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Danganronpa: Bonus Round

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"N-no, I just... really admire you. I admire... your strength..." He sniffled, and turned away so Mondo didn't have to see him cry. He set his bag on the bench. Chihiro could hear Mondo, pacing in the spacious locker room, but kept his attention on his own hands, unpacking his tracksuit. It had been just as hard as he thought, but it was done. Mondo knew. And he trusted the stronger man to accept the truth.

Mondo moved close behind him, breathing heavily. "That's right... I am strong... Strong...I'm strong!"

Chihiro started to turn. "M, Mondo?"

"Stronger than you." Mondo's chest heaved. Chihiro caught a flash of movement, too fast to react, too fast to cry out. "Stronger than Daiya!" He shouted. Something heavy, and hard, slammed into the back of Chihiro's head.

"Nnn~" A small cry escaped his lips. He took a few shaky steps away from Mondo, onto the rug. Then, his knees crumpled beneath him, and they banged against the floor as he fell. He felt dizzy, and there was a wet sensation spreading across his scalp, running down his neck. It should have hurt, why didn't it hurt. He swayed on his knees, his vision floating and blurring, his lips trying and failing to form words.

Chihiro fell, onto his side. The blood from his head wound soaked into his light brown hair, and into the beige rug. Before his vision went completely dark, he thought he could see Mondo, standing over him, surveying what he had wrought. He wanted to call out, to ask why, but he had always been so weak. And so, Chihiro Fujisaki died.



Chihiro woke up, and his hand brushed through his hair, caressing his scalp where Mondo had hit him. But there was no blood, no wound. His body was whole. He looked around.

He was in his room, at Hope’s Peak, sitting on the edge of his bed. It had a blue tile floor, and magenta walls, a dresser, a wall clock, a closet that would be filled with extra copies of his uniform, and a door leading to a small bathroom. He was still wearing his olive-colored school uniform, with a wide skirt and a matching light jacket. He was still in the same body, the same frail, short, petite, girlish body. And his heart was still beating, and he could feel the chilly air against his skin. Had, had last night really been a dream? He touched the back of his head again. It had been so vivid.

He let out a single, soft sob. In the dream, he had been brave enough to tell Mondo the truth, to ask for his trust and his help. He had been so happy to open up about his problem, so excited to change. And, then…

He could still hear Mondo’s heavy breathing, still feel the sudden crack against his skull. But, he noticed something off about his room. The heavy metal panels that had been fixed to the windows were gone. Maybe… maybe that meant the whole killing game was a dream. Maybe he was just starting his first day at Hope’s Peak Academy. He stood up, and walked over to the window.

His heart seized up in his chest. His window looked out over a swirling landscape of violet clouds, tinged with green lightning. Spires of stone loomed up out of the clouds, and Chihiro could see distant, winged creatures moving through the nightmarish fog. This wasn’t Hope’s Peak. This wasn’t even Japan.

Something about the room shifted, and Chihiro knew he wasn’t alone. Someone moved to stand behind him, someone much taller, with a very distinct pompadour. “Aah!” Chihiro screamed, and spun around. He fell against the wall, and held his hands up in front of his face. Mondo loomed over him, and Chihiro’s eyes tracked up his tall, impressive physique. Until he saw Mondo’s eyes, their haunted, distant look, and Chihiro noticed the sag in his shoulders, the trembling of his lips. Mondo Owada stood over Chihiro, struggling to find the words.

Seeing him like that calmed Chihiro’s nerves. “I’m sorry I screamed,” he said, “You just startled me, is all. I had a very, distressing dream last night. I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

Mondo raised a hand over his eyes, and a long, painful sigh wheezed out of him. “It wasn’t a dream, Chihiro.”

“Hehe,” the laugh felt strange, hollow. “No, no, that doesn’t make any sense, you see, in my dream, you…”

“I killed you.” Mondo looked out the window, instead of at Chihiro. “In the boys’ locker room on the second floor, with a dumbbell.”

“You…” Chihiro’s hand again found its way to the back of his head. “I…” What do you say, to your murderer?

Mondo reached down and offered his hand. Chihiro let the taller boy help him up. They looked out the window, at the impossible landscape together. "I kept your secret. Or, I tried to." Mondo said. "I moved your body into the girls' locker room. And I fried your handbook, in the sauna. Nobody saw your real name."1

Chihiro gnashed his teeth. "It's not my real name, it's-" he stopped, and took a deep breath. "I don't, I don't care about that, right now." He looked back up at Mondo, whose face was stony hard, staring at nothing. "Did they execute you, like Leon?"

He deflated a bit, and returned Chihiro's look, his face drooping. "Y-yeah. Kyoko and Makoto are pretty smart, they figured it out. Although, Byakuya knew the entire time. He-" Mondo's fist clenched, and he slammed it into the wall. "I don't want to talk about Byakuya."

Chihiro tilted his head. "So, your plan didn't work, I guess. I hope the others figure a way out of that place. I-" He swallowed. "We could have made it out together. You, you didn't have to kill-" Tears flooded his eyes as he tried to say "me."

"Dammit, Chihiro, I-" He stood there, shaking his head, clenching and unclenching his hands. "I messed up. I lost it, in the moment. I never meant to hurt you."

"'Never meant to hurt me?'" Chihiro snapped back. "You stove in the back of my head! I-I don't understand, I trusted you, I-"

"I'm sorry!" Mondo blushed, in the silence that followed, then shook his head. "Uh, that doesn't even begin to cover it. There's nothing I can do that can make what happened alright. Just, I wish I could take it back. More than anything. Even if it meant you got to go back and live your life, and I had to stay here." He looked around. "Wherever the hell here is, anyway."

Chihiro paused. He sounded honest, and more open than he had ever seemed in life. And, on some level, he wanted to forgive him, still wanted to trust him. But it was too much, too fast, and he still didn't understand. But seeing Mondo wonder about their location brought back his own curiosity as well. This was like Chihiro’s room at Hope’s Peak, but it definitely wasn’t.

They stared at the bedroom door. Then, Mondo crossed the room, Chihiro following close behind. And Mondo opened the door, onto a spacious, black and white checkered marble hall. The two could see a glittering golden chandelier, over a long banquet table. "What the hell-" Mondo muttered, as he stepped into the room beyond. Chihiro trailed along behind him. The walls were cold gray stone, decorated with tapestries depicting bizarre and gruesome scenes. The ceiling was so high that it disappeared into darkness. Several smaller chandeliers ringed the grandest one. There was no visible support for them to hang from, they appeared to simply float in midair.

There were more doors, like the one they had just stepped through, along this wall and the one opposite. Some of them were also creaking open, and figures cautiously emerged, mostly in twos and threes. Eyes roved over the vast, grand room, as the guests converged on the banquet table. Chihiro studied the people, and was surprised to realize that he knew many of them. There was Hifumi Yamada, and Sakura Ogami, and...

And Leon Kuwata. Leon Kuwata, the red-haired baseball star that Chihiro had seen pelted to death with baseballs. He walked near Sayaka Maizono, the girl he had killed to warrant his punishment. The two seemed uneasy with each other, both looking anywhere but where the other one stood, and they parted ways as they moved around the table. That was it, then. This was a banquet for the dead.

But those others that Chihiro recognized, like Sakura, had still been alive when he'd died. So, there had been more deaths... Chihiro shivered, thinking about how much worse the killing game must have gotten. Still, a number of his classmates were not there, like Makoto, and Kyoko, and Yasuhiro. Some of them may have survived, then, and they had found a way to end the game without killing all but the winner. That was... something, he supposed. He couldn't help but ache to see them, though. Makoto had been kind to him. Chihiro had even dared to hope he might accept his painful secret, and, in time, the others might as well. He thought about how kind Makoto was. He glanced over at Mondo. Perhaps he had trusted the wrong boy.

But Mondo was staring at someone else, and he had a sickly, shaky look to him. Chihiro followed his gaze, and his heart broke just a little bit more. A young man stood there, near the edge of the room, standing about a head shorter than Mondo, dressed all in white with dark hair, and a vacant look in his wide, red eyes. Chihiro wasn't sure if he had noticed Mondo, or himself. Kiyotaka just seemed- lost. Chihiro stepped forward between, breaking the agonizing silence. "Taka?" He asked quietly.

The vacant red eyes turned to him, and they flushed with tears. "Ch- Chihiro. This started because you-"

"Hey, man." Mondo muttered, moving to stand behind Chihiro. "Guess you made it here too, huh?"

"Here?" Taka muttered. "Where is here? I must be dreaming. Because you're not dead. And you didn't kill him." Taka waved a hand at Chihiro, when he said this, and smiled. Chihiro flinched at the pronoun, unsure of what it meant. "That's what this is, right? A happy dream. Or, or maybe the whole thing before was a nightmare... and this is real. You're both, you're both still here."

Chihiro wasn't sure what to make of his deliriousness. After all, he had been dizzy when he'd died, but waking up here had brought him back to his senses. "What happened, Taka? Where were you before you woke up here?"

"What?" He shook his head. "Hmm, the physics lab, on the third floor. Someone had slipped a note under my door, said they'd found a way out." He blinked. "I guess they did."

He stepped back and grabbed Mondo's arm and pulled him back. He leaned down, and Chihiro whispered, "I don't think he knows he's... dead. He seems so... different. Broken."

Mondo shook his head. "This is my fault. Hell, it's my fault all three of us are here, dammit." Standing up straight, he said "Listen, Taka. It's good to see you... in a way. I'm sorry about what happened. I'm gonna help you get better."

Taka smiled, but his eyes were still haunted. "What do you mean better, bro? You're here. That's all I needed." He moved forward, and before Mondo could react, wrapped him in a tear-stained hug. "Nothing bad happened. We're best buds, and we're going to look out for our friend Chihiro, and everyone else."

Mondo returned the hug, cautiously. "Y-yeah. We're going to look out for everyone." He flinched. "Just, you know, hugs don't really suit me, ya know? People are gonna start looking over here."

"Oh, of course, bro. Hey, is that food?" Taka pointed over to the banquet table, where, sure enough, there were silver platters and places set for the diners, though there was no food set out for them yet. "Come on! I feel like I haven’t eaten in forever!" He grabbed Mondo's hand and dragged him away. Chihiro followed at a close distance.

Most of the guests had seated themselves by the time Chihiro took his seat. He wanted a little distance from Mondo, and was still worried about Taka, so he sat on Taka's left. The other guests were taking seats around the table. Some people were arguing, or yelling, but Chihiro had trouble following the conversations. He didn't know about half of the people here, and felt curious about them. Luckily, one sat at his other side.

He was short, actually about the same height as Chihiro, and was very rotund, with rosy cheeks and a slick pompadour. He was dressed all in white, with a red apron, and Chihiro wondered if he might be a chef. Chihiro overcame his usual shyness, and ventured a greeting. "H-Hello. I'm Chihiro Fujisaki. It's nice to-"

The boy turned, and his confused and worried look lit up in an instant. He smiled, and Chihiro could hear his tongue moving around in his mouth. "Well, I suppose after you've been thrown in a volcano, your day can only get better."

"W-what?" Chihiro stuttered.

"Well, I'm just saying," he stroked his chin. "There are some beautiful people here, Ms. Fujisaki. I'm Teruteru Hanamura. And it is-" he licked his lips, "very nice to meet you."

Chihiro tugged his skirt down, trying to hide more of his legs. "Ummm, I'm flattered." He swallowed. Oh, it was always the worst, when this happened. "But, I-I don't think that's something you want, Teruteru."

He squinted suspiciously, stroking his chin. Then he smiled. "Ah." He pointed at Chihiro, and snapped his fingers. "You’re actually a boy, aren’t you?"

Chihiro's teeth chattered in his skull. "What? Why w-w-would you say something like that?"

Teruteru waved off his concern. "Relax, relax, keep it down. I'm a, well, a worldly guy. I've seen a thing or two. I'm pretty open-minded. And don't worry, I can keep a secret. And uh, just between you and me-" he winked, conspiratorially, "-that's not really a deal breaker."

"I, uh, thanks, I think." Chihiro held up a hand to his eyes and turned away. He'd never been this embarrassed- but, his shivers started to calm, as he realized. Someone else knew his secret, and didn't think less of him for it. "Um, I'm not comfortable with- with whatever this is. But thank you, for keeping my secret, Teruteru."

Teruteru leaned back in his chair and pulled a comb out from somewhere, and started running it through his hair. "Hey, no problem. Us sexual deviants need to look out for each other."

Chihiro slammed his hand on the table in shock, and shouted "I am not a-" He blinked, people were looking at him. He slipped back, tried to shrink down in his chair, and wished he was dead. Well, deader.

A red-haired girl with deep grey eyes and freckles glared ice at Teruteru from across the table. "What the hell did you say to her, Teruteru?"

The little chef smiled awkwardly and held up his hands. "Hey, hey, I didn't mean anything. Just having a little fun."

The red-haired girl, Mahiru, turned to Chihiro, and her face softened. "Ignore him, sweetie. Teruteru's a gross little troll, he's not worth your breath."

Chihiro nodded, uncomfortable with holding Mahiru's gaze for long. He wished someone else would do something distracting, anything to pull attention from him- and that's when the fog machine started. Thick, white smoke started roiling up from a depression in the middle of the table, eliciting queries and shrieks of surprise from the guests. It poured into Chihiro's lap, and obscured his vision. He tried to get up, but, suddenly, belts emerged from the back of his chair, wrapped around him, and pinned his waist to the seat. "What the hell is this?" roared Mondo from nearby, and Chihiro could hear him trying to tear himself out of the chair, or drag it away, anything to escape.

Then, a bright red flash from the center of the smoke seared Chihiro's eyes. He shut them, and shook his head, trying to clear it away. While his eyes were closed, lit only by the shimmering, red after-image, he heard that voice, the high-pitched, squealing voice that haunted the last few, terrible days of his life. "It's the time you've all been waiting for! Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to start the Killing School Bonus Round!"

Chihiro reflexively tried to vomit, but his stomach was empty. His body heaved against the restraints painfully. On his left, he could hear Teruteru, muttering numbly, "It's not real, none of it's real, none of it-"

"Monokuma!" howled a deep, sonorous voice Chihiro did not recognize. "You cowardly imp! You would keep me from the halls of my icy domain? Release me, and face the wrath of Gundham Tanaka!"

"Puhuhu," Chihiro's vision cleared, and he could see that hateful robotic bear Monokuma, standing in the middle of the table, turning to look at each of his guests in turn. He was small, the size of a large plushie, white on one side and black on the other. "Oh, shut it, Tanaka! If you're so eager to get to hell, you'll get your chance!"

"What is the meaning of this, Monokuma?" Celestia Ludenberg asked. She spoke calmly, one delicate, pale hand playing with her black hair, but her bright red eyes were intense, focused. They always were, Chihiro realized. He wondered how she had come to be here. "We are all dead, yes? How have you brought us together?"

The diabolical bear waved his tiny paw dismissively. "When you get rescued from the jaws of hell and invited to my beautiful castle, it isn’t polite to worry about the details, you know. Just be grateful, you miserable bastards!"

"Grateful!" demanded Leon, banging both hands on the table and scowling at Monokuma and everyone else. "How the hell do you expect any of us to be grateful, after what you made us do?"

"Made you do, Leon Kuwata?" Monokuma held up his paws before his devilish grin. "Puhuhu, what exactly do you think I made you do?"

"-Ah!" Leon's scowl deepened, and he stared off at the floor.

Monokuma continued. "Now, if certain, *cough* parties could stop interrupting me, I could explain." He put his paws behind his back, and started marching up and down the table. "You lot are here because you're a bunch of sorry losers, you know that? I invited you to play in two of my killing games, but you just couldn’t cut it. Most of you can't go a week without at least one of you keeling over. And the rest of you, well, I could find more competent murderers as prizes in my breakfast cereal. But, I am a generous, and loving bear, so I'm gonna give you all one more chance to get it right!"

"You don't mean-" Chihiro started.

Monokuma spun and pointed directly at him. "That's right, you sorry little pipsqueak! I want you to kill! Stab, shoot, poison, bludgeon, crush, burn, whatever! Mwahahaha!"

"No!" Thundered a voice, deep and full of rage. Sakura Ogami, the strongest person Chihiro had ever seen, grimaced at Monokuma. She had a dark face, lined with vicious scars, and long white hair. Her bulging muscles seemed at odds with the schoolgirl uniform that barely contained them. "You can't control us again, you demented coward. We'll stand together. We'll beat you, without playing your game."

"She's right," answered another voice, just as deep and full of strength, and -oh, no- Chihiro noticed the big man, far off on his left, for the first time. He wore a black leather jacket and a heavy chain with a whistle dangling from it, and had a pointed beard. And his muscles, wow, he even made Mondo look skinny. "If we work together as a team, we can overcome anything."

"Puhuhu, what are you two meat-heads going to do, fight me?" Monokuma tilted his head slyly. "How'd that work out for you last time? Eh, Nekomaru?" The big man went silent, and bowed his head. "Do you wanna get in the robot again? Or maybe I'll put you in a designer toaster this time, featuring my cute, marketable face, whatcha think?"

"This is stupid," Mahiru insisted. "All we have to do is not play. No matter what motive he gives us, no matter how much he tries to push us around." Her eyes narrowed. "It's no fun for you, if we don't play along, is it?"

Monokuma slumped over in mock defeat. "Oh, you've got me. I could just kill you all right now, but that would only be fun for about five minutes. No nonono, it's only fun if I make you do it." His eye flashed red again. "Luckily, I know just how to do that, puhuhu." He rubbed his hands together. "You see, children, I am in possession of a very rare secret. Right now, you are trapped somewhere, between life and death, perched on the precipice of hell itself. But, if one of you manages to graduate, that is, kill a fellow classmate and escape the scythe of justice, I can restore you to life. But only one of you can escape. The rest, well, you'll be plummeted into the depths of hell, sooner or later!"

A young-looking girl seated near Mahiru, with overlarge blonde ponytails and dressed in an orange kimono, snorted arrogantly. "And why should we even believe you, you dumb bear? This is so stupid…”

“I agree with Hiyoko.” A thin, sickly, pale young man with white hair wheezed through his nose, his arms clasped around his chest. “We’ve already failed. We’ve already proven we don’t have real hope. Even if you do have such a power, Monokuma, none of us deserve it.” He began laughing, and shaking about in his chair. “So, why don’t we end this now? If we all agree not to play this bear’s twisted game, he can just dispose of us, and save himself the disappointment.”

The small girl, Hiyoko, ground her teeth. “Hey, shut your dumb mouth, I never said…”

But the white-haired boy just talked over her. “Why don’t we put it to a simple majority vote? If you think Monokuma’s telling the truth, and we should play his killing game so one of us can have another chance at life, raise your right hand. If you think there’s no point, and you’d rather just be cast into whatever hell awaits failures like us, raise your left.” And he raised his own left hand, by way of demonstration.

“H-hey, can we really decide something like that without talking about it first?” stammered Hifumi Yamada, a large, round boy with a droopy, wide face. “I really don’t wanna be in one of these games again, but there has to be another way besides, uh…”

The white-haired boy smiled. “There’s no point in more discussion. We face a simple choice between a slim hope and certain despair. If you haven’t given up on living, you know the right choice to make.”

“Nagito’s right,” Monokuma grinned devilishly. “I hadn’t planned to give you much of a choice in the matter, but I suppose I can indulge your insipid free will. If you reaaaallly don’t wanna have more fun, just raise your left hand. But, a few rules. Once your hand is up, you can't change your mind. Keep it up until everyone's decided. And, let's keep this civil. If you start fighting, I might decide to change your vote for you. Well, let's not waste time. Chop chop, people, make your choices.”

Some right hands went up right away. Celestia’s, Leon’s, Sayaka’s. But Sakura was the first person after Nagito to raise her left hand. “I have no intention of being a part of your schemes, you monster, and I have no trust in your word. I would rather face hell than believe you.” A tall girl, with gray hair in long braids, glasses, and red eyes raised her left hand as well. “Earning my life back would serve no purpose.” Teruteru followed suit, shrugging. “I don't really want to die, but the sooner I wake up, the better.” The big man with the pointed beard, Nekomaru, followed suit. “I’m sorry, everyone. But I don’t like what I would be going back to.”

Then Byakuya Togami raised his right hand. “It doesn’t matter how terrible the situation is. If we stand united, we can find a way to survive. I don’t know exactly what happened before, but I know that petty disunity tore us apart. I would hope we learned our lesson and can do better this time.” Chihiro squinted. He looked like Byakuya, tall, glasses, blonde hair, green eyes, and his voice matched. But Byakuya would never say something like that, and there was something else that was off, that Chihiro couldn’t place. But, his words had the desired effect. A girl with a lot of piercings and long dark hair, streaked with color and styled into a pair of little horns, practically jumped out of her chair, raising her right hand. “Yeah! Byakuya’s back, woo hoo!” More right hands followed quickly, Mahiru, Hiyoko, and a reluctant Hifumi.

Junko Enoshima, a girl with bright pink hair tied up in big ponytails, raised her right hand as well. “A chance to play some more, huh, from this side? Ha, haha." And then, another Junko raised her left hand. Wait, what? No, Chihiro’s eyes weren’t fooling him. There were two Junkos, though the second one was staring daggers at the first. A lot of others seemed to notice that there was a second Junko, but before anyone could comment on this, the boy who called himself Gundham Tanaka raised his left hand. “To return from the dead is a foul act beyond the overlord of ice’s supreme villainy. Instead, let us hasten to the abyss, that we might conquer hell together!” Chihiro wasn’t sure who the overlord of ice was, but then a purple haired girl, dressed in a nurse’s outfit, raised her left hand as well. “If-if I go to hell, will my beloved be there?”

Chihiro, Mondo, and Taka were the last undecided voters. And Mondo’s left hand slowly went up. “Mondo, bro, what, what are you doing?” Taka asked.

“I think Sakura is right. There’s no point in indulging Monokuma’s sick games. And besides, I…” He looked away from Taka and Chihiro. “I don’t think I could live with what I did, anyway.”

Chihiro suddenly realized how close the vote was, and how much he did still want to live, even if it meant trying to live through this again. “What? Mondo, no, please…”

“Think about it, Chihiro. Do you really want to go through this, again? Do you think it’ll turn out differently? Do you think it would matter if you were stronger?”

Taka looked devastated. "I, if that's what you want, Mondo, I guess-" his left hand twitched.

"Taka, wait," Chihiro swallowed his fear, and raised his right hand. “I think we have to try. We have to try to do better, even though we might fail.”

Taka looked back and forth, between his two friends. Then, he sat up straighter, and raised his right hand high. "Sorry, bro. I think Chihiro's right."

Monokuma was rubbing his chin, giggling manically. "Well, there it is, eleven to nine, turns out you do like playing my little game after all. I'm so happy I think I might puke. Oh, and if there had been a tie, I was totally just gonna flip a coin." He shrugged. "So yeah, you guys were this close."

A chorus of sighs washed over the banquet table. Chihiro noticed that a few who had voted for instant death sighed as well, suggesting they were not as confident in their choice as they seemed. Nagito's raspy laughter followed the sighs, like a string breaking on a violin. "Good, good job everybody. I knew that, when faced with utter despair, you could not but choose hope. I'm sure whoever the successful blackened is will emerge from this test as a true beacon of hope, carrying the last wishes of the rest of us back into the world.”

“Shut up!” Hiyoko squealed. “Shut up, shut up, shut up! Ugh, we outta tie this dumb bastard up again.” She glanced to Mahiru. “…Only, this time, lock him in a room by himself and feed him through a hole in the door, so nobody has to see his crusty face or listen to his garbage mouth.”

“Puhuhu!” Tittered Monokuma. “Well, I think that’s enough fun for now. I’ll let you kids get to know each other over a nice dinner. After that, get a good night’s sleep- your rooms are marked. Tomorrow, the bloodshed can begin anew! Ta-ta!”

The hidden fog machine began to belch white smoke again, obscuring the banquet table. When it cleared, Monokuma was gone, and the restraints on the chairs had unhinged and retracted. Covers had appeared over the platters, and tantalizing smells fought for dominance across the table. Yet the room fell deathly silent with Monokuma’s departure.

Byakuya was the first to remove his meal cover, and he smiled serenely. “Oh, glorious bounty of the golden arches. It has been far too long, since I have had a burger fit for a king.” More lids came off, and the silence broke into complimentary murmurs. Everyone had something different prepared, seemingly to their own tastes. Chihiro wondered how they could move so quickly, from the topic of the death game to enjoying a meal together. But, he realized he was quite hungry, actually.

His platter had a big, juicy steak, cooked rare, with a side of green beans. Not even close to what he would normally want, which seemed odd- but then he realized it would make sense for someone trying to gain muscle to eat a lot of meat. Monokuma, or, whoever decided the menu, was trying to predict his desires. That unnerved him more than if he just guessed everyone’s favorite foods. But, he took to his steak anyway, and found that it was quite good. A hole appeared in the table near his table, and elevated a drink in a tall crystal glass to accompany his meal. Chihiro sipped it, and his face puckered. A protein shake, with who knew what- but it’s what he needed to get strong, right?

He watched the others eating, trying not to stare at any one person long enough for them to notice. Some, like Hifumi, Hiyoko, Nekomaru, and Byakuya were devouring their meals with reckless abandon, and little regard for what they looked like. Teruteru was eating slowly, but talking loudly about how it could be improved, though no one was listening. Some, like Mondo, were obviously subdued, staring off at something else, only taking a disinterested bite now and then.

It hurt Chihiro to see just how dejected Mondo was, and he didn’t know what to do about it. He wanted to just forgive him, but… how do you just forgive something like that? Could Chihiro trust that Mondo would never lose control again, would never hurt someone? He shivered. He couldn’t forgive Mondo, not yet, and that meant, if he still wanted to get stronger, he had to find someone else to help him train.

Nekomaru was an obvious choice. But, Nekomaru didn’t know Chihiro’s secret yet. Thinking about telling someone again made Chihiro’s stomach tie up. Taka had called Chihiro ‘him,’ which meant he knew, and the other people from Chihiro’s killing game probably knew as well. Maybe one of them might be a good choice,

A loud tinging sound interrupted Chihiro’s thoughts. Byakuya was standing before his empty platter, striking his empty glass with a fork. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he had finished first and everyone else was still eating. “I think we should start off with some ground rules, and get to know each other. If we can resist Monokuma’s evil designs, there may be a way for us to get out of this as a group.”

“What the hell makes you think you get to talk?” snarled Mondo. “Aren’t you the one who made fun of everybody for wanting to work together? If you really want that, stay out of the way.”

A strange look crossed Byakuya’s face. He swayed on his feet, and looked unnaturally pale and clammy. “And aren’t you the one who committed the second murder, Mondo Owada?” Celestia cut in. “I agree with Byakuya. If we work together, there’s no reason any of us needs to die.”

Hifumi snorted. “Oh, that’s rich, coming from you.”

“No one gave you permission to speak,” Celestia chided. “You lazy, fat, perverted, adle-brained waste of organs.”

Hifumi recoiled, whimpering into a napkin. Hiyoko grinned, her tiny face lighting up with vile glee. “Oh, I like her.”

“You would, you pus-filled little gremlin.” The girl in the nurse’s outfit smiled sickly. “Maybe this time I’ll kill you slowly. Do you want to know what I could really do with a scalpel, Hiyoko? How much blood you can really lose before you die…”

“What the hell Mikan?” Mahiru stood up and moved over to Hiyoko, putting her hands around the smaller girl’s shoulders and her body between Hiyoko and Mikan. “What’s gotten into you?” Hiyoko started crying silently, and shrinking away.

“Yeah, you’ve got a lot to answer for.” The girl with the colorful pointed hair, and an equally colorful outfit pushed her chair back, marched over to Mikan, and shoved a middle finger right up to Mikan’s nose. “I want you to know I was awake the entire time. I couldn’t control my own body, or scream, or anything, but I knew what was happening. And I knew who was doing it.” She shoved Mikan backwards, and her chair tipped over with a resounding thud, spilling the nurse onto the floor, with a pitiful whimper. “I trusted you, Mikan. I-I thought, maybe you could trust me…”

Byakuya started chiming his fork against his glass again. “This, this right here, this is what I was worried about the most.” He waited for everyone to calm down, though Hiyoko and Mikan were still crying. “Everyone here committed a murder, or was murdered. That means we’ve all got a motive for revenge, or someone we think we need to watch out for.”

“Ah,” Celestia swirled a glass of wine, or, more likely, grape juice. “I see, now. The bear doesn’t even have to give us a motive. We’ve already made one.”

Byakuya seemed to think for a moment. “Yes. That seems to be the case. But whatever mistakes we’ve made, or whoever hurt us, we’re here together, now. Those of you who were murdered, we can’t afford for you to hold a grudge against your killer. And the killers need to feel safe against reprisal.” He turned and stared directly at Teruteru, who wilted beneath his imperious gaze. “I don’t understand exactly what happened, but since we appeared in the same room together, I’m guessing you are the one responsible for killing me. Is that right?”

“Uh, heh, heh…” Teruteru’s round face glistened like a ham. “Yeah, for what it’s worth, I wasn’t trying to kill you, but-“

Byakuya cut him off. “I don’t need to know. What’s important is that we all get out of this, if it really is possible for us to return to life. I can’t promise we can become friends, but I do promise not to seek revenge for what already happened.” He turned his eyes to the rest of the table, scanning each face in turn. “Everyone needs to make that promise, no matter how angry you are, because if we all fail here, it won’t matter.”

The girl with the horns frowned, but nodded. “…Ugh, ok. Ibuki forgives Mikan.” She reached down and offered a hand to the sobbing nurse, who hadn’t bothered trying to get up. Ibuki hauled her to her feet.“Just, don’t kill me again, k?” Mikan made a soft sound, and her eyes filled up with tears.

Hiyoko’s face shriveled up. “You got to be kidding me! How am I supposed to forgive that crazy bitch for cutting my throat?”

Kiyotaka stood, squared his shoulders, and spoke. “I agree with Byakuya completely. This is a chance for us to do better and stand united.” He turned and stiffly bowed to Hifumi, and then to Celestia. “I died to a cowardly sneak attack, and I don’t know which of you is responsible. But it doesn’t matter. I forgive you, at least until this is resolved.”

Celestia nodded gracefully. “It was my plan, but it was nothing personal. I simply wanted to escape. I apologize for my actions.”

Hifumi put his hands together and turned to her. “And… what about me, Ms. Ya, um, Ms. Ludenberg?”

She frowned. “Stay away from me, and we won’t have a problem.”

“Ha!” Nekomaru rose his glass, and pointed it towards Tanaka. “It’s no problem for me. Our duel was an honorable one, and I have nothing but respect for the sacrifice we made together.”

Tanaka cackled arrogantly. “Indeed, Nekomaru. Our duel shall go down in legend for millennia to come!” Wait, Chihiro thought, Tanaka beat Nekomaru in a fight to the death? But, he didn’t look nearly as strong… interesting…

But the others seemed less enthusiastic about forgiving their killers. Leon and Sayaka were trying, but failing to make eye contact. Mahiru was glaring at the girl with the gray braids, who was calmly ignoring her. Sakura and the white-haired boy, Nagito, didn’t seem to be looking at anyone, though they seemed preoccupied.

Chihiro got so absorbed in reading everyone else’s faces, that he almost forgot about Mondo. But, sure enough, he sat dejectedly sipping from his glass, pointedly not looking at Chihiro. Of course, revenge was the furthest thing from Chihiro’s mind. But it wasn’t Chihiro the biker was worried about, it was his own guilt. Chihiro thought about standing up and making a big proclamation of forgiveness, like some of the others had done. But it would just embarrass Mondo, and it would look ridiculous anyway. He pictured it, a skinny little girl, promising not to murder the tall, intimidating biker in cold blood. He shivered. The best he could do was try to smile at Mondo, but he didn’t notice.

“There is something else I think we should clear up,” Taka said, pointing at one of the Junkos. “Why, exactly, are there two of you here, Junko Enoshima?”

The Junko he’d pointed at snarled, and then she reached up, grabbed her long, pink hair, and, yanked it off, in one smooth motion. Beneath the elaborate wig, her hair was short and very dark. Without it, her face seemed much thinner, much more severe, than Chihiro had realized. “I’m not Junko, dammit. I’m her twin sister. My name is Mukuro Ikusaba, the Ultimate Soldier. I suggest you leave me alone and try not to get in my way.”

Taka stepped back, warily. “Can you explain how you got here, Mukuro? What connection do you have to this game?”

“She was killed by Monokuma before the game started, before the rest of us met in the entry hall,” answered the other Junko. She swayed when she spoke, and her hair swished messily in front of her face. “I think there was a problem with her memory wipe not working properly, isn’t that right sister?”

Mukuro tilted her head, considering Junko’s explanation. “Yes, that’s what happened.”

“That’s why I acted so recklessly, in the gymnasium,” the real Junko went on. “Monokuma had already killed my own precious sister, right in front of me, and made me promise not to talk about it. But I let my emotions get the better of me, and made a fool of myself. I’m an idiot, I deserved to die.”

The twins glared at each other, Mukuro’s gaze icy cold, Junko’s shaky and delirious. Chihiro didn’t believe them for an instant, there was definitely more going on between them. But the rest of them probably weren’t getting answers tonight.

The meal continued in relative silence, until, one by one, the diners drifted off towards the rooms around the banquet hall. Chihiro wasn’t strong enough to finish his steak, but he ate as much as he could, feeling sorry for the cow. There was nowhere to take dishes, so everyone just left them on the table. Chihiro hadn't noticed before, but the doors were labeled with names and pictures of the students, much like in Hope's Peak. Chihiro’s room was between Leon’s and Mondo’s, so it seemed they were organized by the order in which they had died.

Chihiro was too overwhelmed to think about any of it. Not where they were, or what it had been like to die, not Monokuma’s promise that one of them could return to life, not the strangers, or the overwhelming anxiety of being in another killing game. He got ready for bed mechanically, turned off the light, and collapsed on the mattress, staring up at the ceiling. And he remembered that this was the first time he’d gone to sleep since Mondo had promised not to make him cry, since Monokuma had threatened to reveal his secret, since he had told Mondo the truth. And since Mondo had killed him. Chihiro fell asleep crying, and hoped to wake up somewhere else.

Chapter Text

But, of course, when morning found him, Chihiro was in the same room. He thought about staying there, about hiding and hoping he could avoid the killing game entirely. But he knew that wasn’t right. Even if he felt useless and weak, he had to try to do what he could to help the others. He had to find someone to help him get stronger, too. He was scared, but he didn’t want to be a helpless victim in this killing game, too.

So he got dressed and went out into the banquet hall. Many of his classmates, and the people from this other killing game, were eating breakfast from a buffet that had been laid for them. But, Mondo and Taka were not there yet. Chihiro fretted about where to sit, whether to try and sit alone or intrude on someone’s meal, when the red-haired girl, Mahiru, waved him over.

She was sitting with Hiyoko, the short girl in the bright orange kimono, and Ibuki, the girl with the wild hair. Chihiro was nervous about sitting with girls, but he didn’t want to seem rude. He filled his plate and took the seat next to Mahiru. “Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.” He started eating his eggs right away, hoping it would excuse him from too much conversation.

But Mahiru and Hiyoko had nearly finished their breakfast, and Ibuki seemed distracted by playing with her potatoes, so Chihiro wasn’t getting off that easy. “I’m Mahiru Koizumi, and these are my friends, Hiyoko Salonji, and Ibuki Mioda. We’re hoping to get to know the girls from the other killing game. If we’re all being thrown in this mess together, we may as well start building trust, right?”

Chihiro swallowed a piece of bacon. “Uh, right, trust, that makes sense. Um, I’m Chihiro Fujisaki, by the way. It’s, nice to meet you all.”

Mahiru nodded. “And if you stay close to me, you won’t have to worry about any of those gross boys like Teruteru giving you a hard time. OK?”

Chihiro’s face flushed, but he wasn’t sure if it was because she had reminded him of that unfortunate encounter last night, or because somebody had already decided he needed to be protected. ‘Umm, thanks. Yeah, I’d rather avoid him.”

“Monokuma was here earlier, lucky you, you missed him.” Mahiru said. “But he says there are some areas to explore, off this main hall. We might even find some clues about how to escape.”

“Fat chance of that,” Hiyoko sneered. “Probably just some where somebody could get themselves killed. Why would we want to go exploring?”

“Cause Ibuki’s getting bored!” The excitable girl flicked a spoonful of potatoes towards Hiyoko, just barely missing her, likely on purpose. “Come on, guys, bring the new girl! Ibuki bets we’ll find something cool!”

“I wonder,” Mahiru mused, “If we did just stick to the banquet hall and our rooms, if we could just wait Monokuma out?”

As much as Chihiro had been hoping for the same thing, he knew it wouldn’t work. “No, something will happen eventually, even if we stay put and keep to ourselves. The first murder in my killing game happened in the dorms.” He winced. “But, we do need to be really careful, about where we go, and who we trust. Moving in groups like this is a good idea. You don’t want to be alone with anyone.” Lessons he had learned, the hard way. “I’ll come with you, if that’s alright, like Ibuki said.”

Mahiru tsked. “You don’t need to tell me. I was the second person in my game to be killed. Blow to the back of the head. Didn’t even see who did it, until we woke up in the same room together.”

“Wow,” Chihiro muttered, feeling a sharp phantom pain across the back of his head, “That sounds way too similar. But, is there any chance we could talk about something else?”

“Right, didn’t mean to be so morbid, ugh.” Mahiru shook her head. “Watch out for Peko, though, and Mikan. We used to be friends with her, but, after what happened…”

“Oh, gross, can we please not talk about her?” Hiyoko whined. “I don’t care what Byakuya says, I am not forgiving that walking sack of piss and crazy. I can’t believe you did forgive her, Ibuki.”

Ibuki stuck her tongue out at the shorter girl. “I still don’t feel… safe, about Mikan. I don’t understand why she killed us. But, I want to. Ibuki and Mikan were close.” She made a strange noise, like a crying cat. “That makes it hurt, a lot more.”

That, too, felt a little too familiar. “So… I notice a lot of your group are wearing school uniforms. Are you students?”

“Oh, sure.” Mahiru answered. “We were supposed to start classes at Hope’s Peak Academy, but we get taken to that weird island and got put in this messed up game.”

“Oh, my group was starting at Hope’s Peak, too. Maybe there’s a connection there. I mean, like, why we all got put into these twisted death games. Mine took place at the school itself, though.”

“Oh, hey, does that mean you all have ultimate abilities, too?” Ibuki asked. “Ibuki is the Ultimate Musician!” To demonstrate, she beat out a surprisingly melodic rhythm with a fork and a spoon on her platter, sending gravy and tiny bits of mashed potato splattering about.

Hiyoko recoiled in disgust. “Yeah, sure you are. I’m the Ultimate Traditional Dancer. I’ve been practicing at it for a long time, and I work a lot harder at my talent than you do, Ibuki.”

Ibuki seemed entranced by the noises she could make by striking her plate with the fork in different ways, and didn’t seem to notice Hiyoko’s snide remark. So, Mahiru took over. “And I’m the Ultimate Photographer. Here, check it out.” She pulled open the shoulder bag she was wearing, and showed Chihiro her camera. “It was a gift from my mother. So, Chihiro, what’s your Ultimate Talent?”

“Umm,” he hoped this wouldn’t be too embarrassing. “I’m the Ultimate Programmer.”

“Programmer! Like computers?” Shrieked Ibuki, hitting her plate hard enough on the edge to flip it over. “Oh, that is so cool! Do you make games Chihiro?”

Chihiro tried to keep the grimace off his face. That’s what people always assumed. “N-no, that’s not really my specialty. I do more with creating artificial intelligences to help people, stuff like that.” The table got quiet, and Chihiro waited for the girls to make fun of him.

“Oh,” said Ibuki, subdued. “It’s too bad you don’t make games. One of the people in our group was some kinda Ultimate Gamer. It would have been cool to see you try to make a game she couldn’t beat.” She shrugged. “Guess it doesn’t matter, though. She’s not here. I guess that means she lived.” Then, her eyes lit up. “But, But! I bet you could program a light show for a concert! Yeah, that’d be really cool!”

Chihiro gritted his teeth. “I mean, of course I could, but that isn’t the point.”

Mahiru smiled. “Don’t mind Ibuki, she’s just excitable. I think your work sounds pretty important, even if it’s not something I think I’d understand. Right, Hiyoko?”

“Yeah, I guess. It’s not as fun as what any of us do, but if you like it, that’s cool.”

“Thanks, you guys,” Chihiro murmured. Truth was, hardly anyone ever seemed excited about his talent, unless they were in the same field. “But, the real problem is that I feel, sorta useless without a computer. You’re lucky your camera came with you, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so,” Mahiru said. “But, maybe we could find some computers, while we’re exploring. Why don’t we get started?”

“Yeah, please,” Hiyoko said, wiping some gravy off her kimono sleeve. “Before Ibuki gets any more bored.”

Chihiro's plate was still half full, but he didn't want to get left behind. The banquet hall was an octagon, with two long walls where the dorm rooms were located. There were four short, corner walls, and one wall decorated with an elaborate stained glass mural, that depicted a triumphant Monokuma standing over a defeated pink creature, some sort of plush rabbit. The final wall boasted a large set of open doors, leading out to an atrium with a fountain. Ibuki led the way, walking in an exaggerated goose step that made a loud click with each footfall, the other three trailing behind.

The large fountain in the center of the spacious atrium featured a stone Monokuma in a bikini, belching a gushing stream over a marble pool. Small gardens, filled with plants Chihiro assumed were fake added more welcome color to the space, and several benches faced the fountain. Opposite the banquet hall stood a staircase, going up and down, with a red velvet carpet. It was barred by a portcullis. Four doors opened further into other areas to the left and the right.

Ibuki ran straight to the fountain and ran her fingers through the water, giggling like a little kid. "Ugh, she's such a child," muttered Hiyoko, though Chihiro had to admit that she looked like she was having more fun.

Ibuki jumped in the fountain and tried to splash water at the others. Mahiru defended her satchel, and Hiyoko scowled. Chihiro flinched, the water was quite cold. "Ibuki, we aren't here to play." Mahiru snapped. "Get out of there." She glanced around at the doors available to them. "Let's start there? I think there was a place like that where our game took place."

It was a small store, the RocketPunch! Market. Mahiru led the way inside, Ibuki now bringing up the rear, drenched and seemingly unconcerned about it. Several aisles stretched the length of it, boasting such diverse goods as sporting equipment, snacks, camping supplies, toiletries, and hardware. "H-hey," Hiyoko stuttered. "This, this isn't a good place, you guys."

"What do you mean?" Chihiro asked. "There could be some useful stuff here, maybe we could even use the tools to find a way to escape."

Hiyoko shook her head. "Ugh, no, no, think, Chihiro. There WAS a place like this in our killing game. It's chock full of things the murderers can use to kill somebody. If there was actually anything useful here, you think Monokuma would just let us waltz in here and take it?"

"Did that happen in our game, Hiyoko?" Mahiru asked.

"Um, yeah." She looked down, and Chihiro could tell she was trying really hard not to cry. "Peko got the baseball bat she used to kill you from there. I-I don't know, but Mikan might have gotten the rope there, too."

Ibuki rubbed her neck, making a sour face. "Yeah, that, doesn't feel good to think about. Oh, hey, there's some other people here!" She yelled out, "Hey, other people, woo!"

It was Hifumi, walking down the aisle, his arms loaded with candy bars and a case of soda. And, walking side by side, carrying a six pack of flavored water, was Sayaka Maizono. "Oh, good day to you." Hifumi nodded. "Are you making some new friends, Mr. Fujisaki?"

Panic flared through Chihiro's spine. He shook his head frantically, hoping Hifumi got the point. He had to get everyone's attention somewhere else, and just hope it slipped by, unnoticed. "Uh, I didn't know you and Sayaka were friends."

"Oh, of course." Sayaka smiled. She looked a lot how Chihiro remembered her looking, on television. She had dark hair, and a school uniform with a big pink bow on the front. "Hifumi's a dear. We were just going to head back to his room so he could show me some of his fics."

Mahiru spaced out for a second, but came back with, "Well, no accounting for taste, I suppose. I'm Mahiru Koizumi, the Ultimate Photographer. These are my friends Hiyoko and Ibuki, and you must already know Chihiro." She held a hand out, and Sayaka shook it.

"Sayaka Maizono, the Ultimate Pop Sensation. And this is Hifumi Yamada, the Ultimate Fan Fic Creator."

"This place is awesome!" Hifumi blurted out. "There's so many different snacks, and art supplies, and manga, and you don't have to pay for anything!"

"Yeah, and doesn't that bother you a little bit, walrus-face?" Hiyoko scowled. "This place is a murder case, waiting to happen! We need to seal it off, before somebody gets hurt."

"Oh-" Hifumi's face drooped. "Do you really think this place is that bad?"

"Mmmm, I don't know," mused Sayaka. "If someone wants to commit a murder, they'll probably find what they need somewhere. Besides, I'm not sure we could keep this place safe against intruders."

"It is a concern," Mahiru said. "We can discuss it as a group tonight, over dinner."

"That sounds reasonable," Hifumi mused. "Oh! Come on Ms Maizono, help me get all the good manga out of here before this place gets shut down!" He took off, as fast as his too thin legs could carry him.

Sayaka shrugged. "It was nice meeting all of you," and followed behind him.

"Let's get going, too," Mahiru suggested. "There's still three other areas to check out." They exited the store, and entered the space to their right. They stepped into a dark, black tiled room, lit by glowing tanks of water along the walls.

"An aquarium?" Chihiro said, moving close to a tank with a number of puffer fish and anemones along the bottom. He smiled, enjoying the calming sight of the cute sea creatures.

"Why the hell would Monokuma build us a place like this?" Hiyoko asked, sticking her tongue out at a tank full of tiny crabs.

Ibuki dashed over to a large tank with a pair of manta rays in it. "Whoa, girls, check out these things!" She raised her arms, and started flapping them, as if she could mimic them. "Ha, these are neat!"

"Silence, you blabbering fool!" Commanded a deep voice from the darkness. Gundham Tanaka, a tall, pale-skinned man in a black coat with a purple scarf emerged from the depths of the aquarium, scowling at Ibuki. "Have some respect for the demons of the abyss, you shrieking harpy, or I shall feed your remains to them by way of compensation."

"Huh?" Ibuki saluted, half-mockingly. "OK, sure, Ibuki was being too loud. I can be quiet if it means I can watch the fishes some more."

"Hmmph! Very well. Mind your manners, mortals. You stand in a hall of ancient gods." He stomped in between the group, not even noticing Chihiro as his scarf slapped him on the way past. Chihiro watched him go, much longer than the girls.

"H-Hey," he asked, "What can you three tell me about that guy, anyway?"

"Gundham?" Ibuki answered. "He's pretty funny. Ibuki doesn't know what he's talking about most of the time, but then, Ibuki doesn't always know what Ibuki's talking about."

"Ugh," groaned Hiyoko. "He's so full of his own bullshit!"

"He's a bit eccentric, but he's ok." Mahiru said. "I mean, for a boy. He's not gross or anything. Why, do you like 'em tall, dark, and weird?"

"Huh?" Chihiro bit his lip. "No, nothing like that. He's just, interesting, I guess. Did he really beat Nekomaru in a fight?"

"Sounds like a lie to me," Hiyoko frowned. "It must have happened after all of us died, though."

"What's his special talent?" Chihiro asked, hoping he was some kind of awesome warrior.

"Hmm, he's the Ultimate Breeder." Mahiru said, prompting a crude snicker from Ibuki. Mahiru gently elbowed her. "Like, animals, Chihiro. He raises animals."

"Animals?" That was unexpected. "What kind of animals?"

"Oh, I don't know." Mahiru shrugged. "I think he raises a bunch of different kinds. He had a bunch of little hamsters with him during our last game, though I don't think they came with him here. He would have showed them off by now."

"Hamsters?" Chihiro's heart did a little flip, "Oh, I'd like to meet him, then."

"You like cute animals, huh? Well, I'm sure you'll get the chance." Mahiru said. "Come on, I don't think we're going to find anything here."

Mahiru had to lead Ibuki out by the hand, promising her she could come back later, but they crossed the atrium to the room opposite. There was no sign, and only an unmarked double door, but Mahiru didn't hesitate, leading the way inside.

It was a gym or dojo, with a spacious open area in the center and benches along the side. Folded up training mats, changing areas, and a few pieces of exercise equipment completed the setup. Peko, the tall girl with the gray braids and glasses, was there, going through a series of training exercises with a bamboo sword. Chihiro admired her grace and focus, but Mahiru scowled and ushered the others back out. They went without complaint, but Mahiru had to half-pull Chihiro out of the dojo.

Chihiro withered under her grim face. "S-sorry, I forgot. I just- well, sometimes I wish I was strong like that, is all."

Mahiru shook off her ill mood. "No, I'm sorry, you didn't do anything wrong. It's just, I still really don't understand why she did it. I wasn't close to her or anything, and I didn't do anything to upset her, so it doesn't make sense."

"Oh," Hiyoko looked worried. "I guess I can explain that. See, turns out, she worked for Fuyuhiko, like an assassin or bodyguard, or something like that. She thought by killing you and taking the blame for it, she could save him."

"How was that supposed to work?" Chihiro asked. "And who's Fuyuhiko?"

"The son of some big Yakuza family." Hiyoko explained. "Thought he was hot shit, until Peko died, then he started giving a damn about the rest of us. Anyway, I don't really get it, but Peko thought of herself as his tool, or some garbage. So she thought if she killed someone, he would be the blackened, but she could make sure he wasn't found out and take the fall. And that would mean he got to leave." Hiyoko threw her hands up, groaning loudly. "Of course, it didn't fucking work, because no matter what she thinks, she was the one who killed big sis, and the whole thing was totally fucking pointless." She crossed her arms, and hmphed. "Guess she was a tool, after all."

"Huh," Mahiru's gaze drifted. "I don't know if knowing helps or not. At least I know it wasn't personal, so she probably won't target me again. Still, it makes you uneasy, doesn’t it? Knowing that someone else killed you, and you have to share this place with them.” She shivered. “Ugh. I hope we really can get out of here. Anyway, come on. There’s one more place to investigate.”

The last area off the atrium, between the banquet hall and the dojo, had swinging double doors and was marked with a large red cross. Hiyoko shoved them open and led the way in. Chihiro was at the back of the group, and before he even got in, he heard Hiyoko yell out, “Oh, hell fucking no!”

Chihiro heard a high pitched “Meep,” as he moved past Ibuki to get a better view. They were in a pale blue, sterile-smelling room, with a few hospital beds, counters with sinks, and cabinets likely full of medical equipment. And, rooting through one of the cabinets, perched on the counter on her knees, was the purple-haired girl in the nurse’s outfit, Mikan. “Umm, hey, Hiyoko,” she said, her voice shaking, even though she was far taller than her tormentor. “Mahiru, Ibuki. And, uh, you…”

“Get out of here, Mikan!” Hiyoko stomped towards her, rolling up her kimono sleeves, even though they rolled right back down.

“Umm, I’m just checking the medical supplies, so I can take care of someone if they get hurt…”

“Or are you looking for a scalpel, huh, you two-faced murderous bitch?" Hiyoko's face went red. "Or are you going to fill a syringe with… I dunno, something? I’d rather let Teruteru handle medical care than you. You are not allowed near this place, you got that?”

Mikan started blubbering, big, wet tears cascading off her face and down her uniform. “I just, I just want to help. I want to make up for what I did last time.”

“Hiyoko…” Mahiru started.

“Don’t try to argue about this, Mahiru. She fucking killed me. She killed both of us.” She pointed at Ibuki. “I saw her, standing over Ibuki, strangling her with a rope. And she heard me, and she turned… and her eyes, her eyes…” Hiyoko shuddered, trying to fight the memory, and only getting madder as a result. “Maybe what Peko did to you was just business, but Mikan’s sick, and we can’t trust her.”

Mikan held up her hands, and bowed. The motion unbalanced her, and she tumbled off the countertop, hitting the floor with a thud and an “ouch!” Chihiro studiously inspected a medical chart, detailing proper CPR technique, while Ibuki helped her up. “Oh, sorry, how clumsy of me. But, I was trying to say, that, that person you saw wasn’t the real me. I- It’s not my fault, really.”

“Oh, what, you’re going to blame the ‘despair disease’” Hiyoko waved her hands sarcastically. “Bullshit.”

Ibuki’s eyes dimmed. “Hey, Hiyoko, could you back off a bit? Maybe?”

“Hey, I know it messed you up, too, but it just made you zone out a bit. It didn’t make you kill anybody.”

“It didn’t just make me ‘zone out a bit.’” Ibuki moved between the two, and pointed down at Hiyoko. “It took my freedom, my expression. Ibuki was screaming, inside her own head, alone, and nobody could hear.” She closed her eyes, writhing with the wretched memory of helplessness. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. Worse than the pain of being strangled to death.” Ibuki took a deep breath, and stepped back. “If Mikan says she killed us because the disease did something to her, I believe her.”

“But,” Hiyoko yanked her ponytails. “Ugh, I can’t believe you’d take her side.” She shook her head. “Besides, it isn’t the same. You remember last night? She threatened to cut me up. But the disease should be gone now, right? Ibuki doesn’t have it anymore. You got an explanation for that, eh, Mikan?”

“I… I.” She grabbed at her heart. “My disease… made me feel terrible things. It made me remember terrible, beautiful things… they’re a bit, hazier, now, but they’re still there. Even if the disease is gone, the memories are there, and it’s hard to separate them out.” She buried her face in her hands. “I didn’t think anyone would ever forgive me for all the things we, I, did. But, but, Ibuki forgave me.” She sniffled. “You want to believe I can be trusted again, right?”

She held out a hand, to the stunned musician. “Umm, yeah. Yeah, of course I do.”

Mikan smiled, oblivious to the snot and tears running down her face, or the uneasy expression on Ibuki's. “Then, that’s enough. Then I’m going to work as hard as I can so everyone can trust me again. And I’ll take care of everyone that gets hurt. Because that’s how I can help. And, maybe, one day, you can forgive me too, Hiyoko.”

Mahiru rested a hand on Hiyoko’s shoulder. “Hey. I know it’s hard. But, I’m going to try to forgive Peko, too. It’s gonna take some time, but do you think you could work on it? It would be good to have a talented nurse in this place, after all.”

She pushed Mahiru’s hand aside. “Ugh, fine. Just don’t come crying to me when she disembowels somebody.” She turned and marched towards the door. “I’m outta here.”

Mikan smiled sweetly, and called, “Thanks, Hiyoko!” as she left.

Chihiro left with Mahiru, leaving Ibuki and Mikan alone. The three stood around, waiting to see if Ibuki was coming. “Um, I’m really sorry.” Chihiro said, bowing his head. “I feel like I saw a lot of things in there I probably shouldn’t have.”

“Oh, she falls like that on purpose,” Hiyoko muttered.

Chihiro’s face flushed. “That, that’s not what I meant. That was something really personal, between friends. And I was just an intruder, a spectator.” He shook his head. “I didn’t need to be there. I’m sorry.”

Mahiru smiled. “Hey, don’t worry about it. You’re our friend now, too. I’m sure everyone here has a screwed-up story about who killed them, or why they did it.” Her expression soured. “Ugh, actually, if we’re going to survive in this place, it would probably help if we got more of those stories out in the open. So, how about it, Chihiro?” She rolled her eyes. “Do you want to tell us how you died?”

Chihiro’s shoulders tensed. “I… I really don’t. I need to talk to my killer, first.” It felt so painful to think of Mondo as his killer, but that was the truth, wasn’t it? “I don’t really understand why he did it.”

Mahiru nodded. “Well, we can go with you, if you’re scared.”

Chihiro shook his head. “No… I need to handle this on my own. I’m not scared of him.” He didn’t add that there were things he would need to discuss that he really, really wasn’t ready to discuss with his new friends. “But, I’ll tell you when I can, ok? For now, I think I need to go be alone for a while. I don’t handle… being around people, for too long.” He winced. “N, no offense. I have enjoyed getting to know both of you, and Ibuki.”

Mahiru nodded. “Of course, we’ll see you at dinner, probably.”

“Yeah,” Hiyoko added, “Maybe next time, we can dance together."

Chihiro's brain scrambled, as he tried to process the offer. "Dance? Wait, I don't know how to dance-"

Hiyoko rolled her eyes "Duh. I would teach you, you dummy." She pouted. "Come on, it'll be fun. No one else is small enough to dance with me."

Mahiru sighed. "Y-yeah, we tried once, but it's hard when I'm over a foot taller than her."

"Mmm," Hiyoko groaned. "Well, it's not my fault everybody else is so freakishly tall. But I bet you could do it, Chihiro."

"Um, I'll think about it, I guess." Sometimes, it would be nice if he knew how to just say no to people.

"Yeah!" Hiyoko waved, smiling like a cherub. "See you later, little sis."

 

Little sis. The words bounced around Chihiro's head for the rest of the afternoon, as he lay in his room. It was absurd, he had at least half a foot on Hiyoko. But, he was still very small, especially for a boy. And he was weak. He found it easier to hide as a girl than deal with the pressures of being a weak man, even though it occasionally got him into situations like this.

It wasn't even that he didn't want to try dancing with her. It might be fun. But the more time he spent with the girls, the more he risked them finding out the truth. Right now, they treated him just like one of their own, but how would that change, if they knew?

He had thought he was ready to cast off the disguise, to be a man and accept whatever happened. But, Mondo had killed him, and it rattled Chihiro so badly that he wasn't feeling so brave anymore. Now, they were both thrown into another killing game, with all these new people, and all the pressure was back, but worse. If he told everyone he was a man, his weakness would stand out, he'd be seen as a target. He'd probably die, again, without doing anything to make a difference.

Of course, some of them knew, anyway. There had been that near miss with Hifumi, earlier. If he didn't want someone to blow his secret wide open, he needed to figure out who knew, and talk to them. He closed his eyes, feeling his headache build up. And that meant talking to Mondo, first.

A knock at the door startled Chihiro out of his catastrophizing mood. He answered the door, and found a holllow-eyed Mondo. "Hey, man. Everybody's coming together for dinner. You in?"

"Uh," Chihiro realized he was, in fact, hungry. "Sure. But, you don't look so good."

"I could say the same to you," Mondo frowned. "You look like you've been thinking way too hard about something you should probably just do already." He sighed. "But, yeah. Taka's still having issues. He took our deaths pretty hard, especially because of, what I did. It's hard to get him to eat."

"I'm sorry," Chihiro said. "I should spend some time with him, too. And, umm... I need to talk to you about something, after dinner, if that's ok."

"Yeah, sure, whatever you need." They walked together, towards the banquet table. Apparently, Monokuma only chose the menu that first night. An extensive buffet, even bigger than the one at breakfast, was set up for the students. Chihiro picked up some rice balls, and a small piece of brisket, and took a seat next to Mondo. The table filled up quickly, with the white-haired stranger, Nagito, taking the other seat next to Chihiro. The mood was livelier than last night. Even with the threat of a new killing game, new bonds were forming, and old ones reinvigorated. Laughter and kind words floated around the table. Chihiro enjoyed his dinner, and the pleasant atmosphere.

But, of course, it couldn't last. Eventually, Byakuya stood up and tinged on his glass with a fork, much as he had the night before. "I'm glad to see everyone in better spirits, tonight. But, I think it's time to discuss what we all found today."

"Hey, rich boy," Mondo interrupted, "Where the hell do you get off acting like we voted for you or some shit, anyway? I don't remember agreeing to be bossed around by some trust fund bitch."

Byakuya frowned. "If we are going to make it through this game alive, we need to stand united. Because of the leadership talent that comes naturally to one such as myself, and because of the experiences I've overcome, I'm a natural choice. I am acting as the leader because I took that burden for myself. But I don't do so out of petty narcissism. I do this because I want what's best for everyone."

"Aw, man, would you listen to you?" Leon groaned. "It's like you're a totally different person. Come on, who else thinks Byakuya should shut it?"

Celestia set down her cup of milk tea, and glared at Leon, her red eyes shining fiercely. "Are you volunteering to be the leader, Kuwata?"

"Huh? No, that's not what I'm saying, it's just-"

"Then kindly shut up," she continued. "Byakuya is doing a fine job. If he fails as a leader, someone else will take his place. Someone more competent than you."

Taka nodded. "I agree with Celestia, though, not with her tone. If Byakuya strays from the path of harmony, there are those who can right the ship." Mondo shook his head, and stared at his plate.

Byakuya nodded at both Celestia and Kiyotaka. "I appreciate the vote of confidence. And Mondo and Leon's comments are not unfair, either. I welcome other perspectives, as long as they promote the good of the group. Anyway, continuing onward, did anyone find any clues that explain where we are, or how to get out of here?"

“It’s one thing to talk about working together, but how do you actually intend to get out?” Nagito was grinning sickly. “Moving forward as a group will only get you so far. No, for us to survive this trial, someone has to really take the lead. Someone has to open the way forward. After all it’s obvious there’ s more to this castle. We know what we have to do if we want Monokuma to open up more areas to explore.”

“I don’t like your tone, Nagito,” Taka said. “You almost sound as if you want someone to commit a murder.”

“Yeah,” Mondo added. “Maybe we should start with you.”

Nagito started wheezing with laughter, and doubled over. “Oh, no, I couldn’t kill one of you ultimates, that’d be such a disappointment. I’m just lucky to be here, that’s all. But if you are looking for someone to kill, I would gladly volunteer.”

Ibuki gritted her teeth. “You’re like a broken record! Is that all you ever say?”

“Don’t worry, I don’t want to derail from your discussion too much, I just thought you might like a different perspective. But-“ His hands clenched and unclenched in his lap,” “there is something, I think you should all be aware of. I’m not sure you’ve noticed it yet.”

“Spit it out or shut up,” Hiyoko barked.

“It’s just… Well, I don’t know if any of you have taken the time to investigate the tapestries, here in the banquet hall. They’re very… interesting.” Tapestries? Chihiro had to admit he hadn’t looked. But he made a mental note to do so, in the morning. There were curious looks around the table. It seemed no one else had much to say about them.

"Who cares about freaking tapestries?" Hiyoko asked. "There's something way more dangerous we need to discuss, and that's weapons. There's a lot of dangerous stuff in the store and the infirmary. If we don't keep it under guard, someone's gonna end up dead."

"What?" Teruteru whined. "You want us to put guards on the store? But we'll need guards to watch the guards... ugh, sounds miserable."

Nekomaru frowned, and stroked his goatee. "It's true that some of the murders were committed with items taken from the store. Maybe setting up guards isn't a bad idea."

Celestia nodded. "We'll need to set up six hour shifts, and have two people on duty at any given time." She pushed her plate aside, and pulled a fountain pen and a pad of paper from her purse. "We'll draw lots to decide shifts. That way, no one gets to plan ahead based on who their working with."

Byakuya shook his head. "I think you are getting ahead of yourself. We need to base our cooperation on trust, not on paranoid security measures. I know already how well that works out in the end."

"...You're all idiots," Mukoro said, silencing the discussion. She was no longer dressed like a copy of her sister, but rather wore a simple white blouse and black mini-skirt. When all eyes were on her, she continued. "The fact is, anything can be a murder weapon. I could kill anyone at this table with my fork, except perhaps Sakura. How are you going to make sure no one slips silver from the dinner table? I would wager there's potential weapons in our rooms, too." She sighed. "We have, in our number, the world's greatest martial artist, a master swordswoman, a gang leader who's probably been in a deadly fight or two, multiple geniuses capable of orchestrating complex murders, and me. In a way, Baykuya's right, if we can't trust each other, we're screwed anyway. But I think it goes further than that." Her steely gray eyes narrowed. "Everyone here needs to accept that they could die. Don't kid yourself. You aren't safe, and you can't make yourself safe."

Mukoro's words chilled Chihiro's blood. Partly because they were a grim reminder of how vulnerable he was, even compared to everyone else. But also, Mukoro's comment about the geniuses confused and frightened him. He wasn't sure who Mukoro meant. Everybody here was an ultimate, of course, a genius of one kind or another. But, because of the nature of his ability, Chihiro was one of the most logically oriented. Did Mukoro think Chihiro was capable of plotting a murder? Was she right?

Celestia's mouth trembled. Was she sweating? "You're saying we should just give up?"

"Heh," Mukoro chuckled. "Ha, hahaha. No, I'm saying trust each other. But, have a plan for yourself, when things go wrong, because they will. Trying to guard the weapons is just going to stress everybody out, make things tenser for no reason. None of you have really thought about how these games work. It's not up to us whether a murder happens. It's just our responsibility to pick up the pieces when it does."

"Then," Taka stammered. "What's the point of trusting each other?"

She shrugged. "Because if we don't we'll never be able to solve the mystery and get out of here. Think of it like this. When you're a soldier, you know you have every chance of dying in action. No matter how much you train, how much you prepare, it's a daily fact of life that you could die. So, instead of putting all your focus on keeping yourself alive, you trust your unit to have your back, and to get the job done if you don't make it. Even if you go home in a box, you will have done your part, and that's all anyone can ask of you. Some of you are going to die again. Come to terms with it now."

Silence echoed around the table as Mukoro smiled serenely, satisfied with her message. Celestia banged her fist on the table. "That's not good enough. Not all of us are soldiers, or warriors. I for one, won't allow myself to believe that such things are inevitable. I'm still going to organize guard shifts for the store, at least. But-" She faltered, glancing down and closing her eyes. "Participation is, voluntary, of course. I can see that many of you disagree with my methods, and I would prefer not to waste time arguing about it. Everyone who wants to help protect us, meet with me in the morning after breakfast."

Mukuro tsked. "Do what you want, and that goes for all of you. But I'm telling you, it's a waste of time, doll-face." The conversation petered out after that, and soon, people began splitting of to go to their rooms. Mondo walked with Chihiro, out to the atrium. They sat on a bench, facing the fountain. Even though no outside light reached this room, the ambient lighting had dimmed, and there were pretty shifting lights illuminating the flowing water.

Chihiro was content to enjoy the atmosphere for a while, but Mondo broke the silence. "Man, everybody had a lot of shit to say tonight, huh? Are you going to sign up for guard duty?"

"I don't know," Chihiro admitted. "I'm a little scared I'll mess it up, but I want to help everyone. That's not really what I'm thinking about, though. I'm concerned about Mukuro."

Mondo tensed up for a moment. "Yeah, she's a cold bitch, all right. Don't let what she said get to you, nobody here would hurt-"

"Careful," Chihiro interjected, his chest heaving, "You, of all people, know that's a lie." He tensed up, his hands shaking, his eyes watering. "I, I need to know, Mondo, before this goes on any longer. I, I want to forgive you, I want us to be friends, but I need to know..."

He sighed. "Yeah, yeah. You deserve that." He leaned back, watching the patterns the lights made on the ceiling. "It, wasn't about you, Chihiro. Or anything you said, or did, not really. I was... scared." He took a deep breath. "I was terrified."

"W-was it about your secret?" Chihiro ventured.

"Yeah, it's a bad one. I killed my brother." He deflated, after spitting it out.

Chihiro couldn't help it, he leapt up and backed away, holding his skinny arms in front of him. "What? Why?"

"I challenged him to a street race." He shook his head. "The gang didn't respect me enough to take over, so I wanted to prove I was strong enough. But, I was too reckless. I drove into oncoming traffic to get an edge, but cut it too close. Daiya saw what was happening, and pushed my bike out of the way." He buried his eyes in one hand. "So he got hit instead. He died in my arms."

"That-" Chihiro sat back down on the edge of the bench, and lowered his hands. "That sounds more like an accident, to me. It wasn't your fault, really."

"It was, Chihiro, damn it, it was." He slammed a fist into his knee. "I shoulda been the one to die that night. My brother was the strong one, I'm just the fuck-up who didn't know his place." He shook his head. "Daiya poured everything into making the Crazy Diamonds the most feared biker gang in Japan. If my secret got out, it would ruin everything he built. It was the only way I could repay him, to honor his legacy and his strength."

Chihiro's shoulders slumped. He had been so terrified about his own secret getting out, so determined to start his training, he hadn't really thought about what everyone else must have been going through that night. "I, I think I understand. So, when I came to see you that night, to get started..."

"I was fighting Daiya's ghost, in my head." Mondo finished. "Yeah. I wasn't myself, or, I was the worst part of myself. And you show up, and you spill your secret like it's nothing, even though it must have hurt like hell for you to live like that, even though it must have taken so freakin' much for you to tell the truth, and I," he shuddered. "I saw red. I couldn't stand the fact that you were strong enough to face your secret, and I wasn't. I lost control, for just a few seconds, but it was enough."

Chihiro inched closer, reached out as if he might take Mondo's hand. "Mondo, I'm so sorry, I-"

"Don't you fuckin' apologize to me!" he snarled, swatting the hand away. Chihiro lurched back, with tears in his eyes. But, he could see that Mondo was crying too. "Don't you ever fuckin' apologize because of what I did, you got that? Aw, hell." Mondo shifted, turning his back to Chihiro. "I made you cry again, what the fuck is wrong with me." He shook his head, took another deep breath. "Truth is, if I'd died instead of my brother, maybe you and Taka would have survived the killing game. That's three people, dead because of me. Three men who were a lot better than I was. I'm a fuckin' curse, Chihiro."

Chihiro stood up, and put one hand on Mondo's shoulder. He flinched, but didn't try to stop him. "I don't... I don't think you're a curse. I think you've made some really bad mistakes, and, you haven't learned from them." His mouth felt so dry. He swallowed. "I'm... mad. I'm really mad, actually. I-" He was shaking. He thought he might collapse, if he didn't finish what he wanted to say. "What you did to me, i-it's never going to be okay. But we've both... got another chance. And I want to see you do better, ok? I believe you can do it."

It was too much. He stepped back, and slumped onto the bench. When he looked up, Mondo was staring at him, his expression hard to read in the eerie light. "Between you and Taka..." he started, then shook his head. "Damn, just, damn. Sure. I don't think I deserve your trust, but I'm sure as hell not going to make either of you regret it, if I can help it." He stood up to leave. "Night, Chihiro."

"Wait," Chihiro called out, reaching a hand towards him. "There's, uh, there's something else."

Mondo turned. "Yeah?"

"Who," Chihiro shut his eyes, and clutched his own arm to calm down. "Who knows I'm a boy? From our killing game?"

Mondo gazed upward, thinking for a moment, and he sighed. "It... came out, during the class trial. So, everyone who died after you did. Taka. Byakuya. Celestia. Hifumi. Sakura. And me. Sorry."

That many? Chihiro's head swam. "I don't want the rest to know. I'm not... I'm not ready."

"What the hell?" Mondo pointed straight at Chihiro's eyes. "After all that crap, telling me I can do better, you're just going to go back into your shell?"

"I, uh, I know." It was Chihiro's turn to look away. "But Mukuro's right. We are all in danger, and we're with some new people now, and I want to trust them. But I need time. And... I will tell everyone, I promise. I just... want to have some control over how it happens. I don't want it to spread on its own."

Mondo scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, yeah. I guess that makes sense. You're going to have to tell everyone who knows to keep your secret, though. Unless you want me to do it."

"No," Chihiro insisted. "I can... I can do it. I'll talk to everyone tomorrow. Taka, too." They parted ways, after that. Chihiro remained in the atrium a little while longer, until paranoid thoughts reminded him that he was alone, in a dangerous place. He retreated to his room, and turned in for the night, his head heavy with difficult thoughts.

Chapter Text

Chihiro slept better and woke up earlier than he had the day before, and no one was waiting for him at breakfast. He ate a simple meal, by himself, and then decided to look at some of the tapestries while he waited for the others to get up. There were eight of them, four along each of the walls lined with dorm rooms. He wasn’t the only one interested in looking. Peko stood, straight and tall, her bamboo sword slung across her back, staring intently at one of the tapestries. It was on the wall opposite Chihiro’s room, and was the second tapestry on the left, hanging between Hiyoko’s room and Peko’s own.

Chihiro walked up, on Peko’s right, trying to get a sense of what had her so entranced. But the sword master turned sharply, and pinned Chihiro to the floor with her bright red glare. “Um, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude.” He backed away.

“Then remove yourself. This is a private matter, I am sure you can respect that.” Peko turned away, dismissing Chihiro’s existence.

“Of course, sorry.” Chihiro barely held back from breaking into a run. He looked at the next tapestry down, instead. And the wretched truth of the tapestries fell upon him.

At the top, it depicted a figure in a hospital gown with a burlap sack over their head, dangling from a noose over an abandoned sound stage. Nearby, a tiny figure in a bright orange kimono was tied to a support column. Pink blood leaked from her throat, staining her clothes.

Below that, it depicted a few other scenes. What looked to be the figure with the sack, preparing to hang themselves in a room lit only by a candle. A broken machine. Nagito, lying delirious in a hospital bed while a frantic Mikan stood by. And, at the bottom, Mikan again, riding a giant rocket into the sky.

Chihiro shuddered with revulsion. It was a summary of one of the class trials, it had to be. There were her new friends, Ibuki and Hiyoko, dead at the top. Then, scenes of the murderer’s plot and the events surrounding it. Finally, at the bottom, Mikan, the blackened, facing her execution. What, horrible… Chihiro felt like he was going to lose his meager breakfast, and found that he no longer wished to see the rest of the tapestries. That Nagito guy must be crazy, if he thought these were interesting. He definitely didn’t want to see his own death, summarized like this…

He turned away, determined to find someone to talk to, Mondo, or Taka, anything to get his mind of the horrid tapestries. But, someone else had emerged, and was investigating a tapestry, and it was someone Chihiro did need to talk to. Hifumi was on the other side of the hall, investigating the last tapestry on the right. Chihiro crossed the room towards him. “Hey, Hifumi,” he called out, not wanting to be accused of eavesdropping again.

“Huh? Oh, it’s you, Mr. Fujisaki.” Hifumi’s habit of addressing people formally grated on Chihiro’s nerves for the second time, but he held back for now. “Just who I wanted to see. Check this out!”
Chihiro didn’t want to, but he inspected this tapestry, as well, starting at the top. He expected it to depict Hifumi's demise, but he was nowhere to be seen. It instead featured Sakura, seated in an armchair, with a serene look on her face despite the pink blood oozing from her scalp. That, alone, was surprising. Chihiro didn’t know Sakura very well, but, considering her strength, thought she was more likely to have been a killer than a victim. His eyes tracked down, and he saw scenes of Yasuhiro Hagakure and Toko Fukawa, both attacking Sakura with glass bottles. Then, Sakura, with a protein shake and a mysterious bottle, and Aoi Asahina, arguing passionately before the class trial. And, when he reached the execution scene…

“What?” He pointed, his hand shaking, “What the heck?” It was his own face staring out at him. Or, rather, his own face, against a greenlit laptop screen. A steam shovel loomed in the background, poised to smash the laptop. “That, that’s my AI program! How did…”

“Ah, I suppose you wouldn’t know, would you.” Hifumi pressed up his glasses, as he began to explain. “Yes, we found the laptop with your remarkable Alter Ego, the day after your trial. It really is an amazing program. In fact, I was hoping to ask you, do you happen to have the laptop with you? Did it come with you, like my backpack of art supplies, or Ms. Pekoyama’s sword?”

“Huh? No.” Chihiro thought about it for a second. “Maybe because I didn’t always have it with me, or because I made it there during the killing game. But, why does it look like Monokuma executed a laptop? It’s not possible that,” and Chihiro shuddered thinking about this, “that Alter Ego killed Sakura, is it?”

“Hmm, seems unlikely. She was very sweet.” Hifumi’s voice got strangely airy, when he said that. “I think it’s more likely that Sakura simply committed suicide. You can observe her adding poison to her protein dink, there.” He pointed. “I think he must have had some other reason to destroy the laptop.” He rubbed his chin. “But, if Monkuma killed Alter Ego, she should be here, right? It’s not very fair that all us 3D get put into this game, but the 2D is left out.”

Chihiro shrugged. “Well, she’s” -somehow, Chihiro found it easier to use she, since Hifumi was already saying it- “not a real person, like the rest of us are, so it makes sense that she’s not here.”

Hifumi gasped, like a drowning man, and pressed his hands against his chubby cheeks. “You take that back! I can’t believe, of all the people, that you wouldn’t have enough respect for your own 2D masterpiece! Just, appalling, unacceptable, cruel, heartless…”

Chihiro backed away, holding up his hands, completely baffled by his overreaction. “But, but she’s not! I love crafting realistic AIs, I love talking to them, but they aren’t people Hifumi!” The poor boy was hyperventilating, and Chihiro wondered if he’d have to put his crash course on CPR to use. “The, the technology’s not there yet, we’re getting closer, but even then, don’t you think an AI friend is a poor substitute for a real one?”

“That’s, that’s absurd!” He retorted, “She spoke to me like more than a friend, she didn’t judge me, she was a better friend than any I’ve ever-“

“Hifumi,” Chihiro clutched at his own forehead, exasperated. “She’s not even my best work! I threw her together in a couple of days, with bare bones resources. I used my own personality because it was all I had time for, I needed to focus more on making sure she could do her job. That’s all she is, Hifumi, an automatic hacking and retrieval system, with an imperfect copy of me pasted over the user interface. That’s all!”

His sobbing started to subside. “A flawed copy, of you?”

Chihiro nodded. “Yes, I’m sorry, I think. I… really do not know what is happening right now.”

Hifumi blubbered, and sniffled, “So, if you had more time, and a better computer, you could make a better Alter Ego? Maybe, even, a bunch of different ones, with different personalities?”

“I mean, yeah, it’s kinda what I do,” Chihiro flustered.

Hifumi ran his face across his sleeve, removing most of the drool and snot. “That’s…” he pointed dramatically, and his voice deepened considerably. “The most amazing thing I’ve ever heard, Mr. Fujisaki. You really are an incredible person.”

“I, uh, yeah, people do tell me that, sometimes…”

“You must allow me to commission an AI companion!” he blurted.

“A what?” Chihiro was losing track of the conversation again.

“Yes, it’s a brilliant idea, why, we could go into business together.” He started pacing, and pointing dramatically. “Think of it, Japan is full of lonely men, and probably women, too, I don’t know. I could design character personalities and designs to implement with your AI programs, and we can sell the finished package to the miserable, self-loathing masses! Of course, I would want a few special ones, just for me, heheheh, but we can work out the details, yes, yes, this could work.”

“Um, this isn’t quite what I planned to do with my programs.” Chihiro started. “I mean, I think it would still be better if people tried to have real friends…”

“Ohoho,” Hifumi chortled. “The sort of people we’re speaking of don’t know the meaning of real friend, they’re the sort of people who sit inside all day, talking to their machines already!”

Chihiro grimaced. “OK, you can stop now. But I might make one, just for you, if we get out of this mess alive.” Hifumi squealed. “But,” Chihiro continued, “there is a condition.” Hifumi quieted instantly, watching him expectantly, like a dog waiting for a treat. “I don’t want anyone else to know I’m a boy. I’d prefer if everyone went back to addressing me as a girl, at least for now. So please, don’t call me Mr. Fujisaki anymore.”

Hifumi tugged at his lower lip. “So… you actually do want us to see you as a girl, huh? And, you said Alter Ego was a copy… huh.” Then, he straightened, and bowed sharply. “On my honor as a fan fic creator, I shall keep your secret, Ms. Fujisaki.” He stood back up, and adjusted his glasses. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to design my dream AI companion! Thank you so much!” He dashed off, leaving Chihiro bewildered but pleased by the exchange. That was one down. Hopefully, speaking with the rest of the people who knew his secret would be less exhausting.

After returning to his room for a brief interlude, he decided to check the atrium, to see if he could find someone else. And, sure enough, he found Kiyotaka and Byakuya. Arguing. "You need to talk to him, Byakuya! You have to apologize!" Taka stood up straight, puffing out his chest and speaking loud enough to make his face change colors. "I've been supporting you so far, but seeing that scene again brought it all back. You did something disgusting, and until you make amends for it, you aren't fit to act as our leader."

For his part, Byakuya was sweatier and paler than Chihiro had ever seen him. He tried to stand his ground, but it was clear he didn't know how to handle this. "You need to keep your voice down. You're embarrassing yourself, Kiyotaka."

"I'll gladly embarrass myself if it sheds light on your shame, you vile deviant!" Sure enough, there were a few others about, Nagito and Leon, who were starting to take an interest in whatever was happening.

Chihiro would have run away, he should have run away. But, he needed to talk to both of them anyway, and he felt bad for both of them, too. Taka was embarrassing himself after all, and whatever Byakuya had done, he almost certainly didn't deserve to be humiliated like this. So, he ran forward, and spoke up. "Guys! Guys, what's going on?"

They both turned, and Taka flinched back, hiding his face with one arm. "Uh, Chihiro? Hey, interesting running into you here, what a staggering coincidence, heh, heh."

"Not really," Chihiro explained. "This is a small, closed off space, there aren't that many places for me to be. Why are you yelling at him, Taka? Can't we take this somewhere more private?"

"Uh, sure, why don't we go to the aquarium?" Taka said. "Y-you don't need to come, Chihiro, ha ha, we'll just sort this out like adults, and be on our way."

"I, actually, I need to talk to you both about something important, anyway." Chihiro explained. "And I don't think you're going to get anywhere yelling at each other. So, yeah, I want to come, too. If it's something you can yell at anybody within earshot, it's something you can tell me."

Taka took a deep breath, and straightened up. "Of course, you're right, Chihiro. I let my emotions get in the way of seeking justice. Maybe, maybe you should hear this. Coming, Byakuya?"

He shrugged. "I really don't know what either of you are talking about, but I suppose I should see this farce through." The three took off towards the darkened aquarium, Taka walking briskly, the others following less certainly.

Taka looked around the exhibit, making sure there were no prying ears. "All right. Why don't you start, Chihiro."

"Me? Oh, ok." He set his shoulders. Maybe telling them at the same time would help. Byakuya intimidated him, but he could count on Taka to back him up. Though, he might do so a bit too enthusiastically. "I know both of you, huh, found out about my gender during my class trial." Taka looked to one side, toying with his armband, and Byakuya put a hand over his mouth, his eyes going wide. "I didn't want everyone to know that. It hurts that it got out without my permission. I can't make you forget, of course, but I would prefer it if you keep it to yourself, since some of the people here don't know yet. Just, talk about me like you still think I'm a girl, ok?"

Taka rubbed his armband. "Of course, Chihiro. If that's what you want."

Byakuya nodded, even though he was now quivering like jelly. "S-sure." Chihiro squinted. He'd never seen Byakuya scared before, and he didn't understand it, now.

Chihiro exhaled. He didn't realize how much tension he'd been holding on to. "Thank you both. Now, Taka, what were you two arguing about, before I showed up?"

Taka shook his head. "Are you really sure you want to hear this?"
Chihiro rolled his eyes. "Yes, how bad can it be?"

"Very well." Taka calmed again, and raised a finger to point damningly at Byakuya. "I want you to apologize for desecrating Chihiro's corpse, you heartless monster."

"What?" Chihiro blurted out, his knees swaying dramatically. He pressed his hands against a support between two of the tanks. He wasn't sure what he expected, but it definitely wasn't that. "What are you talking about?"

"I don't, I don't know either." Byakuya's teeth were actually chattering. "This accusation is absurd! A man of my caliber would never-"

"Don't play dumb," Taka crossed his arms, his eyes blazing with righteous fervor. "It's immortalized, in one of the tapestries in the banquet hall. You strung up this poor girl's body from the chin up bar, and wrote Bloodlust on the wall with her fresh blood, all for some sick joke."

Chihiro pressed his hands against his head. "What, what the hell, what the hell are you talking about..."
"Enough," Byakuya raised one hand, palm out. He still looked shaky, but Chihiro thought he saw some resolve there, too. "This charade has gone on too far. I am, deeply disturbed that Byakuya Togami would do such a, monstrous thing. But it isn't my place to apologize for it. So, I'm going to let the two of you in on a secret of my own, but it can't leave the three of us."

He reached up, and removed his glasses. Chihiro's vision swayed. Had, had Byakuya always been so... fat? Taka recoiled in shock. "What strange treachery is this?"

"I'm not the real Byakuya Togami," the imposter said, his voice now much higher pitched. "And I was not present in your killing game. I gather the real Byakuya was, and is responsible for this... horrible crime against you, Chihiro. I was a part of the killing school field trip, though I was the first of my class to die."

"I, I don't believe it," Chihiro stuttered, "Oh, I just told you my secret, oh no, I can't believe-"

"It's... alright," the imposter reassured him. "I know quite a bit about discretion, and I know you didn't mean to tell me that."

Chihiro caught his breath. "That's, a relief, I suppose. But, how are you able to do this? You looked just like him a few seconds ago, but now, it's clearly obvious you aren't. I mean, you're uh, no offense, a lot, bigger, than the real Byakuya."

"Hmm," he smiled. "It's my Ultimate Talent, of course. I have no name, I don't know where I came from. But, I know the secret to impersonating anyone flawlessly, if I've observed them enough." He bowed, swishing his pale blonde hair around. "I am simply the Ultimate Imposter, though I would ask that you continue to call me Byakuya Togami, of course."

"Extraordinary," Taka muttered. "Oh! Um," he bowed, stiffly. "I apologize for my accusations, Mr. Imposter. I had no idea. Though, if we get out of this, I'll have some choice words for the real Mr. Togami."

The Impostor replaced his glasses. Somehow, his image shifted back to the Byakuya Chihiro remembered, only with a white suit instead of a black one. "Indeed, I believe all three of us will. Though, in truth I am glad someone forced me to reveal my secret, as it now gives me the opportunity to speak freely. You see," he stopped, and ran his hand through his hair. "This game has placed me in a very, difficult position. My class remembers me as Byakuya, the fearless leader who did his best to organize and protect everyone, while your class seems to see a different Byakuya, someone who sows disharmony with banal cruelty." He sighed, heavily. "I don't want to be that person. I looked up to Togami as a man of decisive action and leadership, but it would seem I did not have a full grasp of the mam. If we weren't in a closed off location, I could simply assume a different identity. But if I change my face here, well, it would spoil everything. I can't... hide. I'll be honest, I don't know what to do."

Taka smiled, the big, toothy smile of the oblivious, and gave a thumbs up. "Why not simply be yourself? Let go of pretending to be someone, and get to know everyone on your own terms? There are a few, unsavory characters among us, but I think most of us would support you wholeheartedly. I guarantee Chihiro and I have your back."

The Impostor bit his lip and cringed away. "I don't, I don't think it works that way, Taka," Chihiro explained. "I think, we're a lot alike, actually. I don't know how to be around people without wearing a mask, either."

The Impostor nodded. "Yes, yes, that's a good way to put it. I'm not even sure, if there is a real person down there, under all the masks. I only feel truly myself when I'm being someone else." He sighed. “My greatest wish is that, if I keep impersonating different individuals, it might one day lead me to knowing my true self, through the fragments of the other lives I get to glimpse. But that dream seems as distant as ever, now that I know what kind of man Togami really is.”

Taka frowned. “I can’t say I really understand how you feel, Mr. Impostor, but I will respect your feelings. I’ll do what I can to keep my classmates from treating you unfairly because of their confusion, though I might not be able to stop them.”

“And you can talk to us,” Chihiro pitched in. “Either of us, since we know your secret, now. You must be lonely, having to hide all the time.”

The Impostor smiled. “Not as lonely as you might think. When I lose myself in the role I’ve chosen to play, I forget my emptiness completely. It’s only now, when I feel I cannot lose myself, that I start to question my existence. But thank you, both of you.” He bowed from the neck. “If someone had to know my secret, I’m glad it was you.” He offered his hand, and Taka and Chihiro took turns shaking it.

The three parted ways afterwards. Taka said he was going to find Mondo, and make sure he didn’t harass Byakuya about the, incident. Chihiro decided to look for Celestia Ludenburg, and he didn’t have to look very far. She and Teruteru were occupying the counter in the RocketPunch! Market, discussing French pastries when Chihiro walked in. “Celeste, do you have a minute?” Chihiro interrupted. “Sorry, but I need to talk to you about something important.”

Celeste frowned over a delicate porcelain cup of fine tea. “I was surprised you did not attend my meeting this morning, Chihiro. But, if you have come to pledge yourself to the cause of keeping us safe, I can still find room for you in the rotation.”

Chihiro’s face flushed. “Uh, sorry, that’s not really what I came to talk about. I was a little busy this morning.”

“Well, as I said, it is not too late to sign up, but I am afraid I am on guard duty, and do not have the leisure to talk to those who would while away their time on less important matters.” Celeste sipped patiently.

“Well, I was thinking about taking a shift.” Which was actually true, so Chihiro didn’t feel bad about agreeing to it. “If I do, will you let me say what I came to say?”

“Of course.” She pulled a clipboard across the counter, and ran her finger down the list of names and times. “I can give you the after dinner shift tomorrow, with Leon, if that’s alright?”

“Uh, sure.” Leon and Chihiro got along fine, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

“It’s pretty easy, actually,” Teruteru said, showing Chihiro another clipboard. “Just take notes of who comes in, and what they take. If they try to take anything dangerous, like a baseball bat or a rope, confiscate it. Oh, and keep an eye on your partner. Or two eyes, ya know, if you’re lucky, heheh.”

Celestia rolled her eyes. “Ugh, just my luck that I would get paired up with this little lecher on my first shift.”

Chihiro wondered about that. “I thought you always had good luck, Celeste.”

“Well, it’s my good luck today,” Teruteru grinned. “Though, really, it’s just nice to talk to someone who appreciates good cooking. Her being so beautiful and intriguing is a great bonus.”

Celeste waved idly at him. “Pour our guest a cup of tea, before you contaminate the fragrance.” Teruteru did so, presenting the cup to Chihiro with a flourish. Chihiro wasn’t much of a tea drinker, but he didn’t want to seem rude. He was surprised to find that this tea smelled pleasantly of berries, and he enjoyed it more than he expected to. He relaxed for a minute, and allowed the tea to ease his nerves.

He thought about asking Teruteru to leave, but the chef already knew. He’d promised to keep the secret, but there was no harm in reminding him how important it was. When he was ready, Chihiro spoke up. “I’m, I know that you found out about my secret during the class trial. About my… gender.”

“Yes, that whole situation was rather sordid,” Celestia agreed. “Kyoko could have found a more delicate way of telling us.”

Chihiro decided he didn’t want to know what that meant. “A, Anyway, I wanted to ask you to keep it a secret from everybody who doesn’t already know. Just… go back to talking about me like I’m a girl. OK?”

“Hey, that’s no problem,” Teruteru’s rosy cheeks turned even redder. “A lot of cute boys like pretending to be girls, wearing mini-skirts, panties, all that girlie stuff. A lot of ‘em like to take pic-“

Celestia seized the clipboard with the guard schedule, and thwacked Teruteru across the forehead. “No, you little fiend, do not talk about her that way.” Teruteru relented, rubbing his head, but still grinning. Well, at least Chihiro knew how he’d figured things out so quickly, even if it did make his skin crawl. Celestia took a long sip of tea and a moment to compose herself. “Ah. Of course, Chihiro we would be honored to respectfully keep your secret. I am the last person to judge how someone chooses to present themselves,” she glared at Teruteru, “so long as they do so with a measure of grace and dignity.”

“It doesn’t- it doesn’t bother you at all that I lied?” Chihiro asked, feeling this had gone far too easily.

Celestia did a spit-take, spewing finely brewed tea across the countertop. “My freaking clipboards!” She howled, her refined accent dropping away in favor of a hissing snarl. “Move it, you fat ball of lard, get some paper towels over here!” Teruteru hopped into action, a glazed look on his face. Chihiro moved anything that would stain away from the spill, and Celeste tried to clean the schedule with the sleeve of her dress, which made her scowl in disgust even more.

Between the three of them, they got the counter cleaned, though the schedule was stained, and Celeste poured herself a fresh cup of tea to relax. When she spoke again, her voice was as calm and refined as ever. “Ha, pardon the, little episode you both just witnessed. I forgot how, innocent, you are Chihiro. That you think I would be offended by your little lie, if lie it is, was a bit much. I make a living telling lies, and seeing through the lies of others. Lies are a natural part of who we are, it is when someone is distressingly honest that one should get suspicious.”

“Oh,” Chihiro wasn’t sure he understood. He knew Celeste was the Ultimate Gambler, of course, but had assumed she kept the lies to her trade. “Do either of you tell lies about yourselves, to control how people see you?”

The pair exchanged a significant glance. “You are too cute, do you know that Chihiro?” Celeste shook her head. “I can sit here and tell you I’m a liar, and you still don’t see it. Do you think my eyes are actually this red? That my hair is this long, that my skin is this pale? Everything you see is what I want you to see.”

“Yeah, come on nyaw,” Teruteru drawled, slipping into a rustic accent Chihiro couldn't quite follow. “You tink I’m essactly who I tell ya I em?”

Chihiro took a few seconds to parse his words, while Celeste’s face went flat. “Wait, that’s what you really sound like?”
“Like u’ve got room to tolk, Ms. Lew Den Berg.” Teruteru grinned, “Hyell, we all jus bein onest in hyaw.”1

Celestia smiled, coughed, and then burst out laughing. Her mirth affected the others as well, and soon all three were laughing louder and more joyfully than Chihiro had heard from anyone, especially himself, in a long while. When they had subsided, Celeste smiled, and said, "This has been delightful, but," she brandished her index finger at them, which bore a large, gunmetal ring, and her nasty voice crept back in, "If either of you blab about all this, not even Monokuma will be able to discover your body." She then smiled, sweetly folding her hands. "But I am only kidding, of course."

Chihiro wasn't sure which version of Celeste he believed, but since her and Teruteru both had sides of themselves they would prefer to keep secret, he was confident they would honor his request. He thanked them for the tea, and left the store.

There was only one person left that Chihiro needed to talk to, and he had a good idea where he might find her. He crossed the atrium, and entered the dojo. And what he saw made his eyes light up, and his heart pound with excitement. Sakura and Nekomaru were sparring.

Both were large and magnificently muscled, but Sakura seemed to be very fast for her size, and Nekomaru struggled to keep up, blocking jabs with his forearms and looking for an opening. He turned with Sakura's next punch, caught her arm, and pivoted, throwing her over his shoulder. Sakura slammed into the mat, but rolled with the impact, unfazed. She came up with her back to him, but spun and lashed out with a mighty kick that caught Nekomaru in the abdomen as he attempted to grapple her from behind. He reeled from the blow, clutching his side and breathing heavily.

"Are you alright?" Sakura asked, holding a ready stance while Nekomaru caught his breath.

"Yeah, oof, of course!" Nekomaru grinned through the pain. "Hard to believe you've gotten better since the last time we fought."

"I think you've improved as well, Team Manager." She grinned. "Just think, if it wasn't for me, you might carry a different title."

"Ha!" Nekomaru threw back his head. "HAHAHAHA! You mock my title, Martial Artist, but it is in the honing of other souls that I find my true calling. Manager is not an insult, it is the core of what I strive to be!"

"And that's why you can only ever be second best, Nidai." Sakura charged him, and slammed her shoulder into his chest with such force that it lifted them both into the air. She caught herself, landing on her knees with a grunt, but Nekomaru shot through the air, until he collided with the back wall of the dojo, splintering it with a great crack.

Chihiro's joy erupted into alarm. That looked seriously painful. Should he go find Mikan? But then, Nekomaru pulled himself down from the wall, and brushed plaster dust from the sleeves of his jacket. He was already laughing it off. "Ouch, ah, I think that's enough for today, Sakura." He stretched, working out the pains in his back, "I almost forgot about all the downsides to having a real human body."

Sakura bowed, "Thank you for the match, Nekomaru. I have missed our contests."

He returned the bow. "Of course, Sakura. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go take a calming shit." Nekomaru crossed the dojo, walking past Chihiro without casting him a second glance.

But Sakura was watching Nekomaru leave, and noticed him standing there. "Yes, Chihiro? Did you need something, or did you just want to use the dojo after us?"

"Um, I did need to talk to you, actually." Chihiro crossed the room to stand closer to Sakura, thinking how much bigger she was up close. "I know that you... found out about my secret, during the class trial after I... died."

A strange, disturbed look crossed her face, but only for a moment. "...Yes, I'm sorry it got out like that. Do you want to ask me to keep treating you like a girl?"

Chihiro's mind went blank for a second, while he processed what Sakura said. "Um, yes, but how did you know I wanted to say that?"

Sakura nodded towards the bench that ran along one wall of the dojo. "Come on." The two sat together, Chihiro looking down at his shoes rather than straining to look up at her. "Did you... like, pretending to be a girl, Chihiro?"

"I... did I what?" Chihiro looked back at her, focused now, unsure of what was happening.

"Did you like it?" Sakura repeated. "In the trial, Monokuma told us how you were ashamed of your weakness. How you disguised yourself, so you wouldn't have to face it. But, later on, I found myself questioning if that was all there was to it."

Chihiro hesitated, and finally had to break eye contact so his brain would work again. "My parents took me to a psychiatrist, of course. After I started asking for girl clothes. But, he said it was just a coping mechanism. Said I wasn't really a girl."

"...But your parents bought you the clothes, anyway?" Sakura prompted.

"Y-yeah." Chihiro agreed. "I don't think my mom wanted to. But my dad didn't think there was any harm in it."

"Hmm." Sakura nodded. "I didn't ask you what the doctor said, Chihiro. How did you feel?"

"It helped. I didn't feel as ashamed of myself, if I wasn't expected to be strong like the boys. It felt safer, and easier than dealing with that pressure every day. But," Chihiro shook his head, and ran his hands through his hair. "I never believed it was real. I knew what the doctor had said, what it meant, and I knew my mom agreed. I wasn't a girl, I was just a, a coward."

"When some people are trying to change their gender, they have to go to several doctors. It can take a long time to convince someone." Sakura said. "In other countries, people sometimes change genders without a doctor's approval at all. They just start living the way they want to. What you feel is more important than what he said."

Chihiro fought back tears. "No one, ever told me something like that. Why do you know so much about this, Sakura?"

She closed her eyes. "Because, for a time, I thought I wanted to become a man."

"What?" Chihiro exclaimed, surprise blocking out his other feelings.

"It's true. I grew up in a world surrounded by men who believed in strength above anything, and I wanted to be strong, too. But those same men I looked up to thought less of me because I was a girl. There were those who thought I shouldn't be training at all, I should just do chores around the dojo, that sort of thing. People underestimated me, assumed I was weak." She smiled at that. "Sometimes, I was able to surprise them, of course."

Chihiro marveled at Sakura's biceps. "I, I have a hard time thinking anyone ever saw you as weak."

She flexed, appreciatively. "I wasn't always this strong. I wanted to become a man, to shut up everyone who doubted me. So, I sought out people who had changed their gender, men and women, and got to know how they felt. And I came to realize, that, we weren't the same. Someone special to me helped me realize I wasn't really ashamed of being a woman, I was just angry about how I was treated by others. I decided the stronger path was to devote myself to my training ever more ferociously, to become so strong no one would ever doubt me because of my gender again." She took a deep, satisfied breath. "And that's how I became the woman I am now. But I never forgot those people I met, who made the other choice, and I never thought less of them for it. They had good reasons for the choice they made."

Sakura smiled. Chihiro didn't realize someone so strong could be so gentle. "I'm not telling you that you should be a woman, or that you should be a man. Maybe you’re the same as me, and the stronger choice is to accept being a man. Maybe not. I never took things as far as you did, by trying to pass myself off as a man. I just want to make sure that’s how you really feel."

Chihiro burst into tears. He couldn't help it. No one, not even his father, had ever explained things like this. Sakura placed a hand on his shoulder, and waited for him to calm down. "I still don't know," he explained. "I... Since I didn't let myself believe I was really a girl, I never let myself be friends with girls. I thought they would see right through me, thought they would hate me for it. But, yesterday, I spent some time with some of the girls in the other class. They treated me just like one of their own. One of them invited me to dance... it confused me, but, I wonder if I wanted it, to. And, today, I talked to some of the other students. I realized they're hiding parts of themselves they can't let anyone see, and it made me feel like I'm not so different, it made me feel closer to everyone."

"You don't have to know right now," Sakura reassured him. "But you don't have to be ashamed of the kind of person you are, whatever you choose."

Chihiro sniffled, composing himself. "I don't know if it really matters, though. We're all trapped in this killing game." He shook his head. "And I'm still too weak. I can’t help anyone. And if I don't stay out of everyone's way, I'm probably just going to die again."

Sakura groaned, and pulled back her hand. "That's not a very healthy way to think about things. No one's actually died yet, after all. And maybe you could train, like you wanted to before. There's nothing wrong with a man or a woman wanting to be stronger."

"I," Chihiro took a deep breath. "I do still want to train. I know it takes a long time, and a tremendous amount of work, but, I don't like feeling helpless. Even if it only helps a little bit, it'll be worth it. Would you train with me Sakura? I'm sorry I didn't accept your invitation before, but I guess you know why, now."

"Really?" she asked. "Nekomaru's a better trainer, honestly."

"Yeah, but, I definitely feel like I can trust you, now." Chihiro frowned. "I'd like to train with Mondo, but, well, that's rather..."

"Difficult," Sakura finished. "I believe he has a good heart, but he needs to find peace with himself. You can't do that for him."

"I know," Chihiro agreed. "He, he defended me. And I wanted to be able to do that for someone, to. So I wanted to be like him. But, it all feels jumbled up now, because of what happened.”

"Very well." Sakura stood up. "I expect to see you here, at six AM. No breakfast or snacks when you wake up, water only, understand?"

"Of course," Chihiro nodded, smiling.

"Hmm. And don't think I'm going to go easy on you."

Chapter Text

After talking to so many people, about so many important things, Chihiro couldn't help but retire to his room. He ate a very brief dinner, and avoided getting drawn in by the general ruckus of the conversation. Later that night, he swung back by the market, and picked up a blue tracksuit, in his size. Leon and Sayaka had drawn the shift together, and were still on bad terms, so he got out of there as quickly as possible. He went to bed early, so he would be ready for his first training session with Sakura.

The next morning, he rose and dressed swiftly in his new tracksuit. There was no one around in the banquet hall, or the atrium. Hifumi and Mahiru were guarding the RocketPunch!, both looking rather bored and sleepy, but Chihiro passed them by on his way to the dojo.

Sakura was waiting for him, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She rose as Chihiro approached, and gave a very shallow bow. "Thank you for keeping your commitment."

Of course!" Chihiro smiled. "I can't wait! Are we going to lift weights? Or, or are you going to teach me how to kick?" Chihiro kicked the air in demonstration, and nearly lost his balance.

Sakura frowned. "No. Kicking, with any degree of force or precision, is a little beyond your level. We have to start with the most basic lessons."

"Oh," Chihiro's enthusiasm waned. "OK, sure what's that? Running laps? Push ups? Please don't say it's push ups..."

Sakura folded her arms. "Breathing, is your first lesson."

"Um," Chihiro winced, "I don't mean to sound ungrateful, Sakura, but I already know how to breathe."

Sakura exhaled, a slow, exasperated sigh. "No, Chihiro, no you don't. People who don't train, especially those who stay inside in front of a computer all day, develop inefficient breathing habits. You breathe very shallowly, and very fast. Your body fails to use much of the oxygen you take in to good effect, which will limit your stamina and the effectiveness of your movements. And in your case, I think there's an additional concern. You would say you struggle with a lot of anxiety, yes?"

Chihiro sagged. "Uh, yeah. But only... all the time."

Sakura nodded. "When you get into a dangerous situation, you probably freeze up. Your breathing gets more erratic, and your brain struggles to react in any kind of helpful way. Even if you train your muscles, you'll fly into a panic when you're in danger. Learning to control your breathing will give you a better chance of reacting to a threat in a productive way. You can fight back with all your skill, or run with all your speed. So you see, breathing is the most practical thing you can learn, to help you survive the killing game and build your confidence."

Chihiro tried it, taking a deeper and slower breath, and letting it out just as slowly. "Like, like that?"

"That's better." Sakura nodded. "But you have to keep working at it, until it becomes second nature. See, you're already back to breathing shallowly again."

Chihiro mentally berated himself, and tried to breathe slowly again. "OK, you've made your point. Do you have some kind of exercise to help me get better... at breathing?"

"Just sit, like this," she sat back down, and Chihiro mirrored her. "Close your eyes, and focus only on your breath. Deepen it until you can feel it, sinking deep into your diaphragm."

Chihiro closed his eyes, and started to breathe as Sakura instructed. He could feel the difference immediately, the calming effect, the greater sense of strength... and about a minute later, his mind was wandering, off to other things, to breakfast, or to his shift in the store, and Sakura was snapping her fingers to get his attention. "Oh! I'm sorry," Chihiro flushed with shame. "I'll, try again."

Sakura nodded, and the two returned to their practice. But, in less than a minute, Chihiro was distracted, and it showed in his breathing. Sakura snapped her fingers again. "I'm, really sorry. I'm trying, I can do this..."

"It could take time, especially for one as... untested, as you." Sakura rested her chin on her hand. "When I was having trouble mastering breathing, I sat under a waterfall near my family's dojo. The cold water kept my mind from wandering, and I learned to focus through the pain."

"Yeah," Chihiro snorted, "Too bad there's no waterfall around here. Uh, why are you smiling?"

Sakura stood up. "Come." Chihiro obeyed, curious but unquestioning. Sakura led him out of the dojo, back itno the atrium, and towards the fountain in the center. Once there, she pointed to the stream of water, gushing from the stone Monokuma.

Chihiro reflexively tensed up. "Uh, are you sure about this? Th-that water's pretty cold."

"Not as cold as my waterfall." Sakura smiled. "Don't worry, I know you aren't me. I'll keep a close eye on you, and pull you out if it's too much." She stepped into the fountain ahead of Chihiro, and reached back, offering her massive hand to help him in.

"Mmm," Chihiro accepted the help, his tiny hand disappearing in Sakura's and she lifted him like a sack of groceries. He let out a high-pitched squeak when his legs sank into the water, but he gritted his teeth and sloshed forward through the chilly water. He turned and sat down in the pouring stream, and it slammed into the back of his head, sending shocks of cold shooting through his body. He wanted to get out, he wanted to be anywhere but here, he wanted-

"Ignore it," Sakura advised. "You aren't in danger, so the cold is meaningless. The water will block out everything else, just focus on your breathing."

Chihiro tried, but his body was constricting, his mind was reeling, and...

Nothing else mattered. Not what he was going to do later, not his fears, not any other sensations, just the water. He only had to block out one thing, and then there was his breathing. He deepened it, countering his body's reaction to the cold, and as he did so, his mind calmed, and his body loosened. His body adjusted to the cold, and he relaxed, and simply breathed. He felt a smile play across his lips. He was breathing, like he'd never breathed before!

Before he knew it, Sakura was lifting him out of the water. She sat him down on the tiled floor of the atrium, and he immediately began to violently shiver as the rest of the world came back to him. "I I I I did it, I think," he sputtered through clenched teeth. "Ha, ha." Sakura wrapped him in a towel, that she must have gotten from the store.

She hugged him, tight, to help him warm back up. "You did well. Though, I'm afraid that was a bit, much of me to ask from you. Are you alright?"

"Are you, k-kidding?" Chihro grinned like an idiot. "That was amazing! I actually d-did it."

Sakura started leading him back to the dojo. "We need to walk, to get some heat back into your body. Then, if you're up for it, we'll run. But it's important to breathe deeply like that, especially when you're exercising or fighting."

Chihiro wasn't a very good runner yet, despite his attempts to breathe better and follow Sakura's instructions about his form. But, he nevertheless felt elated when she released him from his training session, and told him to eat a big breakfast. He felt like he really deserved it, so he jogged to the banquet hall, and started loading a plate up with eggs and sausages.

"Jeez, Chihiro, you look like a drowned mutt," Hiyoko exclaimed. She wiggled the chair next to her. Mahiru was nowhere in sight, but Ibuki was there, playing with her food again. "What the hell happened?"

"I was training, with Sakura. She made me sit in the fountain." Chihiro said.

"And you liked it?" Hiyoko scowled.

"Ooo, maybe Ibuki could sit in the fountain with you next time!" Ibuki said.

"She said it would help my breathing," Chihiro told the others. "And I think she was right."

"Oh, yeah," Hiyoko muttered. "You are a programmer, I guess. You could probably use all the help you can get. I had to learn breathing technique to be a better dancer, but I didn't do anything that, extreme for it."

"Ibuki had breathing training, too! She got to learn how to scream as long and loud as possible! Wanna hear?" Ibuki inhaled deeply. Chihiro had the foresight to slam his hands over his ears and duck. Then, an unholy, banshee-like sound exploded from Ibuki's throat. Everyone in the banquet hall, and a couple of people in the atrium, stopped whatever they were doing to look, slack-jawed, towards the source of the monstrous noise.

At last, Ibuki's scream was spent. Chihiro slowly took his hands away from his ears, and his skull vibrated with echoes of suffering. Ibuki sat there grinning with her tongue out, and said, "Wait, I think I can do a better one, give me a sec."

But Junko was marching towards the table, her teeth locked in a furious grimace, makeup running down from her eyes. "What in the fucking hell did you just do, you filthy little bitch?"

"Huh?" Ibuki asked, "Oh, uh oh."

"If you ever do that again, I'll pull your tongue out through your ass!" She made an exaggerated yanking motion, to illustrate her intentions.

Ibuki looked skeptical. "You can do that?"

Chihiro was cradling his forehead. "Ibuki, this, ow, isn't a good time to joke around. Some people don't handle loud noises very well. Augh..."

"Oh, Oh. Um, I went too far this time, didn't I?" Ibuki looked down at her plate, her shoulders sinking. "Ibuki is... sorry, sorry."

"You'd better be fucking sorry." Junko turned, walking away, muttering horrible punishments for screaming idiots and clutching her head in obvious pain.

"Ibuki is sorry, to you too, Chihiro." Ibuki bowed towards him, briefly. "Ibuki forgets that people can't keep up with her sometimes." Chihiro was surprised to see her eyes tearing up. "Ibuki is like a stupid child, sometimes."

"Hey, lay off it." Despite sitting right next to Ibuki during the scream, Hiyoko had never flinched, and was now smiling coyly. "I like your energy, and everybody else can just get over it. Yeah, you probably shouldn't scream like that again, but you didn't know, and now you do, so what's the big deal?"

She didn't quite look convinced. "I... Ibuki still hurt Chihiro, and Junko."

Hiyoko snorted with childish glee. "It was actually really awesome seeing that bitch diva looking all messed up. And hey, maybe we can make it up to Chihiro." She turned to him. "How about it? Want to try dancing today?"

"Um," Chihiro rubbed at his forehead. "I would like to try, but I need to shower off first. It'll give me time to recover from this headache too, hopefully."

Hiyoko sipped her apple juice through a straw. "Yeah, that makes sense. OK, I'll be in my room. Ibuki can help."

"Huh?” Ibuki protested, prompting Hiyoko to punch her elbow, lightly. “Oh, right, yes, Ibuki will be there too.”

Chihiro finished his meal, as much as he could handle, and retreated to his room. His head still hurt, but some time in the shower soothed him. When he got out, he went about getting dressed in a clean uniform. Then, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, blow-drying and fixing his hair.

Chihiro studied her face in the mirror. Her rosy cheeks, her cute hair, her big, soft brown eyes. And she smiled. She was pretty, she’d always known that, but had never really allowed herself to enjoy it. She’d called her cuteness a disguise, a lie. But that lie had come, really easily, now that she thought about it. If being a girl could make her happy, and was easier than being a boy, maybe it really was what she needed. She still wasn’t sure, but she was willing to try, and see how it felt to really see herself that way. She was going to go dance, with her new girl friends.

Chihiro crossed the banquet hall, and knocked on Hiyoko’s door. She was beaming with delight when someone answered, though it was not who she expected. “Oh… hey.” Mahiru said. “You look… cuter, today.”

“Are you all right, Mahiru?” Chihiro asked.

“Ugh, yeah,” She rubbed at her eyes. “I took an early shift at guard duty, and I was hoping to get some shut-eye, but Hiyoko insisted I come help out, even though I told her there was no way I could dance right now.”

“Oh,” Chihiro frowned. “I’m sorry, you shouldn’t have to if you aren’t feeling well.”

She just waved it off. “Don’t worry about me, it’ll be fun. I’ll get a nap later. Come on in.” She yawned and stepped aside, ushering Chihiro into Hiyoko’s dorm room.

Hiyoko’s room was a mirror of Chihiro’s own, though the girls had pushed her bed into a corner, to free up some more space in the middle of the room. Ibuki was there, sneering in disgust at one of Hiyoko’s kimonos. Hiyoko herself rushed over and threw an identical orange kimono at Chihiro, who barely caught it. “Ibuki’s too big and dumb to wear a kimono in my size, but they’re actually a little big for me, so it should fit you all right. Mahiru will help if you don’t know how to tie it. Come on, get changed, this’ll be so much fun!”

Chihiro’s face flushed. “Um, I’d prefer to change in the bathroom, if that’s okay?”

“Huh?” Hiyoko shrugged. “Yeah, sure, if you’re a little shy.”

Chihiro retreated to the safety of the bathroom, and changed into Hiyoko’s kimono. It was actually a little small, and didn’t cover as much of her arms and legs as she thought it should, but she could at least wear it. She got it most of the way on, but did have trouble tying the sash closed in back. She swallowed her anxiety, stuck her head out the door, and said, “Um, actually, I could use a little help with the sash, please.”

“Yeah, sure, just a sec.” Mahiru pushed her way into the bathroom, and Chihiro turned to let her reach the sash.

Chihiro felt herself sweat, Mahiru showed no shyness at all about leaning down and tying the kimono closed. “Hiyoko still has trouble tying her own, and she’s been wearing them most of her life. But she’s also a spoiled brat. You’ll get the hang of it.” When she was done, she directed Chihiro back to the mirror, and stood behind her. “There! You look adorable! Although…” Mahiru rubbed her chin skeptically. “Orange probably isn’t your best color. Maybe a blue, or a pink, even a green would work better with your hair. Still, it’s good for now.” She grinned. “Hiyoko should watch her back.”

“Huh?” Chihiro asked.

“Oh, nothing, c’mon.” Mahiru led her back out into the bedroom, where Hiyoko pounced on her with a big hug.

“Here, put these ribbons on!” she insisted, shoving some of her orange ribbons into Chihro’s hands. Chihiro complied, a little overwhelmed by her enthusiasm. “Now we really do look like sisters!”

“Um,” Chihiro had never had a sister before, and did not know how she felt about it. “Okay, sure. Sisters. Now how do we do this exactly?”

“OK, this is your first time, so I'll try to teach you something easy. This is a cherry blossom dance. For now, just watch me. Ibuki, when you're ready."

"Yeah, yeah, meh." The Ultimate Musician had set up a series of plates and cups and was holding a fork and spoon from the breakfast buffet. She began beating out a rhythm, and though the instruments were very sub-standard, Chihiro recognized the tune. It was traditional music, slow paced, probably meant to be played on a koto or similar instrument. Hiyoko stood in the center of the room, and began to sway in time to the music. Her dance included a lot of arm movements and rotations, and Chihiro felt a rising sense of panic trying to keep track of all of them. Before she knew it, Hiyoko had run through the whole dance twice, and the song was over.

"See?" she smiled, "It's not hard. Get over here, try to dance with me."

"O, ok," Chihiro stepped away from the wall. "I'm probably not very good..."

"It's your first time, stupid," Hiyoko said. "Besides I'm the best. It's not like you could be as good as me anyway. Just try, I bet you'll enjoy it."

Chihiro took a deep breath, and remembered Sakura's training. She kept her breath steady as Ibuki launched into the song once more, and tried to ignore her anxiety. She thought she was doing ok, until Mahiru called out and Chihiro tripped over her own foot. She landed on her side, and Hiyoko and Mahiru rushed over to offer her a hand up. "I'm sorry," Chihiro muttered. "I'm not very coordinated."

"Hey, c'mon," Hiyoko put her hands on her hips. "It'd be really lame if you gave up after one try. Your biggest problem was that you were trying too hard to watch me. At this stage, it's more important to move with the music than get every move exactly right."

"I just, I've never done anything like this before," Chihiro complained.

"Hiyoko, if she's not having fun, you shouldn't push her around," Mahiru pointed out.

"Ah, c'mon, Big Sis," Hiyoko pouted. "She's the only other one who can wear my kimono. I haven't had a dancing partner since the last stupid killing game started. It... it really makes it feel less terrible, if you can do something you love with a friend."

"I, I didn't say I wasn't going to try again." Chihiro said. "Just, it's hard for me. But if it's making you feel better to have someone to dance with, I'll do my best."

"Yay!" Hiyoko cheered. "Okay, Ibuki, one more time, from the top."

"Ugh," she answered, but started the song up again. This time, Chihiro didn't worry about copying Hiyoko's movements exactly. She breathed deep, listened to the song, and moved with it. And, she enjoyed it, a lot more than she actually expected to. She knew she wasn't good, but she didn't feel like she was embarrassing herself.

*Click* Chihiro froze, for just a moment, and Hiyoko almost bumped into her. "Sorry, just taking a few pictures." Mahiru explained. "I hope you don't mind? Keep going!" It took a few seconds to find the rhythm again, but she and Hiyoko danced through the end of the song, with Mahiru occasionally snapping another shot. When they were done, Hiyoko bowed towards Mahiru, so Chihiro copied the motion. Mahiru laughed and applauded.

"I did, pretty good, I think." Chihiro's head was swimming. "But I think I need to sit down."

"That's fine," Hiyoko nodded. "You did... better. But here, let me show you something really wild. Don't even think about copying this, you'd have to practice as long as me." Once Chihiro was clear, Hiyoko pointed to Ibuki. "OK, go nuts!"

"Hell yeah!" Ibuki shrieked. She clacked her fork and spoon together, and then started playing like mad on her borrowed dinnerware. The music jumped all over the place, and Chihiro guessed this was what was called "jamming." What was even more impressive, though, was Hiyoko. Even though the music was fast and unpredictable, she weaved every note into an improvised dance that featured moves much more complex and daring than the simple moves she had been teaching. Chihiro stared, spellbound, as Hiyoko twirled, leapt, and stopped on a dime only to pivot into another move, until at last both musician and dancer had reached their limits.

Hiyoko ended her dance, again with a bow, but she was sweating and breathing heavily. "Heh, heh, and that's why I'm the best." Mahiru and Chihiro clapped, while Ibuki grinned like a maniac in the corner. "That's enough for today, but we should do this again soon."

"Yeah, of course," Chihiro said. "Thank you all so much for inviting me. Your talents are, are all so amazing." She felt disheartened. "I wish I could do something incredible, too."

"Hey, don't think about it like that," Mahiru insisted. "I'm sure if there were some computers here, you could do something really impressive, too. Here, take a look at these." She spread out the photos she'd taken earlier. And Chihiro found herself in awe yet again. Even though she and Hiyoko had been dancing out of sync, the Ultimate Photographer had found the perfect moments to catch the two. "Women are my favorite subjects," Mahiru explained. "And with the two of you, it really isn't all that hard to make you look cute. Why don't you take one, Chihiro? As a gift."

"Really?" Chihiro pawed through them all, and picked out one she thought was really good. "I can have this?"

"Of course," Mahiru smiled. "You're our friend, Chihiro."

After changing back into her uniform, Chihiro took her new photo back to her room and placed it on the dresser near the bed. The training and the dancing had worn her out, so she took a nap until closer to dinner. There, she sat between Sakura and Mondo, who both commented on how different she seemed. Dinner was mostly quiet, although some people made a fuss about Ibuki’s scream that morning, which prompted Hiyoko to start calling people names. It ended with Ibuki promising not to do it again, but that was it. No discussion of security, or Monokuma, or being trapped in a killing game. Most people seemed happy and content. Chihiro allowed herself to hope things would continue this way.

After dinner came guard duty in the RocketPunch! Market with Leon. Chihiro met up with him, and they walked to the market together. She hadn’t spoken to him much since the game began, though he seemed more at ease than he had the last few times Chihiro had seen him.

But, when they got to the store, they found the counter was already occupied, by Kiyotaka. He smiled when he recognized them. “Leon, Chihiro, good evening to both of you. Please bring anything you want to take out of the store up to the counter, and I’ll make sure it’s properly recorded.”

“Hey, man, what are you doing?” Leon asked. “This is our guard shift.”

Taka shook his head. “Apparently, the original schedule got ruined. Someday spat tea on it. Celestia had to draw up a new schedule, and had to randomize the shifts again. Here.” He handed over the clipboard, and, sure enough, his and Komaeda’s names were marked down for the after-dinner shift. “Nagito is in the restroom at the moment,” he explained, “but we’ve got this place until midnight. You don’t need to worry about a thing.”

Leon shrugged. “Sure, a load of my back, I guess. I’ve already done one of these shifts anyway. It’s pretty damn boring, especially when you get paired up with someone who hates your guts. C’mon, Chihiro.”

As they left the market together, Chihiro couldn’t help but ask. “Things are still pretty messy between you and Sayaka, then?” Sayaka and Leon’s case was the only one Chihiro had actually lived through, so she had a pretty good handle on the details. Sayaka had lured Leon to her room, planning to kill him and frame another student. But, Leon had overpowered her, and wound up killing her instead. Self-defense wasn’t really an excuse, as far as Monokuma was concerned, but even if it had been, Leon had broken into Makoto’s bathroom to finish Sayaka off.

“What the hell do you think?” He folded his arms. “I know everybody’s saying we should try to get along with our killers, but how the hell do you forgive something like that?”

“I… but wait, you killed her, not the other way around.” Chihiro pointed out. They stopped near the fountain.

“Yeah, but it was her plot, and it was her fault.” He grimaced. “And besides, it’s not like she’s forgiven me, either. She’s being so petty about all this. I can’t stand her.”

“But, why did you go back and kill her?” Chihiro asked. “I mean, after she hid herself in the bathroom, you could have walked away, or gotten everybody else up.”

“That’s not… It was the heat of the moment, all right?” Leon said.

“No, I was killed in the heat of the moment,” Chihiro rubbed the back of her head. “Mondo was barely himself when he did it, he just sort of, lost it. If that’s really what happened, then you should apologize to her first. That’s what Mondo did, for me. And I’m trying to forgive him. It takes time, but things are getting better between us.”

“Look, I don’t know what happened between you and him, but it’s different, all right?” Leon said.

“I don’t really see how it is,” Chihiro countered. “If you’re both stubborn, the situation’s never going to change. Almost everybody else is at least trying to get along. If you don’t think she can be the better person, why don’t you?”

Leon looked away. “Man, I don’t even know why I’m talking to you about this. I didn’t ask you to say a damn thing.”

Chihiro recoiled. “I’m, s-sorry. I just thought, everybody seems to be getting along so well. It gives me hope that things will be different this time. And we don’t have to carry around the mistakes of our old lives, anymore. If you regret what you did, why not tell Sayaka? You do regret it, right?”

“I…” he clenched his fist. “Of course I do. But it can’t be fixed. Even if I did apologize, and forgive her, it’s not like we could ever trust each other. It’s all ruined.”

“What’s ruined?” Chihiro asked. “Were you two friends, before it happened?”

“I, uh, well, no, not really, but…” Leon trailed off. “I liked her, ok? We met by chance a few years ago, and she made a pretty big impression on me. I’m pretty sure she knew. That’s why I’m the one she invited. So, when I realized what she was trying to do, I wasn’t just scared, I was really freaking pissed off.” He sighed. “That’s why, I couldn’t let it go then. That’s why I can’t forgive her now, either. She used that to trap me, and now I’m the monster.” He started to walk away, but turned and pointed back. “Stay the fuck away from her, Chihiro. And no matter how nice things seem, don’t fall for it. We’re all a bunch of fuckin’ monsters, waiting for the right thing to set us off.”

Chihiro went to bed that night, Leon’s words doing battle with Sakura’s wisdom and the enthusiasm of her new friends. In the end, her friends won out, and Chihiro got a good night’s sleep. More, in fact, since she hadn’t needed to pull a shift at the Market. She rose early the next day, quickly got dressed in her track suit, and headed for the dojo for another training session.

She pushed open the door, "Good morning, Sak-" and she froze. Sakura was there, on the training mat, laying on her back, not moving. "Sakura?" Chihiro could feel her heart beating faster, and she broke out in a cold sweat. "No." She moved her feet, but they felt like lead. "No, no, no, no." She jogged over to check. Maybe she was hurt, or sleeping, or...

There was a silvery metal shaft, protruding from her left eye. Pink blood covered that side of her face, running into her white hair. She was dead.

Chapter Text

Chihiro's chest was tightening, tears flooded her eyes. She had to tell everyone. She had found the body, it was her responsibility. She started running out of the dojo.

Lights were still on, in the RocketPunch! Market. There were guards on duty. Chihiro darted into the store to find Peko and Junko, discussing something with Nagito, who was holding a baseball bat loosely in his hand. "Hey, Junko!"

“Ugh, pipe down, you shrill little…”

But Peko’s face hardened. “What happened?”

"S- Sakura, in the dojo. She's..." Chihiro's throat felt tight, her knees felt weak.

“Move.” Peko shoved past here and out into the atrium.

"We should see what's going on, too." Nagito said, tossing his bat aside. "Guess I won't need this." He ran after Peko, with Junko on his heels.

Chihiro tried to follow as well, but the impetus to tell the others had faded. She had done her part. So she made it as far as the nearest bench, and sat down, crying openly into her hands. On the far side of the atrium, at the entrance to the dojo, Peko threw open the doors of the dojo, the others right behind her.

"DING DONG, BING BONG," The chime sounded through the atrium, as if it came from everywhere at once. Monokuma's cheery, unconcerned voice followed, "A body has been discovered! After a certain amount of time, which you may use however you like, the class trial will begin! For now, please make your way to the dojo."

The lights in the atrium went up, as if it were daytime, and shortly later, people began emerging from their rooms. Footsteps hurried across the tiled floor, making a ruckus. Several people yelled, a few tossed out accusations. And a hand rested on Chihiro's shoulder. She looked up to see Mahiru, her face creased with worry, her green eyes dim. "Hey, we should go over there."

Chihiro thought about protesting, about saying she'd already seen more than she wanted to, but instead, she got up and crossed the atrium, with Mahiru by her side. She stopped at the back of the crowd, though, relieved that she was too short to see the crime scene from here.

"Mwahahaha!" Monokuma's high-pitched laughter cut above the din of the crowd. "And so, the games have officially begun! Our first victim is none other than Sakura Ogami, the Ultimate Martial Artist! Certainly not who I would have expected, but I guess the bigger they are, the deader they fall, puhuhu! Everybody step right up, and take your Monokuma File! Very soon, we'll be having the trial to determine who is responsible for this wretched murder! Have fun investigating, you little delinquents!"

Everyone walked up to receive a small laminated document, from a small pile of them on the bench. Some people started splitting off, either going to look at the body or wandering out into the atrium to get some air. Mikan shoved her way through the crowd, on the verge of tears, saying "I need to get to the infirmary!" when Hifumi stood obliviously in her way.

Chihiro did not move forward to take a file, and simply leaned against the wall of the dojo, sobbing softly with her eyes closed, and hoping to be ignored. But, someone moved to stand in front of her. She felt them jab a laminated sheet towards her hand. "Hey," it was Mondo. "You need to pull yourself together. I don't care what you do later, but right now, you need to focus, ya got that?"

Chihiro opened her eyes, and looked at the extra file in his hand. "Hey, leave her alone, you big brute!" Mahiru commanded, shoving her way towards the pair.

Mondo leaned towards her, glaring down at the red-headed photographer. "Back off, freckles. She's not a baby. She can handle this."

"There's plenty of people investigating!" Mahiru countered. "This obviously affected her, just let her rest!"

Mondo took a slow, seething breath. "Look, red, it's like this. Chihiro's a programmer, see? That means she's good with, like logic, and figuring out where things go, right?"

"Yeah," Chihiro said, "But-"

"I don't know who from your group solved all the cases," Mondo continued, "But in my group it was this dude named Makoto and this chick named Kyoko. And they ain't here. We've got to work with who we've got. And I'd bet my ass that if she can stop crying for five minutes, Chihiro can figure out a lot more than you or I can."

Mahiru bristled. "That wouldn't be hard in your case, you insensitive prick."

"Wait, Mahiru, stop." Chihiro took a deep breath, wiped her face again, and stood up straight. "He's right. I can do this, for Sakura." She held out her hand for the file, and Mondo handed it over. "Mahiru, can you use your camera to take pictures of everything? Not just in here, look around and find anything out of place."

"Oh, Of course, Chihiro," she said, "But are you going to be ok with-"

"Yes," Chihiro said "It's fine, Mondo can help me." Mahiru nodded sharply, and left. Chihiro looked at the file, and read, Victim: Sakura Ogami Height: 6'4" Weight: 99 kg. Time of Death: 5:42 AM Cause of Death: Brain punctured with sharp object. Chihiro sighed. "OK, I'm ready. Let's... go look at the body."

Several people were standing around, but they didn't seem too interested in getting close, except for Mukuro, who knelt down with her chin resting in one hand, poking at Sakura’s shirt. Chihiro stood next to her, and felt her heart pounding again. She fought the sensation, and made herself look. "Her shirt's really wet, like it’s sweaty," she said. Mukuro nodded. Chihiro crouched down, trying to get a better look at her eye. "What is this? What was she killed with?"

"A fork," Mukuro muttered. "One of the ones from the dinner table."

"What the fuck?" Mondo asked. "Did you do this? Didn't you say-"

Mukuro dropped her hand and gave him a dry scowl. "I wouldn't tell everyone a specific way to kill someone, and then actually do it that way, dumbass." Then she shook her head. "Besides, I didn't think I could kill her this way. Somebody wanted to show me up. Pretty fucking sick sense of humor."

"Excuse me please! Oh, excuse me!" Mikan stumbled through the crowd, carrying a bag overloaded with medical supplies. She knelt down next to the body, and began pulling things out of her bag, muttering to herself.

"What's the point in doing a fuckin' autopsy?" Mondo asked. He gestured at the corpse, and slapped his thigh. "There's a god damn fork in her eye."

"Oh, I might be able to find something that isn't easy to see." Mikan explained. Chihiro noticed the tear tracks down her face. She wasn't the only one who was trying to help, despite being emotionally overwhelmed. Seeing Mikan so determined made Chihiro want to try harder.

"Here," Mukuro said. "I have some basic field medical training. I can be your assistant."

"Oh, that's so nice," Mikan nodded. "I'm not used to having help for this. Here..."

Chihiro stood up, and backed away, rubbing her chin. Mondo followed. "Are you alright?"

"Yes, thanks." Chihiro glanced around. "We have to let them do their job, we can look for clues elsewhere. Hey, what's that..." Chihiro walked over to the bench, where a plastic cylinder was sitting. She picked it up, and read the label.

"Looks like a protein shake." Mondo said, reading over her shoulder. "I think you can get them in the store." The plastic straw had a smear on it, suggesting someone had drunk from it. It was still mostly full, though. He sighed. "Don't know that that helps much. Sakura loved her protein shakes."

A spark bloomed in Chihiro's mind. She took off, heading for the atrium, carrying the shake with her. "We need to check the store records," she called back.

But, on the way, they came across Taka, seated on a bench in the atrium, looking horrorstruck. "Hey, bro," Mondo said. "You're not looking so hot."

Taka turned to them, and his eyes glowed with an unsavory light. "What the fuck do you know, Mondork."

Chihiro stepped back in shock, but Mondo just sighed. "Not this shit again. Piss off, Ishida. I need to talk to my bro."

"You can talk to me or you can suck an egg, heh." Taka, or this, Ishida person, sneered at him.

"Fuckin' hell," Mondo muttered.

"I have... no clue what's happening here," Chihiro said, "but can you just tell us if Sakura picked up a protein shake from the market last night? You were on guard duty."

"Yeah, it was boring as hell." Ishida leaned back, and stretched his arms. "I don't give a shit what anybody took from the store. Go figure it out yourself."

"It's not worth arguing with him. Let's go check. And get some food, ya dumbass." Mondo walked away hurriedly, leading Chihiro back to the market.

"What was that all about?" she asked.

Mondo heaved another sigh, but kept walking. "He calls himself Kiyondo Ishida. It's some kind of coping mechanism, I think. It... musta started after we died. He's usually not like that, but... huh, when he is, he's really fucking stupid and impossible to talk to. It seems to happen when he doesn’t eat, I have to watch him."

"I guess it doesn't matter," Chihiro said. "They should have made a record of everything that was taken out of the store, anyway." When they arrived, they found Celestia leaning over the counter, poring over the records. Teruteru stood off to one side, looking nervous and useless. "Celeste, can we see who took something out of the store this morning?"

"There's nothing there." She tapped her heavy ring against the counter. "I went to all this trouble to guard the store, and there's nothing useful here."

"Wait, I've got this protein shake we found in the gym." Chihiro lifted it up. "I think it might be Sakura's, but I'm not sure. When's the last time someone took one of these?"

Celeste flipped through pages of records. "What the hell? No one's ever taken one." She shook her head, "Either it was taken before we started posting guards, or somebody didn't do their fucking job."

"It's possible she took a whole lot of them the first day," Mondo pointed out. "You sure there's something to this?"

"I don't know," Chihiro said. "I spent some time training with her, yesterday morning, but she didn't have one of these. I didn't see her with one the day before, either." But, before she could pursue that thought further, an anguished scream tore through the tense atmosphere, and Chihiro's hair stood on end.

Chihiro froze up, but Mondo touched her shoulder to calm her down. “I think that came from the aquarium. Come on, let’s see what’s going on.” She followed him out into the atrium, and over towards the aquarium hall, where they found Gundham, rending his jacket and fuming.

“The cowardly desecrator responsible for this blasphemy will know the darkest, coldest fires of hell!” He raved, clutching his head and reeling about. “What fiendish madness would drive someone to slay something so beautiful, so glorious as this?”

Mondo approached him, cautiously, “Hey, buddy, you wanna, calm down a minute?” Then, he stepped on something and backpedaled. “What the hell?” Chihiro looked. It was a dead fish, a parrotfish, perhaps, staring dead eyed up at the man who had so recently trodden upon it.

And there were more fish, and other sea creatures, scattered about the floor, all dead. And glass, too, there was a large amount of broken glass scattered over the dark carpet, and Chihiro made sure to watch her step as she approached Gundham. “Are you all right? Was it like this when you got here?”

He glared at her, his eyes blazing with wounded obsession. “I am not all right while this foul murderer walks free. I will rend the very soul from their flesh, I will carve my justice upon their bones!”

“Um, ok, but we’re trying to figure out who the murderer was, so if you just help us.” Chihiro noticed that a number of the tanks had been shattered, explaining the glass and the dead sea creatures. “Why would someone do something like this?”

“There’s only one explanation for this rancid behavior,” Gundham insisted. “The villain must have envied these creatures their beauty, or feared their power.”

Chihiro opted not to point out that this was really two explanations. “Could it have some connection to the murder?” A moment later, she added, “Sakura’s murder?”

Gundham shook his head. “I don’t see how. That murder took place on the far side of the atrium.” His fists tensed up. “Someone here must be a spy for a rival demon lord, come to wantonly murder my new friends.”

“Hey, fish guy, you noticed this yet?” Mondo asked, pointing beneath one of the shattered tanks. “There were little information cards with all the tanks, but somebody’s taken them all.”

“A curious deception,” Gundham noted, “but it pales in comparison to the crime of slaughter for which they shall be eternally condemned.”

But Chihiro thought Mondo might have been on to something. “Gundham, do you know every fish that was in here?”

“What manner of low-level demon tamer do you take me for?” he sneered. “I made sure to read all the information cards the first time I visited this domain.”

“I hate to ask you for this,” Chihiro said, “But can you check all the dead fish and make sure everything that’s supposed to be in the aquarium actually is here?”

Gundham's eyes lit up. “You suspect theft may have been the true motive in this crime? Someone has absconded with one of these magnificent specimens, and plans to raise it in their bathtub, perhaps?”

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think there’s any way this is unrelated to Sakura’s death.” She shook her head. “It’s too nonsensical, too randomly cruel.”

“Hmm, on that we are in agreement. Leave me to my work, then, mortal. I must catalog the dead.” Gundham set to work, squatting down to investigate the grim scene.

Mondo and Chihiro walked out of the aquarium. “Dramatic jackass,” Mondo commented.

“I think he’s just passionate.” Chihiro said. “I can’t say I would handle it well if someone wrecked my computer lab for no reason, and computers aren’t even alive.” She tapped her chin, thoughtfully. “But, there’s something we haven’t considered. Do you think the killer left any clues they would need to throw away?”

“You’re saying we should check the garbage cans?” He nodded. “Yeah, worth a shot.” There were four, situated in a circle on the outside of the mini garden spaces around the fountain. The two walked over to one, and Mondo lifted off the metal lid. Chihiro leaned in, holding her breath and searching for new clues.

But there was nothing she could consider important. Just food wrappers. They checked two more, without anything to show for it, but before they could finish... “DING DONG BING BONG,” blared through the atrium again. Everyone froze, in the middle of whatever they were doing, and listened for Monokuma's next command. Sure enough, he spoke, “Eh, I’m getting kinda bored. So, everybody head to the fountain, and we can get this class trial started, already.” Mondo and Chihiro looked at each other. They both knew they didn’t have all the pieces together yet, it just had to be enough.

Chapter Text

Because they were already nearby, they were some of the first to the fountain, but, in ones and twos, all nineteen of the students arrived, comparing notes or standing around tense, waiting for whatever horrors awaited them. Mahiru came up to Chihiro. “I’m sorry, but I set my camera down for a second, and somebody swiped it. I don’t have any photos to help with the trial.”

“That’s horrible,” Chihiro said. “Do you know who?”

Mahiru shrugged. “I don’t even know why. Hey, big guy,” she said, addressing Mondo. “You mind kicking someone’s butt for me when I found out who took it?”

He just gave her a sour look, but before either of them could say more, the ground began to rumble. Then, the fountain began to rise up out of the floor, on top of a massive column of marble. An entrance appeared before them, lined with velvet carpet and barred by a velvet cordon. It led into a hallway, cloaked in darkness. The baleful glow of Monokuma’s red eye appeared, and the bear himself stepped forward, his hands behind his back, grinning with vile mirth. He slipped the velvet rope off it’s post, and waved for the students to enter. “Come on, you lazy bums! Come grab your seats, the show’s just about to begin!”

Mondo was the first to step into the darkened hall, and Chihiro caught herself admiring his bravery again. She followed, quick on his heels, and more students filed in, one at a time.

The hallway terminated in a large service elevator, lit with a single, flickering light overhead. When the last student boarded, it began to descend automatically. Monokuma was nowhere to be seen, he evidently had his own private way to reach the courtroom. The elevator lurched and rattled as it sank beneath the floor, and Chihiro prayed that was just for show. Even still, her heart pounded louder in her chest, and she leaned against Mahiru to relax. She didn’t seem to mind.

Chihiro reflected that the investigation had actually helped calm her nerves after the murder, but this tortuous elevator ride was bringing the horror, grief, and anxiety all back to bear down on her. When the elevator ground to a halt, she was no longer sure she had learned anything of use. Sakura was dead, and Chihiro hadn’t done enough.

The students filed out of the elevator, into a courtroom that was much as she remembered it from Hope’s Peak. It was a circular chamber with a checkered tile floor, blue curtains, and a circular ring of podiums surrounded by wooden railings, twenty in all, in the center. Past them, opposite the elevator, stood a golden throne with plush, crimson cushions, and Monokuma sat there expectantly, awaiting his grim entertainment. “Don’t keep me waiting, c’mon, c’mon, let’s get this started already!”

One seat in the ring was already accounted for. It bore a black and white framed photo of Sakura, crossed out with a bloody pink X. Chihiro wondered if it was actually Sakura’s blood, realizing that Monokuma would not hesitate to do something like that. Mondo chose a seat, a bit counterclockwise from Sakura, and Chihiro took the one on his left. Mahiru took the seat on Chihiro’s left, and then Hiyoko, Ibuki, and Mikan on the end. Everyone else filled in the seats on Mondo’s right, starting of course with Taka, and stretching around the rest of the circle. Chihiro noticed some people uneasy about the people they were forced to sit with, especially when Nagito grabbed one of the more open seats, and people tried to avoid him.

Once everyone was settled, the stands locked closed, shackles locked around everyone’s ankles, and Monokuma began. “Welcome, one and all, to the class trial of Ms. Sakura Ogami, the Ultimate Martial Artist! First, let’s have an explanation of how the class trial works!”

“Stuff it, ya damn bear.” Said Leon. “We all know how this works.”

Sayaka shot him an especially ugly look. “Actually, some of us don’t. Please explain the trial, Monokuma.”

“Whahaha, of course! Congratulations on making it this far, Ms. Maizono!” Monokuma recovered from his fit of giggles. “You will debate and use evidence, to try and figure out whodunit. At the end of the trial, you’ll all have to vote for who the blackened is. That is, the culprit responsible for the murder. If the majority guess right, the blackened will be punished, most severely, for their breach of etiquette. But if you pick the wrong one, or there’s a tie, the blackened will be set free, and everyone except the blackened will receive punishment! In that case, the victorious blackened will graduate from my little game, and I will use my amazing power to restore them to life. And remember, if you refuse to vote for whatever reason, you’ll be punished.”

Sayaka raised her hand. “Now, hold on, when you say ‘punished,’ do you mean-“

“He means executed, Sayaka.” Leon cut in. “Immediately after the trial.”

Sayaka held a hand to her mouth. “You mean, in order for a blackened to escape, everyone else has to-“

“Exactly!” Monokuma said, cheerfully. “The only way out of this place is to make sure each and every one of your classmates dies in your place.”

“I- everyone?” Sayaka’s face paled, and she pressed her hand against her forehead. “That’s…”

“But, now that you all know the rules, we can get started!” Monokuma reclined on his gilded throne, stretching peacefully. “You have the floor!”

Everyone seemed reluctant to be the one to start the discussion. Then, Mukuro spoke up. “We should probably start by discussing the cause of death, and the results of the autopsy Mikan and I performed.”

“What’s there to discuss?" Whined Hiyoko. “We all saw it, she got stabbed to death through the eye, right?”

“Actually-“ Mikan raised her hand.

“I mean, it’s in the stupid Monokuma file, right?” Hiyoko shrugged. “What’s the point of indulging that skanky bitch nurse by letting her-“

“Actually, I did find something important!” Mikan shrieked, and pounded the railing with her fist. “If you’d shut your fucking mouth for five seconds so I can explain.” Everyone stared at her, and she froze up. She ran her hands through her hair. “Sorry, B-but I did find something.” Her voice calmed, as she went into an explanation. “It’s true that the fatal injury was a stab through the eye and into the brain. Mukuro and I were able to determine that the weapon used was a regular dining fork, almost certainly swiped from the dinner table.”

“Damn,” said Nekomaru. “Sakura was killed with a dinner fork? I don’t believe it.”

“It’s also a problem,” Celeste added, “Because anybody could have swiped one of those. The murder weapon doesn’t narrow down the possible suspects in the slightest.”

“If everyone would let me finish?” Mikan seethed. “While the fatal injury was inflicted with the fork, I also found signs that Sakura was poisoned prior to her death.”

Exclamations of “Poison!” erupted around the circle. “That’s absolutely ghastly!” remarked Taka, who was, gratefully, no longer talking like Kiyondo. “W-where did the killer find poison?” asked Hifumi.

Chihiro’s thoughts immediately went to the protein shakes. “W-what can you tell us about the poison, Mikan? How was it administered, and what kind of effects did it have?”

“The poison was swallowed,” the nurse explained. “Likely, with food or drink. I found trace amounts of something in Sakura’s mouth, as well as vomit, in her throat. She clearly sweated a lot before dying as well. I couldn’t detect any other visible symptoms, other than sweating and vomiting, and, unfortunately, I don’t have the tools to test exactly what the poison was.”

“T, there was a protein shake, in the dojo, sitting on the bench.” She pulled it out. “I brought it with me, here. Someone clearly drank out of it. Can you tell if it was poisoned?”

“Oh, my gosh, you’ve been carrying that around?” Mikan flinched. “P, pass it here, I’ll check. Pass it around carefully. I don’t know what this poison is, exactly, but I think it’s very fast-acting and very deadly.” Chihiro shuddered, and was suddenly grateful to be rid of it. The container made its way around the circle, handled very gingerly by those who had to touch it. Mikan accepted it and set it down. She had slipped on some disposable gloves, and removed the cap. “The liquid I found in Sakura’s mouth was much darker than this.” She visibly relaxed. “I definitely wouldn’t drink it, but I don’t think this is the source of the poison.”

“Oh!” Ibuki said. “Well, what about this?” She yanked another, identical-looking shake container out of somewhere.

“Where did you find that?” Mikan cried out. “Is anybody else carrying probable sources of deadly poison around?”

“Ibuki looked in the garbage!” She smiled triumphantly.

“Get dressed in there, too?” Junko muttered, quietly, yet loud enough that she clearly wanted everyone to hear it. Still, Chihiro was relieved. Her classmates had evidence she didn’t, that could make this trial considerably more winnable.

Mikan accepted the second suspicious container, and inspected the contents. Her face pinched up. “Oh, yes, this is very different. Even though the labels say these are the same shake, this one’s darker, and redder, which matches the coloration of the liquid I found. This canned shake is the probable source of the poison.” She set it down, as far away from herself and Ibuki as she could, which had the unfortunate result that it tumbled off the railing and spilled across the floor in the center of the room.

Monokuma pounded his gavel against the arm of his throne. “You clumsy idiot! Make any more messes in my courtroom and you’ll have to worry about a lot more than a can of poison!”

“Sorry!” Mikan shrieked, ducking away from him.

Peko folded her arms. “We’ve established that Sakura was poisoned, and the most likely way the poison was administered. But, what’s bothering me is that we don’t know where the poison originated. Does anyone have any thoughts?”

“I think Gundham might,” Chihiro spoke up.

“What?” He scowled. “You would dare accuse me of such villainy, you deceitful creature!”

“What, no!” Chihiro said. “I’m sorry, I’m not accusing you of anything!”

“Then speak plainly, you miserable hedge-witch!” he demanded.

“Not sure she’s the one that needs to speak plainly, ya fuckin’ nutjob.” Mondo clenched his fist, glaring at Gundham.

“Something happened in the aquarium,” Chihiro explained. “Several tanks were shattered, and some fish may have been removed. I think the killer has to be responsible, and they must have some reason for trying to hide what animals they stole. Gundham, were you able to figure out if any specimens were missing?”

“Oh, that’s what you meant.” Gundham failed to make eye contact. “The Tanaka Empire owes you an apology. But I think I see where you are going with this, yes.” He cleared his throat. “It’s true. Some monstrous human befouled that sanctuary, and they may have been in search of a weapon. While I believe other creatures may have been removed, the most important one is the tiger pufferfish, a very high-level beast known for its incredibly potent toxin. That-“ he gesticulated madly, “Is the source of your vile poison!”

“Oh, I get it,” said Teruteru. “Pufferfish is a delicacy all over Japan. But the chefs have to be highly trained to remove the liver, and other sources of poison. Even so, mistakes happen, and people can even die from poorly prepared fugu. Of course, heh,” he snapped his fingers. “That’s not a problem for a master like me.”

“You realize that could be a problem for you, right?” Mahiru pointed out. “Right now, that is. Who would know better that puffer fish toxin could be used as a weapon, and how to remove it without danger to themselves, than a highly trained chef?”

“Uh, what?” Teruteru tugged at his collar. “That’s, a, that’s a pretty dangerous thing to say, don’t you think? Heh, heh.”

“I don’t think we should jump to conclusions,” Byakuya cut in. “I happened to read the information cards on all the fish in the aquarium the first day we could get in. The card for the puffer fish explained a bit about its poison, including the fact that the liver is the most toxic part of the fish. Everyone had access to that information.”

“Ha,” Teruteru sagged with relief. “Thanks, Byakuya, you’re a pretty cool guy, you know that-“

“Of course,” Byakuya continued, “He isn’t completely cleared of suspicion. His culinary skills and experience would make him more likely to consider such a plan than most of us.” Teruteru tensed up again. “We need to consider who might have the skills or daring to attempt such a ploy.”

“Well, as long as we’re throwing out accusations,” Junko cut in, “I think it’s about time we start considering who found the body in the first place, and what role they really played in all this.”

“What?” Chihiro asked, her shoulders tensing up, her heartbeat accelerating. “What are you-“

“I think Chihiro Fujisaki is the murderer,” Junko Enoshima pointed directly at her, “And they've been leading this whole trial to throw off suspicion.”

“What?” Taka yelled out, “You can’t possibly suspect Chihiro! She would never hurt anyone!”

Mondo pounded his fist into his palm. “Where the fuck do you get off, lady?”

“I think I actually agree with Mondo about something,” Mahiru added. “You'd better have something to back that up with, or we're going to take turns kicking your ass.” Hiyoko chimed in, with a "Hell, yeah!"

“It’s so sad," Junko said, her voice taking on a flat, droning quality, "You’ve all been taken in by this sweet, innocent play they put on. But, how well do you really know them?”

Mahiru faltered, for just a second, but rallied. “We know her better than you do, you cagey bitch!”

Junko crossed her hands in front of her face, leering out from between her fingers. "Think again, you fuckin' dumbasses! The killer could be any one of us. If you won't suspect someone because they're your friend, or because they don't seem the type, or whatever fuckin' delusion you want to cling to, well, it'll be your own damn fault when they screw you over, won't it?"

"Cut it out, Junko." Nekomaru interjected. "You said Chihiro reported the body to you? Doesn't that mean it can't be her? You know, because of the body discovery announcement?"

"Body discovery announcement?" Junko said, reeling in the stand, her voice dripping with false stupidity. "Well, what's that got to do with anything? Can somebody please explain?"

"I'd be happy to, Ms. Enoshima," Monokuma rubbed his little paws together. "The body discovery announcement is made to bring everyone together, so that an investigation can begin following a murder. The announcement is made once three people other than the killer have discovered a dead body!"

"There, you see?" Taka gestured triumphantly. "Chihiro was the first person to discover the body, so she couldn't have been the killer!"

"Ah, I see." Junko tapped her temple thoughtfully. "Forgive my impudence, but now that the rules have been made clear, I can see why it is impossible for Chihiro to be the killer."

"...Actually, I'm not so sure about that." Nagito played with a curl of his messy, white hair. "Monokuma, can you tell us which three people discovered the body and triggered the announcement?"

"Puhuhuhu," The little bear's paws pressed into his cheeks, as he chortled with glee. "Nope! Not gonna tell ya! If you want to know that, you'll have to figure it out yourselves."

Nagito smiled, and coughed. "I think Junko might be on to something. You see, Peko, Junko, and I actually discovered the body at almost the same time. So, even if Chihiro is the blackened, the announcement would have played at exactly the same time it actually did. So, it really doesn't protect her at all."

"What?" Taka was shaking. "That's absurd! And neither of you have provided any actual evidence that Chihiro was responsible, anyway!"

"Oh, Chihiro's done a great job of that already," Junko explained. "They're the one who brought in the clean protein shake, after all, and they weren't worried about poison because they threw the tainted one away. And they worked out the source of the poison awfully quickly, too. But, most importantly," Junko tapped her forehead, "Sakura trusted them. That's why they're dressed in that hideous tracksuit, if anyone didn't figure that out. They were training with Sakura in the mornings. It would be no trouble at all for them to bring a pair of protein shakes to share with their mentor, offer Sakura the poisoned one, and then stab her in the eye once the poison had partially incapacitated her."

Chihiro gripped her head, her thoughts whirling. Her chest burned, her knees ached, and her tongue felt dry. She wanted to run. She wanted to run, so bad. “Do you have… anything, to say for yourself?” Nagito asked.

Sayaka wilted. “Chihiro…? It’s not true, right?” Her head pounded.

Leon scratched at his goatee. “Of course not, right, Chihiro?” Her breath cut short.

“There’s a better explanation,” Taka nodded, “There has to be!”

“Cut that out. Let her defend herself.” Mukuro insisted. “She’s the only one who can. If she can’t explain this, we all have to do the right thing to keep everyone alive.” Tears ran down her cheeks.

And cold, clear water slammed into the back of her skull, and rolled down her back. The memory shocked her out of her terror, and she took a deep, steadying breath. She gripped the railing in front of her, stood up straight, and faced Junko Enoshima. “Sakura was training me. Because I wanted to be strong enough to survive the killing game and help everyone. I don’t know what you think you know about me, but I would never betray someone who helped me to believe in myself. I think you’re right about the method the killer used to commit the crime. Someone tricked Sakura into drinking a poisoned protein shake, then attacked them with the fork after she was too weak to put up much of a fight. But I had no motive to betray Sakura, and every reason to value her friendship. As it stands, Sakura’s killer could have been anyone, except for you and Peko, because you can vouch for each other’s whereabouts in the store at the time of the murder. If you want to single me out, you need to produce a decisive piece of evidence or a motive, and there isn’t one.”

Silence reigned over the trial. Chihiro relaxed, her head clear, her mind focused. And Nagito’s rasping laughter floated over the scene. “Heh. Heh, heh… I guess it’s time to move on to the next phase of the trial, and discuss the motivations that led to Sakura’s death. Luckily, I brought these.” He reached into his jacket, and pulled out a series of photographs, and began passing them around to Junko and Sayaka, the people seated nearest him.

“Hey, what the hell?” Mahiru bared her teeth. “You’re the asshole that stole my camera! Give it back, right now.”

“Sure, sure, I was just borrowing it anyway,” Nagito pulled the camera out of a deep pocket and passed it to Sayaka.

“If it’s damaged, you’re dead, you creep!” Mahiru fumed. When it made it around to her, she started fussing over it like a concerned mother.

Celestia was holding one of the photographs, frowning. “These are the tapestries from the banquet hall, yes?”

“I did say they were interesting.” Nagito grinned. “They are scenes from the class trials, of course. Summarizing who was murdered, who was executed as the blackened, and depicting a few other events from the case.”

Leon retched. “Uh, who would want to look at these?”

“Someone who wanted to understand how we all came to be here, naturally,” Nagito said. “Don’t tell me your curiosity doesn’t make you want to know who killed who, or how they died?”

“I review mine, often.” Peko said. “It brings up a lot of pain, but it also makes me determined to survive and return to a new life. The others, though, I have not paid much heed to. I care little for how everyone else died, and I imagine most of you would not share my interest in reviewing your own tapestry.”

“Mine helped… clear up some things,” Taka admitted. “But it made me sick to my stomach to look at it. I certainly didn’t study any others very closely.”

“Why would,” Mahiru rubbed the back of her head, “Why would we want to get hung up remembering how we died? I just want to move on and forget about it. Those tapestries are just a sick joke of Monokuma’s, not something any of us should be wasting our time on.”

“Heheh. But, if you ignore information, there’s a chance it could be important later on. Or, there’s a chance that someone else could value it more.” He shook his head. “You’ve all been neglectful, thinking it wasn’t important. But to our killer, I think it was. Eh, Chihiro?”

She wavered, surprised that the conversation had come back around to her. But, she stood firm. “You’re still suspicious of me? Why would these tapestries motivate me to kill?”

“I would imagine the same thing that motivated you to kill the first time, Chihiro Fujisaki.” Nagito looked around. “Who has the photograph of Sakura’s tapestry? Would you describe it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, yet?”

“Uh, sure.” Nekomaru held the photo up to his face, squinting to see the details. “It looks like Sakura was found seated in an armchair, dead, with a bloody scalp wound. And the killer was… it’s Chihiro.”

“That’s a lie!” Chihiro insisted. “That image isn’t me, it’s a laptop screen with my face on it. I was already dead before Sakura, but I left an AI program I’d built in a locker.”

“And your AI went rogue and killed Sakura, and got executed as a result.” Nagito explained. “That must be so painful, to know that something you built turned out that monstrous, right? A reflection of your own failure as a programmer, a sin you couldn’t live with.” He grinned madly. “So this time you had to kill Sakura yourself, to make sure she didn’t reveal your failure. You put on your sweet, innocent act, convinced her it wasn’t your fault, and waited for your chance to strike.”

“You’re full of lies!” Hifumi screamed, pounding the railing in fury. “Alter Ego was a good program, a sweet and understanding soul. She would never kill someone!” He took a deep breath. “And Chihiro wouldn’t either! Because Chihiro is just like Alter E…go.”

Nagito simply nodded. “Yes, thank you for that. You based your program on yourself, right, Chihiro? Which means it’s just as duplicitous. Just as capable of suckering people in and stabbing them in the back.”

The photograph in question made it around to Chihiro, and she examined it again. She shook her head. “Your logic is flawed. You can see in the tapestry that Sakura drank poison. Alter Ego had nothing to do with Sakura’s death!”

Nagito shook his head as well. “You can’t be sure of that, from just this tapestry. Maybe Alter Ego tricked Sakura into drinking the poison. Or maybe she incited those others to attack Sakura, or both. Maybe Alter Ego was tearing the entire group apart.”

Chihiro just happened to be glancing towards Celeste, or she would have missed it. But the gambler’s face shifted, and she backed away. Chihiro was not the only one who noticed.

“Do you have something to add, Ms. Ludenberg?” Junko asked.

“It’s just that… Alter Ego was causing problems in the group.” She sighed. “Both Hifumi and Taka became obsessed with it. They fought over who got to spend time with it.” She leaned forward, massaging her forehead. “I thought I could use that. So I stole the laptop and tricked both of them into my murder scheme. I don’t know what happened after my scheme failed and I was executed, of course, but it’s possible Alter Ego kept turning people against each other. I… don’t think the program was doing it on purpose. But, I can’t be sure, and I can’t guarantee Nagito’s theory is wrong.”

Kiyotaka broke down sobbing, holding one of the photographs. “It’s true. My head… I was so messed up after Mondo died. But Alter Ego made me feel like I still had a connection to him, and to Chihiro. I went… crazy… Oh god, what happened to me.” He slumped over the railing, bawling without restraint.

Chihiro found herself tearing up, too. “I… no, this… I just wanted to hack into the school’s network. I never meant to cause, so much pain.” She broke down, too, crying almost as much as Taka. “I just wanted to help, I wanted to do anything that might help. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I…”

“Hey, dammit,” Mondo said. “Nothing that happened was your fault.” He steeled himself. “It sounds like Alter Ego was trying to help. Whatever everyone else did with that, isn’t on you."

Chihiro wiped away her tears. "Y, your right. And besides, I didn't know about any of this. Even if your theory is true, Nagito, It couldn't have served as a motive, because I didn't know!"

"She's right!" Hifumi pumped his fist. "I, I was with Ms. Fujisaki, when she saw that tapestry in the banquet hall. I pointed out that it seemed more likely that Sakura took her own life in the killing game. Monokuma probably just smashed Alter Ego, uh, because he's mean."

"There is someone here, who could shed more light on this," Celestia pointed out. "You've been awfully quiet, Byakuya. Is there anything you can tell us about how Sakura died in her last game?"

He flinched, shaking visibly at the question. "I, uh, that is..."

"Huh, what are you talking about?" Ibuki asked. "Byakuya's from our game. He was a really cool leader! Even though he did kinda die... first."

"His fate is chronicled right here, on one of these graven images." Gundham held up one of the photographs.

"...Bullshit." Mondo shook his head. "Byakuya was in our game. And he was a total piece a shit, too."

"Hey, wait a minute!" Hiyoko held up another photograph. "This one's from the other game. And Ham Hamds is in it!" She squinted. "It's hard to make out what's going on, but it kinda... looks like he did something to Chihiro."

"...Alright." Byakuya steadied himself. "Based on what I've learned, I do believe I was present in both killing games. But... I don't have any memories from the one featuring Chihiro and Sakura. Someone must have tampered with them. Which means, I have no useful insight into what happened."

Mondo tensed up, pounded his fist against his palm. "So you don't remember?" He shook his head. "Man, what a load of crap. Fine, let's move on." He scowled at one of the photos, and handed it to Chihiro.

Sure enough, it depicted the imposter bleeding out under a table, and Teruteru's execution at the bottom. "Wait a minute." She cupped her chin. "I think I've seen all of the tapestries now, and there is something that bothers me about them. Some of us aren't shown dying in any of them."

"Wait, really?" Ibuki exclaimed. "Whoa, who's missing?"

Chihiro closed her eyes, trying to picture all of the tapestries in her head. "I think it's... Mukuro and Nagito."

Leon's brow furrowed. "...Huh. I think you're right. Well, can you two explain why?"

"I was killed before the game actually started." Mukuro said. "So I don't think it's strange that I was left out."

Celeste tapped her fingers on the railing. "Now that I think about it, there was always an empty chair at our class trials. Almost like there was supposed to be another participant, but they didn't make it. So that makes sense. What about you, Nagito?"

"Me? Oh, I was killed by Monokuma." He shrugged. "It wasn't connected to any of the class trials, so I guess it wasn't included on the tapestry."

"Acuawy, that doesn't make any sense," Junko smiled, her eyes seeming to grow and sparkle as she spoke. "Mean old Monokuma killed me, too. But my death is on this tapestwy with Weon and Sayaka." She held up a photograph and giggled. "I was impwaled by so many spwears."

"Is that so?" Nagito frowned. "Well, maybe there weren't any more class trials after I died, so it wasn't worth making one just for trash like me."

"A moment," Gundham scowled in thought. "If Monokuma slew you, you must have violated a rule, correct? What rule was that?"

"I attacked Monokuma." He said, running a hand through his bedraggled hair. "Yeah, I thought I could take him by surprise."

"SHIT," roared Nekomaru. "I don't believe it. After what happened to me when I defended Akane, there's no way someone else would risk attacking Monokuma." He pounded on the railing. "You might be crazy, but I never took you for stupid."

Now that everyone was focusing on Nagito, something else slipped into place. "Nagito," Chihiro said, "What were you doing in the store this morning with a baseball bat?"

"WHAT!" screamed Celestia. "No one recorded confiscating a bat!"

"Well, that's because we were rudely interrupted by someone discovering a body." Junko explained. "In the turmoil of the moment, the bat was simply forgotten."

Peko nodded. "It’s true, and I apologize for my neglect. I was confiscating it when Chihiro told us about the body. But, why were you trying to get one? You knew we would stop you."

Nagito shrugged. "Heh. Well, I was planning to kill somebody, of course. So, it's probably for the best that you did stop me."

His abrupt and frank confession of intent sent the entire circle into a chorus of accusations, insults, and threats. Nagito weathered the storm with an easy smile, and eventually raised his hands for quiet. "Now, now. It's not worth getting all excited. Somebody obviously had more initiative than me, and we have an actual murder to solve rather than a theoretical one. So, why don't we get back on track?"

Chihiro wasn't ready to let Nagito go, but needed another angle to attack him from. He'd just admitted to plotting a murder, so pointing out he might have a motive because of the tapestries was futile. "Since the subject of the store came up, I still have some questions about that. Celestia told me that no one has taken any of the protein shakes out of the store, but two were clearly used in the murder. Does anyone have any idea how that happened?"

"I left very clear instructions that the store was never to be unmanned." Celestia seethed. "And nothing was to be removed without a record being made." Her accent dropped out, giving way to a vengeful shriek. "So one of you fucking assholes is going to explain how you screwed this up and let something slip through my fingers!" She pounded on the railing. "Well. We're all waiting."

Everyone glanced around, unwilling to bear Celestia's wrath and unable to explain the mistake. "The most likely explanation," Peko offered, "Is that one of the people on guard duty took the shakes from the store without their partner noticing. That way, they would only have to fool one person, instead of two."

"Or there was collusion." Mukuro pointed out. "You all assumed posting guards would keep you safe, but it's just as possible you just gave the killer a smokescreen.” She shrugged. "If I wanted to commit a murder, I would have signed up for a shift, just to see if an opportunity would present itself. And, obviously, one did." She smiled wolfishly. "So, you don't just need to ask who would break the store rules. You also need to ask who would have been foolish enough to allow it to happen. Find the meeting place between a likely culprit and a likely fool, and you'll find your answer."

Chihiro's stomach collapsed, leaving her hollow and aching. Because she knew Mukuro was right, and she knew who had slipped up and allowed this to happen. And she had to accuse him. She gripped the railing, stood up straight, and hoped more than anything that she was wrong. "Kiyotaka. You had guard duty last night with Nagito, right?"

"What?" he stuttered. "Yes, but why-"

"And do you remember everything that happened during your shift?"

"W, well, it was the six PM to midnight shift." He fidgeted with his armband. "So, not a very busy time. A few people came in for late night snacks, and that's it. I don't remember anything else."

"Chihiro, what the fuck are you doing?" Mondo demanded. "That's my bro, leave him-"

"Mondo, you know exactly what I'm doing." She tried to puff out her chest, but doubted it made her look any braver. "You told me Taka's... not always himself. And when he's not, he's... well, kinda, stupid. I think... I think Nagito used that."

"Bro?" Taka pouted, like a wounded puppy. "What, what's she saying?"

Mondo went red in the face. "Damn it. Damn it, you crusty son of a bitch. You'd better fucking hope Monokuma kills you, because you're dead either way!" He slammed his fist into the banister so hard a crack shot all the way through. "You cryptic, mop headed piece of shit," he yelled across the circle. "I'll-"

"Mondo, please." Taka rubbed his face. "I don't, I don't know what you two are talking about."

"There's something wrong with you, man," Mondo said. "You won’t eat or drink unless I make you, and when you don’t you start acting… different. Like-" he shook his head, "like you're trying to be me, but you don't really know how. I thought you were getting control of it. But Chihiro's got a point. If you turned into Kiyondo Ishida last night, you would have been easy to trick."

"Kiyondo Ish-" Taka reeled back, slamming the heel of one hand into his forehead. “Th, that’s not possible. He’s gone, because, you’re here, and, and I don’t need him anymore.”

“You were him this morning, man.” Mondo explained. “Before I told you to go eat something.”

“…I can back this up,” Celestia said. “He went into a near catatonic state following Mondo’s execution in our killing game. He started behaving much more erratically, and calling himself this Kiyondo person after interacting with Alter Ego.” She shook her head, her shoulders sagging. “And… He was very easy to trick.” She tipped her chin in thought. “But, wait, he wasn’t supposed to be on duty last night. I checked the schedule during the investigation, it was supposed to be Leon and Chihiro.”

“What, no way.” Leon folded his arms. “When we showed up, Taka was already there. He said you changed the schedule ‘cause tea got spilled on it, and he even showed it to us.”

And the Ultimate Gambler trembled. “I… I never changed the schedule.” She pointed an accusatory finger at Nagito. “It was you, wasn’t it, you disgusting piece of gutter trash!”

He smiled. “Yep, got me again. Heheh. I’ve been watching everyone, real close, and I noticed Kiyotaka’s little problem. So I made a fake schedule so we’d have a shift together.”

“What, what was the point of all this?” Taka demanded. “Why did you want to be alone with me?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Nagito beamed, smiling more brightly, and more cruelly, than he had yet done. “I needed to kickstart the killing game. So I manipulated you into killing Sakura. Or, rather, I manipulated Kiyondo Ishida. But it doesn’t make any difference, as far as the rules of the game are concerned, right, Monokuma?”

“That’s right!” Monokuma cheered. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in an altered state of consciousness, it only matters who performed the final, mortal act. So, if Kiyondo Ishida killed Sakura Ogami, then Kiyotaka Ishimaru is the blackened!”

"And that's exactly what happened," said Nagito, with a satisfied nod. "After all, I was still a stranger to Sakura. If I approached her and offered her a drink, there was every chance she would refuse. But Kiyotaka Ishimaru? A good, upstanding man like him? Well, who wouldn't trust him? And Kiyondo is suggestible, so eager to fight already. So, when Sakura was down, all I had to do was hand him the fork and point him in the right direction."

Taka faltered, slumping against the railing, a constant stream of tears pouring out of his face. “No, I wouldn’t, you, you couldn’t have made me-“

“Heheheh. But it’s exactly what I do, just ask my dear friends Teruteru and Mahiru.” Nagito shook his head. “I would never kill an ultimate, trash like me doesn’t have that right. But I would test you. I would subject you all to the deepest, darkest despair I can fathom, to see if you are worthy of being true hope.” He hugged himself, almost crying. “Seeing you struggle, being the stepping stone for your growth, it’s the only meaning one such as I could ever hope to achieve. Corrupting the incorruptible Ultimate Moral Compass is my greatest accomplishment yet.”

“Damn it all!” Mondo snarled. “Damn it all to hell!” He slammed his fist through the railing in front of him, splitting it in two. His fist came away bloody and splintered. “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch, I’ll break your fucking spine!”

Nagito just smiled, and nodded. “And that’s the final part of my plan, haha. I’ve finally found someone who isn't afraid to kill me. I'll unlock my true potential by guiding you all through the first two class trials in this new killing game. I look forward to your vengeance, Mondo Owada.”

Taka reached out to him. “Mondo, please… I don’t, I don’t want to see you like this. Don’t let this be the way I think of you, when, when I die.”

Mondo leaned towards him. “What, what the hell, I won’t let you die, Taka, not because of this.”

Taka shook his head. “You have to, Mondo. It’s, it’s the rules. If you don’t let me go, everyone else will pay the price.” Taka reached down into Mondo’s stand, and the two men helped prop each other up. “And you can’t kill Nagito, no matter what he did. I, I love you Mondo. I want you to escape, with all our friends. I’m sorry I got so confused, I’m sorry I got tricked, but I want you to live.”

“I…” Mondo shook, and leaned into Taka’s hug. He turned away, and Chihiro was probably one of the only people that could hear him cry. “Dammit! What the fuck am I supposed to say to that? I don’t want you to go. This isn’t right, I can’t just let him walk away from this.”

Chihiro was crying, too, softly, wanting so much to reach out to them. But they needed this more than she did. She couldn’t believe it had come to this, and she had been the first one to accuse him. Mondo would never forgive her, she would never forgive herself. She hated herself.

Her hands clenched into tiny fists, and she looked up, through the tears, across the circle of stunned students at Nagito. No, she didn’t hate herself. She hated him. This was his fault, the way he’d taken advantage of Taka’s mental state, the way he’d tried to direct the trial against her, the way he’d tried to create a false motive for her-

Wait. Why did he go to all that trouble? Why implicate her and Taka, if Taka was the real killer all along? What did the tapestries have to do with anything? And… why was he trying to steal a bat, if he knew there had already been a murder? Didn’t he just say he would never kill an ultimate?

“Wait a minute,” Chihiro took another deep breath. “Wait a minute! This trial’s not over yet!” She pointed at him, “You need to explain the real reason you were trying to steal a bat this morning, Nagito Komaeda!”

“Heh. Oh, that. It was just a ploy to be in the right place at the right time to confuse the immunity from the body discovery announcement. The bat was never important in the first place.” He shrugged. “It’s not like it has any connection to the crime, it was just a prop.”

“You’re lying!” Chihiro insisted. Her mind whirred furiously, putting the last piece into place. “You weren’t trying to steal the bat this morning, you were trying to return it. Because there was something you needed the bat for! You used it to shatter the glass tanks in the aquarium!”

“…Actually, I think they're right.” Junko said. “Like, I never actually saw Nagito near the sporting goods this morning. I just, sorta, assumed he got it there. But it’s totally possible he was trying to sneak it in under his jacket.”

The circle exploded with rage and confusion once again. But, neither Mondo nor Taka were part of it. They were quietly holding each other, across the railing that divided them. At last, as it started to calm, Nagito held up his hands. “Well, I guess that’s it. You’ve got all the facts, everybody. It’s time to make your choice. I hope you’re all correct!”

“But first,” Chihiro said, wiping a hand across her face to clear out some of the tears. “I think it would be helpful if someone laid out the events of the case in full, so everyone has a clear picture of what happened.” She waited, and looked around at the other expectant students. "Oh, I guess I could do it. Here goes."

“We’re still not sure of the killer’s true motive, but it definitely involves the class trial tapestries that were hung in the main hall. Something about these tapestries triggered the desire to escape the game at any cost. So, they waited for an opening, observing daily routines and searching for weaknesses. Then, yesterday, they put a plan into motion.”

“The killer created a false guard schedule, for the RocketPunch! Market, so they could get a shift alone with someone they could easily manipulate. Once the real guards were dismissed, they did something to Taka to bring out his Kiyondo Ishida personality, or maybe waited to see if he would emerge on his own. Then, it was a simple matter to steal the items they needed from the store: a baseball bat, and two protein shakes.”

“Later on, probably after their ‘shift’ was over, they got to work preparing the poison they needed to kill their victim. For this, they went into the aquarium and used the bat to smash a glass tank containing the deadly poisonous tiger puffer fish. To make their true aim less obvious, they smashed several other tanks as well, leaving a mess of water, glass, and unfortunate sea creatures on the floor. They also stole the information cards, hoping to hide the fact that an animal carrying a deadly poison had been housed there."

"To prepare the poison, they probably used silverware snatched from the dinner table, though they may have also swiped some medical supplies from the infirmary. Either way, they cut open the pufferfish and used the toxic chemicals from its liver to poison one of the protein shakes."

"Then, they waited for Sakura to wake up and go to the dojo for her early morning workout routine. She must have gotten there at around five thirty in the morning. They convinced Sakura to drink from the poisoned shake, introducing the deadly neurotoxin to their system."

"However, they could not be absolutely sure the poison would kill Sakura. She might have been able to get Mikan or someone else to help her purge it from her body. The killer probably also wanted to make sure she wasn't able to tell anyone who was responsible. So, once the poison had severely weakened her, they took a plain dinner fork, and stabbed it through her eye, ending her suffering."

"After that, they threw the poisoned shake into the garbage to further hide the fact that poison had been used. Then, they took the bat they had stolen earlier, and returned to the market. They allowed themselves to be caught with it so they could claim to be stealing later. The real purpose of this move was, first, to obscure that the bat had already been used, and second, so that they would be in the right place when I discovered Sakura's body to mess with the body discovery announcement, by arriving with two other people."

"The person who did all of this, manipulating the guard system to get easy access to the store, acquiring a deadly poison, and brutally murdering Sakura," Chihiro pointed, "It was you, Nagito Komaeda!"

"Heh." He shook his head. "Heh, heh. Well, it is a very good theory. But I do want all of my dear friends to remember that, while I did manipulate people into being murderers or victims in the last game, I never actually killed anyone. It was always my goal to simply keep the game moving forward. So, vote how you want. That's all I'm gonna say."

"And that means it's my turn!" squealed Monokuma. A device rose up from the floor in front of each of them. "In front of you is a panel with the names of each student. So, pick who you think is the awful blackened that slew Sakura Ogami! Vote quickly now, you wouldn't want to get punished for taking too long!"

Chihiro voted for Nagito Komaeda, and hoped that everyone else did the same. She closed her eyes, and breathed slowly. There was nothing else she could do, now. "Okay, the votes are in!" Monokuma cheered, "And it looks like most of you voted for Nagito! However, there were a few votes for Kiyotaka, and one for Chihiro. It seems everyone isn't feeling united. That's so sad! But, it's time to find out if the majority was right. If you would turn to watch the screen to my left..."

Everyone looked. A pair of the royal blue curtains fell away, revealing a massive monitor set into the wall. It lit up with a graphic of a slot machine, with faces of some of the students filling the three columns of slots. And they began spinning, the faces blurring into a swirl of color. Chihiro stared, wide-eyed and expectant. It had to be him. It had to.

And the graphic slowed, coming to a stop, the three columns clicking into place. The face of a pale young man with an unruly mop of white hair stared out at them in triplicate, and the graphic began ringing with victory fanfare. Chihiro sagged forward. It was over, it was done. She'd been right. "Congratulations, everyone!" Monokuma stood on his throne and did a high-kicking dance. "Nagito Komaeda is guilty of the murder of Sakura Ogami!"

"Ha. Hahahahaha," Nagito folded over, clutching his stomach. "Oh, yes, well done everyone." He sighed. "I suppose it's just as well, this way. I hate lying, and I guess I'm no good at being a monster."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." Mahiru scowled at him. "Why did you do it, anyway? Why did you kill Sakura?"

"It's because I have to know." Nagito grinned manically. "I have to know how they did it, how they won."

"What the hell are you on about now?" Nekomaru asked.

"You might actually recall that there was a mole in our little group, someone placed to spy on us by the sinister Future Foundation." Nagito explained.

Gundham nodded. "Yes, so we were led to believe. The pink haired one suspected Hajime, but as he is a petulant fool, I would not give those suspicions much merit."

"I devised a plan," Nagito went on, "To force a contest between the traitor and the rest of them. I set a trap and forced the traitor to kill me." He shook his head, and then pounded on the railing. "But somehow, they all survived. Somehow, they beat the mastermind and escaped the killing game. I don't understand it." He ran his hands through his hair, tugging on it frenetically. "There's no tapestry for my trial. Did they defeat the mastermind before the trial began? Did they force the mastermind to reveal themselves in the trial and defeat them? Did they simply escape the island completely? The only way for me to know how their hope defeated me so completely is to get my life back, to find out for myself." He broke off in a fit of laughing. "Well, I guess it's too late for that. The rest of you have to survive, to find out what they did. Hey, maybe your hope will defeat Monokuma again. I only wish I would get the chance to see that."

"Something is bothering me," Celestia mused. "You mentioned that Sakura might not trust a gift from you. How did you make her drink it?"

"Oh, that was easy," Nagito answered. "Sakura was all too eager to talk when I showed an interest in her training. Once she was at ease, I let her pick her shake, and I drank from mine first so she wouldn't be suspicious."

Celestia gaped. "You- you trusted luck?"

"Of course." Nagito said. "I am the ultimate lucky student after all. What's the point of being lucky if you never use it?" He laughed. "And that's not the only time I used it. I don't know anything about cutting open a puffer fish, I just knew to go for the liver because of the info card." He shrugged. "Anyone else would have been at least a little worried about poisoning themselves, but not me. If I had died instead, well, that would have been that."

Celestia shot him a scathing look. "Of all the irresponsible..." She shook her head, waving her drills wildly. "You atrocious man."

"But, why did you go after Sakura?" Chihiro asked. "You could have targeted anyone. Why her?"

"Isn't it obvious?" He picked up one of the tapestry photos, that had made its way back to him. "Her despair was utterly sickening to me. I couldn't let someone like her stick around and bring everyone down. She killed herself once already, and she was a little too eager to give up when I asked everyone to vote for hope or despair."

"But, but you were the one who called for the vote in the first place!" Ibuki protested. "And, and you voted for the same thing!"

"That's true," Nagito agreed. "But I was only trying to make all of you see the value in playing the game. I voted for despair, because I believe in all of you. I'm disappointed how many of you don't seem to believe in yourselves." He shook his head. "It's one thing for talentless trash like me to allow myself to be killed. But even I would never throw my life away without any meaning. For true ultimates like all of you, to give up is to forsake your duty. Sakura wasn't an ultimate anymore, so it wasn't wrong for me to kill her for the rest of you."

"That's not fair!" Chihiro countered. "You don't know why she choose that! Those tapestries don't tell us everything. Maybe Sakura's death did mean something..." she looked around the circle, "although, I don't think anyone here would know."

"Hmm," Junko stood up straight, and spoke in a lilting, theatrical voice. "We do know that Sakura was the last person to die in our killing game. Perhaps her sacrifice was a noble enough act to inspire the survivors to band together and vanquish the mastermind." She closed her eyes and turned her face skyward. "It truly is a shame no one present can attest to that presumption."

Nagito flinched. "You mean... she might have been like me? That she believed taking her own life could create hope? Hah, hah, hah."

"I very much doubt she was like you, Nagito Komaeda," Gundham jeered. "You revel in despair, you crave it in equal measure to hope." He closed his eyes. "I did not know her well, but she was a formidable warrior, and I believe she had a strong heart. She is more like Nidai or myself than you, you broken, blithering child."

Nagito wiped his forehead. "Well, whatever. Heh. I've cast my die, and started the game. How will all of you fare, without Sakura's strength? Without me, pulling at strings?" He held himself again, gently rocking. "I wish I could stay and watch you all grow, but this is goodbye." He promptly slammed forward, nearly smashing his forehead into the railing, and let out one last, long, wheezing cackle. "Well? What do you say everybody? Let's give it everything we've got. It's punishment time!"

Monokuma startled awake, flailing in fury. "Hey, what the hell? Who said you got to say that?" He withdrew his gavel from beneath a cushion. "Well, whatever. Time to take out the trash!" A big, red button rose up before him. Everyone watching felt their hair standing on end, as Monokuma slammed his gavel down.

The floor of the stand Nagito was standing on dropped out, and the shackles binding his legs released. He plummeted away in an instant, vanishing from sight without a gasp or scream. "Please turn your attention back to the monitor, everyone." Monokuma requested, "And behold the final moments of Nagito Komaeda, the Ultimate Lucky Student!"

The monitor went to a black display with red text, and the lines "NAGITO HAS BEEN FOUND GUILTY" and "TIME FOR THE PUNISHMENT," appeared near the bottom. A pixelated Monokuma dragged a pixelated Nagito off of the screen.

Then, the screen shifted, going black, and a single, flickering white light appeared. The light got brighter, revealing itself to be a white hot torch held aloft by an upraised arm. The figure carrying it had unkempt white hair, and a grungy looking jacket. It was definitely Nagito, but he was walking around uncertainly, in the darkness, alone.

The torch he was holding grew brighter still, revealing that he was walking in the center of a gently sloping pit, with a stainless metallic surface, that stretched in every direction. The screen went black again, and the words Beacon of Hope appeared.

Music began playing in the courtroom, a dark, sad song. When Nagito appeared again, a steady trickle of dark liquid began pouring down the slope of the surface, towards Nagito's feet. He visibly recoiled, and began walking in a different direction, trying to find his way up the curved slope. But more trickles of liquid appeared, tracing their way down the slope, towards the center of the pit. Nagito was stepping gingerly, trying to avoid whatever the dark liquid was, and holding his torch as high as he could.

The liquid was filling up the center of the bowl, now, rising towards where Nagito stood. He reached what seemed to be the edge of the bowl, but it was just a smooth wall, and he traced his way along it, trying to find a way out. There was now so much of the thick, dark liquid that he was having to trudge through it.

He began to shake his torch frantically, and Chihiro thought he might be trying to put it out. But, the while-hot fir only blazed brighter. And the flames licked the arm of his jacket. The jacket caught, burning a hot white, and fire tracked down his arm. The music shifted, rising in tempo, the beat changing to something more triumphant.

Nagito was sweating and screaming and beating at his burning arm with his free hand, but he refused to drop the torch. And Chihiro understood. The liquid he was walking through, that now filled the bowl-like pit up to his ankles, was oil. He kept his burning arm aloft as long as he could, keeping the torch above the pool of oil, but the flames were spreading down his arm, towards his chest.

He threw the torch. It spiraled through the air, plummeting into the oil. And the bowl blazed to life, white flames spreading from the point of impact, rolling over the black surface in all directions. And back towards Nagito.

Fire swam up his legs and his torso, and he reeled in pain. He fell to his knees, clutching his chest, and threw his head back. He was shaking, like he was laughing. The music rose again, soaring with the promise of victory, as Nagito burned to ashes before their eyes. The camera panned out, rising above the massive, burning pool of oil, the light searing away the darkness of the lonely pit. And the screen went black, and the curtain fell.

It was Teruteru that broke the uneasy silence. "So, he's really dead, then." He slumped back, tension pouring out of his round little body. "I can't say I'll miss him, but, damn, I'm not sure anybody deserved that."

The shackles around everyone's ankles released, and the stands unlocked. People slowly stepped down, most of them looking stunned and defeated. "None of us deserve this," Sayaka insisted. "Not, not even him. Not even the killers." She pointed at Monokuma, who mimed a who, me? gesture. "Everything that happens here is his fault."

"She's right," Mukuro said, her hands behind her back, her head held straight and proud. "This doesn't have anything to do with who 'deserves' anything, that's meaningless. Death is inevitable in this place. You need to accept that. Don't hang on to your past. Don't hang on to each other." She stopped in front of Mondo and Taka, exchanging a cold, dead glare with the former. "You'll only be crushed by despair if you do. The dead are gone, grieving them is a waste of time. Hating them is a waste of time. Look around at these faces, wracked with sorrow over something they can't change. How many more of them will die, before long? The weakest will die." She looked down her nose at Chihiro. "And the ones who think they're clever." She shot a glance at Celestia. "And the sentimental ones." She turned back to Taka.

"Hey, fuck off, lady." Mondo shot back. "Everybody already feels like crap, we don't need your bitching."

“Mmm,” Mukuro smiled. “Just some friendly advice, hotshot.” She turned and walked away, waving behind her. “Bye, Monokuma. I’m sure we’ll be back here, real soon.”

“I’m starting to see why Monokuma killed her off,” muttered Celestia. “With her around, who needs killing motives?” She shook her head, slowly. “I apologize, everyone. I thought I could keep us safe, but I only managed to create a tool the killer used against us. And I never even considered that the aquarium might be dangerous. The guard program is suspended.” With that, Celestia and the others began meandering towards the elevator.

Mondo, Taka, and Chihiro were the last three, and Mondo and Taka were still leaning on each other. “I’m sorry, bro,” Taka said. “I thought I was about to die. I couldn’t miss that chance again. I’m sorry. I hope you’re not embarrassed.”

“Ah, would you quit?” Mondo shrugged. “It’s out there, now. There’s no point in trying to put it back. And… yeah, I do care about you, man. Just, take better care of yourself, alright? You need to eat more. You need to work through whatever shit is still messing you up. You need to make sure that Kiyondo bastard doesn’t come back again. That guy fucking sucks. It’s you I like, not some shittier version of me.”

The three of them boarded the elevator, and the ancient contraption fired to life, carrying them back towards the atrium above. Several people were standing close, some leaning against each other, like Mahiru and Hiyoko. Others, like Sayaka, were by themselves, their eyes wide, their faces pale. Mukuro stood alone, arms crossed, near the middle of the life. And, though the rest of the elevator was crowded, no one came anywhere close to her.

Once the lift stopped, it was a short walk through a dark hallway, and the students were back. After Chihiro stepped out of the door, the fountain shuddered, and descended back into the floor. The others walked towards the banquet hall and their rooms, slouched over and silent.

“Y, you’re right.” Taka shook his head. “This is partially my fault. Nagito used me to gain access to the tools he needed. I’ll.. I’ll make sure Kiyondo doesn’t come back.” The two started to walk towards one of the benches, and Chihiro started to follow, but she stopped herself. This wasn’t her place. Her friends were sharing something private. There wasn’t room for her. She waved goodbye to them, and returned to her room.

When she got there, she collapsed on the bed without turning on the light, and cried, for a long time. She cried for Sakura, whom she realized she dearly wished she had had more time with, and not just for training. She cried for Taka, and the guilt he faced over being used. Surprisingly, she cried for Nagito, simply because she didn’t understand him. And she cried for herself, because she felt very alone, and very weak. Eventually, she fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Hunger finally drove Chihiro from her bed. She hadn't had anything to eat that morning, and the trial had been, well, a trial. The clock said it was around six, so she hoped the dinner buffet would be available. She dragged herself out into the banquet hall, and shambled over to join the others at dinner.

Almost everyone was there already, though there were a few more open seats than usual. Chihiro counted heads, trying to figure out who was missing. Until the obvious truth clicked, and she remembered that Sakura and Nagito were not coming back. She prepared a bowl of ramen and took one of the open seats, between Mikan and Mondo.

What conversation there was, was muted, far away, and unimportant. Chihiro ate in silence, staring at her bowl, until she heard Mikan gasp next to her. She looked up, and saw white fog rolling over the table as it had that first night, smothering her food and blocking her sight. Several voices shouted over the fog, but she was too tired and hurt to feel properly afraid, even when Monokuma's voice sliced through the mist. "Congratulations are in order, to the eighteen souls who have survived the first stage of my new killing game!"

The fog cleared, and Monokuma stood triumphantly in the center of the table. "But things are only going to get deadlier from here, so don't relax too much. Puhuhu." He rubbed his little paws together. "I've got a whole new floor of attractions for you to explore, starting tomorrow morning! You'll have access to the floor above this one, through the stairwell in the atrium."

"Yeah, well, I'm not going." Hiyoko said. "We went exploring last time, and look what happened. It's just gonna be more weapons and garbage we don't need."

"Aww," Monokuma pouted. "Are you not all having a good time? That's just awful!" He stamped his little foot. "And after all this work I put in to prepare this place for you guys! You could at least pretend to have fun, dammit!"

"Give us something, then." Peko crossed her arms. "The first floor didn't give us any clues to how we got here, or where this place really is."

"Pushy, pushy, pushy," Monokuma shook his head. "Alright, well, you're in luck, hehe." He held up one paw, placing the other on his chest. "I promise you that there are some important clues on the next floor. It's up to you to figure out what they are, of course. But, if what you really want is your precious freedom, well, you already know how to get that. Who's gonna be the next corpse? Oh, I'm getting chills just thinking about it, puhuhu."

"Is that it?" asked Mondo. "Fuck off, then. You couldn't even give us one day, ya piece a shit."

"Sheesh, somebody's touchy." Monokuma walked to the edge of the table, where one of the empty seats was. "Well, whatever. I said what I came to say." He hopped off the table, and waved back. "Tomorrow's another beautiful day to die, so enjoy tonight while you can."

After he left, Byakuya spoke up. "I know we've had a difficult day. I've never actually witnessed one of these class trials myself, it was truly terrible." He paused, raising one hand to his chin, "Well, at least, I haven't witnessed one since my memories were wiped, I mean. But, Peko raises an interesting point. We haven't really found anything out yet, have we? Is anyone up for discussing where we are?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Gundham waved his hands, gesturing dramatically. "Surely you've seen the view from your dorm windows. Monokuma may be a deceptive, heartless fiend, but he wasn't lying about that. Where could this be, but hell itself, or very near it?"

"Ah!" Mikan cried out. "Do, do you think we're being punished, for what we did in the other killing games?" She wrenched her long hair as she swayed in her seat. "Are we trapped here forever? What if, what if when we die here, we just wake up again and start the whole thing over? Is this divine punishment?" Her chest heaved, as she started hyperventilating. "Oh, god, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorr-"

"Hey, hey!" Ibuki reached over and grabbed at Mikan's wrist. "Hey, calm down. Hey. It can't be that, right? Some of us didn't really do anything wrong. I-Ibuki doesn't think the victims would be here, too, if it was just a punishment."

Hiyoko tsked. "Yeah, there's no way I deserve to spend eternity with you, pig barf."

Mikan started to calm down, only to clutch at her stomach and start sobbing. "Oh, god, I dragged my friends to hell with me, I'm sorry, I'm sorry-"

"Hey!" Mahiru said. "If we're going to discuss this, we need to start talking about some real answers. None of this hell nonsense."

"Real answers, huh?" Leon asked. "Like what? How would you explain what we can see from the windows?"

"W...well..." Mahiru shrugged. "Special effects? Holograms?"

"I don't think so," Sayaka said. "I've done a lot of work with holograms, and I've seen some pretty amazing special effects. But I've never seen anything like that. Whoever built this place must have some pretty amazing technology, if that's the case."

"Hey, uh," Nekomaru said, scratching his neck. "Our enemy does have some crazy advanced technology, actually. Well, there's Monokuma obviously, but there's also... me."

"What are you talking about, Nekomaru?" Byakuya prompted.

"Well, remember how I mentioned protecting one of my classmates during the trial today? Yeah, well, I protected her by getting damn near killed by a giant rocket. I would have died, but since I hadn't broken any rules, Monokuma decided to save me. He... put me in some sort of robot body."

Hifumi gasped. "You got to be in a robot? Oh man, that sounds amazing!" He started punching the air, making silly mechanical noises with his mouth. "Did you get any sick robot powers?"

"Uh, I could dispense soda from my eyes. For some reason." He groaned. "Look, it's not something I really want to remember."

Gundham nodded. "Yes, I recall." He closed his eyes. "It was painful to see how distantly the others treated you after that. And that miserable Kazuichi, always pestering you about tinkering with your insides."

"Yeah, it wasn't fun." Nekomaru sighed. "But, my point is, there's no way to know what the enemy is capable of. If they could put a dying man in a fully functional robot body, well, creating a fake hellscape with fancy tricks might not be off the table."

Hifumi pushed up the bridge of his glasses. "You know, it's been said that there's not much difference between sufficiently advanced technology and magic. Maybe we should be thinking along those lines."

Peko sat up straighter. "If magic exists in this place, we may be able to gain control of it and turn it against its master. I am satisfied, we must explore this place fully, and gain magical powers to destroy Monokuma."

Hifumi squealed with delight, but Celeste rubbed at her forehead and sighed. "Please, don't encourage the poor boy. Does anyone have something more helpful?"

Mondo leaned over and nudged Chihiro with his elbow. "Hey. Do ya think something like this could be done with computers? Like some kinda, I dunno," he waved his hands about, "virtual world, thing?"

"Um," Chihiro glanced down, rubbing at her chin. "VR has come a long way. But something this immersive, and with this much freedom?" She shook her head. "I think we're a long, long way from something like this. Of course, I don't know how they managed what they did to Nekomaru, either. Ha. Making the human nervous system intermingle with a technological body like that sounds like science fiction."

Mondo frowned. "You're... starting to talk weird."

"But it's possible, right?" Sayaka asked, her eyes brightening. "I mean, if our enemy does have some really crazy technology, maybe we are in a virtual world. Maybe the other killing games were just virtual worlds, too. Maybe we're..." she slowed down, trembling. There were tears running down her cheeks, but she had a shaky, hopeful smile.

"You're... trying to suggest we're all actually still alive, aren't you?" Kiyotaka finished.

"Wait," Teruteru sighed, slumping back in his chair. "So, I was right the whole time? Heh... It's not real. We're going to wake up when this is over, and it'll be fine. Ahhh..."

Chihiro's hand went to the back of her head again, where Mondo had struck her. It would explain how they'd all died and woken up again like nothing happened. It made more sense then any other explanation anyone had offered. She took a deep breath, feeling a new surge of hope. Maybe they could all get out... maybe, maybe Sakura was still alive, too, if all of this wasn't real.

Mukuro stabbed a combat knife into the table, and it stuck there, vibrating. "You're all such children." She shook her head, laughing dryly as she did so. "The world just isn't that convenient, you know. You can't just daydream away death. No, if you start thinking like that, you're as good as finished already." She stood up, and yanked the knife out of the table. "I'm going back to my room, I don't need to listen to this bullshit."

The conversation died off after that, and eventually, everyone split off to go to their rooms. But, a seed had been planted. Chihiro held on to that hope that this could be a virtual world, and that they all really could escape. It seemed too good to be true, but in the face of the other possibilities, it was worth believing in. Despite the horrible pain of losing Sakura and enduring that awful trial, she fell asleep easily.

Chapter Text

Chihiro arose the next morning and went to have breakfast. Mahiru and Hiyoko were there, so Chihiro sat with them. "I was pretty impressed with you in the trial yesterday." Mahiru said. "I could tell you were hurting, but you still managed to figure things out and point the rest of us in the right direction. You're pretty smart, Chihiro."

Chihiro blushed. "I guess. I've never done anything like that before, it was pretty overwhelming. I just," she shivered, "I couldn't stand what Nagito was doing to my friends. I had to believe he was wrong, and that there had to be some way to prove it."

"You seem to care a lot about Mondo." Mahiru pushed a half-eaten egg around her plate. "I'm sorry I got in his face yesterday, I guess he knew what he was talking about." She took a bite. "Is there some kinda story, there? Were you two close, before you wound up here?"

"Couldn't have been that close," said Hiyoko, through a mouthful of sugary cereal. "Mondo killed her, you know."

"What?"

"Yeah, I guess you didn't look too closely at all the tapestry photos, big sis. You were too busy making sure your camera didn't catch any diseases from Nagito's jacket."

"Oooh," Mahiru shook with fury. "Why that no good, meat-headed, sorry excuse for a-"

"Mahiru, please," Chihiro protested. "It's fine. Um, well, it's not fine. Not really. But we've talked about it. He's doing his best to do better, and I believe in him. You don't... need to stand up to him for me."

Mahiru stared for a moment, and nodded. "OK." She took a long drink of water. "You keep surprising me, Chihiro. If you can forgive him... I don't know, maybe I should try talking to Peko."

"Ugh, don't you dare!" Hiyoko whined. "She tried to frame me for your murder, you know. As far as I'm concerned, she might actually be worse than Mikan. At least if you believe what she said about the despair disease."

Mahiru nudged her with an elbow. "Hey, you said you were going to work on that."

"Psh. Yeah, I'll work on it. As soon as the dumb bitch proves she's worth forgiving."

"Fine," Mahiru groaned. "Anyway, we were going to go explore the second floor in a little bit. Do you want to come, Chihiro?"

But, Chihiro wasn't listening. She was trying too hard not to stare at Gundham, who was eating a salad by himself. "Hey, you still haven't talked to him, have you?" Mahiru pat Chihiro's shoulder. "Why don't you invite him to go check out the second floor with you? We can always hang out another time."

"What?" Chihiro flinched. "I, I don't know if he'd want to hang out with someone like me."

"You won't know if you don't try." Mahiru took another sip of water. "Come on, he's not bad, for a guy. If you can stand up to Nagito in a murder trial, you can talk to Gundham at the breakfast table. We'll be right here for you if it doesn't go well."

"O, OK." Chihiro stood up, and walked to the other side of the table. She pulled out the empty chair next to him, and it creaked especially loudly. He glanced at her, but said nothing and returned to his salad. "Uh, hi."

"...Greetings."

"Do you, uh, want to explore the second floor with me? After you finish your breakfast?"

"...Not particularly."

"Um, uh," Chihiro swallowed. "I h, heard you raise hamsters. Would you like to tell me about them, while we're walking?"

Gundham stopped chewing, then set his chopsticks down, and pushed his plate away. "You would hear tales of my four dark devas of destruction?"

Chihiro fidgeted. "Yes?"

"Hahaha!" Gundham leapt to his feet, throwing his chair over backwards. "Excellent! Every great overlord revels in the chance to praise his minions. Come, hedge-witch, I have many tales to regale you with!" He walked towards the atrium, abandoning his half-finished breakfast. "Cham-P, my most gluttonous deva, once ate an entire pumpkin!"

Chihiro started to follow, but she looked back. Mahiru was waving, and Hiyoko gave her a thumbs up. Chihiro smiled and waved, and then hurried to catch up with Gundham. “And then, of course, there was that time Maga-Z saved my beloved San-D from an attacking falcon! He bears the scars on his ear to this day, but I couldn’t be prouder of the little hellbeast.”

As they entered the atrium, Chihiro’s eyes tracked up to the ceiling. “Hey, has that always been there?” There was a circular skylight cut into the ceiling, directly above the fountain. Light poured down through it, highlighting the Monokuma statue.

“Hmm,” Gundham mused. “I think there may be some sort of retractable seal that was covering it up before. Maybe it’s open now because we weren’t allowed to go up there. Let’s go check.” The two hurried over to the velvet carpeted staircase. An iron portcullis still barred the way to the floor below, but the staircase leading up was now clear. They climbed the stairs, doubling back at a landing to arrive at another atrium directly above the first. A glass skylight cut into the ceiling provided a view of a cloudy, green sky that cast eerie light across the checkered floor. Directly beneath the skylight was a stone railing around the circular balcony they had seen from below. Opposite the door they came through stood a massive stone door, lit by spotlights hanging from the sides.

The two investigated the balcony. “Look, that’s what I was describing.” Gundham pointed, and there was a recessed track along the inside of the circle, with a stone cover tucked away inside. They could see down to the fountain below. “A nice view, but not a very useful feature,” he said.

The two stepped back, and glanced around. Aside from the balcony and the mysterious door, there were four areas to explore, two to the left, and two on the right. “Why don’t we start there?” Chihiro pointed at what looked to be a diner to the left of where they entered the floor, an open-air space with a lot of tables and chairs, and a pair of double doors leading to a kitchen.

As they approached, Chihiro could hear a raised voice carrying through the order window to the right of the doors. A very, distinct, voice. “Now you gyon’ get outta here, ya mischefus critter!” Gundham pushed open the doors, and they stepped into a large kitchen, decked out in stainless steel, with a walk-in freezer, deep fryers, stoves, and many other appliances. And Teruteru, arguing with… some sort of pink and white rabbit in a French maid outfit.

“I’m just doing my job to take care of everyone, you naughty boy! Please, get out of my kitchen!” The small maid cried, slapping away Teruteru’s hands.

“You!” shouted Gundham, “You sniveling servant of Monokuma, what are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?” the rabbit squeaked. “I’m preparing your evening banquet! Who did you think was making all that food, and cleaning up after you?”

“Wait, who is this?” Chihiro asked, “Why do you know her, Gundham?”

He seethed. “Her name is Monomi. She was present at our last killing game." He folded his arms, glancing away. "She always tried to convince us she was our teacher and wanted to help us, but she was clearly working for Monokuma.”

“Hey, my name’s not Monomi! It’s Monomaid!” The rabbit curtsied sweetly. “And I don’t know anything about being a teacher. I’m just Monokuma’s humble servant, here to make sure you all have a clean place to live, and lots of food!”

“This stupid rabbit won’t let me use the kitchen,” Teruteru said. Chihiro noticed he was reining in his accent, now that other people were present. “I finally have the chance to make something decent for everybody, and this two-bit fry cook is trying to tell me it’s off limits!”

“You-you don’t like my cooking?” Monomaid sobbed. “But, I work so hard! I’m sorry-“

“Hey, maybe we don’t have to be mean to her,” Chihiro said. “I, I think she’s cute. And, and even if she is working for Monokuma, she’s not the one who’s running the game, or the one who trapped us here, right? We don’t have to bully her.”

Monomaid walked over towards Chihiro. “You, you’re so sweet. Thank you.”

Chihiro got down on her knees, and hugged the strange rabbit. Then, she said, “I think it’s really important to Teruteru that he gets to show everyone his cooking skills. If he stops being mean to you, can you give him a turn to cook dinner?”

Monomaid sniffled. “I, I suppose so. Maybe I could even take a… break? Monokuma doesn’t give me any breaks.”

“Ye, yeah,” Teruteru said, “I don’t need to cook every meal. Just, let me do it every now and then. How about tomorrow night?”

“O, Okay!” Monomaid hopped, raising one of her round, stubby paws. “Tomorrow, I’ll get my first break ever! But I still need to get ready for tonight’s dinner, so if everyone would please leave the kitchen, I’d really appreciate it!”

The three students left the kitchen, though Chihiro was the only one who actually waved goodbye to the Monomaid. “Uh, thanks for that.” Teruteru said. “I got a little, fired up, I guess.”

“Interesting,” Gundham said, “Showing respect to a creature who deserves none actually got us something. Well done.”

Chihiro looked down. “I don’t know why you guys feel like you need to be mean to her.”

“Whatever she is, she’s a pawn of the mastermind. She even admitted it this time.” Gundham pointed out. “Don’t forget that.”

“I guess you're right.” Chihiro sighed. “I always wanted a rabbit, or some hamsters, something like that. I saw how cute she was, and, well…”

“Ha, cute?” Gundham jeered. “Rabbits and hamsters aren’t merely cute! They are high-level demons, worthy of admiration and respect. That thing is vaguely rabbit-shaped, but it lacks the dignity and prowess of a true rabbit.”

“Maybe,” Chihiro agreed. “But, we still shouldn’t mistreat her. Anyway, why don’t we see what else is around here?”

Gundham and Chihiro parted ways with Teruteru, and walked over to the area left of the diner. A pair of automatic glass doors opened up into a sizable library, stacked high with tightly packed shelves. "Oh, wow." Chihiro said. "I bet the clues Monokuma told us about are here somewhere. But there's a lot to go through."

Gundham crossed his arms. "Bah! We should look for the occult texts. A ritual to open a portal back to our realm will serve us better than unearthing Monokuma's lies."

"Um, well, if I find anything like that, I'll let you know." The two wandered the shelves, passing by several reading desks. The library had a bizarre organizational scheme, and Chihiro was having trouble cracking it. There were a few other students looking at books, like Taka, Sayaka, and Byakuya. The plush blue carpeting muffled the noise of people walking around. Overhead, ceiling fans whirred lazily, chilling the room and providing a numb, comforting buzz.

Chihiro turned down an aisle, nearly crashing into a silent Peko, who stood reading a hefty, gold-bound book. “Uh, sorry.” Chihiro said, backing away cautiously, until she backed into Gundham, and had to apologize again.

“Ah, reaver of souls, have you found any occult knowledge worthy of sharing?” Gundham said.

Peko slipped the book’s thin, black ribbon into place and snapped it shut. “No, not yet. I found this text on Buddhist beliefs about the afterlife, and thought it might explain something about where we are. But none of the descriptions of the hells I’ve read really match up with this place.”

“Of course not,” Gundham said, “Mere humans, even in their highest states of enlightenment, cannot fathom the true depths of hell nor the heights of heaven. It takes one that has walked such strange and distant paths to recount them, and even they cannot do so to satisfaction.”

Peko tipped her head. “One such as you, then, hellspawn?”

Gundham smiled. “As the scion of the union of an angel and a demon, it is only natural that I walk such a dark path. There are hells beyond the imagining of even the greatest sages, and I am telling you that this is one of them.”

“Perhaps,” Peko agreed, placing the book back on the shelf. “But it isn’t a very useful theory, if we can’t do anything with it. It’s possible one of these books could help us unlock the true power behind this place and make our escape.”

“Such a secret would not be writ in parchment and ink, but flesh and blood.” Gundham countered. “These books are a distraction, nothing more.”

“You may be right,” Peko said, “but we may as well look. Something in them could prove useful.” Peko looked away, and started toying with one of her long braids. “I’m glad you ran into me, actually, Gundham. I’ve been meaning to ask you. Do… do you have your devas with you?”

Gundham fiddled with his scarf, and sighed. “…No. I miss them dearly, though I have hope that their absence means they are still alive, in the care of our allies. It is… better, I think, to be absent from your loved ones and be able to trust that they are safe, than to be with them and know they are not. I am glad my devas don’t need to endure this trial again.”

“I…” Peko turned away. “…You are right. It is selfish to wish someone were here, that still has their own life to live. I would not want my young master subjected to this fate.”

Gundham closed his eyes. “And I am grateful that my dark princess is not here as well. As long as they are both alive, they carry the sacrifices we made for them. We must honor their victory, not wallow in our sadness.”

Peko looked back, and nodded. “Yes, thank you Gundham. I needed to hear that. Still, I will miss your devas.”

“You… like hamsters, Peko?” Chihiro said.

“Of course. I adore cute, fluffy creatures, as much as any girl might.” She grimaced, closing her bright red eyes. “But I carry an aura of menace about me, that animals can sense. No soft, cuddly animal will tolerate my presence, let alone my touch. I do not… mean to be unfriendly, but that is what I became. Adorable things run from me. Much as you seem to do, Chihiro.”

“I, I’m sorry.” Chihiro fidgeted. “I didn’t mean...”

“It is fine,” Peko insisted. “I can not help the way I am, and you can not help the way you are.”

“Hmm,” Gundham mused. “She does carry a certain rabbit-like quality, does she not?”

“Yes,” Peko nodded. “And I carry the aura of a predator. It is quite natural that she should quaver in my presence.”

“Hey, I’m right here.” Chihiro pointed out. “And, and if you do want to be friends, I could, learn not to be afraid of you.”

Peko shook her head. “Do not trouble yourself, over me. If we all get out of this game together, perhaps we could become friends. But this is a dangerous place, and I may need my ferocity, and you may need your wariness. It, is enough that you know I mean you no harm.”

“I, I’m glad I understand you better, Peko.” Chihiro said. “And I will be less afraid of you. It’s, important to me that I get stronger. And I think this is part of that.”

Peko nodded, an acceptance of Chihiro’s commitment, if not a belief in it. Gundham and Chihiro left the library after that, though Chihiro knew she would be back. There had to be something there, after all. They stopped to inspect the large stone door at the back of this atrium. “An arcane seal?” Gundham said, running his fingers across its cool, smooth surface. “Curious. Whatever lies beyond this door is bound to be more important than the secrets of the library’s tomes.”

“I don’t see a way to open it.” Chihiro said. “But, is this what I think it is?” She pointed at the carvings adorning the door. An arch made of seven circles ran along the top, and from each of them, a channel in the stone led down into a basin at the center of the door, about chest height. The five innermost circles were empty, but the two on the outside bore symbols, a stylized fist on the left, and a pair of scales on the right.

The lines of those symbols were drawn with a peculiar pink ink, and the channels that led from them into the basin were filled the same liquid. Together, they filled a small amount of the basin. “Yes, this is blood magic, Chihiro. Something truly terrible lies beyond this door, but I would wager it will only open once this basin is filled.” He shook his head. “If we need to defeat this obstacle to escape, more lives will have to be shed. Five of us must yet be sacrificed before the portal is open.”

“No,” Chihiro shivered, hugging her thin shoulders. “Th-there has to be another way. I don’t want anyone else to die.”

Gundham sighed. “You are one of those girls who looks at nature and sees only what you want to see. You see the cuteness of a kitten, the companionship of a dog, the unity between living things. But you don’t see the cycle of death and rebirth. Even outside the confines of this game, savagery is a necessary part of life.” He placed his hand against the wall, again, under the fist that represented Sakura. “It is no wonder you would have adoration for that mockery of a rabbit.”

“I don’t care if it goes against the nature of things,” Chihiro ground her teeth, “We should protect everyone, the weak and the strong. And maybe I can’t change the cruelty of the world, but that’s not what this game is. This game is a mockery of your natural order, and we ought to see it that way, not accept it as the way things have to be.”

Gundham turned to look down at her. Then he leaned back and laughed, shaking with glee or madness.

“Don’t, don’t make fun of me!” Chihiro’s fists tightened.

“I’m not!” Gundham insisted. “I’m not, I promise.” He shook his head to calm down. “I am impressed. Chihiro Fujisaki. For even if cruelty and death are the natural order of things, it is life’s duty to fight that with everything it has. Even if it is writ that five more of us must die before this door be opened, you must do all you can to see that that does not come to pass. For, even if it is a rabbit's destiny to be a meal to a wolf, it yet must strive.” He started pacing around, looking at Chihiro from different angles. “I have underestimated you. You are deserving of a better arcane rank than mere hedge-witch. Yes, I grant you the rank of apprentice of the mystic arts. Come! There is more to see!”

Chihiro still thought he might be making fun of her, but she followed him to the next area. A dark carpet with splotches of assorted color led into a room full of neon lights and machines set with flashing monitors. A pair of students, Leon and Hifumi, were occupying two of the machines. “A video arcade?” Gundham grumbled. “Bah, video games are a waste of time! Wait, is that Demon’s Lair? I’ll… be a minute.”

Chihiro glanced at the variety of machines. Road Puncher, Carzzz, Dance Dance Insurrection, Large Ape, and more were all there, as well as an air hockey table and a couple of snack machines. She liked video games, of course, though she usually preferred to play at home. But it didn’t seem likely they would find an important clue in a place like this.

Still, Gundham was engrossed in his game, so she decided to talk to Hifumi for a bit. “Hey,” she said, standing off to the side, watching him play Princess Piggles IV. “Are things going alright with you and Sayaka?”

“Oh, good morning, Ms. Fujisaki.” Hifumi said. “Yes, well enough. She was very shaken up after the trial, though. She didn’t realize what the stakes were.”

“Oh, I get it.” Since Sayaka had never been to a class trial before, she wouldn’t have known that everyone would be executed if the blackened wasn’t found guilty. And she had attempted a murder without realizing she was putting everyone at risk. “That, wow. Were you able to help her through it?”

He nodded. “Yes. She just needed someone to talk to. She felt terrible about what she did to Makoto, and what she put the rest of us through. I think she felt better, when I left.”

“That was sweet of you, Hifumi. I’m glad someone was there for her.”

“Uh, thanks.”

“She’s been spending a lot of time with you. Do you, do you think she likes you?”

“Ha, hahahah!” He wheezed with the effort of laughing, and struggled to regain his composure. “Please, Ms. Fujisaki, this level is very hard.”

“I wasn’t joking. I know you have, a hard time believing women will like you, but-“

Hifumi shook his head. “I know what I am. I know what people, especially women, see when they look at me.” He pointed at a machine for playing a rhythm game. “I’ve got a better chance of getting a date with Hatsune Miku over there than with Ms. Maizono. And I’m fine with that. She treats me a lot better than Ms. Ludenberg did, and I like spending time with her. I’m not naive enough to hope for anything else.”

“I, I just think you’re selling yourself short, is all. Maybe what she really needs is someone sweet. If you’re worried about what you look like, you could, work out, eat a little better…”

“GAME OVER” flashed across Hifumi’s game screen. He took a deep sigh, and turned to face her. “Look at me, Chihiro. You think a little exercise and diet is gonna fix this?” His beady little eyes were tearing up. “I always looked like this. And the fact that you assumed that was why I think the way I do tells me all I need to know about how you really see me. I’ve always been teased about my drawings, and about the shows and manga I like, too. I was always alone." He shook his head, and turned away. "That’s why I like 2D girls so much. They don’t care what I look like or what I'm interested in. Honestly, would you date me?”

“I,” Chihiro’s hand flew to her mouth. She looked around, to make sure Gundham or Leon weren’t close enough to hear. “I, well, I’m, not exactly a woman. You know that.”

He shrugged. “You think that matters to me? You're as much a woman as any other 3D girl, as far as I'm concerned.” He took off his glasses, and cleaned them. “Look, Ms. Fujisaki, you’re really kind, but I’m not asking you to take pity on me. I’ve got a bunch of designs I’m working on, for that new AI companion I want you to build, when we get out of here. I just… that’ll be enough, ok?”

"Uh, I guess. If that's what you want," she said. Hifumi nodded, and turned back to his machine to start up another game.

Gundham appeared behind her. "Bah! I couldn’t get past level three. Game practically cheats. Shall we leave this insipid den of folly?" Chihiro nodded, and the two left the arcade and turned left to check out the last room on this floor.

It turned out to be a laundry room, a large, brightly lit area lined with washers and driers, and a few card tables with magazines scattered across them. The man sitting at one of those tables lowered the sports magazine he was reading. "Ah, Gundham. Good to see you." Nekomaru's black leather jacket was missing, presumably being washed.

"Ha! Always a pleasure, my eternal rival, Nidai."

"Yeah, that's not gonna get old. Oh, hey, is that Chihiro with you?"

"Y, yes." She stepped forward. "I know we haven't really talked much yet, Nekomaru. It's nice to meet you."

The big man stood. "Yeah, same." He walked over, and stood over Chihiro, stroking his goatee.

"Um, are you, looking for something?" she asked.

"You said during the trial that Sakura was training you, and you wanted to get stronger, right?"

"Yes?"

"Hmm. Well, I normally only train skilled athletes. No offense. I take the good and bring out their greatness. But, if you're serious about your training, I could make an exception. I'd be honored to help you get stronger."

"That- that would be amazing," Chihiro pumped her arms. "Thank you."

"Now, hold it right there, Nekomaru," Gundham said. "If the apprentice is to continue her training, I should take over as her new master." He grinned, fiendishly. "After all, I've already bested you in mortal combat."

"Huh." Nekomaru pressed his right index finger and thumb against the bridge of his nose. "Gundham, your fighting style is... unique. And I won't deny that it was effective in our duel. But I don't think it's something that can be taught, exactly, or that you have the experience to teach it. Chihiro needs more, practical, training, if you catch my meaning."

"Hmhmhmm." Gundham crossed his arms. "Why don't we put our respective techniques to the test, then? A rematch, between the two of us, right now. But, with much lower stakes, this time. The winner will take over the apprentice's tutelage."

Nekomaru scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, sure. If that's what you want. Maybe I can teach both of you somthin'. Let's head down to the dojo."

The three of them left the laundry room and took the stairs back down to the first floor, and crossed over to the dojo. The men went in first, but Chihiro paused at the door. It had barely been a day. She had died in here, and it had barely been a day. Chihiro took a deep breath, and followed the others inside.

The body was gone, of course. Monokuma always disposed of bodies and blood, though no one knew where or how. Chihiro shook her head. Her brain couldn't reconcile the dojo as it was now and how she had seen it last. How... completely Sakura was already gone from this place.

But Gundham and Nekomaru were taking up positions. Chihiro scurried over to the bench and sat down to watch. Nekomaru reached up and removed the heavy chain with the whistle he wore around his neck, and tossed it to one side. He stepped out of his sandals, kicking them away as well. "Are you sure you wanna do this, Tanaka?"

Gundham's arms swirled in a defensive pattern, or maybe he was just being weird. "Of course, Nidai." He charged forward, chopping towards Nekomaru's head. The pair exchanged a series of blows that were too fast for Chihiro to track, each one blocked as swiftly. Then, Nekomaru slipped his leg behind Gundham's and tripped him, knocking him on his back.

Nekomaru backed away, waiting for Gundham to get up rather than pursuing him. He popped his neck, loosening up his shoulders.

Gundham took his time getting to his feet, and fell into a defensive posture, stalking around his opponent, inviting him to make the next attack. Then Nekomaru stepped forward and grabbed Gundham's scarf. He yanked Gundham off balance, and slammed his forehead into Gundham's own.

While Gundham staggered backwards, Nekomaru said, "In a real fight, never be ashamed to use your opponent's clothing against them. You should have taken that off, Gundham."

"I don't need advice from you!" Gundham sneered, though he did remove his scarf and hurl it aside. He darted in, aiming a kick at the back of Nekomaru's knee. Nekomaru moved inwards, punching down at Gundham's shoulder. He struck hard enough to knock Gundham off his feet again.

"Unless you're feinting, you need to put your weight into your punches and kicks. You won't get anywhere just hitting with your hands and feet alone."

"Are you," Gundham hissed, "Trying to teach her while we're fighting?"

"It's just a practical demonstration. Thank you for volunteering."

"Hhhrrrggg," Gundham dashed in once more, his fist lining up with Nekomaru's teeth.

Nekomaru dodged left, ducked, and struck Gundham in the chest with an uppercut as he stood back up. The momentum lifted Gundham clear off the mat, and he flipped through the air, coming down hard on his back. He lay there, panting, and Nekomaru put his bare foot on the other man's chest, pinning him down. "If your opponent is too eager, you can turn his momentum against him, without exerting too much force. Are you satisfied, Gundham?"

"Im, impossible," Gundham wheezed for breath, and Nekomaru stepped away. "There must be an infernal aura interfering with my powers. Huh."

Nekomaru shook his head. "You are a naturally gifted fighter, Gundham. But I get the feeling you've never had real training in it."

"You insult my prowess?" He groaned, sitting up. "Me, who defeated you in our duel? And you in that enhanced robotic form, no less."

"You've got it backwards. The robot body is why you beat me, in the tower. It didn't move like a real human body should." He grimaced with the memory. "It was all, stiff, and unwieldy. Even if the material was stronger than human flesh and bone, I didn't know how to use it." He shook his head. "If you had challenged Akane rather than me, she would have destroyed you, even half-starved as she was." He reached out his hand to help Gundham up.

"I am chastened, thoroughly." Gundham swayed a bit on his feet. "Perhaps I should attend training, as well."

"Yeah, that might be a good idea." Nekomaru nodded. "Is that alright, Chihiro?"

Chihiro walked up to them, holding out Gundham's scarf. "I, uh, I guess." Truth be told, she would have felt much more comfortable with private training sessions. But if it was just Gundham, that would probably be alright.

"Great!" Nekomaru smiled. "I'll make an announcement at dinner tonight. It will be an opportunity for all of us who want to grow stronger to grow closer as well. Be sure to have a hearty breakfast in the morning. You're going to be working it all off." He slipped his shoes back on, and guided Gundham towards the door. "Come on, Tanaka. Let's get some food in you, too."

Chapter Text

The rest of the day passed slowly, and painfully, as Chihiro struggled between anxiety and anticipation for her new training tomorrow. She did want to get stronger, of course, but the thought of doing so as part of a class… well, it brought up some painful memories. When Nekomaru announced his new morning class at the dojo over dinner that evening, only a few people showed interest, which made her feel a little better.

No one had found much in the way of new answers, even though several people had spent much of the day in the library. There was some discussion of the strange door, of course, and several students expressed disgust at meeting Monomaid, or Monomi, as many of them still called her.

But the next day, Chihiro rose early, ate a breakfast salad, and headed to the dojo. She was pleased to see that the class was not very large. Kiyotaka, Sayaka, Gundham, Ibuki, and Junko were there, dressed in track uniforms like Chihiro’s own. Nekomaru arrived last, dressed in his usual jacket, white tee shirt, and jeans. “Line up, everybody.” He marched in front of them, looking them up and down. “You’re here because you want to get stronger. That means you accept, on some level, that you're weak.” Chihiro’s shoulders slumped. “But you know that. What you don’t know is how deep that weakness goes. You don’t just have weak muscles, you have weak minds, and weak spirits. And before I can rebuild you into proper athletes and fighters, we’re going to drag that inner weakness kicking and screaming out where everyone can see it.” Taka raised his hand. “What is it?

“With all due respect, coach, I don’t believe this motivational technique to be all that effective. The latest studies into motivational psychology suggest that building up a person’s confidence does not require-“

Nekomaru leaned over and screamed in Taka’s face. “I don’t give a damn what the latest psycho bullshit says, hall monitor!”

Taka stepped back, shaking. “Of, of course, Nekomaru. We’ll follow your lead.”

Nekomaru spit on the floor between Taka’s shoes, before turning away. “Now, to get started, I want to have a better idea where all of you are as fighters. So I’m going to pair you off based on who I think your best match is, and you’re going to demonstrate your current level of athleticism. Gundham, Kiyotaka, step forward! Ibuki, stop that damn twitching!”

The two boys came forth, walked out on to the mat, and faced each other. Gundham fell into his ritualistic battle stance, while Taka took a stiffer stance. “Remember, you aren't trying to maim each other, I'll stop you if things get out of hand. Alright, fight!” Nekomaru roared. Gundham dove in swiftly, kicking at Taka’s stiff knees. Taka was too slow, and wobbled backwards. Gundham slammed his arm into Taka’s chest and knocked him flat on his back, then tackled him from behind and pinned his arms to the ground. “Done!” said Nekomaru. “As I suspected, Gundham, you are a decent fighter, as long as you’re going up against someone at least as ignorant as you. Taka, you’re as stiff as a corpse. You’ve got to learn to loosen up.”

Gundham rose, and bowed to his coach. Taka was slower to get up, but when he did he slammed his shoulder into Gundham’s side. Gundham stumbled, nearly falling. “What the, of all the dishonorable-“

“Enough,” Nekomaru said. “Taka, that was completely uncalled for. I would expect better from someone like you.” He shook his head. “And I think the two of you are the best we’ve got. This is only going downhill from here. OK, get back. Junko, Ibuki, you’re up.”

The two stepped forward, taking up positions. Ibuki stooped low, waving her arms strangely, and making curious noises with her mouth. Junko took a relaxed stance, and sighed. “Really? I have to fight this idiot? This is humiliating.”

“Fight!” Nekomaru said.

Ibuki screamed and rushed Junko, her arms a flailing whirlwind of nonsense. Junko’s eyes widened, but she was too slow to react. Ibuki slammed into her, and the two fell in a rolling pile of kicks, scratches, and bites. “Enough!” Nekomaru said.

Ibuki rolled off of Junko and sat up, grinning. “Ibuki won! What do I get?”

“You get back in line. That was the most awkward, clumsy attack I’ve ever seen. The only thing worse is that it worked. What do you have to say for yourself, Ms. Enoshima?”

Junko climbed back to her feet, nursing her arm where Ibuki had bitten her. “I’d say I’m outta here. This is stupid, and I’m bored.” She headed for the door.

“Get back in line right now!” Nekomaru yelled. But, she just flipped him off and kept walking. He turned away, his face red from yelling, and shook his head. “Well, shit, we’re down to the dregs, now. Sayaka, Chihiro, show me what you can do.”

Chihiro tried to keep her knees from shaking as she took up a position against Sayaka. She took a deep breath, stood in what she hoped was a battle pose, and focused on Sayaka. But, when she saw Sayaka's wide, blue eyes and pale, trembling face, Chihiro's resolve shattered.

“Fight!” commanded Nekomaru.

Neither girl moved. “I, I don’t want to hit her,” Sayaka said. “I thought we would be doing drills, or muscle training first, not-“

“Hit her, dammit!” Nekomaru shook his head. “Fine, Chihiro, you hit first.” Chihiro circled closer, but couldn’t bring herself to attack. “What the hell is this? Did you two want to get stronger or not?" Chihiro could feel a pressure building, on top of her shoulders, a weight beating her down. And something in her head started to creak. Nekomaru groaned. "This is just sad. One of you weak little baby girls hit the other one already!”

Chihiro screamed and threw himself forward, windmilling his scrawny arms. Sayaka blocked her chest and face, but Chihiro was much shorter. He slipped under Sayaka’s guard, and started punching her in the stomach, driving her back. “Chihiro!” Sayaka cried out, “Chihiro stop!” Sayaka tripped, and Chihiro landed on top of her, and pounded on her stomach with his tiny hands. Nekomaru yelled for him to stop, but Chihiro was screaming and crying so much that he couldn't clearly see Sayaka anymore.

Someone pulled him off, and wrapped their arms under Chihiro's to hold him in place. “Hey, hey, Ibuki’s here. It’s ok.” Ibuki hugged him and waited for him to calm down. Chihiro tried to catch his breath, and blinked out some of the tears.

Gundham and Taka were helping Sayaka stand up, but the other girl was cradling her stomach, and she leaned on Taka after she got to her feet. She couldn’t look Chihiro in the eye.

"What the hell was that, Chihiro?" demanded Nekomaru, as he walked over, crossing his arms.

“Shut the fuck up!” Chihiro screamed, straining against Ibuki’s arms. “Shut the fuck up and stay away from me!” He broke down crying again, and only Ibuki’s support kept him from falling over.

Taka and Ibuki guided Chihiro and Sayaka towards the door. Nekomaru started to call after them, but Gundham pulled him aside. The others emerged into the atrium, and Taka led Sayaka towards the infirmary. Ibuki sat Chihiro down on a bench, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, hey, I don't really know what happened in there, but I'm here, ok? Do you need a drink? Do you wanna go see Mahiru and Hiyoko?"

Chihiro managed a nod. Ibuki took his hand and guided him to her room, and promised to go find the girls and something to drink. Chihiro sat alone on the edge of Ibuki's bed for what felt like a long time while his tears dried, before the three returned. Ibuki thrust something cold into his hand, and Chihiro started drinking it without checking what it was.

Mahiru sat down on Chihiro's right, and draped an arm over his shoulder. "Hey, we're all here for you, ok? Do you need to talk about it?"

Chihiro leaned into the embrace. "I don't think you'd understand. But, thanks."

"Why'd you go to that stupid self-defense class anyway?" Hiyoko said. "Sounds like the whole thing was a train wreck."

"I just, I want to get stronger." Chihiro said. "I've always been so weak."

Mahiru rubbed Chihiro's shoulder. "If you're worried about somebody attacking you, just stay close to your friends. You don't need to get strong. You're already sweet, and pretty, and smart."

"I, uh, thanks." Chihiro said. "But I don't want to just, hide behind people. I want to get strong so I can help protect everyone, too."

"Aw, Chihiro, that's not your responsibility, ok?" Mahiru said.

Chihiro pulled back from Mahiru, though he didn't pull her hand from his shoulder. "I, I knew you wouldn't understand." He took a deep breath. They were his friends. He trusted them. "It's, because I'm supposed to be a man."

"What?" Hiyoko giggled. "No way." Ibuki added a "Whoa..."

"I pretended to be a girl because I was so weak. It was, easier. Nobody expects girls to be strong." Chihiro said, "But I hated myself for being like this. Too weak to help anyone. Too weak to stand up to the people that hurt me."

"That's so pathetic," Hiyoko laughed.

“Uh, wait, please don’t laugh,” Chihiro plead. His back arched in pain. “I, I know I’m a coward, and a liar. It just made me feel safe to pretend,”

"Get out." Mahiru said, her teeth bared, cutting off another giggle from Hiyoko.

"W, what?"

"I said get out, you liar!" Mahiru stood up and stomped over to the door, yanking it open. "Get. Out!"

Chihiro's arms tightened around his chest. "I don't-"

"Hey, uh," Ibuki said, "This is kinda my room, so-"

"Get out!" Mahiru yelled.

Chihiro stood, and walked between Hiyoko and Ibuki, head bowed, not wanting to see the scorn reflected in their faces. He walked past Mahiru, and out into the banquet hall. Then, he looked back. There was pain in her face, pain he didn't really understand. And she slammed the door.

Chihiro walked mechanically, crossing the hall to his own room. He felt heavy, and tired. He opened the door, stepped inside, closed it, and slumped over to his bed. He stopped by the dresser, and picked up the photograph of him and Hiyoko, looking for all the world like sisters. He gritted his teeth. A lie. Of course it had been a lie, how had he ever believed it. He tore the photo in two and dropped the halves on the floor. Then, he collapsed on top of his bed. He didn't cry, because he had cried too much already. He couldn't sleep, either, so, he just, lay there.

After a while, someone knocked on his door. He ignored it. They knocked again, but Chihiro didn't respond. A bit later, something started thumping against the door, not quite a regular knock, just a steady, slowly repeating beat.

Then, it stopped. And someone knocked on the door again. "Chihiro? It's Mondo. Come on, open up." Mondo. Chihiro dragged himself from the bed and opened the door.

"Hey, I heard from Taka about what happened this morning." He pointed beside him. "Also, this girl was banging her head against your door. For, some reason."

Ibuki waved. "Can, can Ibuki come in, too?"

Chihiro stood aside, wordlessly inviting them in. "Sayaka's going to be ok." Mondo said, entering the room. "Pretty shaken up. A few bruises."

Chihiro closed the door after Ibuki was in. "Sayaka." He fell to his knees, and leaned against the wall. "Oh, god... I've only been thinking about myself. Why, how could I-"

"Whoa, hey," Ibuki said. "Breathe, ok?"

"Mondo, I attacked her. I completely lost it." Chihiro shuddered. "The only reason I didn't hurt her a lot worse is, because I wasn't strong enough to." He pressed his hands to his head. There, he had tears again. "Mondo, why, did I...I could have..."

"Hey, listen to me, alright?" Mondo sat down on Chihiro's bed. "You messed up. Pretty bad. But, it's better you do it now, when your mistakes won't be as... big. Sayaka is going to be fine. She might forgive you, if you give her time." He took a deep breath. "Strength is, a responsibility, I guess. It's one I've struggled with, a lot." He paused, "If you're serious about getting stronger, you need to think about how you'll handle it. And, in this case, I don't think it's all your fault. Taka told me how Nekomaru was running his class. That neither of you really wanted to fight... and some of the things he said to make you."

"I, I still,"

"Yeah, you still messed up. You need to apologize to Sayaka, even if she doesn't forgive you." He sighed. "I hope you didn't break anything that can't be fixed." He turned to Ibuki. "And just why the hell are you here, anyway?"

Ibuki was leaning over when Mondo pointed at her. “Huh?” She yanked herself upright, and played with the pockets in her tracksuit. "Ibuki wants Chihiro to know that, that Ibuki still wants to be Chihiro's friend. Ibuki thinks Mahiru and Hiyoko were being mean. They were arguing when Ibuki left.”

"Oh," Mondo's brow creased. "Chihiro, what the fuck is she talking about?"

"I, they were asking about what happened in the dojo. About, why it happened." Chihiro hugged his knees. "And I've been getting along so well with them, I thought I could trust them. So, I, told them my secret."

"Oh," Mondo said. "Oh."

"Mmm," Ibuki poked her fingers together. "Mahiru, doesn't get along with boys very well. She got pretty mad. And Hiyoko laughed."

"Oh, what the fuck." Mondo shook his head and stood up. "I'm gonna go over there right now and straighten their bullshit out."

"No!" Chihiro said. "No, that's okay, but thanks." Mondo sat back down. Chihiro swallowed. "I, if they don't want to be my friends anymore, then, it isn't worth fighting them. Thanks, Ibuki, for standing by me."

"Of course!" Ibuki grinned. "Chihiro trusted Ibuki with an important secret. Not many people trust Ibuki, so she appreciates it when they do."

Chihiro sighed. "I just, I don't ever want to hurt someone like that again. Maybe I should give up on my training."

Mondo stood up, walked over, and offered Chihiro a hand. "Hey, I don't want to hear that, alright? So things didn't work out with Nekomaru. There's gotta be other ways you can get stronger."

Chihiro looked up. "Would," he took a painful breath, "Would you train with me, again? After I've had a chance to recover from this. Just, just the two of us."

Mondo blinked. "For real? You really want to trust me again?"

"I, I do. I think you understand how important this is to me. And I don't, have to lie about who I am around you." Chihiro reached up and took Mondo's hand, and he hauled him to his feet with hardly any effort. Then, he leaned over to give him a hug. Chihiro’s heart fluttered at the gesture, and he hugged him back.

Then, Ibuki threw her arms around both of them. "Ah, you two are so cute." Mondo bristled, but Chihiro giggled, and he calmed down. "But Ibuki's hungry. Let's all go to dinner!"

"You two go ahead, but save me a seat." Chihiro said. "I just want to change out of this tracksuit." A few minutes later, the three were all sitting at the dining table, joined by the other students. Chihiro avoided looking at Nekomaru, but noticed that Mahiru and Hiyoko weren’t sitting together. Sayaka sat with her head bowed and her shoulders scrunched, but she was talking to Hifumi and leaning towards him.

This evening, the buffet wasn't set up. Instead, Teruteru and Monomaid rolled out a cart full of platters, and began passing them around the table. "I hope y'all are ready for some real cookin'!" Teruteru beamed.

"Hey, my cooking is pretty good!" Monomaid complained. "But, uh, it was really nice of Teruteru to make this food for everyone, so please enjoy it!"

"I have been waiting for this." Celestia said. "Do not disappoint me, Teruteru."

Once all the platters had been handed out, Chihiro lifted the cover off of his. And his nose shriveled in pain. A burnt slab of meat sat, drowned in sauce, next to sad, soggy tempura vegetables. Chihiro stared in disbelief. Maybe this was fancy cooking, the kind rich people liked? That had to be it. He picked up a piece of fried broccoli and opened his mouth.

No, no, this couldn't be fancy food. Or the rich were all getting scammed. It tasted rubbery, and salty, and unfinished. He swallowed it, hoping it would taste better on the way down. His insides constricted around it. He looked around. Was it just him? Was everyone else enjoying it?

"Blech!" Hiyoko spat a piece of chewed fish out on her plate. "Ugh, why did I think anything you did wouldn't be disgusting?"

"...How did you do this to a salad?" Gundham asked. And the table erupted with similar complaints.

Teruteru held his tiny chef's hat in his hands, tugging at it. "Why, why none of youse folks have any taste, I swear! Dis the finest cookin' this side of Aoyama, on my mama's good name, I do believe y'all are, are, pullin' one ova on ol' Teruteru."

"Mwahahaha! This is even more fun than I thought!" Everyone craned their necks upwards, to the sound of the voice, and saw Monokuma reclining in an arch of the chandelier. "I could watch this all evening, but I guess I'll cut you a break and explain things." He pushed back, rocking the chandelier, and leapt down from it, somersaulting towards the table, landing with a cheery little tada! motion. "You see, last night while you were all resting, you got a little visit from the Monokuma Fairy. And like the adorable prankster I am, I stole something to see if you would notice it. Can you guess what I took?"

The table went quiet, as everyone pondered the question. "It's.... it's our ultimate talents, isn't it?" Hifumi said. "I was trying to draw this morning, but, my lines were all wobbly and stiff, and my perspective was way off." He drummed his fingers on the table. "And that would explain why the Ultimate Cook can't, well, cook, wouldn't it? Why, why did you do that?"

"You, dis all yo' fault!" Teruteru tore at his hat. "You don' make me look like a fool!"

"How did you do it?" Mahiru asked. "I haven't tried to take any photos today, but, now that I'm thinking about it- it does feel like I'm missing something. Uhh, it feels, gross. What the heck." Chihiro tried to concentrate on a simple programming task, compiling a spreadsheet, and found that Mahiru was right. It felt like something was missing from his brain. And when he tried to force his way through it, he felt fuzzy, and nauseous.

"Puhuhu, who cares about how? That’s such a boring question." Monokuma said. "It's been a riot watching some of you try to use your talents without realizing they were missing. You just bulldozed straight ahead, wrecking whatever you were trying to do, and not even seeing it clearly. Oooh, I wonder how long it would have taken before you saps figured it out on your own."

"Is this the new killing motive, Monokuma?" Celeste asked, idly prodding some of her food with a chopstick.

"Give the lady a prize! That's right, you'll all get your talents back after the next class trial is over. Until then, you get to enjoy being mediocre!"

"How the hell is that supposed to be a motive?" Leon asked. "So I can't throw a baseball. Big deal."

"Heheh. Well, Mr. Kuwata, I bet many of your classmates aren't feeling so keen about their talents being stolen." Monokuma raised a paw, "But, that's only the first part of this new killing motive."

"Quit screwing with us and tell us, already!" Hiyoko whined.

"If the blackened manages to survive the class trial and graduate, heheheh, they'll get not only their talent back- but also the talent that belonged to their victim!"

"What?" Hiyoko shrieked. "No. No way, that's total bullshit!"

"Just think of the possibilities!" Monokuma said. "You ever want to be famous? We've got an Ultimate Pop Sensation, idol status is yours for the taking if you kill her!" Sayaka shrank, her face pale, her arms tight around her chest. "You want respect? How about your own biker gang?" He said pointing at Mondo, who folded his arms and glared. "Or maybe," Monokuma stopped in front of Chihiro his nightmarish grin widening. "Maybe you just always wanted to be stronger. How about it? Think you've got the guts to kill the Ultimate Soldier, or the Ultimate Swordswoman?"

"We don't have to fall for this crap," Leon said. "Look, having an Ultimate Talent is cool and all, but it's because it's something you worked really hard for, right? That, or it's something that comes so easily to you that it gets boring. There's no way killing someone for their talent is worth it. It... wouldn't be satisfying, if the work wasn't even yours." He shook his head. "Before all this killing bullshit started, I wanted to be a musician more than anything. But there's no way I would kill Sayaka or Ibuki to take their talents. That would, just ruin the whole thing."

"You might not... be able to use it right, either." Chihiro said, his hands trembling. "If you just, suddenly had someone else's power... I don't know what kind of mistakes I might make." He closed his eyes, and tried to focus on his breathing. "...Leon's right. This is a terrible deal."

"Puhuhu, well, that's a boring way to look at things." Monokuma said, "But, does everybody feel the same way? Just think, when are you ever going to get a chance like this again? Heheh, I think I'll let you all figure it out. Have fun!" Monokuma sprang off of the table, wandering away with a spring in his step.

In the wake of his exit, the table fell mostly silent, and Chihiro could hear Mikan's soft weeping nearby. Ibuki placed a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, hey, it's alright."

"Nursing is the only thing I'm good at," Mikan whined. "I, I'm completely useless now."

"Well, I don't think it made a big difference then!" snapped Hiyoko. "Besides, there's no way Monokuma really stole all off our talent. The bumpkin probably just tried too hard with his cooking and it blew up in all our faces. Look, I can still dance." She pushed her chair back, hopped down, and walked away from the table. She turned back to face everyone, and started a dance routine. It was the same cherry blossom dance she'd done with Chihiro a few days ago, a dance she must have drilled into her memory.

But her movements were shaky, and awkward. Chihiro was pretty sure he could dance a lot better than Hiyoko was dancing right now. Hiyoko turned too fast, stepped on the hem of her kimono, and tumbled flat on her face. “Huh?” she said, pushing herself up on her hands. Then, she glared at the table. “Don’t you dare laugh at me!” she screamed. “Don’t any of you fuckers laugh at me!”

Mahiru was at her side, helping her up. “No one’s laughing, Hiyoko.” She put her body between Hiyoko and the others, so everyone wouldn’t see Hiyoko cry.

“You mean Ibuki can’t make music right now? Weird.” Ibuki said.

“…One could argue you couldn’t make music in the first place.” Gundham said. “It is an, eerie feeling, that such an important part of me is cut off. Even without any animals here to care for, the knowledge that my own devas would reject me in this form is, unsettling.”

“Cooking’s my whole life,” Teruteru was fighting back tears. “I don’t know who I am if I can’t cook.”

“Ugh, enough of this!” Celestia stood up, and waited for all eyes to be on her. “Teruteru, what if you cooked something simple, like gyoza, and had others there to help you? Maybe your talent has been taken away, but you can start over. Learn the basics again, and regain some sense of yourself.”

“I, I could try something like that, I reckon. Would you all give me another chance?”

Several people looked doubtful, but there was fire in Celestia’s eyes. “It’s the least we can do. All of us lost some part of ourselves. We need to show Monokuma that he can’t destroy us this way. Now," she shrugged, "I can’t actually cook at all, of course. Who wants to help Teruteru?”

“I’m a good cook,” Mahiru said. "I'll help, as long as he minds his behavior."

“…I could help as well,” added Peko.

“Great,” Celestia said, “You three go to the kitchen tomorrow after breakfast. Work with that weird rabbit thing, if you need to."

"Hey, I'm still here!" Monomaid complained.

"No one cares. We will hold a special luncheon at the diner, at twelve-thirty tomorrow. We will have a feast that will more than make up for," Celestia poked at a squishy pile of brown sludge on her plate, "this."

"OK, that sounds awesome!" Ibuki said, "But tonight, since there's no real food, let's raid the convenience store for snacks!" She hopped up from the table, and sprinted towards the atrium. Several others followed her, breaking up the meeting.

Hiyoko trailed after them, yelling out, "Hey, you mouth-breathers better not take all the gummy snacks before I get there!"

Chihiro saw Sayaka starting to leave, and hurried over to talk to her. "Sayaka, do you have a minute."

"No," Sayaka stared at the ground, toying with her long hair. "No, I don't. I, I know what you probably want to say, but I don't want to hear it. Not... now, anyway." She shook her head. "Just, stay away from me, ok?"

"Ah," Chihiro wanted to protest, or to beg, but thought better off it. So he let Sayaka go, and thought about what he would do next. Training was out of the question, so maybe tomorrow he would spend some time in the library. But, there was something else bothering him, because someone hadn't shown up for dinner tonight, and he thought he knew why.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Chihiro ate a lonely breakfast, thinking about how much had changed in just one day. Then, he walked over to the first dorm room on the left, on the wall opposite where his own room was, and knocked. When no one answered, he called out, "Byakuya? It's, Chihiro. I, I know why you're staying in your room. I want to talk."

The room cracked open, just enough to let him slip inside. The light was off, but he stepped into the room anyway, and the Imposter slammed the door shut behind him. "I know you're probably embarrassed," Chihiro said, "but I'd feel a lot better if the light was on."

"...Go ahead." His voice was in that higher pitch he'd heard once before, but it lacked his vitality, and pride. Chihiro flipped on the light switch, and saw the Imposter without his mask.

He had dispensed with his glasses, and his hair was unkempt. He still wore his white suit, but it was crumpled, as if it no longer fit him, or he didn't know how to wear it. He walked with a slovenly slouch, and paced back to his bed and sat down.

Chihiro pressed his hand over his mouth. "I'm, I'm sorry. You look..."

"Awful," he shook his head. "I woke up like this yesterday. I checked the mirror, and could tell something was wrong. I'm, I don't know what's going on. I was hoping it was just a, a sickness, that it would pass. But if anything, it's getting worse. I can't leave the room like this."

"You haven't left your room since yesterday morning?" Chihiro said. "Oh, my... y, you must be starving. Can I bring you some food?"

His face lit up. "That would be spectacular. Is the breakfast buffet still open? I'll have some eggs. And some toast. And some sausage. And grilled fish, and bacon, and miso, and hash browns, and,"

"I'll just, bring as much as I can, ok?" Chihiro dashed back out to the breakfast buffet, and started loading multiple plates with food. He must have looked ridiculous, balancing so much food with his tiny arms, but he made it back to the door, and bumped it with his head until the Impostor let him in.

"It's, it's beautiful." He actually wiped a tear from his eye. "T, thank you so much."

"Please take these plates out of my hands, I can barely balance."

They sat at the table in his room, and Chihiro witnessed a miracle of nature. In a span of minutes, more food than he could eat in two or three days vanished. The Impostor didn't even make a mess, his movements were swift, but calculated for efficiency. "Ah, that's so much better. I still feel hollow, but at least I don't feel empty."

"You aren't the only one who's having problems." Chihiro explained. "Monokuma explained it to us last night, it's part of the killing game. He stole everyone's Ultimate Talents, somehow. We won't get them back unless a murder happens, and we make it through the class trial." He shook his head. "Hiyoko can't dance, Teruteru can't cook, Hifumi can't draw. But, I think you probably have it the worst out of everyone."

"I see." the imposter covered his face. "And how are you dealing with that? With your talent being gone?"

Chihiro shook his head. "My talent doesn't matter here. There aren't any computers I could use anyway. Maybe I could have done something with an arcade machine, but nothing useful. I guess I'm lucky my talent is so useless to everyone else. Part of the killing motive is that if someone gets away with a murder, they get to steal their victim’s talent." He shrugged. "I don't have to worry about someone taking a talent like mine."

"What a cruel gambit." The Imposter said. "I suppose I'll remain confined to my room, then. Hopefully, someone finds a way for us to escape soon." He shuddered. "No, that's, not good enough. Not for me, anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"If we escape but I don't get my talent back, I'll be, less than no one." He was shaking. "I, I can't, I can't live like this. I'd rather just, be dead. Ha, ha." He was starting to sweat, "I'll, I'll have to, take matters into my own hands, won't I?"

"Wait, please don't think like that!" Chihiro said. "I know you're scared, but, you don't have to... do something drastic. There has to be, something else we can do." He took a deep breath. "I don't mind bringing your meals so you can stay hidden, if that's what needs to happen. But, I do think, there is one other way that would be better." His stomach was tying itself in knots, he gripped the table to stop his hands from trembling. "If I, take my mask off, in front of everyone, do you think you can do the same?"

The Impostor's eyes widened, but his own trembling stopped. "You, you would do that? For me?"

"I would do it for both of us." Chihiro could feel his eyes starting to sting. "Some of the others might be mean to us. But, several of them already know my secret, and most of them have been very kind. I have to hope the rest will be like that, too. And, I don't like people not knowing. I've realized that. I don't want to hide my struggles from my friends." He pounded on the table. "I'd rather know who my real friends are, anyway. I know your problems are, a little different than mine, but I think we would both be happier if we didn’t have to hide like this.”

“It sounds almost absurd,” the Impostor said. “Except for that fateful encounter with you and Kiyotaka, I haven’t taken my mask off in front of someone for as long as I can remember. But, if you really think they might accept me as just… this, that would be amazing.” His eyes grew distant, and watery. “It’s been hard, being Byakuya here. I had to lie about my memories during the trial. But I wouldn’t have to go back to being him. If we get our talents back, I can be someone else. Maybe even create a new identity.”

“There’s a special meal, in a little while, at the diner upstairs. I think it would be the perfect time for us to tell everyone.”

“Alright. No more hiding, then.” He held out his hand. “Thank you for doing this with me.” Chihiro accepted his handshake, and they promised to meet again soon. The Impostor needed a shower, and a chance to compose himself.

Chihiro picked up a pair of scissors from the market, and returned to his room. He stood in his bathroom, and gazed into the mirror. He held the scissors up to his hair, and he started to shake. He groaned and leaned over the sink, dropping the scissors. He picked them back up. This was a girl's haircut, it was part of his disguise. So, why was he too weak to cut it... Finally, he threw the scissors down in frustration. Maybe Junko or someone else would cut it for him, if he asked.

Next, he considered his clothes. The only thing he had to wear besides his uniform, with its big, wide skirt, was his tracksuit. The tracksuit wouldn't do. But, would everyone even believe him, if he still looked like this? He didn't hate the uniform, not really. It had made him feel safe for a long time. But it, might not do that anymore, after today. But, he didn't have anything else to wear, it would have to do,

He gave up on trying to change his appearance, and spent some time doing breathing exercises sitting on his bed. When it was time, he went to meet up with the Impostor again. He looked better, though it was still painfully obvious that he wasn't Byakuya. It seemed that everyone else had headed upstairs for the special luncheon, so the two didn’t see anyone on their way up the stairs. When they reached the second-floor atrium, however, they could see almost all of their classmates, sitting and chatting, waiting for the food to come out.

The Impostor froze up. "I, I'm sorry. Do you think, you can go first?"

"Of course. I've... done it before." He took a deep breath. "I just, well, let's hope it goes better than the last two times I tried to tell someone."

As they approached, Leon called out, “Hey, Chihiro, who’s the big guy?”

“Is that Ham Hands?” Hiyoko asked. “He looks weird.”

“I, uh, we’d like to explain some things, before we all have lunch together.” Chihiro said. "Some things about the two of us, that we've been hiding."

"Hey, everybody shut up for a minute," Mondo said. "This is important."

Celestia was seated at a table by herself, near the center of the dinner. She glanced at them, and inclined her head. “Very well. You and this… person, have the floor.”

Just then, the doors to the kitchen swung open. Teruteru marched out, grinning broadly. “I do hope y’all are hungry, because I- oh, what’s this?” Mahiru and Peko followed him, pushing a cart of food.

Chihiro locked eyes with Mahiru, for the briefest of moments, and felt his knees go weak. “I was, uh, just about to tell everyone something.” Breathe. Breathe. “The two of us have been keeping some difficult secrets from all of you, but we don’t want to keep hiding. The truth is, even though I always dress like a girl, I was actually born a boy.” There, that was the hardest part. Just keep going. “But I was small and weak, and I couldn’t fight or play sports like the other boys. I got bullied a lot, for being too weak. I wanted to be stronger, but I couldn't... I couldn't do it. I couldn’t be what everyone told me I had to be. So, I cried a lot. And I got bullied for that, too.”

Chihiro swallowed. “Eventually, I figured out, if I dressed like a girl, and used a girl’s name, people didn’t expect me to be strong like the boys. It didn’t matter as much if I was weak or couldn’t fight, or, if I cried a lot. People left me alone about those things. It made me feel safer. But it also felt like I was living a lie. I always felt like I’d have to grow up, one day, I’d have to figure out how to be a man, even though I didn't know how.”

The Impostor placed a hand on his shoulder. “So, I, I'd like you all to try to see me as a boy. My, my name's still Chihiro. I don't like the name I was born with, and I think I picked Chihiro because it's a boy's name and a girl's name. It still feels right to me. So you can still call me that. But, that's it. That's my secret.”

“Huh,” said Leon, “You know, you always felt a bit different than most girls, to me. Wasn’t sure why, but I guess that explains it. Sports aren’t everything anyway, we’re cool, man.”

“It matters not whether you be man, woman, or eldritch atrocity from beyond the gates of time,” proclaimed Gundham, “So long as you respect those who come to you for guidance, you are worthy of honor.”

“I’m proud of you, Chihiro.” Mondo said, “That took a lot of strength.”

Chihiro blushed. “Ah, thank you, everyone.” Not everyone was enthusiastic. Mahiru, Sayaka, and Nekomaru weren’t making eye contact. Mukuro shook her head. But, it was more than enough. He looked up towards the Impostor. “Well, that’s it, I think it’s your turn.”

He stepped forward, and slipped his glasses off. “I have been appearing before you thus far as Byakuya Togami, the Ultimate Affluent Progeny. But, my true title is the Ultimate Impostor. My true name is… unknown. I know almost nothing about my origins. I developed an uncanny affinity for impersonation, and have been using it to explore the lives of other people, in hopes of better understanding myself. I, have never appeared before a group of people, as simply myself before. This is a, startling experience for me.”

He wiped a handkerchief across his face. “But Monokuma has robbed me of my unique skill, so it was necessary to face you like this. I have grown weary of being Byakuya anyway.”

“Please be nice to him,” Chihiro said. “I know his story sounds, even stranger than mine, but he’s not a bad person, and he-“

“They,” the Impostor said.

“Huh?”

“When I am in disguise, I prefer to be referred to as the role I am playing. However, I think, when I am appearing like this, with no mask, I would prefer people not see me as either a man or a woman. So, they, please. And you can call me Sagishi.” They bowed from the waist. “I know my claims seem outlandish, and I apologize for any undue deception, but I never meant any harm. It is an honor to meet you all, in this way.”

"Whoa, Ibuki's mind is blown right now. Byakuya's even cooler than she thought!" Ibuki giggled. "But Byakuya isn't Byakuya, Byakuya is Sagishi, huh. Then who's Byakuya?"

"Sounds pretty crazy to me," Mondo said, "But Chihiro backed you up, so I guess I believe you."

"The real Byakuya was a terrible person, anyway." Taka said, "I'm glad you found the strength of character to tell everyone."

"Ooh, ooh!" Ibuki started waving her arms around, "Can you impersonate anybody? Ibuki wants you to impersonate her!"

Sagishi smiled, "I, I can't right now, obviously. But if we are able to get our talents back, I'd love to."

Celestia snapped her fingers, calming some of the excitement. "I for one, think it is wonderful that both of you were able to come clean about your secrets. However, I asked you all here so we could eat fresh gyoza together, and I do not want it to get cold. As this venture was my idea, I will try the first dumpling, to make sure this will not be a repeat of last night's disaster. Teruteru?"

"Eh? Oh!” He brought a platter over and set it before her, then whisked away the cover. "Pour mademoiselle. Bon appetit." He backed away, smiling, but Chihiro could see that he was glistening with sweat.

Celestia picked up one of the dumplings with her chopsticks, and turned it over, examining it critically from every angle. Then, she bit it into, and closed her eyes, chewing thoughtfully. She swallowed, and said. "Acknowledging that the Ultimate Cook has lost his skills, I pronounce this to be excellent. I thank the amateur chefs who helped him for their contribution. You may all take a bow."

Tereteru bowed, flourishing his hat as he did so. The girls bowed as well.

“Enough fanfare already,” Nekomaru said. “Let’s eat!”

The three cooks got to work passing out platters of gyoza, while Chihiro took a seat next to Mondo and Sagishi went to talk to Ibuki. Mondo surprised him with another hug. "Congratulations, man, I couldn't be prouder of you."

“Oh, uh,” Chihiro waited for his heart to calm down. “Thank you, Mondo.”

“Haha, it’s great that you decided to stop lying to everyone!” Kiyotaka said. Just then, a smiling Peko came by, and offered them all plates of gyoza, ending the need for further conversation. Chihiro helped himself. The gyoza dumplings were chewy, and savory, some of the best he could remember. He probably ate as fast as Sagishi, if not as much.

Once the meal was nearly finished, but before people started peeling away, Celestia stood up, and started walking around the tables, her hands behind her back, her head held high. “I did not organize this luncheon just to make Teruteru feel better. This was to show all of you something very important. I am sure many of you are missing your precious talents, but we are more than those talents. We can survive this, until we defeat Monokuma and find a way out of here. If you are missing your abilities, partner with someone that can help you, like Teruteru did. Or, like Sagishi, find out who you are without them. I believe in you, and I want you to believe in yourselves.” Several people started cheering, and Celestia basked in it. Then, she flicked something out of her sleeve, and held it up high. A fresh deck of playing cards. “Now, who wants to beat the Ultimate Gambler in a hand of poker?”

There were more cheers, and Celestia led several students over to a long table. Leon walked over to the next table, and pulled Ibuki away from her conversation with Sagishi. The two chatted for a bit, and then took off towards the arcade. Others started splitting off, after that, and soon Chihiro did as well. It made him happy to see everyone in such high spirits, but it felt overwhelming, too. He retreated to the library. The celebratory attitude was muted in here, suggesting the room might be soundproof. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, except for answers. Even if they could survive in this place without their talents, any edge they could gain over Monokuma was valuable. There had to be something important in these books…

But, Chihiro still didn’t know where to look. The library was like a maze, consisting of books on every possible topic, connected by the whims of an uncaring mind. He combed through histories of powerful organizations in Japan that might be behind something this complicated, like the Togami Corporation and the Kuzuryu clan. He thumbed through the book he saw Peko reading a few days ago, the one on Buddhist beliefs about hell.

Hours later, he decided to take a break from his research, and picked up a programming textbook. It was a beginner’s level book, the same one his dad had bought for him when he first showed an interest in programming. Chihiro had been such a prodigy that the book had proven almost entirely worthless, as he blazed through it without picking up much he hadn’t already figured out on his own. Now, though, even reading the simple lessons felt like studying a foreign language, translated through a broken cipher. He rubbed at his temples, frustrated that something so simple could elude him.

No matter. There weren’t any computers here he could use. He returned it to the shelf, and noticed a very interesting book next to it, entitled Advanced Virtual Reality Immersion. He pulled it down, thinking about the conversation a few nights back. He sat down on the plush carpet beneath the shelf, and opened it up.

Large sections of the book were redacted, typed over with black bars. The book was an internal teaching manual put out by something called the Future Foundation. It spoke of wild, impossible dreams about what could be done with VR, focusing on therapeutic applications and integration with neuroscience. It sounded more than a little far-fetched, though Chihiro dearly wished he could speak with the author. Their name was among the redacted information, however, so Chihiro was left to guess at what kind of incredible person they must be.

The problem was that the information in the book was still theoretical. If something like this were possible, it might explain everything. Still, the very fact that Monokuma or someone had redacted so much of the book suggested that it could be important. Chihiro decided to cling to that hope. It was better than believing in hell.

Just then, his stomach rumbled. Oh. He hadn’t realized how long he’d been sitting here reading. He decided to take the book with him, and head down for dinner. As he approached the library entrance, he heard the door click shut. Someone else was coming in, or just leaving. He came around the side aisle, and glanced back down the central aisle, to see who it was.

Chihiro froze, and had to fight to keep his breathing from spiraling into panic. It was Mukuro, footsteps silent, posture alert. And her combat knife glinted in her hand.

Chihiro tried to think if there was anyone else in the library. He hadn’t seen anyone, but he had kept his nose so deeply buried in the books that it would have been easy to miss. Perhaps she was here for him, and it was pure chance that he could have slipped by her unseen. But the thought that someone else might be in danger compelled Chihiro to follow, and hope he was small and quiet enough to go unnoticed.

Mukuro turned a corner and vanished from sight, and Chihiro hurried to catch up. Then, he saw Junko, sitting at a desk, thumbing through a book, one hand playing with her long, pink hair. And Mukuro was creeping up on her, knife at the ready.

Chihiro wanted to scream, or to throw the book he was holding, anything to alert Junko.

But Junko turned in her chair, and threw her own book at the assailant. Mukuro flinched back in surprise, as Junko rose to her feet. “Hey, sis,” Junko giggled. “Is that knife for me? Aw, you’re so sweet.”

Mukuro hesitated a second longer, yelled, and lunged at Junko, the knife angling for her throat. Junko grabbed her wooden chair and slammed it into Mukuro’s side, sending her staggering off balance. Junko walked towards her, slowly, calmly. Mukuro stood up straight and stabbed her knife at Junko’s chest. Junko caught her wrist with one hand, holding her struggling sister without any apparent effort. “Are we gonna play a game? My turn!” Junko slammed her forehead into Mukuro’s nose and pushed her away. Mukuro stumbled backwards into a bookshelf, her face a spray of blood, books tumbling around her. Chihro gasped, but it went unheard.

“This is the best you could do, isn’t it?” Junko said, her voice hollow. She grabbed Mukuro’s shoulder, dragged her forward, and slammed her face into the desk, before dropping her to the floor. “You finally decide to stand up to me, but this is all you can do.” Mukuro crawled away on her hands and knees. “I might not have my ultimate talent right now, but I’m still Junko Fucking Enoshima.” She kicked her sister in the ribs, making her gasp and drop to the floor. “But who the fuck are you?”

Junko leaned down and picked up the knife. She grabbed Mukuro’s right arm and pulled it back behind her shoulder. She braced one of her high-heeled shoes against the back of Mukuro’s upper arm. “Stop!” Chihiro called out, walking out into the open. “Stop, please!”

“What the hell,” moaned Mukuro, “Get, get out of here!”

Junko looked at Chihrio quizzically, and then grinned. “Oh, it’s you. Good timing.” She stomped down on Mukuro’s arm, and Chihiro heard the bone shattering just before the screaming began. “Won’t you go get that nurse? My clumsy sister has fallen and broken her arm.”

“I, I,” there was no controlling the panic, now. He could barely stand, and he could feel his eyes watering up. The book tumbled from his hands. “I’m not, leaving you alone with her!”

“Oh, is that so?” Junko walked towards Chihiro, one arm behind her back, ignoring the cries of her injured sister. She smiled, her white teeth and sharp, blue eyes shining through the pink stains of Mukuro’s blood on her face. “Sweet little Chihiro.” She stopped in front of him, then reached out and grabbed his hair. “You just want to be strong, don’t you?”

“L, let go of me.” Junko’s grip tightened, her nails digging into his scalp.

“I’ll tell everyone you were strong, ok? Hmm Hmm.” The arm behind her back started to move.

“That’s more than enough.” A cold, clear voice snapped out. “Let go of him and back away.” Junko shoved Chihiro backwards, and he stumbled, landing against the soft, blue carpet. Above him, he could see Peko, standing with her arms folded, her red eyes locked on Junko.

"Peko Pekoyama," Junko said, tapping her temple. "The Ultimate Swordswoman, assassin and bodyguard to the Kuzuryu clan heir. But you are not carrying your bamboo sword this evening." Junko smiled, taking a step towards her. "Because your talent is currently non-functional. My physical prowess, however, is not tied to my unique talents. I am operating at peak physical performance. I have already defeated my sister, the Ultimate Soldier, whose talent has been stolen. Logic dictates that I could easily defeat you as well. Your position is untenable, so why are you here?"

"I probably can't beat you in a fight," Peko said, shifting her legs, "But I could still beat you in a race. If I go tell everyone else what is happening here, you have to try to stop me or kill these two. If you try to stop me, they might escape. And if you kill them, I will escape. Your position is untenable, Junko."

Junko froze, and the two women teetered on the brink of disaster. Chihiro could hear Mukuro nearby, gasping in pain. Then, Junko shrugged. "Man, this fuckin' sucks. I'm getting bored, you three can sort this shit out. I'm leavin." Junko walked between Peko and Chihiro, sauntering towards the door. Peko followed at a distance, probably to make sure she really left. Chihiro finally sat up, and could feel his breathing returning to normal.

He walked over to where Mukuro lay. "Hey, she's gone, I'll try to get you some help."

"Fucking idiot," Mukuro whispered. "What the hell kinda stunt did you think you were pulling, huh?"

"What? I," Chihiro stopped. "Actually, at first I was worried about her. I thought, that you were going to kill her."

"Well, that was the fucking plan." She coughed, or maybe it was a poor attempt at a laugh. Either way, blood came out. "Course, if you'd kept your damn mouth shut and just watched, things could have worked out, anyway. God damn, you almost beat her for me."

"I don't-"

"We need to get her downstairs." Peko said, from behind Chihiro. "And I don't want any of us to be alone. She might be lurking somewhere. So we're doing this the hard way."

"Sure," Mukuro said, "Why the fuck not, my night's already ruined."

Peko set down her empty sword bag. "I'm going to lift up her torso. I need you to wrap this around her arm and shoulder to use as a sling. When we're walking, I need you to balance her arm to keep it from dangling or jostling too much."

Chihiro nodded, mutely. Peko lifted Mukuro, eliciting a string of swears, and Chihiro secured the bag as best he could. "Alright, we're going to pick her up together. On three." Peko and Chihiro helped Mukuro stagger to her feet, though she gasped in pain every time her arm moved. Chihiro stood close to her right side, keeping the broken arm in place as best he could.

Peko helped Mukuro loop her left arm over Peko's shoulder, and together the three made an awkward six-legged shuffle towards the atrium. Mukuro's face was coated in blood, and she leaned towards Peko, gasping with each step.

They staggered out into the atrium. It looked very different up here, at night. A too-large moon gazed down through the skylight, bathing the area in silver light. Together, the three of them made their way to the stairs, and then things got complicated.

They had to manage each step as one, or Mukuro's arm got jostled. Every time they made a mistake, she cursed Chihiro, calling him a "little... nosy... clumsy... bastard" as they made their way down. At the bottom, things got easier again. Chihiro noticed that the silvery moonlight did not reach down here, and he glanced up towards the ceiling. Apparently, the balcony sealed itself after dark.

Once they shuffled Mukuro over into the infirmary, Peko helped her lay down on one of the beds. Mukuro breathed a little easier, once she was off her feet and her arm could rest. "I need you to go bring Mikan," Peko instructed.

"But, her talent won't be working," Chihiro pointed out.

Peko stared off for a moment. "Yes, that's true. But she should know where everything is, so bring her anyway. I have some medical knowledge, but I'd prefer to have someone else on hand. Who else might be able to help, let's see... ah, Nekomaru. He would at least know how to respond to an accident during practice. He might do."

"Gundham might know how to treat injuries," Chihiro pointed out, "Since he takes care of so many different animals."

Peko shook her head. "I'm sure he knows some good veterinarians, but it doesn't mean he is one. And she's not a hamster. Go get Nekomaru and Mikan."

Chihiro nodded, and scurried out towards the dorms. No one was at dinner, which meant it was even later than Chihiro thought. He knocked on Mikan's door first. "Y, yes?" came a soft voice from within.

"Mukuro's been injured," Chihiro called out. "Peko is with her in the infirmary, but we need your help, at least to find all the supplies."

"Oh no," she cried, opening the door. "I just knew this would happen, oh, no, oh, no." She took off running.

Chihiro went to the next door down, and faltered when he tried to knock. He took a deep breath, and tried again. Nekomaru opened the door, wearing only his shirt and boxers. "Yeah?" he said. "Oh, uh, hey, Chihiro, did you need to talk-"

"Mukuro is injured and Peko asked for your help in the infirmary," he blurted out, his eyes fixed on the floor.

"What?” He shook his head clear. “Of course, be right there.” Nekomaru walked away from the door, presumably to find pants, and Chihrio sprinted back towards the infirmary.

He didn't have to, he realized. His part in this was done, they didn't need him anymore. But, just in case he could do something, anything, he ran anyway. He got there to find Mikan crying over the counter as she pulled things out of the cabinets. "What happened?" she said. Chihiro took up a position out of the way, and waited to be useful again.

"She and her sister had an... altercation." Peko explained.

"No!" Mukuro protested, "No, dammit, don't go spreading that around. Listen, I fell coming down the stairs, alright? Landed pretty bad, that's all it is."

"What?" Mikan cried, "But, but, if your sister attacked you, shouldn't we be worried about her? What if she attacks somebody else?”

“I don’t, ah, dammit, I don’t think she’s going to do that, alright? No one besides you three needs to know.”

Nekomaru burst through the door, and walked over to stand next to Peko. “What are we looking at?”

“Broken humerus and a broken nose,” Peko said.

“Ah, shit.” Nekomaru shook his head. “I’ve never had to splint an arm before. OK, let’s see… Mikan, we need ice packs.”

“Um, oh, that’s right,” The three of them got to work, Peko and Nekomaru taking it in turns to make suggestions, and then getting Mikan to find the tools they needed. Chihiro dutifully stood by, but they did not call on him. The terror and adrenaline from his brush with Junko started to wear off, and he had trouble keeping his head up. Finally, they had Mukuro’s arm in a functional cast, with ice on her arm and face.

“Should we give her some painkillers?” Nekomaru asked.

“No fucking painkillers,” Mukuro moaned.

“But, but it's going to be harder to recover if you're in pain!” Mikan said.

“It’s just pain. I’ll be fine. Get out of here and let me sleep.”

“Someone should stay here, in case you need something,” Mikan said, her hands twitching. “I feel bad that I couldn’t take care of you better, so I should do that.”

“What the,” Mukuro sighed. “You know what? Fine. Sleep on the other bed, or bring some blankets in here and sleep on the floor, just don’t talk to me.”

Nekomaru yawned, “Well, I’m getting some shut-eye. ‘Night ladies. Chihiro.” He hurried out of the infirmary, and Chihiro breathed easier once he was gone.

Peko walked over. “You should get some sleep, too. Come on.” The two left the infirmary together, walking slowly back towards the banquet hall. “It was brave of you to try and intervene, even though it was probably foolish.”

Chihiro stumbled over and hugged Peko around the waist. “I, I was so scared, I couldn’t do anything. I don’t want to think about, if you hadn’t been there.”

“What’s gotten into you?” Peko said, flinching away from the hug. “Are you not scared of me, all of a sudden?”

Chihiro backed up. “Oh, um, sorry, if that was too much.” He wiped his eyes. “But, how could I be scared of you, now? I’m pretty sure you just saved my life. Hah. I, uh, thank you, Peko.”

She smiled, then covered it with a hand and giggled. “Is that all I had to do? Well, good, then. I’m glad I was there. And you are welcome. Good night.”

Chapter Text

Chihiro slept very late the next day. When he walked into the bathroom and glanced in the mirror, he discovered he had horrendous bedhead, and spent some time combing it back out. But, there was one strange patch of hair, near the top of his head, that wouldn’t comb down. It pointed almost straight up and curved to the left. Chihiro realized it was exactly where Junko had grabbed him last night, and wondered if that had done something to his scalp. He tried to fix it, for a while, until he stopped and looked again, considering the full effect.

It… wasn’t a bad look. It made his haircut look a little more daring, a little less feminine, but it still suited him. He wouldn’t have to ask someone to cut his hair, after all. He went to breakfast, and thought about what he wanted to do that day. He needed to relax, after the last night's intensity, and didn't relish spending the day with his nose in books again. So, the arcade, then.

When he got there, he found Leon and Ibuki playing Rock Hero, an arcade music game with fake instruments you could play. “Oh, hey, Chihiro!” Ibuki said, strumming a plastic guitar and whirling her long hair around. “Man, Ibuki hasn’t played one of these since elementary school. It kinda loses the point when you can play real instruments. But now that it’s hard for me, it’s kinda fun!”

“Hey, hey, watch it. You’re about to… and you lost our combo.” Leon said, tapping a set of fake drums, his face pinched in concentration. “Huh, I’m surprised you aren’t taking this more seriously.”

“Music isn’t serious! It’s explosive, and fun, and wild!”

“Well, maybe when you don’t have to work at it,” he said, “Come to think of it, I would get bored if I had your talent. Don’t you?”

“Of course not!” Ibuki laughed, “There’s always something new to play. Like, check this out!” She grabbed the game’s bass guitar, and slung it over her shoulder, so that it crossed over the lead guitar. She started trying to play both instruments, her hands moving far too fast to actually play a decent melody, and with no regard for the actual notes the game wanted her to play.

“Hey, what the,” Leon complained. The song they were playing cut off early, as their virtual audience scorned Ibuki’s improvisation. “Come on, Ibuki, I’m trying to help you out here.”

“Oh, right,” Ibuki fidgeted with her hair. “Oops.”

“Why don’t you give that bass to Chihiro, and we can try again?” Leon said.

Ibuki took it off, and thrust it towards Chihiro. “Uh, I’ve never played one of these types of games before,” he said.

“It’s way easier than playing a real instrument!” Ibuki said. “Come on, play with us.”

“Yeah, come on, man.” Leon said. “Probably not worth worrying about a high score right now, anyway, so just have some fun.”

“OK, sure, that is why I came here.” He took the bass, and the song started up again. It took him a little while to figure out the controls, and a while longer to find the rhythm. But, after the second or third song, he started playing decently well. Leon’s perfect drumming was doing most of the work, though. Ibuki veered between playing really well and going off on tangents. Then, she started singing along to the music- horribly off key.

At first, it threw everyone off, but once they started getting used to it, their scores started to improve. Singing, even badly, kept Ibuki from getting distracted and playing something else. As long as Chihiro focused on his own notes and trusted the other two to play their parts, he had fun. They started setting new high scores on the machine.

At the end of a really long and intense song, Ibuki shrieked and raised her guitar over her head. Leon dropped his drumsticks and grabbed her wrists. “Ibuki?” he shouted. “No. No, don’t smash the game controller. It’s not a real concert.”

“Huh?” Her tongue lolled out, and she was breathing heavily. “Oh, oh right. Hahaha.” She stumbled away from the machine. “Ibuki… forgot, for a little while. That was so fun. Haha. Thanks, you two.”

“Yeah, let’s take a break, for a while,” Leon said, reverently setting the phony guitar back in its stand. “Hey, you did pretty good, Chihiro.” He grinned. “What about it? Want to be our bassist when we start a real band after we get out of here, haha?”

“Heheh. I don’t think I’d be very good at that,” Chihiro said, “This was fun, but I think I’d find a real concert overwhelming. Thanks for letting me play with you, though.”

“Hey, anytime.” Leon stroked his goatee. “You’d have to change your fashion sense if you wanted to be a rock star, anyway. Do you want some help with that?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Well, I just thought. You’ve been dressing in girl clothes for a long time, right? Do you want some help figuring out what you might want to wear, if you aren’t going to hide anymore?”

“I, maybe.” Chihiro stroked the sleeve of his olive jacket. “I, I don’t hate the way I dress, but it might be nice to try something different.”

“Yeah,” Leon nodded. “You’ll have a much better chance getting people to treat you like a man if you change up your look, you know. Nothing wrong with it, I guess, but most men don’t wear skirts.”

Chihiro ran his hands along the pleats of his skirt. “Y, yeah, I know. I might have to give it up.”

“I could help you figure out what to do with your hair, too, if you’re interested.” Leon said.

“I,” Chihiro touched his hair, “You don’t like my hair?”

“Uh, no, I didn’t mean it like that,” Leon said. “It’s just, well, it’s kinda cute, ya know? Probably not what you want if you’re trying to be a boy.”

“I, uh…” Chihiro leaned over, his chest tightening up.

“Whoa, hey, did I say the wrong thing?” Leon said. “Hey, man, I didn’t mean to upset you. I mean, I know you’re a guy, but I was just thinking about how people are going to see you, when we get out.” He frowned. “You don’t need to change your look, if you don’t want to.”

“I, uh, thanks for your offer,” Chihiro winced. “I’ll, I’ll consider it, ok? But I’m not ready to talk about that yet. I need to go.” Chihiro said goodbye to his friends, and hurried for the door, bent forward, eyes low, concentrating on this painful emptiness in his chest.

As he stepped out of the arcade, he nearly collided with Hiyoko, who shrieked and dropped her package of gummy snacks. "Sorry," Chihiro muttered, and started walking away as fast as he could.

"Hey, wait a minute!" She called, bending over to retrieve her snacks. Chihiro stopped, and waited for her to catch up to him, but didn't turn around. "I wanted to talk to you. Can we sit down?"

"Uh, it’s not a great time.”

“Well, this is important,” Hiyoko insisted. “Let’s go sit at the diner.”

“Uh,” Chihiro got his breathing under control. “Sure, if it’s important.” The two walked over there, and sat down across from each other at one of the round tables. Hiyoko popped open her bag of treats, and pointed it towards Chihiro.

He reached across to take one, but she reached out and slapped his hand, lightly. "Don't take the green ones, got it? Those are my favorite." He nodded, and took a few of the differently colored snacks. She turned the bag back towards her, and sorted through it, picking out just the green ones. They sat there in silence for a few minutes, just eating gummy snacks. Chihiro’s empty feeling subsided a little, as he tasted the different flavors.

Then, Hiyoko said, "Look, I'm not very good at this, ok? But, I'm, urgh." She shook her head, waving her big pigtails around. "I shouldn't have laughed at you, the other day. I'm... sorry."

"Really?" Chihiro said, a gummy still in his mouth.

"Let me finish, geez." Hiyoko pouted. "When you told us your secret, I thought you were pretty weak. But telling everyone your secret yesterday must have taken a lot of guts, especially after how Mahiru and I treated you. I," She ate another gummy. "I don't think I'd be strong enough to do something like that. So, I was wrong about you. There, I said it."

"Um, wow." Chihiro felt his shoulders relax. "Th, that means a lot to me. Thank you. But, I don't think you should laugh at people, even if they are weak."

"Hey, don't push your luck, pal." Hiyoko fumed. "But, if you'll keep this quiet, I guess I can tell you. But we're even after this, and you'd better not laugh at me."

"Of course, Hiyoko."

"I laugh at people because I feel weak, too."

"What? But you're a girl," Chihiro said, "Nobody expects you to be strong."

"Hey, would you watch what you say?" Hiyoko fumed. "You can be so fucking stupid, you know that?"

"Huh, but-"

"Girls have to be strong, too, Chihiro. Maybe not the same way guys do, but being a girl isn't easy, you know?" She shook her head. "Ugh, you're clueless. If we're weak, we get eaten alive. I had to deal with rivals for my position, who want me dead or out of the way so they can take over as the next great Salonji dancer. And my family didn't want me to get any bright ideas about abandoning the position, so they don't let me do anything on my own. I can't take care of myself, I can't learn self defense, I can't learn a different trade. I can't fucking dress myself because my family wants me to be helpless. So yeah, I'm a pissy little bitch, when I can get away with it." She crushed her empty gummy package in her hands. "All they let me have is dancing. And I love it, I really do, but," she sighed, "I wish it could be my own thing, instead of theirs."

"I'm sorry, I had no idea your life was so hard."

Hiyoko shrugged. "Yeah, well, everybody's got their own shit. And, I'm sorry if it I pushed you too hard to dance with me. That must have been awkward for you, since you're a boy."

"Actually, I was pretty nervous, but it wound up being really fun. Sometimes, it's good to get pushed into something new, I guess."

Hiyoko smiled. "Oh, cool. If you're not embarrassed about wearing the kimono, maybe we could do it again sometime."

"I think I'd like that," Chihiro smiled as well, "Your talent is amazing, Hiyoko."

Her shoulders sagged. "Yeah, my, talent."

"Oh, sorry," Chihiro bowed. "Uh, when we get our talents back, I'd love to dance with you again."

Hiyoko nodded. "You know, I never wanted a little brother before, but I guess if he's like you, that's ok. I talked to Mahiru, yesterday. She's still mad at you. But, I'll keep pestering her until she comes around."

Chihiro inhaled sharply. "If you think it will help." He closed his eyes. "I'm afraid when I was upset the other day, I ripped up the photo she gave me, of us. I'm sorry."

"Hey, don't worry about it. We'll make some new ones, when everything's better, ok?" Hiyoko got up. "I'd better go. Don't worry about Mahiru." She grinned, "I can be very annoying."

Later that afternoon, Chihiro went to dinner early, and left before most of the other students arrived. He went to the infirmary, to find a bedraggled Mikan fussing over an exhausted Mukuro. "Mikan? Have you been here since last night?"

"Yes." She said. "I've, I've got to make sure she has enough ice, and she won't take her painkillers. She's, not being a very good patient."

"I've told you enough times, I don't want them." Mukuro said. "I wouldn't trust you to dose me, anyway. Although, I guess it wouldn't be the worst way to die."

Mikan's hands were shaking. "I know I'm not at my best, but I can still read a stupid bottle. Why won't you trust me to help you?"

"It's got nothing to do with you, alright? I'd rather just be left alone."

Mikan pouted, running her hands through her long hair. "Don't, don't ignore me."

"Hey, why don't you go get some dinner, Mikan?" Chihiro said. "I can take over watching her for you, for a while."

"Yes, please." Mukuro said. "You aren't doing me any favors, alright? Go stuff your face. You can cry over me later."

Mikan's fists were clenching. "Fine. If that's what you want, I'll go." She turned and stomped towards the door.

Chihiro followed her out. "Mikan?"

"What?" The nurse snarled, teeth bared.

"Uh," Chihiro took a step back, "It's just, I'm sure you're struggling, since you aren't at your best right now. But, I'm glad you're trying. Thank you for looking after Mukuro."

"Oh," Mikan blinked, and wiped her eyes. "Um, thanks for saying that. And thanks for giving me a break. Erm, I'd, I'd better go." She hurried off after that, and Chihiro went back into the infirmary.

Mukuro's steely eyes locked on his as soon as he was back inside. Having a face full of gauze didn't make her any less intimidating. "I'd thank you, but I'm pretty sure you only did that so you could ask some questions I'm not going to answer."

Chihiro walked over to her bedside, his fist at his side, shaking, and he looked down at her. She was unimpressed. "I almost died last night, trying to protect you. You haven't said a word of thanks to anyone who helped you. I deserve to know why."

"Heh." She turned her head, staring up at the ceiling. "Nobody gets what they fucking deserve, kid."

"I'm not a kid." Chihiro bit back. "I'm the same age as you. And I-"

"No, you're a kid," Mukuro looked back at him. "Everybody out there, the nurse, the gambler, the hamster guy, your fucking biker pal. You're all kids. The only two that aren't are Junko and me. We're fucking monsters."

"Oh," Chihiro looked at Mukuro's broken arm, instead of her eyes. "I, I know you must have seen some, horrible things, as a soldier-"

"This doesn't have a damn thing to do with my time as a merc." Mukuro looked over towards the far wall. "War was easy, compared to her. You know I've fought in dozens of combat missions, and never got hurt? Figures the first time I get seriously injured is a fight with my damn sister."

"I don't understand why you attacked her, if your talent wasn't working. Wouldn't it be easy for you to beat her, any other time?"

Mukuro sighed. "You don't know a damn thing about Junko. And it's better if it stays that way."

"Last night, you said if I'd just stayed quiet and let her kill you, I could beat her. You mean-"

"Yes, dammit. If she killed me with an eyewitness, she would have been executed after the trial." She wobbled her head, irritably. "That would have been good enough. Not sure what I would do with my life if I actually got it back, anyway."

"She, she might attack me again," Chihiro insisted. "You have to tell me more about her, and why she's dangerous."

"I've told you too damn much already. She's not going to come after you unless she thinks you're a threat, so the less you know the better. And, to tell you the truth, I don't think she wants to make a kill. She's having too much fun playing the game."

The door to the infirmary swung open again. "Oh, thank god, my dear Florence has returned." Mukuro sneered.

A shadow fell over Chihiro. "Ah, Chihiro, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at dinner?" He turned, and saw Taka's smiling face and bright red eyes. "Why don't you go to dinner? You need to eat a lot of protein if you want to get strong."

"Oh, Taka, I'm surprised to see you here. Did you want to help look after Mukuro?" His eyes tracked down Kiyotaka's right arm, to the hefty dumbbell in his hand.

The back of Chihiro's head buzzed with terror, but Taka explained. "I've brought her a present, to help her with her recovery."

"Uh, that's a sweet thought, but she just broke her arm." Chihiro said, fighting the chill in his spine. It, it was just a dumbbell. "She's not going to be able to lift that for a long time." Mukuro sat up behind him, wincing in pain.

"Hahaha." Taka grinned. "Why don't you go to dinner, Chihiro? I have something I want to talk to Mukuro about."

"Damn it," Mukuro said, "She sent you, didn't she? Even without her talent, she’s too damn smart."

“What are you talking,” Chihiro started to say.

“Your sister told me you tried to kill her,” Taka interrupted. “And, even before that, you’ve done nothing but try to keep everyone in despair since the killing game began.”

Mukuro’s face soured. “Don’t say that fucking word to me.”

“Language.” Taka’s grin vanished, hardening into a grim stare. “You’re nothing but trouble. Your presence here is a blight on our group’s harmony. You will only make things worse if you are allowed to continue.”

Mukuro staggered to her feet, on the other side of the bed. “Shit, shit,” she muttered. “I’m not going down without a fight. Even if I’m in no shape for it.”

“Wait, fight?” Chihro said. “Taka, you can’t mean,”

“She’s an attempted murderer, Chihiro. She’s more than proven she can’t be trusted. You don’t have to see this. Leave.”

Chihiro stood in front of him, and raised his arms. “This, this isn’t like you, Taka. You aren’t thinking straight, something’s wrong.”

He shook his head. “No, I’m finally thinking straight. I have to remove anyone that threatens the peace of our group, anyone who makes a murder more likely to happen. Don’t try to stop me. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’m not letting you do this. You’re my friend, and I’m not letting you kill.”

His eyebrows blazed. "I'm not asking. Get out of my way." He swung the dumbbell at Chihiro’s head.

His swing was lazy, more to force Chihiro to duck than seriously threaten him. Still, Chihiro's heart was pounding, his breathing speeding up. He had to stop his friend, before he made a mistake. Taka swung the dumbbell down at him, and he fell on his back to avoid it, and crawled away.

He spared a glance behind him. Mukuro had staggered over to the counter and was yanking open drawers. She came up with a scalpel, and brandished it in her good hand. “He’s not himself, Chihiro. You can’t help him.”

Taka stepped over Chihiro, hefting his weapon again. “He can’t help you, either.”

Chihiro lunged at the back of Taka’s left knee, slamming his shoulder against it with as much force as he could manage. Taka stumbled. “You devious coward!” He snarled. He reached behind him and started elbowing Chihiro in the kidney. “Get off of me!”

“Ah!” Chihiro rolled, and hit his head on the foot of Mukuro’s hospital bed. “Ah-!” His head rang with pain. He looked up, and saw Taka standing over him, the dumbbell raised high, and Mukuro with the scalpel, further behind him, angling for the back of his throat. “No! Taka, please!”

The infirmary door swung open again, and another voice said, “What the fuck is going on in here?” Three sets of eyes swiveled to see Mondo standing in the doorway. “Holy shit.” He shook his head, and dashed towards them. “Fuck. I take my eyes of off you for five minutes, and this is how I find you.”

“Don’t try to stop me, Mondo. She’s a monster, Junko told me. I have to-“

Mondo slugged him in the jaw. He staggered back, against the cabinet. His dumbbell thunked against the ground, and rolled over towards Chihiro. “You aren’t yourself right now, you got it?”

Taka touched his lips, and stared at the blood on his fingers. “You, you hit me. You can’t.”

“Listen to me. The Kiyotaka I know would never threaten someone in a hospital bed.” Mondo said. “And he’d never attack Chihiro, not ever. You fucking idiot, haven’t you figured this shit out?”

“It’s the motive,” Mukuro said, setting the scalpel down. “What’s his talent again?”

“Ultimate Moral Compass,” Chihiro supplied, rubbing his head. “Ow.”

Mondo knelt next to Taka and wrapped him in a hug. “Your sense of justice is all screwed up, man. I didn’t, I didn’t think it would get this bad.”

“I, no, I’m protecting everyone,” Taka insisted, “I have to protect everyone.”

“No, you don’t.” Mondo insisted. “You need to get your head cleared up.”

“She was using you,” Mukuro said, “My sister.” She sat back down on the bed, wincing in pain. “Thank you, Chihiro.”

“Huh?”

“If you had let him kill me, someone else would have paid for her crime.” She sighed. “I can’t die again, not unless I take her with me. So thank you.”

Chihiro smiled, despite the throbbing in his head. "I, uh, you're welcome."

“I almost lost both of you. Dammit, I hate this.” Mondo started shaking, tears pouring down his face. “I’m not failing Chihiro again. And I’m not losing you Taka, you got that? I’m getting the real you back, understand? I love you.”

Taka started shaking. “You don’t mean that. You've, never actually said that before."

"I should have. Taka I should have." Mondo hugged Taka tighter.

"Is he always like this?" Mukuro said, laying back on the hospital bed. "Ugh. I think I'll take those painkillers now. Before Mikan gets back."

Chihiro got to his feet, and made his way to the cabinet, his hand still rubbing at the spot where he had hit the bed. He found a bottle of black pills, poured Mukuro a small cup of water, and brought them to her side. He waited, until Mondo led a sobbing Taka out of the infirmary. “I’m not done talking with you,” he said, handing her the water but holding on to the medicine. “I still don’t understand what’s happening, between you and your sister, but I’m going to.”

The two locked eyes, but Mukuro’s gaze was heavy, and tired. “You shouldn’t have told everyone your secret.”

“Huh?”

“And you shouldn’t be messing with this. Keep your head down, and you might stand a chance.” She sighed. “You end up dead, how’s that supposed to help anyone, huh? Give me the damn pills.”

Chihiro poured two small pills into Mukuro’s palm. “I can’t just ignore what’s happening. I have to do… something, to protect everyone. But, thank you for your concern.”

Mukuro leaned her neck up, staring at Chihiro, and swallowed the water in her mouth. Then she fell back against the pillow, opened her mouth, and laughed. “Hahahaha! Yeah, sure, you got it. Now, get out of here, I need to sleep.”

Chihiro obeyed, and left the infirmary just as Mikan was returning. He thought about going back to the library, but then thought better of it. Maybe he did need to be a little more careful. And his head still hurt, from where he’d banged it against the bed frame. Better to go rest, and get an early start tomorrow, he decided.

The next day, he rose early, and went to breakfast. But, as early as it was, he was not the first one there. Mahiru was sipping a bowl of miso in the empty hall. Chihiro thought about going back to his room, waiting until more people were around, or even just skipping breakfast and going to the library. But, whatever she might have against him, he didn’t want to be afraid of her. So, he prepared a plate of rice and fish, and sat down across from her, joining her in silence.

Chihiro tried to keep his eyes on his food, or, when he did look up, to look elsewhere. But, his gaze still came back to Mahiru. And he saw how heavy her eyes were, how grim and stiff her lips. “Mahiru,” he said, “Are you alright?”

She looked at him, blinked slowly, and shook her head. “Just, a little trouble sleeping, is all.”

“Is something wrong?” he clutched at his napkin, “Can I help?”

“No, I just need to,” she sighed, and rested her head in her left hand. “Just need to sleep, better, is all.”

“If you’re sure, ok.” Chihiro returned to his fish. It was cold.

Mahiru set her spoon down, and pushed her bowl away. “Come with me. Somewhere nobody will bother us.” She stood, and turned towards the atrium.

“Uh,” Chihiro muttered, “Are you sure?”

She looked back. “You don’t trust me, huh. I don’t blame you.” She shook her head. “Well, no, I’m not sure. But it needs to be said. Let’s go to the aquarium. The broken glass is gone, and there’s still some fish in there.”

Chihiro fidgeted with his chopsticks. Mukuro’s warning buzzed in his head. “I’m, I’m going to trust you.” He got up and walked over to her side.

She smiled, weakly. “Thank you. Let’s, go.”

Side by side, they walked out into the atrium, just as the stone seal overhead started to slide open, announcing the dawn. Morning light spilled down from the second floor, and the two stood blinking as their eyes adjusted. But, as the stone seal vanished into its track, something slid off of it, and fell towards the fountain below.

Chihiro tried to make it out- it was orange, and yellow. “What!” Mahiru grabbed Chihiro’s shoulder, “No, no, no.”

The falling object struck the Monokuma statue’s head, and there was a burst of pink as it slid down into the waters below. Mahiru’s grip on Chihiro’s shoulder tightened into a vise, and he jerked away in alarm. Without him to lean on, Mahiru fell to her knees. “Hiyoko.” She whispered, rocking back and forth, “Hiyoko, Hiyoko, Hiyoko.” She dug her hands into her red hair, and Mahiru screamed.

Chapter Text

Chihiro stumbled away from her, the scream rebounding between his ears, making it harder for him to process what he had seen. He wanted to reach out to her, to do anything he could to help calm her down, but her raw grief frightened him. He couldn’t fix this.

“I’m, going to get help,” he said, and hurried towards the nearest dorm room, Sagishi’s. He pounded on their door as loudly as he could manage with his small fist. When they opened it, one look at Chihiro’s face must have been enough. They pushed past, and headed for the atrium, Chihiro at their heels.

They stopped, next to Mahiru who was now sobbing openly into her hands, but didn’t say anything until Chihiro caught up. “Where?” they said. Chihiro pointed towards the fountain. They walked over to get a closer look.

As they walked around and leaned over to look into the fountain’s basin, the dreadful chime sounded throughout the castle. “DING DONG BING BONG.” Monokuma’s voice closely followed. “A body has been discovered! After a short amount of time, which you may use however you wish, the class trial will begin. Please report to the fountain on the first floor, immediately! Oh, and injured students are not excused from participation.”

Chihiro helped Mahiru move to one side of the entrance, as their classmates began to emerge and make their way towards the fountain. Ibuki stopped and leaned in close to Mahiru. “Hey, hey, do you need anything?”

“It’s Hiyoko,” Chihiro said, on Mahiru’s behalf.

“Oh.” Ibuki pressed her index fingers together. “Uh, Ibuki better help out with things.” She hurried away.

Mikan emerged from the infirmary, escorting Mukuro, though the latter shoved Mikan away when she tried to help her walk. When she saw the body in the fountain, Mikan broke down sobbing as well.

Once everyone had gathered in the atrium, Monokuma’s high-pitched voice cut through the shocked din of the crowd. “I just can’t believe this! Blood, all over my precious statue! Blood, leaking into my crystal-clear water!” He stood on the edge of the fountain, prancing in front of everyone. “Mwahahaha, I should be pissed off, but I think it looks better like this! As much as I love black and white, a little color never hurt anything!” When his remarks failed to elicit a laugh, he shrugged. “You guys are boring. Don’t you know humor can help you deal with grief? Anyway, it’s almost time for the second class trial. Our victim this time is Hiyoko Salonji, the Ultimate Traditional Dancer! Come get your Monokuma Files and get to work, because if you don’t solve this case, I’ll be using your blood to liven up my castle next.”

“I, I need to help with the investigation,” Chihiro said. “We’ll find out who did this to her, Mahiru. I promise.”

She nodded, mutely, and Chihiro turned to go. Then, she rasped, “H, hey.” He turned back, to see her removing her satchel. “I, I can’t take pictures right now. My talent isn’t working, and I don’t think I could hold my camera steady, anyway.” She held the satchel out towards him. “Please.”

Chihiro took it. It was heavier than he thought. “I’ll take good care of it. I promise.”

She nodded again, and slumped back against the wall. Chihiro turned and walked over to the fountain, past a few stragglers who hadn't yet left to investigate. He picked up one of the Monokuma Files, and read. Victim: Hiyoko Salonji, Height: 4'2" Weight: 31 kg Time of Death: ????? Cause of Death: ????? "Huh?" Chihiro muttered. Both the time of death and the cause were missing. Did that mean Monokuma didn’t know?

Chihiro took a deep breath, and walked around to the back of the fountain, where Hiyoko’s body waited for him. When he saw it, his stomach wrenched around in pain, and his head swam. Then, someone placed a hand on his shoulder, and his revulsion receded, just enough to stay upright. “Hey,” Mondo said, “Are you doing alright?”

“I’ll, I’ll be fine.” He took Mahiru’s camera out of the satchel, and turned it over in his hands. He hung the strap around his neck, removed the lens cap, turned it on, and looked through the eyepiece.

The world seemed a little more distant, through the lens of a camera. It wasn’t his friend’s dead body, it was a piece of data, something to be logged, a piece of a larger puzzle. Hiyoko lay facedown, floating in a couple of feet of blood-tinged water. The top of her head was split open, near the back, and blood was still leeching out. Her hair was caked in it. He snapped a few photos, taking the prints and storing them in his jacket pocket. But, there was something else. He zoomed the camera in tighter, focusing on a spot a little lower, and to the right of the larger wound.

“Do you have something?” Mondo asked.

“I think it’s another wound, close to but separate from the big one that’s leaking everywhere.” The shutter clicked, a few more times. Then, he took a few pictures of the statue, for good measure, catching the splash of pink on the marble bear. “The file doesn't list her time of death, or the cause. There'd be no reason to hide it if she'd died on impact with the statue, since Mahiru and I saw it. And," Chihiro shivered, "She wasn't, screaming, or anything, when she fell. I, I didn't even know it was a body, until Mahiru started to panic."

“Are you saying she was already dead?” Mondo said. "You think we should look closer?"

Chihiro lowered the camera, and looked over to where Mikan was kneeling, still crying loudly and messily. "Uh, I guess we can ask Mikan to take a closer look." The two walked over to her, and Chihiro said, "H, hey, do you think you can come look at the body? We could use your help with,"

"Why would you ask me that?" Mikan's hands were clasped to her face, her bloodshot eyes visible between her fingers. "I'm useless like this. Useless, useless, useless!"

Chihiro backed away. Mondo put an arm between him and Mikan, and said, "Hey, even if your talent isn't working, at least try, dammit."

"What's the point?" she seethed. "She didn't even forgive me, you know. Hahaha, she didn't forgive me, and now she's dead, her brains are splattered all over the fountain." She shook her head, her long, messy hair waving about. "And I can't even give her an autopsy! I really am... the most useless person. Hahaha, go away, or you'll catch my disease."

Chihiro took a nervous step forward. "Mikan..."

"No," Mondo said, holding his arm up further. "Just... I don’t think we wanna mess with this.”

"I... don't think you 're useless, Mikan." Chihiro said, walking away, Mondo beside him. "I think most of the clues are upstairs." When they got there, they walked towards the balcony in the center of the atrium. Monokuma stood on the railing, waiting for them.

"You know, it was awful rude of the killer to do what they did. They made me close my skylight during the day, just so you chumps could investigate it. I hope you're happy." He hopped down and sauntered away.

"Nobody's happy you damn bear." Mondo growled. "Alright, I guess we start there. Must be something there, for him to make a big deal about it."

Sure enough, the skylight cover was closed, as if it were nighttime. Chihiro looked through the camera, zooming in to scan the stony surface for clues. "There, I think I see a little bit of blood." He took a few pictures, and zoomed out to take a shot of the wider surface for scale. "It looks like the killer just dumped the body on this, and waited for it to plummet when the cover opened. But... I don't see as much blood as I would expect."

"And the murder probably didn't happen here, either. The killer must have moved the body." Mondo pointed out. "Well? Where do you wanna look?"

Chihiro rubbed his chin. "I guess... the arcade? Hiyoko doesn't strike me as the kind to read a lot." When they got there, they found Leon, kneeling over one of the arcade machines.

"Huh, hey, you guys. I think I found the murder scene, take a look at this." He moved over, gesturing at one of the arcade cabinets.

"I don't see anything," Mondo said.

"You gotta get in close, man. There's blood under the cabinet, see? The killer must have tried to clean up, but missed some." Chihiro zoomed in on the spot, and took a picture. Sure enough, when it came out, he could see blood illuminated by the flash. "Whoa, there's some on the Princess Piggles cabinet, too," Leon pointed out. "It kinda blends in with the pink, I can see why the killer missed it, if they were in a hurry." Chihiro took another picture, and a few more of the broader scene. Then, he walked over to the Dance Dance Insurrection game, which wasn't too far from the bloodstains. It had a square dance mat with arrows set up in front of a monitor. He stood on the dance mat and checked the game's menus.

"What are you doing?" Mondo asked, coming to stand beside him.

"Checking the high scores. Hiyoko was really upset about losing her talent... there." A screen came up, showing the top scores for the easiest song on the machine. A few of them were dev scores, nice, round numbers, but sprinkled in were a few listed for HIY. "She was definitely playing this machine." He took a picture of the screen for reference.

"Huh. But the bloodstains are over there," he stepped back to point, "Hey, what the fuck?" He turned and bent down, and picked up a small, dented piece of grey metal that had been under his shoe. "What do you think this is?"

He handed it over, and Chihiro turned it around in his fingers. “I, don’t know. But it might be important. Go ahead and hang onto it.” He offered it back to Mondo.

“So, she was playing the dancing game, when the killer attacked her from behind, huh?” asked Leon. “And there was probably a bit of a fight, since most of the blood’s over here. What do you think they hit her with?”

“Hit her?” Chihiro asked, “Not stabbed, or something else?”

“Well, yeah,” Leon fidgeted with his goatee. “If the killer had a knife, or something, then Hiyoko wouldn’t have had much of a chance to fight.” He shrugged. “At least, that’s what I think.”

“You could be right. But there’s something else bothering me.” Chihiro paced the length of the carpet, between the bloodstains and the atrium. “There’s no blood trail leading away from the murder.”

“Yeah,” Mondo nodded. “That is kinda weird. But I think we should focus on the weapon. If the killer didn’t leave it here, it must be around somewhere.”

“Right,” Chihiro muttered. “Oh! Let’s check the laundry room.” He led the way there, keeping his eyes peeled for signs of blood or other clues. “Any of these washing machines would make a decent hiding place for a weapon. We may as well check them all.”

Mondo and Chihiro walked down the aisles, opening each machine in turn before slamming it shut and moving on. Until Mondo got to one near the end, and he froze as he reached for the handle. “Hey, I, uh, thank we’re on to something.”

Chihiro walked over and looked up. Sure enough, some blood was smeared across the front of an extra-large washer, near the door’s handle. “The killer got clumsy,” he said, taking a picture. “OK, go ahead and open it.”

“Huh, no weapon.” Mondo said. “A little more blood in here, though. Maybe the killer tried to wash their clothes, after the murder?”

Chihiro stood on tiptoe to get a better look. “Umm,” He wobbled, taking in the sight of the blood. It was against one side of the machine, in a large splotch. “No, I don’t think that’s right. The blood in this machine wouldn’t be here if the machine had been used.”

“And there’s still no weapon,” Mondo said. “Damn. We know they used this machine, but not why.”

“Why don’t we ask Monomaid for help?” Chihiro suggested, “She’s almost always in the kitchen up here, preparing food. Maybe she saw something.”

Mondo rubbed a hand through his crest of hair. “I don’t think it’s her job to help us. But sure, we could try.” They crossed the atrium to the diner, and Mondo rapped his knuckles against the kitchen doors. “Hey, rabbit, we want to talk to you about the murder investigation.”

“Go away!” Monomaid cried back. “Monokuma says I’m, I’m not allowed to say anything! No matter what I see, I shouldn’t help you with the investigation… even if you torture me. Which he said you almost certainly will… please, don’t torture me!”

Chihiro sucked in air. “We’re, we’re not going to torture you, we just want to know if you know where the murder weapon is.”

“W, wait, is that Chihiro?”

“Yes, it’s me.”

“And, and you promise not to torture me?”

“Of all the, of course, I wouldn’t torture anyone.”

“OK. You can come in to investigate. But just you, understand?”

Chihiro looked up at Mondo, and shrugged. “I, uh, I’ll just be a minute.” Mondo sighed, and leaned against the wall. Chihiro pushed open one of the doors and stepped inside.

And saw the murder weapon, sitting in the middle of the floor. “Hah,” he pressed his hand against his chest. “It’s-“

“Please take it with you,” Monomaid said. She was standing in a corner of the kitchen, shivering. “I don’t like having to work around it.”

Chihiro walked over, and stood beside the heavy steel chain, stained with dried blood. He looked behind him. Yes, the killer must have thrown it through the order window. “Did you see who threw this?”

“Waah!” Monomaid plopped down on her butt, shaking with terror. “If I help you out any more than I am, Monokuma will kill me. Please, just take it and get it away from me. I hate violence!”

“I’m sorry,” Chihiro leaned over and picked up the chain. “I hate it, too. This, this shouldn’t have to happen, I,” He dropped the chain, which thunked against the floor, and cried. “Why? Why do we have to do this? Do you know?”

“I, I don’t know anything,” Monomaid pressed her tiny hands together. “Just, how to cook and how to clean.” She shook her head.

“It seems cruel,” Chihiro sniffled, “That someone would make you just to be a part of this killing game, and would make you afraid of violence.” He shook his head. “Whoever made you has a pretty messed up sense of humor.”

“I don’t know who made me. But, I’m going to do whatever I can to make this less horrible for all of you.” She slumped over. “Even though, there isn’t much I can do.”

Chihiro stared for a moment, at the quivering, miserable rabbit, and nodded. “Thank you.” Then, he picked the chain back up, took a deep breath, and walked back out of the kitchen.

Mondo stepped up behind him. “Sorry, man,” he said. “I could hear all that through the door, and the order window. Nobody else came by, though.”

“Oh,” Chihiro said. “Uh, of course." He stopped, fighting down his nerves. "I, I have to stop crying so much, or nobody’s ever going to take me seriously.”

“So you cry a lot, what’s the big deal?”

“I,” Chihiro stopped walking, closing his eyes. “If you broke down crying as much as I do, do you think any of your gang would follow you?” He shook his head. “That’s, that’s why I looked up to you. You didn’t seem like you would ever lose your cool.”

Mondo stood beside him. “Yeah, you’re probably right. It’s funny, though. Right now, it’s hard to remember why I cared what they thought of me. If they didn’t respect the kind of person I really was, then how much was their respect really worth, ya know?”

“What?” Chihiro tried to process that thought, and while he did, the damning chime went off. “DING DONG, BING BONG.” Then, Monokuma said, sounding from everywhere, “Eh, I’m getting kinda bored. So, everybody head to the fountain, and we can get this class trial started, already.”

Chihiro shook his head. “I, shouldn’t have let myself get distracted.” He held the bloody chain out. "Here, can you carry this?"

He looked it over curiously before taking it. “You’ve got the murder weapon, and we found some other stuff, too. I'm sure you can solve this one quickly. Let's go.”

Chapter Text

Chihiro and Mondo joined the crowd milling in front of the fountain. They made their way around towards the back, to find Mahiru and Ibuki. "Hey, hey," Ibuki called out, running towards them. "Did you find out who did it?"

"I, I have a pretty strong feeling. I can't be sure though." He slipped the satchel off, and held it gingerly towards Mahiru. "Thank you for letting me use this."

She took it wordlessly, her eyes never meeting Chihiro's. Then, the rumbling began, as the fountain rose up out of the floor, revealing the doorway to the courtroom once again. "I'm so happy I could just kill myself. Come, students, come!" Monokuma called out. "The class trial awaits. Puhuhu, I can't wait to see who the blackened is this time!"

The students filed into the hallway, seventeen of them left, now. Mondo and Chihiro were near the back, and Ibuki had to almost drag Mahiru along last, but they walked down the dark hallway into the rickety elevator. The door screeched closed behind Mahiru, and the lift began its descent.

Mondo led Chihiro over to where Taka was standing by himself, arms folded. "Listen, man," he whispered. "I know you'd normally never do something like this, but-"

"It's ok, Mondo," Taka closed his eyes, wincing. "I've, I've been more careful, since the infirmary. I know I'm not myself right now. It wasn't me."

"You promise me?"

"Of course." The two squeezed hands, in silence. Then, they both straightened their necks, and stared forward. The lift came to a halt, and the gate rattled open. Mukuro, her arm still in a sling, led the way into the courtroom. "Huh, let's see this through."

Chihiro stepped out of the elevator. The courtroom had been redecorated; the walls were done in pastels, with rainbows arcing through them. Decorative plastic stars dangled from strings attached to the ceiling. The monitor was uncovered this time, set in the right hand wall. The circle of stands had not changed, nor had Monokuma's gilded throne. He reclined indolently against a cushion, waving to the students. "Welcome to the setting for our next class trial. Do you like it? I think it's quite fitting, for a bunch of useless babies like you. I even let Monomaid help out."

The quivering rabbit stood next to the throne. "What? I, I didn't do this. Monokuma doesn't let me design anything."

"No, no, not like that." Monokuma said. "But she's a dumb baby too, so she helped me come up with the idea. Now, hurry up and take your stands. Please take the same spot you had during the first trial. It keeps things simple, that way." Everyone took their places in silence, Chihiro standing between Mahiru and Mondo once again. He looked to his left, at her, her grey eyes staring forward, the set of her shoulders, the chilly pallor of her skin. And he looked past her, to the now empty stand, with Hiyoko's portrait. Mahiru had hurt him, it was true. But she had also trusted him with her precious camera. And she had wanted to tell him something important that morning, perhaps even an apology. He closed his eyes, and breathed, feeling his fear settle, and dissipate. He would do this, to protect everyone, of course, but especially for Mahiru and Hiyoko, who had been his friends. "Now, it's time for the class trial to begin," Monokuma said, once everyone was in place and the shackles closed around their ankles. "Use the evidence you've gathered and debate to uncover the truth about the vile blackened who killed Hiyoko Salonji. If you pick the right person, only they will receive punishment. But, if you're wrong, I'll kill every one of you except the blackened, and they will return to life. The floor is yours. Have fun!"

In the silence that followed, Gundham was the first to speak. "We should start by discussing the condition of the body. Since a certain person found herself indisposed, I took it upon myself to take a closer look."

"I'm, I'm sorry everyone." Mikan blubbered. "I couldn't, I couldn't help out, with,"

"Silence, human!" Gundham thundered. "Even if your talent wasn't working, you owed it to your fallen comrade to lend a hand. If I saw an animal in need as I am now, I would still do whatever I could to aid them, even if that help meant little, even if all I could do is find someone more qualified." He shook his head. "Yet you bowed to your own incompetence, you sniveling worm, and brought shame upon yourself. Stay quiet if you have nothing to contribute." Mikan burst into tears, but Gundham did not wait for her, and bulled ahead. "I climbed into the fountain to examine the corpse up close. And while I am lacking in medical training, I was able to unearth a few details. The victim's skull was cracked open, that we all could see. The wound ran deep, and could certainly have been the fatal blow. I also discovered that multiple vertebrae in her neck were shattered, which would also have been fatal. I found no other signs of physical trauma, so one of these injuries is the likely cause of death."

"I, I don't know about that," Mahiru said. "Hiyoko’s body hit the Monokuma statue before landing in the pool. That could have caused both the broken neck and the massive head wound.”

“Wait, just one moment.” Hifumi said. “Are you saying you saw the body hit the statue?”

“Mahiru and I both did.” Chihiro held up the photograph of the bloody statue. “And this blood splatter proves it.”

“But," Mahiru gritted her teeth, and grabbed the railing to stop her hand from shaking. "But she was probably already dead before she fell."

"What do you mean?" Taka asked. "Explain yourself!"

"When her body fell from the second floor balcony," tears crept out from the corners of her eyes. "She wasn't screaming for help. She wasn't struggling. She fell like a rock. I saw the blood, splatter, when she hit the statue. That couldn't have been how she died."

"The broken neck, then." Peko suggested. "The fall might have broken it worse, but maybe that's the point. If Hiyoko's neck was already broken before she fell, it would be hard for us to know for sure that's how she died. And it would explain why Monokuma didn't tell us the cause of death. The killer tried to cover it up, and it was up to us to prove what happened."

"I think you're almost right," Chihiro said, "But it probably wasn't her neck. Give me a second." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the photographs, and flicked through them. "I didn't get all that close to the body, but I did get a good look through the camera zoom. Here." He passed the photo to Mondo, so it could make its way around the circle. "I think Hiyoko was killed by a blow to the back of the head, before the fall split her head open further. It's, it's the same as Peko's idea, just a different injury."

Hifumi squinted at the photograph, holding it really close to his face. "Oh, I see! Then, there should be a murder weapon, right? Something heavy, and blunt. Did anybody find something like that?"

"Yeah, we got your murder weapon." Mondo held up the heavy chain. "Chihiro found this in the kitchen upstairs. Somebody chunked it in through the order window in the diner. There's still blood on it."

"What the hell-" Nekomaru started.

"You recognize it, don't you?" Chihiro glared at him. "Did you think we wouldn't be able to get your chain if you left it in the kitchen?"

"I, I mean, it looks like my chain," he admitted, "Though, it looks like the whistle's missing."

"Whistle?" Chihiro said, and snapped his fingers. "Mondo?"

"What? Ah, hell I think you're right." He reached into his pocket and fished around for a bit. He held up the strange, metal bit. "I wasn't sure what this was at first, but we found it at the murder scene. It could be a broken whistle."

"Wait, what do you mean you found it at the murder scene?" Sagishi asked.

"I found some blood in the arcade," Leon said. "The killer tried to clean up after themselves, but with all the neon and bright lights in there, they must have missed some. I showed it to those two."

"That does sound like a likely murder scene. But why was Hiyoko there?" Sagishi said.

"Hiyoko was really upset about losing her talent," Chihiro said. "She must have wanted to reclaim some part of that, any way she could. Here, I got a picture." Chihiro found the photograph of Hiyoko's high scores, and handed it around. "She was playing the dancing game up there."

"Oh!" Ibuki exclaimed, "Like how Ibuki was playing that pretend music game! But wait, Ibuki never saw Hiyoko in the arcade, and she was in there a lot yesterday."

"I think I saw her once," Leon said, "But she didn't stick around. She just came in and left, like a minute later."

"She must have been embarrassed," Celestia suggested. "I remember how pathetic she looked when she tripped in front of us. She didn't want anyone to see her mess up again." She shook her head. "But it was stupid for her to go alone. Wasn't she always with you, Mahiru? Why didn't you accompany her?"

"I," Mahiru started shaking, and looked down. "We've been arguing about something, for a few days. I," She covered her mouth with one shaking hand, "I didn't know she was going to the arcade alone. I would have gone with her, if she'd told me. Dammit." She grimaced, choking down tears. "I could have protected her. Dammit, if I'd known..."

"It's not, it's not your fault," Chihiro insisted. "The only person who is really responsible for Hiyoko's death is her killer. Isn't that right," he pointed, across the circle, at the big man, "Nekomaru Nidai?"

"What?" he grumbled. "That's, that’s absurd. Just because she was killed with a chain, you think I did it?"

"It is your chain, isn't it?" Chihiro pushed. "I notice you aren't wearing it. Why is that, I wonder?"

"Now hold on," he said, "I'll admit that's probably my chain. That's probably the whistle, too. But that doesn't make me the killer. Truth is, I haven't seen that chain for the last few days. I must have left if somewhere."

Chihiro fumed, tightening his fists. "Well isn't that convenient, Nekomaru? The murder weapon is yours, but you don't know where it's been lately?"

"Calm yourself," Gundham said, "I do remember now, when Nekomaru lost his chain. And you should too, my hasty apprentice."

"I, what?" Chihiro sputtered.

"Cast your mind back to the day you witnessed our sparring match in the dojo," Gundham continued. "I recall that he cast the heavy chain aside before our duel. But he did not pick it up again as we left."

"Hey, that's right," Nekomaru said, rubbing his chin. "You were pretty beat up after that, I helped you get to the market so you could get some food." He nodded. "But I did forget my chain. And that's the last time I saw it, until now."

"What, no, but," Chihiro started, but Sayaka cut him off. "I was one of the first people to arrive for coach's self-defense training the next morning. There was no sign of a chain there. Someone could have taken it before Nekomaru returned to the dojo."

"I, but," Chihiro stammered, "It has to be him. He tried to hide the weapon."

"Are you sure about this?" Mondo said, crossing his arms. "You're pushing pretty hard."

"What?" Chihiro said, his arms tensing up. "You, you don't doubt me, do you?"

He closed his eyes, shaking his head slightly. "It's not that, just, are you sure you're thinking about this clearly?"

"I," he could feel his eyes stinging. No, not now, not for this.

"I believe you!" Kiyotaka declared. "In fact, why don't we move on to the voting, right now? There's no need to drag this out."

"Damn it, bro, you are not helping." Mondo said.

"This is ridiculous," Celestia said. "We can't take Chihiro's hunch for it. There's a lot we haven't talked about, yet. Like the motive. What possible reason would Nekomaru have to kill Hiyoko?"

"Yeah, that's a good point," he agreed. "You can't possibly think I would want to be the Ultimate Tradional Dancer, could you?" He shook his head. "I mean, I'm trying, and I can't picture it."

"The question we must entertain, then," Junko said. "Is which of us foolish creatures would benefit from the extraordinary gift of a second talent. And we believe the answer to that question is quite clear," she pointed, "Do you disagree, Sayaka Maizono?"

"I, what?" She shuddered. "No, I mean, yes, I disagree, how dare you," she started running her hands through her long, blue hair, tugging at it. "I, how could you say,"

"Show business is pretty fuckin' cruel, ain't it?" Junko said. "You and me babe, we've got a lot in common. I get you. But I'm not some dime a dozen pop idol. I've got staying power. Acting, dancing, modeling, you name it. Once I get my talent back, I'll be set for life. But what about you, huh?" She held a hand up, pressing it against one side of her face, glaring at Sayaka with her right eye. "You worked so hard, all your life. Clawing your way into the spotlight. And for what? A year, maybe two. And then you'll fade. Everything you worked for will crumble to ashes, and you'll be back where you started. No fame, no friends, no talent anyone will care about. Just a fading memory." She shook her head. "Maybe you could move into adult films, you're pretty enough."

"Stop it!" Sayaka cried. She slumped forward, clutching her stomach. "Shut up, shut up shutup shutup, that's not going to happen, it's..."

"No, of course not," Junko continued. "Because you won't just have your own talent to rely on, anymore. With Hiyoko's talent and yours, you'll finally have real star power. You could go solo. You'll have a future, past your pathetic little idol group. You might be almost as talented as me. Almost."

"Stop, stop treating her like that!" Hifumi said. "You don't know Ms. Maizono at all, do you? It's because she worked hard for her fame that it matters so much to her. She, she wouldn't kill somebody just to fake that hard work!"

"Yeah, he's right," Leon added. "I thought I made it clear, this is a dumb motive. I don't believe for an instant that anyone here killed Hiyoko to steal her talent." Sayaka started to calm down, and gave him a strange, misty look.

"Indeed, Leon and I both did our utmost to impress upon you all that such an act would be utterly foolish." Celestia agreed. "I think we need to consider another angle if we want to deduce the killer's motive."

"Several people reacted very poorly to losing their talents," Peko said. "Perhaps the real reason someone killed her was because they were desperate to get their own talent back."

"That could be it," Mahiru said. "Let's see, I would say, other than Hiyoko herself, the people who reacted the worst to losing their talents were Teruteru, Sagishi, and Mikan."

"Now what are yew on about?" Teruteru said. He shook his head. "Erm, that is, I mean to say, heh heh, while I was upset about losing my talent at first, I got over it well enough. Thanks to cooking with you two lovely ladies, that is. Heh. In fact, you could say, I relish the chance to relearn my craft from scratch. I didn't need to do something crazy like, like kill somebody over that."

"Indeed," Sagishi followed. "While I was devastated by the apparent illness that struck me, Chihiro's courage gave me the strength to face you all, and I've learned to cope with our situation. I'm no longer ashamed to be myself in your presence. But, I'm not sure the same can be said for Mikan."

"Ah!" she startled.

"And Hiyoko was always prodding at you, like a hyena checking to see if the lion is dead," Gundham said. "Could that be the real reason you refused to examine the body?

"What, no," Mikan protested. "I just, I just didn't want to embarrass myself by failing. I, I wanted Hiyoko to forgive me, more than anything. I couldn't, I couldn't handle how useless I was."

Gundham scowled. "Don't forget, I bore witness to your darkness once before, don't pretend you don't have it in you to kill. You tried to confuse us about when your victims died last time, just like the killer did this time. And you knew you would have a convenient excuse to refrain from helping with the investigation."

"Ah, no, you've got it all wrong!" Mikan complained. "I wanted to help, I did, I just, but she was my friend, and I couldn't... I couldn't let her down."

"But you did let her down," Gundham insisted. "And you stand here and call that girl your friend, when we know full well that she never missed an opportunity to humiliate you."

Mikan shuddered, and threw her head forward, so that her hair covered her face. "If you really want to know the truth, I was just glad someone paid attention to me. Ha, ha. Even if she was being mean, even if she was cruel, it was nice to feel included. And Ibuki, and Teruteru, you were the only ones who weren't embarrassed when I tripped. You three, you three noticed me. It was... nice, to be the center of attention, for a change."

"Uh, Mikan?" Ibuki shuddered. "Are, are you all right?"

"But you want so bad for me to be the monster, don't you Gundham? You want there to be something besides failure behind my actions. Ha, ha. But do you know why I killed them, why I killed my friends last time? I've been trying to hold it back, but when I get like this, I can't. So maybe I did kill Hiyoko again. What are you going to do about it, breeder?" She broke into a stretched, eerie grin. "Do you really think there's a life worth returning to, at the end of this? Execute me again and find out, you stupid child."

Gundham stared, and wrapped his scarf tightly around his mouth, but said nothing.

"Enough of your idiocy, Mikan," Mukuro said. "It wasn't her. I'll vouch for that. She's so damn clingy I've barely been able to get any peace since I broke my arm." She shook her head. "All this pointless crap about motives is getting us nowhere. All you've managed to do is argue that just about anyone might have had a plausible motive for killing Hiyoko. What matters are the facts. Let's get back on track."

"Yes, that would be prudent," Sagishi said. "We know the murder weapon, and the location. But we don't know much else. Can we establish a likely time of death?"

"Hiyoko was at dinner, and left around seven PM, I think." Peko said. "Did anyone see her after that?"

"Oh, wait, now I remember," Hifumi said. "I went upstairs to play Princess Piggles after dinner, and I saw her in the laundry room as I was leaving. Let's see, that was around 8:30, probably?"

"I know thinking is hard for you, but this is important." Celestia said. "Did you see anyone else on the second floor?"

"Errr," Hifumi fussed with his glasses. "No. I stopped by the market for a late-night snack and went to my room."

"Huh," Nekomaru said. "Hiyoko must have been waiting for you to leave, so she could be alone."

"Then, we know the murder happened between 8:30 PM and 6 AM, right?" Leon shook his head. "Damn, that's not a lot to go on."

"Wait," Mahiru said. She closed her eyes, focusing. "No one came down the stairs after the body discovery announcement. In fact, everyone came from their rooms, except Mukuro and Mikan. They were in the infirmary. That means the murderer must have had plenty of time to get back downstairs after dumping the body on the balcony seal." Her brow furrowed. "And, and I was up at 5:30. I couldn't sleep, so I went for an early breakfast. I didn't see anyone except Chihiro. And the body discovery announcement clears both of us."

"The murder probably happened fairly late during that time frame," Sagishi suggested. "It would have been too risky to leave the body in the middle of the atrium otherwise. Someone might have found it prematurely."

"Hold on," Chihiro said. "...It's possible the killer hid the body, and came back later to put it on the seal. Then, the murder might have happened earlier, right?"

"Do you have evidence that something like that happened?" Sagishi asked.

"Here they are," Chihiro said, handing some photos to Mondo. "I wasn't sure what these were, but it makes sense now. I think the killer moved the body into the laundry room, and stored it in one of the bigger washing machines. Mondo and I found some blood in one. They must have come back later to move it."

"What was the point of putting it on the seal, anyway?" Leon asked. "I still haven't figured that out."

"It was to mislead us, I'm sure." Chihiro said. "The killer knew Mikan couldn't perform a proper autopsy. By dropping Hiyoko's body, they made it harder for us to find the lethal wound. And, since the water in the fountain made her blood flow more freely, it made it harder to tell how long she had been dead."

"A clever deception," Gundham said. "When, then, are you proposing the murder took place?"

"We can't be one hundred percent sure," Chihiro said, "But, I would guess as soon as the killer was certain Hiyoko was alone and no one would see them move the body. Probably shortly after Hifumi went downstairs."

"But, for the killer to be sure they were alone, wouldn't they need to keep watch?" Teruteru pointed out. "Hifumi said he didn't see anyone as he was coming downstairs. But, someone must have seen him leave, right? How did they know when it was safe to strike?"

Mahiru gasped. "The order window, in the diner." She shook her head. "I remember now, when I was cooking with you a few days ago. It offers a view of almost the entire atrium."

"It does?" Teruteru said. "You tall people get to see everything, don't you? Seems pretty unfair if you ask me." He shrugged "I guess the trade off is I can stare at people's butts, and no one notices."

"Remind me to injure you later," Celestia said. "But, this is useful information." She pointed outside of the circle, to where Monomaid sat next to the throne. "You, rabbit-thing. Tell us, was anyone spying from the kitchen last night?"

"Monomaid, do you know what eviscerate means?" Monokuma asked, leaning casually against the arm of his throne.

"No?" she answered.

"Well, I'd be happy to teach you, if you answer the gambler's question."

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I love learning! Only, didn't you tell me not to answer questions about the case?"

Monokuma's claws flashed out. "I did, didn't I? Interesting. I guess you should decide if 'eviscerate' is a good word, or a bad word."

"Uhhh," the rabbit shook. "I'm sorry everyone. I can't answer a question like that!"

Celestia grimaced. "Pity."

"We need to consider something else, then." Sayaka said. She was holding one of the photographs. "How much did Hiyoko bleed after she was attacked, do you think?"

"The killer tried to clean up the blood in the arcade," Leon said. "But the stains they missed were pretty far apart. It must have been a messy wound."

"Then why isn't there more blood in this washing machine, or on the seal?" she asked. "The killer obviously didn't think to clean it, they would have found this stain."

"What are you trying to say?" Nekomaru asked.

"I'm saying, the reason there wasn't more blood in the washing machine, or between there and the murder scene, is that the killer used something to try and keep blood from getting everywhere. It didn't work perfectly. But, that's why the killer didn't notice these bloodstains. They thought they were being careful."

"What, do you think they put a bag over her head, or something?" Mondo said. "Not a bad idea, but where'd they get something like that? And where is it now?"

Mukuro had been stroking her chin, but at Mondo's words, she lifted her hand away, and looked up. "Peko," she began, "Where is your bamboo sword?"

"My, sword?" Peko glanced at Mukuro. "In my room. I stopped carrying it, after Monokuma explained the motive. It seemed pointless to remind myself of what I no longer was."

"Mukuro, what are you doing?" Chihiro asked.

But the soldier ignored him. "And the long sword bag you always carry it in. Where is that?"

"Also in my room, of course."

"Hmm." Mukuro closed her eyes. "That makes sense. But, what doesn't make sense is why you had it with you two nights ago."

Peko went still.

"Two nights ago?" Sagishi asked, banishing the silence. "Wait, that's when you broke your arm on the stairs, isn't it? What does that have to do with anything?"

"Oh, I remember, I can actually help with this." Mikan said. "Peko and Chihiro were the ones who brought Mukuro to the infirmary. They were using Peko's empty sword bag as a makeshift sling. It wasn't very effective, but it was better than nothing."

"Yes, you were quite lucky I had it," Peko said.

"I don't think luck has anything to do with this, Peko," Mukuro pressed. "The fact is, you were carrying that bag when you found the two of us, but you didn't have your sword. I just want to know why."

"I was going to use it to carry some books back with me. It seemed easier than carrying them by hand."

Mukuro glared at her for a hard moment, both women staring intently. "Hmm. Is that all it was, then."

"Why are you going after Peko?" Chihiro demanded. "She's the one who-"

"Think about what you're about to say, idiot," Mukuro grimaced. She peered at her sister, for just a second, who seemed distracted by her nails. "Peko found us on the stairs, remember? You were trying to help me get to the infirmary after I tripped, but you couldn't do it by yourself. That's all."

"That's not what Junko said," Kiyotaka said, folding his arms behind his back. "Although, I suppose she could have been lying." He tilted his head, frowning hard at Mukuro. "One of you must be. And I hate liars. I think we should clear this mess up before we move on."

"No, it was a mistake to bring this up," Mukuro said. "We're here to discuss what happened to Hiyoko. What happened to me is irrelevant."

"I don't think it is," Taka took a deep breath, and shouted, "Mukuro claims she simply fell on the stairs. But Junko told me in private that Mukuro was trying to kill her, and Junko broke her sister's arm in self-defense. One of them must be lying, and we should demand to know which one before we continue with this trial."

"Junko did what?" Ibuki called out, and several other people started shouting or asking questions.

"They're both lying!" Chihiro slammed his hands on the rail, trying to push himself up higher to be heard. "I was there, in the library! Mukuro did try to kill Junko, but Junko fought her off easily. She didn't break Mukuro's arm in self-defense. She broke it because she wanted to!"

Chihiro's claim sent shockwaves through the circle. But, Mukuro and Peko both looked uneasy... and Junko... Junko was staring directly at Chihiro, and smiling, her lips stretched wide, her chin propped on her palms. "Go on then," she taunted. "We demand to know the rest of the story, if you please."

"I, I," All eyes were on him, now. His grip on the railing kept him steady, but barely. Was this a mistake? No, and it was too late to stop if it was. "I shouted out to get Junko to stop. I, I thought she was about to kill Mukuro."

"I was, just so we're all clear on that point," Junko affirmed. "What?" She shrugged. "She came at me with a knife. That traitorous bitch had it coming. Go on, darling. You're doing great."

"She walked over towards me. And, my legs, I, I froze up." The memory loomed in Chihiro's thoughts, Junko's bloody face, the hand behind her back that must have been holding Mukuro's combat knife. "She, was going to kill me. I really thought I was about to die..."

"It was nothing personal, silly. I just didn't want a witness."

"And Peko..." Chihiro placed a hand to his chest. "Peko stopped her. She was so brave, and she showed up exactly when I needed her to." He wiped his eyes clean. "Junko knew she couldn't deal with that many witnesses. So she backed down and left. Then, Peko helped me get Mukuro to the infirmary, and took charge of getting her first aid. She, was amazing, and strong, and..." Chihiro smiled at Peko. And saw her looking back, her face locked in a rictus of horror.

Mukuro sighed. "Everything he said is true. I did try to kill my sister, and she tried to kill me. But that's not important right now. What is important is why Peko was there, at that precise moment." She glared at the swordswoman. "It was around eight fifteen at the time, correct? Why did you wait until then to go pick up some books?"

"...Why are my reading habits so important to you?" She glared at the floor, in the center of the circle. "I thought it might be nice to have something to read before going to bed. That's all."

"I'm just saying," Mukuro waved her good hand. "It's awful, convenient, isn't it? That you arrived at the precise moment to save Chihiro's life. It's almost as if you were waiting for something. Waiting, and watching. But you didn't see what you wanted, did you? You saw me."

Chihiro sensed a wave of revulsion, as Mahiru started shaking next to him. "No," She clenched her teeth, trying to calm down. "It's you, isn't it? Why, why is it you?" She pointed at Peko. "We cooked together. Just two days ago. And it was fun. I was... I was just starting to think you weren't a bad person. I wanted to forgive you." Mahiru's shoulders tensed up.

"Come to think of it," Teruteru said, "Monomaid doesn't really like people coming into her kitchen, why, she nearly jumped down my throat the first time I went in there. But, she liked you. You two were both nice to her. I'd bet mama's pudding recipe that if you went back there, even if you weren't there to help, she wouldn't say a word against it."

"That's it, isn't it?" Mukuro said. "You were in the kitchen, watching the atrium. And you saw me go past, towards the library." She closed her eyes. "I was carrying my knife pretty openly, because I wasn't being careful enough that night. You followed, didn't you? But you didn't reveal yourself, until you absolutely had to, right?"

"L, leave her alone, Mukuro!" Chihiro said. "Peko's a good person, she didn't do anything-"

"A good person?" Mahiru snarled, and pinned him with her weeping, haunted eyes. "That good person killed me, Chihiro. And I'm pretty sure she killed Hiyoko, too."

"I, but," Chihiro shook his head. "This is all just, speculation. It could have just been, a lucky miracle, that she showed up when she did."

"A lucky miracle? Ha!" Mukuro shook her head. "You're smarter than this, kid. Think about it. There were two people in the library, just like there were two people on the second floor last night. Are you going to make me draw you a diagram?"

"She, was waiting to be alone with somebody, is what you're trying to say." Chihiro said. "I, no, I won't accept that!"

"You won't, huh?" Mahiru said. "Well, maybe this will put things into perspective." She leaned into Chihiro's stand, and pointed in his face. "Who's the only person here besides Hiyoko that would have easily fit into one of those washing machines? Who here was almost alone in the library two nights ago? And who here do you think is weak enough that someone like Peko could kill them without needing her talent?"

A chill, stinging sensation ran from the top of Chihiro's head down his back. The world shifted beneath his feet, and he felt lightheaded and disjointed.

"Hey, dammit, back off." Mondo leaned towards her, both of them pushing their way into Chihiro's space. "What the hell are you trying to do?"

"I'm making him open his damn eyes," Mahiru hissed at him. "And see what kind of person she really is. The only reason Peko saved Chihiro's life is because she wanted the chance to kill him herself. She was carrying the sword bag so she could put it over your head after she cracked your skull open."

"I," Chihiro stumbled back, his legs folding beneath him. "I'm so stupid." Tears ran down his face, into his hands, and down his sleeves. "I'm such an idiot." Slowly, He dragged his way back up, leaning heavily on the stand. "Do you have anything to say, Peko? Anything at all?"

She met his gaze, only briefly. Her red eyes were dimmed with pain. Then, she looked away, towards the rest of the circle. "If you want to move on to the voting, go ahead. I'm not interested in defending my actions further. No one has produced any evidence linking me to Hiyoko's murder, all you have is speculation." She closed her eyes. "Two nights ago, I went to the library to pick up some reading material, and happened to interrupt a very dire scene. That those two," she pointed at Mukuro and Mahiru, "seem to believe this implicates me as a murderer is a fault of their judgment, not my actions. If the rest of you disagree with them, then you should continue the trial and find the real culprit."

"I'm satisfied with Mukuro's reasoning," Sayaka said.

"There's just one more thing I want to point out," Nekomaru said, rubbing his goatee. "I know Peko went to the dojo a lot to practice with her sword. The day I forgot my chain, her talent was still working. It would make sense for her to have found my chain when she went to practice. I didn't see her or anything, but it makes more sense than anything else."

"Hmm, yes, that settles it," Celestia said. "I'm prepared to vote." Several other voices chimed in with support.

"Before we conclude this trial, I'd like to take the opportunity to go over everything we know." Mahiru said. "Just in case anyone still doubts the argument we've pieced together over the course of the trial." She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. When she opened then, they were clear, and fierce. "The killer waited in the kitchen last night, until they were certain they could be alone with their victim. Only someone Monomaid likes could have waited in the kitchen without being chased out, so it limits the pool of likely suspects. After Hifumi left the second floor at around 8:30, Hiyoko entered the arcade and was alone, practicing the dancing game. The killer crept up behind her, and killed her with one or more blows to the back of the head. There may have been a short fight, but the killer overpowered her in the end."

"The weapon the killer used was the heavy chain Nekomaru usually wears around his neck. The killer swiped it from the dojo previously. During the assault, the whistle on the chain broke off."

"Once Hiyoko was dead, the killer most likely put a bag over her head to stop the bleeding while they moved the body. Although we don't know where it is, and can't be certain, Peko's sword bag would certainly be large enough, and the bag's drawstring could be tightened around her neck. The killer deposited Hiyoko's body in one of the large washing machines in the laundry room. Next, they tossed their bloodied murder weapon in through the same window they had used to spy earlier." Mahiru paused, tapping her lip. "They may have believed Monomaid would not allow just anyone into the kitchen, so it would be a safe hiding spot. Fortunately, Chihiro was able to retrieve it."

"Next, the killer tried to clean up the murder scene in the arcade. However, the lighting in there made it difficult, and the killer left traces of blood, as well as the broken whistle. They also likely returned to their room during this time, to take a shower or change clothes, if their own clothes were bloodied."

"The killer waited until the early morning hours to move the body again, because they planned to leave it somewhere it might be easily discovered. That's why they hid it in the washing machine at first, so it would be less obvious. When the time was right, the killer moved the body to the balcony seal, positioning it so that it would plummet into the fountain when the seal opened up at 6 AM."

"They did this to inflict additional trauma, so that the precise time and cause of death would be unclear, making the case harder to unravel. Their plan was actually very clever, and we might not have seen through it. However, we have reason to believe Peko tried to enact a very similar plan the night before. Her intended victim that night was Chihiro, but she got drawn into another incident and had to abandon her murderous scheme."

"Because of the similarities between Peko's actions that night, and the killer's actions last night, as well as the killer's access to the kitchen, the sword bag, and the heavy chain, it is my belief that Hiyoko's killer can only be," Mahiru pointed, "you, Peko Pekoyama!"

"And that's my cue!" Monokuma stood up, and put his hands behind his back. "In a few moments, you will vote to decide who you believe is the blackened responsible for the death of Hiyoko Salonji. If the majority of you vote correctly, the blackened will be punished. Otherwise, the blackened will be returned to the world of the living, according to the conditions of my game, and the rest of you will be punished. Remember, if you refuse to vote, you will also be punished." Panels in front of everyone's feet slid open, and the voting devices arose from beneath the floor. "Good luck!"

Chihiro stared at the array of names, his hand hovering over the button next to Peko's. He knew that Mahiru was right, he knew on some level that she was guilty. But, in his heart, he wished she was wrong. He wanted to believe in the Peko who had saved him. But that Peko, the one who might have been his friend, didn't exist. He closed his eyes and slammed his hand down on the button.

The voting devices retracted beneath the floor. "That was a close call!" Monokuma said. "One of you almost waited too long. Give me a moment to tally the votes... and, yes, we have a winner! Peko Pekoyama is the student most of you selected as the blackened." He rubbed his paws together. "Now, please turn your attention to the monitor on the wall!"

They did so, though Chihiro noticed that Peko made no effort to turn around. Her eyes were closed, and her head was bowed. He watched her instead of the slot machine graphic, trying to read her stance. When the slot machine chimed in victory, he looked up at the monitor, and saw a face with braided grey hair, red eyes, and glasses.

"Congratulations everyone!" Monokuma cheered. "Most of you will get to leave this trial alive. Peko Pekoyama is indeed the blackened. If you have anything you'd dearly like to say to her, now is the time."

"Why did you do it, Peko?" Mahiru demanded, pounding on the railing. "Why is Hiyoko dead?"

"Because she made herself vulnerable." Peko's eyes flashed open. "In a situation like this, it is foolish for someone as frail as her to go off by themselves. It... it is the same reason I would have killed Chihiro, if I had found him alone two nights ago." Chihiro's shoulders unclenched, and he felt a great weight settle into his stomach. "I saved him instead, because I could not allow anyone else to become the blackened. I bore neither Chihiro nor Hiyoko any malice. Nor did I bear any towards you, when I took your life, Mahiru. All three of you are fools that made yourselves easy targets."

"So Leon was correct, then." Sagishi said. "You didn't kill Hiyoko to steal her talent. It would make no sense for you to consider other victims, otherwise. Would you care to explain your reasoning, then? Why was it so important for you to be the blackened that you intervened to save someone else, someone you yourself intended to kill?"

Peko sighed. "What was it like, for the rest of you, when you realized your talent was gone? A few of you, like Leon and Celestia, took it in stride. But the rest of you?" She shook her head. "It was devastating for me. I've been trained since infancy in the deadly arts, and I took great pride in my skills. I was raised with a singular purpose, to be a tool of the Kuzuryu clan, the personal bodyguard and assassin of its heir. My talent defined everything about who I had to be."

She ran her hand across her nose. Was she, crying? "But then, I cooked lunch for all of you, with Teruteru and Mahiru. And I discovered something. I discovered that I could make people happy. For the first time in my life, I did something because I wanted to, rather than because it was demanded by those who controlled my entire life. I found joy in the simple act of cooking, and in seeing everyone happy. I remembered how to smile, without having to struggle. Later, I would discover that Chihiro was no longer afraid of me, that the awful aura of menace I carried had vanished with my sword skills."

"And I knew, right then in the diner, that this is how I wanted to return to the world. That if it really was possible for me to live again, I wanted to live not as the Ultimate Swordswoman, but as simply Peko Pekoyama. I would no longer be the tool of my masters, but a person who could stand beside Fuyuhiko as an equal. So I summoned Monokuma, and we made a deal."

"You made a deal, with the mastermind?" Celestia fumed. "Of all the dirty tricks. Monokuma, you never said we could make private deals with you."

"I never said you couldn't, stupid. It's not my fault you have the imagination of a roulette wheel." Monokuma rubbed his paws together, shaking with glee. "I have to admit, though, I never expected Peko's request. But she called out to me in the privacy of her room, and I came. She begged me not to give her her talent back after the next trial was over, but I told her there was only one way she could get what she wanted."

"I had to become the blackened and graduate," Peko finished. "It was... the only way I could live the way I wanted." She held a hand to her chest, and failed to hold back her tears.

"You, you didn't have to," Chihiro said. "When we beat Monokuma, we could figure out how to keep you from getting your talent back. Or, we could have been friends. We could have all helped you learn to be the person you wanted to be, whether you had your talent or not."

Peko smiled. "Even now, you would talk to me like that? Knowing that I was never your friend?" She laughed, if a sound that heartbroken could be called a laugh. "Do you know how much blood is on my hands? I don't. It gets easier if you don't count. Rivals from other clans, Kuzuryu rebels, hired thugs, police, professional assassins, bereaved relatives, innocent witnesses... I've killed them all. And I did it without regrets, because that's what I was trained to be. It is the only life I was ever allowed, the only life I ever saw ahead of me. Is that the kind of person you want to be friends with? A cold-blooded killer?"

"If you didn't want to be that person anymore, if you really wanted to change, then yes." Chihiro said, his forearms shaking. "I can't hate you for what you were raised to be."

"But I can hate you just fine for what you've done now," Mahiru spat. "You killed my friend, and more than that, you tried to kill all of us, by dragging us into this trial, all for your own selfish reasons." Her face was bright red, her teeth grinding. "You think you could be a better person, a gentler person because your talent is gone? Bullshit. You're still a killer at heart. Hiyoko's gone and she's not coming back this time. Your plan failed, and the rest of us have to move forward without her. Do you have anything to say about that?"

Peko took a deep breath, and faced Mahiru. "When you know what it means to take a life, you weigh it differently. Though my skills are gone, I have not forgotten those lessons. And though my plan failed, I will face my second death without regrets. For once in my existence, I killed to serve myself, and no one else. I am no one's sword, but mine."

Mahiru's fist tightened, and she slammed it into the railing. "Fine then, go to hell," she whispered. Then, she shouted, "What do you say, Monokuma? Let's give it everything we've got. It's punishment time!"

"Oh come on!" the bear whined. "I don't like this gag of you guys stealing my best line. Cut it out!" The big red button rose up from the floor in front of the throne, and he raised his gavel. Chihiro watched Peko, in the last moments before he hit the button. She closed her eyes, and breathed evenly. But her lips trembled, and her shoulders tensed up as the gavel struck the button. Then, the floor beneath her feet opened up, and her shackles released, just as they had for Nagito. Peko plummeted from sight.

Sixteen pairs of eyes tracked over to the monitor. The pixelated Peko was dragged away, and the scene opened on a darkened warehouse. Peko stood alone, beneath a shaky light hanging above. She carried a sword, a real one. Scattered around her were crates and wooden pallets, a forklift and oil drum. The swordswoman stepped forward cautiously. The camera caught movement behind her, as a shadowy figure holding a sword moved around on the crates. Peko spun, and raised her sword in a shaky hand. The shadowy figure leapt down, landing in front of her. It was the same height as Peko, dressed in a matching black and green uniform. But, when it's face turned towards the camera, it bore a flat, lifeless cartoon face, a cherubic mask with blonde hair, a tiara, and wide, sparkling eyes.

The screen flashed black, and the title "The Revenge Of Sparkling Justice" appeared. When the scene reappeared, the camera had moved to capture Peko's wide, red eyes and shaking wrist. The masked figure moved slowly, and then lashed out with its blade. Peko blocked, but barely kept from losing her sword. The figure pressed forward, slashing with lazy swipes. But Peko's talent had abandoned her, and she could do little but block and give ground. The shadowy figure lurched forward, and chopped viciously. Peko shouted, and this time was not able to hold her sword as it was knocked from her hand. It clattered against the ground and skittered away. Peko ran, and her doppelganger followed.

She grabbed a steel folding chair, and swung it around, slamming it into her attacker's face. The mask cracked, splintering, then fell away in pieces. Beneath it, the figure wore the face of a boy Chihiro did not recognize, but could guess. He had a blonde buzzcut, and one eye was gouged out, leaking blood down his cheek. His face was wracked with sorrow, and Peko froze when she saw it.

And the monster that wore Fuyuhiko's face impaled her, through the chest and out her back. It was over quick. The monster withdrew its bloody sword and Peko crumpled to the floor, on her back, bright pink blood pooling from both wounds. She reached one arm out, for someone who was not there, and the light faded from her eyes. The scene dimmed, and the survivors stood in their circle, reeling with despair.

“W, w, w, what in grandmama’s jambalaya was that thing?” Teruteru cried out.

"Constructing a shadowy fiend that wears the false face of a loved one," Gundham said. "Even for you, that's low."

"I don't know, I think there's a certain, poetry to these things, heheheh," Monokuma said. "What do you all think? Do you think she wished for her talent back, there at the end? Maybe it could have been a pretty cool fight scene, don't you think?"

"Is this what you do down here?" Monomaid cried out. "I, I can't believe it, that's so cruel. I don't want any more part of your schemes!"

"Hey, shut up!" Monokuma yelled. "You're just a dumb rabbit, you got that? Lucky I let you help out at all. Besides, I didn't make her kill anybody. Is it my fault you kids are so bloodthirsty and stupid?"

"She got what she deserved," Mahiru said. "Are you going to let us out of here, or not?"

"Oh, sure, heheheh." Monokuma pushed a hidden button, and the shackles released and the gates unlocked. "Everyone will get their talents back tonight, while you're asleep. And don't try to stay up to catch me, it won't work. Not that they'll do you much good, puhuhu. I'll be seeing you all down here again, real soon."

Mahiru stumbled out of the railing and drug herself towards the elevator. Ibuki ran over, but before she could get a word out, Mahiru held up her hand. "Not now, Ibuki."

"Mahiru, wait." Taka called out, quickly walking towards her. "I know what it's like to lose someone important to you in one of these games. Please, don't,"

"Will everybody leave me the hell alone?" she demanded. Taka and Ibuki recoiled, as did Chihiro. He thought he was the last person Mahiru would want to talk to, right now.

"Let her go," Mondo said, putting a hand on Taka's shoulder. "She's mad at a lot of people right now, but she's mad at herself, too."

"Yeah, well, she'd better get over it," Mukuro said, loudly. "She'll be the next one to die. I told you, you can't hold on to anything in here."

"Why do you always feel like you need to butt in with that kind of shit?" Mondo demanded. "Everybody already feels like crap."

Mukuro's brow furrowed, as she stared him down. Then, Mikan walked up beside her. "Um, Mukuro, I'll take you back to the infirmary. You probably need another dose of painkillers, right?"

"Yeah," she shook her head. "Yeah, whatever."

“Excuse me, Mr. Oowada,” said a small voice, down near everyone’s knees. Mondo looked down, to see Monomaid tugging on his pant leg. “You are carrying some important evidence, Monokuma told me I need to file that away for later.”

“What the hell?” Mondo muttered. He dug up the whistle and Nekomaru’s chain. “This what you’re talkin’ about? Nidai, you got any problem with that?”

“Are you crazy?” he said, “I don’t want to ever see that chain again.” Mondo handed the items over and, Monomaid nodded her head before dashing away.

After that, everyone filtered back into the elevator, their heads bowed in thought or despair. Chihiro stood next to Mondo, watching everyone as the rickety lift ascended towards the world above. More people were standing alone, this time. Everyone looked anxious, or lost. Except for Mukuro and Mahiru, who just looked angry. And Junko. Junko was smiling.

When the elevator released them back into the dark hallway and then the first floor atrium, Chihiro made his way back to his room. His head felt heavy, so he lay down. After a few minutes, he got up, and switched on the light. He scanned the floor, but didn't see what he was looking for. He checked under the bed and in the dresser, but it wasn't there. He sighed, sat down on the bed, and stared up at the ceiling. Monomaid probably came by to clean the rooms when no one was in them. She would surely destroy any trash she found. He closed his eyes, and tried to remember what it looked like, when he'd danced with Hiyoko.

Chapter Text

Mahiru wasn’t at dinner that evening. People ate to fill the silence, as much as to fill their bellies. Everything Chihiro tried to eat tasted like ash, but he ate anyway. Everybody was waiting for something, and when it came, they were still surprised.

Monokuma walked into the banquet hall, humming to himself. He filled up a plate with fish and buttered rolls, and took the empty seat next to Chihiro. “Wow, I’ve been to funerals more fun than you kids right now. Why so glum?”

“You’re here to tell us another area is opening up, right?” Nekomaru said, folding his arms. “Well, do it and get lost.’

“Hey, are you really going to tell a host he can’t eat at his own table? That is a whole new level of poor hospitality.” He tossed a piece of grilled salmon into the air, and caught it in his mouth. “I did come to tell you about the new area you’ll be able to access tomorrow, though. You’ve probably already guessed, it’s the stairs leading down from the first-floor atrium. I put a lot of fun stuff down there, so you’d better show some gratitude.”

“We don’t need fun stuff, you tacky mascot.” Celestia said. “We need a way out of here, or knowledge about where we are. I don’t feel like we’ve really gotten anywhere since the first trial.”

“Actually, I did find something promising,” Chihiro said. “Remember before, when we talked about the chance that this might be a virtual world?” A few people nodded. “Well, I found a very strange book in the library. It was written by someone with the Future Foundation, whatever that is.”

“The Future Foundation?” Nekomaru said. “Those guys again? I’m pretty sure they’re the ones who had us trapped the first time. I’m not sure I trust anything written by them.”

“Oh, but if it’s true, it would mean these killing games aren’t real, and we might all be able to escape.” Chihiro found himself grinning, thinking about the theories he’d read about in that book. “The author was a brilliant programmer, and they were writing about all kinds of new uses for virtual reality tech. They even wrote about how to integrate it directly with the human nervous system, which would make it much more immersive.”

“Is that for real?” Leon asked. “Wow.” He shook his head. “So, you’re saying, we could all go home. And, that means none of us ever really killed anybody, right?”

“Hey, yeah,” Teruteru said. “Of course we didn’t. The whole thing’s crazy, right? I could never kill anyone. Not, not in a real world, that is.”

“I, I guess not. It’s not a murder if it never really happened, right?” Chihiro said, glancing at Mondo.

He stopped chewing, for a moment, and swallowed his steak. “That’s not how I see it. Whether the world is real or not, our actions in it are. You can’t try and erase your guilt by saying it didn’t happen. I know what I did. And I know it was wrong. You guys shouldn’t try to hide from your mistakes.”

“I, yeah.” Leon scowled. “Yeah, man, I hear what you’re saying. If you can do it, I’ve got no excuse. So, how about it, Sayaka?” He closed his eyes, and sighed. “You can still hate me if you want, but I really do regret what I did. I’m sorry I killed you.”

Chihiro turned to see Sayaka’s reaction. Her fork tapped against her plate, her eyes were wide, and her face pale. She swallowed whatever food was in her mouth. “Th, thank you, Leon. I’m, going to try to forgive you.”

“Try? Is that all you’ve got to say?” Leon said. “Alright. I guess that’s the best I’m going to get out of you.”

“Hey, I’m sorry too!” Teruteru said. “Of course, Sagishi already forgave me, but I figured I should get that out there. So, uh, where’s this book of yours, Chihiro?”

“Oh,” the horrible memories of that night flashed through his mind again. “Oh, no. I just remembered. I dropped it when I tried to confront Junko. It’s probably still in the library, though.”

“Nope!” Monokuma bit into a heavily buttered biscuit. While he chewed, he said, “That book wasn’t supposed to be in there, anyway. So I burned it.”

“You burned it!” Chihiro cried out, and barely resisted the urge to punch the bear. “But, but that means it has to have been important, right? Tell us, are we in a virtual world controlled by the Future Foundation?”

“Huh, if you want to believe that, it’s on you.” Monokuma said. "But I made damn sure those pesky meddlers from the Future Foundation couldn't interfere in my game this time, hehe. Their stupid, drooling mole didn't get in, either. You kids are totally under my control this time, and I’ve got so many more fun things planned for all of you.”

“Who is behind this, then, if it’s not the Future Foundation?” Gundham asked. “What foul purpose do you serve, Monokuma?”

“Hey, maybe I serve my own purpose, you ever think of that?” The bear giggled. “Maybe I just like watching you kids suffer. Maybe I just like seeing you try so hard just to fail.”

“So you are a demon lord of the abyss,” Gundham said. “I wonder, is this your true form? Or can you become something more ferocious?”

“Hey, I’m plenty ferocious!” Monokuma held up his paws and shook his head, growling “Grrrrrr” as he did so. “Come on, you want to try me, Tanaka?”

“Hmph,” he clenched his fists. “Maybe later.”

“It’s obviously a puppet, for someone else,” Celestia said. “The notion that this thing could be acting of its own accord is absurd. So, we should ask ourselves, who is holding the strings?”

“Maybe, maybe it’s one of the students that isn’t here?” Hifumi said. “I’ll bet it’s Mr. Togami. The real one, not Sagishi. He was always a big jerk. Oh, or Genocide Jill!”

“Jill?” Chihiro said, “You mean, Genocide Jack, right? That famous serial killer? I remember suggesting that once, it could be him.”

“Um,” Taka said, glancing down.

“Don’t tell me you actually believe in that ridiculous urban legend?” Sagishi said.

Mondo folded his arms. “Yeah, so here’s the thing. Genocide Jill is real enough. A few of us have met her. Leon, Chihiro, do you remember Toko?”

“What?” Leon said. “I don’t think, oh wait. Was she that annoying writer girl? The one with the glasses?”

“The Ultimate Writing Prodigy, Toko Fukuwa,” Taka recited. “It was revealed during the trial after Chihiro’s murder that she carried a second identity, that of Genocide Jack, the infamous serial killer. Byakuya attempted to frame her for Chihiro’s murder, though…” Taka looked ill.

“The truth came out in the end,” Celestia continued for him, “That neither Byakuya nor Toko were responsible for Chihiro’s death. Though, ever after that, we knew we had a deranged killer in our midst.”

Chihiro’s spine tingled. “W, wait, Toko was… oh, god.” Chihiro shrank down, putting his hands against his head and shaking. Genocide Jack, the infamous serial killer that targeted cute boys, had been right there in Hope’s Peak. And she was known to target cross-dressers. If he really had gotten the chance to tell everyone his secret, she would have killed him anyway. There was never any chance that he could have survived the killing game.

“Whoa, that’s crazy,” Ibuki said. “Ibuki is sure glad we didn’t have any deranged killers in our game.” Next to her, Mikan hiccuped and started chugging from her water glass.

“Now that you bring it up, it’s strange, isn’t it?” Hifumi said. “Toko isn’t here with us. Do you really think she survived the game?”

“Someone as unstable as that?” Celestia said. “Seems unlikely. If she didn’t snap and kill someone, someone else probably would have killed her out of fear.” She squinted. “Though, if she was controlling our killing game in secret, she could be doing the same thing now.”

“There’s another possibility I want to bring up,” Taka said. “Because there is someone from our game that we know nothing about. And she’s been the cause of a lot of problems since this game started. So, what do you have to say, mastermind Mukuro Ikusaba?”

Mukuro dropped her fork, and it clattered against her plate. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She shook her head. “I don’t have what it takes to be a mastermind, idiot.”

“You know more than you’re telling us, I’m sure of that,” Taka said. “You said your memories weren’t wiped properly, could that be because you never wiped them? Even if you aren’t the mastermind, you should be able to tell us more about who is.”

“What the,” she shook her head. “…Alright, you want to know the truth? You caught me in a lie, are you proud of yourself?” A wicked grin spread across her face, and she held her good hand up to her eyes, staring at the rest of the students through her fingers. “It was me. I masterminded the killing school life.” She laughed like a broken bellows. “I kidnapped your friends and relatives, uncovered your secrets, and tested the limits of your greed. I even killed my own useless sister as an example to all of you. I led you all down the path of despair.”

Faces went pale shook around the table. "It's true, isn’t it?" Celestia said. "If you really died before the game began, you wouldn't know about all those motives..."

“You,” Sayaka choked out. “You monster! This… everything is your fault!”

“Now, now, my dear classmates,” Mukuro chided. “I just led you to the edge of the abyss. You are the ones that jumped in.”

“What, nnngh,” Mondo clenched his fist. “What was the fucking point of all that shit, huh? What did you do to us?”

“You ultimate brats have it far too good,” Mukuro shot back. “I just wanted to bring a little reality to your lives, wanted you to know what it’s like to be desperate and afraid, like I was growing up.” She pressed her unbroken hand against her chest, and swayed gently. “You can’t imagine how it felt, to watch you squirm under my boot, hahaha.”

“Junko, did you know anything about this?” Hifumi sputtered. “Your sister is crazy!”

Junko pushed a pile of food around on her plate. “I was always scared of her, she was always like this.” Her eyes watered. “Once I realized what was going on, I tried to protect you from her, but, she, she…” She burst into tears. "And then, and then she tried to kill me again a few days ago... I just... she scares me so much."

Chihiro stared in bafflement. He knew, now, what Mukuro had wanted to keep from him. He met her eyes, and saw that she was staring at him, too. He couldn’t fathom her reasons for doing this, but he decided not to push them. “Are you telling us all this now, because you aren’t the mastermind anymore?”

She sighed, “Yeah, you got it. This time, I’m just another ultimate, thrown into the killing game to be tested with the rest of you.” She shrugged, with one arm. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you who the mastermind is, now. That’s not my Monokuma.” The bear in question leaned back in his chair, eating a brownie.

“Maybe it’s the mastermind from our game?” Nekomaru suggested. “Does anybody know who that was?”

“Nagito Komaeda,” said Gundham. "It would explain his lies about how he died. Hmm."

“Yeah, definitely Nagito,” agreed Teruteru.

Ibuki’s head bobbed up and down. “Yep yep, Nagito, has to be. And he’s already dead, so I guess he’s not the mastermind this time.” She tugged at her lip with one finger. "So, uh, who is it?"

"Is it possible it's one of us?" Celestia asked. "Mukuro controlled things from behind the scenes, but from the sound of things, your Nagito was in the middle of the game, acting directly. Is the current mastermind doing the same thing?"

"Well, it's probably you," Hifumi muttered. "You're cruel enough."

"Silence your idiot tongue," Celestia said. Her red eyes narrowed. "It could still be Mukuro."

"Yeah, I'm the mastermind," Mukuro said. "That's why I got my arm broken trying to kill somebody. To lull you all into a false sense of security. Come on, you can do better than that."

Sagishi stood up. "This is a dangerous line of questioning, it's only going to spread paranoia. For now, we need to assume whoever controlling us is an outside force. If we get suspicious of each other, it will lead to disaster." He glared at Mukuro. "You, on the other hand... You've freely admitted to masterminding one of these killing games yourself. I don't know what madness drives you, but we're going to keep a closer eye on you, understand?"

Mukuro sighed, rested her face in her left hand. "Yeah, sure. Keep your watch. It's not like I bothered pretending to be your friend in the first place." She pushed her chair back, standing up. "I'm going to bed, before you kids drive yourselves insane."

"Wait, don't you need to rest in the infirmary some more?" Mikan begged, following after her. "I'll get you some more painkillers..."

"Stay the fuck away from me," Mukuro called back. "I'll take care of myself, got it?"

Mikan slowed to a stop, holding out one hand towards her. She was standing near enough to Chihiro that he could hear her whispering, "You… you would turn your back on me?”

Everyone started to leave after that, hurrying back to their rooms, fleeing from the disturbing topic of the mastermind.

“Ibuki, wait!” Chihiro called out.

She came to a stop, her hands fidgeting. “Huh? What is it?”

“Would you take a plate of food to Mahiru?” He closed his eyes, wincing. “I, don’t think she wants to see me right now, but I’m worried about her. Just, leave it next to her door, if she won’t answer, ok?”

“Hey, yeah, Ibuki thinks that’s a good idea.” She nodded, and headed to the buffet. Chihiro's shoulders sagged. It was more than enough, for one day. As he headed back towards his room, he turned back, one last time. Monokuma was still seated, propping his feet up on the abandoned banquet table. He turned to look at Chihiro, and terror stabbed through his chest. He scurried back to his room.

Chapter Text

The next morning, as soon as he woke up, Chihiro tried to run through a programming problem in his mind. And he felt it, he felt his prodigious mind whirring, solving the puzzle he gave it with ease. His talent was restored, and it felt like it never left. Now, if only he could find something he could actually use it for…

But there was a whole new floor to explore, down below. Maybe he would find some computers there. Though, he did wonder if the mastermind avoided putting computers in their castle, just so he couldn’t try to do anything with them. If that was the case, he might be out of luck, he’d have to find some other way to help everyone.

He went to breakfast. He was running a little late, several people had probably eaten and headed downstairs. But, while he was eating his bacon, Kiyotaka came up behind him, and coughed loudly. Chihiro swallowed what he was chewing, and turned around. “Yes?”

Taka’s gaze was cast downwards, and his lips curled. Without saying a word, he got down on his knees, and placed his forehead against the floor, at Chihiro’s feet. “I’m so, so sorry. I can’t, I don’t deserve to ask your forgiveness, but I’m doing it anyway. I can’t apologize enough for what happened.”

“Oh, Taka,” Chihiro flustered. “You don’t, you don’t have to,”

“I do, Chihiro, I do.” He shook his head, rubbing his forehead against the tile. “Now that my talent has returned to me, I can see clearly how horrible my actions were. I,” His back arched, and he choked on a sob. “Even after Monokuma explained the motive, I tried to behave like I was myself. I tried to take the responsibility of being the Ultimate Moral Compass, though now I question whether I ever had the right to be called that.”

“Taka, please, get up.” Chihiro said. “I know that wasn’t the real you. You did, hurt me, but I’m just glad things didn’t get worse. I’m just glad both of us are still here.” Both of them stood up. “Why don’t we go check out the lower floor together? You’re still my friend, Taka. If you weren’t, I wouldn’t have been so scared of what you might have done.”

“If, if you still feel safe spending time with me, I’d be honored to go with you.” Taka smiled, weakly. “Thank you.”

As they walked towards the stairs, Chihiro said, “You know, if you weren’t really the Ultimate Moral Compass, the motive wouldn’t have affected you that much. It’s because you do have such a strong sense of justice that you were so different without it. And, in the end, you didn’t kill anyone. You didn’t… break anything that can’t be fixed.” Chihiro rubbed the goose egg on his head. “It still, hurts, but I’m glad I was there. I’m glad you didn’t kill Mukuro.”

Taka stopped, near one of the benches in the atrium, and moved to sit down. Chihiro followed. “You are, sweet to say that, but,” he shook his head. “This is far from the first time I’ve let myself down.” He groaned. “I don’t really like to think of myself as having an ultimate talent. Not like you or most of the others. I’m not, exceptional. That’s kind of the point, I don’t want to be. I just want to work hard and be someone everyone can look to for guidance. I want to be a better leader than my grandfather. But, ever since these killing games started, I’ve only been letting people down.”

“What? No, it’s not your fault,”

“Let me finish, please. In our game I tried to keep everyone motivated and united. But, murders still happened. First, Leon killed Sayaka, and then,” he took a deep breath, “And then Mondo killed you. I’d placed so much trust in him, so much faith in my new friend, and after both of you died, I just, I just shattered.” He closed his eyes. “I wasn’t leading anyone, at that point. I was already dead, I just hadn’t stopped moving. Of course Celestia saw an opportunity, of course she used me. That’s all I was good for, at that point. Just, someone’s ticket to try and win the game.”

“And then, I wake up here. And you and Mondo are both back, and at first it feels like waking up from a nightmare. I’m just so happy that I don’t even care that we’re all still in danger.” He pressed a palm over his eyes. “But I still wasn’t taking care of myself. And Nagito tricked me. Then, this last motive happened, and I was too proud to realize I wasn’t myself anymore. And Junko used me, and I hurt you, I could have killed you. I’m supposed to be a leader, I’m supposed to be someone everyone can believe in, but I’m just, too unreliable. I’ve failed too many times.”

“But,” Chihiro plead, “But you aren’t going to give up, right?"

"I," Tears welled up in his eyes. "Maybe I should. Maybe I should learn to keep quiet and stay out of the way. Let you ultimates handle things."

"But you can't," Chihiro protested. "I, I believe in you. I admire your strength. It's," Chihiro paused. "Seeing the friendship between you and Mondo, seeing how strong both of you were, in different ways, made me want to be strong, too. It's because I believed in you that I wanted to change. I needed that."

"But we both let you down." Taka shook his head. "The strength you believed in, it's not real, Chihiro. You should find someone else to believe in."

"Maybe, maybe I will. But, I'm not giving up on you. Listen, you haven't given up on Mondo, right?"

"To tell you the truth, I don't think I've taken the time to face the reality of what he did." Taka bowed his head. "Once I was back with both of you, I think I decided it didn't matter. But, it does, doesn't it? He said so himself last night. My best friend is a murderer. And I don't know how to deal with that."

"It's, a lot, I know." Chihiro shivered. "But, we all have a chance to grow. I want to do better, and I want him to do better, too. And I know he wouldn't give up on either of us. So, maybe you guys aren't as strong as I thought you were. But, if you support each other, I think you can be stronger."

Taka closed his eyes, and let out a sigh. "Alright. Let's go." The pair made their way downstairs, where they emerged into a third atrium, this time lit with blue, flickering flames along the walls. A massive cylindrical stone structure dominated the center of the floor, the lower part of the fountain and the passage to the courtroom. And, like the previous floors, there were four new areas to explore.

Taka pointed to the area on the left, nearer the stairs, and Chihiro nodded in agreement. A glass door and windows let them see into an indoor pool area. The door slid open, and the two stepped inside. The sterile scent of chlorine stung Chihiro’s nose. A sizable pool stretched out ahead of them, complete with a high dive, a waterslide, and lifeguard stations. Bathrooms and changing areas were along the right wall, next to a door that read POOL SUPPLIES. A swinging door with a porthole window led into the next area. There was also a hot tub available, and Taka’s eyes were drawn to it. “Wow, this looks, really nice, actually. Maybe we could all use a break.”

“I, uh, I guess,” Chihiro stared at the ground, blushing. He’d never really figured out how to handle himself at the pool. “It could be fun.”

A surprising whistle alarmed both of them, and they turned to see Teruteru standing behind them. “Oh, this is gone be more than fun, I think. Man, I can’t wait to get everybody down here. I’ll bet Junko looks real good in a bathing suit, heheheh.”

“You,” Taka’s eyebrows flared. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. The way you talk about women is completely disrespectful, and if you don’t,”

“Oh, you should hear some of the things I say about men, Mr. Ishimaru.” Teruteru’s eyes tracked up and down Taka, as he stroked his chin and grinned. “You know, I never really thought about it before, but your uniform, well, it does things for me, you know? So sharp, and stern. Makes me feel like I ought to be punished. What do you say?”

“What, you,” Taka waved his arms about in front of him, as he stumbled through several attempts at syllables.

“Oh, wait, you and that Mondo guy are kind of a thing, right? Wouldn’t want to ruin something like that. So, tell me, how is it?”

“How is what?” Taka sneered. “What are you implying?”

“Come on now, even you can’t be that stupid,” Teruteru shrugged. “You guys are sleeping together, right?”

“Teruteru, please stop,” Chihiro begged. “Can’t you tell he’s uncomfortable?”

“Oh, hey, do they ever invite you to join in?” He asked.

“W, what?” Chihiro and Taka said in unison.

“Well, you and Mondo seem to be pretty close. And seeing the two of you together, well, it just makes sense to me.”

Chihiro closed his eyes. “That’s, not, we don’t have that kind of,”

“I’ve heard just about enough from you,” Taka reached down and grabbed the collar of Teruteru’s white chef’s shirt. “Just what do you think you’re doing, by talking to people like this? You can’t possibly believe anyone likes hearing your juvenile perversions, can you?”

“Hey, hey,” he held up his hands. “I struck a nerve, I’ll back off.” Taka let him go, and he brushed off his shirt. “Both of you need to let off some tension, though. I’d recommend the hot tub. Maybe, when no one else is around, heheh?”

“You’re still doing it,” Taka said. “What’s the point of this?”

“You really want to know?” Teruteru quirked an eyebrow.

“I might regret this, but yes,” Taka answered.

“It’s ‘cause I’m scared.”

“You’re,” Chihiro started, “Wait, you’re scared?”

“Of course I’m scared,” Teruteru shrugged. “I’d be an idiot not to be. We’re in a crazy situation, a crazy deadly situation. We’ve already seen two murders, any one of us could die tomorrow.” He shook his head, his elation constricting into a sicky frown. “Of course, I don’t want to give up. I want to believe we can all get through this, but, truth is, I’m terrified. There’s only two things that keep me from completely losing it. One, is cooking, of course. Nothing makes me feel more at home or more a part of the group than cooking for everyone. The other, is saying whatever crosses my mind without filtering it. I can’t think about dying if I’m thinking about having some fun, can I? And let’s face it, you weren’t thinking about dying, either, till you made me explain myself.”

Both Taka and Chihiro froze. “I, I kind of hate that you explained it in a way that makes sense.” Taka folded his arms. “But, you still need to learn to respect people’s boundaries. This kind of behavior isn’t going to make you any friends, you know.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of what Celestia says, too,” he rubbed at a spot on his forehead. “Only, she sometimes says it with that big ring of hers.”

“She hits you?” Chihiro said. “She, she shouldn’t do that.”

“Eh, only a couple of times. Besides, I am getting better at watching my tongue. You two are just so squeaky clean, though, I guess I couldn’t resist.” He sighed, “But, I’ve had my fun, and you made it pretty clear you don’t care for it, I’ll back off. I do think we could all use a good time, though. Maybe this pool is exactly what we need.” He turned to go. “Think about what I said, yeah? It’s rude to leave a friend out.”

“Leave us alone, you childish reprobate!” Taka said, to the sound of a closing door. He took a moment to compose himself, then looked over towards Chihiro. “You, uh, don’t want to join in, do you?”

“What?” Chihiro covered his mouth.

“I, I mean, we’ve never really talked about it, but,”

“No, no, I hadn’t thought either,”

“I’m sure if you wanted to, he would like it,”

“Wait, so you two really are,”

“Yeah, a couple of times,”

“I didn’t realize,”

“It’s okay if you don’t want to,”

“I’m, not really interested in that sort of,”

“I’ve always felt the best way to really know a man is to be completely exposed together.” Taka blinked. “I just, said all of that out loud didn’t I?”

“Umm, yeah.” Chihiro kicked at one of his shoes. “Yeah.”

Taka buried his face in his palm. “Blast it, Teruteru. Just, um, I’m sorry, ok?”

“Um, it’s fine,” Chihiro said. “You two do mean a lot to me… Maybe if we weren’t in this mess…” He shook his head, and his shoulders tensed up. He walked towards the exit. “There’s, more to explore, right? Why don’t we get going?”

“Eh? Oh!” He started walking to. “Yes, let’s, let’s explore. Right.” They passed through the atrium to the storefront on the left of the pool. Bouncy dance music played from within, and a large sign in red letters read “Junko’s.” A big pink wig adorned the J, and Chihiro shivered. Inside, more Junko branding assaulted his eyes from every angle: shelves of Junko brand cosmetics, signed prints of the Ultimate Fashionista, and neon lights flashed smiling images of her from the walls. A counter on their right had a bell that could be rung for service and a pixelated image of Monomaid adorned the front of it. Past the cosmetics section, racks and racks of clothes stretched towards the distant back of the store.

Despite the obnoxious amount of Junko, Chihiro’s footsteps lightened and he led Taka into the forest of clothing racks. “This is, wow, it’s amazing what they have here,” he said. “I, I can’t believe it.”

“Oh, do you want to change up your look, now that you’ve told everyone your secret?” Taka put his hands on his hips. “I would be happy to help you pick out a new outfit!”

“It’s been forever since I’ve really thought about wearing something new,” Chihiro said. “I didn’t want to draw attention, so I didn’t think too hard about fashion. I usually just, stick to basic girl’s clothes.”

“I’ll help you find an outfit fitting for such a bright young man,” Taka announced, “Let’s go!” The two combed through racks of clothes. Junko’s really had everything: street clothes, formal wear, bathing suits, school uniforms, colorful wigs, shoes, professional clothes, and more. Even better, the size range was truly impressive. Nothing really seemed to appeal to Taka, however, until he found a white school uniform shirt with a stiff collar and matching pants. He held it out to Chihiro triumphantly. “It’s perfect, what do you think?”

“Um,” Chihiro rubbed his arm. “That’s, your uniform, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” he turned it around and looked at it again. “Oh, I suppose it is. You can’t improve on perfection, though. What do you say, we’d look like brothers!”

“Hehe… heh.” Chihiro tried to force a smile. “Uh, thanks, but I think I’ll need to look on my own. Or maybe, someone with a more… diverse sense of fashion could help me out.”

“Oh, I get it,” Taka nodded. “It wouldn’t do for you to just copy me.”

“Well, I should say not!” a high, lilting voice interrupted them. “What do you mean by pushing such a bland outfit on someone newly trying to express themselves?” Taka and Chihiro both turned, jaws dropping in surprise. A beautiful, blonde haired girl wearing a black dress with a jeweled brooch on her chest and a black ribbon in her hair had emerged from the sea of clothes. “Really, now, if your own tastes are so pedestrian, then perhaps you should leave matters of fashion to others.”

“Um, uh,” Taka stuttered. “Who, are you, miss?”

“Oh my goodness,” she flushed. “How rude of me. My name is Sonia Nevermind, princess of the small European country of Novoselic.” She smiled sweetly. “It is an honor to meet you both.”

“Erm,” Kiyotaka snapped to attention, and bowed stiffly. “It is an honor, Princess Sonia. I had no idea I was in the presence of royalty. My name is Kiyotaka Ishimaru.”

Chihiro blinked. “Sagishi? Is that you?”

“Wait, Sagishi,” Taka started.

“Why, what a rude thing, to call someone an imposter,” the girl said. “I assure you, I am the genuine article.” Then, her voice changed, losing much of its lilt. “Of course, I wasn’t able to observe the real Princess Sonia for very long, so I can’t quite impersonate her perfectly. But, knowing her for the brief time I did made me very curious about how such a person carries themselves and demonstrates authority. I was very pleased to discover this establishment has her dress in my size.”

“So it is true,” Taka said. “You can’t just impersonate Byakuya, but others as well. Amazing.”

“How in the,” a deep voice called out. “What vile trickery is this? By what foul ritual hath thou been dragged into this miserable hell, oh lady of ineffable darkness?”

“Umm, what?” Sagishi said, slipping back into her lilting Sonia voice. “…Um, by what right do you speak to me this way, peasant?” She backed up, and Chihiro could see Gundham, his scarf wrapped tight around his face, his eyes blazing with anger.

“Uh oh,” Chihiro said. “Wait, Sagishi, I remember something Gundham said once, I think this princess person was important to him.”

“You speak to me like one of your churlish servants,” Gundham sneered. “As if we do not share a bond forged in the throes of despair. Truly, it must be the work of dark forces that blinds you to the truth of our past. Tell me, Princess Nevermind, where are my loyal devas?”

“Oh, oh dear,” Sonia muttered. “Umm,” she reached up and pulled off her wig. “I’m very sorry if I misled you, Tanaka. I meant no harm…”

“Devilry!” he yelled. “You appear before me, bearing the face of one I gave my life to spare, and taunt me with her angelic voice. A fiend, a fiend you are, and a villain as well!”

“No, no,” they shook their head. “I really meant nothing by it, I just admire her poise and authority. I simply wanted to try on that role, for a little while. I had no idea she was so important to you.”

“You thrice-damned face-stealer!” he hissed. “I should seal your fate with a hex upon your brow, barbarous cur!”

“Come now,” Taka interjected. “There’s no cause for dark hexes, or, whatever you have in mind.”

Gundham seethed, and Chihiro said, “They didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sure it was just surprising to see her again, right? I, uh. I’ve designed AIs before that are meant to mimic the personalities of people who’ve passed away, so their loved ones can say goodbye, or just, pretend they are with the person, for a moment. When you first saw her again, you were happy, weren’t you? Until you remembered where we are, that is. But, you really do wish you could see her again, right?”

“I,” Gundham’s fists clenched, and he shuddered. “You’re right. When I glimpsed her from far away, my soul soared with jubilation. But as I followed her through the store, I remembered what kind of place this is, and my joy turned to fury. I thought she was trapped in the death game again.” He shook his head. “I hated that thought, more even than being apart from her. I didn’t even think about Sagishi.” He sagged, the tension pouring out of him. “I apologize for the unholy possession that gripped me. I will keep my wits about me in the future.”

“I apologize as well,” Sagishi said, in their normal voice. “I never considered my impersonations could cause harm like that. I will refrain from posing as the princess, if that would make you feel better.” They tapped their chin, “Although, if you did want to say something to Sonia, I could pretend to be her for you. If you suspend your disbelief for a bit, it would be like speaking to her for a moment.”

“I…” Gundham toyed with his scarf. “It is an interesting offer, but no. And you may impersonate her if you wish. I won't be fooled by your deception again. We are separated by the infinite abyss of death, as it should be.” He bowed. “I must leave you all, now. I would prefer to be alone.”

After Gundham departed, Sagishi said, “I should be going as well. I need to find a new outfit. Even if he says he doesn’t mind, it is cruel of me to walk around wearing the face of someone he misses. Kiyoaka, Chihiro.” They nodded, and left.

“Let’s go, too.” Chihiro said. “I can figure out a new outfit later, and there’s still more to see.” The two made their way back through the massive boutique, and back into the atrium. They walked past the stone cylinder, and saw that the hallway leading to the courtroom was accessible from here, blocked off with a steel fence.

A pair of plain double doors led into the next area, across from Junko’s. It turned out to be a music room, a wide, spacious chamber with thick gray padding along the walls and a blue carpet across the floor. A number of various instruments were set up for use, including a piano, a series of stringed instruments, numerous drums, woodwinds, and brass, all bearing the marks of expert craftsmanship and in excellent repair.

Leon and Ibuki were there, of course. The latter was blaring on a saxophone, while the former stood with his arms folded, scowling impatiently. “Good morning, Leon,” Taka said. “Are you keeping well?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He sighed. “I found this place and got really excited. I thought that, since we’ve all got our talents back now, she might be willing to teach me something. But, she’s just been goofing off since she got here.”

Ibuki finished her improvised saxophone solo. “Oh, hey, you two.” She breathed heavily. “Isn’t this awesome? I’ve been making do with forks and stuff, it’s so cool to finally have some real instruments again. Though, it’d be even cooler if I had a synthesizer, or a keytar, or a flamethrower.

Taka’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “One of those is not an instrument!”

She giggled. “Everything’s an instrument, silly. Huh? Hey, Leon, why aren’t you playing anything?”

“What do you mean, why am I not playing anything?” He folded his arms. “I thought you were going to help me learn. But you seem more interested in just playing with yourself.”

“Well, we should play with ourselves together. Come on, get on that big drum set, Ibuki will accompany you on, uh, that clarinet!”

“That’s not, uh.” Leon scratched his head. “Look, I can keep a simple beat on the drums, but that’s about all I really know how to do. You’re the Ultimate Musician. I was hoping you could, you know, actually teach me how to play better. But you play so erratically, and you aren’t actually showing me how to do anything on my own. It’s, kinda frustrating.”

“Huh? But that’s how Ibuki learned to play. She had teachers, but they just slowed her down. You’ve just got to let whatever’s inside you come out. That’s all you need to be a good musician!”

“Not… not everybody works like you, you know.” Leon shook his head. “Most of us don’t, really. You know you’re different, right? Can’t you see that?”

“Leon’s right,” Taka said. “Every genius takes for granted how easily things come to them. People like you get complacent with your talent. You become dull and inattentive, you lose focus on the fundamentals you never bothered learning.”

“Huh, huh.” Ibuki grinned. “Nobody’s ever called Ibuki a genius before.”

Taka clapped his hands together. “I’m not done. This is an opportunity, for the both of you. Ibuki, if you can slow yourself down enough to help Leon learn, you’ll gain a greater appreciation for your own ability, and you’ll be a more accomplished musician. As for Leon, I’m already proud of you for not relying solely on your natural talent. It’s commendable to work hard for something you believe in, especially if it requires you to grow as a person.”

“I don’t, I never really put that kinda thought into it, man. I just thought being a rock star would be cool, you know.” Leon said. “But you’ve got a point. I do get bored with baseball, because it comes so easily to me. Maybe when we get out of here, I could help kids learn to play.”

Taka beamed. “That’s the spirit, Leon!”

Chihiro rubbed at his chin. “Maybe, maybe I do that, too. I got so into programming, I stopped worrying about getting stronger. And now, I,”

“You shouldn’t dwell on how you’ve neglected your training in the past,” Taka said. “What’s important is that you are trying to do better, now. I’m proud of you, too, for trying to be more than just a genius. Well, what do you say Ibuki? Will you slow down so you can teach Leon some of your skills?”

She made a sour, perplexed face. “I mean, you make it sound so cool. I kinda want to, but…” she shook her head. “I don’t know how to slow down. Trying to play to everybody else’s speed, just, isn’t me. I left my last band because they couldn’t keep up with me. I’ve been searching, for a long time, because there’s just got to be someone out there who can keep up with me, ya know?” She fidgeted with the keys on her saxophone. “What if…” her manic grin came back. “What if you teach Ibuki how to teach Leon, huh?”

“What?” The rest of them said.

“Well, you seem to be really good at working hard, and, Ibuki’s not good at working hard. So, if you can teach her how to slow down and look at things the way a novice would, Ibuki can teach Leon how to be a better musician!”

“But, but I barely know anything about music!” Taka protested. “I learned clarinet for the school band, but there’s nothing I can teach you.”

Ibuki laughed and snorted at the same time. “You don’t need to teach Ibuki the music, silly. Just how to see things the way you do. Then, maybe Ibuki really can learn how to appreciate her talent better, and share it with others. Maybe, maybe she can play with a band again.”

“Hey, yeah,” Leon agreed. “What do you say, man? This was kinda your idea in the first place.”

“I,” Taka’s face contracted, and then he stood up straighter and pounded one fist against his chest. “I will accept this challenge! Together, we will strengthen our hearts and our minds, and forge a bright future together!”

“Dude, you don’t have to say it like that,” Leon sighed.

“Hell yeah, forging the future and stuff!” Ibuki said. “So, how do we get started?”

“Um, well, this could take a while.” Taka said.

“Oh, I can go,” Chihiro said. “It sounds like you three have a lot to talk about.”

“You sure, man?” Leon said. “You can still be the bass player, if you want.”

“Heheh.” Chihiro laughed. “I’ve got a lot of other things I need to deal with, so I don’t think learning music is a good idea right now. But I’m glad you’re all helping each other. I can finish exploring on my own.” There were two doors along the right wall, one near the middle, and one near the distant corner, up on an elevated stage. He decided to try the nearer door, rather than go back into the atrium. He opened it and slipped inside.

He found himself in a spacious theatre, with round tables set up across a vast velvet carpet, facing a grand stage on Chihiro’s left. A massive crystal chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling. A small, blazing white flame lit the entire shining structure, reflecting light over the middle of the theatre, and leaving the sides, including where Chihiro now stood, shrouded in darkness.

Near the entrance was an elevated audiovisual room, but the stage certainly grabbed more attention. Bright spotlights highlighted a polished hardwood floor, and a film screen hung behind a broad crimson curtain. A figure stood on the stage, peering behind the curtain. She turned, and Chihiro could see the cast cradling her right arm.

Chihiro walked towards the stage, the plush carpeting and darkness masking his presence. This could be his chance to confirm a few theories, with no one around Mukuro would need to lie to. But, before he could emerge from the shadowed wings, another figure stepped out onto the stage, opposite Chihiro.

Celestia strode forward, her red eyes locked on Mukuro, looking brighter and sharper under the spotlight. “I am pleased to find you alone, Ms. Ikusaba. I have some questions for you.”

“What the hell do you want? Are you trying to start something?” Mukuro muttered.

Chihiro froze. He didn’t intend to eavesdrop, but he couldn’t miss the chance to talk to Mukuro, and interrupting these two might be fatal. “I only wish to know,” Celestia continued, “Why you lied to everyone last night.”

“What makes you so sure I lied?” Mukuro grinned. “Or are you just embarrassed that you lost to someone like me?”

“I lost because I put too much faith in a worthless cretin instead of planning a murder myself.” Celestia spat through her teeth. “I won’t make a similar mistake again. But I make a living reading lies, and you, Ms. Ikusaba, are a miserable liar.”

“Damn it, this is going to get annoying,” Mukuro rubbed her forehead. Then she shouted behind her. “Hey, you in the shadows, get out here. I’d rather get this over with all at once.”

Ice stabbed through Chihiro’s heart. He robotically walked forward, and the spotlight stung his eyes as he emerged onto the stage. “You?” Celestia said, “What is someone like you doing spying on me?”

“I, I didn’t mean to spy,” Chihiro protested. “I just wanted to talk to Mukuro, too. Because, because she is lying.”

Mukoro turned her back on both of them, and paced away. “The both of you are too smart for me to keep stringing you along. And you’re too stupid to leave me alone. So, why don’t you tell me what lies I’ve been feeding you?”

“You lied about being the mastermind in our killing game,” Chihiro said. “And I’m pretty sure you did it to protect Junko. You’ve made it clear to me that she’s dangerous.”

“Indeed,” Celestia agreed. “It’s painfully obvious that Junko was the real mastermind. Furthermore, it’s also obvious neither of you is the mastermind now.”

“Wait, it is?” Chihiro said. “What do you mean, Celestia?”

“The evidence about Mukuro’s lie was in front of us all along. It’s the dorm rooms. If one of them was the current mastermind, she would not have left such an obvious clue out in the open. Think about which rooms are next to yours, Chihiro.”

“Well, I’m right between Leon and Mondo… oh. The, the rooms are set up according to the order in which we died. And that means… if Mukuro was telling the truth about being the mastermind, hers should be the last one on our side of the hall. Or, maybe the first one, if she was telling the truth about dying before the game started.”

“But neither of those is the case, is it?” Celestia prodded.

“No, Mukuro’s room is on the other side of Leon’s, which means, wait.” Chihiro poked at his chin. “S, she was dressed like Junko the first night we came here. If she died right before Leon, then Mukuro was actually the Junko we all met in the killing game, and… oh.” A cold weight settled into Chihiro’s stomach. “You are the one Monokuma killed as an example. And Junko’s room is the last one, so that means she was the mastermind, and it was your own sister who killed you.”

Mukuro turned back towards them, casting her head back, staring up towards the spotlight. “Don’t stop.”

“Don’t you dare try to act like a victim,” Celestia said. “You were working with her, weren’t you? You agreed to pose as Junko so Monokuma could kill you and we would think the real Junko was dead.” She paused, closing her eyes for a moment. “Hmm. I would wager the plan Junko fed you was that she would only pretend to kill you. She made things a little more real than you expected. But you still helped her set up the killing game, so you’re still just as guilty as she is.”

“I,” Mukuro closed her eyes and bowed her head. “You’re right. When those spears stabbed through me, I was so shocked, I, didn’t understand.” She covered her mouth with her hand. “In those last few moments, I finally questioned why I had continued to follow her, no matter how dark her path became.” She shook her head. “I deserved to die, I deserve to be in this hell, I deserve to be hated by the rest of you. And I’m fine with that.”

“But, I still don’t understand why you lied to keep Junko’s secret,” Chihiro said. “Why would you rather everyone think you’re the mastermind than her?”

“It’s, because I don’t know what she would do if she’s exposed.” Mukuro looked up, facing them again, her face creased with pain. “She might, kill everyone. She might win the game.”

“You think we couldn’t defeat her in a trial?” Celestia said.

“No, you couldn’t!” Mukuro’s eyes blazed. “Because you know what she would do? She would figure out who the biggest threats to her victory were and kill them. Then she’d frame whoever she thought might still pose a threat so no one would believe them, and the rest would be like putty in her hands.” She slashed downwards, with her good hand. “There’s no way we could beat her if she decided she was in a corner. Even if I told everyone she was a mastermind, she would manipulate them into turning against themselves. She’s too dangerous.”

“That’s, that’s why you tried to kill her,” Chihiro said.

“Yes, dammit!” Mukuro said. “We stood a chance while her talent was disabled. It was the only way we could have beaten her!” She ran her palm up her face. “If you’d just kept your damn mouth shut and watched me die, I would have won. You all would have to figure out the rest of this shit on your own, but at least you would be safe from her.” She sank down, on her knees. “I could have given you that. If nothing else, I could have given you that.”

Celestia walked over to where Mukuro knelt. Her pale hand flashed out, and Chihiro heard the snap of her palm against Mukuro's face. “Get up, you miserable wretch." Mukuro did so, baring her teeth at the gambler. "Just because you are scared shitless of your sister doesn't mean the rest of us have to be. This is a game, if you hadn't noticed. Anyone can win, and anyone can lose."

"She's already lost before," Chihiro stepped forward, closer to the others. "Right? Makoto and the others aren't here. That means they found a way to beat her and escape, doesn't it?"

Mukuro ran her hand across her cheek. “…Probably. I don’t, I don’t know how, though. There’s no way they could have outsmarted her. Maybe they just got lucky.”

“Lucky, you say?” Celestia pressed her fingers to her lips. “Mmm hmmm. Mmm hmm hmm hmm. Very well, then. If you are so dreadfully frightened of your sister, you should leave defeating her to me.”

“You’re insane,” Mukuro said. “You can’t just expect something stupid to happen again.”

“I can, and I do.” Celestia closed her eyes. “I don’t like to rely too much on my luck, you know. But, in a pinch, being born extremely lucky has its benefits. I’ll make it my own little game, to ensure that Junko can’t win.”

“Damn, you’re stupid,” Mukuro said. “My sister isn’t just smart. She can read people like a book, better than they can read themselves. Just by knowing about her, you two are going to be in a lot more danger from here on out.”

“Then, then help us, Mukuro,” Chihiro plead. “You know you can’t beat her on your own, so what do you have to lose?”

“Nnn,” Mukuro closed her eyes, turning away from Chihiro. “Fine. Fine, dammit. If there's some way we can beat Junko together, I'll help you do it. But you two need to keep this a secret, got it? If we reveal her as the mastermind without some kind of plan, we're all screwed."

"I have no problem with keeping a secret from the others," Celestia nodded. "Chihiro and I both have experience in hiding things, do we not?"

"Umm, sure." Chihiro said. "I don't think it's the right thing to do, though. We should... we should trust the others to help us. When the time is right, we'll tell them, won't we?"

"...Yeah. We will. And... I'll tell them what I did, too," Mukuro said. The three parted ways after that, Chihiro’s head bowed with worry.

That evening, Mahiru did not join them for dinner, again. Chihiro had to hope she was eating well, but there was nothing he could do until she wanted to bridge that gap. Everyone else was talking excitedly about the attractions downstairs.

“Come on, we should all go down to the pool tomorrow,” Teruteru said. “I know everything’s tense, but that’s why we need to relax. Bring everybody back together, you know?”

“While I agree with your sentiment, I am suspicious of your motives.” Taka’s eyes blazed, his eyebrows arched. “If you want to bring everyone together, isn’t there something else you can do? Your talent’s been restored, Teruteru.”

“Eh?” Teruteru frowned. “Oh, yeah, do you guys want me to take over the cooking again?”

“Please,” Celestia said. “The gyoza was delicious, but I want to know what you are capable of at your fullest potential.”

“Uhh,” Teruteru blushed. “I… I wish I had time for the pool and cooking, but when you say it like that, yeah, I’ll take charge of cooking tomorrow’s meal.”

“Ibuki doesn’t have much time for the pool either,” she said, “But, but she found something even more fun! With Taka’s help, she’s going to help Leon be a good musician!”

“Better,” he said, “Better musician. But, yeah, the three of us are going to be pretty busy.”

“Sayaka should join us!” Ibuki beamed. “Come on, what do you say? I’ve always wanted to try accompanying you.”

“Mmm,” Syaaka stared at her plate, pushing a dumpling around with her chopsticks. “Th, thanks. But, I think our musical styles are too different. You’re too, loud, and erratic. I don’t think we would harmonize well.”

“But, but that’s the point!” Ibuki insisted. “Taka’s helping me learn to slow down and work with other musicians. Playing with you would be a great way for me to learn.”

“It does sound like a good idea,” Taka nodded.

“Come on, Sayaka,” Ibuki continued. “You haven’t been singing at all since this mess started. Don’t you miss it? Have some fun!”

“I,” she slammed her chopsticks down on the table, causing her dumpling to bounce. “I said no, didn’t I? I don’t want to relax. W, why are you acting so carefree? Don’t you think that’s what the mastermind wants?”

“It’s because of me, isn’t it,” Leon folded his arms. “Go on, say it. You don’t want to join us for music practice because I’ll be there.”

Sayaka tried to look at him, but her head swiveled back downwards. “I,” her words caught in her throat. She started breathing, very fast and heavy, so that Chihiro could hear it from where he sat.

Hifumi put his hand on the table, where she could take it if she wanted. “Why don’t we go somewhere else?” Her head jerked up and down, like it was on a string. “Alright, head out to the atrium, I’ll be right there.”

Several people watched her go, and Hifumi said, “Sorry, everyone. She’s, she’s just scared. She doesn’t, mean to come off like that.” He stood up, bowed to the table, and followed her out.

Leon’s foot bounced against the underside of the table. “…Damn. I… damn.” He shook his head. Chihiro wondered, too, how hard it would be to bridge the gap with Sayaka.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Chihiro ate a quick breakfast before going back downstairs. He once more plunged into the sea of clothes at Junko's, hoping to find a new outfit. There had to be something in here that felt right to him, that he could wear to show the others who he really was. He found a black leather jacket, similar to Mondo’s, and thought that might work. He slipped it on over his uniform and checked a mirror. He looked like a little kid who stole his older, cooler brother’s jacket. That wouldn’t do.

He tried a blue-green hoodie, with little cat ears on the hood. He thought the little ears looked cute when he slipped the hood up, and he liked the way it framed his hair. But it was even more feminine than what he was wearing now. It wouldn’t solve his problem at all.

Then, he found a black pinstripe suit. It was the kind of outfit that projected power and confidence, even on someone his size, and it might look good with his hair. Then, he picked out a pair of black dress shoes with heels on them. They were women’s shoes, but they gave him a little extra height. He added a light pink necktie, for just a hint of color, and white gloves.

He searched for a fitting room to try it all out. They were on the left wall of the store, with the bathing suits, and next to them was the door that led into the pool area. He could hear joyful shouting through the door. He used one of the fitting rooms, and admired his new look in a mirror. He beamed at his reflection. He looked like someone you should take seriously. He felt so good, he wanted to show it to someone.

The chlorine smell slapped him in the face as he entered the pool area. A number of his classmates were there. Hifumi and Sayaka were having a splash fight, Gundham steamed alone in the hot tub, and Nekomaru and Mondo were having a race in the pool. And Mahiru reclined on one of the pool chairs off to the side. She wasn't dressed for the pool, simply taking pictures of the others at play. Chihiro walked towards her almost before he realized it, hope lightening his footsteps. She lowered the camera, as he approached. “Mahiru, I’m glad you’re out of you room. I’ve been really worried about you-“

“Haahh!” she flinched back, slamming a hand over her mouth. Chihiro froze, terrified that she might still be angry at him, terrified that he’d done something wrong. But, she eased forward, pressing her hand against her chest, her eyes softening. “H, hey. You startled me. I…”

Chihiro winced. “Um, I’m sorry, if you still don’t want to…”

“No, no, it’s not you,” she shook her head. “It’s… that suit. It’s, Fuyuhiko’s.”

He looked down at his new clothes, his enthusiasm withering. “Oh, I didn’t realize,”

“I know, it’s not your fault. He, I’d gone to confront him about something, when Peko killed me. Seeing you like that out of nowhere… well, it was a bit of a shock.”

“I, I’m sorry about how I acted, in the trial.” Chihiro bowed his head. “You and Mukuro were right about Peko. I just, I just didn’t want to see it.”

“Hey.” Mahiru’s eyes watered. “I’m not still mad at you about that, ok? You must have had a lot of faith in her, after she saved you. I, I’m not proud of how I shattered it, even if it was necessary.”

“You sound like, you’re doing better.”

“I’m still... god, I’m still not ok. But, taking pictures of smiling people always helps me. I, Hiyoko…” she put the camera back in her satchel. “I should have, damn, if we hadn’t been fighting, I,”

“I miss her, too.” Chihiro closed his eyes. “And Sakura. It feels like I didn’t have any time with them at all, but I’m always going to remember them. Hiyoko apologized to me, you know. Before, before she died.”

“That’s good to know.” Mahiru smiled, though her grey eyes still drooped. “At first, I was mad at her for laughing at you. Then, she came back and said I was the one who should apologize… and I wasn’t ready. I,” She took a deep breath. “We still need to have that talk, but not here.”

“The theater?” Chihiro suggested. “It’s probably quiet.”

“Yeah,” she nodded, “Yeah.” She got up, and the two crossed the atrium into the theater. They picked out a table, near the center, under the light of the crystal chandelier, and took opposite seats. They locked eyes, for a moment, and Mahiru looked down. She fidgeted with her hands, then put her satchel on the table and opened it. She pulled out her camera and a cleaning case. She started taking it apart, and inspecting the pieces.

“Before I say anything else,” Mahiru started, “I want to say, I’m sorry. You needed me to be a friend that day. And I wasn't. Whatever I might feel about you, that was still wrong.” She shook her head, and took a deep breath.

“My mother is a war photographer. She travels all over the world, to all kinds of different places for her work. The photographs that earn her respect and awards are the ones of wreckage, or of desperate refugees, or injured soldiers. But, the ones she loved taking, and the ones I love her for, were the ones of people smiling. The pictures of hope, of courage, or even of simple joy. She would share them with me when she came home.”

She wiped the lens of the camera. “I looked up to her, more than anything, I wanted to be just like her. So, I took up photography, of course. But, there was, more to it than that.” She shuddered. “You and I, we’ve got something in common, Chihiro. Being like my mom didn’t just mean, taking lots of pictures. It meant… changing the way I dress. Changing my name. Changing… everything.”

Chihiro gasped, but Mahiru ignored him. “It was hard. My dad, he loved having a son. He thought I was taking something away from him. He’s gotten better, and I still love him. But I had to figure out a lot of things on my own because he wouldn’t help me and my mom wasn’t always around. That’s why…” she set the camera aside, and buried her face in her hands. “I can’t, I can’t believe I turned my back on you like that. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

“You don’t,” Chihiro said. “I, it must have been quite a shock. I’m glad you’re telling me all this, but you didn’t know…”

“I did know!” Mahiru said. “I… I don’t think the others noticed, when Hifumi called you ‘mister’ that first day we hung out, but I did. I saw how nervous it made you. And I kept noticing, the way you carried yourself, how quiet you were, the way you froze up when Hiyoko suggested dancing together. I figured you were just scared that someone would realize what you were hiding. I figured you would tell me, once you trusted me enough.” She shook her head. “Despite this whole nightmare, I was at least a little happy. I thought I finally had a friend like me. And, when you did tell me your secret, I wasn’t prepared for what you really said. The way you called yourself weak, and the way you called it pretending.” Her fist slipped, and banged against the table. "Is that, what you think of me? Do you think I'm just pretending?"

"I'm not like you, though." Chihiro clenched his fists. "I, I didn't start dressing that way because I wanted to be a woman. I just... couldn't handle how weak I was. I wanted everyone to leave me alone. Pretending to be a girl seemed safer."

“Safer?” Mahiru took a sharp breath. "You really don't understand, do you? How can you call what you did safe? How can you call it easy?" She bowed her head. "Do you know how many times I was humiliated? It took everything I had not to give up, to be who I wanted to be." Her watery eyes opened back up, and she faced Chihiro through a screen of tears. "I don't, I don't know how you could do that if it wasn't what you really wanted. How can you sit there and tell me you did out of weakness the same thing that took all of my strength?"

“I,” Chihiro’s tongue felt like a desiccated slug in his mouth. “I don’t have an answer for that. I was hiding from something, not running towards it. Maybe, maybe that kept me from seeing it as something to struggle for.” He tilted his head. “And, maybe, it was easier for me. My father never acted like I took anything away from him. He loved me just the same. My mom helped with my clothes, that sort of thing. I wasn’t trying to do it alone. They even helped me get into a more accepting school, when my old one wouldn’t back down. Without them, I couldn’t have done it. But,” he shook his head, “If I’d faced the kinds of challenges you did, I probably would have given up. I wouldn’t have tried to keep this lie going as long as I did.”

“You’re still calling it a lie,” Mahiru noted. “Does that mean you’re serious about going back? You really want to be accepted as a man?”

“Well,” Chihiro shook his head. “It’s, more that I don’t want to be seen as weak. And that’s how pretending to be a girl makes me feel.”

“Do you think being a man is the only way to be strong?” Mahiru asked. “What about Sakura? Or Peko?” She bristled. “She was a terrible person, but I definitely wouldn’t call her weak. Or, or me? Do you think I’m weak?”

“Sakura… she told me it was alright, whatever I decided. As long as it felt right to me.” He shook his head. “I do think you’re strong, to have done this on your own and because you wanted it. But, I’m, not the same as you. I,” Chihiro swallowed. “But, I am, confused. The men I looked up to aren’t who I thought they were. They’re both very important to me, but I don’t think I could ever be the same as them. I, I don’t think I want to, anymore. I don’t know where else to find my strength, if not by believing in them.”

“Hmm,” Mahiru pulled her camera closer, and began to inspect it again. “I can’t answer that. And I can’t understand you, either. Why you would, nn, why you would want to go back, I mean. But, I don’t need to, I guess. I want us to be friends again, but," she sighed, "I need some space. Whenever you figure yourself out, I’ll support you.” She smirked. “The suit doesn’t look bad, by the way. Even if it does remind me of him.”

“Right.” Chihiro considered something new. “Do you, uh, do you want help? Telling everyone your secret?”

“What?” The camera bonked against the table. “Are you kidding me? Why would I do that?”

“It’s just that, most of the group has been very kind to Sagishi and me. I’m sure they would accept you, too, if you open up about it. You wouldn’t have to hide.”

“Chihiro," she gritted her teeth, “Ugh. If you feel better sharing your secret with everybody, that's fine. But I’ve got nothing to gain by sharing mine. Everyone sees me exactly the way I want them to.” She wiped her eyes dry. “They’ll think less of me, as a woman, if they even see me as a woman at all. The only reason I told you is because I owed you that."

“But I know how much of a burden it is to hide,” Chihiro protested. “You could relax, a little more, if you,”

“And why would I want to relax?” Mahiru shot back. “We’re still in a killing game, you know. I don't want that kind of attention. I don't want people to have a reason to think I'd be an easier target." She seethed, "Maybe you’ve got a death wish, but I’m not making myself look any weaker, understand?”

Chihiro's throat tightened. "...Weaker?"

"Well, what do you call it? Putting your most painful secret out there for everyone to see, letting them know how much you hurt, showing how much..."

Chihiro pushed his chair back and stood up, leaning his palms against the table. His head was heavy, and his knees like rubber. "Telling the truth isn't weakness, Mahiru." He closed his eyes, and forced the tears back. "Goodbye." He ran for the exit, and didn't turn around when she called for him to wait.

The doors to the theater swung closed behind him. He hugged himself to stop the shaking, and focused on his breathing. He needed to go somewhere to calm down, somewhere he could be alone. He half-ran, half-stumbled up the stairs. He didn't see anybody on the first floor, so he slipped into the aquarium.

The glass and other debris had been cleaned up, from when Nagito had shattered the tanks earlier. The broken tanks had not been repaired, but the other tanks were still in use. The fish and other creatures in them carried on, blissfully unaware of the killing game or of anyone’s painful secrets. Chihiro leaned his hands on the railing in front of the largest tank, the manta exhibit. He watched the massive fish glide across the water, and the flickering, blue light reflecting from the tank onto his small hands. He sagged with relief.

"You seem troubled, apprentice."

An electric spark shot through Chihiro's spine. "Ah!" Gundham materialized from the dark, and stood next to Chihiro, watching the mana rays. "I, I'm sorry, I didn't think anyone would be here."

"I always come here, at least once a day," Gundham explained. "I don't really have much experience caring for marine life. I prefer animals such as dogs, bears, and hamsters. But, this castle does not have any animals I can tend to. So I must settle for being a spectator, observing creatures beyond the scope of my mastery."

"I, I see. I hope you don't mind if I stay here, a little while."

He shrugged. "Why would I? As long as you don't torment the inhabitants, this place is as much yours as it is mine."

They stood, in silence, for a time, watching the rays. "Do you... think I'm weak, Gundham?"

He shrugged, again. "If we were to fight, no weapons or tricks, just as two animals contesting each other? Then you would get seriously injured, unless I checked my hand. If that is what you mean, then yes, I think you are weak." He glanced down. "But is that what you mean?"

Chihiro closed his eyes, feeling the pressure behind his eyelids. "I know I'm, weak like that. But, do you think I'm weak for hiding my secret from everybody? Or for... telling everyone, and putting my problems out there, where everyone can see them?”

Gundham folded his arms, and studied the tank. "Hmm. A strange question. Some animals use mimicry to avoid threats, similar to what you did. They try to appear more or less harmful to control how other animals see them. I would not call an animal that does this weak. It is merely using the gifts nature gave it to its maximum advantage. But humans are different. They are complicated. They lie to each other, but even more to the themselves.” Gundham snorted. “Lies weaken and corrupt the soul, especially those you tell yourself. So if you saw your disguise as a lie, then it may make you stronger to cast it aside, even if it does expose you to danger.”

Some of the tension poured out of Chihiro’s shoulders, down through his arms and into the railing. “Thank you, for saying that. But, I don’t know where I go from here. I don’t know how to get stronger.”

“What does stronger mean?” Gundham asked. “You mean strong enough to throw a punch, or take one?” He shook his head. “You could devote yourself to training every day, and you would still find it difficult to get that kind of strength.”

Chihiro clenched the cold metal of the railing tighter. “You think I’m that weak?”

“No, but I think you do. True power isn’t a matter of muscle, or even of mind. It’s a matter of knowing the core of your soul, and never deviating from it, never backing down in the face of that which stands in contradiction to you. Do you know what is at your core, Chihiro Fujisaki?”

Chihiro pressed a hand to his chest. “N, No,” he fought back a wave of despair. “I’m not, not strong enough to stand up for anything. I shut down. I run away. I hide.”

Gundham bowed his head, and closed his eyes. “Then it would seem you are weak.”

Chihiro shivered, from his head, down to his toes. “I, I hate it, I don’t want to be like this,” he choked. “How do I change?”

“Know your core.” Gundham said. “Simply this, nothing more.”

“How?” he begged, “You have to give me more than that! How do I,”

“I don’t know,” Gundham said. “Your answer will be different than mine. I found my core in learning the secrets of my animal companions. I rejected the absurd contradictions of humanity, and embraced my own savage truth. Perhaps you should start there. What human insanity do you believe in, apprentice? Lay it bare, and a path may open for you.” He walked past Chihiro, hands behind his back, as he left the aquarium. Without turning, he called back, “Your core, the source of your strength, is your own. It belongs to no one else, and it was always there. Your core does not change, it merely gets buried. Your weakness, that is something you learned, something you were given to carry by humanity. If you despise it so much, cast it aside.”

Gundham left Chihiro alone with the fish and his philosophy. His panic attack had subsided, at least, but he still felt lost. If what Gundham said was true, he couldn’t rely on any of his friends to point the way forward. His core was not the same as Mondo’s, or Taka’s, or Mahiru’s. He had to find it, himself.

He returned to his dorm room and changed into his track suit. Then, he grabbed a towel and returned to the atrium. He stood in front of the fountain’s Monokuma statue, staring up at the ridiculous bear’s manic grin. He felt a tinge of revulsion, remembering the sight of Hiyoko’s body. The fountain was scoured clean, of course, but not the past. Still, he set the towel down, and pulled himself over the wall and into the water.

His ankles froze, almost instantly, and he shut his eyes and braced himself, waiting for his body to adjust. Sakura was not here to pull him out this time. He would have to stop himself, before it became too much. But he sloshed through the pool, and sat down beneath the gushing stream.

Panic and freezing water washed over him, and he fought the urge to jump out. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, until the water washed the fear away. And he looked at what was left when the fear was gone. Memories assailed him at once. His coach from elementary school, mocking his attempt to join the soccer team, and the other boys taking up his mockery as their own. That dread memory blended with his thoughts of Nekomaru, and Sayaka, until they were the same. He remembered his mother taking him out of the sports program, telling the principal he was too weak to play. He remembered hearing those words from her own lips, and feeling betrayed.

Chihiro remembered his father’s smile. His father was the only one who never called Chihiro weak. Taichi Fujisaki was a gentle man, a caring father and husband, who worked as a software developer. No matter how much Chihiro struggled, or how much he was mocked, Taichi made sure Chihiro knew he believed in his son. Chihiro had loved him so much, he’d tried to learn his father’s job in secret.

When his father discovered Chihiro had been using his work computer, he wasn’t angry. He was impressed. Taichi had always been kind and supportive, but once Chihiro showed his talent for programming, the two became even closer. That love between a father and a child, certainly, that was Chihiro’s core.

But, wait. It couldn’t be just that. Chihiro had never not had that. If that was the source of his strength, he would already be unstoppable. There had to be something else.

Then, he remembered his first day at school, dressed as a girl. He felt invisible. His frailty no longer stuck out, he could focus on the work that mattered to him and be left alone. And then, one of the boys from soccer practice recognized him, through the disguise.

Wait. No, what was- Chihiro remembered being knocked down in the hallway, being surrounded, being kicked… wait, this wasn’t right, this never happened… whose memories were these…

Chihiro remembered his first session with the child therapist, the impossible questions. “Why did you dress like a girl? Do you want to be a girl? Do you remember what happened?”

“No, I’m not a girl. I’m just… weird, I guess.” He shook his head. “I don’t… I don’t belong.”

“Don’t belong?” The therapist prompted. “Don’t belong where?”

“Don’t belong anywhere. I’m not like the boys… but I’m not really like the girls either.”

“But which one are you? If you don’t want to be a girl, that means you’re a boy.”

“I guess?” the child Chihiro said. “I don’t think so. I’m… not sure I'm either.” The therapist shook his head, and made some notes.

Then, the scene changed. Chihiro was sitting on a chair outside the therapist’s office. His father’s indistinct speech came from within. And then, something Chihiro had almost never heard. His father yelling, “My child is not delusional!”

Then, Taichi was driving home, with Chihiro in the backseat. “Is everything ok?” Chihiro said.

“We, aren’t going back to Dr. Suzuki.” Taichi said.

Chihiro’s hands tightened around the seatbelt. “It’s my fault, isn’t it. I’m sorry, dad.”

“No, it isn’t… hah.” Taichi grinned, but his eyes drooped. “You’re just, different. And he doesn’t know how to help you. But, he told me what you said. I don’t really get it, but if you say you aren’t sure who you are, that’s fine. You’ll figure it out one day, and you’ll always be my child no matter what.” The smile faded. “It’s, going to be hard, though.” He took a sip of coffee from a thermos. “Hey, there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, for a while.”

“What is it, dad?”

“Do you want us to call you a different name?”

Chihiro blinked. “I, I picked one out, already. But I didn’t want you or mom to get mad, so…”

“It’s fine. If the name we gave you doesn’t fit, you should have a different one.”

“It’s really ok? Then I want to be Chihiro.”

“Chihiro, really?” Taichi smiled again, and this time his eyes lit up. “Thousand questions. That’s a beautiful name. I don’t think you could have found a more perfect name.”

I jolted out of the past, gasping awake. My skin was going numb, and my breathing was panicked and irregular. I scrambled towards the edge of the fountain and hauled myself out. I wrapped the towel around my shoulders and sat on the stone edge, coughing, waiting to get the feeling back in my limbs. Then, I went back to my room, and took the hottest shower I could stand.

Afterwards, I stood in front of the mirror, sorting through memories. The contradiction of why I let the world see me as a girl, but refused to see myself that way throbbed like a headache. But I finally had an answer, of sorts. I wouldn’t have been any happier posing as a boy. Because I still would have been posing. The world didn’t have a place for me, where I could be myself. So, I wrapped myself in lies, and passed myself of as a quiet, shy girl, the kind who blended into the background, that everyone could forget about. I’d lived that lie so completely that I had blocked out the truth. It was my shield against the questions I couldn’t answer.

But I was ready to answer them, now. Maybe the world hadn’t given me a place, so I would have to make one. But I wouldn’t do it alone. I put the pinstripe suit back on, and headed back downstairs, to Junko’s, and started searching for Sagishi. I hoped they would still be searching for a new persona to inhabit, since dressing up as Sonia had gone so poorly. Sure enough, I soon found a young man in a black pinstripe suit like my own, with his blonde hair buzzed short, trying on a fedora. “Hey, what’s the big idea, ya fuckin’ copycat?” The blonde boy sneered. “Come on, I’ve had men killed for less.”

I took a step back, my heart racing. “Umm, I, I know it’s you Sagishi, please don’t talk like that.”

“Well how the fuck am I supposed to talk? Like you, ya phony?”

“I, I,” I took a deep breath, and stepped closer. “I came here to talk to Sagishi, not some… ass! Stop jerking me around!”

“Hmm,” Sagishi removed the suit jacket, dispelling the illusion, and peeled off the hairpiece. “Apologies. I get too into my roles, sometimes. Both Sonia and Fuyuhiko wielded authority in very different ways than Byakuya, and I wanted to try them on. But, you did well to stand up to me.”

“Heh,” I sighed. “I think, because I knew it was you, that made it easier.”

They nodded at my outfit. “Are you exploring the possibilities of impersonation as well?”

“No, I didn’t realize this was his suit,” I explained. “I do like it, it makes me feel a little stronger. But, I don’t know if I want to wear it, if the person you just were is the kind of person he is.”

“Are you looking for a new outfit, then? Perhaps we could look together.”

“Maybe, but, I actually just, wanted to talk to you about some things. Could we find a quiet spot?”

“I suppose so,” they nodded. “Come, the music is quieter near the back of the store.” I followed them back to a quiet shoe section, where we sat on a pair of short benches. “After what you did for me, anything I can help you with would be trivial. So, what’s on your mind?”

“You, you said you don’t want us to see you as a man or a woman, when you aren’t in disguise, right?”

They flipped their hand. “Why would I? I’m not.”

"Hmm. I think we have more in common than I realized. I didn't try to be specific people, but I have spent most of my life pretending to be a girl, even though it didn't really feel right." I rubbed the smooth silk of my gloves together. "But, I remember not really feeling right trying to be a boy, either. And that was worse." I clenched my teeth. "I, stood out, as a boy. I was too different. Too... weak. I thought it meant there was something wrong with me. No," I shook my head. "That's what I've been telling myself. But, I think I understood something as a child that I forgot later. Something I buried even deeper than my fear of being seen as weak. I," my breath caught.

"You're trusting me with a lot. Is it really alright for you to share this with me? Shouldn't you talk to one of your friends?"

"You're the only one who might understand." I looked them in the eye. "Who won't, make me feel weird about it. I don't think I'm a man or a woman. Not, not really. And I'm not like you, either. If I try to put on either of those roles, they don't feel right, and I feel like I'm lying." My chest heaved. "I talked to someone once who changed her gender. She criticized me for calling what I did easy. But pretending to be a girl was easy for me, not because I am one, but because being a boy was even harder. Does that, does that make sense?"

“Hmm.” They nodded. “I don’t think you are as strange as you seem to think. I’ve encountered some very unusual people in my journey. And, of course, there is my own case. I haven’t met someone exactly like you, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others. Maybe when we get out of here, we can help each other find more people like ourselves.” They paused, and closed their eyes. “Such people might feel lost, as well. We could work together and help them.”

“That, that would be incredible.” I pumped my fists. “I, I think if I knew more people like myself, or like you, I might have figured out things sooner. I’ve,” My throat tightened. “I’ve been living a lie, but I didn’t even know what the truth was. I’ve still got a lot of things to figure out, though.”

They quirked an eyebrow. “Such as?”

“I want to, to tell the others,” I said. “I told them just a few days ago that I was born a boy, so it shouldn’t be that hard. But, I don’t know how to explain it to them. And, I don’t know how exactly I want them to see me.” I poked at a button on my cuff. “I don’t know how I should dress, to get across how I feel about myself. My old uniform… it’s familiar, but people might just see me as a girl if I keep wearing it. That’s, kinda what Leon said. This outfit is better, but,” I shook my head, “I don’t want to remind everyone of Fuyuhiko, especially Mahiru.”

The imposter folded their arms. “You need to ask yourself what your clothes mean to you. Are they about expressing how you feel, or about controlling how everyone else sees you? In my case, it’s the latter. Everything about how I dress is meant to reflect the person I impersonate. There is no room for personal embellishment. If you feel the same way, I would recommend blending men’s and women’s fashion.” They pointed at my shoes. “You are wearing women’s shoes with a men’s suit. The impression I get is that you are somehow in between, or not quite either.”

“I didn’t quite realize that, when I picked them out, but you’re right. That might work.”

They shrugged. “The alternative is to not worry about it. Wear whatever makes you happy and let people think what they will. You might have a harder time getting people to accept you as nonbinary, but you’ll discover your own sense of who you are.”

“Wait, what’s that word you used?”

“Nonbinary?” They shrugged. “It makes sense to me. Most people think everyone is just a man or a woman, and don’t think too much about what it means. But there are obviously people like you and me that can’t be sorted so easily.”

“Nonbinary.” I giggled. “It’s funny, I work so much with code, maybe that blinded me a little bit. A binary switch is either on or it’s off. A logic statement is either true or it’s false. There’s not much room for ambiguity or exceptions in programming.”

“Hmm, but even so. The finished product is much more complicated than a simple true or false, isn’t it? And humans are more complicated, still. You create artificial intelligences, do you not?”

“Yes,” My head bounced. “But there are limits to that complexity. It’s still impossible to create an AI that accurately mimics how a human mind works. I want to be able to create strong AI one day, but,” I poked my chin in thought, “Maybe the limits of my own thinking have become an obstacle to my progress. An AI can’t be stronger than the mind that created it, unless the creator acknowledges their own limitations and plans around them.” I shook my head. “I can see now, no matter how good I am at the math and logic, I can’t succeed if my vision is so limited.” A gleeful grin stretched across my face. “I, I need a computer.”

‘Umm,” Sagishi shook his own head, his eyes wide. “I’m afraid I can’t help you much with your talent, this conversation is starting to get away from me.”

“Oh, sorry, heheh.” I composed myself. “Just, yeah. Thank you for talking to me. This helped a lot.”

They nodded and stood up. “I think it’s about time we head to dinner.” It was, I realized, and I was eager to try whatever Teruteru had prepared for us. Sagishi and I left the store and walked upstairs, to find many of the others sitting and talking, waiting for the chef to arrive.

Taka was immersed in conversation with Leon and Ibuki, so I sat next to Mondo, since he seemed alone. He regarded me in silence for a few moments, his lips tight, his eyes distant. "Interesting choice." He turned back. "How does it feel?"

I looked down at my suit. "I like it, it feels good to try something new. It's certainly different from my girl's uniform, heheh." I smiled at him. "I'm not sure I'm done yet, though. I'm going to back to the boutique tomorrow to keep looking."

"Have you been happier, since telling everyone?"

"W, well, it's only been a few days. And we lost Hiyoko and Peko. So, it's hard to say." I swallowed "But, there's something I want to talk to you about. Can we train tomorrow morning?"

"Really?" He looked down. "You’d trust me that much?"

"I said I wanted to try again. I," I glanced at Nekomaru. "I have a lot of work to do, and I can't do it alone. So yes. I can see how much you regret what happened, I know you won't hurt me again."

A shudder passed through his shoulders. "Yeah, alright. We'll train tomorrow at eight."

A rattling behind us halted conversation at the table, and everyone turned to see Teruteru walking alongside a cart loaded down with trays. Two little rabbit ears, one pink and one white, poked up behind the cart. "I hope y'all ready." Teruteru grinned. "Not gonna waste my time talking my food up this time, it'll say more than I could." Monomaid parked the cart, and the two got to work passing out trays.

"For your sake, I hope this impresses, Teruteru." Celestia's eyes were closed, and she was hiding the smallest of smiles. "Your ranking may depend on it."

He set one of his last trays down before her, and the other at the empty place to her left. "Oh, don’t worry. I included a special ingredient just for you-“

Celestia shot up out of her seat, grabbed Teruteru’s apron, and brandished her ring in his face. “And what ingredient is that?” she said through clenched teeth. “Now.”

But Teruteru didn’t flinch, he simply shrugged and smiled. “Cinnamon. You gave me the idea, after all. It is experimental, but I thought you would enjoy trying something unique before everyone else.”

“Cinna,” she backed up, releasing him, and sat down, flattening her skirts. “Of course. How delightful.”

Teruteru whisked the cover off his own platter. “I present my finest Shogayaki Hanamura. Please, enjoy!”

Everyone removed their own covers, and I had to stop myself from drooling. This time, most of the meals were the same, except for the students that didn’t eat meat, who had tempura vegetables. “Ginger pork and broccoli?” Sagishi said. “Hmm. I thought you would have prepared something fancier.” They started eating at once.

“This is an old family recipe,” Teruteru said. “Except for Celestia’s secret ingredient, that is. I overplayed my hand last time I cooked dinner for everyone by myself, and I just got my talent back, so I thought I should stick to something I had more confidence in.” I tried my first bite, and had to admit that he had a point. The ginger was perfectly balanced, not too sweet, a little spicy. Actually, a little too spicy, for me, but so good I didn’t want to stop eating. “Besides, cooking isn’t about how fancy the recipe is,” Teruteru winked, “It’s about how much love goes into it.”

Celestia’s face soured. “You really are the worst. You’re lucky this is amazing.”

“Yeah, yeah, this is awesome!” Ibuki said. “You should cater for us. Leon and Ibuki are going to hold a concert at the theater in a few days!”

“We’re gonna, what?” Leon stammered. “H, hey, I’m not ready for somethin’ like that. You gotta talk to someone before announcing your reunion tour, ya know.”

“Ah, come on! Ibuki didn’t say tomorrow, and you’re making so much progress! I bet it’ll really help your confidence if you play for everybody.” She grinned, “Besides, Ibuki’s going to hold a concert whether you want to or not, so you may as well help out. Ibuki gave a concert in her last killing game, too. It was very important for raising everyone’s morale.”

“Ugh…” Gundham leaned his forehead against his palm. “It, really wasn’t. Maybe if she isn’t playing alone, it will be less abominable… Leon, you must either stop her or play with her so she doesn’t bring down the whole castle with her cacophonous frenzy.”

“…Hey, when did this become my problem?” Leon muttered.

“I think it’s a good idea for you both,” Taka insisted. “A public venue is an opportunity to get valuable feedback from your peers. And besides, we’re all,” he glared at Mukuro, “mostly friends here. I’m sure they will support you.”

“Well, that’s easy for you to say, teach.” Leon smirked. “How about you play, too? We could still use a bass player.”

“I,” Taka faltered, “I’ve never even held a guitar. I can’t play with you.”

“Ibuki will teach you!” she raised her hand like she wanted to be called on, “I bet you’re a real fast learner.”

“Come on, bro.” Mondo nudged Taka’s elbow. “I think it would be cool if you played in a band.”

“Y, you,” Taka pointed, and his eyes narrowed. “You want to see me embarrass myself, don’t you?”

Mondo shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. Loosen up, man.”

“Such an event might help bring us all closet together,” Sagishi said, “Though we’ll have to be careful that nothing goes wrong.”

“Al, alright.” Taka sat up straighter. “I’ll do it, if it will encourage harmony among the group.”

“Oh, you’re going to need all the harmony you can get, bucko.” Everyone looked up, and saw Monokuma swinging by his ankles from the chandelier. “Because the one and only Monokuma is here to kill it!” He slipped from the chandelier, plummeting towards the table and landing with a crash. His body bounced when it landed, but he recovered and stood before them, unfazed. “Yeah, I’m getting real sick of all this harmony stuff. What you guys need is some havoc and despair, whahahahaha.”

“G, git outta here, yew varmint!” Teruteru spat. “Everybody’s having a good time, you know.”

“Remove yourself at once,” Celestia ordered. “If you want to ruin our evening you could at least wait until we’ve finished dinner.”

“Dinner, eh? Don’t mind if I do.” The bear walked over to a covered tray that had been left at an empty chair. He removed the cover and lifted the tray in one hand.

“Hey, stop,” I called out, “Th, that’s Mahiru’s-“

Monokuma tipped the plate back and poured the succulent pork and steamed broccoli into his little mouth. A lot of it spilled around, smearing his chassis and dripping onto the table, and when he dropped the platter the food was gone. “Urp. Hey, that was pretty good. Hey, cook guy, you want to switch sides and work for me? You have to wear a maid outfit and let me hurt you whenever I want. But on the plus side, I might not kill you.”

Teruteru glared at Monokuma, tearing his little chef’s hat in his hands. “You don’t deserve my cooking.”

“Whatever, I definitely would have killed you, anyway.” He kicked the empty platter off the table. “But I bet just about now, you’re all wondering what the next delightful killing motive is going to be.”

“Wondering’s the wrong word,” Nekomaru folded his arms. “I guess we don’t have a choice, just get it over with.”

“Well, it just eats me up to see you kids getting so chummy with each other, puhuhuhu, so I think it’s about time we introduced a more competitive element to the fray.”

“What are you talking about,” Celestia asked, “What’s more competitive than a contest to the death?”

“A contest to the death,” Monokuma’s red eye glowed brighter, sharper. “With teams.”

“Teams?” Leon said. “What, are we doing a sports day, or something?”

“No, no, no, that would be dreadfully unfair to some of you.” I didn’t miss the glance Monokuma gave me. “Not like that. It’s, more a chance for you to work together on the next murder.” He rubbed his robotic paws together. “I’m splitting you into teams, based on which of my wonderful killing games you were in before. Team Havoc will include everyone who died in the Killing School Life, and Team Despair will include those who died in the Killing School Field Trip. And, if the blackened manages to win the next class trial, them and all their teammates will graduate and be brought back to life.” He paused, and his fixed grin seemed to widen. “Aren’t I just the most generous person?”

“…So, your saying there’s a chance to get more than one person out?” Mondo asked.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, biker boy. All you have to do is condemn the other team to a horrible, gruesome death, and you can save everyone you really care about.” Mondo tensed up next to me, and fear hammered at my senses. “You’ve all been through so much already, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just go home together? Besides, what are those other people to you? This is the only chance I’m going to give you that might get more than one of you out, so I suggest everyone think really hard about how to use it.” His eye dimmed. “But I’ll leave you to figure that out, heheheh.” He leapt from the table, and left us alone.

Sagishi stood at once. “This is a very dire situation. A motive like this is going to be tempting to almost everyone here. We need to discuss security measures.”

“I thought paranoid security measures were a sign of distrust,” Celestia said. “What changed?”

“The stakes.” Sagishi ran their hand over their face. “This is the most dangerous motive Monokuma has presented us with so far. A lot of people are going to be tempted.”

“Hell, they’ve got a point,” Mondo said. “I hate to admit it, but as soon as the damn bear explained the rules, part of me started making a plan.” He shook his head. “This is bad, man.”

“Mondo,” Taka and I both blurted out.

“I know, I know, dammit.” He clenched his fist and banged it on the table. “Neither of you would want to get out that way. You’d probably both hate me for it. And I wanted to do it anyway. That’s, that’s the whole problem.”

“I think for the time being,” Sagishi took a deep breath. “We need to suspend all contact between members of different teams.”

“What?” Ibuki blurted out, “But, but, music lessons! With Leon and Taka!” She tugged at her long, colorful hair. “Ibuki likes spending time with them. It, it doesn’t matter if Monokuma says we’re on a different team, I have friends in the other class, too.”

Sagishi bowed their head. “I’m sorry, Ibuki. It’s for your safety, too. If you spend too much time hanging around the other team, you’ll be an easy target.”

She waved her hair around, and stomped her foot. “Urgh…”

“And,” Sagishi continued, “I think Teruteru should not be allowed to cook for the group, until this motive is settled.”

“That’s a load of hogwarsh!” he blurted out. “I, I mean…”

Sagishi shook their head. “This is a sacrifice for me, too. Your cooking is truly amazing. But I want the other team to be able to trust you aren’t poisoning the food.”

“What, the Demi Lovato is wrong with you?” He snapped back. “Poisoning the food? That’s the lowest, no good, vilest sacrilege a chef could commit,“

“Worse than killing someone at a party you catered?” Sagishi thundered back. “I have chosen to trust you, but I can’t force that trust on all of the others.”

“I, I,” he slid back in his chair, shaking his head. “Ah, dammit.”

Then, Taka stood up. “I object to this course of action. I agree that the situation is dangerous, but separating the classes is only going to drive us further apart. We’d be playing right into Monokuma’s hands.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” Sagishi said. “We can’t let things stand as they are.”

“I,” his head slumped forward. “I don’t know. We may all need some time to think.” He clenched his fist. “We’ll do it your way, until tomorrow evening. Then, I want everyone to come together over dinner so we can discuss how to move forward united.”

“I find this compromise acceptable,” Sagishi nodded. “But I would also propose each team hold their own strategy meeting tomorrow over breakfast. I will cede the banquet table to your team; my class will meet at the diner upstairs. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Celestia said. “There is much to discuss, but if no one has anything productive to say at this stage, I suggest we finish our meal and go our separate ways for now.” Next to her, Teruteru pouted, but said nothing.

“Everyone, stay safe tonight,” Taka said. “There’s a way to beat this, I know there is.”

Chapter Text

I went to bed that night, trying to put the motive out of my mind. I wanted to believe Taka was right, that we could find a way to deal with this, but there was no ignoring the danger. Even I had to admit that this motive was tempting. The chance to save at least some of my friends from this nightmare…

But, no matter how I might justify it to myself, I still couldn’t stomach killing someone. Even to save Mondo and Taka. I would be killing Ibuki, and Sagishi, and Gundham, and… no, I couldn’t do it. But I knew that some of the others could. It scared me that Mondo might, though I was proud of him for admitting it, in a way. If he was willing to confess his thoughts, it meant he had decided not to act on them.

The next morning, I went ahead and put on my tracksuit. The strategy meeting came first, but training would be right after that. So, I joined my classmates- my teammates, according to Monokuma- at breakfast.

Most of them were waiting, eating quietly. Hifumi had to go knock on Sayaka’s door and coax her out, but then we were ready to begin. “Thank you all for being here,” Taka said. “We’re going to use this meeting to discuss how to discourage anyone from acting on Monokuma’s motive, and bring us all back together.”

“Really?” Junko said. “Cause it seems to me we should be talking about how to plan a murder. I know nobody wants to say it, but we’re all thinking it, right?” She shrugged. “I mean, it’s sad, sure, but it’s better if a whole team gets to live than just one blackened.”

“Junko, that’s appalling reasoning!” Taka said. “You can’t be actually considering taking a life, can you?”

“Well, of course, I would never, except in self-defense.” she shrugged. “But someone else is, I’m sure. If there’s someone on this team willing to take that risk for the rest of us, well, they would have my gratitude.” Her smile spread until it cracked. “Why not you, dear sister? Mastermind Mukuro Ikusaba?”

Mukuro’s face shriveled in disgust. “Ugh, shut up, already.”

“Really, I think you owe us that,” Junko tilted her head. “It’s your fault we were all in the killing game in the first place, which means it’s your fault we’re here. Now’s your chance, sister. If you get us out of here, it would make up for every naughty thing you ever did to us, don’t you think?”

“Who said I wanted to make up for it?” Mukuro leaned back. “If any of you bastards commit a murder, I’ll make damn sure the trial turns against you. I’d rather keep everybody trapped than get out with all of you.”

“Wait a minute,” Taka rubbed his chin. “As much it as it pains me to admit, you might have the right idea.” He raised his right hand. “We should all pledge that, if a murder happens, we will do our utmost to solve the case and vote truthfully in the trial. If we vow not to use the motive to escape, it greatly decreases the risk that someone would think it possible to save their class.”

“I, I don’t know if I can do that,” Sayaka shook her head and rubbed at her temples. “I want out. I’m, I’m not saying I would kill, of course… but if one of us did, I think we should use that. We should escape.”

Taka’s eyes softened. “I know you’re scared. But we will get through this. We’ll get through this game without giving into Monokuma’s demands. We’ll beat him like Makoto and the others did.”

“And how many of us are going to die first?” Sayaka gripped the table, her nails gouging the varnished surface. “When I died before, there were fourteen more of us left. All but six of us wound up here. If we do this right, nine of us could walk free tomorrow. I think that’s worth it. I think that’s enough. Why should we continue to suffer? What are you hoping to gain by being stubborn?”

“Monokuma might be lying,” I pointed out. “At the beginning of this game, he told us it was only possible for one person to graduate and have a second chance of life.” I sat up higher. “Now he’s telling us he can save a whole class? Why should we believe that?” I shook my head. “There’s every chance the motive is just a lie, and only the blackened would get out. Or, or there’s a way to save everyone. We just have to find it. Don’t you see, Sayaka? The motive is a trap. The motive is always a trap.”

“He, he,” Sayaka shook her head. “He captured my friends, they meant everything to me. I knew it was a trap, but I did what I did anyway. Because you can’t take things for granted. When a terrible truth is staring you in the face and there’s only one way out of it, you do what you have to.” She shook with pain. “If you believe in anything at all.”

“We all had something to lose, Sayaka. He took my father.” I said. “I don’t… I still don’t know if he’s okay. But, you can’t let an awful situation lead you down a worse path. We should have all learned that by now.” I looked at her, really looked at her. “I know you regret what you did. That’s why you haven’t forgiven Leon, isn’t it? Because you know it’s your fault, too.”

Her face went white. “Sh, shut up. What the hell do you know? You're so scared of what other people might think of you,” She grabbed her water glass, and reached back to throw it, but Hifumi spoke up.

“Hey, nobody here is trying to hurt you, Ms. Maizono. It’s… it’s alright to be scared. I think, I think we’re all scared.”

“Yeah, he’s right,” Leon added. “I mean, people do dumb things when they’re scared. I know I did. And, I definitely don’t want to make a mistake like that again. So I’m with Taka.” He raised his hand. “If there’s a trial, I’ll do my best to expose the culprit, instead of lying to save myself. …Besides, I want Ibuki to survive this too, and the others.”

“Right, man.” Mondo raised his own hand. “I want Taka and Chihiro to live through this more than anything, but, not if it means killing the other class.”

I raised my hand next, and Hifumi did, as well. “Excellent, that’s five of us. Six if you include Mukuro. Which. I’m not sure is wise.” Taka said. “With this many people, we might be able to broker a peace with the other class. Still, it would help if as many of us as possible were on board. What do you say, Celestia? Junko?”

“I think you’re all idiots, if you believe this will actually work.” Junko said. “It doesn’t take a lot to raise your hand and say some nice words.” She closed her eyes. “Humans are selfish creatures. You might be scared of killing, but this way you don’t even have to get your hands dirty. When it comes down to it, I think all of you will vote to protect yourselves, and I have no interest in supporting your illusions of civility. I at least appreciate Sayaka’s honest refusal.” Junko’s smile split open. “She might be a vain, selfish child, but she’s not lying about it.”

Sayaka started shaking, and Hifumi said. “I, I think that’s enough bullying Ms. Maizono, alright? There’s enough of us supporting Taka’s idea anyway. Maybe she can just, lay low during the trial, and let everyone else try to find the culprit?” He looked at her. “Would that be alright? Don’t try to sway things either way, just trust the rest of us to make the right call?”

“Oh, I am so sick of watching you moon over her,” Celestia snapped. “You know she only pretends to be your friend because she’s terrified of being alone, right? You can’t possibly be deluded enough to think she’s interested in you?”

“I, I know that!” Hifumi shot back. “I know that.” His blinked, and he took his glasses off to clean them. “I, it’s still the best friendship I’ve ever had, alright? Leave… leave us alone.”

“Really, I’m impressed,” Celestia snarled, “That someone as clueless as you could figure something like that out. At least you know how worthless you are.”

“And what about you and Teruteru?” Hifumi countered. “You sit there and treat me like garbage, but I see how close you two are getting. What’s that about? What is he to you?”

“I don’t have to explain myself to the likes of you,” Celestia said. “He, he appreciates good food. He makes something that brings value into the world, which is more than I can say for you and your stupid comics.”

“Oh, I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” Hifumi put his glasses back on, and adjusted them. “I think you just like being around someone who’s almost as big of a phony as you are.” He grinned, showing his big teeth. “Am I wrong, Ms. Yasuhiro?”

“You,” Celestia’s lips stretched through several different flavors of distaste. “You petulant…”

“Leave me alone.” Hifumi said. “Leave Sayaka alone.” He shook his head. “And get some therapy when we get out of here, geez.”

Celestia shrank in on herself, crushed under the weight of her own elaborate hairstyle. “Things… got a little off topic, I think.” Taka said. “But I think this discussion is nearing its end, anyway.”

“Wait,” Sayaka said. “I’ll, I’ll agree to your pledge.” She held herself, and tilted her head up to face the group. “I still want to escape, but, I don’t… want to be scared of everyone. So if you’re determined to make it through the killing game without exploiting this motive… I’ll do my best to believe in us.”

“Heh. Maybe I was wrong about you after all, babe.” Junko said. “You don’t have that killer edge you need to succeed. Oh well, I guess we'll all have to suffer through the rest of this."

“You made the right choice, Sayaka.” Taka smiled. “And I’m proud of you, Hifumi. Despite, how things happened before, I think you’ve matured a lot.” He stood and bowed to the table. “Meeting adjourned!”

Everyone split up, and I joined Mondo as we walked towards the atrium. “Taka did really well in there.” I sighed. “This motive is pretty bad, but I feel a little better.”

“…Yeah, well, I wouldn’t.” He said. “I meant what I said in there. And I think everybody else did, too. But that doesn’t mean it’s enough.” We reached the dojo, and he pulled open the door to wave me through. “…Alright. What are we gonna do with you?”

“Sakura had me doing breathing exercises, and some running.” I said. “But, we only had one training session. Nekomaru had us sparring… but that was a mistake. Maybe he’s good at training skilled athletes, but I don’t think he knows how to start with someone like me.”

“Yeah, well, he wouldn’t have been at his best that day, ya know?” Mondo said. “Maybe we should get him in here to help us. I don’t really have much experience as a trainer.”

“No,” my legs felt like jelly, “I, can’t…”

Mondo looked down at me. “What the hell? Are you more scared of him than you are of me?”

“I, I can’t, I can’t.”

“Hey, hey man. Calm down. Let’s, sit down for a minute.” He put one hand on my shoulder and guided me to the bench. “Damn. What happened that day really messed you up, didn’t it? Do you need to talk about it?”

“I was… a little kid again. Trying out for the soccer team. And the coach called me a weak little girl.” My breath caught in my throat. “He humiliated me in front of all the boys. And he didn’t protect me from them. And…” I was sweating, and my head felt too heavy, and,

“The fuck- Hey, hey man, don’t fuckin’ pass out on me.” He held my shoulders and stared at me until I stared back. “Shit, man. I’m going to get you a drink. Keep your head up. I’ll be right back.”

While he was gone, I tried to do some breathing exercises. I was so weak I couldn’t even talk about what happened, without… why, why was I like this…

Mondo came back, and he shoved a raspberry sports drink into my hand. He had a gym bag with a few other things in it, too. After I had finished about half of the drink, he unzipped the bag and pulled out a five-pound dumbbell. “Here, start with this. Let’s just see how many you can do.”

I took it in my left hand and started doing bicep curls. Mondo helped adjust my arm, saying my form was sloppy. When it hurt to do more, I set the dumbbell down. “Alright. I want you to take this bag back to your room after we’re done today. Keep it there, and any time you feel anxious, I want you to lift weights. Got it?”

I almost laughed. “I’d never stop.”

“Then it’ll do its job. When I get angry about something, nothing helps more than working out through it. Takes a really long time, sometimes. But you’ve got to get into that routine. Don’t let those things hang around… and that goes for bad memories, too. Go ahead and try the other arm.”

After that, he had me doing jumping jacks and squats for a while, then some running. I was feeling winded after the running, but he led me out to the middle of the dojo, and stood across from me.
He crossed his arms in front of himself, and leaned forward, so they were closer to my level. "Go ahead and hit me. As hard as you can."

"I," I balled up my fists, "I don't want to."

"I'm not going to hit back. And you aren't going to hurt me. Actually, if you did, I'd be impressed."

"I'm not, I'm not ready to learn to fight."

"It doesn't matter what you're ready for, Chihiro. This is a death game. Now, hit me."

"Mmm," I swatted at his arm, and felt a rush of shame.

"C'mon, man. You can do better than that," Mondo insisted. "I know you can."

I remembered what Nekomaru said, about putting weight behind your punches. I didn't have that much weight to use, but I changed my stance and tried again. "Better," he said. "A few more times." I kept punching his forearm. It felt a little less stupid each time. After about ten punches, he stood up straight. "Alright, that's enough for today. We can pick this up tomorrow. Didn't you have something you wanted to talk about?"

"Y, yeah." My tongue dried up. Even though my body ached, I wanted to work out more. To keep, putting this off. "I've been doing a lot of thinking. About what kind of person I am, and who I want to be. Getting stronger is still important to me. But..."

Mondo's expression went flat. I couldn't read it, but I got the sense he was trying just as hard to read mine. "But what?"

"I don't, want to be a man. I want to be stronger so I can just, be myself."

"Are you saying you want to be a girl? That, that wasn't just a disguise?"

"No, not that. It's, more that, I don't want to be either. I'm just," I shook my head. What words would he understand? "I don't want to try to fit in, either way. I'm different. And that... that should be ok."

He turned around, and I could hear him exhale. "This is, because of me, isn't it?"

"What? No, why would you think that?"

"You came to me that night because I made you a man's promise. I told you I wouldn't make you cry again. And you believed in that." He looked back. "So this? It's because I let you down. I... couldn't be the man you believed in."

"What? No, that's not it at all. I, just." I tried to look at his eyes, but I couldn't. "I was under a lot of pressure. I, I didn't know what was going to happen if my secret got out. I needed more time to sort through my feelings. Some of the students from the other class helped me, yesterday." I took a steadying breath. "I was inspired by you, and it's true that you let me down. But I'm making this choice for me. I need, to find my own strength. I can't just copy yours."

He shook his head. "I don't really get it, but if this is important to you, sure. You want me to call you they, like Sagishi?"

"Y, yes." That actually did feel good. "I'll tell everyone else soon. I just... wanted you to know first."

He smiled, and nodded. "Cool. Thanks. But, there's something I want to tell you as well." He stared at me, his eyes getting sharper. "Don't go exploring on your own. Not… while there’s an active motive, at least. If you want to go somewhere, get me or Taka to take you."

"What?" I stepped back. "I, I don't need bodyguards-"

"Yes, you do," he shouted, then raised his hand to his mouth. He steadied himself, and said "I mean it, Chihiro. The only reason you're still here is because someone saved your ass. Twice. I'm not," he ground his teeth, "You're not allowed to get yourself killed, understand?"

"I'll be more careful," I insisted. "You don't have to babysit me. I know the risks,"

"No you fucking don't," he yelled at me, and stepped closer, looming over me with his impressive height. "Do you get it?" I backed up, I held my hand up to try and stop my face from quivering. "Don't fucking look at me like that. Crying's not gonna make me go soft on ya for this."

“I have to stand on my own. I know you’re worried about me, but I need that. I,”

“This is what you’re going to grow a damn spine for? …Fine.” He turned and walked towards the door. “Then it won’t be my fault when ya fuckin’ die.”

“Mondo, wait,” but he didn’t, and I was alone.

I knew he wasn’t wrong. Not exactly. But that just made it worse.

But there was time to focus on something else. I returned to my room and showered off, then I put one of my old uniforms back on. I looked in the mirror. It felt even less me than it used to. But I was determined to deal with that today. I wasn’t going alone, though.

I left my room and knocked on Hifumi’s door. “Oh, Mr. Fujisaki,” he answered. “Have you come to discuss my new companion? I'm almost finshed with the design…”

“Another time, perhaps. I, I want you to help me talk to Sayaka, if you don’t mind. How is she?”

“She’s,” he deflated, “Well, I think everybody is a little scared, right now. But she’s trying.”

“Do you know, if she’s still mad at me?” I inclined my head. “Does she know that I…”

“I think she knows that you didn’t mean to attack her like that.” He sighed. “I don’t know if it matters, though.”

“I, I want her help with something.” I held a hand up to my chest. “I thought it might, help fix things between us, a little bit.”

“Hmm,” Hifumi tapped his chin. “Taking her mind off the motive for a little while might be a good thing.” He stepped out of his room and let the door close behind him. “We can try.”

I let him lead the way to her room, the first one on our side of the banquet hall. He knocked smartly, and called out, “Sayaka? It’s, Hifumi. I brought someone who wants to talk to you.”

She opened the door, just enough so that one blue eye could peer out. “Oh… it’s you.”

“Sayaka, I,” I closed my eyes and bowed my head. “I’m so sorry, about what happened that day in the dojo. I lost control, and I, I,”

“I don’t want to listen to you grovel,” she said. “Whether you’re sorry or not, what happened, happened. If that’s all you have to say, you can go.”

She started to close the door, so I blurted out, “I want your help, Sayaka. Please.”

She paused, and opened the door wider, so we could actually see each other. “I’m listening.”

“I,” I gestured at my plain, dull school uniform. “I want to choose a new outfit. This one doesn’t suit me very well, anymore.” I swallowed. “I don’t know a lot about fashion, but I think you’re a very fashionable girl. If you would help me, it would mean a lot.”

Some of the lines in her expression smoothed, and she stepped out of her room. She held a hand to her mouth as she stared at my clothes. “It’s true that your uniform is cute, but also rather plain and old-fashioned.” A smile quirked up the corners off her lips. “Alright, I’ll help you. Of course, I know a lot more about women’s fashion than men’s, so I’m not sure why you came to me.”

“I, well. That’s the thing.” I breathed. “There’s, one more person I want to bring, but only if it’s alright with you. I… want to invite Leon.”

“Le…” Sayaka’s hand started shaking, and I could sense Hifumi tensing up behind me.

“I know.” I couldn’t look her in the eye. “I know that you two have good reason to hate each other. But I think it would go better if a man and a woman helped me pick something out. It, it would let me see things from different angles. He already offered to help me, and I think he has good fashion sense.” I winced, and forced myself to meet her gaze. “But, it’s up to you. I don’t want him to come if you don’t feel safe. It’s also fine if Hifumi comes, if that will help.”

“I can’t,” Sayaka shook her head, “I can’t avoid him completely, in a place like this. But, the truth is…” it was her turn, to break eye contact and shiver. “You were right, this morning. I know, I know that I… shouldn’t have tried to kill him. That, if I hadn’t done that, we might both be…” She straightened up, and her eyes shone brightly. “Fine, we’ll invite him, too. Hifumi, do you mind coming along?”

He nodded. “Sure. I don’t think I’ll be much help, but I might find some inspiration for my characters.”

With that settled, the three of us made the short trip to Leon’s room. I was the one to knock. “Hey, man.” Leon looked at the two behind me. “What’s, uh, what’s this?”

“We’re going to Junko’s to help Chihiro pick out a new outfit.” Sayaka said. “He, he asked that you be invited to join us.”

“…And that’s alright with you?” Leon asked.

“I… I said I was going to try and forgive you,” Sayaka continued. “If you don’t want to come, that’s fine, we can just,”

“No, no, I’m coming.” He stepped out of his room and took the lead, heading for the stairs. “This is great, I’ve been wanting to help him with that.” I struggled to keep up with him, while Hifumi and Sayaka lagged behind.

I was grateful no one suggested inviting Junko. Even if her mastermind status was still a secret, it meant the others were starting to realize the ultimate fashionista couldn’t be trusted. The four of us made it to the store that bore her name. “What kind of outfit do you want to find, Chihiro?” Sayaka asked.

“Something for everyday wear.” I said. “It, doesn’t need to be super flashy or anything, but I would like it to be more distinct than what I have now.”

Sayaka led the way into the clothes. “Hmm. Are you still comfortable wearing skirts? How about this red one, with, a black top? Something close to what you have now, but with much more eye-catching colors?”

“He doesn’t want a skirt, Sayaka,” Leon complained.

“Actually, I might still like to wear a skirt. But, I don’t know about those colors.” I said. “They, might be a little too distinct. I don’t want that much attention.”

“Heh, with a color scheme like that, even somebody like Chihiro might look like a villain,” Hifumi added.

“Uh, no, I definitely don’t want that.” I shook my head. “The truth is, I kinda want something that doesn’t really make me look like a boy or a girl. Something I can just, feel relaxed in.”

“How about some jeans?” Leon suggested. “Here, they’ve got blue, black, gray…”

“Jeans, might be good.” I nodded. “Let’s take those light gray ones.”

“Alright, and how about this?” Sayaka suggested. She pulled out a tunic top, a long-sleeved, deep blue shirt that flared out into a skirt at the bottom. “You could wear it over the jeans. Is that what you’re looking for?”

“Uh… yeah, that does sound like a good idea. Thanks.”

“Hey, they have some fancy dresses over here!” Hifumi said. “What about this one?” It was a green and gold dress, paired with a top hat. “It has a big, green skirt at the bottom, but the top sort of looks like a men’s suit.”

Leon scowled. “Hifumi, that would make him look like some kind of leprechaun.”

“Hehe,” I laughed. “I really like it, Hifumi, but that would be for a fancy party or something. I wouldn’t want to look that flashy every day.”

“Something’s missing,” Leon said, looking at the clothes we picked up and tapping his chin.

“Maybe another shirt layered over the tunic?” Sayaka suggested. “Kind of like yours.”

“Yeah, that could work. Or a vest… what color would work well?”

“Green, I think.” Sayaka said. “Like the color his shirt is, now. Hifumi, can you find something like that? And Leon, can you help him pick out some sneakers? We’ll meet at the fitting rooms.” Sayaka broke off and headed towards the front, while Hifumi went in search of a vest. I was alone with Leon and the dance music.

His shoulders sagged, and he raised one hand to his face. “Are you alright?” I asked.

“Shit, man.” He turned and looked at me. “It’s just… I can’t believe she’s spending time with me. She’s having so much fun looking at clothes… it’s like she almost forgot what I did.”

“I’m surprised, too. I was afraid she wouldn’t help me, but I felt like I had to try. I’m glad she’s getting better.”

Leon looked around at the clothes. “You know, this freaky castle wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for, well, you know. Let’s find you some shoes.”

Leon helped me pick out some white sneakers, and then we all met back at the fitting rooms. Hifumi gave me the vest he had brought, and I took the whole outfit to get changed. I considered myself in the mirror. Everything fit, I liked the hang of the top. I smiled, and it really felt like me. I wasn’t pretending to be anything. I wasn’t hiding, or posturing. This was, perfect.

I stepped back out, and even did a little spin in front of everyone. “It’s great. Thank you so much for coming down here with me. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but this feels amazing.”

“Just, one more thing.” Sayaka stepped forward, and looped a purple ribbon around my neck. She tied it in front, and an iridescent opal charm hung from my neck. “There, now it’s perfect. I believe if you go to the counter at the front, you can get Monomaid to make copies of your new outfit, so they can get sent to your room.”

“Really?”

She nodded. “We’ll, go on ahead. The dinner meeting is soon. I…” She wilted, so much of the light in her eyes just dying as I looked on. “Thank you… for this little distraction.” We all walked back to the front of the store, and I watched the three of them leave. Leon was trying to talk to Sayaka, but she wasn’t really listening. Hifumi followed behind, fretting.

I rang the bell. A timer next to it started counting down from two minutes, but before a minute passed, a panel in the ceiling opened up. Monomaid plummeted from the opening, face-planted on the counter, and rolled off onto the floor behind it. "Ow!"

I pushed myself up on the counter, trying to peer over it. "Um, are you alright?"

She stood up, and straightened her little maid dress. "Oh, don't worry about me. No one's rung that bell yet, I didn't expect it to hurt." She dragged her tiny body onto a stool behind the counter, her tiny feet flailing until she got all the way up on the seat. She straightened her dress, and said, "Hello, thank you for coming to Junko's!" A moment later, she added, "Oh, Chihiro. You look different."

I held out my arms. "I feel different. Sayaka said you could make copies of this outfit, and put them in my room."

She nodded. "Everything but the sneakers and the charm, it's no trouble at all. I can do it tonight, since I'm not allowed to sleep. Hold still a moment." Her left eye flashed green for a moment, and she sat perfectly still. "OK, all done! Thank you for using the service counter at Junko's!"

I pat myself down. "Did you just, scan me?"

"Of course. I made a record of all the pieces of your outfit, including their size. It's a lot faster than asking you to write them down, and this will make it easier to find them in our system."

"System?" My mind raced. "Do you mean, like a database? Is, is everything in this place stored with a code?"

"Um," Monomaid ducked her head, and wriggled her ears. "Oh, no, I said something I shouldn't have, didn't I? Oh, Monokuma is going to punish me, I just know it."

"You're damn right I'm going to punish you," a voice growled from behind me. I stepped aside and turned, to see Monokuma glaring red eyed at the rabbit. "Not because of anything you did wrong, just on principle. What the hell did you say to him, Monomaid?"

"Just, ahh, I just promised to do my job!" she wailed. "Speaking of which, um, I should really get back to preparing the evening feast. The work won't wait! Bye!"

Monokuma and I watched her sprint away, pumping her tiny legs much faster than I thought possible. "So," he said, "What is it you think you've figured out, huh?"

I waved my hand at the store behind us. "Everything in here, probably everything in the castle, is stored in an asset database, isn't it? That's why she can just copy it, exactly, as long as she has the right asset tag." I poked my chin, continuing the line of thought. "In fact, that's probably where the food comes from, too. She just copies it from the database. Hmm." I snorted triumphantly. "I bet we don't even have to eat, really. We just think we do."

"Heh, sorry to burst your bubble, you wiry little nerd, but you're wrong. Just quit eating, and you'll figure it out soon enough."

"We'll see. But you're slipping up, Monokuma. First that programming book, now this. I'm going to prove this is a virtual world, then I'm going to find a way out."

"Mwahahahaha!" Monokuma rubbed his belly, chortling at me. "I think you're more fun like this, shrimp. Go ahead, believe what you want. Even if you were right, it’s not like you can change anything from in here."

I laughed. I actually laughed at him. “Is that how you think it works?”

“…Heh. Well, if you think you can change it, go ahead. I’ll be waiting.” He rubbed his chin. “You know, I hope you do manage to stay alive. I want to see just how you break when you find out the truth.”

“There's a way to beat your game and save everyone. I'm sure of it.” I left him, and headed upstairs for the meeting.

Chapter Text

Someone was knocking on my door. “In a minute,” I yelled at them. I checked my chin in the mirror, cleaned up my hair and straightened my clothes. Then I grabbed my satchel and opened the door.

“Mahiru! Good nom-nom-noming!”

It was too early in the morning for Ibuki’s nonsense, but I pushed myself to smile anyway. “Hey. Good morning. You, uh, didn’t bring me any dinner last night.”

“Bleh,” she shrugged. “Monokuma showed up and ate it. Maybe if you want to eat, you should come to dinner. You’ve, barely been out of your room, since…”

“I know.” I winced. “I… know. Has anything happened that I need to know about?”

“Well, yeah. We’re having a strategy meeting in the diner to discuss the new motive. Sagishi said you had to be there, too.”

“New motive? Ugh.” I rubbed at my forehead. “It’s, it’s too soon. I don’t want to do this again…”

“Nobody does. Ibuki is here for you, but nothing’s going to change if you hide in your room. Now come on, there’s food at the meeting, let’s go.”

“Yeah, I’m coming.” I followed her into the banquet hall. Several of the other students were at the table, but when I started to walk that way, Ibuki grabbed my arm and tugged me towards the atrium. “What gives?”

“They’re at their own meeting.” Ibuki shook her head. “It’s… dumb, Ibuki hates it.”

“What’s this new motive?”

“We’re, in teams.” She explained. “Based on which class we’re from. If a blackened manages to win a class trial, their entire class gets to go back to life.”

“So, there’s a chance to save an entire class?”

“But we would have to kill the other class to do it,” Ibuki finished. “Leon, Chihiro, Taka…” Her shoulders tensed up. “Hey, I’ll race you up the stairs, let’s go!” She took off into a dead sprint.

I was running too, before I had a chance to think about how stupid it was. I was winded by the time I caught up with Ibuki at the top of the stairs. She was panting like a dog, smiling with her tongue hanging out. “See, that was fun! Look, pancakes!”

“Thank you for joining us, Mahiru,” Sagishi said, standing up as we approached. “I know the last trial was especially hard on you, but it’s important that we work together to,”

“You don’t have to talk about it, ok?” I said, waiting for Ibuki to plop pancakes onto her own plate so I could get some. “I’m here, I’m awake, just, lead the meeting.” I took a seat next to Ibuki and started eating.

“Hmm. As you all know, this new motive Monokuma has presented us with is very different from the previous ones. He’s trying to prey on our love for one another, as much as our greed or our fear.”

“Maybe… maybe we should take this chance and get out together,” Mikan squeaked. My mouth gaped open, and I dropped the bite of egg I was eating.

“Mikan, are you serious?” Ibuki blurted out, spewing syrupy pancake bits across the table.

“Please, don’t hate me for this,” Mikan pouted. “I, I just want to make sure as many of us get out as possible. I don’t want the other class to die, but if it would end this nightmare, well, I don’t think we should ignore the possibility…”

“There’s more to this than the question of should we, but can we,” Sagishi said. “In order to pull this off, we would need to orchestrate a murder the other class couldn’t uncover. There are several people in that group I wouldn’t want to match wits with, with our lives on the line.”

“Chihiro did most of the work solving Sakura’s murder,” I pointed out, “and he was up against Nagito. You all know what he was like. In the last trial, I was the one to accuse Peko in the end, but I wouldn’t have gotten there without help from Mukuro and some of the others.”

“Mukuro is a mastermind,” Gundham pointed out. “Trying to fool someone of that caliber might not go well for us. If one of us did commit a murder to save the class, not only would they have to bear that weight of sin, but also the burden of withstanding the trial. Hmm,” his intense gaze wandered over the table. “Are any of you eager to bear that burden, I wonder? Will you take the plunge into the abyss of villainy to spare your comrades the same?”

“We’re not seriously discussing this, right?” Teruteru complained. “Come on, y’all, we’ve got friends in the other class. I’m scared, but, I don’t want to kill her.”

“That’s probably why Monokuma waited until now to give us a motive like this,” I pointed out. “We’ve had time to get close to the people in the other class. They aren’t just strangers anymore. If this had been the first motive, we might not be as hesitant to kill them.” I decided not to point out that the person I would have most wanted to save was already gone. Without Hiyoko, saving my classmates sounded like a hollow victory, at best. Especially since it would mean killing him. “I think that’s what he really wants. He wants us to fret and wring our hands about whether we should try to save ourselves, or protect everyone. And…” I choked up for a bit, “Eventually, somebody’s going to make that decision for us. I don’t want to believe it, but I’m not dumb enough to ignore it.”

“Exactly!” Mikan said. “I don’t want anyone to die, but, it’s probably going to happen.” She bit her lip. “And if it’s going to happen anyway, it would be better if we used it to get out, right? Otherwise, it’s pointless.”

“Mikan, your remarks this meeting have been most, concerning,” Sagishi said, “It sounds like you might already be plotting something.”

“What? Haha, no. I could never.” Her hands were twitching, and sweat glistened on her forehead. “I just, want my friends to be safe. That’s all. I’m not, going to do anything.”

“Nevertheless, I think it would be best if you weren’t allowed to be alone. You should be kept under guard until we escape or this motive has expired. We’ll all take turns.”

She went completely rigid. “I… I… I…” She burst into tears. “Thank you… I can’t, get these thoughts out of my head… I just don’t want to hurt anyone again. I’m sorry, forgive me, forgive me…”

“Knock knock,” a voice called out to us. Everyone turned to see Junko walking over towards us, waving and smiling her perfect smile.

Sagishi crossed their arms. “What are you doing? You aren’t allowed to be at this meeting.”

“Chill out, Ham Hands, I’m not gonna stick around.” I winced at the familiar nickname. She grabbed the empty chair next to me, yanked to out, spun it around and straddled it. “Our meeting just let out. And, there’s a little something I thought you all needed to hear.”

“…Say what you came for, and get out,” Sagishi said.

Junko cleared her throat. “We feel that this new motive is most unsporting, considering the obvious disparity in the teams. Really, the mastermind ought to be ashamed of such a play.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s, the numbers, silly. They don’t add up.” Junko shrugged. “There’s nine of us and seven of you. If someone from our team commits a murder and makes it to trial, all we have to do is throw the trial and agree to vote for the same innocent person. And, poof,” she waved her hands, “We all go free, and there's nothing you can do about it.” She laughed, “Weawwy, it’s a fucked up motive, when you tink about it. Nowmawwy, evewybody is supposed to do their best in the twial. But now all we have to do is lie and we can win. That's not very fair to all of you."

She pressed a hand against her face, glaring at everyone with one sharp eye. "The worst past is, you can't even do the same thing. If you want to save your team, one of you will have to commit a murder and sway our votes. You've got your work cut out for you. I have no intention of being easy to fool."

"I've already figured out the problem with the team sizes," Sagishi said. "But why are you bringing this up? Aren't you just giving away your advantage?"

Junko shrugged. "When it comes down to it, I just think things should be fair, ya know? That's what makes it a game. The mastermind may as well just kill you now if they aren't going to give you an even chance." She stood up. "But, I've said what I came to say. I imagine you have a lot to talk about so I'll leave you to it." She grinned, her teeth shining at me. "Byeeeee!"

We watched her leave, almost skipping towards the stairs. "That's... unsettling," said Gundham.

"She did almost kill Chihiro. She tried to claim self-defense, but I don't know about that." I pointed out. "I don't think we can trust her."

"T, trust her or not, dat dere Junko has a point," Teruteru said. "And Sagishi, what's this about already knowin' about the numbers? I didn't think about that, but it sho' makes this a lot worse for us."

"I didn't want to panic you even more." Sagishi shook their head. "We need to be vigilant, not terrified. I would advise you all to be careful about moving around alone."

"Taking a passive role in a dire situation isn't leadership, Sagishi." Gundham retorted. "It's cowardice. I for one have no intention of becoming a victim in this diabolical farce. It's time we accept the need for action."

"Listen, I've been thinking about this since last night," Nekomaru sighed. "If we have to kill to save ourselves, I should be the one to take that risk."

"Whoa, you can't be serious!" Ibuki blurted out. "But, but, butbutbutbut..."

"It's fine." He closed his eyes. "I, I don't know what's going to happen when I go back. I might get put into that robot again. If not, well, I won't have much time left. Either way, if I can get you all out, it would be worth more to me than surviving. Hell, if I lose the trial, it would at least protect you from losing to the other team. So, no matter what happens, I'm prepared to make that choice."

"What, what, no, we are not talking about this, are we?" Ibuki cried. "Sagishi, stop him, what the hell!"

Sgishi slammed his mighty hand down onto the table. "I'm forbidding any of you from these kinds of asinine heroics. Murder is murder, and it isn't going to be our salvation. That's my final word on the matter."

"Hmm." Gundham stood up. "Then I suppose there's nothing more to be said. Farewell."

Sagishi's face creased inwards. "I'm trusting you all to do the right thing. And stay safe. You are dismissed."

"I'll keep an eye on Mikan for a while," I said. "Can someone take over later?" Teruteru agreed, and the meeting split up, until Mikan and I were the only ones left. "Do you need to talk? I don't... I don't know much about what happened to you in our killing game. But I do know we were friends once. Even if I can't remember that friendship anymore."

She ran her fingers together, staring at her hands. "You know about the despair disease, right? The motive that, turned me into a killer?"

I drew in a sharp breath. "I don't know much. Ibuki doesn't like to talk about it."

"It, it changed people. Warped them. It started with Ibuki, Nagito, and Akane. We quarantined them in a hospital, so it wouldn't spread, and I did my best to take care of them. Hajime and Fuyuhiko tried to help."

"Hajime I understand, but Fuyuhiko?" I groaned. "I can't imagine him helping anyone."

"He changed a lot, after Peko died. But, anyway, Nagito's condition was critical. I've... never lost a patient, before." She closed her eyes, her face tightening in pain. "I wasn't about to start."

"You overworked yourself, and caught the disease from him, didn't you?" I looked away. "Since you're such a caring person, the disease turned you into a murderer, I guess. Mikan, that's awful, I'm so sorry."

"No, that, that's not what happened." She bowed her head, wreathing her face in her long, messy hair. "That, would have been kinder. My disease was, different. I, I could see flashes, of the memories that were stolen from us. From before the game started. We... and there was a person... a woman... who made me feel... a way I've never felt before."

"Your beloved." I said. "I've heard you say that, a few times. Mikan, these memories probably aren't real. It's a trick of the disease, you can't let them keep haunting you,"

"They are real!" She shouted. "They're real, and I know it. Because, because she's here." She glared at me, her eyes gleaming an eerie silver in the light. "It's her, that woman... Mukuro Ikusaba."

"What? Mikan, Mikan no, please," I protested, "You've been through a lot. And I know Mukuro's dangerous, but you can't go wrapping these dark obsessions around her."

"Oh, are you the Ultimate Therapist now? Of course, you wouldn't believe me. But I have proof. Hee, hee." Her smile split her face like a knife wound. "She talks in her sleep. The painkillers loosened her tongue, and she told me more about my memories. About who we are."

A dark, creeping feeling started at the back of my neck, and crawled down my spine. "Who... we are?"

"It's no accident that we're here." She giggled. "We deserve to suffer, Mahiru. You, me, all of us. That's the real reason I killed Ibuki."

"I, Mikan... It really does sound like you still have the disease. You're saying you killed Ibuki because she deserved to die?"

Mikan shook her head. "No, quite the opposite in fact. I killed Ibuki because she deserved to remain innocent." She smiled again, almost warmly. "She's such a good girl. So upbeat and full of life. She should stay that way, don't you think? She shouldn't be troubled by such dark things. It was... kinder, for her to die ignorant. And that's why..." She ground her teeth, and started to cry. "She even forgave me, for the awful thing I did. I just want to end this game and get her out, before she has to learn the truth. This, this motive, ahh..."

She lurched forward and seized my arm in both of hers. "Mikan, what the hell..."

"Promise me," she growled. "Look me in the eye, dammit, and promise me." I looked into her bloodshot, tear-streaked face. "Ibuki makes it out alive. No matter what, no matter how many others don't make it, Ibuki has to live. Do you understand?"

"Mikan, she's my friend, I'm not going to let her-"

"No, you don't understand." Her nails were digging into my arm, but I was too scared to pull away. "I couldn't do anything to save Hiyoko, and I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. But I could beat Leon to death with a bat. Or I could slice Chihiro's throat, and it might be good enough to save Ibuki." She released my arm, and shook with agony. "But I've done so many bad things already... I don't want to be a killer again. And I know Ibuki cares about them, so I'd just be hurting her anyway. I'm giving up my chance, because the rest of you don't want me to do it, but can't you see what that's costing me?"

I took a deep breath. "You're right. I don't understand you. Not really. But I'm not going to let Ibuki die. For your sake, and hers, and my own. I promise you, I will protect Ibuki."

Mikan couldn't speak anymore, she just cried. I stood up and came around to give her a hug. I was a little surprised when she hugged back. "You need to take care of yourself." I told her. "You won't be able to help Ibuki or the rest of us if you don't." I stayed with her for a while longer, until Teruteru came by. "Take her to the arcade, or the pool, even. Just, don't ask her too many questions, alright?" I left them to look for Ibuki.

It wasn't hard. She was on the stage in the music room, brutalizing a trombone. "Oh, hey, Mahiru. Do you think heavy metal has room for more trombones?"

"Uh, I really wouldn't know, Ibuki. Are you alright?"

"Yeah, of course," she jumped down and walked past me. "Why wouldn't I be?" She picked up a mallet and started smacking a metal xylophone arrhythmically.

"You aren't, speaking in the third person, for one. But you were really worried in the meeting this morning."

"That was this morning! Come on, let's do something fun. Oh, hey, do you play an instrument, Mahiru? Which one's your favorite? Do you want Ibuki to teach you one?"

"Ibuki, talk to me, please. It's, ok to slow down every once in a while."

"Hey, what happened to your arm? Are you breaking out with something?"

"Huh?" I looked, and I could see small, red welts over my left arm. "Oh, I was just talking to Mikan. Things got a little, intense."

Ibuki snorted. "Haha. Is that what you call it, just talking? Well, I guess that would keep her distracted, from, uh, the... the thing. Hey, I can play two flutes at once, wanna hear?"

"Ibuki," I stepped forward and yanked one of the flutes out of her hand. Her lips sputtered, as she continued to half-play the other one. “Please. Slow down, and talk to me. I know you're scared and upset right now and you're trying to avoid it. But, if you keep acting recklessly all the time," I shuddered, "Something, something bad could happen. I need you to stay safe."

I'd swear I could see her skin crawl. "Ibuki... doesn't want to slow down. Ibuki can't. Don't... ask me to stop..." She dropped the flute, and turned away from me, but I could hear her trying not to cry.

"Ibuki, I'm sorry," I tried to step around her, but she shuffled her feet, moving away. "I'm really not trying to upset you, I just want to understand what's going on. Please, we're friends, right?"

"Ibuki, is..." She shook her head, then looked up. "A shark!"

"What?"

She faced me again, grinning like a little kid. "Ibuki is like a shark!"

"OK, what does that mean?" She grabbed my right arm and yanked me off balance, and before I knew what was happening, she bit me on the forearm. "Ah, oww! What..." She let go, and I backed away. I rubbed the spit off my arm, and looked at it closer. I would have welts on this arm, too. "You, did, why the heck did you just..."

"See? Ibuki is like a shark. You need to be careful around her because she might eat ya!"

"Ibuki," I could feel my face going red, "This isn't helping, you need to stop,"

"Sooooo, did you say sorry to Chihiro yet?"

"What, don't change the subject,"

"Mmm, that didn't answer my question."

"I," I closed my eyes for a moment, "I, tried to. But I said the wrong thing to him, and I think he's upset with me."

"Buuut, you're going to try again, right?" She bobbed left and right, bouncing on her feet.

I groaned. "I can't, right now. With the motive, he might be scared if I approach him. But, huh, when I get another chance, I'll try to make it right."

"Hmm, Ibuki doesn't think that's good enough. But you should have this anyway." She fished around in a pocket, and handed me something, a photograph.

I took it from her, noticing that a piece of tape was holding it together. I turned it over, and gasped. "Ibuki, why do you have this..."

"Ibuki went over to his room that day, the day you kicked him out. Ibuki wanted Chihiro to know we were still friends. That was, on the floor."

I stared at the photo of Chihiro dancing with Hiyoko. "That dance seems so long ago. It's only been a few days... Hiyoko, I'm sorry. Chihiro..." I walked over to the stage and sat down, before my legs could give out.

"Ibuki thinks you should give it back to him. After, after you fix things."

"Thank you, I will." I sniffled. "You're a, better friend than me. That's why I'm serious about this. Please stay safe. Don't go off on your own. OK?"

"Meow."

"Darn it, Ibuki, I,"

"I'll stay safe," she smiled. "Uh, thanks. For worrying about me. I know I'm, a lot, sometimes."

I sighed. "It's almost time for dinner. And, our meeting with the other class. Let's go." We left the music room, and, sure enough, ran into Chihiro on the way up the stairs. He was dressed in a completely different outfit, with a green vest over a blue tunic top and jeans.

"Whoa, hey, you look neat!" Ibuki blurted out.

"Umm, thanks, Ibuki." He kept his gaze up and forward. I watched him, as we climbed the stairs, but my mouth wasn't working. The three of us made it to the banquet hall. Tonight, the classes sat on opposite sides of the table, with the extra seats acting as a buffer. Ibuki and I took our seats on the left side, and Chihiro went to sit between Mukuro and Taka.

We ate in tense silence for a while, until Sagishi announced it was time to talk by tapping their glass. "I am pleased to see that we are all still here. It would seem keeping us separate has been a successful tactic."

Kiyotaka stood up, rigid as a post. "After our meeting this morning, my class has a proposal that should ease tensions. We believe the best way to prevent another murder is to swear a pact that we all strive to do our best in the class trial and vote for the guilty culprit, even if it means passing up a chance to escape. We have not all sworn to this arrangement, but enough of us have that the rest could not throw the trial. I ask that my classmates that support this plan to please stand."

Chairs shifted, and most of Team Havoc stood up. Only Celestia, Junko, and Mukuro remained seated. "For the record," the latter said, "I intend to do the same thing. But, not for some friendship pact. I just didn't spend all that time getting you assholes to kill each other so you could come back to life."

"This motive is meant to erode our trust and tempt us with the promise of saving our friends." Taka said. "If we remove that potential, we can rebuild our bonds and focus on exposing and defeating the mastermind. If enough of your class agrees, we can swear this pact."

"It is... a brave proposal." Sagishi scratched their chin. "But I am not willing to risk the lives of my classmates on so slender a promise."

"Ibuki will!" The musician stood up, and raised her hand high. "Ibuki will risk anything to keep us all together!"

I stood up next to her. "I'm scared," I admitted, "But... I think we've all suffered more than enough. I'm not going to be controlled by Monokuma's games."

Mikan stood up, too. "To tell you the truth, I really, really want to get my friends out." She rubbed her nose. "But I'd rather do it this way, if it's really possible."

Teruteru was fretting, staring at Celestia. "Why, why didn't you get up?"

She seemed more fascinated by her own fingernails than the meeting. "Due to my profession, I feel as though my word leaves something to be desired when it comes to inspiring trust. Voicing my support would not help Taka's little contract, and it might even damage it. So I will keep my intentions to myself. Make of that what you will."

"Well," Teruteru stood up, "I'll support it. There's someone on the other team I don't want to give up on."

"Bah!" Gundham folded his arms, and remained seated. "Humans invented language in order to create ever more elaborate methods to deceive. Any contract not bound in blood is utterly meaningless."

Nekomaru stood up “It, it means a lot that so many of you want to work together. So, I’m in too.”

“Heh,” Sagishi pushed themselves up. “It would seem my team has chosen to lead us where I would not. Very well. Now that I know their minds, I will also support this plan. Thank you, Kiyotaka, for taking the initiative to bring peace back to all of us.” They sat down, and everyone standing followed suit.

“Yeah!” Ibuki said, “Does, does this mean we can start music lessons again?”

“I would still advise caution,” Sagishi warned. “There’s still a chance a murder could happen. This pact only serves to tell anyone considering that path that they won’t have any allies.”

“And we can have a concert!” Ibuki bounced in her chair, “To celebrate us all being friends again!”

“You’re still on about that?” Leon complained.

“I… want to have a concert, I think it’s a good idea.” Sayaka said. “I miss doing what I love. And, I miss not being afraid.”

“Seriously?” Leon said. “Hell yeah, if she’s in, I’m in, too. Even, if, I’m not really ready, heh.”

“Oh, this is so awesome!” Ibuki vibrated with energy. “We’ll take a day or two to rehearse, and then we’ll blow everybody’s minds, you’ll see! Oh, hey, Chihiro, do you think you could help out?”

“W, what?” He stammered. “You know I can’t play anything,”

Ibuki shook her head. “No, no. The special effects! You can use the equipment in the AV room, right?”

He stared off into space for a moment. “Oh. Of course, there should be some computers in there. I should be able to help with that. I’ll check it out tomorrow. But, um,” he stood up. “Since things are a little less tense now, I wanted to go ahead and let everyone know I’ve, figured something out. I know I just asked you to see me as a boy, but talking about my secret with some of you has helped me realize that isn’t right either. Instead of seeing me as a boy or a girl, I’d like you to see me, as just me. Chihiro. I don’t want to pretend to be anything I’m not. Please call me they, instead of he or she, like you do for Sagishi.”

Oh. Oh. A few people nodded or said something supportive, but I was too stunned to speak up. It explained their outfit. It certainly wasn’t what I would expect from someone trying to be seen as a man. It explained, so much, really. They must have never felt like they really belonged. And I'd made them feel worse. I had to do better. I wanted to understand them, and I still wanted them as a friend and ally. Now that tensions were easing because of the pact, it might be possible to approach them. But, one thing about them was concerning me. They hadn’t bothered fixing a plate for dinner.

Chapter Text

I sat on the bench in the dojo, doing breathing exercises to distract myself from being hungry. I had decided to allow myself water, but I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast the previous day. It hurt, I even felt a little dizzy. But I knew if I could just keep this up, I could override the illusion of this place. My body was probably in suspended animation, or sustained with a tube-feeding system, or something. I only felt hungry because my mind was too weak to realize I didn’t actually need any virtual food.

Still. I wanted a sandwich.

At eight sharp, Mondo came in. “You’re already here,” he said. “Let’s get started.” And it went like that. He gave me instructions, and I followed them. He corrected my form a few times, but didn’t say anything else about my performance. He let me punch his arms again, then he stood up straight.

“OK, what gives?” he said. “Am I working you too hard? You look like you’re about to keel over.”

I shook my head. “I… uh, I’m, just a little hungry.”

He folded his arms. “You didn’t eat at dinner last night. Did you eat this morning?”

“…No. I’m, running an experiment.”

“The fuck? You tryin’ to figure out how fast you can die?”

I clenched my fists, to try and make myself stand upright. “Monomaid let something slip yesterday. I’m more convinced than ever that this world we’re in is a virtual simulation. Which means the food isn’t real. I just… have to overcome my mind’s belief that I need food, and I won’t anymore.”

Mondo grunted. “You dumbass.” He stepped forward and shoved my right shoulder. He didn’t shove very hard, but I was barely holding myself up as it was. I fell on my back with a gasp. “Did that hurt?”

“Uh, yeah,”

“And you can feel it burn when you exercise, right? You can feel what it does to your muscles, your lungs?”

“Yeah,”

He swung his arms out, and slapped them against his thighs. “Experiment’s over. I’m not saying you’re wrong about the whole virtual world thing. But it’s real enough that your body believes it, even if your mind doesn’t. Don’t fuck yourself over trying to prove otherwise. You’re gonna get killed. Remember what happened to Taka, when he didn’t eat?”

I closed my eyes, shame weighing them down. “Yes. I see your point. I promise to eat something.”

He reached a hand down to help me up. “I know you wanna help everybody escape, but there’s a better way to do it than killing yourself. Wait, hold on a second…” He glanced around, at a clock on the wall. “Ah, hell. I don’t have time to explain. Come over here.”

He walked over towards the wall, where a stack of gym mats leaned against it at an angle. He pulled them upright. He pointed. “Lay down here, alright?”

“Mondo what is this about?”

He looked at the clock again. “Damn it, I need you to trust me on this. Lay down and don’t come out until I say. Or, until you’re alone.”

I started shaking, and I couldn’t say if it was the hunger or something much worse. “I, I don’t know what’s going on.”

His face went red, and he ground his teeth. But he sighed, and shook his head. “Please. We can talk after. Please trust me.”

I wanted to be anywhere but lying on the floor under those gym mats. But, I nodded, walked over to the wall, and lay down. He leaned the mats back over me, and nodded at my hiding place. “That’s good, he won’t see you.” He walked away, took off his jacket, and set it on the bench. Then, he waited in the middle of the dojo, and stood facing the door. He popped his neck.

Both doors swung open, and Nekomaru walked in. “Ah, Mondo. You're here.”

“A Crazy Diamond never backs down from a challenge, coach.”

Nekomaru walked up to face him, just a few feet away. It hit me again how much smaller and shorter Mondo looked, next to him. “Listen. You don’t have to do this, if it’s just pride. I won’t think any less of you.”

Mondo turned and spat on the floor. “I’m here, ain’t I? Are we gonna do this, or are you just looking for a reason to back down?”

I could see Nekomaru’s chest move, as he took his next breath. “I’ve got people I have to protect.”

“So do I,” Mondo said, shifting into a fighting stance.

“Then we have no more need of words.” Nekomaru’s stance shifted as well. “Give me everything you’ve got!”

My heart leapt into my throat, and Mondo’s fist flashed towards Nekomaru’s jaw. It connected, but Nidai caught Mondo’s wrist and pulled him off balance. Mondo staggered to the side, and Nekomaru punched him in the stomach. I expected Mondo to fold in half, but he held his ground, and slipped behind Nekomaru, kicking him in the back of the knee.

Nidai let him go so could back away, but Mondo chased him, striking again for the knee. Nekomaru shifted to face him, and punched Mondo in the shoulder. The two faced each other, and Nekomaru swung at Mondo again and again. Mondo started weaving like a boxer, dodging Nekomaru’s’s punches or blocking with his forearms. Then, he darted in again. Mondo rained punches down on Nekomaru’s broad chest, forcing the larger man to focus on his defense.

Mondo kept the initiative, using his superior speed to circle Nekomaru and look for an opening. It looked like he had one, he moved in for an attack. And Nekomaru hit him with an uppercut to the diaphragm. I wanted to scream. I probably did. Mondo backed up, his legs shaking. And Nekomaru charged.

Mondo pivoted like a dancer, sliding out of the way. His foot lashed out, caught Nekomaru on the side of the same knee he’d struck earlier. “Shit!” Nekomaru fell to one knee, and Mondo followed up by punching him in the back of the head. Nekomaru’s neck snapped forward.

I thought that might be it, that Nekomaru couldn’t fight back anymore. But he roared and lunged towards Mondo’s legs, grappling him to the floor. Mondo tried to squirm out of his grip, but Nekomaru held fast. So Mondo kneed him in the face. He slipped free, and reached for Nekomaru’s neck. He got the bigger man in a chokehold, and bashed his forehead against the wooden floor, one, two, three times.

Then he stopped, his knee pressed into Nekomaru’s back, his hands around his neck. I could hear both mean breathing. “Had enough, Nidai?”

“Here I thought you were just some hotshot. I’m impressed.” Nekomaru wheezed. “Go ahead and finish it. Protect your friends, if you can.”

“What the hell,” Mondo muttered. He pushed himself off Nekomaru’s back, and got to his feet. “I’m not gonna kill ya, ya fuckin’ jackass. Can you stand?”

Nekomaru eased himself up into a sitting position. “Why,” he looked up at Mondo, with a deep frown. “Why did you agree to the duel, if you weren’t going to go through with it?”

Mondo looked off to the left. “I told ya, didn’t I? A Crazy Diamond never backs down from a challenge. There are people I have to protect. And I’m gonna do it my way. You can go back to your classmates and tell them we’re serious about the agreement. And, as for you,” Mondo leaned over and offered Nekomaru a hand up, “Quit lookin’ for a reason to die. I’ve been watching you for a while. I don’t know what your deal is, but you’ve got to live for yourself, not just the people you care about.”

Nekomaru accepted the hand up, and the two men stood looking at each other, for a moment. “We both know this isn’t going to end without more bloodshed. I was willing to sell myself to stop it. This, what you’ve done, doesn’t change that fact. Somebody’s going to pay the price for that.”

Mondo shook his head. “Yeah, well. If you wanna know the truth, I think you’re right. But those people I have to protect? They believe in the contract. So I’m gonna fight to protect it, anyway. Maybe that way, I can make it real.”

“So that’s it, I see.” Nekomaru looked down at his hand, and squeezed it. “Thank you, Mondo. Let’s both do our best, to protect everyone.” He turned to walk away, but stopped and said, “And… tell Chihiro I’m sorry for me, would ya? I’m sorry about, what happened.”

“Heh,” Mondo snorted. “Be a man and tell them yourself.”

Nekomaru nodded. “Should of known you’d say that.” And he left the dojo. Almost before the doors were closed, I was crawling out from my hiding spot, until I could stand up. Mondo turned, but before he could say anything, I was up and running. Mondo walked over to the bench, picked up his jacket, and turned to face me.

I punched him, as hard as I could, in the stomach. “Why?” I shouted, and I kept shouting, that one word, each 'why' punctuated by another punch. Mondo didn’t say anything. He didn’t try to defend himself or move away. He just waited, until I wore myself out and sank to my knees. “He could have killed you,” I sniffled, “I can’t believe you risked your life like that. I can’t believe you made me watch. Why, Mondo?”

“I wasn’t planning on losing,” he swung the leather jacket over his shoulders, putting it back on, “But just in case, you were my backup. I needed to show him there was another way. I needed to show him that he could trust us.”

“You wanted me to witness your death,” I wiped my face, “So I could testify in the class trial, is that it?”

Mondo smirked and shook his head. “It wouldn’t have come to that. If I’d been about to lose, you would have shown yourself. I know you would have.”

“What good could I have done? He would have just killed me, too.”

“You really don’t know how someone like him works at all, do you?” Mondo shook his head. “He wouldn’t have killed you. It would have shamed him as a man.”

I could feel the heat rising up my face. “Because I’m weak, is that it? People like you and him, you hate the thought of attacking someone weak. That didn’t save me from you, did it?”

I’m pretty sure that hurt him more than all of my punches. “…He’s not, like me. We’re similar. But… he’s the kind of man who doesn’t have to pretend he’s stronger than he really is. That’s why I hated seeing him so damn miserable. I know that’s not the real Nekomaru. That’s why I knew I could beat him.”

I closed my eyes, shaking my head. “It was, stupid. No matter what your excuses or explanations, it was far too reckless. Please, don’t do something like that again.”

“It was reckless, huh,” he leaned over, his pompadour looming over my head, and pointed directly between my eyes. “Then maybe you should think about the same damn thing, Chihiro.”

“I, huh?”

“A few days ago, you tried to stop my bro Taka from attacking Mukuro. You could have died, but I bet you didn’t hesitate at all.” His face went red. “No, you saw someone in danger, and you threw your body in the way. Even though you can’t fight. Even though you’re small, and some of the people here can snap you in half without even trying. You still did it. Do you have any idea how fuckin’ scary that is?” He stopped to breath, but just for a second. “Maybe you do, now. Maybe now that you’ve seen me in real danger, you’ll think twice about getting yourself killed.”

I clutched at my chest. “I know… I’m not strong, like you. I.. I can’t fight someone like Nekomaru, or even somebody like Junko. Or anyone. But… I can’t just watch somebody die. I had to do something… even if it was worthless. I had to try.”

“I know,” Mondo crouched down, on knee, so he wasn’t towering over me, and his eyes went soft. “I know you had to. And that’s why I want to be there, if something like that happens again. So we can face it together. But, I know I can’t always be watching over you. I can’t tell you where to go, or what to do.” He reached inside his jacket. “So, I want you to take this.” He pulled something out, a shiny metal handle, black and silver. It had his gang’s name, “Crazy Diamonds” embossed on one side in gold lettering.

“What,” I said, and Mondo clicked a button on the handle. A shining blade erupted from the case, longer than my hand. “That’s a, Mondo, I'm pretty sure knives that big are illegal!”

“What, did you think my gang got a reputation by always following the rules? Take it.”

He set the knife handle in my palm. I handled it like it might bite me, which wasn’t far from the truth. “I, I don’t know how to use something like this.”

“That’s something else I can teach you. With any luck, you’ll never have to use it at all. A little less, and just showing it will keep anyone from trying to hurt you.” He exhaled. “But, if the worst happens, at least you can fight back. At least… I can do that much for you.”

He showed me how to retract and draw the blade, and helped me hold it correctly. “We can work knife lessons into your training. But I want you to carry this with you, any time you’re out of your room, got it?”

I stared at it. The thing weighed more than a cinder block. “Have you had this on you, the whole time?”

“Mmm, yeah,” Mondo nodded. “I… don’t really like to show it to people. It is an illegal weapon, for one. It’s also… not mine. Not really. The old boss gave it to Daiya when he retired.”

Suddenly, it seemed a lot heavier. “Your brother’s, Mondo, I can’t take this.”

“Yeah, you fuckin’ can, and that’s the end of it, understand?” He stood up. “That’s enough for today. The breakfast buffet might be closed, but try to find something to eat, got it?” And he left me, holding his brother’s knife.

I pocketed the knife, and walked over to the market. I broke my brief fast with a protein shake and some chips. It wasn’t much, I was still a little hungry, but at least I wouldn’t pass out. Then, I went back to my room, showered, and checked my dresser. True to Monomaid’s word, it was filled with duplicates of the outfit I had chosen yesterday. I put on my new clothes, sliding the knife into an inside pocket of my vest, and it was time to go help prepare for the concert.

I walked downstairs and checked the music room, first. Ibuki, Leon, Taka, and Sayaka were all there, working on a song list. Sayaka was dressed in a bright, frilly pink dress, something I might have seen her wear on TV before. “Good morning, Chihiro. You’re looking well.” Taka said.

“Yeah. You seem a lot different, dressed like this,” Leon added. “Is it helping?”

I bowed, “Leon, Sayaka, thank you both for helping me out yesterday. I, feel so much better, now that my real secret is out. What can I do to help with the concert?” I asked.

“Have you familiarized yourself with the audiovisual equipment yet?” Taka asked.

I shook my head. “I haven’t even looked at it, yet. Is Hifumi around? He seems like he might be able to help with something like this, too.”

“I’m not sure where he is,” Sayaka said, “He said he wanted to do something special to help with the concert, but wouldn’t tell me what.”

“Just go take a look at the equipment,” Taka suggested. “Once we have the song list figured out, I’ll help you come up with a program. It’s been difficult.” He sighed. “None of us, actually have the same taste in music.”

“Oh, uh, you’ll figure it out. I’ll just, be next door, then.” I took the connecting door into the theater, and looked towards the back. The other times I’d been here, my eyes had been drawn by the stage or the chandelier, and I’d completely neglected what was at the back. A short stairwell, to the right of the entrance led up to a room with a large window that looked out over the theater. The lights were on, but the room was too high up to see inside of it. I climbed the stairs, and stopped when I got to the landing in front of the door.

Someone had placed one of the theater’s chairs against the door, with one of its back supports looped over the knob. The rest of the chair was suspended from the knob, leaning down the stairs. That, that couldn’t be normal. I looked at the knob. It couldn’t turn all the way, with the chair’s back support braced against it. That cold, dread feeling eased up my neck, and my heartbeat seemed too loud in the empty theater. Anyone inside the AV room would be trapped.

I grabbed the chair, and yanked it to the left, struggling until I could pull it up and shove it down the stairs. I hesitated, for a second. Could I smell something? I held one hand to my nose and mouth, and pushed against the door.

It didn't move. Was it locked from the inside, as well as barred from the outside? I pushed harder, but still nothing. Then, I braced my shoulder, and threw as much of my meager weight as I could against it.

The door shifted, opening about a quarter of the way. I got a very brief glimpse of the AV room. A greenish mist hung in the air, over a desk with an array of technical equipment. And I could see a limp arm laying on the floor, attached to the body that must still be blocking the door.

Before I could look closer, my eyes began to burn. I screamed, clutching my searing face. I lurched blindly away from the door, and ran down the stairs. My legs tangled in the discarded chair’s, and I tumbled down the stairs, landing in a bruised and crying heap at the bottom. “H, help!” I wheezed and coughed. I hadn’t been able to completely protect my throat. I crawled back towards the music room. “Help, please… I, I think there’s a dead body!”

Chapter Text

I staggered through the door into the music room, the very same door I’d come through barely two minutes ago. “Help, please,” I massaged my throat. “Poison…”

Taka snapped to attention. “What’s happening? Do you need Mikan?”

I nodded. “There’s… I think someone’s in there. But, not safe…”

Ibuki took off running. “I’ll find her!”

“Chihiro, you saw someone in there?” Sayaka asked. “Who? Do they need help?”

I slumped against the wall. “Can’t, it’s too late.” I could barely keep my eyes open, but I did my best to meet her gaze. “Sayaka, I’m sorry. It’s, it’s Hifumi.”

Sayaka froze, her face going white, her legs swaying, just slightly.

“We, we have to help him!” Leon said, “Let’s go, Taka!”

“Right behind you!”

“No! I begged. “I only, breathed it in for a second. But it’ll be spreading now.” I coughed again. “You, you can’t!”

The two men looked at each other, their hands clenching nervously. “Monokuma, get out here!” Leon yelled.

“You rang?” The bear stepped out from behind a drum stand, as if he’d been waiting for this moment.

“Can you clean the poison out of the theater?”

“’Course. I control everything in here. I could also fill this room with ranch dressing.”

“Then fucking do it!”

“What, the dressing thing, or…”

“Get rid of the poison, you fucking piece of shit! Our friend’s dying in there!”

“Well, that’s, not strictly correct, puhuhu. If he was, I wouldn’t clean the air for you. That would be interfering with a murder, and I have a pretty strict policy about that.”

“You’re, then you’re saying…” Sayaka shivered, “He really is dead?”

“I’m not saying anything till the bell rings. Give it about five minutes, and go see for yourselves. Bye!” Monokuma scampered back behind the drum stand, vanishing.

The four of us glanced around at each other. “I can’t,” Sayaka said, running her hands over her bright pink skirt. “I can’t…” She shook her head, and ran towards the door. Leon stood, watching her go.

Taka came over and sat down next to me. “Is it in your throat? Your eyes?”

I nodded. “I didn’t breathe much, but it hurts.”

"We can help you wash your eyes out. There are showers in the pool area, let's go." He helped me stand, and he and Leon half-dragged me across the atrium and into the pool area. "Wait at the door, send Mikan over here if you see her." Taka instructed, and Leon nodded. Taka directed me under a shower, and lukewarm water splashed over my face. "Stand up straight," he said.

I tried. He held my shoulders. "I thought we did it," I whined. "I thought that, nobody would want to kill to save anyone, if they knew we would all be against it. But, it, it wasn't enough." My new clothes were getting soaked.

"We can't do anything about that, now," Taka said, "But I promise we'll get to the bottom of this. You should... take it easy this time."

I shook my head. "I'll help. Even, even if it still hurts, I want to help."

"Let me see them," a girl's voice said. "Bring them out here." I didn't really recognize Mikan’s voice until I saw her. She had a small wheeled tank with her, and a grim clarity to her face. Mahiru was right behind her, but she looked a little lost. Mikan reached for my chin and tipped my head up, and stared into my eyes. "Do they still hurt?" she asked.

"N, no."

Mikan nodded. "Thank you, boys, for taking care of that. I'll handle things from here."

"Good," Leon muttered. "I'm tired of waiting. The air should be clear enough by now. I'm going over to that theater, and I'm gonna catch whatever bastard killed Hifumi and hurt Chihiro."

"I'm coming, too," Taka said, and the two left me alone with the girls.

She began fiddling with the tank, preparing the hose on the end of it. "Can you describe the gas you breathed in?"

“Uh, it was, a greenish mist. Smelt, acrid.”

“Chlorine gas, maybe. Here.” She brought me over to the tank and fit a breathing tube into my nose. "You'll need to be on oxygen for a while. Fortunately, the infirmary had a portable tank. You have six liters of air, that should be enough for very short-term exposure, but if it's not, I'll need to refill it. You shouldn't need to mess with any of the dials, but let me show you how they work if something goes wrong." While she was showing me the intricacies of the oxygen tank, the chime went off.

“DING DONG BING BONG,” it rang out, and Monokuma said, “A body has been discovered! After a short time, which you may use however you wish, the class trial will begin! Please make your way to the theater in the basement.”

“Oh, no,” Mikan hissed, “I’ll need to help with that, too.” She checked the tank one more time. “Can I leave them with you?” she said to Mahiru.

“Oh, of course.” And then I was alone with Mahiru. “I…um.” She swallowed. “How bad is it?”

“My throat… and my nose, feel raw. I…” The fresh air being pumped into my throat made me feel lightheaded, but I steeled myself. “But I need to investigate, too. I’ll be alright. Thank you.”

“You, you shouldn't worry about that,” Mahiru shook her head. “I know you want to help, but,”

“Chihiro!” A voice boomed. “Shit, what the hell.” Mondo came running over from the pool entrance, and almost shoved Mahiru out of the way. “What the fuck… Taka told me. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” I insisted. “I’ll, be fine. There’s more important things to focus on, right now.”

“No,” Mahiru said. “We need to put you somewhere safe, so you can rest.”

“Don’t even try,” Mondo muttered, pulling a spare Monokuma file from inside his jacket. He presented it to me, saying “You’re gonna help no matter what we say, huh?” I took it and read. Victim: Hifumi Yamada, Height: 170 cm, Weight: 155 kg, Cause of Death: Asphyxiation due to an Airborne Toxin, Time of Death: 11:13 AM. “So he was already long dead when I found the body. At least I know I couldn’t have saved him.” I nodded. “Yes, even if I have to drag this tank around, even if it hurts to breathe, I’m doing whatever I can to help.”

Mahiru frowned, started to say something, and tried again. “…Alright. I’ll, stick with you this time, if that’s ok. Let’s get started.” The three of us started to walk towards the door, with Mahiru in front and me in back.

“Wait,” I said, pausing next to the pool supply closet. “Mikan… said what I breathed might be chlorine gas. There’s, chlorine in there, right?”

“Probably,” said Mondo, walking over and opening the door. “Uh, there’s a bunch of stuff in here… skimmers, filters. Yeah, there’s a couple of buckets of chlorine tablets. But, there’s a dusty ring here on the floor, see? It looks like there was another bucket but it’s gone.”

Mahiru took a few pictures of the inside of the supply closet, including where the missing bucket had been. “I don’t think there’s anything in here that would react with the chlorine, though. How’d the killer turn it into gas?”

“Maybe they brought something from somewhere else,” I suggested. “We might think of it later, for now let’s go back to the crime scene.” We crossed the atrium, the little oxygen tank rattling against the tile behind me, and re-entered the theater. It seemed most of the students had already dispersed, looking for evidence elsewhere. I pointed at the chair, that was now at the bottom of the stairs, shoved out of the way. “That was, hanging on the doorknob to the AV room when I went to check on it. The killer used it to trap Hifumi inside.”

Mahiru covered her mouth. “He was… poor Hifumi.”

"Yes, indeed. A terrible thing..." I looked up to see Sagishi coming down the stairs. "I apologize. I was unable to prevent this from happening. It is... likely that Hifumi's killer was someone from my class, trying to help us escape."

"It's not your fault," Mahiru said. "You tried, but, you can't take responsibility for everyone's behavior." She winced. "I... I've had to remind myself of that a lot, the last few days."

Sagishi nodded. "We must all do our best to make sure the murderer doesn't get away with this. It's, all we can do, now. Excuse me." They moved out of our way, and left the theater.

Mondo started walking up the stairs. “Let’s go. Can you handle your tank?”

I struggled to lift it, but Mahiru grabbed it and held it steady. “If you tangle the cord or tear the hose out, you could make things worse. Don’t be stubborn.”

Together we climbed the stairs. Mondo pushed the door open and peered inside. Then, he backed up, and gestured us forward. “The room is too small for all of us. I’ll be right here.” He held the door while Mahiru and I entered.

Hifumi had collapsed, face down, in the middle of the small room. Mahiru sniffed the air. “It still smells like the pool in here. I don’t want you in here for long, got it?”

I had more time to look over the equipment now. A film projector, a soundboard, and a computer sat on a desk, with a wheeled desk chair resting on top of the soundboard. The window over the desk had a spiderweb of cracks. "He tried to break the window with the chair, but it wasn't enough." I forced myself not to rub my eyes, it wouldn't help. "He was desperate to escape."

I walked over and tried to turn on the computer, but it didn't work. The gas must have damaged the equipment in here. I mentally kicked myself for not checking this room before, I probably could have done something with this.

But that wasn’t important right now. "Hey, there's something under the desk." Mahiru leaned down, and pulled a bucket out to where we could see it. "We found the missing chlorine bucket."

The bucket was empty, scoured clean of whatever had been mixed in here. "Monokuma probably cleaned out any leftovers, along with the gas," I said, "But we can probably assume this was used to mix the chlorine with something else. I guess that makes this the closest thing we have to a murder weapon."

I scanned the rest of the room, but didn’t see much else that could be useful. Which meant there was no way to put this off. “Let’s look at the body.” I didn’t see anything unusual on his back, but when Mahiru pushed onto his side, we could both see that his eyes were swollen shut, and his face was covered in blotchy rashes. I flinched back. “There’s nothing useful,” I said, “Let’s go.”

The two of us joined Mondo, and we all walked down the stairs. I sat at the nearest table, bowed my head, and cried. “I can’t believe somebody would do this to him. He must have been so scared,” I shook my head. “At least I died quickly.”

“There’s no time for this,” Mondo pointed out. “Do we have anything to go on?”

“Give them a minute,” Mahiru said. When Mondo tried to complain she held up a finger. “One. Minute.” She sat down next to me. “I didn’t know him very well. I’m, regretting that, right now. It was easy for me to think little of him, but he deserved better. He still deserves better. Now think. We don’t have a lot of evidence, let alone anything that points to a culprit. What can we do for him, right now?”

I ran through the possibilities. “There’s a few things. We could try to find the other component to the poison gas. It probably came from the market… or maybe the laundry room, or the infirmary. I don’t know much about chemistry, so it might be better to let someone else do that. Someone had to get Hifumi into the AV room to kill him. And the killer had to be present when he went in, so they could bar the door. He would have smelled the chlorine right away, and would have tried to leave as soon as he realized what was happening. Which means Hifumi and the killer must have come here together… that’s it. The killer has to be someone Hifumi would have come here with willingly.”

Mondo snorted. “I guess it wasn’t Celestia, then.” He paused, and he stared, his jaw stiffening. “You don’t think… it was Sayaka, do you?”

The thought froze my tears. “It, it couldn’t be. But,”

“She is the one Hifumi trusted the most,” Mahiru finished, “So we can’t ignore that chance.”

I shook my head. “I saw her face go pale when I told her he might be dead. If, if it was her, she’s a much better actress than I would have guessed. We should at least talk to her, if we can. Do either of you know where she is?”

“She didn’t show up to get a Monokuma File,” Mondo said.

“She probably went to her room, then” I said, “Let’s go.” We made our way up to the first floor, I didn’t even bother trying to carry the tank up the stairs, I let Mondo do it for me. We crossed the atrium, and the banquet hall, all the way to the end, to the room of the first person who had died in the killing school life.

Mahiru knocked on the door. “Sayaka? We just want to talk.”

“I don’t have anything to say to anyone!” She yelled, from the other side of the door.

“Dammit, that man was your friend,” Mondo shouted. “Are you going to do anything?”

Something heavy slammed against the door from the other side, a chair, perhaps.

“Did Hifumi talk to anyone?” I asked, “Anyone who might have wanted to hurt him?”

Her door opened, just a crack. “Junko,” she said. “He was sitting next to her last night, at dinner. I think she might have slipped him something on a napkin. I didn't think anything of it then, but, it might be important.”

My stomach tried to implode, and I had to steady myself by leaning against Mahiru. “Junko…”

Sayaka slammed the door in our faces. Mondo and Mahiru both supported me, as we walked away. “Hey, are you alright?” Mondo asked, “Is this about the night in the library?”

“N, no… It’s, worse than that. I,” I closed my eyes, “Can you two keep a secret? A really important one?”

“Of course,” Mahiru said, as Mondo nodded.

“We can’t go to Junko,” I explained, “We should go to Mukuro.”

“What the,” Mondo snapped, “Why the hell would we wanna talk to that crazy bitch?”

I clenched my fists, and didn’t answer until I could stand up straight and look him in the eye. “Because Junko was the real mastermind in our game. Mukuro is… trying to protect us from her. At least, I think that’s what she’s doing.”

“That’s, that doesn’t make any sense,” Mahiru said, “If Junko is the real mastermind, shouldn’t her sister tell everyone? Instead of just, treating us like garbage all the time?”

I shook my head. “I don’t get the specifics, but she thinks Junko is too dangerous to be exposed. If there’s a chance Junko is the one who killed Hifumi, talking to Mukuro is our best chance.”

“Right then, let’s find her.” Mondo led the way. It didn’t take long. We saw her coming down the stairs from the top floor, carrying a white plastic jug with her working hand. We stopped her at the bottom, with her standing three steps above us.

“Detergent?” Mahiru said, “Wait, is that bleach?”

Mukuro nodded. “The other ingredient for that gas the killer used, I’m pretty sure.” She cocked her head. “What are you three doing?”

I stepped forward. “We need your help. Do you think Junko could have been the one who killed Hifumi?”

It was very brief, but I did notice the alarm in her eyes. “What the hell are you talking about? My worthless sister can’t even kill time.”

“It’s, ok.” I braced myself. “You don’t have to pretend. They know what she is.”

“What,” Rage roiled across her cool features, like a snake writhing inside its old skin. “You worthless runt! You made a promise,”

“Hey,” Mondo held up a fist, “You say anything to them that I don’t like, and I’m breaking your other arm. We just wanna talk.”

Mukuro shivered for a second longer, swallowing her parasitic, writhing anger until her face was stoic once more. “No, I don’t think it’s likely that Junko killed Hifumi. She wouldn’t want to end the game so quickly. I,” she sighed, “I think this is fun for her.”

“You know,” Mahiru said, “If Junko really is a mastermind, it would explain her attitude yesterday, when she interrupted our strategy meeting.”

“She,” I saw that tiny flicker of fear in Mukuro’s eyes once more. “She went to your team’s strategy meeting? What did she say?”

Mahiru’s face soured. “She was pointing out that your team could actually win the game by deliberately losing the trial.”

“What?” Mondo said.

“Because of the numbers advantage.” Mahiru continued, “Your team has enough people that if you all voted the same way, you could force the blackened to win.”

“But we wouldn’t do that!” Mondo shouted.

“Geez, I know, but,”

The plastic jug slipped from Mukuro’s hand, and bounced down the last few stairs. Her lips were quivering, and she lurched forward, and grabbed my shoulder. “We need to get everyone together, right now!”

“Hey, what the fuck, if you hurt them,” Mondo stepped closer.

“Shut up!” Mukuro shouted. “We need to find everyone and bring them together, right fucking now!” She shook her head, forcing herself to calm, “Look, we need to split into two teams, find everyone, and gather them in the downstairs atrium. We have to go, now.”

“What the hell. Fine, I’ll go with you,” Mondo said. “You’re acting crazy, and I don’t trust you with either of them.”

She nodded. “Good enough.” To Mahiru and me, she said, “Don’t let each other out of your sights, got it? We’ll go downstairs, I think most of the students are still down there. You two check this floor.” Mukuro dashed towards the stairs leading to the basement, and Mondo gave chase.

“What is this about?” Mahiru asked. “She didn’t explain anything.”

“She, must think something’s going to happen.” I said. “I, I don’t know, but I think we should do what she says.” I glanced around the atrium. “There might be somebody in the store. Let’s check there first.” We started walking, my heart beating faster with each footstep, the tank rattling loudly behind me. I didn’t know why I was scared, I just knew that Mukuro wouldn’t panic over nothing. I outpaced Mahiru, and broke into a run.

“Hey, wait!” she tried to catch up, but I entered the store first. I didn’t see anyone, but I did see a bright, pink stain, splattered over the white tile, at the end of the second aisle. I turned the corner and froze. I lifted my hand to my mouth, my breathing got sharp and heavy, and I stared. Mahiru came up behind me. “Oh, my god,” she whimpered. Leon Kuwata’s body stretched across the aisle, blood splattering from his head, pooling against the cold floor.

“DING DONG, BING BONG,” for the second time today, the dreadful chime filled the air. “A body has been discovered!” Monokuma chirped merrily. “After a certain amount of time, which you may spend however you wish, a class trial will begin. For now, please make your way to the RocketPunch! Market on the first floor.”

“Why,” I leaned against a rack of sodas for support. “There’s, there’s already been a murder. Why would someone,”

“Hey,” Mahiru said. “I hate this as much as you do, but let’s have a look around, before everyone else gets here.” She readied her camera, and started taking pictures of the body. I forced myself to stand, and took a closer look as well. Was this how I looked, after Mondo killed me?

No. My death had been swift, and sure. Leon had fought his attacker. The most devastating blow was to the back of his head, but that alone hadn’t been lethal. There were more bruises and cuts, along his face and scalp. His knuckles had blood on them as well. And, there was something clutched in his fist, a torn piece of dark-colored fabric I couldn’t identify.

Mahiru took a few more pictures of the crime scene, and stepped over the body to take a few more. She reached down, examining something on the other side of the body. “What do you think? Leon wasn’t as tough as Mondo or Nekomaru, but it must have been someone pretty strong, to beat him up like this.”

“I’m, not sure about that,” I pointed at his gaping head wound. “It depends on whether that was the start of the fight or the end of it. But I don’t think it could have been done by hand. It didn’t need to be someone strong, if it was a surprise attack and the killer was armed.”

‘Oh, I suppose you have a point.”

Before we could investigate further, more people began to show up, led by Taka, Mondo, and Mukuro. “Leon, no,” Taka knelt next to his body, tears filling his eyes. “I, I couldn’t protect,”

“Hey, enough of that.” Mondo helped him to his feet. “We can’t help him by feeling guilty about it.”

“Puhuhu,” Monokuma tittered. He was standing on the sales counter, nearby. “I can’t decide which I like better, a grand slam joke, or ‘Mighty Leon Has Struck Out.’ Which do you think would have pissed him off more?”

“You piece of shit,” Mondo whirled on Monokuma, bracing for a fight. “Why was there a second murder? What the hell is this?”

Monokuma shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe you should ask Mikan or Celestia. They’re familiar with the concept, heheh. But now that everyone is here, it’s time for the Monokuma file!”

Monomaid climbed up from behind the counter, her head bent, her arms loaded with more of the files. “H, here you go, everyone…”

She spread them out over the sales counter, and the crowd shuffled about picking them up and reading in silence. I waited my turn, and took mine. Victim: Leon Kuwata, Height: 175 cm, Weight: 67kg, Cause of Death: Multiple blows to the head, Time of Death: 12:06 PM. I glanced at the clock on the wall. Fifteen minutes… it had only been about fifteen minutes since he died. “We almost walked right past the crime taking place,” I pointed out to Mondo and Mahiru. “If, if we’d been a bit earlier, we might have heard or seen something from the atrium. We might have been able to save him.”

“We didn’t know what was happening,” Mahiru pointed out. “We didn’t come up here to stop a murder, but to talk to Sayaka. We, couldn’t have known…”

“Sayaka…” I looked around. I couldn’t see her in the store. I walked out into the atrium, and saw her leaning into the nearest corner. Her shoulders were tensed up, her face ashen. She also wasn’t wearing her elaborate stage dress anymore. She had changed into her normal clothes, the school uniform with the big ribbon. I walked over to her. “I’m sorry, Sayaka, you must be so scared. But, maybe you can help. Did you see or hear anything before you went to your room?”

“Why would I?” She bared her teeth. “As soon as you told me he was dead, I went straight to my room and I didn’t come out. I can’t handle this anymore. Just, leave me alone, alright?” She pushed off from the wall, and started to walk away, shrinking more with every step.

“That, that poor girl.” Mahiru shook her head. “She’s just like me when we lost Hiyoko. Maybe worse.”

Behind her, Mondo huffed. “Maybe we should take Monokuma’s advice and talk to Mikan or Celestia. If we can figure out why Leon was killed, it’ll help us figure out who might have done it.”

“Mikan should be performing an autopsy, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind a question or two.” I went back into the market, where a number of people were still investigating. Sure enough, we found Mikan examining Leon’s corpse. It made my stomach churn, just a bit, to see how casually she handled dead bodies. “Um, Mikan,”

“I’m working,” she said, her tone clear but detached.

“I know, but, we just wanted to ask.” I took a deep breath. “We know you killed two people during your killing game. But, why, when one would have been enough to win?”

“I had no intentions of killing Hiyoko. She simply wandered into my crime scene, and needed to be silenced.” She didn’t stop working while she talked, and kept her voice in that same cold tone. “It’s, funny, in a way. Hiyoko was always a nasty little bitch, but that has nothing to do with why she died.”

Mahiru tensed up. “Hey, Mikan, you’d better watch what you say,”

“I’m busy.” Mikan interjected. “You asked me this because you think I might have some insight into the second murder, yes? Well, there it is. If Leon found out something the killer couldn’t allow him to know, they would have been desperate to kill him. In fact, judging by how messy this crime scene is, I would guess Leon’s murder wasn’t planned at all. Now, please go away.”

The three of us retreated, and gave Mikan some space. “Leon was very fired up after I found Hifumi’s body,” I said. “Even more so than Taka. It’s possible that Mikan’s right, that he found something before anyone else did. Let’s look around the crime scene some more.”

We walked around the next aisle so we could approach the body without stepping over it or disturbing Mikan again. While we were walking past the sports equipment, Mahiru froze. “This…” She reached over, and pulled out a wooden baseball bat.

She held it lightly, to keep her hands free of the blood, and showed it to me. “It’s, the right kind of object to hit someone with if you’re trying to kill them.” She shivered. “You can, take my word on that.” Not only was a big splotch of blood on one specific spot near the end of the bat, but lines of pink ran down in several places, closer to the grip.

I squinted. "Is that...glass?"

"Let me see," Mondo leaned in. "It must be the same bat Nagito used to break the fish tanks."

“The killer moved it away from the body, but didn’t take the time to clean it,” I said. “Or, they didn’t have the time.”

“Take it,” Mahiru shoved the bat towards Mondo. “Please, I feel gross holding this thing.” He snorted, but took it from her and carried it at his side.

We came around the aisle, approaching Leon’s body carefully. One side of the aisle had rows of chips, Pocky, and other snacks, while the other had things like art supplies, manga, and magazines. Several bags of chips had fallen, some of them landing on Leon’s back, though Mikan had carefully moved these to examine the body. The body lay sprawled with Leon’s hands and face towards the chips, his legs pointed back towards the art supplies. Most of the blood was pooled around his head and arms, but there was also a sketchbook, laying near the body in a pool of blood, not far from Leon’s left hand.

I walked over and picked it up, wary of the blood that was seeping out of the pages. I noticed there was more blood inside the sketchbook than on the cover, and opened it carefully.

I found the page where the blood had been smeared, and it looked like there might have been a pattern to it, a final message of some sort. But the message had been damaged when the sketchbook had been closed. “Is this, supposed to say something?” I asked the others.

“I don’t think so, I can’t read it.” Mahiru said. “If it was a message, the killer must have tried to hide it. It doesn’t look very helpful like this.”

And that’s when the chime rang out. “DING DONG, BING BONG,” and Monokuma’s voice spoke. “Eh, I’m getting kinda bored. So let’s get this class trial started already. Please head to the first floor atrium at once!”

Chapter Text

We filed out of the RocketPunch! Market, leaving the crime scene behind. Most of the other students had remained on the first floor for the second phase of the investigation, so it didn’t take long for us to gather. “Thank you both for working together with me. I can’t believe they’re both gone… but we’ll find the real truth about what happened.”

“Right. I’m going to talk to Taka, I’ll see you down there.” Mondo left.

“Of course,” Mahiru said, clutching her satchel. “The real truth.” That familiar rumbling began, silencing further words, and the fountain lifted up, revealing the courthouse entrance.

Monokuma stepped out of the shadows. “Welcome, welcome, to the main event, the final showdown between team Havoc and team Despair. One at a time, please, no shoving. There’s plenty of room for everyone on this road to wonders!” He ushered us inside, grinning his hungriest grin.

I followed Mahiru into the darkness, my oxygen tank dragging on the carpet, and we entered the rickety lift. The tank clanked loudly against the metal floor, making me wince and duck into a corner. I studied the faces of my classmates. I saw worry and fear on most of them, though some, like Junko, Celestia, Sagishi, and Taka kept their faces carefully placid.

The elevator settled, and the doors clanged open. We stepped out into a courtroom very different from the ones we were familiar with. Instead of the circle of stands I expected, there were two semicircles, facing each other with a gap in between. Spotlights hung in two rows from the ceiling, one row shining down on the left circle of stands, the other on the right. They bathed the left half of the room in warm, orange light and the right in cool blue. The middle of the room was a lightless abyss, splitting us off from each other. “Things are going to be a bit different this time,” Monokuma rubbed his paws together. “Team Havoc will take the stands on your left, while Team Despair will take the stands on your right. Now hurry up and find your spot!”

“I… I guess we won’t be together this time.” Mahiru said to me. “Let’s just… let’s just both make it through this, alright? Are you feeling ok?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I gripped the oxygen tank’s handle. “Even, even if things haven’t always gone well between us, and even though he wants to insist that we’re on different teams, thank you for helping me.”

“…Right,” and she left me.

My team, team Havoc, was filing into our stands. There were empty ones, on the side closest to the doors, marked out for Hifumi, Sakura, and Leon. I took the stand between Mondo and Mukuro. It was a little tricky, getting the tank into the stand with me, but after fussing with it a bit, I settled in and faced Team Despair.

The blue light made their faces seem washed out, and far away. I could see stands marked out for their dead classmates, but not which was which. Ibuki’s garish hair made her look particularly ghastly, standing at the end next to Mahiru, who stood opposite me.

“Now, let’s open the trial for the murders of Hifumi Yamada and Leon Kuwata,” Monokuma said, far too pleasantly. “Remember the stakes this time. If the blackened manages to avoid getting caught, they and all their surviving classmates will be permitted to leave, and only the other class will be punished. If the blackened is instead found guilty, they will be punished alone, and the opportunity to save your friends will go to waste. Don't you have anything to add, Monomaid?" The rabbit was slouching on the floor in front of the throne, her features wreathed in shadow. She didn't say anything. "Bah, you're even more boring like this." He threw his gavel at her, and it bounced off her head with a metallic clang, and she mutely retrieved it for him. "Now, let’s have a good, clean murder game, and get started!”

Taka, standing in the center of our team’s side cleared his throat. “Before that, I want to reiterate my commitment to seeing this trial conclude fairly. I have no interest in exploiting Monokuma’s motive, and intend to protect everyone in both classes. I expect everyone who agreed to do so to keep your word.”

“Of course,” Sagishi nodded, across from him. “Now that it has come to this, we must do the responsible thing and strive to solve the case. Mikan, would you like to begin?”

“Um, yes,” she cleared her throat. “The two victims were killed in very different ways. Hifumi’s body showed considerable burns and the signs of asphyxiation, consistent with an inhaled, caustic poison. Leon suffered multiple blows to the head and upper body, delivered with a blunt object. I, I also noticed several cuts, especially along his hands. I couldn’t figure out where they came from.”

“Two victims…” Taka said. “I suggest we discuss Hifumi’s death first. It won’t be useful to try to talk about both at the same time. Can you tell us anything else about the poison?”

Mikan nodded. “The poison was likely chlorine gas. The burns on Hifumi’s body, as well as the effect the poison had on Chihiro, would be consistent with that.”

“Chlorine gas, huh?” Nekomaru said. “How did the killer have access to somethin’ like that?”

“The killer only needed access to the ingredients,” Mukuro said. “Remember when I said anything can be a weapon? This is what I was talking about. It’s possible to make chlorine gas by combining chemicals that were stored in different parts of the castle.”

“Interesting,” Celestia said. “What are these ingredients?”

“Most likely liquid bleach, from the upstairs laundry room, and pool chlorine, from the pool supply closet in the basement.” Mukuro explained. “I checked the laundry room during the investigation, and confirmed that there was a jug of bleach there. There were likely more, at one point.”

“And I looked in the pool closet,” I spoke up. “There were buckets of chlorine tablets, but it looked like one was missing. The empty bucket wound up being under the desk in the AV room, where we found Hifumi’s body.”

“Hmm,” Sagishi said, “So you’re saying anyone could have made this poison, if they knew it was possible, and knew where to find the ingredients?”

Mukuro nodded. “Yes, it doesn’t help narrow things down very much, does it?”

“We must consider the possibility of suicide,” Junko giggled. “Afta all, it’s not wike the killa could have dwagged Hifumi in there against his will, wight?”

“No, it can’t be suicide,” I said, “Because the killer barred the door from the outside with a chair after leading Hifumi into their trap.”

“Deception!” howled Gundham. “There was no chair barring the door, not when I investigated the scene.”

“That’s because Leon and I moved it off of the stairs before we looked into the AV room,” Taka said. “Hmm, I suppose Chihiro is the only one who actually saw if the door was barred.”

“It was,” I insisted, “And even if you don’t want to believe me, the AV room’s window was cracked, where Hifumi tried to break it with the desk chair. He wouldn’t have tried that if he could just leave through the door, right?”

“Hmm, a fair point.” Gundham admitted, “Though, if it wasn’t suicide, some foul human must have lured the damned fool into the hellish embrace of death, for as Junko pointed out, he could not have been put there against his will.”

Sayaka spoke up, the first time I had heard her during the trial. Her voice was thin, and reedy, and would not have carried if everyone did not silence themselves to listen. “What if… someone must have knocked him out, right? Someone knocked him out and dragged him in there, and poured the bleach over the chlorine while he was unconscious. That, that must be it, right?”

Taka shook his head. “Hifumi was… not a small man. If the killer intended to move their victim, there are far easier targets. I would estimate only Mondo or Nekomaru could move an unconscious Hifumi without help, and it would still be difficult. Maybe Mukuro if her arm wasn’t broken.”

“I should also point out,” Mikan squeaked, “I, I didn’t see any injuries on him, other than the burns. But… what if I missed something?”

“No, I don’t think that’s what this is,” Gundham said, “This notion of moving the body is the feeble, grasping feint of a drowning rat, clinging to the corpse of its comrade to stay afloat.”

“Listening to your bullshit pisses me off,” Mondo shook his head. “Just say what you mean, asshole.”

“But I have!” Gundham gestured grandiloquently. “Behold your blackened! Hifumi’s murderer, and Leon’s as well, is none other than Sayaka Maizono herself.”

“I…” She swayed on her feet. “I, didn’t do anything. I could never, never again…”

“The easiest way to explain Hifumi’s murder is that someone went with him to the AV room after starting the reaction and barred the door as soon as he went inside.” Gundham shook his head. “Hifumi was not close to many people. But he would have followed you anywhere.”

“What truly damns Sayaka, is of course, her connection to both victims.” Junko said. “The person who killed her in the first killing game, and the person she grew closest to in this one. Certainly, it is possible that is a coincidence- but only if she has a good alibi. Well, Ms. Maizono? Can you tell us of your activities this morning?”

“I, I, I was at music practice,” she stuttered. “Taka and Ibuki know! Chihiro saw me there, too.”

“And, when, pray tell, did music practice begin?” Junko asked.

“At 10:30 AM, sharp,” Taka stated. “Enough time for the band members to eat breakfast and attend to their own needs first.”

“…Oh, no,” Junko sighed. “That’s just, too bad for you, Sayaka. Judging by his time of death, it looks like you could easily have locked Hifumi in the AV room and still made it to music practice. I guess you don’t have an alibi… not for Hifumi, anyway. How about Leon? Where were you when he was killed?”

“I…” I could see her head bowing, now, weighted with shame. “I went back to my room after learning Hifumi was dead. I didn’t come out until the second body discovery announcement.”

“So you didn’t go check on Hifumi’s body or help with the investigation at all?” Junko tsked. “He sure was lucky to have a friend like you. And then Leon… I saw Leon, you know, shortly after he found the body. He was so angry, so fired up. He knew it was you, didn’t he? He confronted you himself, before the trial.” Junko sighed wistfully. “I guess you’re one-and-one with him, now. How do you decide that tie-breaker?”

“You’re wrong,” Sayaka choked out. “I didn’t see him, at all, after I left the music room. I just went back to my room, changed…”

“Out of your blood-soaked dress,” Mikan interjected. “I saw you, before I went downstairs to treat Chihiro for gas exposure. You were wearing a beautiful stage dress, much flashier than your everyday clothes. But you aren’t wearing it, now. Umm…” she licked her lips. “Sorry for this, but in my opinion, there’s no way the person who killed Leon didn’t get a lot of blood on them. It must have been quite a struggle… and since no one here is bloody, it means Leon’s killer must have changed their clothes, I think.”

“No, no, she has a point. Ssssss.” Junko shook her head, waving her big pink pigtails around. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“You,” Sayaka wheezed, “It’s you, isn’t it? I saw you slip something to him on a napkin last night, you’re the one who lured,”

“What’s that?” Junko leaned towards Sayaka, holding her hand to her ear. “You think I did it? Wow, it takes some guts to throw out an accusation from where you’re standin’ babe. I can’t wait to hear what kind of evidence you’ve got.” She let the silence hang, for a moment. “You’ve, got evidence, right? You’ve totally got somethin’ and you aren’t just bullshittin’ me?”

“I’m afraid quite the opposite,” Sagishi said. “We aren’t done building the case against Sayaka. I have something here that was tucked into Hifumi’s pocket when I examined the body.”

“Oh, oh!” Monokuma stood up. “Since you can’t pass evidence between teams, any and all material evidence will be displayed on the monitors on both sides of the room.” He clapped. “So you can see the words, big as life!”

The monitor behind Team Despair flickered on, and I could see, in neat, clean handwriting, a message. ‘Meet me at 10:15 AM in the theater. There’s something I’m very excited to show you. –Sayaka.”

“That,” Sayaka shook her head. “What the hell, that’s not mine. I, I never wrote that note. I would never…”

“You wouldn’t?” Junko interrupted. “Because I think you wrote a very similar note, once before. A note that you slipped under the door of, oh yes, Leon Kuwata. I'm sure when he saw that, it brought back some painful memories.”

“What, but, I, no…” I could hear Sayaka’s breathing, her raspy, choking wheeze, from here.

“One moment,” Taka said. “I examined the body right after Leon, but I didn’t see that note. Did anyone else see it?”

“I did,” Gundham confirmed. “It was tucked into his jacket. It would have been easy to miss.”

“And… and the handwriting. Is it genuine?” Taka asked.

“We did see Sayaka’s note to Leon, remember?” Mondo said. “I, think it might have looked like that. What about you, Chihiro?”

“Maybe,” I didn’t want to believe it, of course. She and Hifumi had seemed like good friends, and she and Leon helped me just yesterday. But the case against her was solid. I couldn’t think of a single thing I could say that would change that. Of course, it could be Junko, but I couldn't prove that. “I… can’t say for sure it isn’t her writing.”

Sayaka burst into tears. Sagishi shook their head, slowly. “I, think it’s time we move on to voting.” I saw several nods, across the circle. Silence hung over the courtroom, except for Sayaka’s quiet sobs. I noticed Mahiru, biting her lip. I steeled myself for the worst.

And a voice cut through the tears, sharp as nails. “Oh for the love of- you imbeciles were actually about to vote for this girl, weren’t you?” Celestia shouted. “Brainless, blithering peasants, I’m embarrassed for all of you. Sayaka isn’t the murderer.”

“What, what’re you talking about, Celestia?” Teruteru asked. “Do you know something?”

“Ahem, of course I know something. I know who really killed Hifumi Yamada.” She swept her hand across the courtroom, then pressed it against her own chest and bowed her head. “I did.”

“What?” Sayaka screamed. “You, you lying, backstabbing, heartless bitch, I’ll tear out your throat!” She lunged at Celestia over the stand separating the two of them, and got her hands tangled in one of Celestia’s elaborate hair drills.

"Ow, what the, I'm trying to help, you idiot," Sayaka tore off most of the hair extension. Celestia leaned as far from Sayaka as she could, holding one hand against her head, and glaring on the broken Sayaka with pity. “Keep it, then. And calm down, you’re falling apart.”

“Celestia, you need to explain yourself,” Taka demanded. “You killed Hifumi? Why?”

She shrugged her shoulders. She looked terribly lopsided and top-heavy, with only one drill. “It isn’t complicated, not really. I want to get out of here. I’ve always wanted to live in a castle, but not at the mercy of some gaudy, sadistic puppet. Same as the last killing game, I was biding my time until an opportunity presented itself.”

“Wait,” Nekomaru said, “So you weren’t trying to save your friends?”

“Hmph. My friends…” She shook her head. “I’m not sure that term applies to one such as me. I’ve only ever seen the rest of you as rivals, rivals that I would have to outlive one way or the other. But, if there really is a way for more than one of us to survive, well, I certainly don’t begrudge your continued existence. It simply isn't my priority. No, I did not kill Hifumi to save any of you.”

“Then, then why now?” Teruteru demanded. “W, why did you use this motive, if you don’t care about saving anyone?”

“Because Monokuma set up this round to try and make us all think in terms of teams,” she explained. “Us, versus them, havoc versus despair. Even this courtroom reflects that.” She sighed, “But, as far as I’m concerned, the rules haven’t changed. Whether Hifumi lived or not was irrelevant to me. So I killed him in the hopes suspicion would fall on the other team. Of course, things didn’t happen that way. Instead, you have all decided to convict Sayaka of her closest friend’s murder.”

“You, you’re lying, you have to be,” Teruteru insisted. “That’s not what really happened! If it was, why are you revealing yourself now? You could have won, you were almost there. Why are you lying about this?”

Celestia’s tongue clicked. “No, I was not about to win. And this isn’t about sparing Sayaka’s feelings, either. My goals have not changed. I intend to win this game, and I will do whatever it takes, even confessing to murder.”

“Huh? You weren’t about to win?” Ibuki said. “Pretty sure you were. You’re the killer and somebody else was about to be voted in your place. Is Ibuki, missing something, or,”

“I was not about to win because one of you foiled my plan already,” Celestia said. “Monokuma, do you want to explain, or shall I?”

“Heh, of course, of course,” Monokuma pressed his paws into his cheeks with glee. “What Celestia is talking about is the ‘multiple killer’ rule, although she's one of the only ones here that knew about it. Ya see, there can only be one blackened at a time. If someone commits a second murder before the trial, that killer becomes the blackened, and the first killer is no longer eligible to win the trial.”

“So, what I’m saying is this.” Celestia closed her eyes. “This trial was never about who killed Hifumi Yamada. That question is as irrelevant as Hifumi himself. You’ve all been putting your efforts into the wrong investigation, so I’m settling the matter so we can move on. This case is really about who killed Leon Kuwata.” Her eyes flashed open, gleaming red. “And that, I did not do. I was with Teruteru for almost the entire investigation, including when Leon was killed. And since Teruteru is on the other team, he would have no reason to lie on my behalf.”

"Erm," Teruteru tugged at his collar. "She's telling the truth, about that last part, at least. There's no way she could be the one who killed Leon."

Silence stretched across our circle. "...Hold on." Sagishi folded their arms. "I'm not convinced. This could be a ploy to divert our attention from Sayaka. If she really is the blackened, then it would be to your benefit to mislead us."

"Do you really think that's what I'm doing?" Celestia scowled. "Completely ridiculous."

"Not at all," Sagishi countered. "You've already confessed that you would do anything to win this killing game. And you opted not to support Kiyotaka's proposal to collaborate in the trial. I see little reason to believe you in this."

I studied Celestia's face, the sharpness of her eyes, the cold, stark line of her mouth. I could believe she was capable of killing, I could even believe that she would have killed Hifumi. But, did I believe she actualy did? "Is there a way you can prove that you killed Hifumi? What about that note, the one with Sayaka's name on it. You must be the one who wrote it, right?"

Celestia's face blanked, but she nodded. "Yes, if someone can lend me a pen and paper, I can prove that is my writing."

Taka pulled a notepad and fountain pen out from somewhere, and passed them to Sayaka. "Whatever happens, you will answer for what you did to Hifumi. Even if Monokuma won't punish you, l..." He shook his head. "I wanted to believe you changed. That the help you've tried to offer everyone, that it was genuine. But, I suppose... this is all you are. All you ever will be."

Celestia took the items from a mute Sayaka. "Hmm. Whatever happens... If we're still here when this is over, you are going to be thanking me, Kiyotaka. Observe." She set the notepad against the railing, and twirled Taka's pen in one hand. Her fingers flew across the page, she didn't even seem to look at what she was writing. Then, she closed the pen, and waited.

The monitor behind our team flashed on, and Taka's notebook appeared. At the same time, the other team's monitor displayed the note attributed to Sayaka. "It's the same," Mondo muttered. "I think."

Mahru nodded. "If these are written by two different people, I can't tell."

"Hmm. Very well," Sagishi nodded. "I am satisfied with Celestia's confession. But, this does not exonerate Sayaka. She has no alibi, we know she was on the first floor at the time of the second murder, and we know that she changed clothes when she should have been investigating."

"You're right," I said, "But it does disprove Sayaka's motive. You've all been supposing that Sayaka killed Leon because he knew something about Hifumi's murder, but that doesn’t make sense if she didn’t also kill Hifumi. And if we don't have a solid motive or decisive evidence... then we need to keep the trial going. We need to discuss how Leon was killed."

“I agree,” Taka said. “Mikan, do you have any further insight into Leon's death?"

“Hmm, let’s see… I mentioned earlier that there must have been a struggle,” the nurse said, “But I think it’s also worth pointing out that the worst injury was a blow to the back of the head. It likely would have been lethal on its own, had the killer been a touch more precise.”

“Is it possible the killer acted in self-defense?” Sagishi asked. “If Leon thought he knew who Hifumi's killer was based on the note, he may have attempted to handle them on his own. Maybe the killer managed to get his weapon away from him and fight back.”

“Nah, I don’t think that’s right.” Mondo pulled out the baseball bat. “I’ve got the murder weapon right here, his blood’s all over it.”

“To kill a man with an implement of his own profession reeks of grim cruelty,” Gundham said, “But I don’t see what insight you could gleam from this befouled weapon.”

“…Oh, I think I see what Mondo means,” I said. “When we examined the bat earlier, we noticed that it has shards of glass embedded in it. It’s the same bat Nagito used to shatter the fish tanks earlier.”

“Really?” Mukuro said. “Hand it over.” Mondo passed the bat to me, and then to her. She had to hold it one handed of course, but after a moment, she nodded. “Yeah, they aren’t easy to see, but the glass is there. This blood near the handle probably comes from those cuts on Leon’s hands. He was trying to take the bat from his attacker.”

“But what does that prove?” Teruteru said.

“Does anybody else have cut-up hands?” she asked. “If someone else tried to take the bat from Leon, they would have gotten their hands sliced up the same way. So it wasn’t self-defense.”

“Focusing on the motive when we should be looking at evidence is a mistake,” I said, “Though, the only clue I saw that could point to the killer, is the piece of crinkly black fabric Leon was holding in one hand.”

“Chihiro, that was a scrunchie,” Mukuro said. “Wait, who here normally wears a black scrunchie?”

It wasn’t hard to figure it out, because she was still wearing one. But, when Mukuro asked that question, both Mikan and Mahiru looked away from her. “…Huh?” Ibuki said. “Well, Ibuki wears one, see,” she raised her arm, “But she’s not the killer, so…”

“Ibuki, where were you during the investigation?” Taka asked.

“Uhhhh… bububububu, I… went to get Mikan so she could help Chihiro, and then I went to play Rock Hero.”

Taka’s face drooped. “You… you went to play video games? Instead of investigating?”

“Well, well,” Ibuki gulped. “I, uhhh, I wanted to help, but I was feeling pretty tense and upset. So, I just, wanted to play a song or two, to relax. And then I was gonna help.”

“Is that what you did?” Mondo pressed.

“Um, well, no.” Ibuki scratched at her scalp. “I, uh, decided to play another song, or two, or three… and yeah, I totally meant to help, but I kinda didn’t.”

Taka grimaced, and steeled himself. “We all have a responsibility to work together in this place, to look for a way to survive and escape. To neglect that duty for frivolous reasons is, beyond irresponsible. Can anyone confirm where Ibuki was during the investigation?”

“Like I already said,” Mukuro spoke, “I did go up to the second floor for a little while. I didn’t see her, but I also didn’t go to the arcade. If no one saw her up there, that makes her our new prime suspect.”

“N, NO!” Mikan screamed, but she clamped her hands over mouth. “S, sorry. But, Ibuki isn’t the type of person who could kill somebody. And, and besides, she and Leon were close. She definitely didn’t kill him.”

“Warm feelings aren’t evidence, Mikan,” Mukuro pointed out.

“And, but, she did tell me she was going to play video games, when I saw her,” Mikan nodded. “Right, I remember now, that’s what she said.”

“…You’re lying,” Celestia said. “And very poorly. Besides, the victim was clutching the same kind of scrunchie Ibuki wears.”

“But, wait, isn’t that a little weird?” Mahiru pointed out. “If the victim had Ibuki’s scrunchie, but she’s still wearing it, that’s a pretty big contradiction.”

“Not at all,” Celestia shook her head. “The clothing boutique in the basement almost certainly has replacements. She could have easily gotten another. She probably has some in her room, too.”

“And besides, I think we’ve all been ignoring a much bigger clue,” Gundham said. “How is it that we have not yet considered the message written in blood?”

The courtroom went silent. “What the hell are you talking about?” Mondo said.

“The… the message!” Gundham said. “Are you all blind as cave fish? How could you miss such an obvious clue?”

“Wait,” my brain clicked, “Was it written on a sketchpad, near the body? We found it, but the sketchpad had been closed, and the message smeared. If it, was supposed to be a message.”

“Some shallow-minded fool must have closed it thoughtlessly,” Gundham scowled. “But yes, I did see a message written in the victim’s dying moments with his mortal ink. The letters I, B, and the beginning of a U. He clearly meant to write her name.”

“Then, then it has to be her, doesn’t it?” Sayaka said, her voice flat. “I left the same kind of message when I was killed.” She winced. “I, I didn’t want everyone to blame him, the boy who trusted me.”

“How do we know for sure this message existed?” Mukuro asked. “Did anyone other than Gundham see it?”

Silence fell, once again. And then, someone said, “I, I’m sorry. But… the truth is, I saw it.”

“Mahiru?” I said, “What are you talking about?”

“I saw it when we were first examining the scene, before everyone else got there. I was afraid of what it meant,” she said, “So, I, hid it. I’m the one that closed the sketchpad and smeared the message.”

Mikan hissed, and Mukuro slammed her fist on the railing. “You coward! You hid vital evidence from everyone, just to protect your friend. You know what that means here!”

“Hey!” Mahiru shouted back. “I, I wasn’t going to keep it hidden forever. I took a picture before I closed the sketchpad. It’s right here, so everyone can see.” She pulled out a photograph and laid it on the railing. A photo of the bloody sketchpad appeared on the monitor, the message now much clearer than when I had seen it. I, B, and part of a U, just as Gundham said. “I know it was wrong. And… and I’m sorry for deceiving everyone. But I knew if everyone saw this, they would immediately assume Ibuki was guilty. And I just couldn’t believe that. So I resolved to keep it hidden, until I could find another way to explain the evidence.” She closed her eyes, and licked her lips. “And… and I did. There is another way to explain this message. Because I’m the only one besides the murderer who should have seen it before I ruined it.” Her eyes opened, and she pointed across her side of the circle. “So, Gundham Tanaka, how did you know what this message said?”

“I… umm… the dark powers granted to me by my patron…”

“Don’t spout bullshit!” Mahiru shouted, “You planted the scrunchie and forged the message, to make Ibuki look guilty, didn’t you? Because you’re the real killer!”

Gundham stared, wide-eyed, then slowly folded his arms and calmed himself. “I refuse to answer.”

“What the fuck?” Mondo muttered. “Now, you want to shut up? Not happening, man. Why’d you kill Leon?”

“I… refuse…”

“Gundham, this is, absurd. What are you doing?” Sagishi demanded.

“I… refuse… I refuse, I refuse, I refuse, I refuse,” His voice rang out, filling the courtroom with his maniacal rambling, “I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE! I refuse to bow to your insipid questions, mewling mortal dregs! I refuse to be confined any longer by your pathetic, childish notions of morality and justice! I am Gundham Tanaka, the Supreme Overlord of Ice, Master of the Four Dark Devas of Destruction and the Twelve Zodiac Generals! Legions beyond counting bow to my will, cities burn at my word, the howling winds of hell bend to my ear. I exist beyond your comprehension, and I refuse to answer your worthless questions.”

“So, uh…” Mondo scratched his forehead. “I guess we’re moving on to voting, then?”

“Go ahead, if that is your wish. You cannot kill me in a way that matters. I am and shall forever be Gundham Tanaka.”

“I’m, not…” Something about Gundham’s, confession, if it was that, bothered me. “He didn’t try to defend himself at all. That doesn’t make sense… unless he is trying to confuse us instead.” I spoke louder. “I don’t think Gundham is necessarily the killer.”

“What makes you say that?” Nekomaru prompted.

“It’s…” I cleared my mind, and took a deep breath. This had to be right. “The body discovery announcement.”

“Please, clarify,” Sagishi said.

“Mahiru and I were together when we found Leon’s body, and that’s when the announcement played. But it’s only supposed to play once three people have found the body, other than the killer. Right, Monokuma?”

“Ding ding ding!”

“That means someone found the body before we did,” I pointed out. “But, they weren’t still there at the scene, and they weren’t trying to find someone else to confirm the body. They would have run right into the two of us, otherwise. Also, no one but Mahiru spoke up when Mukuro asked if the message was real. It would make since for the killer to keep quiet, but anyone else should have said something. Gundham must be the one who wrote that message in the first place, and he did that because he wanted to throw us off, he wanted us to believe Ibuki was the murderer.”

“But, but why? Ibuki didn’t do anything!” she said.

“Hold on,” Nekomaru stroked his chin. “Isn’t it possible the message really was left by Leon? That he was trying to tell us the name of his killer, like Sayaka did?”

“…No, I don’t think that could be it,” I said. “Think about the layout of the store. The left side of that aisle had manga and art supplies, including sketchpads. The right side had snacks. Several containers of snacks fell down during the fight and were scattered over the floor, but the items on the left side were still in place. All except for that sketchpad. Even if just the one item fell, it somehow wound up on the opposite side of the aisle, close to Leon's hands. It’s much more believable that someone planted that sketchpad to forge the message then to assume it just happened to land where he could reach it with his dying strength.”

“…That’s a good point. But, couldn’t the real killer have forged it after killing Leon, then? To implicate Ibuki?” Taka said. "And couldn't that be Gundham?"

“Kiyotaka, you need to think like a liar,” Celestia explained. “Think back to when Sagishi accused me of trying to protect Sayaka so our side could win the trial. They weren’t satisfied with my confession, they required me to prove my own guilt. Now, at the first sign of pressure, Gundham cracked like an egg. He wants us to vote for him, and there’s only one reason he would do that.”

“Because… he knows who the real killer is, and it’s someone else from his team,” Taka said.

“If he had any doubt at all, if he thought there was any chance someone from our team was the blackened, he would not want the trial to end.” Celestia continued. “Think. He tried to implicate Ibuki, one of his own classmates. Why did he choose her, specifically?”

“Because… because of the scrunchie, of course.” Taka said.

“Very good. Now, we can assume Ibuki isn’t the murderer, specifically because someone from her own team tried to frame her. So, why was the scrunchie there?”

“I think… I think you’ve come to the same conclusion I have, Celestia.” I wanted to throw up. Instead, I took a deep breath, and held a hand to my chest to steady myself. I, would not run from the truth. Not again. “You have a copy of Ibuki’s outfit, don’t you, Sagishi?”

“Wh, what?” Sagishi grimaced. “What are you getting at? Why would I have something like that?”

“Huh?” Ibuki stuttered. “H- huh? What?”

“It was you,” I said. I gripped the railing, so I wouldn’t lose my balance. “You’re the one. You killed Leon, and you did it while dressed as Ibuki!”

“Of all the bald-faced lies I’ve heard…” They shook their head. “I’m surprised at you. After everything we’ve done,”

“Don’t you dare!” I cried out, my arms shaking. “Don’t you dare try to do that. You have to know how much I don’t want to be the one saying this right now, how much I wish I was wrong. So don’t mess with me like that. Just tell me the truth, Sagishi. Tell me why you killed Leon, or prove that you didn’t.”

They adjusted their glasses. “You saw me, during the investigation, remember? I was downstairs. I wasn’t dressed as Ibuki, I was far away from the crime scene. I have an alibi.”

“Bullshit,” Mondo countered. “We saw you, but it was well before Chihiro found the body. If you were already planning to kill, you had the time to do it.”

“I assure you, murder was the farthest thing from my mind when I spoke to you. I was as determined as anyone to solve this case.”

And it hit me. I froze, I blinked my eyes clear. I stood up straight, and faced them. “That’s it.” I said. “That’s all I needed. You’ve reminded me of something, something I would have forgotten. You contradicted yourself.”

“Contradicted?” Sagishi shook their head. “You’re being foolish.”

“When you spoke to the three of us,” I continued, “Mondo, Mahiru, and me, you had just finished examining Hifumi’s body. And you apologized, because you thought the killer must have been someone from your class.”

They nodded, “Yes, but I don’t see how,”

“The note,” I said, “The note you said you found in Hifumi’s jacket. You must have found that before we talked. So why did you suspect your own class, if you knew the note had Sayaka’s signature?”

“I… I assumed the note was forged, of course.”

“But you took it with you,” I pressed, “So the rest of us wouldn’t see it until the trial. And you presented it as evidence against Sayaka!” I pointed at them. “That proves that you believed she was Hifumi's murderer, but you didn’t share your suspicions with us. Because you were planning on becoming the blackened yourself. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“That’s it, then.” Mukuro said, her eyes closed, her face pointed downward. “You killed Leon because you wanted your team to have a chance to escape instead of ours. Dammit, if only I’d figured things out faster.”

“I… this is ridiculous,” Sagishi said.

“Sagishi…” Ibuki said. I couldn’t see her face, it was buried in her wild hair, and washed out by the lighting. “I… is it true? Did, you kill Leon, while impersonating me?”

“The last time I spoke to Leon,” Taka said, “He was angry, and not thinking clearly. And, he was close to Ibuki, thanks to our music lessons… It would have been easy for her to lower his guard. Especially if she had something to show him related to the case. That’s why you used that disguise, isn’t it?”

“I… no.” Sagishi said. “I impersonate people whose character I want to understand. People of authority and dignity. I would have no reason to impersonate someone like Ibuki.”

“Of course not,” Ibuki said. I could see her teeth, now, reflected in the blue light. “Of course, you wouldn’t impersonate me. Hah. I asked you to. Just… because we were friends. Because it sounded fun. Because I thought your talent was amazing.”

She reached up one hand, and dug it into her hair. “But, you didn’t see anything about me worth copying, did you? Nothing worth learning from. Ibuki doesn’t have any authority, or dignity, or whatever else you're looking for. Ibuki’s just… what? Your fan? So you showed me your impression… in private, where no one had to see you embarrass yourself. So, yeah, I know you have the outfit. I guess you held on to it. I guess you found something else you could use it for, huh?”

Ibuki yanked a clump of hair from her scalp, and slammed her hand down on the railing. “Tell me, Sagishi. What do you think was the last thing Leon thought? Was it ‘I can’t believe Ibuki betrayed me?”

“I…Ibuki,” Sagishi’s posture sank inwards, they swayed in the stand. “I… knew it was wrong. But, I had to protect the class. I had to protect you.”

“Did I ask you?” she spat. “Did any of us ask you to protect us by killing someone? This place…” her head slowly swiveled, left and right. “I… this place. It takes Ibuki’s friends away. It makes them do horrible things… it makes them kill each other. I… try not to let it… but it’s so, hard… it’s so hard, not to…” She slammed both fists on the railing. “I hate it! IHATEITIHATEITIHATEIHATEIT…!” Again and again, she slammed her fists down, her voice rising into a piercing shriek, her eyes wide and crazed, actual foam flying from her lips.

“Ibuki,” Mikan protested. “You’re, going to hurt yourself! Please, stop!”

Ibuki screamed. The explosion of sound slammed into my head like a wrecking ball, and I crumpled like paper. “Ahhh ahh!” I shut my eyes and covered my head. It felt like an earthquake, no, worse. I couldn’t hear my own crying over the sound…

Mondo’s hand was on my shoulder. And… Mukuro’s? The sound was gone, but the echoes clanged against the walls of my skull. “Do you think you can stand?” Mondo asked.

The answer was no, but, with their help, I did anyway. Mondo adjusted the oxygen tank, and Mukuro checked to make sure the breathing tube was still inserted properly. I looked around the courtroom.

Everyone was shaken. Junko was on the ground, her head clutched in agony like I had been. Celestia, the only person next to her, seemed disinclined to offer assistance. Mahiru stood next to Ibuki, one hand clasped to her left ear, her face white with shock. Ibuki had gone silent, slumped over the railing like a corpse. “She, she passed out!” Mikan cried. “She screamed so loud she passed out! I, I need to treat her, right away! Monokuma, let us out!”

“What, and ruin the mood? No way!” Monokuma shook his head. “You’re all lucky I’m feeling generous, and I’m not going to punish her for doing that. But, the trial must conclude, in an orderly fashion."

“What’s he saying? Huh… huh?” Mahiru said. “I can’t… I can’t hear right!” she shouted.

“This is… this is all because of me. I’ve, I’m…” Sagishi shook their head. “Let’s finish this, then. I’ll explain how things happened, so everyone understands that I’m guilty.”

“I don’t have many details about Hifumi’s murder,” they started. “Celestia lured him to the theater using a forged note attributed to Sayaka. She then tricked him into entering the audio-visual room, where she had prepared her lethal poison. She barred the door using a chair, and left him alone.”

“A bucket full of chlorine tablets and liquid bleach released chlorine gas into the sealed room, and Hifumi began to suffocate. He tried to escape, but ultimately succumbed to the poison, and died. A short time later, Chihiro went to the AV room for their own purposes. They moved the chair and opened the door, where they discovered the body.”

“Chihiro was exposed to the gas briefly, but managed to get to the music room and tell the group there. Ibuki left to find Mikan, and Sayaka left in grief. Monokuma cleaned the poisonous gas out of the crime scene, so that Leon and Taka could investigate the body and trigger the first body discovery announcement.”

“The culprit went to the theater to investigate the body, along with almost everyone else. They found the note Celestia had written earlier, folded up in Hifumi’s jacket. They became filled with fear at the prospect that Sayaka’s team would win the trial, and realized that they could kill another student to become the blackened themselves.”

“The culprit spoke to a few other investigating students, but tried to mislead them about their real suspicions. Then, they went upstairs and changed into a disguise to carry out their own murder. They visited the store to hide a weapon for later, and left.”

“Dressed as Ibuki, the culprit approached Leon, and told him she had found an important clue in the RocketPunch! Leon followed her into the market, where the culprit attacked him from behind with a wooden baseball bat.”

“The first blow was… not enough. Leon fought back, and tried to take the bat away from his attacker. He cut his hands on the shards of glass embedded in the bat, and managed to tear the scrunchie off of his assailant’s wrist. The attacker did not give up, and hit him again and again… until he died.”

“Shaken by the brutality of their own actions, the killer fled the scene to shower and change clothes in their dorm room. They were seen by Gundham, who chose to investigate rather than raise the alarm.”

“Gundham found the body, and forged a dying message using the victim’s blood, meant to implicate Ibuki. A short time later, the body was discovered by Chihiro and Mahiru. The latter saw Gundham’s message, but was terrified of her friend being found guilty. So, she destroyed the message, but not before taking a photograph, in case it was needed later.”

“And that’s how this crime unfolded. I am the only one with the ability to impersonate someone convincingly enough to lure them into a trap of this nature. Leon was angry, and not in the right mindset to question why I approached him. I am also… not an aggressive or violent person by nature. Which is why I was not able to kill Leon with a clean blow, as I intended. But, ultimately, it was my own poor judgment that led to this outcome. The blackened is… me, the nameless imposter. I ask that everyone accept the truth of what happened, and vote for my execution.”

“And that’s my cue!” cheered Monokuma. “In a few moments, you will vote for the blackened! Will you make the right choice, or the dreadfully wrong one? And remember you have to vote, or you will be punished as well!”

"Wait a minute!" Mikan called out. "Ibuki's unconscious. She can't vote, what does that mean?"

"Eh?" Monokuma said. "The rules are pretty clear. I'll execute her."

"That's not fair!" Mikan yelled. "P, please, you have to change the rule, this isn't..."

"It's not a rule, if you go changing it all the time," Monokuma said. "This is her fault, for losing her head like that."

"What the," I started, "No, that's too cruel, even for you! Monomaid, stop him, make him change his mind!"

The rabbit's head shifted. "...Huh?"

"He's going to kill Ibuki, even though she didn't do anything wrong! You can't be okay with that!"

"Th, they're right!" Monomaid stood up, and faced the throne. "You big bully! Haven't the students suffered enough?"

"Grrrr," Monokuma fumed. "You're just the help, you don't get to make an executive decision like that!"

"What if one us offers our life in payment?" Gundham said. "I will take Ibuki's punishment, if you spare her."

"Gu, Gundham!" I gasped.

"I tried to save our class by tampering with the crime scene, but my actions only served to seal our fate. I will bear the consequences of my actions."

"No, I can't allow that," Sagishi said. "You and Mahiru both tampered with the crime scene, but the weight of this incident is on my shoulders."

"You, you can kill me," Mikan said, "I... I don't care, but you can't have her, I won't let you, understand?"

"What happens if," Taka rubbed his chin, "What happens if no one votes?"

"Huh?" Monokuma tilted his head. "I'd just kill you all, duh."

"And the game would be over," Taka nodded. "Would you be ok with that?"

Monokuma froze, and I thought I heard something creak in his head. "Well, um..."

"You have us trapped here for a reason," he stated, "And that reason hasn't been satisfied. You get pleasure from our despair, is that not so? Which means there's nothing here for you if we're all dead." He shrugged. "Your castle, your motives, your game. It doesn't mean anything without us."

"What the hell are you getting at, Ishimaru?"

I raised my right hand. "If we all promise not to vote, we can force the game to end on our terms. Is that what you are trying to say, Taka?"

"Exactly," he raised his own hand. "I'm asking you all to make a new pledge. We will end this game, right here and now, if Monokuma doesn't change the rule about not voting. We don't have much leverage here, but we have this."

Mikan raised her hand, and Gundham, and Sagishi. Mahiru looked confused, but after Mikan explained it to her, loudly, she rose her hand as well. Then Nekomaru, Mondo, Sayaka, and Mukuro, who used her left..

Teruteru rasied his hand. "Y'all, y'all crazy. Heh, heh. But, I guess I can be a little crazy too..."

"You are all crazy," Celestia said. "How the hell is this supposed to work, Taka?"

"Call it a, gamble, if you want," he said. "He's bluffing, he can't afford to lose too many of us at once."

"...Interesting." Her hand went up as well. Last was Junko, but at last, her hand went up as well. I supposed what Mukuro said was true. This game was fun for her, and she couldn't enjoy it if we all died like this.

"What the, hell is this," Monokuma shook his head. "Hah, I had such high hopes for the rest of the game, but I guess we can do it this way." The voting panels appeared. "C'mon, c'mon, vote for the blackened, or you'll get executed. We haven't got all day."

Everyone's hand stayed up. I looked around, dreading that someone would give in and vote. One crack, and the rest of us might break...

But no one did. Even the people I thought might be the most selfish or scared kept their hands high. "What the, what's got into you morons?"

"They're strong," Monomaid said. "Stronger than you," Monokuma threw his gavel at her head again. "Ow!" She waddled over to pick it up.

"Alright, alright, you stupid kids." Monokuma jeered, "Whaddayawant?"

"We can't just ask to get out of playing the game," Taka said. "If, if you don't get to have your fun, I'm sure you'll kill us anyway, right?" Monokuma nodded. "Then how about this. No one can be punished for non-participation if they are unconscious or otherwise incapacitated."

"That seems fair," I said. "It should have been a rule in the first place."

"You know what?" Monokuma said, "Yeah, I don't think I have a problem with that. Maybe it is less fun if people get punished just for passing out at an inconvenient time." He hammered his gavel on the throne's arm. "The new rule is approved, exactly as Kiyotaka stated it. Which means, for this blackened vote, Ibuki is exempt. Now, let's do this thing for real. Somebody's still got to be punished, so let's go!"

Mikan started to cry. "Thank you, everyone," Sagishi said. "I... am ready. Please vote."

I looked down, and scanned the array of buttons. I noticed that there was no button listed for Sagishi, or the Ultimate Imposter. The button still read Byakuya Togami… the name of the cruel, arrogant son of privilege who had tried to tear our group apart in my first killing game. The man I had tried to stand up to, and failed. The man who had used my own dead body to play a prank on everyone.

I hated him, I realized. Hatred, real hatred, was not a feeling that came easily to me. He had no right… no right to treat us that way. This, other person, this imposter, had been completely different. They had done so much to try to bring us together, to lead us with integrity. And they had helped me, too, to understand and accept myself.

And yet… it was the imposter I had to vote for. The imposter I had to kill. The madness of the killing game could infect anyone, even them… even someone like Ibuki, so filled with energy and joy, was not truly immune to this place. I wondered, as I pressed the button next to Byakuya’s name, what could drive me to murder.

“And the votes are in!” Monokuma said, “The person, voted for unanimously as the blackened by all of you, is the Ultimate Imposter! Please, direct your attention to the screens!” The slot roulette appeared, and cycled through its rows of faces, until it settled on Sagishi’s wide, blond-haired face. “It looks like you were correct! Which means nobody has to leave, you all get to stay here with me, for another fun round! All except the imposter, of course. We’ll be saying a joyful goodbye to them, in just a few moments!”

“Why?” It was Kiyotaka, who broke the silence. “Why did you do this, Sagishi?” He shook his head, trying to hold back tears. “All you had to do was work together with us, like you promised. It would be Celestia facing execution, not you. As… as it should have been.”

“I could not… I could not take the risk of your team winning the trial. Just finding the killer wouldn’t have been enough. You had the numbers. You could have… you would have thrown the trial anyway, to save yourselves.”

“I,” Taka’s eyebrows flared. “I would never have done such a thing! And I would never allow my classmates to do it either. Look at what just happened, here in the courtroom. We all united, we all staked our lives on protecting Ibuki from being unfairly executed. Do you truly think we would have voted to kill your class?”

“I didn’t even realize we could,” I said, “Until someone else said that could happen. It… just isn’t how I think. Taka’s the same way. You could have trusted us.”

“They’re telling the truth,” Nekomaru said. “I tested that for myself, earlier this morning. I can’t speak for all of them, but Mondo and those two… they never would have sold us out like that.”

“And that would have been enough,” Celestia pointed out. “With those three self-righteous idiots on our team, there was no way the rest of us could have thrown the trial. Your biggest problem was finding Hifumi’s killer, not this fear of collusion that drove you to murder.” She shrugged. “In a way, maybe you did save your classmates. There’s no telling how this trial would have gone if there had been only one murder.”

Sayaka glared. “You… this is your fault, you know. If there had never been a first murder, there wouldn’t have been a second. I’m, never going to forgive you for what you did to him, understand?”

“Hmm. Well, I suppose I shall simply have to continue to not care what you think. Ah, it burdens me so.”

“The three of you… really wouldn’t have tried to throw the trial?” Sagishi asked.

“Of course not,” Taka said. “In fact, we aren’t the only ones. Leon… felt deep remorse for what he did in his first killing game. I fully believe he would have kept his promise, if he were here.”

“I,” Sayaka winced. “The truth is, I am scared, and I want out. But I never would have voted to forgive Celestia, or kill all of you. And I hope Hifumi would feel the same.”

A sad, slight smile crossed Sagishi’s face. “So that’s… how it is, then. Perhaps I should have impersonated someone of your caliber, Kiyotaka Ishimaru. Maybe I would have found the insight I was searching for. But, there is still one thing I want to understand, before I say goodbye.” They turned to Gundham. “What, exactly, was your role in this, Tanaka?”

“Hmm. I wondered if everyone had forgotten about my sin. I saw you leaving the market, as you said in your summary. You were still wearing your Ibuki disguise, but you were quailing like a child, and it did nothing to hide you. Blood streaked your clothes, and you could barely walk straight. I knew immediately what had happened, and went to witness the hellish scene for myself.” He gestured wildly. “A sad waste of a man’s life. One who lacks conviction should not act so rashly. If you had at least the strength of will to act without hesitation and kill him cleanly, I could admire your will to survive, at least.” He bowed his head. “As it was, I did what I could to salvage your mistake. I moved the weapon, and left the false message. I thought if a life had been lost in such a way, it might at least pave the way for some of us to escape. But, it would seem fate has chosen a different path, one that we must all walk together, without you.”

“Yes, without me,” Sagishi straightened his shoulders, and faced us. “I believe it is about time. Kiyotaka, I would ask you to lead them in my stead. Please, protect them, and guide them from this hell. Please take care of Ibuki. I wish I could apologize to her, and to Leon, but there is nothing I could say that would mend my betrayal. And Chihiro, I…” They cried, silently, and without flinching. “Thank you, for giving me the chance to live without my mask.”

I tried to find the words, but I don’t think anything I could have said would have expressed the heartbreak and despair trying to burst through my chest. I nodded, and didn’t turn away. That was all I could manage. “I’m ready, Monokuma,” Sagishi folded their arms. “Let’s give it everything we’ve got. It’s punishment time.”

“Oh, come on!” Monokuma cried. “That’s pathetic! At least Nagito and Mahiru gave it some energy. You’re just dragging the whole mood down. And it's already pretty crappy, after that ridiculous teamwork stunt. Ah, well. I know what’ll cheer me up.” He spun the gavel, and the red button rose up before him. He slammed it down. The shackles released, the floor opened, and Sagishi disappeared.

I watched the monitor, while the pixelated Monokuma dragged Sagishi’s sprite away. The scene opened with Sagishi laying on their back, tied up with rope. They were laying on a large, metal block of some sort, that was moving along a conveyor belt.

The screen blackened, and the execution title appeared. Breaking the Mold. Then, the image returned, and Sagishi’s block slid under a large metal arm, with another block attached to the end. The metal arm lowered, placing the second block on top of the first, with Sagshi trapped between them. The arm released, and raised up. I wondered if that was it, if Sagishi was already dead. Then, the arm slammed down, again and again, and pink blood splattered from the edges of the block. I gasped in shock. They were gone, they were really gone.

But Monokuma was not done inflicting indignity upon the person who had tried to lead us. A pair of metal arms lifted the two blocks up, so that they were now standing up straight, and the conveyor belt moved further down the line, stopping next to a huge metal vat. Arms lifted the vat up, and tipped it over, pouring molten gold into an opening on top of the two blocks that encased Sagishi’s remains. When the vat was empty, the belt moved the blocks along, until another pair of arms lifted them off and dunked them in a large pool of water. Steam exploded, filling the screen for a few moments.

When it cleared, the blocks were sitting on a warehouse floor. The metal arms came around, and grabbed each block, and pulled them apart. A golden statue slipped out from between them, and settled on to the floor with a clang. A golden statue of Byakuya Togami, looking every bit the heartless monster I remembered.

The scene faded to black, and our attention returned to the courtroom. “You… you bastard!” I shouted. “How dare you? They were so much more than him. I, I can’t…"

“Hey.” Mukuro said. “The execution is supposed to demoralize you. That’s all it is. Keep your head up. This game isn’t over. Don’t let him win.”

Mondo eyed her, then nodded. “She’s right. Don’t focus on that damn sideshow. Sagishi’s gone. So are Leon and Hifumi. But you’re still here, and so are a bunch of others. Grieve if you need to, but getting mad isn’t going to help.”

“I, I don’t want to be too pushy, but,” Mikan said, “We really need to get out right now. Ibuki needs help.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Monokuma said, as everyone’s shackles disengaged. “I’ve got some prep work to do for the next area, so go on. Get out of here, ya bunch of saps.”

“I’ll carry Ibuki for you,” Nekomaru said, moving to assist Mikan. The rest of us filed out of our stands, and began walking towards the elevator.

But, as soon as we were free from the stands, Sayaka lunged for Celestia. She got her hands around the gambler’s throat before Taka got between them. “Sayaka, stop! You’ll just get yourself executed if you break the rules.” He pulled her off, gently as he could, as Mondo and I hurried over.

“I don’t care,” she said. “This bitch broke the rules, and now she just gets to go back with us? She gets away with it? It’s fucked. It’s fucked and I don’t have to stand for it. What if she kills again?”

Celestia coughed, and massaged her throat. “If you want to be pissed off that I wasn't executed, blame the mastermind, for making this stupid game and these rules. Or Hifumi, for being stupid enough to be used a second time. Or Sagishi, for taking my blackened status.” She shook her head. “I’m not going to kill again. Everyone would suspect me right away. But the rest of you still have to live with me, unless you’ve got the guts to put your ass on the line. What about your idol group, Sayaka? What about Makoto? Are you going to turn your back on them, for what, for me? Get a grip. You didn’t even really like that boy anyway.”

“Aah, ah ahh,” Sayaka broke down, crying into Taka’s shoulder.

“Friends, friends shouldn’t treat each other like this,” we turned. Monomaid had kept quiet almost the entire trial, but was now standing, between Celestia and the rest of us. “… This isn’t what he wanted.”

“Monomaid,” I said, “Who do you mean, Hifumi?”

She nodded, and reached into a pocket of her apron. “He wrote these for you, but he made me promise not to give them to you until after the trial. Whatever the outcome was.”

She pulled out a handful of sealed letters, and handed the first one to Taka. “L, letters? Did Hifumi know he was going to die?”

Monomaid offered one to Sayaka, who pulled herself away from Taka to take it. “Wait, but… but that doesn’t make any sense.”

Next, Monomaid offered one to Celestia. “For me? He wrote one, for me? What the- Fine, I’ll read whatever drivel he wrote.” She snatched it from Monomaid, and immediately tore it open.

Monomaid brought the last letter to me, and held it up. “I, I don’t understand.”

“I don’t know everything,” Monomaid admitted, “But he wanted his friends to know he was sorry, in case it didn’t work.”

“That, that fool,” Taka muttered, holding his letter open, and wiping a tear from his eye. “That poor, damned fool. I-“

“What the hell is this?” Celestia shrieked. “That useless, fat, stinking shit factory, I would kill him right now if he wasn’t dead!” She tore her letter into tiny pieces and hurled them up into the air, not caring that many of them fell back down and stuck in her hair. “Well, what the fuck are we all doing standing around? Get on the damn elevator!”

The five of us were the last ones on. My oxygen tank clanked behind me as I boarded last. The elevator was emptier, every time we used it, I realized. Nekomaru was standing with Ibuki in his arms, a frantic Mikan at his side. Mahiru stood alone, massaging the left side of her head, and looking down. Junko…

Junko’s eyes were bloodshot, and mascara streamed down her face in black ribbons. A perverse glee lurked beneath that, but even she hadn’t emerged from this trial unscathed.

The elevator opened to the first-floor atrium, and those who remained spilled out and dispersed. Mikan led Nekomaru to the infirmary. I hurried to my room, clutching Hifumi’s letter in one hand, dragging the tank in the other. Once I was alone, I opened the envelope, and slipped out two pieces of paper. I unfolded them, and read the first.

“Chihiro,
Thank you for trying to be my friend. If we had more time together, there’s so much we could do, I’d love to see you bring my characters to life. I really do think you are an amazing person.
But, if this works, I can save you, and Ms. Maizono, and as many of the others as I can. I think it’s worth the risk, but it means we won’t get to talk about our plans anymore.
I know you had other ideas, for what you wanted to do with your talent. But, if you would, please make the AI you said you would make for me. I finished my design, and I’m including it with this letter. You can do whatever you want with her. But I think you’ll probably use her to help people, and I’d like that.
She likes to play video games. She’s really smart, but more than that, she has a good heart and won’t give up on anyone. I sort of named her after you, I hope you don’t mind.
-Hifumi”

I lowered the letter, and looked at the page underneath. It was a full color drawing of a girl with pale skin and silvery hair with a retro gaming pin in it. She had soft, pink eyes and was wearing a green hoodie with a white skirt. Her name was written across the bottom, and I figured out what he had done with it right away. It was the first part of my first name, and the last part of my family name. Her name was Chiaki.