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The classroom was much more peaceful without Ouma. There was Miu, but she was easily quelled with a few choice words, and there was Tenko, but she was easily quelled with a few choice words from Yumeno. There were no more shouting matches starting with only Momota but sucking in four or five more participants, no more suddenly collapsing chairs or blackboard-eraser hail. All in all, the consensus on the Ultimate Supreme Leader's departure was:

Good riddance.

Even their homeroom teacher seemed to see storm clouds lifting and letting in the sun when she announced that he would no longer be attending Hope's Peak. This was hardly a breach of professionalism; it was no secret around the school that the little troublemaker had made everyone's lives miserable.

One month into the new school year, Ouma had turned into the myth of a vanquished evil. Some of the liveliest classroom conversations consisted of bonding over Ouma stories. Awful things he said and did, times he got his comeuppance, ways things were better without him.

Saihara alone missed him.

"I'm sorry for whoever goes to his new school," Momota sighed, coming down from a fit of laughter. "Good thing they only have to deal with him for one year."

"Tenko can't believe she agrees with a menace," Tenko declared, rolling her eyes.

They both laughed. Saihara threw a plastic smile at them. Across from him, Kaede offered him what looked like a sympathetic grimace.

Kaede alone knew that he missed him.

After class, she sat herself down in the desk next to his, hunching her shoulders confidentially. "How's Ouma-kun doing at his new school?"

"Oh, you know." Saihara rubbed at his eye absentmindedly. "Straight A's, absolutely no misconduct. Even the principal loves him."

Kaede raised an eyebrow.

"Which is just his way of saying that he's skipping classes and causing trouble already." A smile crept onto his face despite his exasperated tone of voice.

"Saihara-kun..." Kaede groaned. The smile grew embarrassed. "I still don't know what you see in him. Did he suddenly turn into an angel each time you two met on the rooftop?"

"He was nicer to me, I guess."

"He was." Kaede frowned. "Look, I know how you feel about him, but I want you to watch out for yourself, okay? I don't want you to end up like Gonta, or Iruma-san, or Kiibo-kun, or...Yumeno-san.

Gonta, unwittingly manipulated into stringing poor Miu up in the men's bathroom with no escape, taken off of honor roll for his behavior and serving detention for months afterwards. Miu, mummified with toilet paper and stuck in a dirty stall with dirtier words stenciled on the walls around her in washable non-toxic marker.

Yumeno and Kiibo, Ouma's favorite targets. They never managed to catch a break from his ruthless condescension. He stripped them of their humanity, made them the butt of every sour joke he tossed into the air like he didn't know better. Yumeno had, at one point, been so affected by his cruel comments on her appearance, mannerisms, and worth as a human being that she grew too tired to leave her house in the morning.

All of these things had happened last year.

"I understand," Saihara said, softly. "I don't mean to...forgive him for what he's done, exactly, but I think he was going through a rough time in his life."

"Really?" Her tone made Saihara flinch.

"I could be very wrong," he amended quickly. "But, ah, it'd make sense. Ouma-kun is the type of person who'd be too proud to tell anyone about it."

Kaede's lips twisted and pinched. "I'm going to trust your judgment."

"A-ah, thank y—"

"But the moment he tries to pull something on you, tell me. I'll let him have a piece of my mind."

"Th-thank you, Akamatsu-san."

 

WED 3:02 PM

Saihara-chaaaaan! Guess what?? Today I ran into your long lost twin! He had the stupid baseball cap and everything! Whoa, it really startled me. I was like, did Saihara-chan stalk me down and transfer to my school?! That's dedication! So romantic!

Juuuuust kidding. If you did that it would be SUPER creepy. I'd be shaking in a closet somewhere trying to dial the police with my trembling fingers. I'd dial 1111111119. Get it, because I'm shaking? Geez Saihara-chan, you're scary!

Oh and the part about your twin was a lie too, everyone at this school looks like they climbed out of a landfill. I'm so sorry for suggesting that one of those uglies looks like my beloved. Forgive me, Saihara-chan! Waaaaaaaaah!

 

"If there's anyone he likes back, it has to be you, Saihara-kun."

"Do you think so?"

Kaede rubbed her forehead. "Of course. You're the only one he spared."

"Ah, sorry."

"No no, don't apologize for that, silly."

"Sorr—"

"Don't apologize for that either!"

"O-okay!" Saihara put his hands up defensively, then breathed out a laugh. Kaede smiled. He fumbled with his fingers, knowing that what he was going to say next would wipe it off of her face. "I think I'm gonna tell him tonight."

Her mouth flatlined. "You're going to confess?"

"It's now or never."

She stood up to her full height, eyes shaded by her bangs and the beam going across the pavilion rooftop. "You know I want to support you, Saihara-kun."

He squinted up at her, the light coming in through the gridded ceiling making his eyes water. "O-of course."

"Yeah. But I still want you to be careful with him. He won't even tell you which school he's going to now. Doesn't that make you concerned?" She looked at him, not waiting for a response before she continued. "I don't want him to break your heart. You might know him better than I do, but I don't know if even you can tell if his affection is honest."

"I..." Saihara adjusted his cap.

"What I mean is...keep a lookout for warning signs. If you're sure he's the one you want, I can't stop you guys." Kaede's expression softened. She reached forward and patted him on the shoulder affirmatively.

Saihara was glad he had friends like Kaede.

 

FRI 4:45 PM

Saihara-chan,

Fake love letters are SUCH an overdone prank! It was pretty ballsy of you to use something so basic on me, the undisputed master of practical japes.

I think you did a pretty good job though! Your letter was so mushy and sentimental that I wanted to throw up alllllll over my new couch. I bought a new couch by the way! I can't drive so I had to push it alllllllllllll the way down the street with allllllllllllllllllll the cars honking at me. They just don't get it.

ANYWAYS, try something more CREATIVE next time! Got it???

 

FRI 7:10 PM

......................

Hey. It's really not funny.

If you're trying to shatter my poor maiden heart with your fakey confessions, go eat poop or something. That's REALLY mean.

 

FRI 8:52 PM

I hate you. Go away.

 

FRI 9:05 PM

Didn't I tell you to go away, liar? Big poopie meanie head.

 

FRI 9:30 PM

You're awfully serious about this prank...

This is your last warning. If you continue to insist that you have nasty, sappy, gooey feelings for ME, a known criminal and overlord of evil, you're contractually obligated to enter a huge battle to the death with all of my other suitors. Some of them are VERY scary. You can only come out on top if you're really, really, REALLY dedicated in your love for me.

P.S. I know you don't have an ounce of muscle on you, Twinkhara-chan. It's hopeless! Give up!

 

FRI 10:01 PM

JUST KIDDING!

Did I get you? Did I get you, Saihara-chan?????? Nishishi, gladiator fights for the sake of love are soooooo boring and cliche! I should make you guys have a huge dance off instead! Wouldn't that be fun??

Ahhh but I don't really care how well those guys can dance. They're nothing compared to my beloved. Dirt on my shoes. That's right, I don't care about any of them, so they can go cry while they jerk off to the thought of me at night! You're my one and only, Saihara Shuuichi!

Heehee, were you scared? Did you think I really hated you? I was pretty convincing, right? I bet your heart plummeted out of the bottom of your stomach at the idea that I could ever hate you. You don't have to worry about that anymore, because I love love love love love you sooooo much, and that's not a lie.

Acting like I wasn't interested made me really tired, you know? It took lots and lots of work. I'm sleepy now. Yaaaaawn. Night night, Saihara-chan. Have sweet dreams!

P.S. Dream of me, ok? <3

 

"You look happy today."

Saihara jerked his head upwards, stuffing his phone in his pocket instinctively. Kaede smiled at him quizzically. "O-oh, oh yeah, I am."

"That's good!" She beamed for a moment, but it dampened a little when she realized what must have happened. "...Did he say yes?"

"Yeah, he did." Saihara's smile threatened to spill off the sides of his face. He felt his cheeks burning.

"And you're sure he didn't lie?"

"Uh huh. I had to convince him it wasn't a prank."

Kaede sighed, then patted him on the back. "You really are special to him."

 

Was this really the same Ouma who had terrorized Hope's Peak? Saihara found himself wondering this all too often when he spotted the red notification dot indicating a new message from his...his boyfriend. Ouma-kun is my boyfriend, he thought giddily.

Sure, Ouma had always been a little more lenient on Saihara, even hanging out with him on the roof of the school building to idly discuss things that didn't matter, but nothing about his behavior at school had suggested that he could be this sweet and affectionate.

Dozens of sugary messages flooded Saihara's inbox, asking him how his day was and gushing over another one of his features each time. I wish I could see Saihara-chan's beautiful eyes again! I want to stare into them as a light spring breeze blows by...ah, that's just you blinking, because your eyelashes are so huge. I should employ you as a wind machine, it'd look cool with my cape.

Saihara fell asleep to the thought of his adorable boyfriend each night and woke up to cheery messages filled with nothing but Ouma's special brand of love each morning. Ouma was fond of providing inaccurate weather forecasts, squealing at Saihara to bring an umbrella when there wasn't a cloud to be seen in the sky and insisting in an almost motherly way that Saihara dress warmly when it was sweltering out.

Saihara was so in love he didn't know what to do with himself.

There were shameful nights when Ouma's messages grew dangerously raunchy and Saihara took it out on his rolled-up bedsheets. He thought of Ouma's pale lips, his messy hair, the way he tucked his hands behind his head just so when he smiled that particular smile. He thought of Ouma spread out on his Greek Villa-white sheets and Moscow Midnight-blue blankets, fighting down an Azalea Flower-pink blush as Saihara's hands glided over stretches of scandalously bare skin. He thought of Ouma's voice—"Ah, ah, Saihara-chan, harder—! There, right there! Oh, I'm so close, I'm so close..."

They'd be free from the clutches of high school soon. Saihara would learn how to drive. They could meet in a little cafe near Ouma's school and cling together, warm and happy amidst the aroma of overpriced specialty coffee.

Slowly but surely, Saihara felt his heart fill up to its brim with hope for the future.

 

"Saihara-kun!"

Saihara jumped. "Akamatsu-san! I'm sorry, I didn't see you. How was your day?"

"It was good," Kaede said hastily, waving her hand as if to dismiss the thought. "Are you alright? You're always looking at your phone."

"I am?"

"Yeah. You hold it under the table in class. Don't think you're so sneaky," she teased.

"Oh—" Saihara let out an embarrassed giggle, scratching the back of his head. "You caught me. Sometimes Ouma-kun messages me in class. The little idiot's probably slacking off in the hallway..."

Kaede pursed her lips. "You never talk like that about anyone else." Her face broke out into a warm, resigned smile. "I guess you really love him, huh?"

Face red, Saihara pressed the screen of his phone to his chest as he nodded sheepishly. "I love him a whole lot."

 

MON 7:15 AM

Saaaaaaihara-chaaaaaan!! Good morning!

Did you sleep well? I slept so well that my mom thought I died. She ran into my room and her loud crying woke me up. What a drama queen...

 

MON 12:31 PM

Saihara-chan! I'm glad you slept well too <3

Are you on lunch break yet? I wanted to respond to you but school is keeping me so busy! I'm on 12 different committees because everyone wants to talk to the Hope's Peak dropout. It's like I have street cred. Isn't that cool?!

The food here tastes like cardboard...if only my darling Saihara-chan were here to prepare homemade lunches for me...you'd do that, right? Nishishi.

 

Unfortunately, this blissful state of being only lasted for two weeks. As the fuzzy warmth of a new relationship wore off, Saihara stopped being so flustered each time Ouma popped a digital heart into his greetings and didn't instinctively hide his face when Ouma complimented his eyes or nose or lips.

That was when he started noticing the patterns.

Ouma ignored certain things. When Saihara gathered the courage to voice his own thoughts instead of letting Ouma run the conversation, nine times out of ten Ouma didn't even acknowledge it. Movies that reminded him of Ouma, shy musings on how he loved the sound of Ouma's laughter, how much he missed seeing Ouma's face, all ignored. It was disappointing at best and soul-crushing at worst. Did Ouma not want his affectionate ways reciprocated? What had Saihara done wrong?

Saihara sent him snapshots of busy streets, of pink clouds like cotton candy spread over the baby blue sky with butter knives. Saihara sent blurry selfies, rarely capturing his entire face. For all his enthusiastic serenading of Saihara's handsomeness, Ouma met the photographs with the same eerie disregard. No comment. Not even a Saihara-chan looks so cute in that hoodie!

Come to think of it, Ouma never sent pictures. Saihara had once requested to see Ouma's face again, very hesitantly, using the most courteous language he could muster. He wasn't ignored, at least, but Ouma's response merely amounted to empty babble. Empty lies. He couldn't show his face because enemies of his secret organization could be stalking Saihara's email, couldn't show it because a lion attack had taken out his left eye and half of his mouth. Oops, just kidding. Saihara began to worry.

Worst of all was how Saihara remembered the Ouma he knew at school. Yes, their relationship had been worse at the time, but he remembered Ouma listening. He remembered Ouma's animated features reacting to his every word in real time, Ouma pouncing on every little misstep he took and poking fun at tiny details in his choice of phrasing.

And now Ouma wouldn't show his face.

After a bad day at school, Saihara sat down and slowly poured out all of his feelings into the crammed space of his phone screen in a font size that made him lean in until his nose was practically smooshed against the keyboard.

He pressed send.

 

THU 5:12 PM

Saihara-chan,

I'm sorry.

I know it must be frustrating for the Ultimate Detective to not know what's true and not even have enough information to deduce the truth. I'm sorry it has to be this way.

You see, a dangerous person like me shouldn't be running around flirting with cute detectives, but I fell so hard for you that I thought it might work. I accepted your confession in the vain hope that we would just click.

I think we sort of did. I was really happy with you, Saihara-chan. That's not a lie. You can at least trust me with that, right? You made me the happiest boy on Earth.

I'm going to say something shocking next, so hold on to your seat! Ready?

You deserve better.

The longer we stay together, the more I'll hurt you. We should've known from the start that we wouldn't make it. We're meant to be rivals, not lovers, no matter what those sweeping romances that Shirogane-chan reads like to say. I'm really, really not a good boyfriend.

Sorry again for breaking your heart! I'm so clumsy. Go on now, forget about me! Bye bye!

 

THU 10:10 PM

Saihara-chan...

Please let go already. You don't want this to turn into one of those TV dramas, do you? Those are embarrassing to watch. We've only been together for a month, so stop being a baby.

I lied earlier. I don't care about you at all and talking to you every day was annoying. Don't speak to me again.

 

THU 11:08 PM

My beloved,

You're just too sweet for this world, aren't you? It makes me want to cry.

We don't have a future together. That's the truth.

If you really care about me, then figure me out.

 

"What are you working on, Saihara-kun?"

"Hmm? Oh," Saihara mumbled, rousing himself. "My senior project. It's some weird murder case."

"Eh? A real one?" Kaede paled, but leaned in to observe the papers he was examining. Saihara almost laughed; he knew that feeling.

"Yeah. It happened about a month after school ended last year. It's...really rather gruesome, so I don't think it's respectful to the victim to go babbling about it."

"Ah..." Kaede's eyebrows crinkled in sympathy. "I'm sorry for them. It must have been a terrible way to go."

"Yeah..." Saihara's index finger traced over the victim's description. Nishioka Shinjiro, 17. Short, choppy black hair. Pale skin. Frail, skeletal. Approximately five feet tall.

A flash of dizziness overcame him. He didn't hear Kaede's concerned voice until she'd called his name three times.

 

It was silly and impossible, but it didn't hurt to check.

It was silly and impossible.

Saihara went through every link Ouma had sent him. Every article, every post, every image album.

Not a single one of them was posted any time after school had ended last year.

No. No no no no no no no.

Ouma had mentioned going to see a movie, right? Yes, that movie had only come out this month, and...

It had been announced last year.

No no no no no.

Silly, silly. This was only a coincidence. He was jumping to conclusions because he couldn't accept that Ouma could possibly want to break up with him.

Of course, of course. He messaged Ouma, casually bringing up a bizarre celebrity scandal that had occurred this month. It was exactly the kind of thing that Ouma would get a laugh out of.

Ouma ignored it.

He mentioned it again, more deliberately.

Ouma ignored it.

Please, Ouma-kun, please. It's funny, isn't it? Are you even listening to me? I'll tell you the story again. Two weeks ago—

Nothing.

Dread weighed heavy in his lungs, coated the sides of his throat and made it hard to swallow or breathe.

He asked Ouma if he'd heard of the boy crushed flat by a hydraulic press two hundred miles away in a custom truck manufacturing facility.

 

 

Chapter Text

SUN 3:35 PM

Saihara-chan,

I've heard of him, yep. What a nasty death! All squished to bits...I felt sick to my stomach when I read the news story. What kind of monster would commit a murder like THAT?? Not even I'm that evil!

Anyway.

Why are you asking me about this so long after it happened? Ooh, is mister Ultimate Detective working on an actual case???? I'm excited! Spill the beans, Shumai!

 

SUN 4:00 PM

Saihara-chan,

You dumbass.

What is this...I thought that you had a level head on your shoulders, being a detective and all.

Nishishi. Please tell me you're joking. Ahahaha, stoppp ittttt.

God, you're so self-centered! It's impressive what lengths you'd go to just to justify to yourself why I've been ignoring things you say. Did it ever occur to you that "Ouma is super busy with his 12 committees at school which have all elected him as president and has no time to respond thoroughly to your stupid messages" is more likely than "Ouma was squashed in a truck factory and now his ghost is talking to me"? Hmm??

Darling Saihara-chan, have you not been sleeping well recently? Maybe you stay up too often thinking of me. I get it, I'm irresistible. But seriously, go get some rest. Sheesh.

 

SUN 4:26 PM

Ughhhhhh. You're ridiculous.

Fine. Since you're soooo firmly convinced that I'm not right here, alive, emailing you from my crummy school dorm, I guess I have to pull out my trump card!!

I'll send you some super duper secret information. If you disclose it to anyone, I'll have to ask my henchmen to track you down and disappear you. Yes, even you, my beloved. It's really, really sensitive.

I'm serious right now, ok? I know I lie a lot, but listen to me just this once. Don't tell anyone that you're meeting me. Travel as independently as you can, and come armed. No guns. A shovel or pick is ideal. No visiting anytime before 10 AM or after 3 PM. I won't be able to guarantee your safety.

If you understand and agree to all of this, message me and make the subject line "HORSE CONTRACT" in all caps.

 

Thousands of feet above the glossy towers of Hope's Peak, an airplane puttered by. Saihara observed it with a dull detachment.

"Long day?" Kaede's bookbag leaned against the side of his chair.

"Yeah."

"I don't blame you. Final evaluations are always exhausting," she sighed, twiddling with the brightly-colored plastic bit of her gel pen. "I'd usually relax by playing something calm and familiar. Satie's Gymnopédies..." Her hands lifted gracefully, remembering the keys underneath her fingertips. "...But I've played so much piano today I just want to go back home and sleep."

Saihara chuckled. "I know how you feel. Kirigiri-san is an amazing mentor, but I think she overestimated my abilities." He paused. "The police department is clueless and I kinda burnt myself out last week, so she took pity on me and gave me a day off."

"Oh no!" Kaede turned towards him, face awash with sympathy. So she didn't notice his lie. Good. "If it's Kirigiri-san, she must have given you a hard case to help out with. I'm sure that as long as you show her that you tried your hardest to gather info about it, she'll give you a good evaluation. You can do it!"

"Ah, I hope so." He offered her a small smile. "Um...good luck on your evaluations, too."

"Thanks!" She beamed at him.

The second she turned away, the smile fell off of his face. He leaned into his laptop, brightness set so low that he could only read while squinting, and scanned the digital map he'd pulled up earlier.

The address Ouma had given him...was nowhere near a school of any sort. It was a lonely outpost on national route 188, across the river from a power station. He bit his lip.

He was going to discover something tomorrow. He just didn't know what. The best case scenario would be that Ouma was pulling his leg, which was wholly believable given who Ouma was. The little liar would ambush him once he reached their decided rendezvous point underneath the bridge with the blue arch going across it, and all of his doubts about Ouma's wellbeing could be released.

Saihara pinched the map and it zoomed outwards. More power stations. A mountain. The Jinzu river. And...a park?

A quivering crescent of hope opened up inside of him again. The suspicious behavior, the roundabout words, Ouma's seeming inability to openly and truthfully display his feelings without at least a couple joking jabs at his beloved—it fit quite well.

Maybe Ouma was asking him out on a date.

His mind started racing with possibilities, things to say, whether he should make the first move or if Ouma was the type to avoid all advances until he thought the time was right—

No.

That wasn't a good mindset to have, since he'd told Kirigiri that he would be out tomorrow on a potential lead. Perhaps the worst was waiting to happen, and the worst was what he ought to prepare for.

Perhaps tomorrow, the person waiting under the bridge would not be Ouma at all.

Perhaps tomorrow, just perhaps, Saihara would have to face the bastard who murdered the Ultimate Supreme Leader.

 

TUE 11:03 AM

Saihara-chan,

I'm here already! Is your train running late? I'm booooooored...

Saihara tried his hardest not to smile at his phone. Kaede had caught him doing so several times, and it had never failed to embarrass him. Even though unease still churned thickly in his chest, he couldn't help but wonder what he could say to Kirigiri if this turned out to be another one of Ouma's hijinks.

Sorry, Kirigiri-san, my idiot boyfriend asked me out in a way that sounded like it had to do with the case. Yes, he just does that. Sorry, I'll tell him not to do it again. And then he'd have to run around the park, chasing after Ouma, with all the evidence baggies rustling uselessly in his backpack.

Chasing after Ouma with a metal shovel weighing down his backpack.

That had been the most concerning part of Ouma's requests. Come armed, but don't bring a gun. It didn't align with either theory. If this was a date, what purpose would that line serve other than an extra helping of mischief to make Saihara worry? If this was something he'd have to call in the Hope's Peak remote squadron for, why would the murderer give him an opportunity for self-defense?

Saihara thumbed at his contacts list. The squadron's number sat at the top.

Hopefully it wouldn't come to that. He rehearsed Kirigiri's emergency procedure in his head for the umpteenth time that day.

Schrödinger's boyfriend, that's what this was. Leave it to Ouma to create a situation so convoluted that it had Saihara's very sanity balancing on a needle. Saihara would look into the box and find either sweet delight or utter devastation waiting for him inside, with little to no chance of an in between.

Ouma alive, pouting at him for not trusting a liar's words, promptly crushing his ribs with a deceptively forceful bear hug?

Ouma dead, nothing more than splatters of organic matter shoved into a shallow grave somewhere, helpless as Saihara fell right into the outstretched arms of a cold-blooded killer?

Saihara fell back against the hard seat of the train. As his brain raced to prepare him for both the worst and the best, his stomach turned painfully, sending a thick wave of anxious nausea through him. He wondered if Kirigiri would be sympathetic if he had to upchuck into one of the evidence bags.

It was a blue and green day outside, dotted with the brown and white of scattered houses and apartment complexes. An empty greenhouse slid by outside of the train window, its wire skeleton open to the baking heat. Yesterday's rainwater pooled in the short, dead grass behind a storage shed, evaporating bit by bit as it glided out of Saihara's line of vision.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

Wait and watch how the land rushed underneath the blue, blue sky, lazy clouds lying flat as sheets of tamagoyaki as they drifted in the sun. Wait and hear Momota's voice sighing in his ear, informing him that ghosts didn't exist, that he was being paranoid and overthinking things and that these crazy murder cases he got exposed to as the Ultimate Detective were really quite rare. Wait and hear Kaede's voice in his other ear, reassuring him that he had nothing to worry about, that Ouma-kun was fine and waiting for him, as boisterous and roguish as ever.

For another hour, he lay slouched in his seat, wondering if the rhythmic bumping of the train carriage would eventually lull him to sleep. All he achieved was a painful state of semi-consciousness and a restless itching in his hands that made him want to dig welts into his forearms.

 

There was nobody under the bridge.

"Ouma-kun?"

Saihara's index finger hovered over the call button next to the squadron's number. He inched closer to the bridge. It was definitely the right one. The blue pipe arching across the gap parallel to it like a second smaller bridge for adventurous squirrels, the rolling hills in the distance, the Jinzu river slithering by calmly between summery green shores just close enough for Saihara to see—everything matched.

"Ouma-kun, I'm here."

His voice was swallowed by the swaying reeds and grasses blanketing the earthen pit underneath Ouma's bridge. "Hello?"

The grasses rustled their answer. Nobody.

Saihara gulped and strode forward, ready to dart for the hills at any time, index finger fixed over the button he'd prepared for the worst case scenario.

It was cool and shady under the bridge. Saihara crossed to the other side.

Nobody.

Fifteen minutes of searching later, nobody.

He emerged into the bright afternoon sun again, shielding his eyes. This is a terrible place to violently apprehend a Hope's Peak student, he thought. A middle-aged lady leaned against the shaded facade of a house nearby, gnawing away at a cucumber. There would be witnesses.

Had Ouma just gotten bored of waiting...?

Saihara drafted an email.

 

TUE 12:53 PM

Whaaaat? I'm right here! You kept me waiting for a really, really long time. You should be ashamed of yourself, really.

Well, that's a lie. Actually, I'm the one who kept you waiting. I'm ashamed of myself. I wonder if you can find it in your heart to forgive me yet again even after this. Sorry, sorry.

I am underneath you. If you brought the wrong weapon, tough luck.

 

I am underneath you. Saihara's palms were unpleasantly moist. The laminated wooden handle of the shovel fogged with sweat as he gripped it weakly, feeling his stomach lurch again.

He had the evidence bags.

He had Kirigiri's phone number.

There was a bald patch in the overgrown ground where the dirt was loose. He drove the shovel into it slowly, with feeble arms. The dirt crumbled. It hadn't been packed very tightly. It crumbled away to reveal a positively filthy, wrinkled object buried in the sticky soil, stained brown by the mud that had seeped in from the passing rains.

Saihara unearthed it gently, wearing latex gloves that he'd brought along just in case. It seemed to be a shriveled ball of fabric, sitting demurely in his hands, reassuring in the fact that it wasn't a severed hand or a rotting organ.

Ouma...?

The crusted mud cracked and smeared as Saihara turned it about, revealing a small window of slightly-less-caked fabric through which he could catch a glimpse of its original color and pattern.

Checkers.

I am underneath you.

Saihara fumbled. The fabric ball unfolded limply.

Wrapped tightly inside it were a slip of grimy paper and a dark mass of

human hair

purple and black

17.

Short, choppy black hair

Purple tips

17.

Approximately five feet tall

purple pen

Yay! Saihara-chan, you did it! Message me about it so I can tell you how proud I am!

 

Wednesday. Kaede's warm smile. "Hey! How was your day off?"

"It was great."

"Saihara-kun."

"Hmm?"

"You're distracted." She wasn't smiling anymore. "I...I know you love him a lot, but you've done nothing but stare at your phone all day with this...look on your face." Her fingers drummed an unhappy solo on the top of her desk. "Are...are you guys having an argument? I'm here for you if you're having trouble, okay?"

"Ah, no, we're doing fine. It's the case that's stressing me out." The look on his face didn't change.

"Oh, I see. I'm sorry to hear that."

"Heh, I'll live."

 

WED 10:55 AM

Yep, yep! I'm impressed at how quickly you figured everything out. I expected no less from my beloved!!

Now that you've done most of the legwork, I guess I owe you an explanation, huh?

You're completely right. Every message you've received from me up until now was written before I got all mashed up.

Saihara-chan, you've been reading my suicide note.

 

WED 11:01 AM

I began to die in eighth grade.

Have you ever had those fucking stupid fantasies about how everyone would react if your head turned up in a sewer pipe ten miles away from the rest of you? Yeah, those.

Those thoughts are really bad for people like me, y'know. Cuz everyone's always nicer to my dead body. That's the dangerous bit, when you get to thinking stuff like "hey, I wonder how shocked they'd be if I made myself dead because of them?"

I thought about that a lot back then. It was really bad since I was 13 and I had nooooo idea why everyone wasn't charmed by my winning personality. I thought the world was just unfair to me.

So, I started writing stuff I'd want say to those shocked people who couldn't believe poor widdle Ouma jumped out of a tenth story window and went splat. You can probably guess what they sounded like. You wanna see one? (It's super lame, I wanna smash my head into the wall just reading it.)

 

To everyone from my class,

This is all your fault. You can say all you want about how I died too soon and that this is horrible, but you're all just filthy fucking liars anyway. Every single one of you. Fuck you. You're happy I'm gone. Just say it. Be honest for once in your miserable fucking lives.

Now I'm gone forever. Nothing you ever say or do will fix that. I died hating you. Goodbye.

 

What do you think? Tragic, isn't it??? Oooooohhhhh I know baaaaad wooords. Ugh, I'm gonna puke. I'm really upset with you for making me dig that up, Saihara-chan. Even though it's not your fault. You're terrible!

Anyway, the POINT is, I sort of got addicted to writing this stuff in my free time. I kept offing myself in my head with crazier things. As if I knew where to get a katana and had the guts to stick it through my guts. Nishishi. Wasn't I a cute kid?

 

WED 11:07 AM

By now, you're probably wondering how I got into Hope's Peak if I spent all my time writing fake suicide notes. I never told you, did I? Get ready for the reveal of a lifetime!!!

Aaaaaand drumroll...............

10,

9,

8,

7,

Just kidding. An evil supreme leader doesn't give away his secrets that easily. You're going to have to crack that nut yourself, detective.

Maybe I just got lucky.

 

WED 11:09 AM

In ninth grade, I met the love of my life.

He strode into the cafeteria with his head down like an emu who wanted to bury its head in the sand but couldn't find any sand. The first thing he said to me was, "S-Sorry, can I sit here? The other tables don't have...any room, so...um. Haha."

I fell for him instantly.

Can you guess who that person was?

 

WED 11:10 AM

Ding ding ding! It was you, Saihara-chan!

Part of that was a lie, though. It wasn't love at first sight. Oops! You're not quite that dashing, sowwy. Maybe it was your gentle personality that did me in. Maybe it was just the fact that you were too wimpy to tell me to go away like the others did. Who knows.

By the way, I had an alternate message prepared for if you somehow guessed wrong like the big bonehead you are. That's how this works. I'm always prepared for every situation, except the ones I'm not prepared for!

I'm not prepared for Saihara-chan to send me pictures or links. Did you do that? I bet that was what made you suspicious in the first place. Even my ingenious autoresponder system has its limits.

Yep, I've been parsing keywords from your messages this whole time. Fujisaki-chan taught me that word. Parse. He helped me out a lot with this. No, he doesn't know what it became in the end. All he knows is that if he lets word of this slip, he'll be marked as an accomplice and tracked down by both my allies and my enemies!!! Aaaaahahahahaaa!!!!!

Why did I set this up, you ask? Hmm, good question. Unfortunately, even I don't know. My best guess is that having someone to address those suicide notes to made them easier to write. In a way, they became love letters. Just for a while.

Blech, sappy.

 

WED 11:12 AM

The whole time you knew me, Saihara-chan, I was rotting. I half-assed all of my homework and spent my time writing responses to the hypothetical you who cared about me enough to message me every day. I poured so much effort into them that I felt that the hypothetical me in those emails was more real than the real me.

I think I got sick around then. I don't know what it was, and I sorta didn't want to know, so I tried to ignore it in the hopes that it'd pass.

It wasn't the vomit-y kind or the runny-nose-and-coughing kind. I was just really tired all the time. I slept a lot. All I did was go to school and write those messages, then sleep for thirteen hours each night. I slept in class too, remember? Sensei always yelled at me for it. It sucked.

Now that I think about it, it never went away. I'm still sick now, but I've gotten used to it. Maybe it's part of growing up, like how some people get fat when they hit 50.

I'm sleepy now. I'll continue writing this in the morning, but you'll probably receive my next message in just a few minutes.

 

WED 11:20 AM

I don't know what we did together after I died, Saihara-chan. I predict that we talked to each other occasionally, like pen pals. Then you started to tell me stuff I didn't prepare for, and I said something that didn't sound right, and you began your investigation.

Am I right?

 

WED 11:23 AM

Saihara-chan...

This is just me preparing for another possibility. I never knew that this would happen. I will never know that this happened.

You felt that way about me too?

That's really weird. I don't know what to think. Hmm, hmm, Saihara-chan chooses to romance me...Unfortunately, this route was really sloppily written, because I have a tough time imagining it. Dating ugly Saihara-chan and his stupid hat...gross.

Honestly, why do you always choose the path I'm least prepared for? It's annoying. Stop that.

Ah, the flags I've set up tell me that you've read some of my most embarrassing messages! Wow, I'm blushing. I feel so exposed in front of you. Well, since you're so smitten with me, I think I can throw you a bone.

XSJJ9896GGDF0PQ000005PTG7HJT109

That right there is a special key that will reset our relationship back to square one if you paste it in the subject line of any message you send me. Use it wisely, because it's really annoying to have to get all your progress back if you regret sending it.

It's something I'd want to have if I were in your shoes.

Also, hey.

It wasn't your fault that I died, okay? Even if you confessed to me and swept me away, I don't think you would have been able to save me. I was going too fast to stop. Keep listening and I'll explain. I know how you are, and I know you're going to find some way to blame everything on yourself.

Listen to me. Don't. You couldn't have known. It was my decision alone. I was the one who fucked up. Live on, Saihara-chan, don't let me haunt you. Ghosts don't exist.

Thanks for loving me.

 

 

WED 11:23 AM

ANYWAY, back to my life story! Are you tired of reading yet?? I know, I know, I'm trying to be concise. Geez, so impatient.

I decided to let go in the middle of tenth grade.

There's something intoxicating about imagining your beloved mourning your death. I hate it. It's vapid and hedonistic and all those other words I didn't know when I was 13.

I was so drunk on that feeling that I started writing my suicide notes again. I started writing them for your eyes only, Saihara-chan. God, it pisses me off. I wrote myself into this jerkoffy story that involved me taking a train out to Toyama, cutting off my hair, and fucking off to an auto factory to get sandwiched between two slabs of metal.

I let go when I let that become the real me. I became that character I wrote. Ouma Kokichi who was gonna die no matter what.

I screwed myself over. Everything after that revolved around the plan I set up. My whole life became working on the responder and forging IDs and applying for jobs in auto factories. I worked so hard on my plan and I couldn't stop. I got even sicker. I stayed awake for three days working on the responder and passed out in the hallway at school. Sensei was really mad, remember?

I don't wanna die anymore. Get me out of here. I'm on a train to Toyama. God, that hydraulic press is gonna hurt like a bitch. It's normal to be scared of dying, right?

Get me off of this fucking train. I don't wanna die.

 

 

 

WED 11:30 AM

Hey, hey.

You're not gonna tell anyone about this, right?

Cuz you shouldn't.

Imagine if we had an Ultimate Journalist at school. It would be THE juiciest scoop. I know how these things work. It gets out, and a ton of other people think the responder thing is cool, and they kick the bucket too. Copycats.

Let them all believe I just fucked off.

Let them believe I'm making girls cry still. Raiding party stores. I disappeared in a confetti bomb and fucked off to another school.

Let them be 50 and fat and think that I'm still somewhere out there with a PhD and arthritis pissing people off.

If you have to tell anyone the truth, tell Kirigiri-chan. There's probably going to be a murder case, right? Solve it. You have a career ahead of you. See? I'm considerate.

 

 

 

 

WED 12:50 PM

Saihara-chan,

This is the last message that I will ever write.

I saved this spot for myself when I was planning my death. I don't have many steps left to go now. In the plan, that is.

I think I imagined this message being really grand. Poetic. Blah blah something something. It's not. I'm in the 7-11 next to the Kumatsu manufacturing plant. It's 5:31 in the morning. I'm going to die in a few hours. My hands aren't real.

I could turn around and try to find my way home from here. Give up on the whole thing. Believe me, I want to. I'm drinking coffee. Like an adult. It tastes like shit. I don't know why I didn't buy soda. I don't really know anything right now.

My head is pounding. I haven't slept since ??? it's not worth figuring out right now.

I said all the poetic stuff earlier when I was planning this. All I have left to say is the stupid shit.

I like the wind.

I like how it's uneven in some spots. The temperature of the air. Like there's a bit of cool air here and a bit of warmer air there. The air indoors can't compare to it. I dunno, there's just a lot more air outside, and it moves, and it feels really good and it makes me feel like my skin is real. It's the best in the morning when it's cool. Summer morning not winter morning. Smells good too. Not fake like Yukizome-sensei's classroom you know she has the spice candles whatever. Tree wind sky grass smell.

I probably look like a zombie right now they might kick me out. I wouldn't blame them. I'm basically already dead.

I like how the sun looks in the morning. The sunlight. I don't stare directly into the sun I'm not that stupid have some faith in me Saihara-chan.

Saihara-chan I love you.

I love you I love you I love you.

Take me away from here.

Take me on a train to Toyama where I can dig up my scarf and my chopped off hair and throw them away and go back to Hope's Peak and back home to sleep 13 hours.

I don't want to die. Haha. I would cry but it would be fake.

Time's almost up. All I have to do is wait a few minutes too long and procrastinate my death and my plan would be ruined Saihara-chan. The last thing you said to me was see you next year. Saihara-chan. I have your email address I could turn off the stupid responder and talk to you myself.

I don't want to go. I'll miss the wind and the sun and the sky when it's blue, I'll miss people and gross coffee and train stations telephone lines and I'll miss you.

I don't want to go yet.

Saihara-chan, save me.

You don't exist do you? Are you at home with your uncle right now? I bet you're still asleep because who wakes up at 5:45 in the summer no school. Are you sleeping well? I hope you're having a good dream. I hope only good things happen to you.

I could run away from this but I hate myself too much to stop.

Time's up.

I don't want to go, I don't want to die. It's going to hurt. The sun is coming up. I never turned 18. I like how the sun looks in the morning. I forgive everyone. There are no bad people.

I have to go now.

I died loving you. goodbye.

 

 

 

 

"See, I knew you could do it!" Kaede clapped him on the back. Saihara grunted from the force of her arm.

"Y-Yeah, I guess. I think she went easy on me."

"Kirigiri-san doesn't go easy on people!" Kaede insisted. "You have to give yourself more credit. Chin up, Saihara-kun!"

"Okay, okay." He relented, straightening his back. "How did your finals go?"

"Oh, they went fine." She tossed her hair over her shoulder as she put her backpack on. "Do you want to go to karaoke with us tonight? Right now it's just me, Amami-kun, Momota-kun, and possibly Harukawa-san if Momota-kun can convince her."

"I...er, I have plans, sorry." His hand closed around his phone.

"Aw, bummer. We never hang out anymore." She stretched. "Are you going to that bonfire concert that Mioda-san is hosting?"

He shook his head, turning his phone over in his pocket. Too obviously, maybe. She noticed.

"Oh!" Kaede clapped her hands together, the beginnings of a mischievous smile playing out on her face. "Are you finally going on a date with Ouma-kun?"

It hurt.

Saihara shrugged. "Maybe."

Once she was on her merry way, he considered his decision again. It seemed fair.

He sent Ouma a message, carefully titling it XSJJ9896GGDF0PQ000005PTG7HJT109.

 

 

 

 

 

Saihara stood at the stovetop, staring at an empty skillet. Outside, a storm cloud split, sending rain crashing to the ground in miserable gray sheets. Though it was morning, the sky was as dark as it ought to be around twilight. The modest kitchen of his uncle's house existed as an isolated little pod of orangeish-yellow light.

He put the skillet away hesitantly. The darkness outside rumbled and roiled, every now and then cracking open in a burst of white preceded by bellowing thunder. The two potted plants sitting on the window ledge were completely inundated, leaves bobbing pathetically in the pooling rainwater.

A pair of arms wrapped around his waist and a cheek pressed itself against his back, between shoulderblades. "Hey," Saihara uttered, squeezing his boyfriend's arm gently in a futile attempt to remove himself from the koala grip he'd been captured in.

Ouma chuckled, low and raspy, and popped up right beside him in front of the stove. His smiling violet eyes glittered under the yellow recessed lights. When he opened his mouth, he spoke in twelve point Helvetica that burned like high-beam headlights through a wet windshield.

Saihara-chan, do you just drink a cup of coffee for breakfast each morning? That's not healthy, you know.

"I'm sure your eating habits are way better," Saihara muttered fondly, reaching over to tousle Ouma's already tousled hair.

Ouma ducked out of the way quickly, popping up to Saihara's left this time. Lucky for you, I have the perfect solution!

"Oh? And what would that be?"

Trying not to laugh, Ouma pinched his lips together, pressing a finger to his chin in a faux-contemplative pose. I call it dumbass risotto, but that's kind of a lie since it's not risotto at all.

"So just dumbass?" Saihara couldn't help but smile at his beloved. His beloved, his beloved, who made him warm inside on such a gloomy day.

Ouma swatted at him with a barely contained giggle. Okaaaay, let's start!

Saihara watched him, amused, as he stood straight, arms akimbo, as if he was preparing to command an army of subordinates.

Fiiiiirst, get out your leftover rice. Ouma stood there, staring sternly at his dear detective until his instructions were hastily obeyed. Got it? Now take out whatever you have lying around that might be good with rice. I'm talking ham, furikake, ketchup, mayo, whatever.

There was no mayonnaise or ham in the fridge, so Saihara settled for leftover bits of tonkatsu and tamagoyaki. He merely shook his head when he spotted Ouma rather conspicuously dropping a handful of sugary cereal into the bowl with a cheeky grin on his face.

Stir it all up!

He did.

Now slap some cheese on top and microwave it for 30 seconds.

"Seriously?" Saihara asked, though he obeyed all the same.

Yeah, seriously. When you've got a rumbly tummy, you don't have the time to get all Iron Chef about it. Ouma crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow challengingly.

Saihara shrugged in surrender.

The dumbass risotto came out looking as unappealing as he'd expected it to be. He set it down on the kitchen island, taking out some chopsticks and poking at it as if he expected it to twitch to life. Ouma only looked a little offended. Saihara took a bite.

So how is it???? Is it good? I eat it day in and day out, so I'm numb to the taste. Tell me, tell me, I need to know if my cooking is good enough for my beloved. His eyes were sparkling again, his hands balled into tiny, bony fists.

"You're like a little kid," Saihara sighed. It wasn't bad at all, just not terribly nutritious. And reminiscent of something a preschooler would enjoy. Simple tastes, he guessed. "It's pretty good."

Really? Are you lying? Ah. Ouma's face was way too close. Saihara could see the crease of his eyelids, the flecks in his purple irises. That's sweet of you, Saihara-chan. You always have my feelings in mind.

Heavy thunder boomed and crackled outside. The deluge rushed down ever harder.

It wasn't like Saihara could hear it anyway. He was too busy taking a long draught of Ouma's lips, softer and pinker than geranium petals despite the bloodless boy they adorned. They parted from their mouth-to-mouth briefly and he could see the shadows slipping off of Ouma's quickly flushing face as he lazily tilted his head.

"Shuuichi?"

Saihara's eyes widened. "Kokichi..."

"Shuuichi, what is this?"

Ouma's scarf stank of dirt and a faint hint of shampoo. Brown. It was brown. Ouma was red. A giant, flat blob of gray speckled with slimy bits of white underneath all the red—that was his brain. Two huge, ragged circles that looked like gory eggs split open, shadows of bursted veins running back and forth through their whites like frightened mice—his eyes. Sticky chunks of hair everywhere. Compressed, bloodstained skin, squeezed open and leaking fat.

"Shuuichi!"

Saihara's uncle stood in the kitchen doorway, eyes crusted with sleep, a mug of coffee in his hand already.

"Good morning?"

"Aren't you supposed to be at school?" His uncle's eyebrows furled in sleepy confusion. "Or do you have a day off today?"

"Uh...Yeah, we have the day off."

Ouma giggled behind him. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TUE 3:43 AM

My beloved Saihara-chan,

You've reached a place I never thought you would reach.

In total, I wrote 25,244 different messages for this autoresponder. They encompassed lots of different scenarios. There were ones where you hated me, ones where you didn't care about me, ones where we were friends, ones where you loved me, and so on and so forth.

You've received every single one of them.

I'd only expect such a thorough investigation from the Ultimate Detective. It touches my cold, shriveled, flattened heart that you love me enough to listen to me talk for so long, but I'm worried about you.

You need to move on, okay? I'm gone. Wherever I am, I can't return your love from there, and you deserve so much better than that.

I wasn't prepared for you to do this, and I fear that I've seriously harmed you. If you're having trouble, go ask for help. Please. Get a therapist, I'm begging you. You'll listen to me, right, Saihara-chan? Please, please take care of yourself. I'll grovel if I have to.

You understand how important it is now, right?

Good.

Now go on and live your life. Live! If you come to visit me too soon I'll be really, really mad. Don't do that, you got it???? I'll be cheering you on from the sidelines, wherever you go.

Bye-bye, Shuuichi! Until we meet again!

 

P.S.

I love you!