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Reaching

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The room is dark and quiet, completely devoid of any signs of life except for the slight rise and fall of his chest as he lies on his back. The absence of windows keeps any traces of illumination from creeping in. Even the bedroom door fits seamlessly into its frame, barring any light whatsoever trying to make its way in from the outside world.

There’s no clock to be found anywhere at all in the room, not even a wristwatch. The slow, tedious ticking of an analogue would only rub at his nerves like an itch under the skin, and the searing glare of a digital would do nothing but ruin this tentative, lightless peace that he’s finally achieved. He’s already well aware that every so often the television will come on, informing him that it’s precisely eight in the morning or ten at night. Whether or not that information is actually correct doesn’t really interest him.

Time lost its meaning for him long ago in this game.

He stares aimlessly at nothing in particular. There’s no light with which to see anything, but even if there were, he’s left his usually-cluttered room barren this time around. Gone are the stacks of cardboard boxes, the piles upon piles of books and binders which were once haphazardly strewn all along the floor at random. Gone is the mountain of crumpled paper balls which once dominated his trash can, filling it to the brim with discarded theories, plans, and memos to himself. And gone too is the whiteboard which once stood front and center in the room, completely covered with pictures of his fellow classmates as he stood in front of it and tried for hours on end to pinpoint the link tying them together and the ringleader behind this game that they’re in.

Rather than just “gone,” he should say they never existed in this room in the first place. He doesn’t need them, this time around. There’s no point anymore.

Ouma stares at the ceiling, feeling the darkness pressing down on his eyelids every time he blinks, and thinks about the mechanical press which killed him—the last time.

It’s almost funny. He’d really thought that one might actually get the job done.

He sighs and shifts on the bed, hoists the covers up over his shoulders, and tries to sleep. But it’s a futile effort and he knows it. Exhaustion seeps through every bone in his body, beating like a drum (like a mechanical press crashing down) above his right eye, but he still won’t be able to sleep no matter how hard he tries.

After all, whenever he closes his eyes, he can clearly see each and every wrong step, wrong turn, wrong move, wrong guess he ever made playing out on the backs of his eyelids like a movie on a screen.

Chapter Text

“Ouma Kokichi,” he told them instantly, when the girl and boy asked for his name. That much came to him easily, but when they asked him for his talent next, he faltered. “I’m—” The answer tripped over his tongue, and he couldn’t quite figure out why.

“I’m the Super High School Level Supreme Leader,” he told them finally. It felt like the right answer, and yet it left him with a nagging, sour taste at the back of his mouth, as if he’d told them he was really blond-haired and six feet tall when they could clearly see for themselves that that wasn’t the case. He chalked it up to having woken up unconscious in a locker only half an hour earlier and pushed the sensation down before flashing them a grin.

“S-Supreme leader?” The boy in the hat went pale, and Ouma’s eyes lingered on the way his fingers instinctively twitched in surprise.

“I’m sure that’s just a joke,” the girl said, patting the other boy on the shoulder lightly. “Just a little joke to lighten the tension, right?” She arched an eyebrow back at him skeptically, clearly hoping for an affirmative.

The silence stretched on just a moment too long, and then he broke it with a laugh—

“No, it’s the truth.” There was that sour taste again. “I’m the Supreme Leader of a secret organization. But don’t worry. It’s nothing too dangerous as long as you don’t try to dig up too much information on it.”

The boy and the girl exchanged looks that clearly questioned the state of his sanity, but they didn’t pose any more objections to his introduction or his talent, and when the boy in the hat reluctantly reached out his hand for him to shake, he almost took it.

But the arrival of a strange-looking student—was that a robot?—interrupted the scene, and he took a step back and watched as the other two took the lead again.

---

“Who could have…done this?”

No one answered Gonta’s question as they all stood grouped together in the library, staring down collectively at the body which had previously been Amami-chan. The words seemed to hang in the air between them, as tangible as the layers of dust settled over the books on the shelves.

The only thing to break that silence was Monokuma, arriving to tell them all gleefully that since the culprit for the crime was refusing to step forward and name themselves, they’d be having an investigation—one resulting in an execution for either the culprit or the lot of them.

Doubt. Suspicion. He saw the seeds festering among them almost instantly, and the way in which they all took a step back, or held themselves a little more warily as soon as the news left Monokuma’s mouth. He wanted to do the same, in fact, but his eyes were fixed on the trails of blood seeping from Amami-chan’s skull, and he couldn’t move from the spot.

Who could have done this, indeed?

But that’s not really the right question, he thought to himself. Why would anyone do this?

It just didn’t add up. Why go through all the trouble to take a life, if not for the graduation opportunity which Monokuma had presented them with two days ago? Why kill for the sake of risking a trial?

As though in answer to his thoughts, Akamatsu-chan stepped forward into the center of their makeshift circle, and she raised her head high. “Everything’s going to be okay, everyone. We’re going to find out who did this, and we’re all going to get through this.”

It didn’t escape his notice that her voice was shaking and her cheeks were a little too flushed, but he could feel her intentions loud and clear all the same. Everyone else seemed to feel them, too, because Iruma-chan stopped grinding her teeth, Yumeno-chan’s eyes looked a little less unfocused than the last time he had glanced her way, and Gonta wiped his tears off on his sleeve cuff and sniffled twice before nodding.

“Akamatsu-chan’s right,” he said, speaking up so firmly that the rest of them did a double-take, as though they’d almost forgotten he was there. All but two of them towered over him physically, but he met their eyes with an old, familiar confidence. This was the kind of confidence expected of him as a Supreme Leader—the thought caused his head to pound, once, and he dismissed it quickly before consulting with Akamatsu-chan and Saihara-chan about how best to split the group up into investigation teams.

He sent them all off quickly and surely on the tasks that he thought best-suited to each of their talents, but as they all set off in twos and threes, he found his eyes pulled again to the blood-stained wood of the library floor.

---

 “I did it.”

Tears.

“I did it, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, everyone.”

More tears.

“I’m so sorry, Amami-kun.”

The whole group was a shambles, and Akamatsu-chan was standing in the center of their circle once again, only the difference this time was that she was about two minutes away from being sent off to die, and only because she’d wanted to help.

“Please live strongly. Live together, find the truth, and get out of here.”

She told them the entire sordid tale, about how she’d only wanted to target the ringleader and put an end to this game once and for all, about how she’d tried to stop the killing game before it even began. Her bravery shook them all to the core, and there wasn’t a dry-eyed one among them, not even Shinguuji-chan, whose tears were tingeing the edge of his mask a slightly darker color. Not even himself, he realized, and his fist shook as he tried to meet Akamatsu-chan’s eye while she said goodbye to each and every last one of them.

It’s the least I can do for her, as just one leader to another.

Knowing that they were all going to lose her hit them hard as a group, but he was fairly certain they could circumvent this worst-case scenario from happening again. As long as they weren’t hit with any more two-day time limits, he was sure they could limit their losses—

The metallic shriek of the collar snapping around Akamatsu-chan’s neck interrupted his train of thought. Everyone in the room yelped and stepped back, and Ouma watched, wide-eyed, as Monokuma showed them all for the first time the true meaning of the word “execution.”

Saihara-chan’s screams echoed across the room as they lost Akamatsu-chan from their numbers for good.

---

He had known that the gloom of the first trial would hang over them like a blanket in the following days. He had also known that things would be easier if he made them laugh.

The morning after the trial, they had all met up for breakfast and tried awkwardly to piece together where they might go from here. But no one’s heart had really been in it, and so when Toujou-chan expertly slid a plate of western-style breakfast in front of him at the table, he acted on his plan.

“Ah, thanks Mom! This really hits the sp—” A single beat in which everyone went silent, staring at him as though wondering if he had noticed his mistake. Perfect. “I-I mean, well…! Sorry, sorry! This kind of breakfast just made me think of, well—”

The room erupted with nervous chuckles, and even Toujou-chan’s normally immovable expression of refinement had looked a little strained, as though she were biting back the urge to smile. Despite themselves, they had all sounded just a little less miserable than before, and Ouma chalked it up to a victory.

---

He had thought they were recuperating.

Their progress had been slow but steady, and little by little it seemed they were all finally acclimating to things. Saihara-chan in particular had taken the most drastic leaps in development—Ouma had thought the pale boy dressed all in black would almost definitely hole himself up in his room and never come out again after what had happened at the school trial. But this development had been a pleasant surprise instead.

He tried formulating their best course of action. Of course, finding the truth and getting out of this place was important, but he thought it best that they all get accustomed to the school around them first. They would never last long if they couldn’t find a way to abate the tension somehow, and the laboratories and new areas of exploration had offered them all some small measure of comfort and distraction from the tragedy they’d witnessed.

Monokuma’s motive videos had posed a slight wrench in his plans, but it wasn’t as though he hadn’t anticipated another motive after the first one. Everyone agreed easily to the plan he had put forth: that as long as they only had motive videos for each other and not their own, it would be easy to avoid any deaths this time around.

Yumeno-chan’s magic show even seemed an exciting initiative. Perhaps a show to lighten the mood and boost morale was exactly what they all needed.

That was what he’d thought, before they’d found Hoshi-chan’s body floating in the tank, suspended there for only a single instant until the piranhas lunged and ripped the meat straight off his bones.

At the sight of everyone’s shocked faces, the tinged-red water of the tank while bones and chunks of flesh settled, and the bright, beaming smile on Yumeno-chan’s clueless face as she stood posing, unaware of the catastrophe behind her, Ouma felt the sour taste in his mouth again.

---

The time for the investigation was running out.

Only Momota-chan’s aggressive willingness to pitch in and Saihara-chan’s deductive skills seemed to be keeping them from entirely falling back. Well, this was only to be expected. A murder taking place only days after Akamatsu-chan’s sacrifice had smashed all that morale he’d spent time trying to boost into tiny pieces.

And he could already see in their eyes how they were convinced that Yumeno-chan had done it. But he wasn’t so sure himself.

As they passed along the pool, he stopped suddenly. In the midst of the dirty, stagnant water filling the pool to only half its capacity, there was something dark and ragged, as though it had torn at the edges.

“Saihara-chan! Over here!”

The other boy paused, already halfway to the other building after seeing nothing of interest, and doubled back to take a look at where he was pointing. They fished it out together, and all they could tell was that it might or might not be a piece of black fabric.

“Thanks, Ouma-kun. You’ve got a keen eye for this sort of thing.”

It was the first genuine, albeit tiny, smile he’d seen on Saihara-chan’s face since the whole fiasco had happened. Ouma flashed him a grin and threw his hands up behind his head, ignoring for just a moment or two longer the hell that they were about to have to face again.

---

Murmurs and hesitant whispers of “Why?” flew up from all around the trial room.

Toujou Kirumi stood a little ways apart from the rest of them, her gloved hands crossed elegantly in front of her, looking surprisingly resilient for someone who had just been sentenced to death.

“Hey, hey, when did it start? When did you start lying to all of us?” Angie-chan’s usually whimsical voice carried a rather stinging note for once. “You kept telling us you were going to take care of us, but was that always a lie?” Her eyes seemed surprisingly sharp for a girl so often looking to the heavens as she talked about her god.

Ouma thought back to the western-style breakfasts and all the offers to do laundry, thought back to the “slip of the tongue” he’d had in calling her a mother in front of everyone. If he and Saihara-chan hadn’t found that piece of her glove, just where would they be now? Would she even have shed a tear as they all went past to their deaths? And even if she had, would those tears have meant anything at all?

Don’t be stupid, he thought. Of course not. No one would care for others more than themselves in a situation like this. And I’m a fool if I thought otherwise for one second.

How could he have fallen for such an obvious ruse? They had all fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker, but wasn’t he the one most at fault for failing to see through it? What kind of Supreme Leader did that?

Not a very good one.

“If I tell you, you’re all going to be very sorry.” Toujou-chan’s voice had cut in among the whispers and clatter, still clear and refined even in such a situation. “You’ll regret knowing. Are you sure you’d still like me to tell you?”

They all hesitated for only a few moments before nodding in unison.

---

The room was like a scene of a massacre, just like a picture taken straight from a history book he was sure he’d read at one point or another—one of the pictures that the teacher would always tell you to skip past, of course.

I never should have let her speak.

Another crash. More screams. The Exisals were on a firing rampage, and everywhere he looked there was blood, blood, blood, more blood—

I never should have let her even open her mouth.

Ouma wasn’t even sure where he was going, or if there was anywhere to go. The room was an explosion of screams and gunfire, and if he stopped too long he might notice Momota-chan’s body, groaning and wheezing on the floor, or Gonta with a chunk missing out of one of his shoulders but struggling still to stand in front of Yumeno-chan and Chabashira-chan.

His eyes darted around the room, caught sight of an elegant maid in a black dress just managing to slip to the exit—

I should’ve known that’d be her plan.

A hole opened up in his chest the moment he stopped moving, and the entire world shuddered as he fell on his side. He had to keep going, had to find a way to stop Toujou-chan from…from what? Everyone in the room was already dead or dying.

How could I have hoped to avoid this scenario, exactly?

Ah, it hurt—it hurt, it hurt, it hurt

There was a strangely elated feeling in the pit of his stomach as he closed his eyes and let the world go dark.

---

He woke up in a cramped locker, the taste of blood in his mouth and a pounding in his head just over his right eye. The darkness pressed in like a vise, and he threw himself against the locker door, staggering out in confusion before heaving the contents of his stomach all over the floor.

Am I dead? Am I alive?

He couldn’t find a good answer to those questions, and the pressure behind his eye still kept building until his whole head felt like it was about to split. His entire mouth tasted unbelievably sour.

He’d been here once before, but he couldn’t think of any good reason for it to be happening again. The last thing he remembered was a car, dark figures—

Huge machines, with bullets firing

Yelling for help—

Screaming in pain

He was still on the floor retching when someone else ran in, and he felt the sensation of a cold, metallic hand along his back.

“Excuse me! Hey, are you okay? Are you okay, what’s your name?”

Ouma wondered if he should have never stepped out of that locker the second time.


Pin pon pon pon!

He opens his eyes a slit as the television suddenly comes on in the room, blindingly bright after fourteen hours of sheer darkness. It tells him that it is now 10:00pm, and he goes back to tuning the rest of the program out, letting the colorful figures bounce around and put on their useless show until the screen blinks off again.

He’s thankful for the strain being taken off of his eyes, but it’s still not as though he’ll be able to sleep.


They had all thought he was scared, probably. Or it was more like, they hadn’t known what to make of him.

He never introduced himself, when they came again. Kiibo had called out frantically for help, and the girl and the boy with the hat had come running, and Ouma had taken one look at Akamatsu Kaede’s still very-much-alive face and turned to retch again, only that time there hadn’t been anything to come up except bile.

It took him half an hour to stop shaking, and the whole time they kept looking over at him awkwardly, clearly unsure of what to say. Occasionally someone else would walk past the classroom to peek in and see what the commotion was about or introduce themselves, but he just stared speechlessly at them.

“Yo. The name’s Amami Rantarou. Everything okay in here, or…?”

He didn’t say anything in reply, only stared speechlessly at the same familiar hair and face and body of a boy he was fairly certain he’d seen dead on a library floor. Akamatsu-chan looked at him pityingly for a split second before standing up and taking the conversation out to the hallway. Perhaps they thought that would be kinder on him, but he still heard the words “in shock” nonetheless.

Saihara-chan continued to send him tense glances every so often from the safety his cap provided, as though afraid he might pass out or start screaming at any moment, but Ouma just ignored him.

He closed his eyes and tried to sort out his memories, to figure out what he remembered just before waking up. But as he thought back on a black car pulling up, dark hands grabbing him in the middle of broad daylight on a busy street, he kept remembering Akamatsu-chan’s limp corpse dangling over the keys of a piano, Amami-chan’s body curled in on itself while the blood oozed out of his skull, and he couldn’t tell if there was any difference between one set of memories or the other.

---

“Hey, Amami-chan.”

Ouma raised a hand in greeting and the other boy waved back, although hesitantly.

He had never greeted any of the group with his usual gusto this time around—even after the whole locker incident had passed, he’d barely had it in him to tell them his name before stumbling back to his room. They probably thought of him as a nervous wreck.

There was no way for him to tell them what he’d seen. In the end, he just let them think he was claustrophobic from being shoved into the locker, and in shock from being kidnapped.

He wasn’t even sure of what he had seen. There was always the possibility that it had been some kind of—hallucination. Maybe he was still hallucinating, in fact.

He also wasn’t sure of whether that possibility was comforting or not.

But the more he thought on Amami-chan, Akamatsu-chan, and Hoshi-chan’s lifeless bodies, the more he felt he ought to do something. Hallucination or not, it had all felt very real at the time. And if things were still proceeding the same way, and they were all heading down the same path in this same killing game, then he felt he at least should try avoiding the same outcome. What kind of person could see all of that and not even try to intervene, after all?

Not a very good one.

He wasn’t sure where to begin, though. Telling any of them that he’d seen them dead would only convince them that he was out of his mind, or easily the most suspicious member of the group. They’d probably just take it as a threat.

And so hesitantly, as though testing out the waters, he had asked: “You’re not…trying to do anything by yourself, are you? I mean about the time limit?”

Amami-chan looked at him long and hard, the usual half-smile gone from his face as his expression hardened. Ouma blinked, trying to keep his face impassive.

“Of course not,” Amami-chan said, after the silence went on far too long. “I wouldn’t do something like that. Probably wouldn’t end well, you know?”

“Right, yeah.” Ouma saw a muscle twitch in the other boy’s jaw and knew that he was lying without even knowing how to put it in words himself. “Well, I was just asking. Everyone’s been worrying about the time limit lately, and it wouldn’t be good if anyone went off doing things on their own…I’m just trying to help.” He smiled and put his hands behind his head, trying to remember just how he’d managed to look friendly the first time around. “I’m the Super High School Level Supreme Leader, you know.”

Amami-chan looked a little less suspicious after that, his eyebrows arching up behind his bangs. Then his slight half-smile returned. “No offense, Ouma-kun, but I wouldn’t really have pegged that for your talent.”

Then he turned and left Ouma alone in the middle of the hallway.

---

“Ouma-kun, why would you think that?”

He’d known Amami-chan wasn’t going to listen to him, so he’d thought perhaps Akamatsu-chan might. But the situation wasn’t going any better, and he didn’t know how to defuse it.

“I—I just heard you and Saihara-chan talking about meeting up in the library the other day,” he lied. Well, technically it wasn’t a lie. It probably still counted as only a few days ago when he’d heard them both admitting their plans to meet up in the library together, after they’d found Amami-chan’s body.

She studied him shrewdly, clearly trying to see if he was implying anything or not. But he hadn’t told her anything more specific than that she shouldn’t go snooping around the library because it would end badly, and she clearly didn’t know how to make heads or tails of it.

After a while, she sighed and scratched her head. “Look, I don’t know what you heard or thought you heard—”

He stared at her unblinkingly, almost daring to hope for half a second that she might change her mind about the whole thing, even if Amami-chan didn’t.

“—but it’s not nice to make up lies.”

---

Again. He saw it all again.

Everything went exactly the same, right down to the spatters of blood on the library floor and the way Akamatsu-chan’s fist trembled when she stood there and saw the body, only now he knew exactly why she was trembling in the first place.

At the trial, they all hit the exact same roadblocks, and he could see the hesitation on Saihara-chan’s face, and the fear of exposing a lie for a more painful truth. But Ouma no longer wanted to wait around for the trial to play out painfully, gradually, slowly, the way that it had the other time.

Like ripping a band-aid off a wound in one go, he spoke up, causing a sudden hush to fall over the rest of the group. “Hey, Akamatsu-chan…weren’t you and Saihara-chan both hanging around the library before all this happened?”

He could see the hurt in her eyes, see her wonder why he’d speak with such noticeable accusation in his voice when she was already steeling her resolve and biting her lip as she tried to ready herself for what she had to do.

But he pressed his point. After all, she was the one who had said she didn’t like lies.

---

He passed by Toujou-chan on the way to do his laundry, just a few days after the trial.

“Ouma-kun? Is there anything that I can lend a hand with? This is my lab after all, feel free to ask. I can do anything that needs being done.”

He hefted the laundry basket up before it slipped, as it was full to the brim with the same copies of his uniform. It was something he’d been delaying, having spent most of his time recently by dragging a whiteboard into his room from one of the unused classrooms, along with a whole mess of binders, notebooks, and any spare writing materials he could find. He’d been devoting his time lately to thinking about the second trial that he knew was coming, but that meant he hadn’t exactly been paying much attention to daily necessities like clean clothes.

The pile made it difficult for him to see where he was going, but he could still make out Toujou-chan’s elegant, tall figure peering down at him as she stood where her laboratory and the school washing machines intersected. He might almost have thought her offer kind, even if it was just her way of trying to fulfill her talent to the fullest. But now it was hard for him not to snort.

He set the basket down on the floor and opened one of the machine doors, then flashed her a smile as though in thanks. “No thanks, Toujou-chan. I can take care of it myself. Even though I look like this, I’m actually pretty good at handling my own chores.”

She looked him over dubiously, but there were definite signs of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she nodded. “If that’s what you’d like, then.”

“Yeah, of course.” Ouma turned back to the washing machine and began throwing clothes in. “Wouldn’t want to make any trouble for Mom, after all.”

---

He paused just before rapping on Hoshi-chan’s door.

It was best to get it over with and try, he knew—but what exactly was he supposed to say?

Hey, look, I know you want to die and all, but trust me, I’ve been there and it didn’t work out so good. Hey, I even woke up again like it never happened… Yeah, that wasn’t the best course of action.

He sighed and tapped his knuckles against the door after all.

After a few moments, the door opened a crack, and then Hoshi Ryouma stood there in the doorway looking up at him suspiciously.

“…You?” The tennis player looked past him on either side, clearly wondering why he was here outside his door like this when they very nearly hadn’t said a word to each other ever since the day the game had begun. “S’ there a problem or something?”

He didn’t sound hostile, merely unable to comprehend what he could possibly want from him. Ouma sympathized a little at the notion that this was a person who didn’t think of himself as someone who had anything to offer to others—and that he hadn’t noticed that about him at all, last time. It didn’t sound like something a Supreme Leader should overlook in a group he was trying to take care of.

“No, there’s no problem. I just wanted to talk to you…” He let his sentence trail off, still contemplating the best possible way to broach the subject. Clearly, he’d botched his chances with Amami-chan and Akamatsu-chan. He wasn’t even sure there was a right way to phrase this kind of thing at all. “…I wanted to ask what you thought about the whole plan with the motive videos.”

Hoshi-chan’s face darkened, more out of surprise than anything else. “What I thought? What, you mean, like if I wanted to see mine or something?”

Ouma nodded. “Something like that. I mean, I know we discussed it already at the meeting earlier, but you get what I mean when I say it’d be really dangerous to go looking for our own videos, right?”

Hoshi-chan didn’t respond, so he continued talking on ahead, trying to fill in the silence. “I don’t think you would, I’m just—worried something bad might happen if any of us saw our own videos. It doesn’t sound like something we should let Monokuma bait us into.”

The awkward silence stretched out again, and just when he thought Hoshi-chan would never answer—

“Yeah, well, that ain’t gonna happen. No need to worry about me.”

The door slammed in his face.

---

At the second trial, Ouma felt as though a lump were stuck in his throat. Part of it was undeniably due to the fact that Hoshi-chan had wound up in the piranha tank the exact same way as last time, but the sensation was mostly due to the fact that he knew the hard part was from here on out.

Toujou-chan stood with her hands clasped, and this time he knew better than to think that she had begun resigning herself to her fate.

“Are you sure you’d still like me to tell you?” There came the same familiar words as last time, and he watched with narrowed eyes as the whole group leaned in close and listened to her speech about how the whole of Japan was falling into chaos in her absence, how it’d be better if the whole lot of them were to die for her sake.

She spoke eloquently, confidently, and as sincerely as a mother to her children. He could tell, as his eyes bored holes into the side of her face, that she believed every single word she was saying. But there was still something about her words that stank, horribly.

He didn’t let a single moment pass this time. The group was just beginning to get well and truly riled up when he spotted her, trying to slip her way unnoticed to the back of the room as everyone debated whether or not they could take on the Exisals with the forces they had now—

“Hey, Toujou-chan!” Their eyes locked. “Like it or not, we voted for you. Don’t you think it’s kind of unfair for you to miss your own execution?”

The room went dead silent for one beat, two beats, and then Toujou-chan sprinted off at a run as all the Exisals in the room pointed her way. Monokuma erupted into a fit of cackles, and Ouma stood and watched and reminded himself that at least he and the others were still left standing in the room this time around.

---

As Toujou-chan’s body slammed to the floor with a dull finality, Ouma found he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

I should hate her. I should.

He remembered the bullets that tore open his chest the last time, the screams and blood and chaos in the air as everyone had tried to avoid the Exisals, the dead bodies littering the ground. They’d avoided that outcome, and that was all that mattered.

But all he could think as he looked at Toujou-chan’s prone corpse was the way in which she’d fought to the end, struggling to reach the exit even as the saws began to grind against her bones—and the look on her face once she had realized that there’d never been an exit all along, and she came crashing back down to the full weight of gravity, and of death.

It left him with a curiously light sensation in the pit of his stomach, and that same sour taste in his mouth.

---

He threw himself full force into his investigation after that. It was all new territory to him, from this point on. He hadn’t even lived this long last time, and he wasn’t nearly naïve enough to think that Monokuma wouldn’t hit them with another motive soon enough.

Unsure of what he needed from the library or from other rooms, he took everything that he could carry, piling it all into cardboard boxes until they were half his weight and struggling to push them surreptitiously down hallways when nobody else was around.

One night, he read up on lockpicking in one of the books he had stashed away, and thought it a potentially useful talent for future investigations. He readied himself in front of his bedroom door to practice—only to find that he was surprisingly good at it. As he stared from his right hand to his left, he tried long and hard to think of where he might have picked up a talent like lockpicking. It didn’t seem like something particularly essential to a Super High School Level Supreme Leader…

He remained lost in thought until his head throbbed, once, and decided to drop the issue and leave it for later.

As he hung pictures up on his whiteboard, he put culprits to the left, victims to the right, and the ones remaining even farther right. If there was one thing he was sure of, it was that the ringleader behind this whole game had to be somewhere within that group still.

He stared at his handiwork as he spun the marker around between his index finger and thumb, not even sure where to start. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could at least avoid moving any more pictures to the left-most part of the board from now on.


The television hasn’t come on again when he opens his eyes next, so he can only surmise that it’s not morning yet.

For the first time in hours, he sits up in his bed, letting the sheets fall off of him as he stretches his aching joints. Lack of use is only making them sorer, but he doesn’t particularly care. They’re always sore, whenever he starts over. They never stop being sore.

Ouma just stares blankly towards the center of his room, almost certain for a moment that he can still see the outline of a whiteboard and cluttered heaps of cardboard boxes, all the fruits of an investigation that in the end amounted to absolutely nothing.

That’s impossible, of course. The room is still pitch black, and it’s only been an hour or two since he last tried (and failed) to sleep. He turns back on his side and closes his eyes again, and for a moment he almost would swear he can faintly hear the steady thrum of a mechanical press, but it’s just the sound of the blood rushing in his ears.


He never raised a complaint against Angie-chan and her Religious Student Council, but maybe he should’ve.

Looking back on it, the group only added layers of unnecessary conflict to their already suffocating situation. Stupidly, he had thought that maybe religion was something some of his classmates needed—that it would comfort them somehow, to feel like something was protecting them, even though he had already died once and he could’ve told them that even if god existed, they certainly weren’t looking out for him or them or anyone else.

That much was plain to see when he picked the lock on the art room door, and he and Saihara-chan stumbled in on Angie-chan’s corpse lying on her side, the floor beneath her stained slick with blood from a gash near the base of her neck.

It wasn’t until later, while they were carrying out their investigation, that he realized perhaps he should have pretended to be a bit more surprised about the wax dolls. But he already knew what it was like to walk into a room and see the dead brought back to life, so he supposed it couldn’t be helped that a mere imitation just didn’t quite cut it for him.

In fact, he was finding it very hard not to count Angie-chan’s body as just another wax doll in the room. Maybe if he died again he’d stumble out of a locker and there she’d be, walking and talking and praying to her deaf, uncaring god.

---

With one dead body already accounted for, he didn’t foresee there being another one.

As he stared down at the open wound in Chabashira-san’s neck, he apologized silently. He hadn’t meant to get complacent. He hadn’t meant to assume that this kind of tragedy wouldn’t happen again just because it had already hit them once. After all, wasn’t he the best one to know that there wasn’t necessarily a limit on anything at all in this horrible game?

But didn’t I do the exact same thing with Akamatsu-chan? Didn’t I also let my guard down with Amami-chan and Hoshi-chan, even with Toujou-chan, when I already knew it was coming?

Yumeno-chan’s gaze was blank and unseeing, left mostly in shadow by the large brim of her hat hanging over her face. But even if she were to look at him, he wasn’t sure he could meet her eyes.

“Monokuma…just to check, but what happens if there are two culprits of two different crimes? What are the rules in the school trial?”

Ouma’s head snapped up at the sound of Shinguuji-chan’s soft, thoughtful voice, and in that moment he knew, although he couldn’t even explain to himself how. But there were those in this game who would kill only because of the game itself, and those who thought of killing itself as the game, and Shinguuji-chan was undeniably one of the latter.

He threw himself into the investigation with such a fervor afterwards that even Saihara-chan seemed a little lost, uncertain as to why he was traipsing through blood trails in the hallway or making a dash for Shinguuji-chan’s lab, where he searched for a familiar, gold sheath which he knew had housed a katana only yesterday.

He collected as much evidence as possible, making lines and connecting points on the canvas in his head since he lacked his whiteboard here, trying desperately to ignore the nagging voice in his head that kept wondering if he’d still wake up in a locker again if he failed to prove the culprit this time around.

---

Everyone had their reasons for killing, he supposed.

Akamatsu-chan had had hers. The whole group had understood her, had loved her, had known exactly how much it had cost her to take that risk for their sake. Even Toujou-chan had had hers, claiming the weight of the entire country on her shoulders, willing to do absolutely anything it took if it meant returning to the people who needed her the most.

They weren’t reasons he could necessarily forgive, or condone. Complete forgiveness was a line he found dangerous: if you forgave one murder, could you forgive another? At what point did it become okay to take another life? And even if you thought it was okay, would you be able to look the person you were about to kill in the eye, explain your reasoning, and still believe it was really, truly right?

He didn’t believe there was ever a point at which it was okay to draw that line and call it forgivable. But he could understand why most people would say that they had their reasons.

But Shinguuji-chan, shaking, sweating now, his mask pulled up to reveal surprisingly feminine features and a mouth that could only stammer out one word, over and over again, had no reasons at all. No reasons they could ever understand, anyway.

Apologize, apologize, apologize, apologize—”

Ouma stared at the young man, dumbstruck, too shocked to tear his eyes away but certain nonetheless that the others must have had their mouths open just like him. He’d killed two people. He’d taken two lives, he’d looked them all in the eye and tried to pin it on Yumeno-chan, and now that he had no other recourse, he shook at the thought of death creeping down his back all the same.

Apologize, apologize, apologize, apologize—”

None of them could find words. No matter how much he screamed and shrieked, there was no longer any denying the fact that he had killed two more of their classmates. There was nothing that could save him from his fate. For someone who so often had praised the “beauty of humans,” it seemed a very pathetic sight.

Apologize, apologize, apologize, apologize—”

Ah, why did he have to keep shouting just the one word…

More than that, why was it such a familiar word?

Why would he, a Supreme Leader, be made to apologize for anything…?

“Ahhh…looks like you guys completely broke him. Too bad.”

Monokuma’s deadpan voice startled him out of his reverie, causing his head to snap from Shinguuji-chan to where the bear sat, still looking slumped and relatively uninterested in the trial at large.

“Not that that doesn’t have its own charms, but it’s just kind of sounding like a broken record by this point, don’tcha think?” Monokuma heaved a surprisingly convincing sigh for an animatronic robot. “Well, whatever. Guess it’s voting time.”

Long after Shinguuji-chan’s screams had faded away and the smell of smoke and salt was strong in the air, Ouma stared at the wall and heard a chorus of apologize, apologize, apologize, apologize beating in his brain, teasing at memories he couldn’t quite place.

---

He tried as best he could not to dwell too much on the things they’d all heard and seen at Shinguuji-chan’s trial. But the confidence they’d had, that no one would risk a murder even in this kind of game if it weren’t for reasons that most people could understand, was shattered.

The investigation was back at the forefront of his mind, preoccupying all his time. He’d snatched even more binders and books from the library, reluctantly moved three more pictures over to the left side of his whiteboard, and even more reluctantly come to the conclusion that his investigation was at a standstill unless he could investigate his remaining classmates even more directly.

This was how he found himself standing outside Harukawa Maki’s laboratory door late at night, well after the 10:00pm announcement had come on. Angie-chan’s Religious Student Council might have tried to keep them all well under-thumb and stuck in the dormitories, but Angie-chan wasn’t here anymore, and her short-lived reign was at its end.

He stared at the imposing red door, wondering if it was really alright to barge right in. She’d made it painfully clear both times that he’d met her that she wouldn’t tolerate anyone trying to take a look inside. She’d very specifically mentioned the word “screaming.”

But that just piqued his curiosity all the more. Why would a Super High School Level Childcare Worker feel the need to say that?

No matter how he looked at it, nothing about her added up.

If worse came to worse, he could probably fudge his reasons for being there, come up with some quick excuse about wanting to talk with her or check something with her…

Swallowing hard, he turned the knob, pulled the door open, and—

—was met with the sight of Harukawa-chan standing with her back turned to him in the center of the room, throwing knives into target dummies hanging on the wall with a degree of inhuman accuracy.

His mind went blank. He should have turned on his heel and run before she even knew he was there, but dumbly, his mouth opened and he could only say a blank, “…Harukawa-chan?”

In the time it took him to draw his next breath, the knife she had reached for clattered to the floor, and she was across the room before he could blink, lifting him up with one hand around his throat.

You.”

She didn’t even seem to register what she was doing as anything out of the ordinary. It didn’t even seem to be taking her any effort whatsoever as she lifted his frame and squeezed around his windpipe more and more tightly.

“H-Harukawa—ch—” His words came out like a wheeze, choked and mangled. His hands scrambled to find purchase on the hand around his throat, trying desperately to peel even a finger or two back so he might be able to get in just one more breath, but her grip was like a vise, and her one hand was more than enough to hold him in place, even as he struggled with all his might.

“I told you not to come in here,” she said. Plainly. Coldly. As if it were a matter of fact. As if her choking him like this was all his fault, a simple necessity like stomping on a bug that you’d found crawling on your living room floor.

“Pl—e—ase—” He couldn’t see even the walls of the room around him now. The longer she choked him, the more his head swam; he was finding it harder and harder to keep moving his hands.

Please don’t, he wanted to say. This is pointless, this is reckless, this is meaningless. You’re only going to get killed too, or everyone else is, and what’s the point even

He had known what it was to fear death, but Harukawa Maki taught him what it was to fear pain.

With his lungs aflame and the world a mess of pitch-black spots, at some point he lost consciousness.

---

The next time he opened his eyes and found himself standing in a locker, he didn’t come out for a long time.

Instead he slumped to the floor of the locker, staring vaguely up at what little light the slits at the top allowed in. His chest rose and fell rapidly, but instead of gasping for air that he no longer found himself lacking, he just rubbed at his throat beneath the scarf that covered it. He could swear he felt the phantom traces of Harukawa-chan’s unyielding fingers there still, even when he knew it was impossible.

Was she the ringleader? Was she not? Had she just killed him for reasons completely unrelated to any rhyme, reason, or motive within the killing game? He didn’t know.

Unbidden, more memories of the same dark car and reaching hands came to him.

He could remember plenty of things. His name was Ouma Kokichi, that was one. He had been kidnapped, that was another. He had watched his classmates die and kill and be put to death more times than he would like, there, that was another.

So why was it that his memories of his talent felt so…congealed, like a layer of film was covering them, never quite letting them come into focus?

He was the Super High School Level Supreme Leader. That much felt obvious to say. And yet…distinctly not right.

With his mouth still tasting sour, he touched at his throat lightly one last time before stepping out of the locker. And this time, when Kiibo came into the room and asked if he was okay, he looked him in the eye, smiled easily, and said, “Sure.”

---

“…You don’t have to sigh like that, Akamatsu-chan. I might be malicious to you, but…that’s your fault, you know?”

Even he wasn’t sure why he’d teased her so hard, when she’d come by to ask if he wanted to spend time together. In the past two loops, he’d accepted her offer gladly, and they’d talked at length about group leadership strategies, classical music pieces, and favorite types of tea.

But this time around, he’d strung her along, made her feel as if he wanted to spend time with her one moment, then shot her down the next. She was clearly losing her patience, running her fingers through her hair messily as she heaved out a sigh. This time around, it was plain to see she was regretting not spending her time with anybody else right now.

“My fault?” Her irritation faltered as her eyes widened.

That’s a lie, he wanted to say. Except it wasn’t. He kept remembering how she’d looked through him the last time, how easily she’d started to doubt him the moment he’d spoken up about the library. The Akamatsu Kaede in front of him now wasn’t the same as the Akamatsu Kaede who had rejected his attempt at helping her so coldly before. It really wasn’t fair to take things out on her like this. And yet…

He gnawed at his lip. If he’d failed to get through last time, then he’d just have to try harder this time. The fact that he was being given another chance at all like this was beyond his ability to understand, but he knew he should at least make the most of it.

“I mean…you’re…forgetting about me…” The words came unbidden from his mouth, slowly, hesitantly, not entirely true or false. No one would believe the whole story, if he told them he kept waking up again every time he died—he’d already seen the pity in their eyes last time, when they had thought he was breaking down and losing his senses.

She wasn’t technically forgetting him. After all, there was nothing to forget, this time around. They’d never met before this game. But maybe she’d understand better if he put it in these terms. Maybe if she could understand what he meant, then he actually stood a chance of explaining the situation to her more fully…

“Eh? I forgot?!”

Ouma searched her pale, shocked face for any traces of understanding, and could find none.

“Akamatsu-chan, you’re cruel! Even though I never forgot about you this whole time! Even though I cared about you…!”

She only went paler at this, and a part of his conscience twinged as he wondered if maybe he should stop. It really wasn’t a lie—but it also wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Even if he tried to explain how he’d “never forgotten,” she had absolutely no way of understanding what he meant.

“A-Are you sure you aren’t just mistaking me for someone else?” Akamatsu-chan stammered the words out nervously, clearly put off by the straightforward concern with which he spoke.

She raised a good point. Technically, she was someone else. But she also wasn’t. “How could I ever mistake you for anyone else? I mean, do you know any other Super High School Level Pianists, Akamatsu-chan?”

It was the best hint he could think to offer, but it went unnoticed, like bait left untouched on a fishing hook. He stared at her with wide, round eyes as she fumbled for words, and as the moments ticked by without her catching on, he came to the dry, unsatisfying conclusion that she simply wasn’t going to.

In the end, he threw his hands behind his head and laughed at her. “Wow, you really fell for a huge lie like that! You must be really soft!”

Akamatsu-chan furrowed her brow and looked at him with undisguised disliking, clearly averse to the idea that she’d spent so much time worrying, only to be made fun of in the end. That was fair. But he had one last hint for her, before he let their time together end, and this one he hoped would leave more of an impression, rather than going right over her head.

“Hey, but if you keep being that soft—don’t you think you’ll wind up being the first one to die?”

---

As he stood in front of his whiteboard that night, he bit at his thumbnail absently, wondering if it might be feasible to go snoop around the library himself for a change.

He knew the general layout of how the trap Akamatsu-chan would set would work—no, not “would,” that wasn’t decided yet. She might not set it still. He knew how the trap she had set in the past worked, and he knew the location of the door to the ringleader’s lair in the library, even if he still had absolutely no idea what could be beyond it.

If he were to stay there, safeguard that door, and make sure Amami-chan couldn’t come anywhere near the place where the ball was bound to fall…

They’ll think I’m the ringleader.

Ouma stopped biting, distracted momentarily by the realization that he’d gone too far down past the quick, and now blood was welling up. He searched briefly for a tissue, couldn’t find one, and wiped it off instead on the corner of a spare scrap of paper before turning to the board again.

No matter how he ran it through in his head, that was the only conclusion he could foresee. If he stuck around the library, in that particular place, at that particular time, either Amami-chan or Akamatsu-chan would be bound to think he was the ringleader, there to creep back into his secret lair. And if both of them wanted nothing more than to kill the ringleader in order to prolong the time limit, well—he already could guess how that would turn out.

He thought long and hard about the ball that had cracked Amami-chan’s skull wide open, remembered without wanting to the feeling of a bullet ripping through his chest, and of hard, unyielding fingers wrapped around his throat.

It hadn’t been that long since he had last woken up in the locker. He decided that night that he wasn’t going to waste his time if he would just wind up at square one all over again by the first two days.

---

“Let me see the motive video you got, Hoshi-chan.”

The tennis player looked the most surprised he’d ever seen him, his usually creased eyebrows arched high in complete astonishment. Ouma just stared at him calmly, his face carefully neutral.

“What the—Weren’t you the one who said we weren’t gonna watch the videos? You said it was a bad idea or somethin’?”

“Oh, that was a lie.” It was getting easier and easier to say that. “I wanted to calm everyone down, but I can’t really guess what Monokuma might be planning unless I watch the videos for myself.”

There was a long pause. Hoshi-chan clearly seemed to be trying to sort out how much of what he was saying right now was true or not, and Ouma was glad to see from his face that he couldn’t reach a conclusion one way or the other.

The other boy crossed his arms and stared up at him dubiously. “Still, why d’you wanna see whose I got? It ain’t got nothin’ to do with you, anyway,” he said gruffly. “Look, I dunno what you’re planning, but you gotta know it sounds fishy. Leave me out of it.”

He made to slam the door again, but Ouma was expecting it this time, and stuck out a hand, pushing it back just before it could close in his face.

He smiled with a little too much ease. “Look, Hoshi-chan, it’s not very nice of you to talk about my plans when you’re still trying to hide your plans. I already know you want to see your own motive video, and I know who you think has it,” he said, thinking back to how twice now he’d seen Harukawa Maki standing coldly at the class trial, arms crossed and refusing to give the rest of the group her alibi. “Let me take one look at the motive video you got, and I’ll stay out of your way.”

There was a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach as he said it, a sense of dread and resignation all at once. Sorry, Hoshi-chan, he thought. It’s not decided that you’re going to die this time around. But this is just in case.

Hoshi-chan stared at him from the crack in the door long and hard, clearly trying to make up his mind. Just when it seemed like he’d never answer—

“You ain’t trying to hurt no one, are you?” The words came slowly and skeptically, but they carried a ring of defeat to them.

“No,” Ouma said, glad that there was at least one question in this conversation he could answer quickly, and honestly.

Hoshi Ryouma disappeared from the doorway and returned again, holding out a thin tablet for him to take. When he made to shut the door again, Ouma called out, remembering the reason he’d come here in person, instead of just picking the locks when Hoshi-chan was out of his room.

“Thanks, Hoshi-chan. You’re really helping me out here. I’d be in a pinch if you weren’t around, you know?”

He could hear Hoshi-chan snort from the other side of the doorway. “Yeah, like I believe that.”

The door slammed shut again.

---

Safely back in his room, he watched the video to his heart’s content.

Most of it only confirmed the suspicions he’d been festering since he had woken up in the locker last (since he’d last had the life choked out of him bit by bit—), but he wasn’t a single step closer to knowing if she was the ringleader or not.

On the whole, he rather doubted it. Someone like her, she wasn’t a thinker. She did as she was told and she didn’t think for one second to question otherwise. That she’d be imaginative enough to fool them all and run this entire killing game seemed unlikely. But he still didn’t move to grab one of his whiteboard markers, or to push her picture out of the list of suspects.

It was unlikely that she was the ringleader. …But just in case, he’d rather not discount his options just yet.

Still, it was with a grim sort of satisfaction that he replayed the video again. Even if he had yet to stop the usual victims from dying, he had changed things last time, when he’d pointed the finger at Toujou-chan. Getting them to trust him was starting to seem an impossible task, but it’d been easy enough to change things when he’d started doubting them.

“Harukawa Maki—Super High School Level Assassin!” Monokuma’s voice blared through the thin speakers a second time. “A tragic orphan girl, but she found solace and family in the sweet, sweet children who flocked to her…”

Ouma stared at the screen, remembered the sensation of his windpipe being crushed, and began formulating a plan with something like relish.

---

“Hoshi-chan sure must have been delicious, though! I mean, did you see the way those piranhas just jumped on him—”

Ugh!” Yumeno-chan covered her mouth with her hands, looking distinctly queasy. “Stop it—stop it, I’m going to be sick—”

“I mean, really, they just gobbled him up! Didn’t leave a scrap behind! Kind of makes you wonder what he tasted like, right?”

Chabashira-chan looked at Yumeno-chan worriedly, then back over to him, clearly unable to grasp where this had come from when they were supposed to be debating alibis. “Stop! Just stop, can’t you see you’re making her sick?”

“I mean, I wonder what he must’ve tasted like, at least. Not that they left any for the rest of us to try, but I guess that’s what makes me even more curious. I mean, they could’ve left just one bite, right? Just one?”

“I said stop!”

Chabashira-chan’s raised voice cut across the trial room, but Ouma’s eyes never stopped flicking between Toujou-chan and Harukawa-chan, a smirk playing on the corners of his mouth. Every single person in the room looked a mixture of queasy and startled, even angry, and yet those two seemed curiously calm in the midst of it all. His smirk widened a little.

“Nishishi… Sorry, sorry. I was just curious is all.”

---

Harukawa Maki’s hands wrapped around his throat for the second time, but this time he had witnesses.

“Oh…?” He stared her down as she lifted his feet off the ground, forcing himself to smile even as he felt the sweat forming on his brow. “A-Are you really going to kill me…in front of everyone else…?”

Harukawa-chan stared right back, her eyes cold, but unlike last time there was real anger in her gaze, and he was glad to see it.

There were so many questions he wanted to snipe back at her, but he scarcely had the breath for all of them, so he settled for just one. “That seems…strange…c-considering your talent, right? Unless there’s something you…want to tell the rest of us? Harukawa Maki-chan? Super High School Level Assassin?”

Just as her lip curled into a sneer and Ouma wondered if even having witnesses around wasn’t enough to stop her instinct to kill, someone in the group—probably Momota-chan, he thought lightheadedly—yelled for her to put him down, and he suddenly hit the ground with a thud as the pressure around his lungs released.

It had been a close call, but the sweet rush of oxygen to the brain was enough for him to call it worthwhile. He stayed on his knees and coughed until his chest hurt, but there was a deep sense of satisfaction in the pit of his stomach. He kept remembering the way her eyes had flashed when he’d called her a murderer, just before she’d lunged for his throat, and the coughing gave way to bile which gave way to the urge to laugh.

You are a murderer, Harukawa-chan, he thought. Toujou-chan might have killed Hoshi-chan, but you’re a murderer all the same, and at least this time everybody knows it.


The television comes on again to inform him that it’s precisely 8:00am, and he opens his eyes and stares at it vacantly, wanting more than anything for it to turn back off and leave him in the darkness again. The mascots on screen read lines from their little script, they stumble around incompetently, and all he can think is that the only thing this parody of a show is missing is a laugh track to truly highlight its stupidity.

The show ends and the screen mercifully fades to black, and he flings an arm up over his strained, aching eyes. His heartbeat speeds up a little at the thought that he’s wasted an entire day in his room doing nothing, waiting for the time limit to pass. But only a little.

It’s not as though any of his plans got him anywhere, all those other times. At least he’s being more up front about wasting his time now.

His head is starting to throb, his ears still ringing from the shrill voices on the morning announcement. Maybe now, if he turns and burrows himself into the sheets again, he might actually be able to sleep for an hour or two.

As he shifts to face the wall, he can hear the faintest sound of a knock against his bedroom door. But Ouma stays in his bed and doesn’t get up to answer.

Chapter Text

Everyone avoided him thoroughly after his stand-off with Harukawa-chan. He couldn’t say he hadn’t seen it coming, after the kinds of stunts he had pulled in the trial with Hoshi-chan’s death. Really, this was better, since now he had almost no one to worry about detracting from the time he could be spending on his investigation.

And to be fair, they were all mostly avoiding her, too, and that was really all he had wanted to accomplish. If they were all forced into this unfair game, then he’d rather no one be left with a trump card unturned. The ringleader probably already had plenty of those, anyway, and he was trying to even the odds here.

He became used to this newfound period of isolation. Really, it was a small price to pay if it meant that now everyone knew that Harukawa-chan had been lying to them this whole time. And if he really needed anything from them, he could always find where they were gathered and ask them himself. It was more convenient this way: now he no longer had to dedicate himself to anything besides the third upcoming trial. The third trial that might happen. Maybe. Probably.

Ouma had grown so used to being largely ignored by the group that when he looked up from his lunch in the cafeteria one day only to see Saihara-chan staring at him apprehensively, asking him in the most tentative tone he’d ever heard if he’d like to spend time together, he found himself at a complete loss for words.

This hadn’t happened before. Not the last time around, or the time before that. And he hadn’t even lived this far the first time, so he mentally scratched that one out too. There wasn’t a single time he could remember Saihara-chan ever trying to talk to him about anything that didn’t pertain to an investigation. Even having set aside his cap as a sign of his resolve to stop avoiding the truth, people, and eye contact as a whole, he hadn’t exactly seemed very…well, daring. Akamatsu-chan had always been the brave one, approaching him consistently, every single time.

He searched Saihara-chan’s face thoroughly, ignoring the fact that this only seemed to make the other boy squirm as if he regretted his offer already. Was this just some of Akamatsu-chan’s influence rubbing off on him at last? Was it some new way of trying to prove his “resolve,” as a detective?

Whatever the case, it was interesting. He thought about his whiteboard, and the fact that he had never quite known whether to move Saihara-chan’s picture to the left or the right of his suspect list. Maybe this would provide him some valuable insight.

Ouma’s face split into a grin, and he pulled a chair out next to him, gesturing to the other boy to sit down. Saihara-chan took a seat gingerly, as though afraid he might have put a thumbtack there.

“Coming to talk to me, of all people… You’re more daring than I thought, Saihara-chan!” He tilted his head to one side, holding the other boy’s slightly wavering stare with great interest. Maybe he could make a game of how long it would take before Saihara-chan looked away. “I’m the Super High School Level Supreme Leader, you know? Nishishi… I wonder if you can guess what that means…?” He waved a hand casually and laughed. “I mean, everyone else seems to have guessed.”

Saihara-chan swallowed once, hard, but did not look away. Hmm. He mentally made a note that this was two surprises in one day.

“About that, Ouma-kun…you’ve mentioned it before, but I don’t know what kind of organization you mean.”

“What?” Three surprises. “I told you before, right? I’m the Supreme Leader to a secret, evil organization.” He was getting used to the way that talking about this subject made his head throb, just above his right temple, so he no longer even felt the need to wince. He continued over Saihara-chan’s interruption, saying, “I’m really influential, you know? My organization has 10,000 members!”

Saihara-chan seemed almost as lost now as Akamatsu-chan had when he’d tried so hard to give her all those hints. But there was something oddly promising in the other boy’s eyes that he hadn’t been able to find in Akamatsu-chan’s at all, no matter how much he’d looked. After a few more minutes of talking, Ouma finally placed it as “curiosity.”

Saihara-chan was curious. Of course he was. He was a detective. Ouma felt his grin widen as the pieces he was playing with mentally began to click, click, click into place. Maybe putting bait on the fishing line would be worth it again, if the fish was actually trying to bite this time.

Eventually, he took pity on poor Saihara-chan, who looked as though he wanted nothing more than to slump out of his chair and crawl away from the cafeteria. This had been an interesting discussion, to say the least, so he decided to give him an especially good hint.

“The organization I’m in charge of makes things happen. Ah, from the shadows, of course. Get what I mean?” He noticed the way Saihara-chan’s eyes narrowed with renewed curiosity and smiled blithely in return.

“All those mafias, all over the world, they do exactly as I say. And if I’m not managing them, they all immediately fall apart, turn on each other, and start fighting and causing all kinds of trouble.” More trouble than Saihara-chan could ever realize, he tacked on silently, stirring his spoon around the bottom of his mug before draining the rest of his tea. “It’s so unnecessary. I mean, really, even though peace is our number one priority!”

Saihara-chan didn’t respond out loud, but the look on his face said more than enough: that he couldn’t think of this as a line any evil Supreme Leader would say.

Ouma left the cafeteria later in unusually high spirits for the first time since starting this game.

---

Later that night, when he went to move Saihara-chan’s picture from one side of the whiteboard to the other, he was bemused to find himself pushing it farther out to the right, away from the rest of the pictures of their surviving classmates.

They had spent at least an hour together in the cafeteria today, and he still didn’t have the slightest clue whether he could call the detective any less suspicious or any more trustworthy. That itself was unheard of.

He stared unblinkingly at the picture of the boy in the hat, then finally snagged one of his markers and wrote one phrase in tiny, cramped handwriting: Can’t figure him out?

If he couldn’t glean anything about him from their conversation today, then that just left the necessity of seeing what he would do from here on out. Ouma snapped the marker cap back on and stared at the board in satisfaction, letting his mind wander for a bit.

If Saihara-chan approached him of his own volition again, he’d press back. He wanted to see exactly how much the other boy could keep surprising him—just to make sure today hadn’t been some kind of one-time fluke.

Still thinking of games he might propose if Saihara-chan came to see him again, he shook his head lightly, grabbed a binder from one of his cardboard boxes, and plopped down on his bed. Now it was time to pore over the notes he’d left for himself about the third trial.

---

“Angie can tell, you have a kind and gentle god looking out for you!”

This had been a mistake on his part.

After having let Angie-chan and her Religious Student Council slide under his radar the last time around, he had come seeking her out now that she was starting up the whole thing all over again. Trying to outright protest the council probably wouldn’t end well—Momota-chan didn’t seem to be having any luck with it, in any case, and the group was already divided as a whole on whether religious influence seemed to be a good or a bad thing for their numbers. He had thought he might have a little more luck if he waited to talk to Angie-chan one-on-one, to see what he could glean about the state of her little group that he might have missed last time.

But as it turned out, trying to talk sense into a genuine fanatic was about to drive him up the wall.

“I already told you before, Angie-chan, I don’t have any god looking out for me at all,” he said. How was it that he could keep a smile on his face when talking about gruesome murder details during the school trials, but trying to talk to a devout religious believer for all of two minutes was enough to make him feel like he was fighting a losing battle?

“God looks out for everyone!” she replied sanctimoniously, tapping the edge of her paintbrush against her chin in thought.

He fought to keep his face smooth. “Well, I don’t get any image of any god like the one you’re talking about. If I can’t picture it, doesn’t it kind of sound like you’re lying, Angie-chan?”

“God has a different image for every person!”

She just had a reply for everything. He blinked once, then twice. On the whole, he thought he preferred being ignored by the group at large. Now that he’d come in here to talk to her about her student council movement, she seemed absolutely determined not to let him go until she’d convinced him to join.

“Hey, hey, if you can’t picture the god that Angie is talking about, maybe they just look different to you!” She clasped her hands, apparently pleased at the thought. “But Angie is sure that the god looking out for you is very kind, and very gentle.”

Ouma let his face go blank, tired of forcing a smile for such a pointless conversation. “How would you know that?” he asked.

“Well, god tells Angie these things,” she said, as though it were the most obvious reply in the entire world.

He resisted the urge to let her know that there were a few things he could tell her about, too. Namely, the fact that her god wouldn’t be anywhere to save her when Shinguuji-chan took the edge of a plank of wood to the back of her head in a few days’ time.

Enough. There’s absolutely no point to this. If I can’t convince her to listen to reason, then I should move on to the next point in the investigation.

The corners of his lips turned up again as though he’d never stopped smiling, and he made his way casually to the classroom door. “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, huh? After all, they don’t tell me anything.”

“Maybe you’re just not listening hard enough?” Maybe he was imagining it, but he thought he almost saw the corners of her lips turn up as well. “Anyway, Angie can agree to disagree! Bye-onara!”

He turned the knob and left.

---

Where is god now, huh Angie-chan?

He wanted to ask that as he picked the locks with ease and entered the art room to see Angie-chan’s corpse lying in a pool of half-dried, sticky blood, surrounded by wax dolls which looked down on her peacefully without seeing anything at all. But that would be in poor taste (poorer taste even than the comments he’d let slip about Hoshi-chan at the last trial), so he didn’t say anything.

His eyes slid with cold precision from the katana stuck in the lifeless, wax figure of Akamatsu-chan, to the rope suspending the doll off the floor, then finally back over to Angie-chan’s corpse and the open gash at the back of her neck. All the details looked roughly the same as last time, so he decided to move along to Shinguuji-chan’s laboratory again.

Some part of him couldn’t help but wonder, though, if perhaps the reason why Shinguuji-chan’s motives were so inscrutable was because the motive Monokuma provided them had already been carried out. Resurrection of the dead… Yeah, right. The novelty was starting to wear off after seeing it three times already.

If he ever got into a religious debate with Angie-chan again, he made a note to concede that maybe god could exist. In fact, if this were some kind of angry, divine punishment, that might actually explain quite a few holes in his theories.

But a “kind and caring” god? Now that was a joke in poor taste.

---

“Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention for the past ten minutes. Why do we need to do this ritual again?”

“Ouma-kun…?”

Saihara-chan and the rest stared at him in surprise as he examined his nails, feigning boredom. If he let them do the kagonoko ritual which they were oh-so-optimistic about, he’d be sending Chabashira-chan to her death. So he proposed trying to call the whole thing off.

“I mean, who cares if Angie-chan is dead, right? A dead person can’t tell us anything.” He laughed, and the genuine amusement in his voice made all of them recoil. “Don’t tell me you all really believe that this kind of stuff exists outside of anime and light novels? Wooow, incredible! You’re all really children at heart!”

Despite the mask covering his face, he could still tell when Shinguuji-chan’s mouth twisted in displeasure. “The kagonoko ritual is hardly something to call ‘childish,’ Ouma-kun…”

“Eh, really?” He scratched at his chin thoughtfully. “Isn’t trying to talk to the dead a waste of time, though?”

Shinguuji-chan’s eyes narrowed to the point of slits, and Ouma threw his hands up behind his head, pleased. Clearly, he’d struck a nerve with that one.

But he was taken aback when Chabashira-chan suddenly stepped forward, putting her hand on Yumeno-chan’s shoulder. “No, we’re doing it. We should definitely try this.” She had the grace to at least blush a little. “I don’t know if it’ll really work or not, but…as long as there’s even a chance, I want Yumeno-san to be able to say goodbye to Angie-san.”

Yumeno-chan stared up at her blearily, as though she couldn’t quite get her eyes to focus. “Ch-Chabashira…”

“It’s alright!” Chabashira-chan flexed her arms and smiled. “I’m doing this because I want to protect you, Yumeno-san!”

He lowered his arms and crossed them, letting his bottom lip stick out in a pout. He felt it might be better than showing a sneer. “Hmmm? Can neo-aikido really do anything against ghosts, though?” He already knew it wouldn’t be able to do anything against the blade that was about two minutes away from entering her neck.

Although her smile had usually faltered every single time she’d been forced to talk to him in this game, this time she seemed unfazed. “Of course!” she said. “Someone like you wouldn’t be able to understand, but wanting to protect another person gives you strength! So even if Angie-san’s spirit does come…I’ll be okay.”

“It’s true,” Shinguuji-chan said, nodding thoughtfully. “Spirits are quite susceptible to the power of belief, as long as the proper precautions are taken…”

There wasn’t much to be done, after he was outvoted. So Ouma stood in his place on the magic circle, and when he heard the unmistakable thud in the dark that was the sound of Chabashira-chan’s body crashing into the blade and back down to the floor again, he just opened his mouth and sang a little louder, ignoring the sour taste at the back of his mouth.

---

He sat up abruptly in his bed the night that they finished the third trial, scattering papers which he’d failed to move back over to the cardboard boxes or his desk to the floor instead. He hardly cared about the mess. All he could focus on was the sudden realization that had hit him just as he was about to turn the light off and sleep: there were only two Exisals left.

Monokuma aside, if it was just a problem of two of those idiot bears then something could be done. His brain raced furiously as he tried to calculate the math. Nine survivors, two Exisals, one ringleader—so only eight survivors, really, but those still weren’t bad odds. Monokuma had spares, but all the spares in the world didn’t amount to much as long as the Exisals were taken out of commission first.

Better yet, if they could get rid of those last two bear cubs before they could even reach the Exisals, then maybe the machines could actually be turned to their advantage. He touched a hand lightly to his chest, remembering the way the bullets fired by that death trap had shredded through him like paper. If they had huge weapons like that on their side instead—well, hadn’t he just watched those stupid cubs make a show of intimidating Monokuma for days on end?

He had been so preoccupied with the thought of investigating things the usual way the last time around that this possibility hadn’t even occurred to him. Throwing the sheets back, he stood up and started pacing, trying to put his thoughts in order.

The odds weren’t bad. They still weren’t perfect, but they weren’t bad. He’d seen them go against all five Exisals the first time around, and they’d all been gunned down with ease, but that had been during a school trial, and the Exisals had already been prepared and at the ready. This time, with the right amount of planning and all the Super High School Level talents they had at their disposal…

Ouma made his way to the whiteboard, nearly tripping over a stray box in the process. But he righted himself, uncapped a marker, and dragged the tip quickly down the middle of the board. About thirty seconds later, he stood back and examined his handiwork intently. A smaller version of himself stared back, tongue out and a goofy smile on his face, fingers held up in a v-shape.

V for victory, he thought.

If he played all his cards right, there might not be any need to wake up in a dark, cramped locker ever again. He’d been thinking so hard in terms of how to survive, that he’d almost forgotten trying to get out was even an option.

But there was no need to die, and no need to kill. Maybe he could win this game without even needing to play it.

---

With his chin resting on his hand, he tilted his head to the side slightly. “Done investigating so soon, Saihara-chan?”

The other boy looked relatively sheepish to be found out so soon. He stood hesitantly in the doorway of the empty classroom for a moment or two longer, then closed the door behind him.

Ouma studied him thoroughly, trying to figure out his reason for being here. He was surprisingly hard to read, so he tried taking a guess. “Did you come to get the key card from me? Hey, sorry, but I won’t give it up that easily.”

They had all gone off to explore the fifth floor earlier this morning. Monokuma had presented them with another motive, of course: a simple key card that hardly looked intimidating enough to ever be a reason to kill someone. But people had already killed for less in this game, and so Ouma had snatched it, proposing they not even use it.

Not a single one of them had been happy with that suggestion, obviously, but he’d pressed his point. After all, ignoring the plan about the motive videos before was exactly what had gotten Hoshi-chan killed, as they were all so quick to forget. They’d accepted his resolution with some bitterness—obviously, they couldn’t be sure he wasn’t going to go find a use for that card himself.

But it was fine if they thought what they wanted. After all, he still intended to keep it tucked away in his pocket from here on out, the same way that his own motive video was tucked in an empty drawer at the bottom of his desk, collecting a layer of dust. Some things were better off left unchecked, if they wanted to see this game to its end.

Now that he had finished his investigation (his daytime investigation, anyway; tonight he still planned on making a full run of the place while no one else was around), he found himself here, staring down Saihara-chan. Anyone entering the room might think he was interrogating him, all alone in this empty classroom like this. Wryly, he couldn’t help but feel like maybe their roles should be reversed—Saihara-chan was the detective, after all.

“You can keep the key card. …For now, anyway,” Saihara-chan said with some reluctance. “I think you’re right in that we shouldn’t rush into using it right now.” There was something in his eyes though that suggested he would want to find a use for it someday. A detective was supposed to want to investigate everything, so he could hardly begrudge him that.

Ouma shifted his hand a little, but didn’t lift his chin. If that wasn’t the answer, then he already had another guess in mind. “Hmm? So what, did you come to beg for your life?”

“Eh?” A look of surprise flashed transparently across Saihara-chan’s face. “W-Well…yeah. I just wanted to know if…you were serious, last time? When you said you were going to kill me?”

“Of course! That’s what a Supreme Leader does, you know?” Ouma smiled at him cheerfully, thinking meanwhile of all the ways someone could easily have bashed Saihara-chan’s head in from behind, if he was so fond of coming to hang out with people in empty classrooms like this. Maybe Harukawa-chan would do something like that, seeing as she was so good at it. “I swear on my title—” Throb, just behind his right eye. “—that I have to protect my organization. So that’s why I’ll need you to die, see.”

He knew he shouldn’t keep pushing the matter, but it was just too much fun. Every time he came up with some new and inventive way of asking Saihara-chan to put either his life or his pride on the line, the other boy reacted so hilariously according to his predictions, he just couldn’t help himself.

“If I commit seppuku, I’ll die!”

“Tch. You didn’t fall for it, huh? That’s boring.” Where had that hard-to-read nature from before gone? “Okay, then hear me out here! If you want to live, you’ll have to beat me in a game. I mean, I did just tell you about everything without even asking you first, so I guess I owe you at least one chance to stay alive.”

He grinned lazily with his chin still on his hand, waiting patiently for even more stammering, hesitant pleas—

“Then I accept your challenge.”

Ouma lifted his head up and looked the other boy over intently, silently adding another tally mark on the whiteboard in his head. Apparently he was not, in fact, out of surprises.

“Huuuuuh, now that was quick. Completely different from what I thought you’d say, huuuh?”

Would the Saihara Shuuichi from those other times have responded that quickly?

He stood up and leaned in, grin stretching from ear to ear as Saihara-chan glanced down at him uncomfortably, although without backing away. “Hmm, you’re very interesting, Saihara-chan! Keep entertaining me like this, won’t you?”

He reached into his other pocket, glad for a chance to take out the deck of cards that he’d brought along since that last time, just in case.

---

“What…the hell…was that?”

No one responded to Momota-chan’s question as they stood shakily around the table. Each pair of eyes stared sightlessly ahead, but it was doubtful that any of them were really seeing the cafeteria walls before them. Instead, Ouma thought it much more likely that they were all envisioning the same thing: meteor showers, people rioting in the streets, a failed project by the name of the wood with which Noah built the ark.

Momota-chan had rounded them all up after finding another remember light, and foolishly they’d thought it worth watching. These were the only clues to their real memories, their pasts, their families, after all.

Or were they, really? He remembered lots of things that hadn’t technically happened anymore. If it came down to a question of which of the memories in his head were more believable, the ones he’d seen with his own two eyes or the ones a flashlight had told him about—he didn’t know which he’d pick.

He almost felt like laughing. Except he really, really didn’t.

“Th-This place has gotta be hell! We’re in hell!”

Iruma-chan’s shrill voice startled all of them out of their depressed contemplation. He could see the way everyone else exchanged gazes, brief flickers of understanding that she was clearly losing her marbles.

Too bad for them. That’s the most rational thing I’ve ever heard Iruma-chan say.

Clasping her hands to her chest, Iruma-chan stumbled back a few steps. If she noticed the way everyone was looking at her, she didn’t seem to care much. “The plan failed! It failed, and all those th-things came down from the sky, and now we’re fuckin’ dead!” There was a pale sheen of sweat on her face, and he knew it wasn’t the thought of dying that scared her. There were worse things than dying. “If we died, then the only reason we’d be somewhere like this is if it was hell.”

Yes, that’s true, he wanted to say. You’re all certainly dead.

Iruma-chan had never struck him as a person with much to contribute when it came to group discussions, but he almost wanted to applaud her on her theory now. After all, he’d already seen them die plenty of times. Hell didn’t seem like a far cry away from what he’d been reliving lately.

As everyone else tried to calm her down, watching her trembling with nervous looks in their eyes, he thought long and hard about the key card in his pocket.

---

Something wet was trickling into his eyes.

He tried opening his eyes, but it was strangely painful. Something very hot, very sticky, felt as if it were gluing them shut…

After a few more moments, he managed to pry one eye open, and hazily took in the sight of a world flipped at ninety degrees. For some reason, his head was pounding.

Why am I on the floor…?

Realization crept in slowly and reluctantly. He blinked his one open eye several times, trying to make sense of an unfamiliar room filled with cold, hard machinery, and an electric panel that looked as though it might have a card reader. His brain stuttered once, twice, taking in the sight of a red stain on metal pipes not far from where he was lying on his side.

More warm, painful stuff kept trickling into his eyes, making the one that was open sting.

Am I bleeding…?

“Oi! What a waste of a good motive!”

The words sounded muffled, as though they were coming from very far away. But as he forced his eye to look a little further to the right, he could faintly make out a black-and-white shape standing just to the side of him, looking down. Monokuma, he realized belatedly.

“You didn’t like what you saw, huh? Yeah, I bet you didn’t!” The bear seemed almost to leer at him, despite the fact that its face was split into the same eerie grin as always. “But couldn’t you have had the decency to at least take someone else out with you? I mean, don’t you think it’s a little cruel to your classmates, you just leaving them all alone in a big, empty world like this?”

Ouma struggled to make sense of what it was saying, but the pain in his head had gone from dim to unbearable in moments flat. He was finding it a struggle to keep even the one eye open now, as if more than just blood was keeping it from functioning properly.

Monokuma peered down at him with something resembling—resignation? Disappointment? He couldn’t tell.

“Well, whatever,” the bear said, voice still curiously distant despite the fact that it was standing so close to him. “It’s not like you’re gonna be around much longer anyway. And it’s not a rule violation if I make the crime scene more interesting, once you’re gone.”

Crime…scene…?

Ouma struggled to fix his eye on the stain on the metal machinery, grasped finally that his heartbeat was doing the familiar slow cadence just before the end of everything.

Monokuma continued, sounding almost (Ouma couldn’t really tell, and didn’t really care) chipper now at the thought of something much more interesting. “I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time in one of these games that a suicide had to be made more interesting. You kids get way too boring when you get all depressed.”

Suicide, Ouma repeated dimly inside his head. Su-i-cide. Ah, that was right. That was right, he’d seen—he’d known—

“I mean, after all—the show must go on, right?”

The last thing he saw was Monokuma’s stretched-out grin and red eye flashing, and then he let the pain overwhelm him as his weary eye closed.

---

Apparently killing himself willingly didn’t mean he stopped waking up in the locker. Big surprise there.

But he could realize, looking back, why he must have thought it would work at the time. Why he’d wanted it to work.

Without the pain in his swollen, bashed-in head, without the blood running into his eyes and smearing them, he could remember very well the sight that had met him beyond the door—the door he’d sought out after painstakingly inching and crawling his way through the labyrinth Monokuma had told them about in their first days at this school.

He had just wanted to check it. Just to make sure. If there were an actual exit, then he could tell them. And if something horrible were on the other side and the rest of them saw, they’d be playing right into letting it become a motive-as-usual. So it had been better to go alone—

Or so he’d thought.

Ouma clasped a hand to his mouth, expecting the urge to vomit—and was surprised when he was met with the urge to laugh instead. He held his hand in place carefully, thinking back on the noxious fumes, the streets in rubble, the sky on fire, and had to bite his cheek so that he didn’t laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

It was just too funny. Yes, he’d definitely been right to snatch the key card from all of them. They would’ve torn each other apart in five minutes if they’d been met with that sight and seen for themselves the objective proof that Iruma-chan was right: this was hell. And like hell, there were only more and more circles to go, it seemed.

Laughter bubbled up in the back of his throat, sour as ever, but what else could he do? Murders in this god-awful game had meant very little before, but they meant less than ever now.

Some small part of him watched on coldly as the rest of him stood there and laughed in the locker, reminding him of the other things Monokuma had said just before he died—games, multiple games. A show. A show must go on. And a game always followed its rules.

He knew it was something to pick apart later and think about shrewdly, carefully, methodically. But for now, he just stood there and tried not to let his laughter escape too loudly, and it was a long, long time before he stepped out into the classroom again.


He doesn’t think it’s been more than an hour when his eyes open suddenly. The fact that he was actually asleep this time dawns slowly on him, but he can tell by the clamminess of his face and chest that he must have dreamt, too. And if he dreamt, it was probably the same as when he lies awake, thinking on all the scenes he’s watched and lived and died through.

He hasn’t known a restful sleep in ages now. The brief moments (eternities?) between dying one time and waking up in the locker the next, maybe. But after that, he always wakes up to a new world of pain, with his joints aching and his head on fire, so he’s not really sure if they count.

While thinking about this, he gradually comprehends that he didn’t wake up of his own accord. He can, he realizes, hear a sound in the room. A knock on the door, louder than the one he heard before drifting off to sleep this morning.

He stays where he is, lying there lifelessly under the sheets with a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach. Just as he’s thinking that whoever it is, they’ll definitely go away, he realizes with some annoyance that there’s more than one of them.

“Heeey! Hey, whoever you are, you in there?” Even with the door in the way, Momota-chan’s voice is loud, brash, and obnoxious enough that it rings through clearly. Even after he tones the volume down a few notches, Ouma’s ears are sharp enough to make out what he’s saying. “See, I told you, he ain’t answering. I’ve been at it for like an hour now. Hey, Shuuichi, you try it.”

Silence. The pause stretches on, and then—

Another knock on the door. “Hello? Is someone in there? We’d like to talk with you, if that’s okay.”

He recognizes that voice too, and the gnawing feeling in his stomach only gets stronger.

“Maybe he’s just not in?” A girl’s voice, harder to make out. But he’s pretty sure it must be Akamatsu-chan. “Well, still worth giving it a try. We’ve only got this to go on, after all.”

They keep knocking. It’s not as though being unable to sleep anymore is a huge loss—sleeping or being awake, it’s all the same at this point. But he can’t stand the noise, not when his room was so quiet before.

On another occasion, he might have just gotten up and opened the door.

And on another, he might have said, wait just a second, this is your ringleader, I’m just burying the body, hold on and I’ll be right out.

This time, he stares up at the ceiling, and even though his throat is parched and his voice is weak from lack of use, he manages to say “Go away,” loud enough to be heard on the other side of the door.


Ouma listened with the smallest of smiles as Monokuma explained the two-day time limit this time.

While the rest of his classmates shrieked or went silent from shock, he just stood there watching carefully, the gears in his head turning slowly. He tuned out their noise, narrowing everything down to the same speech he’d heard so many times before, removing anything from the situation at hand that would interfere with efficiency, precision, or logic.

Things made so much more sense, now. Funny, how finding out that the world was over could be so useful at a time like this.

Two days had always struck him as a strange, almost inadequate amount of time. And it wasn’t like the bear had ever given them another time limit for any of the other trials, no matter how many times he’d relived this scenario. No, it was always just this one. Just the first one, before anything had even taken place.

If the objective had been to throw them into an even bigger panic, then only twenty-four hours would’ve sufficed. His classmates would’ve been up in arms, scrambling around, probably aiming for the nearest weapon at hand before they even realized what they were doing. But it was, of course, probably too short a time for anything to get accomplished. Murder for the sake of a school trial, a real risk, required planning and foresight.

By contrast, they could’ve just been given a week. Still a time limit, but with more than enough time to plan ahead, and still short enough that the dread would creep back in on them before they had time enough to get complacent. But clearly that was too much time, because two days was much, much shorter than seven.

But if the show had to go on, as Monokuma had so succinctly put it, then—yes, that made sense. No audience in their right mind would want such an exciting development to happen too fast for them to catch it, nor would they want to wait an entire week before anything interesting happened. Two days sounded just right.

“Please, Gonta doesn’t understand very well! Why would you ever do something like this?!”

“T-Two days?! That’s all?! We only get two damn days?!”

“Everyone, please calm down, let’s just try and think about this—”

Ouma’s gaze flickered over to them for only the briefest of moments, with the barest amount of interest possible. Then he tuned them out again, already planning out his next few moves. He no longer needed to picture a whiteboard in his mind when he already had one in his room. This time, a chessboard would suffice.

The world might be over, but his time spent in this living hell was very clearly not. If this was a game, then he’d have to play to win.

By his own rules, of course.

---

“…What are you even talking about?”

“Hmm?”

He opened his eyes and grinned at Akamatsu Kaede, feigning confusion. But he was already very well aware of what she meant, what she thought, and most likely what she was going to say from here on out. After all, ever since he’d started lying to her and the others relentlessly, her disapproval of him never wavered.

Her smile was on the verge of turning into a smirk, as if she had just caught him at something. “Ouma-kun, you keep saying you’re the Supreme Leader of an evil organization, but…that’s just a lie, right? That organization of yours doesn’t even exist, does it?”

He laughed faintly, the throbbing in his temple almost a pleasant sensation this time. One of the few perks from bashing his own head in last time, he supposed, was that lighter headaches hardly fazed him now.  “That’s right, I’m definitely a liar.” It wasn’t like any of them could handle the truths he could have told them anyway. “But hey, why do you think it’s a lie exactly? Why won’t you believe me on this one, even though you fell for all those other lies before?”

The fact that he was avoiding the subject seemed to fly right over her head. He kept his smile in place, but felt distinctly bored as she said something verging on ridiculous.

“You’re asking me why…? Have some common sense.” Akamatsu-chan heaved a sigh, as though dealing with someone much younger, or much denser. “There’s no way anything like a secret, evil organization could exist in our current society. So saying that you’re the leader of one is just ridiculous, Ouma-kun.”

Ouma let the act drop for a fraction of a second, staring at her blankly with an intensity that seemed to take her aback. He studied her and mentally adjusted his chessboard pieces. If she wouldn’t listen to him this time, he’d just have to take her off the board for good. And that was a shame, considering she and Amami-chan were perhaps his best, his only shot at stopping this stupid game before it even started.

“Hmmm, common sense.” She was the one who was being ridiculous. “Common sense, com-mon se-nse, co-mo-n s-e-nse, huh…?” As if common sense mattered at all in this situation. “Hey, who gets to decide that stuff?” As if she had any right at all to open her mouth and talk about common sense, when he already knew she was planning on launching a steel ball in less than a day that would crack Amami-chan’s skull wide open. “Tell me Akamatsu-chan, when exactly do you think you started having your common sense, or listening to it?” As if common sense would say that committing to a plan to kill someone was okay, as long as you were doing it for the so-called “right reasons.”

“Eh…” Her eyes went wide.

It was clear the conversation had shifted to a place beyond her understanding, but he hardly cared. He continued over her, saying, “I was officially, specifically chosen for the Gifted Program as the Super High School Level Supreme Leader, alright? Look at that from the perspective of your ‘common sense,’ and that clearly means I’m the real deal, right, Akamatsu-chan?”

“Well…that’s true, but…” She looked more than a little unnerved. He was glad to know that even if she could never grasp the hints he threw her way, she seemed perfectly capable of recognizing his hostility.

“And yet, Akamatsu-chan, you just told me that you don’t think I’m a Supreme Leader? Have some ‘common sense,’” he said, traces of a smirk now playing on his lips as he raised a finger up to his mouth, as though to scold her.

He had already known she would react with anger and hostility of her own when pressed this hard. Akamatsu-chan wasn’t the type to let herself be shoved around like this, after all. He threw his hands up behind his head as a gesture of truce, grinning at her incomprehensibly even as she fumed.

Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t listening to a word he said seriously. But that was fine. That was what had happened all the other times, after all. If she wouldn’t listen to his next offer—if her chess piece was no longer available to him—then he was going to move down the list.

“But really, just know that I’m thinking in your best interests here, okay Akamatsu-chan? If you keep turning down my offer like this, don’t come crying to me when things go wrong.” He beamed at her, and found himself completely unsurprised when he heard her final say on the matter—

“I don’t need your concern! After all, my answer to your secret agent offer is still no, thank you very much!”

Ouma lowered his hands, looked away from her, and carefully, slowly removed Akamatsu-chan’s piece from the chessboard in his head.

---

The sound of approaching footsteps caused him to look up from where he sat in the cafeteria.

Iruma-chan entered the room with her arms crossed, looking distinctly put off. And yet, there was undeniable curiosity in her gaze as she glanced around, double-checking that they were the only ones in the room.

“Whoa, Iruma-chan actually showed up! And here I thought you might not make it! I wondered if you might need a map, see. You seem like the type to forget basic information even after you’ve heard it a hundred times.”

“Hey, shut the fuck up.” Her lips curled into a sneer as she forgot for a moment to be suspicious of him. “Who would even forget how to get here? It’s the fuckin’ cafeteria, you little brat!”

“You forgot what the word ‘alibi’ meant,” he told her happily, tipping his chair onto its back two legs. “Nishishi… Anyway, I’m glad you could come.”

The suspicion seemed to set in again as her eyes darted around the room. Everyone had already had already come and gone for breakfast; the chances of them coming by here now were slim. They had the cafeteria to themselves, and everyone else was likely off either in their own rooms or off exploring their research labs.

This was exactly why he’d asked her to meet him here, of course. He knew that by asking to go see her room, the request would sound way too suspicious, even if he phrased it in terms more to her liking. And there was no way he’d ever let her into his room.

“Why the hell’d you want me to come here alone, anyway? If you’re planning something, I swear to God…”

“Oh, I’m planning something.” Ouma spoke up instantly, and the words seemed to make her freeze in place, so he continued, grin still in place. “Not anything that would get you hurt, Iruma-chan. Relax.”

She exhaled visibly, but the tension didn’t leave her shoulders. “Who’d ever believe that…like hell…” She muttered under her breath for a while. Every now and then he could catch some colorful word or other. Then an idea seemed to dawn on her and she straightened up, peering over at him somewhat hopefully.  “Unless…I mean, if you’re interested in that…I wouldn’t mind, so—”

Seeing the way her eyes were now flicking to the tabletops, and the way she seemed to be interpreting his request to come alone, Ouma spoke over her quickly, his grin falling as he fixed her with a blank stare. “You can invent things, can’t you Iruma-chan?”

“Huh?” She stopped twiddling her fingers suggestively, staring at him without understanding.

“Are you a Super High School Level Inventor or aren’t you?” he asked, pressing her on impatiently.

“Y-Yeah…! I mean, yeah, but...” She seemed to have trouble getting the words out, the forcefulness of his tone having caught her off guard. Then she cleared her throat. “I-I’m the best inventor there’s ever been, obviously. Did you forget who the hell you’re talkin’ to?!”

She rested a hand on her hip and sneered down at him again, apparently trying to come across as intimidating. But that was just fine. As long as she could live up to her boasts about inventing, he didn’t really care what else she bluffed about.

He let the front two legs of his chair slam down as he stood up and approached her three steps. Any further than that and he was sure she’d either bolt from the room or hit him.

“Make me this, then. Ah, don’t read it ‘till you get back to your room, though. Wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, would we?” He reached into his pocket, feeling around until he extracted a carefully folded piece of paper.

There were cameras all around, he had no doubt. He remembered all too clearly the way he’d heard Gonta remark thoughtfully how he was sure he’d seen a bug’s wings flickering in the sun, almost so small that he’d missed it—remembered how the word bug had clicked into place as the pieces readjusted on the chessboard in his head.

If he were right about this, then it would explain plenty, including how Monokuma knew the results of the trials without question, and why it was so hard to snoop around anywhere off-limits without the damn bear noticing and interfering.

If Iruma-chan could make what was shown on the diagram he’d drawn her, then he’d let her twiddle her fingers and picture whatever lewd scenarios she could possibly want in that brain of hers.

She took the paper from him hesitantly, her fingers trembling a bit. His smile returned and he waved to her casually, turning on his heels to leave the cafeteria. But before he could go, she called out to him uncertainly.

“Wh-Why should I?”

He turned back to look at her, his smile still fixed but his gaze cold. She flinched a bit, but continued. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t even promise I’ll be able to make much…my lab might've been open from the start, sure, but I dunno if I’ve got all the materials and stuff…”

The way she clicked her tongue in disapproval, clearly itching to make something while cooped up in this game, was all he needed to hear to know she’d still go along with his plan anyway.

Ouma threw his hands behind his head like always, his smile widening. “Well, you don’t have to take my word for it, because I’m a liar…but if you do it, just know that it’ll be fun.”

“F-Fun?”

“Everything’s a game, Iruma-chan.”


He doesn’t know why, but they’re only knocking more, not less.

It’s been precisely half an hour since he told them to go away, and his words seem to have only achieved the opposite effect. Momota-chan had distinctly said something about “holding down the fort” to the other two and run off, coming back within minutes with even more of them.

He would frown, but he doesn’t have the energy. Twisting his mouth only slightly as he stares at the wall, Ouma thinks that if he ever repeats this scenario again, he’ll just keep his mouth shut.

“So, there’s someone inside, right? Gonta doesn’t really get it, but that’s good! That means there are sixteen of us after all, right?”

“It certainly follows.” A reasonable, level-headed voice—he can place it as Amami-chan’s. “If there’s sixteen of us, then it’s just like I told you all earlier. So we have to make sure he comes out here, and then we can talk to him about the plan.”

“Still, it’s kind of worrying if he’s just in there and not responding…” Shirogane-chan’s voice comes through so softly he can barely hear her. “Do you think he’s okay?”

Knock knock knock. “Hey, you’re in there, right? Come out and talk to us, we don’t bite!” Chabashira-chan’s energetic voice sounds sincere. “Yumeno-san, do you want to try too?”

He can’t hear the full response, but he suspects he can distinctly make out the words “too much of a pain.”

Chabashira-chan tries again, not to be discouraged. “Come on, just open the door and let us talk! We have something important to tell you about!” She knocks a bit more, then stops with a sigh. “Guess he really is stubborn, huh? Well, he’s a guy after all, so…”

“Hey, come on guys, we can’t give up that easily! Gotta keep trying or this plan’s never gonna work!” Momota-chan takes charge in the pause that follows. Knowing him, Ouma suspects he’s going around patting them all on the shoulders, or hitting their backs. “Hey, you’ve been quiet for a while, Shuuichi. Wanna give it another try?”

Another pause. Shorter than last time, but still too long for his liking. Then the voice he least wants to hear calls out, soft and clear as a bell—

“If you’re in there, could you please open up? It’s really important that we talk to you.”

“Go away.”


He didn’t bother asking Hoshi-chan for permission, this time. After all, he hardly needed permission when he had lockpicks.

Ouma sat on his bed cross-legged, ignoring the Monopad beside him, instead thinking back to how perfectly his plan went off without a hitch. For the first time since he woke up in the locker this time around, he felt like he might almost smile without forcing it.

He remembered clearly how he leaned in close to Saihara-chan’s face, chattering merrily about hell and how they were both stuck in it, remembered how the other boy had scrambled to sit up so quickly he’d nearly toppled back over in the process. And he remembered the shrieks and yelps of his classmates as he had unleashed the torrent of bugs upon them—shrieks and screams which for once, had had nothing to do with an execution or a body discovery of some sort.

All in all, he rather felt like calling it a successful night.

But Hoshi-chan is still going to die come tomorrow morning. And those shrieks and screams won’t sound so pleasant then, will they?

He stopped fiddling with the pen in his hand at that thought. Hoshi-chan’s piece was certainly very close to being taken off the board again, whichever way he looked at it. Now wasn’t the time to be thinking about pranks.

And besides, there was one more thing he’d wanted to check with his own two eyes. One more thing, now that he’d already seen for himself the state of the world outside that awaited them at the end of this game…

All these times, he’d avoided watching this exact thing for fear that it would be the tipping point. Had he given in and watched it before—what he’d seen, last time—even he wasn’t sure if he’d have managed to keep from crossing that invisible line. But as he was now, he hoped he could manage.

Ouma glanced up briefly at his whiteboard, setting the pen down as he bit at his thumb nail absentmindedly. The doodle he’d re-drawn this time around met his eye happily, fingers still posed, tongue still stuck out. It was nothing but empty encouragement, but it was encouragement nonetheless.

There’s nothing to worry about. This video’s just one more lie to add to my collection, probably.

He thought back to the sight of his brains smeared against the wall, of Harukawa-chan’s hands squeezing at his throat, of the ways in which he had and had not yet seen his classmates die around him. And he thought back to the single, unchanging truth that he’d witnessed, still foul and horrible no matter how much he or anyone else might wish it were otherwise.

As he picked the Monopad up and pressed play, he couldn’t help but wonder if the ones this show was being put on for were getting their kicks in somehow.

---

Some time after Toujou-chan’s trial, Saihara-chan approached him and challenged him to another game. What’s more, he didn’t even follow the same script as last time. Ouma had posed the same questions, the same riddles—and yet, the reactions were all subtly different.

The more he came to question the state of this game they were all in, and the rules they were all expected to perform according to, the more he found himself quite intrigued by the idea of going off-script.

“Jan-ken-pon!”

He threw his hand out again, followed the arc of Saihara-chan’s throw, switched his fingers at the exact last second. The result: a perfect tie. Their seventy-eighth tie so far, in fact.

The other boy stared dubiously at their matching hands, then made eye contact with him. Ouma liked to think he’d been doing rather a lot of that lately. He still inevitably looked away, mumbling some theory or other to himself under his breath as he tried to figure out just how he was managing it, or if this was really pure luck.

But the Saihara-chan from last time definitely hadn’t looked him in the eye quite so often. Definitely.

“Come on Saihara-chan, let’s go another round! You better play like your life is on the line! Well, your life is on the line, after all.”

Another round. And another one. He could see with some amusement (real amusement?) that the wheels in the detective’s head were spinning, trying to grasp the truth of this inexplicable mystery. It was the same look he’d seen on Saihara-chan’s face many a time, whenever a body had wound up in front of them and they’d all found themselves wrapped up in yet another school trial.

As he continued to throw his hand out almost lazily with every “pon,” always switching to exactly which motion was required of him, Ouma shifted through his chess pieces mentally. If the Saihara-chan before him now was undeniably a different piece than the Saihara-chan he’d played against before, then how much longer would he have to keep going until his next promotion? If the rest of these hapless idiots were little more than pawns in the grand scheme of things, what would Saihara-chan become, exactly, if he made it all the way to the other side of the board?

He thought back to the words on his whiteboard which he’d written once again, and realized with a rush that a piece which was already going off-script might be able to play by different rules entirely.

Ah. I really can’t figure him out after all. Now that’s interesting.

“Another tie…”

Saihara-chan’s voice snapped him out of his reverie, and he glanced back up to see their hands still matching, still set in the exact same pose as if they’d planned it beforehand.

Ouma withdrew his hand and yawned, shifting back in his chair lazily. “Ahhh, as expected, I got bored of this after all! Was this our hundredth tie, then? Come on Saihara-chan, give me a break and just finish the match already.”

The detective blinked back at him, for once looking only mildly confused, rather than bewildered and uncomfortable. “Even if you say that…”

“Well, that’s all for today.” Ouma hopped to his feet lightly, grinning down at his opponent. “Are you okay with leaving it like this, Saihara-chan? Have you really done everything you wanted to do while you’re still alive? Oh, and on that note…  Did you know? There’s actually a surefire way to tie a game of jan-ken without fail, every single time.”

“Eh?”

As Saihara-chan glanced up at him with renewed confusion, Ouma felt his face split into a smirk.

Always question the rules of the game you’re playing, Saihara-chan, he thought happily.

---

“Ouma-kun, could I talk to you for a second?”

The sound of Kiibo’s voice brought him reluctantly to a halt as he walked down the hallway, causing his lip to curl just the slightest bit. But he faced the robot with a smile, hands in his pockets, the perfect response in mind. “I dunno, Kiiboy, can you? You were the one built with a voice feature, you tell me.”

“This is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.” Kiibo sighed and pinched his fingers to the bridge of a nose he didn’t even need to use in what could only be described as an all-around human gesture. Well, he’d thought of it as such the last few times before this, anyway. “You seem very set on mocking me. Is there some reason for it?”

Vaguely, Ouma wondered how deep that line of questioning went. If this were a person asking him, he wouldn’t think much of it. But Kiibo wasn’t a person, as he kept reminding himself often. No matter how much he might look and talk and act like one, he clearly wasn’t one—his presence in the group felt off, somehow. Why include someone whose talent was the simple fact that they’d been built by someone else?

“Can’t it just be because you’re a robot, Kiiboy?” he said, tilting his head to the side.

“It’s Kiibo.” Another sigh. “Yes, I thought as much. But I had rather hoped it was just my imagination…”

Ouma grinned. “Oh, so robots have an understanding of imagination now, do they?”

Please stop. I’m really serious here. And why do you keep responding to all of my questions with more questions, anyway?”

He bit back the temptation to respond to that with yet another question. Maybe if he kept throwing them at him, one after another, his circuitry would fry itself. The mental image amused him at first, then brought that sour taste into his mouth again. “That’s your problem, Kiiboy. You’re always serious, but you’re never quite real. You’re a robot, so I guess that’s to be expected!”

Kiibo’s third sigh sounded rather defeated as Ouma leaned in and gave him a sarcastic pat on his cold, metallic shoulder. “I suppose it was a waste of time trying to talk with you reasonably.”

“Nishishi. Yeah, you really did waste my time.” He stepped back again, grin still in place even as his eyes flicked coldly from the robot’s face, to his hands, to his eyes. If this were a show, he reminded himself, then a robot was likely little more than a prop. And he hardly had the time to be talking to props. “I’ll see you around, Kiiboy,” he said.

He turned on his heel and left.

---

Two steps, three steps. Pause. Turn.

He stopped and faced the door before him, imposing and tall in the gloom of the tunnel around him. It was the first time he’d managed to come across this door—not only this time, but out of all the other times, as well.

It made sense, in hindsight. He’d always assumed it would be further up, just out of reach, on the fifth floor the way Shirogane-chan’s was, or perhaps even on a mysterious sixth floor. That he hadn’t run into it even once in all this time hadn’t struck him as particularly worth worrying about the first few times. He hadn’t even had time to worry about it the first few times, after all.

But he’d found it now. He knew exactly where it must lead, but the room on the other side would stay a mystery to him until he decided to open the door for himself.

Ouma paused and waited. Since he’d finally found it, he half-expected to see Monokuma turn up at any moment, dropping some snide remark or thinly veiled encouragement to keep riling the others up. He stayed like that, immobile for at least two minutes, and only then did he release a sigh.

If the bear wasn’t showing up, then that was probably thanks to the vacuum-jar in his hands (Iruma-chan had given it a much raunchier name of her own, given all the opportunity for innuendo where a vacuum was involved). He let his eyes pass over the jar in the dim light, but the “bugs” that it held were still much, much too small for him to see. He’d just have to trust that they were in there, instead of out here, doing their jobs.

He pushed the door open, half-expecting to feel the resistance of a lock. Even if there had been, he could have just picked it open. But it opened effortlessly, as though having been waiting for him all along.

Inside was—a lair.

He took it all in, his face expressionless, walking from one end of the cavern to the next. Under other circumstances, he would have been thrilled. If he had ever managed to stumble upon this place by sheer dumb luck the first time after he’d woken up in the locker, he was pretty sure he’d have liked it. Pretty sure, but not entirely. It was starting to feel like a very long time ago.

The cavern overhead was immense, a blend of smooth rock walls and cold, metallic fixtures. Opposite him stood what could only be called a throne, and the word DICE was set, emblazoned on the wall ahead. More than anything, his eyes were drawn to that.

But first he covered the whole length of the room, from start to finish. For every item he found that looked right at home in the research laboratory of a Super High School Level Supreme Leader, he found a dozen others that didn’t. Walkie talkies. A remote-controlled helicopter. A car so ridiculous and outrageous he was sure he must’ve seen it on some anime or other. Wigs, prank moustache-glasses, clown masks…

Ouma circled around to the other side of the room at last, and took his seat on the make-believe throne that was offered.

He leaned back and stared, feeling just faintly, wryly amused at this room full of nothing but play-pretend jokes. And he thought back, long and hard, to the motive video he’d watched at his room, his thoughts lingering on words like “friends bordering on family,” and “more important than anyone.” Just play-pretend, he reminded himself.

If nothing else, he was starting to understand his role in this game quite well. It had just taken a little time to get adjusted to the rules. But he could certainly play.

Now if only he could bring in a chessboard to this room someday. Then he’d be right at home.

Chapter Text

For an entire sixty minutes, his room is absent of the incessant sounds of knocking, yelling, and chattering on the opposite side of his bedroom door.

Of course, his newfound peace is short-lived. They all come back once the hour is up—he guesses that it must be about noon, because they all just returned from a self-proclaimed lunch break. After so many hours of knocking nonstop, apparently the cavalry got hungry.

He hisses a sigh through his teeth when the knocking starts up again, more energized than ever now that they’ve all had their lunch.

“Hey, hey, someone’s in there riiight?” Angie-chan’s singsong voice comes through the door, causing his already pounding head to throb even harder. “Why won’t you come out? You could have lunch too if you came out of there!”

“Ah, Angie-san, we’re not really trying to get him to come out just to have lunch though…” Akamatsu-chan sounds as though she might be touching a hand to her forehead in exasperation.

Then comes the voice that he least wants to hear, once again. “If he’s been in there since the game started… I wonder…” In the silence that follows, Ouma wonders despite himself if he’s tipping down that ridiculous hat of his over his eyes, lost in thought. “It’s probably true he could do with a good meal.”

He tries to tune out the rest of their chattering as best he can, although it’s getting increasingly harder to do so when every noise in the room feels like it’s piercing right through his brain. Restlessly, he holds a hand up above him while he lies on his back.

It’s too dark in his room to actually see anything clearly, but he feels like if he turned on the light, he could perhaps clearly make out the faint, shiny-smooth mark of scars that should no longer exist, all along the fingers of his left hand. Not red, raw, or angry like newly formed scars, but white and half-worn away, the way old scars sometimes get after a long time has passed.

They’re probably there. They were there too, some of those other times: a collection of faint, half-invisible scars that shouldn’t exist yet, right there on his fingers.

But he can’t see anything at all, so he lowers his hand and keeps trying to tune out the constant noise of the people on the other side.


“Do I look like a goddamn conveyor belt?”

“You look like several things, absolutely none of them pleasant.” He sent Iruma-chan a cheeky grin as he propped an elbow atop the cafeteria table and waited for her to continue.

“God, I fuckin’ hate you… Anyway,” she said, trying to steer them back to the main topic. “You’re asking me for way too much way too fast. I can’t make all that shit in bulk. Hell, tryin’ to make sense of those half-assed doodles you gave me is hard enough.”

“Oh-ho, that sounds pretty disappointing coming from a Super High School Level Inventor, Iruma-chan. You sure your talent’s the real deal?” He smiled unpleasantly, resisting the urge to tack on a, mine’s not, in case you’re curious.

“I’m the goddamn Super High School Level Inventor, not the Super High School Level Mass Producer!”

He gave her a round of sarcastic applause. “Wow, incredible! To think you’d know what mass production is!”

She gritted her teeth, clearly struggling not to smack him over the head with nearest object. “Look, I did make somethin’ else, alright? All I’m sayin’ is, it’s gonna take a while before I can get you the other stuff.” As though suddenly regaining a little bit of her usual brashness, she shook out her hair and put her hands back on her hips. It was meant to make her look tough, perhaps, but it seemed to him rather like a small, scared animal trying to make itself look bigger. “You should be glad I’m making you anything at all, anyway! I’m a great fuckin’ inventor, you know?! So count yourself lucky.”

While resting his chin on one hand, Ouma drummed the fingers of his free hand against the table, mentally readjusting his chess pieces. He didn’t care about her bluff at all, but perhaps it was true that he’d asked too much from her too quickly. It wasn’t worth rushing the process if the materials she was making him came out half-baked instead. Mentally he checked himself, moved Iruma-chan’s piece back a few squares, and resigned himself to the fact that he’d just have to wait a bit longer.

He only looked back up at her when he noticed her sneer faltering a bit, a noticeable flush creeping up her face in its place. As he quirked an eyebrow questioningly, she began to poke her fingers together suggestively. “A-Anyway, come by my lab, later, yeah? You can pick up the first hammer there, but I still gotta keep working on the rest.”

“Will do! I can’t wait to see how fun the thing Iruma-chan whipped up is.” He was absolutely dreading it.

A strange sort of laugh escaped the back of her throat. “It’ll be real fuckin’ fun. Oh, and I changed that stupid name you gave it from before. Wanna hear what I call it now?”

He hoped that something about the smile on his face and the iciness of his gaze might stop her from opening her mouth and giving him the details, but apparently she was much too in love with her own joke to bother with shutting up. It was very lucky for her that she was such a useful piece.

---

Out of a possible one-hundred forty-four combinations, he had tried about fifty. Fifty-six, to be precise.

He stood in a room devoid of common sense, facing the two huge dials before him. As always, he kept his ears tuned to the sound of anything or anyone else entering the room—but there was nothing. Just the faint hum of the vacuum-jar where he left it atop the table, still switched on and dutifully sucking up things in the room too small for the eye to see. Wryly, he thought to himself that a better name for it might be “the bug-catcher.”

If anyone else were to enter right now, it’d be game over. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He never got to enter this room last time, even when the whole fifth floor was actually available to him. And as it was definitely not available to them right now, with only two murders down and four floors open…

He was pretty sure this would count as a rule violation, if he were caught. Of course, with the right amount of leeway, maybe he could wing it. Still, he would rather not take that chance if he could help it.

Using the hammer Iruma-chan made for him and the bug-catcher, he had made his way up to the fifth floor this time around. Even though Shinguuji-chan, Angie-chan, and Chabashira-chan were all still alive and well, he made it all the way up here. Every step he took, creeping close to the shadows and the blind spots in every hallway, had left him with his heart pounding in his throat—still, he felt satisfied to know that perhaps the ringleader’s technology wasn’t as infallible as they might think.

He was getting somewhere. It was slow progress, but he could play this game, too.

The sight of the door to Amami-chan’s laboratory, a jumbled, chaotic splatter of red and black, had left him so tense he could feel the adrenaline thrumming all the way in the tips of his fingers. Last time he hadn’t been allowed in, even with the floor opened up; the moment he’d gone to pick the locks, Monokuma had chased him away, yelling more than a few warnings about “minding his own beeswax,” even threatening to add “entering locked research labs” to the list of rule violations.

It hadn’t done so, but just knowing that whatever was in there was serious enough to warrant a threat like that had only made Ouma more determined to get in.

The fact that Monokuma wasn’t here now clearly meant he was doing this right. He had to be. Throwing yet another paranoid glance at the bug-catcher on the table behind him, he sighed briefly before glancing up at the dials again.

Fifty-six combinations down, eighty-eight to go. With no clues to go on, he was down to sheer process of elimination in order to rule them out. The process was long, and time-consuming.

But hey, that’s fine. I’ve got all the time in the world. And even if I get caught again, well—I guess that locker is good for something, isn’t it?

Gnawing at the inside of his cheek and ignoring the faint taste of iron, he spun the right-hand dial one more notch: this time, to the shape of a horse.

---

“…Yo, hello there. I don’t really need to introduce myself after all this time, do I?”

It wasn’t his first time seeing Amami Rantarou looking and speaking right at him after watching him die, but it was his first time seeing it quite like this. This USB drive, and this video message which had been left on it, were undeniably something he had never seen before, not any of the other times.

“…I’m actually allowed to prepare a few special privileges for myself. One of those special privileges is this video message…”

Ouma watched the video unfold before him with an icy stillness that did not quite match with the torrent of emotions he felt welling up within him. Vague confusion. Intrigue. A sort of proud satisfaction at having solved this puzzle, this game, meant for Amami-chan’s eyes only. And a familiar, weary bitterness.

No matter how many times he woke up inside the locker, Amami-chan’s piece seemed insistent on dying first. Every single time. No matter what he did or didn’t do, this hadn’t changed. And yet, knowing the possibilities that might open up if only the other boy had stuck around for longer…

“…Come on, you know what I’m getting at, right? I’m talking about something you’ve been carrying around since the moment the game started, you know? I thought that as long as you used that well, you could put an end to the killing game with it…”

His fingers pressed the pause button before he could register what he was doing, eyes focusing on the screen even more closely, studying every shape and angle of Amami-chan’s face with a renewed intensity.

No matter how much he thought back to the scene in the library, he couldn’t remember anything in particular that stood out. Just Amami-chan’s Monopad, lying beside him on the library floor in a pool of his own blood. They’d all investigated it as a group every time, but nothing had turned up about it that seemed any different from the Monopads they all carried.

His mind kept repeating the line “put an end to the killing game,” and silently he swore under his breath. A whole lot of good that did him. For now, at least, Amami-chan was already dead and gone. And assuming he did try again when he woke up in the locker next, even if he wanted to strike up an alliance, even a temporary alliance like the one he had with Iruma-chan, what good would it do him the next time around if the other boy was still going to die in a matter of just two days?

He forced his train of thought to an abrupt halt and sat very still, listening sharply for the sounds of anyone approaching. But the room stayed quiet, the door firmly shut. He hit play again.

“…This brutal killing game is going to continue ‘until there are only two people left.’ What that rule actually means… Well actually, it’s the most crucial part of this whole thing, but…”

The Amami-chan on the screen paused, his eyes widening in surprise at the abrupt noise of a buzzer sounding from behind him.

“—Haha, looks like that word was off-limits after all. Guess you’ll just have to solve that last riddle on your own. But hey, this is you we’re talking about, so I think you’re smart enough that you’ll do just fine.”

Ouma had to pause the video again, trying not to laugh this time at the absolute irony of this entire situation. Those words, so clearly intended for Amami-chan himself, nonetheless managed to bring a sarcastic sort of smile to his face. This was, after all, perhaps the most encouragement he’d received lately from anything that was not his own whiteboard.

Thanks, Amami-chan, he thought. I guess we both know that I’m smart enough, huh?

He’d definitely be fine—on his own.

---

Pale moonlight behind him illuminated a silhouette standing there in the middle of the dorm entryway. Ouma stopped at the door and stood very still, his breath catching in his throat. He had never been killed here before any of the other times—but it was possible he’d misjudged something tonight. One little setback and he’d have to knock all his pieces clean off the chessboard, put them all back again, and start over from the beginning.

He and the figure opposite him waited in silence for about two heartbeats. Then he let out an exaggerated sigh of relief.

“What, it’s only Momota-chan? Hmm, that’s kind of a letdown. And here I thought something interesting was about to happen. A dark figure, alone in the dorms at night waiting to pounce on me—my heart almost skipped a beat, you know?”

Momota-chan let out an equally exaggerated sigh. Ouma noticed that the other boy was shaking slightly as he lowered his upraised fist and wondered dryly if he had actually been about to hit him before realizing who it was.

“Jesus, you scared the shit outta me. I didn’t know who the hell was comin’ in this late at night… Thought you mighta been trying to…” There was a very awkward pause. “W-Well, whatever. And don’t say shit like that. I’m the one who’s freaked out here.”

“But we’re all alone, just the two of us, aren’t we? If you’re really not trying to kill me, this could’ve been your big chance to confess.” He snickered softly as he closed the door behind him, stepping further into the entryway. “Too bad. Anyway, what were you doing out so late, Momota-chan?”

The would-be astronaut looked slightly taken aback at being asked so directly. “N-Nothin’. Just went for a walk.”

Ouma let his gaze linger from Momota-chan’s still-shaking fist, now trembling by his side, to the slight sheen of sweat all over his face. Despite the dim light, he could still make out a slight smear near the corner of his mouth—as though he hadn’t quite managed to wipe something unpleasant away. “Hmmm… Is that so?”

“Q-Quit staring at me like that, I ain’t lying,” Momota-chan said. “It just seemed like a nice night is all. Nights like this, I get antsy being all cooped up in my room.”

“Even though you skipped out on your training with Saihara-chan and Harukawa-chan?” He raised a finger to his mouth skeptically, smirking widely as the other boy grimaced.

He had seen the three of them out there at night carrying out their ridiculous training sessions more times than he could count. It wasn’t hard to guess that he had started to skip out around this time—that’s what he’d done all the other times whenever Angie-chan and her Religious Student Council had started enforcing their idea of a “peaceful school life.”

In the dim entryway, he could still hear the sound of the other boy gritting his teeth for a while. Then he shrugged, as though giving up. “Fine, ya caught me. I did skip out on Shuuichi and Harumaki, but I had a good reason for it, okay? So to hell with you, I’m going to bed.”

Ouma waited until he turned around before calling out softly. “Hey Momota-chan, why are you still training with someone like Harukawa-chan?” He stared ahead in the dark, keeping his face carefully neutral. “Even though you know she’s a killer, you still go out and train with her every night.” She could’ve gutted them both like fish, thrown their bodies aside like rag dolls. And still they kept training with her willingly for a solid half hour, night after night. “Why is that? I don’t want to think idiocy is the only reason, but…”

He had expected the other boy to get angry—maybe even to behave so rashly that he’d start yelling and wake all their other classmates up. But he was mildly surprised to hear Momota-chan snort as though he was actually amused.

“Oh? Did you remember a funny joke, Momota-chan?”

He just snorted again, shaking his head in what looked like weary resignation. “Man, you just don’t get it. You keep spouting all that shit about Harumaki bein’ a killer and all—”

“—And it’s true.” Ouma stared at him blankly, remembering her fingers around his windpipe, choking the life right out of him. Funny, how they all seemed to want to believe the cold, hard facts even less than they wanted to believe his lies.

Does it still count as a cold, hard fact if it never happened this time around? Well, not that it matters, he thought. Harukawa-chan’s still killed plenty of other people besides me.

“—Yeah, maybe it is true. But people can change, man.”

He blinked once before recovering himself, throwing the other boy a carefree grin. “Nishishi… You’re so trusting, Momota-chan. If only you’d fall for me like you fell for a huge lie like that.”

“I told you, quit saying shit like that.” He was satisfied to hear the exasperation creeping back into his voice. “Think whatever you want, people change. If we couldn’t change, we’d all just keep giving the fuck up whenever life threw anything at us, right?”

Ouma thought vaguely on the number of times he had seen them all die and kill, and die and kill, and die and kill. If only people could change so easily.

“Sure. If that’ll protect Momota-chan’s gentle heart, I’ll pretend I believe it!” he said, waving a hand dismissively before starting off in the direction of his own room.

His foot had only barely touched the stairs when this time he heard Momota-chan call out to him, apparently having just realized something. “Oh yeah—the hell were you doing out tonight? I’m sure it ain’t anything good though, since it’s you we’re talking about…”

Ouma considered, then turned around and smirked. “Funnily enough, I went for a walk too! Ah—did I make you mad? Nishishi. Good night, Momota-chan.”

---

“Ouma-kun… Wh-What are you doing?”

The alarmed concern in Saihara-chan’s voice brought a grin to his face, even as he climbed unsteadily to his shaking legs. For half a second, he let himself pretend that concern had anything to do with the fact that it had been him lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood, rather than any of their other classmates. It was a lie probably, but at least it was a comforting sort of lie.

“Y-Yo, Saihara-chan, Harukawa-chan. Hey, I scared you right? I really got you good, didn’t I?” He grinned broadly at them despite wobbling where he stood. The ache where his forehead was split open throbbed so strongly he was fairly sure he’d be unconscious by now, if he hadn’t already gotten used to having his head hurt all the time.

The two of them just stared back at him in dumb disbelief. Harukawa-chan crossed her arms and quirked an eyebrow at him after a few more seconds, as though sure he was trying to pull something.

Ouma meant to continue but he needed to pause, letting the ache in his skull reach its peak before ebbing slightly, a little like a wave breaking on the coast. It was still painful, but at least it wasn’t so bad once he got the timing right. But his silence seemed to only disorient them further, because when he met their eyes again (a difficult task, since his eyes were finding it hard to focus) they looked even more uncertain. Their eyes kept flicking to the warm trails of blood dripping down his forehead.

“Ahh… Sorry, sorry, I spaced out for a bit there. This blood’s the real deal, you know?” He widened his eyes for emphasis, attempting to look right at them and still somehow managing to stare at a point just slightly to the left.

After another moment or two, Saihara-chan reluctantly broke the tension between them. “A-Are you okay…? Isn’t this going a little far just for one of your pranks…?”

He bit back the temptation to ask if the other boy’s “detective’s intuition” had led him to that conclusion. Instead, still swaying slightly, he gestured vaguely at the floorboard which had cracked his forehead open and sent him tumbling to the floor.

Any moment now, Monokuma was going to come on the screen and tell them that the trial was going to commence. Carefully, albeit impatiently, he tried to push their pieces across the board in the direction that they needed to go.

Harukawa-chan just scoffed, looking more disbelieving still, but Saihara-chan at least seemed to have realized the implications of the clue he’d just spoonfed him. Ouma watched him absentmindedly bring a hand to his mouth as his thoughts wandered—it was a familiar, fitting gesture for a detective.

As Monokuma’s announcement came on, the three of them looked up abruptly, waiting until the screen turned off again before glancing around at each other.

It was better if he left them to sort out their clues without feeling like he was eavesdropping. “I’ll go on ahead! I should really get this stuff cleaned up, you know?”

As he turned and put a hand on the wall to prop himself up a little (walking in a straight line was even more difficult than making eye contact), he paused only when he heard Saihara-chan call out from behind him.

“Are you really okay, Ouma-kun? You don’t need help or anything?”

Silence. Again, Ouma heard the concern in his voice, understood it would apply to any other person in their situation, tried to pretend otherwise for only a moment or two. Then he just laughed, waving his free hand over his shoulder dismissively as he started walking again.

Saihara-chan didn’t call out to him again, but he still felt strangely lightheaded, almost pleased as he made his way down the hall. He put it down to blood loss and a mild concussion.

---

“Wooow… You’re such a horrible liar, Yumeno-chan!”

There was a brief, shocked silence as they all stood there in the trial room, at a loss for words. Then they reacted as though he had slapped her, but he still didn’t look away. She squirmed and pulled the brim of her hat down further, acting as though she’d suddenly spotted something very interesting on the floor.

“Well, it’s not as though I don’t approve of lies… They are my specialty, after all.” He smiled sardonically. “Still, I don’t think it’s good to lie to yourself, don’t you agree?”

That’s a lie though, he wanted to add. Well, just because he was getting fairly good at lying to himself didn’t mean she should do the same.

As Yumeno-chan just stood there without saying anything, the rest of them sputtered trying to come to her defense.

“H-Hey, what are you saying? You should think a little more about Yumeno-san’s feelings before you just start saying things like—”

He cut Shirogane-chan off smoothly. “Oh, I’ve thought about her feelings. That’s why I’m saying this.” The image of Chabashira-chan’s corpse, lying curled on a dirty wooden floor came to mind. So did the image of Yumeno-chan in a day or two’s time, sitting at a cafeteria table without eating anything. Without talking to anyone. That was how it had been last time, and the time before.

How many times had he heard her speak up in the trial, saying so confidently that she wouldn’t let Chabashira-chan or Angie-chan’s deaths be in vain? How many times had she said she wouldn’t call anything “too much of a pain” anymore, only for him to hear those words slip out of her mouth within another few hours?

He still remembered what Momota-chan had said, about people being able to change. Perhaps it was true—for Saihara-chan, at least. So why weren’t the rest of their pieces following that same path, even when it was clearly in their best interests?

If he died, he would just keep waking up in a small dark locker, over and over again. And there would be another Yumeno-chan who would someday lose another Chabashira-chan. But for this Yumeno-chan—this was it. If her piece was ever going to make it to the end of this ruthless game alive, she would have to try harder, whether she liked it or not.

“Hey Yumeno-chan, what are you putting up with it for? Why are you just putting up with it?” He stared at her blankly, the corners of his mouth just barely turned down as he waited to see whether she would keep lying to herself or not.

It was like watching a dam break. Suddenly, abruptly, tears welled up in her eyes. As the whole group stood around her, speechless, Yumeno-chan fell to her knees and cried—until sobs started wracking her body, she kept crying. They were honest tears, at least. Chabashira-chan might even have been proud.

At some point she finally stopped, her grief replaced by a peaceful sort of exhaustion. One by one, his other classmates came forward and hugged her, patting her on the head, telling her it was okay. Ouma stood back and watched, his face neutral.

But he could feel someone’s eyes on him. When he glanced over, he could just see Saihara-chan looking away, apparently embarrassed at having been caught staring.

Yes, he wanted to tell him. I’m going to make you all learn to play this game with me. Yes, I’m doing this for all your sakes.

Instead he put his hands behind his head, looked away, and forced himself to tune them all out. If this was a show, then he most certainly still had an audience to play to. And breaking character would be breaking the rules of the game.

---

Culprits to the left, victims to the right, remaining suspects even farther to the right. At the right-most edge of his whiteboard, Saihara-chan’s picture once again was set aside.

One of these people has to be the ringleader, he thought. That’s the only logical conclusion.

So why was it that he still didn’t know who?

He stood in front of his whiteboard and tried to empty his brain of all the noise cluttering it. For more than two hours he’d been pacing, examining the evidence in his room almost feverishly. He knew every culprit, every victim, every step of the route they had been following up until now, but he still didn’t know what came next. His left thumb was raw and angry where he’d bitten the nail down past the quick again, still slightly smeared with blood he was too busy to wipe off.

His face felt hot. He took a deep breath, trying to regain that sense of cold, calculating precision he felt whenever he lined the pieces back up on the chessboard in his head. Again. Again.

Just line them up, rearrange them, it doesn’t matter. I need to find out what I’m missing.

The feverish feeling subsided a little. He uncapped the marker in his right hand and let it hover over the board—and yet he still didn’t know what line to draw next. Eight suspects to go, one ringleader in the bunch. This was about the point he’d been at last time, before he’d seen what the outside world had in store for them, forfeit the game, and been sent back to square one.

Eight suspects, only one ringleader. But that still didn’t mean he could trust the other seven. If absolutely any of them decided they had to get out—that they needed to get out… Just how was he supposed to find a way to stop them all from bashing their brains out against the wall when they knew?

Bitterly he snatched a picture off the board and readjusted it further down, writing a single word beside it. Strange. Yes, Kiibo was very strange. There was just one purpose he could think of for a robot in a “show” like this. A very clear, very unpleasant purpose. Ouma hated him for it. And yet he was so clearly a pawn in the grand scheme of things. Pawns could be promoted to all kinds of pieces in chess—but they could never be promoted to a king. So he wasn’t the ringleader. Probably. Maybe.

Two hours in and all he’d determined for sure was that the robot was someone’s puppet. He snorted, then returned his attention to the other six pictures he’d yet to push one way or the other.

The dead were, of course, excluded from the list of suspects. He’d investigated them all for himself—many, many times at that. They were dead. So they couldn’t be the ringleader. …Probably. Maybe. The fact that their pictures were on the board at all was half parts a refusal to completely eliminate them from suspicion, half parts a refusal to forget they were dead at all. Dead, dead, and probably going to come back only to die again.

Ouma stood in front of his whiteboard and breathed deeply, letting his eyes roam the thing in its entirety.

In his mind the pieces were always lined up nice and neatly, but the pictures on the board made it all look so much messier. Here, they didn’t look like pieces with their own set of moves and weaknesses. They just looked like a messy collection of photographs, a testament to his dead classmates and the fact that they kept killing each other, proof of the fact that he’d lived through all this again and again and hadn’t figured out much of anything at all.

His mind was heating up again. A million questions he didn’t want to consider tried to push their way to the forefront of his mind. Most he succeeded in quelling, but the worst was the small, insidious little thought that managed to resurface again and again no matter how much he tried to ignore it—

What if I find out who the ringleader is, win this game, and still wake up in a small, dark locker again?

He emptied his brain of all the noise, gnawing on his thumbnail all the while.

---

“I think it’s just about time.”

“…Huh?”

Ouma tipped his chair back, holding the bright pink sphere in his hand up to examine it under the fluorescent lights of the cafeteria. He wouldn’t know until he actually used it, of course, but it looked perfect. Exactly what he’d asked for.

Two other spheres rested on the table next to him, identical in every way. Beside them, the bug-catcher hummed away happily, making sure that no one intruded on his usual meeting with Iruma-chan.

“I said it’s just about time. This should do the trick. With this, we can end the killing game.”

She gnawed at her bottom lip as she stared down at him, one hand resting on her hip. “It ain’t gonna work.”

“You told me these would work,” he said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice. “I very specifically asked you if they would, and you said yes. You didn’t lie to me, did you Iruma-chan?”

She flinched, shrinking back a little. He hadn’t even raised his voice, but she lost all her brashness immediately, clearly aware that she’d said the wrong thing. “I don’t mean that shit—like yeah, sure, those’ll work. The hammers too, and the remote. But the plan…”

Bored, he straightened his chair and hopped up, moving to sit atop the table instead. His grin slipped away as though it had never existed as he looked her in the eye. “There are only two Exisals left. We take care of those annoying cubs first, then Monokuma. The ringleader wouldn’t even have enough time to make a spare.” He left out, of course, that the ringleader was probably someone within their group. “If everyone pitches in, we’ll pull it off. No more killing game. The end.”

How flat those words fell. If everyone pitched in… Now he was just sounding like Akamatsu-chan. Or Momota-chan, maybe. But Akamatsu-chan and Momota-chan never planned this far ahead, never were this well-prepared.

Again and again, his plans in his room kept taking him back to the realization he’d had the last time around: this game could be won by other means, without even needing to play it at all. Despite her big mouth, Iruma-chan had more than proven that her inventions could do the trick. They could use these plans, these inventions, and take the game by storm. And it would work.

…Likely not without a few sacrifices, though. A move this risky in chess almost never succeeded without a few pieces being taken off the board along the way.

Don’t think about which pieces might get lost. Focus on what’s ahead.

He expected her to back down the way she always did—but to his surprise, Iruma-chan began shaking her head back and forth slowly. The drool at the corner of her mouth and the bead of sweat on her forehead made her look remarkably pathetic. But she still didn’t stop shaking her head.

“I-It ain’t gonna work. Somethin’ is gonna go wrong—someone is gonna chicken out, or they’re gonna fuckin’ blow the whole thing!” Her voice raised a little. “I ain’t gonna put my life on the line just for someone else to get me killed, okay?!”

For a moment she paused, apparently expecting him to cut in. But Ouma just continued staring at her blankly. It was hard to think of a response when her words rang so true, echoing some of the same thoughts he’d had while he simulated this plan in his head as he stood in front of his whiteboard.

She pressed forward to fill that awkward silence herself, her words gushing forward even more frantically than before. “I got things I need to be doing—I need to be out there, the world’s a fuckin’ shithole! I could be doing so much!” She ran a hand through her hair anxiously and he could see fear, real fear, in her eyes. “I could be changing the whole fuckin’ world, putting it back to how it used to be! And instead I’m…stuck…here!”

Her words carried a note of finality with them that he only recognized in the split second after they left her mouth. As she clenched her fists and trembled, he accepted the end of his plan before it even started, rearranging the pieces on the board in his head with an expert hand.

There was nothing to be done. Like an opponent cornering the king and calling checkmate, he had no choice but to accept that his plan wasn’t going to work.

Iruma-chan seemed to regain herself after some time, mumbling one of her usual “offers” sheepishly under her breath, but he just stared at her, his face impassive. He spoke with her curtly, took the things she had made back with him to his room—but there really were no moves left for her piece at this point, no matter how many times he looked at the board.

---

With the board in stalemate, waiting to reach the end of the game, he let things play out as they would. He already knew the move Iruma-chan’s piece was going to make (the only move she was willing to make anymore). It was just a question of when she was going to try it.

Then came the day when Gonta had been nearly beside himself, desperate to take on the Exisals if it meant even the slightest chance of getting everyone else out alive. No one knew how to convince him that this was a terrible idea. Or rather, Ouma’s thoughts kept straying to the time he’d seen the guns on those Exisals tear through Gonta’s broad shoulders like tissue paper, but there wasn’t any point in bringing that up. As far as they knew, that hadn’t happened. So it was as if it “never happened.”

Then Iruma-chan had come into the room, bearing good news. I’m going to save the group, she had said. He’d had to actually struggle not to burst out laughing at that one. She might be dense and crass, but at least she told a good joke every once in a while.

And now he stood at the top of a virtual roof in a virtual world, looking up at snow that fell from the sky only to pass through the ground without ever piling up. The snow on the ground was pre-programmed, he supposed. So it would never reach past a certain point. The sound of the door finally opening caught his attention, and he turned around, waiting to let Iruma-chan take his king off the board.

“—Or could it be that you called me up here to kill me?” he asked. His voice sounded very quiet, even to his own ears.

Her avatar frowned. Apparently she had enough conscience left to feel guilty. “…So you did notice.”

She actually apologized. That was almost nice of her.

Ouma just let her speak, thinking aimlessly about this world she had programmed. Objects wouldn’t break, snow wouldn’t stop falling. A mansion and a church which looked miles apart were actually very close together, and the edge of the world fell off into pitch black space. Her talent really was something—she never stopped surpassing the limits of what was supposed to be possible.

He wondered what other possibilities her plan might surpass. No matter how he looked at the arrangement of pieces, there were only two possibilities. Perhaps this virtual world full of virtual programming might actually count as something outside of the game they were already playing. In which case, if he died here, then maybe—maybe he wouldn’t wake up inside the locker again. If not…

…There was only one possible move to avoid this stalemate. Just the one. He’d thought it over as much as possible, and always he came to the same conclusion. In this game, with these rules, and these pieces, there was only one move left to him. And if he woke up in the locker again, he’d have no choice but to use that move.

Ouma waited to see the result. He couldn’t move even if he wanted, once Iruma-chan’s avatar grasped his arm, but he still felt the usual icy composure settling in on his brain as he observed and weighed his options. If nothing else, he’d know what to do the next time around by studying exactly how and why he’d lost this match—if there was a next time…

He braced himself. She swung the hammer down.


“No matter how you look at it, hasn’t it been far too long? I can’t imagine he’s going to respond now of all times.” He can hear Shinguuji-chan’s voice past his bedroom door, as calm and cunning as ever.

Those words cause a jumble of muffled response for a few seconds. He can’t make out the specifics, but it’s easy for him to fill in the blanks: Shinguuji-chan just voiced what they’d all already been trying not to think to themselves, and now they’re all starting to panic.

Maybe he’s finally starting to wear them down.

“Come on, no way we’d just give up that easily!” Momota-chan’s booming voice settles them all down. Just like always. “If we just backed down and left, then what were we even knockin’ this long for? We’re gonna stay until he comes outta there, got it?!”

Another few moments of scattered, mumbled responses, compliant but still hesitant to Ouma’s ears. But just as he expected, they’re all too tired after knocking for so long. The protests continue.

“…I believe we’ve done as much as we can. If he will not come out and talk to us, I believe we should strive to put our efforts elsewhere before the time limit is up.”

“Wha—? Toujou?!”

More of them chime in.

“I’m still really worried, but…I think she’s right. I don’t know why he’s so desperate to stay in there when we all just want to talk to him…” Shirogane-chan’s voice trails off. “Maybe we really should call it quits?”

Momota-chan still sounds outraged on the other side of the door, but he can hear Amami-chan cut in, as level-headed as always. “…I think it’s true that if he were going to say something, he’d have said it by now. We should probably make sure we have another back-up plan for when the time limit hits. Just in case, you know?”

There’s a general murmur of agreement to which he can hear Momota-chan sputtering even more furiously. “What’s with all of you? Hey, Akamatsu—what about you? You ain’t gonna back down on this, right? Show ‘em how it’s done!”

“Eh?” Akamatsu-chan sounds taken aback for a split second. She must be undecided herself on whether to keep trying or stop, he guesses. Then she bounces back. “Mmm… I agree that it’s too early to give up. Let’s try just a little bit longer!”

The discussion continues for what feels like an eternity. Ouma guesses it’s been about five minutes before he comes back to himself, realizing he can hear the sound of footsteps walking away from his door. About half the group decided to give up, from what he can tell.

Finally, he thinks. He rests an arm against his forehead lightly as he stares up at the ceiling. Just a little bit longer and the rest of them will give up, too.

“—What about you, Saihara-kun?” Akamatsu-chan continues some conversation or other opposite his bedroom door, trying to figure out what they should do now with only half the numbers they used to have.

Silence. Then, thoughtfully: “…There’s still a few things I want to ask him no matter what. I think we should keep trying.”

Ouma bites at his lip, wishing bitterly they’d just go away.


There was no game over screen, and he still woke up in the locker feeling like his head was about to split open. Brain death was, unsurprisingly, still brain death, regardless of whether it took place in a virtual world or not.

It wasn’t like he’d expected it to work. Not really. But he’d thought, maybe there had been just a slight chance…

A slight chance that what? That I wouldn’t wake up in the locker again?

If only he could be so lucky.

As Ouma sat in the dark and tried to ignore these few, brief moments of respite before knowing he’d have to go out and line the board back up all over again, he was hit with a sudden, awful curiosity. It was a question he hadn’t even considered, as fixated as he’d been last time on the matter of what to do with Iruma-chan’s piece, but—

What about the trial?

The trial. His blood went cold. The trial, where everyone’s lives were on the line. The trial, with a case he knew fully well Iruma-chan had had as much time to set up and dispose of evidence on as she pleased.

Just how had that trial gone? Had they managed to guess the right culprit? Or maybe…

Ouma sat and stared at the vague outline of the locker door without really seeing it. Instead, he saw the usual: dark hands in broad daylight, reaching out to him, dead bodies curled up or hanging or slamming to the floor, Monokuma’s leering grin, the sight of the sky outside on fire.

He had let himself be cornered into checkmate last time because he’d wanted to see the result of his loss. And now he knew. Now he knew exactly what kind of move he would have to play when he reached that point again in this game.

---

There was no point in going easy anymore. He fully intended to press every advantage he had in order to win, this time around.

He set the whiteboard in his room up exactly as he’d had it the last time. Deftly, right from the very first day, he put culprits to the left, victims to the right, the undecided suspects even farther right. Saihara-chan alone stood out from the group, still a presence he couldn’t quite figure out after all this time.

None of these things had happened yet. But they would.

There was only one difference between his board this time and last time: when he grasped Iruma-chan’s portrait, he placed her to the left-hand side of the board. There was just enough space to fit another portrait in front of hers. All he needed to decide was whose.

Anyone looking at me right now would think I was planning a murder. Well, he thought, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

The familiar sour taste in his mouth wouldn’t seem to go away.

But he didn’t have time to think of the repercussions of what that would entail. For now, he focused on what was already decided. There were three trials spanning now and then. Only three trials. Coldly, he realized for the first time how little time that was if he really wanted to put a stop to this killing game.

He wasted none of that time. Ouma planned and schemed and left his trail of clues—a trail he fully intended on having the rest of them follow as he played to win in this game, even if it meant dragging them by the nose.

When the second floor opened up this time around, he asked Iruma-chan for the bug-catcher immediately. When there was no one else around, he scratched out letters on the slab in the back garden, painstakingly etching what would eventually become a declaration of war. When the rest of them questioned who he was and what the hell he was doing, he made sure to give them his most ominous smile.

Piece by piece, the game narrowed down. The waiting was almost more boring than it was worth—but that was okay. The challenge would arrive soon enough, and then he’d be able to progress past the stalemate he’d reached last time.

Two pieces had to go. Two was a fairer trade than everyone dying, he tried to tell himself. But the sour taste never quite left his mouth, whenever he sat in his room and thought about it.

---

Two days before Iruma-chan finished making her virtual world, Ouma sat in the cafeteria and tried to find some way to stave off the boredom and the endless waiting.

Again, he took out a knife. Again, Saihara-chan leapt up from his chair when the knife “accidentally” nicked the sides of his fingers as he sliced it carefully and precisely for the sake of their game. Again, the other boy ran off to get a first-aid kit for him.

But those were the only similarities in common with last time. Every time they reached this point, Saihara-chan continued to go farther and farther off-script. Even when Ouma made sure to follow the exact same lines, the exact same delivery, the other boy picked a different response every time.

If boredom was the poison wearing down his will to go on in this endless, repetitive game, then this was the perfect medicine to that. Ouma laughed to himself happily as he let Saihara-chan bandage his fingers up tightly, ignoring the confused-but-exasperated glance the other boy sent him.

“…There we go, something like this should do the trick. How is it, Ouma-kun?”

“Yeah, it’s not like I cut myself too seriously or anything. Thanks for patching me up, Saihara-chan. But more importantly…” He took a brief, calculated pause. He was certainly coming to embrace the role of an actor, in addition to all the other roles he had taken on, but it was hard for even himself to tell whether he was doing this more for the sake of the group or the sake of the show. “Oh nooo…I lost! Guess that means you win, Saihara-chan! Congratulations!”

Uncomprehending confusion. Skepticism. These things Ouma had already expected—it wasn’t like Saihara-chan or any of them ever really understood. But still, there was that glint of curiosity deep down, the sign of a detective’s undeniable urge to know more about the world around him.

Ouma wondered briefly if falling in love with someone always meant noticing these little details about them.

As he talked cryptically about games which could be won without being played, he teased him happily, the fondness in his voice apparent. The other boy clearly didn’t believe him, but that was fine by him. After all, Saihara-chan was trying. Improving, overcoming, questioning. However he was managing to do it, he was still constantly going off-script in this show where his role had already been decided for him.

Even if he didn’t understand yet, Ouma was slowly becoming convinced that he could. Soon.

“Nishishi… Right now, Saihara-chan, you won’t forget me for the rest of your life, will you? I already stole your heart, so I’m satisfied! That’s why I don’t need your life anymore!”

“Wh-What are you even saying…! Wh-Why would you…?”

Ouma smiled and reminded him of the very simple fact that he was a liar.

With his bandaged hand still stinging, he left the cafeteria cheerfully, his mood surprisingly light despite what was coming in just another two days’ time. As usual, he had put up a wall of distance between the two of them. There’d be no time to waste hanging out like this once they moved on past the next trial. And after all—he still couldn’t quite figure the other boy out.

But that’s why he was certain. If he kept going like this, Saihara-chan would follow. Even if he couldn’t find a way out of this maze on his own, Saihara-chan would. Not because it was his role in some show, but because he was a detective, through and through.

Ouma made his way back to his room, rubbing a thumb over his fresh bandages fondly all the while.

---

Two days later, Ouma found the piece he needed to use in order to break the stalemate of Iruma-chan’s virtual world. He stood back and watched as Gonta picked up the remember light, turned on the switch, and started screaming. It was a good thing there was no one else outside for the moment to hear them.

This is what’s necessary, he told himself. This is what needs to be done. I had to ask Monokuma to put that light there, or else things would’ve just turned out exactly like last time.

For a moment he remembered telling Yumeno-chan that he didn’t tell lies to himself. His stomach churned at the thought.

Gonta cried. He cried for the sake of a world turned to rubble and ash, for the sake of their dead loved ones and families. He cried for the sake of all their classmates who had died for absolutely no reason at all.

Poor Gonta. It would only make things worse if he tried to tell him that those loved ones he remembered might not even have existed in the first place. That things were even more meaningless than he’d realized. So he didn’t tell him.

As the tears streamed down the other boy’s face, Ouma thought about how once upon a time, he might have tried to comfort him. That was what a good leader would do in this situation: comfort, console, encourage.

But that wouldn’t help him win this game.

So he put a hand on Gonta’s arm, looked up at him, and smiled broadly. Just as he’d planned for weeks, the words came out naturally, insidiously: “Hey, Gonta? If the inside of this school is hell, and the outside world is also hell… Why don’t we end it all? All that suffering.”

He’d practiced those words so much that he thought, when the time came, he would feel nothing at all. It didn’t have to be Gonta—anyone at all would’ve sufficed, but Gonta just happened to be the one who had come with him when he had gone to search for that “motive” he knew was lying in these virtual woods.

He had readied himself for the moment he’d be knocking this sacrificial pawn off the board. The leering smile on his face and the singsong edge to his voice attested to the hours he’d spent in front of his whiteboard, planning for this move.

But as he watched Gonta nod slowly, miserably to his plan, his mind kept thinking back to the motive video at the bottom of his bedroom drawer. Don’t kill people, it had said.

These are pieces, not people, he lied.

Don’t kill people.

I’m not. This is just what needs to be done, or the game won’t end.

Don’t kill people.

Hating this game from the very bottom of his heart, he spun around in the virtual snow, looking back over his shoulder towards Gonta with the same smile still plastered on his face. “I even thought up a name for this little alliance of ours. It’ll be something special, just the two of us! We can call ourselves—the Killing Game Busters! …What do you think?”

Gonta didn’t respond.

---

“By the way, the culprit is Gonta.”

He was tired.

The trial room went silent enough to hear a pin drop for the span of about three seconds, and then it erupted into chaos. Confusion, outrage, disbelief, shock—these emotions and many more flitted across every single one of their faces and exploded into a jumbled torrent of voices yelling all at once.

Ouma just sneered back at all of them. Too easy. This was too easy. They were all predictable, not even trying to think for themselves. And of course, when confronted directly with the truth they’d all wanted so much, they reacted like this.

For a split second, his eyes flitted to Saihara-chan’s face, waiting to see if the detective had caught on yet. He had helped him in the investigation, called him his partner—done everything short of hand him the answer directly on a silver platter. But that usual glint of curiosity wasn’t there when he looked. Instead, he felt he caught a glimpse of something he didn’t like. So he looked away and carried on his act.

“—but no matter how much you try to deny it, the truth won’t change! After all, there can only be one truth! The culprit who killed Iruma-chan is Gokuhara Gonta! This is the undeniable truth you all craved so much!”

Spreading his arms wide, he hit them with the very thing they claimed they had wanted from him. He grinned with a coldness that seeped into every bone in his body, laughed at them, and gouged the truth in like a knife.

Every now and then during the trial, his thoughts would tend to Iruma-chan and Gonta. Iruma-chan on the roof, this time around. Gonta, strangling her around the neck. The sight almost cute despite the grotesqueness of it, two little avatars in a pre-programmed world, neither of them looking particularly harmful.

Then, of course, there had been the sight of Iruma-chan’s body in the chair afterwards, her face purple like a bruise as her dead hands clung to her throat postmortem. Gonta, here and now, stammering and crying, too unfortunate to know what it was he had forgotten.

Ouma smiled wide like a performer on the stage, feeling a loathing somewhere deep inside him which he was not quite sure was meant for either the ringleader or the audience watching this so-called show—or himself.

“Why don’t I show you, then?” The rest of them averted their eyes from him, clearly able to sense the hostility underlying the sweetness of his tone. “Why don’t I show you all the absolute, undeniable proof that it was impossible for me to kill Iruma-chan?”

And then, he thought, we’ll see how much you all love the truth.

---

He had thought they would stop pressing him for truths they weren’t prepared to handle, after the way the trial had gone. But he’d been wrong.

“I said no, you useless idiots!”

The grin on his face felt stretched almost to breaking, like a mask so tight it was about to shatter. He danced around the issue of the outside world as they all crowded around him, begging to know more about what had driven Gonta to do such a thing. All too clearly, he remembered what happened to people in this game like Amami-chan who knew more than they should, once the ringleader found out exactly how much they knew.

Instead, he threw malice at them like poison. Once he started, he found it was hard to stop. Too much bottled-up resentment, too many things he’d left undone or unsaid all the other times he’d failed, came out casually, easily, a steady stream of pure hostility.

It’s all your fault for being so stupid, he wanted to say. This game won’t end no matter what I do. So if it doesn’t matter what I do, isn’t it fine if I act like this, too?

It wasn’t like they’d remember anything he said anyway, if he ever woke up in the locker again.

“Behold, I’m the ‘evil Supreme Leader’ whose personality is corrupted. The more you all suffer, it’s just so funny to me I can’t help myself.”

Gonta and Iruma-chan were dead. The rest of them were alive. He and all the rest of them had just “done what needed to be done” and yet—

And yet. And yet, and yet. For just a moment at the end, when he’d begged Gonta to let him be executed with him, waking up in the locker one more time had seemed a small price to pay to avoid this outcome. A small price to pay if it meant atoning for this sin that could never be undone, no matter how many times he relived this scenario in the future.

But this outcome couldn’t be avoided. He’d already proven that the last time around, when he’d let Iruma-chan swing that hammer down. When he’d let all the rest of them head to their deaths in a trial they stood no chance of solving by themselves.

Yes, this whole situation was definitely funny. Funny. Pathetic. Disgusting.

“When people experience pure suffering, it makes me happy! There are people like that in this world, too! There are people just like me, who spread malice for no reason!”

As the words left his mouth, he thought of the ringleader, still a wolf in sheep’s clothing he hadn’t yet discovered among the flock. He thought of the eyes he suspected were glued to their screens right this second, watching him perform. Perhaps they were calling for a standing ovation.

He wished he could say he didn’t understand how anyone could possibly look at this game and call it entertaining. But he did.

Ouma felt a deep, sadistic pleasure as he stuck to the script he had written himself. Every insult, every glare, every sign of hatred thrown back at him only fueled his urge to keep going. Yes, this was what was needed to win in a game like this. This was what he’d held back on doing, all those other times. But if there was no need to hold back—then why stop at all?

This was, after all, the kind of role he’d been meant to play in this game.

He dodged Momota-chan’s punch, so easy to predict, so much weaker and less steady than before that he felt like taking the rest of them and shaking them by the shoulders, asking how it was possible for them to not notice that their beloved hero was slowly dying. But he only kept the same grin in place as he turned to face them all again, wondering aloud how they felt about Momota-chan keeping secrets.

When Harukawa-chan threatened to kill him, he actually laughed aloud. It was hardly the first time she’d made that threat, but he’d love to tell her it wouldn’t be the first time she’d succeeded, either.

He kept going. It felt as though something hot and resentful was spilling from the bottom of his stomach, slipping from his mouth instead in some horrible, seething mixture of lies and truths. None of it mattered, anyway. Absolutely none of it mattered, and either he’d see this game to the end or they’d never remember what he said even if he woke up in the locker again—

“You’re the pathetic one… Ouma-kun.”

Saihara-chan’s words cut him off abruptly. Ouma stared at him blankly, for the first time feeling self-aware of how stupid he must look with the same leering grin stuck to his face like a mask that wouldn’t come off.

“There are always people willing to gather around Momota-kun…but there’s no one willing to do that for you, is there Ouma-kun?” The words rang clear and soft in the now-silent trial room, fighting poison with more poison. Except Saihara-chan’s poison was completely justified, unlike his own. “You’re just meant to be…the kind of person who would end up pathetic and alone like that.”

Saihara-chan spoke as softly as ever, but his words cut worse than the still-healing knife wounds at his fingers. Ouma sneered, tried to respond, and found he couldn’t think of anything to say. The inside of his head felt blank, a collection of TV static after the explosion of malice from earlier.

Curiosity and understanding were reserved for mysteries—not murderers who tried to manipulate human beings like chess pieces across the board. So it made sense that Saihara-chan no longer held any curiosity for him at all in his unwavering, half-pitying stare.

Quietly, some small part of him wondered why he’d ever bothered thinking he could afford to wish for an ally in a game as twisted as this.

“…Ahhh, this is getting boring. Everything got way less exciting all of a sudden.”

He left them all with one last threat and walked out of the trial room at a deliberate, steady pace. And as he came outside to the usual slab, he carved the rest of his intended message, just as slowly, just as deliberately, without even bothering to go back to his room to get the bug-catcher.

Ouma stood back and admired his handiwork indifferently: The world belongs to Ouma Kokichi.

No more faltering. No more hesitation. No more betting on probabilities he already knew were doomed to failure before he even took the risk in the first place. Risk was unnecessary in a game about victory.

And this game was just about at its end.

---

He sat on the cold, hard floor of the machinery bay as he waited to die, writing page after page with a practiced, frantic hand, wondering how things had gotten to this point.

That was a lie, though. He knew exactly how they’d reached this point. He just didn’t want to admit it to himself.

Ouma breathed deeply, ignoring the fiery pain running its way through his veins. Even now, when just breathing made every muscle in his body feel as though they were all shrieking in protest, some part of his brain still desperately clung to that cold, logical precision. Not that he was sure what good logic or precision could do him now…

He’d played the rest of the game like any good actor would. Or maybe like a chessmaster.

Or maybe, like a pathetic, lonely liar.

Truth, lies. Black, white. Any square on the board would do, as long as it served a purpose, and they had already been reduced to only seven pieces on the board in total. He had taken that truth about the outside world they so badly wanted, wrapped it in a shroud of lies, and crushed them with it.

His initial plan, with the hammers and bombs, had been discarded. Coldly, he’d come to the conclusion that Iruma-chan had been right about that much at least—the plan wouldn’t work as long as there was a traitor in their midst. Being unable to trust everyone was the same as being unable to trust anyone.

So instead, he had put his hands on the board and snatched it away. There was no deeper satisfaction than the feeling of knowing that he was this kind of character and taking this game, this show, away from the people who wanted to watch it the most. He could almost imagine the despair it must have caused them all. No one knew better than he did how quickly boredom could lead to despair.

Six pieces cornered, one of them a king. He’d put them all into check and declared mate—or so he thought.

Then Harukawa-chan had come crashing through the machinery bay door and killed him once again. She was good at that, of course, but even he hadn’t believed she’d do it again in this particular scenario, after all the precautions he’d taken.

But it didn’t matter what he believed. His plans were down the drain now, and he had very little time left.

Ouma stopped writing for a second, hissing through his teeth as his veins throbbed with an agony unlike anything he’d felt any of the previous times. He flexed his arm impatiently, then picked up his pen and started writing again.

Over his shoulder, he heard a low whistle. “Shit, man, you write fast.” Momota-chan sounded almost impressed, as though against his will.

“Hmm.” Ouma didn’t bother responding, and just kept his hand moving as quickly as possible. Half his brain was spinning, trying to think of every possible scenario that could occur from this point on, thinking up at least ten possible scenarios with a hundred different branches each. The other half felt simply blank, overcome with pain and the numbing realization that everything hinged on this one plan if he had any shot at all of not waking up in that locker again.

For a few moments there was silence between them, the only sound the noise of the pages in his binder as he flipped through them and the scratching of his pen against paper. Then Momota-chan clicked his tongue, sighing in frustration. Ouma didn’t need to look up to know the other boy was probably scratching at the back of his head in dissatisfaction.

“What the fuck even goes on in that brain of yours? Why are you even doing all this?”

That was a very good question. Ouma kept his hand flowing across the pages even as his whole body throbbed in a fiery, aching tempo with every second that his heart kept pumping the poison through his veins.

He thought about Gonta and Iruma-chan. About the blood on his hands—his hands which were, ironically enough, free from any actual blood. Unlike the rest of him. But there was still blood there which was never going to come off, no matter how fast he wrote or how well he played this game.

He thought about the fifty other scenarios with a thousand branches each which he’d dismissed from his plan entirely. How easy it would have been, to have drunk that antidote himself. To let Momota-chan die, since he was already dying anyway. To let Harukawa-chan be executed, since that was only fair when she had poisoned two people.

He thought about the ringleader, and how he’d been blindsided. Whatever plan they had used to encourage this particular outcome, it must have been brilliant. Bitterly, he almost wished he could have seen it. A match in which you couldn’t read or learn from your opponent’s moves was the most boring sort of game.

He thought about the suicide note he’d prepared this time, stashed away in his room. Tried not to think about if Saihara-chan would find it or not after this—and failed. The bandages on the fingers of his left hand were plain to see in the dim light of the machinery bay even as he wrote with his right.

“…Who knows,” he said finally, long after Momota-chan had probably been expecting any answer. “Can’t it just be that I really want to win this game?” The game wasn’t even winnable. He was sure of that now. But he didn’t say that much out loud.

The other boy seemed to mull it over for a time. “…Could be,” he agreed. “But I ain’t buyin’ it. You could be using that big-ass brain of yours to get out of this situation if you wanted to, but you aren’t. So what gives?”

Ouma thought last of all about the locker. It was the last place in the world he wanted to be again. The last thing he wanted to think about.

He said nothing, and his hand kept going across the paper without stopping.

---

Is the cat in the box dead or alive?

Ouma looked up at the press above him, waiting for it to kill him. He kept his face expressionless, simply staring upward at the massive hulking metal, trying not to wonder things like how quickly and how much pain.

There was no shortage of pain in his body. He ached so much he couldn’t have stood back up even if he wanted to. Just getting him here had been a challenge: he’d had to let a half-dead man drag him by the shoulders and lay him down like a doll.

Until the moment the box is opened, it’s both. And it’s neither. But the moment the lid is opened… It has to be one or the other.

He could have done it. Could’ve made a real catbox. No clues, no evidence, nothing to give even the slightest hint as to the status of the cat inside. And maybe if he had done that instead, he would go—somewhere else. Somewhere that wasn’t a small, dark locker waiting to thrust him into this game one more time.

Maybe if no one could ever observe the box again, he wouldn’t keep reliving these things. He was tired.

But it was impossible. For him, anyway. His bluff had been called, and he couldn’t follow the rules of a game like this after all. So they all (not just Saihara-chan he told himself firmly, but that was a lie and he knew it) had their fair share of clues to help them reach the truth. Maybe they would actually get to the end of this game he’d prevented them from finishing the last time.

Wryly, he tried to justify to himself that it wasn’t his fault for opening up the box. Not entirely. Even if he’d tried to leave no clues at all, he already knew Momota-chan wasn’t the type of person who would keep the box closed forever if it meant risking everyone else’s safety.

And neither was he.

He stared upwards and waited to be killed again. After all the writing from earlier, his mind was unusually blank now. There were no more “what-if”s. No more scenarios spinning in his brain, no more hypothetical moves for hypothetical matches.

There weren’t any moves left for him to make on this gameboard. So he wasn’t going to bother setting the pieces back up on the board, next time.

If he could get even one other piece to the end of the gameboard alive this time around because of this plan, then that was enough. That would be more than he’d ever managed to accomplish any of the other times.

From the metal landing up above him, Momota-chan called him out of his reverie. “Don’t think for one second that I believe you told me everything. You didn’t even tell me half of whatever it is you’re hiding, did you?”

Ouma would’ve at least managed a chuckle, under other circumstances. But not this time. “Don’t pry, Momota-chan,” he said. “Believe what you want, I don’t care. But a liar like me has secrets I want to keep to the end, understand?”

If the cat in the box is already dead, then just leave it be, he thought wearily. There was no sense in trying to drag out a dead cat.

Silence. Then suddenly: “…Sorry, man.” The words sounded almost gentle.

He would've scoffed, if he'd still had the energy for that sort of thing. “Don’t be.”

A long, long pause hung between them. He knew already that Momota-chan’s hands must be at the ready on the buttons, both for the press and the camcorder. After one last deep breath, he readied himself. “Turn it on.”

Thankfully, Momota-chan didn’t hesitate. The press thrummed to life in the next instant, a dull clamor of noise and vibrations that drowned out everything else. As the slab of metal made its way towards him inexorably, unhesitant and merciless, he had several vague, fleeting thoughts all at once.

He thought about cats and boxes, about what it would mean to stop being both alive and dead at the same time. He thought about chess, about games, about the slightly dirtied bandages on his hand. He thought about the fact that even now, if there were no locker and no catbox, he still would really rather not die—

The press came crashing down, and everything ended.

---

He woke up in a locker, took in the state of himself, and resigned himself to the fact that this was the end after all.

The cat in the box was dead. Now it’s alive again.

That would keep repeating, as per the rules of this game. Whatever those rules really were, and whoever decided them, he didn’t know. He still didn’t know. He didn’t want to know.

Ouma made his way out of the locker. Every joint, every muscle in his body screamed in protest, aching dully. There was no more poison and no more press, but he was too tired to keep doing things this way.

A chess match could only start if both sides agreed to line the pieces up and play a match. He’d tried to steal the board away, only to have it stolen out from under him instead. Now he didn’t feel like stealing it back.

He made his way down the hall quickly, despite the pain in each step. One or two people he passed along the way, always without looking back at them.

For the moment, he wanted peace and quiet. He wanted a dark, empty room in which he wouldn’t have to think anymore about sacrifices he’d made and sins he’d committed just to lose in a game he couldn’t win from the start.

A few days. If he closed himself up in his room starting now, he’d have at least a few days of peace and quiet and nothingness before the time limit was up. Then he’d wake up in the locker again, only to face a few more days. If that kept repeating… It wasn’t ideal, but he felt it was at least a better trade than trying to play the game any further.

There was nothing more boring than an unwinnable game. There was nothing more disgusting than breaking all the rules and sacrificing for a game that had never meant anything at all.

Ouma picked the locks to his own room, closed the door behind him, and locked it shut, fully intending to never open it again.


Without a clock in his room or the television coming on, it’s impossible for him to know how many hours are left until the time limit. But he knows it must be close. It’s all anyone on the other side of the door has been talking about since some time ago.

There are very few of them left by now. At an estimate, he’d guess there must be about four hours to go.

It’s so blissfully quiet again in his room. Occasionally he can still hear murmurs and footsteps outside the room. And every once in a while, as though on the hour, a knock. But it’s nowhere near as bad as the clamor from before, and while his head is still pounding faintly, it’s barely worth noting compared to the way it was throbbing before.

Time ticks by slowly. More of them leave. Eventually, even Momota-chan says something furiously under his breath and storms off. Whether he’s going to ream the others out or not, Ouma doesn’t know or care. He just knows he probably won’t come back before time is up. Akamatsu-chan says something he can’t make out a little while later, sounding both apologetic and encouraging.

She leaves, and Ouma has to wonder if he finally got them all to give up.

In the pitch black darkness of his room, it doesn’t matter whether his eyes are open or closed. It didn’t matter much either, when the press came down—the last time. He wonders if he might fall back asleep for just a few more hours, if he tries closing his eyes again now.

He tries. It lasts for a few peaceful seconds, and then—

Another knock at the door.

“Go away,” he says instantly. Empty as he feels, there’s still just a tinge of annoyance to his voice. He had thought he was alone, but that knock clearly says otherwise.

“It’s just me now,” says the voice from the other side of the door. “There’s something I need to ask you about no matter what.”

Despite himself, Ouma’s lip curls. He already knew it would be that voice, yes, but he can’t say he’s pleased at being proven right.

Because he doesn’t say anything, the voice speaks up again. “…Is it okay if I go ahead and ask?”

No, it’s not okay, he thinks. “Go away,” he repeats. That hardly sounds any less childish, but at least he can delude himself that it’s a flat refusal for a conversation, something that will deter the other party from saying anything else.

It doesn’t work, of course.

“You’ve been saying that for a while now lately… Well, pretty much for the whole day.” The voice sounds thoughtful. “You said it first when we came knocking this morning, when we were just trying to figure out if you were even in there or not.”

Ouma doesn’t say anything at all this time.

“Even though we weren’t sure if you were inside or not, you still answered us. And you’ve kept answering since, every now and then. It could’ve just been that you answered by mistake the first time but...something tells me that’s not it.”

Silence. Ouma stares at the ceiling and half-wishes there were another press here to kill him now.

“If you really wanted us to go away, wouldn’t you have just stayed quiet? Wouldn’t you have not said anything at all?”

A detective through and through… Ouma remembers when he thought those words to himself and bites at the inside of his cheek, tasting iron in his mouth.

“I think… I think you answered because you wanted to let us know you were in there.” There’s a note of confidence to his voice, the sound of a detective announcing a theory which he’s sure will hold up.

There are a million ways Ouma can think of to poke holes in that theory of his, but all of them are lies. He’s too tired to lie right now.

“What do you want from me?” he finally asks.

There’s a brief, surprised pause. Then the voice carries on, so quiet that he almost can’t make it out. “I think you do want to talk. Or else you wouldn’t have said anything this morning, and you wouldn’t have responded to me just now. Isn’t that right?”

Ouma shifts his head slightly to stare vaguely in the direction where his bedroom door should be. It’s a sign of affirmation that can’t even be seen by that person on the other side, and yet—still…

“There are things I want to ask you still, but could you open the door? I won’t come knocking again if you don’t like what I have to say.”

You shouldn’t have come knocking the first time, he thinks, but it’s a tired, childish thought. The promise of getting him to go away sounds almost worth it. Still, he hesitates.

“…There’s not much time left. Please.”

The silence spans at least thirty seconds. Two minutes. Five. Ouma slowly, carefully gets up from the bed. His legs are shaky and his body feels weak all over, but he can walk if he takes it slowly.

There’s no expression on his face at all as he turns the lock in the dark, unlocks the door, and opens it.

Chapter Text

When the door swings open, at first he almost thinks there’s nobody on the other side.

Stupid, he thinks. That’s stupid. Of course I wasn’t talking to a ghost.

His thoughts flip hastily through the past forty-four hours he’s experienced. All too clearly, he remembers Momota-kun rambling the day before about the ghost all in white he saw shuffling through the hallway. Not, the other boy had clarified, that he actually believed in ghosts or anything. It had just taken him off guard. Caught him by surprise. Of course.

Well, obviously. There was no time for the occult in any of this mess. Just grasping the reality of their situation had been hard enough.

But Saihara still blinks apprehensively as the door opens wide all the same. He’s been standing in the well-lit hallway this entire time, but he still feels as though his eyes are the ones trying to adjust as he takes in the state of the room. It’s all pitch-black, and what little light shines in through the doorway from behind him seems to cut off rather abruptly as soon as it touches the dark shadows just past the threshold. All in all, the room feels no more welcoming now than it did when the door was shut tight before him, impenetrable and unfriendly.

It takes him some time to realize that the boy on the other side isn’t actually standing in the doorway per se but behind the door—a careful tactic to avoid being hit full in the face with the harsh glare of the hallway lights, he notes.

Saihara just stands there blankly, wondering what to do with himself. This is what he wanted, of course. What he’s been trying to accomplish since the day began, actually. He just didn’t think it would actually happen. His words have been surprisingly (and alarmingly) self-assured for the past few days, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is a pessimist by nature.

He had hoped for this outcome, tried to achieve it—and now that it happened, he isn’t quite sure how he should proceed. Somehow, it feels like this uncertainty is always a constant in his life. He swallows hard and tries to remind himself that the hardest part is yet to come. Hopefully that same self-assurance from earlier hasn’t completely gone away yet.

There’s a sigh from the boy behind the door. “Weren’t you the one who said we were in a hurry?”

“Eh? Ah… yeah.”

“Come in, then.”

For a moment, he remembers all too well the whispered conversations between his classmates earlier today. Is entering a dark room alone (this dark room, with its mysterious inhabitant and previously-impenetrable door) really the best idea in a game where they’ve all been told to kill each other?

He reminds himself firmly that there are less than four hours to go until the time limit. He doesn’t have time to hesitate like this.

Taking a deep breath, he steps forward into the room, and the boy behind the door pushes it shut as soon as he’s clear of the threshold. The sudden absence of light unnerves him, even though he knew it was coming. His fingers almost twitch towards his forehead, fumbling for a cap that isn’t there before he remembers that he stuffed it into his back pocket earlier.

For some reason, he had expected some laughing, half-teasing remarks, now that they were alone together like this.

What, too dark to see? Well, don’t let that stop you from having a conversation.

The soft tone of voice from the room’s mysterious occupant had just given him that impression, though he isn’t sure why. He hasn’t heard him say a single word that wasn’t delivered in complete monotone, let alone laugh.

The teasing doesn’t come. There’s a soft, muffled sound of bare feet moving in the dark, a noise like bedsprings creaking gently under someone’s weight. Then a click, and the room lights up unexpectedly—not with harsh, white, fluorescent light, but with the warmer glow of a bedside lamp.

Still, it’s so sudden that Saihara finds his eyes readjusting all over again. As disoriented as he is after only a brief stint in pitch darkness, he wonders how the boy on the bed must be feeling. Did he turn on this lamp or the overhead lights even once in the past few days? Somehow, he rather doubts it.

Gradually, the sight of the boy before him slowly sinks in, pushing his other thoughts aside. The lighting might be dim, but it’s still more than enough for his eyes (keen from years spent nosing around crime scenes he hadn’t even wanted to visit in the first place) to take in every detail.

Hollows under his eyes that sit like bruises. Unkempt hair curling into his face, clearly obscuring his vision but too much of a hassle for him to brush it out of his eyes. Wrinkled, messy sleeping clothes, creased with telltale signs of having been worn for days on end. A frame that looks somehow smaller, lighter than he had expected.

What had he expected, exactly? He doesn’t even know this boy. But he worries all the same. It’s only been a few days, so it can’t possibly be too serious, but his mind searches frantically through the symptoms of malnutrition for a good twenty seconds nonetheless.

As it turns out, the unopenable room’s mysterious inhabitant isn’t a ghost after all. But he sure looks like one.

He clears his throat awkwardly and looks away. The boy hasn’t said a word yet to offer him a place to sit down, but he still makes his way over to the desk anyway, pulling out the chair and sitting on it gingerly. There’s an armchair a little closer to the bed which looks like it might be more comfortable, but it’s facing the other way, and he doesn’t really feel like craning his neck right now.

Now, he thinks, for the hard part. “So…” he says. He trails off uncertainly, unsure of where to begin. He had meant to start his speech more convincingly, but he’s not exactly the best at performing under pressure.

This is a situation that requires him to pick his words carefully. It might very well be the most urgent conversation of his life. He can’t afford to mess up.

“…So,” he says again.

“Wow, eloquent.”

Saihara nearly sputters. The words are still as monotone and unfriendly as ever, but he can’t help but be caught off guard by the snippiness with which they were delivered. For half a second, he makes eye contact with the boy again—but he looks away almost immediately. There’s just something too unnerving about that hollow, blank-faced stare of his.

He’s hit with the urge to pull the cap back out of his pocket. His fingers are jittery, itching for something to fumble with in order to calm his nerves. But he pushes the urge back down. “Can I ask you your name?” he says finally, after another moment or two has passed. A name is a good place to start. This conversation is going to be hard enough as it is without having anything else to call the boy in front of him.

“Ouma Kokichi.” The reply comes instantly, much quicker than he would’ve expected. It’s no more and no less than what he asked for directly. But there’s still just the slightest feeling of… dissonance. These replies feel all wrong, as if they were somehow straying from lines written for them on a script.

“Ouma-kun,” Saihara says tentatively, trying to lead into his next question. For just a moment, he would swear he sees the boy’s face darken. But the shadow is gone just as quickly as it came, enough for him to wonder if it was just a trick of the dim bedside lighting. “Why did you lock yourself in here like this?”

There’s a pause so long it feels like it might never end. The lack of time they have, less than four hours until the time limit, weighs on him constantly, eating away at the pit of his stomach like a solid clump of nerves. There really isn’t a lot of time to spare for these long, unending pauses. But he’s afraid that if he breaks the silence between them again, he might get kicked out of this room—and next time, maybe the door won’t open back up.

Ouma-kun looks at him with no emotion, no expectations, and very little interest. “I don’t know, Saihara-chan. You’re the detective, why don’t you tell me?” The words come out cold, pointed, and in a lower tone than he would’ve expected, coming from such a small frame.

Only a second or two passes before Saihara realizes exactly what was wrong with that last question.

“Eh…? Ah—” He swallows, his hands clenching and unclenching atop his knees. “I… I didn’t tell you my…”

“Didn’t tell me your name or talent? Yeah, isn’t that strange?” The indifference in the boy’s voice rings as hollow as the circles under his eyes; he would almost swear the room feels a few degrees colder. “So hey, what’s the secret? Would you believe me if I told you I heard the rest of them say your name while they were standing outside my room all day? ‘Saihara Shuuichi-kun,’ yeah, I’m pretty sure at least one of them said it word for word. Would you just take my word for it if I said I was really good at matching voices with names and faces?”

Saihara doesn’t say anything in return. He swallows again and sits very still.

“Hmm, but that still doesn’t account for how I know your talent, does it?”

Maybe Ouma-kun’s words would sound less out of place if they were being said with any feeling to them at all. Sarcasm, disdain, condescension—even these would be fine. Even a smirk would do. But it’s the complete and utter lack of emotion that really unnerves him.

“Come on, Saihara-chan, give me an answer. You wanted to talk, right? Let’s talk.” There is a very brief pause, and if he didn’t look so tired, Saihara could swear the boy would be sneering at him right now. “Is there anything I could tell you that you’d just believe?”

He doesn’t say the next part out loud, but his intent seems to hang in the air between them nonetheless: If you say that you’d believe me that easily, then you’re a fool.

Saihara finds, though, that his nerves are less shaken now than they were when this whole speech started. Uneasy as he feels, he’s sure now more than ever that there has to be an explanation for all of… this. For the things he’s thought and said over the past few days, the things he’s heard the others say. An explanation and a reason as to why he’s in here, talking in a dimly lit room with a boy who looks like he barely even has it in him to exist.

He looks up and meets Ouma-kun’s eyes steadily. His curiosity is a curse sometimes, but right now it feels more like an anchor, holding him steady despite his nerves. “You could start by telling me something,” he says quietly. “Do that, and I’ll decide for myself whether I believe you or not.”

It feels just the slightest bit like a victory when he sees the boy’s eyes widen imperceptibly. Surprise. Disbelief. Very clear signs of emotion.

Good, he thinks tiredly. Good. That’s a start.

Finally, Ouma-kun scoffs. It’s the least amused-sounding laughter he’s ever heard in his life. “Alright, sure. Fine.” He stops for a second, looking sickly pale even in the dim, warm lamplight. If he weren’t already sitting on the bed, Saihara would recommend that he lie down. He could swear he looks as if he’s about to pass out.

“Fine,” Ouma-kun says again. “I’ll talk first, you listen. No interruptions, that’s just rude.”

Saihara arches his eyebrows at that surprisingly cheeky addendum, but he doesn’t say anything. Just to prove that he’s capable of not interrupting, of course.

“I guess we’ve got some time to kill anyway.” The other boy gives him a smile for the very first time, looking bitter, defeated… and just the tiniest bit amused. “Or, hey, time until we all get killed.”


Ouma talks. There’s a raw, rough ache in his throat and his tongue feels like sandpaper, but he talks. And talks. And talks.

For the first time since this game began, the first time since he woke up in that small, dark locker, he tells the whole sordid tale from start to finish.

It sounds like a tall enough tale to put even his best lies to shame. Perhaps that’s because it’s a story comprised entirely of truths and lies, lies and truths. Even he’s not sure where to draw the line between the two anymore. They’re all things that he’s done—and technically things he’s never done, never will do again.

Is there even a word for something that isn’t a lie but isn’t the truth either? he wonders vaguely. A half-lie? A half-truth? How strange, that there’s no word to sum up the gray area. Even as his thoughts go elsewhere, his mouth keeps reciting the story, just as mechanically as his hand raced across the paper the last time, writing three-hundred-or-so pages of a script that no longer exists.

Any good story, whether it’s true or not, deserves a good delivery. The best ones deserve to be told with a flourish, with embellishment in all the right places. He’s really not doing this one justice at all. Every bone in his body aches with complete and utter exhaustion, but a small part of him still protests at his own blank-faced monotony anyway.

But one thing is for sure: he leaves nothing out. He’s still too tired to lie. That includes lies by omission, too.

Saihara-chan makes for a better listener than he would’ve thought. He knows how nosy he can be, for a fact—well, what did he expect from a detective?

Despite his warning, he still half-expected some surprised remarks, some disbelieving noises. But none of that happens. The other boy just sits there and listens. At some point Ouma notices him unclench one of his hands on his knee and prop it up under his chin in that familiar, thoughtful gesture.

Although he doesn’t interrupt, he still reacts in all the right places. Sometimes he looks surprised, other times doubtful. More than once, when he touches on the worst and most unforgivable of his own crimes, he sees Saihara-chan’s fingers twitch nervously. But perhaps it’s a testament to either his determination or his curiosity (he’s not sure which) that he doesn’t just get up and leave.

He expected him to have left by now. Saihara Shuuichi from the first time around, the second, from any of those other times, would have left by now. At least, he’s pretty sure.

How nice to know that Saihara-chan is just as hard to read as ever.

“…Then I woke up in the locker again. I decided to skip all the usual boring parts and head straight to my room. …Ah, but things got pretty boring again when Saihara-chan and the others came knocking, I guess.”

His throat aches by the time he finishes speaking, inflamed and sore from lack of use. Well, after more than two days without even a glass of water, that’s probably only natural. He rests his head atop his propped-up knees, glad for an excuse to finally stop talking. The ball is back in Saihara-chan’s court, so to speak.

He expects shock. He expects suspicion. He expects outright accusations of him lying and deceiving, even at this late stage in the game.

What he doesn’t expect is for the other boy to absentmindedly tap his finger against his chin, gnaw on his bottom lip for a while, and then say, “That… makes sense, actually.”

Ouma’s brain stutters. Of all the possibilities he accounted for, all the possible responses he ever expected to hear, that wasn’t one.

What?” he says. He was quite the smart-ass earlier when he mocked Saihara-chan’s inability to start talking. The irony isn’t lost on him now that he’s back to one-word responses himself, the disgust in his voice almost palpable.

“That actually makes sense.” Saihara-chan repeats himself with the casual firmness of someone announcing a correct math problem to the rest of the class. “That answers a lot of the questions that I had before. Thank you.”

He stares at the other boy, dumbfounded. “I might’ve been lying, you know. I might’ve been lying about everything I told you.”

“Yeah, maybe you were,” says the other boy amenably. “But I don’t think so.”

Ouma stares. A cough rises up in his throat once or twice, too sudden for him to choke back down, but otherwise he feels completely, utterly immobilized. He’s not even sure if he was this incapable of movement when Iruma-chan programmed him to stand stock-still in the virtual world, those last few times.

“I just told you I’ve been time-travelling.”

“Yeah, you did.”

“Everything I told you is absolutely impossible.”

“It really does sound impossible, yeah.”

“Hey, listen, Saihara-chan,” he says. For the first time since he opened the door to his room, he feels something like real anger flaring up in his chest, cold and sharp. He’s still exhausted, but incredulity is starting to win out.

What’s with this treatment? Again and again, he’s repeated this pointless game. He’s called himself a liar, a villain, a ringleader—the worst of the worst. There wasn’t a person in this game who would’ve believed his words at face value even if he paid them to. So why is it that the other boy keeps tapping his chin and nodding, as though it really does make sense?

There isn’t a shred of proof to back him up. Everything that happened—didn’t happen. That’s the catch. If Saihara-chan is naïve enough to take him at his word here, then he’s every bit the idiot he was when Ouma last saw him, white-faced and tear-streaked and horrified at the sight of an outside world he should’ve already guessed was ruined a long time ago.

He bites down the part of himself that’s still stupid enough to feel just the tiniest bit happy, that Saihara-chan would believe him in spite of all that.

He’s about to continue his rant when suddenly, he freezes. He blinks once, twice, almost sure that he’s just seeing things wrong in the dim lighting. “…Where the hell is your hat?” He blurts the question out all at once, propping himself just a little more upright as he stares.

How did he miss something so simple all this time? Even if he’s tired (and he is tired, bone tired), this is an oversight on his part the size of a… well, a horse.

Haha. Sure, now’s a pretty great time for jokes.

Saihara-chan flushes and lifts his hand up to pull down the edge of a cap that’s not there right now before realizing his mistake and lowering it again sheepishly. It’s a predictable motion, a familiar motion. Ouma has seen this plenty of times—always after the first trial. Never now. Never within the first few days of the game.

“It… um. It felt like it was sort of getting in the way.”

The detective clears his throat, crossing his arms uncomfortably as though looking for something to do with his hands. This too is something he’s seen him do a hundred, a thousand times before, but never this early. He’s heard of going off-script, but isn’t this just a little ridiculous?

“And besides… that’s what I’m talking about,” Saihara-chan continues, cutting into his thoughts. “Ouma-kun, I’ll be honest. Everything you said is impossible. But then, we’ve all been going through a lot of impossible things lately. I’ve… we’ve… had a certain feeling about this game we’re in.”

‘I’ll be honest…’ Yeah, sure. He could laugh, but he thinks he might be sick if he opens his mouth. He settles for eyeing Saihara-chan with a skepticism bordering on disgust.

“Maybe… Maybe it’s not the first time we’ve been through this game.”

For just a moment, he envisions a game in which all the pieces are set up on the opposite side of the board, right from the start. Automatic promotion, no wait necessary. The most perfect and opportune positioning of pieces he could ever hope for in an unwinnable game.

Then he remembers that thinking of everything, everyone, as a bunch of pieces was exactly what got him into this mess in the first place. The sick feeling in his stomach gets worse, and if he weren’t already sitting down, he’d probably have stumbled to the floor by now.

He throws his hands up behind his head, not in his usual cocky gesture, but just to steady himself. He breathes heavily, in, then out. In again. Out again. He’s aware that if he looks up, he’ll see Saihara-chan staring at him, alarmed and concerned. So of course, he doesn’t look up.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the alarm and concern from showing through anyway. “…Are you okay?” There’s a softness to the other boy’s voice that he doesn’t remember hearing before, and he hates him for it.

“Do I look okay to you?” He rests his head against his knees weakly, waiting for the nausea to pass. “For a Super High School Level Detective you seem to be doing a pretty bad job at this whole, you know, detecting thing.”

He says that, but his mind is racing through the conversations he’s heard taking place outside his door all day. He was the bad detective, not Saihara-chan. The missing hat is just the tip of the iceberg.

The name “Shuuichi,” far too overly-familiar after only a few days’ time, even from someone like Momota-chan. Amami-chan and Akamatsu-chan, together in the same place just a few hours before the time limit. This whole ridiculous plan, whatever it was that they all had in mind. None of these things had ever happened before, or if they had, not until much, much later.

Why now…? Why? Why now of all times?

His brain can’t come up with an answer to that, no matter how long he waits. It keeps stuttering, repeating the question like an engine that refuses to start.

“…I thought maybe we were just… remembering things we were made to forget. Like some kind of induced amnesia. That would account for the sense of déjà vu,” Saihara-chan says. “The only thing I could think was that maybe we’d experienced something similar in the past, and that was why things seemed to be… coming easier to us.”

Ouma stays very, very quiet.

“You know, in the déjà vu sensation, your brain convinces itself that it’s lived through an exact experience before. It makes the leap very quickly from ‘yeah, maybe that happened before’ to ‘yeah, that definitely happened before.’ So I thought it made more sense at first if we were just… leaping to conclusions, making connections where there weren’t any.”

If he weren’t feeling so nauseous, Ouma would throw something at him. Sounding pretentious is a job requirement for a detective, sure, but he’s just really not in the mood to hear it right now.

“But I think I’ve finally realized, thanks to what you told me. Ouma-kun, if you really have been repeating this game, um… reliving everything with your memories intact, then couldn’t that just as easily happen to the rest of us?”

“That’s impossible.” He responds before he can even really think the question over. It’s a question he doesn’t want to think over. His mind keeps balking at the alternatives.

“Why is it impossible? You told me a lot, but I still don’t quite understand why you would be the only one remembering anything. It doesn’t really add up.”

It’s impossible because the rest of you are too stupid, he wants to say. There’s no way you’d ever remember anything, not when you all disappointed me so spectacularly, so many times. Instead, he says, “Why did no one else remember any of those other times, then? Why just now?”

That earns a few seconds of silence. He still won’t lift his head off his knees, but he can just picture the other boy, tapping his finger against the corner of his mouth in thought. How annoyingly like a detective.

“Did no one else really remember anything?” Saihara-chan finally asks. “It sounds to me like there were signs. Maybe instead of being the only one remembering… you were just the best one at it?”

Ouma thinks back on every single time they played a game together. Every unexpected move, unexpected line, every instance in which Saihara-chan went off-script. All the times in which he or, less often, one of the others said or did something that genuinely caught him off guard. Were those signs? He doesn’t know.

“What’s your talent, if you don’t mind me asking? You didn’t mention one earlier, when you were talking.”

He finally lifts his head up off his knees. There are spots across his vision, though he’s not sure whether they’re from how bad he feels, the lack of sleep, or just because his eyes are readjusting to the bedside light again. “No clue,” he says bluntly.

“N-No clue?” Saihara-chan actually sounds taken aback, his voice cracking in a way that’s familiar and just the slightest bit entertaining, even after all this time. “You mean… like Amami-kun…?”

“Oh, no, I remember having a talent. They made me remember having one, I should say.” He smiles wryly. “It’s just that it’s fake.”

He’s not the Supreme Leader of anything—that’s a fact he knows better than anyone right now. Even if they… those people… actually exist, or used to exist (and that’s a thought he doesn’t want to dwell on), it was all just play-pretend. Just a lie. Like everything else about me, he thinks.

It takes him a moment or two to realize that Saihara-chan is staring at him, not in disbelief but with something more like… curiosity. “What?” He’s too tired to try guessing what that look on his face might mean.

“Ah, well… I just thought, that kind of supports my theory, doesn’t it? Maybe your talent is related to why you remember everything more easily than everyone else.”

Ouma wonders if there’s any good way for him to refute that theory of his. As much as he hates to admit it, the evidence seems to be in Saihara-chan’s favor, not his own. He remembers his old whiteboard, his eye for detail, his three-hundred-page script. Repetition can account for some of those things, of course—after all, he’s known what’s coming and what to expect for a good while in this game. But it can’t account for all of it.

“Tell me about your plan,” he says suddenly.

“Eh?”

“I said, tell me about your plan. That’s what you wanted to ask me about, right? You’ve all been pounding on my door for the better part of the day because you want everyone to participate, I’m guessing?”

The other boy looks both impressed and a little bit uneasy at his guesswork. “Well… yeah.”

Ouma resists the urge to roll his eyes. It’s not exactly like they were subtle, talking about things so loudly, right outside his door.

Saihara-chan takes a deep breath. Now that the conversation is switching away from theories and back to the main reason he came here, it looks like his nerves are catching up with him a bit. “We’re going to wait it out,” he says after a pause.

A noise somewhere between a cough and a laugh rises up in his throat. “Wait out what, exactly? The time limit? Or the game?”

“…Both.”

“Either way, that’s nothing new Saihara-chan. That’s what all of you planned to do all those other times, before Akamatsu-chan took that ball and caved in Amami-chan’s skull with it.” He waves a shaky hand. “Ah, but if you feel like being the one who gets his head caved in instead, you can go ahead and try to stop either of them. Just tell them what I told you. I’m sure they’ll be so quick to believe it.”

“Maybe we tried to wait it out before, but did we ever try waiting it out in the same place? All sixteen of us?”

Ouma gives him a tired look. “Are you telling me your plan, after everything I told you, is still to hold hands and sing songs? You really think trusting everyone is the way to beat this game?” He’s mildly surprised to learn that there is apparently some small part of him still capable of feeling disappointed, after all this time.

Well, that’s okay, he thinks. That small part won’t be there, the next time around. I’ll know not to feel disappointed, if this conversation happens again. Assuming he even bothers opening the door next time.

But the other boy surprises him even more when he opens his mouth and says, “Not at all.”

Ouma eyes him skeptically. “Oh, really? Sounds like blind trust to me.”

“We’re not doing this because we trust everyone. We’re doing it because we don’t trust each other. We decided the safest way to see the time limit out to the end is to hole up together, so we can all keep an eye on each other.”

“So now you’ve all gone from wanting to be best friends to trusting absolutely no one?” That sure would’ve made things a whole lot easier for him, if it had ever actually happened. No trust was better than blind trust. But they never did learn. “Sorry, but I’m the one who’s finding that a little hard to believe here.”

Saihara-chan pauses, un-crosses and re-crosses his arms, and looks away nervously. “It’s not… that we don’t trust anyone.” As a detective, someone who suspects and points the finger at people for a living, he must not like the idea because it hits too close to home. “It’s just… We barely know each other yet, so of course we can’t trust each other.”

Of course we can’t trust each other. He nearly bent over backwards last time, trying to make Saihara-chan say those words back then. Here they are this time around, being offered to him so easily. And yet… he feels the meaning behind them is slightly different from what he himself has always had in mind.

“But doubting people is part of the process of getting to know them, right? Whether we like it or not, it’s necessary. So we’ll keep doubting each other, until we all know each other better.”

What’s with that logic? Ouma thinks. Doubt until you all know each other? Doubt until you understand each other? As if something like that would work.

“It’s not just for the time limit. We’re planning on turning the library into a living space. That’s what everyone else was doing today, when they weren’t here knocking.”

The library? His mind balks at the word: if there’s one place they shouldn’t be this close to the time limit, it’s there. He feels sweat on his brow, the nausea creeping back into his stomach, twisting it into knots. And yet, when he thinks about it rationally—if everyone’s there, not just Akamatsu-chan or Amami-chan…

He can almost see the sense in it. There aren’t any school regulations against sleeping outside their rooms. The only places off-limits at night are the cafeteria and the gym. So if that’s the case, then… then even this stupid plan might just…

What he hates the most is that he’s not sure if it’ll work or not. He’s not sure if anything will work, including this far-fetched, half-baked plan.

I already gave up, anyway. Why am I even considering this?

“That’s why… we’d like you to join us, too, Ouma-kun. This plan won’t work if even one person is missing. Too many people would wonder where that person was, what they were doing, and then…”

“…And then the whole thing would fall apart, yes.” Ouma finishes his sentence for him, his words clipped and short. He’s still trying to think, but his brain is just so tired. “What time is it?” he asks, still considering his options.

“E-Eh?”

“The time. How much time until the time limit hits?”

“Ah…” Saihara-chan clears his throat, then checks his watch. “An hour and a half.”

So, not much time at all. He needs to make up his mind fast.

Well, what’s the worst that can happen? Whether we all die because time runs out, or because Monokuma decides it doesn’t want us camping out in the library, I’ll still just wake up in the locker again. And next time, I’ll know not to come out of my room again.

He ignores the fact that that’s exactly the same thing he told himself last time, too.

Ouma takes a deep breath, looks him right in the eye, and says, “Fine. Okay. You win.”

For just a moment, he thinks back to when he used to lose their little games on purpose all those times, remembers the dramatic performances he used to give. For just a moment, he remembers what it was like to have fun.

The detective looks at him curiously. “I-I win? So you mean…?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I just can’t seem to shake you no matter what I do, Saihara-chan. So I guess I have no choice but to go along with this little plan of yours. How boring.” And yet, as he says it, he feels distinctly not bored, for what might be the first time in… hours? Days? Years? He’s not sure.

All the tension leaves Saihara-chan’s face at once; he looks so shaken with relief that Ouma has half a mind to ask if he wants to sit on the bed instead. “That’s great,” the other boy says weakly. “That’s really great… I wasn’t sure if you were going to agree, so… I mean…”

“Hold on.” He holds up a finger, interrupting before the other boy can get too ahead of himself. “I’ll go with you. Just don’t expect anything from me, okay?” His voice comes out softer than he intended.

This is the most he can give, as far as he’s concerned: compliance without resistance. But he has nothing else left to offer. No charades, no façades. No lies.

It’s not as though there’s anything else left to him, stripped of those things. So he’ll go, and he’ll observe, and he won’t get in their way. And when this house of cards inevitably comes crashing down and he’s thrown into this game once again, at least he’ll know he gave it one more failed attempt.

He expects the other boy to nod anxiously to that last remark, but instead he just looks at him thoughtfully. “I think it’s true that you shouldn’t push yourself too hard. Not after what you’ve been through.”

Cheap sympathy that he doesn’t deserve—just great. He shrugs and changes the subject. “Should we get going, then?”

“Eh? Didn’t you want to get changed first…?” Saihara-chan looks genuinely taken aback.

“Ah, there’s one little detail I forgot to mention. I don’t think I can stand or walk on my own.” He gives him a sardonic smile. Or a weak attempt at one, anyway. “So, you see, unless you’d rather be the one to dress me, I think I should just go the way I am now.”

The detective nods, looking a little shaken. They can always come back for his clothes later, maybe when he actually has the energy to do basic tasks, like dressing himself.

Saihara-chan stands up from the chair by the desk, leans down, and offers him a hand—presumably to help him to his feet.

Ouma takes it, too tired to refuse.


Saihara had expected half-carrying a boy his own age to be a much more difficult task than this.

After all, he’s not particularly strong. He hasn’t done any physical exercise beyond the mandatory forty-five minutes of gym per day at his last high school, and that was quite some time ago. His arms are weak and out of shape—and well, if he’s being entirely honest, he wouldn’t mind keeping them that way.

But it turns out to be easy. Surprisingly easy. Scarily easy.

Ouma-kun has one arm thrown over his shoulders, almost the entirety of his weight leaning against him as they slump across the school grounds at a slow, steady pace. He’s standing upright, but only in the barest sense of the word; if he were to step away from him, the other boy would crumple to the ground in a heap.

“You haven’t eaten much lately, have you Ouma-kun?” That’s an understatement. He feels like a wraith, barely more than skin and bones. He’s not sure how much he weighs exactly… but at an estimate, he’d say “not enough.”

It must be hard for the other boy to walk and talk at the same time, because he takes a while to respond. “Who knows…” he says after a pause. “Not eating for a few days won’t kill me.” There’s a pause, then a laugh that hardly sounds like a laugh. “Well actually, nothing will kill me. Not permanently.”

Saihara isn’t quite sure how to respond. The state he’s in goes beyond just a few days without food, and they both know it. He hoists the boy a little more securely against his shoulder and keeps going, trying to process all the things that he’s heard today.

Time travel. Amnesia. Horrible crimes, committed by these classmates he’s only just met. Even worse crimes, committed by this boy he’s propping up on his shoulder. To be entirely honest, he’s afraid of this boy. There’s not much he isn’t afraid of—he can’t help it.

The story he told him about sounds too ridiculous to be true. It’s too bizarre, too outlandish, and none of it makes any sense at all—if he were reading a mystery novel with these kinds of twists at the end, he’s pretty sure he’d close the book, put it down, and never pick it back up again.

And yet… more bizarre and outlandish than any of those things is the feeling in his gut, telling him that this is the right thing to do. There’s no explanation for it, any more than there was an explanation for it back when he stood knocking at that impenetrable bedroom door, knowing (without knowing how he knew) that if he gave up and left then something awful would happen.

There’s a certain quote from a certain fictional detective that he can’t help but feel is applicable to their current situation. Something about the impossible and the improbable… But even thinking it to himself feels like far too much of a cliché. So he doesn’t.

For what feels like the hundredth time since they started walking, he casts a glance sideways to see how Ouma-kun is holding up—there’s a sheen of sweat on the other boy’s face, his eyes fixed straight ahead as they make their progress, step by step. Under the last rays of sunset, the hollows under his eyes stand out against his pale skin more than ever, haggard and dark.

“Do you want to take a break?” Saihara asks hesitantly.

Ouma-kun doesn’t even look at him. “We don’t have time for breaks. Besides, games should be played in hard mode, don’t you think? It’d be a shame to stop now when I’m having so much fun.”

Saihara can’t help but suspect that’s just an excuse. He’s pretty sure that the other boy is worried that if he sits down again, he won’t get back up. Every step he takes looks painful, like he’s having to remind himself how to walk.

If he voices this aloud though, he might just make him angry. He swallows and keeps walking, trying to ignore the sinking suspicion that it’s already written all over his face. But fortunately, Ouma-kun doesn’t look over.

As they enter the school building and make their steady, careful way towards the library, he looks down at his feet. Even though he’s put his cap aside for now, having these kinds of discussions—having any discussion—is still difficult. “I need to tell you something, before we get there. …They, um… kind of think you… might be the ringleader.”

There’s no response. He supposes this might be something of a sensitive subject, considering everything he heard earlier.

“I mean, they won’t once we’re there! Once we go there and they see that you’re with me, they’ll stop thinking that… p-probably.” He remembers all the whispers, all the fearful discussions around the bedroom door earlier today. “It’s just, you were the only classmate we hadn’t seen yet, so some of them thought that… if anyone might be pulling the strings…”

His words trail off uncomfortably, but Ouma-kun doesn’t seem to care much. “I could be the ringleader, for all you know. Pretty sure I mentioned it before, but I could’ve been lying to you about everything,” he says. He sounds casual, as if the subject has nothing to do with him. “So why don’t you think I’m the ringleader anyway, Saihara-chan?”

It’s a fair question. He brushed it aside so easily earlier, but honestly, he still has doubts. Still… “Even if you were—would you really be able to do anything the way you are right now?” He keeps his eyes fixed on his feet.

There’s another pause. “I’m a pretty good actor.”

“…So you told me.”

Ouma-kun has certainly driven that point home several times over the last few hours. But it’s still kind of hard for him to imagine. By now, he’s seen a few rare signs of emotion from the other boy. Bitterness, sometimes. Anger others. Very occasionally, a slight look of amusement, like he was trying not to smirk.

But for the most part, he’s still been blank, almost impossible to read.

I don’t think anyone could act to this degree. There’s no way for him to fake the state that he’s in right now… Probably.

Of course, he did take a look around the bedroom while he was there, just to be sure. But the place was sparse, empty—just like his own. If there had been any signs of plotting or scheming, any set of panels to monitor and control the game, he’s pretty sure he would’ve been able to find them. …Or maybe that’s just the detective in him getting a little too ahead of himself.

Talking must be taking a toll on the other boy, because they walk the rest of the way in silence. Before he knows it, they’re both standing outside the library door. Or rather, he’s standing and Ouma-kun is leaning on him harder than ever, covered in sweat and shaking from head to toe, apparently exhausted from their combined effort of making their way down the basement stairs.

The sight is… pitiful in a way he can’t quite describe.

Saihara reaches out to the door handle—and freezes briefly as all his anxieties come rushing back to him. What do I tell everyone else? Is this really going to work? I’ve been giving my input so far, but what if everything I’m doing just gets us killed instead?

Despite the cold clump of nerves twisting in his stomach, he also remembers Ouma-kun’s words, right before they left the room: Just don’t expect anything from me, okay?

Weren’t those the same words he himself was living by almost exclusively until he came here? Never trying because there wasn’t anything he could do, never getting involved because he had no confidence in himself. He didn’t want anyone to expect anything from him, because that was easier. Less messy. Less terrifying.

But like it or not, he has a lot of expectations riding on his shoulders right now.

He swallows once, inhales, pushes down on the handle of the library door—

—and all hell breaks loose.

“What on earth?!”

“Saihara-kun!?”

“Shit, man! Shuuichi, is he dead? Shit!

They’re bombarded with noise on all sides as they enter the room: raised voices, gasps, even a few screams. Immediately, several of the others come swarming them, trying to take a closer look. Saihara tenses for about ten seconds before realizing how this must look to them. He is carrying a half-unconscious body on his shoulders, after all. He can hardly blame them for thinking Ouma-kun is a corpse—he certainly looks like one.

“No, he’s not dead,” he says. Thankfully. That was definitely another worst-case scenario they’d all discussed, before Ouma-kun had answered and let them know he was in there this morning. “He’s just… really tired. I think he might be sick.” It’s the closest to the truth he can give them. It’s true that the other boy is sick and tired—the circumstances are just a little difficult to explain.

Amami-kun crosses his arms. “So that’s why he responded like that earlier, huh? Poor thing.”

“He must be quite sick if he can’t even stand on his own. It seems to me he needs immediate medical attention,” Kiibo-kun says thoughtfully.

“Yeah, but we didn’t find an infirmary or anything yet, did we?” Shirogane-san looks worried as she wrings her hands. “Just a few first-aid kits in the warehouse. And it’s not like any of us are doctors or anything…”

“Um, Gonta doesn’t know much about medicine, but if it comes to taking care of someone… I’d like to help however I can!”

Ouma-kun is pointedly avoiding looking at any of them, but Saihara can’t help but feel like he saw him flinch just the slightest bit, after that last comment.

Toujou-san interrupts smoothly before the conversation can get too panicky. “Excuse me, Gokuhara-kun, but perhaps I should be the one to take care of him. I’m not a doctor, of course, but I do have some medical knowledge.” She bows her head slightly. “A maid’s duty is to take care of others, after all.”

“It ain’t like we got any alternatives right now… Alright, sounds good to me.” Momota-kun’s take-charge approach to the matter is something Saihara has become quite familiar with over the last few days. Given how little time they have to be debating these things right now though, he’s pretty glad for it. “Hey, uh… but you’re sure he’s not a ghost, right Shuuichi? He hasn’t said a word yet…”

Oh right. That had certainly happened, earlier. Momota-kun was one of the few who had actually gotten a look at Ouma-kun the day before yesterday—presumably when the other boy had been on his way from the locker to his room. But he’d been all the way at the other end of the hallway, and it turned out he had quite the overactive superstitious streak… So he’d been concerned that the figure he had seen might actually be a ghost. Again, not that he actually believed in ghosts or anything, Momota-kun had reassured him.

Saihara can’t help but feel just the tiniest bit amused, remembering that whole discussion. In the end, Momota-kun’s account was what had helped assure them that there really was a sixteenth student around here. So it had been a lucky break, all in all.

“He’s not a ghost,” he says, trying to keep the corners of his mouth from turning up too much. “A ghost wouldn’t be leaning on my shoulders like this, right?”

“Oh, yeah…” A look of sudden realization dawns on Momota-kun’s face. “Yeah, that’s a good point.”

Akamatsu-san doesn’t even try to hide her smile. Maybe it’s a good thing they’re smiling so much now. It’s been a long day, after all—and staying in good spirits is better than panicking. “Does our mysterious not-ghost have a name?”

“Ouma Kokichi.”

All of them jump a little, startled. Saihara guesses they weren’t expecting to hear the answer from Ouma-kun himself. But one thing he’s noticed is that whenever anyone asks the other boy his name, he always answers directly. Like it’s the one thing about himself that he’s sure of.

But again, maybe his detective instincts are getting a little too ahead of themselves.

Everyone decides to skip the self-introductions, considering how short on time they are. Toujou-san steps forward and puts Ouma-kun’s other arm around her shoulder, supporting his weight with her frame. For the first time since they left the bedroom, Saihara stands upright once she pulls away. The other boy wasn’t heavy at all, but the stooping was starting to make him just a little sore.

Just as she’s about to walk him over to a futon they set up in the corner of the room, they all freeze as the television (one of the many equipped throughout the school grounds) comes on. An announcement chime rings, and then—the most ungodly noise he’s ever heard starts blaring from the speakers. Some kind of video, complete with pictures of pieces and murder methods they’ve already seen on their Monopads.

“What the hell’s all this?” Hoshi-kun asks. He looks disgruntled, despite his best efforts to stay calm.

Saihara checks his watch, trying to ignore the cold sweat beading up on the back of his neck. “O-One hour left until the time limit.” He exhales a shaky breath. “This is probably the ringleader’s way of trying to make us panic. I don’t think it’ll stop until the time limit runs out.”

“Well,” says Amami-kun. “Must mean we’re getting somewhere, right? Only one hour left to go. Then I guess we’ll see what happens.”

One hour left. Saihara casts a sideways glance at Ouma-kun, watching carefully as the other boy stares blankly ahead. From the lack of reaction, he can guess this isn’t the first time this video has come up.

But he hopes it might be the last time.


Ouma sits on the futon and stares straight ahead. A few of the others come up to try and talk to him, hesitantly testing the waters, but Toujou-chan shoos them all off, insisting that they’d be of more use elsewhere. Then she fusses around him for a bit, checks his temperature, and mutters something about a fever that he can’t quite catch over the noise blaring from the television.

But it’s not like there’s anything they can do about that. They don’t have any medicine, and while water and a decent meal might do him some good, they’ve all agreed not to leave the room if possible until after the time limit is over, not even to go to the cafeteria. Saihara-chan staying behind to talk in his room was an extenuating circumstance, apparently.

Time ticks by slowly. The past few days sped by in a blur of sleepless exhaustion and migraine-induced agony, but this feels like it might be the longest hour of his life.

He has nothing better to do, so he observes. In fact, that’s all he plans to do, this time around. Last time he was a participant in this game. This time he’ll just stick to watching the game from afar. Let someone else take a seat at the chessboard, if they want to try and play. Maybe they’ll manage to do a better job than he did—although he doubts it.

The library looks almost unrecognizable. The whole room is spotless, clean from dust, cobwebs, and any stray plant-life that might have been creeping up towards the shelves. The cleaning is Toujou-chan’s work, probably, but it looks like the rest of them have been hard at work pushing the unattached bookshelves aside.

His corner-futon isn’t the only one in the room, either. There’s a stack of them in the other corner, ready to be dragged out whenever they decide to sleep. Assuming they get the chance to go to bed alive, of course. Still, it’s a little impressive. In less than a day, they turned the room from a winding, cluttered mess of shelves and book stacks to a clean, well-lit area with a clear view from end to end.

At first, he wondered why they would pick the library of all places. His instincts are still screaming that this is the worst possible place to be with only one hour left until the time limit. Every so often, his eyes flick to the spot on the floor where he’s seen Amami-chan’s corpse lying, curled on its side. There’s no pool of blood there—yet.

By now, though, he has his suspicions. Not only is the library big enough to hold all sixteen of them, but there’s also the matter of that place. The ringleader’s lair. A hidden area even he doesn’t know much about.

He waits to ask Saihara-chan about it until he comes by to see how he’s doing, looking tired but concerned. All the while, the Monokuma video still blares in the background. It’s nothing more than another annoyance to Ouma by this point, like the buzz of a fly he can’t see. But then again, he’s had a lot more time to get used to it than everyone else.

“The library? Ah… Amami-kun suggested it. He said he felt like he should tell us… about the map that he had on his second Monopad.”

“Second Monopad?” Ouma sits a little more upright. The video Amami-chan left for himself replays itself in his head, every word committed perfectly to memory. ‘I’m talking about something you’ve been carrying around since the moment the game started’

Saihara-chan nods seriously. “I’ll have to fill you in on the details later. When things aren’t, um… quite so hectic.” He leans over and says something to Toujou-chan, to which she nods, and then he walks off again. The room is abuzz with the sounds of barely contained fear, low and steady under the shrill noise of the Monokuma video. He wouldn’t have thought it possible of him, but the detective seems to be doing his best to keep that fear from reaching the breaking point.

According to the clock on the wall, there’s only half an hour to go. Thirty minutes until the final verdict. Or, not-so-final if it turns out he’s just going to wake up in the locker again after this.

Even now, he feels like there has to be some kind of catch. His eyes dart over to Akamatsu-chan occasionally, as though expecting to see her pulling a steel ball out of her backpack, resorting to last-minute action now that tensions are running higher than ever. But she’s just standing with Momota-chan and Amami-chan, and if her eyes look like they’re darting to the bookshelf in front of the hidden door a little more often than not, well, that probably can’t be helped.

The room gives a clear view of everyone and everything. No one could possibly commit murder in here anymore without someone else seeing it. And he can clearly see fifteen other faces here, not counting his own.

Doubting people is part of the process of getting to know them… huh. Maybe this means there was some sense in that messed-up speech of Saihara-chan’s after all. Or maybe he only insists on thinking of it as messed-up because he’s frustrated that he never thought of this plan himself.

Either way, the idea that there could be anything left at this stage in the game that he hasn’t seen before is disorienting. If he had the energy for it, he’d probably be just as terrified as everyone else is right now.

Thankfully, he doesn’t.

Time keeps inching by at a snail’s pace. At some point the song on the speakers sounds like it’s coming from very far away, or maybe underwater, drowned out by the sound of his own heartbeat. He tries to keep his breathing steady, aware of the fact that it’s just because of his own exhaustion.

Ten minutes left.

He’s pretty sure he knows the reason why Saihara-chan is sure this plan will work, why the likelihood of them surviving past the time limit is higher than the chance that they’ll all just get executed for breaking the rules. There has always been something that’s smelled like a loophole to him in Monokuma’s first motive.

But seizing that loophole requires being willing to take risks. He’s not one for playing the odds. He’s never had much luck, so to speak, if this game is any proof of that.

Since when did Saihara-chan decide to take up gambling, anyway? He remembers his own words, You better play like your life is on the line, what feels like a million years ago. This is much bigger than picking up a knife in some game he had planned to lose from the start anyway.

Five minutes left.

All his thoughts are bleeding together. He manages to keep his breathing steady somehow or other, but he feels like if he stops consciously trying then he’ll start gasping for air around him. At some point, he dimly registers Toujou-chan’s ungloved hand against his forehead again, cool to the touch. By now, he can barely tell the difference between the pounding, pulsing ache in his head, and the reverberation of that horrible, awful song.

He shudders when she pulls her hand away, and tries to distract himself with thoughts of cameras, audiences, and shows that must go on.

One minute left.

Wouldn’t it be funny, he thinks deliriously, if I just died anyway? What happens if someone keels over and dies from natural causes, anyway? We never found out with Momota-chan all those other times.

His body has gone on far too long, with far too little rest. Maybe even if he does nothing at all, he’ll still die every few days. Maybe even if Monokuma doesn’t kill them all, his own body will still give up on him. The irony isn’t lost on him.

The minute hand slides one more tick to the right: time’s up.

The television shuts off all at once, leaving a silence more deafening than the video itself. In the seconds that follow, everyone looks at each other nervously. Ouma keeps his eyes blearily on the bookshelf in front of the ringleader’s lair.

His fever’s still running high and his head feels like it’s splitting open, but it’s officially past the time limit and he’s not dead yet. In fact, no one is.

No one’s dead. No one’s dead. The thought keeps beating in his head like a drum. He’s lived through these last few days so many times, and for the first time ever, Amami Rantarou is sitting not too far away from him, his skull intact, his eyes open and alert. Akamatsu Kaede sits a little to his left, looking apprehensive but free from guilt.

Vaguely, Ouma wonders if he’s just hallucinating.

“What the hell are you jerks doing!?”

Monokuma’s voice echoes through the library a split second before the bear shows up, claws raised. Its face is still stuck in the same animatronic leer as always, but the fury is evident in its gaze regardless. The phrase, “if looks could kill” comes to mind.

“Come on, I very specifically gave all of you a time limit! Why isn’t anyone dead yet?!” The bear asks this as though genuinely curious, despite the anger in its voice. “I expected we’d come down to the nitty-gritty deadline, but this is just ridiculous!”

No one says anything. They all just hold still, looking between one another as though afraid they’ll be swiped at if any of them open their mouths. But Ouma already knows good and well that’s not going to happen. After all—the headmaster can’t interfere in any of the murders. It says as much in the school regulations on their Monopads.

“Aren’t you all bored?! Don’t you want something to happen?!” Monokuma bounces from one leg to the other impatiently. “Hey, you all remember that I waived the rule about being caught, right? So what are you waiting for? Go wild! Kill whoever you want, right here, right now, and it doesn’t matter even if everyone else sees you! I’ll still let you graduate!”

Clearly, the bear anticipates getting a reaction with that offer. Ouma half-expects the same thing. After all, he’s seen these people kill each other for far less, plenty of other times. But no one moves.

Monokuma stops bouncing from side to side and stands stock still, a low growl sounding in its throat. It really does look as if it’s completely, utterly at a loss for what to do.

“So… Saihara-kun was right, huh?” Akamatsu-chan speaks up suddenly.

“Huh? What’s that? What did you say?” Monokuma replies, all too innocently.

She stands up, leans back, and crosses her arms. It’s a good attempt at looking casual, really, but Ouma can still see her knees knocking together. If the shelf weren’t there behind her, he’s pretty sure she’d fall down. Still, maybe she should get points for trying.

“Saihara-kun was right,” she says again. “You’re not going to kill us, because you can’t. That’s why you phrased the motive like that.”

“’If no one dies within forty-eight hours, then all people forced into the killing game will be executed’… Was that it?” Amami-chan asks, his tone friendly and good-natured as ever—but there’s a definite edge to his voice. “It’s been forty-eight hours and I don’t see any Exisals here.”

Momota-chan slams one fist into the palm of his hand, grinning at Monokuma with a familiar, insubordinate grin that Ouma’s seen many times before. “How about it, Monokuma? If you’re gonna kill us, don’tcha think you should hurry up and get started? Otherwise we’re all gonna start gettin’ the wrong idea here.”

Monokuma makes a half-strangled noise in the back of its throat and glares at them all. Its claws extend, and retract, extend again, retract again, clearly itching for a target. But it doesn’t make a move.

“Guess you can’t do it after all, huh?” Akamatsu-chan picks up where Momota-chan left off. “If we’re breaking the rules, then go ahead and punish us for it. Because otherwise, you can’t lay a finger on us. That’s what your little rules say, right?”

“The beautiful thing about rules,” Monokuma says, “is that I can always add more.” There’s a very dangerous glint in the bear’s eyes.

But unexpectedly, Saihara-chan speaks up. “You can. But I don’t think you’re going to.”

“Oh-hoh…? Pray tell why not, Saihara-kun.”

“Because arbitrarily adding rules after you lost wouldn’t make for a very fair game. And I bet the people watching this right now wouldn’t like that very much, would they?”

There’s a silence in the room loud enough to hear a pin drop. The bear stays perfectly still, one paw upraised.

Ouma watches the scene unfold, although the slow, irregular thump of his heartbeat in his ears is somewhat distracting. Still, he tries to make his eyes focus. He doesn’t want to miss a word of what Saihara-chan is saying.

“We followed the rules of your game, fair and square. If you could’ve executed us, then you would’ve by now. So that means two things. One—we weren’t forced into this killing game.” The detective swallows, hard. “And two—you have to follow your own rules as much as we do.”

“Nobody likes a sore loser, ya damn bear!” Momota-chan cuts in again, taking the bear’s lack of response as a clear resignation. “We didn’t go along with your stupid game, so hurry up and let us out of here, or—”

“Or what?” Monokuma says sweetly. Too sweetly. It’s as though the bear isn’t angry at all anymore, though they all know better than to believe that. “I’m sorry Momota-kun, did you think that the game would just end if you made it forty-eight hours without killing anyone? But there’s nothing about that in your school rules either, is there?”

A murmur of unease spreads throughout the group. He can hear a few of them murmuring, whispering to each other. Were they actually optimistic enough to think that outlasting a single time limit would end the whole game, just like that? Ouma could’ve told them that wouldn’t work.

Not, he thinks, that they’d listen to me anyway.

But he supposes it’s true that even he had no idea of knowing what, specifically, would happen if they managed to get this far. Up until now, this forty-eight hour time limit was every bit as much of a catbox as the press he died under last time.

“So, you all managed to go two days without killing someone. Big deal,” the bear says, waving a paw dismissively. “Take a closer look at your rules, okay? There’s no end date to your communal life here at Saishuu Academy. Not unless you kill, that is. How long do you think it’ll take before one of you cracks?”

“No one’s going to kill anyone,” Saihara-chan says, and he sounds so assured, as if all the evidence really is pointing that way. Ouma almost wants to believe him, too. Almost.

But Monokuma just leers at them all with that same lifeless grin. “We’ll see about that. There’s plenty of ways to make a good motive.” It strolls across the library floor casually on its stiff little legs. “So go ahead, get some rest. Do whatever you want, kiddos. ‘Cause by the time I’m done with you, you’re gonna wish someone was dead already.”

It leaves through the exit at the other end of the room, letting the door slam shut.


Saihara really only has one question to ask himself later that night, as he lies down on his futon. Perhaps it’s not what he should be asking, considering the long road they still have ahead of them from here on out, but still, he can’t help but wonder—

Why me?

He feels about a thousand times shakier than he looks. Even he’s not sure how he managed to speak up earlier today, when Monokuma came. The words he spoke back then hardly sounded like his own, carrying a weight of credibility and authority to them.

He’s really not sure how to tell everyone that he’s a spineless coward, not a real detective.

Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that they’re all alive. Forty-eight hours came and went, and while there’s still no end in sight, at least no one took a life. Yet. It’s still much too early for them to let their guards down, of course.

Saihara props himself up on one elbow as he looks around the room. He really should sleep—earlier, they all decided to start a night watch, with shifts. Their method was pretty efficient: four groups of four, two shifts a night. Tonight, two of those groups would handle the night watch shifts, while the other two groups slept soundly. Then the next night, it would switch, and the groups that had been on duty tonight would get to sleep through the whole night tomorrow.

The ones up for the first shift tonight are… Chabashira-san, Yumeno-san, Angie-san, and Iruma-san. Earlier today, someone had had the foresight to take a few battery-operated lanterns out of the storage warehouse. He can see the four girls illuminated dimly in the lighting from those. From the looks of it, they’re all too tense to speak—well, that’s only natural after the day they all had.

He forces himself to lean back on his futon, staring up at the ceiling. Again, the question repeats itself: Why me?

The thought of showing up to breakfast tomorrow, of having to act like he knows what he’s doing for one more minute in this horrible game, is enough to make him want to close his eyes and never wake up. He should be sleeping (god knows, he needs the rest), but his heart won’t stop pounding.

There’s a rustle of sheets from the futon beside him. “Saihara-chan?”

“Ouma-kun?” He’s a little bit startled, but thankfully he manages to keep his voice to a whisper.

He hadn’t known the other boy was awake. After Monokuma left, they’d gone to get him some food from the cafeteria right away, since the building would be off-limits come nighttime. But he’d barely touched what they’d given him—which was just rice, broth, and water, since Toujou-san had said anything more solid than that would probably upset his stomach.

Saihara had seen him maybe eat about four bites and swig down some water before curling up in his futon and sleeping like… well, like the dead. Despite the constant commotion in the library, the loud conversations, the heavy footsteps back and forth as everyone tried to get settled in, Ouma-kun hadn’t woken up a single time. Until now, apparently.

As luck would have it, his own futon wound up getting set up next to the other boy’s when they were setting them up for the night. Or rather, it wasn’t about luck at all.

When he’d asked why, Akamatsu-san had looked at him sheepishly, half-smiled, and said, “Well I mean, you’re the only one who he’ll talk to, right?”

Saihara tries very hard not to think, Why me, for the third time that night. And fails.

Just as he starts to wonder if Ouma-kun might have fallen back asleep, the other boy speaks up again, his voice hoarse. “Everyone must be terrified, huh?”

“…Yeah,” he says after several long moments of silence. It’s a fact that he’s been trying to avoid thinking about, all this time that he’s been pitying himself. But it’s true that Monokuma’s words hadn’t left them with a particularly good feeling about what was to come. “Yeah, everyone’s terrified.” And he has no idea how to lessen that terror for any of them. He doesn’t even know how to make himself stop feeling so terrified.

“Good.”

“Eh?” He sits a little more upright in his futon, turning over to try and get a glimpse at Ouma-kun’s face. But the lantern-light is too far away, and he can’t make out anything in the shadows covering the other boy’s face.

For a moment, he feels like they’re back in the dimly lit bedroom. Like they never left at all.

“I said good. I’d be more worried if you were all acting like you weren’t scared at all.”

It slowly dawns on him that this must be what happened in… some of those other times, that Ouma-kun had described.

“I still don’t think this is going to work,” the other boy continues. Even at a whisper, his voice sounds just as emotionless and blank as it did earlier today.

Saihara resists the urge to say, me neither. Instead, he says, “But it’s good to try, isn’t it?”

There’s another pause the length of a few heartbeats. “…Yeah,” the boy in white finally says. “I guess it’s good to try.”

Chapter Text

After his conversation with Saihara-chan, he keeps waking up in the middle of the night. Repeatedly.

He’s not sure how many times he wakes, or what time it is exactly. All he knows is that it must be well after nighttime, and not yet time for the morning announcement. At some point he’s pretty sure the group on watch changed from Iruma-chan and the others to the second shift—Momota-chan, Shinguuji-chan, Amami-chan, and Gonta.

Every time he wakes, it takes him a few seconds to remember that he’s not still back in his dorm room. The lantern light always disorients him, throwing shadows on the wall that he thinks shouldn’t be there until he remembers where he is (and who he is too, sometimes).

At some point, he feels his face. His cheeks are warm and his bangs are soaking wet. The fever seems to be trying to sweat itself out, but it’s still not quite there yet.

He breathes through his nose and lies on his back, exhausted after turning from one side to the other so many times. This is more sleep than he’s had in—days? Weeks? ...At least since the game began, he’s pretty sure. But he’s not used to it at all, and no matter how much he closes his eyes, his body protests that it’s still not enough.

Too bad for me, he thinks. I can’t sleep when I’m dead, because I can’t die. So I’ll just have to make do.

He shifts on his futon again and closes his eyes, praying for a dreamless sleep that he already knows he won’t get. He couldn’t be so lucky. After all, those dreams still play out on the backs of his eyelids every single time he tries to rest.

---

“Ouma-kun… was it? Is there anything about your breakfast you find unsatisfactory?”

That gentle voice pushes him out of his thoughts, causing him to look up from his barely-touched rice and miso soup.

“You’ve hardly eaten a bite,” says the same voice again. “I was just wondering if it wasn’t to your liking. There’s plenty of other food in the kitchen if you’d prefer something else, you know.”

He meets Kiibo’s inquisitive gaze for a few moments and stares back blankly, wondering how to respond.

In the past, this would be where he’d have chimed in with some snarky comment or other about robots. Then Kiibo would get mad at him, retort with some line about him being incomprehensible, and fume about “robot discrimination” for a bit before moving on. Predictable. Routine. Pre-scripted. The kind of humor you could find on any manzai comedy show.

For a moment, he almost wishes Momota-chan was in their group instead. At least if he was here, threatening to eat his share of food if he didn’t hurry up and finish it, he’d know how to respond—which is to say, he’d just slide his bowl right over and let him have it.

That’s probably not a good idea, though. Momota-chan would never stop talking and he knows it, just like he knows that his questions wouldn’t be limited to why he wasn’t eating his breakfast, either.

He waits too long to respond. He can tell, by the way the conversation between Saihara-chan and Hoshi-chan (and it was sparing conversation to begin with) drops off. So he just looks away, shrugs, and takes another bite. The rice goes down his throat, feeling tasteless and dry like sand. It’s not that he made a mistake when cooking it; he suspects he just isn’t tasting his food properly in the first place.

He hopes this might dissuade Kiibo from pressing the issue any further—but no such luck. Of course.

“It just seems a shame that two of us aren’t eating in our group,” the robot says. He smiles again, just as gently as before. The gesture looks just a tad self-deprecating. “I can only look at the food myself, but I suppose you’d get far more benefit out of actually eating it, yes?”

It’s a lot harder not to respond this time. Ouma bites his tongue, thinking of at least a dozen possible comments he could make about robotic literal-mindedness, and says nothing.

“…Th-That was a joke,” Kiibo says uncertainly. Awkwardness hangs in the air between them, but it’s still not enough to deter him from pressing forward. If Ouma didn’t know any better, he’d think it was almost as though he wanted there to be some kind of banter between them. “I just thought that if you still weren’t feeling well, it might be best if you at least… try and eat…”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Saihara-chan throw him a glance, looking hesitant but concerned. Ouma keeps his expression carefully neutral, but he still remembers perfectly well some of his earliest times repeating this game, when he’d been too shaken up to cover his weaknesses properly. Back then, they’d all treated him like some small, scared animal, too shocked and withdrawn to be taken seriously.

Their pity right now reeks of the same misguided compassion. It’s that compassion of theirs that makes them such easy targets, he’d like to tell them. So easy to trick. So easy to kill.

Not, he reminds himself, that I’ve ever actually seen Kiiboy over there get killed. Whether that means anything or not, he’s not sure. The same applies to Saihara-chan, of course, but then Saihara-chan isn’t a robot—just a weirdo for believing what must have sounded like an extremely half-baked story about time travel.

There are a handful of others he hasn’t seen get killed, either. It’s as though something’s been pulling him back, every time he’s tried to make progress in this game. As though the ringleader is always just out of his reach.

His instinct says that mysterious ringleader is still probably one of their group, rather than some unknown third party, but that might not mean anything either. After all, his instincts have led him astray plenty of times so far.

There’s a sharp throb behind his right eye. Immediately, he stops his train of thought. His fever was finally broken by the time he woke up this morning, but he still feels like it might be there, just under the surface, waiting to come back at full force.

There’s no point in spending my time and energy on thoughts like this when I’m already holding back my expectations anyway, he thinks. It’ll just tire me out faster.

Looking somewhat concerned by his silence, Kiibo opens his mouth, no doubt to question him again—when Hoshi-chan cuts in unexpectedly.

“If he doesn’t feel like eating, don’t press it. There’s no point in forcing anyone to do somethin’ they don’t wanna.”

Rather than pity or compassion, Ouma supposes he’s just speaking from experience. Despite his exhaustion, he still manages to feel a slight surge of gratitude. Then he wonders if Hoshi-chan still would’ve spoken up if he knew even a fraction of the things he’d said about his corpse in all those trials, and what little rice is already in his stomach threatens to come back up for a moment.

“Ah… my apologies.” Kiibo looks down at the table with something that might pass for reflexive embarrassment, if he were actually human. “I suppose this was another one of those times where I wasn’t reading the mood quite right.”

There aren’t any other attempts at conversation after that. It’s too early for much small talk, and they all have a long day ahead of them. Hoshi-chan and Saihara-chan eat their breakfasts slowly, Kiibo looks down as though still lost in thought, and Ouma sets his chopsticks down and ignores all three of them, resting his chin on his hand as he stares at nothing in particular.

The rest of his bowl of rice goes entirely untouched.

---

They stop by his room on the way back from the cafeteria. All four of them going seems a little excessive—but he suspects this is just something they’ll all have to get used to in the following days.

The groups they’d been divided into weren’t just for the night watch shifts, as it turned out. If the point of this entire plan was to keep an eye on each other at all times, then that would have to include all the other hours of the day, too. Letting someone roam the hallway, go back to their room, or even go to the cafeteria whenever they pleased might just invite trouble further down the road.

“What, so ya mean, we’ll even have to go with each other when someone needs to go to the bathroom?” Momota-chan had said earlier this morning, frowning as he thought it over. “I dunno if I like the sound of that.”

“…I think it sounds like a far wiser alternative than someone saying they were going to go to the bathroom and then sneaking off elsewhere,” Shinguuji-chan had pointed out dryly.

Harukawa-chan had crossed her arms, looking less than enthused by the whole idea of keeping watch and being watched in turn. “So we’re just here to… what? Hold each other’s hands, basically?”

Her lack of cooperation for a plan everyone else seemed largely on board with had hardly surprised him. But what had caught him (and everyone else, for that matter) off guard was Akamatsu-chan’s sudden, no-nonsense response—

“Oh, so do you want to die, Harukawa-san?”

That one line had pretty much settled the discussion.

Now, he hesitates outside his bedroom door. After days on end of being holed up in there, standing on the other side of the room looking in feels just a little uncanny.

“Do you need help, Ouma-kun?”

Saihara-chan’s voice from behind him brings him back to his senses. He hadn’t meant to space out in the first place—his exhaustion and the fever from earlier have both done a number on his ability to stay focused, more than he would’ve liked.

Under other circumstances, he’s pretty sure this would be where he’d chime in with some inappropriate comment or other. What, Saihara-chan, do you really want to see me without my shirt on that badly? Wow, how bold, I’m really impressed!

He makes no such comments, and instead grips the handle and turns it. “No thanks,” he says. “I don’t need any help at all.”

Ouma lets the door swing shut abruptly behind him and stands alone in the lightless bedroom.

For a moment or two, he considers staying right here. It would be easy enough. He could just lock the door behind him, go lie down on his bed again. He still hasn’t eaten or drunk much, but it’s more than he’s had in days.

It would probably earn him at least another two days of respite—even if they all came knocking on his door again to ask what the hell he was doing. Even if they were all still convinced that he was the ringleader.

It’s tempting, but he doesn’t do it. Compliance without resistance, he reminds himself tiredly, and he flips on the lights in the room for the first time in what feels like an eternity as he sets about getting his clothes. It’s surprisingly easy, since this time there are no books, binders, or pieces of evidence lying haphazardly around the room for him to trip on.

He changes quickly, carefully avoiding the full-length mirror next to his closet. Part of it has to do with the gauntness of his ribs, and the fact that he’s pretty sure several of his dead classmates have had a livelier looking tint to their skin than he does right now. Even if he did catch a glimpse, it would barely even look like himself, and he hardly needs any more reminders that he’s been playing this game long enough to become someone entirely different since it started.

Mostly though, he just doesn’t want to look at his own face. He knows it’s not the case, but part of him still feels like if he looks in the mirror, he’ll see that same, leering grin from last time plastered all over it.

He finishes tying his scarf, his movements automatic and mechanical after so much repetition despite the clumsy stiffness of his fingers. Still avoiding the mirror, he checks by touch to make sure it covers his neck completely, then looks around the room as though taking it in for the very first time.

In the full glare of the fluorescent lights, it looks even more desolate than it did in the dark. He can remember where each and every object used to sit, all those other times. Clues, he used to call them.

How pointless, he thinks. What good are clues if they never actually tell you anything?

Feeling a sense of boredom he hardly knows how to put into words, even to himself, he flicks the lights back off and exits the room.

The mood outside doesn’t feel like he’s just interrupted their conversation. There are no awkward pauses, no abrupt silences as though they suddenly cut themselves off. In the first place, it’s not as though he got assigned to the most talkative group in general. But there’s still an undeniable feeling of tension as he rejoins them, as though they have no idea what to say to him at all.

Ouma just shrugs and stays quiet, letting them take the lead as they start walking again. The last group should be finishing up their breakfast in the next half hour or so—all of them cooking for themselves, of course, as there was no point in giving Toujou-chan free reign over the kitchen when the whole point of this plan was to all keep an eye on each other.

After that, they’re supposed to have another group meeting, apparently. Not that it’s any concern of his. He’ll just keep his mouth shut and his interest elsewhere.

For some reason though, he still catches Saihara-chan looking at his throat as they start walking again, his eyebrows furrowed as though thinking about something. Ouma pulls his scarf a little higher and just keeps walking.


“Tiresome… This is so incredibly tiresome…”

Chabashira-san nods encouragingly as Yumeno-san sits and mutters to herself on the library floor while they wait for the others to gather, but otherwise no one reacts.

By the time they reached the library, Yumeno-san and the others were the only ones waiting there. Everyone else was apparently otherwise preoccupied—Momota-kun’s group with breakfast, and Akamatsu-san’s group with grabbing an early morning shower in the gym locker room. They can’t start their meeting until everyone arrives, so there really isn’t much to be done until they finish up and rejoin them.

The magician pulls the brim of her hat low over her face, casts a moody look around, and keeps mumbling half-heartedly. “My mana supplies haven’t been this low in at least six hundred years… The most well-known mages were always allowed to rest and recover before being asked to perform great feats… Truly, that was torture.”

Between her bloodshot eyes and the low, ominous tone of her voice, Saihara’s pretty sure she means it. He scoots back a little, straightening up against one of the nearby bookshelves. Yumeno-san is hardly intimidating by any normal standards, and he’s well aware that all her talk about “great mages” is code for “famous stage magicians,” but he really doesn’t want to get caught in the by-blow nonetheless.

Getting stuck with one of the two night shifts meant getting less sleep for the night than everyone else. Since it was only a matter of a few hours, rather than the whole night, both groups seemed to be holding up pretty well, all in all—but he supposes some people just needed more sleep than others.

“What’s the point in waiting like this…?” Yumeno-san gnaws at her lip and looks, if possible, even grumpier. “I could be recharging my mana here and now, rather than waiting for people who aren’t here yet.” It’s true that her bleary eyes look as though they might shut tight any moment now.

Saihara realizes that if he doesn’t speak up now, she might really fall asleep on the spot. He hesitates, then opens his mouth—but Iruma-san cuts in and speaks over him.

“Who even cares if you’re tired? The rest of us stayed up last night too, ya shitty hag!”

“…It’s not just about being tired,” Yumeno-san says warily. “My mana—”

“The hell with your mana! It ain’t like you would’ve been doing anything else anyway, so it’s fine if you useless small fries stay on watch. Meanwhile, I coulda been usin’ that time to invent somethin’ new, but no.” She crosses her arms and scowls, tapping her foot in irritation. “Every second of my time is valuable, ya know? A beautiful, genius inventor like me shouldn’t have to get stuck on the first fuckin’ night watch.”

“Every second of Yumeno-san’s time is valuable, too!” Chabashira-san protests, apparently unable to stay on the sidelines any longer. “You mentioned inventing things, Iruma-san, but Yumeno-san could’ve been practicing her magecraft—”

“As if that shit even exists!” Iruma-san snorts.

But those words cause a sudden silence to fall over the whole room as Yumeno-san suddenly stiffens, her wariness replaced with hostility in an instant. Insults against herself were one thing, but insults against her craft were apparently another matter entirely.

Saihara feels a sudden lump in his throat as his anxiety spikes. It’s only been one night since they survived Monokuma’s time limit and tensions are already running higher than they should. Maybe he should say something to try and calm everyone down—but who would listen to someone like him, anyway?

“…Magecraft exists,” says Yumeno-san darkly, her mouth twisting unpleasantly.

Iruma-san almost seems to hesitate for a moment—he’s pretty sure that if Yumeno-san weren’t quite so small and harmless-looking, she might actually back down here. But after gauging that the situation was still in her favor, she clicks her tongue dismissively and stares her right back down.

Holding his breath, he hopes vaguely that if he waits just a few more seconds, Akamatsu-san or Momota-kun might barge through the library door and take charge of the situation in an instant. Either one of them would know what to do; they always had an order or an opinion to give, and whenever they’d spoken up so far, people listened to what they had to say.

Amami-kun too, he’d probably know how to defuse this situation somehow. This entire time, he’d seemed somehow reliable and easygoing all at once, and his laid-back demeanor would be the perfect thing to make people lighten up, no doubt. He didn’t exactly seem like the take-charge type—but people listened to him nonetheless.

He waits, just a little bit longer. But the doors don’t open, and no one comes barging in to take control of the situation for him. Saihara exhales a shaky breath and acknowledges what he’s been trying to avoid thinking about this whole time: that even if they won’t listen to him, he probably still should say something.

Hoshi-kun looks as though the infighting might be giving him a headache, and Kiibo-kun looks lost and uncomfortable, as though he’s trying to think up a suitable response to the two girls and failing. Chabashira-san seems indignant on Yumeno-san’s behalf, and Angie-san has her hands clasped as she stares sanctimoniously upwards, content to ignore the situation completely as long as she isn’t dragged into it.

And Ouma-kun… When he glances Ouma-kun’s way, the boy is simply staring at the whole lot of them with a complete lack of expression that makes him impossible to read. Whether he’s actually paying attention, or just tuning them all out, he can’t tell.

Any of these people could speak up instead of me, he thinks. It’s not like I have to take the lead here. No matter how much he tries not to (and no matter how unbelievably whiny it sounds, even to himself), he still can’t help but repeat the same thought from last night: Why me?

But that’s a question that he already knows the answer to. At least, somewhat.

He was the one who spoke up earlier, after the time limit passed. He was the one who challenged Monokuma directly, and he was the one who proposed his theory about this killing game, and the reason why they were here in the first place.

No, maybe his obligations had started even earlier than that. Maybe it was when he volunteered to stay by himself outside that locked and unassailable bedroom door.

Saihara thinks about the cap in his pocket. As much as he’d love to pull it out and hide behind it, he hasn’t actually done so yet. Maybe that’s a good sign.

…Or maybe he’s just delaying the inevitable. Either way, he sighs and musters his courage. What little of it there is, anyway.

“I think… if there are any problems with the watch shifts or the sleeping arrangements, it might be a good idea to wait to bring them up during the meeting,” he says. “Fighting among ourselves right now isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

Both of them turn to stare at him. He can feel everyone else’s eyes on him too, burning a hole in him as he stands his ground and tries not to dwell too much on the fact that being the sudden object of everyone’s attention has always made him feel like crawling into a hole and dying.

For a moment, he half-expects one or the other to throw an irritated, mind your own business his way before resuming the argument as though nothing happened. He can hear the sound of Iruma-san gritting her teeth as she sneers at him, and of Yumeno-san breathing sharply through her nostrils. He braces himself, wondering if it was a bad idea to open his mouth after all—

And they back down.

“Tch,” Iruma-san says. But she snorts and looks away, arms crossed, and doesn’t attempt to argue with him.

Yumeno-san mutters one last, foreboding, “Magecraft exists,” under her breath, looks decidedly away from Iruma-san, and rests her head atop her knees. She had seemed a bit put off by Chabashira-san’s attempts to talk to her before, but at least now the other girl’s energetic questions about magecraft and sorcery look like they’re appeasing her somewhat.

After a few more seconds, it’s as though the whole room collectively lets out a sigh as the tension slowly defuses. Everyone in the room more or less goes back to what they were doing before, as they wait for the others to rejoin them. Everyone in the room, that is, except Ouma-kun.

Saihara glances his way momentarily, surreptitiously studying his non-reaction, though he half-suspects his sudden interest is just a way to try and take his mind off the nerves that are still churning his stomach. He replays their conversation from the day before, remembers word for word the deadpan tone with which the other boy had told him that rising tensions and seemingly petty motives had gotten people killed on more than one occasion (occasions which he suspects might not have been so different from Yumeno-san and Iruma-san’s argument just now).

Logically, he knows that what he told him must be true. The only way his story adds up at all is if there was some measure of truth to it, anyway—but the boy’s repeated, monotone claim, I could’ve been lying to you the whole time, keeps ringing through his head like a warning bell every time he dwells on it for too long.

He remembers his own words, too. Doubt others in order to get to know them. Belief is a process built on doubt.

…Somehow, he has a feeling that process is going to be longer and harder with Ouma-kun than with anyone else here.

---

They start the meeting right away once the other two groups rejoin them. Thankfully, they all seem to be in higher spirits than his own group or Yumeno-san’s. He half expects the infighting to start up again as soon as more spectators enter the room, but luckily they seem to have reached an unspoken decision to put it on hold for now.

“Alright, listen up!” Momota-kun says, standing over all of them. The easiest way to do a group meeting, they’d decided, was to let whoever had the floor stand and talk, while the rest of them sat with their backs to the shelves.

This format would lead to fewer interruptions overall, and the general idea was to sit down and let the next person stand up and speak whenever asking for input or an opinion. All in all, it sounded like a good plan—but Saihara still can’t help but feel grateful for the chance to keep his legs crossed and his back firmly pressed up against the shelf right now.

“We’ve talked about shifts and shit. We’ve talked about what we’re gonna do in the short-run.” Momota-kun crosses his arms and frowns, looking uncharacteristically serious. “Now it’s time to discuss what we’re gonna do about that damn bear.”

“It seemed… really angry, didn’t it?” Shirogane-san asks timidly. “That probably isn’t a good thing, is it?”

“Sometimes,” says Angie-san, “it’s better to just let sleeping gods lie, you know?”

“Um… isn’t it sleeping dogs?” Gonta-kun asks, looking a little bewildered by the sudden shift in the conversation.

But Angie-san just clasps her hands and smiles. “If you don’t make god angry, you won’t get punished. Divine punishment always befalls those who go up against god!” She sounds almost chipper, but her words carry a certain edge to them.

“It seems a little late to point this out,” Kiibo-kun says, “but considering our situation, it already feels as though we’re being punished. It’s not as though Monokuma would’ve left us alone, even if we’d done things differently.”

“We’re not in a position to argue back, but we’re putting up a fight anyway. That bear was bound to get angry no matter what we did, as long as we didn’t go along with its plan.” Harukawa-san runs her fingers through the end of one twintail, looking somewhat absentminded. “That’s just what happens when you don’t do what people tell you to do.”

“The fact is, Monokuma’s already pissed off,” Momota-kun says loudly, calling all eyes back as he stands front and center in the middle of the library. “Ain’t nothing we can do to change that, so we might as well accept it. We’re gonna keep bein’ told to kill each other for as long as we’re here, so we need to start plannin’ ahead.”

Shinguuji-kun tilts his head just slightly to the side as his eyes narrow curiously. “I have a question, about the matter of punishment…”

“Oh, big surprise there,” Iruma-san snaps. “Never woulda guessed, from the way you dress.”

He ignores her. “It’s true that this killing game seems like a punishment of sorts. We all assumed we were being held here against our will.” He taps a finger idly against one shoulder, slowly gathering his thoughts. “But in that case, what about Monokuma’s time limit? ‘All people forced into the killing game’ were supposed to be executed once time ran out. And yet, we’re still here.”

Momota-kun pauses, apparently at a loss for how to respond. “That’s… well, uh, ya see, that is…”

“Saihara-kun said something about people watching us, did he not?” Shinguuji-kun continues. “It sounds to me as though he might know more than he’s letting on.” There’s an undisguised note of accusation in those words.

Momota-kun looks his way, and Saihara freezes, his stomach twisting violently as he’s suddenly put on the spot once again, despite his best efforts to stay unnoticed this time.

For a moment, he almost dares to hope that maybe he won’t have to come up and speak. But those hopes come crumbling down in an instant as the would-be astronaut sputters for a bit, rubs the back of his head sheepishly, and says, “Maybe… Maybe I oughta give the floor to Shuuichi for a bit. Come on up, man.”

Saihara gets slowly and shakily to his legs, wondering why in the world it’s come down to him again. He’s not nearly as important as everyone’s making him out to be. Really, he isn’t. So why does this keep happening?

He stares pointedly at a spot on one of the other bookshelves across the room just above everyone’s heads, rather than looking at them directly—a neat trick he’d learned when he was still young in order to make it look like he was making eye contact without actually doing so. Everyone’s eyes are on him again, he can feel them. Even Ouma-kun is looking his way blankly now, most likely because of the shift the conversation’s taken.

It’s true that he knows more than he’s letting on. It’s true, but it’s only because of the story he heard from Ouma-kun. And even then, he thinks, I have no way of knowing how much of what he told me was a lie or not.

How exactly is he supposed to explain what he knows (or at least, what he’s guessed) to the rest of them? It’s not as though Ouma-kun is going to come up and speak with him. The other boy doesn’t even look the least bit interested, as though it’s none of his concern. There isn’t even a trace of worry or apprehension on his face at the idea that Saihara might spill the beans and tell everyone else what he told him.

He wipes his palms against his pockets as he stands and faces the room, trying desperately to ignore how lightheaded he feels. Instinct says he should just bolt from the room when faced with this many people staring at him, looking so expectant to hear what he has to say. That instinct is wrong, of course, but it’s still tempting to listen to it all the same.

“Um,” he says, then winces. This again. Whenever he needs to make every word count, his words come out in a jumbled, stammering mess. “Um, it’s not that I know more than the rest of you. I don’t, really.”

Raised eyebrows. Creased foreheads. Clearly, nearly everyone is skeptical of him, and he can’t really blame them.

“I wasn’t sure about what I said yesterday… It was a theory, not a statement.”

It was true that he’d had to deliver it like a statement of fact, though, or else he was pretty sure Monokuma would’ve kept trying to pinpoint the weak links in their group. It might even have gone through with its threat to add a new rule against sleeping in the library, which would’ve been the worst case scenario for them. So he’d spoken up back then with a lot more confidence than he’d actually felt.

He swallows, hard, and keeps talking. “Something about the way Monokuma kept phrasing that rule with the time limit kept bothering me… I even brought up the fact that it sounded strange with Akamatsu-san a few times, when we were trying to decide what to do.”

Out of the corner of his eye (his gaze is still firmly fixed on the books opposite him, rather than on everyone’s faces) he sees her nod firmly in agreement, and his knees feel suddenly weak with relief. He’s telling everyone the truth, mostly, but he has a feeling that they’re going to believe it a lot more coming from Akamatsu-san than they are coming from him.

“So I tried to confirm it. If the rules are that important to Monokuma, then there has to be a reason for it. A game where the opponent can break the rules however they please isn’t a fair game, right?”

Nearly everyone nods at that. In any game, rules were there to make the game fair for both sides. No one followed rules because they wanted to, but because they had to—usually.

As Ouma-kun looks right through him without nodding or showing any other signs of interest, Saihara remembers something else he told him in that dark, empty bedroom: the assumption of a fair game only works when you and your opponent are on the same page.

“If the rules of the game keep changing, or if you read the rules wrong from the start, or,” Ouma-kun had said, looking bored, “even if your opponent is just fickle, then the game might not even be fair at all.” He’d seemed distant, as though he were a million miles away, on another planet entirely rather than just a few feet away sitting cross-legged on the bed.

But if Saihara shares that little piece of wisdom with any of the rest of them, they’ll probably start arguing nonstop. If possible, he’d like to avoid a repeat of the same argument from earlier on a larger scale.

So he clenches and unclenches his hands, stares straight ahead at the same point on the bookshelves, and tries once again to feign a lot more confidence than he actually feels. “We’re all still alive, so I think that settles it. Monokuma can’t just kill us on its own, because it’d mean breaking its own rules. If it can’t break its own rules, then that means it’s a fair game, right? Games like that… usually there’d be an audience, wouldn’t there?”

There’s a general murmur of discussion as everyone thinks it over. His reasoning seems to be swaying them, slowly but surely. One of the few benefits to being a detective, he thinks tiredly. You state theories so logically and matter-of-factly that people usually wind up thinking you sound convincing.

“I guess… that does make sense,” Chabashira-san says slowly.

“Yeah… I don’t really get what we’re talking about, but that does make sense!”

There’s a brief pause, then Saihara yelps and stumbles back about three steps. He’s not the only one to yell either; half the group jumped in surprise at the sudden, unexpected voice in their midst.

A sudden thump draws his attention, followed by the sound of Momota-kun swearing furiously as he rubs at the back of his head. He lets a few more profanities slip out, then finally manages to ask the question that’s on all their minds: “Where the hell’d you all come from!?”

Five animatronic bears stare back at them all, as though they’d been there from the start.

“Come from?” the red one repeats innocently, one paw raised under its chin. “Eh… where did we come from exactly? I don’t remember.”

“Well that’s a very broad question,” says the pink one. “I guess it all depends on what you mean... Are you asking which room we came from or how we were born?”

“Shaddup, ya morons!” The yellow one cuts over them both, pushing its glasses up on the bridge of a nonexistent nose. “This ain’t what we’re here to discuss.”

“Hell yeah! Dad had business with all of ya, but he’s too mad to show up! So he wanted us to drop by instead!”

The only words in their entire, scripted banter that really caught his attention were “too mad to show up.” Saihara glances around the room again briefly; judging by the apprehensive looks on his classmates’ faces, he guesses they must have noticed that same phrase, too.

He’s still not sure how much these bears are capable of reasoning or responding to their questions, but he decides to take the bait and ask anyway. It isn’t like they really have much of a choice. “He’s mad…?” he repeats, frowning. There can only be one reason for that.

“Oh, he’s furious.” The pink one nods solemnly in agreement. “I’ve never seen him so angry! Our whole den really is a mess right now…”

“I miss Dad!” says the red one with a sniffle, head hung low. “He never used to get like this. The real Dad would never be so scary…”

The green one waits about two beats, then speaks up tentatively. “That Is… Our Real Dad, Monotarou. He’s Always Been Like This.”

“Eh? Is that so? …I don’t remember him acting like this, though.”

“Whatever! Stop blabberin’! We’re here to intimidate this bunch, remember!” The yellow one pushes its glasses up again. “Dad’s so angry, he’s like a… like a tiger, prowlin’ around in its cage! Or like a lion! Or—”

“Like A Bear?” asks the green one, with something like exasperation despite its robotic voice.

The four other bears turn and give it a look of the utmost disdain. Saihara wonders what the point is of these bizarre animatronics. They walk and talk and “react” to things, sure—but even these little moments of interaction between them feel so deliberately theatrical. It’s impossible to think of them as anything more than a bunch of unresponsive robots, no matter how much they pretend to carry on a conversation.

“A-Anyway,” says the pink one, drawing the group’s attention back once again. “You really don’t want to see Dad when he’s angry like this, trust me.”

“If ya don’t take him up on that ‘graduate instantly’ offer soon, Dad’s gonna blow a gasket! Take it from us!”

“Yeah!” The red one pipes up in agreement. “He might even do something real nasty to your friends and loved ones, and that’d be horrible! I’d cry, you know!”

A hush falls over the entire group. Even the other four bears stop talking, staring pointedly at the red one instead.

“Monotarou,” says the blue one. “Ya fucked it up.”

“We weren’t supposed to tell them about that just yet!” the pink one says, in a whisper that hardly sounds like a whisper—its voice still carries over to the rest of them just the same.

Those words are so obviously a lie. This entire arrangement feels too scripted, the slip-up too perfect. Instantly, his palms feel slick with sweat once again, his heart racing in his chest as the full impact of those words really sets in.

“Our friends and loved ones…?” Akamatsu-san looks vaguely nauseated. “You don’t have them. They’re not here, you couldn’t… do something like that…”

No one buys it, of course. Just because they searched this entire place from top to bottom, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other places with other people trapped inside. The ringleader running this entire game has resources beyond our imagination, he thinks dizzily, that much is obvious.

It would probably be very, very easy for them to get to any of their friends or loved ones.

“Has Monokuma already done something?” Amami-kun asks in a voice so hoarse it takes Saihara a moment to even realize just who was talking. “Hey, did you already do something? We don’t have any proof that you didn’t, right?”

The murmurs among the group start low, then begin to rise. There’s a tangible feeling of panic sweeping them all, the feeling of pressure building behind a dam that’s about to burst. Yesterday, they managed to keep that panic at bay: they had a time limit set for them, and a goal in sight. Today, he’s not so sure they can manage.

The more he thinks it over, the sicker he feels. He can remember his uncle just fine… There was nothing unusual or off about him the last time he saw him. He didn’t seem to be in any danger—but then again, he can’t even remember how he got here himself.

He’d like to think that his parents wouldn’t be targeted; they’re always off travelling, and they have plenty of security wherever they go, considering their notoriety. But if the ringleader’s resources really do extend this far, then…

Anxiety is no stranger to him. He’s lived with the feeling all his life, untouchable but ever-present, like the shadow at his feet. It’s there now, and although it has no feeling or shape to it at all, he can still feel it pressing down on his chest, crushing him, sucking all the air from the room.

His ears don’t seem to be working properly. Everyone’s mouths are moving, so he’s pretty sure they’re all still talking, still questioning, still panicking, but the sound isn’t registering at all. The only reason he’s still standing in the middle of the library floor is because his legs are keeping him up out of habit. If he tried to take a step forward, he’s pretty sure he’d come crashing down in an instant.

It takes what feels like an eternity (is it ten seconds or ten minutes, or longer?) before he realizes Ouma-kun is staring at him intently.

Staring. He’s staring at him. Saihara stares back, too numb even for his usual self-consciousness to set in. It feels considerably easier to wonder about why the other boy might be staring at him than it does to wonder if his uncle or his parents or his friends are injured or tortured or dead in an alley somewhere, so he does.

It’s unusual, he thinks. It’s really strange. He spent this whole time avoiding looking at any of the rest of us. He always just stared through us instead. I wasn’t even sure he was keeping up with the conversation.

But there’s no mistake. Ouma-kun’s eyes are locked on him, his brows furrowed. The bears, the others panicking, none of it seems to faze him in the slightest. If Saihara had to put a name to that expression… he might almost call it “expectant.”

It’s such a drastic change from his usual lack of expression. There must be a reason for it, he realizes dimly, but he can’t quite figure out what that reason is.

So many people are expecting so many things from him—how is he supposed to answer to any of them? His uncle, all the people he cares about, they might be dead, or maybe they’ll die very soon, or maybe some other unspeakably horrible thing will happen to them tomorrow or the day after or two weeks from now.

My loved ones are all probably expecting things from me too. Like not letting them die. The thought makes the pressure on his chest increase tenfold.

Still, he tries to remind himself to think. To think, think, think. He’s a detective, he should at least be able to do that much. The other boy’s gaze is fixed and unyielding. Every so often, Saihara can see him shudder a little, like he still hasn’t quite recovered from being sick. By contrast, though, he hardly even blinks.

Did he mention anything about this to me before? he wonders, thinking back on their conversation from the day before. It’s a struggle to remember any of it in this situation, but it’s a little easier once he thinks of it as a distraction. Family… loved ones… he mentioned something about there being videos, I think… motive videos…

A motive this strong is almost guaranteed to get someone killed. There’s no point in even debating that much; it’s obvious from the fear on his classmates’ faces, the tingling in his fingertips, the pounding of his heart against his ribcage as he continues to stand there without moving. Who wouldn’t want to try and see if their most important loved ones were okay, after hearing that they might be hurt, that they might get killed?

Ah. Realization taps against his brain, though it’s hard to make room for it considering all the other thoughts that are currently preoccupying him. Ouma-kun did mention something about those motive videos, now that he thinks about it. It had seemed like he hadn’t wanted to talk about them much, when he’d told his story, but he’d still discussed them a little when he’d explained the case with Toujou-san. He’d said something… something about them being similar to those “remember lights” that he’d mentioned.

Saihara feels the gears in his brain begin spinning again, slowly, reluctantly. Feeling begins to return to his fingertips, just a little, and he blinks, surprised to realize just how dry his eyes feel. It turns out he was blinking even less than Ouma-kun.

He gives the boy the slightest nod, a sign of understanding he isn’t even sure he means. There’s always a possibility he didn’t understand anything. That his reasoning is completely mistaken. He speaks up anyway.

“How do we know…?” His voice trails off midway, raspy and hoarse like there’s something stuck in his throat. He clears his throat and tries again, still hardly able to believe what he’s about to ask. “How do we know that we’re even remembering those people the way we should?”

“What exactly do you mean, Saihara-kun?” It seems like Toujou-san was able to make his words out clearly over the panicky clamor in the room. Even her usually-calm demeanor is beginning to show a few cracks now, and her eyes are as narrowed and shrewd as a hawk’s.

“Yeah, what does that even mean?” The red bear tilts its head to the side curiously. “How would you remember someone the wrong way? I don’t get it.”

Saihara inhales deeply and says, “I mean, what if our memories are all wrong? What if those people don’t exist?”

The clamor dies down for an instant, then returns full force at double the volume. Everyone sounds, if possible, even more confused than they did just moments before.

“They don’t exist…? How could they not exist!?”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Saihara-kun!”

“Shuuichi, have ya lost your damn mind!?”

His eyes dart briefly to Ouma-kun as he struggles to gather his thoughts. By now, the other boy is the only one in the room not falling to pieces entirely. While everyone else talks over each other or half-rises to their feet, the other boy continues to sit there. It’d be easy to think him entirely unaffected by the situation—except, he’s still staring.

He can’t ask him aloud if this is was the right answer, if he managed to notice whatever it was that he was missing before. But he’s sure (surprisingly sure, in fact) that it is. If he were wrong, Ouma-kun would be looking through him again, not at him.

Instinctively, he looks away and half-lifts his right hand, moving to tug at the cap that he’s no longer wearing. He only remembers that it isn’t there at the last second—but for some reason, as he leaves his hand frozen in midair, everyone quiets down just a bit.

Did they think he was just lifting a hand to get their attention? To ask them to listen closely? The thought that he managed to do something a real leader might do by complete accident is just too ironic.

“There’s a lot we don’t remember... right? We don’t remember how we got here. We don’t remember who put us here.” He swallows. “But most importantly, we don’t remember volunteering for this.”

The noise in the room quiets down, just as suddenly as it flared up. Everyone looks right at him, but as he averts his eyes back to the bookshelf past them, Saihara can’t help but notice that the bears are all standing completely, perfectly still.

“We don’t remember ever volunteering to participate in this killing game… but we know it has to be true. Because if it weren’t, we’d have been executed. That’s what we discussed earlier, isn’t it?”

More silence.

“I don’t know why we would’ve agreed to participate in something like this,” he admits. “There might be a reason for it, but I don’t know what it is. But the fact is, we weren’t forced into this killing game, no matter how much we might feel like we were. So that means… that means that our memories are a lot less reliable than we thought.”

“But still…” Amami-kun looks pained. “Saying that the friends and family we remember don’t exist? No matter how you look at it, isn’t that… going too far…?”

Saihara wipes a hand against his pocket again and hopes absentmindedly that the sweat on his hands isn’t too noticeable. Maybe something like that isn’t even important right now, but it still feels embarrassing beyond words. Besides, he’s already about to drop under the scrutiny he’s getting.

Finally he stops looking for something to do with his hands, and says, “It-It’s not for sure that they don’t exist. It’s just… a maybe. Just a possibility. And… we know that whatever they tell us here, it’s because they want to make us kill someone else.”

“Well, ain’t that obvious?” The blue bear speaks up, loud and impatient. “We’re stuck in a rut as long as you bastards keep refusin’ to kill each other, so we gotta make some sparks ourselves!”

As Saihara feels his breath catch in his throat, the other four bears freeze on the spot. Despite the stiffness of their animatronic faces, they somehow manage to look almost mortified.

“Oh, no!”

“Monokid, ya damn moron!”

“...I don’t get it. Was that something he shouldn’t have said?”

“Everyone,” the green one says, speaking up clearly and (for the most part) calmly over the chaos. “Stop Talking. Talking Will Just Make It Worse.”

Shirogane-san brings her hands up over her mouth, her expression somewhat distant, as though she were very far away. Saihara has a feeling he’s not the only one struggling to keep his balance right now. “So… So, he’s right?” she asks. “You did something to our memories?”

“The people we think we remember might not even exist…” Harukawa-san says slowly. She’s managed to appear generally unruffled (or mildly annoyed) in all the time that he’s known her, but even she looks more than a little shaken up right now.

“In that case… there’s even less incentive to kill than we supposed.” Shinguuji-kun’s mouth barely moves under his mask. The little of his face that’s visible looks ashen.

“L-Less incentive?” the pink one squeaks, paws raised apprehensively. If it could sweat, Saihara is pretty sure it’d be doing it right about now. “That’s not exactly true though, right? Y-You don’t… know for sure that your loved ones don’t exist!”

“No,” Saihara agrees. “We don’t know for sure. But no one is going to kill someone over a ‘maybe.’”

If their own memories aren’t trustworthy, there’s no point in going along with this killing game. No one is going to want to put their life (everyone’s lives, really) on the line for a motive that has no guarantee. …At least, he sure hopes so.

“…Dad Won’t Be Happy To Hear About This.” It’s hard to tell, given how robotic and stiff its voice is, but he’s pretty sure there’s a certain dryness to its tone. “Let’s Go.”

The other bears nod to its suggestion.

“As For The Motive… Well, It’s A Shame. I Suppose… We’ll Have To Rely On ‘That,’ Later.”

The bears leave the room, leaving everyone shaken by both threats and implications alike.

Conversation resumes, although it can hardly be called normal. Everyone looks at each other, and the anxiety in the room is as palpable as static in the air before a storm. He can’t hear what anyone is saying, though. His sense of hearing seems to have stopped working again.

His eyes find their way back to Ouma-kun’s face, only this time the other boy looks away first. His expression is as bored and as blank as before, and yet… Somehow, he doesn’t seem quite as impossible to read as yesterday. There’s a certain feeling about him, as Saihara watches him stare pointedly towards the other bookshelves.

Is he relieved? That would make sense. But it’s impossible to muster an emotion like relief unless you’re actually invested in something.

Once again, his thoughts stray back to yesterday. Just don’t expect anything from me, okay?

But Ouma-kun was the one who’d expected something from him just now.

“Shuuichi? Shuuichi, man, you okay?”

Saihara startles at the sudden sight of Momota-kun right beside him, a nervous frown on his face and a hand on his shoulder. He comes back to his senses a little, remembers that they should be doing damage control as a group. He can’t afford to just space out.

“Yeah,” he says. This time, his palm isn’t quite so sweaty when he moves to wipe it. “Yeah, I’m okay.”


Ouma sits at the edge of the ring of lantern-light in the dark, quiet library, staring at the walls absently. There are still dark, unfamiliar shadows there, misshapen and grotesque, but at least tonight he’s wide awake and past the point of wondering where or when or who he is.

He and his group have taken the first shift of the night, the past hour and a half of which has passed in a completely uneventful fashion. It’s been quiet, interrupted only by the faint, carried whispers of his classmates in their futons, or the occasional snore. More often now, there’s simply the sound of soft and steady breathing. Saihara-chan, Hoshi-chan, and Kiibo all sit a little to the left of him, though they can hardly be called a group of three when none of them attempts to strike up any conversations with each other.

The lantern is drawn closer to them than it is to him, but if he were feeling up to it, he might try to read anyway. They are in a library, after all; there’s no shortage of books around him. The light is faint, too indistinct to properly light up anything more than the most basic, shadowy outline of the room, but he doesn’t particularly care. The lighting in the machinery bay wasn’t good for reading either, and that didn’t stop him.

But the fact of the matter is, he’s not in a reading mood. He’s not in a talking mood, either. He sits on the library floor, and every so often he drums the fingers of his left hand against his knee while he props his chin up with his right hand.

It’s not as though sitting and doing nothing is particularly a challenge—that’s all he was doing for the last few days, after all. It’s simply… boring. But he’s long since grown accustomed to this boredom.

Boredom is a poison. He remembers thinking that at one point or another, and it’s as true now as it was back then. Just like the poison that Harukawa-chan shot straight into his veins last time, it spreads slower when he doesn’t agitate the wound. So he sits there and does nothing.

But his brain keeps spinning furiously, despite his best efforts not to think about anything in particular. It’s a curse, he’s decided. He can’t keep it from actively working, filtering, sorting through any and all of the information before him. It’s like one of those televisions from some horror movie, the kind that keeps flickering on again even when it’s turned off. Or unplugged.

Maybe if I had another mechanical press around here I could get a few moments of peace. Ha.

After the run-in with the bears, everything had passed by relatively uneventfully. They’d wrapped up their meeting fairly quickly, deciding to continue things along the same course of action, and no one had put up any objections or complaints. Even at the end of the meeting, Iruma-chan and Yumeno-chan hadn’t once brought up the subject of getting put into different groups.

But the panic was still there. Just below the surface, barely contained. They had managed to rein it in for now, but that was only a temporary measure, a measly bucket of water thrown on a house that’s caught fire.

Fire always spreads. He wonders who will be the one to spread it first this time, since it wasn’t Akamatsu-chan.

However, it’s as he very pointedly avoids wondering how in the world they managed to prevent the fire from spreading out of control when their earlier discussion was such a perfect opportunity that he feels a tap on his shoulder.

He resists the urge to flinch; he doesn’t like being snuck up on even at the best of times, and his senses are still far too dulled from his exhaustion. It’s not good, that his mind is wandering so often.

Instead, he looks over. Saihara-chan looks back at him, arm outstretched in the faint lantern light.

“Sorry if I startled you.” The words are almost mouthed, the other boy says them so quietly.

A half-dozen lies come to mind, about how he’s never startled, never caught unawares. The Supreme Leader of a secret, evil organization can’t be surprised, because it’s his job to know about anything and everything that goes on in the shadows.

Ouma discards them all and simply shrugs, staring back. “What do you want?”

He doesn’t really need to ask, though. He’s already well aware of what it is he wants.

The detective looks back at him, and to his credit he only looks mildly nervous at the bluntness of those words. Really, this is almost surprisingly unflinching for someone like Saihara-chan.

A pause lingers in the air between them. Across the room, he hears someone (probably Momota-chan, he thinks) let out a tremendous snore, sigh, and turn over.

“I wanted to thank you,” Saihara-chan says. The words are quiet, hesitant—and completely well-intentioned.

Ouma stares back blankly. He could say, I didn’t do anything. He could also say, I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. But both of those would be lies, and they’d both know it.

Finally, he settles on saying, “I don’t want your thanks.” That much is true, at least.

The other boy mulls it over for a bit, then shrugs. For some reason, the gesture annoys him more than it should. Rather than looking uneasy or confused, he simply looks as though he’s understood something. Or trying to understand, playing with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that’s slowly but surely coming together.

“Maybe you don’t want it,” Saihara-chan says. “But I still wanted to say it anyway.”

Ouma looks him right in the eye. “Do whatever you want. I don’t care.” It’s exhausting by this point, having to drill in such a simple fact.

Saihara-chan opens his mouth to respond—

And both of them nearly jump out of their skin as the television suddenly comes on.

At first, he thinks it’s a direct announcement from Monokuma. The bear had come on at ten o’clock as scheduled to tell them it was nighttime, but it hadn’t had any messages for them other than a cursory, good night. By now it must be around midnight, so perhaps this was its next course of action, telling them to meet up in the courtyard or some other place around the school so it could give them all yet another new and exciting incentive to kill each other.

But that’s not it. Monokuma isn’t on the screen—instead, it’s the same animated video from before. The one from the time limit. The same song as last time comes blaring through the speakers at full volume, sending every single one of his classmates shooting up in their futons as they struggle to make sense of what’s going on.

“What the fuck! What the actual fuck!” Momota-chan comes stumbling up to them, nearly tripping over his pajama pants in the process. “What the hell is goin’ on!?”

“W-We don’t know either,” Saihara-chan attempts to explain. “Everything was fine until j-just—”

“What time is it!?” Chabashira-chan yells from across the room. “Tenko really, really doubts that it’s morning just yet!”

“What’s happening!? Why is that song playing again!?”

“Is it another time limit!?”

“You fuckers better not have tried to pull anything!” Iruma-chan snaps, still tangled up in her futon as she shoots them all a glare.

Kiibo raises his hands placatingly as he gets to his feet. “Everyone, please calm down! None of us know why that song is playing again, but no one here caused it to happen! We should calm down, then discuss this as rationally as possible—”

Ouma tunes them all out in the old, familiar way. The song registers, in one ear and out the other, the video a disorienting, flickering jumble of shapes and colors that all end in murder. Possibilities flick through his mind, one after the other, none of them good.

He’s fairly sure he knows what Monokuma is up to. Or rather, what it'll be up to every few hours from now on.

This, he thinks wryly, is why I didn’t want Saihara-chan’s thanks. When I end up in that locker again, sooner or later, it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference if he said thank you right before we all got killed.

---

During the time limit, the video had droned on and on for a solid hour, too loud to be drowned out by conversation or any other noises they could make. Whoever had designed the song certainly knew what they were doing, too: it was as wailing and grating as the shriek of a car alarm, and perfectly attuned to send their anxiety as a group skyrocketing.

That had been bad enough. Those sixty minutes had set them all on edge, teeth gritted and hearts pounding as they slowly waited for time to run out. Ouma’s fairly sure that if he hadn’t been so far gone from his fever, even he would’ve felt a little bit of that same old fear come back to him.

This time, the video had played for five hours straight.

They had all sat huddled in the dark as they waited for the first hour to pass, both hoping for and dreading the idea that the screen would turn off. His classmates all naively assumed it must be some new time limit, though for what purpose (beyond the obvious one of killing each other) they weren’t sure. But there hadn’t been any penalties for their inaction last time, so they’d all agreed to do the same thing once more.

They were wrong, though. He could’ve told them before the hour was even up that the video wasn’t going to stop, but he didn’t. It would’ve taken too much explanation, and besides, they wouldn’t have looked very kindly on him being right. They never did.

The first hour came and went, and still the video had pressed on without stopping. There wasn’t any escaping it, either: Akamatsu-chan’s group had checked the hallways briefly, and unsurprisingly discovered that every single television was lit up with the same video, the same incessant, mind-numbing song. Just like last time.

“Why isn’t it stopping?” Harukawa-chan had asked. Everyone else’s eyes were noticeably bloodshot, bleary-eyed from having been woken up in the middle of the night, but she alone hadn’t looked particularly tired. Well, considering the hellish lifestyle she’d been forced into, that made sense. She was probably used to functioning on very little sleep.

“You don’t think…?” Shirogane-chan had bitten her lip, quivering where she sat against the shelf. Her voice had almost been too hard to make out under the piercing, pounding beat of the Monokuma video. “You don’t think, it’s going to keep playing until… one of us actually…?”

She had left the end of her question unspoken, but everyone had understood, and not a single one of them had responded.

There’s a possibility she’s right, he had thought at the time, but I doubt it. After all, that’s just too boring. No one would want to watch a show like that.

Around five in the morning, the video shuts off all at once, without warning. Just as he expected.

Everyone shoots up from their sunken, sleep-deprived stupor, looking around the room apprehensively. The absence of light and sound is almost more disorienting than the video itself; Ouma can feel his eyes struggling to make sense of the surroundings in the now-insufficient lantern light, his ears ringing in the silence.

“It stopped…?” Hoshi-chan asks, lifting the edge of his hat slightly as he stares towards the now-dark television screen, baffled.

“It stopped,” Akamatsu-chan repeats blankly. Her eyes scan the room from corner to corner as though expecting to see a corpse lying in one of the nooks or crevices, but there’s nothing there. “Why did it stop?”

“Who cares why it stopped? We can sleep now, can’t we?” Yumeno-chan’s hat sits low, half-obscuring her face, but he can still see how red and puffy her eyes are even in the lantern-lit gloom. Some of it he suspects is just further exhaustion on top of having taken the first watch last night, but he’s fairly sure she might be frustrated to the point of tears by now, too.

Kiibo nods slowly, confusion etched all over his robotic face. “I… I suppose so?” It’s a question, rather than a statement.

No matter how long they wait, Monokuma doesn’t appear. Neither do the other bears. Some of them stare pointedly at the bookshelf in front of the hidden door as though expecting to see it swing open at any moment, but it stays firmly shut.

“I believe everyone else should rest, now that it’s possible,” says Toujou-chan. “There’s still some time left until the morning announcement… Our group was scheduled for the second shift anyway, so I believe if we keep watch until then, you can all get a few more hours of sleep.”

Good old Toujou-chan, he muses, always thinking of others first. He can’t even muster any malice behind the thought. It’s a genuinely good suggestion.

There are a few more murmurs of consensus, and the rest of them decide to curl up in their futons and sleep while Akamatsu-chan’s group keeps watch. There’s still a feeling of dread lying over them, the tension thick and palpable enough to cut with a knife—but most of them are far too tired to dwell on that right now.

Not Saihara-chan though, apparently. As they both lie down, he can barely catch sight of the other boy’s questioning glance, clearly seeking his opinion on the matter without any words at all.

The idea of his opinion being sought after is laughable. He remembers the offer he posed to him in Iruma-chan’s virtual world last time, so quaintly, so casually. He also remembers the irritation on Saihara-chan’s avatar as he’d reached for the parlor phone, and the soft-spoken, biting words he’d left him with in the trial room as he’d put on the role of a villain like a mask.

Why is it that his opinion is only worth listening to after he’s stopped wanting to give it?

More importantly, why ask for his opinion at all when everything he’s tried in this game so far has completely failed?

He lies there quietly in the dark, debating on whether to say anything or not. He’s well aware of the reason why his and Saihara-chan’s futons are side by side, just like he knows that the other boy is aware of it too. No one else had succeeded in getting him to talk, so the responsibility fell to Saihara-chan all the time now.

Ouma’s mouth twists. What they probably thought of as some well-meant measure to help him “open up” was little more than a thinly veiled excuse for their fear and mistrust of him. How nice. I’m like a dog they want to stick with the one person they’re sure I won’t bite.

Well, at least they were right not to trust him.

On that line of thought, he decides to open his mouth and whisper, “What do you know about psychological torture, Saihara-chan?” It’s a serious question, not a threat.

The other boy stares back, eyes wide and face pale. But it seems his detective’s intuition is in full force today (perhaps fueled by five anxiety-ridden hours of nonstop adrenaline), because he looks pensive almost immediately afterward.

Ouma turns over in his futon and pretends to fall asleep as soon he closes his eyes, only to drift into the real thing after a few minutes.

He wakes with a start at seven-thirty on the dot, his stomach clenched with uneasiness—at first, he thought he was back in his bedroom, waking once again to the sound of a knock on the door. As he regains his senses, he realizes the Monokuma video is wailing again.

The uneasiness settles gradually, and in exchange he feels the bitter, weary satisfaction of being proven right.

---

Eight in the morning comes and goes, and the morning announcement doesn’t come on. The video just keeps playing, the same old images of murder after murder never faltering, the music deafening.

His classmates look about ready to drop. He’s feeling pretty exhausted himself, but he doubts it has much to do with the video, or the night watch. His fatigue runs a lot deeper than those things, though he supposes it doesn’t matter much, if the end result is still the same.

They turn on the lights this time, rather than sitting in the dark with only a lantern to see by. There aren’t any windows in the library; without any natural light (as “natural,” of course, as anything could get in this dome), their internal clocks are already struggling. It feels as though it’s still hours earlier, the middle of the night rather than a bright and early morning.

“Hey, hey! God thinks Angie and the others should do something to pass the time!” Angie-chan speaks up over the booming noise. There’s just a tinge of desperation to her usually-chipper voice by now. He can hardly blame her for wanting a distraction. “Like cards or something! Let’s play cards!”

No one takes her up on the offer. Cards might certainly help them relieve tension—but they’re all just too tired.

After another half hour or so, they decide to go eat breakfast collectively this time, rather than in shifts. Their rotation schedule is already a mess as it is, so there’s no need for any of them to wait or preoccupy themselves with other tasks.

Personally, he thinks it might be the better choice anyway. Four groups of four are safer than anyone going out by themselves, or even in groups of two, but it’s not a foolproof plan. If anyone really wants to commit a murder… Well, hasn’t he already seen that his classmates are more than capable of finding a way to kill when they really want to?

They eat without conversation, though not in silence by any means. The video loops on and on without pause, drowning out the sounds of bowls and chopsticks clinking.

Ouma makes another bowl of rice for himself. It tastes as coarse and dry as the one from yesterday, and he stops again after just a few bites.

At ten o’clock, long after they’ve left the cafeteria, the video shuts off yet again.

“The fuck is that bear playing at!?” Momota-chan shouts. He seems to have entirely forgotten about the rule forbidding violence against the headmaster. If Monokuma were to show up right now, he’d probably just start swinging with all his usual, reckless bravado.

Shinguuji-chan shoots him a reproachful look, rubbing at his temples lightly. He’s not the only one with a headache either, between the off-and-on noise, the sleep deprivation, and the stress. “It would seem there’s no rhyme or reason to this mess…” he says. “If there’s no way to predict when the video is going to come on or turn off, then…”

“…Then there’s no way for us to get any sleep, even when it’s turned off.” Amami-chan fills in that worrying thought, fiddling absently with the bracelet on his right hand. “We can’t carry on a schedule like this.”

Shinguuji-chan nods. “And I don’t suppose anyone among us is still optimistic enough to think that Monokuma would just go easy on us by tomorrow.”

Just staying awake until the next day won’t help them, that much is true. This barrage is as much an attack against their minds as it is their bodies, an endurance contest of sorts—and as someone whose body has already been pushed well past its limits, Ouma doesn’t particularly feel like enduring any longer.

He had thought it would be a tactic like this. Simply keeping the video turned on all the time would be too one-sided, too uneventful. Obviously someone would be bound to snap and kill if that song never stopped for even a moment—but where would be the fun in that? This sporadic assault, this slow, gradual whittling away at their nerves, it’s probably much more fun to watch.

People say that variety is the spice of life, but that’s not technically true. It’s unpredictability. The unexpected. That’s what really ropes people in, keeps them at the edge of their seat and coming back for more. And who would know that better than him?

There’s no better term for what this is than psychological torture. Of all the ways they’ve suffered horribly in this killing game, he suspects that’s what people have always really wanted to watch the most. And of course, it’s only fun if there’s some element of risk to it, on the surface at least. If there’s a chance they might actually overcome it, or stand up in the face of it.

If he’s right, there probably won’t be more than an hour or two between this brief interim of silence and the next onslaught of Monokuma’s video. In which case, he’d better get to work. He’d like nothing better than to be an observer in all of this, but that’s not going to happen if he gets roped into yet another trial. Circumventing the issue altogether sounds preferable to having to sit through yet another boring, uneventful execution.

No rest for the wicked, right? I guess it makes sense that I’m always working, then.

“Saihara-chan, can you draw?” While the others continue the discussion, he mumbles that question to the boy sitting next to him, too quiet to be overheard by anyone else.

The detective flinches in surprise at such a sudden, inexplicable question. Thankfully, everyone else is too exhausted and too focused on the conversation at hand to pay them any mind. “N-No,” he says cautiously. “Not at all. Why?”

That’s a shame. At the very least, it’s going to make things a lot harder on him. Thankfully, he already knows Saihara-chan is a fast learner.

He doesn’t answer his question. Instead, he says, “Grab a notebook and a pencil somewhere here in the library. Then we’ll sit together when the video comes on again. I think it’s about time you had some drawing lessons.”


“Wow… I never woulda thought a sad virgin like you could come up with somethin’ like this!”

Iruma-san stands peering down over the diagrams and plans that he’d given her. From behind her, Akamatsu-san lets out a cough that sounds suspiciously like an attempt not to laugh, after which she tries to look a little more disapproving.

“W-Well,” Saihara says evasively. “You know… something had to be done… so I thought, if it helps, then…”

It’s not a lie… technically. Something did have to be done, and he did think that this would help. It’s just that he isn’t the one who came up with any of this.

He glances just briefly at Ouma-kun, standing a little ways away from him in the middle of Iruma-san’s lab, but the other boy’s expression is as impassive as always. The whole place feels more like a mad scientist’s lair than a research laboratory for a high schooler, packed to the brim with gizmos and contraptions whose purpose even he isn’t sure of—and yet, the other boy looks simply uninterested.

Bored. Aloof. Like he’s only there for the sake of necessity, rather than because he wants to be. No one would ever think him capable of drawing those plans or diagrams, much less willing to do so in the first place.

Saihara turns back and takes another look at the diagrams himself, still hardly able to believe that he’s really looking at a set of plans to build a remote control that can hijack the school’s television system.

“Is this… really okay?” Akamatsu-san asks, gazing down curiously as she leans in for a closer look. “Will we really be able to just turn them all off or on whenever we want?”

Iruma-san’s head snaps up. Despite her obvious interest in the diagrams, her eyes are still noticeably swollen, the bags under her eyes too prominent for make-up to completely hide them. “What, do ya see any better options coming our way? ‘Cause last I checked, that goddamn bear just came and told us breakin’ school property was against the rules!”

Akamatsu-san winces. So does Saihara, for that matter. In fact, Ouma-kun is the only one who shows no noticeable reaction, instead looking aimlessly at the huge buzz-saw hanging from the ceiling.

Monokuma’s reappearance had been completely unexpected earlier, and hadn’t lasted longer than a few minutes. Just as Momota-kun, Gonta-kun, and Chabashira-san had been discussing the possibility of breaking the televisions one by one, in order to disable the speakers, the bear had popped up as though out of thin air, causing everyone in the room to jump. Some of their startled yelps had still been audible even over the sound of the video, still playing as inexorably as ever.

“Tsk, tsk! I can’t believe you’d all resort to vandalism just because of a little background music!”

No one had moved, though Momota-kun’s fist had trembled noticeably. If he’d risked it—if he’d taken a running start at Monokuma, Saihara is fairly sure something horrible would’ve happened, without a doubt. Thankfully, he hadn’t.

Monokuma had waved a paw disapprovingly, looking downright gleeful in the face of everyone’s misery and exhaustion. “Guess it’s true what they say—your generation really is shaping up to be a bunch of delinquents, huh? Well, I won’t stand for delinquency in my school, no sir! Sleep where you will, but destruction of school property is expressly forbidden in the meantime!”

As suddenly as it had come, it left, and only the slight vibration of their Monopads notifying them of an update in the school regulations was proof that it had been there in the first place.

Akamatsu-san rubs at the back of her head, trying to muster what little of her patience is left. It must be hard; the only reason she’s here is to keep an eye on Iruma-san as she works, the same way that Ouma-kun and he had come as a group to drop off these plans so that nothing went astray. It’s important, now more than ever, that none of them go anywhere unattended, since there’s no telling who might snap under pressure first.

“I know… that it’s not like we have any other options,” the pianist says slowly. She’s trying to stay calm, clearly, but Saihara can still see the slight clenching of her jaw. “I was just wondering if it was actually going to work or not.”

“What do I look like, a fuckin’ expert!” In the silence that follows, the realization that she is, in fact, the expert on the subject slowly sinks in, and Iruma-san flushes a little. “What I mean is, I’ve never made shit like this before. So let me try it out first before ya go askin’ me stupid questions!”

That’s not entirely true, though. If Ouma-kun’s story is to be believed, she’d made a remote control quite similar to this, powerful enough to hijack not only televisions but even the Exisals, too. Not that she’d remember it, though.

Saihara’s mind still boggles at the thought a little. The more he sees for himself, the more it really does sound… impossible. He can’t help but feel like he’s being made to eat his words, somewhat, for deciding to try and sort out the improbable from the impossible.

When the Monokuma video had come on once again, screeching through the speakers with an intensity that felt like it was trying to drill its way into his skull, Ouma-kun had sat down next to him in their corner of the library. And as the panic and tension had continued to grow, while everyone was distracted with the droning of the video and song, he’d looked pointedly at the pencil and paper in his hands, nodded his head, and… instructed him on what to do.

It had been hard to make out his voice over all the noise—even harder to actually draw something for functional purposes when he knew absolutely nothing about drawing. The most he’d ever done were a few scribbles for reference in the tiny notebook he kept in his breast pocket, which he sometimes (not often) used for his detective work.

But this had been another matter entirely, and every single mistake he’d made, he’d tried to painstakingly erase, only for the worn-out eraser to leave smudges all over the paper. Ouma-kun had looked at him with something surprisingly like impatience every single time this had happened, which had only made him feel more rushed, which in turn had only led to more mistakes.

The whole trial-and-error process had been a mess, thanks to his sweaty, nervous hands, and even now he’s not sure if it was the video itself or Ouma-kun’s scrutinizing stare that had caused him to feel more anxious.

And yet… if this plan actually worked, then it would certainly be worth it.

“Gimme another hour or two, and I can probably get somethin’ to work.” Iruma-san grumbles that begrudgingly after poring over the diagrams a little longer. “I can’t guarantee I can get all the kinks out in that little time, but I’ll get somethin’. And it’ll work.” She shakes her frizzing hair out, putting a hand on her hip. “It’ll work, ‘cause I’m the beautiful genius inventor, Iruma Miu, and I don’t tell any of the rest of you how to do your jobs, alright!? So just let me invent!”

Akamatsu-san blinks, completely at a loss for words. Finally, she just nods, either too tired to argue back or even, perhaps, just a little impressed at this surprising display of work ethic from… well, from someone like Iruma-san.

Saihara turns to leave and Ouma-kun follows—but just as his hand grips the handle, Iruma-san calls out to him.

“Hey, Suckhara! It’s pretty incredible you drew this shit! I didn’t know a detective could be any good at inventin’. And here I thought you were the type to just go sniffin’ around other people’s dirty bits!”

He resists the urge to flinch (only partially thanks to her last comment). Taking credit for something he didn’t do still feels wrong, somehow. It’s probably necessary, given the circumstances… but still. “It’s not… i-inventing, really. I just drew the plans,” he says. Partly, he’s just trying to justify it to himself.

He just drew the plans. Right. Plans which might very well save one life, or two, or all their lives right now. And the person who told him how to draw those plans is still right behind him, as unspeaking as his own shadow—or maybe a ghost would be a fairer comparison, since he takes up almost as little space as one.

It’s been more than a day since they left the bedroom together, and still he feels like some half-invisible, nearly-faded presence, only flickering into sight again whenever absolutely necessary.

Saihara leaves the room, still lost in thought.

---

They walk back through the school a little ways apart, the hallways of the building eerily silent now that the televisions have stopped their barrage of noise once again. It won’t last, of course, but that’s fine, as long as Iruma-san can finish the remote in the next few hours like she said.

The fading rays of sunset (assuming it really is time for the sun to set, and assuming that really is the sun) slant through the windows, reminding him of the day before yesterday. Ouma-kun isn’t leaning on his shoulders this time, but the walk still feels very much the same.

Even without the time limit pressing in on them, there are still the inescapable circumstances they’re caught up in, breathing down their necks. Still the same time of day, the same scenery. Still the same sense of distance between them.

At some point, Ouma-kun took the lead while they were walking, so now he trails a few paces ahead of him, his footsteps quiet despite the speed of his pace. Saihara can’t blame him for going on ahead; he’s probably walking much too slowly right now, trailing further and further behind as he keeps winding down the same trails of thought.

How much does he really know about this boy in front of him, by now? How much of what he told him can he really say he trusts?

He said not to expect anything from him. He said that he didn’t think any of this was going to work.

And yet, he’d also agreed that it was still good to try.

Before he even realizes it, Saihara’s feet slowly come to a stop. Ouma-kun trails a few more paces ahead of him, then turns and looks back at him when he no longer hears the sound of him following. He doesn’t look impatient this time, or inquisitive. Just tired.

“Ouma-kun, can we talk for a bit out here? Before we go back to the library, I mean.”

The hallways are ablaze with fading oranges and reds, the last washes of the setting sun casting long shadows against the cracks and creeping plant life sticking up through the floors and walls. The scene couldn’t be more different from that dark, empty bedroom. But this distance between them, the way the words linger in the air and fade—all of it still feels the same.

The other boy waits the length of a few heartbeats, unreadable, then turns back around. “Sorry, Saihara-chan, we already finished the question-and-answer session.” His tone is light, but there’s a finality to his words nonetheless. “We already talked. I don’t feel like talking anymore.”

There isn’t a door between the two of them any longer, but there might as well be. It’s there, invisible but impassable all the same, a firm but imaginary do-not-cross line in the air between them. No more discussion. No more questions. Period.

Saihara ignores it. His curiosity is getting far too out of hand, after this much time lost in his own thoughts—or maybe he’s just too tired to feel as anxious as he should right now.

After another moment of hesitation, he finally asks the question that’s been on his mind for some time now: “Isn’t that a lie though?”

The silence hangs between them, stretching as long as the shadows on the floor.


“Isn’t that a lie, though?”

Ouma stares. For a moment, he’s almost sure his ears are playing tricks on him. That’s not a phrase he expected to hear. It’s not a phrase he should be hearing, now of all times. Last time, the time before that, any of those others times, sure, but he’s gone out of his way to avoid telling any lies so far, ever since he woke up in that locker again.

He keeps his face completely immobile, but his words are like ice as he says, “What do you mean?” Perhaps this is Saihara-chan’s way of showing that he doesn’t trust him after all. That would certainly be the wiser choice.

“I mean, haven’t you been lying for a while now?”

His mouth sours instantly. This was the predictable response, to be sure, but perhaps he’d let the unexpected events of the last day and a half skew his expectations slightly. Even he didn’t think the detective would go back to being so predictable at a time like this.

“So you don’t believe me, then. You don’t believe the things I told you.” He states it matter-of-factly, but internally he wonders if he should’ve just stayed in his room yesterday when he had the chance after all.

But Saihara-chan just shakes his head. “That’s not it. I believe what you told me—well, I think it has to be true after… everything we’ve seen.” His right hand fidgets near his pocket, still slightly dirty with traces of graphite, smudged from all the marks he tried to erase and wipe away. “But weren’t you lying when you told me not to expect anything from you? Aren’t you actually expecting a lot of things yourself, Ouma-kun?”

Again, he stares. How is he supposed to respond, exactly?

“Weren’t you lying when you said you didn’t care?”

Ouma stands and faces him in the hallway, his heart thudding in his chest with an intensity he didn’t think it was still capable of. Is this anger? Is it frustration that he’s feeling? Another thud. Another.

Am I just afraid that maybe he’s right?

Why is he asking all these things, anyway? Why does he care?

“Saihara-chan,” he says. It’s a struggle to get any words out; his heart is thudding so painfully by now that it feels almost as though it’s lodged in his throat. “When I told you I didn’t care, that wasn’t some riddle for you to solve. There wasn’t any deeper meaning to it. I said I don’t care, because I can’t care.”

That’s the truth of it. The horrible, painful, inescapable truth. Lies were a mask, a façade, a shield of false compassion. Lies were a mercy. But the truth that he’s been thinking for some time now is that Ouma Kokichi died a long time ago in this game, and it’s only his body that keeps getting brought back.

Who could possibly have it in them to still care after seeing the things that he’d seen? After doing the things that he’d done?

It’s as ugly, blunt, and true of a confession as he can give to the other boy’s expectant look. Perhaps this is the only way he can get the detective to really understand, and to get off his case—

—but he just shakes his head and says the unbelievable. “No offense, Ouma-kun, but I don’t think you’re that good of an actor.”

“What?” He’s pretty sure that was an insult just now, but he can’t muster any venom in response. Only shock. It’s so unexpected that he only feels really and truly dumbfounded.

“I don’t think you’re as good of an actor as you think you are.”

Saihara-chan looks at him, and by now he’s lost track of how many times, ever since this game started, he’s come to the realization that he really, truly just can’t figure him out.

“You don’t think I’m a good actor.” Ouma repeats the words blankly, numb with astonishment.

The other boy nods. “You keep saying that you are. Maybe you were, even. But this… lack of caring, it feels more like an act to me. And not a very good one.”

Not a very good one? That’s almost laughable, he thinks. That’s definitely not what you thought about me last time.

“What’s the point in an act where you’re only lying to yourself?”

I still don’t think it’s good to lie to yourself, don’t you agree? The words come rushing back to him all at once, churning his stomach, souring his mouth even further.

Belatedly, he recognizes this speech for exactly what it is: provocation. Perhaps Saihara-chan isn’t very confrontational by nature, and perhaps this provocation isn’t even meant with bad intentions. But Ouma knows a test when he sees one.

This is a bluff, he realizes suddenly, his brain cooling down as logic takes over. Saihara-chan’s just bluffing. He’s lying.

In which case… he didn’t know anything about his behavior for sure. This was yet another theory from the great detective, a piece of reasoning he was putting forth only because he wanted it to be true. He was tentatively testing the waters, searching for proof to back him up.

Ouma reaches his decision instantly. A lie for a lie, then.

“Hey Saihara-chan,” he says, “have you noticed there’s no one else around right now?” The words come out smooth as silk, and it’s such a complete turnaround from his earlier behavior that he’s pleased to see the other boy startle.

“What about it?” Saihara-chan’s eyes narrow, as though trying to figure out what he’s up to.

“What, you can’t tell?” Ouma clasps his hands behind his back, leans forward onto the balls of his feet and then back again. “There’s no one around us at all, and we’re still a long ways away from the library.”

Silence.

His face splits into the usual, uncanny grin, as easily as putting on a coat that’s been worn a hundred times before. “I guess it’s pretty hard to fool a detective after all, huh? There’s no point, if you already know that I’m lying. But hey, you seem to have gotten the wrong idea as to what I was lying about.”

“The wrong idea…” Saihara-chan says slowly. The other boy swallows, hard, and there’s a part of Ouma that sings to see the sweat beading on his brow. “Okay, so what’s the truth then? What were you lying about?”

“I told you, didn’t I? That I could’ve been lying about all of it.”

More silence.

“Hey,” he says, “what do you think will happen if I just kill you here and now?”

There’s already more sweat than there was just a few moments ago. “E-Everyone...” His voice fails for a second, and he swallows again. “Everyone would know right away. We left together, they know you were with me. It wouldn’t be hard to guess.”

“Boo, only half-right.” Ouma gives him a mocking frown. “Sure, everyone would know, but that doesn’t really matter, since I’m the ringleader!”

Saihara-chan takes half a step back. Maybe the gesture was entirely unconscious, but he seizes onto that weakness without mercy. Corner, corner, check and mate.

“Here, I’ll just tell you, since Saihara-chan wasn’t enough of a detective to figure it out himself: I’d kill you. Then I’d never come back to the library. I’m the ringleader, so I’ve got plenty of places to hide. What, did you really think that hidden room in the library was the only one?”

He wonders what kinds of shadows the setting sun is casting on his face as he takes a step forward. Saihara-chan doesn’t take another step back this time—but he doesn’t come any closer, either.

“Ah, it’s kind of a shame to be found out so soon, but maybe this is actually for the best. Everyone’s pretty much already guessed that I’m the ringleader anyway. Maybe I overdid it with that whole ‘sickly, traumatized, emotionally numb’ routine? Either way, I thought I was going to die from boredom if I had to keep it up for one more minute.”

Liar, villain, ringleader—he steps into each role again as though he never left, welcoming back each one like an old friend. There’s a ringing in his ears and his heart won’t stop pounding in his chest, but he doesn’t care.

“I wonder how quickly everyone else is going to fall apart without Saihara-chan there to prop them up? I bet they’ll be in a pretty shabby state without their Super High School Level Detective. Oh, maybe it’d be even better if I made up some lie about there being a traitor in the group who was helping me out the whole time, too! People love obvious clichés like that, don’t they?”

Saihara-chan’s right hand, the one near his pocket, is trembling, as though he’s not quite sure what to do with it. Ouma presses forward, wondering absently just how much more bile he has to throw before the other boy will turn tail and run.

“Hmm,” he says, looking Saihara-chan over. His grin widens, stretching into a leer he hasn’t worn for some time now. “I guess just killing you now would be way too boring, though. How about this? I’ll give you a head start. You run, try and get back to the others to tell them about me, and then I still catch you and kill you at the last second. Doesn’t that sound way more exciting? Hey, Saihara Shuuichi? Tell me what you think, come on.”

Is this just his way of lashing out, because Saihara-chan was right? Is he only acting like this because he’s at a loss for any other way to respond? He’s not sure. He’s not sure at all, but he wants to keep doing it. What he’ll do after this, where he’ll go, it doesn’t matter—for once, he’s not interested in trying to think that far ahead.

He remembers the words Saihara-chan left him with so long ago, just after Gonta’s death. Poison is still poison, no matter how soft and how slow, and it seems like it’s only just catching up with him now. But he’s ready to admit that he certainly is the kind of person meant to end up pathetic and alone—

He stops smiling. He stops laughing.

At some point, Saihara-chan had lifted his trembling right hand, slowly, very slowly. That same hand is being held out to him now, reaching through thin air towards him.

“What are you doing?” The smoothness leaves his tone in an instant, and numb, hollow shock comes rushing back again.

The other boy takes a moment to respond. His hand is still trembling, faltering a little, but he doesn’t stop holding it out to him. “I… take it back,” he says finally. “You’re a really good actor, Ouma-kun.” He laughs weakly. It sounds more like a choked-back sob. “A really good one.”

Ouma stares from his face to his hand, then back again. Lies and taunts and threats come to mind one by one so effortlessly, but he can’t seem to put them into words.

“But you don’t have to act anymore. Not the way you were doing just now and… not about the stuff that I mentioned before, either.”

His hand starts shaking even more noticeably. By now, it looks like it must be paining him just to keep it outstretched. But he still doesn’t lower his arm, or take any other steps back.

Ouma stares and stares and stares, and wonders what on earth would ever make the other boy think that it was okay for him to take that hand. That he even had the right, to take that hand.

“You’ve been thinking about how to keep us all alive in this game more than anyone, but maybe it’s still wrong, to expect you to handle everything by yourself. You told me that… you already tried that, plenty of times.”

Why? Ouma thinks. His brain is stuck, refusing to come up with any other words beyond that one. Why, why, why?

“But you can’t… expect the rest of us to handle it all, either. Or even just me. There’s only so much I can do, b-but—all the ideas that’ve been saving us so far have come from you.”

Why? Why is this happening when it isn’t supposed to? Why is his hand still outstretched?

“I really do think this is going to work… but not if you keep acting like you’re not involved. So... please.”

Please. Please what? Saihara-chan doesn’t say anything more, but that hand speaks volumes for him. Please trust me, it says. Even if you can’t trust anyone else, at least trust me. Maybe then, I can trust you too.

Feeling numb all the way to his core, Ouma just shakes his head. Left, right. His neck doesn’t seem to want to move much.

He understands. He does, really. But there’s no way he can take that hand. He still doesn’t have the right to.

But instead of lowering it, Saihara-chan just keeps holding it out to him, ignoring the way that it’s shaking like a leaf.

Bewildered and speechless, Ouma finds himself stepping forward. One step. Then another. He wasn’t worried about consequences a few moments ago, when he was trying to drive Saihara-chan away. So perhaps it’s fine if he doesn’t worry about the consequences right now, either.

He takes the hand that’s reaching out to him, the same hand he has no right to grab, and holds onto it like a lifeline.

There was a time, once, when he mistook the sour taste in his mouth and the tightness in his throat for something else. That time, it turned out to be hollow, bitter laughter.

This time, in a surprisingly normal and predictable turn of events, he’s amazed to realize that those sensations are simply the usual symptoms before tears.

Chapter Text

Saihara stands on shaky legs, breathing slowly. Light gleams brilliantly through the barred windows, casting shades of fire on the overgrown, plant-covered floor and walls, although it grows dimmer with each passing minute as the sun continues to set.

Absentmindedly, he thinks to himself that his hand hurts.

It doesn’t matter, though. It’s such an unimportant, trivial thought—like carrying someone from a burning building and being preoccupied with the pain from stubbing your toe against the doorframe on the way out.

So he pays it no attention and simply stands there, trying to stay calm and still as Ouma Kokichi grabs his hand with a strength he didn’t know him capable of and cries until his eyes are dry.

He’s been crying for longer than Saihara’s been able to keep track of, though it’s not as though the length of time matters much either. For now, he just tries to move as little as possible. He’s afraid that if he takes one step, says one wrong thing, this moment between them might come to an end. This tentative… trust. Understanding. Whatever it might be called.

Somehow or other, Ouma-kun manages to cry without making much noise—which is perhaps fortunate for both of them, since he’s pretty sure the others would’ve long since come running upstairs from the library by now if they’d heard. There definitely wouldn’t be any easy way to explain this scene to the rest of them.

But instead, the other boy just keeps quiet and hangs his head, shaking from head to toe as dry sobs wrack his entire body. And every time a new one hits, he squeezes his hand even harder, as though it’s an anchor that’s holding him steady. Each time, there’s always a slight pang where he grabs it.

Instinctively, he searches for words and finds none. But he supposes that’s only natural—if there were anything to say, he’d have said it by now. He’s pretty sure he used up everything he had to say back when he first held out his hand to Ouma-kun. By this point, there aren’t really any words left. So he lets him cry, and the sun slowly but surely sinks further past the horizon of the dome, leaving evening hues behind that are tinged with more purple than red or orange.

After a while, the sobbing stops. The other boy breathes hard and heavy in front of him, still shaking on every inhale, but he doesn’t seem to have any tears left in him to cry. It’s a feeling Saihara can understand all too well, though he can’t remember the last time he got to that point.

Is that a good thing? he wonders. Maybe I just don’t remember because my memories are all messed up. Or maybe it really has been a long, long time since I cried like that.

Ouma-kun lets go of his hand, and they stand there in silence. The silence seems to be becoming something of a constant with them. Other than those intermittent, shaky breaths, there’s no noise at all for some time. Then, as though out of any better ideas, Ouma-kun leans against the wall and slides down to take a seat right there in the middle of the hall.

“Sorry,” he says. He doesn’t look up at him, or at anything else in particular.

Saihara swallows. “It’s… okay. I mean, y-you probably need to sit down after… after all of that. You should rest.”

“No. Not that.” The other boy shakes his head slowly, still not looking at him. “I’m sorry.” Pause. “I’m… sorry for before.”

In the quiet, empty hallway, he can almost hear those horrible words from earlier echoing through his head. He knows now that they were all lies, but that didn’t make them any less chilling and sinister. For a moment (really, not any longer than that) he’d actually wondered if he was about to be killed.

Vaguely, he wonders about the word “before.” Was he only talking about what had taken place between them just now? Or was he apologizing for… all of those other things he had mentioned, too? It seems strange, somehow, receiving an apology for things he himself has no memory of. Or more like things he has only faint, hazy memories of—things that still feel like by-gone dreams or scenarios he might have imagined when his mind was elsewhere.

What is he supposed to say, exactly?

He can’t think of anything, so Saihara follows the other boy’s lead and takes a seat on the floor himself, leaning up against the wall opposite Ouma-kun. It’s just as well; his legs could use a rest, as many times as they’ve almost given out on him in the last few days.

“That’s… okay, too,” he says at last. The words come from him slowly, and he’s not sure if it’s Ouma-kun who isn’t meeting his eye anymore or if it’s the other way around. “You weren’t… You didn’t mean it. So it’s okay—”

“If I’m a bad actor, then you’re a pretty bad liar yourself, Saihara-chan.” Ouma-kun cuts him off, his voice raspy after crying so hard and for so long. “It’s not okay. Nothing about what I did is okay.”

There’s a ring of truth to his words after so many lies. He knows for sure now that this isn’t simply about their time here in the hallway. “There were… a lot of factors,” Saihara reminds him quietly. “It’s not like anyone else has been through the same things you have…”

“What, you mean no one else is reliving things, travelling through time, and waking up in a locker like some third-rate psychological thriller?” The other boy snorts disbelievingly. “Yeah, I guess not. Maybe I should write a how-to guide on what-not-to-do for anyone else unlucky enough to get stuck in the same situation.”

Saihara attempts a smile, though he doesn’t doubt it must look more than a little strained. “Didn’t you tell me you did something like that for Momota-kun? You said you wrote him a script or something…” Try as he might, the image of Momota-kun sitting in an Exisal, reading cramped, tiny handwriting from a script the size of a telephone book and trying to pretend to be Ouma-kun sounds so ridiculous it’s almost funny. Even in this situation.

“Well that was more like a how-to guide on how to not blow the trial, but sure, I guess it counts…” The boy in white takes another deep, shaky breath, trailing one finger absently along a crack in the wall beside him. “Why do you even believe me, anyway?”

The words after everything I’ve done go unspoken, but Saihara understands them nonetheless. For the first time, the boy in front of him looks… almost lost, as though that question truly has him more shaken up than he’d like to let on.

It’s a fair question, too. Even he isn’t quite sure why, or if there’s even an answer at all.

He thinks about the slight ache in his hand from where Ouma-kun grabbed it too hard. That pain is still there—and with it, proof that there were, in fact, some things the other boy just couldn’t lie about. There hadn’t been any lies in that hand, or in those tears he’d cried. He’s sure of that much, at least. Perhaps that was something of an answer in itself.

“I feel like I’m getting to know you… just a little better,” he finally says. “That’s all.”

Maybe it’s only a step in the right direction, but it’s a step nonetheless. If he wasn’t making any progress at all… If he wasn’t at least partially right, then he wouldn’t have taken his hand, would he?

Ouma-kun is silent for a long time, looking down at his hands as though lost in thought, only shaking occasionally as he catches his breath. “Is that your ‘detective’s intuition’ or something?” he asks. He had asked it once before, back in that lightless bedroom. But he’s pretty sure that’s not why the question feels so familiar.

“Ah... I-I don’t know if I’d say that, exactly... I just felt like… well, that’s what friends do, right? Get to know each other.”

There’s an even longer pause. Saihara scratches at the back of his head uncertainly as the other boy seems to mull over the word “friends” like he’s never heard it before in his life.

After a while, Ouma-kun gives him a nod so slight that he’s almost sure he would’ve missed it if he’d blinked. Then he climbs unsteadily to his feet, and meets his eye for the first time since they stood facing each other in the hall earlier. For the first time since he took his hand.

“Can we go to the restroom before we head back?” He grimaces and gestures down at himself. “I’m not sure if you noticed, but I’m covered in snot and I look like a wreck, so I wanted to try and clean myself up a little.”

“Sure… Of course.” Saihara climbs to his feet too, taking note at last of how dark it’s become in the time that they’ve been talking. The sun is almost completely sunk, far below the horizon. “The televisions are probably going to turn on again soon, huh? We should get back before everyone starts worrying.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Even if they ask where we were, we can just say Iruma-chan was regaling us with her wit and charm. And toilet humor.”

A joke. It’s a joke. Just a small one, but it still helps to clear the air between them somewhat. Saihara even manages something that might pass for a laugh, and for the first time in the three days or so that he’s known Ouma-kun, he sees a smile on the other boy’s face. It’s faint and wry, but it’s definitely there.

That’s another step, he thinks. Another step in the right direction.

---

As soon as they reach the library, they’re bombarded with questions—which is about what he expected, considering how long they took.

“Where the hell’d you guys go!? Were you just talkin’ with Iruma and Akamatsu the whole time? Shit man, come back sooner next time! We were startin’ to get worried!”

“Hey, what did Iruma-san say? Did she say she could do it? How much longer is this going to take?”

“Saihara-kun, is there anything Gonta can do to help? These ‘remote control’ things sound kind of confusing… but still, Gonta wants to be useful to everyone!”

“We can sleep tonight, right? We’re not gonna have to spend another night awake the whole time?”

Saihara answers them one by one, his responses coming on autopilot rather than because he’s actually putting any deliberate thought or effort into them. Given that they’re all pretty much in the same boat, no one seems to mind. In fact, when he tells them that Iruma-san will probably have the remote (or something that passes for it) ready in a couple of hours, they all dare to look somewhat hopeful for the first time all day.

Thankfully, none of them seem to notice that Ouma-kun was crying. Or at least, no one asks any questions about it. If there’s a silver lining to be found in their current predicament, it’s probably the fact that no one has the time to spare such a small detail, and everyone else’s eyes are red and puffy from lack of sleep too—so the dark, swollen circles under the other boy’s eyes don’t draw any unwanted attention.

Not even five minutes after they’ve been back, the Monokuma video flares back up, reviving the headache that was resting somewhere in the back of his skull until it beats like a drum, matching with the rhythm of the song. This turn of events is admittedly predictable, but he still can’t hold back a sigh as he rubs at his temples wearily.

He considers taking an aspirin for the pain but decides against it; there are a number of medical supply kits in the warehouse, but it’s probably better to conserve them for more serious situations. If they run out of medicine any time soon, he doubts Monokuma is going to restock it for them—moreso in this situation where their misery is only to the bear’s advantage. As he tries to ignore the song and headache alike, he can’t help but notice that Ouma-kun doesn’t take an aspirin either.

“You could take one, if you want. You’re still recovering from that fever, it wouldn’t be a big deal if you had a little more medicine.” Saihara points this out, leaning against one of the corner bookshelves as the others come and go. Some of them are trying to keep themselves awake and energized by pacing around the room or attempting to hold a conversation, despite the distractions. Others, like Yumeno-san, are simply slumped over in their futons, sheets pulled over their heads in a desperate attempt to drown out the noise.

Ouma-kun watches the television screen evenly as the Monokuma video cycles through, then turns and quirks an eyebrow. “What, and miss all this fun? Seems a little unfair if I’m the only one not invited to the migraine party.”

“Th-That’s not what I—”

“I know, I know.” The other boy waves a hand placatingly. “Just my attempt at humor. It looks like I’m a little rusty though.” He shrugs and looks away again. While he certainly does look better than he did a few days ago, the general air about him still feels… sickly. He’s too skinny, too pale, and their current dilemma means that the bags under his eyes haven’t diminished in the slightest. To be quite honest, he looks like a stray breeze could knock him over.

“If you’re sure…” Saihara says.

Ouma-kun sighs. “Look, it’s fine. I’ve kind of gotten used to having my head hurt anyway—”

“Well, well, look who’s talking.”

Both of them startle a little, and he looks up to see Amami-kun standing over them. They both tense up, and the taller boy seems to notice because he quickly offers a conciliatory smile. It’s a little more stressed than his usual easygoing grin, but at least it’s an attempt, and Saihara allows himself to relax a little.

Amami-kun rubs the back of his neck with one hand. Tucked under his other arm is a familiar-looking Monopad—and Saihara is fairly sure he knows which Monopad, specifically.

“Wow, talk about bad timing on my part, huh? I was just a little surprised, so I wanted to crack a joke. Y’know, because you haven’t talked a lot.”

His words are aimed towards Ouma-kun, who’s now sitting stock still with a guarded lack of expression. No one is really at their most observant after going so long on so little sleep, but the smaller boy still seems wary.

Saihara can’t really blame him, either. Somehow, he has a feeling that behind that seemingly laid-back, flippant persona, Amami-kun might be a lot more perceptive than he lets on.

Amami-kun glances between the two of them, then looks Saihara’s way instead. “I had something I kinda wanted to run by you. Well, I want to talk to the rest of the group too at some point, when this whole thing’s wound down, but I figured for now I should talk to you first—both of you, I guess, since you’re together over here…”

Neither of them responds. They just wait, straining to hear more over the constant, rhythmic wailing of the Monokuma video.

The other boy trails off, clearing his throat. It’s hard to make out almost anything he’s saying over the noise of the video, but his low volume still seems deliberate, as though he’s trying to make sure no one else overhears them. “I thought it might be okay to talk, since we’ve got some time. But if you want, I can leave. Would that be better, or…?”

Saihara isn’t sure of what to say, so he looks over at Ouma-kun again. The smaller boy looks up at Amami-kun, his face unreadable, clearly thinking long and hard about something. After a few moments, he gives a slight shake of the head, showing he has no problems with it. Cautious though he looks, he must be just as curious to hear whatever it is the other boy has to say to them.

“Thanks.” Amami-kun takes a seat on the floor beside them, resting his Monopad atop his legs gently. The strained smile from earlier vanishes completely as he fixes both of them with an unusually serious look. “Saihara-kun, be honest with me. I know the other guys asked you just now, but… is Iruma-san really gonna be able to make that remote you mentioned?”

He’s a little taken aback. For all the build-up, that’s… a less surprising topic of conversation than he was expecting. “Y-Yeah,” he says cautiously, not quite understanding why he’s being asked to repeat something he thought he had already cleared up. “Yeah, she is.”

“She’s sure? Like, really sure?”

“I think so… Um, Amami-kun, is this something you’d rather talk about with Iruma-san, or…?”

“Nah.” He shakes his head. “Nah, that’s not it. She’s busy right now, and anyway, like I said, it’s somethin’ I wanna discuss with everyone at some point…” He curls his left index finger under his chin as the fingers of his right hand rub distractedly at the rings he’s wearing. “I just wanted to make sure she could actually build something… well, something like that.”

“Something ‘like that’…?” The other boy’s language seems intentionally vague.

Amami-kun shrugs. “Something complicated. Like, really complicated. I mean, sure, we’re all Super High School Levels here—” The corners of his mouth turn down, just for a moment. “—but whoever’s running this game has a lot of resources, right? Enough to have stuff like Exisals keeping watch on us and robot bears with their own AI programs. And technology that can mess with our memories,” he says, tapping his temple lightly.

Saihara straightens up a little against the bookshelf. “So you… believe me? About our memories?”

“Kinda hard not to, at this point. It’s not like I want to, but… it’s a lot easier to believe our memories were messed with on purpose rather than that I just got a really convenient case of amnesia, y’know?”

“Yeah...”

The taller boy shifts a little. “I figure, if you’re right about the whole memory thing, then... the other Monopad I told you guys about, this one here? It makes a lot more sense.” He lifts it up for emphasis. “I still don’t know why I have it or what it all means, exactly, but I can start to make a few guesses now.”

“What’s this about another Monopad?”

Ouma-kun’s sudden question is hoarse and nearly impossible to hear over the blaring noise, but Saihara still turns and stares in surprise nonetheless. It takes him a moment to remember that he only touched on the Monopad once, without ever actually explaining it to him. And even though the other boy had mentioned something about finding Amami-kun’s research lab in his story, he still probably didn’t know all the details. Not if Amami-kun was always already dead by the time he discovered it.

He pauses briefly at the thought that one of these boys in front of him is technically supposed to already be dead by now. Was supposed to be dead. Amami-kun seems so perfectly, genuinely fine as he sits and talks with them now—tired, perhaps, but fine.

Technically, if Ouma-kun’s story is to be believed… most of his classmates are supposed to be dead. If not now, then soon, in another matter of days, maybe weeks at most. It’s a disconcerting, almost sickening realization.

Talking to people who are supposed to be dead sounds strange and incomprehensible, a feeling not entirely captured by words. But as impossible (and improbable) as it sounds, he really does feel a jolt of painstakingly realistic nausea at the thought.

He shouldn’t be able to picture what Ouma-kun had described to him so easily, but… maybe he can. A little. And maybe it doesn’t feel quite so faint or hazy this time.

Saihara shudders a little, but the other two don’t seem to notice it. Amami-kun is still staring at Ouma-kun, looking equally surprised before he also comes to the realization that the other boy must not know almost anything about the other Monopad.

Maybe he had just assumed someone else would fill him in on the details, or maybe it slipped his mind completely to bring it up before this, considering everything else that was going on. Saihara had meant to tell him about it himself, before Monokuma’s latest motive had taken top priority and distracted him from everything else.

“Can I see it?” Ouma-kun’s usually-unreadable face now shows just a trace of… irritation. He must be miffed. Given the circumstances, Saihara is pretty sure he isn’t accustomed to being the last to know about these things.

Well, it wouldn’t hurt him to get a little more used to it… Probably.

The taller boy seems a bit lost, either because of Ouma-kun’s somewhat unexpected expression, or his question, or both. He curls his index finger thoughtfully under his chin once again as he considers—and finally nods, looking just a little apprehensive. “Well, this is what I wanted to bring up with you two anyway. Sure, go ahead. Take a look.”

Despite how small and shaky his hands look, Ouma-kun takes the Monopad with no hesitation, as firmly and steadily as if it belonged to him. Without waiting for any more encouragement, he flicks the tablet on, letting it cycle through its start-up function.

Saihara expects it to go straight to the map that Amami-kun showed them the other day—but stops suddenly at the sight of words loading on the screen.

He scoots closer, reading as best he can from the side as the other boy scrolls quickly through what seems to be an entire memo, never once slowing his pace. The contents of that memo are surprising enough; words like “ringleader” and “Super High School Level Hunt” jump out at him instantly. But most surprising of all is the sender, listed at the very bottom: from Amami Rantarou, to himself.

His head spins a little. He had thought the other boy had showed them everything there was to see on this Monopad, but this small little note blindsided him completely. “Wh-Why didn’t you mention this earlier?” he asks, swallowing hard. “Back when you were telling us about the map…”

Amami-kun has the grace to look just a little ashamed of himself. He twists his mouth for a moment before sighing. “I wasn’t sure how to explain it, so I just told you guys that I found the Monopad in another classroom when we were looking around the school, and that there was a map on it. I thought it’d make me look even more suspicious if I told everyone that I have a note from myself I don’t remember writing.”

“It would’ve.” Ouma-kun agrees, still not taking his eyes off the Monopad. “Everyone probably would’ve thought you were conspiring together with the ringleader.” He flicks to the side of the screen, poring over the map displayed there in great detail. “Except now, you have Saihara-chan’s theory about our memories to explain all of this. So it’s a lot safer to bring it up.”

That does make sense. Saihara nods slowly, trying to review their earlier actions as a group again with this newfound understanding. “So you not only knew about that hidden door to the ringleader’s lair because it was on the map, but because the note told you about it… The note guaranteed that the ringleader was in the school, and that they’d try to come here…”

Ouma-kun continues looking over the Monopad for a little while longer—probably comparing it with the layout of the school as he remembers it, Saihara thinks. Once or twice, his eyes pause on some spot or other, as though something’s caught his interest. But he says nothing, and once he’s satisfied he simply flicks the tablet off again and hands it back to its owner.

“…To be honest,” Amami-kun says, “I actually thought about coming here by myself, at first. I wasn’t sure if what was in this note was complete bullshit or not… Kinda hoped it was, y’know? Would’ve made me feel less nervous about myself.”

There’s a pause, uninterrupted by anything else save for the same old noise of the Monokuma song. Then he continues.

“…But I thought if push came to shove, I’d have no choice but to check and see for myself. It wasn’t until we all started discussing what to do about the time limit as a group, trying to come up with something… that I felt like maybe I should take a chance and try bringing up the map.”

“Was it just a hunch?” Saihara asks, thinking absently about memories that don’t feel like memories.

“Yeah. Just a hunch I had.”

An awful lot of us seem to have been getting these “hunches” lately, he thinks. Maybe what I told Ouma-kun was on the right track after all.

“So why tell us now?” Ouma-kun asks, interrupting his train of thought. “If you’re going to tell the whole group the truth about the note you wrote to yourself sooner or later, why not just wait until then? What’s so important that you had to talk to us about it before anyone else?”

Those words seem to mask another, more barbed question, but he doesn’t voice it just yet as he waits for Amami-kun’s answer. The irritation from earlier is gone, replaced by a more familiar mask of caution and suspicion. But unlike earlier (even just earlier this morning) Saihara feels like there’s a definite sense of interest in his tone and expression alike.

The taller boy looks around briefly, as though to once again make sure that no one is listening in on their conversation. But that’s all but impossible with the video playing, so he turns back around and tells them: “I wanted to know if Iruma-san could make something that would get us into other parts of the school.”

“…Huh?” Saihara’s voice comes out more startled than he intended.

“Well if she can make something that can hijack the televisions, she can probably hijack other stuff too, right? Either way, she’s hijacking the ringleader’s technology. And if she could find a way to get past the stuff that’s blocking us off from other parts of the school, then…”

“…Then we could go just about anywhere that was off-limits.” He understands. “The other floors, the blocked-off buildings…”

“…Or even a certain off-limits spot that’s in this very room with us,” Ouma-kun says. His eyes dart towards the bookshelf across the room, behind which there’s a hidden door they’re all too aware of.

Amami-kun nods. “Exactly. I think we’d definitely find some clues that way, don’t you?”

Saihara brings a hand to his chin and nods slowly. That much is undeniably true. He can guess a little more now about the other boy’s behavior, the pieces all slowly fitting together in a way that makes them become comprehensible. “You didn’t want everyone to know at once because the ringleader is supposed to be hiding among us…” Something occurs to him, then. “But why did you rule me out?”

The taller boy blinks as though surprised, then grins a little sheepishly. “Well, I guess I can’t, completely. But I thought since you were the one pissing Monokuma off the most, it stood to reason that it probably wasn’t you.”

“And me?” Ouma-kun asks. Saihara isn’t sure if it’s intentional or not, but there’s a certain dryness to his tone.

“Haven’t ruled you out completely yet either,” Amami-kun admits. “But if the ringleader really is one of us… I dunno, I don’t feel like they’d be the most obviously suspicious person. It’d make sense for them to hide themselves a lot better, wouldn’t it?”

There are holes in that logic, but then again, there would be holes in just about any other theory he could make. None of them have any clear idea of who the ringleader actually is, so there’s nothing to say to that really.

“Plus, hey,” the other boy continues, “I don’t wanna go around labeling anyone else as a suspicious guy right off the bat. I know how it feels, after all.” He knocks lightly against his forehead, a brief joke before he returns to the serious mood at hand. “Anyway, as long as Iruma-san really can make it, then it shouldn’t matter even if the ringleader knows, since we’ll all still be keeping an eye on each other. I just wanted to make sure it was… y’know, possible.”

Saihara nods again, more strongly this time. “I think it’ll work. I think she can definitely make something, once she’s done with the remote. Even if it might take a while…”

“You’re sure, yeah?”

He remembers all the items Ouma-kun told him about: hammers and bombs, bug-catchers and drones… “She can do it,” he repeats firmly. “Call it a hunch.”


Not long after their conversation comes to a close, Amami-chan excuses himself and stands up to pace around the room. He stops near a bookshelf that’s too close for comfort to the one where his corpse was found every time, pulling a few books off the shelf and examining them with a great deal of (feigned) interest.

Most likely, he’s just trying to keep himself awake and preoccupied while they wait for more news—but the place where he’s standing still rubs him the wrong way. Ouma watches him closely, but no matter how long he waits, a steel ball doesn’t come rolling down from the shelf above him, and the other boy’s skull stays decidedly intact. Eventually, he looks away.

As he mulls on what Amami-chan told them, he gnaws at his thumbnail, the gears of his brain slowly spinning back up to something like their old, familiar tempo. It’s a gesture he once reserved for the times when he stood in front of his old whiteboard. But he doesn’t have a whiteboard now, much less a room of his own or any privacy, so he sits where he is and tries to sort through the information they’ve been given.

A second Monopad—the long-awaited second survival privilege he heard about in Amami-chan’s video message. The ringleader’s lair. Iruma-chan’s inventions. The possibility of perhaps finally starting to rule a few people out from the notion of suspicion…

He thinks long and hard about the hidden room. It’s true that Iruma-chan’s inventions could easily breach any off-limits areas. In the past, however, he never tried gaining access there, even though he might have been able to with the hammers. But the possibility that the ringleader might’ve seen him coming and set some trap for him there had always been far too high for him to risk it.

A king was never left unprotected in chess. A stronghold was never left unfortified. As long as he couldn’t rule out the possibility that the ringleader or some snare of theirs was waiting on the inside, he hadn’t been able to make any progress in that direction. But this time, the ringleader should be on the outside, with all the rest of them.

There was also the matter of Amami-chan’s… hunch. Little by little, these hunches seemed to be piling up to create a new script entirely. He thinks vaguely about memory, dreams, the subconscious. Where did memories go when they were overwritten? Theoretically, nowhere. But he himself still has plenty of memories that “shouldn’t exist” anymore, considering all the contradictions they posed.

Maybe Saihara-chan’s little theory was right. He’s not sure why that possibility irritates him as much as it intrigues him.

As his mind continues spinning through information and branching possibilities, he decidedly avoids thinking about what happened back in the hallway. But suddenly, there’s an interruption to his thoughts.

“Aren’t you… chewing a little too much?”

Ouma pauses mid-chew at his thumbnail, putting his thoughts on hold as he looks over at Saihara-chan. Then he looks pointedly at the detective’s shaking leg, which keeps jostling up and down nervously, almost in-tempo with the beat of the Monokuma video.

“A tad hypocritical of you to be policing other people’s nervous habits, don’t you think?” he asks. He tries keeping his tone light, but the video is far too loud and his throat is still far too raspy for him to manage. He probably sounds more severe than he intended.

The other boy looks down sheepishly, though his leg still doesn’t stop moving. “I, um… It’s just, I used to chew my nails, too. It got really bad at some point, so I had to start reminding myself not to do it anymore. So I guess I kind of… got carried away.”

Ouma examines the other boy’s nails. The neat, rounded edges look fairly well-taken care of, unlike the short, jagged corners of his own. It doesn’t seem as though he’s gone back to that vice in a while—but he can imagine it nonetheless. Saihara-chan certainly seems like he’d be a nail-biter.

“Are you trying to tell me that me biting my nails makes you anxious?” He arches his eyebrows a little, feigning bemusement.

“Um… Th-That’s not… I, uh…”

“It’s just another joke, Saihara-chan,” he says, more gently this time. “Besides, plenty of things I do make you anxious. This wouldn’t be the first time.”

Saihara-chan lets out a weak sigh, apparently unable to deny that much. But even though his leg keeps bouncing up and down all the while, he looks just a little less on-edge than before.

Ouma is still biting at his nails when the television suddenly shuts off completely, without warning.

Everyone in the room freezes, uncertainty lingering in the air. No doubt, they all want it to be Iruma-chan’s doing—the looks on their faces say as much. But there’s no way to tell for sure, and the sudden, ringing silence could just as easily be another part of Monokuma’s ploy, just like it’s been all day.

They wait in silence for a few moments, uncomfortable and exhausted. It’s pretty clear none of them want to think about the possibility that those televisions might come back on again soon after this.

But before too long, they suddenly hear a far-off sound. It wouldn’t be audible if the video were still playing, but in the hushed tension of the library, they can hear it clearly: the sound of footsteps at a run, heading down the stairs, coming closer. That, and… a rather familiar cackle.

The door to the library flies open all at once and Iruma-chan barges in, whooping. “Hya-ha! What d’ya think of that, you sons of bitches!?” Clenched tightly in her hand is a small, black device. A remote, from the looks of it.

“Iruma-san…?” Shirogane-chan stares at her wide-eyed, wringing her hands together. She seems to be at a loss for how to react; this certainly wasn’t what anyone expected, when they pictured their dilemma being solved. They’re still unsure if it even is solved. “Does this mean…?”

“No shit, glasses-girl! Do ya think I’d be back in here yelling about it if it didn’t fuckin’ work!? Look at that TV! Silent as the fuckin’ grave, not a peep out of it! That thing won’t turn itself back on until I let it—just like a guy in the sack!”

Everyone in the room continues to stare at her, far too busy hoping that she’s telling the truth to even react to her usual comments.

Iruma-chan puts her hands on her hips, tips her head back, and laughs. And laughs. And laughs. The noise is high-pitched and infuriating—or it would be infuriating, if she hadn’t just proven once again how incredibly useful her talent could be. “How about it!?” she yells, stomping one boot on the rough wooden floor. “Do you understand now, just how amazingly beautiful, smart, and talented I am!? I’ve got the whole damn package! Come on, ya cockroaches, bow down!”

Akamatsu-chan comes into the room right after that as though on cue, panting heavily. They hadn’t heard her footsteps, this time; Iruma-chan’s cackling had drowned her out.

“I told you not to run on ahead, Iruma-san! Sheesh…” She puts her hands on her knees as she catches her breath before straightening back up. “Sorry about her—she started shouting this kind of thing back in the lab as soon as she got the televisions to turn off, and then she bolted before I could stop her.”

“Big deal, so I ran on a little ahead of you! All of ya should be down on your hands and knees grateful that I’m doin’ anything here—”

She doesn’t get anything else out before everyone starts chattering at once, the tension in the room replaced by a different, more enthusiastic energy. Before Iruma-chan can register what’s happening, nearly everyone starts talking at once.

“Iruma-san, thank you! Thank you so much!”

“I can’t believe you pulled it off, Iruma! Damn, that’s amazing!”

“Akamatsu-san, you too, thank you so much for going with her. The two of you did so much—”

“Yeah, and Saihara-kun’s plans made it all possible, too—”

Honestly, he wouldn’t mind staying seated. But that in itself would probably draw more unwanted attention than it was worth. And in any case, he supposes it really is a cause for celebration. So Ouma stands a little ways back from the rest of them and watches—as do a few of the other, less sociable members of the group, like Hoshi-chan and Harukawa-chan.

Most of the others are front and center though, trying to convey their thanks; despite being considerably shorter than Iruma-chan, Angie-chan nonetheless throws her arms around her and squeezes so tight that she even manages to lift her a few centimeters off the ground before putting her back down. Iruma-chan flushes a shade that’s nearly as pink as her outfit and stumbles back a few steps, suddenly looking much sweatier than before.

“Y-Yeah… Yeah, that’s more like it.” Her voice comes out a squeak, contradictory to her words. “B-Be grateful, all of you…”

Akamatsu-chan puts a hand on her shoulder, to which the other girl also jumps in response. “I think we’re all thankful here, Iruma-san. Like, really thankful. You did great.” Her smile is weary but sincere.

Iruma-chan flushes an even deeper shade of pink and seems incapable of saying anything at all after that.

Considering how many times she’d done it before, Ouma hadn’t doubted in the slightest that she could make the designs he crafted into a reality. Still, some part of him is still relieved to see that it worked after all.

At this point, even he’s willing to admit that just about everything in their current situation is an undefined variable. Even he doesn’t necessarily know how things might turn out from this point on.

If she’d gone along with my plan for the hammers and bombs, would that have worked out, too? Would we have ended the game at that point, if she hadn’t decided she needed to get out of here so badly?

He can’t really hold her lack of cooperation against her, though. Not when he was hardly the picture of the word cooperative himself. And even if he still remembered clearly the numbness he had felt just before she had brought the hammer down, the fear of starting over again one more time—well, he’d gone and killed her too. So that made them even.

…Or not. He’d planned her and Gonta’s deaths with an icy, meticulous level of practicality that still left him chilled to the bone if he thought about it too long.

He watches the rest of them crowd around and thank her, still causing her to stammer and tremble at every nice comment that comes her way. She’s weak in the knees, half-drunk on the praise she’s getting now, but he doesn’t doubt she’ll be right back to her usual, haughty self as soon as she’s had a good night’s sleep. Or maybe she’ll bounce back even sooner.

The longer he watches, the more he thinks that perhaps it’s just as well that he’ll never know how his plan with the hammers might’ve turned out. Half of those people crowding around her right now wouldn’t have even been alive at the time he’d come up with it. Half of them wouldn’t have even been able to participate.

They’re alive now, though. Some (like Amami-chan, like Akamatsu-chan) were already supposed to be dead, and yet—here they are, alive.

Perhaps it’s time to try and draw up new plans for this new script. Perhaps, since there’s no whiteboard here for him to bounce ideas off of, he could try running his ideas past Saihara-chan instead.

He looks at his hand, with its too-short, uneven nails. Despite his best efforts not to, he still finds himself thinking about what happened in the hallway. After all: it’s the same hand.

“Well,” he mutters inaudibly, under his breath, “what are friends for?”

---

In the chaotic sleeplessness of the last few days, their original night shift schedule had gotten rather muddled. Eventually they settle down enough to discuss how to start it back up again, to which Iruma-chan has exactly one thing to say—

“Do whatever the hell you suckers want, as long as I get to sleep through the whole damn night tonight.”

“Seconded.” Yumeno-chan speaks up so fast in agreement that her usual sleepy mumbling seems like a lie. Now that the excitement is wearing off, she looks wobbly on her feet, as though she might actually pass out if she doesn’t get to sleep soon.

Ironically, the entire dilemma seemed to have made the two of them forget about their fight from the other day entirely. There’s a certain level of irony to the whole thing, considering that little squabble of theirs had only started in the first place because they’d gotten stuck with the first night watch.

Who knew that all it took to make them stop fighting over a lack of sleep was an even bigger lack of sleep, Ouma thinks. Now there’s a solution that won’t work twice.

But at the very least, no one had died. Yet. Still. …He’s not sure which of those two words is more appropriate. Either way, it was rare enough in this game that crises like this were ever averted without someone paying with their life.

“I see no problems with letting Iruma-san’s group rest for the night,” Shinguuji-chan says. Despite the fact that he usually seemed to prefer standing (or at the very least, sitting in a chair), even he’s sitting on the floor by now. No one has the energy to keep standing up or pacing anymore, now that that song isn’t fueling them with constant fear and adrenaline.

Hoshi-chan thumbs at his candy cigarette. “Sounds fair to me. As hard as she worked, I think they’re all more than entitled to a good night’s rest.”

No one has any objections. As expected, no one wants to wear out their newfound trump card on the off-chance they need to use her talent again. And he doesn’t doubt they will, soon enough.

“Iruma-san’s group aside, which two groups should take on the night shifts for tonight?” Ever the voice of reason (true to his robotic pragmatism, Ouma thinks), Kiibo moves on to the main issue at hand.

Toujou-chan clears her throat lightly to grab everyone’s attention. She’s still trying to look the picture of a perfect maid, sitting primly, her legs folded under her, her hands clasped atop her skirt. He knows, though, that she must be just as tired as the rest of them—not that she’d ever admit it.

“If need be, our group could probably step in,” she says. “I don’t mind, if it gives everyone else the chance to recuperate.”

There’s a very hesitant pause. Everyone looks incredibly tempted to take her up on that offer.

But her group took a shift just yesterday, at the expense of even less sleep than they might otherwise have gotten. While he doesn’t doubt she and Harukawa-chan might be able to go another night on even less sleep than everyone else, he’s not so sure about Shirogane-chan or Akamatsu-chan.

Ouma throws a glance in Saihara-chan’s direction, trying to get his attention subtly. It takes the detective a few moments to notice, either because he’s so focused on the conversation at hand, or maybe just because he’s so tired. But he finally looks over and gives him a quizzical stare when he notices his eyes on him. By now, at least, he seems to have realized that he doesn’t do this sort of thing without a particular message in mind.

He looks back over at Toujou-chan’s group, then back at the detective again, giving his head a miniscule shake. Our group, he mouths soundlessly.

It means yet another night of less sleep than usual for them, but it doesn’t matter much. Not to him, anyway. Currently he’s used to no sleep whatsoever, so any sleep at all is a step up from that.

The rest of his group might not hold up nearly as well, Saihara-chan included, but hopefully they’ll get more than enough sleep tomorrow night instead to make up for it. That is, assuming Monokuma doesn’t have an even more horrible motive in store for them by then.

Saihara-chan catches on pretty quickly. He doesn’t seem opposed to the idea itself—merely hesitant to speak up, for some reason or other. Ouma watches him open his mouth, as though to say something to him instead. But then the other boy just closes it and shakes his head slightly before addressing the rest of the group.

“U-Um,” he says, and everyone turns to face him at once. He looks more than a little put off by the attention, but presses on regardless. “That’s okay, Toujou-san. Your group should get some rest tonight, too. You’re all probably really tired, it wouldn’t be fair for you to do another shift two days in a row… Our group can take the first shift.”

Neither Kiibo nor Hoshi-chan disagree with that proposal, though they look just as tired as the others. Well, to be honest, he expected as much. No one seems to have any problems with that suggestion either, when it’s put forward as “Saihara-chan’s plan.” Perception is everything, as it turns out.

“Okay, so then Gonta’s group will take the second shift, right?” Gonta asks curiously. The one sitting closest to him is Momota-chan, so that’s who he decides to look at for affirmation.

Ouma had assumed the astronaut-in-training would’ve been throwing loud, jarring interruptions into the conversation long before this—but it seemed like he had dozed off.

Momota-chan’s head jerks up suddenly, as though he was nodding off with it at an uncomfortable angle on his shoulder. “Y-Yeah,” he says. He looks around with wide eyes, not-so-subtly trying to catch his bearings. “That sounds about right. Yeah.”

Shinguuji-chan narrows his eyes slightly. “Were you listening, Momota-kun?”

“O-Of course… Sure, I was listening!” He slaps his cheeks a little, looking somewhat more awake. “I was just, uh. You know. Gettin’ a micronap in. You’ve gotta know how to make all the sleep you can get count when you’re training to become an astronaut.” He coughs loudly when it’s clear no one’s buying it, and changes the subject. “So, we’re uh… taking the second shift, right? I got no problems with that. Wouldn’t be manly to say no, would it?”

“Actually, being irresponsible and slacking off is exactly what I’d expect from a menace like yourself…” Chabashira-chan looks thoroughly unimpressed.

“I told you already, I was just micronapping! That ain’t irresponsible!”

It’s a little different from their original arrangement, but they successfully manage to sort out the night shifts again. Everyone breathes a weary sigh of relief. Even if tomorrow holds something even worse in store for them, they still overcame a nearly impossible situation. For right now at least, getting even a few more hours of sleep is the most important thing on everyone’s minds.

They go in groups to the bathrooms, taking turns to change their clothes and brush their teeth. Once everyone is ready, the overhead lights go off, and most of his classmates are asleep before their heads even hit the pillow of their futons.

---

Ouma listens to the sounds of steady, gentle breathing (and occasional snores) for a while. He considers actually reading a book by lantern light this time, just to keep himself a little more awake, but in the end he decides it’s unnecessary.

Self-control has never been a problem for him, even at his weakest. So if he tells himself not to fall asleep, he won’t. It’s as simple as that. …Or it used to be, anyway.

He’s not surprised at all this time around when, after a few long minutes, he feels a gentle tap on his shoulder. When he turns around, Saihara-chan is there, sitting much closer to him now. They’re far enough away from Kiibo and Hoshi-chan that they won’t be overheard, as long as they keep their voices to a whisper.

“How are you doing?” the detective asks softly. Ouma doubts he’s just referring to his fatigue.

“I’m okay,” he says. His answer comes too quickly, before he can really stop to debate whether he’s telling the truth or not. After lying for so long, it’s hard even for him to tell when he’s being truthful. Or what the “truth” would even be, in a situation like this.

Saihara-chan can’t possibly understand (there’s no way he ever could, even if he took everything about his story at face value), but he still knits his eyebrows a little. “Are you sure…?”

I guess I can’t blame him for wanting to check, Ouma thinks. I threatened to kill him earlier today. Then I went and had a complete breakdown all over him. It’s a miracle he doesn’t think I lost my mind.

He keeps quiet this time, then shrugs a little in response.

On the one hand, they’re all somehow, for some reason, still alive. So in that sense, he’s okay. Probably.

On the other hand, he’s still not sure what’s in store for them. He’s not even entirely sure why he came out of his room in the first place. Or why he took Saihara-chan’s hand. In that sense, he’s decidedly not okay.

There’s another long silence between them, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. It’s simply… quiet. Then, as though unsure how to change the subject, Saihara-chan speaks up again. “There are, um… there are marks. On your hands…” His voice is so quiet he has to strain to hear it, even in the near-total silence of the library.

Instinctively, Ouma clenches his left hand as though it’s been stung, then flexes it back open. For a moment, he considers crossing his arms, hiding his hands completely from view. But that would be completely pointless, if the other boy already caught on.

Well, of course he caught on. He was a detective, after all.

In the dim lantern light, they’re hard to make out. Most people wouldn’t notice them, much, unless they were looking very closely. It’s hardly any easier to see them now than it was in the total darkness of his bedroom, but they’re there nonetheless: faint, white, half-worn marks on the fingers of his left hand. They look almost as though they might’ve been left by a small blade of some kind.

Those aren’t the only ones, though. On his right hand, there are marks too. Rather than scars, they look like bruises. Tiny, purplish, clustered particularly around the parts of his fingers where he might hold something to write with. Like, say, if he’d been holding something way too hard and writing for hours on end with it. A pen, maybe. Or a whiteboard marker.

He had almost forgotten. Or maybe he simply hadn’t wanted to think about them. They’re hardly visible in the first place, smooth and worn away as they are. In this lighting, he doubts anyone would actually notice them by accident.

Something occurs to him. “You noticed in the hallway,” he says. It’s not a question.

Saihara-chan pauses. Then nods. “I thought… um, I thought I saw something similar. On your neck. The other day, after you went to go change clothes…”

Ouma remembers the curious glance the other boy had thrown his way back then, right before he’d pulled up his scarf and continued walking.

“I thought maybe it was just my imagination, but earlier… I noticed your hands looked… kind of the same.”

Of course. He’d been holding onto his hand so tightly, it was only natural that Saihara-chan would’ve looked at his hands sooner or later. And the lighting in the late afternoon sunset of the hallway would’ve made it easier to see them, probably.

“If it’s okay for me to ask… what are those marks, exactly?”

Ouma looks at him long and hard, debating on what to tell him. He considers just staying silent, the way he’s been doing for the last few days whenever there’s something he doesn’t feel like responding to. Silence is always an appealing option: it’s so simple to just keep his mouth shut. No lies or truth involved.

He clenches his left hand open and closed again, remembering the slightly rough texture of bandages that aren’t even there anymore. Technically he hasn’t worn them at all, this time. He probably won’t get a chance to wear them, either—he has no more intentions of throwing any games for the sake of leaving hints that won’t even be noticed. It’s not like he could get his hands on a knife anyway in this situation, even if he wanted to. Which he doesn’t.

Finally, he sighs and looks away. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he admits. It’s not a happy admission. “I don’t know either. They’re just sort of… there, sometimes. After I start over again.”

Reminders…? Leftovers…? He’s not sure if there’s a good word for them. They’re impossible, sure, but then just about everything he’s been experiencing is downright impossible. It still doesn’t change the fact that he’s been waking up in a small, dark locker every time he dies. Or the fact that he has bruises and markings all along his body, barely visible but still there, the only testimony left to the fact that he’s repeated this game again and again besides the memories in his head.

He remembers the feeling he had when his fever was at its worst, almost as though his body itself was at its limit. As though his mind itself was breaking down. Maybe that was closer to the truth than he knew. These marks might very well be proof of that.

I guess it’s a good thing my uniform and scarf covers everything up, huh? Well, almost everything.

Saihara-chan doesn’t call him crazy, or a liar. Maybe he should, but he doesn’t. He just nods. “Are they from… uh… are they… from when…?”

It doesn’t seem like he’s sure of how to phrase his question. He tries looking for the most tactful option, can’t find one, and trails off, looking somewhat embarrassed by his own curiosity.

Still, Ouma understands what it is he wants to say. His mouth twists sardonically. “Some of them, yeah. Now that I think about it, your good old friend Harukawa-chan left more than her fair share, probably.” The ones on his neck come to mind, but he thinks there might be a new one on his back, faint and round like an arrow tip. He doesn’t know for sure, though, given that it’s not an easy place to check.

Saihara-chan looks like he doesn’t know how to respond to that. He averts his eyes uncomfortably, his fingers momentarily clenching atop his knees.

Ouma’s brief moment of sadistic pleasure is replaced by a pang of guilt as soon as he sees that. He wonders why he even felt the need to make that comment in the first place. Did I just not get enough of being horrible once today? he wonders. Maybe I’m just too used to it.

The detective still won’t meet his eye, so he speaks up instead. “Sorry,” he says. Up until earlier today, it had been such a long time since he last said that word and meant it. Now he seems to be saying it quite a lot. There are so many things he’s done lately that apologizing would never compensate for; this is just one of those rare occasions where it happens to be different. “I guess that wasn’t fair. It’s not even like you two know each other that well, this time around.”

It wasn’t like Saihara-chan had made her go stick a poisoned arrow in his back, either. Probably. Unless he was the ringleader…

He buries that thought deep down, refusing to follow it any further. It’s too late to indulge that possibility. It’s been too late ever since he made up his mind earlier this afternoon, there in the hallway.

The other boy relaxes just a little, though his eyes stay fixed on a point on the floor. “I’m… sorry too. That she killed you, I mean.” He pauses. “I mean, it’s true that I don’t really know Harukawa-san very well yet, but… I’m sorry it happened, anyway…”

Ouma would snort through his nose, if he didn’t already know that it would draw Kiibo and Hoshi-chan’s attention. Instead, he clicks his tongue softly. This bad habit of Saihara-chan’s he’s familiar with, at least. “Please. What do you have to be sorry for?” he asks. “Besides, it’s not like I didn’t have it coming.”

“…Eh?” This time Saihara-chan does meet his eye. And he stares at him like he’s grown three heads.

“I told you already, remember? You all thought I was the ringleader. It’s not so surprising, when you take that into account.”

“Maybe it’s n-not surprising, no…” The other boy speaks slowly. “But that still doesn’t mean you… ‘had it coming.’ Not entirely.”

Ouma arches one eyebrow skeptically.

“You… um, uh. Even if you did things—horrible things—” He doesn’t even seem sure of what it is he wants to say himself. “I mean… you died,” he finally blurts out, looking bewildered.

“Yeah. And if you’re asking me if I wanted to, the answer is no.”

The words come easily, but even he’s not sure if they’re a lie or not. In the last few seconds under the press, he definitely had the clear, resonant thought that he didn’t want to die. Perhaps it was stupid or selfish of him to fear it, but even a temporary death always brought a new world of pain with it. If he had his way—then no, he’d rather not die.

But he also remembers how easy it would’ve been to drink that antidote himself. To let Harukawa-chan and Momota-chan die in his place, to keep going with his plans for a stolen gameboard... And yet, he didn’t pick that option.

He decides he doesn’t like that train of thought either, so he continues talking. “Anyway, all I’m saying is that I brought it on myself. Harukawa-chan just happens to be especially good at killing people, that’s all.” And an incredibly stupid, gullible pawn, he almost adds. But those words probably wouldn’t add to the sincerity of his apology, so he keeps his mouth shut.

Saihara-chan is still just staring at him, dumbstruck. He looks as though something just occurred to him. “You really don’t think people can change, do you?”

He’s fairly sure he’s heard those words before. No, he definitely did. Once, in the dark, moonlit entryway to the dorms. Ouma would ask if he’d had any interesting chats with Momota-chan lately, except he knows he probably hasn’t. Not this time anyway.

“Even after all of… this,” the other boy says, gesturing vaguely at the library, their sleeping classmates in general. “No one dying yet. Amami-kun’s second Monopad. After—” He cuts himself off, looking suddenly, extremely tired. “…After what happened earlier. And you still think other people can’t change.”

‘Can’t’ or ‘won’t’, Ouma’s not really sure. He shrugs, not denying it. It’s true that he doesn’t want all his plans to hinge on the idea that people might change, maybe. Trust is always a bet, regardless of how well you think you know someone, and he’s the type to leave as little room in his plans for chance or risk as possible.

Saihara-chan’s next question is even quieter than before. “What about those marks, then?”

“What about them?” He’s not sure why the other boy would suddenly bring up a topic he thought was behind them by now. Even if it might be worth discussing in more detail later on, he certainly doesn’t see how it’s relevant right now.

“What if other people have them, too?”

Impossible, he wants to say. He bites his tongue instead and says, “They don’t.”

“Did you ever check? Did you ever look at anyone else to see if there was some kind of mark on them? Some kind of… I don’t know. Something left behind, I guess. In theory, every experience leaves its own impression on people, right?”

“No one has anything like that,” he repeats. That same, lingering feeling of irritation is starting to come back to him now. He’s pretty sure it’s far too late for them to be having an entire whispered argument like this, after days of almost no sleep whatsoever.

“That’s what you said about other people remembering things, too.”

Ouma goes silent at that.

“Isn’t it…?” Saihara-chan opens his mouth, then closes it, thinking better of whatever it is he was about to ask. He sighs and looks away, his fingers still clenched atop his knees. “Never mind.”

The sudden diplomacy only irritates him more. “No, by all means, why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind, Saihara-chan? I think we’ve reached that point in our friendship, no need to let those pesky manners get in the way now.”

He had no problems saying whatever he wanted when I told him I was going to kill him, and now he’s back to being all shy. Incredible. He’s messed up. Saihara-chan is definitely messed up, beyond his ability to predict. But even Ouma himself isn’t so sure that’s entirely a bad thing.

The detective pauses, as though chewing on his words. Reluctantly, he says, “Isn’t it… kind of arrogant to think that you’re the only one who can do anything?” Pause. Then, more reluctantly still, “It’s like you think the whole world revolves around you sometimes, Ouma-kun.”

Whatever response he had planned slips his mind entirely at that. He stares at Saihara-chan, completely expressionless.

Irritating. It’s extremely, ridiculously irritating. The other boy is right—there’s really no way to argue that fact, but that’s the most irritating thing of all.

Without wanting to, he thinks about the old concrete slab, out in the courtyard. The world belongs to Ouma Kokichi…

Objectively, he knows there’s no reason why this should all be happening to him specifically, or why it couldn’t just as easily have happened to someone else. Maybe it’s just like Saihara-chan theorized. Maybe he simply has a knack for remembering things better than others. Maybe he’s just more perceptive than others, or more susceptible to this kind of thing.

So of course, there’s no way that he stands at the center of the entire universe. He knows that. And yet…

He snorts through his nose after all. Kiibo and Hoshi-chan turn their heads to stare, just like he knew they would; even Saihara-chan looks slightly alarmed.

Ouma ignores them all and just shakes his head, snickering under his breath. The irritation is still there, but lingering underneath it is real, honest amusement.

“I-Is everything okay?” Kiibo asks, looking startled. In the lantern light, he must not be very sure of what it is he’s seeing.

“W-We’re fine. Everything’s fine. We were just, um… talking…” Saihara-chan answers quickly, though he sounds more than a little baffled himself. After saying something so blunt, he must have assumed he’d be angry.

Well, I am pissed off, he thinks. It just doesn’t change the fact that he’s right. Or that it’s pretty damn funny.

Ouma Kokichi, the center of the universe, the ruler of the world—what a childish, petty thought. It sounds so right at home with his play-pretend talent and his play-pretend lab. No wonder the other boy was getting worn out from his antics. He’d been using him like some kind of royal emissary, passing messages back and forth between himself and the rest of the group this entire time.

Do I not even think it’s worth talking to the rest of them? Do I not think they can come up with anything worthwhile on their own? He remembers Amami-chan’s surprise, to see him talking at all. Of course they were suspicious of him. He hadn’t told them anything about himself yet.

Saihara-chan’s words from earlier play back clearly in his mind. Maybe it’s still wrong, to expect you to handle everything by yourself…

At the very least… he could try to work on it.

He waits until Kiibo and Hoshi-chan turn away again, apparently assured that nothing bad was happening. Then he turns and looks at the boy sitting next to him again.

“Thanks, Saihara-chan.”

“Th-Thanks…?”

“It’s kind of refreshing, you know. Being honest with each other.”

Saihara-chan still looks uneasy, albeit relieved that he isn’t mad. He nods, and Ouma notes again how pronounced the bags under his eyes are. Thankfully, they’ll be able to rest soon enough. According to the clock (hard as it is to make out in the shadowy lighting), there’s only a little while left until their shift ends, and the second shift begins.

For the next ten minutes until they shake Momota-chan’s group awake, he thinks long and hard about the marks on his hands, clenching his fist open and closed again every so often. His head is still pounding, throbbing just behind his right eye in a way that he’s perfectly accustomed to. But he thinks that perhaps, he’ll sleep well tonight.


He dreams—though he’s not exactly sure of what.

Even asleep, he’s still faintly, distantly conscious of the fact that he’s dreaming. He’s not sure why—but he is. Most of his dreams tend to end very quickly as soon as he becomes aware that he’s dreaming, but not this one.

This one continues, passing by with no perception of time or awareness of his surroundings. People’s faces—no, the people themselves—are simply blurs, vague shapes and outlines of color. He knows all of them; at least, they aren’t strangers to him. But when he actively tries to sort out who’s who, or where he is, he can’t put a name to any of it, like a word at the tip of his tongue that refuses to let itself be voiced.

All he knows for sure is that his name is Saihara Shuuichi. That he is dreaming. And that the dream is beginning to make him somewhat uneasy.

He isn’t even sure why that is. He sees and hears things within his dream, but the part of him that’s aware that he’s still sleeping can’t fully understand any of it. Even if the scenes unfolding around him include grotesque displays, or horrible, heart-wrenching words, they still remain… fuzzy. Indistinct. Like a movie playing out on a projector that refuses to come into focus, the sound and audio quality garbled beyond recognition.

Still, it’s a dream bordering on a nightmare. He can’t make sense of what he’s seeing or hearing, but he can still recognize how he feels: anxious, tired, lonely. Sometimes, flat-out terrified. And almost always painfully, unbearably sad.

Despite how blurry everything is, sometimes he recognizes a snatch of color long enough for it to remind him of something else. He looks up into a patch of blue, wide and empty, like the sky at the end of the world—

Something ice cold touches his shoulder, jolting him awake.

Saihara jerks away and sits bolt upright, looking around frantically. He’s too tired to make sense of where he is or what he’s seeing, but his heart keeps thumping in his chest at an alarming rate. After several long seconds he finally registers that Kiibo-kun is kneeling down beside him, one hand still half-raised as he stares at him with concern.

“Saihara-kun? Are you alright…?”

The library. He’s in the library, sitting on a futon, with several of his classmates nearby. That’s right, this is—normal. Or as close to normal as they can expect, in their situation. He tries to calm his breathing, little by little letting his pounding heart slow its tempo. Then he nods. “Yeah… Sorry. I’m fine. Guess I was just… a little startled.”

“M-My apologies… I only meant to wake you because, well… It’s time for breakfast.” The robot gestures at the clock above them.

“Wait, did the morning announcement not go off today either?”

Kiibo-kun nods. “It would seem that way. Either Monokuma attempted it and couldn’t get the televisions to turn on again due to Iruma-san’s remote, or it decided not to bother in the first place. As expected, it’s very difficult to figure out what it might have in store for us.”

As he looks around the room again, Saihara realizes fewer of his classmates are here than he expected. Iruma-san’s group is scattered around the room, occupying themselves one way or another—Chabashira-san and Yumeno-san with conversation (something about the possibility of superheroes using magecraft, this time), Iruma-san with making a few last-minute tweaks to her remote, and Angie-san with what looks like a morning prayer routine. As for the other two groups…

His robotic classmate seems to notice his confusion. “Akamatsu-san and the others are just finishing up their breakfast, I believe. We’re supposed to go switch with them. Momota-kun and his group finished showering not long ago. Now they’re going through the warehouse for more supplies, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Seems like no one else had a problem with waking up, even without the announcement…” The past two days aside, the announcement itself had been like an alarm to him, signaling him when it was time to get up in the morning.

Kiibo-kun looks somewhat surprised. “Well… I’m fairly sure that’s because most of us tend to get up much earlier than the announcement. Today was an exception, considering the circumstances, but… Saihara-kun, could it be that you’re not much of a morning person?”

Saihara feels his ears burn and looks away sheepishly. It’s true that he’s always been somewhat hard to wake up, but he’s not entirely sure it’s fair for a robot to point that out. Robots didn’t even need sleep, did they? Recharging, maybe, but not sleep.

Thankfully, Kiibo-kun doesn’t seem to notice either his embarrassment or his “robo-discriminatory” train of thought. He glances up at the clock again and stands up, brushing dust off his metallic knees. “Shall we get going, then? I imagine it’s inconvenient, waiting to shower until after you’ve eaten, but we have to make do in these circumstances.”

As Saihara nods and climbs rather unsteadily to his feet (he’s still somewhat groggy), he takes another look around the room. Sure enough, Hoshi-kun and Ouma-kun are over by the entryway, looking considerably more awake and well-prepared than himself. Both of them hold a change of clothes in their arms and a toothbrush in one hand; the gym showers might have to wait until after breakfast, but they can still stop and freshen up in the bathroom beforehand.

Hoshi-kun must be unfazed by waking up so early due to his days as a tennis star. Saihara had never been part of any clubs before, but he had seen the sports teams at his old school out on the track and field plenty of times in the morning, always well into their training routines even as late-comers like himself were only just arriving. Whether that memory is real or not, it sounds—accurate. Any sense of normalcy in these distinctly abnormal circumstances comes as a small comfort to him.

He wonders about Ouma-kun, though. Even before Monokuma’s latest motive, the other boy obviously hadn’t been sleeping very well. But despite their shift last night, he looks—relatively fine. The circles under his eyes are still noticeable, but it doesn’t seem like his fever is coming back, at the very least.

The other boy turns his head, as though feeling his eyes on him, so Saihara looks away quickly, scrambling to grab his own change of clothes. Breakfast, he reminds himself. Breakfast first. Any plans about what they were doing or what to discuss as a group would have to wait until after that.

---

It still feels strange, eating in the mornings.

Breakfast is a meal he usually skips. The fact that he was so hard to wake up meant that he usually slept in as late as he could get away with, back at his previous school. He was never one to arrive past the bell, of course—but he always got such a late start that he had no time to spare to make himself food and still catch the train on time.

His uncle never had time to make anything for him in the mornings either, as busy with detective work as he was. And his parents, of course, just didn’t bother, back when he still lived with them.

Once or twice, when he had a few more minutes than usual to spare on his morning commute, he bought bread from the nearest convenience store and ate it on the way. But that was about it.

It’s a morning routine he still remembers in extremely clear detail. Perhaps bits and pieces of it are true. Perhaps nothing about it is actually true, from the convenience store he visited to the lukewarm, half-full pot of coffee his uncle sometimes left for him long after he’d gone to work.

Nonetheless—he’s still not used to eating in the mornings.

As a result, his breakfast is fairly small. Nowhere near as small as the single bowl of white rice Ouma-kun had been having for the last couple of days, but still, he keeps it light: natto, white rice, a bowl of miso soup. Anything more than that and his stomach would rebel, he’s pretty sure. It’s just as well; he’s self-sufficient enough to know how to cook the basics, but more complicated dishes would just be beyond him.

Just like he’s done for the past few days, he prepares his modest breakfast and carries it to the table on a tray. The fact that the kitchen has no doors means it’s easy to keep an eye on it even when they’re in the dining hall. So they can all cook at their own pace, rather than waiting for every single person to finish before sitting down and eating.

He’s only just picked up his chopsticks, about to start in on his natto, when Ouma-kun slides into the seat across from him—bringing with him a tray with a… rather surprising line-up.

From the seat beside him, Kiibo-kun stares in mild disbelief. As usual, he isn’t eating anything today either, so it must be rather hard for him to take his eyes off the sight in front of him. Saihara can’t blame him for staring, though; no matter how hard he tries to focus on his own breakfast, he still finds his eyes drawn to the other boy’s tray every so often.

Hoshi-kun arrives last to the table. Everything on his tray looks filling, but healthy—no doubt due to his time as an athlete. He too notices the selection on Ouma-kun’s tray and arches a questioning eyebrow, but says nothing.

For a while, they eat in silence. Or rather, Hoshi-kun eats quietly, Kiibo-kun stares, and Saihara alternates between doing both, sometimes leaving his chopsticks hanging halfway to his mouth. Ouma-kun ignores the three of them altogether and enjoys his breakfast at a leisurely pace.

Finally, Kiibo-kun can’t seem to take it any longer. “That’s… that’s quite a breakfast you have there, Ouma-kun.”

The other boy picks up a piece of French toast so drizzled in syrup it’s barely recognizable, not even bothering to use a fork or knife. He takes a bite, chewing slowly. After what seems like an eternity, he swallows. “Well,” he says, his tone genial, “you were right.”

It’s not as though Ouma-kun is doing something entirely out of the ordinary—he’s simply sitting there, eating his breakfast. Still, compared to the past couple of days, his behavior is so drastically different it leaves Kiibo-kun at a complete loss for how to respond.

The fact that he’s talking to the rest of them and not just Saihara must come as enough of a shock—but it’s the breakfast itself that seems to well and truly confuse him.

“I… I’m not sure I follow…” the robot admits hesitantly, clearly afraid he might accidentally discourage this rare and unprecedented conversation somehow.

“You were right,” Ouma-kun repeats. “I didn’t like my breakfast, the last few days. So I decided to try something else.”

‘Something else’ is a bit of an understatement. In Saihara’s opinion, it looks more like he decided to try almost everything else. Ouma-kun’s tray isn’t quite as full as Hoshi-kun’s, but there’s still quite an assortment lined across it. In addition to the (syrup-drenched) French toast, there are also pancakes, muffins, and a pile of fruit stacked high with whipped cream.

The other boy actually smiles when he notices them all staring, a blithe gesture that catches their other two classmates completely off guard.

Saihara is familiar enough with trying to read him by now that he’s fairly sure he catches a hint of sarcasm behind it. But it doesn’t seem like there’s any malice involved, so he can’t do much more than eye the tray in amazement himself.

“I—I see… So you decided to go for a more, um… western breakfast, today?” To Kiibo-kun’s credit, he really is trying to keep the conversation going. What he tactfully avoids pointing out is that everything on his tray looks more likely to give him heartburn, or at the very least, a stomachache.

Ouma-kun just nods and takes another bite of his French toast, completely unbothered.

The stop-and-go conversation between the two of them is almost amusing in its own way, but Saihara still frowns, suddenly wondering something. “Are you actually going to be able to finish all of that?” Maybe it’s an unnecessary concern, but he can’t help it. After days of barely eating anything at all, he’s not so sure the other boy’s stomach can handle this much.

“Nope.”

“…Eh?” The reply was so automatic, he’s a little caught off guard.

Ouma-kun puts the unfinished piece of toast down and skips right over to the fruit instead, eating at a slow, deliberate pace. “No matter how you look at it, there’s no way I could finish all of this, right? But it’s not that big a deal. I’m just tired of having rice for breakfast.”

There’s a hint of another smile playing at the corner of his lips, a coy expression that makes Saihara think that this is how it must have been—before.

Hoshi-kun puts down his mostly-finished natto and fried egg and arches another eyebrow. “It ain’t like it’s my place to tell you what to eat, or how much… but why bother wasting it? What if Monokuma decides not to restock the food anymore?”

“What, a starvation motive? Well, that’d be boring.” Ouma-kun shrugs. “I doubt it’ll happen.”

It’s certainly hard to deny that if this was some kind of game meant for people to watch, starvation probably wouldn’t be the most... exciting motive. He hadn’t thought of that, but it’s true. Considering the motive they had just overcome, it might even feel too repetitive for whoever was out there, watching all of this.

More importantly, if this was supposed to be a “fair game” of any sort, then there would have to be a loophole of some kind. The same way that the televisions only played the Monokuma video sporadically, rather than constantly—he just couldn’t foresee an audience of any kind finding it interesting if they were all guaranteed to starve to death no matter what. It wouldn’t just be boring; it’d be a cheap cop-out.

Ouma-kun puts his spoon down and takes a sip from a mug on his tray. The scent of black tea wafts over, pleasant and slightly citrusy. “It sounds like no matter how much we take, whoever’s putting us through all of this has to keep restocking.” Pause. Another sip. “So, I thought… might as well enjoy it, right? Breakfast, I mean.”

The way he says ‘breakfast’ sounds a little strange. There’s a little too much weight on the word, as though he deliberately reminded himself of it. Saihara wonders if he might’ve said something like ‘the killing game’ instead, in other circumstances.

Thankfully, his words don’t come across as a threat. If anything, it sounds like another coy joke—and somehow childish, like a kid in a candy store with no qualms about filling their pockets, as long as someone else is footing the bill.

Kiibo-kun still doesn’t seem very sure of what to expect, or where this change in attitude came from. But in contrast with his robotic appearance, his expression softens into a gentle half-smile. “Well... I’m not quite sure I understand. But I’m glad if you’re feeling better, Ouma-kun.”

Hoshi-kun nods his agreement as he sips at his green tea. Although he’s fairly taciturn, that’s still not enough to mask the fact that he’s a good person. His concern shows through just as clearly as Kiibo-kun’s, even though he doesn’t voice it.

Ouma-kun doesn’t respond for a few seconds. He picks up his spoon again, ignoring his fruit this time in favor of moving a few spoonfuls of cream to his mug. Then he stops, looking thoughtful. “I was going to say thanks, but I actually forgot your name. What was it again… Kiiboy?”

“It—It’s Kiibo!” The robot’s smile falters completely, replaced by a bewildered (and somewhat indignant) look. He looks doubtful that anyone could possibly forget such a simple name.

“Right, right. Kiibo it is. ...It’s a little hard to pronounce, though. Are you sure I can’t call you Kiiboy instead?”

“Just Kiibo will do!”

Saihara watches the back-and-forth dialogue, feeling that same flicker of familiarity. The ice between their group is definitely broken now—or at the very least, it’s beginning to thaw.

As he watches, though, he still senses there’s more to the story. Behind Ouma-kun’s casual words, that same sense of deliberate intention is there, as though he’s carefully planning and preparing every single response before he gives it. He truly does seem like an actor on a stage, trying to step back into a familiar role.

But even if part of the other boy’s act is a lie, it’s a pretty good one. Saihara still doesn’t know him well enough to say for sure, but… he guesses that this is Ouma-kun’s way of trying.

Maybe with a little practice, it’s a lie that might shape up into something more genuine.

He smiles a little at the thought and picks up his chopsticks again, wondering vaguely if he ever had a breakfast this lively before. He certainly doesn’t remember one, of course. In his memories, he never had time for breakfast. But perhaps there’s something to be said for making new memories, too.


After breakfast, they head over to the gym to shower off.

If he had his way, he’d prefer a bath. Baths are spacious, leisurely—the perfect opportunity for him to lie back and turn his thoughts off for a while. But it’s not like he can afford to be picky in this situation, so he makes do with what they have.

The soap stings his eyes and the water seems to only have one temperature: scalding. Still, it’s the best thing he’s felt in ages. He scrubs with the soap all over until he feels almost raw, and the too-hot water strips the aches and pains right from his muscles.

It’s actually amazing how good it feels, being clean again. Once he’s done, he even feels like a human being again. Almost.

Kiibo sits and waits for the rest of them on a bench in the steam-filled locker room right next to the showers, looking slightly uncomfortable. They take as little time as possible, but Ouma can imagine it still must be boring, sitting in an empty room with nothing to do. Waterproof or not, it’s not like he could shower with them, though the mental image amuses him for about ten seconds.

He towels off and dresses again quickly as soon as they’re finished. It’s not like anyone could probably see much of anything through the blanket of steam covering the room, especially if they weren’t looking closely to begin with. But he’d still rather not take any chances. The marks across his body are something he’d prefer to keep… personal. Saihara-chan bringing them up was already more than he’d bargained for.

The four of them have only just emerged from the locker room, ready to start making their way back to the library—when something entirely unforeseen interrupts them.

“Saihara-kun! Kiibo-kun! And—oh, thank goodness you’re all here!”

Shirogane-chan waves to them as she sprints through the gym. The moment she reaches them, she puts a hand to her chest, catching her breath as she wheezes. For some reason Harukawa-chan is with her, trailing behind her silently. She moves just as quickly, though she isn’t winded in the slightest.

Ouma stiffens, trying to keep his mouth from twisting. He has no idea why they’re here, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that something must have happened. He can only hope that “something” didn’t involve Harukawa-chan or one of the others throwing a knife in someone’s back. Or an arrow.

No, that can’t be it. They wouldn’t care if she’d done something like that, after all. Trained killers get special privileges the rest of us don’t, he reminds himself wryly. He hates that his hands are twitching, itching to cover the scarf at his throat.

It’s not Harukawa-chan he should be focusing on right now, though. Shirogane-chan clearly has something to say to them, still gasping for breath as they crowd around and wait to hear the (presumably bad) news.

“P-Please… you have to come, quickly!”

“Come where? Shirogane-san, what happened!?”

Saihara-chan voices the question that’s already at the forefront of his own mind. “No one is…” There’s a brief pause. “No one’s… hurt, right?”

Ouma knows exactly which word he didn’t want to say aloud, and why. Saying it aloud made it feel so much more likely, a real possibility looming over their heads rather than a distant ‘what-if.’

Her eyes go wide as if she hadn’t even considered that possibility, and she shakes her head. “N-No! No, not at all, everyone’s fine! It’s just… oh, how do I even explain—”

“We found Monokuma.” Harukawa-chan cuts over her, apparently losing her patience. “Our group went out to the courtyard to take another look around, and we found it there, not moving or talking. And there’s something weird next to it.”

“Something weird…?” Hoshi-chan repeats, frowning.

Shirogane-chan nods. It seems like she’s finally caught her breath, although she still looks paler than ever. “We think… we think it might be another motive.”

The news comes as more of a disappointment than a surprise. Considering no one had heard from Monokuma ever since yesterday afternoon, before Iruma-chan finished working on her remote, it made sense that the bear would turn up again now with something else in store.

“Akamatsu-san and Toujou-san are staying where we found it, to make sure nothing weird happens… We came to tell everyone else, so we can figure out what to do about it. But we didn’t see you guys near the library, so we were starting to get a little worried,” Shirogane-chan explains.

I’d be a lot more worried about roaming the school with only Harukawa-chan for company. Ouma’s fingers twitch again as he thinks fixedly about wolves and sheep puzzles. Even he’s not entirely sure where she falls in those categories. It was probably safe to say that she wasn’t the ringleader—there was no way to fake being such an easily manipulated pawn.

Still, she was unparalleled when it came to killing people. So did that leave her a wolf or a sheep? If she was a wolf, she was a very stupid and ineffective one. So a sheep, then. A sheep with fangs.

Some of his thoughts must have shown on his face after all, because she notices him staring. But he doubts that she can read the expression he’s wearing. Even he’s not exactly sure how he feels about her.

“W-We should all head over to the courtyard.” Shirogane-chan wrings her hands together nervously. “I think everyone else is probably there by now, waiting for us… but…”

Kiibo nods. “Let’s go. The sooner we see what this is about, the better.”

The six of them walk in silence. But as they reach the grounds and descend the stairs that lead to the bottom half of the courtyard, they begin to hear a bustle of nervous commotion from the rest of their classmates. Just a little ways away from them stands Monokuma, completely immobile and unresponsive—along with… something else.

The “weird” thing the two girls mentioned turns out to be a phone booth. A phone booth that definitely wasn’t there before, bright red and completely un-missable.

“I don’t know what the hell that is,” Iruma-chan says, “but I don’t like it. I ain’t gonna go near it.”

“It’s true that it’s most likely dangerous…” Toujou-chan agrees. “That’s why Akamatsu-san and I stayed here, keeping watch. We can’t be too careful, especially in this situation.”

Angie-chan’s interest looks piqued as she clasps her hands together. “But, but—isn’t it kind of mysterious? How do we know if it’s really dangerous or not if no one checks?”

“Fuck off, no-tits! You wanna know so bad, then you go check it out!”

“Call me crazy, but I don’t think anyone should check it out. At least not just yet.” Amami-chan holds a finger thoughtfully to his chin. “S’ probably a motive, right? So it’s in everyone’s best interests if no one touches it.”

“Ahhh, I see, I see! I guess it’ll have to stay a mystery then! A mysterious riddle only god knows the answer to!”

“No, I’m pretty sure Monokuma knows exactly what this is all about, since it’s standing right there…” Chabashira-chan throws a hesitant glance in the bear’s direction.

The six of them rejoin the rest of their classmates. Shirogane-chan moves instantly to stand with her group, still looking pale and shaky, but Harukawa-chan stands a little apart from the rest, arms crossed. Ouma watches her carefully for a few seconds before surveying the phone booth for himself.

It’s not like he can tell much about it from the outside, though. It’s certainly eye-catching enough, like a prop from an outdated drama. But other than that, it simply looks… like an ordinary phone booth. It’s impossible to figure out its purpose just by standing outside it—and going inside to try and find out sounds like the worst sort of solution.

It hadn’t worked so well with the motive videos, or with the key card. He doesn’t doubt it wouldn’t go smoothly this time, either.

“Gonta doesn’t really know much about this ‘phone booth’ thing, but, um… If Monokuma knows what’s going on… why isn’t it moving?” Gonta brings up a very good question.

Chabashira-chan touches the tips of her index fingers together, frowning. “I don’t suppose… we just caught a lucky break? It didn’t just stop working… did it?”

“While doubtful… I suppose that’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.” Shinguuji-chan speaks slowly. “We’ve been staying in the library all this time. So even if Monokuma needs to be replaced, I assume there’s no way for the ringleader to enter their lair to make a new one…”

“But how did it break…? It seems like it’s fine, right? At least, I don’t see anything wrong with it…”

No one has an answer to Shirogane-chan’s question.

Momota-chan finally breaks the silence a few moments later, slamming his shaking fists together. “To hell with it! Who cares if the damn bear broke!?  Either way, that phone booth is bad news! From now on, none of us should even go near that thing—”

“What, you’re just going to ignore it after all the trouble I went through to put it here for you? Now that’s just rude!”

Several of his classmates scream as Monokuma suddenly starts talking, as casually as if it were continuing some conversation they were just having. There’s no warning—it just starts moving around on its little robotic legs again, walking and talking like normal.

Momota-chan stumbles back a few steps, nearly tripping over his own feet. “Shit! What, so you’re fine? So why play dead!?”

“I knew it’d catch your attention,” Monokuma says dismissively. “Hey, that’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about. It’s also pretty rude to go ahead and decide someone else is broken just because they don’t respond to you, don’t you think?”

Ouma narrows his eyes. He doubts the rest of the group even notices the thorns lurking behind that question. But they’re there. Sharp, invisible, like tiny pricks of doubt. He pushes it out of his mind for now, though. There are more pressing matters at hand.

“Y’know, Momota-kun, I’m really interested in what you were about to say. It wasn’t something about… destroying the phone booth, was it?” The bear raises one paw, suddenly dropping the cheery act entirely. “Because I’m pretty sure you know what’d happen to you if you destroyed school property now.”

The would-be astronaut grits his teeth. Whether he’s shaking from nerves or from anger, Ouma can’t tell. Probably both.

“Whatever.” Momota-chan’s teeth are still clenched. “We don’t need to destroy it. It ain’t like anyone’s gonna use your stupid motive, anyway.”

“Motive?” Monokuma repeats the word as though curious. “Who said anything about it being a motive? This phone booth is a gift! A freebie, if you will.”

“A gift? We don’t want any gifts from you,” Akamatsu-chan says, looking incredulous. “No matter how you look at it, it’s clearly another motive.”

The bear hangs its head, kicking a forlorn paw at the ground. “Well, think of it what you will… But I wouldn’t be so quick to look a gift horse in the mouth, you know? And you all were the ones complaining about ‘not being able to trust your memories’ or whatever.”

Silence. Dead silence. If he listens closely, he thinks he might almost hear the wheels in everyone’s heads slowly but surely grinding to a halt.

“You’re all an entertaining bunch, I’ll give you that. So when my little cubs told me about how you ‘couldn’t trust your memories,’ I thought—why not! Just this once, I’ll give you something good!”

Ouma understands perfectly, with clear, cold, precision. So far, they’ve only been shown the stick. Now comes the carrot.

“This isn’t a motive so much as it’s one of those… hmm, ‘phone-a-friend’ options? Like I said, it’s a freebie. You get in the booth, you dial up whoever you want—friends, family, whatever. Ah, but don’t forget to hit star-fifty-three first, though. You know, for external calls. Then, you can talk to them all you want.”

“Do you honestly expect we’d believe something like that?” Toujou-chan’s face looks as severe and immovable as stone. He could point out that she’s the first one who fell for a ploy very similar to this—but now is really, honestly not the time.

“Hey, Angie has a question! If you were able to mess with everyone’s memories in the first place, who’s to say you wouldn’t just fake the phone calls, too? …You could do something like that, couldn’t you Monokuma?” Her smile is serene, but her eyes look sharp.

The bear doesn’t seem discouraged, though. It just waves another paw, still keeping its eyes on the ground. “Use it or don’t use it, that’s up to you. That’s why it’s a freebie—it’s no fur off my tail if you all don’t want to hear from your loved ones again.”

There’s a murmur of unease. Everyone knows it must be lying. It must be. Even the stupidest among them can put that much together. But even a single lie can shed light on a dozen more truths. He knows that better than anyone. And he knows that they all must be tempted to bite at the carrot dangling on the string.

“Oh, but I should mention—it’s first come, first serve, you know? A special gift like this gets a one-time use only. You can call for as long as you want, and talk about whatever you’d like, but only one of you can make a phone call. One call, one time. That’s it.”

Carrot, stick. North wind, sun. No matter the name for it, the principle was always the same. Whatever Monokuma wanted to call it, it was still very clearly a motive. Pressure. Incentive.

There’s something to be said for simplicity. Sometimes sticking with the basics was the most effective method. And nothing was more basic than fear, concern—and curiosity.

“No one is going to use it,” Saihara-chan says firmly, marking the end of the discussion. “No one.”

Monokuma’s grin looks more leering than ever. “I guess there’s no helping it, if that’s how it is. You’re all keeping watch at night anyway, so there’s no reason for you to be worried. No one’s going to use it, right?” It pauses, tilting its head to the side. “And yet… you all look worried. Really worried. I wonder why that is?”

No one says anything at all.

“Well, do or don’t, it’s all the same to me. Just so long as you keep it interesting!” The bear laughs. “I guess this is where I’m supposed to say, ‘knock ‘em dead, kids!’ Or something like that.”

---

They all go back to the library, once Monokuma leaves. A few of them turn and check behind them as they walk, as though expecting to see someone, anyone, running up to the booth the moment their backs are turned—a standard prisoner’s dilemma.

Unsurprisingly, the general consensus is to keep doing what they’ve been doing.

“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t fuckin’ matter. We’ll keep doing night watch like we’ve been doing, and no one goes anywhere near that damn phone, okay?”

As usual, Momota-chan’s boundless confidence is completely unfounded. In fact, even he doesn’t look like he necessarily believes what he’s saying, though Ouma doubts he’d ever admit it. But that still doesn’t change the fact that his face looks pale, his hands a little shaky.

“Iruma-san’s and Akamatsu-san’s groups are on watch tonight, yes? Will you all be able to handle the shifts with your current numbers, or would more assistance be better?” Kiibo crosses his arms, contemplating their options. If he were capable of it, he’d probably be furrowing his eyebrows, as deep in thought as he looks.

Iruma-chan opens her mouth (no doubt to say that anyone who wants her shift can damn well have it), but Akamatsu-chan speaks over her quickly.

“We’ll be fine. It’s not much different than usual. We’ll all be here, in the library, and if anything happens we can wake the rest of you up.” She sounds slightly more certain than Momota-chan—but not much.

If she decides she’s too uncertain, what then? Will she hide another steel ball away in her backpack, a just-in-case measure for if things get too bad?

Not that the others would have any better solutions. Iruma-chan would throw each and every of them under the bus at the first opportunity if it meant saving her own skin. And if anyone tried sneaking out to the phone booth while she was on watch, he doesn’t doubt Harukawa-chan’s solution would be to crush the life right out of them before they could take more than a step. The marks on his neck can attest to as much.

Well. At least in that case, the truth about her special little talent would come out again. And it’d be someone else’s neck on the line, for once.

You still think other people can’t change. Ouma remembers Saihara-chan’s words from last night, the weary look of disappointment on his face. Could he honestly blame him?

He tries to slow his thoughts down, opening and closing his hand as he searches frantically for a solution. If he loses his composure like the rest of them, then there’s no point. He needs to stay calm. If he tries to quit again, like he did in the hallway…

I thought I knew them, he reminds himself. I thought I knew each and every little horrible thing about them. I didn’t think we’d make it past the time limit, and we did.

What’s more, they’d all managed to make it past that time limit largely without he himself doing anything at all. The world, as it turned out, didn’t revolve around him.

Ouma flexes his hand a few more times as the meeting wraps up, remembering the sensation of staying anchored.


Akamatsu-san, Harukawa-san, Toujou-san, and Shirogane-san take the first watch.

There’s an added layer of restlessness among the group before everyone goes to sleep tonight. Saihara doesn’t know much about his classmates yet, other than what he’s gleaned in the last few days, or the bits and pieces he’s learned from Ouma-kun’s story. But he senses that they’re all more nervous than usual.

He doesn’t blame them. In many ways, the uncertainty is worse than anything else. The hardest thing about the last motive had been the fact that they couldn’t predict when the song would turn on or off, after all. Now they’ve been given a motive-that-isn’t-a-motive, handed a chance on a silver platter to try and see if their memories are real or not.

As he lies on his back on his futon, he considers the motive videos Ouma-kun told him about. It made sense that a video couldn’t always be trusted. What person in their generation didn’t know about editing tools, or special effects? A video was pre-recorded, pre-planned. It couldn’t respond to you; the figures on the screen were simply ones and zeroes, pixels that might as well have been on the other side of the globe for all that they were inches away.

Of course, a phone call could be edited, too. Money-grabbing scams and voice-changers were as common in Japan as they were anywhere else. Common sense said Monokuma was just lying to them, grasping at any straws that might get them to kill one another. Common sense said it, but…

…But he can’t deny there’s a part of him that wants to go and check for himself. If he called his uncle, would he really pick up? Would that prove that he existed, just how he remembered him?

It’s a fallacy. He knows that, but it doesn’t make the temptation any less. If the technology is convincing enough, if the lie is well-prepared enough, then there’s no way he’d be able to tell if the person on the other end was his uncle or not. Even if they sounded like him, knew the things he did, said the things he would say… that wouldn’t necessarily prove anything.

Perhaps it’s just what Ouma-kun likes to call his ‘detective’s intuition’ that makes him crave that undeniable proof. Although he’s pretty sure that at this point, they’re all thinking the same thing.

Saihara drifts into an uneasy sleep, thinking of that bright red telephone booth. At some point, he dreams again, and the color red seeps into that same vast, empty blue, like the sky—

He’s less aware of what he dreams, this time. He already forgot the other dream, or even that he dreamed at all; once he woke up it slipped away from him, like sand into the tide.

There are blurs, and shapes, and colors, and he feels as anxious and miserable as before. Sometimes there are fewer shapes than before. At least he thinks so, but he’s not sure.

Voices and faces pass, always just beyond the point of recognition, leaving no trace behind except perhaps a word, a feeling, a distant impression. Or a hunch, perhaps. If dreams are made up of memories, then perhaps that would explain—explain something. In his dream, he’s not even sure what needs to be explained in the first place.

He wakes with a start, drenched in a cold sweat. This time, there’s no cold hand on his skin, no one kneeling beside him to tell him that it’s morning. He breathes heavily, unsure why he even woke up in the first place. The overhead lights are still off. As far as he can tell, it’s the middle of the night, though he isn’t sure of the hour.

His vision is filled with spots, but he still casts a glance at the futon beside him. Just to check. Just to be sure.

Contrary to his expectations, Ouma-kun is lying there, fast asleep, his breathing slow and even. Saihara stares for a second or two, unsure why he even needed to check.

I should be resting, too, he thinks. I should go back to sleep.

He sighs deeply, finally managing to catch his breath again. On a whim, he looks towards the lantern light, just to try and gauge the time, to see who’s on shift—

He stops. He stares. There’s only one figure, sitting in the dim lamplight, fiddling with something that might be a remote. One figure. Only the one—Iruma-san, he’s pretty sure.

But no matter where he turns his head, no matter how many times he looks, Yumeno-san, Chabashira-san, and Angie-san aren’t anywhere to be found.