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You are seven and a half (closer to the seven than the half) when the strange men come and shove you and Peko into the back of a van.

It’s your fault in the first place. You had begged her to come with you to catch fireflies. It’s not something you parents would approve of, so when it’s far past your bedtime, you sneak out of your room and she sneaks out of her living quarters, and you both steal away into the night, empty mason jars tucked beneath your arms.

It never occurs to you to be wary of the foreign van parked right across the street from your house. You don’t think twice about the sound of the ignition starting as the two of you scurry down to your favorite field.

That’s how you find yourselves in a rickety cabin in the mountains, bound and gagged and guarded by three burly men.

None of these goons would ever expect to be bested by a seven-year-old. Either they did a shoddy job tying you two up or Peko is just that cunning, but she manages to wriggle free from her bonds without notice. When one man finally goes outside and you're left with just the two, that's when she strikes.

Peko hurls herself at the first guy who trips and smashes his chin against the table, knocking himself out cold. As the second guy reaches for his gun, she quickly ducks beneath him, weaving between his legs and jarring him off balance. He turns and Peko elbows him in the gut. Hearing the commotion, the third guy finally rushes back inside. You scream at Peko to turn around but it’s muffled behind your gag. Still, she turns in time and kicks the man hard in the kneecap. The man buckles just enough for Peko to grab hold of the knife strapped to his belt, and then it's over. Peko with a blade of any sort is unstoppable.

You run from the cabin hand-in-hand, robes flecked with blood. Before you stretches nothing but miles of trees.

Peko tells you that everything is going to be fine, but you can plainly see the fear in her eyes.

You cry. You can't help it. You’re terrified and she’s terrified and you’re both terrified. (She just cut down three men bigger than her and still she's afraid.) But she doesn’t give up, leading you through the wilderness wielding a branch as a makeshift sword.

Miraculously, you make it safely down the mountain, picked up by one of your dad’s men. You’re escorted back to your home where the whole estate is awake and on high alert. Your mother embraces you, sobbing, and you’re too wrapped up in being alive to notice the steely glint in your father’s eyes.

 

 

 

You distinctly remember the day when they take Peko somewhere far from your reach.

Your parents are discussing something serious in the living room. Though the Kuzuryuus aren’t exactly known for their indoor voices, this is one of the few times you hear them speaking in a more subdued manner. You don’t understand most of what they’re saying (you can barely make out “train” and “sword” and “time”), but there’s one name they repeat over and over again.

Peko. Peko, Peko, Peko.

You chew your fingernails to the quick fretting over whether you should tell her or not. Is there anything to tell her at all? You don’t know what they’re so angry about, but the least you can do is spare Peko the anxiety of not knowing what’s to come.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. One day, your dad and a man you don’t know come and tell her she’ll be staying somewhere else for a while. You rush to your feet. Your dad immediately pins you with his gaze and hisses something about Peko finally fulfilling her duties. He grabs her by the arm and half-drags her out the door while Peko looks at you pleadingly over her shoulder.

She’s gone for a long time. You are still young, so you don't know exactly how long, but it feels like a year. (It’s three months.) When she finally, finally steps through the paper doors again, she has an odd gleam in her eye and a bamboo sword strapped over her shoulder.

You ask if she wants to go catch fireflies that night. She defers and says she must keep you inside where it’s safe because it’s her duty.

You’re seven and a half (closer to the half than the seven) when she smiles genuinely for the last time.

 

 

 

Peko spends less and less time with you.

From the day you were born, the two of you had been inseparable. Now it feels strange and empty not to have her constantly by your side.

She blows off invitations to go play in favor of training with her sword more often. Her sword is a part of her now, always strapped to her back or somewhere within reach.

Sometimes you watch her in the yard, where she practices her footwork and sword technique, but she never acknowledges your presence unless she’s taking a break (which are few and far between). She throws herself into her training with a fierceness you only saw when she’d taken care of those three kidnappers in the mountains.

Most times, it just frustrates you and you find yourself doing things just to spite her. When she won’t eat with you during mealtimes, you refuse to speak to her. When she tells you she must be training instead of going to the park with you, you pretend like you’re having the time of your life without her.

Once, you’re so annoyed with everything that you climb the tallest tree in the garden and absolutely refuse to come down. Your mother pleads with you to come down, but you refuse. She won’t risk dirtying her new kimono to come get you. Your father yells at you to come down, but you refuse. He won’t risk his pride to come get you.

Finally Peko comes out. She takes one look at you with those piercing red eyes and purses her lips into a thin line.

“Are you stuck?” she asks.

No,” you bark, heart leaping into your throat.

(The fact is, you are, you have been for hours, and you’ve been too stubborn to say so.)

She moves to the base of the tree and starts climbing.

“I said I’m not stuck!” you shout again.

“I didn’t say you were,” she answers, still climbing. You watch her, half-annoyed that she’s ignoring you, half-worried that she might fall. It probably isn’t very easy to maneuver around the tree in such low light, but she continues on until she reaches the branch you’ve been stranded on for hours.

“I’m not stuck!” you repeat petulantly, as if it even matters at this point.

Peko nods. “I know.” She gestures you forward and grips your sleeve. “Let’s climb down together.”

If climbing up was difficult, you can’t imagine that climbing down would be any easier. You’re shaky as you slither down the massive trunk of the tree, but Peko keeps a firm hold onto you so you don’t slip and fall. She doesn’t let go until both your feet are back on the ground.

“Don’t tell anybody I was stuck, okay?” you murmur, wiping your nose with your sleeve.

Peko simply nods. “I won’t.”

(You think she almost smiles.)

 

 

 

One day, Peko calls you “young master.”

You blink, because you’ve always been Fuuchan and she’s always been Peko-chan. You tell her that’s not your name, but Peko looks conflicted, reluctant to call you anything else. Even though she’s spent most of her life calling you Fuuchan, she doesn’t slip up on “young master” once, as if the title has been branded on her tongue.

Peko calls herself your “tool.”

You immediately oppose this idea too. She's human, a person, a friend, not some object.

Your parents are present when you make your grievances known. They order Peko to go back to the servants' quarters and spend the next 20 minutes lecturing you on the differences in your statuses. “She's not your friend. She's not even a stranger. She's your tool. A thing for you to command.” It’s a lecture you’ve heard before but didn’t truly understand until you saw those dull red eyes, once so full of life.

(It doesn’t matter that she saved your life. All that matters is she failed to keep you safe.)

“That's… bullshit!” you shout. It's the first time you swear. Your dad smacks you and tells you to watch your fucking mouth.

(You're seven… Going on eight… Going on nine…)

 

 

 

You're ten years old and you’re playing in the living room while your folks are having another fight. It's loud, and it's angry, and it escalates enough that the old lady brandishes a knife from her sash.

While they topple over furniture and scare the ever-loving wits out of the hired help, Peko grabs you by the wrist and pulls you out of the room. She does it quickly and quietly, because she does not want you to catch the attention of your old lady's knife. (But if you did, you know she’d throw herself in front of that knife in a heartbeat. That scares you more than their fight.)

Thankfully it doesn’t come to that. These fights happen frequently enough that Peko has extricating you from any sign of danger down to a science. It’s times like these when it most feels like she’s helping you because she cares and not because it’s her duty.

Peko doesn’t look scared and neither will you. Together, you walk to your sister’s room. Natsumi still gets frightened by your folks’ raised voices, even though she tries to show otherwise. There’s little else you can do but be there with her. (You’ve gotten used to your folks’ rows and she’ll need to do the same.)

Natsumi asks if your parents love each other. It takes you a moment before you tell her that they do, but it’s just different.

You don’t consider that telling your sister that violence can be a form of love is dangerous. But it’s the only type of love you’ve really seen. (Though, admittedly, you are far too young to go looking for it.) An animalistic love, bold and reckless and fierce. A love so strong and powerful it struggles to hold itself together at the seams. The type of love where you never have to hold back, whether it means embracing or killing each other. A pair of hands entwined together, the other pair at each others’ throats. That’s their love.

You chance a look at Peko.

If that’s their definition of love, it’s not the type of love you want.

 

 

 

When you turn 13, your parents decide it's time for you to be attending school; you've only had tutors up until this point (men that taught you how to handle a knife and a gun alongside mathematics and history). Peko is going with you.

Your relationship to Peko, as defined by your family, has become more and more clear cut. Whenever she’s about to enter a room that you or anybody else already occupies, she must ask permission before stepping in. When your family goes out to dinner at a restaurant, Peko is expected to stand guard outside. (She’s always close by, one step back, never at your side.)

(Peko doesn’t show any sign of caring. In fact, she's proud to do as she's told. Sure, duty and allegiance are the yakuza way, but you don't think it's the same when your boss treats you worse than a dog.)

You're embarrassed to learn that you're shorter than all your classmates. You convince yourself that your hormones are acting up and you’ll be having a growth spurt any day now.

13 hits Peko just as awkwardly, if not more. She wears glasses now, and unlike you, she has hit her growth spurt, towering over your classmates at 169 centimeters. Her limbs are long and gangly, and even she seems overwhelmed by this new teenage body. (She compensates by throwing herself into sword training more and more.)

At the very least, you’re pleased to see the other kids pointedly avoiding you. You never intended on making any friends. What worries you is that Peko seems to be getting the same treatment.

True to her word, Peko stays close by, and with the two of you combined, the kids won’t think twice about keeping a wide berth between you and them. You ask her about making friends with her classmates. She says that “friends” are unnecessary to keeping you safe. It sounds scripted, like so much she’s been forced to regurgitate.

You are part of a family of over 50,000, “brothers” and “elders” and “sisters” from all over the country, but Peko only knows her blade, and you.

If you’d known it’d be like this, you would’ve asked her to act like she doesn’t know you at all.

 

 

 

Sometimes you catch glimpses of the girl she used to be. She’s not allowed to keep any belongings besides the bare essentials (a bullshit rule, if you’re being honest), but she’ll press flowers between the pages of her textbooks, and when your folks fork up enough cash for her to buy school supplies, she’ll opt for the stationery with cute animal designs.

It’s strange, because in many ways she seems like a normal teenage girl, and in many ways she doesn’t. She’s not at all like Natsumi, who’s reached the age of being far-too-invested in fashion magazines and television dramas. But her interests are decidedly feminine. She always wears ribbons in her hair, and sometimes you catch her trying to pet the family dogs, but they always jerk away from her touch with their teeth bared. (To be fair, the Kuzuryuu family dogs are not the friendly sort.)

Once, you purchase a wooden hair comb on a whim. It’s in the subtle shape of a panda. You give it the Peko with the casual excuse that the store gave it to you for free and Natsumi doesn’t want it. It’s generic enough that your parents won’t immediately throw it away, but personal enough that Peko might like it.

She stares at you quizzically for a long moment, and you fear she might not accept it. You’re about to wave it off like it never really mattered to you, but then Peko takes the comb gingerly with both hands and thanks you, saying she will make sure it does not go to waste.

You nod. You just nod.

It's a small thing, but it's a thing that gives you hope.

 

 

 

What the fuck?!”

“In the name of sparkling, shining justice, I have come to deliver justice!”

“Get out!!”

“Justice complete!” Natsumi croons, striking some ridiculous pose.

You grab the closest thing to you and chuck it at your sister. It misses. Natsumi flees from your room, giggling the whole way.

“Natsumi!! How many times do I have to tell you, stay the fuck out of my room!!

All you can hear is laughter in response. You mutter low expletives under your breath and survey the damage. She’s ransacked your room, tossed the futon sheets around and stolen the bag of karinto you keep secretly stashed in your closet. (To be fair, you did cheat her out of 5000 yen during an oicho-kabu game.) You glance at whatever you threw at your sister. Apparently you chucked your whole desk lamp and now it lies in pieces on the floor. Once upon a time you might have considered it important, but it’s trash now. With a sigh, you crouch and start gathering the shards.

You’re 14 years old and your sister is fucking annoying. You’re both in middle school now, and unlike you, Natsumi enjoys going out of her way to pick fights and bully anybody within reach. She makes it clear to the other kids that she’s meaner and tougher than they are and she knows it.

On the other hand, you’re less pleased about your classmates avoiding you, because, as you’ve steadily learned, they’re scared of your family and not you.

Peko suddenly appears in your field of vision, startling you out of your thoughts. “Please allow me to clean this for you,” she says, kneeling to sweep up the lamp pieces.

“Cut it out. I got it,” you murmur flippantly.

Peko ignores you and continues cleaning. Anger floods your senses. (For somebody meant to follow your orders, she certainly doesn’t listen to anything you say.) You abruptly snatch a broken piece from her hand and that finally surprises her enough to stop and look at you.

“How am I ever going to be the boss if you’re just gonna keep cleaning up my fucking messes?!”

She’s quiet for a moment. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice her curling her hands into a loose fist. There’s a cut on her finger. Shit. Did you do that to her?

“I apologize for my ignorance,” she says, smoothly pushing herself back onto her feet. She bows deeply at the waist and retreats from your room.

You hesitate and reach after her. “Wait,” you say before you realize what words have come out of your mouth.

Obediently, she stops and turns around, head bowed like a soldier waiting for command. The sight steals the words from your tongue. Your worst fear is that Peko will look at you the same way she looks at your old man, and something in her eyes reminds you of just that.

You make a frustrated sound in the back of your throat and shove your hands into your pockets.

“Nevermind.”

 

 

 

You're 15 and you've completely given up hope on the idea that you'll grow any taller than you currently are. For once, you curse your Kuzuryuu genes. Your old man only has a few inches on you, as does your old man’s old man, but somehow they both manage to command the entire Kuzuryuu clan with an iron fist. (It's their eyes, their aura, the way they can stare down any man with so much as a look and maybe a heavy word or two.)

If it weren't for your fucking babyface, maybe you'd be able to do the same.

It's absurd that you're meant to sit at your “throne” while your “tool” stands on guard behind you, arms folded, shoulders squared. (Always one step back, never at your side.) You haven't a clue how this is supposed to make any man feel powerful because all you feel is small. If Peko didn't tower over you before while you were standing, she certainly does while you are sitting.

It occurs to you suddenly that Peko has grown up. Perhaps not by adult standards, but she’s certainly no longer the little girl from your childhood. Where 13 may have been awkward on her, 15 fits her almost flawlessly. Though she still ties her hair up in braided bunches, the silvery strands come down to frame a heart-shaped face and sharp eyes. Her gangly limbs have filled in with lean muscle. The stoic air and grace she’s always possessed now seems to suit her as a young lady and not just as a warrior.

You flush when you catch yourself staring. Goddammit, you’re only 15. Besides which, it's not fair to Peko (hell, a lot isn’t fair to Peko) for you to be staring so openly, not when she has no choice in saying “no.” Even if it’s taboo in the family to act upon their carnal desires with someone of lowly standing, plenty of yakuza will still take advantage of their power. A body’s a body, you once heard your second cousin laugh. That’s not how you see Peko and you don’t want Peko to see that in herself either.

So you’ll keep your distance. For both your sakes.

 

 

 

“God—fucking—dammit.”

The walls rattle as you stomp through the house. You all but tear into your room, annoyed that you still have to live under the same roof as the cause of your fury and you’re even more annoyed that paper doors don’t make for very good slamming.

Peko trails after you and waits for you to nod before she steps into your room.

“Fuckin’ shithead sister. Thinks she’s so— rrggghh—

You’re a millisecond away from flipping over your desk, but you manage to summon enough self-control to sit down heavily in the chair instead.

“She thinks I need my old man to learn how to run this place? Thinks I can’t do it on my own? Fuck that. I’ll show her. I’ll show them all.”

The Kuzuryuu clan has its fingers in all sorts of pies: gambling, bookmaking, bid rigging, arms trafficking, money laundering, you name it. Your father has frequent meetings with the sub-bosses in other cities to discuss regional operations, and despite incessant goading to come join him, you almost always refuse. There’s more than one way to run a yakuza family. (You’re going to be strong on your own, not because you’re heir to the largest yakuza syndicate in Japan.)

But Natsumi, always the loudmouth, makes her opinion of your apparent laziness known. You yell at her that she can lead if she thinks she’s so smart, but she always throws that back in your face. It drives you up the goddamn wall.

“Perhaps it may be wise if you did as the young mistress suggests,” Peko says flatly.

You shoot her a glare. “So what? You’re on her side too?”

“I am always on your side,” she says. “I am your tool.”

That sends a fresh surge of anger down your belly. You slam your fist against the desk (Peko doesn’t so much as flinch) and hiss between gritted teeth, “I don’t need a fucking tool!!”

You need a friend. You need a partner. You need somebody who can make sense of your reckless anger. You need somebody who will stand beside you, not as a thing or a tool or a bodyguard, but as an equal. You need Peko.

Peko briefly casts her eyes downward and actually looks… sad? It’s gone before you can fully register it was ever there. She looks you dead in the eye and says, “Regardless, the master of the house would have much to teach you.”

You laugh mirthlessly. “Yeah, like he’s taught you so much, right?”

Peko’s expression doesn’t change, doesn’t betray the fact that you may have cut her to the core, and you’re both disgusted that you tried and frustrated that it didn’t work.

 

 

 

“Young master?”

“How many times have I told you not to call me that?” you growl.

You both have been scouted into Hope’s Peak Academy, the school for kids with extraordinary talent. You won’t make the same mistake you made in middle school. You’re going to take two separate cars to school and people are going to treat Peko like she’s her own person. She’s not going to be feared because they will only see her as an extension of the Kuzuryuu clan heir. She’ll be Peko Pekoyama, the Ultimate Swordsman. Like it was always meant to be.

This is for the best.

“If you keep calling me that, everybody's gonna know and it'll ruin everything. So as soon as we step foot on those school grounds, we don’t know each other. Our professional relationship doesn’t exist. You’re not a hitman, or a bodyguard. You’re just a classmate. Understand?”

“Yes, young master.”

You close your eyes and try not to let the anger that arises every time you hear that infernal title get to you.

Things are going to change. As soon as you’re old enough, as soon as you’re strong enough, and you don’t have to listen to anybody anymore—not your old man, not your old lady, not your sister—you’re going to take over the Kuzuryuu clan and set Peko free so she can be whoever the fuck she wants to be.

 

 

 

This wasn't supposed to happen.

You were going to become strong. Things were supposed to change.

… But you were just so angry. The fact is, you wanted somebody dead, an eye for an eye. When Koizumi pointed at you with an accusing glare and that self-righteous attitude of hers, all you could see was every failure, every not-good-enough, every he’s-too-weak, he’s-too-soft thrown back in your face. You had the bat, you could feel the weight of it as you held it over your head, ready to strike down on all the bullshit you’ve had to endure all these years—

—That’s why Peko does what she does. She acts out your will because she can foresee the consequences further than your anger can. She takes the choice away from you because she knows she couldn't live with herself if she didn't. No matter how much you scream, spit, and swear during the trial, it doesn’t change the mistake you’ve made. And now she's paying the price for your recklessness.

Peko stands ready to be carted off to some mockery of an execution. Of all the terrible scenarios you’ve conjured in your head about her death, you didn’t think it’d be anything like this, and you realize you’ve finally, truly exhausted every excuse for your shortcomings.

“Peko!”

You’re bawling like a child because you’re terrified and suddenly you’re seven years old again, begging your best friend to save you.

“Please! Don’t go! I need you!”

And there they are. All the words you've kept caged behind gritted teeth are out in the open and laid bare at her feet. Peko looks at you with tears in her eyes like she can't believe she's misread you for all these years. You’re two broken souls and now you’re going to be broken and alone. If only you'd said what you really meant. If only she'd understood. If only you'd both been born into different circumstances. If only, if only, if only.

And the worst thing is that she does save you, like she always said she would. She uses her body to shield you from one final act of stupidity.

She’s on your side to the bitter end.

She was only 16.

 

 

 

You awake and you don’t deserve it.

The first thing you feel is pain. Every nerve, every muscle in your body screams with the memory of having gone through something terrible. There’s a bandage over your eye, but that’s the only part of you that feels numb. (Gone, probably. It’s not her fault.) You’ve got enough stitches in you to make any senior yakuza proud.

But you also feel pain of a different sort. The kind of pain that can’t be healed with stitches and medicine. Loss. Anger. Sadness. Guilt.

Peko is dead and you should be too.

Tsumiki timidly tends to your wounds and you don’t even have the energy to tell her to stop her sniveling. You simply stare out the window, looking at nothing in particular. (For some reason the silence seems to unnerve her more than your sharp words ever did.)

People come and go to check up on you, but their words are nothing more than white noise.

This is despair, and it’s so easy to wallow in it.

You sleep for fitful hours at a time, pulling yourself in and out of nightmares. In your dreams, Peko lies motionless, a million blades protruding from her heart. She’s bleeding everywhere, slack-jawed, glassy-eyed. She lifts a single bone-white finger and from cracked, trembling lips she asks why she had to die for someone like you.

You startle awake drenched in sweat every time, and to your horror, there’s no relief in waking up.

She’s always been there for you when they tried to take you away. When they took her away, you were unable to do the same.

 

 

 

Are you giving up?” says Peko.

Shut up,” you snap. You're nursing a black eye and a wounded ego, courtesy of your old man.

Truthfully it all started when three kids at school decided to pick a fight with you. Of course Peko had been there, sword at the ready, but you had demanded she put her blade down. One of the faculty members showed up before anything could actually happen. Your old man was not happy. The rumor is that the Kuzuryuu clan heir was too scared to do anything, and now the image of the family suffers.

Shall I go take care of those kids?” she asks seriously.

No!” you say immediately. She knits her brows in confusion, and your tone softens. “I don’t want you to do anything, Peko.”

Then are you giving up?” she repeats.

“… Fuck, I don’t know, okay?!”

You hate when Peko treats you like a little kid. You already know that she’s so much more mature than you are, you don’t need it rubbed in your face. (Too weak. Too soft. Not good enough.)

For a long time, Peko says nothing, and that’s just fine with you; you’re happy to wallow in self-pity just a little bit more.

Then, quietly, she says, “You’ll find a way.”

You look up. “… Huh?”

Peko cants her head ever so slightly. “That is the yakuza way, is it not? When the hour looks darkest, that is when you reach out and grab onto the light of hope. It is the reversal of fortune. For justice. For your honor. You’ll find a way to turn this in your favor. That is what I believe.”

You stare at her in awe. On the best days you can barely get Peko to say more than a few words. It’s one of the rare moments when it doesn’t seem like she’s saying something because she has to, but because she wants to.

… Yeah,” you finally murmur, feeling your cheeks warm with something that feels like ease. “… Thanks.”

 

 

 

You crawl out of bed and start getting dressed.

If she’s given you this life, the least you can do is live it for her.

 

 

 

Life without Peko proves difficult. (And that’s a thought that is always going to put a lump in your throat, that there is an “after Peko” in your life.) More times than you’d like, you catch yourself looking over your shoulder and expecting her to be there, one step back.

You make an effort to form some sort of connection with your classmates, whether it’s acceptance or just tolerance. You’re yakuza first and foremost, and upholding duty and justice is held in highest regard for your kind.

To your surprise, your classmates actually extend their hands in forgiveness.

It’s a hassle but you bite your tongue more often to soften your habitual vocabulary. (Turns out people get pretty offended when you call them shitheads too much.) You’re less skeptical, more trusting of the people around you. (Except Komaeda. He can go rot in hell.) As far as you’re concerned, you’re the real murderer here.

It’s hard not to think about Peko when you’re alone with your thoughts. Saionji’s shrine to Koizumi is ridiculous, but it’s a reminder that once upon a time you and Peko could have been equals. Moments like these are the most dangerous because it’s so easy for that feeling of self-pity to burrow its way into your heart once more.

But you know this isn’t how she would want things.

Whatever it takes, you’re going to get off this island. Nidai helped you to see that everything Peko gave you—memories, words, your own life—is a gift you’ll hold close to your heart forever. As soon as you’re back home, she’s going to get the most honorable funeral service a yakuza could ever hope for, money and parents be damned.

In her place, flowers will grow.

 

 

 

It’s a goddamn miracle.

When Junko tells you your friends will be alive again, you can't hear anything else but one name.

Peko. Peko, Peko, Peko.

It sounds too good to be true, but you don't care about anything else, you just want her back.

That is, until fucking Makoto fucking Naegi drops the bomb on you. That you’ll have to wake up with no memories of the simulation. That this is the better option. That your friends are gone, possibly forever, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

So that’s it. You have to choose between sacrificing Peko’s body to a monster with blood-red claws or relinquishing the better part of yourself.

It's not fair. You don't want to play this game anymore.

Your fingers grip the edge of the console. The metal feels cold and every bit the twisted reality your brain has tricked you into believing. You stare down at the choices laid before you. Graduate. Repeat. Graduate. Repeat.

Nothing you did ever mattered. Peko and Natsumi are gone. Your parents, your clan—they might already be gone too. You were just some pawn in a high school girl’s plot to overthrow the world. Even when you fight tooth and nail to be somebody worthy of respect, it gets ripped away from you. Even after you finally started owning up to your shortcomings, you're going to forget everything that made you brave.

You feel the claws closing in on you.

You were right all along. There’s no relief in waking up.

 

 

 

You wish you’d never asked to go catch fireflies.

 

 

 

—That's when she descends.

(It's ridiculous, sure, but you don't know how else to describe it. She fucking descends, striking down on those claws with a gleaming blade.)

You can hardly believe your eyes. She’s exactly as you remember: silver hair, graceful limbs, a regal posture. You shout her name—

—She throws you a sharp look and you can’t help but swallow your tongue.

“Did you not tell me you wouldn’t give up?!” she snaps, looking angrier than you’ve ever seen her before. (Well, perhaps that’s not true, but you’ve never seen that anger directed at you.)

“P… Peko?”

She doesn’t let up, approaching you with fiery purpose. “What happened to the drive to keep on living, the sheer determination to do things your own way? That monster tells you 'no' and suddenly it's gone? Is that all it takes? This is not the life you seek. Choosing to stay here with an imitation of your friends is nothing more than a pretty lie. Do you not see that?!”

You're shocked into silence.

The sword falls to her side and Peko gives a rueful smile. “But that's how we are, aren't we? Repeating the words we need to say until the other finally understands.”

That look of remorse is gone, replaced by something fiercer, more determined. She stands with her shoulders squared and her head held high and that blazing look in her eyes you didn't realize you loved until now. “Then I will say it again. Again, and again, and again. As many times as you need to hear it.

“Peko Pekoyama stands by your side. Not just as somebody who wishes to protect you, but as somebody who believes in you. Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu, you are exactly who you need to be. Take it from the one who has watched you grow into the man that you are now. I have never doubted you for a second and I certainly won't here. Now stand up and face this foe so that you can prove to the world just how strong you are.”

That’s all you needed.

You feel her hand over yours as you make your last stand.

 

 

 

You awake and she’s still asleep.

All your memories hit you at once, both the ones you forgot and the ones you thought you’d forget. (Turns out you’re actually 21.)

It really is a goddamn miracle.

 

 

 

At the moment, the future is uncertain.

You’re a group of terrorists stranded on a desert island with little to no connection to civilization.

You know your friends have a slim chance of ever waking up, you don’t need to be told twice about the logistics of it all. What matters is there’s a chance she’s still in there somewhere. It's a small thing, but it's a thing that gives you hope.

They’ll come for her. That much you can guarantee.

And come hell or high water, this time you won’t let them take her away.