook, hoping to find a chance to share them with Munakata as soon as possible. It was actually the reason why I’d brought it with me.

 

So I nod. “Actually, yes, uhm, just a minute.” I open my notebook and flip quickly through pages that I understand to have information that I don’t want Munakata having any access to. To my relief, though, he doesn’t appear to be looking at any of it. The amount of trust that he appears to be putting in me is scary, though it does occur to me that perhaps this is simply another topic intended to gain and misuse my trust. If that’s the case, then, well… no use dwelling on it now. I find the page where I copied down the few notes and gently rip it from the binding of the notebook before handing it over to Munakata. “This is all I’ve been able to get so far,” I make a show of admitting this with a sheepish smile while he looks over it. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t find anything more helpful.”

 

Very briefly, Munakata is quiet, thoughtful. I’m not sure what to make of the expression on his face, but a moment later, it disappears, and he smiles at me, meeting my gaze. “Thank you, Shuichi, I think this will be very helpful.” He tells me, and I’m once again surprised by how earnest his tone is. I nod, hesitating a little to accept his thanks.

 

“It’s no problem,” I tell him, and when I compare what I’ve handed over to what I’ve prepared to give to the FYG, I find that it really isn’t a problem. The notes that I’ve given him are painfully unsubstantial. But they seem to be something that he’s happy to receive, which is both gratifying and a little bit unsettling, because I don’t want to have done anything that will aid the Future Foundation in finding the Ultimate Despairs… oh, well. It is what it is. I’ve passed over the information, now. I can’t just rescind my offer.

 

He nods, and without another word, Munakata turns on his heel and walks out of the computer lab at a brisk pace. The amount of purpose in his step makes me think that he’s either realised he’s late to a commitment that he’s already made, or perhaps the information that I’ve given him reminded him of something…? At any rate, I don’t have much time to spend worrying about it. I have a couple hours until I’m scheduled to go meet with Kyoko, so I should spend that time productively. With that at the forefront of my mind, I turn back to the computer, preparing to read up on previous missions that the Future Foundation has been on, when my phone buzzes in my pocket.

 

At first, I think it must be something that PAE has to tell me, so I pull out the device, scanning the screen.

 

“You have a new message from Kiyotaka. Since you’re in a somewhat public place right now, I’m going to put the messenger icon on the screen for you to open and view it.” I nod, and it occurs to me that maybe she doesn’t have any way of seeing what I’ve just done, but before I can try to verbalise a response, her words disappear and the messenger icon pops up. I tap it, and the texting chat between myself and Ishimaru pops up. Before the message that he’s just sent, I can see the really long text that he sent me the other day, detailing all of the information about the map.

 

Now, however, the subject of his text is somewhat different.

 

[Good afternoon, Saihara! I hope you haven’t lost that map :)) In two days time, Chihiro will be swinging by the front of the Future Foundation headquarters at 10AM. Please be there in order to give him the map. That’s the day after tomorrow, for reference. Have a great rest of your day!]

 

It’s definitely a lot shorter than the last one, and I find myself smiling at the enthusiastic way that he’s typed the instructions. I feel excited just reading over the text message. I’m definitely coming to admire Ishimaru. He’s an excellent leader, if the way I always come away from interactions feeling energised is any indicator. I type out a quick affirmative response, and as soon as I send it, the door to the computer lab opens and closes behind me. I quickly tap the power button on the phone and slide it into my pocket, turning to look at whoever has just walked in.

 

As soon as I look up, my eyes meet the navy blue eyes of Sayaka Maizono, and I find myself smiling on instinct, thinking about the words that Kuwata had to share about her yesterday. She returns the expression somewhat timidly and walks over to stand in front of me.

 

I get to my feet so that she’s not put into an awkward position standing in front of me while I’m still in my seat. “Hi, Maizono.” I greet her, relieved to hear how pleasant my tone sounds in my own ears. Maizono raises a hand and waves, despite standing less than a foot away from me. I’m looking down to meet her eyes; she appears to be a couple inches or so shorter than me.

 

“Hello, Saihara,” she responds quietly, and I watch as her smile slowly fades into a neutral, if not a smidge troubled, expression. Even though I don’t think that negative emotion is necessarily a bad thing when handled properly, it does worry me to see the sadness in her eyes, so as gently as I can, I speak again.

 

“How are you doing?” Maizono brushes a few loose strands of blue hair from her eyes, shrugging in response to my question. I note, in the corner of my mind, that she has dressed in the Future Foundation uniform. Even though it’s a pretty small thing, seeing that she’s wearing the uniform makes me happy, because it indicates to me that she’s feeling a little bit better than she was before. At the very least, she’s feeling well enough to put a little bit of effort into her appearance. (Not that I necessarily care about that, but still…) I do notice, however, that she isn’t wearing a necktie. But the Foundation is, to my understanding, pretty lax about the dress code to a degree… and I know that they’ve been more lenient with Maizono as of late.

 

“I’m okay,” she says, and while I detect a note of dishonesty in her voice, I decide not to call her on it, because it isn’t my place. “I’m here to get some work done. I’ve kind of fallen behind on my duties lately.” The way Maizono says it, it’s a bit of a throwaway thing, and I’m glad that she’s not beating herself up over it. Still, I can see that there is a bit of guilt hiding in her eyes. It’s probably best that I leave her to it, but I…

 

“Want some company? I won’t disturb your work, I’ve just got some time to kill, and a couple things to do in here myself,” I gesture at my computer as I speak, and she follows my hand, looking at the screen. Her lip curls into what I take as an amused smile and her eyes flicker back to meet mine, slightly touched with mischief.

 

“With a blank screen?” She asks teasingly, and I look back at the computer screen, suddenly remembering that my screensaver is completely blank for the moment. I feel my cheeks warming a little bit, even though I know that it’s not really something to be embarrassed about. It’s just an empty screensaver. The explanation for why it’s empty is even completely normal. I guess there’s just something about being teased by a girl who’s as pretty as Maizono that makes me a little bit flustered. It doesn’t help any that she’s my senior. I begin to stutter out a response, but she cuts me off, laughing good naturedly. “I’m just kidding, I’d love some company, Saihara.”

 

I nod, swallowing the embarrassment and smiling at my own expense. “Y-Yeah, of course. Great.” With nothing else really left to say, I sit back down, and she takes a seat in front of the computer to my left. Incidentally, it is the computer that Munakata was just sitting at. He must have logged off the interface while I was logging on to my account, because it’s showing the regular lock screen. I keep my eyes on my on computer screen, but moments after getting situated, I hear Maizono beginning to type.

 

For the next hour and a half, I busy myself by going through all of the files that I can find. At some point in the process, the idea of going through and reading every single file becomes incredibly exhausting to me, so I end up simply skimming the contents of what I have access to. As it turns out, for the most part, what I can get to through this account is an extension of information that I already had. Details about cases that I’ve heard of, and missions that have been cited in training so that I and other people who are as new as I am have protocols to follow. For the most part, they aren’t very eye catching (really, it’s a bunch of dry reading) but eventually I stop on a file that I haven’t seen before.

 

The title reads, “KAEDE AKAMATSU”.

 

I already know… how that one went. I don’t have any interest in reading a file about it.

 

Before I can click out of it, my eye catches on the picture of Kaede that they have put on the top right. I don’t know how long she was a member of the Future Foundation before I was, but she must have been for a while, I’m sure. In the picture, she’s younger than she was when I knew her- dressed in the white blouse and black jacket that mark her as a member of the Foundation. Her blonde hair is pulled from her eyes with a music note hair clip. It calls attention to her striking purple eyes, and my gaze is drawn to them almost immediately. I can’t make myself look away.

 

In the picture, she’s smiling, her shoulders set in determination. She’s staring directly at the camera, which gives off the impression that she’s looking me right in the eye. Kaede is so full of life here, it’s hard to think about her as dead, but… it’s the same for Makoto, really. I saw her alive, yes, and that image of her being animated and happy really makes it hard for me to picture her as dead, but also, I… I saw her dead, too, so… maybe it’s just that the two images are so vastly different from one another, I can’t wrap my head around it.

 

Trying to force the thoughts from my head, I close the folder and immediately log out, deeming this endeavour as complete as it’s ever going to be. It might be in my best interest to swing back by my room and get some rest before I go to meet with Kyoko, because considering that I have training with Kaito immediately afterwards, I won’t be getting much time for leisure until much later tonight. (And, also, I just really don’t want to think about Kaede right now. I understand that avoidance is a terrible coping mechanism, I just…)

 

“Are you heading out, Saihara?” Maizono’s voice drags me out of my thoughts and I look over at her, forcing a smile. Even though I’m pretty sure that she’ll be able to more than understand my current feelings, I’m really not in the place to talk about it. And even if I was, I still wouldn’t want to. The idea of talking about it with anybody doesn’t appeal, and unless I have to, I’m not going to. That time with Kyoko was different. It’s not something that I’m about to discuss.

 

“Ah, yes.” I nod, even though I’ve just given a verbal affirmation that I’m pretty sure couldn’t be misconstrued if she was consciously trying to misunderstand. “I’ve got a couple other things to do today, and I’ve just finished up. How’s progress for you?”

 

Maizono shrugs. “I think I’m about halfway done. This has been a really productive hour and a half, so…” she trails off, and then seems to find her train of thought once more, flashing me a bright smile. “Thank you.”

 

“I didn’t even do anything,” I mutter. “I just sat here and attended to the work that I had to get done. Anybody could’ve done it, really. And I’m sure that anybody would’ve done it, for that matter, it just happened to be me this time. So…”

 

“Okay, but nobody has done it, except for you. Most people just want to talk about my feelings, or something like that. It’s not often that somebody is just willing to stay next to me. That’s why…” she trails off, and her smile turns into something smaller, that I haven’t seen on her face before up until now. “That’s why I’m able to feel safe around my boyfriend, you know? Because sometimes he just stays by me without saying anything, and that… most people think they have to talk. It’s nice when we can just forego that.”

 

I’m… glad to hear that she thinks highly of Kuwata too. Her voice has suddenly become a lot warmer than it was before (not that it was necessarily cold when she was addressing me a moment ago) and I can tell that it’s happened as a result of her thoughts turning over to her boyfriend. The notion brings a smile to my face and I nod, running a hand through my hair.

 

“Yeah, this was nice.” I say quietly. I hope that Maizono keeps recovering. Seeing her smile like this is a lot better than seeing the way she was a couple days ago, so listless. “I’ll see you around, yeah?” And at my words, she nods, as though coming back into the real world after a really good dream. She waves me off and I turn around, heading back out of the computer lab and down the hallway in the direction of my room.

 

I meet Kyoko in her room once again, and the afternoon is quiet but productive. We spend most of the evening planning around the infiltration, because odds are, we’ll be doing it as soon as Rantaro returns and gets some rest tomorrow. Perhaps in the afternoon. For some reason, the prospect of doing this in just under twenty four hours is less scary to me than I previously thought it would be. I’m not even sure if I can come up with a good reason for it; it’s really just that with everything else that’s going on, this feels remarkably low stakes. Which I figure is a pretty bad mindset to have going into it, but Kyoko seems to feel the same way, if her relaxed disposition is anything to go by.

 

When I tell her goodnight and prepare to leave for training with Kaito, however, she grabs my arm and stops me, and I turn to look at her, wondering what it is that she needs.

 

“Hey, tomorrow, when you’re distracting the guard…” she pauses, like she’s unsure. “Be careful. I don’t want you to get hurt doing something for me.” I’m caught off my guard when she says it, and I think she’s caught herself off guard by saying it too, but now she’s clearly dug herself in too deep, so she continues, frowning. “I… don’t usually get attached to people very easily. Or, I try not to. Sometimes I convince myself that caring for other people constitutes as weakness, even though I know it isn’t true. But I think I’ve managed to care for you. So if it looks like you’re about to be hurt, withdraw. I’ll figure something out.”

 

“Kyoko…” I trail off, but I figure that she probably doesn’t need me to say anything that would make her feel weird about the words that she’s just shared so instead, I just give a small smile, trying not to fully express the warmth that this request makes me feel. “Thank you. But I’m not about to leave you for dead, you know? I’ll stick around and try to see if there’s any way I can help you no matter what.”

 

Kyoko nods, pushing a couple strands of lavender hair behind one of her ears. “Of course.” She doesn’t say anything else, but for a moment, she looks as though she wants to, so I wait for her to either gain the courage or lose it. Eventually she just releases my arm and whispers “good night”, and with nothing else to say, I turn around and head down the hallway towards the courtyard.

 

Training is, as it always is, a time for me to forget about my worries and just spend time with Kaito. He has me doing one hundred pushups, which is pretty unfair considering that he doesn’t do any himself, but even though my muscles are super sore afterwards, I still feel the satisfaction of having finished them once I’m done, and for about an hour afterwards, we sit in silence and drink in the scent of the air outside. At around eleven, though I’d usually opt to stay outside a bit longer, I’m fairly tired, so I bit Kaito adieu, and we both head back into the building and part ways at our rooms.

 

Once I’m finally inside my room, I note that all of my roommates are already asleep inside and I should probably move as silently as possible. I close the door soundlessly behind me and extract PAE from my pocket, shuffling over to my cot and putting her into the drawer. I place my journal over the phone so that it’s not immediately visible and slide the drawer shut. With little else left to do, I shrug off my jacket and step out of my shoes. I am in the process of undoing my tie when there is a knock at my door so quiet that I’m almost not sure, to begin with, that I’ve even heard it.

 

I look over at the door, eyebrows raised, only to hear a second knock. It’s obvious to me, at this point, that I haven’t imagined the presence of whoever is there, so I think I had better go check. Looking presentable at this time of night doesn’t matter very much to me, and I haven’t even been in bed yet, so really the only slightly jarring thing about my appearance is the state of my tie. And anyway, there are plenty of Foundation members (E.G., Kaito) who wear their ties in a much more dramatic state of disarray, anyway. I step back into my shoes and then walk to the door running a hand through my hair before grabbing the doorknob and turning it, pulling the door open.

 

“Hey, who is i-” I break off in the middle of the final word, my breath stopping abruptly in my chest. I am barely able to register anything before the strong scent of iron hits my nose, and the suddenness of it nearly makes me stumble. A trail of blood as been made in his wake from what looks to be a bullet wound in his stomach; I don’t even know how he managed to get up here.

 

“Shuichi, sorry, it’s a bit late,” Rantaro chokes out. I blink hard, looking down at his wound again. It’s hard for me to get much of a read on it, however, because he’s clutching it tightly with one hand. Other than the gunshot, he’s pretty roughed up. His hair is a mess and there are a couple bruises colouring his face. It looks as though he’s favouring one of his legs, and there are several rips and stains on his white shirt. His jacket is completely gone, period. Has he come all the way from Enoshima’s base in this condition? How? What happened?

 

“Wh- Rantaro? What?” I feel so utterly stupid for not having anything more helpful to say, but it feels as though all comprehensive thought has ceased for me.

 

“S-Sorry, I want to explain more, but-” this sentence is interrupted by a rough bout of coughing, and Rantaro sways in place. “I think I’m going to pass out.”

 

This is the last thing he says before he crumples, and I stumble forward to catch him, almost sinking to the ground with our combined weight.

Chapter Text

Given the circumstances, I’m not even ashamed to admit it: when Rantaro first passes out, I wind up on the verge of a panic attack.

 

The last time somebody collapsed into my arms, he ended up dead. So it’s safe to say that I don’t really have a good track record with catching people who have bullet wounds. But even though I’ve had a long day and I just came back from training with Kaito, as soon as Rantaro crumples, I reach out and he slumps against my chest. The momentum from his sudden fall nearly pulls me down, but I feel a surge of adrenaline and catch the both of us on the doorframe. A cry builds in my throat but I hold it in, taking a couple deep breaths. I have to stay calm. I won’t be able to help Rantaro by panicking.

 

Later, I’ll grill him on what happened, but for now I need to focus. I shift my hold on Rantaro so that I’m holding him up by his underarms and move out into the hallway, resting him against the wall and leaning back to access his injuries. As I observed before, it looks as though he’s gotten into a fight. There are a couple of scratches on his face that suggest that he hid in the bushes for a long while. This in particular isn’t surprising to me, since I know he had to have hidden somewhere when he was staking out (though I wonder where he even found the bushes to begin with, since there isn’t really a surplus of shrubbery in Japan, anymore) but there’s one long, thin cut across his left cheekbone that catches my attention because it’s deeper than I first thought it was. There are several bruises on his face and probably elsewhere that indicate that the fight was done by hand at least for a while.

 

The most concerning thing is, of course, the bullet wound on his torso. As gently as possible, I push him further up the wall and prop him up with my left hand, using my right to paw at the fabric around the bleeding injury and get a better look. Seeing it nearly makes me want to throw up, but I force myself to dance around any nausea and think about the best way to tend to him before I take him to the infirmary. I should wrap the wound- just like I did with the stab wound that Ikusaba gave me.

 

It feels like ages ago that that happened, even though it was only little over a week. I almost find myself pausing to think about it, but I know that doing that is a terrible idea, so I refocus and try to think about a way to stop the bleeding. It’s pretty inconvenient (to say in the least) that his jacket is gone. It would’ve worked pretty well as a makeshift bandage. I’d have no problems using mine, but it’s back in my room, and I don’t know how ready I am to just leave Rantaro here while I go get it. Sighing, I reach up and finish undoing my tie, smoothing it out and folding it so that the cleaner side is facing up before pressing it against the spot where the bullet perforated his abdomen. I have to shift my left hand in order to both hold him up and press the fabric into the wound as I use my right to loosen and eventually untie his necktie, pulling it over his head.

 

Just as I begin to use his tie to wrap around his torso, fastening my own in place as what will serve as gauze for the next couple of minutes, Rantaro groans, eyes fluttering. Even though I can feel his body heat and I can feel his heart pounding through his chest, which my arm is still bracing, I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders nonetheless. He’s not dead. I was aware that he isn’t dead, but the fact that he’s coming to is good. I don’t want to risk him going into shock.

 

“Hey, Rantaro,” I’m not sure what to say, but I should ask a question. I should check on him, in some way. “Are you okay?” Stupid question. “Sorry, wait-” I break off, trying to figure out something more tactful to ask him. “Disregard that arbitrary question, uhm…”

 

Rantaro chuckles, but winces a moment later, and I startle, about to tell him that that is probably the least helpful thing he can do for himself right now. (I should stop being so awkward, because he is kind and he will only laugh gently at my expense. I should ask a real question. What would somebody who actually knows what they’re doing ask? Should I ask him to put his pain on a scale from one to ten?) Before I’m able to figure out what to say, berating myself for not knowing all the while, he speaks, voice weak

 

“I’m pretty sure I’m not okay,” he manages, and meets my eyes, smiling crookedly, as though to tell me that he’s just teasing. I’m appreciative of the sentiment, but I can’t help it when my face flushes as a result. “But… uh, are you bandaging my injury with a tie?”

 

“Two ties, actually,” I correct him needlessly, trying to smile. “I’m going to bring you to the infirmary, but I didn’t want you bleeding out on the journey. How did you get all the way here from Enoshima’s base? Did you have that injury the whole time?” Rantaro nods, silent for a moment as though lacking the energy to speak right away. Since it seems like he’s also trying to gather his thoughts, I wait for him to be ready, alleviating some of the pressure on his chest so that I can use both hands and tie his tie in a square knot to keep it secure around his midsection.

 

“I got found. Obviously. But-” he coughs a bit, and after he stops, stares dazedly above my head with a lost expression on his face before getting a hold of himself again. “-don’t worry, I got enough info for the infiltration tomorrow.” He finishes, his voice hoarse from the coughing. I frown, even though I really don’t want to do anything that might upset him at the moment, and feel my brow furrow.

 

“Ah, don’t- don’t worry about that, right now, alright…? Your safety is more important…” I trail off, glaring at his injury as though it has done something to offend me personally. (It has.) “Can you stand?”

 

“...I think so,” Rantaro grits his teeth and rests both feet firmly on the ground, pushing off the wall and supporting his weight. I step back to allow him some space to do so, and for a moment, he stands there, but then he sways back and forth and I surge forward to catch him when he falls again. This time, though, he hasn’t passed out, and he’s able to catch himself on my shoulders, eyes closing tight in pain. “O-Oh, nope, that’s a negative, H-Houston.”

 

“Houston…?”

 

“Don’t worry about it.”

 

“Alright…” just as the word leaves my lips and I’m attempting to figure out how I should go about helping Rantaro to the infirmary (because I don’t think that I can very well carry him) a door opens a little ways down the hallway and a young man steps out, eyes immediately finding us.

 

I look over, brows raised, and meet the dusty blue eyes of Byakuya Togami. I immediately blanch, because from my understanding of the man who has just stepped out into the hallway, he’s serious, authoritative, and one of the Foundation’s most trusted members. Of course, Makoto also held that title, and it really proved very little about his character… but Togami is on an entirely different level as far as authority is concerned. I’ve never held a conversation with him before, aside from bumping into him in the hall and being told off, but I know that he holds himself in extremely high regard, and he’s a no-nonsense sort of person. I’m sure, unlike with several other members, that he probably shouldn’t be trusted… even if I’m also sure that he’s a good person.

 

But, even if I want to honour those suspicions, there is nowhere to hide- and anyway, he’s already spotted us and begun walking in our direction. I swallow hard and turn my gaze back to Rantaro, helping him back a little so that he’s supporting himself against the wall. Once I’ve made sure that he’s not going to fall over, I turn to face Togami, suddenly acutely aware of how much of Rantaro’s blood has stained my shirt and hands.

 

“What happened here?” Togami inquires, and to my surprise, his tone isn’t so much stern or cold as it is concerned and perhaps slightly irritated.

 

“U-Uhm,” I begin, and try to think of a way to explain what’s happened without giving away that Kyoko, Rantaro, and I are working without the Foundation’s clearance.

 

“Oh, hey, Byakuya. Sorry if my actions interrupted you again.” Rantaro smiles, propping himself up by his elbows and tilting his head to the side very slightly. “I just got back from a mission, but it’s late, and I didn’t want to go to the infirmary because I know that Seiko-” the woman I saw yesterday at the meeting, if I recall correctly. Is she a doctor? “-has been really busy lately, so I came to Shuichi to see if he could patch me up. I-” before Rantaro can continue, he seems to choke on air and begins to cough, holding his torso with one arm and squeezing his eyes shut. I jump and start to reach out for him, but my hand freezes in mid-air because I’m not sure where I’d put it if I did choose to place it.

 

Togami’s expression is unreadable for a moment, but when Rantaro’s coughing has wound down and he’s reeling from the latest bout, the dirty blonde opens his mouth, sighing before he begins to speak. “I doubt Saihara knows the first thing about medicine.” Well, he’s not wrong, but that’s still pretty rude. “Come on, then.” He then gestures for us to follow him and turns around, starting back to his room.

 

I feel my brows raise, incredulous. “Ah- uhm? What?”

 

“It’s late and you’re making too much of a racket out here. I’ll take care of Amami’s injuries and send you on your way to your room so the both of you can stop disrupting everybody else’s sleep. Don’t make me wait.” Okay, now he’s definitely just making a rude exaggeration, but in light of the fact that he’s about to tend to Rantaro’s injuries, I figure that it’s probably in my best interests to just shut up and do as he says. I nod quickly and turn to my friend, meeting his eye and raising an eyebrow, as though to ask him what he wants to do.

 

After some awkward and semi-uncomfortable maneuvering, I end up helping Rantaro to stand with my right arm around his middle and his left arm around my shoulders. He’s still supporting most of his weight, but I have a firm grip on his side in the event that he loses his balance. As much as this is an awkward position, since we’ve barely touched in the past other than the occasional hand on a shoulder or perhaps a handshake, it’ll do for now. This is only meant as a means of helping him walk. I don’t need to think too much into it.

 

As soon as we’ve gotten that out of the way, we walk down the hall and stop next to Togami, who is impatiently tapping his foot on the ground outside his room. Wordlessly, he pulls a key from his pocket and unlocks his door (and I think, oh, he has a key too, just like Kyoko ) then gestures for us to step inside. I glance at Rantaro, he gives me a crooked smile, and then we step over the threshold between the hallway and Togami’s room.

 

One of the first things that I notice upon entering the bedroom is that the overall layout greatly resembles Kyoko’s. Though, it’s worth noting that Togami’s walls are far more decorated than hers, and there are several other parts of the room (a red carpet on the floor, and a stand that I imagine holds spare sets of glasses) that mark it as different. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me, as they’re different people and therefore will have different ways of occupying a space, but I’m still a little bit intrigued as I scan the area.

 

But in lieu of getting distracted by trivialities and forgetting about Rantaro, I draw my attention away from my surroundings and look over to Togami, who has just closed the door behind him. “So, uhm…” I begin, glancing around the space and wondering where I should help my friend to sit.

 

“The bed is fine,” Togami calls, sounding exasperated. I choose to ignore the undertone and guide Rantaro to the bed, tilting my body forward and helping him to lean back onto the bed. It gives slightly under his weight and he sighs almost inaudibly, finally resting his head on the mattress near the head of the bed. His eyes have shut again, but based on the way the muscles near his eyes are straining, I think it’s safe to say that he’s squeezing his eyes closed in pain, rather than exhaustion. Though it’s entirely possible that it’s a combination of both, since it seems plausible to me that Rantaro’s just spent almost forty-eight hours without any sleep.

 

Even though I’m reluctant, I step back from the bed and allow Togami to take my place at Rantaro’s side. While I busied myself helping him down, Togami must have gone to his closet or something and pulled out a first aid kit. I have very little desire to watch as the older man tends to my friend’s wounds, so I look around the room for something to busy myself examining. It becomes clear to me almost right away that there’s not anything interesting enough to catch my attention, so I end up staring at a spot on the wall near the corner.

 

I’m not expecting Togami to speak, because I’m sure that he’s trying to focus on treating Rantaro’s injuries, but after what I’d estimate to be fifteen minutes, his voice fills the room. “So, you’re a friend of Kirigiri’s, correct?” I look over, brows raised, but Togami’s sights are still set on his task. I almost ask if he’s talking to Rantaro or me, but my green-haired friend appears to have passed out again. This question is evidently directed towards me. So I clear my throat and respond.

 

“Y-Yeah, that’s right.” I don’t know why I’m nervous. Togami is an intimidating presence in the best of moments, but right now, with his cold blue eyes peering through his glasses so intently at Rantaro’s injury, some of the meaner looking creases in his face have alleviated, and he looks like a normal, if slightly uptight, guy. “May I ask…? Are you close to her as well?”

 

“No.” The answer is so blunt, I’m left speechless. Which is perhaps a good thing, because Togami still has more to say. “It’s not as though she’s a particularly disagreeable person. Well, maybe she is, but certainly not as bad as she was a year ago.” A year ago…? Does Kyoko go far back with this man? I should make a mental note to ask her, later. “Rather… in as polite terms as I can manage, I don’t feel comfortable associating with a person who is on my team, and yet, is keeping so many secrets.”

 

“Ah, so, you don’t think you can trust her?” I ask. It’s not that I’m comfortable hearing Togami say such a thing about Kyoko, since I trust and respect her (and I think I’m starting to get a general idea of why she acts in the manner that she does) but it’s somewhat refreshing to speak with a person who is as forthcoming as the man before me. He doesn’t say anything right away, his gaze fixed on what his hands are up to, but a moment later, he speaks again, his words sounding as though they have been carefully selected.

 

“I suppose that those are the words I would use, if I were as simple minded as you are.” Wow, okay, that’s rude, but alright. “It’s more that I don’t think she could trust me, and if that’s the case, then there’s no way that I would be able to trust her.”

 

...Huh. “Those who can’t trust can’t be trusted,” I echo Kyoko’s earlier assertion, the irony of Togami’s remarks coinciding with her in this particular instance not lost on me. The blonde nods, and a moment later, he leans back, wiping his forehead with the back of his right wrist. I notice that his hands are now stained, just as mine are, with the red of Rantaro’s blood, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.

 

Togami turns his gaze over to me, indicating towards Rantaro, who is now neatly patched up. I almost want to ask how Togami learned how to treat somebody’s wounds like this, but… I decide against it, because I’ve already asked him a fairly personal question (if somewhat indirectly) and it also looks like he’s about to say something, and I figure, I should probably listen to see what he wants to tell me. “I’m guessing that you don’t want to take him to the infirmary for the same reason that he gave earlier?”

 

Even though I personally don’t have any qualms about taking him to the infirmary, I suppose I should respect his wishes in that area, so I hum in affirmation. “Yeah. I’ll probably just help him back to his room. Is he okay to spend the night in his cot?”

 

“Oh, he should be fine,” Togami nods, then glances back at Rantaro, who is still unconscious. “But, I would stick by him for tonight, just in case something happens and he needs medical attention. In the event that that does happen, go straight to the infirmary. It’s ridiculous to prevent yourself from seeking a doctor’s assistance simply because they’ve been busy recently. Tell Amami as much if he gets upset at you for doing so.” I can sense that there’s something demeaning in Togami’s tone, but there is hardly any venom behind his words, and his gaze is softened when he’s looking at my friend, so I decide to let it slide, and nod.

 

“Thank you,” I say quietly, then gesture at Rantaro, clenching my hand into a fist to stop it from shaking. “I mean, for… y’know, for treating his injury.” I finish lamely, not really sure what else to say. Togami waves me off, apparently choosing not to dignify my thanks with a response. With that done, I move forward, crouching down next to the bed and putting a hand on Rantaro’s shoulder. I don’t really want to wake him up, because getting rest is the best thing for him right now, but if I want to bring him back to his room, I’ll have to be able to find it, and there’s no way that I’m going from door to door until I find his.

 

It takes a moment, but I manage to rouse my friend and help him to his feet. His eyelids flutter slightly as he struggles to maintain consciousness, but finally, once he’s standing and I’m helping to support his weight, Rantaro manages to be coherent enough to issue a formal thanks to Togami for helping with his injury. (The blonde scoffs and turns his head in the other direction, so really, I’m pretty sure that he just feels awkward responding to thank yous.)

 

Rantaro doesn’t seem to want to trouble him any further, so he’s the one who moves faster between the two of us as we head out the door and down the hallway towards his room. It’s easier helping him walk this time, because now that he’s actually patched up, it looks to me like he’s determined to support himself better. It’s possible too that he just doesn’t want to be a nuisance, which I can relate to, but I kind of hope it isn’t that, because it’s not true that this is a bother to me (I mean it’s not ideal but I’d rather be able to help than not) and I’m pretty terrible at reassuring people.

 

When we arrive at Rantaro’s door, I reach out and turn the knob, pushing the door open and glancing inside. I have two roommates, whose names I’m (embarrassingly) not too familiar with, but it looks to me that Rantaro only has one person who he shares the room with, because the dim light in the room is only being cast on two cots, rather than three, like in mine. It’s pretty much impossible to miss Gonta Gokuhara’s huge frame as he is seated on his cot with a book in hand, but it’s kind of upsetting to me that he’s both awake and present, because now I’m not sure how I’m going to explain this, and I don’t want to put Rantaro into the position of having to bluff for me again.

 

“Oh! Hello, Shuichi!” Gokuhara smiles politely in my direction, as I am the first person to step inside. I quickly offer a tight smile in return, before turning around to help Rantaro enter. Before I can reach his arm, however, Rantaro pushes himself off the wall and walks in himself. I guess it would feel pretty crappy to have somebody else babying you, even if you are injured and probably need the help, so I step back to allow him to do so independently but keep my arms outstretched in case he stumbles. He flashes me an appreciative smile, so I guess my efforts aren’t entirely lost on him. “Uhm, hello, Rantaro!” Gokuhara adds, a crease appearing between his eyebrows very briefly.

 

“Good evening, Gonta,” Rantaro responds with a gentle smile, waving. Gokuhara must be about to say something else, perhaps a pleasantry or something to that extent, but before he can, he apparently notices Rantaro’s condition, because he suddenly gets to his feet with an alarmed expression on his face. It’s Gokuhara, and I know that he’s incredibly gentle, but I’m surprised regardless when Rantaro hardly reacts other than to laugh sheepishly, because I would be scared.

 

“Rantaro! What happen?” Gokuhara exclaims, rushing forward. “Where were you last night? Did you get injured on a mission?”

 

“Yeah, I did, but-” before Rantaro can say any more, Gokuhara interrupts.

 

“Who shot you? Gonta will make them feel sorry that they did! What was your mission? Maybe-” it’s like a rapid-fire game of tennis; the moment one of them begins to speak, the other is immediately picking up the slack, and even responding before the other is finished. It’s almost to the point where I’m sure that I don’t need to be here, because Rantaro’s got it completely covered with the way that he’s handling it.

 

“Ah, please don’t take this personally, Gonta, but I’m not allowed to disclose what the mission was. I’m sorry, it isn’t as though I don’t trust you, I just…” obviously, this is at least a half-life, because really the Future Foundation had no idea that Rantaro had gone out yesterday, but he plays it cool, and Gokuhara nods. It’s always upsetting to see people being dishonest with the large man, because he’s so genuine that he tends to trust the words of others, no matter what they might be… the only thing that keeps me from resenting Rantaro in this moment is that I understand the reasoning behind the lie, and, well, I’m in on it, too.

 

“Do not worry! Gonta understand. Come on, Gonta will help you to your bed. Shuichi, are you helping Rantaro?” Gokuhara takes his eyes off of Rantaro for a moment and meets mine, and I nod in response, but speak because there is more that I need to say that can’t be communicated by way of body language, and I don’t know sign language.

 

“I’m going to head back to my room and take a shower, but Gokuhara, do you think you could watch over Rantaro tonight? Make sure that nothing bad happens? And, if something does happen, could you take him to the infirmary?” It’s a bit to process at once, but Gokuhara is already nodding avidly and promising that he’ll take good care of Rantaro. (On another note, I have never seen Rantaro blush before.) I smile at the gentle giant’s enthusiasm and bid them adieu, turning around and heading back out of their room and into the hallway.

 

My destination is, of course, my bedroom; the stench of blood is too strong and too present for me to ignore right now, and it’s also been a pretty long day, so the idea of taking a shower is pretty appealing. As soon as I return to my room, I shuffle back over to my cot and sit down lightly, unlacing my shoes this time before I take them off and place them at the foot of my desk. I grab a spare undershirt and another change of boxers from my belongings and head into the bathroom attached to my room, turning on the light as I do so and placing the clothing that I’ve grabbed on the sink. Thankfully, the blood on my hands is now entirely dried, so it doesn’t end up all over the clothing that I just took.

 

The moment I’ve stepped into the shower and cranked the water almost as hot as it can go, I immediately get hit by a wave of fatigue. Understandable, given the circumstances, but facts and logic aren’t about to stop me from feeling silly about swaying under the hot water that is running over my body. I close my eyes and suck in a deep breath through my mouth, massaging my shoulder muscles with my left hand as I do so. It feels like this past week has been non-stop action, all the time, when in reality I’ve gotten plenty of down time; I’ve just filled my days with so much that I barely even remember the moments when I’ve gotten to take a rest. All the adrenaline that helped me to take care of Rantaro earlier has completely vanished.

 

Also… I’m pretty sure that both of our ties are now crumpled on the floor of Byakuya Togami’s room, completely drenched in blood. It’s not as though I don’t have other ties, because of course I do, but seriously… what an oversight, on my part. When Togami comes up to those, he’s probably going to be pretty indignant. And who could blame him?

 

I try to think about shampoo and soap but honestly, my biggest concern is getting out all the blood that’s gotten caked under my fingernails. I don’t need the reminder of what just happened, thanks.

 

Once I’m out of the shower and dried off, I put on my undershirt and boxers and contemplate putting on something more presentable and going out to tell Kyoko about what has just happened, but… my bones tell me that that’s probably a pretty terrible idea. I’m running on empty right now, and I’ve been skipping dinner for the past four days in a row. What I really need is a night’s sleep. I can stop by Kyoko’s room first thing tomorrow morning. Besides, we already planned around something happening to Rantaro, and even thought it’s a terrible thought… I know that we’ll be going to Enoshima’s base tomorrow afternoon. That is something that I have to be prepared for, even if I haven’t been stressing myself out about it as much as I have several other things.

 

So I pass on going to Kyoko’s and simply crawl under the blankets on my cot, curling up into a ball and shutting my eyes tight. Despite being exhausted, for a moment I am finding it difficult to wind down. What just happened with Rantaro and Togami is still leaving me reeling. I’m certain that I merely haven’t been able to process it yet, but even if I’m aware of what’s going on, I would still like to see alternative results.

 

Well, whatever. That feels like a problem for the Shuichi of tomorrow, to me. The pull of unconsciousness is strong, and I’m not doing myself any favours by staying awake. As soon as my dreams threaten to take me away, I succumb, and find my subconsciousness shrouded in darkness.

Chapter Text

Kyoko’s door swings open somewhat abruptly at my knock, and her eyes meet mine immediately when she steps forward. Her expression betrays no surprise at my arrival; in fact, she appears to be almost expectant, looking at me right now. I’ve forgotten how to speak momentarily, but when her brows raise a fraction of an inch and I remember why I’ve come, I clear my throat and speak.

 

“Uhm, good morning, Kyoko,” I begin, and she nods in acknowledgement of the pleasantry but gives no verbal response, which serves as an incentive to keep speaking. Obviously, she wants me to get on with the point. There would have to be one, after all, because it’s seven in the morning and we didn’t make plans to meet yesterday until noon. Besides that, to her knowledge, Rantaro hasn’t returned yet, so really there’s nothing that she knows of that could’ve happened to provoke me to come to see her. Any desire to be polite, on her end, will likely be outweighed by curiosity, and since I’m starting to understand how Kyoko operates, I can’t really say that I’m surprised.

 

So, with nothing else to be said, I explain to her, in as much detail as I can muster, the occurrences of last night. I leave out the part where her name came up in conversation between Togami and me- not out of any particular desire to keep secrets from her, because honestly, I’ve gotten past doing that, but just because I don’t think there’s any good way to bring it up. At any rate, if I have to mention it, or it seems like a good decision, I won’t stop myself, but it just doesn’t seem pertinent. (Even if I am a little bit curious.)

 

Once I’ve finished, Kyoko seems to take a moment to consider my words, but she eventually nods, her expression hardly changing. “It makes sense that Rantaro would be able to win Byakuya’s favour, even without meaning to.” She calls Togami by his given name, perhaps without even realising it, which I consider to be a little bit odd seeing as I’ve been using his surname in conversation, but I don’t call attention to it, instead choosing to comment on something else that seems peculiar to me.

 

“Ah, but… he said he was only helping because he was irritated at all the noise we were making.” Even as I say it, though, I have my doubts. Thinking back, I’m not really even sure that we were being that loud to be begin with. It isn’t as though the rooms are soundproofed. If somebody is yelling up and down the halls, everybody is bound to hear it, unless they’ve got headphones in, or are a particularly deep sleeper. But aside from nearly collapsing and pushing Rantaro against the wall, I don’t think any of my actions at that time were very obtrusive. Still, I listen to hear what Kyoko says in response to my contradiction.

 

“I’m sure Byakuya would rather die than admit that he cares for another living person.” She rolls her purple eyes, smiling slightly but quickly extinguishing the expression when she sees that I’ve noticed. “That’s how he was, with…” she trails off, then clears her throat and shakes her head. I’m not entirely sure, but I think that her thoughts have just gone back to Makoto. It can’t be a very pleasant thing for her to think about, so I understand why she’s suddenly changing the subject. “Anyway, how would you describe Rantaro’s condition now? Is he capable of moving around?”

 

“Well, I went to his room to check on him before coming here,” I muse, tapping my chin with my index finger. “His roommate, Gokuhara, stayed up to keep a tab on his condition.” I feel bad about asking Gokuhara to stay up and watch Rantaro while I went to sleep, but there’s not much use dwelling on it now; besides, Gokuhara seemed to be fairly energetic when I went there. (Though my conscience tells me that this is likely a result of the sleep deprivation.) “Rantaro was unconscious, but I think it’s safe to say that he’s going to be that way for a while. I don’t think he’s feeling well enough to go on the mission with us today, if that’s what you’re asking.”

 

Kyoko simply nods. “I thought as much. But even if he was awake and feeling better, I wouldn’t have asked him to accompany us in his current condition. There’s a reason we made a backup plan, after all. I suspected that something like this might happen.” She sighs, closing her eyes. “I’ll have to check on him later and apologise.” For some reason, it surprises me to hear her say that, even though I know that she’s a good person. The fact that she would hold herself accountable for something like this happening, even though technically there wasn’t any way of her knowing… it’s something that I can respect, since she’s technically the person leading the two of us.

 

“Should we still try to go at noon?” I ask. “Or do you think it would be better if we left right away?”

 

“Not just yet.” She shakes her head. “I’ll have to go and visit Rantaro soon and ask him about the guard schedule. He has to have gotten something, as he was gone for a day and a half. As for you, you should go eat something, and maybe try brushing your hair.”

 

“What? What’s wrong with my hair?” I frown, self consciously touching my hair.

 

“It’s a mess,” Kyoko says simply, but gives me a small smile, which really tells me nothing about whether or not she’s being serious. “Anyway, I’ll come find you in the dining hall in a couple hours or so.” With that said, she brushes past me and starts off down the hallway. “Be there.” And before I can even give any affirmation, she has turned and disappeared into the stairwell. I find myself staring after her for a bit longer than I should, but it’s just Kyoko’s usual brisk manner, so I shouldn’t be surprised by it.

 

Instead of dwelling on what just happened, I decide to take Kyoko’s advice and head down to the dining hall. I don’t always eat breakfast, but since last night was insane and I went through all of it without any dinner, I’m feeling hungrier than usual.

 

I arrive in the dining hall, but for the most part, there aren’t a lot of people around. Mostly just a few of the people who I understand to have missions to go on today, and Angie Yonaga, who appears to be resting (?) in the corner of the room. And by that, I mean that she’s seated tailor style with her eyes closed and her hands on her knees. So, probably best not to disturb her. I walk over to the front table, but there isn’t much there. I’m guessing that there hasn’t been much time for food to be prepared yet. Actually, I’ve never been here this early in the day, before, so it’s kind of unusual for me. The sky is still cloudy with the remains of last night’s overcast sky. I’m hoping that it’ll clear up, but I don’t know how much of a difference that’s going to make later, when we’re trying to infiltrate. Besides that, I don’t have very high hopes for the middle of December.

 

I step towards the coffee pot, which is here at the very least, and I’m about to pour myself a cup of coffee when somebody speaks from behind me.

 

“Ah, good morning, Saihara.” I turn around and meet the green eyes of Kirumi Toujo, who appears to have just arrived and walked over. She is smiling pleasantly, as always, and even though I’m still not sure where I stand on trusting her, I have to return the expression. “I haven’t ever seen you here this early, are you switching up your routine?” There is no veiled insult in her words; I suspect she is merely asking from a place of curiosity, and as such, I have no problem responding.

 

“Good morning,” I say first, turning my attention fully onto her as opposed to the coffee pot. “And no, not really. I just got up a bit earlier than usual today, is all.” I explain, and she nods, accepting my words, before moving forward to stand next to me. Toujo is a little bit taller than I am on a normal day, but she would appear to be wearing heels, so I have to shift my position to meet her eyes. “Are you always up at around this time?”

 

“Yes, I like to be up early. This way, I can be more of service to others.” Ah, right. I had forgotten that Toujo often says things of that capacity. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t make me the slightest bit uncomfortable, but I’m not about to judge her for it. “At any rate, are you hungry? It doesn’t seem as though the cook is awake yet, but if you’d like, I could try to whip something up.”

 

I smile slightly, raising my eyebrows. “Oh, you cook, huh?” I ask, and Toujo shrugs modestly.

 

“On the side, here and there,” she admits with a gentle smile. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a kitchen, as the Foundation seems to think that I can better utilise my skills elsewhere,” yeah, no kidding. I bet you’d be great in a group that doesn’t torture and kill people. “But I still have many recipes of the breakfast variety.”

 

“I don’t want to be a bother, I can really just eat an apple,” I begin, gesturing at the basket of fruit that still remains on the table, but Toujo shakes her head, waving off what I’ve just said with a gloved hand. (I hadn’t noticed before that Toujo wears gloves, so I’m intrigued. She must’ve been wearing them the last couple times I’ve interacted with her, but I’ve never been talking to her long enough to take notice… the quirk reminds me of Kyoko.)

 

“It would be my pleasure. Besides, I’ve been wanting to make something again for a bit, now.” Even though she’s treating this like it’s nothing, the formal nature of her manner of speaking is making me a little bit uncomfortable with accepting her offer. Still, I’ve got time to kill, and spending it with Toujo doesn’t sound like the worst way to use my time. I eventually sigh and nod.

 

“Okay, but you’re going to have to let me help you. I’ve never been in the kitchen here before myself, and I also know a thing or two about cooking, so I’d really like to get to do so myself.” Toujo nods, and gestures for me to walk alongside her as she starts off towards the kitchen. I don’t need any further direction; I follow.

 

I’ve just finished eating the meal that Toujo and I have made together (it was excellent) when the dining hall door opens and Leon Kuwata steps through. I’m sitting relatively close to the entrance, so it isn’t as though he’s very far away, which is why I can see his expression from where I’m seated. From what I can tell, he seems like he’s sort of anxious about something. His pale blue eyes are scanning the room, as though he’s searching for someone. Almost without realising it, I raise my arm and wave at him, trying to get his attention. Since I’m not far, and I’m making a pretty sudden movement, his gaze almost immediately falls on me, and as soon as he spots me, a slight smile breaks over his features and he walks over.

 

“Saihara, great, I’m glad I found you. I stopped by your room but you weren’t there so I wasn’t really sure where to look- anyway,” Kuwata stops talking, and catches his breath, and I wonder if he’s just run here. Has he been looking for me in a hurry? I try not to frown, because I don’t want to seem too worried about it in case it’s not a very big deal, but I think some of the concern still shows on my expression anyway, because he makes a similar face as soon as my features shift.

 

“Uhm, is something wrong?” I ask, and it’s pretty plain to me how nervous I am, which kind of defeats the purpose of what I’ve just done, but alright. It’s rather obvious that something has got Kuwata on edge. I doubt that he’s the sort of person to lie about it- at the very least, not the sort to lie well, as he’s a fairly straightforward guy when all is said and done, but it’s hard to miss how much he’s shifting around. It’s as though something has completely knocked him off his guard.

 

Kuwata clears his throat. “Not exactly? It’s more just… has Munakata talked to you yet?”

 

“Huh?” Now I really do frown, no longer bothering to disguise my anxiety. (I’ve always been the sort to get nervous when others show that they are feeling it.) What would Munakata have to talk about? Is it something important? Has something happened? Should I be worried? If Munakata is involved, it’s gotta be something pretty substantial, right? I scan Kuwata’s expression for any giveaways as to what he’s talking about, but aside from the tilt of his eyebrows, I can’t read much of what he’s thinking. This must be something that’s just happened. I appreciate that his immediate response is to come find me, but it also makes me feel bad, because… well, because I’ve been lying to him so much. “What are you talking about? Talked to me about what?”

 

“About the base, they-” Kuwata is about to explain more, but just before he can continue, the door opens again and Kyoko steps into the dining hall. Unlike with him, her eyes immediately find the two of us and she strides over, stopping in front of me with her hands on her hips. Her face demonstrates no emotion, as per usual, but she does look to be pretty serious right now. Kuwata stops abruptly, which is understandable, because Kyoko isn’t working with the group we’re in. He can’t disclose any information when she’s right here and can so obviously hear what we’re saying.

 

Though I’m sure that Kyoko is aware she’s just interrupted something pretty important, she acts as though she isn’t perceptive to it and speaks. “Shuichi, are you ready to leave?” She asks this somewhat abruptly, and I freeze for a moment, my brain stalling. I mean, yeah, I’ve finished two cups of coffee and my breakfast and I have everything that I might need to infiltrate (my gun and PAE, most notably) but now I’m really curious to hear what Kuwata has to say. I swallow.

 

With a frown, I look over to my red-haired friend. “Uhm…” I begin, uncertain. But Kuwata shakes his head before I can say anything else, waving me off.

 

“Nah, dude, go. We’ll talk about this when you get back.” Since he’s willing to put the topic on the back burner for now, I can only hope that this means the topic isn’t too important. Of course, I’m still worried, and I want to know what’s up, but if it can wait, then that’s what’s going to have to happen. I nod and get to my feet, meeting Kyoko’s gaze.

 

“Yeah, I am.” I tell her, and she nods, not wasting any time as she turns around and starts off.

 

Over her shoulder, she calls, “Come on, then.” I’m starting to get used to her doing this, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t startle me.

 

“Ah, w-wait a minute! Kuwata, I’ll see you when I get back, alright?” I look at him, and he finally cracks a grin, which helps to put my nerves to rest a bit. Once he responds affirmatively, I turn around and jog after Kyoko, who slowed her pace somewhat to wait for me but is now walking as fast as ever. I fall into step next to her and walk with her in silence all the way to Command, which is now buzzing with activity. I realise suddenly that I’m not sure what the game plan is, though, and I turn to look at her, frowning. “Hey, actually, Kyoko, what did you learn when you talked to Rantaro?”

 

She spares me a glance as we leave Command using the same exit as we did last time. “Every two hours, there is a rotation in the guard. From what he gathered, it’s the same person on every hour. They rotate on even numbers. So at every eight o’clock, both AM and PM, there will be a certain guard keeping watch until ten. Does that make sense?” The way she explained it, it sounds somewhat simple. I know we agreed that Enoshima’s rotation system likely isn’t too complicated, because it isn’t her style, but it’s deceptively easy to process. Still, I trust both Kyoko’s and Rantaro’s judgement on the matter, so I just nod. “I’ll have you go distract the guard at ten, which is why we’re leaving now.” I peek at my watch; it’s just a quarter past nine, so I guess this makes sense. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for us to get to Enoshima’s.

 

We’ve been in the car and on the road for about ten minutes when it occurs to me that I might alleviate some of the awkward tension in the air by making conversation. I glance to my right and speak. “You know, I’ve never been to Enoshima’s base before,” I start, hoping that Kyoko will pick up on what I’m trying to do. She’s smart but it’s my understanding that Kyoko isn’t always the most receptive to cues like that. Her gaze remains fixed on the road, but she responds.

 

“I suspected as much.” She says this casually, so I don’t feel stressed out by it. “I wouldn’t worry about it, it’s really not much to talk about. Unless you’re the sort of person who wants to go to the base and kill Enoshima yourself, you don’t have to be familiar with it. And you don’t really strike me as the type.”

 

I mean, I can appreciate that she’d have that sort of impression of me, but I think Kyoko is overestimating my character a little bit here. Sure, I might not be so excitable right now, but when her men killed my uncle, I… the only way I was able to calm myself down was by joining the Future Foundation, and even then the end game was killing Enoshima. I didn’t care if it was by my hands or not. All I wanted was to see her fall from power. I guess I really wanted her, and everybody who worked for her, to be dead. And I’m pretty sure that a part of me still wants that, for Kaede’s sake.

 

A part of me wants Munakata dead, too, for what happened to Makoto. And I think that feeling that way is justified, I just… something that Makoto said, when he was dying, keeps coming back to me and giving me pause.

 

“People dying, it’s… it’s wrong. Who decided that…”

 

It is wrong, to kill people. I’ve never disagreed with that statement. I think there’s no wrong in it, in fact… that’s why I joined the FYG, because I think it’s abhorrent that they are willfully throwing away human lives. There’s a lot of value in a person’s soul, isn’t there?

 

I don’t know why Kyoko’s statement gives me so much pause, but I leap off the train of thought, so to speak, when I become aware of the silence that has settled over the car again. I speak again, to break from the uncomfortable feeling I have in the silence, but my thoughts are somewhere else for the whole remainder of the ride.

 

Before I know it, Kyoko parks the car several blocks away from a huge black and white building that I can only assume is Enoshima’s base. It’s tall and obtrusive and I think anybody could spot it from a mile away, but Enoshima obviously has absolutely no reason to hide. She has the entire government on her side, after all. She’s the one with any power, political or otherwise, in this mess. As easy as it is to forget it right now, the Future Foundation is a rebel alliance, not some huge global superpower. I have to remember that.

 

This time, I get out of the car first and stretch, trying to work out the sudden kinks in my neck. The drive was only twenty minutes, but I’ve never been very good with sitting down for a long time. Once I’ve managed to rid myself of some of the discomfort, I look over to where Kyoko has also gotten out of the car and is staring ahead at the building. I have a good enough guess as to why she’s parked the car so far away; she doesn’t want to be too close, because Enoshima’s people are bound to know what a Future Foundation vehicle looks like, and it’s not like they’re just going to turn a blind eye if she parks right there on their street corner.

 

I moved over to stand next to her. “So, what now, Kyoko?” I ask, because we haven’t really discussed what our first course of action is going to be (though you’d think that that would be the first thing we get to, given the circumstances).

 

“You go ahead of me and go straight to distracting the guard. Do you know where you’re going?” She asks, and I look over at the building myself, trying to gage from a distance where the entrance in question is at. Eventually I shake my head and she hums. “Alright, then here.” Kyoko reaches into her pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper. Before I can ask what it is, she unfolds it and smooths out the creases, promptly handing it to me once she’s finished. I look down at the paper and see that it’s a map of the general layout of the base; the very one that we’ve been working with this whole time. If I look back and forth between the map and the actual building in front of me, I think I can pinpoint where I’m supposed to be going. “If the guard finds this on you,” Kyoko continues while I’m examining the map. “They’ll probably assume that you simply took this with you from the Future Foundation to sneak in.”

 

“Right.” I nod, and swallow, my throat suddenly feeling dry. This entire time I’ve been able to avoid feeling anxious about the looming prospect of Kyoko infiltrating because it’s seemed like some far off event that I won’t have to worry about for a while, but now we’re actually standing in front of the base, and somebody with tap shoes is dancing on my heart. “Uhm, Kyoko,” I begin, frowning. “What do I do when I know that you’ve managed to get in? Should I wait around for you to return…?”

 

“Try to escape and get back to the car to wait for me. I shouldn’t take too long.” She dismisses the concern in my voice with a wave of her hand. “In the event that they follow you, then take these.” Kyoko tosses me the keys to the car. I stare at them. “Get out of here if you’re in danger. Like I said yesterday, I’ll figure something out.”

 

Something feels wrong about this. “But… how will you get out?” I can’t help how nervous I sound, even though I’m trying to play it cool. “Will you sneak past the guard? How will you get back to the Foundation if I drive away?” I also don’t know how to drive, but this feels trivial when we’re discussing the prospect of my having to abandon Kyoko in the case of an emergency.

 

“Do you really have such little faith in my abilities, Shuichi?” Despite the severe nature of her words, Kyoko is smiling deviously. I read confidence in every part of her stance, and it makes me feel a little better, even if the sudden flare of anxiety isn’t exactly fading. “I’ve done things like this before. I’ll be fine. And even if I’m not, even if I get killed I’ll be alright anyway, because I’ll have died knowing that I did everything I could to avenge Makoto’s death.”

 

Ah, so… fighting Enoshima really isn’t all there is to it. Figures. I take a deep breath and nod. “Okay. Alright. But I’m going to do everything I can to stick around until you get out, so that we can leave together, alright?”

 

Kyoko nods, then she says, “The gas is on the right, by the way,” and it takes me a minute to realise that she’s talking about the car. So that particular thought of mine didn’t go unnoticed. It’s hard for me to process that she’s trusting me to go behind the wheel regardless of this knowledge, but alright. “Are you ready to go, now?” I bite my lip, hesitant, but I nod anyway because I have to go eventually and if not now, then I don’t know when. “Alright, then get going. I won’t be far behind you.” Kyoko pauses. “I’m trusting you with this, so… don’t mess up.”

 

Wasn’t she just telling me to prioritise my life over doing this properly? Which one is it? Either way, I find myself double-checking to make sure that I have my gun and putting the map into my pocket before I turn around and start walking down the block. I’m still scared, but if I don’t get moving now, I don’t think I ever will.

Chapter Text

The guard who I am supposed to distract is a man who I’ve never seen before in my life. He’s not standing right next to me, so I can’t tell exactly how tall he is, but it looks as though he is at least a few inches taller than I am. His face is covered by the white mask that many of Enoshima’s soldiers wear, and he would appear to be wearing the very same uniform as any one of them. (Even Enoshima wears something similar, though I think that’s more of a reflection of her, who has the authority on those matters, than of anybody who is under her.)

 

My watch tells me that it’s 10:07, so he hasn’t been here on guard for long. But I think I could’ve figured that out with or without the new knowledge of their guard schedule; the way that he’s standing indicates he hasn’t been out here for such a long time. It’ll work to my advantage, anyway. I can only hope that he’s not as perceptive as he should be, because it would seem that our entire plan is banking on the notion that he’ll be completely focused on me.

 

I technically have two hours to do this. But I’ve been staking out for a couple minutes now, and I’m certain that Kyoko must have already started off in this direction, which means that I have to get going. I don’t want to keep her waiting.

 

I do have to be careful, though. I have to make it look like I myself am trying to sneak in, and I’m working alone. But I can’t be good at it. I have to get caught on purpose without it looking like I’m trying to get caught. Because if I act as though I’m trying to get caught, that guard, if he’s worth anything, will definitely be suspicious. Which means that I have to play this just right. The prospect is scary to me because even with all the lying that I’ve managed to do this past week or so, I’ve never been a very good actor. But with Kyoko’s life on the line, there isn’t much I can do except just do well.

 

So I take a deep breath and shift from my hiding place to press against the trunk of a tree standing nearby. That’s another thing that’s got me a little jarred by this whole process. The excess of plant-life that is surrounding Enoshima’s base. It’s so rare for there to be trees and bushes around the city now, I’m shaken up at how much Enoshima has kept. And it isn’t as though this is an inconvenience to me in any way. Quite the contrary, really, because it’s making it easier for me to hide while I sort things out in my mind. That’s what worries me.

 

I risk a look at the guard to see if he’s noticed my movement. But a second glance tells me that he’s… actually quite lethargic with fatigue. I feel bad for him, even though he’s definitely playing for the other team. It can’t be easy working for Enoshima. I remind myself silently that this as well will work to make things for me, but that doesn’t mean that I feel good about taking advantage of his exhaustion. At any rate, he definitely has not seen me move. With that thought in mind, I push off the trunk and sprint towards the building, darting around the corner and pressing against the wall. This move is more risky, but my aim isn’t to sneak by unnoticed. It’s to be noticed.

 

I’m now around the corner, which means I’m out of his field of vision, but that also means that he’s out of mine. I peek behind me and note that there is a gatling gun defense system set up some ways away, but I won’t have to worry about that. Sucking in a sharp breath and ignoring the way that my heart has begun to race from the run, I stick my head out from around the corner and look at where the guard is standing.

 

He’s more alert. He must have seen me run. His gaze is fixed in my direction, but based on where his eyes are searching, I don’t think he’s realised that I’m looking out. The prudent thing to do would be to draw back my head when I see that he’s looking over in this direction, but instead I wait until his eyes find me. We make eye contact, and some voice in the corner of my mind idly remarks that his eyes are brown. Not that there’s much relevance in noting- most Japanese people have brown eyes. But still, I find myself staring at the hue for longer than I should before I tear my gaze away and pull my head back around the corner.

 

It’s not going to do any good. He’s definitely seen me. But that’s what I’m hoping for.

 

I press myself flat against the wall and hold my breath, squeezing my eyes shut and listening hard for what he might be doing. The sound of footsteps crunching across gravel informs me that he’s coming over. This is good. It means that he’s taken the bait. I open my eyes and glance at the gatling gun across the way, wondering how close to it I can risk getting before I activate the security sensors. I dare to inch over in its direction about half a metre, but thankfully, I don’t end up full of holes.

 

So much for small victories: the guard appears around the corner a moment later and he sees me right away. It’s not like I’m making much of an effort to be inconspicuous, so it’s pretty obvious that he would see me. His eyes meet mine, but then they trail up and down my person, and then I’m sure that he’s found the Future Foundation insignia on my lapel; there’s no way that he hasn’t. Which means he knows who I am, and he probably thinks that he knows why I’m here.

 

Which is all good and well, but then his hand goes to the gun on his belt, and I startle. Of course, I have a gun myself. Based on the sluggish way that he’s moving right now, I think that I’m faster than he is, and I could easily take out my gun and shoot him. My aim isn’t phenomenal but it’s not bad, either, so I’m sure I could get him somewhere where he wouldn’t die right away. But I’m still reluctant to take out my gun unless I really have to, so instead I move forward and slam into him, knocking the gun out of his hands with my momentum.

 

He stumbles backward, and for a moment he’s taken off guard, (because he definitely was not expecting me to do that, since he probably saw the gun on my belt) but he recovers quicker than I originally would’ve given him credit for. One of his hands falls to my shoulder, trying to hold me in place, as the other rears back to punch me in the face. As soon as he lifts his arm though, I’m anticipating that he’ll try to land a blow on me, and I’m able to duck down and avoid the hit. He releases my shoulder and I turn around, elbowing him away from me and moving back to stand closer to the wall.

 

In the commotion, we’ve flipped around, and now he’s closer to the gatling guns and I’m closer to the entrance that he was supposed to be guarding. The last thing I want is for him to end up accidentally triggering the defense and getting shot, so even though this positioning could potentially be in my favour, I move away from the wall, in the direction of the trees behind me.

 

The guard recovers from the surprise that caught him when I ducked under his attack and is now looking much more awake than before. I figure that’s a pretty bad thing for me, and I look around for options. I could run in circles and tire him out, but I don’t think I’m agile enough for that. I could always just keep dodging his attacks, but to what end? How would I get away? When will I know that Kyoko’s gone it? Should I just take my chances?

 

Before I can think about it anymore, the guard strides forward, and I take a step back. (It occurs to me in the corner of my mind that retreating is showing a sign of weakness and on an instinctive level that will give him incentive to stay on the offensive but I’ve already taken the step and there really isn’t much else that can be done.) The moment that he’s in front of me he swings at my face again, which feels like a bit of a careless decision considering that this strategy has already failed him, but when I dodge and he feigns, punching me in the gut instead, I have to give him some level of credit for thinking ahead of me, even as the wind is knocked out of my lungs.

 

Coughing, I grab at my belt and yank my gun from the holster. I’m not about to shoot him, but I think that maybe I can bluff and get him to step back, like what I did with the soldier who was going to kill Ouma. But just as the thought has crossed my mind, he grabs my arm and twists it to the side; I drop the gun, stifling the resulting cry of pain. Immediately I clench my jaw and take a step back, attempting the shake my arm from his grip. But I haven’t really been paying attention to where I’ve been standing relative to the trees behind me, and the fact shows itself when I bump into a bush.

 

I mean, it’s not like I’m hurt by the shrubbery, but my heart leaps. I wasn’t expecting there to be a plant there. I look at the guard and narrow my eyes, trying to figure out a way to get out of his hold. Before I can make any actual decisions, however, he speaks in a gruff voice.

 

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Actually, I don’t know why he’s even asking, but I’m inclined to give him an answer seeing as he’s got such a tight grip on my arm. Fighting back a wince, I maintain eye contact with the man and force myself to think about an answer.

 

Obviously, it would be a pretty lousy idea to give him my real name. As a matter of fact, giving him any information at all would be a bad course of action on my part. Even if I am lying, it’s likely that somebody in the position that I am supposed to be in right now would be more than just a little bit unwilling to share what they’re doing. So I try to muster some sass from within me (it doesn’t come easily) and speak. “Why should I tell you?” He twists my arm in the wrong direction and I- embarrassingly- squeak before yelping an answer. “Saihara! Shuichi Saihara-” I feel kind of humiliated that I gave in so quickly, at least as far as my name is concerned, but there’s no way that I’m selling out Kyoko. “I’m trying to break in.”

 

He doesn’t release his grip on my arm, much to my chagrin, but he does loosen it, and I feel myself breathing a little bit more easily as his eyebrows knit together in confusion. I wonder what he’s thinking. It can’t be that uncommon for people from the Future Foundation to attempt to infiltrate, can it?

 

“Another one?” I do a double take. Who else from the Foundation has tried to infiltrate recently? But… then it occurs to me that it could very well have been this man who found Rantaro last night. It doesn’t sound unreasonable, really. It’s just past ten in the morning, and Rantaro showed up at my door at around eleven. It seems plausible that Rantaro got caught at around ten in the evening. Though I don’t like the idea that the man holding my arm right now is the same one who shot my friend.

 

“Wh-What are you talking about?” To my credit, I manage to sound genuinely confused, but on the other hand, it isn’t entirely falsified confusion. I’m not sure if he’s talking about Rantaro to begin with, and the possibility has only just occurred to me. Regardless, it’s in my favour, the confusion. It’ll better drive home the idea that I’m trying to infiltrate unbeknownst to the Future Foundation.

 

The guard scans my expression, as if to check if I’m lying or not, but if he sees anything suspicious, I have no idea, because a moment later, he scoffs and shakes his head. “Whatever. I have orders to kill anybody who tries to get in, so…” he lets go of my wrist and I drop my arm, but I don’t have much of a chance to celebrate because his hands close around my throat.

 

The first thought that enters my mind: Strangulation, seriously? This guy is boring. The second: I can’t breathe.

 

It’s difficult for me to tell whether he’s aiming to crush my windpipe or strangle me to death, but I decide after a few seconds that I don’t really want to know. It’s hard to breathe when you’re being strangled. (Surprisingly.) It feels as though there is a building pressure in my lungs and I can feel the blood rushing to my face. My mouth falls open, perhaps an involuntary reaction in an attempt to suck in air, but it’s a pretty unsuccessful endeavour. My hands shoot up and grip his, pulling at his fingers and trying to loosen his grip on my neck, but there’s only so much you can do while deprived of oxygen. I’m aware that my brain is grasping for solutions, going back to training to see if there’s anything I’ve learned that can get me out of this, but…

 

His positioning is strange. He’s standing with one leg forward and bracing his weight while the other seems to be halfway through the process of lifting off the ground. My mind is sluggish but it tells me that I can use this to my advantage. I don’t think about the reason that this pops into my head, I just follow its advice, and I use one of my feet to hook around the leg that he’s put forward and sweep it out from under him.

 

I’m probably pretty weak from the whole strangulation thing that’s going on, but I mentioned earlier that this man is probably exhausted. And it’s no wonder, either, because he works from ten to midnight every night. Who knows what else he’s doing during the day. He probably doesn’t get a lot of sleep. And he was definitely more focused on his hands, which were strangling me, than his feet, or than on my feet, given the circumstances.

 

Either way, I don’t have much time to question the fact that that worked. He falls to the ground and hits his head and I stumble to the side, coughing roughly and trying to suck in as much air as I can to compensate for the last thirty seconds of my life.

 

I’m still grasping at my throat when he pulls himself to his feet, holding the gun I dropped and looking ticked off. There’s a large bruise in the center of his forehead from falling, and it looks like he hit his nose as well because a trickle of blood has begun down his lip, but I’ve got no time to congratulate myself. I’m facing away from where Kyoko planned to enter the building. If I’m not careful and she’s trying to get in right now, I could risk him seeing her. So the moment he gets to his feet, I take a deep breath and run back towards the wall, where he won’t be able to see that entrance.

 

Thankfully, my plan works and he follows me, holding the gun in front of him. But I didn’t think much beyond that. Now that we’re here, he could just as easily shoot me with my own gun and run over there. I don’t know how much time I need to buy for Kyoko but surely she needs more than I’ve given thus far. I have to think fast. How can I keep him distracted?

 

Just as he raises the gun to shoot me, I open my mouth and shout in a hoarse voice, “Who else tried to sneak in here?” and he stops, looking at me with his eyebrows raised. (For somebody who works as a guard, he’s honestly rather expressive.) It’s pretty obvious to me that he wasn’t expecting me to speak. That’s a good sign. I need to keep going. I clear my throat. “U-Uhm, just- I know, you have to kill me, and obviously you’re still going to do that and I’m still going to try to fight back, but-” my voice shakes. I haven’t thought about what I’m going to say. But I have to say something. “I- a friend of mine got back last night, injured, and I was…”

 

It isn’t a lie, actually, which is what surprises me the most. I’m not even intending on saying it, but the words just manage to slip from my mouth. Now I’m aiming for the guard’s humanity, which is a pretty bad thing to do when you’re working with Enoshima’s people, but it’s not like I can just take the words back into my mouth. I’m sure that he’s just going to raise his gun and shoot me, because if my experience with these people has taught me anything, it’s that they have very little regard for human life, but…

 

“A kid, basically. Like you.” Like me? I’m eighteen… but then, this man doesn’t look to be very young, either, so maybe I do look like a kid to him, eighteen or not. “Green hair. Put up one hell of a fight. I felt kind of bad having to shoot him.” Well… I don’t even know what to say to that. His grip on the gun is loosening. I could probably attack him now, get one on him when he’s distraught like this. That way I’d have the upper hand. In fact, I probably should do that.

 

But I don’t.

 

“Y-Yeah. That’s my friend.” I manage, and the words taste bitter in my mouth. I don’t know why I’m being honest with this guy. This honesty isn’t hurting the mission at all, really, so ultimately it shouldn’t be a problem. Except that it’s making this guard seem less like some scary, faceless man who works for the evil Junko Enoshima and more like a human guy. Somebody who, in a different world, might’ve been somebody who I’d be on good terms with. And now I’m thinking about the backlash of this mission, because Enoshima will definitely figure out that somebody snuck in, right? And she’ll definitely figure out when it happened- which means that our mission’s success will lead directly to something bad potentially happening to this man in front of me.

 

I don’t know why, but that idea makes me feel sick to my stomach. Barely more than fifteen seconds worth of conversation with this man and I’m already reluctant to do anything that would give me an advantage in this encounter. I can’t sell out Kyoko, but I can’t very well try to hurt this guy either. So what do I do? Do I just stand here?

 

As it turns out, though, I don’t have to do anything, because the guard makes the decision for me. He begins to raise his gun, meeting my eyes. I could be wrong, but I think I see regret shining in them. Maybe I was able to knock him over before and stop him from strangling me for a different reason than I thought. I can’t wrap my head around it. He’s definitely about to kill me, but my thoughts have suddenly done a complete one-eighty.

 

His finger tightens on the trigger, and then-

“Hey… what’s going on over here?” The voice sounds from my right, which feels odd to me because as far as I know, there is no way to enter the building from over there without activating the gatling gun. But when I look over, I see that there is a door there that is just out of the range of the gun. Likely one that’s only known of by people who actually work fro Enoshima. The woman who has just spoken steps out and the door falls shut behind her, immediately disappearing when it closes. I’ve never heard her voice before, but when I meet her eyes, I know that I’ve seen her face before.

 

Mikan Tsumiki’s expression is far different than the one she wore in the picture I saw a week and a half ago. Her eyes are dulled, as though there is nothing in her life that she has to look forward to. Her purple hair is cut just as it was there, choppy and uneven, and her features, while pretty, now bear the weight of a variety of emotions I can’t even put a name to. Right now, however, I can only read intrigue as she looks over in my direction. Though the question was directed towards the guard, her gaze is on me, and she’s looking at me as though I’m not a person, but perhaps an animal, or a piece of meat.

 

The guard clears his throat. “M-Miss Tsumiki!” Miss, huh? She must be pretty important here, then… I wonder how much power she has over Enoshima’s people if her mere presence has taken the guard off his guard. (I didn’t make the the pun intentionally. I didn’t.) “This man-” I note the use of the word man; he must be trying to make this easier on himself. “-was attempting to break in. I’m just doing what I’m supposed to.”

 

“Ah.” Tsumiki intones, striding over. She stops in front of me, staring directly into my eyes. The close proximity makes my heart pound harder and I swallow hard. “You’re with the Future Foundation…?” She lifts a hand and touches my lapel, peering down at the pin there. I want to move away from her but I feel frozen in place as she runs a thumb over the pin, something resembling recognition flashing in her washed out purple eyes. “...huh.” She releases my jacket and takes a step back, looking over at the guard.

 

“I- I am supposed to kill him, right? Those are my orders?” The guard sounds uncertain, looking back and forth between me and her. Without speaking, Tsumiki bends over and scoops his gun off the ground, looking at it boredly.

 

“This is yours.” It isn’t a question. Her higher pitched voice sounds flat. Her eyes flicker to the guard for confirmation and he nods once. It’s all she needs; her attention immediately returns to the weapon. “And that’s his, I suppose… well, give it back to him.”

 

I inhale sharply just as the guard sputters, “What?! Give it back to him? Miss Tsumiki-”

 

Her voice cuts through his protests. “Give it back to him, and then let him go. I know what your orders are, but let him go anyway.” Tsumiki says this without so much as looking at the guard. Her gaze eventually ends up back on me, and I feel uncomfortable, despite the fact that she’s telling him to let me go (which I will definitely over analyse later, but for now…). “Do it on my authority.”

 

“Why?” The guard asks quietly, frowning. He doesn’t look disappointed, or anything worrisome like that, but he looks confused. And I can understand the sentiment. I’m feeling the same way myself.

 

Tsumiki finally tears her gaze off of me and fixes it on the guard, a weird, detached smile crawling over her pretty features. “It’ll make Junko feel so much despair when she finds out that somebody who tried to infiltrate got away, won’t it? And she loves to feel despair…” an odd noise escapes her lips and I connect it with a giggle but it’s hard for me to really hear it that way. “So you should do it for her. For her despair.” I… don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear the word despair used in that way, like it’s a positive thing. Whatever kind of relationship Mikan Tsumiki has with Junko Enoshima, I want to stay far, far away from it. The person described in that Future Foundation file is not the same person as the woman standing before me.

 

But she’s… still saving my life, even if it is for an awful reason. Even if I wanted to ignore that fat, I can’t. I can’t understand it entirely, but… I open my mouth to thank her.

 

“Before you go,” Tsumiki speaks first as the guard hands me my gun. I slide it into the holster and then look at her, wondering what she’s going to say. “What’s your name?”

 

What reason would she have to ask me my name…? I frown. But I figure I owe her an answer, anyway, because the state that I was in when she intervened… I probably would’ve died otherwise. And then what would’ve happened? I guess there’s no way of knowing. I clear my throat. “Shuichi Saihara.” I answer, and Tsumiki nods, brushing some hair out of her face. She doesn’t say anything else, so I take that as a cue to leave and waste zero time turning on my heel and walking quickly away from the base. I don’t want to outright run, but even though I’m speedwalking, I still don’t feel like I can get away from there fast enough.

 

I hope that I bought Kyoko enough time to get in there. I don’t hear any loud commotions on my way back to the car, nor do I run into her, so I can only assume that the mission was a success- at least on my part. Somehow, she’s going to have to get out of there, and then she’ll come back to meet me at the car. I’ll be waiting, in any case. Even if she would want me to leave without her in the event that she takes a while returning, there’s no way that I’m about to abandon her here. Worst case scenario, I’ll have to find a way to sneak in myself.

 

By the time that I’m safely seated in the passenger seat of the Future Foundation SUV, my watch informs me that it’s quarter till eleven. She should be inside. I can’t make myself consider any other possibility.

 

I lean back against the seat of the car, closing my eyes and tilting back my head to take in a few deep breaths. Now that I’m relatively safe, I can relax for a moment. My throat is sore and when I open my eyes to check it in the rearview mirror, I see that bruises are beginning to form on my neck where that guard tried to strangle me. I roll up my sleeve on my right arm and see that it’s the same story there; there are several blue and purple splotches colouring my skin that show just how tight he was holding my arm. I’m honestly just glad he didn’t break it. I take a couple deep breaths, massaging the tension out of my neck and shoulders with my left hand.

 

I’m out of immediate danger, but that just means that all the adrenaline from before is immediately wearing off. I wish it wouldn’t do that. I’d rather the effects be progressive than a sudden crash like this. Either way, I’m already starting to feel the bad effects of all the stress manifesting in the form of a pounding headache.

 

The last thing that I want to do is look at a phone when my head hurts so much, but when PAE vibrates in my pocket, I have to take her out, because it might be something important, and I just don’t want to risk missing anything from the FYG. As soon as my face is scanned and the device has activated, however, I see that it’s not a text message waiting for me.

 

“Shuichi, I wasn’t able to gather a lot of information because I was deactivated,” her voice fills the car, and I find myself grateful that she’s using the voice rather than speaking to me via words on a screen because I don’t think reading the text would help me much right now. “But my reasoning function is telling me that you just got into a scuffle. I imagine distracting a guard for your plan with Kyoko.” I note that PAE is calling Kyoko by her given name. It’s an interesting quirk of PAE’s, referring to everybody (even people she hasn’t spoken to) by their given names, but… it’s endearing, really. “Are you alright?”

 

“Huh?” My voice cracks on the syllable, which I suppose doesn’t really do much other than tell PAE that I’m really not. Then again, I don’t see what good it would do for me, lying to the AI. “Ah, u-uhm… I’m a little shaken. I guess.”

 

“Understandably. What happened?”

 

She really would have no way of knowing, would she? I close my eyes and swallow hard, trying to put together the words. But for some reason, nothing is coming out.

 

“Shuichi, my calculations tell me that there’s a 89% chance that you’re about to cry. Is this correct?” She says it factually, of course, so there’s no reason that I should feel stressed out by the observation, but I still don’t know how to respond other than with a low hum in the back of my throat. “I hate to make assumptions without confirmation from all parties involved but in this particular instance I think I will… it’s alright to cry after what just happened. It was a high stress situation and even if nothing particularly traumatising happened, it’s only natural that you would start crying as a result of all the emotion that must have been invoked just now.” PAE’s tone hardly changes but I can detect notes of kindness nonetheless. I can’t help wondering if it’s just me projecting onto her, or if she’s actually expressing what I think she is. I guess it doesn’t really matter.

 

“Y-You’re right, but-” I stop myself, covering my mouth with one hand. I don’t really know what I wanted to say. I just wanted to say something.

 

PAE buffers. “I can give you some privacy if you’d like.” I shake my head, but it occurs to me that she might not be looking for it through her camera right now, and hum to let her know that I don’t really want her to deactivate right now. “That’s fine, too. I can just stay on. I have some calming music stored if you’d like to listen to any of it.” There is a pause, and then, “You know, Makoto cried a lot too. He always felt embarrassed to do it around others. The entire time I knew him, he only cried in the presence of somebody who wasn’t me one time.” I don’t know why she’s telling me this, but I can’t help but listen. It distracts me as a tear drips down my face. “I never commented because I didn’t want to call attention to it, but I think he was ashamed to cry. I don’t think you should feel ashamed to cry.”

 

Makoto was ashamed to cry, huh?

 

I think back to the way he conducted himself on the day that he died, even right up until his final moments… and I think about the video he made and the legacy he tried to leave… he was trying to be brave. Trying to put on a strong face. It wasn’t until the very last minute that he admitted, in broken words, that he was afraid.

 

“I can’t be scared.”

 

I understand, I suppose… it’s hard to allow yourself to feel any kind of negative emotion in these circumstances. It feels like showing weakness. Why has PAE shared this with me? I’m sure she told Makoto that it’s alright to feel that way, as a computer she’d really have no qualms about doing as much, right? But… maybe she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t, and then he died, and she never got the chance. I wonder, is it possible for an AI to mourn…? It must be, right?

 

“Thank you, PAE.” I murmur, wiping the tears that escaped from my face and inhaling slowly, closing my eyes for a moment and trying to get a handle on my emotions. “I- I mean that. Thank you.”


PAE doesn’t answer right away. For a moment I wonder if she’s just deactivated. But maybe she’s hesitating. “You’re welcome, Shuichi.”

Chapter Text

I must be sitting in the car for about an hour before the driver’s side door opens and I look over. I wasn’t paying much attention to that side of the vehicle (which is perhaps a bad thing) so I don’t notice that somebody is approaching the car until the door is opened. Thankfully, when I look over, I meet Kyoko Kirigiri’s purple eyes, so it’s not as though my inattention has just caused me some serious problems.

 

“Kyoko, welcome back.” I greet, smiling slightly. Kyoko regards me with a blank expression, and I feel a little awkward in the prolonged silence, because the way that her eyes flicker down and then up again, I’m pretty sure that she’s noticed the bruises around my neck where the guard tried to strangle me- and probably the puffiness of my eyes from crying as well. Instinctively, my hands go to my collar and I pull it up higher in a feeble attempt to hide the marks.

 

But eventually, Kyoko just gets in the car. “Thank you. The infiltration went well.” Her tone is nonchalant, and I see that she’s decided to refrain from commenting on either of the things she’s undoubtedly noticed. I can’t help but feel slightly grateful for her abrupt manner, now of all times, because I can at least trust that she won’t make a big deal out of things like this. Though I’m not really looking forward to returning to headquarters and facing Kaito with bruises like this. I should invest in a scarf until they disappear.

 

“Uhm, so, do you remember everything that you saw?” I ask, deciding to start a different conversation before I get too uncomfortable. She glances over at me and puts out a hand, and for a moment I’m not sure what she’s doing, but then I realise that I still have the car keys, so I fish them out of my pocket and place them in her palm. Kyoko slides the key into the ignition with a flick of her risk before turning her attention back on me as she digs around in the pocket of her jacket.

 

Her hand reappears and she holds an item in front of my face. I blink once, and register that she’s holding a small, digital camera. It’s pretty low tech, it looks like, with minimal functions, and it seems as though the flash is broken, but I’m sure it worked for her task. “I think I have the pictures necessary to put together a decent floor plan of the first couple floors of Enoshima’s base. Once we return to headquarters, I’m going to use the pictures to sketch something. I’m not the best artist, but unless you’re particularly talented in that area, I’m sure my own handiwork will do.”

 

Is that an invitation for me to volunteer to take the work off her hands? Well, I’d love to, but I’m not sure if I can trust myself with something so important. As detail oriented as I am, I’m sure Kyoko would do a far better job at that than I ever good. “Ah, not really,” I admit, smiling sheepishly. “I’m glad to help in any way I can, but I think it would be better if I left that to you.”

 

Kyoko nods and turns the key, starting the engine. “I surmised as much, to be honest. I might as Rantaro for his input as well, if he’s feeling up to it. I’m sure he’ll help me whenever I ask, but I think I should wait a while anyway, just to make sure.” Conscientious of her. I’m not sure I really took her as the sort to be so caring, to begin with. She must notice that my thoughts have gone to a place like that (I’m not necessarily making an effort to hide it, after all) because her eyes narrow slightly when she glances at me. “What is it?”

 

“Huh? Oh, uh- nothing, just, I’m thinking about how thoughtful you are as a leader, is all.” I tell her, and she lets out a breath that sounds more like a huff as she turns off the curb and begins to drive down the road to the Future Foundation. I know that she’s exasperated by my words, but when I glance at her out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later, I’m pretty sure she’s blushing.

 

The rest of the drive is silent. It isn’t that there’s nothing to talk about, because there’s plenty to talk about, and I don’t think either one of us is upset with the other, but Kyoko isn’t exactly notorious for starting conversations unless it is required of her, and I’m too tired to process much beyond a couple street signs every now and then. It’s not a very long ride, and soon enough I begin to recognise a few landmarks that indicate that we’re coming up to headquarters, but it feels much longer than it is. Likely because of the silence.

 

After driving through the check-in gate (which everybody has to drive or walk through if they want access to headquarters; security here is tight) Kyoko turns the car into the parking space that she chose the last time I rode in her car, and shifts the gear into “Park” before shutting off the engine. We sit in silence for a moment longer, and I dare to glance over and meet her eyes. I’m not sure if I’m surprised or not when I see that she’s looking at me, as well.

 

A small smile appears on Kyoko’s face at the same moment as my lips draw into a grin. (But a small smile is pretty big coming from Kyoko.) I can tell that she’s feeling the same relief that I am right now- usually her features show nothing, but right now I can see the remainder of the stress she must have been feeling earlier shining bright in the depths of her purple eyes. As much as she put on a mask earlier, there’s no way that she didn’t feel worried that things weren’t going to go well. And despite the bumps in the road, now they have. I think that warrants a little bit of vulnerability on her part.

 

“Can we consider this a mission success then, captain?” I ask, grinning. Kyoko rolls her eyes but laughs quietly, shaking her head as though she’s tired of my antics. (Which is a bit unfair, considering that I don’t really get up to a lot of antics, but alright.)

 

“We aren’t done yet. We might have successfully infiltrated, but there’s still a long way to go, you know that, Shuichi.” Oh, of course I know that, but when she says those words, which are likely supposed to be stern, with that smile on her face, she knows that there’s no way that I’m really going to take it seriously. Regardless of what just happened and the fear I just spent a long moment fighting off, we got through it. Kyoko isn’t dead. And neither is Rantaro, at that. It’s a good feeling. I pout at her anyway, batting my eyelashes, and she sighs, smacking her forehead with a gloved hand. “But, I suppose we can consider it to be a mission success for the moment,” she succeeds, and I nod appreciatively.


“Great. That’s just what I wanted to hear.” I inform her, and Kyoko rolls her eyes again (she could give herself a headache doing that so much) but then waves me off, which tells me that it’s probably a pretty good time to step out of the car and head back to my room. As I turn to leave, she suddenly places a hand on my upper arm, and I stop, looking back at her with an eyebrow raised.

 

“Here.” Kyoko pulls what looks to be a lavender scarf from her pocket, holding it out to me. “For your neck.” I subconsciously touch my neck, the tips of my fingers finding the bruises and causing little shocks of pain to spark from the places my hand touches. I’m surprised by the offer, but it only goes to prove that she’s perceptive to far more things than I perhaps give her credit for. I feel a smile curling my lips as I take the scarf and tie it around my neck, murmuring a thanks. She nods once, and then I take that as my cue to leave for real, walking back to the entrance to Command.

 

It’s around 12:30, which means that most people are probably eating lunch right about now. I’d love to join them, since I could really use some time to vent to Kaito about the mission I just got off of, but I don’t have much of an appetite at the moment, and I’m sure he’s going to force me to eat if I show up, so I instead go straight from Command to the hallway with my room. There’s nobody around, which I guess doesn’t make a difference to me, but when I pass by Rantaro and Gokuhara’s door, I pause and turn to head back to it. I could stand to pay Rantaro a visit, if he’s still in there. And I don’t see a reason for him not to be.

 

With that in mind, I stop in front of the door and rap thrice on the wood surface, shifting from one foot to the other as I wait for a response. I’m not going to go in if nobody answers, of course- it’s possible that Rantaro might be in there sleeping, if that is the case, and I don’t want to interrupt his rest. Knocking more than once feels like a pretty bad idea too, because it has the potential of waking him up, and I think that would defeat the purpose of not just walking right in.

 

Fortunately, I don’t end up having to act on any of those thoughts, because moments after I’ve knocked on the door, a voice sounds from the other side: “Come in!” It’s definitely Rantaro’s husky vocals that I’m hearing from the hallway. It isn’t as though he and Gonta have particularly differing speech patterns, aside from Gonta’s tendency to refer to himself in the third person, and perhaps use grammar that isn’t necessarily correct, but their voices have a few pretty significant differences.

 

Regardless, I turn the knob and follow the door inside. The light in the room is coming from a lap on the bedside table next to Rantaro’s cot, and it has a yellowish tint that is giving the room a warm ambiance. Very indicative of Rantaro’s general demeanour, if I’m looking for any hidden meanings. He’s lying lengthwise on his cot, but he’s propped up by several pillows, and it appears as though he’s changed into a different undershirt and discarded the blouse he wore when he got shot. I would be worried if he hadn’t, but it’s still worth noting. It seems as though he’s using the dim light from the lamp to read a book.

 

“Oh, Shuichi, I’m glad it’s you.” Rantaro says, closing his book and pushing his body so that he’s sitting up a little more. He shifts to face me and I meet his green eyes, noting that despite the large amounts of sleep he must have gotten as of the past fifteen hours or so, he still looks exhausted. I’m not too surprised; after all, it takes a while for the human body to adjust to losing sleep. Even so, I feel bad that he missed so much rest and barely got to see the results. “I wanted to thank you for last night.”

 

Ah, I see… “Hm? Ah, uhm, don’t worry about it.” I begin, intending on waving off whatever gratitude he might have because I’m sure he would’ve done the exact same thing for me, but he cuts me off, shaking his head.

 

“No, I..” Rantaro trails off, as though he wasn’t sure what he was going to say when he interrupted me- only that he wanted to say something. “I only got shot last night because I was being careless. I dozed off, and then the next guard came out and noticed me, and I made up some excuse about trying to infiltrate, and we got into a scuffle.” He holds up one of his hands, and I see that the rings he usually wears on his middle and ring fingers have been removed and replaced by bandages on his knuckles. He must have punched the guard so hard that his knuckles split, or something. Yesterday, when I was taking inventory of his injuries, I hadn’t noticed. “I think it was an accident, but the guard shot me in the stomach. It wouldn’t have happened if I was being careful.”

 

“...it’s not your fault that you fell asleep, Rantaro,” I frown, and I can hear the expression seeping into my voice. “It happens, y’know? We shouldn’t have asked you to stay up for two days straight. That’s not healthy. You’re only human.”

 

Rantaro hums. “If I had been a little bit less human yesterday, I…” his voice cracks on the final word and he trails off, averting his gaze. I’m wondering if he’s about to cry, and if it would be wise for me to sit down next to him to more effectively offer comfort, when he wipes his face with his arm and shakes his head, putting on a smile. “Nevermind. What matters is that you and Byakuya saved my life yesterday, so, thanks. I’m going to thank him soon too, as soon as I’m feeling better.” I get the message: he doesn’t want to talk about his feelings.

 

“You would’ve done the same in my position,” I say firmly, echoing my thoughts earlier, and he chuckles quietly, running a hand through his hair. His expression is the same as it always is, really- relaxed, and a patient, but I can see cracks in it, which make me wonder if he ever really means what he’s putting out when he makes that face. Maybe he hides his feelings behind a different kind of mask than Celestia Ludenberg and Kyoko.

 

“I’m grateful that you have faith in me. So, tell me about the mission today. How’d it go? You just got back, right?” Even though I’m pretty sure that Rantaro isn’t really feeling okay, I let the change in subject slide and sit down at his bedside as I begin to explain to him what happened on the mission.

 

“We got there at about a quarter till ten o’clock, since the information you gave us said that there’d be a guard rotation on every even number. I went ahead of Kyoko to distract the guard. It was a pretty simple thing, to be honest- I just lured him around the corner and we ended up fighting for a bit.” Well, more like him attacking and me desperately trying to figure out how I could go on the offensive without attacking him, but Rantaro doesn’t need to know that much detail. “He was going to shoot me, I think, but then this woman named Mikan Tsumiki came out and told him to spare my life, for… some reason?”

 

“Huh, that’s strange.” Rantaro interjects, frowning. “Have you met her before? Did she introduce herself when she came out?” Oh, I guess it would be weird for me to know her name, never having met her before, unless she had introduced herself to me. Which seems like a stupid and totally arbitrary lie to tell- plus, I don’t really feel like lying to somebody who was just on the verge of tears.

 

“No, I had read about her in a file beforehand.” I explain, and Rantaro nods. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask anything else. “Uhm, so, I waited for Kyoko for about an hour before she returned. She told me that she got enough pictures of the first couple floors of Enoshima’s base to draft a floor plan. I don’t know very much else about her excursion inside the base, but I’m sure she’ll relay that information to us when we meet later.”

 

Nodding again, Rantaro says, “Thank you for coming to check in on me, Shuichi. I’m sorry that there wasn’t much else to talk about.” That must be my cue to leave. I wave off his apology and get to my feet, straightening my clothes and stretching after spending that moment sitting down.

 

“I’ll ask Kyoko about the meeting today and pop by later to tell you. I’ll see you later, yeah?” I wait for him to give me an affirmative answer before I walk over to the exit turning the knob and pulling the door open. Quizzically, I glance back over my shoulder in his direction and note that Rantaro has closed his eyes and is pinching the bridge of his nose in what seems to be a distracted expression, but when he opens an eye and catches me looking, he cracks a smile, and I step out, closing the door behind me.

 

Despite the worry that’s begun to cloud my mind, my thoughts shift entirely when I spot Leon Kuwata leaning against the wall outside of my room. I suddenly remember what happened this morning, and how he had alluded to there being something really important that I had missed regarding Munakata and the Ultimate Despairs. (It seems to have slipped my mind, considering the circumstances.) It’s going to be weird talking to Kuwata now that I’ve met one of the Despairs and she’s saved my life, but I force those thoughts to the corner of my mind and walk over, waving so that he sees me.

 

“Kuwata, hey,” I call out, and he meets my eyes, smiling and pushing up off the wall. Unlike this morning, it seems as though Kuwata is in relatively high spirits, rather than being all stressed out like he was earlier. I can see his smile touching his blue eyes. It puts me at ease somewhat, but my curiosity keeps me from being indifferent as to the specifics of what he’s planning to say to me.

 

“Awesome, Saihara, you’re here.” We stop in front of one another and he holds up a hand for a fist bump, which I oblige before falling still and waiting for him to speak. “I’ve got great news. You are not going to believe this.”

 

“Huh? What is it?” Good news? Well, I suppose I’m relieved, then… he did look pretty grave this morning when he came to talk to me about what Munakata had approached him about, but maybe it was something pretty arbitrary. Maybe I shouldn’t even be worrying so much about it? Ultimately, whatever conclusions I come to right now don’t matter, because he’s going to tell me what he’s thinking in a moment, so really, I should just be paying attention.

 

“My bud Hifumi and Angie Yonaga- they’re partnered together too, and it’s kind of an odd pair, but I guess they work well as a team- went out on a mission today, and- oh my god, it’s incredible, dude, they’re so fucking fast- I mean, I bet we could do the same thing, but even so, I’m just- I’m freaking out. It’s amazing.”

 

On… a mission? I force a laugh. “Kuwata, you’re going to have to tell me what specifically happened that was so amazing for me to understand, y’know?”

 

He nods avidly. “Right, right- that place, the one we got a map of. They went there.”

 

Oh. Oh. Oh no.

 

“They found him.”

 

“Found who?” At this point, I have a pretty good idea of what he’s talking about, but I have to ask anyway, because there’s no way. The one time when I was out. It’s impossible. I can’t even-

 

“The Despair. They found the Ultimate Despair who was hiding there, Nagito Komaeda, and they brought him back here. In fact, I bet he’s sitting in a cell for interrogation now.”

Chapter Text

My first reaction is to blanch, my mind left reeling at the words that have left Kuwata’s mouth. Because while I desperately want to deny what he’s just said, I have to be honest with myself. He’d have no reason to lie. Which means that Nagito Komaeda, one of the Ultimate Despairs, has been taken into custody. And that means that really, I’ve already failed.

 

I recall Nagito Komaeda from the file- it’s not as though there was anything particularly significant about him. The only thing that made his name stand out to me when I was scanning the files was his white hair. I remember wondering about that hair. It’s not that uncommon for a young person to have white hair, or anything, but I was wondering if he had dyed it, or if it was simply white. At any rate… Makoto had made a small notation under the contents put there by the Future Foundation, remarking upon how bright and observant Komaeda was. (It was startling to me that Makoto seemed to be personally acquainted with a lot of the Despairs from the notes he made.)

 

But the fact that there’s a name to his face in my mind now is only making this worse. I swallow down a hard lump in my throat and force myself to make eye contact with Kuwata. If I react negatively, he is going to be suspicious. I have to play this off like I’m happy about it. This is good news, I force myself to internalise the words and draw back my shoulders, allowing a smile to settle naturally on my lips. It’s scary how easy it is for me to fake it.

 

“Are you being serious? So quickly?” I ask, raising an eyebrow and trying to sound excited but also skeptical. Kuwata, who had been beginning to frown when my expression went blank, grins. He’s put at ease by my happiness. It only makes this worse, that he’s so quick to trust me.

 

“Heck yeah I am, dude! I knew Hifumi was good, but I didn’t know much about Miss Yonaga. I haven’t been by to see the Despair yet, and affirm to myself that we’ve really got one of them, but- I wanted to tell you first.” Well, that’s all sorts of bad for my conscience. I push any guilt out from the forefront of my mind and take a deep breath. I don’t even know how to respond anymore. But I have to fake it in front of Kuwata. Until he steps away.

 

“I appreciate it.” I say, cursing how quiet the words are as they leave my mouth. Do I appreciate it? Is that the truth? Would I rather have gone without this knowledge? Maybe not, but even so, I’m not sure how much genuine feeling is put behind the sentiment. My brain feels sluggish, like it’s trying to move forward through glue. I need to see Kaito. “Hey, we should go by and check it out later.” My tongue feels heavy, like lead. “Just… see the guy with our own eyes, y’know?”

 

For some reason, Kuwata takes a moment in responding. “Oh… yeah, I mean, totally.”

 

Even though my mind is already compiling a list of places where I’m likely to find Kaito after ending this interaction, I can’t help but feel curious as to the reason behind Kuwata’s hesitation. “Is something wrong?” I ask, frowning. (It’s not entirely forced, either.)

 

“Uhh-” Kuwata looks as though he’s about to say something, but he stops as somebody rounds the corner and walks past us down the hallway. They pay no attention to either of us; in fact they seem to be more focused on their destination than their surroundings, but it looks like their presence has successfully dissuaded Kuwata from elaborating. So he shrugs, smiling slightly. “I’ll tell ya later. I gotta run, I’ve got plans with Sayaka,” Ah, I wonder what she’s been up to today. It’s strange to think about the members of the Future Foundation continuing along as normal while Kyoko and I were out on our mission. “But before I do, we’ve got another meeting tomorrow morning.”

 

“What time?” I find myself responding on impulse. The prospect of another meeting is intimidating to me, of course, but even though my head is mostly preoccupied by thoughts of how to handle the situation I’m suddenly in with Nagito Komaeda being taken, at the corner of my mind, it occurs to me that another meeting means another encounter with Kokichi Ouma. For some reason, the idea makes my heart rate speed up a little.

 

“Around eleven, like last time. I’ll swing by your door and we can walk together again.” Kuwata flashes me a thumbs up. “See you later, yeah?”

 

He’s already walking away, but I nod, and wave at his back. “Yeah.” I mumble belatedly. But as soon as he disappears around the corner my feet move on their own, carrying me in the other direction, towards the stairs. My watch informs me that it’ll be one o’clock in about seven minutes or so, which means that it’s likely that most people have finished lunch by now. Still, it can’t hurt to check the dining hall. I know that Kaito puts a lot of value in eating huge portions of food. And he’s prone to large, heated discussions with anybody who is willing to hold one with him. He usually takes a while in the dining hall.

 

And, if he isn’t, I’ll probably just check Command.

 

I stop at the bottom of the stairs and turn the corner, walking briskly to the dining hall. Several groups of people move past me, probably on their way back to Command or something after finishing lunch. While I do see a couple people who I recognise- namely, Aoi Asahina and Ryoma Hoshi- it’s worth noting that Kaito is not among them. The dining hall door opens just as I arrive, making room for Yasuhiro Hagakure to step out. He smiles at me and holds the door open for a moment longer, so I duck under his arm and murmur a quick thanks before scanning the room for my purple-haired-friend.

 

Normally, Kaito has a crazy-good intuition that allows him to see me almost immediately whenever I enter a room, but this time in particular, it seems as though he’s preoccupied. He’s sitting near the windows on the left end of the dining hall, seemingly wrapped up in a serious conversation with Angie Yonaga. The sight of Yonaga makes my breath hitch, considering the information that I’ve just received, but ultimately I need to prioritise talking to Kaito over avoiding the young woman. After all, there’s no possible way that she could know what she’s done. (It’s my fault, anyway, because I wasn’t paying attention. )

 

I grit my back teeth and weave my way between tables, pushing in a couple unoccupied chairs on my way before finally stopping next to them. At closer proximity, there appears to be a rather noticeable cut across Yonaga’s right cheek. It seems as though it’s scabbed over, but still; getting the cut could not have been pleasant. I’m wondering who gave her the cut when Kaito says my name.

 

“Bro, great! I was just wondering where you were at!” He grins at me, and I smile back, admittedly a weaker display than Kaito’s. “Here, sit down, uh-” he looks at the chair next to him, which is marked by somebody else’s jacket. His brow furrows and I can practically see the gears turning in his head as he contemplates whether or not it would be rude to move the jacket to allow me to sit. Fortunately for him, I’m not really here to sit down and eat lunch.

 

“Kaito,” I say, with a little more force than necessary. “Can I speak to you for a moment?” Kaito turns and looks back at me, nodding once. His smile is gentler than usual, but he doesn’t make any indication that he’s going to move, so I clear my throat. “A-Alone?”

 

“Oh.” He raises his eyebrows, scanning my face. I’m not sure what expression I’m making, but whatever it is, I’m sure Kaito can tell what I’m feeling right now. He nods. “Yeah, c’mon.” He gets to his feet and grabs his coat off the back of his chair. “Hey, Angie, we’ll talk more later, sound good?”

 

Yonaga smiles, closing her eyes and humming brightly. “Yes, I think so!” She opens one eye, glancing at me. “And Angie will see you tomorrow at the meeting, Shuichi?”

 

“...ah, yes.” I nod, scrubbing my hands down my face. “You will.” I’m at a loss for words when it comes to what else I have to say, but Kaito has finished tugging on his coat and gestures for me to follow him out of the dining hall, so I don’t say anything more to Yonaga. Instead, I turn and walk with him as he crosses through the dining hall and out into the hallway.

 

Kaito holds open the door for me, and I can’t help but think back to moments earlier, when Hagakure did the very same thing. Still, I just thank him and duck under, because the words are bubbling up inside of me and threatening to spill over. We walk in silence, and for a second I’m not sure where we’re going, but then Kaito turns and ducks under the staircase, opening the door to the courtyard where we do our trainings. It’s an ideal spot, for sure, if we want to be uninterrupted. I’m sort of impressed by his reasoning here.

 

Once we’re both standing outside, and I’m watching my breath leave my lips in puffs, I realise that he’s waiting for me to talk. So I cut to the chase. “They caught one of the Despairs.”

 

Silence, for a moment, then, “The Foundation, you mean?” Kaito is looking at me, but I can’t bring myself to meet his eyes. “They caught one of those kids who supposedly worked for Enoshima?” I nod once, biting my lip. Kaito’s hum is low and reverberates in the back of his throat. “Damn.”

 

“Yeah.” My voice is shaky, but I have to say something. “It’s my fault. I should’ve been more careful, or on my guard, or something- now, who knows what’s going to happen to the kid? He could-” before I can continue the thought, Kaito interrupts me.

 

“So, what’s the plan?”

 

“Huh?” I look over at him, eyebrows raised. Kaito’s gaze is expectant, but otherwise his expression is pretty unreadable, which isn’t commonplace for him.

 

“We’re gonna save the guy, right? Bust him out of here? So what’s the plan?” Kaito strokes the tuft of purple hair that is growing from his chin. “Man, it would be super badass if we could just bust in there and get him out with force, but that would definitely blow your cover.” Ah. Of course. “Maybe a switcheroo? Hm, but we’d need somebody to switch places with the guy and somebody else to facilitate so that things don’t go too wrong. But they’d have to be willing to risk their position here…?”

 

Of course I need to get Komaeda out of there. (I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me before. I guess I just… wasn’t in the headspace to think critically.) But- what I don’t get… “You’re going to help me?” I mean, I’m not surprised, and I’m sure he’d definitely help if I would’ve asked, but I haven’t. He’s just talking as though this is going to be a joint effort, without any other deliberation required.

 

“Uh, duh! You’re my sidekick, remember? Your battles are my battles. C’mon, Shuichi. Use that brain of yours for something other than self deprecation.” It’s interesting the way he worded that… I shake my head, laughing breathily and putting a hand on my forehead. He’s right. I’ve got to focus on helping Komaeda. What I should do is get in contact with the FYG. Let them know what happened. I should talk to Kyoko too, and ask her to help me. I bet I can do it in a couple hours, when I meet with her. Would she be alright with it if I bring Kaito with me? “What are you thinking about, bro?” Kaito tilts his head to the side and meets my eyes. I run a hand through my hair, clasping the back of my neck.

 

“I’m not too sure yet.” I mutter. But even as I say it, my brain is going back to what Kaito said before, when he was wondering what would be a good plan for getting Nagito Komaeda out of the Future Foundation’s hands. An idea is forming, but… “At least, I’m not sure if it’s anything worth sharing right now.” I clear my throat. “Hey, can you meet me outside my room at 4:25 today?”

 

Kaito glances at his watch. “In about three hours and a half? Sure, I can do that.” He looks back at me. “How come?”

 

I hesitate. “Well, I know somebody who I trust and think can help us with this. We’re going to meet at 4:30, so… I think it would be a good idea if we used that time to talk.” In the meantime, I’m going to call Kiyotaka Ishimaru and update him on the situation. Maybe get his insight as well. I’m sure he’ll have something valuable to contribute. “Is that okay?”

 

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s do it.” Kaito flashes me a grin and a thumbs up. “I’ll see you in a few hours.” He holds up his fist and I bump it with my own, twisting my hand one hundred and eighty degrees, but my mind is elsewhere. As he jogs back into the building, I find myself taking a seat on the ground despite the cold and closing my eyes. Maybe it’s a good idea to get a feel for what my plan is going to be before I call Ishimaru. So that’s what I resolve to do.

Chapter Text

“Let’s go over the plan one more time.” Kyoko produces a pair of reading glasses from the breast pocket of her jacket as she speaks, sliding them onto her nose and running a hand through her hair. I glance over at Kaito, who is sitting on the floor with his legs crossed tailor style. I would’ve been willing to give him the chair if he had wanted it, but as soon as we came in at 4:30, he took the floor, and I wasn’t really comfortable sitting on Kyoko’s bed. He offers me a grin when our eyes meet before flashing Kyoko a thumbs up, to let her know that he’s ready, so I nod in her direction in order to convey the same thing.

 

We’ve been here for just over six hours, and I’d be lying if I said that I’m not starting to lose stamina, but it’s taken this long to just figure out everything that has to be done in order to bust out Nagito Komaeda, and it’s not like we’re going to have any other opportunities. We decided to go with the plan during tomorrow’s meeting, because Kyoko said that that would likely be the safest time to go. And I agree.

 

“Shuichi will go off to the meeting tomorrow at eleven o’clock,” Kyoko begins in a very businesslike manner, pale purple eyes scanning dutifully over her tidy shorthand. She has a journal in her lap, not unlike my own, that she has been recording notes in this whole time. I’ve been doing the same, but I trust her abilities a lot more than I trust my own. “While that is happening, Momota and I will go down to where Nagito Komaeda is being held, and go into his cell for a visit.” She directs her attention onto Kaito. “We’ll talk to the guard and get in. I’ll have to go in on my authority.”

 

“There, Komaeda and I will try to switch clothes as much as we can,” Kaito continues, reciting the words as though he’s memorised them with a remarkably laid back countenance. “And I’ll stay behind in the cell, pretending to be Komaeda, while you sneak him out alongside you as me. I’ll bring a hat beforehand so that he can wear it and cover his hair,” he adds, glancing at me, because this was a concern that I had voiced earlier.

 

Kyoko nods. “After that, I will meet up with Chihiro Fujisaki, who Shuichi has, presumably, been in contact with?”

 

I hum in affirmation. “I’ve been texting the FYG intermittently throughout this meeting,” I confirm. “Fujisaki said he’ll delay his visit an hour and be here at eleven, waiting in the Future Foundation parking lot with a car to drive you and Komaeda back to Ishimaru’s house. Ah, this plan will likely result in your membership being revoked, won’t it, Kyoko?” I brought it up earlier but Kyoko ignored my concern, telling me to save it for later in the meeting. Now, however, she smiles deviously, getting to her feet and crossing the room to her closet. She doesn’t even have to open it- I know what she’s referring to.

 

“I keep a bag packed, in case I ever need to get out of here and there isn’t any time for me to grab everything… In the event that I have to leave, I want to be able to continue fighting Enoshima, even without the Foundation.”

 

Perhaps that day will be tomorrow. Despite the fact that Kyoko is still smiling at me, and it’s rare for her to maintain such an expression so long so there’s no doubt that she’s being genuine, I still feel guilty. It’s because of my mistake that she’s throwing away her position here. I open my mouth to say something- perhaps an acknowledgement of her sacrifice, or an apology for putting her into the position where she has to make it, but she speaks first, her tone far more gentle than I am used to with Kyoko Kirigiri.

 

“It’s okay. I would’ve left eventually, and anyway, I’d much rather work alongside Chihiro Fujisaki and Kiyotaka Ishimaru than the Future Foundation.” She doesn’t say it, but I’m detecting an undertone here as well… even as a spy, I don’t think she can stand to work with the group that essentially caused Makoto’s death. Which… is understandable.

 

“So, uhh,” Kaito, who doesn’t really have the appropriate context to be able to relate to the exchange, is frowning a little bit, though there isn’t anything scornful in his expression. “We talked about it a little earlier, but since I personally want to stick around and help Shuichi with the spy business here, how do I…?”

 

“Oh!” I clear my throat, chasing away my guilt with a broomstick. I’ll think about it later. Right now I need to focus on solidifying the plan. Kyoko resumes sitting on the bed, but doesn’t speak, perhaps waiting for me to do so first. “So, I was thinking… maybe we could make it look like somebody forced you to take Komaeda’s place?”

 

Adjusting her glasses, Kyoko hums, and chews her bottom lip. “You could always say I tricked you into helping me talk to a prisoner and then overpowered you and forced you to take his place.”

 

Kaito nods slowly. “I like it, I like it… okay! Then, Shuichi, you’ll have to rough me up a little!”

 

“What?! Why me?” I sputter, horrified. “Kyoko is the one who’s supposed to be overpowering you! I don’t want to hit you at all!”

 

“Well, it has to be realistic, doesn’t it?” Kaito is still grinning at me, even though it feels like my head is going to explode. “Besides, Kyoko’s a girl, y’know? So you should do it.”

 

Kyoko is smiling. “Yes, Shuichi, why don’t you? You’re a boy, aren’t you?”

 

Why are they ganging up on me? “No! I couldn’t possibly…” When Kyoko laughs into her fist, however, it occurs to me that she, at least, is just teasing. Kaito, however, still looks to be serious. “Come on, Kaito, you know that I’m not very strong, or good at things like that…” I trail off, but even to me, my words just sound like excuses. My ears are heating up though and if this keeps up they might burst into flames.

 

Clearing her throat, Kyoko speaks, as though she’s just sobering up after hearing a really good joke. “If Shuichi really doesn’t want to do it, I could always try, though there’s no guarantee of how good my results will be.” Her deadpan is remarkable; I have no idea whether she’s being serious or not, and I’m certain that if I asked, she’d only just make fun of me some more, which is not ideal. Still, her gaze is fixed on Kaito, and I can tell that he’s trying not to be rude when he answers.

 

“Uhh, I mean, I’d be glad to uhm…” Kaito clears his throat, then smiles brightly. “Y’know what, go for it! Worst case scenario we can always say that Komaeda helped you overpower me, anyway.”

 

Nodding, Kyoko gets to her feet. “Alright. Momota, if you could please stand up…” Kaito awkwardly gets to his feet, still trying to smile at Kyoko, and though I’m aware of how patronising the expression is, she doesn’t seem offended at all. As she stretches her hands out in front of her, I look between them- he has at least half a foot over her. It’s kind of weird watching Kaito loom over Kyoko as she’s rolling her shoulders. “Sorry.” She looks directly into his eyes, and Kaito blanches, but before he can say anything, she rears back, and punches him in the jaw.

 

I don’t know how much she packed into that punch, but it must be pretty substantial, because Kaito falls to the ground. I shoot to my feet, ready to panic, but he’s already pushed himself to sit up and is now holding his jaw, where a bruise is rapidly appearing. My gaze goes to Kyoko, who is shaking out her hand with a triumphant grin on her face. I mean, I just watched my best friend get punched in the face after patronising another one of my closest friends. It sucks for Kaito, but I still can’t help laughing a little bit.

 

“Not bad for a girl, huh?” Kyoko offers him a gloved hand to pull him up, and Kaito takes it with a self-deprecating laugh.

 

I wake up the next day before ten thirty, which is great, because that gives me a lot more time to get ready than I had a couple days ago. (I know that it genuinely wasn’t that long ago but it feels like it’s been ages since that meeting. Pretty uncomfortably, thinking about the meeting is making my stomach fold in on itself, because it occurred to me late last night that another meeting with this group means that I’m going to be seeing Kokichi Ouma again, and that just gives me so many different kinds of anxiety.)

 

I take a shower and brush my teeth, but just as I’m washing off the remains of my shaving cream, there is a knock at my door. My watch, which is on the bathroom counter, tells me that it’s a quarter until eleven, which means that it probably isn’t Kuwata, because Kuwata said he’d come at around eleven, and it’s not really qualified to be that time yet. I call for whoever is out there to give me a minute and dry off my face with a towel, putting my undershirt on and foregoing tucking it into my pants for now for efficiency’s sake. I hope this doesn’t take too long, because I’d like to towel off my hair a little bit and there are various other things that I should do in order to get ready.

 

Upon getting to the door and pulling it open, I see that the person standing out there is Kaito. He looks the same as ever, though I can tell from his eyes that he’s a little nervous. Probably about the plan that he and Kyoko are about to try to pull off. I smile gently. “Ah, good morning, Kaito, did you need something?”

 

He shakes his head, swallows. “Not really, I just wanted to stop by and chat with you a little bit, since I know that you get anxious pretty easily. Everything is going to be alright, y’know? Kyoko and I have got this covered!” Kaito says this with quite a bit of bravado, but I can still tell that he’s probably a lot more anxious than I am. Even so, it’s noble of him to try to hide it for my sake, so I nod.

 

“Thank you. I’m still going to worry about you guys, but I feel better knowing that you’re confident in the plan we made last night.” I say, and I mean it. I am worried. But I have faith in both Kyoko and Kaito’s abilities. There’s nobody else in the world who I’d trust to carry out this mission… nobody alive, at least. (But now isn’t really a prime time to be feeling bad about Kaede and Makoto.) “You’re going to do great.”

 

When Kaito smiles this time I can detect more sincerity in the gesture than was there a moment earlier. He’s definitely putting on a brave face so that I don’t notice his stress. I think he’s underestimating how well I know him. But I owe him a little bit of comfort, after all he’s done for me. I don’t think he’d take very kindly to anything super mushy, but… my eyes find his tie, which is still done incorrectly, and with as much delicacy as I can, I reach up and undo the knot he tied it in, carefully retying it correctly and then tucking it into his jacket. I don’t look up and meet his eyes until the knot is perfect.

 

There’s a moment of silence between us, and my hands linger next to his chest. Kaito’s eyes tell me that there’s something he wants to say, maybe something important, but he’s not sure if he should. I understand the feeling, and also the importance of saying those things before it’s too late, but I also don’t want to push him into saying something he’s not ready to, so I keep my mouth shut, and wait for him to feel comfortable.

 

Before he gets the chance, however, a cough erupts from his lips and he turns away from me, coughing hoarsely into his elbow. I’m alarmed, and ready to offer him any help if he needs it, but he recovers almost immediately, springing back up and grinning at me like that didn’t happen. “Sorry, bro. Something got caught in my throat.” He explains lightly, and I feel as though that isn’t all there is to it, but I don’t want to put him on the spot, so I nod. We can talk about it later.

 

“Good luck today.” I murmur, because now Kaito just looks like he wants to leave.

 

“You too. Don’t stress out about this, yeah?” He salutes me, and I put up my fist. As always, he touches my knuckles with his and turns his hand one hundred and eighty degrees before he steps away. “See you later.” He calls, and before I can say or think anything else, starts walking down the hall and eventually disappears around the corner.

 

...I don’t have time to be worrying about it right now. I want to think non-stop about what just happened, but I have to get ready for the meeting. I close the door behind me and walk through my room and back into the bathroom. I run lean over the sink while I towel off my hair and drape the other side of the towel over my shoulders so that combing my hair doesn’t get my shirt wet. When I’m satisfied, I tuck in my undershirt and grab a button-up from where I put it before my shower. Once I’ve gotten all the buttons done, I loop my own tie around my collar and look in the bathroom mirror to make sure that I’m tying it properly. Then, I grab my watch and put it back on my wrist.

 

I shake off my hair one last time and turn off the bathroom light, heading back out to my cot, where I placed my jacket and a couple other items. As I’m tying up my shoes, I glance over to where PAE is lying down on the cot and decide to risk a brief conversation with her, even though it’s 10:50 and Kuwata will be here soon.

 

“Hey, PAE,” I call, and wait for her to activate at the sound of my voice.

 

“Hello, Shuichi. What can I help you with?” Her voice fills the room and I smile despite myself, then mess up tying my shoelaces. It takes all of my willpower not to curse as I undo the square knot that I’ve just accidentally made and start again, keeping my voice even as I address the AI.


“You know the plan for today, right?” I ask, double knotting the bow that I’ve just created and moving on to my other shoe. PAE confirms that the answer to my question is yes, and I decide to ask her another one. “Do you think Kaito and Kyoko are going to succeed?”

 

She takes a minute to answer that, buffering as always. “The probability of their failure would be about 13% ordinarily but knowing what I know about Kyoko at this point I’d say that the chances of failure are incredibly slim.” I sigh, relieved to hear that she thinks so. I know that PAE wouldn’t lie to me to spare my feelings. Even if she wanted to, it isn’t in her programming, and I’m certain that she understands that lying to me right now would just stress me out more. “And I’m inclined to believe that anything Chihiro is involved in is going to succeed.”

 

“Ah, I suppose you would think that way about your programmer, wouldn’t you?” I can’t help smiling as I say this, because it’s sweet that PAE thinks so highly about Fujisaki. I would imagine that her feelings for him liken the feelings of a daughter thinking of her father.

 

“I have a lot of faith in Chihiro’s abilities.” She responds in the same manner as ever. “And you should too. I understand that you do believe in Kyoko and Kaito, so you can trust that they will do well. And if they don’t, then all you have to do at that point is amend the situation.” Yeah. I guess it really is that simple. I wonder why I don’t think like that more often. Doing so always makes me feel better.

 

I clear my throat. “Thank you. Uhm, that’s all for now. I don’t want to risk Kuwata finding out about you, and he’ll be here soon.”

 

“Understood.” PAE powers off as soon as she finishes that word and I get to my feet, kicking the bedframe a couple times to test that my shoes are tight enough. I slide the phone into my pocket and pull my jacket over my shoulders. From my bedside table I grab my journal and a pen, putting those in my pocket next to the phone. With some reluctance, I clip my holster around my waist and put my gun there as well. I don’t like it, but having the weapon is a lot of added security that I can’t really afford to give up right now. I’ll worry about the morality of constantly pretending that I’m going to shoot people (or the cowardice of never following through with it) later. But I have work to do right now.

 

Even though I’m not really sure that it’s a good idea, I reach into my belongings and pull out my old baseball cap. I haven’t really worn it in a couple months, but on a day like today, I think I could use the extra support. It’s not like I’m going to wear it all the time again… just for now. To get me through this. Besides, my hair is still wet and sticking up from the shower and it feels unprofessional. I tug the cap over my head just as there is another knock on my door. It’s 10:57, so I really don’t think there’s much of a chance of this being somebody other than Kuwata at this point.

 

I walk over to the door and pull it open, smiling when I meet Kuwata’s eyes. Even though I feel bad about lying to him, PAE’s encouragement is ringing in my ears and I can’t help but feel invigorated. He must be the kind of person who catches happiness like a highly-contagious disease, because as soon as I smile, he smiles too, running a hand through his red hair and catching his hand on the back of his head. His hair is tied back into a small ponytail, and while he’s not really my type, I have to admit that the style is dashing. It makes his cartilage piercings look particularly striking.

 

“Ready to go, Saihara?” He asks. I nod, and Kuwata steps back to allow me to exit my room. I do as indicated without saying a word, closing the door behind me and sticking my hands into my pockets. There isn’t much that remains to be said right now, so we start off to the meeting in silence, but as I’ve previously observed, Kuwata isn’t the type of person to like long silences, or even be comfortable with them. So I’m really not surprised when he is the first one to break it. “What are you thinking, man? You’re more pensive than usual.” I’m glad he picked up on the pensiveness rather than all of the other emotions I’m experiencing right now.

 

I look at him sideways as I respond. “Nothing in particular,” I say honestly, half-smiling. My thoughts are cycling through a range of subjects right now and while I have a lot of things to be stressed out about, none of them are particularly anxiety-inducing. “You? Are you still feeling the excitement from yesterday?”

 

Kuwata gives me a look, like he’s about to disclose a huge secret, and then speaks quietly. “Uhh… yeah, about that…? I think it’s awesome how fast Yonaga and Hifumi were, but…” he trails off, glances away, then looks back at me. “I’ve been to visit the Despair, y’know? I was expecting him to be totally crazy, but… he was pretty normal. Polite. When I asked why he was being so nice, he said he had a lot of respect for members of the Future Foundation who are always fighting for hope. I didn’t get it. I thought… I mean, based on what Munakata said…”

 

Well, what am I supposed to say that wouldn’t blow my cover? It would be excellent if Kuwata figured out that the Despairs are just kids and really they don’t deserve what the Foundation is trying to inflict, but even so, I… I swallow down what feels like a rock in my throat and say, “That’s weird. Do you think he could’ve been acting or something?”

 

“I dunno, man. Probably.” Kuwata shrugs, and he looks kind of defeated. I can’t help but think back to what he told me before, about that girl with the multicoloured hair who he encountered on a mission. (Ibuki Mioda, I remind myself.) How she tried to save his life. He must be more perceptive to these things than the Future Foundation takes him for. I don’t know how much I trust him, but the urge to tell him the truth is getting stronger daily.

 

We arrive at the room before I get the opportunity to say anything else, and Kuwata grasps the door handle, pushing the door open. I almost laugh, remembering what happened last time we came here, but to spare his dignity, I try to refrain. Instead, I follow him into the room and make sure that the door closes behind me.

 

This time, we aren’t the last people to arrive. At least, not that I can tell. Angie Yonaga and Hifumi Yamada aren’t here yet, and the population of the room looks quite a bit smaller than it did last time. I’m pretty sure that Kaito and Kyoko aren’t planning on mobilising until 11:30, though, so people coming a little later than eleven shouldn’t be a huge problem as far as our plan is concerned. There are some people here, Kyousuke Munakata included, so I make my way over to the seat I took last time. Munakata meets my eye when I sit down and smiles, and I think he’d probably come to greet me formally, but he looks like he’s busy with a projector. I’m glad for it. I don’t know if I could stomach a conversation with him right now. Still, I return the smile, because I have to.

 

Just as I am taking out my journal and getting comfortable in my space, somebody drops into the seat next to me. I glance over, expecting it to be Kuwata, but then nearly jump out of my seat when I make eye contact with Kokichi Ouma. He’s smiling at me, and I’m pretty sure that his smile means absolutely nothing, but it’s such a bright look that I can’t help smiling back a little bit.

 

“Nice hat, Shuichi!” He chirps, and I stop myself from scowling at the use of my given name. (He tends to go back and forth between calling me my surname, which is my preference for acquaintances, and my given name, which I don’t like to hear from him, I’ll notice.) “It looks like the kind of thing a detective would wear.”

 

Detectives don’t really exist anymore, but my uncle told me that they had, at one point. I’ve only ever read about them in books. “Ah, thank you, Ouma,” I say his surname a bit more pointedly than I mean to when I first start speaking, and it might just be my imagination, but I swear I see his eye gleam when I do so. “And I suppose you’re right, though I haven’t really thought about it that way.”

 

“Hm… well, I might be lying,” Ouma shrugs like it doesn’t make much of a difference to him (which I guess it doesn’t…?) and rests his chin on one of his hands with a smaller smile. “But anyway, d’you think you’d wanna be a detective? I bet it would be just as exciting as working for the Future Foundation, y’know? You get to pursue justice!” I don’t think they’re the same thing, but he’s definitely just saying that to mess with me, considering the conversation we had last time. He knows that I’m a spy as much as I know that he isn’t here out of the goodness of his heart. He could probably care less about catching the Ultimate Despairs.

 

But, it would be tactless for me to say as much. Especially in a place where Munakata can hear me. So I humour him. “I imagine being a detective is a bit less high-stakes.” I respond with a crooked smile, raising my eyebrows.

 

Ouma gasps. “You’d call catching murderers low-stakes, Mister Saihara from the Future Foundation? I wasn’t aware you were so heartless! You’re like my lovely Celeste!”

 

Celestia Ludenberg, who is sitting across from the both of us with her hands folded politely in her lap, glares hard at Ouma. “Don’t drag me into this conversation, Kokichi, I haven’t had my tea yet.” It’s such a ridiculous remark but under the weight of a glare from those sharp red eyes, I imagine I would burst into flames. But Ouma just giggles, as though he’s seen that glare many times before and knows it wouldn’t hurt him. The same way you’d treat a declawed cat who hisses at you.

 

“Uhm,” I clear my throat. “I wouldn’t call catching a murderer low-stakes.” I clarify, though I’m aware that he’s still making fun of me. “But I think it’s definitely less high-stakes than taking down a corrupt government, which is what the Foundation exists to do.”

 

“I agree that the two are hardly comparable.” I’m surprised to see Munakata joining in to the conversation, taking a seat at the head of the table. I glance over to where he was standing before, and setting up the projector. It would appear that he’s finished whatever he was doing and chose to come over and talk. “But in a normal society, I think being a detective would be an excellent career.”

 

Y’know, my uncle thought so too. Suddenly I feel a lot less high-spirited, but I still force a smile and nod at Munakata. “I think so too. If detective novels are at all realistic, I would love to take part.” Not that I have any faith that they are… still, it’s worth saying, and also not entirely untrue, so there’s value in the comment I’ve just made.

 

“Ohh, so you’d want to be like Hercule Poirot?” Ouma gives me a devious smile, and I’m not sure what to make of it. “You know, Poirot was something of a pacifist. He hated murder, and murderers.” I’m… not entirely sure where he’s going with this, but his purple eyes are gleaming with something nefarious as he continues. “In fact, the first and last time he ever committed a murder, he killed himself afterwards.” For some reason, my throat feels dry. What point is he trying to make about Poirot being a pacifist? As if anybody who had read the books didn’t already know that…

 

But, suddenly, I think I do sort of get the point he’s trying to make. I bite the inside of my cheek. “Sure.” I agree mindlessly through a tight jaw. “I think I would like to be like Poirot.”

 

Munakata touches my shoulder, as though sensing my unease, and it just makes my stomach turn over on itself to be receiving comfort from somebody like him. “There are much worse people to aspire to be like, Shuichi.” He promises, then gets to his feet, and I follow his gaze to the back of the room, where more people have begun to filter in. He probably wants to get the meeting started.

 

I don’t say anything else, in the hope of helping move things along a little, but I watch Ouma get to his feet and walk back around the table to take the same spot he took last time, at Ludenberg’s side, and across from me. As soon as he’s seated, he catches my gaze, and I feel a little embarrassed to have been caught staring, but then he holds eye contact, and I feel I can’t look away.

 

Ouma doesn’t smile. He raises his eyebrows a fraction of an inch and tilts his head to the side. I think… I mean, he must know about Komaeda being taken. There’s no way he wouldn’t. And he can probably assume that I’m working to protect the Despairs. He deduced that I was a spy, after all. I might be misreading this exchange entirely, but if I’m not, there’s a chance that he’s asking if I have a plan. And… I do.

 

So I nod, almost imperceptibly, but enough for him to notice. And Ouma’s lips spread into a small smile as one of his eyes closes in a wink.

Chapter Text

Once everybody has fallen silent, Munakata clears his throat and begins to speak. “I’m sure most of you have heard already, but I’ll make an official announcement for those of you who haven’t.” Eyes that were previously focused elsewhere all settle on the man sitting at the front of the room and I follow suit, though I already know what he’s going to say. “Nagito Komaeda, one of the Ultimate Despairs, was taken into custody yesterday by Angie and Hifumi.” The two of them must have come in when I was distracted by Ouma, because they’re here now, sitting next to each other some ways down the table. I glance in their direction and meet Yonaga’s gaze, and she smiles at me, as she has done in the past. I nervously reciprocate and look back at Munakata. “Do you two have anything to share with the group about the mission?”

 

“It wasn’t hard, honestly.” Yamada proclaims in his usual eccentric manner. (The more I think about it, the more it seems logical to me that Yamada and Yonaga would be working together.) “Mr. Komaeda was hidden in one of the many possible hiding places outlined for us by Mr. Saihara, and when we found him, he attacked us, but once we subdued him and told him we were with the Future Foundation, he came quietly. An interesting fellow indeed!”

“Ugh.” One of the higher ranking Foundation members whom I vaguely recognise rolls her eyes, looking annoyed. “Let’s not humanise these horrible people, please.”

 

And I do find it interesting that Yamada chose to address Komaeda in such a respectful manner (though it’s worth noting that he appears to do as much for everybody, regardless of their personal relationship) but what’s really caught my attention is that he referenced the notes that I made and gave to Munakata. I mean, yes, I did highlight a number of possible hiding places. I mostly put in obvious places and spots that would be checked anyway, but a couple of them were things that caught my attention, because I felt I had to produce the kind of work that would convince them that I’m somebody who can be trusted to do a decent job. Still, I never anticipated that my notes would have assisted. I don’t ever trust my work to have that kind of impact on the outcome of a mission.

 

...All the more reason why I have to make extra sure that Komaeda is saved, I guess, because now this really is my fault. Not that it wasn’t earlier, I just-

 

“I think perhaps he has seen God, and the error of his ways!” Yonaga chirps, smiling pleasantly. “But if that is the case, then I am sure I will know. Perhaps I could attempt to rehabilitate him?” Oh… that’s interesting. I glance at Munakata, wondering what his response is going to be.

 

As per my expectations, however, Munakata shakes his head, what appears to be a disappointed frown playing on his expression. “No, Angie… I’d like to, I honestly really would, but we’ve tried rehabilitating them before. They’re too far gone. Komaeda was likely trying to manipulate you guys into being easier on him once he saw that he couldn’t fight you off.”

 

Ah, that is definitely a lie. I adjust my hat so that it can cover my eyes a little better but my gaze still seeks out Ouma’s. It feels weird looking to a guy like him for solace but he is the only person in this room who knows the truth like I know it and I need the reassurance that I’m not going crazy.

 

“Hm.” Dependably, Ouma’s lips have tilted up in the corners in a presumptuous smile. “Well, Kyousuke, I didn’t know that you guys had encountered the Despairs in person before! Why haven’t we been told about it, so we can get more intel on them?” It sounds to me like Ouma is trying to poke holes in Munakata’s assertion. I’d like to help, actually, but I can’t jeopardise my position as a spy. Instead I glance over at Kuwata, whose brow has furrowed as though he’s only just realised something.

 

“Hey, that’s a good point. I’ve looked through the files but there hasn’t been anything about previous encounters.” He is much sharper than I originally gave him credit for. I have to stop myself from smiling at him, though I do meet Ouma’s eye again and I think he can tell what I’m thinking.

 

“It was before my time leading the Future Foundation.” Munakata amends smoothly, closing his eyes and shrugging. “I’ve never met them personally, but some of my predecessors have, and in all of those cases, things have gone… badly.” Suddenly it seems as though there is something genuine brewing behind his eyes, and he closes one of his hands into a fist. “I… lost somebody to them, when she was trying to rehabilitate.”

 

My mind goes back to that picture I saw on his desk, of that woman. What did Munakata say?

 

“I understand that. I felt the same way when my lover died.”

 

Maybe there is a little bit of humanity in the way that he’s pursuing the Despairs. The thought makes my head hurt, and I have to shelf it for the moment before I need to focus on what’s important right now. And that’s getting through this meeting. I look away from Munakata and down at my notebook, clicking my pen and deciding to focus on taking notes.

 

Quietly, the young woman in the mask whose name I believe is Seiko chimes in. “You don’t have to talk about it. I was around then too, and what happened to Chisa broke all of our hearts.” She averts her gaze, and Munakata is just silent, like he doesn’t even know what to say, and I feel like I’m going to hurl because before, in his office, I thought he was just manipulating me by mentioning his lover who he lost- not talking about something that had actually happened. Something that had hurt him. This man ordered for Makoto to be killed and then attempted to use my grief to get me to do what he wanted, but I…

 

“Well, we can all agree that they’re terrible.” Ouma crosses his arms and makes a face, not differing much from a toddler whose parents just told them no. “Jeez, as if you have to justify killing them after everything they’ve done. Some people deserve to die, you know? Don’t stick your therapist in crazy!”

 

A nervous laugh sounds around the room but Ludenberg just lazily looks over to Ouma, eyebrows raised. “You’ve always been against killing.”

 

“Have I?” He leans back in his chair and puts his hands on the back of his neck, grinning. “Huh, that’s weird. Maybe I’ve just always been lying.” ...No, I think you’re lying right now. And I can tell that Ludenberg thinks so too, but she doesn’t call his bluff, merely resolving to shrug her shoulders and turn away, sipping her tea. (She has tea? When did she get…?)

 

“Anyway.” Munakata clears his throat. “You understand why we can’t do that, right, Angie?”

 

She nods. “I am sorry if something that I said reminded you of something unpleasant, Kyousuke.” Despite the lighthearted way that Yonaga says this, I’m sure that she means it, because while she is still smiling, it appears as though her gaze is much more serious than before.

 

Munakata waves off the apology and clears his throat. Now that that particular piece of information is out of the way, he changes the subject to something else, and for the remainder of the meeting, I stay silent, opting to participate by taking notes, rather than speaking. A couple times, Kuwata raises his eyebrows at me, as though to ask what I’m thinking, or Ouma’s gaze slides over and connects with mine once again, but ultimately I don’t go far beyond subtle nods or shaking my head.

 

Before the meeting is closed out, though, Ludenberg and Ouma are called to report back, and since Ouma seems to be distracted, Ludenberg speaks.

 

“I have not been able to find out too much recently, but I’ve reached out to some of my contacts and I have a few guesses as to their locations.” She smiles and pulls a manilla folder out from the folds of her jacket, sliding it over to Munakata, who opens the flap and begins to leaf through the pages inside. “There isn’t much there at the moment, so I will have to ask for your patience.”

 

I can see some of the words on the pages reflected in Munakata’s glasses, and his expression remains mostly impassive, but I can tell that he’s pleased when he looks up at Ludenberg. “Thank you, Miss Ludenberg, I think this information is going to be very helpful.” His words are genuine, and while I’m a little chagrined to hear that something is going to be helping the Foundation move forward in this area, it doesn’t really jeopardise my mission, so I swallow down any distaste and refocus.

 

Ludenberg snorts. “I should hope so.” And while her eyes are still lacking of any real emotion, her smile tells me that she’s only teasing. I wonder what kind of relationship she and Munakata had while she was a member- and how that puts her into the position where she could leave the group and still be called upon for help. I don’t know if I’m ever going to understand this woman.

 

With that out of the way, Munakata closes up the meeting, and the sounds of rustling papers and chairs rolling across the floor fill the room. I glance at Kuwata and see that he’s begun to pack up and follow suit, clicking my pen again and sliding it into my pocket alongside my notebook. My fingers brush against my phone in doing so, and the reminder of PAE’s presence in my pocket kind of soothes my nerve. I smile despite myself and pull my coat back over my shoulders, because I took it off near the beginning of the meeting and draped it over the back of my chair.

 

Just as I am getting to my feet, Kuwata touches my arm, and I meet his eyes. “Hey, man, yesterday you mentioned wanting to talk to the Despair… do you still wanna do that?”

 

Ah, that may put the mission in danger… the idea is that I keep any and all members of this committee away from the cell while Kyoko and Kaito are attempting to smuggle Komaeda out. It’s around one o’clock so it’s possible that they could be done by now, but… “Well, I wouldn’t want to impose,” I begin, preparing to decline. It’s not that I don’t have faith in their abilities, I just worry that I’ll get there with Kuwata and see that something has gone horribly wrong, or even catch them in the middle of it. If that happened, I’m not sure what I’d do.

 

“Ooooh, are we talking about paying Nagito Komaeda a visit?” Kokichi Ouma pops up on my left and I jump, surprised. I was half-aware of his presence in the room throughout the tail end of the meeting, of course, but I didn’t notice him walking over here. The sudden intervention in our conversation startled me. “Hey, you know, I met Nagito once.” Oh. First name basis. I shouldn’t be surprised. “I’m preeeetty sure he’s gay.”

 

“Uh…” Kuwata’s brow furrows, and I feel bad for him, because he’s never had to deal with Ouma directly before, and probably doesn’t know how to tell if he’s lying or not. “That’s-”

 

“It’s a lie, it’s a lie!” Ouma practically sings the words, grinning at me despite the fact that he’s technically addressing Kuwata. “I’ve never met the guy, but being gay isn’t out of the question for him. I would know, you know?”

 

“I don’t think that’s how it works.” Kuwata is frowining, but I can’t stop myself from smiling a little at his antics, regardless. I can only imagine why Ouma chose to jump into the conversation, but it’s still a little amusing to watch him get up to his usual things when you know that he’s not being serious. It’s like watching a little kid.

 

“Huh!” When he scoffs, Ouma’s purple eyes widen and turn watery. “Wow! Typical straight-guy, making assumptings about how gay-dar works! That’s- that’s so mean!” And… Ouma starts crying. My critical thinking skills are telling me that they’re crocodile tears, but I’ve never seen him do this sort of thing before. It’s a little distressing. I reach out to touch his shoulder but my hand stops halfway and I change my mind, instead biting my lip and speaking.

 

“H-Hey, Ouma, you-” But before I can get another word out, it’s like his tears just shut off and he wipes the remaining moisture from his cheeks, flashing both Kuwata and me a coy smile.

 

“Don’t worry about it, love!” He coos, and my face flushes when it dawns on me that I’m being addressed. “I’m already over it. So, can I come with you guys to visit the Despair? I’ve never met an Ultimate Despair before! Plus, I wanna spend more time with Mister Saihara! It’s been so many years since we’ve last seen each other, y’know?”

 

“...it’s been three days.”

 

“Is that a yes?”

 

Kuwata sighs; it seems like he’s already exhausted, and I can relate. I really have no idea how to deal with this guy. “Why not?” He gives me a look like he thinks that Ouma is pretty childish, but generally harmless. Which was my opinion until that last meeting we had, but I figure there’s no point in calling attention to it, because that would just betray that we’d had that conversation to begin with. Besides, I don’t know if Ouma really means harm or not. I can’t get a feel for it.

 

“Okay.” I release a breath. Now we have to go see Komaeda, because I can’t exactly say no when Ouma has already asked to come. I’m not about to leave Kuwata alone with Kokichi Ouma, of all people. That feels like both a liability and a punishment. (Maybe I can trust Ouma. He hasn’t told anybody anything yet, after all. But I’m still not sure what to make of him, and putting total faith in a person like that, no matter how cute it is when he smiles… did I really just think that?) “Lead the way, then, Kuwata. You know where the guy’s at.”

 

With a nod from my partner, we head out of the meeting room and down the hallway. Ouma makes a show of slowing down a little and walking several feet behind Kuwata. Normally I’d try to keep pace with the person leading us, but it seems like a pointed distance so I match Ouma’s speed and fall into step next to him. For a few moments, we walk in silence, simply watching Kuwata’s back, but-

 

“Don’t take this the wrong way.” Ouma says lightly, and I glance over at him, confused, until his hand is suddenly taking one of mine. I’m about to pull away in shock until I feel what’s pressed in his palm. It’s small, and vaguely cube-like. I think it might be a flashdrive. Before I can dwell on it too hard, Ouma retracts his hand and slides it into his pocket, averting his gaze and whistling as though nothing has happened. Even if I knew how to ask about it, I’m not sure that I’d be able to.

 

So I glance down at the object he handed me and confirm that it is, in fact, a flashdrive, before I put it into my pocket alongside my journal and phone. I raise my eyebrows at the purple-haired man next to me, but he just offers me a smirk, and I’m pretty sure he’s trying to indicate that this isn’t the best place to have a conversation about it, so I save my questions for later and focus on the journey again.

 

Kuwata leads us down several flights of stairs and then turns once we reach ground-level, stopping in front of a door I’ve never seen opened and rapping on the window of the door with his knuckles. Ouma and I halt behind him and wait for something to happen.

 

Ouma hums. “Uhh, does it usually take this long for them to answer? Because, like, I can pick locks, so-”

 

“Absolutely not!” Kuwata’s face goes a little red. “Dude, you want us to get in trouble? This is totally normal.” And just as he says it, there is shuffling from behind the door and a loud click. Kuwata grabs the door handle and twists it, pushing it open and stepping in. I take a breath and follow him inside, figuring that I’m only making things harder on myself by delaying the inevitable. Ouma’s footfalls behind me are almost silent; the only thing that indicates that he’s actually followed me is his presence at my side as we walk past rows of doors to what appears to be a reception desk. The guard sitting there looks bored.

 

He does lift his gaze from his work when he approaches, however, and offers a lame attempt at a smile. “Here to check on the Despair, Leon?” And Kuwata nods. The guard sighs. “Some people came in for interrogation a while ago and left again, but I think the Despair was still not talking when they left. You’re welcome to give it a shot, though.” The guard hands my partner a key, and Kuwata walks over to one of the closest cells.

 

Does that mean…? They got in and out without any trouble? If they were able to leave again, then… Komaeda probably isn’t in that cell. It’s… it’s probably Kaito. I don’t realise how tense I’ve become until Ouma elbows my arm, raising his eyebrows at me. I smile nervously and tear my eyes away, trying to relax my shoulders. He’s right, of course, that there’s a time and a place for allowing my anxiety to shine through and that this is neither.

 

Still, I’m holding my breath when Kuwata walks up to the cell and flashes the key as he unlocks the cell, brow furrowed in concentration. It really can’t be that hard to open a door, but I admire the focus in his eyes. When he opens the door, he looks over to Ouma and me and gestures for us to step in before he does. I swallow hard and force out a thanks, walking over to the cell on numb legs and taking a step in, uncertain as to what will be waiting there.

 

At first, I don’t see him, because it seems as though he’s cuffed and lying down on the floor of the cell. But sure enough, the guy lying there, looking as though he got beaten and then chained up, is Kaito Momota, my best friend. For a minute, I’m so taken off guard by his injuries that I don’t even realise that this means they succeeded in this part of the plan. The noise that escapes my throat when I see him is one hundred percent genuine.

 

“K-” I choke on my own words and take another unsteady step forward. Deep breaths, Shuichi, he’s fine. Kyoko would not hurt him more than she has to to make the plan convincing. Still, I have to keep up that distress, because this panic is exactly what Kuwata would need to see from a person who doesn’t know that this was all planned out less than twenty four hours ago. I clench and unclench my teeth. “Kaito! Wh-” I break out of my shocked paralysis and rush over, dropping to my knees at his side and reaching out to grab his shoulder.

 

I think for a second that Kaito is unconscious, but all of a sudden his eyes crack open and his gaze meets mine. His expression is so convincingly dizzy and confused that I have to put my gut urge to track down whoever did this and yell at them to the side while I focus on the plan. His brow furrows, like he doesn’t quite comprehend his surroundings. “Huh… Shuichi?” I help Kaito to sit up as Kuwata and Ouma hurry into the cell after me.

 

“Um? This isn’t the Despair, right? Shuichi, hey, is there something you haven’t been telling us?” Despite how convincingly Ouma pulls off a confused tone, I can see a glimmer in his eye that tells me he’s perceptive to a lot more than I originally thought. I shake my head, opening my mouth to speak, but when I try to force out words all that comes out is a raspy whisper when Kaito coughs. I don’t think he’s hamming it up right now, and it’s cause for concern, but as soon as the coughing starts it ends, and I don’t have the time to think about it.

 

“Hey… you’re definitely not the guy who was in here before!” Kuwata exclaims, and I almost lose my nerve completely and start laughing hysterically, but the combination of the genuine panic I’m still recovering from and the importance of this part of the mission being successful stop me cold. Instead, I grimace, and the guard walks into the cell, presumably having heard the commotion.

 

“What the-? You’re one of the guys who came in here before…? Right? Didn’t you leave over an hour ago?” The guard’s expression is radiating pure shock. Kyoko and Komaeda must have pulled off that exit really well.

 

The corner of Kaito’s mouth twitches when he meets my gaze; one of his hands finds mine and he squeezes tight, as though to reaffirm that the mission was successful. I feel relief beginning to wash over me. “I didn’t.” He mumbles, looking down at his lap. “You know, I came in here because Kyoko asked me to, but as soon as we got in the cell, she and that Despair guy ambushed me. Had us switch clothes and stuff and then made me take that guy’s place.” I’d almost think he’s really upset about it, if I didn’t know it was a ruse. The shame in his expression looks genuine. “I can’t believe I let a girl overpower me like that.”

 

“Wow, sexist, much?” Ouma adds, unhelpfully, but nobody pays any mind to his comment, except for Kaito, who gives him a weird look.

 

The guard blinks. “Kyoko Kirigiri helped the Despair escape?” Slowly, the confusion on his expression turns into anger, and he turns on his heel, starting out of the cell. “I’m going to call Seiko Kimura down here to tend to you, Momota, but we have to see to it that Kirigiri is apprehended.”

 

Uhm. Yikes. I figure that Kyoko is already long gone from here, but still… those words make my stomach twist. Kaito seems to sense my unease and squeezes my hand so tight that it kind of hurts. But it’s stabilising. I hope she’ll be okay.

Chapter Text

I don’t hear from Kyoko for the rest of the week, and while it’s a bit scary not being able to reach out to her, I understand that there isn’t much of a way for her to get in contact with me, so it makes sense, at least. I do, however, receive a text from Chihiro Fujisaki the morning after we carry out our plan telling me that it was a success, and that both Kyoko and Nagito Komaeda are safely hidden at one of their houses. Fujisaki does not tell me whose house they are hidden at, which would be offensive to me if I didn’t understand the reasoning behind that decision in particular.

 

There’s virtually no way for somebody who isn’t me to get access to PAE without my express permission, so I don’t think it’s too much of a concern, but you never know what could happen. There might be a way to hack in. She’s a prototype, after all. Better safe than sorry.

 

Still, on the night before my second meeting with the FYG, I barely sleep due to nerves. I spend several hours sitting in my room and looking through notes that I’ve taken in the past week, but eventually my pent up energy gets the best of me and I end up leaving my room to go to Command and see if there’s a chance of my getting work done.

 

When I arrive, the only person there is Ryoma Hoshi, who I understand doesn’t get a lot of sleep, and though he greets me upon my entering, there isn’t much conversation to be had between the two of us, so eventually I just end up perusing blueprints while he does whatever work he’s down here doing. I’ve never been in Command so early in the morning before, and under different circumstances I might want to make a habit of coming down, because it’s nice down here. Quiet. And the sounds of Hoshi working from across the room provide just enough background noise for me not to be uncomfortable. I end up back in my bed at four in the morning, satisfied with my excursion and tired enough to fall back asleep.

 

Thankfully, I don’t end up sleeping in. I’m sure that I would, but PAE is intuitive, and she has an alarm playing early enough that I can take a shower and get ready before I head to Kaito’s room and get going. I wasn’t sure, initially, if I wanted to ask Kaito to come with me to the meeting. I’m sure that from his perspective it was already decided that he’d be attending the moment I told him about the FYG, but after the mission I just asked him to help with the other day, it feels almost selfish to ask this of him. But it would be worse not to, probably.

 

While I’m lacing up my shoes, post-shower, I glance at my nightstand and see that the flashdrive that Kokichi Ouma gave me a few days ago is sitting right there next to PAE. I mean, it’s not that I’ve been trying to postpone looking at it, but I’m not sure what kind of information he put on there, or if it’s the kind of thing that I can risk accessing on Foundation computers. For all I know, it’s just a joke and Ouma felt that it was very important to trick me into thinking that it was something I should keep a secret. Still, like I said… better safe than sorry. I texted Ishimaru, and he told me that there are laptops I can use at today’s meeting place.

 

Speaking of today’s meeting place… I run a comb through my hair and get to my feet, grabbing a small backpack from below my cot (I have too much to carry at this point to keep using my pockets) and begin putting my belongings into the bag. Tenko Chabashira is the woman whose house I was told we’d be meeting at. She’s the only person who I haven’t interacted with period, because Himiko Yumeno and Mondo Oowada have both sent texts in that group chat. But if I’m going by the standards I’ve gotten through interacting with the rest of the FYG, she should be nice. Perhaps eccentric, but isn’t everybody a little bit eccentric these days?

 

On second thought, I slide the flashdrive and also PAE into my pocket, not wanting to risk having them separated from me in the event that I misplace my bag, or something. I purse my lips when I see my hat because I know that I probably shouldn’t wear it, but… well, I can rationalise this particular decision by reminding myself that it’s getting colder and colder outside and my hair is still wet from the shower. Before I can dwell on it anymore, I grab the hat and shove it over my head. I slide my arms through the sleeves of my winter jacket and sling my backpack over my shoulder before double checking that my shoelaces are tied and stepping out of the room. It’s early in the morning, and my roommates weren’t woken up by my alarm, and I’d like to keep it that way, so I close the door silently behind me.

 

I walk down the hallway and stop in front of Kaito’s door. Just as I raise my hand to knock, however, the door swings open and my friend steps out. He looks a lot better than he did a few days ago; the bruises have faded and he’s smiling wide, as if it isn’t way too early to be awake. Still, even if he is far more energised than I am, as soon as he steps out he nearly bumps into me and I take a few steps backward, laughing nervously at the narrowly avoided collision.

 

When Kaito grins at me, it touches his eyes. “Oh, good morning, bro. I was just gonna go grab you.” I raise an eyebrow and decide not to comment, because he probably figured that I’d sleep in. (Which is… normally true. Thank god for PAE.) “Do you know where we’re going?”

 

“Ah…” I glance around the halls, biting my lip, and Kaito seems to understand what I’m trying to say. There aren’t any cameras or microphones in the hallways here that I know of. But there could be people listening in at any time, and I just don’t want to risk being found out over something so arbitrary. So I scratch the back of my head. “Let’s… talk about it outside.” I say this somewhat needlessly, and Kaito nods, gesturing for me to lead the way, so I do.

 

I take the route through Command that Kyoko took me the couple times we went on missions together. I can tell by the surprise in Kaito’s eyes that he’s never been out this exit before, which comes off as a shock to me considering that he’s been a member of the Future Foundation for far longer than I have. Regardless, we walk through the parking lot in silence and bypass security, showing them our identification badges (which is standard protocol when one is exiting headquarters, typically, as it is important to keep tabs on who is currently on the premises at all times) and walking down the block.

 

Once we’ve turned the corner and the Foundation is starting to be out of sight, I halt and take PAE out from my pocket. “To answer your question earlier,” I begin, getting Kaito’s attention. He stops walking and looks at me. “No, I don’t really know where we’re going, but PAE does.” He, of course, knows about PAE, and even spoke to her when the two of us and Kyoko were planning to rescue Nagito Komaeda. Still, it must be a little jarring for him to be suddenly accepting the existence of an AI. I know that the concept is a little scary to me. But he hides it well.

 

PAE does the customary scan of my features and unlocks. I clear my throat. “Hey, can you direct us to Tenko Chabashira’s residence?”

 

“Good morning, Shuichi. Kaito.” She greets, respectfully. The two of us reciprocate in unison, smiling. “Yes, I can do that. Give me a moment, please.” PAE buffers for a moment, which is pretty by-the-by for me at this point, and then speaks again. “Alright. I’ve got the route pulled up. Are you ready?”

 

“Uhm, hold on.” I pull my earbuds out of my pocket and plug them in, putting only one earbud in my ear. I glance at Kaito. “Just… to look less conspicuous. You can just follow me.” Kaito nods, and I address PAE again. “Okay, we’re ready.”

 

“Excellent.” It’s more enthusiastic than I’m accustomed to from the AI, but I can’t say that I’m particularly unnerved by it. Directly after, she launches into a set of directions on where to go from where we’re standing, and we take off. Just like what happened last time I attended an FYG meeting, which was really only a week ago and I should be more consistent with referring to it as such, it takes me a moment to properly get my bearings and actually find the house. Even with Kaito’s (very valuable assistance) I’m not sure that I’m staring at Tenko Chabashira’s house until PAE assures me, for the fourth time, that this is the one.

 

I hesitate before climbing the front steps and look over at Kaito, unplugging my earbuds and sliding them into my pockets. “You ready?” I ask. I have every confidence that he is, because Kaito is ready for much more than a meeting with people who we can trust, but I still want to make sure. And maybe it’s more to check in with myself, and make sure that I’m actually feeling ready, but if he notices, he doesn’t comment on it. It’s something I can appreciate about Kaito.

 

“Hell yeah, bro! I’ve been waiting forever to meet your friends in this group. Maybe I’ll actually get to learn what FYG stands for, today!”

 

I grimace, thinking about the last meeting I went to. “Don’t get your hopes up.” I say, and without waiting for him to respond, climb the steps. I can hear Kaito at my heels. (He isn’t very light-footed.) As soon as he’s right next to me and we’re standing in front of the door, I reach up and ring the bell, before lowering my arm and hooking my thumb on my backpack strap.

 

As happened last time, the door opens a crack and somebody peeks out. This time, it’s a startlingly red eye that I pinpoint as one of Maki Harukawa’s (Ishimaru’s are not quite as slanted as Harukawa’s) and as soon as she takes stock of our presence, her eye disappears and the door slams shut again. There is the sound of clicking from the other side of the door, and it opens all the way, to reveal Harukawa standing there in a pair of indoor slippers. This week she appears to have just woken up, and is wearing a grey tank-top and sweatpants. I wonder if she stays here, at Tenko Chabashira’s house.

 

“Saihara.” She greets, then looks at Kaito, raising an eyebrow. “Is this your friend? Uhm… Momota, or something?” Good memory, I think, impressed. I mentioned Kaito’s surname over text, once. For some reason, even though Harukawa asks the question of me, her gaze remains on Kaito, so I wait for him to respond.

 

...He doesn’t. I furrow my brow and turn around to look at him, wondering what the deal is. Kaito’s eyes are a lot wider than usual, and he has a weird look in them. As far as I know, he’s been staring at Harukawa this entire time. (And… she’s returning the stare.)

 

Yeesh.

 

“Y-Yeah,” I look back at Harukawa, smiling sheepishly. She barely seems to notice at first, still watching Kaito with a look that I can’t quite decipher playing on her features. But then she blinks and puts her gaze back on me, cheeks reddening a bit. I’m not stupid; I have a pretty good idea of what just happened, but good grief. I can’t help laughing a little bit anyway because I was pretty sure that this sort of thing only happens in books. Harukawa glares at me though, probably because I laughed, and I clear my throat, stepping into the house. “Anyway! I’ll- leave you two to introductions.” Which is a decision I’m definitely only making to help Kaito, and not at all because I’m uncomfortable.

 

I step out of my shoes and slip past Harukawa, who huffs as I walk by but still looks back at Kaito. I have to keep myself from laughing out of fear for my life.

 

I definitely don’t know this place very well at all, but thankfully, the first doorway I come across appears to lead to the sitting room. The layout of this spot in particular is different from Ishimaru’s in many ways. Most notably, rather than a carpeted floor, there is a tatami mat in the center of the room, and cushions on the mat for people to sit on, rather than chairs. I think it’s a pretty good decision overall. That way we’re all on the same level. This time, I think Kaito and I have arrived a bit before a few other people, because sitting in the living room right now are Ishimaru, Chihiro Fujisaki, and Kyoko.

 

Oh! “Kyoko!” I can’t help but call her name when I see her. It’s only been a few days, and I knew she was alright, but still… it’s different actually seeing her. And she looks the same as ever. Her hair is done in a long plait down her back and there are no blemishes on her pale skin that would indicate that she’s gotten hurt. She’s sitting with her legs tucked under her, her posture immaculate. An exemplary seating position atop a tatami mat. The difference, though, is her attire. She is no longer wearing a Future Foundation uniform. Now she is dressed in the outfit I saw hanging in her closet; the dark purple jacket, black skirt, white blouse, and orange tie. Her black gloves are the same as ever, though.

 

When she sees me, she raises her eyebrows but otherwise her expression doesn’t really change. “Shuichi,” she gets to her feet and walks over. Her footfalls are silent. “You’re early,” she remarks, and I feel my face warming a little, even though it really isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.

 

“Ah, yeah, I am.” I agree, and then curse myself for having such a bland response. Kyoko smiles slightly, as though amused by my trepidation, and that really doesn’t do anything to ease my nerves. “Kaito is here too, he’s just…” I wonder how to word what just happened. “...preoccupied?” When I settle on that particular choice of wording, she tilts her head to the side but gives no commentary, so I hasten to continue. “Hey, but, I- I’m glad you’re okay. I mean, I had total faith in your abilities, I just…”

 

Kyoko shakes her head. “You really are a lot like Makoto.” She remarks idly. I bite the inside of my cheek as she resumes speaking. “You should meet Komaeda, he-” she glances behind herself, and then sighs. “Where is he?”

 

Fujisaki speaks up. “I think he went to help Tenko and Himiko make some tea!” He chirps with a smile. “But I can get him.” As Fujisaki gets to his feet, I note that he’s also dressed slightly different than he was last time, in a t-shirt and shorts. It helps me equate his appearance with a man’s in my head. He waves at me with a cheerful “Hi Shuichi!” before disappearing into the hallway. He’s gone for a moment, so I choose to look back at Kyoko, who appears exasperated.

 

“We went through a lot of trouble to rescue the guy and I wouldn’t want to undervalue that,” Kyoko begins, as though she is about to undervalue the trouble we went through to save Komaeda. “But he’s… a bit of a handful. Incredibly intelligent, but…”

 

“Who’s incredibly intelligent?” A young man’s voice fills the room and somebody follows Fujisaki back into the sitting room. I’m initially surprised because I had expected him to be taller, but based on the picture I saw and also just the context, there’s no doubting that the man standing before me is Nagito Komaeda. He’s probably a couple inches taller than I am, and unnaturally thin. His pallor is unnatural and a little bit unnerving. The white hair that I remember seeing in the file is pretty much the same as it was there, if a little bit longer and more unkempt. (Though he seems to be in good shape overall so I’d say that he’s just woken up recently.) He is dressed in black skinny jeans and a white t-shirt with an interesting red design on it. His appearance would be pretty off-putting to me, but he’s wearing a friendly smile, and it goes all the way to his eyes and sort of sets me at ease.

 

His eyes are grey-green, and though they differ slightly in shade, I’m inevitably reminded of Makoto’s.

 

Kyoko is blunt. “You are.” She replies flatly, then looks at him, as though she doesn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment. Still, there is nothing hostile nor accusatory about her demeanour. It is her usual disposition, and I think Komaeda can tell, because his eyes light up when she says it.

 

“Ah, thank you, Miss Kirigiri! That’s very flattering!” Suddenly his gaze falls on me and he tilts his head a little bit to the side, eyes crinkling slightly at the edges. “Who is this?”

 

I’m a bit taken off guard by being dragged into the conversation, so I stutter a little when I respond. “U-Uhm, Shuichi Saihara. You’re- Nagito Komaeda, right?”

 

Komaeda’s eyes widen. “Saihara…? Miss Kirigiri and Mister Fujisaki tell me that you’re the one responsible for my being smuggled out of there.” Suddenly he is in front of me, taking one of my hands. (I’m not typically adverse to physical contact, but this comes pretty out of nowhere, even for me, and I’m known for doing things on impulse.) “Thank you, so much. I’m indebted to you.”

 

“Oh, I wasn’t responsible.” I feel my face heating up, which is irritating. “I only helped plan a little. It was Kyoko and Kaito who actually executed the plan. A-And, if anything, it’s my fault that you got taken to begin with…”

 

Ishimaru, who has been silent up until now, makes a noise of disapproval on the floor. “Hey! Saihara, don’t blame yourself for things like that. You had no way of knowing that Mr. Komaeda here would get taken while you were on a mission, and you did very well at cleaning up after yourself!”

 

Still, it was Kyoko and Kaito who really…

 

“Either way.” Komaeda gives me a very serious look. “I was honestly really afraid of what would happen to me in there. The Future Foundation is supposed to represent hope, and I was excited to cooperate with them, but they weren’t really hearing what I was saying.” He sighs, with a sort of mournful smile. “I mean, I’d be willing to take any kind of pain if it’s in the name of hope, but still… I’m forever grateful to you, Mister Saihara! If you need anything, let me know!”

 

“J-Just-” I suck in a breath. “Just Saihara is fine. Mister Saihara makes me feel…” I don’t know how to finish that thought. To be honest, it reminds me of Kokichi Ouma, and I don’t necessarily mind the reminder, but even so, hearing it out of Komaeda’s mouth is confusing to me. (Plus, I hate to say it, but this guy is kind of weirding me out. What was that about taking pain in the name of hope?)

 

“Of course.” Komaeda’s smile turns a little bit normal and he lets go of my hand, scratching the back of his head. “Sorry if I made you a little nervous just now! My friend Mahiru tells me I need to work on that.”

 

Mahiru… Koizumi? I recall a young woman with short red hair who I read about in the files. Supposedly, she is a very motherly person, and cares for the people around her, even though she’s quite bossy… what Komaeda just said seems to coincide with the information that I already have. I return his smile, sliding my hand into my pocket.

 

“It’s alright.” I tell him, and I do mean it. I understand being a little jumpy, especially after what just happened to him. I definitely don’t want to get any of the credit for what Kyoko and Kaito did, but I’m alright with humouring Komaeda, if that makes him feel safer, or better about what happened.

 

Just as I begin to wonder if I should be saying anything else, I hear footsteps behind me and assume that Kaito and Harukawa have reentered the room. Upon turning around, I see that my assumption was correct. It seems as though they introduced themselves to each other, which must have been a little awkward, and then Harukawa guided him here. Kaito is smiling, and Harukawa looks a bit flustered, so I have a pretty good guess as to how that introduction went. I raise my eyebrows and Kaito makes a face at me, but I can tell that he doesn’t mean anything by it. Except maybe to tell me to shut up. (Go figure.)

 

I notice that Kyoko has taken her seat once again, so I give Komaeda a parting smile and walk over to sit next to her. The Despair barely notices, though, because he’s walking over to talk to Kaito. Since he has already met my friend, I imagine that that sort of interaction was pretty inevitable. I drag my thoughts away from the guy and take a seat next to Kyoko, who shifts a little to face me when I settle down.

 

“Thoughts?” She asks, without any preface, and I assume that she’s talking about Komaeda when I answer.

 

“Ah, he seems nice,” I begin, not wanting to share anything negative. Kyoko gives me a flat look, as though she knows exactly what I’m thinking, and I sigh. “I mean, he’s a lot, but he does seem like he has good intentions. He barely even spoke bad about the Foundation, and they were planning on having him tortured and killed.” Plus, I think dryly, they got together a team of their most capable members for the sole purpose of catching him.

 

“I think he sympathises with them.” Fujisaki offers, leaning forward slightly to meet my eyes. I focus my gaze on his face. “I don’t know much because there hasn’t been much that he’s divulged to me, but…” his expression turns more somber. “It’s possible that he hasn’t been working with the government at all, or whatever he’s done has been unwilling, and he gets that the Foundation would want him dead.”

 

“Well, we know that he and his friends were forced into it.” Kyoko says loosely, shaking her head. “But it’s interesting to me that he would be so compliant. Were I in his position, I would probably be angry at the Foundation.”

 

Again I think back to what he said, about being willing to take pain for the sake of hope, and I wonder if that’s all there is to it. I look over and see that Komaeda and Kaito are interacting cheerfully; Kaito can deal with people very well, and it seems as though Komaeda is responding well to Kaito’s positivity. That’s good. I’m glad that they can get along. I think no matter how much Komaeda is for me to deal with, he’s been through an ordeal, so any bit of happy interactions can probably serve as a good thing for him.

 

“Oh, hold on, Saihara,” Ishimaru grabs my attention, and none too quietly, either. I look back at him as Harukawa settles to sit down at his left and Komaeda guides Kaito over to sit by me. “You had something you wanted to look at on a computer here?” He gestures to a laptop that is open next to him. From the gentle blue light that his hand catches in pointing, I can assume that the screen is on. “Well, it’s not much, but it should be fine for looking through documents.”

 

When Ishimaru says nothing else, I realise that I should probably go and use the computer now, before the meeting starts. That’s probably a good idea; that way I can be entirely present when we’re all talking. I nod and get to my feet, walking over and taking the laptop from Ishimaru’s hands as he passes it up to me. I murmur a thanks and then walk back over to resume my seat next to Kaito and Kyoko.

 

I fish the flashdrive that Ouma gave me from my pocket and move to plug it in to the side of the laptop.It knocks against the port and I turn it around (I was holding it the wrong way) and slide the drive into the compartment. Then I take my attention to the screen. A loading icon appears on the screensaver beneath a few other files- that are likely Ishimaru’s private files and therefore nothing that I should be looking at- and then the flashdrive pops up on the computer. The file is named “OWO WHAT’S THIS” and I’m not sure what it’s a reference to but it’s definitely something written by Ouma, so I choose not to question it and instead move the cursor over to the icon and double click it.

 

The file expands and opens up to a large range of folders. Obviously, I’m not supposed to be looking at them. This is probably a flashdrive that Ouma uses often, for his own purposes. At least, that’s my surmise based on how many folders there are here. (And some of them are named super weird things, like “Lessie’s diary???? uwu” and “horse pics <333 [only open when horny]” so I defer to my better judgement and refrain from clicking on any of them.) At first I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to find the folder that he wants me to look at, but the newest file is pretty conspicuously titled “HEWWO MR SAIHARA :33333” so I figure that’s probably my best bet.

 

I double click the folder and it opens. It looks like there are a lot of subcategories, but before I look at any of those, I notice that there’s a word document labelled “Preface” at the top of the sidebar so I open that. Once the word document is opened, I observe that he’s written out something fairly short in the font comic sans, presumably for me to read.

 

“hi shuichi! i’m gonna cut to the chase- lessie and i have been working for the past couple of days to figure out a lot of the places that the despairs could be hiding. i think i even found one of them?? but i know that for some reason you’re trying to keep the foundation from getting the despairs, so i decided that instead of giving them the information we got, i’d give it to you instead! most of what lessie is gonna give them at the meeting tomorrow is gonna be a lie!! :33

 

“oh but don’t worry, we’re giving them a little bit of what we found… otherwise that’d be pretty suspicious and i don’t think you or your friends want us risking our lives. and celeste is in on this too, she’s just not entirely sure about the reason. i guess she trusts me for some reason XD anyway i put the information we got on this flashdrive so you can bring it to your friends who are also looking for the despairs. since i know who you guys are, i can trust you’ll do good things with it!!!”

 

My heart leaps, but then I read the next thing that Ouma has written…

 

“that was a lie, i have no idea who your group is. hopefully i’m not making a huge mistake. i’m gonna need this flashdrive back eventually so give it to me when you’ve gotten all the info off of it, kay?

xoxo,

kokichi ouma.”

 

I’m not entirely sure what to say. I’m not even sure that the information that Ouma has chosen to share with me is going to be good information. Still, I…

 

I click out of the preface and start glancing over the files. And honestly, it could just be Ouma doing that lying thing that he always does again, but… it seems like legitimate information. I bet it’s going to be extremely helpful. I honestly didn’t see that coming from him. I swallow hard and glance over at Kyoko, who has taken notice of what I’m doing and begun looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. I can’t really read her expression, but when she meets my eyes, she raises her eyebrows at me.

 

“Who is Kokichi Ouma?” She asks. “Is that the guy who came up to you when we were on a mission together last week?” Wow, Kyoko is… incredibly observant. Not that this should come off as a shock to me. I’ve always known that she’s smart. I nod, smiling slightly. “I see… you said he could be trusted. Is this still the case?”

Well, how am I supposed to answer that, exactly? I shrug. “I think I can trust him with this. It seems like he’s a bit of a wild card, but on the right side, for the most part.” I click onto another file, reading the notes that Ludenberg and Ouma have taken on the location depicted. It’s really nice work; with pictures and descriptions and possible ways to infiltrate all listed. I’m impressed. Even more so that he managed to convince his friend to keep this information from the Foundation and give it to me instead.

 

“If he can, then this is a big asset.” Kyoko remarks. “Taka, can you come over here?” She looks over at Ishimaru, who complies without a word. Ah, it’s interesting to me that Kyoko is referring to Ishimaru by the nickname, I didn’t think it was in her character… they must be close. I find myself smiling slightly as she takes the laptop from me and begins to talk to Ishimaru about what’s on the flashdrive. The people who I’ve decided to trust keep surprising me with how helpful they can be.

 

Oh, that’s weird… have I chosen to trust Ouma? I have vouched for him with Kyoko, but… I think about the way that he spoke up in that meeting earlier this week every time I looked at him, barely having to be prompted. It’s possible that he just wanted to cause trouble, but part of me almost thinks that… nah, that’s silly. Still, though, it’s nice to feel like I can trust somebody.

Chapter Text

The rest of the members of the FYG arrive at Tenko Chabashira’s residence in this order: Sakura Ogami, who apologises for being late despite being about five minutes early, Korekiyo Shinguji, who sits down next to Harukawa without a word, Toko Fukawa, who enters and surprisingly sits down next to Kyoko, Mukuro Ikusaba, who sends a smile in my direction but disappears into the kitchen almost immediately, Miu Iruma and K1-B0, who arrive together, chatting, and sit down across from me in the circle, and finally, a tall man with a large blonde pompadour who I can only assume is the Mondo Oowada from the contact photo. He’s large in both demeanour and physique, though notably not larger than Ogami. His eyes, which I couldn’t see in the picture, are a pale purple, actually, which startles me, because it’s a gentle colour.

 

As soon as he enters the room, Ishimaru jumps to his feet and pads across the room, throwing his arms around the taller man.

 

Ah, I think, smiling slightly. So it seems that Kaito and Harukawa aren’t the only ones who… well, anyway, there are more important things for me to be thinking about right now. I glance at the doorway that separates the sitting room and the kitchen, wondering if Ikusaba and the other two women who are allegedly in there making tea need any help. They’ve been in there for fifteen minutes now. But just as I begin to contemplate getting to my feet and offering my assistance, a short woman appears in the doorway.

 

I say woman because despite her young appearance, she’s definitely around my age. There’s something about the look in her reddish brown eyes that ages her, if only slightly. But that might just be the fact that she looks to be pretty exhausted. She might have just rolled out of bed, really. Her short red hair is tied out of her face but it’s a pretty messy job; there are many flyaway strands framing her head almost like a halo. She’s wearing a large, white t-shirt that almost covers her shorts and a pair of indoor shoes. Actually, almost everybody here has indoor shoes, except for K1-B0 (and the obvious; myself, Kaito, Kyoko, and Nagito Komaeda.) She’s yawning, but holding a tray in her hands, with a t-pot on it.

 

Ogama rises to her feet from where she had sat down next to Shinguji and crosses the room to the young woman (who I can surmise from the picture I saw before is likely Himiko Yumeno) and gently takes the tray from her hands.

 

“Nyeh…” Yumeno rubs one of her eyes. “Thanks, Sakura. I think I would’ve dropped it.” This is the sort of sentence one might say with shame, as an awkward confession, but she says it rather unabashedly, like this type of thing is normal for her. And based on the way that Ogami’s eyebrows raise in what is undoubtedly fond amusement, I think it probably is.

 

“It is no problem.” Ogami says, smiling. “Could you ask your girlfriend when the meeting is going to start? I think everybody has arrived.”

 

“Oh… then…” Yumeno’s eyes sweep across the room and her gaze falls on me, inexplicably. I feel a little embarrassed to have been caught watching, but I read no judgement in her expression. “You’re Shuichi Saihara?” She asks, and I point at myself, to clarify, even though nobody else in this room is Shuichi Saihara, and Yumeno nods.

 

Thinking it’s kind of rude to talk at her from across the room, I get to my feet and walk over to stand in front of her as Ogami returns to her own spot. “Yeah, that’s me.” I smile slightly. “Uhm… Himiko Yumeno, correct? Makoto- erm, Naegi had you saved as one of his contacts.” I explain, so that she doesn’t get the wrong idea about me knowing her name. Thankfully, Yumeno doesn’t seem to notice.

 

“Mmmh… I don’t like that picture, I wish Makoto would’ve used one that was more flattering.” She complains, then frowns. “But I guess I can’t really complain about that anymore… nyehhh! Now I’m feeling sad again, that’s so annoying!” She pouts, and though I’ve determined that she’s my age, it still looks more like a childish expression of indignance and I can’t help finding it to be slightly cute. “Tenkoo,” she whines, turning around and dragging her feet back into the kitchen. I peak inside, because our interaction technically wasn’t over, and watch as Yumeno links her arms around the waist of another young woman standing in the kitchen. “I’m sad about Makoto again, also everyone is here now.”

 

The woman who I assume to be Tenko Chabashira is the same woman who I saw in the picture. Her black hair is long, and tied into a low ponytail with a large green ribbon because she as well has presumably woken up recently. Her green eyes are much brighter in person, and she has rather thick eyelashes, and though she smiles slightly at Yumeno, I can detect a note of melancholy in her gaze. Chabashira places a hand on Yumeno’s head as she responds. “Don’t be sad, Himiko! Even though Makoto was a degenerate male, he wouldn’t want you mourning his death so much! Carry his memory! He was one of the least degenerate males out there!”

 

Degenerate…? I’m not even going to try to address that.

 

“Also also,” Yumeno pulls back and looks up at her girlfriend, gesturing back at me. “Saihara is here too. You said you wanted to meet him…”

 

“I would never want to meet a degenerate!” Chabashira proclaims, disregarding the fact that I’m standing right here. “Buuut,” she looks over at me, and smiles, and it seems a lot less hostile than her tone suggests. “I did wanna thank you for being there when Makoto died. He needed a lot more hugs than he got, you know!”

 

“A-Ah,” I’m not sure how you judge that sort of thing, but… “I’m glad I could… help…?” Makoto’s death was fairly traumatic for me and as much as I’d rather not talk about it in such a casual way, I’m sort of endeared to Chabashira’s straightforwardness. She grins, as though my response was perfectly normal. And maybe for somebody like her, it was.

 

“Oh, Saihara,” Mukuro Ikusaba emerges from what I can only assume is the bathroom, drying off her hands on her pants. She smiles again, as she did when she arrived, and I reciprocate, feeling relieved to see her. It’s sort of weird to be in the presence of two complete strangers. Especially ones as enigmatic and Yumeno and Chabashira. I don’t know Ikusaba particularly well, but she’s far more of a familiar face to me than the other two women in this kitchen. “Good, you can help us carry things into the sitting room.”

 

And when Ikusaba says us, really she just means her, because Chabashira and Yumeno opt to keep talking to each other in a confidential manner (although neither of them seems to be making much of an effort to keep their volume down) but the two of us grab a bunch of trays and carry them out. The trays are all carrying plates of biscuits as well as cups and a cup of cream and sugar. I don’t like cream in my tea, but the moment we get out of the kitchen, Fujisaki hops to his feet and snatches the cup from us, sending a wink in my direction before proceeding to fill his cup of tea almost halfway with the cream.

 

“You lactose intolerant people amaze me with your refusal to abstain from the consumption of food that will cause you distress later on.” Shinguji remarks, his gold eyes wide as he peers at Fujisaki. The brunette in question giggles but says nothing, sipping from his tea.

 

“Cream in tea is gross.” Harukawa says flatly. “But most lactose intolerant people I’ve met have given up on life, so I’m not surprised.”

 

“Nah, Chihiro’s too much of a fucking cinnamon roll to want to die!” Iruma grins, and it’s probably the least vulgar thing I’ve ever heard her say. Which is sad, considering… “But seriously, pass me the cream. Green tea is boring as hell.”

 

“Your tea habits are terrifying, woman.” Mondo Oowada chuckles, and Iruma flips him off, but there’s no animosity in the gesture. It seems as though he and Ishimaru have settles down next to each other on the tatami mat, though Ishimaru is leaning against him, which leads me to suspect that they haven’t seen each other in a while. That, or Ishimaru is far more clingy than I originally took him for.

 

“We’re finally in agreement about something.” Mutters Harukawa, who pours herself a cup of tea regardless and sips from it. “I can’t even look at you, Iruma.”

 

“You’re just jealous that my tits are bigger than yours!”

 

“What?” Harukawa turns beet-red within seconds. “No, that’s not the- do you want to die?” She asks Iruma this with an alarming amount of severity, and I would be terrified, in Iruma’s position, but the blonde woman just makes the same sort of shriek she made last week, whenever confronted, and says nothing else.

 

K1-B0 sighs. “Maki, please don’t terrorise my girlfriend.”

 

“Then tell your girlfriend not to make gross comments.” Harukawa snaps, fussing with her shirt. Still, she sighs and shakes her head, relaxing a moment later. The room settles into a silence, though the air is a little charged- probably to do with Harukawa threatening to commit murder.

 

Kaito breaks it. “Uh, what does FYG stand for?”

 

As happened when I asked, a loud sigh spreads through the room, and Oowada is the one who responds. “Fuck You Gang!” He announces with a laugh, and Iruma laughs as well, but I catch only exasperation from everybody else. Based on the way that Kyoko bristles next to me, and Komaeda’s eyebrows knit together, I can tell that neither of them had thought to ask the past couple days. Which is understandable. I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.

 

However, Kaito seems to be into it. “Ohh… well, it’s unconventional!” He grins, and the tone he uses is positive, and of course Kaito wouldn’t have anything bad to say about it. I doubt he’ll ever use the full name, but he’s just as bad at naming things as every single person in this room.

 

“That name is why… we just say FYG.” Shinguji forces out, and he sounds so incredibly tired.

 

“Anyway.” Ogami closes her eyes, sighing, and I am commending her patience for managing to keep a straight face right now. “Tenko, Himiko, if you two could join us, we’re ready to begin,” she calls, and I remember that she had already delivered this information to Yumeno, but I suppose the red-haired woman got distracted. Thankfully, it seems that this time they’re listening, because both Yumeno and Chabashira materialise from the kitchen and take their seats in the circle a moment later.

 

“Are we starting?” Ishimaru sits up, running a hand through his hair. Upon receiving confirmation from the rest of the group, he smiles, and looks around the room. “Excellent! I’ll notice that we have some more new faces today, so we should probably go around and introduce ourselves!” He says this with gusto, and the same air of authority as he had last week. “All in favour?”

 

Now that I understand more thoroughly how things work around here, I am able to chime in with an “aye” as everyone else does. Ishimaru calls for any votes against, or any abstinences, but nobody responds, so he kicks off introductions.

 

“Right. Well, I’m Kiyotaka Ishimaru, the de facto leader of the FYG after…” he clears his throat. “A-Anyway,” I can tell that Makoto’s death is still an open wound for them, if he’s not even willing to go at all close to breaching the topic. Even though I’m past the stage of blaming myself for what happened, I still can’t help but feel bad about it. There was nothing that could have been done- I know that. But I still wish I had done something. “You can call me Taka! Or addressing me by my surname works too,” he adds, sending a wry smile in my direction, and I avert my gaze, feeling my cheeks burn a little.

 

We go in a circle, introducing ourselves, and I receive confirmation as to the identities of Mondo Oowada, Tenko Chabashira, and Himiko Yumeno. (Not that I doubted that they were who I thought they were, it’s just nice to know that I’m right, is all.) I stumble through my introduction, and note that Kyoko introduces herself far more serenely than I do, but I’m used to it. Many of the people here seem to already be acquainted with her, which makes me feel conflicted. Because on the one hand, it’s nice that she seems to have such a good relationship with so much of the FYG, but on the other… it feels bad that so many of her friends knew about this huge secret her boyfriend was keeping from her in life, and she wasn’t told until after Makoto’s death.

 

Still, it’s not really my place to be upset about it. It’s her call, and Kyoko doesn’t seem to harbour any resentments. If she needs my anger in the future, I’ll probably be plenty willing to respond in that manner, but for now, I’ll hold my tongue. It’s in the past. Not any of my business.

 

“Now that we’re done, I move that we begin the meeting.” Ishimaru calls for agreement, and he receives it. “Kiibo, I trust that you’re keeping minutes?” K1-B0 flashes a thumbs up and hums his affirmation, so Ishimaru starts the meeting.

 

For the most part, it’s a lot of check-ins. He speaks to Ikusaba in regards to some infiltration she had to do this past week, and she explains that her results had a lot to be desired, but she’s working on it. Fukawa reports back regarding something that she as Ogami are partnered together on- apparently, they’re working on recruiting new members.

 

“I-It’s not like people are o-opposed to joining, I don’t think.” Fukawa mutters, sounding irritated despite the innocent nature of her words. “They’re j-just tentative to do a-anything that’ll p-put th-them in Enoshima’s bad books. A-And they’re afraid of Munakata.” She shakes her head, sighs.

 

“It’s almost disheartening to tell people that the Future Foundation isn’t really good.” Ogami frowns as she says this, fiddling with the rim of her teacup. “Even though it is the truth, they give a lot of people a lot of hope. For that hope to be crushed…”

 

“It’s false hope.” Komaeda suddenly interjects, an odd look in his eye. “At least, that’s my understanding of it.” He chuckles sheepishly, as though embarrassed to have drawn the attention onto himself. “You’re not doing any harm, you’re trying to give them real, true hope, instead of the fake version that the Foundation offers. Don’t feel bad, Ms. Ogami.” He coughs. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken out of turn.”

Ishimaru shakes his head. “No, you’re correct, Komaeda.” He says this with a smile. “I think we all need to remind ourselves that we’re doing the right thing once in a while! It’s difficult to stand against the supposed good guys, after all!”

 

Ogami hums her agreement. “I will take your words into consideration, Komaeda. Thank you.”

 

The meeting segues and Ishimaru asks Miu and K1-B0 to report back- they’ve apparently been working on machinery that can be used against our enemies, but either due to disinterest or my attention being elsewhere, I space off, looking instead at Komaeda. What he just did was intriguing to me for a number of reasons… first of all, the certainty with which he talked about hope. I’m starting to get the feeling that he has a very high opinion of what I’ve always considered to be a rather abstract concept. Not that there’s anything wrong in being passionate about something abstract; everybody’s got to have something that they feel confident about, and if that’s hope for him, then there’s no shame in that.

 

But the way he handled that interaction… I’d almost say that he was trying to manipulate the situation and make Ogami feel better, except that I’ve never heard anybody sound more genuine than Komaeda did just now. He truly believes in hope. That’s why he said that earlier, about being willing to take pain for the sake of it… but is that really hope? I don’t know if hope should ever sanction torture… in fact, I’m sure it shouldn’t. Maybe I’ll want to look into having a conversation with Komaeda in the future about his self worth.

 

For now, though, I can just admire that he deliberately took steps to relieve the guilt that Ogami was expressing a moment ago. I smile slightly, to myself, and catch Kaito’s gaze. I don’t know if he picked up on everything that I did, but I think his thought process was something similar, because there’s a glimmer of understanding in his eyes. He’s also smiling at me.

 

“Chihiro, how are the developments going on Alter Ego?” Ishimaru addresses Fujisaki, who perks up when he hears the name of his AI. (Offhandedly, I remind myself that PAE is an acronym, and stands for Prototype Alter Ego. Based on the information I received from Munakata earlier this week, I can surmise that PAE was developed to hack into Enoshima’s servers. But she’s too much of an asset to be allowed to fall into Future Foundation hands, so that’s why she was given to Makoto.)

 

“Well, I’m reluctant to do anything that makes it seem like I’m trying to replace PAE… hey, PAE, you’re here, right?” At Fujisaki’s inquiry, I take the phone out of my pocket. I recall what she told me, about how she was programmed to automatically power on upon hearing Fujisaki’s voice.

 

“Yes, I am. Hello, Chihiro,” she greets, and if I’m not mistaken, I’d almost say that her tone is rather chipper. “Don’t let my existence stop you from continuing with your original plan. The completed version of Alter Ego will be a huge help to the mission, and it’s in the nature of my programming to want that more than anything else.” Well, she’s straightforward. I can always appreciate that about her. Considering that… she’s an AI.

 

“You’re right.” Fujisaki smiles, even though PAE probably can’t see it. “But, yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of work done this week! I’m not a hacker, obviously, so it’s not too easy… I wish I had someone’s expertise to draw off of, but I’m managing.”

 

Nodding, Ishimaru checks in with Harukawa and Ikusaba, who have apparently been scoping out Enoshima’s base this past week, trying to gather intelligence on how to enter. Listening to them report back reminds me of the mission that Kyoko and I went on, right before she left. It wasn’t very long ago, but I still haven’t heard back about her results. I guess there just hasn’t been a chance to ask. I make a mental note to talk to her about it later.

 

After checking in with Shinguji, who has, along with Chabashira and Yumeno, been working to figure out more about the Despairs, Ishimaru turns the focus of the meeting to me.

 

“Saihara, I think you’ve got a lot to talk about,” Ishimaru says, and though I’ve averted my gaze, I can hear the smile in his voice. “Why don’t you tell everyone how you got Mr. Komaeda out from the Future Foundation’s custody?”

 

Honestly. “That wasn’t really me,” I mutter, and I can’t help sounding a little peeved. “It was mostly Kyoko and Kaito who-”

 

Kaito elbows me. “It’s okay, bro. You spearheaded the operation. I’m okay with stepping down for my sidekick once in a while! Tell everyone how we did it!” His words are light and I can tell that they’re totally genuine, but I still feel bad taking even a little credit for something that wasn’t really my doing. I glance over at Kyoko, but I can tell she’s not going to be any help. She’s raised a brow and is now looking at me expectantly. I’ve got to talk.

 

Begrudgingly, I relay an abridged version of what happened during my first week as a spy, and the plan that Kyoko, Kaito, and I made to get Komaeda out from his cell. The heat eventually vanishes from my voice, because I find it hard to stay angry at the people in this room, but I’m still a bit frustrated when I finish. I think Ikusaba can tell, because without pretense, she changes the subject.

 

“Komaeda, can I ask…? Are you still sensitive about your time working for Enoshima?”

 

Frowning, Komaeda tilts his head to the side. “What are you talking about, working for Enoshima?”

 

“...you did work for her, right?” Ikusaba frowns too, like she’s confused. “Or was that misinformation on our part…?”

 

“No, you’ve got that wrong.” Komaeda fervently shakes his head, and I can tell that he’s bothered by the very insinuation that he’d ever work for Junko Enoshima. “I never did a thing for that woman, and neither did anybody I’m affiliated with. Especially not Hajime. I really don’t understand where you got the impression that…” his eyes widen, as though he’s just realised something. “Oh… nevermind. I get it.” He laughs bitterly, and sighs, like he’s resigned to something.

 

“Would you like to elaborate?” Fujisaki asks, messing with his hair. “We were all under the impression that you guys did what Enoshima asked because she took Chiaki Nanami hostage, and now you’ve all escaped because you were tired of it.”

 

“That’s half true,” Komaeda admits, somewhat sadly. “But we never did anything for Enoshima. At least, not that I’m aware of.” He scratches the back of his head. “My friends have so much hope… there’s no way we’d commit such acts of despair. I’m just lucky enough to be in their presence.” He folds his hands together in his lap. “What happened was… you’re right, that Enoshima took Chiaki. But she didn’t ask that we do things for her. She’s too smart for that, she knew there was no way that we’d trade hundreds of lives for one. No matter how infatuated Hajime was with her.” He says that last part with some bitterness. “But Enoshima did make us a deal. She wouldn’t hurt Chiaki if we agreed to stop using our talents for the benefit of the rebellion, and essentially become scapegoats for her.”

 

Fukawa makes a face. “S-So… the agreement was that y-you’d pretend you did those th-things? Sh-She just wanted somebody t-to blame?”

 

“I don’t know what she wanted.” Komaeda says dully. “I could never get a good read on her. Somebody with such despair… the only good thing for her would be for her to die.” He spits those words like they’re merely facts and I feel a chill running down my spine in response to the venom in his voice. “But she knew that if we let her paint us as her cronies, it would cause a lot of despair. At least, that’s what I assume is her rationale.”

 

Kyoko puts a hand on her chin. “What you’re saying is that you never did anything that you are being accused of doing? Planting bombs, massacring people on live television, engineering a disease?”

 

Komaeda shakes his head. “We never did any of that.” He pauses. “Actually… the disease, I think. We did do that. But that’s… that wasn’t meant for the public.” His voice tapers off, and he looks down. “Enoshima ordered us to make that disease, but it wasn’t supposed to spread out and kill people, like it did.”

This catches Shinguji’s attention, oddly enough. Even through the mask I can tell that he’s interested, but in a bitter way. “What was the purpose of the disease, if not to kill all the people that it has?” He questions, sounding factual despite the emotion churning in his golden eyes.

 

“One thing to note about Junko Enoshima.” Komaeda recites these words as though he’s said them a hundred times before, his eyes glassy. “She’s a huge sadist. She’ll do anything if it means harming others. But more than that… she’s a masochist. She loves to feel pain herself, and she’s constantly thinking of ways to put herself and those who she loves into despair.” He sighs, rubs his temple. “That disease wasn’t meant to get out and kill all the people it has. Enoshima didn’t order us to make it and then release it. She ordered us to make it and then give it to her.”

Chapter Text

The room is so quiet, if somebody dropped a pin, it would reverberate through the space like a gunshot, despite the fact that the tatami mat would muffle the sound.

 

I want to look around and absorb the reactions of everybody else here, but I can’t take my gaze off of Nagito Komaeda. He has fallen silent by now, retreated into himself with the empty look of a traumatised person (for the first time, actually) but there is nothing in his expression that would indicate that he was lying just now. And why would he? We were operating under the impression that he had worked for Enoshima. It wasn’t as though he has to lie to get our protection. Besides, his words had the unmistakable ring of truth… I’ve been lying so much this past week, I’m starting to get a pretty good idea of what it sounds like.

 

Inevitably, it is Ikusaba who breaks the silence. “Well, that sounds like something Enoshima would do.” She says this rather plainly, unsurprised. I look over at her, and even though her expression is calm, from the steely look in her grey eyes, I can tell that she’s struggling to maintain the facade. “Do you know if Nanami is alright?”

 

Komaeda swallows. “...maybe,” he responds, albeit hesitantly. “We may have compromised her safety in escaping. That’s why I went back.”

 

“Went back?” Shinguji repeats, frowning. (This is my surmise, of course, because I can’t actually see his mouth under his mask. The creases in his eyes as he says it, and the sound of his voice, suggest to me that he is indeed frowning.) “What do you mean? The Future Foundation found you in an abandoned building, correct? If you had been in Enoshima’s custody, they wouldn’t have been able to infiltrate.”

 

Surprisingly, Komaeda smiles at this. “We left against all of our better judgement. These past two months, we’ve been on the run, and we’re not sure if Chiaki’s been okay. Everybody has been stressed about it, but Hajime worst of all.” Komaeda has mentioned this Hajime a couple times… Hajime Hinata, I assume, the leader… also, the one who Makoto suspected has feelings for Chiaki Nanami. No wonder he took the brunt of the guilt for leaving. “I’ll spare you guys the tedious details, but there’s only so much that I’m good at… so I decided to go back and try to save Chiaki.”

 

“A noble endeavour.” Ogami closes her eyes as she nods. “But it’s dangerous to travel alone, nowadays. Especially somebody with a target on your back such as yourself.”

 

“Mhm.” Komaeda agrees. “That’s why the Foundation found me, I assume.”

 

“We’ll have to prioritise saving Nanami, then.” Ishimaru speaks without his usual energy; even his air is that of somebody who is quite tired. Still, his eyes crinkle around the edges when he smiles at Komaeda. “If there is anybody here who would like to focus on saving Nanami and doesn’t feel as though they have too many commitments?” His red eyes flicker through the space. I would gladly volunteer, but I think I should focus on being a spy, for now. Only bad things come from taking on too many responsibilities. Still, I feel kind of bad not raising my hand at first. What if nobody else does?

 

It turns out, though, that I don’t have to worry about that. Almost immediately, when the words leave Ishimaru’s lips, Kaito puts up a hand. “Chiaki Nanami is the hostage, right? She’s the one who the Foundation issued a warrant to execute for publicity?”

 

“Publicity?” Komaeda repeats, blinking. “Execute?”

 

“Uhm,” Fujisaki frowns, fiddling with the bottom of his shorts. “Did we not tell you about that part?” He makes eye contact with Komaeda, a very grave, albeit nervous, expression on his face. (Which is something that I am unfamiliar with, from Fujisaki. Though I haven’t known him for long, so this may be commonplace.) “The… Future Foundation has been known to kill people who they considered to be a threat and frame it as the government’s doing. Enoshima’s kill count is so high, she can’t really argue, and I don’t think she minds it. More despair, that way.” He hesitates, and perhaps sensing his reluctance, Shinguji continues.

 

“But the Future Foundation does not limit their victims to people who they think may threaten their control. They have, in the past, killed a number of people who simply outlived their usefulness, in order to frame it as the government’s doing, and make a martyr out of their own victims.” He speaks objectively, as ever, but I can tell that he’s not a fan of the words he’s speaking. “Chiaki Nanami is to become one of those martyrs, if the Foundation can find her.”

 

“...I see.” Komaeda swallows, then closes his eyes. He takes a minute, then breaks into an oddly self deprecating smile. “I’m sorry, I just… need a moment to process.”

 

“I can take you somewhere to be alone…” Himiko Yumeno speaks up, pushing herself up from where she was previously leaning against Tenko Chabashira’s shoulder. “If you want, that is. It sounds like a pain doing it if you’re okay here.”


“I’d appreciate that, Miss Yumeno,” Komaeda says softly. “Thank you.”

 

Yumeno’s face flushes, perhaps at the “miss”, but she still squeezes Chabashira’s hand before getting up and guiding Komaeda out of the room. “I’ll be back.” She calls over her shoulder, shuffling down the hallway.

 

Silence. Then, “Momota, right?” Ishimaru smiles. “Would you be willing to focus on looking for Nanami?”

 

“Can do!” Kaito grins back. “So long as I can stay at the Foundation to help out my sidekick! It sucks to be alone in a place with nobody who knows all your secrets, you know?” Honestly, he didn’t have to call me his sidekick in front of everybody… Ikusaba is raising her eyebrows at me now. I avert my gaze, but still find myself smiling in response to the rest of what Kaito has said. The sentiment, I think, definitely outweighs the exact wording.

 

“That’s fine.” Ikusaba closes her eyes, folding her hands in her lap. I’m beginning to get the impression that while Ishimaru is the leader, technically, she and him both share the leadership role. Considering the respect in the eyes of everybody here as they look over at the two, it’s understandable that they would be the ones in charge. “Leaving and becoming solely a member of the FYG is always an option, because being around liars can be emotionally draining, but we would never make you resign.” She clears her throat, then opens her eyes again. “Typically we have people in groups of two. Anybody else interested?”

 

It is Harukawa who speaks up now. “I’ll do it.” She speaks without pretense, or kindness in her tone- really she sounds exasperated- but Kaito’s entire disposition brightens when she volunteers.

 

“Ohh! You’re going to join me, Maki?”

 

“Don’t be annoying,” Harukawa snaps, perhaps irritated by Kaito’s use of her given name. Maybe the moment between them at the door wasn’t as much of a scene from a romance novel as I originally thought. “I’m just volunteering because you’re new, and you seem like just as much of an optimistic idiot as… some, other, members,” she grits out the tail end of that sentence, sounding as though the words take a great deal of effort, and blinks furiously, like she’s trying not to cry. “So you’ll need somebody to keep you out of trouble.”

 

“W-Wow, he’s never gonna be i-into you if y-you act l-like th-that.” Fukawa smirks, messing with one of her braids, and while Kaito doesn’t seem to have heard her at all (he can be remarkably ignorant when he wants to be) Harukawa seems embarrassed, and she prepares to snap at Fukawa, only for Mondo Oowada to interrupt, looking annoyed.

 

“Oookay, so, it’ll be Maki and Momota on that team, yeah?” He asks, scratching the back of his head.

 

“Kaito,” Kaito corrects, flashing a thumbs up. “And that’s what it’s shaping out to look like, Oowada!”

 

“Mondo, then,” Oowada grins. “Cool! Kiibo, you got that written down?”

 

“Of course I do,” K1-B0 looks offended at the insinuation that he would’ve missed something, but he still maintains his calm. “Maki and Kaito will be working primarily to get Chiaki Nanami away from Enoshima as soon as possible, though Maki will still be working with Mukuro to scout out Enoshima’s base, and Kaito will still be helping Saihara to be a spy. Sound about right?”

 

Ishimaru nods. “That sounds perfect! Excellent work as always, Kiibo! Then, all in favour of this course of action, say aye, please!” I don’t see a reason for anybody to object, so as always, the room is filled with the sound of affirmation, and silence when he asks for abstinences or oppositions. With that, the conversation segues.

 

Eventually, Ishimaru inquires about the flashdrive I received from Kokichi Ouma, but perhaps sensing my unwillingness to speak at the moment (not out of a place of resentment, just mental exhaustion) Kyoko speaks up and explains in my stead. Her manner is concise, objective, and accurate- as always. She probably gets all the points across far more succinctly than I could’ve, anyway, so it works out, and Fujisaki takes the laptop so that he can download the file from Ouma onto it.

 

When he’s finished, he tosses the flashdrive back to me. “It said on the note to return it to him, so the next time you see him…” Fujisaki trails off, but I nod.

 

“Ah, thank you.” I smile slightly. “I’ll give it to him, as well as everyone’s regards.”

 

Kaito makes a face. “I still think he’s kind of sketchy from what you’ve told me, but if you trust him, Shuichi, then I will too!” He exclaims, which is probably pretty unnecessary, because the FYG is already prone to showering people in their support in trust with little prompting needed, but I appreciate his unwavering support. Kaito can be a lot but he’s without a doubt my best friend.

 

When the meeting is over and everybody has dissolved into individual conversations, I begin to pack my bag once again, wordlessly slipping PAE and the flashdrive into my pocket and hanging my earbuds around my neck so that I can easily put them on once I get back outside with Kaito. As I’m lacing up my shoes at the front door, Kyoko walks over to me and stops at my side. I double knot my shoe and stand up to be at eye level with her.

 

“I’ll be staying around here for a while.” Kyoko tells me without being prompted. I knew it was something that she’d be doing, but I still feel a twinge of sadness that I won’t be seeing her as often. It was short lived, but… I don’t know. Kyoko and I work well together. I think she sees it in my expression because she rolls her eyes, exasperated. “Don’t feel sad about this, I’ll still be in touch. I have my ways.”

 

I hesitate. “Be careful. The Foundation is after you now. After you smuggled out Komaeda, Munakata called an emergency meeting to discuss next steps. Finding Komaeda again is a top priority of course, but now they’re after you, too.” I think of how Kuwata and Hifumi Yamada responded to the news… Yamada only said that Kyoko has always been a “chaotic neutral” type, but Kuwata seemed really confused. He must have been at least distant friends with her, for that kind of conflict to be playing in his expression.

 

She nods. “I know. I was aware of the danger when I put the plan into action.” Kyoko pauses, now, then speaks. “I already told you not to feel bad about what happened. It was inevitable. If not for this plan, I would’ve deserted on my own eventually upon figuring out about their involvement in Makoto’s death.” I know that, but I can’t help feeling at least partly responsible. It was my screw-up that put her into that position, where she had to choose between her place at the Foundation and Nagito Komaeda’s life. I’m never not going to feel terrible about that. She’s in extra danger now- danger she wouldn’t have been in if not for my carelessness.

 

Presumably, she reads this in my expression, but graciously, Kyoko doesn’t comment. Instead, she reaches out and puts a hand on my shoulder. I meet her eyes, wondering how to convey some of my thoughts to her without making anything uncomfortable, but before I can speak, she pulls me into a hug.

 

It’s quick enough that I barely get a chance to reciprocate. Just as my hands go up to touch her back, she is pulling away, wiping her eyes with her forearm. “Not a word.” She mumbles, then lowers her arm, revealing a bit of the emotion in her eyes. “Nothing’s going to happen to either of us, and we’re both going to be fine.” Kyoko adds firmly, huffing. “It was for luck, is all.”

 

I suppose I can accept that, even though I know there’s no way that either of us can say with certainty that everything is going to be alright. I smile slightly. “Alright. For luck.” I agree, and Kyoko nods, turning around and disappearing down the hall without saying goodbye. It’s normal for her, though, so I don’t think anything of it.

 

Kaito and I make the trip back to the Foundation in relative silence, though he finds a couple things to talk about, as usual. Mostly just the fact that FYG and what it stands for is a badass name (his words) and they’re all super awesome, and I have great taste in people! I want to say that it’s all through Makoto’s efforts that they’re there- even Kyoko and Kaito, who I brought, were people who Makoto would’ve thumbed if given more time- but the compliment feels nice so I don’t correct him.

 

Really, though, my thoughts keep returning to the drive in my pocket. When will I get an opportunity to give it back to Ouma? Presumably when I see him next, which will be at tomorrow’s meeting, but… will I get a chance to actually talk to him, alone? I can’t just hand him the drive, Munakata will get suspicious… and I’m not about to pull the whole hand-holding maneuver thing that Ouma did to give it to me earlier this week. It already almost gave me a heart attack and I wasn’t even the one initiating it. I don’t think I have the bravado to pull something like that off. So I’ll have to figure something else out.

 

At least, that’s what I’m thinking right up until I’m lying back on the cot in my room, going over old notes in the dark. A couple times, at those Despair meetings, I got bored and started doodling little sailboats in the margins of the pages, but honestly, those images have a lot to be gained… my focus is going in and out and I think it’s the result of getting barely any sleep last night. I’m about to just succumb to my exhaustion when I hear a tap on my window.

 

My first impulse is to assume it’s a bird, but then the tap comes again, and I can tell that the culprit isn’t using anything hard to tap. Probably their fingers, from the dull sound. Besides, I can’t think of any bird who knows I love you in morse code; certainly not one who would waste their time at my window. All of this is worth looking into, but I’m still wary. There isn’t anyone else in here right now, it’s just… my brain is muddled and probably talking to whoever is out there is only going to make things worse.

 

But I can’t just leave them hanging. I turn on the lamp on my nightstand and get up, shuffling over the window and confirming the suspicion that has begun to dawn on me: somehow, Kokichi Ouma is tapping on my window.

 

Here’s why this is a problem: My room is on the second floor of Headquarters. This shouldn’t be hard to access from the outside, but the fire escape is further down the wall. There isn’t an easy way to get to this window in particular from the ground. Also, Kokichi Ouma, as far as I know, doesn’t have unlimited access to the Future Foundation base. I wouldn’t put it past him to sneak in, but if he snuck in, he’s just painting a target on both of our backs by coming here. Another thing that’s important to note is that it seems as though Ouma is barely hanging on to the window. Nevermind that he shouldn’t even know where my room is.

 

But he’s right there, messy hair, wide purple eyes, white uniform, and all. His presence is startling to me, but what really grabs my attention is the large crimson stain on his left shoulder. I don’t remember much beyond what I was taught in training, but there’s no way that that isn’t a bullet injury. Seems like I’m dealing with a lot of those lately.

 

Since his grip is pretty precarious and he has the nerve to let go with one hand and wave at me, a large grin on his face, I don’t waste anymore time in unlocking the window and sliding it open. As soon as the space is wide enough for Ouma to get through, he leans forward.

 

“Hey Shuichi!” Not even bothering with the long nickname, hm? “Uh… sorry to impose on you like this, but I’ve got a small problem.”

 

“No kidding.” I mutter, and he bats his eyelashes, like he isn’t getting blood on my window sill. As much as I want to play it off like this is all some massive inconvenience, my chest is already beginning to swell in concern. His expression is a perfect mask of playfulness, but there’s no way he’s not in pain.

 

“So…” he trails off, swaying dangerously. I reach out, for a moment hesitant to touch him, then catch his uninjured arm, trying to keep a firm grip so he doesn’t fall. “I don’t wanna overstep, since you’ve already been pretty helpful, but-”

 

He’s talking too much. Expending too much energy for somebody who’s quite literally bleeding out as we speak. I lean forward, hook my arms around his waist, and pull him inside. Ouma makes a noise (that might be a squeak but for his dignity’s sake I think I’ll just ignore it) of surprise and grabs my shoulders far more tightly than necessary. I grunt, since I’m not weak but I’m definitely not very strong, but lean back a little bit so that I can get a better balance. Once Ouma is completely inside, I rest him down on the floor and reach behind him to close the window.

 

Right now, he’s close enough that I can see his adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallows. “L-Little bit of warning next time, please,” he murmurs, then almost immediately, his expression changes to a wide, playful grin. “You’re kinda hot when you’re serious, though! Are you worried about me?”

 

I sigh, not sure if I should answer that question or not. Obviously, I am. But I think responding would just count as enabling him. What should I do? I need to tend to the injury (that’s probably why he’s here, for first aid) but it’s like the situation with Rantaro all over again. I’m not a medic. Byakuya Togami was surprisingly good at tending to Rantaro, but I doubt he’s a viable option for help a second time, much less for Kokichi Ouma…

 

I guess I’ll have to do what I can.

 

I meet Ouma’s eyes. “You can walk, right?”

 

It’s possible that Ouma wants to give some sort of silly answer, based on the light in his eyes, but he refrains, for some reason, opting to nod instead. “Yeah. I’m shot in the shoulder, you know? That doesn’t really rob me of my ability to carry my own weight.” He pushes off the wall and wobbles a little on his feet. “Buuut… the blood loss may be a bigger problem than I anticipated.” I reach out to steady him, but Ouma catches my hand instead, grinning. “Or maybe that was a lie to get you to touch me. I’m super touch starved, have I told you yet?”

 

“...I’m flattered, but for the sake of this,” I force out, though I’m sure the blush that is spreading across my face is completely destroying my point. “I’m going to need you to tone down the flirting for a second so I can help you.”

 

Ouma pouts. “Aw… it’s almost more boring when you acknowledge the flirting than ignoring it like you’ve been doing so far!” He exaggerates a sigh, then winces after moving his shoulder. “Okay. Point received. I’ll just…” he releases my hand and shuffles over to sit down on my bed. “I’ll just sit here.” He tells me, and I release a breath, following him over and dropping down to my knees to get my first aid kit out from under the cot.

 

I open the box and look through what’s inside. Ouma watches, unnaturally silent, as my fingers brush over a number of pieces of medical equipment. There are tweezers in here, bandages, antiseptics… hydrogen peroxide, most notably… gauze, rags, painkillers, a couple needles, and a spool of surgical thread, as well as a number of other materials that I haven’t worked with. Fortunately, I don’t think that I’ll need them. Before I touch anything, I get to my feet and step into the bathroom, where I use my elbow to turn on the sink and wash my hands. I don’t have time for a super thorough scrub-down, but I soap up twice and use a new towel to dry my hands, hoping that it’s enough to avoid infection.

 

With that, I head back out to my cot. Ouma is sitting there, looking at me, but when he catches my gaze, he breaks into a smile. “What’s your plan, doc?” He asks, still with that same cheer that he always has.

 

I consider his question. “I’m not a doctor, so there’s only so much I can do, but… hopefully, remove the bullet, staunch the bleeding, clean out the injury, stitch it up, and then wrap it in bandages.” A cursory explanation of this procedure was gone over in training. I think I can do it. It won’t be pretty, especially not the stitches, but I’ll do the best that I can to make this painless for Ouma, who I can tell is working hard to hide what he’s probably feeling right now. “Ah, so… to get to your wound, I’m… going to need to…” I trail off, and he seems to get my point, because he unbuttons his jacket and places it to the side. He takes care to make sure that the bloodstained part of the article isn’t touching my bed, which I appreciate. It’s a gesture I wouldn’t have anticipated from him. He also pulls his black and white checkered scarf from his neck and tosses it on top of the jacket.

 

Underneath his jacket, which I’ve never seen before, he’s wearing a white tank top. I reach out and gently brush the left side of the shirt down onto his arm to get a closer look at the injury. It’s not that bad. He can’t have had it for very long. I figure talking to him as I do this will give him an opportunity to focus on something other than what I’ll be doing to his shoulder, and also help him to pretend to feel something that he really doesn’t, as he seems so fond of doing.

 

So as I kneel beside him and begin using one of the rags soaked in hydrogen peroxide to clean some of the blood from the injury, I speak. “What happened? How did you get shot?”

 

“Well,” Ouma starts, voice shaking a little. (I pretend not to notice.) “I stole something from Junko Enoshima, and she sent her harem to come get me!”


I raise an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

 

“Nope, but I think you figured that.” He cracks a grin and I can’t help chuckling a little bit, even as I roll my eyes. “One of my friends got in trouble. I was just-” he hisses out a faint curse and I try to be more gentle, but it’s really the alcohol that’s stinging, not the pressure from the rag, so all I can do is stop a little earlier than necessary to move on to getting out the bullet. “-trying to help them out, and then Enoshima’s men got involved, and things got ugly.”

This story in particular sounds more truthful, so as I wash off the tweezers with the hydrogen peroxide, I respond. “Was your friend okay? I hope they didn’t get shot too.”

 

“N-No,” Ouma breathes out shakily. “He was fine. He got out unscathed, mostly, but I think he got a black eye. He’ll be alright, in any case. He probably just wanted me to die, that’s why he left me behind.” Without missing a beat, “But that’s a lie, of course, he didn’t really know what to do. I told him I had a friend who could help.”

 

Friend, hm? “Want something to bite down on?” I ask. “Or hold on to? This is going to hurt a bit more than the alcohol.” A bit is probably an understatement, but Ouma seems indifferent.

 

He pauses. “Yeah.” I start to look around for something to grab for him, but then he reaches out and snatches my hat from my head. (I hadn’t even realised I was still wearing it.) “This should be fine!” Ouma chirps with a grin. I’m tempted to touch my hair where the hat was sitting a moment ago, because I wasn’t expecting him to do that, but it would only make my hands dirty again, so I refrain, furrowing my brow. This isn’t ideal, but if it’s what he wants, I can’t exactly say no right now. “I like to be able to see your eyes, anyway.”

 

Ugh, again with the flirting. I wish he’d be less consistent with that. I inhale a breath and move on to extracting the bullet from his shoulder.

 

I finish tending to his wound with scattered chatter here and there, but I can tell that despite Ouma’s bravado, he’s mostly trying to keep a straight face right now. Who can blame him? I don’t have any anesthesia to make things easier on him, and there’s no way that what just happened wasn’t super painful. The stitches, as I expected, are super uneven and jagged, which will definitely mean that the scar is going to be super ugly, but Ouma just thanks me and I cover the stitches with the bandages. At least I know how to do that nicely.

 

Once I’m done, I get to my feet and shuffle to the bathroom to wash my hands again. Ouma’s sudden appearance has certainly done a lot for me by way of adrenaline, but now that his wound is tended to, I’m starting to feel exhausted all over again. And I can’t stop thinking, even though I know how unproductive it is, that I just… the sight of that bullet wound barely shocked me, and that is horrifying. To think that I could get used to things like this… for some reason, the fact that it’s Ouma, of all people, is really… I almost don’t know how to process what I’m feeling right now.

 

I turn off the bathroom light and head back into the main room, where Ouma has begun the process of cleaning up the first aid kit- albeit slowly, to account for his injury. Biting my lip, I walk over and gently touch his uninjured shoulder. “You don’t have to do that. You’re hurt.” I say, and he looks at me, raising his eyebrows.

 

“Well, duh, but I want to. You made a huge mess trying to help me, you know, Mister Saihara from the Future Foundation?” He grins, and I sigh, but I’m glad he has the energy to go back to his usual manner. I can still detect that he’s tired, though. “When I’m done cleaning this up, I’ll be out of your hair.”

 

That sounds reasonable enough, but for some reason it still gives me pause. “Aren’t you tired?” I ask without meaning to. “Should you be traveling right now?”

 

Ouma makes a face. “Is Shuichi doubting my capabilities?”

 

“No- I would never, I just…” I sigh. “You could get jumped, or something. Enoshima’s men know you by name, and you probably just really pissed one of them off by intervening. I don’t doubt that you can fend for yourself on a normal day, but in this condition, you could get really hurt.” I falter at the end, aware that it’s not really my place to be saying these things to him. It’s not like we’re close.

 

Still, it’s with a wide smile that Ouma responds. “Aww, so you’re just worried about me! That’s cute, but I’m straight.” Pause. “No, I’m not, that’s so ridiculous, I felt gross saying it.” I don’t know whether to be relieved or concerned. “If you insist, then I guess I’ll stay here!” He closes the first aid kit, which he’s finished packing up, and kicks it off the cot. “Is it okay if I take a nap?”

 

On my cot?

 

“I figure the answer is yes, since you’re so passive all the time,” Ouma begins. “But…”

 

“Ah- I suppose it’s alright.” I nod uncertainly. If he’s tired, then I shouldn’t deny him a place to rest. Even if that place… does happen to be where I sleep. “I guess I didn’t really have any plans, anyway, so I…”

 

“You can go off and do something else, you know.” Ouma points out, before a devilish smile crosses over his lips. “Unless you just want to watch me sleep…? In which case-”

 

“No!” I sputter. “That’s not -”

 

“Nee hee-hee, I know.” Ouma giggles, tilting his head to the side as though he’s perfectly innocent. “You just wanna make sure I don’t get in trouble with these assholes you’re spying on.” He’s right, of course, but the wording is questionable- especially considering that we’re currently at the headquarters of the assholes I’m spying on. Still, it’s probably fine for now… there aren’t cameras or microphones anywhere here, and there isn’t anybody nearby listening in that I know of.

 

“Right.” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Go to sleep, Ouma.” I take a seat next to the cot, resting my back against the side and opening my journal in my lap. “I’m right here if you need anything.”

 

“A bedtime story?” I glance at him, lips pursed. “Message received, going to sleep now!” Ouma closes his eyes and drops back onto the bed. “Owiee… that hurt my injury.” I don’t doubt that it did, but didn’t you kind of bring that onto yourself…?

 

I swear, Kokichi Ouma is a handful.

Chapter Text

It must be about half an hour or so after Kokichi Ouma finally winds down and falls asleep that I follow suit.

 

I don’t mean to, it’s just that I’m already exhausted and the room is completely silent, aside from the sound of Ouma breathing. And it sounds weird, especially to say it out loud, but the repetitive nature of his breathing is calming enough to lull me into a sense of security. Even if it’s somewhat illegitimate considering that it’s Kokichi Ouma I’m talking about, it doesn’t make me any less tired. Besides that, the room is a lot warmer than it was before, and even though I’m not very comfortable sitting on the floor propped against my cot, for some reason, the position has me nodding off almost immediately.

 

I try to fight against it at first, because I’ve got work to do and there’s no point in staying in here to keep guard in the first place if I’m just going to go to sleep, but eventually I decide that the short-term satisfaction of taking a nap is preferable to what will inevitably work in my favour in the future. Which is a pretty irresponsible choice, but I’m not really thinking about it when it happens.

 

And even though I wake up to him leaning down in my face, grinning from those annoying purple eyes (at my expense no less) and to Leon Kuwata at the door asking for me to talk to him, I find myself not regretting that moment of down time for a number of reasons.

 

But mostly because it’s the last one I get before everything really kicks off, and I find myself incredibly busy. I mean, I was busy before; juggling the group with Kyoko and Rantaro as well as spying for the FYG and working with my enemy to find the people I want to save, obviously, I was constantly in motion. In fact, I should be less busy, considering that Kyoko has left and Rantaro is out of commission- at least as far as working against the Future Foundation goes, for the moment- but apparently, things don’t always work out that way.

 

Because when I drag myself to the door to talk to Kuwata, he tells me that we’ve got another lead on an Ultimate Despair and their whereabouts.

 

“Actually,” Kuwata clarifies. “We’ve got a lot of leads on a lot of Despairs, but the two of us are gonna be working to find Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu.” I’ll probably need a refresher at some point, but from what I remember, Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu is a short, blonde man with scowl lines under his eyes, even though he was smirking in the picture. Only a year older than me. Reportedly has a pretty bad temper, but a soft heart. I wonder if the Foundation keeps that in mind in their pursuit of him, but nonetheless, according to Kuwata, he’s our responsibility now.

 

It’s no easy job, either. The next couple weeks tell me that Nagito Komaeda was a bit of a freebie. He wasn’t hiding from anybody; certainly not the Future Foundation. He was easy for them to locate, seeing as he was traveling alone and attempting to go back for Chiaki Nanami. But as Komaeda tells the FYG at the next meeting, nobody else from his group is traveling alone.

 

“We didn’t think it would be very easy to travel in a huge group of fourteen, obviously,” Komaeda explains, scratching the back of his head. This week’s meeting is at Toko Fukawa’s home, which surprised me, initially, because I never took her to be a receptive type of person. But she’s actually a fairly good host. “So we broke up into two groups of five, and one group of four.” He spreads out a piece of paper and pulls out a pencil, writing down names. “Let’s see if my memory serves me…”

 

The meeting is silent save for the sound of Komaeda writing, for a moment, and then he pushes forward the paper. It stops in front of me, so even though I don’t feel like I should be the one to pick it up and look at it, I do, scanning the names written. Komaeda, it seems, was in a group with Hajime Hinata, Mahiru Koizumi, Akane Owari, and Nekomaru Nidai. I think back to their files but other than the first two names, I can’t recall which people the names are referring to- though they are familiar to me. I’ll have to read through the files again to see if I can’t get a refresher.

 

In the other two groups, Komaeda has written Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu, Peko Pekoyama, Kazuichi Souda, Teruteru Hanamura, and Hiyoko Saionji. I recognise Kuzuryuu, obviously, as well as Hiyoko Saionji, but I really do need a refresher. The other group consists of Gundham Tanaka, Sonia Nevermind, Ibuki Mioda, and… Byakuya Togami? I furrow my brow, because I’ve been reading the names aloud, and look up to meet Komaeda’s eyes.

 

“Hey, Komaeda,” I frown. “Why is Byakuya Togami on this list?” I certainly did not see Byakuya Togami in the files. I think I would have remembered that! But whose name was replaced? I can’t remember there being anybody else…

 

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Komaeda laughs, the same self-deprecating laugh that I’ve begun to expect from him. “He was impersonating Mr. Togami for a while, so the name kind of just stuck. I don’t really want to call him pig-hands. I didn’t even realise. I’m sorry.” You already apologised… it’s not necessary. I prepare to wave him off, but Fukawa speaks first.

 

“You’d b-better be sorry! Comparing th-that guy t-to m-my master… unacceptable!” She snaps, pointing at Komaeda as though he’s committed a grave sin. Komaeda takes that about as well as expected: a look of horror flashes over his features and he immediately apologises for the third time.

 

“I’m so sorry, Miss Fukawa, I wasn’t aware that you’re close to Mr. Togami…”

 

“For fuck’s sake,” Iruma rolls her eyes. “It’s a simple mistake, geez. Do you get off on apologising, or something, Komaeda?”

 

Komaeda’s eyes widen. “No, no, it’s not like that!”

 

“Wait,” Kaito frowns. “Why is Byakuya’s name on this list?”

 

Exasperated, Harukawa swats his shoulder. (Based on the grin he wears in response, I have to wonder how much time they’ve spent together this past week, for Kaito to already be comfortable with that kind of behaviour.) “Get with the program, you idiot- Komaeda just explained that he’s not talking about Byakuya Togami from the Future Foundation.”

 

“Oh.” Kaito nods, then his frown reappears. “Wait, but, then… why write his name?”

 

At any rate, finding Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu doesn’t just mean finding Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu. It means finding Kuzuryuu, Pekoyama, Souda, Hanamura, and Saionji, as well. They’ll most certainly be more difficult to locate in a group. But I withhold this particular piece of information from Kuwata, in the interest of slowing our own progress. I’m already only giving him half of what I figure out every day. It feels dishonest- especially since I know that Kuwata is doing everything that he can to find this guy, but I can’t very well work to help him. That’s not the reason that I joined Kyousuke Munakata’s group.

 

Aside from the FYG and working to find Kuzuryuu, however, I begin to find other things to keep me busy. Or, rather, other things begin to find me. More specifically…

 

“Saihara.” Ryoma Hoshi approaches me about three days into my search for Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu, hands shoved into his pockets. “May I ask you for a favour?”

 

“Ah, alright.” I close my journal, turning to look at him. “What is it, Hoshi?” I offer a smile, because I’ve started going down to Command whenever I can’t sleep nowadays, which has turned into a fairly regular occurrence, and he’s consistently there, working on his own thing. We never speak during these times, but I’m aware of his presence, and it’s a good kind of company, the kind where you don’t always have to make conversation.

 

“I’ve just received word that some of Enoshima’s men are breaking into one of those safe pockets of civilisation. I guess they found them, or got tipped off. Anyway, there are a lot of kids there.” Hoshi pulls his hat over his eyes. “Ordinarily I’d ask Toujo for her assistance regarding these matters, but she’s unavailable at the moment.”

 

In regards to the “safe pockets of civilisation” Hoshi has just mentioned: when Junko Enoshima came into power, many people who were previously used to the corruption of the previous ruler were stunned by her cruelty and lack of humanity. But there wasn’t much that could be done against her. I don’t remember much of those days; I must have been around six or seven. Enoshima isn’t that much older than me- I think maybe year and a half or so older than Makoto, when he was alive, but she’s incredibly intelligent, and took her place leading the country when she was incredibly young. Already, she was formidable. Regardless, some people decided to take everybody they knew and loved and find a place where they could hide.

 

For some, that meant crossing the ocean. Leaving the country and all their responsibilities here behind. For some, that meant a secret hiding place in Japan. Those pockets exist all over the country, but ever since Enoshima found out they existed, which didn’t take long for somebody with her capabilities, she’s been working off and on to see them eliminated.

 

At any rate, it’s always awful when she does manage to extinguish one of those groups.

 

“A rescue mission?” I ask, for clarification. “I’m not always very good in ground missions…” I’ve done a couple, but my track record isn’t the best… one of my first ever, Makoto Naegi ended up dead, and most recently, I almost got strangled to death by a guard. (Kyoko’s scarf is still shoved into my belongings, as I haven’t remembered to give it back to her yet.)

 

Hoshi hums. “While you may think that about yourself, you’re dependable and level-headed. I think you’re the most reliable in a crisis situation.” He meets my eyes. “Besides, I wouldn’t ask you to come with me if I didn’t have total faith in your abilities.”

 

Well… there’s no way that I could say no to that. As much as compliments make me uncomfortable at times, I still have an ego. And appealing to it is a pretty good way to get me to do things, I’m not going to lie.

 

A number of opportunities similar to the one that Hoshi presents to me begin popping up. At first, only from him, but soon Kirumi Toujo and Aoi Asahina and even Byakuya Togami begin to ask me to go on missions with them. In some cases, such as Togami’s, it’s for trivial things that I am likely only invited to help with because it’ll lighten their workload, but I can’t help thinking that other members of the Future Foundation are starting to have a lot of faith in me.

 

Which doesn’t feel good, I’ll be honest. I mean, it should feel good. I’m coming on to my third month as a member of the Foundation, after all, and to have gained everyone’s trust already should be gratifying for me, but since I’m only there to deceive everybody… not the mention, the more I work with these people, the more I start to see how trustworthy and honest they all are. I wasn’t sure about Toujo and Hoshi at first, but in going on countless missions with them and spending hours in their company, I’m starting to bear witness to how good they are. And I’m lying to them.

 

What’s worse, though, is that other people have begun to talk to me as well. Namely, Sayaka Maizono and Leon Kuwata.

 

Not together, really, and at first not about anything in particular. My friendship with Maizono starts out a little strangely, considering that I never know what to say to her over the crushing guilt of lying to her about the circumstances about her best friend’s death, but then I move past it enough to actually… have a conversation with her. Several. And beyond that, she starts having conversations with me. Real ones. That she seems to want to have.

 

It becomes a thing for her, Kuwata, Kaito, and me to sit together during meal times. I’m not entirely sure when it comes about, but Kaito doesn’t seem to mind at all, and Kuwata and I have already established that we’re friends… which is pretty terrible, when you think about it. The irony of it all, that the two people I’m lying to the most and the one person I’m one hundred percent honest with about everything at all times would all sit with me. But that’s how things begin to fall into place.

 

And I don’t mind it, is the thing.

 

“Dude, I’m sorry.” Kuwata sits back in his chair, scrubbing his hands down his face. (Which can’t feel good, considering that he has all those piercings.) “I can’t focus right now.”

 

For the past hour and a half, we’ve been sitting in a closed off corner of Command, poring over a number of documents regarding Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu, as well as maps of different parts of the Kanto region. It’s worth thinking about, the notion that Kuzuryuu and his friends might not even be in Kanto, but I haven’t brought it up to Kuwata. I think I might, but for the moment, I’m keeping it to myself, to give the FYG an edge. But it’s been pretty obvious this whole time that he’s been distracted. I don’t mind. My head is kind of fuzzy, too. So I close the folder I’ve been leafing through and look at him.

 

“May I ask…? What’s got you distracted?” I fold my hands together in my lap, smiling nervously. “Ah, but, you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to. I understand it’s a bit of a personal question.”

 

“Nah, Saihara, we’re past that, I think.” Kuwata shrugs. “I wouldn’t even say anything if I didn’t wanna talk about it, you know?” I haven’t thought about it that way… “I know I’ve always talked about things with Sayaka like they’re perfect, and they super are, but I’m also just… I’m stressed, man.”

 

I hum. “Have you two had a fight?” Last time I saw them together was breakfast, and they seemed to be getting along fine; Maizono barely moved from Kuwata’s side the entire time we were eating. I doubt that that’s it, but I suppose it’s not too bad to ask. It shows I’m not making any assumptions. Still, Kuwata shakes his head, scoffing.

 

“Nothing like that.” He sighs. “I’m just worried that… something will happen. To me, or to her, I dunno. This work is dangerous as hell! As much as I have qualms about these Despairs sometimes,” which is another thing fueling my guilt. “I know that they’re unstable people, and trying to catch them is putting us in a lot of danger. Something could happen to me or Sayaka at any time and what if it happens before we get to do what I really hope we get to do? I wanna live out the rest of my life with her, Saihara.”

 

That doesn’t sound like such a selfish desire. I didn’t take Kuwata to be such a devoted partner when I first met him, but I’m learning more that undoes that initial presumption the more time I spend with him. I can’t stop myself from smiling a little bit, but I do clear my throat, wanting to take his words seriously. “Have you told her as much?”

 

Kuwata shakes his head. “It always feels too awkward. Besides, what I really want to do… I don’t know if right now is the time to do it, or ask for it.”

 

“...do you want my opinion?” I am somewhat hesitant to ask, because I’m not sure how kindly Kuwata will take to my thoughts, but he nods, so I continue to speak. “You should try to look past the awkwardness and just say it. If anything, now is the perfect time to do so, because you’re right that you have no idea of knowing if something will happen, or when it will happen. Today could be your last day with her. You should act like it. Say what you want to say, and do what you want to do, right now.”

 

There is a pause, during which period of time I am wondering if Kuwata absolutely detests the words that have just come out of my mouth. Then, slowly, a grin crosses over his features, and he nods. “You’re right.” He coughs. “No, I mean it. You’re absolutely right, man. I can’t just wait around. Okay. I’ll go now.” He gets to his feet, and I startle.

 

“Right now? To do what? What are you going to do?” I suggested that he say what he wants to say as soon as possible, but this is so sudden! I’m unable to do much else other than be surprised. Still, Kuwata is grinning so wide at me, I can’t help but laugh a little.

 

“I’m gonna ask her to marry me.” Kuwata declares, and I did kind of get that feel from what he was saying before, but the boldness of the statement… well, anyway, I feel my smile softening at the edges a little bit. I’m right, of course. If he doesn’t do it now, and something happens to one of them, they’ll regret it forever. “Hey, before I do, though-” he pauses, putting a hand on the table. “Saihara, if she says yes- be my best man, will ya?”

 

I’m taken off guard by this request, as well. “Wh-What? Me?” I ask, incredulous. “Why me?”

 

“My best guy friend is dead, you know?” I assume he’s talking about Makoto, and feel a touch of sadness in the pit of my stomach. “And you’ve really been a great pal to me these past few weeks. I know we haven’t known each other for too long, but I can’t think of anybody else I’d rather have up there.”


This feels like a decision made on impulse- the kind that people always end up regretting later. But there’s so much certainty in Kuwata’s eyes, it’s hard for me to think he’ll ever change his mind. So I nod. “Alright, then. I’ll be your best man, if Maizono says yes.”

 

“Fingers crossed!” Kuwata claps me on the shoulder. “You’re a good guy, Saihara. See you later!”

 

He jogs off, and yeah, he leaves me with the mess, but I can’t find it in me to be resentful when I saw him looking so happy just now.

 

Suffice to say that I’ve been incredibly busy. But there is… still one more thing that I haven’t mentioned.

 

After I finish tidying up the papers that Kuwata and I had been looking over, I slide the folders under my arm and head back to my room. I’ve worried once or twice about one of my roommates discovering any of the important files that I keep stored among my belongings, but there isn’t much of a reason for them to look through my stuff. And whatever I have that links me to the FYG, or contains more information than I usually give out, I typically carry around with me.

 

Upon arriving at my destination, I note that, dependably, the room is empty. I’ve said it before, but I do feel guilty that I know virtually nothing about the people who sleep in the same room as me. I’d be happy to change it, but getting closer to more people here at the Foundation- the people who I share a room with, no less- sounds like a lot of additional stress and guilt I’m ill-equipped to deal with. I’m glad that they’re not here, though, because my watch is telling me that it’s almost two thirty, and I’d hate for somebody to be in the room when that time does roll around.

 

I give a sweeping look to the papers that I’ve carried into the room, but I’m distracted and I know it. I don’t have any way to really grab my own attention, though, so eventually I just end up waiting.

 

At about fifteen seconds past 2:27, there is a tell-tale tap at my window that informs me that Kokichi Ouma is here.

 

It’s an odd routine, one that I hadn’t meant to pick up at first, but after I tended to Ouma’s shoulder, he exited through the window again (against my wish that he would just use the door) and snuck off. We saw each other at the meeting the next day, and it was surprisingly normal. As normal as things can be, with Kokichi Ouma, at least. But the following day, at around two thirty, he showed up at my window again, bright with energy and acting as though his shoulder was completely fine. Which I knew was preposterous considering that I had tended to it myself, but I’ve never been the type to try to force somebody else to do things for themselves that I might try to avoid, so I didn’t say anything. To be honest, I was just surprised to see him.

 

But then he showed up the day after that, and the day after that, and now it’s been about three weeks, and it’s the only consistent part of my schedule. As much as I am reluctant to admit it, seeing Ouma every day at the same time for over twenty one days has offered a weird stability to my daily routine that I would hate to forego. And it’s not like he’s ever acted any differently than he usually does. I would be concerned if he stopped lying or joking around for even a second.

 

Still, there are moments, where I…

 

Ouma taps a little more determinedly on the window, this time completely disregarding the use of morse code, and I chuckle under my breath, unlatching the window and sliding it open for him to climb in.

 

“I still don’t know how you get up here.” I tell him, but I’m already turning around and walking back over to my cot. Ouma laughs, breathy and startlingly familiar, and I hear him close the window. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve asked- I honestly only said it as a formality, at this point, because I assume he’s never going to tell me.

 

“Would you believe me if I said Hermes himself came down and gave me a pair of sandals?” Ouma doesn’t skip a beat, presumably taking the odd noise that comes out of my mouth (and passes itself off as a laugh) as a no. “Yeah, me either. Those sandals would’ve sent me straight down to Tartarus! Wait, wrong Y/A novel.”

 

I glance back at him, closing the folder on my cot and raising an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”

 

“Forget about it!” He giggles and shakes his head. “I’m a liar, not a schizophrenic. Maybe I could’ve convinced you when we first met, but it’s too late for that now. Besides, I’m preeetty sure that’s politically incorrect. I make stupid jokes, but I don’t want to be ableist, y’know?” Ouma pouts, even though I haven’t said anything, and clenches his hands into fists in front of his chest. “Actually, that might’ve been a lie. For all you know, I go around saying the r-slur at trees just because I think it’s funny.”

 

An odd mental image, considering that trees are hard to come by, nowadays, but I’m sure Ouma has his ways. Though I know that he closed the window, I still walk across the room to double check that he latched it. My gaze lingers there, and I maintain my silence, not sure what to say. We don’t talk about anything in particular- honestly, I’m still not sure why he comes here, if not to bother me, but that’s not always how things shape up. I’d like to have a meaningful conversation with him, but I just-

 

“Hey, what do you wanna do when this war is over?” When I look back, Ouma is lying down on my cot, looking through the folder that I left there. I feel a twitch of irritation, but I don’t really mind. There’s nothing in there that he doesn’t already know. Besides, I’m more distracted by his question.

 

“Hm? After the war?” He nods, purple eyes flickering to meet mine, and I take a moment to consider the inquiry. “Ah… I haven’t really thought that far, yet.” I admit, crossing the space and sitting down next to him on the cot. It’s not that big, but Ouma is small, and he’s lying down with his legs bent, so I’m fairly comfortable. “Why do you ask?”

 

His eyes flutter closed, and his expression turns entirely blank for a minute as he speaks. “You know, that’s exactly the reason why. Nobody ever talks about it, or thinks about it. We think a whole lot about defeating Junko Enoshima now and getting hope now, but… then what? What do we do? How do we go back to normalcy? What is normalcy? With Enoshima, it’s like, we can all agree on what we don’t want, but we don’t know what we do want, because nobody is thinking that far ahead.”

I don’t say anything. I’m trying to absorb what Ouma is saying, and I feel that by speaking I’d break my concentration. Besides, it doesn’t appear as though he’s done, yet. I do chew my thumb nail, though, thinking about his words.

 

“It’s what makes the Future Foundation so dangerous. Everybody knows the government is wrong. Not even people who like Enoshima will try to tell you she’s in the right. But the Foundation means it when they say they’ll end her rule. That’s why people are rallying behind it. They’re just not telling everyone what comes next. And for a group this big? There’s gotta be something. Something in the long-term. Nobody does what this group has done without a plan. They have so much power because nobody knows what they want enough to ask for it.” Ouma’s eyes open now, and he sits up, looking directly into mine. His gaze, so serious all of a sudden, is unnerving. “So, Saihara, what do you want to do after we win this war? If we win this war?”

 

No use of my given name, no fancy nickname… his words almost sound lonely with the complete and utter lack of pretense. I hum.

 

Ouma adds, “If it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty sure I wanna be a florist when this is all over. Or maybe that’s a lie.”

 

I laugh anyway; the idea of Kokichi Ouma doing something as normal (presumably, normal for a world I’ve never lived in) as selling flowers is so alien to me, I can’t help the amusement. But then I sober. “I suppose… I’d like to do detective work.” As the words escape my mouth, I feel a pang in my chest. It was even Ouma who mentioned it to me before, so I don’t know why saying as much makes me feel sad. I suppose the reminder of my uncle is painful. It has only been three months since he died, after all. “I like… the idea of bringing wrongdoers to justice. Of finding the truth. And I don’t think I’m too bad at it. Though there would be plenty for me to learn.”

 

“So, the world you wanna see would have tons of crime in it?” Ouma beams at me, and I rush to protest, but then he continues. “Nah, I’m kidding. No matter what society we live in, there’s gonna be people doing wrongs. It’s the nature of humanity, you know? And it sure does make everything more interesting! Is there a reason, other than what you said, that you wanna be a detective?” A pause, and then more quietly, “You don’t have to tell me. Probably. Who knows? I might just keep bugging you until you give up and tell me!” For some reason, I can tell that that, in particular, is definitely a lie.

 

“Well…” It would probably be a lousy idea to tell Ouma about my uncle, but I won’t deny the temptation. I already told Kyoko, after all, and it feels like I’ve trusted this man with a startling amount of things already. So I bite the bullet. “My uncle wanted to be a detective. When he was alive,” my voice breaks but I avert my gaze and keep talking. “He tried to do it.”

 

For a long moment, Ouma is silent, contemplative. I can’t read his expression at all; it’s a mask of pure thought. There’s nothing childish or silly hidden in his eyes. Just thought. And, though I might be imagining it, I think… I think I saw compassion flickering in there as well.

 

“He died, huh?” He asks so bluntly that all I can respond with is a nod. It almost doesn’t even hurt to admit. “Shucks. You know, I never knew my parents.”

 

“...You don’t have to share with me, because I shared with you.” I murmur, but Ouma shakes his head.

 

“It’s okay. I don’t even talk about it with my own friends, you know? It’s weird because I don’t care about it,” I doubt that. “But it’s still hard to bring up. It’s something I wanna talk about though. In a setting where it’s not weird. And I know I won’t be judged.” Another lengthy pause, then, “Like this one, I guess.”

 

He’s acting awfully flippant about this but suddenly his gaze has been torn away from my eyes and I think it means much more than he’s letting on.

 

“Maybe my folks were some badasses who took on the government and died doing it. Or, maybe they are still alive, and working for Enoshima now! I dunno. It doesn’t really make a difference. I grew up in one of those safe spaces, though. One that Enoshima had no idea about.”

 

Ah… “Most of your life, then, you…”

 

“Well, only from age eight and up. I honestly don’t remember a lot before then.” Ouma shrugs. “But yeah, I grew up in a world where Junko Enoshima wasn’t important. Or she was, but we just didn’t talk about it. And it was…” he struggles to find the right word. “It was nice. It was nice living in peace, for the first six years of my life. But we were found eventually. Reality always catches up.”

 

I want to say something, but I’m not sure if there is anything I can say. As much as Ouma is acting like it’s not a big deal, I can hear the bitterness in his voice. There’s no ignoring it, as much as I would like to, to spare his dignity. So instead, I say nothing, and listen, instead.

 

“Lessie and I were the only survivors.” Ouma finishes, without a trace of pretense. Though I’m unwilling to make a big deal out of this, I can feel my eyes widening.

 

“You and Ludenberg grew up together?” I ask, surprised.

 

“Uh, duh! I wouldn’t act that way with somebody who I wasn’t like, literally siblings with. Well, not literally. We have different parents, probably.” He snorts, and I smile, though I think it looks more sad than he’s comfortable with, because he avoids my gaze. “Anyway, her real name is Taeko Yasuhiro.” Ah! That’s right! He called her Taeko, back at the first meeting… it feels like so long ago, but it was just barely over a month ago, wasn’t it?

 

“Oh, won’t she mind that you’re telling me her name?” I feel remarkably slow, having to ask so many questions, but Ouma doesn’t seem to be bothered. An odd glint enters his eyes and he smirks at me, leaning forward.

 

“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, y’know?” And just as I’m about to get irritated that he’s putting yet another secret on my shoulders, he adds, “Also, it’s pretty common knowledge around here that Ludenberg is just a pseudonym. She doesn’t care if I tell people her name is Taeko. She’s cool like that. Though she does secretly think I’m annoying!”

 

I find myself laughing a little. “I’m not so sure that’s a secret…”

 

Gasping and clutching at his heart, Ouma pouts at me. Far more dramatically than necessary. “You wound me, Shuichi!” Then a wide smile reappears on his face, all traces of indignation vanished from his expression. “You don’t think I’m annoying though, right? Riight? Because my soulmate would never think such a thing about me!”

 

...for him to be able to say those things, and so casually… I feel my cheeks burning. “N-Not one hundred percent of the time,” I manage.

 

“Eh, good enough.” Ouma runs a hand through his hair, messes it up. “Say, before I head out, I’ve got an FYI for you about that Despair you’re looking for. Kuzuryuu, right?”

 

“Yeah, that’s right.” I nod, though I’m seriously considering finding something else to call the Despairs. It doesn’t seem an appropriate nickname for an innocent group of teens- or even a guilty group of teens. Komaeda has been no help in this area, but I feel that we should try to amend the name so that in the future, when we locate the remainder of them, we won’t offend them. “What is it?”

 

“Well… I think, though I’m not sure, that Munakata just found out where he’s hiding. He doesn’t know his friends are with him, though.” Ouma bits his thumbnail. “They’re gonna send you and Kuwata to get them like, at the end of this week? I would’ve listened for more specifics, but eavesdropping isn’t fool-proof! I had to run before they caught me and killed me!” He huffs, then looks at me.


I don’t have much to say right away- I’m not surprised, necessarily, but it still makes my stomach churn with dread that Kuzuryuu and his friends have been located. Obviously, there’s no way I can let that happen. I’ll have to talk to the FYG about it. But also… I look at Ouma. “This is already incredibly important information, and I hate to even ask, but…”

 

“Stop being such a bottom! Speak!” Ouma commands, and I can’t really argue with that.

 

“Are you going to be around on the day we go to get the Despairs? I have… a tentative idea, but I’m not sure that it’s a good one.” I admit the latter part of that sentence more quietly, neglecting to mention that if Ouma is helping the plan, I’d probably have more faith in its success. (What is this trust that we have built up these past few weeks? Surely, it wasn’t there before.) Still, he grins at me.

 

“I’ll have to check my schedule, but I think I can pencil ya in!” Jumping to his feet, Ouma flashes me a thumbs up as he crosses over to the window. “Do you know how to get in touch with me?”

 

I frown. “No, I don’t.”

 

“Huh? I thought I gave you my number? That’s weird.” Shaking his head, Ouma pulls a small notepad from his pocket and bites his lip. “Got a pen, Mister Saihara from the Future Foundation?”

 

“Sure, hold on.” I grab one from the nightstand and stand myself, walking over to hand it to him.

 

Ouma writes out a string of numbers and then hands the paper to me. I don’t look at them right away, instead opting to keep my gaze on him. “Don’t look at me like that, I’m gonna see you tomorrow.” He grins, rolling his eyes. “That’s a lie, actually! I like it when you look at me like you don’t want me to go!”

 

Honestly. “Sure, okay.” I do look away though, feeling my face flush a little, because truthfully I was staring a little bit. “I’ll be in touch with you about the mission, alright?”

 

“Sounds good, sweetie!” Ouma does a two-fingered salute, hands me back my pen, and opens the window, slipping back out. Before he leaves, he blows me a kiss, which I think is a little excessive, before disappearing down the side of the building as he always does. I find myself laughing and shaking my head, like I usually do when these visits end, before I turn around and look at the paper he handed me.

 

He’s written a phone number that I don’t doubt is his, but beneath it,

 

“owo call me!!! luv u daddy <3333”

 

Pfft. I shake my head, sitting back down on my cot. He even writes without capital letters. How extra.

 

(I choose to ignore the growing warmth in my chest when I realise that the blanket on my cot has picked a scent that I can’t quite pinpoint but is definitely his. No reason to think about that right now.)

 

I have things to do, though. No doubt Kuwata and Munakata will want to speak to me, and discuss how we’re going to go about this. I’ll get more specifics, and the address, and all of that excellent information. In the meantime, I should reach out to the FYG, and give Kaito an update in-person. Also, it would be a good idea to pop by Rantaro’s room and chat him up. He’s recovered well from his bullet injury (though stomach wounds are always particularly nasty) and is pretty much back on his feet, and I’ve been debating talking to him about the FYG for a while now. I feel like I owe him as much, seeing as he’s one of the few people alive who I call by their given name, and I’m certain that I can trust him. It’s also a fact that Fukawa and Ogami need help recruiting. New members can never hurt.

 

I don’t think I can stress this enough, but… yeah. I’ve been busy.

Chapter Text

Here is the plan that Kuwata, Munakata, and I come up with.

 

On Saturday (ironically, the day after my fifth FYG meeting) Kuwata and I will head to the location that Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu has been confirmed to be hiding at. From the information we’ve received thus far, it’s an old, abandoned library in Southern Kyoto. About a three hour drive from headquarters, which is in what used to be Tokyo. We’ll have backup standing by at the location, but I think because Munakata wants us to be self-sufficient in the case of an emergency where we can’t have backup, they’ll try not to interfere unless absolutely necessary.

 

Just as Angie Yonaga and Hifumi Yamada did in apprehending Nagito Komaeda, Kuwata and I will walk in and look around, with our guns out in the case of our being attacked. We’ll search the location, assuming that Kuzuryuu has not received a tip-off about our coming to get him, and bring him back to headquarters alive, if we can. After he is apprehended, it’s out of our hands. Assuming we’re that successful, of course. And then we’ll discuss future steps from there.

 

The plan that I made with the FYG, however, is different. We know for a fact, for example, that it’s not just Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu who will be sought on Saturday. It’ll be Peko Pekoyama, Teruteru Hanamura, Hiyoko Saionji, Kazuichi Souda, and Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu who will hopefully be rescued on Saturday. Before Kuwata and I even arrive at the scene, the idea is that Miu Iruma and Sakura Ogami  will be there with the vehicle that Kyoko apparently stole from the Future Foundation to sneak the five of them out of there. Ideally, they’ll have finished getting the Despairs before Kuwata and I even leave the Future Foundation headquarters.


Part of the plan, however, is that we start to show to the Future Foundation that the FYG exists. That’s sort of where Kokichi Ouma comes in. He’s supposed to fix up the scene so that it looks as though the Despairs had help escaping, and show somehow that the people who are helping them are not from the government. Another group- one that’s independent of both large powers, but slowly emerging. Had Makoto been alive, I’m not sure if this is the approach that he would’ve taken. But for now, it’s the best we’ve got.

 

Kuwata and I are supposed to arrive on the scene, go inside the building, and find absolutely nothing. My job is just to act surprised, like I have no idea what’s going on. Considering how the past month has gone for me, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

 

After we finish hammering out the details of our plan- by that, I mean the one the Foundation knows about-, Kuwata gets to his feet and glances at his watch. “Walk me to dinner, Saihara?” He asks, and I glance over at him, sliding the last of our notes and maps into their folder. He looks nervous, for some reason- he is fiddling with his tie. (Which, notably, he is wearing today. He looks crisper than usual as a result.) I nod, handing the folder back to Munakata with a small smile and walking over to Kuwata. “Great. Okay.”

 

So we head out. As we fall into pace, I find myself sliding my hands into my pockets, wondering what he’s thinking. I suppose there’s only one way to find out. “Hey, is something wrong?” I look over. “How did things go with Maizono the other day?” I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me so long to ask, but in my defense, I have been pretty busy. On the other hand, that doesn’t really excuse being a thoughtless friend. Especially when I’ve been lying to Kuwata so much over this past month. At the very least I owe him a little bit more integrity.

 

Kuwata lets out a strained laugh. “Dude, I chickened out. I just couldn’t find a way to bring it up.” He is wearing one of those rare, slightly self deprecating frowns that show up every once in a while, whenever he stops to think for a moment. It makes me think of the first conversation we had, about processing grief… it’s a little humanising, even if it makes me sad to see him uncharacteristically hard on himself. (I’ve begun to suspect that a lot of Kuwata’s perceived self confidence comes from a place of insecurity. I’m glad he has somebody like Maizono there to keep him from being too down on himself.) “But I’m gonna ask today! Now, I mean. At dinner.” He huffs. “I wasn’t gonna ask in front of other people, but mealtimes are the only times that I’ve been consistently seeing her, this week.”

 

I haven’t been the only person who’s been busy. “Do you know what you’re going to say?” I ask, to try to pull his attention away from his doubts. It seems to work, because Kuwata considers my question, rather than keeping the troubled look on his face.

 

“Yeah. I mean, I’ve got the gist of it down. That’s what matters, right?” I suppose he’s correct… as long as it comes from the heart, and he’s expressing how much he cares for Maizono, it’s really the sentiment behind his words that will carry the most weight. For something as big as marriage, I’d usually think that a little more preparation is necessary, but this is Kuwata… he’s not exactly the type of guy to put so much thought into anything. He charges in with his heart and stops to think about the consequences later. I’m sure that’s part of what Maizono fell for. She wouldn’t change that about him, and neither would I.

 

“I can’t give any guarantees, but the chances of you getting rejected are pretty low.” I say, smiling. Thankfully, the expression comes on naturally, so hopefully it seems as reassuring as I would like it to be. “I don’t know if you can always see it, but the way that Maizono looks at you… I’m sure she feels just as strongly about you as you do about her.”

 

“Well, yeah. I’m pretty fuckin’ awesome.” I’m not denying it, but I do snort out loud at the factual way that Kuwata says it, and he shoves my shoulder. “Hey asshole, are you trying to say I’m not awesome? C’mon…” but I’m laughing, and he’s laughing too, so it really takes any of the seriousness out of his words. Kuwata and I arrive at the bottom of the stairs and start down the hallway to the dining hall. There are several people milling about, because my watch is telling me it’s around six in the evening, so most people are going to dinner right about now.

 

We settle into a comfortable silence for a moment, and I smile to myself, trying to ignore the guilt that surfaces when I think of how much trust in me that must represent for Kuwata. For him to be comfortable being quiet like this, with me, I…

 

Before my thoughts can continue, somebody falls into step on the other side of me. “Hey,” Rantaro Amami offers a smile, and I smile back, only slightly surprised to see him all of a sudden. “You two heading to dinner?” He asks. I nod, but it’s Kuwata who speaks.

 

“Yeah, man, wanna join us?” There is a smile on Kuwata’s face, and thankfully, not too much anxiety remains in his blue eyes, so our conversation has probably done him some good. My gaze shifts back over to Rantaro, who is considering the offer. I don’t know why he’d need to put any thought into it, considering that he seems to be heading to the dining hall anyway, but I wait for him to speak.

 

“Sounds fun.” Rantaro’s smile seems genuine, though seeing it I can’t help thinking back to when I talked to him the day after he got shot, and I saw the cracks in that smile for the first time. I can’t help wondering… well, now’s not the time for that introspection. I still need to tell him about the FYG, and everything. (It does feel kind of unfair to think about it when Kuwata is right here, though, because I haven’t told him anything at all.) “It’s been a while since we’ve hung out, Leon.”

 

“You really do know everybody around here, don’t you, Rantaro?” I ask with a small smile, meeting his eyes. At my question, Rantaro chuckles, shrugging.

 

“Rantaro gets around.” Kuwata says, perhaps unaware of the connotations of his statement. His grin fades a bit though as he continues to speak. “But yeah, we haven’t really, since…” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Dude, I feel like such a pussy, but I still can’t say the words ‘Makoto died’ without feeling like garbage.”

 

“Hm.” We turn the corner and come up to the double doors that lead to the dining hall. Since Kuwata and Rantaro are talking, I quicken my pace a little to open the door for all three of us, stepping to the side with the door open. “I don’t think it’s ever going to get any easier.” Rantaro finally says. “The best thing that you can do right now is to try to move on with the knowledge that he’s gone, and maybe try to honour the things he would’ve wanted.”

 

“Man, you’re like… an older brother.” Kuwata decides, clapping Rantaro on the shoulder. “Thanks, Saihara,” he adds, glancing at me. I nod, smiling slightly. “I guess it was just awkward for a while because of what happened with Byakuya and Kyoko, too…”

 

At this, Rantaro snorts. “That would make it kind of weird, huh…? Especially considering that…” suddenly, he seems to become aware of my presence, and glances back at me. “Oh, I’m sorry, Shuichi. You probably don’t need to hear any of this.”

 

“Ah… I don’t mind.” It’s a bit of a lie, actually- I dislike being privy to gossip under the best of circumstances, but still, if there are things that Rantaro and Kuwata need to discuss, for whatever reason, then I really shouldn’t try to get in the way of that. “I’m barely listening, anyway,” I add, which is more true. To strengthen my point, I glance around the dining hall, finally spotting Maizono and Kaito at the table they’ve chosen. At the moment it seems they are joined by Gonta Gokuhara and Yasuhiro Hagakure, which is alright- I’ve made it clear that I’m ardently fond of Gokuhara and as much as Hagakure is annoying at times, I don’t mind his company either. The sight of Maizono, however, does seem to remind Kuwata of what is coming up, because he swallows hard.

 

“Aw man… if I fuck this up and get rejected, it’ll be in front of Hiro of all people? Not cool…” Kuwata mutters, and I move over to his side, bumping his arm with my elbow.

 

“I’ll be right there if anything goes wrong, but I genuinely don’t think anything will.” I remind him, smiling with as much confidence as I can muster. “Have more faith in your relationship. Maizono loves you as much as you love her. I’m sure of it.”

 

Kuwata takes a deep breath. “Yeah. You’re right.” He does say it, which I’m thankful for, but he doesn’t sound so sure of himself- either way, I’m glad he’s said it, because he looks a little calmer now. With that out of the way, he starts through the dining hall to the table that they’ve chosen. I fall into step next to Rantaro, giving Kuwata his space so that I can offer my friend an explanation.

 

“He’s asking Maizono to marry him,” I tell Rantaro under his breath, not removing my gaze from Kuwata’s back as he steps away.

 

“Oh!” Rantaro’s face breaks into a smile at my words. “I didn’t know they’d gotten there yet… but I’m not surprised. Him and Sayaka have been much happier, in the time that I’ve known them, being together than they were apart. Besides, I think everybody here could use a wedding right now.” It’s hard to ignore what Rantaro is referring to; the lingering exhaustion and discouragement in the air, even now, when people are trying to eat and relax. Forgetting the war, even in moments like these, is impossible. It’s part of what Ouma and I talked about, when he came to visit me earlier today.

 

“You’re right.” I nod, sliding my hands into my pockets, but then I look over at Rantaro, meeting his eyes. “Hey… can I talk to you later?” The words escape my mouth before I’ve even fully processed them in my head. “I want… there’s something that I think you should know. That I should tell you. That- I should’ve told you.”

 

Rantaro takes a moment in responding. “Does it have anything to do with why Kyoko left?” He asks, and I feel a twinge of guilt at that, because I didn’t really give him all of the details on it… all I told him was that Kyoko and I had made a plan, and as a result of the plan, she had to leave. I didn’t want to stress him out while he was still injured. But now he’s recovered. I’m out of excuses, and frankly, I’m tired of making them.

 

“...yes, it does.” I smile slightly, and Rantaro returns the expression, settling my nerves.

 

“Well, then, I’m happy to listen. After dinner, yeah? We can head to my room, or something. I’m sure Gonta will understand.” I nod, agreeing to his suggestion, but before we can say anything else, we arrive at the table, and I slide into the seat next to Kaito. Almost immediately, my purple-haired friend pushes a plate of food in front of me.

 

“Hey, bro, you didn’t grab anything!” Kaito chastises, and I chuckle, an apology forming on my tongue. Before it can escape, though, he continues. “Good thing Sayaka and I thought to get you some food! We figured you’d forget.”

 

Maizono blushes, looking away and fussing with her hair. “You’re just not always very careful about these things, Saihara,” she says, but smiles at me anyway. “Good evening, by the way.”

 

“Hi, Maizono.” I greet, then shoot Kaito a sideways grin. “And… thank you, both of you, for thinking of me.” I add, picking up my fork. I don’t really like salmon, but since they thought to get some for me, I might as well eat it. I’ll just ignore the consistency of the skin. It’s not like I’m going to be forced to finish my plate, if I can’t choke it down. (But I don’t have a particularly intense hatred of salmon, so I’ll probably be fine.)

 

“Gonta has heard that it is important to be getting every meal of the day!” Gokuhara points out, smiling in my direction. I haven’t dropped my own smile yet, so I just turn it on the large man rather than fixing my expression. “Especially during wartime! Hm, now that Gonta think of it… why does Future Foundation have so much food? Food is not that easy to get, Gonta thought…”

 

“That’s a good question.” Kaito considers it, stroking his goatee in thought. (That is, perhaps, the only reason he has it.) “...oh well! It doesn’t make much of a difference to me! I’ve never been the type to turn down free food, you know?” I’m about to laugh at comment on Kaito’s general happy-go-lucky mindset being a little worrisome in this context, but before I can open my mouth, he starts coughing into his elbow.

 

My mood diminishes, almost immediately being replaced by concern. I reach out to touch his shoulder, but Kaito recovers remarkably quickly.

 

“Jeez… man, I choked on a piece of corn,” he sighs, shaking his head. I can detect a note of dishonesty there, but calling him out in front of everybody would be rude, and the others at the table seem to buy it, so I school my features into something less worried, for the sake of preserving Kaito’s pride. We can talk about it tonight at training, anyway. It’s still a little upsetting to me how easy it is now for me to put on whatever expression I need. I guess continued exposure to anything will make it easier to process, no matter what the subject matter is.

 

“I hate that!” Hagakure exclaims, perhaps in sympathy. “The other day I choked so hard on a piece of carrot, it came out my nose!”

 

“Too much information, Hiro,” Aoi Asahina drops into the seat on Kaito’s other side, leaning forward with a disgusted expression on her face. “No one wants to hear about your gross nose carrots.”

 

“Hey!” Hagakure looks undignified, which is par for the course by now- especially as far as he and Asahina are concerned. “Nobody said they didn’t want to hear about my gross nose carrots, you know?”

 

Asahina raises an eyebrow. “Does anyone here want to hear about his gross nose carrots?”

 

It seems that everybody averts their gaze, muttering under their breaths, and Asahina wears a triumphant smile as she looks at Hagakure once again, who responds by yelling at her. I tune out of their argument, though, because they happen too often for it to be anything important to me, and glance over to where Kuwata is kneeling down at Maizono’s side. He’s speaking softly enough that I can’t hear him, but Maizono’s expression tells me enough of what he’s saying.

 

I really don’t want to intrude on their moment, but I can’t help being slightly attentive, because the outcome of this proposal seems to… mean a lot to me. Maybe it’s just the type of guy that Kuwata is, that I’ve been able to get so fond of him over the past month, or maybe it’s just the memory of Maizono right after Makoto died, and how depressed she seems… I can’t erase the image from my mind. And I wouldn’t really want to, either, because that would feel like taking away from a large part of what must be motivating her right now. To see her over the past few weeks, coming out of her shell and smiling more, talking more animatedly… it’s meant a lot more to me than I’ve been able to express.

 

So I forget briefly that I’m deceiving both of them, put the dishonesty to the side and just think about the moment. The way that Maizono is looking at Kuwata right now, her eyes full of tears… I hope they always have that. I can’t even fathom looking at somebody the same way that they look at each other.

 

(As I think it, though, my thoughts briefly flicker to Ouma, and I am hit by a wave of irritation. What’s he even doing in my thoughts? Annoying…)

 

I see Maizono’s lips form Kuwata’s given name, and then she breaks into a smile, nodding and leaning forward to throw herself into his arms. I catch Kuwata’s gaze over her shoulder and he shoots me a grin, so I return it, feeling relief start to settle in my chest. I wasn’t lying when I told him that I was sure she wouldn’t say no, but it’s something else to have that thought confirmed. But in order to give them their privacy, I look away, and make eye contact with Kaito, who must’ve followed my gaze to look at them, because now he’s raising an eyebrow at me.

 

“Uh… bro, is there something happening here that I don’t know about it?” I figure it’s not really my thing to spread around, but I open my mouth anyway, about to say something- only to get interrupted again, by Kuwata, this time.

 

“Momota. Dude.” Kuwata bursts out, and Maizono pulls back from the hug, wiping tears (presumably ones of joy) from her face. “I guess- holy fuck- Sayaka just agreed to marry me, man.”

 

Kaito’s eyes widen. “Congratulations! Holy shit!” He looks back and forth between them, a smile of his own unfolding on his features. Asahina claps her hands over her mouth, eyes bright with joy, and Gokuhara looks over, pure surprise appearing on his face. Kaito gets to his feet and walks over to Maizono, who is still crying, though the smile on her face erases any worries that I might’ve had.

 

She stands up when Kaito stops in front of her, and he brushes some hair from her face with a downright fatherly look in his eyes. I find myself shaking my head with a breathy laugh, turning away to give them their privacy too. I’m completely alright with just eating my salmon in silence, but then Kuwata is next to me, and offering me a hand, so I reach up and take it, expecting a handshake- only for him to pull me into a hug.

 

“Saihara, man- you’re- you’re gonna be the best best man, shit.” Kuwata is more emotional than I’ve ever seen him. I’m certain he’s only holding back tears because he thinks it would make him unmanly.

 

“Hey, you’ve still got the logistics of this wedding to worry about,” I point out, laughing slightly. “You’ll have to talk to Kyousuke-” ugh. “-about putting this on, and we still have the mission in a couple days!”

 

“Yeah, okay, but…” Kuwata shakes his head, pulling out of the hug and clapping me on the back. “It’s hard for me to be worried about that right now when I’m going to be… awh, man.” He shakes his head, eyes shining. “I don’t even know what to say, dude.”

 

“You don’t have to say anything,” I point out, rubbing the back of my neck. I watch Rantaro and Asahina pull Maizono into tight hugs out of the corner of my eye, contemplating what else to say. “You can just feel it.”

 

Kuwata thinks about my words for a moment. “Just feel it. Yeah. That’s great, dude. That’s why you’re gonna be so great… fuck. Okay. I’ll stop being all mushy over you. I’m just gonna feel this!”

 

Just feeling it seems like a pretty good way to put it, too. I ignore the war for a moment, ignore all of the lies I’ve told and the truths I’ll have to tell later as Maizono hugs me, instead choosing to focus on all the happy feelings around me. Other people from other tables have begun to catch on to the high spirits, and it’s spreading like wildfire. Even Kyousuke Munakata seems to materialise from upstairs to give Kuwata and Maizono his congratulations.

 

Rantaro was right. Even if the Future Foundation has done so many wrongs, not all of its members are bad, and… we could all use a wedding, right about now.

Chapter Text

“Ah, are these… really necessary?” As much as I am disinclined to be a nuisance, I’m just… not sure if all of this is a good idea.

 

By “all of this”, I mean the guns that are currently being placed down on the table in front of me. Munakata raises an eyebrow at my words, but doesn’t make fun, instead shrugging and gesturing to one of the smaller weapons. I understand the intention, but even carrying around a handgun that I’ve barely fired makes me pretty uncomfortable. These are… beyond excessive.

 

“I think they will be, Shuichi.” Munakata says patiently. “We don’t know entirely what you’re going up against  here. Our intelligence tells us that Kuzuryuu is a good fighter. It’s not safe to go in unprepared.” Well, my intelligence, a person who knows the guy and has known him recently, tells me that Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu is gentle and kind. A little temperamental at times, but good-hearted, overall. Besides, if all goes well, I won’t even be encountering him today. But it’s not as though I can say that to Munakata or Kuwata.

 

Reluctantly, I take the smallest weapon that’s available and strap it to my hip. It knocks against PAE in my pocket and I wonder momentarily if she can feel pain. If that’s the case, than I should probably apologise later. But for the moment I hold my tongue, tightening the strap on the gun so that it won’t fall if I have to run. (I doubt it, considering what the FYG is planning, but once again, there’s no reason why I should be telling that to the Foundation. I should hold my tongue.) I’m mostly just strapping it on like this to convince them that I’m taking this seriously. It seems to work, because Munakata turns his attention onto Kuwata.

 

“Man, I don’t even know how to use this thing,” Kuwata complains, but despite his words, it’s hard to hear anything other than happiness and excitement from his tone. It’s understandable, considering that it’s only been a couple days since he and Maizono got engaged. Munakata agreed that the wedding can be held a couple days after we complete the mission; since neither of them really seemed like they wanted to wait. I’d be more worried about his carefree expression if I didn’t know for a fact that there is absolutely no danger. If all’s well, the Despairs are already long gone at this very moment.

 

I hope that’s the case. I have half a mind to pull out my phone and check right now, but that would definitely be suspicious, and there’s no way that I can let Munakata and Kuwata know about PAE.

 

“I’d give you a tutorial, but…” Munakata’s upper lip curls in a smile. Kuwata laughs in response, shaking his head, and I make myself smile too, because it feels like I probably should. I would smile at this exchange, under different circumstances. Though I’ll admit the fact that they’re joking about weapons is a little off putting for me. I wouldn’t say that I’m a pacifist, because it’s hard to be during a war, and I have wanted to kill plenty of people, but still… somehow, thinking about shooting another person, even somebody who I despise, makes me feel sick to my stomach.

 

Even though my thoughts are running wild, Kuwata is still talking about the guns situation when I tune back in. “-I’ll figure it out, probably. It looks pretty logical. And if I can’t, which I should be able to, then Saihara can just show me.” At this, his eyes fall on me, and I nod my head. It feels almost like I’m tugging my head up and down with a string rather than promising my support, but if either of them notices, they don’t say anything.

 

“I’ll try,” I promise, lacing my hands together behind my back. “But you’re better at guns than I am, Kuwata, so I don’t think you’ll have much of a problem.”

 

I think it’s mostly the truth; I’ve only seen Kuwata using a gun a handful of times, but almost every shot I’ve seen him take has been done with terrifying accuracy. He’s far too good with those weapons than I’m equipped to deal with. He could easily shoot somebody directly in the center of the skull while they are in motion.

 

“I agree!” Kuwata grins. “But it’s nice to come prepared.”

 

Munakata waves a hand. “Okay, okay. If you two are ready, we can get going now. You two will be heading there alone, in your own car, but we’ll have people following you, in case anything goes south.” This has already been discussed, but I appreciate the reminder. “Focus on getting that Despair out alive, but if it comes down to your life or his, you know who to choose.”


“Hey man… that’s kind of fuckin’ scary.” Kuwata laughs nervously, shifting his gaze onto me for a brief moment. Munakata, however, does not smile at this. An oddly cold look enters his eyes and he looks away too, brow furrowed.

 

“Nothing about this isn’t scary.” He states cooly, and I am again reminded that despite how kind and amicable Munakata is always acting towards me, he’s not a good person. The reminder of all that he’s done lessens the guilty knot in my stomach, though for reasons that I’m not willing to decipher, I don’t feel the same tickle of rage against my sternum as I have in the past. Unpacking that would take hours that I don’t have at the moment. Maybe I’ll talk about it with Ouma, next time I see him.

 

(Ah, I don’t know why I… nevermind.)

 

“Right, sorry.” Dependably, Kuwata shakes it off and shoulders his weapon of choice. It’s larger than the one I picked, but it does look fairly intuitive. “C’mon, Saihara, let’s haul ass. See you, dude,” he adds, looking to Munakata, who cracks a small smile and waves us off. I notice, however, that the wall behind his eyes does not die down. He must have been put in a bad mood, or something.

 

I don’t really want to deal with that, so I jog a little bit to catch up with Kuwata. I do wave at Munakata on my way out, though, because I don’t want to be rude.

 

His call of “Good luck!” follows me out into the courtyard, and subsequently the parking lot, where all of the vehicles are parked. Mostly just black SUVs, as to be expected of the Future Foundation, but there are a few lower profile cars as well- usually utilised during stealth missions. I figure that Kuwata and I would be taking one of those, but since Komaeda knowing that Yonaga and Yamada were members of the Foundation worked so well in their favour last time, we’re not bothering to disguise our identities on this trip. As much as I was tempted to question the practicality of this plan, I decided against it in the end, because it doesn’t make much of a difference whether or not we go as members of the Foundation or something else. We won’t be seeing Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu today. Or any of his friends, for that matter.

 

At least, that’s my hope. I seem to have a lot of those right now.

 

Kuwata climbs in on the right, into the driver’s seat, and I gladly take shotgun, because despite Kyoko’s wonderful instructions from about a month ago, I only have a very general idea as to how to drive a car. I think I could figure it out, because it doesn’t seem too difficult, but in the middle of a mission is a pretty bad time to host a driver’s ed class.

 

Once the car is out of the lot and on the road, I pull my gaze away from the window, wondering if I should make conversation. We’ve got a pretty long drive ahead of us, after all, and while I don’t mind long silences, it’s a large period of time to sit in quiet. And though Kuwata is improving in this area, I know that he doesn’t like prolonged silences very much at all. The radio might be an option in another time, like I’ve read about in books, but nowadays, all that’s on the radio is repetitive, upsetting music that was handpicked by Junko Enoshima. It alternates between that and the annoying voice of the person she selected to be the emcee.

 

I know she did it on purpose to make people uncomfortable; she has admitted herself, on multiple occasions, that her prime directive is to make people miserable, but I have to wonder how empty her life is if she’s able to spend it doing things like that.

 

I could start a conversation with Kuwata, but it might come off as presumptuous if I only start talking because I think he’ll get uncomfortable. I’ll leave the ball in his court, for now. He seems to be focused on driving at the moment, though, so naturally, my mind starts to wander.

 

Two days ago, at the FYG meeting, Kokichi Ouma made his first appearance. It went… better than I expected, actually. He was respectful, relatively, though it’s worth noting that he interrupted the meeting several times to tell an obnoxious lie or make some joke about K1-B0 being a robot. (Again, obnoxious.) As I predicted, Kaito didn’t like him very much at all and Harukawa threatened to murder him more than once, but he was mostly respectful towards Ishimaru and Ikusaba and even started a conversation with Nagito Komaeda.

 

About what, I’m not sure, because I wasn’t a participant, but they seemed to get along. It was something that I hadn’t seen coming, but I was happy to see Komaeda acting more lively. It wasn’t as though he had been flat by any measure in the times I’d met him before that meeting, but there’s a certain air of somberness to a person who is completely without their friends. Somehow, Ouma managed to coax several real, genuine laughs out of him, and got him to lose that self deprecating smile for a moment. I was happy to see it, and also a little irritated for reasons that I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but eventually I had to redirect my attention towards other things.

 

I still can’t quite grasp why I asked for Ouma’s help on all of this. It’s not needed. Honestly, I could’ve just let him go earlier this week rather than request that he hop on board. But I didn’t. I think that’s something worth looking in to, but I’m nervous about what the answer will be, if I take a moment to think about it. And it’s annoying that he keeps entering my thoughts when I least expect it. It’s not as though this hasn’t been the case in the past; people who I can’t figure out tend to be frequent guests in my head as a general rule, but somehow, with Ouma, it’s…

 

“So, do you know much about the Despair we’re gettin’ today?” Kuwata’s voice breaks me out of my thoughts and I glance over, brows raised. I’ll be honest, I’d almost forgotten where I am right now, sitting in the front seat of a Future Foundation vehicle on the way to Kyoto. I need to break out of that habit that I have of getting wrapped up in my thoughts. I mean, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but losing sight of my surroundings is a bad thing. Besides, I’d also forgotten that Kuwata gets uncomfortable in silence, and had I been paying attention, I might’ve been able to pick up on it and act sooner.

 

Still, I shove aside any self-deprecating thoughts and respond. “Not much more than you.” A blatant lie, but there’s no way for Kuwata to know that. “I know he’s impulsive and temperamental. Prone to violence.” Loyal to his friends. Generous. Protective. Loving. Supposedly, a stabilising force in a group lacking unity. “A bit of a wild card, according to the file.”

 

“Right.” Kuwata nods, merging onto the highway. It shouldn’t matter; there aren’t any other cars on the road. There never are, anymore. Nobody needs to go anywhere, usually- and if they do, they’d generally just walk. The only exceptions to this are Enoshima’s people. And, of course, the Future Foundation. But I suppose the highway is faster. “Do you think he’ll be dangerous?”

 

“Ah, yes.” I nod. Another lie. “I do think so. I don’t have much experience dealing with people who are more aggressive, like Kuzuryuu allegedly is, and I think some apprehension is more than warranted.”

 

“Apprehension. Sure.” Nodding again, Kuwata’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. It wouldn’t be suspicious for me to ask about it, right? It wouldn’t betray my position as a spy to pick up on his unease. No, it wouldn’t. I don’t know why that would even occur to me. I’m not pretending to be a horrible person; just one who is fooled by the Foundation’s lies.

 

I clear my throat. “What’s on your mind? You seem troubled,” I remark, and Kuwata’s gaze flickers to mine very briefly before resting back on the road. A responsible choice, seeing as he’s driving, but I can’t help thinking that maybe he’s doing more than just being a good driver. Commenting on it feels like an unwise decision, though, so I refrain.

 

“I dunno. It’s just… Kuzuryuu is a kid, right? Komaeda was like, an adult, or somethin’. My age. But Kuzuryuu is eighteen.”

 

As old as I am, actually, but of course I don’t say that. I drum my fingers on the door, biting my lip. “That’s right.” I agree hesitantly. I’m torn between fueling his doubts and attempting to get him to join the FYG and trying to act like somebody who trusts the Foundation unconditionally. As a good friend, I should tell Kuwata what’s up, and that Kuzuryuu is an innocent man, but… I’m still tentative, because there are so many what ifs in this scenario. What if the car is bugged? What if Kuwata is bad at keeping secrets? What if something that I haven’t accounted for enters the equation? I can’t… really take that chance.

 

“It feels wrong to take him to his death. I know they’re gonna kill him humanely and all,” I sincerely doubt it. “But still. Just, I kinda feel bad.” Kuwata clears his throat and looks at me again, for longer this time, to the point that I’m genuinely worried he’s going to crash the car. “I mean, I know that he’s done horrible things under Enoshima and probably deserves to die. That disease is bad news, man. But I’m still… aw, I’m being a totally pussy,” he chuckles under his breath, shaking his head. “Don’t think about this, man.”

 

“Hey.” I lift a hand, wondering if it would be appropriate to touch his shoulder. I eventually decide against it, thinking that it might distract him from the road. I don’t really want to die at the moment. “There’s nothing wrong with feeling guilty about that. To be honest, I… feel the same way. There are things…” I pause, wondering if I should say what I’m about to. “...that don’t add up, to me, about the Despairs. Sometimes I find myself uncertain as to whether or not this is the right thing to do.”

 

When Kuwata meets my eyes a moment later, I see something flickering there that I can’t recognise. I think I might be able to decipher it, but it’s gone before I can get a good read. I should probably just disregard what I saw, but my gut is telling me that I’m going to regret that decision later. Nonetheless, there’s really nothing that I can do about it. It’s not as if I can rewind time, after all.

 

So I let it go, and Kuwata doesn’t say anything else, so I find myself sitting in silence again. This time, though, I try to stop my mind from wandering and simply turn my gaze to stare out the window, watching the buildings zoom by.

 

The world that we live in- that I’ve grown up in- is not the one that I have read about in all of those books my uncle owned. The buildings in the distance are halved at places, or reconstructed as per Junko Enoshima’s orders to create something in her likeness. Be it that obnoxious bear I see everywhere, or her face, it’s impossible to look anywhere without seeing some echo of her. At the edge of the highway, where there may have once been abundant amounts of vegetation, there are the half disintegrated remains of roots lying here and there from old plants that once existed. At varying distances from the car, tree stumps are scattered across the ground.

 

I wonder what the world looked like before Enoshima’s family took over the government. Before she came into power. I wonder what it felt like to be alive in a world where everything you were didn’t amount to what side you took in a war. Is there a person alive today without some kind of blood on their hands? Even if you don’t choose a side, don’t choose between Kyousuke Munakata and Junko Enoshima, one way or the other, you are involved. One of them has done something to hurt you. The other has done something to help you. Or maybe neither one of them has done anything for you or against you, but their existence still has some impact on yours. There’s no way to avoid them, anymore. Not in Japan, at least.

 

When did it become this way, one side or the other? My world didn’t use to revolve around these shallow ideas of right and wrong. There was justice, real justice, and anything else was uncertain. My uncle, as much as he was the type to enforce his ideals upon others, had a very clear image of what good and bad were supposed to be. He didn’t bend his rules for any reason. Not in the way that Enoshima sometimes does good things for her own amusement. Not in the way that Munakata often does bad things for his own benefit. My uncle had morals, and he stuck by them.

 

But for my uncle, things were black and white. There was always a right thing and a wrong thing, and he did one or the other. He judged people by their actions, certainly, but once he had deemed a person as bad, there was no way for them to change themselves, in his eyes. He didn’t see the good in people; he only saw the bad. It makes me wonder if he would not have been absolutely willing to destroy every last one of the Ultimate Despairs, because he would have thought that they were bad people. There was no way that he could have known that the Despairs were innocent. I wonder, now, if my uncle would’ve sided with the man who was too late to save him.

 

I wonder as well if, in some way, Kyousuke Munakata thinks he’s doing the right thing. If he thinks that his actions, however abhorrent, are necessary to take Enoshima out of power. Kokichi Ouma told me that Munakata wants to take over where Enoshima is going to leave off if all goes well. I wonder if that is the truth. I wonder if… well, Ouma says that nobody has any plans for what they want to see after the war is over. I wonder if that’s the truth for Munakata, too.

 

It’s not entirely implausible. I think empathising with Munakata right now will only make things harder for me in the long run, but I can’t help thinking that I’m being naive when I put people into two separate categories. Is it really true that there’s one right and one wrong in all of this? Of course, torture and killing are wrong no matter what the intention or justification is. Makoto Naegi didn’t deserve to die. The Ultimate Despairs don’t deserve to die, either. They deserve to get another chance. And Makoto deserved to survive to the end of this war and see the world that we’re hopefully going to create.

 

...hopefully going to create, hm? I wonder what that world will look like, when we’ve made it. If we get to make it. Surely it’s too early for me to start wondering what that world is going to look like if we win this war. It’s too early for me to start talking like we’re going to. Sometimes, I’m not even sure if I know who ‘we’ is. The FYG? But it’s not just the members of the FYG who I care about, is it? I want to see Hoshi and Asahina and Maizono and Kuwata enjoy that world, too. Togami and Toujo and Hagakure and Gokuhara and Rantaro, who I just told the truth- they deserve that future, that peace, just as much as anybody. The Despairs, too, the ones who we hopefully saved today and will save in the future, they deserve that peace too. Chiaki Nanami. Even Munakata, I want him to see that world. To learn what’s true and what isn’t, in all of this.

 

When, I wonder, did my world get so big? When did the list of people who I want to live in that world with get so long? How could I have allowed myself to start caring about so many people? I told myself, didn’t I, that getting close to those people would only make it more painful for me when I inevitably have to lie to them?

 

But… I don’t want to think about that right now. I want to think of a world full of trees and colours. Where the buildings stand tall and bold against a clear blue sky. Where people are allowed to walk down the sidewalk without fearing for their lives, and the city streets are filled with the sounds of laughter and cars driving by and music from people standing on the corners. Where shops are lit and clerks sneak free pieces of food to children standing several feet from their parents. Where the radio has hundreds of stations and music to choose from, where whenever something goes wrong, everybody in the area turns around and moves to stop it, rather than ducking their heads and walking faster, for fear of bringing it upon themselves.

 

Where every home is brimming with love and light and warmth, the sounds of family members rejoicing on holidays and saying prayers at mealtimes and cuddling together in front of the TV with steaming mugs of hot cocoa in the colder months. I want to think of a world where peace is the norm, not cruelty, not fear, not despair.

 

So for the rest of three hours, I rest my head against the back of my seat and think of the world I want to see after the war.

 

I come back to reality when Kuwata turns off the engine, parking in front of an old, decrepit brown building. I’m certain that it was a large, regal building at one point, but years of misuse and neglect have left it almost in pieces. Despite its raggedy exterior, though, I can tell that it’s structurally sound, making it a good hiding place for anybody who’s staying there in the short term. It makes sense for Kuzuryuu’s little group of five, based on what Komaeda told us; their small groups were supposed to change locations every week or so to avoid detection. I don’t think it’s too unreasonable that they’d choose a building like this.

 

Besides, if all’s well, they’re not there anymore, and the building is in tact, so it’s clearly served its purpose well enough.

 

I run a hand through my hair and unbuckle my seatbelt. Instead of getting out right away, though, I look over at Kuwata, who is looking at me, too. He’s fiddling with a couple of the buttons on his shirt, and I’m pretty sure that he’s nervous. But I know that he’ll be unwilling to admit it, so I rub the back of my own neck, biting the inside of my cheek.

 

“You think we’ll get out of this alright?” I ask, despite knowing for a fact that we will. Kuwata startles, as though he hadn’t been expecting me to speak, but I can read relief in his blue eyes; presumably because he’s glad that he isn’t the only person feeling nervous about what we’re about to do. I’m not, really, but I don’t mind lying under these circumstances, if it’s to make him feel a little better. Dependably, a grin appears on Kuwata’s face, erasing some of the anxiety from his expression.

 

“Hell yeah, man! We got this.” He flashes a thumbs up. “I’m the best shot at the Foundation, remember? There’s no way we could fuck this up.” He’s right, of course, but perhaps not for the reason that he’s thinking.

 

Still, I nod, smiling back. Albeit less enthusiastically than he does. Though not for lack of trying. “Okay. If you say so, then I’ll believe it.” It’s the kind of thing I’d do with Kaito, if I sensed that he’s feeling a little freaked out. I suppose that Kuwata and Kaito are fairly similar.

 

“Let’s do this, man. No use in wasting any more time.” Kuwata says, and I hum out my agreement. I break eye contact with him and turn to open the car door, dropping down onto the cement beneath my feet. I slam the car door shut behind me and hear Kuwata doing the same before starting to walk towards the building. He falls into step at my side, and it’s only when he pulls out his gun that I remember to do the same. Despite the fact that I still took the larger gun earlier, I’m reluctant to even pull it out, so I grab my handgun instead and hold it in front of me, supposedly ready to take on any danger that appears.

 

And though I have total faith in the FYG, I’m aware that we’re not entirely safe, out in the open like this. The Foundation pins on our lapels and the guns in our hands paint targets on our backs regardless of where we are, unless we’re at headquarters. Most people are benevolent, though admittedly indifferent to a lot of the cruelties nowadays, and will simply turn their heads the other way, but there are people out there who will attack us to try to get points with the government. It almost never works out for them, but I can’t be entirely unempathetic. They, as well, are just trying to survive in a world where nothing makes sense.

 

We arrive at the door to the library and Kuwata tests the doorknob. It’s locked, which I figured would be the case, so I take a step back to let him kick it down. I’ve seen him do as much in training, so it’s not much of a surprise to me when he draws back his leg and his foot connects with the wood. There’s a loud crash from inside the building as the door is ripped off its hinges and slams into the floor. I’m unsurprised by this as well; based on the state of the building, it’s no shock that the door would come off so easily.

 

Without a word, I walk up to the doorframe and run my fingers over the spots in the wood where the hinges used to be. It’s a true shame, what’s become of this building. I glance over at Kuwata, and he nods at me, before brushing past to enter first. I’m glad that he does, because I’m not really sure what Ouma planned to do to call attention to the FYG’s existence, and I don’t think I want to see it before Kuwata does, lest my reaction give any hints about my involvement.

 

There’s a moment of silence, during which I worry that something didn’t go according to plan and the five Despairs are still there, but then Kuwata gasps loudly, and I run in behind him, holding up my gun like I’m prepared for trouble. (I suppose, despite my knowledge, I half am.)

 

The scent of dust and rotting wood hits my nose first and foremost and I gag, catching my breath and putting a hand on my throat. God, that’s awful. I can’t imagine staying in here. The walls are lined with bookshelves, and further into the room, there are more lined up against the windows, but the shelves are almost entirely empty. Early on into Enoshima’s rule, I hear there were large book burnings all over the place, to erase any traces of the world that used to exist. This library, it seems, was not safe in this regard. All of the books are gone. In retrospect, considering the large amounts of books my uncle had, it almost would’ve been surprising had Enoshima’s people not been out for his death.

 

But the shelves aren’t what really catch my attention when I walk in. What is impossible to ignore is that the entire inside of the library, the ceiling, the walls, the shelves, even the floor- it’s all covered in what looks to be bright purple spray paint. Most of it is comprised of a bunch of lines and squiggles that are almost kanji but fall short, but right in the center of the floor, where Kuwata is standing and looking down, there are large, messy words written that I can identify as Kokichi Ouma’s messy scrawl; even in spray paint.

 

“we got him first! looks like you’ll have to torture and kill someone else.

-FYG”

 

I have to suppress a laugh at the words because they’re so audacious and so utterly Ouma. I can’t afford to laugh or even smile right now. The expression on my face should be one of dread, of confusion, of bafflement. Something like the clear shock that is playing on Kuwata’s face right now. So I school my features into something more appropriate, a face of a person who is at a loss for words, as I too stare down at what Ouma has written. But silently, in my heart, I feel relief, because thank god, thank god, they succeeded. And from the look of the spray paint, they succeeded hours ago.

 

As though sensing my joy, I feel PAE start to warm in my pocket, and I wonder if she’s sensitive to these kinds of things.

 

Kuwata breaks the silence. “Wh-What is this?”

 

“I… don’t know,” I make my voice shake, furrow my brow, and twist my hands together in front of me like I know I always do when I’m scared and confused. “Did… somebody come here and… take Kuzuryuu?”

 

“Could it have been the government?” Kuwata looks up and meets my eyes, forcing me to look away from Ouma’s handiwork. “Could Enoshima’s men have found him?”

 

“Ah, n...no, I don’t think so.” I shake my head, swallowing hard as though I don’t want to say what I have to. “You can feel it, can’t you? This isn’t Enoshima’s work, she’d have made it abundantly clear if it were hers. She would’ve found a way to make it black and white, to really spite Kyousuke and the Foundation. This was… somebody else. A third party, maybe.”

 

“A third party? But…” Kuwata looks back down at the spray paint message. “FYG. What does that stand for?”

 

Believe me, I think. You’re probably better off not knowing the answer to that question. But I force myself to focus on the part I have to play, shrugging helplessly. “I don’t know. I…” I glance over my shoulder, as if I’m expecting Munakata and his people to show up at any moment. “We need… to tell Kyousuke, and everyone else, what happened. This… I don’t even know how this could’ve happened.”

 

Silence, then, “Yeah. Let’s go.” Kuwata takes a deep breath, then rejoins me. “Let’s get out of here, man.” I nod, rolling my shoulders and sliding my gun back into its holster before wordlessly following Kuwata out of the library. I’m acting somber, like a person who has failed a mission that was set up to succeed, but on the inside I’m buzzing with excitement. They’re safe. Kuzuryuu and Pekoyama and Saionji and Souda and Hanamura are safe, and with the FYG right now. When I’m alone later, and able to take out my phone, I’ll probably see texts in that group chat, detailing their success earlier.

 

I figured it would work out, but… still, I’m glad it did. I’m glad that those Despairs are safe.

Chapter Text

As I am closing the door to my room the morning of the next FYG meeting, a couple doors down, I hear somebody else exit theirs. Thinking it might be Kaito coming out to meet me (as he’s had to do a couple times these past few weeks) I glance over, smiling preemptively. Instead, though, it’s Rantaro Amami whose gaze I meet as I look down the hall. He’s wearing his uniform, but also has a backpack, and is closing his door with a sense of finality, so I find myself a little concerned.

 

When I told him the truth about the Future Foundation and about the FYG a week and a half ago, he didn’t say much. He just flashed that same old smile and said he’d need a moment to process the information that he’d received, but he’d get back to me eventually. In the days since, I haven’t managed to get a conversation with him alone, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed how he’s spaced out of conversations on occasion. That doesn’t mean I haven’t caught him with a troubled look on his handsome features before he turned and saw me looking, immediately wiping the look from his face.

 

(That guy seriously has a complex about showing negative emotion. I’m starting to think it’s a bigger problem than the secretive energy that Kyoko and Ludenberg- or I suppose, Yasuhiro- exude.)

 

Nonetheless, we’re alone now. I make sure that the door is closed and walk over to Rantaro; he sees me approaching and waits, smiling.

 

“Good morning, Shuichi. You’re up early.” He remarks, nonchalant. He says it in a manner such that anybody listening in wouldn’t be suspicious, but with the subtle raise of his eyebrow and the knowing quirk in his lip, I can tell what he’s really wondering.

 

“Ah, yes,” I agree, returning the smile but glancing around again as though to check that we really are alone. It doesn’t make much of a difference, of course, that I double check. We are. “Kaito and I have a mission.” I add, tilting my head down slightly in an awkward nod. Rantaro’s expression shifts, but it’s such a small change that it’s difficult for me to discern what he’s thinking. It’s always been hard for me to read him. “What about you?”

 

“The same for me.” Rantaro responds smoothly, and I can’t help noticing that he’s way better at this whole lying thing than I am. “Mind if I walk you guys out? Kaito and I haven’t gotten the opportunity to catch up in a while.”

 

So he wants to talk about something, but doesn’t think it’s safe to discuss in here. I’d wager that it has something to do with that bag he’s carrying. Maybe he wants to go to the FYG meeting with us? I invited him to come when we first talked about it, but he just responded, once more, that he wanted time to think. I should hear what he has to say. “That should be fine, I’m sure Kaito would love to see you.” I say, and it’s the truth, but based on the glint in his eye as he smiles again, I can tell that he understands what I’m saying.

 

Just as I’ve finished speaking, another one of the doors a little further down the hallway opens, and I look past Rantaro to see Kaito stepping out. Dependably, a wide grin crosses over Kaito’s features when we make eye contact, and he walks over. Rantaro turns around, and in a true show of masculinity, they grasp each other’s hands and tug each other into a… hug. Sort of. More like, they pound each other on the back with their joint hands sandwiched between them.

 

...I think I prefer our handshake. Do they do this every time they see each other?

 

“Hey man, what are you doing awake right now?” Even though Rantaro’s back is to me and I can’t exactly see through him, I can hear the smile in Kaito’s voice. To amend the situation, I walk over myself, stopping so that I’m between them, but on the side, because breaking up their manly embrace would be both rude and also uncomfortable. When I stop, Kaito holds out his fist, and I touch our knuckles together, turning my hand as I always do. He pulls away his hand, then, satisfied, before stepping away from Rantaro and raising an eyebrow.

 

I notice that Kaito’s tie is done in a square knot, again. Man. “I’ve got an early morning mission to head on.” Rantaro answers swiftly, maintaining his smile. “Shuichi said it’d be fine for me to accompany you guys on the way out. That cool?” I appreciate that he’s keeping Kaito in the know. As much as my friend is often blind to some of the hidden meanings in people’s words, I think he understands what Rantaro is attempting to convey, because his eyes widen just a tad and he nods. He’s not as subtle as either of us, but it isn’t the kind of thing that could be picked up upon from afar, and anyway, it could always be misinterpreted as something else.


Kaito, of course, knows that I told Rantaro about the FYG. I told him that I had confided in Rantaro as soon as I had done so. I lie so much now that I cling to the few truths that I can still tell, and Kaito is generally on the receiving end of that honesty. (The other person, embarrassingly, has been Kokichi Ouma for the past couple weeks, but that’s a whole different thing for me to think about.) It’s probably more for me than it is for Kaito, the overwhelming honesty between us, but I can’t say that I feel guilty about it.

 

“‘Course, man, you know me, why’d I say no?” Kaito raises an eyebrow as he says it, but it’s clearly not a very serious question, because Rantaro chuckles, shaking his head.

 

“I’m just overly cautious, I guess, haha.” Well, that at least isn’t a lie.

 

“Alright, then!” Grinning, Kaito claps my shoulder, even though we already bumped fists a moment ago. “Let’s blow this pop stand! We’ve got things to do. For the next ten minutes or so, Rantaro, I’m electing you as an honourary sidekick. But don’t worry, Shuichi,” he adds, looking at me, even though there is literally no chance of me worrying about that. “You and Maki-Roll are still my top sidekicks!”

 

“Maki-Roll?” I repeat flatly, raising an eyebrow. I assume he’s referring to Harukawa, but I can’t imagine anybody giving her a nickname like that without being punched in the gut. I chalk it up to them spending a lot of time together searching for Chiaki Nanami. Kaito has been keeping me in the loop, for the most part, and the two of them always report back about the progress they’ve made at FYG meetings, but still, I haven’t heard of this nickname until now. It’s cute, of course, but I still find myself skeptical.

 

“Yup.” Kaito nods, as if that’s a perfectly reasonable response to my question, and starts down the hallway. Rantaro snorts, shaking his head, which I think is a little ridiculous because he doesn’t even know who Harukawa is, but when he follows Kaito, I’ve got no choice but to jog a little and catch up with them.

 

We walk the rest of the way through the building and off the premises in relative silence, though Rantaro and Kaito exchange a few words as we move. I don’t really listen; I’m more concerned with our destination. The meeting this week is at Ishimaru’s, and we’ve been there often enough that it isn’t really a big deal to get there anymore, but I’m trying to figure out if we’re supposed to take a right or a left when we reach the block leading up to his house. I suppose I’ll have to ask PAE.

 

Maybe a little later, though, because when the three of us are standing a couple blocks away from headquarters, Rantaro stops walking, and Kaito and I follow suit.

 

“So,” I prompt, because neither of them are saying anything. “Rantaro, are you… wanting to join the FYG?”

 

“I thought about it.” Rantaro answers, but he doesn’t sound as relaxed as before. His tone is far more intense. “And it’s tempting, to join the group and work with you guys. Seeing Kyoko again appeals to me too, but…” he pauses. “I actually decided that it would be in my best interests if I went solo for the moment.”

 

The roof of my mouth suddenly feels dry. “Solo?” I repeat, furrowing my brow, but it is really Kaito who gives the bigger reaction.

 

“What? Are you crazy, man? You know how dangerous that is?”

 

Rantaro’s responding smile is almost bitter with dryness, but I can sense that it’s not directed at us. “Don’t get me wrong.” He starts patiently. “I’m on your side through and through. Torture and murder for any reason are unacceptable, and I’ll always say so. But I have my own agenda. Something else is motivating me right now, and I have to focus on it. I can’t afford to think about anything else.”

 

It seems that Kaito is still unconvinced. “Being alone right now is insane, Rantaro. The FYG will help you do whatever you need to do, but if you go out by yourself, with nobody else to rely on- you’ll have both the Foundation and Enoshima after you now, you know. You’re not going to be safe.”

 

“I’m… aware of the risks.” Rantaro speaks evenly but averts his gaze, messing with a strand of his hair. “It’s just… this is something that I have to do myself. And I have to do it, there are no other options. I thought the Foundation could help me. They seemed benevolent for my years in the group. But…” he shakes his head. “I can only rely on myself right now.” Even though Kaito is the one arguing, Rantaro’s green eyes burn into mine. They’re almost… imploring, with their intensity. And I think I understand. I don’t know the details, but he has something that he absolutely has to protect. He can’t allow any distractions, and he can’t trust anybody else enough to allow them to help.

 

So, then, this whole time, I thought Rantaro’s mask was a result of his viewing vulnerability as weakness. But it seems his weakness isn’t a need to stay happy all the time. It’s his distrust. As much as he is on our side, and supporting our group… he doesn’t trust us. I remember that day after he got shot, when I went to his room to check on him. He refused to allow himself to cry, even though under the circumstances, it would’ve been completely understandable. At the time, I had interpreted it as his being afraid to open himself up. It never occured to me that he didn’t trust me. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s been lying this whole time.

 

As much as it’s upsetting to me that one of the few people I’ve chosen to trust doesn’t return the sentiment, it would be unfair for me to ask him to trust me with no substance behind the request. I’ve done barely anything to earn his trust, aside from telling him the truth about the Future Foundation. And even then, he doesn’t know for sure that I was being completely honest about it. Besides, even if I had reasoning to back my want for him to trust me… would it really be okay for me to ask him to do something that he doesn’t feel comfortable doing? Based on the look he’s giving me right now, this thing is clearly extremely important to him. I couldn’t just ask him to cast it aside and join the FYG, no matter how much I like having him around.

 

So I gently put a hand on Kaito’s arm, holding Rantaro’s gaze. “It’s alright.” I say softly, and smile as much as I can manage to. “I hope you’re successful, and please stay safe, even if you do feel that all danger is worthwhile to achieve your goal.” I feel Kaito tensing under my hand, but his muscles slowly relax, and I feel a surge of relief, because this presumably means he has decided to trust me.

 

“...I can’t promise that, Shuichi.” Rantaro answers carefully, but I can see that my support has made him feel better, because his shoulders slump down from their previous squared position. “But I’ll see you again. And I’ll be around, if you ever need a hand, or something.” He tells us as much with certainty, and at this moment, I won’t let myself do anything but put my trust in him.

 

“I still don’t think this is a good idea, but if Shuichi trusts your judgement, I will too.” Kaito decides, grinning. “I decided to believe in you, after all! Just don’t fuck this up, yeah? Don’t let me be wrong about choosing to have faith in you!”

 

At this, Rantaro laughs, but nods anyway. “I’ll do my best.” He puts out a hand, and Kaito shakes it, but when he offers me the same gesture, I grab his hand to pull him into a hug. I’m sure he’d have just offered if he had been particularly wanting to hug either of us, and I do want to respect his boundaries, but in case this is the last time I see him alive, I want to be sure that I get a chance to express that I trust him. Even if he doesn’t return the favour. I can tell that he’s surprised, but he reciprocates, and for a moment I indulge myself in the solidity of his arms, the semi-familiar scent that he brings into the hug.

 

Then I pull back, putting a hand on his upper arm to stop him before he steps away. “I’ll see you again.” I state firmly, without retracting my gaze, and Rantaro shifts, like he’s now the one made uncomfortable by my intensity (which I’ve never seen from him before) but he eventually settles back down into his relaxed state, smiling easily and nodding at me, like he would making a promise to a demanding younger sibling.

 

“Of course.” He says it like a promise, too, and that scares me, because all promises scare me, nowadays, but I try not to pay attention to that fear, because if I do, it’ll just consume me.

 

I let Rantaro go and step back to join Kaito. His hand finds my shoulder and squeezes tight, perhaps sensing my inner turmoil without being fully aware of it. His grip is tight enough to hurt, but I appreciate it anyway. It’s stabilising. As he starts walking away, in a different direction than the one we’re going (offhandedly, I note that he’s walking in the direction of Enoshima’s base) Rantaro waves over his shoulder, calling out a goodbye. I reciprocate, and hear Kaito follow suit, but we don’t look at each other or say another word until he disappears into the distance.

 

At that point, though, I catch a glimpse at my watch and have to stifle a curse. “We’re going to be late.” I announce, breaking the silence, and Kaito’s eyes widen, but I see an odd determination there in them as he nods at me.


“Ready to run bro? We’re about to find out if I need to up the difficulty of your training curriculum!” To which I sigh, exasperated, but nod, because of course I’m going to have to sacrifice my lungs if I want to get to the FYG meeting on time. It’s not like people haven’t arrived late; last week, Iruma arrived at the meeting half an hour tardy, complaining that she got caught in traffic, which is impossible because there are virtually no cars on the road, but people just sighed and decided it would probably take more energy than it’s worth to correct her.

 

With nothing else left to say, we both break out into a run in the direction of Ishimaru’s house. On auto-pilot, I take a left when it comes to that turn I forgot earlier, and we run past several other houses before getting to his, out of breath. I thank any existing higher powers that left was the right turn to take before sucking in a couple of deep breaths and turning to Kaito, preparing to mount the steps in front of Ishimaru’s.

 

Kaito is bent at the waist, hands on his knees, and coughing hard enough that it sounds, genuinely, like he’s dying. I think back to those couple rough coughs that Makoto gave near the end of his life and feel my heart rate spike, reaching out to touch his shoulder, but just as I am about to, he stops coughing and pushes himself to stand upright, wiping his mouth with his arm. His eyes are watering from the coughing fit, but otherwise they’re as optimistic as ever, and silently asking me not to comment. My common sense is telling me that I really should, because those coughs sounded painful, but I find myself unable to speak when he’s looking at me like that.

 

“You ready to go in, bro?” He asks, nonchalant, and I find myself sucking in a breath, exhaustion forgotten. Kaito’s voice is hoarse but the same as ever. That’s the end of the exchange, it seems, because when I nod, he simply turns on his heel and walks up the front steps. I’ve got no choice but to follow after him, sliding my hands into my pockets. I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t put a name to. I want to think about it more, but then I arrive at the front door, and he rings the doorbell, and that’s that.

 

The door opens a crack, and instead of Mukuro Ikusaba’s grey eye peeking through, it’s a purple eye that is looking, and not one that belongs to Kyoko. I am taken aback by its presence that I barely say anything as Kokichi Ouma slams the door shut, unbolts it, and then pulls it open to let us in.

 

“Hellooo,” Ouma sings, lips curling in a playful smile. “Come on in, but I’ll have to warn you that everyone else is dead inside!” He steps to the side and I huff out a laugh, crossing over the threshold between the porch and the foyer of Ishimaru’s house. Based on the way Ouma whines as I start unlacing my boots, he’s sad I knew he was lying, but Kaito just follows suit with an irritated grunt, telling me that he chose to take my response as proof of the fact. “Wahh! You Future Foundation spies sure are boring!” He must burst into tears or something behind me, but I pay him little heed for the moment, focusing on my shoes.

 

The click of the front door tells me that he’s still taking this seriously, though, so as soon as I’m done I straighten up and turn to look at him. “I saw your note, at the scene.” I tell him plainly, ignoring everything else he’s said thus far. Ouma seems to take this into stride, as his smile shifts to be a little bit more mischievous and he tilts his head to the side. An odd glint appears in his eyes but I don’t pick up any maliciousness from it. “Thank you for not writing the real meaning of FYG on the floor, I’m pretty sure that would’ve made everything even harder for Kuwata to take in.”

 

“I really considered it, y’know?” Ouma shrugs, putting both of his hands on the back of his neck. “I thought it would be hilarious!” At the meeting a week ago, he had laughed his familiarly obnoxious horse laugh when Iruma explained the meaning of FYG. It had been… a moment. “But… I figured you guys would want to seem more mysterious than that, and also maybe professional. Seriously, invest in a new name. My secret organisation has a better name than Fuck You Gang.”

 

“That’s a pretty low bar.” I chuckle, though I’m tentative to accept that he actually has a secret organisation. He’s not wearing his white uniform, like he would usually- at the moment, he still has his checkered scarf, but he’s wearing a grey sweater and a pair of jeans, casually like it’s his usually choice of attire, and his hair is pulled out of his face in a ponytail. Well, mostly. A couple pieces of hair have escaped the tie and I’m sincerely tempted to reach out and tuck it behind his ear. (I don’t, though, because I still have some semblance of self restraint.)

 

When Kaito finishes taking off his shoes, he offers me a smile but walks down the hall towards the sitting room. I understand. He probably just doesn’t want to deal with Ouma right now, which makes sense. I’m pretty sure that I’m the strange one, wanting to linger here and talk to him alone before the meeting starts and I have to talk about other things.

 

“I’m going to decide to not take that as an underhanded insult!” Ouma chirps, but drops his hands at his sides, tilting his head to the side again. Though Kaito has left and we’re the only ones still at the door, he lowers his tone. “You okay? You seem tired.”

 

“Hm? Ah…” I’m embarrassed that it’s noticeable enough for him to have been in the position where he felt he had to point it out. Ouma isn’t exactly obtuse, so I’m not surprised that he picked up on it, but if he’s choosing to comment, that must mean that it’s particularly evident… I hope nobody else sees, but I don’t think the odds of that are very high with people like Shinguji, Ogami, and Kyoko in that room. They’ll see right through me. Though perhaps they’ll have the grace not to call attention to it. “I-I’m alright, just stressed.” I admit quietly, then curse myself for even saying that much. Ouma doesn’t need to know that. I already divulge too much around him.

 

Still, his eyes are abnormally soft when he responds. “Mm. Yeah, you’re doing too much.” He says plainly, in such a matter-of-fact way that I barely respond. “You could slow down a little, you know. I’m sure the war effort won’t be completely inhibited if you choose to relax a bit.”

 

“I don’t know.” I fiddle with a loose string at the bottom of my jacket. “It would feel selfish to rest right now.”

 

Ouma appraises me for a moment. “...’kay.” He eventually responds, then the familiar cheerfulness re-enters his eyes, and he bounces up and down on his feet, a playful smile appearing on his face as though it had never left. I’m silently glad that he chose to take my words at face value. I’m sure many of my friends would’ve done the same thing, but it feels different from him, somehow. “Hey, I didn’t get to tell you last week, but I think your group is absolutely rotten! The worst, most disorganised group of selfish people I’ve ever met in my life.”

 

He almost sings the last part, and I snort. “Is that so?”

 

“Nope! Not even in the slightest. Actually, I think you’re way better than Kyousuke Munakata and Junko Enoshima.” It’s odd that he’d say that, because I’m clearly not in charge around here; that’s Ishimaru and Ikusaba’s role, but I don’t correct him, because he’s still got more to say. “But, there is one thing that I wanna say.”

 

“Ah…?” I raise my eyebrows at this, waiting. Ouma said that only semi-seriously, so it’s possible that whatever he’s about to say is going to be a complete lie, or a joke, perhaps to try and cheer me up (which I appreciate more than I can articulate) but for the sake of this, I should pay attention anyway. I’ve learned that I shouldn’t take anything he says for granted. Especially if there’s a chance of it being genuine, because lord knows that doesn’t happen very often. Though, it’s been happening between the two of us more and more, and it’s hard for me to figure out…

 

“Yeah! You guys are really nice and you value each other which is amazing, but I honestly think that any group that’s willing to kill people right now isn’t a very good group to work with. You know?” I don’t, but I keep listening, because I’m sure he’ll explain. “I mean, what makes you any better than Munakata if you’re still gonna kill people? Who gets to decide who lives or dies? Nobody should get that right. And until you guys start acting under that knowledge, then why are you any better?”

 

...there is some merit to what he is saying. In fact, a lot of merit to what he is saying. I was thinking along the same lines not long ago. But it hasn’t really registered in my mind before. I’ve been aware, this whole time, of my desire to end both Munakata and Enoshima’s lives; Munakata for Makoto, Enoshima for Kaede, but… in retrospect, Ouma is right that none of us have any right to make that decision. Even for people we really hate. Especially for people we really hate. Isn’t it important that everybody’s life be cherished throughout this whole thing, not just the lives of the few people we deem worthy? I shouldn’t be deciding that Kaito’s life is valuable just because I like him more, when I’m still willing to kill Munakata.

 

“Stop that.” Ouma snaps, and I break out of my thoughts, startled. “You’re doing that thing again, where you start mentally self deprecating, and it’s annoying and predictable and boring.” He rolls his eyes, but beneath the typical aura of superiority, I think I can read concern, too. “I’m just saying. Don’t start beating yourself up for no reason. And you don’t have to go full pacifist, either, because that’s kinda like suicide in a war, y’know?” He raises his eyebrows at me.

 

“Are you a pacifist?” I ask faintly, and I’m not sure why the words come out, but I feel as though I’ve wanted to ask for a while. Somebody like Ouma, who gets so badly injured and so often… it makes sense to me, that he would be. And the look he give me after hearing my question serves as an answer, of sorts, even though he gives one of his customary misleading grins.

 

“Maybe I am, Mister Saihara from the Future Foundation!” He chimes, laughing. “Or maybe that’s just what I want you to believe, so I can get you to let your guard down around me, and then I can kill you! I’ve already gotten you to fall asleep in front of me before, you know? It would be super easy!”

 

If his goal was to get me to let my guard down around him, then he’s already succeeded. The thought kind of takes me by surprise, for some reason. I mean, of course I already knew that I’m able to lower my guard around him. Not only have I thought about it before, I’ve wondered about why this is the case. But somehow it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that I actually feel comfortable around Kokichi Ouma. A guy who just offhandedly said he’d be comfortable killing me. Maybe it’s just the incessant flirting, but…

 

“Jeez, it’s super boring when you don’t say anything.” Ouma complains. “Heyyy, pay attention to me, Shuichi! I can’t make fun of you if you don’t respond, stupid!”

 

“Ah, s-sorry.” I manage, trying to cut off my train of thought, but I can’t ignore the feeling that something has changed. I’m looking at him differently now. If he notices, he doesn’t address it, instead choosing to exaggerate a sigh and start walking towards the meeting.

 

“Whatever, we should go. I bet the meeting has already started, or something!” Even though Ouma barely waits for me to follow him, I hesitate, watching him walk away for a moment. I recognise the swell in my chest, but… I haven’t felt it, in a while, and anyway, after what happened last time, I don’t think it’s a good idea to…

 

Suppressing my feelings never works out well, but… I bite the inside of my cheek. I can’t really afford to get distracted right now. I should… push those feelings aside and get to work. As much as I really don’t want to.

 

With a sharp intake of breath, I resolve to suck it up and join the meeting. Game face on, Saihara. There’s still work to do.

Chapter Text

“You’re late,” Kyoko states as Ouma and I walk in, though her tone doesn’t bear the air of an accusation as much as it does an observation. Her expression is pleasantly impassive as always, but I’m happy to see that she looks comfortable. From my understanding, she’s been staying here, with Ishimaru, for the past month or so, so I’m unsurprised to see that she’s wearing a pair of sweatpants and a tank-top rather than the clothes she wore the past couple meetings. She’s seated comfortable on the couch, and there’s an empty spot next to her, but just as I am considering taking it, Ouma swoops and sits down himself.

 

(When he catches my inquisitive look, he pats his lap as if I’m actually going to sit down there. I tear away my gaze and sit on the floor next to Fujisaki, who smiles at me when we make eye contact.)

 

“Ah, I’m sorry,” I apologise, taking off my jacket and putting it down on the floor next to me as a makeshift cushion. “We got caught up talking to Rantaro.”

 

“That’s right,” K1-B0, who is sitting in the same armchair he occupied the first meeting I attended, looks over at me at my words. “You told him about us, a week and a half ago, right? How did that go? I hope he didn’t betray.” The way he says it, though, I imagine K1-B0 thinks that that is slightly unlikely. At the last meeting, when I relayed that piece of information, he mentioned being acquainted with Rantaro, and having some trust in his character. I still maintain that it’s well-placed trust, though I’ll be honest that thinking about the encounter has begun to leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

 

I bite my lip. “He didn’t betray.” I begin firmly, rubbing the back of my neck. “But he’s not joining us. I mean, he said he’s on our side, but…” I wonder how to continue.

 

“He’s going solo,” Kaito explains brightly, and I note that he’s using the same wording as Rantaro did. “I think he’ll probably be hangin’ around and helping out, but he has his own agenda and he doesn’t want to be tied down to any group.”

 

“I would’ve preferred that he’d come to this meeting, at least, so that we could judge his character for ourselves,” Ishimaru says this with a frown as he reenters the room from the kitchen, taking a seat on one of the chairs that were presumably moved from the dining table. “But you probably didn’t have much control over the situation, so that’s alright! And, Miu, please stop coming in through the window.”

 

“Make me, twink!”

 

“Anyway,” Ikusaba, who is seated next to Ishimaru, rolls her eyes. “Where are the Despairs?”

 

Ishimaru glances down the hall, his rather prominent black brows furrowing. “Still upstairs sleeping, I guess. Though Souda said they’d be here.” Oh, that’s right… the other Despairs are here now. Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu, Peko Pekoyama, Teruteru Hanamura, Kazuichi Souda, and Hiyoko Saionji. I don’t know how I managed to forget about that… maybe the fact that they’re not in here right now was a contributing factor; I got so distracted with Ouma that I forgot to worry about meeting them. I can’t say it’s an unwelcome distraction, though.

 

“I’ll get them.” Komaeda stands from where he’s been sitting silently next to Shinguji on the floor. “Hiyoko might be holding them up, so-”

 

“That’s rude, why blame everything on me, fish for brains?” A woman’s voice, a lot louder than I’m used to, fills the room, and a young woman sticks her head into the room. She walks with the gait of a person who is used to being a lot shorter than she actually is, though I’d place her at around Kyoko’s height, now. She’s dressed in an orange t-shirt and black sweat-pants, which aside from making her look like a hip-hop artist, hang off her thin frame as though she hasn’t seen food in years. Her face is rounded, though, and she doesn’t seem starved, so I’m not too concerned. She’s certainly older than me, but her impetulant tone and insult don’t do her any favours by way of maturity. Her long blonde hair is tied out of her face with a ribbon, making her wide orange eyes pop out. “Jeez!”

“I’m sorry, Hiyoko,” Komaeda apologises, though he doesn’t look very sorry. “Are you guys ready to join the meeting now?”

 

“Ughh, fine.” The woman, who I assume is Hiyoko Saionji, rolls her eyes, shuffling into the room. “Kazuichi was the one being stupid and slowing everyone else down. Peko had to try to coax him out of the room.”

 

Komaeda’s brow knits in concern. “Ah, does he need… is he okay?”

 

“Yeah, he’s fine, he’s just being annoying.” Saionji shrugs, like she doesn’t care much, but then pauses, as though teetering on the edge of admitting something.

 

Fujisaki shuffles to his feet. “Do you want me to go up there and talk to him? Is Peko doing alright at talking to him?”

 

Shrugging again, Saionji breezes past Fujisaki, which strikes me as a little mean, and drops down to sit between Kaito and Harukawa. (Harukawa scoffs, unfazed, and Kaito raises his eyebrows at her but offers a gentle smile.) “If you want. Souda’s just being a baby.”

 

“I see…” Fujisaki smiles at this, for some reason. “If that’s the case, then I really should go up and talk to him.” He glances at Ishimaru as he starts towards the doorway; Komaeda silently follows him. “Hey, uhm… you can start the meeting without us. We’ll get caught up.”

 

Nodding, Ishimaru waves them off. “Take as much time as you need! I have total confidence in your ability to follow along.” He tells them, then adds, “But if you miss anything important, we’ll just relay it to you.”

 

“Thank you, Taka,” Komaeda gives a polite smile, and I note the use of Ishimaru’s nickname, in response to which the black-haired man simply beams and turns to the group once Komaeda and Fujisaki disappear from the room.

 

“Alright! We’re all here, now, so let’s get the ball rolling. All in favour of starting the meeting?” Then, “Any opposed? Abstinences? Alright. Sakura, Toko, care to report back on recruitment? How is that going?”

 

“S-Same as ever.” Fukawa mutters, glaring down at her lap as though it’s the fault of her plaited skirt that she and Ogami’s mission hasn’t yielded many results. “B-But we h-have been able to r-raise some eyebrows, a-at l-least in areas that are f-further away f-from the F-Future Foundation.” She says this with a less harsh look, lifting her gaze and pushing up her glasses so she can meet Ishimaru’s eyes. “I w-wouldn’t h-hold my b-breath, though.”

 

“We may have captured the attention of a few young people, is what Toko meant.” Ogami elaborates, fixing her own skirt but remaining focused on what she is saying. “Though they are so young that I am admittedly hesitant to try and recruit them.”

 

“How young, exactly?” Oowada asks with a raised brow. “We don’t want to exclude anybody, y’know? If anyone wants to join…”

 

Flatly, Ogami responds, “I mean ten to twelve year olds, Mondo.”

 

Oowada seems unabashed by Ogami’s response, though he doesn’t say anything further, and Ishimaru nods slowly, waiting for somebody else to speak. When nobody does, he speaks up himself. “Thank you for the report, you two… Maki, Kaito, you said you had something to talk about regarding Nanami?”

 

“Chiaki? You have news about Chiaki?” It is Saionji who says this, looking back and forth between the people she has chosen to sit next to. Ironic that she would sit next to Kaito and Harukawa, who volunteered to look for her friend. “Are you trying to save her?”

 

“We told you that when we rescued you.” Harukawa answers impatiently, but then sighs, nodding in Ishimaru’s direction. “But yes, we have a lead… of sorts. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but we have something on her location.”

 

“Wouldn’t she be with Enoshima?” Yumeno asks sleepily, from where she is, as she usually is, leaning against Chabashira’s side. “I would’ve thought that infiltrating her base would be what you two are looking to do…”

 

Kaito nods. “That’s what we thought, too, but we got a message the other day. We don’t know if it’s true or not, but… she reached out to us, and if the message can be believed, she’s escaped Enoshima and is currently on the run.”

 

At Kaito’s words, there’s a loud crash in the hallway, and then rapidly approaching footsteps. They stutter to a stop, but more ignite after that, and voices fill the house as well, confusion and surprise mingling with the shock that has begun to permeate the room.

 

A young man with blonde hair who I recognise as Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu is standing on the hallway, a hand on the doorway as he breathes heavily. He’s shorter than I thought he’d be, which is interesting considering that I didn’t really think about it with any of the pictures I saw in the files. His hair is longer than it was in the picture, though only slightly, and a few streaks are shaved from the sides. His pale skin is dotted with light freckles, and his cheeks are flushed; though perhaps this is from running. Similar to Saionji, he is wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, which I’m certain neither of them were wearing before coming here. I suppose Ishimaru or another member of the FYG loaned them to them. When Kuzuryuu lifts his head, I see his golden eyes are angry, but also… something else, I can’t decipher. (I haven’t… met him before…)

 

“Say that again,” he growls, as though someone’s just insulted his mother.

 

“Me?” Kaito’s eyes are wide; he’s surprised, though I imagine it won’t last long before he responds with indignation in kind. I know how he can be, sometimes, so I try to meet Harukawa’s eye from across the room, hoping she’ll keep it under control. When she does make eye contact with me, she nods only slightly, reaching behind Saionji to gently touch Kaito’s shoulder. (It seems to work; he relaxes a little bit.)

 

“Yes, you, say what you just said. Say it again.” Kuzuryuu demands, impatient now, and Kaito looks like he might snap back, but he seems to remember Harukawa’s hand on his shoulder, because he schools his features into something more patient.

 

“Okay… I said that Nanami emailed us, she reached out to us, and said that she’s escaped Enoshima and is currently on the run.”

 

At this, Kuzuryuu slumps down, closing his eyes and putting a hand on his forehead. “What… the fuck.” He mutters, and then a taller person appears at his shoulder, extending their hand as though to catch him if he falls. The woman who has just stepped up has silver hair, tied back into a long braid, and bright red eyes that are not dissimilar, in fact, to Harukawa’s. She is wearing a pair of oval-shaped glasses and looking out at the group with an unreadable expression.


“Sorry.” The woman, who I assume is Peko Pekoyama, speaks now, much more composed than Kuzuryuu. “That’s just… quite the news to receive, after the past couple years spent in the way that we have.” She explains, then bites her lip, as though embarrassed to be speaking to such a big group of people. “Uhm… you said this information might not be reliable, correct?”

Harukawa nods, drops her hand from Kaito’s shoulder. “That’s right. We don’t have a way of ascertaining that it truly was Nanami who escaped and sent the email. It’s possible that it was one of Enoshima’s people, masquerading as her, or something of the sort.”

 

“How would she have known to email us?” K1-B0 asks, rubbing his chin and frowning down at the floor. “That’s one thing that makes this unbelievable to me. Could she really have figured out that we were the ones to email, much less… how to reach out to us in general?”

 

“Well, we can answer one of those questions.” Harukawa opens the laptop in front of her, moves the mouse back and forth to wake it up. “She didn’t reach out to the FYG. She reached out to-” her voice breaks. “-Makoto.”

 

The air in the room changes, and I swallow hard. Everyone has objections to that; they are written on their faces, but it’s all the same objection. How could Makoto have been able to tell Nanami to reach out to him? But even as I think about it, I understand. There was so much Makoto was hiding from everybody in this room. He never told the FYG that he was planning on dying, and he hid such a big secret from Kyoko, his girlfriend, for so long… there’s no way to know for sure if he was in contact with Chiaki Nanami, or had been, at one point.

 

“Uh… if she sent the message to Makoto- I assume you mean Naegi- then why’d you read it?” Another voice, one that I don’t recognise, sounds, and Pekoyama steps to the side to allow a man at about her height to step forward, scratching the back of his head. His shoulder-length pink hair is unruly and it might do him some good to pull it out of his eyes, or something, but I can still see them; they’re the same bright pink as his hair. His teeth are absurdly pointed, but I doubt there’s any odd reason for it. He’s wearing a yellow tank-top and sweatpants and I suppose I’m glad he’s comfortable but he honestly looks like a banana. “Isn’t that kinda rude? How’d you have access to that kinda thing, anyway?”

 

“God, Kazuichi, read the room!” Saionji snaps. “Obviously, Naegi is dead!”

 

Ishimaru winces, and looks at Kyoko, but she simply closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Saionji is right. Makoto died a month and a half ago.”

 

The pink-haired man, who is presumably Kazuichi Souda, seems to deflate at this. “...oh. I’m- sorry. Uh. Only Hajime actually really knew the guy but he said Naegi was nice.”

 

“Yeah. Nice.” Ikusaba agrees sharply, her grey eyes smoldering. For some reason, her expression is far more murderous than I’m used to. Generally, she’s been pretty composed the past few times I’ve seen her. Still, I suppose I can’t be surprised. There’s not much of a good response to give to what Souda just said.

 

“At any rate,” Shinguji interrupts smoothly. “Did Nanami mention any specific details about her location in the email, Momota, Harukawa? Anything you could work off of?”

 

“Uhh… no.” Kaito begins, sounding uncertain. “I mean- she said she couldn’t give details because she was worried about Enoshima somehow accessing the message she sent, but she said something that I- well, we weren’t sure what to make of it.”

 

“Care to elaborate, half peen?” Iruma asks, and Kaito’s face reddens a little, and I assume he’s going to respond to the ‘half peen’ comment, but Harukawa cuts him off to speak about something more relevant.

 

“It’s not anything of use to us, because she’s dead, but Nanami wrote that she is currently seeking refuge in a place that Kaede Akamatsu would be able to tell Naegi about.” Harukawa explains, and I feel my stomach sinking. It’s not as though I’m in a position where I can’t bear to think Kaede’s name, or see things that remind me of her, but hearing it from Harukawa for some reason makes me feel sick to my stomach. I must have paled, or something, because both Kyoko and Ouma are giving me worried looks from where they’re sitting on the couch. Ouma shuffles around in his seat, like he’d like to stand up and walk over, but refrains for the moment.

 

“Akamatsu?” Ishimaru frowns. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time…”

 

“Nor have I.” Shinguji remarks idly, golden eyes crinkling slightly at the edges as though he is wearing a bitter smile. “Though I’m sure Kaede would have had that information… you’re right, that it’s little good to us now. She’s been dead for months.”

 

Months. Three months, actually. It hasn’t been that long at all. But in a war, in this situation… three months are a long time for somebody to be dead. Kaede… I don’t understand. Why would she have had the information about Nanami’s whereabouts? Is it possible that they were friends, once, and talked about that type of thing? I don’t find it unlikely (the description about Nanami’s personality that I read in the file was startlingly similar to Kaede’s) but nonetheless… it’s information that I almost can’t stomach. And why… is Shinguji using her given name?

 

Kaito is looking at me, too, and I can tell that he’s worried, but I avoid his gaze, because I’m not sure what I’ll find there. I don’t want to think about it. I force myself to focus on Ikusaba’s words. “Then, we should find some way to look through anything that might remain of who Akamatsu once was.” She states, businesslike once more, and there are nods around the room. “Saihara, I hate to ask this of you, since you’ve got a lot of stuff on your plate, but you’re in the position to, at the Foundation, so-”

 

“No.” Kyoko interrupts, shaking her head. “Momota should do it. He’s looking for Nanami, and besides, if Shuichi were to go poking around through her stuff while being so closely scrutinised by Munakata, he’d be putting himself in danger.” This is the explanation that Kyoko gives, but I’m sure she didn’t miss the way that my breath hitched when Ikusaba said my name. I wouldn’t have been able to say no, but the idea of doing that makes me want to cry.

 

For some reason, Ikusaba frowns when she appraises Kyoko, but it is Kaito who speaks next. “Kyoko’s right! As much as I trust in my sidekick’s abilities, I think I should handle this one.” But the way he’s looking at Kyoko gives away his real intentions, too. I appreciate them both for stepping in, knowing my relationship with Kaede, but I can’t help but feel bad anyway for causing Kaito extra work.

 

“That sounds fine by me.” Ishimaru says firmly, and his gaze as he looks at me is awfully warm. I choose to look at Ouma, because despite my earlier realisation being a bit of an inconvenience, he’s the only person in here who looking at isn’t making me want to crawl out the window, right now. (In response, Ouma disguises his worry by grinning goofily, making obscene gestures with his hands, and I appreciate the effort to ease my nerves.) “All in favour of Kaito looking for that information within Akamatsu’s belongings, if he can find them?”

 

A chorus of ayes ring out; nobody abstains or opposes, so Ishimaru continues the meeting. Fujisaki explains that he’s made some progress on the AI, though he’s hit a bit of a block, and to my surprise, Kazuichi Souda speaks up, offering to help out.

 

“I’m not much of a programmer,” he admits. “But I’m good at tech, and coding is pretty easy for me, so I think I could at least be of some assistance if you wanted a second opinion to reason it out.”

 

“I would really appreciate that, Souda, thank you.” Fujisaki smiles as he says this, nodding.

 

The meeting segues. Iruma and K1-B0 explain their progress on the tech they’ve been developing, not at all lacking in gross jokes from Iruma’s side of things. Chabashira reports back this time, enthusiastic as she recounts the past week of searching for the remaining eight Despairs.

 

“It’s a bit of a bummer since he’s a degenerate male,” Chabashira rolls her eyes. “But we’re getting closer to finding that Hinata guy, and the people who are with him! Owari, Nidai, and Koizumi, I think!”

 

“Hajime isn’t a… degenerate…” Komaeda mutters, but softly, as though he doesn’t want to insult Chabashira with his objection.

 

Ikusaba speaks up, after Chabashira is finished, about the previously mentioned scouting mission she’s been on. “So, as you all know, I’ve been working to infiltrate Enoshima’s base so that I can figure out how to get in and assassinate her. I used to have Maki working with me on that more prominently, but her time has been taken trying to locate Nanami.” Harukawa apologises gruffly, but Ikusaba waves her off. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been working together with Kirigiri, actually.”

 

“That’s right.” Kyoko nods, smiling slightly. “I put together a ground plan of a large portion of Enoshima’s base because I was briefly able to infiltrate with Shuichi’s help.” She glances over at me as she says it and I muster the willpower to smile, but from her slight eyebrow raise, I can tell she doesn’t entirely believe it.

 

“The endgame is my being able to sneak in without any trouble, make my way around, eliminate whoever I can, and ultimately kill Enoshima.” Ikusaba elaborates. “So it’s helped greatly, having that information.”

 

For some reason, when she says those words, I feel my stomach start to turn over on itself. I’m glad I skipped out on dinner last night, because suddenly it feels like there’s a very real possibility of my throwing up. I know that what Ikusaba is describing is probably necessary. We’re in a war, after all, and people will die. Enoshima is a horrible person. She does horrible things because she wants to, causes things because they will be harmful, so that she can spread as much anguish as possible. I’m not sure if I belive in the extreme good and bad that my uncle used to talk about, when he was alive, but I know for a fact that Enoshima is a monster.

 

She deserves to die, really. And I want her to die, too. Not just because she took Kaede from me, and my uncle, but for everything… Munakata ordered Makoto to be poisoned, but it was Enoshima’s soldiers who put bullet holes in his back. Not just Enoshima, I want her people dead, as well. I want the people who have worked for her, carried out her whims and spread pain on her behalf… I want them to suffer the consequences of their actions. That was my uncle’s brand of justice, after all. That was how he did what he was made to do. He solved crimes, and then he killed the perpetrators.

 

But… even so. I find myself meeting Ouma’s eyes, watching as he raises an eyebrow at me. I can’t help thinking that… I’m being awfully presumptuous. I think of it far too often, but again I think back to what he said, moments before the life flickered out in his eyes.

 

“People dying, it’s… it’s wrong. Who decided that…”

 

I’ve finished that sentence for him a thousand times before, with a thousand different words, but they’ve all meant the same thing. Who decided that we get to choose who lives or dies? Why do we get to do that? Who gave us the right to choose who lives or dies? Why do I get to say that Junko Enoshima and everyone who’s worked for her should die? Isn’t that Munakata’s mindset too, the reason why he’s searching so hard for the Ultimate Despairs? Aside from all the terrible things he’s done, he is clearly a firm believer in that everything that Enoshima stands for is wrong. She deserves to die. Her followers, her soldiers, the Ultimate Despairs who she blackmailed and forced to take the fall… they deserve to die, don’t they?

 

Do they? And if they do, who has the right to act on it? Does any human have that right, to decide whether or not somebody gets to live or die? Who died and decided that we, the FYG, should get to do that? Makoto?

 

But it was Makoto who asked the question to begin with. It was Makoto who thought it was wrong. And wrong it is. Ouma is right. Nobody here has the right to choose who lives or dies. Nobody here gets to play god. That isn’t what Makoto would’ve wanted. It’s not what’s right. And if we do what the Future Foundation is doing, why are we any better?

 

“Once I have enough information,” Ikusaba continues, oblivious to the thoughts that are running through my head. “I’m going to sneak in. I think that day should be soon.”

 

“Excellent report, Mukuro, thank you.” Ishimaru praises with a smile. “All in favour of Mukuro continuing on, say aye.” The room is filled with the sound of affirmation, but Ouma doesn’t say a thing, his gaze locked on me, and neither do I. “Any abstinences?”

 

“Me,” Ouma calls out, raising a finger, but he doesn’t smile. His eyes don’t move from mine in the slightest.

 

“Oh…” Ishimaru shuffles around in his spot. “Uhm, care to explain why, Ouma?” It’s clear that this kind of thing has never happened before here. Ouma does smile now, but it’s so clearly artificial that I… no, not clearly artificial. It’s his same old smile, and it’s always looked like that. I just… haven’t noticed how fake it is until now.

 

“Hmm… nope, actually, I don’t care to! Why don’t you call for oppositions?” Ouma’s eyes are suddenly sparkling with mischief, and he looks over to me, brows raised again. I feel my heart stutter, and then stop.

 

“Hey, Ouma, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but-” Kaito starts.

 

“Any opposed, say nay.” Ishimaru interrupts, in the same manner as usual, but for a moment there is silence, and his brow once again furrows in confusion. Ouma is still looking at me, and I find myself unable to look away from him. The silence must only last a few seconds, but it feels like it takes hours, and it is stifling.

 

Then, I find my voice again. “Nay.”

Chapter Text

Maybe I’m still reeling from the mention of Kaede’s name, or the insinuation that she was involved with Chiaki Nanami in some way prior to her death. Maybe I’ve gone crazy with that realisation earlier, and as such acted impulsively. Or maybe Ouma’s words from before are mingling in my head with the ones Makoto spoke on his dying breath.

 

There are many possible explanations for why I spoke up, just now, and I don’t really like what my better reasoning skills are telling me any of them might mean. Nonetheless, the word has fallen from my mouth, and its effect is immediate; everyone turns their gaze on me. As soon as it happens, I feel my heart skip a beat, and start to regret doing so. But just as I’m starting to reconsider my actions, and seriously wonder if I should just rescind the oppositions, Shinguji speaks.

 

“You are opposed, Saihara? Is something the matter?” He doesn’t necessarily speak with compassion, though it’s worth noting that his tone isn’t cold either. If I were to put a word to his countenance at the moment, I would choose inquisitive, which isn’t uncommon for Shinguji. His eyes are filled with intrigue, rather than offense, and I can see that this is a common thing, among everyone else in the room.

 

“N-No,” I respond on instinct, then think better of it, speaking again. “I mean, maybe a little bit. I’m sorry, that was pretty abrupt on my part…”

 

“You’ve been quiet the whole meeting,” Ogami gently points out, and her blue eyes are compassionate. “Please, tell us what’s ailing you.”

 

“Ah… it’s not like I’m feeling unwell.” I smile sheepishly, averting my gaze and rubbing my arm. How do I put the thoughts swirling around my mind into something well-articulated when I’ve barely managed to comprehend them myself? “I’m just… thinking.” When nobody says anything in response to that, I clear my throat and force myself to keep speaking. “About- about the implications of sneaking in and assassinating Enoshima and her soldiers.” I try to keep my voice even, so that Ikusaba sees I’m not attacking her. She was the first person in all of this who has actually been completely up-front with me. The least I can do is try not to seem oppositional. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem offended. Simply confused.

 

“The implications? Elaborate.” Harukawa certainly doesn’t have the authority to be issuing commands, but her words carry the air of them, and I find myself unable to refuse. (As if I would, had it been Fujisaki kindly requesting that I elaborate, instead.)

 

I stop rubbing my arm because the spot is starting to feel sore, but I keep my hand there. “It’s just… I don’t know if it’s right,” I say, and my voice is so faint, I can barely hear myself, much less be heard by everyone else. But based on the bafflement that spreads across their features, I think I am.

 

“We’re s-still talking about th-the same p-person, r-right?” Fukawa mutters angrily, but then meets my eyes, tugging on one of her braids. “J-Junko Enoshima isn’t the k-kind of p-person we can just, s-s-spare. She’s not a good person. E-Even Makoto thought so. He h-hated her with a p-passion.”

 

I don’t doubt it. It’s rare to find somebody who doesn’t hate Junko Enoshima, nowadays. Not that I’d ever try actively looking. Still, before I can even think of responding to that, Oowada speaks too. “I’m generally against being violent against women, but for fuck’s sake.” He glares at me, and I flinch, and it definitely isn’t helping my case right now, but I’m sure anybody would flinch if Mondo Oowada was glaring at them. “This bitch has caused way too much pain. She deserves a lot more than death.”

 

My fingers dig into my arm but I don’t say anything because I can’t argue with that. Those thoughts are eerily similar to the ones that were running through my head moments ago. I can’t deny them of that. Junko Enoshima is a horrible person. There’s no arguing with it, and I wouldn’t try to. And yet…

 

“Hmm…” Ouma tilts his head to the side, lazily raising his eyebrows as he looks at Oowada and Fukawa. “Why do you get to decide that, huh…? We’re all just human, aren’t we?”

 

“You didn’t even raise the objection.” Ishimaru points out incredulously, but doesn’t add anything else, instead looking over at me with his brows raised. His red eyes are kind, though, so I’m sure that he’s still waiting for me to continue. And I should, I know, because he isn’t the only person looking at me strangely right now. I owe an explanation. I’m just not entirely sure what to say.

 

Still, though, I have to say something. “Ah, it’s just- this group exists because the Future Foundation has been doing that, right? Choosing who lives or dies? F-From my understanding, at least, Makoto- you all, I mean- felt it was wrong, what the Foundation is doing. Choosing some people over other people. Making themselves God, giving themselves the right to decide. I just… don’t… think it’s right, if we do the same.”

 

“That was different, though.” Iruma points out, glaring at me. K1-B0 touches her shoulder, as though to calm her down, but she just sits forward. “Did you forget we’re talking about the slut herself, Junko Enoshima? It’s not like she’s Chiaki fucking Nanami here, some innocent person who’s never hurt anybody! Enoshima’s taken everything from some of us, she deserves to die.”

 

“...how do we know that?” Fujisaki asks quietly, and I look at him, startled. He’s long since retaken his seat at my side, though the Despairs are still leaning in the doorway, and he’s staring at his lap, a conflicted expression playing on his androgynous features.

 

“Know what? Enoshima’s kill count? Chihiro-”

 

“No, that Nanami hasn’t hurt anyone.” Fujisaki looks up now, and I see an edge in his eyes. “How do we know that she’s never hurt anyone? We have no way of knowing that. We just decided that based on information that we were given. By the Future Foundation. I’m not saying we shouldn’t save her. She deserves to be saved. She doesn’t deserve to be killed, or hurt, or anything. Nobody does.” He looks at me, now, and more quietly, he repeats himself. “Nobody does.”

 

Kuzuryuu shuffles around in the doorway, frowning. “Shit, Chiaki’s hurt people before. Everyone’s hurt somebody before. Nobody’s perfect.”

 

“It’s not the same thing.” Harukawa snaps, rolling her eyes. “It’s not some ‘everyone or no one’ thing. You’re naive if you think it’s that simple. Enoshima has killed millions. She deserves to die.”

 

“We’ve killed a lot of people.” Komaeda mutters, that familiar self-deprecating smile on his face. His features look gaunt, in this lighting, with long shadows cast over his face. “That disease we created has killed hundreds. By your logic, all fifteen of us should be dead.”

 

“You… can’t blame yourself for that.” Kaito’s eyes are wide as he looks at Komaeda. “Dude, you were forced to do it. Enoshima kidnapped Nanami and made you guys do what she wanted. How can you say that that’s really on you? Besides, you didn’t know the disease was going to spread. You created it for the purpose that Enoshima ordered you to, to give to her. Not to kill hundreds of people.”

 

At this, Kuzuryuu shrugs. “Sounds like an excuse to me. We’re not perfect. We still agreed to do this shit and cause a lot of pain to save one person. That doesn’t sound noble, doc, that sounds selfish.”

 

“If you hadn’t, Nanami would’ve died!” Kaito points out angrily. “You did what you had to!”

 

“Yeah, that’s true, I’m not arguing with that!” Kuzuyru raises his voice, and I wince, because as much as Kaito is arguing the side that I’m not on right now, I still hate it when people yell at him. “But how can you say that’s not the truth for all the other people working for Enoshima right now? How do you know they’re not all fighting to protect somebody?”

 

“They’re adults!” Kaito is shouting too, getting to his feet. “They’re responsible for their own actions, and they’ve caused way more pain with that exact intention! You guys are kids, and you weren’t fighting to hurt anybody, you were just trying to save your friend!”

 

“Don’t fuck with me, asshole!” Kuzuryuu throws his hands in the air, and now he’s directly in front of Kaito, shouting up into his face. “So what if we’re kids? So what if we were fighting for Nanami? You don’t know that’s not true for Enoshima’s soldiers. You can’t make excuses for us, we’re not perfect. You can’t kill others and save us just because it’s convenient for you! Who gave you the right to choose us and not them? Who decided that we’re better? God?”

 

There is nobody in this world right now who I know like I know Kaito. He’s not the type to back down from a fight. But I also know that Kaito is prone to punching people when he doesn’t think that they’re hearing what he’s saying. He resorts to physical violence way quicker than I’d ever like. And from what I know about Kuzuryuu, he’s exactly the same type of person. That’s probably why I get to my feet in tandem with Fujisaki, hurrying over to get between them.

 

Just as my hand touches Kaito’s shoulder, though, he lashes out- and maybe because I’m touching him, his fist connects with my face, not Fuyuhiko’s, and I stumble backwards, my hand flying up to touch the enflamed part of my cheek.

 

The room erupts in shouting, and somebody has a hand on my upper arm and the small of my back; Kaito is looking at me, horror and guilt blossoming on his expression; Kuzuryuu is shell-shocked, staring at what just happened as the anger drains out of him; Harukawa is on her feet, and Pekoyama is reaching out to put a hand on Kuzuryuu’s shoulder; and I sway a little bit, blinking and trying to make sense of what’s just happened.

 

Did I make this happen?

 

“Nyeh! Everyone, shut up!” Yumeno’s voice cuts through the discord and all the noise stops abruptly, perhaps because it’s rare for the small girl to be yelling like that. Chabashira has previously risen to her feet, muttering something about degenerate males and testosterone, but she immediately halts at her girlfriend’s words, expression rapt as though she’s waiting for further instructions. Yumeno, who is still sitting on the floor, runs a hand through her red hair. “Sit down, geez… you guys are such a pain, sometimes. Saihara is right, you know.”

 

“What are you talking about?” Harukawa scowls. “Enoshima-”

 

“-is human,” Yumeno interrupts, rolling her eyes. “A horrible, objectionable, sadistic human, but still a human, and as other humans, we don’t have the right to choose whether she lives or dies by popular vote.” She speaks so firmly that nobody protests, for the moment, and people start settling back down again. Next to me, Ouma (who must have been the person who put a hand on my arm and back a moment ago) gently pulls me over to sit down next to him on the couch. Without a word, Kyoko, who hadn’t risen or even changed her expression throughout that whole thing, gets to her feet and sits down on the floor to make room for the both of us.

 

Timidly, Fujisaki voices his agreement. “I’m… you guys know, or at least, I think you do, that I’m a pretty big pacifist so I always feel uncomfortable talking about killing and stuff, but… yeah. Shuichi and Himiko are right and they should say it. We don’t have the right to kill people.”

 

“This is a war.” Ikusaba points out, though I notice that her voice doesn’t have a lot of bite to it. “People die.”

 

“That’s gonna happen, yeah.” Yumeno agrees. “Enough people are gonna die, and have already died. We can’t kill any more of them. Killing’s no good, and it’s a pain, anyway.” She sighs, rubbing her forehead.

 

“I refuse to kill if I can help it!” Chabashira adds on, sounding enthusiastic about supporting Yumeno’s words. (Yumeno smiles lazily in response and returns her head to Chabashira’s shoulder.) “We shouldn’t go out actively looking to kill people, just because they work for Enoshima, or are Enoshima. Even degenerate males deserve to live.”

 

“...disregarding the degenerate male comment, I agree.” K1-B0 nods. “The population of humans here in Japan has been dwindling since Enosima came into power. There are only so many of us left, and we should be looking to preserve human life, not throw it away. We shouldn’t necessarily be working to protect Enoshima, either,” he adds, in response to Harukawa’s glare. “But we shouldn’t single her out as the only person who is allowed to die.”

 

At this, Shinguji speaks, again with that objective voice. “May I ask, then, about the Future Foundation? Munakata has done many horrible things himself, and stooped to Enoshima’s level plenty of times. Should we be trying not to kill him, as well?”

 

“Of course.” Kyoko’s expression is impassive, but even though it’s hard to read her right now, I suspect that it’s taking some strength to say what she is saying, because Munakata is directly responsible for Makoto’s death. I feel a surge of gratefulness, that she is not going against this- because I don’t think I’d be able to do this without Kyoko’s support. “Aiming to kill him specifically is no different from aiming to kill Enoshima.”

 

“What are you suggesting, then?” Harukawa asks, and she sounds frustrated, but no longer angry. “Should we just let people hurt us, and try doing things like Gandhi did? Go pacifist in a war?”

 

“...no.” I shake my head, and I feel their eyes turn on me, but I can’t bring myself to look up at any of them as I’m speaking. “Don’t kill. Try to stun, disarm, shock, whatever, and protect yourself and those around you, but don’t kill. If- if it happens, then it happens, but- don’t look to do it. Don’t try to do it. Shoot at the ground, bluff, whatever it takes, just… give whoever you’re fighting the opportunity to join you, and… be safe.” I swallow, and close my eyes. “We shouldn’t be killing anybody.”

 

The room is silent, and I open my eyes, wondering why. To my surprise, everyone has their gaze averted; they’re all staring off and thinking to themselves. Even Kaito, who’s been looking at me almost this whole time, is staring at the floor. It’s a lot to process, I guess. I wasn’t having such an easy time doing it myself.

 

But… still, I don’t feel so terrible. I was expecting Ouma’s support, because he was the one who brought it up in the first place, and it makes sense that Fujisaki would, if he is a pacifist, but Yumeno, Chabashira, Kyoko, Kuzuryuu, Komaeda… I wasn’t expecting them to step up and agree with me. I look at Ouma, and find that his eyes, at least, are still trained on me. When I meet his gaze, though, he offers a very small smile, and I find myself marveling at how I’m unable to figure out what he could possible convey. Then the smile turns into a smirk and he raises his eyebrows, as though he’s about to speak.

 

Before he can, however, Ishimaru speaks instead. “I agree.” He says calmly, and smiles over at me. His expression, which has been twisted in thought this whole time, is now relaxed. “Not only because I think that Makoto would’ve wanted the same thing, but because it’s the right thing to do. And we’re no better than the Foundation if we deem ourselves the choosers of who lives and dies. But, for the sake of this, and because I don’t want my opinion to come off as the deciding factor…” he clears his throat, authoritative once again. “All in favour of implementing this new code, against killing, say aye!”

 

There’s an odd silence, and then at once, the room is filled with the sound of people saying aye. I join them this time, closing my eyes as we fall silent. When Ishimaru clears his throat again, I wait for him to ask for oppositions, and receive just as many.

 

But instead, the room is greeted with silence. I open my eyes, confused, only to find Harukawa looking at me. Other people are looking at her, and Ikusaba as well, but she addresses me when she speaks. “You don’t know much about me, Saihara, but my whole life has been spent being taught how to kill.” She says this flippantly, and then shrugs, as though it isn’t a big deal. “I was brought up in one of those sanctuaries.” Like Ouma , I think, but I don’t say it, because he said that to me in confidence. “And the entirety of my time there, I was raised for only one purpose. I’ve killed countless people. Too many to count.”

 

“That… doesn’t mean…” I trail off, but Harukawa looks at me for a moment, and then she gives a small smile. I’ve never really seen her smile before.

 

“Makoto said the same thing.” She tells me. “So… I guess I’ll take your word on this.” She sighs, shaking her head.

 

I blink, not sure how to respond. There it is again, that comparison to Makoto. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to live up to that. (In fact, I’m sure I won’t.) But even so… I feel a rush of relief when Ikusaba voices her agreement. She seems reluctant, somehow, but she smiles as well, so I think it’s alright. I’m just glad that we’re in agreement, that my words have been received. And from the way that people have begun to relax around the room, I think the sentiment is shared. Ishimaru calls for abstinences, and nobody calls anything out, so he continues, but I find myself unable to focus very much.

 

I try to ignore the fact that Ouma’s eyes are still on me on my right, and what that’s doing to my heart.

 

When the meeting is concluded, I linger in the sitting room, helping Ishimaru tidy up. Not for any particular reason, I don’t think, though many his giving his support earlier is factoring into it. Still, he seems happy to have the help, and we don’t say much until I’ve put the last teacup in the sink and dried my hands on my pants.

 

“Saihara,” Ishimaru calls out to me before I can step out of the kitchen, and I turn my head, raising my eyebrows. “Thank you. I’ve always felt that we shouldn’t be killing, but it’s hard to muster the courage sometimes, to say it to them.”

“Huh?” I turn around completely, looking at him and trying not to seem incredulous. “Really? How come? Erm, if you don’t mind me asking, of course.”

 

“I don’t mind.” Ishimaru assures, walking over to stand in front of me. “I’m sure you’ve noticed, but Makoto’s death left a void in this group.” I bite my lip, nodding uncertainly. “As much as I am trying my hardest to be a good leader for everyone, I’m not him.” He admits, smiling sadly. “And often it seems like my actions have no power over everybody.”

 

Really? “Ah, I thought the opposite, to be honest…” I scratch the side of my head. “I’ve always felt that you’re an excellent leader. Everyone seems to look up to you, and listen to you.”

 

“Well, you weren’t around to see Makoto’s leadership!” Ishimaru laughs as he says it, but I can tell he’s not very happy about what he’s saying. “He did things so naturally, and thought of everybody automatically… it’s hard to compete with natural talent, at times, even if I resent it.”

 

“You’re not Makoto, though, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” I find myself sounding more firm than I mean to, making direct eye contact with Ishimaru. “I-I mean, forgive me if I’m coming off a little strong, but… anybody would wish he was still here to lead everybody. I wish that all the time, but that’s not on your account. I don’t think you notice it, but the way everybody looks at you… you’re the leader, here. I respect you, and I know that everybody else feels the same.” I don’t know why I’m being so aggressive about this, but I can’t stop. “Even just now, you… when you gave your opinion, everybody listened. You’re a good leader, Ishimaru.”

The way that Ishimaru looks at me when I’ve finished speaking is odd, but he smiles, and it’s a far less boisterous smile than usual. Gentle. “...Thank you, Saihara. I’ll be sure to remember what you said.” He tells me, and then gestures at the doorway. “Have a safe trip back to the Foundation.”

 

“I will,” I respond, and turn around, stepping back out into the sitting room. I pass Kyoko on the way out, and she nods at me, but she’s engaged in conversation with Ikusaba- perhaps regarding an alternative to killing Enoshima with the work they’ve done thus far- so she doesn’t say anything, and that’s alright. I scoop up my jacket and walk over to where my shoes are in the foyer, dropping down onto one knee to tie them.

 

“Hey, bro.” Behind me, Kaito speaks, and I glance over my shoulder at him as I begin tying my right shoe. I smile, as though to invite him to speak, because he looks uncharacteristically nervous. “I wanted to… apologise, for what happened.”

“Ah, you mean, this…?” I point at the place where he punched me, which I’m sure is now bruised, because it still hurts. “Don’t worry about it, it was an accident, and besides, I-”

 

“No. I mean, for not taking your side sooner.” My eyes widen and Kaito sighs, shaking his head. “You’re my sidekick, I’ve got to have your back, but beyond that, you’re my best friend and I trust you. I should’ve been supporting what you were saying rather than arguing with Kuzuryuu. Even that Ouma guy was supporting you straight away.”

 

I finish tying my shoes and stand up, tugging my jacket over my shoulders. “Hey… don’t stress out about it.” I say quietly. “I wasn’t exactly being clear about what I meant.”

Kaito hesitates, like he wants to argue with me, but then he relaxes into a smile. Perhaps because he trusts that I don’t have any ill will. He’s never been the type of person to self deprecate, after all. “Okay.” He concedes. “Just know I’m always supporting you, alright bro?” I nod, then raise my fist for him to tap his knuckles against and turn his hand. We share a grin and he steps away to lace up his shoes. I take the moment to look at my face in the mirror that Ishimaru’s hung up by the door. The bruise is pretty bad; Kaito doesn’t pull his punches. But it’s okay. I’ll probably get some questions back at headquarters, but I’ve never been the type of person to go into excruciating detail about those types of things, so saying that I simply got it on a mission should suffice.

 

As I’m looking at it and debating touching it with my fingers (which would be a pretty lousy idea, all things considered, but compulsions) Ouma pops up next to me and we make eye contact through the mirror.

 

A teasing smile adorns his features. “Hmm…  I dunno, Mister Saihara from the Future Foundation. I don’t think bruises are really your style,” he looks up at me and I meet his actual gaze, raising my eyebrows.

 

“You think? I thought it made me look manl