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She said she’s never held a gun before. Still, her fingers don’t shake as she loads the revolver. Meister hasn’t allowed them to talk strategy, so Keiji can’t tell why exactly her brows furrow, why her cheeks become pale. There has only been enough time to tell her about the basics. Keep your breathing steady. Only pull the trigger if you can stay calm. Be prepared for the recoil and for a loud bang.

Don’t start to sweat and shake like your friendly Mr. Policeman would.

“Say, Meister.” Her voice is loud enough to reach the upper level of the room. “What exactly happens if we lose?”

Keiji watches her, trying to read the intent behind her words. Just being thorough, is she? Next to him, he hears Q-taro suck in a breath. But before he can speak up, Meister responds.

“All of you will be executed on the spot, of course!”

Sara’s hands freeze. She stares at the revolver. Keiji watches her, but she doesn’t move at all, her brows furrowing even further.

“Just kidding!” Meister laughs darkly. “Well, guess you won’t get your reward for winning in that case. But no worries. Won’t be the only exciting challenge in here.”

Sara doesn’t answer. Instead, she releases the revolver’s safety catch, just like Keiji showed her. Next to him, Q-taro raises his voice.

“Why the hell’d you ask, Sara? No way you’d –”

“Targets don’t talk,” Meister warns. “Unless you want our little missy to lose right on the spot.”

Q-taro grits his teeth and leans back into his chair.

“And if we win? What’s the reward?” Sara asks without paying Q-taro any attention.

“Aren’t your lives enough?” A short, sober laugh. “You’ll see, missy. You ready?”

Sara never shoots a single glance in Keiji’s direction. She doesn’t show any reaction to Meister’s words either. Instead she climbs the ladder to the upper floor, passing Kai and Q-taro as she makes her way towards Keiji’s chair. He’s not the first target, though. The doll next to him is. Her face revealing nothing, Sara aims at it, hesitates.

Then she pulls the trigger.

There’s a bang. Something inside Keiji’s chest clenches. He feels like throwing up. He sees lights dance before his eyes. He sees a corpse on the floor, he sees blood pooling beneath a body.

Green liquid drips from the shot doll’s forehead.

He releases a breath. A natural talent, seeing how perfectly the bullet hit the center of the doll’s forehead. Her breathing has gotten faster, but other than that, she doesn’t seem too unsettled.

He has an eye for people, like he’s said.

She looks at the revolver, then at Keiji. He isn’t sure what she searches for in his eyes. After some seconds, she turns around to climb to the lower level. It doesn’t take her long to raise the gun again.

Another bang. Keiji can’t see who she aimed at, but he hears Joe give a quiet laugh. For a split second, Sara’s face lights up in a reassuring smile. She pulls the trigger three more times, aiming for the dolls in the lower row. Her face stays still while doing so.

“Whew,” Joe says. “Scary.”

Sara’s lips form a silent “sorry”. She looks exhausted as she climbs the ladder yet again, the revolver tucked into her skirt’s waistband. With cautious steps, she approaches Keiji and stops in front of him.

Slowly, she raises the revolver until it points at his forehead. He doesn’t remember the last time he felt his heart pounding that fast. Her eyes meet his. Despite the unrest gripping his whole body, the confidence she radiates manages to somewhat calm him down. She won’t let anyone die. She said so herself. She’s trustworthy, after all. Only a cute high school girl. Nothing to be afraid of. Bright, and innocent, and too smart for her own good.

Her eyes never leaving his, she pulls the trigger.

A loud bang. He holds his breath. Longer, longer, until he’s sure nothing happened. Her expression doesn’t change. Relief washes through him, makes him sink back into the chair, and he can’t help the small sigh escaping his lips.

For a moment, she holds Keiji’s gaze. Then she turns away and steps toward Kai. Their eyes lock, Kai’s blank expression revealing nothing, his body unmoving. She raises the revolver.

Still, something is odd.

Keiji couldn’t help her with strategizing – but it doesn’t mean he didn’t make his own calculations. Simplest way to determine who to shoot would be placing two dummy bullets between each of the real ones. Other ways are risky, but manageable. But choosing Kai doesn’t make sense considering the pattern up until now. He starts to sweat. Maybe she’s miscounted the bullets. It’s the only explanation he can think of. And if she pulls the trigger …

Sure, Keiji had his suspicions. He noticed Sara’s piercing looks, the way her eyes would always linger a second too long on Kai. Even during their introductions. When her friend mentioned her stalker, her cheeks became pale, but Keiji had thought there would be enough time to ask.

Maybe he should have done so earlier.

She takes a visible breath, steadies herself, and pulls the trigger.

A bang. The sound of a body collapsing. He’s heard it enough times in his life for it to send a shiver down his spine.

For some moments, he can’t bring himself to look at anything but Sara, at how a tremor seems to pass through her body. Silence takes over the room. Q-taro gives a gurgling wheeze. When Keiji finally manages to turn his head, he can see the body slumped over, a stream of red covering Kai’s face and dripping down onto his apron.

A natural talent. A perfect aim. A bullet that killed Kai in one quick shot, drilling through his brain in seconds. He must have felt no pain at all.

In front of him, Sara is frozen in place, eyes wide. A whimper leaves her lips.

“Hey, what is going on up there?” Joe calls. “Sara? What –”

“Not allowed to talk, Joe,” Keiji answers, his eyes not moving from Sara. “Just let her finish the job for now, okay?”

She’s still staring at Kai. The revolver in her hand is shaking. Her whole body is, in fact. She opens her mouth, closes it again. Hides a sob behind her free hand, her fingers digging into her own cheek. She gags once, twice, and Keiji resists the urge to call out to her.

“You – you fucking shot –” Q-taro’s words are tumbling out of his mouth. He looks less like the strong guy he is and more like a cornered rat running from its own death.

“Don’t talk,” Keiji tells him, keeping his voice as low as possible.

“Kai’s – what the fuck, you –”

“I told you not to talk.”

That seems to do it. Q-taro stares at him wide-eyed, his hands gripping his chair’s armrests.

“Now that’s too bad, little missy,” Meister laughs. “Guess you lose the game right here and now. What’s one teeny tiny life worth anyway? But sorry, we’re not finished yet. You still got two bullets left, right?”

Both of which are dummy bullets. She should have known as much. It doesn’t make sense, and still …

“I can’t,” she says so quietly that Keiji almost doesn’t hear it.

“Oh, a sore loser, are we?” Meister yawns. “Too bad. In that case, how about we test out that poisonous gas I never got to use? I was told it’s pretty painful. Burns you up from the inside. You want details?”

Sara doesn’t answer. She stares down at the revolver. She is trembling, her cheeks as white as paper. It takes her almost an eternity to raise the weapon and aim it at Q-taro. He presses himself into his chair, his eyes still widened. She isn’t crying. Not yet. She just looks so utterly terrified that Keiji feels pain thud inside his chest.

She pulls the trigger. The bang makes her wince. Q-taro is shaking just as much as her. The tears are finally spilling over as she looks at Kai again, taking a step back. Blood has spread over the back of the seat, painting the patterned fabric red. It seems to take her an eternity to turn away, to climb down the ladder.

The last bang is too loud and echoes in the room. Then silence washes over them.

“Bravo! You made it to the end, missy. I knew you could do it. Well, would love to give you a reward, but alas …” Another laugh, loud and deep.

Keiji can’t move for a while. He can only stare at Sara, watch as Joe stumbles over to her. The urge to shield them both from the sight of a dead body rushes through him. He pushes it away and stands up instead. Follows his instincts, the routine still stuck in his brain.

When he reaches the corpse, his fingers carefully search for a pulse. Just to be sure. There is none. He didn’t expect anything else.

A corpse. An accident. Self-defense. No need for a trial. No need to be questioned. She didn’t have a choice. She shouldn’t worry. She should forget. Nobody can blame her. Nobody will call him a murderer. (He doesn’t want to remember.) Because he isn’t. In his field of work, it happens all the time. (But he does. He remembers.) Nothing that can be done. And yet –

A clean shot. Almost eerily so. The eyes are still slightly open, just as empty as they seemed when he was alive. Blood drips from the wound. Next to him, he can see Q-taro jump to his feet and bend over with a choked sound.

A loud whimper makes Keiji turn around. On the lower level, Joe is wrapping his arms around Sara, holding her so tight that only the top of her head stays visible. He rocks her gently. The revolver in her hand is shaking.

It was an accident. He is sure it was. She is no cold-blooded murderer. Maybe he only imagined the way Sara was looking at Kai before.

He must have imagined it.

He grits his teeth. She’s an innocent high school girl trapped in an obscene game. Of course her brain would go haywire. He should have known. He should have done something.

Kai is dead, his head slumped down, his apron dirtied by blood.

But Sara is not a murderer.

He gives Kai one last glance. Then he climbs to the lower level. Q-taro is shaking behind the armchair, but he’s a big guy. He’ll manage. Joe is still rocking Sara, whispering something into her ear. The gesture’s intimacy holds Keiji back from coming any closer. Not for the first time, he wonders what exactly the two of them are.

“A message for those in the room,” a robotic voice sounds. “Please exit the room quickly to allow for retrieval of the corpse.”

Keiji looks around for the voice’s source, but can’t find anything. The bars closing off the room’s exit have disappeared. They are free to go. And for whatever reason, the kidnappers don’t want them near a dead body any longer than necessary.

No chance to investigate that collar then, it seems. At least it confirms what Keiji has suspected from the start: these collars could hold vital information. But nothing to be done now.

He finally approaches Sara and Joe, both of them looking like they didn’t even notice the announcement.

“You should go,” he tells them. “Find a quiet place to calm down.”

Joe is the only one to look up. He seems incredibly tired. With a nod, he puts an arm around Sara’s shoulders, guiding her towards the room’s exit. Keiji watches them for a few seconds before turning his attention to Q-taro. It takes the man some time to climb down the ladder, every step he takes shaky, sweat trickling down his forehead.

“Is it right to jus’ leave him?” Q-taro croaks, his eyes trained on the corpse on the upper level. “Shouldn’t we – I dunno, some kinda funeral or somethin’ …”

Keiji can’t say he isn’t curious to see what would happen if they refused to leave. Then again, he is not willing to lose another ally. “Don’t think they’d allow for one.”

“They … Shit, man.” Q-taro shakes his head as they approach the exit. “Thought I was done for too, y’know.”

“She miscalculated.”  Voicing the truth feels so much harder than just thinking about it.

“Miscalculated,” Q-taro repeats. The calm is leaving him, making place for panicked words. “What the hell. Miscalculated? She fucking murdered Kai. She pulled the trigger and put a bullet through his head. She’s a goddamn –”

Something inside Keiji snaps violently. Before he can control himself, he grabs Q-taro by the collar, bringing his face closer. “Don’t,” he growls, “ever say that again. Don’t even so much as suggest she murdered Kai.”

Seconds pass. They are close to the exit. Keiji clears his throat, buries his emotions, and lets go of Q-taro, ignoring the fear in widened eyes. He moves on.

“Situation was messed up, right? She lost her cool.” Keiji shrugs. “You can’t blame a kid for losing their cool if you can’t even keep yours, can you?”

There’s no answer. He doesn’t need one.

When he and Q-taro step out of the Blue Room, the door instantly shuts close behind them. He glances at Q-taro. A fearful animal can be dangerous when it’s only trusting its instincts. But Keiji knows he’s not trustworthy enough to prevent it. He had hoped that Sara would take on that role. Smart, cute Sara who would never let anyone die. Not intentionally.

She’s standing in the corner of the room, arms wrapped around herself. Her tears have dried. She stares into nothingness. He tries to find guilt in her eyes. Self-loathing. Deep and utter hatred.

He finds nothing.

“I gotta talk to you two,” a voice before them says. Joe is blocking their way, his arms crossed and his jaw set. His seriousness is amusing, but Keiji holds his smile back.

“How’s she doing?” he asks instead.

Joe stares at him. “You know she didn’t do it on purpose.” His gaze locks on Q-taro. “Both of you know that. Right?”

Q-taro gives a snort. When he doesn’t answer, Keiji does in his place. “Of course. It’s not her fault.”

“Right. That’s why I want you to act like I was the one who killed Kai.”

A beat. Keiji can’t even laugh as he tries to understand. “You want to take the blame,” he concludes.

“Yeah.” He’s looking so serious, so extremely determined that Keiji finally laughs out loud. Joe doesn’t stop staring at him. “What’s so funny?”

“You must like her a lot, huh?”

No flicker of embarrassment on his face. “What if I do?”

“Now will you look at that. What a bold plan.” Keiji feels his smile fall. “Fine. I’m in.”

“Good.” He turns to Q-taro. “What about you?”

The look Q-taro gives him is so cold that Keiji involuntarily tenses up. “Why would I lie to everyone just to cover her ass?”

“Because if it were you messing up in there, she’d cover your pathetic ass in an instant.”

Hoo boy. It’s almost comical to see someone like Joe getting that fired up. Keiji gives a long sigh. “Look. The real enemy’s the one forcing us to play a game of Russian Roulette. Not a high school girl who’s never held a gun before.”

“’N’ I told you she shouldn’t be the one to do it.”

“Well, if I’d done it,” Keiji says, keeping his voice as steady as possible, “I wouldn’t have been able to promise you anything either.” He revels in the way Q-taro flinches at the words.

“To hell with that.” Q-taro shakes his head and turns away. “Kai’s dead anyway. I hope you’ll have a good ’n’ proper explanation for that.” He leaves the room with heavy steps.

Keiji scratches his neck and twists his mouth. It’s not until Joe speaks again that he is wrenched out of his thoughts.

“Even taking the … taking Kai away. What are they doing that for?” He averts his gaze. “What, so there’s no evidence left when we manage to escape?”

“Dunno.” Musing over it with someone like Joe won’t help though. Keiji’s gaze wanders to Sara. She must have been watching them for quite some time. It’s odd. He was sure she would break down – maybe not as bad as Kanna did, but anyway. The look she’s sending him now is wary and composed. Just as if –

No. It was an accident. A miscalculation. A moment of carelessness.

When he turns to Joe again, he notices how cautiously the boy looks at him. Like an overprotective dog. How cute.

“Hey, Keiji. Could I ask you for a favor?”

“Depends.”

Joe’s arms are still crossed. His eyebrows furrow at the answer, but his voice sounds firm. “Would you keep an eye on Q-taro? Just in case. This guy …” He clenches his jaw. “I don’t have a good feeling ’bout him, you know?”

The grin that spreads on Keiji’s lips hurts a bit. “Ah. And you’re gonna look out for Sara in the meantime?”

“That’s the plan.” He frowns. “What, you think a cop who can’t look at a gun without starting to sweat is the better option?”

Keiji barks out a laugh. “Of course not. You’re right.” When he risks a glance in Sara’s direction, he notices that she is still watching him. She seems calmer already, but the shadows in her eyes can’t be smothered that easily. To be honest, he was prepared for a pep talk. He was prepared to reuse words thrown at him once upon a time, to try to believe in them himself. But seeing how Sara copes with it …

He doesn’t know if he’s relieved or just the tiniest bit scared.

“If I were you, I’d take the gun from her,” he says before patting Joe on the shoulder. The gesture makes the boy wince. Holding back another laugh, Keiji leaves the Game Room and feels all amusement fade away.

 

In the Central Hall, he is greeted by Reko. She’s looking tense. Nao is still kneeling next to Kanna, gently stroking her hair. The girl has regained consciousness, but she’s staring at the floor regardless, her face unnaturally pale. She doesn’t even look up to acknowledge Keiji.

“Hey, you there, cop.” Reko stands up, wiping dust from her clothes. “I just saw Q-taro hurry down the hall and into the cafeteria. Wouldn’t even talk to us. Something the matter?”

“He looked … upset,” Nao adds.

Now what to do? The truth will have to be told sooner or later. Well, not the whole truth, if Joe can help it. But seeing as Kanna is sitting next to them … She’s so incredibly fragile. He notices how Reko’s eyes become warier the longer he hesitates.

Without warning, Kanna suddenly heaves herself up, her knees shaking as she lets out a deep breath. Her eyes stay fixed on the floor. “I have to …” A weak and quiet voice. “I should …”

“Kanna.” Nao attempts to touch Kanna’s arm, but the girl pulls away with surprising quickness and starts heading for the Game Room. Her face colored in worry, Nao is about to follow her, but Keiji stops her in her tracks.

“Do you have a second? Both of you.”

“But Kanna …”

“Better if she doesn’t hear this,” Keiji interrupts. He crouches down to be at Nao’s eye level. Reko only looks after Kanna for a few seconds before turning her attention to him. Shoulders still tense, she bends down, fingers digging into her trousers.

It doesn’t get easier. He never liked it. Being the bearer of bad news. Seeing faces contort in disbelief and desperation. Even worse than seeing corpses. At least dead people don’t have any tears left to cry. But – she. She always told him. Separate your life from work. Don’t think about dead people when there’s so much to live for. Don’t mourn people you didn’t even know, no matter if they deserved death or not.

She has always been a heartless bitch.

“Kai’s dead,” he says and doesn’t wait for the reactions that will surely follow. Quickly, like pulling off a band-aid. Just to get it over with. “We were forced into a game of Russian Roulette by the kidnappers. He died.”

“What … Kai?” Nao clutches her chest. “Kai … Dead … No …”

“You saw them? The kidnappers?” Reko doesn’t seem entirely unfazed, but her words are sharp.

“We didn’t. They communicated with us through a painting.”

“Through a painting? The hell?” She clicks her tongue, anger taking over her features. “Cowardly bastards. Shit.”

Tears shine in Nao’s eyes. He can barely look at her as she presses a hand against her mouth and sobs. He’s glad that Reko is the one to put an arm around her shoulders, pulling Nao toward herself.

“Can we say goodbye?” Nao says against Reko’s shoulder. “Can we at least …”

“They took the corpse.”

“No …” She buries her face in Reko’s chest, a heart-wrenching sob leaving her lips. God damn it. It’s sickening. It’s so completely inhuman. It’s exactly what he deserves. But a girl like Nao? A good-hearted woman like Reko? It’s unfair. So fucking unfair.

“Who else? Everyone else is all right?” Reko whispers, lightly stroking Nao’s hair. She’s acting like the strong one, and still she tries to hide the grief shining in her eyes.

“No one else was harmed, no.”

“Thank god.” She releases a breath. “Q-taro seems pretty out of it. Guess it would be best to look after him, yeah?”

Keiji nods. He slowly stands up again, exchanging a look with Reko. Nao is still sobbing in her arms. He has to look away, to force himself to let them be, to not let the grief and sadness get to him. Because if he did …

He doesn’t dare think about it.

Chapter Text

No one is in the cafeteria. The door to the kitchen is locked, the Pink Room is empty. When Keiji steps into the back of the cafeteria again, the red-glowing lamp plunging everything into bizarre shadows, he notices something odd in the darkness. A crack of light, so weak it’s almost unnoticeable. Keiji approaches it. A door. His instincts set in, the sudden urge to reach for his gun – right. Stupid. He exhales and leans in as close as possible.

“That’s what I’d like to know,” he hears a voice say. Sou.

“How did you find this room anyway?” Q-taro.

“Dumb luck, I guess. But we can’t guess the password forever. The battery will run out sooner or later.”

“Should we tell the others? Let ’em help?”

A short pause. “Ah, eventually. But I think keeping it to ourselves would be better for now.” Another pause. “Especially when we’ve got a murderer in our ranks.”

If that isn’t his cue. Keiji pushes the door open. A small room greets him, only illuminated by the light of a desk lamp. The shelves adorning the walls are jammed with books. Q-taro almost drops the book in his hands as he whirls around to Keiji.

Sou sits on the floor. In front of him, there’s a laptop.

“A murderer, you say?” Keiji repeats. Sou stares at him for a moment, flabbergasted, before a hesitant smile settles on his lips.

“Hey there, Keiji. Great to see you.” His eyes darken. “Q-taro told me all about it already.”

“He did.” Keiji refuses to let his eyes wander to Q-taro. He leans against the doorframe, his arms crossed. “Cruel, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Can’t believe that Joe …” Sou looks down at his hands. A hint of pain flashes over his face. Keiji doesn’t know if he should doubt it. “That Joe killed Kai. That’s …”

“And Q-taro told you it was an accident, right? Joe’s not exactly a murderer.”

“He isn’t? Huh …” Slowly, Sou looks up at him again. “Guess a police officer must know better than me. What is he, then?”

Keiji raises an eyebrow. He steps forward and closes the door behind him. “A victim. Just as most of us are, I assume.”

“Most of us,” Sou repeats.

“Right. I’m still not fully convinced none of us is working with the kidnappers.” Keiji stares at Sou. “Are you?”

His head slightly tilted, Sou returns his glare with no sign of unease. “Interesting. Maybe our suspect should be someone who murdered a person.”

“Under duress. You familiar with the law?”

“Not as much as you, I guess.”

Before Keiji can answer, cold amusement gripping his chest, Q-taro speaks up while putting the book in his hands back onto the shelf. “Too in-your-face, don’t ya think? If Joe was workin’ with the kidnappers, wouldn’t he try to attract as little attention as possible?”

“Makes sense.” Keiji smiles at Sou. “What do you think?”

Wordlessly, Sou returns the smile.

A moment of heavy silence passes, and Keiji tries not to let his true thoughts show. Instead he nods toward the laptop. “And that is?”

“Ah. Something I found in here.” Sou’s face lights up, any trace of cautiousness momentarily gone. “No idea what’s on there. It’s password-protected. There might be clues on how to get out of here. Something useful, at least.”

Keiji furrows his brows. He approaches one of the bookshelves. Titles he knows, most of them classic literature. He pulls a book out at random, but when he opens it, the pages are empty.

“Isn’t that odd?” he responds. “You think the kidnappers left the laptop behind by accident?”

“That’d be too convenient,” Q-taro tosses in, moving to the other side of the room and inspecting the bookshelf over there. As if trying to put distance between Keiji and himself. “Might’ve left it on purpose. With no real information on it.”

Keiji grabs another book and opens it. Again, only empty pages. “Well. Two possibilities. Either we can easily figure it out, meaning it’s probably information the kidnappers don’t care about. Something of no value.” He shrugs. “Or we can’t figure it out because we have nothing to work with. Which means they probably only want to stir us up.”

“They go through the trouble of hiding a laptop in a room that is also hidden,” says Sou, “just so we might find it and get our hopes up for nothing? That … It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Thought so too,” Keiji answers. “So there might be clues hidden somewhere.” He reaches for the book right next to the one he was flipping through, its cover a bright red. Something between the pages causes the book to open right away, revealing a thick playing card.

Keiji stares at it in confusion. There’s a note printed on the card, the letters glowing in the darkness of the room. According to it, this card belongs to Keiji from now on – and letting anyone know about it would lead to his death.

Funny.

“On the laptop itself, maybe?” Q-taro says, his voice somewhat quiet. “Some kinda hint. Is there one?”

“I really doubt it,” Sou mumbles.

Keiji’s back is still turned to both of them. He flips the card. “Commoner”, written in big white letters. What is that supposed to mean? Great way to make all of them nervous if everyone got such a card. Keeping secrets won’t do them any good. There’s no way to tell if their kidnappers would go so far as to act on their threats, though.

He hides the card in his pocket, making sure the gesture looks as natural as possible, and keeps talking. “Maybe inside one of those books. There’s nothing on the pages, but there might be a message somewhere. Will take some time to find it, though. Or the books’ order is important.” He finally turns to face Sou, shoving the book back onto the shelf, one hand still in his pocket.

“Part of another puzzle, you mean?” Sou scratches his cheek. “Perhaps.”

With a frown, Keiji steps closer to the laptop, looking for any kind of hint on who it might belong to. Or why it was hidden in here. Really doesn’t make sense. He places his hand next to the laptop as he leans forward, towering over Sou in the process. Their sudden proximity seems to make Sou wince.

Kind of a wimp, Keiji notes, suppressing a chuckle.

“I’ll try to crack it,” Sou says without looking at Keiji. “Until the battery runs out, that is … Ugh, talking about feeling pressured.”

“Counting on you.” The corners of Keiji’s mouth twitch. He turns to Q-taro, who still hasn’t moved an inch. “I’ll go and look for some more clues. You wanna come with, Q-taro?”

They exchange a look. It goes unnoticed by Sou, who is already opening the laptop, his brows furrowed in concentration.

“Gonna search on my own,” Q-taro grumbles, tilting his head until his expression is hidden by his cap.

“Fine by me.”

As soon as they close the door behind them, Q-taro is already heading for the cafeteria without a word, his steps echoing in the silence.

 

Out of curiosity, Keiji heads for the Game Room again. Just to see if their kidnappers unlocked the door to the Blue Room – and to see if there’s anything interesting to find in there now that Kai’s gone. As soon as he enters the Game Room, though, another sight greets him.

Sara, aiming the revolver at the dartboard across from her. Joe is standing next to her, the gazes he sends her a bit concerned. For a moment, Keiji wonders just what she wants to accomplish. For a moment, he wonders if she found more bullets. For a moment, he thinks about what she could do with them. If she’d be able to mercilessly point the muzzle at another person, pull the trigger and watch them bleed out in front of her.

But of course she wouldn’t.

A dart flies from the barrel when she pulls the trigger. Not even the gust emerging from the opening in the floor can blow it off-course. The dart hits the dartboard’s center with the same precision as the bullet hitting Kai’s forehead.

She didn’t shake. She didn’t look unsettled in the least. Even now, her posture speaks of nothing but confidence. Keiji can’t stop staring at her for some long seconds.

There’s the sound of sudden thundering applause coming from the speakers before a thud echoes through the room. Both Joe and Sara whirl their heads around, catching sight of Keiji in the process. Then they find something lying on the floor.

A leg. Interesting.

Joe splutters and stumbles backward, being caught by Sara before he can trip over his own feet. Her eyes hold cold curiosity, but Keiji is closer to it than her. He squats down in front of the leg. There’s no blood on its pale skin. He scratches his chin, only hesitating for a moment before picking it up. Soft, cold skin. But not cold enough to have been frozen. Still, there are no signs of decomposition. It doesn’t make much sense to him.

Then he sees it. The spot where the leg should be attached to the pelvis consists of metallic parts, enclosed in translucent fat tissue.

“It’s fake,” he announces, and he notices Joe releasing a relieved breath. Both he and Sara come closer, eyeing the leg.

“That’s just messed up,” Joe mumbles.

“At least we know what to look for now.” Sara bends down to inspect the limb, taking it from Keiji’s hands. Their fingers brush. She doesn’t look at him. “Let’s go, Joe. Nothing more to do here.”

“You sure I shouldn’t hold onto that?” Keiji asks.

She meets his eyes, forehead wrinkled. He knows what she is hiding behind her mask of indifference. He can see it in the shadows lingering in her eyes. He was in her position too, after all. A long time ago.

“We’ll take care of it,” she simply says, and straightens herself. Without another word, she heads for the door. When Joe doesn’t follow her immediately, she shoots him a questioning glance, and he scratches his cheek with a dishonest smile.

“Um, I’ll be right behind you. Just gotta talk to Keiji for a moment. That all right?”

She sets her jaw, but it’s not Joe she is eyeing with suspicion. Makes sense. “Sure. I’ll wait for you in the hallway,” she says. Then she leaves the room.

Keiji stands up, raising his eyebrows as he looks down at Joe. That’s curious, to say the least. He watches as the boy fidgets, eventually giving a sigh and meeting Keiji’s gaze.

“You told me to take the gun from her, but I kinda think …” He shrugs. “I think she should have it. Just if … Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“In case, well … In case people wouldn’t like me carrying a revolver around.”

Keiji crosses his arms. “Who did you tell?”

“We didn’t exactly tell anyone that it was me, but …” Joe looks at the floor. “Professor Mishima knows Kai’s dead.”

Keiji nods. “Sou thinks it was you. Q-taro told him so.”

“I see.” Joe buries his hands in his pockets, his eyes still trained on the floor. “Should have guessed they’d know sooner or later, huh?”

Something about Joe’s reaction makes Keiji wrinkle his forehead in thought. “You regret taking the blame?”

Sharply, Joe lifts his head. “No! No.” He lets out a dry laugh. “It sounds stupid, but I kinda wanted everyone to get along. Guess it’s too late for that now. That’s all.”

Keiji can’t hold back his smile. “Trusting that easily isn’t always smart, you know.”

“I never said I trust everyone in here.” Any trace of bitter amusement falls from Joe’s face again. “I don’t trust you, for example.”

Now, isn’t that cute? Joe being all brave, meeting Keiji’s gaze without batting an eye. It almost makes Keiji laugh out loud. His smile stays in place, a silent answer.

Joe narrows his eyes. “I mean, a cop who can’t handle holding a weapon? I’m really sorry, but I don’t take you to be some traffic cop or something.”

Keiji doesn’t respond.

“Did you quit your job? That’s what I’m wondering. And if you did, why didn’t you tell us?”

“A lot of questions, huh,” Keiji drawls. “You’re letting Sara wait so you can interview me? Impolite, don’t you think?”

“Yeah … What’s your deal with her, by the way?”

This time, Keiji can’t stifle his laughter, the sound vibrating in his chest. “Defending your territory, are you?” He bends down a bit, cocking an eyebrow. “No need to worry. I won’t lay a hand on her.”

“That’s not –” Joe backs away, trying so hard to look stern and failing miserably. “I’m just looking out for her, okay? She’s been through enough. And you’re not helping your case by creeping around, staring at her like …” He interrupts himself, averting his gaze.

And Keiji can’t help it.

“Like what?”

“Like …” Joe makes a helpless sound in the back of his throat. “I dunno. Forget it. Anyway, just … Would be best if we didn’t burden her any further, okay? She’s … she’s trying her best, but I know her. I know she’s feeling horrible about what happened, and if I won’t protect her, she’ll break down.”

Maybe Joe can’t properly articulate it, but Keiji knows what he means. Sara is a born leader, strong and able to do what is right. But in a situation like this, she’s nothing more than a girl trying not to fall apart.

He wonders if Joe is the right person to protect her. But who else could do it? Keiji himself? Of course. He wants to laugh at himself and stares at Joe.

“You’re right,” he says. “Then I’m counting on you, Joe.”

Keiji’s words make him jolt. It takes Joe a second to regain his composure. With a nod, he turns around and approaches the door.

It’s cute, but Keiji knows that Joe’s protection can never be enough. He can’t relate to Sara the way Keiji does. He doesn’t know the pain, the crushing guilt. Even if Joe tries – he’ll never be able to save Sara from herself.

Keiji tries to open the door to the Blue Room, but it’s still locked. He wishes he could do more.

 

Inspecting the Game Room leads to no results. He doesn’t want to follow Sara and Joe into the bar, so instead, Keiji decides to pay Sou another visit. Though when he sets foot into the back of the cafeteria, he hears voices coming from the Pink Room. Reko and Nao.

No point in eavesdropping. So he doesn’t hesitate to step into the room. Both girls turn around to him as he enters. Nao’s eyes are bloodshot, her hands clasped.

“You haven’t seen Kanna, right?” Reko immediately speaks up. She’s standing close to Nao, so close their shoulders almost touch. “She didn’t come back, and now we can’t find her. Not in the Game Room, not … anywhere.”

“You don’t think …?” Nao shivers violently, her eyes glazed over with fresh tears.

“Let’s not draw any conclusions yet, okay, Nao?” Keiji shows a reassuring smile. “Think I saw her somewhere around the bar with Mishima. Maybe you’ve just missed each other.”

“Professor Mishima,” Nao corrects under her breath, not looking Keiji in the eye. “But, um … Well, we did kind of panic when we couldn’t find her near the Game Room.”

“You see. Then let’s go back and search for her, all right? Q-taro’s fine, so I could lend you a hand,” he offers. The room sends a shiver down his spine. The limbless torso resting on the floor, surrounded by stuffed bunnies. The empty shelves. And that vent in the form of a heart. What a sick kind of humor.

Reko rolls her eyes. “Look, thanks for the help, but that doesn’t mean you gotta act like some kinda bodyguard for us. We’ll get to the bar just fine.”

Keiji’s smile is still in place. “Right, right. Forgive me.”

A loud, rumbling sound makes them turn around. The door that was open just moments ago closes with a bang. Damn, not again. Keiji doesn’t hesitate to push down the handle, but like he expected – the door doesn’t budge in the slightest. Behind him, Nao gives a frightened sound.

“No,” she whispers. “No, no. They’re making us do it again? No – no, no, please …”

“Another round of Russian Roulette?” Reko mumbles, her hands clenching to fists.

“Russian Roulette? How boring would that be?” This time, Meister’s deep voice comes from the speakers situated in one of the corners of the room. At least it’s clear now that the whole painting performance was just some gimmick the kidnappers found particularly amusing. “No, sweetheart. I’ve got something brand-new for you, seeing as you failed your first game. Had me in a tight spot there! Thought all of you’d be born winners for sure.”

Keiji stops rattling the door handle. For a moment, he allows himself to hide his face from the others as he stares at his hand. Neither Nao nor Reko are the type to keep a cool head in a situation like this. And Keiji himself? Sweat builds on his forehead. He tries to swallow the lump in his throat.

“Who the hell are you?” Reko growls.

“Meister, as he likes to call himself.” Controlling his breathing, Keiji turns to them and crosses his arms. “One of the kidnappers, I’d say. He explained the rules of Russian Roulette to us.”

“You remember me! I’m touched.” Meister laughs. “Listen up. Poisonous gas will be emitted into this room. Can’t resist the chance to try it out, after all. No worries, won’t affect anyone but the three of you. But not all is hopeless! The key to your escape is hidden in this room. You’ve just gotta find it within five minutes, or else the gas burns your lungs from the inside. I call it the Easter Egg Hunt. Creative, huh?”

“Why?” Nao’s breaths are already panicked and too quick. She’s starting to hyperventilate. “Why? Why are you doing this to us? Just please, I don’t want to …”

“Yawn. You finished with your whining? Good. Then the five minutes are counting down from … now. Good luck!”

A hissing sound fills the room. There is no smell, no visible gas, but Keiji isn’t about to wait for the five minutes to pass by without doing anything.

Reko grabs Nao’s shoulder, looking her in the eyes. “I know it’s hard and I know that this shit sucks, but we can’t do anything about it right now. Okay? We’ll get out of this room without dying, and then we’ll do our best to kick those bastards’ asses. You in?”

“I … I don’t know how –”

Keiji starts with the shelves, pushing them back and looking for a key behind them. Not a trace of dust is visible on the floor. And no key either. Reko is guiding Nao toward the stuffed bunnies, but both of them are too weak to rip them apart. Keiji has to do the job for them.

He grabs the first bunny, staring at its black eyes. Cute. Nauseatingly cute. A smell reaches his nose, something sharp and acid. His fingers dig into artificial fur. Only one quick move, the sound of fabric ripping apart, wool raining onto the floor. What would it look like if it bled? What would it look like if he ripped a living being apart? Is the thought so unlikely? Didn’t he already feel the high of power once before as someone he called a friend died in front of his eyes?

“Keiji!” Reko tears the ripped bunny from his hands, digging through the wool. Her fingers are trembling. “You smell it too, don’t you? Nao’s already feeling dizzy. If you keep spacing out …”

He mumbles an apology and rips the next bunny apart. Nao almost doesn’t catch the two halves as he tosses them toward her. The next three bunnies he digs through himself, but he comes up with nothing. No key. The last option is the doll’s torso. Before Keiji can put his hands on it, Meister’s words stop him.

“Nuh-uh! No luck there. The torso definitely isn’t the key.”

What an odd wording. Of course the torso itself isn’t the key. Then again … Just to make sure, he looks at the locked door. It’s only now that he notices. There’s no keyhole.

Is this a joke?

“The key to our escape,” he repeats Meister’s words. Reko cocks an eyebrow at him. “Doesn’t have to be a literal key, right?”

“What …” Her forehead wrinkles. “I mean, no, it doesn’t. But what else … How would we know what the key is then?”

Something that isn’t visible at first glance. Something that is hidden. Not inside stuffed bunnies, not inside the doll’s torso.

Nao cautiously kicks at the floor with the tip of her shoe. “Is there any way to … to look underneath the floor?”

There isn’t. There are no tiles. It’s a perfectly even floor. They’d need some powerful tools to crack it open. There must be a way to escape though, or else a game like this one wouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

“The vent,” Reko says. She examines it, her fingers tracing the heart’s rims. “Look, there aren’t any screws. So …” He is about to help her, but it takes Reko only a few seconds to grip the metallic grid and yank it from the wall. The used force causes her to stumble backwards. Quickly, Nao stabilizes her, eyes trained on the black hole that was hidden by the vent.

“Could have told me to do it,” Keiji sighs and steps closer to the wall. A ventilation shaft. It’s too high up to reach without a little help, and though he might fit in there, it looks pretty narrow.

“Just imagine – women aren’t as helpless as you think.” Reko looks up at the opening too.

“Seeing you, there’s no possible way I would think so.” Keiji smirks, and she responds with a roll of her eyes. Then she nods upwards.

“Lift me up there. I’ll go take a look.”

“Wait,” Nao speaks up. “Is there, uhm … Is there anything I can do?”

“Yeah. Wish me luck.” Reko smiles at her before directing her gaze at Keiji, then nods at him. He helps her as best he can to grab the opening’s edge and pushes her upward until only her legs are dangling down.

“Are you okay up there?” Nao calls, nervously wringing her hands.

“Yep. Just can’t see anything.”

“Um – can you move?”

“Yeah, yeah, not a problem.” Reko crawls forward until she’s almost all the way in. Then she suddenly freezes. Some seconds pass, and Nao helplessly looks at Keiji. He clears his throat, tries to concentrate, his thoughts becoming more sluggish the more time passes.

“Everything okay, Reko?”

“Well …” A pause. “I …” Another pause.

That’s anything but good. “If you want me to get you out, just say the word. You don’t have to take any risks there.”

“No. No, I’m good. I –” She interrupts herself with a sharp hiss. Maybe even a whine. Keiji tenses up just as Nao grabs his arm. His body feels heavier than usually, every movement demanding too much effort, but Nao’s voice wakes him from his state in an instant.

“Get her out of there!” she shrieks. “What’s happening? Reko, say something!”

Keiji is already grabbing Reko’s ankles when she calls out to them. “Don’t! Just give me a sec.”

“A sec?” It’s only now that Keiji notices that Nao is swaying a bit, her hand still gripping his arm. “How much time do we have left anyway?”

“One minute, sweetheart,” Meister’s voice reaches him through a layer of dizziness. He can’t lose focus now.

“Reko, talk to us,” he demands. “What exactly are you trying to do?”

“There’s a … Um, I can’t really see it, but it feels like a … Something smooth. It doesn’t move, so I guess …” She pauses for a moment. “There’s a snake, too.”

“A … what? A snake?” Nao repeats shrilly.

“I think it is. It hissed and brushed my arm, so …”

Keiji feels coldness spreading through his body. “It hissed? Did it attack you?”

For a few seconds, she doesn’t answer. Her voice sounds hesitant when she finally says something. “Yeah. It managed to bite me.”

A snake. A snake she can’t even see. Keiji does his best to recall everything he knows about snakes. He comes up with nothing other than the knowledge that most of them are harmless, that some basic first aid suffices in such cases. But he has no idea how to determine whether it’s dangerous. Or what exactly to do in case it is. His hands start shaking.

“Got it,” Reko calls. “You can pull me out now.”

He does as he is told. As soon as Reko stands on her own two feet, she lets go of the object in her hands – something lengthy and white, but Keiji doesn’t have time to inspect it. She hurriedly picks up the heart-shaped grid and puts it back in place. On her right arm there’s a bright red wound which is already swelling up. When Reko lets her forehead rest against the closed vent, Nao is next to her in a second, inspecting the bite with trembling hands.

“We shouldn’t have let you go in there,” she says shakily. “Is it … Does it hurt?”

Reko’s forehead glints with sweat, but she still manages a smile. “Nah. Not that much. And look what I found, a –” As if recognizing it only now, she jumps away from the item she dropped. And Keiji can understand why. It’s an arm. A detached, bloodless arm. “Oh, what the everloving –”

“A doll’s arm,” Keiji interrupts, picking it up. Instead of severed bones, metallic parts are visible where the arm should be attached to the shoulder. He’s so tired that he has to fight the urge to close his eyes. Sudden emptiness spreads in his lungs. “So that’s the key?”

“Sure enough it is!” Meister calls out. “That’s your key right there! Congrats, I knew you could do it! If I were you, I’d leave the room for a little while though.” He laughs. “Even if I can’t guarantee our little superstar that it’ll help her all that much.”

He can’t guarantee it. He doesn’t mock them about the bite either, like Keiji expected him to.

Keiji quickly tears open the unlocked door, breathing in fresh air. His head is swirling, but he helps Nao get Reko out of there. Both girls are panting. At least Reko doesn’t show any signs of pain. Or doesn’t allow herself to.

Steps sound from the distance, a quiet conversation. He recognizes the voices – Sara and Joe. Sara is the first one to notice them.

“What –” She stops in her tracks. All darkness has vanished from her face, making place for concern. “Are you okay? What happened?”

Keiji knew it. There’s no way Sara could be anything but innocent. Not with the way she cares, not when she is immediately at Reko’s side, inspecting the injury and telling Joe to go get Mishima. Of course. At least there’s one reliable adult in here with them. He doesn’t realize he’s started to laugh until all three girls stare at him.

“Sorry,” he says. His whole body still feels way too heavy. “Guess that gas is getting to my head.”

“Do you want to sit down?” Sara asks, her hand moving toward him. Touching his arm. If she can even look at him like that – as if he deserved her concern, as if he deserved how her warm hands rest on his skin …

“I’m okay,” he replies. “Let’s wait for Mishima and get Reko to the bar. At least put some ice on the wound.”

“Right.”

Her eyes are bright and innocent and full of determination, and he doesn’t allow himself to listen to the voice whispering about an ugly truth in the back of his mind.

 

“How are you feeling, Miss Reko?”

“Been better.”

“Understandable. Do you feel dizzy? Nauseous? Do you have a headache?”

“Nothing like that, no.”

“Good.”

She might not have a headache, but Keiji sure does. He’s trying to not look as tired as he feels while leaning against the bar. His eyes wander to the bottles of alcohol. Whisky. He remembers a time when he sat in front of the TV, gulping down the liquid without tasting it anymore. It didn’t help. Especially not when his girlfriend watched him with disappointment in her eyes. He never understood how she still wanted to be with him when he couldn’t even stand himself.

She only needed three more months to come to the same conclusion.

“I don’t think that the bite was venomous.” Mishima has wrapped a makeshift bandage over Reko’s wound. There was no first-aid kit to be found, but at least the bar is equipped with some dishtowels they could use. Mishima examines his work again, his brows furrowed in worry. “You’ve been lucky, it seems.”

“Guess it wasn’t about killing me. It was about messing with my head.” Reko snorts. “Thanks, professor. If it wasn’t for you …”

Useless. Of course Keiji is useless. Of course he couldn’t prevent Reko from being harmed. He should be used to it by now. Wary looks. Whispering behind his back. Cold eyes. Cutting words.

“Hey. You don’t look too well.” It’s Nao talking to him. She cocks her head and leans closer. “Are you sure you don’t want to rest for a bit?”

“It’s fine.” He sends her a smile. He doesn’t know when it became so easy to fake every single one of them. “I’m just glad Reko’s okay.”

Nao stays still for a moment. She looks healthier already, her cheeks just the tiniest bit flushed. “Me too. And I feel guilty too. But … I don’t think we should blame ourselves.”

He raises his eyebrows.

“I can see it. The way you stare at her – you are blaming yourself.” A shaky smile graces her lips. “But honestly, no matter what we’d have done – either all of us would have … would have died. Or one of us would have gotten bitten anyway. There’s nothing else we could do, right? We had no choice.”

The amusement he feels is genuine. “Didn’t think you’d take the logical route.”

“I’m …” She blushes. “I’m just trying to make you feel better. Because, um …” She breaks off their eye contact. “You might look a bit, you know, sketchy. But back there … I saw it with my own eyes. You’re a good guy.”

If she only knew. He can almost imagine it. The way her expression would change to cautiousness. To fear. Never quite leaving him out of sight. And he wouldn’t hold it against her. He feels his stomach churn.

“Sweet of you.” He’s unable to look her in the eyes. “Should worry about her rather than me, though.”

For a moment, she stays silent. “You like doing that a lot, don’t you? Diverting attention from yourself.”

He gives a short laugh, finally looking at her. “Trying to analyze me, are you, Nao? Care to tell me your results so far?”

“No, I didn’t mean … I just …” Under his stare, she turns bright red, stumbling over her words.

He decides to let it go and suppresses a grin. “Sara and Joe told us to come back to the Pink Room, right? Would be best to get going.”

Nao blinks, her cheeks still red. “Um, yeah. They did. You feel up for it? Or … do you want to stay here a little longer?”

“No. Shouldn’t waste any more time.” He heaves himself up, ignores the bottles of whisky and gin and brandy. When he approaches Reko, she boxes him on the arm with a grin.

“Impressed, aren’t you, officer? How many times were you bitten by a snake?”

He chuckles. “Right. You are way tougher than me.”

“Quite frankly, I really am impressed by Miss Reko’s resistance to pain. She didn’t even bat an eye.” Mishima laughs darkly. “Was this maybe not her first snake bite, I wonder?”

“It actually was. Guess it was more terrifying than painful.” Reko shrugs and leads the way.

As Nao passes him, she gives him an uncertain smile, then waits for Keiji to follow them.

Chapter Text

Sara and Joe collected the rest of the doll’s limbs. As Joe explains where they found them, his eyes meet Keiji’s and narrow numerous times. His persisting wariness almost makes Keiji laugh. While he and Joe eventually inspect the torso, Reko opens the door as widely as possible. She tells Q-taro to place himself in front of it. Not a bad plan after what happened in here before.

Together with Joe, Keiji starts attaching the limbs. Everything about the doll looks eerily real. The smooth skin, the fine hair on its arms, bright blue veins. Down to its face – Keiji almost doesn’t want to look at it as he picks up the head. First signs of wrinkles forming around the eyes, pores, a tiny scar on the forehead.

Everyone is watching as he attaches the head. The doll seems to be complete, eyes closed and body unmoving. Behind his back, he hears Kanna’s feeble voice.

“Where is … Isn’t Kai missing?”

Nobody answers. Someone must have told Gin – the boy is staring at his paw-like gloves in silence. Nao bites her lower lip and scratches the back of her hand.

Keiji’s eyes land on Sara. A calculated darkness colors her expression. Maybe he’s the only one noticing it. Maybe he’s the only one trying to decipher her thoughts, and before she can speak up, Keiji raises his voice.

“Kai’s gone.”

“Gone?” Kanna whispers, her fingers clutching her own sleeves. “Where to?”

A smell reaches his nose. Reko must have noticed too. She tenses up visibly, whirling around to the door. “Q-taro,” she calls out, “don’t let the door get closed! You hear me?”

“Huh? That smell …” Q-taro coughs. “What is that?”

“Poison?” Nao shrieks. “Again?”

But it’s different. This time, the gas is visible, white clouds spreading through the room. The air Keiji inhales starts to sting. Instinctively, he presses one hand over his mouth and backs away, squinting as he searches for the door. The gas has become so dense that he can’t make out anything. He wants to shout for everyone to leave the room, but by then, another voice echoes through the misty white.

“Gone!” A high-pitched laugh, so shrill it hurts in his ears. “What a cute euphemism! Say, Kanna Kizuchi, do you know what synonyms are?”

The gas dissipates slowly. The smell disappears with it. Keiji thinks his mind is playing tricks on him when he looks at the doll they have just put together. It’s moving. Talking. Looking at each one of them, a wide smile on its lips. What in the world …

“No …” Kanna starts shaking, her eyes wide. Everyone else is frozen in surprise. Joe stumbles backwards until his back meets one of the shelves, the clattering sound way too loud in a narrow room like this.

“You know. You could say that someone’s gone. You could also say that someone kicked the bucket. Bit the dust. Went west. Is pushing up daisies. Was shot, was mercilessly killed, was brutally murdered, was slaughtered, got their brains blown out –”

“Shut up with that crap already,” Reko hisses. “Who are you?”

“Ah. Yes, I didn’t even introduce myself. How rude of me.” The doll giggles. “Good day, everyone! Thank you for rescuing me. I have revived to tell you what is happening and support you through the trials and tribulations to come.”

Kanna slowly starts shaking her head. “Kai isn’t …” She doesn’t finish her sentence. Nao crouches next to her, wrapping her arms around the girl and hugging her close.

So the doll knows. The question is how much it knows. And how much it will reveal.

The doll takes a step towards Kanna. Instantly, Mishima gets in its way, his face more serious than Keiji has ever seen until now. “I’d advise you to not come any closer.”

“Ah?” The doll giggles again, derision shining in its heterochrome eyes. “But there’s nothing to fear, you see? I am here to offer all of you support!”

Among the confusion, Sara’s voice stands out, cutting through the tension. “Answer me one question. Just what are you?”

It’s her fierce demand that finally manages to shake Keiji from his bewilderment. “Yeah,” he says, forcing himself to sound calm, “that’d be real nice. I’m not really following here.”

The doll turns to them, cocking its head with the same wide smile as before. As if it doesn’t have the physical ability to erase it from its face. “If you insist! My name is Sue Miley, the Laughing Doll. I will guide you on this floor.” Miley tilts her head a bit until she can look at Keiji underneath her lashes. “My master has instructed me to guide you brave souls, who have already overcome several trials, to the Main Game.”

“You’re on the side of the kidnappers,” Keiji concludes. Just another stupid game they are playing. Dolls coming alive … Isn’t too unlikely, considering how far robot technology has come already.

Which must also mean that either their kidnappers are versed in the field of robotics, or that they have enough money to afford a true-to-life doll – solely in order to kill a dozen people for their own amusement.

How charming.

“So … Our enemy,” Joe croaks, pointing an accusing finger at Miley. “Don’t try to deny it!”

Miley lets out another laugh. The sound is starting to grate on Keiji’s ears. “How serious! That’s so cute!” The laughter doesn’t stop, getting louder and shriller, and Reko’s voice is just barely audible beneath it.

“Stop laughing, asshole! I’ll tear you apart on my own, you goddamn –”

“Well now. I wouldn’t like that too much.” Miley’s laughter stops at once. “Maybe I’ll tear you up first, then? As a little warning …”

Reko is just about to respond when an odd sound reaches Keiji’s ears. Almost as if something is vibrating in regular intervals.

Silence washes over them. Even Kanna’s fearful expression freezes. A moment passes. Miley’s grin grows wider until it almost looks unnatural on her human face.

“What did you do?” Joe asks, his voice sore. In an instant, all eyes are on him. His hands are raised, but he doesn’t touch his collar.

“I wonder. What indeed?” Miley cackles in delight. “I think I’ll use you as an example, Jou Tazuna. How fun!” She comes one step closer to Joe, causing him to hit his back against the shelf yet again. “I’m making your collar explode. How’s that?”

“You … what …” Sara’s stepping forward. It’s just an instinct, an action he doesn’t even think about, but Keiji holds her back by grabbing her arm. A hiss escapes her as she pulls away. Something akin to panic masks her expression.

Joe’s face pales. Still he doesn’t tug at his collar. A high-pitched beep sounds. In front of him, Miley is throwing her head back in laughter. A second beep. Mishima, who is standing next to Joe, slowly backs away.

A third beep.

Nothing happens.

“And this … was a lie, of course!” Miley is laughing so hard that she presses a hand against her belly. “How did you like it? The collars can’t explode, after all. But seeing your face … I couldn’t resist!”

Sara exhales audibly. Her shoulders sag. Keiji resists the urge to grab her arm again, to try to make her calm down. He doubts he would be able to do so anyway.

There’s a thud. Joe has collapsed on the floor, his hands digging into his thighs. His eyes are shut, his lips so devoid of blood they turn blueish.

“You piece of shit,” Reko spits. She looks about to lunge forward, but Nao quickly reaches for her arm to hold her back.

Miley’s laughter doesn’t stop. Any threat they throw at her seems weirdly amusing to her. Keiji grits his teeth as he watches her, her insufferable laughter hurting in his ears.

“Well,” she says between her giggles, her eyes swaying over the group. “What I’m about to explain relates to a fight you must take part in. A fight for your own destiny.” She snorts with laughter as if she can’t take her own words seriously. “You will soon undergo a great trial in order to escape outside. As it has been prior, the superior will live, and the inferior will die.”

Confusion colors every single face. Keiji covers his mouth with one hand.

“One among you will certainly die. And the person to die …” Miley’s grin turns malicious, her eyes narrowing. “Shall be decided by your own majority vote. You’ll pick the person yourselves.”

So that’s what all of this is about. Something clicks in his head. Hasn’t there been a similar case before? He’s trying his best to remember, but comes up with nothing concrete.

“The one most unnecessary, hated, and acceptable to have die.”

A death game for someone’s amusement. Killing them off by making the victims do it themselves and watching all the while. There’s a name lingering in the back of his mind, but every time he tries to grasp it, it slips away again.

Out of the corners of his eyes, he can see people looking at each other. Quick, ashamed glances. He refuses to determine who receives the most attention. It doesn’t matter anyway.

“Be that as it may,” Mishima says, “we will not participate in such a senseless game.”

Miley breaks out into giggles. “No? Then by all means, starve to death here, all of you!”

This is … It’s more than cruel. “Not beating around the bush, are you?” Keiji snorts, the smile on his face feeling as cold as his words.

And with that, they fall silent again.

Not good. The glances are becoming more obvious. Not a surprise that some of them are directed toward Sara and Joe. Some of them also toward himself. If he were to speak up … No one trusts a shady cop, that much is clear. Especially not if he can’t even trust himself.

Sara, standing next to him, stares into nothingness. Her body seems frozen in place. With her determination and strength, she could have been the one to stop all of it. But with what has happened – Keiji can do nothing to help her. To help anyone.

“Don’t go so pale, everyone!” Miley smiles at them. “I’ve got something good to hand out!” She turns around sharply, and Keiji can’t believe he didn’t see the stack of tablets before. What the hell – when they put the body together, there definitely wasn’t anything hidden behind Miley. Just how …

Miley turns to Keiji with a mischievous smile, handing him the first tablet. He passes it on to the next person until everyone holds one in their hands.

“So, does everyone have one now? Let’s test the functionality with some actual use.” She nods at the tablet in Joe’s hand. “Your votes will be anonymous, so you won’t have to get into quarrels. No one will know who you voted for. How convenient, right? And as a test …” She claps her hands. “Try voting for whoever!”

Keiji stares at the eleven photos on the display. Even Kai’s. It’s grayed out, but it’s there. He looks up, noticing how tense everyone seems. Gin is staring at the tablet in confusion, but doesn’t meet Keiji’s gaze.

Blue eyes catch his. For a moment, he can’t look away from Sou, from the harsh coldness coloring his features. Then Sou smiles at him reassuringly, and the moment passes as quickly as it arose.

Just for an endlessly cruel second, Keiji contemplates who to pick.

He looks back at his own tablet and picks himself.

A beep sounds. Then the results are shown on the display. Most of them have a single vote. There are only a few exceptions. Nao, Sou and Sara, who all have none; Mishima, who has two; and Joe, who has three.

“Huh,” Joe says, scratching the back of his head. “Guess I won?”

“You sure did!” Something about the way Miley laughs is off. Keiji feels himself shiver. “Anything you want to say?”

Joe stares at her in bewilderment. “Thanks, guys, I appreciate it?”

“You do? You really do? You appreciate it?” She bursts into another fit of laughter. “That’s too funny! I mean, do you really want those as your last words?”

Sara lets out a gasp just as Joe’s collar audibly vibrates again. This time, the malice in Miley’s eyes is so piercing that even Joe stops moving completely.

“I thought it couldn’t explode,” he says. The tablet in his hands is shaking. “What are you …”

“No, it won’t explode.” She laughs.

And laughs. And laughs.

Keiji begins to understand.

A cracking sound echoes as the tablet hits the floor. Joe’s hands fly to his throat, an expression of panic taking over his face. Next to Keiji, Sara reaches out for him. This time, he doesn’t stop her.

It drives home what he suspected from the start. All of them have become puppets in an absurd game, and there is next to nothing they can do.

“What – Joe, what is it?” Sara calls out, desperation rising in her voice.

“It’s – it’s hot!”

Keiji wants to close his eyes and turn away. But he can’t. He can’t allow himself to hide from it. Even when he is as helpless as everyone else.

The collar is turning blindingly white. A sizzling sound becomes audible. Joe tries to touch the collar, but his fingers can’t hold onto it. He starts screaming, a sound so painful Keiji almost can’t bear it. With a desperate cry, Sara grabs Joe’s shoulders, shaking him as if it could help in any way. Tears start streaming down Joe’s cheeks. The pain must be so overwhelming that his whole body starts convulsing.

The smell of burning flesh spreads through the air. It’s entirely different from the stench of a rotting corpse. So much more horrifying. Nao is covering Kanna’s eyes with her hand, and the sight finally makes Keiji move. He steps toward Gin to turn him away and shield him from the sight. The boy isn’t protesting. His body has gone limp.

“Jus’ … Jus’ take it off!” Q-taro shouts, but Keiji can see the problem. It’s too hot to even touch. No matter how hard Joe might try. There’s no way to save him, not even a way to make it less painful for him.

The heat will burn his flesh, will sever veins, airways, destroy the top of his spine until he’ll finally die of suffocation. Keiji only hopes Joe will pass out before he is in too much pain. Before he can feel his own throat being burnt into pieces.

“Hold on, Joe! I’ll …” Tears are spilling from Sara’s eyes as she tries to reach for Joe’s collar, but Joe pushes her away. Flabbergasted, she stares at him. He collapses on the floor, burnt flesh contrasting with his white collar.

“Don’t, Sara,” he croaks. His face contorts into an expression Keiji isn’t too unfamiliar with. The knowledge what is about to happen to him must set in.

“No.” She falls to her knees next to him. “No, no. Joe, you can’t do that. I need you. You hear me? You can’t – die –”

Joe’s lips move. Keiji can’t make out the words. Almost mesmerized, Sara keeps staring at Joe, her hands raised without touching him. As if wanting to grab him and hug him close. As if wanting to bury herself in his arms. As if realizing it’s too late.

Then Joe’s eyes roll back, face going slack as he falls over, his body going still. Any pained sound he gave fades away.

No one moves. No one says anything. Nao’s trembling hand has slid from Kanna’s face, and the girl is taking in the scene with horror. Not even Sara is interrupting the heavy silence. Gingerly, she touches Joe’s hand, clutching it between her own as she presses it to her lips. The collar is still sizzling, but as its heat subsides, its glowing white color slowly disappears with it.

Miley starts giggling. Cackling. Laughing.

Keiji wants to knock her fucking head off her neck.

A sob sounds. It’s not Sara’s – it’s Kanna’s. The girl wraps her arms around herself. If Miley hadn’t laughed right in her face with glee in her eyes, Keiji wouldn’t have noticed what happened.

“How unladylike! You wet yourself?” Miley giggles.

“You’re … you’re awful,” Kanna whispers, tears glistening in her eyes. “Why … would you do this?”

Miley shrugs. “Now you know how a majority vote works, right?”

Sara’s hand stops moving. Still, no sound leaves her lips. Keiji wants to pull her away, wants to protect her from the pain, but Gin is still trembling beneath his hands. He crouches down to the little guy, trying to steady him as best he can.

“Everyone here is a good person!” Kanna’s sudden outburst makes even Miley back away from the girl. Despite her state, Kanna pushes Nao’s hand away with surprising force. “How can you do this? What did we do? I won’t let this stand!”

“A good person.” Miley’s smile is still in place, frozen. “A good person.” She cocks her head. “Hm. But where’s Kai? Oh, I remember. He was shot. Murdered. Slaughtered. By one of you.”

His shoulders tensing, Keiji stops moving entirely.

Kanna’s face falls. “By one of … You are lying.”

“Am I? How cute. Ask! Ask your good persons!”

No one answers. Keiji feels cold sweat on his forehead. But he can’t – he should say something, anything –

“And you? What about you?” Miley bends down until her face is close to Kanna’s, so close their noses almost touch. “You sister-killer.”

Kanna flinches back as if having been slapped. “No …”

“Yes! I saw all of it. How miserable you were in your First Trial. Your actions killed your sister.” Miley’s grin is so wide that the corners of her mouth twitch. “Care to tell me about good persons again? After all, you’re all just a bunch of –”

A clicking sound. While still sitting next to Joe, Sara points the revolver at Miley, her face an unreadable mask. Miley’s smile falls off her lips for a second.

“That’s enough,” Sara says.

“Sara Chidouin!” With a loud laugh, Miley takes a step toward her. Sara doesn’t even blink. “We both know that you don’t have any bullets left. But nice try.”

“I don’t?” Sara stands up. The nonchalance in her voice is chilling. She approaches Miley without any trace of fear, stopping just before the doll. She’s smaller than Miley. The gun presses against the doll’s chest. “Or maybe I do. Should we find out? A round of Russian Roulette, how about it?”

“Oh, so scary.” Despite her mocking words, Miley’s smile wavers.

Sara doesn’t bat an eye as she pulls the trigger. There’s a click, but nothing happens. Just for a moment, Miley seems to freeze before she chuckles darkly. “Who would have thought? An empty threat won’t –”

Then Sara raises the gun, grabs the muzzle and swings the grip at Miley’s temple with full force.

A crack sounds, a pained cry. Miley stumbles to the side. The force almost makes her fall to the floor, but she regains balance, one hand pressed against her injured temple. Red blood trickles down to her cheek. She coughs, face contorted in anger.

“You … You …” she heaves. “Don’t think I will forget this! Damn it … I’ll … I’ll be waiting on the grounds of the Main Game!” She staggers through the group. No one dares stand in her way. Not even Sara, who looks after the doll, her posture rigid.

If Miley is to be believed, Joe won’t be the last one to die by the hands of their own allies.

Keiji feels the cold hand of fear squeezing his throat. A feeling he thought he grew numb to years ago.

 

“We should take the gun from her.”

That’s Q-taro’s first reaction? Why is Keiji not even surprised? He keeps staring at Sara’s back, at her unmoving form. At Joe’s body, blood having pooled underneath him. Nao has led Kanna and Gin out before they could look at the body too closely, hiding the tears threatening to spill from her own eyes. Keiji crosses his arms, trying not to think about it. About how he saw a body hit the floor once upon a time. About the disbelief in blue eyes. About –

“We should let her mourn, first and foremost.” Mishima shakes his head at Q-taro. “That is the least we can do for her.”

“She’s dangerous,” Q-taro hisses through his teeth. “You saw what she did with that gun.”

“She went against the person who murdered her friend,” Keiji chimes in, staring at Q-taro. “That’s unreasonable to you?”

“Mister Burgerberg. We will make sure to properly take care of the weapon, but for now, please let her be.”

For a moment, Q-taro silently looks at Mishima, grimacing. With a snort, he finally turns around and leaves the room. He doesn’t notice the way Sou looks after him.

Sou’s gaze drifts back to the door and his brows furrow. Something about his reaction piques Keiji’s curiosity, and he comes closer as Sou proceeds to close the door. Then Keiji finally sees it. There’s a paper stuck onto the door, the writing small and tidy.

“She … She got us,” Sou mumbles, becoming pale.

What they just went through was a second trial, the note says. The further Keiji reads, the more he feels his throat close up. He takes a deep breath, staying as calm as possible.

“If there had been a draw,” he says aloud, summarizing the note for everyone in the room, “there would have been no sacrifice.”

“I – I didn’t want to close the door, but I didn’t know …” Reko takes a shallow breath. “It’s my fault?”

“Of course it isn’t. We’ve been clearly led into a trap.” Mishima stares at the note too, his jaw clenched.

“But if we had closed the door, we would have found the note, right? So isn’t it somebody’s fault?”

Sara. Her voice is cuttingly cold. Tears have dried on her cheeks, her eyes are bloodshot, but she’s still a menacing sight. For a moment, Keiji can’t look away from her.

“And if everyone had voted for themselves, nobody would have died,” she continues, her eyes moving over every single person left in the room. Keiji meets her gaze, holding it for as long as possible.

“But didn’t you have zero votes, Miss Sara?” Sou’s voice sounds. His gaze becomes as cold as his smile. “So … You didn’t vote for yourself.”

“You didn’t either. Was it you? Did you vote for Joe?”

Any trace of haughtiness vanishes from Sou’s face at the suggestion. Instead, he seems anxious. With the way Sara motionlessly stares at him, Keiji can understand why. “I – I didn’t. I didn’t vote for Joe.”

“And it doesn’t really matter who did,” Keiji tosses in. When Sara directs her gaze at him, he meets it, unimpressed. He’s met more than enough merciless criminals over the years. A girl like Sara doesn’t intimidate him. Anything but. “None of us knew that the one with the most votes would be sacrificed. No one could have known. The real enemy is still Miley. And whoever is behind all of this. You gotta agree with me there, right, Sara?”

Sara keeps staring at him, her face void of emotions.

“Keiji’s right,” Reko says, her hands clenched to fists and her voice heavy with guilt. “We can’t know who voted for whom. Right? It’s impossible. And it really doesn’t matter. If we knew that a draw could have saved all of us …”

“No one here had any ill will,” Keiji concludes.

Sara doesn’t look away from him. He sees her gritting her teeth. He sees her tensing her shoulders.

“I won’t forget this,” she says quietly. Then she turns away from them and sinks down next to Joe again.

No one speaks up anymore. There’s nothing left to say anyway. Slowly, the group starts to scatter. First Reko, her face tainted in bitterness. Then Sou, tension forming a wrinkle between his eyes. Mishima takes a long look at Sara, then approaches Keiji. His expression is stern.

“She’s just a girl. Just as young as Miss Nao is.” Mishima exhales. “She will need a shoulder to lean on. Someone reliable. Someone to make sure she doesn’t give in to her own despair.”

Keiji watches as her chest rises and falls in a shaky breath. “That’d be you rather than me, I’d say.”

“Mister Shinogi …”

“Keiji is fine.”

“Keiji.” Mishima sighs. “Trust isn’t something to be freely given away. It’s something to be earned. Your actions count more than who you think you are. Or what you think you deserve.” He nods at Keiji, then turns to the door and leaves.

Well, what does he deserve? He doesn’t know. Everyone has left. It’s only Sara and him now. And the corpse in front of her. She isn’t crying; she’s only holding his hand. Stroking the skin as if Joe can still feel her touches. His neck has turned almost black, a mess of burst blisters and blood having sprinkled red spots over his skin.

Her voice nearly breaks away when she suddenly talks. “Keiji. I want to ask you something.”

He comes closer. Her face is reflected in the red pool of liquid beneath her.

“Did you vote for him?”

He understands why she asks. Even though he shouldn’t answer – he clears his throat. “I voted for myself.”

She lets out a breath. Her body seems so fragile. Behind her appearance lies a strength, a passion that almost scares him.

“I killed him, right?” she whispers. “He took the blame for – I let him. I let everyone believe that he was the one who … And that’s why they voted for him. I killed him.”

He doesn’t let himself come any closer to her. Like Mishima said, one of them has to be the strong one. And it can’t always be her. “You didn’t. None of us did. Whoever put that collar on his neck – it’s them. They killed him.”

“Right.” She looks up at him. “And I’ll kill them for what they’ve done. I’ll kill every single person who is responsible for his death.”

She doesn’t sound angry, doesn’t sound particularly agitated. She sounds certain. His instincts are warning him, but he ignores them. “I get it, Sara. But there’ll be other ways. You don’t have to become a murderer to get revenge on a murderer.”

“But I’ve done it once before,” she whispers. “I’m already a murderer. So what does it even matter?”

He remembers too well. Looking in the mirror. Finding the same familiar face. The same dark hair, the same sharp eyes, and he began to hate it, hated it until he wanted to smash his fist into the reflection, hated it until he felt the burn of bleach on his scalp and scrubbed it in, pain making him hiss through his teeth.

Despite all his efforts, his reflection stayed the same.

“Joe knew as well as you that it was an accident,” he says, and can’t bring himself to feel anything.

A jolt goes through her. “Joe,” she repeats his name. “He …”

She falls silent. It hurts too much, and he shouldn’t do it, but he finally gives in and crouches next to her, close enough that their shoulders almost touch. From up close, Joe’s burns look even more horrifying. He wonders how she can bear the sight.

He knows why she doesn’t allow herself to turn away.

“Losing someone precious to you,” he says quietly. “I know how much it hurts.”

She hasn’t let go of Joe’s hand, her thumb drawing patterns on it. “So you … Did you lose someone too?”

He can’t tell her, though. He can’t tell her, because she is nothing like him, because he lost himself and he can’t let the same happen to her, and he smiles instead. “Maybe.”

“Who was it?”

“Doesn’t matter. Happens all the time in my field of work.” Just exactly what she used to say. Her words on his tongue taste like bitter acid.

“In your field of work,” she repeats. “So … your friend didn’t just die, they … They were killed?”

“Sharp as a tack, huh?” He wants to close his eyes, but he doesn’t. The smile on his lips lasts mere seconds. “You got it right.”

Sara sends him a glance, long lashes fluttering against her cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for.”

She bites her lip. Her hand has started to tremble. Yet she holds the tears in, hides the guilt, the grief.

“Didn’t you ever want revenge?” she asks.

A knot builds in his chest.

“Didn’t you ever,” she continues, softly, “want their murderer to feel the same pain you did?”

He feels like all air is being pushed out of his lungs. He tries to stay still.

“Didn’t you ever think they deserved death much more than your friend did?”

He’s suffocating. Slowly. Listening to voices that shouldn’t be here. Feeling cold hands and hearing cold laughs. Of course he did. Thought about it constantly. Tried to escape from himself. Nothing helped. Nothing could. Fingers grip his throat, and this time it’s not the light, feathery voice which he became used to so long ago. This time, someone else is whispering in his ear.

She’ll end up just like you. A pathetic mess. You should have known from the start. But I’ve always had a better eye for people than you do. What a shame, isn’t it?

Megumi’s voice sounds as calculating as ever.

He bursts into a loud laugh. Sara flinches so hard that she almost lets go of Joe’s hand. He laughs on and on, feeling tears spring to his eyes. He laughs until he can finally breathe again.

“Look at you,” he finally manages, trying to ban all bitterness from his voice. “Talking about revenge like a warrior. Cute girls like you shouldn’t think about such ugly things.”

She gapes at him, eyebrows drawn together in confusion. Slowly, her expression turns defiant, unshed tears becoming a challenging glimmer. She doesn’t say anything though, and he feels a smile tug at his lips.

“To answer your questions – no, never thought about it. Your friendly policeman follows the law. Wanted them behind bars, nothing else.”

She doesn’t move. Instead, she stares him down. Her defiance is familiar. His younger self would have reacted in the same way, after all.

“You arrested them?” she asks.

His smile stays in place. “I tried to.”

“And you failed?”

“I did. Until I gave up.”

She stubbornly keeps holding his gaze. “Then I’m nothing like you. I’ll never give up. I won’t.” She stands up, a shaky breath on her lips. “Not even you will be able to stop me, Keiji.”

With that, she turns around and storms to the door. Trying to be strong. Trying to be fierce. Hiding any emotion behind an indestructible wall. He knows how it feels.

She’s exactly like him. A him that vanished a long time ago.

The way she stops at the threshold doesn’t go unnoticed. She looks over her shoulder, stares at Joe, longer, longer, until she finally turns away for good.

Keiji can’t bring himself to follow his instincts, to investigate the corpse while her voice echoes in his head. Giving him instructions. Scolding him for being careless at the crime scene. Sighing when he didn’t put exactly two spoonsful of sugar into her coffee. Handing him some advice when his girlfriend would be angry at him for whatever stupid reason. Telling him in a placating tone to stop talking about his trial, that it won’t happen, that she’s only doing what is best for him. That he should be thankful, even.

He isn’t.

Later, he tells himself, and leaves the room.

Chapter Text

Keiji closes the door to the hidden room as soon as he enters it. It is engulfed in darkness, the closed laptop and parts of the bookshelves the only objects he can make out. Just when he is about to step closer to the desk, he discovers Sou sitting in the darkness across from the door, back leaned against the wall and eyes trained on Keiji.

For a moment, they silently stare at each other. The smile Sou eventually shows couldn’t be more fake. “Keiji. Nice of you to check on me.”

“That’s what your friendly policeman is here for.” He scratches the back of his neck. “You doing all right?”

“Yeah. Just waiting for some kind of epiphany.” With a loud exhale, Sou closes his eyes and lets the back of his head fall against the wall. “I looked through the books. Nothing in there. I tried to find a pattern in their order, or an anagram, or some word that doesn’t fit, or anything, really. Tried names of classical authors and book titles. Combinations that involve words like doll, Russian Roulette, trial, game … But nothing.”

His hand still on his neck, Keiji looks the bookshelves over. “Sue Miley?”

“Yeah. Would be my next guess. I’m collecting ideas right now. You know, to waste as little battery as possible.”

Silence falls over them. Sou’s eyes are still closed, his shoulders somewhat tense. If Keiji knew anything about computers, he would give that whole password issue a try, too. But as it stands, machines of any sort only confuse him. Just as he thinks about leaving Sou be, quiet words make him stop in his tracks.

“Will you tell anyone else about the laptop?”

“You don’t want me to?”

“Honestly? I don’t.” Sou opens his eyes. Darkness hides his expression. “I don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up for nothing. Q-taro, you and me are the only ones who know.”

“Guess that’s reasonable.”

Some more seconds pass. Something about the way Sou looks at him makes Keiji’s hair stand on end. Then Sou tilts his head to the side, narrowing his eyes.

“Sara still has the gun, right?”

Keiji smiles lazily. “She does. So?”

“So?” A laugh escapes Sou’s lips. It sounds cold. “Really? You know, that’s kind of weird. Why did Joe give her the gun, not you? You are the one most experienced with firearms, right?”

Keiji’s smile only widens. “Already trusting me enough to give me the only weapon we’ve got in here? That’s touching.”

His eyes darkening, Sou drops any hint of amusement. Before he can answer, Keiji continues.

“See. Who’s better suited than her, a high school girl that never held a gun in her life? Nothing to be scared of, then.”

“Right. You saw what that high school girl did in the Pink Room, didn’t you?”

Keiji feels his smile fall. “She went against our common enemy.”

“Then what would happen,” Sou says quietly, “if she decided that one of us is her next enemy?”

Coldness washes over Keiji in a chilling wave and settles in his stomach. It’s not going to happen, he tells himself. He takes a deep breath, tries not to listen to the little voice reminding him of his suspicions.

“We’re allies. All of us. Instead of mistrusting each other, we should focus our energy on finding a way to escape. Don’t you think?”

It’s the first time Sou’s smile seems truly sardonic. He stands up, but doesn’t come closer to Keiji, his hand tugging at his scarf instead. “Right. We should trust each other, no matter how shady someone seems. Is that what you’re trying to say, Mr. Policeman?”

The way he accentuates the title causes Keiji to raise an eyebrow. “Interesting way to put it, but yes, it is.”

Sou snorts. “What makes you think that no one will suspect you during the Main Game? That no one will try to go against you?”

“Shouldn’t you rather worry about yourself, Sou?”

That makes Sou go silent. Keiji can’t quite tell if it’s fear or cautiousness darkening his eyes.

“But like I said,” Keiji continues, “we’re allies. Would be best to remember as much.”

A few more seconds pass. Then Sou lets his scarf sink down again, revealing a small smile. All tension seems to leave his body as he rolls his shoulders. “I’m sorry. You’re right. That whole situation is just messing with my head.” With a sigh, he steps toward the laptop.

 Keiji’s eyes trail away from Sou, catching sight of something under the desk. A faint, but familiar glow, almost getting lost beneath the desk lamp’s light. Its form and size reminiscent of a playing card.

Sou enters his line of sight, forcing Keiji to look up at him. For a moment, neither one speaks. For a moment, all they can do is stare at each other.

“You might want to take a look under the desk,” Keiji says.

Shadows stretch over Sou’s face, plunging his eyes into darkness. “I already did. There wasn’t anything.”

Despite the fact they should trust each other, Keiji can’t ignore the obvious. Despite the fact he shouldn’t think about it, he can’t help but put two and two together. Sou had no votes. Joe had three.

Keiji has lied enough times in his life to spot a liar with ease.

“I see.” His smile feels cold on his own lips. “Well then. Sorry about that, I guess.”

The shadows move over Sou’s expression as he steps closer to the laptop, letting his hand rest on it. “Can I ask you something, Keiji?” His fingers trace an invisible pattern over the laptop.

Keiji doesn’t answer. Sou won’t look at him anymore. Silence presses down on them.

“Are you scared?” Sou asks.

“Depends what exactly you mean.”

“This. All of this. Of being locked up in here. Of being at our kidnappers’ mercy.”

“Naturally.” Keiji watches Sou’s fingers, their movements. “Aren’t you?”

Abruptly, Sou’s hand stills. He finally looks at Keiji again. Something about his smile seems off. “Right. Of course you are.” A tiny sigh escaping him, he taps against the laptop. “I’ll do my best to find out what’s on there. I’ll do anything I can. I promise.”

It would be easy to shove Sou aside and take a look at whatever is under the desk. But if the message on Keiji’s own card is anything to go by, it’s too high of a risk.

A thought manifests in Keiji’s mind, taking form before he can control himself.

Would it be that much of a loss?

Of course it would, he tells himself, his fingers digging into his crossed arms.

Sou shrugs, and the conflict in his eyes is gone as suddenly as it appeared, leaving a mask of hollow friendliness. “Maybe I’ll crack it soon enough to avoid the Main Game. We can only hope, right?”

Keiji tries to return the smile, but he can’t. “If I were you, I’d prepare myself.”

“Yeah.” Sou’s smile falls a bit. “Same goes for you.”

 

Sara hasn’t returned to the Pink Room. Keiji knows he shouldn’t worry, and yet he does. In the Central Hall, a set of stairs has appeared out of nowhere, leading to a second floor. Q-taro is standing next to them, an empty expression covering his face. When Keiji asks if he has seen Sara, Q-taro shakes his head.

Keiji eyes the stairs again. “Would be best to let no one go up there. At least for now. Tempers are still too high, I’d say.”

With a snort, Q-taro crosses his arms. “’Course they are.” He furrows his brows, pointedly not looking at Keiji. “Knew lyin’ about what happened wouldn’t do Joe any good. But shit, seeing him die like that …”

“I know.” Keiji rubs the back of his neck. “It’s why we can’t afford to fall apart now. We’ve got to keep cooperating.”

“With Sara.” Q-taro only mumbles her name.

“Especially her.” Giving him a side-glance, Keiji nods toward the stairs. “Could you stop people from going up there? For the time being, that is. Until everyone has cooled down.”

“You’re takin’ this pretty well, huh.”

“Losing our minds wouldn’t help right now.”

Q-taro shakes his head and sighs. “Well, all right. I’ll do it.”

With another nod, Keiji moves on to the bar, continuing his search for Sara. He remembers a time he was all on his own, too. A time in which he would have done anything to ban gruesome thoughts from his mind. He got used to it. The feeling of emptiness never left.

In the hallway leading to the bar, he sees Kanna sitting on the floor, arms wrapped around her knees. Her whole body is shaking. Their eyes meet, and Kanna flinches away violently, turning away as if wanting to hide from him. Next to her, Reko gives him a sharp look.

“Hey, cop. Do you really have to stare?”

“Didn’t mean to. Sorry.” Rubbing his neck, he waits for Reko to approach him. As she does so, she effectively blocks his view of Kanna. He notices how often Reko scratches the wound on her arm, the bandage already a bit loose.

“You’re really not making it any easier for her,” Reko hisses. “She’ll need a change of clothes, but how the hell do we get one in here?”

Steps sound. Nao emerges from the bar, wringing a dishtowel between her hands. “I looked everywhere,” she mumbles, “but there’s nothing. Still, we can’t let her run around like this. It’s just … it’s humiliating.”

“Then let’s take Joe’s clothes. Who cares?”

“Reko!” Nao pipes up, pressing the dishtowel to her chest. “That’s … We can’t …”

“He doesn’t need them anymore, or does he?” Reko huffs. She is so restless that her hands have started to shake.

“Pretty sure there’s a less morbid solution,” Keiji says. “I’ll let you know if I find anything.” He doesn’t want to mention the second floor yet – even if they’ll find out about it on their own sooner or later. There’s a chance he’ll find something up there, though.

If their kidnappers are willing to show just the tiniest bit of decency, that is.

“We already searched about every room, but …” Nao sighs deeply. “There isn’t even a sink. All we’ve got is a bunch of dishtowels.”

“Dishtowels. Awesome,” Reko sneers.

“I know.” Nao shows a tight-lipped smile. Then she turns away and approaches Kanna, helping the younger girl get to her feet.

Keiji politely averts his gaze from them both. In front of him, Reko is tapping her foot against the floor, grimacing all the while.

“Beating yourself up, huh?” he says.

Reko sharply lifts her head, looking caught. “I – no, I’m just –”

“I get it. But none of us could have known. Joe didn’t die because of you.”

For a moment, she stays silent. Then she gives a bitter snort. “Stop trying to make me feel better. Not gonna help. It’s not – it’s just …” She shakes her head. “Sara must have it worse. Can’t blame her for acting like she does. I’d probably do the same.”

Without waiting for an answer, she gives him one last look and turns around to join Nao and Kanna.

Right. Sara has it worse. She does.

A quick glance into the bar reveals Mishima quietly talking to Gin, a gentle smile on the professor’s face. It only takes a second for Gin to notice Keiji. “Mr. Policeman, woof!” he calls, his face lighting up.

“Hey, buddy.” With a smile, Keiji squats to pat Gin’s head. “You doing okay?”

“Yep! The old guy is teaching me poetry. It’s really fun!” With an excited sound, Gin points at the blackboard. “Try reading it, meow!”

Keiji follows Gin’s gesture, catching sight of what has been written down in the right corner. The kanji for “tree” being repeated numerous times, their arrangement forming a silhouette of a, well, tree. More of an image than a poem. He chuckles. “You expect me to read it aloud?”

“You can’t? You can’t even read simple kanji? Woof, did you sleep in school?” Gin proceeds to read every single kanji to them, one after the other, switching its reading up at random. When he’s finished, Mishima nods thoughtfully.

“Bravo. Very captivatingly read. Do you remember what this kind of poem is called?”

“Concentrate poetry, woof!”

“Very close. Concrete poetry. Creating a concrete image out of abstract characters.” Mishima offers Gin the chalk. “Would you like to try being a poet for yourself? You can use any kanji you like.”

“Kana too, meow?”

“Well, I cannot stop you. Although a mature young man like yourself must know plenty of kanji already, am I correct?”

“I bet I know more than Mr. Policeman!” Bouncing on his feet, Gin snatches the chalk from Mishima’s hand and wipes the tree poem away with his glove. White powder sticks to the fabric. The soft smile falls from Mishima’s face as he approaches Keiji, watching Gin together with him.

“Trying to distract him, are you?” Keiji mutters. Gin starts writing down a kanji that isn’t recognizable at all. The strokes are too messy.

“Yes. He seems to be a very curious young man.” Something about the way Mishima utters the words seems bitter. They watch as Gin wipes the unreadable kanji away with a frustrated huff, trying it again. “Miss Sara isn’t with you?”

“She wanted to be alone for a while. I’m looking for her right now.”

Mishima nods. “Please remind her that she is not alone. No matter what happens, we can’t allow ourselves to forget that we should act as a team.”

The kanji for “light”, Keiji realizes. The more Gin writes down, the easier it becomes to recognize the circular shape the characters begin to form.

“The same applies to you,” Mishima continues. “She might need someone to lean on. But this doesn’t mean you are expected to shoulder everything on your own.”

Gin starts filling the circles with the kanji for “sun”. Keiji tries to remember the feeling of sunlight on his skin. He doesn’t know if he misses it. He doesn’t know if he feels sorry for himself.

“Thanks for reminding me,” he responds.

Leaving the two of them be, Keiji exits the bar again, doing his best not to look at the three girls while walking through the hallway. Nobody holds him back.

 

Just to make sure Sara isn’t hiding in the Game Room, he checks it again. And this time, the door to the Blue Room opens without any resistance.

He doesn’t want to admit it to himself, but entering the rooms is kind of hard. He didn’t know Kai. Those unfazed eyes, those unreadable expressions – not like Keiji would have easily put his trust in him. Nevertheless, the sight of the dead body won’t leave his mind. He’s seen plenty of corpses in the past, sure. But most of them, he’s never seen alive. Never seen shot.

With some exceptions, of course.

The first thing he notices in the Blue Room is Sara. She’s sitting in one of the chairs, motionless. Not even her chest is moving with her breaths. She’s still. Perfectly still.

Keiji stops his hands from shaking and takes a breath. There’s no blood. Not on the chair, not on her clothes. She’s sitting upright. No gun in sight. It’s impossible for her to have been injured in any way, he reassures himself as he stops in front of her. He feels for a pulse, but there is none, the skin ice-cold to the touch. When he looks into her eyes, lifeless irises stare back. Dull. Inhuman.

He doesn’t know if he should feel relived as it finally dawns on him. A replica of her. An almost perfect replica.

His fingers are still pressed against her wrist. It’s only then that he notices the writing on the back of her hand. “Please use as you wish,” it says.

Disturbing, to say the least.

When he inspects the replica’s face, he discovers oddities he never had the chance to look at that closely. It’s fascinating, spotting every flaw there is to see. A tiny scar just underneath her hairline. A birthmark next to her ear that is partly hidden by her hair.

Before he can stop himself, he reaches up to brush a strand of hair behind her ear, so gently it makes him shudder. She’s cold, but the strand glides through his fingers like silk.

For a brief moment, he’s mesmerized. She doesn’t move, doesn’t react. His fingers trace the shell of her ear, her jaw, her cheek. The corner of her mouth. His thumb trembles slightly as it wanders over pink, full lips. He wonders if her breath would stutter, if she would close her eyes. He wonders if she would ever let him touch her like this.

Of course she wouldn’t.

Quickly, he retracts his hand and rubs his forehead. He knows he is only permitted to admire her from a distance. There is no point in thinking any further. Her warm smiles are reserved for people who deserve it. Her soft words aren’t meant for him. They never will be.

They were meant for a boy her age, willing to be called a murderer for her sake.

The Sara in front of him is still looking at him. Waiting. She won’t move. Won’t push him away. Won’t see through him and discover the depths of his sick mind.

It’s getting hard to breathe. It’s getting hard to ignore whispering voices. He should walk away. He doesn’t. Instead he studies her face. He shudders. Leans closer. If she were alive, her breaths would brush his skin by now. Her cheeks would flush. Her lips would quiver, her whole body would.

His eyes wander to her delicate neck. To her shoulders. He wishes he could feel her warmth on his own skin. The soft swell of her chest. He wishes he could follow the curves of her body with his fingertips, feeling her shudder underneath his touches. Over her waist. To her skirt, her thighs. His heart gives a painful thump. His wishes mean nothing. It’s only a doll. A lifeless, cold doll.

A doll with perfectly clean clothes.

Only a doll, he repeats to himself as he lets his hand rest on her knee. His hand slowly glides to her thigh, stroking cold skin. He’s doing it for Kanna. It isn’t as messed up as it seems. This isn’t the real her, after all. The real her would have shoved him off long ago. The real her would never have let this happen. Her face is still pale, and her body is still, and no heart thunders in her chest.

His knuckles graze the skirt’s hem as his hand glides underneath the fabric.

In a perfect reality, she would watch him, cheeks flushed, lips parted in a breathless sigh. Right now, she’s staring at him with dead eyes.

He should stop thinking about it. But he can’t. He thinks about holding her. His fingers dig into soft skin. He thinks about burying his nose in her hair. His fingers graze her underwear, and he inhales sharply. He thinks about feeling her heart beat against his chest, feeling her nails bore into his back.

His hand stills on her hip.

He can hear the blood rushing to his head. He is doing this for Kanna, he repeats to himself. Only thing left to do is sliding her underwear over her thighs. It’s only a doll. If she were alive –

He can’t let himself go so far. He can’t let himself imagine the taste of her lips. The way she’d freeze underneath him, unsure for just a moment, her flaring defiance bidding her not to give in until her breath would mingle with his. Maybe she’d pull him closer. Maybe she’d gain the upper hand with no more than some sweetly whispered words, and it wouldn’t take much for him to melt in her warmth, and it’s getting too much. His head starts to spin. The sight of his hand underneath her clothes is so obscene that a sour taste climbs up his throat.

She is still staring at him. Wordlessly. Condemningly. Watching his every action. Silently laughing at him for craving her warmth, her affection, her pureness.

It’s not like she would ever want him. Not someone like him. Not in this way.

He quickly withdraws his hand, cold sweat drenching his forehead, and stumbles backwards. It’s a fucking doll. Another sick joke. Even though she – it – seems eerily real, its eyes are dull. Lifeless. Lips that are forever set into a blank expression.

He can’t do it. He can’t taint her like that. He can’t allow himself to think about her any longer. It doesn’t matter how much easier it would be to lose himself in her. He tries to banish the thoughts from his head, tries to resist the urge to tear the doll from its seat and kick at it until he can think straight again. He’s disgusting. Shit.

For a moment, he screws his eyes shut and hides his face in his hand. He takes a breath. Two.

When he opens his eyes, the doll is still there, staring into nothingness.

He almost flees from the room. It’s only when he closes the door behind him that he can regain his composure. Nobody is in the Game Room with him. He’s fucking glad. He catches his breath, but as he does so, he hears a clattering sound coming from behind the red door right next to the Blue Room. It should have been locked, as far as he knows.

He carefully steps closer, listening for any other sound. There’s something – as if someone is dragging a heavy object over the floor. Keiji steadies himself, waiting for whoever is in there to leave the room.

The door swings open. Sara appears before him – the real one. She’s dragging a body over the floor. A man clothed in what appears to be a striped onesie.

“Keiji,” Sara says, slightly out of breath. Her cheeks are flushed, her lips are glistening. Her eyes are bright and full of life.

He forces himself to focus on the situation and steps closer.

“He’s alive?”

“I guess so. He fainted on me before he could say anything. I’ve got no idea who this is.” Her eyes are piercing as she gives the man the once-over. “Maybe he’s with the kidnappers.”

Keiji smiles at her. “He has a collar, Sara.”

“And? Doesn’t make any of us any less suspicious.”

What a harsh way to put it. But it isn’t like he can really disagree on that, no matter how much he wants to. He takes the body from her, throwing the man over his shoulder in one swift motion. A glance over his other shoulder reveals that the Red Room is crammed with old-looking furniture. There is some blood on the floor, but Sara herself doesn’t seem to be injured.

“So that’s where you’ve been hiding, huh,” he says, raising his eyebrows.

Sara looks at him. “I was searching for a way out. Like we all should.”

Keiji snorts. “Well, we do. And maybe you just found a vital clue to get outta here.” While walking next to him, she doesn’t meet his eyes. “Once he’s up, let’s leisurely question him.”

“We should tie him up first.”

“Smart.” He nods at her. “You still have the gun?”

She stares ahead as they step into the Central Hall.

“Good. Hold on to it.”

His words make her stare at him, puzzled, but before she can say anything, Q-taro spots them and moves closer.

“What the – who’s this?” he asks.

“Beats me. Let’s bring him to the bar.”

 

With Reko’s help, Keiji ties some of the dishtowels together, eventually forming a rope. Q-taro left them to inform Sou of their discovery. Next to Keiji, Reko still seems bitter and tired, finishing her job in silence. Sara’s eyes are on them all the while. Watching them. Watching him. Even though it’s unlikely for her to have seen what happened in the Blue Room, he feels himself tense up.

“Looks suspicious, meow.” Gin presses his plushie closer, furrowing his brows. “I don’t like him.”

“Good thing we tied him up, then. Nothing to worry about.” Keiji gives him a reassuring smile, which seems to put Gin at ease.

“This is certainly interesting,” Mishima mumbles, scratching his chin. “How did you find him, Miss Sara?”

While Sara repeats what she already told Keiji, her words sober and cold, he moves toward Nao. She is standing at the doorway, Kanna next to her. The girl’s body is still trembling. When Kanna sees him approaching, she averts her gaze and takes a few steps away, proceeding to hide in the corner of the room. The sight is painful, but before Nao can follow Kanna, Keiji stops her.

“Nao,” he says quietly. “You got a second?”

Biting her lower lip, Nao sends Kanna a look before turning to Keiji with a questioning expression.

“I found something to wear for Kanna.”

“You – you did?” Nao’s face immediately lights up. “Where? How?”

“The Blue Room is open again.” He forces the words out without showing any kind of emotion. He can’t allow himself to. “Seems like our enemy has a weird hobby. There’s a doll in there, looking exactly like Sara. Its clothes should be removable.”

“A doll? What …” She shakes her head. “Well, but Kanna would really need some clean underwear, and …” She interrupts herself, blinking at him. “If that doll even wears underwear, that is.”

“It does.”

“Oh, that’s a relief.” For a second, Nao smiles. Then a thought seems to strike her, making her face fall again. “How do you … Keiji, did you …?”

He gives her a lighthearted smile, ignoring his pounding heart. “No idea what you’re getting at.”

“You can’t just …!” She jabs him in the chest, cheeks becoming redder by the second. “Don’t be a pervert! Swear to me you’ll act like a decent adult around her!”

He defensively raises his hands. “Sure. I swear.”

“Good.” Nao releases a breath. “Because, you know, that’s what she needs right now. A decent adult.”

The words sting enough to make his smile almost disappear. He doesn’t answer, and Nao’s eyes soften.

“We’ll all look out for her too. I promise,” she says. “Thank you for letting me know about the doll, though.” Her gentle smile almost hurts. Then she finally turns away from him.

Keiji watches as she talks to Kanna, lightly touching her arm all the while. Slowly, he directs his eyes at Sara. She’s standing in the corner of the room, watching the scene before her without taking part in it. Their eyes meet. Her expression is unreadable. No trace of warmth. He should have known as much. Seeing her like this, he suddenly thinks, there’s not much difference between her and her doll replica.

A shiver goes through him, his fingertips turning ice cold.

He joins her, making sure to keep a steady distance between them. Then he watches as Nao and Kanna leave the room, the girl’s hand in Nao’s.

Reko eyes the tied-up stranger one last time. Something about her expression is odd, but before Keiji can analyze it more thoroughly, she turns around and exits the room. In front of the blackboard, Mishima and Gin start talking to each other, quietly enough for their conversation not to reach Keiji’s ears.

“I don’t need your protection.” Sara breaks the silence.

He risks a glance at her, but she doesn’t return his look, the shimmer in her eyes icy. “You think I’m protecting you?”

“Yeah. And I don’t get it.” Her jaw clenches, her brows furrow, but she still won’t look at him. “Why me? Why did you want me to be the challenger? Why did you agree to …” She hesitates. “Why did you agree to his stupid plan? And why …” Finally, her eyes lock with his, not letting go of him, the urgency in them making his heart thump. “Why do you still want me to keep the gun?”

Because she is strong and fierce. Because he has never seen a girl like her. Because she reminds him of what he has long lost, and while it doesn’t matter what happens to him anymore, she deserves something better. She deserves to be trusted, respected.

And if there is no other way – to be feared.

He smiles at her. “You really need me to say it again? ’Cause you’re cute.”

Some seconds pass. Her eyes darken as she watches him. “Right. I really hope you don’t expect to gain my trust this way.”

A tiny scar on her forehead. He remembers touching it gently. He remembers the feeling of her hair gliding through his fingers. He hopes she will make use of the gun if she has to.

He feels his smile waver, but doesn’t drop it. “Maybe you shouldn’t trust me anyway.”

Her eyes narrow, but before she can respond, Gin comes closer. He stares up at Sara with big eyes. “Big sis Sara, meow …”

“Gin. Hey.” Her tone softens the tiniest bit as she crouches to be on the boy’s eye level. “Something the matter?”

“Can I show you something?” Gin seems somewhat anxious, fidgeting on the spot while he waits for an answer.

“What is it?”

“The old guy said you’re still sad, so I wrote a happy poem for you, meow.” He hunches his shoulders as if preparing for a rejection.

“Right. Gin’s quite the poet.” Keiji smiles at both of them. “You should take a look at it.”

Sara seems a bit confused, but doesn’t protest as Gin hesitantly takes her hand and pulls her toward the blackboard. His “happy poem” consists of the two characters for “friend” being repeated countless times. Every single kanji looks messy and barely readable. All of them combined form something that only remotely resembles a heart. Still, Sara stares at it. She stares at it until her shoulders start shaking. She sinks to the floor and hugs Gin tight, tears shining in her eyes.

It’s such a small, insignificant gesture, and yet it has touched her that deeply. They didn’t lie. They are looking out for her. Everyone is.

Just how would they behave toward her if they knew the whole truth? Run away like Q-taro did? Watch her out of wary eyes? Turn their backs on her for good?

Keiji doesn’t realize his hands are clenched into fists until the tension starts to hurt. Taking a breath, he relaxes his fingers and leaves the room. Nobody stops him.

Chapter Text

In the hallway, Keiji is greeted by an unusual sight. Reko is leaning against a wall in the smoking area, a cigarette clenched between her fingers, staring into nothingness. He decides to join her, making her jolt when the glass door opens with a quiet creak.

“Didn’t know you smoke,” he says.

Reko grimaces. “You want one? The professor found them in one of the vending machines. Yadda yadda, doesn’t want to be tempted and so on.”

He leans against the wall across from her. “Stopped smoking a year ago.”

“I just ruined my fifth attempt.” She pulls a pack out of her pocket. A rather strong brand. “Yours?”

“First.”

“Impressive. There ya go.” Pressing the cigarette between her lips, she hands him the pack, but he doesn’t take it. Instead, he nods toward her.

“A drag of yours’d be enough.”

She raises one eyebrow. Dense smoke escapes her lips. “Whatever.”

Gingerly, he takes the cigarette from her fingers and takes a drag. Deep enough for the taste to cling to his tongue. His lungs expand with bitter smoke. It has been long enough that the sensation scratches his throat, causing him to cough. Laughter in her eyes, Reko takes the cigarette back.

“Easy there. Didn’t lie about that one year, huh?”

He clears his throat and exhales. Smoke clouds his sight for a moment. It doesn’t dispel the feeling of restlessness occupying his mind.

“Tastes awful,” he says. “But at least gives you something to do, right?”

All amusement fades from her face. She looks away from him. “Seriously. We are so fucking helpless. It pisses me off.”

“I get that.”

“Do you?” She taps off some ash, letting it fall to the ground. The smell of smoke is as horrible as its taste, but Keiji doesn’t mind too much. “You know, I keep wondering – a snake. A goddamn snake. Why a snake?”

He automatically looks at her arm. The bandage is gone, the wound still colored an angry red. Doesn’t look like it’s still swollen, at least. “A harmless snake. They didn’t want to kill us with it, then.”

“Yeah. But why even bother? Honestly, looking behind the vent was a last-minute idea. We could have easily died from the gas, so …” Reko sighs deeply. “A harmless snake … Does it make any sense to you?”

She’s right. It doesn’t. Before he can try to think about it, the sound of someone knocking against the glass door makes Reko jump. When she recognizes Mishima, a grin builds on her lips. She opens the door without much hesitation. Gin and Sara are behind him. Sara has crossed her arms, looking Reko over.

“Professor,” Reko says. “You want one?”

“Miss Reko, are you –”

“Already told you. Reko is fine.”

“Reko,” Mishima tries again, “As you should be aware, a teacher is to refrain from unhealthy habits such as smoking. As adults, we should be positive role models for children, and I would certainly advise you to –”

“Got it.” With a roll of her eyes, she snaps the butt to the floor and stamps on it. “Smoking is bad. You’re right. You know that too, right, Gin?”

“Of course I do, woof! It’s bad for your lungs, big sis Reko!”

“Great. See, he’s a smart boy. No harm done.” She smiles and steps outside the smoking area. Keiji follows her, closing the door behind him. Out of wary eyes, Sara is watching all of them. She still seems tense. The longer he looks at her, the more obvious it becomes to him just how hard she is trying to hide whatever she is feeling.

It’s not only grief. It’s crushing, suffocating guilt she feels. Nobody else seems to be able to pick up on it. Still, he doesn’t dare move closer to her.

“So?” Sara speaks up, her words sharp. “You wanted to talk, professor? Then talk.”

Her words dampen the mood in an instant. Gin even flinches before partly hiding behind Mishima. There’s a long pause, and Mishima eventually sighs.

“My request might be odd, Miss Sara,” he says. “And I’m truly sorry if it might sound insensitive. But we should inspect Joe’s collar. It’s our only chance to do so after Kai was taken away.”

Keiji cocks his head. He already knew that Mishima is a smart guy. Someone to watch out for, even. “So you also think that’s the reason they took the corpse.”

Slowly, Mishima nods, his shoulders hunched. “Well, yes. With Joe’s life no longer in danger, we could find a way to remove the collar.”

A hollow laugh escapes Sara. “You mean with him being dead.”

For a moment, nobody says anything. Mishima eventually clears his throat. “I apologize, Miss Sara. I can imagine how hard it must be for you.”

“I can stay here with you, if you wanna,” Reko offers, the smile she shows shaky. “Together with Gin. We don’t have to go back to that room. Sound like a plan?”

Sara stares at her. “You think I’ll leave him alone? You think I don’t want to look at him anymore?”

Slowly, Reko’s smile falls. “Your choice, of course. I just know what it feels like. Being unable to save someone – I know.”

“Do you?” Sara steps closer. She is smaller than Reko, but in this moment, her presence seems overwhelming. “How does it feel to be responsible for someone’s death, then?”

Flabbergasted, Reko stares at her. Then her expression crumbles into helpless anger. “I didn’t mean to – you know I didn’t mean for him to die! I wanted to keep the door open in case we’d have to escape, nothing else. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry, and –”

“Being sorry won’t change anything,” Sara cuts her off. Despite her icy tone, her eyes are glistening.

“Miss Sara.” Mishima’s voice matches Sara’s rigidity. “We have already established that none of us is responsible for Joe’s death. Continuing to search for a culprit won’t lead to anything.”

Neither of the girls seem to acknowledge his intervention. Instead, Reko keeps her eyes on Sara. “You know what? I really get it. That’s why I’m not gonna be petty about it. But you aren’t the only one in here who already lost someone close to them. All right? Would do you some good to remember that.” With that, she whirls around and storms off.

Keiji can’t stop watching Sara. He can’t stop shivering at her words. Not even Gin gently touching her sleeve seems to placate her. Not anymore.

With a deep sigh, Mishima rubs his chin. “Still, I do think Reko has a point. It might be the wiser choice to leave the investigation solely to Keiji and me. There is no need to expose yourself to the sight any longer.” He sends Keiji a look, obviously waiting for a confirmation.

“If that’s what she wants,” Keiji responds.

Something about Mishima’s expression changes, leaving a hint of skepticism.

“I’ll do it on my own,” Sara speaks up. “I don’t need anyone’s help.”

Keiji almost snorts in amusement. “You sure? Your friendly policeman’s inspected more corpses in his life than he can count. Some help wouldn’t hurt, now would it?”

At his words, Sara looks at him. Studies him. Eyeing him up and down until she stops at his face again. The wariness in her eyes still prevails, and she doesn’t show a smile as she gives an answer. “Then just the two of us.”

“Miss Sara,” Mishima tries. “I frankly don’t think –”

“Someone will have to look out for Gin, right?” She turns back to him. “Or do you really want a kid to come with us?”

“But I wanna go with you, meow,” Gin mumbles, staring up at her.

A small smile colors her lips. It doesn’t reach her eyes. “Sorry, Gin. We’ll be quick, okay?”

Gin looks about to protest when Mishima gently lays a hand on his shoulder. “Very well, then,” Mishima sighs. “Please report back as soon as possible.” He sends Keiji a long look, and it becomes hard to ignore the implication behind the carefully neutral tone. “I trust that you’ll look out for her to your best ability.”

“I’m not a child,” Sara says, throwing a look at Keiji. He responds with a light chuckle.

A bitter smile flickers over Mishima’s face. One hand still on Gin’s shoulder, he guides the boy toward the bar again. Despite his displeased grumbling, Gin doesn’t complain.

For some time, Sara doesn’t move. Her arms are crossed, her shoulders still tense. They are all alone, no sound reaching Keiji’s ears.

A shallow breath leaves her lips. “I know what you’re thinking.”

He smiles at her. “Ah. Do you?”

“You’re thinking that I’m too harsh. You’re thinking that I don’t have any right to act like that. Not after …” She stares ahead, jaw quivering in her effort to hold everything she feels back. “Not after I’m responsible for someone’s death, too.”

He can’t stop himself. He reaches out for her, touches her shoulder. Almost instantly, she flinches away, widened eyes set on him. The smile emerging on his face feels painful. His hand sinks down again.

Smart to stay cautious. Especially in front of someone like him.

“Don’t think you’re describing my thoughts right here,” he answers. “Though what you’re saying isn’t quite the truth, either. Right?”

Her shoulders move upward in a soundless laugh. No trace of amusement colors her expression. “Right. We should go.”

She doesn’t look at him as she walks ahead.

 

Somehow, Keiji still dreads entering the Pink Room. He dreads having to investigate Joe’s lifeless body while Sara is watching. He dreads seeing her face freeze into a cold mask. Or worse – seeing her cry.

But when they step into the room, it’s empty.

Not even a drop of blood is left. Nothing. As if nobody died in here in the first place. Sara stays silent for a while. Unmoving.

A laugh. It’s quiet, almost disbelieving. “They took him.”

“Sara …”

“They took him.” She walks further into the room, only stopping when she reaches the spot where Joe’s body should have been. “They killed him. And took him. They took him from me. I should have expected this, right? I should have known.”

“Nothing we could have done. There must be a reason they took both of them.”

“A reason …” She shakes her head slowly. “He’s dead. Because of me. And now I can’t even – I can’t – I should have stayed here with him, but I thought I had to do something, anything, I couldn’t bear the sight anymore, but now he’s …”

It hurts to see the realization hit her. She is alone. Truly and utterly alone. He wants to touch her so badly it’s becoming painful. Her hands clutch her skirt, her shoulders moving upwards.

“He’s gone,” she chokes. “He’s gone.”

“Sara. It’s not your fault.”

“It is.” Her voice almost cracks. He jolts when she suddenly reaches for his arm, trembling fingers digging into his skin. She is still staring ahead, eyes trained on the floor. Her touch is too much and not nearly enough, and when she doesn’t move away, he carefully touches her shoulder. She lets him.

Her hand still gripping his arm, he turns her toward him, gently and slowly. Unfocused eyes set on him, glistening underneath artificial light.

“You didn’t kill Joe,” he tells her.

Her whole body starts to shake. She’s warm underneath his touch. She’s looking at nobody else but him, every last trace of her rigid strength slipping off her face. None of the others has ever seen her like this. Nobody else was granted a glimpse behind her indestructible walls.

Something twists inside him. Something dark crawls out of the pits of his mind, spreads through his thoughts, doesn’t let go of him.

Nobody else can save her now.

“I’m horrible,” she whispers. “I’m a murderer, I – what I did, I can’t –”

“No. No, you aren’t.” He holds her gaze, doesn’t allow her to look away. Her cheeks are reddened, her eyes filling with tears. He’s so close to her that he can feel the warmth of her body. “You did nothing wrong. You are not a murderer.”

Weakly, she shakes her head. He can’t help but let his knuckles graze her chin. She doesn’t flinch away, doesn’t move. Just looks at him out of widened eyes. “You don’t understand –” ­

“I do. Believe me, I do.”

“He’s gone,” she repeats again, the shattering realization making her voice shake. Her fingers dig into his arm with even more strength, her grip becoming almost painful. “He’s gone. Forever.”

She wants to cast her eyes down. His thumb grazes her chin and lifts it up again until she has to look at him. “You’re not alone.” His voice becomes a rumbling whisper. “No matter what happens, I’m here. I’ve got you. I promise.”

A sob escapes her, goes through her whole body. The room is empty and cold. There’s no one else to turn to but him.

There’s no one left but him.

“You promise,” she repeats.

“I do.”

She closes her eyes. A desperate sound leaves her throat as she lets herself fall against him, as she hides her face against his chest. He never dared think about it, but now she’s in his arms, pressing herself against him, and he shouldn’t feel all-consuming satisfaction numb his mind.

He shouldn’t.

His arms wrap around her fragile form as her sobs get louder. Her body melts into his, all strength leaving her. She starts crying, softly at first, then harder, so hard that her breaths become helpless gasps.

 “Why?” The words almost get lost beneath her tears. “Why did he … Why him? Why Joe?” Her fists hit his chest, punches that get weaker and weaker until her fingers claw into his vest, holding on for dear life. “Of all people, why him? Why …”

He rocks her. He closes his eyes. He buries his nose in her hair and takes a deep breath, and she lets him.

Her scent is more enticing than he could have ever dreamt of.

 

Nao presses a hand against her mouth. She keeps shaking her head, eyes darting to Sara and back to Keiji again. She’s not the first one to break the silence, though.

“Must be about the collars.” Sou leans over the bar, face propped on his hands. His eyebrows are drawn together. “It doesn’t make sense otherwise. A corpse alone wouldn’t have helped us.”

Keiji feels Sara’s hand on his arm, holding onto him as if trying to anchor herself. She is staring at Sou.

“That corpse you are talking about has a name,” she hisses, slowly letting go of Keiji again.

A moment passes. Sou blinks. “Ah. Right, sorry. Joe.”

She keeps glaring, lips pressed to a thin line. Across from her, Nao gives a helpless sound.

“I’m so sorry, Sara,” she mumbles.

Next to him, Sara is gritting her teeth. But in front of everyone else, she holds back her tears. He is the only one she allowed to see in such a state. The thought makes his heart give a thump.

“Coming up with a plan should be our priority right now,” he says. Q-taro watches him from the threshold, his cap plunging his face in shadows. Keiji does his best to hold back a smile. “There’s a second floor, as most of you already noticed. Guess we’ve got no choice but to investigate it.”

“We do not know what to expect, though. It might be dangerous,” Mishima throws in.

Nao, next to him, nods thoughtfully. “So the kids stay here.”

“No fair, woof!” Gin bursts out. “I wanna explore too! You’re always leaving me behind!”

“It’s too unsafe. Sorry, kiddo.” Reko pats his head, and with a snort, Gin avoids the gesture and moves behind Mishima, glowering at everyone who meets his eyes.

“Then we’ll do it,” Sara speaks up. She seems to have regained her composure, her anger having turned to harshness. “We’ll investigate the second floor. Maybe there’s something we missed, so someone could look through the other rooms again. And someone has to watch over our prisoner.”

“We’ll investigate the second floor?” Sou repeats. “Who’s we?”

“Keiji and I.”

Sou raises his eyebrows. The smile he sends Keiji is suspiciously easygoing. “Oh. The two of you. All right. Why not Nao?”

Nao winces. “Uh, that’s okay. I’d rather stay here with Kanna anyway.” She nervously smiles at Sou.

“Right. Reko? Mishima?”

Reko snorts. “Nah, sorry. Too risky. Who knows what’s up there. But you two …” She shrugs, her eyes meeting Keiji’s. “You do you. The hell do I care? Just be careful.”

“If you really mistrust us that much,” Sara tosses in, her voice icy, “why don’t you come with us, Sou?”

He doesn’t answer, his smile wavering just the tiniest bit. Keiji can’t hold back a chuckle.

“Now, now. Don’t tell me you’re scared of us?” He cocks his head. “You’re very welcome to join us, really.”

“I am sure Mister Sou is in no way scared of you,” Mishima interrupts their conversation. Any emotion is hidden behind his glasses. “He is merely thinking about the best course of action. As everyone here should do. In this sense, I agree with your suggestion, Miss Sara. We shouldn’t leave our – as you called him – prisoner unattended.”

“Yeah, she’s right. Somebody has to watch that guy.” Reko nods at the stranger lying on the floor. He is still unconscious. Then she looks at Sou again. “No offense, kiddo, but with your twig arms, you won’t do us any good.”

Sou’s smile finally falls. “Okay, well, I’ve got better things to do anyway.”

“Better things? Like what?” Nao asks, tilting her head.

“Searching rooms. Like Miss Sara said, might have missed something.”

It’s almost amusing with how much ease Sou lies straight to Nao’s face.

“Guess Q-taro would be the smartest choice,” Keiji says. “Strong enough to overpower our prisoner. In the worst case, that is.”

Q-taro looks at him for a long moment. “Guess you’re right,” he mumbles eventually.

“Then we’ve come to an agreement. Miss Nao and I will look over the children, Mister Sou and Reko will search the first floor again. Keiji and Miss Sara, you will investigate the second floor. Any objections?” Mishima looks at the group.

With a shrug, Reko moves toward the door. Sou follows shortly behind, sending Sara one last glance, his eyes narrowed slightly. She returns it without batting an eye. Quiet conversations arise between the remaining few, and Keiji is about to guide Sara toward the door when a feeble voice stops them.

Kanna is staring at Sara, her hands clasped. She takes a quick look at Keiji, almost flinching, before she turns to Sara again.

“I …” she starts, her voice so feeble it gets almost lost underneath the chattering. “Sara, um …”

Before, weakly spoken words like those could have softened Sara’s expression. Now she seems hardly affected. Still she bends down, hands propped on her knees. “Everything okay?”

“I, uhm … Yes, I’m better.” Another nervous glance is thrown at Keiji. Kanna hunches her shoulders. “I just … I’m sorry. For what happened to … to Joe …”

Sara doesn’t answer.

“Just please be careful,” Kanna whispers. Her eyes look tired, almost dull.

Sara attempts to smile. It looks like a bitter grimace. “We will. Thank you, Kanna.“

With that, she grabs Keiji’s arm and tugs at it until he follows her to the door. He can feel eyes following them. He can feel Sara’s fingers on his skin, only letting go when they approach the set of stairs in the Central Hall.

As they walk next to each other, her voice is low and steady, eyes strictly directed at the steps in front of her.

“I can’t stand their pity.”

He glances at her from the corners of his eyes. He doesn’t answer.

“I can’t stand it. Not when two of them voted for him.”

“None of us could have known, Sara.”

She gives a sound that is drenched in bitter amusement. “Doesn’t change the fact that he’s dead.”

It doesn’t, and he understands her anger, and he understands her need for revenge. There’s nothing he can do for her, though. Not yet.

 

When they arrive at the second floor, they find themselves in front of numerous doors, each of them labeled differently. A gate keeps them from approaching the largest door in the room. Sara narrows her eyes at it.

“I was wondering if Miley was telling the truth. What did she call it? Main Game …” She looks at Keiji. “Why did she lock herself in there, then?”

He raises an eyebrow. They are clearly toying with their prey. It’s the only reason they’ve been locked into a place like this, large enough to lose sight of each other, to be pushed into situations in which stakes are high. It’s not senseless killing – it’s killing that is meant to entertain.

“Seems like they’ve still got some plans for us,” he answers.

Sara looks at him for a few seconds, and he feels oddly nervous underneath her gaze. Then she turns to the door on the far left labeled “Sp”. Not hesitating for a moment, she pushes the door open. Keiji looks over her shoulder and discovers a spa room. Makes sense. The labeling, that is.

“What … Why would we need …?” She shakes her head. “Do they expect us to take a bath and relax? Is this a joke?”

“Well, if you want to …”

She sends him a sharp look. “Not funny, Keiji.”

“Shame. Was almost looking forward to it.” He responds to her stare by smiling teasingly. “No worries. All I’d have done is making sure the door stays locked. So you can feel at ease, that is.”

The insinuation isn’t lost on her, her cheeks turning red. He could bask in the sight forever.

Denying him an answer, she approaches the water and crouches to dip a finger into it. Then she sighs quietly. “Knowing Joe, he would have jumped right in.”

Silent seconds pass by. Sara looks almost caught as she retracts her hand. He makes his way over to her, crouching down in front of the pool. When he feels for the water’s temperature, pleasant warmth envelops his finger.

“In all honesty,” he says, and sends her a smile that is almost genuine. “Would be nice to take a dip. Forget all about this place just for a moment.”

She is watching him. Something about the way her eyes wander over his face makes his heart give a thump. He rests his chin on his hand, returning her look.

“If it was your friend I killed instead of Kai,” she says softly, “would you hate me?”

“Well, that sure is coming out of nowhere.”

“I just …” She swallows visibly and holds his gaze. “Just answer me.”

His smile doesn’t falter. “Can’t think of any scenario you would have killed him in.”

Him.

Too late to take that one back now.

“Nothing to be done if it’s an accident though,” he goes on, trying not to sound too hasty. “Like with Kai. I wouldn’t hate you.”

“You are lying.”

Her violet eyes are piercing. He feels himself shiver. “You think?”

“I know. Because if you had voted for Joe, I would resent you. I would hate you. Even if you didn’t mean to kill him – I would hate you.”

Would he really hate her? He can’t imagine it. Even his younger self would have adored her, he is sure. Despite the fact he …

His friend

He’s dead. Too late to feel sorry for himself. Keiji forces his smile to stay in place. “You’re searching for reasons to hate me?” he quips.

“I … no.” For a moment, she lowers her eyes to the floor. “I’m searching for reasons why you’re helping me. Why you …” She exhales. “Even after you saw how I killed …”

“You didn’t kill Kai on purpose, Sara.”

“I did.”

He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t move. A mocking voice in the back of his mind laughs. He can’t make it shut up. It’s not shocking, it’s not surprising, and he finds the corners of his mouth move upwards until a grin has built on his lips.

“Yeah … I suspected as much.”

Her eyes are glazed over. Her lips are quivering. But she’s looking at him. She holds his gaze, her arms wrapped around her knees, making herself appear even smaller than she already is.

His heart is pounding hard and fast.

“But as far as anyone else is concerned,” he continues, the grin still in place, almost painfully so, “it was an accident. Joe shot him. Not you.”

“But you acted like …” Her quietly whispered words hold a vulnerability that makes his chest tighten. “You really knew?”

“I know you’re too smart to mess up that challenge. Something had to be wrong.”

Slowly, she shakes her head. “Then why are you protecting me?”

Because she isn’t like him. Because she can’t be like him.

Keiji chuckles lowly. “Can’t stand it when a pretty girl makes a face like this.”

She doesn’t react to his comment, doesn’t even blush. All softness disappears from her eyes. Instead she leans closer. Puts a hand on his knee. The touch makes a shiver creep up his spine. Yet he doesn’t look away as she takes in his expression. She’s so close that he can count every single one of her eyelashes.

“You’re trying to protect a murderer,” she says, her voice dangerously low, “because she is pretty?”

He shouldn’t enjoy this as much as he does. He shouldn’t let his eyes flicker to her lips. He shouldn’t let just a hint of his true thoughts color his tone. “Not necessarily. But that pretty girl must have had a reason, I’d say.”

“And if I don’t? If I did it because I felt like it?”

He raises his eyebrows. “You think I never met someone who became a murderer because they felt like it?” He moves closer to her, and she doesn’t flinch away. Only inches separate them. “You’re nothing like them.”

“Are you sure?” Her words become a breathless whisper, and he feels all amusement fade as he stops himself from staring at her lips.

“I am.” He wants to smile, but can’t bring himself to. “Don’t have to tell me your reasons. Don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. Just remember. I’m on your side.”

Something in her eyes shifts, and she closes them before he has the chance to decipher her thoughts. Slowly she exhales. Warm air grazes his lips. Then she leans back again. He misses the softness of her touch within a moment, but he doesn’t dare move.

She stares at her hands. At hands that killed a person. At hands that pulled the trigger, fully aware that the person in front of her would die. She’s just a young girl. Her whole life lies in front of her.

Her words sound detached and carefully chosen as she speaks.

“You remember how Joe mentioned a stalker? The one who’s responsible for bringing me here?” Her eyes wander over the water in front of her. “It was him. Kai. I recognized him and used the Russian Roulette game as an opportunity to protect both Joe and me.”

Kai, a stalker. An obsessed, disgusting monster. His gut feeling was right after all.

“He followed me. Especially at night. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, constantly thinking he was watching me. No matter where I was. I felt like I was going crazy. And seeing him here – seeing him act like he’s some innocent man who doesn’t get off on following unsuspecting girls …”

Someone who dreamt of her pretty eyes, her shiny hair, her sweet lips. Someone who dreamt of touching her, holding her. Someone who wanted her to sigh his name over and over. Someone who wanted to feel like she was his and his alone.

“Maybe he would have killed us sooner or later. Maybe he would have killed me sooner or later. Or done something worse.”

A piece of shit who deserved to die.

“So I killed him.”

He can see her chest rapidly rising and falling. Her cheeks are reddened, eyes restless. He doesn’t know if she is scared, and if she is, he doesn’t know what of.

“You regret it?” Keiji asks.

“Should I?”

“Could’ve killed him for you, you know.”

The words need some time to sink in. Her whole body seems to tense up. She presses one hand against her chest as if to shield herself, her exhale becoming shaky. She doesn’t move away, but he sees blossoming caution in her expression nonetheless. “You …?”

Just what he expected. Shock. Disbelief. Right. The only reactions she should show.

He laughs so loudly that she flinches next to him, his tone carefree. “Well, would’ve at least tied him up until we’d gotten out of here. Assuming he’s the one who brought you here, we could’ve gotten some information out of him.” Keiji shrugs. “Too late for that now.”

She stares at him, eyes wide, shock turning into contemplation. “Maybe you’re right. I shouldn’t have …” Her eyes drift to the floor. “He had to know something. And I just …”

“Hey. No need to worry. Who knows what he would have been capable of. Might have manipulated all of us to his liking.” He cocks his head at her. “Maybe it’s for the best. One less danger, all that.”

Her hand sinks from her chest. The look she sends him is questioning, imploring. Wary. “You’re acting like this is nothing. As if I didn’t kill someone. As if I didn’t take a life.”

“Listen, Sara.” He feels a tremor in his fingertips as he reaches for her face. He expects her to flinch away, to avoid his touch, but she doesn’t. As he brushes a strand of hair behind her ear, she doesn’t move. Doesn’t blush. Doesn’t say anything. Gently, his thumb follows the line of her jaw. “You’re still a good person. It’s not your fault you killed him. It’s our kidnappers’ fault. Under any other circumstances, you would never have done it. You would have found another way to deal with it.”

She hesitates. Searches for something in his eyes. “That doesn’t mean I’m not a murderer, Keiji. You of all people should understand.”

“You,” he says, his thumb stopping at her chin, not daring to go any further, “killed a person who was a danger to yourself and others. You did it under duress. Believe me. Any attorney would be able to get you out of a trial with this reasoning.” Her skin is soft and warm, and he holds her gaze. “I know what a murderer looks like. You are not one.”

“Even if I killed him?” Something inside her seems to break, leaving nothing but a faint whisper. “Even if I took a life?”

“Even then.”

She looks like she wants to cry. He feels his heart beat in his chest. He so desperately wants to wrap his arms around her and hide her from this cruel world, but someone like him would only taint her. So he withdraws his hand.

She doesn’t need to know how blatantly he is lying to her, and to himself.

“I don’t …” She shakes her head. “What does a murderer look like, then? If killing someone isn’t enough, then what is?”

His heart is still racing. It’s getting to his head. It’s making his throat dry. It’s not her fault she pulled the trigger. But back then – when Keiji raised the gun, he could have stopped himself.

There is no excuse for him.

“No need to worry your pretty head about that,” he says, his voice as lighthearted as possible.

For a moment, she stares at him. Violet eyes that take him in, that won’t let go of him. Searching for an answer he can’t give her.

“And you?” she asks softly. “Would you have killed Kai in my stead?” Her gentle words make him shudder. “Would you have become a murderer for me?”

The question shoots right through him in an ice-cold wave. He stays still. The answer is painfully clear to him, lurking beneath thoughts he tried to banish from his mind. It’s too late for him. It’s not too late for her. But it won’t leave his lips, and instead, he chuckles quietly.

“Huh, how scary. We’re starting to sound like a real pair of psychos.”

She keeps staring at him. He can’t quite tell if she looks unsure or relieved.

Involuntarily, he reaches his hand up to rub his neck. “Making us talk about stuff like that with straight faces … What a messed-up situation, right? Won’t matter anyway when we manage to escape.”

She nods, her eyes wandering over the water. Its surface is still, a mirror of the world around them. Keiji inspects his reflection. Dark bags underneath his eyes. A smile that seems strained. Next to him, Sara lowers her gaze until their eyes meet in the reflection. Her expression is not that different from his. It doesn’t fit a pretty face like hers.

“Now, little detective.” He smiles at her, then stands up. “Let’s have a look around. What do you say?”

“Yeah. Let’s.”

She doesn’t take the hand he offers her.

 

The next room is labeled “Ro”, and Sara opens the door, again showing no hesitation. As soon as they enter it, the sight of a huge cage in the middle of the room catches Keiji’s eye.

And Gin is sitting behind its bars.