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The Lion's Den

Chapter Text

The execution was over, and so was the world.

Enoshima was dead. They, her faithful warriors of Ultimate Despair, had watched with disbelief and denial as that boy – Naegi –drove her right into the grave. Even after the block slammed down for the final time, they hadn’t believed it. They’d expected Enoshima to pop right back up, and laugh at the despair on her classmates’ faces.

But she hadn’t. Enoshima was dead and with her, the world had broken.

Tsumiki screamed the loudest. Her cry, the shrill wail of someone who’d lost both their heart and soul in an instant, bounced off the walls and shook the ground. Other howls rose to join her. Of them, only Kuzuryu’s seemed to be actual words. The rest of the cries were simple, animalistic shrieks of pain. They knew their behaviour was echoed in their other bases, where their comrades would have been watching the same broadcast. The very thought, the overwhelming despair it caused, brought then both anguish and delirious joy.

But while most of Ultimate Despair was revelling in their agony, there were a few exceptions. Pekoyama, white-knuckled and pale-faced, was silent, more focused on her young master than what she had just seen. Kamukura watched the others with mild interest. And Komaeda . . . Komaeda had crawled up to the television, and laid his hand lovingly against its screen.

The television’s camera was locked onto the trial room, where the six survivors were regrouping after their victory. Komaeda only had eyes for one of them and with unhealthy focus, he watched that small, brown-haired figure as he spoke to his classmates. What the figure said, he didn’t know for certain as the broadcast audio had cut out when Enoshima died; but he could make an educated guess. And so, Komaeda nearly pressed his face flat against the glass to better lip-read Hope’s inaudible words.

Hope. Ultimate Hope. His wheeze shivered with quiet laughter. This had been the reason he’d joined Enoshima (because how could one create hope without despair?) and it had finally come to fruition. The Ultimate Despair had fallen, and from her ashes, the Ultimate Hope rose!

He felt so many things. Grief. Anger. Joy. Rapture. He had loved and hated Enoshima, just as he loved and maybe hated these students for killing her (but not Hope. Never Hope). It all swirled and clashed together in a medley that made him ill. But that was okay, because that fusion of euphoria and misery was one of the prices of creating great hope.

The six survivors began walking off-screen and Komaeda watched them greedily. Part of him was ashamed – what right he have to spy on these talented people? – but he couldn’t help it. His soul roared with yearning. Oh, how he wished Enoshima had brought him along instead of her sister! He could have breathed the same air as the Ultimate Hope, laid his eyes upon the Ultimate Hope . . . why, he could have died for the Ultimate Hope. How delightful would that be?

He followed the Ultimate Hope with his finger until he could no longer be seen. The boy (Naegi Makoto, purred the voice in his mind) had been the last of his classmates to leave, leaving the room lifeless. Komaeda kept staring. Now that Hope was gone, he felt empty inside.

“What are you doing?”

Komaeda’s head nearly rolled backwards to see who was speaking. Kamukura was looming above his crouched form, frowning.

Komaeda bit back a giggle. “Did you see that? The birth of Hope? I wonder what he’ll do now.”

Kamukura sighed. “That’s your only question? Obviously, a rescue team from The Future Foundation is already on their way. The survivors will join them.”

 “The Future Foundation,” Komaeda muttered to himself. His insides curled with disgust. The Future Foundation. . . They’d nearly broken into the academy a few times. Why, if allowed, they would have interfered with the mutual killing game before the Ultimate Hope could have been born!

Komaeda’s nails dug into his arms as he clung to himself. He couldn’t . . .  how could he . . . he wouldn’t let such remarkable hope fall into their unworthy hands! It was his duty to hope, to the world, (to the master who’d died for this ending). He, the unworthy servant, could finally find his proper place.

“Hey, Kamukura-kun . . . I think I just came up with another plan.”

“Good. These past weeks have been extremely boring.”

Komaeda smiled dreamily. Ah, his path was clearly laid out in front of him. He knew what he had to do.

After all, no one else in the world understood hope as well as him.

Chapter Text

Something was wrong.

Naegi couldn’t hear anything strange and nothing hurt, but it occurred to him that was the strange part. Usually, he’d wake up and find his muscles laced with a tiredness borne of exertion and lack of food. Even weirder was that his hunger pains were relatively mild. He remembered their last meal, and it hadn’t been a big one.

“Hey, are you awake?”

Naegi paused. He didn’t know that voice. It took a few blinks before he cleared the grime in his eyes enough to see. Someone was staring down at him; a pale, skinny guy with unruly white hair and a green hoodie Naegi instantly admired. The stranger seemed to be around his age, and he smiled at Naegi as if they’d known each other for years.

“How are you feeling?” the stranger asked. “If you need to go back to sleep, I’ll stop talking.”

“No, I-I’m fine.” The tremor in his voice surprised him. He’d thought he was okay, but now that he tried to turn his head, his body felt weak and heavy. It was like he’d been hiking up a mountain beforehand, only his brain was unable to register the actual physical sensation of being exhausted.

As he lay there, he saw past the stranger’s face to the black backdrop above. Was that . . . a ceiling? An undamaged one at that, too?

What had happened?

“Where am I?” Naegi asked.

The stranger smiled at him gently. “Somewhere safe.”

The answer didn’t register right away. An unexpected wave of drowsiness had tried to weigh his eyelids down. With nothing but will, Naegi pushed back, tensing his body in an attempt to get his energy up. Only when that succeeded could he focus on what the stranger had said.

Safe . . . He’d always known he and his friends would find somewhere, but he hadn’t imagined it happening this way. He tried to push himself up to look around, but the bed – oh, he was on a bed – was softer than expected. His arms sunk right into the mattress. Had this stranger brought him here and tucked him in?

This time, he succeeded at turning his head and found the rest of the stranger’s figure. Originally, he’d noted that the stranger was skinny. After seeing more than his face though, Naegi had to revise that statement. The stranger was more than skinny; Naegi was pretty sure that collarbones shouldn’t stick out that much. The white shirt under the stranger’s green hoodie hung off his frame sadly. Combing those two things with the stranger’s pallor made him look rather sickly to Naegi’s untrained eyes. Maybe this stranger was having trouble finding food, too.

It made it that much more impressive that this person had apparently assisted in saving him and his friends. Naegi said, “I don’t know if you’re the one who rescued me, but thank you. I’m Naegi Makoto.”

“I know. We all saw the broadcast.” The stranger closed his eyes, expression settling into something nearing bliss. “It was inspiring.”

. . . Not the word he would have used, but the stranger must have had good intentions by it.

“What’s your name?”

“My name?” The stranger said that uncertainly, testing the phrase as it were another language. “You don’t need to worry about things like that.”

What? That didn’t make much sense. “Of course I do. It’d be pretty rude if I kept calling you ‘that guy’ or something.”

“You can call me whatever you want, Naegi-kun,” the stranger said flippantly. “However, if you really want to know, my name is Komaeda Nagito.”

Naegi smiled at him. “Nice to meet you, Komaeda-kun.”

Shortly after, however, his smile faded. Naegi was reasonably confident that he was uninjured, and Komaeda seemed nice, but it was just them in this room . . . This room that eerily resembled his old dorm back in Hope’s Peak Academy. If it hadn’t been for the lack of windows and obvious cameras, he might have thought they were back there.

He didn’t like it.

That was beside the point, however. The real problem was there was only Komaeda and him, and not a single sign of any of his friends.

“Komaeda-kun, are my friends okay? They should have been with me when . . .”

Come to think of it, how had he gotten here? He remembered leaving Hope’s Peak with the others, and spending days navigating the maze of wreckage that had once been a city. Yet he couldn’t recall running into Komaeda or anyone else that was friendly. He definitely couldn’t remember agreeing to go anywhere with strangers.  Surely, if he had been sleeping when his friends were talking about that, Kirigiri or Asahina would have woken him.

The last thing he remembered . . . hadn’t he been talking to Hagakure?

“I don’t know what they’re doing right now,” Komeda said, “but if something bad had happened to any of them, I’m sure everyone would know by now. They’re definitely not dead if that’s what you’re thinking.”

That hadn’t even crossed his mind. He’d just assumed they were alive. Maybe hurt, but definitely alive. He’d assumed everything would work out –

Just like how you could stop your friends from killing each other, right?

He knew his sudden panic showed. He quickly rolled over to hide it. They . . . no . . . this was different. He trusted them – okay, nothing about that was different – but his friends also trusted each other (even Togami, though he’d never admit it), and that’s why he could be confident this time.

“You alright, Naegi-kun?”

Yes, he was. He turned back over. “Yeah, I’m fine. But, uh, Komaeda-kun, where are my friends?”

An unnatural stillness swept over Komaeda’s body. It was like a video that had accidently paused. “Ah, sorry, Naegi-kun.”

“You don’t know?”

“I stayed in this room until you woke up, so I’m not up to date with what’s going on. Not like they think I need to be kept informed anyways. . .”

“It’s okay, Komaeda-kun!” Naegi blurted out, disliking the self-deprecating tone the other boy was using. “It was really nice of you to wait for me. I probably would have freaked out if I had woken up alone, so thank you.”

Komaeda gave him a curious stare, like Naegi was a puzzle he couldn’t quite figure out. “If you say so. There’s no need to keep thanking me, though. Or thank me at all.”

Before Naegi could say anything about that, Komaeda stood up and spoke. “If you’re sure you’re okay, I’ll ask around and see if anyone knows something.”

“Thank you.” With Komaeda’s promise, Naegi’s worry melted. He was sure Komaeda would take care of things. He waved as the white-haired boy walked over to the door.

The door shut, and Komaeda was gone.

Time to investigate.

The first time he sat up, the room tilted at an impossible angle. He had to lie back down and shut his eyes until his head stopped pounding. He must have moved too fast. The next time he sat up, he did so slowly and used the bedframe to support himself.

The carpet was cold against his bare feet. That was the first time he noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes or socks. He checked himself quickly. The rest of his clothes were the same ones he remembered wearing last. That said, they were wrinkled and in need of a good wash (someone had thoughtfully left a change of clothes on a table). He knew he needed to bathe, too; showers hadn’t been easy to find outside the academy.

He drank in the room. While the coloring was off, it was clear that someone had put a lot of effort into modeling it after his dorm. If he had to guess, he would say they decorated it this way so it would be familiar to him . . . he wished they hadn’t. The more he thought about his old dorm, the more the walls of his new one seemed to close in and trap him inside. He comforted himself by thinking about the differences: the wallpaper was more of a purplish-pink; the room didn’t have an alcove for the exit; the furniture was of the same type and amount, but it definitely wasn’t the same brand.

There were two doors leading out of the room. One, the door Komaeda had left through, was directly across from him and the bed. The other door lay upon the wall to the left of it.

He decided to peek through that door, and was immediately glad he had. Whoever had decorated this room may have been able to import furniture like what they had at Hope’s Peak, but they hadn’t been able to switch the plumbing. He saw both a bathtub and a showerhead above it, separated from the rest of the bathroom by a translucent curtain. The toilet and sink were completely ordinary. It was a stark contrast to the bathroom from Hope’s Peak, and he welcomed that.

Even the short trek to the washroom made him want to sit down (he had no idea why he was so tired). He leaned against the sink, and pulled back his sleeves. During his days in the ruins, his bad luck had been determined to make up for letting him escape the Killing Game. He’d picked up quite the collection of small cuts and wounds.

Surprisingly - well actually, it wasn’t much of a surprise anymore - it looked like they had been cleaned. He wouldn’t say it was a professional job, but it looked neater and more experienced than what Asahina had been able to scrap together. Not that he was complaining about her work. She’d done the best with what meagre supplies they had.

The water briefly ran brown as he washed his hands. He grabbed a towel and cleaned off his face, too. Unfortunately, his hair wasn’t going to get any better with plain water. He thought about taking a shower, especially once he looked at his reflection, but he didn’t want Komaeda to wait for him if he came back during that time. Besides, he’d already gone days wearing these same clothes. Another hour or two wouldn’t kill him.

Aware of how dirty he was, Naegi was now reluctant to touch any of the furniture. He stood awkwardly in the middle of the bedroom, curling his toes into the blue carpet. There was no clock in the room, so he had no idea how long Komaeda had been gone. He didn’t even know if it was daytime.

Time passed. He leaned against the desk for support. He grew bored. He thought about his friends, thoughts light and easy. He bet Kirigiri had already figured out exactly where they were and who these people were. Togami had probably bullied someone into giving him all the answers. He wasn’t sure what Asahina or Fukawa was doing, but he knew they would be relived to finally be out of the rubble. And Hagakure was probably still asleep.

Eventually, his thoughts ran dry. Komaeda still hadn’t returned. He rocked back and forth on his heels, eyeing the door out of the room.

Well, as long as he really didn’t go anywhere, there couldn’t be any harm in looking outside. He walked over to the door and turned the knob –

Locked.

He stopped, confused. He tried again, just to be sure. Sure enough, the doorknob rattled and refused to turn. There didn’t seem to be a lock he could undo. The door must have been locked from the other side.

Guess he was worried that I would wander off. Or he forgot that the door was locked. This was . . . odd. But Komaeda hadn’t given him any reason to worry yet, and Naegi trusted him. There must have been a good reason.

That said, now he had nothing to do. Naegi looked down at his dirty clothes, looked at the clean room, then sighed and pulled the chair out from the desk. Hopefully, whoever cleaned this place up would forgive him.

Chapter Text

Somewhere during his waiting, sleep took him. His fleeting dreams were filled with hazy images and incoherent words.  In his dreams, his world was filled not with comfort and light, but with fear and a nameless dread that bled into reality, so that he woke with a gasp and his skin icy cold. Komaeda, to his semiconscious brain, looked like a walking corpse as he hovered by the doorway.  

“Sorry, Naegi-kun. I didn’t mean to wake you.” Komaeda said. He was holding a tray. “I brought you dinner.”

Naegi nodded shakily. That sense of impending doom still hadn’t left him, and looking at Komaeda made him taste bile.

Komaeda walked over and placed the tray on the desk before him. The smell immediately erased any thoughts of dread. How . . . how had he gotten all this food? Full meals weren’t just lying around during the apocalypse. Yet on the tray before him lay a bowl of rich-smelling soup, some kind of meat upon a vegetable bed, and bread on the side. It was fresh too; steam was rising from its surface. Just . . . how?

“I wasn’t able to find out too much about your tastes, but I promise you’ll like it,” Komaeda said. “It was made by the Ultimate Chef himself.”

Ultimate Chef? He took a closer look at Komaeda.

“Komaeda-kun, you’re an Ultimate, too, aren’t you?”

“Ultimate Lucky Student to be exact. Not that luck’s much of a talent. Still, I’m glad I got to study alongside such amazing classmates!”

“I know!” Naegi exclaimed, practically bouncing in his seat. “I can’t remember going to school with them, but working alongside people like Kirigiri-san and Togami-kun was incredible! I still have trouble wrapping my head around how smart Kirigiri-san is.”

Komaeda laughed. He looked like he wanted to reach down and ruffle Naegi’s hair. “Naegi-kun, you don’t give yourself enough credit. You’re the Ultimate Hope. You belong with people like them.”

Naegi gave a half-hearted shrug, resorting back to the answer he always gave. “I’m just really optimistic, that’s all.”

 “You should eat your dinner.” Was it him, or did Komaeda’s smile stretch a little too wide?

At Komaeda’s urging, Naegi brought a spoonful of soup to his lips . . . wow. Wow. He couldn’t say anything else. Just wow.

“This is amazing!” he gushed, barely swallowing in time.

“He is the Ultimate Chef,” Komaeda reminded him. “Still, I’m sure he’s never been complimented by someone as extraordinary as the Ultimate Hope!”

Naegi frowned. “You know that title’s not official or anything, right? Kirigiri-san just called me that a few times.”

The look Komaeda gave him suggested that the other boy was certain Naegi was trying to trick him. “And you would doubt the conclusions of the Ultimate Detective?”

Okay. . . That was a good point.

“But it’s not like it means anything. It’s just a title. It’s not important,” Naegi said. He idly stirred his soup, avoiding the other’s eyes.

And in doing that, he missed how Komaeda’s face slackened.

“I’m sorry, Naegi-kun. I don’t think I heard you correctly.”

“I . . .” Naegi looked up at the other boy, and his words died in his throat. Komaeda was still smiling, but Naegi had heard the emptiness in his voice. And his eyes. They were too wide, and the lines in the skin around them sunk too deep.

“Komaeda-kun, are you okay?”

I’m okay,” Komaeda said fiercely. Despite himself, Naegi shrunk from his stare. The creeping anxiety from his dreams was whispering in the back of his mind again . . . It was probably just worry. He must still be on edge because he hadn’t seen his friends yet.

“Komaeda-kun, did you find out what happened to the others?”

At least the change in subject peeled that dead expression away. Komaeda exhaled deeply, and stared at a point on the wall. “I asked everyone I could, but no one’s gotten any reports about seeing them.”

Something was off about the way he said that, the words he had chosen. Naegi ran over it a few times in his head. No one had seen them? But that would mean . . .

“Are you saying I’m the only one here?”

“In this building? Yep, you’re the only student from your class.” Komaeda ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry, didn’t mean to confuse you.”

“If they aren’t here with me, what happened to them?”

“They were fine last time we – well, I - saw them. Still, that was half a week ago, so who knows?" "

Half a week ago . . . how . . .?

And Komaeda was speaking again. "I wonder, without the Ultimate Hope to guide them, has their resolve wavered? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your absence brought your friends despair?”

“What are you saying?” Komaeda must have been joking or something, but it wasn’t funny.

“You see it too, don’t you?” Komaeda’s body hardly moved, but he turned violently, like the floor had rotated beneath his feet. “Lost in the wreckage, the surviving Ultimates realize they have lost the brightest light among them and despair. . . But then they rally, hope stronger than ever! It would be beautiful!”

“That . . . That’s not . . .  None of that is beautiful.” He couldn’t remember how or when, but at some point he had gotten to his feet. “It’s terrible! We have to go find them!”

“But Naegi-kun, think about it. Their hope will have to grow so much stronger to compensate for your loss. Imagine what powerful symbols of hope they will become!”

“Stop it!”

What was going on? Why was Komaeda suddenly talking like this and being creepy and where were his friends and why had Naegi been the only to make it here? Who were these people that had saved him and –

What did they want with him?

Naegi had never even thought about that. He’d assumed Komaeda and his allies had rescued him for the sake of rescuing him. And they must have! Why would they give him hot meals and a room if they weren’t the good guys? If they were his enemy, then wouldn’t they have thrown him into a cell or something? No, surely they could be trusted –

But where were his friends? Naegi knew he would never have left any of them. He’d would have gladly subjected himself to a lonely existence in the outside world so they could be where he was now.  And he would never have allowed them to do the same for him. It was him and them, or just them, as far as he was concerned.

He tried to remember. He . . . he was talking to Hagakure and . . . and nothing. Nothing came next. A question mark laid in the spot where another memory should have followed, that and a feeling like ants crawling across his skin. Where were his memories? Something was supposed to be there. He ran over the information he had –

Hold on. Something was wrong.

Naegi said, “You said we saw them half a week ago. That can’t be right. I . . .”

I don’t remember getting here. I definitely don’t remember being separated from them for that long.

“Nope, that’s right! It was a week ago. You probably don’t remember since you spent most of that time unconscious.”

Unconscious? Automatically, he ran his fingers over his scalp, feeling for a wound. He didn’t think he was injured. Sure, his head hurt, but that was mostly due to his own confusion.

“ . . . Even if you were awake, short-term memory loss is a side effect of the sedatives I was using.”

What.

“I can see you want me to explain. What an honour!” Komaeda didn’t just straighten up. He seemed to unfurl, like a claw sliding out from its sheath. “I suspected you probably wouldn’t cooperate when I tried to bring you here, so I had no choice but to take the matter into my own hands! It’s a good thing I did, too. There’s no way we would have evaded the Ultimate Detective if we had been fighting among ourselves. I’m still in awe of how far she was able to follow us.”

“Komaeda-kun, what do you mean I wouldn’t cooperate? Are you saying I didn’t agree to come here?” That was another possibility that never occurred to Naegi, mostly because it made no sense. It was completely illogical that someone would decide to force him to come to a clean, furnished room and then serve him full-course meals.

“I was going to talk to you, but I ran into one of your friends first and they made it really clear what your answer was going to be . . . and it just wouldn’t do.” Komaeda clenched his fist, and brought it up in front of him. “You’re the Ultimate Hope! I couldn’t just leave you there in that world of despair.”

“You . . .”

“Don’t worry, I took good care of you! I gave you first pick of the rations, the blanket, even my own body heat when that wasn’t enough. I made sure you came to no harm. You don’t need to thank me. Nurturing you and your hope is all I’m good for!”

Sweat dotted the back of his neck. He understood. This was why the door had been locked. Komaeda had drugged him, and taken him away from his friends . . . Komaeda hadn’t rescued him. He’d kidnapped him. And the worst part was that he didn’t seem to think he had done anything wrong. He was staring at Naegi with adoring green eyes, hands pressed together in mockery of earnest prayer. It made him sick to his stomach.

“Komaeda-kun, I need to go. My friends need me. I . . . I need to know if they’re okay.” He bit his lip, holding onto hope that Komaeda could be negotiated with. Komaeda was a kidnapper, but he seemed reasonable.

Komaeda stopped smiling. “Naegi-kun, is being separated from your classmates bringing you despair?”

Naegi hesitated. He could almost feel Kirigiri at his shoulder, whispering that this was a trap. “K-kind of?”

A pause. And then Komaeda laughed. It was this scratchy, awful noise that seemed to pain Komaeda even as he kept laughing. It rubbed Naegi’s eardrums raw. Ancient instincts rose to the surface, telling him to get out now. For all the horror he’d endured in the academy, he’d never actually felt threatened by the other students.

This was different. This time, he did.

“This is fantastic!” Komaeda said. “We’re off to a wonderful start. Already, your hope has a chance to grow stronger. It’s perfect!”

The other boy’s eyes were glazed over, lost in his thoughts.

He was distracted.

Naegi ran. He slammed up against the door and grabbed the knob. It wouldn’t turn.

“I see it,” Komaeda said from somewhere behind him. “The despair that follows you . . . but it pales in comparison to the light of your hope. Come on, Naegi-kun; we can overcome this together!”

He pounded on the door. Somebody had to hear him. They couldn’t all be like him –

Komaeda lunged.

The skinny’s boy weight crashed against his back, pinning him against the door. Thin, long fingers scrabbled at his face, slapping over his mouth. His heart slammed into his ribs, and he twisted and turned in the shaky grip. The other boy was saying something, but Naegi couldn’t hear over the rushing of his blood.

He twisted again. Their balance shifted, and the two tumbled onto the floor. He kicked Komaeda off, rolled onto his stomach and reached for the door–

And Komaeda was on top of him, hand over the back of his skull, pressing his head into the carpet. Komaeda’s knees were flush against his side, trapping one of his arms. In retrospect, it was all meant to subdue rather than hurt, but all Naegi could think about was that Komaeda was bigger and he couldn’t throw him off and he couldn’t breathe . . .

 “Hey, it’s alright. Take a deep breath, okay?”

The parts of him in contact with the other boy shuddered. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want Komaeda touching him. He didn’t understand what Komaeda wanted with him. He wanted to be back with his friends.

He thrashed, but Komaeda managed to keep his position until Naegi had no choice but to calm down. The pattering of his heart slowed into steady, but powerful thumps. His breaths came easier; it no longer felt like Komaeda’s weight was going to suffocate him.

“Naegi-kun.” Komaeda no longer spoke with giddy friendliness or hidden insanity. He was quiet and completely serious, and that’s why Naegi listened. “I know I have no right to demand anything from you, but this is important. You need to be quiet. Talking’s fine, but you can’t go knocking on the door like that. Only a couple of us know you’re here, and if any of the others find out . . . Well, they’ll probably try to kill you.”

This couldn’t be happening.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe.” This time, Komaeda did ruffle his hair. “You just have to follow a couple of rules: don’t make too much noise, and don’t leave this room. That’s it! I can take care of everything else.”

Naegi licked his suddenly dry lips. His cheek rubbed against the carpet when his head turned. “Why would they want to hurt me?”

“Revenge. I know, it’s ridiculous. Why anyone would want to avenge the Ultimate Despair is beyond me.”

“Ultimate . . . Are you talking about Enoshima?”

He didn’t need the confirmation. It all came together. He’d been drugged and kidnapped in the middle of the apocalypse by a complete stranger for an undisclosed period of time and reason.  He was being held somewhere also occupied by the allies of the evil mastermind he and his friends had overcome.

Naegi asked, “Wh-what do you want from me?”

 “I just want you to be yourself.”

Komaeda smiled brightly, and it was the most frightening thing he’d ever seen.

Chapter Text

The closed door seemed to emit an aura of malice. That thin piece of wood was the only thing separating him from Komaeda on the other side, and it couldn’t even lock.  Komaeda had promised not to come in, that the bathroom was the one place Naegi could find solace, but why trust him? Look at what had happened last time he trusted the other Luckster.

But for now, he was alone. The snug space of the bathroom made him feel safer; within a couple of seconds, he could scan the entire room and see if anyone else was there. The only parts hidden from his immediate scrutiny were the shelves behind the hinged mirror, and it would be impossible to hide in there. The shower’s translucent curtain was a relief, too. He’d tested it with his arm, and found you could easily see shadows behind it. Nobody could sneak in.

Still, he worried. He couldn’t hear Komaeda. Pressing his ear against the door did no better. But Komaeda was there. He knew it. He didn’t know much about the older boy, but he did know Komaeda wasn’t one to simply get bored and leave. He’d stay out there until Naegi had finished his shower and changed, and he probably wouldn’t still leave after that. Oh no, he’d want to make sure Naegi ate his dinner and got ‘all the nutrition a young Hope needs to grow stronger!’. It disturbed him that he actually heard the capital in Hope when Komaeda had said that.

Thinking of that made him remember how Komaeda had handled his title: with oozing, slimy affection. Komaeda had rolled the two words over his tongue, caressing them with a murmur, speaking with emotion so intense that Naegi had been unable to move as Komaeda’s fingers ghosted over his shoulders and down his arms. Naegi had fled to the bathroom shortly after.

Naegi leaned against the sink, spine sagging. He wanted to rest. But he was afraid that Komaeda would break his promise and check on him if he did nothing. And . . . and a hot shower honestly sounded nice. The idea of stripping down? Not so much. His clothing had been the only protection from Komaeda’s touch, and he didn’t want to let that go.

It’s . . . it’s just water, right? It wouldn’t hurt them.

He took off his favourite hoodie anyways, just to be safe.

Showering with clothes on was weird. Water cushions caught between fabric and skin. His clothes turned dark, making them lay heavy against his body. The streams of liquid that poured upon the bathtub’s floor were thick with dirt and grime. He stood like that for a while, letting it rain on him as steam filled the small room. His eyes drifted close. Despite the soothing heat, there was a hard knot in his gut that wouldn’t go away. It felt familiar somehow . . .

Oh. Right. He’d felt something like this the first time he’d showered after Maizono’s death.

He swallowed hard. His clothes continued to weight him down. He made a token effort to wash his hair, hoping the robotic motions would bring him out of his funk. Plus, it was nice to be clean again.

It took him a while to bring himself to shut off the water. Even longer to muster the will to change. He scowled at the grey pyjamas folded neatly on the toilet lid. He didn’t want to know where Komaeda had gotten them.

He dried off slowly. His eyes remained locked on the bathroom door, just waiting for the knob to turn. But, while Komaeda may have been many things, he didn’t seem to be a liar. He left Naegi alone, as promised.

 He still changed as quickly as possible.

There was one thing left to do, and it didn’t please him. Though reason told him he had to face this, his legs refused to move toward the door. Its menacing aura had only increased, so that the air around it seemed to throb scarlet. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought he could see the shadows of Komaeda’s feet under the door crack.

His nails dug into his thighs.

I wonder how long it will take them to find me, he wondered. Truthfully, he didn’t like the idea of his classmates going to a place where Enoshima’s allies waited . . . But . . . But Kirigiri and Togami were really smart! They would be able to find a way in without anyone getting hurt. He imagined them already outside dressed in camouflage, staking out the building with movie-era spy gear. He smiled. Kirigiri would love that. The gear, at least.

They’ll come for me, he told himself. Until them, I just have to survive.

But to do that . . .

A long-deceased voice whispered into his ear. “The only way to proceed is to adapt.”

Adapt. He could do that. All it involved was playing along, after all. Despite everything, he trusted Komaeda not to hurt him.

(Imaginary Celestia giggled at his optimism.)

Before he could change his mind, he wrenched the bathroom door open. Komaeda . . . wasn’t there? Oh wait, there he was on his hands and knees. It looked like he was combing through the carpet with his fingers.

Good to know he still hadn’t seen Komaeda’s full repertoire of crazy.

“What are you doing?” Naegi asked flatly.

“Looking for dirt. I’d be awful if you had to stay in a dirty room.” Komaeda still stopped and stood up, though. “I can take your old clothes . . . why are they wet?”

Naegi didn’t know how to answer that.

Fortunately, Komaeda had come to his own conclusion. He slapped his forehead. “I never mentioned I was going to wash them for you, so you decided to take care of it yourself. Still, I can probably make then cleaner, if you would trust me to touch anything of yours.”

No. “Go ahead.”

Komaeda took his soaked clothes without complaint. He didn’t even flinch as his own shirt became dark.

“I’m an expert at cleaning, so I’ll be sure to get every last speck. I’ll scrub until my hands bleed!”

“Uh . . .” Naegi chewed at his lower lip. “I’d rather not have blood all over my clothes.”

Komaeda laughed, but thankfully, it wasn’t that frightening laughter from before. “Good to see you have a sense of humour. Your predecessor doesn’t.”

His predecessor? The question was on the tip of his tongue. Had Komaeda kidnapped someone before?

“Try to finish your dinner. It’d be terrible if you got sick.”

“ . . . Thanks,” he said stiffly. Adapt. No point in provoking him. Just play along until it’s over.

Komaeda beamed, and he was gone.

Naegi immediately tested the door. No luck there. Maybe if he was Kirigiri this wouldn’t be a problem, but he’d never paid attention when she picked locks. Plus, if he did get the door unlocked, there was still the problem of the other people in the building. He had no idea who would work alongside Enoshima, but if Monokuma was an example, it bode ill.

He did end up listening and finishing his meal. It had grown lukewarm, but that didn’t matter since his tastebuds were numb. It all slid tastelessly down his throat.

Afterwards, he walked the perimeter of the room, knocking on the walls. He didn’t know exactly what he was listening for, but people did that in movies all the time. He’d even spotted Kirigiri doing it once or twice! Speaking of Kirigiri, with her talent, she probably would have broken out by now.  

He tried the desk drawers next. Empty. The shelves. Bare. The closet had only a couple of outfits. What was he expected to do all day? He may be no amateur in being locked up, but Hope’s Peak had been filled with things to do and people to see.

Time passed in a haze. The emptiness of the room gnawed at him like a dog at a bone. He’d gladly take a tongue-lashing from Togami right now, or the cold chill of Kirigiri’s anger. He’d even let the Genocider go at him with her unique blend of threats and affection. His own voice, when he hesitantly said a few words aloud, wasn’t enough to give this place life.

He flopped into bed, burrowed under the covers and pulled the blanket over his head. Blearily, he remembered when he had first met Komaeda and thought everything was okay. Boy, Togami was not going to mince words when he heard about that.

(They’d all be angry, now that he thought about it. But it would be okay, because they were just looking out for him.)

Sometime later, the door creaked open. Naegi stayed in his cocoon, feigning sleep. He couldn’t hear any footsteps.

Something plopped down on the bed.

It brushed his back. His body automatically contorted to jerk away. That drew a surprised sound from – oh, he knew that voice – Komaeda. Sounding confused, the white-haired boy said, “You’re awake.”

No point in hiding it now. He ripped the blanket off his head with a vengeance. Komaeda stood at the side of the bed. Next to Naegi, there was a . . . a . . . a stuffed Monokuma?

Why? Just why?

“I know from experience that the first night’s the hardest, so I tried to get something you could cuddle with. I don’t know if you had stuffed animals before, but bears are your favourite animal, right?” At least Komaeda had the awareness to look a little embarrassed. “Sleep tight, Naegi-kun! If you need me, knock on the right wall. I’m next door, so I’ll hear you."

Once again, Naegi was alone.

He immediately hurled the stuffed Monokuma across the room.


Sleep refused to come easy. He fell into some sort of half-conscious state instead, where his senses could remain alert in case Komaeda returned. The stuffed Monokuma lay in a discarded pile on the other side of the room. When, if, he got up, he planned to toss it in the trash. Just because he could.

He left the lights on. Just because Komaeda wasn’t going to hurt him didn’t mean he wanted the other boy skulking around in the dark. The brightness didn’t bother him too much; he’d always slept with them on at the academy. Really, he should actually sleep better here since there were no potential murders to worry about.

He hoped.

Later, he was glad he had made that decision. Because someone did come in, and whomever it was made no effort to keep quiet. That tiny detail was enough to make him aware of one fact; it was not Komaeda.

Naegi held his breath. He stayed perfectly still, pretending –

“You’re not sleeping.”

. . . Well, Kirigiri always said he was a bad liar.

He pushed himself up into a sitting position. This new visitor had blazing red eyes that Naegi could easily imagine glowing in the dark. His hair was . . . his hair was long. Had he’d ever cut it? Ever? It wouldn’t be much a surprise if he hadn’t, considering the strands seemed to nearly be as tall as their owner. A frown marked the visitor’s face, and there were creases along his mouth, as if the expression had been etched permanently into his face. In one hand, he held the discarded stuffed bear. The other hand rubbed his chin.

“Very amateurish,” the unknown person muttered as he examined the stuffed animal. “I expected him to put more work into it. Or a microphone.”

“Um, hi?” Naegi lifted his hand in an aborted wave. “Who are you?”

The unknown person gave him a very particular stare. It was the same kind Togami gave someone when he was deciding whether they were worthy of hearing his voice. “Kamukura Izuru.”

It was tempting to straight-out beg Kamukura for help. However, if he had learned anything from Komaeda, it was that he needed to be careful. First impressions could be deceiving. True, Kamukura showed no signs of wanting to kill him, but being associated with Komaeda wasn’t exactly a plus in Naegi’s books.

Those scorching red eyes turned on him. Naegi had the weirdest sensation of being pinned in place. That stare seemed to dissect him, take him apart piece by piece until the very essence of his being was revealed. Kamukura, he realized, had a stare and presence similar to Kirigiri. Only his seemed more intense. And colder.

Naegi jumped when Kamukura spoke. “I  didn’t think Komaeda had the strength to betray her. Not even for you.”

“Her? Do you mean Enoshima?”

Please, no. . . .

Kamukura didn’t bother to confirm that. He turned the bear upside down and sideways, studying it before tossing it aside. Apparently, he cared for it as little as Naegi did.

Naegi’s heart sank into his stomach. If Kamukura was telling the truth, then Komaeda, too, was on Enoshima’s side. It would certainly explain why he decided to bring Naegi to a place filled with her people. Although it still didn’t explain why Komaeda had kidnapped him or what happened to his friends. Or why, if Komaeda had indeed worked with Enoshima, Komaeda was actively protecting him.

“What do you guys want from me?” Naegi asked quietly.

Kamukura didn’t even glance in his direction. “Haven’t you figured it out by now?”

“Komaeda-kun said he wanted me to be myself.”

“ . . . The class trials had left me with the impression that you were intelligent.” This time, Kamukura did look at him. It wasn’t a kind look.

Okay. Clearly, Kamukura thought the answer was obvious. He withdrew into his mind, and played back Komaeda’s words to him. Now that he genuinely thought about it, it actually was pretty obvious. There was one word that kept coming up again and again and again.

He looked down at his hands. “It’s my title. He kidnapped me because of my title. But that still doesn’t explain why.”

“Komaeda worships hope. Naturally, that would extend to the alleged Ultimate Hope.”

“Most worshipers don’t kidnap their idol.”

Kamukura’s chin dipped. The long strands of hair that fell over his face hid it.

“I should have insisted he bring the detective along, too. Maybe then this conversation wouldn’t be so slow.” Kamukura brushed his hair aside. Despite his harsh words, his face was eerily blank. “Komaeda isn’t just interested in preaching about his beliefs. He seeks to create and cultivate hope. Please tell me I don’t need to explain the rest.”

“I get it,” Naegi said, though that didn’t mean he had to like it. “If he’s seeking to cultivate hope, then that must mean he trying to cultivate my hope, I guess. Just . . . why? None of this is going to make me more hopeful. If anything, it’s going to do the opposite.”

Kamukura scoffed. He kicked the Monokuma stuffie, and it rolled until that nightmarish face was staring at Naegi. He bristled; it may have been a toy, but that manic twist to its smile was real enough.

“He’s not stupid,” Kamukura said. “He didn’t expect you to cuddle with a thing like that. He wanted to bring back traumatic memories. He wants to hurt you. He believes that forcing others through despair is the best way to create hope.”

Is that true? I was so sure he wouldn’t harm me, but if this is what he truly believes . . .

“This is boring. You’re much less interesting than I wished for,” Kamukura said. “It’s a shame.”

Oddly enough, this degrading conversation weighed on him less than the enthusiastic statements from Komaeda had. See, Naegi knew how to deal with scorn and apathy; it was basically like speaking to a child of Kirigiri and Togami. Also, Kamukura seemed sane. That was always a good thing.

Although, he had thought that about Komaeda the first time they spoke, too . . .

He blinked, realizing that Kamukura was already at the door. He had moved silently, like a panther on the prowl. Though his hand now lay on the knob, he didn’t turn it.

“Before you start trying to think up plans to convince me, I’m going to tell you this. No. I am not going to help you escape, or talk to Komaeda for you.” Kamukura glanced over his shoulder, unmoved by Naegi’s splutters. “You’re boring, but Komaeda has always been a source of surprises. Now that you are no longer ignorant of his intentions, I expect your struggle against him will provide some moments of mild excitement.”

“A-are you kidding me? Are you saying you’re going to let him keep me here just because it’s entertaining?”

“Yes.”

Naegi didn’t know what to do with such a flat answer. Cold, red eyes bored into his own, and he realized this was no exaggeration. Kamukura didn’t care. At all. Naegi barely qualified as human to him.

What happened to you all? Why are you like this?

Kamukura spoke once more. “Hope never lasts long in this place . . . but who knows? Maybe the Ultimate Hope will find a way to surprise me.”

Chapter Text

In a way, Kamukura had already broken his promise not to help. He had left Naegi with a precious gift, after all: the knowledge of the bizarre motives driving his kidnapper. Objectively, it wasn’t much. However, it gave him a place to start, a base from which to launch his attack. Naegi had never doubted he would get out of here, but now it looked like that day might be coming sooner than expected!

Excitement bubbled through his blood. There would be no more sleep tonight, so he burned away time by meticulously plucking tuffs of stuffing from the Monokuma plushie, and tossing them into the wastebasket. He hated to admit it, hated to say anything positive about his former tormentor, but this Monokuma was super soft. Had it been a regular bear, he would have seriously considered snuggling with it –his friends weren’t here to laugh at him, after all. When all the fluff was gone (leaving behind a limp skin), he tore off the zigzagged, plastic red eye. It fit neatly between his fingers like a throwing star . . . interesting. He drew his hand back, and aimed for the wastebasket. With a cry, he snapped his wrist forward -

The eye slipped and fell onto his lap.

“Huh. That was disappointing.”

He kicked his feet. He really wished he had a clock . . . though it wasn’t like he was going to be here long! Still, he should ask Komaeda to give him something to do during the day. Just in case.

He awaited Komaeda’s arrival impatiently. The idea of him not showing up was unthinkable. He sat coiled on his bed, muscles slowly growing stiff and painful. He barely blinked. When the knob finally jiggled, a burst of energy make his legs grow tingly; it took all he had not to jump up and rush the door like some oversized puppy.

“Good morning, Naegi-kun!” Komaeda beamed as he peeked through the small crack between door and frame.

Naegi had a sudden vision of tackling Komaeda and making a run for it. “G-good morning.”

Komaeda’s gaze skimmed over the desk’s empty dishes from yesterday’s dinner. A touch of satisfaction coloured his expression. Then, he saw the deflated corpse of the Monokuma doll draped across the floor . . . Naegi squinted; what was that glint in his eyes?

“I brought some food if you’re hungry, but not a whole lot.” Komaeda nudged the door the rest of the way open. There was no hot, steaming tray this time. Instead, Komaeda had a bowl and spoon in hand, and a box of cereal tucked under his arm.

“Thanks,” Naegi said that automatically. He wasn’t even sure if he meant it. “You can put that on the desk.”

Komaeda did so. He began stacking the dirty dishes from yesterday, speaking casually as he did so. “I see you ripped up that plushie I gave you. I hope that wasn’t because of its substandard quality. Of course, I can always get you more if you need to vent your frustrations.”

“Uh, actually I just destroyed it because I was bored. I don’t have anything to do.”

“Hmm. I suppose this is my fault for being so woefully unprepared.” (Naegi looked around at the fully furnished, eerily familiar room. Oh, yes. Unprepared). “A lot of stuff was destroyed in the riots, but I’m sure I can root through the rubble and find something. I’ll get started right away –”

“No!”

They both stopped confused. Only when Naegi realized he was holding his hand out in a ‘stop’ position, did he understand that he was the one who had spoken.

“You don’t need to leave right now.” A sheen of sweat appeared on his palms. Naegi was the one speaking, but his voice sounded distant like he was hearing it through a long pipe. “You just got here.”

And if you’re here, at least I know what you’re up to.

“I don’t understand why you continuously grant the honour of your company to someone as uninteresting as me, but I certainly will never refuse.” Komaeda turned to face Naegi. “So, what can I do for you?”

Upon hearing Komaeda’s agreement, a hard knot of anxiety in Naegi’s gut unravelled. Good. He had a chance to go on the offensive, then.

“Komaeda-kun. . .” The name wedged in his throat. He tensed it, trying to remove the ball now stuck there. “I know what you’re trying to do; you’re trying to strengthen my hope.”

“Ah, you’re so perceptive, Naegi-kun! I mean I already knew that from watching the trials, but you really are something that has to be seen to be believed.” But no sooner than Komaeda had said that, was he suddenly shaking his head and backtracking. “I’m not trying to oblige you into showing me your true power or anything. There are plenty of people who are more worthy of being graced with your glory.”

“Komaeda-kun, I don’t think you’re any less important than anyone else. But, that’s not what I want to say. What I’m trying to tell you is that if you really are trying to help me, you need to let me go.”

Naegi stood. It made him a little bit taller than when he had been sitting on the bed, and that him feel a little more powerful. Komaeda smiled blankly at him; it was like he hadn’t heard Naegi speak. He took a step forward, and Komaeda still didn’t react. He suspected even being shot wouldn’t make that expression budge an inch.

“I know about your . . . philosophy about despair and hope. I’m not trying to insult you, but . . . it’s wrong. That’s not how hope works. Hope doesn’t come from despair; it comes from believing that things can be better. It’s about not giving up and looking to the future. It comes from thinking that if we all try and work together, we can make the world better than it is. Do you see? You don’t need to hurt people to bring them hope. You just have to be optimistic and unite them under a common cause, and then you’ll have hope. It has nothing to do with despair. So, if you keep me here like this, you’re stopping me from doing all the things that spread hope, and I don’t think that’s what you really want.”

He took a step toward the white-haired boy. “Komaeda-kun, you’re not like Enoshima-san. I’m not going to pretend I understand why you decided to help her, but I do know you don’t agree with her goals. You want to spread hope, right? And you want to help me . . . so how about you do both! Once we get out of here and find my friends, we can make hope together! That’s what we both want, isn’t it? I’m sure my friends will forgive you once I explain . . . okay, Kirigiri-san might not for a while, but that’s because she’s always looking out for me.”

He closed the distance between them, and clutched Komaeda’s hands within his own. He squeezed; it was meant to channel his energy to the white-haired boy, to let Komaeda know just how beautiful this proposal was. His friends would understand. Once they realized that Komaeda hadn’t wanted to harm him, they’d accept him just like they’d accepted Fukawa’s other side.

“Think about it.” There was no need for Naegi to fake his wide smile. “What could be better than two ordinary people working alongside the surviving Ultimates to spread hope to the world? We might only be a few people, but we’ve already lived through the killing game. We didn’t let despair beat us then, and it won’t beat us now! We’re going to put this world back together, and you can help us.”

He waited. Usually, this was the point where people said something, but Komaeda stayed silent. It was uncomfortable.

“Umm,” Naegi chewed on that word, “so should we go now?”

Komaeda stared at him. His smile was still there, but it didn’t seem real. It was like it was painted on his face.

Then, something about the other boy’s appearance seemed to blink, like a flickering hologram.

Naegi knew what was coming. He braced himself –

Komaeda laughed.

Expecting that laughter didn’t make it any less unnatural, but that meant Komaeda was pleased, right? That was a good thing, wasn’t it? By clinging to that thought, Naegi was able to keep an uneasy smile as Komaeda shook with frenzied laughter. He’d probably get along well with Genocider Shou.

“. . . I can’t believe it.” Komaeda whispered that so quietly Naegi barely heard him.

“Believe what?”

“I remember how your hope lit up the entire room in that last trial, but I never imagined it was this brilliant! The broadcast doesn’t do you justice, Naegi-kun. Ah, to be blessed with your presence. . .” Komaeda’s voice was so high and breathless it started to crack. “I really am the Ultimate Lucky Student.”

“So, will you help me?”

“Of course I’ll help you. My very existence is meant to be nothing more than your stepping stone, after all. I’ll give everything to make sure you can rebuild the world.”

It worked! Komaeda’s laughter, as creepy as it was, was catching. “Right. Then let’s go!”

Komaeda grinned back at him. “Sorry, Naegi-kun! As tempting as your speech is, you still can’t leave.”

It took a bit to sink in.

“What? Why?”

Komaeda clicked his tongue. Head tilted slightly to the side, he gave Naegi a proud, but patronizing look. Gently, he untangled his hands from Naegi’s own.

“I’ve vowed to dedicate my life to you. People like you don’t come around very often and this time . . . this time I won’t watch from the sidelines. I’ll make sure you triumph, and that means you have to be kept safe until your hope becomes brighter than a sun! I’ll shield you from danger with my life, even if that means going against you.”

“But none of that is necessary!” Naegi cried. “We beat the Ultimate Despair. Doesn’t that prove I can take care of myself?”

For the first time, Komaeda wasn’t looking at him with fanatical adoration. That looked like . . . incredulity? Disappointment? Technically it looked like Komaeda felt nothing at all, but Naegi knew better.

Komaeda took a deep breath. He couldn’t meet Naegi’s eyes as he said, “Naegi-kun, don’t take this the wrong way, but what you went through . . . it was a game.”

What. There was no way . . . he couldn’t have just said that. How could he say that? That was no game! That was . . . it was . . . there wasn’t even a word to describe what it was. Watching his friends slaughter each other, then being forced to condemn another to a horrible execution . . . it was hell made reality, that’s what it was.

“A game,” he repeated with disbelief. “My friends died during that!”

“Because their hope wasn’t strong enough. It was so despair inducing to watch such wonderful symbols of hope succumb to her . . . but the end made it all worth it! Their sacrifice –”

“Don’t say that!”

He pushed Komaeda. Hard. The other boy was bigger, but hadn’t expected the assault. He slammed against the wall, eyes wide like a kicked puppy.

Naegi stared at his outstretched hands. The air lay thick between him and Komaeda. He wanted . . . he wanted . . . Naegi didn’t know what he wanted. He had to move around; jolts of electricity were striking his nerves. Maybe that’s why it was so hard to stop shaking.

“It wasn’t worth it.” Naegi’s words drifted on top of a wheeze. They had to. He couldn’t control his breathing enough to speak properly. “Nothing could make that worth it.”

“Naegi-kun -!”

It wasn’t worth it!”

Bang.

It was amazing how quickly the mood in the room changed. Komaeda’s pupils turned into pinpricks, giving him the distinct look of a cornered animal. Naegi could only stare at the door as his red-hot anger instantly turned into ice. Neither of them moved. Even Naegi’s heart had stopped beating.

“You should hide in the bathroom,” Komaeda said. “I’ll see who was knocking.”

Right.

Naegi was strung so tight that his own mental voice startled him. At least it spurred him into – albeit, clumsy – action. He hobbled over to the washroom, and fell through the half-closed door.

Cold tiles greeted him. The door – how had he fallen so far away? He scrambled for purchase and clawed at it. It swung shut, cutting him off from the bedroom just as Komaeda began to walk toward the other door.

He had forgotten about this part of his situation. This was why he needed Komaeda’s cooperation to escape. For both their sakes, Komaeda had better be a more talented liar than he was. He could only sit against the door, breathing heavily. It felt like there was a blade hanging above, ready to chop off his head. He could try to listen in, he should try, but he couldn’t bring himself to.

It seemed like no time at all had passed before someone knocked on the bathroom door. Goosebumps rose on his skin, but his panic was stilled by Komeada’s whisper. Apparently, the person knocking had been Kamukura. He must have been warning them they were being too loud.

He was probably listening in for fun.

Neither of them spoke as Naegi slumped out of the washroom (he immediately wondered why he hadn’t just stayed there, stayed away from his kidnapper). Nor did they look at each other. Naegi’s teeth ground together. In a way, the almost painful pressure was reassuring.

“I’m sorry,” Komaeda said, and he sounded sincere. “That was my fault. Figures I’d mess up like that. I promise I’ll be more careful next time.”

Naegi was about to accept the apology –

He wants to hurt you.”

No. He wasn’t going to play nice.

“I thought you said this was somewhere safe.”

He thought that might finally unsettle the other boy. Certainly, Komaeda’s sureness had melted away. But then, Komaeda said, “Naegi-kun, you aren’t the first Ultimate Hope.”

That surprised him; he’d never heard of an Ultimate Hope before. However, he was missing a good chunk of his memory, so it wasn’t that unbelievable.

Komaeda said, “I suppose you don’t remember, but there was a student in the class before yours who was meant to be a god. Decades of research and experiments had come together to turn one boring, talentless boy into a miracle the world had never seen before . . . He was called the Ultimate Hope, but he really should have been named the Ultimate Ultimate. His specialty was talent itself. He could do anything. Nothing stumped him. I thought he was invincible.”

“That’s . . . I didn’t think someone like that could exist,” Naegi said.

Komaeda didn’t answer. He turned away. But before he did, Naegi saw his lip curl, exposing teeth in a primal, animalistic snarl. “Do you know what happened to that Ultimate Hope?”

“No.”

“He was tainted by her.” Komaeda spat those words out, like they were physically disgusting.

“You mean Enoshima-san?”

 “Yes.” Komaeda’s hand curled into a fist against his chest. “It’s . . . it was my fault. I saw it coming. I saw it happening right in front of me. But I didn’t do anything. I trusted Hope to overcome her. I stayed out of the way. By the time I tried to get involved, it was already too late. I . . . I only made everything worse, and I . . . I can’t let it happen again.

“Do you see, Naegi-kun? You’re not safe, not from despair. It’s not safe out there. Not for a newborn Hope. Not for you.”

Naegi couldn’t speak. Couldn’t move. Komaeda turned with agonizing slowness. His face . . . there was nothing.  His green eyes had become flat and lifeless. And when he spoke, there was no inflection.

“I’ve learned from my mistakes.  I saw the truth that day: not even an Ultimate Hope understands hope as well as me. I’m not going to sit on the sidelines anymore.”

He took a robotic step toward Naegi. Cold hands found his shoulders, and squeezed.

“They’re not going to break you, Naegi-kun. Not this time. I won’t let them.”

Chapter Text

In the aftermath of that near disaster, Naegi chased Komaeda out of the room. The one good thing about his captor was that he generally did whatever Naegi asked– except for the whole ‘stop kidnapping me!’ thing – and he always did it with a smile. Okay . . . that part was creepy, but no creepier than murderous, robotic bears.

When the door shut, he pressed his ear to the wood. Was it to check if Komaeda had really left, or was it to make sure nobody was coming while he was vulnerable? Naegi himself wasn’t sure. He just knew that he had to do this. So, he stood there, skin clammy and cold, awaiting some unknown signal. It was quiet on the other side of the door. That just made things worse.

His teeth grit together. The instant he realized how he had truly gotten here, Naegi had known he was in danger. Komaeda hadn’t been subtle about that either. But it had been Kamukura’s latest warning, that panic upon hearing the knock, which finally drove it in. Before, the idea of danger had been abstract, distant. Kind of like the possibility of being murdered during the Killing Game. After the first trial, Naegi had never forgotten it could happen, but it never really sunk in. He had never witnessed a murder in person, after all, only the gory aftermath. That had made all the difference. Without seeing it for himself, without seeing one of his friends as they succumbed to murderous despair, Naegi had never been able to imagine any of his classmates betraying him.

As his conscience always did when his thoughts strayed down that path, it slapped him. He needed to stop thinking that way. Of course they hadn’t betrayed him! His classmates, all of them (except, perhaps, Enoshima) had been good people. But who could have expected them to function normally under all that pressure and stress? It had all been that stupid bear’s fault, not theirs. 

Blaming the familiar villain made him feel better. Dare he say it was nostalgic? He eyed the disembowelled Monokuma plushie on the center of the floor. He wouldn’t mind kicking it around a bit . . . but his body was reluctant to leave the door. He pressed his palm against it, pushing half-heartedly.

A sudden gloom swept over him. He sunk to his knees, cheek squishing against the wood. He wanted to . . . he wanted to cry or something, but he had no tears to shed. His throat didn’t agree with that though, and constricted in preparation.

He brought his knees up to his chest, and laid his forehead upon them. Why couldn’t this be over? Hadn’t the Killing Game been enough? He just wanted to be back with his friends. They’d be worried about him, even Togami. And he worried about them, too. Last he remembered, they’d been low on food. They’d be looking for him . . . that wouldn’t make them forget to take care of themselves, right?

His fingers dug into his hair, and pulled. No, he told himself, Togami would never forget about his own wellbeing long enough to run out of food. Kirigiri, too, would choose practicality over emotion. She wouldn’t let them starve. They would be fine. They . . . they had to be . . .

His breaths came in huge, shuddering gasps. It still wasn’t enough air. He coughed, cramping already tight muscles in his back. Slowly, he looked up with bleary eyes. Colors and shapes flickered as he set his chin upon his knees. His vision started to focus. What he saw before him was the bed and the desk next to it, and sitting upon it was the box of cereal Komaeda had brought him. . .

. . . Here he was, fearing his friends couldn’t find enough food, and he was having it hand-delivered on regular intervals.  He could sleep without worrying about being spotted by evil robots or people with Monokuma masks. He had a bed!

It wasn’t fair.

He stood stiffly; something fierce and solid inside him snapped his spine straight like a metal rod. He marched over to the desk, and grabbed the cereal box so hard he dented it.

None of this was fair.

He didn’t think about it. He shoved his way into the washroom, and ripped the top off the box.

He turned it over, and let every bit fall into the toilet.

The sound of flushing was music to his ears. As he watched his intended breakfast swirl into oblivion, he didn’t feel the least bit upset. It felt . . . good. Like in his own little way, he was defying Komaeda. He’d never engaged in this type of rebellion against Monokuma, but that was because uniting the students against him had been much more fulfilling.

Also, Monokuma had placed cameras and machine guns everywhere.

He ended up tossing the torn cereal box toward the door, where Komaeda would be sure to see it when he inevitably returned. He enjoyed an impromptu game afterwards of punting the Monokuma plushie into the wastebasket, delighting in the way it flopped and soared irregularly through the air. Now this was satisfying. When he got back to his friends, he’d be sure to introduce Asahina and Hagakure to his invention. Maybe even the Genocider would join in. They’d have a blast!

After the sixth goal (where he’d created a crude and completely necessary obstacle course), he had to stop to rest. One would have thought that spending weeks trudging though rubble would make him stronger – and he was sure it had – but this was the first time in a while where his body wasn’t constantly under stress. His journey through the outside world was catching up to him. So he slumped over onto his chair, panting. He stared at the Monokuma plushie and everything he’d done, that game he just played . . . it all suddenly felt so worthless.

Because it is. None of this is going to help you or your friends.

He closed his eyes. Komaeda had insisted he wouldn’t change his mind, and Naegi was starting to believe that. That didn’t mean he was stuck here, though. Komaeda’s help just would have made things much less dangerous. However, if he wouldn’t help, then Naegi was just going to have to bust out on his own. He could do that.

Right?

Getting information would be easy. Komaeda readily gave it up. However, he had to remember what Kamukura said: Komaeda wasn’t stupid. The fact that he’d apparently stolen Naegi away without much trouble confirmed that the white-haired boy could be crafty. Naegi had to be careful. He couldn’t go about this like his usual friendly self; he’d probably give something away accidently. At the same time, he had to pretend that he was his usual friendly self or Komaeda would notice . . .

If only Kirigiri was here to help.

He shook his head to clear it. He could mope about that later. He needed to figure out a way out of this room.

The door was sturdy. It hurt when he punched it. Not like that mattered much. Even if he was strong enough to knock it down, it was out of the question. With no way to check whether anyone was in earshot, making that much noise was too risky. He checked the knob; there didn’t seem to be any way to pick the lock from this side. But what did he know? He was no action movie hero.

Maybe he could trick Komaeda into opening it for him? His room was right next door after all, and he’d already given Naegi a free pass to summon him. If he were quick and surprised Komaeda, he could probably get through the door before he was stopped. There was still the matter of evading Komaeda and the others after that, but one had to take risks to get ahead, didn’t they?

. . . Of course, Kirigiri had been talking about mysteries when she said that. Not about escaping a hive full of Enoshima’s people. Was it worth the risk, then? Or was it better to find a way to escape that would not instantly alert his kidnapper?

His head hurt.

It wasn’t like he had to make a decision right away. Before he attempted anything, he should make sure that his body was ready for it. Now, he realized, was the time to return to the exercises Oogami had shown him. It had been a while since he had time for them, but in the academy, he had practiced religiously after Oogami had passed (his own private tribute to her), and still remembered the motions.

The noise constraint and small space limited what he could do, but once he was rested, he urged his sluggish limbs through a basic routine. It was different being on carpet instead of wood, and his feet ended up slipping when he tried to dig down into the basic martial arts stances. Well, that didn’t matter much. He wasn’t planning to fight Komaeda, or anyone.

He trained. And trained. And trained and trained and trained. Without any reference of time or other things to do, he couldn’t tell when to stop. He worked through his light-headedness until his legs buckled. With the last of his energy, he slumped over to the bed and collapsed. His heart raced, and it didn’t seem like it was only from labour.

He was too tired to stand. He was too tired to prop himself up and rotate so that he wasn’t lying sideways across the bed with his feet hanging off. He was too tired to work on an escape plan.

He lay there until the door opened.


Huh. Komaeda certainly had an interesting assortment of items. He had returned with Naegi’s lunch (which Naegi had ignored as it made him nauseous when he looked at it) and a box full of random things that he had no idea what to do with. Like, for example, what appeared to be the snapped-off paw of a Monokuma robot. What was he supposed to do with that?

He sighed. Surely, there must have been a few useful items in there. He sat next to the box and sifted through it object by object, ignoring how Komaeda’s eyes bored into his back. The white-haired boy was sitting on the bed, which made Naegi relax a little; he’d hear the springs if the other got to his feet.

The first thing Naegi pulled out was a page of a five-year old newspaper. The main feature was an article about some massive blackout that had apparently affected the country, although Naegi couldn’t remember it. The other side was peppered with light, slice-of life editorials that brought a smile to his face – until he started looking more closely at the names, and wondered if they were all okay. He shifted the page in front of his face to hide it from Komaeda. No point in giving him that satisfaction.

“Komaeda-kun, is this clock accurate?” he asked, holding up a small clock. It claimed it was 1:30 in the afternoon.

Komaeda smiled widely.

“ . . . Right.” Naegi set the clock down beside him.

Next, he found a waterlogged manga that became illegible halfway through. Then, a battered stuffed rabbit that was rubbed grey with dust (and a perfectly clean Monokuma plushie. Naegi had to take a second to control himself). A chipped plate and some cutlery were there, too, and he was actually glad to see those.

He pulled out a bouncy ball next. Naturally, he had to try it out. It rebounded off the floor with surprising speed, shooting right past his head and back toward . . . right toward Komaeda. He grabbed it with a snap of his wrist.

Komaeda laughed. “Hey, next time warn me when you want to play catch.”

Naegi stared at him, unsure. The honest thing to do would be to admit it was an accident, or simply ignore Komaeda and keep going. But hadn’t he decided earlier he needed to get information from Komaeda? Alienating him wasn’t a very good way of accomplishing that.

He didn’t look at Komaeda. “Uh, sorry. We . . . could do something together if you want.”

. . . Ouch. Saying that hurt. It had to be done, though, and it wouldn’t be too bad. If Naegi had any skills, it was being friendly with other people.

“I have cards,” said someone that was neither Naegi nor Komaeda.

Naegi whipped around. When did Kamukura get here?! He hadn’t heard the door open. Yet, that was undeniably Kamukura leaning against the wall, idly staring at the other side.

Komaeda said, “Sounds like fun. But Naegi-kun, I need to warn you. As unlikely as it seems, I do have one actual skill, and that’s luck. Plus, Kamukura is a master at anything he does!”

Naegi shrugged. “That’s fine. I’m supposed to be the Ultimate Lucky Student too, remember? So . . . Go Fish?”

They sat in a rough triangle. The moment Naegi picked up his hand, he knew this was a game within a game. It was too simple to be anything else, not when it came from Kamukura. There were ulterior motives here . . . it had to be a test. What for? That’s what puzzled him.

If he’s going to test me, then I need to give it my all.

Face neutral, Naegi prepared to do exactly that.


Two games later, Naegi had exactly zero points. He stared blankly at his hand as Komaeda took away his three-pair. Again. Komaeda hadn’t been kidding when he said he had luck on his side.

Naegi glanced sideways at Kamukura, still surprised the longhaired boy had continued playing. He’d been clearly going through the motions during the first game, often not even looking at his hand when he asked one of them for their cards. Kamukura had won that round, trouncing both of them. Yet despite his clear boredom, Kamukura had asked for another game. Komaeda had happily agreed (Naegi suspected he would have played this same game all day if they asked), and Naegi had been so stunned he’d nodded without thinking.

The second round had seen a significant decline in Kamukura’s dominance, but no matter how hard Naegi tried, Komaeda stole what leeway was given. The second round was his game, even if he apologized sincerely every time he took somebody else’s cards. It was halfway through this round that Kamukura actually got a little interested. At least Naegi assumed that was the reason Kamukura hadn’t stopped watching him.

Kamukura got the last set, ending the game. Before Naegi could consider wallowing in sorrow about his latest loss, the other boy’s head snapped around. Red eyes held Naegi in a vice-grip that set the air itself alight.

“I purposely played very poorly, but my points still surpass yours,” Kamukura said. “You are doing this on purpose. You are trying to fool us.”

Naegi cringed. “I-I’m not! I’m just unlucky.”

“Not unlucky,” Komaeda protested. “You were a Hope’s Peak Academy student, after all!”

 Komaeda lay what was supposed to be a supporting hand on Naegi’s upper arm. It just made him jerk away.

Naegi said, “Yeah, but most of the time, it seems like I have bad luck.”

For some reason, that struck a chord with Komaeda. The white-haired boy virtually squealed in delight. He cried out, “That’s not it, Naegi-kun! All these little feats of bad luck are just there to balance out your good luck. That’s how it works!”

“. . . You were your year’s Ultimate Lucky Student.” There was an odd cadence to Kamukura’s tone that Naegi couldn’t quite place.

And Komaeda was shaking with laughter. He rolled his weight back onto his spine until his feet hovered above the ground, making Naegi fear he would topple backwards. “Two Lucksters in the same place! That’s got to be a little interesting for you, Kamukura-kun.”

The corner of Kamukura’s lip twitched upward. It was a spastic, unconscious action, more like a muscle spasm than an actual projection of emotion. Naegi was suddenly very aware that Kamukura was between him and the door. The shadows that fell upon his face gave him a naturally sinister appearance, and encircled his red eyes so that they seemed to glow. Naegi . . . Naegi wanted to shuffle closer to Komaeda.

“We still need proof that his luck is as powerful as yours,” Kamukura said.

That sounded ominous. Naegi grabbed a fistful of his pants, trying to stop his hands from shaking. He turned to Komaeda and his grin. Komaeda may be his kidnapper, but at least he was nice.

“Komeada-kun, have you ever lost a card game before?” he asked.

“Only against two people,” Komaeda said. “Kamukura-kun, and the Ultimate Gambler. The researchers at Hope’s Peak wanted to see whether Ultimates could defeat a person like myself at my own field. I don’t know why they bothered. The outcome was obvious.”

“You knew Celestia?”

“Yep! I know your entire class. I watched them struggle and fall under Enoshima-san’s heel, until one bright light drowned out the darkness –!”

“That’s not what I meant. I was asking if you knew her before the Tragedy.”

Komaeda laughed, waving his hand dismissively. “You really don’t remember, do you? Kamukura-kun and I were in the class above you.”

Really? Naegi looked from one to the other, searching his mind for either boy, hoping that staring hard enough would revive that past long lost. A deep blackness greeted him. He could find no trace of the two in his memories.

But if Komaeda and Kamukura were part of the same class . . .

“Komaeda-kun . . .” Naegi began, palm sweating. “What happened to the rest of your classmates?”

“Oh, they’re around.”

“In this building?”

“Yep!”

Kirigiri would have been proud of his blank face. So, he was right. Komaeda was hiding him from the rest of his class. They . . . they were the ones that had joined Enoshima. They were the ones that helped plunge the world into despair, trapped his friends in that killing game and now, were indirectly keeping him in this room.

“How –?”

“Fifteen,” Kamukura said.

Naegi blinked. “Eh?”

Kamukura said, “Excluding Enoshima and the servants and soldiers of Despair, there are fifteen of us. Not all of them stay in this building.”

Kamukura was staring at him hard. As he stared into his eyes, Naegi realized something – something he absolutely knew to be true.

Kamukura knew exactly why Naegi was asking this.

Yet, if Kamukura knew he was planning an escape, why was he giving up information so freely? True, he could be lying, but Naegi didn’t think so. Kamukura’s stare was too intense for that. The longhaired boy was telling the truth, and clearly didn’t care he had helped Naegi with the plans that went against him.

Why?

Kamukura said he wouldn’t help me escape, he reminded himself silently. But there’s another way to look at that, isn’t there? He also never said he would stop me from escaping. Maybe it’s more exciting to him that way. He’ll give me a fair chance. He won’t physically help me, but I think he’ll feed me enough leads that I can actually pull this off.

“The ones who are here, what are they like? What are their titles?” Naegi asked. He wanted to know whether there was an Ultimate Security Guard or Tracker or anything else to watch out for.

“Taking an interest in the little people, huh?” Komaeda said. “Hey, Kamukura-kun, do we have any photo albums lying around?” When Kamukura nodded, Komaeda stood and stretched his arms upward. “I’ll be right back!”

He ran out the door. Naegi mumbled, “Does he know where to look?”

Kamukura scoffed. “He’s the Luckster. It’ll be in the first place he checks.”

That didn’t leave much time. Naegi grabbed the small clock and thrust it at the other boy. “Is this right?”

“Three minutes ahead.” Kamukura didn’t even glance at a watch or anything.

“. . . You have an army?”

Kamukura tilted his head slightly. “Komaeda has told them to apprehend you if you are spotted outside this room.”

Naegi nodded, thinking hard.

“Why are you bothering?” Kamukura asked suddenly. “It won’t work. You know that.”

“I know the odds are against me, but I have to try, don’t I? I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

“It won’t work. You can’t escape.”

“I can,” Naegi said.

A short silence followed.

“Komaeda’s will is focused on you. Even if you leave this building, his luck will bring you straight back. There is no escape. So long as he desires you here, it is impossible.”

“I can’t accept that,” Naegi said. “It is possible. It has to be.”

Kamukura blinked. “. . . You are not stupid. Even if you have not previously witnessed Komaeda’s power, you must still understand. Yet you do not doubt. . . How can you deny it?”

Naegi shrugged. “Well, if you keep focusing on the negative and tell yourself it won’t work, then it probably won’t. So, I like to focus on the opposite. If I keep telling myself it will work and hope for the best, then maybe it will!”

“Hope . . .” Kamukura stared at the wall. “You are doing this for the sake of hope.”

“. . . I guess?”

Kamukura didn’t say anything. Naegi didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.

Chapter Text

Naegi squinted critically at picture in the photo album. Then at the person before him. Then at the picture again. He frowned. Beside him on the floor, Komaeda watched. The white-haired boy seemed a little nervous. Across from them, Kamukura sat against the wall with his legs drawn up.

Naegi looked up again, and tried to overlay the picture he’d seen on the present Kamukura. Yep, same apathetic, utterly bored expression and blazing red eyes. A black suit instead of the white dress shirt and tie he wore now. The past version had pale skin as though he hadn’t been outside for a long time. The most striking difference between the past and present Kamukura however, was obviously the hair. Present Kamukura had those long locks that rivalled those of people like Maizono. Past Kamura had short hair with an impressive ahoge. It . . . kind of looked like Naegi’s hairstyle, to be creepily honest.

But there was another difference Naegi noticed. There was something wrong about past Kamukura. True, anybody could look at that face and say ‘bored’, but there was something else. Something lacking. It  . . . it just wasn’t there. Anything real. That picture Naegi was looking at was one of a blank slate. The primal part of him knew it instinctively, and feared that.

But present Kamukura wasn’t like that. Even when he was droning about being bored or staring into space, he was alive in a way his past self hadn’t been.

But it wasn’t like Naegi could ask about that.

“Uh, Kamukura-kun,” Naegi said. “Is there any reason you stopped cutting your hair?”

“I stopped caring,” Kamukura answered flatly.

“Why does it matter?” Komaeda cut in. “He still looks great, doesn’t he? Ultimates always know how to present themselves!”

“I was just wondering-”

“Come on, Naegi-kun! You’ve already met him. I’m supposed to be telling you about the Ultimates you don’t know.”

It was a transparent attempt to change the subject. Naegi just didn’t know why. Maybe Kamukura was sensitive about his hair? It did look like it took a lot of work to keep it from getting all tangled, and people were always saying that Ultimates tended to be eccentric. Speaking of that, while he knew Komaeda was his year’s Luckster, he had no idea what Kamukura’s talent was.

“Kamukura-kun, what’s –?”

Komaeda’s hand clamped onto his leg. His nails dug in. Loudly, the cheer in his voice sharper than usual, Komaeda pointed at a person and said, “This one is the Ultimate Yakuza. He doesn’t look like he has much of a bite, but appearances are deceiving.”

Once again, Komaeda’s true intention was clear. Naegi peeked at Kamukura; he didn’t look upset, but if Komaeda was this insistent on changing the subject, Naegi must have been prodding at some sore point. So he let Komaeda redirect his attention to the blond boy who seemed much too short to be a criminal heir.

“His name is Kuzuryu Fuyuhiko,” Komaeda announced proudly, like they were looking at one of his children. “You may have heard of him. It was probably a big deal among the rabble when they confirmed his attendance. I wouldn’t know though because every confirmation is a big deal to me!”

“Isn’t it a little weird to invite someone who’s known to be an important figure in crime?” Naegi asked.

“Hardly,” Kamukura said. “Inviting people such as the Ultimate Yakuza or Ultimate Biker ensures that those groups take an active interest in promoting the academy. It protected Hope’s Peak from attacks by those same criminal organizations.”

Naegi didn’t really get it, but Komaeda was nodding as if it all made sense. Plus, Kamukura sounded sure of what he was saying.

“The girl next to him is Pekoyama Peko, the Ultimate Swordswoman. She’s not much more than his servant and . . . well . . . honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about it.” Komaeda brushed a hand through his hair. “I mean it’s completely reasonable for an Ultimate to use people as tools, but to use another Ultimate like that? It kind of rubs me the wrong way.”

“It should!” Naegi exclaimed. “I can’t say I know for sure what you’re talking about, but so far I don’t like it. People aren’t tools. They have thoughts and feelings and . . .”

Previous conversations with Komaeda flashed through his mind, as did Komaeda’s words and opinions regarding himself. With those in mind, Naegi changed track mid-sentence.

“ . . . Komaeda-kun, you do know that, right?”

“How important are feelings when we’re talking about the good of the world?” Komaeda asked easily. “Not very, right? People are always left behind when society advances.”

No. That was wrong. That wasn’t the way the world should work. Naegi placed the photo album aside. Komaeda held his gaze, untroubled.

“They don’t have to be,” Naegi said. “We can support them and bring them along too, can’t we? It might take longer, but then nobody’s forgotten.”

Komaeda did that laugh. (Naegi glanced at Kamukura; he didn’t seem bothered). “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Naegi-kun, but you’re a little naïve sometimes. I suppose it fits your nature as a newborn Hope.”

Naegi asked Kamukura, “You don’t agree with him, do you?”

Chin on his knees, Kamukura shrugged. “Society has always been split into tiers. People like us – talented people – are naturally in the upper echelons. We are the ones who shaped the future of this country.  It is the duty of the untalented to realize that, and accept their place.”

Naegi had thought only people far removed from the common folks (such as Togami) thought that way.  He was wrong. Maybe the people who thought that way were just . . . just cruel. Disgust welled up in him. He could no longer look Kamukura or Komaeda in the face.

“So you think that way, too,” he murmured.

Something changed in Kamukura’s face. Something small, but it changed a lot; changed the air surrounding him from indifference into triumph. Although Naegi was looking away, he could still see the red of Kamukura’s eyes in his peripheral vision.

Kamukura’s chin lifted off his knee as he sought to catch Naegi’s eye. “Those were direct quotes from my teachers at Hope’s Peak.”

Naegi couldn’t stop his head from turning. “They said that?”

“They taught us that.” Kamukura’s voice was low. Was it from boredom, anger, approval or a simple need to make sure Naegi was listening? With that stoic face, who could tell?

Naegi could only repeat those words to himself. Komaeda patted his shoulder, saying, “I know you can’t remember your time there, but I remember some of my teachers saying similar things.

“You guys believed that.”

It wasn’t a question, but they answered anyways. He expected Komaeda’s enthusiasm. What surprised him was Kamukura, for when he agreed, he did so softly.

“Let’s move on,” Kamukura said loudly, more than making up for his previous weakness. “We are supposed to be discussing our classmates.”

“Sorry!” Komaeda pulled the photo album toward him and turned the pages until he found a picture big enough. “That’s Soda Kazuichi, the Ultimate Mechanic. Monokuma was Enoshima-san’s design, but he’s the one who brought him to life. There’s nobody else in the world that could have done it! You should have seen him. He doesn’t even need to think. It’s so automatic for him and . . . Ah, I’m gushing again, aren’t I?”

“He built Monokuma.” Naegi stared at that pink-haired, shark-toothed face, memorizing it. Part of him wanted to hate Soda, but he couldn’t bring himself to without meeting him personally.

Hanamura Teruteru was next. Apparently, he was the Ultimate Cook who had prepared Naegi’s food. The moment Naegi realized that, he wanted to puke. He’d already known that the Ultimate Cook was in charge of his meals; he’d known that the Ultimate Cook would be a member of Ultimate Despair. But now, with a name and face to attach to a title, those tidbits of knowledge actually took on meaning. They became real. Naegi was being fed by a murderer.

Nidai Nekomaru and Owari Akane were next. One look at their impressive physique, and they were added to the list of people to watch out for (joining Pekoyama). Nidai’s talent came as a complete surprise; Naegi had expected his talent to be an actual sport. Owari’s wasn’t much a of a shock. While her appearance’s similarity to Asahina had biased him towards water sports, gymnastics wasn’t unbelievable by any means.

Then came Tsumiki Mikan, the Ultimate Nurse. In most of her pictures, she was either shying away from the camera or wearing a shaky smile. The way she held herself spoke of fragility and timidness. Naegi didn’t think she looked very dangerous.

Unless Komaeda was lying to him, those were the only Ultimates in this building. None of their talents seemed like they would directly impede an escape attempt, but those three on his list were definitely dangerous. He’d have to be careful, especially if they really were going to try to kill him.

Komaeda talked about the absent Ultimates afterwards. Naegi didn’t listen as closely during that, but focused more on the faces and people. As time went on, one thing became clear: everyone looked so happy and pure. Even the ones that showed them pranking or tormenting a classmates bubbled over with innocent affection, like in those photos of his class Monokuma had occasionally left around the academy. How could anyone have looked at these students and seen evil? How could every single one of them have succumbed to Enoshima’s despair? The more he learned about her exploits, the less human she seemed.

“And that’s the 77th Class of Hope’s Peak Academy!” Komaeda finished, throwing his arms into the air in celebration. “Quite an impressive collection, isn’t it?”

. . . Did Komaeda actually expect to trick him that way? He had watched the broadcast, hadn’t he? He should have known that Naegi tended to notice details – like that Komaeda had failed to introduce a student who appeared only in a single photograph. It had been a small girl with purple hair, who was wearing an animal-eared hoodie. She hadn’t been the subject of the photograph, having been huddled near the back talking to Tsumiki.

Before Komaeda could close the album, he slammed his hand down in the middle of the pages.

“Hold on, there’s something I think you’ve forgotten.”

“Komaeda didn’t miss anyone,” Kamukura said. “That was all of our classmates.”

Naegi hesitated. They would know better than he would. She could have easily been a friend or relative. But, he was curious, and his trial-detail senses were telling him this meant something.

“Back on the third page, there was someone you guys never mentioned.”

As Komaeda flipped through the pages, Kamukura said, “Are you talking about our teacher?”

“I don’t think so,” Naegi said. “She seems too young.”

“This is the third page,” Komaeda said. “I-”

His face suddenly drained of colour.

“Komaeda-kun –?”

“Nothing here!” With a snap, the album shut. “I saw who he was talking about. It was someone from another class.”

“She was talking to Tsumiki-san.”

“She’s the Ultimate Nurse! Everyone with an upset stomach talks to her.”

Naegi reeled back. Komaeda had almost yelled at him. Considering how Komaeda had handled him with kid gloves up to now, it was more than enough to tell Naegi he needed to drop the subject now. He had no idea why this girl was such a big deal to the Luckster – she had looked so tiny and harmless! – but if Komaeda, the Ultimate Fanboy didn’t want to talk about her, it couldn’t have been good.

“Sorry, Komaeda-kun,” Naegi said. “I . . .”

“Give it to me.”

They both looked at Kamukura.

“I told you to give it,” Kamukura said. “I want to see it.”

Wordlessly, Komaeda pushed the album toward him. Kamukura snatched it, and opened it to the third page. His brow furrowed as he studied what lay there.

The mood changed. Naegi didn’t know whether it was right to say Komaeda and Kamukura had always been buddy-buddy, but there had never been any doubt they were on the same side. This was different.  There was no friendliness here. Komaeda was shrinking into himself; bringing his arms and legs in close, muscles tensing and becoming defined as his body went on high alert. Kamukura remained still and seated, but his hair seemed to float in an unfelt breeze.

“I told you not to play your games with me.” That wasn’t a human’s tone. No. Kamukura’s echoing voice seemed to be part of the world itself.

They could barely hear Komaeda. “I didn’t know it was there. I-I found it on the floor and thought –”

“Are you blaming this on luck again?”

Komaeda retreated even further into himself. Kamukura began to stand. The white-haired boy turned his head away and raised his arm defensively in front of it –

There was only way this could end.

When had Naegi decided to stand up? He didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. Kamukura had risen to his feet, and then Naegi was there, standing between the other two. He had his hands up, trying to project a strength of body he did not possess.

“K-Kamukura-kun, I don’t know what’s going on –”

“No, you don’t.”                                                                      

His legs shook. Naegi may not have been the target, but being between Komaeda and Kamukura was enough. The tension tried to shove him down like an invisible force. Had the room always been this cold?

“I don’t think he did it on purpose.” It took two attempts to get that sentence out. “He tried to hide it from you when he saw what I was talking about. He wouldn’t have done that if he wanted you to see it.”

Kamukura stared over his head at Komaeda’s huddled form. “Did you forget he kidnapped you? You and your friends would have been rescued weeks ago if he hadn’t asked me to interfere. You are here because of him. You will never see them again because of him. You want this as much as I do.”

“No, I don’t. I know what he’s done, and I hate it. But he . . . even though what he did was terrible, he thought he was doing something good. I don’t . . . I don’t think he hurts us on purpose. I don’t want to see him hurt because of that.”

Was that a chuckle? Maybe. Or maybe it was a cross between one and a scoff. Kamukura shook his head, still staring at Komaeda. “You don’t know what he’s done. What he will do. You can’t make those claims.”

“I don’t need to know much about people to want them safe.”                                       

“Yes, that’s right.” Shadows crisscrossed Komaeda’s face, darkening all but his lower jaw. “You’re Naegi Makoto. You try to save everyone. Even Enoshima Junko, the reason you needed to save people in the first place.”

The simmering pressure infusing the room was dying. Kamukura’s shoulders, broad and flared, started to settle. Naegi had caught his attention, and that appeared to be enough to pacify him.

Kamukura stared at him a few moments longer. “People like you don’t last. They are devoured.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Kamukura did not react to that. He turned around. “I’m leaving.”

Maybe he was finished, but Naegi wasn’t. There was something missing, some point to be addressed that kept nagging at him . . .

“Kamukura-kun?”

Kamukura stopped.

“I am going to see them again.”

Kamukura was still.

“You’ll kill Komaeda yourself one day,” were his last words before he left.

It took half a minute before Naegi calmed down enough to address the last person in the room.

“Komaeda-kun, are you okay?”

There was no answer. Another minute passed, and Komaeda finally unfurled. His spine went first, straightening out even as its owner failed to account for the changing center of gravity, and toppled onto his side. His hands were next, fingers extending and spreading until they resembled fans. Empty eyes positioned over hollow cheeks stared straight ahead.

“Naegi-kun . . . you hate me, don’t you?”

Naegi considered that. He had meant every word he said in Komaeda’s defense. He hated what Komaeda had done to him, what he was doing . . . He wanted . . . he wanted to understand. He wanted to understand Komaeda, why he did the insane things he did, why he felt the need to do this. Because if he did, he could work with Komaeda. They wouldn’t need to be foes, because he . . . he didn’t think Komaeda was a bad person.

His own conclusion was a bit of a shock. But it was true. For all the silent resent Naegi had carried with him, he didn’t think Komaeda was actually a bad person inside. Just . . . confused.

“I don’t hate you,” Naegi said.

Komaeda giggled. “You should, Naegi-kun. I’m filth. I’m no better than the scum on someone’s shoes. I’m just a forgettable extra meant to be killed off in the opening scene.”

“Please don’t say those things about yourself.”

Naegi’s request was greeted with gales of hysterical, fragmented laughter.

“Komaeda-kun, if it’s okay to ask, why is Kamukura-kun so mad at you?”

The laugher stopped. Komaeda’s haunted eyes sunk into their sockets.

“She . . . she tricked me. I thought it would make it better. I thought if he didn’t have to see them . . . if he forgot . . . it would make things better. He would get better. But she lied to me. It didn’t get better. He got worse. It . . . it pushed him over the edge. I didn’t know. I didn’t think it could happen to an Ultimate Hope. I . . . I did it. It was my fault.”

“Komaeda-kun . . .” Naegi reached out for him –

And Komaeda cringed away like the hand was a live snake. “I . . . I . . .”

He exploded onto his feet, nearly pushing past Naegi in his mad rush for the door. He was gone before there was any chance of talking to him, or following him out.

Chapter Text

It’d been over a day since Naegi had a real conversation with someone. Yesterday’s mess between Kamukura and Komaeda had left him exhausted. He’d taken a nap shortly after, and woken later to find dinner waiting on the desk. He saw no one else the rest of the day.

The next morning, Komaeda had shown up with food like usual, but the usually energetic boy was reluctant to speak. He answered Naegi with downtrodden, simple words, and shied away from the younger Luckster like a dog being faced with a rolled-up newspaper. It happened again at lunch and dinner, until Naegi was feeling guilty for Komaeda’s behaviour –even though he knew this had everything to do with what happened with Kamukura and the photo.

He ended up killing time by listlessly wandering around and checking the walls for nonexistent weaknesses. Once there was absolutely no doubt that these walls had not been built with escape in mind, he slumped against one and thought about nothing. The steady ticking of the little clock became a background drone. He wanted to sleep, but couldn’t bring himself to start walking. Finally, he mustered up enough willpower to move, and crawled into bed. He rolled over, turning his back to his half-eaten dinner.

He slept uneasily, waking several times during the night. The last time he did, he awoke freezing and shivering, and he realized he was covered in sweat. He took a shower, but even the hot water failed to warm him. There was a new sort of anxiety consuming him from the inside out.

He poked at the salvaged Monokuma paw after that and to his horror, found that the bear’s sharp claws had not been removed. He immediately hid the paw under his bed – those things were dangerous – and did his best to forget it was there.

When Komaeda came in with breakfast the morning after, it was eight in the morning. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the sight of Naegi lying on his back on the carpet. Naegi mostly ignored him – until he saw Komaeda was smiling.

“Komaeda-kun!” Naegi scrambled up to a sitting position.

“Morning!” the other boy said cheerfully. He was wearing his familiar, warm smile. There was no trace of the misery that had haunted him yesterday.  With this return to familiar ground, Naegi couldn’t help but smile back.

Still, he had to ask. “Are you okay? You were pretty out of it yesterday.”

Komaeda waved his concern off. “I’m sorry you had to witness that. I forgot myself for a while, but I’m better now. Something wonderful is about to happen, after all!”

Wonderful? Naegi wasn’t sure whether to be elated, or terrified. “What do you mean?”

“Well, since picking up that album with that photograph in it was an example of really bad luck, that means I’m due for some good luck any moment now!” He clapped his hands together, looking like a little kid on Christmas Eve. “If we’re really lucky, it’ll be something good for both of us.”

“I’m not following you.”

Komaeda shook his head, tsking under his breath. “And here I thought you were supposed to have Luck as a talent, too. Good luck always comes on the heels of bad luck, just like hope grows in the wake of despair.”

“. . . That’s not how it works.”

Komaeda grinned. Hand on his hip, he looked straight at Naegi and said, “Sorry Naegi-kun, but this is the one area I have something close to expertise in. Let me give you an example. Did you know I won the lottery?”

“Really?” Wow. That was lucky. But hadn’t Komaeda just been talking about how good luck and bad luck went hand in hand –

“It wasn’t even my ticket. I found it in the trash of my kidnappers!”

“. . . What?”

“You could say I was almost the richest person in my class at Hope’s Peak. I didn’t just win the lottery. I had a huge inheritance too, and I got it all paid out when my parents were killed by a meteor!”

A . . . what?

“Do you know how unlikely it is to be hit by a meteor? On a plane? While it was being hijacked! Do you understand how unbelievable it is? It doesn’t happen! If I saw that on a TV show, even I would have said there was no way that could happen.”

The more Komaeda spoke, the more out of breath he became. He hunched over at the waist, shaking, arms wrapped around his stomach as if in pain. With his breathlessness came that wheezy laughter. This time however, it wasn’t scary. It was pitiful.

“That’s terrible,” Naegi said.

“No, no, no! It’s not! It was good luck. That’s why I had so much money! See? It all works out in the end.”

“If your family really was killed, then it wasn’t good luck. No amount of money is worth that.”

Komaeda’s laughter grew steadily in pitch, until his voice cracked and fizzled out to nothing.

“It’s fine, Naegi-kun.” Still keeled over, Komaeda panted. “Everything works out in the end. I’m the Ultimate Lucky Student. When stuff like that happens . . . well, things always get better later, don’t they? That’s how you operate, right? No matter what the Ultimate Despair threw at you, you always looked to the future and hoped everything would be better tomorrow. So, you just have to buck up and wait for that light at the end of the tunnel. Because . . . because that’s what hope is! That’s the point! So, there’s no need to get upset about anything because hope’s always there to make it better!”

Komaeda’s smile was not whole, but more like a crack formed from years of pressure. Was this really how he thought? If he did, then that explained a bit, right? Naegi looked at him now, and saw not someone who was insane or malicious. Just broken.

“Komaeda-kun . . .”

Naegi reached out. His hand stopped halfway. Could he really do this, even after everything the other boy had done?

He looked at Komaeda’s shrivelled form.

Yes, he could.

He reached out, and squeezed Komaeda’s shoulder.

“You don’t have to keep bottling it in and pretending like that,” Naegi said quietly. “I know it bothers you. I know you think I’m too important or something to care, but that’s not true. I’m . . . I’m really sorry you had to go through all that.”

“You . . . why would you even apologize . . .? Ahahahaha, and I’m the one who’s supposed to understand hope . . .”

Komaeda laughed so hard, he fell to his knees


The office’s dim lights made the old man look weaker than he was. Deep wrinkles accented his age, and the desk he sat at could have just as easily been there for support rather than status. As if further attempting to illustrate the old man’s maturity, a much younger man stood at his side. In a word, the younger man looked sharp; a strong chin formed the foundation of a slender face with long, slanted eyes. Pale skin, silver hair, and ironed, light-coloured clothing banded together for a powerful message: this was not a man who should be taken lightly.

There was one other in the room. This man lingered not close to the others, but leaned against another wall instead. A white fedora sat atop his light brown hair. His relaxed demeanour was a stark contrast to the other two, and he remained that way even after a knock at the door.

The old man spoke. “Kizakura-kun, could you get that?”

The fedora-wearing man walked over to the door, and opened it. Purple eyes greeted him. He smiled at the girl who did not smile back, and moved aside to grant her entry.

Five entered the office. They were directed to five waiting chairs lined up in a small arc before the old man and his desk. The purple-haired girl claimed the center seat (to the dismay of her blond comrade), and the other four positioned themselves around her.

When everyone was settled, the old man spoke. “Thank you all for agreeing to this meeting.”

Kirigiri Kyoko nodded.  “There is no need to thank us. We would like to thank you for providing us shelter.”

Kizakura chuckled. “Is the esteemed Togami Byakuya included in that ‘we’?”

The blond heir scowled, looking off to the side. “Compared to our previous situation, what your organization has provided is . . . adequate.”

Kizakura seemed to find that answer amusing. Perhaps for the good of the conversation, the old man chose to speak again.

“Allow me to introduce ourselves. I am Tengan Kazuo, the chairman of the Future Foundation.” With his chin, he pointed to the pale man by his side. “This is Munakata Kyosuke, our second-in-command. He,” he beckoned to the fedora-wearing man, “is Kizakura Kouichi.”

Kirigiri said, “I presume you already know who we are.”

Tengan nodded. “Yes, the names of the Survivor Six are known all across the world.”

The mention of that title had an immediate effect on the students. Kirigiri’s already emotionless expression turned rock-hard. Togami’s jaw tightened. Hagakure cleared his throat, staring at the wall. Fukawa bit her lip and wrung her hands together while Asahina glanced at her fellow classmates nervously.

“W-we all know why you w-wanted to talk to us.” Fukawa spoke in a tone that was both a whisper and a hiss.

“Please, do not mistake our intentions,” Tengan said. “We planned to rescue any survivors regardless of whom they were. However, it is true that we were hoping Naegi Makoto would be among them.”

“Retrieving him was your primary goal, correct?” Kirigiri phrased that as a question, but it was obvious she didn’t need it answered.

Hagakure scratched the back of his head. “I don’t get it. What’s so special about the little guy?”

“Naegi Makoto is the one responsible for the fall of the Ultimate Despair.” For the first time, Munakata had spoken, and his powerful voice sliced through the room like a knife.

“Public relations.” Togami sneered at that, as if that idea was beneath him. “That’s your intention for him.”

“I won’t deny it,” said Tengan. “Whoever directs Naegi-kun would gain considerable influence over the world. Just as important, however, is keeping him out of the hands of those who would abuse that.”

“If he was so important, then why did you wait so long to find us?” Togami demanded.

Tengan sighed heavily. Munakata, on the other hand, bristled as if Togami’s question was a personal insult. He slowly walked out from behind the desk, alternating his gaze between Togami and Kirigiri as he explained. “We had deployed a rescue team by the time you left the academy. What we didn’t know was that the Remnants of Despair had deployed their own agent, Kamukura Izuru. We assume that his mission was to prevent contact between our two groups.”

“One person paralyzed your entire organization,” Kirigiri repeated doubtfully.

“Kamukura Izuru is no ordinary person,” Tengan said. “He is a product of the world’s top scientists and engineers. It may be incorrect to refer to him as human.”

“We are getting off topic.” Munakata glanced sharply at Tengan. “We need to know what happened to Naegi.”

“ . . . It’s my fault.”

All eyes in the world turned to the Ultimate Swimmer. Eyes downcast, head bowed, Asahina blinked back tears as she whispered those three words. She cut off Kirigiri’s attempt at comfort, holding herself tightly as if cold. “If I had been a little bit faster, if I hadn’t been stupid, we could have saved him.”

“Hey, it’s not your fault,” Hagakure said, trying to give Asahina a thumbs-up.

“Th-that’s because it’s your fault, idiot!” Fukawa spat.

“What was that for!?”

Kizakura tipped his fedora up to get a better look at the feuding students. “Anyone else lost here? I think you kids should start from the beginning.”

“Allow me.” Kirigiri put her hands neatly in her lap. “We had discovered an old department store and were hoping to find supplies inside. Because of the large area, we agreed to split into pairs. We were to remain within shouting distance of each other, so I had hoped we would be able to come to each other’s aid, if need be.”

“That was your first mistake,” Togami said, acting as though he had disagreed with the detective’s plans from the beginning. “You never should have let Naegi pair up with that idiot.”

“I don’t recall you objecting,” Kirigiri said sharply.  “Regardless, Naegi-kun chose Hagakure-kun as a partner. He can tell you what happened next.”

They waited. Asahina had to kick Hagakure before he realized it was his turn to speak. “H-huh? Oh, yeah. Me and Naegi were by the back looking for food. I thought I saw a spirit when we walked past one of the aisles, so I went to take a look –”

“You were supposed to stay within arm’s reach of each other,” Kirigiri said through gritted teeth.

“I forgot, okay? Anyways, I kind of lost track of him. But I swear, I went looking for him right away! But . . . uh . . . there was something wrong with him when I found him. He was all woozy, and there was some weird guy with him.”

“What did this person look like?” Munakata asked right away.

“White hair. Hoodie. Uh, kind of tall?”

The three adults in the room exchanged looks, something that was not unnoticed by Kirigiri and Togami.

“What next?” Munakata said.

“Well, umm . . .”

Fukawa pointed an accusing finger straight at Hagakure. “He fled l-like a coward! He didn’t tell any of us until Master stopped him.”

“Come on! What was I supposed to do? The guy had a gun –”

“It didn’t shoot bullets,” Kirigiri said coldly. “He would have used it if it did. Considering Naegi-kun’s state when you found him, the logical conclusion is that the gun shot tranquilizer darts. To follow-up on Hagakure’s story, once I was made aware of what had happened, I was able to deduce their most likely route of escape. It had rained the previous day, so once we were outside, we found footprints telling us where Naegi-kun’s abductor was going. We followed them.”

A mournful silence followed her words. Kirigiri had never been one to express much emotion, but if one looked, they would have seen her hands balled into fists.

“You lost them?” Munakata prompted.

“Because of me.” Asahina spat those words out. “The others couldn’t keep up, so Kirigiri-san and I went after Naegi-kun. We found them. I chased them. I was catching up. I would have caught him, if I hadn’t been stupid . . . I was running through some building and I tripped over something. It pissed me off, so I grabbed it and tried to throw it at the guy who took Naegi-kun . . .”

Silence again.

“My current theory is that the object’s impact was enough to trigger an unexploded landmine,” Kirigiri said. “Whatever it was, it collapsed the building behind Naegi-kun and his abductor, separating us. We were able to find an alternative path, but it took precious time. We followed the trail again, but eventually, I found conclusive evidence that Naegi-kun had been loaded into some sort of vehicle.”

“You lost the kid due to bad luck then, huh?” Kizakura sighed. He lowered his fedora, hiding his eyes.

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Munakata answered.

Four of the five students shook their heads. One, however, did not. Fukawa bit her lower lip nervously. Her face slowly heated up from nerves.

“I-it’s possible that she saw something,” Fukawa said. “But she p-probably didn’t . . .”

“There’s no harm in asking,” Tengan said. “I, for one, have nothing to fear from her.”

Kouchi smirked in Munakata’s direction. “You might want to leave. You could be in danger.”

Munakata scowled at him. He pulled out one of the desk drawers, and took out a small bag. As he dumped some of the contents into his hand, he asked Fukawa, “The personality change is triggered by sneezing, correct? If you’re ready, I would like to speak to Genocider Shou.”

Fukawa closed her eyes. “Okay. But y-you can’t blame me if she slaughters everyone!”

Munakata tossed the powder in her face.

“Ah . . . Achoo!

It was immediate.

“Well, what do we have here?” In a flash, Genocider Shou had risen to her feet. On the chair. She towered above everyone as her elongated tongue swished and tasted the air. “This is much nicer place than the last time Gloomy had a blackout. Master, shall we take it from them over their cold, dead bodies?”

“That is unnecessary,” Togami said. “We are partners. For now.”

Kyeehahahaha!” The serial killer’s laugh was like nails on chalkboard. “Someone else has recognized my Master’s brilliance, have they? Just remember . . .” Out came the scissors. “Master is mine! So don’t go getting any bright ideas.”

Genocider Shou looked around, basking in the attention like a smug cat. But then, she frowned. “Hey, where’s Mahkyutie?”

Munakata’s eyes narrowed. “Are you talking about Naegi Makoto?”

“Yeah, yeah, Big Mac. Where’d he go?” Something strange passed over the serial killer’s face then, something almost sad. “He didn’t decide to go with the marshmallow, did he?”

“Marshmallow –!“ Several people said that, but it was Kirigiri who asked the actual question:

“You saw the white-haired boy?”

“Huh? Oh, you mean Komaeda Nagito? Yeah, he was one of the students in the upper class. Ultimate Lucky Student or something.”

“What exactly did you see?” Togami demanded.

“Oh, when you ask like that . . . Let’s see.” Genocider Shou tapped her chin. “He was spouting some stuff about taking Naegi to a safe place. Sounded good and all, but then he told me he only wanted to take Naegikins. Bah! As if that scrawny guy deserved a safe place more than my Master. So I told marshmallow to hit the road before I cut him up! Big Mac would never take him up on that anyways.”

Silence followed as the implications of the Genocider’s story were understood.

Shyly, voice brimming with hope, Asahina asked, “Then, does that Naegi-kun is okay?”

Munakata and Tengan exchanged a look.

“Komaeda Nagito is a known member of Ultimate Despair,” was all Munakata said.

Asahina bowed her head again, tears streaking down her cheeks. They all knew the likely fate of those taken by Despair.

“There is no proof that Naegi-kun has been killed,” Tengan said gently. “There is still reason to believe he is alive.”

“How probable is that?” Kirigiri asked quietly.

“Considering the circumstances, it is actually very likely,” Tengan said to the students’ surprise. “Komaeda Nagito has very different motives than the rest of Ultimate Despair. Additionally, if Despair had killed Naegi-kun, they would have broadcasted the execution to the world. Indeed, the very fact that Naegi Makoto’s capture remains a secret from the general public makes me doubt that Komaeda means him harm in the first place.”

Kirigiri’s eyes widened slightly. “Then you are saying  . . .”

“Yes. It is possible to rescue him.”

“Komaeda would have brought him back to their main headquarters,” Munakata said. “If we were to distract the Remnants, it is possible a small tactical team could break in and find him.”

“You’re going to do it, right?” Asahina demanded. She looked ready to join Genocider Shou and stand on her chair. “You’re going to rescue him?”

Tengan said, “Rest assured. We have every intention of removing Naegi Makoto from the grasp of Despair.”

Chapter Text

Despite his determination to get out of here, Naegi found himself falling into a routine. Every morning, he woke about an hour before Komaeda would arrive with breakfast. He killed time by cleaning himself up and deciding what, if anything, he wanted to ask the other boy. At almost exactly eight o’clock (Komaeda was very punctual), Komaeda would appear for the first time that day. While Naegi ate, Komaeda would go around the room and clean up. Naegi had tried to convince the older boy that he should take care of that, if only to give him something to do, but Komaeda was insistent that ‘the Ultimate Hope shouldn’t have to dirty his hands with such trivial things’. He did succeed in gaining custody over the washroom’s cleanliness. Komaeda had avoided that room since the beginning out of respect for him.

Although Naegi took his time, he was always done eating before nine o’clock. He would talk to Komaeda after, and judge the Luckster’s mood. So far, Komaeda’s moods had always been clearly defined as ‘happy’, but Naegi couldn’t forget how quickly he could flip.

Once Komaeda left, Naegi would go through Oogami’s exercise routines. That took about two hours, leaving him one hour before lunch. He’d bathe, wring his dirty clothes in the old water to remove the stench of sweat, and hang them on the shower rod to dry (anything to make sure Komaeda didn’t know what he was up to. The Luckster didn’t seem bothered that Naegi’s old clothes were often damp). The next morning, they’d go in the hamper that Komaeda had provided. He’d nap the rest of the hour.

Along with food, at noon Komaeda would bring a box of things he had found in the nearby city. Naegi filled the time between dinner and lunch with those. Every item would be meticulously examined and judged for much longer than necessary. Those he didn’t like would go back into the box. For those he did, he would spend a disproportionate amount of time deciding where it should go. Often, he found himself needing to rearrange everything on the shelves for . . . for whatever reason. Once he was out of new items, he’d try to get some entertainment out of his collection.

After dinner was the worst. There usually wasn’t much to do past that time. Even when he dragged out his conversations with Komaeda as long as he could, that still left him alone for a long time until morning. The first few days were okay; in fact, he was glad for it. But by the end of the week, the sight of Komaeda walking out that door wiped his smile away, and replace it with a cold, empty longing.

It was with that disturbing feeling that he lay down in bed and ended another day. This new life, he had to say, was much more peaceful than he would have ever imagined.

He should have known it wouldn’t last.

BANG!

Naegi jolted awake.

“Komaeda! Komaeda, get the fuck out here!”

The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. A siren went off in his mind, wailing that this was not normal and nobody should be here

Bang!

“I know you’ve been stealing my clothes, bastard! What the hell is wrong with you?”

His throat was so dry he couldn’t swallow. The door seemed to rattle with the hard knocks. Any second now, they would unlock the door and . . . and . . .

But then the other person’s tone changed. His speech became faster, quieter but still as forceful. And if Naegi listened closely, he thought he could hear Komaeda speaking, too. That . . . that wasn’t much better. But Komaeda would protect him, right?

An urge to hide consumed him. He half-crawled into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. Inside the room itself, there was nowhere to hide. So, he sat in the centre of the floor, making himself as small as possible.

Some minutes later, he heard the door to the bedroom open. Not long after, there was a knock on the bathroom door.

“Naegi-kun, you need to come out now.”

He was so glad to hear Komaeda’s voice.

Naegi opened the door, and Komaeda immediately grabbed his arm and pulled him into the bedroom.

“I’m really sorry if I woke you up, but we have to go.”

“G-go?” Naegi echoed, unintentionally planting his feet as Komaeda pushed him towards the room’s exit. “What’s going on?”

“Somebody’s coming,” was all Komaeda said. “I need to move you.”

Move? They were going somewhere else? Then that meant he’d finally be able to leave this room . . .

Was this the time to run?

Komaeda grabbed the doorknob leading to the outside.

It turned.

A plane of black greeted his hungry eyes, dissolving into dark outlines and shades as his eyes adjusted. Orange-red lights, like torches, lined the hallway that stood directly outside the bedroom. Naegi stared. The cool air that glided past his face tasted sweeter than the freshest wind. Komaeda stepped through the threshold and they lost contact for an instant.

Naegi made his move. While Komaeda’s back was turned, he slipped out behind him, and bolted in the other direction –

And yelped, ankle caving as something hard and pointed dug into his instep. He slammed into the rough ground sideways, gasping as his arm fell on a set of pebbles.

“Naegi-kun!”

Naegi squeezed his eyes shut; not just out of pain, but also from shame. He’d barely taken two steps. He’d made so little progress that Komaeda didn’t even seem to realize his captive had tried to run. Instead, Komaeda was fretting over him between those moments where he glanced nervously down the hallway. Talk about a heap of bad luck.

“Naegi-kun, I hope you can forgive me for touching you so unashamedly.”

What was that-?

An involuntary squeak escaped him as Komaeda hauled him up and over his shoulder. Naegi dangled there like a sack, grabbing onto the back of Komaeda’s shirt so the jostling motion of the older boy’s run wouldn’t throw him.

“I forgot I took your shoes,” Komaeda said, somehow maintaining a regular speaking tone while he was running. “We’ve been attacked a few times here – nothing successful; it was usually desperation – and nobody’s ever bothered to clean up all the little pieces of debris in the hall. What an idiotic mistake. I’m so worthless!”

Another time, another place (another relationship between them), Naegi might have said something about how Komaeda was not worthless. But this time, he was too busy trying to memorize the building’s interior. They’d taken a right at the first hallway’s end, leading into a second hallway very similar to the one they’d just gone through. He couldn’t determine the colors of the halls and floor, but they looked smooth, like the floors you might find in a school. The hallway lights left plenty of shadows, although Naegi doubted that they would conceal him. Maybe if he crouched, though? There was a reasonably-sized strip near the bottom of the walls that the lights didn’t reach.

Komaeda turned right again, and Naegi had to shield his eyes from the sudden light. The left wall had opened up into a row of windows, all facing the bright moon. It bathed them in a silver glow, and illuminated the land outside. It did not look as disastrous as the world outside Hope’s Peak did; that made sense since Ultimate Despair probably used things and buildings from this city. Enough damage existed, however, that Naegi knew getting through there would be no easy trek.

But if I do get out there, I should be able to hide easily, he thought to himself. The assurance made his hope swell. Yes, he could do this!

The windows ended. Komaeda reached his destination. He knocked on a plain door and waited patiently, Naegi still slung over his shoulder.

The door opened.

Kamukura stared at them.

Komaeda chuckled nervously. “Surprise!”

Komaeda still hadn’t put Naegi down by the time he walked into the center of Kamukura’s room. That gave him a nice view of the door when Komaeda started explaining.

“Kuzuryu-kun!”

What kind of explanation was -?

Kamukura said, “That was obvious.”

Apparently, an explanation sufficient for Kamukura Izuru.

“I predicted your arrival would be a minute ago,” Kamukura said. “What happened?”

Komaeda answered, “Naegi-kun tripped.”

Naegi twisted, trying to face Komaeda. “I did, but that’s not very important right not. What’s going on?”

“I had to get your clothes from somewhere, and Kuzuryu-kun is the only one around your size,” Komaeda said with a bright smile. “He’s figured out what I’ve been doing. But it’s fine. They won’t figure out why I took them. They think I’m crazy.”

. . . Geez, I wonder why they would think that.

Komaeda slowly lowered Naegi to the ground. He had kept his hands on Naegi’s back so that Naegi didn’t tip off, and those same hands had slowly moved up until they sat atop his shoulders. They stood like that now: Komaeda’s spidery hands gripping Naegi’s shoulders, Naegi looking up at him. The white-haired boy beamed as his eyes closed; it would have been sickeningly adorable on a child.

“Don’t worry about the clothes,” Komaeda told him. “I can get more, but they might not match. I’ll come back for you in the morning. That’s okay right, Kamukura-kun?”

“Do whatever you want.”

Naegi glanced backwards at Kamukura, confused and a little frightened. Last time he saw Kamukura, he’d honestly thought the older boy might attack Komaeda. Now here they were, together again, speaking easily with each other. It was as if their last spat never happened. Had they apologized and made up when Naegi wasn’t there? Was Kamukura even capable of that? Naegi had a creeping feeling he wasn’t. Which meant . . . what? They’d both silently agreed to move past it? Wiped it from their minds?

. . . Could Kamukura simply have grown bored of being angry?

Somehow, that last possibility was the most terrifying.

“Try not to get yourself killed, okay?” Komaeda said that lightly, like he was warning Naegi to wear a jacket outside because it was raining. He leaned forward, as if to touch their foreheads together, before running out the door.

Kamukura walked toward the door. He looked hard at Naegi. Very deliberately, he took a key out of his pocket and locked it.

“It would be cheating,” he said. Translation: don’t even try slipping away tonight. “Sleep in the bathtub.”

“ . . . I’d rather just take the floor. At least it has a carpet.”

Kamukura shrugged, returning to his bed. “For about a second, things weren’t boring.”

“He keeps thing interesting for you,” Naegi said bitterly.

“You can’t predict luck. It’s irrational.”

Naegi said nothing. He looked around Kamukura’s room instead. It was similar to his prison, with the same kind of furniture and wallpaper, but there were some major differences. Kamukura’s floor was covered with litter; open books were scattered around, pages crumpled as if they had been tossed aside. Objects, mostly puzzles, lay randomly upon the shelves and desk, all solved. Naegi leafed through a large Sudoku book, asking, “How long did it take you to do all this?”

“Ten minutes.”

The book slipped from his hands. “How?”

“They were easy. It was boring.”

Those didn’t look easy. And ten minutes . . . Kamukura couldn’t have even taken time to think about any of the puzzles.

Naegi blinked and wrenched his eyes away from the book. He directed them toward the most important difference between their rooms, the sight that had made his breath catch when he first saw it.

A window.

The coolness of the outside world radiated from the glass. Naegi put his hand against it, and fumbled with his other one for a latch. He wasn’t going to jump – they were on the second floor – he just wanted to feel the outside. To know it wasn’t all in his head. He found the lock finally, and the window swung open. He stuck his head out; the moonlight falling upon his face felt like being kissed by the sun.

His eyes burned. He squeezed them shut, biting his lip. It was okay . . . he was going to be okay . . . he couldn’t break down here. He had to focus. He had to keep going.

He opened his eyes. The windows in the hallways had given him a good look at the surrounding city, but this new vantage point let him see the area around the building that held him. To his dismay, he found it rather bare and flat – probably to hinder any attackers. There was no doubt that the city would be easy to hide in, but the stretch before he reached that point was an entirely different matter. He’d be right in the open. Barring some good luck, a daytime escape was right out of the question. And night wasn’t looking that great either. From up here, he could see a few figures patrolling the ground. He wouldn’t bank on his ability to outrun them.

. . . He’d worry about that later. His chin rested on the window edge as he basked in the glow of the world he so desperately wanted to return to.

I hope everyone else is okay.

Seeing the wreckage made him think about how harsh it was surviving out there. How hard it was for his friends right now, especially if they planned to mount some kind of rescue operation. He almost wished they wouldn’t. It seemed like he’d only caused trouble ever since they left Hope’s Peak.

Suddenly tired, he sat down against the wall under the window. Kamukura was lying on the bed on the other side of the room, staring at the ceiling, arms crossed behind his head. Naegi brought his legs in, crossing them, uncomfortable with letting any of his limbs hang out where they were vulnerable . . . not that he expected Kamukura to start gnawing on them or anything.

He fidgeted. His bruised foot still throbbed a little. It was dull, though. It wouldn’t get in the way of his escape. He’d have to be more careful in the future about where he put his feet –

It hit him then. How was he going to deal with his lack of shoes once he hit the outside? He’d been out there. It wasn’t soft. It was hard and pointy and jagged. He’d slice his feet up if he tried to run.

Good thing he’d caught this.

. . . Maybe tripping on that rock was good luck rather than bad luck.

Kamukura wasn’t paying attention. So, Naegi slunk around the edges of the room, searching. When he found what he needed, he snatched them up and hid them in his hoodie.  He turned quickly; Kamukura didn’t seem to have noticed. He hadn’t moved an inch –

“Put them back.”

Naegi merely clutched Kamukura’s shoes closer to himself. “Komaeda-kun took mine. There’s no point in trying to escape if I can’t replace them.”

A few seconds passed before Kamukura sighed. “Fine.”

A long, awkward silence followed. It was so awkward that Naegi had to break it.

“What are you doing?”

“. . . Are you blind?”

Naegi blinked. “Sorry, it didn’t look like you were doing anything –”

“That’s what I’m doing.”

“Oh.” Naegi shifted, positioning his arm under the shoes so they wouldn’t fall out of his hoodie. “Isn’t that boring?”

“Everything’s boring,” Kamukura said, and his monotone voice made Naegi think he meant it, too.

“You’ve read all these books?” Naegi asked, gesturing to the scattered novels around him.

“The plots were predictable,” he said. “The twists were obvious.”

Naegi scanned a few of the titles and upon recognizing them, knew that wasn’t true. Or it wasn’t supposed to be.

“What about hobbies? Do you have any?” Naegi asked.

“There’s no point,” Kamukura said. “Once you’ve mastered something, it becomes boring.”

“But how long does it take -?”

He sighed again. “I was born with that mastery.”

“H-how?”

Kamukura’s head turned a little. “You never asked Komaeda about my talent.”

“I tried once, but Komaeda-kun didn’t want me to ask.”

“Because I was there. You could have asked after I left.”

“But if Komaeda-kun didn’t want me to know, that means it was private, doesn’t it? It would have been rude to make him tell me. . .”

Kamukura’s head fully turned. “You are exceptionally bad at this. Very few people purposely sabotage their own escape.”

“I’m not . . . I just wanted to be polite . . .” His cheeks were growing red. “Hey, Kamukura-kun, does that mean you don’t mind telling me your talent?”

“I am talent.” Kamukura returned to staring at the ceiling.

“I don’t understand.”

“I was designed for the sole purpose of acquiring talent. It doesn’t matter how obscure or complex the skill. I am the personification of talent itself: a level entirely above you Ultimates.”

It both made sense and didn’t make sense. It matched what he knew about Kamukura, but that still left the question of how. People weren’t just born like that, were they? But, there was what Komaeda had said . . .

“Kamukura-kun . . . you were the first Ultimate Hope, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Naegi said nothing else.

Clouds gathered in the sky, eclipsing the moon.  A light rain fell.  Naegi pulled himself to his feet and looked through the window at the lost city outside. He held his hand out, cupping the raindrops in his palm as they bounced off the glass near it with sharp plinks. Though the water looked clean, it smelled polluted. He brought his arm back inside and watched lifelessly as droplets weaved through his fingers and landed upon the carpet.

“Kamukura-kun, why did you help her?”

“Why should I tell you?”

Although he doubted Kamukura would see it, he shrugged.

“Kamukura-kun, if you have all this talent, could you fix everything? Could you reverse whatever Enoshima-san did?”

“Why would I want to? That world holds nothing for me.”

Naegi swallowed down his automatic protest. He didn’t want to yell, and he didn’t want Kamukura to get mad at him. The sound of the rain and the glow of the moonlight had given him a sense of sereneness that was rare to come by in these days.

He looked over his shoulder at Kamukura. “You’re going to keep plunging the world into despair, then?”

Kamukura said, “I don’t plan to help either way.”

“Than what are you going to do? I mean, to have all that talent and do nothing with it . . . doesn’t that make it all meaningless?”

“Meaningless?” Arms uncrossed as red eyes flashed.

“People aren’t made up of their talents,” Naegi said. “That’s just a piece of them. It’s what they do, or don’t do with them that matters. Using your talent to change things, to bring hope . . . that’s what really decides what a person is. So, to do nothing with a talent and just use it for yourself, that would make that talent itself worth nothing, too.”

Kamukura didn’t answer right away. He took so long, that Naegi grew anxious and had to prompt him.

“. . . I knew someone else who thought that way. Someone else who didn’t believe talent alone was the answer,” Kamukura said. He stared at his raised hand, frowning, slowly moving his fingers as if unsure they belonged to him.

Naegi was quiet. He was unsure if he had offended Kamukura.

The older boy never looked at Naegi, or spoke to him afterwards. With the conversation effectively over, Naegi crawled into a corner, curled up, and tried to fall into a fitful sleep.

(If he had opened his eyes later that night, he might have realized that Kamukura had spent most of it watching him).

Chapter Text

“. . . Aww, look at him! Isn’t he adorable?”

“Komaeda, just because he received his title a month ago doesn’t make him only a month old.”

“It might as well. It’s not like anyone cares about that Naegi-kun. The new, improved version is much more popular!”

Naegi stirred. He could sense Komaeda above him, and he could definitely hear Komaeda cooing. He wasn’t quite sure where Kamukura was, but if experience was anything to go by, he was probably in bed staring at the ceiling.

Something soft was touching his cheek. Still half-asleep, his arm lazily flopped out and pulled it in close. He shifted. His eyes snapped open when he remembered he was hiding a pair of shoes within his hoodie and Komaeda was right there. Thankfully, he had curled up into a ball before falling asleep, and his knees did a pretty good job at hiding the bulge.

Oh, yeah. That soft thing? It was another Monokuma plushie.

. . . Naegi wasn’t a violent person, but sometimes he really wanted to punch Komaeda in the face.

“Did you have a good sleep?” Komaeda asked him. He was bent over Naegi, hands on his knees.

“I slept on the ground.”

For a moment, Komaeda seemed troubled. Soon enough, however, that bright smile lit up his face again. “You’ll be back in your bed soon. Come on, let’s go!”

“What are you -? Hey! Stop touching me!”

“How else am I supposed to carry you? I don’t want you to step on something again.”

And carrying him, he was. There wasn’t much Naegi could do to fight it, since his arms were wrapped around his abdomen to hide the shoes. They must have made a funny couple: Komaeda, giddy enough for an entire crowd of people, and a scowling Naegi being carried bridal-style. The scene was interesting enough that Kamukura glanced their way.

“Won’t I be seen like this?” Naegi muttered.

“It’s fine. That bad luck we had yesterday with Kuzuryu-kun means everything will work out today. We won’t run into anyone.”

Naegi really didn’t get how this whole luck thing worked, but both Komaeda and Kamukura seemed to agree that the older Luckster knew what he was doing. Komaeda nudged the door open with his foot, and then the two were on their way, Komaeda with his chest thrust out proudly. He walked with a sharp, brisk gait, the gait of one who knew they were accomplishing something special.

Because, Naegi knew, Komaeda really did think holding him hostage was that important.

The city ruins looked different in the daytime. Night had hid the extent of the damage, and had given the world beyond the windows an ethereal glow. But that silver moonlight was gone, and in its place came the brown of decay, the black of soot and destruction, and the red of fire. The bright sky mocked those below, taunting them with the promise of a calm day.

Naegi wrenched his eyes away. He squirmed uneasily.

“Komaeda-kun, what happened yesterday?”

“Nothing interesting,” he said. “You’re going to have to wait a bit before I can find you a new set of clothes, though.”

“Was he mad?”  Naegi asked, a little worried about the answer. Last he’d checked, Komaeda had been stealing clothes from the Ultimate Yakuza.

“Definitely!” Komaeda laughed. “He  . . . ugh . . .”

Komaeda suddenly lurched forward, arms dropping. Naegi was only saved from hitting the ground by a tremendous effort from the white-haired boy. Komaeda panted afterwards, face pale.

“S-sorry,” he said. “It hurts to laugh right now. I can’t help myself though. I’m so happy when I get to speak with you.”

Hurts to laugh . . .?

Naegi asked, “Are you injured?”

“I think I have a couple of bruised ribs. I’m fine.”

He certainly wasn’t. People shouldn’t sag that much, even when carrying someone. Komaeda certainly hadn’t been like this when he had been hauling Naegi around before. The injury must have happened yesterday, probably during whatever confrontation he had with Kuzuryu. Yet, although Komaeda’s steps were now marked with a grimace, he refused to release his burden – even when Naegi offered to walk.

Naegi began to speak, hoping it would help Komaeda think about something other than the pain. “If Kuzuryu-kun thought you stole his clothes, why did he knock on my door?”

“Huh? Oh, I thought you figured that out a while ago. You’ve been staying in my room . . . You want to know where I’ve been if you’ve been sleeping in my room, right? I’ll let you have three guesses first.”

“I know you’re next door,” Naegi said, “but I’m not very familiar with this place, so I don’t know what that is.”

“Ah, that’s right. It’s a storage closet; the perfect place for rubbish nobody cares about.”

“. . . You’ve been living in a closet.”

Komaeda’s arm curled further around his body, clutching Naegi tighter to himself. “It’s fine. No price is too high when it comes to the sake of the Ultimate Hope. It’s an honour to make that sacrifice for you. Besides, I only got that room because of my classmates’ overwhelming generosity; it’s only right that I give it up when someone more worthy comes along.”

“But it’s your room. . .” Yet Naegi knew even before he had spoken that it was useless. Komaeda fully believed everything he had said.

True to the white-haired boy’s word, they didn’t run into any problems on the way back. Komaeda carried Naegi right into the room, past the desk with a patiently waiting meal, and laid him gently on the bed. Arms still locked around his abdomen, Naegi blinked up at him, unsure what he was allowed to do now.

“Home sweet home,” Komaeda murmured. “I’m really sorry about last night. You can catch up on your sleep now.”

“Uh, okay . . . I’m just going to run to the bathroom!”

He did, moving fast enough that Komaeda couldn’t see what he was hiding. Once the door closed behind him, he let the shoes drop, stashed them in the bathtub and drew the curtain. He backed up against the door, checking if they were visible from there.

It would do for now.

Kamukura has bigger feet than me, but I should be able to pad his shoes with the stuff Komaeda keeps giving me. He nodded to himself, pleased with his plans.

Komaeda was leaning against the wall when he came out, one hand on his ribs. There was no trace of pain in that smile, however, although the older boy’s voice was a little wheezy.

“If you don’t need anything else, I’ll leave you alone now,” Komaeda said.

As he staggered toward the exit, Naegi watched him, stomach sinking. A familiar wave of pity welled up inside him.

“Komaeda-kun, I don’t think you should be walking around right now.”

Komaeda gave him a wavering smile. “I hate to be a burden, Naegi-kun.”

“But . . .” But you’re injured, and you’re probably going to go live in that closet again. Even though this is your room. . .

Naegi took a deep breath, and straightened up. “Komaeda-kun, it would make me happy if you stayed here for now.”

Komaeda froze, completely taken off-guard. “. . . Stay?”

“You shouldn’t be walking around,” Naegi said firmly. “You . . . I want you to lie down and rest. Here. In your bed. Not in a closet or anything.”

Komaeda’s smile was clearly forced and tinged with fear. “Your bed, Naegi-kun.”

“Then I want you to lie down in my bed.”

“Rest under the same covers as the Ultimate Hope . . . That’s . . . that’s impossible.” The smile was still there, but it was much too wide and showed too much teeth. “I couldn’t do that to you. Even thinking about tainting your bed with my filthy self makes me want to puke! It’s disgusting! I should be punished for thinking about it.”

“It sickens me that you’re going to keep walking around like that!” Naegi shot back. “You said you would leave if there was nothing I wanted. Well, there is something I want. I want you to stop hurting yourself and lie down!”

Komaeda was making this weird, hiccupping sound, like a skipping record. His eyes were big and terrified and he was looking at Naegi like . . . like Naegi was the kidnapper here.

Time for a different approach. Naegi said, “You said you were going to protect me, right? How can you do that when you can barely walk? What if something really bad happens and you can’t do anything because you’re too hurt? You need to rest. For the sake of the Ultimate Hope, you need to lie down in that bed!”

There. That last line should have done it. He could almost see the gears struggling to turn in Komaeda’s brain. Then, all at once, they jerked into action as Komaeda’s whole body shuddered.

“I . . . I got it!” Komaeda staggered over to the bed as fast as he could. Clearly swallowing down giggles, he draped himself sideways over the foot of the bed, and put a hand over his mouth. To himself, he whispered, “This is where the dog sleeps. It’s no big deal.”

It was probably the most cooperation he would get from Komaeda. Naegi would have sat on the bed with him, but he suspected that would cause Komaeda to freak out again. So, he pulled up the desk’s chair to the foot of the bed, and sat.

“Komaeda-kun, do you mind if I look at your ribs?”

Komaeda stared at him. Then, his lips stretched into a razor-sharp grin. “. . . You want me to strip for you, Naegi-kun?”

WHAT.

 “N-no! NO! I don’t-”

“Sorry, sorry! I thought it would be funny. I wanted to lighten the mood and make you laugh a little . . . it wasn’t a very good joke.”

Naegi put his face in his hands. He almost regretted forcing Komaeda to stay here. Almost.

“Just . . . I’m going to look at your ribs now.”

He pulled up Komaeda’s shirt. The older boy’s terrible joke echoed in his ears, making Naegi very careful not to touch any skin. There, across the lower part of Komaeda’s right rib cage lay a purple and black bruise, spread out like a hand. It looked painful. Naegi had no idea how Komaeda had hid it for so long.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Komaeda said, eyes glimmering. “She could have easily killed me or broken them, but the Ultimate Swordswoman knows exactly what she’s doing.”

Naegi said, “Just try not to move too much, okay?”

“For you, Naegi-kun, I’d stop my heart from beating.”

Deep breath. Just . . . deep breath.

Naegi automatically moved to the other side of the room, and sat down. He grabbed one of the dog-eared books Komaeda had found him, and opened it. It was a book he’d read before, back before the world went insane, and a little too childish for his tastes, but that was fine. Better than nothing. And it was nice to be able to clear your mind for a while.

He finished the novel before long. He set it down on his lap, and stared across the room at Komaeda. The Luckster’s eyes were closed. He almost looked peaceful, until Naegi noticed how tense his neck was.

“Komaeda-kun, you don’t need to martyr yourself for me.”

“I don’t mind,” Komaeda said, eyes still closed. “There’s no victory without sacrifice.”

“That doesn’t mean you need to lie there in pain like that. You have an Ultimate Nurse here, don’t you? Can’t you get painkillers from her?”

“Tsumiki-san would want to make it worse,” Komaeda muttered. Then, his eyes opened. “But since I am a member of Ultimate Despair, I could tell her it’s more despair-inducing for the world in the long run if she helps me . . . if, of course, she feels like degrading herself to the level of helping me. I should probably practice my grovelling.”

“Umm . . .” Just how was he supposed to respond to that?

“. . . I really shouldn’t be bothering her with my insignificant problems though,” Komaeda finished, the accent at the end making it clear that this was the end of his internal debate.

“Yes, you should!” Naegi said. “Because if you don’t, I’ll . . . I won’t eat anything until you do!”

The look Komaeda gave him was almost a glare. “Resorting to threats? That’s . . . depressing. Still, I suppose I should listen before you try something more drastic. I’ll be back.”

He pulled himself up slowly, and made his way toward the door. Naegi watched him go with the dawning numbness of someone who had just made a fantastic discovery.

He had a weapon to use against Komaeda. Himself.

What if he simply decided to starve himself? Naegi wasn’t quite ready to try something like that, but if he were, would it force Komaeda to let him go? Or . . . or he could hold himself hostage! He could tell Komaeda he’d hurt himself unless . . . never mind. He definitely couldn’t do something like that, and Komaeda probably knew that.

He wasn’t sure what to do with this newly found knowledge, but it had to mean something.

When Komaeda returned, he definitely looked better. Naegi went through what he could of his daily routine while Komaeda rested nearby. It turned out that the other Luckster could be quiet and unassuming (or maybe he just thought Naegi wanted him to be like that) so it wasn’t as awkward as he feared.

Dinner came and went. Night approached. Naegi found a use for his newly found knowledge and bullied Komaeda into spending the night – it’d be no good for him to go curl up in a closet and undo any healing he’d managed today. They were both lucky that Naegi was so short, as even when he stretched himself out, his feet didn’t touch Komaeda. Still, Naegi was keenly aware of the other boy’s presence.

. . . He fell asleep easier than expected.


One day of rest appeared to be the maximum for Komaeda. No matter what Naegi tried, he couldn’t convince Komaeda not to go on his daily hunt for gifts to bring his prisoner. The most Naegi was able to do was talk Komaeda into scouring the building rather than the tangled ruins.

That left him alone again, and he stared at the door for a complete minute, at a loss. Finally, he shook himself out of his stupor, and returned to his familiar routine.

At one point during his pre-lunch nap, he woke with the thought that he heard something. And he must have, because the door opened right after. Naegi stirred. This . . . hold on. This didn’t feel right. It was too early. Perhaps the pain had been enough that Komaeda retired early. He should probably make room –

“Umm, Komaeda-kun, I brought you more pain medication.”

Naegi had already turned his head before he realized what was happening.

Tsumiki Mikan, the Ultimate Nurse and member of Despair, stood before him. Her eyes were wide with shock as she realized that no, Komaeda hadn’t dyed his hair.

“Who are . . .? Who are you?!” A loud whine escaped from the nurse as she pulled at long strands of black hair.

He should be scared, shouldn’t he? But he wasn’t. His thoughts were dim and distant, like it was all a dream . . .

“Who are you?!” Tsumiki shrieked.

Terror stabbed him in the chest. His body exploded in one burst of adrenaline, sending him over the bed’s edge and onto the ground, where he huddled close to its side. Was she coming? She hadn’t recognized him, right? What was he supposed to do now?

Where was Komaeda?

He choked on his own breath. He couldn’t see her. She couldn’t see him.

Until she could. Tsumiki walked around the end of the bed, until there was nothing between them.

“. . . I know you. You’re him.”

And the world stopped as her panic and weakness were replaced by pure steel.

You’re Naegi Makoto!"

Chapter Text

Something dripped in the desolate room. The floors were made of weathered, cold tiles; the walls, of blank concrete. Hidden deep within the bowels of the building, no natural light could penetrate this lair. A single overhead light, suspended over a flat, metal table, illuminated the room. The light tapered off into darkness before it hit the walls, making the space itself appear endless. Upon the table, there lay restraints: leather loops caked with old blood.

The room’s thick door squealed as it opened. A short person in a suit entered. His fedora hid his face, save for a pair of red eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. The boy stepped aside and held the door open, watching as a much bigger, much stronger being crossed over the threshold. This newcomer held something tight within his powerful hands, something that cried and whimpered and thrashed. With a grunt, the newcomer tossed his victim into the center of the room, and Naegi Makoto hit the ground hard before scrambling underneath the table.

“You little shit!” bellowed the Ultimate Coach. “I can’t believe he was here the whole time!”

Naegi wrapped himself around one of the table’s legs, and squeezed his eyes shut. Please. Please please please pleasepleaseplease -

“Why are we standing here? Let’s smash his head in!” shouted the Ultimate Gymnast. Although her skin hung off her skeletal frame, there was still power in the fist that smashed into her other palm.

Naegi could feel the step of the Coach as he began to take the Gymnast up on her suggestion.  But then the Ultimate Yakuza stopped that cold, saying, “Are you guys serious? You want to kill him just like that?”

“He’s going to die anyways, so let’s get it over with!”

“Use your fucking brain a little! It’s stupid to kill him without taking advantage of this.”

“Yes.” That quiet voice oozed so much menace, that Naegi was compelled to look. The Ultimate Nurse glowered at him, a palpable miasma of danger surrounding her. “He murdered my beloved. Death is much too good for him!”

They stared at him like starving animals. All he could see were the predators surrounding him. Even when his eyes closed, he saw those red eyes in the darkness. He pressed closer to the table; his sweat-soaked hands slid down its leg.

A single figure separated from the crowd, and pulled out a gleaming sword. “Young Master, what is it you wish me to do?”

“Didn’t you listen to a single word I said? I said not to kill him!”

“I am aware, I wanted –”

“But you never listen, right? You’re so fucking useless, Peko. I don’t know why I bother keeping you around!” The more insults the Ultimate Yakuza flung at his subordinate, the more excited and gleeful his voice became.

“ . . . My apologies. Please forgive me, Master.” Her eyes cast downward, the Ultimate Swordswoman stepped back.

Kuzuryu kept slinging abuse at Pekoyama as she withdrew back to his side. But there were blades other than hers to fear. The Ultimate Cook was circling the table, knife in hand, eyes cold. And those metal tools attached to the Ultimate Mechanic’s belt weren’t anything to scoff at.

 “Well, if you guys don’t want to kill him, then what should we do?” asked Soda, scratching his head with a wrench.

 (“This is why you’re just a tool, Peko. Because you’re a useless waste of-”)

Somebody made a suggestion. It was horrible. The second suggestion was even more so. Chills swept down Naegi’s back; his arms locked into place. The world was spinning - 

“I want him to suffer.”

Tsumiki’s breath was icy cold on his neck. He flinched away, still keeping himself attached to the table leg, unwilling to release his grip on the one stable thing he had.

“I-I’m sorry,” he said. Wild eyes darted back and forth, trying to keep track of everyone. Tsumiki’s face was a blur to him. “I tried to –”

“He’s talking!” the coach yelled. “He’s going to start preaching!”

Pointed teeth gashed together. “Gah! Shut up! Keep your dumb speeches to yourself.”

He only saw a flash. The wrench slammed into his temple and black exploded in his vision. Something hot and wet pooled under him. He didn’t even feel the impact when he hit the ground.

Somebody pulled him. He couldn’t tell whom; doubles danced before his eyes. The overhead light was blinding. What was happening?

The back of his skull smacked against the tabletop. A sickening pain rolled through his body, and he coughed up bile. With an almost audible pop, the world slid back into focus, and his brain reorganized itself and began to understand –

“. . . cut it out and stuff it down his throat,” said the cook. “It’ll be like making him choke on his own words, hmm?”

A rock-hard grip closed around his right ankle and left wrist. A rush of bodies surrounded him. He didn’t . . . what was going on? He didn’t know. But he fought anyways. His arms and legs thrashed in the little space they had, uncaring of what or whom they hit. And when they started to handle the leather restraints, he screamed and fought harder.

But then the Gymnast had his legs, and the Coach, his arms. His back shrieked as they drew him straight. The Cook approached, knife held high as the Yakuza ordered his mouth to be held open. It took them a couple of tries (“He bit me!” yelped the Mechanic), but then the Nurse’s long fingers were digging into the inside of his bottom lip, as his jaw twitched and fought to stay closed –

“. . . Really? This is the best a group of Ultimates could come up with? It’s just so . . . disappointing.”

The knife lowered.

Naegi bit back a sob. Ultimate Despair was glaring at the intruder, poised like a pack of wolves about to go on the attack.

“Sh-shut up!” Tsumiki screeched. “I found him in your room!”

Komaeda shrugged easily. He idly picked at his sleeve. “Of course you did. It was so despair inducing to watch you wonderful people fighting so hard to find him when he was right under your noses -”

“Yeah? Well, we found him!” Soda said. “So, you can go away, you . . . you hope-obsessed freak!”

A couple of people gasped at the insult. Komaeda stared blankly at Soda. He had yet to glance in Naegi’s direction, and Naegi found himself searching desperately for the other’s eyes, begging Komaeda to look back at him, to give him a sign that he was going to help. . .

“To think that the Ultimates could be so short-sighted . . .” Komaeda sighed heavily. He seemed annoyed with the proceedings. “And here I thought your loyalty to Enoshima-san surpassed mine.”

The vice-grip around Naegi’s limbs slackened. Soda’s mouth had dropped open. Tsumiki’s fingers withdrew from Naegi’s mouth, leaving crescent-shaped cuts behind. She raised a shaking arm, and pointed straight at Komaeda.

“How dare you!”

Komaeda smiled, but it was a type of smile Naegi had never seen before. It was a smile made of scorn and impatience, more suited to Kamukura’s face – if the former Ultimate Hope were capable of such expression.

“I thought you loved her, Tsumiki-san,” Komaeda said. “Or is it possible you haven’t realized you’re about to destroy the last of her?”

“W-what?” Tsumiki’s face was grey.

“Naegi, come here.”

He listened. He kicked out, and neither Nidai nor Owari stopped him from wrestling free. He threw himself at Komaeda, burrowing into his side, hiding within Komaeda’s baggy hoodie. His arms wrapped tight around the Luckster, hands grasping fistfuls of fabric as blocked the rest of Ultimate Despair from sight. Komaeda . . . Komaeda had come for him. Komaeda would shield him.

Komaeda hardly reacted. After a few moments, his hand tangled in Naegi’s hair. His thumb swiped back and forth, stroking comfortingly, like a master acknowledging a needy pet.

“Ah, you’ve made him wet himself.” Naegi didn’t even mind that Komaeda said that loud enough for everyone to hear. How could be ever be upset with the other boy now?

“Hey!” Kuzuryu shouted. “Explain what you were saying before.”

“You need me to help you again? Very well.” Komaeda shifted slightly, moving Naegi further out of the direct sight of Despair. “The Ultimate Detective, the Ultimate Swimmer . . . all of them existed before the Tragedy and Despair. Except for Naegi-kun. Enoshima-san created him with her own two hands.”

“So what?” Owari demanded, earning a high-pitched, half-choked giggle from the Luckster.

“Look at him,” Komaeda purred. “She’s left her mark all over him. It’s our duty to preserve that, isn’t it? It’s unfortunate for the rest of you that his talent turned out the way it did . . . but isn’t this outcome the most despair-inducing? To think her final creation opposes everything she stood for . . . she must have done it on purpose.”

 Komaeda lifted Naegi’s chin. For the first time, their eyes met. Komaeda’s overflowed with fondness, but something about them was wrong. There was a hardness there, a blankness that Naegi associated with one holding back their true emotions. In his peripheral vision, Naegi could see the other members of Despair staring at them.

“Her final creation,” Owari repeated uncertainly.

“Of course! Think about it. If Enoshima-san personally created him, then . . .  well, doesn’t that mean he’s the closest possible thing to her child?”

There was weight to those words, one that made it obvious they were aimed at someone in particular. Perhaps that was why Tsumiki’s stare suddenly doubled in intensity.

“Her child . . .” Tsumiki repeated.

“Don’t tell me you’re seriously listening to him!” Kuzuryu shouted. Pekoyama had been protectively in front of him, but Kuzuryu shoved her aside to face Komaeda directly. “He’s crazy! Why would you ever listen to a guy like him?”

“A broken clock is right twice a day,” Komaeda murmured, never taking his eyes off Naegi.

“Her child . . .” Tsumiki whispered.

“Fuck you! You don’t get to boss me around!”

Kuzuryu started forward, but Tsumiki grabbed his arm, causing Pekoyama to raise her sword in response. Kuzuryu yanked his arm free.

“Her child!” Tsumiki hissed at him.

“I-idiot! Komaeda’s just speaking nonsense.” Kuzuryu fixed his fedora. Then, he lifted one arm, pointed straight at Naegi, and snapped. “Peko -”

“ . . . Still arguing? How tiresome. There’s a very easy way to settle this.”

Naegi couldn’t explain what changed, but the room suddenly felt much smaller than it was. Kamukura watched them all from the doorway, his long hair projecting a hood-like shadow. The entire room of people shrank back from him. Even Komaeda stiffened a little.

Kamukura said, “Ask Junko what she thinks. There’s a digital partial copy of her in Towa City we can contact.”

A digital copy . . .? Like Alter Ego?

“I’ll set up the communications.” Kamukura left as suddenly as he had appeared.

Ultimate Despair lingered for a while, silent and confused. Kamukura’s proposal had sapped them of all their deadly energy, erasing their enthusiasm like a pin popping a balloon. Naegi buried his face in Komaeda’s side again. He was shaking so hard, he doubted he would have been able to keep himself upright without the Luckster’s support.

Nidai said, “Uh, so I guess we should meet Kamukura-kun up there?”

“Bring the kid,” Kuzuryu barked at Komaeda. “We’ll hunt you down and feed you to Tanaka’s pets if you don’t.”

Komaeda hummed softly, dipping his head in acknowledgement. He watched the others with friendly, yet guarded eyes as they walked past.

Then, they were alone.

Komaeda immediately put his hand to Naegi’s temple; it came away red. “You’re bleeding pretty badly.”

Was he? He hadn’t noticed.

“Here.” Komaeda gently peeled Naegi off him, and then took off his shirt. “Press it to your temple. Don’t worry about getting it dirty. There’s blood all over it now, anyways.”

Naegi obeyed numbly. He stared blankly ahead as Komaeda zipped up his hoodie.

“Kamukura-kun’s idea is either a stroke of good luck, or bad luck. I wish I knew.” Komaeda looked wistfully at the door. “We’ll have to go up there soon, but I think I need a few seconds. I’m not certain about what he’s planning.”

Naegi said nothing. Weary, he leaned against Komaeda again. Komaeda’s arm went around his shoulder, and the older boy gave him what appeared to be a worried look.

“I should be used to almost dying,” Naegi muttered. He wanted to go back to his room.

“Don’t worry about that, Naegi-kun. Ignore what I said before. We’re both lucky. It’ll work out, I know it!”

Naegi wished he could be that confident.

“I probably shouldn’t carry you this time. It would make the others angry. Naegi-kun, can you walk?”

He nodded.

“Alright. Let’s go.”


The TV screen took up most of the wall. When Naegi and Komaeda entered, the other members of Despair (save for Kamukura) were on their knees at the bottom of the screen. More than one had pressed a hand against the glass. Kamukura stood near the back of the room, observing.

The TV screen showed a plain background with a single throne-like chair, but it was what sat on the chair that was worth paying attention to. Monokuma. Or, at least . . . at least Naegi thought it was. It was a bear – no doubt about that – and not a natural bear. The only reason Naegi hesitated to call it Monokuma was the bear on the screen lacked a black half. There was a seam going down the robot’s center where the division between white and black should have been, but both sides of this bear were white. Additionally, there were bandages wrapped around the bear’s right limbs, and over the head where the red eye should have been.

And lastly, the bear was waving. And smiling.

“This . . . this is real, right?” he whispered. Komaeda made a noise of agreement.

“Naegi-kun!” The bear clapped its paws together. “You are here! Izuru’s already explained the situation.”

This was so, so wrong. Naegi backed straight into Komaeda, until his head was up against the other boy’s chest.  “This isn’t Enoshima-san.”

“Am I scaring him? But I’m a nice bear, Naegi-kun.” The bear’s ears turned downward, reflecting its disappointment. “Oh, I’ve tried so hard not to look scary anymore.”

The bear sounded friendly. The bear was acting friendly. Its smile was warm and safe. The black button eye, possessing two small lashes, begged him to trust it. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t trust this robot that was Monokuma’s kin, and bore Enoshima’s name and voice.

It was something that didn’t go unnoticed. Kuzuryu sneered. “So, the kid’s terrified of his ‘mother’, huh?”

Naegi cringed, but he couldn’t refute that. Thankfully, Komaeda was opening his mouth –

“No, he’s probably just embarrassed because he wet himself.”

. . . Naegi didn’t even care anymore.

The bear put a paw over its mouth. “I wouldn’t make fun of him for that. But Naegi-kun, you think of me as a mother?”

“You created him,” Komaeda said. He had his chin atop Naegi’s head, and held the younger boy by the shoulders. “If you think about it, the real you died in childbirth.”

Soda said to Komaeda, “. . . You are really messed up in the head, you know.”

“You shouldn’t pick on him. I hate it when people fight!” the bear said. (Soda threw himself on the ground and blubbered apologies). “And I’m male, anyways. All Monokuma units are . . .”

The bear froze. Naegi blinked. For a few seconds, he thought the video had frozen.

Then, the shoulders bobbed up and down.

“Upupupupupu. . .” Naegi’s ears rang with trepidation –

“I forgot who I was talking to!” The bear declared that loudly, jumping from a sitting position into a standing one. “Never mind! One hundred percent female! Ignore all that dumb stuff I said earlier.”

The bear sat back down. Her stubby legs crossed one over the other as her paws rested on the top knee.

“So, you disgusting piece of garbage, what are you up to?”

“Just doing my part to raise the next generation,” Komaeda said. “It would be such a waste if he died without leaving an impact.”

“Naegi-kun’s already made a big impact! Gah, the despair the real me must have felt, I can only fantasize . . .” The bear panted heavily, the sounds almost sexual in nature. Then, she paused before asking, “What about the rest of you? Are you helping him out or just standing there like idiots?”

A loud chorus of umms and confusion went around. Nidai spoke first, saying, “Uh, do you want us to help?”

Shivering, holding herself tightly, Tsumiki began, “If he really is your child . . .”

Her arms suddenly seemed to wrap around her like snakes. Her head tilted back and sideways at an impossible angle, and a sickly sweet smile grew upon her face.

“ . . . Then I will give him everything.”

The bear’s smile faded. She spoke in a monotone. “. . . You realize this is the same classmate I trapped in the Killing Game and personally tried to murder, right? You’re naming the Ultimate Hope as the child of the Ultimate Despair. And . . . and you want to adopt him. My loyal subordinates are going to foster the person who murdered me and ruined all of my hard work.”

The silence was its own sound. He could feel Komaeda’s breath hitch. Naegi might have panicked then, but he felt Komaeda turn towards Kamukura, and decided to look himself. The former Ultimate Hope stared at them meaningfully, a clear message in the lines of his face.

“That’s . . . that’s . . .”

And below the bandages, the red eye gleamed so brightly that it showed through the white –

That’s so incredibly despairful!” The bear shrieked like a kid receiving a present. She fanned herself with a paw. “I’ll have to think about you all fawning and fussing over my murderer every day while I rot among these stupid, smelly, ugly adults! Naegi-kun, you really know how to reach a girl’s heart. ”

It . . . she was okay with this? That was it? That’s all it took to convince her? Naegi had been expecting something more like the final trial.

“Oh, don’t give me that look!” the bear said, as its body attempted to imitate Enoshima’s ‘cutesy’ personality. “I’m not that kind of girl who’s all take and no give. You benefit from this too, Naegi-kun. Now, you get to be part of all our wonderful despair!”

What . . . what did that mean?

“You hear me, everyone? Make sure you raise him with all my love.”

Laughing again, the bear reached forward for something off-screen, and the TV went dark. Though the bear was gone, her last three words echoed throughout the room.

Kuzuryu’s next words summed up everyone’s thoughts quite nicely.

“Well, shit.”

Chapter Text

For a room full of people who had banded together and plunged the world into anarchy, it was remarkably tense. Kuzuryu seemed to be taking the turn of events personally and was off sulking in a corner, Pekoyama hovering uncertainly at his shoulder. Tsumiki had her cheek against the screen where the bear had reached off-screen, but she was glaring at Komaeda over Naegi’s head. The two seemed to be having some kind of standoff, and he didn’t know why. Kamukura was in the back of the room, looking at nothing. The other members of Despair stood around awkwardly, acting like they wanted to say something.

The Coach finally made a move. Rubbing the back of his neck, he wore what was a clearly forced smile, and said, “Well, we were upset about being down a member before. Guess there’s no more need to despair over that.”

“Urk. Such a nice source of despair gone like that.” For a moment, Soda looked like he was tearing up. “But hey, I guess that in itself is despair, too!”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. We still got to decide how we’re going to handle Junior over there!” Owari pointed dramatically at Naegi –

And Tsumiki gasped and knocked her arm away. “His name isn’t Junior! Isn’t that right, sweetie?”

. . . Did she just . . . did she really . . . why was she looking at him like that?

“His name is Naegi Makoto,” Komaeda said proudly, puffing up like a father watching his child on stage. “Our own little beacon of hope.”

Several members of Despair made disgusted faces.

“That,” Hanamura declared, “will have to be the first thing to go. We can’t let a revolting ingredient like that interfere with such a delectable dish. Might I recommend we start with the opening course she gave to the Reserve students?”

Owari protested, “Hey, we don’t want him to end up like them!”

From his corner, Kuzuryu piped up. “We’re not stupid. We’ll be careful –”

Komaeda sighed. Loudly. So loudly, that it was nothing more than a means to grab attention, and it worked. Both Kuzuryu and Tsumiki were united in how intensely they glared at the Luckster. Trapped in place by Komaeda’s body, Naegi found himself in the middle of the feuding sides, even if neither were glaring directly at him.

“Do I really need to step up again?” Komaeda said. “It’s drilled into trash like me that I need to listen closely to my betters, but you guys tried to listen too, didn’t you? Enoshima-san asked us to raise him with her love.”

“Duh. That’s why we need him to take over Despair,” Owari said, cracking her knuckles. “We gotta show him the beauty of her work.”

Taking . . . over? That’s what they were talking about?! They couldn’t . . . they couldn’t possibly believe he could ever be like Enoshima, could they? He. . . he couldn’t! It was wrong. He would never be like her! Even thinking about it made him dizzy.

And Komaeda thought so, too. He shook his head. He smirked at the other Ultimates; Naegi would have never imagined Komaeda giving such an expression to his beloved classmates.

“If it was anyone else, I would agree completely,” Komaeda said. “But, Owari-san, can I ask you something. How did your mother raise you?”

“My . . . mother?” Owari appeared gobsmacked, as did most of the other Ultimates. Naegi wasn’t sure why.

And it wasn’t her that answered.

“Mama was a very kind woman,” Hanamura murmured. He rocked back and forth on his heels. “But she was so sick towards the end . . . always tried to pretend she wasn’t. I didn’t want to leave her, but she insisted. She was so happy. I told her when I came back, she wouldn’t have to work anymore. And I was right. I came back . . .”

The knife slipped from his hand. Was that laughter Naegi heard? Or something much more sinister.

“The look on her face when I . . . the despair . . . it was beautiful. So beautiful.”

“She taught you how to cook,” Komaeda said. His hands ran up and down Naegi’s arms. Naegi, stricken with a sudden nervousness, looked up at the older boy. That gleam in Komaeda’s eyes, it was almost predatory.

“Mama taught me everything,” Hanamura said.

“So, she developed your talent, right?”

Everyone stared.

“What are you getting at?” Soda asked.

“You haven’t figured it out yet?”

For the first time since they’d entered the room, Komaeda left Naegi’s side. Naegi curled up a little, disliking how the cool air brushed his now-vulnerable back. Komaeda stepped toward the other Ultimates spreading his arms wide, as if to show he meant no harm.

“There’s no doubt you guys were born different than the regular, untalented crowd,” Komaeda said, “but I don’t think any of you came out the womb knowing enough about your talent to be an Ultimate. You had to be nurtured into it, didn’t you? And I’m willing to bet your parents were the ones who took responsibility.”

Pekoyama’s eyes widened. “Then you are saying . . .”

“If we’re going to really raise Naegi-kun with a mother’s love, then we’re obliged to cultivate his talent, not hers.”

A long silence followed as the room absorbed Komaeda’s logic. Could this work? Naegi, still hunched over a little, shuffled toward Komaeda. Komaeda stretched his arm out toward him, and tucked him against his side protectively.

“That can’t be right,” Soda said. Owari and Nidai nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, I’m not buying it,” Kuzuryu said. “We –”

“Komaeda is right.”

Those three words from Kamukura was all it took to silence the gangster. To silence everyone, even though he was lying. Naegi knew Kamukura wasn’t telling the whole truth, yet nobody seemed able to refute the former Ultimate Hope’s words, or look him in the eye for that matter. It occurred to Naegi then that the casual, semi-friendly interactions between Kamukura and Komaeda were not the norm. Instead, the default seemed to be yielding before Kamukura like a pack of dogs before their master.

“We got to bend to his hope.” Hanamura’s eyes went wide.

“It’s terrible, I know.” Komaeda’s body shook with the beginning of laughter, but it wasn’t long before he flinched in pain and forced himself to stop. “Ultimate Despair is forbidden from harming the brightest light of them all. Instead, we’re forced to coexist alongside him while he feeds off us like a parasite. It’s like constantly being followed by a mosquito you can’t swat. How despairing is that? Besides, wouldn’t Enoshima-san find it the most despairful if we raised him to be the brightest hope there could ever be?”

That last line seemed to smooth over some of Despair’s ruffled feathers. Owari, Nidai and Soda relaxed and nodded to themselves. Hanamura had recovered, and was busy picking up the knife he had dropped. Kuzuryu mumbled something to Pekoyama; the swordswoman herself had no reaction.

“I’ll take full responsibility for him,” Komaeda said. “Hope is my area of expertise, after all.”

Tsumiki was creeping closer, no longer staring at her classmate, but at Naegi himself.

“He’s injured,” she said. “I should look at him.”

It was the logical answer, wasn’t it? For the Ultimate Nurse to examine him. That’s why Naegi was surprised when Komaeda placed himself between them. The Luckster’s smile tapered off into a hard line.

“It’s nothing serious,” Komaeda said. “I can handle it.”

But the Nurse didn’t budge. “He could easily have a concussion. That wound needs to be cleaned too, or it could become infected!”

Komaeda exhaled heavily, recognizing a losing battle. “. . . You’re right, you’re right. It was foolish of me to believe my mediocre skills fell in the same ballpark as yours.”

“I’ll get the medical center ready.” Tsumiki smiled and it was almost a kind, normal smile, if it weren’t for her reaching forward and pinching Naegi’s cheek. “We’ll see each other again soon!”

Once she was out of sight, Naegi touched the place she had touched. It felt dirty, somehow. He wanted to take a handful of soap and wipe it clean.

“So, we’re all on the same page, right?” When no one said otherwise, Komaeda clearly interpreted that as a yes. “Me and Naegi-kun will be going then.”

They moved slowly, like they were sneaking past a sleeping bear. Komaeda guided him firmly out of the room, hand on his back. Naegi was only too eager to follow, to get away from the students who had almost been his executioners. The dark shadows of the hall outside the TV room were calming, like they existed for the sole purpose of hiding him.

“You don’t need to be scared, Naegi-kun,” Komaeda said. “I don’t think Tsumiki-san is going to hurt you. I’ll be there anyways. I’ll make sure she doesn’t do anything weird.”

Naegi didn’t say much. He didn’t want to have this conversation right now, or any at all. Just being next to, touching someone he knew was safe was all he could handle.

Their steps echoed in the hall. Only . . . it wasn’t just them. He and Komaeda were walking in sync, but he could hear footsteps that did not match theirs. Komaeda noticed too, and glanced over his shoulder, but whomever he saw, it didn’t bother him.

Naegi jumped when Kamukura spoke. “Your manipulations are usually less targeted.”

“I was motivated,” Komaeda said softly. “I figured getting at least one of them on my side was our best option.”

Naegi had a sudden urge to pull his hood over his head. He still didn’t want to talk, but there was one thing that bothered him, one thing that he needed to know . . .

“Kamukura-kun, why did you lie for me?”

Komaeda chuckled nervously. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? That’s all in the past.”

But Naegi wasn’t going to be dissuaded so easily, and he looked backwards straight into Kamukura’s red eyes. “Kamukura-kun?”

The former Ultimate Hope appraised him.

“. . . This way is more interesting,” Kamukura said. Abruptly, he turned on his heel and walked away into the darkness.

A beat followed.

“ . . . Did you hear that, Naegi-kun? I think he might like you!”

Naegi sighed, figuring it was easier not to argue.

The medical center had a sharp, chemical-like smell that made his nose hairs bristle. When he first ran into that miasma, it was almost like inhaling a cloud of weak acid; his eyes watered, his lungs rejected the air. Tsumiki, waiting just as she had promised, took the coughing as a sign of poor health and rushed right over.

“Shh . . . shh . . . It’s okay. Auntie Mikan’s here to make it better!”

Mikan? Was. . . was that permission to use her first name? Honestly, Naegi wasn’t sure he wanted to – he certainly didn’t think they were close enough for that – but he was afraid of her reaction if he refused. So, to compromise, he kept his mouth shut and nodded. Tsumiki giggled. She grabbed his hand, tearing him away from Komaeda, and he stumbled after her as she led him into the room. There was an examination table tucked against the far wall, much like the table in the desolate room Ultimate Despair had thrown him into not long ago. In fact, this table had even more restraints. Beds stuck out from the two adjacent walls, thankfully empty. Although that one over there had a blanket pulled over it, and was that . . . was that a hand sticking out?

In the corner by the medical table, there was a clump of medical stands, IVs, and catheters, some of which were filled with oddly coloured liquids that looked dangerous. Against the wall on the other side of the table were shelves and cabinets filled with medical supplies. He hardly got to look at it before Tsumiki was pushing him into the table. He sat on the edge, acting as though this was a regular check-up.

She checked for a concussion first. He followed her instructions dutifully, keeping his eyes on her so that he didn’t have to look at the rest of the room and especially that one bed that may have been occupied. Once she was satisfied, she pushed him onto the table until he was lying down. It gave him an unfortunately good view of a particular leather strap that must have been intended for a neck; if Komaeda hadn’t sensed his distress and grabbed his hand, his nervousness would have exploded into a full-out panic attack. But he did, and he was there and no matter what warnings Kamukura gave him, he knew Komaeda wouldn’t let her hurt him. He squeezed the hand, and waited for the comfort of a reciprocating gesture.

Tsumiki cleaned and stitched his temple. Afterwards, she insisted on a full check-up. Her subtle glares and tone of voice made it obvious that she didn’t trust that Komaeda had taken good care of him . . . and at the same time, Komaeda didn’t seem to entirely trust her either. He kept asking questions, questions that one shouldn’t need to ask the Ultimate Nurse – especially questions about her intentions. Tsumiki’s sharp responses made it clear that she knew that, too.

Reluctantly, it seemed, Tsumiki declared him to be in good health. Good. He wanted to get out of here. Komaeda may have been crazy, but it was a crazy Naegi understood and could adapt to. Tsumiki was a different kind of crazy; a kind that made his insides shrivel and coated the back of his mouth with stress. She kept touching. Yes, yes, she was a nurse given him a check-up, but she hadn’t needed to be that intimate about it. And yes, Komaeda liked to touch too, but he tended to use big, obvious gestures like hugs. Tsumiki’s touches were caresses and swipes against skin; things Naegi couldn’t see coming.

And right now, her thumb was tracing a circle on his cheek while her other hand lay on his neck’s pulse point. She murmured, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to spend time with me in here yet.”

Naegi shifted his eyes, trying to look at Komaeda without turning his head.

“I usually give my patients a lollypop now. . .” She giggled, and leaned in until their foreheads touched. “But they’re all poisoned.

Komaeda ran a hand through his hair. “Uh, Tsumiki-san, I hate to bother you with my incessant questions, but shouldn’t Naegi-kun and I get going? You said yourself that he needs rest.”

She gave Komaeda a look of annoyance, and then sighed. “I’m sorry, Naegi-kun. You sh-should get some rest.”

For one shining moment, he thought he was free. Then it became obvious that Tsumiki intended to hold his hand and walk him to the door.

Whatever. At least he was achieving his goal of getting out of here.

Komaeda walked behind the pair, hands in his pocket. Tsumiki led the way, happier than she ought to be. About halfway to the door, she started to talk.

“I always dreamed about it: having children with my beloved. It didn’t matter that we were both girls. . . But now she’s g-gone. But you’re here. My beloved had a baby boy in the end. Can I call you Makoto?”

This time, he would be required to answer. He swallowed, licked his dry lips, and mumbled, “S-sure.”

“Thank you, Makoto.” Tsumiki bent over suddenly, so that they were at eyelevel. “Now, Makoto . . . can you call me Mommy?”

No. No, no, no. No no no no no no no no no no –

“Think about it. For me, okay?” Tsumiki pressed her lips to his forehead, and then backed off. “Mommy needs to go back to work now!”

That was Komaeda’s signal. He swept in quickly, ushering Naegi out the door while keeping up an impressive string of gratitude and compliments. When the medical center’s door shut behind them, he stared at it for a good few seconds.

“I didn’t expect her to take to that idea that much,” he said. “Guess I overdid it. Come on, let’s get back to your room.”

Naegi didn’t move, even when Komaeda tugged at his arm.

“Do you want me to carry you?” Komaeda asked.

Naegi shook his head.

“Komaeda-kun, after everything that’s happened today . . . do you really think I’m safe here?”

The emotion he saw on Komaeda’s face wasn’t the one he was hoping to get. “I know that was some rather bad luck, but it was all good in the end. We don’t need to hide anymore; we have the approval of our goddess herself! It’s all uphill from here.”

Yeah. Now instead of dealing with one crazy person and his apathetic companion, he was dealing with a group of them. It said a lot that he viewed the manipulative, insane kidnapper as the most trustworthy of the bunch. And that the person that seemed to help him the most was the unfeeling, dead-eyed science experiment.

What had he gotten himself into?

(How was he going to get himself out of it?)

Chapter Text

Naegi dried his hair one last time. It wouldn’t do much to save the soaked shoulders of his pyjamas, but it might keep the rest of his clothes dry. He placed the towel on the rack, moved Kamukura’s shoes to the edge of the tub where it was least wet, and then grabbed his soiled clothing. With everything that had happened, he’d forgotten about his loss of control. But Komaeda had been there to remind him, and gently suggest he get cleaned up.

He dumped his old clothes in the hamper as quickly as possible. For that reason, he didn’t notice until afterwards that it wasn’t just Komaeda in the room. Next to the seated Luckster was the Ultimate Swordswoman, Pekoyama. It was the first look he got at her in proper light – and also when he wasn’t in grave danger. She looked pretty much the same as she had in the photo album. However, the aura of confidence she had exhibited back there wasn’t the same. It was quieter, less sure, like someone had put a film over it to reduce its brightness. But her back was still ramrod straight like a soldier – a soldier that happened to be holding an armful of clothes instead of a weapon.

“These are for you,” Pekoyama said. “My Master has no need of them.”

“Let me guess,” Komaeda said. “Peer pressure got to him.”

“. . . My Master is beholden to no one,” Pekoyama said coldly. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at Naegi. “Especially not the whelp of Enoshima Junko.”

Huh? That seemed to come out of nowhere, particularly given how the other members of Despair behaved around their leader. It was so shocking in fact, that Naegi had no time to feel insulted before the swordswoman stomped out of the room.

For this part, Komaeda merely furrowed his brow a little. “To think she has the nerve to speak like that to you . . . I know I’m too pathetic to be your vengeance, but if I talk to Kuzuryu-kun, he can act in my place. He’s always looking for reasons to come down on her.”

“Wh-what? No, it’s fine. It’s not a big deal.”

Komaeda scoffed and crossed his arms over his chest. He looked very much like Kamukura in that instant. “Anyone who disrespects you is a big deal.”

“Komaeda-kun, don’t,” he croaked, stopping the other boy in the middle of standing. “I . . . I can’t deal with this. I just want to lie down for a while.”

“Ah, I forgot!” Komaeda jumped off the bed, and attempted to smooth the comforter down. “Take all the time you need.”

Naegi didn’t respond. He peeled back the covers and slid into bed. Drowsiness tugged at his mind, making the skin around his eyes feel loose and wrinkled. Yet he didn’t seem able to keep them closed. The bedroom door remained at the center of his vision.

“She just walked in here,” he mumbled. “Did she even knock?”

“She did. You must have not heard it because you were in the shower. I imagine most of them will start checking up on you. They all want a piece of you now.” That last part dripped with jealousy, maybe even possessiveness.

“There’s no lock on this side. They can just walk in whenever they feel like it.”

“I can ask them to leave you alone, but they’d never listen to an inferior person like me.” Komaeda sighed, and slumped against a wall. “Maybe a sign on your door will work better.”

But Naegi was no longer listening. “They’re all crazy. They’re all Despair.”

Someone was screaming at him, low and heavy, threats and slurs echoing within the small room. He couldn’t understand them but he knew . . . he knew what they wanted to say, and his heartbeat sped up in response. Nidai’s huge hands were on him again; grabbing, squeezing, moving steadily upwards toward his neck –

A ring of pain erupted around his throat, crushing it. The angry voices drowned out all thought. They were yelling at him, shaking him, touching him –

The phantom hands on his shoulder became real. He screamed. He clawed at the hands; his fingers shook too much to pull. Hot, musty air filled his mouth, suffocating him.

“Shh . . .”

The skin against his was blazing hot. It threatened to bake him alive. But the outside air was cooler now, and he consumed it greedily. A large pressure pushed down on his torso, but it didn’t matter; an impossibly heavy weight had already seized his limbs.

“It’s alright. You’re okay.”

That voice was like a ward. The louder it became, the more the screaming chorus dimmed. Something slithered into his hand; he gripped it tight enough to leave bruises. His own nails dug into his palm. He didn’t mind the pain.

“They’re not going to hurt you, Naegi-kun. I’ll stop them.”

Colours and shapes began to make sense again. Something roared, but he recognized it as his own, frenzied heartbeat. His hand started to throb from how tight it was squeezing.

“K-ko . . .”

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

That was the only part of the word that would come. Perhaps for the best. For if Komaeda had watched Naegi’s mouth form its next silent syllable, he would have realized Naegi hadn’t been asking for him.

Komaeda shifted his weight back. The older boy was straddling him.  One hand pressed down on Naegi’s chest, holding him down. The other was entangled with Naegi’s right hand.

Naegi closed his eyes. “Komaeda-kun, please . . . I can’t stay here. . .”

“I can’t do that, Naegi-kun.”

Yes, he knew. He knew Komaeda was set in his resolve. Even after all this, he wouldn’t let him go . . .

It was only natural to cry.

Komaeda backed off, looking stunned. Naegi rolled away from the Luckster, bringing his knees to his chest until he looked half his size. The tears came freely; he was too tired, too demoralized to be embarrassed. He hurt all over, and couldn’t tell if it was physical pain he felt, or mental.

“Naegi-kun? What are you . . .?” Komaeda reached over, and wiped a finger under Naegi’s eye. “Why . . .? Ah, I see. These tears, they must be your despair. This is how you purge yourself of it.”

‘Naegi-kun, stop.’ That was Kirigiri’s ghost by the door. Arms crossed, expression tight, she told him through stare alone that it was dangerous to let Komaeda see him like this. With the last of his strength, Naegi sucked his tears back.

“Feeling better?”

“Yeah,” he lied. He was so ready to close his eyes and stop thinking –

Komaeda shifted.

Naegi’s hand snapped over the other’s wrist. He pulled it closer to himself, until it nearly touched his chest.

“Don’t leave me alone here. P-please.”

“If that’s what you want.” Even as he said that, Komaeda was wearing that stunned, confused face. Like what he was seeing was so unnatural he couldn’t comprehend it.

Despite the fear gnawing at his belly, his eyelids drifted shut. At least there was one guardian standing between him and Despair.


Komaeda wasn’t there.

That was his first thought when he woke up. Save for himself, the bed was empty, and so was the chair. Panicked eyes skimmed the room and honestly, it didn’t bring him that much relief when Komaeda turned out to be at the door. The Luckster had it open a crack, peeking through as –

Someone was on the other side.

What should he do? Hide? Say something? Pretend he was sleeping? Nobody had told him how to handle these newly motivated Despairs. An iron band fastened around his head, making it painful even to think . . .

The bedroom door shut again.

Just like that, the band constricting his thoughts loosened, leaving behind a pulsing ache. Oh. That had been easy. Nothing bad had happened. He looked up at Komaeda, who was balancing a tray in each hand.

“What was that?” he asked the Luckster.

“Hanamura-kun wanted to know why neither of us had come by for breakfast,” Komaeda answered. He put one tray on the desk, and offered the other to Naegi. “I told him you were still recovering from yesterday.”

“Oh.” He took the tray, and placed it on his lap. A ‘thank you’ was on the tip on his tongue, but he was reluctant to say it. “Does that mean he’ll leave me alone?”

“Probably,” Komaeda said, “but Tsumiki-san will definitely visit now. Not that she would have stayed away in the first place.”

Oh.

Breakfast tasted stale. That was impossible because the Ultimate Chef had prepared it, but it still did. He couldn’t finish it. He shoved the leftovers aside and put his head down, half-wishing he could fall asleep again.

“When will she be coming?” he asked.

“Probably within the hour.”

He was right. Komaeda had just finished eating and starting trying to convince Naegi to finish his meal when Tsumiki peeped in the room. She and Komaeda had a round of mutual glaring before she fully stepped inside. Naegi did his best not to look at either of them.

“Good morning, Makoto!”

He’d forgotten that he’d (foolishly) given her permission to use his first name. He looked automatically. She actually looked rather normal today, like a warm, caring nurse. Still, he and Komaeda both kept a wary eye on her as she approached the bed.

“Hanamura-kun says you’re feeling ill today,” she said.

“It’s just stress,” he said. You couldn’t treat stress with pills, right? Maybe she’d go ahead and leave.

Of course, it couldn’t be that simple. He still had to subject himself to a physical check-up. If he blurred his vision and didn’t focus on her face, he could almost pretend this was elsewhere. Although every time she touched him, it was like being poked with a cattle prod.

“I don’t blame you for being stressed,” she said offhandedly. “They were so mean to you. A-and you’ve been spending a lot of time with a . . . stressful person. Maybe if you changed –”

“No,” he said quickly. “I like it here.”

The truth was he didn’t want to be somewhere that gave Despair easy access to him. Being under Komaeda’s watch was the closest he would get to a guarded jail cell.

“Ah, okay. Makoto, can you forgive me for what we did to you yesterday?”

He knew he barely had a choice in the matter. “Sure.”

A few more minutes passed, and Tsumiki announced that it probably was just stress. She was still worried, however, by the sight of Naegi’s breakfast leftovers. When Komaeda confessed that wasn’t the first time Naegi had failed to finish a meal, both of them shared a united moment of concern.

“M-maybe Hanamura-kun should cut down on his portion sizes. He is rather small . . . overeating is unhealthy, too!”

Tsumiki left quickly after that, but she returned. This time, with a scale in hand. There wasn’t much choice but to force himself out of bed and let her measure his weight. She declared him ‘Light but within the proper range’, and ordered Komaeda to start tracking his weight.

Fine. It wasn’t like he planned to starve himself.

Then, he was alone. Oh, and Komaeda was here, too. The visits from Hanamura and Tsumiki had left him too rattled to consider sleep. He stood sluggishly, and made his way to the bathroom to prepare for the day.

Upon seeing himself in the mirror, he was surprised that Tsumiki had been appeased as easily as she had been. In a word, he looked terrible. The stitches on his temple were barely visible among the dark bruising radiating out from the closed wound. There was further bruising on his arms, fingermarks on his neck . . . he shoved that thought away with a grimace. Dark shadows lay under his eyes; the slump to his posture made him look like a wilted plant. His hair was in disarray, too – although he wouldn’t exactly describe it as neat even at the best of times. He’d never come out of something so badly, even on his worst-luck days.

I wonder how Komaeda’s healing is going. The white-haired boy had held himself just fine yesterday, but Naegi had spotted him wincing when he had jumped off the bed.

Kamukura had left his deck of cards behind, so Naegi killed some time playing with an eager Komaeda.  The scale had been shoved under the bed, where Naegi could ignore it and any memories of Tsumiki’s visit. It wasn’t long enough though, before the bedroom door opened again (and without anyone knocking!) A pink-haired head topped poked in.

“Uh, this is where the Naegi guy is, right?” Soda asked.

Naegi stared at him. Soda was the one who had hit him with the wrench. That he knew to be true, but he had little memory of it. He couldn’t remember the impact, or the sight of it coming towards him. Even trying to think about the immediate aftermath was a bit of a blur, although it made his head hurt. Other than that though, Soda had been pretty quiet throughout his ordeal yesterday.

“So, this is where you’ve been staying.” Soda stepped inside without waiting for permission. He scanned  the room, and frowned. “It seems pretty dull in here. What do you do all day?”

Naegi shrugged.

Soda didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he asked another question. “Why do you want to stay with a crazy guy like Komaeda anyways?”

“I . . .” What should he do? He didn’t know enough to judge whether stating the truth might set Soda off.

In the end, he went with a half-truth.

“. . . Because Komaeda is my friend.”

. . . Did Komaeda just stop breathing?

“You might end up regretting that,” Soda said. “Anyways, me and Owari-san were talking, and we thought maybe I could build you a TV or something so you’re not bored.”

“A TV?” Naegi blinked. That sounded fantastic, actually. Maybe it was time for the good luck Komaeda kept promising. He’d had enough of being ignorant of the outside world from the Killing Game. “That. . . that would be great!”

To Naegi’s surprise, Soda was not happy about his reaction. “. . . Can you be less happy about it? It reminds me of . . . before. At least try to act scared so I can pretend I’m making something to kill you with.”

“Uh, sorry?”

Soda deflated. “Man, this is what I got to put up with . . . Eh. At least this way you might get to learn about the others before they get here.”

“The others?” Naegi repeated. For his part, Komaeda crossed his arms and pouted like an upset child.

“Tsumiki-san sent out the word yesterday. Everybody wants to come by and meet you. Even the princess is on her way.” Soda said that last noun with a growl. Whoever this princess was, he didn’t seem to like her very much.

“The princess . . . that’s Nevermind, right?”

“Wait, you do know about her? How the hell . . .?” Soda glanced at Komaeda then, and the pieces came together. “Oh. What’d he say about me?”

Naegi swallowed. “You’re the Ultimate Mechanic, right? Komaeda-kun told me you created M-Monokuma.”

“Yep! That’s my baby.” Soda stood in a photo-worthy pose; grinning widely while giving him a thumbs-up. “Say, you should check out my workshop. I’m planning on getting started on that TV in an hour or so. You could hand me the tools or something.”

The tools? Naegi looked past Soda to the door between him and freedom. Maybe that’s what he needed to bypass that barrier. But at the same time, did he really want to spend time with Soda? He thought about it. Soda had hit him with that wrench, but Naegi couldn’t remember it. Soda hadn’t touched him. He hadn’t yelled much. He definitely hadn’t choked him.

Yes. . . he could do this.

“I’ll think about it,” he said neutrally.

Soda left him shortly after. At the same time the lock clicked shut, Komaeda slowly turned to face Naegi. The white-haired boy’s face was frozen in some parody of a horror-movie style grin.

Friends?”

Yeah, he should have seen this coming. He exhaled deeply, and said, “Yes. Friends.”

. . . Either Komaeda was shrieking in joy, or someone had left a kettle on the stove.


Can I really do this?

Naegi stood outside the door to Soda’s alleged workshop. Komaeda lingered at the mouth of the hall. For whatever reason, the older student had decided not to accompany Naegi inside, though he still waited nearby in case Naegi changed his mind. The Luckster’s decision was both a comfort and frightening. A comfort because it must have meant Komaeda didn’t classify Soda as a threat; frightening because Naegi had never had a friendly interaction with a Remnant (except Kamukura) without Komaeda. These were new grounds he was treading, grounds that would be hostile, if not outright deadly, to a regular person.

It’ll have to happen eventually.’ That’s what Komaeda had told him when Naegi had first protested his decision. From Komaeda’s offhand comments and the snippets he heard from the others, it was obvious that Komaeda wasn’t particularly well liked by the Remnants. It made sense. Komaeda was unhealthily focused on hope, although he seemed to tone it down when he wanted something from his classmates. That made it even more bizarre that Komaeda had sided with them in the first place. But the point was that the others disliked Komaeda and as the white-haired boy had explained, that meant it was only a matter of time before they started trying to hang out with Naegi without Komaeda present.

Naegi looked back. Komaeda gave him a smile and a little wave. He had a childish desire to pull his hood up, as if it could block out all the bad things in the world.

Alright, I can do this. He took a deep breath and set his shoulders. I mean, it’s a workshop, not a torture chamber.

How bad can it be?

Chapter Text

 Workshop was an understatement. Or maybe a flat-out lie. Workshops were small and smug, with tables, machines and projects scattered about. Workshops were not this; not this vast, sprawling complex in constant motion. Conveyor belts shuffled chunks of metal from one stop to the next. Pillar-like pistons pumped up and down in synchronized motion. Robotic arms fitted with screwdrivers wound nuts and screws into place while blowguns sprayed paint onto whatever came before them. At the beginning of the procession, near the entrance where he was, the manufacturing began with shapeless masses of metal. But the further they ventured into the factory, the closer they got to the opposite wall, the more horrible they became.

For at the end of the conveyors, there waited dozens upon dozens upon dozens of Monokumas.

There was plenty of distance between them. If one decided to charge, he would easily have a full minute before he was in danger. Yet he was rooted to the spot as if a train were barrelling straight toward him. It wasn’t fear he felt. Maybe shock? Monokuma had copies, but he wasn’t supposed to have this many copies. Naegi blinked several times, unable to comprehend the truth his eyes told him.

For their part, the Monokumas didn’t even have a fraction of the reaction he had to them. They were completely unbothered by the stranger in the room and continued doing whatever it was they were doing. Most were still, on standby, maybe. Some toddled back and forth like children learning to walk. A couple had claws out, but they didn’t seem to know what to do with them.

“Hey, you made it!” Soda waved to him from the other side of the room. The side where the Monokumas were. He wasn’t going over there. Nope. He refused to get within arm’s length of those claws.

Soda, however, appeared to be oblivious to silent cues.

“Uh, Naegi-kun, over here!”

As if he was going to walk over there. Soda would have to come and drag him–

Hey! He was just kidding!

“It’s pretty neat, isn’t it? Must have shocked you senseless.” Soda’s sweaty grip was nevertheless very strong, and he barely seemed to notice Naegi trying to resist. “I never thought I’d get to run an awesome setup like this!”

They drew near the Monokumas. Naegi went stiff. The nearest bear had its claws out, and their sharp tips gleamed as it raised them –

The Monokuma walked into a puffing machine, and kept trying to move forward. Soda glanced at it and sighed.

“They don’t have their A.I. fully loaded yet,” he explained. “They’re real stupid. Watch this!”

Soda released Naegi’s hand and walked over to the struggling Monokuma. With one hand, he pushed its head, knocking it over. The Monokuma fell onto its side, arms and legs flailing. It was almost funny.

“So, they don’t know me?” Naegi asked. Specifically, they didn’t know how he had destroyed their creator.

Soda said, “I wouldn’t say that . . .”

His shark-toothed grin was actually quite intimidating in the right light.

Before Naegi felt anything but his own courage deserting him, Soda grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him forward.

“Hey, everyone!” The Mechanic hollered, hands cupped around his mouth. “It’s the Ultimate Hope, Naegi Makoto!”

Naegi Makoto!

A hundred – nay, a thousand robotic chants rang out in unison. As one unit, the Monokumas spun towards them and saluted. Even the robot Soda knocked over had its legs locked together, and a paw raised to its forehead.

It was pretty freaking creepy.

“. . . You programmed them to do that for me,” Naegi asked, cringing inside.

“They do that for all of us.” To prove his point, Soda shouted his own name and title and the Monokumas obediently chanted his name. “It means they recognize you as one of us. I went ahead and gave you basic clearance, too.”

. . . So far, this was turning out to be a bad day. Soda hadn’t even done anything Despair-ish, and Naegi already wanted to go back to his room. He chose not to linger on the idea of being recognized as a member of Ultimate Despair (in fact, he decided to wipe it from his memory completely. He might go insane if he didn’t). But this clearance thing sounded important.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

Soda shrugged. “Means you can boss them around as long as it doesn’t go against what we’ve told them to do. Same goes for the soldiers. You should give it a try.”

Soda whistled, and a Monokuma scurried over, teetering to a stop in front of them. It . . . it didn’t look like the Monokuma from the Killing Game. It looked much less evil. It took him a bit to understand why, but eventually he realized it had regular teeth instead of the sharp, pointed teeth of the other Monokuma.

“Make it grab us a snack or something,” Soda said. “I’m starving.”

Naegi looked at Soda for a moment, checking if the Mechanic was serious. Apparently, he was. He turned to the robot. “Uh, could you get us something to eat, please?”

The Monokuma stared before waddling off. Meanwhile, Soda was laughing hysterically in the background.

“Y-you . . . you said please . . . to a robot! Man, you’re a riot. Hey, Monokuma, make sure it isn’t poisoned!” He patted Naegi on the shoulder, giving him the kind of fond, but superior look one would give their younger brother. “You got to watch out for that. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff sitting around, and they ain’t smart enough to bring you the right kind unless you ask for it.”

“Fantastic.”

“TV’s over here.” Soda pointed at a workbench that was a comfortable distance away from the Monokumas. “It’s just a bunch of metal and stuff right now, but I got all the pieces together so we can get started. You ever worked with tools before?”

“N-no.” Naegi was almost walking backwards, keeping an eye on the indifferent robots.

“Huh. Well if you watch me, you’re sure to pick some things up!” Soda sat down at the workbench, and rubbed his gloves together. “Where is that dumb bear?”

A minute or so later, said bear returned. It . . . it had a chef’s hat on. And an apron. It did not look cute. But it also carried a tray above its head with some fancy dish Naegi didn’t have a name for. Soda reached over, grabbed a piece and wolfed it down.

“Want some?” he asked with a full mouth.

Naegi reluctantly took a piece for himself. It was good, better than good actually, but he couldn’t bring himself to indulge in something given to him by Monokuma. He couldn’t be trusted. He always had ulterior motives. Naegi had to be sharp and –

But that was different, his brain suddenly reminded him. Enoshima had been behind that Monokuma. This Monokuma was declawed; masterless.

You can’t hurt them anymore, he thought viciously. We beat you.

Monokuma continued to smile. Out of spite, Naegi grabbed another piece and ate it in one bite. He started choking immediately, of course.

Monokuma reached over, and hit him on the back.

It worked. He coughed up the bit he was choking on, but he shoved the arm away anyways, skin heating up with anger at the unwanted contact. Monokuma teetered with the momentum, weight shifting from foot to foot as he began to stabilize. But Naegi didn’t let him. He pushed Monokuma just as Soda had, and Monokuma tipped backwards and landed on the ground. When he checked with his babysitter, Soda was giving him encouraging gestures.

Anxiety curdled within him. This was confusing. As much as Naegi hated this robot that symbolized his past, he didn’t hate it that much to be very violent. On the other hand, Soda wanted him to keep going, and he didn’t know what would happen if he turned down an order from this Despair.

Making his choice, he closed his eyes and kicked Monokuma –

. . . It turned out to be a very bad idea.

“Oww . . .”

“You realize robots are made of metal, right?” Soda asked.

“Yeah, I . . .” Naegi leaned down and rubbed his foot. “Oww.”

“Here, I’ll show you.” Soda stood, a hammer in hand. He put a foot on the downed Monokuma’s chest, and menacingly brought the hammer up above his head. “First off, you shouldn’t be aiming for the big parts right away. They’re the strongest. You gotta go for the parts with weaker connections. Like . . .”

The hammer swung down. With the piecing shriek of metal against metal, the head sunk deep into the Monokuma’s shoulder joint. Sparks flew from the gaps in the dented metal. Two more strikes, and the arm detached from the body completely.

“A small hammer like this won’t do much though.” Soda casually let the hammer drop, and reached for the severed arm. “You really want to break it, you need something stronger. Like . . .”

With practiced ease, he worked the paw’s claws out. He tilted it toward Naegi, as if he thought Naegi had never seen them before. Then, he plunged the claws straight into the Monokuma’s head.

“Hah!” The Mechanic’s tongue stuck out as he laughed. “That’s the good stuff. These things can cut just about anything if you try hard enough. Here, try it. Watch out for the chest though; that’s where the bomb is.”

Honestly, Naegi had enough. He hated Monokuma . . . but there was something pitiful about brutally tearing apart a helpless robot with its own hand. But Soda had pushed the arm into his chest, and the Mechanic was telling him to do it. His skin prickled; it was the same thing that happened when Kamukura stared at him a little too long, or Komaeda’s smile stretched too wide after Naegi gave an unsatisfactory answer.

So, he did it, even though the sound made his arms tense so much they cramped. He did it a few times. When he looked back, Soda was staring at the wreckage, mouth wide open in horror. There was a trace of tears in those eyes . . . what was happening?

“Uh, Soda-kun?”

Soda twitched, as if shaking a spell off. “I put a piece of myself in all of my creations. That’s why . . . that’s why all the bears can make their teeth pointy. And to see them . . . to watch them be torn apart right in front of me so coolly . . . it’s terrible.”

But Soda had told him to do it! Nevertheless, Naegi shuffled his feet and mumbled, “Sorry. I didn’t know they meant so much to you.”

A beat.

Soda snickered.

“Sorry?” he repeated, wiping his eyes. “Sorry? No, it’s . . . it’s terrible! I worked so hard to figure out how to mass-produce those, and you hate them so much you gotta rip ‘em apart on sight even after all my sweat and tears . . . Come on, Naegi-kun. Go break some more robots!”

Soda’s eyes were blood red. Mad swirls danced within them. Naegi took a step back; his grip tightened on the robot’s arm.

“I d-don’t . . .”

“At least tell me how much of a loser I am for wasting my time on these.” There was one way to describe how Soda was looking at him: ravenous. “Tell me how you think they’re hideous. That your grandma could have done a better job. Come on, Naegi-kun. Please. Our mistress did it all the time!”

That was the last straw. Anger lent the strength he needed to make his words strong and steady. “I am not Enoshima.”

The lights suddenly seemed to dim. Soda was silent, but only for a moment.

“Fine,” he spat. “Then tell me about how I’m nothing but a coldblooded murderer. Tell me you hate me for creating the things that executed your friends.”

Naegi stared at him. Something cold licked at his feet and climbed steadily upward –

Unauthorized emotional turmoil!

The shouts of the Monokumas stopped them right in their tracks. A single robot detached from the throng, and tackled Soda. The two fell into the workbench, hitting it with a yelp. Though the robot was short, it was heavy and when the two landed, the Monokuma was on the Mechanic’s chest.

“Hey, get off me!” The robot instantly obeyed. Soda turned on it, yelling, “What was that for?”

The robot saluted. “Level 3 Decree from Komaeda Nagito, Ultimate Lucky Student: attempts to bring despair to Naegi Makoto, Ultimate Hope, must have his prior approval.”

“He’s your therapist now?” Soda complained. “And I wasn’t trying to drive him into despair or whatever that was. I just wanted a little for myself.”

Really? Was that it? Was that all it would take to stop this? Naegi almost didn’t want to, just out of principle, but now wasn’t the time for pride. So, he pushed aside his reservations, and braced himself.

“Soda-kun . . . you smell pretty bad.”

It wasn’t a lie. He smelt like oil and sweat and burning metal.

It was enough for the Mechanic to light up with happiness.

“She used to say that all the time!” he squealed.

Mission complete, he supposed. Naegi felt dirty.

“I kind of feel bad for you, having to spend so much time with that obsessed freak. I bet he never shuts up.” Soda rolled his eyes, a slight curl to his lips as he talked about Komaeda. “I could always override his orders for you.”

“It’s fine,” Naegi said. In fact, he very much approved of this particular order from Komaeda.

“Okay. Tell one of us if you change your mind though. Everybody but you has higher clearance than Komaeda because he’s a nutjob. Let’s get started on that TV!”

“Right,” Naegi said quietly. He looked once more at the crowd of Monokumas. Many of them hadn’t budged from their previous position; they waited with their arms still in salute. Naegi swallowed down his lingering fear, and then turned his back to them.


“Hey, pass me the slothead.”

Order received. Locating slothead screwdriver . . . object located. Mission objective: deliver object to Soda Kazuichi, Ultimate Mechanic.

He handed over the screwdriver. Soda took it with barely a word, focused on his work.

Mission completed. Returning to standby status.

His headset crackled to life. Another soldier in the building spoke. ‘New decree level 0 from Kamukura Izuru. Kamukura Izuru is to be kept informed of who is with Naegi Makoto, Ultimate Hope.’

Message received. Level 0 clauses implemented (1. Do not alert other members of Despair to decree. 2. Decree creator must be immediately informed if decree is compromised. 3. Unless otherwise stated, decree may be ignored if fulfilling it would violate clause 1). Overwrites level 3 decree from Komaeda Nagito: informing other members of Despair about Naegi Makoto’s, Ultimate Hope, presence is forbidden.

Clause three active. Remain silent about companion. Fulfillment of decree placed on delay.

“Alright, now hold this steady.”

Order received. Holding object.

(The harsh impact of the hammer, an inch from his fingers, didn’t bother him in the slightest).

Mission completed. Returning to standby status. . .

New arrival spotted . . . Target identified: Komaeda Nagito, Ultimate Lucky Student, clearance level two.

“I’m sorry to interrupt such two remarkable people in the middle of their work but . . . Naegi-kun? Is that you?”

Unit addressed. Answer type: affirmative.

“You -! Naegi-kun, take that off right now!

Priority order received. Removing apparatus –

It was like being hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. Naegi gasped as the thick sludge occupying his mind vanished. The Monokuma helmet nearly fell from his shaking hands. That  . . . Soda had been evasive and told him it would help his anxiety, but he had never alluded to anything like that. He –

Oh. Komaeda looked furious.

“You put one of the helmets on him?” Komaeda demanded, voice shrill.

“He was nervous. I think all the sharp tools stressed him out or something. Plus he was having a hard timing telling everything apart and holding the nails steady. I figured it would be easier for both of us!” It was such an innocent answer that Naegi wondered if he even knew what those helmets were really for.

Komaeda fidgeted. He was clearly torn between two equally powerful desires: that of submitting to his talented classmate, and that of defending his precious Ultimate Hope. Both won out in some way; Komaeda managed to speak, but he did so with gritted teeth and a clenched jaw.

“The brainwashing isn’t temporary!” Komaeda said.

Soda replied, “Only if he wears it for a long time. It’s fine.”

Komaeda whined in distress. It appeared he was unable to fight Soda further, so he turned to Naegi. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Naegi shivered inside, remembering the sensation of putting on the helmet. The idea of a helmet that could brainwash you was freaky enough, but what was really scary was how quickly it acted. The second he put it on, it had been like touching a live power line to his brain; his mind had seized and completely froze up, allowing the wicked tendrils of the brainwashing helmet to slither in. He hadn’t even know anything was wrong, no matter how obvious it had been in retrospect. The obedience had seemed natural, as had the apathy. The surge of information loaded to his mind –

He froze.

His mind jumped into action, grasping desperately at the tails of the quickly fading information the helmet had given him. Because if he was remembering correctly . . .

. . . One of those pieces of knowledge had been a map.

“Why are you here anyways?” Soda asked Komaeda.

“It’s close to lunch,” Komaeda said. “I was –”

“Awesome. I could go for some food.” Soda swivelled in his seat until he faced Naegi. “You’re coming too, right? It’ll be like our first family meal!”

Komaeda rubbed the back of his neck. “Actually, I –”

But Soda had already grabbed Naegi’s hand. “Let’s go!”

Naegi yelped and stumbled after him.

Komaeda stared after them, mouth still open, and blinked.

Chapter Text

They were staring at him. Everyone was staring at him. Nidai had even frozen with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth; the food had fallen out of them a while ago. Soda’s grip on his wrist was punishing, so Naegi tried to hide behind the pink-haired man. It barely did any good though, since Soda was waving and doing everything he could to draw attention.

“Guys, look who’s joining us!” Soda called. He neatly stepped out from in front of Naegi, leaving him fully exposed.

“So the kid’s feeling better, huh?” Owari said. She didn’t sit at the long table with the others, but lurked nearby in a dark corner. Drool dripped down a corner of her mouth as she watched the others eat, but she made no move to join them herself.

“Yeah,” Naegi muttered, his sarcasm apparently only audible to himself.

Tsumiki sighed, lowering her chopsticks to the table. “Oh. I was hoping I would get to nurse him back to health.”

. . . Naegi made a note to himself to never ever get sick here.

Nidai laughed loudly. “Hey, kid! Sorry about the misunderstanding yesterday.”

Naegi squeezed his eyes shut, begging himself not to remember. At least Nidai didn’t take his lack of answer as an insult.

“Hey, Naegi.”  That was Kuzuryu. Feet on the table, fedora tipped over his face, he beckoned Naegi closer. “Sit over here.”

When Naegi didn’t instantly obey, Kuzuryu attempted to find the source of his hesitation. His gaze fell upon the swordswoman next to him, who was carefully glowering at the table and not at Naegi.

“You deaf, Peko?” Kuzuryu snapped. “Naegi’s sitting there!”

“My apologies. Please excuse me.”

Naegi wanted to say something, but Pekoyama had already vacated her seat. She stood soldier-like behind the grinning Yakuza. Though he didn’t want to be a part of the conflict between Kuzuryu and Pekoyama, he also felt that if he didn’t sit now, it would only humiliate the swordswoman further.

Kuzuryu smirked at the others when Naegi sat next to him. On Naegi’s other side, Tsumiki shifted her chair closer. Owari moved from her corner and circled around the table. Naegi could feel her stare on the back of his neck. He didn’t like this. He really, really didn’t like this. He didn’t even have Soda as a buffer anymore; the Mechanic had plopped down across the table next to Nidai.

Fists clenched, Naegi naturally searched for Komaeda. The white-haired boy was still in the doorway, chin tucked into his shirt’s collar. He shuffled into the room – more specifically, toward where Naegi was seated. Naegi watched him do so, feeling better now that . . .

“What do you think you’re doing?” Kuzuryu said to Komaeda.

Komaeda jerked as if he had been struck by a whip. He raised his hands in a placating manner. “Ah, sorry. I forgot myself.”

With that, Komaeda retreated to the far end of the table and sat down. Alone.

Naegi whispered, “Komaeda-kun. . .”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t quiet enough. Kuzuryu looked at him funny, and asked, “What about that weirdo?”

“You don’t need to worry about him,” Soda said. He reached over the table and playfully punched Naegi’s arm. “We’ll keep him from bothering you.”

“He’s not –”

“We get it, little dude,” Nidai said. “There’s no such thing as spending too little time with Komaeda.”

“But I –“

“Just say the word, and we’ll move you out of his room,” Owari said, shooting him what she probably thought was a friendly smile.

“He’s not bothering me!” Naegi finally got out. “I like him. We’re friends.”

The entire table stared at him (save for Komaeda, who was doing his very best not to make eye contact with anyone while visibly holding back a squeal).

Then, Soda spoke. “Say, didn’t you make friends with that crazy serial killer?”

A round of ‘Ohs’ went around the table. Naegi knew his defence of Komaeda had just been dismissed as a ‘weird Ultimate Hope quirk’. Naegi tried to meet Komaeda’s eye, but the other boy was careful not to look in his direction.

A Monokuma wearing a smaller version of Kuzuryu’s suit walked up to him. He stared at it. It placed a lidded, silver platter before him, bowed, and wandered off. The stares from the others only became more intense when he grabbed the lid. He did his best to ignore them.

Lunch looked as delicious as usual, although Naegi wasn’t all that hungry. However, seeing how bothered Tsumiki and Komaeda got last time he didn’t eat everything, he really didn’t want to see how refusing to eat in front of an entire table of Despairs would go. So, he forced it all down his throat, even when his stomach began to cramp.

Nidai found it hilarious. “Look at him go! He must have been starving out there. No wonder he’s all skin and bones.”

“Y-yeah,” Owari said, tongue hanging out. “He sure looks like he’s enjoying himself.”

Naegi was unsure of what to make of her reaction. She looked like she was going to jump him for his food. He flattened himself against the back of his chair, and asked, “D-did you want some?”

Owari moaned. “Ah! He’s taunting me.”

“That’s the spirit!” Naegi’s intestines seemed to tie themselves in a knot when Nidai put his huge hand on his back. The Coach took a chicken leg and waved it in Owari’s direction. “Hey, Akane! Doesn’t this look delicious?”

The Gymnast whimpered as Nidai took a huge bite in front of her.

“Maybe we should get him some more?” Soda asked, poking at Naegi’s empty plate.

“No thanks,” Naegi said, facing Soda and only Soda. After this morning, he was much more comfortable speaking to him than the other Despairs. “I’m not –”

The words lodged in his throat. Someone – Tsumiki – was touching his elbow. Her two fingers walked up his arm until her palm could slide along his shoulder to his neck. They ignited nearby nerves in their wake. Tsumiki giggled, and rested her chin on his shoulder.

“Are you sure?” she said. “A growing boy needs lots of nutrition.”

“I . . . I . . .”

It was the only word he could get out as Tsumiki’s other arm swept around and cradled his side. An icy haze slowly engulfed his thoughts. . .

He snapped out of it when the door opened.

For the second time, the table went silent.

Tsumiki had filled his vision, so he couldn’t see who had entered. However, when she drew back into herself, he saw. From the doorway, Kamukura observed the room and its inhabitants. He entered as if he hadn’t noticed that all attention was focused on him. He chose a spot halfway between Komaeda and everyone else, and stared blankly ahead as he waited for a Monokuma.

“Ah, K-Kamukura-kun!” Tsumiki said. “You’re eating with us today?”

Kamukura turned his scorching gaze on her. “Yes.”

Tsumiki threw her arms up to defend herself. “Eek! I’m sorry for bothering you!”            

The room’s volume had been cut in half, and had yet to recover. Tsumiki kept her hands to herself now, wringing them together. Kamukura’s mere presence seemed to have a dampening effect on the others – with the exception of a perkier Komaeda – and for that, he became Naegi’s favourite person of the hour.

Just then, Hanamura flung open a different door. “Ah! I’ve heard that our newest member has joined us. Tell me, what despairful things does he have to say about –?”

Hanamura trailed off.

Kamukura blinked.

“I see. The entire gang’s here,” the Chef said, much quieter than before.

Yes, Kamukura was very much Naegi’s favourite person right now. He wondered if the former Ultimate Hope had meant to be here all along, or was only here to check on his successor. Naegi knew, after all, that Kamukura had ordered the Monokuma servants to spy on him . . . and he honestly didn’t mind. He trusted Kamukura had no threatening reasons for that. He actually felt a little safer knowing such an influential person was keeping an eye on him.

That said, he still wanted to get away from here.

“Uh, where’s the washroom?” he asked, not knowing what else he could say.

Owari pointed at the exit. “Take a left. Two doors down.”

. . . That was it? No promises of an escort, or probing into ulterior motives? He half-stood, expecting to either be shoved back into his seat or have someone grab his arm. But they all kept eating. Except for Owari.

“I’ll be back soon?” he said, still confused.

He approached the exit with an odd, sideways gait so he could keep an eye on them. He passed Komaeda on the way, but the Luckster refused to be acknowledged. As surreal as it was, Naegi reached the exit unmolested. Maybe it really was that simple. He opened the door and stepped into the hall. . .

Unauthorized person!”

. . . And was immediately hauled back into the room by a person wearing a Monokuma helmet. Ultimate Despair watched in confusion – except for Kamukura who stared at Komaeda, and the white-haired boy himself who grimaced at his meal.

“Ah, sorry,” Komaeda said to the tabletop. “I forgot I asked them not to let Naegi-kun walk around unsupervised.”

“So you could keep him squirrelled away in your room, right?” Kuzuryu said with disgust. He spoke to the Monokuma soldier next. “Hey, ignore whatever that freak said. It’s fine. Just make sure one of you stay with him, and don’t let him outside or near any red zones.”

 “Red zones?” Naegi asked.

“Entrances, windowed hallways, anywhere that would be one of the first places to be attacked.” Kuzuryu lifted his fedora a tad. “We don’t want you hit by a sniper or anything.”

“ . . . Thanks.” It was better than nothing.

His second attempt to enter the hallway was much more successful. The Monokuma soldier followed behind him faithfully, so unobtrusive it was easy to forget it was there. Naegi looked left and right; for all purposes, he was alone. It was weird, almost wrong, like he had snuck into private property. It took him longer than it should have to remember the instructions to get to the washroom.

Before he entered, he turned to the soldier. “Soda-kun said I was allowed to tell you guys what to do as long as it doesn’t interfere with Ultimate Despair’s orders.”

The soldier didn’t move. “Affirmative.”

“If I give you an order, will all of you follow it, or only you?”

“If it is required, I will transmit your command to the rest of the army.”

Naegi nodded, mostly to himself. “Then . . . can you stop hurting people?”

“No,” the soldier said. “Conflicts with primary mission.”

Yeah, he knew that would be a long shot. But now nobody could say he didn’t try.

“What about individuals?” Naegi asked. “I mean, Komaeda-kun must have told you before not to hurt me.”

The soldier was silent. He liked to think that was meant as a yes, but seeing that smiling bear face only made him think of bad things.

“Then could you tell the others . . . if they see my parents, or my sister . . . don’t hurt them.”

The soldier was silent.

“My classmates, too! Kirigiri Kyoko, Aoi Asahina, Togami Byakuya, Fukawa Touko and Hagakure Yasuhiro . . . please . . . please don’t h-hurt them!”

He was crying again. He wiped his eyes, unashamed.

“Please . . . please . . .”

The soldier was silent.

“Decree accepted,” it finally said.


After lunch was weird, and that was probably an understatement. Most of Despair had left, Soda telling him that he would have the TV ready and installed by the evening. Komaeda was still present, as expected. Kamukura was, too; he looked super bored. Owari was crawling under the table looking for crumbs, and Hanamura was rooting through the trash for food.

He had to ask.

“Hanamura-kun, why don’t you make fresh food for yourself?”

The Chef ceased his rummaging. “Mama was an excellent cook. Never had a bad meal in her house. Then I became the Ultimate Chef and the idea of sub-standard meals became a mere fantasy. All my life, I’ve spoilt myself with good food. To know I’ve fallen so far I need to eat trash . . . it’s so despairing!”

“It sucks we need to eat at all,” Owari said from under the table. “Starving myself would be so much easier if I didn’t need to eat enough to stay alive and spread despair.”

. . . Naegi really couldn’t understand these people. Nor did he ever want to.

“What about the leftovers?” Naegi asked.

“Oh, I let those rot for a few days and then let prisoners have them.” Hanamura picked a crust out of the trash, and gobbled it up. “I was going to bring the newest batch to them now.”

Naegi cast an uncertain looked at Komaeda. Prisoners? That didn’t sound good. He couldn’t think of what they would need people for, other than increasing the size of their army. A kind of horrified curiosity ate at him, like he was watching from safe ground as a tsunami destroyed his hometown.

When Hanamura led a line of platter-holding Monokumas out of the room, he followed.

As far as stereotypes went, Ultimate Despair’s prison fit a lot of them. It was deep within the building, down in the basement. At some point, Naegi realized they were walking the same path Despair had dragged him through when his presence was first discovered. He would have bolted then, but when he turned around, he bumped into Komaeda’s chest. The familiar presence was enough to soothe his rattled nerves and leave him with a new resolve. He had to see what was going on here. He owed it to those people.

It was dark. A pair of torches lit up the entrance to the row of cells. There were another pair midway through the section, and a last pair at the end. The light they provided was dull; he couldn’t even see the floor. He stood in the entrance as Hanamura and the Monokumas walked further in and began freely tossing food through the bars.

In the closest cells, hunched figures darted forward. The prisoners had no plates or utensils, so they scooped food off the ground with their hands. It was pitiful. Naegi, selfish as it was, was glad he couldn’t see their faces.

He had let his guard down. That’s why he yelped when Komaeda gently pushed him into the hall. The white-haired boy moved forward, blocking Naegi’s only route to the exit. He almost asked why Komaeda was doing this, but then he remembered the other boy’s philosophy about despair and decided he was better off not knowing.

But the sound he had made attracted the attention of the prisoners. They looked up as one at the newcomer. Naegi didn’t know how much of him was actually distinguishable in the darkness; however much it was, they didn’t seem to recognize him.

“Eh? You came along?” Hanamura said. “I don’t know why you bothered. There’s not much to see here.”

Their job complete, he and the Monokumas walked past Naegi and Komaeda, leaving the two Lucksters in the jail. Naegi looked down the line of cells again, and at the people who stared back at him.

He jumped when Komaeda breathed into his ear.

“A blind man can’t appreciate the sun. . . Look at them.”  The bone of Komaeda’s chest cradled his back as the older boy moved in close. Komaeda’s arms lightly enclosed him, hands sliding down Naegi’s arms until the thumbs could rub circles into the back of his wrists. “These simple, dull, insignificant people. . . They’re nothing more than parasites feeding on the blood of their betters. The most they can hope for is to have the honour of being trampled as the talented climb over them and reach their proper place.”

Naegi curled his lip. He shoved Komaeda away. “That’s enough.”

Komaeda immediately shut his mouth, but he glowered past Naegi at the prisoners as if it was their fault.

Naegi stepped further into the hall. Komaeda lurked behind him. He could sense it: the usually friendly boy had morphed into something solid and sharp, like jagged glass, although none of that distain was directed at Naegi himself. He had half a mind to tell Komaeda to leave . . . but the thought of being alone gave him chills. So, he permitted Komaeda’s presence. Reluctantly.

“Why are they here?” Naegi asked.

Komaeda shrugged. “In case we need them. Sometimes, Soda-kun needs bodies to test his inventions, or Tsumiki-san gets bored and wants a new patient.”

Naegi didn’t look at him. “You guys are terrible.”

Naegi took another step, stepped into the torchlight. The nearest prisoner, pressed against the bats, stirred. A face Naegi could not see turned towards him. The prisoner reached out a hand, grimy and trembling.

“I know you,” the prisoner said. “You were my mission . . . Naegi. Naegi Makoto from Hope’s Peak.”

All heads turned toward him. Naegi stood stock-still, uncertain.

“They found you first,” the prisoner whispered. “We failed.”

“I . . .”

“Don’t touch him.” With a snap of his wrist, Komaeda swatted the prisoner’s hand away. “Come on, Naegi-kun. There’s no need for you to be in such a hopeless place.”

Naegi tried to argue, tried to resist, but Komaeda was hauling him along with a startling strength. He shut the door to the jail behind him, and his hand twitched afterwards as if trying to flick a lock.

Komaeda brushed off his sleeve. “It always bothers me when I have to deal with people like them. I know I’m no better, but I’ve spoiled myself by being around Ultimates. I suppose I have minimum standards now when it comes to company.”

“Those are people you’re talking about!” Naegi snapped at him.

“Yes.” Komaeda sighed. “They’re your run-of-the-mill, ordinary riffraff that you find in every gutter and under every rock. Nothing special.”

He’d seen hints of it, but this was the first time he’d ever seen this side of Komaeda. This arrogant, unkind, horrible side of him. And there was nothing he could do. Nothing he said seemed to reach the Luckster. Komaeda had set his mind to a frequency that simply filtered out any time Naegi disagreed with his principles. He hated it! He hated this. He hated . . .

His indignation left him in one whoosh. No, he didn’t hate Komaeda.

“I’m going back to my room,” Naegi said. “I’m going to stay there. Alone.”

Komaeda nodded. “You had a long day, didn’t you? I think Soda-kun might be in there, though.”

“That’s fine.”

Naegi didn’t speak to Komaeda when the other boy escorted him to his room, except to say goodbye. He entered his bedroom. Soda wasn’t here yet, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he was. Naegi pressed his ear against the door, listening for Komaeda.

When enough time had passed, he simply opened the door again, walked out and began to roam.

Chapter Text

Without members of Ultimate Despair around, the prison didn’t seem quite so dreary. Accompanied by a single robotic guard, Naegi again approached the prisoner who had spoken to him earlier. He couldn’t make out many details in the darkness. Firelight played over the man’s face, flickering around sagging skin and lingering over hollow eyes. If they were being fed, it wasn’t regularly. The prisoner had not moved from the spot that Naegi had seen him last time; his hand still hung outside the cell.

“Hey,” Naegi said quietly. He swallowed, throat dry.

The prisoner’s head rolled in its socket. “Where . . . you’re alone?”

“Yeah. I don’t think they care what I do unless I try to leave.” He sat down cross-legged just beyond the prisoner’s reach. The robotic bear remained standing, eyes fixed on him. It was creepy, but whenever his palms began to sweat, he remembered that pitiful sight of Monokuma struggling to stand after Soda had knocked it over.

“Even if they don’t care, they’ve still captured you,” the prisoner said. “Why? What are they going to do to you?”

“I wish I knew. What’s your name?”

“Iwata Torio.”

In regular conversation, this would be the time to exchange pleasantries. But it was a flat-out lie to say something like ‘Nice to meet you’ when in these circumstances, it would have been better if they had never met at all. Everything nice or comforting Naegi could think of saying would be equivalent to taunting. The two barely had any common ground. They may both be prisoners, but Naegi was staying in a warm, furnished room getting meals shoved down his throat and Iwata was stuck in a dirty cell.

In the end, he could only think of one thing to say.

“I’m sorry.”

“I knew the risks,” Iwata said. “I only regret that I couldn’t save you.”

Naegi looked away. “You shouldn’t have . . . Why? Why me?”

There was shuffling in the cells around them. Iwata reached his thin hand through the bars, and gripped Naegi’s in turn. His words shook when he spoke, yet a strength Naegi did not understand lined them.

“You’ve been out there. You’ve seen the world. Now, imagine that everywhere. Every city, town, village . . . all like that.” Iwata’s voice grew distant. “For months, that’s all we’ve seen. Devastation as far as the eye can see. A world of darkness and despair, with nothing to look forward to except a meaningless death. Then, the Killing Game started. Ultimate Despair mounted televisions everywhere to make sure everyone watched. It was supposed to be their coup de grâce, the final stroke that would eliminate any chance of the world’s recovery.

“But you were there. You refused to give into despair. And when despair failed to consume you, there was hope again.  Your gift to the world . . . you’ve given us a chance for a future. That is why I risked myself to save you. I would do it again without hesitation.”

“Everyone keeps saying I’m special, but I’m not. I’m just an ordinary person,” Naegi said. Frustration edged him onwards, but he didn’t really get what was upsetting him.

“You’re the Ultimate Hope, Naegi-kun.” For the first time, there was some light in Iwata’s eyes.

Should he be flattered? Maybe, but he wasn’t. Because this was the problem. Somehow, two words, two words spoken in the heat of an emotional moment (he thought it was, at least), now defined him. He was no longer Naegi Makoto, but the Ultimate Hope and . . . and he wasn’t. Nothing about him had changed. He was still the same person. Yet, suddenly people were insisting on kidnapping him, and risking their lives for him and . . . it just wasn’t right.

“The Future Foundation,” Iwata said abruptly. “That’s the name of the organization that sent me. If you get out, look for them. They’ll protect you.”

“Thanks,” Naegi said. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Iwata shook his head. His hand withdrew back into the cell; cool air kissed the place it had been.

“Survive,” Iwata told him. “Just . . . survive.”

That answer bothered him. He leaned back and looked around. But apart from the other prisoners, the only thing here was the robot, watching him silently. It looked harmless . . . but he already knew they were spying on him for Kamukura. He couldn’t put it past the rest of Despair to not do the same. Would they care if he was down here consorting with prisoners? He didn’t know. And if they did, it probably wouldn’t be him that paid the price.

“When did they get you?” Naegi asked. It was a cruel question. Naegi himself didn’t like to think about how long his captivity had lasted. Yet he couldn’t stop himself. If Iwata had been captured after his kidnapping, then he might know about his friends.

“Two weeks after your victory,” Iwata said.

Oh. So he didn’t know. Naegi nodded at him, and then stood. He lingered there, not knowing what to say.

“I’ll get you out of here,” he finally said. “I’m not sure how, but I’ll figure out something.”

“No. Just get yourself out,” Iwata said.

That wasn’t going to happen. He wouldn’t be much of an Ultimate Hope if he ignored their plight. But, he decided not to say that aloud.

“Come on,” he said to the robot as he left the jail, “there’s another reason I came out here.”

A couple of short trips later, Naegi had a pencil and papers in one hand, and a Monokuma helmet tucked under the other. After the last incident, Komaeda had been spooked enough to order the Monokumas to immediately remove the helmet if they spotted Naegi wearing it. Well, that’s exactly what he was banking on.

Once he located a deserted hallway, Naegi set the papers and pencil down at his feet, and glanced at the robot following him. It stared at him, mouth fixed into that sinister smile.

“Here goes,” he murmured.

He put the helmet on.

This time, he expected the shock and although he wanted it, his mind still tried to resist. It only made the current running through him stronger, sharper as it pierced his defences and burrowed through –

Forbidden use of helmet!

And the electricity was gone. The Monokuma had to stand on its tippy-toes to reach, but it still tore the helmet off. Naegi grimaced. That . . . had been uncomfortable. Eyes closed, he went back through all the information. . .

Ah. He hadn’t worn it long enough.

He turned to the Monokuma. “Stay here.”

He walked down the hall. So long as the bear could see him and thus, follow the order to supervise him, it should obey his command. When he was as far away as he could possibly get, he put the helmet on again.

That was better. This time, when the helmet was removed, Naegi’s mind still flashed with the knowledge he had been granted. A two-dimensional map etched in lines of silver shone behind his eyes. His own location on it pulsed like a dot on radar. Before the image slipped away, he grabbed the paper and traced as much as he could. When he was done, he slapped it against the wall, leaned back and admired his work.

“That’s it for this section,” he said aloud. The map that had been burned into his mind had been centered around his current location, so that’s what he had drawn.

He nodded at the Monokuma. “Let’s move on.”

The robot may not have been programmed to respond properly, but it made him happier to pretend he had somebody to talk to. As nobody had come out to stop him, he was pretty sure nobody other than Kamukura was using them to watch him. And Kamukura probably didn’t care what he was doing. He walked to a bend in the hall –

The Monokuma jumped in front of him. “Forbidden area!

“A red zone, huh?” Naegi said as the Monokuma waved its paws wildly. He marked it down on his map. According to Kuzuryu, red zones were areas that would be infiltrated first – in other words, areas that must have ways out. That was definitely something he needed to remember.

He walked inward. The Monokuma waddled behind him, stopping when he did, wobbling on its feet when he did so quickly. At one point, it started to dance and Naegi could find absolutely no reason for it.

Yep. Enoshima definitely designed him.

All in all, it went smoother than he expected. Especially considering his luck. He let the Monokuma carry the helmet; the sight of it hauling along what appeared to be its own kin’s decapitated head was a little humorous. Section by section, his map expanded. By the fourth go, he was feeling awfully good about himself.

So naturally, that’s when his bad luck had to rear its ugly head.

. . . Or maybe not. There were much, much worse fates than getting that helmet removed only to see Kamukura at the end of the hall.

“Uh, hi,” Naegi said, hands still in the position they had been when putting the helmet on. “How long were you watching?”

“Since the last time,” Kamukura said.

Oh. Naegi hadn’t noticed Kamukura stalking him. It wasn’t that surprising or embarrassing if he thought about it. Kamukura probably had some Ultimate Spy or Ultimate Hunter or Ultimate Creepy Stalker mixed in there.

“Why are you putting it on again?” Kamukura asked. “You saw the map.”

“I did, but it’s not like I would be able to remember it well enough.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Well, no.” Naegi gave Kamukura a long look. “Most people can’t.”

Kamukura seemed puzzled by that. It was probably difficult for a genius like him to understand the limited capacities of regular people. The longhaired boy didn’t seem like he wanted to say anything else, so Naegi turned back to his map and thought about the next part he wanted to sketch out  . . .

Only for Kamukura to deftly snatch it from his fingers. Naegi didn’t even bother to wonder how Kamukura had cleared the distance so quickly.

Kamukura held his hand out. “Give me the pencil.”

Naegi did. Kamukura put the paper against the wall, and went to work in a flurry of lines and curves. He moved so quickly it was impossible to keep track of his hand. The image seemed to form at once, like a picture slowly fading into view.

He tipped his hand towards Naegi. He took the paper and pencil back.

“My map,” he murmured, “you finished it. I . . . why?”

“Repetition is very dull. It’s the same result you would have gotten,” Kamukura droned. Now that Naegi looked at it closely, he noticed that Kamukura had actually mimicked his own lackluster art skills.

“Thank you.”

Kamukura gave him a cold, emotionless look. Naegi wasn’t bothered at all. That expression seemed to be Kamukura’s default look, just like Kirigiri’s stoic mask or Togami’s sneer. It didn’t actually mean Kamukura was upset with him.

Kamukura’s head tilted slightly to the side. “For ordinary people, how many times would they need to look at that map to memorize it?”

Naegi shrugged, scanning it himself. “I don’t think they ever would, honestly.”

Kamukura mulled over that. Then he walked off abruptly, leaving Naegi in the middle of a question.

Naegi still hadn’t quite closed his mouth when the Ultimate Yakuza and his bodyguard came upon him. Thankfully, he had possessed the sense to stuff the map into his hoodie’s hood when he first heard the approaching footsteps. Kuzuryu gave a little start upon seeing him loitering in the hallway. Soon enough though, the Yakuza’s lips curled into a smirk, a dire contrast to the faint scowl that had appeared on Pekoyama’s.

“Hey, Naegi.” Kuzuryu strutted over. He moved in a way that was reminiscent of someone six feet tall. “You busy?”

“No,” Naegi said uncertainly.

Kuzuryu’s smirk grew. “You can come with us, then.”

“Uh, I . . .”

He backed away. Right into Pekoyama who had silently moved behind him. She hooked him under the upper arm, and pulled him along behind her master. Naegi’s weight didn’t even slow down her stride.

He wasn’t one hundred percent sure, but it looked like they had dragged him into Kuzuryu’s room. While it had the same general Hope’s Peak-like design of the other two rooms he had seen, the colour of this room was black and white modern-style. The comforter on the bed was much plusher than the other two he had seen – it almost looked like you could suffocate under it. Instead of a desk, this room had a glass table in the center. On one side of the table sat a towering, black armchair. The other side held a lower, similarly coloured couch. Kuzuryu slipped off his suit-jacket and seated himself in the armchair, crossing one leg over the other. Pekoyama pushed Naegi down into the couch, and then moved to stand by Kuzuryu’s side.

“Uh, aren’t you going to sit?” Naegi asked her.

Kuzuryu cackled. “Like an equal? Good one, Naegi! Peko, what’s your answer?”

“I have not earned the right to sit,” she said robotically. Her dull expression never even twitched.

“Good girl.”

Naegi clenched his fists. “Why are you treating her like that?”

“Because that’s how she deserves to be treated,” Kuzuryu hissed. “She’s just a tool to be used as I see fit. She’s lucky I even gave her a name!”

A sinister gleam swirled in the Yakuza’s eyes. He’d seen that before, hadn’t he? Yes, in Soda after he had watched Naegi destroy his robot; in Tsumiki when she had vowed to the digital Enoshima that she would take care of him. Even in Enoshima herself when she had prepared to press the button that would bring about her demise. Yes . . . this was despair.

“You thirsty?” Kuzuryu snapped his fingers and a previously unseen Monokuma (wearing a tuxedo) walked out from the corner and saluted.

“. . . No thanks.”

Kuzuryu ordered the robot to get him a tea, and then turned his attention back to Naegi. Atop his raised knee, his fingers weaved together. He leaned forward slightly, adopting a predatory stance. He . . . he looked very much like the head of the Yakuza in that moment.

“Look, I know we got off to a bad start,” Kuzuryu said. “But you can’t blame me. How was I supposed to know you had some fucked-up family relation with her?” (Naegi bit his tongue; the last thing he wanted to do was remove Kuzuryu’s reason for not hurting him) “It’s not going to happen again, okay? Yakuza’s honour.”

“Does a Yakuza’s honour really mean that much?” It slipped out before he could stop it.

Kuzuryu glared at him. Steam seemed to rise from his face –

And he burst out laughing.

“Okay, you got me!” Kuzuryu chuckled one more time, and wiped away nonexistent tears. “It used to. Not anymore. I’ll rephrase that: from one Despair to another, it won’t be happening again.”

“I’m not part of Despair.” Again, it was stupid to say it, but it was also something Naegi couldn’t let go uncorrected.

Kuzuryu’s jaw tightened.

“I thought we could finally have our first friendly conversation,” Kuzuryu said. He had one hand cradling his chin now. His other hand lay on the armrest, fingers drumming on the leather. “The Detective rub off on you or something?”

“Huh?”

“Kirigiri. She hated me before she met me.”

“No,” Naegi said. “It’s just that I’m not one of you –”

“Okay, enough. Stop that shit. We’re starting over right now. I’m Kuzuryu Fuyuhiko, Ultimate Yakuza.” He extended a hand. Naegi stared at it before accepting the handshake.

“I’m Naegi Makoto, Ultimate . . .” He hesitated. “ . . . Hope?”

When he got his hand back, he tried to offer a handshake to Pekoyama. Both Fuyuhiko and she looked at him oddly.

“That’s Pekoyama,” Fuyuhiko said, “but you can call her whatever the hell you want.”

Naegi opened his mouth to say hi, but shut it again when Pekoyama looked at him sharply.

“I exist to serve the Young Master,” Pekoyama said. “Only him.”

“You’ll serve Naegi if I tell you to,” Kuzuryu said.

Pekoyama bowed her head. “Of course, Master.”

With his subordinate sufficiently cowed, Kuzuryu returned his attention to Naegi. “So, why don’t you tell me about yourself? I didn’t pay much attention to you back in school.”

“Uh, there’s not much to tell. I’m pretty average in most things, except I’m really optimistic. That’s why everyone’s calling me the Ultimate Hope. There really isn’t anything that special about me,” he finished lamely.

Kuzuryu studied him for a full ten seconds.

“Well, what did you do for fun?” Kuzuryu asked. “I can get you anything you want, you know.”

“I, uh, I mostly hung out with my friends. I played video games, too. I can’t remember my life in Hope’s Peak, but it was probably mostly the same.”

“Lay off the goody-two shoes act, okay?” Kuzuryu demanded. “I’m the Ultimate Yakuza. There’s nothing you could have done that I’ve never seen before. So tell me all about those wild parties and petty crimes.”

“There’s nothing to tell, though. I wasn’t a criminal. I don’t think I was. And I didn’t go to those kind of parties in middle school. Maybe in high school, but I wouldn’t remember.”

Kuzuryu was quiet, waiting for an answer Naegi didn’t have.

“Fuck, that’s boring,” he said after. “Most Ultimates have something to share by then. No wonder Enoshima-san chose you. She must have thought it would be a challenge to make something out of nothing. Or maybe she just chose you because you were a blank slate.”

Naegi stared at the ground and didn’t say anything.

Kuzuryu cocked his head. “Giving me the silent treatment? Is it your naptime or something? Whatever. Guess we’re done for now. Come to me if you need something though. I can get anything without making you jump through those crazy hoops Komaeda sets out. Peko, take him back to his room.”

“Yes, Young Master.”

Chapter Text

“You don’t have to do this, you know. I can find my way back myself. Probably. And I wouldn’t mind looking around a little more . . .”

“The Young Master told me to escort you back to your room.” Pekoyama stared down her nose at him. “We are going there.”

 . . . Well that didn’t work. Naegi chewed on his lower lip. Pekoyama snapped her gaze forward. Her gait was strong and brisk, and Naegi was on the cusp of jogging to keep up.

“I know you don’t like me very much,” Naegi said. “I . . . I’m sorry? Was it something I said earlier? I know Kuzuryu-kun got mad when I told him I wasn’t part of Ultimate Despair, but it’s true. I’m not like you –”

“Don’t.”

Naegi frowned. “Huh? I –”

“I said don’t!”

Pekoyama swiftly stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Her arm swung up, fingers closing around the grip of the sword sheathed on her back. Her red eyes blazed with anger; a hint of teeth flashed as she snarled.

“Do not compare me to them,” she hissed.

There was only one reason she could resent the comparison. And it was unbelievable. She was here, wasn’t she? She was helping them. How could she not . . . ?

He had to confirm it. “Pekoyama-san, are you saying that you’re not part of Ultimate Despair?”

“I am an extension of the Young Master’s will.” Some of the heat had left her voice. Naegi didn’t know if it was because his question had soothed her, or she realized on her own she was going too far. “Through him, perhaps, I am an agent of Despair. But I will never belong to it.”

“That’s . . .” That’s unbelievable, was on the tip of his tongue, but he kept quiet as he did not know how she would take that. “You mean you’ve been here all this time and you’ve still managed to resist despair?”

“I have no choice.” Slowly, Pekoyama’s arm returned to her side. “My Young Master lives only for despair now. That is why he must betray his conscience, enslave his allies, hurt those closest to him . . .” She hesitated for a moment, and then turned her back to him quickly. “Every cruel word he says is a plead to feed his craving, and my pain . . . that is what brings him despair. If I were to give into despair now, I would begin to enjoy his cruelty. I would deprive him of that despair. And that . . .” Her braids swung through the air as she stepped forward and turned on her heels. “That is why I continue to endure. For the sake of my Young Master, I cannot despair!”

That kind of loyalty, it was something Naegi could not understand. If Kirigiri or Asahina or any of his friends had succumbed and joined Ultimate Despair, he couldn’t have remained loyal to them. He would have tried to help them, yes, to cure them, but he could never assist them.

“Pekoyama-san, I can see that you’re very loyal to Kuzuryu-kun, but is that even who he really is anymore? I mean I don’t think he was always like this . . .”

Naegi stopped. Pekoyama’s very sharp, very dangerous sword hovered an inch from his jugular.

“I am still here,” she said fiercely. “I am still alive. He calls me Peko. My Master still lives somewhere within him. So long as a trace of him remains, my duty is to him. If this is the path he has taken, then I will follow.”

“Is that what he would have wanted?” Naegi asked. “Not this Kuzuryu-kun, but the one you first knew and trusted. Do you think that Kuzuryu-kun would have wanted you to go this far?”

“What he wanted doesn’t matter,” Pekoyama said. “What he wants is all I care about.”

“But to be able to support him no matter what he does, to back him in schemes no matter how cruel, even when you know he never would have wanted that  . . . isn’t that in itself a betrayal?”

Pekoyama was silent. The tip of her sword quivered.

It was pure, primal instinct that warned him. He actually tripped when he tried to move . . . treating him to a close-up look of Pekoyama’s sword as it passed over his face. Spider-web cracks branched out from the blade where it embedded itself in the wall.

“How dare you.” A shadow had settled over the swordwoman’s face. Her bangs covered them, yet the red of her eyes seemed to shine through.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to insult you-!”

“You are just like her,” Pekoyama said as Naegi scrambled into a sitting position. “Preying on doubt and insecurity, manipulating and controlling with words. I’ve seen what you’ve done to Komaeda Nagito. He’s become . . . aggressive. You’ve turned him into a guard dog.”

“I didn’t do anything!” Naegi shouted back from the ground. “He’s the one who chose to do all that. I just want him to let me go!”

Her hands grabbed his lapels, knuckles turning white from pressure. She lifted him up, and held him against the wall. The glint in her red eyes swelled and swallowed the world, painting it in shades of scarlet.

She asked, “Why should I listen to the words of Ultimate Despair?”

In that following instant, he forgot. He forgot about her title and the impaled sword less than a foot from his brain. He grabbed her wrist and squeezed, although she didn’t seem to feel it.

“I am not one of them!” he bit out. “There’s no way I would ever give in!”

She met his eyes coldly. “So you say.”

He had to remind himself to breathe and did so aggressively, heating up the air between them. Pekoyama did not falter. She was still holding him up by his shirt, and his collar dug into his neck. His fists were clenched and shaking, whether from fear or insult, he couldn’t tell. Electricity danced along his skin, jumping from muscle to muscle. He opened his mouth, not sure of what would come out –

Despair in danger!

In one swift movement, Pekoyama released him, spun around, and sliced the lunging Monokuma robot in two. Unprepared, Naegi hit the floor hard. Pekoyama half-turned to him. Her sleek sword glimmered with oil.

“She was supposed to be gone,” Pekoyama said. “It pained my Master greatly, but I was so glad she was dead. But now you are here. She survives through you. Her influence is as resilient as a cockroach.”

“Is this about that weird stuff Komaeda-kun said?” he asked. “He’s wrong. I’m not like her. I’m not Enoshima or her kid or anything.”

“Whether you truly are or are not connected to Enoshima Junko is irrelevant,” Pekoyama said. “What matters is that they believe you are. You are the Ultimate Hope . . . and now, you have become Ultimate Despair’s hope. They are energized by your presence. All the damage wrought by Enoshima’s death has been reversed.”

“That . . . that can’t be true!” It was a good thing he was already sitting, because his legs would have given under him otherwise. He was helping despair? No. No, he couldn’t be! There was no evidence for that. It was wrong!

Her grip shifted on her sword. Her glare alone was sharp enough to draw blood.

“Get up.”

When Naegi hesitated, she forced him to his feet. She grabbed him up the upper arm again, and hauled him along. He didn’t fight her as Pekoyama marched him down the hall. At one point, she glanced sideways and visibly startled.

Naegi looked.

Oh. How long had Kamukura been watching?

Pekoyama picked up her pace. She twitched as though she was stopping herself from checking behind her. Naegi, however, was unbound by similar restrictions and did so freely. Kamukura steadily followed them; he didn’t even seem to blink. He had a very particular walk. His steps made no noise, and neither his arms nor his shoulders moved.

“Here.” Pekoyama shoved him towards the bedroom door – which now indeed did have his nameplate on it. “My job is done.”

She walked away, giving Kamukura a wide berth as she strode past him. Kamukura didn’t even look at her.

“Naegi Makoto. My understanding is that you are fairly skilled at reading others.”

“I guess?” Naegi half-shrugged. “I mean I get along with most people so I guess I’m sort of good at it.”

There was a long pause. It seemed to be a normal thing when dealing with Kamukura.

“I knew you would entice that response from her, yet . . . why?” Kamukura asked. He blinked. The physical movement seemed more forced than natural. “Were you aware she was under orders not to harm you?”

“She was? It didn’t really seem like it.”

“. . . You must lack an instinct for self-preservation.”

“Hey! That’s not -!”

“I have never seen a creature so determined to stack the odds against itself,” Kamukura continued. “Is your bad luck an extension of that?”

“I’m not trying to sabotage myself! It’s just who I am,” he mumbled, cheeks heating up.

Another typical silence.

“I see.”

What . . . what did that mean? Kamukura hadn’t moved, but his body language suddenly seemed a lot more threatening. Keeping the wall to his back and his eyes on Kamukura, Naegi fumbled for the doorknob. Once he found it, he ripped the door open and leapt inside.

He had about three seconds of relief before Kamukura simply opened the door and followed him in.

Damn it.

“I was hoping for some alone time,” Naegi  complained.

Kamukura stared at him. At least he would be quiet. But who was that speaking in the background?

Naegi turned slowly, still wary of exposing his back to Kamukura. There, mounted on the wall opposite from his bed, was the television Soda had promised him. It was a good size, and the picture was sharply defined, it was just . . . just . . .

What was it showing?

It was a gathering of some sort. Most of the people within the crowd wore Monokuma masks. They stood in a wide circle around a raised wooden platform, leaving a path between the platform’s stairs and off-screen. A sudden cheer started up, and a few seconds passed before a smiling, waving girl walked into sight of the cameras. Sonia Nevermind, Ultimate Princess extraordinaire, blew a kiss toward her adoring crowd before walking up the steps to the platform, passing between two torches on the way. She was followed by a platoon of royal guards and a red-haired girl holding a camera.

“Is that what everyone is watching right now?” Naegi asked. Kamukura didn’t answer. He probably thought the question was dumb.

The Princess was speaking some language he didn’t understand. She beckoned to something off-screen and then, down the same path she had tread, came a line of shackled prisoners. Each one was attended to by a guard on each side. Naegi couldn’t make out their faces from this distance, nor did he know why they were here. The first man in line was singled out and dragged onto the platform. Sonia turned to her audience, speaking loudly, boldly, and behind her, one of the guards took a long piece of metal and held it in the hot flames . . .

“Kamukura-kun, how do I turn this off?”

Kamukura didn’t answer.

“Kamukura-kun-!”

His spine shuddered as the wails from the television started up. His back was to the screen, but he could hear enough in those screams to picture the scene. He ran to the shelves, looking for anything resembling a TV remote.

Kamukura sighed. “This is so predictable.”

He took one of his novels, and used that to shield his eyes. He hated getting closer to the source of the screaming, as if he were actually walking into the real-life set itself, but he had to. He groped at the edges of the television, searching for a panel or a way to reach a power chord, but the television had been bolted directly into the wall. There was no way to get behind to where the power was, and the television itself had no buttons. Naegi paused to think, breathing hard, and the screams he was hearing suddenly cut off.

The silence was worse.

He didn’t dare look. Without the possibility of turning the set off himself, he hammered on the right wall, calling out Komaeda’s name. Hardly a second passed before the white-haired boy poked his head in.

“Naegi-kun!” he purred. “You remembered me!”

Naegi pointed at the television. “How do you turn this off?”

Komaeda looked confused for a second. “Ah, don’t worry about that. It’s already set to turn off automatically at ten every night.”

“Okay, but I want it off now. Or I want to change the channel or something. Isn’t there a way for me to do that?”

Komaeda hummed to himself softly. He sauntered into the room calmly, hands in his pocket. “I’m glad you called me. I was just about to go looking for you anyways. Talk about lucky!”

“. . . The channel?”

“Yes, we’ll need to change that,” Komaeda said. “This isn’t the right channel. It’s not the one we want.”

Naegi went quiet. Something wasn’t right. Komaeda was agreeing but his face had glazed over the same way it did whenever he chose not to really listen. He strolled past Naegi to the edge of the bed and sat down. He look he gave Naegi afterwards was friendly, but there was a layer of authority behind it that demanded to be obeyed. Feeling like a mouse approaching a cat, Naegi walked over and sat down next to him. Komaeda pulled out what was undeniably a remote, and switched channels. He flipped through them so fast Naegi couldn’t catch a glimpse of what the shows were about before the channels settled.

There was a table. Nearby, was what appeared to be a stocked medical cart from the medical center. Tsumiki was there, inspecting the cart’s items.

“I know that room,” Naegi muttered. His stomach was heavy.

Komaeda patted his hand. “Just think hopefully, Naegi-kun.”

For a while, it was just that: Tsumiki hovering around the cart. The room’s single light cast long, grotesque shadows that writhed every time the nurse moved.

Then, another entered. Two others, to be exact. It was deja-vu; perhaps it wasn’t Nidai there, but Naegi could certainly see himself in the struggling man Owari hauled in. He couldn’t believe how strong she was, especially when she was skinny enough to imagine snapping in two. That said, she had trouble pulling the man onto the table. Naegi wouldn’t have thought Tsumiki would make much of a difference, but apparently she did because the two of them were successfully able to lift and strap him down.

Naegi tried to look at Komaeda for reassurance, but the Luckster grabbed his chin and pointed it back at the screen, whispering, “It’s about to start.”

Both Tsumiki and Owari moved away from the table, leaving a clear shot of the man. Though it was by no means a close-up, the terror there was easily read. The man’s skin was ashen, and Naegi felt his own paling in response. He could almost feel himself there struggling alongside the man, hot and icy-cold terror nipping at his heels, and lapping up the back of his throat . . .

He actually yelped when the picture changed. Whomever was directing the show must have switched the broadcasting camera because one second it had been an overhead shot of the room, and the next it was a ground shot with Tsumiki smiling and waving into the lens (Owari panted for breath in the background). Tsumiki leaned in close, giggling.

“Hello, everyone!” sang Tsumiki in her high-pitched voice. “Welcome back.”

How could she sound so carefree when that man was gasping and whimpering in the background? If Komaeda hadn’t stepped in when he had, would she have been that way when it had been him on the table? The world blurred the more he thought about it and once again, he was there on that table, ankles and wrists held as nails sliced into his lips . . .

“I know our show doesn’t usually run this day. I hope nobody had to choose between watching me and anyone else . . .”

“Yeah, they did,” Owari said, yawning widely. “Sonia’s executing some traitors today.”

“Eek!” Tsumiki’s hair flew up with her screech. “Ah, Your Majesty, I’m so sorry! Please don’t be mad.”

But then her tone dropped. Shadows played on her face, giving it a grey, fae-like appearance .

“But I had to do it.”  There was no more timid-ness there. Just something Naegi couldn’t describe. Something . . . sinister. “We’re celebrating a very special occasion after all.”

And she was bright and happy again. “We have a new addition to the family!”

“ . . . She’s talking about me, isn’t she?” Naegi said.

Komaeda said, “I promised her I’d make sure you saw her show.”

As if she could hear them, Tsumiki waved. “Hi, Makoto! Make sure you watch closely. I’m going to teach you all about my work. Ah, let’s see . . . We were supposed to start off with a demonstration this time, right? Owari-san, do we have any requests from the viewers?”

“Hold on, I’m still looking.” Tongue sticking out between her teeth, Owari exaggeratedly shifted through some letters. “Oh hey, here’s a good one. Apparently, you never tried out that green stuff you made two weeks ago.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Tsumiki giggled some more behind her hand. “I promised, didn’t I? I guess it’s syringe number five, then.”

She picked up a huge needle filled with some kind of glowing, green liquid. Or maybe it was more accurate to say goo; when she swished it from side to side, the liquid was notably viscous.

“It’s a big one,” Tsumiki said, looking like she was about to laugh at some inside joke. “So long and hard . . .”

Next thing Naegi knew, Komaeda had clamped his hands over his ears. Komaeda still wouldn’t let Naegi look away, but at least he no longer had to hear the man’s distressed noises.

Tsumiki turned her back to the camera and faced the table, and Komaeda removed his hands. Naegi looked at him questioningly.

Arms crossed, glaring at the wall, Komaeda said, “You’re too young.”

Somewhere in the background, Kamukura sighed.

When Komaeda forced his chin back towards the screen, it was to see a Monokuma wearing a white lab-coat and stethoscope. The bear stood in front of a giant spinning wheel, like one you would see in a game show. Each of the wheel’s slices had a different body part on it, and the Monokuma laughed similarly to Tsumiki when the wheel landed on ‘underneath fingernail’.

“Okay!” A bit of liquid fell from the needle’s tip as she held it high. “Here we go!”

Oh god. He understood – oh god. He desperately tried to yank his eyes away, but Komaeda had other plans. He moved his legs so that they boxed Naegi in on either side, and grabbed his chin with both hands to hold it in place.

“You’re going to hurt her feelings,” Komaeda said, as if that actually was the issue here. “She’s so excited to do this for you.”

Why . . . ? Why was Komaeda making him do this? He closed his eyes; at least he had that much. But there was nothing to protect his ears. He tried to retreat into him, to shut down, but that wasn’t how his mind worked. It heard every cry, grasped at every wheeze and gargle, played them on repeat until they blended. He could feel the despair seeping from the screen.

He heard Owari’s voice. “I don’t think he’s going to last much longer.”

The muscles holding his eyes shut started to ache. He tensed his hands and arms just for a distraction.

“Yep. Okay. He’s done.”

It brought him relief, but only a little. He half-turned into Komaeda, hoping it was over.

“Oh, that was a good one!” Tsumiki cried. “This might be the poison she’s looking for. I hope you saw that, Makoto!”

He whimpered.

Behind him, Komaeda shifted. “Hmm, maybe that’s enough for now. We don’t want to overdo the despair. We’ll just tell Tsumiki-san you watched the whole thing.”

With the press of a button, the screen flicked off.

“I don’t understand,” Naegi said. “Why would she do something so terrible? How can she enjoy it? What’s the point?”

“For despair,” Komaeda said, and it sounded like he rolled his eyes.

You’re not much better, he wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut.

“She did it for me,” Naegi mumbled. “Does she actually think that’s what I want?”

Komaeda didn’t say anything, so Naegi kept going. “Do you . . . do you think she would listen to me if I told her to stop? I think I could make her stop h-hurting people for me, at least.”

Komaeda squeezed his shoulder in encouragement. “That’s it, Naegi-kun. Let your hope shine!”

. . . That jerk. He almost said something –

“Well, that was boring,” Kamukura said.

. . . Sometimes, Naegi didn’t know if he hated being locked up here or in Hope’s Peak more.

Chapter Text

He woke up to red eyes and long black hair. Fear clogged his throat and smothered his scream. It was probably a good thing, since Tsumiki struck him as one of the least stable members of Ultimate Despair.

“Good morning!” the Nurse chimed. “How’s my little Makoto-kun?”

Tsumiki was straddling him, a hand on either side of his head, knnes at his hips. Her hair tickled his nose and grazed his lips. Was this what he had to look forward to every morning? He looked to the side, trying to calm his racing heart. Tsumiki merely saw that as an invitation to lean in closer, closer . . .

“Are you still sleeping?”

“I’m awake,” Naegi said. “Good morning . . . Mikan.”

Tsumiki leaned back and he was free . . . oh. Never mind. She was touching him, brushing his hair aside and running her fingers over the stiches on his temple. He shivered. He wondered how long she had been there, waiting for him to wake up. And Komaeda . . . where was he? His eyes darted about – ah, there he was. On the ground. Rubbing his head and looking dazed. He suspected that Tsumiki had shoved him off the bed.

“The bruises will look worse before they get better, so don’t be scared when you look in the mirror today!”

Yeah, he knew that. He knew all about bruises. He was the Ultimate Unlucky Student, after all.

And Tsumiki finally got off him. She moved back, settling on her knees in an upright position on the bed’s edge. Her touchy-feely hands were still in her lap.

“Did you see my show?”

She asked. She actually asked. Naegi nodded, mind frantically working as he tried to remember as much as he could without actually remembering anything.

Tsumiki clapped her hands together. A pleased sound squeezed its way out from between her lips. “Oh, which was your favourite part?”

His . . . favourite? He had hated every minute of it! But that wouldn’t go over well. Best-case scenario, she’d burst out crying. Worst-case, she’d have a repeat performance and try to make it better. Or she’d get angry. He tried to pick something, but his mind simply refused to bring up any of those images or replay any of those terrible sounds . . .

“The wheel!” he blurted out. “That wheel. It was . . . interesting.”

“I like the wheel, too!” Tsumiki said. “It was Mioda-san’s idea. She’s very good at entertaining an audience. How about I put on another special show just for you? You can be the one to spin the wheel!”

Thankfully, before Naegi panicked and said something stupid, Komaeda raised his hand and spoke from the floor. “Uh, Tsumiki-san, I know my opinion isn’t worth very much, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You know what his luck’s like. He’d probably end up injecting himself with something.”

“That’s true,” Tsumiki said, sounding the exact opposite of what Naegi felt. “Most of those poisons don’t have antidotes. But he could be part of the live audience!”

But Komaeda shot that down, too. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. He’ll still be a little too close to the syringes.”

Tsumiki crossed her arms and stuck out her bottom lip. She looked like a pouting child. Naegi’s courage fluttered uneasily; when Despairs were upset, bad things tended to happen.

“It’s okay, Mikan-san,” he said. “I can watch it from here. I mean, it’s meant to be seen on TV anyways, so I wouldn’t miss much.”

That perked her up. She laughed and pinched his cheek, face hovering close to his as if ready to kiss him. “Oh, you’re so smart, Makoto-kun! Just like my beloved . . . I can put on another special show tonight.”

Somehow, he managed to force out a laugh. Or maybe it was just a nervous giggle. “Won’t that interfere with the scheduling? I mean you interrupted the Ultimate Princess last night, didn’t you?”

“Such a thoughtful boy,” Tsumiki muttered, voice taking on that darker shade he was introduced to last night. “I suppose I should stick to my time. I don’t want everybody getting mad at me.”

Her hand fell away. He remembered to breathe again.

“Let’s go get breakfast!” Tsumiki said. “You must be hungry.”

Not really. How can you be, after what you’ve done? Doesn’t it make you the least bit sick to think about it?

 . . . Apparently not. He hated her a little more for it.


Early into breakfast, having eaten very little, he slipped away with the excuse of using the washroom. All a lie, of course. He had no intention of returning there. He needed space. He needed to get away and think. He needed . . . he needed to do something.

But what could he do? It didn’t matter that he was allowed to walk around; the Monokuma at his heels provided a silent reminder that he was still a captive. These people were so alien to him, so incomprehensible . . . and although they now all claimed to be looking out for him, they didn’t actually care. They respected him only as an extension of Enoshima. They didn’t care what he wanted. They didn’t care what he thought. Even Komaeda, the Remnant who doted and obsessed over him, only cared about what he represented. He didn’t care about Naegi Makoto.

Was it any wonder then that while he was thinking those thoughts, Naegi would wind up in the one place he had found some sanity? Even if it was a grimy, gut-wrenching kind? He didn’t think so. He found the quiet, dark hall of the jail a cool balm on his heated emotions.

(He refused to look at the empty cell.)

“. . . You’re back?” Iwata croaked as he sat down in front of the cell. The prisoner was on the other side, hunched over and seated in the corner.

“Yeah,” Naegi whispered. He felt guilty for not bringing any food. Some help he was.

A few of the other prisoners murmured to each other, probably about him. He didn’t mind. Other than that, it was quiet. That, coupled with the fact that none of these people were the Ultimate Despair brand of crazy, brought him the most peace he had in days

. . . Wow, how horrible was that? He was sitting with a bunch of gaunt, shaking prisoners, and he found it peaceful?

He couldn’t hold it back anymore. And when he started talking, he couldn’t stop. “They took one of you yesterday, right? I saw it. It was the Nurse. She wanted to show me what she did to people. She thought I’d like it. She thought-

“Stop thinking about it,” Iwata ordered, a note of old power returning to him. “You need to think about how you’re going to get out of here.”

But Naegi couldn’t let it go. “She did it for me. She killed him for me.”

Someone laughed. It was a wheezy, choked laughter that somehow reminded him of weathered rocks. Behind him and two cells down, another prisoner dragged herself to the front of her cells. Boney fingers, like claws, wrapped around a bar.

“Did you ever consider that fate may be a blessing?” she asked.

Was she . . .? No, she couldn’t really be saying that.

A magnet’s pull directed him towards the other prisoner. His legs seemed to move by themselves. He seated himself again, cross-legged, and looked into the prisoner’s eyes. He could see the misery – the despair – lurking there.

“You shouldn’t think like that,” Naegi said.

“Why not?” The prisoner’s pupils widened. They seemed to entrap him like a spotlight. “Is somebody going to save us? No. Of course they won’t. Nobody ever gets saved. We’re all slated to die.”

“. . . I won’t lie to you,” Naegi said. “That’s probably true, but you shouldn’t have to dwell on how hopeless it is.”

“No?” the prisoner laughed again: a terrible, terrible sound.

Naegi tilted his head a little to the side, watching her. “What’s your name?”

“Kido.”

. . . No full name? Well, he wasn’t that surprised. They’d just met under very miserable circumstances. “Kido-san,” he said, testing the name out. “You must have had people you cared about.”

For a moment, she looked stricken. “Why does that matter?” she said bitterly. “They’re all gone now.”

“I don’t blame you for thinking that way,” Naegi said carefully. “But it doesn’t have to be like that either.” Her face came to life for a moment. Before she could start yelling, he started talking again. “You still remember them, right? You remember them and all the good they brought. If that’s true, then they’re not gone yet. You carry them with you in your heart and soul.”

“They’re dead!” Kido shrieked. “Dead, dead, dead! They killed them. I saw it!”

Naegi nodded, swallowing back just enough emotion to keep going. “I know. I’m not saying you should ignore that. I’m saying you should honour them.”

Naegi said, “Maybe it’s easier to give into despair, but you don’t have to let it take over. They may have taken your loved ones and your freedom, but they can’t take away the past. You still have all those good memories. So . . . so fight them with that! Don’t let despair win. All those good memories, let them be your shield. Take those bits and pieces of the ones you love and surround yourself with them! Why should you let Ultimate Despair have the satisfaction of winning? And if you do . . . die, then do it with the warmth and love of your family and friends in your heart, not the emptiness of despair.”

He reached out, and grabbed Kido’s hand.

“Despair won’t be forever,” he said. “Hope always wins in the end. Maybe you won’t be around to see it, but it will happen. And every time somebody refuses to give in, every time somebody refuses to choose despair, that day draws closer. So, keep fighting. Even if you can’t do it for yourself, do it for them. Avenge them.”

His thumb ran over still knuckles. The prisoner stared at the ground. Her other hand twitched.

“ . . . What are you?” she asked.

“Hope,” somebody else said. “He’s the Ultimate Hope.”

With those four words, everything changed. Naegi felt like he had been knocked out of a trance. He looked around. Every cell, save for that single empty one, now had a prisoner pressed against the door as they attempted to reach what may have been the only bit of ‘hope’ they’d seen in ages. He couldn’t describe the look in their eyes. Either way, it was something he never thought would be directed at him. It didn’t feel right. It felt wrong.

“So, this is why . . .” Iwata said. “It really is different in person.”

Naegi blinked. “Eh?”

He almost moved away, but Kido grabbed his arm.

“No, keep talking,” she said. “Tell us about the rest of them. Your classmates.”

Oh, his class! There was so many good stories he had to tell! Even if some of their fates . . . were not so nice. But now wasn’t the time and place for those; Naegi wanted just as much as them to be distracted. So, he talked about them as people, letting his affection bubble freely. He regaled with them with tales for what seemed like hours before Komaeda finally found him.

(Komaeda said nothing, but if Naegi looked, it would have been obvious he was upset).


The three adults, one female and two males, were quiet. Their eyes were fixed on the laptop on the middle of the desk, even though the screen had been tilted so that it was no longer visible. The audio, however, had been turned to the maximum and the cries coming from the speakers were of a type that meant they didn’t really need to see the video to know what it was showing. The horrible sounds rang through the small office and although all three of the listeners wore frowns, they didn’t seem that disturbed. One may say they were jaded against those kinds of sounds. The audio screeched to a stop, and the three met each other’s eyes in mutual understanding.

Sakakura Juza, Ultimate Boxer, was first to speak. He leaned his weight on the desk, one hand supporting his chin while the other tapped steadily. “I heard it. She used his name several times. There’s no possible way she was talking about anyone else.”

Yukizome Chisa, Ultimate Housekeeper, frowned even deeper, and looked from one male to the other. “So, the deception is over. Ultimate Despair has finally confirmed they are holding Naegi-kun captive.”

Seated behind the desk, with his chin on his hands, Munakata Kyosuke thought for a second. The Ultimate Student Council President then lifted his head, and spoke. “No, not yet. I watched the full broadcast. He has not appeared onscreen. The use of his name can be explained away as the Nurse hoping he was within earshot of a television. The masses do not wish to believe he has been captured, so they will believe anything that suggests the alternative. There is still time.”

Sakakura straightened up. “Then what was the point of the broadcast? If they’re still not going to announce they have him, why bother bringing him up like that?”

Munakata didn’t move. “Blame. They want Naegi to feel as though that death was his fault. With blame will come guilt and with guilt, comes despair.”

“You think that would break him? He seemed to cope fine with his classmates’ executions,” Sakakura pointed out.

“We don’t know what else they’re doing to him,” Yukizome pointed out. She bit her lower lip nervously, and Munakata’s eyes flicked to her for a moment.

“They will attempt to break him,” Munakata said. “They will try to turn him. If they succeed, then the tides will turn against us. Naegi Makoto has power with words. Especially now, his influence over the world is immense. In their hands, he would be incredibly dangerous.”

“You said we still have time though, right?” Sakakura clenched and raised his fist, as if punching his way out of this problem was viable. “What’s our next move?”

“I will speak to the Chairman. In the meantime, prepare your divisions,” Munakata ordered. “We must attempt to strike before Despair reveals their hand. Lie to your men if you must, but for now, do not tell them that Despair has captured Naegi. We need morale to stay high.”

“Got it,” Sakakura said, and Yukizome nodded and said something similar. “What else can I do?”

“Keep your eyes and ears open,” Munakata said. “There are rumours that there is an internal movement against my authority.”

Sakakura’s expression darkened, as if this alleged movement was a personal insult. He stood quickly, rattling his chair a little, and strode out of the room, eager to fulfill his duty. Munakata and Yukizome watched him leave, and then faced each other.

“Your report?” Munakata asked.

“Yes!” Yukizome nodded again, making her hair bounce a little. “Kizakura-kun and I have reached the same conclusions: we believe the members of Class 78 are legitimate survivors. We have not seen any signs of despair in them beyond the expected. They are still upset over Naegi-kun’s kidnapping, but they remain hopeful that he will be rescued.”

Munakata thought over her answer. He reached into his desk drawer, and pulled out the file of a certain, lavender-haired survivor. “What about Kirigiri Kyoko? You know that Kizakura is unfairly biased toward her.”

“I agree with his assessment of her. She’ll never admit it, but I believe Kirigiri-san is the most hopeful of them all!” Yukizome closed her eyes, making her appear adorably happy. “At least when it comes to the topic of Naegi-kun.”

“I see. Thank you. Do you have any opinions on their potential?”

Yukizome’s expression became more serious, although it still held that passionate happiness. “Togami-kun was not kidding when he told us what he was capable of. We may not need to be billionaires, but the leadership and authority his talent suggests can’t be overlooked. I think he might be right: he is ready to lead a division.”

“I will keep that in mind.” Munakata sounded a tiny bit displeased at her findings. “However, it is much too soon. Togami’s ego does not need to be built up further.”

“Other than him, I believe Kirigiri-san will make an excellent division leader in the future. She certainly has the intelligence for it, but I think she needs to become more used to working with others.”

“Thank you, Chisa.”

Yukizome stood. She gave a little bow. “Anything else you need from me?”

“Not at the moment. But Chisa?” Munakata looked up at her and a real smile touched his lips. “Thank you.”

Chisa smiled back. “I’m always here to help!”

(He didn’t suspect a thing).

 

Chapter Text

“. . . Not bad. Whoever taught you clearly knew what they were doing, but they could have spent more time going through the basics with you!” The Ultimate Coach said that with a hearty chuckle. With gentleness surprising for his size, he nudged Naegi’s shoulders into the proper position. “There. That’s better.”

Naegi couldn’t speak. His back was slick with nervous sweat; he was surprised Nidai couldn’t smell it (Owari, on the other hand, he thought had wrinkled her nose once or twice). What was he doing here again? Why had he let them take him? Right. Because he had been too scared to say no. His only reprieve was that Komaeda was seated against the far wall, apparently working on a poem about hope.

. . . Sometimes, he worried a little about the older teen.

“Alright . . . Now, punch!”

His arm shot out like a piston. Not surprising. His body was working on an all-or-nothing basis right now; either his limbs hardened with fear and locked into place, or jerked into position with adrenaline-fueled motion. Not that Nidai ever noticed how jumpy he was. The Coach laughed loudly, throwing his head back.

“Careful! You do that too hard without hitting anything and you could pull a muscle. Athletes can have their careers ruined by that, you know!”

Nidai’s pointing finger stopped an inch away from his chest. If it had actually made contact . . . well, Naegi wouldn’t have been shocked if his heart would have torn itself out of his body trying to get away. It was already on the verge of hiding in his bowels.

“I’m . . . I’m n-not an athlete,” Naegi forced out.

“Not with that attitude, you aren’t!”

Nidai hit him on the back. Naegi simultaneously jumped and tried to flinch away. Next thing he knew, he was on the ground, with a very befuddled Nidai staring down at him. On the other half of the gym, Owari ceased swinging on the gymnast bars (how could she do that when she seemed to have no muscle left?) and stopped upside down, hanging by only her feet.

“Hey, Old Man! Be careful with him. Kid’s still got bruises everywhere.”

Nidai grinned, waving at her. “You know what they say: NO PAIN, NO GAIN!”

“They also say you shouldn’t work too hard if you’re injured,” Naegi said from his position on his back.

“You were the one that came to us.”

“N-no, I didn’t. I was excising in my room by myself. Owari-san came in and saw me, and dragged me out here to work out with you two.”

“Exactly!”

Naegi scowled. He didn’t think this was a bit of Despair illogicality. Nope, this purely was Ultimate eccentricity. He glanced over at Owari; she was giving him an upside-down thumbs-up.

“Who trained you, anyways?” Nidai asked.

His heart clenched a little. “Oogami Sakura.”

“Oogami . . .” Owari rubbed her chin. “Hey, that was the Ultimate Martial Artist, right?”

“Sure was!” Nidai said, his loud voice drowning out Naegi’s quiet confirmation. “You know, when she first arrived, I thought I might have a chance at taking her on.”

“I haven’t heard this one,” Owari said. She flipped so that she now sat on top of the bar. “What happened?”

Naegi was curious too, although he thought he knew where this was going . . .

“She beat the shit out of me!”

Yep. That’s what he thought.

Owari matched Nidai’s grin. “You must have enjoyed that.”

“How couldn’t I?” Nidai agreed. “I wish I had recorded it. I don’t think the school had ever taken that much damage before or since.”

“You’re not upset you lost?” Naegi asked as he pushed himself into a sitting position.

“Wasn’t back then.” The Coach rubbed the back of his neck, cheeks heating up a little. “Those were the old days where I thought helping athletes reach their peak was the greatest joy in life. Now I understand that stuff was child’s play! Despair’s the real thing to strive for!”

“Hear, hear!” Owari hooted.

Nidai stomped, raised his arms to the sky, and bellowed.

Grahhhh!

How . . . there were red lightning bolts shooting out from his eyes. How was that even possible!? Naegi scrambled back as a bolt cracked near him. That wasn’t real lightning, right?

. . . Nidai may have suddenly jumped to the top of his ‘Most Dangerous Despairs list.

“HEY, YOU!” Nidai’s pointing finger was like a cocked gun. “Wipe that look off your face. You can’t let them see your fear like that!”

It reminded him of . . . before. He . . . he had to get away! Were those his limbs moving, pulling him backwards? He didn’t know. Nidai loomed over him –

Naegi tripped over Komaeda’s foot.

“Naegi-kun, what’s another word that rhymes with hope?”

For a blessed moment, there was silence.

“Uh, Komaeda?” Nidai said, “I’m trying to teach the kid a life lesson here.”

 Naegi looked up at Komaeda. “Umm, soap?”

“Hmm, Hope cleanses your soul like soap! Maybe I can use that one.”

This was just too surreal.

“Your poem sound like it sucks!” Owari called out from her spot on the bar. Naegi had to agree privately.

But Komaeda brushed it off. “That’s because you don’t understand the beauty of hope. Naegi-kun, you should tell them all about it!”

Nidai held his hands up and took a step back. “Uh, I got to get back to training! Maybe some other time.”

Owari spoke. “Yep. Me too. These bags aren’t going to punch themselves!”

There was nearly two feet between Naegi and Nidai now. The Coach said, “Let’s call it a night, Naegi-kun. You’re pretty scrawny. We got to be careful not to overwork you!”

. . . And the funny thing was, Naegi didn’t even think Komaeda accomplished this on purpose. Not that he was going to turn the opportunity away. He was rather glad to get out of the gym. Komaeda padded after him, pencil behind his ear, focused on his sheet of paper. It was one of the rare times that he wasn’t smiling. Naegi paused, and turned to face the other teen. After that rescue, he felt obliged to ask.

“How’s the poem going?”

“I think it’s going really well!” Komaeda said. His eyes lit up. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Uh . . .”

 Turns out, Komaeda didn’t want to wait for an answer.

. . .

. . . Wow.

Wow.

His ears may have been bleeding. If there was a record for the most use of the word ‘hope’, Komaeda just beat it. Naegi almost felt like he needed to reset his brain so ‘hope’ would have meaning again.

“What do you think?” Komaeda asked.

“It’s very . . . hopeful.”

“Then it’s perfect!” With a neat flick of his wrist, Komaeda pulled the pencil out from behind his ear, and deposited it in his pocket. “I’ll put it up on your Hope Wall.”

. . . Oh god, what was that?

“See, I had this brilliant idea,” Komaeda was saying. “I’m going to cover the ceiling in your room with things full of hope. That way, every morning you can wake up to hope and the last thing you see before you fall asleep is hope! Isn’t it exciting!?”

Naegi had an overwhelming urge to smack his head against a wall.


“I’m sure you all have some idea of why I called you here. Have you heard the rumours that we will be fighting Ultimate Despair themselves within the next few days?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Those rumours are true. In three days’ time, we will launch an attack on the main headquarters of Ultimate Despair. Several of our divisions will be involved, Second Division included. You six, of course, will be among them. You must suspect, however, that your role is not like the others. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to schedule this meeting with you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All of you are veterans. I have chosen you for your bravery, your adaptability, and most importantly, your loyalty. It is the last trait that is most important. The task I am about to assign you is crucial to the future of our cause. If I ask it of you, are you prepared to give up everything?”

“Yes, sir.”


Naegi watched Komaeda balance on the top of the ladder. The Luckster was taping his ‘poetry’ right above the spot where Naegi’s pillow laid. Originally, he thought it wouldn’t be too bad because Komaeda’s writing had been small, but Komaeda boy had accounted for that. He had gone ahead and typed his poem up on a computer, then printed it over multiple pages to make sure it was legible from ground level. Which meant that yes, every time Naegi woke up, he was probably going to end up reading that poem.

He was going to be sick of hope by the time he got out of here.

Komaeda placed the final piece of tape. “There! It’s perfect.”

“Fantastic,” Naegi deadpanned.

“So, anything you want to add to your Wall of Hope?” Halfway down, Komaeda hopped off the ladder. When he glanced at Naegi’s desk where a stack of paper lay, his hand twitched as though ready to create another ‘masterpiece’.

Naegi stared up at the ceiling. Every day, he would wake up and see that. He already regretted not pushing Komaeda off the ladder. Terrible, terrible poetry about a warped vision of hope was not what he liked to wake up to. He’d much rather . . .

He’d much rather see . . .

Softy, Naegi said, “Actually, yeah. There is some stuff I’d like to put up there.”


“What we are about to discuss here cannot leave this room. You are to tell no one, even the other Division leaders. If the Chairman himself asks you, you must deny him. Were this to become common knowledge, our forces may fall before we even see battle. If you cannot handle such responsibility, I will request that you leave now. . . So, I ask you this: can you handle this burden?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. I am well aware that since the last broadcast by Tsumiki Mikan, another rumour has been circulating through The Future Foundation. Am I correct in presuming you are also aware of this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell no one else, but that rumour is also true. Naegi has been captured by the Remnants of Despair. However, we have reason to believe he is being held in their main headquarters, and that he is still alive. He is your mission.”

“Yes, sir.”


“ . . . What are you doing?”

“It’s the Hope Wall!” Komaeda cried, nearly dancing on tiptoes as he held Kamukura’s shoulder and pointed at the ceiling. “I came up with it all by myself.”

“ . . . I can tell,” Kamukura said flatly. “Why did you ask me to come here?”

Komaeda’s shoe scuffed against the floor. He smiled bashfully. “We don’t have a lot of things to put up there, and I don’t have much of a talent for poems. I thought you might –”

“No.”

“But -!”

“No.”

From where he was seated on the floor, Naegi held back a snicker.

“Not even a tiny one?”

“I have pride, Komaeda.”

Komaeda spent about two seconds sulking. Then, his mood reset and he perked up with a sharp jerk. He pranced over to Naegi (because how else could you describe that kind of bubbly walk?), hands locked behind his back as he peered over the younger boy’s back.

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

Naegi smiled and this time, it was completely genuine. “I did.”

He put the yearbook down, and reached for the pile of torn pages at his side. Every single one of them had a picture of at least one of his friends. He held them close to his chest. They felt warm in his hands, like their souls resided in these pages, whispering to him. He could picture all their faces and smiles.

“Great, I’ll put them up!”

He audibly whined when Komaeda thoughtlessly tore them away (he barely managed to hold onto the one he didn’t want Komaeda to see, and stuffed it in his pocket). Komaeda scampered up the ladder, making it wobble dangerously. Any distress Naegi had when the photos were taken away was quickly mollified by the sight of those pictures going up, radiating in a circle outward from that dreadful poem. They brightened up the entire room, changing it from a borrowed cell to a place that he might actually be able to call his . . .

He shook his head. No. He couldn’t think that way. This wasn’t his home, after all.

Kamukura wandered over and glanced at the photos. “That’s boring.”

Naegi hadn’t expected any different. Kamukura wouldn’t understand.

The longhaired boy suddenly gave Naegi a look. Yep, Naegi had expected that, too. Kamukura already knew he had hid a picture from Komaeda. After checking to make sure Komaeda was busy, he directed Kamukura into the washroom and closed the door behind them.

When he looked back, Kamukura had peeled back the tub’s curtain and was staring at his stolen shoes.

“I don’t let Komaeda-kun use the shower,” Naegi said.

The curtain fell back into place. “What are you hiding from him?”

Naegi opened his mouth.

He shut it again.

He shouldn’t have any problems with showing Kamukura. The older teen was the reason Naegi had preserved this picture after all. But he couldn’t help remember what happened last time he had seen it. And this time, Komaeda wasn’t here to serve as a buffer (not that he thought Komaeda could stop someone as powerful as Kamukura).

“I . . .” He took a deep breath, and swallowed his hesistation. “I wanted to know if you wanted this.”

Gingerly, he took out the photo from his pocket, and flipped it over. He handed it to Kamukura. Kamukura didn’t take it. Instead, he stared silently at the small, purple-haired girl. Naegi could feel the heat of his stare through the paper.

“It seemed to mean something to you, so I thought you might –”

“What did Komaeda tell you?” Kamukura demanded.

“N-nothing. I never brought it up again.”

Kamukura gave him a piercing look, dissecting him as he searched for a lie.

“ . . . We have fifteen seconds before Komaeda notices we are gone.”

Naegi could take a hint. He nodded, put the picture back in his pocket, and walked out of the washroom.

Ten seconds later when Komaeda taped the last photo into place, Naegi was waiting innocently at the bottom of the ladder. When prompted, he told Komaeda he loved it – which he actually did. He wondered whether he would be able to get his hands on photos of his family. Meanwhile, the bedroom door shut in the background as Kamukura made his exit.

“Hmm, I can’t think of a reason we would have any of those lying around,” Komaeda answered when Naegi inquired about them. “But we are both lucky, so there’s a good chance I’ll find one if I look. Give me an hour, and I’ll see what I can find.”

Komaeda walked out the door, leaving Naegi alone with his newly founded Wall of Hope. He drank it in, smiling sadly. After a few minutes, his thoughts turned to the photo in his pocket. He reached for it. He didn’t know what to do with it, but it didn’t seem right to throw it and that girl away –

Huh? Where was it?

He turned his pocket inside out. It was empty.

It wasn’t on the floor. It hadn’t fallen out in the bathroom. And it definitely wasn’t on the ceiling. Where had it . . .?

He crinkled his brow. There had been some time where he wasn’t paying attention, where the photo had been sticking out of his pocket . . .

Had Kamukura taken it after all?


“Our attack is meant to be nothing more than a distraction. While the eyes of the Remnants are upon us, you must sneak into the building and locate Naegi. I’m afraid I cannot offer much help with that objective. Few of our allies have left that building alive. But you must succeed. Even if half The Future Foundation is wiped out, succeeding in your goal will give us an advantage over Despair.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Despite his foolishness and naiveté, I will acknowledge that Naegi Makoto is very powerful. I don’t believe there is anyone else who can wield words with such strength. The world has declared him to be the saviour of hope. There are many in The Future Foundation who think the same way, and joined our cause for that reason.”

“Yes, sir.”

“. . . And that is why, second to Enoshima Junko, Naegi would be the greatest threat we have ever faced. In our hands, he is a saviour. But you must understand this. If Naegi were to be corrupted by Despair, then he could tear down the rest of this world within a year. It may never recover. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”


“Komaeda-kun . . . I d-don’t want to see this.”

“It’s no use staying ignorant of what’s happening outside!” Komaeda said. “Wasn’t that frustrating when you were locked up in Hope’s Peak?”

“That’s different! I . . .”

Komaeda tucked the remote into his pocket and shrugged. “Sorry, Naegi-kun, but I really don’t see how.”

The TV was on. It was showing some kind of battle raging in the outside world. Fires were burning, bullets were flying and people . . . people were getting hurt. An itchy, rolling mass pooled in the bottom of his stomach. Sweat gleaned across his forehead.

Komaeda stood just beyond his shoulder, stare fixed and predatory. Whenever Naegi squirmed and tried to turn away from the television, the white-haired boy was right there to grab his head and turn it back. His fingers lingered on Naegi’s neck, putting pressure on the muscle.

“I think that’s Germany,” Komaeda muttered. “The Ultimate Princess did say she wanted to squash some resistance there before dropping by.”

Naegi closed his eyes, trying to pretend none of this was happening. But Komaeda’s bony fingers moved up to his face, slid over his eyes, and pressed deep into the flesh around them. Naegi’s eyelids twitched, but they couldn’t stay closed. The flashing scenes on the television came back just in time to show someone collapse to the ground.

“Look at all that despair, Naegi-kun. Isn’t it awful? To think people could let themselves fall so low . . . But you’d never sink to their level.” Komaeda’s voice was hot air against his cheek. His touch was a ghost running fingers through his hair. “One day, you’ll inject them all with hope. You’ll starve despair and swallow the remains. They’ll be nothing left but light – your light! Hope’s light! The entire world will burn with it!”

“Stop . . .” He trembled, some deep-rooted fear tugging at his voice as Komaeda’s lips brushed over his ear. “Turn it off.”

Each giggle was a nail driven through his skull. “But Naegi-kun, if I do that, you won’t see. If you don’t see, then how can your hope flourish?”

And Komaeda gripped his chin so hard it hurt.

“Isn’t it horrible, Naegi-kun? It’s unfair, isn’t it? How can something like this not upset someone as hopeful as you? Watching all that pain and misery hurts, I know. But that’s what makes hope stronger. When you wake up and realize that everyone around you is dead, that’s the moment where you choose hope or despair once and for all . . . I know that.”

Komaeda’s breath was heavy on his neck. “Not that I'm going to be that to you. I’ll be gentle. I’ll build you up piece by piece until there’s no more room for despair. You’ll be pure. You’ll be perfect.”


“Naegi must not fall into despair. He is too dangerous. Recovery is the ideal objective, but if that outcome proves to be impossible, then consider this: we must remove Ultimate Despair’s ability to use him against us.”

“Yes, sir.”

(On the other side of a building, an orange-haired woman spoke into a phone. “Yes, in three days. Be ready.”)


Komaeda pressed his lips against the top of his head, and it burned like a brand.

“I’ll make you perfect.”


“If you cannot extract Naegi Makoto . . . kill him.”

Chapter Text

Dinner was oddly quiet today. Naegi chewed carefully, aware of an unusual amount of eyes on him. While he was growing used to being the center of attention, this was different. As previously mentioned, it was too quiet, and the staring was anticipatory in nature. They couldn’t be that concerned about his weight, could they?

Naegi finished his last bite and pushed his plate away. By that time, Komaeda had already stood and made his way over.

“Finished?” the white-haired teen asked.

Naegi nodded. He glanced at the others without moving his head.

“Alright. Let’s go then.” Komaeda tugged on his arm. Confused, Naegi let Komaeda take his hand and lead him out of the room.

They weren’t alone. Tsumiki sidled up to his other side, and slid her hand into that one. There were footsteps behind them. He looked; it seemed like almost every member of Ultimate Despair was following them. Just . . . why? What was going on? What were they planning?!

They took him back to his room. Good. He would be happy to dive into bed and pull the covers over himself. Komaeda led him into his bedroom (where Kamukura was already waiting), and then gently pushed him onto the bed. The Luckster ended up bent over, so that he and Naegi were at eye-level while the others stood around them in a semicircle. Naegi looked them over and waited for someone to speak.

It was Komaeda who spoke first. “Naegi-kun, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you to stay here today. There’s going to be trouble, and we don’t want you to get caught in the middle of it.”

“. . . Trouble?”

Kuzuryu shrugged. “The Future Foundation’s going to try to shoot the place up.”

Tsumiki’s head whipped around. “Kuzuryu-kun!”

“What?” Kuzuryu held his hands up. “The more he knows, the less likely he is to do something stupid.”

Future Foundation . . . Iwata came from there, didn’t he? They were the good guys. They were the ones fighting against despair.

. . . Tsumiki was right. Kuzuryu shouldn’t have told him.

Komaeda raised a hand to Naegi’s cheek. “You’ll be fine here, Naegi-kun.”

“We’ll stop those guys at the door. The Future Foundation hasn’t ever beaten us!” Nidai raised his fists, as if to bellow.

“So, don’t be scared, okay?” Tsumiki shouldered Komaeda out of the way. “Even if it gets really loud and scary and the building starts shaking, everything’s going to be fine. We’re all fighting for you.”

In the back, Owari scratched her head. “Would they even hurt him?”

“We’re not taking that risk!” Tsumiki snapped. “The Future Foundation can’t be trusted.”

You mean you already know what the answer is, Naegi thought. He felt strangely detached from all of this, like he was watching from the other side of a glass wall.

“Just hang tight, Naegi-kun!” Komaeda said from his new place on the floor. “Everything will be back to normal tomorrow.”

. . . Except I won’t be here.

One by one, they left him (Tsumiki laying a kiss on each of his cheeks beforehand). Kamukura, having neither moved nor spoken nor done much of anything while the others were around, stood in the center of the room. Komaeda looked at him questioningly from the open doorway.

“Uh, Kamukura-kun, did you need something?”

Kamukura stared at him.

Komaeda grinned widely. “Right. I’ll stop subjecting you two to my awful presence. Just make sure you lock the door when you leave!”

And the Luckster was gone.

Kamukura’s gaze slid to Naegi. “Do you have a plan?”

“Not really.” Naegi kicked his feet. He looked at a spot on the floor. “I’m kind of planning to wing it.”

“I see.”

Silence. Naegi almost thought about how much the odds were stacked against him, but quickly changed his mind. He couldn’t think like that. If he did, then he was sure to lose. Yes, he just needed to keep thinking positively. Everything was sure to work out! Filled with new confidence, he glanced upwards –

Kamukura was in front of him. He held a pamphlet out to him. Who knew how long he had been waiting there?

“. . . For before,” the older teen said as Naegi carefully took it.

He stared at the cover.

Future Foundation News Release’

The date underneath didn’t mean much to him. He had no idea what day it was now, or what day it had been when they had escaped the school. Still, a news release from The Future Foundation? That could only be useful. He peeled it open, letting his eyes skim over the page –

Hope’s Peak Survivors Recovered.’

It took him a second to calm down. It took less than a millisecond after to zoom in on the accompanying picture. Was that . . .? Yes! Yes, that was Togami! He was stepping out of a car toward a group of suit-wearing people that must have been from the Future Foundation. When Naegi looked closely, he saw a lock of long hair extruding from the open car door that must have belonged to Kirigiri. They were alive. They were okay! They were safe from the spectre of Despair. And while he was a little surprised that the article didn’t mention they had failed to rescue him, he didn’t care.

He didn’t mind the emotional tear that rolled down his face. “Kamukura-kun, thank you-”

But the other teen was already gone.

Now that he was on his own, the first thing he did was drag some papers and books into the bathroom where he had hidden Kamukura’s shoes. He put them on – either Kamukura had big feet, or he had very small ones – and stuffed them until he could walk around without them threatening to come off. It wasn’t ideal. It would get in the way if he needed to run, but at least he wouldn’t be stopped by the first nail he encountered.

Then, he waited. And he stared at his map and memorized it, and he stared at the door a lot and tried to figure out how to get past it, but he spent a lot of time waiting. The clock by his bedside ticked on, passing six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock . . . It must have been dark outside by now. Good.

Somewhere in the distance, he thought he heard an explosion.

 The second one was clearer. He leapt to his feet. He might not have much time. With people like Komaeda and Tsumiki about, there was no guarantee that one of them wouldn’t change their mind and decide to wait out the battle next to him. He charged forward –

Damn it! He forgot about the locked door.

He jiggled the knob a couple of times, hoping his luck would strike and somehow unlock it. It was for nothing though. To be honest, if his luck really had activated, it would probably be to magically drop an iron curtain to make sure he couldn’t escape. He slammed his foot into the door, growling under his breath.

If he couldn’t unlock it, then he just had to go through it.

The desk was too heavy to use. The chair, too unwieldy and light. He couldn’t believe it. Was this simple door really going to be the thing that stopped him cold? He tried throwing himself into it a few times, but all he accomplished was damaging his shoulder. He held it, glaring at the stupid door. He wasn’t giving up here.

He doubted any of the stuffed animals or little things lying on the shelves would help him. He went under the bed. He weighed the scale in one hand – no, too light – and tossed that aside. A suitcase came next; nothing in it. Then came the severed Monokuma paw. No, that wasn’t heavy enough either. He tossed it –

As the paw rolled across the floor, something within it glinted.

Naegi paused. He picked the paw up again and studied it. With careful fingers, he coaxed the long claws out of their hiding places.

Soda laughed in his mind. “These things can cut just about anything if you try hard enough.”

. . . So this was the answer. How ironic that it would be his worst enemy that got him out of here.

Just as Soda had promised, the claws pierced right through the wood. He hacked away, sweat dripping down his temple, teeth clenched. He didn’t need to chop all of it, just the area around where the lock was so that nothing held the door closed. He hacked, and hacked, and hacked, and hacked . . .

Finally, the paw slipped from his slippery hands. The lock was only held in place by a few thin bonds. Naegi took a few moments to catch his breath. Then he straightened up, and kicked.

The door swung open.

Kamukura stared at him from the other side.

“. . . That took you a very long time,” he said.

“Not in the mood,” Naegi said. He jogged past him.

Without the door sealing him in, the sounds of battle were louder. He was far enough away from the site that there was no physical signs of damage, but those were explosions and gunshots he definitely heard in the distance. The lines of his scribbled map flashed in his mind. He knew where he needed to go. Kamukura followed behind – was he keeping up with Naegi just by walking? Come on! He wasn’t that short! Kamukura must have been engaging in Ultimate Speed Walking or something.

 “. . . You’re going the wrong way,” Kamukura said. He wasn’t even breathing hard.

“No, I’m not.”

Most of the Monokuma robots and soldiers must have been fighting. A few still patrolled the building, but they were loud and easily avoided. The robots especially had trouble spotting him in the darkness. He kept low to the ground, hiding in the shadows. It must have been funny looking considering Kamukura always lurked behind him, watching from his full height.

When Naegi reached his destination, Kamukura almost sounded confused. “Here?”

“Here.”

“They won’t be much help.”

“That’s not the point.” Naegi shoved the door open.

Light from the doorway slowly fell within the prison hallway. Most of the prisoners hadn’t reacted to the door’s opening, but a couple had looked up and now muttered to their neighbours about his arrival. Iwata startled at the first mention of Naegi’s name, and then scrambled as close as he could get to the bars.

Grinning victoriously, Naegi approached him. “Hey.”

“You can’t be here! There’s -!”

Naegi Makoto outside safe zone.”

He froze.

From the other end of the prison, a piercing red light shone at him. The Monokuma robot shuffled forward, repeating those five words in a monotone. Naegi backed right into an unyielding Kamukura. In a way, the solidness of the longhaired teen was reassuring. Naegi couldn’t give up here. He eyed the weaker points of the robot, wondering if he could hit hard enough . . .

The doorway darkened. Two Monokuma soldiers stood there, staring at him.  It was too fast. The only explanation was that they had been positioned nearby, waiting for the robot’s signal. But why . . . ?

. . . Ah, Komaeda knew him better than he thought.

He was outnumbered. Kamukura moved aside, and the soldiers seized Naegi by the arms and dragged him backwards. He wasn’t all that upset that they had caught him, just that he hadn’t been able to help these prisoners like he had promised. The Monokuma robot waddled back to the end of the hall. Naegi watched its retreating back . . .

“Monokuma,” his words were soft, but clear. “Cut out all of the cells’ locks.”

(Because why would Ultimate Despair have a safeguard against a command none of them would ever give?)

Monokuma teetered sideways, and then swung its entire body with its arm. The claws shrieked against the nearest set of bars, spraying the ground below with a shower of sparks. It was the last thing he saw before the prison door door shut.

He closed his eyes and smiled. At least some good came out of this.

Kamukura still followed, even though it was looking more and more likely that Naegi’s adventure was over. The soldiers dragged him so that his tiptoes skimmed the ground; he couldn’t dig in and try to fight even if he wanted to. Something boomed far away and for the first time, the building shook. A rain of dust fell from above.

“So, how’s the fight going?” Naegi asked one of the soldiers.

“Intruders are being repelled. Ultimate Despair will secure victory.”

Oh. He was a tiny bit disappointed, but not the least bit surprised. He knew for a fact there were a lot of robots here –

Bang.

His arm was nearly torn out of his socket. The grip on his left arm tightened drastically, then released suddenly. The attached soldier crashed to the ground, someone – two someones – on top of it. Someone grasped the soldier’s helmet and began slamming it against the ground while his fellow lunged at the second soldier . . .

“Naegi, run!” Iwata barked.

He did.

Kamukura followed. He probably known the whole time this would happen. There was no time to check the map; Naegi only had his vague sense of location to go on. But the answer was obvious; he needed to get to the building’s edges. A blaring drone behind him told him at least one of the soldiers had recovered to chase him. He huffed and puffed, body already feeling the stress of the situation.

He ran right into a second group.

In the little time it took them to recognize him and lower their guns, he ran past them. The first soldier actually tackled one trying to get to him. But the rest were taking up the chase, calling to him, warning him that he was approaching a red zone.

Yes! He was close! He crossed into the aforementioned red zone . . .

It was a hallway and a blank wall.

This was a red zone? How? There were no entrances there. For a moment, he doubted. For a moment, his pace faltered.

It was his first mistake, but it was also his last one.

A line of fire struck across his temple when he hit the ground. Hot, coppery blood oozed from his reopened wound. The soldiers lay heavy on his back, crushing his ribs, nails digging into his arms.

Kamukura looked down at him. “You’ve failed. Predictable.”

If even Kamukura was saying that, then it must have been over.

“Naegi Makoto secured. Returning to safe zone.” They pulled him to his feet, not caring that he was nearly blind in one eye from the blood. He didn’t struggle. Kamukura scoffed and started to turn.

He suddenly dove sideways.

Bang.

His ears rang with the gunshot. Then, there was more. Naegi was thrown aside, face smacking into the wall. On it, he could see the shadows of the soldiers falling as the flurry of shots grew louder –

Before he could make sense of it, something was thrown over his head.

Strong hands seized the back of his hoodie, like an animal grabbing its young by the scruff. Hard shoulder bone pressed against him as he was lifted, but who? What? It felt like Nidai, but Nidai was supposed to be fighting!

“Stop struggling!” a strange voice hissed. “We’re here to rescue you.”

“Is the bag necessary?” another person said. “If they recognize him, he’ll make a good shield.”

“If they recognize him, then for sure they’ll pursue us.”

A walkie talkie crackled. They were saying something about a bomb? And the stranger was carrying him somewhere. He didn’t know where they were going. He didn’t know where Kamukura had gone. He didn’t even know who these people were, but he suspected. . .

“Are you from the Future Foundation?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Naegi mouthed that one word answer to himself, and then a joy so radiant that he had to grin took over his body. He’d won. Ultimate Despair had failed! He was on his way out of here and soon, he was going to see his friends again-!

Just then, he remembered. “Wait, there are some of your friends here! Iwata Torio, and . . . and I don’t know if Nido-san was part of the Future Foundation or not, but we have to go help them!”

“We’re here to get you out,” the stranger said.

“You can’t just leave them here!” Naegi exclaimed. “They need help, too!”

“Keep your voice down!”

“Iwata-kun sacrificed his chance to help me, and I can’t leave him there –”

Shut up!

The gun – he could tell it was a gun – cracked against the back of his skull. An eerie silence followed. Naegi tried to touch the spot to see if he was breathing, but the bag stood in his way.

“Keep quiet,” the stranger hissed.

Naegi tried to touch the spot again, dazed. This was the Future Foundation. They were rescuing him. He didn’t need to be scared.

(He was scared. He could sense something wrong with their intentions)

“Shit, those shadows . . .! They must have heard us!”

“Let’s go!”

Now, they were running. He still had no idea what was going on, where they were going . . . That was a gunshot. Those were gunshots. He could hear them, and the robotic voices of the Monokuma soldiers speaking into their helmets and coordinating actions.

“They know we have him. Even if we get outside, we’re not going to make it.”

“So be it . . . That’s the room, quick! Barricade the door!”

They ran more and then suddenly, Naegi was thrown to the ground. He rolled onto his back, trying to sit up as he grabbed at the bag –

A foot slammed onto his chest and pinned him to the ground.

 A gun clicked.

 “Wh-what’s going on?” Naegi tried to crawl backwards, but that foot sat firmly on his chest.

“Forgive us, Naegi Makoto . . . For the sake of hope, you must die.”

The door suddenly slammed open.

The stranger’s gun went off.

The bullet tore through wood, spraying Naegi’s exposed neck with sharp silvers. Gunpowder trickled onto his skin, and stained the air with its scent. Smoke rose from the barrel in tiny curls, disappearing completely from the small gust that accompanied the gun’s fall to the floor.

And Naegi didn’t die.

A crash. The wall shock with the force that the body hit it with. The second Future Foundation member shouted, and more shots went off. But these were not followed by the sound of tearing flesh, just rapid footsteps as a figure weaved and dodged –

The other shooter slammed into the wall. Their skull was smashed against the wall once, and then the body dropped to the ground –

Just as Naegi tore the bag off his head. Right next to where it had lain, there was a bullet hole in the ground. He could see the fallen forms of the Future Foundation member, but there was no sign of who had saved him. Just Monokuma soldiers pouring through the open door.

There was a step behind him.

“ . . . They said the same thing.”

Naegi turned his head. “Kamukura-kun?”

Kamukura did not look at him. He stared straight ahead at the man who had tried to fire that killing shot. “They made the same claim. To me. To her. They claimed to be saving hope . . . instead, they murdered it.”

Before Naegi could ask or Kamukura could elaborate, the Monokuma soldiers zeroed in on him. Kamukura stepped aside to let things take their natural course –

The hand attached to one of the two fallen outsiders suddenly reached inside a jacket -

Kamukura turned toward one of the walls and Naegi thought his eyes widened a tiny bit –

Explosive! Protect Despairs!

The world exploded.


Naegi jerked into wakefulness. The air was grey. His back ached and when he moved, several things dug into his flesh. He groaned; his first attempt at speech lapsed into coughing. Legs rubbery and unwilling to stand, he rolled over.

A Monokuma soldier stared right at him.

But the soldier wasn’t conscious. The red lights that illuminated the helmet’s eyes were dull. A crack lay down the center of the helmet. What . . .?

He looked around. Rubble lay all around him. People lay around him, unconscious. But apart from the obvious, something was wrong with what he was seeing. The world was too dull; his field of vision, too small.

It was his eye. One of his eyes weren’t opening. He rubbed at it until the layer of dried blood gluing it shut broke. Then, that one opened widely too so that he could take in the world. He could only conclude that somebody that a bomb or missile had hit this wall. The outside wall had caved and –

It had caved.

Naegi stared at the dark, dirty outside world.

It was beautiful.

“I suppose you are an Ultimate Lucky Student,” Kamukura said. He was sitting on a large piece of rubble, uninjured.

Naegi laughed. “I never said I wasn’t.”

He stumbled outward into the sweet, sweet air.

Chapter Text

Naegi wanted to cry. There was a slight dampness outside, but he didn’t care. The artificial ground under his feet radiated an aura of cool and freshness, and he wanted to rest a while with his cheek against it. For now though, he could satisfy himself with the caress of the wind on his face. He looked up in silent thanks. Stars – he could see stars. Giggles swelled in his throat, bursting out like hiccups.

The battle was still raging, but he couldn’t see any nearby fighting, and assumed the Future Foundation had been pushed back. But that no longer mattered. He pointed his feet in the opposite direction of the fight, and walked onward. He just needed to get to the city. He just needed to get away. Then, it would be over.

To him, his footsteps sounded like gunshots, but nobody came running. This time, Naegi was alone. Even Kamukura had made no move to follow him outside. So, he trudged onward, unable to feel pain or exhaustion, only the promise of what lay ahead. At one point, he saw a few mosquitoes on his skin and he laughed and laughed because wow, he was outside. They could take his blood. He had plenty to spare! Bats, too, zipped through the night and to Naegi, they were an omen urging him to take his freedom. He was so, so close . . .

He touched the first piece of rubble belonging to the city, and fell to his knees and laughed.

He wiped tears from his eyes. He’d made it. Despair had lost.

His steps echoed. He wasn’t surprised that the first street he walked through was lifeless. Not even the mosquitos seemed to have followed him. The residents must have fled long, long ago when Ultimate Despair first established their base. The surrounding buildings had been gutted by fire and sagged into themselves. He couldn’t see a single intact window. Nothing stood higher than a story; anything above that had been destroyed.

He supposed the first stage of his post-escape plans should be to get as far away as possible. He was a on a timer: once the Future Foundation’s attack was fully repelled, Ultimate Despair would no doubt check on him; once they realized he was gone, they’d no doubt look for him. He probably couldn’t outrun people like Nidai or Pekoyama, so he’d have to find a good place to hole up for a night or two.

Hmm . . . maybe he should have brought food.

He hadn’t been walking that long when the city surprised him. Down the street from him, a figure had stepped out. Judging how it strode to the other side without falter, whoever it was hadn’t seen him. Naegi went still, watching. Who could possibly exist so close to Ultimate Despair? Maybe one of the prisoners he freed earlier had gotten out.

The figure turned its head as it stepped into a beam of moonlight, and the beam reflected off goggles and short blond hair . . .

No.

It wasn’t.

Yes . . . Yes, it was!

His mind didn’t even finish that thought before he was running toward the teen.

Togami-kun!”

Togami had not expected to see Naegi here. That much was obvious. Upon hearing his name, the Heir had dropped into a sort of crouch, body ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. He didn’t lose that stance even as he saw just who was running towards him, but Naegi felt the dangerous aura surrounding him fall away.

When they drew close enough for Togami to verify it was really him, the blond straightened up. “Naegi Makoto?”

Naegi nodded vigorously, still running. It sucked that Togami didn’t like hugs, because Naegi wanted to throw himself at the heir and squeeze him until he turned blue –

Oh, hey. Just when did he decide to act on that fantasy?

“Wh-what? What do you think you’re doing?” True to form, Togami was spluttering in shock and shoving at his head. It was so Togami of him, Naegi just had to stand there and let the hits land.

“I’m sorry, Togami-kun. I’m just so glad to see you!”

And he was. Togami seemed to glow in the moonlight like a god descended upon earth. He stood tall and proud as always and to Naegi, that was perfect. Memories of the Heir’s smug sneers and biting remarks flashed before him, but Naegi could no longer see them as mean, only as a promise of protection and strength. He had found Togami. He was safe. All was right in the world again.

Togami finally managed to pry Naegi off him. “You . . . you’re not supposed to be here. Naegi, are you alone?”

Naegi nodded vigorously. He didn’t speak because if he did, he knew he would start babbling about his escape and the hopes he clung to while imprisoned, and Togami would probably get mad at him for being annoying.

“Nobody followed you?”

“I don’t think so,” Naegi said. “Kamukura-kun might have, but I don’t think he’ll do anything. Where are the others?”

“ . . . They’re not here.”

He almost asked why Togami was, but Togami would probably see that as Naegi questioning his prowess, so he didn’t. He just basked in the fact that he was in the presence of the Heir.

Wow, was this how Fukawa felt on a daily basis?

 “We need to get somewhere safe,” Togami said. “I’ll call somebody to pick us up when the fighting is over. Naegi, come.”

Naegi dropped into step behind the heir, relishing the familiarity of that command. They passed in and out of shadows and each time, the light fell on Togami’s face differently. When Naegi put the snapshots together, he was able to form a good picture of what Togami currently looked like. And it wasn’t good. He was skinny. Much too skinny. Togami . . . resembled Owari. Skin hung off his thin frame, and his bones stuck out too much.

Naegi didn’t want to think about what the others looked like.

When Naegi asked about the goggles, the Heir glanced at him and gruffly answered, “These are night-vision goggles.”

Oh. That was pretty smart. Togami had always been smart.

They stopped in a sheltered alcove. Togami immediately sought out a half-charred bench and sat down. His foot tapped impatiently as he stared at the only entrance and spoke to someone on his phone. Naegi went ahead and sat on the ground next to him. He didn’t mind. After all, he’d once slept in a garbage dump.

“What were you doing here?” Naegi asked.

“I was asked to help,” Togami said.

Naegi nodded. He stared at Togami’s pants (the closest part of the Heir to eye-level) with a sort of fascination. What would it be like to touch it, to rub it between his fingers, to feel the heat left by an living, non-despair tainted being . . . ? Was this how Komaeda felt when he got touchy-feely? Naegi now understood those whims a lot better. That said, he held himself back. Togami hated being touched, maybe even more than Kirigiri. He’d wait for his reunion with Asahina to get all that out of the way.

“How are they?” he asked carefully.

Equally careful, Togami said, “They are alive.”

That answer could mean so many things. It was a bit puzzling that Togami would be so vague with him, but he shoved his worry aside. They were fine. Maybe they, too, were a bit skinny, but he was sure they were all okay. He’d see them soon and prove that in person!

Togami wasn’t up for much conversation, so Naegi mostly let him be and satisfied his cravings by staring at the Heir. A small part of him was worried that if he looked away, Togami would disappear. Togami ignored his staring, although every once in a while, he shifted and sighed in a way that made Naegi know he should stop.

He didn’t.

Even when somebody else approached, Naegi was reluctant to look away. The only reason he did so was because he hoped against reason that it might be another one of his classmates –

Those eyes were red.

. . . His heart started back up again. False alarm. He wasn’t caught yet. Kamukura didn’t care if he escaped, after all.

“Kamukura-kun?” he prompted. Had the other boy come to say goodbye or something?

Kamukura didn’t even look at Togami. His gaze was fully fixed on Naegi while his hair seemed to float around him.

“Naegi Makoto . . . Is this an example of your bad luck, or Komaeda’s good luck?”

Naegi stared. What? What part of this could qualify as bad luck?

Makoto!”

His pupils shrunk into pinpricks.

No.

Please no.

Kamukura stepped aside and in his wake, came the Ultimate Nurse and her banner of long hair. She pounced on Makoto, tripping halfway so that she toppled into his lap and knocked him over. His head hit the pavement. He laid there.

Please . . . Why is this happening to me?

“Makoto . . .” Tsumiki nuzzled his neck. She seemed unconcerned about how her legs intertwined with his. “I was so worried about you.”

He closed his eyes, and savoured his last breath of freedom.

“The kid’s okay!” Nidai stood in the alcove’s entrance now. “I thought I was going to have to rip some heads off.”

That’s when he remembered:

Togami.

Without thinking, he reached out and grabbed Tsumiki, keeping her down. She seemed to think it was affectionate and sighed contently even as Naegi screamed, “Togami-kun, run!” He didn’t know where the Heir would go or how he would get past Nidai, but he had to try –

Togami looked down at him. “What?”

“Hmm? Was there someone chasing you two or something?” Nidai asked, looking around.

Togami said, “I have no idea why he’s acting like this.”

“ . . . Togami-kun?” Naegi squeaked.

Togami uncrossed his legs and stood. His words were directed to Nidai. “You need to keep a better eye on him. I have better things to do with my time than babysit.”

Nidai chuckled. “Sorry about that. Here, let’s get you up.”

Nidai helped Tsumiki to her feet. Naegi rolled over to better stare at Togami. The Heir looked so unconcerned . . . he must have been pretending! Togami had a plan. He was just waiting. He must be.

Nidai hooked Naegi under the arms, and lifted him like a child. Even though he was only against the other’s chest, his feet still dangled above the ground. Tsumiki hummed to herself and started fixing his hair.

“Of all the places he could have run off to, he happened to come across you. . . I really am lucky!”

Komaeda had entered the scene, and that’s when Naegi knew his fate was sealed.

“Yeah, I was worried he’d run into the Future Foundation’s traps or something,” Nidai said. “That could have been a disaster.”

Nidai passed him off into Komaeda’s open arms like he was a puppy. And he did it right in front of Togami, and Togami was only watching. Why? What could he be waiting for?

“Togami-kun!” Naegi struggled, trying to wriggle his way out of Komaeda’s lazy, but tight hug and reach his friend. “Togami-kun, they’re Despair –”

“Obviously.” Togami crossed his arms and stared at him, unimpressed.

Naegi stilled. He didn’t understand.

“They’re . . . they’re part of Ultimate Despair.”

“Of course.”

“Togami-kun . . .”

“I am, too.”

And with those three words, the scales of Naegi’s world shifted.

“Togami-kun, you . . . you . . .”

You traitor.

He lunged, reaching for the Heir. His hands struck empty air; Komaeda’s arm had locked around his neck, holding him back. His screams came out as splutters. And Togami merely stood there. Cold. Unremorseful. Naegi wanted to grab his fancy shirt and shout in his face because how could he? How could Togami do this to him? He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to shake Togami and see some actual emotion.

“Why?” His tears didn’t fall yet, but they were dangerously close. “Why are you doing this?”

Tell me what I did wrong. Tell me what I can do to fix this. Tell me why you hate me so much.

“I did nothing to him,” Togami lied. “What is he prattling about?”

“Naegi-kun?” With his free hand, Komaeda was trying to run his fingers through his hair and calm him.

“He’s lying!” Naegi screamed. “He’s not supposed to be . . . he’s not one of you . . .”

He could say no more. He was straining against Komaeda’s arm, choking himself out. His legs quivered like jelly, slowly failing. Togami had betrayed him. After everything they’d been through, he’d turned out to be exactly like the heartless person Asahina had always claimed he was.

“Ah, that’s why!” Komaeda laughed, flinching a little from his bruised ribs. “Naegi-kun’s mistook him for the other one. He’s just confused.”

The other two made a noise of understanding. Kamukura sighed and walked off, probably unimpressed by what he perceived as their slowness.

“It’s okay, Makoto,” Tsumiki said, dragging out his name in a singsong fashion. “You’re safe now.”

I was safe. I was free.

“If there’s nothing else that needs immediate discussion, then I have no intention of remaining in this filthy place.” Togami was already walking away, expecting his implied orders to be obeyed.

Nidai crouched and looked straight at Naegi. “The kid looks pretty tuckered out. You want me to give him a piggyback?”

Togami, I . . .

Komaeda said, “Amazing, Nidai-san! For sure, that’s an idea worthy of an Ultimate. I don’t think Naegi-kun’s ever been through so much excitement before.”

“He seems okay, but I want to give him a full evaluation when we get home,” Tsumiki demanded. Komaeda agreed amicably.

Please, just tell me why. . .

Tsumiki and Komaeda helped him onto Nidai’s back. The Coach didn’t seem the least bit bothered by the added weight. They started on the short journey back to his prison, Togami leading the way. Komaeda trailed behind the group, looking at the battered city with an emotion that could be described as curious. Tsumiki walked behind Naegi and his steed. She smiled every time she caught his eye, seemingly oblivious to the dull expression on his face.

Togami, I . . .

“I’m glad we found you so quickly, Makoto,” Tsumiki said.

I . . .

I hate you.


With the exception of the Yakuza and his bodyguard, the rest of Ultimate Despair were waiting outside his room when they arrived. The small, mumbling throng broke apart when they saw him. Soda and Owari in particular seemed delighted, and they ran up to meet Naegi and his entourage.

“Hey, you’re okay!” Soda cried out. “You had us real worried for a while there.”

Naegi was silent, neither in the mood to talk nor dig his grave deeper. There was one odd thing he noticed, however. Not one person had commented so far on how he had tried to escape. They were all acting as if he got lost or something.

“I honestly thought you blew up with everything,” Owari said.

That was a very weird thing to say. The building hadn’t looked that damaged when he was dragged in . . . Hold on. That smell . . .? Was that smoke? Now that he looked, he noticed Hanamura was holding a fire extinguisher. Soda was too, actually. Plus, both he and Owari were smeared with soot.

“How bad is the damage?” Nidai asked.

Owari made a pained sound. “We’re not going to be able to save much.”

And Naegi knew without even looking.

He dropped from Nidai’s back. Without speaking, he slipped between Soda and Owari and stared into what remained of his room. And the answer to that was ashes. The floor, the walls, even parts of the ceiling were scorched black. Little wisps of paper, charred around the edges, lay against the wall. The back half of the bed had been eaten away, and it looked like some force had sheared his pillow in half. That same force had smashed up his cabinets and all the little things he had on it. They lay in small, unrecognizable pieces, most completely devoid of color. Even the bathroom hadn’t escaped; the door was caved in, and he could see signs of damage within.

He was almost able to convince himself he didn’t care. But then a piece of ash fell from the ceiling and Naegi looked up and remembered what he had lost. He walked into the center of his destroyed room, staring upward, trying to see if anything could be recognized in the strips of pictures that remained.

“A few of them snuck past us while we were fighting, but we never thought they’d go this far,” Nidai said quietly, almost regretfully. “We didn’t think they’d try to kill you.”

Naegi stared at his feet. He’d left footprints behind him in the ash.

Tsumiki stepped forward timidly. “Makoto?”

He stared. This room had been his prison. From the moment he’d woken up here, this room had been the symbol of his oppression. He’d hated it. He’d hated waking up to these walls and knowing he would continue to do so for the near future. But this room had also been his. He’d lived here. He’d been safe here. All the toys and decorations lying around had been his. In a way, it had been home. And now it was gone.

“They even got the closet next door,” he heard Komaeda say. “Guess I’m homeless again.”

“Makoto.” Tsumiki was right behind him. Her hand rested on his shoulder.

“It’s all gone,” he said.

Naegi turned slowly. Past Tsumiki’s concerned face, he saw Togami scanning the room.

“. . . I’ve lost everything.”

She frowned in sympathy. “Makoto, you . . . it’s not all gone. You still have us. You have me.”

“Do I?” he whispered..

She tiptoed forward. Slender arms wound around him, holding him gently as soft lips brushed his forehead.

“I’m here, sweetie. Mikan’s here.”

Naegi stared blankly ahead, barely registering Togami as he moved aside for Kamukura.

He closed his eyes and leaned into the hug.

Who knew how long he stayed like that? Tsumiki didn’t seem to be in any mind to end the hug, and he could barely muster up the will to keep breathing. For whatever reason, nobody else seemed keen to interrupt them either. Not until steps echoed down the hall, and one of Ultimate Despair’s two missing members arrived on the scene.

“Hey!” Kuzuryu said. “I need one of those Monokuma helmets.”

“The interrogation isn’t going well?” Komaeda asked.

Naegi heard the Yakuza’s suit rustle as he shrugged. “Peko roughed them up, but they’re still not talking. No big deal. We could always get what we want given enough time, but I thought some mental stuff would be a nice change. Regular torture gets boring if you do it too often.”

Against him, Tsumiki stiffened up.

“I want Makoto to be there!” she demanded. “I want them to tell him directly why they tried to . . .” (She breathed heavily with supressed rage) “Why they bombed his room!”

“Glad we’re on the same page,” Kuzuryu said.

The hug ended there. Soda left to go find a spare helmet. Tsumiki gently led him out of the room, nudging him forward like a dog leading her puppy. Kuzuryu waited for them, striking an arrogant pose with his chin raised and chest thrust out.

“Naegi-kun!” Komaeda bounced forward. “Don’t worry about your room. Just think about what the next one will be like! It’ll be bigger, better . . . just think about that and your hope will shine!”

“We need to talk about that,” Kuzuryu said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to up our security, but now that the Future Foundation’s sending strike teams after him, I don’t think Naegi should be sleeping alone.”

“Gotta agree with that,” Owari said. She pinched Naegi’s bicep. “I don’t think he could fight off a crippled assassin wielding a cane.”

“He can keep staying with me,” Komaeda said. “That arrangement worked really well.”

“Yeah, except you don’t have a room anymore,” Kuzuryu said.

Komaeda blinked. It was as if that fact had dawned on him for the very first time.

“He can stay with me!” Tsumiki exclaimed, her chest pressing against his back as the hug started all over again. “I don’t mind at all. I’ll sleep on the floor!”

“I’m sure we got an extra bed we can drag in there,” Nidai said. “No need to go getting back cramps.”

“Not even for despair?”

“. . . Well, in that case!”

But then Naegi pulled away from Tsumiki. She stood there, arms still raised and held out as if she were holding him. She must have assumed she had won this argument, and had never expected Naegi himself to disagree.

“Am I allowed to choose?” Naegi asked. “I’d . . . I’m sorry Mikan, but I’d rather not stay with you.”

For a moment, she looked like she might cry. But then she giggled and Naegi saw despair-swirls in her eyes.

“I don’t blame you,” Nidai said. “Don’t take it personally Mikan, but you’re not exactly class bodyguard material. The best bodyguards are the ones who train and maintain top physical condition so that they –”

“It’s not you or Owari, either,” Naegi said.

That shut him up. He didn’t seem to know where to go from there. None of them really did. They watched Naegi with curiosity and confusion, waiting for his answer. Naegi stepped forward and turned on his heel, stopping when he faced the person who bore the name his mind whispered to him.

“I want to stay with Kamukura Izuru.”

. . . Okay, so he’d gotten a little carried away. He definitely didn’t have to lob an accusing finger at Kamukura as if he was in another Class Trial. Still, it had the intended effect. He was treated to several dramatic reactions from the rest of the cast. And of course, no reaction at all from Kamukura. The longhaired teen just stared past Naegi’s outstretched arm, making him feel very awkward indeed.

“ . . . Why?” Kamukura asked.

“Because . . .” Naegi’s arm lowered a little. “Because I want to!”

Because you are not Ultimate Despair and I can trust you.

Kamukura stared at him.

“. . . You really are into self-flagellation,” was all Kamukura said.

Chapter Text

The light turned on. Immediately, Pekoyama and her bloody sword came into sharp focus. She moved robotically, the tip of her sword dragging as he took her proper place by Kuzuryu’s side. Behind her, she had left three captives, each cuffed and chained to the ground. Kuzuryu watched them, an almost curious tilt to his head over his intertwined fingers. The Yakuza was seated at a fancy wooden desk that seemed too big for him. Pekoyama bowed her head in respect to her master, and then seemed to fade into the background.

Kuzuryu idly examined his shirt. “It’s not going to be fun trying to get blood out of these clothes. Lucky for you bastards, I’m a pretty accommodating guy, so I’m willing to overlook that inconvenience.”

The three captives said nothing. Their hate-filled glares spelt out enough.

Kuzuryu chuckled, and then leaned forward across the desk. “But, nobody cares about my problems right now. We’re here to talk about you guys. Look, we already know you’re from the Future Foundation. We know you wanted to kill Naegi Makoto. So you see, we got everything we need to know. Everything else we’re asking is just out of curiosity. Are you guys really willing to go through all this just for some answers that aren’t going to make a difference? ”

Again, there was no answer. But Kuzuryu seemed to have expected that, for his smirk only grew. He snapped his fingers, and the room’s single door opened. Soda entered, a Monokuma helmet tucked under each arm. Kuzuryu patted the desk, and Soda placed one of the two helmets there.

“The middle one,” the Yakuza said. “Let’s see what she has to say.”

With chains wrapped around her limbs and neck, the captive couldn’t do much to resist. Soda easily slammed the helmet upon her head. There was a sharp sound, like a spark, and then the twin, red eyes of the bear’s face lit up.

“So, Person I Don’t Give a Shit About, what was your mission?”

“Our primary objective was to retrieve Naegi Makoto and return him to the Future Foundation,” the woman said at once. Her two partners stared at her in shock, eyes widening when she continued. “However, if our mission was to fail, then we were to eliminate him to prevent his exploitation by Ultimate Despair.”

Kuzuryu leaned back and let those words hang for a moment.

“You see?” he said afterwards. “It doesn’t matter how stubborn you are. We can get all the information we need. The only reason I’m offering you guys a choice is because I’m in a generous mood. So what’ll it be: cooperate, or not?”

The two remaining captives looked at each other. They didn’t agree, but they didn’t disagree either.

“Good choice. Peko?”

Pekoyama marched forward, and yanked the helmet off the woman’s head. As her consciousness returned to herself, she jolted violently, skin paling.

As Pekoyama placed the second helmet next to the first on the desk, Kuzuryu began to speak. “You bastards are lucky I haven’t ordered her to gut you. See, what your friend said back there? It rubs me the wrong way. Maybe you just haven’t seen a dictionary in a while, but returning something implies that you owned it in the first place. Let’s get this straight. He’s not yours. The Future Foundation has never, and will never own him. So keep all this bullshit about us stealing him to yourselves, or I’m going to get angry.”

That seemed to strike a chord. The captive on the right stirred, chin rising. “Ultimate Despair does–”

The sound of the gunshot echoed through the room.

Teeth clenched together to keep himself from screaming, the captive fell silent. Blood poured from a long gash on the side of his head. The bullet had passed close enough to hurt, close enough to burn, but not enough to kill.

Kuzuryu set his previously concealed gun on the desk. “We should probably stop talking behind the kid’s back. Peko, bring in the guest of honour.”

Pekoyama walked out of the room. She was only gone a few seconds. When she returned, the small, brown-haired figure of Naegi Makoto shuffled behind her. Komaeda and Tsumiki, both of them holding him by the upper arm, flanked him on either side. If one were not aware of the strange relationship between them, it would have been easy to assume Naegi was in the exact same position as the three captives.

At Kuzuryu’s nod, Pekoyama retreated to the back of the room and grabbed a chair. She placed it right behind Naegi, holding it still as Komaeda pushed him into it. He then took Pekoyama’s place behind Naegi. Tsumiki remained by his side.

“Wh-what’s going on?” Naegi asked. “What are you doing to them?”

Nobody answered him.

“Naegi.” Kuzuryu’s grin would not be misplaced on an evil clown. “Welcome to the show. You ever seen these bastards before?”

“N-no,” Naegi stuttered, rigid as he tried to make sense of the chains, the captives, and the blood-soaked floor. He couldn’t tell how much of it was fresh. So much blood had spilt here that it had permanently dyed the wood.

“No? Any reason these guys might have a grudge against you?” When Naegi shook his head, Kuzuryu turned to the captives. “So you tried to kill a kid who you never met before. That’s fucking cold.”

Rage etched itself onto two of the captive’s faces. The woman spoke up, nearly spitting. “You’re one to talk.”

Kuzuryu cocked his gun.

Something was screaming in his head. Naegi immediately tried to stand and rush between the captives and the gun, but Komaeda had hold of his shoulders and wasn’t letting go. Still, he tried, legs twitching as if in the process of running.

The woman hesitated, but then she visibly swallowed and directed her next words straight at Naegi. “They’re monsters. They don’t know mercy.  They-”

Pekoyama was incredibly fast. In another situation, Naegi would have been impressed. But here, something could only tighten in his gut as she closed the distance and brought her weapon down on the woman’s back. It was not her sword Pekoyama wielded this time, but a cat o’ nine and they could hear the skin on the woman’s back splitting.

The woman spoke no more. She breathed heavily, sobs clearly hidden behind her gasps. Naegi stared at her. His hands shook. Did he really smell her blood from here, or was that his imagination?

Kuzuryu only frowned. “Peko, I don’t think she felt the full effect. Take care of that.”

Pekoyama reached down and tore the back of the woman’s shirt down the center, exposing bruised, bloody skin to the world, and to another sharp lash of the cat o’ nine.

Stop!” Naegi cried. The squelch of the cat o’ nine striking through blood echoed in his mind. “Don’t hurt her anymore! I . . . I don’t want this! I forgive them! I don’t care they were trying to kill me. I’m not mad, so please stop. Just stop!”

Kuzuryu gave him an indecipherable look.

“We can’t let them go around trying to assassinate people. We let these ones go, next thing you know, the whole place is swarming with Future Foundation goons. Someone’s got to make an example of them,” the Yakuza said.

“No, you don’t!” Naegi said. There was a mass of words bubbling up his throat, all tumbling and tripping over themselves. “There’s no point. The Future Foundation isn’t seeing this, so you’re not even making an example of them. It’s just . . . it’s plain torture!”

But all Kuzuryu did was laugh.

“We’re sending them the bodies, Naegi. They’ll figure out enough.” Still, Kuzuryu waved Pekoyama back to his side.

There were drops of blood on her face.

The grisly duo of Pekoyama and her Master had captured his attention. He didn’t even remember Tsumiki was there until she leaned down and whispered into his ear.

“You don’t need to be embarrassed, Makoto,” the Nurse said. “We all know how you feel.”

He had to force himself to look away. “Then why are you letting this happen?”

Tsumiki was smiling at him, and Naegi started to sweat because that was the wrong expression if she had meant what she said.

“It’s perfectly natural, Makoto,” she mumbled, a strange flush on her cheeks and cadence to her voice. “We all feel it. I know I do.”

“Let’s move on,” Kuzuryu was saying. “Why don’t you tell us exactly who in the Future Foundation sent you? We’re dying to know.”

Even now, the captives did not wish to speak. Kuzuryu sighed in irritation, and then pointed Pekoyama forward. She didn’t carry the cat o’ nine this time, but what looked like a pair of pliers. The Swordswoman grabbed the hand of the captive on the left, and locked the tool onto the center fingernail.

Though they could clearly hear him try, the man couldn’t hold back his scream.

Tsumiki cackled right next to him. “You feel it don’t you, Makoto? All those wonderful feelings. . .”

His stomach lurched. Acid coated the back of his throat.

“K-Kyosuke,” the man said. “Munakata Kyosuke.”

“And just who is that?” Kuzuryu asked.

“He’s . . . the second-in-command in The Future Foundation.”

“You hear that, Naegi? The top brass themselves are trying to kill you!”

His stomach felt like it was filled with lead. He didn’t blame them. He wouldn’t play Kuzuryu’s game. He couldn’t blame them. Maybe they thought he was like Togami.

A finger traced the contour of his thigh, and he jumped so violently he smashed his head against the back of the chair. Panting, skin sleek with sweat, he turned terrified eyes to Tsumiki.

“Mikan, what are you doing?”

Tsumiki smiled at him lovingly. “You don’t need to hide it. I know what you feel down there.”

Her hand rested on his inner thigh. It inched closer, sending signals straight to the pain centre of his brain. Behind him, Komaeda turned his attention to Tsumiki, watching her like a dog would watch a bear.

“I’m a nurse,” Tsumiki murmured. “I learned all about it. You don’t need to be shy.”

The back of her hand dragged across the front of his jeans. It was so, so cold.

“I can help you. I’m feeling the same way, too.”

Her hand flipped over, and cupped

He puked.

His reaction stopped Kuzuryu cold in the middle of a rant. Tsumiki reeled back sharply even as Komaeda dove forward to grab his shoulder and ask if he was okay. He wanted to burst out laughing because no, he was not okay! How could any of this be okay?! But when he opened his mouth, all he did was throw up again.

“Naegi-kun, did you eat something funny earlier?” Soda asked.

Tsumiki shushed the Mechanic, and helped Naegi to his feet. He leaned against her, unable, unwilling to stand on his own. Komaeda was right there next to him, rubbing circles into his back. The three captives watched him; he couldn’t tell if that was pity he saw, or disgust.

“Get him cleaned up,” Kuzuryu commanded. “Bring him back afterwards. We’re not finished here.”

Tsumiki and Komaeda dragged him into the next room. The Nurse set to examining him, peering at him through narrowed eyes as if they had magnifying glasses built in. Naegi stood there, using Komaeda as a crutch. The world slowly spun around him. He wondered if he had anything left to throw up.

“He’s very pale and sweaty,” Tsumiki said, “but his temperature is okay. I think he’s just suffering from stress. We should get him new shoes though.”

Naegi’s legs quivered. He glanced at Komaeda. The Luckster was mouthing the word ‘shoes’ to himself silently as he stared at Naegi’s dressed feet. Then, his eyes lit up in understanding and flashed with something like betrayal.

“I’m sorry, Makoto,” Tsumiki said. “I was so excited I forgot many people have stage fright. We . . . we can take of those needs now, and then they won’t bother you when we go back!”

She reached for him again, and Naegi could only stand there in rooted horror –

Komaeda stepped them, and his pale hand closed over Tsumiki’s wrist. For a moment, he glared at her.

Then, his body slackened. A light smile graced his lips as he said, “Actually, Tsumiki-san, I don’t think that’s what bothered him. I think everything’s just catching up to him and he’s realized what almost happened today. Besides, is he really old enough for that stuff . . .?”

Tsumiki gasped. “Oh, no! I forgot who he really was. I’m so sorry, Makoto! Please forgive me!”

Naegi was silent, but Komaeda wasn’t. “Why don’t you grab him some new shoes? I’ll stay with him.”

Tsumiki rushed off, eager to help. Komaeda waited until she left, then the smile dropped from his face.

“Naegi-kun,” he asked, “why do you want to stay with Kamukura-kun?”

He felt dizzy. “I . . . He’s safe. He’s not going to make me do things I don’t want to.”

“Oh. Is that your reason?” Komaeda’s smile stretched so wide, it was approaching jack o’ lantern territory.

He swallowed. It left a foul taste in his mouth. “He reminds me of Kirigiri-san, too. I like thinking about her. It makes me . . . hope I’ll see her again?”

Komaeda studied him intensely for a moment more, before his expression became natural. “Then that’s an excellent choice, Naegi-kun!”

Naegi actually thought he might have gotten away with it –

“He’s not going to help you,” Komaeda said suddenly. “Kamukura-kun doesn’t put himself on the line like that. Trying to get his help is a waste of time.”

“ . . . It doesn’t matter.” He knew better than Komaeda. He knew Kamukura was more helpful than the Luckster suspected. However, he also knew better than to rely on the former Hope. Kamukura offered help only when he felt like it.

Tsumiki returned with a pair of shoes that probably belonged to Kuzuryu. Once they were on, they dragged him back towards the room, and Naegi begged them the entire time to stop what was going on inside.

Komaeda looked at him oddly. “Naegi-kun, they tried to kill you.”

And Naegi knew that Komaeda wouldn’t stop it.

When they stepped into the room, they saw that Kuzuryu had vacated his desk. He instead knelt in front of a captive, speaking in low tones. The captive was curiously unchained, however, that probably didn’t mean much because Pekoyama’s sword was sticking out of his leg. The Swordswoman kept her grip on the weapon, ready to pull it out and stab again in an instant. Naegi would have stared, but Komaeda pushed him back into that chair (which had been moved away from the puddle of vomit).

“Just in time, Naegi.” Kuzuryu stood, and moved back. “This one’s got something to say to you.”

The captive’s face was pasty. He could do nothing more than drag himself around with his hands to face Naegi.

“We are sorry for everything,” the captive said. “Your room, the assassination attempt . . . we are extremely sorry. Please, forgive . . . argh!

Pekoyama’s face was cold as she twisted the sword in the wound.

“Sorry. Sorry?” Kuzuryu spat on the ground. “You try to kill him, blow up everything he has, make him sick, and you think reciting a few meaningless words is enough? That’s bullshit! Go on. Show him just how sorry you are!”

Pekoyama had pulled out a knife and carved into the captive’s back while her Master had spoken. The knife flicked up, sideways, downward, but Naegi didn’t see what pattern it made because his vision had blurred. Colours began to take on a surreal hue, like he was in the middle of dream.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” The captive threw himself on the floor at Naegi’s feet, arms stretched out so that he looked like he was bowing to a god. “I shouldn’t have done that! Please forgive me. I beg you!”

The captive’s plead became nothing more than sobs. Kuzuryu smirked, satisfied. He looked to Naegi for his answer.

“I . . . I forgive you.” Naegi refused to look directly at the captive. He couldn’t. “Kuzuryu-kun, please –”

Kuzuryu nodded. He looked at the other captives. “And you two?”

The middle captive, broken by the sight of her teammate, threw herself on the floor similar to him. But the last captive refused to budge, biting his lower lip so hard it bled. Kuzuryu looked the rebel over from head to toe.

“Peko, that’s three strikes, isn’t it?”

The Swordswoman pulled her blade out, but not before taking the chain and lashing the freed captive’s neck to the floor. She marched past Soda to the desk, and grabbed one of the Monokuma helmets. As her Master and the rest of Ultimate Despair looked on, she rammed it onto the head of the rebel.

Kuzuryu fixed his fedora and said to Soda, “Let’s make sure he takes responsibility for his actions.”

Soda grinned. His teeth gleamed. He stroke forward, circled behind the brainwashed captive, and unhooked a screwdriver from his tool belt. He grabbed the top of the Monokuma helmet, and thrust the screwdriver forward into the metal. He stabbed four times, each jab precise, each in a different place. The helmet sparked and one of the eyes only lit up halfway, but the captive remained still even after Soda loosened the chains.

Kuzuryu strutted over. He looked at his brainwashed captive, clearly amused. Then he held his hand out, waiting for Pekoyama, who dropped her knife into the waiting palm. Kuzuryu ran his finger over the flat of the blade and then dropped it in front of the captive.

 Naegi struggled against Komaeda and Tsumiki’s grip on him, watching what was coming without really seeing it. “Kuzuryu-kun, please . . .”

“You.” Kuzuryu was speaking to the brainwashed captive. “Skin yourself.”

Without hesitation, the captive picked up the knife. He brought it to his skin. Where? Naegi couldn’t see. He stared straight ahead, numb.

The other two captives made sounds of distress and revolt. And there was another sound: one of excruciating pain and terror that echoed within the narrow confines of the helmet. For Soda’s careful strikes had left behind a helmet that still controlled its host, but left enough of their mind that they felt and knew exactly what they were doing. The captive’s screams grew in intensity until they seemed to become a never-ending wail of agony that saturated the entire building. Kuzuryu and Pekoyama looked on, undisturbed by the blood soaking into their shoes. Soda cackled wildly in the background as Tsumiki breathed heavily and began to moan. Komaeda smirked quietly, pleased by what he thought to be the captive’s rightful punishment.

And Naegi stared straight ahead, looking without seeing.

Chapter Text

Naegi still hadn’t moved.

Komaeda had carried him to Kamukura’s room, murmuring some excuse to the others for his behaviour. Komaeda had walked inside with him, passed Kamukura, and then set Naegi down on the new bed Nidai had dragged inside. The Luckster had peeled back the covers before taking off Naegi’s shoes, and then placed him underneath. He brought the blanket up to Naegi’s chin, and tucked it around him. A pale hand brushed back his bangs, and then Komaeda kissed the top of his forehead, like a parent would to a sleeping child. He stood there a little longer, gazing upon his prisoner fondly. Then, Komaeda turned and left Naegi to his new environment.

Naegi didn’t move.

Even if he had been asked to think back, he couldn’t remember falling or not falling asleep. Time had frozen, locking him in a state of cold and numb awareness. His eyes ached; the pattern-less, colourless ceiling was all they could stand. He didn’t think. If he thought, he remembered. If he remembered –

Night came and went. As did morning. Komaeda dropped by once, and Naegi finally moved – to roll away from him. The Luckster stayed and sat by his side, but Naegi ignored him and fell back into his dreamless haze. Eventually, the white-haired teen left, leaving nothing behind but warm fabric where he had been.

Naegi didn’t eat that day. He moved only to use the washroom. He acted quite similar to Kamukura himself, who spent most of this time staring into space.

Upon the arrival of the next morning, Naegi finally woke up mentally. His body was stiff and uncooperative, like he had been frozen in a block of ice for a few years. He could hardly feel his hands as they braced themselves on the bedframe. He stared at the wall, red flashing behind his eyes from sights his brain had refused to memorize. Kamukura glanced at him, but looked away again when he saw Naegi doing nothing interesting.

He should eat, shouldn’t he? He wasn’t hungry. He felt ill, actually. But he needed to. It wasn’t healthy to keep going on like this. Breakfast had been left for him, but it was too fancy for him to even imagine comsuming. Maybe he’d find something plain in the kitchen.

He shuffled over to the exit, back hunched with stiffness. Turning that doorknob filled him with a sense of unfathomable dread, and he had to bite back a sudden surge of tears.

He opened the door.

Komaeda, curled up there on the floor right outside like a dog, blinked at him.

“Ah, you’re awake!”

Naegi tried to shut the door, but Komaeda had already rolled onto the threshold.

“I was wondering when you would come out,” the white-haired teen said cheerfully. “What kind of amazing things were you doing yesterday? Were you in a Hope Coma?  I’ve gotten those, too!”

Kamukura spoke up from behind. “If you’re going to encourage his rants about hope, please leave.”

That seemed like an order. Naegi’s mind, so tired of thinking and so desperate not to remember, latched onto it.

“So, where are we going?” Komaeda asked, trotting behind him like a loyal pet. Out of the corner of his eye, Naegi saw Komaeda reaching for him –

“Don’t touch me.”

Komaeda blinked, startled, but he immediately drew his hand back. “Of course. I understand. You don’t want trash like me touching you, especially after those Future Foundation ingrates tried to force themselves into your life. I bet they’re just jealous. They can’t stand that we get to coexist with such an amazing hope and they don’t, so they tried to destroy you. It’s terribly petty.”

Naegi stopped. Voice low, he said, “You talk like you’re better than them.”

Komaeda didn’t look like he knew how to answer that. “Please don’t misunderstand me. I wouldn’t dream that I was anywhere near the level of you Ultimates. But at least I know my place, right? Not like those Future Foundation goons.”

“You’re worse than them!”

Komaeda stilled. For the first time, Naegi saw him frown.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean,” Komaeda said. “What have I done that’s worse than them?”

Naegi clenched shaking fists. “I don’t know what exactly you and Ultimate Despair do, but I know enough to say this: you’re a murderer. No. That’s not strong enough. You’re a monster. What happened two days ago, you enjoyed it, didn’t you? Did you . . .” He hesitated, hearing Tsumiki’s moans again. “Do you get turned on by it, too?”

“By despair? Of course not!” Komaeda was smiling again, but there was something vicious and sharp to it. “Something as gross and disgusting as that makes my skin crawl. Everything I do is for hope.”

“Destroying the world is for hope?” Naegi spat. “Torturing people is for hope? Murder is for hope!? That’s crazy! There’s no hope in that!”

“Despair breeds hope, Naegi-kun.” Komaeda said. He stared upward at something only he could see. “Besides, hardly any of those people were what you could talented. They were just taking up space.”

Naegi glared at him. All his frustrations, all his anger came back to him in that moment. When he spoke, he did so with purpose, loosing his words like an arrow.

“You don’t care about hope, Komaeda.”

Komaeda’s gaze snapped to him.

“You say you do, maybe you think you do, but you don’t. You’re just like the rest of them. All you care about is causing despair. Hope doesn’t mean anything to you.”

Naegi’s words hung in the air. Komaeda didn’t move; he didn’t even seem to be breathing. And yet, the Luckster’s presence seemed to grow. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but his shadow swelled, darkening the walls. A chilling energy radiated from the older boy, making Naegi’s arms burst into goosebumps.

Komaeda smiled, but his eyes were blank.

“You shouldn’t say things like that, Naegi-kun.”

“Why, because it’s true?” Naegi nearly roared those words, his sudden hate for the Luckster too toxic to be contained.

“I know you’re mad –”

“You don’t know anything about me!” Naegi screamed. “All you care about is that dumb title Kirigiri-san gave me. You don’t want to know anything else! That’s why whatever you’re doing isn’t working, and isn’t going to work. I’m not going to become a monster like you, so just give up already!”

“That’s enough, Naegi-kun.”

“No, that’s not enough,” Naegi said. “I’m not going to –”

That’s enough!

The pure unnaturalness of Komaeda’s hiss shut him up. Komaeda had never spoken like that before. Komaeda had never sounded like that before. The Luckster’s head was bowed, hiding his face, and a sudden chill went up Naegi’s skin.

Then, Komaeda started to giggle.

“Tough love is such a harsh phrase . . .”

 “Huh?” That threw him off-guard.

Komaeda’s giggles grew higher in pitch and more erratic. His chin raised. Naegi’s heart thumped so loudly it temporarily deafened him. He scrambled back, suddenly deathly afraid –

. . . Komaeda had never had despair swirls in his eyes before.

“Is that really what you think of me?” Komaeda asked as he closed in.

“I . . .” The wall pressed into his back. Komaeda was right there, his breath condensing on Naegi’s forehead.

“Naegi-kun . . .”

Naegi couldn’t express in words how wrong his name sounded coming out of Komaeda’s mouth right now. His eyes had been completely taken over by those glowing, red swirls.

“You can’t go around saying those kinds of things about me. It’s very hurtful.”

Komaeda’s scolding was light, but Naegi couldn’t shake the feeling of danger underneath, like he was staring at an innocent-looking wire that actually had enough current to kill an elephant rushing through it.

Komaeda’s hand was icy cold against his cheek. “You know what a kidnapper is, right? You do understand your position, right?”

This was a trap. Naegi couldn’t answer.

And Komaeda lifted his chin, and looked directly into his eyes. The swirls danced madder than ever. “. . . You understand why I have to punish you, right?”

His whole body felt like it had been dunked in ice water. He didn’t bother hiding the quaver in his voice. “Komaeda-kun, I’m sorry . . .”

“I know you are.”

Komaeda’s arms snaked between him and the wall, and held him close. The Luckster’s body was uncomfortably warm, but Naegi didn’t squirm. He stood there rigid, feeling like he would explode with anxiety as Komaeda did nothing but hold and cuddle him.

“It’s my fault,” Komaeda said. “I’ve been negligent. That’s why you’re saying things like this. I’ve been a horrible teacher.”

There were a thousand things he could say. He didn’t have enough courage to say any of them.

“I promise I’ll be better,” Komaeda said.

Naegi finally swallowed past the knot in his throat. “I –”

A sharp pain in his neck stole the words from his mouth. Naegi ripped himself out of Komaeda’s grip, and stumbled backwards into the wall. He touched the spot where it ached, shaking . . .

And Komaeda calmly tucked the needle back into his pocket.

“K-Komaeda-kun?”

“Naegi-kun, you know I love you, right? Everything I do is for your own good.”

“Please . . .”

As the drowsiness swept in, Komaeda stepped forward and let Naegi fall into his waiting arms.

“It’s all for you, Naegi-kun. Everything I do is for you.”

Black crawled into his vision and stole his consciousness away-


Bang.

Naegi woke with dry drool on his chin. It was a weird sleeping position he found himself in. He was in a chair? And he was slouched over with his cheek against something smooth and hard. His arms were also on the smooth surface, wrists on either side of his head. He lifted his chin and once he got a passing look, immediately figured out he was seated at a school desk. It was like waking up in Hope’s Peak all over again.

Bang.

That noise . . . he couldn’t place it, but he knew that sound. Fear pooled in the bottom of his stomach. His body suddenly felt too hot for his clothes. He . . . he was scared, and not entirely sure why.

Bang.

Slowly, he looked behind him.

There lay two great wooden posts bound together at the top – a guillotine with no lower restraint. There was no blade here, but a thick, heavy block that shook the earth itself every time it slammed down. A network of gears and mechanism spun at regular intervals, raising the block high before releasing it to the whim of gravity.

This . . .

This was his execution.

Bang.

He tried to run. Something cold and hard bit into his wrists. He looked back and . . . his wrists were shackled and bolted to the desk. Why? Who? He pulled, trying to squeeze them through the shackles. The metal chafed against his skin.

The conveyor belt slowly dragged him and the desk toward the guillotine. Naegi bit the inside of his cheek so hard he drew blood. No. No. He wasn’t doing this again. Not here. Not now. He’d . . . he had to get out!

Bang.

Alter Ego wouldn’t be here this time. Nobody was. What was he even doing here? This was a nightmare, right? He wasn’t in Hope’s Peak anymore.

“Hello, Naegi-kun!”

That voice . . . Suddenly, things made too much sense.

Bang.

Naegi looked up. He’d been so preoccupied with the machine behind him that he’d completely missed the blackboard in front of him. And the person standing in front of it. Komaeda grinned at him, face crazed, but eyes swirl-free. He held a metre stick in one hand that was pointed at the center of the board. Unlike last time, there was nothing about sex ed. or the guillotine in the chalk writing. Instead. Komaeda had covered the entire board with repetitions of the word ‘Hope’.

“Ready for class?”

Bang.

“Komaeda-kun, what are you doing? This isn’t funny!”

“I know.” The white-haired teen said. The metre stick tapped the board. “Hope is a very serious subject!”

“Are . . . are you doing this because you’re mad at me!?”

“How could I ever be mad at you? I don’t have that right.”

He was lying. He had to be.

Bang.

“Okay, I’m sorry! I’m sorry I said you didn’t care about hope. Can you unlock these please?”

“Hope . . .” Komaeda took his time saying that word. He turned to the board. “Hope is a wonderful thing, Naegi-kun.”

This had to be a joke. Now was certainly not the time for a hope rant.

“. . . It’s what drives us onward and carries us from day to day. Hope is the prize that every man and woman reaches for; it’s the Holy Grail that speaks to us in our dreams.”

Bang.

They were a third of the way there. Monokuma robots had lined up on either side of the conveyor belt to watch. Naegi shouted at them, pleading for help, but the robots did not move. Komaeda had gotten there first.

“ . . . Hope is what the world was founded on. The acts of talented people, of Ultimates reformed the world, taking us from primitive cavemen to the society we were before the Tragedy.”

Bang.

“Komaeda-kun, do you realize if I go under that, I’m going to die?”

Approaching halfway. The Monokuma’s heads turned as they passed.

“ . . . That’s why we need to preserve hope, and to strive for the biggest, brightest one we can possibly find.”

Bang.

“Komaeda-kun!”

What was the Luckster waiting for? He couldn’t really be willing to let Naegi die, right? But he’d already apologized. What more could he possibly want? Maybe . . . consensus?

They were over halfway there now.

“Yes! Uh . . .” He struggled to come up with one of those fancy, ridiculous metaphors. “Hope is the blood that runs through our veins?”

“Exactly!”

Bang.

“Without hope we are . . . pathetic commoners? We’re like mindless animals. And that’s bad because animals can’t rule society? People with and without hope live in two completely different worlds.” He paused. What were some of those other things Togami like to say?

It was hard to remember when each smash of the guillotine made his chest tighten another degree.

“See, you’re getting it, Naegi-kun!”

“Yes! Hope is the best thing ever. But, uh, Komaeda-kun? We’re getting really close to the block. Maybe you should unlock these now.”

Komaeda’s smile stretched wide. There was no emotion in his eyes. “I can’t do that.”

“I know you’re mad, but-!”

“I can’t,” the Luckster repeated, and he looked downward. Naegi followed his gaze and he saw it. Just as his own wrists had been shackled and bolted to the desk, Komaeda’s ankles were shackled and bolted to the floor.

Fear leeched out from the core of his being. “Komaeda-kun? You have the key, right?”

Komaeda’s laugh was a short, derisive thing. He pointed at a table very much beyond either of their reach. “Oh, I left it on that table over there.”

Bang.

Terror clogged his throat as he understood just what kind of situation this was. Komaeda’s smile was nothing but haunting now, sending shivers all the way down to his marrow. There was a buzzing in his ears, increasing in intensity as the slamming of the block began to shake and bounce the desk with each crash.

Three quarters of the way, now.

“Monokuma, grab the key!” Naegi shouted. The robotic bears stared at him lifelessly. “Over there, get the key!”

“They can’t do that, Naegi-kun.” Komaeda’s stick fell to rest at his side. “I ordered them not to interfere. If they got us out of here then that would defeat the whole purpose of this setup.”

“There’s a purpose?” Naegi said eagerly, latching onto that. A purpose meant that this wasn’t set up as a long-delayed execution.

Bang.

“We can’t escape, Naegi-kun,” Komaeda said with a grin that did not match the circumstances. “These shackles are much too strong to break. The only way out of them is with that key, and it’s nowhere near us. Even with the Ultimate Gymnast’s flexibility, I couldn’t reach it. Maybe if I had Tanaka-kun’s hamsters. . .”

Bang.

“Oh well!” Komaeda threw his hands up, and his metre stick flew over and behind the board. “There’s only one thing we can do now. We have to HOPE everything will be okay! Ahahahahahaha! See, Naegi-kun? It’s hope! That’s how much I love it. I’m willing to die right now so my last thoughts are hopeful ones. It’s all about hope!

And the swirls were back and brighter than ever.

Komaeda laughed. And he laughed and laughed and laughed, somehow even louder than the guillotine creeping up on them. The world flickered, and Naegi suddenly envisioned two audiences before him: one, the crowd of apathetic, smiling Monokumas; and two, the horrified faces of his friends.

“Look at me, Naegi-kun. See how lucky I am?”

A shadow passed over them as the block rose for the final time.

“. . . I get to die with the Ultimate Hope.”

For the second time in his life, the block descended on him.

For the second time in his life, it didn’t kill him.

The conveyor belt jerked to a stop. A terrible shriek emitted from the guillotine as it forcefully slowed, just managing to splinter the top of the blackboard Komaeda stood at. A single piece of debris fell on the Luckster’s nose and his laughter cut off. He curiously glanced upwards. And Naegi stared and blinked and dug his teeth into his lower lip until it hurt and he knew he wasn’t dreaming.

“. . . The hell?”

Owari stood at a previously unnoticed control panel, her hand firmly on a big red button. She looked confused, although over time, that emotion gave way to something like anger. The Monokumas scurried out of her way as she marched forward; those that were too slow found themselves viciously backhanded. She ended up between the two boys, back to Naegi as she stared down Komaeda.

“Hey, Owari-san!” Komaeda waved at her. The swirls were gone. “Do you mind grabbing the key? I left it on that table over there.”

“What the hell?” she said again, accenting each word. “You and Junior nearly got squashed!”

“But we didn’t, thanks to your amazing reflexes.”

“Not the point,” Owari said in a tone that suggested she was very much used to her classmate’s . . . Komaeda-ness. “What were you doing?”

“It’s okay, Owari-san.” Komaeda rubbed the back of his neck, looking embarrassed. “It would have stopped automatically if you hadn’t stepped in.”

. . . That jerk.

“Oh. Well. Yeah, sure. Where’s that key?”

Owari retrieved the key for them, and unlocked Naegi’s shackles. He immediately shot out of his seat, rubbing uninjured wrists over and over like he was in a trance. Owari dropped the key on the desk and left, telling him to do whatever he wanted with it.

“Naegi-kun, can you unlock my chains?”

He obeyed without question. He didn’t think.

(Maybe it would have been better to leave him there)

“Thank you,” Komaeda said. He stretched a little, shoulders cracking.

Naegi stared at the ground. Even if it had been set to stop, Komaeda had really threatened to kill them both for . . . for what? Fear crept up his spine again. He didn’t understand. What was the point? Why? So he – they – could die while hoping they didn’t? That was . . . that was insane! Komaeda was insane!

A perfectly friendly Komaeda bounced forward and grabbed his hands.

 “How does it feel, Naegi-kun? You must have felt so much despair when we went under that block . . . but nothing happened. You’re alive! Isn’t that so inspiring? Doesn’t it make you want to run around and tell everyone how happy you are to be alive?”

He remembered to breathe. He lifted his gaze, and looked Komaeda in the eye. Had that . . . had that really been the point? Had Komaeda really meant that as a life lesson or something?

“ . . . You understand why I have to punish you, right?”

. . . Or had it been meant to be something else?

“So, have I proven myself to you?” Komaeda asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Do you understand how serious I am about everything now?”

“Yes. Of course,” Naegi croaked.

“Fantastic!” Komaeda clapped his hands together. “You get it now. I don’t need to worry that we’re misunderstanding each other.”

Komaeda suddenly squeezed his hands. He leaned in so that Naegi could see nothing but his face. His eyes opened wide, but there was no emotion in them. Those weren’t a friend’s eyes he was looking at. Those were a beast’s eyes. The gleam Naegi saw there threatened to smother him.

“And I know you’ll never, ever accuse me of anything that terrible again.”

 “. . . N-never.”

“Good . . . Naegi-kun, even if you don’t understand what happened today, could you please remember one thing?”

He waited nervously for Komaeda’s request, but it didn’t come. The Luckster’s eyes were tightly closed, and his lips were drawn tight.

Then those eyes opened, and he saw swirls within them.

“You lived,” Komaeda said.

And Naegi went cold all over as he heard what Komaeda really meant to say.

I let you live.

Komaeda lifted his hand, and Naegi flinched, but the white-haired teen merely stroked his cheek, smiling. It was a bad smile. It was a wrong smile. It was the lazy grin of a cat passing an injured bird from paw to paw.

“I’m really glad you said those things to me, Naegi-kun,” Komaeda said. His hand lingered on Naegi’s skin. “It helped me realize that I really have been neglecting you. All this time, I’ve basically been hanging around letting you do your own thing . . . It’s no wonder we’ve been making so little progress.  But you don’t need to worry about that anymore. From now on, I’m taking matters into my own hands.”

This sounded bad.

This sounded really bad.

“You don’t need to do that,” Naegi said, desperate. “You’ve done a great job. Really! I-”

No, that’s wrong!”

The familiar words shocked Naegi into silence. He almost felt betrayed, like that phrase was supposed to belong to him alone.

“I really haven’t,” Komaeda continued. “I’ve had all sorts of ideas and exercises that I’ve never bothered to implement, but that’s going to change.”

“Komaeda-kun, please-!”

“Just you wait, Naegi-kun.  We’re going to have a great time!”

Chapter Text

“ . . . And he was going to kill both of us! He didn’t even care! He just talked about it like I was asking what time it was. I saw him. He didn’t flinch when that block was going to crush us. He didn’t care. He was ready to die to make some point about hope that doesn’t even make sense. I’m not sure I believe him when he said it would stop automatically. If Owari-san hadn’t been there, I think I would be dead.”

“If you were saved by luck, then that is why Komaeda wasn’t concerned,” Kamukura said in his monotone voice. He was standing in front of one of his cabinets, staring at the shelves at nothing in particular. “Komaeda trusts his luck above all. The possibility of it betraying him never would have crossed his mind.”

Naegi shook his head. “That’s nuts. Luck’s random. You can’t trust your life to it.”

Kamukura half-turned his head. “Komaeda’s luck is only partially random. In most cases, the methods it uses are unpredictable. However, the outcome itself can often be predicted. . . His luck is consistent enough to be exploitable.” Komaeda turned back to the shelf. “When you escaped, do you know how Komaeda originally planned to catch you?”

“No.” Naegi took a step closer to the older boy, listening closely. This was important.

“Komaeda had placed a single snare trap randomly in the city.”

“. . . That’s it?”

“Yes.” Kamukura picked up a rubik’s cube Naegi had failed to solve earlier, and solved it within ten seconds. He put it back, sighing in boredom. “There is no doubt you would have triggered it. I’m almost disappointed you didn’t. I am unsure whether your good or bad luck would have activated in response. However, the alternative was sufficiently unexpected.”

Right. Kamukura didn’t care about his predicament. The only reason Naegi was ranting to him was that Kamukura was there and wouldn’t rat him out. It made him suddenly wonder where Komaeda was and what he was planning. Naegi hadn’t honestly feared Komaeda since the rest of Ultimate Despair had discovered him, but that was changing.

“You are correct. Komaeda’s actions were not about hope,” Kamukura said. “You upset him.”

Naegi winced. Running a hand through his hair, he said, “I may have accused him of not caring about hope.”

“ . . . I don’t understand your insistence on provoking them,” Kamukura said.

“I told you that I don’t do it on purpose!” Naegi pouted, aware of how much he sounded like a whining child.

“And yet you continue to do it.”

It felt like he was being scolded by a parent. That just frustrated him more. Kamukura really didn’t have any right to criticize when Naegi’s willingness to push back was the only thing protecting him from Komaeda. He turned his back to the other boy (not like Kamukura was looking at him anyways . . .), giving him a nice view of the window, and the outside.

“I got out,” Naegi whispered. “I was out. I was free. You were right. Luck brought me right back. All that work, and I ended up walking in a circle. Most of them didn’t even notice I was running away. They thought I ran off because I was trying to get away from the Future Foundation’s assassins. They . . . they made him kill himself. And Togami-kun . . . Togami-kun . . . why . . .”

Kamukura didn’t move when Naegi fell against the window and cried. His skin stuck to the glass, holding him up for a few seconds, before he slipped to the floor. He stayed there on his knees, forehead against the wall. Behind his closed eyes, he saw Togami during their first meeting. Cold. Angry. Disgusted. He’d never taken the other boy’s insults seriously. Not even the death threats.  He’d thought Togami had changed. But had he . . . had he misjudged Togami from the beginning?

Had . . .

Had Togami hated him all along?

Komaeda found him like that: huddled under the window, fresh tear tracks on his face. Naegi raised his head. Komaeda looked back at him. His expression was curious, but when he saw he had Naegi’s attention, he smiled. Naegi quickly wiped his eyes.

“Naegi-kun, let’s go.” Komaeda offered his hand.

Naegi took it.

“Where are we going?” Naegi asked after a few minutes. Komaeda was leading him down an unfamiliar route, not speaking much. The white-haired teen had his hands in his pockets; he appeared to be deep in thought.

“I’ve been thinking, Naegi-kun. You have a lot of things on your mind, don’t you? It’s hard to focus when you have unfinished business.”

“I have unfinished business?” Naegi asked.

Komaeda dipped his head a little, but otherwise didn’t answer. He stopped in front of a door Naegi wasn’t familiar with, and nudged Naegi towards it.

“In there,” he said.

Naegi opened the door. He wasn’t sure what kind of unfinished business could be here. He still had no idea what kind of business –

Oh.

Oh. He saw it.

He wasn’t ready for this.

The door shut behind him. Naegi whipped around and grabbed the handle. The door inched open . . . and then slammed shut as Komaeda pushed from the other side. Naegi hammered the wood with his fists, pleading with the older teen to be let out. But Komaeda wouldn’t budge and Naegi could picture him braced against the door.

“Would you stop that racket?”

Naegi swallowed. He didn’t need to look in order to see Togami’s pompous scorn. He had planned to speak to the blond heir, but not now. Not until he had time to get his thoughts and feelings together.  Seeing Togami now, seated at a desk with a book – as if they were in the library at Hope’s Peak – tore his heart in two. One half filled with acceptance, sorrow, and guilt (What did I do? How did I mess up? I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone!); the other, with disdain, hurt, and anger (How could you do this? Do people really mean that little to you? How could you? How could you how could you how could you?). Unable to decide on one set of emotions or another, he stood there with thin lips, shaking fists, and a burning throat.

“Thank you,” Togami said. “Did Komaeda send you?”

Naegi nodded stiffly.

Togami sighed, and put down his book. “I was expecting this, although not so soon. Komaeda warned me I needed to clear some nonsense from your head.”

Why?” he blurted out. “How can you help them? Why would you join Ultimate Despair?”

Togami looked at him evenly. “Why not?”

Huh?

“Why wouldn’t I?” Togami repeated. “A Togami’s place has always been at the top of society. Even if society has become this . . . soiled wasteland, that rule still stands. Why would I possibly want to reject an invitation from this new world’s elite? I have only everything to gain, and hardly anything to lose.”

“You’ll become a monster, Togami-kun,” Naegi whispered. “They’re monsters. They’re murderers.”

Togami scoffed at that. “Do you forget to whom you were speaking to? I am Togami Byakuya, heir to the Togami Corporation, once the most powerful company in the world. Do you think my family reached that position by playing nice? Whatever havoc this Ultimate Despair can reap is nothing compared to what my dynasty was capable of – if they had chosen not to rule from the shadows. This, Naegi, is child’s play.”

“They tortured them!” Naegi cried, stepping closer to Togami as he spoke because Togami didn’t know. “Those people from the Future Foundation, they tortured them and killed them. I was there. They made me sit there and watch.”

“Good. Maybe that will make you understand.”

Naegi had no answer to that. There was no answer to that. He waited there in quiet shock as Togami rose and walked over. He stood like a king, chin turned slightly upward as his arms crossed over his chest.

“There are consequences for challenging the elite. You witnessed them. Now, are you truly trying to convince me that I should go against them? That I should abandon my birthright for a futile cause and subject myself to the same grisly fate?”

Naegi’s voice cracked. “It’s not futile! If we work together, we can stop this! We can make things right again.”

“And what is this ‘right’?” Togami asked. He no longer stared at Naegi, but a spot on the wall. “You speak as if war never existed prior to this. You speak as if war wasn’t ongoing in the world before the Tragedy. War has always existed. Starvation will always exist. Genocide, slavery, torture . . . it’s never faded from the world. The only difference between that world and this is the scale and parties involved. We couldn’t stop the wars when society was ‘right’’. How can you imagine us stopping them when the pillars of the world have collapsed?”

Naegi was tearing up. The burning spread up his throat to the back of his mouth.

“We couldn’t stop Enoshima Junko,” Togami said. “If she had decided not to play within the rules, do you think we could have stopped her from killing us? I hope you haven’t been fooling yourself with the delusion that we defeated her. She chose to defeat herself. If we couldn’t defeat one member of Ultimate Despair, do you think we can beat them all? Defeat a country of their sympathizers?”

“We did beat her!” Naegi said. His legs wobbled, threatening to send him to his knees. “Don’t you remember? We refused to give into despair and chose hope . . .”

“And there,” Togami said loudly, “is the crux of your delusions. You think that choosing hope somehow makes you invincible. That it makes you important. Tell me, is hope going to shield me against bullets? If I hope hard enough, will I regenerate a missing arm? No. Your hope is a concept. It is a word. Your hope can’t protect me. It is meaningless -!”

Togami’s door suddenly opened.

“Togami-kun, that’s enough.” Komaeda marched in and hugged Naegi from behind, whispering into his ear. “Don’t listen to him, Naegi-kun. Of course, your hope is important. Togami-kun’s just confused. He jealous he can’t take your hope for himself.”

Togami scoffed and started walking in the direction of his desk. Naegi watched him, eyes cold. Something burned deep within his soul, and it was growing.

“You’re wrong.”

“. . . I’m wrong?’ Togami said, speaking with a cadence that suggested those two words had never been put together before.

“Maybe you think fighting back is meaningless, but it’s not!” He strained against Komaeda’s hug like a dog tugging at its collar. “I’ll prove it. If you want to be a coward, then you can stay here and do that. But I’m going to find the others and we’re going to prove you wrong!”

“ . . . Coward?” Togami growled.

“That’s right, you tell him, Naegi-kun! Let him know just how strong your hope is! Let his words roll right off your back.”

Togami’s gaze shifted to Komaeda. “Isn’t this defeating your purpose?”

 “Well, kind of,” the white-haired teen admitted. Naegi felt Komaeda slump against him. “But how can I refuse such wonderful hope? It’s what I’ve been looking for.”

“Don’t ignore me!” Naegi snapped at Togami.

Togami seemed to take a deep breath. Naegi could feel he had the full weight of the heir’s attention, and braced himself accordingly.

“I have no interest in pursuing this further,” Togami said.

“. . . That’s it?” Naegi said.

“I’ve said all that needs to be said.”

Naegi still wanted to fight, but Komaeda was pulling at his clothes and bundling him away. He let the Luckster step between them and position himself so that Naegi could no longer look at Togami directly. Past the other’s shoulders, he could see enough of Togami to know he was heading back to his desk. He was probably going to pick up his book again and pretend this conversation had never happened.

“I’ll prove him wrong,” Naegi muttered as they stepped out of Togami’s room.

“Once your hope is unstoppable, you’ll prove everyone wrong.”

Naegi hadn’t said anything, but Komaeda must have felt how he tensed at that.

“If Togami-kun won’t help me, then I’ll just have to do it without him. My friends will help me. I know they will.”

Komaeda sighed. “So you still haven’t given up. Naegi-kun, I know what you were trying to do when the Future Foundation attacked us. I’m not mad, it’s just . . . Wouldn’t it be easier to redirect your energy towards improving your hope rather than . . . than toward something that’s not going to happen?”

Naegi didn’t know what to say. The answer was obvious: he wasn’t giving up. But to tell Komaeda that? Komaeda would . . .

Komaeda sighed again. He didn’t look upset. Just exasperated. Like he was watching a dumb dog repeatedly try to walk through a glass door.

Komaeda said, “Come on. I’ll take you back to your room.”

Komaeda did so and left him there, claiming he had something to do. Naegi told himself he wasn’t morbidly curious and set to sulking in the middle of the room. His conversation with Togami replayed itself and suddenly, it seemed like he had a dozen comebacks for every comment from the Heir. He took the best ones, and his mind sharpened them like a knife.

“You spoke to the imposter,” Kamukura said. He was lying on his bed again.

Naegi snorted. “Yeah. That’s a good word for him. He’s not the Togami-kun I thought I knew. I wonder if everything I saw there was a mask. He was supposed to be this stubborn, ambitious heir that achieved anything he put his mind to. He said he was going to rebuild his dynasty from the ground up and rule the world once more.  Instead, he took the easy way out and joined you guys. He lied. He betrayed us. Just . . . why?”

His anger was slowly fading, being replaced with something deeper and more painful.

“Kamukura-kun, the things Ultimate Despair does, doesn’t it ever bother you? I mean all the people they’ve hurt. . . it has to bug you.”

“It is impossible for their pain to disturb me,” Kamukura said blandly.

Naegi grit his teeth. “So you’re choosing to sit by and not care.”

“You misunderstand me.” Kamukura shifted a little. It was probably the closest thing to an expression of emotions Naegi would see today. “It is not possible for me to be disturbed by their pain.”

He didn’t get it. Naegi chose to let his contempt fall away this time in favour of understanding. “What do you mean?”

“I was designed to be the Ultimate Hope. I was not born and raised into my talent as you were. The scientists who created me wanted a talented person with the power to hoard and apply all the known talent in the world. For that means, they took away everything they felt would distract from that goal. Emotions. Empathy. Love. Anything that did not directly relate to the gathering of talent was excised. I do not feel for those people because I do not feel sympathy or guilt. Those circuits in my brain no longer exist.”

Naegi didn’t know if Kamukura was telling the truth, but he couldn’t think of a reason why he would do that. And when he remembered when he saw the Kamukura in the yearbook, how empty he seemed, it made horrible sense.

“Th-that’s . . . that’s awful! Are you telling me you don’t feel anything?”

“I feel bored.” Kamukura’s shoulders twitched in what may have been an attempt at a shrug.

“But that can’t be true! I mean I know you’re not as expressive as me or even Kirigiri-san, but you’re not an empty shell. There’s something more in you. I know it. I’ve seen it.”

Kamukura looked him in the eye. “Kamukura Izuru did not feel emotion.”

“But what about your family, or your friends? They must have seen something in you, too.”

“His parents didn’t care,” Kamukura said. “They were so overjoyed to finally have a talented son, they ignored that he was no longer human. Kamukura Izuru did not have friends either. His talent and lack of personality frightened his classmates and kept them away. Komaeda Nagito tried, but a servant is not a friend. Kamukura Izuru was alone.”

It was terrible to think about. Naegi couldn’t fathom what it was like to have nobody on your side, or to live without the warmth of friendship. As he watched Kamukura stare at the ceiling and do nothing, he pitied the talented teen. To feel for so long that you were alone in the world . . . He wanted to prove that wrong. He wanted to prove to Kamukura that he hadn’t been – that he wasn’t – alone.

So, he did it. He broached the one topic that was usually forbidden.

“What about her?” he asked quietly. “That girl in the picture?”

Kamukura was silent for a long time.

“She tried,” he answered softly. “I say that honestly. She tried. But no matter how hard she tried to hide it, it was never enough. Kamukura was not the one she wanted. It would have been better had he never existed.”

“Kamukura-kun, what are you saying! Why would you think something like that?”

“You don’t understand,” Kamukura said, still with those same soft tones. “It is beyond your ability to comprehend. Only one who has gone through the procedure can truly grasp what you lose in return.”

Naegi stared at him, mouth open. Kamukura was emotionless. Kamukura had spoken with no expression. But that didn’t shake the feeling he had, that Kamukura was wrong. He wasn’t a robot. Kamukura was alive.

“Kamukura-kun . . .  who was she?”

“ . . . Nanami Chiaki. Ultimate Gamer.”

Naegi nodded, as if he could remember her. “What was she like?”

Kamukura shifted. “She was usually playing games. You had to watch her if she was walking, because she would be too busy playing to notice if she was about to collide with something else . . . She could navigate settings well enough; it was dynamically changing objects that surprised her. Because of the gaming, she could be slow to respond and most people assumed she was meek and passive. She was anything but. She was intelligent. She was brave. When she wanted something, she pursued it intensely and refused to give up. It didn’t matter what stood in her way. Danger meant nothing to her, if in the process she thought she could help a friend . . .”

Suddenly, Kamukura stopped talking. Naegi looked over. Kamukura was sitting up, staring straight ahead.

“ . . . I don’t understand. How?”

“Huh?”

Kamukura looked at him.

“ . . . It’s nothing.”

Chapter Text

“ . . . I recognize what he has done for my friends and me and by extension, the world. But the world can overcome despair without Naegi Makoto. With the help of the Future Foundation, we intend to . . .”

The crisp, but soft tones of Kirigiri Kyoko’s voice was drowned out by humming. Kicking his feet under the desk, Komaeda played with a dial on the panel in front of him. Kirigiri’s voice suddenly warped, forming incomprehensible sounds before jittering to a stop. Then, her voice drifted through the room once more.

“ . . . I recognize what he has done for my friends and me . . .”

Komaeda sighed fondly, and stared at the screen in front of him. Enoshima was right: hope and despair were contagious. Just listen to the Ultimate Detective! How could that speech be described as anything but hopeful?

Onscreen, cameras flashed as Kirigiri finished speaking. The Chairman of the Future Foundation stepped on stage, preaching similar words of hope into the microphone. Komaeda watched closely. Half his mind was occupied with soaking up those words of hope; the other half of his mind whirred with plans and next steps that needed to be implemented.

The door opened. Komaeda didn’t even need to look to know who it was. He leaned forward instead, listening to the buzz of Naegi-kun’s hope as it came out of Kirigiri Kyoko’s mouth.

“Why did you call me?” the Imposter demanded.

Komaeda swivelled around in his chair. “Hello, Togami-kun. I’m so glad you were willing to see trash like me.”

“Don’t waste my time.” The Imposter marched into the center of the room, crossing his arms over his chest. “What did you want?”

“It’s about your previous assignment. I have a few questions about that place.”

“My previous assignment?” The Imposter raised a brow. “What do you want to know about Towa City?”


“You’re still here.”

“ . . . I was hoping I would never have to say those words to you,” Iwata said.

The two of them sat next to each other in the nearly empty prison. Naegi wasn’t sure what had dragged him down here, but he hadn’t expected – he had hoped for a different outcome – to see Iwata back in his cell. Even the prisoner who had helped Iwata take on the Monokuma soldiers was no longer here. It was just the two of them, and a couple of prisoners Naegi hadn’t seen before.

The new prisoners had been especially upset. When Naegi walked in, their heads had whipped around, eyes filled with fire. Fire that had dimmed to mere embers when they saw whom stood in the doorway. Then, the denial started. One of the new prisoners had muttered about how the rumours were true, and that they had been lied to. Naegi had tried to tell them that he wasn’t working with Ultimate Despair, but they hadn’t really responded.

Iwata, on the other hand, had merely stared. He had been unable to speak at all until Naegi sat beside him in a gesture of resignation. Naegi hadn’t been able to meet Iwata’s eyes because he was ashamed of how useless he was. Iwata had given up his chance to escape to help him, and Naegi had made it all meaningless. He was no hero. He was barely even Hope.

“I brought food,” Naegi said. To the other two prisoners, he said, “I have enough for you, too.”

“You probably poisoned it,” one of the prisoners snarled.

That seemed to raise Iwata’s hackles.  The thick, concrete walls between the cells meant he couldn’t see who had spoken, but he turned toward that wall anyways. “Naegi-kun is not one of them!”

“I don’t blame them for thinking I am,” Naegi said. “I mean it’s not like I’m locked in there with you guys.”

“Exactly. If he isn’t a prisoner, then why is he here?” the prisoner asked.

Naegi didn’t think there was a way to explain without implicating himself. He settled for a vague, “Ultimate Despair is crazy.”

Which really hadn’t been the best answer. It did not go over well. One of the two cursed him, and Iwata lay tense next to him, ready to leap to his defense. Naegi bowed his head and took the insults as they came.

To Iwata, he said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to use the same trick again, but I promise I’ll get you out.”

“Do not taunt us with empty promises,” the prisoner growled.

“It’s not a taunt. I mean it! I’m going to try to get you guys out of here!” This time, he did look to Iwata for support. “I got the others out, right?”

(Naegi didn’t notice Iwata’s hesitation).

 “Yes. They escaped.”

 “Exactly! And I’ll help you guys escape, too. Like I said, I don’t think I’ll be able to trick the Monokumas again, but there’s plenty of other things I can try.”

The prisoners didn’t seem to know what to believe. After he and Iwata waited a while for a fight that never came, Iwata chomped down the rest of his meal, and then addressed Naegi.

“What happened? How did they stop you?”

Naegi stared at him. His blood ran icy-cold.

“ . . . One of them tracked me down while I was trying to get through the city,” Naegi lied.

“So, you did make it outside?”

“I did.”

They sat together in silent companionship. The other two prisoners had retreated to the back of their cells, content to pretend Naegi didn’t exist. The orange firelight of the torches licked at the walls. Occasionally, it bounced off the eyes of Naegi’s robotic babysitter, who waited patiently at the prison’s exit. He had to say, the prison seemed much more comfortable with less people. That veil of despair no longer haunted the cells; Iwata still had a lot of hope, and the other two prisoners were too new – too angry – to have succumbed to despair.

“. . . Sorry, but have you guys seen the rest of my class?” Naegi had to ask.

“They’re with the Future Foundation,” one prisoner said. “It was a dumb decision. We never would have taken them if we knew their leader was cooperating with Ultimate Despair. We would have put a bullet –”

“I’m not working with them!” Naegi shouted. “Besides, I wasn’t the leader anyways. If we had one, I guess I’d say it was probably Kirigiri-san.”

“You’re still claiming that your presence here isn’t what it looks like?”

“Because it’s true! My friends and I would never –”

But he trailed off as Togami’s face flashed before him.

The prisoner noticed. She was at the front of her cell again, clutching the bars. “Yes?”

“Naegi-kun?” Iwata grabbed his shoulder, concerned.

Naegi gave him a shaky smile. “It’s nothing. I got a little distracted. I would never help Ultimate Despair . . . Iwata-kun, I have to go now, but I’ll bring you something to eat later.”

Naegi stood and walked towards the exit, ignoring the glowers of the other two prisoners. He waited for the Monokuma to step aside, and then opened the door. He stepped through the threshold –

Komaeda gave him a thin smile.

“Did you enjoy your visit?”

Naegi stood like a rabbit that had spotted a fox. Komaeda waited patiently for him to explain himself, his visage having changed to one of angelic understanding. Naegi’s cheeks grew flushed at the attention, and he set his eyes on Komaeda’s shoes as fear trickled up his spine. He should have expected this. He had disappeared for way too long; it was only right that Komaeda would notice. Komaeda must have been standing out here for a while, frustrated –

Why did he even care! This wasn’t his fault. They had locked Iwata and the Future Foundation members up. They had kidnapped him and were keeping him here. They had no right to ever say they were disappointed! If they weren’t going to chain him up and physically keep him from these people, they couldn’t complain.

. . . But he really couldn’t risk sending Komaeda off the deep end again.

Naegi mumbled, “I did.”

Silence.

“That’s a relief!” Komaeda said. “I thought it might get boring now that there are so few people in there.”

“ . . . You’re not mad?” It was a trick. It had to be a trick.

“Why would I be mad?” Komaeda said, and he sounded genuinely confused.

“Because you . . . you . . . you don’t like it when I talk to them.”

“When did I ever say that? I’ve never tried to do anything but support you and your relationships.”

“No, you did! You didn’t like me talking to them. I know you don’t!”

They were close. Naegi was nearly speaking into Komaeda’s neck. For his part, the Luckster gave him a perplexed stare with his eyebrows raised. He gingerly raised his hands, and then gently pushed Naegi back a step.

“You’re still upset about what Kuzuryu-kun did, aren’t you? I think you’re internalizing that anger and that’s why you’re making up things like this.”

“I’m not making up anything!”

Why was he tearing up? It was just a lie. A dumb lie, at that. But he was tearing up, and he was biting back a whimper and it made no sense. He knew what he had heard, and what he had seen. Why was Komaeda saying otherwise? This entire thing was so stupid!

“Hey . . . just try to relax, okay?” Komaeda was massaging his shoulders. “It’s not a big deal.”

“You’re lying to me.”

The corners of Komaeda’s mouth dropped. “Naegi-kun . . .”

Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought he heard a note of warning in that word and his heart leapt up his throat.

“I’m sorry!” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean it.”

Komaeda studied him for a moment more, before breaking out into an easy smile.

“That’s okay. I know you didn’t. I forgive you.”

Naegi wasn’t sure what had triggered it or what was going on anymore, but Komaeda had weaved their fingers together. He pulled Naegi along behind him as they walked towards some unknown destination. Each step cast a shadow of doom over him; his stomach dropped further and further. Yet, he didn’t stop himself from moving. He didn’t know what would happen if he tried to fight back.

The room Komaeda brought him to was not what he expected. There was nothing in it. Literally. It was an empty room. It had a white floor and grey walls, and hardly more room than the prison cells. Naegi had no idea what Komaeda wanted, until the white-haired teen sat down cross-legged by the far wall.

“Naegi-kun.” Komaeda nodded at him as he sat down, like they hadn’t walked here together and Naegi had simply shown up. “I think we should talk. Something’s obviously bothering you.”

“Of course something is,” he said, on the verge of shouting. “They . . . they . . . you saw it! You saw what they did to them. I don’t understand why you’re not upset.”

“So, this is about what Kuzuryu-kun did?”

The mere thought of that question, the mere indication that Komaeda wasn’t 100% certain about what was haunting him, erased what little control he had. He could almost hear the crack as his voice jumped from Very Loud to Screaming. “YES! It is! They tortured him. They made him torture himself to death, and you just stood there and watched. You didn’t care! I heard what you said. You thought he deserved it!”

He lost track of what other horrible accusations he made. Komaeda endured them all, face crafted as to be carefully neutral. No matter how loudly Naegi screamed at him or what he said, Komaeda did not move. He was still as a statue, even after Naegi yelled himself hoarse.

He wasn’t sure whether to be unnerved or relieved by that. His throat felt like raw sandpaper and even catching his breath hurt going down. He ducked his head, hiding his burning eyes and weakness. Honestly, even though he’d always heard people say that expressing yourself was healthy, Naegi didn’t feel much better. He felt worse actually, as he started to remember what he had just said to Komaeda.  

Komaeda reached over and grabbed his shoulder. With his other hand, he brushed a lock of hair away from Naegi’s eyes. “You don’t need be embarrassed, Naegi-kun. Just let it out.”

Naegi lifted his chin, but only enough to view the bottom of Komaeda’s chin. If he looked at the other’s face, he might start crying. “Why am I even talking to you? You don’t care. You just watched.”

“If it’s bothering you, of course I’m going to care. But Naegi-kun, what you’re saying about me, that isn’t really fair.” Naegi flinched as Komaeda’s fingers traced the curve of his knee.

Naegi took a deep breath and took the bait. “Why not?”

Komaeda smiled widely, eyes glittering with something he couldn’t read.

“Because you just sat there and watched, too.”             

“. . . What?”

The Luckster shrugged. “If you remember what happened to that prisoner so clearly, then you must remember what you were doing, too. You were in the chair, remember? You were watching. Me and Tsumiki-san were right there next to you.”

“That wasn’t . . . Th-that’s not true!” His arms were numb and beginning to prickle. “That’s not what happened!”

“So, you’re saying you ran up there and tried to pull the knife out of his hands? Because I don’t remember that happening.” Komaeda said that cheerfully, and the chill spread up Naegi’s arms and froze his very soul. “I don’t remember you doing anything other than sitting there.”

I tried! You didn’t let me!

“No, you didn’t,” Komaeda said. “Naegi-kun, sometimes when somebody is carrying a lot of guilt with them, their mind starts playing tricks and makes up false memories. You’ve been under a lot of stress and guilt these last few days –”

“No, that’s not it!” Naegi shook his head wildly, eyes tightly closed. Komaeda was wrong. He was wrong. He was wrong!

“Just how hard do you think you tried?”

I tried!” he screamed again. “You wouldn’t let me move. You wouldn’t let me help him –”

“Alright, let’s go with that story,” Komaeda said, cutting him off. “Let’s pretend you did try to help him and I stopped you. You would have tried your hardest to get to him, right? You would have fought me, right?”

“I . . .”

“Look at me, Naegi-kun.”

Naegi opened his eyes. While he struggled to form proper words, Komaeda slipped off his hoodie and let it pool on the ground. He took off his shirt next and dropped it, so that he was bare-chested before his audience.

“Hmm . . . No scratches.” Komaeda dragged his fingers over his arms, examining them before switching his focus to his chest. “No bite marks. No bruises. Well, there’s still the ones from Pekoyama-san, but that has nothing to do with your theory. It looks like the evidence is against you.”

He was shaking so much his teeth were starting to chatter. His eyes shut again. “I didn’t . . . That’s not . . .”

Even with his eyes closed, Naegi could feel Komaeda lean in. When the Luckster next spoke, he could feel the air warm. “I don’t mean to question you – I always feel terrible when I make you doubt yourself – but Naegi-kun, do you have any evidence that you did try.”

“I . . . I don’t know . . .”

“I mean even if you did, the evidence seems to be suggesting that you didn’t fight very hard. Right?”

“I don’t know.”

“I know you don’t. And the reason is that it didn’t happen the way you’ve been saying,” Komaeda said.

“I tried . . . I thought . . . I tried to help him . . .”

“Are you sure about that?”

He didn’t know anymore. Komaeda was wrong. But he was right. He . . . he couldn’t remember. Kuzuryu told the prisoner to take up the knife, and Naegi had tried to help . . . no, he hadn’t. He’d sat there. He’d watched? No, he hadn’t. He’d been staring into space. But he hadn’t been helping. He’d been sitting there. He hadn’t helped the prisoner. He could have helped him. He hadn’t tried hard enough.  He could have saved him. Why . . . ? Why hadn’t he? Why had he been so selfish! He could have done more.

“This really has been eating away at you, hasn’t it?”

Everything hurt. Naegi’s chest tightened, crushing his ribs. His heart ached. The lights were too bright and they stung. He didn’t resist when Komaeda cradled his chin and lifted his head. The older teen’s face looked like a smudge to his watery vision.

“Naegi-kun, after that happened, when you stopped talking to everyone, what were you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” Naegi whispered. “I couldn’t think about anything. Every time I tried, I heard things. Or I saw it again. I didn’t want to live it again, so I laid there and didn’t think until I could make it stop.”

Something pounded in his ears. He felt faint. (Why was it so cold?) Komaeda watched him; his blurry appearance left the Luckster’s thoughts unknown. Naegi barely had any mind for them anyways. He wrapped his arms around himself. He didn’t know where else to put them.

Suddenly, there was heat against him. Komaeda’s open hand lay on his back, rubbing. At some point, the older Luckster had abandoned his cross-legged poise to crawl over to him. He folded back into a sitting position now, taking Naegi with him. Naegi felt barely conscious, but he was faintly aware that he was in Komaeda’s lap, chin snugly fitting around the shoulder, completely reliant on the other to stay upright.

Komaeda spoke to him softly. “Shh, it’s okay . . . It’s not your fault. You didn’t know any better. But you need to make this right, Naegi-kun. Otherwise, it’s not fair to them.”

“. . . H-how?”

“By turning this into fuel for hope.” Komaeda’s hand curled into a fist against his back. “You let them die deep in despair, and that was wrong of you. You have to make things right again. They wanted to help bring hope back to the world, so that’s what you need to do. Let their sacrifice be your stepladder. Take it, and let it make you stronger. Carry them with you like you carry your classmates. Come back to hope.”

“I don’t. . . I can’t just . . .”

“You can do it,” Komaeda urged. “I’ll be right here to guide and support you. I just need you to cooperate with me, okay? I can take you there. We can right your wrongs and make it up to them.”

“I . . .”

He felt like he was in a haze. Komaeda’s cheek pressed against his. The hard point of his knee digging into his leg was the only sensation letting him know he wasn’t dreaming.

“Don’t let their deaths be in vain. Make it mean something. They died for you. You owe them that much, don’t you?”

“I . . .”

this wasn’t right

Komaeda moved his head back. He held Naegi’s head in place, a hand on either cheek, making sure they looked each other full in the face. “Naegi-kun . . . you swore you would bring hope back to the world, didn’t you? You promised that to your classmates, both living and dead. You’re not going to break that promise, are you? That would be cruel.”

“I . . .”

this was wrong

“Naegi-kun, are you going to take responsibility for your actions? Are you going to keep your promises and accept the responsibility of Hope?”

“I . . .”

he didn’t know what to do anymore.

Chapter Text

He was pathetic.

It was the kind of statement Asahina might have slapped him for, but she couldn’t see him right now. She didn’t know he was curled up in the lap of his kidnapper. She couldn’t see the shiny tear trails that ran down his face, or how he had burrowed into the crook of Komaeda’s neck (he wasn’t sure when he had started crying). Surely, she would have had something to say about how he clung to the older Luckster with his arms locked around him. Or maybe she would have been stopped by the glazed look in his eyes, and the slackness of his face. Maybe instead, she would have approached Kirigiri out of concern.

But Kirigiri wasn’t here, and neither was Asahina. It was only Naegi and Komaeda in this cramped, bare room. The door was closed, and they were cut off from the world. Time didn’t exist here. The light never dimmed.  Even their shadows on the wall were still as Komaeda soaked in his ward’s affection and Naegi did nothing at all.

How pathetic.

“Naegi-kun, what are you thinking about?”

“Nothing,” he said tonelessly. It was hard enough to maintain his grip on Komaeda and not topple over. What else did he have room to think about?

“Are you going into another Hope Coma?” Komaeda asked. “I know I wasn’t much help last time, but this time will be different. After all, I’m going to take charge of my responsibilities now!”

Naegi didn’t respond.

He was already halfway to that position, so Komaeda opted to carry him over his shoulder. All he had to do was shift Naegi up a little, and then he was slung over Komaeda, still only semi-responsive.

“This is probably a good time for you to lie down,” Komaeda said. “We’ll go back to your room. Nobody will bother us there.”

Naegi didn’t answer. He turned his head until Komaeda’s hoodie started to poke him in the eye.

The outside corridor passed him by in a blur of greyed-out colour. He lost track of how long they’d been walking, or where they were. In the silence, his last conversation with Komaeda came back to him. It was easier to think clearly when his kidnapper wasn’t staring him down and whispering into his ear. Komaeda was wrong. He’d tried to make them stop. He hadn’t sat there and watched.

But had he really tried to help? He . . . he couldn’t quite remember what he had and hadn’t done anymore. And . . . and he could have done more, right? If he was really the Ultimate Hope, shouldn’t he have been able to save them? Of course, that was a big ‘if’ he was considering. He hadn’t felt much like Hope lately. He certainly hadn’t done much to be worthy of that name.

He thought no more.

(He was pathetic)

“Makoto?”

Komaeda stopped mid-step. Naegi could feel the sigh pass through his body before the Luckster turned to greet the Nurse.

“Makoto! Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” Komaeda said. Seemingly unnerved by the way Tsumiki charged them, he backed up a step. “It’s just a Hope Coma.”

But Tsumiki only heard one word.

A coma?! That’s not healthy at all!”

“No, no! I think it’s just a Hope Coma. I get them too, sometimes. Like after my parents died and the plane crashed –”

“It’s not healthy for you either!” Tsumiki said. “He needs to be taken to the infirmary.”

“Tsumiki-san, I know my opinion is worthless, but he’s really okay –”

But even if it hadn’t been Naegi that they were discussing, the fact was that Tsumiki had locked onto a patient and there was no stopping her.

“He needs medical attention. Oh, he’s been eating so little . . . It’s my fault. I should have done something earlier.”

“. . . If you really insist, I guess I can’t say no.”

As they turned away from the path to Naegi’s room and toward the infirmary, Naegi wondered if he should say something. . .

But then he realized he no longer cared what they did to him.

Tsumiki darted into the medical center before Komaeda, and pulled the covers down on one of the waiting beds so hard, she nearly flung them onto the floor. Quickly, Naegi found himself in a soft bed with thick covers tucked in around him, and Tsumiki’s hand on his forehead. The Nurse was biting her lip. Naegi half-expected her to start shaking like a Chihuahua.

“He doesn’t have a fever. Komaeda-kun, can you bring the cart over?”

For the first time since they had left that empty room, Naegi felt something: fear. The last time he’d seen that cart, it had been on that terrifying broadcast. As Komaeda wheeled it over, his eyes desperately search for any syringes. And syringes there were, on the middle shelf stacked in a neat case –

But Tsumiki only grabbed the stethoscope and pressed its cold metal surface to his chest.  She held it there above his heart, moved it to a couple of other locations, and then swapped it out for a blood pressure cuff. She measured that, checked his eyes and even the inside of his mouth, and then touched his face with something like worry. Naegi didn’t react much during it, doing only what he was told to do.

“He seems healthy but, um, he’s showing clear signs of dehydration. Komaeda-kun, have you been tracking his weight like I asked?”

Komaeda hesitated.

“It’s okay,” Tsumiki seemed to shrink into herself. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have tried to take advantage of you and make you do my work.”

“No, don’t say that,” Komaeda said. “It’s my fault. I was supposed to be looking after him. I should have known I couldn’t be trusted to handle such an important task alone.”

“No, it’s not your fault. He was my patient and I was supposed to take care of him . . .”

“Please stop. Both of you.” Naegi clenched his jaw. He hated hearing them talk like that, hated how it made him feel guilty, made him pity them.

They instantly forgot about blaming themselves, and set to cooing over him. Komaeda was grinning, gripping his hand like Naegi had woken from a true coma. Tsumiki was making comforting sounds and telling him not to overexert himself. That said, Naegi’s small reaction seemed to have given her new strength. She ordered Komaeda to take him to the scale while she grabbed his medical chart. Komaeda listened, holding Naegi by his arm to support him. He guided Naegi listless step by listless step, and then helped him up the small curb to the scale.

Tsumiki returned, glanced at the scale, and then immediately snapped her gaze to the chart. Her pronounced frown wavered at the edges, like she was about to cry.

“Makoto, you didn’t put yourself on a diet, right?”

Makoto shook his head. He almost wanted to laugh.

“In that case, with the amount of weight he’s lost . . . Oh, I knew this was going to happen!”

“He’s not eating enough?” Komaeda asked.

Tsumiki shook her head. Her knuckles were turning white as she gripped the clipboard.

“Okay, so what do we do?” Komaeda sked.

Tsumiki seemed a little surprised he was deferring to her, but she shook it off quickly. “Let’s get him back into a bed. I want to put him on some fluids.”

Apparently, both of them thought that small distance was too much for him. Komaeda carried him over, setting him down with exaggerated gentleness like he was a glass figurine that already had a few cracks. Naegi kept his eyes on Tsumiki, still barely reacting even when she pierced his arm with the IV needle. He stared at it. If anything, he felt confused.

“He should stay overnight,” Tsumiki said.

Komaeda laughed a little and ruffled Naegi’s hair. “Guess I should drag a bed over, then.”

Yet when Komaeda stood to do exactly that, Tsumiki got to her feet, too. She held an arm out in Komaeda’s direction, as if she wanted to grab him.

“Umm, Komaeda-kun, I don’t think you should stay here. Not with your immune system . . .”

Komaeda fidgeted a little, smile not quite reaching his eyes. “He’s in a very fragile spot, Tsumiki-san. I’d hate to leave him alone right now.”

“I’ll be here,” Tsumiki said. “I’ll stay with him overnight. I d-don’t mind.”

Naegi glanced up at her, considered the two options he had and . . . well the decision was rather easy to make.

“It’s okay, Komaeda-kun,” he croaked out. “She’s the Ultimate Nurse. I’ll be fine. And uh, I don’t know what’s up with your immune system, but I don’t want you to get sick.”

Komaeda’s eyes were doing that bulging thing that happened whenever his desires conflicted with his instincts to obey the Ultimates. He rocked back and forth on his heels, almost like a stereotypical crazy man in an asylum.

“Ah, well, if you insist. I’d hate to disappoint any of you.” Komaeda stood by Naegi’s bedside. Unlike usual, Komaeda made no move to touch him and he didn’t resort to any of his gooey farewells. He just stood there and gave Naegi a hard stare –

And Naegi’s nerves snapped tight as he suddenly woke up. Was. . . was Komaeda mad at him again? Had he expected Naegi to back him up? What would happen now that he hadn’t? He doubted Komaeda would throw him into an execution for this. It wouldn’t make much sense – although it hadn’t last time either. But what if somewhere down the road, Komaeda didn’t back him up when he needed it in order to teach him a lesson? Ultimate Despair was crazy and though Komaeda was as well, at least sometimes he was willing to step in . . .

“Komaeda-kun?” Tsumiki looked between the two of them, confused.

Komaeda blinked for the first time in a while. “I’ll drop by later, Naegi-kun.”

A great pressure lifted off his chest once Komaeda passed through that door. He inhaled deeply, savouring the cool air. Tsumiki sat by his pillow, still frowning. Her fingers were locked together, and she didn’t look directly at him when she spoke, but a spot just beyond his head.

“Makoto, is s-something wrong? You became awfully pale a little while ago.”

“It’s nothing,” Naegi said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Naegi had said that softly, feeling too exhausted to speak any louder, but Tsumiki still shut her eyes as if he had yelled at her. She reached over and fluffed his pillow, an action that Naegi couldn’t help but see as an undeserved apology. Afterwards, she took the clipboard with his medical chart again, and started asking about his eating habits. He answered, not exactly sure what she was looking for. Whatever it was though, he didn’t seem to be providing it as each of his answer seemed to bring her closer to closer to tears.

“I’m sorry!” she suddenly squealed.

He didn’t get that either.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“It’s . . . it’s just . . .” She was holding a corner of the blanket up to her chin, and looked like she was about to start tearing at it with her teeth. “It’s my job to take care of everyone here, and I’ve done a horrible job. I’m such a terrible person. I’m sorry!”

“Mikan, you’re not a terrible person,” he said. Despite how dull his voice was, it was steady. “It’s not like I was going around telling everyone I wasn’t eating. It’s not that big a deal.”

“Why haven’t you been eating?”

She stared at him with such big, pained eyes that it was impossible not to answer.

He said, “I don’t do it on purpose. I just keep losing my appetite.”

“I see.”

He wondered if she really did, if she had connected the dots between their treatment of him and his poor appetite.

“If I ask a Monokuma to bring something now, w-will you eat it?” she asked before suddenly backtracking. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to force you to do anything you don’t want to . . .”

“It’s okay,” Naegi said. “You’re right. I really haven’t been eating enough.”

He forced himself to smile at her, and she gave him a tiny smile back.

His smile died.

Why was this happening? Why was she suddenly acting so . . . not like a Despair? This was not that Tsumiki who had found him sleeping in Komaeda’s room, or the Tsumiki that had stitched up his wounds afterwards. This was the Tsumiki he had seen in the yearbook: that reserved, trembling wallflower. This Tsumiki he was interacting with now, this was what she must have been like before she fell into despair. Why was he seeing this now?

“Okay, I’ll c-call a Monokuma. Try to eat as much as you can. You need the nutrition and . . .” Then, just as he was relaxing, Tsumiki started to giggle. “. . . and a growing boy needs lots of nutrition. How else will you grow big and strong?”

She dragged that last word out, trailing her finger down his face as she hunched over and got way too close to him. And Naegi . . . Naegi understood. He forced himself not to turn away, but instead let saliva pool in his mouth and took a deep breath in –

Sure enough, some of that liquid went down the wrong way. Tsumiki reeled back as he coughed; that sickening, lovey-dovey expression had been replaced by shock and nervousness.  She reached for the cart, mumbling to herself that she must have missed something as she started listening to his lungs. Naegi knew she wouldn’t find anything, but that wasn’t the point. He understood now. Her title had been the Ultimate Nurse. For years, that had been what defined her. To Tsumiki, that duty had made up the real her. So when she was here with him – genuinely wishing to take care of a patient instead of hurting them, and not thinking about how she wanted to raise him – she was herself again.

“I’m sorry for worrying you, Mikan,” he said. “It was nothing. I just choked on some spit.”

Tsumiki immediately tore her hand away from his chest. “I w-wasn’t implying that you deceived me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

Why did all these situations keep spiralling out of control! “No, that’s not what I’m thinking-!”

“You looked surprised,” she murmured. “Y-you probably didn’t think I was so weak. I don’t blame you for thinking I am. I’m . . . I’m not like . . . her. Not like my beloved at all.”

“Mikan . . .”

But she was already gone. She hugged herself, swaying gently from side to side.

“My beloved was a queen. She was a goddess. But did you know what, Makoto?”

She suddenly sprawled out on the bed beside him, facing him. If Makoto had turned over, she probably would have spooned him.

“Even though she was so amazing, she said she still needed me. I was useful to her. That’s why she loved me. She noticed me, Makoto! Spreading despair made me useful. She told me that we were bringing a new world order, and that everyone needed it. It made me useful to everyone. She said . . . she said there would be lots of patients afterwards and they would all need me!”

Some neuron kept firing, begging him to make a connection. Naegi blinked, only a little disturbed by her giggles and the way she threaded her fingers in his hair while her lips grazed the top of his forehead. He could see despair-swirls deep within her eyes, totally in contrast with her wide Cheshire-cat smile.

He opened his mouth, and his answer came out of nowhere.

“Of course she needed you, Mikan. Everyone does. I need you, too.”

Those words felt dirty coming out. He hated the implication behind them. That said, he couldn’t deny they had an effect. Tsumiki  hadn’t moved since had had spoken. Her pupils had frozen in a crazed dilation. He decided to wait it out.

“You . . . need me?” she said.

Why was that so surprising? Hadn’t Tsumiki basically barged into his life and declared herself to be his new mother? With all that stuff they kept saying about him being a child, wouldn’t that conclusion have been an obvious next step (even if it wasn’t true)? Yet Tsumiki’s mouth had opened in shock and the fingers in his hair were trembling. For whatever reason, that conclusion hadn’t been obvious to her.

He cocked his head, and chose to go with his instinct.

“Mikan . . .” He carefully removed her hand from his hair, and brought it back to her chest. “You don’t have to try to be my mother to get close to me.”

The spell broke. Tsumiki wrenched away from him, and shot to her feet. Her skin was pasty, lips thin and trembling.

“That wasn’t . . . no . . . th-this is for my beloved. I need to help her. I need to be useful to her. If I don’t, sh-she’ll . . . she won’t . . . she won’t need me anymore . . .”

But that’s not really what you wanted. You wanted her to like you. You wanted her to care about you.

“I still need you,” he said. “If I need you, then that means Enoshima-san needs you too, right? So, you don’t have to keep worrying about that.”

Tsumiki swayed a little. Her hand found its way to the cart, and she started to wrap her fingers around one of the syringes. She mumbled to herself so quietly he almost didn’t hear.

“Maybe I should paralyse you. Then you’ll always need me.”

That scared him much less than it should have. Hardly at all, actually.

“You don’t need to do that,” Naegi said. “I mean, I have terrible luck anyways. I’m always tripping or falling or bumping into things. So, it would be really nice to know someone who can tell me what to do when that happens. If we had been classmates, I probably would have ended up calling you every week.”

“Every week?” she repeated.

“Sure. Even if I wasn’t injured, I’d call to hang out. I try to spend most of my free time with my friends anyways.” He smiled. What he was saying now sounded so much better to him than all that ‘needing’ business.

Tsumiki watched him raptly, soaking up his words like a child receiving praise.

“Mikan, what I’m trying to say is you don’t have to worry about being useful to me. I mean, I probably will ask for help now and then, but I wouldn’t care if you said no. That’s not how I work. I’m not here to use anyone. You don’t need to worry about me throwing you away.”

She stared at him.

Her shoulders shook.

She started to laugh.

“Hehehehehehe. . .”

She was still laughing when she fell to her knees. Still laughing when she held herself and collapsed onto her side. She laughed and laughed even as she seemed to writhe in pain.

“You . . . you  . . . it hurts!” Her eyes shot open. They were blazing red, and those swirls he saw before had risen to the surface and taken over. “Why does it . . .? Enoshima-san needs me. I need her! I need my beloved!

What was he supposed to do now?! Tsumiki was having some kind of despair-panic attack on the floor in front of him, and he had no idea why. She was laughing and laughing, and clawing at the ground, and what was he supposed to do-?

“Mikan, I . . . I need you right now!”

The spasms stopped. Her eyes held no pupils as she stared at him, only those swirls.

“I’m . . . I’m actually kind of hungry now,” he said with a weak smile. “Could you call the Monokuma?”

Tsumiki didn’t answer, but she crawled across the floor to the medical cart, and spoke into a walkie talkie. She sat there afterwards, eyes distant, trembling as if about to lapse into another attack . . .

“Uh, Mikan? I’m really sorry, but I’m pretty exhausted right now. Probably from not eating enough.” He forced out a loud laugh to cover up his lies. “When the food comes, do you . . .?”

. . . Just remember why you’re doing this. Focus on that.

He swallowed his pride.

“ . . . When the food comes, could you feed me?”

Tsumiki blinked.

“O-okay.”

She crawled all the way to his bed, and climbed atop it so she sat beside his pillow. Between that time and the time the Monokuma arrived, she never once took her swirling eyes off him. It warmed his skin like a spotlight, but he forced himself to ignore it.

When the food finally did arrive, her intensity was honestly quite intimidating. She practically rammed the spoon down his throat, and her keen eyes kept track of every movement of muscle. But as time passed and Naegi obediently chewed and swallowed, she calmed down. The despair-swirls vanished, and even the brightness of her red eyes had dimmed. He could tell by her humming, her doting smile, and the way she sometimes combed his hair that she had jumped back into her mothering-despaired personality, but it was better than what he had just seen.

“You’re not a bad person, Mikan,” he whispered.

“Huh?”

It’s true. Somewhere deep within, past all the despair Enoshima put inside you, that old you is still there. I want to see her again. I want . . .

I want . . .

They were still there. The real 77th class was still there. He believed that.

I want to help you.

He had to believe that.

I want to help all of you.

(because if he didn’t, he’d end up like them)

Chapter Text

“. . . And I want you to know that your sacrifices were not in vain. They will help bring about a light bright enough to cleanse the world and bring about the future you wanted. You were . . . you were a stepping-stone for hope, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.”

The words festered in his mouth, and sizzled in his chest like acid. Kneeling at the end of the hospital bed, eyes closed, Komaeda nodded reverently, hands clasped in prayer. The Luckster sighed deeply, like he just drank a refreshing glass of ice water. He opened his eyes, and seemed to look right through Naegi.

“Beautiful,” the older teen said.

Naegi wanted to disagree. The eulogy Komaeda had made him read wasn’t beautiful in the slightest.  The words themselves might not have been too bad, but Naegi knew what Komaeada wanted them to say, and it was disgusting – how could you brush off someone’s death like that? People weren’t stepping-stones. They weren’t object and tools to be used and discarded on a whim.

Naegi had said nothing, but Komaeda seemed to read his thoughts regardless. Using the bed’s frame as support, Komaeda stood and walked over to where Naegi’s head laid upon the pillow. Naegi tucked the blanket closer to himself defensively.

“Didn’t that make you feel better?” Komaeda prodded.

Staring at his covered feet, Naegi answered, “Not really. . .”

“Would you rather say it was all worthless?” Komaeda asked. The question was sharp, yet his smile and voice were friendly. “That they died for absolutely nothing and they didn’t matter? I know I’m being presumptuous, but that seems rather . . . cold.”

“That’s not . . .”

“Then why did they have to die, Naegi-kun?”

“They didn’t,” he said. “There was no reason for it. They shouldn’t have died.”

He glanced at Komaeda and his breath caught. Komaeda was holding something . . . a picture frame. And in the frame, was a picture of the man Kuzuryu had forced to kill himself.

Komaeda thrust the picture into his face. “Tell him that, Naegi-kun. Tell him his death was meaningless. Tell him there was no reason for it.”

When Naegi tried to make noise, only a ratted gasp came out. It was an impossible demand. How could Komaeda expect him to say that? His tongue had grown thick and heavy, nearly impossible to move. The photo’s eyes bored into him, and he could hear the man’s screaming in the background.

“Tell him nobody cared about his death.”

“I care!” Naegi blurted out, Komaeda’s order having loosening his tongue in a way nothing else could.

“Then make it mean something,” Komaeda said. “Don’t let it be just another footnote in history.”

Komaeda put the picture frame down, replacing the dead’s haunting stare with his own hypnotizing one.

“He died for you, Naegi-kun. That’s why he was here, after all. He was trying to help you. He was willing to die for that. And if he was willing to die for you . . . is it really that bad for him to be a stepping-stone for your hope? Isn’t that what he would have wanted?”

Naegi licked his suddenly dry lips. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t need to answer me now,” Komaeda said. “You have all night to think about it.”

From where she was watching them, Tsumiki piped up. “Um, actually it would be better if he slept.”

Komaeda lifted his hands in surrender. “Of course! I meant that as an expression. I’ll leave him once again to your excellent care, Tsumiki-san.”

He swiped his thumb over Naegi’s cheek once, mumbled his farewells, and then departed.

“Is there anything you need?” Tsumiki asked while she tucked the blanket around him. “You don’t need to worry. I’ll stay right here and be awake all night!”

“You’re not going to sleep?” Naegi asked. “That can’t be very healthy. I mean, isn’t it a bad thing if you’re trying to take care of me while you’re exhausted?”

Tsumiki laughed. “I’m a nurse, sweetie! We take overnight shifts all the time. But it’s so sweet for you to be worried about me.”

Oh, he was dealing with this Mikan. Mentally, his thoughts shrugged. Might as well continue the attack from yesterday.

“Of course I’m worried, Mikan. I care about you.”

Tsumiki’s face stuttered, like a buffering video caught between two scenes. Still, she managed to keep her composure and said, “I brought you a present.”

. . . That could mean so many things.

But it was a good present this time. She reached down under the bed, and then pulled up a stuffed rabbit. And this one was not modeled after Monokuma, either! Below the glass surface, one of its eyes were cracked down the center. The rabbit’s fur was a faded grey, and an even more faded red bow had been tied around its neck. It smelt like mothballs. He took it and held it close to him anyways.

“Thank you, Mikan. It’s . . .”

He hesitated. He had held it out in front of him so he could look at it better, but the more he looked at it, the odder it made him feel. It felt . . . it felt familiar somehow.

“Mikan, this is from my old room.”

“It was one of the only things we were able to save,” she said sadly.

“What about the photos?”

“I think they all burned up.”

Of course they did. His luck would ensure that the things he wanted to save would be destroyed first. His mood considerably dampened, he let his head drop onto the pillow. The rabbit lay across his chest, one of his arms looped over it.

“Now, just close your eyes and count backwards from one hundred, okay?” With each due count, Tsumiki stroked his hair. It would have been soothing, if she wasn’t crazy and this wasn’t Ultimate Despair. Yet he had to admit that it was probably safer here than with Komaeda and his dangerous new attitude.

Rabbit clenched to his chest, he closed his eye s and slowed his breathing. With all the sitting around and . . . coma-ing he’d been doing lately, he hadn’t expected sleep to come easy. However, once he closed his eyes he found them hard to open again, and they dragged downwards whenever he tried. He curled up, Tsumiki keeping watch over him as he fell asleep.


He woke drenched with sweat.

Tsumiki’s hands were on his shoulders as she shook him awake, but in his half-dream haze, he could only see Ultimate Despair. He screamed. He twisted, and his foot shot out, catching her and knocking her to the floor. He rolled in the other direction, desperate to move, desperate to escape –

“Makoto!”

He stopped. Blood dripped down his arm from where he had nearly torn out the IV in his struggles.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Tsumiki wailed. Even so, her apologies didn’t stop her from launching across the bed, grabbing him, and pushing him back down. “You were screaming in your sleep, so I tried to wake you.”

“Y-yeah?” Naegi dragged a hand through his damp hair.

She asked, “What were you dreaming about?”

Naegi honestly couldn’t remember, but he could guess.

“The same thing I did yesterday.” And the days before that.

“Oh, Makoto.”

Next thing he knew, his back was lifted off the bed. Tsumiki had engulfed him in a smothering embrace, rocking him back and forth gently. Naegi put one hand on her shoulder, but otherwise couldn’t bring himself to do much else.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were having nightmares, sweetie?”

He wanted to laugh bitterly. “Why would I? So you can erase my memory of what happened?”

Tsumiki frowned.

“ . . . Is that what you want me to do?” she asked.

. . . She wasn’t serious, was she? He looked closer. No, she definitely was. Enoshima had done it before to his class, but it had never occurred to him that Ultimate Despair was capable of memory wiping, too. He was going to have to be careful. There was absolutely no way he could give Tsumiki or anyone permission to wipe even the most traumatic, most horrible things from his mind. If he gave them permission to start, then who knew where they would end?

So, he told her, “No. It was a rhetorical question.”

Tsumiki smiled a little, and the red in her eyes brightened. She asked, “Do you know what helps my young patients sleep at night?”

Oh boy. He braced himself. What terrible thing was she about to suggest now -?

“Milk and cookies!”

. . . It was such an ordinary, non-despairful answer that he instantly accepted.

“Okay! Let’s go for a little walk.”

By the time Tsumiki reached for his hand, he had already half-lifted it in anticipation. Tsumiki loved leading him to places by holding his hand. Even if it was a place he had been many times before and didn’t need any help to find, and if her other hand was already preoccupied with rolling along the IV stand. Except as it turned out, she wasn’t leading him to the cafeteria; when she had said a little walk, she meant a little walk across the room. Naegi stared at the wheelchair she had led him to, and then glanced at her.

“ . . . Do I have to?”

“You’re my patient. I can’t let you overexert yourself!”

Naegi sighed, and flopped into the wheelchair.

It was actually kind of fun. Despite all the accidents that his luck brought upon him, Naegi had never been seriously injured enough to need a wheelchair. He’d always wondered what it was like to ride in one though. If he sat back and forgot where he was and who was pushing him, then it was easy to pretend he was being wheeled about in a real hospital. He was still in that mindset when she rolled him through the cafeteria and into the kitchen, so seeing Hanamura there came as a bit of a shock.

“Eh? What’s this?” the Chef asked. He stood at a counter, balancing a knife above a cutting board with assorted vegetables.

“It’s okay,” Tsumiki said. “He’s just a little dehydrated and undernourished.”

“That so?” The knife made a swishing sound as Hanamura flicked it in front of him . . . wasn’t it dangerous to scratch your chin with a knife? “Should I whip up one of my world-famous, super-nutritious casseroles? Guaranteed to fulfill almost all of your mineral and vitamin needs!”

“Just some milk and cookies is fine,” Tsumiki said.

“Over there.” Hanamura pointed with his knife. “Are you sure you don’t want to put Naegi-kun on a special, weight-gain diet?”

“No thanks,” Naegi said. He looked to Tsumiki for confirmation.

“I don’t think we need to go that far yet,” she said.

Much like Soda’s workshop, Hanamura’s kitchen was a massive space. At least a dozen lines of fryers, stoves and cook stations filled the area, and the walls were lined with fridges and cabinets. Hanamura did not work alone either. Several Monokuma soldiers – no robots, he noticed – stood prepping food or fixing simple dishes. They acted like assembly line robots, fixed in their actions and movements – it was rather eerie, to say the least. However, they weren’t the only souls present. There were a few more people. And they didn’t have helmets.

He tugged on Tsumiki’s sleeve. “Mikan, who are those people?”

“Hmm? Oh, those are just workers. You don’t need to worry about them.”

“There are people who work for you?” Willingly, he wanted to add. But he didn’t think he could bring that bit of incredulity to life.

“Of course. Despair is something anybody can appreciate!”

He forced himself not to think about it. He couldn’t think about it. There were plenty of reasons they could be here. Ultimate Despair could have taken their families hostage, or put a gun to their heads and given them no choice. There were plenty of explanations besides Tsumiki’s implications. He didn’t want to think about that though, so he focused instead on the cookies that just came into view. They were Monokumas – of course they were Monokumas – but they did look rather delicious, and he really, really liked the thought of biting off the bear’s head. Five of them, he noticed, seemed to be separated from the rest. He saw no reason why.

“What do they taste like?” he wondered aloud as he reached for one of the five. It was a full-body Monokuma cookie of course, just for the pleasure of making his fantasy a reality. The icing upon it was hard, reminding him of a gingerbread cookie.

Thunk!

Naegi’s mouth hung open, waiting for him to plop the cookie inside. Except the cookie was no longer in his hand. It was on the wall. Stuck in place by a butcher’s knife. The party responsible, the Ultimate Chef, still had his arm out in the end of his throwing motion. Tsumiki looked at him curiously, not at all concerned that the Chef had just thrown a knife at them.

. . . Why did Ultimates tend to be so crazy?

“Avril Lavigne!” the Chef swore. “Not those ones!”

Though the distance was short, Hanamura was still red-faced by the time he ran over to them. He gathered up the other, separated four cookies, and hunched over them protectively.

“These ones are poisoned,” Hanamura said. “You two can’t eat them!”

Naegi asked, “Why?”

Both Ultimates gave him a strange look.

“. . . Because poison will kill you?” Hanamura said.

“No, not that. Why are they poisoned?”

“We’re going to let the army have them tomorrow,” Hanamura said. “They’ll be so happy to finally get to eat sweets . . . and then suddenly five of them will fall over dead! Hahahahaha,The rest will have to live with the despair of knowing not even their meals can be trusted.”

Tsumiki’s eyes lit up. “Do you think I’ll get a new patient?”

Hanamura shrugged. “Who knows? I’m not an expert with poisons. Of course, if you’re looking for a patient, you don’t need to go far. I’m feeling rather . . . overheated. Maybe you should take off my clothes and –”

A cookie flew into Hanamura’s face.

Holding up another cookie threateningly, Tsumiki shrieked, “Not in front of Makoto!”

Hanamura brushed crumbs off his shirt. “But I heard you during your show. And Pekoyama-san told me you . . .”

No! I won’t let you!

Naegi couldn’t see Tsumiki’s face right now, but apparently, it was rather frightening. For Hanamura suddenly shielded his head and started to run, Tsumiki hot on his heels. Naegi watched the proceedings, his budding emotions like those of exasperation.

He looked back at the poisoned cookies. After checking once more that Tsumiki and Hanamura were preoccupied, he quietly replaced them with regular cookies, and stuffed the poisoned ones in a nearby trashcan.

Tsumiki was sweating a little when she returned. She immediately rushed over to him, making a high-pitched whining sound.

“Oh, Makoto, I hope you didn’t listen to anything he said.”

Yes, this was a good time to lie.

“I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Tsumiki smiled radiantly. She ducked down then, and whispered into his ear.

“Never eat or drink anything he offers only to you.”

Naegi could only slump back in his wheelchair. Fantastic.

He had expected Tsumiki to wheel him back to the infirmary once they secured their payload, but apparently the Nurse was content with eating in the cafeteria. It was a little odd that they were the only two in such a big, dark space, but he honestly preferred this to the overwhelming attention he sometimes got from the Despairs at meals.

Naegi dipped a cookie in the warm milk. This was nice. This was cozy.

Oh, when did Hanamura get here?

“Hi,” Naegi said, trying to be polite. “Did you make these?”

Hanamura sighed heavily. It was exaggerated, in Naegi’s opinion. “A quality chef such as myself wasting my talent on this . . . Yes. Yes, I did.”

“It’s not a waste,” Naegi said automatically. “I mean baking is still cooking, right?”

Hanumura’s eyes widened.

Yeah, that had been a mistake.

“Sacre bleu!” The force of the Chef’s exclamation nearly had his hat flying off his head. “Mistaking baking for cooking? It’s . . . it’s unforgivable!”

And now he was nearly frothing at the mouth. Naegi shifted closer to Tsumiki, watching Hanamura nervously.

“Cooking and baking are not the same thing!” Hanamura said. “Cooking is an art. It’s taking all those little ingredients together and making something beautiful. It’s the sweat that goes into browning it just right, adding just the right amount of seasoning to make it blossom. It’s vision . . . That is not baking. Baking is following instructions and shoving it into an oven. When people group the Ultimate Chef and the Ultimate Baker together, or – heaven forbid – the Ultimate Confectioner, it’s  . . . it’s so despairful.”

Really? Really? He was going to get despair from this?

“But, I shall forgive you, Naegi-kun.” Hanamura stood with his chin raised, as if Naegi should be on his knees thanking him for his forgiveness. “That said, I can’t let such a horrific insult go . . . How about I show you what cooking is all about? Private lessons! Just you and me over a hot stove. That seems suitable, don’t you think?”

Naegi wasn’t sure why Hanamura suddenly started combing his hair.

He shrugged. “That seems –”

But Tsumiki slapped her hand over his mouth. “No!”

Hanamura said, “No? I suppose I can’t blame you for trying to keep such a young, strapping fellow to yourself. I bet you . . . EEK!

Tsumiki scowled deeply, and then Naegi winced as she ran the wheelchair over Hanamura’s foot a second time.

“I’m sorry Makoto, but could you please grab your food? We’re going back to the infirmary,” Tsumiki said. In the background, Hanamura howled and hopped about on his uninjured foot.

Naegi nodded and obeyed quickly. Going by Mikan’s reaction, it looked like he had just dodged a bullet.

On the way back, he decided to speak. “Mikan? I’m not too sure what happened, but thanks for looking out for me back there.”

She giggled a little. “Of course I would. You’re my little Makoto!”

. . . Right.

“It’s nice to know you got my back,” he continued. “I don’t know how much help someone like me could be, but I’ll try to watch out for you, too.”

“You don’t need to do that, silly. You’re the baby of the family.”

By one year! he wanted to protest. He didn’t though. Because firstly, it wouldn’t make much difference. Secondly, he didn’t want that to get back to Komaeda. For all he knew, the Luckster would do something ridiculous like start trying to convince everyone he was a newborn.

“Did Enoshima look out for you?” he asked.

The wheelchair’s pace suddenly hiccupped.

“N-no,” Tsumiki said, all quiet and shy. “She shouldn’t have to waste her time on someone as worthless as me. All I wanted was for her to notice me . . . and sometimes she did. And sometimes she did even more! Enoshima-san was so kind . . .”

“That doesn’t sound kind to me,” he said.

Tsumiki swatted him on the head. “Don’t talk about your mother like that!”

He decided this time he would ignore that remark. “Did she ever say thank you?”

“Why would she . . .?”

“Even after everything you did for her? That doesn’t seem very nice.”

Tsumiki watched him suspiciously, on the verge of anger, but she didn’t seem able to speak.

“Mikan, I know you probably don’t want to hear it, but I think Enoshima-san was only using you –”

Crack.

Naegi shakily lifted a hand to his red cheek. He looked up, and flinched upon noticing Tsumiki had her hand ready to slap him again.

“How . . . how dare you?! My beloved did not . . . she would never. How could you say such a thing? She loved me! I was special to her, I know I was!”

Deep swirls spun in her eyes, taking over. Tsumiki was breathing heavily, and Naegi was afraid she might actually pass out.

“You’re wrong! You’re wrong! She loved me! Stop telling such awful lies!”

“Mikan . . .”

And the Nurse fell to her knees, sobbing against the back of Naegi’s wheelchair. “Why would you say that? It’s wrong. She loved me. She accepted me. She forgave me. She always forgives me.”

“Forgives you?” Naegi twisted in his chair. “For what?”

For a second, her sobs stilled. For a second, she looked up and Naegi drew back, horrified by what he saw there.

“For existing,” Tsumiki purred. “She forgave me for existing.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Naegi blurted out. “There’s no reason they need to forgive you for something like that. Anyone who claims that . . . they should be the ones asking you for forgiveness! There’s nothing wrong with you existing. I’m glad you do! And if I hear anyone say that to you. . . I’ll make them apologize myself!”

“Y-you . . . You would . . .? Hah. HahahahahahahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!”

Tsumiki rose, like a bear waking from hibernation. Her red eyes were like lasers as her sights locked on Naegi and her arm lifted –

But the hit never came.

Still laughing hysterically, still with tears streaming down her face, she bolted down the hall and left him alone.

He waited for a while, but she didn’t come back. With a regretful sigh, he set to returning to the infirmary. It was harder than he would have thought, since he also had to bring the IV stand along with him.

(It occurred to him once he was in bed that he could have, you know, stood and pushed them both from there. He didn’t actually need a wheelchair).

Later, in the early morning, soft crying waked him. He blinked blearily, and then looked over. Tsumiki knelt at his bedside, face buried in the comforter. Naegi shook her by the shoulder, and the Nurse sniffled and lifted her head.

“I’m sorry, Makoto. I shouldn’t have hit you or said such mean things to you. Please don’t . . .” Tsumiki choked. “Please don’t hate me anymore!”

Naegi looked at her.

“You’re my friend, Mikan. How could I ever hate you?”

Chapter Text

Although it took him a while, his second attempt at sleep was much more successful. He dozed off with Tsumiki at his side, her fingers entwined with his. If Komaeda or any of the others came during the night, she didn’t tell him, nor did she allow them to wake him. Time passed and outside, the world took on colour. In the infirmary, it remained quiet. The stuffed rabbit was tucked under Naegi’s chin, its ear dangerously close to the drool that dripped from the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t there for very long though. Tsumiki reached over, and gently dabbed at his face with a cloth, careful not to disturb him. Naegi stirred a little, but a few quick strokes of his hair made him settle again. Content, the Nurse leaned back into her chair, continuing her silent vigil.

It was very much peaceful.

So naturally, somebody had to ruin it.

There was no warning. One moment, Tsumiki was wondering if she should tuck the blanket a little tighter, and the next, somebody had kicked the door to the infirmary open.

“Hellooooo, Ultimate Despair! Ibuki is in the house!”

The door was not fully open yet, so Mioda Ibuki immediately kicked it again for good measure.

“Mioda-san!” Tsumiki leapt up from her chair and rushed forward, unaware that it was too late and Naegi was waking behind her. “Please don’t be mad, but . . . could you speak q-quietly. Makoto is sleeping-”

“Oh, Makoto-chan! Where is he? Where is he? I want to squeeze him and tell him how adorable he is!”

“Mioda-san, I really don’t think –”

“Mikan, it’s fine.”

. . . Naegi swore Mioda had been on the other side of the room. Teleportation was not something he had expected an Ultimate to have. It was not something he wanted to worry about. However, he wouldn’t be that surprised if she had just ran that fast. The Ultimate Musician seemed to overflow with energy. She eagerly bounced up and down on her feet, and there seemed to be a slight tremble throughout her body.

“Look! He’s got an ahoge.” Mioda immediately tugged at it. “Do you think we can make him a second one? Then he’d be a perfect fit for Ibuki’s band!”

“Ibuki?” Naegi echoed.

“That’s me!” Mioda said proudly, hands on her hip. Naegi wasn’t sure how, but somehow her nose had become pointy like Pinocchio. “Mioda Ibuki, Ultimate Musician . . . I almost forgot to squeeze you!”

And she did. And it was painful, but somehow pleasant.

“Mikan-chan said you were cute, but she didn’t say how cute. You're like a teddy bear!” Her head turned so sharply that one of her hair’s ‘horns’ nearly cut him. “Is Mahiru-chan here yet? We need lots of pictures!”

“N-no. I don’t think she or Nevermind-san are due to arrive for a while.”

“Ooo, Europe giving them trouble? We should throw a concert and air it over there. I’ll play my favourite song: ‘Stop Fighting or You’re All Going to Die!’ Makoto-chan, wanna play the drums?”

Was this for real? Despite the implications behind what she was saying, she was speaking so brightly and energetically – so unlike anyone else in Ultimate Despair – that for a while, he was lost for words.

“. . . I don’t play music?” he finally offered.

Mioda laughed, and poked at his hair again. “You don’t need to know how to play drums. Just listen for Ibuki’s beat and hit ‘em! The Imposter could always show you. When he was all heavy and fun, he knew how to hit them really hard.”

“The Imposter? Who are you talking about?” Naegi asked.

“The Imposter! Really skinny, and . . . uh . . . well nobody knows anything else about him.”

Naegi sat up a little more. The blanket slid down his chest. “How can you only know he’s skinny?”

“Because he’s the Imposter!” Mioda winked, a sparkle gleaming in her other eye.

He still didn’t get it. “Mikan?”

“Umm, she’s referring to the Ultimate Imposter. He’s always pretending to be someone else so –”

Mioda jumped up and away from Naegi’s hospital bed, approaching Tsumiki. “Hey, is he still pretending to be the rich one?”

The rich one?

“Unless he’s changed forms since yesterday . . .” Tsumiki suddenly drew into herself. “I don’t know. I haven’t checked. I’m sorry!”

The . . . rich one?

“Mikan!” Naegi spoke sharper than he meant to, but now wasn’t the time to apologize for that. “What do mean by the rich one? Who is the Imposter pretending to be right now?”

Tsumiki looked away. “Well . . . umm . . . he’s –”

“Togami Byakuya!” Mioda announced cheerfully. “It’s one of his favourites. Ibuki likes it, too; he gets all flustered when you knock off his glasses.”

Togami was . . .

He was . . .

. . . Togami had been an imposter?

“It wasn’t him,” Naegi whispered to himself.

“Whazzat?” Mioda asked, somehow having heard him clearly. “Who isn’t what?”

“Togami. That wasn’t the real him. That was just a fake. He . . . Mikan, he’s not part of Ultimate Despair. He didn’t betray me.”

The moment those words left his mouth, something caught fire in his core. It burned so strong and intense he wondered if they could see it reflected in his eyes. He felt strong, powerful, even just sitting there in a hospital bed. A layer of grim seemed to have been stripped from his thoughts and suddenly, the room was a shade lighter, and the hairs on his arm could feel the minute air currents passing by them. He . . . he had been wrong. He had never been so glad to be wrong!

I’m sorry, Togami. I should have known better. I should have had faith in you.

“Oi! What’s with that weird energy field around Makoto-chan?” Mioda demanded. She was shielding her eyes as if she were in the same room as a sun.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Tsumiki screeched. “But I wasn’t trained to deal with this! Forgive meeeeee!”

Part of the worst day of his life had been a simple misunderstanding. Of course it had been. It was so obvious! He remembered Togami at the final trial, hope and determination burning in his eyes; the power in his voice when he declared he was going to rebuild the mighty Togami Corporation. How could someone like that fail? How could someone with that resolve, that strength and ambition succumb so easily to the whispers of despair?

They couldn’t.

It had all been a lie. They’d fooled him once, but no more. He knew better now, and he would never doubt his friends again.

“Where is the Imposter?” he asked, fists clenched. He didn’t know what he was going to say – other than informing the Imposter that Naegi was onto him – but he wanted to see him.

“Oh, he’s with everyone in the chapel! That’s why Ibuki is here! I was supposed to tell you two that . . . Makoto-chan, whatcha doing?”

“Makoto!” Tsumiki scurried forward. “Please, be careful. You shouldn’t move so fast . . .”

“I’m fine, Mikan,” Naegi said, as he lifted himself out of bed. “I just wasn’t eating enough, remember? I’m not actually sick.”

“But that would still make you weak and tired. You might trip and h-hurt yourself. I can grab the wheelchair . . .”

“It’s fine,” he said again, weary. “I don’t need a wheelchair.”

“B-but you still should use one, just to be safe . . . Makoto? Where are you going? The wheelchair’s over here!”

“Don’t worry, Mikan-chan. Ibuki is on the case!”

. . . That was how Naegi found himself running through the halls while Tsumiki and Mioda chased him with a wheelchair. And wow, the girls were surprisingly fast. Soon enough, he was no longer running away because of pride, but because if he let them catch up now, there was no doubt that he’d end up being run over. Tsumiki hadn’t lasted long and fell behind quickly, but Mioda had taken over the wheelchair for her, and the Musician wasn’t slowing down. Naegi’s legs were aching as he barely kept in front of her, and Mioda kept up an endless holler of impending victory.

He slipped.

The fall sent him tumbling sideways, face-first into the wall. Mioda and the wheelchair roared past him, skidding to an eventual, but loud stop. The Musician flung herself over the distance separating them, like she was shot out of a cannon, and attached herself to his back. She immediately hollered for Tsumiki who appeared eventually, red-faced and panting.

When he saw the look the two were giving him, he crossed his arms and mumbled, “Fine.”

They were halfway through loading him onto the wheelchair when Komaeda appeared around the corner.

“Naegi-kun, what are you doing?”

For a moment, Naegi froze, caught up in the fear and guilt of a child caught doing something they had explicitly been told not to do . . .

Only, this wasn’t that situation. He wasn’t restrained to that hospital bed, or Kamukura’s room, or wherever the Luckster thought he was supposed to be. Naegi shook himself free of the girls and set his shoulders, preparing himself for whatever Komaeda would bring.

(His pulse was fast and furious, thumping like the block -)

“I know that Togami I met wasn’t real,” Naegi said. “He’s an imposter. He tried to fool me, but . . . but I know it’s wrong!”

“Ah,” Komaeda said. He gave no other reaction as he waited for Naegi to continue.

“You tried to make me believe he was Togami. You tried to make me believe that he was one of you. Well, you can’t fool me anymore. The real Togami’s still out there, and he’s still fighting along with the rest of my friends. He’s not a friend of Despair, and I know he’ll never be.”

“Naegi-kun . . .” Komaeda shambled toward him like a zombie. It put Naegi’s senses on high alert, and he was suddenly hyperaware of Tsumiki’s presence beside him. Komaeda got closer, closer, until he was within arm’s reach –

And he fell to his knees in front of Naegi.

“Naegi-kun! You . . . you . . .” A soft hissing sound squeezed its way out between Komaeda’s clenched teeth. “I feel it. Your hope! I can see it. It’s so wonderfully bright.”

He crawled forward, grabbing at Naegi’s pants.

“So beautiful,” the white-haired teen mumbled. “I see it all around you. It’s . . . . I could drown in it!”

Komaeda suddenly rubbed his cheek against Naegi’s leg, like a cat. It was weird and creepy and gross and Naegi kicked away from him, stumbling backwards right into the wheelchair.

“Um, Komaeda. . .” Tsumiki tried.

“I was getting so worried about you, Naegi-kun!” Komaeda purred, practically slithering up Naegi’s legs. “I thought I might have miscalculated and shown you too much, too soon. I even found you a present to make it all better . . . But I should have known better than to doubt the Ultimate Hope! Look at you. You did it all by yourself.”

By this time, Komaeda’s face was almost against his. The Luckster’s hands were on Naegi’s knees for support as the white-haired teen held himself in an odd, hunched crouch. The bone of Komaeda’s knee pressed into his shins, making them quiver.

“To think I almost doubted you . . . How arrogant of me. I . . . I should be punished, shouldn’t I? Is that you want, Naegi-kun? Do you want to punish me?”

Naegi shook his head, unable to speak.

“No?” Komaeda rolled that word around his mouth. “Are you sure? You could hit me. Or yell at me. Or choke me.” With that suggestion, he grabbed Naegi’s hands and closed them around his throat. “I don’t mind. Anything you want, I’m okay with it. Anything for you –”

Which was when Mioda helpfully shoved him back.

“Nagito-chan, you’re being all creepy again!” How Mioda managed to say that with nothing but cheer was something Naegi was unable to understand. How Komaeda responded by smiling and laughing like it was an inside joke was something that he also didn’t get.

“I’m not going to punish you,” Naegi mumbled.

Hand on his hip, Komaeda said, “Well, if you insist.”

Naegi looked away and licked his lips as he formulated his next question. There was something Komaeda mentioned earlier that was sticking with him, hanging over his head like a guillotine.

“Komaeda-kun, what ‘present’ are you talking about?”

Komaeda giggled, and he suddenly seemed to be hunched over Naegi again, face right in his. “If it isn’t vain of me to say so, a wonderful one! I had arranged it to give you a kickstart on restoring your hope – I was so impatient and naïve back then. You never needed it!”

“What is it?” Naegi asked warily.

Komaeda’s smiled widened. He took a step forward. Tsumiki made a whimpering sound at that.

“I can still give it to you,” Komaeda murmured. He reached out, and cupped Naegi’s cheeks. “How about this? If you’re good today, I’ll give it to you tonight. Okay? I hope you behave, Naegi-kun. I’m really looking forward to this!”

“Still creepy!” Mioda chirped.

Komaeda straightened up, and finally turned his attention to Naegi’s companions. “We should get going. They’re all wondering where we are.”

What concerned him was that Tsumiki and Mioda both immediately agreed, and that neither really answered him when he asked where they were going. Even Komaeda offered no hints, instead glancing down at him and ruffling his hair. So, Naegi slumped back in the wheelchair, where each metre Tsumiki pushed him made him dread a little bit more.

“Naegi-kun, do you hate despair?” Komaeda suddenly asked.

. . . Komaeda, why?  he wanted to ask. This was already a seriously loaded question coming from him, but now with Tsumiki and Mioda – two members of Ultimate Despair – around, it had become that much more dangerous. He struggled for a bit, mind working frantically to piece together an answer that wouldn’t make things worse.

“Despair is natural,” he finally said. “People will always feel it. You can’t exterminate it, and you shouldn’t try. But too much despair is a problem, and so is feeling despair for too long. There’s a natural order to it and where you need it and don’t, and generally . . . you don’t.”

“Of course not,” Komaeda said. “Despair is just a stepping stone for the wonderful –”

“But despair is awesome for writing songs!” Mioda said, elbowing Komaeda aside. “Ibuki wouldn’t have hits like ‘Everyone is Sad and I’m Sad Too’ or ‘I Stabbed My Best Friend in the Face and it Feels Great!’ if it wasn’t for despair!”

“Despair is what brought me and my beloved together,” Tsumiki sighed. Naegi felt her stroke his head. “It’s what brought me you!”

That was a phrase that didn’t go over well with Komaeda. The Luckster lunged forward, hands raised as if to tear Tsumiki off the wheelchair. He stopped short though, and shook his head fiercely. “Tsumiki-san, forgive me for questioning you, but you shouldn’t confuse him. He’s a child of hope, not despair.”

 “But isn’t he Junko-chan’s kid?” Mioda asked.

“Yep!”

“ . . . Oh, okay!”

Komaeda fell into step beside the wheelchair and laid his hand on Naegi’s shoulder. “Naegi-kun, I know you’re instinctively turned away by despair, but can you do us a big favour and try to hide it? Things are rather tense at the chapel, and everyone’s walking on eggshells. I don’t want you to make yourself into a target.”

. . . Just what was Komaeda getting him into?

The chapel doors were heavy, oaken ones. Komaeda was about to open them, when somebody from the inside did. A girl in a pink, floral kimono peered out at them, her long blonde hair hanging freely behind her. She scowled at them, and scowled deeper when her stare roved over Tsumiki.

“Finally!” Saionji Hiyoko, Ultimate Traditional Dancer said. The door closed behind her as she stepped outside. “I was going to come drag you by your ears.”

“Sorry!” Komaeda said.

“This is him? He’s . . . tiny.”

Naegi squirmed. “I haven’t hit my growth spurt yet.”

“Whatever!” Saionji crossed her arms with a pout, glaring at the wall. “Hey, don’t do any of that dumb hope stuff once you get inside, or I’m going to bop you on the head.”

“I’m already warned him,” Komaeda said.

Naegi tried again. “What’s going on in there?”

The four Despairs glanced at him, but again didn’t answer.

“Sh-should we go in?” Tsumiki asked.

“Of course we should!” Saionji snapped. Her jaw worked as if she wanted to say more, but all she did was march forward and yank the chapel door open.

Inside, were the other members of Ultimate Despair (including that Imposter. If Komaeda hadn’t been right there, Naegi would have rushed him). They hung around the apse in small groups, whispering to each other or completely silent. Komaeda was right: there was definitely some kind of built-up energy in the room, although Naegi didn’t think it was inherently dangerous. Still, his knuckles went white as they rolled him up the aisle. The Despairs, he noticed, were looking at him with something close to sympathy. He doubted it was because of the wheelchair.

Upon the church’s altar, there was a long, rectangular box. The sides were opaque, but he could see the top was made of glass. The strange thing though, was that it appeared to have mechanics of some type installed. Naegi could hear a soft humming coming from it. Whatever it was, that appeared to be the center of attention, as Tsumiki wheeled him up to it until they hit a curb, and then needlessly helped him the rest of the way. Naegi walked slowly, unsure of what he’d find as he reached the box and peered inside –

The carefully preserved, frozen corpse of Enoshima Junko stared back at him.

Chapter Text

Enoshima’s corpse was more intact than it had any right to be. Last Naegi had seen of her, a giant block had dropped on her head and smashed her to pieces. She should have been a pancake, or a smear on the ground. But this corpse was mostly whole. There were wounds here and there, gaping holes that looked like someone had plunged a jagged knife in and twisted it, but she was still recognisable as herself. If Naegi hadn’t seen Ikusaba’s body explode, he would have wondered if he was looking at Enoshima’s twin.

What really struck him though was the lack of decay.(Maybe her despair was so inhuman that even bacteria rejected her). He had no idea how long it had taken Ultimate Despair to find her, or to put this portable icebox together, but he hadn’t expected her to look so . . . so much like she had died yesterday. Even the frost clinging to her clothes and hair and the greyish tint to her skin couldn’t shake the fear he had that she would suddenly poof back to life and jump out at him.

“I don’t understand,” he murmured. “She . . . I saw her . . .”

“It was a trick,” Soda said. “The guillotine didn’t kill her. Right before it dropped, there was a trapdoor that opened beneath her so she didn’t get squashed.  She died when the spears impaled her under there.”

“But why?” he stressed. “If she was going to die either way, why would she bother?”

“To give us a body,” Komaeda said quietly. He stared intensely at Enoshima’s corpse. What was that emotion Naegi saw there?

He asked again. “Why?”

Next to him, Tsumiki sniffed loudly. “For the funeral.”

Funeral? It had never even occurred to him that Enoshima would have one. He supposed she would have wanted one –how could a room full of people crying over her body not excite her? He supposed too, that he couldn’t protest or deny this. Enoshima had been alive once. Everyone deserved a funeral, didn’t they?

Naegi nodded. “Okay.”

He hadn’t spoken with much emotion, because his emotions weren’t sure how to react to this body. However, Tsumiki took his quietness as grief and wailed loudly as she suddenly hugged him from the side.

“Oh, sweetie. I know it’s hard. Some of the best despair always comes when your mommy dies.”

He inhaled deeply and turned into her a little, hiding his non-teary eyes. He was ready to go back to his room now. Or the infirmary. Just away from here.

Kuzuryu suddenly said, “Well, it’s about time you got her body here. Weren’t you supposed to get here a week ago?”

“Ibuki tried,” Mioda said, shuffling her feet. Unlike the cheery persona Naegi had seen before, this Mioda lacked expression, speaking almost monotonously. “She and Hiyoko-chan had trouble following the blueprints.”

“It’s Soda’s fault!” Saionji snapped. “If he didn’t write like a blind guy we would have put it together a lot faster. You guys should have sent that greasy monkey instead!”

“Ack!” Soda reeled, arms covering his head as if Saionji’s words were real weapons. “It’s not fault! I told you guys I was working on the Big Bang project. I didn’t have time!”

“I bet that thing doesn’t even exist. You probably made it up so that –”

“That’s enough.” To Naegi’s surprise, Tsumiki said that. Nobody else seemed to bat an eye. Even weirder was that Saionji snapped her mouth shut. Naegi didn’t know her that well, but from the impression he had gotten, he hadn’t expected that to work.

“You’re being very mean,” Tsumiki said. “And I . . .”

She suddenly looked down at him, and her face softened.

“. . . I’m going to f-forgive you because Makoto doesn’t need to see this.”

Saionji’s jaw worked.  With a crooked, not-at-all-genuine smile on her face, she said, “Thank you, Tsumiki-san. You really are the nicest person I know. I appreciate your generosity.”

It was a nice sentiment. Despite that smile, it didn’t seem to be said mockingly.

. . . So why were there despair swirls in Saionji’s eyes?

“We shouldn’t fight here,” Nidai said. “Not while her body is lying before us.”

That too, was a nice sentiment –

“No, we all need to show our despair. Everybody, START CRYING!”

. . . Well, it was the thought that counted.

Nidai’s encouragement was all that was needed. Tsumiki and Owari both burst into tears and fell to their knees before Enoshima’s coffin. Back in the aisle, Soda and Saionji started wailing too. (Meanwhile, Nidai kept up a steady cheer of ‘Grieve! Grieve!’ in the background). Ibuki didn’t move; it seemed like she was in a trance of some kind. The Imposter had turned away, shoulders shaking just the barest amount. Hanamura hadn’t started crying yet, but he was suspiciously stuffy as he stood there, watching.  Kuzuryu was stone-faced, but when he walked up to the coffin, he placed his hand on the glass directly above Enoshima’s face and bowed his head. Pekoyama lurked behind him. Her face was cold, and unlike her master, Naegi knew that was exactly what she felt.

Next to him, Komaeda made a sound almost like a scoff.

“Ultimate Despair,” he said. He dragged his hand along the edge of the coffin. “Such a black hole . . . She really was remarkable, wasn’t she?”

“She was . . . different,” Naegi allowed. “I didn’t understand her. I still don’t.”

“I’m glad,” Komaeda said. He suddenly ducked down and whispered into his ear, “Naegi-kun, you need to start pretending now.”

Naegi swallowed and looked around. Apart from him, Pekoyama and Komaeda, everyone else was visibly mourning. Yes, he had to act in a way that wouldn’t draw attention to him. The problem though was that . . . he couldn’t. Enoshima’s death saddened him, but it didn’t drive him to tears. He simply didn’t possess the sorrow needed to fit in.

Still, it was bad to stand out. So, he pressed into Tsumiki’s side, all small and curled up, like a frightened child unsure of what to do. She reacted exactly as he knew she would: she grabbed him, and let him nestle into her shoulder as she rubbed circles into his back. It was the most he could give, so it would have to do.

“Oh, Makoto!” She was half-sobbing, half-whispering. He was not surprised to see the despair eyes. “You hardly knew her. You spent so little time with her. You never even touched her.”

“I know,” he said. He didn’t mention that he preferred it that way.

Once again, Tsumiki misinterpreted his response as grief. “She loved you, Makoto. You were such a good boy. You brought her despair that nobody else – even me – could. You were the perfect child. I’m sure she’s watching you right now.”

He stiffened. He almost – almost – looked up just to make sure that Enoshima’s ghost wasn’t indeed hovering over him.

Tsumiki buried her face in his hair. “I know I can’t replace her. I will never be anything like my beloved. But I’m . . . I’m going to try my best, okay! I promise!”

Naegi was only half-paying attention. He was totally not still checking for Enoshima’s spirit. That’s why he said reflexively. “You don’t need to do that, Mikan. Just be yourself. That’s all I want.”

Tsumiki’s breath hitched. Her expression began to tilt into one of confusion and – oh no. No, no, no. Not now. Not here in front of everyone. He did not want all of Ultimate Despair to figure out what he was trying to do with her.

Luckily, Tsumiki was a person who was easy to distract. Naegi pressed closer to her and whimpered. Immediately, she was back in full-despair mode, collapsing around him so that her arms encircled his small frame and her body seemed to shield him off from the world. She was warm. It was nice in the big, cool space of the chapel.

Then there was a hand on his shoulder. It was much, much too big to be Tsumiki’s.

“That’s right. Let it out,” the Ultimate Coach said. “No need to be embarrassed. Look at me! My face is covered with manly tears. Hahahahahaha, they won’t stop!”

It seemed true enough, the Coach was laughing heartily like he was having a beer with his friends, even though his eyes shone with tears.

“Yeah,” Owari said, wiping her eyes. “You gotta embrace it. Embrace the despair she gave us.”

“Thoughtful until the end.” Hanamura sighed. “What a wonderful woman.”

“There’ll never be anyone like her again,” Mioda said.

Naegi thought, I hope not.

He stayed there burrowed into Tsumiki’s side. It seemed to be the safest option. Despite how close she remained to him, she was too busy – or had projected too strongly – to notice that Naegi had maintained the same semi-blank slate. No one else noticed anything wrong either.

Time passed, and he passed the test. Ultimate Despair finally calmed down and the swirls began to dim. Kuzuryu and Pekoyama left first, the Yakuza with his fedora tipped over his face and his face frighteningly fierce. Tsumiki, he imagined, normally wouldn’t be the second to go (and would probably come back), but apparently the need to get some space between him and the corpse of his ‘mother’ overrode her need to mourn. Komaeda followed them out – of course – and once she had wheeled Naegi safety out of the chapel, the Luckster began to speak.

“Tsumiki-san, were you taking him back to the infirmary?”

“No,” the Nurse said. “I don’t think he needs to go back. B-but maybe I should just to be safe . . .”

“If you don’t think he needs to go back, then I’m sure he doesn’t,” Komaeda said. “I don’t doubt your talent. It’s just that if you don’t need to take him back there, I can take over from here and you can spend more time with Enoshima-san.”

That . . . Naegi struggled to breathe. That didn’t mean anything, right? Komaeda hadn’t seemed angry while they had been inside, and . . . and he had done a pretty good job at pretending, hadn’t he? He’d listened. Nobody seemed to have thought anything was wrong.

“I don’t know.” The wheelchair slowed to a stop. “That must have been hard on him. I don’t want to leave him yet . . .”

Naegi stopped listening. For at the end of the hall, where the chapel lay, the double-doors had opened and a very familiar figure stepped out. His jaw set. The Imposter. That was the whole reason he’d wanted to get out of the infirmary in the first place.

The Imposter was coming their way. Each footstep boomed, like it was a countdown.

Once the Imposter was within earshot, Naegi growled, “You’re not Togami Byakuya.”

The Imposter blinked. “What was that?”

“You’re not Togami!” Naegi repeated. Tsumiki and Komaeda were watching him with something like concern, but he paid them no mind.

“At this moment, I am,” the Imposter claimed.

“No, that’s wrong! You’re just an Imposter. You’re not really him. You never were!”

A tense silence followed.

The Imposter raised an eyebrow. “Obviously.”

. . . That was it? He had expected something a little more. Yet the Imposter continued to stare at him, appearing confused. So did Tsumiki and Komaeda for that matter, as if everything he had had been common knowledge –

Which, okay, it technically was to Ultimate Despair. But he wasn’t Ultimate Despair and he hadn’t known, so they should give him a bit of slack here!

“Is there anything else?” the Imposter asked.

Naegi deflated. “. . . No.”

The Imposter stared a moment more and then left, seeming a bit uncomfortable. In the lapse that followed, Tsumiki and Komaeda concluded their argument, and Naegi found himself being wheeled through the halls by Komaeda.

“Naegi-kun . . .”

Naegi swallowed. This was it. This was the moment where –

“You did a good job in there.”

. . . Oh.

“Not that I doubted you,” Komaeda said, “but you’ve been acting so contrary lately. I’m so glad everything worked out!”

“Yeah,” Naegi said breathlessly. “Me, too.”

Komaeda reached forward and ruffled his hair. “You’ve earned your present, Naegi-kun! I need to coordinate things, so I can give it to you in a couple of hours. I’ll take you back to your room until then.”

“That would be nice,” he said carefully.

The moment he was back in his room, Naegi walked over to his bed and crawled underneath the covers. The springs creaked as he shifted, wrapping the blankets protectively around himself like a shell. He peered out from the little hole he had left at the top.

It was quiet out there. Too quiet. He poked his head out. Kamukura was present, as always. He was still on his bed, looking at some sort of book and . . . hold on. That meant Kamukura hadn’t been at the chapel. He never saw Enoshima’s body.

“Kamukura-kun, do you know –?”

“Yes,” he said. He flipped the page. “I am aware of what lays in the chapel. It does not interest me.”

“Not even a little bit? I mean you . . .”

You’re living with Ultimate Despair.

“My reasons for being here never had anything to do with Enoshima Junko. She was rather interesting, but that wasn’t enough.” Kamukura set the book – ah, it seemed to be some sort of album or scrap book – down on his chest.

“Then why are you here?” Naegi asked.

Kamukura just stared at him.

“. . . Kamukura-kun, why didn’t you go back to your family?”

The former Hope shrugged almost carelessly, “They were not present when I returned, nor was I able to find them. My parents either perished or disappeared during the initial disaster. Perhaps Enoshima arranged it that way.”

Naegi flinched. It seemed that every time he pried, he ended up feeling sorry for Kamukura.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Kamukura asked. “You had nothing to do with those events. Regardless, it’s not that important. Even Haijime had a weak relationship with them.”

“Haijime?”

Once again, Kamukura fell silent.

“ . . . Who are you, Naegi Makoto?” the older teen suddenly asked. “Why is it that you insist on asking these questions?”

“I’m . . . curious, I guess.” He squinted at Kamukura, heart buzzing in his chest as he tried to figure out what exactly the other teen was looking for. “I want to get to know you.”

Kamukura turned his head sharply. “Why is hoarding secrets so important to you?”

“H-hoarding secrets?” Naegi would have sat up in shock, but the blankets tightly wrapped around him prevented that. “That’s not what I do! I mean, that’s not what I try to do. It just happens.”

Kamukura’s red eyes bore into him. “Do you understand the power behind what you just said, or does your talent render you incapable?”

“I . . .”

“I see. The latter, then.”

Naegi lay there, confused and a little nervous. Whatever Kamukura was talking about, he seemed to be over it. That was good, he guessed. Kamukura’s last question seemed to be loaded, if not outright dangerous. He was glad he didn’t have to answer that.

He laid there in his blanket cocoon, not really thinking about anything in particular (if at some point, he teared up and his fists started to shake, he wasn’t telling). It was warm enough inside the cocoon to be uncomfortable, but he didn’t really have the energy or will to unravel himself. He stared mindlessly at the ceiling, eventually shifting his gaze downwards over the cabinet, then downwards even further to pan over –

“Is that . . . ? Is that Komaeda-kun’s poem on my pillowcase?”

“Yes. He stitched it in last night after I refused to paint it on the ceiling.”

. . . He was never going to escape that poem.

Komaeda showed up sometime later, bright-eyed, unnaturally still as if holding himself back from vibrating out of pure excitement. Naegi’s heart dropped, his stomach folded in on itself, but he followed nonetheless. Komaeda took him down a route that wasn’t familiar to him and when he opened the door to their destination, it was nothing more than an office with an open laptop on the desk.

(Why then, as he took in the sight, was his throat suddenly tightening?)

Komaeda walked inside first. Naegi followed closely behind him. Closely. There was hardly anything in here but the desk, its chair, and a couple of other chairs. It was probably a room meant for meetings. Yet the room’s colours just seemed off. The lighting wasn’t right, and –

(The air was impossibly stale and tasted of blood –)

Komaeda pulled the chair out from the desk. “Naegi-kun, sit down here.”

“S-sit . . . sit down?” His tongue seemed to have swelled, making it hard to get anything out.

“ . . . Yes?”

Naegi couldn’t move. His legs were shaking. The wall, too, felt like they were vibrating.

(  – vibrating with a scream the knife slowly slid under the skin and up the arm)

Komaeda’s hands were suddenly on him. He made no conscious decision to resist, but he did. He didn’t know it, but he was pushing back and digging his heels in. But his uncoordinated struggles made him easy to out-manoeuvre and next thing he knew, Komaeda had shoved into the chair.

It was easier in the chair. The vantage point was quite different than it had been from the doorway, and that sour, coppery scent wasn’t quite so strong. He took a few deeps breaths in succession, each one a little cleaner.

“You okay now, Naegi-kun?” Komaeda asked. He was rubbing Naegi’s shoulders.

Naegi did not respond. Komaeda’s question bounced off his brain. The Luckster sighed, and reached past Naegi to use the laptop there. He clicked a few buttons, and then withdrew, moving to the front of the desk.

The laptop’s screen lit up. Something on it moved as noise came out of the speakers. Naegi stared blankly, unresponsive. However, as the noise suddenly grew in pitch and volume, his eyes began to light up. Slowly, jerkily, like a rusted machine coming to life, Naegi began to move. He blinked furiously, mouth opening and closing as his mind struggled to grasp what lay on the screen before him.

Finally, one word escaped him.

“K-Komaru?”

Chapter Text

Dark brown hair with an ahoge curling over the left side. Wide green eyes shimmering with hope and disbelief. A white school uniform, decorated with a red necktie and a blue collar. Naegi Komaru looked so much like herself, so normal and intact that Naegi was convinced that he was watching some sort of home video. It was only when those green eyes filled with tears and his name was spoken in a breathy whisper that Naegi’s big brother instincts rose to the surface and told him yes, this was Komaru. He grabbed the laptop and squeezed so hard he was surprised it didn’t break. His eyes swept over the screen, taking in everything he saw there, anything to tell him where his sister was and what was happening to her.

“M-Makoto, is that really you?”

He could barely breathe. Komaru was here right in front of him. She was crying now, just as he was, and he laid his hand against the screen as if he could reach through and comfort her. God, he should be happy. Maybe he was. Maybe he was just too happy and that’s why he felt ill.

But he couldn’t let that show. He had to be strong for his little sister. He forced a shaky smile onto his face (a smile that would crack under the slightest pressure), reaching inward for that optimism and cheerfulness his sister would expect from him.

His throat was thick with emotion, but that didn’t stop him from whispering, “Yeah. It’s me. Komaru, are you okay? Have they . . . have they done anything to you?”

At the mention of his captor, (Why did he say that? He should have known better, and asked about something else first!) Komaru withdrew into herself. She drew her legs up onto the chair she sat upon, and rested her chin on her knees.

“I’m . . . okay,” she said, and Naegi didn’t believe her for an instant. “They haven’t done anything to me.  You know what happened, right? There was a group of men, and they broke into our house . . . I’ve been here since.”

“You mean you’re a prisoner.” He could feel the color drain from his face. Yes, she was. That’s why he felt sick when he saw her. Because how else could Komaeda had arranged this unless she, too, was a prisoner of Ultimate Despair?

Naegi had to force himself not to break down. He . . . he was the worst brother ever. What kind of brother was responsible for getting their sister kidnapped by a group of terrorists, even if it was only due to association? Not a good brother, that’s for sure. He was useless.  He didn’t deserve all these titles bestowed on him.

“Yes,” she said. She glanced around, as if nervous someone was watching. “I don’t know what they want. They never say anything. They just deliver food every day, and go.”

Naegi didn’t say anything. Part of him was still struggling to grasp that this was his sister before him. The other part of him was still wrapping his mind around the idea that she was unhurt. At least, she said she was.

“Makoto, where are you? Do you know where our parents are?”

His mind screeched to a stop. His fragile smile froze on his lips. He didn’t know. He hadn’t even known where she was until now. What was he supposed to tell her? He no longer knew that either! (What kind of big brother was he, to not know how to comfort his little sister?)

“ . . . You don’t know.” And Komaru sounded so frightened and wounded, so despairful that Naegi dug his teeth into his lower lip and bit back an audible whine.

“I’m sorry!” he said, because what else could he say?

“You’re . . . you’re okay, right?” Her voice wavered on the edge of hope. “You’re still at Hope’s Peak aren’t you?”

For a moment, Naegi’s emotions gave way to confusion.

“Komaru, don’t you know?”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “They don’t tell me anything here. I have no idea what’s going on outside. Did you leave the school to look for us?”

She didn’t know. Once he was sure of that, the choice was easy to make.

“I’m not at Hope’s Peak anymore, but it’s not important why,” he said, because it was true. His sister had enough to worry about without worrying over him. He’d take care of himself. It wasn’t her job to watch out for him.

But Komaru knew him, and his mask was nowhere near perfect. She said his name slowly, like he was a rabbit about to bolt. “Makoto, did something happen?”

He hesitated. “N-no.”

“Makoto, what happened?”

He didn’t answer.

“She’s not very good at getting the hint, is she?” And Komaeda’s hand was suddenly on his shoulder.

On the other side of the screen, Komaru jumped in her chair. “Huh?”

Komaeda turned his head and smiled at Naegi. “Remember, Naegi-kun. This is a conversation of hope! You don’t have to talk about those things if you don’t want to.”

She asked, “Who are you?”

A deep, annoyed scowl overtook Komaeda’s face. “An ordinary, unimportant person like you doesn’t need to know anything about me.”

Naegi looked away from the screen, face heating up in shame.

“ . . . Makoto?” There was a new kind of terror in his sister’s voice now. Naegi looked back at her immediately, but it still took him time to figure out what it was.

Komaeda had insulted her.

Naegi hadn’t jumped to her defence.

It had said more than enough.

“Who are you?” Komaru asked one last time and though her voice shook badly, she persisted. “What do you want with my brother?”

“I’m his guardian,” Komaeda said with a half-shrug.

“What does that mean? Makoto, what’s going on?”

He knew his smile was broken, but he didn’t know how to fix it. “It’s alright, Komaru. You don’t need to worry about me.”

As he spoke, Komaeda’s arm had shifted a little. His fingers stretched and slid over the clavicle and a little down Naegi’s chest as he stared Naegi’s little sister down. Naegi couldn’t see Komaeda’s face, but if he had, he would have understood what set her off.

“Makoto!” Komaru shouted. She was halfway out of her seat, as if prepared to fling herself through the screen and appear on their side. “Makoto, what’s going on? What do they want from you?”

“Ah, this isn’t going very well,” Komaeda said. “I think that’s enough.”

“No, please! Give us a few more minutes.” Naegi’s voice was emotional and rough like sandpaper, but it didn’t seem to affect Komaeda any.

“Let me speak to my brother!”

“Sorry, Naegi-kun. Not this time.”

“Makoto –!”

His sister’s frantic voice cut out as Komaeda closed the laptop.

Without Komaru’s voice or the humming of the laptop, it was eerily quiet. Komaeda appeared to be lost in thought as he tapped his fingers on the laptop’s case. Naegi stared at the closed computer, remembering Komaru’s face, burning that last image of her into his mind. Their conversation had been so short and emotional, but at least he knew. She was alive. She was okay.

For now.

Komaeda’s angry. Those two words slithered into his mind. His chest squeezed like a serpent was wrapped around it. Timidly, moving slowly as not to attract attention, he peered up at Komaeda. There was a furrow in his brow. His lips were turned downward. He was mad, wasn’t he? That’s why he’d shut off the laptop. Komaeda was mad. He shouldn’t have pressed Komaru about her knowledge of the Killing Game. He should have gone along with her original theory. Now Komaeda was mad, and it was his fault, and oh god what was he going to do to her?  

“I’m sorry!” he blurted out. He grabbed Komaeda’s arm when the Luckster didn’t say anything. “I mean it. I’m really sorry!”

Komaeda stared at him.

“Oh, Naegi-kun.” Komaeda’s bright smile was like a comforting pat. “I appreciate it, but you don’t need to apologize. I made the mistake of assuming your sister would intuitively understand the rules. I forgot she was an ordinary person of only average intelligence. None of that was your fault. It wasn’t either of your faults in the end.”

“Are . . . are you sure? Are you mad at her?”

Komaeda didn’t answer him directly. “You did well today, Naegi-kun. Both here and in the chapel. I know that conversation got out of control, but you tried. I watched you. How could I be mad when you tried so hard?”

“So, you’re not mad?”

“I’m quite happy actually.”

“Good.” Naegi nodded his head, unconsciously breaking out into a relieved smile. He felt so much better now. “That’s good.”

“I’m going to let Tsumiki-san in now.”

Tsumiki was here? When? Why?

That last question was quickly answered when Komaeda opened the door. Tsumiki walked in. In her hands, she held a platter of food. She put it down gingerly in front of Naegi, as if afraid he would get upset and yell at her.

“Umm, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Tsumiki said, “but considering your eating habits, I thought it would be best if I started personally delivering your lunches.”

“Just lunch?” he asked suspiciously.

“Well, you usually eat in the dining hall with everyone else for breakfast and dinner . . . when you bother to eat them . . .  so I didn’t think I needed to . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed what you wanted.”

“No, it’s fine,” he said quickly. “I was just curious.”

“Oh.” Tsumiki still looked tense, and she only relaxed when the first spoonful of broth disappeared down Naegi’s throat. “Komaeda-kun, shouldn’t you get something to eat, too? I can watch him.”

“It’s alright,” Komaeda said. “I can eat later. Naegi-kun’s wellbeing is much more important than a little thing like hunger.”

Naegi shrugged. “You can have some of –”

“No!” Tsumiki seemed surprised by her own protest, and covered her mouth with a little ‘eep!’. “I’m so sorry, but Hanamura-kun and I designed this just for you. It covers all the major vitamins and minerals you’ve probably been missing, and it’s enough calories to be filling without straining your stomach. It probably can’t handle a regular meal since you’ve been skipping so many . . .”

Naegi blinked. “Oh. Tell him I said thanks. That was really nice of you two.”

Tsumiki didn’t speak, but her cheeks turned a light shade of pink. “What were you doing? There isn’t really anything in here.”

Spoon halfway to his mouth, Naegi hesitated. He glanced at Komaeda, unsure if he was allowed to answer truthfully.

“I was rewarding Naegi-kun for his good behaviour,” Komaeda said.

That seemed like permission. Staring at the closed laptop again, Naegi mumbled, “He let me speak to my sister.”

“You . . .” Tsumiki blinked slowly. “You have a sister?”

“From before,” Komaeda said, an edge of dislike there.

“Her name’s Komaru,” Naegi said. “I haven’t seen her or my parents for such a long time. I’m really glad I got to see her.”

Tsumiki frowned just the tiniest bit. But when she noticed Naegi watching her, she quickly returned to smiling again. “That’s right. You don’t have any playmates. But you’ll be getting a friend soon! Komaeda-kun, when is he getting here?”

“I heard he should be here in a couple of days.”

“A friend?” Naegi’s skin prickled. That could mean so many things, and so many of those options were bad. What if Ultimate Despair had gotten their hands on one of his classmates? Or even one of his middle school friends? Would they do that? Would they be willing to bring in another outsider even after going such lengths to isolate him here?

And that was a whole other can of worms. If Ultimate Despair was hostile to the outside world and so intent on keeping him to themselves, then who would they trust to act as his friend?

Those two days couldn’t be far enough away.


“They have my sister.”

Why was Naegi telling Iwata this? He wasn’t sure. Speaking about your problems was supposed to make you feel better, right? Well, that was definitely not true. He certainly didn’t feel better after saying that. And it’s not like Iwata could physically help him, or needed more worries heaped upon his shoulders.

Naegi’s own feelings of inadequacy seemed to be echoed in Iwata’s sigh.

“I’m sorry,” Iwata said.

Naegi didn’t answer. Anything he could say seemed to be empty words at this point. He had no idea how to help Komaru. Sure, he could keep her safe, if he behaved. At least, he assumed so. But as for actually getting her out? He had no idea. (He couldn’t even get himself out, let alone someone far away). But Iwata was part of the Future Foundation, wasn’t he? Maybe he had an idea Naegi could build upon.

Iwata said, “She’s a hostage.”

“Komaeda-kun never explicitly said that, but I think so,” Naegi said. “They’re definitely holding her for a reason. He . . . they let me speak to her to ‘reward’ me.”

“For what?”

Iwata said that sharply, with tension Naegi didn’t quite understand. He squinted in the darkness, trying to read the older man’s expression. But Iwata’s haggard face, dirty and gnarled from weeks of confinement, never said much. It was stuck in a permanent exhaustion, backed by a layer of steel and strength that never seemed to dull. (He wondered if Iwata was putting on a mask for him, the same way he tried to do for Komaeda and Komaru).

“For not insulting Enoshima-san’s corpse. I think,” he said.

Iwata relaxed and he still wasn’t quite sure what had happened.

Then, Iwata asked, “Why were they showing you pictures of the corpse?”

Naegi shook his head. “It wasn’t a picture. They have the actual corpse here. It looks like they built some kind of portable refrigeration unit and then dragged her all the way back.”

He thought Iwata might ask why, but he seemed to think better of it.

“She was in a lot better shape than I was expecting,” Naegi said. “Apparently she wasn’t actually squashed. There was a trapdoor underneath that she fell through at the last moment, and she was impaled by spears underneath.”

“That . . . why?”

Naegi shrugged. “Ultimate Despair thinks it’s so they would have a body for the funeral.”

One of the other prisoners laughed when they heard that (rough and ghastly, like the dead coming back to life). “A monster like that doesn’t need a funeral. She should have been burned and tossed in a landfill.”

Naegi chose not to say anything to that. He thought it was a little harsh, but he understood their anger.

“What are you going to do now?” Iwata asked.

“I don’t know. If I could just find out where they were keeping her, maybe . . . maybe I could send a message to the Future Foundation or something.”

Iwata exhaled. “I suppose you can try.”

It’s not possible, was what Iwata wanted to say. But he didn’t. And so, Naegi wouldn’t acknowledge that. It would be one thing to give up on his own freedom. It was an entirely different thing to give up on his sister’s. He . . . he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t fall to that level. Even if he had to give up a few things in return.

“Ultimate Despair has to know,” Naegi thought aloud. “Komaeda-kun’s probably ordered the Monokuma soldiers not to tell me, but the rest of them have to know.”

“You think you can get them to tell you.”

Naegi thought about it. A slight smile pulled at his lips. “I think so. There’s a couple of them I think I can trick. Iwata-kun, if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand, but do you have any family?”

Iwata shifted in his cell. He was silent for a while before answering. “I have a niece in Sixth Division. She was alive and well last I saw her. However, I don’t know if she was involved in this recent attack or not. Considering her position, however, she probably was . . .”

“Your niece is good at her job, isn’t she?” Naegi interrupted.

“Yes, she is.”

“Then you probably don’t need to worry about her!” Naegi said brightly. “I mean she’s come this far, hasn’t she? You two haven’t been separated long, so I doubt anything’s happened to her since. I mean even this last battle between Ultimate Despair and the Future Foundation wasn’t a real fight. Apparently, they were just trying to sneak people in to find me.”

(Or murder him, but he didn’t say that).

Iwata chuckled a little. “Thank you, Naegi-kun.”

Naegi shared his laughter, and then stood. “I should probably get going. I wasn’t given a time limit, but I don’t want to push it.”

“Somebody knows you’re here?”

“Komaeda-kun’s outside,” Naegi said, glancing that way. “I don’t want to make him wait too long.”

“Komaeda? Komaeda Nagito? The white-haired person I saw with you the first time? That Komaeda?”

Naegi rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Yeah. He says he’s okay with me visiting you guys now. I don’t really get it either.”

Iwata gave him a long look. “You don’t honestly believe him, do you?”

“Does it really matter?”

(what I want never matters)

Chapter Text

“What was your family like?”

Kamukura side-eyed him. “Didn’t our previous conversation establish that I had no close ties with them?”

“I know, but they raised you, right? That’s got to count for something.”

Kamukura shrugged and return to staring out the window. “They were distant. They were more concerned about how their son represented them than whom he truly was. They were very disappointed that he turned out to be so ordinary. That was why they enrolled him in Hope’s Peak Reserve Course . . . and why he was as foolish as he was. They, as many others did, made the mistake of believing those in the Reverse Course had a chance to become Ultimates. They underestimated the corruption that permeated that place.”

Seated on the edge of his bed, Naegi kicked his feet and thought. Kamukura didn’t sound mad; he was as dull and emotionless as ever. But Naegi still felt that he should tread carefully here, and take care with his words.

“Kamukura-kun, I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but you really seem to hate who you were in the past. Why?”

Kamukura was silent for a few seconds. “Hate is a strong word. Disappointed would be a better description. However . . .” His head tilted to the side a little before he continued. “. . . It is unfair to blame him. He did not have my talents. It would be unreasonable to expect he could predict what was coming.”

“. . . You keep talking like you’re different people.”

“What would you say makes a person, Naegi?” Kamukura looked him in the eye this time. “Relationships? Memories? Dreams? Because Hinata Haijime lost all that when he became Kamukura Izuru. Why then would I not consider him separate?”

Hinata Haijime. Naegi stored that name for future reference. “But you do that to yourself, too. Like sometimes you talk about Kamukura Izuru like he’s an entirely different person.”

Kamukura stared at him. When he turned back to the window, it wasn’t just Kamukura’s head that moved; Kamukura turned his body away from him, too.

“Kamukura-kun . . . why did you decide to change your name?”

The silence that followed was chilly.

“I didn’t,” Kamukura finally said. “They did.”

“I don’t understand,” Naegi said. It didn’t seem right. Someone as strong and powerful as Kamukura just letting people change his name? That didn’t seem like him at all.

“You need to pay better attention. When they made me into Hope, they took my memories. I no longer had a name, so they gave me the one they thought suited me best.”

“Kamukura Izuru.” Naegi said his name slowly, as if speaking it for the first time. “Wasn’t that the name of –?”

“Naturally. Have you not deduced that it was Hope’s Peak Academy that did this to me?”

. . . No, not really. Naegi hadn’t given it much thought. Although it had been implied time and time again, Naegi was only beginning to realize that when Kamukura said they designed him to be like this, he actually meant they designed him. At most, Naegi thought that they had done something to him in the womb. But that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that Kamukura hadn’t always been this way; they’d taken a regular boy, and warped him into this.

His first instinct would have been to sympathize with him, but Naegi wasn’t sure that would go well. Why tell Kamukura that what they did to him was horrible when he obviously already knew it? At this point, it would only be rubbing salt in the wound.

Instead, he gathered up his courage and took the plunge.

“Kamukura-kun, did you know what was going to happen?”

It was just a moment’s pause, but it seemed to last forever. The silence was its own sound, swelling until it buzzed in his ears. Kamukura turned toward him again and this time . . . this time Naegi saw it. Deep within the other’s eyes, like a tiny flame struggling to survive in a high wind . . .

“No. I did not.”

. . . Anger.

It should have frightened him. Nothing good ever happened when people in this place got angry. But Naegi didn’t feel scared. He felt the opposite; he felt strong somehow, as if his skeleton were carved from the toughest metal.  That strength carried over to his voice, dropping its pitch a tone when he spoke.

“What did they tell you?”

“That they would give me a talent,” Kamukura said. Naegi felt the vibrations of that voice in his bones. “They did not mention everything else they had planned to do. Perhaps if I had looked it would have been in the paperwork, but why would I have been suspicious enough to check?”

Naegi nodded. “They weren’t very good people then.”

“They were arrogant. Fed by the elitism that academy bred. The welfare of an ordinary, untalented student was of no concern to them.”

“Kamukura-kun, there’s one thing I don’t understand,” Naegi said. “If they took away your memories, then how do you know all this?”

Kamukura didn’t answer.

“Kamukura-kun . . .?”

“Naegi Makoto . . .” A pregnant pause followed. “. . . What is your family like?”

“H-huh?” Naegi blinked rapidly, completely unprepared for this change of topic. “Umm, well we were an ordinary family. I think. I have a sister, and we used to have a dog. Komaru . . . my sister’s still alive. Komaeda-kun let me talk to her yesterday. We don’t know anything about what happened to our parents though. Komaru hasn’t seen them since she was kidnapped, and I haven’t seen them since . . .”

All that strength obtained from that conversation with Kamukura left in a big exhale. For years, was the appropriate end to his statement, no matter how it hurt him to think about it. Technically, it wasn’t true but as far as his memories were concerned, that’s what happened.

Two years . . . so much could have happened in that time. Komaru seemed more or less the same, but that didn’t mean his parents were. And she might have only been the same on the surface; what if she had a boyfriend or something, and he couldn’t remember? That would be embarrassing.

“A family of perfectly average people,” Kamukura said.

Naegi laughed, not the least bit insulted. “Actually, yeah. A lot of people say that about us. It’s pretty nice though. Like we’re not spectacular or famous or geniuses or anything, but it doesn’t really matter that much. We all love each other, and I’m not sure what else we need. Sometimes, I met people like Fukawa-san and hear what their family is like . . . Honestly, I’m glad we’re so normal.

“. . . I had a pretty wealthy friend in middle school,” he continued. “He moved away, but before he did, he used to always be over at my house. I was always a little confused as to why, because his house was a lot cooler and had so much more to do. But he explained it to me one day. It was my parents. His own parents were always super-busy with work, and that’s why they had so much money. But because of that, they were way too busy for him. That’s why he liked coming over. My parents were always around, and I guess he liked being around adults he knew cared about him. Because they did. I think it’s a Naegi family trait that we care about everyone that comes our way.”

As he had spoken, Naegi’s voice steadily became softer and he began to smile. All of a sudden though, he snapped out of that pleasant daze and remembered where he was and whom he was speaking to.

“Ah, I’m sorry! I –”

“I’m not jealous,” Kamukura said. “Your family bond does not bother me.”

Naegi’s cheeks went a little red. “Oh. Thanks.”

“ . . . A word of warning, Naegi.” Kamukura’s hair seemed to quiver in a breeze. “Be very cautious when discussing your family with the others.”

“I know. Komaeda-kun probably wouldn’t like that . . .”

“It isn’t only Komaeda you should worry about.”

Naegi looked up at him nervously, not quite sure where Kamukura was going with this.

“Do you truly believe Tsumiki will be content to have her position usurped? Or Kuzuryu will appreciate a declaration that your loyalty belongs to someone outside? Ultimate Despair is possessive and quick to offend. They do not recognize your family. They acknowledge no one as your kin except Enoshima Junko. It would be best you respect that.”

Naegi was quiet as he absorbed that. It seemed that all his very existence did now was inconvenience others.

“ . . . The Future Foundation will protect them,” he said. “If they have the opportunity, they’ll rescue them. They would, right? Even if it’s only because they’re family to the Ultimate Hope.”

“Correct.”

“Then I just have to find a way to send a message to them!” he declared, getting to his feet in his excitement. “If I tell the Future Foundation where they are, then I bet they’ll send people to find them! Speaking of which, Kamukura-kun, where is Komaeda-kun keeping my –”

“Naegi.” Kamukura cut him off with that one word. He let the pause hang before continuing. “That would be cheating.”

“You’re . . . we’re still doing that?”

Kamukura dipped his head. “Yes.”

Naegi was . . . he was disappointed. No, not disappointed, but no word better described this indefinable emotion. Kamukura had been so friendly lately (or at least as friendly as Kamukura could be) that he’d forgotten the teen wasn’t on his side. Hearing that answer now was like a slap in the face. He felt betrayed, even though Kamukura had never once pretended to be anything but a neutral party.

“I guess I’ll be going then,” he said. He watched an unmoving Kamukura from the corner of his eyes as he walked towards the door.

(He didn’t know what he was expecting. An apology? No, that was ridiculous.)

(It still hurt.)


“So where’ve you been, anyways? Other than at the chapel, nobody’s really seen you since the whole Future Foundation thing.”

“Around, I guess,” Naegi said to Soda. “Mikan was worried about my health so I was in the infirmary for a bit.”

“Infirmary . . . Hey, you’re not contagious or anything, are you?” Even as he asked, the Mechanic was taking a big step back. “I got lots of work to do, and I don’t want . . . Look, a strike!”

Naegi glanced down the bowling lane. Yep, that was a strike.

“First of the day!” Soda hooted. “Hah! Told you I knew what I was doing.”

“You’re pretty good at this,” Naegi said.

Soda shrugged. “Eh, I’ve had lots of practice. Next one’s yours.”

Soda urged Naegi forward with his arm, and Naegi obeyed. He grabbed the ball from underneath, and spoke as he popped it up to chest level. “It’s nothing contagious, by the way. I just haven’t been eating enough. Do you usually bowl with the others?”

Soda leaned back against a nearby rail. “Sometimes. Owari-san and Nidai-kun like to play. Hanamura-kun joins in, too, if he isn’t busy.”

“Not Kuzuryu-kun? It seems like something he’d like.”

“Nah.” Soda sounded like he wanted to roll his eyes. “He’s always saying he’s too busy for normal things like fun. He’s a wet blanket.”

Naegi made a sound that was neither an agreement nor a disagreement. He loaded the ball into the cannon and quipped, “Don’t let Pekoyama-san hear you say that.”

“You know, he did say there was one way he’d participate.” Soda rubbed his chin as he remembered. “He said he’d be interested if we replaced the pins with real people. But that’s insane. There’d be blood and little pieces all over the place, and we’d never get it cleaned up. That stuff smells when it starts to rot.”

He tried his best not to picture it (ignoring the coppery scent that coated the roof of his mouth). He occupied his mind instead with the cannon controls, adjusting the barrel’s angle until he thought it was perfect.

“Okay, I’m ready,” he said.

Soda looked over at the lane. “Yep. Looks like they’re set up. Go for it.”

Just like Soda did, Naegi fitted the thick earmuffs over his head. He patted them once, twice, making sure they were on right (he’d did it wrong once, and his ears were still ringing). Then, he clicked the ominous, big, red button.

A loud boom filled the room.

There was screeching. A crash. And then little Monokuma parts went flying into the air.

“Not bad,” Soda said.

“I hit one,” Naegi deadpanned. “One arm.”

“Still better than nothing. You just need more practice, that’s all.”

Naegi laughed. He didn’t even have to force it that much because he was used to laughing at himself, and Soda wasn’t hard to get along with. “You’re right. Better than nothing. I bet it’s better than what she could have done.”

“Who?”

This was it. Now or never. All or nothing.

(Perhaps the worst mistake he’d ever make).

Naegi smiled widely, even as no emotion showed in his eyes. “My sister.”

Soda, in the midst of grabbing his next ball, stilled. “You have a sister.”

“She’s really boring,” Naegi said as dully as he could. His heart twisted at the heretical words, but he forced himself to keep going. “She’s been super boring as long as I can remember. Not exciting at all. To be honest, it’s been no different now that she’s not around.”

“I see. . . So, you think about her a lot?”

There it was: fishing for information. That was part of the reason Naegi had chosen Soda; the Mechanic didn’t do subtle very well. Naegi let out a short, disdainful-sounding snicker, and said, “Hardly ever, actually. The only reason I even remembered her is because this morning, Komaeda-kun was talking about how she’s sitting around . . . what was that place again?”

“Towa City?”

“. . . Yes. That’s the place.” Naegi ducked his head, making sure Soda couldn’t see his triumph.

“We could get rid of her, if you want.”

“No!” He said that too quickly and hurried to cover up for his mistake. “That’s not a good idea. I mean, what if . . . what if I need an organ transplant one day?”

“Huh. That’s a good point. Maybe we should move her closer then.”

“Seems like a lot of wasted effort to me.”

“Fair enough. Hey, even if you did need a kidney or something, Tsumiki-san’s got plenty of donors she can try out!” Soda laughed at that, and slapped Naegi on the back. “Anyways, my turn. Hey, Monokuma! That ain’t looking like a triangle to me.”

As Soda adjusted the cannon, Naegi sat down on one of the benches and asked, “What’s the point of all this?”

Soda stared at him and blinked. “To knock ‘em all down?”

“No, like . . . why Monokumas? Doesn’t it just make a huge mess?”

“That’s the point!” Soda shouted, eyes gleaming. “It’s such a waste of time and material. It’s terrible! The Ultimate Mechanic isn’t supposed to waste things like this, especially when they’re so hard to make. Plus, I gotta spend hours cleaning it up after and it’s super boring.”

Soda suddenly leapt away from the cabin, and draped an arm around Naegi’s shoulder. With his other arm, he pointed. “See that one? Remember it?”

Naegi looked. In the direction of Soda’s finger, he found rubble from one of the Monokumas they had destroyed. It was from the first set they had ‘bowled’, actually. How did he know? Because one of those first Monokumas had been wearing a pirate hat.

“That was Bobby,” Soda said. “Every week, I take a few of the Monokumas and name them and make them my favourite. I mean they are just robots, but they got personality to them. It’s pretty easy to get attached when you know every bit of their insides.”

His eyes suddenly lit up. “. . . And that’s why I blow them up with the cannon every week. I gotta reward my hard work with some despair, you know?”

“Yeah. Sure.” Naegi shifted underneath Soda’s arm. “If you’re going to do that, why don’t you just blow up all the Monokumas?”

“Can’t. We need them to spread despair.”

“Okay . . . but you probably don’t need all of them. Couldn’t you do something like, umm, every Friday you destroy all the robots you made that day?”

Soda blinked. “But then all my work is ruined . . .”

Naegi grinned. “Exactly! Isn’t that super despairful? And you still have all the Monokumas you made the other days so it isn’t a big deal.”

Soda hesitated. His expression seemed to stutter like a malfunctioning video.

And he grinned widely.

“Man, why didn’t I think of that earlier?” he exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to build a giant blender and see how many I could stuff in there . . . Just thinking about the possibilities for mass robot killings is making me drool. You’re a pretty cool kid, you know.”

Naegi shrugged. “Thanks.”

It might only be one day of Monokumas you’re losing, but that’s still hundreds. It has to mean something for the world in the long-run, right?

“You’ll come by, right? I think I’m going to have a massive gladiator fight with them first.”

Naegi laughed and it was genuine. “That actually sounds pretty awesome.”

“What’s awesome?”

He wondered if Soda felt him freeze up. The Mechanic was looking at Komaeda over his shoulder, a slight frown on his face. Komaeda met his gaze evenly, hands stuffed into his pockets.

“You two seem to be having fun. What were you talking about?” Komaeda asked.

Soda's arm slipped off Naegi’s shoulder. The Mechanic stared to answer. “He was telling me how –”

“We were talking about ways to kill a bunch of Monokumas at once!” Naegi interrupted. He had to. If Soda told Komaeda what they were really talking about –

“Why would you need to do that?” Komaeda asked.

Soda opened his mouth.

“You’ve never been curious?” Naegi said quickly. “You’ve never wanted to stuff them into a blender or something?”

“Oh, yeah! We’re totally going to do that,” Soda said.

Komaeda didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I was looking for you, Naegi-kun. I went to your room and you weren’t there.”

“Oh . . . sorry.”

“Well, I found you now. Let’s go!”

“Hey, aren’t we going to finish the game?” Soda asked as Naegi began to move.

Naegi hesitated. “Uh. . .”

“You can play with Soda-kun later.”

Naegi bowed his head. “. . . Okay.”

“Hey, just let us finish our game!” Soda protested. “Whatever you want can’t be that important.”

Komaeda ignored him. “Tell him, Naegi-kun.”

“Can I take a rain check?” he asked Soda.

“I guess?” The Mechanic rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t really get why you need to leave now though.”

“It’s fine, Soda-kun!” Komaeda said cheerfully. “I just need to talk to him about a few things.”

With that, Komaeda confidently strode out of the room, Naegi shuffling behind him. The Luckster patiently waited for him to enter the hall, and then shut the door.

“So,” Komaeda asked, “why were you lying to me in there?”

Chapter Text

“I . . . I . . .”

Even before he said it, he knew whatever lie he had cooked up wasn’t going to cut it. Komaeda knew. Komaeda wouldn’t be fooled. He was just going to make things worse for himself.

Shivering, Naegi hugged himself as he stared at the ground. “I thought you would get mad if I told the truth, especially if Soda was the one to say it.”

“Soda-kun’s not very good with words, is he?” Komaeda said sympathetically. “Alright, I’ll let you explain.”

“I . . .” That last gulp of air had felt like inhaling a solid mass. “I tricked him. I told him destroying his robots was for the sake of despair, but it isn’t. Maybe he’ll get despair out of it, but in the outside world, I think it’ll spread hope.”

Komaeda cocked his head. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” Naegi said, a wee bit surer. “If there’s less Monokumas out there, people are going to notice. When they do, they’ll start wondering if the worse is over. They’ll think things will get better. They’ll hope.”

Komaeda chuckled under his breath. It was a pleased chuckle. A good chuckle. Naegi’s shoulders loosened when he heard it.

“I can’t say I’m happy about you manipulating him like that, but baby steps first.” Komaeda reached over and ruffled his hair. “It’s a good start.”

“You’re not mad?”

A beat or two passed when Komaeda didn’t answer, and Naegi began to fear he had just reminded Komaeda that yes, he was mad. But then Komaeda sighed, and it was an exasperated sigh rather than an irritated one. He was already close, but Komaeda took a step forward. They were just close enough that Naegi had to crane his head back to look at the Luckster.

“No, I’m not mad,” Komaeda said softly. He cupped the back of Naegi’s head, almost cradling it. “Is that what you’re worried about?”

Naegi bit his lip and said nothing.

“I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to answer it honestly. I promise I won’t get mad.”

. . . Honestly? That would be thrusting a spear into a beehive. Komaeda wasn’t built to handle honesty – if he was, Naegi wouldn’t still be here. He eyed Komaeda with dread. There were so many directions Komaeda could go with this, so many traps he could set. Naegi could hear Komaeda’s voice in his mind a dozen times (sugar-sweet, but raspy like the cough of death), each asking its own, equally nerve-wracking question . . .

“What are you to me?” Komaeda asked.

“Huh?”

“What are you to me? What do I think of you?” Komaeda repeated. “I want to hear it from you.”

There was no way whatsoever that this wasn’t a loaded question. Naegi knew he couldn’t quite restore the color to his face, but he tried to maintain a neutral expression as he looked Komaeda over. He didn’t know exactly what he was searching for, but he did know he was looking for clues. There were so many ways to interpret and answer that question. What did Komaeda want?

. . . Well, that was obvious, wasn’t it?

“Hope . . . I’m your Hope,” Naegi answered. “I’m the thing you’ve been searching your whole life for. I’m your big vision for the future, right? That’s why you’re keeping me here and . . . t-taking care of me. That’s why you need me. You need me to help rid the world of despair.”

As he spoke, he had watched Komaeda for a clue that he was on the right track, growing more and more nervous the longer it went without a visible reaction. By the end, his hands were slick with sweat, and he wiped them clean on his pants.

“So, that’s what you think,” Komaeda said, monotone.

. . . He had answered wrongly. He knew that instinctively, the way the prey sometimes knew a predator was lurking nearby. Sudden terror erupted inside him, and he stumbled backwards away from Komaeda’s reach.

“That wasn’t the answer I was looking for,” Komaeda said quietly. He followed Naegi’s gawky, backwards route with powerful strides, until Naegi found his back flush against a wall. Komaeda’s palms slammed into the wall on either side of his head, arms locking into place like steel bars. Even though there was a full arm’s length between them, even though Komaeda’s arms were at his eye-level and thus, easy to duck under, Naegi couldn’t move.

“Naegi-kun.”

The sound of his own name was like a knife to his ears, and he squirmed and fidgeted in place, wanting to run but unable to.

“Naegi-kun, look at me.”

Naegi went still. Slowly, he turned his head.

“What you are to me is very simple.” With that, Komaeda cupped his chin, dragging a finger along the curve of the sensitive skin there. “You’re the most important thing in the world.”

“. . . That’s it?” Not a single word about hope?

“That’s it,” Komaeda agreed. “To hear you believe that I only think of you as a tool. . . It’s painful. It’s my fault. It must be. I haven’t been telling you enough . . . Well, from now on, I’m going to tell you every day!”

“Tell me what?”

That hand cupping his chin moved upward, gliding across his cheekbone before falling away as Komaeda leaned in and touched their foreheads together.

“That I love you,” Komaeda said.

A knot of unease wedged itself in his throat. Naegi said carefully, “I know. I’m your Hope.”

Komaeda chuckled. “It’s not just that. I love your optimism, I love your friendliness, I love your ability to love. I love every little piece that makes you yourself.”

How did one respond to that? With a thank you? With fear? Naegi didn’t know. Komaeda’s ‘love’ was such a two-faced thing. Did he want it? Should he want it?

 . . . Was Komaeda crying?

Yes, he was. It wasn’t the kind of ugly or strenuous sobbing he had seen Tsumiki engage in. This was a quiet cry, easy to miss unless the light was just right. The Luckster maintained a shaky smile, but tears were tracing the corners of his lips. He blinked rapidly a few times, probably trying to clear them away.

Something sour coiled in the pit of Naegi’s stomach. It felt almost dangerous, like a snake prepared to strike. But at the same time, Naegi’s own eyes were growing misty in sympathy. He could feel the pull. He had never liked to see people cry, and when he watched the tears drop to the floor, his heart flipped and folded in on itself in ways that shouldn’t be possible.

“It really does hurt,” Komaeda said, taking a step back. “If I had asked what you thought of me, I wonder what you would say . . . Nothing good, I bet.  How could you? I’m worthless. I don’t deserve love. I . . . I know you hate me, Naegi-kun.”

“I don’t hate you,” Naegi said instantly. Another tear fell from Komaeda’s face, and Naegi had an urge to reach up and wipe the rest away.

“I see the way you look at me,” Komaeda said. It seemed as though he was really speaking to himself. “You’ve always been an open book. Anybody can see it. Ah . . . ahahaha, maybe this is my luck cycle acting up. I would do anything for you. I’d give you the clothes off my back, cut off my arm, kill myself. Anything. Everything. And you still think of me as . . .”

Now, Komaeda’s voice was wavering. His breaths came fast and shallow. Naegi stood there, unsure what to do, not knowing how to help.

“I don’t hate you,” he said again. “I’ve said that before, haven’t I? I wasn’t lying when I said that.”

Komaeda hiccupped. “You’re too kind. You’ve always been much too good to me. I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve kindness.”

“That’s not true!” Naegi said, almost feeling like he was speaking to Tsumiki again. He hated when they spoke about themselves like this. “You shouldn’t say that.”

Komaeda gave him a long look. “You’re so forgiving. I wish I knew how you could forgive me for that.”

“Wh-what exactly are you talking about?” Naegi asked quietly. He couldn’t speak any louder, or his voice would shake with trepidation.

Komaeda swayed back and forth on his heels. His teeth were digging into his lip, as if what he was about to say physically hurt him.

“The execution.”

That stopped any retort Naegi might have had.

Komaeda’s whisper was harsh, like he was telling Naegi the code to defuse a bomb. “I didn’t . . . I didn’t want to do it. I had to, but I hated it. I hated myself. I couldn’t sleep after. I’ve done such terrible things to you.”

“Komaeda-kun . . .”

“I can’t. . .” Komaeda turned his back to him, staring upward as he dragged his hands down his face, like he couldn’t believe he was alive. “How can I ask your forgiveness? I don’t deserve it. I’m trash. I’m such a terrible person –”

“Komaeda-kun –”

“I punished myself!” Komaeda whipped around so fast that one moment, Naegi was looking at his back and the next, his leering face. “See? See what I did for you?”

Komaeda nearly tore off his sleeve as he pulled it back. Naegi could only gasp, emotions immediately exploding into shock. Down Komaeda’s arm, still scabbed and painful-looking, were a series of cuts that looked as though they had been placed there by a knife.

“I had to do it,” Komaeda said breathlessly. “I had to punish myself for what I did to you.”

“N-no, you didn’t!” In Naegi’s mind, those cuts were leaking fresh blood.

“Yes, I did. I had to atone for what I did. I need to atone . . .”

Komaeda’s unwounded arm twitched. Suddenly, there was a knife in his hand. He flipped it so that the edge of the blade lay against his skin when he held it to his already injured arm.

“I need to atone . . .”

The knife pressed into his skin just like . . . like . . .

(“Skin yourself,” the Yakuza ordered, and the knife glided under the skin, exposing oozing red as the skin peeled back -)

STOP!

Neither of them moved. Naegi had grabbed Komaeda’s wrist, stopping the knife cold. His hand shook, but Komaeda’s contrasting steadiness seemed to balance it, and that’s what Naegi concentrated on when he opened his mouth and spoke.

“Komeada-kun, please. You don’t need to punish yourself.”

“I do. How else can I earn your forgiveness?” Komaeda gently extracted himself from Naegi’s grasp, and hugged himself. “I need you to forgive me. I can’t –”

“Okay.”

Komaeda blinked. “Huh?”

“I  . . . I f-forgive you,” Naegi said shakily. Was this it? Could he finally help? (Anything to make it stop). “You don’t need to punish yourself, so please. Put the knife away.”

Don’t make me watch again please I’m begging you –

“N-Naegi-kun . . .”

“It’s okay.” Naegi stepped forward. “You don’t need to cry.”

That opened the floodgates. Next thing he knew, the knife clattered to the ground and Komaeda’s arms were locked around him. Naegi moved his own arms awkwardly, twisting them free of the sudden pressure.

“Naegi-kun. . .” Komaeda nearly sobbed. “Thank you, thank you!”

“It’s okay,” Naegi repeated.

Komaeda whimpered. “Please don’t make me hurt myself again.”

“O-okay . . . I don’t want it to happen either. I didn’t know . . . I’m sorry I made you do that.

“Don’t make me . . . don’t make me do anything like that to you again.”

“I . . . I’ll try, okay?”

“. . . Thank you,” Komaeda whispered into his hair. Naegi stood there, feeling Komaeda’s chest move as he breathed in and out.

(He completely missed the smug, little twist to Komaeda’s smile).


“Do you honestly just sit around and do nothing all day? Doesn’t that grow boring?”

“Everything’s boring,” Kamukura said.

“But isn’t this . . . even more boring?”

“Just because Komaeda left you in here doesn’t mean you have to stay here,” Kamukura said flatly. “If you’re looking for something to do, leave.”

Naegi wrung his hands together nervously. “But if Komaeda-kun comes by . . .”

“Tell him I kicked you out,” Kamukura said. “He will not question it.”

“That’s a good idea. Thanks!”

That said, now that he had made the decision to leave, he wasn’t sure what to do next. In theory, he did. He had the information on where his sister was being kept, and he knew whom he had to get it to. There, however, lay the problem. Future Foundation members weren’t just wandering around. He wasn’t allowed to leave either, and he doubted he would be permitted to send a letter – at least not without Ultimate Despair reading it first.

He was so, so close to helping his sister. And yet he couldn’t do a damn thing.

He kicked a wall for good measures. He didn’t feel exactly helpless, just restless. He wanted to run a few laps, or destroy a few of the Monokumas until he was covered in sweat. Except not really, because he wanted to do something useful; he wanted to help. He wanted to be able to do something more useful to the world than talking Soda into destroying some robots here and there. But he couldn’t. Not while he was locked up here while the world moved on without him.

He ended up hitting the punching bags in the gym. They weren’t easy on the knuckles and he had a few scrapes by the end of it, but it still wasn’t enough. He breathed heavily, staring at his own shadow on the swaying bag.

“Not bad. I like to see that kind of passion in my athletes!”

Naegi turned, half-expecting to see Owari there with him. But it was just Nidai today, wearing a bathing suit with a towel draped over his shoulder.

“We have a pool?” Naegi asked.

“Of course we do!” Nidai said. “What kind of world-class exercise facility doesn’t have one? You wanna join me for a swim?”

“I . . .” Naegi struggled to decide past the strange feeling in his head. Nidai was asking if he wanted to do something? And actually waiting for an answer? That . . . that didn’t happen. Most of the time, they only asked out of politeness (if at all) and made the assumption he had agreed. It wasn’t very often he was given an actual choice.

Naturally, then, he wanted to say yes.

“I don’t have a bathing suit,” Naegi said.

“Swim in your shorts, or toss it all aside. I’ve seen all kind of bodies, so there’s no need to be embarrassed.”

“Yeah. I’m going to keep my shorts on.”

Despite Nidai’s assurance that he didn’t need to be embarrassed, he was feeling a little warm when he stood on the poolside without his shirt. Nidai was giving him a blank look, gaze slowly sweeping down his torso and arms.

“Shit. You’re just skin and bones.”

Naegi half-shrugged. “I was never that into sports. Or good at them.”

“I thought you just had a great body for figure skating. I didn’t realize you were sick.”

“I’m not sick –”

“Nice try!” Nidai’s finger poked him in the chest, and nearly knocked him over. “Everybody knows you spent a night in the infirmary, and Hanamura-kun’s been making some special meals for you.”

“I’m not sick!” Naegi half-turned away, oddly embarrassed by what he said next. “I’ve just lost a lot of weight because I haven’t been eating enough.”

Nidai was oddly silent. He watched Naegi closely, making the smaller teen turn a light shade of red.

“You know that isn’t healthy, right?” Nidai asked in a soft voice that didn’t fit his appearance.

“I know,” Naegi said. “I don’t do it on purpose. It just happens. I’m not hungry and I end up skipping a meal and . . .”

“Hey.” Nidai’s huge hand landed on Naegi’s shoulder. Somehow, it held no more weight than a butterfly. “You don’t need to be ashamed. We all got stuff to deal with. You can’t keep letting it bring you down though. You got to take care of yourself.”

Naegi didn’t answer. How could he explain his problems to one of the people responsible for them?

“I was going to say we should swim a few laps, but I don’t think that’s what’s needed here. You go test out the water. I’ll be back.”

Though Naegi was feeling a bit numb, he still walked down the steps into the shallow end. It was perfectly heated – of course it would be. He let his arms float on the surface at his sides as the water licked at his neck.

“HEY, NAEGI! CATCH!”

Something big but very light hit in in the head.

“An inner tube?” he said, surprised. He knew what they were used for, and those kinds of activities were not something he associated with the boisterous Coach.

“Look, kid.” Nidai crouched at the edge of the pool like some bizarre gargoyle on a church. “Any Coach can tell you to practice and work out. But what separates the great coaches from the good ones is knowing when to take a break. As the Ultimate Coach, I’m telling you: you need to sit back and relax. Instead of swimming laps with me, just float around and I’ll swim laps by myself.”

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” Yet despite how those words usually came along with bad things, Naegi still found himself saying that with a crooked smile.

“Haha, no you don’t! Now hang onto that floatie, because it’s time for a CANNONBALL!”

That wasn’t a wave. That was a tsunami.

It was a good thing the water was heated or he would be shaking all over.

As Nidai had suggested, Naegi paddled over to a corner out of the way, and floated along as Nidai completed furious laps. It wasn’t like watching Asahina swim. She moved with a slick speed, cutting through the water as smoothly as a skate gliding across ice. Nidai’s was much more energetic, leaving white-tipped splashes in his wake. Here was a man who wasn’t swimming for competition or even fitness; Nidai clearly just enjoyed the workout for what it was.

Over time, the sound of splashing faded into the background. Naegi floated in his inner tube. His fingers dangled in the water. Water teased at his stomach, but otherwise lay rather calm. The touch of the cool but not cold liquid was rather nice on his sore muscles (he hadn’t noticed they were sore before). He allowed himself to let go slowly, letting more and more of his body fall limp. It was nice. He had to admit that Nidai was right about this.

He let his eyes shut as the steady ebb and flow of the water rocked him to sleep –

When he woke up again, his hair was wet and cold, but he no longer seemed to be in the water. It was too warm for that. He began to move automatically, stilling once he realized his feet weren’t on the ground and he was going to fall –

“Hey, careful!” Nidai said. “Let me put you down first, alright?”

Nidai set Naegi on his feet carefully. Naegi stumbled, still disoriented.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Nothing important. I was taking you back to your room,” Nidai said. “You took a nap in the pool. Which is fine and all, but I couldn’t leave you in there too long or you could have gotten hypothermia.”

“Oh. Thank you. You were right about that, you know. I do feel better.”

“Good.” Nidai beamed at him, but before long, his expression settled in something more serious. “You gotta take care of yourself, kid. There’s only so much a coach can do without the athlete’s cooperation.”

“I know. I’m going to try to be better,” he said. “But seriously, thank you. I needed that.”

“Haha, no problem! Just remember: we’re on your side here.”

Naegi looked at him closely, trying to figure out what exactly that meant.

“. . . Of course.”

Chapter Text

“. . . You were a stepping-stone for hope, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Naegi opened his eyes. The crinkled paper he held rustled as his arms lowered. Behind him, Komaeda sat on his bed, face screwed up in thought. When Naegi handed the eulogy back, he didn’t seem particularly impressed.

“Not enough hope,” Komaeda mumbled to himself. Naegi did his best to ignore it, even as anxiety swirled within him.

It was late in the evening. Reciting the eulogy seemed to be a new routine Komaeda wanted to establish, like a replacement to the Lord’s Prayer. Fitting, he supposed. Certainly, something like that must have resonated with Komaeda.

“Ready for bed?” Komaeda suddenly asked, tilting his head curiously.

Naegi said, “I guess . . . Komaeda-kun, can I ask you something?”

“Of course. What can I do for you?”

“Can . . .?” He had to take a moment to collect himself. The last time he’d felt like this, excited . . . it had been so long ago. “Can I talk to my sister?”

. . . Komaeda should not have been silent for that long.

“You know, Naegi-kun. I’ve been wondering about that.”

“Yes?” he said eagerly, bouncing to the top of his tiptoes in excitement.

“. . . I’m beginning to wonder if that was a mistake.”

His heels hit the carpet with a thump.

“It wasn’t a mistake!” he protested. He stumbled a few steps forward, meeting Komaeda’s eyes. How could he make Komaeda see it his way? “You were right. I felt so much hope seeing her. I’d really like to feel that hope again!”

“It’s only a temporary fix, Naegi-kun, and I’m not sure it’s good for your long-term development. Ever since you saw her, you seem to be distracted.”

“. . . Like distracted by hope?” he tried, desperate.

“No.” Komaeda stood, towering over him. “Your mind seems to be so far away now. You’re not focused at all. Like that eulogy you just read. It didn’t feel like your heart was in it.”

That was true, of course. But it had nothing to do with Komaru, and what was more, Naegi suspected Komaeda knew that, too. It must have just been a convenient excuse for him.

Ah, so this was the catch. In the back of his mind, he had always wondered if Komaeda had an ulterior motive for letting him see his sister. And the answer was, unsurprisingly, yes. Komaru was the carrot he offered in opposition to the stick.

And the worst part was Naegi knew it would work.

“So, am I wrong?” Komaeda asked.

There was no point in lying.

“You’re not wrong,” Naegi said quietly.

Komaeda watched him with calculating eyes, a smirk playing at his lips. “Then do you think you deserve to speak to her?”

Why? Why would he ask something like that? It wasn’t even a question. Komaeda had already laid out the instructions as to how Naegi should answer. They were going over the same idea again and again. Komaeda already knew. Naegi knew what he was supposed to say. It was all so redundant.

(It still hurt).

“No,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t deserve to speak to her.”

Komaeda pushed the eulogy into his chest.

“Do you want to try again?” Komaeda asked.

There was no choice. How could he do anything but attempt to help his sister?

It would be impossible to inject enthusiasm into his voice, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t do better. He was deliberate with his words this time, speaking slower and louder, taking care not to actually think about what he was saying. Instead, he pictured Komaru in his mind, kept up a steady chant of why he needed to do this. It was just words, right? Komaeda was the only one here to hear this. It didn’t mean anything.

He finished his second attempt, aware of Komaeda’s sharp eyes on his back. The silence seemed to stretch on endlessly, and Naegi had to keep himself from badgering Komaeda for a response.

“Naegi-kun, come.”

Komaeda started to walk, and Naegi followed him. The Luckster led him . . . into the washroom? Naegi stood in the doorway, utterly confused, until Komaeda reached over and pulled him in front of the mirror.

“I want you to look at yourself when you read it, okay?” Komaeda commanded. “Give it one more try.”

Naegi glanced at Komaeda, then at his reflection (­­dark-eyed, dry chapped lips, skin still raised and rough where he had been hit with the wrench). Alright. It wouldn’t be that different, would it?

He was wrong. Standing there, gazing into his own eyes while the words tumbled out of his mouth brought them a new presence. Now, he found it impossible to ignore what he was saying. The words stung him like a swarm of bees, and he stumbled and tripped over them. Twice, he had to restart, too choked to continue, Komaeda generously offering him a glass of water when he did. The third time, he managed to finish, and he felt like he had just ran a marathon.

“Was that okay?” he croaked.

“Better,” Komaeda said. “But still not enough. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

It was like being slapped. Naegi shut his eyes. Komaru, I’m sorry. . .

Komaeda ruffled his hair. “You don’t need to be upset. I have faith in you. I know one day, you’ll give me exactly what I’m looking for.”


Walking through the halls alone felt odd (though he wasn’t truly alone. One of the robots or soldiers would always trail him when they saw him wandering about). He kept glancing over his shoulder, convinced that every gust of air was Komaeda breathing down his neck. His heart seemed to be beating quieter than usual, as if trying to help him listen for the impending footsteps of the other. Every shadow taller than his waist required a second look, in case Komaeda was hiding within. He told himself these were reasonable precautions. Komaeda had pervaded so much of his life already. Why shouldn’t he keep an eye out for him?

Hopefully, once he reached his destination, he could let his guard down. There would be someone else there, after all. And if the solider was leading him the right way, he knew exactly whom it would be. The day Enoshima’s body had arrived, he had met two new members of Ultimate Despair and he had to say, at least one of them piqued his interested. Mioda Ibuki had an attitude unlike any of the other members of Despair he had seen. She seemed so cheery. Nothing like despair would suggest at all.

He had to investigate further.

The soldier stopped in front of the thick, wooden door to the auditorium. If Naegi listened closely, he thought he could hear the sounds of a guitar coming from within. He smiled to himself; looks like he was going to walk in on the Ultimate Musician’s practice. It was bound to be great!

He opened the door –

. . . What kind of hell was this?

All of the lights had been turned off. Instead, lines of candles marked the edges of the stage, lighting the figure of Mioda Ibuki from underneath. Her red eyes shined, erupting with a brilliant gleam as her fingers slammed into her guitar’s strings and fire burst from its head. The fire swirled high into the air, fading into a shower of loose flames and embers that fell around their creator in a circle as she reached forward and grabbed the microphone –

Oh god what was that?

 This must have been what the language of despair sounded like. That or Mioda had discovered the ancient speech of demons. A torrent of harsh, vile sounds fell from her lips, seeming to cast a black film around her. Naegi slammed his hands over his ears. It was too much. It was too loud. It was too horrible!

“ . . . Hey, Makoto-chan! Nobody told Ibuki you were coming to see her.”

He didn’t even hear Mioda speak. He just noticed that sound had stopped, and had slowly peeled his hands away from his ears.

“Uh, hi.” Was he actually speaking that quietly, or had he just gone a little deaf? “I didn’t realize you were busy.”

“Not busy,” Mioda said. “I’m practicing! That’s what musicians do. Practice, practice, practice. You should know. Weren’t you besties with Sayaka-chan?”

That stung. Not entirely in a bad way – he just hadn’t expected her to be brought up.

“I hope I was,” he said quietly. For sure, their story during the Killing Game hadn’t ended well, but he was sure it had been different before their memories were erased.

On stage, Mioda pouted. “Sayaka-chan never wanted to perform with me. She said my music was too loud for her singing. Do you think she would have changed her mind? Because now Ibuki’s music is what all the fans want!”

As if to emphasise her point, Mioda strummed her guitar and behind the candles, a dozen geysers of confetti exploded into the air.

“Makoto-chan!” she called out. “Why are you still all the way back there? The front row’s over here. Oh, did you want to take up Ibuki’s offer to play the drums?”

“Honestly, I just wanted to get to know you better,” Naegi said.

Mioda gave him a very strange look. Her expression was some kind of mix between surprise and confusion.

“Well, Mikan-chan was right that you were cute. But that’s like puppy-cute . . . And Ibuki isn’t into that.”

Now, it was Naegi’s turn to give her a confused look.

Wait a second.

Oh.

“That’s not what I meant!” Naegi yelped, face red. “I meant that in a completely platonic way.”

Mioda visibly sighed. “Oh, good. Ibuki was worried she was going to have to break another heart.”

“You get a lot of suitors?” Naegi asked, walking closer to the stage.

“Uh-huh. Everybody wants to date a band member.” Ibuki tilted her head to one side and closed her eyes, smiling fondly. “Ibuki’s not really into that stuff though.”

Naegi stopped in front of center stage, so that he looked upward at Ibuki. The lightning from here was eerie; all he could see of her face was the slope of her neck, and those blazing eyes.

“Mioda-san, what exactly do you do for Ultimate Despair.”

Those eyes brightened. Mioda sucked in a huge breath and opened her mouth –

“I perform!”

“ . . . That’s it?”

“Yep! Ibuki does what Ibuki does best.”

He didn’t get it. That wasn’t despairful at all. Well, he supposed the quality of her ‘music’ could count as despair, but still. It was nothing like Kuzuyru, or what Tsumiki did in her shows.

“What exactly do you mean by perform?” he pressed.

“I play music!” She strummed the guitar again, but this time there was no confetti. “Sometimes, Hiyoko-chan joins me and dances, and then the audience goes crazy!”

“And that’s how you spread despair?”

“Eh?” Once again, Mioda looked confused. “No, Ibuki plays music for all her wonderful fans!”

He was sensing a disconnect here. She was part of Ultimate Despair. She had to contribute somehow. Yet, she didn’t seem to understand what he was talking about. As if the concept had never registered in her mind.

“But you’re playing songs about stabbing your friends in the face. Why would you play something like that?”

Mioda looked like she was struggling to understand, but she still answered clearly. “Because that’s what Ibuki’s fans like.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep! Ibuki knows. Look at this.” Mioda ran off backstage. When she returned, she held what appeared to be a scrapbook. Grinning widely, she knelt on the edge of the stage so she could hold out the scrapbook to him, and flipped it open. Plastered across both pages were a series of photographs from what he imagined was one of her concerts. She looked fierce; her hair flew up and around her like it was alive. She wore dark clothing, accentuating the reflections bouncing off her piercings. Her guitar was a black-and-red, sharp-edged instrument. There wasn’t fire coming out of this one, but in one of the photos, he could see flames coming out of the ground. Saionji was in a couple of them, too, always dancing in the shadows. The photos were still, but there was still something hypnotic about the way she held herself.

“See? Look how many fans there are.” Mioda’s finger traced over the crowd, all of whom, he noticed, wore Monokuma helmets. “Ibuki never had crowds this big before. People . . . they didn’t like my songs. They said they were too loud, and Ibuki should be playing ‘normal’ music. But I can’t do that. I don’t want to play that music, and Ibuki plays from the soul!”

She dropped the scrapbook into Naegi’s hands. Her fingers glided over her guitar’s strings, urging out a chord that resonated in the auditorium.

“So that’s why Ibuki plays songs of despair, because that’s what she and the fans agree on!”

It still sounded so innocent. She seemed so innocent. Yet Naegi knew better. She was part of Ultimate Despair, which meant she couldn’t be. There was a darkness Naegi hadn’t seen yet. He just couldn’t understand what.

“Mioda-san, do you . . . Do you kill people?”

Mioda laughed. “Sometimes, Ibuki’s music is so heart-poundingly exciting that they faint.”

Faint, but not die. There was a huge difference, and he thought Mioda knew that, too. If Mioda was telling the truth, if all she did was play music and didn’t kill, then what was her contribution? There had to be some contribution from her. He didn’t think Kuzuyru would allow her to stick around if she didn’t.

He opened the scrapbook again and looked at a picture. Mioda was center stage, tongue sticking out as she belted lyrics into a microphone. The crowd behind her looked thick, a sea of monochrome bear heads with red eyes. Many of them, he saw with alarm, were hoisting baseball bats, crowbars and other weaponry above their heads. Next the edge of the stage, Saionji was in the middle of a twirl, a sly smirk on her face as her kimono flared out around her . . .

“Mioda-san, after your concerts are over, what do your fans do?”

Mioda smiled widely. “They act out their favourite parts!”

. . . Stab your best friend in the face and feel great.

Ah, he understood now. Yet even as he did, she still didn’t seem to. Much how like Soda didn’t seem to comprehend the true horror of the Monokuma helmets, she seemed unable to grasp the true purpose of her performances.

“Mioda-san.” He leaned against the stage, arms crossed and lying atop it. “Are you saying it’s your fans that spread despair?”

“Not despair,” Mioda protested. “They’re spreading the word of how awesome Ibuki’s music is. Plus, they give her lots of cool footage to use in her music videos.”

He peered up at her and asked the damning question:

“So, you don’t care that you’re encouraging people to murder each other?”

“No. No, no, no! Ibuki’s friends aren’t murdering; they’re just expressing themselves. They’re celebrating how much they love her music. It’s not right for Ibuki to tell them how they can and can’t do it. It’s . . . Ibuki wants her fans to have a good time. She wants . . . she wants them to enjoy themselves . . . Ibuki just wants to play music.”

With each pause, more and more of her cheery visage fell away. She began to stutter in the last sentences, like a malfunctioning robot. He couldn’t see despair swirls yet, but if he pushed, he knew he would get them.

“Mioda-san, couldn’t you just play less despairful songs? Then you wouldn’t have to worry about what they’re going to do.”

“I can’t,” Mioda said. “That’s not what they want. The fans want despair. Ibuki has to give them despair!”

“No, you don’t,” he said softly. “You’re the musician. You’re the one running the show. What you decide is law. Besides, it’s still the same type of music, isn’t it? You’re just changing the lyrics. I’m sure they’ll still love it.”

“They only like despair,” Mioda mumbled, her mind far away. “They didn’t like Ibuki’s music before.”

“Mioda-san . . .”

“You covered your ears,” she said pointedly.

He wasn’t sure how he could answer that. It was true; he hadn’t liked what he heard. At that point, too, he hadn’t known it was about despair. It had just been . . . that.

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. I wasn’t expecting it. I’ve only ever been to a couple of concerts before, and those are pretty different than this. But Mioda-san, if you really want to play something else one day, I promise I’ll listen.”

“But Makoto-chan doesn’t like my music.” She looked at him seriously this time, almost frowning.

He chose his next words carefully. “It’s not what I usually listen to, but I don’t mind. As long as it’s something you like . . . it’s the least I can do. That’s what friends are for, right?”

Mioda watched him closely. Maybe he was just optimistic, but he felt like he was getting somewhere with her.

“Ibuki will think about it,” she declared. “Makoto-chan, you should back up, because it’s about to get loooouuuuuUUUUDDDDDD!”

. . . Yes, that seemed like a good idea right now.

Chapter Text

“Makoto, you need to eat your vegetables!”

“I know, I’m getting to them,” he said, as he dodged another one of Tsumiki’s attempts to thrust the spoon into his mouth. Honestly, he’d spent half of lunch trying to stop her from feeding him (Once! He’d let her do that once!) Tsumiki seemed to think he was playing hard to get or something though, and kept giggling. Komaeda sat across the cafeteria table, watching the two of them closely.

“Broccoli’s very healthy for you,” she said. “Even if you don’t like the taste, you still have to eat it.”

“I know.” Just to prove his point, he took his fork, stabbed it into a stalk, and stuffed it in his mouth. Mouth full, he said, “See, I’m getting to them –”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full. That’s very rude!”

He just couldn’t win with her sometimes.

“Look, Komaeda-kun ate all of his.” She pointed to his empty plate. “And I’m eating mine, too!”

With that, Tsumiki ate a mouthful herself. She made sure to make a loud ‘yum!’ when she swallowed.

Naegi looked to Komaeda. “Please save me.”

Komaeda tilted his head a degree as he considered that . . .

“Naegi-kun, you should really eat your vegetables.”

Goddamn it!

He ended up giving in, but he made sure to scowl very, very deeply as she fed him spoonful by spoonful. Neither Tsumiki nor Komaeda seemed to notice his displeasure though – that or they found it cute. With Tsumiki, he was definitely leaning towards the latter. At one point, Kuzuryu and Pekoyama walked in, and froze upon seeing them. They watched for a good few seconds before Kuzuryu rolled his eyes and muttered something about domestic idiots.

“There. Done,” he said. He turned to Komaeda. “Can I go now?”

Komaeda asked, “What do you think, Tsumiki-san?”

Tsumiki made a thoughtful noise as she dabbed at Naegi’s lips with a napkin. “Well, he did eat everything . . . Okay! You can go play now.”

He was up and out of there before she could change her mind.

But still not fast enough. Naegi was standing in the middle of the hallway, deciding which direction he wanted to bolt, when he heard a wheezy cough behind him. A weird creeping sensation slithered down his back, and Naegi slowly turned to see Komaeda there.

“Where were you going?” the Luckster asked curiously.

“I . . . nowhere, really. I didn’t have anywhere in mind.”

“Running off to go play, huh?” Komaeda sighed and shook his head. “I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised.”

There was no way this wasn’t a trap. “Why?”

“I thought you’d be thinking about your sister.”

That stopped any words dead in this throat. Komaru. What did he mean by that? She was always in the back of his mind, but why did Komaeda think he should be thinking about her now? Had something happened? Was she okay?

“Naegi-kun, do you want to speak to your sister?”

He nodded wordlessly (what else could he do?).

“Okay. I’ll let you, but you have to prove she’s not a distraction first.”

Of course. Anything. How could he let her down again?

Komaeda held his hand and led him to the chapel. He wasn’t going to make him recite that eulogy over her coffin, right? That probably wouldn’t go over well with the others . . . and Komaeda must have known that too. They entered the chapel (where Owari and Nidai were both sobbing loudly), and then Komaeda led him off to the side. There was a door there, and it led to a rectangular room. At the end of the room, was an old, wooden confessional that for some reason, appeared to be guarded by a Monokuma soldier.

“Do you know what to do with these?” Komaeda asked, as he opened one of the booth’s doors for him. Inside, one of the walls expanded into a small bench. On the opposing wall, the wall dividing the two booths, there was a window covered by a curtain.

“I’ve seen movies,” Naegi said.

“Close enough!”

Naegi entered the confessional . . . and Komaeda stepped in right after him. He actually stared at the Luckster, confused.

“They need to make these things bigger,” Komaeda said.

“. . . Yeah.”

The two sat down on the bench, Naegi positioned so that the window was right in front of him. He took a deep breath, heels digging into the ground. Gosh, this place was cramped. Komaeda was squeezed up next to him and if Naegi wasn’t careful, his elbow would dig into his side. Not only that, there was a funky smell he didn’t recognize.

Komaeda passed him the eulogy, and whispered, “Don’t where we are. Make sure you start properly!”

Naegi cleared his throat once. He’d never been in a confessional, but he had a vast movie experience.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned –”

He stopped, eyes bugging out. For when he had begun to speak, Komaeda had reached forward and moved the curtain, allowing him to see who occupied the other booth . . .

He could not see the man’s eyes. The man had no hair. He wore no hat, had no piercing or facial hair, or any other unique feature.  Naegi couldn’t even be sure what the shape of his head, or nose was like. But that was simply because the man had no skin. Dark red flesh, blotched from a stay in the freezer, replaced it. And the smell – oh god, the smell – it was everywhere

The man had no skin, and that was how Naegi knew exactly who it was.

“Wh-why? Komaeda-kun, why –?”

“Why?” Komaeda asked, smiling. Not only was he unaffected by the sight before him, he hadn’t seemed to notice the smell yet. “Isn’t it obvious? He deserves this more than anyone else.”

There were no eyes, he realized. He couldn’t remember Kuzuyru ordering the man to gouge out his eyes, but he must have. Maybe that was the squelching he had heard . . . no, that had been the cat o' nine. It was all blurred together in his head in an orgy of blood and terror –

“Naegi-kun, you didn’t forget, did you?” Komaeda asked. “Were you planning to pretend it never happened? Don’t you remember what you did to him?”

“I didn’t –”

“Look at him.” Komaeda grabbed the back of his hoodie, and nearly rammed his head through the window. “See what he sacrificed for you?”

“I didn’t . . . It wasn’t me . . . I’m sorry-!”

“Look what you did to him,” Komaeda hissed into his ear. “He came to rescue you, didn’t he? Do you remember what happened next?”

The smell was everywhere and it wouldn’t go away.

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t want this –”

Look at him.” Komaeda shoved his head forward even more, and Naegi shut his eyes because if he got any closer, they were going to touch and he couldn’t handle that and he couldn’t do this and he can’t he can’t he can’t –

“Stop,” he croaked. “Please, don’t  . . .”

“You didn’t let him stop,” was all Komaeda said. And Komaeda was right and it was true and he was useless and this was all his fault –

His tears burned as they fell down his face. He shook in Komaeda’s hold, teeth chattering. Some invisible force seemed to snap his eyes open, so that he could meet the eye-less sockets of the murdered. He noticed that something or somebody had stretched his non-existent lips into a smile, so that yellowed teeth showed.

He couldn’t look away. Even as tears blurred his vision, he couldn’t look away –

And Naegi screamed and finally collapsed.

Or he would have, if Komaeda didn’t have hold of his hoodie. He lifted Naegi back up like a hunter snatching up the corpse of his fallen prey. As he was lifted, the corpse naturally returned to the forefront of his vision. Until Komaeda mercifully turned him away so that he stared at the Luckster instead.

“Why did you let him die, Naegi-kun?”

I don’t know!” he howled, and buried his face in Komaeda’s chest.

Who knew how long Komaeda held him, rubbing his back? Naegi’s throat-wrenching sobs petered out into sniffles. Komaeda’s shirt had soaked up Naegi’s tears, and the salty smell of that mixed with the other teen’s natural scent masked the musk coming from the corpse. Naegi dug his fingers into the fabric, pulling so hard they could hear it stretch.

“The world is a terrible place sometimes,” Komaeda said. “Sometimes, you have to do terrible things. That’s what you had to do. Naegi-kun, you understand you had to let him die, right?”

Naegi looked up. “I . . . had to?”

“Yes, you did.” Komaeda stroked his head once, thumb running over the rim of Naegi’s ear as if tucking a piece of hair behind it. “I know it was terrible, but you had to let him die. If you had stopped it, Kuzuyru-kun would have just killed him later in private, and that would be even worse. Letting him die there, when he did, was the best thing you could have done. Do you understand why?”

Naegi shook his head.

“If Kuzuryu-kun had killed him in private, then nobody would have known. He and Pekoyama-san wouldn’t have cared enough to remember. He would have died, and everybody would have forgotten. It would have been for nothing.

“But you’re not going to forget, are you? That’s why you had to do it. Now, he’s not forgotten. His memory is going to stay with you forever and ever. He’ll be with you when you spread hope. He is hope, now. All that pain he went through, those horrible, horrible things that happened to him, they have meaning. It’s for hope.”

“Hope. . .” Naegi murmured. He stared straight at Komaeda, but couldn’t see him.

“Yes, hope. That’s why you had to stand back and let him die. It was for hope. It was the best outcome.”

I had to?

“I .  . . I don’t . . .” He rocked back and forth, eyes twitching like they were going to roll back into his skull.

He had to die?

 “Do you understand?” Komaeda asked.

Then . . . then it isn’t my fault?

 “. . . I’m not sure.”

Komaeda smiled. “I suppose that’s the best I can hope for right now. Now, Naegi-kun. . .”

The eulogy was once more shoved into his hand.

“. . . There’s something you have to do.”

He recited the eulogy into Komaeda’s chest. The Luckster didn’t seem to mind, holding him gently. But when Naegi finished and looked up at Komaeda for approval, the white-haired teen pointed him towards the window again (the smell hit him like a tsunami, drowning out even sound). Naegi’s breath hitched in his throat, and he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t

Komaeda pulled him back against his chest, hugging him from behind. The white-haired teen’s chin fit itself along the curve of his shoulder as Naegi found himself being rocked slowly back and forth. Komaeda’s breathing, right in his ear, was a steady, comforting thing. Naegi found himself hanging onto that just as tightly as he squeezed the other’s hand.

“You can do it,” Komaeda said. “You’re strong enough. I know you are.”

Naegi stared straight ahead, vision blurry and unfocused. (it’s okay. It’s not . . . not my fault?) The corpse waited.

Slowly, his mouth opened.

Once again, he began to speak.

“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned . . .”

In the small space, his words were thunderous. But the dead did not mind. The man continued to stare at him with that gormless smile. Surely, it would have been too much to bear, if it hadn’t been for the strong thump of Komaeda’s heart against his back, the warmth emitting from the other teen, or the strong hand gripping his own. And Komaeda was keeping up a steady slew of praise and comfort that helped render him numb to what he was seeing. . .

“It’s alright, Naegi-kun. I know it’s hard.”

“Shh, it’s okay. You’re so strong.”

“I know you can do it. I have faith in you.”

“Make it right. Make it all right again.”

“It’s for hope.”

(What are you doing? Why are you listening to him STOP)

The last numb words slipped off his tongue. The paper stayed in his clammy grip as he stared ahead, unable to understand that it was over. The brush of Komaeda’s cheek against his was like holding his skin to a red coal. Yet he didn’t move away. Instead, his eyes slowly drifted shut. He could still feel Komaeda’s heartbeat, and it seemed to resonate throughout his body until it engulfed his own.

“Naegi-kun . . .” Naegi turned his head toward that voice. “It’s alright. We’re finished here.”

Komaeda guided him out of the confessional, patient and understanding even as Naegi fumbled and his legs wouldn’t move quite right. Once outside, he nodded to the waiting Monokuma soldier, and then moved so that he stood between it and Naegi as the soldier opened up the other side of the confessional booth and reached inside –

“You did a good job,” Komaeda said, holding Naegi’s head so that he couldn’t look past him and see the body being removed. “You did a very good job. That was very brave of you.”

“Brave . . . no, that wasn’t brave.”

“Of course it was. I don’t mean to offend, but do you think your friends could have done what you just did?”

He blinked slowly, the movement making him jump. “Kirigiri-san . . .”

“She could say it, but she wouldn’t mean it,” Komaeda said. “That’s the price of being the Ultimate Detective. She can’t love like you do. Nobody can. That’s why you’re special.”

“Special . . .” he muttered. The word seemed to stick in his mind like a knife. “I’m not . . .”

“Yes, you are. Don’t you trust me?”

Trust . . . The single, simple word clogged his throat. Such a simple word . . . and so powerful. It was more than Naegi could grasp. Did he . . . trust Komaeda? What did that even mean, to trust?

“I trust my friends,” he said. “I trust my family. I trust them. I do. I do. I do –”

(Was he talking, or was it all in his mind?)

“You said I was your friend once, remember?” Komaeda said giddily, looking like he would hug Naegi then and there.

Had he? He struggled to think. His memories seemed to be caught in a thick haze. But Komaeda . . . Komaeda said he had. Komaeda didn’t lie.

“I guess I did.”

“Then that must mean you trust me, too!”

Komaeda’s brilliant smile lit up his entire face. Naegi stared at it, still struggling to make sense of everything. But the happiness he saw was catching. If Komaeda wasn’t mad, then that meant nothing bad was going to happen.

“You understand, don’t you. You’re not like everyone else, Naegi-kun. You’re special.”

(There was pressure in his head, pushing and pushing and pushing-)

Naegi stared.

Slowly, ever so slowly, he smiled, too.

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

Komaeda laughed, bright and happy. Naegi did too without knowing why.

“You’re amazing,” Komaeda said. “I’m so honoured that I get to be part of this. I can’t . . . I can’t put into words just how much I love you. When I’m around you, I feel . . .”

Komaeda suddenly stepped closer to him. Hardly a hand’s-width separated them now. Naegi tilted his head up, exposing himself to the intense light of Komaeda’s grey-green eyes.

Komaeda’s voice barely passed as a whisper. “I . . . I want . . .”

Naegi stared up at him, continuing to wear his absentminded smile. Something screamed rang shrilly in the background. His heart was racing. He wondered why.

Komaeda’s breathing was heavy and hot on his skin. Naegi cocked his head, confused –

“Komaeda-kun?”

The sound of his own name seemed to shock Komaeda out of whatever trance he’d been in. The Luckster started laughing, but it sounded pained. He backed away from Naegi, clutching himself, staring down at his own arms wrapped around his body.

“To merely be in the same room as the Ultimate Hope, I should be content with that.” Komaeda began to sway, teeth showing as he grinned and exhaled loudly with reverence. He laughed, like it was his own private joke. Naegi still didn’t understand what was going on, but his heart was still pounding and starting to ache.

“Naegi-kun . . . do you want to speak to your sister?”

“Yes!” he bounded forward. His heart was facing even faster now but it was good. “You’re going to let me speak to her?”

“I promised, didn’t I?” Komaeda said. “You did a very good job. Do you remember where you spoke to her last time?”

Naegi nodded eagerly.

“Can you meet me there? I need a couple of minutes first to myself.”

Naegi ran off. The door slammed behind him, and then it was just Komaeda. Once he was alone, the Luckster unravelled his twitching arms from around his body, and stared at his open palm.

“Why did I . . . ? Ah, I shouldn’t have done that.” Komaeda closed his eyes and laughed, but there something dark to it this time. “I shouldn’t have stopped myself . . . it would have been so easy . . .”

His eyes opened.

The swirls glowed.

“I could have made him–”

Komaeda slammed his head against the wall.

He did it twice more. Then slid down it until he landed on his knees. His arms were wrapped around him again as he stared blankly at the floor.

Naegi-kun . . .

It was so quiet. The soldier had long cleared out with the body. It was only Komaeda and the confessional and the smell he could no longer notice.

Why ?

“He’s waiting for me.” Komaeda looked upwards, lost in his own mind. “Naegi-kun’s waiting for me.”

Why can’t I stop?

“How rude of me to keep him waiting.”

I'm not like them, so why do I . . .?

 “Ahahahahaha . . . I’m coming, Naegi-kun!”

Why . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do I keep dreaming about hurting you?

Chapter Text

Naegi’s eyes were locked on the screensaver in front of him as he waited. His fingers were twitching, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t allowed to touch the computer. He actually sat on his hands because the temptation to touch it was that great. But no matter how badly he wanted to see his sister, he couldn’t afford to mess this up. If he went outside his boundaries, then Komaeda would take the computer away and he wouldn’t see her again. That wasn’t worth getting to speak to her a few seconds early.

He was still sitting on his hands when Komaeda returned. The white-haired teen looked at them, and then started laughing. He patted Naegi on the head like a dog before reaching over for the keyboard. Naegi bounced in his seat, face so close to the screen that Komaeda actually had to ask him to move back. The dial tone rang as Komaeda called his sister. Naegi held his breath, if he tried to inhale now, his lungs would probably pop. There was a bead of sweat tracing its way down his forehead.

Then finally, the screen burst into colour.

“Makoto?”

“Komaru!” His laugh was harsh and short, like a cough mixed with a hiccup. “Komaru, how are you?”

For whatever reason, his sister flinched back. Maybe she hadn’t actually thought the image she was seeing was real.

“I’m okay,” Komaru said slowly. “What about you? Are you okay?”

“Of course I am,” he said as Komaeda walked out of sight of the camera to let them have some privacy. “You don’t need to worry about me. Everything’s fine. But seriously, is everything alright with you?”

“I guess,” she said. “Nothing’s changed.”

She didn’t sound happy about that. Naegi traced the downwards curve to her lips, and something bubbled up inside him and made him twitchy.

“But they’re not hurting you or anything, right?” he asked, unable to stop himself from glancing at Komaeda to check. Komaeda smiled at him and waved.

“No,” she said, still speaking slowly. “I have food and stuff.”

“Well, that’s good.”

His sister didn’t say anything for a little while. One hand rubbing her elbow, she stared at some point off the side and mumbled, “Makoto, why is this happening to us?”

He opened his mouth. Then closed it. There wasn’t a way to explain, especially since he remembered that Komaru didn’t know about what had happened to Hope’s Peak.

(In the corner of his vision, he saw Komaeda beginning to approach-)

He spoke. “Komaru, I know this seems really bad, but it could be a lot worse. A lot of things have happened. I don’t know how much you know, but things are pretty bad outside right now. The world’s not in good shape. But you’re safe, right? And you have food and everything and that’s more than most people out there can say.”

(Komaeda had stilled. He stood there, just watching.)

“Komaru, trust me. It’s going to be okay. The world’s a mess right now, but I’m . . . I’m going to fix it, and the moment I can, I’m going to come get you. But I need you to wait for me. I need you to stay safe until then.”

He glanced at Komaeda. The Luckster gave him a thumbs up.

Encouraged, he turned back to the screen. “Can you do that for me? Can you wait until I come to get you?”

Komaru stared at him. Bit by bit, as the silence drew on, Naegi felt his grin starting to chip.

“What if something happens before that?” she finally said. “I don’t know what they want. They could kill me tomorrow and–”

“They’re not going to do that!” Naegi wanted nothing more than to hug his sister and comfort her. That wasn’t possible though, so he settled for gripping the sides of the screen instead.  “Nobody’s going to hurt you. I promise I’m going to keep you safe.”

He was doing his best to be a good big brother and reassure her, yet . . . everything he was saying seemed to make it worse. It was a very, very good thing Komaeda hadn’t been standing behind him or he would have seen how his sister’s eyes had dilated as he spoke, or how her nails were digging into her arm. Naegi bit his lip, heart fluttering, feeling like he was on the verge of panic. What was he doing wrong?

“Hey. Hey, just relax.” He held a hand up, like he was dealing with a skittish animal. “Why don’t you just tell me what you don’t like about being there right now? Maybe I can pull some strings and get you some video games or something, or some better food. Just tell me what would make it better. Let me help you –”

Stop it!

Komaru’s shriek was entirely unexpected. Naegi leapt back into his chair, and even Komaeda jumped.

“Sorry, sorry!” he squeaked out to Komaeda. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just . . . I just want to help and –”

“Why are you speaking like that?”

He blinked. “Huh?”

“Naegi-kun . . .” Komaeda was creeping forward, although he seemed confused himself.

“Why are you speaking like you helped them?” Komaru asked.

He could feel Komaeda tense up. Now Naegi was panicking. He sprung forward and grabbed the screen, speaking frantically. “No, no, that’s not it! Komaru, I didn’t help them kidnap you or anything. I didn’t even know they had you until way afterwards. . . It’s not like that –!”

“You’re not talking like someone who was kidnapped.”

He stopped.

“Naegi-kun, it’s time to say goodbye,” Komaeda said firmly. He had one hand on the lip, just about to close the screen, but when Naegi didn’t say anything, he paused. “Naegi-kun?”

What had she said?

Did she mean it?

“Naegi-kun, I’m going to end the call now,” Komaeda tried again.

When I was talking to her, did I really . . .

“Kidnapped,” he whispered. “I was . . .”

How could I have  . . .? How . . .?

How did I forget?

He gasped for breath like he was drowning, wheezing. Komaru lunged towards the screen and Komaeda released the laptop and spun towards him in alarm. Both of them shouted his name. He didn’t hear him. All he could focus on was his increasingly shallow breaths and the lack of air –

“Naegi-kun!” Suddenly, Komaeda was right in front of him. He shoved the laptop away, and then grabbed Naegi’s face. “Naegi-kun, look at me. I need you to breathe with me. In. Out. Are you listening to me?”

He couldn’t – he reached for Komaeda’s face in turn, needing the contact. Komaeda’s hands immediately found their way to his wrists instead, positioning Naegi’s hands on his cheeks.

“You need to breathe with me. Can you do that?”

Naegi nodded frantically.

“Okay, good. Now, in. Out.”

Naegi took a deep shaky breath that turned into a whine. Komaeda squeezed his wrists, pressing Naegi’s palms further into his flesh before repeating the same instructions. Naegi obeyed, still nodding with a frantic edge as Komaeda spoke softly to him. His chest heaved in and out until he thought his ribs might crack. Black spots danced in his vision.

“Good, good. In. Out.”

He thought he might faint. But the spots were receding as air flowed into his starving lungs.

“Are you feeling better?” Komaeda asked.

Naegi was silent.

“Naegi-kun?” Komaeda gently brushed the back of his hand against his brow. “Naegi-kun, can you hear me?”

What’s happening to me?

“ . . . Can I have some water?”

Komaeda nearly fell over himself in his rush to comply. The door slammed shut, and Naegi was left alone in his chair. Head bowed, he sat there for nearly half a minute before he finally mustered the strength to lift his head.

He reached for the laptop.

Komaru was crying softly when he saw her. The moment his face came into view, she grabbed at the screen. “Makoto! Are you okay?”

He ignored her.

“Makoto? Makoto, can you hear me?”

He ignored her. He moved the cursor and opened up a browser.

“What’s going on? What happened to you?”

He typed in the Future Foundation’s name into the search bar, and clicked on the first link he saw. There . . . there had to be a way. There had to be a way to send tips or contact them or –

Ah, there it was.

“Makoto?”

Mechanically, he followed the instructions and typed in his message. He clicked the send button. He exited the browser, turned to look at his sister, and did his best to smile.

“It’s going to be okay now,” he said. “You’re going to be fine.”

“What are you –?”

“The Future Foundation’s going to save you. You don’t need to worry about me. Just . . . don’t give up, okay?”

“Makoto –?”

He closed the laptop.

He opened the door leading out, and started to run.

He wouldn’t have much time. If it wasn’t Komaeda, it would be the soldiers. If not them, the robots. If not the robots, the rest of Ultimate Despair. He tore through the halls, only lasting a few minutes before he picked up a tail. Just one soldier though. Surely, he could handle that. He needed . . . he couldn’t stay here any longer. He had to at least try.

I’m not one of them.

They kidnapped me.

I’m not one of them!

“Red zone approaching,” the soldier, jogging at a leisurely pace behind him, said.

Naegi spun around. “Run to the other end of the hall and do ten push ups!”

The soldier whipped around and obeyed. Naegi inched his way to the other end as it did and when the soldier was in the middle of its fifth push up, he took off around the corner.

He heard its warning blaring after him. He ignored it. He knew this led to the front entrance and he had to try. He had to prove he hadn’t failed. He had . . . he had to.

The entrance was surprisingly empty. It lent a grin to his face. Maybe this was his lucky day, because why else would the front entrance be completely empty –

Because the entire army was doing a training exercise in the courtyard, that’s why.

“Naegi Makoto,” droned the army. The soldier that had been chasing him caught up, and then teetered to a stop, satisfied that he was supervised again.

“The fuck?” Kuzuryu said. He and Pekoyama stood in front of the army, closest to Naegi. “What are you doing here?”

It would have been so easy to lie. It would have been so easy to make up an excuse, turn around, walk back inside and pretend this hadn’t happened. It would have been so, so easy.

Naegi did none of that, and instead ran for the open path to the city.

The shock of his footsteps echoed through his body. His own, ragged breathing smothered all other sound. The ruins lay hauntingly before him, so close, but never getting any closer. He pushed himself harder, harder until he could think of nothing else.

Just a little more. Just a little more. Almost there, almost there –

(He wasn’t, of course).

Pekoyama slammed into him from the side. They hit the pavement with a crack. Pain blossomed around his hip, but he had no time for it. He twisted and thrashed, reaching a hand toward the destination that seemed so close –

“Naegi, what the hell are you doing?” Kuzuryu demanded, having just caught up.

“Please  . . . I  can’t . . . please!”

He burst into tears, curling up into a ball under Pekoyama’s body as the Swordswoman  and her master watched him with shock. His sobs came loud and violently, barely allowing him to draw a breath in-between.

“Naegi-kun?”

Yes. Of course Komaeda had finally caught up. Because what else did he need?  Why didn’t they all dress up as Togami and lambast him while they were at it?

He curled up tighter and wailed louder, until the lack of oxygen finally caught up with him and he passed out.


He awoke with his wrists bound behind his back. There were rails on either side of the bed he laid on, keeping him from rolling off. It really was overkill, considering he was also strapped down.

There was a thick leather strap over his chest, hips, and legs, effectively pinning him. He was no longer wearing his hoodie, having been dressed instead in some light pyjamas, so he could feel the straps through the fabric. He didn’t bother trying to escape. He knew it wouldn’t work, and he didn’t have the energy either. He shifted from side to side instead, trying to relieve the pins and needles pricking in his hands that came from an inadequate blood flow. What had happened? The last few minutes before he passed out were hazy. He remembered what came before though. Komaru. They had been speaking. He had had that small argument with her, and she had opened his eyes. He didn’t understand what exactly, but something was happening to him.

He . . .

He was  . . .

He was scared.

It wasn’t his fault, right? It wasn’t like he had given up or anything. He’d just been busy. He’d been too busy dealing with things like hospital stays, dead bodies, and a seriously messed-up upper classmate. It wasn’t his fault, right? Anyone would have been distracted.

Still, the greasy, black coils of betrayal swirled deep in his mind. He felt filthy. Rotten. Underserving of sympathy. Caught in the grip of Ultimate Despair, he had just laid back and taken it. He’d scared his sister. What would she say if she had known the truth? What would his parents think?

Thinking of them made his lip quiver. He knew what had become of his friends, of his sister. His parents were the only unknown. Even Komaeda hadn’t said anything about them. They could be anywhere. They could be . . .

He sniffed loudly, straining at the binding around his wrists. Whatever material they used, it was soft but strong. He pulled at it futilely for a little while more, before giving up and falling back with a sob. Useless. Useless, useless, useless!

They must be pretty mad to do something like this, he thought as he raised his chest a little and the leather strap pushed back. It actually cheered him up. This was proof. This here, these restraints were proof that he was still trying. He still had hope. He wasn’t broken.

Now, he just had to live through whatever punishment came next.


The boardroom was dark and quiet. Kuzuryu sat at the head of a long table, feet on the surface as he scowled. Down the sides of the table sat other members of Ultimate Despair, most seeming confused. Komaeda though was hunched over, chin pressed into the table as he tried to appear as small as possible. Pekoyama lingered close to a keyboard, staring at a screen above and behind Kuzuryu. The door to the boardroom opened suddenly, tearing her attention away from the screen. Once her sharp eyes determined the newcomer was no threat however, she returned her gaze to its original target.

“About time you got here!” Kuzuryu said to the newcomer. “We’ve all been waiting for you.”

Nidai laughed heartily, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry! I was taking a shit. What’s all this about, anyway?”

Kuzuryu snapped his fingers.

Pekoyama bowed, and then began to type into the computer. On the screen behind Kuzuryu, the view of one of the outside security cameras became visible. Ultimate Despair watched silently as footage played, and the petit form of Naegi Makoto ran out of the main building, and then bolted towards the ruins like a frightened rabbit. He hadn’t gotten far, and the camera had recorded the instant Pekoyama had tackled him, and his increasingly erratic struggles afterwards. She finally shut the video off once Naegi stopped moving.

“Oi, what was that?” Owari asked.

“That’s why we’re fucking here,” Kuzuryu explained. “Anybody want to explain what the hell happened?”

“Umm . . . I-if I’m allowed to speak . . . I was talking to Komaeda-kun about Naegi’s behaviour before this happened, and after watching this video . . . It sounds like he was having a panic attack. Apparently, he had one earlier when he was with Komaeda-kun,” Tsumiki said. She tapped her index fingers together as she waited to be yelled at.

Kuzuryu drummed his fingers on the table. “Guess that fits with what I saw. Peko?”

“I agree,” she said. “The symptoms match.”

“Great. So, Komaeda, why the fuck was he having a panic attack?”

Komaeda winced. He lifted his head slowly, like he was being asked to raise it into the sights of a sniper. “Right before his first panic attack, he. . .”

Kuzuryu waited. When Komaeda was not cooperative, he prompted, “Yes?”

“. . . He got the idea stuck in his head that he had been kidnapped.”

Kuzuryu swore, hands slamming down on the table. The Imposter too, sighed deeply, pinching his nose.

“So, what? The kid thinks we’re going to eat him or something?” Owari asked.

“Don’t be absurd,” the Imposter said.

“Yeah. Who would want to try to cook something as scrawny as him anyways?” Saionji said. “You might as well go gnaw on a bone.”

“Owari’s got a point though,” Kuzuryu said. “Kidnapping and good things don’t usually go together. If he’s suddenly convinced we’ve kidnapped him, that’s probably what’s got him all riled up.”

“But didn’t Nagito-chan snatch him off the streets?” Mioda said. “And we aren’t letting Makoto-chan leave, right?”

“It’s not kidnapping, it’s protective custody!” Kuzuryu snapped. “There’s a big difference.”

“I calmed him down,” Komaeda mumbled. “He was fine when I left him.”

“Eh? You l-left after his panic attack,” Tsumiki said. “You shouldn’t have done that. He probably relapsed!”

“So this is all your fault!” Soda shouted at Komaeda.

Suddenly, there was a whole bunch of shouting, most of it directed at Komaeda. Komaeda shrunk down into his seat, but didn’t say anything to defend himself. It didn’t quell the shouting. Nothing did, until Kuzuryu glanced at Pekoyama, and she slammed her sword through the table.

Kuzuryu  said, “Look, it doesn’t matter anymore. What’s important is making sure this gets cleared up.”

“Alright, so let’s all go to the infirmary right now and tell Naegi-kun we aren’t kidnappers!” Nidai said. pumping his fist.

“It won’t work,” the Imposter said. “If Naegi truly believes we are keeping him captive, then he has no reason to believe what we tell him.”

“Then what are we going to do,” Hanamura asked.

There was a short silence. Then Komaeda carefully spoke up. “Yesterday, I had to tell him that I loved him. He didn’t understand. He thought I had just been using him.”

“First off, you’re a creepy bastard,” Kuzuryu said bluntly, “but I get your point. Alright, the kid doesn’t think we care about him.”

“He d-doesn’t? But I’ve tried so hard to take care of him and . . . I’m soooooorrrrryyyyy!”

As Tsumiki wailed into her hands, Nidai patted her on the back. “Hey, now. This is a team effort. It’s everyone’s fault.”

Once again, Kuzuryu snapped his fingers as his eyes lit up with an idea. “I’m going to hire an assassin to kill him!”

Almost everyone had something to say to that, but two voices rose above the din.

“Kuzuryu-kun, I know my opinion is trash, but you need to listen to me!”

“Nooo! If you touch him, I’ll . . . I’ll do something terrible to you!”

“Okay you two . . . calm the fuck down.” Though his voice was steady, Kuzuryu leaned away from the irate Nurse – even though Pekoyama was already at his side with her sword drawn in Tsumiki’s direction. “I’m going to give the assassin a specific time and method, okay? And when he shows up ready to do the deed . . . I’m going to blow his brains out and save Naegi’s life! He can’t accuse me of not caring after that.”

“Good idea!” Owari said. “I’m going to do that too –”

“Get your own idea! We can’t all hire assassins. Hey, when’s Tanaka getting here?”

“He should be here this evening,” the Imposter said.

“Alright, good. He’s got Naegi’s friend with him, which means we can prepare to move him out of Kamukura’s room. Have Nevermind and Koizumi made their pit stop?”

“They got there yesterday,” Hanamura said.

Kuzuryu nodded. “Soda, get them to send you some pictures, and get working on his new room.”

“I can do that!” Soda said, wielding his trusty wrench.

“You, take this.” Kuzuryu tossed a pair of handcuffs at a surprised Tsumiki.

“What’s this? Is this a very particular confession we’re witnessing?” Hanamura asked.

“Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s to make sure Naegi doesn’t run off again.” To Tsumiki, Kuzuryu said, “You can unstrap him and untie his wrists. Cuff him to the bed and tell him you’re keeping him there to observe his mental health or whatever. Just make we have a captive audience for the next few days. The rest of you, take a break from work and figure out what you’re going to do, because we’re going to make sure he fucking likes us.”

The entire room cheered. Outside in the hall, where the voices inside the boardroom could be heard clearly, a figure stirred against the wall. The figure blinked and tilted their head slowly.

“. . . Interesting,” Kamukura said.

Chapter Text

How fitting that his ‘mother’ would be the one to punish him. At least, that’s what Naegi thought when Tsumiki walked into the room. He put on something close to a fierce face, limbs growing tense in anticipation. He’d seen firsthand what Ultimate Despair was capable of when they were feeling vengeful. How they would respond to his attempted escape would be –

Tsumiki leaned over him, and started undoing the straps.

Oh.

Even when they were all undone, he didn’t move, suspicious. It wasn’t until Tsumiki started tugging at his wrists and untying them that he started to believe this may be for real. Once they were free, he lifted his arms in front of him, letting the chafed skin breathe. He didn’t even see the handcuffs until after Tsumiki had locked one end to the bedrail, and then grabbed his arm.

“I’m sorry!” she squealed as she snapped the other end around his wrist. “But you really scared everyone and they’re very concerned. We want to p-put you under observation for a few days.”

Sure they did. He laid back down, resigned. He didn’t bother checking if he would escape the cuffs.

“We got you padded ones but, umm, try not to pull at them too much. They’ll dig into your skin.”

“Great,” he deadpanned.

He stared at the ceiling. What a lovely, mottled, cracked pattern they had going on there. He was tempted to roll far away from Tsumiki, curl up, shut his eyes and simply not exist for a while, but the cuff’s reach wasn’t enough to let him do that. So he laid there, resolutely ignoring the Nurse at his side, neither thinking nor feeling.

At least until he heard her crying.

“Mikan?”

Tsumiki sniffled loudly. “I’m sorry! I know . . . this is all my fault! I’m the one who made you run away!”

Where did that logic even come from? Naegi propped himself up, totally lost when it came to what was causing the breakdown in front of him.

“Mikan, what are you talking about?”

“Komaeda-kun told us,” she said and for a moment, his heart stopped. “You panicked and ran away because you’ve recently started thinking of this as a kidnapping. A-and recently, you’ve been spending the most time with Komaeda-kun and I; but you’ve been with Komaeda-kun from the beginning so it must be me . . .”

He almost said something about the ‘recently’ remark, but then she sobbed again. It wasn’t the loud wailing he had witnessed by Enoshima’s corpse, but the muffled sounds of one trying desperately to hold it together. It hurt to hear.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I know I’m not good enough. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I’m never good enough!”

“Mikan!” He tried to get up, but the handcuff bit into his wrist and kept him down. “That’s not true. It wasn’t your fault!”

“N-no, it is. I know it is.” Tsumiki was hugging herself, teeth digging into her lower lip until he saw blood. “I’m never good enough. I’m useless. Everyone hates me because I’m so disgusting. That’s why they . . . that’s why nobody –”

Stop it!” he cried out. He couldn’t stand this, especially after today. “Stop saying that. You’re not useless!”

Her eyes swirled. “I am! I know I am. I am, I am –”

He. . . he couldn’t do this anymore. Not today. Not after what had happened.

Mikan, you’re not useless!”

He grabbed Tsumiki by the collar and pulled. That quieted her. Their heads swung towards each other, nearly colliding. Tsumiki’s eyes were wide with shock from the unexpected aggression. Naegi maintained his grip, panting.

“You are not useless,” he hissed. “Do you remember who diagnosed me with malnutrition?”

“That’s wasn’t . . . I . . .”

“Yes, it was. It was you.” He swallowed hard, searching her face. How could he make her see? How coud he make her understand? “Even before you knew for sure, you told Komaeda-kun I needed to go to the infirmary. Don’t you remember that?”

“That doesn’t . . .”

“Yes, it does! If it wasn’t for you and your attention, if you didn’t keep bringing me my meals and making sure I ate, I’d still be starving myself, wouldn’t I? I’d already lost over ten pounds by the time you took action. How much more do you think I would have lost before somebody else noticed something was wrong?”

Her eyes were still watery. “Komaeda-kun . . .”

“No. He didn’t want to take me to the infirmary, remember? He didn’t know anything was wrong. He was going to make it worse.” His grip shifted on her collar as he fought back the urge to shake her. “Don’t you see? It was all you. You helped me. You protected me. Nobody else. You are not useless!”

“M-Makoto . . .”

“Just . . . please stop saying that stuff about yourself. Please.

Ah, now it was his turn to tear up. He wiped them away with the back of his hand, before opening his mouth again.

“Mikan, you’re not the terrible person you say you are. You’re wonderful and smart and helpful . . . I don’t understand why you can’t see that.” He choked back a sob. “I just . . . I just want you to understand. You’re a great person. You’re not a loser, and I want you to stop saying you are. Please.”

There was a long silence. Tsumiki reached up and gently pushed his hands away.

“Makoto . . . you are a very kind person. You’ve always been much n-nicer to me than I deserve.”

He bit back a keen of frustration. Just in time too, as Tsumiki was not done speaking.

“But if it upsets you this much, I . . . I’ll try to stop saying those things about myself.”

He looked at her, waiting for her to take it back. When she didn’t, he spoke with awe.

“Really?”

She nodded. “Yes. But there’s something I want to ask you, too. . .”

He struggled to steady his voice. “What’s that?”

Tsumiki gulped. “Next time you’re feeling as upset as you did earlier, I want you to come tell me, okay? Y-you shouldn’t have to deal with those feelings all by yourself.”

“ . . . Alright. I think I can do that.”

“Thank you.” She kissed his forehead. “I . . . I w-worry about you a lot. You’re very important to me.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. As long as you’re feeling better now.”

The handcuffs didn’t offer much room to manoeuvre, but he still managed to get close enough to Mikan to lay his head against her shoulder. She threaded her fingers in his hair, working them through knots and tangles that had formed during Naegi’s reckless flight. Under her breath, she hummed a lullaby. He wasn’t sleepy, but he closed his eyes and listened anyways.

“Are the others mad at me?”

“Nobody’s mad,” Tsumiki promised. “Everybody’s worried. They didn’t expect something like this to happen. Komaeda-kun thinks it’s his fault.”

“It’s not his fault,” Naegi said. (He was saying that out of self-preservation, right? Right?) “It’s mine. I lost sight of . . . things.”

“Shh, don’t say that.” Her nails grazed his scalp. It felt nice. “It’s not your fault. We know we’ve been distant. It’s no wonder you feel so alone. But we’re going to be better for you, okay?”

“You don’t need to do that. I’m . . .”

I don’t belong here.

“We want to,” Mikan said. “Nobody wants you to think they don’t care. Everyone loves you very, very much.”

(What did that even mean, to love? What did it mean anymore?)

“I brought your bunny.”

Naegi happily accepted the stuffed animal, and clutched it close to his chest. His cheek rubbed against the worn fabric.

“Mikan . . . can I have some hot chocolate?”


“Where’s Komaeda-kun?”

Naegi’s question rang through the infirmary like it was deserted. Tsumiki looked up from where she had placed their empty mugs, and walked back over.

“Umm, I don’t know. He might still be with the others.”

“They’re letting Komaeda-kun hang out with them,” he said, surprised. Usually, the other members of Ultimate Despair were rather mean to the Luckster.

“Yes, they are discussing . . . recent events.”

Oh. That made sense. Komaeda had been with him before he tried to run away, so it made sense that Ultimate Despair would interrogate him. They would probably want to figure out what exactly had set him off and how to make sure it didn’t happen –

No.

No.

No, no, no!

“M-mikan . . .” His voice trembled so much, he had to start again. “What did Komaeda-kun tell you?”

Tsumiki looked away, fidgeting. “That you two were having an argument. And you . . . you got confused and thought we were kidnapping you. Then you had a p-panic attack and Komaeda-kun helped you, but then he left and you relapsed . . .”

“That’s it?” he said quietly.

“Umm, that’s most of it?”

Had his hand been over the bunny’s eye, he would have cracked it with how hard he was squeezing. So, that was the claim. Komaeda had taken the fall. He hadn’t exposed Naegi’s contact with his sister. The secret was safe. Only he and Komaeda knew.

. . . But that still didn’t mean Komaru was safe.

“Are you sure Komaeda-kun’s with them?” Naegi asked. “You’ve been here for a while. What if they’ve finished talking and he’s gone off somewhere?”

“Are you wondering why he hasn’t come to see you?” Tsumiki asked. “Oh, he’ s not mad at you, Sweetie. He’s upset with himself and needs some time alone.”

“But . . . but what’s he doing? Komaeda-kun . . . he . . .  I can’t . . .”

There was nothing more he could say. He couldn’t reveal to her why he needed to see Komaeda. She would go after Komaru if she knew. But he needed to see Komaeda. He needed to know the Luckster wasn’t angry and wouldn’t go after –

“You can stop worrying. He’s not thinking about that.”

Tsumiki jumped. “Ah! Kamukura-kun!”

Kamukura stood in front of the table that Tsumiki had left the mugs on. Neither of them had heard him enter, but that was pretty par for the course. His red eyes bore into Naegi as he repeated his earlier words.

Naegi nodded, and sunk into the bed. If Kamukura said Komaeda wasn’t going after Komaru, then he could trust it was true.

“D-did you want something from us?” Tsumiki asked. She squealed in fear when Kamukura just stared at her.

“I haven’t seen you out of your room in a while,” Naegi said casually. Kamukura just stared at him, too.

“Not like th-there’s anything wrong with that!” Tsumiki said quickly. She made a show of pushing him down and tucking in the blanket – conveniently blocking Naegi from Kamukura’s view at the same time. “Makoto was just making an observation.”

“Mikan –!” Naegi yelped as he was pushed down again.

“. . . I really don’t care,” Kamukura said.

As Tsumiki stood there nervously, Naegi asked, “Am I allowed to sit up now?”

Apparently, yes, for Naegi was allowed to do so without much fuss. He asked Kamukura, “What are you doing here?”

(In the background, Tsumiki whined in distress)

In answer, Kamukura glanced at a clock. “You should head to the entrance hall. He’ll be here soon.”

“Who?” Naegi asked.

“Ah, another member of the family.” Mikan giggled. “And a friend for you!”

So, it had come to this moment. Naegi swallowed, and mentally bolstered his courage. It couldn’t be that bad, could it? It wasn’t like it would be someone who would hurt him. Ultimate Despair wouldn’t allow that. They wouldn’t let anyone hurt him.

(Only physically though. Mentally was an entirely different story).

He almost thought Tsumiki would make him use the wheelchair, but after she undid the handcuffs, she took his hand and began leading him out of the infirmary. Just before the door shut behind them, Naegi turned and looked back. The longhaired teen was still standing where Naegi had last seen him, watching them. Kamukura didn’t look like he was following, but who knew what he had planned.

“So,” Naegi said as they continued to walk, “what’s this friend like?”

“Oh, don’t worry. You’ll like him,” Mikan said in a reassuring tone that was not very reassuring. “He’s just for you!”

“Just for me,” Naegi repeated in a small voice.

“He’s very smart! Well, he is considering . . . but I’m sure he’ll be lots of fun to play and cuddle with. He’ll keep all those nasty Future Foundation members away, too!”

“Can you tell me who it is?”

Tsumiki held a finger to her lips. “It’s a surprise!”

That didn’t make him feel any better. He wanted to slink into a corner and disappear.

When they arrived in the entrance hall, they weren’t alone. Pekoyama and Kuzuryu were standing in the open door, the Yakuza looking very impatient as he tapped his foot and crossed his arms. Upon hearing Naegi and Tsumiki’s steps, Pekoyama placed her hand on her sword’s pommel and looked at them, relaxing once she saw there was no threat. Within ten minutes, the rest of Ultimate Despair arrived.

Well, almost all of Ultimate Despair arrived.

“Where’s Komaeda-kun?” Naegi asked.

“I don’t know –” Tsumiki started.

“Nagito-chan said he had something to do earlier,” Mioda piped up. “It’s like he disappeared!”

If Kamukura hadn’t reassured him earlier that Komaeda wasn’t going after his sister, Naegi surely would have jumped to the worst possible conclusion.

A walkie-talkie crackled on Soda’s waist. The Mechanic lifted it to his ear and after listening, made the announcement:

“Alright, looks like Tanaka-kun has entered the city!”

Tanaka . . . that was Tanaka Gundham, Ultimate Breeder, right? He was another member of Ultimate Despair. Naegi waited for Soda to announce who was with him – this friend he was supposed to meet – but Soda remained quiet. Was Ultimate Despair that intent on keeping it a secret? Or did they simply think this other person wasn’t worth mentioning?

“. . . Is Komaeda-kun not coming?” Naegi asked.

“I don’t know,” Tsumiki answered.

A few more minutes passed. Kamukura appeared, but lingered near the back.

Then, in the middle of the entrance, a figure appeared.

Tanaka Gundham was a frightening figure. His long, black jacket seemed to suck up any light around him, even as his ghostly pale skin emitted its own. A grey, tattooed scar ran up and through his left eye, which was closed as he strode forward confidently. At first, Naegi merely thought that Tanaka happened to be wearing a fluffy scarf; although that was a purple scarf he saw (the only bit of colour in this monochrome show), he realized the fluffiness he saw wasn’t manufactured. Some sort of animal had curled around Tanaka’s neck, hissing as it dug claws into its master’s black hair.

Although both his eyes were closed, Tanaka still managed to walk right up to Naegi. There, his eyelids snapped open, and the sudden gleam of red seemed to temporarily blind him. Before he could say anything, Tanaka dropped to one knee, bowing his head as his arm swept out in an exaggerated manner.

“Uh, hello?” Naegi said.

Tanaka stood without making a sound. He towered above Naegi, and Naegi squirmed and flinched backwards into Mikan as the Breeder looked him over.

“I’m Naegi Makoto,” he said. He awkwardly held his hand up for a handshake.

The Breeder did not accept the hand. Instead, Tanaka put his hands on Naegi’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. Hardly a moment later, the Breeder’s eyes closed and a small smile appeared. Tanaka nodded to himself, and then stepped back, apparently content.

“Tanaka-kun doesn’t speak,” Tsumiki whispered to him. “That’s his despair.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize, silly!” Tsumiki said. “Keep talking to him. It makes him despair when he can’t answer.”

Naegi was about to say something when –

“Ah, I see Naegi-kun hasn’t met his new friend yet.”

“Komaeda-kun!” Naegi spun around, nearly dashing out from Mikan’s watchful eye and toward the Luckster. Komaeda looked no different than normal. Naegi wasn’t sure why he had thought it would be otherwise.

Two huge hands suddenly passed in front of his eyes. He felt more than heard Nidai’s laughter as the Coach said, “Don’t look, Naegi-kun! We can’t let you ruin the surprise.”

So this was it. Time to face the music. He let Nidai turn him around, obeyed the order to shut his eyes, and quieted his mind even as the others giggled around him. Surprises were bad. He knew that. But he couldn’t dwell on that now. He had an audience and it was his time to perform.

He didn’t know how long he waited there. The others had grown quiet at this point. He thought he could hear rustling and breathing, but that could have been from anyone. Someone’s hands were on his shoulder; by the size, he suspected they were Nidai’s.

(Strangely enough, although his eyes were shut, he could still feel exactly where Komaeda was)

Warm, humid air suddenly blasted his face. It stunk.

“Okay, open your eyes!” Nidai ordered.

Naegi did.

He blinked.

He blinked again, unable to believe what he was seeing.

“Th-that’s . . . that’s . . .”

“Do you like him?” Tsumiki asked anxiously.

And Naegi found his voice.

“You got me a bear?”

Chapter Text

That was a bear.

There was a bear standing in front of him.

Ultimate Despair had gotten him a frigging pet bear.

“Do you like him?” Tsumiki asked.

“That’s a bear!”

“Well, duh.” Owari scratched her head. “Didn’t you say bears were your favourite animal?”

“I did, but . . . that’s a bear!”

“Does that mean . . .?” Tsumiki was all small and fidgety like a mouse. “Do you not like him?”

Naegi couldn’t answer. He was too busy staring at the bear.

Then, Tanaka stepped forward. He covered his hand in his scarf so he would not touch Naegi’s skin directly, and then took hold of Naegi’s wrist. His grip was firm but gentle, the mark of one who had spent a lifetime handling shy animals. Confidently, Tanaka moved Naegi’s arm forward, until it was an inch away from the bear. He lifted Naegi’s arm then, and moved it down and forward so that his palm lay flat on the snout. Warm air brushed the underside of his arm as the bear sniffed. When Tanaka took his guiding hand away, Naegi stood there and curled his fingers into the fur.

“ . . . He’s a bear,” Naegi said in awe.

The bear had hardly moved since Naegi had touched him, not really seeming to care. He was brown but in the sunlight, his back and face shone a bronzed gold. And he was huge. Naegi didn’t think he was full-grown, but he appeared to be at least 700 pounds, probably a lot more. He had no way of telling how old the bear was, but it was already up to his chin in height. The fur on the snout was thin, but Naegi could tell just by looking that if he pressed his hand against the back, it would have disappeared into the bear’s coat.

The bear tilted his head up a little, and sniffed Naegi’s face. A large tongue poked out between strong jaws as the bear licked its lips once, and began to pant. His breath honestly didn’t smell all that great and his fur carried the scent of BO, but Naegi didn’t flinch.

“What’s his name?” he asked Tanaka giddily, forgetting the Breeder couldn’t talk. But that was okay, because Hanamura could speak for him.

Hanamura said, “That, my friend, is the wonderful Monokuma!”

. . . Because of course he was.

“Yeah, because apparently Tanaka hasn’t bred any half-black, half-white bears and he doesn’t have trained pandas.” Owari scowled as she spoke, as if what she was asking of Tanaka was perfectly reasonable.

“Kuma,” Naegi said firmly, compromising. “I’m going to call him Kuma.”

“So you like him!” Mikan said eagerly.

Naegi raised his other hand. Before he could touch, Kuma closed his mouth over the exposed arm. There was a moment of fear, but Kuma seemed content to simply hold his arm and Naegi relaxed.

“I do like him,” he said. He frowned suddenly. “What’s that around his neck?”

It appeared to be some sort of collar, like one of those radio collars scientists used to track animals. Tanaka shook his head rapidly as Naegi reached for it. Naegi hesitated, and then withdrew his hand. Apparently, he wasn’t supposed to touch it.

“Oh, I’m sure you two will have so much fun together!” Tsumiki said. “And now you won’t be so lonely, either.”

Naegi laughed uncertainty. “Yeah, I guess. Honestly, I’m not sure how to play with a bear though.”

Nidai laughed loudly. “That’s easy. You wrestle, of course. Let me show you!”

Nidai charged. Yet even the Coach’s super strength wasn’t enough to do more than nudge Kuma. The bear blinked slowly as Nidai put his head down like a bull and pushed at his side. Kuma released Naegi’s arm, turned his head and sniffed the Coach thoroughly from shoulder to shoulder as he continued his futile attack. After what seemed to be a moment of thought, the bear moved. Nidai stumbled forward and with a single paw, Kuma knocked Nidai to the floor and held him there.

“I’M NOT GIVING UP YET!” the Coach declared. He struggled valiantly, but to no avail.

Tanaka finally stepped forward and patted Kuma’s back. The bear almost instantly removed his weight from Nidai, leaving a panting, very exhausted Coach.

“Whew.” Nidai wiped his forehead. “Next time, I’ll get you.”

Kuma blinked.

“Alright, there’s nothing more to see here,” Kuzuryu said suddenly. “You can all stop standing around.”

“Let’s go back to the infirmary,” Tsumiki said to Naegi, her hand on his back. Naegi nodded, turning to follow her. Not far away, Komaeda turned too and started in the opposite direction –

“Komaeda-kun, you’re not coming?” Naegi asked, confused.

“Sorry, but I have some work I need to do,” Komaeda said. “Although I really shouldn’t say work. That would imply I’m actually competent enough to do something useful for the others, and we all know that something that simple is beyond trash like me.”

Naegi frowned again. (He wondered whether if throwing a fit like he had with Mikan would stop Komaeda from saying those things about himself, too.)

Kuma trudged after him and Tsumiki, seeming to understand whom his new owner was. Naegi glanced back at the hulking animal, and he could only think of one thing . . .

“Can I ride on him?”

Nobody said anything. Naegi stared at the ground. He was about to speak up, admit that his question had been a dumb one and he was going to take it back –

Hands grabbed him from behind.

Nidai was still too exhausted from ‘wrestling’ with Kuma, so Soda and Owari appeared to have taken it upon themselves to lift him. They lifted Naegi high enough so that he could grab the shaggy fur on Kuma’s back, and then scramble aboard. He settled down just beyond the hump created by Kuma’s shoulders.

“You comfortable up there?” Soda asked. He had cupped his hands around his mouth, as if Naegi was far off in the distance.

“Yeah, I’m great!” Naegi said, already grinning like a maniac.

“Okay, let’s go, Kuma!” Tsumiki ordered.

The two of them set off, Mikan leading. And Naegi held onto Kuma’s fur, grinning widely.

He was riding a bear!


Kuma seemed to be a patient sort. At least, that’s what Naegi thought as the bear sat by his bed and waited for Naegi to feed him treats. Which he did, of course. How could he not? Which is why half of Naegi’s lunch ended up disappearing down the bear’s throat. Mikan finally looked up from where she was mixing medicines to see Kuma claim the last bite. Naturally, she wasn’t happy about it.

“Oh, Makoto!” She rushed forward, as if she could somehow reach into Kuma’s mouth and pull Naegi’s lunch back out. “That was supposed to be for you.”

“I know, but look at him. I bet he needs tons of food, and he’s probably starving after travelling so far.”

“I’m sure Tanaka-kun took good care of him,” Tsumiki said. Unable to retrieve his lunch, she comforted herself instead by smoothing out Naegi’s blanket.

“Sorry! I wasn’t trying to insult Tanaka-kun.”

Tsumiki smiled at him, and then looked over his shoulder. “See, Tanaka-kun? He believes in you, too.”

. . . Crap. Naegi twisted at the waist toward the infirmary doors. Tanaka was indeed there, apparently having just entered. A little beyond his shoulder, Kamukura lurked silently.

The Breeder marched forward with that same, confident gait he had introduced himself with. He stopped on the other side of the bed from Kuma, and crossed his arms. Naegi looked down as Tanaka stared at him. He had the distinct feeling that he was being scolded.

“Fine. I won’t feed him my lunch anymore.”

Tanaka suddenly reached into his jacket and produced a bag of marshmallows.

“Why –?”

Naegi’s question was answered when Kuma made a sound of what he thought was excitement. The bear leaned forward over Naegi’s bed as Tanaka groped inside the bag, and the moment the treat was offered, Kuma lapped it up.

“Ah, so marshmallows are the designated bear treats!” Naegi said, his conclusion supported by Tanaka’s nod. “What do I do for his regular meals?”

At that, Tanaka reached again into his jacket . . . and pulled out a long sheet of paper. Naegi’s eyes widened.

“Uh . . .”

Tanaka lifted his arm to hide his mouth, and his shoulders bounced in a way that could only mean laughter.

Naegi laughed a little, too. “Okay, I’m glad you’re handling it. I don’t think I could follow all these instructions.”

Nearby, Tsumiki sighed as she stared at the empty tray. “I’m going to ask one of the Monokumas to bring you more food. Please eat it this time.”

Naegi’s smile wavered as he remembered how she and Hanamura had planned his meals just for him. “Sorry, I didn’t –”

“I understand,” she said. A smile tugged at her lips. “You were too excited. Just don’t let it happen too often, okay?”

Naegi smiled. He patted Kuma’s head. “Got it.”

Kuma liked scratches behind the ears. That he discovered on his own. But once he did, Tanaka gave him a crash course on where to devote his time. Through it, Naegi noticed he was awfully skittish about making skin contact. Whenever Naegi reached for one of the places he was indicating, Tanaka always hurriedly withdrew his hand and kept it stiffly at his side. He wondered what was up with that. Kuma, for his part, was clearly enjoying the attention; he pushed his head into Naegi’s hand, eyes closed.

“His fur is really soft,” Naegi said, running his fingers through it. “If I didn’t know better, I would think you shampooed it.”

(He completely missed the red tint to Tanaka’s cheeks and how he suddenly hid his face).

. . . And now there was something on his lap. At first he thought it was a tuff of fabric from Tanaka’s scarf – which at some point prior, had fallen across his lap. But then the tuff moved, and bright black eyes blinked up at him. The hamster stared at Naegi, seeming almost confused, before it started to groom itself.

“This isn’t for me, too, is it?” Naegi asked. He reached cautiously for the hamster, moving even slower than when he had first reached for Kuma. Speaking of the devil, Kuma had leaned forward, and his jaws began to open –

But Tanaka was swift, and swatted the bear on the nose. At the same time, the hamster sprung into the air, grabbing onto the middle of Tanaka’s scarf. Within a second, it disappeared into the folds of the fabric. However, shortly after, Naegi saw a bunch of little heads stick out, all of them glaring at Kuma.

“One, two . . . there’s got to be at least a dozen!” Naegi said. “They all live in that scarf?”

Tanaka shrugged. A hamster popped out of his collar just then, and Tanaka lifted and held his arm in an odd way. It seemed instinctive for him, and the Breeder didn’t look the least bit surprised when the hamster decided to use his already-positioned arm as a slide. It tumbled down the arm and Tanaka flicked his wrist at the last moment so that the chubby rodent ended up in Naegi’s lap. It blinked and stared up at him, just as the other one had.

“Hi!” he said.

The hamster stared at him. It made no move to be friendly until it glanced back at Tanaka and the Breeder gave it a reassuring nod. Then the hamster waddled forward fearlessly, pausing to nibble on the tip of Naegi’s finger.

“They really trust you,” Naegi said, half to himself. “You must love them a lot.”

He didn’t need to see Tanaka’s gentle smile to know it was true. Just like Kuma, the hamsters had a healthy sheen to their fur that almost made them glow. Their eyes were bright and lively, actions curious and carefree. There was no possible way Tanaka had ever laid a cruel hand on them.

“I’m glad,” Naegi suddenly said. “I’m glad Despair didn’t make you . . .”

He stopped as it hit him what he had almost said. The hamster sensed his sudden tension, and scrambled back to the safety of its owner.

“. . . It’s nice to see someone who cares so much about his animals,” Naegi said instead.

If Tanaka knew his original sentence, he gave no sign except for a hard stare. But it softened again as Naegi idly stroked Kuma’s head. Tanaka suddenly got to his feet and briskly walked out of the infirmary.

“ . . . Did I say something that offended him?” Naegi asked Tsumiki.

But Tanaka returned quickly, and he had the air of a giddy child showing his teacher the drawing he had spent all day on. There was something clutched to his chest. When he got close enough, the Breeder thrust the items into Naegi’s chest. Naegi took them, a little confused, and examined them.

His eyes lit up.

“Mikan, these are bear documentaries! Can I watch them?”

Mikan smiled. “I can ask Soda-kun to bring one of the TVs. . . “

Just then, a Monokuma came strolling in. It held a platter filled with food high above its suit-cladded body and marched towards them –

Only to be knocked over with a swipe from Kuma’s paw. The bear ducked his head and eagerly began devouring the fallen meal.

“Nooooo!” Tsumiki cried. “That was supposed to be for Makoto!”

Naegi couldn’t help but cheer for his new friend.


The room was a mess. There were clothes scattered across the ground, a mess of paperwork on  the desk, and the sheets on the bed were crumbled and bunched. None of that, however, seemed to bother the room’s owner. She was too busy leaning over her bed, scowling, making irritated noises as she tried to cram a jacket into an already-stuffed suitcase. Really, the messy room was quite a contrast to the woman’s clothes: a neat suit jacket and dress shirt, although she wore shorts instead of the standard skirt one would find on a Future Foundation member.

“Come on, get in!” Asahina hissed as she tried one last time. For a moment, it looked like it would all fit, but then the jacket – among other items – sprung upwards as if the suitcase had been hiding springs.

Asahina ripped a jacket off her face and collapsed face-first onto the bed. She then proceeded to gracefully scream into the mattress.

“Stupid jacket,” she muttered, lifting her head. She stared ahead at the blank wall for a few seconds, collecting herself. Then, with a sharp, unexpected movement, she rolled over and sat up –

“Fukawa-san?!” Asahina was so surprised her ponytail seemed to fly straight up.

The Writer flinched, but it was too late to duck back behind the door and hide. She stepped inside the room, fingers locked together as she muttered, “Y-you’re an idiot, you know.”

“Huh? What was that for?”

“We all know wh-what you’re planning,” Fukawa hissed. “Master told me y-you’d do something like this.”

Asahina scowled, muscles tensing as she braced herself for a fight. “Yeah? Well, it’s not like I’m trying to hide anything. I’m not ashamed to not be a coward like you guys!”

“No, you’re j-just a brainless nymph. Stupid girl can’t even tell the difference between fantasy and reality . . .”

“You’re one to talk!” Asahina snapped. “Besides, you saw it, too! You saw that message.”

Fukawa said, “Master told us to ignore it.”

“I don’t care what Togami thinks!” Asahina said. “He’s a stuck-up snob anyways.”

“Hmph. I can’t say I’m surprised to hear such a thing from you.”

Despite having been standing only a little behind Fukawa, the girls had been so caught up in arguing that they hadn’t noticed Togami until now. Fukawa blushed fiercely, nearly drooling as she muttered her White Knight’s name. Asahina looked a little startled, but then her face took on the steeliness of one resigning themselves to a fight they couldn’t win.

“Do you realize what you would be throwing yourself into?” Togami demanded, shutting the dormitory door behind him. “This isn’t some abandoned city we’re talking about. The world out there is dangerous.”

“I don’t care!” Asahina shouted. “I’m tired of sitting around and being useless.”

“And for that you would throw yourself on the sword.” Togami scoffed and crossed his arms, looking off to the side. “You commoners have such skewed priorities.”

“What? I’m not doing it for glory or whatever the hell you’re implying. I’m trying to help because unlike you, I actually care.”

“The Monokumas would r-rip you apart,” Fukawa said, pointing a shaking finger at Asahina’s chest. “You c-can’t just go waltzing in and expect th-they’d be distracted by th-those melons!”

For a second, Asahina looked like she wanted to cover herself. “I . . . At least I’m doing something instead of giving up!”

“We don’t know if that message was really from him,” Togami said.

“But what if it was! What if it was from him?” Asahina blinked rapidly, tears in her eyes. “What if Naegi-kun’s sister is in Towa City and he needs us to rescue her?”

Togami did not answer right away and when he did, he took a deep breath beforehand.

“She would be guarded . . .”

“I know she would be. I don’t care! She needs our help, and I . . . I . . .”

Asahina choked suddenly, smothering whatever phrase was meant to finish that sentence. Fat tears dripped down her face, and she rubbed at them fruitlessly with her sleeve.

“What if that was Naegi-kun asking us to help her?” she repeated, nearly begging. “We have to do something, don’t we? We owe him. And I couldn’t . . . He needed me and I couldn’t. . . I couldn’t help him or Oogami-san . . . Please, I need to help him. Just let me go and save somebody.”

Togami stared at her. The Heir didn’t look the least bit moved by her pleads. He looked like a judge for the afterlife, judging the worthiness of the souls who stood before him. And yet . . .

“Alright.”

Both girls blinked in surprised. “Eh?”

“Alright,” Togami said again. “I’ll help you.”

Chapter Text

“So, when are we leaving?” Asahina asked eagerly, all traces of her former breakdown already gone.

“Will you keep it down?” Togami hissed through gritted teeth. “This is supposed to be a secret.”

“Ah, sorry.” Asahina’s cheeks were red, but there was a small smile on her face. As if discussing secrets while they were strolling through a busy work area was a perfectly normal mistake to make. As it was however, none of the many workers in their cubicles appeared to have noticed their conversation.

Togami pinched his nose and muttered, “I’m regretting this already.”

“M-maybe my White Knight should r-relieve his stress.” Fuwaka tapped her index fingers together, grinning lecherously. “I would gladly volunteer.”

. . . He’d been with them for less than ten minutes, and already Togami was considering locking himself in his room.

“I would never dream of touching a filthy mongrel like you,” he said. (Fukawa swooned in the background). “Now, do I as I told you and for the love of god, stop talking –”

He came that close to walking straight into Kirigiri. The Detective had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, stepping into his path while his attention was elsewhere. Togami lurched to a halt, taking a moment to fix his glasses.

The Heir crossed his arms, and smirked. “Ah, why if it isn’t the Future Foundation’s newest lapdog.”

“Togami-kun.” Kirigiri’s gaze was chilly, but it was nothing compared to the frost in her voice.

Almost immediately, a sudden tension filled the area, and many workers looked up from their station to stare. It wasn’t just him and Kirigiri that were the source of the tension either. Asahina looked like she was trying to set the Detective on fire with her eyes, and Fukawa was mumbling something foul under her breath.

“What do you want?” Asahina growled.

“Asahina-san.” Kirigiri nodded in her general direction. “I’m afraid this doesn’t concern you.”

“Why? Did you tattle on Togami again?”

Kirigiri didn’t react to the barb. “Togami-kun, I have been informed that you picked a fight with Sakakura-kun yesterday.”

Togami sneered. “That’s hardly fair. If the Future Foundation was upset by that, then they shouldn’t have sent a barbarian with the temperament of a toddler to deal with me.”

Several people started whispering to each other. Kirigiri’s eyes flickered to them, but that was her only response.

“We are not talking about this here,” Kirigiri said. “Come with me.”

“Ordering my White Knight around like that . . . How d-dare she? You’re just jealous that he –”

“That’s enough,” Togami said, and Fukawa immediately fell silent. “It’s fine. I’ve been looking forward to this, actually.”

“I bet she has been, too,” said Asahina. “You couldn’t just wait to get one of us into trouble again, couldn’t you?”

“Munakata-kun himself asked me to speak to him,” Kirigiri said.

“And I just bet you couldn’t resist volunteering! Can’t give up an opportunity to show off in front of the Branch Heads, huh?” Asahina snapped. “It’s not like we’re supposed to be your friends or anything.”

Kirigiri had already turned away, so there was no telling what her reaction had been – if there had been one. She merely repeated her previous order for Togami to follow her, and then walked away. Still smug, Togami followed. Kirigiri led him to her office, and opened the door.

“Shut it,” she said as Togami stepped inside.

Togami did so. He turned around afterwards, leaning against the door as their eyes met –

“May I ask what you and Sakakura-kun were arguing about?” she asked calmly.

Togami shrugged. “I merely pointed out that I was groomed to take over an international organization that secretly ruled the world from the shadows. And  that, objectively, would have made me better prepared to lead this foundation than the experience of being a mere student council president.”

Kirigiri nodded to herself. “Nothing serious enough to elicit a true punishment.”

With that, Kirigiri walked behind her desk and took a seat. Togami, too, stroke forward, taking the waiting seat in front of the desk.

Hands on her lap, sitting stiff as a board, Kirigiri spoke. “Let it be known that officially, I reprimanded you for your conduct, reminded you of the need for professionalism on all sides, and warned you that there may be consequences if you continue to antagonize your coworkers.”

“The usual, then. I’m hurt by your lack of creativity.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for future conversations.” Kirigiri said dryly. She took some papers out of a drawer and began looking through them.

Togami raised an eyebrow. “And now that we’re done with official business . . .?”

Kirigiri looked up at him. “Are you aware that the surveillance team submitted an official report that Naegi-kun tried to escape around the time we received that email about his sister?”

Togami frowned. “No, I was not. Then are you saying he did send –?”

“The Future Foundation is not considering that,” Kirigiri said, skin around her eyes tightening just a bit. “They see no reason to change their approach.”

Togami leaned back in his seat.  “The approach that is completely useless to us . . . So, we proceed with the plan.”

“Yes.” Kirigiri suddenly reached down, and pulled up a laptop. She placed it on the desk, and slid it towards Togami. “Everything you need is there.”

“Does anyone else know?” he asked.

Kirigiri stared at him. “Of course not. Why would you ask something like that?”

Togami shrugged, secretly delighting in annoying her, even just a little. “Just checking.”

As Togami accepted the laptop and placed it on his lap, Kirigiri suddenly spoke again. “Asahina-san’s very angry with me, isn’t she?”

“Oh, yes,” Togami said. “She claims to understand why you exposed her plans, but she is still quite bitter that you stopped her from sneaking into that raiding party that tried to retrieve Naegi. Not to mention she’s rather upset that you keep taking their side over any of ours. You remember what happened in the fourth trial. Asahina doesn’t bear betrayal well.”

Kirigiri exhaled. “That’s . . . unfortunate. However, if it makes our estrangement more believable, then I must continue to play  the villain. I’m afraid I can’t see a better way to ensure I become head of the new division.”

“And we need you in that position,” Togami agreed. “Is that still on track?”

“Yes. The higher-ups are still very concerned about those rumours that you’re planning to use your remaining wealth and influence to usurp them. Your recent argument certainly hasn’t eased those worries. They will welcome me as a division head to act as a buffer between them and you. Not to mention, they are also eager to find somebody that can control the four of you, and despite everything, I seem to be the best at that.”

Togami smiled, and it was the smile of a wolf that had just spotted a herd of deer. “How very convenient.”

Kirigiri didn’t react. She instead changed the subject. “Togami-kun, I presume those two are accompanying you to Towa City?”

Togami looked off to the side, legs crossed one over the other. “Asahina would go on her own if I didn’t allow her to. Fukawa obeys all orders except the ones where I tell her to stop following me.”

Kirigiri smiled the tiniest bit. “Ah, it must be so horrible to be so popular.”

Togami glared at her.

“Is that all?” the Heir demanded.

“No. Stay. Hagakure-kun should be returning soon, and we’ll need to discuss that.”

The two of them sat in silence. Kirigiri had a cup of tea with her and, after a few sips, offered to get some for Togami. Togami declined (of course he did. Lavender tea? How utterly commonplace) and the two were left with a slightly more awkward silence. It didn’t help that while Kirigiri had paperwork to fill out, Togami did not have anything to do. Sure, he could have perused the laptop, but he was worried about someone coming in and seeing what was on it.

Then, it happened.

“Kirigiri-chiiiiii!”

“You may want to move out of the way,” was all Kirigiri said as Hagakure’s shout rang through the walls.

Togami gave it a moment of thought, then decided to evacuate to the side.

A wise decision.

The door slammed open. Hagakure rushed in like a typhoon, accidentally bumping the chair Togami had been sitting in and sending it skittering across the floor. The Clairvoyant was breathing heavily, sweating, his already frighteningly-messy hair somehow even messier. But despite his apparent distress, the Clairvoyant was grinning widely, waving his arms wildly to make sure he had the Detective’s attention.

“Oi, Kirigiri-chi! It worked. Your magic charm worked!”

“Did it, now?” Kirigiri said, apparently unaffected by how the volume of the room had increased tenfold.

“Yeah! I got separated from the others and accidentally walked right in front of some soldiers. I thought I was a goner, but not a single one shot at me.” Hagakure laughed loudly, hands on his hips. “I even kicked one and nothing!”

“I see. Please keep this between us.”

“Huh? Oh, I get it. Everyone would be trying to steal that charm if they knew.”

“Exactly.” Kirigiri dipped her chin, right before saying, “Now hand it over.”

“About that . . .” Hagakure grinned at her sheepishly, hand getting lost in his hair as he rubbed at his scalp. “I lost it.”

“You did?”

“Uh, yeah . . .”

“Empty your pockets.”

Hagakure froze. “B-but . . .”

“Now.”

Looking like a boy who had been caught swiping candy, Hagakure reached into the pockets of his much too baggy pants. Some of the stuff he pulled out was nothing more than junk. Some of it was . . . questionable. At one point, Hagakure made a move as if to hide something behind his back. He was no match for Kirigiri though, who merely commanded him once to hand it over once. The Clairvoyant sighed and dropped a small trinket into her waiting hand.

“Thank you,” she said. “You can leave now.”

Despite the dismissal, Hagakure remained. “Are you sure? I mean you don’t really need a charm like that if you’re just –”

“You can leave now.”

Sulking, slumped at the shoulders, Hagakure did.

“. . . A magic charm?” Togami asked from his corner, eyebrow raised.

“He believed it, didn’t he?” Kirigiri countered. “And given Hagakure-kun’s reputation around here, nobody will bother digging deeper. It was rather clever, wasn’t it?”

As she spoke, Kirigiri had leaned closer over her desk. She wore expression that anyone who knew her would say to be the closest she could come to explicit smugness. Togami grit his teeth, unable to deny her statement, but also reluctant to give her a compliment with no strings attached.

“That it didn’t backfire terribly is impressive,” he said instead.

“Indeed.” Once again, the barest hint of smugness crept into her voice. It was infuriating.

He changed the subject. “So, if none of them attacked him, then we can conclude your hypothesis is correct . . .”

“Naegi-kun has somehow managed to infiltrate the Monokuma system.”

The silence hung. Togami leaned back in his seat, shaking his head.

“Unbelievable,” the Heir said. “How could an ordinary person like that –?”

“You underestimated him,” Kirigiri said. “As always. Regardless, you should be able to move freely without fear of the Monokuma army.”

Togami shook his head again. “Naegi really is impossible to keep down.”

Kirigir said, “The division heads will be having a meeting at three o’clock tomorrow. That will be the best time to sneak away.”

“Can you get us some of those megaphones?”

“I can. Return here at noon tomorrow.”

With that, the conversation ended. Neither Togami nor Kirigiri felt the need for proper goodbyes. Once Togami simply nodded once and then made his way towards the exit. Kirigiri returned to her paperwork. Both of their expressions were tight-lipped, as if they indeed had been having a very serious discussion about Togami’s misdemeanours.

But then . . .

“Togami-kun? If you do indeed find Naegi Komaru, then Asahina-san would be very happy. Perhaps, she her mood would be boosted enough that she would be willing to extend an olive branch  . . .”

Hand still on the door handle, Togami looked over his shoulder at her. “When we rescue Naegi’s sister, I’ll find a way to tell Asahina the truth about what you’re doing. That said, I find the ‘if’ in your statement offensive. Surely, you don’t doubt me.”

Kirigiri sighed. “We still have no proof that Naegi-kun sent that message.”

Togami didn’t open the door. He watched Kirigiri instead, expression guarded and unreadable.

“I must say, Kirigiri,” the Heir suddenly said, “I never thought I’d see the day where I had more faith in him than you.”

Kirigiri looked up sharply.

Togami continued, “If Naegi did indeed hack an army of Monokumas, then I find it difficult to believe that sending a simple email is beyond him.”

Kirigiri held his gaze a little while longer.

“I’ll see you at noon tomorrow,” she finally said.


The fawn ran. Its flanks were heaving, ears flat against its skull as it tore through the bush. Behind it, the beast advanced. Its long fangs glinted in the dim light; black eyes reflected the tiny, frail body of its prey. Then, all so quickly, it happened. The fawn slipped. The beast’s paws pounded against the dirt and – it was over. Teeth tore into the young body, crushing bone and muscle alike.

Naegi shoved popcorn into his mouth.

As the bear onscreen began to feed, he turned to Kuma and asked, “Did you ever do anything like that?”

Kuma stared at his popcorn bowl.

Naegi sighed. “I already gave you too many marshmallows. Plus, you ate two of my lunches.”

Kuma stared at his popcorn bowl.

Naegi looked to Tanaka. The breeder was on a chair next to his bed, having refused to sit upon the object itself. He gave the bear a firm look and shook his head. Kuma huffed, but adverted his gaze.

“I don’t get how you can say no to him,” Naegi said. He stared at Kuma, saw the flint-like, cold black of his eyes, the teeth – thick and long as his fingers – peeking out; saw a sturdy head placed upon a powerful neck, attached to an even more powerful body lined with muscle; saw a size and mass that could easily kill him by accident alone . . .

“. . . He’s just so cute,” Naegi finished.

Tanaka nodded solemnly. Then jumped as a couple of his hamsters took offense and head-butted him in the stomach. Naegi smiled at that, and then glanced back at Tsumiki.

“Uh, Mikan? Why are you hiding your face like that?”

“It’s . . . it’s just . . . that poor fawn!”

Ah. Naegi winced in sympathy. “I know it’s bad, but it’s just nature.”

“I know, it’s just so horrible!”

As Tsumiki whined and continued to lament the loss of the fawn, Naegi watched her with only one thought in mind:

Please don’t say she’s freaking out because it reminded her of me.

Naegi glanced back at the TV. “Look, now they’re fishing!”

They watched videos and movies about bears until the evening. At least, that’s what Naegi thought. It was kind of hard to tell time in the infirmary. But he couldn’t think of another reason why Tsumiki would kick Tanaka out and then take him to brush his teeth.

“Try not to roll around too much,” she said afterwards when he was tucked in. “The handcuffs shouldn’t bother you if you don’t. Umm, j-just try not to think about them, okay?”

“Can’t you take them off?” Naegi asked, lifting the offending wrist. “I mean I’ll be asleep anyways.”

Tsumiki glanced nervously from side to side. “B-but you might run off and . . .”

“I won’t.”

“You weren’t supposed to before,” she said quietly, almost guiltily.

“Mikan. . .” He sat up to speak to her better. “I’m not going to run away.”

“But you –”

“I promise.”

Mikan stared at him. She swallowed.

“Al-alright.”

The cuff came off with a small click. Naegi rubbed his wrist, even though it didn’t hurt.

“Thanks,” he said.

Mikan stood there, still holding the loose cuff. “You’re not lying to me, right? You’re not going to run away, are you?”

“No, I won’t run tonight,” he promised.

He glanced at the infirmary doors. He hadn’t seen any sign that someone was behind them, but the first night after his attempted escape? He’d be shocked if there wasn’t somebody secretly guarding those doors.

Naegi asked, “Is Komaeda-kun not coming to say goodnight?”

“Umm, I guess not,” Tsumiki said. “I’m not sure. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Naegi said. He felt . . . oddly putout. At least that probably meant he didn’t have to recite the eulogy today. “Mikan, you’re not going to stay up all night again and watch me, are you?”

She stared at him for a long while.

“No,” she said. “You promised and . . . a-and I’m going to trust you! I’ll be in that bed over there.”

Naegi watched her as she indeed walked over to one of the neighbouring beds and got herself comfortable. She flashed him a smile when she saw him looking, and then snuggled into the pillow and closed her eyes. Naegi did the same shortly after. It wasn’t like he could do much else.

Time passed, and the two dozed off.

Then, in the dark, dark corner of the room, something stirred. Kamukura stepped forward, moving soundlessly until he was right by Naegi’s bedside. He stared down at the younger teen’s unbound wrist, face as emotionless as ever.

“. . . I’ll assume you have a reason,” he droned.

A phone rang.

In a flash, before either of the two sleepers could wake, Kamukura fished Kuzuryu’s phone out of his pocket and brought it up to his ear. He didn’t check the caller ID. He knew exactly whom it would be. As he walked back towards the dark corner, he waited for her to speak.

“Kuzuryu-kun, do you know Naegi contacted us?” Yukizome asked.

Kamukura moved the phone away so that she wouldn’t hear him clear his throat.

And then he spoke with Kuzuryu’s voice.

“He sent you guys a message through the website, right? Yeah, we know about that.”

“Okay, just checking. . . He told them where you’re holding his sister,” Yukizome said quietly.

“We know. Don’t worry about it. It’s all part of the plan.”

“Okay, if you say so! Anything you need from me?”

“Make sure Munkata doesn’t take it seriously,” he said.

They exchanged basic pleasantries and hung up. Kamukura grabbed a bottle of water afterwards and took a deep drink; his throat always went dry while using his Ultimate Voice Acting talent. He then leisurely made his way toward the exit. He had to swap this phone with the decoy he’d planted on Kuzuryu before anyone noticed.

He glanced down at the phone and something tugged at his lips for an instant.

“Ah, Komaeda. After all his efforts to get this far, it really would be unfair if I allowed you such an easy way to thwart him,” Kamukura said idly.

But of course, that wasn’t the real reason why he’d covered for Naegi. If his analysis was correct and the situation advanced as he predicted . . . then the stage for the showdown had just been set. He’d finally get a real chance to put his theory to the test.

For better or for worse.

Chapter Text

“Hey. Hey! Wake up!”

Naegi grumbled, half-asleep.

“I said wake up!”

Naegi opened his eyes, jumping when he saw the handcuff around his wrist had been removed. “What – ?”

“Finally! Do you know how long I was waiting here? I didn’t come all the way here just to watch some stupid, lazy boy lie in bed all day!”

“Ah, sorry!” Naegi scrambled into a sitting position, rubbing at his eyes. “I didn’t know you were coming to see me, Saionji-san.”

“Of course not.” The Dancer crossed her arms, her lower lip jutting out. A key to his handcuffs dangled from her hand. (Did everyone have a key?) “Why would you expect someone like me to visit you?”

“Uh . . .” Had that been a rhetorical question?

“Well, guess what. I decided to be nice and give you a break from spending all day with that . . . that wonderfully attentive Nurse!”

Those were despair swirls. Those were definitely despair swirls.

Sometimes, despair seemed absolutely ridiculous.

“. . . Thanks,” he said carefully.

“Yeah, whatever. Now listen up! I have something important to show you.”

Naegi snapped to attention. He carefully extracted himself from the sheets, in case he needed to get up.

“Look,” Saionji said, “I used to be a tiny little shrimp like you, but that doesn’t mean I let people walk all over me. So, I’m going to show you how to cut those bullies down to size!”

Ho boy. Naegi dragged a hand through his hair. “Uh, thanks, but I don’t really like saying mean things about people.”

“Who said I was going to teach you how to call people rude names?” the Dancer said.

Naegi leaned back, trying to make sure he was out of her reach. “Sorry! I just thought –”

“. . . Because violence is much more fun!” Saionji finished. She suddenly turned towards the door. “Hey, get in here, you greasy monkey!”

“Ack, I’m coming!”

Soda burst through the doors. The sound of them hitting the wall was loud enough to shock Mikan out of her slumber. The Nurse squeaked in alarm, pulling the blanket over her head as if to hide. She peeked out a moment later, blinking owlishly at the sight of her classmates.

“Great. Now watch closely!” Saionji jabbed her finger in Naegi’s direction. “Because I’m going to show you how to turn this guy into a quivering wreck!”

“Ah, Saionji-san, wait!” Tsumiki almost toppled out of bed in her haste to ran over.

Saionji whipped around and her voice adopted a completely different tone. “Why hello, Tsumiki-san. You’re looking lovely today.”

. . . Yep. There were the despair swirls.

“I-I’m sorry to interrupt, but I don’t think Makoto should be learning this.” Tsumiki bowed her head, cheeks a faint red. “Makoto’s so sweet and gentle, and I really love that about him . . .”

“You’d rather let him get pushed around all the time?”

Tsumiki reeled back, throwing her arms over her head. “No, that’s not what I meant! I’m sorry. Please forgive meeeee!”

“Uh, Tsumiki-san’s right though,” Soda said. “Naegi-kun doesn’t really have that kind of attitude –”

“I appreciate your input,” Saionji said, once again using that different tone. Then, her smile dropped. “Did I say I wanted to hear you talk? Shut it!”

Naegi wasn’t sure if he should say something –

But then Saionji was in his face. “Look, I get it! You’re all cute and tiny and everybody’s jealous and trying to trick you and stuff. You can’t just sit there and take it. You gotta be mean back or they’re just going to keep picking on you.”

“Couldn’t I just talk to them?” Naegi asked. “Being mean is . . .”

“Why waste all your time with words when you can do this?”

It was so sudden that poor Soda had no time to react to it. Saionji’s heel slammed down on his toes, and the Mechanic hollered and hopped about on one foot.

Naegi cried, “That –!”

“Works all the time!” Saoinji said proudly. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re small. Now, get up. It’s your turn.”

Naegi did stand, but he spoke to Soda instead. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Soda said. “I just –”

“Less talking, more stomping!” Saoinji ordered.

Naegi said, “B-but –”

Stomp on his foot!

His chest flared up in panic and he acted. Suddenly, his foot was on top of Soda’s, and both he and the Nurse were giving Naegi an odd look . . .

Saoinji groaned and buried her face in her hands. “You’re supposed to put effort into it. Not flop it like a wet noodle!”

“Sorry,” Naegi mumbled.

“I think we should stop!” Tsumiki said. Before Naegi knew it, she was hugging him from the side. “Makoto’s a very nice person, and he doesn’t like doing bad things to others. Isn’t that right, sweetie?”

“Yeah.” He put a hand on her arm to loosen the stranglehold around his neck. “That’s pretty accurate.”

“What? Do you want Komaeda to keep bullying you?” Saionji demanded, hands on her hip. “Is this some kind of weird perverted thing?”

Naegi froze.

“. . . Komaeda-kun?” Tsumiki repeated, clearly confused.

Sweat trickled down his back.

“Eh? Doesn’t that guy basically worship him?” Soda asked.

“Are you two really that dense? Haven’t you ever noticed how Komaeda looks at him sometimes?” Saoinji poked Mikan’s chest this time.

Tsumiki turned her head to look at him. “Makoto . . . Komaeda’s bullying you?”

Yes. YES!

“No,” he said. He hoped the smile on his face was a better one than the ones he had been able to fake for his sister. “I think Saionji-san’s mistaken.”

“Eww! So it is some weird perverted thing. Gross! I didn’t take time out of my precious day for this!”

“You sure?” Soda asked him. “The guy can be a real creep sometimes.”

“I’m fine,” Naegi said. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Please, please don’t do this. He’ll get so mad at me. He’ll . . . I don’t know what he’ll do, but . . .

Soda shrugged. “Alright. If you say so.”             

He barely held back a relived sigh.

“Well, what are we going to do now?” Saionji demanded. “No way I’m getting involved in whatever weird stuff you two are doing.”

Naegi shrugged. “You can dance, I guess.”

She scoffed. “I just said I didn’t want to get involved with your weird fetishes!”

“That’s not . . .  I didn’t . . .!” It was almost amazing how quickly and how much his face heated up. “It’s your talent, so I thought . . .”

He looked at Tsumiki, more of a plead for what to say than out of hurt, but the Nurse took it as the latter. She whipped around to face Saionji, heels clicking together, and demanded, “Apologize right now! You’re making him self-conscious.”

Saionji cracked a wide smile, adopting her despair tone. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t make fun of your weird fantasies.”

“That’s not . . .!” He buried his face in his hands.

So busy was he with that, he didn’t notice the calculating stare she gave him. Her gaze swept up and down his form, and something suspiciously close to a smirk began to appear. She leaned back to confirm just who was here with her, then mumbled something to Tsumiki and darted off.

She returned holding yellow fabric.

“Okay!” She skidded to a stop right in front of a baffled Naegi. “You want to do something with dancing. Here. Put it on!”

She shoved the bundle into his arms. Naegi unfolded it and held it up by one end. It was a yellow kimono.

He asked, “Why . . .?”

“Is there something wrong with a kimono?” Saionji asked, clearly exaggerating the surprise in her voice. “Do you not like mine? Are you trying to call me ugly?”

“No, I –!”

“Well, if there’s nothing wrong with kimonos, you should have no problem putting it on!”

This time, he did look at Mikan for help.

“I think it would look nice on you,” the Nurse said.

Darn it.

Before long, he found himself behind a curtain in the back of the infirmary wearing the kimono. He pinched one of the sleeves and looked it over. It . . . he didn’t think it looked half-bad. Maybe there were too many flowers for his liking, but other than that it was rather plain. It felt nice, too. Apart from being way too long for him, the only problem was . . .

“Uh, Saionji-san?” He stepped out from behind the curtain (to Tsumiki’s delight). “Can you tie this for me?”

Silence.

Soda and Mikan burst into laughter.

Naegi blinked. “What?”

“Very clever,” Saionji said, despair swirls in her eyes. “That was well played.”

“I have no idea what just happened,” he said to Kuma, who had wandered over to sniff at the new outfit his owner was wearing. Naegi stepped towards the other two –

And promptly tripped over his way-too long kimono.

Tsumiki rushed over to help him over, but Soda just laughed even harder. The Mechanic was nearly on his knees by the time Tsumiki hooked his arm under his and lifted him up. Naegi clung to her, conveniently letting her stand between him and Soda. Not that he was trying to hide or anything.

“I don’t think he’s going to be doing any dancing,” Soda said to Saionji, eyes teary from laughter. “Maybe he could stand in the background and look pretty?”

“I didn’t want him to dance, I just wanted him to wear it.” Once again, Saionji’s eyes swept over him from top to bottom. “Your hair kind of ruins it. Way too messy.”

Just what was she getting at –?

No. She wouldn’t.

They weren’t going to –

“And his nails!” the Dancer went on. “It’s like you cut them in the dark or something.”

She wouldn’t

“Hey, Tsumiki-san.” Saoinji grinned. “I think he needs some help with his appearance.”

“That’s okay!” he said quickly, directing his words at Tsumiki. “Really, I don’t!”

“Oh, but you would look so cute!” Tsumiki said. “We could put flowers around his neck, and maybe a ribbon in his hair . . .”

This is really unnecessary!”

“Hey, Soda! Do something useful and get Mioda, will you?”

“Soda-kun, Kuma! Help!

“ . . . Man, I need to get the rest of the guys to see this,” Soda said as he walked away.


“Doesn’t it ever lie flat?”

“Maybe we need more gel?”

“Makoto-chan’s ahoge just wants to be free!”

“Can I go now?” Naegi asked desperately.

The three girls paused in their duties. As one, they declared, “No.”

Naegi slumped in his seat.

Mioda had hold of his hand, blowing on his freshly-painted nails, which she had painted black-and-white after her horns. Tsumiki and Saioniji were tackling his hair – specifically, they were trying to get his ahoge down. They were quickly learning, however, that nothing could remove Naegi’s signature look. He could also feel the makeup brushed across his face, but only when he paid attention to it.

Tsumiki sighed. “I guess this is the best we can do.”

“I’ll get the mirror!” Mioda dashed off.

The silence was awkward. Saionji tapped her foot impatiently, staring off to the side. Tsumiki sighed, and fondly stroked his hair.

“That wasn’t that bad, was it?” she asked.

“. . . No,” he said grudgingly.

Her smile widened. “Wasn’t it fun?”

“Not really.”

She was about to say something to that, but then Mioda came back with a handheld mirror. Naegi’s first instinct was to close his eyes, which he did; but eventually boredom – and Tsumiki’s pleads – won out and cringing, he looked at his reflection –

Huh.

He . . .

He didn’t look half-bad.

He had expected to see a stranger in the mirror. Someone caked in makeup with impossibly white skin, like a geisha. Or something ridiculous like a clown. But no, he still looked like himself. His nails were painted, his hair was flatter than usual and there was a daisy in it, but nobody could mistake him for anyone but himself. The girls had been surprisingly gentle with the makeup and most of it seemed intended solely to bring some colour to his skin and make him look like . . . like . . .

. . . like someone who wasn’t slowly wasting away.

“I guess I overreacted,” he admitted.

“See? Makoto-chan needs to relax and start trusting his best girls!” Mioda crowed.

Tsumiki blinked. “You don’t trust me?”

“No, I do!” Naegi shouted to no avail. The next minute or so was taken up by his frantic attempts to calm Tsumiki as she sobbed. Kuma poked his head through the curtain, attracted by the ruckus.

“You really trust me?” Tsumiki asked.

“Yes. Yes, I do,” he said. “Honestly though, I’m pretty thirsty right now. I’m just going to grab something to drink –”

He had stepped around Kuma and through the curtain, still facing the girls as he spoke. But then he turned, and it became apparent that they were not alone.

A few beats passed.

The male members of Ultimate Despair (and Owari) burst out laughing.

“You painted his nails?” Kuzuryu slapped his knee, nearly on the ground from how hard he was laughing. Pekoyama side eyed him but otherwise was as expressionless as ever. “You should have curled his hair while you were at it.”

“How do you even move in that?” Hanamura asked.

“Got to say, you don’t look half-bad!” Nidai said, giving Naegi a big thumbs-up. But despite the friendly air behind it, Naegi still cringed and stepped back. He bumped into Kuma, and the bear sniffed his face. Looking confused, Kuma licked his cheek, snorting afterwards as his tongue picked up the taste of makeup.

He wished he had his hoodie right now, so that he could either pull the collar up to his chin, or hide himself with the hood. He was embarrassed enough to want to turn away and hide in Kuma’s fur, but at the same time, he was too embarrassed to shield himself and admit what he was feeling. Caught in that indecision, he stood there, staring at his feet as the curtain rustled and the three girls came out.

“Hey! What are you piggies laughing at?” Saionji snapped.

To his surprise, most of the laughter stopped. And while Kuzuryu and Nidai still had wide grins, most of the others were watching Saionji warily.

“Well, it’s . . . uh . . . I dunno?” Soda said. “It’s just funny.”

“You know what’s funny? Thinking I actually care about what you think!” Saionji merely jerked her leg, and Soda immediately jumped back as if she were about to drive a high heel into his foot. “I don’t care about what some jealous wrench-boy has to say.”

“I’m not jealous!” Soda squawked.

“I bet you are.” Saionji leaned in toward him. “You know that you could never look that nice because your skin’s already covered in all that disgusting grease. I bet it’s not even from your machines either.”

“Yeah, I can buy that,” Owari said, nose twitching. “When the last time you showered?”

Soda whimpered and pulled his beanie over his eyes.

Saionji turned to Nidai next. The Coach raised his hands in a placating fashion, and said, “Hey, I wasn’t laughing because I was teasing him. I was laughing because it looked like he was having a good time.”

“You shouldn’t have done that!” Tsumiki snapped. Her arms suddenly wrapped around him from behind. “You hurt his feelings.”

He was going to say that she didn’t need to defend him, but his face was still bright red from before, and Tsumiki seemed so confident and sure of herself. He didn’t want to make her feel bad about herself again.

“Sorry about that,” Nidai said. “Didn’t mean to give you that impression.”

With even Nidai having balked, now Kuzuryu was looking putout. He scowled when Saionji gave him a smug look.

“We should all put on kimonos!” Mioda shouted. “Then we can give you all makeovers, and then we can go on the roof and watch fireworks!”

“Ooo, I’m down!” Owari said.

“Fireworks sound cool, but could we skip the other stuff? I’d have to take a couple of baths first,” Soda said.

“Makoto, what about you? What do you think?” Tsumiki asked.

“Fireworks,” he said quietly. Then, the other words hit him.

. . . Outside?

It wouldn’t be like last time. Even if they weren’t on the roof, with Ultimate Despair surrounding him, there would be no escape. But still . . . to be outside. How could he refuse?

He nodded.

“Makoto wants to do it!” Tsumiki announced cheerfully, as if that decided everything.

“Sure, whatever. Fireworks are fine, but you guys are not painting my nails!” Kuzuryu said.

He and Mioda continued to argue, with everyone else just watching them. Well, Pekoyama was trying to stare her master’s opponent down, but the cheery musician didn’t seem to notice. The whole situation was starting to get repetitive.

Finally, Makoto spoke up.

“Uh, Kuzuryu-kun! You’re the head of the Yakuza, right? So that means you need to be tough, right?”

“Damn straight I am!” Kuzuryu said.

“Then wouldn’t it be really despairful if everyone saw you do something not very tough, like get a makeover?”

Kuzuryu stared at him.

Then, he started laughing.

“Shit! You’re right.” Eyes filled with swirls, the Ultimate Yakuza eagerly stepped towards Mioda. “I changed my mind. Paint my fucking nails! Paint ‘em pink, and . . . and put fucking kittens on them! Put glitter in my hair. Fuck! Do everything!”

With a loud cheer, Mioda grabbed Kuzuryu’s hand and pulled him back behind the curtain. Pekoyama and Saionji followed them, the Dancer patting Naegi on the shoulder and hissing, “Nice one” as she ran by.

“I guess  that’s that,” Nidai said. “I’ll go set up for the fireworks.”

“Uh, I’ll come help you!” Soda said. Beside him, Tanaka nodded feverishly in agreement.

As suddenly as they had arrived, the rest of Ultimate Despair vanished before they could get caught up in the girls’ web. It was just him and Tsumiki now (and Kamukura and Kuma, but neither of them really counted).  The two of them were quiet. During the lapse, Kamukura stepped forward. He stopped right at the edge of Naegi’s vision, and he turned to glance at the longhaired teen as he looked Naegi over.

“. . . You would look better in a teal or black kimono,” Kamukura said.

Chapter Text

“Here you go, Makoto. Make sure to zip it up tight!”

Tsumiki tried one last time to smooth the wrinkles in his hoodie, and then handed it to him. Naegi took it, furrowing his brow in confusion as he ran his fingers along the ratty strip of fabric on the back. When had that . . . Ah, he remembered. It had actually been a while ago when they had first found him, and Nidai had dragged him across the floor. He hadn’t been without his hoodie long enough before to really notice before. In fact, now that he looked at it closely, the whole thing was starting to look a little shabby. Maybe he should ask if Ultimate Despair had the Ultimate Seamstress on call.

He was already wearing sweats that Tsumiki had brought him, and a thicker shirt than the one he had been wearing when he had woken up tied to the bed. A hoodie might have been overkill to some people, but . . . well . . . he got cold easily. He knew that. The hoodie was the last piece of clothing in his set.

So why wasn’t he putting it on?

“Makoto?” Tsumiki cocked her head as Naegi continued to stare blankly at his favourite hoodie.

Naegi shook his head. “Sorry. I was distracted.”

He unzipped the front, preparing to wear it. Still, he hesitated without understanding why. It was just cloth. It was his. It wasn’t a trap.

He opened up the hoodie and began to stick his arm through the hole –

That smell.

. . . His hoodie soared ungracefully through the air, landing in a crumpled heap like a wounded animal. Naegi skittered backwards, slamming into his bed by accident and falling onto it. But before his back even hit the mattress, he was twisting into a sitting position, body hair standing on end and forehead clammy.

“Makoto!” Mikan ran forward and stopped just short of the bed. She glanced from him to the hoodie nervously, looking as though she was half-tempted to dive on top of him and shield him from the evil clothing.

“I-it . . .” Naegi choked over his own words. “That’s . . . it smells!”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“It smells!” he cried, pointing an accusing finger at his favourite hoodie. “It smells like . . . it smells . . . I don’t want to wear it!”

Even from here he could smell it. Dead. It smelled like death.

Tsumiki carefully walked over to the hoodie and picked it up. She brought the sleeve up to her nose, and took a deep breath.

“Umm, it is a little strange-smelling,” Tsumiki said. “I’m sorry!”

“I’m not wearing it!” By this time, Naegi was perched on the edge of his mattress. Tsumiki was holding that hoodie, and it felt like she was holding a gun to his head. “I’m not wearing that.”

“Makoto, you –”

Stay away!

He could smell it. Death. It was everywhere. How could he have missed it before? The stench was pouring off his hoodie in droves, crashing into the floor like a waterfall. And it seemed for a moment in those wrinkles and worn patches, he could see that face again. Staring at him with no eyes. Just staring.

“Shh! It’s okay! See? Mommy’s not letting it near you.” Moving slowly, like Naegi was a half-mad dog ready to strike, Mikan backed away and laid his hoodie over a nearby chair.

It was just a sweater. Just a dumb sweater, but he couldn’t take his eyes off it.

“It’s okay.” She knelt down in front of him, laying hand on his cheek.

He shuddered, closing his eyes. “I don’t want to wear it.”

“Okay, you don’t have to wear it. Why don’t you just take one of the blankets instead?” As she suggested that, she grabbed a corner of the blanket and brought it to his shaking hand.

“Okay,” he said quietly.

“I’ll wash it again,” Tsumiki said. “I’ll wash it until it stops –”

“No,” Naegi said hoarsely. “Burn it . . . just burn it.”

He got to ride Kuma again, and that took his mind off the hoodie. He thought instead of what waited him on the roof. There would be wind, no doubt. Fresh air. A sky. Stars, or maybe clouds. He wasn’t sure. Oh, maybe if he was lucky he’d get to see a bat or something!

The door to the roof was password protected, although Tsumiki didn’t seem to mind him watching her punch the code in. He watched, but he could only catch the last couple of digits or so before the keypad beeped and the lock clicked. The staircase was too narrow for Kuma, so they had to leave the bear inside.

“I didn’t know you guys had fireworks,” Naegi said.

“Oh, we collect all kinds of explosives,” Tsumiki said. “Soda-kun and Mioda-san get really excited over them.”

He almost asked, but then decided he was probably best off not knowing. Instead, he watched the approaching door with an almost alarming intensity. Ten steps away. Nine. Eight . . .

Ready or not, here they went.

He squeezed ahead of Tsumiki and burst out onto the roof, running forward until he lost momentum. This, as it turned out, wasn’t the whole roof. It was a lower section of the roof, more like a balcony than anything. Behind him was sheer a wall of brick, nearly a story in height, that led up to a higher roof level. The ground below him was bare. Solid concrete.

But above him, it was a painting come to life. A white streak made of stars and their light carved their way through the darkness. There no was moon today, or maybe the building behind him hid it. The sky was a purplish-black, lighter near the horizon – a spectacular splash of color. Naegi didn’t think about it for long. He was transfixed instead by the light touch of an outside breeze on his exposed skin. It seemed to reach down under his skin and tickle his nerves, leaving his flesh all cool and tingly. He couldn’t even tell if he was making up that feeling, if the simple kiss of the outside really affected him that much, or if it was just cold.

He walked over to the edge, driven by a curiosity he couldn’t quite place. The closer he got, the more something seemed . . . off. It was something in the air – something in his vision. Something wasn’t quite right with what he was seeing.

A few metres away, he finally understood.

“There’s a glass wall here,” he said aloud.

Tsumiki had been following behind him and elected to speak now. “It’s bulletproof glass.”

“ . . . Right.” Naegi frowned ever so slightly. Yes, that was right. This wasn’t just a group of friends watching the stars together.

He pressed his hand against the glass. It was smooth under his palm like . . . glass. He glanced up. It was pretty high. With something tall to stand on though, he might be able to climb over it. Maybe. But then there was the drop, and that was . . .

Well, he hadn’t held out much hope for this avenue of escape anyways.

Still, it was nice to just stand there and look for a while. Staring at the nearby buildings was always nicer in the evening because of the strange, twisted silhouettes they made, and because the darkness hid the worst of the devastation. Some of the silhouettes could barely be identified as buildings; it made him feel sometimes like he was charting out an alien world.

He heard the door open and close behind him. By the time he turned around, two more of Ultimate Despair had arrived. The Imposter was staring up at the sky, wearing his best Impatient Togami face. Tanaka was on one knee nearby, handing out tiny earmuffs to the assortment of hamsters waiting before him. It was an idyllic, happy scene.

And then Mioda and Saionji dragged in Kuzuryu.

Naegi stared.

“Oh, this isn’t going to be good,” Tsumiki said.

Mioda and Saionji started giggling, attracting the attention of the two other boys. Tanaka was too occupied with his hamsters to look, but the Imposter wasn’t, and he visibly jumped.

The Imposter said, “What on earth –?”

“We gave Baby Gangsta a makeover!”

The Yakuza tucked his chin into his collar and tilted his fedora over his face, but not before Naegi saw. Back when the girls had given him a makeover, Naegi had feared they would make him look ridiculous. They hadn’t, but that wasn’t the case with Kuzuryu. Naegi hadn’t been able to look long, but any time at all was long enough to know Kuzuryu had been modelled after a clown; he had the pasty white skin, the red-tinted cheeks and . . . and apparently, he’d let Mioda go at the hair dye. His formerly blond hair was now divided into three sections: white in the center, and black on the two outer areas. It looked . . . he looked . . .

“You look ridiculous,” the Imposter said. By now, Tanaka was staring, too.

Pekoyama scowled at the Imposter, but the ferocity of her expression was dulled by how hard the other two girls were laughing, and how her master was desperately trying to hide his face. At least it seemed the Imposter wasn’t going to say anything else –

“I brought hot cocoa!”

Carrying a tray of mugs, with Nidai hauling a drink cooler behind him, Hanamura burst through the door. He smiled at them all. Then he saw Kuzuryu.

“Oh.” That was all the Chef could say. Nidai nearly walked into him, until he was also shocked into place by the sight of the Ultimate Yakuza.

“I knew I should have washed it off!” Kuzuryu said into his collar.

“Oh, there’s no need to hide your gorgeous face,” Hanamura said.  (Naegi had no idea if he was trying to make Kuzuryu feel better, or just being himself). “Why that makeup, it gives you a rather exotic appearance, if I may say so. There are certainly people who would be interested in that –”

And Hanamura stopped talking when Pekoyama hit him in the stomach. The Swordswoman quickly caught the tray Hanamura had dropped and upon it, all of the mugs that had flown into the air. Mioda and Nidai clapped. Kuzuryu, too, was beginning to smirk. . .

And that’s when everyone else arrived.

Unlike the others, they had no qualms about laughing at Kuzuryu.

“This is stupid!” Kuzuryu hissed. “It’s not even despairful. It’s just pathetic and . . .”

Pekoyama, staring at her master, frowned. She suddenly cleared her throat, drawing the Yakuza’s attention.

“Young Master . . . You look ridiculous.”

A beat passed.

Kuzuryu burst out laughing, eyes swirling. “Why thank you, Peko! I appreciate it . . . Yeah, that’s right everyone. Keep laughing at me!”

He was still laughing when Komaeda entered. Hands in his pocket, the Luckster lazily scanned the rooftop, stopping when his eyes landed on Naegi. Naegi, feeling Komaeda’s attention on him, perked up. He shifted his weight from foot to foot impatiently, wondering why Komaeda wasn’t coming over already.

Meanwhile, his mood having significantly improved, Kuzuryu snagged a folding chair for himself and set it up in the roof’s center. The others began to mimic him as Hanamura began serving cocoa. Tsumiki asked Naegi where he wanted to sit; he answered vaguely, too busy watching Komaeda as he ambled towards them.

“Here you go! I hope being in contact with me doesn’t taint the taste,” Komaeda said as he handed each of them a mug of cocoa.

“You’re not having any?” Naegi asked.

Komaeda said, “Oh, I will. But I wouldn’t dare grab some for myself without making sure you two were served first.”

“Oh, that’s very nice of you . . .” Tsumiki sighed. “You shouldn’t inconvenience yourself for me though. I. . .”

She stopped suddenly, and glanced down at Naegi.

“ . . . Thank you, Komaeda-kun,” she said instead.

Komaeda beamed, nearly shuddering with delight at being thanked. He was gone and back before long, this time with his own steaming mug, and the three of them set up their chairs right behind the glass.

“Look down there,” Komaeda said. “See those people. They’re the ones setting up the show.”

Naegi squinted. It was hard to tell in the dark, but he thought he could see a few bodies scurrying back and forth. On an impulse, he waved.

“They can’t see you!” Kuzuryu said somewhere behind him. Naegi automatically looked in that direction, and just barely managed to stop himself from choking when he saw Kuzuryu’s new look again.

The Yakuza continued, “Even if they could and they didn’t have the helmets on, they wouldn’t wave. Yakuza don’t do that.”

“Yakuza?” he repeated uncertainly.

Seated at the foot of his chair like a dog, Pekoyama stared at the ground.

“Yep. Pretty much all of the fuckers around here used to be part of the Yakuza.” Kuzuryu reclined in his chair and laughed, eyes swirling. “They’re still killing people and serving me though, so I guess nothing’s fucking changed.”

They were your friends once, Naegi thought sadly. He looked at Pekoyama again. In that instant, she had also looked up, and now their eyes met. There seemed to be a moment where the Swordswoman wasn’t quite sure what to think, but then her face hardened and she pointedly looked away.

“Awesome!”

That had been Soda. The Mechanic was tucking a cellphone into his pocket and waving at the rest of them with his other hand. “We’re all set to go!”

“Whoo-hoo!” Mioda seemed ready to whip out her guitar right there. “Let’s blow things up!”

“Hey, Naegi-kun!” Soda said. “We weren’t sure what kind of fireworks you wanted, so we set up both.”

“What do you –?”

Soda pulled what looked like a detonator out of his pocket, and clicked the button.

Boom.

Although they were a safe distance away, Naegi still felt the world shake as the explosives went off and tore apart the foundation of one of the already-ruined buildings. What was left of it was consumed in a fiery ball that saw flaming bits and pieces spring into the sky. The bright light etched out a striking image that engraved itself into the world and seemed to remain even when the fire was gone. The building had been reduced to a smoking black pile that was already disappearing into the shadows of its neighbours.

“Mikan, nobody lives here, right?”

“Uh, everyone left a long time ago.”

“I see.”

The smoke began to settle.

“. . . Can we blow up another one?”

Naegi didn’t expect half the group to start cheering, but they did. Owari and Nidai were on their feet shouting incoherently, quickly joined by Mioda. Soda actually came over and slapped Naegi on the back, telling him, “That’s the spirit!”

And then they blew up another one.

Soda let him press the button for the third one and in a warped, malicious way, Naegi’s gut twisted in excitement as they felt the world shake. It was fine. Nobody lived there. The building was already ruined.

Plus, what kind of guy never fantasized about blowing something up?

They blew up five in total. That was all they had set up. After that, Soda called whomever was in charge and ordered the real fireworks to start as Hanamura went around refilling mugs. Naegi eagerly accepted the refill; the rich contents of the previous one were sitting comfortably in his stomach.

“This is really good!” he told the Chef.

“Of course it is,” Hanamura said. “This isn’t the disgusting powdered stuff you and my lovely nurse had before. This is genuine. I mixed and melted the chocolate myself.”

After Hanamura moved on, Tsumiki suddenly looked down at her mug and whimpered. “D-disgusting. Oh, I know I was . . .”

“Mikan . . .” Naegi was ready to reach for her –

She looked at him and suddenly cleared her throat. “Th-there’s always next time, I guess.”

Naegi stared it. It took him a few moments to understand what had happened, but then he understood.

“Yeah, there is,” he said, smiling.

“And maybe next time, we can go on a field trip and blow up one a really big building!” Soda announced cheerfully, plopping down on the armrest of Naegi’s seat. “I dunno if you thought that was awesome, but it’s nothing like going after the real thing.”

Naegi certainly had no problems with that – anything that let him leave this place was good in his mind – however . . .

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Komaeda said. “It isn’t safe out there.”

Yep. He expected that.

“Oh, yeah.” Soda sighed. “Watching a building blow up by video isn’t the same, is it? But at least we got fireworks. Make sure you tell us which ones you like after so we can make more of ‘em.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Naegi said.

“Sure, we do. That’s what friends do.” Soda suddenly looked away, and rubbed the back of his head. “Uh, so, yeah. I don’t really get what’s up with that whole ‘I think I was kidnapped’ business, but like, that’s not what’s going on here. I mean, you know that, right? We’re your friends, aren’t we?”

It was like being punched in the face. Naegi was fortunate that his reaction was to freeze in place – smile included. Yes. That was right. That was the incident leading up to this in the first place.

Naegi looked straight ahead and shrugged. The not a-lie slipped easily from his lips. “Of course.”

“Awesome! That’s a load off my mind.” Soda ruffled his hair before getting to his feet. “Alright, let’s sit back and enjoy the show.”

Scarcely a second later, the first of the fireworks went off. Again, the trio of Owari, Nidai and Mioda began to cheer, joined this time by Soda. Hand covering her mouth, Tsumiki made an awed sound. If he was reading things correctly, even Pekoyama seemed to be having a good time.

Naegi watched the fireworks, smiling on the outside.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Komaeda asked, his eyes reflecting the nearby sparklers.

“They are,” Naegi agreed.

Komaeda smiled. He leaned back, arm falling over Naegi’s armrest so that the tips of his finger brushed his hip. Naegi didn’t even twitch.

The fireworks really were beautiful. He hadn’t seen any since last New Year’s with his family. . . well, technically that was two New Year’s ago, but he couldn’t remember the time between. That thought gave him pause, cooled his emotions like water being poured over a flame. Naegi glanced around him at the crowd entranced by the beautiful display.

Don’t forget. . . You don’t belong here . . .

He looked upward again as a massive crosette fireworks went off.

. . . You’re not one of them.

Tsumiki laughed in joy. She was leaning against the armrest, so that her long hair pooled over her side and onto Naegi’s lap.

Don’t forget . . . You can’t forget this time.

Komaeda’s hand was suddenly on his shoulder and Naegi turned his head to see the Luckster grinning at him.

Naegi smiled back.


“Did you enjoy that?” Komaeda asked.

“I did,” Naegi said. “It was really beautiful.”

Komaeda asked. “I know, isn’t it amazing? None of them have a talent for explosives or fireworks, yet they were still able to put something together that would dwarf anything I could come up with.”

Naegi didn’t say anything about that. He turned back to the glass wall in front of him and stared out at the horizon.

“. . . Komaeda-kun, where have you been the last couple of days?” When there was no immediate answer, he tried to backtrack. “Ah, sorry! I didn’t mean to pry. I just . . .”

Komaeda held up his hand. “It’s fine, Naegi-kun. I was just surprised you would notice the absence of someone like me. It’s nothing bad. I’m not mad at you or anything. Actually, I’ve been working on a surprise for you.”

“You have?” Somehow, Naegi managed to keep the apprehension out of his voice.

“It’s something good, of course,” Komaeda said. “Something to help you sleep at night and keep the bad thoughts away. You’ll like it, I promise. I wouldn’t spend so much time on it if I thought otherwise.”

“I see.”

Komaeda closed his eyes. Yet his hands still found Naegi’s shoulders without difficulty, and reeled him in so that his chin could sit upon his head. Those hands slid down to his back afterwards as Komaeda held him in an odd hug.

And a distance away, where Hanamura was gathering up the last of the abandoned mugs, Tsumiki watched them. The Nurse worried at her lower lip, distracted from her duty of assisting the Chef.

“. . . Bullying?” she whispered to herself.

Chapter Text

Eyes wide, breaths short and uneven, Naegi scrambled as far back as the handcuffs would allow him. They bit harshly into his wrist but in his panic, he didn’t notice the pain. Kuma was there, all fierce and frightening, his weight causing the foot of the bed to groan and bend as it bore his weight. The bear had his front paws on the bed, claws piercing the mattress, droplets of blood and drool falling from his jaws and sinking in the fabric.

Kuma tugged once, and the would-be assassin twisted off the bed and hit the ground.

Naegi held his pillow close, needing something to squeeze. Kuma was snarling, breath a deep rumble as he brought his weight up, and then slammed down onto the prone body. Naegi hadn’t even see him charge. He had been waking from a nap, roused by a noise he now knew to have been Tsumiki shouting at him from across the room. He had opened his eyes to see the masked, cloaked stranger draw his knife above him . . . and then there had been fur and growling and crunching –

And now the assassin was on the ground with an angry bear mauling his arm.

“Makoto!” Tsumiki nearly tripped in her haste to reach him. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

It took him a couple tries to speak. “I-I’m fine.”

As Tsumiki started running her fingers through his hair in search of a wound, Naegi chanced a look at his attacker. Kuma still had hold of his arm. He didn’t shake it like a dog would – he didn’t need to. His raw mass and strength were all he needed to disable an opponent, and he had gnawed his way up the arm like a dog with a bone. There was blood all over the man’s chest now . . .

“Kuma! Kuma, that’s enough!”

He didn’t expect it to work, but it did. The bear looked up at him, and then shifted his weight back. He sat down, blinking slowly, acting as though he had just been for a lovely stroll.

“Mikan, could you . . .?” He gestured uselessly at the man clutching his arm.

“H-huh?” She accidentally tugged his hair. “But he tried to hurt you!”

Though he had just slept, he felt so very, very tired. “That doesn’t mean we have to let him bleed like that.”

The assassin groaned. He rolled over, facing them. “Y-you guys were the ones –”

“Fuck!”

Kuzuryu’s loud exclamation silenced them all. He had no idea how long the Yakuza had been standing in the doorway. Kuzuryu strode into the room – oh, looked like he had dyed his hair blond again – Pekoyama at his heels. He ordered the Swordswoman to carry the assassin out of the infirmary and then approached them.

“What happened?” he demanded.

“He tried to attack Makoto,” Tsumiki whined. The very thought seemed to send her into a frenzy and next thing Naegi knew, she was trying to pull his shirt off to make sure he wasn’t injured under there. Somehow, someway, he managed to fend her off.

“Kuma got there first,” Naegi said. “He saved me.”

“. . . I see. Hold on, I got to take care of that.”


Kuzuryu marched out of the room, immediately approaching Pekoyama who was waiting nearby. She supported the hired assassin with one arm, letting him droop ungracefully towards the ground.

She nodded. “Young Master.”

“We can’t have him talking,” Kuzuryu said.

As the man started to protest, Pekoyama swiftly drew a knife with her other hand and slit his throat. Once the man stopped moving, she let him drop unceremoniously. She turned to Kuzuryu. The Yakuza had his face in his hands, and was making some kind of angry sound under his breath.

“Young Master?”

“I forgot about the fucking bear!” Kuzuryu hissed. “Shit! I . . . No, I can salvage this. I’m not going to be thwarted by a goddamn bear.”

“What is your –?”

“Stop asking stupid questions and follow me. Oh, and you!” Kuzuryu shouted at a random Monokuma soldier. “Tell Tanaka to drop by. We don’t need him wasting prisoners when there’s a perfectly good body here.”


“I get that bear’s a good bodyguard and all, but it’s still an animal. I’m not comfortable having that thing be in charge of your safety right now . . . which is why I’m going to loan you Peko.”

Naegi’s mouth drop opened. “You –!”

“Young Master!?”

Kuzuryu slapped his subordinate on the back. “You’re going to serve this kid and protect him until I tell you not to. Have fun.”

With that, the Yakuza left the room, leaving a very awkward silence behind.

Naegi had seen Pekoyama’s face after Kuzuryu insulted her, after he called her worthless or ignored her or threw her off to the side. But he had never seen her look as lost or hurt as she did now. She even forgot to glare at him when she finally looked away from the doors her real master had left through, and down at her shaking fists. 

“I’m so sorry,” Naegi said, not knowing what else to do.

Pekoyama’s face suddenly went cold.

“We should secure one of these doors,” she said. “One is enough. Two is only good for allowing more attackers to come in at once.”

With that, the Swordswoman walked up to the double doors leading out of the infirmary and locked it.

“The bear should sleep there.” She pointed at a spot between Naegi and the door. “Forgive me, Tsumiki-san, but I don’t expect you can help physically defend him. . . but you should have trauma equipment and a good supply of blood transfusions prepared in case we need to act quickly.”

Tsumiki blinked. “Transfusions. . .”

 “I . . . uh . . .” He inched backwards, painfully aware of how close the Nurse was to a needle right now. Tsumiki seemed to rotate on her feet and shambled forward –

“Makoto, what’s your blood type?”

“. . . A-Positive?”

“Okay, I’ll have to see if I can find some suitable blood!”

Oh. So he wasn’t about to get stabbed with a needle. Crisis adverted –

He jumped when Pekoyama grabbed the back of the bedframe and started pushing.

The Swordswoman said, “We should move him closer to the back. Put up one of those privacy screens to hide him from sight. We can replace this bed and place a dummy there to draw their aggression. That should give me enough time to –

“Uh, I don’t think this is really necessary,” Naegi said, a little frightened by how robotic Pekoyama seemed right now. “I mean, it’s going to be really hard for someone to get this far to try and attack me anyways, right?”

Tsumiki whined. “That . . . monster did!”

Oh. That was true. Come to speak of it, how did that assassin get in. Ultimate Despair’s headquarters seemed pretty secure, and there wasn’t an attack by the Future Foundation this time to distract them . . .

“My duty is to protect you,” Pekoyama said firmly. She began pushing the entire bed towards the back. “Nothing else matters until the master says otherwise.”

“. . . You could just uncuff me and let me walk there,” Naegi muttered under his breath.

Not long after, he was in the back of the infirmary with a privacy screen set up between him and the exit. Pekoyama had pulled a chair up, positioning herself in the small space that anyone would have to travel through if they intended to go around the screen to see him. Tsumiki had run off to find blood, and Kuma was licking the blood off his claws napping in the area Naegi’s bed had used to be. And Pekoyama was sitting in her chair.

And staring.

Just . . . staring.

Had she even blinked?

Naegi pulled the blanket up to his chin and hid behind it.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Watching you.”

“. . . Why?”

“To make sure you come to no harm,” Pekoyama said.

Great.

“Could you stare less?” he tried.

“My duty is to protect you.”

“. . . I see.”

Well, maybe he could still work with this. He put down the blanket and got as close to the Swordswoman as he could. “Okay, let’s talk then!”

“No.”

“But –!”

“I have no interest in speaking with you,” she said firmly.

“But . . .”

Nothing visibly changed in her expression, and yet Naegi felt as though something did and shied back. Was this really how it was going to be? Not only was it very disappointing, it was also very uncomfortable. He wasn’t even sure why Pekoyama disliked him so much. No, wait. He did. It was the whole Enoshima thing that also had Mikan fawning over him. Which was ridiculous because none of it was even true. He had no true link to Ultimate Despair.

He frowned, thinking.

“Pekoyama-san, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to talk to me?”

Pekoyama didn’t react.

Naegi spoke slowly, watching his bodyguard like a hawk. “I you’re trying to stay out of despair for Kuzuryu-kun, right? That’s your real duty. And the best way to stay out of despair is to have hope and I’m . . . I’m the Ultimate Hope. Keeping people away from despair is supposed to be my job. So, talking to me would help you, wouldn’t it?”

She didn’t say anything.

“Pekoyama-san . . .”

“What do you want?” she said through gritted teeth.

Naegi smiled and settled back into a cross-legged position. “Tell me about yourself.”

“I am the servant of the Kuzuryu Clan,” she droned. “I am the Young Master’s sword; his to wield at any –”

“Not that stuff,” Naegi said. “Tell me about you.”

Some of the coldness finally gave way in place of confusion. “That is me.”

Naegi managed to stifle a sigh. He had a feeling he was going to have to be more direct with her.

“Okay, tell me what you like!” he said, bouncing in his spot.

“The Young Master enjoys westerns,” she said. “He enjoys the romanticized depiction of the outlaw life and . . .”

“But that’s not what you like,” Naegi said. “That’s what Kuzuryu-kun likes.”

“There is no difference,” Pekoyama said.

He couldn’t say anything for a little while. She had said that without a hint of inflection. How . . . just how? How could someone be so lacking in individuality? It was horrible, and he couldn’t help but question what kind of person Kuzuryu was even before Enoshima got to him –

No. No, he shouldn’t think like that. Kuzuryu got despair from hurting Pekoyama, didn’t he? Which meant he had to honestly care about her. Whatever had turned Pekoyama into this wasn’t his fault. He was sure that like the pre-despair Mikan he glimpsed, Kuzuryu was a good person inside.

“There’s got to be something you like,” Naegi said. “Something that doesn’t involve him. Or, we could even talk about something you dislike. Or, something you’ve always wanted to do or wondered about, or anything! I’m not picky or anything, I just want to talk to you.”

Unfortunately, his energy only seemed to scare the reserved Swordswoman. She finally looked away from him – just when he didn’t want her to! Though it might not have been that she was unnerved; she might have been distracted by Kuma attempting to stand and lean his weight on the privacy screen.

Needless to say, the screen didn’t last much longer.

Kuma did not seem bothered by the sudden fall to the ground. He sniffed a piece of ripped screen, and then wandered over to Naegi’s bed. He raised his head so that it fell directly into Naegi’s palm. It was a demand for petting and so, that’s exactly what Naegi did. But when he lifted his eyes from Kuma, it was to see Pekoyama staring at the bear with a very peculiar expression. He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“Do you like bears?” he asked.

“I have no opinion on them,” Pekoyama answered.

“What about Kuma? Do you like him?”

“I also have no opinion on him.”

Naegi frowned, trying to think of something else he could ask. Pekoyama had reacted to Kuma, but he didn’t know how to urge the explanation as to why out of her.

But then . . . Pekoyama didn’t strike him as a sneaky person. Maybe it was best to just ask her directly.

“Pekoyama-san, a couple of minutes ago you were giving Kuma a really odd look. What was that about?”

She hesitated.

He finally had her.

“So, what is it? Do you like Kuma? Do you not like him? Did you know about him before Tanaka-kun brought him here? Oh, were you two friends before?” He started bouncing again, stopping only when he went too high and the handcuffs reminded him of his limits.

Pekoyama mumbled something.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

She took a deep breath. With the air of someone about to admit something truly embarrassing, she said, “He looks fluffy.”

Naegi laughed. “He is pretty fluffy . . . Do you want to pet him?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “It is best that I keep my distance.”

“But we don’t mind!” Naegi said. “I mean look at him. Kuma loves being petted!”

Speaking of which, Kuma was currently panting, chin pointed upwards in that smug fashion of cats as he basked in the sensation of Naegi rubbing his neck.

“I do not get along with animals,” Pekoyama said. “They flee from me as they can detect my dangerous nature. To them, I am no better than the predator that stalks them in the night.”

“. . . But he’s a bear. I don’t think he’d be scared of you even if you were the Ultimate Hunter.”

Kuma grunted, as if agreeing.

“Go on!” Naegi said. “Just try it.”

Pekoyama stated at him, as if waiting for him to declare it was all a joke. But when she saw that Naegi’s smile wasn’t changing and his determination wasn’t wavering, she sighed, walked over and reached out for Kuma . . .

To his surprise, he felt the bear stiffen under his hand and saw his hackles rise.

“Kuma!” Acting quickly, Naegi bopped the bear on the nose just as he had seen Tanaka do. “She’s a friend, be nice.”

Kuma did lower his hackles, but he pointedly turned his head away from Pekoyama. The Swordswoman looked like she was about to pull back, but Naegi put on his brightest smile and smiled at her until she rolled her eyes and gave in.

Pekoyama placed her hand on Kuma’s back. She patted him awkwardly; it didn’t seem like she really understood how to pet an animal. Perhaps it would have been humorous, but Naegi suspected too much about her childhood. He started petting Kuma himself again, quietly demonstrating the proper technique.

“. . . He’s very soft,” Pekoyama said.

“I was surprised too!” Naegi said. “Tanaka-kun took really good care of him.”

Kuma still wasn’t facing Pekoyama,  but he seemed less grumpy. Naegi took that as a good sign.

“Pekoyama-san . . . What was Kuzuryu-kun like before?”

She acted as though she hadn’t heard him at first and continued petting Kuma. He couldn’t really blame her. He knew the Young Master would be a sensitive topic for her.

And yet . . .

“He was . . . different,” Pekoyama said.

She didn’t say anything after that. Naegi noticed her hand had stilled.

“You both were, weren’t you?”

“I am the Young Master’s tool,” Pekoyama said. “Just as the yakuza were the Young Master’s servants. But the Young Master understood the value of that. He understood the need to keep a sword sharpened and polished, and the necessity of keeping subordinates well-fed and supplied. He believed in awarding competence, and in benefiting the Clan over himself. He. . . he had a good heart. They trusted him.”

She clenched a fistful of Kuma’s fur. “When he ordered them to put on those helmets, they did not question it. They obeyed, as they were meant to. The Young Master’s betrayal was inconceivable until it was too late.”

“So, the yakuza . . .”

“Most of the soldiers you see here were once the yakuza. He keeps them close. I suppose it helps sate his hunger for despair.”

They were quiet. Kuma grunted and lifted his head, wondering why they had stopped petting him.

“Pekoyama-san,” Naegi asked, “why didn’t he make you wear a helmet?”

“I am not sure,” she said slowly. “I imagine that allowing me to keep my free will is more despairing for him. A puppet cannot feel hurt.”

“Hmm. . .” Naegi stared off into the distance, thinking. “Are you sure that’s it? You said it yourself, didn’t you? He still calls you Peko.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Pekoyama said. “He has the right to call me whatever he wants.”

“But that’s not true! If you didn’t think it meant anything, you wouldn’t have brought it up before.”

“What does it matter?” she asked. “It changes nothing.”

“No, it changes everything!” Naegi insisted. “If Kuzuryu-kun spared you and is still calling you Peko, then that must mean he feels something for you, right? It means he’s still there somewhere, just like Mikan and the others are. It means that despite whatever happened to him, he’s still holding out; he’s still fighting it. Otherwise . . . wouldn’t he have killed you like Enoshima-san killed her sister?”

Something in her posture went rigid. “That’s –”

“If hurting you is really what brings him despair, then killing you would bring him even greater despair and that’s all Ultimate Despair cares about . . . But he hasn’t killed you. Now that I think about it, that’s actually a big contradiction, isn’t it? You’re not Despair like they are, you obviously mean a lot to him, but you’re alive. You should be dead.”

He leaned forward. His wrist strained against the handcuff like a dog straining against its leash.

“Don’t you see it, too? He didn’t spare you for despair. Kuzuryu-kun just doesn’t want to hurt you.”

He leaned forward even more, and laid his hand atop hers.

“Pekoyama-san, we can save him.”

A moment’s pause. Then, she tore her hand away.

“. . .You’re spending too much time with Komaeda-kun,” she said as she returned to her seat. She sat there, back rigid, emotionless.

But when he met her eyes, she looked away.

He wasn’t sure, but he thought that meant something.

Chapter Text

“. . . And you are just the cutest bear ever, aren’t you? Yes, you are. Yes, you are.”

Naegi wasn’t a fool. He knew he looked ridiculous baby-talking a grizzly that was probably over five times his weight, but he couldn’t help it. Kuma had his head in his lap – nothing more, or Naegi’s legs would probably be crushed – and was laying down like a sphinx – not sitting, or he would be too tall. And he had those huge dark eyes that would flutter occasionally as Naegi rubbed him in that spot behind his ear, and . . . and Mikan herself had told him to cuddle with Kuma, hadn’t she? He was only following her wishes.

(And didn’t he deserve this? Kuma was an animal. He wasn’t going to lie to him, or trick him, or lock him in a room and never let him out. Kuma was a good bear.)

Still seated within a few feet from his bed, Pekoyama glanced sideways. If Naegi had been watching her instead of basically wrapping himself around Kuma’s neck in a hug, he might have noticed that and heeded the warning.

(Though truth be told, it wouldn’t have made any difference)

It wasn’t long before icy-cold fingers touched the back of his neck.

Naegi turned.

His eyes lit up.

“Komaeda-kun!”

“Hi, Naegi-kun!” Komaeda was smiling, but he seemed a little shaky. Actually, when Naegi really looked closely at him . .

“You seem . . . paler,” Naegi said.

At first, it was like Komaeda hadn’t heard him. That shaky smile remained fixed on his face. But then the shoulders began to move, and Komaeda started to giggle breathlessly.

“Naegi-kun . . . Naegi-kun!” Komaeda suddenly swept downwards, cupping his hands around Naegi’s ear as if to tell him a great secret. “I’m O-negative! I’m the universal donor. I’ve always said I would give my blood for you, and now my dream has come true!” Komaeda squealed, wrapping his arms around himself as he rocked from side to side. “Oh, I know I shouldn’t think this way, but I really hope you need my blood someday!”

At that moment, Tsumiki came into view. “Okay, I’ve put the transfusions away in storage!”

Oh, so that’s what she had been doing.

Komaeda was staring at Pekoyama now, giving Tsumiki the chance to slip in and gently shoulder him away. She wrapped her arms tight around Naegi and clung to him, allowing her to whisper to him without fear of Komaeda overhearing.

“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t give you his blood. He’s t-too sick. He just . . . he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and kept begging . . .”

Naegi nodded.

Komaeda spoke then, but not to them. “I hope you can forgive me for questioning you, Pekoyama-san, but I honestly never expected to see you here. Not without Kuzuryu-kun.”

Naegi winced. Oh, that had been the wrong thing to say. Thankfully, Pekoyama wasn’t one for tantrums, and she merely grit her teeth and looked away.

“Kuzuryu-kun wanted her to protect me after this morning. . .” Too late, Naegi realized he might have also said the exact wrong thing. “Did anyone tell you what happened?”

“Yes, Kuzuryu-kun filled us in.”

He said that calmly, and that caught Naegi by surprise. Even Tsumiki seemed calm. He had definitely expected her to flare up when the recent assassination attempt was brought up again, but neither of them seemed the least bit concerned. Granted, Komaeda hadn’t acted outwardly angry last time, but he’d happily gone along with Kuzuryu’s plan to . . . punish the perpetrator.

He brought his legs in closer to himself. Had he . . . had he really angered them that much by trying to run away? No, no. That was silly. Tsumiki had started sobbing the first time they spoke after that incident. He was being silly.

(They still cared about him, right?)

“Naegi-kun?”

Naegi looked up more sharply than he meant to. Something like hope bubbled inside him.

“Could you be a little more specific about what Kuzuryu-kun said about Pekoyama-san?” Komaeda asked.

“Uh, I basically explained it,” Naegi said. “Kuzuryu-kun wants her to protect me for a while.”

Komaeda tapped his chin. “Hmm. I have a feeling he didn’t quite put it that way. Maybe we should ask Pekoyama-san.”

It didn’t look like she was going to answer.

“Nothing?” Komaeda shrugged easily. “Ah, maybe if you ask nicely. Go on, Naegi-kun. Tell her to answer.”

He didn’t really think Pekoyama would give in because he said anything, but Naegi listened anyways. “Pekoyama-san, can you-?”

Tell her. Don’t ask her,” Komaeda said.

“Komaeda-kun?” That was Tsumiki speaking. Naegi had to agree with her sentiment. Just where was Komaeda going with this? He wasn’t her Young Master, and Naegi wasn’t even sure if Pekoyama liked him that much.

“Just try it,” Komaeda said. “Please?”

He really didn’t understand this.

“Pekoyama-san, please tell him what Kuzuryu-kun told you.”

He thought he saw her sigh.

Yet, she answered, “I am to serve and guard Naegi Makoto until the Young Master says otherwise.”

Komaeda nodded, satisfied. “That’s what I thought.”

“That’s exactly what I told you,” Naegi said.

“Not quite. You assumed that Kuzuryu-kun hired you a bodyguard, but he actually gave you his sword.” Komaeda stepped towards Pekoyama, hands clasped together in front of his chest. He spoke to her now. “You must be so excited! It’s such a high honour to be the tool of the Ultimate Hope! I remember how excited I was when I realized I was about to graduate from serving Ultimates to serving Hope. I couldn’t sleep for two days!”

“Komaeda-kun, she’s not my tool,” Naegi said, tugging at the other teen’s hoodie. “She’s just keeping an eye on me. She’s more of a babysitter than anything.”

Komaeda’s smile was dark. “Is that what you think? We could always test it. Go on. Tell her to do something and we’ll see if she’ll listen. We’ll see if she can’t listen.”

A chill went down his back.

“I don’t want to,” he mumbled.

“I suppose you wouldn’t,” Komaeda said. “I guess it doesn’t really matter either way. Say, when’s the last time you took Kuma for a walk?”

“Umm . . .”

“I mean I know he’s not a dog, but I don’t think you want him trying to use this place as a giant litter box!”

“I know. Mikan took care of that for me before, but I wouldn’t mind taking him out myself . . .” He raised his shackled wrist hopefully –

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Komaeda said, rubbing the back of his neck. “You know you’re not allowed outside, and after what happened recently. . .”

Oh. He lowered his wrist again. He should have figured that would be the answer. Tsumiki had also nibbled at the edges of a similar answer when he had asked her.

“I don’t usually take him out for another hour . . .” Tsumiki said.

“An hour’s not a big difference,” Komaeda said. “You might as well do it now and make sure you don’t forget later. Go on.”

Naegi stared at the Luckster, stunned.

Tsumiki fidgeted in place. “Umm . . .”

“Go on, Tsumiki-san. It shouldn’t take you long.” As he spoke, Komaeda turned away from Tsumiki and towards Naegi, dismissing the Nurse with a flick of his wrist. Naegi would have said something in response to Komaeda’s rudeness, but Komaeda’s stormy grey eyes were suddenly fixed on him, and he froze.

“Oh, umm, sorry. I’ll take him out now.”

Tsumiki brought out the little rope that served as Kuma’s leash, tied it to the collar around his neck and then bribed the bear away with a marshmallow. Komaeda’s sharp eyes tracked her. He gave her a little wave as the two moved out of sight.

The door shut, and Komaeda spoke again. “I have to say – not that I’m trying to doubt the Ultimate Nurse or anything – but I’m a little surprised she was put on bear-walking duty instead of someone like Nidai-kun.”

“Kuma likes her,” Naegi said, “and she’s not going to be mean to him either, so I don’t really see why it wouldn’t be a good match.”

“Oh, I know. It’s just that, well, he’s a bear.” Komaeda looked in the direction of the infirmary exit, sucking in his bottom lip as if worried. “If something happened, I don’t know how she’d be able to protect herself.”

“Kuma wouldn’t hurt her! He’s a good bear.”

“He’s still an animal,” Komaeda said. “It might not be anything that drastic either. Kuma’s big, and Tsumiki-san isn’t a very forceful person. If he saw a squirrel or something and decided to go after it, Tsumiki-san would have a hard time bringing him back under control. I just worry about her a bit. What do you think, Pekoyama-san?”

Pekoyama, he noticed, was watching Komaeda very closely. There was a cold glint to her eyes, as if she were sizing up a threat.

“Pekoyama-san, can you please answer him?” Naegi asked. He didn’t like asking that of her; he didn’t like the idea that he was playing into what Komaeda had been talking about earlier, but he needed that question answered. If he was accidentally putting Tsumiki into danger, then he needed to know. She didn’t deserve that. He didn’t want to be putting her in any danger if he could help it, especially when she’d been so kind to him and tried so hard.

“I will concede that Komaeda has a point,” Pekoyama said.

So he was putting her into danger. Naegi curled into himself, stomach suddenly cramping miserably.

Then, he had an idea.

“Pekoyama-san, could you go with her?”

The Swordswoman looked at Komaeda, then at him sharply. “My orders are to protect you –”

“It won’t be that long,” Naegi said. “And even when you were protecting Kuzuryu-kun instead of me, you weren’t with him all the time. Remember? You took me back to my room once.”

“I don’t think he’s going to change his mind,” Komaeda said lightly. “You should probably listen. I don’t think Kuzuryu-kun would be happy if you didn’t.”

Pekoyama gave Komaeda another sharp look, then wordlessly stood and went after Kuma and Tsumiki. Komaeda watched her go, stretching lazily.

“So, she’s your new bodyguard. Well, I can’t imagine we’ll ever need to worry about you again. It’s going to take a lot more than an ordinary assassin to get past the Ultimate Swordswoman, especially if she’s always around.”

“I guess,” Naegi said. He eyed Komaeda. The praise and deprecation of normal people sounded like something Komaeda would say, but it still sounded wrong. Komaeda’s voice had lacked the enthusiasm it was usually layered with. It was as if the Luckster wasn’t actually happy that Pekoyama would be there.

And Komaeda suddenly turned on his heel. “Remember that thing I was working on?”

“You mentioned it,” Naegi said diplomatically. He remembered what Komaeda’s last ‘surprise’ had been.

“Just wait here. I’ll be right back!”

Komaeda returned pushing the TV. He set it up right beyond the foot of the bed, between Naegi and the chair that Pekoyama would sit in, and popped something into the DVD player. With a bounce in his step, Komaeda plopped down on the side of Naegi’s bed. He held something in his hands; it looked like a cassette player. He handed Naegi the earphones attached to it.

“I know you’re going through a rough time right now,” Komaeda said, “but that doesn’t mean we can slack off. You understand, don’t you?”

Naegi’s blood ran cold. His heart flip-flopped and jerked before diving into his stomach. Komaeda . . . Komaeda was still going to do . . . things. Though if he thought about it, he should have expected this. Kamukura may have promised that Komaeda hadn’t gone after his sister, but the fact of the matter was that Naegi had still done something that Komaeda wouldn’t have approved of in the slightest.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. He felt like he was sinking into the mattress. “I didn’t mean to upset you when I ran away.”

Komaeda said nothing. He reached into his hoodie, and pulled out a remote.

The TV turned on.

Part of him had expected to see the man again. Either dead or in the process of dying by his own hands. But it wasn’t that man who showed up, or the room he remembered. This was a wide open space he saw, an outside space. It did not look at all like that  situation, but like . . . like . . . Oh! Like that small window of footage he’d seen of Princess Nevermind executing –

That’s what it was.

“Komaeda-kun, I don’t want to watch this!” His voice trembled on the first syllable, and he fed that handsomely. Maybe if he played it up, Komaeda would go easy on him. Maybe he’d have mercy –

“I know, I know.” Komaeda reeled him in with one arm. His lips brushed against Naegi’s forehead. “I know it’s hard, and you’re still scared after that last incident. Which I was I wanted to make a deal with you.”

“A deal?”

“Yep.” Komaeda paused the video. “Five minutes, Naegi-kun. That’s all. And for every five minutes you watch, I’ll let you listen to five minutes of this.”

He waved the cassette player. Warily, Naegi inserted the earplugs, keeping an eye on Komaeda as he did.

For a few seconds, there was nothing.

Then, a female voice.

Naegi-kun . . .

The name shot down his spine, igniting his nerves like a lightning bolt.

“. . . Kirigiri-san?”

“That’s right!” Komaeda said cheerfully. “Your friends have been really busy making speeches, and I’ve also got a friend on the inside to record what they’ve been saying out of the public eye, too. So, I went ahead and put together a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation for you. I tried to at least, but I’m probably not talented enough to have picked out all the wonderful things they said. So, do we have a deal?”

Kirigiri-san . . . He could still hear her speaking. To him, her speaking his name held a note of finality, like she had been the one to name him. It seemed to reach down to the very molecules of his being, making each of them wriggle and vibrate in excitement.

“Is my family there, too?” he asked eagerly.

Komaeda frowned. “Just your friends, I’m afraid.”

Oh.

The disappointment was a temporary setback. Soon enough, his excitement came back full force. What Komaeda was offering, it seemed too good to be true. And . . .and it was. He looked back at the TV, where the paused image lay. He couldn’t forget that this didn’t come without strings. Nothing did. That’s why he needed to get out of here. But . . .

He licked his lips, mouth dry.

“Well?” Komaeda urged.

He didn’t know what to say. He wanted to hear their voices so badly, but then he’d have to watch that. Was . . . was it okay? What would his parents say? He wasn’t really sure. They’d never warned him of anything like this. Nobody had.

“Naegi-kun. . .” Komaeda’s chin dipped, mouth coming close to his ear. “It’s alright, you know. Nobody’s going to blame you.”

Naegi swallowed. His hands shook.

“Naegi-kun . . . they’re already dead.”

He jerked at that, as if an ice cube had been dropped down his shirt.

“The dead don’t come back,” Komaeda said. “No matter how much you wish they could. You know that. Those people in the videos, they died before you came along. You couldn’t have done anything for them then, and you can’t now. Watching these videos isn’t going to change anything. It isn’t going to magically make you responsible. Sometimes, you need to accept there’s nothing you can do and move on.”

Naegi was silent.

“They’re dead,” Komaeda repeated. “But do you know who isn’t?”

He pressed the cassette player into Naegi’s cold hands.

“They aren’t alive, but your friends are,” Komaeda said softly. “And you’ve earned this much, haven’t you? Nobody could blame you.”

Then it was okay? His body felt looser somehow, like a kink had been worked out of his spine. He could hear their voices again. He could pretend they were with him, if only for little while. And . . . it was okay, right? It’s not like Komaeda had killed the people in the videos just for him. It wasn’t his fault. And Komaeda would probably make him watch them later even if he said no, so why not say yes?

He wanted so badly to hear them again.

“Okay,” he said. “Turn it on.”

It was better than he had expected. Last time he’d seen an execution, Nevermind had tortured them with hot iron before delivering the final blow. But this was a flat-out execution. The soldiers, Monokuma ones, knocked the prisoner to her knees, held her still, and then shot her. That was it. She hardly even suffered. Blood gushed onto the ground but apart from that, it wasn’t all that graphic. Almost like watching a movie.

“Alright. That’s five minutes.” The video paused just as it jumped to a new scene.

Naegi tried not to nod too enthusiastically. Still, his heart was tapping out a rapid rhythm as he waited for his reward.

And it came.

“Kirigiri-san . . .” He murmured, speaking as if she were really there next to him. He closed his eyes and soaked in what came next.

It wasn’t me. Naegi Makoto was the true hero of that story. He wouldn’t have been able to solve the mystery without me, but I wouldn’t have survived without him either. Against all reason, he trusted me when it mattered most. And when I turned my back on him, he forgave me without question. I . . . I don’t know if I can ever repay that.”

There was a chuckle, and then somebody that Naegi did not recognize spoke.

Then leaping down a trash chute wasn’t a sufficient thank you?

I will ask you not to belittle his accomplishments, Kouichi-kun. What I did was hardly a risk.

Alright, alright. It was just a question.

“Kouichi-kun?” Naegi echoed out loud.

“He’s part of the Future Foundation,” Komaeda said. “My source tells me he has a really big soft spot for the Ultimate Detective.”

“Oh, that’s good. It’s nice to know somebody’s watching out for her.”

Kirigiri and Kouichi continued to discussing the Killing Game, straying from the subject of him to Kirigiri’s private investigation into the school. His eyes slowly widened as she did. Wow. Wow. He’d always known that Kirigiri was smart, but hearing how she fit facts together and the chains of logic she created was incredible. Maybe Kirigiri’s title should have been Ultimate Genius.

“That’s five,” Komaeda said, shutting Kirigiri off in the middle of a sentence. “So, enough for today or . . .”

“No,” Naegi said quickly. “We can keep going.”

The next clip was similar. It was an execution, but of several people this time, lined up side by side. He shied away from the second death, but Komaeda noticed and cleared his throat. Reluctantly, Naegi looked back to the screen.

“I have more than one tape you know. Five, to be exact.” Komaeda said after the allotted time ran out. “Do you want to keep listening to the Ultimate Detective, or somebody else?”

“Put on Togami-kun,” he said. As much as he wanted to keep listen to Kirigiri, he owed it to his friends to give some time for all of them.

It was different. They were talking about him again, but Togami was much less generous with his praise than Kirigiri had been. That was to be expected though; Togami wasn’t one for compliments. In fact, the backhanded praise he was hearing now was more than he had ever expected to get from the Heir.

And that was when the others returned.

Tsumiki seemed to freeze upon seeing the two of them.

“Makoto, are you okay!” she demanded, running towards them.

“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” Naegi asked.

Maybe it was his imagination, but her eyes seemed to flicker to Komaeda for a second.

“We’re watching some videos,” Komaeda said. “Care to join us?”

Tsumiki was easy to convince, and she settled on the other side of Naegi’s bed. Naegi wanted to invite Pekoyama too, but when he asked,  Komaeda cut in and announced that Pekoyama wouldn’t be interested. It was rude, but the Swordswoman didn’t protest and returned to her chair.

Instead of watching the next video, Naegi secretly watched Kuma. Apparently, Kuma had taken a dislike to the privacy screen Pekoyama had tried to erect, and was chewing it to bits.

“Oh, this isn’t very exciting. There’s barely any despair,” Tsumiki said sadly, as the next five-minute slot finished.

“Can you . . . can you put on a different tape?” He had almost straight-out asked for Asahina, but then realized that Tsumiki probably wouldn’t be happy to hear what he was listening to.

Komaeda stared at him.

“Naegi-kun, what colour was his shirt?”

“What?”

“The guy who died, what colour was his shirt?”

He racked his brain, but it was useless. He had barely been paying attention.

“Watch it again,” Komaeda ordered.

And they did. Tsumiki was confused, but she backed down when Naegi sided with Komaeda. Afterwards, he clutched the earplug cord to his chest as he listened to the Ultimate Swimmer speak about him. Her tone was decidedly quieter than Kirigiri and Togami and . . . was she crying? She was. Asahina was crying.

I’m sorry, he thought, hoping that his words would somehow reach her.

It went on. Naegi watched clips, Komaeda asked questions (How many people died? How many bullets were shot? How long did she take before she died from blood loss? Were his eyes opened or closed when he died?), and Naegi answered. Sometimes he got them right; sometimes he didn’t and had to watch them again. Then he curled up with the recordings of his friends (Tsumiki asked, but Komaeda brushed her off). He could tell Tsumiki was really confused, maybe even bored, but she stayed next to him and held his hand as Komaeda watched her from across his body. It seemed that the Luckster was self-conscious about being outdone, and he sidled closer to Naegi so that they touched.

“They’re all talking about me,” Naegi muttered, as Fukawa’s voice filled his ears for the second time.

“I know. I put all those recordings first.” Naegi could feel Komaeda’s fingers running through his hair. “I wanted you to see how much you’ve done for them. You really are special. I hope you understand that.”

Naegi muttered, “Thank you.”

But despite his praise being stacked upon that from friends, he still felt exhausted after Fukawa was cut off for the second time. He shook his head when Komaeda lifted the remote again. Komaeda smiled and took the earplugs back, putting both them and the cassette player on a table that Naegi’s handcuffs rendered just out of reach.

“Nobody but you, Naegi-kun,” Komaeda said. “You are the only person in the world that they would say those things about.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” Naegi said.

Komaeda shook his head. “It is. Because there’s nobody else who would have done the things that you did, or could have, for that matter. That’s why I love you.”

“But . . .”

“I don’t really understand what’s going on,” Tsumiki began, “but Komaeda-kun’s right. You’re a very special boy, Makoto.”

Naegi blushed, and spoke into the blanket. “Thank you.”

Komaeda laughed and ruffled his hair, making him blush even more. Back where she was keeping guard, Pekoyama looked off to  the side, lip curling. Nobody else noticed, however, for Tsumiki and Komaeda were too caught up with teasing Naegi and Naegi was too busy being embarrassed.

And Kamukura was in the very back of the room, frowning as he stared at the blank TV.

Chapter Text

When he suddenly woke alone, his stomach hard as if he had just seen a burglar, Naegi assumed he had woken from another nightmare he couldn’t remember. The lights were dim, Tsumiki having shut them off at his bedtime. He could hear Kuma snoring somewhere, and he knew Tsumiki and Pekoyama would be in the room somewhere. But they hadn’t been the ones to wake him so –

Hold on.

No.

He wasn’t alone.

“Naegi Makoto.” The shadows seemed to part before Kamukura as he stepped forward. He glided across the ground like a spirit, shoulders hardly moving.

“Kamukura-kun?” Naegi rubbed his eyes. “What time it is?”

“Three in the morning.” Kamukura waited for a few seconds. “One past three in the morning.”

“That early? Why did you wake me?” Naegi asked.

“I have something to show you.”

Kamukura was moving towards the foot of the bed. Naegi leaned sideways, trying to see past the TV to the chair beyond.

“She won’t wake,” Kamukura said suddenly. “Neither will Tsumiki. We won’t be disturbed.”

“What about Kuma?”

Kamukura shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I can subdue a bear.”

And the funny thing was, he probably could.

The TV turned on. Right now, it was showing nothing but a blue screen. Still, Naegi frowned and tilted his head.

He said, “You want to show me a video?”

Kamukura loaded something into the DVD player. The blue screen turned black, but still nothing played.

“Naegi Makoto.” Kamukura had his back to him, and he didn’t move once as he spoke. “You are going to watch what I’m about to show you. You are going to watch the entire thing until you understand.”

With that, he pressed Play.

Naegi’s immediate thought was that whatever this video was, it was made years ago. The graphics had a definite old-fashioned feel to it, and the lyricless music was like something you’d hear in an elevator. He was seeing one of those mostly-black title screens with a fancy, curling white border and words in the center . . .

“Subliminal messaging?” Naegi said aloud. That was something he had hardly expected to see.

“You are going to watch it,” Kamukura said.

Subliminal messaging is messages designed to pass below the normal human limits of perception. . .

Even the narrator sounded like it belonged to an old movie. Either way, it sounded like it was going to be boring. He had no idea why he to watch this. Maybe Kamukura was exercising his Ultimate Old Movie Critic talent? Naegi glanced at him, only to see those stern red eyes fixed on him, and then hurriedly looked back at the screen. Now there was some animated guy walking down a street with exaggerated, swinging arms and huge steps.

The music skipped.

He thought it was his imagination. But then it happened again, accompanied by a little screech. He supposed that wasn’t too surprising; it was only natural for things to decay over time. But then the picture glitched. It flickered black, and then came back. However, around the edges, the colours were pixelated. The pixilation spread inwards, until half the image seemed to be glitched as the music grew more and more bizarre.

“Uh, Kamukura-kun, I think your video got destroyed.”

“Keep watching.”

He didn’t understand, but he did. He could barely see the walking man anymore. The strange, contrasting colours, the flickering patterns, it was actually starting to give him a headache. The music wasn’t much better; the sounds wailed and grated together in his head, rubbing against his senses like sandpaper. It hurt. It actually hurt. It hurt to look at and it hurt to hear and he couldn’t look away –

It felt like . . .

It hurt.

He couldn’t look away.

There was something inside his head.

The colours lashed against his brain like a whip made of fire. He jerked back – why couldn’t he look away? – body twisting unnaturally as his skull slammed against the headboard. Kamukura grabbed his free wrist and before Naegi could control his twitching long enough to think, Kamukura was pinning it down against the rail. The music had ascended into a high-pitched – what was that?! – wail that wouldn’t stop. (Where were the others? How could they sleep through this?)

“You are going to watch all of it,” Kamukura rumbled.

It hurt. It hurt it hurt it hurt – Colours weren’t meant to mix that way. He was blind. There was only the screen. And he couldn’t . . . he couldn’t look away –

A shuddering gasp escaped him as his eyes fixed on something solid. There in the center of the swirling colours were words.

Do you see?

 “Subliminal messages work on the subconscious level of the mind,” the narrator said happily. “A person is unable to perceive them consciously.”

You cannot see if you are awake.

Let go. Relax.

Live a waking dream.

His body obeyed against his will. The spasms stopped, for that he was grateful, but his arms had grown heavy and sagged onto the mattress. The glitching was still happening, but Naegi noticed it less and less as his mind began to shut down. His mind went bit by bit, blurring his vision into one flat plane of colour as the music grew more and more distant.

There was an image.

He registered it vaguely. There was an animated girl waving at him. Mindlessly, he lifted his arm and waved back.

Do you see?

“Yes,” he whispered.

You can only see this lovely lady right now because of the trance you’ve fallen into. This animation is being respectively flashed, and then masked by the  nonsensical image you saw earlier, interrupting the conscious processing of the animation. Producers can use these methods to elicit certain emotions in the viewer and influence their response to subsequent images. ”

Oh. How interesting.

He learned about music. About audio and colours and patterns and lights. He was told things that seemed too high-level, too abstract or out there to be understood, but accepted them without question. His brain soaked up information until it was full, and then kept going. The narrator’s voice swam in and out of focus, his words vanishing from his consciousness less than a minute after he first heard it. All sound did, except for one thing:

You are going to watch all of it.

And he did. He watched past the point where his eyes ached, and his head throbbed. Not that he could grasp the pain. It was all so distant, like pressure on a limb that had fallen asleep.

The on-screen narrator (black-and-white, big top hat and monocle) did a little bow, and then the screen went blue. Naegi stared as it, still as attentive as ever as drool fell from the corner of his mouth. Kamukura walked into his hazy view.

“In these circumstances, it’s a necessary precaution,” he said, switching off the TV as Naegi’s eyes began to fall close –

“Makoto! Wake up, sleepy-head.”

Naegi woke up. Tsumiki was poking his cheek, balancing a breakfast tray on the bedrail with her other hand. Pekoyama was standing nearby, on guard duty, though she was also holding a cup of tea. He could hear Kuma noisily slurping down his breakfast somewhere.

There was no sign of Kamukura.

He accepted the tray and nibbled on some toast as he looked around once more for Kamukura.

He wasn’t there.

Naegi glanced at the blank TV.

. . . Had any of that been real?


“Wh-who are you?” Naegi asked.

“My name is Munakata Kyosuke,” said the white-suited person before him. “I have embarked on a campaign to kill you and have sent several assassins to see to your end. I am the despised leader of the villainous Future Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the eradication of all that is satisfying in the world. And now, Naegi Makoto, I stand here before you.”

Munakata slid one foot back, sinking into a fighting stance. He reached and over his shoulder, as if to grip the handle of a sword sheathed there.

“Oh. Uh, nice to meet you!” Naegi said.

For a moment, nothing happened.

“I am Munakata Kyosuke,” the person said again. “I tried to kill you.”

Naegi said, “Yeah, I know he did, but you’re not really Munakata. So, is this what he actually looks like?”

The Imposter sighed, lowering his arm. “Yes. His face isn’t quite this skinny, but this is an accurate representation.”

“That’s really cool! It looks so real,” Naegi said. If he hadn’t been restrained, he would have reached out to touch the Imposter’s face. “Is that make-up? I can’t even tell.”

“. . . Thank you,” the Imposter said, sounding uncomfortable.

Hearing that, Naegi changed the subject. “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but why did you decide to change your disguise?”

“I am currently Munakata Kyosuke,” the Imposter said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I am giving you the opportunity to express your anger.”

“Oh. No thank you.”

The Imposter stared at him.

“ . . . No thank you?”

“I’m not really mad at him,” Naegi said easily.

Again, the Imposter stared.

“He tried to kill you.”

“I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding.”

“ . . . You are incorrigible.”

“Thank you?”

The Imposter sighed again, and completely lost his battle stance this time. Naegi eyed him curiously. He had never met the real Munakata but seeing how accurately the Imposter had been able to mimic Togami’s looks, he had no doubts that he was basically looking at a mirror of the Future Foundation’s leader. As Togami, the Imposter’s hair hadn’t been long, but he had cut it now so that not a single strand fell below his ears. Not to mention, he had bleached it so that it shone a light silver instead of blond. Something about his manner had changed, too. Before, the Imposter had radiated Togami’s air of power and the confidence born from it. As Munakata, however, he had that same air of power but it seemed calmer. Almost cold. No doubt, it was also a reflection of the real Munakata.

“Did you dress up as Munakata just so I could yell at you?” Naegi asked.

Once again, something like discomfort flickered across the Imposter’s face. “That was not the only reason. It came to my attention that my previous form may have been . . . distressing to you. If this one, too, is uncomfortable, I have a third form prepared.”

“No, it’s fine. I mean you are right that seeing you dressed like Togami bothered me a little, but it’s no big deal. If you really want to keep dressing up like him, I don’t mind.”

“Nonsense,” the Imposter said. “If it bothers you, then there is no point in keeping that form. And if this one too, bothers you, then I have no choice but to return to my other form, Mitarai Ryota.”

Naegi shrugged. “Okay. How do you do that anyways? Is it really just make-up and a wig?”

It seemed at first that the Imposter would not answer; he had turned his head away from Naegi. But then he spoke, and it was clear.

“No. It is nothing as simple as make-up and hair. Every time I prepare to adopt a new form, I first study that person’s background and features. Using that knowledge, I construct a mask that perfectly replicates my target. That is the face you see.”

“So . . . you’re wearing a mask.” Naegi tilted his head and moved about as he surveyed the mask from all angles. “I can’t even see the seam.”

“Naturally. I wouldn’t have earned my title if I could be detected that easily.”

This was cool. This was really, really cool. So cool that Naegi couldn’t help himself . . .

“Could you make me one?”

The Imposter looked him over. “If you wish to have a chance at fooling anyone, there’s only one person you can imitate –”

Naegi sagged at the shoulders. “Kuzuryu-kun, right? Because I’m short. But I’ll try it.”

The moment he said it, he looked at Pekoyama and felt bad. She didn’t outwardly display any emotion, but Naegi couldn’t imagine that she would be pleased by the idea of someone she disliked wearing Kuzuryu’s face. He almost took it back – almost – but then he realized what he was really asking for and well, he couldn’t. He couldn’t possibly give up an opportunity like this.

“Very well.”

Next thing he knew, the Imposter had grabbed his face and was running a hand over his cheekbones.

“Uh . . .”

“If I want to make a properly fitting mask, I need to understand your bone structure,” the Imposter explained. He pinched Naegi’s cheek and pulled. Maybe he was checking his skin’s elasticity?

“Okay, that makes sense,” Naegi said as the Imposter continued to poke and prod at his face. “I’m not going to have to cut my hair, am I?”

“No. The hair is included in the mask.” The Imposter twisted a strand of his own hair. “What you see here isn’t real.”

“I never would have guessed.”

The Imposter whipped out a notepad an began jotting down notes, pausing every once in a while to glance up at his subject.

“I will need to study Kuzuryu-kun’s appearance,” he said as he tucked the notepad away. “But I can probably have it finished in a couple of days.”

“That soon?” Naegi said in disbelief. “You can make mask that incredible in two days?”

“I already have all the supplies,” the Imposter said. “You forget that there are 24 hours in a day. That is plenty of time.”

Well, who was he to question the expert? About this at least. About other things, he certainly had the right.

“Why are you doing this?” Naegi asked. “I mean, I get why you would want to wear them. If I made that amazing, I would want to show it off, too. But you’re always wearing it. When do you take it off?”

“What do you mean?” the Imposter asked. “Take what off?”

“Well . . . the mask,” Naegi said. He didn’t really get why the Imposter needed to him to clarify.

The tension in the room abruptly doubled.

“This mask contains my identity,” the Imposter said. “Without it, I no longer exist. Unless I am changing forms, why would I ever remove it?”

Naegi narrowed his eyes. “How does that make any sense? You don’t just disappear if you take off a mask. You become . . . well, you.”

“And that me has no identity,” the Imposter scoffed. “I have no name, no face, no history –”

“Okay, stop!” Naegi rubbed his brow, feeling a headache come on. “I’m sorry, but . . . I don’t really know how I can put this any nicer, but that’s ridiculous. You must have had a family –”

“They died a long, long time ago,” the Imposter said flatly.

“But you did!” Naegi argued. “Which means you have a history and I don’t believe for a second that you don’t have a face under that.”

“. . . None of that is false,” the Imposter admitted. “But neither is it relevant. There is no one alive that knows my true self; hence, that self no longer exists. He has been lost to time –”

“No, that’s wrong! Maybe it’s true there’s nobody alive that remembers your past self, but that doesn’t matter. You’re acting like the only thing that matters is what other people think of you. That’s not how it works. Your identify shouldn’t be based on what other people know or don’t know about you; your identity is for you, and you alone.”

“Says the one who’s currently the most famous person on the planet,” the Imposter sneered.

“And I only got that way because I refused to be just a Lucky Student,” Naegi shot back. “I didn’t let that title stop me from becoming Hope, and you shouldn’t let yours stop you either. I mean, think about it. They wouldn’t call Togami-kun or Munakata the Ultimate Imposter; that belongs only to you. So, you see, even by trying to disguise your identity, you’ve still made yourself an identity!

“Don’t you want to be different?” Naegi asked. “Do you honestly want to pretend for your whole life? You have friends here, don’t you? Friends that already know you’re not who you say you are. They’re not going to kick you out just because you stopped wearing a mask. So, why bother? You keep complaining that the real you doesn’t have an identity; well, you’re passing up a perfect chance to start making one here.”

The Imposter seemed lost for words. Though he seemed to have no problems speaking when he turned to Pekoyama.

“How do you put up with this?” the Imposter demanded of the Swordswoman.

“A sword has no feelings,” she said bluntly.

“Tsk. I suppose I should ask Tsumiki-san then. Although, I now understand his appeal to Komaeda.”

Naegi scowled. He was angry, even though he didn’t really have any right to be. If the Imposter wanted to keep living this lie, then that was his business alone. There was no point in trying to  get involved.

Yet, he still wanted to.

Who was he kidding? Of course he was going to try and get involved. (It was his job)

“What are you going to do now?” Naegi asked. “Put on another mask of a person I’ve never met before and somehow pretend that’s different than not wearing one at all? The only reason I had a reaction to the Togami one is because I know him. I don’t know this Mitarai you were talking about before, so it makes no difference to me whether you wear his face or hour own. Do they even know who Mitarai is?”

He saw Pekoyama look up.

“The Mitarai in their class was me,” the Imposter said.

“Then, they don’t really know the real Mitarai. Which means you were disguising the fact that nobody in your class knew you by . . . being somebody that nobody in your class knew?”

The Imposter stiffened.

“I’m finished here,” he said.

Without another word, the Imposter stalked out of the infirmary. Naegi glared in that direction for half a minute, still worked up from the argument.

“Guess I’m not getting that mask,” he said as he fell backwards into his bed.

 

Chapter Text

“She shouldn’t be saying that.”

“I know.”

“It’s not true.”

“I know.”

“It’s not her fault.”

Komaeda laid back on Naegi’s bed, looking like he holding back a chuckle. “Yes, Naegi-kun. I know.”

Naegi gritted his teeth. He wanted to break something, yet his grip around the cassette player was gentle. “It’s not Asahina-san’s fault. She shouldn’t be blaming herself.”

“Yes, I know.” Komaeda patted his back. “She’s misplaced the blame. You should be very familiar with her situation though.”

Naegi looked at him. “Why would I be?”

Komaeda smiled gently. “Because you tend to blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault either. Like . . . like that.”

“That . . .?”

Then, he realized what Komaeda was talking about and his heart clenched.

Blood and screaming and –

“Shh. Don’t think about it.” Komaeda’s hand moved from his back to brush against his cheek. “This is supposed to be a happy time.”

“Sorry.” He did his best to listen and push those thoughts out of his mind. Asahina continued to whisper in his ear, and it seemed so much easier to focus on the pain that seemed to be occurring now than one that occurred in the past. He sunk back into his pillow, closing his eyes.

A beeper went off.

“Five minutes already? And just when I had gotten myself comfortable,” Komaeda said. “How unfortunate.”

Naegi didn’t say anything. He had already pulled out the earphones and was patiently watching the still TV screen for the next segment. Komaeda raised the remote, pointed it . . . then lowered it again.

“I have an idea,” Komaeda said. “Going back and forth between these two is starting to give me a headache. So, here’s my suggestion: why don’t we play both at the same time? That way, I don’t have to get up every five minutes and we can be sure that you’re getting an equal amount of both.”

“That’s a good idea!” Naegi said quickly. The sudden cut-offs when he was listening to his friends were awfully annoying.

“Make sure you keeping watching though,” Komaeda said. “I’m not saying that I don’t trust you, but I know how easy it is to get distracted. I don’t really have a choice other than to keep asking you questions throughout.”

“That’s fine.”

“I’m glad you approve.” Komaeda tipped his hand, and Naegi obediently handed over the cassette player. “Now, who do you want to listen to?”

“Kirigiri-san!”

Komaeda rolled partway over, and rooted through a small plastic bag by the side of the bed. “Kirigiri, Kirigiri . . . Ah, here’s a good one. This one’s full of some wonderful, hope-filled speeches she made for the Future Foundation. I think that would be a nice one to listen to, especially after hearing the Ultimate Swimmer say all those things about herself.”

Naegi nodded eagerly.

The smile Komaeda gave him was a mix of platonic and paternal affection. “They’re all inspired by you, you know. She even uses your catchphrases.”

“That’s nice of her,” Naegi said neutrally, trying to hide his impatience. “But most people wouldn’t realize that I said them first.”

Komaeda burst out laughing. “Oh, Naegi-kun! You’re so modest. I guess you wouldn’t know, but after you destroyed the Ultimate Despair, all those silly little resistance movements latched onto those phrases. The radio waves, the flyers, they were full of ‘Don’t lose Hope!’, ‘We refuse to despair’, and ‘Here’s my answer’. I’m sure that I even saw a ‘This should prove it!’ somewhere. Maybe I can find some of them and show you.”

“I . . . I didn’t realize people thought that way.”

“That’s because you still don’t understand how special you are!” Komaeda rolled back over and playfully poked his cheek. “Now, let’s get this new tape in, shall we?”

As Komaeda switched the tapes, Naegi marvelled. That his hope had made such an impact that people were quoting him . . . it was such a big concept to take in. Surely, the old him never would have seen this coming; nor would have his family. To go from being such an ordinary, forgettable person to this . . . it was so hard to grasp. But that was the truth. This was who he was now. He was Hope.

He looked at the TV when it turned on. It appeared to be showing another hanging.

It wasn’t long until he found a balance between the television and the cassette player. Kirigiri’s calm, soothing voice played over scenes of sentencing and executions. There was no torture in any of these clips, just quick, almost painless deaths. He could watch them with half his mind; the other half locked onto Kirigiri’s words and refused to let go. She was telling them all how their victory over despair, over Enoshima herself proved that this would be another temporary phase in human history. It was kind of odd hearing her speak, because he never would have thought Kirigiri was the type to make speeches. At the same time, he couldn’t deny she seemed awfully good at them.

“Hey, Naegi-kun!”

Soda rushed towards them. He stumbled over Kuma’s paw, and his gait became an amusing assortment of wobbling and giant steps as he fought to keep his balance. Somehow, the Mechanic stayed standing and ended up blocking the TV screen with his head.

“Naegi-kun, it’s Friday!”

“Uh . . .”

“Which means we gotta go destroy Monokumas!”

Soda didn’t have a key, but apparently, he was good at lock picking. He’d grabbed Naegi’s wrist and before either he or Komaeda realized what was going on, the handcuff fell off. (It was that easy?)  The earphones caught on the bedrail and were torn away as Soda roughly hauled Naegi out of bed. Pekoyama was on her feet immediately, but Komaeda was too slow to get to his and stop Soda from dragging Naegi off.

. . . And to be honest, it’s not like Naegi was resisting that much.

“Where are you going?” Komaeda asked, still scrambling off the bed.

“To my workshop. It’s fine, I’ll bring him back later!” Soda said that to both Komaeda and Tsumiki, who was staring at them.

Before long, he and Soda were in the workshop, Pekoyama a step behind him. It wasn’t just them present. Hanamura, Saionji, Mioda and Kuzuryu were there as well.  Pekoyama stiffened when she saw her Young Master, but Kuzuryu didn’t even glance in her direction. Naegi bit his tongue, wanting to say something but knowing he shouldn’t.

Apart from the people in the room, there was one thing worth noticing . . .

“You made the giant blender.”

“I made the giant blender,” Soda said proudly. “Now here’s the deal. We’re all gonna bet how many I can squeeze in there, and the person who’s closest gets . . . uh . . . I don’t know actually.”

“How about I make them a cheesecake?” Hanamura suggested.

“Yeah, cool! I’m starving for one of those things.”

Everybody started shouting off numbers. Strangely, although Soda built both the blender and the robots and so, should have the best estimate, he switched his guess the most. Naegi remained silent, and turned to speak with Pekoyama.

“What are you guessing?” he asked.

“You wish for advice?” she said.

“Uh, no? I just wanted to know what you were going to guess.”

“I am not participating,” she said.

“But why not?” Naegi asked.

Pekoyama looked down her nose at him. “A tool is not meant to participate in games.”

Naegi was quiet. He didn’t agree with that – about the part where she was a tool – but knew better than to argue that here in front of Kuzuryu. It looked like he was going to have to accept it –

But then a terrible idea struck him. A good idea, but still kind of terrible.

Naegi straightened up. “Pekoyama-san, as your temporary master, I order you to participate.”

Pekoyama stared at him, her eyes wide with shock and some cousin of anger. Naegi held her stare, refusing to back down.

“. . . Fifty-six,” she muttered.

Naegi grinned. “You need to say it louder. I’m pretty sure they couldn’t hear you.”

Pekoyama closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Fifty-six!”

There was silence.

“. . . I didn’t think you were smart enough to know numbers that were more than ten,” Kuzuryu finally said, dismissing Pekoyama with a turn of his head. “Hey, Naegi, you’re the last one. We’re waiting on you.”

“Oh, sorry.” He squinted at the giant blender. That was a lot of space in there. Definitely a lot of robots would be going in. But he didn’t even know where to start with guessing . . .

The door opened.

They all looked at Kamukura, who walked inside and stared at the blender. Naegi thought he could hear Kamukura’s brilliant mind working as his eyes slowly roved over the machine. Then, the longhaired teen turned to Soda and asked the fateful question:

“Is there a reason you are planning to destroy seventy-two Monokumas in a blender?”

Another silence.

“I guess seventy-two!” Naegi exclaimed.

A collective groan echoed throughout the room.

“Whatever. I didn’t want a fucking cake anyways,” Kuzuryu claimed.

“We can discuss the type of cheesecake you want afterwards,” Hanamura told Naegi. “I’d like to see the preparation of this beautiful creation first.”

For his part, Kamukura didn’t seem the least bit bothered that he had accidentally ruined their contest. Not that Naegi had expected him to express any guilt. Kamukura merely walked up to Soda and held out his hand.

“Here.” Soda dropped a key into that waiting palm. “Let me know when you get back.”

Naegi slowly turned his head. “Kamukura-kun, you’re leaving?”

“Temporarily,” Kamukura said.

“But . . .” He trailed off. His throat had tightened, making it impossible to speak or swallow. Kamukura was leaving? He couldn’t leave! He had to stay here! Naegi took a step back, glancing around the room, looking for help, though he couldn’t name whom exactly he was looking for.

“There are things I need to take care of,” Kamukura said, breaking eye contact as he turned towards the door. He strode out calmly, and Naegi felt like a piece of his sanity left with him.

“Hey, are we going to destroy some robots or not?”

“Whoo! Ibuki wants to see some sparks!”

On Soda’s order, Monokumas climbed up the ladders to the multiple diving boards that had been erected next to the blender. They swan-dove into its depths, limbs still waving even as they smashed against the reinforced glass and others fell on top of them. The others were cheering. Mioda and Soda had started up a count. And Naegi backed away, arms wrapped around himself as his hands gripped fabric. The scrubs they had given him in lieu of his regular clothes were thin, and he ached for something thicker to grab. (He wished he had his hoodie back).

“Are you in distress?” Pekoyama asked him.

Naegi shook his head. The count jumped to fifty in the background.

Pekoyama nodded and turned her gaze to the blender, no longer caring.

By the time the last one jumped into the blender, only Mioda was still counting. Apparently, Soda had managed to wear out his voice with all the shouting. Now, the blender was filled with squirming robots. Soda flashed them all a sharp-toothed grin, and then proudly marched forward to work the controls. The first button slid a lid over the top. The second . . .

They should have brought earmuffs.

The blender erupted into medley of grinding, whirring, and crunching. Sparks flew from the shredded robots, building up a yellow-red fountain by the blades as black smoke quickly filled the rest of the space. The other cheered loudly, and despite how gruesome it was, Naegi couldn’t help but watch.

Until Pekoyama grabbed his shoulder.

“Move!” she snapped. He wondered why she bothered to give the order, seeing that she was already dragging him towards the door. She stopped only to gather up Kuzuryu, too, and then herded them outside.

They stood in the hallway. Naegi wanted to ask but he noticed Kuzuryu didn’t seem to find this odd, so he didn’t.

Ten seconds later, the door slammed open and he understood.

“Run!” Soda shrieked. He was followed by the rest of his classmates, and the sound of grinding and sparking –

And then there was an explosion.

Alarms went off inside the workshop. The lights went out, and then they all heard the steady pitter-patter of falling water. Smoke rolled out of the open door, until Saionji kicked it closed.

It took a few minutes for the fire system to clear out the smoke and flames. When it was finally safe to renter, Soda opened the door. A moment later, he fell to his knees. The blender had clearly exploded; there were huge glass chunks embedded in the walls. There was a carpet of metal bits, plastic and wiring mixing with the slimy water, black with ash, from the sprinklers. Some of the machinery used to make the robots appeared to be damaged, too.

“Ack! Look at that mess. It’s . . . it’s so beautiful!” Soda sniffled loudly, and wiped a tear from his eye. “So wonderfully despairful!”

With that, the Mechanic began bawling. He was smiling and laughing even as tears poured from his eyes and he wrung his beanie in his hands. His wails reminded Naegi of a hyena. To everyone else (barring Pekoyama) though, Soda’s breakdown seemed to be like the music of the gods. They had all stepped closer until they loomed above his fallen form, eyes wide with childish glee.

Naegi tugged at Pekoyama’s sleeve. “I think we should go.”

They tiptoed away. (Well, he did. Pekoyama looked like she wanted to roll her eyes at his caution.) They almost made it, too, but then Naegi heard someone call his name and when he glanced over his shoulder, Kuzuryu was coming after them.

“Hey, I need to talk to you,” the Yakuza said.

Naegi fit a smile onto his face. “Uh, sure!”

Kuzuryu crossed his arms and took a deep breath. “Look, I get what happened in there. You wanted Peko’s guess on your side so you would have a bigger chance of winning. I get it, but be careful. You can’t go encouraging her like that.”

“Encouraging her?”

“Yeah. You can’t go and encourage her to think she’s a fucking person!” Kuzuryu said. He whirled around and stared into Pekoyama’s eyes as he spat out his next words. “Because she’s not. She’s a fucking tool that’s only as good as I say she is. She doesn’t get to have an opinion, or feelings, or any of that shit!”

Pekoyama looked at the ground. It was the only emotion she betrayed, yet it had Kuzuryu giggling like a toddler.

“You get what I’m saying, Naegi?” Kuzuryu asked. “Don’t worry, it’s pretty simple. Just treat her like a dumb dog, because she isn’t much smarter than one. She isn’t even as useful as one!”

Naegi was silent, but his clenched fists began to ache.

“Just tell me if you need any help,” Kuzuryu said. “I’ll tell you what to do. Hell, you could even ask Komaeda; just ask that lunatic how he treated the Reserve Course students.”

“No.”

Naegi spoke so quietly and yet so firmly that Kuzuryu hesitated. Perhaps Kuzuryu was uncertain whether it was Naegi he had heard speaking.

“No? The fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not going to treat her like that.” Naegi spoke still in that soft tone, but he felt no fear as he looked the head of the Yakuza in the eye. “I’m not going to treat her like garbage.”

“Seriously, quit it with the goodie-two shoes act,” Kuzuryu said. “That’s what she is. She’s a fucking piece of trash that’s stupid enough to need a daily reminder –”

“No! I’m not going to do that!”

“Naegi –”

“She’s my bodyguard right now!” Naegi snapped. “And that means I’m going to treat her how I want to treat her!”

The two faced off. Naegi’s heart was pounding, his legs were starting to quiver, but he refused to back down. When Pekoyama stepped forward, presumably to say something, Naegi gave her such a fierce look that she faltered. Kuzuryu was growing red in the face. Naegi could almost hear his teeth grinding together –

The Yakuza laughed.

“Fuck, Naegi! I didn’t know your balls were so fucking big. You should have shown me this side of you when we were back in school!”

Kuzuryu’s eyes were practically gleaming. It made Naegi lean back a bit because the sudden change was scary.

“Fine. Treat her however the hell you like. You’re right; she’s your servant. For now.”

Naegi nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak.

Kuzuryu was still laughing as he walked away. Naegi looked up at Pekoyama, who was watching her master’s retreating back.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Do you realize that this will make no difference?” she asked. “In time, I will return to him and everything will return to how it should be.”

“I don’t care,” Naegi said. “I don’t have to be like him. I’m going to do what’s right and someday, they will, too!”

“You’re either naïve or delusional,” she said.

“They will!” he insisted. “They’re still there, the real them. I’ve seen them! I don’t understand why they’re all like this, but I know they’re all just waiting for a chance to become themselves again. And I’m not giving up until I see it happen!”

Pekoyama rubbed her forehead. She looked annoyed.

“I bet you thought me and my friends couldn’t stop Enoshima either,” he said.

That startled her. The look she gave him then was one that forgot to be irritated.

“. . . Let’s go,” she said.

They headed back to the infirmary. However, at one turn, Naegi suddenly went the other way. Pekoyama was halfway down the other hall before she realized he wasn’t following, and then she ran after him.

“Sorry!” he said as she caught up. “There’s somewhere I want to stop first!”

Really, he was surprised that she was surprised to see where he wanted to stop. He hadn’t really kept his visits to the prison a secret, and he was sure Ultimate Despair gossiped at least a little. He stepped inside, leaving Pekoyama to guard the door.

“Iwata-kun!”

His knees smacked against the cool, stone floor as he fell on them in front of his friend’s cell. Iwata had been sitting against the wall, but he moved up to the bars when he saw Naegi there.

“I’m sorry I disappeared on you,” Naegi said. “I’ve kind of been handcuffed to a bed.”

Iwata sounded like he was choking. “What? Why?”

“I tried to make a run for it,” Naegi mumbled. It hit him what he just said, and he spoke quickly. “Ah, I wasn’t trying to abandon you or anything! I just panicked and I wasn’t thinking straight and it all happened so fast –”

“Naegi-kun, stop.” Iwata raised a hand. It was such an adult thing to do, and it made Naegi feel a little better. “All I care about is getting you out of here. I wouldn’t mind if you had to leave me behind to do so.”

“I’m not going to leave you here!” Naegi said. “I’ll get you out somehow. I mean, I don’t even know where the Future Foundation is, so I need you to come with me anyways!”

“Head east from here,” Iwata said. “If you’re careful, you’ll find allies eventually.”

“But it would be easier if you came along, right? So, it would be in my own best interest to get you out. And if I figure out how to get you out, then I might as well free everyone else while I’m at it!”

Iwata sighed. “Thank you, Naegi-kun. However, please don’t give up an opportunity to escape for my sake.”

Naegi didn’t speak. He didn’t know if he could do that, and he didn’t want to lie. So, instead, he changed the subject.

“Ultimate Despair gave me a pet bear . . .”

Chapter Text

“That sure took you a while.”

Naegi froze. Komaeda’s grey eyes were locked on him. The tone he had used hadn’t only been a curious one, but also a bit of his ‘I’m a little disappointed angry with you right now’ voice. Naegi licked his lips, mouth bone-dry. The presence of the exit behind him rushed to the forefront of his mind.

“Soda-kun insisted that he needed to watch him blend some Monokumas,” Pekoyama said.

Komaeda blinked, chin jerking a bit. Naegi had the feeling he had forgotten Pekoyama was there.

“Ah, yes,” the Luckster said. “You mentioned something like that some time before, didn’t you? Was there anything else?”

“I won a cake,” Naegi said.

Komaeda chuckled. “You always did have a sweet spot for plain, ol’ vanilla cakes, didn’t you?”

“Umm . . . actually it’s a cheesecake?” It wasn’t that Komaeda was wrong or anything, it was just that Naegi hadn’t expected him to know something like that in the first place. Still, they had gone to the same school. Perhaps Komaeda had overheard him asking Hanamura to make him a vanilla cake back then.

“Oh, a cake?” Tsumiki said as she approached him from the side.

“Yeah. Do you guys like cheesecake?” Naegi asked.

“Eh? M-me? I don’t mind; it’s your cake . . .”

“Regular cheesecake is my favourite,” Naegi said, “but I wouldn’t mind a different kind or anything. I don’t really like the super fancy ones, though. What about you, Pekoyama-san?”

The swordswoman seemed surprised. “I have no preference.”

“Whatever you want is fine with us,” Komaeda said. The Luckster patted the spot on the bed next to him, and Naegi walked over and sat down on the indicated spot. He watched as Komaeda took his wrist and re-cuffed him to the bed.

Ruffling Naegi’s hair, Komaeda then added, “Just make sure you don’t eat too much and get sick.”

“Got it,” he said, carefully watching Tsumiki, who had snapped to attention at the word ‘sick’.

When he looked away from Tsumiki, he saw Pekoyama staring oddly at him and Komaeda. Once she noticed she had drawn his attention, however, she looked away and returned to her regular stone-faced appearance.

“It’s not really a guess at this point, but I’m guessing you’re planning to share,” Komaeda said.

“Of course, I am!” Naegi said. “It would be rude of me not to. I don’t even deserve that cake in the first place; Kamukura-kun’s the one who should have won it.”

“It’s still very generous of you. It’s yet another example of that kindness we all love.” Cheeks a little red, Komaeda muttered, “Of course, I would love you even if you hadn’t wanted to share.”

Komaeda had reached over and flicked some hair away from Naegi's eyes when he said that. The Luckster’s eyes burned into his with an affection he couldn’t quite place. Naegi blushed, quite embarrassed as Komaeda quietly started to grin.

“I hope Hanamura-kun makes one big enough for everyone,” Naegi said, attempting to redirect the conversation. “Plus, I’ll need to check with Tanaka-kun whether Kuma should be eating any.”

“Huh?” said a voice that was neither Naegi nor Komaeda. “But this special gift is just for you, Naegi-kun!”

Apparently, the Chef had followed them into the infirmary. Hanamura strutted over to the bed that housed him and Komaeda, and sprawled himself over the end so that he laid on his side, chin in his hand and supported by his elbow. It was like he was modelling for a magazine spread. And . . . did Hanamura just wink at them?

“Now, Naegi-kun, what kind of cheesecake do you dream about on those dark, lonely nights?”

Naegi laughed nervously. “It’s not something I think about often. I’m sure anything you make would be great.”

“Of course, it would be amazing,” Hanamura said, “but I’m not interested in amazing. I’m planning to ruin your taste buds for all other cheesecakes! So please, come and whisper all those secret fantasies into my ear.”

“I’m really just fine with a regular cheesecake.”

Hanamura sighed, as if he had just watched him walk straight into a glass door. “Why are all your tastes so plain? Fine. But it will be the most amazing ‘regular’ cheesecake you have ever had.”

Hanamura was just slipping off the bed when Naegi asked, “Can I help?”

Everyone stared at him like he was crazy.

“It’s not that I doubt you or anything,” Naegi said, “but I’ve barely seen any of the Ultimates at work before – at least, I can’t remember seeing any of you at work – and I bet it would be really cool! I can cook, too, but I’m not very good at it and everything I make turns out pretty bland.”

“It’s probably not enough seasoning.” Hanamura seemed to say that reflexively. “I’m not sure I would trust you with a stove, but I suppose you could help out with the preparations.”

“Sure! That sounds fun.” Naegi jumped off the bed . . . and the handcuff chain went taut and metal clawed into his wrist, nearly drawing blood. He jerked backwards, hard, head smacking against the bedframe as he fell onto his bottom. He yelped loud enough to wake Kuma.

“Naegi-kun!” Komaeda scrambled to the edge of the bed. Tsumiki was also running over and – oh, look. In that split second, she had managed to gather bandages, disinfectant, and . . . stitches? The point was that he had made enough of a commotion that even Kuma was waddling over. Funnily enough, the only person who hadn’t really reacted was Pekoyama, the one assigned to protect him.

“I’m fine,” he said. He worked himself up to his feet, ignoring his stinging wrist. “It’s my fault. I forgot about the handcuffs.”

“Oh, at least they were padded,” Tsumiki said. “They would have really hurt if they weren’t.”

She still took the key from Komaeda and undid them anyways, turning his wrist every way afterwards to check for injury. There was a small scrape on the inner part of his wrist, and she carefully disinfected it.

“Do you need any pain medication?” she asked. “Or an ice pack? I could always get you a lollipop. . .”

“It’s fine. Really,” Naegi said. “But can I please go help Hanamura-kun?”

“Umm . . .” Tsumiki looked nervous for some reason.

“Please! Can I go?”

“Not to worry. He’ll be in excellent hands,” Hanamura said.

Tsumiki and Komaeda exchanged a look.

“I’ll go with him,” Komaeda said.

“Oh, okay!” Naegi was a bit surprised – after all, Pekoyama would be accompanying him already – but he couldn’t say he was displeased. He waited patiently for Komaeda to get to his feet, and then followed him and Hanamura.

Somehow, none of them had noticed that Kuma decided to follow them. Well, Pekoyama probably had, but apparently, she hadn’t been concerned enough to warn them. So it was that when Hanamura propped open the door to his massive kitchen, they all heard strange clacking sounds. And turned just in time to realize it was Kuma’s claws smacking against the ground as he charged the entrance. There was no chance of stopping him; even if Hanamura had thought to close the door, Naegi had no doubt that Kuma would have ran right through it. The only thing they could do was leap out of the way, and Naegi failed at even that. If Pekoyama hadn’t swooped in and snatched him out of mid-air, he would have been in for a hard landing.

Naegi had expected to see Kuma raiding the cabinets when he walked inside, but he wasn’t. Instead, Kuma had gone stock-still, ears flat. He was staring at some bottle with no label.

Naegi approached him. “Kuma?”

Kuma stared at the bottle.

Pekoyama spoke. “Hanamura-kun, is there something dangerous in that bottle?”

“There’s some poison in there,” Hanamura said.

“Remove it,” Pekoyama ordered. “My Young Master asked Tanaka-kun to train the bear to detect dangerous substances.”

“Seriously?” Naegi said. “Kuma can do that? That’s so cool! Is that the first time Tanaka-kun’s trained a bear to do that?”

“I am not certain,” Pekoyama said, “but I believe so.”

“I can’t believe he’s never done it before! I mean, I bet people would love it. Imagine if the airport had a bunch of drug-sniffing bears. Everyone would be way too scared to try and smuggle anything once they saw those!”

Komaeda said, “Maybe you can talk Tanaka-kun into teaching you how to train bears and start a new trend.”

Naegi grinned. “Do you think he’d say yes?”

“How could he ever say no to someone as amazing as you?”

“I’ve packed the poison away,” Hanamura announced. “Now, about that bear . . .?”

Kuma casually stood up on his hind legs . . . and ripped off one of the cabinet’s doors. He poked his snout inside the opening for a moment, and withdrew with his teeth deep in a bag of apples.

Hanamura shrieked. Shouting, the Chef ran forward, ready to tear the bear away from his precious ingredients.

Kuma glared at him.

“. . . Please enjoy your meal,” Hanamura muttered. The Chef turned around slowly, and then teetered away from the glowering bear.

Naegi turned to Komaeda. “What time is it?”

“Two o’clock.  That’s Kuma’s lunchtime, isn’t it? No wonder he’s so hungry!”

“The bear’s lunch? Is that what Tanaka-kun was preparing in the back?” Hanamura said, rubbing his chin as he carefully avoided looking at Kuma behind him. “I thought Tanaka-kun was making his own lunch.”

“Wait, Tanaka-kun’s in the back? I’ll go get him!” Naegi said eagerly. It was probably too late for those apples, but Tanaka would get Kuma to behave and not go after anything else. Maybe Tanaka could also show him a little of what he did to make Kuma’s meal . . .

Pekoyama stuck her arm out in front of him.

“I will go,” she said shortly. She didn’t even give him a chance to answer. She just walked off, as if her word was law.

Naegi stared after her. “Oh. Uh, sure.”

“The Ultimate Swordswoman and the Ultimate Breeder? I must say, that’s not a pairing I ever imagined,” Hanamura said, eyes glinting. “Perhaps Tanaka-kun will give her a little of that meat . . .”

Naegi shrugged. “We ate lunch a couple of hours ago. I don’t think she would be hungry that soon.”

Hanamura started laughing. Naegi didn’t know why.

By the time Pekoyama returned, Naegi was busy helping Hanamura. He was mostly just handing him stuff and measuring out ingredients (and Hanamura still felt the need to double-check his work), but it was still fun. He didn’t notice when Pekoyama dropped the bucket of meat in front of Kuma (distracting him from the cookies he had also claimed for himself), but apparently Hanamura had a sixth sense for uncooked food, because the Cook stiffened and sniffed the air.

“That takes care of one hungry customer,” Hanamura said as Kuma gulped down the last morsel. “Now that you have eaten, Kuma, could you please . . .?”

Kuma yawned and promptly sprawled out for a nap.

Hanamura stared. Then, he shrugged, “Well, at least he won’t get in the way.”

They continued cooking. It was messy work – only because Naegi spilt a bunch of things all over himself – but it was good work and before long, they reached the point where Naegi couldn’t do much more. He stepped back, checked on the slumbering Kuma, and then looked for his friends . . . Pekoyama was there, keeping an eye on the door, but Komaeda wasn’t. Naegi could hear cans rattling nearby, and assume that was probably from Komaeda.

He offhandedly mentioned that to Hanamura, who raised his eyebrows and looked around for the Luckster. One eyebrow still raised, he remarked, “I’m surprised he let you out of his sight. I guess having your devoted bodyguard around is enough.”

“Komaeda-kun’s not always with me,” Naegi said. “There’s plenty of times I’m out of his sight.”

Hanamura said, “Not when I’m around.”

“. . . I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to pretend,” Hanamura said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I know they don’t trust me.”

“What are you talking about? Of course, they do!” Naegi protested. They had to! They were all part of Ultimate Despair, weren’t they? And if not that, they were all friends. Plus, even though Naegi knew Komaeda was a bit of a pariah when it came to his classmates, they obviously trusted him. So why wouldn’t they trust someone like Hanamura?

Hanamura sighed. “They do and don’t. Some of them were . . . offended by certain ingredients I’ve added to my dishes in the past. Nothing that was dangerous, of course! Just a little something to help them enjoy what the basic pleasantries of life have to offer.”

“That doesn’t sound bad,” Naegi said.

“Quite true,” the Chef said. “I merely wanted them to relax those ridiculous inhibitions. It’s a Chef’s job to satisfy his customer’s appetite. Why shouldn’t I try to extend my reach and feed their sexual appetites as well?”

Okay, this was a direction he had not expected the conversation to take.

“I understand the word ‘no’,” Hanamura quickly said. “A Chef always understands restrictions – you can’t make a luxurious seafood medley if the customer is allergic to the seafood! But I understand Komaeda-kun and Tsumiki-san’s hesitation. It’s difficult to exercise self-control. Sometimes we . . . sometimes . . . despair makes us do terrible things . . .”

His eyes were distant; his voice, hushed. Hanamura reached up, and rubbed his thumb over the surface of a badge clipped to his uniform.

Naegi reached out and touched the badge. “Hanamura-kun, what’s this?”

“It was from my mother. I keep it there so I remember . . . oh, the despair . . .!”

Hanamura’s laughter was laced with the high-pitched hysteria Naegi associated with their Despair selves.

“Mama was very kind,” Hanamura said. His eyes were still distant, and he started to rock back and forth on his heels. “I wanted to be better than her or any of the cooks she hired. I wanted to be the best chef in the world and make her proud. Every time I cooked, it was so I could see her smile. I don’t . . . I know it made me happy to see her smile once, but can’t remember what it was like to feel that kind of joy anymore . . .”

He started laughing hysterically again. “But who needs it? Despair gives me everything I need. Everything I could possibly want. I don’t need anything else.”

Hanamura’s laughter rose to a fever pitch and Naegi was about to speak, but both Pekoyama and Komaeda had heard the wild laughter, and were running towards them. Any words Naegi had immediately vanished when Komaeda waved him over to his side. It was only when he noticed Komaeda’s face was tight that he grew scared himself. He instinctively half-hid behind the Luckster as Pekoyama placed herself between them and the Chef, hand on the pommel of her sword.

“We were just talking,” Naegi said to Komaeda, trying to apologize without quite understanding what he was apologizing for. “I don’t know what happened.”

Komaeda sighed; Naegi bit back a whine when he registered that it didn’t sound like Komaeda believed him.

“I’m sorry!” He cried. “I didn’t mean to do it. I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”

His brain stuck on those two words until Komaeda gave him a little shake and brought him back to reality.

“It’s fine, Naegi-kun. These things happen.”

Oh, Komaeda was hugging him. Naegi tried to focus on that feeling instead of the rolling fear inside his belly.

“Why don’t you go play with Kuma while we calm Hanamura-kun down?” Komaeda said.

If he were honest, he wasn’t sure why all caution was necessary. It wasn’t the first time he had seen a despair-fit. He’d dealt with them fine before, like when he’d been alone with Mikan during hers. None of the Despairs had ever tried to hurt him while they were having a breakdown. Those memories floated through his mind, but he said nothing and obediently wandered over to where Kuma was. The bear opened one eye as Naegi sat down and leaned against his chest, laying his head down on the shoulder. The fur was thick and radiated warmth, and he had to turn his face upwards so that he didn’t feel like he was going to suffocate.

“Sorry for waking you,” Naegi said. “I think I did something wrong, again.”

Kuma stretched his neck and stuck his nose in Naegi’s hair. He licked Naegi’s cheek afterwards. In Naegi’s distressed mind, it meant ‘Everything will be fine.

“Thank you,” he said.

Naegi snuggled deeper into Kuma’s fur, and watched Komaeda and Pekoyama deal with Hanamura. Apparently, when they said they were going to “deal with it”, they really meant they were going to stand there and let the Chef ride his fit out. Neither had gotten any closer to the Chef. It was a little hard to hear over Kuma’s breathing and the steady thump of both their heartbeats, but he didn’t think they were speaking to Hanamura either.

Eventually, the Chef calmed down – just in time to save the cheesecake.  Naegi continued to snuggle with Kuma as the Chef finished cooking, and both human and bear perked up at the sound of the Chef ringing a little bell.

“Dessert is served!”

As far as appearances went, it was a very ordinary cheesecake. Which did absolutely no justification to how indescribably delicious it tasted. It melted on his tongue, exploding in a medley of flavours that slapped him aside the head on the first morsel. The cheesecake’s taste had such a strong bite that Naegi had to take a few seconds to shake off the effects.

“It’s really good!” Naegi said through a mouthful. “It’s really, really good!”

“Naturally,” the Ultimate Chef said. Although he spoke as if he heard that every day – which he probably did – he still looked pleased.

Kuma, sadly, could not have any of the cheesecake (Tanaka had informed Pekoyama that if Kuma was allowed a taste, there was no way they would be able to stop him from eating the rest), but Naegi talked Hanamura into tossing a few marshmallows to him instead. Kuma slurped them up as the four of them munched on their slice of cheesecake. Naegi eyed the remainder; there was a fair amount left, but he wasn’t sure if there would be enough for everyone.

Still, he was going to try. He put his empty plate aside, and then jogged towards the back of the kitchen.

“Naegi-kun?” Komaeda watched him, head tilted to one side

“I’m going to see if Tanaka-kun wants any!” Naegi shouted over his shoulder.

Behind him, someone choked. He broke into a run shortly before Pekoyama called his name.

Naegi rounded the corner that hid Tanaka, and approached the Breeder. Tanaka was crouched on the ground, bent over something –

“Naegi, stop!” And Pekoyama was there, on the cusp of a run herself as she reached towards him –

But Naegi had already seen what was at Tanaka’s feet.

He knew that face. He’d seen it close-up four days ago. That said, seeing the face of his would-be assassin didn’t bother him. Even the glassiness to his eyes weren’t that bad after everything else he’d seen. What bothered him was the arm; stretched out diagonally from the body, there were patches of exposed flesh with ragged edges, sometimes reaching down to the bone. And even that wasn’t what had drained the color from his face or reached inside and squeezed his heart until it burst. No, the cause of that was . . . was that . . . Tanaka had heard him and Pekoyama and turned around . . .

Blood surrounded the Breeder’s mouth.

Next thing he knew, he was sitting against a wall and Komaeda was holding his face. Quiet murmurs slipped out from between the Luckster’s lips, meant to placate. One steady hand rested on his cheek, and Naegi grabbed and held it out of instinct. Behind Komaeda, both Pekoyama and Hanamura watched them.

“Are you with us now?” Komaeda asked. “It’s alright. You don’t need to be scared.”

“He was . . . Tanaka-kun w-was eating him . . .”

“Tanaka-kun has to eat, too,” Komaeda said gently. “He was already dead, Naegi-kun. Tanaka-kun wasn’t hurting him.”

“He was . . . you’re not supposed to . . .”

“He was already dead,” Komaeda said again, a little firmer. “They would have burned the body if Tanaka-kun wasn’t using it. It would have been such a waste . . . and being useful to Ultimates is all those ordinary people are good for.”

“I want to go back. I want to go back now.”

“Okay, we’ll go back.” Komaeda helped him to his feet, and kept him close. “But you understand, don’t you? He was already dead. It’s terribly unhealthy, but otherwise, it isn’t a really big deal.”

“I want to go back. Please take me back . . .”

(He was unable to say anything else for the entire trip back.)

Chapter Text

The first thing he did when he got back was run over to Mikan. He launched at her, grabbing her arm and babbling at an impressively rapid pace about what he had just seen. Mikan listened solemnly. When Naegi finally talked himself out, she looked questioningly over his head at Komaeda.

“He slipped away from us,” Komaeda said.

“. . . Oh. Okay.”

Komaeda went on. “He wanted to see if Tanaka-kun wanted any of the cheesecake. Oh, I brought you some.”

“For m-me? If it’s not too much trouble, could you p-put it over there, please?”

With that out of the way, Mikan turned her attention back to Naegi. He was still attached her side, clinging to her arm and wide-eyed like someone who had just seen a manikin come to life. 

“What you saw was very upsetting, wasn’t it?” she said. Naegi looked up at her and blinked owlishly. “I understand. I keep trying tell Tanaka-kun that eating other humans is very unhealthy, but he won’t listen to me. He thinks he’s a demon and that it doesn’t count. Oh, I always worry he’s going to get really sick.”

That . . . that was it? Naegi didn’t dare say that aloud, but he sure said it in his head. He hadn’t even considered the health implications, too caught up by the fact that he’d caught Tanaka engaging in cannibalism. Yet to Tsumiki, that was all that mattered. She didn’t seem to be experiencing the swirling nausea that necessitated hanging onto her, lest his knees give way. Neither was Komaeda for that matter; nor had Hanamura appeared concerned. That could have all been explained away by them being Ultimate Despair, but Pekoyama had been there too, and she wasn’t Despair . . .

The man was already dead, wasn’t he? Komaeda had said Tanaka hadn’t killed him. He’d just been making use of a body that was already there. And. . . corpses didn’t feel pain. Corpses didn’t know what was happening to them. How was it any different than carving up a chicken for dinner?

Could it be? Could it really be that . . . he was overreacting?

Mikan seemed to sense that he had calmed down. She smiled at him and rubbed his back. Naegi felt those muscles unroll under her touch, and slumped against her.

“Maybe you should take a nap,” she suggested.

Naegi shook his head. “I’m fine. I guess I was overwhelmed by everything.”

He still was, if he were honest. He was still woozy. But Mikan and Komaeda were so gentle and spoke so softly until he was steady enough to stand on his own again. He took Mikan’s hand and followed behind her as she led him towards the bed. He took a seat on the edge and waited for one of them to handcuff him.

Tsumiki and Komaeda looked at each other.

“Naegi-kun,” Komaeda said, “we were talking earlier, and we can only imagine how restless you’re getting being stuck there all the time. So, we’re going to let you run around today as long as you don’t misbehave, okay?”

He hadn’t expected this, but it was certainly something he wasn’t going to say no to!

Komaeda laughed. “Alright. Go work off some of that energy.”

The concept that he was free didn’t hit immediately. But when it did, boy did it ever. Naegi suddenly wanted to run a marathon. Or climb a mountain. He could probably run all the way to the Future Foundation with all the excess energy he had right now!

(As he thought that, his eyes flicked to the exit, automatically judging the distance between it, and him and the others. Unfortunately, Pekoyama was too close to it, and though she was obliged to protect him, he couldn’t be sure how she’d react to him running away)

But if that was off the table, what should he do instead. . .?

Bang.

“Ibuki was walking down the hall when she had the weirdest feeling. It was like the forces of the universe wanted her to become part of the plot at this exact second!”

With that, the Musician hollered and leapt into the room.

“Where’s the party?” There was a sparkle in Mioda’s eyes as she scanned the dreary infirmary. “Did Ibuki miss it? Oh, is Ibuki supposed to start it? Is she? Is she?”

“We weren’t planning on having a party, but there’s cheesecake!” Naegi said.

“Makoto-chan’s already got the food! Then Ibuki will supply the music.”

Out of nowhere, Ibuki whipped out her trademark electric guitar. The ambient lights seemed to dim as she did, so that she stood centered in a middle of a spotlight. Up went the hand, fingers spread and curled, ready to smash out an impressive chord. Naegi forced himself not to cover his ears, determined to listen this time. The others were not quite as subtle. Pekoyama had moved back, as had Tsumiki. Even Komaeda, despite his admiration for the talent of this classmates, wore an apprehensive smile.

The hand came down –

And somehow, nobody went deaf.

Of course, there was a rather simple reason for that. Mioda wasn’t playing the ear-splitting, demonic music he associated with her. This melody was much easier on the ears and . . . and catchy! Hold on. He recognized this song.

“Maizono-san! That’s one of Maizono-san’s songs!” he cried out in excitement.

“Uh-huh. Those are some of your favourites, right? Which means that Ibuki’s got to play them!”

It wasn’t the same. It could never be the same. Mioda’s voice was very different compared to Maizono’s, and the Idol usually sang with a group of people. But by no means did that mean that Mioda had a bad singing voice and to be honest, he would have jumped at the chance to listen to one of Maizono’s songs even if it had been Kuma trying to sing. Plus, Mioda sounded happy, so how could he not be? So, Naegi cheered, if only just to burn off some energy.

They all clapped when she was finished – even Kuma slapped his paws together a couple of times. Mioda swept her arm out and gave a huge bow that was much more like her normal style. Still, Naegi could see her fingers twitching, and he knew she was dying to set off some fire geysers or something equally dramatic.

“Hah! You haven’t seen anything yet. Ibuki’s going to rock until your ears bleed!”

(He couldn’t tell if she was being literal).

“What are you going to play now?” Naegi asked.

“I dunno!” Mioda said. “Sayaka-chan has lots of songs. Ibuki doesn’t know how to choose . . .”

“Oh! I have an idea!” Tsumiki bounced in her seat, hand up like a child in school. “We can put them on a spinning wheel, like the one I use in my show. Makoto’s never had a chance to spin it.”

. . . Sure, why not? It’s not like they were using it to torture people this time.

“I’ll go get it!” Tsumiki said. She sounded incredibly excited as she ran out of the infirmary.

“Ooo, Mikan-chan’s using my idea! Ibuki’s touched.” Mioda wiped an nonexistent tear away.

“Yeah, it was a good idea,” Naegi said offhandedly, trying his best not to think about what else they had used it for. “But are we only putting Maizono’s songs on there?”

“Do you have other requests, Naegi-kun?” Komaeda asked.

“Huh? Uh, not really.  I just thought Mioda-san would want to play some of her songs.”

There was a short silence.

“. . . You want to hear Ibuki’s songs?” Mioda asked. She was looking at him like he had risen from the dead.

“It makes sense, doesn’t it?” Naegi said. He wasn’t quite sure why they were all acting like this. “You’re doing all the work and you just played one of my favourite songs. So, it’s only fair that you should get to play one of your favourites next.”

Mioda laughed, and waved her finger in front of her place. “Nuh-uh! This is Makoto-chan’s party.”

“That’s right,” Komaeda said, pressing against his side. “This is all about you!”

“But I do want to hear Mioda-san’s songs!” Naegi said. “I promised, didn’t I?”

Mioda stared at him a little longer.

“. . . How can Ibuki say no to such an adorable fan?” the Musician gushed. “Ibuki will be back. She needs to get the big amplifiers!”

Once Mioda was safely out of earshot, he turned to Komaeda and said, “This is going to be really loud, isn’t it?”

“I’m sure it is,” Komaeda said. “The Ultimate Musician is able to reach volumes that nobody else can. Still, if it’s what you want, then I certainly can’t object.”

“Do you mean it? You really don’t mind?” Naegi asked. Komaeda’s last statement had made him realized how selfish he had been. Yes, he had promised to listen to Mioda’s music, but the rest of them hadn’t made a similar promise. Plus, Naegi had picked up that Mioda’s music wasn’t particularly well-liked among her peers. He hadn’t meant to force anyone to sit through it.

“Of course,” Komaeda said. “A chance to have a private concert by the Ultimate Musician and to celebrate with the Ultimate Hope? How could I ever refuse?”

“What about you, Pekoyama-san?” Naegi asked.

“Whatever you wish is –”

Naegi cut her off with a shake of his head. “Do you care, Pekoyama-san?”

“Mioda-san’s music does not particularly bother me,” she answered. “I have seen and heard much scarier things.”

Naegi nodded. He hoped Tsumiki would return before Mioda did; he couldn’t ask the Nurse about her opinion if the Musician was in the room. But apart from that –

It hit him.

“Kuma!” He ran over to the bear, and then frantically looked between Komaeda and Pekoyama. “Animals have really strong hearing, right? If Mioda-san plays her regular music . . . Kuma, I’m so sorry! I didn’t think about how it would affect you.”

Kuma yawned.

“Pekoyama-san, could you take him to Tanaka-kun? I don’t want to damage his eardrums or anything . . .”

He saw Pekoyama grow still as the same time that memory slammed into him. Kuma grunted, sensing a change in his mood. He bowed his head, pushed his forehead into the bear’s fur and just breathed. It was in the past. It was done. There was nothing he could do.

“. . . I will take him to the rooftop,” Pekoyama said.

He looked up, breaking out of his vivid thoughts. Pekoyama stood over him, just watching. Kuma, of course, bared his teeth at her until Naegi calmed him down with soft words.

“Naegi,” she said, “what are you trying to accomplish with me?”

Naegi looked up at her. “Hmm?”

“What is the meaning of all this?”

“I don’t understand.”

She studied him closely. “You truly don’t, do you?”

Naegi stared at her, confused.

She sighed, knelt and clipped on Kuma’s leash. That brought her close to Naegi, and she used that chance to speak to him privately.

“Please remember that I am nothing but a tool.”

“No, you’re not,” he said reflexively. “You told me that tools don’t have opinions, and you like fluffy things.”

She was still kneeling, and her voice dropped even more in volume. “Please remember who I really answer to. It would be best if you extend your efforts elsewhere.”

He wanted to question her further, but lost the chance. For the infirmary doors had opened and Tsumiki was trying to haul in that giant wheel. He and Komaeda helped her bring it to the centre of the room, as Pekoyama left with Kuma in haul. Upon the wheel’s wedges, cardboard had been taped over the original text, and he took great joy in scribbling the names of Maizono’s songs in their place (leaving enough empty spaces for Mioda, of course!) It almost felt like he was scratching out the original purpose of the wheel, and that enough for him to banish certain memories to the back of his mind.

By the time Pekoyama returned, Mioda had brought and set up her speakers. They were at one side of the room and her audience at the other, but still, the size of them . . . This was going to be rough.

“Ready for your ears to bleed?” Mioda shouted. He was sure she didn’t mean to be intimidating but given what her music was like, he was intimidated.

Still, he had promised.

He gave her a thumbs-up. “Go for it!”

Mioda smiled so brightly at him that he momentarily forgot he was probably going to end up with a huge headache.

“Ibuki made a special song for this occasion,” she said. Her fingers zipped along the strings, teasing out a light series of notes in a small warm-up. “It was inspired by the audience’s reaction to a very special person.”

Naegi didn’t need Komaeda’s nudge or Tsumiki’s giggle to know that person was him. He grinned as he waited to hear more –

“It’s called . . . Mommy’s Child is a Hope Delinquent!

He was very glad that his smile had been conditioned to freeze in place when he was stunned. Before he could check anyone reaction to that song title, it had begun.

 . . .

Well, it was better than Hope poems.

. . .

. . . His ears weren’t quite bleeding, but they were making a strange popping sound. On the bright side, the pure intensity of the performance appeared to have wiped away any bad thoughts the other might have had about the subject.

“Let’s all hear it for our Hope Delinquent!” Mioda screeched.

Naegi had been clapping before out of politeness, but now he hesitated. Mioda was calling him out as a Hope Delinquent. In front of Ultimate Despair. The people who, by definition, despised hope –

Komaeda laughed; it was a wheezy, scattered laugh that made him sound like he was on the brink of choking.

“Our little Ultimate Hope!” he gushed. He burst into applause, joining Mioda who seemed to be cheering for the hell of it. Mikan joined in the cheering moments later and upon seeing they weren’t upset, Naegi relaxed.

Mioda followed that with another one of Maizono’s songs. Then her own creation. Then another one of Maizono’s. When the time rolled around again for one of her original songs, Mioda readied herself . . . and did nothing. Nothing but stare at him intensely. Naegi glanced around just to make sure it was him she was staring at.

“Umm. . . Am I doing something wrong?” he asked. He may have spoken loudly because he felt half-deaf.

“Makoto-chan looks so cute sitting there,” Mioda said. “He looks like he’s going to bounce out of his seat and into space!”

Naegi laughed nervously, and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Which is why he needs to join Ibuki’s band!” the Musician declared.

She had said that before, hadn’t she? Naegi thought back . . .

“Oh, like play the drums?”

“Yep! Ibuki left them over there.”

Naegi glanced in the direction of her pointing finger. Sure enough, by the exit, there were set of drums. He didn’t remember seeing them there before, but he was starting to learn just to go with the flow. He dragged the drums over and under Mioda’s instructions, tested out each one.

“Alright, we’re ready to rock!”

Naegi uncertainly rolled the drumstick in his hand. “Are you sure? I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Don’t worry, Makoto-chan. Just let your soul speak!”

As the first chord blasted, he shrugged and did as she said. He had been honest before; he had no idea what he was doing. But as it turned out, randomly hitting drums was still fun. And tiring. By the end, sweat was pouring down his forehead.

They were just taking a breather when the door slammed open.

“Hey! Why didn’t anyone tell me Mioda was holding a concert?” Saionji demanded. She was breathing heavily, apparently having ran over. “You’d think that your only fan has a right to know!”

“But Ibuki’s got two fans now,” the Musician said, and Naegi thought he could detect a bit of pride there. “Makoto-chan wanted to hear my music.”

Saionji looked at him. “Finally! Somebody else with good taste. What’s going on here, anyways?”

“A party!” Mioda crowed. “We got music and cake and . . . Ibuki forgot to try the cake!”

There was a blur of colour as she ran over to the table holding the cheesecake.

“A party, huh?” Saionji scanned the room, frowning. “Doesn’t look like much of a party place. Did you even care?”

“It was really last minute,” Naegi said. “I didn’t even know we were having a party until it happened.”

“Whatever. I’m just here to listen to music.”

Naegi had to run over and wrestle Mioda (with some eventual help from a returning Pekoyama) to stop her from eating the entire cake. Which meant a lot of shouting and moments where he thought he hurt her, but was she just pretending. Somehow, it was even more tiring than playing the drums had been! Thus, by the time the Imposter (in his Munakata guise) walked in and Mioda had successfully been dissuaded from finishing off the cake, Naegi was lying on the floor, wiped.

The Imposter said, “Here.”

Something fell onto Naegi’s face. He peeled it off his skin and studied it.

“You made the mask,” Naegi said, surprised.

“I told you it wouldn’t take me long,” the Imposter said.

“You got a mask, Naegi-kun?”

Naegi hurriedly folded the mask, hiding its appearance from a prying Komaeda. Though it was probably too late. He just . . . he couldn’t quite read Komaeda right now. The Luckster was looking at him with that curious tilt to his head, and that small smile that could easily morph into a grin or a cold smirk.

“Put it on,” the Imposter ordered. “I want to see my handiwork in action.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Naegi said. “I mean all of your masks are amazing –”

The Imposter cleared his throat. Naegi stopped talking, glanced nervously at Komaeda and then unfolded the mask for all to see.

“Kuzuryu-kun?” Komaeda sounded puzzled, but then he started laughing. “Look, Pekoyama-san! He’s dressing up as Kuzuryu-kun.”

As expected, Pekoyama said nothing.

The mask felt like wearing a layer of plastic wrap over his face. The Imposter must have been super-hot and sweaty after wearing his for so long. It clung to his skin like a second layer, fitting perfectly into place over the protrusions and curves of his face. He could see perfectly; the mould moved and contorted perfectly with his lips when he moved them.

“How do I look?” Naegi asked nervously.

Komaeda visibly jumped when Naegi spoke. “Ah, sorry! It’s just a little weird to hear Kuzuryu-kun speaking with your voice. Another excellent job, Munakata-kun!”

“Of course,” the Imposter said. He held out his hand, and pulled Naegi to his feet when he grabbed it.

As the two stood next to each other and chatted lightly about the mask, Mioda sidled up to Saionji.

“Do you think the Future Foundation would get mad if we spammed them with pictures of those two together?” Mioda asked curiously.

Saionji smirked.

She pulled out her phone.

Chapter Text

“. . . You know I love you, don’t you, Naegi-kun? I love you very, very much. It’s a shame I have no talent for poems. Maybe then I could try to describe how much you mean to me.”

Naegi mumbled incoherently. His arm flopped up a little, as if to swat away the hand stroking his hair, then fell back down; in his near-sleep state, it was the only motion he could muster.

“So perfect,” Komaeda murmured as he sat in a chair by Naegi’s bedside. “I can’t blame the Future Foundation for how badly they want to get their hands on you. They tried to sneak another person in yesterday. Such arrogance, thinking a group of elite Ultimates like this would be fooled by makeup . . . Though it was work by the Ultimate Makeup Artist, so it’s understandable they thought that disguise would be impenetrable. And who can blame them for trying? Who wouldn’t want to have someone as perfect as you?”

Naegi mumbled incoherently.

Komaeda sighed fondly, hand falling away from Naegi’s hair.

Tsumiki crept over and asked, “I-is he sleeping?”

“I think so. Are you asleep, Naegi-kun?” Komaeda asked, flicking the other’s ahoge. When Naegi didn’t make a sound, he smiled.

“So, he is asleep?”

Komaeda looked at Tsumiki curiously. The Nurse clearly was uncomfortable. She was glancing quickly from side to side, anywhere that wasn’t directly in front of her where the boys lay. Her lips were thin; her fingers were laced together and it seemed as though she was trying to hide her face behind them.

“Is something wrong?” Komaeda asked.

“H-huh?” Tsumiki’s head snapped towards him so fast that her hair fanned out in thick strings behind her. “No. I d-don’t think so, at least . . .”

Komaeda patiently gestured for her to continue.

 “I was just wondering . . . you two used to be together a lot before. A-and sometimes you would wander off and nobody knew where you two were, and . . . sometimes when you came back, Makoto would be acting strangely . . . So, I w-was wondering what you were doing when it’s just you two.”

“I see.” Komaeda’s voice was friendly, but his eyes were hard. “It’s just Hope exercises. Nothing to be concerned about.”

“But what are those?” Tsumiki asked.

“Just things to strength his hope.” Komaeda sighed again, but this time there was no positive feeling behind it. “Not that I expect someone as despair-ridden as you to understand.”

She flinched backwards.

Komaeda said, “I told you guys before, just leave it up to me. I understand. I’m the only one who does . . .”

“B-but . . .” She took a tiny step forward. “Can you explain it to me? I’ll . . . I’ll try to understand.”

Komaeda flicked his hand dismissively. “There’s no point. Really Tsumiki-san, I’m surprised at how presumptuous you’re being right now. I understand that you Ultimate can accomplish just about anything, but to try and place yourself on the same level as the Ultimate Hope when you have so much despair? You should be ashamed.”

She flinched again, this time taking a full step back. Yes, yes. She was ashamed. Komaeda was right. She was being arrogant and demanding and selfish and – oh – no wonder everybody hated her and ignored her –

No, no. She wasn’t supposed to say those things anymore. She had promised. She couldn’t . . . she couldn’t break that promise to him.

“I-it’s not shameful,” she said quietly. “I-I just want to understand so I can help. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not shameful.”

Komaeda looked surprised.

“I want to help,” Tsumiki repeated. “So, please tell me what happens . . .”

“No.”

Tsumiki blinked. “Eh?”

“I'm not going to tell you,” Komaeda said.

“But, umm. . . “

She made a few more token efforts, but each time, Komaeda simply said no and the conversation ended there. Komaeda wasn’t even looking at her anymore, but was staring at the distant wall with an expression that screamed he wanted to be left alone. Well, not quite – she doubted he wanted Naegi to leave – but he definitely wasn’t interested in speaking with her. There was nothing she could really do to make him tell her, but still . . .

“Komaeda-kun, why are so determined to keep this a secret?” she asked.

Tsumiki swallowed. He was staring at her now. It wasn’t friendly.

“I just want to make sure none of you mess anything up,” Komaeda said easily, like they were talking about the weather. “You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”

Tsumiki shivered and looked away.

Satisfied, Komaeda turned his attention back to his charge. He pulled the blanket up higher so that it fell just above Naegi's shoulders. Carefully, he removed the headphones from the younger teen’s ears, and then placed upon the adjacent nightstand. Naegi stirred when they were gone, brow furrowed, but he was already asleep and settled down with gentle urging.

“He's still having problems with nightmares, isn’t he?” Komaeda asked.

Tsumiki looked at him sharply, surprised that he was willing to be nice again so soon. “Yes. He seems to have them almost every other day . . .”

“I thought so,” Komaeda said. He glanced at the headphones. “Hopefully, those will make things a little easier for him.”

“Wh-what’s on there?” Tsumiki asked.

“Just people talking,” Komaeda said. “People he likes. People he feels safe with. I thought that if we can make sure he's feeling safe and thinking about good things before he falls asleep, we can stop some of the nightmares and make him more comfortable.”

She walked over to the bed, and stared down at Naegi. “Do you think the nightmares are part of what made him want to run away?”

Komaeda seemed to mull over that. “They're probably a contributing factor.”

“He's sleeping more often,” Tsumiki said.

Komaeda seemed unconcerned. “He's restrained to a bed. There isn’t much else to do most of the time.”

The Luckster rose, reaching his arms up high in a stretch, rolling his shoulders afterwards so that they popped. He kept a half-lidded watch on Naegi the whole time, like a mother cat watching her kittens.

“Looking at him is making me want to take a nap,” Komaeda lamented.

“Uh, Komaeda-kun, where do you sleep?” Tsumiki asked.

He shrugged with one shoulder. “Wherever. I still don’t have a room, so I wander around with a blanket until I find somewhere that looks warm.”

“You're still . . .” Tsumiki cleared her throat, and tried to smile. “You should talk to Kuzuryu-kun. He could probably . . .”

“It's fine,” Komaeda said shortly. “I don’t need a proper room. Honestly, I prefer not having one. It helps fulfills my bad luck quota and makes sure that things . . . don’t go off-track.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Luck is a balance,” Komaeda said. “Good and bad luck always equal out in the end. If I didn’t take things into my own hands and create my own bad luck, then it could strike at any time and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. But by creating my own bad luck, I tip the scales so the only unexpected things that happen to me are from good luck!”

If anything, the Nurse looked more confused by the explanation. “You create bad luck?”

“Don’t worry about it too much. It’s not a big deal. It’s just if I drop something, I don’t try to save it or move my foot out of the way. Or if I see Nidai-kun walking in my direction and he’s not looking, I let him walk into me and knock me down.” Komaeda rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s little things like that.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Trust me, it’s fine. Why, Enoshima-san herself was the one who explained it to me!” Komaeda’s smirk wasn’t nice, but it wasn’t dark either. He hugged himself, exhaling deeply as his closed eyes faced upwards. “She figured out all by herself how I could finally control my luck cycle.”

“B-but if you planned for all that to happen to you, th-then it isn’t really bad luck, right?” Tsumiki asked.

“It’s fine –”

“I don’t think you should be doing that to yourself . . .”

“Are you seriously doubting Enoshima-san?” Komaeda snapped. Veins were starting to stick out on his forearms, and there was no telling what emotions were causing that.

“No, no! I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant, I just don’t think –”

Enoshima-san told me to do this. Why . . . why are you questioning this?”

She hid behind her arms. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, you’re right!”

An uncomfortable silence fell over them. Tsumiki had begun sniffling; she was still mumbling apologies under her breath. Komaeda was still hugging himself, but his stare was vacant.

“Umm, Komaeda-kun, Makoto doesn’t try to make his own bad luck too, does he?”

“No,” Komaeda said. His arms untwisted from around his body. “I'm certain he doesn't know that this kind of control even exists. I don't harvest bad luck in front of him, and I don’t tell him what I've been doing, either. Well, except that one time I showed . . . Ah, that’s not important.”

Tsumiki didn’t look completely convinced, but she didn’t fight him.

“I'll come back later,” Komaeda said. “There's not much use for me right now since he's sleeping.”

No sooner then he had said that, did the door open.

“We got him! We got him!” Owari howled with excitement. “Where’s Naegi? Tell ‘em we got the bastard!”

“N-no!” Tsumiki scurried over to the beaming Gymnast. “Makoto’s sleeping. You’ll have to come back later -!”

“WHO’S READY TO DELIVER JUSTICE?”

And with Nidai’s bellow, there would be no doubt what happened next.

Naegi stirred. He wriggled a bit under the covers like a blind cub in its den before opening his eyes. Blearily, he glanced at the crowd, taking a few moments for his mind to start up and fully register what was before him.

“And I just got him to sleep, too,” Komaeda muttered darkly.

Naegi half-yawned, half-spoke. “Owari-san? Nidai-kun? And . . . who’s that?”

The Coach and the Gymnast exchanged predatory smiles. While Owari stood proudly with her legs straight and chin high, Nidai had his knees bent so that he could better endure the thrashing of the one he was holding. It was a male Naegi didn’t recognize; his upper arm was held fast in Nidai’s iron grip, and his lower back was dragging on the ground.

Oh. Oh.

What he was seeing finally dawned on him.

“Nidai-kun!”

He leapt off the bed and a shockwave went up his legs as he landed . . . or at least, that’s what should have happened. Instead, he tried to propel himself over the rail and was immediately yanked back onto the mattress by the handcuffs. He glared at it instinctively and yanked at the chain.

“Nidai-kun, what are you doing?” he cried, still fighting his restraints. Nidai didn’t just bring along this stranger for no reason. Ultimate Despair didn’t like him speaking to strangers. Ultimate Despair always had a reason. They wouldn’t . . . they wouldn’t do something to this person, right? Not here. They couldn’t. This was supposed to be a safe place. They couldn’t . . .

Nidai and Owari exchanged another look. Wordlessly, Owari grabbed the stranger’s other arm, and then the two of them hauled him along until they could toss him forward onto the ground at Naegi’s bed. The stranger landed hard, groaning, eyes wild and wide as he shakily rose to his hands and knees.

Owari marched forward. She grabbed the man’s chin, and yanked it up . . .

Naegi flew back into the opposite bedrail. His hands slammed over his ears as he prepared for the sound of a crack –

“Hey, Naegi! It’s fine. Come look at this guy.”

. . . It was okay? He did not listen to Owari right away, but instead looked to Komaeda and Tsumiki for reassurance. Tsumiki was staring at Owari and the stranger, looking confused, but otherwise she wasn’t reacting much. Komaeda acted about the same.

Okay, okay. He wiped his clammy hands on the blanket. If both of them were confused, then it couldn’t have been too bad, right? They should have reacted if there was any despair violence going on, and Komaeda would have warned him if there was something indecent. And Ultimate Despair wouldn’t let him get so close to someone who was dangerous. It was okay. He could look.

He crawled over the length of the mattress. Then, arms braced against the bedrail so he could push himself back quickly if he had to, he peeked at the stranger. Male. Around his age. Messy black hair, a bit of stubble. A black eye and bloody lip, probably from his captors. Nothing that seemed important.

But then Owari spoke and everything changed.

“You recognize him, Naegi?”

His gut twisted. Recognize him? No, he didn’t, but he could read the glee in the Gymnast’s expression well enough. He was supposed to. She expected him to. He was supposed to recognize this person, but he didn’t. He . . . this was a test. He was supposed to know the answer. But he didn’t.

He looked at Komaeda again. Komaeda still looked confused. But that meant . . . then Komaeda didn’t know the answer either. And if Komaeda didn’t know the answer, then he couldn’t possibly get mad if Naegi didn’t!

With that thought in mind, Naegi’s stomach stopped churning and he was able to say, “No, I don’t.”

“You don’t?” Owari sounded crestfallen.

“No, I don’t . . .” Upon seeing how she was looking at him, he hesitated. “Uh, I’m not sure?”

“Naegi-kun . . .” Nidai walked over and stood next to Naegi. He crouched so that they were at the same level. “Take a good look, okay? Are you sure you don’t recognize him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You sure?” Nidai asked that calmly. Like this wasn’t a test. “He might not have looked the same when you last saw him.”

Naegi peered at the stranger’s face.

“Think about it,” Nidai urged. “Does anything ring a bell? Do you feel any connection deep down inside . . .?”

Naegi looked harder and tried to do as he said. He tried picturing the stranger with a hat. With longer hair. With paler skin.

Younger . . .

His eyes widened. “Motoori-kun?”

“Hah! I knew it! See, we did get the right guy.” Owari shook the guy viciously in her excitement, leaving him struggling not to fall onto his stomach.

“You know him?” Mikan asked.

“I haven’t seen him for a long time, but we went to the same middle school,” Naegi said.

“Yeah, the guy used to pick on Naegi,” Owari said.

“Well . . . okay, he did. But it wasn’t that big a deal. I’ve completely moved on –”

The words died in his throat. Owari’s words and his own answer echoed in his mind.

That was why they had hauled him here.

This was bad.

Really, really bad.

“So, what do you got to say to that, huh?” Owari demanded. She grabbed Motoori by the collar, lifting him off his knees. “Maybe you should have thought about the consequences before you started picking on squirts like him!”

“Owari-san –!”

“I think you deserve way more than a few punches to the face!” Owari spat. She looked very much like a furious wildcat with her claws unsheathed.

Nidai laughed. “I get to throw a few punches too, right?”

“Owari-san!” This time, Naegi found his voice. “It’s okay! He wasn’t really a bully. We just liked to joke around with each other and –”

“Nice try, Naegi-kun,” Nidai said, slapping him on the back, “but we’ve already got all the dirt on this guy.”

“Yeah, remember that time he stole your hoodie while you were in gym class; and then he tossed it on the road and it was run over by a car?”

“I didn’t mean to do that!” Motoori said. His voice was rough and scratchy, but also high with fear. “I was going to give it back, but I tripped and it flew out of my hands –”

Owari cuffed him across the back of his head, ending any argument.

Naegi shook his head. Something unpleasant was coiling within him. “I don’t remember. . .”

“What about those times he teased that Komaru chick just to get at you?” Owari said. “That got on your nerves, didn’t it?”

That coiling feeling twisted even tighter and became fear.

“H-how do you know that?” Naegi asked quietly. He fought the urge to crawl backwards and hide.

“Koizumi-san told us,” Nidai said.

“Koizumi?” Naegi repeated the name both aloud and in his mind. That . . . he was sure that he had never met a Koizumi in real life, so they must have been talking about the Koizumi from Ultimate Despair. “But I don’t even know her! How does she know?”

“Cause she and Nevermind have been cruising around your hometown interrogating everyone they see, obviously.” With that, Owari adopted a cadence that must have been meant to imitate the Princess’s speaking style. “Tell me something interesting about Naegi-kun or I’ll have my guards chop off your head!”

“That’s . . . that’s an exaggeration, right? She isn’t really saying that, is she?”

“Hell if I knew,” Owari said. “Whatever she’s doing is working though.”

He was on the verge of panic. They were hunting people. Because of him. For him. They were hurting people because of him. That wasn’t right. He wasn’t supposed to be hurting people. He was meant to save them, to save everyone –

Motoori groaned as a foot drove into his stomach, and that knocked Naegi out of his funk. He couldn’t freak out now. There was someone in front of him, someone he could save, and that had to be his focus.

Naegi asked, “Why are you doing this?”

“Because he picked on you, remember?” Owari said.

“Nobody gets to push around our friends,” Nidai added, giving Naegi a friendly smile.

 “What are you going to do to him?” Naegi asked.

“Dunno,” Owari said. “We were waiting for you to tell us. You want him drawn and quartered? Hell, I’d be down! We could spin that wheel that Tsumiki has and decide with that.”

Motoori was begging by this point, but Naegi barely noticed the words. He was too busy staring at Owari, trying to read the Gymnast’s mind.

Naegi nodded slowly. “This is my choice?”

“It is,” Nidai said.

That answer was all he needed. He was no longer afraid. If it was his choice then, well, the outcome was obvious.

“Let him go,” Naegi said.

“Let him go?” Nidai repeated.

“Yes.” If Naegi had been sitting up, he would have shrugged.

“Are you sure, Naegi-kun?” Komaeda asked. He couldn’t tell whether Komaeda approved of this decision.

“Yes.”

That one word answer was like introducing a pin to a balloon. Owari and Nidai at least had obviously been expecting Naegi to opt for revenge – they had probably been looking forward to bloodshed. But Naegi had denied them. With their plans foiled, no one seemed sure what to do.

“. . . You should get him out of here,” Pekoyama said. “Naegi has made his decision clear.”

If Nidai and Owari were dogs, they would have had their tails between their legs. Slowly, the two backed away, taking Motoori with him. Nidai even gave him an apology for waking him. Naegi watched them go. His gaze lingered on the door even after it shut.

“Komaeda-kun, they’re going to let him go, right?”

“You told them to, didn’t you?” Komaeda said.

“But . . . what if they don’t listen? They will, won’t they? I told them to let him go. They have to let him go. I don’t want them to kill him!”

“I know,” Tsumiki said. She had a hand on either side on his face. “We all heard you. Owari-san and Nidai-kun know what you want.”

“But what if they don’t listen?” Naegi cried. “They’re going to kill him and . . . I don’t want him to die!”

He was nearly whining now, but that was the least of his worries. He yanked at the handcuffs again. He needed them off. He needed to chase after them and make sure they didn’t hurt him. Because that’s what Ultimate Despair did. They hurt people and that’s why . . .that’s why he needed to escape and couldn’t trust him –

“I can go,” Komaeda said suddenly.

Naegi’s mind instinctively jerked to a stop, and then jumped to a new track. One that seemed adapted for little more than listening to Komaeda and was hypersensitive to the Luckster’s emotions.

“How about I go keep an eye on them for you?” Komaeda said. “I can make sure your classmate is set free without any problems.”

“You’d do that?” Naegi said hoarsely.

“If that’s why you want, then of course I will.”

Naegi nodded. “. . . Okay.”

Komaeda smiled before he took off. When that bush of white hair vanished, his mind jumped back to its regular track and all his worries seemed to slam into him at once. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, although he felt strangely hot . . .

Mikan cleared her throat. She held out his stuffed rabbit to him.

“Y-you dropped him on the ground,” she said.

Naegi quietly took the rabbit.

Tsumiki sat on the side of the bed, and brought him into a loose hug. “Everything’s going to be okay, Makoto. Komaeda-kun’s going to make sure your friend is safe, okay?”

“But . . .”

“Oh, your hair’s all messy now,” Mikan said. “You look adorable when you have bedhead!”

That caught him off guard. He self-consciously patted his hair before remembering what he was supposed to be doing. “Owari-san . . .”

“Are you hungry?” Tsumiki asked. “You usually have a snack around now . . .”

Tsumiki kept changing the subject and Naegi . . . Naegi let her. He let her redirect the conversation. He let himself be distracted. He let her whisper comforting words that made him feel better. It would be okay. Everything would be okay.

What could he do, anyways?

Chapter Text

“. . . And then it was raining glitter everywhere, and Ibuki couldn’t see because everything was so sparkly and shiny!”

“Sorry! That was probably my fault. I just love glitter,” Kuzuryu said, flicking his hand at the wrist. He spoke in a valley girl accent, to the horror of Pekoyama nearby.

“Oh, I know,” Ibuki said. “You also love flowers and cute little bunnies!”

“Yep! I love cute bunnies.” Kuzuryu scooped up a stuffed grey rabbit and cradled it. His lips were pursed in an exaggerated frown.

“Hey, Kuzuryu! Over here!” Saionji waved wildly with one hand. Her other hand was holding her cellphone, the camera of which was pointed at him. “Give me a cute face!”

Kuzuryu did. No later then when the flash went off, did all three of them burst out laughing.

“Saionji-san, are you sure about this?” Tsumiki asked. “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble . . .”

“It’s fine,” Saionji said. “What he doesn’t know won’t –”

The door slammed open.

“You guys awake? Nevermind and Koizumi are going to be here in . . .”

Kuzuryu trailed off.

Silence reigned as everyone realized there were two Kuzuryus present. That said, it was easy to tell who didn’t belong; for one had red eyes and wore a fedora and suit, and the other was dressed in hospital scrubs and handcuffed to a bed.

“The fuck?” Kuzuryu, the real one, said.

“. . . Sorry?” Naegi tried.

“Just . . .” Kuzuryu seemed lost for words. “Whatever. Take that shit off. You need to get dressed.”

“Sorry.” Naegi pulled off the mask and let it pool in his lap.

“You two shouldn’t be encouraging this,” Kuzuryu said to a grinning Mioda and Saionji. Then, he turned on Pekoyama, “And the fuck were you doing?”

Before Pekoyama could say anything, Naegi cut in. He lied, “I ordered her not to interfere.”

Kuzuryu looked at him. Then, with a shrug, he accepted that answer. He said, “Look, we got to get you fitted. Nevermind’s going to be here soon and we got to make sure that suit fits. Let’s go.”

He was led into Kuzuryu’s room. He had last been here not that long ago, and had been ordered to stand on a stool. There had been other people there, people who were not Pekoyama and – he still remembered the shock when he first saw them – who had not been wearing Monokuma helmets. He had glimpsed people like them before, in Hanamura’s kitchen, but it had been the first time he saw them so close up. He’d tried speaking to them, but they had ignored his questions and focused on measuring him.

Today, two of them were back. Naegi waved at them, but they just looked at him and didn’t wave back.

Kuzuryu snapped his fingers. “Let’s get on with it!”

One of the two darted into Kuzuryu’s closet and pulled out a suit and white dress shirt. In a flash, they had somehow removed the top of his scrubs, replaced it with the white shirt and were pulling his arms through the suit-jacket.

It wasn’t long before he was standing in front of a mirror. The suit itself was plain black, matching the color of the pants and shiny shoes they had given him as well. His tie was striped brown and black – the same shade of black. Apparently, they loved that color. As he watched, one of the two reached around him, and did up the two buttons at the bottom.

He looked quite nice.

“Do I get a fedora, too?” he asked.

“Fuck no! Those are mine.”

Worth a shot.

They arrived in the entrance hall together, Pekoyama shadowing them, and Kuzuryu looking incredibly proud of his creation. Mikan squealed and clapped her hands together when she saw him. He suspected that it was only Kuzuryu’s glare that stopped her from hugging and crushing him.

“You’re certainly looking sharp,” Komaeda said.

“Of course he is,” Kuzuryu said. “He’s wearing top-of-the-line clothing, there. They could make a piece of trash look like the fucking Mona Lisa.”

Komaeda’s eyes lit up. “Is that an offer –?”

“Stay away from my clothes, you freak!”

“Shh! I think they’re here.”

Nevermind and Koizumi, huh? Though he hadn’t meet them, that wasn’t to mean he had never seen them. He had seen them on and off again in the videos he watched. Koizumi never left much of an impression; she didn’t do much other than snap photos. Nevermind, though? Nevermind often did. She never struck the killing blow herself but she still stood by and did things. He. . . he wasn’t sure what to think of this.

Less than five minutes later, a strange person walked into the hall. His uniform, in a word, was fancy. The fabric was a very dark navy blue, but the cuffs were gold-plated, as were the epaulettes. More gold was located on the left side of his collar, and gold ran down either side of the placket.  Silver buttons were found nearby, each dutifully polished. A blue sash ran from his left shoulder to the opposite hip, and a series of medals were attached to it.

The man bowed. In rough Japanese, he managed, “Her majesty will meet with you now.”

“Yeah, bring her in,” Kuzuryu said.

The man audibly sniffed at Kuzuryu’s less than formal choice of words. Nevertheless, he clapped his hands together and stepped aside. Two lines of soldiers – none of them as elaborately dressed as him – marched into view. Around the back of the line, Naegi could see a dark blob. It came closer, closer, until he could see that it was a litter with curtains around the back and sides. Someone was sitting in it, but before Naegi could get a good look, Nidai moved and no amount of standing on his tiptoes allowed him to see past that broad back.

The litter was set down. The elaborately-decorated man stepped forward, and a slender, pale hand rose to meet his. This was Naegi’s first true look at Princess Nevermind, and already a cold chill was sweeping down his spine.

And then Princess Nevermind stepped out of the litter and into his sight.

He couldn’t breathe. Gone were those childish images he had of evil, fairy-tale queens and sneering, sadistic rulers. Because Nevermind looked like neither of those things.

She was beautiful.

Once upon a time, Tanaka Gundham had arrived and sucked up all the light. Now, Naegi finally knew where it had gone, for Nevermind Sonia was radiant. Soft, blonde tresses swooped down her back and kissed the air. Starting at the waist, her pale cream dress stacked upon itself – ruffles upon ruffles. The cream fabric stretched upwards, dipping below her collarbone in a light curve, the center of which was marked by a red gem. Her crown was made of crystal, and it shone and reflected sunlight until it seemed to be sculpted from the stars themselves.

Her smile was perfect; bright and sincere with a touch of maturity and unprecedented wisdom. Her red eyes were not the scorching inferno of the others, but softer and friendlier, like a smouldering flame in a fireplace to cuddle up to. When those eyes turned on him, he was entranced. He wanted to fall to his knees and bow, but he couldn’t move.

She spoke.

“You must be Prince Naegi.”

“Y-yeah,” he said. Then, it hit him. “Prince . . .?”

“I am Queen Nevermind of the Novoselic Kingdom. I am grateful that we are finally able to meet.”

She extended her hand. Hypnotized, Naegi could do nothing but take it and shake –

A flash went off.

Nevermind was still smiling at him, but she turned her head a little to the side and asked someone else, “How was that?”

“Perfect! This is definitely front page worthy.”

A little shaken-up from the interrupted handshake, Naegi also looked to the side. There was a red-haired girl there with a large camera slung around her neck. A light dusting of freckles marked her otherwise unremarkable face and Naegi blinked, dazed, as she lifted the camera and pointed it at him again.

“Do you wish for another shot?” Nevermind asked.

“Of you two shaking hands? No, it’s okay. That last one was perfect.”

Nevermind closed her eyes and nodded. “Excellent.”

“You’re taking pictures?” Naegi asked, still with that dazed confusion.

“The citizens of Novoselic are always curious when their queen meets foreign royalty,” Nevermind said.

“They sure are!” the Ultimate Photographer, Koizumi Mahiru, said. “Trust me, once I send these shots to the media next week, you’ll be on the front page of everything!”

“R-really? But I’m not even . . . I’m not royalty or anything.”

“You’re Enoshima-san’s heir,” Nevermind said gently. “That is the closest Ultimate Despair has to royalty.”

Royalty? He shook his head a little to clear it. No. No, that was wrong. He was Hope, but he wasn’t royalty. That was just a branch off that insane interpretation of Enoshima being his mother.

Still, when she was smiling so kindly at him, he was reluctant to correct her in front of everyone else.

So, he said instead, “Thank you.”

Nevermind nodded, accepting his thanks. “That is a lovely suit you’re wearing. I take it that Fuyuhiko took responsibility for that?”

Naegi agreed.

“Hmm . . . I would have liked a tie that brought out his eyes better, but other than that, it’s not bad,” Koizumi said.

“You don’t like it, then you should have dressed him!” Kuzuryu snapped.

Suddenly, the two Despairs were glaring at each other. Koizumi was opening her mouth, but then Nevermind raised one hand and somehow, even though neither of them were looking at her, she managed to stop both from speaking.

“I’m sure Mahiru meant no offense,” Nevermind said. “It’s in her nature as the Ultimate Photographer to notice details that other people would not.”

“Yeah, well keep those details to yourself!” Kuzuryu said.

The Photographer pouted and said, “Fine.”

Nevermind radiated an aura of approval that seemed to smooth Koizumi’s ruffled feathers.

“Could somebody please show my people where to place these gifts?” Nevermind said. Naegi looked behind her and noticed for the first time, there were a few people hoisting boxes.

Once her question was answered, Naegi asked one of his own. “What are those gifts for?”

“For my hosts, naturally,” Nevermind said. “Some of them are for you.”

Naegi repeated that to himself quietly. Komaeda patted his shoulder and said, “We can go through them later.”

Nevermind then spoke in a language he didn’t understand (though when she was addressing the decorated officer, he was pretty sure she called him Phillip). Whatever she said, it made her people proceed into the building with their supplies, leaving their queen behind with the rest of Ultimate Despair.

 “This is pleasant,” Nevermind said. “It has been a long time since we were together like this.”

Koizumi said, “I haven’t seen some of you since . . .”

“. . . Since Hope’s Peak,” the Imposter, still dressed as Munakata, said.

A silence set over the group. Naegi couldn’t place what kind of emotion infused it, but it made him uncomfortable.

“Forgive me, but I had heard that Kamakura-kun was also present,” Nevermind said.

“He took off a few days ago,” Owari said. “Didn’t tell us why or where.”

“I see.”

Nevermind swept forward. Naegi noticed that she was patting down her dress, as if self-conscious. To his surprise, she walked past most of the others and approached Soda. The Mechanic didn’t seem that interested in the current events and as Nevermind approached, Naegi could have sworn Soda sighed.

Nevermind did a little curtsey. “Greetings, Soda-kun! You are very dashing today.”

Naegi looked over Soda’s stained jumper from head to toe. Really?

“Huh? Oh, thanks,” Soda said, sounding very disinterested.

There was nothing for a few seconds, and then Nevermind tried again. “Do you like my dress?”

Soda hardly glanced at it. “It’s nice, I guess.”

Nevermind’s eyes seemed to sparkle. “Wonderful! I was thinking of you when –”

Koizumi strode forward. She hooked her arm with Nevermind’s and dragged her in the direction her servants had gone, mumbling, “You’re hopeless, you know?”

And Nevermind waved at Soda enthusiastically and shouted, “Soda-kun, let’s talk later!”

Soda groaned and placed his face in his hands. 


Naegi stood in the doorway. Komaeda was behind him, hands on his shoulders, rubbing into his muscles with his thumb. The Luckster ducked his head, lips coming close to Naegi’s ear as he asked, “Do you like it?”

Naegi, stunned, could only speak nonsense.

Komaeda chuckled, and lightly pushed him forward. “Why don’t you take a closer look?”

Naegi stumbled forward and kept going, until he stood in the middle of the room that Kuzuryu told him would soon serve as his new bedroom. And that really was its only appropriate purpose, because it looked almost exactly like his room. Not his room from Hope’s Peak, but his bedroom from home. Same paint, same furniture, same almost everything. It was horrifying.

“You didn’t have to do all this,” Naegi said, because they really, really didn’t.

“Anything to make you more comfortable!” Komaeda said. He stepped aside for Nidai, who was hauling in a box. Tsumiki, Owari, Soda and Mioda were behind him, all huddled around the Nurse, giggling and reading some book.  That was good and all, until Tsumiki and Mioda looked directly at him and giggled.

“What are you looking at?” he asked, already dreading the answer.

Tsumiki started giggling again, but waved him forward.

As it turned out, it was a photo album.

“Apparently, you sent some photos to those people before your class decided to lock yourselves up,” Soda said. “Koizumi-san found it in your room.”

“My room . . .”

“Well, what was left of it.”

He scanned the cover, taking a moment to calm his heart when he saw it was a collection of photos from Hope’s Peak. Years ago, he had chosen these photos, so it was only natural that they focused on him and his classmates – much to the dismay of Ultimate Despair. Koizumi dropped by as they opened it to the first page and she, at least, found some joy in looking over his shoulder and claiming credit for some. Naegi nodded silently and let the others talk. He was too focused on the images of the living and dead; their smiles seemed more like grimaces and their eyes pierced his soul. That said, he didn’t get much time to take in his classmates; Ultimate Despair was only interested when Class 77 made a cameo. It was generally in the background of a photo of Naegi and one of his friends, but occasionally they found one where they posed directly together.

“Were we close?” Naegi asked. “Me and any of you?”

“I don’t think so,” Nidai said. “We all liked you, but we weren’t friends like Akane and Asahina-san were.”

Naegi looked at Owari. “You and Asahina-san were friends?”

“The Swimmer girl? Oh, yeah!” the Gymnast said cheerfully. “She was a great workout partner and we got the same looks . . . we were practically sisters!”

“But I wasn’t friends with you guys? Not even Mikan?” he asked, remembering how once he had sworn to her that if they had been classmates, they would have hung out every week. In light of this recent development, what he had thought at the time to be a kind gesture suddenly felt like a cruel taunt.

“N-no,” Mikan said quietly. “We weren’t friends.”

“Well, what about me and Komaeda-kun?” he asked.

Hesitation.

“Uh, I might have been wrong about everyone liking you,” Nidai admitted.

His mouth was dry. “Komaeda-kun . . . didn’t like me?”

Komaeda groaned, as if frustrated. “You were a very different person back then. You hadn’t become Hope yet. You were an ordinary, unspectacular person and I didn’t . . .”

Someone cleared their throat.

Komaeda blinked and shook his head a little, knocking himself out of whatever memory had consumed him. There was a distinct note of panic in his face when his eyes found Naegi, and the Luckster moved so quickly he might have teleported.

“But that’s all in the past!” Komaeda said. He cradled Naegi’s face in his hands, removing one hand from Naegi’s cheek for a few seconds so he could brush back his hair. “That doesn’t mean anything now. You’re the new, improved Naegi Makoto, and you’re very, very special . . . No, you don’t need to do that!”

Komaeda swiped his thumb over his cheekbone. Naegi wasn’t sure why until he touched that spot and noticed the dampness there. When had he started tearing up?

Koizumi sighed. “Komaeda is pretty weird, but I think he’s telling the truth.”

“Yeah, I believe him,” Soda said.

One by one, the others agreed. All except Tsumiki, who crept closer instead. She laid one hand on Naegi’s shoulder, knelt so that she was eyelevel with him, and smiled brilliantly.

“We all love you,” Mikan said. Then, she cupped her hand around her mouth and whispered into his ear, “Especially me.”

Somehow, Komaeda still heard. He latched onto Naegi’s arm.

“I’m his number one fan!” he said.

Tsumiki immediately latched onto the other arm. She and Komaeda stared at each other, speaking silently. Naegi stiffened, skin prickling –

Komaeda laughed. Tsumiki giggled, too. Naegi looked between the two of them. He grinned.

“Hey, look at this!”

That was Owari. She was staring at the album, looking uncomfortable. Mioda and Soda were with her, looking similarly unsettled. Naegi walked over, and looked for himself.

He said, “That’s . . . that was Nanami-san, wasn’t it?”

Owari and Nidai looked at each other.

“We should probably get rid of it before he gets back,” Nidai said. There was no need to ask who he was; Naegi knew exactly who was most likely to react to a picture of the Ultimate Gamer. Yet . . .

“Can I keep it?” he blurted out. “It’s my photo album, so Kamukura-kun shouldn’t be looking at it anyways.”

Nobody seemed sure how to answer.

“Kamukura-kun doesn’t really respect boundaries,” Komaeda said quietly.

“But these are my photos,” Naegi protested, “and I don’t want to toss them out. They’re the only memories I have of that time and . . . I don’t want to throw them out!”

He was aware he had started whining, but didn’t particularly care. As long as it worked. Kamukura may have a strange relationship with Nanami, but Naegi also knew that last time, Kamukura had accepted a photo of her. He didn’t want to lose this chance to acquire one of the few things the older teen might want.

“I guess it probably won’t be that big a deal,” Komaeda said.

The others still didn’t seem convinced, but when Naegi refused to budge, they relented. With that, Naegi took the photo album and tucked it away in a drawer of the desk he had been given.

“So, Naegi-kun!” Nidai said loudly in what seemed to be an attempt to cleanse the room of its awkwardness. “That’s a lot of stuffed animals you got in those boxes.”

“. . . Yeah,” he said quietly. He didn’t want to admit that most of them had actually belonged to his sister. “So, when am I moving in?”

“Soon,” Mikan said. “We want to clean up the things we grabbed from your house, first. Oh, Makoto, won’t it be exciting to finally have proper clothes again?”

“You mean I won’t be borrowing Kuzuryu-kun’s anymore?” he asked.

“You’ll still need some,” she said. “For some reason, hardly any of your socks survived . . .”

“That sounds great!” he said. He thought about the clothes he had left at home. The t-shirts, the jeans, the ugly Christmas sweaters that he and Komaru always got a matching pair of . . .

(He wondered if they’d ever celebrate something like that again).

Chapter Text

Towa City was no natural place. It was a sleek, futuristic city where every surface shone, and the night was alight with the glow of electronic ads and multi-coloured lightshows. Bullet trains weaved their way through the city on tracks that branched off like arteries, and the buildings rose so high that it was almost impossible to see the horizon. Even the ground was not natural, for Towa City had been built on an artificial island. It was that separation from any mainland that the residents believed had spared them the devastation of the post-Tragedy world. While assaults had washed up upon Towa City’s shores, they had been lackluster and uncoordinated, allowing the defenses to rout them. Thus, the residents saw their peaceful existence as a combination of the ingenuity of the city’s founder, and their own will.

(The truth, of course, was much more sinister, shown in the legions of metallic faces lurking in the city’s bowels. But that is a story for another episode)

For two of the three visitors on the boat docked at the harbour, the history of Towa City was a mystery, leaving them with nothing but the awe that its majesty inspired. The third one wasn’t nearly as impressed – or rather, he refused to allow himself to be impressed. Instead, Togami Byakuya scoffed, pushed his glasses up his nose, and returned to his work.

“. . . Wow,” Asahina said, leaning on the ship’s rail. “I didn’t think . . . I didn’t think anywhere like here would survive.”

“It’s nice, I g-guess,” Fukawa said. “B-but it’s nothing compared to the b-beauty of Master.”

Asahina just gave her a look. “Seriously? Have you looked at him today? He’s all greasy and dirty.”

“As if y-you’ve never had fantasies like that,” Fukawa said. “You can’t tell me you’ve n-never imagined a hot, sw-sweaty guy at work. Completely focused on his task, but wh-when you arrive, he can’t help but look up and you can feel his lustful hunger as his cobalt eyes pin you in place –”

Asahina coughed, blushing fiercely.

“For your information, the only reason I’m . . . sweaty is that neither of you imbeciles can be trusted with this task!”

“Are you calling me stupid?” Asahina growled. Eyes ablaze, she whipped around –

Togami waved a screwdriver at her. “Are you telling me you could disassemble a live Monokuma without setting off its bomb?”

Asahina said nothing and looked away.

The Heir sniffed. “Precisely.”

“It didn’t have to be live,” Asahina muttered.

“Yes, it did,” Togami said. “The only way to take an automated Monokuma offline is to damage it, and I require an undamaged one.”

With that, Togami turned back to his work. Various tools were scattered around him, along with a few nuts and bolts and half a Monokuma ‘skull’. The Heir had his sleeves pushed back, his bangs were plastered to his forehead, and there were a few black stains on his hands. In front of him – thanks to their resident Serial Killer – was a wriggling Monokuma, bound in place by ropes, arms and legs also tied. The left half of its head was exposed, revealing a complicated array of wires and electronics.

“This really is an amazing city,” Asahina said. “I’m so bummed this is the first time I get to visit.”

“This eyesore? This dump is merely a poor man’s imitation of the private islands owned by the Togami Estate . . .”

Togami trailed off, lips thin as he stared ahead.

“. . . The islands you used to own, right?” Asahina said softly.

Togami took a deep breath. “Yes.”

They left Togami to his work. He continued to slowly disassemble the robot, consulting the open laptop next to him frequently for instructions. Asahina let her gaze wander over the city, and down to the sparkling water. It would be a nice relief from the sun if she could take a dip, she thought idly. Now wasn’t the  time, though. Technically, they were trespassers, after all.

“O-over there!” Fukawa pointed to the shore, where they could see a group of people approaching.

“Finally,” Togami said, starting to rise.

“Are you sure about this?” Asahina asked.

Togami merely smirked, lifting his chin at that confident angle they all knew so well. “The Togami and Towa families have been partners for many generations. If we wish to enter without having to hide and scurry about like rats, then I am our best bet.”

The Heir wiped his hands as clean as he could with a nearby towel, then used the backside of it to wipe his brow. He pulled his sleeves down, and then glanced at Fukawa. Fukawa lunged on top of the robot without hesitation and pressed the bear’s claws against her throat. The Monokuma immediately went still, its Naegi-implemented protocols forcing it to remain still to avoid harming the Writer.

Togami threw a blanket over the both of them.

Togami strode to the front of the boat, ready to meet their potential hosts. Asahina stayed behind and sat down next to the blanketed Fukawa. She didn’t understand all this rich people talk and politics, so if she stuck around Togami, she’d probably end up ruining everything.

The blanketed mass squirmed. “C-can you see him? Are they bowing down to his glory?”

Asahina stretched her neck a little. “Uh, sorry. I can’t really see from here.”

“Useless sw-swimmer girl!”

When Togami returned to them, he didn’t look pleased. The Heir quickly explained that while the Towa family wasn’t going to chase them off, they weren’t exactly welcome on the island either.

“Apparently, they’re afraid of others gaining the perception that they are allied with the Future Foundation. I am supposed to call his secretary if we need any supplies.” Togami’s lip curled in disgust. “Something’s rotten here.”

“What do we do now?” Asahina asked.

“We’ll have to do this the hard way. Towa City is isolated from the rest of the world both in physical and informational means, but it’s a long stretch to believe that nobody on the island would recognize you two. Please try to remember that.”

“Got it! Where’s the bag?”

Togami pointed, and Asahina scooped up the waterproof bag and hopped onto the stern’s rail.

“Wh-what do you think you’re doing?” Fukawa demanded. Togami glanced up from the Monokuma, and then did a double take when he saw where Asahina was standing.

“Well, I don’t want them to know I’m with you guys, right? So, it’s not like I can just walk off the boat.”

Togami said, “You don’t need –”

“Catch you later!”

And Asahina gracefully swan-dove into the ocean. She’d already planned this out earlier. Everyone knew the boat was on this side of the island, so they wouldn’t be expecting someone to appear on the other side of the island. Which meant the only logical decision would be to simply swim around the entire island and walk ashore on the other side!

She bet Kirigiri would be proud of her deduction! (She hoped Naegi would be, too)

It took longer than she would have liked, as she had to focus on stealth instead of speed. By the time she pulled herself ashore, her muscles had started to feel the burn, and she estimated it had been at least half an hour. But as far as she could tell, her ploy had worked. She snuck over to an outcropping of rocks that shielded her from the city, and then unzipped the bag.

She changed quickly into the dry clothes. The black wig took a while to get on, but she thought it looked okay. Then, she put on the sunhat and sunglasses.

Hah! This was the perfect disguise.

Truth be told, she wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Togami had babbled something about keeping an eye out for suspicious activities, rumours and powerful organizations. Or something. She may have started daydreaming halfway through his explanations. She was starting to regret that.

But, she thought as she pulled out her phone, she probably couldn’t go wrong with starting by taking pictures of everything! (Naegi would like them. He’d be so happy to learn that not everything had been destroyed). Apparently, Togami had texted her a few times while she was swimming, but after scanning over the first message, she closed them and kept going. She didn’t need to be scolded just because he was jealous he hadn’t thought of her idea first.

And so, Asahina marched further into Towa City, head high and phone ready.


“. . . Idiot,” Togami hissed. “I suppose there’s nothing we can do now but wait for her to return.”

Fukawa tugged on her braid. “She could be gone for a while, M-maybe we should start thinking of ways to occupy our time . . .”

“Stop talking.”

Fukawa’s mouth snapped shut.

Pleased, Togami returned to work. He twisted the screwdriver again – once, twice – and then a screw fell loose and tumbled onto the deck. He reached out and removed the right half of the Monokuma’s ‘skull’, completely exposing the head. It took another ten minutes, but eventually, he was able to remove the last layer of protection, allowing him to access the chips and circuits underneath.

And the port in the back of its head.

Togami put the tools down and stared.

“This is it,” he said, half to himself, half to Fukawa. “We’ll find out if this works today. Either it does, or it doesn’t and we may accidentally upgrade the Monokuma AI and nullify our own immunity.”

Fukawa pressed her hands against her lips, desperately trying not to speak.

“Grab the megaphone,” Togami said. Fukawa scurried off to do his bidding, returning with the weapon clenched in her sweaty fingers. Togami checked the ropes one last time, pulled the laptop towards him, and then plugged in one end of the connection chord.

Even though it shouldn’t matter, even though this was going to happen regardless and it was a machine, Togami still felt compelled to ask, “Are you ready?”

For a second there was silence. Then, the laptop screen lit up in brown and green. A small face appeared, as if he was speaking to someone through video chart. . . even though the laptop was not connected to the internet. The small face smiled, and nodded.

“I am ready,” Alter Ego said. “Please proceed.”

Togami grabbed the loose end of the chord, and plugged Alter Ego into the Monokuma.

The robot immediately went haywire. Lights lit up all along the robot’s circuits, with no defined order or reason. Its limbs were bound, but that didn’t stop it from throwing itself to the ground and rolling back and forth, coming precariously close to bashing its own ‘brain’ on the ship’s sharp edges. Togami and Fukawa couldn’t help but jump back at the sudden violence. The Heir quickly snatched up the megaphone and pointed it at the wild robot like a gun. Fukawa cowered behind him.

As suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. The Monokuma lay still.

He prodded the Monokuma with his foot. Nothing. He kicked it over onto its back. The Monokuma’s red eyes had gone blank. As had the laptop screen.

“It . . .?” Togami frowned, arms feeling heavy. Though he and Kirigiri had discussed possible outcomes, an outright failure wasn’t something they had dwelled on much. Neither had they thought much about mutual destruction. Yet, there didn’t seem to be any other way to describe this . . .

A textbox popped up on the laptop screen. Togami whipped around at the ding, and burned the message there into his mind.

He turned around again just in time to see the Monokuma’s eyes light back up.


Towa City was a shelter from a storm. Yet not all its residents were glad to be there. If one were to wander to the west end of the city, they might have come across a perfectly unremarkable apartment building. They may have noticed that this perfectly unremarkable apartment building seemed to have only a few people living within, and that strange people, always the same people, would enter the building at set times. Perhaps then, if that had piqued their curiosity, they may have entered the apartment. If they had done that, then perhaps they would have made it up to the fourth floor and found a row of perfectly ordinary apartments.

It was within these perfectly ordinary apartments that Towa City’s objectors could be found. Their opinions, one must realize, made much more sense when one realized that they were ignorant to the almost complete destruction of the outside world. Phones, televisions, computers, all had been purged from the building before the current residents moved in. Their opinions made even more sense when one realized they were all hostages.

While the prisoners of this apartment building had once struggled and dreamt of escape, most had long since given up. Their captivity, while mysterious and incredibly boring, had nevertheless been fairly comfortable. Their captors only visited to deliver food, and when they considered the violence that had started to emerge in the world around the time of their capture, even the most rebellious prisoner had to grudgingly admit that things could be much worse.

Naegi Komaru had been one of these people. In fact, she had given up escaping months ago. Yet, she found that desire to escape had returned, always lingering in the background like an itch she couldn’t quite reach. Although her situation hadn’t changed, her resurging emotions wasn’t much of a surprise to her. She knew exactly what was triggering them.

Makoto may have been described as a boring, perfectly ordinary person, but that description came with perks. Her brother wasn’t the brightest, but he wasn’t stupid, either; he was kind, and fairly reliable and healthy both physically and emotionally.

The person she had spoke to on that video call had not been Makoto.

Makoto didn’t speak like that. Makoto didn’t sound like that. Makoto didn’t look like that. When her brother smiled, it was supposed to be bright and happy. It wasn’t supposed to look like it had been smashed into his face and then stapled into place. He had a laugh of moderate volume that bounced up and down; his laughter wasn’t supposed to be wheezy and rough. And when her brother spoke, he was supposed to tell her not to give up. Instead, he had nearly done the opposite.

That wasn’t the worst part. What really frightened her – more than seeing Makoto look like that in the first place – was the change. That hadn’t been the first time she had spoken to her brother. The first time they had spoken, her brother had been secretive and frightened and emotional, but it had still been him. The next time, he had been . . . different. She didn’t understand what was causing him to change so quickly, what he was changing into, or why they were doing this to him.

No, that wasn’t quite accurate. She didn’t know exactly why he was changing, but she had seen enough to come up with an idea of who was causing it.

It had taken her a while. It wasn’t until her brother had . . . broken down and she got a good, long look at the white-haired teenager that she was able to place him. Komaeda Nagito, a member of the upper year class at her brother’s school. She didn’t know very much about him, but Naegi had once mentioned that he didn’t seem like a very kind person and a couple of his friends had said something about bullying. It was enough to get her hackles rising, especially when she considered the way Komaeda had stared at and stood too close to her brother.

Komaru had no idea what was happening. But she knew enough to know that Makoto was caught in the center of it, and it was very, very wrong.

Those thoughts swirled in her mind as she sat on the living room couch, heads in her hands and tears pushing at her eyes. She was still there when she heard the door open. And still there when she realized something:

Her captors weren’t supposed to return until the next morning.

Fear coated the back of her mouth. She leapt to her feet, eyes darting around the room, searching for a weapon. Steps were echoing through the apartment, growing closer and closer. She tried to grab a lamp, but her hands shook so much it slipped through her fingers and smashed on the ground. Unarmed, alone, all she could do was back against the wall.

A shadow appeared in the doorway.

“Wh-who are you?” she squeaked.

The shadow remained still.

Komaru swallowed, fingernails digging into her palm.

The stranger stepped forward.

“Naegi Komaru . . .”

Her heart beat even faster.

“I am not here to hurt you.”

“Y-you’re not? Then can you help me escape?”

“No,” the stranger said.

Her face fell. “No . . .? Then why are you here? Wh-what do you want from me?”

She was pressing herself against the wall again, chest heaving. Her eyes were locked on the stranger, ready to pick up the faintest hint of movement.

But there was none. The stranger seemed to stand perfectly still; he didn’t even seem to breathe. There was no movement at all until his mouth opened, and his words rolled through the room like thunder.

“Do you care about Makoto?”

She blinked. The question was so strange and unexpected that she forgot to be afraid.

“He’s my brother,” she said. “We’re family. Of course I do!”

The stranger said nothing. He watched her with a strangely appraising gaze, making her feel like he had drilled through her skull so that he could study her brain.

“Who are you?” she said.

This time, he answered.

“My name is Kamukura Izuru. Tell me. . . what are you willing to do to save him?”

Chapter Text

“It’s not true.”

“Huh?” Naegi said intelligently. He looked up at Komaeda as they walked through the halls. The white-haired teen’s face was pointed straight ahead; his eyes were steely, revealing none of the emotion underneath. Pekoyama followed silently behind them.

“What they were saying before, it’s not true.”

“Uh . . .” Naegi said. Truly, he was on a roll today.

Komaeda’s chest rose, then fell again as he huffed. Steam rose above his head, curling into nothing. “I didn’t hate you. We had . . . very different views of the world. It caused friction, but that was all.”

I guess that hasn’t changed much, he thought secretly. He glanced at Komaeda again, but the Luckster was still resolutely staring ahead. He had an urge to brush their hands together, just to remind Komaeda that even though they may see the world differently, they were friends now.

“But we weren’t friends, were we?” Naegi asked. Inside, his emotions were a jumbled mess of hurt and confusion . . . Because of course they were. That wasn’t weird. Making friends was the thing he both enjoyed and was very good at. It was only natural this failure would upset him.

Komaeda shrugged. “I don’t think it really matters. You had plenty of other friends. Everyone loved you.”

He laughed a little. “That’s probably an exaggeration.”

“Your class once tried to throw you a surprise party,” Komaeda cut in. There was something strange about his tone, almost piercing, though his expression had barely shifted. “The story goes that Togami-kun was so offended by the venue and subpar decorations, that he decided to fly you all to one of his private islands for the weekend.”

“Togami-kun likes showing off his wealth. He had probably been dying for a chance to fly us there,” Naegi said.

“. . . The heroine in Fukawa-san’s last novel had a best friend that was irritatingly happy and never left when she wanted to be alone, but gave her good advice and was there when she needed him.”

“She . . .” Now, it was Naegi’s turn to look straight ahead, although unlike Komaeda, his expression was one of stunned disbelief. “That might not have been me –”

“Ludenberg-san brought you to one of her high-stakes tournament and made you sit next to her as ‘her good luck charm’. Or was it a bad luck charm for her opponents? I don’t remember what the papers said,” Komaeda said. “And Kuzuryu-kun . . .”

That wasn’t a laugh. That was some kind of hacked-out hiss that came from deep within Komaeda’s chest, curling his lips into a sneer sharp enough to draw blood. He threw his head back, and the shadows played along his profile.

“. . . Kuzuryu-kun got his yakuza to drag you off in the middle of lunch to go to a party. He did it to get into Kirigiri-san’s head, but he still took you to a party.”

“Th-that’s not . . . that’s . . .”

Why was he stuttering? Why was his stomach suddenly flip-flopping and trying to fold itself into a ball? This topic wasn’t anything dangerous and Komaeda wasn’t acting mad, but why did it feel like there was lightning cracking between them?

“Kuzuryu-kun said he didn’t pay much attention to me in school!” he blurted out. “So that story probably wasn’t –”

“He didn’t pay you much personal attention,” Komaeda said. “You were a stray dog he left food out for. Everyone loved you. You showered them with praise and admiration, and did your best to help them and spread hope and they loved you . . .”

Komaeda stopped walking. His hands were clenched into fists at his side. A beam of light fell through a nearby window and passed by his body, making his eyes flare with white light. Naegi wanted to back away, but it felt too much like revealing weakness to a predator.

“When you praised them, they took it as a compliment. When you offered to help, they were only too happy to accept and shower you with thanks. When you wanted to be around them, they smiled. They just couldn’t get enough of Naegi Makoto.”

Light flashed off Komaeda’s smile. Was that even a smile? He didn’t think any normal person would call a strained expression like that happy.

“I’m sorry,” he said meekly. “I’m sorry we weren’t ever friends, and . . . and I’m sorry everyone liked and me a-and . . .”

(It wasn’t something he should apologize for, but he felt small and weak and wretched and he wanted dearly for Komaeda to stop staring at him like that.)

“Stop.”

Naegi’s mouth snapped shut of its own accord.

Komaeda dragged a hand over his face, letting it linger when the tips of his fingers covered his eyes. He took a deep breath, evidently to compose himself. His hands didn’t slide down his face; rather, he turned his face upward and let his arms fall once his fingers rested on his lower jaw. His shoulders rose and fell with another breath. Then, he turned and looked at Naegi with a calm smile.

“It’s okay,” Komaeda said. “Everyone loves Naegi Makoto, and Naegi Makoto loves everyone. I know that. That’s . . .”

Naegi waited patiently for Komaeda to continue, but it appeared the Luckster had other plans.

“Are you mad that we weren’t friends in high school?” Naegi asked quietly.

That calm smile grew.

“No. I’m not mad. Come on,” Komaeda reached over flicked a piece of dust off Naegi’s shoulder.

There was a sudden cough behind them.

“The Queen of Novoselic is waiting,” Pekoyama reminded them. “She will be wondering where you two are.”

“Yes. Thank you, Pekoyama-san,” Komaeda said.

Komaeda started walking again, and Naegi moved quickly so he wouldn’t be left behind.

“I really am sorry,” Naegi said, unable to help himself.

“It’s okay. It’s not your fault,” Komaeda said. “Even if we had gotten along better, I wasn’t allowed to be friends with you.”

“Why not?”

“Hmm? Ah, yes, you wouldn’t know. It’s nothing spectacular. Your friends ordered me to stay away from you,” Komaeda said.

Naegi stopped walking. Komaeda didn’t notice and kept going.

“Why would they do that?” Naegi demanded.

Komaeda rolled his eyes. “Enoshima-san convinced them I was bad for your self-esteem or something. I guess she knew even back then how special you were.”

 A cold horror overtook him.

“En-enoshima?”

“Yes?” he said, as if he had no idea why that bothered Naegi so. Maybe he sincerely didn’t.

Then that meant Naegi was alone to grapple with this piece of information. Had it been anyone, anyone else, Naegi could have accepted it. To hear it was Enoshima? That was an entirely different story. He didn’t trust her – who could after everything? He possessed no memory of how Enoshima had acted while they had been in school together, but if her sister’s acting had been any indication, then Enoshima’s entire personality was layers of deceit. He did not trust this reason Komaeda gave for her interference. So the question was what had been Enoshima’s true intention?

“Did she do that with anyone else?” he asked, chewing on his lower lip.

“Not that I’m aware of. Probably not,” Komaeda said. “Nobody else was worthless enough to taint the presence of you Ultimates, after all. Even though you weren’t even one of them.”

But why? As badly as he wanted to know, he supposed he may never obtain an answer.

“Ah, here we are!” Komaeda knocked on the waiting door, then turned to Naegi. “Are you ready?”

“Ready? I thought we were just having tea!”

Komaeda chuckled. “Always so naïve . . . There’s a reason you’re wearing that suit!”

The door opened.

“Her highness is ready for you,” said the officer, Phillip, that had introduced her before. Over Naegi’s shoulder, he locked eyes with Pekoyama and the two assessed each other.

Komaeda gave Naegi a little nod. Naegi took a breath, set his jaw, and walked inside with Pekoyama.

It was the first personal room he had seen with more then one room; even Kuzuryu’s bedroom and ‘living room’ had been one and the same. But the room he walked into now was clearly a dining room, and there was a door in the back that must have led to the true bedroom. The table inside was Japanese-style, low to the ground, and Nevermind was kneeling at one end of the table. She held a steaming teacup to her lips, but put it down when she saw him.

“Welcome, my Prince,” she said.

“Uh, thanks,” he said as he took his place at the other end. Pekoyama stood a respectful distance behind him. “Could you just call me Naegi? The Prince thing is a little strange.”

“Very well. Then please call me Sonia.”

“That’s your . . .”

“I understand it is customary to refer to each other by surnames. In my country, however, we speak each other’s given names. It is always strange to suddenly have everyone referring to me as Nevermind.”

“Oh, then you can call me Makoto! I don’t mind,” he said brightly. He smiled –

A camera flashed.

“Perfect!” Koizumi said. “You two just keep doing what you’re doing. This is great!”

“Oh, sure. You know, I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced either.” He stood and walked over to her for a handshake. “I’m Naegi Makoto, Ultimate Hope.”

“Koizumi Mahiru, Ultimate Photographer.” Her handshake was firm. Very, very firm. It might have given him bruises. “I’ve been waiting for a long time to get you two in a setting like this. Just pretend I’m not here!”

“Why me?” he asked.

“Why? Because you’re the hottest topic out there right now! Well, you’re going to be soon.”

“Soon?” Instinctively, he looked around for confirmation, but neither Komaeda, Tsumiki nor Kamukura were present and Pekoyama didn’t offer much comfort. It made him feel lonely.

Nevermind saw his wandering eyes and said, “The people of Novoselic have always been trend setters, and they are very keen to learn more about you. Please, come sit.”

He did. He asked Koizumi and Pekoyama afterwards if they would be sitting, too.

“In a bit. I need to grab some more photos first,” Koizumi said.

Pekoyama shook her head. He pouted at her.

“Please?” he said.

She did give in. Carefully. When she moved forwards, she did so carefully. She lowered herself onto the cushion on the left side of the table next to Naegi. She did not smile when he beamed at her.

“How do you like your tea?” Nevermind asked.

“With sugar,” he said.

“I do have sugar,” she said, “but I also have honey. Would you prefer that?”

“I’ve never had honey with my tea before, but I’m willing to try!”

Nevermind smiled, then clapped. It was strange, but Naegi assumed it was permission to him to serve himself . . .

Only he was cut off when a black-suited butler stepped forward. With precise, yet elegant movements, he poured Naegi his tea and added an appropriate amount of honey. He handed it to Naegi with a slight bow and although he was surprised at his treatment, Naegi took it with a small thanks.

“Pekoyama-san? What about you?”

Pekoyama hesitated. “. . . Just black.”

The butler poured her some tea too, and retreated back out of their way. Naegi looked forward again to see Nevermind giving him a curious look, a finger on her chin.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“Not at all,” she said. “I was merely . . . surprised. Forgive me, but when did Pekoyama-san come under your service?”

“There was a near miss with an assassin,” Pekoyama said. “The Young Master thought my talents would be of better use to him for the time being.”

“I see. Does this have something to do with the planes?”

“The what?” Naegi asked.

Nevermind said, “Fuyuhiko told me that the Future Foundation is making use of a nearby field to hide some bombers. They are hoping to launch them and strike before we have a chance to react. Our mole warned him ahead of time though, so Soda-kun laced the field with mines before the bombers arrived. I expect they will be going off anytime now.”

“That’s . . .”

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” Nevermind’s laughter was a beautiful thing to listen to, high-pitched and melodic like birdsong. (A camera flash went off) “Soda-kun is so amazing.”

Her eyes were starry. She was giggling to herself the way a fan would upon meeting their idol.

“He’s really good at what he does!” Naegi said. “He told me about the time he built a battle-bot for Nidai to train against, and he said he personally designed and built the security here and his workshop and . . . and the Monokumas,” he added, considerably less cheerfully.

“Yes, no job is too big for the incredible Soda-kun!” Nevermind announced. Koizumi sighed. The Photographer was on one knee behind Nevermind’s shoulder, pointing the camera at him and Pekoyama.

“Hey, Pekoyama-san,” she said afterwards. “Could you go stand over there next to Phillip? I want to get a side-by-side shot of the two of you.”

To Naegi’s surprise, Pekoyama didn’t move. Then, he realized she was waiting for his instruction. He gave her a lopsided smile and said, “Do it if you want to.”

She hesitated, then scurried over for the shot. She immediately returned to her seat afterwards.

“Mahiru, please join us,” Nevermind said. “The tea is growing cold and there will be plenty of opportunities for photos later.”

“Alright.” Koizumi took a seat to Nevermind’s right. The butler approached without asking, and prepared her tea without needing to ask what to add.

“You’re the Ultimate Photographer,” Naegi said.

“Yep.” She took a sip. “It’s nothing as exciting as the Ultimate Princess, but I get by.”

“Koizumi-san has always been humble,” Nevermind said fondly.

Even that amount of praise apparently was enough to turn Koizumi’s cheeks red. “Well, I mean it’s just photography. It’s not that amazing.”

“I think it is!” Naegi said. “I mean there are plenty of photographs that have changed the world, and you’re probably at least as good, if not better than all of those photographers!”

Koizumi’s blush deepened. She was refusing to look directly at anyone. “Okay, that’s true, but . . .”

“But nothing!” Nevermind said. “Yours is a remarkable talent.”

“I agree,” Pekoyama said. Naegi grinned at her, almost feeling like a proud parent. He turned back to Nevermind just in time to see that particular look fade from her expression again.

“Okay, okay. I get it.”

Koizumi sounded grumpy when she said that, but all Nevermind had to do was smile at her, and then a small smile was on the Photographer’s lips as well. The friendly candour between the two both did and didn’t surprise him. It surprised him because, well, they were Ultimate Despair. But he had also seen friendships between the other Despairs, like Owari and Nidai, or Mioda and Saionji.

“So, what’s your story anyways? How did they wind up with you?” Koizumi asked. “Kuzuryu isn’t exactly the guy to explain things in depth and Komaeda tried, but he’s . . . Komaeda.”

“I . . . uh . . . good question?” He looked at Pekoyama for help, but remembered too late that she wasn’t part of Despair and probably didn’t really get it either. Gosh, he needed Komaeda or Tsumiki right now.

Still, he did his best to explain. At least he tried to explain the parts he thought he understood. It involved lots of fumbling and backtracking and awkward pauses. Then, when he finally finished . . .

“Sorry, but I still don’t understand,” Koizumi said.

“I must admit that I do not either,” Nevermind said. “Nevertheless, I’m sure Kuzuryu-kun knows what he is doing, so I have no objections.”

“You can object?” Naegi asked carefully.

“Ah, yes.” She set the teacup down. “You have been under Kuzuryu’s protection during your time here, so you would not know. With the . . . departure of our queen, Kuzuryu-kun and I currently sit upon the throne of Ultimate Despair.”

“The king and queen,” he muttered.

“Not quite,” she said. “Even in death, Enoshima-san holds the title of queen. For Ultimate Despair, I will never be more than their Ultimate Princess. Kuzuryu-kun is not a king either. He is a regent, Prince Makoto.”

He cringed at the title. “I’m not . . . Really, I’m not.”

“I understand your reluctance,” she said kindly. “You are still very new to this world, and the idea of ruling is a daunting one. It is an intense, gruelling ordeal where every decision has consequences for tens of thousands of years into the future!”

If that was meant to be a pep talk, it really wasn’t working. Plus, the way Nevermind struck a strongman pose and flexed her arm made him just feel weak.

“But do not fear, Makoto. You will not be alone. Even the arduous life of royalty becomes much easier when you have friends to stand with you.”

She placed her hand on Koizumi’s shoulder as she said that and once again, the two girls exchanged a look and smile. (Something inside him panged with envy).

“Do you rule Novoselic by yourself?” he asked.

“Yes. I am Ultimate Despair’s princess, but I am the queen of Novoselic.” She sighed, and her index finger tapped on the table. “. . . Soda-kun is not attracted to the life of royalty.”

“You really like him, huh?”

Koizumi laughed into her teacup. “Ever since Despair, she has.”

Ever since Despair . . . ? That didn’t seem right. He could sense there was something underneath, some undercurrent Koizumi had tried to expose, but he didn’t get it.

“It is hard to rule alone,” Nevermind said. “However, the situation has gotten much easier to manage now that much of the rebel movements have fallen.”

Just like that, Naegi’s world tipped upside down.

Nothing had changed. Nevermind still wore that kind smile, as did Koizumi, but now Naegi saw them somewhere else. He saw them on a wooden platform, shielded by guards as a prisoner was led up the stairs to the noose. He saw Nevermind handling a red-hot iron, smiling just as she did now; saw Koizumi capture every moment of it with her camera.

They were Despair. He had forgotten what that meant, but now he remembered.

“Why?” he rasped. “Why would you . . .?”

“They were a threat. None shall harm Novoselic while I rule.” A slight frown touched her lips. “That’s why . . . that’s why it had to be done. For generations, the royal family has fended off the influence and threats of great power such as Germany and Russia. That is why Hope’s Peak chose me as the Ultimate Princess, but even that was yet another attempt by the outside to claim power that belonged to my family. She . . . she helped me see that. She helped me see that it would never end. She helped me realize that the only way to protect Novoselic from other countries was . . . to dismantle the threats at their source.”

“You destroyed the world.”

“Yes,” Nevermind said, “and now there are no countries to threaten Novoselic’s sovereignty. Just these silly rebels.”

“That’s . . . that’s not right . . .”

“Someday, you’ll understand,” Nevermind said.

Naegi fell silent. He couldn’t possibly speak past the lump in his throat. He stared downward at the quivering reflection in his teacup.

A hand squeezed his leg.

He looked up sharply, but Pekoyama kept her eyes trained on Nevermind. Even when she withdrew her hand, she gave neither Nevermind nor Koizumi any physical sign of what had happened.

He swallowed. He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. It was time to change the subject . . .

“If you and Kuzuryu-kun are the metaphorical king and queen of Ultimate Despair, does that mean you’re basically married?” he blurted out.

Pekoyama choked.

Somehow, he managed to keep the conversation off anything troubling. Time passed, Koizumi made them pose for some photos, and then there was a knock on the door. Phillip opened it a crack, and spoke in a different language to Nevermind, but when Naegi heard the name ‘Komaeda’, he knew what it was about.

“I guess we’re going now,” he said.

“Indeed. I enjoyed speaking to you,” Nevermind said. She extended her hand for a shake, and Naegi took it. He shrugged off the chill that came from the contact.

“We should talk again some other time,” Koizumi said. “It would be nice to know somebody else who isn’t . . . eccentric, I guess.”

Nevermind said, “Pekoyama-san, it’s . . .”

Once again, Nevermind gave the Swordswoman that particular stare.

“ . . . I am glad to hear you speaking again,” Nevermind said, to Naegi’s confusion.

By the time he walked out of her room and back into Komaeda’s care, he still didn’t understand.

But he did notice Pekoyama wouldn’t look at him.

Chapter Text

They never made it back to the infirmary. Komaeda was leading them there when a shrill bell, like a fire alarm, rang through the building. Ahead of them, a Monokuma soldier broke out into a sprint, destination unknown. They could hear footsteps thundering through the building as others followed suit, leaving Naegi to turn his head wildly from side to side in a vain attempt to discern what was happening.

“This way!” Pekoyama grabbed his arm, and hauled him in the direction opposite to where they had been going, leaving Komaeda to jog behind them.

“What going on?” he asked. He wasn’t freaking out yet because Komaeda and Pekoyama were with him, and Pekoyama at least knew what to do. Still, there was a fluttering feeling inside him, like his ribs were a cage containing a panicked bird.

“Sounds like an air raid,” Komaeda said.

Naegi repeated those words. Still pulling him along, Pekoyama looked down at him and said, “Remember what Nevermind-san said about the planes?”

“But I thought Soda-kun blew them up!” he said.

“Not yet,” Pekoyama said. “If these alarms are going off now, he plans to set off the bombs in ten minutes. It is possible that some will survive, and they will attack in retaliation.”

“So, we’re going to a bomb shelter.”

“Yes.”

They ended up in an garden, boxed in on all sides by walls, that seemed to lie in the center of the building. (It occurred to him that he had no idea what the building he’d lived in for months looked like from the outside). There was a thick, heavy-looking hatch in the center; Pekoyama lifted it without a sweat, and waved him and Komaeda inside.

They descended into the dark. Dim, red lights lined the staircase, and Naegi had to keep an eye on his feet to make sure he didn’t trip. Which he still managed to do, but Pekoyama snagged his shirt from behind and saved him. At the bottom of the stairs, there was a pair – two of them, it turned – of thick, metal doors, both of which were already open. They walked through.

He’d expected that Ultimate Despair’s bomb shelter would be more than a simple dirt cellar. That being said, what he saw before him was hilariously fancy. Thick bundles of cords ran along the walls and ceiling; among other things, they fed lights that worked just as well as the ones inside the main building. There was a bar in the back, though how stocked it was, Naegi couldn’t tell.  Big, puffy couches (was that velvet?) provided plenty of space for a nervous Despair to huddle up and wait out the bombing. Not that anyone seemed nervous. Not everyone was present, but those who were acted as those this was an everyday occurrence. Nidai was listening politely as Owari ranted loudly about something. Mioda appeared to be setting up a pool table while the Imposter, still dressed as Munakata, threateningly sharpened a pool cue behind her. Tsumiki –

“Makoto!”

Ah, he should have expected this.

She flung herself at him, knocking them both into Komaeda, who despite squawking and stumbling backwards, managed to catch them. Naegi stood there, resigned, as she crushed his ribs.

“Try not to be too scared,” she said. “There’s lots of fun things we can do down here. L-like pool, or darts or bowling . . . but not with cannons.”

“How long did Soda-kun spend on this place?” Naegi asked.

Komaeda laughed. “He’s down here every Sunday. He likes to think of it as his man-cave.”

Naegi nodded, pleased to hear that Soda worked on things other than murderous, robotic bear. Pekoyama hadn’t said anything yet, so he looked at her . . . and immediately saw her arms stiff at her sides, and her face a touch paler than usual. There was no need to wonder why.

He laid his hand on her arm to grab her attention. “He’s fine. Kuzuryu-kun must know what the siren means. I bet he’s just giving some last orders before he takes shelter, or he’s waiting with Soda-kun until he decides to set off the bombs. I mean, he’s basically the leader, so it’s only natural he would want to be with Soda-kun to make sure everything’s perfect.”

She relaxed. “That is something he would do.”

Komaeda patted his back. He wasn’t sure why.

“I have a question though,” Naegi said. “Isn’t Soda-kun just the Ultimate Mechanic? Building this seems outside of his talent.”

“It is,” Komaeda said. “Kuzuryu-kun solicited help from the Ultimate Architect and Builder!”

“Solicited . . .?” Naegi said skeptically. A peek at a grimacing Pekoyama confirmed his suspicions. He looked around again and . . .

“Wait, where’s Kuma? He’s coming too, right?” He grabbed Komaeda’s shirt. “Kuma allowed down here too, right?”

“Hey, easy . . .” Komaeda removed Naegi’s hands from his chest. “Tanaka-kun’s grabbing him.”

Naegi bit his lip, and nodded.

Nevermind and Koizumi walked in a couple of minutes later, along with that officer, Phillip. The two girls were chatting, and Phillip walked ahead of them to the bar where he began pouring drinks. That left Tanaka, Kuma, Soda and Kuzuryu as the absent ones. He looked at Pekoyama, worried. However, the Swordswoman no longer appeared troubled; Naegi’s earlier suggestion appeared to have stuck with her.

A minute later, Tanaka led Kuma into the shelter (the poor bear looked hot; it had probably been hard for him to navigate those stairs, and squeeze through that space). This time, it was Naegi’s turn to fling himself at another. Kuma barely noticed the impact until Naegi slid down his side and landed on one of his paws.

Three or fours minutes later, the boys finally arrived, laughing as they spoke to each other. The two separated quickly after, Soda heading for the pool table, and Kuzuryu coming towards them.

“Naegi! Let’s talk.”

Kuzuryu gestured for him to follow. The Yakuza plopped down on one of the oversized couches, and Naegi took a seat next to him while Kuma sniffed around in the direction of the bar. Tsumiki and Komaeda sat down on the couch, too.

Kuzuryu gave the two a weird look, but otherwise didn’t react. “So, we’re going to move you into your own room in a couple of days.”

“Oh, that’s great! Uh, what about the handcuffs?”

“Those? I think you’re ready to get them off,” Kuzuryu said.

He had been hoping for that answer, but he hadn’t dared considered it seriously. But now that the magic words had been said, his whole body sagged with relief, and a warm wave of joy swept over him. He grabbed Kuzuryu’s hand and shook it, thanking the other teen profusely.

“Okay, okay, I get it!” the Yakuza yanked his hand out of Naegi’s grip. “Fuck, you’re embarrassing me! Look, we added some security measures and shit, plus you’ve got a fucking huge bear as a guard dog; so, once you’re all moved in, I’ll be taking Peko back.”

“Ah.” He was proud of how his tone didn’t betray anything, although he felt his smile twitch. He was tempted to look at Pekoyama to see how she felt, but didn’t dare. “Of course.”

Kuzuryu leaned forward, so that he could see and yell at Komaeda across Naegi’s lap. “And don’t you go setting up camp on his doorstep. I