Actions

Work Header

My Shadow is a Supermodel

Chapter Text

http://creasoulness.tk/2017/09/making-of-despair-sisters-my-shadow-is-a-super-model/ (Cover art drawn by Mary D Kidd! Check it out!)

Mukuro Ikusaba liked to think of herself as an important member of society. Fiercely devoted to her allies and ruthless against those who she only ever got to know as “the enemy”. Rule #3 of Fenrir; don't get attached. There are allies, and there are others. Never mistake them.

There were more rules where that came from too. When she had first been scouted, she had been given a booklet full of rules and regulations. There had been a written test. If you forgot a single rule, or didn't manage to put it down word for word, you were put on the next bus back to… wherever it was that Fenrir had snatched you from.


It was a well known myth among those who knew the military’s workings that Fenrir only got the best of street rats as mercenaries. Little to no familial ties meant legal claims (if any) to take the young kids off the streets was as simple as “Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt”. Agents sifting through piles of paperwork was too much of a chore anyways. Fenrir got the best by causing scenes near shelters and soup kitchens where teenagers were known to frequent. The most suitable Fenrir candidates were the ones that survived the resulting brawl with nary a scratch or loss of breath, while at the same time being the person who had caused the most damage.

It was a shame that Fenrir never visited any place outside of Tokyo when they came to Japan; but Mukuro managed.

Born the oldest of twins to an alcoholic mother and a father who couldn’t possibly care any less, she remembered her formative years as “loud”, “out of control”, and “painful”. Her parents both had jobs, but her mother spent anything that wasn’t a child welfare cheque on alcohol; her father choosing instead to spend his time overseas and with other women. They argued every single time they were in the same room. The reason behind this conflict, she realized, was her and her twin.

While Mukuro inherited her father’s dark hair and pale skin, as well as her mother’s freckles, Junko deviated. With blonde hair and blue eyes, she looked more like her mother’s boss. Every time the accusation of adultery came out in an argument (which was every argument), her mother insisted it was because of her European ancestry. Her father argued that, as a native Japanese man, alleles for blonde hair and blue eyes just didn’t happen on his side of the family.

She had been 6 the first time.

Her father had stormed out of the house after another argument. Another accusation of infidelity, another promise to get a divorce warrant signed someday in the near future. Her mother drank straight from a bottle of cheap vodka, each swig punctuated by hiccups and sobs. When the bottle was finished, she had smashed it against the rickety table and advanced to Junko and Mukuro’s shared room. They had taken to sleeping in the same bed just to feel safe, ignoring the basic idea of their bunk bed. Mukuro didn’t remember much about that night, aside from being ripped away from her sister, the feeling of broken glass being rubbed into her back, and the crunch that her ribs made when her mother beat her so silently that Junko didn’t even wake up.

That, and that her mother’s abuse was supposed to be aimed at Junko.

When she came to the next morning, Junko was crying over her beaten and bloodied body. Mukuro had let Junko cradle her in her arms and promise that everything would be okay. That one day both of them would be freed of this burden and that they'd stay together, no matter what, pinky promised.

"I swear one day this despair will be replaced by joy. Muku-chan, just trust me, okay? Believe in me, please."

It was just about all that she could do.

Chapter Text

Her parents filed for bankruptcy and divorce 3 months into second grade. Their house was sold and they took to dumpster diving for survival. They moved under a bridge. Her father left for greener pastures in America. He never said that he’d return. He never did. Help in the form of alimony never arrived; at least, if it did, then that also went towards fueling her mother’s alcoholism.

Unfortunately for the twins, they only had their school uniforms and a set of pyjamas. Thankfully for the twins, vodka in a spray bottle worked wonders in deodorizing clothes.

Mukuro protected Junko. It had become a habit. They walked, talked, and did everything together, even sleeping holding hands. When rain fell, they would wait out the storm inside of a dumpster, looking through the gap at the weather like a pair of queens enjoying high tea over half-eaten bags of potato chips.

Junko and Mukuro outgrew their old clothes. New school uniforms had to be bought for the both of them. Their mother only paid for Mukuro’s outfit.

Mukuro had handed off the clothing to Junko and then promised that she would make enough money to get her own uniform so that they didn’t have to worry.

For extra money, Mukuro wrote for military magazines. She wrote about special ops, weaponry, and battle strategies, pointing out their strong suits and weaknesses. She wrote whenever she could get her hands on a computer at the local library, at in the computer lab at her elementary school. Base camps and battalions littered her letters. When she couldn't make it to a library, she penned her articles by hand.

It still wasn't enough for her uniform.

So, Mukuro signed up for survival games. She scoffed whenever an age cap was mentioned, and asked politely for a permission slip for adults to sign. Her mother was willing to sign any forms if she was drunk enough, and as long as Mukuro returned to the slum they called home at the end of the day, it was alright.

For her first game, she had started small. A battle royale paintball match against 49 other people, some three times her size and four times her age. The paintball field itself was huge, set out far in the country, and televised for online subscribers. She’d had to leave her mother and sister alone together for a week.

That thought alone kept her up at night more than the sounds of paintball blasts and angry men.

She had won the game by simply waiting the brawl out. Nobody remembered the little girl who they had to crouch to see.

They really should have.

Mukuro watched from the foliage of trees as the grownups around her got shot by bright pink paint and subsequently airlifted or driven out of the grounds. Then, she’d simply pick off whatever resources they had left behind at their campgrounds. When it got to the final 10 people, Mukuro had already memorized all of their hideouts, and all she had to do was wait until they were asleep to fire her paintball gun. Her aim, even in the dark, was uncannily accurate.

She'd emerged the champion, and 12,000 yen richer.

She got her uniform, as well as a stuffed bear from a claw game. She gave the bear to Junko as a gift. She saved the rest of the money for emergencies in a little box which she kept buried close in a patch of grass where she and Junko played. She went back to writing for magazines. But she couldn't escape the field. She craved the adrenaline, the feeling of being one with nature, the distance from the hustle of the city.

It was almost therapeutic. And the money that she won definitely wasn't a bad thing.

The games got deadlier after that. Paintball substituted its rounds for bullets. Mukuro sniped toes from the bushes to keep from causing too much harm while still eliminating her foes. She outlasted any other competitors by willpower and promises she made in the dark to her scared sister.

Promises to return unscathed, and better than before.

She had to do it for Junko. To keep her safe and happy.

So that they could achieve whatever happiness Junko had in mind, together.

Chapter Text

She got good at playing the games to survive. She could identify firearms quick, pairing them with their respective bullets and holsters, assembling and loading them blindfolded. She could pinpoint areas of the body that made for painless, lethal shots, and knew exactly which veins made for a torturously slow, painful bleeding out. She learned how to gut wild animals, identify edible plants and bugs, and start stick fires. She took to the library to avoid her mother, staying there until closing time, reading and processing all of the survival information that she could garner. She purified water from the river close by home for practice. She taught Junko how to throw down and wrestle like she had seen the others do when their guns ran out of bullets. Junko had to defend herself against creeps in white vans when Mukuro went out, after all.

Mukuro got ripped. She lost any and all baby fat she used to have, turning it instead to solid muscle. She hadn't noticed until Junko had pointed it out, in the field by the slum, sometime after she had emerged victorious from her eighth survival game.

“Muku-chan, look at your face! It's all grimy from you rubbing dirt into it. I know camouflaging is important for you to learn and that it's a survival skill and yada yada whatever, but nobody would even look at your face and remember it, so what's the point of making it uglier by smearing it with icky mud? Come over and let me clean it off for you.” Junko dipped her hands into the bucket that Mukuro had been purifying and started to scrub the dirt off of her sister's face. “Muku-chan, have you lost weight?” Junko used her thumb and forefinger to try and grab at Mukuro’s cheek, squinting a little as she struggled to find a grip. “Unbelievable. There's almost nothing here except for skin and bones!” She punctuated the statement by poking at Mukuro’s tummy, her finger met by a hard resistance when Mukuro tensed up at the touch. “You've lost weight and I haven't? That's SO not fair! Why am I still stuck with baby fat and round cheeks when YOU get to be skinny as a stick? You don't even deserve it. You don't even appreciate it like I would! Face it, you hadn't even noticed a difference until I’d told you about it, isn't that right?”

Mukuro couldn't find it in herself to say anything in her own defense. It wasn’t like she actually had access to a mirror in the fields for games, and the library bathroom had such dim lighting that she honestly had never noticed a real difference in her face. She just rubbed at her cheek where Junko had pinched her. “Yeah Ko-chan. You're right. We don't have a mirror, so I've never been able to see myself since we lost the house. I didn't even notice a difference. Thank goodness you're here with me and for me. You'll keep me safe, and tell me everything I need to know. I know it. I’m skinnier than you because of the survival games, I’m pretty sure. I don’t deserve to be skinnier than you but I can’t help it, really.” Mukuro felt like she was being wound up like an elastic by Junko, sitting so that her arms could hug her legs as she watched Junko stare her down. Junko needed to be happy. If Junko couldn’t be happy with Mukuro, then Mukuro didn’t deserve to be happy in the first place. She had to defuse this situation before it became permanently broken. “Besides, you look cuter with the baby fat. I never have and never will look good anyways, so it shouldn’t matter much whether I’m fat or skinny. If nobody’s going to spare me a second glance, it really shouldn’t matter, but I’m really sorry that it does.”

She used some of her money to buy Junko a gift the next day as an apology and a peace offering. It was a cheap plastic compact that opened up to become a hairbrush, with a chibi polar bear on the cover. Junko had thanked her, and gotten to business, washing Mukuro’s hair with her bucket of purified water and then brushing out the knots. Mukuro let her, appreciating Junko’s efforts to tame her wild mop of black hair.

After all, Junko loved her, and she loved Junko. She would do anything to make her happy.

Chapter Text

The twins had been sitting under the overpass one chilly night, sitting by the fire in a tin can, waiting for their mother’s return when Junko had opened her mouth.

“Muku-chan, let’s run away.”

“What?”

“You heard me, I want to run away. Let’s leave Kamakura. I’m sick of going to school every day and listening to a crazy teacher that can’t teach and is only there for the salary. I don’t want to eat whatever it is that we can scrounge anymore. I’m tired of walking past our old house every time we go to and from school. I’m done with mom coming here with food scraps that she calls dinner while she’s using up her bimonthly paycheck on alcohol until she forgets that we even exists. I don’t want her hitting you when she gets so staggering drunk that she can’t tell us apart. Why not make it easier on her by actually ceasing to exist? I’m sure that she’d appreciate the sentiment.”

“I’m not sure about this Junko, where would we go? What would we do? How would we afford it?”

“Tokyo. We’ll rent an apartment somewhere farther from the city center so that rent isn’t as expensive and it’s not that dangerous. We’re in fourth grade now. We can probably go to soup kitchens for homeless kids our age. I’ll distract and you’ll pickpocket. I'll be the cute little homeless girl and you can keep writing for magazines and going off on your games. Besides, you have all of that money saved up from your previous survival games just sitting out in the field, don’t you? I’m sure that can last us at least three months, since we only need a one bedroom apartment to get by.”

“77000 yen? I know I skip math more often than you, ko-chan, but that’s probably only enough for one month. It is Tokyo, after all.”

“Fine then, we’ll go for one month. Make mom regret that she always forgets us. If you really aren’t feeling like you want to live in Tokyo, we’ll come back. Just trust me for this time period; that’s all that I ask of you, okay?”

“If you’re sure. When do you want me to dig up the box?”

“Right now.”

They were gone before their mother had returned. Junko had told her that it was just the wind, but Mukuro could swear on her freckles that she had heard a cry of anguish coming from the overpass before calls of their names rang through the slums. It didn’t matter. She was doing this to make her mother regret every act of violence against Junko.

She was doing this for Junko.

Chapter Text

They took a train to Tokyo. Rode the Yokosuka line from Kamakura station to Shinagawa station using Mukuro’s money. When they got off and Junko had started heading west towards the bright and flashing lights, that's when Mukuro had started to worry. She'd grabbed a fistful of Junko’s charity bin jacket with one hand, lacing the fingers of her other hand with Junko’s.

“Hey ko-chan, do you even know where we’re going? We can't afford those hotels for a month, and they wouldn't even look at kids our age and take us seriously. Maybe we should just head back before something dangerous happens to us. I'm sure that mom feels sorry enough for herself and for us now to have learned her lesson.”

Her twin just flipped her long blonde hair over her shoulder. “Muku-chan, you've gotta trust me on this! Relax, mom probably hasn't even noticed that we left yet, and there's no way that she could ever feel sorry enough for everything that she's done to us. Everything she's done to me…” With those words, Junko turned away, her back facing her twin, hugging herself with her arms. Mukuro felt the temperature drop around her as Junko seemed to curl in on herself. “The most dangerous place is at home, and the most dangerous people are your family. People you think love you and who you are supposed to love endlessly. Mom really doesn't like me, you know. She says that I'm the reason dad left. You know how much she likes to hit me whenever she can find something to blame me for. You know how she always only buys stuff for you with those child welfare cheques and refuses to use it on anything for me. She's the reason you go off on survival games in the first place. It really hurts me when you go and almost die just because she refuses me the same things she buys you. You don't like it when I'm in pain, right Muku-chan? You're not as terrible as mom is, rotten enough to think that seeing me suffer is a good thing, right? Be honest with me; you're on my side, right?” Junko moved. In a flash she was the one grabbing at Mukuro’s jacket, voice quivering. “I have you, right? You promise that you'll always be by my side, always protecting me? I need you to do this. It's a lot to ask; but you saying yes would make me the happiest. Please. Trust me enough to know that we are the only ones who understand each other. You love me, right, sis?”

“Of course Junko. Always.”

Junko brightened. “Yay! An ally in a warzone! That's always great news! Now let's go find some place with cheap rent and one bedroom!”

They eventually did end up finding a flat with cheaper rent, although at 58,000 yen for a month, and having to leave 4000 yen just for the train tickets here and back, Mukuro couldn't tell if it was really much of a bargain. After the keys were handed over, Junko had insisted that they celebrate with a feast, and that's why Mukuro found herself awake at 2am with her sister.

Doing a Denny's run.

She thanked whatever gods had been watching to have placed them with the friendliest, most easygoing staff who gave free refills of food and drink to the kids. They probably saw the twins and pitied them. They didn't know that Mukuro could snap a neck without hesitation, or that Junko once had used the lid of a tin can she had been begging with to slice up the dick of a flashing pedophile.

Both experiences were long stories which they'd rather put behind them.

1000 yen and 2 kids orders (and 2 refills) of omurice later, both twins insisted that it was the best meal they'd ever had.

Next, to the local convenience store to find cup noodles and other little things that could keep them fed, as well as soap and toilet paper. Junko insisted on 2 sets of hair elastics, one pair that came with a bow and one with a bunny, and when she gave Mukuro those puppy dog eyes?

“Just put them on the counter sis.”

They returned to their apartment and unpacked everything which they had brought from Kamakura, and also emptied the bags of food that both had been carrying. They took their first hot bath in ages, sitting in the tub together and soaking until long after their fingers had gotten pruny. Junko washed and brushed Mukuro’s hair out, letting Mukuro do the same for her. They washed their clothes after the tub water had turned cold, for once not needing the spray bottle of vodka that Mukuro had brought along, deciding instead to spray it in the faces of creeps, if need be. The apartment came with a little electric hair dryer, and the landlord had been kind and given them each a towel, toothbrush and toothpaste for free, after seeing how miserable Junko looked.

Clean, dry and warm, the twins fell asleep together as the sun was rising.

Chapter Text

“We should ask about dad.” Junko’s voice broke through the cartoon that they had been watching. Mukuro didn’t know much about the context of this show, but the people in it could manipulate fire, water, earth and air. If only she could do that. She'd be able to win survival games twice as fast, probably.

“What gave you that idea?”

“Think about it. We’ve been here for 2 days already just enjoying the feeling of a warm bed. I feel so bored it’s awful. Besides, dad’s abandoned us for long enough. Said he was going to America, but it’s not like he always told the truth. What if he’s in Tokyo and we just have to find him? He always used to come here for his job, I’m sure that somebody in this big city knows him.”

“But how are we supposed to find him? Just walk into any big office building and ask for an Ikusaba Masao? What if they ask us where our parents are? What do we even say? Which building is he even working in? Have you seen the cityscape through the window? Tokyo is huge and there’s a tall business building at every intersection!”

“Okay, so we backtrack. Let’s go to an internet café, and look at all of the different businesses in downtown Tokyo that we think are familiar.”

That’s how Mukuro and Junko found themselves using a public computer to google an entire list. Junko was reading them aloud and any name that sounded familiar was then copied onto a small list for more research by Mukuro.

“TOA construction, Tobu railway and tours, Toei Animation, Togami conglomerate, Tokai carbon, Tokyo electr-”

“Hang on, backtrack. Read the last four again? One of them stood out.”

“One, two, three, fo-Muku-chan. If you want to hit up Toei Animation to ask if penniless urchins can finish the season of whatever cartoon we were watching this morning, be my guest. But can we find where dad works first?”

“What’s the business after Toei?”

“Togami conglomerate." Junko’s nose wrinkled. "What the hell is a conglomerate?”

“Conglomerates are the combination of two or more corporations who meddle with different businesses, which both fall under one corporate group, parent companies and usually have many subsidiaries. They’re usually multi-industry and multinational.” Mukuro stared evenly at Junko’s shocked face. With the way her eyebrow was cocked, you’d think Mukuro’d just told her that she, a ten year old, was pregnant. “What? I went to the library all the time. It’s not a surprise that I pulled out dictionaries and encyclopedias to hide from mean librarians.”

“Aaawww, Muku-chan, I’m so proud! You got bookish even while surviving against huge guys with guns!” Junko leaped out of the chair into Mukuro’s arms for a hug. “Now tell me more about this Togami conglomerate.” She pulled away just enough to squish the sides of Mukuro’s face with her hands, still perched in Mukuro’s princess carry.

“Umm, I remember dad talking about it a lot, every time he walked out on mom actually. I always slept later than you because I wanted to hear the end of each argument, but whenever he stormed out he would say something about how the esteemed Togami conglomerate would not tolerate his slack attitude if he didn’t go out for business trips. Then mom would accuse him of cheating, and he would say something about calling a kettle black, and then he would leave the house and slam the door.” Mukuro giggled. “Oh yeah, he also complained about his boss a lot, he always said that ‘those cursed Togami’s breed like rabbits and then disown each other in a merciless showdown for the role of successor.’ but I have no clue what he meant by that.”

Junko motioned to the computer. “Okay, I’ll look up the location of their main building, We’ll walk up to the information desk, say that we are looking for our dad and see what information we can find.”

“There’s a soup kitchen along the way, can we stop there for dinner? Or at least a snack?”

Junko grinned. “Sure. See if you can spot anybody to pickpocket while we’re there.”

Chapter Text

There were many people at that soup kitchen. Most of them were in their teens, there were a few twenty year olds, but aside from that, there weren’t many adults who weren’t there for the express purpose of handing bowls of soup and refrigerated sandwiches to those in line.

That’s when a man in a long overcoat who was supposed to be serving bowls of soup, spilled it on his line, and on the teens in it.

"Hey old man! Watch where you’re going! You could have burnt me!” A girl not much older than Mukuro had screamed. She had on a grungy white uniform shirt and a red skirt that seemed to be far outgrown. “Seriously, who do they hire these days? I thought evolution would have weeded you clumsy geezers out by now!” She made to grab the collar of the man’s jacket, but was stopped by another teenager beside her.

“Dude, can you chill? We’re all street rats, and we’re all hungry. Let the old guy go back to his job so that we all get what we need and nobody gets hurt.”

“Street rats?! I’m the top gymnast in my school. If not for the fact that I’ve got too many siblings to count and parents that don’t do jack, I’d be kicking it in the next olympics!”

“Well, I don’t see why you should beat the daylights out of this old man for spilling soup, you’re the one interfering with him doing his job.”

“Oh, that’s it you little punk.” a crowd of teenagers was forming around the two as they continued to bicker. They were thirsty for some action to relieve pent up stress and the atmosphere changed accordingly. “You think you’re better than me? You’d better prove it or make me shut up and sit down.”

The man in the long coat had long since gone to the side of the alley to observe the imminent brawl. Junko nudged Mukuro. “This is your chance, sis. All you need to do is run into the fray and steal wallets and pocket change once people start throwing punches. Get in and out as soon as you can.” Mukuro nodded. Her fists clenched, her eyes narrowed. She took a deep breath.

It was go time.

She felt the familiar rush of adrenaline in her beating heart, thumping almost as if it were asking for permission to spread to the rest of her body. Mukuro welcomed it as the first punch between the teens made contact.

Just like that, she was off. A wallet here, some crumpled up bills there, even watches and necklaces. Nobody had even seen her amidst all of the violence, weaving through and around as if she embodied the fight.

Except for the man in the long overcoat.

She returned to Junko without even breaking a sweat, sweeping the hair out of her eyes, handing her half of the stolen loot and taking off into an adjacent alley before anyone noticed the absence of their life savings. They were counting up their bounty and putting it all into a wallet or two when the man approached. Mukuro noticed him first. She spun around on her heel, bouncing slightly on her toes, fists raised, ready to defend.

“Incredible. No loss of breath, the agility and expertise, not even a scratch and you were in the center of the chaos.” He began, watching as the twins grasped hands, ready to make a break with their bounty. “It’s a shame that you’re so young. And that you threw no punches. Fenrir could use somebody like you. Well, somebody that is willing to kill. I’ll scout the others who actually did damage.” He left the alley, leaving Mukuro to stand and stare dumbly until Junko tugged on her arm, stuffing a wallet in her other hand. They pawned the watches and jewellery that Mukuro had been able to find and went home 20000 yen richer. After that, it was off to a library to use their computers. The Togami building, as well as the secrets that it held, could wait until tomorrow. Mukuro had some digging to do.

She had just had her first run-in with Fenrir. She couldn’t get the man’s words out of her head. They wanted somebody like her in with whatever they did. She liked what she did. They did too.

It must have been fate.

Chapter Text

The Togami building was an impressive sight in the afternoon sun of the next day. Huge, imposing, made almost entirely of glass. Functional, yet aesthetically pleasing. These people knew what they were doing when they had put this skyscraper together.

Junko had insisted that they look rich, or at least not like runaways, before entering the building. As a result, Junko’s hair was up in two pigtails with the bunny and the bow elastics, and Mukuro had hers up in a neat ballerina bun. Security had, for the most part, ignored them. One of them had jokingly quipped that they should be in a classroom, but Junko countered solemnly that there were some things more important that took priority over school. They had walked in through the revolving door, resisting the urge to run circles in it. Actually, Junko and Mukuro just made a promise beforehand that regardless of whether or not they could find their dad, they'd spin around in the door once they'd gotten the info and no longer had to look fancy.

They'd walked in at an inopportune moment. There was currently another child at the information desk, which gave the twins a chance to look around the building. It was beautiful. The ceiling was at least twice the height of a regular one and painted like a beautiful sunny day. All around them, huge trees lined the soft carpet. Mukuro had never seen something so wondrous in her years.

They had to get closer to the information desk instead of standing there idly if they wanted to get any help. After all, they had to pretend to be a pair of queens just to get past the security at the front doors, so there was no point in dropping that act now.

Holding hands, Junko and Mukuro neared with their chins up. A little blonde boy with glasses and a black suit was snapping at the concierge, his chin just clearing the marble countertop. His voice was high and whiny. Mukuro wrinkled her nose. Rich people. This kid was clearly loaded, considering the way that he spoke.

“-and I will not tolerate you speaking to me in this manner! I will have you fired upon claiming my birthright! I am here to seek out my father, the Togami who hired such an airhead to waste resources! Where is he? I demand you direct me to his office right now!” he huffed and stared the receptionist down. For a second, Mukuro thought he was going to stomp his foot for emphasis, but she dismissed the thought from her head. This was some rich person’s child, and she wasn’t going to deal with him unless she absolutely had to, because money meant power, and power meant ‘social services will separate her from her twin if the little entitled brat so wanted.’

Unfortunately, Junko had other plans. Letting go of Mukuro, she moved one hand on her hip and cupped the other to her mouth, she leaned over slightly and raised her voice, getting the attention of the two by the desk.

“Yo, if you’re just gonna stand there until she helps you, would you mind moving to the side a bit? You’re not the only one in here today with the express purpose of finding their father.” The little boy’s eyebrow twitched. He huffed and tipped his chin up.

“Another Togami wannabe heiress? What's your name? If I recognize it I just might move aside.”

She cocked her head. “The name’s Enoshima Junko.” She waved her hand at Mukuro. “This is Ikusaba Mukuro, and we’re here to find her dad. Hey ma’am? Do you happen to have any idea where we can find an Ikusaba Masao in this building? We came on the train here this morning and he said that he’d pick us up from the station, but he never showed up. We thought he was just running late, but it’s been a whole three hours so we decided to try our luck here.” Junko made a point of addressing the receptionist personally, grabbing Mukuro’s hand again and walking up and past the little boy, giving him a little push to the side. Needless to say, he wasn't very happy. Mukuro didn't really care about him though. This was kind of funny. Besides, she wanted her questions answered.

“Don’t ignore me! I’m still right here!”

Junko put on her best innocent kid expression. “Whatever you can do to help us find him would be really appreciated. Muku-chan over here is worried sick that her dad’s gotten in a car crash and is in the hospital by now.” The receptionist took one look at Mukuro, standing behind Junko as if in fear and smiled loosely.

“I’ll see what I can do for you, sweetie. Ikusaba Masao, his name was?” Both girls nodded. “Alright, I’ll just look up his name in our computer database. I’ll find him in less than a minute. In the meantime, please do keep young sir Togami Byakuya from fainting due to holding his breath.”

Mukuro looked over at the boy. They looked to be about the same age, but both she and Junko were just a little bit taller. He was turning a rather impressive shade of red and his cheeks were puffed out, so Mukuro guessed that the receptionist wasn’t lying.

And just like every other rich kid Mukuro had ever come across, he just had to open that mouth and start spewing the same classist junk, didn’t he.

“I’m a Togami. I don’t mingle with my father’s employees or their children so you’d better not make me.” He turned his head away from the twins. That would have been the end of it, if Junko hadn’t decided to open her mouth.

“You’re white. How is your Japanese so impressive?”

Mukuro had to resist the urge to slam her face against the marble counter.

“I’m a Togami. I'm actually from France. Do you even know where that is? We’re supposed to speak multiple languages fluently by the time we’re 5 years old to ready us for our futur-”

“Well, happy belated birthday then!” Junko replied evenly, cutting him off. The vein above this Togami kid’s temple looked like it was about to burst. Mukuro would be lying if she said that she didn't enjoy this. She definitely did.

“I should order you both thrown out at such a statement! Common folk like you ought to learn your place. When I’m head of the family, I’ll make sure tha-”

A thrilled titter interrupted the conversation. “Girls! I have knowledge of Mr. Ikusaba!” the receptionist came back with a sheet of paper. On it was his current address in Tokyo, as well as a visual of the house that the girls could use for reference. “he actually just left on a trip to Nagasaki yesterday, which is unfortunate. You can find that house to stay at though, I'm sure that he's given you the key. Can you get there alright?”

Junko grinned widely. “Yes, certainly. Thank you for all that you've done to help us!”

The girls left quietly, making sure to enjoy themselves by running circles in the revolving door, leaving fingerprints on the glass where they had pushed to go faster. Mukuro relished the look on the blonde brat’s face when he saw them laughing and having a good time in his family's expensive glass building. She committed the sight of him scowling at the both of them to memory.

She would not forget his face. The jerk.

Chapter Text

Finding the apartment was difficult. Breaking into it was pretty challenging, but they made it. Deciding what to do afterwards to the absolutely defenseless apartment of a father who abandoned them with an alcoholic?

Mukuro hadn't even needed convincing.

They laid waste to it from the inside. She threw so much toilet paper into the toilet that it clogged. Junko took anything that could be sold, as well as all of the money they could find, which wasn't all that much, but it was something. Mukuro had pried open the floorboards of his bedroom and found a small chest full of valuables. Junko hugged her before proceeding to scratch and burn all of the cookware so that it was unusable in the future. They took food and drink and some kitchen knives that Mukuro simply couldn't part with. Mukuro replaced the floorboards to make it look like damage wasn't extensive beyond petty crime.

“Wait.” Junko stopped Mukuro from turning the doorknob to exit. “Before we leave. What if we left a note? From us, his daughters, I mean.”

Mukuro cocked an eyebrow at her sister. “Why would we want to do that? The police will catch us for sure! They'll separate us! We'll get put up in the foster care system!”

“I wouldn't sign it." Junko interrupted Mukuro’s slight panic. "Maybe just write ‘thanks daddy dearest’ in it or something. So that the police think that he's got a mistress, but he knows we were here. Imagine what pain he'd feel at knowing that he'd just barely missed his own daughters in his house. Then the pain he'd feel upon realizing that we stole his things and wrecked his life. The regret that he'd experience when he thinks of everything he could have done to prevent this.” Junko’s hand was shaking now, she clasped Mukuro’s tightly, so that she would feel the tremors. “What dad would feel… is there even a word to describe it? The exquisite combination of pain and regret, of past insecurities dragging you down and holding you back once more? The absolute loss of hope and faith in humanity when he realizes that he couldn't even trust his family? And now the pain we felt back then is transferred back to him in some divine karmic form?”

“...Despair?”

“What?”

“The complete loss or absence of hope; despair. That came from a dictionary too.”

“Oh. Well in that case, yes. Let's make sure that dad feels despair. You'll help me, right Muku-chan?”

“Of course.”

“That's my supportive big sister.”

In the end, they left behind a simple sticky note.

“Thanks daddy <3 Love you.”

They were back in their own flat, watching more cartoons when the thought hit Mukuro.

“Ko-chan, why did you say that Masao was just my dad when you were asking the lady at Togami tower today? He’s yours too.

Junko shrugged nonchalantly. “In front of a boy who’s such a big jerk, revealing that your family got torn apart by you is like giving them a weapon to kill you with. Besides, you actually look like him. If she knew him personally, she’d believe that you were one of his daughters, but me? That’d be the quickest ticket to putting us under suspicion.”

“I guess you're right. We are sisters though. That'll never change. And I'm happy because of that.”

A few days later, the twins were watching the evening news over onigiri when their father’s face suddenly appeared on the screen. Both girls froze as they listened to the reporter.

“Police have recently taken Ikusaba Masao into custody on accounts of failure to support his divorce agreements and possible mental instability. Recently he had filed a report on a robbery in his house, however all of his evidence was burnt pans, misplaced change, a clogged toilet, and a sticky note written with childlike scrawl. He insisted upon having a chest of valuables under his floorboards, but police could find no real evidence of a break-in aside from the note, which, they say, could have been shoved under the door, not constituting as a break-in. When apprehended, he insisted upon being robbed by his own daughters, after which police realized that alimony had never been paid or received by either party. Police have reached out to his ex-wife, looking for more details to help them with the case.”

Mukuro watched in shock. Was this what mere kids could be capable of? Was it safe to continue on like this? Would Junko and herself get arrested? Would they get separated? She shivered and turned to face her sister, expecting a similar expression of fear and-

Junko was chortling. Quiet giggles held back behind her hand, Then it erupted into a loud, no holds barred, belly holding outburst of giddiness. “Can you believe that actually worked? Imagine the despairing state that he's in right now! He's rotting in a jail cell somewhere, he knows it was us but nobody else believes him! He’ll walk out of the police station jobless, and penniless too, because of how much he owes us in alimony! This is better than I could have ever imagined!”

“They didn't even mention the stolen knives…” Mukuro said quietly, eyes focused on the mugshot of her father.

“Don't worry! This is good enough! They didn't need to mention the knives! And this is just the end of the first week!” Junko hugged Mukuro from the side. “Imagine what we’ll be doing by the end of the month! I knew that running away was a good idea! What luck! We won't regret this trip Muku-chan, I promise!”

Mukuro shrugged. “So dad’s in jail, we’ve brought despair to his doorstep, and also possibly made enemies with some rich brat who was a result of the Togami rabbit breeding habits. Also, we’ve stolen from a bunch of teenagers at a soup kitchen. We've done a lot of things, I don't see what we're missing.”

“Nicknames.”

Mukuro tilted her head. “We already have those, don't we? We’re Ko-chan and Muku-chan. Why do we need to change them?”

“We need something that people can use to refer to the both of us. It needs to sound tough, like we’re in a gang! That way, everybody knows what we do and not to mess with us!”

Mukuro shot Junko a pointed stare. “We’re a pair of ten year olds. Nicknames or not, I doubt people are going to take us seriously regardless.”

Junko waved her off. “Let's see, so far we've brought despair on pretty much everyone we come across, and we've convinced people that we are friends. How about,” Junko waved her right arm in a wide arc. “The Super Duper Rough and Tough Tricky Despair Pair? It even rhymes!”

“I don't think many people would stick around to listen to a name that long, Ko-chan. How about we shorten it a bit. If you really wanted, what if we just called ourselves the despair sisters?”

Junko stared at her. She blinked, Mukuro felt herself stiffen slightly, eyes never leaving Junko’s own. “That,” She grinned, “sounds perfect.”

Chapter Text

“Look sis! A playground! Let's go!”

The playground in question, Mukuro noted, was small and didn't stand out much, just some community sponsored park with monkey bars attached to a slide, a climbing wall made of thick ropes that made a net, and 3 swings. It was enough for the twins though, as they ran around amusing themselves. Mukuro liked the net the best. It reminded her of some battlefield survival games where she'd used her small size to lead other competitors into her traps. She'd been lovingly nicknamed “Arachne” by the online watchers over the course of one game because of her adept fingers and rope weaving skills and somehow the name stuck. She still wrote articles every once in awhile using the moniker as a pen name. Just thinking about the field brought a smile to her face.

She and Junko spent half an hour there chasing each other around until finally, they sat themselves on the swings to catch their breath, the afternoon sun warm on their faces.

“So, Muku-chan,” began Junko, as she walked backwards and pushed off of the ground. “Where to next? Hit up more soup kitchens and wreak havoc by taking what money and valuables they have left? I like that idea, it went great and you even almost got a job offer for whatever that Fenrir thing was. How about doing it again for old times’ sake?” Each sentence was punctuated with a grunt of effort and the sight of Junko flinging herself higher and higher on her seat.

“Old times sake?” Mukuro questioned, staying put with both feet planted on the gravel instead of mimicking her sister's actions. “Junko, we’re ten year olds. I honestly dont think that anything we do will count as old. And actually, I was considering laying low. After all, the woman on the news said that police had reached out to mom for information. What if they find out that we went missing and they find us here in Tokyo, and they realize that dad was right about us stealing and they throw us in jail instead?” She made sure to keep her voice low, so that a group of kids walking home from school wouldn't be able to overhear the conversation they were sharing.

Junko just chuckled lightly. “Muku-chan, you're missing the point! Dad is already in trouble with the police for not paying mom the alimony, and he would still be jobless if the Togami conglomerate with the rude kid is as ruthless as they say. Besides, we’re kids. The worst thing that could happen to us is that the government gives us a real house and takes us away from mom, which, mind you, isn't the worst idea."

“That doesn't mean it's any less dangerous. What if the real police come and arrest us? What if-"

“Mind if I swing with you two?” Mukuro whipped her head around, seeing a mop of brown hair and a green hoodie overtop of a school uniform. The kid was super short too. “I’m Naegi Makoto,” he said after a moment of silence. “What are your names?”

“I'm Enoshima Junko, and this is Ikusaba Mukuro.” When there was no reply from the boy, Junko added, “we’re the despair sisters. The swing’s not taken, but swing at your own risk. People say that we can be seriously dangerous.”

Shorty blinked slowly, processing the previous sentence. When he opened his mouth again, his voice came out incredulous. “Dangerous? You can't be older than me, my mom says that dangerous kids are the ones that stick with older bad influences. The both of you are hanging out in a park, there's no way that you're dangerous.”

Junko flipped her hair over a shoulder, rolling her eyes at the stranger. “Kid, we’re the bad influences that other kids stick around. We’re the strangers your mom warned you about. Watch your back, shrimp, because Muku-chan here can actually stab it, and watch your front, because having me around makes for double trouble.”

The Naegi kid shrugged and plopped himself on the remaining swing; right next to Mukuro, making air quotes as he parroted the moniker. “The 'despair sisters' is an interesting name. Why'd you pick it?” Mukuro huffed at her bangs, this little nugget just didn't shut up, did he? She chose instead to stay silent, watching as he paced in a tight circle, twisting the chain up. He was still talking. “My mom tells me not to use the swing like this, but if I really am talking to dangerous strangers, maybe some of her rules are meant to be broken.” With that, he pulled his feet off of the ground and whooped as he spun faster and faster in his seat, completely oblivious to Mukuro’s bemusement. When he came to a stop, he stood up, wobbling slightly. “See? That was fun! It was nice and nobody got hurt! It's a lot like the both of you!” Mukuro and Junko looked at each other with twin raised eyebrows. The hoodie wearing shrimp continued, green-brown eyes meeting gray ones. “What I mean to say is, you warn people about getting too close but you don't mean to hurt anybody, because deep down you're really nice and fun people who are great to hang around and bring joy to those you meet!” He smiled then, a genuine smile that made Mukuro feel like he wasn't just using her to get something else that he wanted, a smile that promised a bright future for her. It felt like sunshine on a cloudy day, like the way that hot chocolate tasted in the winter. It felt warm, or maybe that was just her cheeks coloring. It felt like comfort, a tight hug that Mukuro never wanted to break from. She'd never felt this way before, but somehow, she knew exactly what that smile felt like.

It felt like home.

The kid (Naegi Makoto, she reminded herself) waved his hand in front of her, snapping her out of whatever thoughts she'd been lost in. “Hey, you okay? You got lost in your brain for a second.” He flashed that cursed smile again, and Mukuro couldn't help the words that tumbled out of her mouth next.

“Nobody's ever smiled at me like that before.” She didn't notice the slight twitch in Junko’s right eyebrow, she was too busy thinking of how it would feel to have a complete and happy family again, and what home should feel like.

Naegi furrowed his brows. “Well, they definitely should!” he thought for a moment before hitting his upturned palm with his closed fist, a stroke of genius having hit him. “If nobody's smiled at you like that before, then I guess I'll have to make up for lost time!” He stood up to leave. “My mom is waiting for me to come to dinner, but I come here every day after school to play a bit. If you want, we can play together after I'm done school!”

“That ain't happening shrimp.” Junko snapped before Mukuro could answer. “We’re only staying here for a while. Besides, she doesn't need you when she has me.”

Mukuro sat in silence on the swing as Makoto’s face fell. “Oh. Well, that's unfortunate.” She winced, ready and waiting for the moment when he would blow up in her face for wasting his time. “If that's how you really feel though, I'll still be around here every day after school. You don't have to come play with me if you don't want to.” He smiled, but it wasn't the same anymore. She could see the hurt in his eyes, despite his best efforts to veil it. She’d caused that hurt.

“Trust me scrub, she doesn't want to play nice. Muku-chan isn't into that kinda stuff. Get lost. Mommy's calling you.”

Naegi Makoto left the park looking like a wounded puppy.

“Yeesh Ko-chan, did you have to shoot him down like that? Look at how hurt he is.” Mukuro turned to face her sister on the swing. Junko was grinning, congratulating herself on an apparent job well done. She shrugged.

“Meh. It was worth it. He made a new friend and immediately lost her. Who could have been able to predict that? Imagine the despair that must accompany that type of circumstance!” Junko got off of her swing and grabbed the chains of Mukuro’s. “What I'm more concerned about is the fact that you think he's the only one to ever have smiled at you. What about me? I smile! Would you really have gone off with that complete stranger just because he smiled and that was apparently enough to win your silly, romantic little heart over?” Junko was on the verge of tears now, hands shaking as she moved to grip Mukuro’s shoulders. She felt like Junko was playing with her like a rubber band, stretching the extent of her emotions and snapping her back, relieving tension with short, sharp bursts and building it up all over again only to repeat her actions. “Would you just abandon me like that? Like mom and dad? I need you, we need each other. What's in the name despair sisters if one of us leaves the other? We'd lose our name, our sense of purpose, our entire mission! Everything we've worked so hard for, just down the drain. If you're willing to leave me for some boy, how do you expect us to carry on? You understand what I'm saying, right? You understand me the way that I understand you, right?”

“Ko-chan, if you think I'd abandon you just like that, then you're wrong. I love you. I'd never leave you unless it's what would make you happy.” Mukuro swallowed the lump in her throat. She'd probably die for Junko, if that's what she wanted her to do and was absolutely confident in her decision. She tipped her head up, looking Junko straight in the eye as she asked, almost begged for forgiveness.

“Do you forgive me? Are we still the despair sisters?”

Junko just sighed and pulled Mukuro into a tight hug that had her gasping for breath.

“God, Muku-chan, sometimes you can be so stupid.”

Chapter Text

Mukuro went back to writing for military magazines after the first week. Her latest article, “Fenrir: legendary mercenaries” racked up a ton of hits both online and on shelves. While she didn't share any of her personal experience with Fenrir, she took as much as she could garner from the Internet and threw in some extra information from her encounter with the man. Not enough to make herself a target, but enough that in case Fenrir higher ups ever read her article, they would know and remember her name. Maybe even grow to fear it, if she played her cards right.

Aside from her return to writing, pretty much everything stayed the same. She still spent all of her time around Junko, used her money to buy only things that were vital for survival (unless Junko brought out the puppy eyes), and pickpocketed at different soup kitchens twice a week, so that nobody would recognize her face. She felt monotonous. Her and Junko’s life felt monotonous.

“Let's go back to Kamakura, I’m bored.”

“What? I thought that you were enjoying yourself here. Besides, it's only been like, two weeks since we came here.”

Junko waved her hand carelessly. “Yeah, I guess. Being able to watch cartoons again isn't bad, and real food is a nice break from dumpster diving, but we’re both bored out of our minds here. Muku-chan, aren't you tired of the same old thing every day? You write, scrounge, look up Fenrir, repeat.” Junko leaned over, having turned at some point to face Mukuro. Her eyes were almost hypnotic. “When's the last time that you fired a gun? Held a knife against somebody? I gotta say, I kinda thought that I'd eventually miss the life of constant vigilance, but I never thought I'd be missing mom too.”

“You're missing… mom?” Mukuro blanched. “Why? All she does is get drunk and beat us. Even when she's not blitzed out of her mind, she just laments the loss of dad and goes on about how she wishes we’d never been born.” Her mother had quite the mouth on her and Mukuro’s ears were no stranger to swears in any convenient language at the time.

“How's it gonna be now though? I mean, she does have the alimony and attention from the police. She could have bought a house, or used her platform to see if she could find us, or she could be dead from liver damage.” Junko hid a grin behind a soft hand as she continued. “The possibilities are endless, when you really think about it.”

Mukuro was, at this point, about 30% certain that her sister was insane. She tread cautiously, moving herself slightly farther from her sister. “You want to go back to her? Just out of curiosity? Even when she hurts you? Because she hurts you? Despite giving us bruises that we have to work hard to hide, you want to go back to her?

Junko scoffed, talking to Mukuro as if she were a toddler. “Muku-chan, people hurt other people out of love . If you love somebody, hurt them. If they come back, they love you. Their coming back is proof of their love for you.” Junko chuckled sardonically, continuing on. “Why come back if they don't care, after all! Besides, what greater despair is there to experience than the despair you get when you actually bring up the guts to hurt somebody that you love? To give them scars that they'll carry around and that you have to see every day, to be forced to see a remnant of the damage constantly and know that you can't ever go back and change it?”

Mukuro just shrugged. In all honesty, she had no idea, and no answer for Junko. With her sister, sometimes it was just easier to stay silent and wait for her to fill in the blanks with answers which she dubbed acceptable.

“Does that mean you'll come back home with me?”

She sighed. “I guess so.”

Junko nodded, satisfied with her answer. “Before we leave Tokyo, there's just one more little thing that I want to check out. Tokyo has a ton of fashion districts, right? I wanna check out all of them before we leave. And I mean all of them. We still have money, right?”

Mukuro was bad at math, and Junko knew that all too well. So why was she having her do the calculations? Mukuro counted on her fingers, carrying the two and subtracting the money it would take for the train. It was enough… probably.

“Yeah, we do. I'll get the remainder of rent for this place too. It should be enough for one last shopping trip.

“Great! And I know exactly where we’re going to go first!”

It just had to be Harajuku, didn’t it.

Young teenagers swarmed the streets as the twins dodged bright and puffy dresses left and right, Mukuro feeling awfully like she was living up to her namesake as a corpse; in her plain school uniform, she was pretty sure she stood out like a sore thumb. She tugged on Junko’s sleeve, drawing closer to her younger sister with each step.

“Ko-chan, I’m creeped out by this place. There’s too many bright lights and too much noise. Everything hurts and I can’t see right. Can we go back to Kamakura yet?”

Junko scoffed, but otherwise continued walking at the same pace. “Great. Now my older sister is the one telling me we should go to Kamakura. How come when I suggest an idea I get interrogated, but it’s totally okay and reasonable when you suggest the same thing?” She pointed a finger accusingly. “Who’s the one who wants to go back to mom now? Is everybody in my family fated to abandon me? Is Matsuda Yasuke the only person who I can trust in this world?”

Mukuro’s nose wrinkled at the thought of Matsuda Yasuke. She knew him, all right. He was a brainiac, a meanie, and had been Junko’s “best friend” since she was in third grade. His mom had, as he had put it, “kicked the bucket and set him free” near the beginning of fourth, and now he was in child services, switching foster homes every few months. He sassed the teachers whenever he had nothing better to do, and Junko always provided his soundtrack of “OOOOH SNAP HE WENT THERE” through the thin plaster of the wall if no kids in his own class had gotten the insult yet. He walked them to and from the alley every day, because it was on the way to the hospital. Recess was really the only time in school that the both would meet, but Mukuro hated leaving Junko alone with him. Worrying about the trouble they got up to together sent shivers up her spine, but she often had to entrust Junko’s care to him because of her survival games.

Mukuro’s thoughts were interrupted by Junko’s shrill screech and an unfamiliar yowl.

“Muku-chan, look out!”

And then she crashed head on into another girl around her age, but not without first tripping on the tail of a very round cat.

“Muku-chan, you’re so clumsy! What’s your problem?” Junko seethed. “First I think you’ll betray me, then you squish a cat under your feet, and then you run into the girl who was walking the cat!” Junko counted off Mukuro’s apparent mishaps on her fingers, before turning her attentions to the other girl, who was rubbing a spot on her forehead with one hand, gripping the leash in the other. Junko frowned. “Who the heck walks a cat anyways? How do you even walk a cat? Do they even enjoy recreational walking or do you just drag it around so that it gets enough sunlight? Why’s it so fat? Don’t people go on walks to lose weight and stay in shape? Does this cat have any shape other than round?” Junko poked the belly of the cat for emphasis before continuing. “And what the hell are the both of you wearing ?”

Mukuro took a long look at both feline and cat. Even for Harajuku, this style was definitely uncommon. The circle skirt seemed to be held up by a hoop, and the shirt and jacket made it look as if they were parts of a whole. If she had to name it, it’d probably fall along the lines of… loli? But it was darker. So it was a different type of loli. Junko knew the styles, but Mukuro just didn’t have this kind of time when otherwise engaging in life threatening games. The shirt, skirt and blazer were just white and black, so did that make it monochrome loli? Emo loli? She had a pair of cat ears on her head, did that make her a neko-loli? Aside from the abundance of lace on the dress, the sleeves, hem, and elbows all had a layering of it as well. The fabric that the lace was stitched onto was reflective and looked smooth, and the girl had shoulder length hair up in a ponytail, held by a simple, thin red ribbon. On the front and back of the shirt and skirt that she was now dusting off were thicker red ribbons tied into bows. Was this some type of grunge statement? Was this gothic lolita?

“Oh my god you’re an ita-loli.” Junko’s face took on a look of horror as she clapped both hands to her mouth.

“Ita-loli?!” The other girl screeched. “Pardon me, but I am in a style known to many as-” she made air quotes with her fingers as she enunciated her syllables; “gothic lolita. It’s very popular, and people who are gothic lolis dress in darker clothing and are far from over the top, like those ita-loli’s you accuse me of imitating!”

Junko huffed. “Could have fooled me. Oh, wait-” she paused, before grinning crookedly. “You already did. You’re so ita-loli that it literally pains me to look at you.” She jabbed a finger accusingly at her earrings and announced. “Circular silver earrings with crosses that go through the center. Cat ears.” Mukuro gulped as her tone took on a vicious edge. “How original and gothic, like you so claim. Too bad nobody wears earrings that huge unless they’re faking their act, and only furries wear cat ears now.”

Mukuro sucked in a breath as the other girl gasped at the insult. Junko continued. “Your hair is up in a ponytail, which no lolita does anymore, and it’s not even curled! You’ve got too much ornamentation on the bottom with all of your cheap satin and lace that overcompensates, and you’ve only tied your ponytail up with your shoelace of a red ribbon! You’re super imbalanced! You’ve got on horizontally striped black and white tights, for crying out loud; what are you, a zebra?” Junko’s gasped dramatically as she pointed to the girl’s shoes. “And are those brown loafers?”

The girl sputtered. “L-like-like you could do any better!” She managed to spit out. She was going to say more, but Junko silenced her by sticking her palm in her face.

“As a matter of fact, I can. And I will.” Junko started walking. “Come on Mukuro, because I’m feeling nice today, I’ll help out this poor girl who couldn’t stand their own in the industry of street fashion.” She sighed. “Bring the stupid cat too. Nobody ties a magenta collar to a blue leash without being severely colourblind.”

Two hours later, Mukuro found herself waiting outside the changing room in a store. Junko and the girl, who only let them call her “Taeko”, were inside the changing room, and Junko was making Mukuro fetch whatever she needed, be it a different size, style, or accessory. As much as Mukuro hated this store, with all of the bright colours and loud teenagers, she was enjoying her time in the store, laughing alongside Junko or Taeko whenever one of them said anything particularly witty.

“You should hit me up at birthday parties where people are playing blackjack.” She had told Mukuro once when she exchanged her cat ears for a black and white lace head accessory. “I’ve never lost a game in my life. Promise if our paths cross again that you’ll play with me?”

Mukuro and Junko had both agreed that, in the improbable event that they met again, they would borrow a deck of cards and get to playing.

“Preeeee-senting, the new and improved Taeko-san! And cat!” Junko announced, humming an improvised fanfare as she swept the door of the change room open. There stood Taeko, hair up in pigtails, in a dress that was far less lacier than the original, although the new lace on her head was a welcome change from the stringy excuse of a ribbon that had been there before. Her new kneesocks were black with a white lace trim at the knee, and she wore red Mary-Janes, which matched her eyes, as well as the jewels set in her new golden earrings. Junko had even gone so far as to curl the ends of Taeko’s flat hair, making her look classier.

As for the cat, it wore the black and white head accessory around its neck.

“Thank you, Enoshima-san”, Taeko started. “But I don’t think I want to be called Taeko anymore. With this new outfit, I should adopt a different name.” she turned to Mukuro. “Ikusaba-san, I want you to pick one.”

Mukuro’s mind went blank. “Uuuhhhmmmm” she stuttered, pretending to be deep in thought by staring out of the nearby window, “I don’t really… know?” She took a deep breath. “I mean, I’ve never really named something, but stars are nice…? What if you took a name based off of something you see in the sky?”

Junko cocked a brow. “Sis. You mean to tell me you want to rename our new friend based off of some weird celestial stuff in the sky?”

“That’s it! It was so obvious!” Taeko, or, not-Taeko, smacked her forehead playfully. “My new name will be Celestia!”

Junko shrugged, disinterested. “Okay, suit yourself, but we’ve gotta get going. We need to go home.” She yanked Mukuro up from her place on the couch by her elbow. “Maybe we will see you around in the future.” She waved cheerfully. “Don’t forget us! You owe us a blackjack game!” She kicked the front door open and, grabbing Mukuro’s hand, ran towards the train station. It wasn’t until the twins had crossed two intersections that Junko slowed and started laughing.

“What’s the matter Junko?” Mukuro asked, confused. “And, why did we run up until now?”

Junko giggled and continued her walking. In a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper, she said, “We left the place without paying for the empress’ new clothes. You may be bad at math, sis,  but trust me when I tell you that that lolita stuff doesn’t come cheap!”

Chapter Text

The train ride back was longer. It really was, by about twenty minutes or so, but it also felt much longer too. Watching as those in Harajuku returned home after a long day of work or play, Mukuro found herself considering the idea of home again. What was a home? The place where somebody lived permanently, as a part of a family, perhaps. Maybe it was the place where most people traced their roots to, maybe it was a community, maybe it was a specific building.

For Mukuro, home was safety. That’s what her brain told her. Home was Junko. That’s what her gut told her.

Home was also, according to the inconvenient blood pumping organ in her torso, a smile from Naegi Makoto.

How the heck had she gotten herself into this mess?

What was it about that completely normal little boy that had Mukuro’s mind running laps at the mere thought of his face? How did he, of all people, have the ability to make her heart skip beats when even battlefields couldn’t?

What was it about him that made Mukuro feel safe?

He was just… so… normal.

And she wasn’t. She’d never deserve someone like him anyways. They were too different. Her life wasn’t some retelling of Tanabata, where despite all odds, love and success were guaranteed. If anything, Mukuro felt more like Kaguya Hime. Doomed to live her life alone, isolated from everybody else. Instead of the palanquin descending to carry her to the moon, it was always a truck leading her to her next big game. Where she’d snipe, kill, or end up killed.

Even as they transferred to the long train ride back to Kamakura, Mukuro couldn’t stop thinking about exactly what was wrong with her head.

Junko rested her head on Mukuro’s shoulder. “Hey sis,” she had mumbled, the words barely audible behind her yawn. “Wake me up whenever. I’m going to sleep a bit.”

“No problem.”

Except there was a problem.

Ikusaba Mukuro had the biggest crush on Naegi Makoto.

And she was royally screwed.

Not only was he painfully average, but he was painfully distant as well. Light years out of her league. People like him would spend their days working hard but never really getting farther than a few promotions. People like him would marry otherwise average women and bear children that were far from noteworthy. They’d live to the normal, statistically calculated lifespan, give or take a few years, caring for their children, grandchildren, and perhaps great grandchildren, and die of completely normal things such as heart attacks or strokes. Never to be remembered again.

God, did Mukuro ever want to be normal.

Most normal people had families with two parents who lived each other. Most normal people had siblings, or pets, or sometimes both. Most normal people had friends and didn't leave their families behind for survival games. Most normal people felt like they belonged somewhere.

And Mukuro?

She felt pathetic. Worthless. Like she deserved every bit of wrongdoing that was handed to her. Because she wasn't normal, because she was too different, and until she was just like everyone else, would probably be lynched for it until the day she died.

Even Junko adapted better than she did. Junko had a place in class as one of the smartest, although nobody trying especially hard did weaken that argument slightly. Despite Mukuro's dislike of Matsuda Yasuke, at least Junko could boast that she had made one more friend than Mukuro. Even if Junko wasn't normal, even if their circumstances were the same, Junko could pull normal off. She was adaptable. She was the closest thing that Mukuro had to normal.

And having somebody like Junko pay attention to her in any positive way, shape, or form was a miracle in and of itself. Junko's kind words when she did something particularly noteworthy reminded her of a possibility that one day, if she tried hard enough, made Junko proud enough, and was proud enough of herself for something other than her sniped toe count, that perhaps she too could pass as normal. Perhaps she could act as a bridge between the normals and the others someday.  That she'd get there eventually.

And why did it even matter if Junko got a little forceful with her sometimes? So what? Negative attention was still better than no attention. It was a clear indication that something Mukuro had done had been deemed unacceptable from Junko’s normal point of view. It was something to change if she wanted to fit in and pass as normal. At least she was clear about her demands and didn't beat around the bush. Mukuro couldn't deal with subtleties, they were too minute to notice sometimes. A swift kick or swat always conveyed dissatisfaction. It was easier to understand like that. Junko’s nature was mercurial, she'd apologize for it at some point or another. Then she'd go right back to critiquing Mukuro for not being good enough and they could continue on, Mukuro giving it her all in the hopes of satisfying Junko.

So Mukuro couldn’t walk out on the slaps because it meant losing Junko. If Mukuro lost her, she’d lose her bridge. She’d lose her chance.

And that was just unacceptable.

So why did Naegi matter now?

Mukuro didn't know, but she didn't think that Junko would know either, so she let her sister sleep undisturbed.

Junko hadn't woken up at Kamakura station, so Mukuro simply piggybacked her off of the train.

The sloping alleys had a familiarity to them. Tokyo was always so hustle and bustle that the silence of Kamakura set Mukuro on edge. Shivering, she remembered her father’s cautionary tales of Teke-Teke coming out late at night to slice naughty children in half, Kuchisake-Onna who would slit up any face to look like her own, and picked up her pace just slightly. She wouldn’t want to run into either alone. Then again, she wasn’t like a normal victim. If she was armed, perhaps she’d be able to get a few good hits in before they got her. Even if she wasn’t, perhaps she’d be able to run away to a public place so that everyone there could see her on cctv cameras getting brutally mauled.

She’d smelled the slum before she’d gotten there.

And right where they’d left her?

Was her mother.

Mukuro set Junko down gently before approaching the tin can fire. Sighing, she took a seat across from where her mother sat.

“I’m ho-”

“Did you enjoy your trip?” Her mother’s voice was laced with venom. Mukuro shrunk under her scrutiny. In hindsight, she really should have gotten to her mother before she’d gotten to her bottles, but it was too late now. Her mother had risen and was slowly advancing, half empty bottle in her hand.

“I asked you a question.” She was right in front of her now, daring Mukuro to answer.

Now or never. Mukuro tipped her head up, looking her in the eye. “Yes. We did.”

Her mother bent down so that she was eye level. “Did you enjoy leaving me alone here, with the police asking me questions about your father?”

Mukuro looked away, a million thoughts racing through her head. “The police came? Here?”

Her mother shook her head. “No. They intercepted me at work. You’d never believe the cover story that I had to tell them in order to keep them from coming here to discover your absence.” She took a swig from the bottle, sighing deeply before continuing. “It was quiet around here without the both of you. You might be surprised, but I actually did notice you were gone, and I actually did miss you. Where did you even go? Did you go to see your father? He still blames you, despite having no real evidence. I wonder why?” Mukuro gulped down a breath. Did her mother know what they did? She wasn’t going to risk it. She shook her head.

“Do you regret it?” Mukuro blinked, confused. Her mother cleared her throat and grabbed Mukuro’s hand. “Running away, I mean. Do you regret it?”

Mukuro shook her head. Her mother’s blue eyes took on a steely glare. Her grip tightened. “You don’t? Don’t feel bad for leaving me alone here, with nobody to help fend off countless interviews by the police?” Mukuro felt a swift hit to her cheek. “You sicken me.” Another swat, this time on her other cheek. She felt hands grip her shoulders and shake her around, but didn’t retaliate. “You just follow your twin around all day like a hopeless puppy, forgetting about anybody that Junko deems unworthy?” She scoffed and spat at Mukuro’s feet. “How pathetic.”

Mukuro had no real answer. Her mother shrugged.

“I guess my opinion doesn’t matter much to you, if I’m not worth the time of day for Junko; but there’s something that you need to know. In 3 months, when summer vacation comes around, I’m taking the both of you to Europe. You’re going to meet your grandparents. I’ll drag Junko over to warm up by the fire. You should get rest too. You’ve been missing too much school lately. I’d recommend brushing up on your English, if you can. It’ll be hard enough to get them to like you. Speaking Japanese in front of them wouldn’t leave a good impression, trust me. Goodnight.”

Mukuro curled up next to the fire. Before she fell asleep, she heard her mother crying, and whispering to herself.

Maybe she’d missed them more than she’d let on.

Chapter Text

Life went back to normal after they returned.

Almost.

Junko still went to school holding Mukuro’s hand, and hung out with Matsuda, who seemed to be the only one to have noticed her absence. Her mother still got drunk, but it was no longer a daily occurence. She stayed sober on Sundays.

She started attending school regularly again, but found English nearly incomprehensible. Even trying to find different translations of “you” for her homework could take up to an hour.

She managed. Not beautifully, but it was enough to pull through another grade and earn the right to advance with Junko.

Finally, summertime dragged itself around. Her mother started getting panicky. She tried to talk in as much English as she could manage around the twins for more practice. She told the twins to think of things to say that described themselves. Reflexive adjectives, Mukuro had to remind herself. She packed the few bags that they had 2 weeks in advance. She'd even gone ahead and bought new clothing and shoes for both Junko and Mukuro.

She told Mukuro to put the survival games on hold until they got back to Japan, because Europe was new and different and they needed to spend this time with family.

If family didn't bother picking you up when you were down , Mukuro thought,  they didn't deserve to call themselves that.

Nevertheless, the night before the flight to the Netherlands, Mukuro found herself on the receiving end of a lecture on cultural sensitivity, presented by none other than her dear mother. As boring as it was, she found herself grateful that at least it was in Japanese.

“Your grandparents speak Dutch, but English is also an acceptable language for them. Your most important words are ones that prove you are well mannered little girls who have not strayed under my guidance. Also, both of you need something to say to introduce yourselves when you first meet your grandparents. Junko? I want to hear yours first.” When Junko nodded, the older woman sat down and motioned for her to stand up and speak. Junko took a deep breath before bowing and straightening up, speaking loudly, her voice echoing off into the streets.

“Hiii grand-pa-rents!” She grinned widely as she poked her index fingers into her dimples, splitting words that were longer into shorter syllables. “My name is E-no-shi-ma Jun-ko! I am e-le-ven years old,” at this, Junko moved her hands from her face to her front, making the number 11 out of her fingers, “and my birthday is on Christmas Eve!” Junko giggled endearingly. “In Japanese, we say our last name before our first name, so I think it's funny that you do it the other way!” She paused before continuing. “Of course, I’m also very smart too! I am at the top of my class in school! That's everything, thank you for listening!”

Mukuro sat in silence, frustratingly embarrassed for herself. Would her English ever be as good as Junko’s was now? She took a breath and steeled her resolve, bowing before starting.

“Hello grand-parents. My name is Ikusaba Mukuro.” She pretended to ignore the slight frown on her mother's face at the fact that her Japanese name was the only thing that had been forced from her voicebox smoothly. “it is nice to meet you both. Junko and I are twins. I am older. That is it.” She sat back down again, hugging her knees. She definitely wasn't a fan of this.

Her mother sighed. “Mukuro, it’d be really great if you could… maybe… add a few more sentences to it? I’m not asking for an essay, but maybe just think of some more things to say? Your grandparents have never met you before. You want to leave a good impression on them. They can be a bit difficult, sometimes.”

“I don’t know what else I can say. I’m not like Junko.” Mukuro shrugged.

“Ha! You’ve got that right, sis!” Junko cackled. “I’m top of the class and you skip school to shoot people in your games! You stink like a corpse! I guess you could say you’re living up to your name!”

Their mother bristled. “Junko, please don’t say that about your sister. You’re supposed to love each other, not compete to see who’s better at insulting the other.”

That earned a smirk from Junko. “Sure, sure, whatever. I’m bored anyways. Goodnight mother dear.”

Mukuro felt a hand touch her shoulder. “You’ll think of something. I believe in you.”

They were woken up early the next morning to go to the airport. Mukuro’s mother had actually hailed a taxi to the airport. What she hadn’t told them about was the wait times. They sat in uncomfortable silence on uncomfortable fake leather chairs. 2 hours in the airport, followed by 12 hours on a tin can with wings? Junko couldn’t wait, while Mukuro just wanted for it to be over. While she didn’t like admitting that she stress ate on occasion, the thought of the airplane made her crave something sweet.

When her mother wasn’t looking, Mukuro snuck away to the souvenir and gift shop, buying 3 small bags of konpeito and tucking them in her backpack’s pocket. She had almost made it back undetected when a girl with brown hair popped up in front of her suddenly, making Mukuro jump slightly.

“Hi! I’m Asahina Aoi! I’m going on a plane to France to swim across the English Channel!” She stuck out her hand for Mukuro to shake. “I’m sorry for scaring you, but I saw you walking all by yourself and I got really excited. I really like to swim, do you?” Mukuro shook her head politely. “That’s okay! Where are you flying? Are you flying alone? This one time, I had a friend who flew all by herself from Japan to Hong Kong and then back again! She’s amazing!”

Mukuro nodded, not knowing what else she could do. Junko had, by this point, spotted the pair talking, and her mother had raised her head, supervising the conversation. “Sorry-” she began, “but I’ve got to get back to waiting with my family.”

Asahina giggled. “I’m travelling with my family too! I’m going with my mom, dad, and little brother Yuuta! He can get pretty annoying sometimes, but my mom says that it’s because we’re the only ones energetic enough to tire each other out! Who are you travelling with?”

Mukuro pointed to the seats where her family sat. “We’re over there waiting for our plane. I wish it would come sooner, I’m tired of waiting here.”

“I know, right? Waiting is really boring, especially for kids! I’ll walk you back to where you’re waiting though, it’s not like I have anything better to be doing!”

“Who’s your new friend, Muku-chan?” Junko asked, the instant Mukuro had sat down again.

“Asahina Aoi! I’m going to swim the English Channel!”

“My,” Mukuro’s mother said, with an expression of awe. “I don’t know if anybody so young has accomplished such a feat! You’ll have to be careful when swimming, and make sure that you don’t drift.”

“Yes Ma’am! I am entirely prepared for the situation, and my mom has made sure that she can follow me in a boat in case anything happens!” Asahina mock saluted, smiling as she did.

Junko checked her fingernails indifferently. “Yeah, make sure you don’t drown and die, or get pneumonia, or slip into a coma, or get hypothermia, or lose your memories, or-”

“Junko! That’s not nice! What have I told you about your manners?”

“Okay, okay. Just stay safe.”

By then, Asahina had already forgotten the insult. “Whoa!” She pointed out the window to an elaborate, sleek blue jet. “What plane is that?”

Mukuro’s English may have needed work, but she knew the pronunciation of that spelling, and both her and her mother spat it out with the same amount of venom.

“Togami.”

Mukuro seethed as she watched the plane doors open, stairs attach to the plane, and an actual red carpet roll down them before balling her hands into fists at the sight of that same little boy who had vexed her so much the first time. He got on himself, carrying nothing but his enormous ego, while an aging man behind him carried all of his huge suitcases.

“Um, I’m going to go find my family now, but if both of you are mad at that name, think of it this way.” Asahina said, nervously. “At least the plane, and the little boy, are leaving Japan?”

That got Mukuro. She started giggling. “I guess you’re right.” She turned to face Asahina. “Thanks. Oh yeah,” she reached into her backpack, pulling out a bag of konpeito. “Take this for the plane ride. Share it with your brother, but don’t let him hog all of them!”

As she watched Asahina’s retreating form, she felt Junko lean in close, hearing the announcement for their plane to Amsterdam. The kind female voice on the intercom made Junko sound even scarier when she whispered:

“Is she another good enough reason to leave me?”

Chapter Text

Nicolet Aartsma had never meant for any of this to happen.

Her father had been a military man before his joining at a police station and subsequent retirement, and had gone almost everywhere inside and outside of the European Union, often bringing along his wife and little angel of a daughter. He'd had her instructed in various forms of self defense and she spoke fluently in 4 languages by the time she was 14. It was easy for Nicolet, really. She wove her way around languages like a mathematician with a sudoku puzzle; she'd borrowed three copies of “War and Peace” in French, English and Dutch, respectively, just to figure out the differences between the languages and what words were incapable of being translated from one copy to another.

Her best friend growing up? That one was an easy question. Maarit. They were neighbours, and the windows in their bedrooms were right next to each other. Nicolet loved to stargaze, Maarit loved to talk about her day and make up stories in the stars.

“See that star, three North of the North star?” Maarit had asked one night when they were twelve, her finger pointing up into the sky so that Nicolet could get a relative location on the star in question.

“Yeah, what’s the story behind that one?” Nicolet asked, taking a sip from her warm mug, staring at the star and waiting for Maarit to continue.

“That star-” a pause. “Is what will lead you to your future husband!”

Nicolet shot milk out through her nose. Once she’d ran to the bathroom and rinsed it out, the burning feeling had started to fade. She’d returned to the window and seen Maarit still there, shit-eating grin on her face.

“Sooo...” she began, her voice slow and teasing.

“Rita, don’t you dare-”

“Don’t tell me you were thinking of Emerens? Or… Steffens?” Her grin widened. “Or maybe… the face next to yours in your future family photo is... Garrick's?”

“MAARIT I SWEAR-”

“Bingo. Be quiet though, you don’t want to wake up the whole neighbourhood with who your secret crush is. Don’t worry about it, Letta. Nobody needs to know until you actually get to dating, and that’s way too far away for the both of us to be thinking of.” She giggled, turning back to the stars. “So when’s the wedding? I expect to be the bridesmaid!”

“RITA-”

“You’d better be naming one of your kids after me too!”

Garrick had asked her out on a date on her seventeenth birthday. Maarit had squealed like she was at a reunion concert when she’d realized why Garrick was talking to Nicolet and pulled out her tiny digital camera, filming the whole exchange. Nicolet made a mental reminder to take the camera as soon as she could, before the video made its way across the entirety of Amsterdam.

Maarit had laughed when Nicolet described her first kiss to her late at night, having long since had her own.

During their last year of high school, Maarit had been the first to start wearing sweaters. They shared no classes, so they could only talk late at night once Maarit had slogged through her math, and Nicolet with her history.

“Do you think sometimes, that our ancestors are up in the stars watching us?”

“Well, we’re both Catholic, so they go to heaven, don’t they?”

“Yeah, but where is heaven? Is it up in the sky? An alternate universe where the souls go? Popes and priests and nuns always tell us that it exists, but nobody aside from Jesus himself has ever come back from the dead to tell the tale. Can we really trust written sources like the Bible? There's always a ton of different editions. Even the copies that we had as kids were different. Yours said that after Moses stopped parting the sea, the Egyptians were driven back, but my copy said that they were all drowned. Do you think the afterlife is just an abstract construct to make us puny mortals feel better? Is anything even truly immortal? If you really think about it, even immortals die, if everybody forgets about them.”

“Rita-”

“Maybe humans even have multiple deaths. One for their mortal body, one for each person who forgets about them, one for each person who refuses to tell their story.”

Things got real quiet after that. Maarit did have a tendency to be philosophical when she lost sleep, but this was a new type of silent existentialism that Nicolet wasn't quite comfortable with.

“Rita, is there anything going on? Do you want to talk to me about anything? We’re best friends, you know that you can tell me.”

Maarit sighed. “I’m fine, really. It’s just hard, having to adjust. It’s our last year, I don’t want to mess my life up forever. It’s a lot of pressure. We don’t even have the same classes, so we can’t do homework together like we used to.”

“Hey,” Nicolet put a hand on her friend’s shoulder, reaching out of her own window, supporting her weight by her forearm. “It’s going to be ok. I’m here for you. I’ll always be here for you.”

Maarit smiled. “Thanks Letta, so will I.”

Maarit never made it to eighteen.

Nicolet watched the stars alone on her eighteenth birthday, nursing multiple beers, thinking up stories that she could tell about the newly christened Maarit cluster in the sky.

"Hey, Nicky, I'm kind of wondering if we aren't perfect for each other."

"You don't have to be perfect for me, Garrick. I love you just the way that you are."

"That's... not what I meant. This might be hard to hear, but I need you to hear it. You need to listen to me and what I have to say."

"I mean, I thought that I only ever stopped listening to your opinions when you're talking about teacher complaints, but sure, what is it?"

"I think... that we need to see other people."

"What?"

"Don't get me wrong, you're an amazing girl, and I loved spending every moment that I did with you, and you deserve the world and a guy as amazing as myself, but..."

"But what?"

"But this really won't work. You've changed since Maarit... got in that unfortunate subway accident."

"I don't understand. Is the death of a close friend not supposed to mess you up for a while? Is it not supposed to haunt you?"

"It's really not that. My parents want me to have an amazing girlfriend, and-"

"And they absolutely loved me when I came over for dinner last month, didn't they? Your mom even said that you'd struck gold scoring with me!"

"Yeah; back before you cried yourself to sleep every night. My family didn’t ignore the change when you came over last week. My mom said that a person like you, with constant sadness surrounding their aura, will taint the mindset of those around them. She's telling me to break up with you, and my dad is agreeing with her. Says people with friends that leave too soon before their time bring bad luck around them constantly. And that it's a sin."

"I'll have you know that Maarit is in heaven, right now, looking down on us and complaining about how nasty you're being right now."

"My dad says she's probably stuck in purgatory forever, if she isn't burning to a crisp right now."

"YOUR PARENTS, THIS, YOUR PARENTS, THAT, BUT WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHERE'S YOUR BRAIN IN ALL OF THIS MESS? WHAT'S YOUR OPINION? THEY DON'T CONTROL YOU! WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY?"

"I THINK THEY'RE RIGHT AND I NEED TO FIND ANOTHER GIRL."

"FINE!"

"FINE!"

That night, she took a six pack to her room. Her parents pretended not to notice. A few weeks later, Garrick had his arm around another, more cheerful girl. Nicolet despised her for ruining her happy relationship, but hoped for the best for them.

Nobody really deserved a life of pain, heartbreak, and misfortune, after all. But she couldn't stop her faked smiles when they were around.

It got too painful to stay in Amsterdam. No matter what her parents had to say, she couldn't stay in this city. She had to pick a university somewhere else.

An astrophysics degree in Japan, that accepted her lack of Japanese, and offered free Japanese courses for her first two years if she maintained her GPA.

Sounded perfect.

Only problem? Changing her ID. Which, she could only do in Tokyo, upon her arrival. The impatient woman at the counter was trying to stay on top of all of the new faces of students arriving from all over the world. She held her hand out to Mukuro, asking in accented English.

“Your passport, please. We will change the name written here into Japanese for you in Hiragana script. If you want to, you can pick out kanji or katakana at a different time and change your name in the future, but for now, this will have to do, because you are a student and I am very busy. Please sound out your first name.”

Nicolet smiled and handed over her ID. “Ni-co-let”

“Ni-co-ret-ta?” The woman parroted. Nicolet shook her head and tried again, exaggerating the syllables where she could.

“Nee-co-lett”

“Ok.” she nodded, typing it in her computer. “And last name?”

“Aartsma.”

The woman tipped her head to the side, not quite sure that she had heard right. “Aru-to-shima?”

“Ah, no, actually.” Nicolet scratched her head, taking a deep breath. “It’s pronounced more like-”

The woman waved her hand a little, silencing Nicolet. “Ah-no-shima. I got it. Don’t worry, many peoples’ names have been changed once they find more accurate kanji to represent it. This is only temporary, for the most part. I assume you’ll be returning to wherever you’re from at the end of your four years anyways. Go on past border patrol. You can pick up your ID at the labelled booth when you head towards “arrivals”.”

Nicolet blinked a bit before thanking her. “Okay.”

“Enoshima Nicoleta”, her new ID read out. Well, it wasn’t exactly her fault that the pronunciation was a bit skewed. And she knew more than most people just how hard it was to translate words and names from one language to another.

University wasn’t that bad, her astrophysics courses were fun and thankfully notes were available in English (Dutch was another story, but she knew English, so she could manage.). The Japanese was a real struggle, but Nicolet knew that hard work could help, and the learning environment added to her experiences. Besides, she was getting good enough to process words on a conversational level, so that had to mean some kind of improvement.

Still, she felt lonely.

Dépaysement. That’s what they called it in French. The feeling of being uprooted from a home country, the mixture of loneliness and longing. It was simply impossible to give a direct translation to.

So, what if there was a bar close to the university and she spent her weekends there alone?

“Heeeeeyyy there, does that pretty face come with a name and a phone number? I’ll buy you a drink, or would you prefer dinner instead?” Nicolet’s eyes widened as she felt hot breath at her ear and before she could think otherwise, her old self defense lessons kicked in. She wrenched whoever’s arm it was around and dug her knee into his back.

“Oooh, kinky. Do you do this to every person that you meet, or am I special?” She scowled at his wiggling eyebrows and dug her knee in deeper.

“Who are you, and what do you want.”

The person whom she was hanging on to grinned. “Ikusaba Masao, University of Tokyo, nice to meet you. As for what I want, not being in pain, for starters, would be great.”

Nicolet let go, warily. “What’s your major?”

“Business.” He winked as he ordered himself a beer. “But I’ve been known to make it rain elsewhere too. How about that drink?”

“Long Island.”

“As you wish.”

During her first summer, she signed on to both an astrophysics internship and as an English tutor. Masao finally got an agreement to his constant requests for dates. For their first date, he’d taken her to dinner and then stargazing outside of the city. As Nicolet eyed the third star to the North of the North star, and let her eyes roam over the Maarit cluster, she heard Masao’s gentle voice.

“There’s less light pollution out of the city. Stars always look nicer at a distance. Kamakura is quiet compared to Tokyo, but it’s where I’ve always wanted to live. Speaking of geographical locations, Enoshima is actually an island. Would you like to change your last name to read that kanji? The pronunciation is the exact same.”

“I don’t really know, I’d feel bad for taking the name of a place. It’s kind of weird, like naming your child “Holland”, or having to express surprise by saying “Heavens to Betsy” or “Elvis Presley” every time you were caught off guard by something.” She shrugged. “Makes people wonder just how much your parents hated you to name you something that corny. Or why you always shout the names of famous people when flustered.”

“You’re an island to me.” Masao shifted closer to Nicolet. “I was an orphan, put through the adoption system a lot of times. I’ve never had a real family. I’ve never even been able to meet my parents, but I guess that I’m fully fledged Japanese. You’re the closest person to me in that respect." He sighed deeply, taking his breath in and holding it for so long that Nicolet had been worried that he would pass out. He blew the air out through his mouth slowly, doing this twice before continuing. "I’m going to be real with you. My last name means ‘warblade’. The manager of the orphanage just picked the name Masao out of a phonebook. Ikusaba came out of her reading some novel or another at the time.”

“I’m… sorry.”

Masao shrugged it off. “Nah, it’s alright. But what if we ran away?” He looked at his watch. “It’s 10pm on a Friday night. We’ve got the whole of Japan for ourselves for a weekend. The night is still young, and so are we. How does an adventure sound?”

Nicolet grinned. “Start to drive and I’ll close my eyes as you run red lights into paradise.”

“Oy, I don’t drive that terribly.”

“At least you do have a drive. Sounds great. Let’s go.”

Nicolet had one untranslatable Japanese word in her mind as the weekend flew by. Aware. The bittersweetness of a brief and fading moment of transcending beauty.

“Well that’s just great. Leave your daughter to pick her university of choice and she ends up with a foreign boyfriend.” Nicolet flinched as she watched her father critique Masao on the webcam of his computer and complain about him to her mother, who was offscreen, but definitely present. Of course, he was “being courteous” and speaking loudly and slowly in English so that Masao could understand everything that he was saying about him. He had responded in turn by wrapping his arm around Nicolet’s shoulder and rubbing light circles with his thumb. Yet, despite the visual cue, her father continued. “Really, Nicolet.  If it's a businessman you're going after, I hear that Steffens is wrapping up his bank internship soon. He’ll have plenty of time for you when you come back. We’re not losing a daughter to Japan.”

“Honey, are you really going to go on about this?” Nicolet could recognize her mother’s voice increasing in volume, which meant that she was approaching the screen. Sure enough, the older Aartsma female hooked her arm around her husband and sat down next to him. “She’s young! Let her have her fun before she gets tied down and married forever.” She gestured towards the screen, making Nicolet smile. It felt almost like she’d never left. “As for you, Letta, you definitely need to email me more often. You’ve taught me all that I know about computers, yet never give me a good enough reason to use those skills!” Mrs. Aartsma chuckled. “We really do miss you here at home. The past year has been incredibly slow for us, even if it passed by lightning fast for you!”

“Too slow.” Her father’s gruff tone carried through the distance. “Especially when I go on my morning walks before I head to the station and see the faces of all those handsome Dutch boys that you used to go to school with, just the other day I came across-”

Masao cleared his throat. “Well, Mr. Aartsma, it’s been an absolute pleasure meeting you and your lovely wife. However, I’m not sure if you realize that your daughter has an important astrophysicists’ convention to attend in about an hour, and will probably need to use that time to get her lecture slides ready. Everybody here loves what she has to offer, and I love her. With that said, we’ve really got to get a move on. Ciao!”

“Bye mom! Bye dad! Love you!”

“Take care, honey!”

“Hey, Ikusaba! I’m warning you-”

He hung up the call before the threat had fully finished.

“Sorry about my dad. He used to be in the military in a high position, so it’s a given that he gets pretty nationalistic sometimes.”

“Pfft. It’s nothing, really. I don’t care that your dad doesn’t like the idea of us. I like the idea of us.” Masao’s gaze met Nicolet’s and both looked away shyly before flickering back and finding each other. They gravitated closer and closer. Nicolet could feel Masao’s warm breath on her lips as he whispered “Ever since the day I met you, I’ve been floored.” he chuckled a bit. “You know how my friends always tease me, and say that I fall for the type of woman who can kick my ass? I guess it’s true. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a man with little impulse control to begin with, but I’m weak for you, Nicolet. Just love me, and I would be your slave.”

It was then that Nicolet realized it. He was her gezellig. The Dutch word for her other, better half.

“Love you?” she whispered back, gauging his reaction. She felt him tense up, as if nervous about her answer. She fluttered her eyelids shut and leaned forward. “Of course. Unconditionally. Forever.”

The astrophysicists’ convention was boring, but at least she had Masao next to her. It felt right, somehow.

Three years later, she was announcing her engagement to Masao to her parents.

Needless to say, it went about as well as either of them would have expected, which was to say, not at all. Nicolet didn’t care though. Masao had helped her change her name into the closest rendition she’d ever heard it at, and despite her dad going on about how he had lost a daughter and wasn’t going to cover the costs of her marriage, she was happy.

She had a paid internship working with astrophysicists, Masao worked for the Togami conglomerate, and with any luck, within the next two years they would have a house in Kamakura and a baby on the way to share it with.

Both of them had been overjoyed when the nurse had revealed the results of their ultrasound a year after their wedding. Two healthy baby girls.

They’d picked Junko’s name first. As such, Junko would be the given name to the second born. For the elder? Megumi. Both soon to be parents were sure that both of the children would grow into beautiful, strong young women.

Nicolet had been so weak after the birth of Junko that she’d almost been unable to hold the pen that she was supposed to write Megumi’s name with. Exhausted, she’d barely been able to spare a glance at what she’d written before the waiting attendant had taken it and promised to return upon obtaining birth certificates. It had to be right, didn't it? She was still so tired, perhaps a nap would do her some good.

Masao had no idea what he had been thinking when he had written “Enoshima” on the last name space for Junko’s birth certificate. Perhaps it was because Junko looked way too similar to her own mother, so he had hesitated. Perhaps it was because of his own uncertain parentage. It didn’t matter. His wife was too exhausted to care at the moment.

“I’ve got two birth certificates for new parents!” the voice of the hospital midwife rang as she entered the room holding onto identical sheets of paper. Nicolet stirred from her nap, moving to sit upright before the nurse continued. “Congratulations! You are now the parents of-” she took a quick glance at her papers, before asking. “An Enoshima Junko and an Ikusaba Mukuro?”

Both parents looked at each other.

“Enoshima?”

“Mukuro?”

They turned to the nurse and said in unison, “something’s wrong with the name.”

“We were actually just following what both of you had written when you had penned the names on the sheets of paper we had you fill in.” The nurse replied. “We assumed that both parents would be capable of writing names, so we just went with whatever was written down.” Her pager rang. “If you’ll excuse me, I must go. Congratulations again on the babies!”

Masao spoke first after the silence left behind in the nurse’s wake.

“Our daughter is named Corpse Warblade and it’s all your fault. At least I’m Honest Warblade, you just sleep around and mess up our daughter’s hiragana.”

Nicolet was incredulous. “Excuse you? Sleep around? Why did you give Junko my last name? She’s supposed to have yours!”

“You honestly expect me to believe that Junko is my daughter? She’s got blonde hair and blue eyes! I may be a businessman, but even I know my way around elementary school level biology!”

“Masao, you were adopted! What’s to say that you don’t carry a recessive gene or two?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Masao stood up. “Just call me when you’ve been cleared to leave the hospital. I’m going to work. Looks like the Togami’s need this man more than his own wife does.”

When she'd been cleared from the hospital, Nicolet had found herself even more alone. Masao really wasn't around to help her through her post-partum. The house felt too big, too empty.

Too foreign.

Sighing, Nicolet headed to the fridge, where a cardboard box sat with one can left. It was just to ensure her sleep for the night. And to stave off the loneliness. Beer had helped Nicolet when Maarit had died, it had helped when Garrick had left her, whenever she had felt alone in a foreign country, it would help when Masao left her too.

But she might need something stronger this time around. With a much higher alcohol content.

The astrophysicists department had replaced her when she'd gone on maternity leave. She’d resorted to using her prior English knowledge to her advantage by signing on to teach permanently at the tutoring school's local branch in Kamakura.

"What do you mean, you're going out on another business trip?" She spat, cradling Junko in her arms as Mukuro napped in her crib upstairs. Junko had a habit of clinging to any heat source when she slept, so she always slept away from her twin, in Nicolet's arms, just in case she ended up squashing her older sister in her sleep. "You just came home from one yesterday!" She slammed her open palm against the wooden table, glaring daggers at the man calmly sipping tea across from her. "What am I supposed to do with the kids? I can't keep hiring babysitters!"

"I'll ask about the Togami's daycare program. Until then, take the month off from the English school. It's spring break anyways. The kids will be playing, not studying." He replied evenly.

"You and I both know that that's a complete lie. Breaks are when I'm needed the most! All of the parents are trying to get their kids ahead in life by sending them to supplementary tutoring! Of course, it's not like you would know. You just abandon me and go off on your business trips. Do you even care about the kids?"

"Gee, that's real fresh coming from the woman who slept around to get one kid, and messed up her handwriting so badly that my daughter's name is Corpse Warblade."

"And again with that!" Nicolet snapped. "Why do you always insist that I whored myself out to get Junko? Where do you think Mukuro came from? Why can't you just accept the fact that you might be less than 100% Japanese?"

"Because I'm not! I'm a real, genuine Japanese man, and alleles for blue eyes and blonde hair do not just happen!"

"How do I even know that these business trips aren't you going on trips to find other women? Is that it? Am I no longer the wife that you wanted? Are you cheating on me?"

"If I did, it wouldn't make any difference to the damage that's been done."

She never remembered beating her children when Masao stormed out, but maybe she did drink more than she could when she blacked out and found herself having to stare at Junko and Mukuro in the mornings, flinching away from her hand, bodies littered with fresh and fading bruises.

It didn't excuse her actions, the alcohol. She knew that. But she didn't know how to stop. Couldn't stop. Didn't want to stop drinking, because the alcohol was always there when she felt alone. Because it was almost as if Masao had only been a sperm donor.

Years down the road, and too many arguments to count later, she was talking to her parents without Masao.

“We actually got a divorce.”

“Excellent!” her father’s voice rang through the borrowed headphones, plugged into the library laptop. “We’ll help send you enough to cover for your half of the divorce funds!”

“What your father means, dear,” her mother had clarified, putting an arm on her husband’s shoulder, “is that he believes the alimony will be enough for you and the twins and perhaps we can even see our grandchildren soon, if you bring them over to visit.” she smiled sweetly, hoping that her daughter hadn't caught the racist undertones in her father's voice. She had. It wasn't like he cared though.

“Just come back home to Amsterdam! I’m sure there’s at least one bachelor your age in this city!”

This rhetoric continued for each video call that she shared with her parents over the years. Nicolet had just gotten used to them.

Whatever. She didn't need them anyway. She had been saving up money since she had first thought that Masao would leave her. With enough luck, in the next month, she'd be able to get the down payment on the same house which the government had seized.

She couldn't wait to return to the slum to break the good news to her daughters.

Mukuro wasn't hallucinating the cries of her name that night.

Nicolet took the week off, sifting through every alley in Kamakura, trying to find her lost daughters. she'd even been desperate enough to ask the station guard if any young children had gone on trains unattended.

Needless to say, he was of no help. And neither was social services, when they had come to visit her at work to inform her that her ex-husband was in jail. With the kids missing, Nicolet searched for them by night and worked by day. She took shots of espresso to keep awake and remember, instead of vodka to forget.

She’d managed to lie her way out of a case of her own, thankfully, praising her luck that she'd come in to work that day. But the appearance of the suited men meant that she did get her long awaited alimony. She could finally pay off the year's worth of rent for the flat that the kids could live with her in. She could finally get help for her alcoholism.

She could finally get closure.

But before any of that could happen, she needed to see him again. It was time to see Masao after all these years.

It was weird seeing him again too. The French had a word for it.

Retrouvailles : the feeling of happiness when you see someone again after a long time. God. He still looked as nice as he had all those years ago.

“I thought you’d moved overseas.” she’d said. That’s what everybody had said when he left her alone with the kids.

“I thought you said that you’d change your alcoholic tendencies.” He shot back with venom. Then he bowed his head. “I’m sorry. For what I put you and the kids through. I held back on alimony, and wasn’t enough of a father to them. I was a real bastard, wasn't I? They deserve a better father than me.”

His voice still sounded smooth, the same voice that she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. It must have been fifteen years ago, by now.

“You know what I just realized? We rushed into this too quickly. It’s hard, seeing you again. Especially how it ended last time. Everything about you just takes me back to when you were there.”

“When I still cared, you mean? Nicolet, that time never ended. I was just unable to deal with my own insecurities. Junko’s mine. Mukuro too. Although, we definitely should take some time to get their names changed in the future.” Nicolet cringed. That was assuming she ever found the twins again.

“I’m taking them to Amsterdam for the summer to meet their grandparents.” They wouldn’t be around Japan this summer if anybody could help it.

“Are you? Well. They’re going to love Junko. Mukuro though...” He trailed off. They both knew the reaction too well.

“I just hope that they won’t complain about Junko and Mukuro’s English.”

“Me too.”

She hadn’t meant to hit Mukuro on the night of her return. She had planned to hug her and Junko tight and make them promise never to leave her again. But Masao had made her feel lonely, and loneliness led to alcohol, and alcohol does funny things to a person. She regretted everything.

And now she was here, months later, on a plane, trying to mentally prepare herself for meeting with her parents again, after all of these years.

The plane would land in another six hours. She knew that she should sleep.

She definitely needed it.

Chapter Text

“Motion sickness is so- hurp- despair inducing, don’t you think, Muku-chan?” Junko asked as Mukuro looked interestingly through the window, the pressure against her temples slightly uncomfortable. Since the plane had first started its ascent into the atmosphere, Junko had been clutching at her stomach with one hand, the other holding a paper bag near her mouth. Their mother had wordlessly handed her the air sickness bag at the first sign of discomfort and now rubbed at Junko’s back, attempting to soothe her daughter. “I wonder when and if I’m actually going to throw up! It’s so unpredictable that it’s cool!” Junko said, cheerfully, shocking those around her who were invested enough to listen.

While Mukuro had felt uncomfortable during takeoff, she hadn't found the pressure against her stomach terribly bad; at least, not to the extreme point of wanting to throw up. It was at that split second that the plane levelled off, pulling her guts up and down, that she had felt the sickest. It was also at that moment that Junko hacked violently into her air sickness bag. Mukuro cringed and tried to ignore her sister's discomfort, focusing on the little TV on the seat in front of her. TV was nice, she decided. It was a welcome distraction from the sounds that Junko was making, and while it did nothing to block the smell that stung her nostrils, it helped a little.

Junko slept through most of the flight. The flight attendant had come over once the overhead seatbelt sign had been turned off and had wordlessly handed Junko a small pill and a cup of water, switching out her paper bag with a clean one. Junko had started dozing off soon after that. A few cartoons, two cups of apple juice and a meal later, so was Mukuro. The lights had been dimmed on the plane as well, in an attempt to lessen the jetlag for the passengers.

“Sleep. Trust me when I say that you're going to need it.” Mukuro's mother said softly, placing a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Amsterdam time is different than the time in Japan. When we arrive, it'll be getting late in Kamakura, but it’ll only be the afternoon in Amsterdam, and your grandparents expect you to be used to the time difference already.”

“they won't let me sleep until it's nighttime in-” Mukuro paused, sounding out the syllables in English- “Amm-sta-ru-dam?” She frowned, both because of her annoyance at the English language, and because any people who didn't let kids sleep when kids were tired were mean and unfair.  “That is rude. They don't sound very nice.”

Nicolet chuckled at her daughter’s words. “Mukuro, not liking someone before you even get to know them is unfair to them.” She sighed, pulling Mukuro closer. “Your grandmother will love you, without you even needing to try. Grandfather might need some work. He never really liked Mas-your father, and might find it confusing that Junko’s English is so much better than yours.”

“How am I supposed to get him to like me?”

“I'm not going to admit that you skip your English lessons for survival games, that's for sure. But your grandmother does have a mobile phone that you can use to translate your Japanese thoughts to Dutch, or English. You can use that.”

It sounded to Mukuro like her mother was trying too hard. Like this whole trip was just to give them one happy memory that she could later use as a bargaining chip whenever she wanted to guilt trip them. Mukuro wasn’t about to let her get away with that so easily. Her mother deserved to remember that childhood wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, especially not the one that she had had up until now. She needed to feel the guilt, and Mukuro knew exactly what would get to her.

“Mom, why did you always hit Junko and I?”

The older woman sighed. “I don't have an easy answer for you. It's not just because of the alcohol either. I take full responsibility for all of the pain that I've caused you. I know that the both of you stopped trusting me a long time ago, and I don't blame you. Some people say that a mother is supposed to be a person whom you can trust with anything, who will do anything for her children, who is constantly present and supportive. That definition changes depending on who you ask, but most people have similar expectations. I failed in that regard. I broke your trust, I was absent, and I’m very sorry. I don't expect you to forgive me as easily as I’d like you to. When your father left me for other women elsewhere, whenever he argued with me, I couldn't stand his presence. I took it out on the both of you, because you were the only ones there. Because you were remnants of my hopes and dreams and a what-could-have-been. We always argued over the two of you. Your father refused to believe that Junko was actually his daughter, and because of that we never stopped fighting. Of course, both of you are his daughters, but he didn't believe me until recently, when I went to visit him in jail. He's sorry too. We never were the family that you deserved. It'd make both of us the happiest if both Junko and you grew up and found a family on your own. We really don't deserve you.”

“Oh, you want us to find families all by ourselves?” Mukuro was incredulous. She huffed. “You’re right. You don’t deserve us. You really don't care about us, do you? First you beat the both of us for years just because alcohol means you have no control over your fists, then you spend all of your money on even more alcohol, kicking us out of our old home and forcing us to live on the streets of Kamakura, deny Junko what she needs in terms of both school and daily life, offer them to me as some sort of apologetic revenge so that you can play the victim, make attempts to bring me to your side by complaining about how alone you are when I go off with Junko, beat me the night that I return to Kamakura with Junko just because the reach for the alcohol was easier to make than a reach for a lost children's helpline, and now, when we’re on an airplane, supposedly on a life changing field trip to the other half of the world, you try groveling so that I will apparently have an easier time in Amsterdam, when it's really about your pride and how you don't want your parents to think that you were a failure because of you moving to Japan and never going back.”

Her mother looked shocked. Mukuro bit back a grin. She had struck a nerve, alright. She watched as her mother took a few deep breaths. “It was going to be a surprise, but actually, I was going to announce that we will be able to move back into our old house when we get back from Amsterdam.” Her mother’s voice was levelled, definitely not what Mukuro had expected, but Junko was more suited for this kind of stuff anyways. She was just a stand-in, for now. She heard her mother continue. “I've finally made enough to pay off the mortgage. The house is as good as ours, forever this time.”

Old people. They always talked about how much they missed you when you leave them, but the second you come back, they started scolding you again, pretending like they were better than you, immune to your struggles. Bragging about some meager accomplishment or another. Junko would never let her mother win an argument. Mukuro wasn’t about to start doing the opposite.

“Good for you, I've been able to earn enough to rent a flat for a month with Junko right in the center of Tokyo.” That was a bit of a white lie, but you couldn’t blame Mukuro for wanting to rub something in her mother’s face. “With the money that I won from my survival games, another thing that you agreed on me participating in. Usually field trips for kids involve going to the zoo. I never got that one. I got the one where I saw men and women embrace nature and become feral in a sense. My field trips involved battlefields. You could have rented a one-room apartment for the past few years instead of forcing us to live on the streets while you saved up money. But whoop de doo. Your mortgage got paid. During that time, I've gone off on life-threatening trips, Junko has fought off creeps three times her size, and you've been getting smashed with alcohol every day. Neither of us care about the old house. An apartment would have been fine, for until we grew up and moved out. You denied us a home all these years, just so that you could finally buy back the house and pretend to live life the way we did before we went on the streets. You call Junko stubborn, but what about you? You're always refusing to move forward, always trying to find ways to escape to the past. What are you gonna use the alimony for? Some maotai instead of cheap vodka and spirits for a change? Or maybe you prefer whiskey? Maybe you’re just going to spend it on me to coax me onto your side during arguments and we can beat up Junko together as a fun family bonding experience?"

From the look on her mother’s face, Mukuro could definitely say that she had won that fight. She turned away from her mother in her seat. “I’m going to sleep. Good night.”

Chapter Text

If Mukuro thought that the takeoff of a plane was bad, the landing was far worse. Multiple little bumps of activity, each time sending her stomach lurching. Junko had woken up a little earlier than she had and was regretting her choice to ask a flight attendant for some food. Soon after her tray had been taken away, the pilot had made the announcement that they’d be landing soon in Amsterdam. That’s when the both of them had assumed the crouched over position, paper bags in hand just in case, Junko moaning loudly and Mukuro whispering under her breath, just praying for it to be over.

Their mother, on the other hand, had brightened up considerably after the argument and was chattering excitedly over both of the girls. “And after we meet your grandparents, they’ll take us back to their house first to get settled in. The both of you will take my old room, and I’ll sleep on the couch. It doubles as a bed, which will make it easier for all of us. Once we’ve moved in, they’ll take us out to a nice dinner at this place which I used to love going to when I was a girl. Tomorrow, when we’ve all had our internal clocks adjusted, they’ll take us all around the city. Over the next two months, we’ll see the royal palace, the dungeons-Junko I know you’ll love them, the Rijksmuseum-you’d like that Mukuro, the Anne Frank house, and we’ll go down the canals like pirates! Your grandparents will take us to Efteling too! It’s like Disneyland. I know you’ll love it!” Her grin never wavered. “Don’t worry about the language barrier. Your grandparents will have translating apps on their phones, and I’ll be able to help translate too! You absolutely have to try everything that your grandparents offer you though, it’s polite. I don’t care how disgusting you think Hollandse Nieuwe Haring is, take it by the tail and try at least a little nibble before you give the rest of it to me and decline any further helpings. Politely. With a ‘no thank you, I’m feeling full’, or a ‘thank you, but I’m not used to this kind of food’. Got that?”

“Ugh-” Junko groaned. “Mom, I can tell-” She groaned as the plane shot down and sent her stomach flipping up her throat, “that you’re super duper excited for this trip, and don’t get me- urp- wrong, I am too. But” Junko let out a low whine as the plane shook and shuddered, “could you not talk to us about food until we’ve landed safely? It’s really killing my focus to not throw up on this tin can with wings again, thanks.”

Much to the delight of the twins, the plane eventually did land. Thankfully for Mukuro, only Junko threw up. It didn’t stop her from feeling bad for her twin, although she was personally relieved that she had dodged the bullet. While waiting for the seatbelt light to turn off, she took the opportunity to look around the airport through her window. The airport was really beautiful. Big and glass, although not as pretty as the one in Tokyo, Mukuro thought. It wasn’t like she could help her biases. There’s no place like home, after all. For most people, at least. One of them being Nicolet. She looked so happy to be back where she grew up that the instant the seatbelt light flickered off for the last time, she practically leapt to grab all of their bags.

Mukuro and Junko followed her out of the terminal, politely thanking all of the flight attendants, and after a quick bathroom break, begged for a quick look in the souvenir shop. Her mother had pointedly stared at them and said that unless they had any money, if they wanted something they’d have to ask their grandparents. Mukuro wordlessly went to the nearest currency exchange booth and asked politely for them to change her Japanese yen to Euros. Fourty Euro richer, she had tugged Junko into the souvenir shop, pointedly ignoring the look that her mother was sending her. Mukuro picked out a keychain with a clog on it. Junko went straight for a few chocolate bars. They returned to Nicolet, who had stayed there, waiting for them to finish up. Customs was tricky. What other way was there to explain to the officer that ‘yes, Nicolet Aartsma is a Japanese citizen and a citizen of the Netherlands, who went to Japan and had two kids and was now bringing them here with visas so that they could meet their grandparents’ than to just say it? Mukuro was just glad that her mother was the one doing the talking. Rapid fire Dutch flew right over her head, and she didn’t realize the conversation had even ended until Junko was on the other side of the gate, yelling at her to hurry up so that they could leave and start their vacation. She smiled sheepisly and thanked the officer, who seemed way too large and imposing to even fit in his cubicle. He blinked slowly before returning the smile, the curve of his lips lighting up his entire face. He chuckled and waved at her and to her retreating form, called out in perfect Japanese.

“Yoi go ryokō o!”

Mukuro’s head shot back, staring at the border officer, clearly amused by her shock. She wondered what other languages he knew and how many other kids he surprised on the daily.

Travelling without luggage did have its perks. There was no waiting at a conveyor belt, although it certainly didn’t stop Junko from trying to convince their mother to let them run on it like a treadmill, and as a result, they could leave the airport without having to worry about anything aside from their carry-ons. The trio departed through an electric door, the hum of the machinery almost inaudible against the noise that the crowd outside made. Mukuro blinked wearily, eyes scanning across the sea of people waiting for friends, family, and other loved ones until her eyes stopped at a large sign, writing black and bold against the hot pink of the poster paper.

江の島/戦刃 Aartsma/Enoshima/Ikusaba

And underneath that sign?

Two people who she could only assume were her grandparents.

Chapter Text

Junko, of course, ran ahead of her.

“Hello grandparents!” she sang, breaking away from Nicolet’s grasp, stopping in front of the couple holding up the sign. Mukuro noted the pleasant smile on the faces of others who had witnessed her marathon bolt. To any outsider, it would have seemed like this wasn’t their first meeting. Mukuro knew better, of course. So did her mother, who stopped in front of her parents and spoke gently to her father in more Dutch as Junko chattered off Mukuro’s right ear.

“I can’t believe we’re actually here! I thought that the plane would never land! I guess that the tin can with wings is useful for something after all! I don’t remember much of that flight aside from that it took forever. I mean, the attendants were nice and all, but it was really long and uncomfortable. I’m so glad we landed. Motion sickness really isn’t all that it’s talked up to be. I did enjoy it for a time, but i mean, i’m bored of it. So now I hate it. I don’t ever want to experience motion sickness again, not unless it’s been caused by something other than an airplane. Just knock me out cold the next time we have to fly. Maybe you can stick me in a doggy kennel and I can ride in the unpressurized cargo hold on the way back. That’d be a new experience. I think I’d like that. Anyways, can you believe that we’re actually here? These two old people, they’re our grandparents! They’re not as old as I thought they would be! Neither of them even have walkers!”

Mukuro nodded silently, using that time to really look at the pair of seniors she was supposed to call grandparents. Junko was right in the sense that they didn’t look terribly old or on the brink of death, like some grandparents sometimes were. Neither of them were above the age of 65, she’d guess. She looked at her grandmother. She was round and beautiful. A knit cardigan covered her blouse, which was tucked into a pair of practical business pants, and her gray hair was swept up and away from her face in a bun. Half moon glasses hid her crows’ feet. Despite the professional outfit, the elder woman had a definite motherly air about her, and when she caught Mukuro staring at her, she smiled gently.

Her grandfather was a head taller than his wife, had a huge mustache and beard, and broad shoulders. Mukuro couldn’t help but imagine getting a piggyback ride from him. Junko would get a kick out of that. While he didn’t have a walker, he was leaning on an umbrella as he exchanged words with his daughter.

Junko tugged on her sleeve. “I think mom is telling them about us now. I heard our names a few times and she’s pointing at us.”

“Junko, Mukuro, come here and say hi to your grandparents.” Nicolet’s voice was hesitant, in Japanese. Almost as if it were a plea for them to not mess up their introductions.

And Junko was first up to bat.

“Hiii grand-pa-rents!” Same approach as before, then. No real changes. Mukuro took note of this as Junko acted just as she had last night in the alley. “I am your granddaughter, Enoshima Junko! For you, it’s Junko Enoshima! I am eleven years old! I like winter, because my birthday is on Christmas Eve! I get sick on airplanes! I like telling jokes! My best friend is a year above me in school and he tells the best jokes! I’m also top of my class in school! My hair is always super messy because it’s also super long! I am the little twin!”

Nicolet looked proud of her daughter, Mukuro noted. Her grandparents seemed to love her already. It was time for her to prove that they could love her too. If anything, she could try and mooch off of Junko’s introduction and list off points that made them different.

She took a deep breath. “Hello grandparents, I am Ikusaba Mukuro. My first name is Mukuro. My last name is Ikusaba. I am older than Junko. It is nice to meet you both. I don’t really like airplanes, but I don’t get sick on them. My hair is always straight and it almost never gets messy. Junko is top of the class, not me. It takes me a long time to understand jokes, sometimes.” She looked from her grandfather, whose face seemed to be saying ‘ That’s it? ’, to her grandmother, who looked politely interested, to her mom, who just seemed relieved that the introductions were over.

“Well,” the old woman said, breaking the silence that Mukuro had created, “I am very happy to meet the both of you! I’ve heard a lot about you from your mother. I’m your grandmother. Just call me Oma.” Mukuro would have called the old lady anything if it meant that she would speak in slow English for the rest of their visit. She mentally thanked whatever merciful spirit was watching out for her. Oma. Two syllables. She could remember that.

“I’m your grandfather. Call me Opa.” Was all that the old man had said. His voice was gruff, as if he had just come from taking a smoke break. He took his weight off of the umbrella and leaned towards the twins, scrutinizing them. Mukuro withered under his intense gaze, while Junko levelled his stare with one of her own, placing her hands on her hips for good measure. She scrunched up her nose as if staring into his soul. Their grandfather let out a hearty chuckle. He ruffled Junko’s hair affectionately. Junko played along, giggling for effect. He straightened, looking at Junko like she had put the stars in the sky for him. “I like your spirit, kid.” He addressed Junko personally. “You remind me of your mother. How would you like to come back to our house and then your oma and I will take all of you to have some fun? We’ve even got somebody special coming with us for dinner!”

Nicolet’s brow furrowed as she looked to her mother. “I thought it was just us going to that-

Junko nodded enthusiastically, interrupting loudly before her mother could finish. “I'd like that very much, Opa!”

The drive back was relatively uneventful, Mukuro thought. Her grandparents drove a car that seated five people. Oma said that most people biked to work, or rode public transit, so cars were used mostly by people with families, or who lived outside of the city, in suburban or rural areas. Nicolet sat sandwiched between her two daughters, one who never stopped talking, and the other, who had been relatively silent. Opa kept most of his attention on the road, stopping only to hum along to the song playing on the radio on occasion. When it went quiet for two whole songs, Mukuro found herself staring at oma, who suddenly looked ages younger in the passenger seat.

Oma sported a wicked smirk. Withdrawing a CD from the glovebox, she stuck it into the CD player and pressed a few buttons, skipping ahead through the tracks until she found the one she was looking for. With one final glance at her daughter, she pressed the play button.

It only took a second of the show tune playing before Nicolet’s face had donned an expression of recognition and glee. She tapped the drivers seat quickly with a free hand while her other clutched at the passenger seat.

“Mam? Is dit- papa! Ik dacht dat je zei dat je verbrand al mijn oude CD's?"

“Ik kon nooit deze branden.” The old man replied, shaking his head slightly, a sad smile on his face. By then, Nicolet had stopped listening to him, choosing instead to loudly sing along to the music that was playing from the speakers.

“I been cheated by you since you know when
So I made up my mind, it must come to an end”

Junko giggled as she watched her mother swing back and forth dramatically, hugging her mother and poking her father's cheek as she sang, encouraging them to sing along. Oma relented quickly, enjoying the torment her husband was receiving while both women whooped and sang the next lines

“Just one look and I can hear a bell ring
One more look and I forget everything”

“Genieten, schat!”

The twins’ opa launched himself into a passionate imitation of the chorus gifted to the world by 70s pop sensation ABBA, serenading the two most important women in his life, wife first, daughter after.

“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you?
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I've missed you?”

Mukuro watched the trio of adults as they sang along to the song, her grandfather rolling a window down for the whole world to hear. This was what home was supposed to feel like, probably.

The car pulled up to the apartment just as the song ended. The whole family piled out, and Junko held Opa’s hand as he led her through the gates. Unpacking was quick. When they had finished, a light drizzle of rain had begun.

“Let’s go outside and play in the rain, Muku-chan.”

“Why? It’s cold and wet and we’ll get dirty.”

“I want to see how different it is from Japanese rain.”

“Rain is rain, isn’t it?” Mukuro tipped her head. “I mean, sure we have typhoons and all, but a little drizzle should feel the same?”

“What about the taste? The temperature? The feeling of it on your skin? Come on, Mukuro! We’ll come back super quick. Just for five minutes, okay? I’m sure if we tell mom, Opa and Oma won’t even be that mad!”

Mukuro relented. “Ok, fine. Let’s go play in the rain.”

In the end, Junko and Mukuro had walked out with Opa’s umbrella. Mukuro stood under its cover while Junko splashed around in small puddles, dancing and laughing.

“Mukuro? Junko? It’s time to come back! Without any rainjackets, you’ll catch a cold in this weather!” their grandmother’s voice came from somewhere behind the both of them, probably still in the doorway of the building, away from the rain.

“Okay oma, just give us thirty more seconds!” Junko insisted, taking a few final twirls before heading back in Mukuro’s direction, albeit somewhat haphazardly. She stopped close to the dirt and beckoned Mukuro there with a finger.

“Look! A worm on the pavement!” she said, excitedly. Mukuro registered that Junko had shouted that in English, but didn’t think much of it until she saw Junko raise her foot and-

She brought it down on the worm, cleanly severing it in two pieces. The force of her attack had sent one worm half flying back to the dirt, while the other wriggled slightly, still on the cement. Mukuro heard a shocked gasp from oma before she came speedwalking towards the twins. She stood under Mukuro’s umbrella, and Mukuro quickly adjusted her grip so that the old woman could straighten herself up.

Her tone was strict and disciplinary, and it struck fear in Mukuro’s heart. “Junko! Why did you crush that worm? It didn’t do anything to you!”

“It didn’t, but I just felt like it. I read somewhere that worms don’t feel pain, and that both halves of a worm can grow their halves back, so you could have a huge amount of worms if you just kept cutting them in two! I mean, if anything, you could say that I’m helping the worm population. The Earth has two worms instead of one now!”

The senior Mrs. Aartsma blanched. “Well, you aren’t wrong, but that’s still not the best thing to do. Anyways, both of you come back in. We’re going to get ready for dinner. Your clothes are soaked through, so I’ll go upstairs and find you some old clothes that Nicolet used to wear. Come up and take a quick shower, and it’ll be ready for the both of you.”

An hour later, everybody found themselves in a fancy restaurant with big chandeliers. Junko sat next to Opa, who was currently fiddling with his phone, and Mukuro sat beside her. Oma was on her right, next to Nicolet. There was still an open spot next to the twins’ mother. All of them were dressed to the nines. Mukuro looked at Junko, in her pretty pink dress. Junko had even gone all out and put her hair up in pigtails. Mukuro’s stayed down. It draped over the sequins and glitter of her own dress, but she felt terribly out of place with her run down sneakers. At least Junko could pull off the casually fancy look. Mukuro felt like a fish out of water.

“Oh look! Our special guest of the night is here!” Opa said, looking up suddenly and gesturing towards the door of the private room. Junko’s watchful eye didn’t miss a beat. She tugged on Mukuro’s hair, bringing their heads together.

“See how mom tensed all of a sudden? I bet the person behind the door is somebody that she hates.”

“Garrick.” her voice was ice cold, making both twins shudder. “Wat een verrassing.”

Chapter Text

Mukuro didn’t know much about the cold war, but she’d read enough in her encyclopedias to remember that it was an intense time between world war two and the fall of communism in Russia, often characterized by the collecting of nuclear weapons and ending with the breaking down of a wall in Berlin. The “cold” part of the name came, not from the climate during those years, but the general atmosphere of the earth. High tensions and harsh words exchanged during world meetings as political bigwigs had talks for peace.

If she had to describe the feeling she got sitting there in the fancy room with the crystal chandeliers in her mother’s old dress, that would have been it.

It felt like being in the united nations annual summit at the height of the cold war.

“Het is al een lange tijd”. The strange new man said, giving his blazer to a nearby attendant before approaching the large table. His eyes scanned the people sitting there, stopping with a hint of surprise when he saw the twins. “Ze lijkt op jou”, he noted, pointing at Junko. He moved his hand so that his next gesture was aimed at Mukuro. “Was ze aangenomen?” He tried to crack a smile among the chuckles of her grandparents, but even with the language barrier, Mukuro could tell that it was tense and faked, as though he was trying too hard.

Whoever this guy was, he was trying to make a good impression on the whole family.
“Zij zijn mijn kleinkinderen, Junko en Mukuro.” Oma said. Both twins nodded at the mention of their names.

“Van Japan,” Opa added. “Ze besteden zomervakantie hier”

“Kleinkinderen?” he gasped comically, slapping one hand over his forehead. “Ik word oud! Maar je twee zijn nog zo jong!” he gestured to Opa and Oma before directly addressing Nicolet. “Je bent een moeder nu, maar je nog steeds zien er prachtig uit”.

Mukuro beamed a little as her mother snapped him with her cloth napkin the way one might do with a wet towel. “Beleefd zoals altijd. Ga zitten.”

Mukuro got lost in the sea of rapid fire Dutch soon after that as Opa asked him questions and he answered, while Oma was doing her best to look politely invested in the conversation at hand. Her mother had given up trying to feign interest. This Garrick fellow had taken his seat next to her, and she was subtly trying to move her chair slightly farther from him, moving at the rate of about one inch every minute. Mukuro tried her best to get a good look at this guy. His hair was dirty brown, slightly wavy, and framed his face nicely. His white collared shirt was paired with a blue tie. Mukuro couldn’t get a good enough look at his eyes, but she was pretty sure that they were a cool grey, due to the way they lit up whenever her mom paid him any attention at all.

“How long is it going to take for him to realize that we don’t speak a word of Dutch, you think?” Junko whispered after the third mention of their names in between all of the conversation. Mukuro had never felt so glad as to hear real Japanese. She shrugged.

“Maybe if we just talk louder in Japanese, he’ll figure it out?”

Junko snickered. “Naah, I don’t want to give him that information so easily! What will his face look like when he’s embarrassed? I want to see that bashful look that he gets when he realizes just how rude he’s being to two kids who have no clue what he’s saying and think him for a pedophile!”

“If that’s really what you want, then I’ll play along.”

“Cool.”

A waiter came by and took their orders of food. Opa and Garrick both ordered some beer. The Aartsma women politely declined any offering of alcohol. Oma had to translate everything on the menu for the twins in English while Garrick and Opa kept talking.

“I’m not sure how you eat dinner in Japan, but in a fancy restaurant like this, there are usually three courses. The first is an appetizer, the next is the main course, and the last is dessert. I’ll explain the appetizer and main course first, and I’ll help with the desserts later. So, appetizers! Kaassoesjes van boerenkaas are pastry puffs with cheese, erwtensoep is a type of pea soup, and kroketten are breaded and fried bits of beef.” Mukuro nodded as her oma continued along, describing the options that she had for the main course as well. Junko decided on the kroketten and a pretty looking meat pie for her main course, while Mukuro went with the kaassoesjes and some kind of spaghetti.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Garrick grabbed her mother’s left hand, intertwining it with his right. “Weet je nog toen we op school? We maakte aantekeningen terwijl hand in hand.” He said. Junko let out a snort of amusement that mingled with Opa’s chuckle. “Maarit hield toen we dat deden”, Garrick continued. For some odd reason, Mukuro saw her mother flinch slightly, before she quickly hid what might have been quiet panic.

“Onze leraren haatte dat.” The younger Aartsma chuckled. She tried to return her hand back into her lap where it had been before, but Garrick’s grip was firm. It took two polite tugs from her and a fake cough from Opa before he finally let go.

“Het spijt me”, he apologized; or so Mukuro assumed due to his sudden sheepishness. “Ik heb je gemist. Veel.”

“Alright!” Everybody was probably mentally thanking the old woman for raising her voice in English, although Mukuro noted the furrowed brow on Garrick. Regardless, she continued. “I think it’s time that we made our toasts, so that we can eat, drink, and be merry. How does that sound, dropje?”

“Wonderful, schat.” Opa stood up and raised his water glass, encouraging everybody else to do the same. “A toast to our daughter, who has returned home, and to her two beautiful daughters, who are only now experiencing the true nature and beauty of the Netherlands. May they have pleasant adventures here, and many stories to tell when they return to Japan.” He then nodded to his wife, who followed through.

“A toast to the health and wellness of all gathered here. A toast to our beautiful grandchildren, who will grow stronger and more beautiful by the day, and to our wonderful daughter, who never ceases to amaze us.”

The twins’ mother continued. “To my parents, who did an excellent job of raising me, and to my children, whom I love unconditionally. May you grow up one day to make all of us proud, and may my parents stay happy together until done apart by death itself.”

“-But let’s not talk about death so soon! Not when the night and the people gathered here are all still young!” Garrick interrupted. Mukuro noted the change from Dutch to English, and she saw Junko sigh in a slightly bored manner. Guess she didn’t get the reaction that she’d been expecting. Still, he continued. “A toast to the Mr. and Mrs. Aartsma, for...” his eyes scanned the table before stopping at their daughter, “some excellent genetics.” He beamed as Opa let out a laugh, and went on. “And to Nicolet, who must have found an excellent man of wonderful caliber to have brought these two angels with her during her return!”

Oma nudged Mukuro gently. “Now schatje, it’s your turn to make a toast. Just say something nice, and then we’ll have Junko make one too.”

Mukuro gulped. “A toast-” she winced slightly as she heard her voice crack. Scared eyes scanned the table. Opa looked happy that she was even talking at all, while her mother looked like she would have given anything to not be standing next to Garrick, who had moved to stand closer to her. Oma just held a hand to her shoulder. A silent reassurance. “To Opa and Oma, who have been very nice to us, and for Mom for bringing us here. I hope we all stay healthy and happy.”

Finally, Junko. “A toast to family, new and old! And also, to this strange guy who keeps trying to get close to mom.” Junko levelled him with a glare. “Back off. She’s divorced but we’re still around.”

The entire table burst into laughter at Junko’s words, and she accepted the praise with a smile, like the perfect little angel that she was. Mukuro couldn’t help but feel proud of her sister, after all. She was perfect.

The food tasted great, and Garrick had even turned his attention to the twins, trying to amuse them, and earn himself their favour. He spoke in English now, and was encouraging them to joke around. He stage whispered to the twins that he knew something about the dessert menu. He beckoned them to lean in, and when they were on the edge of their seats facing him across the table, he shared all that he knew.

“A special little girl is learning how to cook here. She’s just two years older than the both of you! Her specialty is desserts, and everybody who has been to this place recently has not been able to shut up over her sweets.”

Surely enough, Mukuro saw a face and a short paragraph in the dessert menu that featured a young girl with pink hair and a yellow hat.

Garrick smiled. “It says on the menu that tonight she is making chocolate mousse, macarons, and cream puffs. What sounds good?”

“Cream puffs!” Came Junko’s excited reply.

“What’s a mousse?” Mukuro asked. She knew of the animal, but to create chocolate in the shape of such a large and bulky animal?

“It’s really good! Trust me, because I made it!” a voice came from outside of the room. The door opened and in walked the same little girl from before. She wheeled a little cart into the room, stopping for each person to hand them their dessert of choice. She eventually got to Mukuro and Junko. “Take these cream puffs! Do you want them dusted with food glitter?”

“You can do that to food? That’s amazing!” Junko exclaimed, clearly excited. “I would love a sparkly dessert!” She grinned from ear to ear as the chef gave her puffs a good dusting of glitter before turning to Mukuro with a ramekin in hand.

“Please take some chocolate mousse! It’s a special recipe that I’ve been working on! I’m sure that you will enjoy it!”

Mukuro stared at the ramekin as she took it. “Your hair is really pretty.”

“You think? That’s awesome! Wait until my boyfriend hears about that! Do you think he’ll agree with what you had to say?”

“Honey,” Everyone looked at Garrick, who had paused dramatically for effect. “If he doesn’t want to stop being your boyfriend, he’d better agree with Mukuro!”

“Mukuro? You’re Japanese?” The girl grabbed Mukuro’s wrists, before continuing, fluent Japanese rolling off her tongue instead of English. “I had no idea! I’m Ando Ruruka! Are you the Ikusaba Mukuro that my brother always raves about? The one that does survival stuff?” When Mukuro nodded, she squealed. “My brother watches your games online sometimes! He’s a huge fan! Can I get a picture? I’m sure he’d be so jealous!” With that said, Ruruka pulled a small ipod out of her pocket and grabbed Mukuro’s shoulder, posing with her tongue out for a selfie. Mukuro managed a small smile, which actually didn’t look that terrible in the photo.

“Well, I’m off! I’ve got other people to give my desserts to, but enjoy them!” She shook Mukuro’s hand one last time before wheeling her carts through the door. She stopped again at the door. “Ikusaba-chan! Hit me up when you return to Japan and I’ll make you any sweets you want! Enjoy your summer vacation!”

The door slammed shut and Mukuro gulped. Time to see what her mother would say.

“I’m guessing that she knows you because of your games.” Mukuro nodded stiffly. “Lie then. Tell everybody that she's just an upperclassman at your school.”

If her mother wanted a liar, Mukuro could definitely try for something convincing.

She put on her best happy face. “I never thought that I’d meet one of the upperclassmen on a trip to the Netherlands! She’s truly amazing!”

Mukuro took her spoon and dug it into the cup for a bite, scooping up a strawberry and some chocolate. At least if she was eating, she could ignore her grandparents trying to get more information out of her. She took a bite of the strawberry, then put the whole spoonful into her mouth.

It was the best damn chocolate mousse she was probably ever going to have.

Everybody else seemed to be feeling it as well. At least now they were definitely going to forget everything that had happened, and she didn’t have to lie anymore.

If being friends with Ruruka gave these benefits, Mukuro wouldn’t be surprised if she had amassed a private army.

Garrick left in a taxi after finishing his macarons, but not before paying enough to cover half of the bill. He had tried to kiss their mom’s hand, but she had instead twisted his own wrist in an awkward handshake when she saw his head lowering. He left, shaking Opa's hand, and getting high fives from the twins.

The rest of the family returned home in the little car, with Oma driving, quieter than they had been when leaving.

“Nicolet, why don’t you help get the twins to sleep? They must be exhausted.” Opa had said as he parked the car. “You go up first. Your mother and I need to talk.”

“Ok. Thanks papa. Thanks mam.”

When the twins were washed and changed, Junko addressed the elephant in the room.

“Mom, why don’t you like this Garrick guy? He seemed pretty nice.”

Mukuro heard the sigh. “He was my boyfriend before I moved to Japan. We broke up because we were too different. I got over my infatuation with him, but it didn’t feel like he got over it at all.”

Mukuro went next. “Would you have gotten married?”

“No. Sometimes things just don’t go the way that you had planned.”

“So you never really even loved him?” Junko interjected, disbelief in her eyes. “But he was all over you! I thought I could see him drooling!”

“I loved him before, when I was young. But after he broke up with me, and I moved to Japan, I had a lot of time to think about everything that had happened when we were together. I helped him get through math class, and science classes, and just about every other class that wasn’t gym. When my own grades slipped because of something terrible happening to an old friend of mine, he broke up with me. At the end of it, I just felt like a catalyst.”

Mukuro raised an eyebrow, not really caring if her mother saw. “You sped up a reaction?” These encyclopedia definitions really needed to get changed sometimes, if they caused her so much confusion.

“No.” Mukuro saw her shrug. “I felt used. Everyone around me was changing, and I was helping him change, but he never bothered trying to help me. When it got too hard, he gave up on me. So I’m not giving him another chance.”

“Maybe he’s changed?” Junko offered.

“Trust me, if he’s using our time in high school to try and rekindle a lost love, he hasn’t. Goodnight girls. I’ll stay here until Opa and Oma come up. Don’t mind me though, I’m just here watching the stars.”

“With the window open?”

“Can we?”

“No. You need to sleep. And you’re in pyjamas, which could give you a chill.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Can you at least describe them?”

“Fine.”

“Yippee!”

“They are bright, and beautiful. They tell stories that nobody has ever been able to pin down with certainty. Watching them is a great way for me to relax without turning to drinking. But I didn't take an astrophysics degree in university just to tell my daughters some superficial things. Stars are luminous spheres of plasma, light years away. Many of the stars we see from our night sky are probably already dead remnants of what they used to be, or could be going supernova by next Thursday, for all that we know. They're almost never on their own. They inhabit galaxies and clusters, and sometimes even these things called galactic halos. Those are absolutely beautiful to stare at if you ever get the chance to see computer generated simulations. Some of the brightest known stars in the universe that we know of so far are V4998 Sagittarii, Melnick 34, WR 25, and one called the Peony Star.”

Mukuro heard Junko give an exaggerated yawn. “On second thought mom, I think I’m going to sleep. This is too boring for me. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight Junko. Sweet dreams. You should sleep too, Mukuro. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight mom.”

Before Mukuro fell asleep, she could distinctly hear two sounds. The squeak of the hinges as the front door opened, and her mother’s whisper to some distant star or another through the open window.

“Maarit. Het spijt me.”

Chapter Text

Mukuro and Junko woke at the same time to the smell of a delicious breakfast cooking. Junko breathed deeply, taking in the smell of coffee and buttered toast. Mukuro thought that this was a welcome smell of familial warmth, not unlike the miso soup that their mother sometimes used to make for breakfast. Once they had started struggling financially though, it had been bye-bye homemade food, hello corner store.

Oma greeted them cheerfully as they emerged from the bedroom like bears from hibernation. “Good morning! Wash up in the bathroom and by then I’ll be done making breakfast for all of us!”

So, the both of them stumbled into the bathroom, Junko on the toilet while Mukuro washed her face, then switching. They washed their hands together, Junko pumping foam into her palms while Mukuro used a soap bar.

“Smell my hands, Muku-chan! They smell like grass after rain!”

“How about mine? I think it’s some kind of berries?”

“Muku-chan, they aren’t just any berries, this soap smells like mixed berries! I thought everybody knew what that smelled like! How could my own sister not? I still think the grass smells better though, you’ll never know if a fly will smell your hands and then try to take a bite out of them!”

They walked out of the bathroom still sharing banter. Their mom had already seated herself and pointed to two chairs right next to each other with child-sized utensils that she had laid out.

“Here are your breakfasts! I hope that the both of you slept well!” Oma swept in from the kitchen, carrying two plates, setting them down, and then rushing back into the kitchen.

“I haven't slept that well since the flight attendant gave me those pills for airsickness!” Junko called at her retreating form.

“it's really great for us to be able to sleep like this after such a long flight.” Mukuro continued, as Oma returned with two cups and set them down as well. “Thank you for breakfast, Oma!”

“You’re welcome, Mukuro. We’ll just wait for Opa to get up before we start. It won’t be long, he always wakes up with the smell of cooking bacon!”

Breakfast wasn't much, but Oma had made it special. She'd personalized their bread according to the individual tastes of the twins. Mom had probably told her beforehand. Junko’s toast had strawberry chunks and banana slices on it, topped off with a little bit of powdered sugar. She had even gone ahead and thrown some chocolate chips on it. A cup of hot chocolate milk finished the meal. Mukuro's bread had kiwi circles on it, blackberries dotted the spaces between each circle, and the whole thing was similarly treated to powdered sugar and drizzled with syrup, or, “stroop”, as Oma had called it. Her cup of orange juice had a twisty straw in it. Eggs lay on the sides of the plates of both twins, with Junko’s egg scrambled, and Mukuro’s hardboiled.

Their mother watched from the other side of the table as the twins looked in awe at their morning meal, sipping from a cup of tea. A cup of yogurt and raspberries sat before her, paired with buttered toast and a sunny side up egg.

“Here’s my breakfast,” Oma said, setting down a plate with ham, cheese, eggs, and tomato slices. Meeting the confused and starstruck faces of the twins, she grinned. “We call this uitsmijter. If either of you want, I can make this for breakfast tomorrow, sweetie.”

At the mention of sweets, Mukuro was brought back to last night’s chocolate mousse, and again to the meeting with that swimmer girl from the airport. “That reminds me,” Mukuro got up to her room, digging around in her backpack until she found what she was looking for. She went back and handed a bag of candy to Oma. “Here! Please take this candy! It is from Japan!”

Oma looked between Mukuro and her mother before accepting both bags. “Thank you, Mukuro! What a sweet gift! Is it from the both of you?” Mukuro nodded. It wasn’t Junko’s idea in the slightest, but if she was going to get credit, might as well say that Junko was in on it too so that she would continue to cover her mistakes when it came to English. “Well, I’m certainly very thankful, but I think that I should hide these somewhere in the pantry, so please don’t be upset when you don’t see me and Opa trying these lovely candies.”

“Hide candy? Isn’t that only something that kids need to do from their parents?” Junko asked, lifting her face from her mug. Mukuro bit back a grin at the sight of her sister with a milk mustache.

Oma chuckled. “Oh no, Junko! Trust me, grown ups can, and do hide a lot of things from other grown ups, we just don’t like to do it unless we think that it’s for the best.”

Their mother charged in before either twin could say anything else to fan flames. “Opa has diabetes.” She said to them in Japanese. “He can’t eat that much sugar. One piece of konpeito is okay, but much past that and we might have to worry about his health. It’s not that I was hiding the information, I just forgot about it and didn’t think that it was that important.”

Oma chuckled at the twins and their suddenly solemn expression. “I just don’t want him to feel upset because he can’t share candy like I can. I’m going to finish making his omelet and put these away now. You can tell me all about how school is going in a few minutes.” She tucked the bag under her arm and patted both girls on the head.

“Hey, Muku-chan, you’ve still got a bag left, don’tcha? Who was going to get that bag?”

“It was supposed to be for the two of us to share on the plane ride here, but you threw up so I thought to save it for later.”

“That’s fair. No point in someone like me eating stuff just to throw it back up!”

“Good morning girls, Nicolet.” Opa’s voice carried from his and Oma’s bedroom to the dining room. “Hope you all slept well last night, because I haven’t had that nice of a sleep for a long time. Must be because my whole family is back home where they belong.” Mukuro watched him slowly amble towards the bathroom, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he went.

His whole family, back home where they belonged. That was a different feeling. Was this place really home? Did it have the potential to be her home too?

“Mukuro!”

“What?”

“You zoned out on me for a second there. What gives?”

“Nothing, just thinking.”

“Getting bookish over summer break? No offense, but that literally won’t help you at all, what with the school year just having ended and restarted recently. You really only need to care about school when end of year tests come up.”

“Junko, be nice to your sister. Just because this school year is over doesn’t mean that she can’t start hitting the books early for next year.”

"I don't even need to study to reach top of the class" Junko bragged, in English, Mukuro noted. "Some people really need the books, but I can spend my time on other things instead of studying and still do great."

“What’s this that I hear about books and school?” Opa asked as he returned, sitting himself down on his chair. “It’s summer break, relax a little!” He smiled and thanked Oma quietly as she set down his plate and black coffee before taking her seat next to him. After everyone had began eating, Oma smiled conspiratorially at the twins.

“So girls,” she began, taking a sip of her own coffee, pale brown in comparison to Opa’s. “How is school? The way it is in Japan must differ from the way that it is in the Netherlands.”

“I can do it!” Junko said excitedly, shooting her arm up as if she were still in school. Oma nodded at her to speak. “School in Japan is compulsory for children once they turn six until the end of their grade 9 years! High school is optional, but by then everybody already knows how to read, which is why Japan can boast a 100% literacy rate among all citizens! Vacations are six weeks in the summers and two weeks in winter and spring! We worry about school right now because of our summer homework which we still have to do! Every student must wear a school uniform! At the end of high school, if you wish to get into a university, you must be very good and write practical tests that determine if you can go to universities at all! You can also go into the workforce or community college, because university practical tests are only for people who want to go to university! It is almost impossible to test into medical school! That is all!”

Mukuro had to admit, she was impressed. She knew about everything because of it just being familiar to her, but for Junko to be able to recite it from memory and translate it from Japanese to English as quickly as she did? That took real talent. Then again, she shouldn’t have been as starstruck as she was. This was Junko, after all. Anything over the top to keep her interested? Definitely a trademark for her. Junko always got her summer homework done early. If Mukuro was struggling with hers, Junko would laugh and watch her struggle until the night before school started, before deciding that Mukuro had been "good enough" over the break to deserve Junko's work to copy off of.

“Good job, Junko; most kids your age don't know much about the educational systems.” Opa said. He sipped his own coffee before speaking. “It’s not that different here, except universities don’t require you to take any higher tests. You just apply and test your luck to see if your grades are high enough to get in. That’s how me and your oma met.” He cast a tender glance at Oma as he continued speaking, putting down his fork and knife in favour of holding her hand.

“Oh boy, here we go again.” Mukuro saw her mother roll her eyes with a grin on her face, shaking her head endearingly.

“I was seventeen, a fresh graduate from high school, when I first saw her. She was on the arm of a guy in camouflage and they were both laughing. I got so jealous of that guy, thinking that he was so lucky to have such a pretty lady as his girlfriend, that I knew that no matter what, I had to get that life. That’s when I used my high school diploma and put it to good use, joining the Royal Dutch Army.” Opa began. Mukuro saw Oma grin. “After I got a high ranking position, the ladies couldn’t get enough of this old man.” Mukuro heard Oma snort. “But every single time, I turned them down. I’d say sorry, that I was sure they were lovely ladies, and that my heart already belonged to another. Sad girls went home every night. I’m sure that at least thirty bittersweet love poems were crafted in my honour. When I met your oma at a social function,” He said, chuckling now, “I asked about the man who she used to be all over, and it turns out that was just her older brother! She was scared walking home on her own after university ended for the day because of some creeps who wouldn’t leave her alone, so he would walk her home every day, like an honest and righteous man should do. I offered to take her brother’s place and walk her home from university from then on, and well, the rest is history!”

“But Opaaa,” Junko dragged the name out for as long as her breath could last, holding her face in her hands, elbows on the table. “How did you know that it was fairytale true love? What made it different from regular love, or platonic love, or even just attraction?”

“I knew at first sight. I left little notes everywhere she’d look to tell her she was on my mind.”

“Most of the time in terrible joke form.”

“Pink flowers in her bag everytime it rained-”

“-Either lifted from the neighbour’s rosebush or bought from the florist down the corner.”

“Treated her on every date-”

“Archaic but I always slipped bills into his pockets when he wasn’t looking-”

“Took her out dancing all the time-”

“-Back before we got old-”

“And told her every single day.”

“He hasn’t even stopped for a single day. Which reminds me, mijn lief, ik hou van je.”

“Ik hou van je.” He echoed.

A small chorus of groans and 'yuck's erupted from the trio who were not giving each other shy kisses on hands and cheeks.

Mukuro felt her stomach twisting, but not because of the affectionate display. They’re normal. Her brain shot out. Opa and Oma are normal, aging yet still functioning members of society who stuck together through all of the tough times that they’ve experienced. They’re normal, and you aren’t. This might be their home, and they might say that this is your home now too, but they lie.

You’ll never be like them.

Chapter Text

The Netherlands were a great place to live, Mukuro learned. Most people here spoke at least two languages, one of them being English, and communicating with people was nowhere near as hard as she had originally thought it would be. Even other tourists who spoke Dutch with accents were sometimes surprised that the locals spoke their language, and occasionally, much better than they did!

Opa and Oma took them everywhere. It was always fun. Oma told the twins all about the historical significance behind the places that they visited, why the people remembered here and there were important and carried legacies that must be passed on, while Opa recalled his various adventures in the military, promising to bring them all across the EU if they had time.

Then again, it almost felt as if time sped up when in such a busy place. It wasn’t like Tokyo wasn’t full of hustle and bustle, but the people even had traffic down to a science. If it was close enough, you walked. If it required more distance and legwork than walking, or if you were running late, you biked. Cars, Mukuro noted, usually held families, not people on their own. That, or the license plates were foreign.

Out of all of the places, Mukuro liked the Science Center (the NEMO), best. Science was amazing, even if it wasn’t her strongest suit in school. Then again, it wasn’t like anything she did in school was particularly noteworthy, except for passing despite all of her absences. But Opa and Oma didn’t have to know that. Junko loved walking down the streets and asking questions about the vendors and their merchandise, and Oma got them any articles of clothing that weren’t too outlandish. (Really, Junko, calm down. It’s just a scarf. You can get a much prettier one at the mall that doesn’t cost nearly as much as this one does.)

Everything was great for a while.

Until it wasn’t.

If you asked Mukuro to identify the exact moment when everything had started to go pear shaped, there wouldn’t be a proper answer. If anything, it was a whole bunch of contributing factors that led to a final, explosive, life changing decision.

But then again, what decisions weren’t made like that?

The first factor? Children and their big ears. Mukuro would stay up late, watching stars, and watching over Junko as she slept. Old habits died hard, she guessed. She was used to going to bed after assuring Junko’s safety. She’d done it back before the divorce, she’d done it on the streets, it only made sense for her to continue watching out for her twin until she too succumbed to exhaustion.

“Nicolet… Mukuro en Junko… bastard kind...scheiden”

Mukuro’s head whipped towards the closed door upon hearing Opa’s voice. It came in murmurs, but it sounded like Oma and him were in the hallway, walking to their bedroom while talking. Mukuro thought it lucky that the rooms were only separated by a wall. She got up from the bed, moving closer until her ear was pressed against the wallpaper.

“We hebben alles geprobeerd”, Oma’s voice came through, quiet and cautious. “Ze had geen contact met hem na het diner die avond.”

Maybe she had heard wrong? Maybe they weren’t talking about her? It wasn’t like she could understand it regardless, but knowing that people were talking about you behind your back was all sorts of unsettling.

“Mukuro en Junko hebben een vader. We zullen blijven proberen.” There were their names again. So she wasn’t hallucinating. They were talking about them. Were they saying bad things? They were talking about them in the middle of the night where nobody else should have heard. It had to be bad. Were they frustrated with the way that things were going? Was Mukuro being too loud, too annoying, not exuberant enough?

“Maar ze zullen hier niet blijven. Ze zullen weggaan. Terug naar Japan.”

“De tweeling zal aanpassen. Zij moeten. We gaan niet naar onze dochter weer te verliezen.”

Mukuro didn’t sleep easy that night. She didn’t ask Opa and Oma what the plan for the day was, and didn’t smile when Junko was extra brash to compensate.

Another factor? Overbearing parents. Or grandparents, in this case. Mukuro hadn’t really noticed it until about a week after she had first heard Opa and Oma’s nighttime conversation. The first time was when the whole family went to Efteling.

“Vincent! leuk je weer te zien!” Opa called, as he waved to a foreign figure. He approached, and Mukuro saw that he was about the same age as her mom. He was touting two boys with him, about the same size and age as the twins.

Opa and Oma took all four of the children off to play after that, so Mukuro never got wind of what happened. Junko did hear a lot from the boys though. On the car ride home, she wouldn’t stop talking.

“They said that their mom died a few years ago and their dad was all they had left. Apparently their grandparents are in a senior care centre, so they can’t really live with them either. So, their dad was hoping to get a promotion and transfer to some remote place in Finland. Did you hear about that conspiracy theory that Finland doesn’t actually exist and is in fact, a hoax involving the Japanese and fish?”

“That’s nice, Junko,” Their mother had said, face unusually tense for a day at a kid’s amusement park. “But no, before you ask, and don’t think that I don’t know that look on your face, no, I never knew him before this, and I don’t want to get to know him, or fall in love with him, or anything else. He’s a good person to talk to, but he’s still very torn up and hurt over the loss of his wife, so it’s not the right time for him to start seeing someone else yet. He needs time to heal.”

At the Verzetsmuseum, Oma had gone to the bathroom, only to come back as the unofficial tour guide and bringing along a plus one.

“Nicolet, Deze knappe jonge man is een bewaker en gids! Wat een mooie combinatie!”

It was when they were back in the apartment one night after yet another strange man had been brought to the family in some convoluted twist of fate or another, that Mukuro saw her mother lose it.

“Wat is je probleem? Ik voel me goed op mijn eigen!”

“We willen gewoon wat het beste is voor jou!”

The last factor? Mukuro got into a fight.

It wasn’t even just the kind of fight one might pick with their siblings, the kind that ends with one sibling sitting on top of the other in triumph, forever etching the moment into their memory to gloat over in the future. It wasn’t the kind of fight between parents that Mukuro was used to.

It was the kind of fight that her old self would have been proud of.

She defended her mother.

She got in the way.

She asked, in the best voice of innocence that she could muster, why Opa and Oma felt like they had to find a husband for mom. Why they didn’t let her choose as she wanted. But of course, words are almost never that eloquent when muttered out loud while emotions run rampant.

“Why don’t you like the fact that mom already tried marriage before? We came out of it. Don’t you at least appreciate that?”

“Mukuro, no, that’s not the point. We love and appreciate the both of you, but-”

“So what is the point, then? You aren’t happy with what she’s done with her life, so you think that getting her married will make it any better?”

“That’s not it at all, we just wanted-”

“Her to be happy, but you never asked if she even wanted to get married again.”

“Mukuro.” Her mother’s voice chilled her to the bone. “Go to your room. Stay in there until one of us calls you for dinner. This conversation is for grown-ups.”

The door creaked open, startling Mukuro out of her self imposed exile under the blankets on the bed. She heard the door closing, and a few seconds later, felt weight settle at the foot of the bed.

“Yikes, you really got in trouble there, didn’t you, Muku-chan?”

Junko. Thank goodness.

“Ko-chan, I really never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. I just didn’t want Opa and Oma to keep thinking that mom will fall in love and stay with them forever here.”

Her twin shrugged. “Meh. It’s not like staying here is terrible. Food’s good, we get warm beds to sleep in, and they take us out whenever they can to do some pretty cool stuff. I like it here. Wouldn’t mind staying here for the rest of my life, in all honesty. Besides, can’t blame people for missing their children. It’s like how I miss Matsuda, but not really, because I don’t need to feel that way about him.”

“You don’t… need to?”

“Yeah. I mean, think about it, Muku-chan. You don't really need to miss anybody unless you trick your brain into thinking that you can't live without them. Convince your brain about a certain thing or another, and the rest of you will follow through. Take me and Matsuda, for example. Sure, I could miss him, but I could also just think of all of the times he's annoyed me and get over him. He’s always going on and on about psychology. It’s interesting until it gets boring. I guess you could say that I wouldn’t take a bullet for him. Maybe would, if it were just paintball, but an actual threat? Nah. I’m too important to die. I’ve got a spot at the top of the class that somebody has to fill.”

“It’s good that you’re happy this way, I guess. But I don’t like the fact that-”

“You don’t like being unhappy? Is that it? When did you start caring more about yourself than about me? Would you take a bullet for me? Or would you rather see me dead?”

“What? No, Junko, of course not, that's not what I meant-”

“Would you rather see dead bodies every day? That’s the life that’s waiting for you in Fenrir. There’s no romance about it at all. You just shoot people until their shit comes flowing out of their bullet holes.” Mukuro winced at the mental image. How did talking about mom and her love life end up like this? Indifferent as to whether or not Mukuro was still listening, Junko huffed and got up. “Just leave, why don’t you? I don’t want you around anymore. Why not go join Fenrir? That’s what you want, isn’t it? To leave me alone and helpless while you go and save the world on your own terms. But I’m staying right here.” She was at the door now, holding it open. “You go ahead. Run off. Just don’t die. I wouldn’t let just anybody kill my sister. You’d better remember me when you’re dying, riddled with holes and cuts from the field. No amount of armour can protect your fragile little soul. I see right through you.”

Mukuro stared at the closed door. Junko didn’t want her around anymore? Of course she didn’t. It never felt like she wanted her around ever. It always felt like she was the annoying sibling, tagging along to every single activity behind her sister. Always trailing. Always too slow.

But Junko always offered a path at redemption. She just had to look hard enough and she’d find it.

This time, it almost felt as if it were highlighted in neon orange.

Do whatever it was that Junko told you to, and she’ll forgive you, and take you back. And it'll be like nothing changed between you two.

She packed her bag. Threw in all of the clothes that she had brought with her, and that Oma had found or bought her. Found her passport and threw that in too. Lifted a 100 Euro note from Opa’s wallet.

“Mukuro?”

Shit.

“Where are you going? It’s only an hour until dinnertime, and your mother is helping Oma in the kitchen.” Opa chuckled. “Don’t tell me you plan on running away? Your mother used to do that all the time. She’d take her backpack, just like you, and say that she was running to Siberia, when really all I had to do was knock on the neighbouring door to find her.”

“I’m just… going to the playground nearby. I'm going to attack the castle with my army.” She winced at the lie that she was telling, but Opa had simply turned his face back to the television that was broadcasting the news.

“Alright. I’ll head down there in a half hour to see how you’re setting up camp. We can talk attack strategy then too. After that, we’re walking back home together, because by then it’ll be dinnertime.”

Mukuro had no idea what came over her, but she went up to Opa and hugged him, squeezing a little bit tighter than was probably safe for the old man, but he was still breathing, so she figured he’d be okay.

"Dank je, Opa. Ik hou van je." Mukuro hoped that those were the right words to say. She'd heard the first phrase from tourists, the second from her family. The words were unfamiliar and choppy coming out of her mouth, and she was sure that she had somehow managed to insult him instead of express gratitude, but Opa looked like he had just won seniors' bingo for the fifth week in a row.

As she laced up her sneakers, the door shut behind her with a click. She pulled her hoodie tighter around her and started to walk.

Home. What a laughable concept. As if Mukuro had one. As if she deserved one.

Her plan? Nonexistent. Her goal? Clear and in sight. As if she was a sniper.

But until she gained that title, she had a soup kitchen to find.

Chapter Text

Oma’s voice when Opa had admitted, an hour later, to the rest of the family assembled in the living room that Mukuro had gone missing, was eerily calm. Of course, that didn’t dull the edge in her voice.

“How the hell do you lose a child?”

“You forget to cherish her.” Junko voiced solemnly from her place on the couch, interrupting the grown adults in their conversation.

“It's not just that.” The old man said, resigned. “You lose children by letting them go. By not being much help when they’re struggling. By not even trying to ease any pain that they might have. I never should have let her go to that playground without being there with her myself.” Sitting down, he placed his head in his hands, refusing to look his wife, daughter, and remaining granddaughter in the eye. “She had a backpack on, said that she was going to set up a military camp to attack the jungle gym. I told her that I’d collect her in half an hour. What difference would half an hour make? Was it enough time for her to run away?”

“Enough time for somebody to take her, that’s for sure. The half hour doesn’t matter. Enough time was enough time.” Oma spat. “And I’d thought that you’d learned since Nicolet left Amsterdam for Japan. What happened to what you’d said to me before the children even arrived? Oh yes,” Oma deepened her voice, adopting her husband’s way of speech, but to no humourous effect. “Honey, they’ve been away from home for long enough, they need our support and love. If we’re going to be able to convince the three of them to stay in Amsterdam and move back to the Netherlands, we’re going to need to make staying here very appealing. We shan’t let one of them go to bed sad or angry.” Oma’s voice returned to her normal register at that. “And now look at where that led us. Your own ignorance led to the disappearance of your own granddaughter. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“That I’m sorry!” Opa stood up abruptly, walking over to where Nicolet was sitting, then dropping to his knees, kneeling in front of his daughter. “Were we not good enough for her?” His voice was quiet, Junko noted. Meek. Weak-willed. Desperate for a chance to redeem himself in front of her mother.

Speaking of the woman, she hadn’t moved from her spot on the chair ever since the news had first been broken. Even Junko had interrupted that one time. Junko decided against nudging her mother into a response. After all, even if the reaction to Mukuro’s disappearance wasn’t the same as the reaction she had undergone with both twins missing, at least it would prove worthy of thirty seconds of examination, right? Even watching the argument unfold between her grandparents had revealed some interesting secrets. While Junko had known they had existed, watching as they got dragged out into the open and exposed by two adults in a desperate rage was always new.

Her head twisted at the sound of sniffling. Her mother was crying.

Crying? Out of all possible reactions, Junko had expected a blind rage. She had expected fingers pointing and each adult blaming and being blamed for the same crime. She had expected that she didn’t have to do much to watch all adults present break down into tears and snot.

At least the third one came true. Once her mother’s emotional dam had flooded over, it moved to Opa, who looked at his feet as he sniffled. From there, it was only a matter of time before Oma had sat down by Junko and pulled her into her lap, the collar of her shirt slightly damp as she sniffled and wept.

Not wanting to feel out of place, or distanced from her emotions, Junko did too.

Crying was always a wild guess for emotions. Junko knew from prior experience that each cry, no matter how similar to one prior to it, was always slightly different. They were like snowflakes sometimes, Junko thought. Just when you think you’ve found two identical ones, looking a little deeper gave you a slightly different story.

So, Junko cried.

No, wait. It was more than just crying. Different words flew around Junko’s brain as she struggled to sift through the overload in her attempt to properly classify exactly what she was going through. It was stronger than weeping, but not quite blubbering. She was sobbing and hiccuping, for sure. But was she snivelling when she drew in her staccato breaths? The pain behind her lament was faked, in all honesty. She was hurt, yes. But not enough to mourn, just yet. If anything, curiosity distracted her. She hadn’t expected Mukuro to just up and abandon her like that, no matter how many times she had tried to get her sister to leave her before. Mukuro had always just calmed down, apologized, and then gone back to the pathetic mess that she was. She had never kept to herself, or given up on trying to apologize.

Interesting. Definitely something new.

So yeah, it hurt, but Junko was more interested in the emotion of betrayal, coupled with the tearing of familial ties that had just happened, than actually finding her sister.

She’d build or burn that bridge when she came to it, but for now, she wanted to shut off the questioning side of her brain and just feel whatever she was feeling that was stifled by the curiosity.

So she did.

Shutting off the analytical part of her brain for thirty seconds was the easy part. Her cries got louder until she was out-screaming everyone else in the room. Opa moved to hug her whilst Oma cradled her, rocking her gently and stroking her back. Then, exactly thirty seconds later, the crying and anguish ended for her just as soon as it started. The only reminder that she had been crying was the sniffly, snotty nose and the red ringed eyes.

It was invigorating. Junko left that sob session feeling better than before. Her mind was clear again, and she’d experienced an emotional rollercoaster just by shutting off part of her brain for a quick half minute.

“We need to find Muku-chan.” She demanded. Instigator of familial drama or not, Mukuro had to pay for abandoning her. She wouldn’t ever do it again, if Junko got to her soon enough. Ignoring her for a good five days should be more than enough time to get her crawling back to Junko’s side. But they had to find her first to make sure that she wasn’t dead or kidnapped yet.

Or that she hadn’t joined Fenrir yet.

Junko knew with eighty-five percent certainty, that Mukuro had definitely decided to join them.

But why let the adults in on the fun, when she could just watch as they ran circles around themselves in the best game of cat and mouse ever? How angry would they be when they found out? Just how much pain and pressure did this family need to be put under before it broke?

She could have told Opa and Oma and her mother. She should have told them, but when was Enoshima Junko ever good at following her conscience?

Whenever that last infringement had happened, she’d decided, looking to her hands, balled into fists as Oma dialled the police to try and file a case for Mukuro, it didn’t matter in the slightest. She could still email Mukuro and ask for her whereabouts, or to ask her to come back and accept due punishment.

She didn’t know how the military worked, or if there were contracts involved. But she knew one thing for certain.

Rules or not, Ikusaba Mukuro wouldn’t get off scot-free for leaving the other half of the despair sisters behind.

Meanwhile, Mukuro had found a network of soup kitchens that she could frequent regularly on her first night out, and a comfy overpass to stay under. She had it made for the next few days with Opa’s 100 euro note in her back pocket, just in case, until another fistfight with a suspicious scout happened and she got her chance.

Until she did what Junko told her and came back whenever, alive, with Junko’s adoration, forgiveness, and open arms.

Her chance didn’t happen until four days after her running away, but she could settle for it.

For the most part, until it was peak mealtime, or easy to blend into a crowd, she had stayed to herself under the overpass while police officers asked pedestrians if any had spotted a young Japanese girl with a backpack. She went to a different place every meal, watching and waiting for her chance at violence.

But she had been surprised to see her own face on a public broadcast as she walked by a technology store. Picking up a newspaper dropped by someone in a rush, she sat herself down in the shade of the buildings before flipping pages, stopping when she saw her own face staring back at her.

The picture itself was simple. It was of Mukuro, smiling at the camera with a popsicle in hand, a small rollercoaster in the background of the image. A breeze had lifted up the edges of her pink sundress that day, and had helped to cool her down, despite the sun warming up her shoulders underneath the straps. One of her arms was brought up to pull her hat over her eyes, shading her face from the sun better, because Junko had taken their mother's sunglasses that day. Mukuro remembered Opa squatting behind the lens, asking her to smile like he had just told a great joke. Efteling. Of course. Every kid’s dream come true. She didn’t read the article at all, but noticed a phone number. And she did rip out the picture of her face. The less people knew of it, of her, the better off she’d be.

And maybe, just maybe, she actually liked how she had smiled in the picture.

She dumped the newspaper into a trash can nearby and kept walking, turning the corner as she went.

Right into the back of a traffic cop. He was huge. Red hair under his cap, and whistle in hand.

“I’m so sorry! I wasn’t looking! Have a nice day, sir!” she quickly u-turned and headed in the opposite direction, back where she had come from.

She had to get out of Amsterdam, and fast, if she could help it.

The train. It didn’t matter where she was going to end up, as long as it wasn’t still in the city.

Mukuro was blessed with the sight of a station. Sneaking in through an open bathroom window, she made it past undetected by the public transit officers, and got on the train that everybody else was piling onto.

Guess the survival games did her some good, after all. Good thing she still remembered the skillset. Or maybe it was just so heavily integrated into her brain that it was a part of her now.

The train ride wasn’t that bad, she figured. As long as she could take a few transfers onto routes with different colours, that all seemed to take her farther away, that was good enough.

Luck must have been on her side that night. Rotterdam would be fine for a few days, before she had to leave again. Until Fenrir found her, or until she found Fenrir.

Luckily, that chance came up sooner than she had expected. The next day at lunchtime, in fact.

It was almost laughable, how the scene unfolded before her eyes. Almost everything happened as it had in Japan, but instead of angry Japanese young folks starting the brawl, it was angry Dutch teens.

And Mukuro?

She had specifically crept up to the man behind it, poked him in the side, put her bag down, and ran past him, straight into the fray.

It wasn’t like people fought differently here than they did in other countries. All she had to do was dodge their blows so that they’d knock somebody else out, before sending swift uppercuts their way. She made sure the scout was watching when she let her fists fly. She needed this chance.

Punch for Junko, kick for Junko, watch your left side and block for Junko, break a nose for Junko, do everything you can to win the battle and her forgiveness back.

Somebody pulled her back by her long hair. Clamping a hand down on her scalp at the source of pain, she turned and delivered a quick kick between their legs before disappearing again.

When there were only five people standing, including herself, the man called out to them.

“Stop fighting.” He crooked his finger at all of them. “Follow me to Fenrir, if you want a life of fighting. But hurry, the police are coming soon.”

She did. One young man walked away. The scout shook his head, before leading the group down narrow, winding paths.

He stopped in front of a van parked between two high walls, neither equipped with cctv cameras. Motioned for the four stragglers to get in. Just before Mukuro climbed into the back, he grabbed her shoulder.

“You’re that missing kid they talk about on the radio and TV all the time these past few days, yeah?” the man asked her. She nodded.

“People will remember you. We’ve got to make it seem convincing that you were kidnapped.” He took a small amount of tape from his coat pocket and peeled off a strip. “Don’t worry. This is super easy to break out of, and easier to peel. I’m just doing this for show. Once we get onto the road, you can break it. Does that plan sound ok?”

Mukuro nodded. “I have to get into Fenrir.”

“Alright then. Stick your hands behind your back and keep your ankles together.”

Once he was satisfied with his tape job, he hefted Mukuro over his shoulder. “We’re going to take a separate route, one with cameras, so it looks convincing. Try to struggle, but don’t give it your all, or the tape is going to break and your chances are ruined.” Mukuro nodded. She wriggled and squirmed as weakly as she could as she was carried over his shoulder, until they got to the car and she was roughly thrown into the back of the van. The door slammed shut, and seconds later, they were speeding away, tires screeching.

“Alright hon, break out of that tape now.” She did, before crawling to the seats of the van, enjoying the shocked faces of the other three passengers. They had either forgotten about her, or had not expected her to be joining them.

The rest of the ride passed in silence. The next time the engine was killed, the doors were flung open. The harsh afternoon sun shone on a jet plane.

“Last stop from me, hope you enjoy the flight to HQ.”

They were led to stand in front of the plane, waiting for the door to open and for some stairs to descend.

Mukuro took a deep breath while she waited. She stared down the nose of the jet. The cockpit windows looked like eyes, staring her down, daring her to enter. It promised freedom, purpose, a lifestyle change that was a complete 180 from her original. The sun beat down as a moving cloud’s shadow moved, casting the plane in a harsher light. Mukuro grinned. Fenrir liked her. They liked what she did. She needed Junko’s forgiveness. This was what she had wanted from her. She couldn’t chicken out right now, so close to her goal. She got on the plane. Strapped herself in, waited for her nausea to settle.

The inside of the jet was nice, actually. The chairs were decently comfortable, and the windows were large. She could actually see quite a bit through it.

Looking at the wide expanse of the sky from her seat, she couldn’t help but smile a little. She was doing this for Junko, but even with that hanging from her neck, she felt free. Weightless.

And then she felt the plane come around for a tight spin. Somebody pointed to something out of their window that they seemed to be flying close to. Was this an emergency situation? She looked out her own window, spotting sky and what might seem like a small community. No more than fifty buildings, most no higher than two stories. The plane pulled up suddenly, then repeated a corkscrew motion, flying higher with each rotation. Suddenly, it levelled out. Mechanical whirring sounds filled the cabin. The plane lurched forward choppily after a moment. Mukuro was pushed back into her seat from the force, slightly winded. She heard a booming noise first, then a scream coming from the recruit sitting behind her, looking through the window to what she could see.

A small, dusty cloud with a shape approximately like that of a mushroom rose from behind the plane. The gravity of the situation finally made sense.

They had dropped a bomb on a small township.

She wondered if the people behind Fenrir took their lessons to make people despair from Junko personally. Or maybe she was just haunting her.

Chapter Text

All of the hopefuls exited the plane on shakier legs than they had entered on. The pilot of their dooming flight, however, exited from the cockpit looking absurdly pleased with himself. The sun beat down harshly on all of them, and Mukuro had to use one of Junko’s old hair ties that she had brought along to pull her hair out of the way. She took a good, long look at her pilot, as did everybody else who was with her.

He was, even by the standards of a child, short for an adult. Slowly, he took off his flight goggles and retied his ponytail. Once he was done, he motioned to the group to follow him.

They were led by the pilot to a large cement building, bleak and gray against the yellow sand, dirt, and barbed wire that surrounded the complex.

“Here’s where physical and practical tests are held.” The pilot told the group. There’s supposed to be a few more groups coming in for today, so we’ll just get you started with the exams right now. The physical portion tests stamina and degrees of fitness, and the practical tests involve knowledge and application.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Any questions, hopefuls?”

Mukuro raised her hand. There was one thing that she needed to know. “What’s your language policy here?”

The man shrugged. “Main language is English, but we take so many in from around the planet that I’d be surprised if nobody spoke at least a little of your native tongue. Army jargon is also very different from proper English. Don’t expect to come out of here ready to write the next Pulitzer.” He nodded to the young hopeful standing next to Mukuro. “What’s your issue?”

“You just murdered a town full of people in cold blood.”

“Righty-O I did. But cold blood is debatable. Mammals are warm blooded, after all.”

“You killed them all, in front of us. What was that supposed to be? Some sick hazing ritual?”

“Call it a compromise. You get a ride here, and I get my job done.”

“That’s not-”

“Fair to the lives that were wasted? Not how the world is supposed to work?” He scoffed. “Tragic. There are always deaths in war. You just have to make sure that it's not you, or people on your side doing the dying. Don’t you know what mercenaries like Fenrir do? We don’t slay dragons and rescue princesses in towers. We fight for whoever pays us better. We have our own reasons for fighting, and turn the tide of war just as much as those who have countries to fight for. If you don’t like it, leave. If you can learn to tolerate it, follow me in so that we aren’t roasting in the sun.”

Mukuro was thankful that the interior of the building had lights and rotating fans. The group followed the pilot through a series of doors and halls, past the door labelled “RECRUITS” until he reached the door that read “HOPEFULS”.

A woman with light blonde hair in a ponytail greeted the group. She was sitting at a desk with a laptop.

“My name’s Sierra. I’ll be in charge of your training here until we know that you can stay or go for sure.” She stood up, drawing herself up to her full height. Mukuro tried not to gulp too loudly upon catching sight of her knife in a holster. She smiled sweetly. “Let’s start by registering your names into our database. Hope y’all brought a source of ID with you when you left from wherever, cuz that’s the quickest, most hassle free way that things get done around here.”

Mukuro lined up last. She watched and waited as each recruit’s registration seemed to take only minutes before they were escorted back out through the door where they had come from.

Sierra’s eyebrow furrowed as she scanned her passport. “It says here that you’ve been missing for a few days, and that the latest news in Amsterdam about you is your apparent kidnapping.” She turned her head from the screen to the pilot. “Hey Charlie, what happened in Amsterdam?”

He took his sweet time in answering the impatient woman, stretching and yawning before taking the time to ponder the question. After what felt like an eternity, he started to respond. “Well, Riri-”

“I thought I told you to stop calling me that-”

“There was this amazing woman in Amsterdam that I picked up in the red-light district of the city, and let me tell you, S-rah, sis-boom-bah,” He made a vague thrusting motion with his hips, emphasizing his syllables with the rocking and causing Sierra to let out a scandalized gasp, “my night was wonderful; and that’s what went down in Amsterdam last night. Definitely not my-.”

“That’s not what I meant by that question and you know it.” She snapped, hands balling into fists. “I mean, what do you know about this kid? Why’s she here?”

“Same reason as the rest of us, I’d guess. If you win at Street Fighter, you get the bonus level of Guerrilla Warfare Fighter.”

“The scout honestly let her in? She’s been missing for days! She’s like,” She snatched Mukuro’s passport from where it lay on the table, “twelve or something!”

“Eleven.” Mukuro piped up. She flinched a little as both adults turned their heads around to where she was standing. “I’m eleven until Christmas.”

Sierra collected herself quickly, squatting down to Mukuro’s height with a voice that was sugar sweet. “Okay, well, honey, can you tell me why you’re here? Shouldn’t you be spending time with your family?”

“They don’t love me.”

Charlie whistled lowly. “If they actually sent out a report for you and aired it on national television, they probably do love you. At the very least, you can’t say that they don’t care.”

“I was in a fight with a scout before, but wasn’t collected because I didn’t really hit anybody the last time around. A different scout wanted me to come with him this time.”

Charlie stopped wiping his goggles. “Where did you say you were from before you got picked up in the Netherlands?”

“Japan.”

His eyes widened in what might have been recognition. “You’re the one that does the survival games in Japan. Arachne, isn’t it?” Mukuro nodded. “Well. It’s great to know that you’re not just writing articles about us now. The bigwigs were getting antsy over your contributions to the military magazines. I should know. Everybody heard of what went down in Japan. They thought that you knew too much.”

“If the scout thought that you were a good idea, I guess we’ll just have to keep you around until you prove them otherwise. Okay, Mukuro, you’re in. Follow us back. It’s physical exams first, then it’s time for you to hit the books.”

The physical exam couldn’t be that terrible, Mukuro thought as she trailed behind the two adults. After all, there were only four new recruits. If one of them couldn’t take the strain, then nobody could be in Fenrir.

Mukuro saw the sheet that her trainer was holding, eyes widening at the numbers. Two hundred pushups in three and a half minutes? Three hundred sit ups in five minutes coupled with two hundred jackknives? Five minutes of wall-sits, followed immediately by six more minutes of nonstop squats, then continued by a five minute plank?

“Oh, yes! Hopefuls! We almost forgot!” Sierra’s voice was too happy. “This whole exercise test is meant to be completed outside!”

Charlie laughed at all of the recruits as they floundered under the heat of the sun, while Sierra tried her best to encourage them through a megaphone.

“COME ON! I KNOW YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT! MY GRANDMOTHER CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT AND SHE’S BEEN DEAD FOR FIVE YEARS! CHECK YOUR FORM! NO PAIN NO GAIN! FEEL THE BURN!”

“You know that your words have little to no motivational effect when we’re standing under this parasol and they could be getting sunstroke, right?”

“I know, Charlie, but I enjoy this and I’m already used to screaming through the megaphone, so PICK UP YOUR SLACK LADIES AND GENTS, THERE’S A MINUTE AND A HALF LEFT BEFORE THE NEXT PART!”

Mukuro had gotten past the pushups, sit ups, and jackknives fine, picking bits of rock out from the soft skin of her palms, but only managed barely for the wall sits and squats. She was out at two minutes for the plank.

Surprisingly, she wasn’t the first to collapse. But she definitely wasn’t the last either.

“Alright,” Charlie said, once the five minute timer beeped. Nobody had made it to the end, but he felt a need to rub in the fact that they were all incompetent. “In two weeks, you need to be able to do all of that without any collapsing if you want to stay with us. Follow me. It’s time for the 5 kilometer run.”

Many groans and moans were heard throughout the rest of the afternoon.

After the torturous exercise, about a half hour before they were led to the mess hall, Sierra had handed each of them a thick booklet. Mukuro flipped through it. Pages upon pages of how to assemble guns, and the exact parts of a grenade. A whole segment of which plants and animals or bugs were safe to eat in a pinch. A chapter full of written rules.

“Y’all are gonna be tested on everything and anything in this here booklet.” Sierra said. “It’s all going to be important if you want to stay here after two weeks have come and gone. You will get assigned sections before supper. For now, let’s do a final lap around the base, and I’ll lead you to the d-fac once you’ve returned.”

The d-fac, Mukuro learned, was shortened from dining facility. The militants, Mukuro learned, were many. More than five hundred people filled the room. Mukuro and the others were squashed against the wall, waiting for the militants to be seated before sections for the new hopefuls could be assigned spots to sit. About fifty more people were in the same line as them, so Mukuro didn’t feel all that pressured. The addition of people to different troops, squads and sections was pretty boring, and Mukuro hadn’t paid much attention to who got assigned where. After all, what mattered most was where she had been placed.

“Lucky you, Mukuro,” Sierra wrapped an arm around her shoulder and began to drag her to a table. “You’re staying right here with me and Charlie. Welcome temporarily to Fenrir for the next two weeks, delta troop, squad 4, section 6. Good to have you with us. Let’s get our food and go say hi to the rest of them.”

Sierra and Charlie led her to a table, labelled simply with the troop, squad, and section numbers. Five others sat at the table. A woman with shoulder length brown hair and red lips was the first to speak.

“Hey Sierra, lampiño. See you’ve brought back a present for the wolves.” Her gaze made Mukuro shrink back slightly. “She’s a little young, don’t you think? HQ felt bad for sending us a weakling eight months ago, so they intend to apologize by keeping us useful as babysitters?”

Both cadets shrugged and sat down on the far side of the table.

“Not our fault, Gem.” Charlie defended, setting to work on his food.

“Grampsterdam thought she was a good choice, Julie. She’s gotta be worthy of a shot here.” Sierra said, setting down her tray and closing her eyes for a few seconds before digging in.

The woman shrugged, before addressing Mukuro. “I’m your Sergeant, Juliet. You can sit down, girl. Wolves don’t always scratch and bite.”

She was interrupted by a young man with dyed red tips in his hair. “But you know who does? My girlfriend!” A chorus of frustrated groans erupted from the table. A man sitting next to him, body covered in tattoos, chuckled, clapping his shoulder.

“Yeah, those imaginary girlfriends can get pretty wild, I hear.”

The groans exchanged themselves for palms slapping the table and the sounds of high fives. It reminded Mukuro of their school during lunchtime. She took her seat quietly, right next to Juliet.

“So,” a woman with bright pink hair and pinker lips on the other half of the table stretched, leaning back into her chair before continuing. “I take it the hazing is complete?” She glanced over to her side. “How’d you do for target practice, Charlie?”

“I aced it this time, Kitty!” Charlie pumped his fist in pride. “Even got the mushroom just right in perfect ratios! You should have been there! It was beautiful!”

“Earth to Charlie, we’re not fighters and aren’t allowed in planes unless we’re going on missions or being sent home.” A young man with thick glasses looked to Mukuro. “Hey, I’m Matt. What’s your name again?”

“Ikusaba Mukuro. I’m Japanese.”

“Oh, cool." He pointed to the young man who had made the girlfriend joke. "Mickey here is Japanese too! He’ll help you get oriented around here.”

The man in question looked up from his food, fork halfway to his mouth. “I will?”

“Yeah!”

“Nope, not gonna happen. Not at all, not in the slightest. I can’t be trusted with the teaching of young, impressionable kids.” he paused as a sudden realization dawned on his face. “Damn, do we need to play teacher, too? Shit, am I not supposed to swear in front of, fuc- who said letting me show her the reins was a good idea? Kid, you know how to read and write, right?”

“Of course she knows how to read.” That was Sierra. “She’s just young, not a baby.”

The pink haired woman looked Mukuro up and down, ice blue eyes calculating. “Only one hopeful in our company this time?” She shrugged indifferently. “Oh well, it’s better luck than we’ve had all year for recruits.”

Mickey grinned. “That last guy got blown to bits in his fighter jet on his first mission.”

“Don’t worry. You won’t be flying unless you’re really good at the simulations. Of course, that’s only if you can even get tatted.” She held her right hand out for Mukuro to shake to emphasize her black tattoo on her pale skin. “The name’s Kat. Call me whatever works for you, though.”

Mukuro giggled. “In Japanese, the translation for a cat is neko.”

“You’re talking cats like the fuzzy animals, right?” Kat wrinkled her nose. “Never really took a liking to them. I was always more of a dog kind of person.” She reached across the table and shoved Mukuro’s tray closer.  “Anyways, eat up. We’ll head to our barracks and do formal introductions there.”

The barracks weren’t all that bad, especially when sharing a room with her entire section. Some people may have been uncomfortable with co-ed bedrooms and bathrooms, but Mukuro saw a camera attached to the corner of the wall, so that gave her a sense of security. It was almost like a co-ed slumber party, with everybody in their own beds. Not like Mukuro had ever been invited to one herself, but this was probably what it felt like.

“Your bed is on the top bunk.” Juliet said to her, watching with a strange smile as Mukuro kicked her shoes off and scrambled to the top without using the ladder. On the top, Mukuro placed her backpack down at the foot of the bed, rifling through it to make sure most of what she had packed was still there.

“We’ve got a little monkey on our hands, don’t we?” Oscar said, chuckling. He pulled himself up to his own bunk without any issues.

“Guess we do, pops.” Sierra agreed, sitting down on her bed before pulling her boots off and crossing her legs. “Hey, Mukuro. Introduce yourself and we’ll go down the room by bunk pairs.”

Mukuro sat cross legged on her bunk. “My name is Ikusaba Mukuro. That’s Mukuro Ikusaba for you. My first language is Japanese. I’m eleven. I’ve been participating in survival games for a long time to take care of my twin sister. I hope to be able to stay here at the end of two weeks.”

Kat took her seat on the mattress below hers. “This is where I sleep. I’m Kat Warren. I need to fall asleep before the lights go out.”

Juliet went next. “I’m your leading Sergeant for the next two weeks, and hopefully, for the rest of your military career.”

“I’m Sierra, but you already knew that. I like screaming through megaphones and holding executive power.”

“I’m Mickey. I’m your medic. Scream if you’re bleeding and I’ll try my best to keep you from dying.”

The man who had made the quip about Mickey’s imaginary girlfriend followed. “My name is Oscar, and I love my wife and kids.”

“Don’t ever ask him to talk about them. He has pictures. You know me already. Charlie, your resident mental scarring expert. I like planes. And explosives.”

“Hi! I’m Matt, the communications technician! Whenever we get sent out on missions, I’m the one on the radio telling HQ all about what the rest of you are doing, while you’re off doing what you’re doing. Which is killing people.”

“Okay, we’re done.” Kat said, yawning. “Can we get ready to go to bed now?”

Eight people sharing a single bedroom and two bathrooms was… frustrating, for sure. Everybody was allowed twenty minutes to themselves in the bathroom, before people were allowed to start knocking on doors. Mukuro soon learned that Mickey had an annoying habit of singing in the shower that no amount of door banging could remedy. She also learned that Juliet took her evening smoke in the bathroom, and that Charlie left the toilet seat up and laughed whenever the next person forgot to put it down again and sat down to use it. Matt, as it turned out, took no more than four minutes in the shower, brushing his teeth in there as well, but spent the rest of his time talking on a cheap burner cellphone, calling his family through his sister’s phone number. Kat was out in less than fifteen minutes, and was already asleep by the time Matt had exited the bathroom. He had reminded Mukuro to stretch to feel less sore tomorrow, so she did. Oscar wrote letters after his shower, with an old fountain pen and pictures of his wife and kids lying next to the pages. Mukuro had asked if she could try writing with such a fancy pen, and Oscar had laughed, before pointing to the now unlocked bathroom door.

Another thing worth noting. Hot water got used up fast between eight people.

By the time the other seven had settled themselves into bed, Mukuro had stopped shivering. She hoisted herself up softly, not wanting to wake her bunk buddy. When she was up, Juliet flicked the light switch off, turning the room dark.

“Good night everyone. Wake up in eight hours or less. That’s an order.”

“Roger, Sergeant.” The other voices chorused, except for Mukuro. “Good night, Sergeant.”

Whoops.

“G-goodnight everybody!” She managed to squeak before burying herself deep under the covers to hide her shame at the unfamiliar situation. She closed her eyes amidst the sound of soft chuckling. She would get used to this soon enough. She wouldn’t feel like a stranger forever, she hoped.

The sound of a massive fart ripped through the silence of the room. Mukuro heard groans and shuffling from the bunks around her.

“Damn it, Matt! I thought we told you to lay off the beans every single meal!”

Chapter Text

  1. A mercenary is a person who takes part in an armed conflict, not being a national or a party to said conflict, motivated to take part in the hostilities by the desire for private gain.
  2. Upon joining the mercenary group Fenrir, your rights as a bystander or victim of war are hereby stripped and you lose the right to be tried or kept under prisoner of war status upon possible capture. Put simply, mercenaries, if captured, will not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war.
  3. Don't get attached. There are allies, and there are others. Never mistake them.
  4. Mercenaries in Fenrir fight for whichever side of the armed conflict pays better. They do not fight for ideologies or nations, and the individuals who make up the mercenary group as its collective do not represent their respective nations of origin in battle.
  5. Legally, mercenaries:
    1. Are specially recruited to join a cause of war, either locally or abroad
    2. Do take direct part in hostilities
    3. Are otherwise motivated to join the cause of war for private gain
    4. Have not been sent by a state in direct conflict in the war cause
  1. If captured, you are initially classed as a lawful combatant and protected person with prisoner-of-war status, until your trial.
  2. If you are found to be a mercenary during the trial, the previous status of “lawful combatant” is rendered moot and captured individuals can expect treatment as common criminals, potentially facing execution.

The list of rules went on for another six pages.

It wasn’t like the information in this chapter was particularly difficult for Mukuro, due to at least half of it being prior knowledge from her magazine writing, but the fact that everything was written in English made it slightly more challenging to review than it would be had it just been penned in Japanese.

“How’s the studying going?” Sierra asked Mukuro, setting her breakfast tray down on the table, wincing as the morning sunlight reflected off of her plate. Looking down at Mukuro’s own meal of a single egg on toast, she frowned. “Did you already eat your breakfast?”

“That is my breakfast.”

“Well,” Sierra’s arm swooped in front of Mukuro, picking up her plate and standing up. “It’s not anymore.” She started heading back to where the food was laid out. “That is to say, that it isn’t yet. Wait right there Mukuro, I’ll be right back. I’m getting you some juice too.”

Mukuro shook her head slightly, before turning back to her handouts. She had to drill these into her head within the next thirteen days or she would have failed Junko.

And she wasn’t ready to go home as a failure to her sister, no matter how much the rest of her family cared about her.

“Ohayou, Mukuro. Did you sleep well?” The use of Japanese by Mickey shocked her more than she would have liked to admit, and when she tilted her head up to greet him, she was blinded by the light coming from his face. As she was blinking spots out of her eyes, she heard Mickey swear quietly and saw his arms moving to his face.

“Ah, crud. I forgot about my piercings, sorry.” When Mukuro could see clearly again, Mickey’s face was clear of any metal, and he had sat down next to her.

“It’s okay. But, you speak Japanese fluently?”

He took a sip of his coffee. “Yup.”

“Then why were you talking to me in English through all of last night?” Mukuro asked, switching the language of conversation from English to Japanese and hoping that Mickey would get the hint and swap too.

Thankfully, he did.

“Cuz we weren’t alone and anyone else would have wanted to know what we were talking about.”

“Your name is Mickey?” When he nodded, she continued. “Like, the mouse?”

He chuckled, running his hand through the tips of his hair, dyed red against his natural black. “No, not named after the mouse, but spelled similarly. I just ask for everybody here to call me Mickey.”

“Why are you here?”

“In Fenrir? I grew up in America, went to Japan for high school. Stuff happened, and now i’m here as a field medic. I do still have family there, though. I stayed at my cousin's family home during breaks while I spent my three years in Japan. I like to think that we’re pretty close for people who only talk to each other on the phone or through the internet.”

“Why didn’t you just spend your high school years in America?”

“I don’t like to talk about it.”

“Okay.” Time to change the subject. Mukuro pointed to his ears. “Exactly how many piercings do you have on just your head?”

“Four per ear, two for my nose, one on my lip, and this one below my mouth.” He pointed to the skin above his left eyebrow. “My next one’s going to be here. So, how’s the studying going, Arachne? Are these books better than the textbooks for real school?”

“The translations can be a bit tricky sometimes, I guess.”

“It takes a while, but you get used to it.”

“Why do you make jokes about your girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend and everyone else likes to make jokes about it.”

“Does everyone else have boyfriends or girlfriends?”

He scoffed. “Nope. I mean, Matt’s too much of a direct family man to think of settling down, not to mention he’s only a few years older than I am and the concept of being in a relationship and ruining it terrifies him. Oscar’s the only married guy in our section, but I’m personally hedging bets on Sierra and Charlie pulling something behind the scenes.”

“What are you two talking about?” Sierra asked, returning with a now loaded plate and cup and setting them down in front of Mukuro. “I heard my name.”

“Oh, it was nothing.” Mickey replied, swapping back to English. He nudged Mukuro slightly, as if asking her to play along with his lies.“Mukuro here was just wondering how much time I’ve spent saving your asses whenever you’ve gotten hurt.” She nodded, trying her best to look convincing. She doubted it was working, but Sierra sat down all the same.

“Mukuro, I know for a fact that you've got your guns down, but you're not strong enough to join us in the field yet. You’ve gotta eat to keep your energy up, or you’ll never make it with us. Not to mention, there’s that whole chapter about edible bugs and plants.” She shivered. “You learn to appreciate food that isn't insectoid after that. Sometimes, you learn that kind of stuff the hard way. Anyways, eat up.” She closed her eyes for a few seconds before reaching for her own food.

“She’ll be fine, Sierra.” Matt called lazily, sitting himself down across from the trio. He practically inhaled a mouthful of breakfast before he spoke again. “She wrote her articles way back when the higher ups feared her intel, she just needs to remember what she wrote and translate it into English. How hard can it be?”

“Didn’t you fail your senior year French final exam in high school, Matt?” Mickey piped up, wicked grin on his face. “You know, despite being born bilingual and all that jazz? Can't blame Mukuro here for wanting to study. Wasn't easy for us to get in either.” He waved at Juliet and Oscar as they joined the table group.

"I've been in the game for longer than you have." Matt pushed his glasses up slowly, with just his middle finger. "I know what I'm about, son.”

Mickey’s grin stayed. “Ooh, how terrifying. I’m shaking in my boots.” He nodded in Juliet and Oscar’s direction. “I can call mom and dad on you for threatening me, you know.”

“As your Sergeant, ‘mom’ won’t be doing anything. May I suggest instead that the two of you go outside and settle this dispute like the immature, emotionally constipated men that you clearly are?”

“HA.”

“Fine, I’ll appeal to dad.”

“Mickey, I swear to God, if you keep this teasing up, I will end you.” Oscar’s voice was deadly serious.

“You kiss your wife with that mouth, pops. I'm wounded.”

“I do far more things with my mouth when I'm with my wife than just kiss her, Mick, I’ll tell you that much.”

“Wow, my young, virgin ears are bleeding.”

“What’s bleeding? Where?” Kat asked, taking her seat by Juliet.

“Another stupid fight?” Charlie guessed, sitting next to Sierra. Mukuro didn't miss the wiggling of Mickey’s eyebrows as he took his seat.

“Shame.” Kat shook her head when Oscar nodded. “Tell me when there's some real action around here.”

“You’ll get your guns and roses soon, Kat.” Juliet reassured. “Just wait two more weeks.”

“Wait?” Kat’s lip curled. “If it weren't for the kid, we'd be out in the field. We gained a member and are forced to stay behind for two weeks while they train, then we stick them in the middle of a battlefield and watch them die or get hurt on their first day out with the big kids.”

“If I remember correctly, Kat,” Oscar interjected, “You cried the last time we lost a new recruit. What's got you acting like this?”

Kat’s fists clenched around her utensils. “Kids don't belong on the battlefield. She shouldn't have been scouted at all, and definitely should not be here.” She said through grit teeth, viciously stabbing a cherry tomato with her fork.

Mukuro felt like at that moment, she should say something. “Tell me about yourself, Kat. Please?”

The woman shrugged. “What is there to tell? I’ve been here as a mercenary for the past three years? I've swapped sections multiple times because of trauma and having to leave the rest of my old sections behind to survive? I'm Canadian?”

“Wait," Mukuro's memory raced back with two specific points of interest. "aren't you from a country that's directly involved in the conflict then? According to rules one and five, doesn't that disqualify you from being a mercenary at all?”

She sighed, shaking her pink locks. “Well, aren't you surprised that for once the US got into a war that Canada didn't follow them into? Canada isn't always involved with the military interests of the states, in case that was news to you.”

“You're also not supposed to leave behind your Sergeant unless-”

“Unless having been ordered to. I know these rules. I don't need to be lectured. Don't waste your breath, you never know when they'll be your last out in battle.”

“So! Mukuro!” Sierra interrupted a little too cheerfully, looping her arm around the girl's shoulder. “I think for today, we’ll do some exercise, then we’ll take you in for artillery, then lunch, then some more exercise, followed by some survival training. How’s that sound?”

“That sounds great, Sierra. Thank you.”

“Charlie, wanna join us?”

He stretched lazily. “Hmm, nah. I wouldn’t want to mess up the girl time you clearly both need-OW FUCK- fine! Sorry! Y’all didn’t need to kick me under the table for that, sheesh, somebody’s sensitive today-DAMN- again? I said that I was sorry the first time!” He withered slightly under the intensity of Sierra’s glare. “Fine, fine, I’m sorry, that was out of line and I’ll be spending my day in the flight sim. Gotta get my lesson plan ready for when I teach Mukuro how to drop bombs that aren't swears. Speaking of flying,” Charlie held his hand out, grinning at Mukuro. “That airplane ride to base camp doesn’t come for free. Pay up.”

“Charlie!” Sierra hissed, casting a dark glare in his direction. “She’s only been with us for a day and you’re trying to swindle her already?”

“Well, I had wanted to look in her bag last night, but I was too busy suffocating in my sleep, thanks to Matt.”

“Always here for you, buddy.” Matt said, punctuating that statement with a loud burp.

“Was that... breakfast burrito?”

Matt just grinned.

“Not again. Matt, why don’t you love me?”

Mukuro was very glad that neither of them had found Opa’s bill, stuffed at the bottom of her backpack beneath all of the clothing.

“Mukuro, whenever you’re ready to go, we can start heading to the outside to work on your form for your plank. You need to be in tiptop shape in another thirteen days, or you’ll get sent back home to parents who will never let your sorry little butt leave the house ever again.”

Mukuro thought of how her parents would react. Her mom would probably just go back to how it was before they had come to Amsterdam. Opa and Oma would forget about her soon enough, like old people were prone to do.

She was really only worried about how safe Junko was, all on her own in a foreign city. Love vacations or hate them, there was always danger.

And the sooner Mukuro got her spot in Fenrir, the sooner she'd be able to return to Junko's side. She gulped down the rest of her juice before standing up, wiping her mouth on her arm before looking at Sierra, fire in her eyes.

“Ok. I'm ready to train. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

“So, why am I not allowed a gun of my own again?” Mukuro asked, as she was quizzed on guns, bullets, and assembly. “I thought that I needed at least one because I'm in Fenrir, and, you know, mercenaries and stuff?”

“You're still on probation as a recruit, and probies don't get weapons.” Sierra replied calmly, polishing her knife. “Don’t worry though, little miss trigger-happy. You’ll get your time, a gun, and some knives later. Alongside a twenty kilo bunch of stuff in a backpack to carry around.” Casually, she flung her arm out, letting her knife hit the bullseye on a target dummy about 10 meters away. “It’ll come once you finish your training and pass what we throw in front of you.”

“But isn’t there a gun component of this test?”

“Oh yeah, definitely.” Sierra rose to retrieve her knife. “We’re going to check it out tomorrow, or something.” With minimal effort, she tugged the blade out. “Duck.” Mukuro did, watching in awe as Sierra threw her arm out again, sinking another bullseye into a dummy on the other side of the room.

Mukuro couldn’t help the comment. “You’re really good with the knives.”

“Thank you.”

“Where did you learn how to throw like that?”

“You can get very bored in high school. Throwing pencils up at the ceiling when you don’t want to listen to your teachers just gets old after a while.” Sierra walked towards her latest target as Mukuro straightened up. “Not to mention, I started running out of pencils for class.” Mukuro watched as the knife slid back out with no grunt of effort. “But you know what never got old?” She threw again, narrowly missing Mukuro’s face in favour of a mounted wall target.

“Throwing knives?”

Sierra flashed a quick smile. “Bingo.”

“How were you in high school?” Mukuro asked.

The older woman cackled. “I was the worst student anyone’s ever seen graduate from Happy Hills. Not that I was dumb, mind you, but because I never got good grades without them being paired with almost expulsions. I’m sure that my principal started buying hair dye just because of me and the amount of stress that I caused them. After a year of community college in legal studies, I decided to transfer to a military college. That didn’t work out either, and now I’m here. Taking care of your legal while also snapping necks. It’s a great life.”

“Do I need to be going through school?”

“Hmm, part of me says yes, but the more responsible side of me says that you knowing basic math and reading should be fine enough. Besides, if you still can’t hold your plank by the end of next week, you’ll be back in school anyway.”

After a quick lunch, Mukuro was handed over to Oscar. He seemed very happy, standing in front of a table with books and boxes on it.

Too happy.

“Welcome to survival training! Usually Juliet’s in charge of this stuff, but she said that she wanted to see how you went with guns, hand to hand, and target practice, and didn’t want to take over two aspects, so I’m here instead.”

“Okay, where do we start?”

“You study, and I stay here doing pushups until you’re done. Then we walk to dinner together. I’m not good at teaching this kind of stuff. I’m bad at teaching, in general. So I’m just going to let you work through the books, ask me if you have questions, and look at your answers when you think you’re finished.”

As she worked through the exercises, the silence, save for Oscar’s occasional grunting, felt painful and awkward.

“So, Oscar, tell me about yourself?”

He grinned. “I’ll tell you if you do me a favour.”

“Okay, what is it?”

“Get on my back. I need extra weight.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. Besides, you’ll have enough time to get the work done before we head to dinner anyway. I’m sure taking a few minutes of your time won’t hurt.”

So, Mukuro gently sat on his back, taking off her shoes and placing her socked feet between Oscar’s massive shoulderblades.

“Is this okay? Am I too heavy for you?”

He gave an experimental pump of his arms, before shaking his head. “Nope. You’re fine. Hang on tight.”

So, Mukuro did, gripping the creases in his shirt as he continued his pushups with renewed vigour. She felt his muscles moving, even through the fabrics.

“Why are you so huge?”

“It’s built up muscle mass." He replied, no sign of any shortage of breath in his voice. "I’ve been fighting ever since I knew how, but only really started it after university.”

“You were in university?”

“Yup. I’m guessing it’s story time for the little monkey?”

“Yes, please, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Nah. Where do you want me to start?”

Mukuro's eyes focused on the swirling black lines on Oscar's shoulders and arms. "Your tattoos? How many do you have?"

"Honestly? I can't give you a straight answer. Most of the tattoos blend into other ones, so it's hard to say for sure exactly how many I have. Even I don't remember."

“Tell me about what you did in university, then.”

“Well, my major is in linguistics. I did take a minor in anthropology though, never quite managed to stay away from it after taking it as an option in first year. But university never comes cheap where I’m from. Because of that, I took to street fighting, letting people make bets on my victories. Worked out in a UFC gym as a personal trainer before deciding to go pro at fighting. I never made it big, unlike you-”

“I never made it big. The big places needed you to be 18 or above.”

“But, you amassed a small following of people who watched you. Nobody but my wife and kids went specifically to watch me fight. Everyone else just wanted to see blood.”

“Your wife sounds like a great person.” Mukuro remembered being warned not to ask Oscar about his wife, but it wasn’t like she knew what else she could ask. Asking him about his wife seemed like a safe conversation starter that she could edge out of if she felt too awkward.

“She is!” He tipped his head back to look at her, still doing his pushups. “Can you believe that I landed such an amazing woman like her? Can you believe that she loves me back? What are the odds? I struck gold! She’s beautiful, capable, and she teaches university level chemistry for PhD candidates! I love her so much! I even have pictures!” Shifting slightly, he started doing pushups with one hand only, the other reaching into his pants pocket and pulling out the little leather bound book that Mukuro knew as the album that he kept his pictures in. She took it and flipped through the pictures.

“Higgs is the black lab you see in the pictures. Jordan’s about your age. That's the boy in the pictures with some teeth missing. Alicia was born three years ago, she's always got her hair up in pigtails in these pictures. They’re my little angels. I’m here to make sure that they can coast through their lives without needing to worry about money. They deserve that much from an absent father.”

“Do you see your wife and kids often?”

“Well, most of the time, we don’t get breaks, but I do try to see them at least two weeks every year.” Mukuro didn’t notice the sad smile on his face. “My wife always knows that it’s me lugging the suitcase, but it took Jordan and Alicia a long time to get used to it. I don’t think he appreciates what I do for him, because everyone else in his neighbourhood has a father to shoot hoops with, while his father shoots people.”

Mukuro nodded, both of them going quiet for a second. “Your wife knows that you’ve killed people before in the line of duty though, doesn’t that change something between you?” Mukuro thought of her mother’s shame at her daughter knowing how to fire a gun, at both of them knowing how to fight and survive in the streets, her happiness when Mukuro and Junko seemed to genuinely enjoy the sights and sounds of Amsterdam.

“When I return home, I swallow every terrible thing that I’ve done out here in the field, I accept it, and I smile when I’m with them. Because my family deserves that much from their husband and father.”

Mukuro nodded. He had a point.

“Tell me more about them?”

She didn’t finish her worksheets before dinner, but it was okay.

It was after dinner, in the barracks, that Charlie piped up from his bunk, not tearing his eyes away from his book.

“Hey, Mukuro. Still waiting on that payment.”

“Charlie, we’ve spoken about this.” Oscar warned.

Mukuro didn't care though. She’d been thinking about this since he’d first mentioned paying for her ride. She was just glad that everybody else was either in the bathroom or in the lounge doing who knew what. She didn’t need a huge audience for this. “You got a knife?”

“Sure I do. I’m a real, certified member of Fenrir.” He flashed his tattoo. “Remember who flew you here? Wasn’t a rookie on their first flight, that’s for sure.”

“Can I borrow it real quick?”


He handed it over, the handle facing her. “Sure.”

Moments later, she handed it back. He placed it into the holster. “Thanks. There’s your knife, and here's your payment.” She chuckled, relishing his strangled squawk of surprise when a large ponytail of hair landed squarely in his lap. He moved it off of his lap gingerly, as if afraid to touch it with his hands, and scuttled to the other side of his bed, as far from the hair as he could get. “Consider me paid up now. But even if paying for the ride here was a scam, I also need a burner cellphone that can connect to the internet. I hope that that covers it. I’ve got nothing else.”

That was a lie, but nobody needed to know about Opa’s euro note still kept in the bottom of her backpack.

Juliet came out of the bathroom then, staring in terror first at Mukuro, then at Oscar, then back at her again. At what Mukuro had done to her hair. “Mukuro, come with me. We’re going to take a walk.”

Once they had left the room, Juliet sighed, pulling her arm around Mukuro’s shoulder. “You really didn't have to do that, you know.” She ran her hand through what remained of Mukuro’s hair. Due to the way she’d chopped off her ponytail, it was short in some parts and still long in others. “I can’t believe that Charlie actually got you. Recruits only need to pay for their flight here and back to wherever we found them if they fail their entrance exam and don't get the tattoo.”

Mukuro blinked. “Oh. Really?”

Juliet flashed her hand. “Yeah.”

“Well, it's ok. It's not like I needed this hair anyway. It was hot and stuffy and got in the way. Hair is just hair. It grows back for me.”

“And you're quite lucky that it grows back. Here.” Juliet found a trash can and pulled out a small pair of cosmetic scissors from her pocket. “Sit down on the floor with your back to the trash. I’m going to cut your hair the right way.”

Mukuro sat down, listening to the quiet snips of Juliet’s scissors. “Why did Charlie look so scared when I threw my ponytail at him?”

“Our lampiño, despite being the trickster that he is, has a very close bond with his cousin. They grew up in the same house. The only thing keeping them from being siblings is their last names. A little while ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. He said that she cried the day she had to go bald for chemotherapy and always talks about how she needs hair donations like yours so that she can wear wigs to feel more like herself.”

“How does a single factor make you feel less like yourself?”

“Honey, you'd be surprised. Sickness and disease are powerful reminders to everyone that death is imminent. Everyone is here fighting for a reason. Charlie's here to pay off his cousin’s chemotherapy, for example.”

Mukuro sat in silence as Juliet finished up her handiwork.

“Well, it's definitely not Hollywood glamour, but I did manage to even out your ends.”

“Thank you. And, I’m sorry that I didn't know.”

“About what?”

“About Charlie.”

“That's fine. The other people in this squad have their own reasons for fighting too. If you get close and comfortable enough, you'll know, but it's not my place to tell you about any of them, Sergeant or not. Come on, we’ve got to send you off to bed. Just because you aren't with your parents anymore doesn't mean that you get to have less than your eight hours of sleep.”

Mukuro nodded and followed Juliet back through the halls.

Charlie flinched slightly when he saw her and Juliet enter. Mukuro pretended not to notice. She also pretended not to notice how her hair was gone from the bed and that Charlie's bag was out from under his bunk. Whatever he would do with her hair, she was okay with it. Maybe his cousin would enjoy the wig that was made from that ponytail. Maybe someone else from around the world would.

“Yo, Mukuro, looking good with that haircut!”

“Thanks, Mickey.”

“Off to bed once you've showered and brushed your teeth, young lady.”

“Yes, Oscar.”

Once Mukuro had stepped out of the bathroom, everyone had again already climbed into bed.

“Goodnight, everyone.”

“Goodnight, Sergeant.”

Mukuro didn't miss out on the reply that night.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Ikusaba!” Mukuro's head turned slightly at the sound of Mickey’s voice at the table the next morning. She saw him sit down out of the corner of her eye.

“What's up, Mickey?” she asked, Japanese rolling smoothly off of her tongue as she glared at her study notes.

“You know you can look at me today, right? I haven’t put my piercings in yet.”

Mukuro made a point of tearing her eyes away from her worksheets to stare at Mickey’s smiling face, but not without scoffing and rolling her eyes.

“Well, if that’s the response that I get for being considerate, I think I should reconsider being such a great person and just blind you every single morning. It’d save me the time, anyway.”

“Sorry, but I’m a bit busy and need to finish these worksheets to return to Oscar to look at.”

“Ah, that’s understandable. I take it that you couldn’t deal with the curiosity and had to ask him about his family?”

“Yup. Plus, the silence was awkward.”

“Good story, very long though. No wonder you never finished your work before dinner last night. It’s okay though, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to work on them today, because you’re basically free from Sierra’s reign of terror after lunch. You’re suppose to exercise with her, then she’ll quiz you on the legal stuff, then it’s lunchtime, then you spend time in the flight sim, and you end your day by hanging out with me!” With a grin, Mickey announced to nobody in particular, “Today will be a good day!”

“How are you so happy in the mornings? You haven’t even had your morning coffee yet.”

“Coffee or not, I really do need to convince myself that each day will be good. Please don’t rain on my parade this early.”

“Sure, I’ll try not to. No promises though.”

Mickey smiled. “That’s all that I ask. Anyway, have you looked in a mirror since last night? Juliet really managed to do a number on you after what you did to your hair! I'd say that it's an improvement!”

“Thanks,” Mukuro said, running her hand through the super short cut. “I think I heard Sierra call it a pixie this morning?”

“Righty-o it is. But, if you really wanted to make it special, why don’t you dye the ends a bit, or do some streaks?” he asked with a grin, pointing to his own head for emphasis.

“What are you two talking about today?” Matt asked, sitting down next to Mukuro.

“I was asking Mukuro if she would be interested in dying her hair. It'd make her a real hit with the ladies and gents, just like it made me.”

“I’m pretty sure you missed, but okay, sure.”

“You wound me. And my pride.”

“I thought you lost that in third grade when you-”

“Nope. We aren’t talking about that.” Mickey’s violet eyes turned steely and cold as he cut Matt off. Even Mukuro felt slightly intimidated.

Matt however, didn’t seem to let the intense glare faze him, instead responding after taking a particularly deep swig of coffee. “Meh. Can’t say I know much better about what people look for in special someones. After all, I’m still single too.”

“You aren’t looking for anyone at the moment though.”

“I’m a simple man, Mickey. I know what I want, and what I need, and I realize that a girlfriend does not fit into either of those categories. Therefore, it can wait.”

“Hey Matt,” Mukuro piped up. “Are you going to be teaching me anything?”

“Yeah, I’m on radio. I’m getting you tomorrow, alongside Kat and Juliet. You’re lucky that Sierra takes her time to make you exercise though. I didn’t get that kind of help.”

“You… transferred into this section?”

Matt hummed, considering his response. “Let’s just say that we had some differences in our viewpoints. And I started a great many fights.”

“You changed sections because you fought people?”

“No, I was allowed a transfer because after starting many arguments, I punched my old sergeant in the gut when he got a little too drunk and tried to organize a raid against the lieutenant. He got demoted, and I got to leave.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

“Mukuro, do you know anything about first aid?”

“Not really. I know how to patch up minor cuts and burns, but nothing much past that.”

“Okay. Just saying, Mickey’s idea of teaching you first aid today is challenging you to a spar, getting you hurt, and having you patch yourself up.”

Mickey’s cup thudded against the table. “Damn it Matt, that was supposed to be a surprise!”

Matt hid his grin behind his mug.

Mukuro finished early and excused herself, going back to the bunkers to finish up her worksheets, but not before meeting Sierra and asking to have her look for her once she had eaten her breakfast.

“Are you sure you want to be alone? We could help you over breakfast?”

“It’s okay, you really don’t need to. I just want to finish these to give them back to Oscar soon. I wouldn’t be able to do much work anyway, with Mickey and Matt at each other’s throats all the time. At least it’s quiet in our room.”

Sierra chuckled. “Fair point,” she agreed. “I’ll come get you once I’ve eaten. We’ll do some training, then I’m handing you off to Mickey and Charlie.”

One hour of notes and worksheets and three hours of exercise out in the sun later, Sierra waved her under the umbrella.

“Your form is looking a lot better now, Mukuro! I’m proud of you! It’s only been three days!”

“Thank you.” Mukuro wiped the sweat from her neck with a towel, taking in deep breaths of dry air. “I think I like this new hair. It’s a lot more convenient and stays out of my face during exercise.”

Sierra smiled. “Good to hear. I think that it looks very good on you. It’s an added bonus that it’s also so functional.”

“The stretching that Matt tells me to do also works, I think.”

“I’d hope so, or else you’d be a spineless mess in the mornings.”

They were silent after that for a while as Mukuro caught her breath. “Do Matt and Mickey hate each other?”

Sierra stared at her for a few beats before bursting into laughter. “Are you kidding?” she managed to force through her chortles. “They’re super close to each other. They even did this like, brotherhood bonding thing with alcohol on the night of Mickey’s tattooing!”

“Why do they always seem so angry at each other then?”

“Angry?” Sierra stopped her giggling to consider. “No, Mukuro. They’re almost never angry with each other. Well, that is to say, they’ve almost never been ‘I’m so mad I’ll throw you across the D-fac’ kind of angry with each other. Thing is, Matt got his transfer on the same day that Mickey first arrived as a hopeful, like you. At first, Mickey thought he had found another hopeful that he could be friends with and train with, and Matt hadn’t argued against it either.”

“Why not?”

“Because Mickey literally asked him if it was his first day in our section, and Matt said yes.” Sierra shook her head at the memory, but a happy smile graced her features. “Stupid asocial little radio tech that he was, Matt didn’t know any better but to agree. Mickey then decided that they were friends and partners in crime. Imagine his surprise when Matt revealed that he was already off probation. Once Matt told Mickey the truth, he started seeing Matt as a rival, always challenging him to something or another to prove his worth. To prove to himself and everyone else that he belonged. Oscar had to mediate many a pushup contest between the two of them, and this once they even asked me to judge their form for their wall sits. I gave the point to Mickey, but to be honest, they both really sucked.”

“And they’re friends now because somebody won?”

“Oh, honey, no. They’re friends now because both of them tied when points were being counted and eventually, Juliet pinched both of their ears until they made up. That was the day before Mickey got his tattoo, if I remember correctly. They did the brotherhood pact thing and all, but that doesn't mean that one of them doesn't try to prove they’re better once in awhile. Siblings fight all the time. They really aren't any different.”

Mukuro looked at her hand, trying to envision a tattoo there. “Does it hurt?”

“What, the tattoo?” Sierra looked down at her own hand, staring at the black against her freckled skin. “I mean, yeah. It’s a needle with pigments going through your skin’s top layers. It’s definitely painful.”

“How bad is it?”

“Not bad enough to make you pass out, but it’s definitely past cat scratches and paper cuts.” Upon seeing Mukuro’s face pale slightly, Sierra flung her arms out, waving them in a slightly panicked motion. “D-d-don’t worry about it though! It’s okay to be sc-scared of needles, ya know? I’m sure that if you really wanted, we could ask Mickey for like, some numbing cream or something for you to put on before you got your tattoo! That thing goes on like lotion and keeps your hand from feeling anything even after you wipe it off! I’m sure it’ll be fine!”

Mukuro nodded. She heard Sierra swallow.

“Ah man, I didn’t really help with anything, did I?” She winced as Mukuro shook her head. “I-it’s okay! I’ll make it up to you! Let’s go for lunch and then I’ll hand you off to Charlie and Mickey! Then you don’t have to think about tattoos or me until we assemble for dinner!”

Charlie wasn’t at lunch. Once the two of them had finished their food with little more than casual conversation, Sierra stood up, stretching her arms above her head while she twisted her neck slowly.

“Ready, Mukuro? We’ve got someone to meet in the flight sim.”

What Mukuro had expected was a model helicopter with buttons and a joystick, not unlike a large version of those child rides in shopping centers.

What she hadn’t expected was Charlie standing and waiting for them outside of a large, off white metal shape that reminded Mukuro of a soccer ball.

“What’s that thing behind Charlie?” Mukuro asked, eyebrow raising.

“Um, ‘that thing’ is actually a super advanced flight simulator that will perform as both a helicopter and an airplane! It also does submarine work, but we won’t be using it for that.” Charlie said, throwing his arms around the strange truncated icosahedron and nuzzling it’s surface with his cheek.

“He calls it Harriet. It’s like his baby.” Sierra clarified, with a roll of her eyes. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. You have three hours with her, Charlie. I’ll make sure Mickey comes here to pick her up. That fine?”

“Sure, sure, Riri.” Charlie waved his hand around unceremoniously, using his other arm to sweep around Mukuro’s shoulder, leading her into the metal structure. “Make sure Mickey comes to get her though, or she may spend the whole day in the sim like I do.”

“Good luck, Mukuro!” Sierra waved enthusiastically before turning around.

“See you at supper, Sierra!”

“I take it you’ve gotten close to her?” Charlie asked as he swept a curtain up, motioning for Mukuro to sit in the seat closest to the steering wheel. She nodded as she sat down and clicked the seatbelt into the buckle.

“I guess you could call it that. Something wrong?” She asked as Charlie continued to stare at the open door to the room without stepping into the pod.

Or maybe he wasn’t just staring at the door.

Come to think of it, Mickey’s words yesterday morning made just a little bit more sense now.

She tried again. “Charlie?”

Nothing.

“Charlie?”

Nope.

Okay, fine.

Mukuro unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned over the seats in the pod, before grabbing around the knee of his pants and giving a firm yank downwards.

The undignified squeak of surprise, followed by both of his hands shooting downwards to tug his pants back up, made her giggle. He ducked down into the simulator, sitting down only after giving Mukuro the look of a sad puppy.

“You’re so heartless and unnecessarily cruel to me.” He pouted, splaying his arms wide in the little compartment. “Me! Of all of the people!”

“At least I didn’t give you a wedgie.”

“Touché.”

They sat silently until Mukuro decided to buckle herself in again.

Charlie scoffed. “You really don’t need the seatbelt while in the sim, trust me.”

“It makes me feel safer.”

“Alright, sure.” Charlie reached forward and pushed a few buttons. The screen in front of them lit up.

“We’re starting you on the introduction to airplanes and how to fly them. All you really need to know for the Fenrir entrance exam is the basic controls. They never ask you to try and fly the simulator. Levels progress automatically from then on, so just wake me up when it’s been three hours, or if you really need my help.”

Mukuro nodded, changing the language settings to read the instructions in Japanese instead of English. Charlie leaned back on his chair and closed his eyes, beginning to breathe deeply.

The simulator had some decent information on it, Mukuro supposed. Too bad it didn’t tell her anything about the big yellow button. Maybe that was for a later level? Mukuro snuck a glance at Charlie. He was sleeping all curled in on himself, and if Mukuro strained her ears, she could hear soft snoring.

Perfect.

She levelled her stare to the button now, raising her hand slowly. Another quick look at Charlie, no response. She brought her arm down, slamming the button and whooping in delight when it shot her up into the air on her seat.

Her passenger was less than amused at the sudden transformation of his Harriet from “the best flight simulator in the world” to “pre-teen induced rollercoaster simulator”.

“Congratulations.” He said dryly as he picked himself up from the floor. “You found the eject button.” He reached behind him, groping blindly for the seatbelt. “I guess I’m going to be needing this after all.”

Mukuro nodded, going back to the screen, which alerted her of what she pushed and why she should have pushed it, as well as providing her with information on how she would survive out in the middle of nowhere if she pushed it.

“I won't be able to get your burner until your two week probationary period is up.” Charlie’s voice cut through her reading. It was quieter, the tone subdued, in a way. “You know, because nobody can leave the base until you either get your tattoo or get on my plane to go home. Is that okay with you?”

Mukuro thought of her panicking parents, of Opa and Oma arguing and pointing fingers, of Junko as she watched the onslaught, probably feeling alone and helpless without her there. But it wasn’t like she could do anything to change that. She was here now. She had to deal.

“That's just fine, thanks Charlie. And, I’m sorry about the ponytail throwing yesterday. I didn’t mean to scare you like I did. I didn’t know.”

“Don’t worry, kid. I never actually meant for you to pay up either. It’s usually just a stupid little joke, but I took it too far with a kid like you. I’m sorry for treating you like an adult when you clearly aren’t one yet, and I’m sorry that because of me, you have short hair now.” He reached over and patted the top of Mukuro’s head. “It’s weird seeing you like this. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to you without your super long ponytail.”

“I’m sure we’ll both get used to it. Besides,” she smiled at him, parroting Juliet’s words from last night, “luck has it that it grows back for me.”

They spent the rest of the three hours in the simulator, Mukuro fooling around with the controls, Charlie stopping her from pushing every single button that appeared in front of her. Mukuro would try to perform a nosedive, Charlie would egg her on, and the both of them would eventually crash into a CGI sand dune, laughing the whole way down.

“Hey Charlie!” Mickey’s voice interrupted their latest bout of fun, ringing through the room and echoing into the simulator, “It’s my turn to train Ikusaba! Your three hours ended ten minutes ago!”

Charlie poked his head out of the simulator. “Sorry Mickey, I guess we just lost track of time. We’ll be out really soon.”

Mukuro was already unbuckling her seatbelt. “Thanks for the lesson.”

“No problem, kid.” Charlie said, also undoing his own seatbelt. “Just one last piece of advice for you, before you go.” He put his hands on Mukuro’s shoulders and took a shaky breath, trying to find the best way to string his words together. “Everybody says that war is hell. They’re definitely not wrong, to be saying something like that, but they always leave something out of that statement.” Another deep breath. “War is hell, but even a place like hell can get comfy once you’ve settled yourself in and gotten used to it. Remember that for me, won’t you?”

Mukuro nodded.

“Oi, Ikusaba is late for her first aid session with me! Move it or lose it, Charlie!”

“I said sorry already, Mickey!” Charlie stuck his boot out of the simulator, using his arms to straighten himself up the rest of the way, Mukuro following suit. “We’re getting out! Be patient, will you?”

“I have been patient for the past ten minutes, thank you very much!” Mickey brightened as Charlie left the simulator, holding up his hands as if he were holding a camera up. “And here, we see the elusive Charlie, ready and raring for yet another nap just moments after it left its natural habitat! It’s simply amazing just how lazy a wild Charlie can get in nature. He’s followed by a Mukuro in this circumstance, having just previously coached the latter in flight simulator basics!”

“Ha ha, very funny. Are you sure you shouldn’t be on Nat Geo? I’m sure your articles would attract at least one reader for each issue that gets published.”

“Nah, why do that when Mukuro’s written more in essays and editorials than the rest of us ever will?”

“I don’t think I-”

“Whatever. We’ll see you at dinner. It’s time for Mukuro and I to spar and for her to learn how to patch herself up.”

Charlie nodded, leaving the room at a leisurely pace. Just before he reached the door, he called back over his shoulder.

“Maybe she’ll be the one patching you up.”

Mukuro levelled a glare at Mickey, fists raised and swaying back and forth slightly on bent knees. Mickey chuckled.

“Relax, I wouldn’t start fighting you without a warning. Good enthusiasm though, you want to be able to keep that up for as long as possible.”

Mukuro straightened up slowly, lowering her fists but still keeping them clenched by her sides.

“Let me just put the first aid kit somewhere safe, and then we can start beating each other to a pulp.” Mukuro watched as Mickey did just that before returning to stand before Mukuro. “We’ll set a few ground rules, before we begin. No weapons, real or improvised. It’ll be just like the training you get tomorrow with Juliet.” He pulled off his holsters as if proving a point. “No face strikes, below the voicebox only or whoever gets hit wins the spar. I need this charming face to keep up with the ladies. No crotch hits either, because I want to have children some day. We’ll spar for four rounds, each one lasting for five minutes or until one of us taps out, followed by a two minute break before we start again. After that, I teach you how to patch people up and you do it to yourself. After all, the best way to learn is through experience, and if I’m not there to tend to your wounds, you need to learn how to fight while injured, and also need to learn how to fix up small injuries without me there. You ready?”

Mukuro nodded, fists coming up again. She could do this. Nothing out of the ordinary, just aim for the toes to slow him down. Like she has a gun in her-

Oh no.

She doesn’t have a gun.

“Something up?” Mickey asked, straightening again. Seeing the look of quiet panic in her eyes, it seemed to register. “Come on, you mean to tell me the infamous Ikusaba Mukuro doesn’t know how to fight with her fists?”

“N-no, of course I do!” Mukuro stammered, snapping out of her trance. “It’s how I got here, after all!” She raised her fists again, although she could feel them shaking. She gulped nervously. “Now are we going to fight, or what?”

Mickey grinned, piercings reflecting the light harshly. “Alright, fistfight training, then medical training. On the count of three, we’ll begin.” He waited for Mukuro to nod before moving back about five steps from his original position, leaving a good three meter gap between the two of them. He took a deep breath and also raised his hands, although he didn’t ball them up into fists.

“One.”

Mukuro shook off her nerves. Gun or no gun, she was Ikusaba Mukuro, and she knew how adults fought.

“Two.”

She just had to fight like the adults she had seen. But they usually went for the necks, which were off limits.

“Three!”

This, Mukuro thought as she began to charge, was why she was never on the technical planning side of capture the flag in gym class. She had no idea what to do without her guns.

Her right arm soared through the air, aiming to deliver a strike to Mickey’s chest to knock him off balance.

“You’re leaving your midsection defenseless with a charge like that.” Mickey said, sending a swift jab to her diaphragm. Mukuro stumbled back, trying desperately to regain her breath as her lungs screamed in pain. She tried again, tucking her left arm closer into her body as a shield as her right tried to strike again.

“You do realize that I have longer limbs than you, and therefore have the advantage whenever you try to get close to me, right?” Mickey asked, stepping out of the way of her charge and sticking his leg out, tripping her. “This is the legendary Ikusaba Mukuro, isn’t it? I had higher expectations for her. I would expect she knew some basic things about fighting.”

“This is how the adults do it!” Mukuro yelled, running his way, ready to launch herself into a kick. Mickey caught her by the shoe as she flew through the air, throwing her back and smiling as she landed gracelessly on her butt and skidded across the floor.

“But, the great Ikusaba Mukuro is forgetting something. She’s not an adult yet! She’s a child, with small, soft bones that break easily! She’s too easy to beat because she keeps trying to fight like an adult would! I’m even pulling my punches and she’s still not as good as the TV shows have made her out to be!”

“You’re trying to get me riled up and it’s not working!” Mukuro called, picking herself up, chest heaving.

Mickey turned his back on Mukuro, a wide, cocky smile on his face. “Are you sure it’s not working? Be careful, amateurs tend to leave their stances wide open for attack.”

Mukuro couldn’t help herself. She charged.

She should have expected Mickey to be prepared. He blocked all of her punches with wide, lazy sweeps of his arms, threw his ankles between her own, forcing her stance to widen and taking that chance to shove her backwards onto the ground. As Mukuro tried to push herself up, he planted his boot firmly on her chest and shoved her back down.

“Do you yield yet?”

A growl escaped Mukuro’s lips. She glared at Mickey as she struggled to get up again. Mickey just pressed his boot down harder, knocking the air from her chest.

“I have you pinned. In a regular fight out in the field you would have been dead a long time ago.”

“Yeah, well it’s not a regular fight because neither of us are armed!” She spat. “Just try and fight me again when I have a Glock and we’ll see who stands victorious in the end!”

“Would guns really have made any difference?”

“Guns are different.” She insisted, remembering all of the different guns she had learned to fight with, how she had won her games using her guns and survival skills, not by actively participating in fistfights. Without her weapons, Mukuro was helpless. She would watch from the shadows as men and women tried to out-tussle each other in the bushes until one of them tapped out or got away.

“Armed fights might be, but you won’t get anywhere until you can go toe to toe with an adult and live to tell the tale in Fenrir.”

Mickey’s phone rang. “I guess it’s been five minutes,” he said, lifting his shoe and heading towards the direction of the alarm. “Mickey, one. Ikusaba, none. I need to pee, but I’ll be back for our next round. Try and catch your breath by then.”

And then, Mukuro was alone.

This fighting was different. It wasn’t like sparring with Junko. Even back then, it was her going through fighting motions, trying to teach her how to defend herself. Junko had hit her for practice’s sake back then, but she had never struck back in retaliation. She’d just compliment the strike and be admired by Junko for “taking it like a true champ!”.

A kiss with a fist was better than none at all, Mukuro guessed.

She had never really gone toe to toe with anyone else, save for that one time she was fighting in the street to get the Fenrir scout to notice her. Then again, it had been her fighting against people with even less skill than she had. They might have been bigger and stronger, but she could find their weak points and exploit them to her advantage until she was left successful.

But Mickey had no weak points. At least, none that she’d been able to pick up on.

She was faster than him, maybe more agile? But that was just about all she had going for her.

“Ready to start again?” Mickey asked, coming back into the room and dropping two water bottles on the table with his first aid kit and phone.

Mukuro got onto her feet and nodded.

“One.”

Speed and agility, speed and agility, speed and agility

“Two.”

Those were on her side, but what could she do with them?

“Three!”

She charged at him, arms far apart from her torso. When she got close enough, she jumped up into the air, flinging her body at Mickey. He shrugged, grabbed her by the waist, and made to throw her back.

But Mukuro was prepared this time. She let out a high pitched shriek and brought her hands down onto both of his ears, hearing a loud smacking noise. She was dropped due to Mickey’s disoriented shock, but before he could grab her again, she bit his forearm. While he screamed and clutched his arm in his other hand, she delivered a quick kick upwards between his legs.

Mickey keeled over, swearing the whole way down.

“Do you yield?”

“Son of a- no,” He wheezed. “No, I don’t yield, I won.”

“Won?”

“No face-shots and no crotch hits. You violated both of those rules.” He hissed as he pulled himself into a sitting position. “We’re going to take a longer break this time. I need it.”

Mukuro sat down, grumbling at the stupid rules. “Why don’t my hits count?”

“Well, we’re typically helmeted in combat so smacking my ears has no real effect, and most people with external organs tend to wear cups or other armour to cover them.”

Mukuro took a few sips of water from the bottle on the table. She tossed the other bottle to Mickey, and smiled when he caught it.

“At least you still have those reflexes in working order.”

“Man, what’ll my girlfriend say the next time she sees me naked?”

She wrinkled her nose. “That’s distasteful to say to a child.”

“Ah, now she admits to being a child. Never once in combat, but once she’s trying to wheedle something out of you, she’ll play the small and innocent card.” Mickey managed a weak grin despite his pain. “But sure, I’ll stop. We can get back to sparring in another, what say, five minutes? You can use that time to plan until I’m able to stand again.”

Sure. Planning, because she was just so good at that.

Five minutes and no plan later, both of them were standing and facing each other again.

“One.”

She was small and fast, what was she missing in her arsenal?

“Two.”

A gun, for starters. What else?

“Three!”

Height.

Instead of charging for her opponent, Mukuro headed in the opposite direction, making Mickey follow her in a convoluted game of cat and mouse. As she sprinted quickly around the room, she scanned every inch of it for places where she could gain a height advantage. Her mind’s eye focused in on a pile of boxes, which were stacked by someone who probably would care if their tower was disturbed.

Oh well.

She ran faster, reaching the boxes and scrambling onto them quickly, turning around when she was at a good enough height to launch herself onto Mickey.

“Nice try,” Mickey complimented her as he caught her by the arms, swinging her around quickly. “But that was never going to work, and your plan was too obvious.” He let go of her arms then, sending her flying backwards. Mukuro winced as she landed on her feet, knees and ankles knocking painfully as she was forced to stick her landing. Her left ankle, in particular, seemed to demand more attention in terms of the pain she felt.

“I could tell what you were planning the second you started heading for the boxes. If you want to win in a fight, you need to surprise me.”

Mukuro started for him again, making her right leg’s strides longer to compensate for her left one. When she got close enough, Mickey delivered a swift blow to her ribs and swept her legs up from the floor again, making sure he hit her left ankle first.

“Never let your enemies know which leg you favour. They’ll just keep striking at it until you fall. We’re done here. Not going to continue on with this round, and we won’t do a round four either. We need to check your ankle and maybe also your rib. That last hit didn’t sound too good to me, or maybe it’s just because it’s been a while since I last sparred with a kid.”

“I’m still good to fight though! Time hasn’t been called yet and neither of us have yielded to the other!”

Mickey took one look at her before heading towards his first aid kit. “Kid, when I say we’re done, we’re done. I don’t want to have you so desperately hurt that Juliet comes after me tomorrow.”

Mukuro fumed silently through Mickey’s first aid lesson for the shortened fight time, but acknowledged the care he took in making sure she was okay after the fight.

“It’s almost like you’re an entirely different person in a fight and in downtime.”

“So? I’m still me.”

“You’re different though.”

“Sometimes it can be hard to reconcile two very different aspects of your personality. I try my best though.”

"Is your arm okay?"

"It'll be fine. How's the rib?"

"Not cracked. Sorry about the kick."

"You tried, can't blame you too much for it."

“Why won’t you let me prove myself?”

“Prove yourself- what are you talking about?” Mickey’s eyebrows shot up. “What do you mean, prove yourself? You already have! You’re here with us, and that has to be worth something!”

“Why did you stop the fighting?”

“Why do you want to fight? Why does that qualify as proving yourself?”

Weeks worth of survival games flashed through Mukuro’s mind. Junko’s proud face when she came back from them. Their happy trip through Tokyo. Junko, happy, because of her.

“Because it’s all that I’m good at, and all that I’m made for. If I can’t prove myself, why am I even here?”

Mickey moved closer to her and heaved a long sigh. “Because you deserve to be here. Isn’t that enough of a reason?”

She sat with her legs tucked closer into her body. It really wasn't, not for her.

Chapter Text

“How are you holding up?” Oscar asked Mukuro as he set down his tray.

Mukuro tried her best to jut her chin out and level a glare at the man, but all she managed was a groan and grimace because the injuries that Mickey had sent her way had hurt , damn it, and it wasn’t just the physical ones, the insults to her pride still stung too.

“Not so hot.”

“I’ll say. You don’t look all that great.” He carved his way through his chicken before continuing. “Was Mickey too harsh on his combat? If you want, you can ask him to tone it down a bit, or if you don’t want to ask him, I could ask him for-”

“It’s not that.” She snapped, watching Oscar’s face fall with barely a hint of regret. “It’s fine. I don’t need to be babied. I don’t want to be babied. I’m not a baby, please don’t treat me like one.”

“Okay, if you’re sure that that’s what you want.”

“It is.”

“Alright then, eat your beef before it gets cold.”

That night, Mukuro stood under the stream of cold water in the shower until her entire body felt numb. It was nice, in a way. Almost comforting. It reminded her of subzero nights spent in alleys, and of survival games that she had always won.

Why hadn’t she won today?

The answer to that seemed easy enough, really. Mickey was larger and stronger. He had the physical advantage. He knew how to fight, leaving him with a tactical advantage too. All Mukuro ever had going for her was her proficiency with guns, and her small size that allowed her to discover hiding spots. That size had only harmed her in the long run, making it easier for Mickey to toss her around like he did. In a large room, weaponless, she was completely out of her element. She had tried to convince herself that it would be the same as fighting with a gun in a televised arena.

She had lied to herself to keep her hopes up.

And that had given her nothing but forming bruises and sore muscles.

That had kept her up for half the night too.

“You’ve got enough baggage under your eyes to last a trip to Siberia and back, monkey.” Oscar tutted the next morning in the d-fac.

“Didn’t sleep well last night?” Juliet asked, casually sliding into an open seat across from Mukuro, who was flanked by Sierra and Charlie on either side.

“No. I kept thinking about stuff and I couldn’t get myself to sleep.”

“Too bad, kid.” Kat said. “You don’t always get beauty rest in the field either. The sooner you figure that out, the better.”

Charlie’s head snapped up, a cheeky grin plastered on his face. “And you’d know all about needing beauty sleep, wouldn’t you?”

He narrowly dodged a cubed potato flung from Kat’s spoon. “Chill, I was just kidding. You’re fine.”

“Good morning!” Mickey sang as he arrived with Matt. He nodded at the assembled group before taking his seat. Matt took the seat next to him, swiping around on his phone before his eyes widened.

“Hey, apparently there was this huge political event in Japan?”

Everyone’s focus was suddenly directed on the gangly radio technician.

“Well, don’t just leave us hanging,” Mickey snapped. “Let’s hear it, prettyboy.”

“It says here that your prime minister announced his resignation from politics today?”

Mickey’s “fuckin’ finally” clashed with Mukuro’s “It’s about time”.

“Yeah. Ok.” Sierra waved at Matt. “Hello? Yes. The rest of the people in this section are going to need a little bit of a political recap? Thanks.”

Mukuro felt eyes on her. “Ishimaru Toranosuke was a genius, but a terrible example of a prime minister.”

“As in, he was really smart, but had a terrible political career.” Mickey chimed in.

“He was super skilled and climbed the ranks to be the Japanese prime minister because of his intellect.”

“Because he never really had to try at anything to succeed, he never tasted failure or knew of frustration.”

“Because of this, he became reckless as a politician, leading to a corruption scandal.”

“He had used government money to pay for a nice apartment, because he was eating with his fingers.”

“He had an extramarital affair and used government money to buy an apartment for the other woman.” Mukuro supplied.

“And it took a real soap-opera court case to get him to admit to it.”

“After that, a lot of other scandals were uncovered, and the last that I knew of the political mess, his public support was literally at 8 percent.”

The group at the table took a moment to process the rallied information. Juliet spoke first. “Wow. So, what did that mean for you, Mukuro? You said he was a terrible example of a prime minister, how?”

“The money that he used to support his lover? Guess where that came from?”

“Taxes?”

“Well, yeah, I guess, but that part of the taxes was supposed to go towards social security and public education.”

Mickey’s face fell. “Really? That bastard. I didn’t even know about that!”

“But why would he cut the education program?” Matt asked. “He himself graduated from the best high school in Japan. Some-” he squinted at his phone, “Kee-boo-ga-my-nee?”

“Kibougamine Gakuen.” Mickey and Mukuro chorused.

“Hope’s Peak Academy. The best school in Japan, where they foster pure talent and bring it to its full potential.”

“The school full of pompous buttheads who were raised to believe that they were better than ordinary folk.” Mickey added.

Oscar plucked the phone from Matt’s hands. “It says in the article that this Ishimaru bloke has a grandson. I think he’d be around your age, Mukuro?”

“Maybe.”

“Think you’d ever get to know him in the future?”

“I wouldn’t want to get to know him. With such a horrible family history, they’ll want to disappear off the grid as soon as they can. Anyone who has close ties to them will inevitably get dragged into the scandal, even if it’s ages old.”

“I’m sure people change given time-”

“You can’t change some things about life, even if the misfortunes in it were caused by somebody else.” Mukuro snapped. “That scandal will haunt the Ishimaru family for the rest of their lives.” She stood up to leave. “Juliet, are we meeting in the gym later today?”

“Yes.”

“Is the door locked?”

“Take my key, just in case. Are you okay going there first? I’m afraid I haven’t finished my breakfast yet.”

“Take your time, I’ll just be in there working out.”

“Want me to come with?” Sierra offered.

“No thanks, I’ll be fine. I’ll see you after lunch, Matt, and I’ll see the rest of you around.” Casting a final look at the table, Mukuro turned on her heel and headed to the gym. Today was all about physical combat. She had to get better. If she failed, she wouldn’t be allowed to stay. If she was sent back, she could only imagine what Junko would do to her.

Juliet and Kat arrived in the gym exactly thirty two minutes after she had left the d-fac. Not that Mukuro had been impatiently keeping track, of course.

“We’re here now. I’ll teach my segment on guns and target practice once Kat finishes her sparring lesson.”

Kat tipped her chin towards the center of the room. “Take as many crash mats as you can carry and put them there, in the middle.”

Mukuro obeyed. As she moved the mats and stuck the velcro into place, the scraping was the only noise coming from the room, and it echoed. “How is the weather in Canada?”

“Depends on what region of Canada you’re talking about.”

“How is it where you come from?”

“Cold and dry.”

“You like dogs. Did you leave any pets behind?”

“No more questions. One more mat, right there.”

Mukuro moved to fill the gap in mats as Kat went to retrieve a fighting dummy. Kat stepped on to a crash mat and motioned for Mukuro to sit on another, two mats away from her. Kat began to pace the perimeter of the mats.

“Hand to hand combat is one of the most useful skills that a soldier can learn. If left unarmed and otherwise defenseless, the soldier will increase their chances of survival if they remember their training when caught in a hand to hand scuffle. The point of sparring is when both you and the adversary are weaponless, or do not have nice, fast ones at your disposal. This is the practice round. Out in the field, it’s bloody, real, and visceral. Follow your instincts, and follow my lead.” She was standing before Mukuro now, looking down at her. “I will not stand for any sort of insubordination, whatsoever. Are we clear?”

Mukuro nodded. “Like glass.”

“Good.” Kat moved the dummy onto the mat. “Let’s just say that this is an enemy. Tell me, where are the most vulnerable places that you can hit them?”

“The eyes, nose, ears, neck, knees, the legs, and in between them.”

“And to hit them, you use?”

“Elbows, knees, hands, and head.”

Kat nodded. “You learned something from Mickey.”

“Mickey learned to wear a cup whenever he wants to fight me.” Mukuro said, in a sad attempt at a joke. Juliet clapped from the sidelines in approval.

Kat didn’t.

“Yeah, protective gear is what everyone will be wearing, so that cuts out the good places to hit them. If anything, the knees and legs are the only almost unguarded areas left. This means that wrestling is more common that not. If you can pin someone for long enough to get their helmet off, you can do some really bad damage. If you can pin them and pull a knife on them, it’s even better. Even then, it’s important to pay attention to what they’re doing, and work quick. You never know when backup is coming, and whether or not it’s your backup, so you need to be on your toes at all given times. Understood?”

Mukuro nodded.

“Questions?”

Head shaking.

“Alright, show this test dummy what you’ve got.”

The next hour and a half passed in a similar fashion, with Kat lecturing, then letting Mukuro try her hand at striking the dummy down. If there was a particular aspect Mukuro did not get, Kat would step in and demonstrate the move herself, slowly.

“Alright, now we’re going to spar.” Kat’s voice shook Mukuro.

“Sparring? Like what I did yesterday with Mickey? Same rules?” She tried to look as tough as she could, but with the bruises hidden under her clothes, she felt far smaller.

“Not quite. Your job is to pin me for a three-count.”

“Really?”

“Use as much time as you need. Pin me for a three-count. This is the real fighting that you need to learn to win. If you can get me down, it means you could kill me if you have a knife.” Kat pulled her own out of its hold with a flourish, waving it in front of her face with a smile. “And Fenrir’s wolves always have knives.”

“Understood, but,” Mukuro wrung her hands under Kat’s scrutiny. “I couldn't even beat Mickey once yesterday. What makes you think that I can pin you today?”

Kat stared at her blankly. “New day, new rules. New fighter. Just because you couldn't do it yesterday doesn't mean you can't keep trying. Now come on,” she challenged, raising her fists. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Sparring against Kat was like trying to catch your own shadow. She reflected what you were doing, yet remained elusive. Impossible to get a firm grip, untouchable unless you surprised even yourself. Mukuro was just too slow and too short for an excellent combatant like Kat. She’d beat Mickey in a fight with her hands tied, Mukuro decided.

She did not end up pinning Kat down at all, but somehow, it still felt like everything would be okay.

“Where did you learn how to fight like that?”

“I have two brothers.”

“Oh, really? That’s cool, did-”

“Somebody had to protect them. You did okay for a newbie, but keep at it. You’ll get worse before you get better.”

“Mukuro! Time for guns!”

The gun portion, Mukuro decided, was definitely much easier than the physical training.

Juliet just watched in silence as she tore the weapons apart, explained the functions of each part, and pieced them together again, loading them as she went.

“Good job, Mukuro. Try shooting that,” She motioned to a target dummy across the room, “into that.”

She made the shot.

Juliet smiled.

“Excellent. Now that one, over there. Take a running shot this time, please.”

Bullseye.

No matter the target, no matter the type of shot, Mukuro hit the target each and every time.

“Close your eyes, please, Mukuro. And hold your hands out.” Juliet requested after Mukuro had reduced many targets to bullet-ridden stumps. Moments after, something cold and light was pressed into her hands.

“Open them now, please.”

She did, and was met with the sight of a black spray painted NERF gun.

“I don’t understand. Was this supposed to be a joke?”

“No, honey.” Juliet pulled a helmet over her head and tugged a belt into place. Kat tossed both into Mukuro’s arms.

“We’re going to have a little gun fight of our own.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me. You have two belts of ammunition in that belt, and your gun is full too. Each of those foam bullets have been dipped in wet paint, so they’ll leave a mark if they touch any part of you. Your colour is green, and mine is purple. Whoever has the most marks on themselves after all ammunition has been used up loses. Are you ready?”

Mukuro strapped her gear on quickly. “Y-yeah, I guess?”

“Three,”

This wasn’t going to be a repeat of yesterday.

“Two,”

Mukuro was different now, she had to be better than yesterday.

“One!”

And she was armed.

Dodging Juliet’s initial hail of foam, she rolled on the ground, considering the best way she was going to win. Staying far from her and sniping from a distance meant a longer reaction time, and she lost her invisible advantage with no place to hide. If she charged and got too close, Juliet could overpower her and strip her of her gun.

Then again, this was just like the target practice that Mukuro had been through before.

A flash of purple on her forearm shocked her out of her thoughts.

“Think sharp and think fast!” Juliet called, before running straight for her, reloading her gun along the way.

Mukuro pulled the trigger as she ran, hoping beyond hope that Juliet was getting more paint on her than she was. She was quick to reload and continue, letting Juliet chase her, instead of the other way around. It felt better this way. Between the trigger and her opponent, Mukuro didn’t need to hear herself think. She just shot.

Juliet was good, quick to react. Mukuro was a good shot.

In the end, they declared a tie, but it still felt ok that Juliet was treating her like this, even if her shirt had a few more paint splotches on it.

“Time for lunch?”

“Yes please.”

Sierra wasn’t around to pile food onto Mukuro’s plate this time, so she did it herself.

“That’s all you’re eating?”

She stared at her bowl of soup and plain toast. “Is it a problem?”

“Why is there so little food on your plate?”

“I’m small. Don’t need to eat that much.”

“I’ve seen you eat, kid. You usually have way more than just that.”

Juliet smiled at Kat. “Sierra usually stocks her breakfast plate, and dinner in single portions is huge anyway.”

“Grab an apple, Mukuro.”

She took one from the fruit basket and returned to the two older women deep in conversation at the table.

“What are you two talking about?”

“Nothing!” Juliet said with a bit too much exuberance. “Just the political event in Japan!”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s important to keep up to date on these things, isn’t it? Besides,” she nodded in Mukuro’s direction, “you told us before that Ishimaru took money from funds meant for social security and public education, right? And then you mentioned that hope school.”

“Hope’s Peak, I believe is the best working translation. That, or Hope’s Pinnacle.”

“Hope’s Peak sounds better. What is it about that school that makes it so special?”

Mukuro shut her eyes, trying her best to recall the information she had heard before. “As far as I know, it takes high schoolers with amazing abilities or cultivated skills and makes them even better. Like if you were a really good teenage soccer player, they would offer to take you in and give you a more relaxed high school environment that focuses on letting you improve at what you do. You’d graduate as, without a doubt, the best soccer player in the world, and everyone would want you to sign on as one of their players. Amazing artists sometimes get entire art galleries in their honour. The alumni from that school typically do great things in their futures. But ex-president Ishimaru was a graduate from that school, and like Mickey said, people who graduate from “the best high school in the world, reserved only for the elite”, tend to get arrogant.”

“Does that school get public funding?”

Mukuro sipped her soup. “Would the ex-president consider taking money from public education if it did?”

Juliet’s head rested on her hand, elbow perched on the table. “Would you like to go there someday?”

Mukuro thought about it. “No. You need to be the absolute best at something to stay there. It restricts you to that one talent. The soccer player can never try their hand at the cello, and the artist will never touch a basketball in their three years there for any purpose aside from a fun shootout between friends.”

Kat looked oddly sympathetic. “You’d suffocate.”

“Maybe. I just want to pull my sister out of our troubles and do my best to live a normal life from then on. Is it really bad, to be normal?”

Juliet considered the idea. “I guess not.” She concluded with a shrug. “Your lifestyle is less dangerous, and domesticity is appealing to some.”

“Some, but not all.” Kat stated, grabbing her knife and brandishing it in the air like a sword. “Give me adventure, or grant me death! I’d never wish for my life to be boring when I can make it so much more than average.”

Mukuro spotted Oscar heading towards their table, approaching from behind Juliet with his finger on his lips. “You’re swinging that knife like a pirate’s cutlass! I really like pirates and their adventures!” she announced, trying her best to keep Juliet distracted.

Juliet nodded absently, a smile on her face. Mukuro saw Oscar sneak closer and closer. Just before he was about to pounce, Juliet turned around and waved happily at him. “Hello, Oscar! Why don’t you come and join us, instead of trying to scare me?”

Mukuro would describe a sad Oscar like a deflating balloon. His entire body sagged when he slumped in defeat, and while it looked hilarious, she understood his frustration. He had been so close to scaring Juliet, after all.

“I’m going to help you train a little before Matt teaches you about his tech ops, monkey. Sierra’s a little tied up at the moment and couldn't make it.”

Mukuro gulped down the last spoonfuls of her soup, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “I’m all good, Oscar!”

“Okay, we’ll head out in a bit. What were you talking about before I got caught? Did I hear pirates?”

Juliet smirked. “I knew by the way Mukuro had tried to draw attention to herself that something was up before I even knew it was you trying to scare me.” she wagged her finger. “You, chiquita, are a terrible liar. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Um, I’ve never really had to lie before.”

“No way.” Oscar’s eyebrows shot up.

“What? I’m pretty honest about things. I’m terrible with reading situations and stuff anyways. Lying usually just makes the situation worse, so I try not to do it unless it’s a really big issue that threatens me or my sister.”

“It’s literally impossible to not lie and still gain yourself perks.” Kat said, crossing her arms with a smirk. “Come on, you’ve never had to tell your mom that you didn’t sneak cookies from the box? That you didn’t break the expensive family heirloom? Or snap her high heels when you were playing dressup?”

Mukuro looked down at her lap. “I’ve never had those problems before. I last ate boxed cookies in Amsterdam at Opa and Oma’s, and before that, the last time was probably… kindergarten? Early elementary? It was before we went on the street, that’s for sure. We never kept family heirlooms in that house, and my mom is pretty tall, and high heels are expensive, so she never owned more than a single pair in Japan.”

She looked up to find three very shocked faces.

“What?”

“Mukuro,” Juliet spoke up first. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t know.”

“Uh, okay?”

“No. It’s really not okay.” Kat snapped. “Who the fuck parents their kids in that way? Going on the streets? Did your parents not have jobs or something?”

“No, no, it’s not that! It’s just, very hard to explain.”

Oscar set his hand gently on her shoulder. “Would you mind explaining now? You’ve learned so much about us, and we care about you. We’d like to know about you too. Specifically, why you spent years without cookies.”

“Well, my parents got a divorce way back in elementary school, and after my father left, he never paid alimony, so my mom ended up going bankrupt because her job wasn’t enough for us to keep our house or anything. We needed school supplies, but she didn’t have the money, which was what got me into survival games and article writing to begin with. She doesn’t like to talk about it much because it hurts being reminded that she can’t support the both of us, but my grandparents were the ones that gave her the money for the flight to the Netherlands. Oh, also she drank alcohol. A lot of it. Really often.”

The table fell silent again as the adults processed the information.

“You’re not pulling our legs on any aspect of this at all?” Kat asked.

“No? Did I say something wrong?”

“No, you didn’t. It’s just,” Juliet shook her head. “That backstory is more chilling than some urban legends I’ve heard.”

“Hey Oscar?”

“Yes, Mukuro?”

“How did you know you loved your wife?”

Oscar’s face flushed slightly at the innocent question. Mukuro saw him glance between Juliet and Kat, both women shrugging him off and waiting for him to answer.

“Well, um, let me just think about that.”

“Nice job, Mukuro,” Kat said, reaching across the table for a high five. “You’ve managed to break Oscar.”

“He’s not broken, he’s just taking his time to find the perfect poetry to recite about love.” Juliet joked, dragging out the syllables and wiggling her eyebrows.

“For me, it was a lot like being thrown into a ring!”

“What?” Mukuro looked at him, confused.

“Oh, weren’t you the one that offered the ring to her?” Kat said, feigning surprise to mask her amusement.

“No, I mean like a fighting ring!”

“You wanted to fight your wife?”

“No, Mukuro, that’s not it. It’s kind of like-” Oscar’s hands flapped everywhere as he tried to find words to describe it. “Imagine you’re in a boxing ring, and you’re told to fight people. You with me so far?”

Mukuro nodded.

“I can’t wait to see where this comparison is headed,” Juliet smirked.

“Can it, Sergeant. Anyway, so you’re in the ring, and you’re fighting against some mysterious guy, who’s managed to beat everybody else and is undefeated. Yeah?”

“Okay?”

“So he comes, and you’re trying some practice blows, fakeouts, nothing is working. This guy, whom you have never seen before, is here, predicting your every move, and you can’t do anything against it.”

“Somebody’s grasping for straws,” Kat sang.

“Just don’t let his wife know of this comparison and it’ll be fine.” Juliet stage-whispered back.

“So then this guy, he suddenly swoops past all of your defenses, real quick.” Oscar snapped his fingers in an attempt to prove his point. “That fast. And right when he’s the closest to you, he whispers a name. Or multiple names, who am I to judge. Anyway, he whispers that name, and then he clocks you in the nose.”

Mukuro squinted. “Love is like… getting punched in the nose?”

“Yes! Exactly!” Oscar exclaimed, ignoring the women who were gasping for air from their laughter, pounding fists against the table.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“Alright then, monkey, what’s love for you?”

Mukuro barely hesitated. “Love is what makes you smile after a long day, even when you’re super tired. It’s just there.”

“Just there?” Kat asked. “What do you mean, just there? Can you see it? Touch it? Feel it?”

“You can see it when she's proud of- nevermind.” Mukuro’s felt her face turning red, thought of Junko’s bright blue eyes closing when she laughed. She was not going to say anything embarrassing regarding her experiences. She didn’t need any more humiliation.

“What were you going to say? You can go ahead, it’s just us.” Juliet offered.

Mukuro sighed. She could stretch the truth around this. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t be forced to reveal any information anyway. If she made it about them, they would leave her alone. “You can taste it when Sierra makes sure I’m eating a good meal. You can feel it when Oscar talks about his wife, but not about fighting somebody who whispers his wife’s name before he gets punched in the nose. You can hear it when Mickey talks to me in Japanese. You can see it when Charlie’s eyes get all shiny when he’s happy. You feel it when Kat is impressed by your fighting. You can smell it when Matt farts but nobody stops him from eating his beans because Matt isn’t himself without his farts. You feel it when Juliet announces a tie even though she’s way more skilled than you are in a fight. So yeah, it’s just there.”

Oscar’s eyes got very watery very quickly. “If my wife says yes, we’re becoming your legal godparents, and we’re taking your twin too.”

“Godparents? We’re not religious.”

“Nevermind. Guideparents, then? Oddparents? I’m not sure how that would work either.”

“Weren’t we supposed to be doing physical training?”

“Right.” He sniffled. “We’ll go do that now. Forget the naming conventions.”

Instead of standing under a sun shade and yelling at Mukuro, Oscar got right on the ground and started exercising next to her.

“It makes it a bit easier this way. I know Sierra likes to be lazy in front of you, but if I’m next to you, I think it’s better motivation for the both of us. What do you say, monkey?”

“Bring it on.”

Mukuro was still weak in the arms and sore everywhere else, but Oscar being right there next to her, telling jokes and talking about his family made everything just a bit more bearable.

“So, anyways, Higgs, the dog, absolutely loves playing in the backyard. He claimed the inflatable kiddie pool as his own, but once he left his toys in the pool and the water froze overnight, so the next morning, he couldn’t reach his toys and was just pawing at the ice! My wife took a video to show to her students to relax them before they wrote an exam that day, and I’m sure that helped, even if just a bit!”

“I’ve never had much contact with dogs before.” Mukuro said, sipping water from her bottle. “Are they nice?”

“Depends on the breed, but Higgs is just about the sweetest little doggy you’ll ever see. We adopted him from a shelter, and he was just a skinny little dog, missing a leg and most of his tail. He was kind of hostile towards us at first, like the shelter workers had predicted, but he warmed up real quick once he realized we weren’t going to hurt him. He’s practically the unofficial guardian of the kids, now! He’s super energetic, and our family wouldn’t be complete without them!”

They drilled for another half hour before Oscar called it quits.

“I’ve got to get you to Matt. He won’t leave his tangled nest of wires unless he absolutely has to, being the mad little genius that he is.”

Oscar marched Mukuro through a series of hallways and up multiple flights of stairs. Mukuro’s calves burnt with each step up.

“See, this is how tech-ops like Matt manage to stay in shape.” Oscar whispered with a wink. “They climb so many stairs, it’s practically equivalent to running laps around the whole facility.”

The pair stopped in front of a door, a paper sign taped to it at Oscar’s eye level.

“This is the place. We’ll knock, and if he doesn’t open the door in ten seconds, we get to kick it open and wake him up so intensely that he screams. Ready?”

Mukuro nodded. Just as Oscar’s fist was about to strike the door, it swung open, and standing in the doorframe was none other than Matt.

“Nice try. But I never sleep on time, or in my office. Better luck next time, Oscar. I recommend you make Charlie your next target. Come on in Mukuro. I’ll teach you some basics, then we’ll walk to supper and try and get you into the shower before the rest of us so that you don’t suffer with cold water.”

Matt turned on the lights as Mukuro entered. “I usually keep them off, but you need to be careful not to trip over any of the wires.”

“Matt, the floor is literally covered with wires. You’re asking an impossible task from me.”

Matt hummed in thought. “I should probably organize the mess one day, but today’s not that day!” He squatted and patted his back. “Get on, and I’ll carry you to your learning station.”

Matt dropped her onto a chair in one of the corners where wires were sparse. He deftly skipped to the other side of the room.

“What are you going to teach me from all the way over there?” Mukuro asked. The hum of different radio frequencies made it hard to hear his response.

He pulled out a lever, connected it to a light, and set up some paper and a pencil. “Morse code. You have this stuff on your desk too, as well as an alphabet. We’re going to send messages to each other back and forth until you get good and fast at it.”

Mukuro found the equipment and turned back to Matt, who was already making a point of not making eye contact with her. “Seriously?”

“If your light is blinking, I’d suggest you pay attention.”

Mukuro glared at the red light with a vengeance. Thankfully, Matt kept his short signals short, paused between letters, and his long signals kept the light on for a solid five seconds. Mukuro watched.

Short-short-short-short, short-short.

Hi .

“All you have to say is hi?”

“Hey, don’t talk to me, we could be halfway across the world from each other. Say it through blinking. Like fireflies do.”

Mukuro’s own message didn’t take much thought.

Short-short-long, long-long-short, short-short-short-short.

Ugh .

Short-long-long, short-short-short-short, long-short-long-long, short-short-long-long-short-short

Why ?

Short-short, long. Short-short, short-short-short. Long-short-short, short-short-long, long-long, long-short-short-short

It is dumb.

She heard Charlie snort before sending his reply.

Oh. Is it?

Yes.

I like it. Am I dumb for liking it?

Yes.

Do you know the morse code for yes by memory yet?

Probably.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

What?

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Is that supposed to mean something?

Isn’t it?

I don’t know.

It’s something students are forced to type out when they first learn how to use computers. It’s supposed to show them the proper way to put your fingers on a keyboard and touch-type.

Well, that’s dumb. Why spend time teaching kids how to type a useless sentence?

So that years down the road, one tech-ops recruit can confuse a newcomer.

Matt.

Mukuro.

That wasn’t what I meant.

Heehee

If you plan to send laughs over Morse code, why didn’t you just laugh in real life?

Matt made sure to “hahahaha” in a monotone before turning back to his machine.

If we’re halfway across the world, can you hear me?

No.

Exactly. You’re welcome for trying my best to make this realistic.

Your lights are speeding up.

You mean my signals?

Yes.

Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you want me to go slower?

Can you please?

No problem.

Do signals normally go as fast as you were sending them?

Usually, they go slightly faster than that. My goal was originally to catch you up to the standard speed, and we do still have lots of time, but if we don’t make it there, I’d be happy to show you other things if you get too bored.

Thanks.

No problem.

Ready for me to go a little bit faster?

Ok.

If I go faster though, you need to also get faster when you’re sending your messages. If there’s an emergency, you can’t take someone’s panicked distress signal and leave them hanging while you look at your sheet for reference.

I will try.

Good enough for me. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Did you get that?

Most of it. I filled in the blanks myself once I knew what you were talking about.

Smart girl, but if you can, try not to fill in the blanks as you go. If you guessed wrong, then there would be a real emergency.

Why are you teaching me Morse code, anyway? I thought it was dead?

Mukuro heard Matt gasp dramatically before he sent his reply, the blinking of the light more agitated, somehow.

How dare you say that Morse code is dead? To my own face?

I thought we were pretending like you were halfway across the world. I’m not talking to your face.

Morse code is still used by the navy and aviation.

But you don’t need to learn it anymore to get your radio license.

You wound me.

I make a solid point.

Sadly, I guess you do.

Matt?

Yes?

I’m ready to go a little bit faster. Can we?

Of course we can. Thanks for telling me. Is this speed okay?

It’s fine, thank you.

No problem.

Matt?

What is it, Mukuro?

What’s love?

Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.

What.

Do you honestly not know.

Know what?

It’s from a song from 1993.

Why are you telling me about a song through Morse code? And it’s from 1993?

Because we’re halfway across the world from each other and you’re going to hear that song today or so help me. I have it on my phone. Give me a second.

Moments later, a musical beat started from Matt’s phone. “I would dance along,” he offered, “but I wouldn’t want to mess up the wires. Also, i’m nothing as a dancer without Mickey leading me through the moves. You’d think he was an idol or something in a past life, his choreography is just that good.”

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“About what love is?” Matt grabbed his phone again. “I have another great song that you need to hear then.” He dragged his finger across the screen. “Let me just find the most important part of the song. Here we are.”

I WANNA KNOW WHAT LOVE IS, I WANT YOU TO SHOW ME!

“This gem is from nineteen-eighty-four.”

“I don’t want songs, I want you to answer me with your own words.”

“Get back to your Morse station, then. I’ll only type it out once though, so pay attention.”

Mukuro placed the chart closer to the light, and brought her pencil and paper next to them both.

I’m ready.

Matt typed fast, leaving Mukuro with a few gaps in her transcription that she didn’t bother filling in.

Love is duality. It can be selfless. About giving what you have in the hope of something you love impro_ing. It could also be the most selfish thing ever, with you wanting to keep something all to yourself, or amon_ people you are close to, about finding a moment and wanting to stay in it forever, throwing all caution away. It’s mature when you understand the situations where it c_me from, but chi_d_sh if you remember the painf_lly vulnerabl_ and human side of it. Love is all about you and how you feel, but also about the other people involved and your attitud_ towards them. Love is a willingness to learn. It can be a very good source of motivation. Steadfast or _emporary, casual or high stakes, but it will always be different _or everybody. That is what I think love is.

Cool. I got most of the message.

Good enough for me. Nice job. I’m proud of you. Ready to move on and learn other things?

Yes please.

Countries away, Junko was typing out her eighth and a half message to Mukuro’s school email account. By now, the Japanese school board had heard of her disappearance, but they had promised not to terminate and delete Mukuro’s files and accounts until they knew exactly where she was, and if she was going to be coming back to school.

Of course, she wasn’t going to just hand that information out. She was going to wait until Mukuro read her messages, created a new email, and disappeared off the face of the Earth. Or until she came back to Junko with her tail between her legs. Yes. That sounded like a solid plan.

“Did you hear about the political resignation? Mom was really happy, and even though Opa and Oma had no idea what was happening, she explained the situation to them until they started celebrating too. I snuck a sip of the beer that Opa and Oma drink, by the way. The good stuff. It’s terrible and bitter. Never again. I wonder how they can even stand drinking it to begin with. Oma made really good breakfast toast yesterday, it's a shame you missed it because you’re halfway across the globe.”

Finishing that with an, “I miss you! Make me proud, Muku-chan!” and sending it off, Junko turned her attention back to the article about politics. Minutes later, she was doing her own digging into the flighty, mysterious Kibougamine Academy.

“An academy of hope…” she muttered, fingers flying over the keyboard. “Interesting indeed.”

Chapter Text

“Time flew by faster than Mukuro had anticipated. Two weeks had come and gone, flying by so swiftly the memories of the time spent in the section had merged into a continuous stream. Hours became days, which then melted into weeks. Before she knew it, test day was upon her.”

“Charlie, please stop trying to narrate my every move. Who are you even talking to when you talk like that? Also, test day is tomorrow.”

“Shut up and let me have my fun, moomoo.”

“You’re never going to stop with that nickname, are you?”

“Nope.”

“He’s never going to stop with any nickname, Mukuro.” Sierra chuckled, shaking her head at his antics.

Charlie was right, Mukuro had to admit. It wasn’t as poetic as he had tried to say, but there was always a certain theatrical part of him that she hadn’t quite gotten used to yet. That involved his usage of nicknames.

“Well then, can you at least please, please, stop calling me moomoo? It sounds like you’re calling a cow.”

“Hmm, I don’t think you herd right. I’m very amoosed with my ability to give you such a great nickname.”

“Can you stop with the shitty puns, Charlie?” Kat huffed, bright pink bangs flying from her face. “One way or another, the day after tomorrow is the day we can finally get back to our regular way of life.” She stretched. “And I, for one, can’t wait.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll pass tomorrow with flying colours.” Sierra reassured.

“Does this mean tonight’s campfire night?”

“No, partyboy. Campfire night is after Mukuro gets her tattoo.”

“It’s not even an ‘if’ for our little monkey.” Oscar patted the top of her head, doing his best to ruffle up the hair left behind from the pixie cut.

Mukuro nodded, forcing a weak smile at their support. She knew her stuff, thankfully, everyone had left her well prepared.

“Even if I don’t make it, I want to thank you all for helping me.”

The room echoed with "aw shucks"s and "we're here for you"s.

“By the way,” Matt piped up, looking around the bunks, “has anyone seen Juliet or Mick?”

“I think she was asking him about a tattoo aftercare crash course,” Kat supplied, “but I haven't seen either of them since dinner. Why? You jealous?”

“Hardy har har. You wish. I just want to know what our first day back will look like.”

“Probably something basic, to ease moomoo into the routine.”

“Maybe.”

"Tattoo aftercare, you said?" Charlie's voice dropped slightly deeper than usual. "I guess another name for it would be," he paused, huge grin on his face, "taftercare?"

More groans came from the remaining cadets in the room.

"You know what? I think I'm going to get an early night before I lose any more brain cells to these stupid puns." Kat bent down and started to untie her boots.

"Do you think the reason that having no moon is called the new moon is because in the olden days, astronomers would look up into the sky and they'd see nuuuu moon?"

Mukuro heard Kat take a long breath in and a deeper sigh out. "Goodnight Charlie, Mukuro, if I don't see you before lunch tomorrow, good luck."

Juliet woke her up at dawn the next day. "Get up," she whispered, mindful of the other cadets still sleeping. "you need to head to the first part of the tests, and I need to escort you."

Walking down the hallways towards the gyms, Juliet had started quizzing her on the rules, starting some and waiting for Mukuro to finish them, or just listing out a sequence of numbers and waiting for Mukuro to recite all of the rules that corresponded to those numbers.

"Well," She stopped before the double doors, "you ready, Mukuro? I'm gonna take you in there, and then I'm going to stand by the sidelines like I'm supposed to, and watch over you the whole time. I'll be right there, and once the morning's tests are done, I'll take you to lunch with everyone else. Take a deep breath, and nod when you're ready. We'll walk through these doors together, and we'll come out together, victorious. Got it?"

Mukuro did as she was told. She was ready.

She nodded.

The morning was just physical examinations, guns, and the written segment. Despite her age, the higher ups spared her no pity, once they knew she was the one who had written those articles that had sometimes included very very detailed information about certain background processes.

Regardless, she had worked hard in the past two weeks, and she made sure to show them who was boss.

Juliet walked her to the d-fac with a wide smile.

"I'm guessing the morning went well?"

"Great, Kat."

"Good to hear. What's left?"

"The flight sim, communications, and sparring."

"Cool. We're allowed to watch for the rest of the afternoon, right?"

"Not for the flight sim and communications, Mukuro has to be pretty much alone for those, but yes, you can tag along for everything else."

"Sweet."

Charlie leaned over from his seat in front of Mukuro to whisper. “You know, you only need to pass the flight simulator to get in. Don't be nervous that all I've taught you regarding the flight sim is barrel rolls and nosedives aside from takeoffs, navigations, and landings.” Gripping her shoulder tightly, he continued. "If you can, don't do too well in them. Just good enough to pass is fine. Promise me that you won't do any barrel rolls or nosedives, and if the supervisor asks you to impress them, try a nosedive and just crash the plane. Or better yet, push that big yellow button right before you crash. They almost never buckle up the seatbelt, but expect you to."

"Are you sure?"

He nodded. "Positive. Do it. Trust me on this."

So, Mukuro did. Rule number six, the best soldiers follow orders given to them by their superiors.

The superior marking her was not so amused. Charlie, taking in his dishevelled appearance as he left Harriet, was. He offered a high five behind his back as she followed him to comms.

Matt was waiting for her outside the door of the comms room. He waved in greeting as she approached, and as she drew nearer, he put his right fingertips against his chin. Smiling, he curled them, still close to his face, spelling out well wishes, then the letters to her name.

Good luck, Mukuro.

Thank you, Matt, she signed back.

Translations of morse code and decoding of ciphers only took her an hour, and from there, Juliet took her to the sparring gym.

The entire section was in the room as she entered the ring. She didn't grapple with a real person, but the higher-ups had set her against multiple training dummies that lit up places where she should strike them, and also moved back and forth, forcing her to think on her toes.

A man almost twice her height and three times her breadth stepped into the ring as Mukuro finished with the dummies. Her chest puffed out and her arm shot by her head in a proper salute. "I'm First Sergeant Stewart," he said, motioning to himself and waving for Mukuro to relax. "and you're the little kid that everyone has been talking about?"

Mukuro nodded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kat's eyes go wide. Oscar was frowning. Sierra made eye contact, hands covering her mouth.

"Not very talkative, are we?"

"No, sir."

His eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here?"

"Hoping to make it into Fenrir, sir." She kept her chin up, staring at him and keeping her back straight.

"How old are you?"

"Eleven, sir."

He started pacing around her, slowly. Mukuro didn't move, but her eyes tracked him. "And you hope to make it into Fenrir?"

"Yes, sir."

"You realize how impossible that sounds, right?"

"I do, sir, but that does not and will not keep me from trying, sir."

"Gutsy."

"Or maybe, sir, you haven't been around enough children since you grew up and started getting old, sir."

That... was probably not the smartest thing to say to the man who could send her home with the blink of an eye. Mukuro realized that too late, as she saw Mickey's jaw drop, and heard Juliet let out a low whistle at the burn.

First Sergeant Stewart's left eyebrow twitched. Mukuro flinched, taking a small step backwards, her shoulders dropping slightly.

"I have a little one waiting for me when I go home, kid."

"Of course, sir," Her hands flew up, waving wildly in the air as she stepped back a bit more, "I didn't mean anything by that statement, I wasn't thinking, I never meant to accuse you of-"

"At ease, cadet." She flinched, whimpering when his hand touched her shoulder, and he pulled it back quickly, as if burnt.

"I'm sorry sir, I really am, it was all just a big misunderstanding, not that you misunderstood and this is your fault, but that I misunderstood and this was all my fault, and-"

"Mukuro, at ease." Stewart sat down, and motioned for her to sit too.

Mukuro shook her head. When Junko offered her a seat, it usually meant hair brushing. Angry hair brushing.

"Hey, Romero, help me out here, will you?"

Juliet approached, cautious. "Mukuro? Are you okay?" Her arms were wide open, waiting.

She shook her head, running, and let herself be hugged by Juliet.

"I'm scared." It came out as a whisper between shaky breaths, but she could tell that Juliet had heard by the way she wrapped her arms around her tighter.

"It's totally okay for you to be." Juliet still didn't let go, one hand moving to Mukuro's hair, fingers running through, gently sorting through the locks. "You're safe here, but can I ask why you're feeling scared?"

She shook her head.

"That's fine. I have my assumptions, but you can tell me everything when you're ready. I really do want to hear it from you. You're okay. I'm here, chiquita."

After a few more moments, Mukuro gave a final, tight squeeze, and let go.

Stewart looked concerned. He was keeping his distance from the pair. "You okay, kid?"

He sighed, relieved, when Mukuro nodded yes.

"Okay, I'll keep from giving you any more surprises." He handed Mukuro a chain with a thin piece of metal on it. "Here's your dog tag, welcome to Fenrir."

Instantly, Mukuro was surrounded by loud whoops and hugs from all corners.

"However, I'm afraid I'm going to have to tell you that your sergeant lied to you on the very first day."

The cheering stopped instantly. Mukuro was gently lowered to the ground from Oscar's shoulders. Clearing her throat, she asked, confused.

"Excuse me, sir?"

"Sergeant Juliet Romero is not your leading sergeant, unless you want her to be." He smiled at her. "If you want, I can offer you a spot in my section. You're great at everything you do, except for flying." He shot a glance at Charlie. "But I've been told that you, unlike most recruits, dared to hit the yellow button."

"What are you trying to say?" Leave this section? Why would she ever want to leave the people who were so nice to her? Whom she had spent two weeks learning from?

"Mukuro, who do you care about most in the world?"

The answer tumbled out quicker than she thought.

"My twin, and Opa, and Oma, and mom, and I guess dad, in a way, even though he left us alone with mom, and-"

"And you've spent time on the streets."

"I have, sir."

"If you took the spot in my section, you'd be fighting under my command, the command of a First Sergeant, which means you could make more money, and your family would never go onto the streets again."

"My mom said she had it under control. We were supposed to move into a little apartment this September."

"With more money from working with me, you could get a bigger house for the whole family."

"Mmm, I'm not too sure, my mom could drink anybody under the table. I think me giving her a lot more money would just make it worse."

"She's the reason you flinched when I talked like that. She hurts you." Stewart didn't skip a beat. "Work for me, and I can pull your twin from the mess that is your mother."

That made her pause. Could he really do that? Would it work? What would happen to them? She thought of Junko, mom, Opa, Oma, wondered if she could make this choice for them. If she agreed, it would be her who separated the family. Sure, they could be divided and argued sometimes, but family was supposed to stick together, right? No matter how much they got on each others' nerves?

Mukuro bowed low. "Thank you, sir, for the kind, and very generous offer."

Stewart smiled. "So, you agree?"

She shook her head. "No, I'm afraid I have to decline. I can't make their decisions for them. I'm not that kind of person."

"Mukuro, are you sure?"

"Yes, sir."

"You're missing out on a golden opportunity here."

"I've made my choice, sir."

"You've really got guts, Mukuro, you'd be useful in my section."

"I can be useful in delta troop, squad four, section six too."

"You could be making a huge mistake, kid."

"Well, I'll never know until I try. I've made my decision, sir, and I ask that you respect it."

Stewart walked out of the room, but not before offering his congratulations to Juliet. "You've got a real winner here. Consider yourself lucky."

"Trust me, I do every day."

"See you when you get your tattoo, Mukuro. If you ever change your mind, let me know."

Mukuro didn't think that she would, but she nodded nonetheless.

“Congrats, Ikusaba.” Mickey shook her hand and Mukuro felt something press into it. “Numbing cream for the tattoo, so that you don’t pass out.” he mumbled. "We're going to have the tattoo ceremony before we eat dinner, and you get your knife after you get your tattoo. I'd suggest you put it on the moment we enter the d-fac. That should give it enough time to take effect. Save a little bit for after you get the ink. It accelerates healing so that it shouldn't hurt much tomorrow."

"Thank you, Mickey." Mukuro turned the tube over, noticing the Japanese on the side. "Did this come from your cousin?"

"Yeah, I always have some of this stuff lying around. I do ask her to send me some more on the regular though."

The other tables had clapped politely as she was announced and stabbed with inked needles, but her table had absolutely roared with pride at the sight of her being presented with her knife.

A knife that became useful in a matter of hours after getting it.

They were sitting around a large campfire, the cold night air being warmed by the flames, singing childlike campfire songs, when Mukuro remembered.

"I'll be right back. I have something I need to get."

"Hurry back, you wouldn't want to miss out on the bonding going on in this celebration." Sierra called.

She returned with a bag of melted and rehardened candy.

Mickey's eyes went wide. "Is that..."

"Konpeito. Please, let's all have some, as my thanks to all of you."

"Look, I appreciate the offer," Kat began. "but it's a little melted."

Mukuro responded by opening the bag and pulling out her knife, working on prying out individual candies.

"I'm pretty sure the purpose of your brand new combat knife isn't for chopping candy up into little pieces," Oscar chuckled. "but who am I to tell you how to live your life?"

When a suitably sized sugar pile was prepared, she distributed them among the rest of the section.

"This is familiar, isn't it, Matt?" Mickey held his free hand in front of him and imitated knocking back a shot.

Matt smiled, before pointing at the other's face. "Mickey, are those tears?"

"SHUT UP, OKAY? I HAVEN'T HAD THIS STUFF IN A LONG TIME AND IT BRINGS BACK MEMORIES, OKAY? I'M NOT CRYING I'M JUST-"

"Okay, okay. Forget I asked."

Mukuro raised her handful of candy and yelled loudly, her voice unmuted by the crackle of the fire.

"Thank you for taking such great care of me! Let's all try our best together, from this day on, and forever!"

Juliet stood, raising her hand as well. "To Mukuro! To Fenrir! To victory!"

The little group around the fire echoed the sentiment into the night.

Chapter Text

“A simple mission,” Juliet had said as she lay a map down at breakfast the next morning. Mukuro scratched at her tattoo, hidden under the large cotton gauze pad that covered it. One night and it had already began to scab over. Stupid scabs, always getting in the way, making skin too tight, and then bursting when she overstretched, bleeding out more. She still had part of her tube of cream, and had applied another thin layer to the inked hand just twenty minutes ago, but was this enough for her itchy hand? Apparently not.

“Mukuro, did you get all of that?”

Craaaaap.

Kat sighed. “Your first day out in the field, and you’re already planning on getting yourself killed. Why am I not surprised?”

“Moomoo won’t get herself offed on the first day, Kitty.”

“Really, Charlie? You sure? That’s what the last guy said too, before you left him alone for one moment to decide on a proper exit location, and he got himself blown up.”

“Can we all just agree,” Oscar straightened from his slouch, “that nobody is going to be leaving Mukuro alone today? If we guard her, and only split up when we need to, then she’s bound to survive.”

“That’s a terrible idea, pops. And you know it.” Mickey winced. “I can already imagine all the bandaging I have to do if you decide to stick close like lovestruck teenagers in a horror movie.”

“Don’t teenagers in horror movies usually split up?” Matt asked.


“Not the ones who are banging behind the scenes. I bet they’re responsible for the moans you hear in the movies, and not the special effects team.”

Sierra’s hand struck the table, getting everyone’s attention. “Mukuro, listen up, and listen well. Today is your first day out in the field, and if you are not ready, you will die.” She pointed to a spot on the map. “Charlie will drop us off here.” Taking a marker from her pocket, she continued, tracing along the map. “We’ll follow this road until we get to this-” she made a red circle, “-town. It’s basically abandoned, save for a single platoon. It’s our job to get in, fight them, and get out when they’re dead. Charlie will offer air support. He’s our way out. If he says he’s dropping a bomb, get as far away from his airplane as you can. Matt is going to be tech support. We need to get him into their communications building before we even think of opening fire. That’s his job though, and he’s done it before just fine. We just need to wait for a signal from him before we charge the rest of the town. Anybody you see that’s not us, you kill. If you get hurt, duck behind anywhere stable and let Mickey know. Always keep your knife in your right hand and your small pistol in your left, in case you get jumped while injured, so that you can still protect yourself. Understood?”

She nodded.

“Good to know you listened, this time. If you don’t understand it by the time we get in the field, you’re as good as dead, and as much as we may want to, we can’t help you out that much when we have our own things to do.”

Juliet gulped down the last of her coffee. “We leave in an hour. Mukuro, no bathroom breaks until we finish the mission, so I suggest you go now. As for the rest of you, Matt especially, no phones.”

“Aw, mom!”

“You can talk to your family before or after this, but if I have to deal with your phone the same way I had to deal with it last time, Charlie’s next supply flight will be one burner short.”

“The last time he brought one with him on a mission, Juliet opened the airplane’s door, crushed it under her boot, and dropped it down into the middle of nowhere.” Oscar whispered.

“And I would do it a thousand more times, if that was what it took for tonto here to remember that phones can give off signals, that, if unshielded by basecamp, can reveal a location to anyone, friends, family, or otherwise.” She sighed. “Just be ready, okay?”

Suited up and ready to go in an hour. Easy as that. Not that it had been easy for Mukuro to find armour her size, or that it had been super easy to ask Juliet to help tie her holsters in place, but she made the time limit.

The plane was smaller than the one she had come in.

Charlie gave everyone a wave as he entered the cockpit door. Matt put in a pair of earplugs and closed his eyes as soon as they had gotten onto the plane, but Mukuro knew he wasn’t sleeping. She saw him mouthing words to himself.  Sierra and Kat chatted amicably, while Oscar and Juliet talked with maps and markers, shooting quick glances at Mukuro when they thought she wouldn’t notice. Mickey, in a spot to her left, napped, snoring quietly.

Mukuro was ready, she hoped. She didn't stop repeating it to herself. Not that she was ready, but that she had hope. That she could do this.

She kept repeating this as the plane ride switched to a Jeep ride, and as they all piled off. Juliet recapped the plan quickly, before nodding to Matt. He flashed her a thumbs up, before quietly high fiving everyone else. He gave Mukuro a quick hug and whispered.

“Chin up, unless there’s an explosion. Then, you tuck it down and in. You’ve got this. See you soon.”

Mukuro watched with the rest of them behind a large rock, as Matt began his stealth mission. He disappeared behind a car, then a building, then all visual indicators that he was there were gone.

Ten minutes later, Mukuro’s earpiece crackled to life. Juliet wiped her lipstick off onto the back of her hand. Kat kept hers on.

“Cameras and radios are off. All incoming broadcasts are being redirected to the auto responder that I set up. We’re ready to go in five.”

Mickey zipped the pockets that he had been keeping his hands in. Oscar tucked his photo album back in his chest pocket. She could do this.

“Four.”

Sierra kissed her necklace. Shoot anyone that wasn’t Fenrir.

“Three.”

Everyone drew out their guns. What qualified as shooting again?

“Two.”

Mukuro followed suit clumsily. Fingers? Toes?

“One.”

The others rushed in. Oh right, any and all limbs, if not a direct head shot.

Mukuro trailed them.

Then, she froze.

Oh god, there’s so much blood everywhere. Already. I thought we had just started fighting? It’s already gotten this bloody. What am I supposed to be doing with all of this blood? It’s not coming from me, it’s coming from other people, our enemies. It’s everywhere. I’m not doing anything. I can’t move anything. We’re all still safe, but what’s happening-

“MUKURO!” Sierra tackled her down to the ground from a hail of bullets, rolling a few times before hefting her over her shoulder. She dropped her behind a large stack of crates a fair distance away. “Pull your long distance out.” She ordered. “Support us from here until you can stand to be in direct combat. If anyone finds you out here, shoot them before they can say anything.”

With that, she left, charging back into battle. Mukuro felt more alone than she ever had in her survival games. With shaky hands, she exchanged her weapons, and took aim at the fray. Juliet was fighting against two people, but seemed to be holding her own. Everyone else was caught in gunfire with another, but there was one soldier who was closer to her and would be easier to hit.

Problem was, they were fighting Mickey, and if she missed, he would go down instead.

“Mukuro? It looks bad, I know.” Matt’s voice through the earpiece was a welcome relief from the sounds of crossfire and explosions. “But I know what you’re trying to aim for. You have to try. You can make this shot. I've seen you hit smaller bullseyes with your own eyes closed. Just pretend he’s a target dummy. That’s what I always do." A button beeped and there were a few moments of silence before Matt crackled back to life in her headset. "Sorry," he apologized, "just had to deal with someone trying to get past me to send a distress call out. Just try not to think about it too much. Point, click. Pretend it's just like we're going over training drills, and I've brought out those moving targets for you to hit.”

Mukuro lifted the weapon, visualized a mechanized mannequin in front of her, instead of a threat to Mickey’s safety. If she focused extra hard on keeping that mental image of the training gyms in place, she could feel her shaking hands slow down and steady themselves slightly. “Which shoulder?”

“Try and imagine a giant target on his right shoulder. Mickey will be safe if you can hit the target, which I know you can do. Deep breaths, focus.”

Mukuro watched and waited. He had a rhythm. He’d lean to the left as he shot for five seconds, then to the right for three. Left for five, right for three. Left, right. Left-

“Get him!” Matt called as Mukuro pulled the trigger, closing her eyes as she did. Matt whooped and Mukuro opened them again, watching as he went down, clutching at his arm. Mickey quickly finished him off, before scampering elsewhere.

“Two are headed for Oscar. See them?”

“If I squint, yes.”

“One of them is going to attack from his front, the other behind. Take care of the second guy, okay?”

She did.

Matt told her where to shoot, and she took aim, closing her eyes as she pulled the trigger, only opening them to make readjustments, or when she heard Matt’s sighs of relief. She just couldn't think about it too much. If she overthought it, it was all over.

Matt gave a startled "Calices de Crisse!" as three men, armed with just knives and helmets, jumped Juliet, one going for her head, the other two for her legs. Mukuro screamed as they both started slashing at her pants. She couldn’t aim properly, Matt wasn't giving her targets, Juliet was too busy with the one who she was currently fighting, there was no time, they were too close to her, but she had to try or Juliet was dead. Those two men on the bottom only had helmets. Closing her eyes, she pulled the trigger.

I’m condemning these people to death. These people have families. People who are hoping they return home safe. What am I doing? Just shooting them? Why? Do their lives matter any less than those of my section, or is it just because I know my section, and because this time I know that I’m not shooting toes? Don't think about it this way, Mukuro, pull yourself together, don't think about it, don't think about it, just shoot.

“You’ve got them weakened, Mukuro. Juliet can handle herself now. Sorry, they didn’t have any trackers on them, so I couldn’t find them.”

“Juliet’s legs, Matt.” Mukuro’s voice was even shakier than before, and she touched her cheek to find them wet with sweat and tears.

“She’s still up and fighting.” He reassured. “Mickey will get to her as soon as he can. It’s almost over, Mukuro. You’re doing great for your first time. I need you to focus though, and breathe. We’ll be done soon.”

“It sounds like you’re lying, but okay.”

“You’re doing fine. We’ll be out of here in five, ten minutes. This mission, a total success.”

They finished up within twenty, Mukuro watching as Matt declared the area cleared. Kat and Oscar stayed with their guns up as Mickey ran to Juliet’s side and started bringing out his medical supplies. Surprisingly, she was still standing and Mickey had to force her to sit. Sierra came for Mukuro and piggybacked her to the escape Jeep, scared that her legs might give out due to the stress.

Mukuro clung to her too tightly, but Sierra didn’t say a thing.

When she saw Juliet standing in front of the door of the car, she wriggled out of Sierra’s grasp and ran to her, to be met with a tight hug. She squeezed back, a reminder to herself that yes, this was real, that a fight had actually happened, and that both of them were alive after it.

“Thank you, chiquita. You really saved me back there.”

But how was Juliet still alive after it?

“How are you still standing? Those two kept slashing at your legs! I thought Mickey would have had to amputate them or something?”

Juliet smiled. “They might have had to, a long time ago.” She straightened from the hug, drawing up her pants, the bottoms shredded. Without much ado, Juliet took Mukuro’s hand, bringing it to the solid, plastic calf. “But it’s not flesh and bone anymore.” She dropped her hand and the pants again, before picking Mukuro up and sticking her in the Jeep. “Even since day one, they’ve always gone for my legs.”

“Do you miss them? Does it hurt?”

“Not really.” She moved to the driver’s seat, buckling herself up. “I mean, phantom pains are a thing, for sure, but if anything, it’s proof that I’m still alive.”

Each recruit made sure to thank her for offering backup when they needed it.

“Who knew our monkey was a sharpshooter?” Oscar beamed, messing up Mukuro’s hair as she giggled.

“Congrats. You survived your first mission. From behind a ton of safe buildings. Big whoop.”

“Kat, there’s no need to be such a downer!” Sierra smiled. “If I recall, Mukuro saved your butt too.”

“If it weren’t for you saving her, she wouldn’t be here right now.”

Matt and Mickey thanked her with a hug and a high five, and held her hands on the plane ride, Mickey letting go when their hands got too sweaty, opting to play janken with her instead. Matt offered her some earplugs to drown out the noise, but she declined. He let go of Mukuro’s hand when Mickey announced he was needed to keep the score.

Charlie picked her up and spun her around in a crushing hug when he exited the cockpit. “Moomoo! You’re alive! That means you belong now!”

Something stung behind Mukuro’s eyes. She excused herself quickly and ran back to the safety of the barracks. She locked herself in the bathroom before she let the tears fall. She belonged? She couldn’t even kill a person today, all she could do was wait for Matt to give her a target, and shoot their arm or leg. Even with Juliet, she hadn’t killed them, when they had been so close to killing her. She stared at the bandage. There was a tattoo under there. What was she thinking, getting a tattoo at the age of eleven? Why did she think that this was a good idea in the first place? Did she really belong with Fenrir and not with Junko? Or was she separate from her twin because she had killed while Junko hadn’t? So many bodies. So much blood. Just thinking about it made her dry heave over the toilet. Was this a successful mission, really?

Chapter Text

When Mukuro left the bathroom, nobody asked any questions. If anything, they saw her red-ringed eyes and quickly turned back to whatever it was they were doing. Sierra was doing curls on the bunk bed ladder, carrying out a conversation in Spanish to Juliet, who was encouraging her and fixing her pronunciation when needed. Sierra spoke at about half of Juliet's speed when she was replying, Mukuro noticed. Oscar was writing another letter to his wife. Kat looked at Mukuro’s puffy face, scoffed, and turned back to her novel. Mukuro ignored her. Two in their numbers were missing.

“Where’s Charlie?”

“He’s off to make a delivery, and when he comes back, he’ll bring the stuff that we wanted him to bring.” Kat didn’t even look at Mukuro as she recited, her book staying open and her eyes roaming across the pages quickly.

“Oh. Mickey?”

“Hanging out with some other medics.” Oscar said, pausing. “That, or getting another piercing. We’ll never know until he comes back. My wife would say that it’s like Schrodinger’s cat.”

Mukuro made a mental note to ask Oscar about his wife’s neighbour’s cat some other day.

“Hey Mukuro,” Matt called waving her over and pointing to his burner, “come over here and say hi to my little sibling.”

Warily, Mukuro plucked the phone from Matt and held it to her ear.

“Hello?”

A tinny voice echoed through the device. “Hello? Matt? Is this thing on?”

“I’m not Matt, my name is Mukuro. Your brother wanted me to say hi to you?”

“Oh. Okay. Well then, hi, Mukuro. My name’s Gracie.” The voice sounded a lot like Matt’s, but pitched higher. They both had the tendency to make their English lyrical, as if they were singing their sentences. The lilts were calming, in a sense.

“It’s good to meet you.”

“Good to meet you too. I take it you’re a mercenary too? Don’t let my brother give you a hard time out there.”

“Oh, I mean, he’s really not giving me a hard time at all-”

“Because he’s super sensitive in the sides and if you ever need to win an argument with him, just tickle him and he’ll be begging for mercy. Worked for me for ten years.”

Mukuro shot a glance at Matt. He looked no older than twenty two, but the voice on the other side definitely didn’t sound ten. She should know, she had just passed ten and turned eleven last Christmas.

“How old are you, Gracie?”

A laugh was heard on the other side of the line. “I’m almost sixteen. Don’t worry, I doubt he gets less ticklish with age. If anything, make up for it and say he’s going old and getting bald. He hates it, because he used to keep his hair super long and now he-”

“Mukuro,” Matt called, slightly worried by her smile, “what exactly is my sister telling you?”

“-And this one time,” more giggling, “when we were kids, he superglued that long hair and pretended it was hair gel! Mom nearly killed him, but she made him shave his head completely! He looked like an egg for months! His hockey helmet would slip loose if he got too sweaty!”

“Mukuro, why are you laughing so loudly? What’s Gracie saying?”

“And that’s not even counting the time he took mom’s favourite Gucci’s and fell down the stairs with them on! He tried to say that the sprained ankle happened because of hockey practice, but then mom noticed that he glued the ornament back on upside down and grounded him for months! No skating, no sleepovers, absolutely nothing! It was hilarious!”

“Wow, sounds like you two had lots of fun as kids.” Mukuro said, directing it to both siblings.

“Yeah, so, enough about that, I hear that you just came back from your first mission, Mukuro! That true?”

Her face fell. “Uh, yeah.”

“How’d it go?”

“Uh, fine!” she stammered, pushing back the memories of the paralysing fear. She was still terrified. What if she ended up being haunted by their ghosts?

“You don’t sound fine.” Gracie noted. “I’m taking an intro to psychology class in CEGEP. Maybe I can try and help. Want to talk to me about it?”

“I… don’t want to really think about it, if that’s ok with you.”

“Totally fine, I completely understand.”

“Sorry.”

“Pantoute, pal. No worries. If you ever need to talk though, ask Matt for my email.”

“Sure.”

Juliet checked her watch. “The first of the fliers should be coming back soon. Mukuro, if you want, you can stay here talking to Matt’s sibling. Everyone else, out with me.”

Matt wished goodbye to Gracie before leaving the room. While Mukuro had kind of wanted to go with everyone else, she had the distinct feeling that Juliet was doing this for her to be able to talk alone, in peace and quiet. She did leave the door open, though, but Mukuro didn’t care enough to close it. They were gone.

“Um, Gracie?”

“I’m still here, Mukuro. What do you need?”

“I was wondering, is this normal?”

“Mmm, is what normal?”

“This feeling of guilt.”

“Depends. Is it your fault?”

“I’m a mercenary now, Gracie. I kill people, I guess. Well, today, I didn’t manage to do it. I left the killing to everyone else because I was too scared, but I condemned a ton of people to death today.”

Mukuro heard tutting from the other side of the line. “There’s no easy answer for your question, Mukuro. There isn’t a right answer that I can give you either. How old are you, again?”

“Eleven.”

“ELEVEN?”

“Yes?”

Mukuro heard a muttered “Qu’est-ce que fuck,” before “okay, you’re eleven? You’re really not kidding me?”

“I’m eleven, and I’m in Fenrir.”

A low whistle. “Wow. And I thought I was going to be talking to someone my age or older. Uh, okay. Gone through any growth spurts recently?”

“Nope.”

“Ok, pre-pubescent. Great. At least I don’t have to relive Matt’s scene phase in the next few minutes.”

“What?”

“Nothing! Talking to myself!” She heard uneasy, clearly faked laughter.

“Doesn’t sound like it was nothing.”

“Enough about me, let’s talk about you.” A deep breath from both parties. “Mukuro, how are you feeling?”

Sometimes, there’s just something about talking on the phone with somebody’s family, a complete stranger to you, a whole world away from where you are, that makes certain people reach their breaking point.

And Mukuro broke.

“I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND,” she managed to choke out between sobs, “WHY I DID SUCH TERRIBLE THINGS AND PEOPLE ARE TELLING ME THAT IT’S OKAY THAT I DID THEM!” Fat tears dripped down her cheeks and she couldn’t bring herself to raise an arm to wipe them away. Gracie stayed silent as she blubbered on and on, listening thoughtfully and only offering the occasional ‘there there’, or ‘it’s alright to cry, girl. Come on, let it all out. You’ll feel better after.’.

“I MEAN, I DIDN’T EVEN MORTALLY WOUND ANYBODY TODAY, BECAUSE I WAS TOO WEAK TO DO IT! I WOULD HAVE DIED IF I WASN’T SHOVED OUT OF THE WAY BY SIERRA! WHY DID I EVER THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?”

“Quick question, Mukuro. Don’t have to answer if you don’t wanna.” Gracie piped up.

She sniffled before replying. “Yes?”

“Why did you ever think that this was a good idea? You must have had your reasons, right?”

Junko’s furious glare flashed through the front of her mind. Crying harder, she told Gracie everything. From her horrible home life, to glass shards in her back, to homelessness, hopelessness, turning to survival games to afford Junko’s school uniform, becoming the fan favourite Arachne, the time spent in Tokyo because Junko had wanted it, the holiday in the Netherlands with Opa and Oma, to the arguments that led her here, sitting on the floor of the barracks, cell phone clutched to her ear, knees tucked under her chin.

“Let me just get this straight;” Gracie said, after Mukuro had stopped talking. “You came here, because your sister told you to get lost and join the army if that was what it took to make you happy, because she didn’t think she made you happy?”

Mukuro nodded, before remembering that her newly dubbed therapist couldn’t exactly see her and instead humming in agreement.

“That’s crazy? You do everything that your sister wants you to do?”

“She depends on me.”

“You just told me that if she’s mad at you she hits you. That’s not normal. Tickling, maybe. Putting sugar in the salt shaker, sometimes. But hitting you? Kicking you around if you mess up a greeting? Pinching you until it leaves bruises? That’s not normal, and that’s not healthy.”

“She’s my sister. She’s all I have. And she’s nowhere near as bad as our mom. You can’t really blame her for picking up some bad habits. Sometimes you need those to survive.”
“So everything that you did in your life, you did for her. What did you want to do after your last argument?”

“I wanted to make her happy. So I came here. Passed the tests, and now I’m crying on the floor because everyone says killing people is okay.”

“Alright, Mukuro, I’m gonna level with you. Killing people is not okay, but sometimes it has to be done. What would have happened if you hadn’t hurt those guys who were gonna hurt your section?”

“Everyone that I know would be either injured or dead.”

“So, maybe instead of thinking of it as senseless violence, think of it as you fighting them to protect those that you care about.”
“The people we were attacking had people that cared about them too.”

“Well, okay. You make a very good point. I’m not going to ask you to put value over human lives here, but those people made the choice to stand their ground and fight against you guys, same way you did today. I know that killing people is bad, but if they were already planning on killing you, can’t you claim that you did it out of self defense?”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“If it doesn’t, that’s fine too, worth a shot. I wanna go into psych someday, but I’ve still got a lot to learn. If you ever need a person to talk to, or a place to stay if you’re out of Fenrir, ring me. I’m your pal, kay?”

“Okay.”

“Does talking to me help you feel better?”

Mukuro took a second to think about it. She did feel better, after dumping all of her problems onto some stranger around the globe, but she also felt worse about having to dump her problems.

“I’m better, thank you. I’m sorry you had to sit through all of it.”

“Meh, c’est cool, ma chum. The others back yet?”

She looked around. “No, but I think I should leave to help them with whatever it was they were going to do.”

“Alright, talk to you later?”

“Sure. Thanks again.”

“Call or email me the next time you feel rotten. I know the time differences suck, but it’s not like I have a formal bedtime anymore, anyways.” Mukuro heard Gracie’s smile. “Now get out there and kick some ass. Give my bro a jab in the sides and tell him I can’t wait till Christmas, kay?”

“Kay.”

“À tantôt!”

Mukuro hung up and stood, stretching her legs out before putting the phone in her pocket. She had barely rounded the corner when she crashed into Charlie, who was leading the rest of the section. He didn’t offer any words, but did hold his arms out, offering her a real hug.

Mukuro accepted, feeling happy when the others who weren’t holding anything joined in.

“I’ve got your cell. I’d suggest you set up a new email and try to contact your family to let them know that you aren’t dead.” Matt said, holding up a little box. “Of course, that means I’d like to have mine back.”

Mukuro motioned for Charlie to set her down before she exchanged items with Matt.

Then she pulled him in for a hug.

“Your sibling says they can’t wait for Christmas.” She mumbled.

And then, she jabbed her fingers into his sides.

The scream made Juliet’s scolding worth it.

Chapter Text

Muukuuu-chan,

Did you see what I did there? I kept dragging out the syllables in your name. That worked, right? Made me sound whiny and demanding, didn't it? I'm sorry for yelling at you like that. Trust me, I really am. I really hate leaving you alone after we’ve argued, especially because I did nothing wrong except leave you there to sulk alone. When are you coming back to the apartment? Don't tell me it only took 5 minutes for some creeps to kidnap my sister! She's actually an amazing person, when she's not busy being a social shut in, abandoning me for her survival games, or getting bookish in libraries! I don't know where you are right now, but I know you'll forgive me for saying those terrible things and come home soon!

Ko-chan

 

Mukuuu-chan,

When are you coming back to a warm bed? I know overpasses aren’t sufficient in Amsterdam, they get too cold at night. There’s no way someone like you could have joined and actually gotten into Fenrir, you’re too optimistic and can’t level a punch strong enough to knock someone’s tooth out. I’m really worried about you, you know? Come home? For me? Don’t leave me alone like this.

Ko-chan

 

Muku-chan,

When are you coming home? You didn't actually join Fenrir, did you? There’s no way you managed to do that, I thought we ended that conversation back in Japan? Remember Tokyo? I really, honestly thought we had dropped that topic and left it there in that overrated city along with dad’s jail notice? Good times together, right? Thick as thieves and tricky as twins?

Ko-chan

 

Muku-chan?

I really am sorry, and I’m not kidding around. I’m serious, where are you? I have a pretty good idea that you’re going into Fenrir, or at least trying to, but some internet cafe reception to reply to me definitely wouldn’t hurt, if you know what I mean. Oma made a really yummy omelet today, don’t you just miss it already?

Ko-chan

 

Muku?

Gee, I hope you’re getting this email, it's a reminder of just how much I care about you! How I'm the only one that cares about you! You know, Opa and Oma wanted to end the searching the day after you left us, and mom was convinced by the end of day 2 that you were dead, or close to dead, but not me! I played cute and got them searching again even harder! We’ve even got the cops helping to try and find you! We put that picture of you from Efteling in the newspaper, you know, the one that makes you look happy and cute, instead of your snub-nosed survival game pictures? You’re coming back to us, like it or not!

Junko-chan

 

Muku-nē-chan?

Everyone’s seen the security footage by now, and nobody knows what happened to you after that weird man shoved you in the back of his car. Are you dead?

Junko-chan

 

Mukuro?

Where are you? The Dutch and Japanese news have pretty much given up on you entirely! Am I talking to a dead person? I know that your name means corpse, but honestly? Are you actually dead? They haven’t found a body yet, so you’d better not actually be dead. Come home!

Right. Home. Did you hear that mom is going to pay off the house in Kamakura again? She told me right after Opa left with Oma to scour the neighbourhood for you that night. Did I mention that we’re supposed to come here every single summer now? They want to spend more time with us, but it’s probably because they don’t trust mom’s parenting. Opa and Oma are scary when they get mad. You should be scared, because they got mad over you. If you're not dead already, I figure Opa and Oma will kill you once you return. Guess that’s where mom gets it from. We can only depend on each other in this cruel world, right?

Junko-chan

 

Mukuro-nē-chan,

Did you hear about the political resignation? Mom was really happy, and even though Opa and Oma had no idea what was happening, she explained the situation to them until they started celebrating too. I snuck a sip of the beer that Opa and Oma drink, by the way, when they weren’t looking. The good stuff. It’s terrible and bitter. Never touching that trash again. I wonder how they can even stand drinking it to begin with. Oma made really good breakfast toast yesterday, with a lot of chocolate syrup. It's a shame that you missed it because you’re halfway across the globe, or dead. I miss you! Make me proud, sister dear!

Junko

 

Nē-chan,

So, what? You’re just gonna leave me? Typical sister. Like always. Nothing’s changed, apparently. This is just like when you left me with mom to fend for ourselves while you went out and shot people silly. You’re in Fenrir, I know that much by now. Did you honestly think that nobody but me would figure it out? I haven't told anybody else yet, because I can be trusted with secrets. But i want you to stop ignoring me, stop treating me like dirt, and actually write back. Also, make a new email. This school one is getting shut down if you’re a no-show by the time school starts up again.

Junko

 

Onēsan,

Clearly, you don’t care about me anymore. What, you’re bored? You like having all these emails here to remind you that we’re not the despair sisters without each other? How am I not surprised. Of course, just leave me here, ignore me, leave me here to rot in my own misery. Don’t let me stifle your creativity, cuz apparently I’m just nothing but a noose around your neck, ruining your life for everyone involved! Just don’t expect forgiveness when you come crawling back to me, once you’ve had your fun hurting me. Come home to me right now, or come back to me in a casket, since you clearly love ignoring me in favour of going off and being your gun toting, repulsive, murderous self.

Junko

 

“And that, Charlie," Mukuro tried to explain, as Charlie finished reading the last email on her phone's screen, translated into English for his convenience. "is why I need to leave. Like, right now.”

“Okay, so your twin sounds absolutely pissed, but I can't help you with this.”

“You don't even need to help me that much, I just need you to fly me away from base camp on your next supply mission.”

A sigh. “Moomoo, that's illegal.”

“Mercenaries work outside of the law anyway.”

Temple rubbing. “Moomoo, listen-”

“Look, it won't take long, okay? I just need you to fly me to anywhere inside the EU, and I can make my way from there.”

He bent at the waist to talk to her at eye level. “Mukuro, you aren't listening. Hear me out, please. I cannot do this for you-”

“You have to do this for me, Charlie, please! Just listen to me-”

“Mukuro, enough about leaving already!” Charlie bellowed, standing to his full height. “You are not leaving us tonight, or tomorrow, or until any of us get a chance to go on break!” Mukuro jumped backwards with a whimper the second he had started yelling, curling into a little ball as she landed, hands brought up to cover her face, a string of apologies ready to leave her mouth the second Charlie let her talk again.

What she didn’t expect was for Charlie to start pacing nervously in the hallway in a little circle around her, swearing and apologizing loudly, which honestly, scared her even more.

“Shitshitshit, Mukuro? Are you alright? Of course you're not okay, I just startled you into fetal position. I’m sorry, I fucked up and forgot that angry yelling isn’t the way that people solve problems. Crap, I’m also sorry for swearing in front of you, but I’m a little too riled up to be putting a censor on my words at the moment which by the way, is definitely not your fault, because I’m the one who lashed out and I should be apologizing to you.”

He sat down about an arms reach from where Mukuro was and took a few deep breaths before he started talking again, much quieter than before.

“I’m really sorry for losing my temper like that and yelling at you like I did, but you weren’t listening to me and part of my brain thought that it’d be a good idea to yell, maybe so that you could hear me better. It worked that way when I was a kid, because I had such a huge family, with siblings and cousins and grandparents and in-laws in the same house. I had to be loud to get heard. I’m sorry. For a moment, I forgot that you hate loud noises and angry yelling in general, and tend to shut down when that stuff happens around you. I apologize, that was not the right thing to do. I scared you, made you feel unsafe, and I understand if you don’t forgive me for the yelling. However,” He scooted to sit in front of her and flicked a small tear from her face, smiling softly as gray eyes mustered the courage to finally stare back at brown ones. “you need to listen to my reasons as to why I can’t give you a ride back, and I’d prefer if we had this conversation now, before you make a decision on impulse that could really hurt you.”

“Fine.”

“It's not that I don't want to help you out, and considering the way your mom treats you and how you flinch all the time, I really don't want to bring you back to her, but I honestly can't. I know you want to let your sister know that you're okay, because she means a lot to you. However, considering your sister told you to join the military and wants you back now? I’m kind of scared for you.”

“Why would you be scared for me? As long as Junko’s fine, I’m fine.”

“She told you to join the army!”

“She might get a little angry sometimes, but at least she’s clear with her anger.”

“And she always expects you to come back to her every time?”

“I do. Every single time. It can’t be any different now.”

“Aren’t you just a big, forgiving doormat?”

“What?”

Charlie chose his next words carefully. “You’re letting her walk all over you. She’s using you, Mukuro, to get what she wants. She’s trying to test her limits now that you’re super far away from each other, trying to see if she can still make you do what she wants you to do, even from so far away.”

“I’m not letting her walk all over me!”

Charlie fixed her with a pointed stare. “Really? If you had a middle name, it would be ‘welcome’. You need to stand up for yourself more.”

“No, I need to stand by her side, like I always have, and like I always will.”

“Mukuro, that’s an insane train of thought. You’re in Fenrir now, you are bound by contract to not leave until the rest of us get breaks, and I’m gonna need you to stop this train of thought before it spirals out of control.”

“We’re twins. Our life forces are tied together.”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?”

“As long as she’s okay, I’m okay.”

“Uh, I know twins sometimes have that effect of kinda telepathy with each other, but there’s no way that whole life force thing is how it works.”

“As long as she’s okay, then my purpose in life is fulfilled. If she’s not okay, then I won’t be okay. She’s not okay right now, so I need to make it better so that she’s okay again.”

“Mukuro, do you even hear yourself?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well, it’s not healthy to devote yourself entirely to anyone aside from yourself. Come on, there’s a ton of movies out there that prove that complete and utter devotion to someone other than yourself is the literal worst thing to ever do.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Romeo and Juliet.”

“Charlie, you’re talking to a ten year old who used to live on the streets. Does it look like I read Shakespeare? All I know is that they die in the end.”

“First of all, never say that in front of Oscar. He'll make you read it. He'll ask you to write essays about the differences between iambic pentameter and prose in iambic pentameter. Take Harley Quinn’s abusive relationship, Bellatrix Lestrange, or Homura Akemi, if you've watched that cartoon, they all fall into despair because of their intense devotion towards other people.”

“Well it won’t happen with me, okay? Stop worrying and let me do this for her.”

“Mukuro, we’ve been through this before. No. I can’t do this. None of us get a break until winter. I can’t break the rules for you, it’ll be seen as insubordination. I need this job, and I can't risk it for you. My cousin needs me to help her out.”

“Well, I still need a way to help Junko out! What if she’s really in danger?”

“I doubt she’d still have access to her email account if she were in danger.”

“Still. If I can’t go to her, then I need to find some way to prove that I still love her and I didn't leave her because I got bored of her. She hates being bored, but she hates the idea that someone would be bored of her even more.”

“From what I’m hearing, she never should have had any doubts to begin with.”

“Charlie, I came to you because I need help, I can’t find Mickey, and Matt probably won’t let me close to him for the next few days. Also, I thought you’d be able to fly me out tonight.”

“I can’t. My advice? Make a new email account and talk to her. I’ll even help you write that email. Then, once payday rolls around, we’ll ask Oscar to help you with creating a bank account to share with your family to pull them out of their current shitty situation.” He stood up, popped a few vertebrae, and offered a hand to Mukuro. "Until payday though, how does dinner and a nice, relaxing campfire under the stars sound? I flew in a crate of marshmallows today, I'm sure we could sneak a few for s'mores. I'll even help you set up the email account before we meet up with everyone else. We still have half an hour."

"It's good enough for now, I guess."

 

Ko-chan,

It’s Mukuro. I made this new email because you told me to. I’m sorry for not writing to you for the past two weeks, but I couldn’t get any internet connection until today. I’m in Fenrir, and a person in my section, Charlie, is helping me write this email to explain the situation. I can’t come back to you right now. Nobody in our section gets breaks until Christmas. It’s part of the rules. Whenever our Sergeant goes on break, the rest of us go on break. Juliet (our Sergeant) decided to go on break on Christmas so that everyone could spend time with their families then. I can't see you until then, and even then, I might not be able to do that this year, because I just got in. I wasn't trying to ignore you, I just really couldn't reach you. Tell Opa and Oma that I'm safe for me?

Muku-chan

Chapter Text

Supper was a relatively quiet affair. Charlie had stuck to his word, and had only pulled Oscar aside to describe the situation before they all sat down to food. Mukuro numbly shoved spoonful after spoonful of mashed potato into her mouth. Email sent or not, Junko was probably sleeping, even though she wasn’t that familiar with the time difference between base and Amsterdam. Who knew what Gracie was up to. Just how far away was Québec? Did they have that weird tradition where everyone turned their clocks back an hour at a time? That was a North American thing, right?

“Matt?”

“What’s up, Mukuro?”

“What’s that thing where everyone turns their clocks back an hour?”

“Daylight saving time?”

“Yeah, that. Thanks.”

“No prob.” He continued eating after that, Mukuro watching quietly. Just a few hours ago, Matt had been up in a communications tower in the enemy camp, sending out false signals and helping Mukuro survive. Without him, Mukuro doubted they all would have gotten out alive. It felt like there were two Matts. One that she usually saw in base, safe from harm, who was friendly and approachable and taught her sign language, and the other that she saw in battle, who probably had to get his hands really dirty before the rest of the section could go in guns blazing. Somehow, these two Matts boiled down to one Matt, fusing into a complicated Matt with two halves. She was getting a headache trying to rationalize it.

“Wanna help me start a campfire and roast marshmallows, Moomoo?”

“No thanks.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“Just disappointed, I guess.”

“Oh. I see. Well, I’ll be outside setting things up for the fire anyway. Come on out when you’re ready. Riri, mind helping me snitch the marshmallows?”

“You got it.” Sierra stood up, stretching out her neck before patting Mukuro on the shoulder. “Come out later, and I’ll teach you a few campfire songs from when I was in girl guides, sound good?”

“Sure, Sierra.”

Mukuro’s phone buzzed. Shoving aside her meal (not like she was eating much of it, anyway), she picked it up and found a reply to her email.

On ē san

Does it seem to you like I care about the rules? I got bored after your first sentence. You left me for Fenrir, and you didn’t write back when I wanted you to, and you wrote back at your earliest convenience, which was not my earliest convenience. Also, who said you got to call yourself Muku-chan? I get to do that, only me though. You don't get to call yourself Muku-chan, it just doesn't make sense. Were you sleeping through our language classes, too? I think I have a right to be a little bit angry with you for all of that. I expect more messages to make up for you abandoning me.

Junko

“Chiquita? Are you sure that you’re alright?”

“I’m okay, Juliet.” She snapped. “You can go ahead and help with the campfire, too. I’m fine, really.”

Without Juliet, the rest of her section got up and left for the door, until only Mickey and Mukuro were left at the table.

“N ē , Muku-chan.”

Her head shot up to see Mickey’s eyes carefully scrutinizing her face. Japanese was how he wanted to play it? Fine.

“Since when did you start calling me Muku-chan?”

“Just now, why?”

“Nevermind, it’s nothing. What did you want?”

He dug around in his pockets before pulling out a little pink box. “My cousin sent this to me. You take it, I wasn’t planning on using it anyway.”

Mukuro took the box. “Hello Kitty band-aids? Really?”

“Hey, don’t look at me, she would have wanted you to have them, anyway. Besides, I have all of my fancy med-tape to play with. Take the band-aids.”

She stuck it into the pocket of her pants. “Tell her thanks, from me.”

“Sure. One more thing. I was just wondering how you write your name? It sounds like-”

Mukuro glared at him across the table. “It’s written the way it sounds in Hiragana.”

“That means that it’s-”

“Pronounced the same way one would pronounce ‘Corpse Warblade’.” She made air quotes with her hands as she spat her name out. “Are you happy now?”

“No, I’m not. Who the fuck names their child Corpse Warblade?”

“My mother, apparently. What, you’ve got a problem with that?”

“No, but did she ever tell you why she chose that name for you? There must be some sort of misunderstanding.”

“It was supposed to be Megumi.”

“Your birth name?”

“She signed the birth certificate wrong. Apparently wrought with exhaustion after giving birth to twins, or something like that.”

“The hiragana is very similar.”

“She still messed up, though. Consider it a product of circumstances.”

“That’s really how you think of yourself?”

“How else would I? That’s how everyone ought to think of themselves. After all, none of us asked to be born. We’re only here as a product of one night between our parents.”

“Yeah?” Mickey asked, “Well, I’m not a product of my circumstances. I’m one from my decisions. Listen to me. There are some things in life that you can’t help but regret. Everyone has these. Life will always be full of these ‘what ifs’, and you’ll discover that nobody is exempt from them. All you can do is make the best decision for your present self. The future might come. It might not. Your present choices will shape your future, but you can’t plan for everything. You need to focus on yourself in the present. How does each choice make you feel? Go with the one that makes you feel the best.” He stood up. “I’m choosing to go to the campfire that everyone’s worked hard to prep. There’s no way Charlie asked Sierra to help him steal marshmallows without him going to find something else, and I want in on whatever he’s snitched. What are you going to do?”

Mukuro went to the barracks. From the open window in the room, she could look out at the rest of her section in the courtyard, could hear them singing. Plus, it gave her a bit of a breeze. Next to Charlie sat two six packs. Beer. So they were planning on drinking away their guilt.

“Is Moomoo not showing?” Charlie asked as Mickey approached, slitting the plastic rings on the six pack.

“I left the dining hall while she headed towards the barracks.” Mickey sat down in the open space next to Matt. Oscar shifted to close the gap between himself and Juliet. The gap that was probably there for her to fill.

So they did care, at least a little bit, to save her a seat.

“Chiquita is probably overwhelmed from today, the poor girl. Should I go check in on her?”

“Don’t bother. She needs this alone time.”

“Pops is right, mom. Kick back, relax.” Mukuro watched as he passed each member of the section a can, before pulling his own can up from the ground. “As for now, raise a glass to some hot pieces of ass!” He stabbed his knife into the aluminium, shotgunning his beer while everyone else cheered and popped the tabs on their cans, sipping up the foam before following suit. Mukuro watched.

How distasteful. Her entire section, raging alcoholics after a battle. They were just as messed up as she was, and they were supposed to be the responsible adults here.

She didn’t join them. She did pull ups, using the window frame as her impromptu bar. Seven cadets, five cans of beer left to split among themselves. She did pull ups as Charlie, Kat and Sierra grabbed one more each. She suppressed a scream as Juliet launched one into the fire, and the can exploded, shooting flames everywhere. It was too similar to today. She couldn’t keep it together then, and now she was huddled in the room, listening to their laughter. She watched as Mickey and Matt ended up sharing the last can. She tried to synchronize her exercise to the songs that everyone sang, before finally giving up. She still had no sense of rhythm and couldn’t dance the way the pretty teenagers had during festivals. She stepped in the shower, and once she was out, they were still outside, hooting and hollering. By now, the room had cooled considerably. She shut the window, and climbed up into bed, shutting the lights off.

Can’t go back to Junko, can’t kill without being given orders to do so, can’t sit next to her section without hating them for being so heartless. What was she to do?

Chapter Text

“Alright, look alive, everybody.” Juliet called at breakfast. “We’ve got ourselves a mission.”

Mukuro choked on her milk. “Another one? We just went on one yesterday!”

“Aww, Muku-chan, don't tell me you're getting tired of it already!”

“She’s not, Mickey.” Said Kat. “She means to say that she remembers how well yesterday went for her terrified little self in the field, can't believe that we consider a mission that brutal to be a success, and can't believe that we still expect her to kill when it was clearly proven again yesterday that children don't belong on battlefields.” She finished with a proud smile on her face, eyebrow cocked, trying to bait Mukuro into defending herself against that argument.

“Kitt, there’s no need to be so hard on Mukuro.”

“Sierra, she could have died!”

“Well you know what? She didn’t!”

“Oscar, you stay out of this!”

“Are you all done yet?” Juliet asked dryly.

“Sorry.”

“Well, let me start by saying that, because there were no casualties on our part, and because we met our goal, that the mission yesterday is a success. Let me also say that we go out in the field whenever we are told to. Lastly, the mission on the menu right now has minimal potential for casualties.”

Charlie looked up from his phone. “Today’s gonna be stealth?”

“Tonight. We’ve heard that the other side is planning a stealth mission. Our job is to intercept it.”

“What’s their protocol?”

“It’s a simple mission, really, Oscar. They’ll drop in sleeper agents tonight in a city suburb, and next week, if their plan carries, there'll be a few explosions at different parts in the city to act as a signal. When everyone's trying to get out, they’ll come back in with tanks and raze the whole place to dust.”

“How’s stealth going to do anything to stop this plan?”

“It’s not going to stop anything, Lampiño. We just need to go in today to buy the hackers some time.” She pointed at Matt. “He and the others have been working to stop the plan to bring about minimal casualties, but so far, nothing’s been able to work out. But if we can catch all of their agents, there won't be any explosions next week, which will throw them off.”

The skinny man shrugged. “Their firewall so far has been impenetrable. We need more time if we’re gonna find a real way to stop this.”

“So,” Sierra put down her mug. “What are we supposed to do tonight?”

“I thought you’d never ask. Fenrir’s job? Kidnap the sleeper agents as they parachute down, strip them of their belongings, take them back here to the holding cells.”

“Won’t they be holding guns, ready to shoot people?”

“Good question, but they can’t afford to draw attention to themselves if this plan is going to work.” Matt scratched at his nose. “What I’ve been able to gather is that they’ll all be lightly armed, with the makings of bombs and week-long survival rations in their packs, and radios. That’s about it.”

“If they struggle, kill them. Otherwise, we get tranquilizers to work with tonight, instead of bullets. It’d be in our best interests if you just shot them with tranquilizers before they even hit the ground, to be honest. But let me just say, if we wake any locals up, this mission will be a bust.”

“Sounds like a plan, mom.”

“Good. You’re all free until suppertime. After we eat, we’re going on trucks to the town.”

“Any opportunities for-”

“No, Sierra, there are no chances for you to pick up souvenirs. You’ll stand out like a sore thumb. And Mukuro?”

“Yes?”

“Get some sleep. You look terrible.”

Get some sleep. Easier said than done. The heat that Mukuro still had yet to adjust to was a reminder with her sweat that she was in an unfamiliar place with seasoned killers surrounding her. Then again, she was one of them, now. Not that she was seasoned in killing, but that she was comfortable enough to kill to ensure the wellbeing of her comrades. She definitely was not seasoned in killing.

Part of her wished that she was. To be able to shut it all out and forget that any lives mattered aside from those closest to her, that was what she needed to keep from freezing up. If only she could be numb to everything. That would make her job a whole lot easier. If she could shut everything out the same way she had while thinking with only Juliet’s safety in mind, without having to think more about the lives that she had condemned. If only she could wipe her mind after each fight, so that she could remember fighting, but not the amount of people she hit.

Get some sleep. It wasn’t that simple.

Dinner was Juliet calling out schematics with Matt by her side. The ride to the town was Sierra holding her hand and complaining about why she couldn’t pick up a souvenir for the journey.

Mukuro thanked her lucky stars that there would be no need to actually fight anyone if she did her job right.

“Matt’s already worked hard to intercept their signal.” Juliet said, before everyone got off of the truck. “He won’t be joining us in this battle, they need him to work as the distraction for everyone else.”

“When do we shoot them?”

“Excellent question, Mukuro. See, the planes aren’t going to stay. They’re too noisy if they fly slowly over the ground, so they'll be sending their guys down from a pretty high altitude. But we should only shoot them when their parachutes are out and they’re about two stories up from the ground, so that they don’t die on the descent. Once all of them are unconscious, we each take one of them and drag them to the other truck. We’re going to be working with two other squads, which is why five other trucks left with ours.”

“I’m still the best driver, though!”

“Yes, Charlie. We know. If your guy is too heavy, just sit tight until one of us can help you.”

Mukuro was pretty sure that that comment was aimed at her.

“Any other questions? No? Alright. We have about half an hour until the planes come. Everyone, get into position and sit tight.”

Her combat knife stayed in its sheath. The whole thing was finished in a matter of seconds once the first tranquilizer met its mark.

Of course, hefting someone up by the elbows and dragging them to a car was an entirely different matter.

“Mukuro, you take that one over there. He looks pretty scrawny. You should be able to carry them just fine.”

“Okay, Kat.”

Stun gun drawn, Mukuro approached the figure that Kat had pointed out. They had no armour on, save for a helmet. Their backpack was buckled to stay close to their torso. A sheathed knife was tied to the belt of their “civilian” outfit. Kat was right, he was really short and skinny. Pushing the helmet up, Mukuro gasped quietly.

He was a boy.

“Oscar?” she asked through her radio.

“Yes, my little monkey?”

“I need help.”

“I thought we assigned you to the smallest person?”

“He’s a kid, Oscar. He’s like me.”

“Oh, sugar honey iced tea.”

The ride back was silent.

“Good job tonight, folks.” Juliet congratulated. “You have a choice tonight.”

“A choice? What for?” Mukuro asked.

“The tranquilizer will wear off in about an hour, so you can either go to bed, or grab a cup of joe and help us question people. No matter what you choose, we won’t get put on a mission tomorrow.”

“Question them? What do they know?”

“Sometimes, Chiquita, far more than they let on.”

“Well, Matt and I won’t be able to help interrogate, but we will be up in the radio tower feeding questions to some people.” Mickey offered. “Mukuro, care to join us, or go to bed?”

“I don’t think I can sleep tonight, Mickey. I’ll find that boy’s cell and I’ll question him.”

“Alright, but be careful.”

“Say, why can’t you both come question with us?”

“My face looks too nice to be intimidating, apparently, but I can’t help it if I’m a beautiful man.” Mickey grinned, shooting finger guns. “For real, though? Even some people here can’t believe that they were beat out by an Asian man and refuse to even acknowledge me.” He scoffed, blowing up the red tips of his hair. “If they’re our prisoners, I think machismo and racism ought to be the least of their concerns. Anyway, stick to the script and you’ll be fine. We’ll be helping you if you need it.”

Instead of coffee, Mukuro sipped some fruit flavoured energy drink. She followed everyone else into the holding cells. With her, a little earpiece and a recording device.

She had never been in the prisoner’s holding cells before. With the dark and damp, water dripping erratically from some parts of the ceiling, she supposed that it could make anyone lose their mind if they weren’t used to it.

The boy sat in the cell with his hands around his knees. Of course, they were bound, but with rope instead of chains attached to the wall. Mukuro pressed play on her little machine, and a broadcast began to play from the speakers. The device could record and play the tapes at the same time, and could even stream it to the communications tower, where Matt and Mickey were waiting with more instructions for her. From what Matt told her, translated, the message that they played went something like, “You’re a prisoner of Fenrir, please cooperate and answer these questions”, and then it started asking questions, while recording answers. All she had to do was sit there and wait. If the prisoner didn’t give any answers, she had a knife, and the guard outside the door had a gun that shot darts with truth serum in them.

“Stop, I speak English.” The boy snapped. “There’s no need to play a recording. It’s not like I’d trust you any more like that.” The way that he glared at Mukuro unnerved her.

How dare he look so offended, even in his current position?

“That makes my job that much easier.” She said, trying to feign indifference. “Your name, please.”

“Unimportant.”

“Age?”

“Like I’d tell you.”

“Rank?”

“None of your business.”

“Other family?”

“Your mom.”

“Damn it, that's not taking us anywhere!” Matt said, through the earpiece. “I’m ready to give up and call her out of it so that someone scarier can come in. You with me, Mick?”

“No. Muku-chan knows what she’s in for.” Mickey muttered. “I know she’ll be fine as long as she sticks to the script.”

“You’re scared.” said Mukuro, out of the blue.

“That’s not what you’re supposed to say! We have a script!” hissed Mickey.

“That’s not part of what you’re supposed to say.” The boy spat.

“And that’s not part of what you’re supposed to say.” Mukuro replied.

He huffed, crossing his arms as best he could. “Are we seriously going to be saying that same line to each other back and forth for the rest of the night? Because I’d much rather be answering your questions with non-answers, if that’s the case.”

“If it’ll get you to confess something, I could continue. We both know exactly how this works.”

“Told you Mukuro had it under control.” Mickey said.

“How about I ask you a question, and you ask me one? Your secrets will go to my grave, anyway.”

“What do you mean my secrets will go to your grave? Who said you were dying?” Mukuro asked over Matt and Mickey’s sharp gasps.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m your hostage now. With next to no cash value, so I won't be ransomed. You won't ransom any of us, because you caught the whole group at one time. You're going to question all of us, and when you have a solid story that can help you win this war, we’ll be shot, poisoned, or both. Whatever, we'll be dead once you have your answers.” He smirked. "Don't they tell child soldiers what they're supposed to do now?"

"Excuse me?"

"Ah, snark. You must be raised to combat, then."

"If snark is your identifier, it'd be shitty if you ended up being wrong."

"Nevermind that. Are you going to play nice with me, or not?"

“How do I know you’ll be telling the truth?”

“How do I know you’ll be telling the truth?” He countered.

“We both don’t, I guess.”

“Guess we’ll just have to wait until we catch the other in a lie to know for sure.”

“Tempting." Said Matt. "We’re not going anywhere with the other interrogations, and kids tend to spill more secrets than adults. To heck with it, kid. Go on. Play his little game. We’ll tell you when to tell the truth. Don’t offer up anything more than what he asks you.”

“Ok.” Mukuro agreed. “I’ll start.”

“I wanted to start.” He whined.

“You’re the prisoner, I’m not. So, I’ll start.”

“Fine.”

“What’s your name.”

“Ghalib. My turn. What's your name?”

“Lie.”

“It's Megumi.” She said. “So, Ghalib-”

“You’re saying it wrong.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s pronounced “Rah-lehb”. The way you’re pronouncing it sounds more like you’ve split it up into three parts.”

“My bad. I’ll try to fix that. How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Bullshit.” Matt whispered.

“How old are you?” Ghalib asked.

“Twelve. Any family?”

“One of the other men you guys caught tonight is my father. You?”

“Lie.”

“My mother and grandparents.”

“Doesn't he come up with his own questions?” Mickey wondered.

“Ask him his ranking.” Matt ordered.

“What’s your position in the ranks?”

“Grunt. You?”

“Grunt. What do you like to do?”

“Kill ants under a magnifying glass.”

“Yikes.” Matt muttered.

“How about you?” Ghalib questioned.

“Tell him you write poetry.” Mickey suggested.

“I write poems.”

Mukuro saw something in his eyes before they became cold again. Shielded.

“Something wrong with my hobby, Ghalib?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I used to write poetry, before I got caught in the war. I'm not allowed to write these days, unless I'm very good. Writing about feelings is weakness. Showing your feelings is also  sign of weakness.” he recited.

“Why can’t we just shoot the boy full of truth serum?”

“It’s a good idea, Matt, but it’ll have to wait until we know this boy is lying. We won’t give him truth serum unless he isn’t willing to cooperate.”

“What’s someone like you doing in the army anyway?”

“I should be asking you that question.”

“I asked you first,” Mukuro stated. “it’s as simple as that. Now answer up.”

“Fine. I was raised into the life by my father, who you have right now, also in your cells. My mother died while trying to bring my brother into the world. He didn't make it either. Father was raised into this life, so he raised me in the same way. I was supposed to come with him in this mission as his actual son, so that we wouldn’t seem that suspicious in the crowds. Most people don't think parents are capable of harming large groups of people, especially if their own kid is in the crowd. Next thing you know, I’m in here.”

“There’s definitely a lie in there somewhere, but I can’t place my finger on it.” Mickey mumbled, mostly to himself.

“Well, Megumi? What about you?”

“Tell mostly the truth, but leave out your sister.”

“I was homeless for a long time with my mother, until we went to live with my grandparents. They hated me, so I ran away and joined Fenrir.”

“You’re a new recruit. The skin of your tattoo is still peeling.”

“So, what if I am?”

“You’ll be an example to my sister.”

“You said nobody survived the-”

“I said, that my mother died while giving birth to my brother.” Ghalib clarified.

“Mukuro,” Matt said, “tell him that we have his father on truth serum, but he's claiming that the two of them aren’t related.”

“Your father figure is claiming that the both of you aren’t related.”

“Really?”

"He's laughing at the guard questioning him about your relationship. Says he wouldn't want you to be his son even if it won him the war."

"That bastard!"

“Yup, says you're not his son, that his actual son was lost for the cause.”

 

"He's lying."

"Says that you're a disgrace to the family because he has to fake adopt you for a month."

"A disgrace? I'm nothing less than perfect! I don't care what he has to say, I know my own worth, lies or not!"

“Mukuro, we’re pulling out all of the stops right now. Duck." Mickey ordered.

She did, and Ghalib’s arm got hit with a dart marked with a blue tail.

“Blue for general relaxation.” Mickey explained to Mukuro. “That’s why it’s called truth serum. The victim is too relaxed to know that they might not be able to lie. It’s something that a friend of a friend of mine whipped up. Super potent on even the strongest adults. God, I miss 'em!”

“Well, that was rude.” Ghalib sneered, looking down at his arm as his shoulders relaxed. “I trusted you, Megumi.” She approached him slowly, plucked the dart out, and pulled out a box of band-aids.

“Mukuro, be careful. Rule number three.” Matt chided.

Mukuro ignored him and stuck a pink Hello Kitty band-aid on the wound, smoothing it out and putting the paper wrappings back in her pocket, with the box.

“Thank you.” Ghalib said, looking down at his newly decorated arm. “I really appreciate having a pretty… cat? Stuck to my arm after a cute girl has backstabbed me with her gang and their fancy darts.”

“It’s Hello Kitty, and you’re welcome.” Mukuro said, before her brain caught up with the rest of the sentence. “Wait, you think I’m cute?”

“I’d be surprised to find a twelve year old boy who doesn’t find you cute.”

“You’re twelve, then? I thought you said that you were sixteen?”

“I, like you, was always taught to lie to my captors before all else.”

“So, what’s your name?”

“Birthed or given?”

“Excuse me?”

“Birth name, or given name?”

“Aren’t they the same thing?”

“Nope. My birth name was Farid. Once I joined, it got changed to Ghalib.”

“Why?”

“He thought that changing my name from ‘dear son’ to ‘conqueror’ was more fitting. It's more of a heroic name. Same way people would hate to be beat up by someone called 'Tiny'. The name's supposed to inspire fear.”

Mukuro heard Matt chuckling. "Hey Mick, I think you should change your name."

"Shut the fuck up, Gauthier."

She did her best to shake the bickering pair out of her head. “He?”

“The leader.”

“You were supposed to pretend to be his son?”

“No, no, no. They’re two completely different people.”

“So why are you fighting? Everyone else that came with you is a lot older than you are.”

“I’m the man of my household. I’m here to fight.”

“To say that to a twelve year old is messed up.” Matt said. Mukuro echoed the sentiment.

Ghalib or, Farid, shrugged. “They said otherwise that they’d kill my mother and leave my brother and sister to starve, then plug my father out of his life support. I couldn’t just let that happen. You know how duty works.”

“I guess you don’t actually like frying ants under magnifying glasses, then?”

“I’d much rather be writing or reading poetry, or anything else, really. I hate fighting. He only took me under his wing because my father was special to him. I don’t like what I do, but I have to be here and do what I need to get done if I ever want to see any of them again.”

“Family duties.” Mukuro’s mind flashed to her own family, if it could be considered one. “Guess we’re pretty alike, huh?”

He shook his head. “No, we’re not. You could choose to come here and fight. You had other options, besides fighting. I didn’t have those choices.”

“So you’re here for your family. Not for anything they believe in?”

“Oh, when you put it that way, I’m here to avenge my real father. I guess if I got any older I would start to believe it too, but now? I’m very confused. What kind of culture has you hurting people and killing to force other to adopt it? Intimidating people into loving your ideas usually makes them hate the idea even more.”

“That’s what happened with you?”

“Oh yeah. I’m here until the war is over, then I’ll go back to school and meet my classmates who made it out, then after I finish school there I’ll go on to university.”

“Big dreams, huh?”

He jabbed a finger at Mukuro. “Pay attention to me, because I’ll be winning the Pulitzer prize for the work that I do, or I’ll die trying. Nobody will ever be able to say that they’ve never heard of me in a few years after this whole mess ends.”

Mukuro nodded. “Can’t wait to read it.”

“So, I believe you’ve asked a few more questions than I have, so let’s even the score a little bit. Who are you here for?"

A face flashed through Mukuro’s mind so quickly that she couldn’t identify its owner. She was too blinded by the smile that they had.

“I have no real reasons. My loyalties don’t really lie with my shoddy excuse of a family. I’m just here. Following orders, like I’m supposed to. It’s what makes me a mercenary. In it with no real desire to fight for an ideal or to be connected to either side of a fight.”

“I know that you’re lying.”

“I’m fighting for a smile.”

“Whose?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mukuro, we’re following a lead. We’ll need you to stall for a little while longer, but we don’t think your prisoner is going to tell us anything else that we want to hear.” Matt said.

“Do you have any paper, Megumi?”

“What?”

“I want to write. Please give me some paper. I’ve answered all of your questions.”

Mukuro considered it.

“I’ll be back in a bit.”

She locked the door behind her, before sprinting to the barracks. Oscar had paper, and a pen. Surely he wouldn’t mind if she took a few sheets from the back of his notebook, right? Farid wanted to write, and she was still supposed to distract him.

After checking to make sure that the last eight pages of Oscar’s notebook were clear of writing, she ripped them out and grabbed his pen. She took off towards the cells and arrived panting, unlocking the door and shoving the items into a shocked Farid’s arms.

“The person that I took these from doesn’t know that I took them.”

“Really?” The way Farid looked at the writing materials made it seem as though Mukuro had offered him a prize worth millions. His smile spread across his face, before he started to laugh. Mukuro found herself laughing along with him.

“Thank you, Megumi.”

“I go by Mukuro.”

“Really? Well then, thank you, Mukuro.”

“Your pronunciation is off.” She giggled. “There’s three parts to my name.”

“I write better than I talk, trust me.” Farid promised. Mukuro observed quietly as he took the paper and laid it on the floor of the cell, in a dry patch. She watched as he took Oscar’s fountain pen and wiped it carefully on his own shirt to get rid of excess ink. Then, after making a few strokes in the air to get used to the pen, he started writing with a desperation that Mukuro had never seen before in a writer.

“Why do you write like you need it to survive?”

“Maybe because I do.”

“Mukuro,” Matt said through the earpiece, ”there’s nothing else that we need you to ask your hostage. Juliet wants you to sleep.”

“I have to go.” Mukuro said, getting up. “I’ll be waiting to hear news of your writing awards. Invite me to your award ceremonies when you win.”

“No problem. Keep an eye out for me.” Farid said, focus still trained entirely on the pages in front of him.

Mukuro was almost out the door when-

“Mukuro, wait!”

“What’s wrong?” She turned around to see Farid, still staring at the floor. This time, however, his gaze wasn’t trained on the paper in front of him.

“Has anyone ever told you that your shadow looks like a supermodel?”

Mukuro thought of Junko, how she was infinitely prettier than Mukuro. Looked down at her white t-shirt and camo pants, with her black boots still laced up. “No, and to be honest? I don’t know why anyone would ever see that in me, or in my shadow.”

“You’ve never met a poet before, have you?”

“Not before you. Thank you, though, I’ll take the shadow thing as a compliment. Good night, Farid.”

“Good night, Mukuro. And thank you, for the paper.”

Mukuro woke up the latest the next morning, with the sun shining in her face. Yawning and stretching, she looked out the window to see the rest of her squad.

Walking the prisoners out of their holding cells.

“Juliet, please!” Mukuro begged, kneeling before her, knuckles white. “We don’t have to do this!”

“Mukuro, get up. You’re making a fool of yourself.”

“Spare the boy! Please, he’s a friend! We can trust him!”

“No, we kill him with the rest of his group, or we set them all free. Who knows what could happen if we let him in with Fenrir?”

“Nothing! Because he’s a kid like me!”

“That’s what makes him all the more dangerous.”

”Let him take the two week test to join us, please! He deserves a chance to choose his life, too! We can’t just let him die after he’s never had a chance to live for himself!”

“Out of the way, please.”

“You have to give him this chance! It’s not fair that you’ve accepted me but don’t accept him! Please, Juliet, spare him!”

“Mukuro, I said no. If I were you, I’d remember rule number three. Now go back to the barracks, or walk with us.”

She walked next to Farid, scrubbing at her face for any stray tears. The rest of her section ignored her as they walked out of basecamp’s gates.

“Mukuro?” He shifted his bound wrists towards her. Mukuro saw where his skin was rubbed raw behind his back. “I’m scared. Can you hold my hand?”

She did. She heard Oscar clear his throat behind her, and shot a glare in his direction. What if he didn’t like what she was doing? If he had a problem with it, why hadn’t he stopped her last night?

“The paper and pen are still in my cell, I’m pretty sure.” Farid whispered. “I couldn’t hide them, but you should be able to find them in there still. I doubt you clean cells unless you really have to. I want to thank you. Last night was the best night I’ve had in a while, because of you.”

Mukuro saw a platform in the distance. Poles stuck up from the platform. Mukuro and Farid stopped, only to get pushed by Oscar.

“Keep moving. Both of you.”

“Mukuro, listen to me. No, no, don’t cry now, I hear you sniffling and I need you to listen. Now is not the time for tears. Once they take me, I want you to turn around and start heading back to basecamp. Find my writing. Run back to basecamp if you have to, but I don’t want you staying here when it happens.”

“It’s not fair.”

“You asked me one thing yesterday. About why I thought your shadow looked like a supermodel, even though you couldn’t see it.”

“What?”

“It’s because I saw something beautiful in you. Just because you can’t see something in yourself, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“I still don’t know whose smile I’m fighting for.”

“It’s alright. I hope that you’ll figure it out some day.”

A rough pair of hands seized Farid, ripping him from Mukuro. She looked up to see First Sergeant Stewart.

“Nice to see you again, Mukuro.” He said, waving off her salute. “I’ll take it from here with this one.”

“Go.” Said Farid.

“No.”

“Excuse me, girl?”

“Why did you accept me, but none of you are willing to accept him?”

“That’s the way it is, cadet, and it would be wise of you to watch your mouth.”

“Mukuro, go now, please.” He smiled at her, even though it didn’t reach his eyes. It wasn’t the same smile as the one he had last night. “It’s okay. Go.”

Mukuro stood there, even as a potato sack was tied around Farid's head roughly. Even as he was tied to a pole, pink band-aid glinting in the sun. Stewart began his countdown. She heard the sounds of guns being prepared.

She turned and ran.

The sound of gunfire rang across the expanse. Mukuro screamed as she kept running, hands on her ears, all the way back to base.

“I’m fighting to protect a smile.” She had said.

But whose smile did it belong to?

She found the little stack of papers, weighed down by the pen, on a dry patch of floor in Farid’s cell. Crying in that room felt only natural, after everything that had happened, but she made sure to hold Farid’s pages far from her tears.

She didn’t know how long she stayed in that room, but when she took the stairs up, pages in her arms, her section was just walking in through the gates of basecamp.

“Oscar, I took your pen and some paper from your notebook yesterday.” She confessed, as Charlie waved her over.

Oscar was clearly startled by the confession, coming from a little girl with tears still threatening to leak. “You... what?”

“Farid wanted to write, and I know that that book is important to you, but I just took a few blank pages from the back and-”

“And you didn’t ask me.”

“I’m sorry, but you were busy with your own questioning, and Matt and Mickey wanted me to keep Farid distracted until they were sure that they didn’t want to ask him any more questions.”

“Uh, I’d just like to say that I didn’t mean ‘distract your hostage’ by giving him paper from Oscar’s notebook.” Mickey clarified.

“What did he even do with the paper and pen?” Sierra asked, taking note of the pages in Mukuro’s hands, but not actually touching the papers. “What did he write?”

“They’re poems.” Mukuro clarified, flipping gently through the pages. She turned to glare at Juliet. “They’re poems that a dead boy wrote me.”

Chapter Text

“Mukuro? It’s Mickey, can I come in?” The lilt of his voice offered little comfort, unlike usual.

“Mickey-san, I’m going to request that you leave. Me. Alone.” Sometimes, nothing felt better than speaking in a language she was fluent in. Especially if it was angry talk. “Please.” She added, as an afterthought.

“Please, can you let me into the bathroom? I need to pee.”

“There are two bathrooms.”

“Well, I really would hate to go into the other one when Matt’s just unleashed beany hell.”

“Tough break, Mickey-san.”

“Mickey-san? I don’t recall you ever being this formal to me, even on your first day.”

“If this is a plot to get me out of the bathroom, it’s not working.”

“Now, what gave you that crazy idea?”

“I didn’t hear a toilet flush, stupid. If you’re going to trick me, you’ll need a bit more effort. Maybe another one of those nighttime stealth missions will cut it.”

“Muku- I told you that it wouldn’t work without the sound of running water, Matt! I know you want to save the Earth and all, but come on, you didn’t take that drama option for nothing.”

“Excuse me for trying to conserve when we’re in a dry region in the middle of nowhere, Mick.”

“Mukuro, you trying to lock yourself in a bathroom to cry for a whole day over a now dead boy is just a waste of time.” Oscar called through the door, at the same time Kat left the room, with an “I’m just saying, we might as well leave her here. She’s bound to get hungry sometime today. We’ll talk to her then.”

“She’s really shaken up by this, huh?”

“She must be, Charlie. She’s still very, very young. Go ahead, all of you. Do whatever you want to. I’ll stay here.” Juliet said, probably waving everyone out the door, fussing and clucking her tongue at them all the while.

Once they were gone, it was just the two of them left.

“Chiquita?”

Sure, Mukuro was mad at her entire section for standing by while Farid was shot through with bullets, but most of them were just enablers. The real people who had let this happen to him? Juliet and Stewart.

“Mukuro, I know you’re in there.”

“Wow, who would have guessed? Everyone else left the room and the only one left in the bathroom is me?”

And it wasn’t like she was going to march up to Stewart and start yelling at him for being heartless when Juliet was right there for her to voice her unhappiness to. She could have stopped it right then and there, if she had wanted to! If anything, Juliet could have vouched for Farid and gotten Stewart to trust him more.

But Juliet hadn't.

Why hadn't she?

To let a little boy die, why hadn't she stepped in? Why was Juliet even with Fenrir to begin with? False ideals of protecting those who couldn't protect themselves?

“Mukuro, please. There’s something that I need to give to you. If you take it, I won't force my way in there.”

“Will you leave?”

“If you take this, then I'll leave the room. If you want, I can also tell everyone else to stay out of here until bedtime tonight.”

Mukuro pulled the door open a little. Her burner phone slid through the crack. She closed it quickly.

She heard juliet leaving. “That's it then, this room is all yours, until bedtime tonight, but if you want to talk, I’ll be in the office.”

The door shut behind her.

Mukuro was alone, and all was quiet for a minute.

Then her phone starred to buzz.

The others were texting her.

“I’m sorry for trying to coax you out of the bathroom by pretending Mickey couldn't use the other one. I'll be in the comms tower if you want to talk. Gracie should be getting ready for bed, but I'm sure she wouldn't mind talking to you either.”

“Sorry for lying that I had to use the washroom. I'm in the med bay, if there's something you want to learn regarding bandages and injury wrapping.”

“Charlie and I are in the flight SIM.”

“I’ll be unloading some boxes in the kitchen.”

“If you want to cry, that’s fine. If you want to do something productive, meet me in the gym for training.”

At least Matt had opened up a different option for her. She opened up her email. None from Junko, but it might be worth a shot.

Ko-chan?

Something… happened today. Something bad.

I made a friend, and then I heard him die. I didn’t watch it, because I was running back to the base, but I don’t know what to do. He was nice, and friendly, and didn’t deserve to die. He writes some nice poems. I’m confused. Why did the Sergeants give the okay?

Mukuro.

She found Kat going to town on a punching bag in the gym. She looked surprised that Mukuro had decided to come to her.

“Didn’t think I’d see you here. You’re always so much closer to Oscar and Sierra and the rest of them.”

“I just wanted to punch something, and I couldn’t ask anyone to stand still while I did it, so I figured that I might as well come here to keep you company and destroy some dummies.”

Kat grinned. “Sounds cool to me. Want me to spot you?”

Mukuro choked on her water when Kat complimented her on her form during a break.

Kat choked on hers when Mukuro asked her family.

“Got one back at home, and one here. Wanna smash some glass to make you feel better?”

A few smashed glasses and destroyed boxes later, Kat put an arm around Mukuro.

She realized that she had never been this close to Kat before, physically, that is. Kat had always been a little more distant than the others.

“Kat?”

“Hmm?”

“Why am I so confused with Farid while none of you are?”

Kat dropped her arm.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“What? No, no, no, no! You didn’t. I’m just trying to think of an answer.”

Mukuro sat down. Kat sat down in front of her.

“I… don’t have an answer for you. I know that you’re confused, and you’re allowed to be. You’re trying to figure stuff out, probably before you should have because you’re with us, and that’s causing a lot of confusion for you. It means you’re growing up. You’re mature for your age.”

“Mature people know what happens and why, though.”

“Well, it’s not like we’re not confused, but I’ve seen this situation before, I know what sometimes happens. The risk of what could happen if we aren’t careful.”

“He’s a kid!”

“He’s a little more than a kid, Mukuro. He might have been a kid that’s been raised for combat.”

“So, he went with some guys on a mission, so do I!”

“But, you’ve literally been with us for a little over two weeks. You don’t think of your family as weak. You don’t think that offering someone compassion is a symbol of weakness. Here’s the thing. The power of friendship won’t be able to save these kids. For most of their lives, they’ve been told that things like kindness are wrong, and weak. They’ve been told that people who show kindness or mercy are weak, and they ought to be destroyed.”

“What?”

“He’s been in the system for a while. You couldn’t even kill anyone two days ago, but had he been in your place, he would have, without any of the emotional baggage that you have.”

“But why weren’t we allowed to keep him? Surely he would have given us some information!”

“He would have tried to escape if we left him alone for a moment. He would try to kill all of us to escape and return to his handlers. You were requesting that Juliet take on a ticking time bomb with us, even if you didn’t mean it. And it’s not your fault that you didn’t know, but this is a risk that we can’t take. We aren’t well equipped enough for this.”

“Is anyone well equipped for this?”

“Prisoner of war camps, with professional therapists, I guess. But Fenrir typically operates outside of them, so that’d be a no.” She scoffed. “Whatever the case, kids don’t belong on battlefields.”

Mukuro knew Kat was also talking about her, in that statement. She cleared her throat awkwardly. “So, he would have died, regardless of whether he gave us new information or not?”

“Sucks, but yes. Wanna hit something to feel better?”

“No, thanks.”

Mukuro left to go back to the barracks. On the way, she felt her phone buzz.

Junko had replied to her email!

Muku-chan,

What did I say about calling me Ko-chan? You hurt my feelings before, I think it’s only fair that you earn back the right to call me that. What if you betray me again? I don’t think I’d be able to stand it!

By the way, have you ever heard of child soldiers? Kids raised to combat? I’m guessing that your friend was one of them. If they were, there’s not much that could be done. Your boss probably iced him to keep him from killing everyone else on your compound given the first chance he got. He asked for something of you, didn’t he? Paper to write his poems on? What if you had kept him, and one day he had asked for a machine gun, and you had given him one? He would have killed you because he would have believed that it was right.

So if that’s what made him so special, what makes you NOT a child soldier? I thought you would have been happy to kill, given by how eagerly you left me alone. We’re heading back to Japan soon. Mom has some paperwork that she needs to change to rectify with the school. Of course, I haven’t told her that you’re in Fenrir, so she still thinks that you’re missing somewhere in Amsterdam.

Junko.

Chapter Text

Hey Gracie?

Something bad happened yesterday. We found a kid, not much older than me, out in the field, and he died in front of a firing squad. I had to question him beforehand, but I thought that he was fine. I don’t understand why, if they’re a child soldier, I’m not.

If this boy was a child soldier, what does that make me? I’m also a child, and a soldier. There isn’t a difference, is there?

Also, I still feel really bad about killing, but I can’t go back to my sister until Christmas, because that’s when we get a break. How come everything hurts?.

Mukuro

 

“Mukuro?”

“Yes, Juliet?”

“It’s been twenty minutes after wake up call and you aren’t up yet.” She reached to shake her shoulder. “Let’s go, up you come. We need you. There’s a field mission waiting for us today.”

Mukuro was carefully guarded for the rest of the morning. Not in the sense that she was always surrounded by the others, but that she was always close to somebody who would be able to help her. Mickey and Matt were the most common candidates for this stuff, she realized about ten minutes into the car ride. Mickey because he’d blabber on and on about nothing to her in Japanese, and Matt, because he’d always be willing to chime in with an embarrassing anecdote about his childhood with Gracie.

The car stopped behind a dune. Everyone piled out, except for Juliet, who motioned for Mukuro to stay in the car as well.

“We’ve got a special place for you, today.” She explained, as she drove the car farther from the rest of the group. “Long distance.” The car flew over a bump, and Mukuro heard her whoop quietly in the driver’s seat. “You’re great at sniping, so we’re going to use that to our advantage.”

She dropped Mukuro off, before turning the car around. “Stay safe. Wait for our cue, then do what you can. We’re quite sure that you’ll be safer here.” She tacked on as an afterthought.

And then Mukuro was alone.

With her thoughts about Fenrir, about her family, about Farid, and what he meant about who she fought for.

“I’m in.” Matt’s voice crackled through the static. “Give me thirty seconds and when I call it, you guys can come in.”

“Stay safe, Matt.”

“Aww, thanks, Mukuro. You too.”

She settled down in the dirt, getting as comfortable as an eleven year old in her situation could. She raised her gun.

Deep breaths. She could do this.

“GO!”

She sniped from the sidelines, that was how it was. She wasn’t good enough to follow her comrades into battle, so she was here.

And you still haven’t gotten rid of Farid’s poems yet , the voice inside her head said. And you still can’t get rule #3 right, no matter how hard you try . Mukuro’s voice manifested into her own face, whose upper lip curled. That’s why your sniping isn’t as good this time. The tone changed. Because instead of seeing these people as threats to your wellbeing, you’re seeing them as individuals with hopes, dreams, and sometimes, family. Mukuro saw her face curl up into a nasty smile. And you know all about splitting up a family because of things you do, now don’t you?

“MUKURO!” Someone, was it Charlie? “WATCH OUT!”

Mukuro’s survival instincts kicked in, and she rolled out of the way just to see her would-be killer land in the dirt next to her, rolling as he came down.

And she was alone.

Her assailant lunged at her, his combat knife drawn. Mukuro tried to shoot at him, but he ducked and weaved, and she couldn’t aim right, she was too confused about what was happening, she didn’t have enough time, she was thinking too much.

His knife dug into the metal of her gun. No more bullets for her. She froze up as she looked up into the eyes of the other soldier.

Training, dummy! Remember your training! This is what you know how to do! It’s just as easy as-

Mukuro got kicked in the gut, wheezing as she fell to the ground a few feet away from her attacker. As she caught her breath, he approached her, until he caught her by the collar of her shirt.

Weak point. Side of their leg. Use your knife. Stab.

Mukuro did, shrieking as her knife flew, spraying blood out from the slash.

Her attacker bellowed in pain as they dropped her. She used the opportunity to dig into the other leg, before crawling away, clutching at her stomach, where she’d been hit.

Oh yeah, that’s the solar plexus, for sure.

She had to run, had to get away from it all, had to get somewhere safe where she would be safe, where-

Her boot was grabbed by the assailant. She was dragged back against the ground, dirt and rocks digging into her palms and chin.

That’s gonna leave a mark in the morning.

Mukuro was stuck, weaponless, under the man who dragged her back. He picked up his knife and lifted her up again. Almost gently, he traced the edge of the blade against her exposed neck. He raised the knife again, glinting dangerously in the sun.

Stomp on his feet and kick the space between his legs.

She did.

He dropped the knife with a pained wheeze, and it fell close to Mukuro, who scrabbled to pick it up.

Stab the same place you did before, by the legs. Twist the blade, this time.

She did, trying her best to twist the blade in the gash that she made. The man screamed.

He’s shorter now. Get his neck.

Shutting her eyes and shrieking, Mukuro drove the blade home. His bellow of pain was there, and all of a sudden, gone. She yanked the blade out and saw the man collapse in a heap, before running to pick up the other one, her Fenrir issued knife, tucking both behind her back, keeping her eyes on the man, bleeding out in front of her.

“-Ro! Mukuro! Do you read me?”

She scanned her immediate surroundings before answering, mouth dry and heaving. “Please, Matt, tell me that I’m the only one here.”

“You are. Wait there. We’ll be right over once we finish. Stay safe.”

She looked down at her hands, stained brown and red, which was slowly turning brown in the heat. She tasted salt in her mouth, too. Maybe she bit her cheek or something during the scuffle. Maybe it was just sweat. When she looked to the blood puddle around the neck and leg wounds, she tasted bile.

Well, dummy, the voice in her head said, sounding more like Junko than herself, at least you’re alive, right?

She supposed that that was better than nothing. She just had to… keep it together. She could do this.

Maybe a bit more hand to hand training would be good, though.

 

Hey, Mukuro!

Can I call you Mookie? I kinda like that nickname. If you don’t want it, that’s fine, too. I just wanted to try it out. If you have another nickname suggestion, I’m all ears!

Let me just say, that you’re not a child soldier in the same sense that the boy you found was. This boy was (and I’m pulling at straws here, so if you have facts, I’d be glad to hear them!) most likely born into the life, and grew up believing that he was doing right, and that everyone else who didn’t share his views was wrong, all the time. This doesn’t happen with you, so you’re not a child soldier.

You wanna see your sister for Christmas? I’ve got a better idea! Come to Québec with Matt, instead! We’ll have lots of fun, and I’ll show you around everywhere!

xoxoxo, babye!

Gracie Gauthier <3

Chapter Text

Hey Mukuro! School started, and nobody suspects that I’m keeping a secret! Well, Matsuda caught on real quick, so I told him about it, but other than that, nobody suspects a thing!

Lots of love, your twin,

Junko

 

Hi Junko. Thank you for keeping this between us. I’ve started putting money into a bank account that we can use. Keep this from mom. I don’t know if she’ll pull the money away from you and the last thing I want is for her to use my money on more alcohol.

Mukuro

 

The new house (I guess I should call it our old house, huh?) hasn’t changed much. Although our room is just my room, now. We started moving back in, but I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out. Wish you were here. Even if I still have no idea what you’re really doing, it’d still be nice to have someone here with me.

Junko

 

How is school, Junko? Do people ask about me?

 

Ask about you? Don’t be silly! Who would? They’ve all heard the stories about how you’re missing, presumed dead in Amsterdam, why would they ask? All I do is start crying at the mention of your name once, and nobody ever brings it up again! It’s like you never existed here at all!

 

Hey Mookie, Last time I messaged you, you didn’t say anything back about the nickname, so I think I’ll keep it around, for now! Let me know if you don’t really like it, though! School’s starting soon, but there have been sales for “back to school” since summer started! It’s crazy! The deals get worse, sometimes!

Gracie

 

Hi Gracie. Thanks again for letting me keep in touch with you even as school starts. I know you must be busy.

It’s hard, being here and being so violent every day. I don’t know what I’m fighting for half the time, and the other half all I know is that I’m fighting for my life.

Mukuro

 

Hey Mookie, I’ve started school, and we’re doing a novel study, about a book that I absolutely detest. I know it’s hard, because Matt tells me about all that you go through almost every day. I’m far from where the both of you are, but I do want you to know that I’m here for you, and that you aren’t alone.

G.

Chapter Text

October

Hey Mukuro! Assigned reading is back. Akabi-Sensei handed out the books. Gosh, they’re sooooo old and tattered. You know how last year, our books were 50% tape? This year the pages might as well be laminated. They’re like, 100% tape. Can't even read the words sometimes. I'm treating mine like a mad-libs book. You’d think with a system that cares so much about getting kids registered in school would care more about motivating their kids to go, but whatever, I guess.

 

Is Akabi-Sensei your homeroom, too? Or just another teacher? How’re your other classes going? It feels like forever since I last did anything school related. Is math still hard for you?

 

Ugh, and isn’t it! I hate it! We have to do some trippy stuff with fractions and triangles, and honestly? I’m over it all. It’s even worse when Ueda-Sensei puts fractions in our triangles. It figures, right? The only teacher who actually cares about what we learn and doesn’t view us as a charity case, and they’re the one with the math degree. He goes off about how university math is going to be harder, but it’s not like any of us are going to go to a good one! I honestly doubt half of us are even going to go to high school after compulsory education stops!

 

Yeah, that really sucks. How’s mom been, recently?

 

You’d never believe it, but I think she’s getting… better? Dad’s alimony is finally starting to pay off, because mom let me get a new pair of shoes last week. Real new, out of a box shoes. Not from a charity bin or out of some trash. Can you believe it? I know I’m not supposed to get my hopes up in case they get dashed again, but can you blame me for wanting her good mood and non-rampant alcoholism to stay? Can you blame me for wanting nice things?

 

I think it’s okay that you have some nice things every once in awhile. If mom won’t let you have it, you can use my paychecks. I mean, I don’t have a use for them when I’m fighting. Just like, be subtle about it so that she doesn’t get angry. Sound good? I have to go out on a field mission today, so I’ll end it here.

 

Thanks, Muku! I got some candy and split it with Matsuda during our lunch break. I’m thinking of joining a club so that I have something to do. It’s so boring without you here. I can’t even make a little mischief without getting in trouble, because you’re not here anymore. Geez, how bored are they, to be yelling at an eleven year old for misbehaving? I mean, just the other day, Yoshida-Sensei made me apologize for something. She! Made me! Apologize! All I did was talk back at her. I mean, I don’t have your ability to back down from a conflict, and you weren’t there to apologize for me, so I had to do it! She said it was supposed to make me feel all grown up, doing stuff on my own, but it just made me feel mad.

 

Hey Mookie, what do you think I should be for Halloween? You know about Halloween, right? It’s a thing in Japan, right?

 

Hi Gracie, I know what you’re talking about, kind of. I never got the chance to really celebrate or prepare for Halloween. I mean, costumes weren’t affordable, and also we don’t trick or treat, whatever it is, that Oscar just told me about. Going door to door for candy handouts isn't really a Japanese thing. What else do you have planned to celebrate?

 

I think I’m going to go on a ghost tour, too! All of my friends are thinking of going on one, and I really want to dress up and go with them! Or to a haunted house! I love haunted houses! School midterms are soon, and I’ve been staying up late just to get all of my studying in! Good thing my exams will be over before Halloween, so that I can have some fun with my friends!

 

That's good to hear, whatever a ghost tour is. Good luck on your midterms, study hard. What costume are you picking?


I'm going to be… a superhero! I have the cape and spandex all ready! I'm stitching the hero logo onto the cape myself, and it's really fun! I just need to plan out the logo I want to use. I’m thinking to use the Wonder Woman as a base and to add on top of that. I'll send you a picture when I’m finished!

Chapter Text

Junko, I saw a pretty big amount of money go out of our account yesterday. Did something happen? Are you alright?

Muku-chan

 

Relax, Muku-chan! Nothing really happened, I just saw some beautiful dresses yesterday when I was walking home and had to get them. I’m sending pictures. The first one, it looks pretty similar to the one that you wore when we were at Efteling, in Amsterdam? You know, the pink one with the white shoulder straps? This one just has an extra white ribbon tied around the waist. I think if mom ever saw me in this, she’d cry because of how much it reminds me of you. She still thinks you’re dead. But if it’s anything, she goes weeks without stiff drinks, these days. If only she’d been like this when we went to Tokyo, right? If only she were like this when we were on the streets. Maybe we wouldn’t even have been there to begin with!

Anyways, I also bought a newer seifuku, because the one I have right now is getting too short for uniform regulations. I swear Yoshida-sensei has it out for me, she’s the one that told me that I wasn’t allowed to wear the seifuku to school because it was shorter than allowed. And you know how seifukus aren’t cheap, even though the school is for low-income families.

You know how it is, right? Stuck in boring military fatigues all day, I bet you’d want a change of clothes. Well, I guess that’s how it is for both of us. I can’t always afford them, and you just can’t get them. How did they even get fatigues your size? You’re not exactly adult sized.

How’s killing people? Better than being with me? I’d bet that it’s better than being stuck in a class all day long. I learned nothing from assigned reading, and Matsuda got detention, so I couldn’t even hang out with him after school. Everything sucks, and while I’m glad I get nice clothes, I’m mad because everything sucks because you aren’t there to help me.

Whatever! Don’t die!

Love, Ko <3

~~~~~~~

Junko twirled around in another new dress, a light blue with polka dots, that went down to her knees and paired great with the new shoes mom had bought her. She’d been acting better, Junko knew. Trying to be a better person after the both of them had come back from Tokyo. After it had only been her and mom on the plane back to Japan. She had done her best to make the house livable again, and lit incense every day for Mukuro on the altar. That was their normal, now. They were, for the first time in a while, stable. The added money from dad definitely helped, but Junko was still mad that it took so long to get back. After all, it’s not like mom couldn’t have curbed her alcohol until they were more financially stable. Did her mom really value her over a bottle? Over a warm house? Over feeding her two daughters?

Well, one daughter, now.

Junko would never say that she was scared of her mother, but she knew her mother, knew that the slightest thing might set her off on a bad day and she’d be hurt. Knew that she couldn’t find out about the dresses, and especially couldn’t find out about Mukuro still being alive.

Stable. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t stir the pot. If you cause problems at school, blame it on your “dead” sister, and tear up a little, for pity’s sake. If the teacher doesn’t forgive you by then, bring up that your sister is assumed dead, and remind them that you’re going through some very tough times at home because of it. If they still expect an apology, give one, albeit tearily.

See, even without Mukuro here, she would still take the fall for Junko.

Just like old days.

Enoshima Junko wasn’t learning, but she was adapting.

~~~~~~~

Hey Mookie, I can't wait for you to come here with my idiot brother!! We’re going to have so much fun!! I’m gonna show you around everywhere, and we can do so much together! We just got a giant snowstorm last week, so I had the best snowball fight with my friends the other day! We’ll have one, for sure, when you come here for Christmas break! You’ve talked it over with Juliet, right??

~~~~~~~

Mukuro looked at the email. Oh shit. She’d forgotten about telling Juliet about her plans.

She hadn’t told Junko, either.

What were her plans, anyways?

She weighed her options. There was her, going to Canada with Matt and spending her break there, and having to deal with a disappointed, but only temporarily so, Junko. And then there was her, going to Japan, and having to break the news to her mother that not only was she alive, she was a mercenary. And having to deal with the fallout that would definitely ensue. Junko would be happy, but she seemed pretty mad in her last email. She’d hate to deal with an angry mom and an angry Junko, but her angry mom might hurt both of them if she knew Mukuro was still alive. And she couldn’t have that. Not to her dear sister. Junko didn't deserve that, even if Mukuro did.

By no surprise, Canada won out.

Mukuro told Juliet, who smiled at her and said that she’d arrange for a flight. Something discreet that would keep authorities from catching on and identifying her as the lost girl from Amsterdam.

~~~~~~~

Hey Gracie,

I can’t wait either.

Mookie.

Chapter Text

December

Muku-chan, you’re not coming back?? I can’t believe your squad leader is keeping you there for Christmas! She said you could come back for the holidays, why does she get to hold you there now? You’re not even hurt! If you were hurt, it’d make sense if you stayed behind, but instead you’re just being bumped to another section to help out on a long-term mission? Are you sure this woman even likes you?

 

Junko, Juliet has done a better job of being a parent than mom ever has. She likes me, and I like her. She’s not keeping me here because she hates me. She’s putting me with another squad because they need me to pretend I’m just an innocent girl as I put bombs around it. I don’t know when I’ll have internet again, so happy early birthday.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Mukuro sighed. Was it right to lie to her sister?

“Well, you’re dead to the world, aint’cha?” Kat asked from her bunk, where she was shoving clothing haphazardly into her bag. Mukuro straightened, realizing that she had asked that question aloud. Then she felt a little ashamed that her first instinct was to no longer speak in Japanese.

“Kitt makes a good point.” Sierra added, just finishing her packing. “If you’re dead, we shouldn’t be taking you to Japan, where things will definitely get very messy, very quickly. Besides, it’s not a lie. Lots of sections have asked about you.”

“It feels wrong, though. Lying to her. I love her. Why would I lie to her?”

“You’re doing this to avoid problems that would definitely come up should you go to Japan.” Mickey pointed out.

“Are you sure there’s nothing else that could be done?”

“Mmm, probably not.” Charlie shrugged. “Now, can you send it so that we can go?” He picked up his own bag and headed out the door. "I'll be waiting for y'all in the hangar!"

“I don’t want to lie to my sister! It feels wrong! I can’t do this to her when- Mickey! Give me my phone back!”

Mickey pressed send as Mukuro jumped to try and reach it. “Well, I guess you told her. Can’t go back on it now. Now, follow an order from a senior. You’re going to go with Matt, you’re going to spend your holiday at his house with his family, who have already agreed with it, and you’re going to have lots of fun. And, you’ll tell us all about it when you get back. Understood?”

Mukuro slumped her shoulders. “Understood.”

Hefting the backpack she had brought with her over her shoulders, she gave Juliet, Oscar, and Sierra hugs, and waved goodbye politely to Mickey. Then she left, following Kat but ahead of Matt, who had to jog a little to catch up with them, because his goodbyes took forever.

Charlie waved when he saw the three enter the hangar. He was standing in front of the plane that had brought Mukuro here to begin with. Or, at least, a plane with the same design. “I’d normally be flying the long way,” He began. “but Oscar isn’t going back to Samoa until tomorrow. So, I’m just dropping the three of you off before going home, myself. Hop in.”

Kat put her things next to the first seat that she saw, and collapsed into it, sighing heavily as she sank into the comfortable chair. Matt sat in the seat a row across from her. Not wanting to be alone, Mukuro sat down next to Matt. Charlie got in, saw them all organized, and then closed the cockpit door.

“Alright everyone, thank y’all for flying Air Charlie!” He announced through the speakers moments later, pretending to act like an in-flight safety announcement on a regular plane. He pointed out the emergency exits, and what to do, should he have a heart attack, and some other instructions that were just for the adults on the plane.

“One final announcement to a very special passenger!” He said. “Moomoo, Just so you know, I do have to drop like, three missiles before we can actually leave for Canada. You gonna be okay?”

Mukuro nodded, before remembering that Charlie was in the cockpit, and the door was closed. “Um, I guess?” She called instead.

“There’s headphones in the pocket next to the cockpit door. Listen to some really loud music if you need a distraction. You can grab them now and use them when I say you might need them. Might I recommend the latest Beyoncé album that Matt downloaded onto your phone that he claimed was classical music? Also, my cockpit door is going to be unlocked, so if any of y’all want to chat or something, come on in.”

Mukuro walked to grab the headphones, also tossing Kat a pair. It looked like Matt had brought his own.

“Everybody ready for us to go?” Charlie asked, one last time as the plane started purring.

“Yes!” The three of them called.

“Alright, please remember to keep your arms and legs inside the ride!” Charlie chuckled, as the plane started moving for takeoff.

About half an hour later, Charlie’s voice rang through the cabin. “Hey, Mukuro? Now’s probably a good time for you to play that Beyoncé.”

So, Mukuro did. And she watched her cabinmates as the plane cabin shook, instead of staring at the wreckage outside of the window.

‘Hold Up’ played as Kat closed her eyes and winced for as long as the song lasted. Matt was playing a game on his phone that only required swiping and tapping on the screen. Something that could be done mindlessly. He had his headphones in, too.

By the end of a song called ‘Daddy Lessons’, they were on their way to Canada, and Kat’s eyes were open again.

Mukuro made some small talk with Matt, and then ate some food that she had packed in her bag. Kat tossed a bag of chips to Matt, and the three of them split the bag up, saving a little bit for Charlie, saying they’d give it to him when they felt like it.

Then the adults started getting sleepy.

Which was fine, but Mukuro wasn’t sleepy, and with the adults dozing off, there wasn’t much else to do.

So, when Kat was curled up in a ball, and Matt was drooling onto his backpack, and there was nothing cool to look at from the windows, Mukuro tucked a tissue under Matt’s mouth and slid the cockpit door open, holding the chip bag out as an offering.

“Hey, Moomoo.” Charlie waved. He used that hand to point to a seat next to him. “Wanna help me copilot?”

Copiloting, as it turned out, was kind of boring. Especially when Mukuro knew that she couldn’t press the yellow button when she got bored.

It was basically just Mukuro feeding chips to Charlie, or checking something that she knew he was perfectly capable of checking on his own.

“Is it just chip dust, now?” he asked, when the chips got smaller and smaller.

Mukuro looked into the bag. “Pretty much.”

“Steer for me for a second? I’ll just eat whatever’s left in the bag myself.”

So, Mukuro did. The plane tipped slightly to the left when she took the wheel, but she had straightened it out by the time Charlie was tapping the bottom of the bag to loosen any stray crumbs.

“Hey Charlie?”

“Huh?” He replied, through the last mouthful of chips, crumpling the bag up and tucking it into another bag to the left of his chair.

“Why does everyone have families?”

Charlie took up steering again, nodding his thanks to Mukuro. “Because… they needed at least two parents to be born?”

“That’s not what I meant. Ummm.” Mukuro thought about how best to phrase her question. “Well, the scout picked me off from a street scuffle. Why does everyone else have families that they want to return to? How did everyone tell their families they were mercenaries?”

Charlie shrugged. “Street fights aren’t the only way Fenrir scouts for recruits. I mean, Oscar was asked to join because people saw him fighting and asked if he wanted a way to make more money as a mercenary. He didn’t have any background in weapons, or planes, or anything outside of hand to hand combat before picking up at Fenrir, as far as I’m concerned.”

“I thought they wanted people that had little to no relations with other people to keep paperwork easy?”

“Well, people with reasons to stay alive also do a surprising good job of fighting.”

“Where’s your family?”

“I mostly fly everywhere, I’m gonna visit them while they’re on vacation in Cali. My family doesn’t know I’m even with Fenrir. I lie and tell my family that I work in airshows, mostly. I mean, I was originally going to be a fighter for the military, instead of the mercs,” He tapped his glasses. “But I’m very close to legally blind, so I wasn’t allowed in, no matter how well I did.”

“How do you cover up the tattoo?”

“I don’t. I just say it’s something I got when flying with my first company. It’s not like my parents can identify mercenary symbols, anyway.”

Mukuro nodded. “Cali, you said?”

“California.” He clarified. “Beautiful, white sand beaches, and the babes aren’t terrible either. Maybe I’ll see Riri on vacation there, too.”

They chatted for a little longer, before Mukuro was taking her shoes off and curling up in her seat. “Can I sleep here? Or do you want me to go back?”

“Knock out, I don’t really mind. Just don’t hit the yellow button in your sleep, and we’ll be fine, ‘kay?”

Mukuro nodded, sleepily. The last thing she heard before dozing off was the sound of Charlie singing softly. It sounded far away to her sleepy brain, but it also sounded beautiful.

Charlie had mentioned that his dad had signed him into a youth choir as a kid, after all. "I can't help that I was born with the voice of a fuckin' angel." He had said.

Kat was dropped off in Charlottetown, PEI. Mukuro had returned to her seat after her sleep, and was waving her off the plane.

“Tell Gabrielle that I say hi, alright?” Matt asked, removing his sleeping mask and waving cheerfully at her.

“And I’ll let you know if she still wants you to choke.” Kat said, heavily bundled up in winter gear and flipping him off in a friendly manner as she got off the plane.

Mukuro looked between the stonefaced Kat and the peppy man beside her. “What exactly did you do to make Gabrielle want to strangle you?”

He shrugged. “A coupl’a things, I guess. It’s fine, we mostly just joke about it, now. She’s cool with me, mostly, now. I hope.” He tacked on as an afterthought.

“Well!” Charlie announced. “It’s going to be another two hours, ish, before we land in Montréal, but I’ll get us there, soon enough!”

“Thanks, Charlie!” Mukuro called.

She lasted about twenty minutes before she started talking to Matt again.

“Matt, I have a question.”

“About Kat?”

“How did you know?”

“Because you didn’t talk to her on the way here, but now that she’s gone, you’re talking again.”

“Okay, you caught me. Why does she hate me?”

Matt looked confused. “She doesn’t hate you?”

“It sure seems like she does.”

“It’s hard to explain. Kat is a little rough around the edges.”

“So, she hates me.”

“No, she has some pretty good reasons why she thinks you shouldn’t be fighting the fight we do, but if she hasn’t told you personally, I don’t get to tell you in her stead.”

“But-”

“I think you should ask her about it. I shouldn’t get to tell you about her secrets without her permission, and her not being present is not permission.”

“I want to know, though!”

“And I don’t want to violate the trust that I have with Kat. Let’s talk about literally anything else.”

“Fine.”

They did, for a while, before Matt started pulling his winter gear out of his bag.

Which raised a complication for Mukuro.

She had a heavy army jacket, with a hood and deep pockets, and that was it.

Matt ruffled her hair. “We’ll find you something to wear once we land.”

And land they did, on a plowed runway as snow fell around them.

Charlie landed and let the two of them off by letting Mukuro pull the emergency slide out. He grabbed their bags and rolled them down after the two of them had slid down. Waving goodbye, he started working on setting the slide back.

Matt brought Mukuro in before her fingers froze. They didn’t pass through customs, and took a few private corridors to a sign marked ‘Arrivées/Arrivals’.

A tall girl with dark brown skin, a hot pink jacket, white gloves, and a cute knitted hat with a pompom on it was waiting with a sign that read:

CONNARD (MATTHEW) GAUTHIER ET SA PAL

Matt made a beeline for her, and spun her around in a hug when he got there. They were babbling excitedly in French as Mukuro walked up to the both of them.

“Oh, hello!” The girl said, excitedly pulling Mukuro into a hug, even though she was quite a bit taller. “I’m Gracie Gauthier! It’s great to finally meet you!”

Matt wrapped his arms around her in a fake, yet practiced chokehold. “Mukuro, I’d like to introduce you to my sister.” He readjusted the straps on his bag. “Now, let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

Mukuro knew the rules when it came to eating in with her family.

  1. Thank her mother for the food
  2. Reach for the leftovers
  3. Get reprimanded by either her mother or her sister for reaching for leftovers
  4. Watch in abject terror as either, or both of them, stocked food into her bowl like they were bearing for the apocalypse
  5. Finish it all, smiling the whole way through. Food is food, after all. She wasn’t going to leave her bowl unfinished.

But there were no leftovers. The Gauthiers, apparently, had cooked up a special dinner just for them.

Huh. Her grandparents had taken her family out for dinner the first night that they had arrived, and here were the Gauthiers, with a fully family cooked dinner. Mukuro didn’t know which she preferred.

“Thank you for dinner, Mrs…”

“Just call me Auntie!” Matt’s mother said. She was pretty, with blonde hair tied into a ponytail, and a voice that was deep and warm. She motioned to Matt and Gracie’s father, sitting next to her at the circular table. “Call him Uncle!”

“Oh-okay!”

“You’re welcome to eat as much, or as little as you want.” She said, smiling gently. “Gracie showed you to your room, right?”

Mukuro nodded. The Gauthiers had furnished their house so that the basement had an extra bedroom and bathroom, and the other half was just a communal space. She had used the shower once she had been given time to settle her things.

“There’s a bathroom attached to it.” She said, out loud.

Mrs. Gauthier looked confused. “...Yes? Is that not how toilets are in Japan?”

Mukuro shook her head. “A lot of apartments have the bathroom close to the front door, unless it’s a large apartment for families, in which case there are usually two bathrooms, and one of them is in a bedroom. It works that way for houses, too. Most guest bedrooms don’t have an attached bathroom with it, although it’s usually pretty close by in the hall.”

Mukuro stopped, when she realized that she was rambling over something as mundane as a toilet. “Sorry for talking so much.”

Gracie cleared her throat. “Of course not! Why should you apologize for talking? It’s not like we’ve been to Japan! We’re curious! And what else have you found that’s different?”

“Mukuro doesn’t understand my breakfast burrito, for starters.”

“Shut up, Matt. Nobody understands your breakfast burrito. I was talking to Mookie.”

Matt shrugged and started carving into his helping of chicken and potatoes.

“I think that the food is most different, but also, the cars? There’s so many cars. I’m from a pretty small town, so a lot of people use cars, but in a large city most people get around on a train, or something.”

“Well, we do have a métro, but it kind of sucks unless you really live in the area, you know?”

“It’s better than Toronto’s.” Mrs. Gauthier offered. Her daughter scoffed.

“But any métro is better than Toronto’s. That’s just a given. The Toronto métro sucks.”

Matt nodded enthusiastically, swallowed his potatoes with vigour, and downing some water. “So, Gracie, you’re on winter break now. What have you got planned?”

“Well, I was going to have Emma over tomorrow.”

“You were?”

“Yup. I mean, the both of you are going to be jetlagged, so it’s not like we can take you anywhere until you’re on Montréal time. I might as well have her over.”

Matt wiggles his eyebrows. “Sa blonde?” He asks.

Gracie rolls her eyes before nodding.

Matt nods. “Nice. Ask her to bring me a beavertail?”

Gracie flips him off. “Get one yourself, you’re gonna be here for a bit.”

Mukuro stays quiet. Dinner with her mother and Junko was never this lively. A lot of the time, they never talked.

“Mukuro?”

“Yes, Gracie?”

“You’ve been to the Netherlands, and you’re from Japan. Have you been anywhere else aside from the base?”

“No, Amsterdam was the only time I’ve been out of Japan. It was new, for sure. My sister gets airsick, so I don’t know if we could ever fly anywhere together without her getting sick.”

“I see. You want me to show you around Montréal?”

“I would love that.”

“You mind if my girlfriend comes with us?”

“Oh, of course not. I’d hate to be a bother and ruin any dates you might have.”

Gracie laughs. “You wouldn’t be a bother! She really wants to meet you!”

“She does?”

“Yeah! She knows about Matt, and never wants to hang out with him. Emma is super excited to meet you!”

“When would I be going with you?”

Gracie shrugged, brushing beautiful black ringlets behind her right shoulder. “Depends on when you stop being jetlagged. How are you with it, normally?”

Mukuro paused her fork of beans halfway to her mouth. “Maybe two days?”

Gracie smiled. “You feeling tired right now?”

She chewed through her beans before answering. “Not yet.”

“Sick. We can stay up late chatting.”

“You need to sleep!” She protested. “I’m not used to this time! You are! You can’t ruin your bedtime because of me!”

Gracie laughed. “I’m not proud of it, but I have stayed up all night to watch a sunrise before. This is nothing. Besides, I don’t have school anymore, so I can stay up as late as I want to without needing to worry about it.”

Mr. Gauthier leaves the table and returns with a small pie in his hands and two cans of beer tucked under his arm.

“Sugar pie!” He announces, cutting into it and making five equivalent servings. He offers the first slice to Matt.

Matt clears his plate in the next thirty seconds. It’s a very impressive sight, although Mukuro knows she must look slightly offended by it.

Gracie leans over to her. “Gross, huh?”

She nods.

“Is your father going to drink both of those?”

“No, one of them goes to mom. Why?”

“My- it’s nothing.”

Gracie is silent, before nodding. “Okay.”

The sugar pie tastes great, like maple syrup and butter, and Mukuro makes sure to compliment Mr. Gauthier on his skills.

“It’s nothing.” He says, with a thick accent of someone who has learned French first and English second. He clinks his beer can with Mrs. Gauthier’s own. Mukuro tries not to wince at the sound.

Gracie knocks on Mukuro’s guest door about an hour after supper has ended. Her hair is wrapped in a towel.

“Let’s chat!” She says, sitting on the bed, before noticing that Mukuro is still rifling through her bag. “Need help unpacking?”

“I’m a little cold, actually.” She admitted. “All of my clothes I packed when I joined Fenrir were summer clothes. I’m not used to this cold weather, and although your heating is fine, just looking at the cold outside makes me shiver.”

Gracie thinks for a moment. “You don’t have any winter gear?”

“Nope.”

“That won’t do! Wait here!”

She returns about five minutes later, arms full of giant shopping bags.

“Now, here’s some clothes that I grew out of.” She puts the bags down on the carpet. “I’m tall, so I did have to guess at the size a little, but some of these should fit you!”

Mukuro stared at all of the bags, then at Gracie’s eager, beaming face.

“Are you sure?”

“Well, it’s not like I can wear them anymore, anyways! Come on, Mookie! Let’s play dress-up and find you something pretty!”

Mukuro nodded, pointing to a bag at random. “Should we start there?”

Gracie was a scarily quick worker. Mukuro would try on a shirt and pants from the same bag, and Gracie would either nod and bring the bag it had come from onto the bed, or she would shake her head and keep the bag on the floor. Within five minutes, Mukuro had been sized up.

“Just try everything in these two bags, and feel free to keep what you like!”

“Really?”

“Well, you don’t have anything warm to wear, of course you can keep what you like!”

“You’re very good at figuring out my size.”
She flipped her towel over her shoulder. “I have an eye for it, I suppose.”

“Do you need to use the blow-dryer in the bathroom?”

Gracie nodded. “Yes, please! I’ll use it and come out, and maybe you’ll be done picking through my clothes, then.”

“Okay. I’ll just put what I don’t like back in the bag?”

“Tiguidou!”

While the blow-dryer whirs in the bathroom, Mukuro empties out the bags and unfolds the clothing. There’s some really nice stuff in the bags, definitely warm. Definitely comfortable.

She picks out a lot of hoodies and sweatpants, some cute sweaters and jeans and leggings that look warm. She also finds the thickest pairs of socks and mittens and lays them out =.

Gracie comes out of the bathroom. Her hair is dry. She looks at the clothing that Mukuro has picked out.

“Comfy and warm, right? Lots of big sweaters and everything?”

“Yup!”

Gracie stops to think before picking up the extra bags.

“I have something I think you’re really going to love. Wait right here.”

She comes back with her arms full of pretty dresses.

“I used to wear these all the time when I was about your height. Want to try some on?”

Mukuro is sure that her eyes are sparkling. “Can I? Please?”

Gracie pulls the first dress from the pile. “Oh, definitely!”

In between dresses, Gracie clears her throat.

“You asked me about my parents and their beer drinking habits. Is it because of your mom?”

“It was. I don’t want them to hurt you when they drink too much.”

Gracie sighs. “I think you know this better than I do, but people can be completely sober when they hurt you. They don’t have to be drunk to hurt you.”

“I know. I just wanted to know you weren’t getting hurt.”

“It’s okay, Mookie. I have my brother, and I have you! I know neither of you would let anything happen to me. It’s totally fine. You don’t have to worry about it.”

They make small talk for a few more hours. Gracie asks a lot of questions about Japan, Mukuro answers. She asks a lot of questions about Canada, Gracie answers.

“So your province is officially bilingual?”

“Technically, only New Brunswick is. There’s a lot more Francophones here though, so we make our signs bilingual to make it easier for everybody. How many festivals do you celebrate in a year?”

“A lot. We get Western holidays off of work, like Christmas, because of how most businesses work.”

When Mukuro starts to yawn, Gracie takes it as her cue to go to bed, herself.

“Goodnight, Mukuro! Hope you’re warm enough!”

“Goodnight, and thanks again, Gracie.”

“Pantoute, Mookie.”

Chapter Text

Mukuro wakes up at eleven o’clock in the morning, in a very warm bed, in very soft clothing. There’s the hum of a vent blowing warm air close to the foot of the bed, and there’s the smell of food cooking upstairs. She yawns, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She goes to the bathroom and brushes her teeth, scratching at her short hair.

Matt is in the kitchen, talking animatedly to someone that Mukuro doesn’t recognize. He waves at her when he sees her.

“Oh, you’re awake! Come over here! There’s breakfast! You feeling like pancakes, or waffles?”

Mukuro grins. “One of each?”

“That’s my girl. Scrambled egg?”
“Sure, thanks!”

Matt gets up. “You go sit next to Emma. She’s my sister’s girlfriend, and it feels a little weird having to introduce her, but Gracie is in the bathroom. I’ll fix up your plate.”

Emma sticks out her hand. She’s got bright blue hair, and thick glasses. There’s a little gap between her front teeth, but it looks cute.

“It’s great to meet you!” She says, and her voice is soft. “You must be Mukuro, right? Gracie hasn’t told me that much about you, but I hear we’re going to be hanging out a lot over the next few days, so I’m super excited!”

“Thanks! It’s great to meet you, too!”

“Aren’t you glad to be away from the base?”

Mukuro shrugs. “It’s pretty good, I guess? Very cold, though. I think I got used to the heat.”

Emma laughs. “Yeah, you’ll get used to the cold, here, too. You’re here until the new year, right?”

Mukuro nods.

“Did you want milk, or juice?” Matt calls then, over the hiss of eggs hitting a frying pan.

“Milk is fine, thanks, Matt!”

“No prob.”

“We’re here until the new year, and we leave on the fourth, late at night.”

“We’ve got so many things planned while you stay, I’m sure you’ll love them!”

“I’m sure I will!”

A loud pounding makes Mukuro tense up. She only relaxes once she realizes it’s Gracie, coming down the stairs. She does, then, and sits on Emma’s other side, slinging an arm around her shoulder. “Babe! You’ve met Mukuro!”

“I have!”

“Isn’t she just adorable?”

“She is!”

Matt puts a plate in front of Mukuro. “There you go, champ. Sure you don’t want anything, Emma?”

She shakes her head. “I’m cool, thanks.”

“Okay.”

Gracie puts her hands on her hips. “Where’s my breakfast, dummy?”

“Make your own, doofus.” Matt says, before digging into his own plate.

Gracie shrugs, and goes to the fridge.

“So, Mukuro, how’d you sleep?”

“Great, thanks, Matt!”

“Was the guest room too cold?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I think Canada’s a little too cold.”

The four of them shared a laugh.

“Hey, Matt?” Gracie asked.

“What?”

“Did you take all of the waffles?”

Matt looked down at his plate, stacked high with waffles. After a long pause, he meekly said, “No?”

“Connard!” Gracie swore, over Mukuro’s giggling.

“Pas ma faute!”

“Give me one of those, dingus!”

Matt responded by grabbing each waffle on his plate and licking them.

Gracie scowled. “You’re disgusting, old man!”

“No,” Matt said, with a smile. “I’m just smart about it.”

Mukuro laughed, but she also quietly cut half of her waffle out and set it to the side. When Gracie set her plate down, Mukuro wordlessly slid that half onto her plate.

Gracie slides it back. “Mookie! You can’t do that!”

“Of course I can.”

“I’m not going to take your food!”

“Why not? I didn’t lick it.”

“That’s not what I meant, it’s your food! I’m not going to take it, you’re hungry!”

Mukuro shrugged. “No, not really. I’m already full.”

That got Matt’s attention. He looked at Mukuro’s plate, then to Mukuro.

“That’s bullshit. I’ve seen you finish plates bigger than that when we’re on base. I didn’t even give you that much! I honestly thought you were going to ask for seconds!”

Mukuro pushed Gracie’s plate away. “I’m full.” She insisted.

Matt stood up. “Could I, maybe talk to you?”

“Sure.”

She followed Matt to a room that looked like a study. There were books and binders everywhere she looked. Matt shut the door, and then sat down, pointing to another chair where Mukuro could sit.

“Mukuro, I want you to be honest with me.”

“Sure. I mean, I usually am, so this won’t be different.”

“When you finished your plate on base camp, it wasn’t because you were hungry, was it?”

Mukuro looked down at her socks, before meeting Matt’s eyes again. “Don’t tell Sierra?” She asked.

“You finished your plate because you were scared of wasting food.”

“It’s not that I’m scared of wasting food, I just don’t like to waste food.”

“Because you never knew when your next meal was when you were little?”

“Of course! Me and my sister went long times without full meals, we took what we could get, Matt!”

“I know that now. We’re going to fix this with Sierra-”

“Besides, have you seen how much Sierra puts on my plate? That’s a lot of food that I’d have to throw out otherwise! What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her!”

“But it might hurt you.”

“Really, it’s no big deal.”

Matt shakes his head. “It is a big deal. I’m going to make sure that Sierra knows you can fix your own plate in the d-fac, so that you can eat what you need and don’t have to worry about wasting food.”
Mukuro looks at her feet again. “That would be nice, I guess. But is she going to listen?”

Matt nods. “Sierra just wants the best for everyone. She’ll get it.”
Mukuro believes him.

She spends the rest of the day hanging out in the living room with the Gauthiers and Emma, watching Christmas movies. Her favourite one is about a kid, who’s about her age, who fights off burglars in his house. It’s very funny. She laughs at every crazy idea the boy comes up with.

“I think this movie is my favourite, Gracie. What did you say it was called, again? They left him alone?”

Gracie laughs. “If you liked this one, there’s more of them! We can keep watching these, if you’re into that!”

Mukuro shakes her head. “I want to watch some more, different ones, if that’s okay.”

Gracie nods, and slings her arm around Emma. “No problem!”

Mukuro wakes up on the twenty-third of December, feeling like she’s adjusted to the time difference.

Gracie is already awake, of course, and Emma is there with her.

“Are you ready to explore Montréal, Mookie?”

She nods. “Yes!”

Gracie starts by setting Mukuro in her car. “I’m going to be driving you all around the city today, okay?”

Mukuro nods and makes to sit in the back, before Emma grabs her hand.
“Where do you think you’re going? The best seat is in the front!”

So, she moves to the front.

“Where are we going?”

“I’m taking you on a tour of the city first, then we’re going to show you what an entire year in Québec looks like!”

“What?”

Emma taps her shoulder. She’s sitting in the back of the car. “We’re going to celebrate all of the holidays with you! Well, not all of the holidays, just the ones that are most prominent in Montréal. Sound good?”

Mukuro nods.

Gracie drives her around the city, pointing out landmarks, stopping so that the three girls can get pictures, and telling every embarrassing Matt story that crosses her mind.

Mukuro eats a beavertail, which is a flat doughnut covered in sugar and chocolate sauce. She loves it. Emma is eating a poutine, and shares her fries with Mukuro.

“This whole french fry and gravy with cheese thing is genius.” Mukuro insists.

After their lunch, Gracie drives them to a house. “This is our old neighbours’ house. She used to babysit us all the time, and we still keep in touch with her. Shall we go in?”

Madame Ouellette is lovely. She’s baked cookies in the shape of maple leaves and offers one to each of the girls as they come in. Her house is covered in red banners, a large Canadian flag, and multiple hockey jerseys, next to pictures of her standing next to her daughters, wearing those jerseys.

“She doesn’t speak much English, but if you need anything, we’ll be able to translate just fine, okay?” Emma says.

“Happy Canada day!” Madame Ouellette says.

“I thought we were in the middle of December?” Mukuro asks.

“Remember how we said we were going to live an entire year’s worth of festivals in one day? This is the first of those!”

“Great!”

Madame Ouellette mirrors her enthusiasm, and points to the television.

“That’s the movie we always watch when we come to visit her. It’s of team Canada winning the hockey games in the olympics. One of her daughters made it onto the olympic team that year.”

Mukuro looks at the hockey jerseys pinned to the wall with newfound astonishment. Madame Ouellette chuckles.

“This is what you do on Canada day? Eat cookies and celebrate hockey?”

“Not exactly, but we can’t exactly have the Prime Minister come here and make a speech. Most Canadians go out and enjoy the weather, but it’s not that great right now, you know? Pretty cold.”

Mukuro unintentionally shivers. “Yeah, I get it.”

They leave to go to Emma’s house. She runs inside first to unlock the door. When Mukuro enters, she catches a puffy dress.

“What’s this holiday?”

“Halloween!” Emma laughs. “My favourite holiday! We’re going to go trick-or-treating around my neighbourhood. I asked them all about it the other day, and most of them were fine with it, so we’re going to trick-or-treat at their houses!”

Mukuro smiles, then puts on her costume. It’s a pretty princess dress. Gracie and Emma even help her put on some makeup. They’re taking pictures and laughing the whole time. They let Mukuro ring the doorbells, and they go back to Emma’s house to split up the candy they get.

“I’ve got one more landmark that I really want you to see, Mukuro, and then we’ll go find a spot to eat dinner, sound good?”

“Of course!”

Gracie drives the three of them to the Westmount War Memorial. The sun has gone down, and the memorial is illuminated by lights. Mukuro gets close, so that she can see the inscription on the statues.

“A lot of cities in Canada have at least one of these.” Gracie says, breaking the silence. “They’re dedicated to those who lose their lives in war. I just wanted you to see it.”

Mukuro can’t help but feel guilty about being alive, most days, but she’s glad she could stay alive long enough to see this.

She wraps her arms around Gracie. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Shall we grab supper with Matt?”

“We aren’t going to be eating with your parents?”

Gracie shrugs. “They have another event that they’re getting ready for. Told me that we could eat out.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, that would be great.”

“Great! Matt should be there already, saving our spot.”

The place they eat at has low lighting, but the food is absolutely delicious, and the four of them spend their time laughing. Mukuro gets to listen to Matt telling her about stories from when Gracie was small, and gets to hear Gracie come up with worse stories, to further humiliate her brother.

When they’re done, Gracie drags Matt into the car with her, and drives them all to an outdoor ice rink.

“We’re going to skate, Mukuro! It’s going to be super fun!” Emma insists. “Let’s get you on some blades! Do you like figure skates, or hockey skates?”

“Is there a difference?”

“You have a toepick on figure skates, so if you’re scared, you can just walk on your toes on the ice.”

“Those sound good, then.”

Emma, as it turned out, was a phenomenal skater. She was doing jumps and spins in the middle of the rink, to the awe of the other skaters.

Mukuro was grabbing onto a walker and was using that to keep her balance. Matt was in hockey skates, zooming around and whooping loudly. It was nice to be able to see him this happy.

Gracie was also in hockey skates, but was sticking around close to Mukuro, in case she fell.

Which she did, a lot.

Ice skating was still fun, though.

They built a snowman next to the rink, and Mukuro got to snap a wonderful picture of Gracie sneaking up on Matt, giant snowball in her hands.

The scream he had let out when Gracie had dumped it over his head? Priceless.

They got home super late, as Emma had to be dropped off at her house, first.

“If you want, you can take a quick nap while I drive.” Gracie offered.

Mukuro closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, the car was in the Gauthier’s garage, and Matt was gently poking her cheek.

“Ready to go in and have a actual bed to sleep in?”

“Yes, please.”

Matt opened the door for Mukuro, and she walked in, still slightly sleepy.

“Why is it so dark in here?” She asked, to nobody in particular, as Matt closed the light. It was all dark, now.

“Matt, where’s the light switch?”

She heard a fumbling, before the lightbulb turned on.

Standing in front of her was the Gauthier family.

“Happy birthday!” They chorused.

Mukuro couldn’t help it, really. They were so kind and caring, especially to someone who they had just met, who was almost a complete stranger. They treated her like she was part of a family, like she was part of their family.

She cried.

Chapter Text

Hey, Muku-chaaaan

How are you doing? You missed my birthday. Are you dead? How could you have forgotten my birthday? We’re twins. We have the SAME BIRTHDAY. How could you forget? Do you know how hurt this makes me?

Whatever. Mom is doing okay, I guess. Haven’t heard from dad, but, pretty sure he’s still in prison. Mom doesn’t like talking about it. Would you believe it, though? It seems like she might be getting better! Our cupboard has food in it, not alcohol!

I hope you aren’t dead, but you’d better have a darn good reason for not wishing me a happy birthday.

 

Junko,

You realize I was on a mission, right? I told you about how this mission would last a long time. You knew that I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Japan, and you knew that I probably wasn’t going to be able to reach you. Why’d you expect that of me, when it was pretty clearly impossible?

Happy to hear about mom, though.

Mukuro.

 

Hi Gracie,

Just letting you know that we got back to base camp alright. I got an email from my sister. She was pretty mad about me not replying to her messages and wishing her a happy birthday, but i I’m sure she will be fine. The flight back was okay. We made it back without any problems. I tried to bug Charlie, but Charlie wouldn't shut up about how amazing his break was. Kat smiled at me, which was a little strange. She doesn't usually smile. Matt says hello and that he misses you already. I do too!

I also want to thank you and your family for hosting me over our break. I enjoyed it a lot and I hope I wasn't a huge bother. Thank you for the warm clothes, for the pretty dresses, and for the extra backpack you gave me so that I could store all of that clothing. Thanks for the surprise party, too! I was really surprised! It was a lot of fun! Thank your father for the butter tarts he sent along with us, we ate them all on the ride back!

I’ll call you soon!

Mukuro

 

Hey Mookie!

How’s going back? Is it unbearably hot there, now that you've gotten used to Canadian weather? Haha! I bet Matt’s wearing shorts right now, because he thinks it’s too hot! Is he?

If you ever feel stressed or annoyed, feel free to talk to me about anything. I really love hearing about how you’re doing, and I want to be there for you like you are for me!

If you feel a little worried talking to me, I think you can also talk to Susan on base camp. She’s registered to hear you talk about your problems. That's her job! I think it would be really helpful to talk to her about things, because I don't always know what you're going through.

Love you lots!

Gracie!

 

 

Here’s the thing.

Dying isn’t always easy or pretty.

It’s not always a person closing their eyes as they take their final breaths in peace. It isn’t always the subtle, last heartbeat showing up on the ECG.

Mukuro knew that. She respected the way that death worked and understood its boundaries.

She’d seen firsthand those who went calmly in hospitals, happy to go, their loved ones close, despite still having wishes and regrets. She’d witnessed those who struggled and fought for every last breath until they finally collapsed from exhaustion.

There were also those who hadn’t known that they were dying until it was too late. Those who had hit the ground and only then had it registered that-

“Oh.” they couldn’t breathe like they normally could.

“Oh.” the world was spinning and their peripheral vision was darkening.

“Oh.” that this was what death felt like and “oh,” they were dying.

Those were the ones that Mukuro was personally at fault for. Undercover, in bushes and shadow, she watched as unsuspecting people fell by her hand, by her gun. She wove in and around the battlefield, seeking to dance with death itself.

She thought back to survival games, occasionally.

It was all arms and legs, bullets hitting extremities, if she could, back in the day.

But here she was now, with Fenrir.

It was almost never hitting just arms and legs.

“I understand that you’re feeling upset about this, and you have more than enough reason and right to.” Susan tells her, on a day that they have off. “Thank you for coming to see me. Let’s talk.”

Here’s the thing.

Mukuro knew how dangerous the people she was fighting against were. They have weapons, they clearly know how to use those weapons, and they would kill her if she just stood there. Mukuro knew that. Knew how, if you ever got the chance to loosen their helmet, you rammed the business end of your gun under their jaw and tried not to vomit as you squeezed the trigger.

But that didn’t mean she was always okay with it.

She found herself, time after time, thinking of Farid.

She tried hard to not think of how many other people were scared and young as she gunned them down. It hurt to think like that.

Juliet was their most brutal fighter.

Hardened, never letting anything slip her grasp. Had a gun in both hands, two knives strapped to her person. Juliet knew the ways of war. Understood that if she let herself go slack, she might die. Someone in her section might die. She had no room for error, in that way. She couldn’t afford a casualty, especially of someone whom she couldn’t keep safe.

Matt could hack his way through any database, could extract any piece of digital information and could talk a snake out of its skin. He was the best that they had, and time after time, the section found themselves grateful for his presence and skillset.

Sierra was the one that played as second, always watching the skyline for threats, usually scrambling onto roofs, so that she could fight with a better vantage point, and keep an eye out for everyone else.

Charlie was great at offering them a quick in and out, when the situation called for it. When he was out with a fleet, he was the best team player, always. Mukuro knew that if he wanted, it would be easy for someone as skilled as Charlie to rise up the ranks, but he chose not to, chose to stay with the section, instead.

Mickey was great at bandaging wounds on the fly. He could stabilize any condition within a few minutes, if he had to. Mukuro knew that well enough, when Oscar had gotten slashed across his arm in combat.

Oscar had many tattoos, kept trying to fit more on. But he never tattooed over a pre-existing scar. Mukuro knew that was how he rolled.

“Every scar I carry with me tells a story. Who am I to rewrite that story?”

Kat’s the one that shuts her eyes when she detonates bombs, but keeps them wide open when she’s going into the field.

“With bombs,” she’ll say, “there’s almost always someone innocent who gets hurt. Everyone in a field of combat has been evacuated before most of the time, or they’re already dead. I can’t look when we drop bombs.”

Mukuro is twelve when the truck in front of her gets blown sky high from a mine. She knows that there are no survivors. Turns away from the window and listens to Juliet telling Oscar to turn their truck around.

She’s twelve years old when Kat and Mickey get injured from realizing a bomb is a bomb a fraction of a second too late.

Charlie has to fly them back to base camp. The rest of the section drives back as soon as they’ve finished securing the area.

“Both of them suffered some pretty severe burns.” The doctor says, when the panicked section finally reaches the medical wing of camp. “We’ve had to graft skin on, but both of them are in stable condition right now.”

“Can we see them?” Oscar asks.

“Not yet. They’re in a stable condition for now, but still need to wake up from their induced sleep. If anything, you can visit the day after tomorrow.”

Juliet sighs. “This is all my fault. We can’t go on missions until they’re healed, unless I split you up on separate missions. I don't know how long it's going to take.”

Matt pipes up. “Mickey has his cousin. We can invite her over to stay for a bit to help him heal.”

“Is that allowed?” Mukuro asks.

Juliet cracks her knuckles. “By the time I’m through with the higher-ups, it will be.” She turns around. “Clear the way, Romero on a mission.”

Matt pulls Mukuro out of Juliet’s way to grant her passage. “I think Mickey’s cousin is around your age? I think you’d get along famously. And she’s Japanese, too! I know you’ll be happy to have someone else that doesn’t speak English as a first language, here!”

She tells Susan about her fears the next day.

"And why are you this scared?"

"Well, I'm obviously worried about how both of them are doing. It sucks that I can't do anything! It sucks that they got hurt! Everything sucks!"

"I get that. I definitely get that. But Juliet is doing this so that Mickey might feel more comfortable while he recovers."

"Thanks, Susan."

She appreciates the thought, really, but is a little more concerned with the idea that there’s going to be two twelve year olds running around base camp.

Her fears are within reason, it appears.

Mickey’s cousin arrives in Charlie’s plane and immediately trips on the stairs to the ground. She faceplants. It looks painful.

She isn’t even carrying anything.

Charlie gets her suitcase and rolls it over to her. She grabs on to it, using it like a crutch to get to where Mukuro and the rest of the section is standing.

“I’m Madoka’s cousin!” Is the first thing out of her mouth.

Mukuro is stunned. Mentally, she runs through any female Japanese mercenaries. There aren't any. She's the only one. Or at least, she thought she was. Who was this Madoka?

“I’m sorry, who’s your cousin?”

“Madoka? He’s your section’s medic, I assume?”

Mukuro tilts her head, Still trying to recall any Madokas she might know. “Who the hell is Madoka? Who are you?”

The girl brushes long purple hair out of her face. Mukuro sees sweat starting to bead already.

“I’m Tsumiki Mikan! Or, I guess it’s Mikan Tsumiki in English, isn’t it?”

Matt pats Mukuro’s shoulder. “Mukuro, Meet Mikan!”

Mukuro looks the newcomer dead in the eyes. In Japanese that she thought was a little rusty, she asks the clumsy newcomer:

“You mean to tell me that Mickey’s real name is fucking Tsumiki Madoka?”

Chapter Text

Mikan, as everyone finds out, is painfully clumsy.

Her constant apologies of “I’m really sorry!” echo across the regular silence of the quad.

“Cute little girl,” Oscar supplies, wincing at the sound of something heavy crashing to the floor, followed by yet another familiar sounding apology. He’s giving Mukuro a piggyback across base camp to the mess hall. “Might need some help with her balance, though, huh, Matt?”

Matt shrugs. “I guess Mickey’s just never told us about it.”

“Didn’t even tell you about it?”

“Guess he never thought it was that important.”

Mukuro pokes at the back of Matt’s head. “You know what I guess you guys never thought was important?”

“What, monkey?”

“How Mickey’s not even named Mickey!”

“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about Mickey, Mukuro.” Matt says, calmly.

“Why didn’t he tell me his Japanese name?”

Oscar shuffles her farther up onto her back. “He figured it would be easier if everyone called him by the same name. Besides, he didn’t think it was that important that you knew his full name.”

“Besides, isn’t Madoka a name that’s more common among females?” Matt asked.

Mukuro nods.

“And wouldn’t it be a lot easier for him to go by a name that is familiar to most?”

“Three syllables in a name isn’t that hard.” Mukuro grumbled, crossing her arms over Oscar’s wide shoulders.

“Obviously, but Mickey still has his reasons.” Oscar said. “Now let’s get some food and wait until we can visit Kat and Mickey.”

Mikan eats virtually nothing for lunch. Mukuro, who has finally been granted permission to load her own plate, stares at her like she’s insane. She points to the small bowl of porridge on Mikan’s plate and summons her most polite Japanese.

“Tsumiki-san-”

She bolts up straight, startling Mukuro a little. “Huh? What is it? What’s wrong?”

That knee jerk reaction is all it takes for Mukuro to understand that she must be incredibly nervous.

“Tsumiki-san, is that all you’re going to eat?”

“What? Oh! Yes! I’m just going to eat this!”

“You definitely can eat more, you know. You’re a guest here.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly! I would hate to intrude and cause more trouble!”

Mukuro shrugged. “So you’ve knocked a few boxes over here and there and almost walked right into the shooting range. Big deal. Accidents happen. Can’t expect to be good on the first day on the job, right?”

Mikan shakes her head. “I-I’m very good. At my job, I mean!”

“Oh?”

“I’m a nurse. Well, I’m training to be a nurse. Well, I’ve already gotten all of my certifications, I mean.”

Mukuro looks her up and down. They’re about the same height, but Mikan is slightly taller. “I’m sorry, how old are you again, Tsumiki-san?”

“I’m fourteen!” She says.

“You have nurse certifications?” Mukuro asked. “Wow. I’m really impressed!”

“Thank you!” Mikan says, with a smile. A smile that makes a feeling bloom in Mukuro’s chest. It’s so nice to see Mikan smile. She should do that more often. Mukuro should try and make Mikan smile more often.

“Why are you a nurse, anyways? You usually go into that later in life, don’t you?”

Mikan goes very quiet. “People care more about you when you’re responsible for their life. I don’t like talking very much about it.”

Mukuro blinks. Just when Mikan had looked so happy beforehand.

“I’m sorry if I brought up something that makes you uncomfortable.”

“No! No, it’s fine! I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable!” Mikan apologizes. “If you want, we can keep talking about it!”

Mukuro takes a look at Mikan. “You’ve been hurt before.” She says, not as an accusation, but an observation.

Mikan shakes her head. “Of course I haven’t! What do you mean? I haven’t been hurt in my life, before! I- I just-”

“Tsumiki-san, people hurt you, don’t they? And you let them, because any attention at all is better than no attention?”

Mikan stares at her. “How-how did you-”

Mukuro nods. “Me too. It’s okay. I will fight for you. Nobody will dare mess with you when they know you know two people in the military!”

Mikan is silent, and then she starts laughing.

“Thank you for the offer, Ikusaba-chan.”

Sierra drops an orange onto her lap, having no idea of what the girls are talking about. “Gotta stay healthy, Mikan! A nurse ought to know that, huh?”

“Of course!” She says, picking it up and starting to peel it.

Mukuro furrows her brows together.

“Hey, Tsumiki-san? When you said your name was Mikan, did you mean-”

“Like the orange?” She nods. “Yeah. My parents named me that because of my mother’s weird pregnancy cravings.”

“Huh.”
“And you, Ikusaba-chan?”

“Ikusaba Mukuro.” She clarified. “You know, “Corpse Warblade”. It sounds like a joke name, but my mother spelled my name wrong after my sister and I were born, and my dad’s last name was pulled from a fictional novel. Neither of them bothered to check the writing. They had their own shit to deal with.”

Mikan nodded thoughtfully. “Want to hear an embarrassing story about Madoka?”

Mukuro giggled. At least Mikan was feeling better. “I thought you’d never ask!”

 

The entire section waited outside of the infirmary doors. Visiting hours would be soon. They were reminded by the nurses that loud noises and talk about the events were discouraged, before being allowed in.

Both Mickey and Kat were awake.

“Madoka!” Mikan squealed, before remembering that she was in an infirmary. She walked quickly to her cousin’s side and squeezed his hand. “It’s great to see you again! We’ve all missed you so much, and you make us so worried! How is everything feeling after the injury?”

“M’fine.” Mickey mutters.

Mikan’s face takes on a sudden sense of urgency. “Good. Because Uncle Kenta wants you to call him as soon as you possibly can! And you also need to call my parents, they’re super worried!”

Mickey rolled his eyes, but he was grinning.

“I’m glad you’re here, Mikan.”

While Mukuro listened to Mikan lecture her cousin about hormones and supplements, Juliet had gone straight to Kat.

“How’re you feeling, Kat?”

“Like shit. Docs said I could never dye my hair again. What’s the point anymore?”

“Come on, cheer up!” Sierra said, going to Kat’s other side. “Could be better! You could have been the subject to one of Charlie’s beer toasts!”

“What about beer on toast?” Charlie asked.

Mukuro smiled. Here they were. Bickering, but so easily lovable. Not perfect, but it felt like home.

And it really was home, wasn’t it?

 

“And then Madoka threw a ball at the hornet nest!”

“Mikan, please shut up.”

“You shut up, Madoka! You’re just embarrassed! You all should have seen the giant cloud of bugs that flew out! He ran for his life and ended up having to jump in a lake to avoid the bugs! It was hilarious!”

“And what about you?” Oscar asked. “Didn’t you get stung?”

Mikan shook her head. “I was smart and watched him from inside!”

Mukuro straightened from her giggles. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. Mickey, why don’t you go by Madoka? It’s three syllables. Should be easy to pronounce.”

Mickey shook his head. “I go by Mickey because it’s easier for most people to remember. Plus, I mean, it kind of sounds like Tsumiki.”

Mikan grinned, before softly starting to sing.

“Kawashita yakusoku wasurenai-”

“No.”

“Me wo toji tashikameru-”

“Mikan-”

“Oshiyoseta yami furiharatte susumu yo!”

“Hey, that sounds familiar-” Sierra said, hiding a grin behind her hand.

“You just go by Mickey because you hate it when people relate it to the magical girl!” Mukuro said, hitting her palm with her fist. “Now I get it!”

Mickey nodded, sheepish.

“It’s easier that way.”

 

The visits continued, while both of them made progress with their recovery.

Mikan and Mukuro grew closer, close enough that Mikan trusted Mukuro enough with secrets.

Close enough that both of them went to see Susan, in joint sessions.

“Like group therapy!” Susan had suggested, grinning all the while.

There, Mikan learned of Mukuro’s scars, and Mukuro learned of Mikan’s bullies.

She promised Mikan that if she left Fenrir, the first thing she would do is make those bullies regret laying hands on her.

She remembered Kat being upset about her scalp, peeling slowly and painfully. She went to Charlie with an idea.

 

Mikan and Mukuro spent most of their days together, because the section wasn’t to go on missions without their medic. While Tsumiki was dangerously good in an emergency room, it would be too dangerous for someone as clumsy as her to be plopped on a battlefield. That was left for Mukuro.

Tsumiki Mikan had the most strikingly purple eyes Mukuro had ever seen. They were beautiful. They lit up when she was excited. Mukuro knew that she was blessed to have those eyes in her life. After one month, she had committed the colour to memory. She knew it like the back of her hand, but didn’t dare stare deep into them. They weren’t that close, not yet. It would be a bad idea. Bad taste. Too forward of her.

“I think I’m going to get married when I’m older.” Mikan announces one day, when their conversation had dissolved into a comfortable silence. “To a nice boy, or a nice girl, or a nice anybody, really. As long as they love me, and I love them.”

Mukuro raised her brow.

That was the weird thing, at least for her. Mukuro never wanted to get married. She knew about the mistakes that her parents had made. Like hell she was going to make the same ones. She knew that romantic love was messy, and it would be too much of a hassle for her to try and work her way through its difficulties.

But spending time with Mikan made her want to think of a future. It wasn’t a solid plan, or anything tangible, but thinking about a future sure beat out just thinking to survive the day. Thinking about herself in a year or two was better than planning out and knowing where she would be in a few hours. They were going to hang out in Japan. She’d watch as Mukuro trained, they’d go places and attend festivals, they’d wear kimono together, eat dango, light sparklers, and have the times of their lives when Mukuro and Mickey returned to Japan.

It was nice, she realized, not to be alone. To have a friend her age, who didn’t treat her like a daughter or a little sister.

It was nice when she was with Mikan.

 

One time, she went to visit Kat alone.

“What’s up, squirt?” She asked, from her spot on the bed.

Wordlessly, Mukuro pulled out a bright pink wig from behind her back.

“What’s that supposed to be?”

“I… I got it from Charlie. I remember you talking about how much you hated being stuck here, unable to dye your hair ever again. I noticed that the brown was starting to grow out from under your regular pink hair. I… I thought that this might make you feel better. There’s other ones, too. I got Charlie to pick up pink, purple, yellow, grey, even bright green, if you wanted it. I didn’t know what colours you would want, or if you would want to change it up in the future.”

To Mukuro’s surprise, Kat, the one who had always treated her with hostility, who had been the hardest on her when she began, and was still tough and distant, even now, had tears in her eyes.

“Thank you.” She sniffled.

“Need help putting it on?”

“No, I’m fine.”

Mukuro handed the wig to Kat, and then set about trying to find a mirror in the room.

“Why do you want to dye your hair all the time, anyway?” She asked, as she found a shiny metal tray.

“I don't want to be forgotten.”

“Why would you be forgotten?” She asked, as she held the tray close to Kat’s face.

“I don't know if it was obvious, but I work in the military. If I die, what's left of my body is put in an unmarked coffin and brought back to my family, who then bury me and fail to report it anywhere. It's very easy to forget me.”

“I wouldn't forget you.” Mukuro said, quietly. Matter of factly.

“That's sweet, but if my own son doesn't remember who I am, I wouldn't expect you to.”

Mukuro peeked at Kat from under the pan. “Son? You have a kid?”

“That's why I came into Fenrir. Had to make a living for him somehow.”

“How old is-”

“He's about as old as Oscar’s eldest. He calls me auntie. I left him with...”

“With family?”

“With my wife.”

Mukuro blinks back surprise. “Wife? It's legal in Canada?”

“Has been since before you were born, kiddo. Of course, it does get hard to hold down a stable job when you factor in personal prejudice, but that's why I'm here. Fenrir doesn’t care about who you are, or who you used to be. If you can shoot a gun, you’re good enough to play with the big boys.”

“Do you miss her?”

“A lot. I think of the both of them everyday.”

“They wouldn’t forget you.”

“People do, though.” Kat sighed. “I started dying my hair, getting tattoos and piercings in high school. I did anything that would get someone's attention. I thought that, so long as I got some, that it was all good.”

Mukuro ran her hand through her own short hair. “Susan tells me not to talk about myself like that. She says it's bad and that I should be recognizing things that I have done, instead of things I need other people to approve of.”

“Well, Susan is right sometimes, I guess.”

“I still don't think you'd be forgotten. You can be afraid of it, but everyone here would remember you, at least. I would remember you.”

Kat looked at Mukuro with a look that made her shrink. “You remind me of the last recruit we took on.”

“the one who flew planes?”

“That's the one. Got real close to everyone, then blew it on the first mission.”

“It's not your fault.”

“But that doesn't keep me from feeling bad about it.”

“I'm sorry. And I know I'm here as his replacement, but-”

“I'm glad.”

“What?”

“I’m glad that. Y’know. That you're here. I like that. I'm glad you're here. I'm happy you're here. Even if I'm terrified that every time you run ahead you could be getting yourself shot.”

“I do my best to stay safe.”

“I know you do.”

They sat in silence for a bit longer.

“Hey, remind me to ask you to wheel me to the piano tomorrow.”

“There's a piano here?”

“Yeah. A few other instruments, too.”

“I’ll do that.” Mukuro promises.

And she does.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Muku-chan?

Stay safe, okay?

Junko.”

 

“Hi Junko,

Not a problem. I’ve got my squad looking out for me. Even some who aren’t in the section. And I’ve got these really weird reflexes? I don’t know how, or why, but… I can’t die in the field. Maybe it’s a panic response? But, I’m like a supersoldier. Broken a record for the most kills as a new recruit, started making waves in Fenrir, too. They know who I am. They want me for more risky missions.

I don’t know when I can come back to Japan. Does mom still think I’m missing, or dead?

Mukuro.”

 

“Mom has no clue. She’s left you for dead, at this point, because I’m just that good at keeping secrets. You’re welcome.

Don’t die. We can’t be the despair sisters if we’re just one sister. That doesn’t make any sense. I’d hate for you to die. You’d really just leave me to fend for myself, huh? You’d never do that, would you?

Mother’s thinking of moving away from Kamakura, by the way. She thinks there’s going to be better chances for us around Kyoto. We’re saving for it now. I think she hates us less, now that there’s only one of us left for her to care about.

Junko.”

 

“That’s good to hear. How is the end of the school year coming? Does she plan on moving during the summer break? What kind of school are you going to go to? Is she finally going to put you into a decent public school?”

 

“I have no clue. When have mom or I ever been good at planning?”

 

“I’ll talk to you later, then.

Love you,

Mukuro.”

 

Time passes. Mukuro grows. She learns the bare bones of piano from Kat, and plucks away at the keys when she thinks nobody is listening.

Her section is always in the shadows of the room, proud beyond what words can describe.

“You’re good, Monkey.” Oscar comments, one day. “Keep practicing piano, and I could see you playing in front of thousands, someday.”

Mukuro accepts the compliment. “What if you learned? You could play for your wife!”

Oscar chuckles. “My little boy’s got a real ear for the stuff, but I’m too far from them to do much. My daughter’s real good at karate and chess, though. She can puzzle our whole family out of business. All I can do? Work, and do what I can to help my wife along. She works so hard, I never feel like I do enough.”

“If your son likes music, I think there’s nothing wrong with having some more around the house when you go for the holidays.”

“I’m just worried that testing will crush his resolve.”

“What?”

Oscar smiles and ruffles Mukuro’s short hair. “When you grow up normally, and you take to music, some people choose to take tests to see just how good they are. I love learning, don't get me wrong, it's great and enriching and I love to do it, it’s why I went to college, but I hate having to put myself in front of a complete and total stranger and be judged and have them tell me that I'm not enough. It hurts, being so close to a goal, so close to proving yourself, then being told that I don't meet their standards and that I should be ashamed that I even thought I was good enough for them in the first place. I don’t want my son to get hurt and push himself away from it. I don’t want him to ever worry about anything, you know?”

“Your best life is when your kids can have the best lives.”

“Righty-o.”

“You’re a good dad, Oscar. Trust me. Even if you don’t think you do enough, I think you’re great.”

“Thanks, Mukuro. Hey, can you play another song for me?”

“What do you want to hear?”

“That really pretty one, that starts with the high notes? It’s- it’s the one that you and Kat like to play and sing along to, together.”

“I know that one! No problem!”

Mukuro plays for Oscar. She plays for her family.

She grows.

 

“Mukuro, I have some good news.

I was just walking along the streets of Kyoto with mom, and then we passed a model and her camera crew, and I ran up to tell her that her dress was really pretty, and then they asked me to take part in their next shoot! They told mom that they would pay me if I modelled as someone’s kid in their next shoot, and she agreed to it! I’m going to make some money!”

 

“Hey Junko,

That’s great! I’m so glad to hear that! Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!”

 

“Yeah, it’s pretty good. I like the whole modelling thing, you know? I really think I’m good at it! I could probably get somewhere with it, you know what I mean? Of course, I’d be a good model, someone human. I wouldn’t let myself get airheaded, like those idols you always see on TV. I’d be better than that.”

 

Charlie groans.

“Honestly, Moomoo? I don’t understand how your sisterly bond is so powerful, it completely ignores the hormonal input of the other women here.”

“Shut up and get me more chocolate, please, Charlie.”

“I’m just saying, I grew up with sisters and cousins, and it was as synchronized as clockwork for all of them!”

“Fetch her some damn chocolate, Charlie.” Juliet snaps, running her hands along Mukuro’s back. “She’s not feeling well.”

“Grab a hot water bottle or something, while you’re at it, thanks.” Sierra adds, petting Mukuro’s head.

“Please and thanks.” Kat says. “I could do with a cookie, while you’re at it.”

Charlie gasps. “What? Do I look like a butler to you?”

“Thanks, Charlie.”

“Don’t ignore me! I’m just wondering why your periods don’t sync up! It’s weird!”

“It’s never been proven scientifically, you know.” Oscar calls, without looking up from his book. “Besides, science is riddled with errors. We just learn more about less and less.”

“So you mean to tell me that it’s statistically reasonable for Mukuro to get hers at the start of the month, while literally everyone else who gets periods in this section get theirs in another two weeks?”

Oscar shrugs. “Meh. Anything is statistically reasonable. That’s why my wife hated that stats option she took when she was finishing up her degree.”

Mukuro laughs until her lower stomach hurts, then she thanks Charlie for the chocolate.

She learns, she grows.

 

“Just had a really fun photoshoot today! They photoshopped me to hell and back, though. If I do this in the future, when I’m old enough to sign my own papers, I’ll make sure I’m not photoshopped at all. I look good naturally, I don’t need bigger, bluer eyes. I don’t need a tiny waist. Telling models to get skinny is stupid, I’ll eat what I want and stay skinny. Gosh, it really gets on my nerves. I’m a kid, for god’s sake.”

 

“Are you doing more shoots with idols, again?”

 

“No, we haven’t done a collab with idols in forever. That’s up for the older girls to shoot.”

 

“I went on a really rough mission with an entirely different squad the other day, just got back now. It’s weird. Two of that squad got injured, but I didn’t. I fit right in. It was strange.”

 

“Maybe you’re just good at killing?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

Mukuro goes out with her section, and with different sections. She’s got an unbeatable winning streak. Put her in a field, any situation, and she’ll come out alive.

She’ll deal with the consequences of what she had to do later.

Fenrir knows her by name. They offer her a chance to do greater things. They say she could lead a section of her own, if she wanted.

She declines their offers. There’s no place she’d rather be than with her section.

 

Time passes.

When Mukuro is fifteen, a visitor sets foot on Fenrir’s base.

When he’s been frisked and cleared, he goes to Delta wing, fourth floor, room number six.

He knocks on the door. Mickey opens the door, before stiffening and straightening up, trying to block the man’s view into the room.

“Hello, Tsumiki-kun.” The man greets. “I’m here to see Ikusaba Mukuro.”

Chapter Text

“Get out.” Mickey demands, walking out of the dorm and shutting the door behind him. “Get away from here. I know why you’re here. You’re not leaving with her.”

“I’m not leaving,” the man clarifies, “until I’ve at least done my job and spoken to Ikusaba Mukuro.”

Mickey gives the man credit for choosing to stay sober today. Considering Mukuro’s track record with alcohol, this was a wise decision.

“Haven’t you hurt my family enough, Kizakura?”

“Why, Tsumiki-kun, I’ve done no such thing! How dare you accuse me of such-”

“That’s it. That’s exactly it. You did no such thing. You did nothing, when you could have done so much more.” Mickey’s eyes nurse a violent anger. “You used me, my cousin is in your hellish institution as we speak, and now you’re going after Mukuro?” He chuckles, hand going to his blade. “You won’t fucking touch her. I won’t let you.”

“I had no intention of touching her, trust me, Tsumiki-kun. And I must assure you, your cousin is safe. I’m not her homeroom teacher. We’ve given that job to a previous ultimate. Yukizome Chisa, ultimate housekeeper? Seventy-fourth class. Ring a bell?”

“I was in the seventy-second class, if you were too drunk to remember.” Mickey spat. “I don’t know her, of course, because I didn’t finish my time in high school.”
“And that’s my fault?”

“It sure as hell isn’t mine, Kizakura-sensei .” Mickey snorts, bowing slightly when addressing his old homeroom teacher.

“Come now, boy. Let me talk to her, and then I’ll leave.”

“You’re not leaving with her.”

“That’s not up to you to discuss.”

“Fuck you, and your fancy-ass academy. I’m not letting Mukuro go there to associate with people she shouldn’t be around.”

“Tsumiki-”

“My cousin is in that school right now, ignoring what I’ve told her about this school and its secrets. Once your board of directors turn on each other, it’s all over. Your institution will come crashing down.”

“Your experience isn’t universal. Most other people in Hope’s Peak enjoy their time there, and move on to have happy, successful lives.”

“You know what you’re fucking doing. You know what the board of directors is going to do once they’ve researched enough. The fucking Kamukura project has been all they’ve focused on ever since their funding got cut and they were coerced into taking on reserve course students. That’s where all the money that isn’t funneled into a board member’s pocket goes. Your stupid hope project. Your board’s idea led to a failed procedure, and a need for an emergency medic to operate on a life threatening situation. Even then, nothing could be done. I’m fucking done.”

“Don’t forget who the medic was, Madoka.”

Mickey balled his hands into fists. “I don’t forget, Kizakura. But I don’t regret putting myself as far away from that as I possibly can.”

“I didn’t mean to say that it was your fault.”

“I’m not letting you take Mukuro. You plan on telling her that she’s the ultimate soldier, or something, right?” Mickey scoffed. “In reality, you just want to make sure that the school has a damn guard dog that isn’t afraid of gunning down anyone who stands in the way of progress on the Kamukura project. You found her because she’s the only child raised in this sort of scenario that’s of the age to go to high school.”

“I mean, you’re right, but-”

“What, have you scouted her sister, too? The one that she’s trying to distance herself from, because she’s finally realized that that isn’t what a healthy family relationship is supposed to look like? You’re going to take her back, strap her in with her abusers, her mother who’s thought, for the past three years, that she’s dead ? You must be full of shit if you think that that’s a good idea.”

“Madoka, it’s not like that. Her sister is an ultimate. They both are.”

“The ultimate what? Ultimate gaslighter? Ultimate playing-the-victim?”

“She’s registered as the Ultimate model, but her real talent is as Ultimate Despair. Both of them are, secretly.”

“Fucking excuse me?”

“They’re two sides of the same coin.”

“Fuck no they aren’t. Mukuro’s been doing her best to grow away from her past. Don’t you clump her together with her sister she hasn’t seen in years. It’s taken three Christmases to get her like this. She was going to go to Oscar’s this Christmas, not spend it in Japan as a high school student.”

“I don’t see why she can’t do both.”

“And what did you say her talent was, secretly? Ultimate despair?”

“Her sister and her are both basically the human embodiment of despair, and her sister would gleefully spread it around the world if she were just bored. What about the girl who can hit bullseyes with her eyes closed? The girl who can tear open an enemy’s strategy and be back at her dorm in time for a tea-party?”

“If you mean to tell me they’ll be safer in your hell school-”
“Not safer, but we can keep an eye on them. They might not even know that they’re both Ultimate despair, if you think of it like that.”

“So you plan on spending the next three years convincing them to be a supermodel and a supersoldier, and then you’re going to release them, knowing full well there’s a chance they might realize their true power, and come back to the high school reunion, guns blazing?”

“Think of it this way, instead.” Kizakura raises a hand to rest on Mickey’s shoulder. “If both of them are there, we can monitor them, we can provide a good experience for them, and we can control them.”

Mickey slaps away Kizakura’s hand. “Get you and your ugly-ass, sketchy-as-hell morals away from me.”

“They aren’t sketchy morals!”

“Then what are they? You think Kamukura needs to be a supermodel? What’s the real reason you want to bring them both in?”

“The board selects outstanding young individuals-”

“And passes the names onto the recruiters. I fucking know how it works, Kizakura. I was in the system, if you’re sober enough to remember?” Mickey shakes his head. “No. The board wants to bring them in because they’re both Ultimate Despair, but seem to have repressed that temptation so far. The board wants them in the school so that they can study how their brains work, so that they can put that same neuroscience to the test in the next unlucky reserve student who volunteers for a false promise of becoming a superstudent.”

Kizakura is silent.

“I’m right.” Mickey concludes.

“Look, I know you feel like the school abandoned you, but-”

“The school didn’t abandon me.” Mickey said. “I abandoned the school. I abandoned the school, abandoned the motto, uniform, classmates, and anything else that would be associated with Hope’s Peak.”

“Pretty fresh, coming from an ex-Ultimate Medic turned military medic.” Kizakura drawls. “I’d say you didn’t leave it all behind.”

Mickey slams his palm against the wall, starting Kizakura.

“You failed with me, so you got my cousin in your school. Now there’s hints that Mukuro has the potential to be her worst fear, and you’re telling me that you plan to nurture that fear? You want her to become Ultimate despair, just so the board has something to study. And you’re bringing her twin along for the ride, because you care about Ultimate siblings so much. Because you think Ultimate ability is genetic.”

“There’s a high correlation-”

“But there’s also a statistically reasonable amount of doubt behind those studies.”

“I just need to talk to her.”

“No, you need to convince her, and like hell I’ll let you do that.”

“If you want, I don’t have to meet with her alone. I can definitely talk to her, surrounded by everyone else in your section. It can be like a goddamn parents’ night, if that’s what it takes for me to do my damn job.” Kizakura holds his hand up over his heart. "Scout's honour."

Mickey grunts in assent. “You’re going to talk to her with the rest of us in tow, and you only get ten minutes.”

They shake on it.

“Ikusaba Mukuro.” Says the strange man with unflattering stubble and an ugly suit and slightly accented Japanese, when they’re all gathered in the room. “My name is Kizakura Koichi.”

Mukuro is silent.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, the legendary wolf pup of Fenrir itself.”

She bristles at the nickname. “Nobody has ever called me a pup.”

“I think it’s fitting, what, with you being the youngest member, and all.”

“What do you want, Mister Kizakura?” She asks, in English.

“It’s simple.” He says, transitioning smoothly between languages. “I’m here to scout you for Hope’s Peak Academy.”

“Get out.” Matt demands. "Get out, right now."

“Matt, I promised him ten minutes.” Mickey says, glancing at his timer. “He’s still got, like, nine and a half minutes left.”

“Why’d you promise him that much time?”

“Because Tsumiki-kun knew that you would all do your best to derail the conversation.” He turns back to Mukuro, only to see Kat and Juliet huddled around Mukuro, protectively. The others are sitting on the bed, or around the bed, watching him. “I’m from Hope’s Peak Academy. I’m a talent scout.”

“You take on the best teenagers in the world and help them nurture their talent to become beyond superhuman.” Sierra says. “We know.”

“And now you’re here for Mukuro.” Charlie says, slinging a hand onto her shoulder. “Well, you’re not getting her, pal.”

Kizakura smiled politely. “I’m afraid that’s Ikusaba Mukuro’s decision to make, not yours.”

“What’s your pitch, hmm?” Juliet demands.

“It’s simple, really.” Kizakura steeples his fingers. “Ikusaba-san, I’m offering you the chance to see your sister again, and to go to school with her. I’m giving you the chance to be a teenager, instead of a mercenary. You do, after all, need to finish high school, if you plan on staying in Fenrir as well. After high school, you can return here, if you like, or you could probably become the head of national security, or the minister of defense, if you wanted. Hope’s Peak Academy can give you any future you want, if you agree to be a student.”

“And you think I want to go to your school?”

“I think you want to be a normal teenager, and this is your best bet at doing so.”

Mukuro pauses to think. Very slowly and quietly, she speaks. “My mother has thought I was dead for the past three years. She’s going to flip out when she realizes I’ve been alive. She’d hurt us. She’d hurt my sister, too. She’d be angry, for sure. Definitely would hurt whoever is in arms reach, don’t know what would happen after that.”

“We can take care of it.” Kizakura assured. “She doesn’t even have to know that you’ve been alive all this time.”

“The induction ceremony is put on the news each year. You mean to tell me that a roving camera wouldn’t “accidentally” land on the class of ultimates? That my mom, watching to see Junko, wouldn’t recognize me, her other daughter, sitting right next to her?” Mukuro scoffed. “Really, how dumb can you get?”

“We know what we’re doing, Mukuro. Really.” Kizakura reassures her. “You’re not the first student we’ve taken on who has difficulties with her parents.”

“You don’t know what you’re dealing with when it comes to my family.” Mukuro insists.

“You have your concerns, and that’s totally fine. But you also have potential. You’re special, Mukuro. You really are.”

Mickey scoffs. “Careful, Mukuro. They’re playing the “you’re special card” just so they can convince you to go to school.”

“Why would they want to convince me, anyway?”

“Because,” Kizakura starts. “We need ultimates. Hope’s Peak brings in the best of the best from all over the world. We need ultimates like you to prove that this school is important, that it isn’t just a funding grab.”

“But why do you need me?” Mukuro asks. “You’re asking me to join as what, the Ultimate supersoldier? I came here because my sister told me it would make her happy, and I was desperate to please her. While I don’t regret the people I’ve come across, and what I did, I do regret listening to her so readily. I was eleven. We both were. I signed away my life to a cause I didn’t entirely believe in, just so that she could be happy.”

“But you’re unnaturally good at what you do.”

“I’m not, I just have really good survival instincts. They’re just crazy good.”

“That’s the thing.” Kizakura says. “We want to look at why your survival instincts are so good.”

“You’re going to study me?”

“Not personally, but we’re also a research institution, aside from an educational facility. And our primary subject of interest is in ultimates. What makes an individual hard wired for what they do, and how are they so good at it that they’re practically made superhuman when they do what they do?”

“You’re going to study me.” Mukuro repeats.

“Think of it this way. If you could know why it is that you can dodge bullets you shouldn’t be able to dodge, if you could pinpoint exactly how you know where a mine is in a field, if you could know what gene it is that enables you to accurately stab someone in the jugular, wouldn’t you want to know?”

Mukuro sighed. “I’m not one for science, really, but I do think Darwin came up with the idea of survival of the fittest? I am more fit, so I survived. The rest of my skills, the landmine checks, the stabbing, and the dodging? Those are just skills I picked up in my time here to survive. There’s absolutely none of it that’s been coded into my genes.”

“That’s an interesting thought, but I’d like to disagree with you. We want to research as many ultimates, from as many places as we can, to see if there’s a common link. I swear, it won’t take up any more time in your classes, all we ask for is a blood sample before you enter, and one after you graduate. We compare the two samples against each other, and then against other students, with similar and different talents alike, to see if there’s a missing link. Absolutely none of that information gets out to the press unless we want it to.” Kizakura smiles. “Hope’s Peak has a pretty big influence on the news outlets, since we’ve graduated a few news reporters and they take requests from their old high school quite seriously.”

“You need me to go to your school for research.” Mukuro says, bluntly. “As in, you’re going to research me.”

“Well, we also need you to go because you need to finish high school, and we have the lowest bar set to passing as we can possibly finagle, in all of Japan.”

“So the rumors are true? Even if I fail every single class, as long as I can prove I’m the best at what I do, I can stay, and even graduate?”

Kizakura nods. “The rumors are true.”

“And you’d be putting me back in close proximity with my sister?”

“It’s been a long time, I’m sure she’d love to see you again.”

“She would, but Susan tells me that it’s okay if I don’t want to see her again. That I don’t have to see her again, and that honestly, I should stop sending money to her, as she’s obviously self-sufficient with her modelling job.”

“And that’s fair.” Kizakura agrees.

“You have one minute left.” Mickey snaps.

“Understood.” Kizakura says. “Ikusaba-san, I’ll leave you with a thought that might scare you. You need to complete high school if you want to stay in Fenrir. You were the exceptional case when they let you in. You need to complete high school even if you plan on doing anything else in the future. Either way, you need to complete high school. When’s the last time you cracked open a math textbook? Would you rather be completing high school in an environment that doesn’t understand how special you are? Or would you rather play it to your advantage, by letting us take you in as a student, where you don’t have to worry about passing or failing your classes, so long as a visible attempt at academia has been made?” Kizakura sighed. “If I were you, I’d know which choice I’d make.”

He stood up to leave. “No further words for Mukuro. Good to see you again, Tsumiki-kun.”

Mickey nods stiffly. Kizakura leaves the room.

Kat is first to speak. “Mukuro?” She asks, cautiously.

“Keep your options open, right?” Oscar follows, hesitantly as well.

“What options do I have?” Mukuro asks, with a sigh. “It’s either this, or I fail my way through a regular high school.”

Mickey sighs. “Considering what they put me through, I’d take the failing option, if I were you.”

“What do you mean?”

Mickey picks Mukuro up, holding her like a parent might hold a child. “Considering they’ve got you where they want you, I think I get to tell you what they really do behind the scenes of research at Hope’s Peak.”