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Cat in Hell's Chance

Chapter Text

Sou sat cross-legged on his bed, hunched over the electronic glow of Kai’s laptop as he pondered the locked login screen with narrowed eyes. Kai had taken extra security measures to protect the contents, and as handy as Sou was with computers, the standard fare of bypass and reset tricks weren’t applicable here. Still, Kai was evidently careless enough to set his prior password to a string as simple as “CHIDOUIN”, so maybe this secondary password was something equally guessable. Sou wracked his mind to recall what little he knew about Kai before he died.

>EGGSBENEDICT

Access denied.

>FRYINGPAN

Access denied.

>SPATULA

Access denied.

>ILUVSTALKING

Access denied.

Sou frowned, absentmindedly toying with the fringe of his scarf. His stomach growled, and if the laptop’s clock was to be believed, it was nearly 7PM—not that there were any natural light cycles in this bizarre facility to corroborate that. He hadn’t eaten all day, more out of recluse-like avoidance than any dearth of food in the larder, and he preferred to take his meals in the odd hours of the night, when everyone else was sleeping. So far this strategy had worked well for him, except for the one time he spied Keiji brewing hot coffee and eating packaged donuts at 3AM, muttering under his breath about cigarette withdrawals and shitty creamer cups. Keiji may very well have been the biggest liar in the group, but Sou could believe that he used to be a cop. 

A light knock sounded at the door, and Sou was interrupted from his distracted musings. He recognized Kanna’s feathery touch by now, but one could never be too suspicious; he shut the laptop, hid it in a slit beneath the mattress, and rose quietly from the bed.  

“Hello Sou… are you awake?” came Kanna’s muffled voice. “Did you eat…? Kanna cooked dinner, and she wants to invite Sou to eat with her…”

Sou felt a flicker of guilt. Kanna was so nice to him. He’d manipulated her trust during the last game, and even knowing that, she followed him about with the earnest loyalty of a fed stray kitten. Everyone here looked down on Sou and would cut him loose like a rusted link, yet Kanna was different… because Kanna was even weaker than he was. And having thought that, his empty stomach knotted when he recalled that Kanna’s survival probability was still higher than his own—a big fat zero.  

“Sou…? If you’re sleeping, it’s okay…”

Sou tugged down his beanie and cracked open the door. Kanna beamed up at him, hands folded over her skirt, weird little bucket still perched precariously on her head. Sou wasn’t one to judge, though. He knew how those things could be irrationally comforting, and in the given circumstances, everyone was starting to get neurotic in their own ways.

“Kanna made dinner! Let’s go, Sou!”

She looked more energetic than he’d ever seen her before, and he barely had time to secure the door shut as she tugged his coat sleeve and proceeded to tow him down the dim hallway. A savory smell tinged the air, and it grew heady and mouthwatering as they turned the corner.

At first glance, the communal kitchen area was deserted, but Sou’s relief was abruptly shattered at the sight of Sara Chidouin seated at the table before a steaming pot and three set bowls. Just the mere sight of her stupid ginger hair activated his fight-or-flight response, and only Kanna’s surprisingly tight grip on his arm prevented him from walking away in a seamless one-eighty.

“Why is she here?” he hissed, as Kanna death-marched him forward. “Kanna—”

“Big sister Sara helped Kanna cook!” Kanna piped. Sweat beaded on Sou’s brow. “Together, we made miso hot pot! It’s good, so please eat!”

“Actually, ah, I have a stomachache, oof, ugh, I’m not hungry—”

Kanna foisted Sou into the wooden chair across from Sara and sat down beside him, tiny fingers still clenched on his elbow. Sou shook her off with a flash of panicked irritation. A horrid silence stretched, and Sou’s skin prickled under Sara’s impassive gaze.

“Hi, Sou,” she finally greeted, voice crisp and cool. A ladle clinked as she reached for his bowl and began to serve. “I was wondering if you died in your room.”

“Why did you cook for me?” he blurted, cringing inwardly. Sheesh, he sounded like an idiot. Kanna laid a napkin across his lap. Kanna… had betrayed him.

Sara’s eyebrows twitched upward. “We cooked for everyone who wants any,” she said, looking at him with feigned surprise. Sou’s lips tightened. Sara was always silently mocking him, just like popular girls used to back when he was in school. “Everyone else is out collecting clear chips or resting, so it’s just us right now.” She hesitated, wetting her lips and brushing a strand of hair behind her ear. Her eyes slid away awkwardly. “I’m, er, glad you joined. B-because Kanna was excited…”

Sou blinked. Kanna and Sara began to eat, and with some reluctance, he joined them; the hot broth was delicious, even moreso in his starving state, and he tried his best to show polite restraint. Even without meat in the facility, the food was rich with preserved vegetables and rehydrated bean curd. He felt Kanna watching him eagerly.

“Sara is a really good teacher,” she said with cheer, and Sou felt petty jealousy unfurl in his chest. Was there anything that beloved Miss Sara wasn’t perfect at? And she was still a student… Meanwhile, Sou couldn’t even open a stuck cabinet or reach the top shelf.

“It’s all basics from Home Ec,” said Sara, sounding somewhat embarrassed. She set down her spoon and dabbed the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “If it weren’t for you, Kanna, I wouldn’t have remembered we could make this here.” Her eyes flicked toward Sou as well. “Sou… is there anything you like to cook for yourself?”

Sou paused, caught off-guard as his brain combed through a blurred reel of microwaved ramen cups, steamed rice, and canned soup. Eating was for sustenance, and he tried to do it as cheaply as possible. Anyway, if she had her way, Sara was going to kill him. Why bother getting to know him? He supposed small-talk was just that.

“Er, not really,” he said, and he felt his face flush involuntarily upon Sara’s curious expression. Kanna plucked the mushrooms from her bowl with her chopsticks and stuck them into Sou’s.

“Did Sara know that Sou likes strawberry jam?” Kanna glanced between them with hopeful adoration, and Sou shifted uncomfortably. Who didn’t like strawberry jam? For crying out loud… “Kanna does too! When we escape, let’s all go to a bakery together!”

Sou met Sara’s eyes, and it jarred him to see that her cheeks were bright pink. She looked pained, and before he could fully begin to process the implications, a pair of heavy footsteps approached from behind him.

“See ya, Keiji,” called Q-taro’s voice. “Thanks for the tokens, man!”

A door slammed, and Sara’s gaze slid over Sou’s shoulder as Keiji prowled over to the table like a hulking blond wolf. He towered beside Sara and pulled out a chair.

“Hm, what’s this? Were you guys cooking? Smells pretty good,” he remarked, and his lazy tone belied his shrewd appraisal. His gray eyes darted and pierced Sou with daggerlike scrutiny. “I’m done for the evening. Mind if I join in?”

“Okay,” Sara replied, and beside Sou, Kanna stiffened.

“M-mister Keiji!” she exclaimed, pouting sternly as her palms trembled atop the table. Everyone’s heads turned. “P-please, Kanna… Kanna humbly asks that Mister Keiji takes a bath first…”

Keiji’s eyebrows shot upward. “Huh? What, am I sweaty?” His nose dipped discreetly toward his underarm. “Ah, guess I got nose-blind. Sorry ‘bout that.” His focus snapped back to Sou. “Q-taro and I got a good workout breaking necks out there.” He rested a broad hand on Sara’s chairback, still staring; Sou plastered a smile and resumed eating, and Keiji barked a laugh. “Just kidding! We were dancing. Hoo boy, talk about a near death experience…”

“Goodbye, Mister Keiji!” Kanna squeaked. Keiji cast them a deadpan expression. He clapped a hand on Sara’s shoulder and stepped back from the table.

“All right. See ya,” he drawled, and strolled away toward the dormitory hall. Kanna sighed.

“Um, anyway,” Sara began, glancing down at her lap, “about what you were saying, Kanna. I, um…” She trailed off, fiddling with her jacket cuff, but Sou’s pulse was hammering too hard to pay attention anymore. Why had he humored Kanna for this? He stayed in his room unless necessary for good reason. Dining with the devil and getting growled at by her wardrobe-shaped watchdog was definitely not a good reason. This was how he’d get killed—letting his guard down and getting sloppy. This facility was a shark cage, and now even Kanna was fraternizing with the enemy.

“I’ve got to go,” he said suddenly, hastily folding his napkin and setting down his chopsticks. “Just leave my stuff in the sink. I’ll clean up later.” He tugged up his scarf, and chair legs scraped as he stood. “Thanks for dinner.”

“Sou—“ Kanna clutched at his hand, visibly upset. Sou flinched away. As much as he liked Kanna, he wasn’t here for her tea parties and abandoned child complex; he couldn’t do any of that if he ended up dead. He was Sou Hiyori now, not Shin Tsukimi.

“Where do you possibly have to go? I’m not done talking to you,” said Sara bluntly, fists curled. She was just uncharismatic enough that at times like this, Sou wondered why everyone flocked to her.

“You’re a good cook, Miss Sara,” he said coolly, and before either of the girls could protest any further, he strode off like a bat out of hell. The hallway passed his vision in a heart-pounding blur—he was unpleasantly disturbed to notice Keiji leaning against the wall, stock-still and arms folded, but if the ex-cop had anything to say, Sou denied him acknowledgment. He could only hope that Keiji would choke on a dry donut and eliminate himself from the game.

Sou reached his bedroom and locked the door behind him. He confirmed that the laptop was still hidden and heaved a breath of relief; it was only then that he collapsed face down onto the mattress and dragged a pillow over his head.   

There was no reason to second guess… Sara Chidouin… was the enemy.

 

Chapter Text

 “How far are you going to run?”

Sou bolted down the endless corridor as Sara’s voice echoed behind him, calm and cold. Her footsteps were leisurely, yet even as Sou sprinted with all he had, the gap between them was closing audibly.

“No one needs you. Why do you live?”

Her words dripped with contempt. Glistening black eyes blinked and rolled from the walls, spectating in silent mockery. Sou kept running deeper into the claustrophobic gloom, legs burning and lungs aching. He had to get away from her no matter what… he had to stay alive. His panicked gasps rattled with the taste of blood. The ceiling sagged like a rotted coffin.  

“Here, I’ll kill you.”

A hoarse cry tore from Sou’s throat as a pair of hands shoved him from behind; he stumbled and crashed to the floor, pinned by a lithe, powerful figure. He scrambled onto his back, thrashing like a stranded minnow—Sara loomed over him, expression blank and hard. She flipped back her ponytail and raised a steel chef’s knife. 

“Sure enough, that’s your true nature…” Her lip curled, and her eyes gleamed crimson. Her knuckles clenched white around the knife handle. “It’s your turn to die, Sou.”

“No! Stop—”

Sou’s entire body jerked over the mattress. His eyes snapped open; he lifted his face from the bed and looked about, disoriented and hyperventilating, until he remembered where he was.

He was… trapped in a death facility with a projected zero percent survival rate, which was really only a marginal improvement over his recurrent nightmare. At least in his dream, he was athletic enough to sprint for more than a hundred meters.

He swiped back the sweat-soaked bangs from his forehead and rolled onto his back, heart still banging in his ribcage. He needed a shower. What time was it? He’d fallen asleep with the lamp on, and the drab, windowless room was awash in a jaundiced glow. He stared at the ceiling as recollections of the prior evening trickled back into his memory.

Dinner with Sara Chidouin… Kanna was naïve. He could concede that maybe Sara genuinely cared for Kanna, but she certainly held no regards for Sou. At this point, that sentiment was only to be expected—which just made her pretense of amicability all the more suspicious. She clearly wanted him off-guard.

A knock sounded, and Sou stiffened. It was a quiet rap, but too firm and decisive to be Kanna. He peeled himself from the bed, momentarily lightheaded, and padded to the door. He heard only silence from the hallway.

“Yes?” he said hoarsely.

“Sou. Can we talk?”

It was Sara’s voice, and nausea fluttered in his stomach. He could envision her standing there, expressionless like a porcelain doll, a long knife clutched at her side. He swallowed dryly.

“Sure,” he replied, subconsciously straightening his clothes and rearranging his messy hair. He looped his scarf securely around his neck. “What is it, Miss Sara?”

“Um… can you open the door?”

His eyes narrowed. She wanted the laptop, and for all Sou knew, Keiji was poised just beyond the threshold to nab him—or god forbid, maybe even Q-taro. Sou had no illusions that either man couldn't snap him like a candy cane. Even Sara could, if he was really honest.

“I mean, I can,” Sou replied, carefully nonchalant. “But I don’t need to, do I? Ah, my room’s such a mess… it’s embarrassing. We can hear each other just fine already.”

Sara’s huffy exhalation was unexpectedly loud, and her fists met the door in twin dull thumps. “Why are you like this?!” Her cross, muffled voice sounded like it was pressed against the wood. “What do you think I’m going to do? Just open up! I’m serious!”

Sou hesitated, and perhaps against his better judgment, he pulled open the door. His eyebrows twitched upward.

If he was at all self-conscious to be sweaty and disheveled, Sara looked far worse. Her lopsided hair was disarrayed, and her bloodshot gaze was damp and puffy; she wasn’t wearing her jacket, and spots like teardrops were spattered down the front of her beige button-up. Sou said nothing, robbed of words.

Sara raised her chin to meet his gaze. “I know it’s a weird hour,” she said, wiping hastily at her nose, “but you’re usually up late, aren’t you?”

Sou stared. Paranoia simmered. How would she possibly know that?

“Um, no? I was sleeping,” he said slowly. Sara stepped forward, and he had no choice but to acquiesce as she brushed by him into his room.

“Oh.” She didn’t bother with an apology, and Sou watched from the doorframe as she settled into the corner on the dusty gray armchair. “Well, you’re awake now.”

Sou shut the door and leaned back against it. He crossed his arms, momentarily forgetting how they were supposed to fit together. For a long moment, they only stared at one another, tensed in the hushed air. Sara parted her mouth and shut it, apparently struggling to speak.

“I wanted to know…” Her pale throat dipped beneath her death collar. “Um, I was wondering.” Her eyes slid away, blinking at the rumpled bed, lashes spiked with moisture. “D-do you…” Her lips pressed closed, and her tongue darted to wet them.

Sou observed, fascinated. He’d never seen Sara so vulnerably discomposed. He wondered if she practiced kendo and drama.

“Do you want to trade tokens with me?” she blurted, red-faced. Her fingers clenched in the seat of the chair, and Sou blinked.

“W-what?” His hands dropped to his sides and shoved into his pockets; he touched the zipped leather of his wallet, frowning. “Why? How many?”

Sara gulped a breath, and her gaze seized him with tearful frustration. “Why do you hate me, Sou?”

“Huh?”

Sara stood abruptly, and Sou’s heartbeat skipped. He straightened against the wooden door, pinned like an insect specimen as she began to pace towards him.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t, because I know I’m a—I keep having dreams that he—” She stopped, hands curled at her sides, struggling to collect her broken composure. She heaved a shaking breath. “I just want to know why. What did I do to you? Shouldn’t we all work together?”

Sara resumed her approach, and Sou wracked his short-circuiting brain for an appropriate response. Whatever was wrong with her, he couldn’t begin to take responsibility, nor could he comprehend how he’d contributed to this in the first place—how could somebody like Sara genuinely be so bothered by whether or not he liked her? How could she have a 15.5% survival chance acting like this? Sou didn’t have any sisters, and he had no experience with women to speak of, but “P.M.S.” served as his best momentary guess.

Sara stepped in front of him, toes nearly touching his own, and Sou held his hitched breath. They were nearly the same height. She looked at him, brow creased and lips trembling.

“You’re afraid to die,” she said, raspy and quiet. Sou swallowed. He could smell her, and she was sweet like strawberries; his mouth watered involuntarily. His hammering heart was shaking the fabric of his shirt. “I’m afraid, too… and I wanted to ask you…”

 An ear-splitting knock pounded the wood behind Sou’s head, and he nearly jolted out of his skin—Sara flinched as well, eyes snapping wide.

“Knock, knock,” Keiji’s voice drawled. “Room service.”

Sou stumbled forward, bumping into Sara as she moved to yank open the door. He steadied himself against the hinged jamb, ears buzzing with adrenaline.  

“Oh? Did I get the wrong room? Whoops. Could’ve sworn you were down the other hall, Sara.”  

“What are you doing here?” Sara asked. Her face was blocked by the open door, and Sou glanced at her slender hand gripping the doorknob.

“Mm, could ask you the same.”

Sou straightened and stepped beside Sara. Keiji loomed just beyond the threshold, broad shoulders consuming the space of the doorframe; his eyebrows quirked up, and his focus switched behind them, sweeping the bedroom with a perpetually bored gaze.  

“What’s this, a slumber party?”

Sara’s cheeks puffed with indignation. She seemed to have recovered her demeanor surprisingly quickly, and she faced Keiji like a plucky cat peering up at a German Shepherd. “I was talking with Sou. Is there a problem?”

Keiji chuckled. “No, not at all. Sorry to interrupt,” he said, rubbing his collar in an artificially casual motion. He fished into his pocket and held up a battery. Lamplight gleamed off the small copper tube, and Sou stared with apprehension—he’d found one just like that when searching the ruined corridor, lying amidst a pile of rubble. It was the only one, and he had no idea if it even worked.     

“You dropped this earlier.” Keiji smiled at Sou. “Thought I’d return it.”

“Thanks,” Sou replied, stomach sinking. Careless. He was too careless. He reached to take it, but the other man’s large fingers didn’t let go.

“Might wanna be more careful,” said Keiji, and that lazy, hair-raising smile remained plastered on his face. He released his grip, and Sou stuffed the battery into his jacket pocket, pulse racing. “Can’t trust anyone else around here to run a lost and found for you.”

“Right.” Sou smiled back thinly. Whatever Keiji’s angle was, he was nothing but bad news, and his timing was surely anything but coincidental. It disturbed Sou to realize how silently he’d approached his door. “Obliged, officer.”

Sara cleared her throat. “I’m going to bed,” she said curtly, squirming past Keiji’s bulk and tugging his rolled sleeve. “Shouldn’t you sleep too, Keiji?”

“Hm? Guess so.” He turned to follow Sara as though drawn by a magnet, but not before casting one last glance toward Sou. “Night,” he said, and his friendly tone didn’t nearly match the coldness of his eyes. Sou shuddered and shut the door, locking it with a click. He took a deep breath and walked over to the bed.

Keiji had technically rescued him from Sara, yet Sou felt inexplicably annoyed. He didn’t need to trade tokens with Sara, and he had no read on what else she possibly wanted to ask him, beyond that it couldn’t be anything advantageous for him. She was 15.5% and he was 0.0% for a reason. Nevertheless, his mind insisted on replaying their encounter with compulsive intrigue, and heat rose in his neck as he recalled their stifling proximity. He tugged loose his scarf and inhaled.

Somehow, it disturbed Sou deeply to know that Sara smelled exactly the way she looked. He wished he could delete that sensory imprint from his brain like the useless data it was. Of course girls smelled nice—they were always dousing themselves in fruity perfumed garbage, and apparently this death facility saw fit to enable that.      

Sou shook his head. He retrieved Kai’s laptop from beneath the mattress and took a seat. With its lid popped, the machine started up with a whir, and the electronic clock blinked onto the screen. Sou was shocked to see that it was nearly three in the morning.

He paused, unsettled, and closed the laptop before flopping back onto the bed. Why was Sara coming to his door at three in the morning? She was crying about Joe, probably. But what did she want from him? Why did she care about his opinion? What was she going to ask? He was thinking about this too much. Or was he not thinking about it enough?

He reached to switch off the bedside lamp, and the room became shrouded in pitch darkness. He shifted restlessly, listening to the sound of his own quickened breathing. He could recall the scene vividly from his dream—Sara straddling him, fingers clenched in his shirt, knife raised and weight pressing on his hips—

Sou snapped the light back on and dragged his palms down his face. He was thinking about this too much.    

 

Chapter Text

It was sometime during the mid afternoon of the next day, and Kanna was leading Sou back towards the main lobby. Her firm grip around his hand reminded him more of a tiny assigned chaperone than a child in need of comfort. They had spent most of the day together, and as far as game partners went, Kanna pulled her weight greater than one would expect—in fact, she had hard carried the pair of them during the abominable dancing attraction that Keiji had alluded to previously. Screeching synth pop still echoed in Sou’s ears. For the life of him, he couldn’t comprehend why they’d all been kidnapped to do that. Maybe it was a bizarre test of sanity, or perhaps the Death Game organizers just had a screwed up sense of humor… or both.   

Winning clear chips aside, the day had yielded other productive results. He and Kanna had traded twenty tokens each with Alice, and during their exploration of the floor’s network of decrepit hallways, Sou had come across a charged stun gun. It had presumably been placed there intentionally by the floor masters, and with this stroke of luck, Sou now possessed a critical advantage to compensate for his lack of strength. Muscles wouldn’t protect men like Q-taro and Keiji from high voltage electricity.

“Sou, let’s rest and eat lunch,” murmured Kanna. Their footsteps echoed down the dim, rubble-strewn corridor. “Sou doesn’t eat enough… he’s so thin… Kanna is worried.”

Sou sighed. She sounded like how his mom used to be, constantly fussing over him and nagging him to eat. The thought was surreal, and it surprised Sou to realize that this was the first time he’d thought about his parents since his kidnapping; he’d been residing in this death facility for a relatively short period, yet the dire stress of the circumstances had warped his perception of time to feel like an eternity. Anyway, avoiding contact with his family for prolonged stretches wasn’t out of character for him, and in all likelihood, no one had reported him missing… for better or for worse, Sou was a nobody.

Sou and Kanna turned a corner, and he was jolted from his brooding thoughts by the sight of Sara and Keiji approaching from the lobby. Dark bags shadowed Sara’s exhausted face, but she strode tall with confidence. Her clothes were immaculate, and her silky hair was combed and neatly braided; if Sou didn’t know any better, he’d dismiss her prior state of tear-stained shambles as no more than a perturbing dream. Beside her, Keiji looked the same as ever. Buff and bleached.

Sou stopped, and Kanna shrank close to him. Sara paused as well, eyes wide.

“There’s no need to waste your time going this way,” Sou said, faking a friendly smile. “We just searched, and there’s nothing.” Technically that was the truth. He had the stun gun now, although it worried him to consider that he may have overlooked something else of importance. 

“Perfect.” Keiji grinned and squeezed Sara’s shoulder. “We were looking for a bit of privacy on our date. Guess we’ll just keep heading onward.”

Sara rolled her eyes, and Sou felt a flash of peevish resentment. Keiji had established a clear alliance with Sara, yet his gratuitous edge of sarcastic sleaze told Sou that Keiji was also just kind of a pervert. He seemed obviously attracted to Sara for more than merely her competence… but not to the point of being exploitable. Keiji was the type of person who knew which side his bread was buttered on. If their winrates were to be believed, Sara was even more of a threat than Keiji was, and surely she wouldn’t hesitate to betray and devour him like a female praying mantis.

“We’ll double-check, just in case you guys missed anything,” said Sara. She glanced at Kanna’s hand clutched tightly around Sou’s, and with a twinge of self-consciousness, he wondered what she was thinking. “Keep a close eye on Sou, okay, Kanna?”

Kanna stiffened, chin raised earnestly. “Yes! Please trust Kanna!”

Sou felt his cheeks stain pink. Who was the child here?! Sheesh…

“You take care as well, Miss Sara,” he said breezily, departing with Kanna in tow. “Enjoy your date… And don’t forget that if you need to call the police on him, he is the police.”

Sou stalked off, counterfeit smile souring into a grim line at the sound of Keiji’s laugh from behind him. From the periphery of his vision, he could see Kanna casting curious peeks at him as they made their way through the empty lobby and into the kitchen. He slouched against the counter, arms folded, and watched as Kanna began to rifle through the refrigerator.

“Should Kanna make omurice? Oh, does Sou like soba salad?”

“I’m not hungry,” he replied, feeling weirdly embarrassed. “Just cook for yourself, Kanna.”

Kanna ignored him and proceeded to prepare two bowls of omelet rice. They moved to sit beside each other at the table, and Sou stared down at the ketchup smiley face that Kanna had drawn on his egg.

“Thanks,” he muttered, smearing the face with the tip of his chopsticks. Kanna was so cute that it physically hurt him. He didn’t deserve any of it.

“Please eat, Sou!” she insisted, and he took a bite in acquiescence. “K-Kugie showed Kanna how to cook this… because it was one of Kanna’s favorites…”

Sou glanced at her in concern, but Kanna bit her lip and blinked away the teary sheen. They ate in silence for several minutes, and Sou’s mind went adrift to the prior night’s dinner. He wondered who had initiated that idea. Had Kanna been seeking comfort, or was Sara working to monopolize the impressionable girl’s loyalty and affection? How had Sara reacted when Kanna asked to invite him? Or had it possibly been Sara’s suggestion? Sou couldn’t trust Kanna to be candid about this.   

“Can Kanna ask Sou a question?” she chirped, interrupting his speculations. 

“Hm? Sure.” Sou brushed back his teal bangs and looked at her. She was fixated upon him, green eyes wide; she scooted closer and lowered her voice to a hush.

“Does Sou… like anyone? Kanna promises she won’t tell…”

Sou finished chewing and swallowed, eyebrows knitted. “Huh?” For a moment he forgot that he was sitting in a death facility, not a middle school cafeteria. Then again, Kanna was a middle schooler. “Ah, no. Sorry to disappoint you.” He turned his focus back to his bowl, but Kanna persisted.

“Does Sou have a girlfriend?”

“No,” he replied, dying slightly on the inside. He hated when his hopeful mother asked him this, which was nearly every time they spoke. He’d dropped out of his first year CS degree and barely supported his independence via freelancing with self-taught coding, odd jobs, and working the night shift at a convenience store. Now, at scarcely twenty years old, he lived in a crummy apartment steeped in the miasma of a suffocating existential crisis. The thought of trying to date made him want to crawl out a tenth story window.

“Oh…”

Kanna fell quiet, much to Sou’s relief. A distant bang rattled, and he watched as Q-taro marched past through the far end of the lobby, token wallet secured in his giant grip, barely sparing the pair of them a second glance. His footsteps disappeared down the dormitory corridor. Sou’s fingertips brushed absentmindedly across the stun gun in his jacket pocket, and his eyes narrowed in thought. Chances were, Q-taro still had the tokens that Sou traded for the laptop…

“What kind of girl does Sou like?” Kanna probed, leaning forward to recapture his attention. Sou shifted awkwardly in his chair.

“W-what? Um, I don’t know.” An agitated flush crept up his cheeks. He supposed that this level of conversational quality was the price he paid for keeping company with a thirteen year old girl. Kanna was intelligent, but she was still just a kid. “Someone nice, I guess,” he added, halfheartedly trying to humor her.

“Oh! That’s what everyone says!” Kanna exclaimed, setting down her chopsticks. She pressed her thumb to her chin. “E-even Kugie… But whenever Kugie liked someone, she was always really mean to them. Once, Kugie even stuck caterpillars down a boy’s pants and made him cry… even though she liked him…” Kanna fidgeted with her sleeves, and Sou looked at her. “Everyone wants to meet someone nice… so why are people mean to each other? Kanna wants to know…”

Sou slumped back in his chair and exhaled, pushing away his half-eaten meal. “That’s just how the real world works,” he said, and he almost regretted not having less cynical life advice to dispense. “Not everyone is as nice as they act. If you aren’t careful and believe everything at face value, people will take advantage of you. That’s why you shouldn’t be too nice.”

Kanna blinked at him, apparently hanging off his every word; guilt unfurled in Sou’s stomach and killed off the last off his paltry appetite. He fixed his scarf and stood, and Kanna trailed him like a puppy as he took their bowls and cleaned them out in the sink.

“Kanna thinks Sou is a nice person,” she said, beaming up at him. Sou shut off the faucet and returned an uneasy smile. He dried his hands and pulled his sleeves back down over his pale, skinny forearms. “Kanna thinks everyone here is nice…”

For a moment, Sou said nothing. Aside from Kanna, nobody here was nice, at least not when push came to shove. And yet, being this naïve, Kanna’s chance of survival was still higher than Sou’s. The notion drenched him with bitter despair.

…But no, that wasn’t quite true. Kanna’s percentage was higher than Shin’s. And he reminded himself yet again that he was Sou Hiyori, not Shin Tsukimi.

“I’m going to my room,” he said, and before Kanna could inadvertently harrow him anymore, he stepped past her and hurried away.

 

Chapter Text

By the time Sou reemerged from his room, having attended to matters of his own private business, the hallway was silent and deserted. He half-expected Kanna to be sitting on the floor, legs tucked and chin resting on her knees like a wilted green plant—but the girl was nowhere to be seen, nor had she knocked on his door. His newly unchallenged solitude was unsettling, and he felt some nagging responsibility to confirm her whereabouts.

He locked the door and paced towards the lobby, beanie pulled down and hands stuffed in his pockets. The main area was nearly empty; calm lamplight glowed across the brick walls and fake hedges, and only Sara was seated in one of the plush maroon armchairs, poring over a tangled piece of string with her stocking-clad legs crossed. A teacup steamed from the end table beside her. She didn’t raise her head, but her eyes flicked up like a pair of amethyst switchblades. Sou’s stomach flopped.

“Miss Sara,” he greeted, stopping behind the empty chair opposite of her. He glanced curiously at the string, but she tucked it away into her coat. Sou cataloged the suspicious detail and flashed a thin smile. “Have you seen Kanna?”

“Kanna’s with Gin,” Sara replied, and Sou’s mouth slid into a frown. Kanna had never spent time with Gin before; the junior furry adored Sara with twee fawning, but towards everyone else, he was kind of a sassy little brat. “Nao is teaching them how to draw in her room. It seems like they could all use a break.”

“Oh? That’s nice,” Sou said, mind racing. Since when had Kanna become such a social butterfly? Despite the dire circumstances and literal threat of death, everyone seemed to be sagging into mundane indulgences with increasing visibility. Apparently they all had leisure time to be doodling, sipping tea, and jacking off… or maybe that’s just what they wanted one another to think.

“Do you want to partner for an attraction?” asked Sara suddenly, rising to a stand. “I need to do Quick Draw. You haven’t done it either, right? If you’re not busy, let’s do it.”

Sou hesitated, taken aback. Sara practiced kendo, and viable partners were growing scarce… Moreover, he needed the clear chip, so this wasn’t an opportunity to turn down. 

“Sure,” he answered, and Sara nodded. His heart pounded as he followed her out of the lobby and through the relaxation room. The temperature inside was cool with air conditioning, and sparse curtains of flower petals fluttered to the ground in the holographic gardens. Seated at one of the indigo tables, Q-taro was sorting through stacks of tokens; Reko leaned back across from him, spiked leather boots propped on the bench, and she looked up from her open wallet with kohl-lined eyes.   

“Yo,” she called. “Heading out to get chips?”

“Yeah, we’re going to Quick Draw,” said Sara, waving at them as she walked by. Q-taro glanced up and grinned in acknowledgment. Sou was boggled by how many tokens he’d amassed, assuming those were all his, and not Reko’s too—they appeared to be significantly more than his initial one hundred.

“Hey, you sure you wanna pair up with that lying shitbird?” said Reko, shooting Sou a rancid glare. He smiled politely at her. Bitch. “I’ll go with ya instead, Sara.”

“Thanks! I’ll take you up on the next one,” Sara replied, and Reko shrugged and turned back to her token trade. Sou kept pace beside Sara as they turned a corner and made their way wordlessly down a long, claustrophobic wooden corridor, footsteps echoing in a mismatched patter.

Sou adjusted his scarf and watched Sara from the corner of his eye. Her steady gaze was fixed forward, and her lips were set in a serious line; unlike Sou, she never slouched, and her long ponytail bobbed in time with her athletic stride. He couldn’t help but dwell upon the stark memory of her pinning him eye-to-eye against his bedroom door, teary and disheveled, struggling to speak coherently.

You’re afraid to die… I’m afraid, too… and I wanted to ask you…

Sou stopped. He stood in the gloom of the narrow passage, and Sara halted as well, turning in question.

“What did you want to ask me?” he blurted, unable to bury his curiosity. Sara met his gaze, and his cheeks flushed. “Um, last night, I mean.”

Sara continued to stare, blinking, and her face began to color as well. The thick silence was suddenly suffocating, and Sou leaned against the wall and folded his arms.

“I wanted to trade tokens,” she said, voice quivering. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and glanced away. “Anyway, I should apologize. I was exhausted and couldn’t sleep, and l think I was a little, um, delirious. Let’s forget about it. Sorry.”

Sou frowned as seeds of obsessive frustration began germinating in his head. If Sara was hiding the information, then it was clearly important. “I’ll trade some tokens with you,” he offered, fiddling restlessly with his scarf fringe. “But what were you going to ask after that? You said something about being afraid to die…”

“Never mind.” Sara’s reply was like a blunt axe.

“Why? Just tell me,” he insisted, petulance creeping into his tone. “I promise I won’t judge you, Miss Sara.” Of course he would judge her mercilessly, but he needed to know.

Sara crossed her arms. “I forgot. But that reminds me—I need to talk to you about Kai’s laptop. Q-taro and Keiji and I shouldn’t have hidden it from everyone… that was wrong. I thought we could all bury the hatchet and look at it together.”

Sou ground his teeth. Since Sara wouldn’t even put effort into her lies, then he wouldn’t either.

“I’m sorry. I lost it,” he said with a shrug. Sara’s brow crinkled with incredulity.

“What? No, you didn’t. How on earth can you lose an entire laptop?”

Sou sighed and brushed his fingertips to his forehead, mock pain twisting his features. If Sara was going to be difficult, he’d be petty right back. “I forgot… ah geez, my amnesia…”

Sara’s jaw fell open before snapping shut with a scowl. “Cut it out! You already admitted you made that all up!”

“Did I say that?” Sou’s eyelashes fluttered innocently. “Funny, my amnesia is blocking out the memory…”

Sara’s arms dropped to her sides, fists curled, and she strode to where Sou leaned against the plywood wall. She stopped before him with a glower. He stiffened when her index finger met the center of his chest in a swift jab. Her touch felt like a static bolt, and the air stuck in his throat.   

“I’m not your enemy, you know,” she said sternly, and Sou glanced down at her hand. “Stop playing games with me.”

A silent moment passed. Sou’s face was poker blank, but his heart was knocking harder than an angry landlord, and Sara’s gaze dropped to her finger as well. Her fierce expression gave way to confusion. With a surge of horror, he realized she could feel his jackrabbit pulse, and he squirmed abruptly away to the side, freeing himself from Sara’s sword-point style diplomacy.  

“Playing games…?” he repeated, continuing down the corridor before Sara could glimpse his burning face. Why was his useless body like this? “Right, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing now?”

“You’re the one who stopped, not me,” she said, trailing behind him, and Sou tugged his scarf up, palms sweaty. 

 


 

The attraction—and Sou was loath to call it an attraction, seeing as how everything about it triggered the urge to flee in the opposite direction—was a pitch black chamber in which monstrous, animatronic swordsmen emerged from the far end. A gun, a dagger, and a pipe hung on a rack; they were all fake props, not worth attempting to steal, and even the pipe was painted foam. Electric signs flashed in the darkness like traffic lights, hinges creaking eerily.  

Sara had been summoned first, and she stood poised like an RPG heroine before some sort of grotesquely bisected Dullahan; ghastly blue fire roared and hissed from its neck stump, and its sword was wreathed in licks of flame. Heat rolled from its body like a furnace. Its colored illumination danced across Sou, where he stood in the corner several paces behind Sara, observing carefully. As intimidating as the creature was, it hadn’t actually done anything, and snatching the corresponding weapon signaled by the signs seemed sufficient to “injure” it. Sou felt reasonably confident he could handle this sort of challenge. At any rate, it was still better than dancing… Anything was better than dancing.      

Sara pushed up her sleeves. This was her third consecutive opponent, and though she’d defeated the prior two handily, fatigue appeared to be catching up. Her arms were shaking, and her shoulders heaved with labored breathing. Sou watched as she mopped hastily at her forehead, and in that split second, the pipe sign flashed on—Sara’s hand shot out to the rack, fumbling past the dagger handle and knocking the pipe to the floor.

Instantly, the monster clanked to life and swung its scorching blade. Sou lunged just as fast, grabbing Sara by the waist and yanking her away in a panic. They tumbled back violently into the wall, and for a frantic moment, Sou was trapped behind Sara’s soft, thrashing weight and a silky mess of strawberry-scented hair. He staggered free as the monster bellowed an unearthly screech.

“Sou—”

Sara gasped for air, and firelight flickered in her wide pupils as their gazes met in terror. He seized her shoulders and set her firmly against the wall before scrambling to take her place beside the rack. A pressure plate clicked down beneath his feet, and the monster slackened back to its default stance, still hulking tall with crackling menace.   

Sou kept his focus trained forward, numb and braced with adrenaline. Sara remained silent behind him. Ceiling wiring slithered, and the gun sign flashed—he grabbed the fake revolver, and the monster flinched with a groan, flaming weapon still lowered at its side. Sou breathed steadily. Another series of signs blinked on—dagger, gun, gun, dagger, pipe—and he matched them all with swift precision.

A tinny howl reverberated from the monster’s plated chest. It crumpled to the ground like a clattering suit of armor, and with a whoosh, its conflagration snuffed out. The room was shrouded in utter darkness. From the corner, Sara coughed at the smoky reek of burnt matches.

“Sara…” Sou turned, reaching blindly into the blackness as he stepped tentatively off the pressure plate. “Are you okay?”

He felt their fingertips brush, and Sara’s hand grasped forward, squeezing him in a warm grip.

“I’m fine,” she rasped, and relief soaked through him. In the aftermath of the game, his blood still coursed hard, and he felt his entire body vibrating with adrenaline. “Did we do it?”

As if to answer her, the exit began to slide open with a rumble. Dim light flooded through the growing gap, and without further hesitation, they dropped each other’s hands and darted out of the room. They rushed into the long corridor and fell into step, breathing heavily. The wooden walls passed them in a blur.      

Sara was the first to break the silence, rearranging her hair neatly as they walked.

“Do you think… that thing would have really killed us?” she asked, voice wavering. Her face was blanched and sweaty.

“I don’t know,” Sou admitted, eyeing her curiously. Sara was normally so confident, and a part of him enjoyed seeing her rattled; although considering her top winrate, her genuine fear didn’t bode well for anyone else. “It looked real, but lots of things here aren’t. Either way, it’s not a question we can afford to test…”

“Well, thanks,” Sara said. She glanced at him, and he quickly turned his gaze back forward. “Your reflexes are really great. Do you play any sports?”

“Huh? No,” Sou replied, embarrassed by the sincerity of her praise. He used to play Starcraft, and setting aside the debate over “e-sports” qualifying as a sport, he wasn’t about to tell that to Sara. He strode faster, even as his legs protested the atypical amount of exercise, and Sara kept pace beside him as they made their way back to the relaxation room.

Q-taro and Reko were gone, and the room was deserted. Rain was drizzling in the illusory garden. Sara halted, lingering by the empty table, and Sou stopped as well, halfway to the door.

“Um… Sou. You’re not busy, right? Do you want to sit down for a little?” Sara was staring, and he met her gaze. “Or we can go to the kitchen. I’ll make tea.”

Sou stepped forward unthinkingly toward the bench, until something about Sara made him pause. He scrutinized her, eyes narrowing, until it dawned on him that the source of his unease wasn’t any specific detail about her—it was the simple fact that she was Sara Chidouin. Her entire existence was the threat. Why would he have tea with her? If she wanted to lure him into her jaws like a strawberry-smelling carnivorous plant, she would need to be craftier than that. He wasn’t in the mood to be interrogated over the laptop again.

Sara waited, beginning to look uncomfortable as well, and Sou smiled blandly.

“Ah, sorry, Miss Sara,” he said, and her lips downturned in a faint frown. “I need to go find Kanna. Why not ask your Mister Policeman? Anyway, I’ll see you around, I guess.”

He wasn’t sure why Keiji popped into his mind, but she was always pairing up with him, so it seemed like a reasonable suggestion. At any rate, he was done here. He turned to leave; the hair rose on the back of his neck when Sara clutched his arm.

“Wait.” She fished into her coat pocket and pressed a clear chip into his palm, and Sou was shocked to realize that he’d forgotten about that altogether—the entire reason why he’d partnered with her. “I grabbed these on the way out. There were two on a tray by the exit. Half and half is fair, right? Even if I did most of the work…” She grinned, and Sou was temporarily wordless.

“Th-thanks,” he choked out, unnerved by Sara’s pristine, gleaming teeth. She looked like a jaguar baring its fangs. He clenched the clear chip and hastened from the room.   

 

Chapter Text

The facility was officially set to nighttime, and the main lights were off. Everyone had presumably retired to their private quarters, and behind the soundproofed walls, the dead hush was reminiscent of a graveyard. Sou was sequestered in his own locked crypt of a bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the bed as he hunched over his spread of tokens and clear chips. He was barefoot, and his beanie and jacket were strewn on the floor; yellow lamplight cast his elongated shadow across the wall.

His brow furrowed as he slid the chips absentmindedly atop the cotton bedsheets, lost in brooding thought. Hours earlier, he’d gone to retrieve Kanna from Nao’s ajar bedroom, only to glimpse her aglow with childish happiness as she knelt on the floor, drawing a picture with colored pencils. Sou could see it clearly from where he’d stood—it was a picture of Kanna and Sara holding hands. The lovingly rendered orange hair was unmistakable. Something hurt and bitter had swelled up in his chest, and he’d fled silently before making his presence known.

Sou knew he was too old to feel this petulant, and that only made the feeling worse. He’d watched real people die brutally before his eyes here, and yet this, being rejected by a middle schooler, was infinitely more upsetting. His tokens clinked as he stacked them like tower toys, and with a surly glower, he flicked them to spill over the bed. Perhaps he was undeserving of Kanna’s affections, but Sara wasn’t any better. Kanna only liked her because she reminded the girl of Kugie—who in Sou’s unspoken opinion, didn’t even sound like a particularly nice sibling—and it was emotionally manipulative of Sara to encourage that.

Then again, Sou was 0.0%. He should have anticipated that even Kanna would abandon him sooner or later, yet “sooner” had arrived, and now it felt like a knife between his ribs. He only had himself to blame, really. He was an idiot for getting overly attached to anyone here. 

A firm knock sounded at his door, and in the split second it took for his brain to process the noise, hope plunged to disappointment when he registered that the visitor wasn’t Kanna. She hadn’t come to check on him all evening… He swallowed back the stinging, petty train of thought and quickly swept the tokens and chips back into his wallet.

“Yes?” he called, padding towards the door. The doorknob jiggled, and his eyebrows shot up in alarm. “Um, hey—”

“It’s Sara. Will you open up?” Her voice was curt, and Sou sighed. As much as he disliked Sara, he welcomed the distraction from his one-man pity party. He raked his messy hair and opened the door.  

Sara strode right past him, and Sou tried to recall if she was this impolite with anyone else. He didn’t think so. Of course, someone like Sara was only charming when it suited her. She seated herself on the armchair and placed a bento container and a pair of chopsticks on the adjacent table. The plastic box was decorated with cartoon cherry blossoms, and staring at it, Sou wondered if this was what it was like to live in a fancy Swedish prison.   

“Kanna told me you barely ate lunch.” Sara fixated upon him with piercing violet eyes; Sou shut the door and crossed his arms. So, Kanna had spent the evening with Sara instead… just as he thought. “You didn’t eat dinner either, did you? You have to eat, you know,” Sara continued, and Sou regretted ever resenting Kanna’s reminders, if Sara was to be the terrible alternative. “Keiji cooked tofu stir fry earlier, so I brought you some.”   

Keiji? Sou didn’t want to eat Keiji’s cooking. For crying out loud, he wasn’t some sort of pitiful stray animal to throw leftover tofu at. He wondered if Keiji only cooked to show off for Sara.

“I’m fine, Miss Sara,” Sou replied peevishly. He walked over to the bed and sat down on the edge. “There’s no need to concern yourself with me.”

Sara was staring at him, and for an unnerving moment, Sou was irrationally afraid that she might grab the chopsticks and force the food into his mouth. Instead, she shrugged and reached into her coat pocket.

“Suit yourself,” she said, withdrawing her wallet and unzipping it. “Anyway… let’s trade tokens. How does fifty sound?”

Sou picked up his own wallet from the bed, hesitating. Fifty tokens were enough to purchase each other’s personal information, and although he had nothing incriminating to hide per se, Sara’s eagerness was concerning. She must know something he didn’t.

“Let’s do twenty,” he replied, scrutinizing her. She fingered a loose strand of hair, seemingly unbothered by his low counteroffer. 

“Forty?” she asked casually, as though she were loitering at a flea market stall. 

“Thirty.”

“Okay. Sounds good,” she said with a smile, and Sou’s heartbeat accelerated as she stood and moved to drop beside him on the bed. The mattress squeaked beneath her weight; Sou tore his eyes away from the stretch of bare thighs between her skirt hem and stockings, fumbling with his wallet. Their hands brushed as they exchanged tokens. Sara was sitting too close, and he desperately willed his brain to stop fritzing as he caught a whiff of her sweet-scented hair—he hated Sara for making him feel like a useless, cornered rabbit. He focused his attention instead on securing away his newly acquired tokens.

“Have you traded with Q-taro?” he asked, suddenly remembering the baseballer’s prodigious hoard from earlier. Sara’s lips parted hesitantly. “If you have, you should stop. He has too many tokens.”

“I was thinking that too, honestly,” Sara admitted, toying with her wallet zipper. “I’m worried that he might use them to escape by himself. Reko found a—” She stopped herself abruptly, casting a sharp glance at Sou.

“A what?” he pressed, tilting his head. Sara tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and eyed him sidelong. She sighed and continued, voice stilted with obvious reluctance.

“Do you remember what the floormaster said, about a single-person escape ticket? There’s a machine to buy one, I’m pretty sure.”

Interesting… So that existed. Of course Q-taro would screw everyone over, and now Sou had yet another worry to lose sleep over. He remained silent, adrift in thought, and Sara’s mouth tightened grimly.

“If you don’t already know where it is, I’m not going to tell you,” she added, eyebrows furrowing with suspicion.

He met her gaze and blinked. “Hm? Well, that’s okay. I wouldn’t use it anyway.”

For better or for worse, Sou meant that honestly. He would tell the entire lot of suckers here hasta la vista in a heartbeat… except for one person. He’d do anything to get out of here alive, even if it meant killing and deceit, but there was no question anymore that he’d take Kanna Kizuchi with him.  

Sara pulled off her loafers, and the mattress creaked once more as she scooted back on the bed, grabbing one of Sou’s pillows and reclining against the headboard. She stretched her long legs out, ankles crossed, and Sou stared in consternation at her stocking-clad feet resting inches from his lap. His gaze ran up to her hands folded atop her chest, and higher still to her cool violet stare. She looked at him like an empress surveying a peon, and Sou opened his mouth, flustered.

“Er, Miss Sara…”

Their eyes locked, and traces of panic began unfurling in Sou’s stomach. Why on earth was she lying back on his bed? He wasn’t equipped to deal with this type of psychological warfare. His mind raced as Sara wet her lips to speak.  

“If… um, when we escape, what are you going to do first?”

“Huh?” Sou swallowed thickly. “Uh, go see a movie, maybe?” He barely had any idea what he was saying.

“Hm…” Sara frowned, and Sou’s face heated. “You’re like Keiji… he said he’d go eat meat at a restaurant.” Sou wasn’t sure why he was being compared to Keiji, but he didn’t like it. Sara propped herself on her elbows, and her frown deepened.

“We might die,” she said pointedly. Sou remained silent. “Why would you go free just to do the same things you always did? Aren’t you afraid of having regrets? I mean, just think of all the things you’ve never experienced in life—all the places you’ve never been, the sights you’ve never seen, the risks you never took—” Sara paused to draw a shaking breath, and Sou listened quietly. “If this whole nightmare has shown me anything, it’s that our lives are short. We never have as much time as we think we do, and before we know it, everything…” Sara trailed off, blinking rapidly. Her eyes glistened. “I… Joe and I were planning to take a road trip this summer with our friend, but I was stressed about school and other things, so I asked if we could put it off until graduation. And it’s not like that m-matters now, but if I got out of here and he asked me again, there’s no way I’d think twice…in fact, I’d ask him first…”

Sara sniffed and wiped hastily at her eye. Sou didn’t trust himself to respond. After all, he’d technically killed Joe—and though it was clearly impersonal and arguably causal responsibility at most, he wondered if Sara blamed him. He knew that he would, were he in her shoes.

“You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?” murmured Sara. She folded her tie with clenched fingers, fixated on Sou. Reflected lamplight gleamed from her wet eyes.

“Um… I think so.” He met her gaze and smiled. “You’re saying I should go see a movie I’ve never watched before, right?”

His sarcasm wasn’t lost on Sara, and she huffed in embarrassment. Sou supposed she’d made a compelling point, but she didn’t need to be so condescending about it. There was nothing wrong with wanting to watch a movie or eat at a restaurant. Familiar comforts weren’t innately inferior to bungee jumping, or whatever Sara was imagining she’d go do.

“So what will you do, Miss Sara?” he asked, genuinely curious. Sara’s cheeks were flushed; she opened her mouth to reply, but in that moment, a fluttery knock sounded from the door. Sou slid off the bed and hurried to answer.

He pulled open the door, and Kanna lurched forward to embrace his midsection. She pressed her face into his shirt, collapsing against him with frail, trembling weight.   

“Kanna’s sorry… Kanna had a really bad dream…”

Her choked whisper was muffled, and Sou patted her back, secretly thrilled. Kanna drew away, and her bloodshot eyes widened at the sight of Sara on the bed behind him.

“Oh! Big sister is here too…?” Kanna glanced at Sou’s face; her lips parted in surprise before curling into a delighted grin. Her entire demeanor lit up, and Sou watched helplessly as Kanna bounded into his room and crawled barefoot onto the bed, settling in the middle beside Sara. She curled like a pet against the older girl, who wrapped her arm affectionately around Kanna’s shoulders.

“Ah… Kanna already feels much better now!” She peered owlishly from the pillows, and Sara looked at him as well. Sou remained rooted to the spot by the door. Perspiration began to gather on his forehead. “Will Sou lie down, too?”

“Um…” Sou’s mind instinctively flipped through a reel of potential escape options. But in any event, he couldn’t leave Sara in his room unsupervised—not with his wallet, stun gun, and especially not the laptop, which was hidden in the mattress directly beneath where she lay. Kanna was too much of a child to stop her, and at this point, Sou could easily envision her serving as Sara’s double agent accomplice.

He sighed and walked over to the side of the bed. He settled supine on the edge beside Kanna, and she leaned to pluck a piece of lint from his hair.

“Kanna’s sorry she didn’t come by earlier… she’s glad that Sou wasn’t lonely by himself…”

“Huh?” His eyes darted to her guilty, girlish expression, and his cheeks flushed. “Er, I wasn’t lonely. Don’t apologize…”

He redirected his gaze to the blank ceiling. Reclining in bed had never felt like such an ordeal, and he remained stiff like an embalmed cadaver, wondering desperately how long he would need to endure this situation. If Sara would just leave, he would be fine.

“What did you dream about?” he asked, if only to break the nerve-wracking quiet. Kanna sniffled from beside him.

“Big sister Sara… and Sou too! Sara and Sou both d-died like K-Kugie did, and they left Kanna all alone… Kanna was all by herself! Kanna couldn’t do anything to help!”

In hindsight, nightmares were never a helpful subject to probe. Sou was saved from replying by Sara reaching to comfort the flustered girl.   

“It’s okay, Kanna,” Sara said gently, stroking back Kanna’s mussed green hair. “You won’t be alone. I promise that none of us will die, so don’t worry, okay?”

Sou thought this was kind of a shitty promise to make, considering that Sara had an 84.5% chance of dying, and she was by far the most favored for survival. He supposed that if Sara did die, she wouldn’t have to be around for Kanna’s broken aftermath. His stomach churned with acrid resentment.

“Okay,” Kanna whispered, and her head tilted toward him. “Sou… will Sou promise Kanna, too?”

Sou’s throat tightened. “Y-yeah,” he muttered. Promises were just empty words; they had no sway on reality, but he didn’t have the heart to tell Kanna otherwise.

“Kanna’s happy… Kanna won’t leave Sou, either!”

Kanna beamed, apparently unburdened by her fears, and Sou couldn’t help but envy her. He couldn’t recall what it was like to have anyone to believe in. He grimaced as she pecked his forehead and crawled over him to hop off the bed.

“Kanna’s going to use the restroom,” she announced, looking between Sou and Sara. “Please stay! Wait for Kanna, please…”

Before either of them could reply, she darted from the room like a tiny ghost, and the door shut with a quiet click. Sou’s blood ran cold. He froze stiffly to the mattress, fiddling with his scarf as he stared unseeingly at the ceiling. An unbearable silence stretched.    

“Hey, Sou…” Sara stirred in the corner of his vision, rustling the bedsheets like a purple-eyed sleep paralysis demon. “Have you ever kissed anyone before?”

“W-what?” Sou nearly choked, and he kept his gaze glued away from her. The room was shrinking to coffin-esque proportions. “Ahaha, that’s a pretty personal question, isn’t it? You can’t just ask people that, Miss Sara… it’s rude.”

“I can ask you. I’m doing that right now.”

Sou’s brain was spinning its wheels like a cart in the mud, and he took a quiet breath to collect himself. “It must be nice being a cute girl. You can get away with anything, can’t you? If I asked someone that, I’d be slapped into next week…”

“You can ask me.” Sara’s matter-of-fact reply was devoid of coy charm, and Sou felt as though he were trapped in a principal’s office.

“Er, that’s not something I’d ask you.” Even if Sara weren’t dressed in the constant hazard tape of a high school uniform, Sou wouldn’t be hitting on girls to begin with—especially not someone like Sara, and especially not in a literal Death Game. He hesitated. “What do you want to hear?” he asked, intrigued against his better judgment.

“A yes or a no.”

Flickers of annoyance began to thaw his rigid state of anxiety. He wasn’t one of Sara’s lackeys, and her entitled familiarity galled him. He finally turned his head toward her with a frown.

“If you want to ask a guy that question, why not ask your 'Friendly Policeman'?”

As carefully aloof as he sounded, the question wasn’t rhetorical, and Sou was genuinely interested in the answer. Sara lay facing him on her side, arms folded like a pretzel; her long hair spilled out over the pillow she’d appropriated, and even from the far side of the queen-sized mattress, she appeared disturbingly close to him.

“Who needs to ask him?” Sara retorted. Petulance tinged her tone, and her face reddened as he watched. “Keiji must have lost count ages ago.”

Sou smiled blandly, eyebrows raised. “Huh… is that something you think about? Interesting priorities, when our lives are on the line…”

“It’s just obvious!” Sara furrowed her eyebrows, lips pursed. The mattress creaked as she fidgeted in agitation. “Even Gin said it!”

Sou resisted the urge to roll his eyes. They were being executed like livestock in a furniture depot death carnival, and yet, people still found it a priority to gossip about each other’s love lives. This was exactly why Sou hated leaving the house.

In spite of himself, he shifted onto his side to face her. He brushed back his teal bangs and crossed his arms in an awkward mirror image. Their eyes met for an extended hush; without gravity to keep his heart in his chest, he felt like it was about to bounce sideways out of his throat.  

“Is experience a bad thing?” he asked finally. He was as nosy and validation-hungry as everyone else, in the end. Not that Sara’s opinion mattered to him—he was just curious.

“Um, no.” Sara’s lashes lowered as her gaze slid to the pillow. She began to straighten her locks of hair over the cotton fabric with studious precision. “I just think it’s better when people are, you know—when they’re equals, more or less.”

Sou continued to stare at Sara’s bright pink face. He said nothing. His mental processes had ground to a halt, sparking like a chainsaw on concrete, unable to comprehend what the implications might be here—if there were any, which there couldn’t be.

Something clattered from the hallway, just beyond the door, and Sara flinched off the bed like a cat that had its tail stepped on. Sou would have found her dramatic reaction comical, if his body hadn’t done exactly the same. Sara slipped on her loafers and strode to the door, and without a moment’s hesitation, she pulled it open.

“I thought you were using the restroom…”

Sou approached behind her. Kanna knelt in the dim hallway, clutching her pail and peering up at Sara like a deer in the headlights.

“Ah! Kanna just came back!” she stuttered. She stood and raised her chin earnestly. “Can we go back to bed?”

“I need to go to bed in my own room,” said Sara, and a weird sense of hollow relief flooded through Sou. He hadn’t expected her to actually stay, of course—but if she did, there would be no way he could ever sleep. “You should try to, as well. You can always come by and see me anytime, okay?”  

“Ah… okay!” Kanna nodded, and Sara wrapped her in a hug.

“Good night,” murmured Sara, and without even so much as a backward glance at Sou, she patted her pockets and strode away down the darkened hall. He watched her go, somewhat perplexed, before switching his focus back down to Kanna.

“Big sister is right… Kanna will go to her own room, too,” she said, gazing at Sou with a serious expression. “Will Sou be okay by himself?”

“Hm? Yeah.” Sou blinked. Kanna was the one having nightmares tonight, not him. Nevertheless, he felt a sense of warm fuzziness at her concern. “Have a good night, Kanna.”

“Good night, Sou…” Kanna lingered, twiddling her thumbs with sudden shyness. She reached into her pocket and held out a folded square of white paper; Sou took it, nonplussed. “Ah, Kanna isn’t an artist… Kanna isn’t very good at drawing, even with help… but this is for Sou! P-please take it! Good night!”

Before he could ask anything further, Kanna pattered away down the hall, covering her face with her sleeve. Sou hesitated in the doorframe before shutting the door and walking to the bedside lamp. The paper sheet rustled as he unfolded it.

It was a colored pencil drawing of Kanna, and she was holding hands with cartoonish depictions of Sara and Sou on either side. The margins were filled with doodles of strawberries, cupcakes, and pastry rolls; Kanna’s amateur cursive was carefully etched in sparkly green gel pen.   

 

To: Sou ♡  From: Kanna

Let’s all go to a bakery together!!

 

Sou sat on the bed, drawing clutched in his lap, and his eyes began to water.

 

Chapter Text

It was already the afternoon of the next day, and Sou was off to a late start, having dozed in after a long and restless night prior. His sleep had been plagued by feverish dreams, which were vivid in the moment but had now disintegrated to a nonsensical slurry. He recalled unsettling imagery of Kanna weeping over his corpse and Sara tonguing strawberry jam off a steel knife. In his dreams, her eyes glistened red and lifeless like bloody buttons.

Sou shivered and returned his attention to the present. The facility was uncharacteristically barren, and he was currently taking the opportunity to further inspect the empty monitor room. He lurked quietly behind the hulking wall of cables and screens, running his fingertips to check for hidden panels. The creepy professor’s monitor had been shattered beyond repair days ago, and though Nao mourned the loss like a second death, Sou knew that data wasn’t confined to any single physical construct. Kazumi Mishima’s AI surely existed elsewhere in this facility, haunting backup servers like a ghost in a machine.   

That being said, access to the AI was now severed, and that in itself was a serious potential resource loss. Of course, everyone suspected Sou. They were quick to villainize him, refusing to acknowledge that the most likely culprit was Nao herself—who else would have any personal stake in what Mishima knew? Who else spent all their time glued to his monitor? Who else was deathly afraid to trade her tokens? Sou didn’t buy Nao’s social anxiety veneer for a second. She was suspicious, and he wanted nothing to do with her.

Footsteps tapped into the room, and Sou froze. In the gap below the monitors, he glimpsed a pair of loafers approach and circle around back towards him. He looked up to see Sara standing in the gloom.

“Are you the only one here, Sou?” she asked, violet eyes fixed upon him. It didn’t sound like a real question. Something was different about her demeanor—she smiled with a look of restrained amusement, almost as though she were privy to some joke he didn’t know about. Sou found her even more unsettling than usual, and he touched his face self-consciously, wondering if something was stuck there.

“I guess so,” he replied. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, and Sara stepped closer. “Are you looking for someone, Miss Sara?”

“I need an attraction partner. You’re not doing anything, right?” Sara’s gaze scanned him up and down, lingering a pause too long, and Sou felt like takeout being ogled in a microwave. “Let’s do the mine cart one together.”

Sou nodded. Alice had already stolen Kanna for that attraction, and he was eager for the chance to save his tokens and win a clear chip. Personal misgivings aside, Sara’s competence was reassuring; he had no qualms with hanging off her coattails. “Sounds good. I’ll do my best to keep out of your way, Miss Sara.”

“Great. Let’s go, then.”

Sou fell in step beside Sara as they followed signs around a rubble-strewn bend and down yet another narrow, wooden tunnel. Their footsteps echoed on the dusty floorboards, and Sara turned her head to him as they walked.

“I was wondering,” she began, and Sou pulled up his scarf before glancing at her; having his throat protected around Sara gave him an illusory sense of comfort. “Do you not like the food here? Why do you barely ever eat?”

Sou supposed that eating was a better subject to be nagged about than the laptop. “The food is fine,” he replied truthfully. “I just don’t have much of an appetite. I’m surprised that you do, all things considered.”

Sara tilted her head, still studying him. “What’s your favorite thing to eat?”

“Um, soup, I guess? As long as it’s hot, I’m not too particular…”

“I see.” Sara seemed satisfied by the answer, and Sou wondered why she possibly cared. Sara had never struck him as the type for insipid small talk. “Just out of curiosity, what’s your family like? Are you close with your parents?”

“Huh?” Did she think he was some sort of tragic, poorly socialized misanthrope? He didn’t need her armchair diagnosis. “My parents are normal. I like them.”

“How old are you? Are you in school?”

“I’m twenty.” From the corner of his eye, Sara was still staring. For the first time, Sou wondered if she was possibly just socially tactless instead of purposely intimidating. “Er, I’m taking some time off from university. I had some, ah, personal issues…” He felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. He didn’t need or want to humor Sara, but he was too put on the spot to respond otherwise.

“What were you studying?”

“Um, computer science.” Sou adjusted his beanie and walked faster. Sara kept pace effortlessly beside him. “Ahaha, what’s with the sudden interview, Miss Sara? Sheesh…”

“When’s your birthday?”

Sou stopped, and he turned to Sara with narrowed eyes. She sounded like a phishing chatbot, and Sou had no more illusions that this was a casual conversation. “I asked you a question, too,” he said coolly. “Shouldn’t you answer me first? Why are you asking me all of this?”

Sara blinked. The wooden walls boxed them close, and the stuffy air was hushed between them. Sou’s breathing was audible from exertion, but Sara hadn’t broken a sweat. She reminded Sou of one of the facility’s flawless, uncanny dolls.

“I was just curious,” she said simply. Her lips curled into a smile. It wasn’t an expression Sou was used to seeing, and dread brewed in his empty stomach. “You’re a mysterious person, that’s all.”

Sou didn’t break his cold gaze. “What else would you like to know, Miss Sara? My address? My social security number? The name of my first pet?”

Sara’s smile twitched wider into a cheeky grin, and the back of Sou’s neck prickled. She turned away and continued down the corridor, still smirking; Sou stared after her, perturbed, before following her into the darkness.

 


 

Sou had never been an adrenaline junkie to start with, and it took him less than a minute into their hellride to swear off rollercoasters for the rest of his pitiful existence. The cart hurtled down the black tunnel, jostling him with a deafening clatter, and he clutched the edge for dear life lest he fly out like a paper napkin. Wind stung his exposed skin and ripped through his hair—he’d had the presence of mind to remove his beanie, and he clamped it tightly between his legs as the speeding cart veered and jumped.

They screeched to an abrupt halt, and Sou lurched and slammed into Sara. She propped him back into the corner before swiftly hopping out and sprinting towards some sort of slipshod iron barrier—it was illuminated by a lantern, and a screwdriver dangled from a chain on the wall. Metal clanked as Sara rushed to dismantle the roadblock, while Sou hung folded over, dry heaving.       

No sooner had he wiped the saliva from his chin than Sara leapt back into the cart, and the rusty wheels shrieked back into motion. A din of leathery flapping approached from ahead, and Sou ducked instinctively as a chittering cloud of bats rustled and whizzed above him. His moan of misery was inaudible amidst the cart’s echoing rumble.  

The ride jammed to another stop—Sou tumbled forward, longing for death. He remained curled on the dirt-strewn bottom, listening to the steady bangs of Sara kicking down a plywood barrier. It cracked to pieces, and a breathless grunt escaped him as she swung back into the cart and landed atop him.

“Sou! What are you lying on the floor for?!”

They squirmed, limbs tangled, and Sara arranged him back up as the cart shot off yet again. More bats, barriers, and ten years off Sou’s lifespan later, they finally began to deaccelerate towards a lit platform, and the ride crunched to a stop. Sou huffed for air, internal organs rearranged, feeling like a palm tree that had barely survived a category five hurricane; he could hardly move, while Sara slipped out as though she were exiting a limousine.

“That almost reminded me of Disneyland,” she commented, and Sou wondered which circle of Hell she’d visited Disneyland in. She fixed her windblown hair and turned to him; her eyebrows shot up, and Sou remained sprawled as she dissolved into peals of laughter.  

“What?” He scowled, panting. His fingers trembled as he retrieved his beanie and pulled it back on.

“Sorry,” she spluttered, and immediately shook with another fit of hysterics. For such a serious person, her laugh was remarkably girly. “Ahh, you look like a—”

Sara was cut off mid-sentence by a flock of bats swooping past in a flurry. They engulfed her head, and she squealed as a particularly fat one thwacked her face. She swatted frantically, knees bent and expression scrunched, even after they disappeared down the shadowed tunnel.

Now Sou had burst into laughter, and Sara glared. She dragged him stumbling out of the cart to the platform; two clear chips were sitting on a tray by the exit, and she grabbed one and stuffed the other in Sou’s jacket pocket.

“Thank you, Miss Steelmind,” he teased, still grinning. He collapsed against the wall, legs wobbling like wet noodles. Sara cast him a stony look, and before Sou could comprehend what was happening, she stalked over and began hoisting him onto her back.

“What—h-hey—”

Sou’s protests died in his lungs as Sara secured the underside of his knees and proceeded to carry him back down the wooden corridor. She marched effortlessly; he clasped his arms reluctantly around her shoulders and paid a long moment of silence to his deceased dignity. Sara’s body was warm, and he felt acutely aware of where they pressed together at his chest and thighs.

“Are you afraid of bats?” he asked. The fragrance of her hair made him salivate, and he raised his head, trying not to creepily inhale it.         

“They carry rabies!” Sara snapped. Sou couldn’t see her face, but her ears were pink. He wasn’t sure if he was more impressed or humiliated that she wasn’t remotely out of breath as she spoke. “Anyway, it makes more sense than being scared of needles.”

Sou cringed at the mere mention. He personally despised needles, and the notion of his veins being punctured made him shudder. “Does it? I don’t think so…” He trailed off, frowning. He tried to recall when Sara had ever seen him around a needle. It was awfully coincidental to bring up, otherwise.

Before he could finish his train of thought, they reached the monitor room, and Sara halted to deposit Sou off her back. He steadied his balance as she turned to him with a smile.

“Thanks for partnering with me, Shin.”

She extended her right hand. Sou blinked down, and after a pause, he grasped her palm and let her give a firm shake.

“Sure… likewise, Miss Sara,” he replied. Sara’s smile broadened, eerily triumphant; he watched as she strode away, footsteps tapping and ponytail bobbing. It was only after she’d disappeared that his heart stopped in his throat.

She’d called him Shin.

 

Chapter Text

Sou nearly sped straight past the kitchen before glimpsing Kanna’s bob of green hair at the sink. He spun on his heel and made a beeline towards her.

“Ah! Hello, Sou! Um…” Kanna stared up, eyes wide and lips parted. Soap suds dripped from her wet wrists as she paused her scrubbing. Sou loomed over her, panting and disheveled.

“Why are you washing everyone’s dirty dishes?” He glanced at the stack of bowls and frowned. “They can do their own. Don’t clean up other people’s messes.”

“Kanna just wanted to help…”

“Ugh—never mind.” Sou shook his head and tugged her into the shadowed alcove behind the fridge. He cornered her against the pantry door and placed his palm flat on the wood, voice lowered. “Did you trade tokens with Sara?”

Kanna flapped the water off her hands and patted them dry on her skirt. She raised her chin and nodded. “Ah… yes!” She hushed her volume as well, blinking in confusion. “Kanna traded tokens with big sister this morning…”

Sou felt the blood drain from his face. He gulped a strangled breath.

“And you traded her my tokens?”

“Yes… big sister asked for Sou’s tokens… and since Kanna has so many, Kanna gave her twenty. Did Kanna do something wrong?”

Sou spluttered. He dropped his arm and yanked off his beanie, wringing it in agitation. “You can’t give my tokens away! I told you! Especially not to Sara!

“W-why not?” Kanna’s brow pinched, and she kept her gaze fixed on Sou with stubborn sincerity. “Big sister wouldn’t do anything bad with Sou’s tokens.”

“Kanna…” Sou exhaled shakily through gritted teeth. He clawed his fingers along his scalp and clenched the roots of his hair, struggling to quell his panic. “Do you remember what I said about how people pretend to be nice? You can’t always trust Sara. She’s dangerous. And she’s not your sister—she’s not Kugie, okay?”

“That’s not true!” Kanna’s fingers curled, and her lips pouted in defiance. “Kugie and Sara are both Kanna’s big sisters! Kanna always trusts her big sisters…”

Sou stared at her, resisting the urge to grab her shoulders and shake. The damage was done, but he needed to control the situation before it spiraled even worse. “Kanna,” he said urgently, sweetening his tone as much as he could whilst screaming internally. “This is important, so you need to listen to me. She bought my personal file. She wants the upper hand over me. That’s why she asked for my tokens. Do you get it?” SARA BAD. SARA BAD!!! Why was this such a difficult concept for Kanna?!

“K-Kanna knows that!” Kanna shrank against the pantry beneath Sou’s wild-eyed expression. She fidgeted with her thumbs, and her gaze dropped to her shoes. “Kanna and Sara went to buy it together… Kanna wanted to learn more about Sou, too!”

“What?”

Kanna reached for his wrist, blinking earnestly, and Sou jerked away. Blood roared in his eardrums as she continued. “The Sou in the monitor is really nice! He’s just like the real Sou, only he says his name is Shin… Ah! W-where is Sou going?”

Kanna kept spouting girlish babble, but Sou had heard enough. He strode out of the kitchen and hightailed to his room, numb and flooded with fear.

 


 

You’re a helpless sheep who’ll be eaten by the strong… If you don’t wanna die… you change.

He was going to die here. There was no escape. Shin Tsukimi had a 0.0% survival rate. Shin Tsukimi didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of making it out alive. He was Shin Tsukimi, and he was going to die.

Sou clutched his scarf with white knuckles, seized by superstitious doom, pacing frantically around his locked room like a creature circling its burrow before an earthquake. His festering mistrust had been validated—Sara had effectively killed him, unearthed and consigned him back to the identity of a dead man walking. She’d smiled like an evil witch and hexed him with that moribund name, stamping him with an expiration date in poisoned ink. There was no ambiguity. Shin Tsukimi was destined to die.  

Sou sucked in a deep breath, fighting to get a grip. He was an idiot for not destroying his own monitor. It had crossed his mind to do so, but presumably there’d have been repercussions, or some alternative method of accessing his AI. Now, in retrospect, there was no risk worse than certain death. And even with his AI intact, this all could have been avoided if he simply hadn’t traded with Kanna or Sara. What was he thinking? He was so utterly brainless that frankly, he deserved to die. He’d failed his one chance at surviving.

He pulled his hair and halted, staring at the gray wall. There had to be a way out. He wasn’t dead yet… he couldn’t give up. He’d tricked Sara before, and he could trick her again. And as for Kanna, she would believe him blindly… although being presumptuous about Kanna was partially what plunged him into this plight to begin with.

A knock sounded from the door, and Sou nearly jarred out of his skin. He spun to face it with wide eyes, breathless and shaking. Maybe his discarded name on Sara’s lips had invoked his end like a Bloody Mary incantation, and the floormaster was here to execute him on the spot.  

“Hey. Sou?” It was her. Of course it was her. “Or should I call you Shin?” 

NO! Shut up. Shut up. Shut up! Sou remained frozen until his thoughts whirred into gear. He needed to deal with her, and even scared shitless as he was, there was no time to waste. He snapped out of his paralysis and moved to answer the door.

“Oh, hi, Miss Sara,” he said, smiling pleasantly. Sara stood there like a demon disguised as a schoolgirl, lashes fluttering over her gorgon eyes.

“Um, Kanna told me you were upset. Can we talk?”

“Hm? Ah, sure.” He stepped aside to let her in. He locked the door with a click, even as it occurred to him that he’d be trapped with her, not the other way around. But one way or another, he would resolve this situation before either of them would leave the room. He couldn’t afford otherwise.

Sara seated herself on the edge of his bed, making herself comfortable like a cat in a bird’s nest. Sou leaned casually against the wall as his mind rushed to weave a serviceable web of lies.  

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” Sara began, sounding almost apologetic. Sou squinted. “I didn’t buy your info because I wanted to hurt you or anything. I was only curious.” Sou said nothing, and Sara brushed back her bangs and smiled at him. “Your AI is really nice. He was so shy and soft-spoken… I kept waiting for him to act like a jerk, but he didn’t.”

Sou slid his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “Ah, well, that’s not actually my AI,” he said, plastering a sheepish grin. “I never told anyone this, but I guess I should come clean now… I have a twin brother, and the kidnappers took me mistakenly. The AI is for him, not me.”

Sara rolled her eyes, and Sou’s stomach dropped at the sight. “Will you stop lying, already?” she said, and her voice was more tired than it was cross. “You’re an ordinary person, right? I don’t get why you’re like this. I asked your AI why you would hide your real name, and he said he didn’t know. So now I’m asking you.”

Sou had no choice but to double down. “I’m not lying,” he replied, holding her deadpan gaze. “My name is Sou, and Shin is my brother. It might sound far-fetched, but it’s the truth…”

“Oh?” Sara crossed her arms. “If he’s your brother, then why does he reply exactly the way you do? Your twin brother also loves soup and dropped out of a computer science degree? You and your AI answer verbatim.”

Sou’s pulse skipped a beat when it struck him that all of Sara’s earlier questioning was merely a cross-reference test. She’d known all the answers, and she’d only been toying with him—playing him for a fool. No wonder she’d seemed so weirdly smug. Humiliated heat spread up his neck, but he kept his features carefully schooled.

“Yes? We’re twins, after all… We share the same genes…”

“Give it up, Shin Tsukimi.” Sara stood, and Sou’s jaw tensed as she began to pace towards him. “I talked to your AI all morning, and I know everything about you now. Thanks to your AI, I already know your address—we live pretty close, actually.” Sara’s smile could curdle milk, and she closed in steadily. “I know your first pet was a cat named Michi. And if I asked your AI for your social security number, I’m sure he’d tell me that, too. Like I said, he’s really nice.” Sara stopped right before him. Her eyes glittered, alight with carnivorous conquest. “Do you get it? Secrets aren’t allowed anymore.”

Sou’s veins ran cold, fit to burst with roaring adrenaline. He maintained his impassive eye contact, albeit more out of petrification than sangfroid. “I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken… I don’t know what else to tell you, except that it’s all some weird trick by the kidnappers. You can’t just believe their machines, can you? Sou Hiyori is my real name.”

Sara huffed. “Why won’t you trust me? I’m on your side, Shin!” She grasped his shoulder, and Sou’s fragile façade cracked with panic.

“Don’t call me that!” he snapped, swatting her hand off like a spider. He pressed back hard to the wall, and Sara gaped. “It’s not my name! Stop it!”

He breathed rapidly through his nose, glaring away to the side, and Sara’s expression cooled as she studied him.   

“Okay. Fine. I get it.” She took a step back. With a sigh, her bored gaze drifted to the door. “You won’t tell me why, but maybe the others will have an idea… Keiji was a detective, so I’ll go ask him.” Their eyes darted back to meet, and Sou’s fists curled.

“Sara,” he hissed, laden with desperation. “What do you want from me?”

“I told you. I just want to be allies.” She blinked at him, eyebrows knitted and mouth faintly downturned; for a fleeting moment, Sou was bizarrely reminded of Kanna. “I… I want us to trust each other.” She tucked back a lock of hair and paused, lips parted. “I like you,” she added awkwardly. “I mean, I don’t hate you. I know you’re not bad.”

Assuming she wasn’t acting, her brain was clearly addled by severe stress and sleep deprivation, but Sou latched onto Sara’s specious olive branch like a man drowning.

“Okay. I’m your ally, I swear. Just—don’t tell anyone. Please, I’m serious. You can’t.”

Sou swallowed thickly, trapped by her keen stare. He could practically hear the steel gears ticking inside her skull, and dread simmered in his stomach. As he’d tried to explain to Kanna, so-called niceness always came with strings attached, and Sara Chidouin had more strings than the fringe of his scarf.   

Sara turned, and her footsteps tapped back over to the bed. The mattress creaked in the silence as she took a seat on the edge. She gestured beside her, beckoning wordlessly, and Sou acquiesced; he tightened his scarf and sat next to her, back hunched and hands folded in his lap.

“I know you haven’t kissed anyone,” Sara said finally, and Sou wanted to flee his skin as he considered what other private information Sara may have mined from his AI. She was invading him, probing him like a ruthless scientist with a scalpel, and asking him to be her ally seemed like more of a lip service mockery than any sincere proposal—yet given the circumstances, he hadn’t much choice but to reluctantly humor her.

He brushed back his bangs and cast her a sidelong glance. “Um, right. I haven’t.”

“You’re twenty…” Sara touched her tie and hesitated. “Aren’t you afraid of dying like that? You know, a…”

“No? Who cares?” Sou’s swift reply was louder than he intended, and he tugged his beanie down, face flushed and mouth set tight. He shifted uncomfortably and blinked at his shoes. What the hell kind of question was this? How was Sara remotely popular when she was this rude to people? 

“It’s a life experience,” Sara continued, speaking to him like she was his tutor. Sou could only imagine what a precocious child she must have been at one point. “It’s like traveling overseas, or petting a dog, or going to a concert, or swimming in the ocean, or camping—”

“I get it,” he interrupted. He wasn’t sure if the importance Sara apparently assigned to the subject could be considered romantic, or if her businesslike checklist approach rendered it just the opposite. “But aren’t you supposed to do that with someone you, er, have feelings for? It’s not like planning a trip. You can’t control who you meet.”

Sara shrugged and smoothed her skirt. “We’re imprisoned, and we might not live to next week. Beggars can’t be choosers.” Sou turned to her; his expression must have betrayed his incredulous dismay, because she immediately stammered to correct herself, cheeks staining pink. “I mean, that’s not—I just—I don’t want to die without having ever kissed anyone!” she blurted, and upon Sou’s lack of response, she flinched her chin away to scowl at the wall. “I don’t care if you think that sounds stupid, by the way. I’ve put thought into this, and I don’t need to hear your opinion.”

“Er, I didn’t say anything.” Sara’s fingers dug into the sheets, and Sou gawked at the flaming red of her ear. He opened his mouth, hardly daring to address what was increasingly unable to qualify as subtext. “Uh, anyway, you’re in high school…” That was what Sara was getting at, wasn’t it? He could feel his sunless complexion blushing, and he wished he could wipe the color off like paint. “Unlike some people around here, I’m not a creep, you know.” Sou might have been an underemployed university dropout and borderline shut-in, but he still had a sufficient sense of shame to not be caught dead perving on schoolgirls. 

Sara looked at him sharply, and he braced to be berated with accusations of audacity. It wasn’t his fault she couldn’t get to the point. 

“So then, which is it?” she said quietly. “Am I a real threat to you, or am I just a kid?”

Something like strangled laughter wheezed up from Sou’s lungs, which he could only identify as the sound of his overwhelming urge to leap out the nonexistent window. “Those aren’t mutually exclusive, are they?” Sara’s motionless gaze remained fixed upon him. “Children can be scary. Just look at Gin when he meditates.”

“Do you really think you’re that much more mature than me?” Sara shifted suddenly towards him, sliding her knees up onto the mattress. She pulled her dangling loafers off and let them thud to the floor. Sou’s heart pattered in his throat. “You’re only three years older. What can you do that I can’t?”

For a moment, Sou’s brain blanked to nothing but the frantic creaking of a hamster wheel. Why on earth were they seriously having this conversation? He took a deep breath and willed himself to get it together.

“For starters, I can take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said coolly, straightening his posture and giving Sara a flat smile.

“Can you? Maybe you just give up too easily.” Sara shuffled wholly onto the bed to face him, legs tucked, and her stocking-covered knees rested inches from his thigh. 

“Ahaha… that’s a dangerous way to think, Miss Sara…” Sou felt the skin beneath his scarf growing damp with perspiration, and he tugged it loose, eyes darting nervously to Sara. “That sort of nature is why you can’t be trusted. In life, there are lines you don’t cross.”

Sara’s violet gaze was piercing and narrowed. “But you’ve been crossing lines all over the place,” she said softly, leaning close and tilting her head. “You lie to everyone. You sneak around and steal. You don’t seem to care in the slightest when anyone dies. What lines are you even talking about?”

“I don’t know what you want from me.” There wasn’t enough oxygen in the room, and Sou felt lightheaded.

“I already told you what I want.”

“No, you didn’t?” The weakness of his voice embarrassed him. “Sorry, Miss Sara… you’ll have to repeat things for me.”

For several long seconds, Sara appraised him, still and silent like a poised snake.  

“Close your eyes,” she murmured.

Her lips were too close to his ear, and the wisp of her breath raised goosebumps under his jacket sleeves. His lashes fluttered shut obediently before immediately cracking open; his disbelieving blue eyes slid sideways to watch as Sara angled nearer, skirt rustling.    

“Your eyes aren’t closed.”

Sou put up all the resistance of a storefront mannequin as Sara reached for his scarf and tugged it over his face, blindfolding him with dotted layers of red. She adjusted the fabric taut and folded the bottom along the bridge of his nose. With a tentative pull of his shoulders, she twisted him to face her. The mattress squeaked under her shifting weight, and he could hear her breathing and the faint sound of her swallow.      

Sou gave up. Nothing in his middling, socially uneventful life had equipped him to deal with this situation. He sat in resignation and prepared for the void to consume him. 

“For your information, I can take no for an answer.” Sara spoke from right in front of him, constricted confidence quivering over a breathy hush of anxiety. “If you tell me to stop, I’ll stop.”

Even if he could conjure a reply, the air to voice it was stolen. Sara’s palm pressed to the side of his cheek, firm and surprisingly cool; Sou could feel her pulse pattering against him. She hesitated, and her hand lifted to pinch the scarf lower. Her fingertips skimmed past his temples and around the side of his scalp, carding lightly through his hair and brushing the cusp of his ear. He shivered.

Her face was close. Sou wet his lips instinctively, heart shaking as he felt the heat of their shallow breaths mingle in the space between—but the sensation faded as Sara drew back. He felt her other hand resting upon his shoulder, and it clutched tighter before drifting inward to the exposed area above his shirt. The pad of her thumb traced the dip of his clavicle to the swell of his Adam’s apple, gliding like the felt of a butcher’s pen, and Sou didn’t dare move; Sara ignored the key on his necklace, and he wondered if she only had interest in his skin. Even with his eyes shut behind his scarf, Sou could envision what she saw—his neck, milk white and slender, striped by the black metal death collar above frail, jutting collarbones.      

Her hand was roaming further now, slipping under his open jacket, bold and curious across his clothed chest and ribs. Sou knew he was underweight, and he stiffened self-consciously while Sara felt him like packaged meat in the grocery aisle, or a dog at the veterinarian’s office. He wanted to say something, but her body was already pressing into his, warm and soft; his thoughts had melted, and his throat was squeezed shut.  

Abruptly, Sara’s hands cupped his face, and her lips pressed against his in a clumsy motion. Their noses bumped, and her hanging locks of hair tickled his chin. He could smell strawberries. His hands trembled at his sides, fingers curled tight in the cotton bedsheets. He didn’t breathe when she withdrew. He blinked behind the scarf, eyelashes sweeping the fabric like the flit of a lacewing.

“You’re supposed to kiss me back,” he heard her whisper.

Sou swallowed and exhaled, but his ragged breath was smothered by her mouth closing over his once more—she felt wet this time, slick and sweet-tasting. He shuddered involuntarily as her fingers wound insistently through the roots of his hair. Their teeth clacked, and he worried he was drooling; there was something hot poking against his lower lip, sliding amidst his muffled pants of breath, and he realized it was her tongue.  

“Stop,” he croaked against her. “Sara—”

Like a broken spell, everything vanished. He remained fixed to the bed, throbbing from head to toe, and his ears pounded as he heard Sara creak off the mattress and step back into her shoes. He clawed the scarf off his face just in time to see her standing with her back to him, pulling open the door. One of her stockings was slipping down her thigh.   

“Okay, I’m done… Thanks.”

She didn’t look at him when she spoke, and before he could draw a proper lungful of air, she was gone. The door clicked shut.

For a long moment, Sou only stared, muddled and disturbed, before he yanked the scarf back over his face and dropped flat onto the bed. His fingers dragged through his hair and tightened into fists.

He was tucked like a folded bill in Sara Chidouin’s back pocket, and he was going to die.

 

Chapter Text

Hardly ten minutes had passed since Sara had left, and Sou was still sprawled flat on the bed when a knock at the door sounded yet again. He peeled himself from the mattress, dazed, and fixed his scarf and rumpled hair.

“Hey… Are you still in there?”

It was Sara’s voice, and he hastened to pull open the door—she stood in the hallway, rigid and solemn. Their eyes met, and Sou’s heart began to hammer. Sara blinked and opened her mouth hesitantly, and his gaze flicked down to her parted lips; they were small and pink, and he wet his own subconsciously. His stomach felt like a jar of moths as he wondered if the faint, lingering trace of her taste was all in his imagination.

Her fingers fumbled in her breast pocket, and Sou’s eyes followed. She’d been warm pressed against him, unexpectedly so for a proverbial ice queen… and he’d never noticed before, because he’d never looked, but her jacket was taut and form-fitting over the swell of her chest.

Sara cleared her throat, and Sou’s gaze snapped back up. Her cheeks were reddening, and he felt his face burning as well.

“Um, here.” Sara fished out a folded piece of notepaper and thrust it forward. “I asked you to trust me, but I didn’t give you a reason to, did I? So take it… This is the password for Kai’s laptop.”

The paper trembled in midair. Sou reached to grasp it, still locked wordlessly by her gaze as their fingers brushed. Sara’s tongue darted to wet her lips, and his eyes slid down once more, riveted by uncontrollable interest.     

“Did I do something wrong?” Sara’s voice was breathy as she cast a furtive glance down the hallway. She looked back at Sou, and her fingers curled at her sides. “If I did, you have to spell it out for me. I’m used to…” She swallowed, struggling to finish her sentence, and he watched the lock of hair tickling her throat. “I’m used to people who just tell me what they think. Sorry.”

“Huh? Er…” Sou’s brain lagged to process what she was saying. They were in a Death Game, in which they were required to kill each other. Expressing concern about wrongdoing seemed pretentious at best; Sara knew exactly what she did when she purchased his personal information. Their situation paid no heed to wrong versus right—it was all about winning versus losing, surviving versus dying. And now, Sara knew the incantation to kill him.    

He blinked and arranged a smile. “Ahaha, never mind, Miss Sara. We’re allies now, right? So don’t mention it. I’d say this was a fair trade.”

Sara’s shoulders relaxed in apparent relief, and she gave a nod. “When you’ve finished looking at the laptop, you’ll come talk to me about it, won’t you?” She brushed back her hair and raised her chin. “I’m trusting you… Sou Hiyori.”

“Of course. You can count on me.”

A silence ensued, and they continued to stare at each other. Sou’s heart thumped in his chest, even as his casual smile remained plastered across his face. Just earlier, Sara had been kissing him… A nebulous disarray of questions was beginning to swarm through his head, fueled by indecorous curiosity, but he didn’t dare ask any of them.  

“Okay, great,” Sara said finally, turning to leave. “Um, I’ll be in my room, so… later.”

“See you, Miss Sara,” he replied. He watched from the doorframe as she hurried away down the corridor. Her stocking was slipping down again, and she swiped to yank it up before disappearing around the distant corner. Sou locked the door shut and unfolded the paper.

A man’s name was penned in Sara’s neat, girly handwriting. It didn’t ring a bell, and Sou frowned as he paced toward the bed and retrieved the laptop. He sat down and booted it. How had Sara managed to get the password from Kai before he died? Nothing made sense, and Sou was surprised when the inputted name successfully unlocked the login screen. He bent over with furrowed brows, fingertips skimming the trackpad.

Sou had fixed countless computers for side cash, and Kai’s desktop reminded him of an elderly woman’s. It was the blank, default blue and scattered haphazardly with folders and loose files, alongside a shortcut to Internet Explorer. Nothing had apparently changed since the last time Sou accessed it, but he immediately clicked to check Kai’s email inbox, just in case the exchanges had been purged. To his suspicious relief, everything was still intact.

With a fully charged laptop battery and no risk of being suddenly bashed over the head by a frying pan, Sou took his time sifting through the information. Kai had been corresponding with Sara’s father, whose typing style gave Sou preadolescent flashbacks to roleplaying on Neopets. Based on context, Kai had served as a double agent and ostensibly betrayed his own parent, one of the kidnappers, in favor of protecting Sara; he’d sent them a fake email to disrupt the game’s initiation, but his ruse was discovered, and he was taken alongside her to be trapped here as a participant. Evidently, Kai didn’t know anything about basic encryption. Sou wondered how Sara’s father was possibly related to the kidnappers’ organization, considering that he anticipated the attack.   

Sou closed the email application and scanned the messy desktop. A file named “BACKDOOR.SMUT” snagged his attention, and he hovered the cursor over it with guilty excitement. Partaking in digital pornography already felt like a hazy memory from a past life, and if cracking open a dead guy’s personal spank bank was wrong, Sou didn’t care to be right. Anyway, he was just curious… No stone could be left unturned. He clicked.

A black text window popped up, and Sou peered closer, frowning as he scrolled. It appeared to be some sort of malware script, a query prepared for an injection attack; without detailed scrutiny, the specific intended application was undiscernible, and Sou exited out, intending to analyze it later.

The desktop was peppered with miscellaneous notes about Sara, including a list of her favorite sweets—strawberry jam was included, alongside mashed sweet potatoes and koshian toast. Sou's stomach growled. He clicked a recent text file titled “TO MISS SARA” and began to read.

Hello, Miss Sara. I am Kai. I am truly sorry you had to get involved in an incident such as this. Miss Sara, if you are reading this, there is something I want to tell you. I, Kai Satou, was an agent belonging to a certain vile organization…

Kai went on to detail his life as a failed assassin, his renewed purpose as her secret guardian, and his professed ignorance regarding the Death Game’s objective. Sou continued reading with skepticism. ASU-NARO… an inevitable mission…    

Miss Sara, it is possible that this is all revolving around you. Of course, I do also believe that you are merely a victim, Miss Sara.

The more Sou learned about Kai, the less sinister and more naïve he seemed to be. Sou wondered how old he’d been. 

I have compiled all the data I’ve researched in the “Sara” folder. If I am already dead, please make use of it. The password is your mother’s name. I pray you will not be swallowed up by the whirlpool of deception and slaughter. Please survive, even if it must be you alone.

Sou chewed his lip. He supposed he could ask Sara for the folder password, but at this point, he was loath to interrupt his solo investigation. Considering Kai’s amateur security proficiency, perhaps Sou could find the information on his own; he opened the documents directory and ran a search for “MOTHER.” A text file popped up, and he clicked. It appeared to be from a series of journal logs.    

…Unfortunately, Sara’s mother is allergic, so Kuro the black cat cannot stay. Nevertheless, Missus Chidouin is a kindhearted lady, and she made herself quite itchy by snuggling the animal. It’s a shame; I would not mind being tasked to help care for a pet of Miss Sara’s. Like me, it is a loveless stray, and perhaps I could live vicariously through its immense fortune to receive her affections. But ah, what a wretchedly impertinent sentiment to express! Mister Chidouin would throw a fit if he knew… At any rate, Jou Tazuna will be helping Miss Sara find a new home for the cat.    

Jou… Joe. Seized by borderline voyeuristic curiosity, Sou searched “JOU TAZUNA.”

…A curse upon Jou Tazuna! What has he done to my noble lady Sara’s hair? She privileged him with the task of cutting it, and he butchered her locks like a runaway weed whacker. Oh, the grievous asymmetry… Am I out of touch with modern fashion? No, it’s the children who are wrong. At least Miss Sara seems happy, although she is always smiling for Jou, no matter what.

Sou supposed that explained Sara’s odd haircut. A slew of results followed, and he read onward.

…Missus Chidouin allowed Miss Sara to spend the night camping alone with Jou Tazuna in a tent. If Mister Chidouin knew of such a scandal, he would surely suffer an embolism, and I dread to report this incident to him. Thankfully, Jou did nothing to warrant his swift execution. I supervised through the mosquito netting, and he only braided her hair. Jou is constantly playing with Miss Sara’s hair, and she even requests for him to do as much; I must keep a close eye on their burgeoning relations. At one point during the night, they mistook my presence for a bear, and my identity was nearly compromised.

Sou continued skimming. Based on Kai’s descriptions, it seemed that Sara and Joe were even closer than Sou had realized. The posthumous vignettes of their relationship made him feel uncomfortable, and he stopped reading. Joe was irreversibly dead; there was no use in developing any sympathy for him.

Sou hesitated, fingertips resting atop the keyboard, before he typed a search for “BOYFRIEND.” A single result returned, and Sou read with keen interest.

…Although Mister Chidouin would never sanction it, I must confess my relief that Miss Sara indicates no interest in acquiring a boyfriend. She remains diligently focused on her academics and extracurricular pursuits; her numerous admirers are far too intimidated to attempt more than gazing longingly from afar. I am honored to be the guardian of such a refined and studious young lady. When the day comes, she will meet a worthy suitor, but such a match will truly be one in a million.         

Sou was annoyed with himself for feeling childishly pleased. He focused his thoughts instead on Kai, and wondered if the man owned a fedora to tip at Sara whilst peeping through windows. How old had Sara been when Kai had been assigned to watch her? How many times had he happened upon her changing, or doing other private things? Everything about the situation was incredibly creepy. Sou felt his mother was invasive when she tried to decorate his apartment; he couldn’t imagine his parents hiring a full-time stalker to keep tabs on him. It was a marvel that Sara turned out halfway normal.

His train of thought was interrupted by a knock at the door, which he recognized instantly as Kanna. Sou stood and moved to answer; as expected, Kanna was waiting in the hallway, pigeon-toed and wringing her tiny hands.

“Kanna came to apologize to Sou,” she blurted, peering up at Sou with earnest, glistening eyes. “Please forgive Kanna!”

Sou looked at her. He ran his fingers through his bangs and sighed. “Let’s talk inside, okay?” He stepped aside and ushered her in, shutting the door behind them. As soon as he turned back around, Kanna was already tripping over her words.  

“Kanna knew Sou told her not to give anyone his tokens, and she knew he would be upset… Kanna should have told big sister no, but she wanted to learn about Sou too! That’s the only reason, but… it wasn’t right to betray Sou’s trust…”

Sou stood there in the center of the floor, hands shoved in his pockets as he beheld Kanna’s flustered fidgeting. “What were you and Sara asking it?” he asked. “My AI, I mean.”

“Ah, um…” Kanna’s face colored pink, and Sou flushed as his imagination began to churn. “Nothing bad!”

“N-never mind,” he said quickly. His old name was the only secret relevant to the circumstances, and beyond that, Sou was mildly terrified to know the details of a conversation between two nosy girls and a virtual copy of him programmed for candid disclosure.

“Once, Kanna read Kugie’s diary, because Kanna wanted to learn how to make Kugie like her more,” Kanna confessed, eyebrows knitted in distress. “Instead, Kugie found out, and she hated Kanna for weeks afterward…” Kanna blinked up at Sou pleadingly, teary-eyed and trembling. “Kanna made the same mistake all over again. She’s so sorry!”

Kanna resembled a lost kitten drenched in a cold rainstorm, and the sight tugged at Sou’s heartstrings. He’d never been particularly fond of children, but Kanna had somehow become the exception. He exhaled and withdrew his hands from his pockets. 

“Hey, it’s okay,” he said awkwardly, opening his arms. “Come here.”

Kanna lurched forward, and Sou wrapped her in a hug as she buried her face in his shirt. Her limbs were frail as a bird’s, and for the first time, he wondered if Kanna was eating properly, too.

“Thank you, Sou,” she mumbled, fingers curling tight against him. “Kanna just wants to help Sou… What can she do for him? Kanna will do anything…”

Sou hesitated. He’d lied to Kanna before with zero qualms, but for better or for worse, he trusted her now. Kanna was his only friend in this nightmare, and a repressed, lonely piece of him yearned for the catharsis of being genuine with another human being. He grasped her shoulders and pried her away gently, bending his knees to meet her eye-to-eye.

“Kanna…” he began, and her tear-spiked eyelashes fluttered. She fixed him with rapt attention. “If you keep one promise to me, never tell anyone that my name used to be Shin. It’s a rule of this game. If people find out, then I’m going to die. Sara can’t tell anyone, either. Do you understand?”

Fear blanched Kanna’s face, and her eyes widened as she gaped at him. Sou held her gaze, and her expression quickly set to firm resolution.

“Yes,” she said with an earnest nod. “Kanna understands.”

“Good.” Sou breathed a sigh of relief and stood. The situation was far from ideal, but at least Kanna wouldn’t use his secret for nefarious leverage. Unfortunately, he couldn’t say the same for Sara.

“Ah! The laptop is working!” Kanna exclaimed, suddenly taking note of the open screen on the bed. She hurried over to inspect it before glancing back questioningly at Sou. “Can Kanna look?”

“Sure,” he replied. He watched as Kanna settled on the bed and began poring through Kai’s open journal. It occurred to Sou with wry amusement that for someone who’d just expressed regret over snooping through a person’s diary, Kanna was eager to engross herself in yet another. He sat down beside her and began to read over her shoulder; the entry she was viewing was decorated with pictures of colorful paper animals.

…Recently, I have taken up the art of origami. Although leaving traces of my existence perhaps disrespects the boundaries of my role as Miss Sara’s guardian and housekeeper, I have begun the ritual of leaving her my favorite pieces atop her fresh towels each Sunday. So far, I have made her a crane, a frog, a butterfly, a rabbit, a turtle, and a horse—and to my endless delight, Miss Sara collects them and shows them to her friends at school. I have seen her folding her own together with Jou and Ryoko, and this morning, she left me an angelfish on the laundry room shelf. It is yet another cherished gift I have received from the wonderful Chidouins.  

I wonder, does Miss Sara know that the fish symbolizes the fortitude to swim upstream? It is a spirit I must embody more than ever, these days. This coming Sunday, I wish to leave her a cat in return. A cat brings good luck, and she will be sitting for her exams soon. Miss Sara, I will cheer for you here from the shadows!

“Kai was a good person…” Kanna trailed off softly. She turned to Sou and frowned. “Why did Kai have to die?”

Sou shrugged, and his gaze slid away in discomfort. “I… I don’t know.”

Well, he did know. Kai died because they voted for him, obviously.

See ya, Kai!

As Sou recalled, those were his last flippant words to Kai before he bled out on the Main Game floor. After all, Kai wanted Sou dead—it didn’t matter if Kai was good, because this was a dog-eat-dog game. If the loser hadn’t been Kai, it would have been Sou. This wasn’t a moral quandary worth losing sleep over… and yet, Sou felt an involuntarily twinge of sadness gnawing in his chest.

His unwelcome musings were interrupted by the sound of paper rustling. Kanna had taken the discarded piece of notepaper, and she was swiftly creasing it with nimble fingers. Sou glimpsed down to see her finish a tiny origami cat.

“Ah, let’s cheer up, Sou,” she said, lips curling impishly. She took his hand and pressed the folded paper into his slack palm. “Kai is right! Cats are good luck, so here’s a cat for Sou… With Kai’s laptop, surely we’ll find help from him to escape. Kanna believes that.”

“Huh? Thanks… it’s cute.” His ears tinged pink, and he tucked her origami into his jacket pocket. “Anyway, let’s leave Kai’s journal for later. There are more important files I want to check out first.”

Kanna ceded the laptop to him obediently, and she observed in silence while he exited the application and began to comb methodically through the desktop files. He re-opened “BACKDOOR.SMUT,” ignoring the file name that Kanna was apparently too oblivious to comment on, and furrowed his brow in concentration as he scrolled.  

Sou hardly dared to hope for survival, but he’d fight the best he could. His chance of winning this Death Game was 0.0%, but if he played his cards right… maybe he wouldn’t have to play this game at all.    

 

Chapter Text

Lamps cast the common room awash in a warm glow, and in spite of the homey furnishing, the air was rife with tension. Everyone in the facility had been fetched to meet at the dining table, and they congregated around Sara like her circus troupe of disciples. Kai’s laptop was set open before her.

Sou sat where he’d been trapped in his chair, sandwiched between Sara and Kanna. Sara’s implicit approval seemed to render him like cellophane to the group, and despite his proximity to the object of interest, nobody was looking at him. Seated on Sara’s other side, Keiji loomed like her right hand man; he was touching her unnecessarily as usual, palm placed on her shoulder as he peered at the glowing screen. To Sou, his gestures always appeared more weirdly possessive than anything reassuring.   

“Hold up.” Reko’s harsh voice broke the silence. She was leaning back in her chair across the table, arms folded, glowering through a pound of eyeliner. Nao fidgeted beside her like a remora huddled against a shark. “Lemme just get this straight—you gave Kai’s laptop password to beanie boy before this?”

“I did,” Sara replied, still scrolling through the file directory. Now Sou felt the table’s eyes upon him, and he kept his gaze fixed stubbornly on the computer. Reko sighed. 

“Look, no offense, but don’t you think that was a bad idea?” Reko sounded pissed, and out of the corner of Sou’s vision, Alice was shifting around in his seat at the far end. “Come on. We’re supposed to trust that he didn’t mess with the contents?”

“That loner’s out for himself, woof!” Gin piped up from somewhere next to Keiji, and Sou smiled tightly. His name wasn’t that hard to remember, was it? He hated all of these people.

Sara looked up at Reko. “I think we need to trust Sou,” she said, firm and polite. Sou still couldn’t understand her angle, but it was working in his favor, so he wasn’t inclined to say a word. “We all want to escape, and he’s knowledgeable with computer systems.”

It was a logical appeal, and even Sou was suspiciously relieved to hear her pragmatism. If Sara genuinely perceived him as critical to survival, maybe she was marginally less likely to use and dispose of him like a tissue. One could hope.

“Dunno about that, Sara,” Keiji remarked. His hand stayed glued flat to her shoulder blade. “But hey, it’s your call. We’ll follow your lead.”

Sara turned to him and nodded. “Thanks, Keiji. I won’t let everyone down.”

Sou’s jaw tightened with a surge of irritation. Keiji’s attempts to keep a low profile behind Sara were pathetically transparent, but if nobody else could see that, they were too gullible to live.

“Gotta acknowledge the guy’s skillset,” added Q-taro. Like Alice, he was positioned offset from the group, and it occurred to Sou for the first time that he perhaps wasn’t the most socially disconnected participant, after all. Q-taro was boisterous and respected, but nobody seemed to trust him… not even Sara. “Ain’t anyone else here who can read code, right? Technical know-how’s nothin’ to sneeze at.”

Sou’s eyes narrowed. That was a dangerous point to make. What niche skill did 8.8% Q-taro Burgerberg bring to the table? Muscles? 9.5% Keiji Shinogi was already serviceable for weightlifting, and Sara liked him better.

“Exactly,” said Sara. Sou watched as she clicked open Kai’s locked folder and entered what was presumably her mother’s name into the password field. A profile flashed onto the screen.

Sou’s heart slammed with adrenaline before he could process why. The guy staring out of the screen was somebody he knew—an identical dotted scarf was wrapped around his neck, and his jade eyes were wide with some unnamed, uncanny threat. Sou’s skull was wracked by a pulsing ache, and with a sudden plunge of horror, he realized that there actually did exist an inexplicable void in his memories. For all he’d cried wolf about amnesia, he felt now as though he were fixated upon a spider on the wall, unable to identify the animal’s name.

“W-who is that, meow?” Gin whimpered. Kanna gasped, and Q-taro was swearing under his breath. Keiji and Sara remained silent.

“What? What is it?” Reko demanded. Sara swiveled the laptop, and Reko and Nao went white as a pair of sheets. Alice’s expression contorted to abject terror.

“What’s wrong? Does anyone know who this is?” Sara asked. She sounded equally bewildered, although seemingly more by everyone’s reactions rather than the man himself. “Kai wrote here that his name and information were deleted…” 

“I… I know him, but why can’t I remember?” Reko was clutching her forehead, teeth clenched. “What the hell!”

“You too?!” Q-taro exclaimed. “Ugh, something’s real bad here!”

Sou had no idea if anyone was faking, but his whirling thoughts were interrupted by the sound of distant footsteps approaching. Before he could react, Keiji was already closing the laptop and sweeping it smoothly under the table, just in time as the lobby doors swung open with an explosive bang. Everyone whipped their heads to see Ranger standing there, scrawny leg still raised in midair.

“Yo, assholes! Whaddup?” the doll jeered, sauntering up the carpeted stairs towards them. It paused by the table and began tossing a toy ice cream cone like a softball. “Havin’ a shindig up in here? Y’all didn’t invite me?”

A perturbed silence stretched. Ranger’s eyes squinted, scanning the table with suspicion.

“You’re not invited, woof!” Gin exclaimed, paws flat on the table as he glared. “Go away, meow!”

“Aww. Gettin’ cozy with each other, huh? That’s cute. I’m all about that—it’ll make tomorrow’s festivities real fun, if y’all catch my drift!” The doll held up a winking mask and poked out its tongue. Its body was small and frail, and Sou supposed that the death collars were the only consideration preventing Q-taro and Keiji from manhandling it like a toothpick. “I’m just here to remind you guys, gals, and snot-nosed pals that this evening is the subgame deadline to collect clear chips, exchange tokens for fabulous prizes, and yadda yadda yadda. You’ve got a couple hours left before the funhouses close up. Sad, I know, but the show must go on!”

“Don’t suppose you’d give us a rundown of what to expect, would you?” Keiji asked, casual as ever, even with the laptop resting on his thighs. Ranger swapped to a grinning mask.

“No spoilers! And that’s all for now, folks! Enjoy your group therapy, futile escape plans, last minute orgy signups, or whatever the fuck y’all are doin’. I got places to be and shit to do. See ya!”

Ranger turned and strolled away. It high-kicked the double doors before remembering to pull, and soon it disappeared from the lobby as swiftly as it had arrived. Everyone’s eyes darted around the table.

“Did you all hear that?” Nao blurted, face blanched. “We only have two hours! I… I still need chips! I haven’t done the fly swatting, or the picture-taking, or the target one, or—”

“You’re good, Nao,” interrupted Reko, although she looked rattled as well. “I’m missing chips too. I’ll go with ya.” Her chair legs scraped as she stood, and she turned to Sara with a nod. “Hey, let’s finish this laptop deal later, can we? I think it’s more important that we’re all ready for tomorrow… whatever that’s gonna be.”

“You’re right,” said Sara, and Nao and Reko hurried off towards the attractions. Alice departed wordlessly in the direction of the prize exchange, still looking like he’d been spooked by a ghost.

“Need a partner, Sara?” asked Keiji, and Sou took a moment to marvel at the fact that his left hand was still stuck to her shoulder, and apparently hadn’t moved the entire time.

“I just haven’t done Stay on Target,” she replied, glancing around the remaining group. “Can anyone go with me?”

“Ah, I’ve done that one…”

She was met with no success, and Sou finally untied his tongue.  

“I’ll go with you,” he offered. “And, er, I need the laptop back. There’s a script I want to look at more. It might be useful…”

“You can buy the last clear chip, you know,” Keiji remarked, only looking at Sara. “I’ve got tokens to spare. Wouldn’t mind getting it for you.” He didn’t need to make eye contact with Sou for the nonverbal message to be crystal clear. Sou already knew Keiji disliked him, but his pulse ignited with rancor nevertheless.

“Huh…? Oh, that’s okay, Keiji,” said Sara. Her ears reddened, and maybe it was Keiji’s age-based authority, but her voice always seemed to pitch higher when she spoke to him. Keiji gave no protest as she retrieved the laptop from his possession and stood. “Let’s finish meeting about this later… Does that sound fine to everyone?”  

“Fine by me,” Keiji drawled, and Q-taro and Gin voiced their agreement as well. Kanna peeled away from Sou’s arm, and he realized he hadn’t noticed her pressed against him to begin with; guilt stirred in his stomach when she looked between him and Sara with an expression of puppyish anxiety. 

“Kanna has all her chips… she’ll be in her room!”

Before anyone could respond, she scurried off to the dormitory quarters. Q-taro began pitching a token trade with Gin, and Keiji leaned back and folded his muscled arms. His eyes flicked over to Sou, gunmetal gray and unblinking, and Sou met his stare.

“Let’s go, Sou,” Sara said, turning in expectation. Her voice yanked him like an invisible leash; he tore his gaze from Keiji and rose obediently at her beckon.

 


 

The last attraction reminded Sou of a theater, but it wasn’t playing any movie he’d ever go watch. The pitch dark room was broad and empty, and the far wall displayed a series of looming, psychedelic monstrosities. Luminescent shapes pulsed and spun across the black floor like an inflated nineties-era screensaver, and apparently, the only rule was to keep one’s feet atop the image.

Sou spectated from the corner as Sara stepped nimbly in sync with a sewer-lid-sized pair of electric blue lips; from the wall, a disembodied, cherry-mouthed face blinked down at her with distorted eyes, and ear-splitting electronica pulsed through the speakers. Despite the freakish atmosphere and athletically arduous task, Sara swept around the floor with effortless grace, pivoting like a music box dancer and silhouetted against flickers of sickly artificial light. Sou didn’t possess a fraction of her coordination and stamina, and he was relieved that she showed no signs of requiring him to switch in.

The face on the wall emitted a perverse moan—it bit its bloated lips, and veins bulged across the surface of its warped eyeballs. Sara kept her pace, and moments later, the monster exploded in a two-dimensional scarlet splatter. The image on the floor faded; Sara flipped her ponytail back, catching her breath. Something that resembled a fleshy wad of chewing gum materialized to take its place, while the wall became reoccupied by a grunting, dripping slime creature.

More minutes passed, and Sou’s mind began to wander while he watched Sara dart about like a gymnast. Was she also connected to the green-haired man on Kai’s laptop? Why did everyone else recognize him, and why on earth couldn’t they remember anything? Just picturing the man’s face made Sou’s skull throb with physical pain, and dread soaked his chest as though he’d been jinxed by an evil effigy. His scarf felt suffocating around his throat. Where… had this scarf even come from?

The slime on the wall howled, sticky jaws gaping like a pried open grilled cheese. Sara leapt to keep up with its floor blob, and with a nauseating squelch, the monster finally melted. Sara turned in Sou’s direction and flashed a thumbs up; a grin tugged across his face, even if she couldn’t see it in the darkness. As much as Sou was loath to admit it, Sara was cool… He could sometimes acknowledge why Kanna was so star-struck.

The next monster gave Sou the creeps. It was a smiling, spindly man with a splintered rib cage for a head and fingers that were too long. The shape on the floor was a zebra-patterned boomerang, and Sou wasn’t a graphic designer, but he wondered what the artist for this attraction had been smoking—although presumably, the people responsible for this Death Game were deranged to begin with. Sara took off after the dizzying boomerang with tireless concentration.

Why hadn’t she accepted Keiji’s offer to purchase her last clear chip? Most women had no qualms with letting guys buy them crap, and if Sou were a cute girl, he’d milk that for all the advantage it was worth. Did Sara actually care about conserving Keiji’s token count? They were ostensibly allied, but Keiji could turn on a dime, and then his resources would represent a zero sum threat. From Sou’s perspective, there was no compelling reason to turn down Keiji’s help.

The electronic music screeched to a halt, and the monster’s head split open with a crackling scream. Dripping tubes unfurled from its neck like a bloody bouquet. Sara was suddenly stumbling, lurching to keep up with the boomerang, and Sou could hear her ragged gasps for air; she was talking to herself, but he couldn’t discern the frantic jumble. The monster on the wall was gurgling, and it choked wetly as a crimson fountain erupted from its twisted tangle of pipes. Grinding machinery clicked loudly from the ceiling. Sou caught a glimpse of Sara’s face—her eyes were wide, and her cheeks were glistening.

Before he could consider doing anything, it was over. The floor and wall snapped dark, and the exit door began to rumble open. Sou exhaled in relief; he moved to collect the clear chips, but when he turned around, Sara was still rooted in place. She stood stock still in the gloom, facing the wall, and goosebumps prickled up Sou’s arms at the sight.

“Um, Miss Sara?” he called tentatively, tucking the chips into his pocket. He stared as she crumpled to her knees, clutching her head.

“Please, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—” he heard her croak, and he approached with caution. Sara flinched at the sound of his shoes behind her; she staggered to a stand and whirled around. Tears were streaming from her glazed, bloodshot eyes, and Sou had no time to react when she lunged into him.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped, seizing him in a crushing embrace. Heat rolled from her shaking body like a furnace. “It was a dream, right? I’m losing my mind—” Sara buried her face violently into the crook of his neck, and her girlish voice was muffled in his scarf. “I had a horrible nightmare that you died—”

Sou stood frozen in shock. He remained rigid as his heart sledgehammered his ribs. Sara’s arms were squeezing his lean chest, and her hair was pressed warm against his jaw. He swallowed and opened his mouth.

“Er, Sara…”

“I dreamt that I killed you.” Her fingers curled hard in the back of his jacket, clenching with panic. “I murdered you—I didn’t want to, but—your blood was everywhere—”

To Sou’s embarrassment, he was trembling too, although Sara hardly seemed fit to notice. His mind flashed to his endless nightmares in which he was knocked horizontal, pinned beneath her weight, writhing in terror as she stabbed and slashed him open. He sucked a strangled breath. 

“I… have bad dreams, too,” he admitted hoarsely. Sara began to sob, and her entire frame shuddered against him. Sou’s arms hung numb at his sides.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Sara spluttered. Her teeth were chattering. “I sound like a kid, but I—I can’t—” Sou felt the heat of her uneven breath through his scarf. “I’m so afraid—”

Sou was lightheaded. He didn’t know what to do, and he lifted his hand to pat her back hesitantly. “Um, let’s get out of here first. Okay?”

“I never know how to say it,” Sara mumbled, and Sou burned with curiosity. His palm stilled on her back as he listened intently. “I wanted to, but I didn’t get to say it—it’s my fault, but I…”

“What is it?” he whispered. “Just tell me.”

Sara clutched him tighter, and if he were any frailer, her desperate embrace would break him in half. He placed his fingertips on her ponytail as though touching a house of cards; her hair was like silk, and he resisted the childish urge to stroke his fingers through the strands.

“I love you, too,” Sara choked out, and Sou’s heart stopped. His brain blanked with panicked confusion. “You’re my best friend…”

Sickening realization crashed down like an anvil. Sou wrenched Sara off of him as he struggled to escape—he broke free and hastened instinctively away. He collected himself abruptly and turned back to Sara, grasping her by the wrist to drag her with him out the exit. His face flamed with horrid humiliation.

Outside in the corridor, Sou released her, and he waited as Sara gathered her bearings in the wan light. Her tear-streaked face was ashen, and her pupils shrank as she blinked in disorientation.

“Is everything okay now, Miss Sara?” Sou asked. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and studied her warily; he remembered to give over the second clear chip, and she took it without a word. “You were scaring me back there, ahaha…”

Sara wet her lips and cleared her throat. Her expression remained hollow as her fingers groomed robotically over herself; she fixed her hair, wiped her eyes, straightened her tie, and smoothed her skirt.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she said weakly. “Sorry, I… wish you didn’t see that.”

Self-consciousness appeared to be setting in, and she refused to meet his gaze; Sou was free to watch openly as her cheeks began to glow like stoplights. He almost felt sorry for her.

“There’s a machine in the medical room,” he suggested, recalling an eavesdropped conversation there from several days prior. “The floor master said it makes you forget stuff…”

Sou’s sentence faltered as an opportunity struck him like a bolt. If the machine erased recent memories, could it make Sara forget his real name? He couldn’t afford to not try—perhaps this was the “undo” button he desperately needed in this game. His pulse sped with excitement, and he schooled his features carefully.

“Maybe you should try using it,” he coaxed. There was no obvious avenue of accomplishing this by force, and besides, the situation would be most ideal if he could finesse her into borking her head of her own volition. Sara looked at him now, and her brow knitted faintly.

“Why do you care? You wouldn’t touch that thing, would you…?”

Of course he wouldn’t. Did he look like a moron? His mind was his most important asset, and arguably his only one.  

“Ahaha, I’m concerned about you? I’m not such a bad guy, Miss Sara…” Sou smiled, and he hoped it appeared more sympathetic than eager. “Trauma is simply a burden, isn’t it? It’s not good for anything.”

Sara’s gaze slid to her feet, eyelashes fluttering, and guilty uncertainty was plain across her face. Sou took a step forward, oiling his tongue like a used car salesman.

“We can go together,” he offered gently. He couldn’t quite bring himself to touch her arm, but he arranged his most Kanna-like expression. “I’ll sit with you, if you’d like.”

Sara looked up at him, and her violet eyes glistened. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear with trembling fingers.

“I… really?”

“Of course. I meant it, you know, when I said I’m your ally. I, um, care about you, too.” Sara’s heartbroken gaze was fixed upon him without a trace of suspicion, and Sou continued inveigling, keen to close the deal. “You should really use that machine. And I think… Joe wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.”

“Sou…” Sara’s voice was nearly a whisper, and she swallowed audibly. Her eyes dropped back to the floor. “Thank you. I need to think about this…”

“Well, it’s not healthy to overthink things. Let’s just go now, Miss Sara.”

She was starting to cry again, blinking and biting her lip, and the sight was making Sou’s internal organs wither. Why were girls always crying? He braced himself and tightened his smile.

“I have to think on my own,” Sara blurted. She jerked away and wiped her face hastily with her sleeve. “Thank you—”

Her breath shuddered, and Sou stood bewildered as she tore off jogging down the corridor. Pursuit was out of the question; he watched her round the corner as her thumping footsteps faded away.

Sou tugged at his scarf, teeth gritted. He felt like kind of a piece of shit, but wasn’t that Sara’s fault? If she hadn’t purchased his personal information in the first place, then he wouldn’t need to do any of this. Their game had the highest stakes of them all.

Between dying with honor and living with none, he’d already made his choice.