It was eerily similar to the program they were in, except now when they were gathered inside the dining hall on the beginning of a crisp, tropical morning, they did so as Remnants of Despair.
They were all in attendance, with the exception of one. Gundham Tanaka. No one spoke his name, but they all knew he was missing. And why.
There was a tension in the air, and that, too, didn't call for explaining.
That morning, when the Remnants set foot outside their designated cabins, they could make out the distant approach of Future Foundation vessels on the shoreline horizon.
It was time for the inspection. It was good to know that they hadn't been slated to die (yet,) but that reality was still up in the air.
No, this was a terrible occurrence.
They'd arrive today, and expect to find everyone here. And when one was missing?
That won't be good... of course Nekomaru already knew where Gundham Tanaka was. But that brought about another issue: if they were to present all the Remnants of Despair, and one had been converted back, supposedly, the exact same problem occurred.
Either way, it clued the Foundation in to the fact that the reformed were susceptible to re-temptation.
And, for that reason, they were all more likely to be executed.
Nekomaru had never been one to keep secrets. Even when he tried, he'd never had a talent for it.
Tracing back to the days of his Team Management career, that flaw was present. Nekomaru had often surprised his teams with snacks or prizes for their hard work, but whatever gift he bestowed never stayed secret for long.
It was a need to be entirely honest with everyone in the room.
Right now, Gundham was hopefully still fast asleep inside his room. And yet, no one in the room knew that aside from himself.
Or so he thought.
The Team Manager fiddled with his thumbs, listening in to the discussion.
"Well, we can't just show up and be fifteen - or... well, fourteen students," argued Souda, the mechanic's elbows both digging in to the table he sat at. "Then they'll know something's up, and how do we explain that?"
"And even if we did that," Mahiru contemplated aloud, leaning on the stair banister in thought. "They might try and kill him."
Nekomaru appreciated Mahiru's effort, silently. He knew that she had been one of the first to drop during the Killing Game, however, her unwillingness to remain an outsider to the ins and outs of what had occurred were apparent.
She contributed to a conversation that, upon her first waking, she would scarcely have understood. That was effort, and Nekomaru could always recognize effort.
Mahiru's point added another layer of tension to the air. Kill Gundham? If Nekomaru had had doubts about his ability to keep silent before, that certainly convinced him. Jeez.
"Would they really do something like that?" Nidai voiced, "I mean, aren't they supposed to be the ones taking care of all this?"
"...We can't know," the soft-toned voice belonged to Peko Pekoyama, standing dutifully at the side of her Young Master, Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu. "Admittedly, whether or not we agree with it, they could, understandably, deem any active remnant a threat."
Peko's head tilted slightly at the conclusion of her sentence, her intense gaze traveling across the room, pin-pointing each and every one of them.
While Pekoyama and Kuzuryuu hadn't often left one another's sides since the program, their dynamic seemed a little different. Slow coming, but not the same as it was.
Well, that was how Nekomaru read it anyway. And that was a relief to him.
"So," Fuyuhiko added on, brows furrowing in thought, "speaking of, we don't even know the guy's a remnant. Our only word for it is those two's." The yakuza nodded gravely to Mikan and Nagito, each standing in different sections of the room.
As the attention was directed to them, the nurse adopted a startled expression. "M-Me?" She blinked, form trembling slightly under sudden gazes affixed on her.
"I-I swear! He is a despair - he - he tried to attack me..." The nurse's posture drew inward, more self-protective, than anything. Almost submissive in respect to all present. "Are you... saying you d-don't believe me...?" The sound behind her voice shifted in emotion, carrying a sadder, more melodramatic sound. As if she was on the verge of tears.
It was strange to Nekomaru to realize that she was lying. That she was a Remnant of Despair, too. Do I say something?
He didn't get the chance.
"As if we'd believe you!" Hiyoko interjected bitterly, voice laced with deep-set fury. "Go ahead, goody-two-shoes, see if playing dumb'll work after you killed two of us."
Komaeda blinked, his head cocking slightly as his smile spread into something somewhat forced. Breathing out a little laugh, the Servant raised his arms in subdued protest. "Haha - hey now, Hiyoko-"
"Oh, what?" Hiyoko snarled, "are you saying that you're a viable witness? Of course it was the psychos that saw this happen. For all we know, you could have killed him already!"
Mikan gasped with fright, the corners of her mouth quivering between the mix of a frown and a smile. Opening her mouth to object, everyone was silenced by one, valiant word.
All those present in the room glanced up, eyes landing on the speaker.
None other than the Ultimate Princess, Sonia Nevermind, herself.
"Fighting among ourselves will not get us anywhere," the Princess insisted, her voice lowering in volume, but still carrying the same, demanding conviction. "To those who suggested we lie about him having woken up, we cannot do that. Surely, they will discover that that is a lie."
Sonia had been close with Gundham during their time in the program, Nekomaru remembered that, but it seemed she placed her duty as a leader before her loyalties as a friend.
She was speaking from rationality, not emotional bias.
"When I last saw Gundham, he was behaving strangely. That, I cannot deny. If he is a Remnant, then he is still present on this island! And we must find him."
"You're... saying you want us to turn him in?" Souda glanced up, seeming a little surprised by Sonia's declaration. "Like, prove we're all okay by throwing Gundham under the bus?" He seemed faintly excited, though only faintly. Excited that Sonia was willing to take his romantic rival out of the equation.
But the thought of death and betrayal seemed to be stifling that excitement.
"Maybe we can reason with him," Nekomaru argued, hoping to take Gundham's termination out of the equation. "Maybe... if we find him... we can convince him to act normal. At least until the Future Foundation leaves. Then we can ask him what happened, and deal with him ourselves."
His suggestion caused a contemplative dip in volume.
Nekomaru withheld a sigh of relief. With that outcome, they could all hear what had really happened. They could all solve the problem together!
"...Ah," Komaeda's voice spoke up again, his cold gaze staring distantly through the Team Manager. As if his words, his body, his very existence, were entirely see-through. 'I see you, Nekomaru.' "That begs the question, though... don't despairs want nothing more than to suffer? They're irrational! They want nothing more than to feel terrible pain..." A gradual, fleeting smirk crossed his expression, before the Servant forced another laugh. "Just imagine what he could do! He could out everyone as a hypothetical despair. Or lie! Or anything, really. As long as he gets taken in for torture, or questioning. Or even killed!"
The Servant clapped his hands politely, applauding his own contribution with petty, subservient half-heartedness. "There's just no way we can trust a despair... right?"
"Says the guy that tried to kill all of us!" Souda interjected again.
The Servant pivoted suddenly, shooting a passive, almost motherly glare in his direction. A warning, 'stop talking, when you know nothing.' "Whoops. My bad." He closed his eyes, seemingly submitting. "And again - I'm sorry about that. I - I just want to help now. No more killing any of you..."
Nekomaru could sense the rigid shards of glass that lay scattered all over Komaeda's words.
"He... he does have a point..." mumbled Teruteru, seeming resentful that he even had to admit something like that.
Clearly, many of them were bitter towards one another.
Nekomaru realized that it was probably a reason to be grateful that his killer hadn't acted out of bad blood. That he and his killer had become friends.
Killed, killer... jeez. This is a mess!
"Still, it might be worth a try, or somethin'," came the boisterous voice of Akane, giving Nekomaru a knowing nod. She was here to support his ideas. "'Cause otherwise, aren't we jus' given' in to the same kind of violence we've been tryin' to overcome this whole time? There's gotta be somethin' he wants!"
"We don't even have that kind of time!" Hiyoko interrupted, frantically pointing at the window. "They're going to be here any second and we don't have him!"
Sure enough, as the fourteen gazes aligned with the view framed by the window, it became apparent.
The vessels and ships belonging to the ever-judging Future Foundation were stalking closer.
And, just as Hiyoko said, they were almost here.
"Aw, crap!" Souda rose from his seat. "They could be here any minute! What're we supposed to do?"
"Maybe..." Teruteru raised his voice, rocking his weight back and forth as his anxious gaze flitted to and away from the window, "Mr. Imposter... could disguise himself as Gundham? Hm? That's his talent, isn't it?"
Nekomaru could sense that it was somewhat awkward for Teruteru to address his victim like that, but Byakuya - or... the imposter didn't really seem to mind.
Instead, the imposter glanced over, seemingly considering that proposal.
"I-I even have his c-clothes in the hospital!" Mikan squeaked urgently, seemingly fumbling on her words due to excitement toward the solution.
"Yeah, like they'd fit him..." Hiyoko snorted.
"Fair point," the imposter pointed out, seemingly ignoring the comment about his weight, "and, even if I did, wouldn't they notice that I was missing?"
"Quick change!" Ibuki chimed. "Like a concert, or a stage show! In one identity, out the other!"
"We're running out of time," Fuyuhiko attempted to lure their attention back to the matter at hand, "and that thing with the imposter isn't gonna work. If they get here and we don't have him, what can we tell 'em?"
"Hold on a second!" Nekomaru insisted, pointing a finger at Fuyuhiko to capture his attention, "we don't know that we can't find him. If we were to find him, and we were to convince him-"
"-Didn't we just fuckin' say that something like that wouldn't fly?" The yakuza muttered.
"Let me speak!" Nekomaru raised his voice. "Listen, if we did have him, and we did convince him, are you really sure he'd turn himself in? Doesn't he... not want to let the despair end?"
"Yeah, he's right, 'ya know!" Akane banded with Nekomaru, pivoting her stance. "Yo, Mikan, Nagito. Where was he? I bet I can get 'em in just a few seconds! Just tell me where he was and I'll catch 'em!"
However, as all the gazes began searching for the two in question again, they found only Mikan, trembling under the pressure of their oppressing gazes again.
They searched, the voices hushing, wondering perhaps if they'd missed him.
But, after a few looks over, it was clear.
"...Hey," Mahiru finally spoke up, "...where did Nagito go?"
Light conversation rippled through the group.
Hiyoko still stood at the window, her back to the others now. "...Great..." she mumbled, voice still bitter, "...they're almost here, and we're missing both of them?"
"W-Wait! Wait-!" Mikan insisted, her voice trembling. "I... I saw him leave! He's - he's going to find him!"
Finally, as her words concluded, she couldn't restrain her smile anymore.
It was faint, sick, but absolutely genuine. No one would have noticed, if they hadn't known.
But Nekomaru knew the connotation behind that smile.
That's... despair. Right?
Mikan glanced down, rubbing lightly at her arms and exhaling a calm sigh. "...We... we can't panic! We - we just have to wait. Nagito was going to find him..." She forced herself into a somewhat feeble posture again, chewing lightly at the inside of her lip. "Uh... so - we just have to wait! And... it'll solve itself."
...Is she telling the truth? A sudden realization came to the Team Manager. Does he know where Gundham is?
But before he could act, Hiyoko suddenly stood at attention.